Find out what a smart phone and the telegraph have in common.

If you like history and technological evolution, you will enjoy this book about the invention of the telegraph. The Victorian Internet (Walker&Company 1997) written by Tom Standage, a science and technology writer for New York Times, Wired and other publications, a short book of only 220 pages.

Mr. Standage covers early design, the monumental task of wiring the globe and Samuel Morse’s contribution.   With that out of the way, he writes about the gargantuan impact the telegraph had on 19th century life.

He calls the telegraph the “Victorian Internet” because of the many similarities to the 20th Century Internet, developed a mere one hundred years later  in the 1960’s.  The “Victorian Internet” bought people, communities, and countries together like never before.  It had changed how commerce operated, how government set foreign policy and how people met and fell in love.  Referencing the popular telegraph periodicals, Mr. Standage quotes several examples of elopement by telegraph.  Mr. Standage opines that the modern American middle class was spawned from the economic wealth generated by the new industry.   Work as a telegraph operator had even been considered suitable employment for women, which created economic franchise for many.

In his 2007 afterword, Mr. Standage has written that we have come full circle with the telegraphic message in the form of short message service or SMS.  He believes “Mobile phones will complete the democratization of telecommunication started by the telegraph.”  Have we come full circle from the teletype and Morse code to the smart phone and texts messages?  They both are a broadcast communication.  They both rely on abbreviated messages.  They both changed the way people communicate with each other.

A companion book to The Victorian Internet may be Where Wizards Stay up Late – the Origins of the Internet by Katie Hafner.  This book looks at those heady days in the 1960’s when scientist were interconnecting the nation’s large mainframe computers for the first time, a time when Al Gore was in junior high school.

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Eureka Poster

While surfing the TV channels; I stumbled upon a TV show called “Eureka”.  Using Netflix I marathoned through most of the first season.   Gearing up for a fourth season, “Eureka” is about a small town in northwestern California with the same name. The town’s residents are all geniuses inventing great gadgets for the one company on the outskirts town, Global Dynamics.  And you can guess who Global Dynamics’ customer is.  Their guests are usually in military uniform or addressed as “congressman”.     

The writers borrowed the central characters straight out of the Mayberry/Andy Griffith Show script. As the main character, Sherriff Jack Carter plays the common sense problem solver who keeps his cool when all around him are losing theirs.  Sound like anybody you know at the Mayberry police station?  Plus he even dresses like Sherriff Andy Taylor.   Sheriff Jack Carter’s sidekick, Jo, and Barney Fife both have an unhealthy fascination with guns.  Albeit Barney just had the one gun.   Jo has the advantage of Global Dynamics’ creations.   Helen Crump, Mayberry’s sweetheart, is upgraded to a sparky Global Dynamics’ Executive Director Allison Blake.  Both are attracted to the sheriff.   I could go on with the comparisons but you get the picture.

The stories created for each episode are funny and intelligent.  In one episode, the town’s engineer uses Occam’s razor principle to solve a problem which could cause big trouble for Eureka and the world.   As a whole, the show’s writers seem to be saying that for as long as we have been inventing and discovering through scientific means, we have also been unable to predict the full impact the invention or discovery has on our society.  But, because it’s TV, an episode’s problem is solved and everybody is back at their lab stations by the end of the show.

What makes the show so exciting is the promise that the inventions –whether they are real or made up by the writers – can bring into our world.  Who wouldn’t want to live in a house that can anticipate your every need and do your laundry?   

The writers have failed to create a sense of hope that, as humans, we might evolve in how we deal with uncertainty, fear and other emotions.  To evolve we must embrace and adapt to changes which are inevitable as technology progressively advances.  Perhaps if we could evolve as humans in this way, our science would become more predictable, nah…who wants predictability, that doesn’t make for great TV.

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Caroline and Her Friends

Blogger “In Your Shoes” posted a story this week about childhood visits to the library.  Reading the post stirred my memories of the tiny colonial period house that served as the library in the small town where I grew up.  

When I was six, my favorite library book was Caroline and Her Friends.  Then came Caroline at the Ranch, Caroline Goes to Sea, Caroline in Europe, Caroline’s Grand Tour, and Caroline’s Winter Holiday.  Pierre Probst, the author (1913-2007), was an advertising illustrator by trade and modeled Caroline after his daughter.  The books were originally published in French and later translated to English, Japanese and other languages.

Caroline was my first idol.  She wore jumpers and trousers.  Growing up as a girl in the 1960’s, I was not allowed to wear long pants.  With the independence of an adult, Caroline traveled to exotic places- India, Egypt and Europe-, escorted by her entourage of fury pals.  I did not travel outside of my small town until I was eight.  She didn’t play with dolls.  Guess what I got for Christmas and birthdays every year?

As with most children’s books, the story line was simple.  It was Mr. Probst’s illustrations that popped the stories to life a la Toy Story.   His images gave the animals human characteristics and mannerisms.  And like young children, Caroline’s friends were always getting into trouble.

I spent hours with my younger sisters looking at the funny illustrations of the escapades of the critter cast.  There was Rusty, Bobby, and Mops y (puppies); Puff and Inky (kittens); Bruno, a bear cub; Leon, a lion cub; and Spot, a leopard cub.   My favorite was Inky because he was the one who got into the most trouble. 

Caroline, Rusty, Bobby, Puff, Inky, Mopsy, Bruno, Leon, and Spots

Some believe the themes in Mr. Probst’s books were ahead of their time.   Did he use children’s books to look at issues like female equality and animal rights?  Publishing in the 1950’s, the author conveyed young Caroline as independent and adventurous.  The animals are presented as “friends” and not pets.  These were simple ideas but important ones.

 American English versions of these books are difficult to find.  However, you can easily find new French versions on Amazon at reasonable rates.   I am calling on all publishers to pick up the banner and bring Caroline and Her Friends to 21st Century youngsters.  This  20th Century youngster  would love to read them again, too!

Pictures obtained from and

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Do you have an eBook?

Do you have an eBook (or tablet)?   

While at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES2011) this year, CNET summed up the tablet’s future by saying it is one of the three devices (smart phones, connected TV, tablets) that will grab content floating around internet space once accessible only by the PC.

The tablets on the market today are more than just electronic books.  Along with downloading a favorite book, the new tablets give you access to music, movies, periodicals, and news feeds.  You can also find endless internet based application with this light weight computing device.  And it is fast!  A file transfer for an average sized book takes less than sixty seconds. No more driving to the bookstore or library. Very green!

There are lots of eBook services out there for the “e-bibliophile”. (I had to say it.)  All the big retailers –Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Borders, for example – offer eBooks with prices ranging from $6 to $15 dollars.  Ouch! But it is much less than the $15-$30 price tag on paper books.

And, there are service providers which promote free books.  Be aware, when registering on their websites, credit card information is required – just in case you want to purchase for pay eBooks and other applications on the site.   

Finally, there are public domain services, meaning the works “….are intangible to private ownership and/or which are available for use by members of the public.” (WikiSource)  Think works of William Shakespeare and Isaac Newton.   WikiSource and Project Gutenberg are two examples. WikkiSource reports that it hosts over 160,000 works and is a great place to find classic literature and other non-fiction topics.  You are not going to find the latest David Baldacci novel on these sites.

Just as they provide access to thousands of audio books, the public library comes to the rescue again with eBooks.  Libraries are striking deals with on-line eBook service providers to supply their readers with current titles in the various eBook file formats. There is no fee.  All you need is a current library card and an internet connection.  If this is a source you would like to use, contact your local library and ask when eBooks are scheduled to be on the shelf. Let’s hope it’s soon.  And you should be able to check out the latest David Baldacci novel, Deliver Us From Evil.

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Audio Book Anyone?

Thanks to everyone who commented on my first blog post last week.  Good karma will come your way soon.  Keep reading This Common Reader and share it with others. 

The Audio Book  

One friend has commented that he reads through audio books and has read more since using this technology.  Companies like “Books on Tape” and “Recorded Books” began with tape cassettes in the 1980’s, evolved to compact disks in the 1990’s, and now offer downloadable files for MP3 players.  Most public libraries offer all forms – cassettes, CD’s, and file downloads- at no cost to the reader.  My library has over 16,000 titles available to download.  Just get a library card and start listening err….reading. 

Listening to audio books is a great way to catch up on the classics like Moby Dick and War and Peace, or the Bible, or that novel on your reading list which you just can’t get around to starting.  It gives readers access to books which they may never read otherwise due to time constraints or other barriers

When you began listening to audio books, you quickly become familiar with the narrator format.  Narrators add depth and color to a story. Most create unique dialect and personality for each of the characters, making them come alive.  The narrator’s story telling is what makes audio books so popular.  If you are a fan of “Recorded Books”, chances are you have heard narrator George Guidall. On this blog, Mr. Guidall is the standard by which all narrators should be measured.

An acquaintance said to me last week that people learn in many different ways – through visual and auditory means.  If this is true, the enjoyment of good literature through audio books will increase readership.  It will inspire the 286 million MP3 player owners, reported by ZDNet, to absorb more knowledge – whether it’s by listening to or reading a book.

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“I tweet, therefore I am”

If I don’t tweet, does it mean that I do not exist?   I am stepping into the 21st Century and learning to communicate in a new way, by using the application Twitter.   This amazing form of communication lets me know about weekly specials at the local supermarket and keeps me informed of the minute by minute updates of this century’s first peaceful revolution occurring on the other side of the planet (Egypt).  Our written form of communication has gone from handwritten letters describing events which occurred over months or years to a single 140 character entry jettisoned out into cyberspace and connected to thousands in nanoseconds.  We are compelled to communicate with others to validate our existence in whatever form is available to us.  I guess this is why I feel the urge to “tweet”?

“I think, therefore I am.” Rene Descartes, 17th Century philosopher

I have just read Descartes’ Bones A Skeletal History of the Conflict between Faith and Reason by Russell Shorto (Doubleday, 2008).  Silly me, I thought it was a book about the physical provenance of the great philosopher’s bones. This book is great for non-scientific types who wish to get a crash course on the origin of modern (western) philosophy and the science which we see as true today.   Mr. Shorto reveals that M. Descartes’ ideas surrounding religion and the natural sciences are still relevant today. 

I wonder what M. Descartes would think of Twitter?

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Hello world!

This Common Reader is a blog about reading, book reviews, new and rediscovered books, writers, writing and discussions about literature and works of non-fiction.  This Common Reader is also interested in how new technology, like the electronic tablet, impacts how ideas are communicated and expressed.

my awesome teacher

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