Before they were famous

Some uncommon views of very well-known structures.

Famous landmarks, before they were finished
It isn’t always possible to find an unusual perspective on famous landmarks, but photos taken during their construction can often provide one. In black-and-white or grainy color, they’re filled with promise but not yet substance—scaffolding around a skyscraper skeleton, pieces of a sculpture in a workshop, the foot of a tower reaching into nothing.

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What’s in a name? #3

I mentioned earlier, in a post about the first map to include the name America, that people should be more aware of the names of places used by the first people to live there. Well, here’s a map that can help with that.

Indigenous geographies overlap in this colorful online map
For centuries, indigenous peoples and their traditional territories have been purposefully left off maps by colonizers as part of a sustained campaign to delegitimize their existence and land claims. Interactive mapping website Native Land does the opposite, by stripping out country and state borders in order to highlight the complex patchwork of historic and present-day Indigenous territories, treaties, and languages that stretch across the United States, Canada, and beyond.

Now that’s what I used to call music

I was 11 in 1983. I’m now 46. A milestone has been reached.

Now That’s What I Call Music! just turned 100
Phil Collins’ cover of the The Supremes’ “You Can’t Hurry Love” is the first song on the very first Now That’s What I Call Music!—or “Now,” as it’s popularly known—released in the UK in 1983. Yesterday (July 20), the 100th UK volume of the series was released; its first song is Calvin Harris and Dua Lipa’s electronic dance hit “One Kiss.” Listen to both tracks and you’ll see that we’ve come a very long way, baby.

As ever, the It’s Nice That team has a great take on it.

Now That’s What I Call an oddly important document of British visual culture: Now releases its 100th CD
As objects, and as ideas, the Nows that litter charity shops and the glove compartments of seen-better-days people carriers up and down the country are primarily functional. End-of and mid-year money savers, they are cheap and cheerful. And they look it, too.

The series is an interesting record of the shifting musical tastes of our young people (including me, once upon a time), but it’s visually important too.

You’ll notice that after rather anodyne first and second editions, the team decided to inject a bit of personality into proceedings. Which, for Now’s three, four, and five they did with a pig. In sunglasses. This, for reasons that are probably best left kept in the matte black confines of a mid-80s record label HQ, was the big idea. This was how they were going to sell yet another chart compilation to the nation. With a pig in sunglasses.

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I’d forgotten all about that pig! Needless to say, it didn’t stick around, and before long the cover we all know and love appeared. And stayed.

Like the Little Chef logo or the Nike swoosh, the solid sameness of Now provides a moment of calm in an epoch marked by hysterical atomisation. You’ll probably never buy another Now compilation again — because why would you —but that isn’t the point. Like cockroaches at Armageddon, Now will always sit there on supermarket shelves.

I, for one, am glad of that. Buying and listening to music these days is getting far too complicated.

How spammers, superstars, and tech giants gamed music
On a website with more than 100 million active daily users, there are plenty of ways to game the system, be it for attention, or, if the streams pile up enough, profit. And the frauds cashing in on the latest hot single are hardly alone. A bevy of unknown artists have found ways to juice their streaming totals, whether it’s covering songs from artists who don’t allow their songs on Spotify, or uploading an album of silent tracks, each precisely long enough to generate a fraction of a cent for the artist.

Pictures of the picture houses

Nice to see photos of one of our local cinemas* in the Guardian recently.

The Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds
The Hyde Park Picture House, the world’s only surviving gas-lit cinema, opened in 1914. The owners of the Grade II-listed building have now been granted planning permission for redevelopment, to improve accessibility, restore the gas lights and ornate plasterwork and incorporate a second screen in the basement.

They’ve now been given planning permission for their renovation, but the grant they got to fund it was awarded almost two years ago. Patience is a virtue, I guess.

Gas-lit Leeds cinema among sites to receive heritage lottery cash
In its earliest years Hyde Park showed morale-boosting patriotic films including An Englishman’s Home, and newsreel of the war in which 6,000 local men had enlisted. The gas lights were turned down but kept on during the screenings, to combat reports of disgraceful carryings on in the back rows of darker cinemas.

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Not all of these places are so lucky. Here are some of the saddest photos I’ve seen in a long time.

9 haunting abandoned cinemas & picture houses of England
In our modern world of multiplexes, it can be easy to forget the grand cinemas of yore. Not so long ago, ornate picture houses stretched over every corner of England. Each one offered something more than a simple screen. It offered a unique viewing experience, a perfect way to while away a rainy afternoon by settling into another world. Today, many of those old picture houses stand in ruins, their projectors shut off for the final time.

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And it’s sad to see the one I grew up with is suffering the same fate.

* What others call a movie theater, we would call a cinema. A picture house sounds very grand (as is appropriate for Hyde Park), but when I was young, we’d refer to these places as the pictures. A singular noun, as in: “Is there owt good on at the pictures, or shall we go round to John’s and play on his Atari?”

What’s in a name? #2

It looks strange now, but this Waldseemüller map from 1507 was cutting-edge in its day, incorporating the very latest reports from voyages of discovery that were taking place at the time. Not everyone agreed with the reports from a certain Amerigo Vespucci, however.

The epic story of the map that gave America its name
Contrarily, according to a letter dated 1504 from Vespucci to Duke Renè that was reprinted in Introduction to Cosmography and describes his four voyages from 1497 to 1504, he reached the mainland a year earlier than Columbus. Historians have called the authenticity of this letter into doubt, but Waldseemüller and Ringmann took Vespucci’s letter at face value, basing their naming of the new continent on its contents.

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You could say that every country has at least two names — an exonym and an endonym; what outsiders call a place, and what the people that actually live there call their place. They were arguing about the former without bothering to ask about the latter.

It’s a gorgeous map, though, regardless of its accuracy and arrogance. Here’s another remarkable map of America, this time of just one of its rivers.

This 11-Foot ‘ribbon map’ puts the whole Mississippi River in your pocket
It wasn’t just a marketing gimmick, though. By choosing this particular form, Coloney and Fairchild leaned into a particular depiction of the Mississippi that took shape during the Civil War. “There was this idea that because the river went from north to south, it was a great unifier for the country,” Luarca-Shoaf says—that it tied the divided North and South together like, well, a ribbon. At the same time, they took pains to include important battle sites, like Vicksburg. That these sites made it onto the map just a year after the war ended “shows that the war had marked the landscape in more than physical ways,” she says. “It had become part of the history of the place.”

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What’s in a name?

The difficulties of dealing with the past.

The cost of changing a country’s name
“African countries, on getting independence, reverted to their ancient names before they were colonised,” His Royal Highness, King Mswati III told those gathered there. At that moment he was still king of Swaziland – but Swaziland was to be no more. “So, from now on the country will be officially known as the Kingdom of eSwatini.”

Reminded me of the mountain of work Kazakhstan is undertaking, changing its official alphabet. There’s always a huge cost, as Darren Olivier, a South Africa-based intellectual property lawyer, goes on to explain.

“There’s value in that, there’s intrinsic value in that identity and what it means for the people,” he points out. “Yet at the same time there’s a cost – a physical cost in changing the identity.”

Like many, Olivier has wondered exactly what the price tag for eSwatini will be. Shortly after King Mswati III’s announcement, Olivier published a blog in which he estimated that it will cost the country $6 million to change its name.

Let the violins sing

Research, which I don’t pretend to fully understand, has been undertaken on why the violins made by the Italian masters are so good.

Acoustic evolution of old Italian violins from Amati to Stradivari
The unique formant properties displayed by Stradivari violins may represent the acoustic correlate of their distinctive brilliance perceived by musicians. Our data demonstrate that the pioneering designs of Cremonese violins exhibit voice-like qualities in their acoustic output.

Thankfully, a few websites picked this story up and explained it for the rest of us.

Scientists find secret behind sweet sound of Stradivarius violins
The instruments achieve their sweetness and brilliance by mimicking aspects of the human voice, study says.

The world’s best violins sing like humans
A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that not only do great violins sing like humans, those built by different makers may remind us of different types of human voices.

[…]

“Although we did not perform any psychological experiments in this study, I speculate that the similarity between violins and voices can explain why violins are so popular,” Tai concludes. In other words, we may not yet understand quite how these instruments do what they do. But maybe we like them because when they do it, they sound like us.

It’s not the first time science has tried to understand what makes these instruments so special.

The brilliance of a Stradivari violin might rest within its wood
Why nobody has been able to replicate that sound remains one of the most enduring mysteries of instrument building. A new study, published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that answers may lie in the wood: Mineral treatments, followed by centuries of aging and transformation from playing, might give these instruments unique tonal qualities.

Violin-fiddling boffins learn that ‘f-holes’ are secret to Stradivarius’ superior sound
Although each violin maker inarguably possessed a good ear – in order to recognise and replicate the violins that sounded best – whether or not they recognised the particular design elements that contribute to a more powerful sound is still up for debate. In other words, the violinmakers knew what was a better instrument to replicate but they didn’t necessarily know that its slender holes were what made the sound it produced tonally pleasing.

Long live typewriters

I think Richard Polt’s Classic Typewriter Page was the first proper website I read, way back when. I had an Underwood No. 5 and was keen to learn more about it.

The Classic Typewriter Page : all about typewriters
I’m Richard Polt, the creator and webmaster for The Classic Typewriter Page. I grew up loving typewriters and have been collecting them in earnest since 1994. I’m the editor of ETCetera, the magazine of the Early Typewriter Collectors’ Association. I’ve been blogging with and about typewriters since 2010. And I’m the author of a book, The Typewriter Revolution: A Typist’s Companion for the 21st Century.

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I love the fact that the look of that website hasn’t changed at all over the years. It doesn’t need to. Here are some typewriter-related links, starting with some very odd-looking examples.

Friedrich Nietzsche’s typewriter – a Malling-Hansen Writing Ball
The Hansen writing ball was an outstanding invention. It was simple to use and, unlike the Remington typewriter, worked almost silently. Both the Remington and the Hansen writing ball were exhibited at the World Exhibition in Paris in 1878, and the writing ball received a gold medal, but the Remington typewriter, according to a letter Malling-Hansen wrote that year, received only a silver medal. So, in the jury’s eyes, the writing ball was judged to be of better construction.

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This 1950s Keaton Music Typewriter is the most vintage and wonderfully impractical thing ever
It is estimated that between six and 24 of these machines are left in existence – and we hear that one was recently up for sale on Etsy for $6,000 (£4,290). Thanks to the fine folk at Musical Toronto for bringing this wonderful thing of oh-my-god-I-want-this-now beauty to our attention.

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The Waverley Standard Typewriter, England 1896
The distinguishing aspect of its design is the position of the type bars, which stand vertically behind the platen and swing down towards the typist to strike the top of the platen when typing. This was all about giving visible tying, where one could see what one had just typed. However, with the escape for the paper blocked by the type bars, the carriage design became quite complicated. To get a sheet of paper ready for typing, the bottom edge is pushed back a few inches on the three prongs that are seen under the three hoops of the paper bail in front of the carriage. As one types the paper goes up and around the platen and curls up into a cylinder in the paper bail. The paper is then pulled out sideways.

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Wanting to start your own collection?

Man selling $100,000 collection of 600 vintage Smith-Corona typewriters
My collection consists of over 600 typewriter items including the company’s first typewriter in the 1880’s to one of the company’s last typewriters in 2000’s and all models in between, along with all types of items that correspond to the typewriters, including ads, accessories, displays, documents, manuals, photos, shipping crates, etc. Smith Corona’s products are beautiful, interesting, unique, colorful, and when displayed, fun to look at.

They’re not all what they seem, though.

WWII Enigma machine found at flea market sells for $51,000
While the flea-market vendor thought the machine was a unique typewriter, the mathematician knew exactly what he was buying, and felt “compelled to purchase it.”

I didn’t realise the extent to which they’re still used today…

A prisoner’s only writing machine
I asked Tom Furrier, a typewriter repairman in Arlington, Massachusetts, what he thought of the price of Swintec machines, which he occasionally sells and repairs. “It might as well be a thousand dollars, to some people,” he said. “But I don’t think the cost is outrageous, by any means.” Hundreds of old-fashioned typewriters sit on shelves in Furrier’s shop. I asked him why prisoners couldn’t use refurbished machines like that. “You could almost fashion anything out of these pieces,” he told me, pointing to the steel lever arms of an Underwood. “It would be lethal, I’m sure. Almost any part in this machine.”

… with people doing all sorts of things with them.

Sincerity Machine: the Comic Sans typewriter
“The Comic Sans typewriter was made after viewing a document with a typewriter font present in it; I realized there was nothing stopping me from altering a typewriter to write in a different font.”

A visual history of typewriter art from 1893 to today
Though early typewriter art made its mark, the golden age of the discipline was still decades away — it wasn’t until the concrete poetry movement of the 1950s–1970s, best described as concerned with “poetry that appeals to the eye and not the ear,” that the typewriter became a commonly embraced artistic medium.

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Wanting something a little more modern?

Penna: a vintage typewriter-inspired bluetooth keyboard
Three years in the making, PENNA offers the feeling of a mechanical keyboard with keycaps that let you know if you actually typed that letter or not, helping to reduce mistakes. The keyboard will be available with either Diamond Shape Keycaps (rounded corners give a smooth feeling and aim for more accurate typing) or Retro Chrome Keycaps (more like an old typewriter), depending on your preference.

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It’s strange to see a ‘typewriter’ with a row of Function keys.

Hanx Writer, an iPad app by Tom Hanks that simulates the experience of a typewriter
Hanx Writer is an iPad app by actor Tom Hanks and developer Hitcents that simulates the experience of a typewriter. Hanks wrote in the New York Times in 2013 about his love of typewriters. The app recreates the sounds and general appearance of a typewriter with three models to choose from: the free Hanx Prime Select, the Hanx 707, and the Hanx Golden Touch.

So, in summary, they’re still going strong.

Documentary on the past, present and future of typewriters
There are 3 main stories: one is about a collector of pre-qwerty and rare old typewriters (Martin Howard), another about a struggling typewriter repair shop in Berkeley (California Typewriter), then there’s me and my typewriter vivisection.

Let’s end how we started, with Richard Polt.

The Typewriter Revolution
The Typewriter Revolution documents the movement and provides practical advice on how to choose a typewriter, use it, and care for it—from National Novel Writing Month to letter-writing socials, from type-ins to customized typewriters.

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This book was a great birthday present this week. I especially liked the ribbon bookmark.

Weeks, years, aeons

I have a birthday coming up in a few days and I was going back over this post that links to a Wait But Why article on how to see all the weeks in your life in one go.

Your life in weeks
Sometimes life seems really short, and other times it seems impossibly long. But this chart helps to emphasize that it’s most certainly finite. Those are your weeks and they’re all you’ve got.

I’ve found it very useful to go back to my own version of this, to remind myself of where I’ve been and how fleeting situations are sometimes. But I hadn’t realised there was another article there that gives you a much broader — but still very relatable — perspective on time.

Putting time in perspective
Humans are good at a lot of things, but putting time in perspective is not one of them. It’s not our fault—the spans of time in human history, and even more so in natural history, are so vast compared to the span of our life and recent history that it’s almost impossible to get a handle on it. …

To try to grasp some perspective, I mapped out the history of time as a series of growing timelines—each timeline contains all the previous timelines.

You move quickly through the last day, week and year, through timelines of a 30 year old and a 90 year old, all the way back to when humans diverged from apes, and the ages of the Earth and Sun.

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History is much closer than you think.

Happy Windrush Day, grandma and grandad

It’s Windrush Day.

UK makes Windrush Day official with £500k grant to support events
Windrush Day will take place on 22 June, the day when around 500 migrants from the Caribbean arrived at Tilbury Docks in Essex in 1948 aboard the MV Empire Windrush. […] The communities minister, Lord Bourne, said the annual celebration will help to “recognise and honour the enormous contribution” of those who arrived between 1948 and 1971.

I mentioned before about my grandad being on the Windrush. Here he is.

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He and my grandma had first met during the war. They got married in September 1948.

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The only black guy at the wedding. In the village, probably.

Look at all these happy faces.

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They went on to have seven kids, my mum being one of them. Never got to meet him, sadly, as he died in a traffic accident in 1958. So it goes. And it would have been my grandma’s birthday tomorrow, too, if she was still around.

Anyway, happy Windrush Day, the pair of you.