Curta calculators, flipbook machines, and the mystery of the secret zine library | by Clive Thompson | Dec, 2021


The week has begun, which means it’s time to take a break!

I am ceaselessly here for you, with this week’s “Linkfest” of the most diverting web-material I could scavenge …

1) 🖩 The invention of the Curta calculator

I’d long known about the Curta — a famous pre-electronic calculator with absolutely gorgeous industrial design. Just look at that thing! But I didn’t know its history: It was created by Curt Herzstark when he was a prisoner in the Buchenwald concentration camp during WWII.

There’s an excellent piece at Ars Technica describing Hertzstark’s story; born in 1902, he was a talented engineer and designer who worked in his family’s calculating-machine before the war, and he’d long planned to create a new calculating machine that was both handheld (like a slide rule) yet produced discrete digital answers (like a desktop calculating machine).

“What does this kind of machine really have to look like so that someone could use it? It cannot be a cube or a ruler; it has to be a cylinder so that it can be held in one hand,” Herzstark mused. “And if one can hold it in one hand, then if it is miniaturized, you could adjust it with the other hand… I started to design the ideal machine from the outside first, before I designed the insides.” [snip]

His plans were derailed when the Nazis sent him to a concentration camp. While he was imprisoned, though, the Nazis learned of his ambition and offered him a chance at life if he’d design his calculator for them. Herzstark did so, but the Nazis never got the device: They lost the war before he finished his work.

Years later, Herzstark finally managed to get a factory to make Curta calculators, and nerds loved them …

The Curta was popular with accountants, engineers, and surveyors. Rally car navigators liked it because it could be used by touch; an experienced user hardly even needed to look at the device. Peter Boyce, a retired astronomer who worked for many years at the Lowell Observatory in Arizona, used a Curta when he was a graduate student at the University of Michigan in the 1960s. He remembers it as “a wonderful, precision machine,” one that was especially useful outside the office. “It was good to take to the telescope, where I used it instead of pencil and paper if I needed to calculate something at 2:00 am.”

He eventually sold 150,000 of them. I’ve long wanted to own one, but they sell for $1,795 and up on Ebay, so I’ll content myself with cooing over online photos.

(BTW, here’s a long Q&A with Hertzstark that has nuanced detail about his crafting the calculator, and grim detail about his time in the camp.)

2) 📘 A “zine library” hidden inside a library book

Here’s an awesome story: In August, a librarian at the central branch of the Greater Victoria Public Library was re-filing books when she grabbed off the shelf a 1984 volume called Handpicked Tours of North America: A Motorist’s Guide to Scenic Routes and Fascinating Places in Canada and the USA. She noticed it was lighter than expected and didn’t have a barcode.

She got a shock when she looked inside:

Someone had carved a rectangular hole into the book’s pages. The space held a collection of zines that varied in shape, size, colour. Thumbing through them, Tatton also noticed a range of content — political, erotic, humourous. Some zines were hand-written and drawn; others had been typed out.

The inside cover of Handpicked Tours had a handwritten message where a bookplate typically would go. Bearing the ransom-note-like appearance of having been cut up and reassembled, it offered congratulations — “you just found the ‘central branch’ Book and Zine TRADING Library!” — and instructions: “Be sure to leave something if you take something so the library stays well stocked!”

I’m not gonna give any spoilers, because this story is a total blast. But suffice to say the librarians were totalled thrilled by this discovery, and not only left the zine-library book in place, but engaged in some clever detective work to figure out who, precisely, had created it — and who in the city knew about it.

I won’t go any further than that. But seriously, go read this piece! It’s a gem.

3) ✍️ The rise and fall of “fact-based” argument words, from 1850 to today

Here’s an interesting finding: Beginning around 1850, English- and Spanish-language books began to more often use words associated with fact-based argument (like “determine” and “conclusion”)— while less often using words associated with human experience and sentiment (i.e. “feel” or “believe”). So, “rational” words soared, while “feeling” words declined.

That trend held for decades — until 1980, when the pattern began to reverse. Books were increasing likely to use feeling words, and increasingly less likely to use rationality-speak.

These results came from a study by a group of scholars; their paper is here, and you can the trendlines they found above. To develop this analysis, they used Google’s “nGram” data, which tracks word-occurrence in Google’s scanned books. They also checked word-use in the New York Times and found a similar trend.

Cool, but: What’s going on? What would have caused a boom in scientific-minded words in the late 19th century, and a reversal in the 1980s?

The scholars don’t really know, and acknowledge that any explanations are “speculative”. But they toss out a few hypotheses …

One possibility when it comes to the trends from 1850 to 1980 is that the rapid developments in science and technology and their socioeconomic benefits drove a rise in status of the scientific approach, which gradually permeated culture, society, and its institutions ranging from the education to politics. As argued early on by Max Weber, this may have led to a process of “disenchantment” as the role of spiritualism dwindled in modernized, bureaucratic, and secularized societies.

What precisely caused the observed stagnation in the long-term trend around 1980 remains perhaps even more difficult to pinpoint. The late 1980s witnessed the start of the internet and its growing role in society. Perhaps more importantly, there could be a connection to tensions arising from neoliberal policies which were defended on rational arguments, while the economic fruits were reaped by an increasingly small fraction of societies.

They also wonder if social media affected things. People really accelerated their use of sentiment-based words in 2007, precisely when social media arrived in the mainstream.

Me, I dunno. These hypotheses are okay, but likely very incomplete. There a ton of social and political and economic forces at work here. For example, the second half of the 20th century saw a big shift toward the individual as the focus of culture (in ways both laudable and malignant). That’s got to have had an effect.

It’s also possible the data here are flawed. Is it really true that Google Books and the New York Times closely track widespread cultural attitudes? Google Books contains mostly titles that were a) accepted by mainstream publishers, then b) picked by librarians, then c) scanned. Lots of books thus aren’t in Google Books, which makes you wonder how much well the corpus reflects everyday existence. The scholars note all those critiques but do not think they render the data useless.

Either way, it’s food for thought. I’d love to see additional research probe this from other angles, using different data-sets — like local papers, for example, which might be a closer reflection of reality than either books or the New York Times.

4) 🎥 Automated flipbooks of butterflies and moths

Colossal has a nice profile of J. C. Fontanive, an artist who makes automated flipbooks of butterflies and moths. They’re like steampunk animated gifs, looping endlessly back to their beginnings. You can see more of Fontanive’s work here, and buy one of his flipbook machines here. The Colossal piece has video of several other of the flipbooks too.

My hat is off. The stutter-step movement of these devices really captures the erratic, spastic flight of moths and butterflies!

They’re super meta in their historic references, too: They look like weird cousins of the zoopraxiscope of Eadweard Muybridge, from back in the late 19th century. Mind you, all animated gifs owe something to Muybridge, as I argued back in 2013 for Wired

Muybridge was a photographic pioneer who was obsessed with using photography to capture things that happen too fast for the human eye to see. In 1878, he famously showed what a horse looks like in full gallop by producing a series of timed pictures. Then he put them on a zoetropic wheel, spun it around, and produced a tiny looped video. It was the world’s first animated GIF.

He showed it throughout the US and Europe, and crowds loved it. They were particularly fascinated by how the zoopraxiscope let them study a single movement over and over — dogs racing, a man executing a somersault, wild bulls charging. (“The rapid changing positions,” as the Nottingham Express enthused, “were most instructive.”) The zoopraxiscope captured evanescence, replaying tiny moments of everyday life so we could see them in a new way.

And this is precisely why animated GIFs are still popular today. In the age of YouTube and cameraphones and TiVo, we’re increasingly inundated with moving images. But the animated GIF lets us stop and ponder a single moment in the stream, to resee something that otherwise would zip by unnoticed.

5) 🎙️ Adobe releases a tool for editing podcast audio by editing the transcript

Adobe has just released Project Shasta, a tool where you edit a podcast by cutting and pasting the textual transcript; Shasta duly composites the audio. As Engadget writes …

Users record their audio in clips and Shasta automatically transcribes the recordings. From there, editing is as simple as deleting text from the transcription. There are also AI-based filters that can improve the audio quality or automatically remove filler words like “um.”

I’ve seen this concept emerge a few times in recent years — Descript does it for both audio and video, as does Sonix.

They’re an intriguing step in the emergence of audio and the moving image as modes of daily expression. As I argued in my first book Smarter Than You Think, for centuries we relied almost exclusively on text for everyday communications. Text was cheap, easy to generate on the fly, and easy to edit. Audio and the moving image were, for decades after their invention in the 19th century, quite expensive to wield and ponderously hard to edit. It took professional training and professional equipment.

Then smartphones and laptops made recording and transmitting audio/video incredibly cheap, so we now record it and transmit it with abandon.

But editing? Good editing is still a bit tricky. Tools like iMovie or Soundtrap or even YouTube’s built-in editing features certainly make it easier for amateurs to do complex edits. But I bet AI is going to make things easier yet in the years to come, and to make amateurs look evermore pro. It’ll probably autoanalyze video and audio, doing quick edits all on its own; or it’ll mark up the audio/video stream automatically, chunking it into lego bricks for rapid reassembly by the amateur editor. (I wrote a little bit about this for Wired a few years ago: “How AI Will Turn Us All Into Filmmakers.”)

This trend also makes me think of Walter Ong, too, and how oral culture is re-emerging in our digital age. Ong wrote about “secondary orality” — or, how audiovisual media like radio and TV are mostly oral, but also “depend for their existence and functioning on writing and print”. Or in other words, you can’t make TV or radio unless you’re steeped in print culture. That’s because those media rely on written words (such as scripts) and because their creators’ minds — they stuff they care about, and they way they think — is fundamentally shaped by print.

So for me, this new breed of tools fits neatly into Ong’s analysis. You could think of it as “secondarily oral software”. It turns out the fastest and easiest way to edit audio and video is by using … text.

6) 🏓 A final, sudden-death round of reading material

How the Earth got its name. 🏓 The evolution of monsters in literature. 🏓 Microbes worldwide are evolving to eat plastic. 🏓 Using computer vision to read the time on an analog clock. 🏓 Viewing in slow-mo how 1980s arcade machines render their graphics on-screen. 🏓 Feeding seaweed to cows appears to significantly reduce their methane emissions. 🏓 A museum devoted to rust. 🏓 How our human talent for charades might help explain the origins of language. 🏓 The audio sounds of life returning to a restored coral reef. 🏓A truly fabulous obituary. 🏓 The campaign against that dread threat to French society: Waltzing. 🏓 Twitter considered as a machine that encourages and rewards intimacy, until it suddenly dings you for it.🏓 American food posters from WWI and WWII. 🏓 “All the data in the world could fit in your coffee cup that you’re drinking in the morning if it were stored in DNA.”🏓 NASA has touched the sun. 🏓 Why people hate “Wonderful Christmastime” so much. 🏓 Designing submersible robots that move by flapping their fins like cuttlefish. 🏓 “Gifsplit”, for splitting gifs into frames.

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