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Shots Fired

“Something is terribly wrong with architecture,” writes Nathan J. Robinson in Current Affairs. “Nearly everything being built is boring, joyless, and/or ugly, even though there is no reason it has to be.” Worse, he adds, is that architects themselves seem unable to see the problem. Indeed, they perpetuate it by continuing to hand out awards for “pretentious and bland” work.

Robinson’s take isn’t a popular one—amongst some people, anyway:

There are so many incredible possibilities for architecture, but the minimalist consensus has got it stuck in a rut, spinning its wheels, producing weird new shape after weird new shape, because people are afraid they’ll be called backward if they admit they like mosaics and gargoyles and friezes and stained glass and other cool stuff. I like pretty colors or I like old things makes you a child, an idiot, someone to be laughed at.

That’s no exaggeration. I’ve published many controversial opinions, but the most vitriol I get is…from architecture snobs who think it is wrong and bad to have a negative reaction to things they have deemed correct. It’s truly vicious. If you’re going to join those who publicly admit they don’t like contemporary architecture, you’re going to be called stupid and reactionary and completely missing the point.

Like everything else, it seems, architecture has been politicized.

“Only he who attempts the absurd is capable of achieving the impossible.”*

If you would have told me that today I would sit, mesmerized, for more than six and a half minutes watching a video of somebody building a LEGO machine for making domino runs, I would have thought you mad. And yet here we are.

I wish my mind worked like this. Hell, I wish my mind just…worked.

Speaking of human ingenuity, here’s a look at 120 years of electronic music. And here’s a photo essay about the construction of Golden Gate Bridge.

*Miguel de Unamuno, Essays and Soliloquies, 1925.

Evidence-Free Assertion of the Day

“Reading a book requires, by today’s dismal standards, an enormous investment of time and attention,” writes Austin Kleon, “and the writer either honors that investment or suffers the consequences.”

I couldn’t disagree more.

Reading a book requires exactly as much time and attention as it always has. And if you’re too busy to read—hint: you’re not, because nobody is—that’s your problem, not the writer’s.

Look, if you don’t want to read, fine. Like kimchi or Throbbing Gristle or a college education, it’s not for everyone. But that’s on you. Just admit you’re a narcissist and quit projecting on the rest of us.

Even more mystifying is the notion that reading is somehow an investment. This is the language of the self-improvement fetishists; those who read not because it’s enjoyable but because it’ll make them more efficient or more productive or more likely to win an argument.

And therein lies the problem. Reading used to be viewed as an end in itself; now it’s more likely to be seen as a means to an end—a transactional relationship between author and content consumer. Just as we’ve done with our phones and our playlists and our social media feeds, we somehow think that our reading experiences ought to likewise be customized and “curated.” Which means if we don’t like ’em, we just look for alternatives that conform to our expectations and flatter our sense of self-worth.

What a boring way to live.

Various and Sundry

Ben Dreyfuss just launched a newsletter called Good Faith, “where every Monday and Friday you can read new posts about how everyone is well-intentioned, stupid, and desperately in need of checking out from politics.” Amen.

Remember Vantablack? A team of Purdue University engineers has now created a paint so white it reflects up to 98.1 percent of sunlight.

Speaking of white, beat-deafness is actually a thing.

“Few questions divide the world of science from the world of metaphysics as dramatically as that of the origin of Egypt’s great pyramids,” writes Brian Dunning. On the one hand, he explains, there are Egyptologists, “an international army of academics and cross disciplinary scientists who have lived and worked at the site for centuries, who find that the pyramids were built by the ancient Egyptians….” On the other? Well…

John McWhorter has a new book out, from which an essay in the New York Times and a piece over at the Atlantic have been excerpted. Fascinating stuff.

I don’t believe in fate, but man, the Sarker family sure seems destined for a life of crime.

Perfection

Remember Prince’s guitar solo during the performance of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” at the 2004 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony? There’s a brand-new director’s cut on YouTube:

If there were any doubt as to the Purple One’s awesomeness, this—the shredding commences at the 3:29 mark—ought to put those dark thoughts to bed for good.

Have a Cab and a Smile

Behold! The unlikely story of Taylor California Cellars, “Coca-Cola’s forgotten foray into the wine industry.”

I was just a kid back then, but I remember the Judgment of Paris and, two years later, Wine Spectrum’s purchase of Monterey Vineyards, which was just 20 minutes down the road from where I lived. (Well…I remember the adults in my life talking about it, at least. It seemed like a pretty big deal at the time.)

Turns out it was a pretty big deal. According to NPR, California wasn’t the only beneficiary: “In the aftermath of the tasting, new vineyards bloomed around the U.S. (think Oregon, Washington and Virginia) and the world—from Argentina to Australia.”

But back to Taylor California Cellars:

What’s ironic is that Coke was actually naming names in their ad campaign, saying that, according to the experts, Taylor was better than [insert competitor here]—which is exactly how Pepsi had been grabbing market share from Coke since 1975.

And it worked—though apparently not well enough. In 1982, when the above commercial aired, Coke’s stock rose 49.63%. The next year, they got out of the wine business entirely, selling their Wine Spectrum portfolio to Joseph E. Seagram & Sons for a cool $200 million.

Makes me think it’s not just the 1976 Paris tasting we have to thank for the “blooming” of vineyards around the world. Coke’s involvement—short though it was—likely also had a huge effect in bringing wine to the masses.

Let’s Get Philosophical

This, from a Twitter user named Jared, apparently took the social media platform by storm a year ago—but because I’m perpetually behind on pretty much everything (Happy Valentine’s Day, honey!), it was new to me:

The shopping cart is the ultimate litmus test for whether a person is capable of self-governing. To return the shopping cart is an easy, convenient task and one which we all recognize as the correct, appropriate thing to do. To return the shopping cart is objectively right. There are no situations other than dire emergencies in which a person is not able to return their cart. Simultaneously, it is not illegal to abandon your shopping cart. Therefore the shopping cart presents itself as the apex example of whether a person will do what is right without being forced to do it. No one will punish you for not returning the shopping cart, no one will fine you or kill you for not returning the shopping cart, you gain nothing by returning the shopping cart. You must return the shopping cart out of the goodness of your own heart. You must return the shopping cart because it is the right thing to do. Because it is correct. A person who is unable to do this is no better than an animal, an absolute savage who can only be made to do what is right by threatening them with a law and the force that stands behind it. The Shopping Cart is what determines whether a person is a good or bad member of society.

Truth. Simple as that.

Miscellany

From the Royal Collection Trust: “From an early age, [Maria Sibylla Merian] was fascinated by insects and their life cycles, and undertook research into the phenomenon of metamorphosis, which was then only partially understood. She published her findings in a series of books, illustrated with beautifully-composed plates in which each insect life-cycle was illustrated on the appropriate food plant.”

You can view a collection of Merian’s watercolors here, where you’ll also learn important things like how pineapple is “the most outstanding of all edible fruits.” Hard to disagree with that assessment, though whether it belongs on the most outstanding of all edible foods—pizza—is another question entirely.

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Today I learned that the pointy part of a speech bubble—you know, the way comic books and the like indicate speech—is called a tail. Given that a large chunk of my formative years was spent reading MAD magazine, you’d think this wouldn’t be new to me.

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Was 2020 the worst year ever? Not by a long shot, according to Michael McCormick, Francis Goelet Professor of Medieval History at Harvard University. No, that title goes to 536 A.D., “the precursor year to one of the worst periods of human history.” It apparently started with a volcanic eruption, which led to eighteen months of darkness, the coldest decade in 2,300 years, crop devastation and worldwide famine, bubonic plague, and the fall of the Roman Empire.

Meanwhile, the worst thing I’ve had to deal with over the last year is waiting in line to get in to Trader Joe’s.

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Sign of the end times: Citizen Kane is “certified fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes, scoring 99 percent on the site’s vaunted “tomatometer.” Which means it’s not as good as Paddington 2.

“And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed him.

A New Cold War

Over at Wired, Andy Greenberg explains “how one couple built a device to fix McDonald’s notoriously broken soft-serve machines—and how the fast-food giant froze them out.” It’s as bizarre and maddening as it sounds.

You’re no doubt familiar with the old saw, “Ignorance is bliss.”* Or maybe you’ve heard Bismarck’s “If you like laws and sausages, you should never watch either one being made.” That sentiment is never more true than when I’m reading stories like this. The more I dig, the more rotten people—and institutions, and corporations, and pretty much everything—turn out to be.

Best not to dig, then. The only way to stay idealistic is to not pay attention.

*A college friend of mine actually perfected this, saying, “If ignorance is bliss, then stupidity must be ecstasy!”

Miscellany: Architecture & Music Edition

Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House: “a magnificent catastrophe.”

Thelonious Monk’s 25 Tips for Musicians: “You’ve got to dig it to dig it, you dig?”

Philip Johnson’s Nazi past: “you simply could not fail to be caught up in the excitement of it.”

Steve Roach’s Structures from Silence: “one of the crowning achievements in the ambient genre.”

The Simple Life

Wilf Davies has lived in Wales’ Teifi valley for all of his 72 years. He’s never been married (“it’s not something that I’ve ever regretted”), and, apart from visiting a farm in England 30 years ago, he’s never left Wales.

It should come as no surprise, then, to learn that he doesn’t deviate much when it comes to meal time:

I have a routine, just like nature. That extends to what I eat. I’ve had the same supper for 10 years, even on Christmas Day: two pieces of fish, one big onion, an egg, baked beans and a few biscuits at the end. For lunch I have a pear, an orange and four sandwiches with paste. But I allow myself a bit more variety; I’ll sometimes have soup if it’s cold.

Asceticism apparently runs in the family. “My uncle, a bachelor and farmer like me, had…bread, butter, cheese and tea for breakfast, lunch and dinner (although he would bring out the jam for visitors).”

Mr. Davies looks after 71 sheep, and “they never ask for anything different for supper,” so I guess it makes sense, really.

I’m not sure if it’s courage or stubbornness, but there’s something admirable in knowing exactly what makes you happy, doing it, and not caring one whit what other people think about it.

The Creative Process

In this delightful segment from a 1970 interview with the ever-charming Dick Cavett, Paul Simon reveals how he came to write “Bridge Over Troubled Water”:

Austin Kleon, author of Steal Like An Artist, dissects the clip—and how songwriting has changed in the last 50 years—here.

Miscellany

Andrew Blum on fusion: “On the evening of March 18, 1987…three thousand [physicists] crammed into the Hilton ballroom for the High Temperature Superconductivity Symposium, while hundreds more watched on TVs set up in the hotel corridors. In a marathon session that soon became known as the ‘Woodstock of physics,’ fifty-one separate presentations went on until 3:15 am, with example after example of new superconducting feats. It became a singular event in modern science, its legend fueled by a Nobel Prize that year for Bednorz and Müller and a cover story in Time magazine (‘Superconductors!’).”

Christina Rawls on a philosophy of sound: “The mystic Eckhart Tolle…noted that some of our most profound moments are those we encounter without description—such as any new (positive) experience in a place we’ve never visited before, or delicious meals we’ve never tasted before, or beautiful sounds and instruments we’ve never heard before. The unnameable and the unfathomable can be striking, affective; not all sounds need to or can have names, and yet we both experience them and also learn from them. New research on binaural music—where the frequency of sound is slightly different in both ears—suggests that such noises can alter our brainwaves and mental processes for the better.”

Adam Kirsch on “getting” poetry: “Most Americans first encounter poetry as a classroom subject, and it never loses the associations of dutifulness and dullness. American adolescents make their way through ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ and ‘The Road Not Taken’ the way Victorian schoolboys were made to construe Homer: the language may not be dead, but the context is equally remote from real life.”

Gina Kolata on the woman who may very well have saved us all: “On Nov. 8, the first results of the Pfizer-BioNTech study came in, showing that the mRNA vaccine offered powerful immunity to the new virus. Dr. Kariko turned to her husband. ‘Oh, it works,’ she said. ‘I thought so.’ To celebrate, she ate an entire box of Goobers chocolate-covered peanuts. By herself.”

Don’t Relax Just Yet

Now that there appears to be some light at the end of the tunnel—the CDC’s COVID Data Tracker actually brings more joy than despair these days—it’s time to turn our full attention toward something that poses an even greater threat to our survival as a species: FLAMING DEATH HOLES! Better keep that mask handy…

Our Ever-Evolving Language

I learned a new word today. (Don’t get excited—I’m usually the last one to learn anything, so y’all are probably already up to speed on this one.)

Anyway, here’s American Heritage:

ret•ro•nym n. A word or phrase created because an existing term that was once used alone needs to be distinguished from a term referring to a new development, as acoustic guitar in contrast to electric guitar or analog watch in contrast to digital watch.

Here’s another example that occurred to me as I was writing this: manual transmission, or stick. In olden times, when there was only one way to deliver power from the engine to the wheels, people just called it a transmission.

Which has me wondering what we’ll eventually land on when electric vehicles become the norm. Fingers crossed for something cool like gasmobiles.

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