Optical Scanning Technology Lets Researchers Recover Lost Indigenous Languages from Old Wax Cylinder Recordings

In an 1878 North American Review description of his new invention, the phonograph, which transcribed sound on wax-covered metal cylinders, Thomas Edison suggested a number of possible uses: “Letter writing and all kinds of dictation without the aid of a stenographer,” “Phonographic books” for the blind, “the teaching of elocution,” and, of course, “Reproduction of music.” He did not, visionary though he was, conceive of one extraordinary use to which wax cylinders might be put—the recovery or reconstruction of extinct and endangered indigenous languages and cultures in California.

And yet, 140 years after Edison’s invention, this may be the most culturally significant use of the wax cylinder to date. “Among the thousands of wax cylinders” at UC Berkeley’s Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, writes Hyperallergic’s Allison Meier, “are songs and spoken-word recordings in 78 indigenous languages of California. Some of these languages, recorded between 1900 and 1938, no longer have living speakers.”




Such is the case with Yahi, a language spoken by a man called “Ishi,” who was supposedly the last surviving member of his culture when anthropologist Alfred Kroeber met him in 1911. Kroeber recorded nearly 6 hours of Ishi’s speech on 148 wax cylinders, many of which are now badly degraded.

“The existing versions” of these artifacts “sound terrible,” says Berkeley linguist Andrew Garrett in the National Science Foundation video at the top, but through digital reconstruction much of this rare audio can be restored. Garrett describes the project—supported jointly by the NSF and NEH—as a “digital repatriation of cultural heritage.” Using an optical scanning technique, scientists can recover data from these fragile materials without further damaging them. You can see audio preservationist Carl Haber describe the advanced methods above.

The project represents a scientific breakthrough and also a stark reminder of the genocide and humiliation of indigenous people in the American west. When he was found, “starving, disoriented and separated from his tribe,” writes Jessica Jimenez at The Daily Californian, Ishi was “believed to be the last Yahi man in existence because of the Three Knolls Massacre in 1866, in which the entire Yahi tribe was thought to have been slaughtered.” (According to another Berkeley scholar his story may be more complicated.) He was “put on display at the museum, where outsiders could watch him make arrows and describe aspects of Yahi culture.” He never revealed his name (“Ishi” means “man”) and died of tuberculosis in 1916.

The wax cylinders will allow scholars to recover other languages, stories, and songs from peoples destroyed or decimated by the 19th century “Indian Wars.” Between 1900 and 1940, Kroeber and his colleagues recorded “Native Californians from many regions and cultures,” the Berkeley project page explains, “speaking and singing; reciting histories, narratives and prayers, listing names for places and objects among many other things, all in a wide variety of languages. Many of the languages recorded on the cylinders have transformed, fallen out of use, or are no longer spoken at all, making this collection a unique and invaluable resource for linguists and contemporary community members hoping to learn about or revitalize languages, or retrieve important piece of cultural heritage.”

via Hyperallergic

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

Watch an Animated Visualization of the Bass Line for the Motown Classic, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”

Jamerson is the Schoenberg of getting from the I chord to the IV chord. He’s algorithmically generating a new pattern every phrase…[He] belongs with Bach, Debussy and Mozart.

- Jack Stratton

Sideman James Jamerson, Paul McCartney’s musical hero and a co-author of the Motown sound, is a great illustration of the bass’ importance in pop and R&B history.

He kept a funky beat for such artists as Stevie Wonder, Martha and the Vandellas, Marvin Gaye, and the Supremes. His low notes helped the harmonies sing.

Jack Stratton, leader of the modern American funk band, Vulfpeck, named Jamerson to his Holy Trinity of Bass, along with Chic’s Bernard Edwards and Sly and the Family Stone’s Larry Graham.




(Joe Dart, Vulfpeck’s bassist, is a pretty hot ticket too.)

Stratton's reverence extended to a side project in which he visually plots some of Jamerson’s savoriest baselines.

Check out the craggy peaks and valleys on Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell's famous rendition of Ashford & Simpson’s "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," above.

No wonder it’s the most listened to isolated bass track on No Treble, the online magazine for bass players.

All together now:

Stratton’s visualizations of the Jameson lines for Stevie Wonder’s "I Was Made to Love Her" and "For Once In My Life" are pretty mesmerizing too.

Learn more about Jamerson’s highly influential bass technique in Dr. Lick’s Standing in the Shadows of Motown: The Life and Music of Legendary Bassist James Jamerson.

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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.

The Device Invented to Resuscitate Canaries in Coal Mines (Circa 1896)

Lewis Pollard, the curator of the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, England, recently highlighted his favorite object in his museum's collections--this gadget, created circa 1896, used to resuscitate canaries in coal mines.

For about a century--from the 1890s through the 1980s--British coal miners had a tradition of lowering canaries into a coal mine to detect the presence of noxious gases. As the BBC explains, the "canary is particularly sensitive to toxic gases such as carbon monoxide which is colourless, odourless and tasteless. This gas could easily form underground during a mine fire or after an explosion. Following a mine fire or explosion, mine rescuers would descend into the mine, carrying a canary in a small wooden or metal cage. Any sign of distress from the canary was a clear signal the conditions underground were unsafe and miners should be evacuated from the pit and the mineshafts made safer."

In deciding to send canaries into the mines, inventors came up with the somewhat humane device shown above. According to Pollard, the circular door of the cage "would be kept open and had a grill to prevent the canary [from] escaping. Once the canary showed signs of carbon monoxide poisoning the door would be closed and a valve opened, allowing oxygen from the tank on top to be released and revive the canary. The miners would then be expected to evacuate the danger area." This practice continued for almost 100 years, until canaries officially started to get replaced by technology in 1986.

Read more about Pollard's favorite object here.

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Discover the Lost Early Computer Art of Telidon, Canada’s TV Proto-Internet from the 1970s

Most of us got hooked up to the internet in the 1990s or thereabouts, though the true early adopters did it when personal computers first blew up in the 1980s. But certain Canadian households got online even earlier, in the late 1970s, although not quite on the internet as we know it: they had Telidon, a phone line-connected videotex/teletex system that used a regular television as a display. "It is no exaggeration to say that the telecommunications marketplace in Canada was gripped by Telidon fever from late 1979 to late 1982," writes Donald Gilles in the Canadian Journal of Communications. Fueling that fever was "hope and belief in technology – science-based technology – as an agent of change, a bringer of novelty, and enhancer of life."

A post shared by InterAccess (@interaccessto) on


When it first came available, Telidon's content providers included "corporations and interests such as The Bay, Encyclopedia Britannica and the Toronto Star," writes the CBC's Chris Hampton, but "a community of arts-minded electronics wonks, telecom prophets and other curious sorts coalesced around it, embracing it as an art medium."




You can see some of those Telidon creators interviewed in the short Motherboard documentary at the top of the post. While businesses experimented with possibilities of banking and shopping through the system, artists pushed its boundaries even further, using its now severe-seeming technological limitations as a catalyst for visual creativity. On some months, artist Bill Perry's Telidon magazine Computerese drew more viewers than every other provider combined.

A post shared by InterAccess (@interaccessto) on


Now, more than 30 years after its discontinuation, Telidon has attracted attention again. It turns out that its early-computer-art aesthetic has aged quite well, as seen in the examples now being pulled from the archives and Instagrammed by Toronto new-media center InterAccess. Originally founded to make Telidon development tools available to the artist community, InterAccess launched this social media project as a way of celebrating its own 35th birthday. Looking back on all the uses artists found for Telidon — everything from abstract quasi-animations to a study of perspectives on the Cold War — we can imagine how comparatively boundless the modern internet would have seemed to them. But we might also wonder what that modern internet would look like if it had a little more of their artistically and technologically adventurous spirit.

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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.

The First 100 Years of the Bicycle: A 1915 Documentary Shows How the Bike Went from Its Clunky Birth in 1818, to Its Enduring Design in 1890

Back in 1915, French filmmakers decided to revisit the evolution of the bicycle during the 19th century, moving from the invention of the bicycle in 1818, to the bikes that emerged during the 1890s. As the resulting film above shows, the bike went from being clunky, cumbersome and seemingly perilous to ride, to taking on the tried and true shape that we still recognize today.

This film was preserved by the Netherlands' EYE Film Institute. Hence the subtitles are in Dutch. But thanks to Aeon Magazine, you can read English translations below:

1. The draisine was invented only a century ago, in 1818 by Baron Drais de Sauerbrun.
2. [This subtitle never appears in the film.
3. The vehicle that lies between the draisine and the 1850 bicycle has an improved steering wheel and a fitted brake.
4. In 1863, Pierre Lallement invented pedals that worked on the front wheel.
5. Around 1868, a third wheel was added. Although these tricycles were heavier than the two-wheelers, they were safer.
6. Between 1867 and 1870, various improvements were made, including the increased use of rubber tyres.
7. In 1875, following an invention by the engineer Trieffault, the frame was made of hollow pipes.
8. Following the fashion of the day, the front wheel was made as large as possible.
9. In 1878, Renard created a bicycle with a wheel circumference of more than 7 feet. Just sitting down on one of these was an athletic feat!
11. At the beginning of 1879, Rousseau replaced the large front wheel with a smaller one, and the chain was introduced on the front wheel for driving power.
12. The bicycle of today.

For another look at the Birth of the Bike, you can watch a 1937 newsreel that gives its own narrative account. It comes the from British Pathé film archives.

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via Aeon

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How the Mysteries of the Vatican Secret Archives Are Being Revealed by Artificial Intelligence


Somewhere within the Vatican exists the Vatican Secret Archives, whose 53 miles of shelving contains more than 600 collections of account books, official acts, papal correspondence, and other historical documents. Though its holdings date back to the eighth century, it has in the past few weeks come to worldwide attention. This has brought about all manner of jokes about the plot of Dan Brown's next novel, but also important news about the technology of manuscript digitization. It seems a project to get the contents of the Vatican Secret Archives digitized and online has made great progress cracking a problem that once seemed impossibly difficult: turning handwriting into computer-searchable text.

In Codice Ratio is "developing a full-fledged system to automatically transcribe the contents of the manuscripts" that uses not the standard method of optical character recognition (OCR), which looks for the spaces between words, but a new way that can handle connected cursive and calligraphic letters. Their method, in the lingo of the field, "is to govern imprecise character segmentation by considering that correct segments are those that give rise to a sequence of characters that more likely compose a Latin word. We have designed a principled solution that relies on convolutional neural networks and statistical language models."




This is a job, in other words, for artificial intelligence, but in partnership with human intelligence, a seldom-tapped source of which the scientists behind In Codice Ratio have harnessed: that of high-school students. Their special OCR software, writes the Atlantic's Sam Kean, works by "dividing each word into a series of vertical and horizontal bands and looking for local minimums—the thinner portions, where there’s less ink (or really, fewer pixels). The software then carves the letters at these joints." But the software "needs to know which groups of chunks represent real letters and which are bogus," and so "the team recruited students at 24 schools in Italy to build the projects’ memory banks," manually separating the letters the system had properly recognized from those over which it had stumbled.

And so the students became the system's "teachers," improving its ability to extract the content of handwriting, and not just handwriting but vast quantities of archaic handwriting, with every click they made. The encouraging results thus far mean that it probably won't be long before large portions of the Vatican Secret Archives (which, contrary to its awkwardly translated name, is such a non-secret it even has its own official web site) will finally become easy to browse, search, copy, paste, and analyze. So they may, in the fullness of time, prove a fruitful resource indeed to writers of Catholicism-centric thrillers like Brown — who, after all, has already gone public with his enthusiasm for manuscript digitization.

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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.

You Could Soon Be Able to Text with 2,000 Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs

Growing up, I had a box set of Egyptian hieroglyphic stamps from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. For a few weeks I used it to write coded letters to a friend, possessed of the same box set, who lived elsewhere in the neighborhood. Today's smartphone-toting kids, of course, prefer text messaging, a medium which to date has offered little in the way of hieroglyphics, especially compared to the vast and ever-growing quasi-logographic library of emoji, all of them approved by the official emoji subcommittee of the Unicode Consortium. But Unicode itself, the industry-standard system for digitally encoding, representing, and handling text in the various writing systems of the world, may soon expand to include more than 2,000 hieroglyphics.

"Between 750 and 1,000 Hieroglyphs were used by Egyptian authors during the periods of the Old, Middle, and then New Kingdom (2687 BCE–1081 BCE)," writes Hyperallergic's Sarah E. Bond. "That number later greatly increased during the Greco-Roman period, likely to around 7,000."




During that time under Alexander the Great, the Ptolemies, and the Roman Empire, "the language grew, changed, and diversified over the course of thousands of years, a fact which can now be reflected through its digital encoding. Although Egyptian Hieroglyphs have been defined within Unicode since version 5.2, released in 2009, the glyphs were highly limited in number and did not stretch into the Greco-Roman period."

That situation could greatly improve if the Unicode Consortium approves its revised draft of standards for encoding Egyptian Hieroglyphs currently on the table, a scroll through which reveals how much more of the visual (not to mention semantic) richness of this ancient writing system that could soon come available to anyone with a digital device. Its rich variety of tools, animals, icons (in both the old and modern senses), humans, and elements of human anatomy could do much for the Egyptologists of the world needing to efficiently send the content of the texts they study to one another. And though I recall getting plenty communicated with those 24 rubber stamps, who dares predict to what use those texting kids will put these thousands of digital hieroglyphics when they get them at their fingertips?

via Hyperallergic

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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.

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