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How Play Made the Modern World
Steven Johnson is a gifted writer of history, with a real knack for
pulling together oddball yarns from various sources, making unexpected
connections, and drawing surprising conclusions. I was inspired to read
his latest book by
glowing review from Virginia Postrel in Reason.
Not that I'm a Steven Johnson fanboy. The last book I read by him was
back in 2005 and I
less than impressed. But this one is better.
It is wide-ranging, but the overall theme is expressed by the subtitle:
a lot of what we see around us today, the technological miracles,
unimaginable prosperity, and ongoing breakneck innovation, has its roots
not in sober and dismal business backrooms, but in "play": people
not searching for better ways to deliver the essentials of food,
clothing, and shelter, but instead coming up with entertainments,
fripperies, pleasures, and general fun.
Johnson devotes a chapter to a subtopic: fashion/shopping; music; spicy
food; illusion; games; and various forms of "public space" (e.g.,
saloons and coffeehouses). In each he relates various examples of how
the craving for enjoyment, rather than more serious topics, drove
innovation, trade, and breathtaking social change.
A particularly telling anecdote from chapter one tells the story of how
ingenious mechanisms to simulate human movement had their origins in
current-day Iraq (which, in turn, had swiped a lot of their inspriration
from the inventions of Ancient Greece). A thousand years later, this
resulted in mechanical dolls (close to robots), one of which is a lady
who is programmed to walk across a room. Years later, the inventor takes
an eight-year-old boy up to his attic for the still-functional Walker.
And that boy was Charles Babbage.
Good story, and the book is packed with them. And play-inspired events interact in
unexpected ways. Example: Combine (1) the field of probability, birthed by gamblers
looking to gain an edge on their opponents and (2) the coffeehouse, a
wildly popular "public space" caused by the unexpected pleasures of
tasty drinkable caffeine. The result: the first modern insurance
company, Lloyds of London, born out of the realization that you could
make a business out of betting on the likelihood of ill fortune.
Not that it's perfect, there are a lot of blind spots. Johnson talks about the drives at the dawn of
modern capitalism, but doesn't mention Deirdre McCloskey. There are nods
toward the concepts of cultural evolution, but I've read a lot about
that recently from
Joseph Henrich; I didn't notice any citations of them in
Wonderland. His discussion of how "open spaces" (fueled by booze
and, often, illicit sex) could have used a nod to
Russell. Also MIA: Virginia Postrel. There's no excuse.
It is a word of grievance and conspiracy. It is a word of institutional distrust. It is a word of larger forces beyond our control taking advantage of us. It is a word that says, “We wuz robbed — and we will make the bastards pay.”
In short, it is the perfect term for a fevered era in our national life.
I can think of phrases I despise: "asking the rich to pay their fair
share"; "health care is a right". But as single words, I'm not
coming up with anything better than "rigged".
Many will no doubt interpret this revelation as yet more evidence that Trump is at best a Russian stooge, and at worst, a willing participant in a vast conspiracy orchestrated by Moscow. An independent investigation, which Reps. Justin Amash and Eric Swalwell have called for, still seems like the best way to resolve the question. In the meantime, gross incompetence and stupidity, exacerbated by a sociopathic need to make inappropriate boasts (the best intelligence, everyone says so), still seem like the most logical explanations. One might have expected that in the wake of the Access Hollywood tapes, Trump had learned his lesson about making rash statements to random public figures, but apparently not. Or maybe the lesson he learned was that he truly can get away with anything.
Jonah Goldberg notes the denials coming from the Administration, and
I don’t know if the Washington Post story is accurate, but I do think it’s entirely plausible. Put aside whether the story is properly sourced and all that. When you heard the news, did you think it could be true?
If your answer is yes, think about that for a moment. That right there is a problem.
On Sunday evening, May 21, The Shalom Center will honor Sophia
Wilansky, an extraordinarily heroic young activist who was acting on
the best of Jewish tradition and values as a Water Protector at
Standing Rock when she was cruelly wounded — her left arm shattered
— by the militarized police.
Right. The young lady was badly injured during pipeline protests in October 2016 when … well,
something nearly blew her arm off. Her side said "something"
was a concussion grenade thrown by law enforcement; the Other side
said, I'm pretty sure it wasn't and speculated about propane
canisters being rigged improvised as anti-cop weaponry.
Steve Martinez, 42, a pipeline protester from Williston, N.D., has
been ordered to testify regarding the arm injury of Sophia Wilansky,
21, of New York, according to his attorney, Ralph Hurvitz.
Protesters maintain she was injured by a grenade thrown by police,
but authorities say she was hurt by a small propane tank that
protesters rigged to explode…
Martinez had been scheduled to testify before the grand jury Wednesday, but Hurvitz said the matter was delayed to Feb. 1. Martinez made a statement outside the courthouse, saying he would refuse to cooperate and was prepared to go to jail if found in contempt of court.
“Losing my freedom is a small price to pay for keeping my dignity and standing up for what’s right,” he said.
Jazz Shaw is skeptical, and so am I.
■ I rarely blog about sports, and I detest the intersection of
sports and politics. But I like Jason Gay of the WSJ, and he
writes on a lousy sports city, asking for a "little love":
Winning? Not Much in Washington, D.C.
I know: it’s hard. No matter what your politics are, it’s difficult
to see the daily goings-on inside the nation’s capital as anything
other than a third-rate reality show, thick with cowards, liars and
ninnies. Yes: I said “ninnies.” When Washington’s ineptitude isn’t
busy dimming our faith in democracy it’s ruining human civility,
public dialogue, newspaper comments sections, and of course, social
media, where half of everyone’s friends have been turned into
insufferable, frothing polemicists. Remember the old days, when
people logged onto social media to post pictures of stray dogs,
beach vacations, and 1-year-olds face-planting into birthday cakes?
Opening Twitter or Facebook in 2017 is like letting a colony of
vampire bats into your house—vampire bats who have watched too much
terrible cable news.
Jason's occasion for writing (yesterday) was the game-7 NBA conference
semi-final showdown between the Washington Wizards and the Boston
Celtics. It was not good for the Wizards.
Unquoted opinions expressed herein are solely those of the
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