Category Archives: history

It’s Raining Money in the AI World!

Some rather clever folks proposed a while back that the 21st century may be rather different than its predecessor. That might seem strange to us, living now in 2017.  We have not seen these differences just yet. But one of these changes is apparent. That change has to do with access to capital.

There was a time when only governments could afford to make large capital investments, like wars. But the amounts needed to fund transatlantictic exploration dwarfed what governments could offer. New legal tools enabled private capital to enter the market and the world took a turn that shocked many. Still, access to capital was limited. Investing was a game for the rich and powerful. The rest of us relied on salaries to find the good life.

But in the late 20th century things started to change. In the digital world, it costs a lot less to starup a new venture that might scale. And while the risks of investing in these starups are huge, the potential gains are as well. I am reminded of the story of an early internet investor who put money into 100 firms. 99 went bust. The 100th was Google. Enough said. Welcome to the wonderful world of venture cpaital and angel investing.

It was not so obvious back in the 1990’s that this was just a starting point. Expectations that clever folks can come up with new ideas to add enormous value are rising faster than a Dubai high-rise overloaded with Pakistani construction workers. And so, folks are expanding access to capital to encourage those explorations. Google, Microsoft, IBM, and Amazon all have established investment funds to do so.

And this is not the end point either. We are about to see yet another extension of this access to capital. E tokens make it possible for just about anyone to set up markets for new ideas  You might think of each token as a tradable share in a concept.

Since the beginning of the year, 65 projects have raised $522 million in these offerings, according to Smith & Crown, a research firm focused on the new industry.

It is, as they say, a “frothy” market. That means you can easily loose your shirt by putting your money in these vehicles and many will. If this interests you, check out this podcast where William Mougayar offers his thoughts on where things are headed.

BTW, the same cautionary tales were told about web IPO’s, Kickstarter and AirBnB. There were and are scams galore in each. But they thrive despite them.

So where is this headed? My guess is that the real innovatoin here will be far better platforms where ideas are discussed and shared so that they can be turned into inventions that add value. These new platforms — that don’t yet exist — will enable high value conversations to instantly generate investment funds.

And where will that lead us? Instead of kids fighting over wheter they can get a high paying job at a bank, kids will be fighting over whether they can elbow their way into these high value added conversations.

Over time, this will reduce the risk of early stage investing. That means we will once more dramatically reduce the cost of innovation. And in turn, the 21st century will generate value added that we can only dream about now in 2017.

Hold onto your hat! Things are going to speed up!

Two Artists of Weimar Germany

These days, it is easy to forget that the first world war changed everything. But the simple fact is that you cannot understand the 20th century without departing from this point.  The war strangled 19th century European complacency.

One of the startling effects of the war was an explosion of new forms of artistic expressionoin. According to Robert Hughes, modern art was born out of the intense anger about the war.  No more so than in Weimar Germany.

The paintings of Otto Dix bring us into that frenzied era.

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Yes, Liza Minelli in Cabaret was rather tame compared to the world that Dix brings us. This image speaks volumes about where this craziness comes from

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August Sander’s photographs also bring us into the Weimar scene. But there is a strange detachment.

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And Sander shows us people who had little to do with the sophisticates that Dix presents

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Those other folks — who were the majority of Germans — would be the group that delivered Germany to the Nazis in a doomed hope of regaining the confidence of the pre-war era.

Jonathan Jones tells us more about these two artists and exhibits where you can check them out

Go for it!

A Peek at Philadelphia in the 18th century

In the late 18th century, Philadelphia was the most developed city of the colonial region. It was second only to London within the British Empire in terms of population.

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But in those days, the city itself was huddled mostly along the great Delaware River. After all, it was the deep river that made Philadelphia such an attractive port.  The areas to the west would only be absorbed into the city bustle later, which btw, gives you a sense of how radically the scale of cities like Philadelphia have changed over the last two hundred years. They have exploded as human populatoins have exploded.

So if you want to see what colonial Philadelphia was like, you need to head east to the Delaware River.  And there you bump into the Powel House

Of the major city houses that in the latter half of the eighteenth century, helped to give Philadelphia an appearance that Jefferson found “handsomer” than eithe rLondon or Paris, only the house on the west side of Third Street, midway between Spruce and Walnut, may be said to retain much of its original character. Now numbered 244 and known for many years as the “Powel House”, this is today owned and maintained for the enjoyment of the public by the Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks.

It was the home of Samuel Powel, last of Philadelphia’s colonial mayors and the first to hold that office in the new republic.  Here is an image of Third Street from those days. Powel’s house is in the center right and partially obscured from view by trees.

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Today, the Powel House is a focal point for preserving what remains of old Philadelphia. Here is the facade as it can be seen today

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It was not an ordinary home. To the contrary, Samuel Powel was a prominent figure in society. At that time, among the upper levels of society, it was expected that one would entertain. The Powels were no exception, and from the interiror rooms, you get a sense of the heights of taste and elegance of that day. Here is a peek

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The arrangement is formal. No couhces or arm chairs. The hosts and visitors were on display in this setting as much as the fixtures and furniture. Particular attention was paid to the front hall, where visitors would be received

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I can’t help but wonder if Powel or any of his guests thought for a moment how two hundred years would change things. Would they have been able to imagine the way Philadelphians live now? What would they say about our culture and lifestyles? No doubt, they would be a amzed by many things that we take for granted.

And what would we make of their lives if we could go back and pay a visit? We would, no doubt, find their formal manners difficult to get used to.  And we might not enjoy the amount of physical labor that was erquired for just about everything.

Who did the work? Where and how did they live?

More to follow!

Who Introduced pineapples to Britain and What Happened then?

The answer is John Tradescant and his son introduced pineapples to Britain.  Here is an image of the son whose name was also John

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Who were these dudes? They lived in the 16th and 17th centuries and were gardeners. Well, not just gardeners.

Adventurous travellers, diplomats, horticultural pioneers, and polymaths, they were also collectors, acquiring (and asking their friends to acquire) specimens of the wonders of the world. Their growing collection was made accessible to the public in a large house — “The Ark” — in South Lambeth, London.

And what a collection they assembled! Here is a description from a German visitor

In the museum of Mr. John Tradescant are the following things: first in the courtyard there lie two ribs of a whale, also a very ingenious little boat of bark; then in the garden all kinds of foreign plants, which are to be found in a special little book which Mr. Tradescant has had printed about them. In the museum itself we saw a salamander, a chameleon, a pelican, a remora, a lanhado from Africa, a white partridge, a goose which has grown in Scotland on a tree, a flying squirrel, another squirrel like a fish, all kinds of bright colored birds from India, a number of things changed into stone, amongst others a piece of human flesh on a bone, gourds, olives, a piece of wood, an ape’s head, a cheese, etc; all kinds of shells, the hand of a mermaid, the hand of a mummy, a very natural wax hand under glass, all kinds of precious stones, coins, a picture wrought in feathers, a small piece of wood from the cross of Christ, pictures in perspective of Henry IV and Louis XIII of France, who are shown, as in nature, on a polished steel mirror when this is held against the middle of the picture, a little box in which a landscape is seen in perspective, pictures from the church of S. Sophia in Constantinople copied by a Jew into a book, two cups of rinocerode, a cup of an E. Indian alcedo which is a kind of unicorn, many Turkish and other foreign shoes and boots, a sea parrot, a toad-fish, an elk’s hoof with three claws, a bat as large as a pigeon, a human bone weighing 42 lbs., Indian arrows such as are used by the executioners in the West Indies- when a man is condemned to death, they lay open his back with them and he dies of it, an instrument used by the Jews in circumcision, some very light wood from Africa, the robe of the King of Virginia, a few goblets of agate, a girdle such as the Turks wear in Jerusalem, the passion of Christ carved very daintily on a plumstone, a large magnet stone, a S. Francis in wax under glass, as also a S. Jerome, the Pater Noster of Pope Gregory XV, pipes from the East and West Indies, a stone found in the West Indies in the water, whereon are graven Jesus, Mary and Joseph, a beautiful present from the Duke of Buckingham, which was of gold and diamonds affixed to a feather by which the four elements were signified, Isidor’s MS of de natura hominis, a scourge with which Charles V is said to have scourged himself, a hat band of snake bones’.

In other words, this was eccentric in the extreme. Or at least it seems so to us, who admire classifications of things rather than the connectedness of things. Hmmm … something to think about!  The Guardian has this comment about their guiding principles

– they brought together the natural, the artificial and the supernatural: carvings on cherry stones, seashells, the cradle of Henry VI, a stuffed crocodile, religious objects, talismans. This was more than whimsical mixology: it was a view of the world based on the connectedness of things.

We might not know about this except for the adventures of a married couple, who lived in the 20th century, Rosemary and John Nicholson. I have no idea how this came about, but they were devoted Tradescant fans. Then one day back in 1976

Rosemary Nicholson’s (discovered) in the overgrown churchyard of St Mary-at-Lambeth … the Tradescants’ tomb.

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Rather nice!

Hmmm …  but St. Mary’s was not in good shape at the time.

St Mary’s had been desconsecrated and at the time of the Nicholsons’ visit, was a desolate ruin. Soon afterwards, Rosemary Nicholson attended a function at Lambeth Palace at which the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Donald Coggan, told her that the church was scheduled for demolition to make way for a coach park for Waterloo Station, adding that it was “very, very sad”. When she expressed her horror, he suggested that if she could think of something to do with it, she should try and get the decision reversed.

What to do?

Rosemary and John Nicholson asked the Church Commissioners for a stay of execution and set about mounting a campaign to save the building and turn it and its churchyard into a museum of garden history.

And due primarily to Rosemary’s very clever networking among the rich and famous, they made it happen. But a museum of garden history?  That sounds a bit odd. It is odder when you consider that St. Mary’s is in the city, not the country. It has the only garden in the immediate area. And yet, that may be the perfect place for it.  Director Christopher Woodward has some interesting ideas about how it connects to the world around it

Woodward wants the museum to do more than preach to already converted garden enthusiasts, and to be open to children who may never have seen an earthworm. He wants it to be a place of debate about the public spaces of the city, which makes the events space in the middle of the church important. He’d like to put ideas into practice by contributing to local parks, whose budgets have been hit by local authority spending cuts. The museum’s building and gardens, nuanced, open, distinctive and responsive to its unusual setting, are a good start.

Check out the Guardian article for a review of the museum. Better yet, check out the museum itself! And you might ask yourself, does my city or town have a museum of gardening history? Perhaps it should!

BTW John Tradescant (the elder) is the subject of the novel Earthly Joys by Philippa Gregory.

Hamlet and his Nasty Ghost

Hamlet seems to us to be a modern play. Modern, in the sense of its existential quality. The characters are all trapped in a reality that has obvious flaws. They cannot escape the fate that being a part of the story imposes on them. And in this sense, it seems absurdist. A denial of free will. A theme that the existentialists delighted in playing with. This comes out brilliantly in Stoppard’s 1966 play “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead”.

But as much as we would like to claim Hamlet as a modern play, it is not. It was written for Elizabethan audiences of the late 16th and early 17th centuries. And that raises interesting questions. How did Shakespeare intend those audiences to see the play? And how did they see the play?

I am reading a book by Arthur McGee that tackles this subject.

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And it starts with a provocative premise. The premise is that for Elizabethan audiences there was no doubt whatsoever that revenge was a terrible sin — under any circumstances. Thus a ghost who commands a son to commit revenge on his behalf must have been an agent of the devil. That is not in question for the Elizabethan audience.

In other words, the moral ambiguity that we love about the play — perhaps Hamlet was right to kill his uncle — would not have occurred to the Elizabethans. They would have seen Hamlet as lured into sin and ultimately receiving his just punishment.  And of course, that adds a sort of titillating quality to the action. The audience gets to watch sin upon sin. upon sin.

There is one more aspect of this analysis that is of interest to us. The play might have revealed to Elizabethans the awesome power of evil.  That evil can be so powerful adds tremendously to the tragic drama.

Which brings me to wonder. If real evil (as opposed to cartoon character villainy) is less the driver of tragic drama for us as modern audiences, what drives our tragic storylines? Or do we no longer believe in tragedy as an art form? And will that be seen as a defining characteristic of our era – that we are blind to our own tragedy?

Hmmm … I don’t feel blind. but perhaps I am.

Whatever Happened to Rollo?

If you are not up on your Viking history, Rollo was quite a character.  He lived in the 9th and 10th centuries and was a Viking chieftain.  That meant taking a keen interest in marauding. And quite the marauder Rollo was indeed!

The Frankish King Charles the Simple got totally fed up with Rollo’s marauding.  In case you were wondering, King Charles the Simple was the son of King Louis the Stammerer.What great names kings had back then!

Charley decided that something had to be done about Rollo. No, no no! He did not want to fight Rollo! He bribed him with a huge land grant, which worked much better. That land grant was Normandy. And yes, Rollo became the first duke of Normandy. His great-great-great grandson was called William the bastard by some. We know him as William the Conqueror. He was the dude who won at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and began the Norman domination of England.

Getting back to good old Rollo, we don’t know where he was born. Was he Norwegian or Danish?  Archeologists thought they might figure this out by opening up the graves o his grandson and great-grandson. And there they had a shock. The bones that they found in those graves were not of Rollo’s grandson or great-grandson.

WTF? Read on for more!