Weekend Reading: End-of-Year Edition

This is our last post for 2012. ProfHacker is taking our annual publishing break for the holidays, but we’ll be back in just a few weeks.

We’ll return to a light publishing schedule during the first full week of January and then our regular publishing schedule after that.

On to this week’s links…

  • Utopian for Beginners,” by Joshua Foer: “Natural languages are adequate, but that doesn’t mean they’re optimal,” John Quijada, a fifty-four-year-old former employee of the California State Department of Motor Vehicles, told me. In 2004, he published a monograph on the Internet that was titled “Ithkuil: A Philosophical Design for a Hypothetical Language.” Written like a linguistics textbook, the fourteen-page Web site ran to almost a hundred and sixty thousand words. It documented the grammar, syntax, and lexicon of a language that Quijada had spent three decades inventing in his spare time. Ithkuil had never been spoken by anyone other than Quijada, and he assumed that it never would be..
  • The End: A Journey Through America’s Doomsday Obsession,” by Joseph L. Flatley: The Mayan Long Count calendar, used during the classic period of Maya civilization (200 – 909 AD), covers a span of about 5,200 years. The first day of the next cycle, when the whole thing resets, is December 21, 2012. This should probably be an obscure piece of trivia — at least outside of anthropology departments — but it isn’t. Somehow, it’s become the basis of a full-blown cultural phenomenon. America has always been preoccupied with The End, and the 2012 Phenomenon is just the latest example..
  • Snowfall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek,” by John Branch: he snow burst through the trees with no warning but a last-second whoosh of sound. The very thing the 16 skiers and snowboarders had sought — fresh, soft snow — instantly became the enemy. Somewhere above, a pristine meadow cracked in the shape of a lightning bolt, slicing a slab nearly 200 feet across and 3 feet deep. Gravity did the rest. Snow shattered and spilled down the slope. Within seconds, the avalanche was the size of more than a thousand cars barreling down the mountain and weighed millions of pounds. Moving about 7o miles per hour, it crashed through the sturdy old-growth trees, snapping their limbs and shredding bark from their trunks.
  • 2 Good 2 Be 4Gotten: An Oral History of Freaks and Geeks,” by Robert Lloyd: Though you would not think it of a show set in a suburb of Detroit during the 1980–81 school year, Freaks and Geeks, which premiered on NBC in the fall of 1999, is one of the most beautiful and ambitious television series ever made. But its beauties are not cosmetic, and its ambitions are subtle. Both on-screen and behind the scenes, the story of Freaks and Geeks is one of community beating against the odds and growing stronger for it.
  • 7 Codes You’ll Never Ever Break,” by Robert Beckhusen and Noah Shachtman: The history of encryption is a tale of broken secrets. But some mysteries remain unraveled. Among the thousands of broken codes and ciphers solved by cryptologists from the NSA and the KGB to amateurs at home, there are the few elusive codes that no one has ever managed to crack. What makes these ciphers even more intriguing are the people who supposedly wrote them: an estranged lover; a serial killer who sent encrypted letters in a kind of twisted mind game; an esoteric 15th century alchemist for reasons still unknown today. Some of the codes turned up in the pockets of dead men: some unidentified to this day, others who were murdered by strangers for no discernible reason why.

This week’s video is for Ben Gibbard‘s melancholy ode to Seattle’s Smith Tower, which from 1914 until 1962 (when the Space Needle was built) remained the tallest building on the West Coast of the United States:

[Creative Commons-licensed flickr photo by Charlotte Claeson]

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