One helluva sum

beruThe World Digital Library, a globe-spanning project which aims to make humankind's accumulated knowledge accessible, went live for the first time this week. The aim of the library, according to U.S. Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, who began the project four years ago, is to provide a collection of readily-navigable primary documents on all subjects accompanied by explanations from leading libraries.

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Bicycle Day

fet190409When Albert Hofmann experienced the world's first ever acid trip on 19 April 1943, he was so strung out on the stuff that his lab assistant had to give him a lift home. The only vehicle available was a bicycle.

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Earth made over

Antarctica holds 90% of the earth's ice and 70% of its fresh water. Scientists use it as a bellwether for climate change. They monitor it hourly like a fatally ill patient for signs of disintegration.

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Summer of Rage

Feliz_1984I entered the Indy Media website with a degree of trepidation. This global social network of journalists was founded during the anti-WTO protests in 1999 and I was mindful of the fact that since it was April the first, the deadly Conficker computer virus was at large and may have bedded down somewhere on the fringes of society. A warning sign emblazoned with an internet police icon claiming that " uses an invalid security certificate" did nothing to allay my fears.  

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Death of a Geopoet

Wegener3_p"Utter, damned rot!" was the response of the president of the American Philosophical Society, when he first encountered Alfred Wegener's theory of continental drift. In his 1915 book, The Origin of Continents and Oceans, which is regarded as one of the most influential and controversial books in the history of science Wegener argued that all the continents had once been joined together as a giant land mass he called Pangaea – "All-Lands" or "All-Earth".

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Stand back from the page!

fluAs pandemics go, the Spanish Flu which struck the world in 1918 was calamitous. It is estimated to have affected at least a billion people, half the world's population at the time – the greatest medical holocaust in history.

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La révolution chimique

David_-_Portrait_of_Monsieur_Lavoisier_and_His_WifeThe day after the guillotining of Antoine Laurent Lavoisier, on May 8, 1794, mathematician Joseph Louis Lagrange, a close friend of the man known as the father of modern chemistry (Pasteur called him the lawmaker of modern chemistry) is said to have lamented: "It took them only an instant to cut off that head, but it is unlikely that a hundred years will suffice to reproduce a similar one."

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Riveting stuff

patentThe story goes that Levi Strauss, founder of Levi Strauss & Company, insisted on calling his denim work pants "waist-high overalls" rather than "jeans", a word derived from "genes" the French word for the cotton trousers worn by Genovese sailors. It was only in 1960, with the introduction of jeans for women, that the company dropped the word "overalls'  from all its advertising.

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Nobel soul


"Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday." So read an obituary, headed Le marchand de la mort est mort ("The merchant of death is dead") published erroneously in 1888 at the passing of Nobel's brother Ludvig. Some say that it was this attack on his person that prompted Nobel to forsake a slew of money-grubbing relatives and put aside the bulk of his estate in a last will and testament signed on 27 November 1895, to establish the Nobel Prizes. An excerpt from his will reads: "I regard large inherited wealth as a misfortune, which merely serves to dull men's faculties. A man who possesses great wealth should, therefore, allow only a small portion to descend to his relatives. Even if he has children, I consider it a mistake to hand over to them considerable sums of money beyond what is necessary for their education. To do so merely encourages laziness and impedes the healthy development of the individual's capacity to make an independent position for himself."

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Red and blue, sorted


The blue and red US electoral maps like the one in the box at left have been featured all over the media recently. States are coloured red or blue depending on whether a majority of their voters voted for the Republican candidate, John McCain, or the Democratic candidate, Barack Obama, respectively. The conventional map gives the impression that there are more red states than blue, in which case McCain would have won.

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fet281208When Apollo 8 astronaut John Borman recalled his feelings at seeing earth from moon's aspect, he called it “the most beautiful, heart-catching sight of my life, one that sent a torrent of nostalgia, of sheer homesickness, surging through me”.

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Evolving with expression

In the absence of the high tech instruments that scientists today have access to, Charles Darwin's 19th century research into human and animal expression of emotion had to rely on simple observation and on letters from correspondents in Borneo, Calcutta and New Zealand. It centred on 16 questions which he compiled that asked about simple correlations between physical expression and emotion like "Is astonishment expressed by the eyes and mouth being opened wide?" He found that people all over the world made faces using the same basic patterns of muscle contraction and that these were present from infancy. He concluded that this "language of emotion" evolved to facilitate communication before humankind became vfet261008erbal. 

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The original hacker

fet211208Hacking, in the computer sense, was adopted as a slang term in the 1960's when scientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) used it to refer to a fix or solution to a technical obstacle. A hack can be "ugly", as in a hack which operates outside the accepted structures and norms of the environment and is often used for criminal activity like stealing money. A "neat" or "cool" hack is an elegant or elaborate solution that is creative and can be extended to other similar problems. In his book Hackers: Crime in the Digital Sublime, Paul A. Taylor defines a hack as being simple but impressive; involving sophisticated technical knowledge; and having the illicitness of being against the rules.

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Right to die

There is a name for the branch of medicine that specialises in assisting someone to die. Jack Kevorkian, who publicly championed a terminal patient's right to die by euthanasia and was jailed for eight years for the assisted suicides of 130 of his patients, called himself an obtiatrist. fet141208

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While each of the hundreds of gravestones photographed for the Genealogical Society of South Africa's virtual branch website ( tells a story of a life lived, some are more compelling than others.

This still, yellow stone, lovingly inscribed, appears to grow out of the sandstone from which it was hewn, a simple monument to the tiny life of Emily Norah Haney Sparks.

The stone was photographed at the cemetery in Hanover, a tiny village in the middle of the Karoo, which, during the 19th century was the place where all roads converged for travellers before the railways came in 1884 and changed the town forever.

The inscription reads like a poem:

In loving memory
Emily Norah Haney Sparks
Born Jan 28th, 1891
Died Feb 12th, 1892

There's a home for little children
Above the bright blue sky

Photograph: Alta Griffiths, 24.06.07, courtesy of the Genealogical Society of South Africa (

Lost boys

fet-070908When the "unsinkable" Titanic sank in the early hours of April 15, 1912, there were 127 children on board. Of these, 57 survived. Among this number were Michel Marcel Navratil, 3 and Edmond Roger Navratil, 2.

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It's a boy

Just a year after the Russians showed off their firepower by detonating the King of Bombs, came America's reply. Using a fusion device called Ivy Mike (the Soviets called it a thermonuclear installation because it looked more like a building than a bomb), they blew the entire island of Elugelab, on Enewetak, an atoll in the Pacific Ocean, out of the water, leaving a crater 1.9 kilometres in diameter and 50 metres deep.  Ivy Mike is considered to be the first successful test of a hydrogen bomb

The mushroom cloud from Mike's detonation reached an altitude of 37 kilometres. The blast showered irradiated coral debris on ships stationed 48 kilometres away. Edward Teller, who was in part responsible for the design of the bomb, had a vested interest in the test's success and sent a telegram to his friends after he picked up the shockwaves from the explosion on a seismometer where he was stationed in Berkeley, California. It said: "It's a boy".

Photo courtesy of US National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office







Below: Enewetak before and after Mike was detonated, showing a crater where Elugelab had once been.  
Photo's: US government Department of Defence


Suicide Box

An average of 17 people end their lives each year by throwing themselves off the Golden Gate Bridge into the San Francisco Bay 67 metres below. BIT (Bureau of Inverse Technology) is an anonymous guerilla group that addresses the hidden politics of technology by re-engineering the emergent techniques and technologies of the Information Age. In 2003, they launched DI10 based on an analysis of the Despondency Index, an economic indicator which takes the moving average of the suicide rate off the Golden Gate Bridge and indexes it to the Dow Jones Industrial Average. BIT installed a motion-detection video system, called Suicide Box, which was positioned in range of the Golden Gate Bridge to sense and record vertical motion, in a bid to capture accurate data of the number of "vertical events" off the bridge. According to a transcript in BITs 1996 presentation of the box, the last recorded suicide off the span was the 997th. Newspaper reports of the 1000th were dismissed as an approximation; "We don't keep statistics" says the US Coastguard. In the 100 day period that BIT monitored the bridge, 17 jumps were recorded. During the same time period the Port Authority counted only 13. The video documentary of Suicide Box exhibited as an artwork at the 1997 Whitney Biennial of American Art was called "a seemingly factual documentary using a combination of real and fictionalised statistics and staged surveillance footage". For the BIT artists this indicated "the inherent suspicion of artists working with material evidence."


Sugar Kills

fet180109On a hot summer's day, a sweet smell rises from the pavements and streets of North End, Boston. For locals, it is a reminder of one of the most bizarre industrial accidents in history.

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Better Angels?


Artist Ron English created "Abraham Obama" while Obama was campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination. The fusion portrait was commissioned by William Kerr, owner of Gallery XIV in Boston, Massachusetts for a show entitled "A Politic". Prints were sold on as part of the effort to get the country's first black man into the White House. Although it has almost become a cliche to compare Obama with the 16th president of the United States, it is true that strains of Lincoln's legacy have been infused into Barack Hussein Obama II's distinctive brew. He does not shy away from the comparisons and frequently acknowledges Lincoln by quoting from his speeches. His emotionally-charged acceptance speech on election day 2008 was composed as an antidote to the "strained passions" incited by the petty politics of the presidential campaign that had gone before, as a means to invoke Lincoln's "better angels of our nature". His inauguration theme, "A New Birth of Freedom" was inspired by a line from Lincoln's Gettysburg address.

According to Princeton University presidential historian Julian Zelizer, Obama uses the Lincoln icon to "place himself in a broader narrative about the nation overcoming its racial past" and to set himself up as "a leader who can heal divisions in difficult times". resists deliberate comparisons between the two men and instead invites visitors to say what they think the image means. For the artist, Ron English, the work is about a dialogue between art, politics and individuals.W's cynical reply to the invitation is that it is "natural" and "obvious" to juxtapose the portrait of the future president over the old since the demands of the Oval Office never vary that much. We are likely see the same political soap opera  played out time and again, no matter who is in charge.