In 1800 the weather remained a mystery. The sky was the last part of nature to be classified: a relic of the arcane, chaotic world that had existed before Newton and the Scientific Revolution. ... Very few in scientific circles would have heard of William C. Redfield’s name before the publication of his storm paper in 1831. A New York businessman, he had made his name with his Steam Navigation Company. Redfield’s steamers plied up and down the Hudson, from New York to Albany, carrying passengers and freight. Redfield’s success had come through his natural instinct for innovation. In the 1820s, the early years of steam, passengers had been wary of traveling too close to the engines, worried that they might explode—as they often did. Redfield’s solution to the problem had been simple but effective. He had designed “safety barges” for the passengers to travel in, precursors of the railway carriages of the future, drawn in strings behind the steamer. Over time, as safety standards had improved and passengers had become more confident, he had switched his tactics: moving the passengers back into the steamer and filling the barges with cargo. ... But Redfield was more than a wily businessman. He had worked as a mechanic in his youth in small-town Connecticut, and he had retained his interest in engineering. ... Traveling on a steamer from New York to New Haven one day in 1831 Redfield chanced to meet Denison Olmstead, professor of mathematics and physics at Yale. Spotting Olmstead on deck he had approached and “modestly asked leave to make a few inquiries” about a paper Olmstead had recently published on hailstorms in the American Journal of Science. Soon Olmstead and Redfield were talking about storms and it was then, for the first time, that Redfield unveiled his theory of whirling winds. It was a pivotal moment in the history of meteorology. ... Redfield’s idea of circular winds was clearly perplexing. Espy could find no reason why winds should dart about the central axis of a storm. Eventually he concluded that Redfield was wrong. A more logical answer, Espy reasoned, was that winds rushed toward the central column at the core of the storm as air in a room would be drawn in toward a burning fire—cool air from beneath replacing the warm heat traveling upward. The science behind this idea was sound. In a powerful storm, Espy thought, the effect would simply be magnified.
If we want to safeguard our languages, stories and ideas against extinction, we had better study Egyptology ... The scientific community has recently begun to think hard about natural and technological existential risks to human beings: a wandering asteroid, an unfortunately timed gamma-ray burst, a warming planet. But we should also begin to think about the possibility of cultural apocalypse. The Egyptian case is instructive: an epoch of stunning continuity, followed by abrupt extinction. This is a decline and fall worth keeping in mind. ... for all its carven glyphs, Egypt cannot claim to have passed down its dreams, memories and hopes for the future. Some of its civilisation has been recovered, but some was lost irretrievably. This is sobering enough on its own terms. When you examine our beloved present day from an Egyptological distance, you see that we are vulnerable to a similar fate. ... Imagine the pharaohs’ frustration at all the bits of language lost, the prayers and tributes especially. This was a civilisation that had its eyes fixed on eternity. Its civil calendar was apparently keyed to the heliacal rising of Sothis, whose astronomical cycle has a period of some 1,400 years. By dint of longevity, the first Egyptologists were Egyptian, and ditto the first tomb robbers. Is it a bridge too far to say the first futurists were Egyptian too? ... Cretan hieroglyphs remain impenetrable, Olmec – the language of the first major civilization in Mexico – is largely a mystery, and only within the past half-century or so has meaning been teased from the Mayan script. For every civilisation retrieved, another remains substantially beyond our comprehension.
How an unproven, widely mocked technology scared the Soviets into ending the Cold War. ... For decades, Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI)—an ambitious ground- and space-based “shield” to protect the United States from nuclear ballistic missiles—has been mocked and criticized. First proposed by the president in 1983, it was immediately dubbed “Star Wars” by the mainstream media and dismissed as unscientific, infeasible and even counter-productive. The Union of Concerned Scientists, 100,000 members strong, was fierce in its opposition. The Arms Control Association declared that SDI would end arms control, while some Soviets felt SDI would end the world. Domestic critics became furious, and the Kremlin went ballistic. But while Reagan’s critics might not have taken his pet technology seriously, the Russians certainly did. Even though SDI was decades away from being implemented, if not beyond the reach of technology altogether, the threat the shield presented—along with Reagan’s dogged commitment to it—was enough to scare Soviet leader Mikhael Gorbachev into reforms that would eventually bring down the Soviet Union. In short: “Star Wars” never worked as Reagan wished. It worked even better. And I should know, because I saw it happen.
The epic begins 10,000 years ago in an Asian jungle and ends today in kitchens all over the world ... The chickens that saved Western civilization were discovered, according to legend, by the side of a road in Greece in the first decade of the fifth century B.C. The Athenian general Themistocles, on his way to confront the invading Persian forces, stopped to watch two cocks fighting and summoned his troops, saying: “Behold, these do not fight for their household gods, for the monuments of their ancestors, for glory, for liberty or the safety of their children, but only because one will not give way to the other.” The tale does not describe what happened to the loser, nor explain why the soldiers found this display of instinctive aggression inspirational rather than pointless and depressing. But history records that the Greeks, thus heartened, went on to repel the invaders, preserving the civilization that today honors those same creatures by breading, frying and dipping them into one’s choice of sauce. The descendants of those roosters might well think—if they were capable of such profound thought—that their ancient forebears have a lot to answer for.
In the year 1723, a French merchant ship sat becalmed halfway across the atlantic ocean. For over a month, she drifted with the currents, sails loose and flapping, waiting for a steady breeze. More than two hundred years had passed since Columbus made the same journey, and transatlantic travel was now a matter of course. But sometimes the fate and consequence of a voyage still hinged on seeds. By some accounts, the drifting ship had already faced a troubled passage—outrunning a deadly storm off Gibraltar, and narrowly avoiding capture by tunisian pirates. Now, stuck in that windless equatorial zone known as the doldrums, the ship had run so low on fresh water that the captain ordered strict rationing for crew and passengers alike. Among those travelers, one gentleman felt particularly parched, because he was sharing his small allotment with a thirsty tropical shrub. ... “It serves no purpose to go into the details of the infinite care I had to provide that delicate plant,” he wrote, long after the wind picked up and the ship docked safely at the Caribbean island of Martinique. And long after the descendants of his spindly sapling were well on their way to changing economies throughout Central and South America. The plant, of course, was coffee, but just how a young naval officer named Gabriel-Mathieu De Clieu got his hands on it remains a matter of debate.
Look up and eastward from the old streets of downtown New York, look over the crimson banners of the auction houses on University Place, and you will see an ancient wall of brick jutting into the sky, throwing its shadow upon the roofs and chimney pots of Union Square. If the sun is bright or the neon lights in full flush, you can read on that expanse of grimy brick a faded legend: “F. A. O. Schwarz—Toys of All Kinds.” Painted in plain, white letters, the words create a nostalgic stir in the beholder, especially if he is a New Yorker who can recall grandfatherly tales of horses whinnying at stable doors in Washington Square, of grooms shouting in cobbled byways, and country carts bumping along with loads of aromatic hay. It is, indeed, an old, old sign, thickly brushed in the times when Santa Claus sometimes had an “e” at the end of his honored name. ... Ride fifty blocks uptown, and you will see that name set up again, neat and bright, in inch-high block letters of wood that occupy a one-foot length of the most valuable space on earth: a Fifth Avenue show window. The letters, gleaming white and blue amid the sawdust of a rodeo exhibit (with rocking horses at a hand gallop), repeat the name “F. A. O. Schwarz” and nothing more, nothing about toys. It’s no longer necessary for the Schwarz store to shout. This low Whisper will serve. Everybody knows it is the chief toy emporium of the world, unique because it is the biggest store that sells nothing but toys.
Seventy years after the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by nuclear weapons, David Kaiser investigates the legacy of 'the physicists' war'. ... The Second World War marked an unprecedented mobilization of scientists and engineers, and a turning point in the relationship between research and the state. By the end of the war, the nuclear weapons project, code-named the Manhattan Engineer District, absorbed thousands of researchers and billions of dollars. It sprawled across 30 facilities throughout the United States and Canada, with British teams working alongside Americans and Canadians. Allied efforts on radar swelled to comparable scale. ... the term had been coined long before August 1945, and originally it had nothing to do with bombs or radar. Rather, the physicists' war had referred to an urgent, ambitious training mission: to teach elementary physics to as many enlisted men as possible. ... Both views of how scientists could serve their nations — the quotidian and the cataclysmic — have shaped scientific research and higher education to this day.
Somewhere in your favorite sports franchise’s front office, a team of analysts is teasing the truth out of a mess of misleading statistics. Regardless of the sport or the data source — Corsi, SportVU, or Statcast — the analysts’ goals are the same: to capture contributions that standard statistics omit or misrepresent, and to find the positive indicators buried beneath superficial failures. The shot on goal that goes wide? In a sense, it’s a good sign, since it might mean more shots in the future, some of which will find the net. The line drive caught by a leaping outfielder playing out of position? A double would’ve been better, but even an almost-double tells us that the player who came close to extra bases has the skills to drive the baseball at a speed and trajectory that would typically lead to a hit. Not all outs are created equal. ... Whether they know it or not — and nowadays, most of them don’t — all of these quants are re-proving the principle at the core of a product developed two decades ago by a company called AVM Systems, a small outfit founded by Ken Mauriello and Jack Armbruster, two businessmen based in the Chicago suburb of Wheaton, Illinois. AVM’s central insight sounds hackneyed now, but it was — to borrow a latter-day business buzzword — disruptive at the time: Process is important, because results are sometimes deceiving.
Though China has been the global economic star of the last low-growth decade, it remains a totalitarian dictatorship, with its economy shrouded in state secrecy. What we’re encountering in this crisis is the spectacle of a closed society colliding with the forces of complex, free-market capitalism. If we look beyond China, we can find a long history of these collisions, dating back hundreds of years, as both closed societies and capitalism evolved and became more complex. And the history has a clear but unsettling lesson to offer: When such a collision happens, it’s a moment to genuinely worry. ... Since the dawn of capitalism, closed societies with repressive governments have — much like China — been capable of remarkable growth and innovation. Sixteenth-century Spain was a great imperial power, with a massive navy and extensive industry such as shipbuilding and mining. One could say the same thing about Louis XIV’s France during the 17th century, which also had vast wealth, burgeoning industry and a sprawling empire. ... But both countries were also secretive, absolute monarchies, and they found themselves thrust into competition with the freer countries Holland and Great Britain. Holland, in particular, with a government that didn’t try to control information, became the information center of Europe — the place traders went to find out vital information which they then used as the basis of their projects and investments. The large empires, on the other hand, had economies so centrally planned that the monarch himself would often make detailed economic decisions. As these secretive monarchies tried to prop up their economies, they ended up in unsustainable positions that invariably led to bankruptcy, collapse and conflict. ... China is a new case, for it has mixed capitalism and totalitarianism in a unique way. ... The government may not be able to control the stock market, but it does successfully keep a veil over state finances. This is what closed, authoritarian governments have done since the 16th century. ... what we are seeing in this current financial crisis is likely to be only the beginning of the political and societal crisis brought about by a dictatorship’s efforts to simulate the performance of a capitalist economy — but one that only grows. ... There is no historical example of a closed imperial economy facing large capital-driven, open states and sustainably competing over a long term.
But the real problem was the large number of Byzantine shipwrecks that began to surface soon after the excavation began, in 2004. Dating from the fifth to the eleventh century, the shipwrecks illustrated a previously murky chapter in the history of shipbuilding and were exceptionally well preserved, having apparently been buried in sand during a series of natural disasters. ... From 2005 to 2013, workers with shovels and wheelbarrows extracted a total of thirty-seven shipwrecks. When the excavation reached what had been the bottom of the sea, the archeologists announced that they could finally cede part of the site to the engineers, after one last survey of the seabed—just a formality, really, to make sure they hadn’t missed anything. That’s when they found the remains of a Neolithic dwelling, dating from around 6000 B.C. It was previously unknown that anyone had lived on the site of the old city before around 1300 B.C. The excavators, attempting to avoid traces of Istanbul’s human history, had ended up finding an extra five thousand years of it. It took five years to excavate the Neolithic layer, which yielded up graves, huts, cultivated farmland, wooden tools, and some two thousand human footprints, miraculously preserved in a layer of silt-covered mud. In the Stone Age, the water level of the Bosporus was far lower than it is now; there’s a chance that the people who left those prints might have been able to walk from Anatolia to Europe. ... In 2013, at least two million people crossed the Bosporus daily, by bridge or ferry; the number of motor-vehicle crossings rose eleven hundred and eighty per cent between 1988 and 2012. ... Wood can absorb eight times its mass in water. If allowed to dry naturally, it cracks and warps beyond recognition.
As positions of historical prominence go, it’s a rarefied one. Three US Presidents were murdered after Lincoln, but only one of the assassinations—John F. Kennedy’s—was followed by a similar (and much more storied) reprisal. Two days after Lee Harvey Oswald shot Kennedy in Dallas in November 1963, Jack Ruby killed Oswald with a .38 snub-nosed revolver on live television. ... Ruby was a loosely mobbed-up nightclub owner who claimed he’d done it to save Jacqueline Kennedy from having to endure the pain of a long murder trial. Corbett had a less shady but still unorthodox past—he was a hat maker with a strong religious streak who claimed God had commanded him to bring Lincoln’s killer to justice. Ruby went to prison; Corbett didn’t. ... But a peek at the pages of history—into old newspaper clippings, correspondence, and records held at the Kansas Historical Society in Topeka—reveals how much the assassins’ assassins had in common. Like Ruby, Corbett ended up vilified after his unilateral action denied the public the chance to learn the full truth about the plot to kill the President. And Corbett, too, became fodder for conspiracy theories that followed him to his own strange end.
More than any other single innovation, the shipping container—there are millions out there, all just like the ones stacked on the Hong Kong Express but for a coat of paint and a serial number—epitomizes the enormity, sophistication, and importance of our modern transportation system. Invisible to most people, they’re fundamental to how practically everything in our consumer-driven lives works. ... Think of the shipping container as the Internet of things. Just as your email is disassembled into discrete bundles of data the minute you hit send, then re-assembled in your recipient’s inbox later, the uniform, ubiquitous boxes are designed to be interchangeable, their contents irrelevant. ... The exact placement of each box is a critical part of the equation: Ships make many stops, and a box scheduled to be unloaded late in the journey can’t be placed above one slated for offloading early. Imagine a block of 14,000 interlocked Lego bricks—now imagine trying to pull one out from the middle. ... The container’s efficiency has proven to be an irresistible economic force. Last year the world’s container ports moved 560 million 20-foot containers—nearly 1.5 billion tons of cargo altogether. Though commodities like petroleum, steel ore, and coal still move in specially designed bulk cargo ships, more than 90 percent of the rest—everything from clothes to cars to computers—now travels inside shipping containers. “Reefer” containers, insulated and equipped with cooling units, carry refrigerated cargo and are plugged into power sources on ships or at dockside. Because the containers are all identical, any ship can move them. ... The Port of Los Angeles, America’s busiest container port, handled 476,000 TEUs in 1981. Thirty years later, 7.9 million 20-foot containers—almost all of them containing goods on their way from factories in Asia—moved through the port, a 16-fold increase. Hamburg’s four container terminals loaded and unloaded 8.9 million TEUs in 2012. On the long list of global container ports, Hamburg and Los Angeles are middleweights: Shanghai, the world’s largest container port, moves 31 million TEUs each year.
ISIS is mysterious in part because it is so many things at once. It combines Islamic piety and reverence for the prophet and his companions with the most modern social-media platforms and encryption schemes; its videos blend the raw pornographic violence of a snuff film with the pious chanting of religious warriors; the group has the discipline of a prison gang (many of its recruits were indeed drawn from U.S.-organized prisons in Iraq), but also the tactical subtlety and capacity for deception of the most skilled members of Saddam Hussein’s intelligence services, who were also pulled into the ISIS net. It appears less brittle than al-Qaeda because its members care less about religious doctrine and organizational hierarchy. As has been said of the Episcopal Church (forgive the comparison), ISIS is solid at the core but loose at the edges. ... What is ravaging the Middle East right now is obviously deeper than ISIS. It has become commonplace over the last year to observe that we are witnessing the collapse of the post-Ottoman order—that the “lines in the sand” conjured in 1916 by the British and French diplomats Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot are being blown to dust. But we haven’t reckoned with how the insurgents perceive that process. ISIS has religious, psychological, and technological faces. But in some fundamental respects it is an anti-colonial movement that takes as its reference point Islam’s pre-colonial conception of power—an Islamic state, a Sunni caliphate. Even if ISIS is crushed, this idea of “our caliphate” is likely to persist, and return.
- Also: Popular Mechanics - Year One: Inside the Air War Against ISIS < 5min
- Also: Financial Times - Syria oil map: the journey of a barrel of Isis oil < 5min
- Also: The New York Times - ISIS Finances Are Strong < 5min
- Also: BBC - Inside Mosul: What's life like under Islamic State? < 5min
- Also: Vocativ - How ISIS Turned Looting Into Big Business < 5min
In the days following Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House, word had spread that Union troops were seizing good horses. Garland had hidden Don Juan at a farm in the woods on behalf of its owners, but another freedman told the soldiers where to find it. ... For 150 years, it has been public knowledge that Custer owned Don Juan, but not how he acquired it. His many biographers have written that Union troops seized it during a wartime campaign, as they confiscated every horse in Rebel territory; that was Custer’s own explanation. Until now, the truth has remained hidden in the open, told in correspondence and affidavits archived in the library of the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument and the National Archives that have aroused little curiosity among those biographers. But the truth raises important questions about the man and his place in American history. ... And 16 days after Lee’s surrender, ten days after Lincoln’s death by assassination, with all fighting at an end east of the Mississippi River, George Armstrong Custer stole a horse. ... Was it greed that corrupted him? A passion for fine horseflesh—common to most Americans in 1865, but particularly intense in this cavalryman? Was it power—the fact that he could take it? As the military historian John Keegan memorably wrote, “Generalship is bad for people.” Custer was only 25, an age more commonly associated with selfishness than self-reflection, and perhaps that explains it. But the theft was not impulsive. It had required investigation, planning and henchmen. It may help explain his self-destructive actions in the months and years that followed.
When the U.S. Civil War broke out in 1861, cotton was king. The southern United States produced and exported much of the world’s cotton, England was a major textile producer, and cotton textiles were exported from England around the world. At the time, many around the world depended on cotton for their livelihood. The South believed this so deeply that when the North blocked Southern ports to cut off the South’s primary means of financing war—cotton sales—Southern leaders were sure that Britain would enter the war on their side. That never happened. So when cotton supplies dried up in late 1862, thousands in Manchester and Lancashire who either directly or indirectly depended on cotton for a living found themselves without work. In this post, we describe the British cotton famine of 1862-63 and the stoic British national response. We draw primarily from a fascinating BBC Radio broadcast on the subject and John Watts’ matter-of-factly named Facts of the Cotton Famine, published in 1866.
Minting small change was a big, expensive problem in the ancient world. This column argues that the ancient Lydian government and Greek city-states absorbed the cost of producing an extremely wide array of denominations of coins as a political strategy. Governments had much to gain from the spread of coinage in managing budgetary affairs. If it subsidised the mint, an ancient government would make savings in terms of transaction costs.
Paleogenetics is helping to solve the great mystery of prehistory: how did humans spread out over the earth? ... Before the Second World War, prehistory was seen as a series of invasions, with proto-Celts and Indo-Aryans swooping down on unsuspecting swaths of Europe and Asia like so many Vikings, while megalith builders wandered between continents in indecisive meanders. After the Second World War, this view was replaced by the processual school, which attributed cultural changes to internal adaptations. Ideas and technologies might travel, but people by and large stayed put. Today, however, migration is making a comeback. ... Much of this shift has to do with the introduction of powerful new techniques for studying ancient DNA. ... Whole-genome sequencing yields orders of magnitude more data than organelle-based testing, and allows geneticists to make detailed comparisons between individuals and populations. Those comparisons are now illuminating new branches of the human family tree. ... In five years, we’ve gone from thinking we shared no DNA with Neanderthals, to realising that there was widespread interbreeding, to pinpointing it (for one individual) within 200 years – almost the span of a family album. But the use of ancient DNA isn’t limited to our near-human relatives. It is also telling us about the dispersal of humans out of Africa, and the origin and spread of agriculture, and the peopling of the Americas. It is also helping archaeologists crack one of the great mysteries of prehistory: the origins of the Indo-Europeans.
As it turned out, I stayed with Sandy Rendel in his cave for over a month. It was perched near a handy spring in the Lasithi mountains above the village of Tapais in Eastern Crete. Smoky, draughty and damp, but snug with strewn brushwood under the stalactites, it was typical of several lairs dotted about the island, each sheltering a signal sergeant, a small retinue of Cretan helpers and one each of a scattered handful of heavily disguised British Liaison Officers. ... It was a game of hide-and-seek usually ending in a disorderly bunk to a new refuge in the next range. We could not have lasted a day without the islanders’ passionate support: a sentiment which the terrible hardships of the occupation, the execution of the hostages, the razing and massacre of villages, only strengthened. ... I put forward to the powers in SOE the suggestion of kidnapping General Müller. He commanded the 22nd Bremen (‘Sebastopol’) Panzergrenadier division based on Herakleion. It was the sort of action we all needed in Crete, I urged. The General was universally hated and feared for the appalling harshness of his rule: the dragooning of the population in labour-gangs for the aerodromes, mass shooting of hostages, reprisal destruction of villages and their populations, the tortures and the executions of the Gestapo. The moral damage to the German forces in Crete would be great; a severe blow to their self-confidence and prestige.
Every generation produces kid geniuses, but in the early 1900s, the public was obsessed with them ... In the first few decades of the 20th century, child prodigies became national celebrities. Much like the movie stars, industrial titans and heavyweight champs of the day, their exploits were glorified and their opinions quoted in newspapers across the United States. ... While every generation produces its share of precocious children, no era, before or since, seems to have been so obsessed with them. The recent advent of intelligence testing, which allowed psychologists to gauge mental ability with seemingly scientific precision, is one likely reason. ... in 1916, Stanford University psychologist Louis Terman published the Stanford-Binet test, which made the term intelligence quotient, or I.Q., part of the popular vocabulary.
Two centuries ago, public armies replaced private ones as the dominant tool of warfare. Now, private armies are back ... It is a familiar story. A superpower goes to war and faces a stronger-than-expected insurgency in distant lands, yet has insufficient forces to counter it because of political and military constraints. The superpower decides to hire contractors, some of whom are armed, to support its war effort. The armed contractors prove to be both a blessing and a curse, providing vital security services to the campaign, yet at times killing innocent civilians, causing strategic setbacks, and damaging the superpower’s legitimacy. Without these contractors, the superpower could not wage the war. With them, it is more difficult to win. ... The armed contractors in question are not in Iraq or Afghanistan but in northern Italy, and the year is not 2007 but 1377. The superpower is not the United States but the papacy under Pope Gregory XI, fighting the antipapal league led by the duchy of Milan. The tragic killing of civilians by armed contractors did not occur in Baghdad but in Cesena, 630 years earlier. The military companies employed were not DynCorp International, Triple Canopy or Blackwater, but the Company of the Star, the Company of the Hat and the White Company. Known as free companies, these for-profit warriors were organised as corporations, with a well-articulated hierarchy of subcommanders and administrative machinery that oversaw the fair distribution of loot according to employees’ contracts. CEO-like captains led these medieval military corporations. ... The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has hired hundreds of Latin-American mercenaries to fight the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen. After years of struggling against Boko Haram, Nigeria finally employed mercenaries to do the job, and they did. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has sent mercs to ‘liberate’ eastern Ukraine, a conflict that still simmers. Mercs are reportedly working in parts of Iraq. ... ‘durable disorder’: global governance that contains rather than solves problems. Such a world is already upon us.
Bir Tawil is the last truly unclaimed land on earth: a tiny sliver of Africa ruled by no state, inhabited by no permanent residents and governed by no laws. To get there, you have two choices. ... The first is to fly to the Sudanese capital Khartoum, charter a jeep, and follow the Shendi road hundreds of miles up to Abu Hamed, a settlement that dates back to the ancient kingdom of Kush. Today it serves as the region’s final permanent human outpost before the vast Nubian desert, twice the size of mainland Britain and almost completely barren, begins unfolding to the north. ... The second option is to approach from Egypt, setting off from the country’s southernmost city of Aswan, down through the arid expanse that lies between Lake Nasser to the west and the Red Sea to the east. Much of it has been declared a restricted zone by the Egyptian army, and no one can get near the border without first obtaining their permission. ... Both nations have renounced any claim to it, and no other government has any jurisdiction over it.
Successful empires and kingdoms are good at building infrastructure and sharpening the best ideas. The inscription along the magnificent colonnade above the James A Farley building in central Manhattan, the largest post office in the United States, reads: ‘Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.’ Herodotus wrote the words 2,500 years ago, to describe the ancient Persians – who were always on the lookout for innovative technologies and ideas that made it easier to administer their great empire. Getting messages quickly and reliably from A to B in the ancient world was no less important than it is today. ... The instant communications made possible by recent technological changes should not make us susceptible to the breathless commentary about globalisation as something new. For more than two millennia, news and information, goods and products, ideas and beliefs have flowed through networks linking the Pacific coast of China with the Atlantic coasts of North Africa and Europe, the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf with the Mediterranean and Scandinavia. Since the late 19th century, these networks have been known as the Silk Roads. ... We are witnessing the world’s centre of gravity return to the axis on which it spun for millennia. When viewed from the vantage point of the Silk Roads, the familiar narrative begins to quiver, history itself begins to shift. In fact, to understand the world, the best place to look is not in the centre of the West nor in the heart of the East, but on the old Silk Road where the two come together. ... Most scholars have neglected these networks for three reasons. First, they challenge the familiar, triumphalist story of the rise of the West. Second, historians today work in crowded and competitive fields requiring increasingly narrow and precise specialisations. ... Finally, there’s the simple fact that Western scholars’ ability to follow historical connections can be limited by the lack of knowledge of central Asian languages.
Ubiquitous computing and automation are occurring in tandem. Self-operating machines are permeating every dimension of society, so that humans find themselves interacting more frequently with robots than ever before—often without even realizing it. The human-machine relationship is rapidly evolving as a result. Humanity, and what it means to be a human, will be defined in part by the machines people design. ... A distrust of machines that come to life goes back at least as far as tales of golems, and this uneasiness has remained persistent in contemporary culture. ... While doppelgängers, golems, living dolls, and automata are all ancient, the word “robot” is not even a century old. It was coined by the playwright Karl Capek in “R.U.R.,” short for Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti, or Rossum’s Universal Robots, in 1921. “R.U.R.,” which tells the story of a global robot-human war, also helped set the tone for the modern conception of robots. ... After Capek brought “robot” into the lexicon, it quickly became a metaphor for explaining how various technologies worked. By the late 1920s, just about any machine that replaced a human job with automation or remote control was referred to as a robot. Automatic cigarette dispensers were called “robot salesmen,” a sensor that could signal when a traffic light should change was a “robot traffic director,” or a “mechanical policeman,” a remote-operated distribution station was a “robot power plant,” the gyrocompass was a “robot navigator,” new autopilot technology was a “robot airplane pilot,” and an anti-aircraft weapon was a “robot gun.” ... Today, people talk about robots in similarly broad fashion. Just as “robot” was used as a metaphor to describe a vast array of automation in the material world, it’s now often used to describe—wrongly, many roboticists told me—various automated tasks in computing. ... a future that many people today simultaneously want and fear. Driverless cars could save millions of lives this century. But the economic havoc that robots could wreak on the workforce is a source of real anxiety. ... The rise of the robots seems to have reached a tipping point; they’ve broken out of engineering labs and novelty stores, and moved into homes, hospitals, schools, and businesses. Their upward trajectory seems unstoppable.
“Hamilton” is really two phenomena: an extraordinary piece of theater, created by the composer, rapper and actor Lin-Manuel Miranda, and a commercial behemoth powered in part by scarcity — the near impossibility of obtaining tickets, which sell out as quickly as new dates go on sale (through January 2017, for now). Seller helped nurture Miranda through the five years it took him to develop the musical and consulted on every important decision, from casting to a major change in the show’s structure to the changing of its name, which took gentle but persistent prodding before Miranda finally agreed. (He had wanted “The Hamilton Mixtape.”) ... Broadway can be a very poor investment, but when shows hit, they really hit. The most successful of them dwarf the revenues of even the biggest Hollywood blockbusters. “Hamilton” could easily run on Broadway for a decade or more. In September, the first road production will open in Chicago, and it will be a “sit down” show, meaning it is intended to stay there for a year or more. Ultimately, there may be as many as seven “Hamilton” companies, in addition to the one on Broadway, performing at the same time in multiple American and international cities. Ticket revenues, over time, could reach into the billions of dollars. If it hits sales of a mere $1 billion, which “Hamilton” could surpass in New York alone, the show will have generated roughly $300 million in profit on the $12.5 million put up by investors.
Plato, of course, was not clairvoyant. His analysis of how democracy can turn into tyranny is a complex one more keyed toward ancient societies than our own (and contains more wrinkles and eddies than I can summarize here). His disdain for democratic life was fueled in no small part by the fact that a democracy had executed his mentor, Socrates. And he would, I think, have been astonished at how American democracy has been able to thrive with unprecedented stability over the last couple of centuries even as it has brought more and more people into its embrace. It remains, in my view, a miracle of constitutional craftsmanship and cultural resilience. There is no place I would rather live. But it is not immortal, nor should we assume it is immune to the forces that have endangered democracy so many times in human history. ... Part of American democracy’s stability is owed to the fact that the Founding Fathers had read their Plato. ... Many contend, of course, that American democracy is actually in retreat, close to being destroyed by the vastly more unequal economy of the last quarter-century and the ability of the very rich to purchase political influence. This is Bernie Sanders’s core critique. But the past few presidential elections have demonstrated that, in fact, money from the ultrarich has been mostly a dud. ... The evidence suggests that direct democracy, far from being throttled, is actually intensifying its grip on American politics. ... it is precisely because of the great accomplishments of our democracy that we should be vigilant about its specific, unique vulnerability: its susceptibility, in stressful times, to the appeal of a shameless demagogue.