Seminal Online Community, The Well, Lives On

In 2001 I edited and published an excellent book by journalist Katie Hafner, The Well: A Story of Love, Death & Real Life in the Seminal Online Community, a narrative and oral history, with verbatim posts and original discussions and exchanges written by founding members of the very first online community. Reading Katie’s book is like observing the birth of the Internet, and even social media, before the latter was even a glimmer in anyone’s eye. The manuscript grew out of a 1997 cover story on The Well that Katie had done for Wired magazine. I’ve read tonight in the NY Times that, which had acquired The Well in the late 90s, has now sold The Well to an investment group made up some of its current members.

Among The Well’s founding members were such countercultural stalwarts as Stewart Brand, Howard Rheingold, John Perry Barlow, Larry Brilliant, Gail Williams, and a host of unsung but pivotal Internet pioneers. These people are all characters in Katie Hafner’s sleek and moving book.  I admire The Well’s legacy and hope its new owner-members make something special of it once again.

#FridayReads, Sept. 7–Tony Hillerman’s “The Dark Wind” & Jonathan D. Moreno’s “Mind Wars”

#FridayReads, Sept. 7–The Dark Wind, one of Tony Hillerman’s early mysteries featuring Jim Chee, the Navaho policeman. I’ve loved these books for many years, and was happy to find this secondhand copy of the 1982 book from a sidewalk seller on Broadway last week. If you love mysteries and haven’t read Hillerman, what are you waiting for?

Also, I’m still reading a book I’d blogged about last week, Mind Wars: Brain Science and the Military in the 21st Century by Jonathan D. Moreno, on the attempts of US defense and intelligence agencies to develop enhanced human capacity for soldiers and agents in the field.  This work, much of at the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency (DARPA), where the Internet originated, is shrouded in secrecy. However, Moreno–a medical ethicist whose father was a prominent psychotherapist who at one time worked experimentally with LSD–reveals a great deal of fascinating information. By the way, googling Moreno’s name and “Mind Wars” yields articles like this one from Wired magazine relating this field of scientific research to the Jason Bourne movies

How (Not) to Make the Most of an Empty Chair

Author Jonathan D. Moreno has a fascinating Op-Ed in Saturday’s NY Times, What the Chair Could Have Told Clint, offering unexpected insight into the use of an empty chair in an imagined dialogue, and the opportunity that Clint Eastwood missed when he gave his unscripted talk at the RNC Thursday night. Turns out that Moreno’s father, J.L. Moreno, was a psychotherapist who developed the use of an empty chair in therapeutic work, leading to use of the term ‘psychodrama.’

A technique that the younger Moreno points out Eastwood could have undertaken would have been to take a turn sitting in the empty chair himself–a suggestion that his father encouraged and which psychiatrists still make to their analysands, in hopes of having them truly comprehend the other in their midst. Moreno regrets

Mr. Eastwood wasted an important educational and therapeutic moment from which our deadlocked political system could benefit: putting himself in the role of the other person of whom he is critical and coming to understand that person’s point of view “from inside.”

Moreno also points to a missed opportunity from the 60s and the Vietnam era. His father offered the Johnson administration his professional services in a bid to conduct a psychodrama with LBJ and Ho Chi Minh. He laments that

Perhaps the deaths of so many tens of thousands of men, women and children could have been averted. But my father got a curt brushoff from Bill Moyers, then the White House press secretary, informing him that diplomacy was not a psychotherapy theater game. But of course any practitioner or historian of diplomacy knows that often that’s exactly what it is.

Moreno knows these fields very well, and I urge you to read his entire column.

According to the bio on his 2012 book, Mind Wars: Brain Science and the Military in the 21st Century, he has been “a senior staff member for three presidential advisory commissions and has served on a number of Pentagon advisory committees.” For the sake of full disclosure, I want to note that I am connected to Moreno through my friendship with Erika Goldman, his book editor at Bellevue Literary Press. In June, when I began consulting with Speakerfile–the Toronto company that connects conference organizers with authors, experts, and thought leaders who do public speaking–Erika recommended the platform to Jonathan and he became one of the first authors to sign up for Speakerfile during my tenure as a consultant for them.



Good Advice on Twitter Bios & Web IDs

This is an excellent advice blog post by publishing and writing maven Jane Friedman, on crafting one’s Twitter bio and more broadly, your online identity. One of her most salient tips:

[A] little bit of personality is more often than not what starts a conversation on Twitter.”

Jane is an experienced and knowledgeable hand, as her full online bio attests. If you’re on Twitter and a writer, I suggest you follow her. If you wonder how she does her own Twitter bio, here it is:

I share links on writing, publishing & tech. Web editor for @vqr + former publisher of @writersdigest. Bourbon lover & Hoosier native.
Charlottesville, VA, USA ·

I’m mulling her advice, including the point about not necessarily using a list to ID oneself, though haven’t yet made a stab at a revised Twitter bio. FWIW, here’s my current Twitter ID:

Blogger, editor, reader, music lover, honorary Canadian. As publisher, I’ve done Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father & Amb Joseph Wilson’s Politics of Truth.
New York City ·

I invite you to follow my tweets too.

My own advice? Remember to be yourself, in personal and professional realms, and allow that confident presentation of self to surface in your online IDs.

Greenland’s Petermann Glacier, Calving or Caving?

An AP story carried on NPR’s site reports that an enormous piece of the Petermann Glacier in Greenland, a chunk of ice twice the size of Manhattan, has fallen into the sea surrounding that far northern continent. While glaciologists can’t yet say for sure this was caused by climate change, it is of a piece with recent melting that’s been occurring all around the massive landmass. A series of maps and satellite photos from NASA shows these changes, which actually occurred in August 2010, though examination of the photos has only recently yielded discovery of the event. Scientists will continue to study this event, as they try to determine if this was a glacier calving off a large part of itself, or whether the 46-square mile chunk of ice caved in to the ocean as a result of global warming. 

Peopling the Americas, the Latest Chapter

As reported by Nicholas Wade in the NY Times, an extensive new genetic study may vindicate the assessment of the late linguist Joseph Greenberg that the Americas were peopled by three successive waves of early human migration from Siberia beginning around 15,000 years ago. The views of Greenberg—whom Wade calls “the great classifier of the world’s languages”– have been derided by some critics, though I’ve wondered if resistance to his theories has had more to do with pique at a linguist wandering off his turf on to other patches.

Today’s article is fascinating, as was an earlier piece on Greenberg that Wade published in 2000, a year before the Stanford linguist’s death at age 86. This man was a giant in the study of human languages.

If the new study reveals what its authors believe to be the case, the discoveries may bring new repute to the Clovis theory, that sees Siberian peoples coming to the Americas around 9000 B.C.E., 11,000 years ago, in three successive waves. By contrast, in 2004 I published a book by Canadian journalist Elaine Dewar, Bones: Discovering the First Americans, in which she suggested that the Americas may have been peopled from the south up, as it were, by migratory peoples who first made contact with the Americas along the Pacific coast of South America, like today’s Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Chile. Elaine was critical of Clovis and her book got serious reviews, like this one in Archaeology magazine. Not a scientist they say, but they forgive her for being a journalist.

The novelty of Greenberg’s theory was back in his core field, linguistics, with his central belief, based on his studies of vocabulary and speech patterns, that the peoples who came from Siberia brought with them two languages that then spawned all the languages spoken in the Americas, up to the arrival of European tongues in the 15th and 16th centuries. As Wade reports,

“[Greenberg] asserted in 1987 that most languages spoken in North and South America were derived from the single mother tongue of the first settlers from Siberia, which he called Amerind. Two later waves, he surmised, brought speakers of Eskimo-Aleut and of Na-Dene, the language family spoken by the Apache and Navajo.”

For balance, Wade finds scientists who don’t yet accept the interpretation of the study by its lead scientists: 

“’This is a really important step forward but not the last word,’ said David Meltzer of Southern Methodist University, noting that many migrations may not yet have shown up in the genetic samples. Michael H. Crawford, an anthropologist at the University of Kansas, said the paucity of samples from North America and from coastal regions made it hard to claim a complete picture of early migrations has been attained. ‘Sometimes the statisticians make wonderful interpretations, but you have to be very guarded,’ he said.”

But Wade thinks skeptics can’t gainsay what amounts to a major validation of Greenberg:

“The geneticists’ finding of a single main migration of people who presumably spoke a single language at the time confirms Dr. Greenberg’s central idea that most American languages are descended from a single root, even though the genetic data cannot [yet] confirm the specific language relationships he described. “Many linguists put down Greenberg as rubbish and don’t believe his publications,” Dr. Ruiz-Linares said. But he considers his study a substantial vindication of Dr. Greenberg. ‘It’s striking that we have this correspondence between the genetics and the linguistics,’” he said.

Rachel Sklar, Changing the Ratio one Mind at a Time

I admire Rachel Sklar’s Change the Ratio initiative, from which she advocates for a more equitable proportion of women in tech fields, and now want to recommend this column of hers about the recent list of major tech influencers from Newsweek/Daily Beast that unaccountably managed to identify only 7 women listed out of 100 total standouts. To the credit of  Newsweek/Daily Beast they solicited Rachel’s critique and are running it in their own pages, but the lingering question is, “Why does this list skew list so heavily toward men?”

Rachel’s analysis makes clear that the answer to that question goes well beyond what simply happened in this one instance. She offers many women candidates who could have been included and closes her piece on an admonitory note,

Next year, please don’t make me write this article again.”

H/t Andrew Rasiej of Personal Democracy Forum for his editorial in TechPresident, “Let’s Change the Ration Once and For All,” which first brought Rachel’s column to my attention.

Treasuring Early Natural History Books

Always happy to see a story involving my old hometown Cleveland’s book culture–Judith Rosen of Publishers Weekly reports that an 1886 book of natural history and ornithology, Nests and Eggs of Birds of Ohio, a copy of which was discovered in 1995 in the library of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, is now being republished by Princeton Architectural Press. PAP’s catalog listing for the book shows that the new edition has been retitled  America’s Other Audubon by Joy Kiser, the librarian who found one of twenty-five remaining copies of the rare book.

The author, Genevieve Jones, an amateur naturalist of her day, was inspired to create the book after seeing Audubon’s Birds of America paintings at the World’s Fair of 1876. She created sixty-eight original lithographs in making her book, which contemporaries described as “the most beautiful book ever produced in America.” Sadly, Jones died before it was finished and her family labored seven years to see to its completion, then underwriting printing and selling it by subscription. Only 90 copies were produced, and among the subscribers were Theodore Roosevelt and President Rutherford Hayes.

I love old natural history books, such as The Journal of A Disappointed Man by W.N.P. Barbellion, to which H.G. Wells contributed an Introduction upon its publication in 1919–a few months before the author died of multiple sclerosis at age thirty. Two sample entries from Barbellion’s youth, January 3, 1903: “Am writing an essay on the life-history of insects and have abandoned the idea of writing 0n ‘How Cats Spend their Time.'” and March 18, “Our Goldfinch roosts at 5:30. Joe’s kitten is a very small one. ‘Magpie’ is its name.”  I have an old Penguin copy of the book and a reprint published in 1989. Then there’s Fishes: Their Journeys and Migrations by Louis Roule, originally published in 1933, which I republished as a Kodansha Globe title in 1996, with a new Introduction by George Reiger of Field & Stream magazine. A reviewer of the original edition wrote, “Will please the nature student, the Izaak Walton enthusiast, or the reader who delights in believe-it-or-nots.” Living in an age of diminishing biological diversity with an accelerating pace of extinction, it is important to be aware of species and varieties that used to be common and are no more, or increasingly scarce, and I treasure these books for aiding that effort, decades after they were first published. That’s kind of miraculous.