A disastrous message

Here’s an interesting follow-on to yesterday’s post about Chernobyl. Rather than an accidental nuclear catastrophe, how would we react to a planned attack?

A secret UK committee drafts a message to be played in case of nuclear attack
In 1973, fearing a Soviet nuclear strike, a UK government committee was formed to write a message to be played from the British Broadcasting Corporation’s secret bunker in Scotland during a worst-case-scenario attack. Irreverently constructed using declassified documents and scenes from the BBC’s drama-documentary The War Game (1965), Final Draft: Scripting the Apocalypse is a darkly comic, Kubrickian examination of the deep weirdness of modern warfare.

Final Draft: Scripting the Apocalypse

Open for (more) business

News that Chernobyl is expanding its tourist offer.

Chernobyl control room now open to visitors — but only wearing a hazmat suit
The move is part of a government drive to encourage tourism in the area after President Volydymyr Zelensky signed a July decree designating Chernobyl an official tourist attraction.

“We must give this territory of Ukraine a new life,” Zelensky said at the time. “Until now, Chernobyl was a negative part of Ukraine’s brand. It’s time to change it.” …

“Most of the people say they decided to book after seeing this show,” says Victor Korol, director of SoloEast. “It’s almost as though they watch it and then jump on a plane over.”

Chernobyl’s infamous Reactor 4 control room is now open to tourists
As for what to expect, in 2011 the Guardian reported that the room had largely been stripped of its plastic instrumentation switches by “souvenir-hunters among the decommissioning staff,” though some things such as diagrams on the behavior of the reactor and aged wiring remained …

Sergiy Ivanchuk, director of SoloEast tours, told Reuters in June that his bookings for tours had risen 30 percent in May 2019 (when the HBO miniseries was released) compared to years prior, while bookings for the summer months had risen some 40 percent.

Take a look inside radioactive ruins of Chernobyl’s reactor No. 4

Interestingly, YouTube has added the line “RT is funded in whole or in part by the Russian government” underneath that video, with a link to RT’s Wikipedia page. Make of that what you will.

Sleepy Victorians

Another Monday morning has rolled around. Still feeling a little sleepy? Nothing new there.

Stress caused sleeplessness for the Victorians too – but they thought it only afflicted ‘brain-workers’
The Victorian era experienced not only the extraordinary upheavals of the industrial revolution, but also the arrival of gas and then electric lighting, turning night into day. The creation of an international telegraph network similarly revolutionised systems of communication, establishing global connectivity and, for groups such as businessmen, financiers and politicians, a flow of telegrams at all hours.

Such shifts brought new patterns and expectations of work. By the 1860s the twin diseases of modernity – overwork and sleeplessness – became the focus of cultural anxieties. Victorian medical men warned against the dangers of sleeplessness. Drawing on this research, an 1866 article in the Spectator argued that sleeplessness was one of the “most annoying concomitants of civilised life”, but also one of the greatest threats to health:

Any system which really increased the average capacity for sleep would benefit nervous diseases, increase the habitableness of great cities, and probably diminish perceptibly the average of lunacy.

The beginning of the ‘end of books’

We’re very familiar with the assertion that printed books will soon be a thing of the past because we’ve moved away from that format. Well, that story began a long time ago.

Octave Uzanne’s “The End of Books” (1894)
The end of books has been declared many times. Over a century before the invention of the e-reader and the meteoric rise of the audiobook and podcast, ardent French bibliophile Octave Uzanne (1851–1931) wrote a story, inspired by rapid advances in phonographic technology, imagining how printed text might disappear …

One of these men — called the Bibliophile — is asked his opinion on the future of books. He replies as follows:

If by books you are to be understood as referring to our innumerable collections of paper, printed, sewed, and bound in a cover announcing the title of the work, I own to you frankly that I do not believe (and the progress of electricity and modern mechanism forbids me to believe) that Gutenberg’s invention can do otherwise than sooner or later fall into desuetude as a means of current interpretation of our mental products.

“Printing”, he continues, “is…threatened with death by the various devices for registering sound which have lately been invented, and which little by little will go on to perfection.”

Check out these marvellous illustrations or click through for more or to read this yourself from a digitised copy of Scribner’s Magazine.

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Every restaurant-table will be provided with its phonographic collection; the public carriages, the waiting-rooms, the state-rooms of steamers, the halls and chambers of hotels will contain phonographotecks for the use of travellers. The railways will replace the parlor car by a sort of Pullman Circulating Library, which will cause travellers to forget the weariness of the way while leaving their eyes free to admire the landscapes through which they are passing.

Everything is political, nothing is neutral

Remember last year I mentioned how the Design Museum’s exhibition on political graphic design had itself become political? Those kinds of debates are still ongoing. Should museums just be preserving cultural heritage, or using their collections to promote social justice and equality? (Is it not obviously the latter?)

Are art institutions becoming too ‘ideological’? A debate breaks out at the International Council of Museums Over Politics in the galleries
What is at stake at the Kyoto meeting on September 7 is more than a battle over terminology. It reflects a debate that has been taking place for the past four decades around whether museums can ever be ideologically neutral spaces. It also reflects a desire since at least the 1980s for museums to be meeting places where ideas can be discussed, turning the museum from a traditional “temple” to a more democratic “forum.” The debate has been given added urgency as institutions in the West face increasing pressure over their colonial-era collections, sources of funding, and historic under-representation of women’s history in particular.

The thrill of seeing

We take so much for granted these days, screens are everywhere, moving images are all around us. It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like before this deluge.

Our ideas about what early movies looked like are all wrong
During the first film screenings in the 1890s, viewers marvelled at moving images that had an unprecedented power to transport them to faraway places in an instant. At first, these shorts – which included glimpses of everything from Niagara Falls to elephants in India – had no narrative structure. Audiences flocked to theatres simply for the novel experience of seeing people and places, some familiar and others deeply strange, rendered lifelike and immediate before their eyes. And, as the film curator Dave Kehr explains in this video from New York City’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the images were hardly the grainy and frantically paced footage that has become synonymous with ‘old film’ today. Rather, viewed in their original form on large screens and prior to decades of degradation, these movies were vivid and realistic. In particular, early 68mm film, which was less practical than 35mm film and thus used less frequently, delivered startlingly lifelike impressions of distant realities to early moviegoers.

The IMAX of the 1890s – how to see the first movies

It’s quite arrogant of us to dismiss those early films as merely a stepping stone to our superior technologies today. You could argue that, given the quality of these new versions and the freshness of those first audiences, these movies made more of an impact than what we see today.

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And perhaps the same can apply to television a few decades later.

I love the idea of fake aerials. Of course, you can take a love of television too far.

Someone left old TVs outside 50 homes in Virginia while wearing a TV on his head. No one knows why.
“Everyone started coming out of their houses, walking around the neighborhood looking at the TVs there on the doorstep,” said Jeanne Brooksbank, one of the recipients, who lives in the Hampshire neighborhood. “It was very ‘Twilight Zone.’ ”

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Collecting and paying for music

Following on from that post about music formats we’ve loved and lost, here’s news of a unique record collection up for grabs.

For Sale: 40 years of vinyl singles that topped the British charts
Tim Claydon acquired his first vinyl single—“She Loves You,” by the Beatles—in 1963, when he was just three years old. The purchase kicked off a lifetime of voracious vinyl-collecting, and Claydon can still recall the most minute details from that auspicious day in Maldon, in southeastern England. He remembers walking to Woolworths on High Street with his grandmother, and watching the vendor slip the vinyl into its brown paper packaging. “I can even smell it now,” he says, more than half a century later.

If you’re looking for something on cassette that’s a little more avant-garde and experimental, check these out.

Various cassette tapes
A collection of digitized commercial and amateur mixtapes recorded on cassette format, dating over the last 30 years.

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Once upon a time, these physical things, vinyl and cassette tapes, were bought with real, physical money, and a proportion of that money would find its way to the artist. Nowadays, of course, it’s all online and streamy, and the way the money flows is less clear.

Let’s imagine Anna, a fictitious Spotify user, spent the whole of last month only listening to one album by her favourite band. You’d think that all of her $10 subscription for that month would go to that band, right? Well.

Your Spotify and Apple Music subscriptions pay artists you never listen to
They take all of the money generated from users, whether by advertisements or subscriptions, and put in a big pot. They then divide that pot by the total share of streams each artist received. So, if Apple Music gave $100 million of their revenues to artists in a month, and Drake songs accounted 1% of all streams that month, then Drake (and the writers of Drake’s songs) would receive $1 million. Essentially, 1% of Anna’s money is going to Drake.

Nothing’s ever straightforward, is it?

Magnetic Chernobyl

Before 26 April 1986, Chernobyl was the name of a city in Ukraine. It was also the name of a nuclear power plant close by, near the city of Pripyat (population 49,000). I can’t imagine many people in the West would have heard of it. After 26 April 1986, that all changed, of course.

In 2014, Danny Cooke and a documentary crew spent some time there, and showed us around.

Eerie drone footage shows Chernobyl from above
“We spent the week together exploring Chernobyl and the nearby abandoned city of Pripyat. There was something serene, yet highly disturbing about this place. Time has stood still and there are memories of past happenings floating around us.”

Postcards from Pripyat, Chernobyl

Its radioactive magnetism keeps pulling us back.

Chernobyl’s horrifying realism merits its place as TV’s top show
It’s this combination of forensic attention to detail and chilling terror that has made Chernobyl, now IMDB’s highest-rated TV series of all time, so compelling. Creator Craig Mazin has captured why, 33 years after it occurred, Chernobyl continues to grip the public’s imagination, and why the event has become a metonym for grand-scale, human-induced suffering: the prospect of nuclear disaster still makes for the ultimate horror story.

HBO’s Chernobyl vs Reality – Footage Comparison

Pripyat may be a ghost town, but it’s not empty.

Meet the dogs of Chernobyl – the abandoned pets that formed their own canine community
After the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, Pripyat and the surrounding villages were abandoned, and residents were not allowed to take their pets to safety. Chernobyl Prayer, a devastating oral history of the period, tells of “dogs howling, trying to get on the buses. Mongrels, alsatians. The soldiers were pushing them out again, kicking them. They ran after the buses for ages.” Heartbroken families pinned notes to their doors: “Don’t kill our Zhulka. She’s a good dog.” There was no mercy. Squads were sent in to shoot the animals. But some survived and it is mainly their descendants that populate the zone …

While the dogs get some food and play from the visitors, their health needs are met by Clean Futures Fund, a US non-profit organisation that helps communities affected by industrial accidents, which has set up three veterinary clinics in the area, including one inside the Chernobyl plant. The clinics treat emergencies and issue vaccinations against rabies, parvovirus, distemper and hepatitis. They are also neutering the dogs. Lucas Hixson, the fund’s co-founder, says: “I don’t think we’ll ever get zero dogs in the exclusion zone but we want to get the population down to a manageable size so we can feed and provide long-term care for them.” This makes Chernobyl safer for the dogs, but also for the workers and visitors.

‘Visitors’. They’re not to be called tourists, that would be too- … crass?

As seen on TV: Fans of HBO series flock to Chernobyl, Geiger counters in hand
Fallout zones don’t usually make popular tourism attractions, but tour agencies are reporting as much as a 40 percent jump in daytrip bookings to the site of the world’s worst nuclear accident since the debut of the hit HBO miniseries Chernobyl, according to Reuters. More than six million people watched the series finale last Monday, so there’s every reason to expect the tourism boomlet will continue …

Scientists have estimated that it will not be safe for humans to live in the 770-mile Chernobyl Exclusion Zone for up to several hundred years, given that contamination levels are not consistent in the surrounding area. Still, the Ukrainian government opened Chernobyl to tourists in 2011 and about 60,000 tourists visited Chernobyl last year, noted local tourism official Anton Taranenko at a recent press conference.

Milka Ivanova, from Bulgaria, and Dorina-Maria Buda, from Romania, were five years old in 1986. They’re now academics at Leeds Beckett University. Here, they share their perspective.

Chernobyl: we lived through its consequences – holidays in the fallout zone shouldn’t be a picnic
As I write this – decompressing my memories and digging up those of my family back in Romania – there’s still a heaviness in my chest. Milka and I channel our anxieties over Chernobyl and life in communist eastern Europe into our research. To overcome the restraints of those days, I have travelled, worked and studied in eight countries on four continents. My published work deals with psychoanalytic theories of the death instinct, trauma and nuclear tourism – the industry that monetises a fascination to visit places where nuclear accidents have laid waste to people and their communities. The Fukushima disaster of March 2011 in Japan created the most recent entry in this list of tourist hotspots.

Interestingly, 2011 was also the year that Chernobyl was officially declared a tourist attraction. The HBO miniseries has generated interest in nuclear tourism, but this fascination with our communist history is nothing new among western tourists.

A week to remember

Two significant anniversaries last week. Let’s start in northern France, with some staggering numbers.

13 memorable facts about D-Day
D-Day was the opening chapter in a long campaign. The Normandy invasion was not a one-day affair; it raged on until Allied forces crossed the River Seine in August. Altogether, the Allies took about 200,000 casualties over the course of the campaign—including 4413 deaths on D-Day alone. According to the D-Day Center, “No reliable figures exist for the German losses, but it is estimated that around 200,000 were killed or wounded with approximately 200,000 more taken prisoner.” On May 7, 1945—less than a year after D-Day—Germany surrendered, ending the war in its European Theater.

Some of these images really get across the scale of that operation.

Photos: Take a look at D-Day, then and now
The 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings will fall on June 6. Here, we take a look back at iconic images of the day and at modern photos related to the day’s events.

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It all looks very different now.

11 incredible D-Day Landing pictures that show the beaches then and now
The following pictures combine original photos taken on and around D-Day with others taken in 2014 and show holidaymakers in the sun, largely oblivious to the horror that took place where they stood over 70 years ago.

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And for a different, but very direct, perspective of events that day, you must take a look at these scanned documents.

Bletchley Park and D-Day
A rare collection of Enigma messages sent on D-Day by the German navy, and broken at Bletchley Park, gives a blow-by-blow account of the action. As events unfold, confusion gives way to a realisation of the scale and importance of the invasion. Intelligence from Bletchley Park played a crucial part in the operation’s planning and execution.

The D-Day commemoration coincided with Trump’s state visit. I loved the language in this view of that from across the Atlantic.

We are being embarrassed by ugly-American grifters on an ego trip to London
Referring to “the red-carpet treatment” accorded to Donald Trump and the ignominious confederacy of unindicted co-conspirators that accompanied him to London, the city’s mayor remarked, “In years to come, I suspect this state visit will be one we look back on with profound regret and acknowledge that we were on the wrong side of history.” Why wait? As an American, I’m already regretting the spectacle of the Trumps tweeting pictures of themselves stumbling around Buckingham Palace. It’s not just that, as a republican, I have no taste for the pomp and circumstance that surrounds the British royal family. It is not even that Trumps are so obviously enthralled by imperial excess.

What I have a problem with is the notion that the United States of America is being “represented” on the global stage by an ugly-American cabal of black hats in ill-fitting tuxedos. Mehdi Hasan got it brilliantly right when he said of the president’s decampment to the United Kingdom: “He’s taken four of his five kids with him, his four grifter kids with him to Buckingham Palace. They’ve been posting pictures all night on Twitter of themselves. They’re all loving it. It’s a great day for the whole grifter family.”

The other anniversary, of course, was in China.

Beijing falls silent as tight security surrounds Tiananmen Square anniversary
Thirty years after bloody crackdown in China, visitors have IDs checked and journalists are warned against taking pictures.

In the UK and elsewhere, reminders of what happened, like this one from The Guardian ten years ago, are so easy to find.

20th anniversary of Tiananmen Square: how events unfolded
Revisiting the protests, from the beginning of the student uprising to the brutal crushing of dissent by the Chinese regime.

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That’s obviously not the case in China.

A look at the many ways China suppresses online discourse about the Tiananmen Square protests
Suppression of information means that an entire generation of people know little about the events, even as the activists involved continue to suffer repercussions, including long prison sentences. In recent years, the government’s censorship apparatus has become even more powerful, with voice and image recognition and machine learning making it easier to block or remove posts at scale.

Jiayang Fan, writing in The New Yorker, was four in 1989.

Memories of Tiananmen Square
I had left China when I was too young to know about censorship, when I was just being introduced to the written word and to the stories that written words told. It would never have occurred to me, or, perhaps, to any child, to question the history books, because that would have seemed like an interrogation of reality itself. In China, the past is never past, but it is frequently purged. The story is rewritten, the narrative reframed, the villains and the heroes recast. There is a hallucinatory quality to such a society, as if you are living a life that does not and never can fully belong to you. China’s vertiginous economic growth during the last three decades, for example, has given people permission to pursue prosperity without ever granting them political autonomy, reducing them to children at the mercy of an irascible, paternalistic government.

Ilaria Maria Sala was an exchange student in Beijing at the time, just a couple of years older than me then.

The very last spring all things seemed possible in Beijing
People handed me spent bullets and bloodied items, wanting me to go back home and tell the world what the army had done. I told them that people knew, every journalist was in Beijing. I was evacuated by the British Embassy to Hong Kong in the early hours of June 7, and returned home to Italy. As soon as I could, at the end of August, I went back to Beijing again, to study, to look for friends, to try to understand what had happened.

Her story continues.

Beijing Autumn: My return to China three months after Tiananmen
Beishida felt too desolate, so I transferred to Peking University, where all the few returning foreign students seemed to have congregated. But as the students there were those most involved in the demonstrations, the authorities decided to suspend the first year, and send all the freshmen to the army instead. The notice-boards at Sanjiaodi, where the political posters had been hoisted just a few months before, where the international TV crews had filmed the students keeping up-to-date with the strike and its developments, where impromptu speeches had been given, was now a deserted triangle dotted with forlorn little posters advertising English classes, chess tournaments, and qigong demonstrations.

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Libraries of the past and the future

I’ve always thought of libraries as places that have existed forever, like cemeteries, or shoe shops — they’re just a necessary part of a normal society, right? (It’s thought the Library of Alexandria was founded as long ago as 285 BC, though its current incarnation is only 16 years old and closes at 4 pm today.)

But libraries haven’t always been around for everybody.

A history of the American public library
CityLab’s visual storyteller Ariel Aberg-Riger shares the story of how America’s public libraries came to be, and their uneven history of serving all who need them.

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That’s all a world away from the history of libraries over here, in our grand stately piles.

What was the real purpose of the English country house library?
In Mark Purcell’s all-encompassing study, The Country House Library, every aspect of this topic is researched and addressed on an epic, Girouardian scale. Whereas architectural and art historians are often uninterested in the actual books found in historic architect-designed libraries, Purcell argues it is impossible to separate them from a consideration of situation, appearance and design. Demolishing the commonplace belief that volumes were “bought by the yard”, he offers an opportunity for historians to think afresh about the way collections were read and valued within the elusive confines of the country house library.

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A gripping chapter covers the early 19th-century bibliomania that culminated in the great sale of the Third Duke of Roxburghe’s library in June 1812, described as a chivalric tournament between Earl Spencer, the Marquess of Blandford and the Sixth Duke of Devonshire. Purcell gives an excellent account of the arc of sales reflecting the decline in the fortunes of the landowning classes after the late 1880s. In 1966, Shane Leslie wrote in his memoirs, Long Shadows: “The empty shelves at Blenheim, Sledmere and Althorp gave me the ghastly gasp as coffins and vaults ravaged by body-snatchers.”

Here’s an idea of how to make more use of our present-day libraries.

How to be a library archive tourist
When I’m traveling and am at a loss for how to spend my time, I look up as many libraries I can in the area I’ll be traveling to, and I check to see if they have special collections. Then I make an appointment with the library to visit those special collections, and usually it means I get to spend a day in a quiet, climate-controlled room with cool old documents. It’s like a museum but with no people, and where you have to do all the work, which is honestly my idea of a perfect vacation.

But what of the future? As this high-tech university library shows (designed, coincidentally, by Snøhetta, the Norwegian architecture firm behind the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Egypt), those old values of accessibility are still key.

A robot-filled, architectural marvel in North Carolina is the library of the future
Public libraries remain a critical public resource, but as budgets have been slashed and information digitized over the last several decades, many have been forced to adapt from book-storage rooms to high-tech public spaces. Indeed, libraries in urban areas remain an important space for those residents with limited incomes, education, and access to resources. By reimagining the relationship between information and technology and how humans interact with both, Hunt’s designers created a unique space in which the community can learn, create, or simply gather.

[…]

“Whether or not you’re talking about a library focused on digital technology or on books or papyri, as the ancient libraries were, the most important thing is to make a library open and accessible,” he adds, noting that books weren’t invented until centuries after the first libraries came about. “[Libraries] had museums, they had lounges, they were interactive and in a very vibrant way,” he says, “more like libraries of the future.”

And yes, I know this is a bookshop and not a library, but you must check it out.

Mirrored Chinese bookstore offers readers a maze of discovery
The newest of China’s surreal mirrored bookstores is now open in Chongqing, offering a disorienting, Escher-like experience to all who enter. Designed by X+Living, the Chongqing Zhongshuge Bookstore leads visitors through an unassuming glass facade on the third floor of Zodi Plaza and into a reflective maze full of reading materials waiting to be discovered.

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Anyone else seeing Daleks there?

How to get ahead

This is the type of art criticism I can get behind.

Ranked: 10 paintings of Judith beheading Holofernes
Today in Current Affairs, we examine an urgent and timely topic: Judith’s beheading of Holofernes! This story comes to us from the Book of Judith, a biblical text about the attempted conquest of Israel by the Assyrians. Judith is a Jewish widow who ingratiates herself with the invading general Holofernes, waits for him to fall asleep, and then hacks his head off and takes it home with her (thus thwarting the entire invasion, because the Assyrians evidently had no Plan B if Holofernes was killed. Solid military strategy, Assyrians.)

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2. Caravaggio, c. 1598-1599

Lyta: This one is pretty and famous but I am not feeling it

it’s the Blake Lively of paintings

good bloodspurt tho

Brianna: yeah good on the blood front, but Judith just doesn’t seem sufficiently enthused

Lyta: “is this even the right angle? I should have practiced first”

“I’ll do better next time”

(Via Laura Olin’s newsletter)

Historical time-keeping

An essay from Paul J Kosmin, a humanities professor at Harvard, on an aspect of time that I hadn’t thought about at all— it wasn’t always just a number, regular and universal.

A revolution in time
Each of these systems was geographically localised. There was no transcendent or translocal system for locating oneself in the flow of history. How could one synchronise events at geographical distance, or between states? Take the example of the Peloponnesian War, fought between Athens and Sparta in the last third of the 5th century BCE. This is how the great Athenian historian Thucydides attempted to date its outbreak:

The ‘Thirty Years’ Peace’, which was entered into after the conquest of Euboea, lasted 14 years; in the 15th year, in the 48th year of the priesthood of Chrysis at Argos, and when Aenesias was magistrate at Sparta, and there still being two months left of the magistracy of Pythodorus at Athens, six months after the battle of Potidaea, and at the beginning of spring, a Theban force a little over 300 strong … at about the first watch of the night made an armed entry into Plataea, a Boeotian town in alliance with Athens.

Where we would write, simply, ‘431 BCE’, Thucydides was obliged to synchronise the first shot of war to non-overlapping diplomatic, religious, civic, military, seasonal and hourly data points.

And for some context, there’s this.

The lifespans of ancient civilizations
The average lifespan of those surveyed was 336 years, but some of the longest-lived civilizations were the Vedics, Olmecs, Kushites, and the Aksumites…they each lasted about 1000 years or more.

The original selfie machine

You’d think they had had their day, but photo booths are still going strong, as this recent Quartz Obsession round-up shows. But first, some highlights from its long history.

Photo booths
1890: The Bosco Automat, an early automated photo machine requiring a human operator, debuts at the First International Exposition of Amateur Photography.

1900: Eastman Kodak debuts the Brownie camera with a price point of just $1.

1925: The first curtain-enclosed booth costs users 25 cents for a strip of 8 photos.

1929: Surrealist René Magritte uses the new technology for his work Je ne vois pas la cachée dans la forêt (“I do not see the woman in the forest”).

1930s: Bluesman Robert Johnson takes a photo booth self-portrait; when he becomes a posthumous legend, it’s made into a US postage stamp.

1953: John and Jackie Kennedy step into a photo booth during their honeymoon.

1963-1966: Andy Warhol manipulates hundreds of photo booth images into silkscreen images.

1993: Photo-Me offers the first digital photo booth.

1995: Video game company Sega introduces a photo machine that prints stickers, launching the purikura selfie trend in Japan.

2015: Photo Booth Expo launches in Las Vegas with 1,200 attendees. In 2019, expo attendance topped 4,000.

It seems smartphones are fully ubiquitous now and Instgram accounts are practically compulsory, but the photo booth is still here, for a new audience.

While the OG photo booth certainly has its charms, we’ve come a long way since the days of black-and-white photography and eight-minute processing times. Purikura is a Japanese photo booth experience that allows users to pick music for their photo shoots, choose lighting, enhance the photo by drawing on it, add digital backgrounds, retouch, and more.

Japanese Photo Sticker Booths: Purikura Adventure
Forget the selfie! It’s time to discover the Japanese Purikura Photo Sticker Booths. It’s hard to compete with the almighty smart phone these days, but the purikura “print club” booths have evolved into a US$50M a year industry and a place were one can be beamed into the professional model fantasy world – if only for 10 minutes.

How they all began

Enough of their ending, what of their beginning? Here’s a fascinating account of the earliest books and how they became established.

The birth of the book: on Christians, Romans and the codex
Our continued modern censure of the Romans for not adopting the codex sooner (its basic components were well known for millennia) forgets the most important resource in the Roman world: slaves. Slaves would copy, collate, retrieve, read and rewind book rolls for busy patricians (such as Pliny).

Today’s changing landscape of digital reading also presents a world dominated by negative externalities: invisible, poorly paid labourers scanning old books (viz, the occasional disembodied hand in latex glove flashed across a Google Books page); environmental and health challenges of mining rare earths and working long shifts to assemble our electronic devices; and the fossil fuels burned into the atmosphere to flash bytes of literature into storage arrays and send them on their way.

Da Vinci, the map maker

We’re familiar with Leonardo da Vinci’s sculptural sketches and engineering diagrams, but he was an innovative cartographer too.

How Leonardo da Vinci made a “satellite” map in 1502
It was a feat of technological and symbolic imagination. And it was pretty accurate, too.

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This old map: Da Vinci’s plan of Imola, 1502
A map made by da Vinci would be interesting even if he hadn’t applied his fabled genius to the task. But here, he absolutely did. Besides this being a beautiful map, with its delicate colors and washes, it achieves a technical precision few others did at the time.

Most Renaissance maps are known for their fanciful inclusion of dragons, castles, and undulating mountainsides, and most of them show buildings in elevation, or the “oblique perspective.” But da Vinci’s sought to capture the proportions and relationships between land features more accurately, and he developed new technologies to do so. To make this map of Imola, he may have used the special hodometer and magnetic compass he’d already invented (he’d been fascinated by maps and optics for years). With careful measurements in hand, he drew every “street, plot of land, church, colonnade, gate and square, the whole encompassed by the moat,” writes the Renaissance historian Paul Strathern.

Da Vinci centered the plan in a circle with four crossing lines, representing the points on a compass. And he showed the city ichnographically, “as if viewed from an infinite number of viewpoints,” perhaps inspired by his study of avian flight. It is the earliest such map in existence.

She’s been restored before

The images of Notre Dame yesterday were just horrible. Let’s look at some different ones (with apologies for relying on Google Translate).

1840 – Notre Dame before restoration
The success of Hugo’s novel and the beginning of the Romantic Current will contribute to a renewed interest in French Gothic heritage. In 1843, a vast restoration program will be launched at the initiative of Prosper Mérimée, then Inspector General of Historical Monuments. Architects Viollet le Duc and Lassus will win the competition.

Started in 1845, the titanic construction site will last twenty years. Every effort will be made to restore the cathedral to its former splendor. The arrow and the Red Gate will be restored among others. A hundred or so statues, inspired by other cathedrals, will be made under the careful control of the architects.

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(Via a Benedict Evans newsletter.)

Meanwhile.

Notre Dame fire hoaxes are already spreading on social media
Online conspiracists are baselessly trying to blame the fire on their political opponents.

YouTube’s new fact-check tool flagged Notre Dame fire coverage and attached an article about 9/11
The widget showing information about the Sept. 11 terror attacks appears to have been triggered by a new feature YouTube is testing to provide “topical context” around videos that might contain misinformation.

Looking back for a better digital future

A review of two books on the histories and possible futures of the internet, that try to position themselves somewhere between the more common approaches that recent studies have taken — either deterministic accounts of the “improbable marriage of countercultural hippie experiments and the military-industrial complex”, or heroic tales from Silicon Valley of “whimsical personalities and talents of digital entrepreneurs and inventors”.

Counter-histories of the Internet
Two recent books address similar speculative scenarios in the course of offering alternative histories of the internet: David Clark’s Designing an Internet and Joy Lisi Rankin’s A People’s History of Computing in the United States. Clark’s book introduces its readers to scientists who designed our networks, many of whom still dream of redesigning them. Rankin writes about groups of students and researchers who used early computers with uncommon egalitarianism. Both authors wonder why versions of the internet that they personally favor have not prevailed. They also hope that recalling such forgotten projects could inspire their readers to fight for a better digital future.

[…]

Rankin explicitly describes herself as “highlight[ing] the centrality of education—at all levels—as a site of creativity, collaboration, and innovation.” More obliquely, but no less forcefully, Clark tries to free his readers from a myopic view of web architecture as a given landscape within which we pursue our goals and interests without considering how that landscape came to be. He shows that knowing more about how the web was built, or could have been built, allows us to think more freely about how we distribute our capacities and resources within it.

It’s an interesting debate, though I worry it may be a little redundant — do the top execs at Facebook, Google and Amazon have these books on their reading list?

A strange morning

The Quartz Daily Brief is just one of several e-mail newsletters I like to start my day with, on my commute to work on the number 97. A variety of topics are covered, some catch my eye more than others — politics, yes; business, not so much — but today’s ‘Surprising Discoveries’ section was so odd I just have to share it all with you.

Jack Dorsey sent his facial hair to Azealia Banks. The Twitter CEO wanted the rapper to make a protective amulet out of his beard shavings.

A judge ordered a Missouri poacher to watch Bambi on repeat. He has to watch the Disney classic at least once a month during his year-long jail sentence.

Actual witches want Trump to stop saying “witch hunt.” They say his comparison of the Mueller investigation to their painful history is disrespectful.

A diamond the size of an egg was unearthed in Canada. The value of the 552-carat “fancy yellow” gem will depend on the cutting (subscription).

The year 536 was the worst to be alive. A mysterious global fog covered half of the planet for 18 months, leading to constant darkness, crop failure, and mass starvation.

That’s quite a collection of strangeness for one morning. Sign up for your own odd start to the day.

It’s Monday, so get the coffee on

We can’t do without it now, but in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, coffee was pretty foul stuff requiring the hard sell.

“The Virtues of Coffee” explained in 1690 ad: the cure for lethargy, scurvy, dropsy, gout & more
Price made a “litany of claims for coffee’s health benefits,” some of which “we’d recognize today and others that seem far-fetched.” In the latter category are assertions that “coffee-drinking populations didn’t get common diseases” like kidney stones or “Scurvey, Gout, Dropsie.” Coffee could also, Price claimed, improve hearing and “swooning” and was “experimentally good to prevent Miscarriage.”

Among these spurious medical benefits is listed a genuine effect of coffee—its relief of “lethargy.”

I’m caffeinely unadventurous — I only ever order the ‘Americano with room for milk please’ — but I’ve lately discovered moka pots. Don’t know what took me so long, they’re great. Here’s a potted history from Atlas Obscura; the rise…

The humble brilliance of Italy’s moka coffee pot
Over the next 60 years, the moka pot would conquer the world. As of 2016, the New York Times notes that over 90 percent of Italian homes had one. It became so iconic that Renato Bialetti, when he died in early 2016, was actually buried in a large replica of the moka pot.

… and fall…

The moka pot, which in the U.S. had previously had a light following, especially for Italian-Americans, became an object of extreme derision. Coffee purists cried that it couldn’t possibly produce espresso; the moka pot, like the La Pavoni, uses about 1.5 bars of pressure, while a pump espresso machine ideally hits about nine bars. This is, of course, a ridiculous argument; there is no actual definition of espresso, and in any case, the moka pot is at most a second cousin to the espresso machine. There’s no particular reason to compare a steam-driven stovetop machine to a pump-driven electrical device, but coffee people did.

… and rise again.

The past few years have changed that, a little bit. Coffee people have softened their stance, and recognized the moka pot for what it is: an entirely different branch of the coffee machine tree, a very old, very clever, and very economical way to make coffee. The previous complaints about the moka pot fell away, and it is increasingly, in coffee circles, given credit for all its strengths.

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Well, I’m a big fan of mine. Just as good as on the high street, I think.

Have we reached peak Costa Coffee?
But if Starbucks represents the kind of distant consumerism that Britons often reject for being too American and Caffè Nero symbolises the sophisticated, European consumerism that makes us feel oafish and uncouth, then part of the success of Costa lies in its ability to reach a middle ground – and to offer it with a smile. It provides no-airs-or-graces coffee, with a reassuring mass-produced quality to its stores.

And if anyone needs an idea about what to get me for Christmas…

11 brilliant gifts for the coffee (or tea) enthusiast in your life
Most of us can appreciate a decent cup of joe. Then, there are those who obsess over bean sourcing, brew temperatures, and whether their paper filter is unbleached. For these friends and relatives, a gift card to the local franchise drive-thru probably won’t do. Check out 11 thoughtful gifts for the coffee and tea lovers in your life.

Or I could just look at this for a while…

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Less talk, more thinking

Two recent articles, from within different contexts but with the same unconventional conclusion: most political debates are pointless and serve just to reinforce division and animosity.

Against debate
The confident assertion of a clear statement beats caution and caveats. Experiments tell us that people often mistake overconfidence for competence thereby selecting for it and against actual ability. Debates favour articulate overconfident posh folk who in fact know nothing – which is why we got into this mess.

Resolved: Debate is stupid
People — yes, even you — do not make decisions on an entirely rational basis. An audience is more easily won over with a one-liner that inspires applause or laughter than a five-minute explanation of a complicated phenomenon. A false statistic repeated confidently will be more convincing than a truth stated haltingly by some guy you’ve never heard of.

And here’s another article that I think is related. It’s from Slate and wants to be about how Twitter is finally proving itself to be a useful, benevolent platform for debate, with historians acting as fact-checkers and context-providers. I’m not so sure.

Viral history Twitter threads: 2018 was the year historians embraced the platform.
Historians used the Twitter thread to add context and accuracy to the news cycle in 2018. Here’s how they did it.

I’m growing more and more disillusioned with Twitter, and social media in general. Yes, these longer sets of tweets can provide ‘explanations of complicated phenomena’, and are interesting to read. But are we really saying that Twitter, with its average tweet length of about 50 characters, can overcome those problems with political debates, highlighted above? Or are they just preaching to the converted?

How many tweets have you seen that have included the words, “Oh yeah, you’re right, I hadn’t thought of it like that.”