The Worst Michelin-Starred Meal Ever

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 08, 2021

Four people laughing and befuddled at a terrible meal

Geraldine DeRuiter, aka The Everywhereist, documents a high-concept fine-dining meal that, for reasons yet unexplained, went all kinds of wrong.

It’s as though someone had read about food and restaurants, but had never experienced either, and this was their attempt to recreate it.

What followed was a 27-course meal (note that “course” and “meal” and “27” are being used liberally here) which spanned 4.5 hours and made me feel like I was a character in a Dickensian novel. Because — I cannot impart this enough — there was nothing even close to an actual meal served. Some “courses” were slivers of edible paper. Some were shot glasses of vinegar. Everything tasted like fish, even the non-fish courses. And nearly everything, including these noodles, which was by far the most substantial dish we had, was served cold.

Even forearmed with this overall description, some of the individual moments in the meal play like (bad) theatrical surprises:

“These are made with rancid ricotta,” the server said, a tiny fried cheese ball in front of each of us.

“I’m… I’m sorry, did you say rancid? You mean… fermented? Aged?”

“No. Rancid.”

“Okay,” I said in Italian. “But I think that something might be lost in translation. Because it can’t be—”

Rancido,” he clarified.

Another course — a citrus foam — was served in a plaster cast of the chef’s mouth. Absent utensils, we were told to lick it out of the chef’s mouth in a scene that I’m pretty sure was stolen from an eastern European horror film.

Not just bad. Memorably bad. Award-winningly bad. Which is, as DeRuiter writes, something of an achievement in itself.

Pitchfork’s 50 best albums of 2021, featuring [spoilers] Jazmine Sullivan’s Heaux Tales at number one

Music critic Greg Tate has died

Mel Brooks talks to Terry Gross about being 95: “I'm so grateful to be able to eat scrambled eggs and toast for breakfast and sometimes a roast beef sandwich for dinner… I'm having trouble sleeping. That's a problem.”

The New York Times critics AO Scott and Manohla Dargis offer their lists of the ten best movies of 2021:

“Very few major technologies emerge suddenly… They’re usually the product of gradual tinkering and experimentation. Things get slowly refined… The new tech starts being used in real-world circumstances, but mostly in niche areas.” Then boom! Mainstream:

“It is a history of pre-Columbian Peru, the Spanish conquest, and the subsequent colonial regime” — and an argument (in Spanish, Quechua, and Aymara) that Spain had no right to colonize and abuse the Inca peoples

While the official global death toll from COVID-19 is about 5.2 million, the excess deaths (including unreported cases, other illnesses that couldn’t be treated, etc.) is now estimated at 17.6 million, according to The Economist

I Was Adopted. I Know the Trauma It Can Inflict. @espiers on Justice Amy Coney Barrett's too-casual assertion that adoption is "an accessible and desirable alternative for women who find themselves unexpectedly pregnant".

Quick Links Archive

Ghost Signs of London

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 08, 2021

London Ghost Signs.jpeg

From Bloomberg’s CityLab:

Study the buildings flanking London’s older streets closely and you’ll see one soon enough: an old painted sign that, once bright and eye-catching, is now faded into the masonry, the name of the business or product it promoted flaking and faint.

Such “ghost signs” are fixtures of older neighborhoods in many cities around the world, but the U.K. capital, which bustled with competing commercial enterprises in the 19th and early 20th centuries, is unusually well-supplied with them. Ghost signs aren’t always easy to spot, but for sharp-eyed passersby and enthusiasts of urban history, they add an extra dimension to London’s appearance, their florid Victorian or cheerful art deco script and images a spectral reminder that once, not that long ago, these were somebody else’s streets.

London’s ghost signs are merely a fraction of the signage that used to greet 19th city dwellers, an era when cheap paper and a movement towards universal literacy made cities unusually alive with letters. But they are the special project of a new book by Sam Roberts and Roy Reed. From the book’s website:

Ghost signs are fascinating pieces of urban archaeology. Imposing yet hidden in plain sight, these faded advertisements are London’s history written on to the contemporary cityscape. They reveal fascinating stories of everyday life in the capital and each sign has its own tale to tell - not just of the business it represents and the people behind it, but of its own improbably survival.

A feast of history, typography and the urban environment, Ghost Signs: A London Story showcases London’s most impressive and historically significant faded painted signs, located, photographed and presented with archival andother contextual images.

Introduced by Wayne Hemingway MBE, the opening section shares insights into topics such as production techniques, economics and preservation. The themed chapters take on subjects including building, clothing, entertaining, branding and, ultimately, burying the city.

  listen to the latest episode of kottke ride home  

Flowers for Greg Tate

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 08, 2021


Greg Tate, the legendary music and culture critic who wrote for many years at the Village Voice, died this week. A few laudatory notes follow.

Rolling Stone, one of Tate’s post-Voice outlets, published both a notice and a quickly-written tribute by Rob Sheffield. From the first:

Tate joined the staff of The Village Voice in 1987 and quickly established himself as a challenging, encyclopedic, and brilliantly witty voice on everything from hip-hop to hardcore and free jazz. (His first cover story was on Nigerian singer King Sunny Adé.) “Being a 25-year-old music freelancer for the Voice meant your number-one goal in life — free passes to any show at any venue in the city — was answered,” Tate wrote in a 2017 remembrance of his early days there. “But it also gave you street cred you didn’t even know you had among a wide swath of characters — club bouncers, burly Latino locksmiths from the Bronx who took your check and proclaimed themselves fans of your byline, label execs, musical icons, and rising rap stars.”

And the second:

“Hip-hop is ancestor worship,” Greg Tate wrote in The Village Voice in the fall of 1988. He always chronicled music with that fiercely worshipful spirit of sacred ritual. Reading Tate was a revelation, then or now, because he was a writer who celebrated all kinds of music, from every era — an Afrofuturist rebel without a pause. That’s why the news of his death hits so hard today. To sum up his voice, you have to go back to the words he wrote about Chaka Khan back in 1992: “She is to singing what Jimi Hendrix is to guitar playing: the only wail that matters, the roar and the resonance against which all contenders are judged.”

That was Greg Tate. He was a giant of a cultural critic, hugely inspiring and influential to the heads taking music seriously, making you hear the connections between hip-hop, jazz, rock, the blues, every cry of love under the sun. He treated criticism as an art in itself, and in his hands, it was, because he knew how to do justice to the raptures of listening.

From NPR:

Greg Tate was born on Oct. 15, 1957. He spent his teenage years in Washington, D.C., where he first got interested in music. Upon moving to New York City, he co-founded the Black Rock Coalition, which existed to push back against stereotypes of Black artists. He also founded Burnt Sugar, a sprawling avant-garde orchestra that melded elements of free jazz and fusion, R&B, funk and contemporary classical music through conduction, a system of real-time arranging pioneered by improvising conductor Butch Morris. The ensemble issued its most recent recording, the EP Angels Over Oakanda, in September.

Maiysha Kai at The Root:

“I realized that the meaning of being Black is summed up in who comes to bury you,” wrote Greg Tate in his landmark 1991 article for the Village Voice “BLACK LIKE WHO? Love and the Enemy, “who gathers in your name after you’re gone, what they have to say about how you loved, and how you were loved in return.”

From Jon Caramanica in the New York Times:

It doesn’t matter which page you open to in his crucial 1992 anthology “Flyboy in the Buttermilk: Essays on Contemporary America” — just open it. Eruptions of style — of pure intellectual vigor and unhurried swagger — are everywhere.

Page 123, leading into a review of Public Enemy: “Granted, Charlie Parker died laughing. Choked chicken wing perched over ’50s MTV. So? No way in hell did Bird, believing there was no competition in music, will his legacy to some second-generation be-boppers to rattle over the heads of the hip-hop nation like a rusty sabre.”

Page 221, on Don DeLillo: “DeLillo’s books are inward surveys of the white supremacist soul — on the run from mounting evidence that its days are (as the latest in Black militant button-wear loves to inform us) numbered.”

“When you’re younger, it’s all about expressionism, it’s all about trying to make as much noise as possible,” Tate said in an interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books in 2018. “I was trying to literally approximate music on the page.”

In Artforum:

In 1986, Tate penned the essay “Cult-Nats Meet Freaky-Deke” for the Voice’s literary supplement. This landmark work of cultural criticism limned the artificial divide imposed by white supremacist culture between Black intellectuals, expected to be repressed cultural nationalists, and Black artists, expected to be “freaky” and unhinged purveyors of exotica. “Somewhere along the road to probable madness or a meaningful life,” wrote Tate in its opening lines, “I decided that what black culture needs is a popular poststructuralism—accessible writing bent on deconstructing the whole of black culture.” Tate would go on to provide exactly that for the next three decades and beyond, as the Voice the following year hired him as a staff writer. The paper was “the only place in journalism where you weren’t expected to specialize,” Tate wrote in these pages in 2018, “where you could go off in your own cherry-picked vernacular about whatever form of aesthetic glory or political fuckery got your typing trigger finger ready to rumble on fish wrap.” He stayed there until 2005.

From Pitchfork:

Tate’s life began in Dayton, Ohio in 1957, and his family relocated to Washington, D.C. in his early teen years. Tate remained there through his years at Howard University, but after publishing work for The Voice via Robert Christgau, he left for New York in 1982 to follow the city’s busy, up-and-coming hip-hop scene more closely. “It was like writing war dispatches right there on the ground. There was all this incendiary work coming out. It was unprecedented. It didn’t sound like anything that had come before. There was a lot to talk about,” he recalled to Pitchfork in 2018.

From Questlove:

Greg was the first person who validated the art that I loved and made it intellectually viable. I never heard anyone speak of hip-hop in those terms before him. I had never heard of Afro-futurism. I had never encountered a writer who made the case that Public Enemy was just as important as the Beatles, and who made it with such intelligence. This was during a time when my dad and I were really at odds about culture for the first time. My dad was a person who made binge record shopping (something I do to this day) an event. Music was our thing!! Now we are at odds. My dad was turning into a grumpy cynic and I didn’t like it. So there was a 10 year gap in which I had noone to bounce ideas off of like I did with my dad in the 70s. Enter Greg. To see a Black person write so eloquently about this music—hip hop, but not just hip hop—gave me confidence and clarity. It saved me. He made the music high art with pieces that were high art by themselves. I didn’t even know that he was a musician yet but I knew that his best instrument was his pen.

The New Yorker dug up Hua Hsu’s homage to Tate from 2016:

For a generation of critics, Tate’s career has served as a reminder that diversity isn’t just about a splash of color in the group photo; it’s about the different ways that people see, feel, and move within the world. These differences can be imperceptible, depending on where your eye lingers as you scan the newsroom. What made Tate’s criticism special was his ability to theorize outward from his encounters with genius and his brushes with banality—to telescope between moments of artistic inspiration and the giant structures within which those moments were produced. “Flyboy 2,” published earlier this month by Duke University Press, largely consists, like its predecessor, of critical essays, interviews, profiles, and short riffs. But, a quarter of a century on, the question animating his work has come into sharper focus. What he’s been exploring through his criticism has been something “less quantifiable,” as he puts it, than culture, identity, or consciousness. What Tate wants to understand is “the way Black people ‘think,’ mentally, emotionally, physically,” and “how those ways of thinking and being inform our artistic choices.”

Meanwhile, Crack Magazine curated a list of six seminal Tate essays (some of which are already linked above), covering everything from Bad Brains to Basquiat.

For those new to Tate’s work, it’s as good a place to start as any; for longtime fans, it’s a chance to both mourn a voice that’s been lost and celebrate one that could sing so brilliantly.

A Short History (and Future) of Choir Music in Movies

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 08, 2021

a sound designer at a mixing board scoring a film

Adrian Daub has noticed something unusual about choir music in movies: usually, we can’t understand the lyrics. For some reason, it’s important to have human voices rather than an instrument or orchestra carrying the musical load, but the linguistic content, whether it’s in pseudo-Latin, a made up Tolkien language, or Sanskrit translations of Welsh, usually might as well be empty.

This dates from the 1930s, when sound in movies got sophisticated enough to handle simultaneous polyvocal sound, the era of movie musicals and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs:

And then there was Dimitri Tiomkin’s score for Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon (1937). The film concerns the discovery of Shangri-La in the Himalayas, and when we finally get to the fabled land the soundtrack accompanies the matte-painted wonderland with a chorus singing in… well, in a language that isn’t English and doesn’t seem to be Tibetan either. And thus another Hollywood tradition was born: film choruses belting out perfectly nonsensical prose with utter conviction.

The film’s producers tried to claim that the choral music from Lost Horizon was rooted in Tibetan folk traditions, but this, Daub writes persuasively, is plainly nonsense, and nonsense about nonsense to boot. What matters isn’t the sense, but the feeling, not the authenticity, but the cinematic je-ne-sais-quoi (literally, je ne sais rien) of the music.

What’s more, music choirs (even the nonsensical, polyglot ones) have gone digital and programmable:

The EastWest Symphonic Choirs software allows you to make a virtual choir sing in just about any style imaginable. Want your ooos and aaas to sound like a whisper? More Broadway or more classical? All of that’s in the package.

But there’s more: Due to a system called WordBuilder, you can have this choir sing pretty much anything — you can type in text in English, in phonetics, or a proprietary alphabet called Votox, and the software will assemble it out of a massive databank of vowels and consonants…

All the professional singers I spoke to were keenly aware of products like EastWest Symphonic Choirs and the sample libraries — because more likely than not they’re in them. If you’re in the business of singing on film, these days you won’t always be asked to sing for an actual score, but instead you might get booked to record samples. There’s a scary possibility that these artists are slowly eroding the industry’s need for their labor — that the fruits of their one day of paid work will perform for the studios in perpetuity and with no extra residuals.

At the moment, though, singers come pretty cheap — and in many cases, even a union shop in a city like London (a favorite of movie music producers for just this reason) might insist only on a set rate without residuals. They’re even good at singing their way around nonsense:

As the soprano Catherine Bott said: “You enter a studio and you open the score and off you go. You sing what you’re told, and it’s all about versatility, just being able to adapt to the right approach, whatever that may be for that conductor or that composer.” And part of that, singers told me, was singing the words — whatever they may be. As Donald Greig pointed out to me, a lot of these singers have training in classics; they certainly know their way around a Requiem or a Stabat Mater. And yet often enough when they step into Abbey Road they’re being asked to sing perfectly nonsensical phrases in pseudo-Latin — but the studio is booked, the clock is ticking, and as Bott put it, “that’s not the time to put up your hand and, you know, correct the Latin.”

But the thing is, many of us have some experience being sung at in Latin we don’t understand — it’s the Catholic mass. And as Daub writes, the emotional content of the mass (and the accompanying tradition of Latin choral music) has never depended on its intelligibility — in fact, it’s often benefitted from the fact that few if any of the audience could understand what is being said word for word.

Whether they’re after a feeling of evil (as in The Omen), magic (Harry Potter), exotic African-ness (the misplaced Swahili of The Lion King), or familiarity (Black Widow’s callback to the theme from The Avengers), movie producers are literally counting on familiar human voices being misunderstood.

The Ethical Aside

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 07, 2021

parentheses, em dashes, commas

Stylistic tics are often shorthands for forms of thinking, or too often for ways of not thinking through a particular problem or set of circumstances. In “Aside Effects,” Lauren Michele Jackson looks at how the rhetorical aside, whether in commas or parentheses, gives the appearance of covering all bases while actually relegating the cases that matter to the status of a special footnote.

An article on loitering, say, will take care to mention that Black and Brown folks are often penalized by anti-loitering laws, but such an aside leaves out the fact that the Brown loiterer is not one example but the prototype. The ethics of the thing protest too much. It’s “women and people of color.” It’s “women and femmes.” Jules Gill-Peterson, in her essay on trans pessimism, asks after the misty “trans woman of color” whose life in print is only an enhancement for other things, a summoning that suppresses whatever lives happen behind the rumor. An aside to be cast aside. “The trans woman of color whose life is invoked is always putative,” Gill-Peterson writes. “She’s no fact. Who is she? How do you know her? I know why Chase Bank, or Sephora[,] pretends to know her. But you? What’s your excuse?”

The ethical aside is an interruption—the beat before everyone gets on with their lives. Journalists signal that they have done their due diligence in reaching out to all parties with the inclusion of “(X declined to comment for this article)” in reported investigations; the ethical aside, likewise, says that the author has indeed thought of and considered the conditions of those excluded by their primary interests. There’s someone else out there, it acknowledges, even as the story as written depends on their disavowed existence.

This isn’t a hard and fast rule, a proclamation that footnotes, parentheticals, and the like are inherently bad, and Jackson takes time to look through cases (including some splendid literary examples from Frederick Douglass and Vladmir Nabokov) where the aside has the opposite effect. But it does point to a very real problem not just in style but with habits of thinking. What if we valued the actually thoughtful more than the appearance of conscientiousness? I don’t know what that world would look like, but I bet it would be a more interesting one.

The Courtroom Sketch Artist

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 07, 2021


Choire Sicha’s interview with Jane Rosenberg, the courtroom sketch artist currently working on the Ghislaine Maxwell trial in New York, is delightful.

Do you and other courtroom artists ever fight?
Oh, sure. You don’t want to hear all that.

All I want to hear is that!
Oh, no, no. I’m not starting. I get along professionally with most artists. There are some who are just really a problem. It’s not normal, what I put up with from the other ones. I used to have a story every day — they cursed me out! They knocked my pastels over! They’re sly as a fox, they do it when no one’s around, but all the court officers know who they are. They’re not in this trial.

Jeez. It’s much nicer among the reporters!
We compete, also! There’s issues of competition for certain clients. Some of us have our set clients, and there’s stealing going on, all kinds of backstabbing going on. It’s not all roses. I’m okay with who’s here, and we do what we have to do.

(Rosenberg has been drawing defendants since 1980.)

Math on Screen

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 07, 2021

Simpsons - Homer Simpson writes mathematical equations (some of them wrong) on a blackboard

Mathematics isn’t the most obviously cinematic academic discipline out there, but it is one that the movies (and to a lesser extent television) have repeatedly tried to understand, or in some cases, used to goose up a vaguely science-y story. Unsurprisingly, mathematicians often become sticklers for detail in such high-profile depictions of what they do, and a good or bad portrayal can become famous or infamous.

My friend Jordan Ellenberg, a math professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is also an expert in translating math to popular audiences, in his books and sometimes on screen. In this video, he takes a look at some popular representations of math in TV and the movies, and tries to explain what’s going on, including what the filmmakers do well or not so well.

Good Will Hunting’s use of math is famously bad, and Ellenberg unsurprisingly agrees (although, surprisingly, he had never before seen the movie or even the math scenes in question). Portrayals that get a perhaps-surprisingly high score include The Simpsons (which includes several former mathematicians among its writers) and Jurassic Park — Jeff Goldblum pulls off a passable explanation of chaos theory while also eerily accurately capturing the slightly-creepy vibe of a neurotic academic asked to describe what he studies to a layperson. “He was the one who I most felt might have spent a long time studying mathematicians and truly trying to give off a mathematician vibe,” says Ellenberg.

One thing I love is Ellenberg’s attention to how each of the on-screen mathematicians write (if they do any writing themselves at all, rather than ponder something that’s already been written by a character offscreen) — the connection between math and writing is so powerful, and math is one of the great remaining repositories of manuscript culture (even as it’s also taken on computers and machines, like everything else).

Ellenberg also adds that the most important thing a movie about mathematics can do is to convey to the audience that being a mathematician is something real, ordinary people still do, rather than being just a bunch of old dead men wearing robes.

A Short History of the Week

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 07, 2021


Years, days, seasons, even months correspond to natural divisions of time in most parts of the Earth. We split those into hours, minutes, seconds, pretty cleanly if you’re a post-Sumerian who loves the number 60. But weeks? You can talk about phases of the moon, but for the most part, weeks are our most arbitrary (and mathematically awkward) imposition on the experience of time. (Not everybody observes a seven-day week, even today.)

So how did we make the week a thing?

Although taboos and cosmologies in several different cultures attached significance to seven-day cycles much earlier, there is no clear evidence of any society using such cycles to track time in the form of a common calendar before the end of the 1st century CE. As the scholars Ilaria Bultrighini and Sacha Stern have recently documented, it was in the context of the Roman Empire that a standardised weekly calendar emerged out of a combination and conflation of Jewish Sabbath counts and Roman planetary cycles. The weekly calendar, from the moment of its effective invention, reflected a union of very different ways of counting days. This fact alone ought to discourage us from assuming that weeks have just one obvious technological application.

Along with charting the stars and setting aside time for the sacred, weeks, David Henkin argues, serve as mnemonic devices, divide work from non-work days, allow us to distinguish one cycle of days from the next, and offer a regular opportunity to take stock.

Starting around the nineteenth century, particularly in the United States, the division of time into weeks (which correspondingly creates a repeating order of days) also allowed for a new, industrial-bureaucratic conditioning to take place: we created schedules.

Increasingly and pervasively, Americans were applying the technology of the seven-day count to the project of scheduling. Some of these schedules emerged in work settings, specifically schools and housekeeping. As daily school attendance became a normative activity outside the southern US in the early 19th century, masses of schoolchildren learned early and often to expect certain regular activities (examinations, early recesses, special classes) to take place on the same day of the week. And as new norms of hygiene and respectability took hold in middle-class households, domestic manuals began prescribing weekly schedules for core housekeeping tasks: washing on Mondays, ironing on Tuesdays, baking on Wednesdays.

Offices and workplaces were soon to follow. Eventually, the week provided such a regular structure to our days and activities that when any disruption happens (be it mild and passing like a holiday, or more deeply deranging, like a pandemic), it throws us into disorientation. We made the week, but now we can’t live without it.

Why Can’t I Hear The Movie?

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 06, 2021


In theory, this should be a golden age for movie sound. There’s better digital recording and mixing equipment than ever, theaters are incentivized to offer a premiere experience, and home theater equipment is more expensive, elaborate, and ubiquitous.

But many viewers report that even simple intelligibility of movie sound is worse than ever. In “Here’s Why Movie Dialogue Has Gotten More Difficult To Understand (And Three Ways To Fix It)”, Slashfilm’s Ben Pearson tried to break down the various causes of the problem and propose some solutions. It’s a thorough (and quite enjoyable) read.

Some of the sound problems just have to do with plain incorrigibility of the people involved: directors (Christopher Nolan is singled out) and actors who pride themselves on arty unintelligibility. There’s also some incompetence: movie houses who’ve let go of skilled projectionists and play the movie back too low (often if someone complained it was too loud), or filmmakers who rush through a shoot or a mix counting on the fact that they’ll be able to pick up the sound later. And sure, we’re probably overromanticizing our youth, when everything was pure and clear (but really made by the same kind of hacks still in charge of the movie business).

The more interesting problems, however, really are structural. For instance, remixing a movie for streaming (when you can afford to do a proper second mix), often bumps up against not just digital compression, but the fact that competing streaming services have no single standard for sound quality and mixes:

Compression is inescapable when streaming is involved, but it turns out not all streaming platforms are created equal. Craig Mann tells me something he says “is not well-known” outside the sound community: different streamers have different specifications when it comes to their audio mixes. “Netflix has excellent specs in terms of dialogue norm and overall levels,” he reveals. “They need a particular level in order to pass quality control, and the level is essentially based on the dialogue level throughout the length of the program.”

But since there’s no industry standard in how to measure audio for streaming, other platforms base their levels on other parts of the sound mix. Case in point: Mann recently worked on Joe Carnahan’s “Boss Level,” which was originally meant to be a theatrical release. “For a variety of reasons, it ended up at Hulu, and when we got a look at that spec, they require it to be based on the overall [volume] of the film, not on the dialogue level of the film. Consequently, that’s a big action movie with shooting and cars and big music, and the result of that is that you have a much more squashed up, un-impactful mix … there are only a couple different ways of measuring these things these days, and I can only imagine that it’s somebody just not understanding the reason why it should be this and not that.”

As for downmixing the streaming service for stereo, well, as Pearson writes:

For audio mixers, the theatrical mix comes first, followed by a streaming mix. Then, a stereo mix will often be created, funneling the full scope of the sound mix through just two simple speakers in a process Donald Sylvester likens to “taking a beautiful steak and dragging it through the dirt.”

As for solving the problem of unintelligibility and bad sound experiences, it mostly boils down to having more respect for and a better understanding of sound, from preproduction to the algorithms that serve up a mix to your TV set or headset. No easy fixes, just time and craftmanship. (In other words, don’t hold your breath.)

Victorian Condoms (Possibly)

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 06, 2021

You find the strangest things in the pages of old books, and the folks at the Bodleian Archives at Oxford are no stranger to the eccentric bits of paratext one picks up here and there. But this is indeed something of a mystery:

Folded Tissue with Ribbon.jpeg

The tissue was folded in half, lengthwise. When I unfolded it, it was immediately clear: not a glove, not unless you wanted to cover only one (very long!) finger at a time.

Instead there were four, individual, 8 inch/20cm-long tubes. For each, one end has been skillfully shaped, cut and sealed into a three dimensional dome, like a fingertip on a glove. The other end of each tube is fully open, and a pale blue ribbon drawstring is neatly tucked into a narrow hem around the circumference of each opening.

The archivist’s best guess? A small pack of condoms, quite possibly made from an animal casing, which would have been soft and supple when new (now quite brittle). And to be honest, a book is a perfectly good place to keep such supplies — unlikely to get lost in laundry or wardrobe changes, the closest thing a man of that era might carry to a bag or purse.

The Logistics of the Montgomery Bus Boycott

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 06, 2021


The bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama began on Monday, December 5th, 1955 and ended on December 20, 1956 — 381 days during which a huge population had to commute to work, shop, socialize, and run errands without using the city’s public transit system. Obviously, not all of them had cars of their own or could rely solely on their feet or bicycles. They needed organized transport.

The bus boycott produced well-known heroes like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., and a Supreme Court decision prohibiting segregation on public transit, but it also was a product of grassroots organization, an exercise in logistical planning as well as party discipline. How did they do it?

Blogger Samantha Shain has gathered a few threads from books at her site The Data Are All Right (I found Samantha’s post via a tweet by Elizabeth Wrigley-Field.) Here are some highlights:

At least 29 women worked as regular carpool drivers or dispatchers. Ann Smith Pratt, a hairdresser, was the chief dispatcher. She worked the ham radio directing taxi drivers and the church station wagon crew to urgent pickups at 32 designated sites. (At the Dark End of the Street, p. 120, by Danielle McGuire)
[Rev. Benjamin J Simms] set up three repair shops, designated official gas stations, instituted a uniform pay scale for drivers and a system for keeping track of them, oversaw dispatchers working around the clock, and demanded meticulous record keeping. (Daybreak of Freedom, p. 13, by Stewart Burns)

Dr. King wrote about some of these logistical difficulties in the local papers; they were made even more difficult through the counter-organization of the boycott’s opponents.

The newest and most recent of the attempts to end the protest has been effected through insurance companies, which for some strange reason have cancelled the insurance policies on all but seven of the 24 church station wagons. Whether pressure has been put upon the companies to force the cancellation, no one knows, but on Saturday Spetember 8, the automobile insurance companies annoucned that they “could nott take the risk” and cancelled the policies. Thus, seventeen station wagons have been out of operation since then. Efforts are being made to find “companies which will take the risk,” so that these carriers can resume operations. (quoted in Daybreak of Freedom, p. 395.)

Ann Smith Pratt and Reverend Simms are examples of the other heroes of the Bus Boycott, the ones who never became national names but without whom it simply would have failed.

Infrastructure doesn’t just happen; it is a manifestation of how a community takes care of itself, or (too often), how it cares for some but not others. As my friend Deb Chachra persuasively writes, infrastructure is care at scale.

The Vinyl Boom

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 06, 2021

Bar chart titled The Huge Resurgence of Vinyl Records; vinyl records projected to break 30m units (LPs) sold in 2021

About five years ago, a funny thing happened: for birthdays and holidays, instead of LEGO sets or basketball jerseys, my son started asking me to buy him vinyl records. I happily complied: it was fun to mix new and old records together, track down semi-rare albums, and then listen to the music together, plus talk about music all the time.

It turns out my teen wasn’t an outlier: younger people are buying vinyl at a rate not seen in over a generation, not just as collectors or as an affectation, but as a first-line way to enjoy music, new and old. What’s more, the revenue from vinyl sales was a small but substantial lifeline to artists squeezed by streaming’s stingy royalty rates.

At The Hustle, Zachary Crockett does the math:

For modern-day indie artists, it’s a welcome boom. A vinyl record costs ~$7 to manufacture, and a band typically sells it directly to fans for $25, good for $18 in profit. By contrast, streaming services only pay out a fraction of a penny for each listen. A band would have to amass 450k streams on Spotify to match the profit of 100 vinyl sales.

There are also moments where the streaming and vinyl economy come together. Bandcamp has a vinyl pressing service, and some of the most popular music videos on YouTube are needle drop recordings of a fan playing a vinyl record.

There are some bottlenecks, though. First, streaming is a much bigger ocean than vinyl. Second, vinyl’s manufacturing capacity is greatly reduced from its heyday, making it more arduous and fragile to make, manufacture, and distribute a vinyl record. Finally, the environmental impacts of vinyl manufacturing aren’t great.

But the aesthetics — oh, the sweet joy of a needle on a record — the aesthetics can’t be beat.

Update: Crockett’s arithmetic above is a little hasty. For one thing, it doesn’t include shipping costs, which can either make a record much more expensive or cut into the profit margin. It’s definitely a better profit margin than streaming music royalties, but it is one where costs are at a premium.

Sounding the Sumburgh Foghorn

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 03, 2021

Built in 1905 and recently restored to working order, the Sumburgh Foghorn is perhaps the last functioning foghorn in Scotland. This two-minute film, which is simply but beautifully shot, documents the surprisingly elaborate process of sounding the horn.

Out of use since 1987, the foghorn was painstakingly restored by Brian Johnson. Shown in the video is the annual Foghorn sounding at Sumburgh Lighthouse, Shetland, Scotland. Brian starts up the 1951 Kelvin K-Series Diesel 44hp Engines. The engines power the Alley and MacLellan compressors, which in turn, power the foghorn.

Just so’s you know, the horn was originally much louder at the end, but YouTube’s audio algorithm turned the volume down. I tried several versions but it wasn’t having it.

I wish we could experience the true loudness of the horn through the video — it was so powerful that it could be heard at a range of 20 miles on foggy days. (thx, mick)