How to Write in Cuneiform, the Oldest Writing System in the World: A Short, Charming Introduction

Teaching child visitors how to write their names using an unfamiliar or antique alphabet is a favorite activity of museum educators, but Dr. Irving Finkel, a cuneiform expert who specializes in ancient Mesopotamian medicine and magic, has grander designs.

His employer, the British Museum, has over 130,000 tablets spanning Mesopotamia’s Early Dynastic period to the Neo-Babylonian Empire “just waiting for young scholars to come devote themselves to (the) monkish work” of deciphering them.




Writing one’s name might well prove to be a gateway, and Dr. Finkel has a vested interest in lining up some new recruits.

The museum’s Department of the Middle East has an open access policy, with a study room where researchers can get up close and personal with a vast collection of cuneiform tablets from Mesopotamia and surrounding regions.

But let’s not put the ox before the cart.

As the extremely personable Dr. Finkel shows Matt Gray and Tom Scott of Matt and Tom’s Park Bench, above, cuneiform consists of three components—upright, horizontal and diagonal—made by pressing the edge of a reed stylus, or popsicle stick if you prefer, into a clay tablet.

The mechanical process seems fairly easy to get the hang of, but mastering the oldest writing system in the world will take you around six years of dedicated study. Like Japan’s kanji alphabet, the oldest writing system in the world is syllabic. Properly written out, these syllables join up into a flowing calligraphy that your average, educated Babylonian would be able to read at a glance.

Even if you have no plans to rustle up a popsicle stick and some Play-Doh, it’s worth sticking with the video to the end to hear Dr. Finkel tell how a chance encounter with some naturally occurring cuneiform inspired him to write a horror novel, which is now available for purchase, following a successful Kickstarter campaign.

Begin your cuneiform studies with Irving Finkel’s Cuneiform: Ancient Scripts.

via Mental Floss

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Her solo show Nurse!, in which one of Shakespeare’s best loved female characters hits the lecture circuit to set the record straight premieres in June at The Tank in New York City. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Behold the MusicMap: The Ultimate Interactive Genealogy of Music Created Between 1870 and 2016

A Pandora for the adventurous antiquarian, the highly underrated site Radiooooo gives users streaming music from all over the world and every decade since 1900. While it offers an aural feast, its limited interface leaves much to be desired from an educational standpoint. On the other end of the audio-visual spectrum, clever diagrams like those we’ve featured here on electronic music, alternative, and hip hop show the detailed connections between all the major acts in these genres, but all they do so in silence.

Now a new interactive infographic built by Belgian architect Kwinten Crauwels brings together an encyclopedic visual reference with an exhaustive musical archive. Though it’s missing some of the features of the resources above, the Musicmap far surpasses anything of its kind online—“both a 23and me-style ancestral tree and a thorough disambiguation of just about every extant genre of music,” writes Fast Company.




Or as Frank Jacobs explains at Big Think, Crauwels’ goal is “to provide the ultimate genealogy of popular music genres, including their relations and history.”

With over 230 genres in all—linked together in intricate webs of influence, mapped in a zoomable visual interface that organizes them all at macro and micro levels of description, and linked to explanatory articles and representative playlists (drawn from YouTube)—the project is almost too comprehensive to believe, and its degree of sophistication almost too complex to summarize concisely (though Jacobs does a good job of it). The Musicmap spans the years 1870-2016 and covers 22 major categories (with Rock further broken into six and “World” into three).

In an oval around the colorful skyscraper-like "super-genres" are decades, moving from past to present from top to bottom. Zoom into the "super-genres" and find “a spider’s web of links within and between the different houses” of subgenres. “Those links can indicate parentage or influence, but also a backlash (i.e. as ‘anti-links’).” Clicking on the name of each subgenre reveals “a short synopsis and a playlist of representative songs.” These two functions, in turn, link to each other, allowing users to click through in a more Wikipedia-like way once they’ve entered the minutiae of the Musicmap’s contents.

The map not only draws connections between subgenres but also between their relatives in other "super-genres" (learn about the relationship, for example, between folk rock and classic metal). On the left side of the screen is a series of buttons that reveal an introduction, methodology, abstract, several navigational functions, a glossary of musical terms, and a bibliography (called "Acknowledgments"). Aside from visually reducing all the way down to the level of individual bands within each subgenre, which could become a little dizzying, it's hard to think of anything seriously lacking here.

Anything we might find fault with might be changed in the near future. Although Crauwels spent almost ten years on research and development, first conceiving of the project in 2008, the current site “is still version 1.0 of Music map. In later versions, the playlists will be expanded, perhaps even community-generated.” Crauwels also wants to sync up with Spotify. Although not a musician himself, he is as passionate about music as he is about design and education, making him very likely the perfect person to take on this task, which he admits can never be completed.

Crauwels does not currently seem to have plans to monetize his map. His stated motives are altruistic, in the same public service spirit as Radiooooo. “Musicmap,” he says, “believes that knowledge about music genres is a universal right and should be part of basic education.” At the moment, the education here only applies to popular music, although enough of it to acquire a graduate-level historical knowledge base.

The four categories at the top of the map—the strangely named “Utility” (which includes hymns, military marches, musicals, and soundtracks), Folk, Classical, and World—are zoomable but do not have clickable links or playlists. Given Crauwels’ completist instincts, this may well change in future updates. In the TED talk above, see him tell the story of how he created Musicmap, a DIY effort that came out of his frustration that nothing like it existed, so he had to create it himself.

Enter the Musicmap here and try not to get lost for several hours.

via Big Think

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The History of the U.S. Civil War Visualized Month by Month and State by State, in an Infographic from 1897

There’s been a lot of handwringing over the i-Generation’s lack of map reading skills.

While we’re at it, let’s take a cold, hard look at the Gilded Age infographic, above....

... and conclude that people who live in glass houses should stop reaching for stones.

Published in 1897 by the Comparative Synoptical Chart Company, this now unfathomable document--History of the Civil War in the United States: 1860-1865--achieved its goal of squeezing the maximum amount of content onto a single sheet.

This is in direct opposition to today’s generally accepted rules for creating successful infographics, one of which is to simplify.




Another holds that text should be used sparingly, lest it clutter up strong visuals. Consumers have a limited attention span, and for content to be considered shareable, they should be able to take it in at a glance.

Modern eyes may be forgiven for mistaking this chart for the world’s most convoluted subway map. But those aren’t stops, friend. They’re minor engagements. Bloodier and better-known battles are delineated with larger circles—yellow centers for a Union victory, pale green for Confederate.

The fastest way to begin making heads or tails of the chart is to note that each column is assigned to a different state.

The vertical axis is divided into months. Notice all the negative space around Fort Sumter.

And the constant entries in Virginia's column.

The publisher noted that the location of events was “entirely governed” by this time scale.

You’ll have to look hard for Lincoln’s assassination.

Consumers who purchased the History of the Civil War in the United States 1860-1865 presumably pored over it by candlelight, supplementing it with maps and books.

It would still make a superb addition to any history teacher’s classroom, both as decoration and the tinder that could ignite discussion as to how we receive information, and how much information is in fact received.

Explore a larger, zoomable version of the map here.

via Slate

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Carl Sagan’s “Baloney Detection Kit”: A Toolkit That Can Help You Scientifically Separate Sense from Nonsense

It's probably no stretch to say that mass disinformation campaigns and rampant anti-intellectualism will constitute an increasing amount of our political reality both today and in the future. As Hannah Arendt wrote, the political lie has always been with us. But its global reach, particular vehemence, and blatant contempt for verifiable reality seem like innovations of the present.

Given the embarrassing wealth of access to information and educational tools, maybe it’s fair to say that the first and last line of defense should be our own critical reasoning. When we fail to verify news—using resources we all have in hand (I assume, since you’re reading this), the fault for believing bad information may lie with us.




But we so often don't know what it is that we don’t know. Individuals can't be blamed for an inadequate educational system, and one should not underestimate the near-impossibility of conducting time-consuming inquiries into the truth of every single claim that comes our way, like trying to identify individual droplets while getting hit in the face with a pressurized blast of targeted, contradictory info, sometimes coming from shadowy, unreliable sources.

Carl Sagan understood the difficulty, and he also understood that a lack of critical thinking did not make people totally irrational and deserving of contempt. “It’s not hard to understand," for example, why people would think their relatives are still alive in some other form after death. As he writes of this common phenomenon in “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection," most supernatural beliefs are just “humans being human.”

In the essay, a chapter from his 1995 book The Demon-Haunted World, Sagan proposes a rigorous but comprehensible “baloney detection kit” to separate sense from nonsense.

  • Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the “facts.”
  • Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
  • Arguments from authority carry little weight — “authorities” have made mistakes in the past. They will do so again in the future. Perhaps a better way to say it is that in science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts.
  • Spin more than one hypothesis. If there’s something to be explained, think of all the different ways in which it could be explained. Then think of tests by which you might systematically disprove each of the alternatives.
  • Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours. It’s only a way station in the pursuit of knowledge. Ask yourself why you like the idea. Compare it fairly with the alternatives. See if you can find reasons for rejecting it. If you don’t, others will.
  • If whatever it is you’re explaining has some measure, some numerical quantity attached to it, you’ll be much better able to discriminate among competing hypotheses. What is vague and qualitative is open to many explanations.
  • If there’s a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work (including the premise) — not just most of them.
  • Occam’s Razor. This convenient rule-of-thumb urges us when faced with two hypotheses that explain the data equally well to choose the simpler. Always ask whether the hypothesis can be, at least in principle, falsified…. You must be able to check assertions out. Inveterate skeptics must be given the chance to follow your reasoning, to duplicate your experiments and see if they get the same result.

Calling his recommendations “tools for skeptical thinking,” he lays out a means of compensating for the strong emotional pulls that “promise something like old-time religion" and recognizing "a fallacious or fraudulent argument.” At the top of the post, in a video produced by Big Think, you can hear science writer and educator Michael Shermer explain the “baloney detection kit” that he himself adapted from Sagan, and just above, read Sagan’s own version, abridged into a short list (read it in full at Brain Pickings).

Like many a science communicator after him, Sagan was very much concerned with the influence of superstitious religious beliefs. He also foresaw a time in the near future much like our own. Elsewhere in The Demon-Haunted World, Sagan writes of “America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time…. when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few.” The loss of control over media and education renders people “unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true.”

This state involves, he says a “slide… back into superstition” of the religious variety and also a general "celebration of ignorance," such that well-supported scientific theories carry the same weight or less than explanations made up on the spot by authorities whom people have lost the ability to “knowledgeably question.” It’s a scary scenario that may not have completely come to pass... just yet, but Sagan knew as well or better than anyone of his time how to address such a potential social epidemic.

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Carl Sagan’s Last Interview

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

175+ College Admissions Offices Promise Not to Penalize High School Students Who Get Suspended for Protesting Peacefully Against Gun Violence

Image by Lorie Shaull, via Flickr Commons

“Will my admission get rescinded if I get suspended for engaging in a school walk-out meant to bring attention to the school shooting issue?” That's a question many high school students have posed to college admissions offices around the country, especially after some high school officials threatened to suspend students taking part in anti-gun demonstrations.

Many leading universities have since issued policy statements and given these students their blessing and support. In a post called "In Support of Student Protests," Hannah Mendlowitz, from Yale's Admissions Office, writes:

[W]e continue to get the question: will Yale look unfavorably upon discipline resulting from peaceful demonstrations?

The answer is simple: Of course not.

To the students who have reached out to us with these concerns, we have made clear that they should feel free to participate in walk-out events to bring attention to this issue without fear of repercussion. Yale will NOT be rescinding anyone’s admission decision for participating in peaceful walkouts for this or other causes, regardless of any high school’s disciplinary policy. I, for one, will be cheering these students on from New Haven.

And on the official Twitter feed for the Brown University, a tweet reads:

Applicants to Brown: Expect a socially conscious, intellectually independent campus where freedom of expression is fundamentally important. You can be assured that peaceful, responsible protests against gun violence will not negatively impact decisions on admission to Brown.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Below, find a list of 175+ universities that have granted similar assurances, along with links to their statements. The list comes from Alex Garcia, who is maintaining a regularly-updated Google Doc. Access it online here.

Again, you can refer to this Google Doc for more updates.

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Carl Sagan’s Syllabus & Final Exam for His Course on Critical Thinking (Cornell, 1986)

Though now more than twenty years gone, Carl Sagan, through his many books and his classic television series Cosmoscontinues to teach us all he knew about life, the universe, and everything. Three decades' worth of students will also remember learning from him in person, in the lecture halls of Harvard and Cornell where he kept up his professorial duties alongside the considerable demands of his career as a public intellectual. If you've ever learned anything from Sagan, whether from the man himself or from his work, you know he didn't just want to teach humanity about outer space: he wanted to teach humanity how to think.

That goal became explicit in Astronomy 490, also known as "Critical Thinking in Science and Non-Science Context," which Sagan taught at Cornell in 1986. You can read its course materials at the Library of Congress, whose Jennifer Harbster writes that they "include mention of the important balance between openness to new ideas and skeptical engagement with those ideas in science," a point that "animates much of Carl Sagan’s work as an educator and science communicator."




The LoC offers the course's introduction and syllabus, its final exam, and Sagan's lecture notes, as well as the information he assembled to design the course in the first place, which show just how wide a range of contexts for critical thinking he had in mind.

Sagan collected examples of reporting on and public perception of phenomena related to sports playoff seriescar-loan interest rates, tobacco industry-sponsored tobacco health-risk research, and the number of helicopters that crash in Los Angeles. Harbster explains that "these notes illustrate how he wanted to use students' every day experience with things like television to prompt them to think more skeptically about how claims are made and warranted in everyday life." Though some of his examples  (the language of cigarette advertisements, for instance) may look dated now, the course's core principles have only grown more useful, and indeed necessary, with time — as Sagan, who wrote darkly of "the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media," surely knew they would.

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Carl Sagan Presents His “Baloney Detection Kit”: 8 Tools for Skeptical Thinking

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

MIT’s New Master’s Program Admits Students Without College and High School Degrees … and Helps Solve the World’s Most Pressing Problems

One of the central problems of inequality is that it perpetuates itself by nature. The inherent social capital of those born in certain places and classes grants access to even more social capital. Questions of merit can seem marginal when the credentials required by elite institutions prove inaccessible to most people. In an admirable effort to break this cycle globally, MIT is now admitting students to a graduate program in economics, without GRE scores, without letters of recommendation, and without a college degree. 

Instead students begin with something called a "MicroMasters" program, which is like “a method used in medicine… randomized control trials,” reports WBUR. This entryway removes many of the usual barriers to access by allowing students to first "take rigorous courses online for credit, and if they perform well on exams, to apply for a master’s degree program on campus"—a degree in data, economics and development policy (DEDP), which focuses on methods for reducing global inequality.

 

 

Enrollment in the online MicroMasters courses began in February of last year (the next round starts on February 6, 2018), and the DEDP master's program will start in 2019. “The world of development policy has become more and more evidence-based over the past 10-15 years,” explains MIT professor of economics Ben Olken, who co-created the program with economics professors Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee. “Development practitioners need to understand not just development issues, but how to analyze them rigorously using data. This program is designed to help fill that gap.”

Duflo, co-founder of MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), explains the innovation of MicroMasters' radically open admissions. (For anyone with access to the internet, that is, still a huge barrier for millions worldwide): “Anybody could do that. At this point, you don’t need to have gone to college. For that matter, you don’t need to have gone to high school.” Students who are accepted after their initial online course work will move into a “blended” program that combines their prior work with a semester on MIT's campus.

MicroMasters courses are priced on a sliding scale (from $100 to $1,000), according to what students can afford, and costs are nowhere near what traditional students pay—after having already paid, or taken loans, for a four-year degree, various testing regimens, admissions costs, living expenses, etc. The current program might feasibly be scaled up to include other fields in the future. Thus far, over 8,000 students in the world have enrolled in the MicroMasters program. “In total,” Duflo says, “there are 182 countries represented,” including ten percent from China, a large group from India, and “even some from the U.S.”

Students enrolled in these courses design their own evaluations of initiatives around the globe that address disparities in healthcare, education, and other areas. Co-designed by the Poverty Action Lab and the Department of Economics, MicroMasters asks students to “grapple with some of the world’s most pressing problems," including the problem of access to higher education. You can view the requirements and enroll at the MITx MicroMasters’ site. Read frequently asked questions and learn about the instructors here. And here, listen to WBUR’s short segment on this fascinating educational experiment.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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