Monthly Archives: August 2009

Homo Africanus: Time To Admit That We’re ALL Africans?

How humans left Africa and populated our world. Map reproduced from The Human Story © 2004 by James C. Davis (published by Harper Collins)

In the course of all the research I have done into “Reading”, it became obvious that “Reading and Writing” were “learned activities” which were built on top of the human visual perception system, and especially the way it works in the environment in which it developed – the wild.

Over the past few decades, researchers have answered the mysteries of where the human race came from, and how we managed to spread across the entire globe. Interestingly, geneticists such as Spencer Wells and others have used DNA tracing to confirm earlier theories.

Humans came out of Africa only about 160,000 years ago, and spread across the face of the world in the manner shown in the map at the top of this post. DNA tracing has confirmed the “branching” shown in the map (for more detail, read Wells’ excellent book The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey).

With our typical human arrogance, when we first began to research human origins we called ourselves Homo sapiens, or Wise Men, to distinguish modern man from ancestors such as Homo erectus (Upright Man), whom we replaced.

Human history has shown that we’re really not that wise at all.

We all originated in Africa, but just as soon as different branches of humans began to develop external differences in response to their new environments (dark skin turning pale in colder climates to ensure we could absorb enough Vitamin D from the weaker sunlight, for instance), we began to seize on these as “racial differences”, and use them as excuses for conquest, conflict and persecution.

We began to view those with a different “environmental adaptations” to our own as inferior. Later, we added cultural and religious criteria to our categories of discrimination.

It’s a human tendency which has been well exploited by power-seekers, and the process is seen at its starkest in the genocidal measures instigated by Nazi Germany in the years leading up to and including the Second World War.

First, begin a campaign to stir up feelings against an identifiable group with visible “racial differences” (Jews, most notably). Gradually step up the racist hate campaign until you can get your target audience to accept the notion that a particular racial group is somehow “sub-human”. Once you have done that, you can treat them in the same horrible ways you treat animals. (a whole other topic…)

From that point on, as the Nazis proved, genocide is a simple matter of logistics – IBM punch cards, brutal “herders”, railway timetables, and mercilessly efficient slaughterhouses for humans.

It’s easy to point the finger at Nazi Germany. But the British settlers who landed on the island of Tasmania off Australia in the 18th Century were no better; they embarked on a successful campaign to exterminate the native Tasmanians, who were still living in the Stone Age (called The Black Wars).

The “we’re superior – they’re inferior!” rationale was used to build the British Empire, by Japan to enslave Korea and Manchuria, and so on – the list of examples is both exhaustive and depressing, down through the millenia and including both Ancient Greece and (especially )Rome.

The lamentable history of black slavery and discrimination in many different parts of the world (including the USA, of course) is another stark example.

Racial discrimination is still going on in many parts of the world today.

I know this is a simplistic step – and it can’t possibly make racism and racism persecution go away by itself – but don’t you think it would be at least making a start to get rid of the term, Homo sapiens, and replace it with Homo Africanus?


Web Typography Takes A Big Step Forward With Stéphane Curzi’s Baseline

Stéphane Curzi’s Baseline website

The noise-to-signal ratio on FaceBook is pretty high, but it’s worth keeping up. Once in a while a real gem arrives, something you might otherwise have missed.

Earlier this week, Jackie Goldberg in LA shared a link to a project by Montreal-based designer Stéphane Curzi using baseline text alignment on the Web.

It’s very impressive. This is the nicest-looking typography I’ve seen on the Web using HTML and CSS, because it has the consistency only an underlying grid can provide. Most websites you see – even if the designer has tried to take pains with the typography – somehow still end up looking as if they’re missing something. What’s missing is typographic harmony, which can be achieved only by integrating all the type on the page – headings, captions, body text, etc. – using matching grid units.

Take a look at the page below. Notice how stable and harmonious it seems (look at the website to get the true picture).

The underlying grid creates harmony. Baselines are aligned between columns, and headings are harmonically spaced from the text.

Stéphane has created a download on his site so you can go and get all the CSS, Javascript etc. and start experimenting for yourself. I’m looking forward to seeing what others can do by building on top of this great work. There are both PC and MacOSX versions, and the code will work with most browsers (but not IE6).

So far, it doesn’t work with the CSS3 multicolumn attributes. But I’m hoping someone can figure this out. Stéphane’s made his work free under Creative Commons. All you have to do is give him a credit.

It ought to work with any font, just by editing the CSS.


Lesson Learned: Don’t Publish Comments You Can’t Understand…

I can’t understand what you’re saying…
Photo copyright Tanya Hill, 2009

I’ve been pretty inactive on this blog for a couple of weeks, since I’ve been back in Washington State taking care of some business. When my wife Tanya and I flew in, we brought just one laptop with us – my trusty MacBook Pro.

Tanya – who’s a prolific photographer as well as an artist – has been putting in long hours learning and using Adobe Lightroom 2, after I downloaded trial versions of both it and Apple’s Aperture photo software. Lightroom won the initial evaluation hands-down, and we’ll buy a copy when the “30-day free evaluation period” runs out. I’ll write more about that in a later post.

Anyway, that means I haven’t had much free computer time to write new posts. So I’ve contented myself with reading mail and news a couple of times a day, and monitoring blog comments.

I suppose I should have known better. When a Japanese-language comment came in, I merely scanned the first mail notification and Published it. However, when a second Japanese comment came in a day or two later, I began to get wary. How did I know what these comments said?

So I ran the first one through Google translator. I’ve seen lots of “Google translator howlers” on the Web, so I wasn’t disappointed when the translation yielded English which was unintelligible.

However, it’s a fairly safe bet that any comment containing the phrase “I am a runaway girl” probably doesn’t have much to do with The Future of Reading 🙂

So I deleted the comment. The second one also made no sense in Google translation, but was clearly about potential commercial relationships involving women, businessmen and hotels. So I deleted it without publishing it.

Conclusion: There’s a new kind of spammer in town, and I need a new rule. “If you can’t read it, don’t publish it…

Back-Door Censorship And Dirty Tricks On YouTube…

O’Reilly on Fox News: Claims Amsterdam, Holland is a cesspool of crime and corruption, and an example of how liberal policies don’t work…

Interesting goings-on on FaceBook and Youtube today, which demonstrate that censorship and dirty tricks are alive and well in US politics – and so-called “news”…

Earlier this week I received a message from my FaceBook friend Thomas Milo, a recognized world expert in Arabic typesetting. Thomas was passing on a link to a video on YouTube ,which gave some interesting statistics about Amsterdam as a rebuttal to a recent segment by Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly.

O’Reilly – who is not one of nature’s liberals – was joined on the segment by a couple of women “experts” who looked like The Stepford Wives. All three claimed that liberal policies had turned Amsterdam into a cesspit of drugs, gangs, crime and corruption.

Didn’t sound much like the Amsterdam I knew. I traveled on software business to just about every European capital in the late 1980s and 1990s. Amsterdam had seemed like a peaceful, relaxed place. You could walk the streets at night without fear. Had things changed that much in ten or fifteen years?

Well, no, according to the rebuttal, which was a completely innocuous video showing people walking round Amsterdam, or traveling the city’s canals on barges. It’s combined with some interesting statistics which show how much worse crime and the drug problem are in the USA than Holland. The whole thing is so innocent you’d happily let your two-year-old watch it…

Official government statistics seem to show that the USA has a stronger claim to the title of “drug- and crime-ridden cesspit” than Holland.

What’s really interesting, though, is what happened next…

The first time I visited the Youtube link, the video played with no problems. It was pleasant, factual and convincing. Then Thomas posted another FaceBook comment, claiming that it had been “sabotaged”. Huh?

I went back for another look. This time, Youtube had put up an advisory notice that “this video contained material that might not be suitable for under-18s”. To watch it, I had to sign in to my YouTube account and verify my age.

“This video or group may contain content that is inappropriate for some users…”

What’s especially interesting about all this is that the original O’Reilly segment, also on Youtube – and containing words like “brothel”, in my judgement more “inappropriate for some users” than any of the language in the rebuttal – did NOT require you to sign in.

That’s the trouble with the kind of “user community self-censorship” that’s used on sites like Youtube: it’s wide open to abuse, since any content can be anonymously flagged by any user, and thus easily and effectively handicapped.

I have no political axe to grind here. I’m neither a liberal, nor a conservative. I tend to make up my mind on individual issues rather than taking any polarized stance. What scares me is that it’s so easy for any unscrupulous user or group of users to behave like the Thought Police, and use flagging as a political or propaganda weapon. You have to be pretty insecure in your beliefs if you can’t allow dissent. Or else you believe you’re fighting a “just and holy war” for the hearts and minds of US TV viewers, in which The End Justifies The Means (and we’ve heard that one before…).

Where would you rather walk in the street at night – Amsterdam, or New York?

It will be fascinating to watch what happens next. I logged into Youtube – along with many others – and posted a protest about what appears to be cynical and malicious manipulation of the “group self-censorship” mechanism.

Remains to be seen whether Youtube, or its parent, Google, can or will do anything about it. At the very least, maybe someone should go in and flag O’Reilly content as “inappropriate for users with a mental age greater than seven”…


Les Misérables: Would Victor Hugo Applaud Huge Music Download Fines?

Portrait of “Cosette” by Emile Bayard, from the original edition of Les Misérables (1862). The author, Victor Hugo, was the instigator of the Berne Convention, which established international copyright to protect writers and artists.

OK, this post is bound to be controversial. I will absolutely publish any opposing points of view, provided they’re civil. However, I get to moderate the comments, and won’t publish any that overstep the bounds of civilized argument.

This week we heard that a Boston graduate student, Joel Tenenbaum, will probably have to declare bankruptcy after a jury awarded the music industry $645,000 in damages because he had “willfully violated the copyright” on 30 downloaded songs. The court heard that the 30 songs were only the ones on which the music industry (which brought the case) focused, but Tenenbaum admitted on the witness stand that he had downloaded and shared more than 800 songs between 1999 and 2007.

Last month, a federal jury in Minneapolis ruled that Jammie Thomas-Rasset must pay $1.92 million, or $80,000 on each of 24 songs, after a similar conclusion.

Associated Press, which reported the case, said the music industry typically offered to settle such cases for about $5,000, though it has said that it stopped filing such lawsuits last August, and is instead working with Internet service providers to fight the worst offenders. Cases already filed, however, were proceeding to trial.

The jury awards are draconian, no question. And you have to feel sympathy for those singled out for prosecution. But I’m not sure the music industry had much choice here. Presumably they made an offer to settle, which was refused. At which point, there’s no alternative but to bring a case to trial – otherwise you might as well tell every defendant just to refuse to settle…

Once the accused makes the decision to put the matter into the hands of a jury, it’s a crapshoot – as anyone who has watched some of the more outrageous examples of damages awarded in US cases can see.

The music industry’s often painted as a collection of “fat cat evil megacorporations oppressing the innocent”. However, it was not the music industry which instituted international copyright law. The Berne Convention was adopted in 1886, at the instigation of French author Victor Hugo – to protect creative people. (As of December 2008, there were 164 countries which were parties to the agreement.)

Unfortunately, the ease with which digital data can be copied has spawned a generation which thinks everything is free – or ought to be. A type designer friend of mine has referred to this generation as Generation P (for Parasite). That’s a bit unfair; digital theft is not committed only by the young…

In my view, it’s not enough to work only with the Internet service providers to tackle this issue.

I’m all for the democratization of content creation and distribution which the Internet has brought about. Now anyone can be an author, a musician, a film-maker, a type designer, an artist. All the old barriers to entry – equipment, distribution chains, etc – are now irrelevant. But some people are better at it than others, and some want to make it their career. They ought to be able to make a living – a good living, or a very good living indeed – if they are talented enough.

So I support bringing cases of copyright infringement. All computer users need to learn that stealing a set of digital bits that contain the work of someone else is still stealing from the creator of the work, whether those bits represent music, video, a book or a typeface design. And theft should carry a cost.

“Pour encourager les autres”, as another Frenchman – Voltaire – said in Candide.

I wonder what Victor Hugo – whose novel, Les Misérables, highlighted the lives of the French urban poor, would have made of it all…