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Archive for February, 2016

Friday, February 12th, 2016

The Wheel: A Great Innovation?

The Wheel

“Wheeled transport is not an obviously good idea. People who insist that it was truly revolutionary ignore the fact that many societies that became aware of wheeled vehicles over the centuries chose not to use them. It took so many other innovations over a long period of time to make the wheel useful.” — Richard Bulliet

This week, our featured book is The Wheel: Inventions and Reinventions, by Richard W. Bulliet. Today, for the final day of our feature, we are happy to present “The Wheel: A Great Innovation,” an article by Richard Bulliet that was originally published in the Innovation in Practice Blog.

People who believe that the wheel is the greatest invention ever assume two things: That it was wholly new when it was invented, and that is was so wonderful that people adopted it immediately. Historically, neither is true.

What is true is that three different types of wheels evolved over time, but none of them were as great as sliced bread.

The concept of a wheel emerged a long time ago. Archaeologists uncovered evidence that Olmec children in southern Mexico played with toy dogs on wheels 3000 years ago. But their parents never transferred the wheel idea to carts or wagons. How could anyone who understood the concept of the wheel not have used it for transportation?

Here’s why. Ancient Mexicans lacked domestic animals to hitch to a wheeled vehicle. There was no advantage over human porters. A more important question: Was the wheel such a good idea that building a toy dog on wheels should inevitably have transformed a transportation system?

Evolutionary biologists tell us that modern humans have not improved their basic store of physical or intellectual capacities for 100,000 years. So when we migrated out of Africa to people the globe, we did it without the benefit of wheels. And we kept on walking and carrying the “stuff” that George Carlin would later poke fun at on our backs for the next 90,000+ years. We could divide up our stuff into manageable loads that were light and compact enough to carry. Finally, some 10,000 years later, we started loading some of our stuff onto the backs of animals.

This solution satisfied the transportation needs of most of the world down to the invention of the internal combustion engine, even though by that time some peoples had been using wheeled vehicles for over 5000 years. But carts and wagons weren’t all that common. So long as roads were seas of mud in rainy weather people thought twice about whether to entrust their stuff to a wheeled vehicle.

Wheeled transport is not an obviously good idea. People who insist that it was truly revolutionary ignore the fact that many societies that became aware of wheeled vehicles over the centuries chose not to use them. It took so many other innovations over a long period of time to make the wheel useful.

You can read the blog post in it’s entirety at Innovation in Practice.

Thursday, February 11th, 2016

Thursday Fiction Corner: Li Ang and her “Lost Garden”

The Lost Garden

On Wednesday, January 20, 2016, Author Li Ang, arguably Taiwan’s most controversial feminist writer, discussed her newly translated novel The Lost Garden with a panel that included her translators Sylvia Li-chun Lin and Howard Goldblatt as well as her editor Jennifer Crewe.

Her fiction is known for her frank depictions of female sexuality and violence. In the video below, she discusses her motivation for writing The Lost Garden, Taiwan’s national identity, and the decadence of capitalism. Goldblatt and Lin discuss the problems of translations and the censorship of the White Terror Period.

Thanks goes to the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office of New York and Columbia University’s C.V. Starr East Asian Library Reading Room for sponsoring the event. Please enjoy!

Wednesday, February 10th, 2016

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Years: Striking Images From Richard W. Bulliet’s THE WHEEL

The Wheel

“Tracking the wheel from 4000 B.C.E to the present, Bulliet argues that the traditional myth falsifies history by melding three kinds of wheel into one. Rather than a “viral” tool that changed the world, different wheels serviced particular niches–mine-cars, children’s toys, parade floats, furniture casters–before emerging as the means by which today’s trains, automobiles, and shopping carts move.”

Visualizing the spectacles, particularities, and innovations that pepper human history can be difficult–especially when we are sometimes forced to recognize our own points of visual reference as being utterly foreign to those historical snapshots we’d like to imagine. Throw out, for good measure, the basic assumptions that frame our modern understanding of how both people and things function and relate to the world, and the picture falls further out of focus.

And so today we’d like to thank art, archaeology, and mechanical design for helping to illuminate the myth of a singular “Eureka!” moment for the wheel with just the kind of visual aid modern reader’s need: an imgur page created by Richard W. Bulliet (so thanks to him, too!) showcasing some of the most compelling photographs, renderings, and artwork from his book The Wheel: Inventions and Reinventions.

Here’s a quick look:

Olmec toy
Potters in southern Mexico produced wheeled toys, but the Western Hemisphere never developed large-scale wheeled transport.

1885 Benz Automobile
Tricycle design indicates that Ackermann steering was still not understood to be the best design for a motor vehicle.

Ancient mining operation Basket being used to collect ore prompter miners in the Carpathian Mountains to design baskets on wheels.

That's it for today! Be sure to take a look at the rest of the pictures here. Throughout the week, we will continue to feature content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Short Selling. To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select our winners on Friday, February 12th at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

Wednesday, February 10th, 2016

New Book Tuesday (Wednesday Edition!): Horses, Orson Welles, Just Life, and More New Books!

Horses Horses in the End the Light Remains Pure

We fell a bit behind, so a day late, here is our weekly listing of new titles now available:

Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure: A Tale That Begins with Fukushima
Hideo Furukawa; Translated by Doug Slaymaker with Akiko Takenaka

Just Life: Bioethics and the Future of Sexual Difference
Mary C. Rawlinson

Signs and Wonders: Theology After Modernity
Ellen T. Armour

The Miracles of the Kasuga Deity
Royall Tyler

At the End of the Street in the Shadow: Orson Welles and the City
Matthew Asprey Gear
(Wallflower Press)

The Cinema of Robert Altman: Hollywood Maverick
Robert Niemi
(Wallflower Press)

Lesbian Decadence: Representations in Art and Literature of Fin-de-Siècle France
Nicole G. Albert. Translated by Nancy Erber and William A. Peniston
(Harrington Park Press, LLC)

Tuesday, February 9th, 2016

Reddit AMA With Richard W. Bulliet

The Wheel

The Wheel brings a fresh perspective to an old and extremely important subject. Among other things Richard Bulliet shows how the invention of the wheel and its many applications to transportation occurred over thousands of years and was influenced by socio-cultural and psychological as well as economic and political factors. In doing so, his revisionist history recasts our understanding of an invention that literally changed the world.” — Merritt Roe Smith

We continue today our weekly feature of Richard W. Bulliet’s The Wheel: Inventions and Reinventions with a Reddit AMA (“As Me Anything”) starring the author himself. In a real-time interaction between Professor Bulliet and the enthusiastic history community on Reddit, the author answers questions regarding his new book, his research, and of course the history of the wheel itself. Here’s a few excerpts from the thread:

One of the biggest things I always hear about the Aztecs and the Mayans are about how they did all their work and built their monuments ‘without ever having invented the wheel.’ It seems to me that this must be some sort of like the telephone game. Was it more that they had no need of it due to climate or was it a case where they simply didn’t think to use it for transportation?

Many people including Jared Diamond have argued that the lack of large domestic animals in the Western Hemisphere prevented wheeled vehicles from being invented. But humans can pull carts, and we have pictorial evidence for this in the Old World back to the third millennium BCE.

As for working on large monuments, wheels were never a crucial technology for this. The pyramids in Egypt and Stonehenge were built without wheels. The earliest wagons were not strong enough to carry really heavy stones, nor was the harnessing technology up to the task.

It is commonly argued that wheels evolved from rollers used to move heavy stones. But we don’t have any evidence for this. Skids rather than rollers were used to distribute the stone’s weight over a wide surface. If rollers had become worn enough for their ends to function as wheels, the wheel-like ends would have had to bear all the weight. Thus the advantage of the roller would have been lost. Inclined planes, skids, and large team of human pullers were more useful for monumental building with big stones than either rollers or wheels.

In terms of how we do history on something so seemingly pre-historic, can you outline some of the methodology you use to make assumptions about the earliest “appearances” of the wheel, and the delicate balance between empirical discovery and imaginative speculation/extrapolation?

For many historical questions, material evidence is better than textual evidence; but it is best when you have both. Nevertheless, the earliest wheel evidence is necessarily pre-textual because we have no writing that goes back far enough.

Evidence for the earliest use of the wheel consists of images on ancient artifacts, the artifacts themselves, particularly if their age and origin can be determined with some precision, and archaeological reconstructions of the relevant societies to determine what they might have used wheels for.

Conjecture comes in when you get all your ducks in a row, in terms of images, dates, and artifacts, and then try to make sense of them. The problem with the wheel is that homo sapiens sapiens carried their stuff around without using wheels for over 90,000 years, and then shifted them onto the backs of domestic animals. This means that they knew exactly how to divide their normal loads up so they could be carried. My conjecture here is that the wheel was invented when a new and challenging type of load was confronted. Many people think that challenge came from moving stones for pyramids, but the Egyptians and other pyramid builders didn’t use wheels.

My thought is that copper mining presented the challenge of moving large amounts of very heavy ore through a narrow mine corridor and out to the smelter. In many, perhaps most, early copper mines, the miners slid baskets and trays along the floor. But in the Carpathian Mountains someone thought of putting a basket on wheels.

The physical evidence for this consists of over 100 clay models of smallish four-wheeled cars, some of them clearly designed as drinking mugs. Carbon-14 dating of associated materials makes them the earliest depictions of wheeled vehicles (as opposed to wheeled toys). I believe that these models played an iconic role in rituals of some sort that celebrated the contribution of mining to the local society. That is a conjecture.

Conjectures work best when they line up with other factors and evidence. In this case, the fact that mine cars in Europe, and then America, remained fairly small and hand-pushed down to 1900 is one such factor. Another is the fact that these mine cars continued to use wheels that were fixed to the ends of their axles and thus could not be steered since the wheel-axle-wheel combination turned as a unit.

(more…)

Monday, February 8th, 2016

Book Giveaway! The Wheel: Inventions and Reinventions, by Richard W. Bulliet

The Wheel

“An extraordinary account, with novel interpretations that might generate debate among the experts, but also fantastic details that any reader can enjoy. Bulliet examines histories and geographies from across the world, all seen with the eye of the wheel, thereby often rendering the familiar strange.” — Saskia Sassen

This week, our featured book is The Wheel: Inventions and Reinventions, by Richard W. Bulliet. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Short Selling. To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select our winners on Friday, February 12th at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

Thursday, February 4th, 2016

Recipes for Cooked Books

Short Selling

“Investors can detect accounting issues by paying attention to unusual assumptions and changes in assumptions used in reporting financial statements…. Changes and anomalies in the assumptions can often point to early warning signs.” — Amit Kumar

This week, our featured book is Short Selling: Finding Uncommon Short Ideas, by Amit Kumar. In today’s post, Kumar lists and describes some of the ways one can tell a company is “cooking their books.”

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Short Selling!

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2016

Living Bone on Bone

The Lioness in Winter

“Without the virtual equivalent of bubble wrap or cotton batting, we are on our own. Facing the elements of old age with only our memories, our personalities, our will to carry on. But–and here’s the strange thing–the loss of padding has good effects as well.” — Ann Burack-Weiss

The following is a guest-post by Ann Burack-Weiss, author of The Lioness in Winter: Writing an Old Woman’s Life.

Living Bone on Bone
By Ann Burack-Weiss

An old lady falls and can’t get up. An x-ray shows that the cartilage in her right hip has worn away. An orthopedic surgeon explains the situation in layman terms. “You are walking bone on bone.”

I am the old lady who–even in extremis–knows a good metaphor when she hears one. Living “bone on bone” is what entering the kingdom of the oldest old is all about.

The happy novelty of the senior citizen discount is long past; and, for many of us, the need for total care is still ahead. Are we well? Not really. There may be that bad hip or trick knee, the dimming sight, the sounds we can’t quite catch, the need to rest more often, a list of chronic conditions that accumulate over the years.

But we aren’t seriously ill either. Our doctors find nothing that is cause for immediate alarm. We may live on for years, perhaps a decade, more. Diminished selves–going, going, but not soon gone. (more…)

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2016

Due Diligence in Short Selling

Short Selling

“Although buying low and selling high usually works for long ideas, selling short based only on high valuation usually does not work as well. Investment theses for short ideas work well when a company faces clear issues with its business model, whereas high valuation only serves as icing on the cake.” — Amit Kumar

This week, our featured book is Short Selling: Finding Uncommon Short Ideas, by Amit Kumar. In today’s post, Kumar explains some basics of short selling, and examines the practice of selling short based only on high valuation.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Short Selling!

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2016

On Reading Short Selling

Short Selling

“Short selling is not for the faint of heart. While fortunes have been made shorting, many have also been lost. Shorting stocks is for the financially experienced and sophisticated investors with a strong stomach for losses.” — Amit Kumar

This week, our featured book is Short Selling: Finding Uncommon Short Ideas, by Amit Kumar. For our first post of the week, we have excerpted Kumar’s Preface, in which he offers a word of caution and explains how he hopes his book will be used.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Short Selling!

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2016

New Book Tuesday! A History of Virility, Climate Change, and More New Titles!

A History of Virility

Our weekly listing of new titles now available:

A History of Virility
Alain Corbin, Jean-Jacques Courtine, Georges Vigarello, editors. Translated by Keith Cohen

Facing Climate Change: An Integrated Path to the Future
Jeffrey T. Kiehl

Me Medicine vs. We Medicine: Reclaiming Biotechnology for the Common Good (Now available in paper)
Donna Dickenson

Monday, February 1st, 2016

Book Giveaway! Short Selling: Finding Uncommon Short Ideas

Short Selling

Short Selling keeps the reader’s attention through real examples, cases, and interviews with investment professionals. This book is sound and accurate, ideal not only for academics and professionals but also for anyone who has an interest in the various strategies, risk, actual case studies, and mechanics of selling short. I know of no other text like it.” — Glen A. Larsen Jr., professor of finance, Kelley School of Business

This week, our featured book is Short Selling: Finding Uncommon Short Ideas, by Amit Kumar. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Short Selling. To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select our winners on Friday, February 5th at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!