Archive of posts with tag 'history'

Monthly Reading, August 2023

August 29, 2023 • #

This post appeared in issue #36 of my newsletter, Res Extensa, where I write about the intersection of product design, bottoms-up systems, innovation, and what we can learn from the history of technology. I’d love it if you subscribed.

💡 Good Decision, Bad Decision, Indecision, and Fake Decision

The older I get, the more I appreciate two fundamental skills in every line of work:

  1. A respect for and ability to assess...

Anachronistic History

August 24, 2023 • #

I asked ChatGPT:

Write about some creative anachronistic historical events.

The results don’t disappoint. Every single one is gold, big-budget film caliber material we got here. Scroll down and enjoy…

Marco Polo's Transcontinental Railroad, according to Midjourney Marco Polo’s Transcontinental Railroad, according to Midjourney

Leonardo’s Electric Canvas (1492): Leonardo da Vinci, known for his ingenious inventions, unveils the world’s first electrically powered canvas projector, allowing him to showcase his artwork in vibrant colors and dynamic animations, centuries ahead of its time.

Napoleon’s Moon Landing (1801): In a bid to establish a new...

The Rest Is History Podcast

April 10, 2023 • #

Recently I’ve been thoroughly enjoying Tom Holland’s Dominion, his epic history of Christianity and its influence on western culture. It’s one of the most interesting (and well-written) works of history I’ve read in some time. Holland approaches the subject from a historical and classicist perspective, versus a religious or theological one, which is unique for many religious histories. And he does so very respectfully of the faith itself, not with a cold, matter-of-fact historian’s eye.

Because it’s been great so far, Holland has a few other books I’ve added to the reading backlog, including works on...

Popper on Great Man Theory

September 27, 2022 • #

This just showed up in my Readwise highlights today, from Karl Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies:

It springs rather from my conviction that, if our civilization is to survive, we must break with the habit of deference to great men. Great men may make great mistakes; and as the book tries to show, some of the greatest leaders of the past supported the perennial attack on freedom and reason.

Popper opposes the historicist Great man theory, where we attribute outsized impact on the...

David McCullough Dies at 89

August 16, 2022 • #

Historian David McCullough died last week at age 89. If you’ve never read his work, it’s some of the best, most readable and engaging history you can find. I’ve read a few of his books over the years, like The Great Bridge (about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge), 1776 (the Revolutionary War), and his biography John Adams. Looking back on his bibliography, all of his others are on my reading list.

It’s always unfortunate to lose such a critical voice in American culture, but at least his books will stand the test of time...

The Kalevala and the Underworld

August 5, 2022 • #

I just finished Robert Macfarlane’s Underland, a book about all things “underworld” — catacombs, cave exploration, underground rivers, tree root networks, and geologic time. He ties these stories together with historical backgrounds of each place, globetrotting from the Slovenian Dolomites to Greenland to Norwegian ocean caves. It’s an excellent read. Highly recommended if you like nature writing and narrative nonfiction!

In the final chapter he visits the west coast of Finland, specifically the Onkalo spent nuclear fuel repository, a 500m deep network of man-made caves designed to house up to 6,500 tons of spent nuclear...

Weekend Reading: Digital Librarians, Tech Trees, and Alternate Histories in Maps

November 22, 2020 • #

📑 Chief Notion Officer

Julian Lehr is onto something here. All modern organizations are plagued with a problem of managing internal documentations. We have ample tools and keep squishing the problem from one place to another: wikis, search, tasks — it’s a game of whack-a-mole to find the right version of a document. He ponders at what size it makes sense to invest in a “digital librarian”:

A friend at Stripe recently suggested – half-jokingly – that we should hire a librarian to organize all our internal data and documentation. The more I think...

A Reverse Dunkirk

November 6, 2020 • #

In Erik Larson’s book The Splendid and the Vile, he tells the story of Britain during the Blitz of 1940-41.

In May of 1940, a strategic lapse by the Germans allowed the British to evacuate 330,000 Allied soldiers from the French coast in the famous Dunkirk evacuation. An assemblage of 800 mostly-ragtag vessels were able to slip those hundreds of thousands through air and u-boat attack to safety across the Channel.

There’s an anecdote in the book that I’d never thought about before, with respect to Britain’s response as they prepared...

Weekend Reading: Non-Experts, Non-Linear Innovation, and We Were Builders

October 24, 2020 • #

👨‍💻 The Rise of the Non-Expert Expert

Vicki Boykis on the impossibility of true breadth and depth of technical expertise:

What used to distinguish senior people from junior people was the depth of knowledge they had about any given programming language and operating system.

What distinguishes them now is breadth and, I think, the ability to discern patterns and carry them across multiple parts of a stack, multiple stacks, and multiple jobs working in multiple industries. We are all junior, now, in some part of the software stack. The real trick...

Weekend Reading: American Growth, JTBD, and Dissolving the Fermi Paradox

October 17, 2020 • #

📉 Summary of The Rise and Fall of American Growth

Concise summary of Robert Gordon’s book on Roots of Progress.

👨🏻‍🏫 Guide to Jobs to be Done Interviews

A solid comprehensive, step-by-step overview of how to conduct JTBD interviews.

🛸 Dissolving The Fermi Paradox

A pointer somewhere on Twitter led to this post from the Slate Star Codex archives, discussing a paper that supposedly debunks the Fermi paradox:

Imagine we...

Progress is Not Automatic

September 23, 2020 • #

One of the key insights coming out of the progress studies movement seems like a simple idea on the surface, but it’s an important core thesis: that progress is not an inevitability. We don’t see new inventions, innovations, and improvements to quality of life by accident. It’s the result of deliberate effort by people in searching for new life improvements. Using names like “Moore’s Law” perhaps makes it sound like computer chip improvements “just happen,” but researchers at Intel or TSMC would beg to differ on how automatic those developments were.

Innovation is...

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Weekend Reading: The First Corporation, Palantir, and Designing APIs

August 29, 2020 • #

💼 Birth of the Business Corporation

Anton Howes looks back to the 1500s and connects Sebastian Cabot’s planned search for a Northeast Passage to China to the birth of the first joint-stock corporation.

🔮 Palantir: On Business, Cults, and Politics

Sharp analysis of Palantir from Byrne Hobart as it seeks a public offering. What an odd company.

🔌 Eagerly Discerning, Discerningly Eager

Comparing what “eager” and “discerning” developers are looking for in an API.

Weekend Reading: Looking Glass Politics, Enrichment, and OSM Datasets

July 18, 2020 • #

🐇 Looking-Glass Politics

On private emotions being thrown into the public sphere:

People escape the Dunbar world for obvious reasons: life there appears prosaic and uninspiring. They find a digital interface and, like Alice in Through the Looking-Glass, enter a new realm that glitters with infinite possibilities. Suddenly, you can flicker like a spark between the digital and the real. The exhilarating sensation is that you have been taken to a high place and shown all the kingdoms of the world: “These can be yours, if. . . .” If your video goes viral. If...

War, Revolution, Socialism

June 7, 2020 • #

I linked a couple weeks ago to Stephen Kotkin’s discussion with Lex Fridman. That was so interesting to me I went out looking for other interviews and lectures of his on YouTube and found this great one from Dartmouth in 2017, the centennial of of the Russian Revolution.

Excellent top comment on YouTube:

The Joe Pesci of historians!

Weekend Reading: Optionality, Pangaea, and Regulatory Disappointment

May 16, 2020 • #

⚖️ The Trouble with Optionality

A 2017 commencement address from Mihir Desai, critiquing the phenomenon of infinite optionality and lack of commitment pushed by modern universities:

I’ve lost count of the number of students who, when describing their career goals, talk about their desire to “maximize optionality.” They’re referring to financial instruments known as options that confer the right to do something rather than an obligation to do something. For this reason, options have a “Heads I win, tails I don’t lose” character—what those in finance lovingly describe as a “nonlinear payoff structure.”...

Innovation and Human Nature

May 10, 2020 • #

In this piece from a few years ago, historian Anton Howes wrote about about what drives innovation. Is it part of human nature to pursue innovation? Or is it not a naturally occurring phenomenon? He makes the case that innovation is not inevitable:

The more I study the lives of British innovators, the more convinced I am that innovation is not in human nature, but is instead received. People innovate because they are inspired to do so — it is an idea that is transmitted. And when people do not...

David Deutsch on Brexit and Error Correction

April 3, 2020 • #

I ran across this interview with physicist David Deutsch, with his thoughts on Brexit. A lot of great stuff here on resilience, error correction, individualism vs. collectivism, Karl Popper, and Britain’s first-past-the-post system.

Hardy Boys and Microkids

March 17, 2020 • #

Physicians hang diplomas in their waiting rooms. Some fishermen mount their biggest catch. Downstairs in Westborough, it was pictures of computers.

Over the course of a few decades dating beginning in the mid-40s, computing moved from room-sized mainframes with teletype interfaces to connected panes of glass in our pockets. At breakneck speed, we went from the computer being a massively expensive, extremely specialized tool to a ubiquitous part of daily life.

Data General Massachusetts Office

During the 1950s — the days of Claude Shannon, John von Neumann, and MIT’s Lincoln Lab — a “computer”...

Image credits: Wikipedia, RCS/RI

The UNIX System

March 5, 2020 • #

Today on the nerdy computer history feed, we’ve got a 1982 video from Bell Labs: The UNIX System: Making Computers More Productive.

Most of the video has Brian Kernighan explaining the structure of UNIX and why it’s different from its contemporary operating systems. I should do more work with the keyboard in my lap and my feet on the desk.

Navigating a Linux shell looks almost identical to this today, 50 years later.

I liked this quote John Mashey, a computer scientist who...

Weekend Reading: Figma's Typography, Xerox Alto, and a Timeline of CoVID

February 29, 2020 • #

⌨️ I Pressed ⌘B, You Wouldn’t Believe What Happened Next

An entertaining talk about the complexity of typography, from Marcin Wichary at Figma’s recent Config conference.

🖥 Restoring Y Combinator’s Xerox Alto

An technical piece on restoring Alan Kay’s Xerox Alto he donated to Y Combinator. Amazing piece of technology history, and inspired so many future developments in computing — graphical user interfaces, WYSIWIG text editing, bitmapped graphics, the mouse, and Ethernet for connectivity.

Xerox built about 2000 Altos...

Enter Ethernet

February 25, 2020 • #

The specification for Ethernet was proposed in 1973 by Bob Metcalfe as a medium to connect the expanding network of computers at Xerox PARC. This was a schematic he drew as part of the memo proposing the technology to connect the machines together:

Ethernet schematic

From this Wired article:

PARC was installing its own Xerox Alto, the first personal computer, and EARS, the first laser printer. It needed a system that would allow additional PCs and printers to be added without having to reconfigure or shut down the network. It was...

The Tech History Playlist

February 5, 2020 • #

As I’ve been reading more into the history of technology1, specifically computers and the Internet, I’ll go on side trails through Wikipedia or the wider ‘net back to many of the source papers that were the seeds of certain innovations.

I’ve read about the IBM 700 series of mainframes, Vannevar Bush’s seminal piece on a “memex” device (precursor idea to hypertext), and Claude Shannon’s original work on information theory.

The latest gold mine I’ve found is on YouTube. I created...

Weekend Reading: Internet of Beefs, Company Culture, and Secular Cycles

January 18, 2020 • #

🥩 The Internet of Beefs

Venkatesh Rao has assembled a most compelling explanation for how the internet polarization machine works:

The semantic structure of the Internet of Beefs is shaped by high-profile beefs between charismatic celebrity knights loosely affiliated with various citadel-like strongholds peopled by opt-in armies of mooks. The vast majority of the energy of the conflict lies in interchangeable mooks facing off against each other, loosely along lines indicated by the knights they follow, in innumerable battles that play out every minute across the IoB.

Almost none of these battles matter...

Some Reflections on Early History by J.C.R. Licklider

January 17, 2020 • #

I’m currently reading the fantastic book The Dream Machine, a history of the creation of personal computers, and a biography of this man, JCR Licklider. This is a talk from an ACM conference in 1986 where he discusses his work on interactive computing. A wonderful little bit of history here.

Wernher von Braun and the Moon Landing

January 13, 2020 • #

This is a neat clip from Walt Disney’s Disneyland TV series. Wernher von Braun explains the future technology that’ll take us to the Moon, in 1955, several years before the Mercury program even began.

Weekend Reading: Bullets in Games, Lessons of History, and BrickLink

January 5, 2020 • #

🎮 How Do Bullets Work in Video Games?

A cool analysis of methods for rendering bullet physics in games.

🏟 Notes on “The Lessons of History”

Maksim Stepanenko’s notes on Will and Ariel Durant’s The Lessons of History. I’ve got this one on the shelf, and these nuggets make me want to pick it up now to read.

While working on some Lego sets with the kids, I wanted to know if some...

Weekend Reading: The Worst Year to Be Alive, Chinese Sci-Fi, and Slack Networks

December 7, 2019 • #

🌋 Why 536 Was the Worst Year To Be Alive

You may have thought the entire 14th century was pretty bad, or maybe 1918 with its flu pandemic and millions of war casualties, but how about the 6th:

A mysterious fog plunged Europe, the Middle East, and parts of Asia into darkness, day and night—for 18 months. “For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during the whole year,” wrote Byzantine...

The Mother of All Demos

November 24, 2019 • #

One of the great things about YouTube is being able to find gems of history like Doug Engelbart’s “Mother of All Demos” presentation from 1968. How amazing it must’ve been to see something like this live, 50 years ago:

The live demonstration featured the introduction of a complete computer hardware and software system called the oN-Line System or, more commonly, NLS. The 90-minute presentation essentially demonstrated almost all the fundamental elements of modern personal computing: windows, hypertext, graphics, efficient navigation and command input, video conferencing, the computer mouse, word processing, dynamic file linking, revision...

Weekend Reading: Baseball Graphics, the Mind Illuminated, and the Crucial Century

October 19, 2019 • #

⚾️ How Many Outs? Baseball Graphics Compared

Some top-notch baseball geekery, with Jason Snell comparing the graphics overlays from Fox, MLB Network, and ESPN’s telecasts. I’ve thought about this, too, but have to give it to the ESPN one, with Fox right up there.

🧘🏽‍♀️ Book Review: The Mind Illuminated

Scott Alexander’s review is an excellent in-depth look at this book on meditation. I’m still making my way through it, but it’s definitely a fantastic soup-to-nuts guide so far.

🇬🇧 The Crucial Century


The History of Steel

October 10, 2019 • #

Since I’ve been following the progress studies movement and Jason Crawford’s Roots of Progress blog, it was cool to see video of his talk on the history of steel from a San Francisco meetup a few weeks ago.

Steve Jobs in 1981

August 23, 2019 • #

I saw this Nightline interview clip with Steve Jobs from a recent Steven Sinofsky post.

In this clip is his famous “bicycle for the mind” quote about the personal computer.

This is a 21st century bicycle that amplifies a certain intellectual ability that man has. And I think that after this process has come to maturity, the effects that it’s going to have on society are going to far outstrip even those of the petrochemical revolution has had.

Hard to believe...

Weekend Reading: Rhythmic Breathing, Drowned Lands, and Fulcrum SSO

July 20, 2019 • #

🏃🏻‍♂️ Everything You Need to Know About Rhythmic Breathing

I tried this out the other night on a run. The technique makes some intiutive sense that it’d reduce impact (or level it out side to side anyway). Surely to notice any result you’d have to do it over distance consistently. But I’ve had some right knee soreness that I don’t totally know the origin of, so thought I’d start trying this out. I found it takes a lot of concentration to keep it up consistently. I’ll keep testing it out.


Cape Canaveral

June 23, 2019 • #

We took the kids over to Kennedy Space Center on Saturday on the way up to Jacksonville. A quick stopover in Titusville Friday night then morning over at the Cape.

Rocket Garden

I always loved visiting KSC when I was younger. We had the opportunity to go and see multiple launches over the years, including a couple of Space Shuttle launches. Visiting again brought back memories since they’ve got several things there that haven’t changed much over the years. On the way in you get to walk through the Rocket Garden, which...

The Second Phase: allinspections

June 3, 2019 • #

This post is part 3 in a series about my history in product development. Check out the intro in part 1 and all about our first product, Geodexy, in part 2.

Back in 2010 we decide to halt our development of Geodexy and regroup to focus on a narrower segment of the marketplace. With what we’d learned in our go-to-market attempt on Geodexy, we wanted to isolate a specific industry we could focus our technology around. Our tech platform was strong, we were confident in...

Clippy: The Unauthorized Biography

April 28, 2019 • #

One of my favorite tech figures, a16z’s Steven Sinofsky, gives a history of “Clippy”, the helpful anthropomorphic office supply from Microsoft Office. As the product leader of the Office group in the 90s, he gives some interesting background to how Clippy came to be. I found most fascinating the time machine look back at what personal computing was like back then — how different it was to develop a software product in a world of boxed software.

Everyone makes fun...

Entering Product Development: Geodexy

March 27, 2019 • #

I started with the first post in this series back in January, describing my own entrance into product development and management.

When I joined the company we were in the very early stages of building a data collection tool, primarily for internal use to improve speed and efficiency on data project work. That product was called Geodexy, and the model was similar to Fulcrum in concept, but in execution and tech stack, everything was completely different. A few years back, Tony wrote up a retrospective post detailing out the...

Weekend Reading: LiDAR, Auto Generated Textbooks, and Paleo Plate Tectonics

February 9, 2019 • #

🛣 Creating Low-Cost LiDAR

This is a great breakdown of the different elements of LiDAR technology, looking at three broad areas: beam direction, distance measurement, and frequencies. They compare the tech of 10 different companies in the space to see how each is approaching the problem.

📚 An Algorithm to Auto-Generate Textbooks

Taking off of the Wikibooks project, this team is aiming to generate books from Wikipedia content using ML techniques.

Given the advances in artificial intelligence in recent years, is there a...

The History of the World on One Map

January 14, 2019 • #

Every year since the pre-Stone Age area, visualized as a time lapse on a map.

This is amazing and puts into context what was developing where over time. I know when I read the history of one culture, like Ancient Greece, it’s hard to keep in the mind what was happening elsewhere in the world during the same time period. This video could be a good reference point to pull up to get a sense of what happened during, before, and after any...

Progress Report: The Federalist Papers

December 4, 2018 • #

I’m making my way through The Federalist, which has been on my reading list forever, and for which I had my interest rekindled last year reading Alexander Hamilton.

For those that don’t know, it’s a collection of essays written by the trio of Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay to convince the populace of the need to ratify the then-draft US Constitution.

Up to Federalist No. 25, the focus is on a) the utility and importance of the “union of states” as a concept worth pursuing and cementing and b) the insufficiency of the Articles of...


July 9, 2012 • #

I recently finished reading Spycraft, Robert Wallace and Keith Melton’s chronicle of the CIA’s spy tech divisions, specifically OTS (Office of Technical Services), the division responsible for creating technical espionage gear. Things like eavesdropping devices, dead drop containers, secret writing, disguises, and document forgery.

Acoustic kitty

The story of OTS is fascinating and full of all sorts of straight-out-of-the-movies espionage games and tactics. The book is chock full of anecdotes of crazy operations from the group’s inception with OSS during World War II, through the years of the Cold War. For evidence, look no...

Counterinsurgency, a brief history

June 19, 2012 • #

I’ve been reading a lot lately about sociocultural geography — about how people interact with their environments and with one another across space and time. This topic is more relevant than ever with today’s borderless conflicts, asymmetric warfare, and technology behind the scenes leveling the playing field for groups at all levels. On a journey across the internet reading and watching various things about human geography, I stumbled upon this fantastic piece by Adam Curtis on his BBC blog.

It tells the story and background of counterinsurgency doctrine from its inception in revolutionary communist China and Indochina to...

Table Alphabeticall

October 7, 2011 • #

Gentle reader, thou must learne the Alphabet, to wit, the order of the Letters as they stand, perfectly without booke, and where every Letter standeth: as b neere the beginning, n about the middest, and t toward the end. Nowe if the word, which thou art desirous to finde, begin with a then looke in the beginning of this Table, but if with v looke towards the end. Againe, if thy word beginne with ca looke in the beginning of the letter c but if with cu then looke toward the end of that letter. And so of all...

Early Washington

July 3, 2011 • #

Visualizing Washington, DC — circa 1800.

An impressive use of historic maps and data to rebuild the look of the Capital during its early years.