Quite a list this week, so I’ll get right to it:
Article: “Tempo Shifts” by Colin Dickey
It may have struck you at some point how absurd it is that we need a little poem to tell us how many days each month has (and even the poem needs that awkward little coda to deal with February). The problem is that the solar system itself isn’t totally regular— the Earth’s rotations on its own axis don’t perfectly coincide with its trips around the sun— so there’s no way to divide things up evenly (and that’s not including the fact that the Earth’s rotation is slowing, prompting NASA to add a “leap second” to its clocks last month. As Dickey points out, what we have now is in many ways much better than what we had before, in terms of correspondence to the solar calendar; prior versions resulted over time in the loss of eleven full days. Despite the inherent obstacles, though, calendrical reform has remained a goal of would-be purveyors of order, from the Church to the French Revolutionaries to the League of Nations, and the debates over it have become bound up with everything from apocalyptic millenarianism to Russian nationalism and complicated mathematical conspiracy theories. Dickey sets up an interesting contrast between calendrical reform and the metric system— both of which were projects of the revolutionary government in France— asking why the latter caught on in most of the world, while the revolutionary calendar is relegated to a historical quirk. He suggests, in essence, that the metric system was simply less disruptive, that changing the calendar meant changing our relationship to time and, especially, the rhythm of the working week in ways that were simply intolerable. James C. Scott might disagree about how disruptive the metric system was, but it’s remarkable how much upset and agitation the question of the calendar has caused.
Article: “The Amazing Aviatrix of Wartime Casablanca” by Josh Shoemake
This could be a story about a young woman (girl, really) overcoming sexism and discrimination to achieve her dream of learning to fly, and I might find that kind of interesting, but the narrative arc of that kind of thing is also a little too settled and familiar at this point. Fortunately, it’s also a story about colonialism and the ways in which people living in Morocco at the end French rule negotiated, or failed to, the transition to independence. The French generally gave up their empire grudgingly, and in their resistance encouraged (sometimes directly, sometimes incidentally) violence that deepened the divisions of colonized societies. Touria Chaoui was— probably— a casualty of that violence, and with her the particular moment in the colonial relationship that she represented.
Article: “The Gorgeous Typeface that Drove Men Mad and Sparked a 100-Year Mystery” by Kelsey Campbell Dollaghan
This is the story of the destruction, rediscovery, and recreation of the Doves Press typeface, custom-made created for the eponymous publisher in the early 20th century. The Doves Press was run according to the ideas of the Arts and Crafts movement, focusing on craftsmanship and rejecting mechanical/industrial methods of producing books. The books they created, not surprisingly, were beautiful, and are now very rare and expensive; also not surprisingly, they had a hard time competing with publishers using more modern production methods. The type for their typeface was actually thrown into the Thames by one of the company’s two founders to prevent the other from ever using it in mechanical printing presses. It has has now been recreated as a digital font, and the designer who did it also paid a team of London salvage divers to pull a bunch of the actual metal type out of the river. The headline for this one is a bit overblown— there’s nothing in here about anyone being “driven mad,” and the mystery was really just whether any of the type could recovered from the water after so long— but it’s still a good story.
Article: “Wizards of Sound by Alex Ross
It’s long been accepted that writing about music— describing music verbally— is hard, if not impossible; somebody somewhere maybe once said that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Alex Ross’s work is remarkable because, though he doesn’t exactly overcome that perhaps unavoidable impermeability between the two kinds of expression and experience, he sort of makes you forget that you can’t hear what he’s talking about. If that makes and sense. Anyway, this is about Meyer Sound Laboratories, who produce sound systems that can isolate, amplify, and otherwise adjust specific sounds within complex sonic environments, making acoustically dead venues sound (almost) like the best concert halls, or crowded restaurants less noisy and obstructive of conversation. I’m used to the idea that recorded sound can be adjusted almost infinitely, with each instrument or sound on its own digital track, but this is about live sound, and the real-time manipulation of the experience of the audience for that sound. That probably makes it sound like I find this creepy, and I don’t, but it does pose some interesting questions about what kind of relationship does or should exist between musicians making a sound and the people who are there in the room for the purpose of hearing them do it. It suggests that there isn’t ever really an objective experience there; the sound coming to you is always in some sense filtered by any number of factors, like the size and shape of the room, the number of people in it, the materials its made of, the softness of the seats, and so on. So, is the kind of system that Meyer produces somehow a different kind of intermediary? Does it mean we are getting something further from the “real” sound of the performance? I tend to think not, that there’s no qualitative difference between, say, architecture and speaker design as technologies that shape an experience that is always inevitably shaped, but it’s something I hadn’t thought about in this way before reading this piece.
Article: “Homeward” by Brooke Jarvis
Hugo Lucitatnte was born in the Bolivian rain forest, a member of the Cofán indigenous group. When he was nine, his parents decided to send him to live, and be educated, in Seattle, so that he could learn to act as a liaison between the tribe and the outside world. He’s still working on it, and not surprisingly the problems of negotiating that relationship have proven to be complicated. There’s some predictable fish-out-of-water stuff in here, and Jarvis is perhaps simplistic in the way she positions oil companies (and their government supporters) as the obvious bad guys, without acknowledging that many people see the exploitation of mineral resources as the best or even only way to lift millions of Bolivians out of poverty. All that said, the piece effectively and, I think, pretty sensitively describes the efforts of the Cofán to balance what might be thought of as a pragmatic engagement with the outside world with the desire to hold on to their own way of life, without romanticizing their traditions or demonizing “modern” society— not an easy thing to pull off.
Video: “New Wave” by Sleater-Kinney
I’ll admit that an S-K/Bob’s Burger’s crossover was not something that it would probably have occurred to me to wish for, but it turns out to be a great idea. The kids know exactly how you should respond to this band.
Download all of this week’s articles as a Readlist here.