Overheard

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On May 10, 1857, the Indian troops of the East India Company’s army started an uprising against the British soldiers in the garrison town of Meerut.

Lord Canning, the Governor-General, first heard of the Mutiny in a curious fashion. The Lieutenant-Governor of Agra passed on to him a copy of a private telegram which had been sent by the British postmaster at Meerut before the line was cut. The postmaster’s aunt was in Agra and had planned to visit him. He wired that the cavalry had risen, houses were on fire and Europeans were being killed. ‘If aunt intend starting tomorrow evening please detain her.’ It was several days before the Governor-General of India could learn more than this of what had taken place in Meerut. Only gradually did the news of what had happened and what was happening in northern India seep out to the rest of the world.

That’s from Byron Farwell, Queen Victoria’s Little Wars, 1973. Related: On Sept. 1, 1939, English journalist Clare Hollingworth called the British embassy in Warsaw to report that Germany had invaded Poland. The secretary told her this was impossible, as Britain and Germany were still negotiating. “So I hung the telephone receiver out of the window,” she later recalled, “so he could listen to the Germans invading.” Hers was the first report that the British Foreign Office received of the invasion — later described as “the scoop of the century.”

The Disintegration Loops

In 2001 avant-garde composer William Basinski was trying to transfer some old tape loops to digital format, but he found that the original recordings had deteriorated so badly that the ferrite simply fell off the plastic backing as it passed the tape head. Intrigued, Basinski let the loops continue to cycle: the sounds grew more and more indistinct with each pass as the tape literally fell apart.

As it happened, the 9/11 attacks occurred on the morning he finished the project, and the devastation he videotaped from his rooftop seemed to sync with the new recordings. “I felt, with my experience being in New York at that time, and what I went through and what I saw my friends go through, I wanted to create an elegy,” he told NPR. “Yes, there’s that tie to 9/11. But the thing that moved me so profoundly in my studio right after this music happened was the redemptive quality. The music isn’t just decaying — it does, it dies — but the entire life and death of each of these unique melodies was recorded to another medium for eternity.”

Related: In 1969 composer Alvin Lucier recorded a paragraph of speech, then repeatedly played it back and re-recorded it, so that his voice merged gradually into a portrait of the room’s resonant frequencies.

Here’s a modern homage to Lucier using YouTube, showing the effects of ripping and uploading the same file 1,000 times:

A photo reposted to Instagram 90 times in succession:

https://petapixel.com/2015/02/11/experiment-shows-happens-repost-photo-instagram-90-times/

A video fragment transferred through 20 generations of VHS tape:

(Thanks, Matthew.)

Scoop

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In February 1966, the Soviet Union’s Luna 9 landed safely on the moon and became the first spacecraft to transmit photographs of the moon seen from surface level.

The Soviets didn’t release the photos immediately, but scientists at England’s Jodrell Bank Observatory, who were observing the mission, realized that the signal format was the same as the Radiofax system that newspapers used to transmit pictures. So they just borrowed a receiver from the Daily Express, decoded the images, and published them.

The BBC observes, “It is thought that Russian scientists had deliberately fitted the probe with the standard television equipment, either to ensure that they would get the higher-quality pictures from Jodrell Bank without having the political embarrassment of asking for them, or to prevent the Soviet authorities from making political capital out of the achievement.”

(Thanks, Andrew.)

An Audio Ghost

When Alexander Graham Bell died in 1922, it was thought that no recordings of his voice had survived. But in 2013 the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History announced that it had a fragile wax-on-cardboard disc that Bell had made as an experiment in sound recording … and that now this could be played using optical scanning technology.

The disc is dated April 15, 1885. Bell spends most of the 4-minute recording reciting figures, but he concludes with the distinct words “Hear my voice: … Alexander … Graham … Bell.” Bell biographer Charlotte Gray wrote:

In that ringing declaration, I heard the clear diction of a man whose father, Alexander Melville Bell, had been a renowned elocution teacher (and perhaps the model for the imperious Prof. Henry Higgins, in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion; Shaw acknowledged Bell in his preface to the play).

I heard, too, the deliberate enunciation of a devoted husband whose deaf wife, Mabel, was dependent on lip reading. And true to his granddaughter’s word, the intonation of the British Isles was unmistakable in Bell’s speech. The voice is vigorous and forthright — as was the inventor, at last speaking to us across the years.

Amazingly, scientists resurrected the voice of Bell’s father too — a man who had been born in 1819.

A Snow Dam

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The Icelandic fishing village of Flateyri was devastated when an avalanche buried 17 homes in 1995. To guard against further trouble, they built an earthen dam in the shape of an enormous A.

It worked: An avalanche struck the dam’s eastern wing in February 1999, and another struck the western wing the following March. Both were deflected harmlessly into the sea.

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Podcast Episode 142: Fingerprints and Polygraphs

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Fingerprint identification and lie detectors are well-known tools of law enforcement today, but both were quite revolutionary when they were introduced. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the memorable cases where these innovations were first used.

We’ll also see some phantom ships and puzzle over a beer company’s second thoughts.

See full show notes …

The Phonautograph

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In 1857, Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville patented a device for recording sound: A person spoke or sang into a barrel, causing a membrane of parchment to vibrate and a pig bristle to record a mark on a moving surface of glass or paper.

This was useful in studying the characteristics of sound, but a century and a half would pass before we had the technology to play back the recordings. In 2008, audio historians recovered Scott’s “phonautograms” from the French patent office and converted his waveforms into digital audio files.

The recording below was made on April 9, 1860. It’s the French folk song “Au clair de la lune,” recorded 28 years before Edison’s first wax cylinder.

Shimon

You know the singularity has arrived when the robots start playing marimbas. Shimon, engineer Guy Hoffman’s robot musician, doesn’t play programmed music — it improvises in ensembles with human players, communicating with a “socially expressive head” and favoring musical ideas that are unlikely to be chosen by humans, so as to lead the performance in genuinely novel directions.

“The project, therefore, aims to combine human creativity, emotion, and aesthetic judgment with algorithmic computational capability of computers, allowing human and artificial players to cooperate and build off each other’s ideas,” notes the Georgia Tech Center for Music Technology, Shimon’s patron. “Unlike computer- and speaker-based interactive music systems, an embodied anthropomorphic robot can create familiar, acoustically rich, and visual interactions with humans.”

More at Georgia Tech.

Proof of Concept

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England went mad for water lilies after an Amazon lily was named after Queen Victoria in 1837. The plants balked at English weather, but when gardener Joseph Paxton put one in an experimental conservatory it flowered in three months.

Ultimately the lilies inspired their own greenhouse: Impressed that their radiating ribs could support his daughter Annie, Paxton borrowed this “natural feat of engineering” to design a new conservatory with a ridge-and-furrow roof. In time this led to his masterpiece: the Crystal Palace of the Great Exhibition of 1851.

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(From the Illustrated London News, Nov. 17, 1849.)

No Connection

In a garden in Ōtsuchi, in the Iwate prefecture on Japan’s east coast, stands an inoperative phone booth that’s nonetheless been used by more than 10,000 people since the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that killed 15,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands more. The booth, known as the “Kaze no Denwa Box,” or Phone Booth of the Winds, was built by 69-year-old Itaru Sasaki so that local residents could communicate with loved ones who are dead or missing. Sasaki never connected the line, but callers still use the phone to speak to the departed, or write messages on a notepad, trusting that the wind will carry them to their intended recipients.

“In such a stricken environment, it might have been easy to perceive this disconnected phone booth as a whimsical art project incommensurate with the scale of loss experienced by the survivors for whom it was intended,” writes Ariana Kelly in Phone Booth (2015). “But quite the opposite has happened, and for the past several years there has been a steady stream of visitors to the booth, both from Ōtsuchi and other parts of Japan. Perhaps it provides a necessary terminus, a destination in a place marked by eradication. Perhaps one antidote to tragedy is useless beauty, or just uselessness.”