Posted in History & Literature

Permanent Record

The recording of language was a key development in history that allowed civilisations to flourish. Through recording, we could pass on knowledge and wisdom much more efficiently and securely from generation to generation, unlike oral history which can change over time or be lost when a mass casualty event occurs.

The oldest piece of written history comes from Sumeria over 5,000 years ago, but one could argue that cave paintings such as those found in Lascaux Cave extend that history to more than 17,000 years. Archaeologists have used written records from ancient times to help determine what life was like during those times, and what important events occurred throughout history.

Fast forwarding to now, we live in an information era where there has been a massive explosion of the amount of information produced and recorded, thanks to the development of science and technology. One such development is digital media, which allow us to store a staggering amount of data in small hard disk drives. For example, the entirety of Wikipedia (February 2013 estimate) could just fit into a 10 terabyte HDD. If an archaeologist from the future was to access an archive of the internet from now, they could gain so much insight into our history, knowledge and what day to day life.

Nowadays, most of us store our data digitally, including important documents, precious photos and our entertainment such as music and videos. But unfortunately, as efficient digital storage may be, it is far from permanent.

Digital data comes with the downside that it needs continuous backing up, as data can corrupt and the storage medium can fail. A typical hard disk has a life expectancy of around 5 years, after which the drive will start failing. Servers that manage the cloud need constant maintenance.

If humanity were to suddenly disappear, our troves of digital data would be wiped out within less than a 100 years, like dust in the wind. Even if we took great care to maintain our library of data, a single solar storm could create enough electromagnetic interference to wipe every drive clean.

Contrast this to a book, which can stand the test of time up to many millennia as long as it is preserved well. As novelist Umberto Eco put it:

“The book is like the spoon, scissors, the hammer, the wheel. Once invented, it cannot be improved.”

It is a perfect invention.

Posted in History & Literature

Pineapple

A strange linguistic fact is that other than English, almost every other language calls the pineapple fruit ananas. This is true for French, German, Dutch, Italian, Greek, Arabic, Russian, Turkish and even Icelandic. The scientific name for the genus that pineapples belong to is also Ananas. The few countries that use a different name include Spain (piña), China (boluo) and countries where the pineapple was introduced to by an English-speaking country (e.g. Korea and Japan).

So why do English-speakers use a completely different word for the fruit? Pineapples were first brought back to Europe from the Americas in the early 1600’s. They named it ananas after the native Old Tupi word nanas, meaning “excellent fruit“.

However, the Spanish and English thought the fruit was shaped more like a pinecone and named it separately. In fact, the word “pineapple” was used prior to the introduction of the fruit, first recorded in 1398 used to describe actual pinecones.

Posted in History & Literature

Veblen Good

There is a simple rule that every student of Economics 101 knows:

The higher the price of an item, the lower the quantity demanded becomes.

This is because a rational person would feel that the item is not worth it above a given price point.

However, there are many goods that do not follow this law. Veblen goods describe a group of goods where paradoxically, higher prices result in greater demand. Examples of Veblen goods include luxury cars, designer jewellery and trending fashion items such as Air Jordans.

The simple explanation is that these goods are not demanded because of their functionality and usefulness, but because they are status symbols. Possession of a Veblen good suggests that you are financially successful and wealthy enough to disobey the law of demand and get away with it.

For the purchasers of Veblen goods, the fact that they are so expensive and exclusive make them appealing.

Posted in History & Literature

Trolley Dodging

In the 1800’s, horse-drawn trolleys were one of the main forms of public transport in Brooklyn, New York. This changed in 1892 when electricity was introduced to the system. The new electric trolley lines could travel at around 15 miles per hour, three times faster than a typical horse-drawn trolley. Once again, technology was improving the quality of lives and efficiency of people in the modern era.

Except it came at a great cost: safety. Electricity and automobiles were still very new concepts to the majority of people of this era. People of the late 19th century were not used to the idea of fast vehicles racing down the roads, so they would not routinely check both sides before crossing a road – something that every child nowadays knows to do. Therefore, many unsuspecting pedestrians were caught off guard and struck down by a trolley.

Furthermore, traffic lines were chaotic, time schedules were incredibly tight forcing drivers to be more reckless, and electrocution from broken wires were not uncommon. The injury and death tolls climbed rapidly as more and more electric trolleys were introduced. Within the first three years of the electric trolleys becoming operational, more than a 100 people had been killed and 400 people injured by these trolleys.

After years of public backlash, system reforms and regulations, trolleys became safer. Cultural shifts with people becoming used to the idea of checking for dangers before crossing the road also helped reduce the death toll. Trolley dodging became a routine part of modern, metropolitan life.

The history of trolley dodging is a great reminder of how new technology changes our lives. Technology promises easier, more efficient lives, but they can be so paradigm-shifting that people may not know how to use them “well”. It can take years before the culture shifts to accommodate for it, leading to numerous growing pains” for the society while they become used to the change.

A good example is social media. Although it promises greater global connectivity and rapid information sharing, it has also caused significant issues. Social media results in addictive, toxic behaviours due to its attention-grabbing, infinite scrolling nature. It can cause awkward social dynamics as we have no clear etiquettes and rules regarding how we interact with each other on the internet. Despite it having the potential to greatly improve the quality of our lives, currently social media is often causing more harm than good because we have not had the time to learn what the best way to utilise it is.

Much like the residents of Brooklyn in the 1890’s, we need to learn how to utilise this exciting but potentially dangerous technology wisely, or risk being run over by it.

Posted in History & Literature

Judging History

When we look back on history, there are countless stories where we wonder: “what were people thinking?”. Time after time, people have banded together to inflict unspeakable horrors on other groups of people. Consider the burning of “witches” in Salem, the mass guillotine executions following the French revolution, the transatlantic slave trade, the Rwandan genocide, the infamous Unit 731 of Imperial Japan that performed inhumane experiments on countless innocent people…

Even now, there is no shortage of examples of how a governing entity chosen by its people punishes a subset of its own population. We see homosexual people imprisoned and tortured in Russia. We see refugee children being torn apart from their parents at border control in the USA. We see brutal state policing of ethnic minorities such as Tibetans and Uyghurs in China.

It is very easy for us to examine these stories with a judgemental microscope. How can these governments be so evil? How can the people be so foolish to elect this government? Why are people not rising up against these powers to restore justice? The problem is that it is far easier to judge people for their actions rather than their intentions, or the context and setting that triggered them. Let us take an infamous historical atrocity as an example: the Holocaust.

Although Nazi Germany was initially formed from a coup d’état, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party maintained overwhelming support from the German people throughout its brutal regime. We may wonder how such a large group of well-educated, culturally sophisticated and civilised people could be swayed to support the inhumane actions committed by the Nazi government, but if you look at the historical context, we can find some explanations.

After World War 1, Germany was in economic ruin due to the “total war” nature of WW1 using up resources, followed by the staggering reparations demanded by the Treaty of Versailles, with the final kick of the Great Depression. Inflation and unemployment ran rampant, leaving the populace hopeless and in despair.

But when Hitler rose to power, promising food, land and order, along with hopes of making Germany “great” again, those who had been sick and tired of their depressing situation rallied under the Nazi cause. The Nazi party capitalised on this desperation and vulnerability, using Jewish people and other minority groups as a scapegoat, blaming them as the cause of Germany’s downfall after the Weimar Republic. This allowed them to commit atrocities such as the internment and execution of millions of people, along with unprovoked war against the rest of Europe, by promising the people that it would provide more jobs, more goods and a better world for the Germans.

We can see from this case that a large part of how such a terrible situation arose was due to the desperation that people felt due to the context of global economic depression and the outcome of the Great War. If we simply judged the people for being “sheeple”, blindly following Hitler’s charismatic leadership and propaganda, then we would learn nothing out of this case study.

However, if we examine the underlying reasons for how this situation arose, we can see that the same horrors could happen again in our lifetime under similar contexts. This approach allows us to see current affairs from more objective stances and hopefully explore solutions, rather than just putting the blame on the people affected by their political, economic and historical environment. Furthermore, this frame of thinking helps us be less swayed by forces that are out of our control, as it lets us use our rational and logical thinking to make decisions, rather than our emotional reactions and survival instincts.

Posted in History & Literature

Rosetta Stone

In 1799, during Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt, a French officer named Pierre-François Bouchard came across a granite slab a couple of miles from a port city named Rosetta. The slab – about 112cm by 75cm in size – was densely filled with ancient inscriptions on one face of it. But strangely, there were three distinct languages written on the slab: Egyptian hieroglyphs, an unknown script and Greek.

The discovery of this stone sparked immediate scientific interest. Up until this point, no scholar had been able to decipher the Egyptian hieroglyphs. The hieroglyphs had not been used formally for almost 1800 years, so the way to read it had been lost to time. Europe was going through an “Egyptomania” at the time, with great interest in this ancient civilisation. However, little was known about the culture as the ancient texts could not be read.

People quickly noted that there was a strong chance that the so-called “Rosetta Stone” contained the same text in three different languages, which meant that if you could translate one of the languages, then you could decipher the alphabet of the other two. This proved to be true, with the text being a royal decree exempting priests from taxation. Numerous scholars from all over Europe pored over the Rosetta Stone to solve the mystery of Egyptian hieroglyphs.

The first step was to translate the Greek version, as ancient Greek had already been studied in depth by scholars.
Around a similar time, a Swedish linguist named Johan David Åkerblad figured out that the middle, unknown script was Demotic, a cursive script used in ancient Egypt. Åkerblad was able to decipher the Demotic alphabet by comparing it to the Greek script, particularly through comparing names, as both languages were largely phonetic, meaning the characters used to write the name will have the same sounds in the two languages.

The final step – deciphering hieroglyphics – proved to be much harder. It was theorised that hieroglyphs were not phonetic, but ideographic, meaning each letter represented a whole word or concept (similar to Chinese) rather than a sound. If this is true, then it is impossible to decipher the hieroglyphic alphabet just by comparing it to the phonetic Demotic and Greek scripts.

But then, one scholar named Silvestre de Sacy realised that foreign names would have been written phonetically, much like Chinese scripts. This allowed him to zero in to Greek names in each script, such as Ptolemaios, thus creating a skeleton for the phonetic alphabet for both  Demotic and hieroglyphs. Scholars could then use the phonetic reading of hieroglyphs to make more headway into reading the Rosetta Stone.

After 20 years of exhausting research, the Rosetta Stone was finally fully deciphered. The Rosetta Stone is famous because it was the key required to decipher the entire Egyptian hieroglyph system, while birthing the new field of Egyptology. Being able to read hieroglyphs allowed us to better understand the ancient Egyptians’ way of life. Nowadays, the term Rosetta Stone is also used as a symbol of a key to understanding an entirely new field of knowledge.

Posted in History & Literature

Designing Under Constraint

You would think that the more freedom the designer has, the more their creativity can flourish and they can produce more original, greater ideas. But it is a well-known fact in the design world that the the best designs are produced when designing under constraint.

Consider the beauty of the canal houses of Amsterdam. In the 17th century, plots of land by the canal were allocated in narrow (but deep) portions to maximise the number of houses. Architects worked around this restriction, resulting in the narrow, tall houses of various shapes and colours that we see today. Another architectural example is Florence and Santorini, where building materials were limited to red bricks or stone painted in white and blue respectively, meaning the buildings shared a consistent colour scheme, while varying in shape – the ideal combination for building a beautiful city.

We see the same in other fields. Photography is limited in the realm of time, as you can only take a snapshot. But by using long-exposure or composite images, time can be represented in unique, beautiful ways. The artistic restriction of painting led to Pablo Picasso pioneering cubism, which attempts to represent the many faces of a three-dimensional object on a two-dimensional medium. Great literature can be produced from limitation also, such as haikus or flash fiction, such as the infamous six-word story by Ernest Hemingway: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn”.

There are many reasons why designing under constraint results in greater works.

Firstly, choice and freedom can be paralysing. When we have absolutely no restricitons, rules or guidance, we have difficulty processing the sheer number of possibilities, because there are too many things to consider. We find it much easier to make a decision and proceed when there are a limited number of choices.

Secondly, constraint often comes in the form of consistency. One of the basic rules of graphic design is to limit your colour palette and font types to avoid clutter and messy design. A consistent theme is much more aesthetically pleasing. This is a core principle of minimalism.

Lastly, limitations encourage creativity as the designer has to come up with a way to overcome the restriction only with the available resources.

A fine example is Gothic churches. It was very difficult putting in large windows in church walls as they would cause structural instability. So architects devised flying buttresses to help bear the load. But even then, the technology for building large, transparent glass windows had not been developed. So instead, they pieced together small, coloured glass pieces to make stained glass windows, introducing light in to the church while telling stories from the Bible.

Ironically, limits and restrictions can be the catalyst for something better. Instead of rebelling and fighting against constraint, try adapting and coming up with a creative way to overcome it.

Posted in History & Literature

Gordian Knot

Legend tells the tale of the Gordian Knot, a knot tied so tightly that it seemed impossible to undo it. The Phrygians’ oracle even prophesised that the person who untied the knot would become the ruler of all of Asia Minor. Many tried to loosen the knot, but the knot remained secure for years.

In fourth century BC, Alexander the Great came to the city amidst his business of conquering everything around him. Of course, he could not pass the challenge by, so he too attempted to unravel the Gordian Knot. But alas, not even the great Alexander could untie it.

He then took a step back and thought to himself that it did not matter how the knot was undone. So he took his sword and sliced the knot in half, much to the shock of his audience. As the oracle prophesised, Alexander ruled the great Macedon Empire, stretching its border past Asia Minor, almost reaching present day China and India.

The story of the Gordian Knot teaches the importance of thinking outside the box. We can tackle a problem again and again without fruition if we try only one method. Just when you start to feel frustrated, take a step back and consider a different approach.

Another lesson is the value of combining two different fields. Instead of using typical knot-untying skills, Alexander chose to use military skills. Many innovations have arisen from borrowing skills and ideas from different fields – known as cross industry innovation.

For example, instead of complicated controller designs for drones, the US Army found using an Xbox 360 controller was far more effective. Computer models simulate the way ants find optimum paths to solve complex mathematical problems such as the Travelling Salesman Problem. The combination of waffles and shoes resulted in the creation of waffle rubber soles to increase traction in running shoes. Many engineering feats borrow ideas from nature, such as the aerodynamic design of planes and structural strength of arches and curves as observed by Gaudi.

This is the philosophy of 1 + 1 = 3.

Posted in History & Literature

The Hill You Die On

The Battle of Hamburger Hill is a famous battle of the Vietnam War, where the US military engaged in an attack to try take Hill 937, also dubbed Hamburger Hill. It was a highly controversial battle as the hill held little strategic value and was heavily fortified, yet the army was ordered to launch a frontal assault to try to capture it. After ten days of heavy fighting and the death of hundreds of soldiers, the US forces eventually decided to give up on the hill. The military was heavily criticised for the futile operation and news of the battle contributed to the war losing favour from the American citizens.

This battle may be the origin of the phrase: “is this the hill you want to fight and die on?”. The question is often used somewhat jokingly, but it is a surprisingly powerful and useful frame of mind when it comes to life.

We often find ourselves in disagreement with others, whether it be over ideas, plans or opinions. We may disagree with a plan of action from our superiors, or we may have a difference in opinion with our partner over some matter. Our natural instinct is to argue back to try to win the argument, because everyone hates being wrong. The problem is that the other person will be fighting back just as hard, so the argument can end bitterly with negative consequences in the relationship.

So when you find yourself in an argument, ask yourself: “is this the hill I want to fight and die on?”. There are certainly things worth fighting for, such as your values or if you think the consequences of what you are fighting over is significant enough. However, there are so many arguments where the prize is merely your ego and pride. Is it really worth damaging your relationship with the other person just so you can be right?

If you think this isn’t the hill you want to die on, it might not be worth wasting your emotional energy on the matter. Instead, you may want to compromise and make a conscious choice to let the other person win. Letting the small things go in life and choosing your battles will make a great difference to your happiness and connection to other people.

(Image sourcehttps://xkcd.com/386/)

Posted in History & Literature

Witching Hour

European folklore state that supernatural and paranormal events, such as ghost sightings, tend to occur around the hour between 3am and 4am in the morning. It was believed that if you wake in the middle of the night around 3am, it was because you were visited by the devil. Women were even persecuted as witches if they were found outside during this ungodly hour.

There are many theories behind why the so-called Witching Hour became so infamous. Many involve religious notes, such as the fact that the Bible states that Jesus died at 3pm, therefore the inverse of the time is considered evil. Some say that the devil plays mockery to the Holy Trinity by using the number “3” as part of its acts of desecration. It is also a time when there are no prayers in the canonical hours, therefore evil spirits supposedly run rampant unchecked.

Scientifically speaking, when we wake in the middle of night then fall back asleep, we are more likely to enter a hypnagogic state – the state immediately before you fall asleep where your subconscious mind starts to take over. This can lead to sleep paralysis, which is commonly associated with horrific hallucinations, such as visions of monsters and ghouls. You may even experience a lucid dream, where you are aware within a dream, so you can have vivid memories of imaginary scenes. This may explain why people have such vivid memories of supernatural experiences.

3am is roughly the time of night when melatonin levels are highest, as it is normally when the body is in deep sleep. If you happen to be awake at this time, you may feel exhausted to the point of feeling delirious, as anyone who has done an all-nighter or a night shift could tell you.

From a historical point of view, before the advent of electric lights, it was common to go to bed early in the evening, wake in the night for an hour or two, then go back to sleep until the morning. This hour was used for prayers, writing down creative ideas, interpreting dreams, and of course, sex. Maybe this was also the hour when some people would be out and about for unlawful deeds, such as burglary. These sneaky burglars may have been misinterpreted as ghosts by anyone awake at the same time.

Whether you are superstitious or not, the Witching Hour is an interesting time as you know that everyone around you are asleep. There is no one to talk to. At this edge of tomorrow, you are left alone in tranquil darkness with your thoughts, feelings and worries.

Perhaps the things that go bump in the night during the Witching Hour are not eldritch horrors, but your own fears and anxieties rearing their ugly heads.

(Image source: http://explosm.net/comics/4086/)