Of the ends many beginnings.
Chads: one of the end's many beginnings. Mike Simons / Stringer

Ever wonder how much you can blame our current partisan crisis on a ballot design in Florida? Or, in a blessed moment of contemplation far removed from thoughts of partisanship, have you ever thought to question our habit of using Roman numerals for stuff like Super Bowls but not for other stuff like our own age? (I turned XXXII last month.) Or, pursuing one of the internet's darker rabbit holes, did you ever hazard a guess at why the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" caught on, and why contemporary Nazis still believe in them to this day?

If so, or if my line of questioning has piqued your interest on this gray day in this horrible year, then I encourage you to make a pilgrimage to the University Book Store tonight. University of Washington associate professor Joseph Janes, who teaches in the Information Studies department, will be recording a live episode of his podcast, Documents That Changed the World.

Janess enthusiasm brings inanimate objects to life.
Janes's enthusiasm brings inanimate objects to life. University of Washington

On the podcast, Professor Janes aims to answer all those questions I mentioned, plus any others you might have about, well, documents, those seemingly inert pieces of paper that control the world in ways we rarely consider.

I particularly like the episode on "Ticker Tape." It may not surprise you to learn that the desire to beat a rival investor on a good buy (or sell) has driven nearly all advances in communication. In the episode, Janes explains that in the early 20th century the stock ticker, in combination with the telegraph, disseminated information about stock prices to a wider group of people than ever before. For the first time, average Joes in Okmulgee, Oklahoma could get up-to-the-second information about a stock without having to be on the floor of the exchange. But the technology wasn't perfect. The ticker couldn't handle the huge volume of trades that grew along with the bubble. And so, when the market began to crash in 1929, the ticker would be printing out stock prices for hours after the market closed. Once the ticker fell behind, panic begin to spread with greater intensity. People didn't know how much worse the crash was going to get, and so they sold off shares wildly. Thus the ticker tape, Janes argues, is "an unusual example of a document that is likely simultaneously record and cause of events."

I guarantee you're going to walk away from this event with two interesting things to say at your Christmas party.