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.
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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

Climate Change Deniers, Beware Of The Speaking Stones

A “hunger stone” exposed by the low level of water in the Elbe river is seen in Decin, Czech Republic, on Thursday. The low level of water caused by the recent drought has exposed the stones on the river bed. Petr David Josek/AP

Thanks to National Public Radio (USA) for this:

Drought In Central Europe Reveals Cautionary ‘Hunger Stones’ In Czech River

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People visit a famous “hunger stone” exposed by the low level of water in the Elbe river in Decin, Czech Republic, on Thursday. Petr David Josek/AP

A lengthy drought in Europe has exposed carved boulders, known as “hunger stones,” that have been used for centuries to commemorate historic droughts — and warn of their consequences.

The Associated Press reports that hunger stones are newly visible in the Elbe River, which begins in the Czech Republic and flows through Germany.

“Over a dozen of the hunger stones, chosen to record low water levels, can now be seen in and near the northern Czech town of Decin near the German border,” the AP writes. Continue reading

Valorizing Places And Things We Love

One decade ago I made the journey to Rapa Nui while on an extended project in southern Chile. It was another bit of fortune that came with the occupation I accidentally found myself in. The video above, excerpted by the Atlantic from Max Lowe’s film, hints at the value tourism can infuse, as well as the perils it can represent, with regard to cultural heritage. We have long used the archaic word “valorization” to explain what we do as a company and the Celine Cousteau Film Fellowship seems to believe the same, in supporting Max’s film:

Tourism to a Dying Ancient Culture

“The modern world has come for our little island,” says Heu Rapu Haoa in Max Lowe’s short documentary, Amo. Heu is one of the 800 remaining speakers of his native tongue. His home, Rapa Nui, known widely as Easter Island, is one of the most remote inhabited islands in the world. Continue reading

Monday Morning, Time For Free Will

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Credit: AP Photo / Sebastian Scheiner

This is the second time in a year that the biology of free will is the story. Monday morning in mid-May 2018 nothing else seems more important. Thanks to Marc Sollinger and colleagues at WGBH and PRX (click the button to the left for the story):

Humanity is simultaneously incredibly kind and incredibly violent. We commit indescribable atrocities, but also acts of incomprehensible compassion. There is both horror and beauty in our history. Which leads to the question… how do we reconcile this inherent contradiction? It all goes back to our biology, according to Robert Sapolsky, a neurobiologist at Stanford and author of the book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. In fact, all questions about human behavior are, at their core, about biology.  Continue reading

What Is It With Pigeons?

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Photographs courtesy Rorhof / Stadtarchiv Kronberg

Thank you Andrea DenHoed. We did not know how much we should appreciate them:

The Turn-of-the-Century Pigeons That Photographed Earth from Above

_3.jpgIn 1907, just a few years after the Wright brothers lifted off in Kitty Hawk, and while human flight was still being measured in metres and minutes, Dr. Julius Neubronner, a German apothecary, submitted a patent application for a new invention: the pigeon camera. The device was precisely what it sounds like—a small camera fitted with straps and equipped with a timer so that pigeons could carry it and take photos in flight. Neubronner first used the device on his own flock of homing pigeons, which he sometimes employed to deliver prescriptions. In the following years, he showed his camera at international expositions, where he also sold postcards taken by the birds. Additionally, he developed a portable, horse-drawn dovecote, with a darkroom attached to it, which could be moved into proximity of whatever object or area the photographer hoped to capture from on high. Continue reading

Junto Clubs For 2018 & Beyond

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The Junto Club outgrew into the American Philosophical Society.

This historical reference is not typical of posts on this platform, except for when one of our contributors was in the midst of historical coursework that led to riffs like this; and then during his archival research that led to riffs like this.

We are riffing now from a current need (to put it mildly) for better conversation, with hindsight to a widely respected man’s approach at a time full of contentions. Thanks to Andrew Marantz for this brief note, whose accompanying illustration below belies the seriousness of the situation. Click the image to the left above to go to a historical archive with more background on this Talk of the Town item below:

Benjamin Franklin Invented the Chat Room

Conversation clubs, inspired by the Founding Father, have never felt more necessary.

180409_r31846webIn 1727, when Benjamin Franklin was twenty-one, he and a few friends—among them a scrivener, a joiner, and two cobblers—formed a conversation club called the Junto. They met on Friday evenings at a Philadelphia alehouse. “The rules that I drew up required that every member, in his turn, should produce one or more queries on any point of Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy, to be discuss’d by the company,” Franklin wrote in his autobiography. The United States was not yet the United States, but already he sensed a civility problem. His solution: structured, secular chitchat, “conducted in the sincere spirit of inquiry after truth, without fondness for dispute, or desire of victory.” Continue reading

Coffee, Journeys & Yemen

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CreditPatricia Wall/The New York Times

This review, thanks to Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, has my attention on The Coffee-Flavored American Dream of a young man with about as improbable a mission as I can imagine.  Returning to the coffee fields of Costa Rica’s Tarrazu region in a few days, I also plan to cross the Central Valley to see the latest mission accomplished of another coffee dreamer, the choice of Dave Eggers for his latest book topic is much appreciated.

A few years ago I traveled with a group of friends from the southern Yemeni port city of Aden to the capital of Sanaa in the north, taking the long coastal road that twists and curves around the bulge of Yemen’s southernmost tip. After passing the Bab el Mandeb strait, the road stretches along the seashore. Under a clear bright sky, the waters of the Red Sea shimmered and the sand glowed a warm ocher, the monotony interrupted only by an occasional fisherman’s shack, a small nomadic settlement or a bleached one-room mosque. Flat-topped trees looming in the distance suggested an African landscape.

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CreditLorenzo Gritti

Ahead of us lay the port of Mokha, or Al-Mukha in Arabic, where from the 15th century onward ships set sail with precious Yemeni coffee bound for Istanbul, London, Amsterdam and eventually New York — so much coffee that the word “mocha” became synonymous with it. Continue reading

Crafting History With Wood

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The elaborately detailed Bingham secretary enjoyed pride of place at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford until it was determined to be a forgery. Credit John Banks

The principle of the matter, depending on how you look at it, makes this story interesting. The idea that a person can craft new wood into historical storylines so compellingly that experts cannot detect the recency of the crafting? Wow. Fooling a buyer into paying a premium for the historical significance? Uh, no. Thanks to John Banks for this sleuth story:

The Civil War memorial secretary was widely embraced as a folk art treasure. Fashioned from walnut, maple and oak, it was said to have been created circa 1876 to honor John Bingham, a Union infantryman who had fallen at Antietam.

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A detail of the secretary, with the barnyard-bone lettering. CreditJohn Banks

Profusely adorned, it featured a music box that played “Yankee Doodle” and it was accompanied by a letter from a Bingham descendant, describing the significance of the piece to the family.“I was astonished by it,” said Wes Cowan, an auctioneer and dealer who examined the secretary at the Winter Antiques Show in New York in 2015.

The owner, Allan Katz, had bought it months earlier from a Massachusetts dealer for an undisclosed price, and was now trying to sell it for $375,000.

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John Bingham, left, and his brother Wells, Union soldiers from East Haddam, Conn. Credit via, Military and Historical Image Bank

“Clearly,” Mr. Katz, a Connecticut antiques dealer, said in a video filmed at the show, “we are hoping that it might go to an institution, because it really would be wonderful to share this with the public on a day-to-day basis.”

So it was gratifying, Mr. Katz said in an interview, when the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford purchased the work and gave it prominent display. Continue reading

Henry Worsley & The Importance Of Making Dreams Come True

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Before Henry Worsley set off alone, his family painted messages on his skis. “Come back to me safely, my darling,” his wife wrote.
Photograph by Sebastian Copeland

If you have not read it yet, go straight to it. If you have read it already, next you will want to listen to the author, the subject (via field recordings) and the subject’s wife.

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Henry and Joanna Worsley at the Korean War Veterans Memorial, in Washington, D.C., in 2015. Worsley served in the British Army for thirty-six years.
Photograph courtesy Joanna Worsley

We have linked to stories about explorers, though none specifically about Shackleton, in the past. The subject of this story has something important to say about his hero, and it is worth hearing his voice as well as his wife’s (click here).

The author, who we have linked to more than once, gave two excellent interviews about his process as a long-form story-teller, and if this is your thing, then you will want to listen to both, first here and more recently here.

The White Darkness: A Journey Across Antarctica

A solitary journey across Antarctica.

By David Grann

I. Mortal Danger

Worsley.jpgThe man felt like a speck in the frozen nothingness. Every direction he turned, he could see ice stretching to the edge of the Earth: white ice and blue ice, glacial-ice tongues and ice wedges. There were no living creatures in sight. Not a bear or even a bird. Nothing but him.

It was hard to breathe, and each time he exhaled the moisture froze on his face: a chandelier of crystals hung from his beard; his eyebrows were encased like preserved specimens; his eyelashes cracked when he blinked. Get wet and you die, he often reminded himself. The temperature was nearly minus forty degrees Fahrenheit, and it felt far colder because of the wind, which sometimes whipped icy particles into a blinding cloud, making him so disoriented that he toppled over, his bones rattling against the ground. Continue reading

Progress Through Yeast

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Fresh and dried yeast. It might not look like much, but it has shaped the way we eat and live, according to a new book. Maximilian Stock Ltd./Getty Images

Thanks to Menaka Wilhelm:

The Rise Of Yeast: How Civilization Was Shaped By Sugar Fungi

An imagined conversation between two yeast cells appears in Kurt Vonnegut’s 1973 novel Breakfast of Champions. “They were discussing the possible purposes of life,” Vonnegut writes. If that’s not absurd enough, their existential discussion takes place against a weird, dismal backdrop, “as they ate sugar and suffocated in their own excrement.” Little did they know, their little yeasty lives had an important, human-centric purpose. “Because of their limited intelligence, they never came close to guessing that they were making champagne.” Continue reading

Global Citizenship Via Suburban Malls

The Garden Court at Southdale Shopping Center, Edina, Minnesota, circa 1965

The Garden Court at Southdale Shopping Center, Edina, Minnesota, circa 1965 Minnesota Historical Society

Ok, we did not expect to get on a two-day roll with this topic, but Ian Bogost makes an interesting case about the role of malls in the development of cultural norms in the USA in the second half of the last century:

When Malls Saved the Suburbs From Despair

Like it or not, the middle class became global citizens through consumerism—and they did so at the mall.

“Okay, we’ll see you in two-and-a-half hours,” the clerk tells me, taking the iPhone from my hand. I’m at the Apple Store, availing myself of a cheap smartphone battery replacement, an offer the company made after taking heat for deliberately slowing down devices. A test run by a young woman typing at a feverish, unnatural pace on an iPad confirms that mine desperately needed the swap. As she typed, I panicked. What will I do in the mall for so long, and without a phone? How far the mall has fallen that I rack my brain for something to do here. Continue reading

Rice Rediscovered

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Upland red bearded rice, which grows in the Moruga district in Trinidad, turned out to be a missing culinary link between enslaved people in coastal Georgia and a group of slaves who were able to buy their freedom by fighting for the British in the War of 1812. Credit Karsten Moran for The New York Times

Salt & Pepper, Understood

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In European cooking, salt reigned supreme, and pepper was one of many spices used in heavily seasoned dishes. When they met, they were destined to be. Or, rather, it was destined that they would meet. Theo Crazzolara/Flickr

For this story, thanks to Natalie Jacewicz, a science writer based in New York City, and to National Public Radio (USA) whose attention to foodways is always welcome:

Salt and pepper shakers are so omnipresent on tabletops that adding a dash of the white or black stuff (or both!) is almost a dining rite. The seasonings pair well with just about everything and they go together like — well, salt and pepper. Continue reading

Werner, Syme & Darwin

Nijhuis-The-Book-That-Colored-Charles-Darwins-World-Secondary-Featured

In his nearly five years aboard H.M.S. Beagle, Charles Darwin catalogued a dizzying array of new creatures. But how to show them to the people back home? Illustration by R. Fresson

9781588346216

It is a fine way to start a new week, thinking of a young person setting sail, and to narrow the focus of that thought, consider color.  We appreciate the notice by Michelle Nijhuis in the current issue of the New Yorker magazine about the upcoming re-issuing of this book, and her comment about it is welcome. Less welcome is the fact that if you click on her link to the book, or search on the title of the book with a fresh search, you will be directed to Amazon. At least if you are searching from the USA. Even from a USA-based search you can find alternatives, but from sources in places such as this excellent shop in the UK, or this one in Scandinavia. With that in mind, if the review below makes you think about purchasing the book, please consider clicking the image to the left which will link you to a bookstore in the USA that is offering it for pre-sale. Either way, enjoy this for now:

The Book That Colored Charles Darwin’s World

“I had been struck by the beautiful colour of the sea when seen through the chinks of a straw hat,” Charles Darwin wrote, in late March, 1832, as H.M.S. Beagle threaded its way through the Abrolhos Shoals, off the Brazilian coast. The water, he wrote, was “Indigo with a little Azure blue,” while the sky above was “Berlin with [a] little Ultra marine.”

Nomen1Darwin, then twenty-three, was only three months into the nearly five-year adventure that would transform his life and, eventually, the way that humans saw themselves and other species. As the voyage’s so-called scientific person, he would collect masses of rocks, fossils, animals, and plants, periodically shipping his specimens to Cambridge in containers ranging from barrels to pillboxes. Like other naturalists of his time, though, his primary documentary tool was the written word, and during the voyage he drew many of his words from a slim volume called “Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours,” published in 1814 by the Scottish artist Patrick Syme.

Nomen2Syme’s guide, a facsimile of which will be released in early February by Smithsonian Books, contains samples, names, and descriptions of a hundred and ten colors, ranging from Snow White to Asparagus Green to Arterial Blood Red to, finally, Blackish Brown. Based on a color-naming system developed in the late eighteenth century by the German mineralogist Abraham Werner, the guide is full of geological comparisons: Grayish White is likened to granular limestone, Brownish Orange to Brazilian topaz. Syme, a flower painter and art teacher, added comparisons from the living world. To Werner’s eyes, the Berlin Blue that Darwin saw in the Atlantic sky resembled a sapphire; to Syme, the wing feathers of a jay. Continue reading