A New Way to “Know and Master Your Social Media Flow”

On the anniversary of the death of FriendFeed, I update Louis Gray's flawed social media diagram.

I was reminded this morning that two years ago yesterday FriendFeed, one of my favorite social media sites, was finally shut down after years of flagging support (outright neglect?) after it was purchased by Facebook.

This reminded me of something which I can only call one of the most hurtful diagrams I saw in the early days Web 2.0 and the so-called social web. It was from an article from May 16, 2009, entitled Know and Master Your Social Media Flow by Louis Gray, a well-known blogger who later joined Google almost two years later to promote Google+.

Here’s a rough facsimile of the diagram as it appeared on his blog (and on several syndicated copies around the web):

Louis Gray’s Social Media Flow Diagram from 2009

His post and this particular diagram were what many were experimenting with at the time, and certainly inspired others to do the same. I know it influenced me a bit, though I always felt it wasn’t quite doing the right thing.

Sadly these diagrams all managed to completely miss the mark. Perhaps it was because everyone was so focused on the shiny new idea of “social” or that toys like Twitter, Facebook, FriendFeed, and thousands of others which have now died and gone away were so engaging.

The sad part in searching for new ways to interact was that the most important piece of the puzzle is right there in his original diagram. No, it’s not the sorely missed FriendFeed service represented by the logo in the middle, which has the largest number of arrows pointing into or out of it. It’s not Facebook or Twitter, the companies which now have multi-billion dollar valuations. It’s not even the bright orange icon representing RSS, which many say has been killed–in part because Facebook and Twitter don’t support it anymore. The answer: It’s the two letters LG which represent Louis Gray’s own personal website/blog.

Sadly bloggers, and thousands upon thousands of developers, lost their focus in the years between 2007 and 2009 and the world is much worse off as a result. Instead of focusing on some of the great groundwork that already existed at the time in the blogging space, developers built separate stand-alone massive walled gardens, which while seemingly democratizing the world, also locked their users into silos of content and turned those users into the actual product to monetize them. (Perhaps this is the real version of Soylent Green?) Most people on the internet are now sharecropping for one or more multi-billion dollar companies without thinking about it. Our constant social media addiction now has us catering to the least common denominator, unwittingly promoting “fake news”, making us slower and less thoughtful, and it’s also managing to slowly murder thoughtful and well-researched journalism. Like sugar, fat, and salt, we’re genetically programmed to be addicted, and just like the effect they have on us, we’re slowly dying as a result.

The new diagram for 2017

Fortunately, unlike for salt, fat, and sugar, we don’t need to rely on simple restraint, the diet of the week, or snakeoil to fix the problem. We can do what Louis Gray should have done long ago: put ourselves, our identities, and our web presences at the center of the diagram and, if necessary, draw any and ALL of the arrows pointing out of our own sites. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, FourSquare/Swarm, etc. can all still be there on our diagrams, but the arrows pointing to them should all originate from our own site. Any arrows starting with those same social networks should ALL point (only) back to our sites.

This is how I always wanted my online diagram to look:

This is how I always thought that the diagram should have been drawn since before 2009. Now it can be a reality. POSSE definition. Backfeed definition.

How can I do this?

In the past few years, slowly, but surely, I’ve managed to use my own website to create my diagram just like this. Now you can too.

A handful of bright engineers have created some open standards that more easily allow for any website to talk to or reply to any other website. Back in January a new W3C recommendation was made for a specification called Webmention. By supporting outgoing webmentions, one’s website can put a link to another site’s page or post in it and that URL serves the same function as an @mention on services like Twitter, Facebook, Medium, Google+, Instagram, etc. The difference here is that these mentions aren’t stuck inside a walled garden anymore, they can reach outside and notify anyone anywhere on the web that they’ve been mentioned. Further, it’s easy for these mentions to be received by a site and be posted as comments on that mentioned page. Because the spec is open and not controlled by a third party corporation, anyone anywhere can use it.

What does this mean? It means I can post to my own site and if you want to write a comment, bookmark it, like it, or almost anything else, you post that to your own website and mine has the option of receiving it and displaying it. Why write your well thought out reply on my blog in hopes that it always lives there when you can own your own copy that, though I can delete from my site, doesn’t make it go away from yours. This gives me control and agency over my own platform and it gives you ownership and agency over yours.

Where can I get it?

Impatient and can’t wait? Get started here.

More and more platforms are beginning to support this open protocol, so chances are it may already be available to you. If you’re using an open source platform like WordPress.org, you can download a plugin and click “activate”. If you want to take few additional steps to customize it there’s some additional documentation and help. Other CMSes like Known have it built in right out of the box. Check here to see if your CMS or platform is supported. Don’t see your platform listed? Reach out to the developers or company and ask them to support it.

If you’re a developer and have the ability, you can easily build it right into your own CMS or platform of choice (with many pre-existing examples to model off if you need them) and there are lots of tools and test suites built which will let you test your set up.

If you need help, there are people all over the world who have already implemented it who can help you out. Just join the indieweb in your favorite chat client option.

Some parting thoughts

Let’s go back to Louis Gray’s blog and check on something. (Note that my intention isn’t to pick on or shame Mr. Gray at all as he’s done some excellent work over the years and I admire it a lot, he just serves as a good public example, particularly as he was recruited into Google to promote and launch G+.)

Number of posts by year on Louis Gray’s personal blog.

If you look at his number of posts over time (in the right sidebar of his homepage), you’ll see he was averaging about 500+ posts a year until about the time of his diagram. That number then drops off precipitously to 7 and 5 in 2015 and 2016 respectively!! While life has its vagaries and he’s changed jobs and got kids, I seriously doubt the massive fall off in posts to his blog was because he quit interacting online. I’ll bet he just moved all of that content and all of his value into other services which he doesn’t really own and doesn’t have direct control over.

One might think that after the demise of FriendFeed (the cog at the center of his online presence) not to mention all the other services that have also disappeared, he would have learned his lesson. Even browsing back into his Twitter archive becomes a useless exercise because the vast majority of the links on his tweets are dead and no longer resolve because the services that made them died ignominious deaths. If he had done it all on his own website, I almost guarantee they’d still resolve today and all of that time he spent making them would be making the world a richer and brighter place today. I spent more than twenty minutes or so doing a variety of complicated searches to even dig up the original post (whose original URL had moved in the erstwhile) much less the original diagram which isn’t even linked to the new URL’s post.


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🔖 Want to read Butter: A Rich History by Elaine Khosrova

Butter: A Rich History by Elaine Khosrova (Algonquin Books, ISBN: 978-1616203641)
It’s a culinary catalyst, an agent of change, a gastronomic rock star. Ubiquitous in the world’s most fabulous cuisines, butter is boss. Here, it finally gets its due. After traveling across three continents to stalk the modern story of butter, award-winning food writer and former pastry chef Elaine Khosrova serves up a story as rich, textured, and culturally relevant as butter itself. From its humble agrarian origins to its present-day artisanal glory, butter has a fascinating story to tell, and Khosrova is the perfect person to tell it. With tales about the ancient butter bogs of Ireland, the pleasure dairies of France, and the sacred butter sculptures of Tibet, Khosrova details butter’s role in history, politics, economics, nutrition, and even spirituality and art. Readers will also find the essential collection of core butter recipes, including beurre manié, croissants, pâte brisée, and the only buttercream frosting anyone will ever need, as well as practical how-tos for making various types of butter at home--or shopping for the best.

Butter: A Rich History

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🔖 Mapping Uncertainty on the Oregon Trail

Mapping Uncertainty on the Oregon Trail by Anelise H. Shrout
In the early 1840s the American West, though claimed by the United States, was considered by many white Americans to be untamed, wild, and possibly rife with unknown wealth. This was a West that existed largely in the American imagination. In fact, the area west of the Missouri was home to complex Native societies, was divided into political structures, and was intimately known, if not formally mapped. These two competing Wests - that imagined by many Americans and that inhabited by Souix, Pawnee, Snake and Nez Pierce tribes - were mapped both geographically and textually by John C. Frémont between 1842 and 1843. Frémont set out from St. Louis in the summer of 1842, and began to chronicle his journey west, in the wake of "emigrants" who were moving to the Oregon Territory - a route known as the "Oregon Trail." Frémont's first expedition covered the land between the Missouri River and the Rocky Mountains during the summer and fall of 1842. In the summer of 1843 he set out to write an account of the second half of the Oregon Trail, from the Rocky Mountains to the Columbia River in Oregon. The maps contained here are drawn from the Library of Congress's collection "Topographical map of the road from Missouri to Oregon, commencing at the mouth of the Kansas in the Missouri River and ending at the mouth of the Walla-Wallah in the Columbia." They were created using Frémont's journal, and cover his first and second expeditions. I have annotated the maps with accounts of the resting places, flora, fauna, and people Frémont's and his party encountered on their journey west.

You’ve played the game Oregon Trail via DOS (as a child), online, or via app but have you traced the actual trail taken by John C. Frémont between 1842 and 1843? Now you can with this daily interactive map with journal.

Thanks Anelise Shrout!

Topological Map of the Road from Missouri to Oregon

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🔖 What is good mathematics? | Terry Tao

What is good mathematics? by Terence Tao (arxiv.org)
Some personal thoughts and opinions on what ``good quality mathematics'' is, and whether one should try to define this term rigorously. As a case study, the story of Szemer\'edi's theorem is presented.

This looks like a cool little paper.

Update 3/17/17

Some thoughts after reading

And indeed it was. The opening has lovely long (though possibly incomplete) list of aspects of good mathematics toward which mathematicians should strive. The second section contains an interesting example which looks at the history of a theorem and it’s effect on several different areas. To me most of the value is in thinking about the first several pages. I highly recommend this to all young budding mathematicians.

In particular, as a society, we need to be careful of early students in elementary and high school as well as college as the pedagogy of mathematics at these lower levels tends to weed out potential mathematicians of many of these stripes. Students often get discouraged from pursuing mathematics because it’s “too hard” often because they don’t have the right resources or support. These students, may in fact be those who add to the well-roundedness of the subject which help to push it forward.

I believe that this diverse and multifaceted nature of “good mathematics” is very healthy for mathematics as a whole, as it it allows us to pursue many different approaches to the subject, and exploit many different types of mathematical talent, towards our common goal of greater mathematical progress and understanding. While each one of the above attributes is generally accepted to be a desirable trait to have in mathematics, it can become detrimental to a field to pursue only one or two of them at the expense of all the others.

As I look at his list of scenarios, it also reminds me of how areas within the humanities can become quickly stymied. The trouble in some of those areas of study is that they’re not as rigorously underpinned, as systematic, or as brutally clear as mathematics can be, so the fact that they’ve become stuck may not be noticed until a dreadfully much later date. These facts also make it much easier and clearer in some of these fields to notice the true stars.

As a reminder for later, I’ll include these scenarios about research fields:

  • A field which becomes increasingly ornate and baroque, in which individual
    results are generalised and refined for their own sake, but the subject as a
    whole drifts aimlessly without any definite direction or sense of progress;
  • A field which becomes filled with many astounding conjectures, but with no
    hope of rigorous progress on any of them;
  • A field which now consists primarily of using ad hoc methods to solve a collection
    of unrelated problems, which have no unifying theme, connections, or purpose;
  • A field which has become overly dry and theoretical, continually recasting and
    unifying previous results in increasingly technical formal frameworks, but not
    generating any exciting new breakthroughs as a consequence; or
  • A field which reveres classical results, and continually presents shorter, simpler,
    and more elegant proofs of these results, but which does not generate any truly
    original and new results beyond the classical literature.
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I love Eat This Podcast

Food as a vehicle to explore the byways of taste, economics and trade, culture, science, history, archaeology, geography and just about anything else.

Many who follow my blog recently will know that I’ve been binge listening to Jeremy Cherfas‘ wonderful podcast series: Eat This Podcast.

I’m now so many wonderful episodes in, that it was far past time to give something back to Jeremy for the hours of work he’s put in to give me so much entertainment, enjoyment, and even knowledge. So I just made a pledge to support him on Patreon.

If you haven’t been paying attention, Eat This Podcast is a fantastic series on food, but it it uses the “foods we eat to examine and shed light on the lives we lead, from authenticity to zoology”. Food becomes his “vehicle to explore the byways of taste, economics and trade, culture, science, history, archaeology, geography and just about anything else.”

It’s unlike much of anything I’ve seen or followed in the food space for some time. As someone who is a fan of the science of food and fantastic writers like Harold McGee, Herve This, Alton Brown, Tom Standage, Michael Pollan, Nathan Myhrvold, Maxime Bilet, Matt Gross, and Michael Ruhlman (to name only a few), Eat This Podcast is now a must listen for me.

Not only are the episodes always interesting and unique, they’re phenomenally well researched and produced. You’d think he had a massive staff and production support at the level of a news organization like NPR. By way of mentioning NPR, I wanted to highlight the thought, care, and skill he puts into not only the stunning audio quality, but into the selection of underlying photos, musical bumpers, and the links to additional resources he finds along the way.

And if my recommendation isn’t enough, then perhaps knowing that this one person effort has been nominated for the James Beard Award in both 2015 and 2016 may tip the scales?

If you haven’t listened to any of them yet, I highly recommend you take a peek at what he has to offer. You can subscribe, download, and listen to them all for free. If you’re so inclined, I hope you’ll follow my lead and make a pledge to support his work on Patreon as well.

Subscription information:

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🎧 Early agriculture in eastern North America | Eat This Podcast

Early agriculture in eastern North America by Jeremy Cherfas (Eat This Podcast)
The Fertile Crescent, the Yangtze basin, Meso America, South America: those are the places that spring to mind as birthplaces of agriculture. Evidence is accumulating, however, to strengthen eastern North America’s case for inclusion. Among the sources of evidence, coprolites, or fossil faeces. Fossil human faeces. And among the people gathering the evidence Kris Gremillion, Professor of Anthropology at Ohio State University. She was kind enough to talk to me on the phone, and I made a silly mistake when I recorded it, so please bear with me on the less than stellar quality. I hope the content will see you through. And I’ll try not to let it happen again.

coprolite research
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This is the great kind of stuff more food shows should be covering!

A Secondary Meaning for POSSE

I’d meant to document this back in November when it was discussed at IndieWebCamp Los Angeles, but it was a busy weekend.

In conversation with Tantek Çelik, I asked if a double entendre meaning to POSSE was originally intended when it was coined?

POSSE is an abbreviation for Publish (on your) Own Site, Syndicate Elsewhere (or Everywhere), a content publishing model that starts with posting content on your own domain first, then syndicating out copies to 3rd party services with permashortlinks back to the original on your site.

When I originally heard about POSSE, I considered the original post on my own site as the Sheriff or “leader” and the ensuing syndicated copies as the (literal and figurative) traditional posse which follows along behind it adding ideas, conversation, and help in accomplishing the original post’s mission.

The posse, one tough looking gang of o’n’ry corporate silos! Let’s mount ’em up!

If that second meaning didn’t exist before, it does now…

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Underwater Hebrew Tablet Reveals Biblical-Era Ruler of Judea

Underwater Hebrew Tablet Reveals Biblical-Era Ruler of Judea by Tia Ghose (Live Science)
A huge slab discovered offshore in Israel has revealed the name of the ancient prefect who ruled Judea just before the Bar Kokhba revolt.

Continue reading “Underwater Hebrew Tablet Reveals Biblical-Era Ruler of Judea”

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A Historic Number of Electors Defected, and Most Were Supposed to Vote for Clinton | The New York Times

A Historic Number of Electors Defected, and Most Were Supposed to Vote for Clinton by Kiersten Schmidt and Wilson Andrews (nytimes.com)
Results of the U.S. electoral vote.
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🔖 American Amnesia: How the War on Government Led Us to Forget What Made America Prosper by Jacob S. Hacker & Paul Pierson

American Amnesia: How the War on Government Led Us to Forget What Made America Prosper by Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson (Simon & Schuster, March 29, 2016)
From the groundbreaking author team behind the bestselling Winner-Take-All Politics, a timely and topical work that examines what’s good for American business and what’s good for Americans—and why those interests are misaligned.

In Winner-Take-All Politics, Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson explained how political elites have enabled and propelled plutocracy. Now in American Amnesia, they trace the economic and political history of the United States over the last century and show how a viable mixed economy has long been the dominant engine of America’s prosperity.

Like every other prospering democracy, the United States developed a mixed economy that channeled the spirit of capitalism into strong growth and healthy social development. In this bargain, government and business were as much partners as rivals. Public investments in education, science, transportation, and technology laid the foundation for broadly based prosperity. Programs of economic security and progressive taxation provided a floor of protection and business focused on the pursuit of profit—and government addressed needs business could not.

The mixed economy was the most important social innovation of the twentieth century. It spread a previously unimaginable level of broad prosperity. It enabled steep increases in education, health, longevity, and economic security. And yet, extraordinarily, it is anathema to many current economic and political elites. And as the advocates of anti-government free market fundamentalist have gained power, they are hell-bent on scrapping the instrument of nearly a century of unprecedented economic and social progress. In American Amnesia, Hacker and Pierson explain how—and why they must be stopped.

Earlier tonight I watched a segment on The PBS NewsHour about infrastructure in America that featured this book which came out earlier this year.

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Calculating the Middle Ages?

Calculating the Middle Ages? The Project "Complexities and Networks in the Medieval Mediterranean and Near East" (COMMED) [1606.03433] by Johannes Preiser-Kapeller (arxiv.org)
The project "Complexities and networks in the Medieval Mediterranean and Near East" (COMMED) at the Division for Byzantine Research of the Institute for Medieval Research (IMAFO) of the Austrian Academy of Sciences focuses on the adaptation and development of concepts and tools of network theory and complexity sciences for the analysis of societies, polities and regions in the medieval world in a comparative perspective. Key elements of its methodological and technological toolkit are applied, for instance, in the new project "Mapping medieval conflicts: a digital approach towards political dynamics in the pre-modern period" (MEDCON), which analyses political networks and conflict among power elites across medieval Europe with five case studies from the 12th to 15th century. For one of these case studies on 14th century Byzantium, the explanatory value of this approach is presented in greater detail. The presented results are integrated in a wider comparison of five late medieval polities across Afro-Eurasia (Byzantium, China, England, Hungary and Mamluk Egypt) against the background of the {\guillemotright}Late Medieval Crisis{\guillemotleft} and its political and environmental turmoil. Finally, further perspectives of COMMED are outlined.

Network and Complexity Theory Applied to History

This interesting paper (summary below) appears to apply network and complexity science to history and is sure to be of interest to those working at the intersection of some of these types of interdisciplinary studies. In particular, I’d be curious to see more coming out of this type of area to support theses written by scholars like Francis Fukuyama in the development of societal structures. Those interested in the emerging area of Big History are sure to enjoy this type of treatment. I’m also curious how researchers in economics (like Cesar Hidalgo) might make use of available(?) historical data in such related analyses. I’m curious if Dave Harris might consider such an analysis in his ancient Near East work?

Those interested in a synopsis of the paper might find some benefit from an overview from MIT Technology Review: How the New Science of Computational History Is Changing the Study of the Past.

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Brief Review: The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason

My brief review of The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason (2004, Dial Press)

The Rule of FourThe Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A nice little thriller about an obscure text from the Renaissance (quattrocento) set in modern times. This falls into the genre of historical fiction that’s similar to Dan Brown‘s Robert Langdon series or films like the Nicolas Cage National Treasure series, though not quite as “rompish.” I have to imagine that those who liked Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Gentlemen and Players, and The Thirteenth Tale will enjoy this quite a lot.

Those who are fans of historical fiction, cryptography, puzzles, books about books, and history in general, are sure to enjoy it.

Spoilers follow:

The Vincent Taft character could have been a better “heavy” but was pretty functional in the story given his limited appearances in the actual plot. I saw the Savonarola portion of the plot a mile away, but to most unaware of this part of history this will be an interesting historical diversion/lesson. I thought the ending was a bit too literary given the more plot-motivated feel of the rest of the narrative, but in all, it was relatively satisfying given Tom’s full back-story. I can see this being adapted into film, but it will take some creative ideas to better linearize the plot and to make the ending a bit bigger for the screen.

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Latin Pedagogy and the Digital Humanities

I’ve long been a student of the humanities (and particularly the classics) and have recently begun reviewing over my very old and decrepit knowledge of Latin.  It’s been two decades since I made a significant study of classical languages, and lately (as the result of conversations with friends like Dave Harris, Jim Houser, Larry Richardson, and John Kountouris) I’ve been drawn to reviewing them for reading a variety of classical texts in their original languages. Fortunately, in the intervening years, quite a lot has changed in the tools relating to pedagogy for language acquisition.

Jenny's Second Year Latin
A copy of Jenny’s Latin text which I had used 20 years ago and recently acquired a new copy for the pittance of $3.25.


The biggest change in the intervening time is the spread of the  internet which supplies a broad variety of related websites with not only interesting resources for things like basic reading and writing, but even audio sources apparently including listening to the nightly news in Latin. There are a variety of blogs on Latin as well as even online courseware, podcasts, pronunciation recordings, and even free textbooks. I’ve written briefly about the RapGenius platform before, but I feel compelled to mention it as a potentially powerful resource as well. (Julius Caesar, Seneca, Ovid, Cicero, et al.) There is a paucity of these sources in a general sense in comparison with other modern languages, but given the size of the niche, there is quite a lot out there, and certainly a mountain in comparison to what existed only twenty years ago.


There has also been a spread of pedagogic aids like flashcard software including Anki and Mnemosyne with desktop, web-based, and even mobile-based versions making  learning available in almost any situation. The psychology and learning research behind these types of technologies has really come a long way toward assisting students to best make use of their time in learning and retaining what they’ve learned in long term memory.  Simple mobile applications like Duolingo exist for a variety of languages – though one doesn’t currently exist for classical Latin (yet).

Digital Humanities

The other great change is the advancement of the digital humanities which allows for a lot of interesting applications of knowledge acquisition. One particular one that I ran across this week was the Dickinson College Commentaries (DCC). Specifically a handful of scholars have compiled and documented a list of the most common core vocabulary words in Latin (and in Greek) based on their frequency of appearance in extant works.  This very specific data is of interest to me in relation to my work in information theory, but it also becomes a tremendously handy tool when attempting to learn and master a language.  It is a truly impressive fact that, simply by knowing that if one can memorize and master about 250 words in Latin, it will allow them to read and understand 50% of most written Latin.  Further, knowledge of 1,500 Latin words will put one at the 80% level of vocabulary mastery for most texts.  Mastering even a very small list of vocabulary allows one to read a large variety of texts very comfortably.  I can only think about the old concept of a concordance (which was generally limited to heavily studied texts like the Bible or possibly Shakespeare) which has now been put on some serious steroids for entire cultures. Another half step and one arrives at the Google Ngram Viewer.

The best part is that one can, with very little technical knowledge, easily download the DCC Core Latin Vocabulary (itself a huge research undertaking) and upload and share it through the Anki platform, for example, to benefit a fairly large community of other scholars, learners, and teachers. With a variety of easy-to-use tools, shortly it may be even that much easier to learn a language like Latin – potentially to the point that it is no longer a dead language. For those interested, you can find my version of the shared DCC Core Latin Vocabulary for Anki online; the DCC’s Chris Francese has posted details and a version for Mnemosyne already.

[Editor’s note: Anki’s web service occasionally clears decks of cards from their servers, so if you find that the Anki link to the DCC Core Latin is not working, please leave a comment below, and we’ll re-upload the deck for shared use.]

What tools and tricks do you use for language study and pedagogy?

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Lecture Series Review: “Augustine: Philosopher and Saint” by Phillip Cary

Augustine: Philosopher and Saint (Great Courses, #611)Augustine: Philosopher and Saint byProfessor Phillip Cary, Ph.D., Eastern University (The Learning Company, 1997)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This series of 12 audio lectures is an excellent little overview of Augustine, his life, times, and philosophy. Most of the series focuses on his writings and philosophy as well as their evolution over time, often with discussion of the historical context in which they were created as well as some useful comparing/contrasting to extant philosophies of the day (and particularly Platonism.)

Early in the series there were some interesting and important re-definitions of some contemporary words. Cary pushes them back to an earlier time with slightly different meanings compared to their modern ones which certainly helps to frame the overarching philosophy presented. Without a close study of this vocabulary, many modern readers will become lost or certainly misdirected when reading modern translations. As examples, words like perverse, righteousness, and justice (or more specifically their Latin counterparts) have subtly different meanings in the late Roman empire than they do today, even in modern day religious settings.

My favorite part, however, has to have been the examples discussing mathematics as an extended metaphor for God and divinity to help to clarify some of Augustine’s thought. These were not only very useful, but very entertaining to me.

As an aside for those interested in mnemotechnic tradition, I’ll also mention that I’ve (re)discovered (see the reference to the Tell paper below) an excellent reference to the modern day “memory palace” (referenced most recently in the book Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything) squirreled away in Book X of Confessions where Augustine discusses memory as:

“fields and spacious palaces” “…where are the treasures of innumerable images, brought into it from things of all sorts perceived by the senses. There is stored up, whatsoever besides we think, either by enlarging or diminishing, or any other way varying those things which the sense hath come to; and whatever else hath been committed and laid up, which forgetfulness hath not yet swallowed up and buried.”

Those interested in memes and the history of “memoria ex locis” (of which I don’t even find a reference explicitly written in the original Rhetorica ad Herrenium) would appreciate an additional reference I subsequently found in the opening (and somewhat poetic) paragraph of a paper written by David Tell on JSTOR. The earliest specific reference to a “memory palace” I’m aware of is Matteo Ricci’s in the 16th century, but certainly other references to the construct may have come earlier. Given that Ricci was a Jesuit priest, it’s nearly certain that he would have been familiar with Augustine’s writings at the time, and it’s possible that his modification of Augustine’s mention brought the concept into its current use. Many will know memory as one of the major underpinnings of rhetoric (of which Augustine was a diligent student) as part of the original trivium.

Some may shy away from Augustine because of the religious overtones which go along with his work, but though there were occasional “preachy sounding” sections in the material, they were present only to clarify the philosophy.

I’d certainly recommend this series of lectures to anyone not closely familiar with Augustine’s work as it has had a profound and continuing affect on Western philosophy, thought, and politics.

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Some Brief Thoughts on Cliodynamics and Big History

As an electrical engineer (in the subfields of information theory and molecular biology), I have to say that I’m very intrigued by the articles (1, 2) that Marc Parry has written for the Chronicle in the past few weeks on the subjects of quantitative history, cliometrics/cliodynamics, or what I might term Big History (following the tradition of David Christian; I was initially turned onto it by a Chronicle article). I have lately coincidentally been reading Steven Pinker’s book “The Better Angels of Our Nature” as well as Daniel Kanheman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow”. (I’ll also mention that I’m a general fan of the work of Jared Diamond and Matt Ridley who impinge on these topics as well.)

I’m sure that all of these researchers are onto something in terms of trying to better quantify our historical perspectives in using science and applying it to history. I think the process might be likened to the ways in which methods of computed tomography, P.E.T., S.P.E.C.T, et al have been applied to the areas of psychology since the late 70’s to create the field of cognitive neuropsychology which has now grown much more closely to the more concrete areas of neurophysiology within biology, chemistry, and medicine.

I can see both sides of the “controversy” which is mentioned in the articles as well as in the comments in all of the articles, but I have a very visceral gut feeling that they can be ironed out over time. I say this as areas like behavioral economics which have grown out of the psychology work mentioned in Kahneman’s book become more concrete. The data available for application with relation to history will be much more useful as people’s psychological interactions with their surroundings are better understood. People in general are exceptionally poor at extrapolating statistical knowledge of the world around them and putting it into the best use. For example, although one can make an accurate calculation of the time-value of money, most people who know it won’t use it to determine the best way of taking a large lottery payout (either a lump sum or paid out over time), and this doesn’t even take into consideration the phenomenal odds against even playing the lottery in the first place. Kahneman’s system 1 and system 2 structures in conjunction with more historical data and analysis of the two in conjunction may be a far better method than either that of historians’ previous attempts or that of the quantitative method separately. Put into mathematical terms, it’s much more likely the case that human interactions follow a smaller local min-max curve/equation on a limited horizon, but do not necessarily follow the global maxima and minima that are currently being viewed at the larger scales of big history. We’ll need to do a better job of sifting through the data and coming up with a better interpretation of it on the correct historical scales for the problem at hand.

Perhaps, by analogy, we might look at this disconnect between the two camps as the same type of disconnect seen in the areas of Newtonian and quantum physics. They’re both interlinked somehow and do a generally good job of providing accurate viewpoints and predictions of their own sub-areas, but haven’t been put together coherently into one larger catch-all theory encompassing both. Without the encouragement of work in the quantitative areas of history, we’ll certainly be at a great disadvantage.

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