The Grolier Codex

A page of the Grolier Codex. (Credit: US-PD/Wikimedia Commons)

Is the Grolier Codex the oldest book discovered in the Americas? That was debated since it was discovered in 1965, but it seems that the book can now legitimately hold that distinction.

Discovered in a Chiapas, Mexico cave, the 11 sheets of bark paper that were part of a Maya book has been studied by a team led by a researcher from Brown University. That analysis seems to put to rest the 40 year debate.

Unfortunately, the discovery was made not by scientists but by looters. It then went through a series of hands of collectors before Mexican customs officials grabbed it in 1977.  It first appeared in a private collection in the 20th century and was displayed at the Grolier Club in New York, hence its name.

A 2007 analysis of the Grolier Codex questioned its authenticity. But, using radiocarbon dating and exhaustively analyzing the Codex’s content, the Brown researchers concluded that the manuscript is real.

The bark pages are in poor condition with mostly the the top section intact and bottoms that are water damaged. (View the pages) They were once bound and there were 9 more pages. The Codex that remains is 11 pages, each with a figure facing left and armed with a weapon. Some hold a chain tied to the neck of a prisoner.

Why so foreboding? It is now thought that the Codex was used to track the movements of Venus in the sky. To the maya, Venus could foretell bad things to come. Marking and numbers on the pages track Venus’ movements. The Maya calendar was based on celestial observations and their calendar calendar contained spans of 104 years, or 13 synodic cycles (the time it takes Venus to come back to the same position in the night sky).

A 16mm Education

My elementary school days were the 1960s and back then seeing a film in class was a big deal. Those 16mm educational films often left a bigger impression on me than the books and lessons. A decade or so later and I was the teacher in the classroom and I became very good at threading those old 16mm projectors that often ate up the film.

Television as an educational tool was pretty rare. I recall my fellow students sitting on the floor of the gym in 1962 to watch one small television set as John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth.

A bit more than a decade later I was threading one of those 16mm projectors as a teacher to show my students films. Some teachers took advantage of using films a bit too often. We called them "plans in a can" and they were popular emergency plans in case you were absent without warning or on a day before vacation.

I was pretty frugal in my use of films, but I also taught a course on film and video production, so I think I had legitimate reasons to show films. Before there were home video players, 16mm films were the only way to do it.

The Sony Betamax hit the U.S. in 1975, and my school bought a VHS videocassette recorder (VCR) in 1977 when it was edging out the Betamax for the home video market. That VCR was something I used more and more, though my students were still shooting their own video on reel-to-reel VTRs (videotape recorders).

Sony changed that with their 1983 Betamovie cassette camcorder. My school bought a full size VHS camcorder and so did I. My first home movies of my newborn son were recorded with a video camera plugged into a VHS deck.

But I have very fond and surprisingly vivid memories of those old 15mm films that I saw as a kid in school.

Many of them have emerged online. I assume that many of these films have had their copyright lapse, or maybe the companies that produced them have gone out of business or just don't care about their use any more.

I recall this film on "Lunchroom Manners" as one I saw in school. I also recall Pee Wee Herman using part of it in one of his shows. Watching "Mr. Bungle" in school settings today reminds me of my own school and the kids look like a lot I did then and my fellow students. Since I have no film and video of my own early days, these are like home movies.

I can imagine teachers in the late 1940s and 1950s showing in a health class films like the 1951  "Going Steady." (It doesn't portray going steady as a good idea.) And I'm not sure how teenagers in 1949 would have viewed the tips in Dating Do's and Don'ts. These were made by Coronet Instructional Films, which produced hundreds of films for the school market.

Public domain films from the Library of Congress Prelinger Archive and can be a real trip down memory lane for people who came of age in the 1940s through the 1970s.

But the films I saw in school that left the biggest impression on me were the ones about science. Many of them were well made and from Hollywood producers and studios. I vividly recall "Our Mr. Sun," a film directed by Frank Capra who is best known for It's a Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and many others.

That film launched the Bell System Science series. My father worked at Bell Labs in New Jersey then, so I thought then that he might have had some vague connection to these films (he didn't). It was the time time of the space race with Russia and an early version of STEM education that we all needed to know more about science. My father was determined I would be the first in the family to attend college and really wanted me to become an engineer.

With animation and live action, "Our Mr. Sun" was really well-made for the time. Capra had been producing documentaries for the Army during WWII such as the Why We Fight series and this documentary side business continued after the war. I know I saw that film multiple times in school, but this Technicolor beauty was originally telecast in 1956 and 1957 to 9 million homes and then some 600 16mm prints were distributed to schools and community organizations through the Bell Telephone System film libraries.

Another film I recall was on the atom. I grew up in that "atomic age" when the fear of nuclear war was very real. The film I recall was produced by Walt Disney Educational Media. Walt Disney began hosting his own television show for ABC in 1954. In exchange for a weekly hour-long Disney television program, ABC was funding some of the construction of Disneyland. The show was originally named Disneyland but went through later incarnations as Walt Disney Presents, Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color, The Wonderful World of Disney etc. All in all it ran for an amazing 54 years.

The "Our Friend the Atom" was a pro-nuclear energy film but it did compare atomic energy to a genie in a bottle, both of which are capable of doing good and evil.

Not all the films were about hard science and another one I recall must have had some impact on my decision to go into the humanities and major in English. Another from the Bell Science series produced by Frank Capra was "Alphabet Conspiracy" which was the story of the science of language and linguistics. The premise was a plot to destroy the alphabet and all language and it featured the very odd Hans Conried.

The growth of television after WWII scared many parents and educators. Kids were watching a lot of TV and, like film and comic books before it, the fear was that it would rot their minds. The same cry was heard with videogames, the Internet and now with smartphones, which contain all those formats.

I wrote my Master's thesis on the influence of television on children in regard to violence and isolation. There is no doubt that all this media influenced several generations, but I'm not sure that it rotted any brains. I suspect it inspired many kids.

Algorithms and Overlords

We sacrifice control for convenience. Some people believe the technology is controlling us. Some think we are having greater control over the technology.

Technology - big and gadget-small - makes our lives easier. Why remember phone numbers, addresses and birthdays when something will remember it more accurately for you?  It secures your home. It controls your heart's pacemaker. Things can park your car or even summon a car to take you there. Sooner than expected, the car that you summon will have no driver, take you there, and remember to pick you up on time and return you home.

Your handheld computer (It's not really a phone any more, is it?) will update itself and soon recharge itself and pay for itself through ads.

Step aside. let us do it for you.

It starts with small things, grunt work, mindless tasks and grows. You are less involved in decisions, less in control of - our devices, personal environment, personal information.

Arthur C. Clarke wrote Childhood's End about the alien Overlords taking over Earth. We resisted them. We fought back. then, we gave in. And things got easier. Very easy. Then it got a lot worse. Read the book. It may be a warning, but not about aliens. It is about algorithms.

An animation, describing Boruvka's (Sollin's) algorithm, for finding a minimum spanning tree in a graph>
Don't worry. It doesn't need you to run. Relax.

With algorithms, you can put more than vehicles into autopilot mode. Have you heard of the Internet of Things (IoT)? Things (physical devices) are connected in their own network(s). Things in your home, office and vehicles are wirelessly connected because they were embedded with electronics, software, sensors, actuators, and network connectivity.

They talk to each other. They collect and exchange data. They make decisions for us. Simple decisions now: when to reorder, the correct spelling of a word, the best stock or phone to buy. Complexity will increase. One day it will make your healthcare decisions for you. Of course, you must learn to trust its decisions. You must trust that autonomous vehicle. How amy safe rides will that take?

People who make things want them to be connected and give them feedback about what we are doing with our things. But why do we want things to talk to other things? When they are aware, we don't need to be as aware. They can protect us. They give us more free time and fewer decisions to worry over. They can make better decisions based on data and make them faster. Faster is important when you're driving at 70 miles per hour and another car swerves into your lane. Driving will be much safer when all the vehicles are without human drivers. A few humans will screw up everything. Humans are so damned unpredictable.

Ah, humanity. Still a very good thing. It has its uses.