Rewilding in an Unexpected Landscape

Elk are the most common mammals at the reserve. Photograph: Valery Yurko

Most examples of rewilding are defined as human intervention to return wildlife back into habitats where they’ve long disappeared. Thanks to the Guardian for this highly unusual one where the human population are the ones who have left – due to bizarre circumstances, to be sure – and the wildlife have slowly returned to reclaim the habitats left behind.

It’s heartening to believe that the animals may illustrate Nature’s power to heal where human’s have so severely faltered.

Chernobyl: the wildlife haven created when people left

Rare and endangered animals have thrived in the Chernobyl disaster zone since it was evacuated in 1986, as a new wildlife tour in southern Belarus shows

It is 5.30am in southern Belarus. A pink moon hangs over flat fields tinged with frost, and as we arrive at the checkpoint on the edge of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, five hours’ drive south of the capital, Minsk, a dawn chorus of cranes and hoopoes is in full swing.

This may seem an unlikely place to come wildlife watching, but I’m here with the first eco-tour of the Palieski state radioecological reserve (as the Belarusian section of the zone is called).

It was in April 1986 that probably the world’s worst nuclear accident happened, just over the border in northern Ukraine – a dramatisation of the disaster is currently showing on Sky Atlantic. Chernobyl town was evacuated and the exclusion zone today covers 2,600 sq km in Ukraine and 2,100 sq km in Belarus.

Ukraine turned its part of the zone into a tourist attraction several years ago – 50,000 people visited the nuclear reactor and ghost town of Pripyat last year, and it has even hosted a rave. But Belarus didn’t open its Palieski reserve to visitors until last December.

The Ukrainian site is now popular for its eerie ghost town and reactor ruins, but on this side of the border it’s all about the wilderness, and our tour will be a nature-watching trip like no other. The reserve claims to be Europe’s largest experiment in rewilding, and the unlikely beneficiaries of nuclear disaster have been the wolves, bison and bears that now roam the depopulated landscape, and the 231 (of the country’s 334) bird species that can also be found here. Continue reading

Nostalgia, Sentiment & Tangibles

I knew this was coming. And from the look of it, I will visit it. They could have torn it down and started afresh, but they decided instead to build on memories. I appreciate that. In September, 1983 I was inside that building sitting on the floor for several hours.

Those red benches were nowhere to be seen back then. We were all waiting for a storm-delayed TWA flight to Athens.

Sitting next to me in the long line of travelers was a young woman, and our conversation would surely seem inconsequential if we could review a transcript of it. As it happens, however, that conversation led to an odyssey that continues to this day. So when I saw this photo feature I had to look.

46498703.jpgAmie and I worked together in India on a project to repurpose a historic place, and we came to appreciate the challenge of being respectful of history, yet not a slave to it. We wanted to tap into strong sentiments related to that specific place and its place in history without being sentimental. And please, no nostalgia. So in addition to looking back, we looked forward, and how well we accomplished the task is for others to judge.

TWAMerch.jpgWe are now working on a project that has some of the same challenges. It involves a historic property and the challenge in this case, while involving spatial design, is mostly focused on deciding what type of merchandise is appropriate. This t-shirt is on offer at the TWA Hotel website. I will likely get one, for the same reason that postcards have always been important to me. But our work currently is digging deeper on the memento question: what tangible reminder of this place is essential for a visitor to have when they go home. The answer is elusive, but close.

Have Books – Will Travel

A Pack Horse Librarian returning over the mountain side for a new supply of books (Part of Goodman-Paxton Photographic Collection, Kentucky Digital Library)

We’ve long held the belief that librarians are among the real life Super Heroes of society.  The history of the Pack Horse Librarians may be new to us, but without doubt, they deserve a pinnacle spot in the pantheon.

There are both rural and urban communities in our country that continue to qualify as “at risk” related to the official support received for the public educational and cultural services that libraries represent.  Some of the New Deal programs that helped millions of Americans survive the Great Depression seem advisable in the face of  administrations that turn their backs on libraries and other equivalent cultural elements that helped make the country great.

 

Horse-Riding Librarians Were the Great Depression’s Bookmobiles

During the Great Depression, a New Deal program brought books to Kentuckians living in remote areas

Pack Horse Librarians start down Greasy Creek to remote homes of mountaineers anxious for books. (Part of Goodman-Paxton Photographic Collection, Kentucky Digital Library)

Their horses splashed through iced-over creeks. Librarians rode up into the Kentucky mountains, their saddlebags stuffed with books, doling out reading material to isolated rural people. The Great Depression had plunged the nation into poverty, and Kentucky—a poor state made even poorer by a paralyzed national economy—was among the hardest hit.

The Pack Horse Library initiative, which sent librarians deep into Appalachia, was one of the New Deal’s most unique plans. The project, as implemented by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), distributed reading material to the people who lived in the craggy, 10,000-square-mile portion of eastern Kentucky. The state already trailed its neighbors in electricity and highways. And during the Depression, food, education and economic opportunity were even scarcer for Appalachians.

They also lacked books: In 1930, up to 31 percent of people in eastern Kentucky couldn’t read. Residents wanted to learn, notes historian Donald C. Boyd. Coal and railroads, poised to industrialize eastern Kentucky, loomed large in the minds of many Appalachians who were ready to take part in the hoped prosperity that would bring. “Workers viewed the sudden economic changes as a threat to their survival and literacy as a means of escape from a vicious economic trap,” writes Boyd.

This presented a challenge: In 1935, Kentucky only circulated one book per capita compared to the American Library Association standard of five to ten, writes historian Jeanne Cannella Schmitzer,. It was “a distressing picture of library conditions and needs in Kentucky,” wrote Lena Nofcier, who chaired library services for the Kentucky Congress of Parents and Teachers at the time. Continue reading

History As Told By Trees

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A sample from Siberia, with the core dating from 1637 and the outer ring from 2011, hangs on a wall at the research lab on the University of Arizona campus in Tucson. Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times

Thanks to Jim Robbins, as always:

Chronicles of the Rings: What Trees Tell Us

Studying the historical data stored in centuries-old trees is a burgeoning field, with labs around the world learning more about historical patterns of weather and climate and the effects on humans.

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Wood samples for research at the Laboratory of Tree Ring Research at the University of Arizona. Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times

TUCSON — From the early 1700s until the 1960s, the fast moving river of wind known as the North Atlantic Jet Stream, which drives weather extremes over Europe, was pretty steady on its course.

Then it became less predictable. But instrument data alone can’t tell the jet stream’s movements for comparison over the centuries, given that scientists began keeping records of weather events via instruments only in the late 19th century. Continue reading

Memento

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When we lived in Paris, weekend grocery errands inevitably led us through informal markets where people sold all kinds of old things. One favorite distraction was the vendor of postcards. There was at least one person at any given marketplace who had cards like the ones above, mostly from early 1900s, some going back to the previous century. Usually they were in shoe boxes and never were they organized in any way any of us could understand.  Most but not all were from French travelers sending mementos back to people in France. In just five minutes flipping through the cards we could be transported.

What made this a favorite distraction was as much professional as anything else. Having spent several years studying a place from which countless postcards had been sent starting in the 1870s, I developed an affinity for the choices made by illustrators and photographers in different eras about how to represent a place.

There is also a personal dimension to this affinity, which is that my father was a photographer who in addition to a portrait studio had a postcard business. From 1972 until 1978 if you sent a postcard from just about anywhere in the Finger Lakes region of New York state, it was probably one of his postcards, which means one of his photographs. Starting when I was 10 years old until I was 16 I would accompany him on road trips through that region when he was restocking postcards at hotels and other venues where they were sold. That might explain my favorite distraction in Paris.

Misunderstandings That Become Taken For Granted

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The Atlantic’s website helps me ensure that I do not miss any intriguing episodes of Gastropod, which I listened to more frequently before we moved back to Costa Rica. Especially when we were in the process of developing 51, a restaurant in the colonial spice-trading district of Fort Cochin, in southwest India. This current headline in the Atlantic, which took me back to those years when delicious misunderstandings were the daily fare, was one I had to surrender to:

The Word Curry Came From a Colonial Misunderstanding

No Indian language uses the term, and the closest-sounding words usually just mean “sauce.”

And over at the Gastropod website, this ensured that I would listen all the way through:

9780465056668_custom-faec8d5203f296c0cc17efb91baa211c41c48a88-s600-c85…According to Lizzie Collingham, food historian and author of Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors, to trace the origins of curry, we need to go back to when the Portuguese first set up shop in Goa, in the early 1500s. “And they’d say, Oooh, what are you eating?” said Collingham, “And the Indians replied using a word like khari or caril.” At the time, Collingham explained, those words likely referred to a particular spice blend, as well as the finished dish it was used in; the same words are still in use, but they now mean sauce or gravy. Today, that’s Raghavan Iyer’s definition: he authored a doorstop of a cookbook called 660 Curries, and he uses “curry” to refer to “anything that has a sauce or gravy—it can be with or without spices.”…

Some Games Foster Trust

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A friend in my early teens had chess skills well-matched with my own. We played constantly, the way some kids today play video games. I switched to backgammon in my late teens and played hundreds of hours over the years. I gave up backgammon when I discovered a new old game 20+ years ago in Ecuador. It is the game in the picture above, and I vaguely referenced it once here. I never stopped to think what drew me to play those games compulsively. Samanth Subramanian, who appeared in our pages once, five years ago, has made my day with this new piece. What We Learn from One of the World’s Oldest Board Games helps me put my love of old games in some kind of historical perspective:

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This ivory Fifty-eight Holes board was dug up by Howard Carter, in 1910, out of a pit tomb in Thebes. “We have before us,” Carter wrote, “a simple, but exciting, game of chance.”Photograph Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

A few years ago, almost by accident, Walter Crist happened upon one of the oldest board games in the world. Crist, who was then working toward a doctorate on ancient Cypriot board games, at Arizona State University, was searching the Internet for images of a game called Fifty-eight Holes. In the second millennium B.C., Fifty-eight Holes was the most popular game of its kind across Egypt, the eastern Mediterranean, and the Middle East, and roughly eighty boards of the game, in various degrees of incompleteness, rest in museum collections around the world. Images of these boards are well known to scholars, but the photo that Crist eventually found, on the Web site of a magazine called Azerbaijan International, was unfamiliar. Taken at an archaeological site near Baku, it showed a rock carving that bore a strong resemblance to the game’s board: two parallel rows of indentations and an outer, horseshoe-shaped run of more holes. It looked like a four-year-old’s sketch of a tree.

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A series of depressions taking the form of the game of Fifty-eight Holes on a horizontal rock surface in Azerbaijan’s Gobustan National Park. Photograph by Walter Crist / Gobustan National Preserve

The site, Crist learned, had been destroyed to make way for a housing development, but he eventually got in touch with an archaeologist in Azerbaijan’s Gobustan National Park, who told him that the park held a similar carving. “I think he knew that it was a game, or that people thought it was,” Crist said. “There were other people arguing that it could be an astronomical chart, or a calendar—but nobody that had studied games in any kind of depth.” So Crist decided to go to Gobustan and find out for himself.

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A fragment believed to be part of a Fifty-eight Holes game board, from the eighteenth century B.C. Photograph Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Crist, who completed his Ph.D. in 2016, works at the New York Public Library, as a librarian. “I’m on the academic job market, which is terrible and difficult,” he said. When he went to Azerbaijan last spring, he paid for the trip himself, appending it to a visit to Athens to attend the Twenty-first Board Game Studies Colloquium. At Gobustan, near the Caspian coast, he found a vast moonscape of rocks, caves, and mud volcanoes. Archaeologists visit the park for its six thousand petroglyphs: carvings of hunting parties, bulls, boats, and dancing stick men. The glyphs date back at least four thousand years; some might be as old as forty thousand years, reaching back into the Upper Paleolithic age. Not much is known about the artists. Most likely, they were nomadic hunters who lived in rock shelters, charted the heavens, and buried their dead. Continue reading

Stories Without End – The Grandmother Project

The Ogelthorpe University Museum of Art is one of the gems of the Atlanta area, for good reason. Not only does the museum have its own well curated collections, it receives visiting collections that are timely and powerful.

Tara Rice‘s Grandmother Project photographic series highlights the historically matriarchal influence within African cultures, coinciding with the project based in Senegal “promoting health, well-being and rights of women and children in developing countries through grandmother-inclusive and intergenerational programs that build on communities’ cultural values and resources.”

The photo series dovetails perfectly with the female centric collection of sculptures and masks in the sister exhibit, Stories Without an End.

Stories Without an End: Power, Beauty and Wisdom of Women in African Art of the Mehta Collection

January 18 – April 21, 2018

The exhibition Stories Without an End: Power, Beauty and Wisdom of Women in African Art of the Mehta Collection includes a selection of 50 classically carved wooden sculptures and masks drawn from the collection of Dileep and Martha Mehta.

The exhibition represents art from more than 25 ethnic groups spanning 12 countries. These objects are gathered into thematic groups including women in governance, maternity, idealized beauty, and female ancestors.

OUMA members Dileep and Martha Mehta are collectors of African and Asian arts. Their African art collection, including objects in this exhibit, has greatly benefited from diligent sourcing by and wise counsel of African Art dealers Tamba Kaba and Sanoussi Kalle.

This exhibition was developed by Elizabeth H. Peterson, OUMA director, and organized by Amanda Hellman, PhD, curator of African art, Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University.

Stories Without an End was inspired in part by the work of the Grandmother Project (GMP) an American 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and a Senegalese NGO with representatives throughout the USA and abroad. GMP, with headquarters in Senegal, works with elders in West African villages to fight the maltreatment of young girls. This includes bettering maternal and child nutrition, reproductive health, and marriage standards. The exhibition title is inspired by the GMP initiative “stories without an ending,” which is a tool used to facilitate communication via the elders. For more about the Grandmother Project please visit www.grandmotherproject.org.

The Grandmother Project: Photographs by Tara Rice

January 18 – April 21, 2019

The Grandmother Project (GMP) develops community approaches that promote positive and sustained improvements in the lives of girls, children, women, and families by building on existing cultural and community values, roles and assets in southern Senegal. Continue reading

The Mouth of the Well

The archaeologist Guillermo de Anda next to pre-Columbian artifacts in a cave at the Maya ruins of Chichén Itzá. Credit Karla Ortega/Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology, via Associated Press

This new discovery in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula came to our attention just when we’re on an archaeological roll. It definitely gives us pause that there are still such important finds in the world.

In a cave under the ancient city of Chichén Itzá, Mexican archaeologists discovered a trove of ceramic artifacts that appear to be over 1,000 years old.

Archaeologists announced this week that they had discovered an extraordinary trove of well-preserved Maya artifacts under the ancient city of Chichén Itzá in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula.

The artifacts were found in a cave called Balamkú, less than two miles from the famed pyramid known as the Temple of Kukulcan, or The Castle, which sits in the center of the site.

Guillermo de Anda, an investigator with the National Institute of Anthropology and History, said in a statement on Monday that the remarkable discovery could help researchers rewrite the history of Chichén Itzá, which flourished from roughly A.D. 750 to 1200.

The city was built on top of a network of waterways, including sinkholes called cenotes, which the ancient Maya believed were sacred places that provided a portal to the underworld. Its name is sometimes translated as “the mouth of the well of the Itza,” the name of the main ethnic group in the area at the time.

Continue reading

Urban Archaeology

 

We’ve had friends and family members living in Atlanta for close to 30 years, and although I knew it was the hub of important aspects of American history, it never occurred to me to think of it in archaeological terms. At first consideration, I think about archaeology as the study of ancient cultures in far away places. Yet, with family in countries like Greece, I acknowledge that awesome layers of history can be just under the surface, or deeply buried and unearthed as cities grow with constructions of buildings and transit infrastructure.

This piece in the Georgia State University Magazine made that quite clear.

Treasures of Terminus

From its days as a railroad boomtown to Sherman’s tinderbox to one of America’s great cities, Atlanta’s history runs deep. The Phoenix Project, more than 100,000 artifacts collected by a team of Georgia State archaeologist in the 1970s, tells the city’s story through unearthed historical objects.

There is buried treasure at Georgia State University. Stacked high and deep in more than 500 boxes stashed throughout the labyrinths of Kell Hall, more than 100,000 artifacts tell the story of Atlanta’s history.

These boxes contain the lost pieces of a tumultuous past that dates to the city’s earliest days — bullet casings from the Civil War, mystery tonics in antique glass bottles, creepy toys, fashion accessories, ancient grooming tools and much more. Many of them still await examination and haven’t been opened since archaeologists first packed them four decades ago.

This massive array of objects is called the Phoenix Project, and Georgia State professors and students have been methodically studying, cataloging and mapping each item since 2011.

Collected all over the city between 1976 and 1980, the objects belong to the largest archeological collection ever associated with Atlanta. They are the fruit of one of America’s earliest urban archaeological projects — the roving excavation that followed construction crews as the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) cleared land, leveled blocks and tunneled underground to build the first iteration of its rail system.

Jeffrey Glover, associate professor of anthropology, has curated the Phoenix Project for years in hopes of providing the public with a different kind of city history, a slice of Atlanta’s past through the lens of historical objects.

Catalog No.: P1848/170 Swamp Root Kidney, Liver and Bladder Cure, c. 1890, manufactured by Dr. Kilmer & Co., Binghamton, NY.

Choosing one box among hundreds, Glover removes a small amber bottle that once held Valentine’s Meat Juice, a concentrated beef tonic from the 1870s. Advertisements said it could help with gastroenteritis, dysentery and even cholera.

“It was supposed to bring vitality,” Glover says, “like an early energy drink.”

From another box, he takes out the misshapen head of a porcelain doll. Featuring dark, empty eye sockets and covered in burn marks, the scary toy looks hungry for souls. While Glover affectionately calls it the “creepy doll head,” its official artifact ID is “a3161,” written in impeccable script with archival ink across its neck.

That’s because the archaeologists who bagged all this stuff in the 1970s methodically described and organized each item using a numbering system adapted from the Georgia Department of Transportation. For example, the “a” in “a3161” stands for “general artifact” while the number indicates the item was the 3,161st general artifact to be cataloged from that accession. (And there are about 100 accessions.) Containers, such as glass and pottery, begin with “p,” and building materials with “m.” Plant remains use “eb” for “ethnobotanical” while animal bones start with “ez” for “ethnozoological.”

Just one of the standard cardboard bankers boxes can contain dozens, if not hundreds, of artifacts, each wrapped in brown paper and labeled with a unique artifact ID. Though they’ve all been recorded in a logbook alongside a one-line description, unwrapping each one is like opening a birthday present because you don’t know exactly what you’ll get.

“It’s an excavation of boxes,” says Lori Thompson (M.A. ’16), assistant laboratory director at New South Associates.

Continue reading

99% Success, A How-To Reminder

 

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The ban on chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) gases has been an incredible success story. Composite: Alamy/Guardian Design

Thanks to Jonathan Watts for this reminder:

How to stop the climate crisis: six lessons from the campaign that saved the ozone

Thirty years ago, all 197 countries got together to ban the gases damaging the Earth’s ozone layer. Now we need to unite to combat an even greater threat. What can we learn from 1989?

Amid the anti-globalist chest-thumping of Brexit, Donald Trump, and the Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, it may sound like the stuff of folklore. But there was a time in the recent past when all the countries of the world moved quickly to discuss a common threat, agreed an ambitious plan of action and made it work.

The Montreal protocol, which came into effect 30 years ago, was drawn up to address the alarming thinning of the ozone layer in the Earth’s stratosphere. It was the first agreement in the history of the United Nations to be ratified by all 197 countries. Since it came into effect on 1 January 1989, more than 99% of the gases responsible for the problem have been eradicated and the “ozone hole” – which, in the late 80s, vied for headline space with the cold war, Diana, Princess of Wales, and Madonna – is receding in the sky and the memory. Continue reading

Thinking Forward While Looking Back

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Jill Lepore is a New Yorker staff writer and a historian at Harvard University. She tells David Remnick that her new book is the result of a dare: to tell—or even to understand—the story of this country, from the Age of Discovery through the present day, in one volume. In “These Truths,” Lepore surveys six-hundred-odd years of American history, paying particular attention to themes of immigration, suffrage, and how the media has shaped our democracy. Above all, Lepore grapples with whether the United States has lived up to the promises of its founding. She finds an America alternately fearful of change and fearful of stagnation, trapped between idealizing the past and hoping for a better future. The journey toward progress, Leporesays, is less a march than a stumble.

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I have listened to several interviews that Jill Lepore has given during her promotional tour of her new book, such as the one above (click the top image to go to the source). Today I listened to this one, and it has convinced me that this is one of the books I should take the time to read to put the country of my birth, and the country that many people regardless of birthplace are currently confused by, back in some kind of perspective.

We mostly avoid political commentary on this platform but it is impossible to pretend that the USA or Brazil, or the world as a whole are moving forward or in a good direction. My point of view on the state of governance is mainly one of surprise and confusion–how did we get so reactionary so quickly, and where will that lead us?

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Photograph from Universal History Archive / UIG / Getty

I had already listened to this short discussion of the ideas in this book several months ago. It was interesting but had almost zero impact. On the best of days recently I tell myself that if such a shocking mess is possible, then it should also be possible to imagine and move toward a radically superior future. And that always feels Panglossian. But with a few hundred years of history in mind, Jill Lepore gets me thinking that maybe I can see these times for what they are–not good, nor headed anywhere good–but also see that the cycles of history have had us in at least equally trying times, many times in the past. Ezra Klein has one of the best podcasts out there, and this episode proves it to me:

Jill Lepore is a Harvard historian, a New Yorker contributor, and the author of These Truths, a dazzling one-volume synthesis of American history. She’s the kind of history teacher everyone wishes they’d had, able to effortlessly connect the events and themes of American history to make sense of our past and clarify our present.

“The American Revolution did not begin in 1775 and it didn’t end when the war was over,” Lepore writes. This is a conversation about those revolutions. But more than that, it’s a conversation about who we are as a country, and how that self-definition is always contested and constantly in flux. Continue reading

Fungi, Bees & Future

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Lilli Carré

Fungi first appeared in our pages thanks to Milo. And the name of the essayist below was mentioned a couple times earlier as well. He deserves more attention, especially if his attention is focused on bees:

Will Mushrooms Be Magic for Threatened Bees?

We might be able to save honeybees from viruses transmitted by invasive parasites without chemical treatment.

By Paul Stamets

Mr. Stamets is a mycologist.

Sometime in the 1980s, microscopic mites that had been afflicting honeybees outside the United States found their way to Florida and Wisconsin and began wreaking havoc across the country. These parasites have invaded and decimated wild and domestic bee colonies. Along with other dangers facing bees, like pesticides and the loss of forage lands, the viruses these mites carry threaten the bees we rely on to pollinate many of the fruits, nuts and vegetables we eat. Continue reading

Tim Wu’s New Book, The Curse Of Bigness

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In my occasional posts about Amazon over the past few years, it is becoming clear to me that I am concerned about the dangers that come from some of the foundational principles of business management, such as excellent customer service, and scale. I have not read his new book yet, but I listen to and read Tim Wu whenever I see an opportunity. His publisher has this to say:

So, I look forward to learning more about it. Today’s episode of The Daily has useful commentary on Amazon-related topics. Thanks to David Leonhardt for bringing Tim Wu’s new book to my attention:

The Monopolization of America

In one industry after another, big companies have become more dominant over the past 15 years, new data show.

The popular telling of the Boston Tea Party gets something wrong. The colonists were not responding to a tax increase. They were responding to the Tea Act of 1773, which granted a tea monopoly in the colonies to the well-connected East India Company. Merchants based in the Americas would be shut out of the market.

Many colonists, already upset about taxation without representation and other indignities, were enraged. In response, dozens of them stormed three ships in Boston Harbor on the night of Dec. 16, 1773, and tossed chests of East India tea — “that worst of plagues, the detested tea,” as one pamphlet put it — into the water.

A major spark for the American Revolution, then, was a protest against monopoly. Continue reading

Japan, Paper & Tradition

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Washi paper at the store Ozu Washi in Tokyo. Credit Courtesy of Ozu Washi

Thanks to Nikil Saval for asking, and to the New York Times for publishing his answer to this question:

Why Is Japan Still So Attached to Paper?

Washi is to the Japanese something like what wine is to the French — a national obsession and point of pride.

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The architect Shigeru Ban’s emergency shelters are made mostly of paper.CreditBrent Boardman/courtesy of the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation (SCAF)

ONE OF THE CLICHÉS of modernity — but a cliché we nonetheless have to live through — is that new forms of technology make us nostalgic for prior ones and the eras they connote. When smartphones emerged, they brought the internet into spaces that were once free of them, so that a poorly functioning flip phone now inspires a hint of wistfulness. The pileup of digitized music since the emergence of the MP3 has prompted a retreat, however niche and ultimately minor, into the world of vinyl records and even tapes. The ransacking of the physical texture of the world — books, newspapers, retail stores, maps — has been so enormous and sudden that it becomes possible to see what we are losing and no longer regard the onrushing future as progress.

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Japan’s centuries-long fascination with traditional papermaking means there’s still a robust analog culture in a country known for its embrace of the modern. Credit Photograph by Kyoko Hamada. Set Design by Arielle Casale and Maxwell Sorensen. Altered images: Daj/Getty Images; Bernard Allum/Getty Images. Origami: Beth Johnson. Photographer’s assistant: Jonah Rosenberg

Because of the sheer accumulated weight of its past, and the velocity of its rush into the future, Japan offers these contradictions and anxieties of modernity in particular abundance. Japan was geographically isolated for centuries, so the time between the country’s opening — thanks to the gunboat diplomacy of American warships’ arrival in 1853 — and the postwar miracle of reconstruction produced a linear and especially propulsive narrative of an agrarian society becoming one defined by urban futurism. The contrast (and conflict) between ancient and modern is the primary tension in Japan’s modern literary and filmic traditions: rural families experiencing the shock of the city in Yasujiro Ozu’s films of the ’40s and ’50s, or Noh drama in the novels of the Showa-era writer Fumiko Enchi. Everything, from the perfervidness of the country’s electronic manufacturing, the proliferation of its pop culture, the aggressiveness of its building booms — even as a three-decade-long economic decline strips these characteristics of their sheen — seems to serve as a reminder that throughout the postwar era, Japan was a byword for the future. Continue reading

Putting The Whole Earth Catalog Where It Belongs

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Stewart Brand published the final issue of the “Whole Earth Catalog” in 1971. Upon the title’s fiftieth anniversary, he reports feeling little nostalgia for the project. Photograph by Richard Drew / AP

The intersection of mammoth and passenger pigeon had a quirky ring the first time I read about it. Stewart Brand, mentioned plenty previously in our pages, is a kind of genius of quirk, and deserves more attention. Not to pin present problems on him, but to understand the legacy of his masterpiece. I count myself an admirer. But an admirer with deep concern, not unlike what I feel about this other genius. Anna Wiener’s Letter from Silicon Valley, titled The Complicated Legacy of Stewart Brand’s “Whole Earth Catalog,” provides a perspective on Brand and his Catalog that captures my own concerns about the spawn of his quirk:

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Stewart Brand, in 2013. Larry Busacca

In the fall of 1968, the Portola Institute, an education nonprofit in Menlo Park, California, published the first edition of the “Whole Earth Catalog”: a compendium of product listings, how-to diagrams, and educational ephemera intended for communards and other participants in the back-to-the-land movement. The catalogue’s founder, Stewart Brand––a photographer, writer, former army lieutenant, impresario, and consummate networker––had spent part of the summer driving a pickup truck to intentional communities in Colorado and New Mexico and selling camping equipment, books, tools, and supplies to the residents. Brand returned to the Portola Institute (a gathering place and incubator of sorts for computer researchers, academics, career engineers, hobbyists, and members of the counterculture), hired a teen-age artist to handle layout, and began production on the catalogue’s first edition.

At the height of the civil-rights movement and the war in Vietnam, the “Whole Earth Catalog” offered a vision for a new social order—one that eschewed institutions in favor of individual empowerment, achieved through the acquisition of skills and tools. The latter category included agricultural equipment, weaving kits, mechanical devices, books like “Kibbutz: Venture in Utopia,” and digital technologies and related theoretical texts, such as Norbert Wiener’s “Cybernetics” and the Hewlett-Packard 9100A, a programmable calculator. “We are as gods and might as well get used to it” read the first catalogue’s statement of purpose. “A realm of intimate, personal power is developing—power of the individual to conduct his own education, find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested.” Continue reading

Maritime History Just Got Richer

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The Black Sea Maritime Archaeology Project says the intact shipwreck was discovered at a depth of more than 1 mile, where the scarcity of oxygen helped preserve the ancient vessel. Black Sea MAP/EEF Expeditions

Who knew there were still such discoveries to be made? Obviously, someone did. And Homer’s epic tale of Odysseus and his journeys plays a part in this story:

‘Oldest Intact Shipwreck Known To Mankind’ Found In Depths Of Black Sea

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The recently discovered shipwreck reveals details that are similar to the ship on this famed ancient Greek vase, which dates to the fifth century B.C. and depicts Odysseus tied to the mast to brave the sirens.
Universal Images Group/Getty Images

More than a mile beneath the surface of the Black Sea, shrouded in darkness, an ancient Greek ship sat for millennia unseen by human eyes — until the Black Sea Maritime Archaeology Project happened upon its watery grave last year.

The team announced the find Tuesday, saying its discovery has been “confirmed as the oldest intact shipwreck known to mankind.” Radiocarbon-dated to roughly 400 B.C., the trading vessel plied the waves in the days of Plato and Sophocles, when the city-states of ancient Greece had scattered colonies all around the Black Sea.

Since then, it has sat at a depth that more than doubles the height of the tallest skyscraper in the world. In water that deep, oxygen is hard to come by, and because of that, so too are the organic processes that help drive decomposition. That left the ship all but undisturbed until the research team discovered it — along with dozens of other shipwrecks — during an 800-square-mile survey of the seabed. Continue reading

Conversations Between Birders

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Christopher Skaife Illustration by João Fazenda

Thanks to Sarah Larson for this:

Bird-Watching with the Ravenmaster

The yeoman warder charged with caring for the ravens of the Tower of London hikes along the Hudson.

When he’s at work, at the Tower of London, Yeoman Warder Christopher Skaife typically wears a uniform featuring a royal-blue tabard with scarlet ornamentation, a brass-buckled belt, and a bonnet. (Formalwear involves stockings and a ruff.) Skaife lives at the Tower, too, with his wife, in a house with forty-foot walls and arrow slits for windows. Skaife is the Tower’s Ravenmaster—his new book, “The Ravenmaster,” just came out—and in that role he cares for its most famous current residents, Merlin (a.k.a. Merlina), Erin, Rocky, Jubilee II, Gripp II, Harris, and Poppy, and gives tours to some of the Tower’s three million annual visitors. Recently, while vacationing in Manhattan, Skaife, who is Beefeater-shaped, with a bristly beard, was incognito, dressed in a zippered jacket and cargo shorts. He has tattoos on his calves depicting ravens, as well as, he said, “the skulls of those who were executed on the Tower Green.” On a crisp Friday, Skaife met up with his friend Gabriel Willow, a trim man in a cap, who works with New York City Audubon, to embark on a raven quest.

After a long absence, ravens have returned to the metro area: about six pairs nest in or around New York City. Willow and Skaife visited three potential hot spots—Pelham Bay Park, in the Bronx (mallards, cormorants, egrets; no ravens), far West Twenty-third Street, and Inwood Hill Park, at the northernmost tip of Manhattan. At West Twenty-third and the Hudson River, Skaife and Willow peered through binoculars. “I did see a raven this morning up in Central Park—a big flyby,” Willow said. “I heard cawing and calling, and a murder of crows swirled around, chasing a raven.” Continue reading

A Place And A Time For Learning To Read, And To Appreciate Books As Things

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Just this moment, as I started today’s post, I learned I had missed a 50th birthday party. We tend to like round numbers, even if they do not mean much–why should the 50th be any more important than the 49th or 23rd? For whatever reason, a centenary or half-centenary, or bicentennial all seem to have a bigger ring. So, happy birthday to this book (last year) that I searched for after reading Susan Orlean’s essay on her personal history with libraries and books:

…My family was big on the library. We were very much a reading family, but we were more a borrow-a-book-from-the-library family than a bookshelves-full-of-books family. My parents valued books, but they had grown up in the Depression, aware of the quicksilver nature of money, and they had learned the hard way that you shouldn’t buy what you could borrow. Because of that frugality, or perhaps despite it, they also believed that you should read a book for the experience of reading it. You shouldn’t read it in order to have an object that had to be housed and looked after forever, a memento of the purpose for which it was obtained. The reading of the book was a journey. There was no need for souvenirs…

I have just recently finished unpacking from storage a lifetime’s worth of books–actually multiple lifetimes because in addition to my own family of four’s lifetimes there are also books from our parents’ and grandparents’ personal collections. And the essay got me thinking about whether I had a personal favorite book, and if so whether I have a “souvenir” of it.

I had taken a moment after emptying a box to leaf through this book that qualifies as a contender. I remember where I was when I purchased it, and where I first read it. But the essay I just read got me thinking about the importance of libraries to my own history with reading, so I focused my thought on the question what was my first favorite book. And the book above was that book, without question, in part because it was what got me to return to the library for more books. Not much more to say on that, but if you are a bibliophile or a libraryphile, if you consider librarians heroes, or any such thing, the essay may be for you.

Color Conservation

The hues in the Forbes Collection include the esoteric, the expensive, and the toxic. Photograph by Jason Fulford for The New Yorker

Color is such a constant in our lives that it seems odd to consider any need for it’s conservation. How it exists in nature, how we humans perceive it, and how we’ve use the technology of the time to preserve it, has been relevant for tens of thousands of years. The Forbes Collection archives in the Harvard University’s Fogg Art Museum highlights the work of it’s founder, Edward Waldo Forbes, for whom “pigment hunting and gathering was not just a matter of creating an archive of lost or languishing color. It was about the union of art and science.”

Treasures from the Color Archive

The historic pigments in the Forbes Collection include the esoteric, the expensive, and the toxic

How blue can it get? How deep can it be? Some years ago, at the Guggenheim Bilbao, I thought I’d hit on the ultimate blue, displayed on the gallery floor. Yves Klein, who died at thirty-four, was obsessed with purging color of any external associations. Gestural abstraction, he felt, was clotted with sentimental extraneousness. But, in search of chromatic purity, Klein realized that even the purest pigments’ intensity dulled when combined with a binder such as oil, egg, or acrylic. In 1960, he commissioned a synthetic binder that would resist the absorption of light waves, delivering maximum reflectiveness. Until that day in Bilbao, I’d thought Klein a bit of a monomaniacal bore, but Klein International Blue, as he named the pigment—rolled out flat or pimpled, with saturated sponges embedded in the paint surface—turned my eyeballs inside out, rods and cones jiving with joy. This is it, I thought. It can’t get any bluer.

Until YInMn came along: the fortuitous product of an experiment in the materials chemistry lab at Oregon State University in 2009. Intending to discover something useful for the electronics industry, Mas Subramanian and his team heated together oxides of manganese, yttrium, and indium at two thousand degrees Fahrenheit. What emerged was a new inorganic pigment, one that absorbed red and green light waves, leaving as reflected light the bluest blue to date. Subramanian sent a sample to the Forbes Collection in the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, at Harvard University, where it sits with twenty-five hundred other specimens that document the history of our craving for color.

Among the other blues on the Forbes’s shelves is Egyptian Blue, a modern approximation of the first synthetic pigment, engineered five millennia ago, probably from the rare mineral cuprorivaite, a soft mid-blue used for the decoration of royal tomb sculpture and the wall paintings of temples. Later, blues strong enough to render sea and sky were made from weathered copper-carbonate azurite—crystalline bright but sometimes darkening in an oil binder. In 1271, Marco Polo saw lapis lazuli quarried from a mountain at Badakhshan, in what is now Afghanistan. Laboriously prepared by removing impure specks of glinting iron pyrite, it became ultramarine—as expensive, ounce for ounce, as gold, and so precious that it was initially reserved for depictions of the costume of the Virgin. In addition to these, the Forbes Collection has a poor man’s blue—smalt made from crushed cobalt containing potassium glass, which weakens, eventually, to a thin greeny-brown gray.

The Forbes Collection owes its existence to a belief in the interdependence of art and science, but it is also an exhaustive archive of cultural passion. A display features Vantablack, which absorbs 99.96 per cent of light, and has to be grown on surfaces as a crop of microscopic nanorods. In 2016, the sculptor Anish Kapoor saw the pigment’s potential for collapsing light, turning any surface into what appears to be a fathomless black hole, and he acquired the exclusive rights to it. An outcry from artists, who objected to the copyright, prompted the Massachusetts manufacturer NanoLab to release Singularity Black, created as part of the company’s ongoing research with nasa, to the public, and the artist Stuart Semple to make the World’s Pinkest Pink available to any online buyer willing to declare himself “not Anish Kapoor.” But Kapoor obtained a sample of the pink pigment, and used it to coat his middle digit, which he photographed and posted online for Semple.

Narayan Khandekar, the head of the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, takes pleasure in such skirmishes, secure in the knowledge that he presides over something weightier: a priceless resource for understanding how works of art are made, and how they should be preserved. The Department of Conservation and Technical Research was founded, in 1928, by Edward Waldo Forbes, the director of Harvard’s Fogg Museum from 1909 to 1944. Today, the Forbes’s vast library of color and its technical laboratories are housed in the museum’s steel-and-filtered-glass rebuild, designed by Renzo Piano. Rows of pigments in tubes, jars, and bowls are visible through the doors of floor-to-ceiling cabinets. Khandekar had the winning idea of displaying them as if unspooled from a color wheel: reds at one end, blues at the other. There are the products of nineteenth-century chemical innovation—viridian green, cadmium orange, and the chrome yellow with which van Gogh was infatuated but which, over time, has begun to darken his sunflowers. But at the heart of the Forbes Collection are the natural pigments that were the staples of painters’ inventories before chemically synthesized paints replaced the impossibly esoteric, the dangerously toxic, the prohibitively expensive, and the perilously fugitive. Continue reading