My latest Locus colum, "Music: The Internet’s Original Sin," asks why music copyright is such a hot potato on the Internet, even in the post-DRM age, when most tunes are $0.99 on Amazon in MP3. The short answer: music's ancient compact is not entirely compatible with contemporary commerce, and the industry has tried to "fix" this by just telling us that everything we know about the legitimate way to enjoy, produce and share music is wrong.
Let’s start with music’s age. Movies are still in their infancy. Books are in their middle age. Stories themselves are ancient. But music is primal. Books may predate commerce, but music predates language. Our relationship with music, and our social contracts around it, are woven into many other parts of our culture, parts that are considered more important than mere laws or businesses. The idea that music is something that you hear and then sing may even be inherent to our biology. I know that when I hear a catchy tune, I find myself humming it or singing it, and it takes a serious effort of will to stop myself. It doesn’t really matter what the law says about whether I am ‘‘authorized’’ to ‘‘perform’’ a song. Once it’s in my head, I’m singing it, and often singing it with my friends. If my friends and I sing together by means of video-sharing on YouTube, well, you’re going to have a hard time convincing us that this is somehow wrong.
Smithsonian has a fun article on America's top second-banana—the vice presidency—a job that John Adams, the first vice-president, described as "the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived."
Lest you think Dan Quayle was the first VP mocked in the press, or that The Onion's superb (if fictional) coverage of Joe Biden was some uniquely inventive portrayal of what vice presidents do with their time, Tony Horwitz is here to set you straight. The truth is that the vice presidency has a very long history of mediocrity, wackiness, and lack of purpose.
The Constitution also failed to specify the powers and status of vice presidents who assumed the top office. In fact, the second job was such an afterthought that no provision was made for replacing VPs who died or departed before finishing their terms. As a result, the office has been vacant for almost 38 years in the nation’s history.
Until recently, no one much cared. When William R.D. King died in 1853, just 25 days after his swearing-in (last words: “Take the pillow from under my head”), President Pierce gave a speech addressing other matters before concluding “with a brief allusion” to the vice president’s death. Other number-twos were alive but absentee, preferring their own homes or pursuits to an inconsequential role in Washington, where most VPs lived in boardinghouses (they had no official residence until the 1970s). Thomas Jefferson regarded his vice presidency as a “tranquil and unoffending station,” and spent much of it at Monticello. George Dallas (who called his wife “Mrs. Vice”) maintained a lucrative law practice, writing of his official post: “Where is he to go? What has he to do?—no where, nothing.” Daniel Tompkins, a drunken embezzler described as a “degraded sot,” paid so little heed to his duties that Congress docked his salary.
The image above shows the outcome of the 2008 presidential elections in the American South. Counties that swung Republican are in red. Counties that swung Democratic are in blue. The result shows more than just the modern political landscape. In fact, the blue counties trace the outline of an ancient coastline, from a time when much of the South and Central-West parts of North America were inundated with shallow, tropical seas.
I love this article by Dr. M at the Deep Sea News blog, which explains the geologic history of these oceans and explains why an ancient sea would affect modern politics.
During the Cretaceous, 139-65 million years ago, shallow seas covered much of the southern United States. These tropical waters were productive–giving rise to tiny marine plankton with carbonate skeletons which overtime accumulated into massive chalk formations. The chalk, both alkaline and porous, lead to fertile and well-drained soils in a band, mirroring that ancient coastline and stretching across the now much drier South. This arc of rich and dark soils in Alabama has long been known as the Black Belt.
...Over time this rich soil produced an amazingly productive agricultural region, especially for cotton. In 1859 alone a harvest of over 4,000 cotton bales was not uncommon within the belt. And yet, just tens of miles north or south this harvest was rare. Of course this level of cotton production required extensive labor.
Writer Christine Baumgarthuber has a really interesting article in the June issue of Dissent magazine about what working-class Victorians ate, and how their diets (and health) changed with the introduction of relative convenience foods, cheaper sugar, and margarine.
I don't know the cultural history of food—or the medical history of changes in public health—well enough to know whether Baumgarthuber's piece represents a full, nuanced perspective. (Dissent is a well-written and frequently interesting magazine, but it can't really be called an unbiased source.) But I did want to share a short bit from that article about the invention of margarine, which is absolutely fascinating:
Sometime in the 1860s the enterprising French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès made an important discovery. He took a pound of beef tallow soaked beforehand in a solution of 15 percent common salt and 1 percent sulfate of soda, slowly rendered it at 103 degrees Fahrenheit, poured in gastric juices of a pig, and sprinkled it with biphosphate of lime. This curdled mixture he spun in a centrifuge before adding a splash of cream. The resulting opalescent, jelly-like substance tasted much like butter.
This substance not only won Mège-Mouriès a prize offered by Emperor Napoleon III, who desperately sought a cheap, long-lasting, and easy-to-produce substitute for butter to feed the poor and his antsy army; it also secured him a place in history as the father of oleomargarine, which he patented in 1869. Two years later he sold the patent. Not long after a German pharmacist, who adapted the Frenchman’s formula, commenced its industrial production by establishing the Benedict Klein Margarinewerke.
I grew up eating mostly margarine, rather than butter. In my memory, that's what all of my friends at as well. In fact, I distinctly remember reading Matilda for the first time in grade school and being confused by the book's portrayal of eating margarine as a sign that someone was truly poor. From my perspective back then, butter was a hard, un-spreadable, depressing thing that you only bought when you couldn't afford a tub of Country Crock.
That personal memory made the article really interesting for me, as it traces the history of why margarine was food-for-the-poor. It also adds some background to that Matilda memory by quoting some contemporary public moralizing from the UK about poor people and their dietary choices. Since growing up, I've been able to put my childhood confusion into context in a number of ways, but this is the first time I've read some real background on the history of margarine in a cultural context. Really neat!
Via Alexis Madrigal
Image: CWS Gold Seal Margarine. Co-op magazine advert, 1960, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from sludgeulper's photostream
In 2007, my husband and I were privileged enough to take a month off and travel around Europe. Given that we spent most of our time in Western Europe, there really wasn't a whole lot of cultural confusion, with a few notable exceptions*. Chief among them, the squat toilets we stumbled across at a very inconvenient moment in Italy. "Inconvenient moment" here defined as "actually having to use the bathroom."
My friend Frank Bures is a travel writer and he understands the squat toilet problem all too well. Frank is, after all, somebody who has traveled extensively in places where squat is all you got. In a piece from 2006, he shares some hard-earned advice on squat toilets. How I wish I had read this before my venturing into small towns in coastal Italy.
Dr. Jane Wilson-Howarth is probably the world’s foremost expert on excretion, a real Buddha of Bowel Movements, and she’s not afraid to get into the details. “My technique when I’m teaching volunteers about to go abroad,” said the author of How to Shit Around the World from her UK office, “is that when you’re learning, you need to take everything off below your waist: socks, shoes, pants, underwear. Then squat over the toilet. Pour water over your bum, and with your left hand, just whittle away with your fingers and try to dislodge any lumpy bits while pouring water. And that’s actually not too unaesthetic, because any mess that goes onto your fingers comes off in the water.”
What to do: Most important: Cultivate the right mindset. Relax, pretend like you’ve been doing this for years. Remember, using your hand is (according Wilson-Howarth) actually more hygienic, not less, than using toilet paper. “You get good bacteriological cleaning with just rubbing your hands together with soap under running water four times,” she says, and cites a study which says you don’t even need soap. “It can be ash or mud, just rubbing your hands together under water with some kind of washing agent. Even dirt from the river bank will give you good bacteriological cleaning.”
*Another notable exception: Andouillette sausage is not the same thing as andouille. You've been warned.
Good news for those of you who require some kind of public justification for your love of junk food. The Paper of Record has published a positive review of Taco Bell's Doritos Loco taco. Fair warning, though, food critic William Grimes advises against springing for the Supreme version, as the tomatoes are flavorless and the "sour cream is just wrong."
Michael O'Hare is a public policy researcher. He teaches at UC Berkeley and specializes in the arts and the environment. He does not sound like a very threatening guy. But, since the early 1980s, Michael O'Hare has been the subject of another man's obsessive quest to find the true identity of the Zodiac Killer.
Let's be clear. Michael O'Hare is not the Zodiac Killer. He's got a pretty good alibi—namely the fact that he was nowhere near California when the murders happened. In fact, his name only entered the field because an enthusiast named Gareth Penn analyzed some of the famous Zodiac cryptograms and somehow came up with the name "Michael O". How that led Penn to O'Hare isn't exactly clear, but however it happened, Penn has spent the last 30 years telling anyone who will listen that Michael O'Hare is the Zodiac Killer.
And that has made O'Hare's life rather ... interesting. This weekend, I ran across a 2009 essay, written by O'Hare, describing his experience as the unwitting subject of somebody else's conspiracy theory. This is old, but I wanted to share it because it's such a rare perspective on this kind of thing. In the age of the Internet, it's easy to read up on conspiracy theories covering just about any topic. For most of them, you can also find extensive debunking sources. It's much less common for somebody at the center of the story to talk about what that experience has been like. Totally fascinating.
The decades since Penn fixed his sights on me have not been a living hell, much as that would spice up this story. They have been an ordinary life, punctuated by one or another flurry of fuss from Penn, sometimes involving pages of numbers (for example, the data pages from my PhD thesis) with this or that sequence picked out, circled, and "decoded" into words that fit somehow into Penn’s model of the crimes.
My favorite episode was the phone calls. Sometime in the 1980s, I started getting them at two and three in the morning. When my wife or I answered, a male voice would say something vaguely threatening like "I’m coming north, and I’m going to get you soon!" .... The calls were supposed to be transmitting coded messages via numbers—in particular, the time of the call! Apparently, Penn’s assumption was that when the average person is aroused by the phone in the middle of the night, the first thing he does, before woozily answering, is to note the time of the first ring on the digital clock he keeps by the bed—which is, of course, synchronized with the clock in the Naval Observatory. If your clock (or his) is off by just a couple of minutes, the call that was supposed to register as "2:14"—code for "Got you dead to rights this time"—will be misinterpreted as "2:16," which I think means "The Sox can’t make the playoffs without a closer." (Sadly, I’ve lost the magic decoder ring I got in exchange for cereal box tops as a child, so I can’t be sure.) The story got even better years later, when I discovered that a Penn skeptic had been calling him at home at times that figured into Penn’s theory, whereupon Penn assumed the calls came from me and "returned" them to my house, so he thought he was having a conversation with me, all in three-digit numbers.
For those of us who saw Mark's post on the train simulator game and thought, "Man, I want that," here's a couple more bits of train-related goodness.
First, back in February, I rode Amtrak's Empire Builder from Seattle to Minneapolis and did my best to live-tweet the whole, multi-day adventure. It's an amazing route, full of buttes, mountains, and some truly dramatic prairie landscapes. This video by YouTube user domtak doesn't quite capture how great the view out the window of the Empire Builder truly is, but it does give you a nice overview of how varied the geography of the United States really is. This 6-minute video covers a whole Portland-to-Minneapolis journey on the train. (With thanks to Thanland!)
Second, I didn't realize this until my friend Andrew pointed it out to me, but did you know that Reddit has a Train Porn page? Prepare to lose approximately five days of your life.
The Frisian Islands are barrier islands off the coast of the Netherlands. Between these islands and the mainland, there is an area called the Wadden Sea. This sea is only wet in some places, at some times. Instead of being a proper body of water, it's speckled with shallow pools, wetlands, mud flats that flood and dry up depending on storms and changing tides.
That geography makes the Frisian Islands, including the island of Texel, a great place to go beachcombing. During high tides and storms, water from the North Sea flows into the Wadden Sea through inlets. Not all of this water flows back out again, some evaporates. And water isn't the only thing in the North Sea. Wander the mud flats after the tide goes back out and you'll find all manner of random things washed up on Texel's shores—from buckets and signs, to bottles stuffed with anonymous letters.
On a more practical level, current patterns in the North Sea push whatever is in the water towards Texel. That means when a container ship loses something like a box full of luxury coats, the beaches of Texel are a great place to find it again. All that flotsam and jetsam (both the useful and the whimsical) helped create a culture of beachcombing on Texel. For generations, people went down to the shore and finders-keepers was the name of the game.
You can watch a new 14-minute documentary on Texel beachcombers and the goodies they've found. It's called Flotsam & Jetsam and it's available on Vimeo and it's really interesting—a great example of how the realities of nature and science can shape the way culture develops.
Read a geosciences master's thesis that explains in more detail how the tidal mud flats at Texel work.
Check out this cod piece. Author William Gibson found it in Masset, BC, Canada. The head of a 145-pound cod, meant to be worn as a great helm. Nothing intimidates your enemies quite like wearing the head of a fish on your head.
EDIT: Mr. Gibson emailed to say that the photo comes from a local bed and breakfast ... "That thing is in the very excellent Copper Beech House bed & breakfast in Masset, BC, run by the Canadian poet Susan Musgrave. We're here because Doug Coupland recommended it, and it's awesome."
Languages come and go and blend. It's likely been that way forever and the process only accelerates under the influence of mega-languages (like English) that represent a sort of global means of communication. But, increasingly, people who are at risk of losing their native language entirely are fighting back—trying to encourage more people to be bilingual and save the native language from extinction.
At Discover Magazine, Veronique Greenwood has a really interesting story about a mathematician who is helping to preserve Scottish Gaelic. How? The researcher, Anne Kandler, has put together some equations that can help native language supporters target their programs and plan their goals.
Some of the numbers are obvious—you must know how many people in the population you’re working with speak just Gaelic, how many speak just English, and how many are bilingual, as well as the rate of loss of Gaelic speakers. But also in the model are numbers that stand for the prestige of each language—the cultural value people place on speaking it—and numbers that describe a language’s economic value.
Put them all together into a system of equations that describe the growth of the three different groups—English speakers, Gaelic speakers, and bilinguals—and you can calculate what inputs are required for a stable bilingual population to emerge. In 2010, Kandler found that using the most current numbers, a total of 860 English speakers will have to learn Gaelic each year for the number of speakers to stay the same. To her, this sounded like a lot, but the national Gaelic Development Agency was pleased: it’s about the number of bilingual speakers they were already aiming to produce through classes and programs.
British people! Did you know that it is Railfest Week at your National Railway Museum? And did you know that that means you can get up close and personal with (and even go for a ride on) an amazing variety of vintage and modern trains, plus special talks, music, and theater shows? Among the attractions: Giant, rail-based snow plows, a sail-powered rail car, and beautiful historic engines that have gone through extensive restoration.
This, for instance, is Sir Nigel Gresley (of course he is), a steam train from 1937.
If you go, submitterate some photos!
Letting someone die for their faith: Moving essay by photojournalist who documented snake handler's death
Randy Wolford made the news this week. A pastor in a Christian sect that promotes holding and carrying venomous snakes as a way of expressing faith in God, Wolford died from a snake bite. Just like his father had.
Lauren Pond, a photojournalist with the Washington Post, was at the church service when Wolford was bitten and she stayed with him and his family, taking photos, during the long hours before Wolford's death. In the wake of the experience, Pond has written a thoughtful essay about both journalistic and personal ethics. When a journalist documents someone's death like this, what should be done with the photos? If someone refuses medical help that you know they need, are you under obligation to help them anyway ... or to respect their decisions?
Some of the people who attended last Sunday’s service have struggled with Mack’s death, as I have. “Sometimes, I feel like we’re all guilty of negligent homicide,” one man wrote to me in a Facebook message following Mack’s death. “I went down there a ‘believer.’ That faith has seriously been called into question. I was face-to-face with him and watched him die a gruesome death. . . . Is this really what God wants?”
That’s a good question.
I know many photojournalists have been in situations similar to mine. Pulitzer Prize winner Kevin Carter photographed an emaciated Sudanese child struggling to reach a food center during a famine — as a vulture waited nearby. He was roundly criticized for not helping the child, which, along with the disturbing memories of the events he had covered and other factors, may have contributed to his suicide. As photojournalists, we have a unique responsibility to record history and share stories in as unbiased and unobtrusive a way as possible. But when someone is hurt and suffering, we have to balance our instincts as professionals with basic human decency and care.
Revellers attend the Wave and Goth festival in Leipzig, on May 25, 2012. The annual festival, known in Germany as Wave-Gotik Treffen, features up to 150 bands and musicians playing Gothic rock and other styles of the "dark wave" music subculture attracting a regular audience of up to 20000, according to organizers. The festival runs through May 28.
I'm not sure how, but I'd never seen any clips of young Richard Feynman speaking until physicist Walid Younes posted this video to Google+.
The talk itself is great and covers some important stuff. (Of course, it's Feynman!) The key thing here is the connection between theoretical understandings of how the universe works and practical observations. Theories are used to make predictions. When the predictions turn out to be correct, we get some more evidence that the theory is on the right track. Here, Feynman talks about how the theory of gravity led to the discovery of the speed of light, and how knowledge of the effect of gravity on planetary orbits led to the discovery of the planet Neptune. Very cool stuff.
But what stood out to me—and what makes this different from all the old!Feynman videos I've seen—is the persona his younger self projects. Born and raised in Queens, the young Feynman comes across, at least in accent and physical mannerisms, like some big mafia palooka straight out of central casting. Most likely, my startled reaction to this is due to Midwestern bias and being raised in an era where American regional differences in accent and culture have been largely flattened out. But it's still fascinating ... and amusing as hell to hear a guy who looks and sounds like he should be guarding hostages or threatening shop owners instead talking about gravitational theory.
This playlist from YouTube user hideyasann features more than 100 short clips of trains and train restrooms in Japan. Most of the train videos are of trains pulling into a station, or changing tracks. Most of the toilet videos emphasize the flushing mechanisms—of which there are a surprising variety.
As a rail fan, it's interesting to see what so many different Japanese stations and trains look like. And there's no narration, so it's also interesting to watch these very matter-of-fact clips and think about the visual context they trigger in your head. Men in suits waiting on a platform for a train to change tracks—that's a scene from a serious drama about the inner psychology of a businessman. A shakey clip where the videographer walks towards an arriving train, and a station agent, while breathing heavily—that's totally a scene from a horror movie. I'm honestly not sure what to make of all the toilets.
It's also kind of awesome to just think about the level of obsession that went into this playlist. I'm not really sure what hideyasann is trying to document—Train variety? Train cleanliness? Is he or she just collecting the same footage from as many trains as possible? Whatever the goal, you can clearly see the love and fascination here. There's totally a Happy Mutant at work.
Photographer Glen E. Friedman, widely known for his work chronicling the intersection between punk rock and hiphop in the 1980s, has posted some beautiful shots of MCA, Ad-Rock, and Mike D from that era: "why A you see H".
Earlier this morning, Pesco posted the awful news that Adam "MCA" Yauch died this morning at age 47. Words here can't express how sad I am, reading that news. Hits home in part because I'm fighting the same disease, and in part because the Beasties were such a formative part of my subcultural education as I grew into my teen years.
The first time I heard them, and Adam Yauch, was when a friend from middle school handed me a home-copied dupe of this cassette tape EP [YouTube, and you can still buy copies on Amazon]. I played it over and over until that little black ribbon wore right out. Some of you may not know that the Beasties were a hardcore band before they became a hiphop band. Now you do.
I've embedded some Beastie videos from that era below. Fuck you, cancer.
Funny video series "Old Jews Telling Jokes" returns with all-new, even older elders telling even funnier jokes
Video director and wonderfully funny guy Eric Spiegelman tells Boing Boing,
The new season of Old Jews Telling Jokes begins today, featuring jokes we recorded in Boca Raton. We've been on hiatus for almost a year, and it's good to be back. The joke that begins our season, about a bull and an enema and a bridgekeeper, is one of the best I've heard. Also, a bit of trivia. We have a new logo for the show, and it was designed by Milton Glaser. I'm not going to lie, I feel like that's a pretty great honor.
Embedded above: I've selected a joke from the new season told by Irving ‘Brownie’ Brown, a gentleman who is 102 years old. Below, the bull enema joke, as told by Charlie Seibel.
On May 1, 2012, at 10:51 PM, Matthew XXXXXX wrote:
Hey. Love your site.
The sentiment of the "Demolish Serious Culture" image appearing on your site is repulsive; it's worse if it's intended to be ironic. I won't ask that it be removed because that would be censorship but I just wanted to say think it represents a nadir for you.
Try harder next time.
On Tue, May 1, 2012 at 10:52 PM, Rob Beschizza Read the rest
Read the rest