Watch Lin-Manuel Miranda Perform the Earliest Version of Hamilton at the White House, Six Years Before the Play Hit the Broadway Stage (2009)

Another immigrant comin' up from the bottom

His enemies destroyed his rep, America forgot him… 

Holler if you can remember a time when few Americans were well-versed enough in founding father Alexander Hamilton’s origin story to recite it in rhyme at the drop of a hat.

Believe it or not, as recently as the summer of 2015, when Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Hamilton: An American Musical exploded on Broadway, Hamilton the man was, as the Tony award winning lyrics above suggest, largely forgotten, a relic whose portrait on the $10 bill aroused little curiosity.

Back then, Hamilton was perhaps best known as the hapless soul embodied by Michael Cera in the web series Drunk History.




Ron Chernow’s 2005 biography served up a more nuanced portrait to readers with the stamina to make it through his massive tome.

That’s the book Miranda famously took along on vacation in the period between his musical In the Heights’ Broadway and Off-Broadway runs.

The rest, as they say, is history.

As is the above video, in which a 29-year-old Miranda performs The Hamilton Mixtape for President Obama, the First Lady, and other luminaries as part of a White House evening of poetry, music, and spoken word.

There’s your Hamilton (the musical) origin story.

Its creator initially conceived of it as a hip hop concept album in which celebrated rappers would give voice to different historical characters.

Music director Alex Lacamoire’s jubilant expression at the White House piano confirms that they had some inkling that they were on to something very big.

A few months later, Miranda reflected on the experience in an interview with Playbill:

The whole day was a day that will exist outside any other day in my life. Any day that starts with you sharing a van to the White House with James Earl Jones is going to be a crazy day! I was the closing act of the show and I had never done this project in public before so I was already nervous. I looked at the President and the First Lady only once and when I looked at him he was whispering something to her and I couldn’t let that get to me. Afterwards, George Stephanopoulos came up to me and said, "The President is back there talking about your song, he’s saying ‘Where is (Secretary of the Treasury) Timothy Geitner? We need him to hear the Hamilton rap!’" To hear that the President enjoyed the song was a real dream come true. 

The Obamas enjoyment was such that they appeared in a pre-taped segment to introduce the Hamilton cast at the 2016 Tony awards (a tough year for any other musical unlucky enough to have debuted in the same period as this juggernaut).

They also hosted a Hamilton workshop for DC-area youth, for which the Broadway cast traveled down on their day off, performing the opening number out of costume. Biographer Ron Chernow was in the front row for that one, as Obama remarked that “Hamilton is the only thing Dick Cheney and I agree on.”

(“Dick Cheney attended the show tonight,” Miranda tweeted after Cheney's visit. “He’s the OTHER vice-president who shot a friend while in office.” Current Vice President Mike Pence also took in a performance shortly before his swearing in, though his appearance was met with a much less pithy response.)

As for The Hamilton Mixtape, many of Miranda's dream rappers turned out for its recording, though the tracks they laid down diverge from the one performed live for the Obamas in 2009, which legions of adoring fans can chant along to thanks to the musical's overwhelming popularity. Instead, this mixtape’s contributing artists were invited to reimagine and expand upon the themes of the play—immigration, ambition, and stubble—placing them in an explicitly 21st-century context.

Listen to The Hamilton Mixtape and the original cast recording of Hamilton for free on Spotify.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. She has yet to win the Hamilton lottery. Join her in New York City for the next installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain, this March. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

A Tactile Map of the Roman Empire: An Innovative Map That Allowed Blind & Sighted Students to Experience Geography by Touch (1888)

From curb cuts to safer playgrounds, the public spaces we occupy have been transformed for the better as they become easier for different kinds of bodies to navigate. Closed captioning and printable transcripts benefit millions, whatever their level of ability. Accessibility tools on the web improve everyone’s experience and provide the impetus for technologies that engage more of our senses. While smell may not be a high priority for developers, attention to a sense most sighted people tend to take for granted could open up an age of using feedback systems to make visual media touch responsive.

One such tactile system designed for Smithsonian Museums has developed “new methods for fabricating replicas of museum artifacts and other 3D objects that describe themselves when touched,” reported the National Rehabilitation Information Center in a February post for Low Vision Awareness Month. “Depth effects are achieved by varying the height of relief of raised lines, and texture fills help improve awareness of figure-ground distinctions.” Haptic feedback technology, like that the iPhone and various video game systems have introduced over the past few years, promises to open up much more of the world to the visually-impaired… and to everyone else.




One invention introduced over a century ago held out the same promise. The tactile map, “an innovation of the 19th century,” writes Rebecca Onion at Slate, “allowed both blind and sighted students to feel their way across a given geography.” One popularizer of the tactile map, former school superintendent L.R. Klemm, who made the example above, believed that “while the waterproof map could be used to teach students without sight,” it could also “fruitfully engage sighted students through the sense of touch.”

Though created in Europe, tactile maps have had a relatively long history in the U.S., debuting in 1837 with an atlas of the United States developed by Samuel Gridley Howe of the Perkins School for the Blind. (See Michigan above.) Klemm’s map up top, depicting the Roman Empire (284-476 CE), is a later entry, patented in 1888, and, he promises it's a decided improvement on earlier models. In an article that year for The American Teacher, he described “the painstaking process of creating one of these relief maps,” notes Onion, “a process he used as another teaching tool, enlisting students to help him scrape and carve plaster casts into negative shapes of mountain ranges and plateaus.”

Those students, he wrote, developed “so clear a conception of the topography and irrigation of the respective country that it can scarcely be improved.” Tactile accuracy meant a lot to Klemm. In text published alongside the map, he took Howe and other publishers to task for raising water above land, an idea “so unnatural, that the mind never thoroughly becomes accustomed to it.” Klemm also critiques a French map of “very perfect construction.” This handmade version, he says, though ingenious, is “expensive and very inefficient.” While its utility “in the case of institutions, and for the use of pupils of the wealthy classes is undoubted… the costliness of maps constructed on such a principle places the advantages of the system beyond the reach of the blind generally.”

Klemm’s concern for the quality, accuracy, utility, and economic accessibility of this early accessibility tool is admirable. And though you can’t experience it through your screen, his method is probably a vastly-improved way of learning geography for many people, sighted or not. Tactile maps did not quite become general use technologies, but their digital progeny may soon have us all experiencing more of the world through touch. View and download a larger (2D) version of Klemm's map and learn more at 19th Century Disability Cultures & Contexts.

via Slate

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

40,000-Year-Old Symbols Found in Caves Worldwide May Be the Earliest Written Language

We may take it for granted that the earliest writing systems developed with the Sumerians around 3400 B.C.E. The archaeological evidence so far supports the theory. But it may also be possible that the earliest writing systems predate 5000-year-old cuneiform tablets by several thousand years. And what’s more, it may be possible, suggests paleoanthropologist Genevieve von Petzinger, that those prehistoric forms of writing, which include the earliest known hashtag marks, consisted of symbols nearly as universal as emoji.

The study of symbols carved into cave walls all over the world—including penniforms (feather shapes), claviforms (key shapes), and hand stencils—could eventually push us to “abandon the powerful narrative,” writes Frank Jacobs at Big Think, “of history as total darkness until the Sumerians flip the switch.” Though the symbols may never be truly decipherable, their purposes obscured by thousands of years of separation in time, they clearly show humans “undimming the light many millennia earlier.”




While burrowing deep underground to make cave paintings of animals, early humans as far back as 40,000 years ago also developed a system of signs that is remarkably consistent across and between continents. Von Petzinger spent years cataloguing these symbols in Europe, visiting “52 caves,” reports New Scientist’s Alison George, “in France, Span, Italy and Portugal. The symbols she found ranged from dots, lines, triangles, squares and zigzags to more complex forms like ladder shapes, hand stencils, something called a tectiform that looks a bit like a post with a roof, and feather shapes called penniforms.”

She discovered 32 signs found all over the continent, carved and painted over a very long period of time. “For tens of thousands of years,” Jacobs points out, “our ancestors seem to have been curiously consistent with the symbols they used.” Von Petzinger sees this system as a carryover from modern humans’ migration into Europe from Africa. “This does not look like the start-up phase of a brand-new invention,” she writes in her book The First Signs: Unlocking the mysteries of the world’s oldest symbols.

In her TED Talk at the top, von Petzinger describes this early system of communication through abstract signs as a precursor to the “global network of information exchange” in the modern world. “We’ve been building on the mental achievements of those who came before us for so long,” she says, “that it’s easy to forget that certain abilities haven’t already existed,” long before the formal written records we recognize. These symbols traveled: they aren’t only found in caves, but also etched into deer teeth strung together in an ancient necklace.

Von Petzinger believes, writes George, that “the simple shapes represent a fundamental shift in our ancestor’s mental skills,” toward using abstract symbols to communicate. Not everyone agrees with her. As the Bradshaw Foundation notes, when it comes to the European symbols, eminent prehistorian Jean Clottes argues “the signs in the caves are always (or nearly always) associated with animal figures and thus cannot be said to be the first steps toward symbolism.”

Of course, it’s also possible that both the signs and the animals were meant to convey ideas just as a written language does. So argues MIT linguist Cora Lesure and her co-authors in a paper published in Frontiers in Psychology last year. Cave art might show early humans “converting acoustic sounds into drawings,” notes Sarah Gibbens at National Geographic. Lesure says her research “suggests that the cognitive mechanisms necessary for the development of cave and rock art are likely to be analogous to those employed in the expression of the symbolic thinking required for language.”

In other words, under her theory, “cave and rock [art] would represent a modality of linguistic expression.” And the symbols surrounding that art might represent an elaboration on the theme. The very first system of writing, shared by early humans all over the world for tens of thousands of years.

via Big Think

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

The Elaborate Pictogram Ernest Hemingway Received in the Hospital During WWI: Can You Decode Its Meaning?

Everyone who knows the work of Ernest Hemingway knows A Farewell to Arms, and everyone who knows A Farewell to Arms knows that Hemingway drew on his experience as a Red Cross ambulance driver in Italy during World War I. Just a few months after shipping out, the eighteen-year-old writer-to-be — filled, he later said, with "a great illusion of immortality" — got caught by mortar fire while taking chocolate and cigarettes from the canteen to the front line. Recovering from his wounds in a Milanese hospital, he fell in love with an American nurse named Agnes Hannah von Kurowsky, who would become the model for Catherine Barkley in A Farewell to Arms.

Hemingway wrote that novel years after Kurowsky had left him for an Italian officer, but when their prospects still looked good, they received this curious letter, which at first glance looks like nothing more than a few pages of doodles. "We think it may be a rebus or another type of pictogram that uses pictures to represent words, parts of words, or phrases," wrote Jessica Green, an intern at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library where it turned up, in 2012. "Can you help us solve this puzzle?" Quite a few Hemingway-enthusiast commenters dutifully got to their interpretive work below Green's post, bringing to bear their knowledge of the writer's life and work on these animals, musical notes, grinning faces, and mugs of beer, all strung together with logic symbols.




If you need a hint, you might start with the apparent fact that the letter came from three of Hemingway's ambulance-driver buddies. "The letter is a cheerful narrative of the three friends’ recent hijinks," writes Slate's Rebecca Onion. "In the salutation, the writers used a foaming mug of beer to represent Hemingway’s name (he was often called 'Hemingstein'); clearly, these were men who shared Hemingway’s love for inebriation." But even before they addressed good old Hemingstein, they addressed Kurowsky — as, in the visual language invented for their purposes, a frying pan with an egg in it. "Ag sounds like egg," explains the decipherment Green later posted to the JFK Library's blog.

Green goes on to break down the pictographic letter section by section, from Brummy, Bill, and Jenks' plans to take leave time and come to Milan, Brummy's unfortunate recent experience with "mixed drinks made from Asti Spumanti, Rum, Cognac, Marsala, and Rock Syrup," Jenks' driving of the bedbugs in his bed into that of another driver, and the glorious results of Bill's trimming and waxing of his mustache, and more besides. To modern readers, the letter offers not just a glimpse into the sensibilities of Hemingway's social circle but life on the Italian front in 1918. And for Hemingway himself, receiving such an amusing piece of correspondence during six long months of recuperation in the hospital must surely have done something to lift the spirits, though what effect its distinctive compositional style may have had on his own writing seemingly remains to be studied.

Click here to read a decoding of this pictogram from 1918.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, 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.

The Lifespan of Ancient Civilizations Detailed in a Handy Infographic: Are We Headed Towards Our Own Collapse?

Anyone living in the West today surely feels they've heard quite enough about its decline. (Unless, of course, they're fans of 1980s punk rock.) Given how long civilizations usually outlive individuals, how can an individual grasp the prospects for longevity of the civilization in which they find themselves? History, a discipline which has long had everything to do with charting the rise and fall of settlements, cultures, and empires, can provide the context necessary for understanding, but more of it has been written than even a human with the lifespan of a civilization can digest. Come to provide some clarity is Luke Kemp of Cambridge's Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, creator of the infographic above. View it here in a larger format, courtesy of the BBC.

"There is no strict definition of civilisation," Kemp admits, "nor an overarching database of their births and deaths." This forced him to come up with his own definition for this infographic: "as a society with agriculture, multiple cities, military dominance in its geographical region and a continuous political structure. Given this definition, all empires are civilisations, but not all civilisations are empires."




What comes at the end of virtually all of them, he calls a collapse: "a rapid and enduring loss of population, identity and socio-economic complexity. Public services crumble and disorder ensues as government loses control of its monopoly on violence."

When civilizations have collapsed, as they've done with fair frequency over the past five millennia, "some recovered or transformed, such as the Chinese and Egyptian. Other collapses were permanent, as was the case of Easter Island. Sometimes the cities at the epicentre of collapse are revived, as was the case with Rome. In other cases, such as the Mayan ruins, they are left abandoned as a mausoleum for future tourists." The Roman Empire, "the victim of many ills including overexpansion, climatic change, environmental degradation and poor leadership" before its sacking by the Visigoths in the year 410 and the Vandals in 455, has come up especially often in current discussions about the fate of the America-led Western — or even global — order.

The Roman Empire, as we can see on Kemp's infographic, lasted 525 years: much longer than the Akkadian Empire, which lasted 187 years, but less than half as long as the African Aksumite Empire, which lasted 1100. "We may be more technologically advanced now," Kemp writes," but this gives little ground to believe that we are immune to the threats that undid our ancestors. Our newfound technological abilities even bring new, unprecedented challenges to the mix. " Kemp names among the possible factors in the next big collapse climate change, environmental degradation, inequality and oligarchy, as well as plain randomness and bad luck. Given the inevitability of collapse, perhaps we can only hope that our civilization is ultimately succeeded by a superior one. But then, Kemp adds, " "We will only march into collapse if we advance blindly. We are only doomed if we are unwilling to listen to the past."

via the BBC

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, 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.

To Save Civilization, the Rich Need to Pay Their Taxes: Historian Rutger Bregman Speaks Truth to Power at Davos and to Fox’s Tucker Carlson

Certain economists may have downgraded the labor theory of value, but most of us can agree on the basic moral intuition that no one person is worth millions, even billions, more than almost everyone else on the planet. Yet we live in a society that allows individuals to hoard millions and billions of dollars in cash, assets, and capital gains, without even the presumption that they demonstrate why they should have it--especially to the degree that the top 1% now holds more wealth than 90% in the U.S.

What social contract allows for this situation? I’m not personally interested in the answer from economists, though I imagine there are many excellently accredited proponents. The dominant assumptions in economics come from fantasies like ceteris paribus, “all else being equal,” and the concept of “externalities.” World historical inequality, political instability, and ecological devastation do not seem to pose serious problems for most mainstream economic thinking. But what do historians say? This is, after all, a historical question.




Many similar situations have obtained in the past. Sometimes they have resulted in bloody revolutions, sometimes sacking and pillaging, sometimes redistribution schemes. Noblesse oblige: land grants, endowments, hospitals, museums, universities… these have not only eased the consciences of the rich but have stood out as appeasing acts of public generosity. But the only thing that has really mitigated the conditions for societal collapse under capitalism?

According to Dutch historian and writer Rutger Bregman, it’s high taxes on high incomes and estates. It just so happened, however, at this year’s Davos World Economic Forum, as Bregman lamented in a Davos panel discussion, taxes were the one thing billionaires would not discuss. This was so, he observes, at a conference that features Sir David Attenborough “talking about how we’re wrecking the planet.”

I mean, I hear people talking the language of participation and justice and equality and transparency, but then, I mean, almost no one raises the real issue of tax avoidance, right? And of the rich are just not paying their fair share. I mean, it feels like I’m at a firefighter’s conference and no one’s allowed to speak about water.

Picturing firefighters hoarding water and refusing to share it while the planet is going up in flames is a sinister image, but maybe the intentions are beside the point. Even where tax rates are high(ish), governments go out of their way to allow companies and individuals to avoid paying them. Surely, many people believe this is necessary to create jobs? So what if those jobs lack security, benefits, or a living wage?

Bregman pulls back from the inflammatory metaphor to concede that one panel did address the issue. He was one of fifteen participants. We have to “stop talking about philanthropy,” he says, “and start talking about taxes,” just like Americans did in the supposedly halcyon days of the 1950s, when under Republican president Dwight D. Eisenhower the top marginal tax rate was 91%. He says this to people like Michael Dell, who once asked Bregman for an example of a 70% tax rate ever working.

Oxfam’s executive director Winnie Byanyima substantiates his polemic, noting globally “we have a tax system that leaks so much, that $170 billion” annually ends up in tax havens. This is wealth that is extracted from the planet’s resources, from government subsidies and the labor hours and health of grossly underpaid workers. Then it is disappeared. If you’ve seen this video, you’ve seen the charges of “one-sidedness” lobbed by former Yahoo CFO Ken Goldman from the audience. Byanyima's response rebuts all of his talking points. She deserves her own cheerleading video edit.

Bregman took the same confrontational stance in an unaired interview with Fox’s Tucker Carlson. After Carlson seemed to agree with him, the historian bristled and pointed out that as “a millionaire funded by billionaires,” Carlson has faithfully represented and communicated the interests of his employers for decades, whether that's the brutal scapegoating of immigrants or the defense of unlimited profiteering and huge tax cuts for the wealthy (and tax raises for everyone else). The host ends the interview sputtering insults and obscenities and sneers “I was willing to give you a hearing.” The problem requires more than a condescending pat on the head, Bregman argues.

His solution to massive inequality and unrest, universal basic income, is one that, like high marginal tax rates, once appealed to Republicans. The proposal has a long history, many serious detractors, and it’s also politically ignored. You can hear Bregman’s argument for it above, and against Margaret Thatcher’s ruthlessly ahistorical characterization of poverty as a “personality defect.” If you think UBI goes too far, or not nearly far enough, maybe you’d be interested in other ideas, like a 15-hour workweek and open borders, part of the “ideal world” Bregman says is possible in his book Utopia for Realists. You can download it as a free audiobook if you sign up for Audible's free trial program.

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

18 Classic Myths Explained with Animation: Pandora’s Box, Sisyphus & More

Greek myths have an incredible shelf life.

We may not retain all the players’ names or the intricacies of the various plot lines, but the creative punishments the gods—Zeus, in particular—visited upon those who displeased them have provided modern mortals with an enduring shorthand for describing our own woes.

Tempted to sneak a peek inside a lover’s diary? Take a teeny swig from the liquor cabinet whilst housesitting? Go snooping in your teenager’s Internet history?

DON’T DO IT, PANDORA!!!




But if curiosity compels you to explore beyond the famous punchlines of mythology’s greatest hits, TED-Ed’s animated Myths from Around the World series is a recommended rummage.

Averaging around five minutes per tale, each episode is packed tight as a snake in a can of mixed nuts. Prepare to be surprised by some of the tidbits that come springing out.

Take Pandora’s box, above.

(Actually it was a jar, but why quibble?)

Not to unleash too many major spoilers, but how many of us remembered that the thing contained a bit of good along with all that evil?

Or that the vessel she wasn’t allowed to open was but one of many gifts the gods bestowed upon her at birth? In fact, Zeus gave her two presents, that pretty box, jar, whatever, and—wait for it—an irrepressibly inquisitive nature.

Or the close connection between Pandora and Prometheus? Zeus conceived of Pandora as a retribution for Prometheus stealing fire and returning it to earth.

Remember Prometheus?

No, not the guy who’s doomed to spend his life rolling a massive rock uphill, only to have it roll back down before he reaches the top. That’s Sisyphus, as in Sisyphean task, like laundry or cleaning the cat litter.

Prometheus is the Titan who winds up chained to a rock so Zeus can send a hungry vulture—some say eagle—to devour his liver once a day.

(Which kind of puts the cat litter in perspective.)

In addition to ancient Greek crowd pleasers, the 18-episode Myths from Around the World playlist delves into the familiar stuff of Norse, Chinese, and ancient Egyptian legends, as well as less widely known Cambodian and Irish tales.

Each video’s description has a link to a full Ted-Ed lesson, with the usual complement of quizzes, resources and opportunities for teacher customization.

Watch the full playlist here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in New York City for the next installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain, this March. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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