The Victorian Internet: A series of tubes

Appropriately enough for the nation that pioneered the first telegraphs, the French had their own twist on the use of pneumatic tubes. For of all the tube networks built around the world, the most successful was in Paris, where sending and receiving pneus became a part of everyday life in the late nineteenth century. Like the pneumatic tube networks in many other major cities, the Paris network was extensive enough that many local messages could be sent from sender to recipient entirely by tube and messenger, without any need for telegraphic transmission. In these cases, the telegraph form that the sender wrote the message on actually ended up in the hands of the recipient—which meant that long messages were just as easy to deliver as short messages.

So, in 1879, a new pricing structure was announced: For messages travelling within the Paris tube network, the price was fixed, no matter how long the message. Faster than the post and cheaper than sending a telegram, this network provided a convenient way to send local messages within Paris, though the service was operated by the state telegraph company and the messages were officially regarded as telegrams.

Messages were written on special forms, which could be purchased, prepaid, in advance. These could then be deposited into small post boxes next to conventional mailboxes, handed in at telegraph counters in post offices, or put into boxes mounted on the backs of trams, which were unloaded when the trams reached the end of the line. Once in the system, messages were sent along the tubes to the office nearest the destination and then delivered by messenger. Each message might have to pass through several sorting stations on the way to its destination; it was date-stamped at each one, so that its route could be determined. (The same is true of today’s e-mail messages, whose headers reveal their exact paths across the Internet.) No enclosures were allowed to be included with messages, and any messages that broke this rule were transferred to the conventional postal service and charged at standard postal rates.

The scheme was a great success, and the volume of messages being passed around the network almost doubled in the first year. The network was further extended as a result, and for many years messages were affectionately known as petits bleus, after the blue color of the message forms.

Could this be where Senator Stevens got his “series of tubes” idea about the Internet? Perhaps he wasn’t that far off after all.

The Victorian Internet: You had me at …. . .-.. .-.. —

“Romances of the Telegraph,” an article published in Western Electrician in 1891, tells the story of a “pretty little romance” that took place at a remote station out in the desert at Yuma, Arizona… There was nothing to do, it was unbearably hot and very difficult to sleep, so unsurprisingly the operator at the station, John Stansbury, turned to the telegraph wire for companionship.

An acquaintance soon sprung up between Stansbury and the operator in Banning, Californian, known as “Mat,” whom Stansbury described as a “jolly, cheerful sort of fellow.” They soon became firm friends and agreed to spend their vacation together in the mountains hunting and fishing. Every detail of the trip was arranged, with Mat insisting that they take rubber boots for fishing, even though Stansbury said he was quite happy in his bare feet. But at the last minute Mat pulled out of the trip, having decided to take the train to vacation in New Mexico instead, a trip that involved passing through Yuma, Stansbury’s station. But by the time Mat arrived at Yuma, Stansbury had been taken ill with a fever and was quite delirious.

“During the days of my agony I was vaguely aware of gentle, womanly hands and a kindly female presence in my sick-room,” Stansbury later wrote. “And when I returned to the conscious world I was not surprised to find a fair and pleasant face beside me. Its owner said that she had been on the train when I was found stricken down, and had stayed to minister to my sore need. The idea may seem preposterous, but I believe the foundation for my affection had been laid while the unconsciousness of fever was still upon me, and the affection grew into the deepest love as she cared for me during the days of my convalescence. After a time I ventured to tell her of my love, and to ask her if she would be mine; but I was not prepared for her answer. ‘John,’ she said, ‘do you really mean that you wish to marry a girl that insists upon wearing rubber boots?’

“‘Mat!’ I said, for I was completely beaten. Then it flashed upon me. She was the operator at Banning, and I, like a fool, had always taken it for granted that she was a man. I am not going to tell you how I convinced her that I wanted to marry her, boots and all, but I did it, and here we are on our wedding journey. The Southern Pacific Telegraph Company has lost an operator, but I calculate that I am way ahead on the deal.”

My grandmother had a brief stint as a telegraph operator in the 1920s, but by then telegraph machines had been automated. She was trained on a Simplex Automatic Printer, a typewriter-like telegraph machine that sent and receive messages via perforated tape that was converted into electrical impulses and then decoded into print on paper. The cozy human element was gone, and the operators worked in shifts around the clock, which my grandmother didn’t like so she quickly moved to the bookkeeping department. But it’s quite amazing to think that in only two generations we’ve gone from telegraph to Twitter. I wonder what’s next?

Teletypewriter, 1930.

Charles Babbage: No technology please, we’re British

Propose to an Englishman any principle, or any instrument, however admirable, and you will observe that the whole effort of the English mind is directed to find a difficulty, a defect, or an impossibility in it. If you speak to him of a machine for peeling a potato, he will pronounce it impossible: if you peel a potato with it before his eyes, he will declare it useless, because it will not slice a pineapple. Impart the same principle or show the same machine to an American or to one of our Colonists, and you will observe that the whole effort of his mind is to find some new application of the principle, some new use for the instrument.

—Quoted in Richard H. Babbage (1948), “The Work of Charles Babbage”, Annals of the Computation Laboratory of Harvard University, vol. 16 [quoted in The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood]

Charles Babbage designed the first computer (since the Greeks, anyway) around 1840, but it was never built because he couldn’t convince the government that it had any useful function. That didn’t stop his friend Ada Lovelace from writing the first computer program for Babbage’s machine, even though it didn’t exist. Imagine how much father ahead we would be if Babbage and Lovelace had been able to put their theories into practice and the computer age had begun 150 years ago?

Update: Someone has indeed imagined what would have happened had Babbage’s computer had been built. The Difference Engine, by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, explores that very scenario. Add one more to the TBR list!

Duolingo: Here Comes Everybody!

DuolingoGood news! Yesterday the creators of Duolingo announced that the site would be opened to the public on June 19th. Just to recap, Duolingo is a brilliant website where you learn languages by translating sentences in lessons and from the web. (More details in these blog posts.) You can also follow other Duolinguians and discuss language points and share things that you’ve learned. It’s been in private, invitation-only beta testing for about 6 months and has developed a lot in that time. They keep adding and improving features, and evidently the Duolingo team feels it is now ready for prime time. The general reaction of the beta users so far has been awe and unbridled enthusiasm, in four languages. There is one discussion going on about how Duolingo makes learning so effortless it’s spooky. It certainly goes against the conventional wisdom that you can learn a language without learning rules, memorizing vocabulary, and conjugating verbs, but so it is. Duolingo works.

So far the languages offered are Spanish, French, and German for English-speakers, and English for Spanish-speakers. Of course they are planning to add more languages, and I gather that Italian, Chinese (whether Mandarin or Cantonese is not clear), and Portuguese (or perhaps English for Portuguese-speakers) are likely next. If that sounds interesting, I have even better news for you. Today Duolingo has given all its beta users three invitations to bestow as we wish. If you don’t feel like waiting another 4 weeks to get in, leave a comment, and if there’s more than three candidates I’ll get out my choosing hat. Heartfelt appeals will also hold sway. I should just warn you that Duolingo is one of the most addictive substances on the planet, so don’t expect to get much else done once you start!

UPDATE: My three invitations are now gone, but if you’re desperate there are people offering invites on Twitter. Search for #duolingo to find them. Good luck!

Virtual Street Library

Littleman's Virtual LIbrary

This clever poster is the brainchild of Dublin artist Littleman. The QR codes link to downloadable ebooks, and even people viewing the poster online have downloaded these classics to their phones. How brilliant is that? Imagine if libraries started putting up posters around town with QR codes for their ebooks and audiobooks? What an excellent way to reach people who normally wouldn’t set foot in a library. Well done, Littleman!

via reddit

Classical Bookworm 3.0

After three days of tinkering this blog is now ready for action at! The new address is, not surprisingly, This is my third blog home in 7 (!) years of blogging, and I have to say this move was much easier than the last one. The import itself was almost instantaneous, which is pretty impressive when you are talking about 1,139 posts and 5,417 comments.

The reason it took some tinkering is that I had to remove all of my Amazon Associates links, since only allows non-profit blogs. I think that is fair considering it’s a free service. You may see the occasional ad here but they are generated by WordPress to pay their bills. To remove my Amazon Associates links I had to export my blog from Blogger and use some fancy search and replace in Notepad++ to turn them into plain Amazon links, which are allowed. Other than that I didn’t have to do anything to the export file and WordPress slurped it up in one gulp. If I hadn’t had those links to fix I could have imported my blog directly from Blogger to WordPress without exporting it. Nothing could be easier!

The rest of the tinkering had to do with setting up the new blog’s design and structure, and tidying up my categories. I moved all my sidebar links to a “page,” which you can find by clicking on “Bookish Resources” above. Since leaving Typepad I have been hosting my images at Photobucket so I didn’t have to mess with them, but all of my internal links are now broken and I will have to go through them one by one to fix them. It’s laborious but it’s also fun to rediscover old posts. I’ve probably forgotten most of what I have posted here so working on old posts is like finding books on my bookshelves that I’d forgotten I had.

I do have to apologize for the small font used by my new WordPress theme. I was not aware of it at first because I have my minimum font size in Firefox set to 15. It looked perfectly readable to me until I loaded the page in another browser! If it’s a problem I suggest setting a minimum font size in your browser options. In future I might opt to pay for CSS access in WordPress but at the moment I am enjoying the simplicity of using a stock theme and not spending too much time on design. Once I get started on CSS it’s hard for me to stop!

Do let me know if you find anything amiss, or if there is anything you would like to see here. Onward!

Under Deconstruction

As I posted earlier, I am leaving Blogger because of their decision to start censoring blogs at the request of governments that do not allow free speech in their countries. I will be moving to, which has refused to collaborate with countries that deny their citizens basic human rights.

While I work on setting up my new blog I will turn off comments here so that I don’t lose any during the move. I’ll post again with the new address when everything is up and ready.

Censorship: Coming to a blog near you!

A few days ago when I blogged about Twitter’s new country-specific censorship capability, I did not know that the platform I was blogging on had already initiated a similar program three weeks earlier. Apparently the only indication of this fact was a new help article published on January 9th. There was no official announcement, and no attempt at transparency as there is from Twitter. Google does not say what will happen to censored blogs. Will they simply be invisible or will there be a notice saying they are censored? Will Google be publishing the take-down orders they receive the way Twitter will?

In any case, what this means is that if I blog about human rights, for instance, my blog could be blocked in any number of countries, and I may never even know it. But I am even more concerned about bloggers in those countries. When WordPress was approached by China in 2006 to censor blogs, they were also asked to hand over user information. To their credit, they refused, and WordPress blogs are still blocked in China (though the blocks are easily circumvented). But consider the implications if China made a similar request of Google. Google, along with Twitter, has now committed to obeying local laws, even if they violate universal human rights, in exchange for permission to operate in that country. If a country like China were to make a law that a web service must not only censor but supply information on all violators, how can a web company with resources invested in that country refuse? Now add in Google’s new “privacy” policy, which amalgamates user data across almost all Google services, including Gmail, YouTube, Google+, and of course Blogger. It is conceivable that a blogger who violates some censorship law might end up having their email, the videos they watched, and their friends’ names on Google+ handed over to their government. Now a service that used to give ordinary people a voice will not only take away that voice but could potentially denounce users to governments that imprison, torture, and kill dissidents.

I was already thinking of leaving Blogger but this is definitely the last straw. I do not want my blog to be subject to censorship laws in other countries, nor do I want to support a company that carries out censorship for the sake of ever-increasing profits. I am inclined to move to WordPress, which has already refused to censor and so is blocked in several countries (though as I said above, it is easy to circumvent those blocks and indeed WordPress is popular in China). They even state explicitly on their website that they support freedom of speech and will not censor blogs (with the usual exceptions of spam, pornography and hate speech). The only question is whether to use or self-hosted WordPress. Since I left Typepad in 2009 I’ve gotten used to not paying for my blog, but free is somewhat limited in design and widget options. Moreover, with US media companies trying to clamp down hard on copyright infringement, I may be better off locating my blog in Canada. I do like the idea of owning (or at least renting) my own little piece of cyberspace, but I’m not sure I want to deal with the technicalities of running WordPress on my own. I will have to investigate the options, but I certainly will be moving this blog in the near future. Stay tuned…

Duolingo: Mixing it up

Wouldn’t you know it, a day after I post all about Duolingo they start changing things! I’ve been working away on my lessons and it seems every time I look up I notice something new. The most obvious change is that the main page now has bolder graphics for the skill area “chips.”

It was fine before but this new design definitely makes it easier to see your progress in each skill area. As a person over 40, I have to say that bigger type and graphics is always a good thing.

There have also been changes to the web translation module. You can now see the previous sentences you’ve worked on, including your translations and the option to see other translations. This provides context at a glance, which is very convenient. It is also now possible to edit your translation after seeing other people’s answers. This is brilliant. Correcting your own work is a great way to learn.

One thing I didn’t mention in my previous post is how Duolingo mixes up the lessons and even the sentences in each lesson. You don’t progress by completing one skill and moving on to the next, like chapters in a book. After you get the basics in one skill, other skill areas open up and you are encouraged to work on them for a bit and then go back. Duolingo highlights the recommended area to work on and if you follow that path you will do a lot of bopping back and forth. This shows that the Duolingo people have really done their homework because it is precisely what the brain needs to form long-term memories and associations. The same pattern appears within each lesson. There you will be presented with a sentence to translate into English, move on to something else, and then get the previous sentence again but this time having to do the more difficult task of translating it into Spanish or listening and typing it out in Spanish. It is this element of surprise that makes the brain take notice and go to the trouble of putting that information into long-term memory. You know things are going to come up again, but you don’t know when or how, so you have to pay close attention to everything. Add to this the daily practice sessions and you have a system designed for learning success.

I can say a bit more about the social side of Duolingo now that I’ve found and followed a few people. Duolingo recommends people who are at about your level and when you follow them, your activity stream shows all of their accomplishments too. The top of the screen also shows how you rank in points and sentences translated compared to the people you follow. I think the idea is to motivate people with competition, but it doesn’t do much for me. There isn’t much emotional payoff when you are competing against total strangers whom you know nothing about and cannot interact with. I think those factors may change, though, since it appears there will be ways to connect via Twitter and Facebook, though those tools don’t seem to be fully operational yet. If it were possible to get to know people and when people I know are let into Duolingo, it might be more fun to race against them. However, I think Duolingo might get more mileage out of encouraging cooperation rather than competition. After all, part of the reason people are clamouring to get into Duolingo is because they love the idea of helping to translate the web together. Judging by all the desperate “Let me in!!” tweets directed at Duolingo, that motivation seems to be quite strong. It might be more effective to find ways for people to collaborate in their learning or translating instead of competing. I’m not sure what that would look like but I’m sure the clever people at Duolingo can figure it out!