Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

Ella Fitzgerald – All The Things You Are

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Written by Leisureguy

4 August 2021 at 5:58 pm

Posted in Art, Jazz, Music, Video

Nighthawks, by Edward Hopper: Great Art Explained

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Written by Leisureguy

27 July 2021 at 11:01 am

Posted in Art, Daily life, Video

Paris Sportif: The Contagious Attraction of Parkour

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I first encountered parkour in a Luc Besson movie, District 13 (from 2004, original title Banlieue 13), but it has a longer history, discussed by Macs Smith in an extract from his book Paris and the Parasite: Noise, Health, and Politics in the Media City published in The MIT Reader:

In a city fixated on public health and order, a viral extreme sport offers a challenge to the status quo.1955, Letterist International, a Paris-based group of avant-garde authors, artists, and urban theorists, published “Proposals for Rationally Improving the City of Paris.” The group, which would become better known as Situationist International, or SI, and play an important role in the May 1968 demonstrations, put forward wild suggestions for breaking the monotony of urban life. Some of these, like the call to abolish museums and distribute their masterpieces to nightclubs, were iconoclastic and anti-institutional, reflecting the group’s anarchic political leanings.

Others were less overtly political and testified to a thirst for excitement. To appeal to “spelunkers” and thrill-seekers, they called for Paris’s rooftops and metro tunnels to be opened up to exploration. The group believed that the mundaneness of urban life in the 1950s was integral to bourgeois capitalism. Boredom was part of how the government maintained order, and so a more equal city would necessarily have to be more frightening, more surprising, more fun.

SI disbanded in 1972, but its ideas about the links between emotion and urban politics have been influential. Among the best examples are the subcultures centered around urban thrill-seeking that exist today, like urban exploration (Urbex), rooftopping, and skywalking, all of which involve breaking into dangerous or forbidden zones of the city. The most famous inheritor to SI’s call to experience urban space differently is parkour, which was invented in the Paris suburb of Lisses in the 1980s. It was inspired by Hébertisme, a method of obstacle course training first introduced to the French Navy in 1910 by Georges Hébert. David Belle learned the principles of Hébertisme from his father, Raymond, who had been exposed to it at a military school in Vietnam. David, along with a friend, Sébastien Foucan, then adapted those principles, originally conceived for natural environments, to the suburban architecture of their surroundings.

Over time, parkour has incorporated techniques from tumbling, gymnastics, and capoeira, resulting in a striking blend of military power and balletic artistry. Parkour involves confronting an urban map with an embodied experience of urban space. It is often defined as moving from points A to B in the most efficient way possible, and parkour practitioners, called traceurs, often depict themselves as trailblazers identifying routes through the city that cartography does not capture. Traceurs sometimes evoke the fantasy of tracing a straight line on the map and finding a way to turn it into a path, although in practice, they more often work at a single point on the map — a park, a rooftop, an esplanade — and end a session back where they started.

Traceurs’ desire to rewrite the map is another thing they share with the Situationists, who liked to cut up maps and glue them back together to show the psychological distance between neighborhoods. But parkour distinguishes itself from SI through its use of video, which continues to be a point of debate within the practice. In the early 2000s, Sébastien Foucan reignited this debate when he broke away from Belle to pioneer his own version of the training system.

Foucan’s appearance in the 2003 documentary “Jump London” cemented “freerunning” as the name for this alternate practice, which put a greater emphasis on stylized movements. Foucan would go on to play a terrorist bomb-maker in Martin Campbell’s “Casino Royale,” leaping from cranes with Daniel Craig’s James Bond in pursuit. Some parkour purists see this as a degradation of the utilitarian roots of their training, and insist instead on a physio-spiritual discourse of communion with the environment, mastery of fear, and humility. They reject freerunning as a brash corruption of Hébert’s principles. The sociologist Jeffrey Kidder notes in his interviews with traceurs in Chicago that they dismiss participants who lack interest in serious rituals like safety, humility, and personal growth. They react negatively to media coverage that highlights parkour’s danger or assimilates it into adolescent rebellions like skateboarding, drug use, or loitering.

In my own email interview with the leaders of Parkour Paris, the official parkour organization of Paris, the same will to blame media is evident: “Parkour has been mediatized in ‘connotated’ films. The traceurs depicted in those fictions were friendly delinquents a bit like Robin Hood. Friendly, yes, but for the immense majority of people they were still delinquents from the banlieue,” they gripe. “It’s been very hard to shake that image.” . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more. And it includes this 50-minute video, Jump London:

Written by Leisureguy

27 July 2021 at 10:17 am

Genetic Memory: How We Know Things We Never Learned

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David Treffert published an interesting article in Scientific American in January 2015. It begins:

I met my first savant 52 years ago and have been intrigued with that remarkable condition ever since. One of the most striking and consistent things in the many savants I have seen is that that they clearly know things they never learned.

Leslie Lemke is a musical virtuoso even though he has never had a music lesson in his life. Like “Blind Tom” Wiggins a century before him, his musical genius erupted so early and spontaneously as an infant that it could not possibly have been learned. It came ‘factory installed’. In both cases professional musicians witnessed and confirmed that Lemke and Wiggins somehow, even in the absence of formal training, had innate access to what can be called “the rules” or vast syntax of music.

Alonzo Clemons has never had an art lesson in his life. As an infant, after a head injury, he began to sculpt with whatever was handy–Crisco or whatever–and now is a celebrated sculptor who can mold a perfect specimen of any animal with clay in an hour or less after only a single glance at the animal itself–every muscle and tendon perfectly positioned. He has had no formal training.

To explain the savant, who has innate access to the vast syntax and rules of art, mathematics, music and even language, in the absence of any formal training and in the presence of major disability, “genetic memory,” it seems to me, must exist along with the more commonly recognized cognitive/semantic and procedural/habit memory circuits.

Genetic memory, simply put, is complex abilities and actual sophisticated knowledge inherited along with other more typical and commonly accepted physical and behavioral characteristics. In savants the music, art or mathematical “chip” comes factory installed. In addition to the examples mentioned above, I describe others in my book, Islands of Genius: The Bountiful Mind of the Autistic, Acquired and Sudden Savant.

Genetic memory is not an entirely new concept. In 1940, A.A. Brill quoted Dr. William Carpenter who, in comparing math prodigy Zerah Colburn’s calculating powers to Mozart’s mastery of musical composition, wrote the following:

In each of the foregoing cases, then, we have a peculiar example of the possession of an extraordinary congenital aptitude for certain mental activity, which showed itself at so early a period as to exclude the notion that it could have been acquired by the experience of the individual. To such congenital gifts we give the name of intuitions: it can scarcely be questioned that like the instincts of the lower animals, they are the expressions of constitutional tendencies embodied in the organism of the individuals who manifest them.

Carl Jung used the term “collective unconscious” to define his even broader concept of inherited traits, intuitions and collective wisdom of the past.

Wilder Penfield in his pioneering 1978 book, Mystery of the Mindalso referred to three types of memory. “Animals,” he wrote, “particularly show evidence of what might be called racial memory” (this would be the equivalent of genetic memory). He lists the second type of memory as that associated with “conditioned reflexes” and a third type as “experiential”. The two latter types would be consistent with the terminology commonly applied to “habit or procedural” memory and “cognitive or semantic” memory.

In his 1998 book, The Mind’s Past, Michael Gazzaniga wrote:

The baby does not learn trigonometry, but knows it; does not learn how to distinguish figure from ground, but knows it; does not need to learn, but knows, that when one object with mass hits another, it will move the object … The vast human cerebral cortex is chock full of specialized systems ready, willing and able to be used for specific tasks. Moreover, the brain is built under tight genetic control … As soon as the brain is built, it starts to express what it knows, what it comes with from the factory. And the brain comes loaded. The number of special devices that are in place and active is staggering. Everything from perceptual phenomena to intuitive physics to social exchange rules comes with the brain. These things are not learned; they are innately structured. Each device solves a different problem … the multitude of devices we have for doing what we do are factory installed; by the time we know about an action, the devices have already performed it.

Steven Pinker’s 2003 book, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Naturerefutes the “blank slate” theories of human development. Brian Butterworth, in his 1999 book, What Counts: How Every Brain is Hardwired for Math, points out that babies have many specialized innate abilities, including numerical ones that he attributes to a “number module” encoded in the human genome from ancestors 30,000 years ago.

Marshall Nivenberg, from the National Heart Institute, provided insight into the actual DNA/RNA mechanics of this innate knowledge in an article titled “Genetic Memory” published in 1968 in JAMA.

Whether called genetic, ancestral or racial memory, or intuitions or congenital gifts, the concept of a genetic transmission of sophisticated knowledge well beyond instincts, is necessary to explain how prodigious savants can know things they never learned.

We tend to think of ourselves as being born with a magnificent and intricate piece of organic machinery (“hardware”) we call the brain, along with a massive but blank hard drive (memory). What we become, it is commonly believed, is an accumulation and culmination of our continuous learning and life experiences, which are added one by one to memory. But the prodigious savant apparently comes already programmed with a vast amount of innate skill -and knowledge in his or her area of expertise–factory-installed “software” one might say–which accounts for the extraordinary abilities over which the savant innately shows mastery in the face of often massive cognitive and other learning handicaps. It is an area of memory function worthy of much more exploration and study.

Indeed recent cases of “acquired savants” or “accidental genius” have convinced me that we all have such factory-installed software. I discussed some of those cases in detail in . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

22 July 2021 at 11:27 am

Some bonsai I like

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If I had a yard or even a balcony that got some sun, I’d definitely be doing some bonsai now. There are, of course, innumerable YouTube videos on doing bonsai (and I’ve even posted some — this one, for example, is particularly relevant). I personally like books, and many are available specifically for beginners. Given the pace of such a project, I think it would be meditative and relaxing. Consider giving it a go.

Written by Leisureguy

21 July 2021 at 11:39 am

Posted in Art, Books, Daily life, Memes

200 years of cement tiles

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The colors (and designs) are striking.

Written by Leisureguy

19 July 2021 at 6:59 pm

Posted in Art, Daily life, Technology

Led by the Nose: Artisanal perfumes

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To make his perfumes, Spain’s Alberto “Berti” Fernández wildcrafts the raw materials whenever possible. In this case, Berti is helping with the annual lavender harvest at Dos Padres Vineyard, situated an hour outside of Barcelona in Torrellas de Foix. Photo by U.B. Morgan, courtesy of Alberto Fernández.

Barbara Tannenbaum has an interesting article in Craftsmanship magazine that begins:

Every August, Alberto Fernández travels to Northern Spain where his family owns some land in the mountainous region of Omaña. The land lies inside a United Nations-designated biosphere reserve whose natural flora include unusual plants that spill over to the open fields and roads leading into town.

Fernández forages the property for lavender, rosemary, tree barks, moss, and other leafy material to distill or grind into tinctures. Using beeswax from his family’s apiary, he creates a concentrated extract that perfumers call “an absolute.” In the village, he searches out wild-growing irises, culling pieces of large, fleshy roots called rhizomes. Once the roots have dried for at least three years, he grinds the material into fine powder. The result, tinctured in alcohol, “yields up a soft, violet scent,” Fernández says. “It’s a luxurious smell.”

I learned these details during a recent summer trip as Fernández and I sat cross-legged between rows of lavender at a small vineyard just outside of Barcelona. There, in the Catalonian wine country, my wife and I were tourists with fortunate timing. Mutual friends had just sent us a summons to help trim and gather the fragrant purple blossoms in this lavender field before they withered in the Spanish sun.

To describe the subtleties that are possible in handcrafted perfume, Fernández reached into his backpack and retrieved a small vial labeled “Vernalia.” This scent, he said, was meant to capture that brief, seasonal moment when winter morphs into spring. Applying it, I smelled malty, wet vegetation beneath sweet springtime blooms. Most compelling, there was that unmistakable whiff of warming soil after spring’s first rain—a scent, I later learned, called petrichor.

Fernández was actually born and raised in London; he moved to Barcelona almost a decade ago, after graduating with a degree in Natural Sciences from the U.K’s Kingston University and a stint working in the sales department of Penhaligon’s, a venerable British perfume house established in 1870. Although he keeps a day job, working as a K-12 teaching assistant, making perfume the way it used to be done has become his passion.

To make his perfumes, Fernández often uses a process called enfleurage, a common technique of Victorian-era perfumers. For Vernalia, for example, he starts with fresh hyacinth and narcissus blooms purchased in a Barcelona flower mart. Because the scent of these delicate petals doesn’t survive modern methods of heat-based extraction, Fernández pours scent-free coconut oil into a small wooden chassis or glass container. (Any fat-based liquid that becomes solid at room temperature works.) He then presses the petals face down in the fat and lets it sit for 24 hours, or until the oil becomes saturated with fragrance.

“The amount of time depends on the flower and how intense a smell you want,” he says. “Take jasmine. The flower contains a natural chemical, indole. Press the flowers for one day, I find the smell very fresh and clean. Leave it two days or longer and the indole starts to emerge. That smells like moth balls to some. To me, it’s like animal skins and taxidermy. So you have to keep checking the mix.”

After returning from Spain, I was so taken by what I’d seen that I started looking into how perfumes are being made these days, and sold, in the U.S. To my surprise, I discovered a wide, incredibly varied world, where prices and reputations have little bearing on quality, and where myths and misconceptions abound.

THE $48 BILLION INDUSTRY

Every three-ounce glass bottle of perfume is a distant relative of a fragrant blend once found in a town’s apothecary store, a spice bazaar, the royal court of distant kings, or the secret offices of ancient priesthoods. Today more than 1600 perfumes are introduced every year, the majority developed by a much more industrialized system that, by 2022, expects worldwide sales of nearly $48 billion.

A small percentage of these perfumes will be crafted by niche or artisan makers like Fernández, who are finding guidance—in different ways—from the skills of ancient masters. That’s because, to many, the commercial fragrance industry has begun to smell, well, a little stale.

Before the internet gave birth to online sales, and myriad platforms for them, the perfume counter of any big city department store was the dominant gateway to the scent industry. While it’s still the easiest place to find designer brands, “many have lost their way, creatively,” says Antonia Kohl, owner of Tigerlily Perfumery. Tigerlily is a boutique, independent fragrance shop in San Francisco, and a second home to the Bay Area’s cadre of pioneers in the “indie” perfume movement.

To understand how these storied products have gotten so diluted, I asked Kohl to help me navigate several perfume counters in one of the city’s major shopping centers, and to shed light on the work done by perfume’s largely unseen network of specialists—fragrance houses, chemists, professional “noses,” juice manufacturers, bottlers, and distributors that sit behind public-facing brands. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by Leisureguy

19 July 2021 at 1:54 pm

Posted in Art, Business, Daily life

Yesterday Never Existed: Osip Mandelstam

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Sophie Pinkham writes at Poetry Foundation:

Osip Mandelstam once started a poem with the line, “No, I have never been anyone’s contemporary.” He was born in 1891 but inhabited a poetic world in which he had conversations with Dante and sat at the seaside with Ovid, in which he was as much Greek, Roman, and Florentine as he was Russian. Born in Warsaw to a Jewish leather merchant and his music teacher wife, Mandelstam grew up in St. Petersburg, where French governesses taught him about Napoleon and Joan of Arc; as a teenager, he studied in France, Germany, and Italy, where he experienced the first twinges of what he later called “nostalgia for world culture.” His tender, aching preoccupation with the past set him apart in an era obsessed with the future.

Mandelstam’s poetic career was launched under the aegis of Symbolism, a movement that treated the poet as a medium offering access to the distant world of the real, which could be perceived only through the veil of paraphrase. For Symbolists, language was a mere approximation: a means rather than an end. Like other Russian Symbolists, Mandelstam was much influenced by the 19th-century poet Fyodor Tyutchev, who wrote highly ambiguous metaphysical poetry devoid of lyric heroes. (One of Tyutchev’s most famous poems begins, “The mind cannot grasp Russia.”)

Around 1912, Mandelstam renounced Symbolism and joined the short-lived but long-remembered Acmeists. Central members included Anna Akhmatova, who became his lifelong friend, and her husband, Nikolai Gumilev. Acmeism sought to use poetry to bring words to the pinnacle—the acme—of their being, encompassing all the cultural history that language carried with it. From that point on, Mandelstam’s aim was not so much to create something new as to achieve heightened perception of what already existed. In “Tristia,” a poem from 1918 named for the verse epistles Ovid wrote in exile on the Black Sea, Mandelstam proclaims, “All has been seen, all will be seen again, / only the moment of recognition is sweet.”

As Mandelstam pondered eternal return, many of his contemporaries sought to cast off what they saw as the shackles of old language. The artistic experiments of this period were largely iconoclastic—throwing the classics from the ship of modernity, as the Futurists’ 1917 manifesto “A Slap in the Face of Public Taste” put it. Avant-garde writers sought to invent a new kind of language, sometimes quite literally, as in Velimir Khlebnikov and Aleksei Kruchenykh’s transrational language, zaum (sometimes rendered in English as “beyonsense”), which they hoped would achieve a universality that could put an end to all human discord. Neologism thrived. But for Mandelstam, “old” versus “new” was a false dichotomy, and language’s endurance was the source of the power and pleasure of poetry. In his 1921 essay “The Word and Culture,” excerpted in Peter France’s excellent new translation Black Earth (New Directions, 2021), Mandelstam writes

Poetry is a plow, which turns over the earth so that the deep layers of time, the black earth, come to the surface. But there are periods when humanity, not satisfied with the present and nostalgic for the deep layers of time, longs like a plowman for the virgin soil of past ages. Revolution in art leads inevitably to classicism.… You often hear people say: That’s fine, but it belongs to yesterday. But I say: Yesterday has still to be born. It has not yet really existed…. What is true for one poet is true for all. There is no need to set up any schools, no need to invent one’s own poetics.

For Mandelstam, the avant-garde was “calculated suicide out of curiosity.” He likewise rejected the teleological orientation of the Soviet project. The fantasy of conquering time, of arriving in the glorious future ahead of schedule, was central to early Soviet culture—whether in the form of quasi-scientific schemes for human immortality or in “production novels,” such as Valentin Kataev’s Time, Forward! (1932)literary accompaniment to the five-year plans that Stakhanovite workers sought to fulfill in record time. As Mandelstam observed, things actually worked the other way round: “Time wants to consume the state.” He was right, too, about revolution leading to classicism. In the 1930s, just a decade after Mandelstam made his claim, Soviet culture beat its great retreat from the avant-garde and embraced socialist realism, a kind of aspirational Marxist-Leninist classicism.

One of Mandelstam’s most famous poems, which France translates beautifully, opens with this stanza:

The thread of golden honey flowed from the jar
so weighty and slow that our hostess had time to declare:
Here in melancholy Tauris, where fate has brought us,
We are not bored at all—and glanced back over her shoulder.

The readerly jaw may drop at the year of composition: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

15 July 2021 at 1:57 pm

How to build a small and pedestrian-friendly town

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WrathOfGnon has an interesting (and lengthy) post:

Of all the questions I get on Twitter the most common is this: “How do you build a town?” We know well how it used to be done, but these last one or two centuries we have forgotten how to do it (with only a handful of notable exceptions during the last century1). The other day I was asked again, but this time with a set of premises that made the question a little easier to approach. I have anonymized all the details but the general idea remains: four guys (friends) with money have bought a suitably large piece of land in Texas and now want to create a car-free human-scaled town2 of the kind that I am always writing about.

In this text I intend to set out the most bare-bone basic premises for how to start a good town, what is needed to build something anti-fragile3 and sustainable4 under the above mentioned scenario. I will go back to this text and edit it, add points, or discuss certain aspects deeper in future texts, especially those points that stimulate questions or controversy.

This is my first published long form. It is my general idea to write as little as possible while still getting the point across. I might delete this first attempt.


  1. Size and borders: “You can’t have a garden without fences.”

To create a human scaled town we first establish what is a good size, and this is simply one third of a square kilometer, or 82 acres, or 0.13 square miles. 80 acres was the upper limit for a good family farm in medieval England, and it is still the size at which the most flexible and efficient farms run, both modern and more old fashioned Amish family farms. It allows a town where no point can’t be reached on foot in 15 minutes, and it allows comfortable living for a population of 3000, which was considered the ideal size in medieval Europe: the upper limit of efficiency and comfort, productivity and harmony: more and you get crowded, less and you risk being without some important trades and activities. Even though the premise talks about a town of 600, we plan three centuries ahead for a maximum population of ca. 3000.

A good town (the urban) is clearly defined and set apart from the countryside (the rural). The suburban has no place here. Hence the town needs to be as clearly marked out and defined as the individual family lots will be: to here, but no further. For this purpose we will mark out land to be used as a wall, raised embankment, hedge, fence, moat, canal, etc. Some sort of edge which is not routinely nor distractedly crossed.

As for shape, I recommend a somewhat irregularly oval shape, near round in one extreme, or rice grain shaped in the other extreme, for the simple reason that the best towns and cities seems to be oval to some degree5. As far as possible the existing topography should be kept or even enhanced. Perfectly flat land is only popular with boring developers. So: no bulldozing allowed. Existing trees should be left and existing paths should be left in place (even when slightly inconvenient). New paths and streets should follow the contours of the land. Anything historic (an old campsite, an ancient grave or remains of an old farmstead) should be kept and protected and venerated. History is in short supply in new developments, and interesting stories can be woven around something as mundane as an abandoned old cart or well.

The oval (left) and the (Japanese) grain of rice. Good basic shapes for a town.
  1. Water, energy, food and connections: the needs hierarchy of towns.

Since the premise is Texas, and undeveloped land, I am imagining land that is more or less parched, but with short and intense annual rains that risk flooding the entire area. The town will be in a perpetual state of drought and need to be prepared for flash floods6. Hence cisterns, reservoirs, water harvesting will be vital, and whatever gets built, roofs will harvest water into private cisterns or ponds, and all streets will direct stormwater to overflow-proofed cisterns. An area the size of two or three football pitches outside the town will be devoted to flood protection and temporary storage of water. During most the year this land will be dry and a perfect spot for sports, barbecues, festivals, playgrounds, fairs and markets.

This arrangement should make the town self-sustainable in household water at least. Pumping groundwater should not be an option, it is simply not sustainable in an arid/semi-desert environment and Texans already know how to build and manage water harvesting infrastructure. There is no need to reinvent the wheel and spend tons of resources on piping in distant water.

There will be an urge to build each home optimized for air conditioning. Don’t. All buildings must be useful and livable even with the power cut. Hence, natural ventilation, strategically designed windows that open, etc. is necessary. Obviously you can add AC (Air conditioner) on top of that, but in no way should the town be dependent on AC. I don’t think a town can casually produce the energy it needs by itself (for that a far more serious effort would be needed), but even if the grid is cut, it should have enough to power food storage, basic lights and communications (WiFi etc.). This can be achieved with limited private and public PV (photo voltaic or solar power). For hot water, solar heaters are useful even in a Texan winter, and all homes will be equipped with fireplaces, wood stoves and chimneys.

Once you remove the need for heating, cooling and transport from a town’s energy needs, you are left with something that will easily run on limited solar (and the attached batteries) in case of a grid failure. This will also save the town and its people large amounts of money even in the near future.

For food, the town should not spare any effort to be self-sustainable. Food items are also a prime export product, especially high-end refined items (exporting raw materials/food isn’t a good use of resources). It provides jobs and income and is a sure way to draw tourists. For this purpose there will be no lawns, but plenty of gardens, orchards, street side herbs, roof top apiaries and flowers to feed the bees that inhabit them. The rural area (the “market garden zone”) surrounding the town out to a radius of one mile should be devoted more or less entirely to food production in some form, and it should be farmed primarily by the people living in town on a professional or hobby level (either one is fine: create the best allotment system in Texas!). The second belt, is the farm zone. Here I would recommend, if not enough farmers could be found, to offer the land at good prices to Amish families to farm. 800 acres is enough for 10 farms. They also have the expertise to run a farm in any sort of energy crises. The rule of thumb is that only people who live directly off the land should live in the rural area (the “farm zone”).

Inside the town basic facilities for food processing should be found. From feed and dairy refinement to meat processing. People should be encouraged to plant espaliered fruit trees on every suitable south facing wall. Poultry, pigs and rabbits should be kept, not only for meat, eggs, but also to produce high quality fertilizer for the poor soil in the area. And this goes for humanure7 as well. Pesticides and chemical fertilizers should be completely banned from the start. Water should be treated organically and as low-tech as possible, on site.

A good “code-hack” for any small town was developed in Seaside, Florida: “one 14×14 feet area of a lot has no height limitation”8. This will spur people to build towers and spires, which are useful for housing bats and pigeons which will help in pest control (pigeons are also an unbeatable supply of food). Some space in the town itself should be reserved for food production: dovecotes, commons for grazing, etc. A small town like this needs no parks, so instead institute seed gardens (small gardens used only for producing seeds) of vegetables and herbs. Encourage people to keep flowers (to help honey production): consider instituting a program where each square foot of flower pot space gives you a certain weight of honey from the public or private apiary.

Ideally you want to build a new town in a region where there are already people present, near larger cities or along a “necklace” of small towns. This makes it easier to attract citizens, and it also makes the town less isolated, more easily connected to outside markets, tourism etc. but in this scenario the land is marginal and a bit far from towns and airports. Hence, save space for a convenient and scenic (you can’t do fast at this scale) rail or canal or river ferry connection to the nearest larger town. It will raise the value of the town land itself and everything it produces will have a better access to a market (especially perishables). It is also a great way to bring tourism into the city without having to provide parking.

It is possible to build isolated cities but the chances of succeeding is so slim I would not recommend it. Decide from the beginning where you want a possible rail station, by the gate? Inside the town? Through the town? It is easy to prepare the ground now, rather than wait until it is all developed and built up.

  1. Materials and harmony.

All materials used, as far as possible, should be of local origin. In Texas that means the town will be built from rammed earth, adobe bricks, some fired bricks or stone. No concrete, vinyl sidings, clapboard (not ideal in an arid town environment anyway), plastic etc. Before anything gets built, a pattern book9 for the town must be developed that should have a few very basic buildings types for new residents to easily build and that fits in anywhere in town. A color pattern will be developed using locally accessible earth tones and pigments (if the . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more — and I hope someone takes this idea and applies in some locale (though obviously some details — building materials, for example — will vary depending on locale.

This article reminded me strongly of Christopher Alexander, and specifically of The Timeless Way of Building and A Pattern Language. I was surprised not to see Alexander’s name in the footnotes.

Written by Leisureguy

8 July 2021 at 2:37 pm

Art techniques from around the world

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Written by Leisureguy

5 July 2021 at 12:34 pm

Posted in Art, Daily life, Technology

The Quiet Skill of Mass-Market Novels

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I like the thrust of this article: to read thoughtfully the novel in front of you as though it’s a blind audition. Orchestras at one time comprised almost entirely white men, chosen from open auditions (where the musician performed in person before the judging panel). Orchestras some time back moved to blind auditions, in which musicians performed out of sight, behind a screen. The same panels found that they were suddenly selecting quite a few muscians who were women and/or minorities. No one was acting in bad faith, but the unconscious shapes our perceptions, including of what we hear.

So read a novel iitially without seeing the cover or knowing the author’s name, and see what you make of it. After forming your judgment, see who wrote it. That can often add depth, if you’ve read other novels by the same writer (though in that case you probably will have figured out who wrote it).

Katfe Cray writes in the Atlantic:

In dozens of novels written over a decades-long career, the romance writer Jackie Collins sharply observed the role of sex and power in Hollywood. She wrote incisively about abuse in the industry and empowered female characters who found liberation in a male-dominated world. She was brilliant and prescient—and overlooked in literary circles by those who wrote off her work as trashy airport smut.

Like Collins, many authors who write mass-market novels—especially those whose readers are predominantly women, and even more so those whose readers are Black women—are discounted despite their wide appeal. Take Sister Souljah’s influential book The Coldest Winter Ever, which sold over 1 million copies and was beloved by a generation for its nuanced depiction of its protagonist’s community. Today, the work is relegated to the realm of “street lit” and rarely discussed as a classic of American literature. Or, look at the work of Jennifer Weiner, a masterful storyteller, whose books are often dismissed as lacking artistic value. Critics have even attacked the literary merit of Donna Tartt, who has won a Pulitzer Prize, on the basis of her popularity. A few crowd-pleasing authors do escape this trap. Elena Ferrante is perhaps the most notable example, drawing intense loyalty from fans, who sought to defend her name several years ago after her publisher released ironic “chick lit”–style book covers for her works. But many more popular writers are derided than defended.

To take a genre or mass-market work seriously means recognizing the quiet skill in its pages. Books by Collins and Sister Souljah, for instance, slyly analyze the very institutions that aim to undercut them. The romance author Eric Jerome Dickey took a lighter approach. His novels craft vivid portraits of Black women experiencing love and desire and joy.

“To read a [Jackie] Collins novel, as roughly half a billion of us humans have, is to know that sex and power are inextricable. No one mined the dynamics of both as astutely in the late 20th century as she did.”

📚 Hollywood Kids, by Jackie Collins
📚 The World Is Full of Married Men, by Collins
📚 Lucky, by Collins
🎥 Lady Boss: The Jackie Collins Story, directed by Laura Fairrie

Literature’s original bad bitch is back
“Sister Souljah’s books pose a challenge to readers and critics invested in a specific vision of literary ‘Black excellence.’ Some Black authors and booksellers have bristled, at times infamously, at the mass-market appeal of novels like hers.”

📚 The Coldest Winter Ever, by Sister Souljah
📚 Life After Death, by Sister Souljah

When women’s literary tastes are deemed less worthy
“Many novels that do sell well are mass-market genre reads—romance, mystery, and the like—that travelers pick up in airports or shoppers grab off of discount tables at Walmart. Many novels that don’t sell well, meanwhile, are the kind argued over in highbrow publications.”

📚 The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

The subtle genius of Elena Ferrante’s bad book covers
“While Ferrante’s covers are definitely trite, there’s little about them that’s actually patronizing. There are no flowers or martini glasses or shopping bags on Ferrante’s covers, no high-heeled condescension. There are just images of women doing things that women, in fact, occasionally do: standing still, holding children, being on the beach. And yet, the very image of women doing things now strikes even women readers as unliterary.”

📚 My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante
📚 The Story of the Lost Child, by Ferrante
📚 The Days of Abandonment, by Ferrante
📚 Fly Away Home, by Jennifer Weiner
📚 The Mare, by Mary Gaitskill

Eric Jerome Dickey made Black women feel seen
“Dickey’s characters—bold, smart women oozing sexuality and vulnerability—navigate interpersonal conflicts using dialogue that crackles with authenticity … In casting the struggles of his characters as valid, he affirmed that the struggles of the mostly Black women reading him were also valid.”

📚 The Son of Mr. Suleman, by Eric Jerome Dickey
📚 Sister, Sister, by Dickey
📚 Friends and Lovers, by Dickey
📚 Cheaters, by Dickey

When I was in the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa, I took one class from R.V. Cassill, a good novelist and a good teacher. He told of writing some potboilers, so called because they provided food money along the way. He wrote one about love relationships among college students, and he titled it Wound of Love, a phrase that he thought would be racy enough for the bus-station crowd but with a literary appeal as well. (This sort of novel was published as a mass-market paperback, often found in spinner racks in bus stations at the time.)

He was rather proud of that title, but the publisher already had a list of titles, and the novel came out with the title Dormitory Women. 🙂

Written by Leisureguy

2 July 2021 at 8:13 pm

Bougainvillea bonsai

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29 June 2021 at 9:58 am

Posted in Art, Daily life

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In Search of the Once and Future King: A Continuing Quest

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At Medievalists.net, James Turner, who recently completed his doctoral studies at Durham University after attending the University of Glasgow, has a series of 8 articles (so far) on aspects of the Once and Future King. The eighth begins:

o far in this series we have attempted to examine the cultural impact and the often politically motivated construction of the various iterations and re-conceptualisations of Arthurian mythology. Arthur and his legends once suitably cropped and burnished have proven themselves to be remarkably resilient, retaining their entertainment value and relevance within wildly different political and cultural contexts down the centuries.

Some of the elements and intellectual strands contained within the sweeping canon of the Arthurian mythos are either consistently re-applied or at the very least recursive. Cinema-goers in the 1950s were every bit as thrilled by the pageantry and quivering romantic subtext inherent in depictions of the Arthurian legends as the aristocratic audiences of the great European royal courts in say the 14th century. Some features of the legends are more firmly anchored or at their most meaningful in specific times and contexts such as the brief prominence of Galloway or the deliberate conflation of Arthur’s apparent hegemony over the British Isles with English overlordship. Other themes and iconography, present within the Arthurian romances and their adaptations, underwent significant memetic mutation such as the medieval Romances celebration of chivalric practice and light gloss of Christian symbolism that the Victorians latched onto and emphasized in their depiction of Arthur and his knights as crusading paragons of Christian morality and virtue.

In this, our final entry, we will seek to shuck these layers of artifice and reinvention as we examine the case for Arthur’s historicity as well as the pertinacious campaign waged by scholars, amateur historians and enthusiasts to discover the real Arthur. As historians, we should never be ashamed or shy about acknowledging the limitations of our medium or sources. In a way, despite our best efforts, it is very hard to discern the degree or way in which medieval audiences conceived of Arthur as a historical personage.

The majority of people within the medieval period had an essentially isochronal understanding of history, viewing the past as being largely identical to their present in terms of material culture, social mores and structure. Medieval writers and artists visualized and portrayed the great events of antiquity in the same stylized way they did the geopolitical struggles of their own day, transforming Roman generals and dark age warlords into resplendent knights. One of the most notable 14th-century manifestations of this practice was the codification and celebration of the Nine Worthies of Chivalry, a group whose membership was composed of the most puissant and virtuous knights within the canon of Christian Europe.  Arthur and Hector of Troy were included in this group alongside such historical luminaries as Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great and Charlemagne. A further three of the Worthies, Joshua, David and Judah Maccabee were Biblical figures who contemporary audiences would have been very familiar with and whose historical existence was readily accepted.

To our eyes the Nine Worthies seem a strangely mismatched fraternity that lumps together the pagan with the biblical and the historical with the literary but in the eyes of its adherents, the cult of chivalry was more than equal to the task of papering over these cracks.  As we will see, even the pseudo-historical chronicles that reportedly vouched for Arthur’s historical existence seamlessly blended mundane politics with religious miracles and outright fantastical elements, such as giants and prophecy. Edward I visited Arthur’s tomb and solemnly presided over the legendary king’s reburial and funerary rites at the same time that his daughters were sponsoring troubadours to write stories about the Knights of the Round Table fighting griffins and matching wits with fairy queens. It is a reminder that we should not be too quick to impose strict binaries upon our medieval forebearers.

Just like us, medieval people were perfectly capable of simultaneously holding onto seemingly contradictory thoughts or beliefs. For Edward I, his contemporaries and medieval successors Arthur could be both a historical king from the British Isles’ distant past with an exploitable political legacy and the protagonist of highly stylized and conspicuously artificial works of Romance Literature. The modern equivalent would be if the events of the movie Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer were raised and discussed in the same breath as the Gettysburg Address. Of course, cultural and intellectual attitudes were far from static in the Middle Ages. By the reign of Edward III, the Arthurian Romances had become increasingly ornate and outwardly fantastical, a change which perhaps explains why Edward sought to present himself rather obliquely as the inheritor of Arthur’s chivalric rather than political legacy as his grandfather had.

In many ways it was a view of Arthur that never fully dissipated. The historians and antiquarians of the Enlightenment era and their successors wrestled with the alarming disparities they found between the historical material they were gathering and the culturally highly prized traditions of Geoffrey of Monmouth which had been invoked and added to throughout the early modern period. The increasingly confident assertion of historians that Arthur was a fiction prompted cries of outrage in England and accusations of malicious historical revisionism.

We have previously seen how . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more in this part, and of course there are 7 previous parts to the series.

Written by Leisureguy

21 June 2021 at 2:10 pm

Posted in Art, Books, History, Memes

7 kinetic sculptures

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Written by Leisureguy

21 June 2021 at 1:57 pm

Posted in Art, Daily life, Video

The value of imitation in the arts

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Interesting quotation from David Perell’s newsletter:

I once met a painting coach who tells students to copy their favorite artists.

At first, students resist.

In response, the coach tells them to listen for friction. “Do you hear that resistance? It’s the whisper of your unique style.”

Through imitation, we discover our voice.

Written by Leisureguy

15 June 2021 at 7:28 pm

A $200,000 bonsai being spruced up

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It’s interesting to see the difference a brief trimming can make in a bonsai’s appearance, especially when done by someone who knows what he’s doing:

And just to be clear: bonsai does NOT require expensive plants (or costly tools, like this pair of $35,000 bonsai scissors):

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5 June 2021 at 10:30 am

Posted in Art, Daily life, History, Memes

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Appreciation vs. True Appreciation

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I was thinking about the bonsai video I posted earlier today, and also about a Medium article I recently published, “Become Aware of What You Don’t See.” When I see an attractive bonsai, I appreciate it, but that is not true appreciation because I am responding only to the tip of the iceberg: what I can see when I look at it.

Watching the video of a bonsai designer at work — like watching dancers rehearse — expands my vision to a degree because I start to understand the work that went into it (bonsai or dance) — how it came to be, what choices were made. So my appreciation is deeper because of my greater understanding.

But true appreciation, I think, requires shared experience. Those who have actually worked on a bonsai both understand the choices made — the result of which we see — and also have have a feeling for the choices rejected. If you’ve had the experience, you understand the range of choices you can make, and you have experienced the process of eliminating some choices and making others.

That is true for dance, for bonsai, for music (composition and performancce), for cooking, for sports, and so on: true appreciation comes from those who have in a sense been there: who have faced a blank page or canvas or stage and have created.

I am glad that I have more appreciation of bonsai, but without bonsai experience of my own, I cannot have true appreciation. Perhaps better: “appreciation vs. deep appreciation.”

Written by Leisureguy

4 June 2021 at 11:55 am

Posted in Art, Daily life

Watch what a bonsai artist does

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Often I have a general idea about some activity, and then as I learn more, I realize that my “general idea” was so shallow as to be worthless. Finding out more about what is truly involved, I feel as though I knew little more than how to spell the activity’s name. This happens a lot, so that I feel that much of my “knowledge” is paper-thin, giving me the impression that I know something of which I am almost totally ignorant.

Take, for example, bonsai. I know the term refers to growing plants — trees the usual subject, but also other aspects of a treescape: moss, arrangement of rocks, and so on. And I know that trees can be grown singly or in small groups — even to suggest a miniature forest. (Click photo to enlarge.)

So it was interesting to me to watch this guy at work as, over the course of a year, he creates a striking bonsai tree from what looked to me like a worthless specimen. This is from an Open Culture post by Colin Marshall, and I encourage you to read the post. The post includes another video — at least as interesting — on restoring a neglected Chinese juniper bonsai, along with several good links, the first three of which are:

The Art & Philosophy of Bonsai

This 392-Year-Old Bonsai Tree Survived the Hiroshima Atomic Blast & Still Flourishes Today: The Power of Resilience

A Digital Animation Compares the Size of Trees: From the 3-Inch Bonsai, to the 300-Foot Sequoia

After watching this I subscribed to the guy’s channel.

Written by Leisureguy

4 June 2021 at 9:25 am

Posted in Art, Daily life, Memes

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The art of balancing stones

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Open Culture has a good post that includes these two brief videos:

Written by Leisureguy

31 May 2021 at 9:44 am

Posted in Art, Daily life, Video

The Unbearable Burden of Invention

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Novelty is not ipso facto good, as those with some life experience have learned. Witold Rybczynski looks at architecture for examples and finds that innovation grounded in past practice is often good (being version n.0 of past practices), but mere innovation tends to turn out badly (being version 1.0 of a new approach). As he notes in the article, “history was canceled—no more looking back, no more learning from earlier trial and error.” He writes in The Hedgehog Review:

Buildings’ nicknames are the public’s attempt to make sense of the incomprehensible. Several odd-looking London skyscrapers have cheekily illustrative monikers: the Gherkin, the Cheesegrater, the Walkie-Talkie. Angelenos call the mammoth Pacific Design Center the Blue Whale. Beijingites offhandedly refer to the headquarters of China Central Television as Big Underpants. A Shanghai skyscraper with an aperture at the top is the Bottle Opener, and Bilbao has the Artichoke, Frank Gehry’s titanium Guggenheim museum. My favorite is the nickname of an addition to the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam—the Bathtub.

The original Stedelijk Museum, or city museum, was built in 1895 in the style of the sixteenth-century Dutch Renaissance. The gingerbread red-brick building with pale stone stripes is pretty as a picture. The 2012 modern addition, which doubled the size of the museum, is the work of the Amsterdam architectural firm Benthem Crouwel. The competition-winning design ignores its neighbor and obviously aspires to be the Dutch equivalent of the Bilbao Guggenheim, an in-your-face architectural icon. From certain angles, the windowless white form, raised in the air and covered in a reinforced synthetic fiber finished in glossy white paint, really does resemble a giant hot tub. Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times observed that “entering an oversize plumbing fixture to commune with classic modern art is like hearing Bach played by a man wearing a clown suit.” Not good.

“Good architecture can be startling, or at least might not look like what we are used to,” writes the critic Aaron Betsky in Architect magazine. “Experimentation can sometimes look weird at first, but it is a necessary part of figuring out how to make our human-built world better.” Now so used to buildings that break the bounds of convention, we find the suggestion that experimentation is an essential part of good architecture unremarkable, even banal. But is it true?

Berlin’s Altes Museum, built in 1822, doesn’t look like a plumbing fixture. Its architect, Karl Friedrich Schinkel, modeled the 300-foot façade of giant Ionic columns on an ancient Greek stoa (a covered walkway or portico). Inside, he based a two-story-high rotunda on the Roman Pantheon. Schinkel was one of the most inventive architects of the nineteenth century—the plan of the museum, with its circuit of long, narrow galleries, was without precedent, and the severe side and rear elevations, which would inspire later modernists such as Mies van der Rohe, were almost shockingly plain. Yet like so many architects before him, Schinkel kept one eye on the past. That meant imitation as well as invention.

Imitation was at the heart of the Italian Renaissance. Starting with Filippo Brunelleschi, architects sketched and measured Roman ruins and incorporated the capitals, friezes, and moldings into their own work. Although the functions of the buildings they designed, such as hospitals, palazzos, and country villas, were new, the elements of their architecture—its language—were old. Renaissance architects also copied from each other. Andrea Palladio copied the so-called Palladian window, an arch-and-columns motif, from the Library of Saint Mark in Venice, whose architect, Jacopo Sansovino, had copied it from Donato Bramante, who used it first in the choir of Santa Maria Del Popolo in Rome.

Bramante was responsible for another architectural invention. When he designed the Tempietto, a commemorative monument on the site of St. Peter’s crucifixion in San Pietro di Montorio in Rome, he modeled the tiny chapel on the circular Temple of Hercules Victor, the oldest surviving marble temple in Rome, and he incorporated Roman spolia (repurposed building materials) in the form of reused Tuscan columns. But he also added something novel: a tall drum surmounted by a dome projected above the circular colonnade. This combination of new and old struck his contemporaries as a stroke of genius. Bramante’s influence is apparent in Michelangelo’s great dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, as well as in domed buildings such as St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, the Panthéon in Paris, and the US Capitol in Washington, DC.

Invention, always a part of architecture, was usually restricted to a few gifted individuals—the rest followed. “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness,” wrote Oscar Wilde. Yet imitation not only allowed lesser talents to learn from the masters, and in the process raised the level of workaday buildings, it also permitted great architects such as Michelangelo and Schinkel to build on the achievements of their predecessors.

The architectural Modern Movement of the early twentieth century put a stop to this practice. The credo of the movement was . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by Leisureguy

28 May 2021 at 1:09 pm

Posted in Art, Daily life, Technology

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