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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.


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.

Stop! Grammar Time!

It brings me no pleasure to point out others’ failings. Really, it doesn’t. (Well…maybe a little.)

Either there’s someone named “Wednesday” who owns a four-hour time slot—hence the singular possessive—or there’s a city employee who’s gone rogue, adding apostrophes to random plurals just to mess with me. Or it could be that the parks department is simply unaware of the rules.

Here’s a refresher: Form a plural (two or more) by adding an s, e.g. cookies. Form a possessive by adding an apostrophe and an s, e.g. Aaron’s cookies. That’s pretty much it. I mean, sure, there are exceptions, but if you just remember those two rules, you’ll be golden 90 percent of the time. Or hell, just don’t use apostrophes at all. Seems to be where we’re heading anyway.

When Did I Become My Grandfather?

I’m not the kind of person who stresses out about his age. Not much I can do about it, I figure. Plus, the benefits of middle age—like, say, giving far fewer f**ks about pretty much everything—far outweigh whatever advantages youth may once have held. (Honestly, I can’t remember what they were.)

There is, however, one alarming development. With every passing year, I get the sneaking suspicion that—to steal a title from Macon Blair’s directorial debut—I don’t feel at home in this world anymore.

It’s not that everyone is terrible (though I admit there’s an avalanche of evidence that indicates otherwise). It’s stories like this.

Had the video spread no more widely than Royce’s followers, a low-stress exchange of ideas might have ensued. Instead his video quickly garnered many thousands of likes and shares. Supporters deemed the term super-straight an ingenious gambit forcing dogmatic social-justice advocates to live by the same standards they enforce on others. Royce also drew a lot of critics. Haters argued that super-straight was a cruel parody of all LGBTQ people. The video quickly disappeared from TikTok, perhaps because many users flagged it as violating the app’s rules. It reappeared about a week later, presumably after human content moderators reviewed it. That’s when it went massively viral. My TikTok feed, usually a respite of surfing highlights, recipe ideas, and Generation X nostalgia, was overrun by super-straight. Fans and critics alike commented on and shared videos about the subject—or posted their own. “Let me break this down: trans women are women,” declared the TikTok creator @tblizzy, who currently has more than 425,000 followers. “So if you’re a heterosexual man and you said you wouldn’t date a trans woman because it’s a preference, that’s just transphobia, period.”

Here’s the thing. This is something that apparently warrants coverage in a national publication, yet (1) I have only the vaguest notion of what they’re talking about, and (2) even if I did understand, I still wouldn’t care. Oh, and (3) the story pretty much proves that everyone is, in fact, terrible. So there’s that.

Question: Is this what all old people go through?

First you realize that pop culture and social change are moving at such a rate that you can no longer keep up with who’s who and what’s what. This alarms you—at first. Then you realize that pop culture and social change really aren’t worth thinking, let alone caring, about. Relieved, you believe this new, improved attitude will bring you peace and enable you to focus on the things that really matter.

Instead, you increasingly find yourself a stranger in a strange land.

Wonders Never Cease

Yesterday I saw a dude riding a skateboard—downhill, mind you—while playing a banjo and smoking a cigarette. And he wasn’t half-bad on the banjo, either.

But the truly astonishing thing was that this guy was riding said skateboard on the sidewalk. In Spokane.

For those of you not from around here, there’s really only one word that adequately describes the state of our sidewalks: embarrassing. There’s deteriorating concrete to deal with, upheavals of entire sections, and cracks that could easily swallow a family of four. The sidewalk under the Browne Street railroad viaduct is actually squishy on accounta all the accumulated dirt and grime and human waste. It’s like you’re walking on a sponge, only…grosser.

But, like yesterday, I digress.

A few years ago I saw a guy in Portland riding around on a bicycle and playing the bagpipes—while wearing a Darth Vader helmet. He was trying way too hard to be weird, it seemed to me; a performative act meant to burnish Portland’s reputation for offbeat characters and hipper-than-thou millennials rather than an honest expression of his personality.

But Spokane’s skateboard guy? He’s totally legit. The real deal. Probably never occurred to him to not take advantage of his commute by practicing some bluegrass licks.

Sometimes I really dig this city.

Monday Ramblings

“The first note known to have sounded on earth,” writes Mathew Lyons, “was an E natural. It was produced some 165 million years ago by a katydid (a kind of cricket*) rubbing its wings together, a fact deduced by scientists from the remains of one of these insects, preserved in amber. Consider, too, the love life of the mosquito. When a male mosquito wishes to attract a mate, his wings buzz at a frequency of 600Hz, which is the equivalent of D natural. The normal pitch of the female’s wings is 400Hz, or G natural. Just prior to sex, however, male and female harmonise at 1200Hz, which is, as Michael Spitzer notes in his extraordinary new book, The Musical Human, ‘an ecstatic octave above the male’s D’. ‘Everything we sing’, Spitzer adds, ‘is just a footnote to that.’”

So we’ve got an E, a D, and a G. Add a B and we’ve got an Em7 chord—or, depending on your mood and the chord’s root, a G6, a D6/9sus4, or a Bm#5 add(4). I prefer the Em7, though, if only because it “gives quite a jazzy feel to a piece of music.”

But I digress.

The quote comes from Lyons’s review of The Musical Human: A History of Life on Earth by Michael Spitzer. It sounds like something I need to get my hands on, if only because the book serves as a “comprehensive refutation” of Steven Pinker’s ridiculous assertion that, evolutionarily speaking, music is nothing more than “auditory cheesecake.” I mean, I dig Pinker, but that’s almost offensive.

*Come on. Do we really need Lyons to explain what a katydid is? Are we that dumb now?

Miscellany: The Glorious, the Sublime, and the Cool Edition

Il glorioso:

Project C-90, the ultimate audiotape guide.

Il sublime:

Promises, the new album by Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders, and the London Symphony Orchestra.

Il bello:

If you’re wondering why the subheads are in Italian, it’s because of this, the greatest title sequence of one of the five greatest films* of all time:

*The other four are, in no particular order, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, and Planet of the Apes (the 1968 original, obviously).

Quote of the Day

NPR host Scott Simon:

I interviewed Elmore [Leonard] at a Tucson book festival in 2010. Just before going onstage we thumbed through a program listing all the esteemed authors, of which he was easily the best-known and, he told me, the one who had won no prestigious fellowships and few awards. “Most of these writers don’t write for a living,” he said. “They write for tenure. Or for the New York Times. Or to get invited to conferences like this. When you write to make the rent or send your kids to school, you learn how to write without a lot of nonsense.”

Get to Know Your Punctuation

“The semi-colon is a funny fellow,” writes Tom Hogkinson in his review of Claire Cock-Starkey’s forthcoming Hyphens and Hashtags: The Stories Behind the Symbols on our Keyboards. “It was invented by a Venetian printer called Aldus Manutius in 1494 for editions of Dante and Erasmus. He adapted it from a bit of musical notation called the punctus versus, and it was Ben Jonson who really made sure it stuck by including it in his 1640 style guide, The English Grammar. In the 18th and 19th centuries writers went mad for it and in 1837 two rival French legal experts fought a duel over its use: one favoured the semi-colon to end a certain passage, the other a colon. The semicolon supporter was wounded in the arm by the apologist for the colon. Today I still find it an impressive piece of punctuation and young people would be well advised to use it in emails in order to impress their bosses.”

I’m not sure what I could possibly add to that, other than that I’m totally behind settling grammar arguments with pistols, and yes, you should definitely use the semicolon more often.

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