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Photo: Jay Silverstein/University of Hawaiʻi.
Egyptian-era ceramic perfume bottles. Scientists are trying to reconstruct the fragrances of Cleopatra’s time.

As a longtime reader of mystery novels, I know that aroma can play a role in detectives solving a puzzling case. Today we learn about archaeologists who might be able to detect that Cleopatra had passed through the room where the body was found. Or her ghost. Or another archaeologist.

Elaine Velie reports at Hyperallergic, “A team who used ancient recipes to recreate an ancient Egyptian perfume perhaps worn by Cleopatra is back at it again. This time, they’re turning to chemical analysis to decipher the perfume’s exact ingredients and proportions.

“In 2012, University of Hawaiʻi (UH) professors Robert Littman and Jay Silverstein uncovered a perfume manufacturing site in Mendes, Egypt, a city that flourished from around 500 BCE to 600 CE. In the neighboring UH Tell Timai excavation site, the archeologists found a complex of kilns that was once abandoned in the second century BCE before being revived centuries later by the Romans; there, they discovered perfume bottles and amphoras containing perfume residue.

“The team partnered with Berlin-based Egyptologist Dora Goldsmith and Sean Coughlin, a professor of Greek and Roman philosophy in Prague, and used ‘experimental archaeology’ to test ancient perfume recipes. They tried different ingredients and cooked the perfumes in a variety of ways, eventually landing on one version that not only smelled good, but remained potent for two years. Littman and Silverstein exhibited their work at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, DC in 2019 and published their findings in the journal Near Eastern Archaeology as part of a paper titled ‘Eau de Cleopatra.’

“In the fourth century BCE, Egyptian perfume recipes were written in Greek, and in the first century BCE, they appeared in Latin texts. In reading these accounts, one fragrance emerges as immensely popular — the Mendesian perfume from the city of Mendes. It was mentioned by many Greek and Roman writers, including Pliny the Elder, and similarly to many scents today, the connotation was one of expense and luxury. Littman calls it the ‘Chanel no. 5’ of ancient Egypt and says it was popular during the reign of Cleopatra.

“It’s been difficult to determine whether the Greek and Roman recipes describe the real Egyptian Mendesian fragrance or Greek and Latin versions of the perfume, since Egyptian records of the scent are less widespread than the Greek and Roman ones. Even when studying Egyptian recipes, scholars do not always know the meaning of some words. … These sorts of uncertainties altered the accuracy of the recipe testing. And the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic delayed their efforts to test the compounds of the residue found in the UH Tell Timai amphora.

“Through a new chemical analysis, the team aims to resolve these questions and finally succeed in perfectly recreating the ancient Mendesian perfume. Littman, Silverstein, and their team plan to return to the Mendes site this summer, where they’ll bring a sample of the residue to Abdelrahman Medhat, a conservator of organic materials at the Cairo Museum.

“Littman told Hyperallergic that discoveries of ancient perfumes are incredibly rare. In 2005, perfumologist Mandy Aftel recreated a perfume worn by an ancient Egyptian mummy. In 2009, scientists at Bonn University in Germany analyzed what they thought was perfume from the tomb of Hatshepsut, but turned out to be a medicated skin lotion. …

“He also thinks perfume can tell us more about ancient societies than just their preferred scents. Littman, who has been excavating at the Mendes site since 2007, has developed a keen interest in the history of perfume. He views it as a lens through which to examine pubic health trends through time. When public health standards were lower, he says, people tended to wear more perfume. Deodorants and antiperspirants did not emerge until the early 20th century; instead, perfume was used to mask body odor. For example, perfume was incredibly popular in 17th-century France, when hygiene standards were relatively low. …

“ ‘One of the things that archaeology really developed in the mid-19th century, and some of the questions we look at are, “What was life like? What was civilization like?” ‘ Littman told Hyperallergic. ‘So when you look at perfume, perfume is an aspect of civilization.’ ”

The part about using perfume to cover up bad odors reminds of a biography I read about Elizabeth I in England. Believe me, you would not want to spend a winter in her palace, where there was no plumbing and everyone walked around holding some kind of fragrance to their noses to blot out the overflowing chamber pots!

More at Hyperallergic, here. No firewall.

Nature’s Music

Photo: Masha Karpoukhina for Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain.
Soundscape ecologist Bernie Krause. Bernie Krause, 2021.

Spring is a time of year when birds are so vocal, I really do feel accompanied by music on my walk. Today’s story is about turning the sounds of nature into a kind of music that can be heard at any time of year.

Christine Ajudua at Artnet interviewed the artist behind “The Great Animal Orchestra” in November. His show will be at the Peabody-Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, until May 22.

“In the late 1960s, Bernie Krause was at the top of his game as a musician, sound designer, and master of the Moog synthesizer, recording with the likes of Van Morrison, George Harrison, Mick Jagger, Brian Eno, and The Doors, while working on films such as Apocalypse Now. Then, he gave it all up and went wild — literally.

“Krause has been exploring the natural world as a pioneering soundscape ecologist ever since. And his masterpiece —’The Great Animal Orchestra‘ (November 20–May 22, 2022), originally commissioned by Paris’s Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain in 2016 — is about to have its North American premiere at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. …

“The exhibition is based on 5,000 hours of Krause’s field recordings from the past 50 years, featuring 15,000 terrestrial and marine species from around the globe — many of them since lost or currently at risk. With the soundscapes reinterpreted as large-scale, animated spectrograms by the London-based collective United Visual Artists, it is an immersive and highly moving experience of the ever-vulnerable sound universe.

“Krause is meanwhile the subject of a new Cartier Foundation–produced documentary directed by the French filmmaker Vincent Tricon. …

ARTNET: What inspired you to move on from your life as a musician to explore the natural world as a soundscape ecologist? What are the biggest differences — and perhaps similarities — between your lives then versus now?

BERNIE KRAUSE: Paul Beaver, my late music partner, and I got invited to record with some awesome artists and groups [in the late 1960s]. But when it got to the point where we were being asked to replicate the sounds produced on previous sessions, something inside snapped — I found myself staring at the padded, windowless walls of studios in L.A., London, and New York, with mixed feelings of terror, boredom, and immobility. It was at that point that I began looking for an escape. …

“As it happened, Paul and I had just been signed by Warner Brothers to do three albums. For our own mental health, we sought to produce something thematic that hadn’t been tried before and where we could explore some of the Moog’s performance options we hadn’t shared with other artists. Our initial album, titled In a Wild Sanctuary, centered on the theme of ecology, and natural soundscapes [were] a main constituent of the orchestration. We needed a quiet rural area or wild forest in which to record.

“I didn’t go terribly far to secure those early recordings — just across San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge to a small park in Marin. But when I cranked up my new stereo recorder and heard the numinous impression of a nearby stream, the illusion of larger-than-life sonic space, the edge-tones of a pair of ravens’ wingbeats as they cut an arc across the sky overhead, and a gentle sea breeze in the redwood canopy wafting in from the Pacific to my west …

… something inside me instantly changed. I felt relaxed and present in the living world and amazingly free of anxiety.

“I had discovered for myself a new sense of being and felt obliged to go wherever that reaction took me. I was 30 years old then. …

“I begin by finding habitats that are relatively untouched by human endeavor. Then I identify a local naturalist or biologist that knows intimate details of the area [and its] unique wildlife [to] help facilitate my time on site. But for the most part, I prefer to work alone.

Over the course of a 24-hour day, I’ll likely record four two-hour sessions: a dawn chorus, a midday chorus, dusk and nighttime choruses, times when biophonies are likely at their peak. [These are] the collective sounds coming from all organisms in a given habitat at one moment in time.

“When I return to the studio, the first thing I do is transfer all of the field data related to that recording into my archive. Then I have two basic avenues of expression. The first, through science, is to write and publish a paper related to what I’ve observed given what the data show. The problem with that avenue is that very few people read this literature.

“If I want to reach a much larger audience, I turn to the arts, transforming the data into programs that are widely accessible and emotionally evocative while at the same time keeping the integrity of the message firmly intact. …

“I had written and released a book, The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places — basically the story of how we learned to sing, dance, and speak from mimicking the voices of the natural world. [It] was translated into seven languages, one of which was French. Somehow, a French anthropologist, Bruce Albert, who has been working with the Yanomami tribe in northern Brazil for decades, found a copy and gave one to his good friend, Hervé Chandès, director of the [Cartier] foundation. After reading it, Hervé contacted me in 2014 proposing that I take some of the raw field data and transform them into large-scale sonic art pieces. …

“Over the course of a few intense days, we auditioned the soundscapes of many habitats, whittling them down to a couple of dozen. From those, I proposed a selection of 15 or 16 habitat recordings to choose from. With the field recordings from those selections, I began the transformation process, taking raw material representing each location, assembling and mixing the various segments and generating a seamless acoustic narrative that I felt would capture and evoke the essence of each unique biome.

“And because most of what we observe of the living world has been through what we see, we decided to include a visual component — one that illuminated the soundscapes. …

“If the habitats they represented were healthy, that condition [would] show in the structured detail of the spectrograms. Conversely, if the habitats are under stress, then the spectrogram images will appear to be chaotic and incoherent.

“With the expertise and insight of Matt Clark and his team at UVA [United Visual Artists], the problem of converting those sounds into instantaneous streaming spectrograms was solved.”

More at Artnet, here. No firewall.

Photo: Yauhen Attsetski via Radio Free Europe.
Sept. 3, 2020. Repainting the mural in the Square of Change. A mural on the side of a Minsk apartment building showing two deejays who were jailed for playing a controversial Soviet rock song has become a flash point in the standoff between Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko and his opponents.

I don’t know if readers recall the Belarusian presidential election of 2020. There were massive protests after Putin puppet Alexander Lukashenko declared a big victory. I’ve been keeping track of resistance in Belarus for a while now and feel sorry that because the president is helping Russia with the Ukraine invasion, ordinary Belarusians get associated with him.

A story — practically a book — about the resistance was reported by Sarah A. Topol at the New York Times in March, detailing how numerous Belarusians risked their lives to unseat the strongman and how the Russian invasion of Ukraine has intensified the heartbreak of their failure. I will present the conclusion of the article here. The names mentioned are people Topol interviewed about the 2020 uprising.

She writes that in February of this year, “no one believed the war was coming. The New Belarus movement was busy preparing to protest a constitutional referendum that would allow Lukashenko to stay in office until 2035 as well as give him lifetime immunity from prosecution once he left. The proposed amendments also included a change removing Belarus’s commitment to be neutral and free of nuclear weapons, which meant the country could host Russia’s nuclear arsenal.

“In the early hours of Feb. 24, Russia’s military attacked Ukraine. When I messaged the group, they were horrified. Their country had become one large Russian military base bordering three NATO countries. …

“Sviatlana and her supporters immediately announced their firm antiwar position. As the sanctions began to resemble those recently imposed on Russia, the exiled movement maintained that the people inside the country were prepared to suffer. What else could they do to stop Lukashenko now when they had failed to overthrow him already? Not everyone was as convinced. Sanctions risked hurting the average citizen; they had a mixed record of effecting political change.

“As the war continued, Belarusian relocants in Kyiv fled farther west, many of them now forced to run for their lives twice in less than a year. In Warsaw, Diana had been working on a plan to open a house for newly arriving Belarusians — a community where people could get advice on residency, refugee status, health care and schools. The group she was working with, Courtyard Activists Abroad, pivoted to providing supplies for Ukrainian refugees. She attended protests at the Belarusian and Russian Embassies. She grappled with a sense of shame. All along they wondered if they could have done more to stop Lukashenko, to free their own people and by extension to stop this war.

“ ‘Our guilt is greater than our attempts at justification, because we didn’t finish what we started — our unfinished revolution,’ she told me. ‘Lukashenko is sitting there and cooperating with Russia. This is our fault. For two years, we tried, but we couldn’t overthrow him. Given we screamed that we are the majority, we should have been able to do it. We could have done it. But to say we could or couldn’t is just a discussion; we didn’t even really try. We could have overturned the buses, even if they had 20 siloviki in them. We had thousands in our marches. But we didn’t try. Instead, we were peaceful. We walked with flowers.’

“Sviatlana released video after video supporting Ukraine, and she praised the Belarusian volunteers going to fight alongside Ukrainians. The Cyber-Partisans paralyzed Belarus’s railways to prevent Russian military movements. Three rounds of negotiations between Russian and Ukrainian officials have taken place on the Ukrainian-Belarusian border. By the end of March, the Pentagon had counted at least 70 missile launches from Belarusian territory, though no Belarusian troops had been confirmed on the ground in Ukraine. In Minsk, people had begun to fear that they would be forced to fight against their will. If Belarus announced that it was officially at war, men of military age would be barred from leaving the country.

“On Feb. 26, the night before the constitutional referendum, the chat members in Minsk decided they would go to the Russian Embassy the next day to protest the war after they went to the polling station to spoil their ballots. There had been no large rallies since the previous winter. It was a huge risk to take to the streets. When they were about to depart for the Russian Embassy, they heard it was surrounded by paddy wagons. Arrests had already been made. The group decided to change course: They would go to the Ukrainian Embassy with flowers. …

“They weren’t the only ones who risked their freedom to take a symbolic stand. Though the regime had spent a year and a half decimating the ranks of the politically active, thousands of Belarusians still took to the streets. Across the country, more than 800 people were arrested. (In Russia, with a population roughly 15 times greater, 2,000 people were arrested that same day.)

“Westerners often looked at Belarus as if it were Europe’s own little North Korea. Lukashenko himself mocked reporters who called him ‘the last dictator of Europe.’ People who have not experienced it tend to believe all autocracies are the same, but in reality, regimes and freedoms vary, and repressions exist in shades. For Belarusians, the shift from gray to black, from autocracy to totalitarianism, was calculable in lives.

“Nearly 10 million people still lived in Belarus, unwitting collaborators in the raging war. According to a Chatham House poll in mid-March, only 3 percent of Belarusians supported entering the war alongside the Russian military. The Square of Change wanted the world to know that Belarusians had recognized this danger earlier, that they had been fighting this regime, which owed its existence to Putin, for a long time. Even in this atmosphere of repression, they had not given up or fled.

“They had tried so fervently to build the independent Belarus they were promised when the Soviet Union fell. Still, 30 years later, they were thwarted by dynamics that formed decades before their birth. It had been foolish to believe that the U.S.S.R. could collapse so peacefully, that its ghosts would not demand placation. Now they were all paying the price.

“There is so much discussed about the act of fleeing, but perhaps even more puzzling is the choice to remain. ‘I have no fear for myself; I have fear for my family,’ Shamberbetch told me. ‘I want to send my relatives abroad. I want to stay here as long as possible, to fight. When I realize there’s nothing I can do here anymore, I’ll leave the country through the woods.’

“What started for two D.J.s as a small act of symbolic defiance at a concert became a mural on a wall. That symbol became another, the Square of Change, which became to Belarusians the symbol of what their new nation could be. Then those who created that symbol became symbols themselves.

“Each revolution creates its own hieroglyphics — bracelets, flags, murals, heroes and demons — but to what end? How long can a revolution survive on symbols? When your country participates in the destruction of another, how much is symbolic protest worth? Is a symbol worth your life? ‘This is what worries us now, that the meaning of fighting with stickers and other symbols simply loses its meaning,’ Sous-Chef wrote to me in March. ‘Our peaceful protests have practically no effect on the current state of affairs.’

“Still, a few nights earlier, on the fence next to the children’s playground, on that white sheet the size of a flag, they painted NO WAR in red with a black peace sign. On the side, they marked their stencil — two small D.J.s with their arms raised.”

More at the Times, here.

Photo: Dorothea Oldani via Unsplash.
Divers get to see wonders the rest of us only dream about.

I’m always intrigued by all the different kinds of work that exist. Today we learn about the work of a diver who is also a successful author.

From the environmental radio show Living on Earth: “Underwater explorer Craig Foster dives nearly every day in the near-shore waters of South Africa, and it’s here that he befriended an octopus, a relationship captured in the 2020 Academy Award-winning documentary My Octopus Teacher. His 2021 book Underwater Wild: My Octopus Teacher’s Extraordinary World brings the kelp forest to life with stunning photographs and gripping prose. Craig Foster joined Host Steve Curwood for a recent Living on Earth Book Club event to discuss the power of connecting with wild nature. …

“STEVE CURWOOD: Oceans cover about 70 percent of our planet and hold 95 percent of our biosphere, that is, places where life can thrive. … Befriending and learning from creatures with gills and without back bones is an unusual pastime for humans, unless you are Craig Foster. Diving virtually every day for years into the near shore waters of South Africa with just a mask, snorkel and flippers, Craig eventually became friends with an octopus and told the story in his 2020 academy award winning documentary, My Octopus Teacher. …

“With friend and diving partner Ross Frylinck, he wrote the 2021 book, Underwater Wild: My Octopus Teacher’s Extraordinary World. [It] tells the stories of the kelp forest with stunning photographs and gripping prose. Craig joined me from Cape Town for a recent Living on Earth Book Club event. I started by asking him to describe where he dives in this underwater world just offshore.

“CRAIG FOSTER: The Great African Sea Forest stretches from right up Namibia all along the West Coast of South Africa, and then turns around the point and goes a few hundred kilometers up the East Coast. It’s about 1,400 kilometers in length. And the actual kelp itself grows to up to 15 meters, or 45 feet, in length. … There are an enormous number of animals in the kelp [and] a great biodiversity of animals living around the forest itself. …

“CURWOOD: One of the most remarkable moments in [My Octopus Teacher] is when she actually extends her arm, a tentacle, and touches your hand. Why do you suppose a wild animal would make contact with a human in this way? …

“FOSTER: In the case of octopus, or cephalopods, they have a natural curiosity. So their whole lives are balanced between this fear and curiosity. And they’re almost like a cat — you know how curious cats are, they just can’t help themselves. …

“CURWOOD: You introduce us to another cephalopod in the kelp forest there: the cuttlefish. And you were lucky enough to witness an incredible display of how cuttlefish have mastered the art of mimicry. …

“FOSTER: I remember very clearly the first day that I saw a tuberculate cuttlefish. This is a small species of cuttlefish that only occurs in South Africa. And they are such masters of camouflage that [when] I looked at this creature, I had no idea what it was. I thought maybe it’s a strange piece of algae. … And it was mimicking the algae. And this animal then changed into a cuttlefish and jetted off and left a puff of ink in front of my face. [This] animal is even better at camouflage than an octopus, if you can imagine that. It’s very small, very vulnerable, soft bodied. So it’s got this incredible way of pretending to be a hard-shelled whelk.

It changes its whole body shape, and it points its arms, and it changes its color, and even tiny details of these little polychaete worms that grow on the backs of the whelk shells, it even mimics those.

“So it fools predators into thinking it’s a hard shell. It even then sometimes pretends to be a hermit crab living in that hard shell, and drags itself along slowly, when it can actually swim, you know, relatively fast. And then if it has to swim, it can actually mimic a fish called a klipvis that lives in this environment. So this animal is truly the master of mimicry and camouflage, it’s quite incredible. …

“CURWOOD: [Living on Earth listener] Nathalie Arias, who’s in the eighth grade asks, ‘How have you used what you’ve learned from the octopus and the experience in your personal life? …

“FOSTER: When you start having relationships with wild animals, and a lot of wild animals, it takes a lot of pressure, strangely enough, off your human relationships. You know, we rely very heavily on human relationships for our well being. But as you start having the relationships with these wild animals, and spending time with them, and I like sometimes spending time alone with them, you kind of feel that — it’s a wonderful feeling — the pressure off the human relationships. … It’s improved, I think, my human relationships.

“CURWOOD: So to what extent does the ocean heal you? I mean, you and your co-author Ross mention in this volume that you’ve been recovering from emotionally traumatic experiences you, you’ve had; you talk about divorce, Ross mentions a sad, difficult relationship with his father. So how has the ocean healed you?

“FOSTER: I think in actually in a number of ways. As I say, the daily immersion, almost anybody can be in a, not a very good mood, or quite tired, lethargic. And I promise you, I’ll take you into that water, 20 minutes later, you’re going to feel completely different. It almost works for everybody. And that’s because there is actually a big brain chemistry shift and a physiological shift, and that can last for many hours of the day. And then of course, having a relationship with wild animals changes one dramatically. You feel connected to your environment, you know their behaviors, you have a sense of place, you don’t feel so separate a lot of the time, you know, so separate; you feel like you are connected to an environment. And that, psychologically, is very empowering.”

Read about Foster encountering a Great White Shark, an amazing clawless otter, and other wonders at Living on Earth, here. Nice pictures. No firewall.

Photo: Craig Foster and Ross Frylinck.
This image of a global bubble-raft shell was taken from below, looking up to the surface. This animal creates a stiff raft out of a stream of bubbles so it can float. They lay their eggs on the raft, too, and that’s what’s visible here: the darker eggs were laid first and have developed more than the newly laid pink ones.

Photo: James O Davies/The Historic England Archive, Historic England.
Sphinx House, Moulsford, Oxfordshire, is an example of Egyptian influences on the work of newly rehabilitated British architect John Outram.

Sometimes a person whose work hits a wall of resistance from contemporaries is merely ahead of the times. That may be the case with UK architect John Outram.

Guardian reporter Oliver Wainwright talks to the architect about his philosophy and rehabilitation. ” ‘Our beginning was a worm,’ says John Outram. ‘It had light-sensitive cells at one end that later turned into eyes.’ He is standing in the bathroom at the top of his house in London’s Connaught Square, explaining the symbolism of the patterns that line the walls of his shower.

“Three white worms wiggle their way across a background of blue mosaic tiles at the base of the cubicle, while a black I-shape floats against a band of red tiles above, denoting ‘the emergence of the ego.’ A third yellow band at the top marks the realm of light, where the figure of ‘thought’ appears between two triangles, signifying the parted halves of the ‘heap of history.’

“It’s a lot to digest before breakfast – and we haven’t even got on to the symbolic ceiling (the ‘raft of reason’) or the hexagonal serpent-skin floor tiles.

“ ‘I stand here every morning to do my exercises,’ says Outram, breaking into an infectious giggle. ‘A good dose of metaphysics sets one up for the day.’

“The eccentric architect has reason to be cheerful. At the age of 87, he is enjoying an unexpected wave of popularity. Having been stamped with the label of postmodernism – out of favor since the 1990s, when his work was described as ‘architectural terrorism’ – he has been rediscovered by a new generation, thirsty for color, pattern, ornament and fun.

“The last few years have seen several of his buildings listed, from the Isle of Dogs pumping station, that cartoonish temple to summer storms, to an opulent country house in Sussex built for the Tetra Pak billionaires Hans and Märit Rausing. Illustrations of Outram’s buildings can now be found emblazoned on T-shirts and mugs, while he has a growing following on Instagram, which he joined during lockdown, where he expounds his esoteric theories to a rapt audience. And now, for the first time, the full breadth of his maverick output has been brought together in a monograph. So how does it feel to be recognized so late in life, after years in the wilderness?

” ‘I call it being dug up,’ he says with a chortle. ‘Disinterred, as it were. It’s quite entertaining.’

“As Geraint Franklin, the book’s author, observes, the English have never quite known what to do with Outram. His buildings are hi-tech, neoclassical and postmodern all at once, yet they fit neatly into none of these categories. His chubby columns house sophisticated mechanical systems for ventilation, wiring and drainage, while simultaneously alluding to ancient mythologies in their richly layered ornament.

“A huge jet engine fan in the pediment of the pumping station helps to cool the machinery inside, while also standing as the symbolic source of the ‘river of somatic time.’ A pyramidal glass fireplace in the Egyptian-themed Sphinx Hill house in Oxfordshire summons momentous Pharaonic allusions, while cleverly sucking smoke beneath the floor to a hidden flue.

“In Outram’s world, embracing technology and modernity did not preclude the presence of poetry and history. … Outram piled it all on, mining inspiration from Sumerian, Egyptian, Chinese and Mayan cultures with magpie glee. …

“Born in Malaysia, where his army officer father was stationed, Outram’s outsider status owes something to his upbringing. His childhood saw spells in Burma and India, before he arrived at prep school in England at the age of 11, feeling like ‘a refugee from the British empire.’ His early exposure to the vivid sights and sounds of South Asian cities informed his impression of the classical world, as being ‘much more like India than like the British Museum. Very noisy, very smelly, very colorful.’ …

“Unlike his hi-tech peers, his projects rarely exceeded the capabilities of the average builder. ‘The problem with hi-tech is that it’s very expensive, and the tech isn’t very high,’ he says. ‘I’d been a pilot, so I knew what real hi-tech was – and it wasn’t suitable for architecture.’ …

“As Franklin writes, base materials are subject to an almost alchemical transformation in Outram’s hands. Humdrum concrete – which he once described as a ‘funereal porridge of muddy ashes’ – could be transformed into ‘blitzcrete with fragments of colored brick, ground and polished to an edible nougat finish. It debuted at his New House for the Rausings in Wadhurst, Sussex, in 1986, where five types of crushed brick swirl across the facade like confetti in the wind.”

More at the Guardian, here. Great Pictures. No firewall.

Photo: Reuters.
An inmate reads the Bible in prison, where she and fellow inmates have access to a small library as part of a La Paz, Bolivia, program to spread literacy and offer the chance to get out of jail earlier.

Sharing stories like today’s, I can see why someone could accuse me of being a Pollyanna. But it’s not that I think people convicted of crimes will be completely transformed if shown a little kindness. It’s more that I see no harm in testing how small kindnesses might add up, especially for people who may have experienced few kindnesses.

In 2017, Philip Reeves at National Public Radio conducted an interview in a Brazil prison about a program that Bolivia is now testing.

“Brazil’s prisons are dangerous places,” Reeves, noted, “blighted by overcrowding and drug gangs. But literacy is offering a way to shorten some inmates’ sentences: Read books, reduce your time behind bars. …

“REEVES: About 30 men are sitting behind desks in a classroom. They’re writing with pens and paper. The teacher is standing up front issuing instructions. … We could be in any school anywhere but for a couple of details. One, a wall of iron bars separates the teacher from her class. Two, the paper each man’s writing could win him a little bit of his life back. … These are inmates in a giant penitentiary in southern Brazil called the Casa de Custodia de Piraquara. …

“MARILDA DE PAULA SOARES: (Through interpreter) I am an educator. I really believe people can change.

“REEVES: Marilda de Paula Soares is the class teacher. Her students are participating in a project pioneered by the southern Brazilian state of Parana. Prisoners get four days lopped off their sentences for each book they read. To get those days of freedom, they must write a short paper about the book. They’re doing that now. Soares says each prisoner’s paper must explain …

“SOARES: (Through interpreter) … what’s caught their eye, a specific character, the language, the theme …

“REEVES: … in sufficient detail to ensure that cheating is … impossible. Douglas Seixas, an inmate here, says it’s true. You really can’t skip the reading. …

“SEIXAS: Because we need to read a book to understand. If you not read the book, no, no way.

“REEVES: Only certain books qualify under the reading program, including foreign and Brazilian classics and kids’ books for prisoners learning to read. Books with very violent themes are banned. … There’s a maximum of 12 books a year. That adds up to a month and a half remission. Admilson Rodrigues is doing 10 years for drug trafficking but is steadily whittling down his sentence by reading. … Rodrigues said he loved Gone With The Wind and also Les Miserables. Les Miserables seems particularly popular here. Rodrigues believes that’s because it’s about an ex-con who’s trying to create a new life on the outside. …

“REEVES: Is this project window dressing by Brazilian officials? Are they trying to put a gloss on a dysfunctional penal system where inmates sometimes wait years before being tried? It’s hard to know. Yet, prisoners here do seem to be benefiting. Edson Reinehr says he’s on his fourth book, which is about the adventures of Mowgli the wolf boy.

“EDSON REINEHR: Helps a lot because to keep the mind — occupied mind inside the cell instead of thinking about other bad things.

“REEVES: Staff here say the project’s about much more than just helping prisoners pass the time and get a little remission. Teacher Agda Ultchak says it’s about fundamentally changing lives.

“AGDA ULTCHAK: (Through interpreter) We hope to create a new perspective on life for them. This is about acquiring knowledge and culture and being able to join another universe.”

Meanwhile, at Reuters, Monica Machicao reports on a version of the program that was launched recently in Bolivia.

“The state program ‘Books Behind Bars’ offers detainees a chance get out of jail days or weeks in advance of their release date.

Bolivia does not have a life sentence or death penalty, but pre-trial detention can last for many years due to a slow judicial system.

“The program has been launched in 47 prisons that do not have resources to pay for education, reintegration or social assistance programs for prisoners, the Andean country’s Ombudsman’s Office says.

“So far, 865 inmates are sifting through prose, improving their reading and writing skills. One of them is Jaqueline, who has already read eight books in a year and has passed four reading tests.

” ‘It is really hard for people like us who have no income and who do not have family outside,’ she said. ‘There are people here, for example, who are just learning how to read and write.’ …

“With a daily salary of 8 bolivianos ($1.18), incarcerated Bolivians are forced to work to be able to eat and pay the high court costs to be released. The country’s prisons and jails have long suffered from overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, with some detainees staging protests over the lack of health care, according to Human Rights Watch. …

“Said Mildred, an inmate at the Obrajes women’s prison in the highland city of La Paz, ‘When I read, I am in contact with the whole universe. The walls and bars disappear.’ “

More on Brazil’s program at NPR, here, and on Bolivia’s at Reuters, here.

Photo: Yehor Milohrodskyi via unsplash.
Ukrainians of all ages are offering to help others in wartime.

Volunteering an hour or two a day with journalists in Kviv to refine their English for social media, I am continually struck by the spirit of the people. A fence riddled with bullet holes gets transformed into a fence painted with flowers, the bullet holes becoming the flowers’ centers. Everyone does what they can. Today’s story is about a teen who put away childish things to serve her people.

“ ‘Some of them ask my age and when I say, “16,” they’re shocked,’ Anna said. …

Washington Post reporter Hannah Allam writes from Lviv, “The adults who approach teenager Anna Melnyk sometimes cry, sometimes yell. They see ‘information’ on her green vest at the train station in the western city of Lviv and ask questions: How to get to Poland? Where is the bomb shelter? What to do next? Anna’s calm demeanor seems to reassure these new arrivals, displaced by war from besieged cities. They turn to her for a sign that everything is going to be all right.

“Anna, herself displaced from Kyiv, is undergoing a drastic transformation alongside other Ukrainian teens, who are trading high school concerns for work that will shape the kind of nation they will inherit once the fighting ends. …

“Just a few months ago, Anna was a typical 10th-grader. … She would plead with her mom and stepdad to let her stay out late. She didn’t always do her chores. If she got a bad grade, she said, she’d sulk and think, ‘Life sucks.’

“She now laughs at such frivolous cares. The camera roll on her iPhone traces the abruptness of the before and after. Photos show her posing and singing with classmates, followed by footage of Russian helicopters she recorded from her window. Since a harrowing escape from the capital in March, she has lived with her mom, grandmother, dog and cat in a tiny two-room flat in Lviv.

“She spends mornings in class via Zoom, then hops a bus to cross town for an afternoon shift at the train station. She said she feels empowered when she slips on the green vest to assist bewildered families.

‘Something changed in the way I see my troubles, my daily life,’ Anna said. ‘Now, every day I wake up and think, “Okay, I can do something.” ‘

“An only child who didn’t grow up with her biological father, she learned to navigate the world from the hard-working, churchgoing women who made sacrifices to give her a middle-class life in Kyiv. Her mother, Olga Kuzmenko, 36, is a linguist who interprets for Italian companies in Ukraine. Her grandmother, Olena Shevchun, 60, is an ophthalmologist who taught her poetry on walks through their favorite parks. …

“Anna’s mother took her on trips throughout Europe and the Middle East, always reminding her how lucky she was to have such opportunities. She also instilled in her daughter a love for Ukraine, visiting cultural museums and spending time in the Carpathian Mountains. Anna said the stunning vistas were ‘like freedom.’ …

“Like many adolescents, Anna’s family said, she became more rebellious and stubborn around age 13. She reveled in new freedoms such as going to McDonald’s alone with her friends. She crafted her own look — Billie Eilish-inspired baggy clothes, black combat boots, no makeup and short tousled hair. She would spar with her parents over walking the dog or helping with dishes.

“On Feb. 23, the day before Russia invaded, she and her classmates chipped in to buy a chocolate birthday cake for a favorite teacher. At the time, rumblings of war were background noise. … At sunrise the next morning, the sound of explosions jolted the family awake. Kuzmenko crept into her daughter’s room.

“ ‘Don’t panic, Anyuta,’ the mother said, using her daughter’s nickname. ‘Just take your stuff, whatever you will need for a couple of weeks.’ Kuzmenko remembers that Anna insisted on bringing the cake.

“Anna, her mom and stepfather quickly packed some clothes and important documents — as well as the cake. They drove to her grandmother’s house in the northern suburbs, where that night Anna sat bitterly in front of the TV, eating birthday cake while watching news of a war that was suddenly unfolding just outside her window.

“[Soon] Anna’s parents realized they’d made a grave mistake by driving north. Shevchun, the grandma, lives only 10 miles from Bucha, where Russian ground forces would leave a trail of death and destruction. They could hear the bombardment, and they stayed up night after night gaming out how they would react, what they would say, if Russian troops appeared on their doorstep.

“Then the first photos emerged of atrocities in Bucha, ‘and we understood.’ …

“The stress and pressure on the family mounted. One day, Anna locked herself in a closet for hours, crying and refusing to eat. The family prayed together and decided to make a run for western Ukraine. … They had no idea which districts were occupied by Russian forces, but their Protestant pastor told them about an escape route through back roads. …

“By luck, friends found them the two-room flat in Lviv. … They had shelter, but they were far from settled. Kuzmenko said she developed an uncontrollable tremor. There was bickering given the cramped space. The dog started growling at air raid sirens. Kuzmenko said it was her daughter who adapted best.

“ ‘There were some times when I stayed here and just cried without even seeing the future, the next day, how to go forward,’ Kuzmenko said. ‘And then she comes and says, “Mom, do you want me to hug you?” ‘ …

“During her shifts at the train station, Anna has developed a close bond with other volunteers. … Watching the girls’ enthusiasm gives Anna’s mother and grandmother hope that Ukraine’s next generations won’t grow up feeling yoked by a Soviet legacy.

“ ‘She doesn’t have these fears, that she doesn’t have dignity, that she doesn’t have the right to exist, to have her opinions.’ “

More at the Post, here.

Photo: AP.
Housing barracks at the Amache internment center near Granada, Colorado, where Japanese Americans were relocated during World War II, June 21, 1943.

Many Americans today are unaware that the country actually set up concentration camps for Japanese Americans in WWII. We weren’t gassing people, but what we did was pretty dark. In today’s story, we learn how a school near one camp decided that facing that dark history was important for healing.

Sarah Matusek reports at the Christian Science Monitor, “The wind sings a wordless song across the Colorado plains, making acres sway. Out of the brush rise concrete remains of a camp that imprisoned over 10,000 people.

“Carlene Tanigoshi Tinker, a toddler during World War II, lived at this Japanese American internment camp, called Amache. She sat atop her father’s shoulders with a scarf around her face – a shield against wind-whipped sand – as they lined up outside for food. Her parents were United States citizens.

“After their release, stigma followed her to Denver, she says, where kids would pelt her with rocks after school. For the rest of her childhood, Amache was ‘a topic that we never discussed,’ remembers Ms. Tinker, a retired biology teacher living in California. …

“[In March], President Joe Biden designated Amache as a national park, but for some it was, in essence, already serving as one. For years, camp survivors and descendants have visited the site that once confined their families, welcomed by a local educator in the nearby town of Granada.

“Over almost 30 years, John Hopper, dean of students at Granada School District RE-1, and hundreds of his pupils have helped preserve the rural site and run a museum in Granada. Their sense of civic responsibility has built bonds across cultures and generations, transcending a dark chapter of American history.

“ ‘It’s taught me a lot about empathy,’ says Bailey Hernandez, a junior. ‘You start to think, well, how would I have reacted if my family was forced into one of these camps?’

“One of his predecessors toured Ms. Tinker around Amache in 2004, her first trip back. She remembers feeling uplifted.

“ ‘These kids are really, really amazing to be so dedicated,’ says Ms. Tinker. ‘They know how important it is and they want to preserve this story.’ 

“Two months after the December 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. That led to the forced removal of more than 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry from their homes into internment camps. …

“Amache mostly held American citizens – who were seen as potential enemies and subjected to loyalty questionnaires.

In spite of these conditions, internees beautified their arid captivity by planting trees and gardens, even creating a pond.

“The U.S. government under Ronald Reagan formally apologized in 1988; reparations checks followed. And now with [the] signing of the Amache National Historic Site Act, oversight of the property will transition to the National Park Service. …

“Despite being recognized for his work – including praise from the consul general of Japan in Denver – Mr. Hopper says he prefers to ‘be on the sidelines’ and center his students.

“ ‘It is a heavy, heavy topic, especially when you talk about civil liberties,’ he says. ‘But that’s part of my job I enjoy talking about – needs to be talked about.’

“Mr. Hopper, who does not have Japanese ancestry, first visited Amache as a new Granada high school social studies teacher in 1990. …

“In 1993, some ‘really bright and willing students’ wanted to pursue an Amache project and began interviewing a survivor whom Mr. Hopper’s family knew. That year the teacher established the nonprofit Amache Preservation Society (APS). What began as extracurricular activities eventually formalized into a class. Collaboration with survivors, descendants, and the town, and partnership with groups like the Amache Club and Amache Historical Society, have been key to building trust.

“Over the years, students have divided their time between physical preservation of the site – mowing or renovating a cemetery or other landmarks – and interpretive efforts. APS students present to other schools and groups, and help keep up the Amache Museum, where they double as docents. …

“When Mr. Hopper retires, he plans to pass the mantle of APS leadership to social studies teacher Tanner Grasmick, who joined APS as a high schooler.  The teacher credits his experience as one of Mr. Hopper’s students as the reason he became an educator himself. 

“ ‘You hear what they had to go through, the adversities that they had to face, and for them to come back and just be so grateful [for the preservation efforts] … it’s amazing,’ says Mr. Grasmick.”

More at the Monitor, here.

Be sure to check out Alden Hayashi’s novel Two Nails, One Love, which includes a vivid description of his mother’s experience as an American of Japanese descent during WWII.

Art: Jacobo Bassano.
Museum security officer Joan Smith chose a painting called “The Animals Entering Noah’s Ark” for a special staff-curated exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Last fall, my husband and I took Minnesota visitors to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. The museum’s amazing landscaping and art were not the only treats. One gallery’s security guard was deeply enthusiastic about the art, especially the pieces in his room that had been stolen, and the background he provided really enriched our experience.

That’s why today’s post about giving museum security guards a chance to curate an exhibit makes so much sense to me.

Cathy Free writes at the Washington Post, “Security officer Ricardo Castro spends most days on his feet at the Baltimore Museum of Art, where he answers a lot of questions. …

“ ‘If you’re a guard, you hear it all,’ said Castro, who has worked for the museum’s security team for three years. ‘I enjoy the interaction — especially when you can tell that people are really moved by something hanging on the wall,’ he said.

“Now Castro is prepared for questions of a different kind when an exhibit he curated with 16 other guards opens at the museum March 27. … Castro’s selections, three objects by unidentified artists from Indigenous cultures, reflect his desire to see more works in the museum that spotlight early cultures, including his own Puerto Rican ancestry, he said. …

“The idea to have security guards take a turn at selecting pieces for an exhibition came about in February 2020 when Baltimore Museum of Art trustee Amy Elias went to dinner with the museum’s chief curator, Asma Naeem.

“ ‘We were talking about ways to engage with the security guards, who spend more time with the art than anyone. … ‘I thought, “Wouldn’t it be interesting to hear from the guards about which pieces of art were the most meaningful to them?” ‘ [Elias] said. …

“She and Naeem said they thought about the possibilities for a while, then put out a memo last year to the museum’s 45 security guards: Would any of them be interested in developing an exhibition based on their personal selections from the museum’s vast collection? They would be paid for their time as guest curators in addition to their regular hourly wage.

“ ‘For the past few years, the Baltimore Museum of Art has tried to bring in new voices that haven’t been heard before,’ Naeem said.

“ ‘Our guards are always looking at the art and listening to people as they talk about the art,’ she said. ‘People enjoy talking to them, and their education is really a “hands on” gallery experience. We wanted to see things from their perspective.’ …

“The 17 guards who signed up attended Zoom meetings for a year to learn how to put on an exhibition, from framing artworks and writing description labels for the public to making sure that each piece has correct lighting, Naaem said.

“ ‘We asked them each to select up to three objects, and they then did a deep dive with our librarian to research each one,’ she said. …

“Several guards chose social justice and change as a theme for their selections, she added, while others chose pieces to match their experiences of rotating each day between the museum’s galleries.

“Alex Lei chose Winslow Homer’s ‘Waiting for an Answer'(1872), because ‘it’s strangely reflective of the experience of being a guard — a job mostly made up of waiting,’ he said.

“Ben Bjork said he selected Jeremy Alden’s ’50 Dozen’ (2005/2008) — a chair made entirely of pencils — because he sometimes fantasizes about sitting down when he is tired.

“Sara Ruark chose two works, including Karel Appel’s ‘A World in Darkness'(1962), because she wanted to convey the current uncertainty in the world, she said. …

“’These are disconcerting times’ … she added. ‘There are people pushing for positive change, but somehow we just keep winding back in time.’

“Alex Dicken, a security guard for two years who recently moved to the museum’s visitor services team, said he chose Max Ernst’s ‘Earthquake, Late Afternoon'(1948), because he was struck by how the painting appears serene and detached from the crisis it depicts. …

” ‘Working as a security officer involves so much more than just standing in a gallery,’ said Dicken, 24. “When you have repeated exposure to the artwork, you learn a lot about it. I hope I was able to pass that along to the people who visit.’

“Ricardo Castro said he feels the same way. ‘When I first came here as a guard, I thought it would just be something to do to pay my bills,’ he said. ‘But I really came to love it, especially when I’d see how joyful people were when they looked at the art.’ “

Don’t you wonder how the surprise opportunity to act as a curator will affect these people’s lives going forward? You have until July 10 to see the show.

More at the Post, here. The Denver Channel version of the story has no firewall.

Art: Mary Cassatt.
One of these young women is supposedly the grandmother!

Today I thought I’d post this story on a very nice way for a mother to spend a few hours. It’s about a library specially designed for parents.

Casey Parks writes at the Washington Post, “Janelle Witcher thinks of the library as her second home. She’s a single mom who lives in Richmond [Virginia], and a few times a week, she drives her four children to Henrico County’s Fairfield branch. It’s a place where her children can learn and she can use a computer or socialize with other parents. Plus, she said, the books calm her children down.

“ ‘I go there just to let them see a different view, a peaceful view,’ she said.

“When Witcher’s oldest children were younger, they used to visit a different branch on the other side of town. She’d sign up for one of the computers in the lab, and she’d hold one baby or two as she tried to answer emails or look for job opportunities. Using the computers always felt difficult, though. As soon as Witcher started to type, one of the babies would reach over and mash the keys.

“Eventually, multitasking wore Witcher down. She cut back on her visits, but she missed the calming stacks, and her oldest children needed a place to do their virtual schooling. She started going to the new Fairfield branch last year, and the first time she visited, she noticed that someone had fixed her most vexing library problem. They’d installed a second computer lab in the children’s section, and this one had adult desks with a playpen attached.

They’d installed a second computer lab in the children’s section, and this one had adult desks with a playpen attached. …

“The Henrico County Public Library system installed the workstations as part of a $29 million rebuild of the Fairfield branch. Voters overwhelmingly supported a bond to pay for the facility, and as library administrators began designing it, they asked families what they wanted to see in the new 44,800-square-foot space.

“Immediately, said Barbara Weedman, the library director, one trend emerged: People no longer viewed the library as just a place to pick up a book. The branches were places to gather, and families needed them to be more kid-friendly.

“Weedman worked with architects at Quinn Evans, which has offices in D.C., Baltimore, Detroit, Ann Arbor, Mich., and Richmond. Together, they designed a children’s section with arts-and-crafts rooms, collaboration spaces and furniture short enough to allow parents to see their children across the room. They added rocking chairs and a lactation room, and then, as the architects finalized their plans, they asked Weedman whether community members needed anything else.

“Weedman was also once a single mom, and she and other library staff had long noticed mothers like Witcher trying to work on the computers while holding a child. …

“The old computer lab model didn’t work for those parents, Weedman told Shannon Wray, a senior interior designer at Quinn Evans. And it didn’t work for other patrons, either, who needed a quiet place to work or apply for jobs. …

“Wray searched, but she couldn’t find any ready-made furniture that addressed the need, so she asked a small company in Ann Arbor to build something new.

“Blake Ratcliffe and his wife, Sherri, have been designing children’s furniture for 25 years. They work with education experts from New York University and Montessori groups to create pieces that facilitate early learning. When Wray called, the Ratcliffes knew they wanted to come up with a new kind of work carrel — one that suited parents, but was also safe and educational for babies and toddlers up to 2 years old.

“The result is something they now call the Fairfield Parent+Child Carrel. It has a maple veneer plywood desk with privacy panels on one side and a crib on the other. They built the carrels from nontoxic materials durable enough to sustain the kind of frequent cleanings library workers do now, and in the crib, they installed a soft, vinyl mat made of health-care-grade materials. The inside play space has a mirror and interactive panels that librarians can switch out when babies need new distractions. …

“When the library opened in October 2019, mothers ‘made a beeline’ for the four carrels, Weedman said.”

More at the Post, here.

Photo: Chris Cunningham via Curbed
The Fairfield carrel was designed by Sherri Moore and Blake Ratcliffe to help caregivers with young kids in tow better access their local library.

Photos: Suzanne’s Mom.
Childhood walks in the natural world are associated with better navigation skills in age.

According to a recent New York Times article by Benjamin Mueller, whether or not a patient navigated irregular spaces in the great outdoors as a child may help with diagnosing later dementia. If an old person keeps getting lost, it may not mean Alzheimer’s. It may only mean she grew up in a gridlike city.

Mueller writes, “As a child in Chicago, Stephanie de Silva found that the city helped her get where she was going. Streets included directional names like ‘West’ or ‘North,’ and they often met at neat right angles. If all else failed, Lake Michigan could situate her.

“But when Ms. de Silva, 23, moved to London, where she now studies cognitive science, she suddenly could not navigate to a restaurant two blocks from home without a smartphone map. The streets were often crooked. Sometimes they seemed to lead nowhere. …

“Scientists in Ms. de Silva’s lab at University College London, along with colleagues in Britain and France, have now arrived at an explanation: People who grow up in predictable, gridlike cities like Chicago or New York seem to struggle to navigate as easily as those who come from more rural areas or more intricate cities.

“Those findings, published in Nature [in March], suggest that people’s childhood surroundings influence not only their health and well-being but also their ability to get around later in life. Much like language, navigation is a skill that appears to be most malleable when people’s brains are developing, the researchers concluded.

The authors hope the findings eventually lead to navigation-based tests to help diagnose Alzheimer’s disease.

“Getting lost can sometimes occur earlier in the course of the illness than memory problems, they said. Researchers have developed virtual navigation tests for cognitive decline, but they can interpret the results only if they know what other factors influence people’s way-finding abilities.

“Among the forces shaping people’s navigation skills, the study suggested, was what kind of places they experienced as a child.

“ ‘The environment matters,’ said Hugo Spiers, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London and one of the study’s lead authors. ‘The environment we’re exposed to has a knock-on effect, into the 70s, on cognition.’ …

“In 2015, Michael Hornberger, who studies dementia at University of East Anglia in England, heard about a company that wanted to invest in dementia-related research.

“Having just attended a workshop about gaming in science, he proposed a video game that could help him figure out how people of different ages, genders and locations performed on navigation tasks. Such a game, he thought, could create benchmarks against which to assess patients who might be in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

“To his surprise, the company — Deutsche Telekom, a major stakeholder in T-Mobile — funded his idea. Known as ‘Sea Hero Quest,’ the smartphone game involved steering a boat to find sea creatures. …

“The scientists had hoped that the game would draw 100,000 people in Western Europe. The participants would be testing their navigation skills while also providing basic demographic details, like whether they had grown up in or outside of cities.

“Instead, over 4.3 million people joined in, generating a global database of clues about people’s ability to get around. ‘We underestimated the gaming world,’ Dr. Hornberger said. ‘It went beyond our wildest dreams.’

“For all its simplicity, the game has been shown to predict people’s ability to get around real places, including London and Paris. In recent years, the research team has used the resulting data to show that age gradually erodes people’s navigation skills. ….

“The latest study addressed what its authors described as a more vexing question: Do cities, however grid-like, have the effect of honing people’s navigational skills by offering them a plethora of options for moving around? Or do people from more rural areas, where distances between places are long and paths are winding, develop superior navigation abilities?

“To find out, the researchers studied game data from roughly 400,000 players from 38 countries. The effect was clear: People who reported growing up outside cities showed better navigation skills than those from within cities, even when the scientists adjusted for age, gender and education levels. …

“Players of varying nationalities performed differently. Urbanites from some places, like Spain, came very close to matching the navigation skills of their rural counterparts. In other nations, like the United States, people raised in cities were at a huge disadvantage.

“One explanation, the researchers suggested, was that in countries whose biggest cities were complex patchworks, like Spain, chaotic street layouts had sharpened navigation skills.”

More at the Times, here.

Photo: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian.
Paul White: ‘After one 21-hour work day, I told my mum I planned to quit. As soon as I uttered the words, I felt the weight lift.’

Have you ever had a really bad boss? I have. I was afraid to quit without another paycheck in hand. It took five years to find one, but it was worth it. It turned out to be my best job.

One thing about the pause from normal life that we can chalk up to Covid is the reassessment of how we’ve been spending our time. The media is full of stories about people who thought deeply about their jobs and ended up quitting.

Today’s article is about a guy who felt a wave of relief when he turned his back on the stress of work and found a new line.

Deborah Linton at the Guardian gets the story from 35-year-old Paul White of Lancashire, UK.

“In May 2018, I became leader of my local council, Pendle, in Lancashire. A year later, after nearly a decade in local politics, I quit. Alongside my council duties, I had been growing a business: milk and grocery delivery to 100,000 customers, locally and elsewhere in the country. I had a 3 a.m. milk round, so I’d be up before dawn delivering bottles, jumping on a train to Westminster after lunch to meet government ministers, and heading back to chair a council meeting that evening.

“My heart was constantly racing. Shortly before my election as leader, I’d been diagnosed with cardiomyopathy – heart failure. I’d been fitted with a pacemaker and defibrillator, and put on medication, but I’d torn up the doctor’s note, convinced I was too busy to take time off. …

“After one 21-hour work day, towards the end of 2018, I told my mum I planned to quit; as soon as I uttered the words, I felt the weight lift. …

“For a while, I did nothing, which was an enormous and uncomfortable culture shift. Then I remembered dreams I’d harbored as a kid, when I’d draw maps of farms I wanted to own. I had studied rural enterprise at university, but the idea of working in agriculture got lost in business and politics. I’d kept an eye on the farming press and, in early 2021, still reeling from the pandemic, I spotted warnings of a turkey shortage at Christmas – a result of supply chain and labor issues stemming from Brexit.

“I rented an acre of woodland in[Laneshawbridge], bought 200 turkey chicks for £2,000 [~$2,500] , and read up on how to rear them. I set up the business in three weeks, figuring I’d see a return in 20 weeks, when the local pubs and butchers were ready for their birds.

“Each day, I get up with my turkeys at dawn and close them in at dusk. I work alone, but I’ve learned a lot, educating myself on the job – the weird ways the turkeys react to noise, how much they eat, and how loud they are. … I’ve rented 11 more acres and, this year, I’ll start a commercial flock of egg-laying chickens, then move on to sheep. …

“I was named Young Lancastrian of the Year in 2018, but, when I look back at photos, I seem grey, thin, ill. Now, I spend hours outdoors. I lead a walking group, and clock up even more miles with my dog. I tend to my turkeys by the river, and potter around the village talking to people. …

“There are downsides to life on the farm: rain, animals die, and you have to be very smart to make a living from it. … Emotionally, it’s been hard to come to terms with the change. Handing over the keys to the town hall was a huge relief, yet I toy daily with going back – it feels like unfinished business. People who wanted my attention for years, whom I considered friends, disappeared. I’ve also found it hard to reconcile myself with the idea that I’m not contributing to the world. … Now I question if it’s OK for life to feel this simple.”

More at the Guardian, here.

Just for fun, here’s a wild turkey in Providence, RI. Turkeys have to be the world’s most self-important birds. They never worry if they’re contributing to a better world.

Photo: Morgan Bible, 13th century, via Wikimedia.
In this meme, @artmemescentral captions the art thus: “When I’m drunk and try to take off a turtleneck.”

There’s something entertaining happening on Instagram lately. A goofy look at the art of the Middle Ages.

At Hyperallergic, Alicia Eler writes, “Medieval imagery wasn’t meant to be funny when it was made hundreds of years ago, but all over Instagram it has been remixed, captioned, and somehow reads as peak hilarious — depending on your sense of humor.

“One evening while wasting time on the addictive social media platform, I came across a meme of a medieval battle scene; on the right, a horse was giving the sword-wielding dude some serious side-eye,” she writes.

A perfect caption made her laugh “maniacally, posting it to my Instagram story and sending it to all my close friends. How could this seemingly arcane medieval imagery, previously confined to an art museum or, perhaps, a European crypt, feel so meme-able? …

“ ‘It’s funny for the same reason that Black American Vernacular English is so sticky — because it references a level of servitude that we don’t want to admit,’ said artist Kenya (Robinson), whose work often explores privilege, consumerism, and perceptions of gender, race, and ability. She noted that the text is written in Black American Vernacular English, also known as the language of social media. …

“That’s the text. But what about the image and the side-eye horse? It actually portrays the ‘Captivity of Jeholachin King of Israel, which isn’t particularly funny. Babylonians destroy the Temple of Jerusalem, then lead the Jews into captivity. (As a Jewish person, this makes the meme feel very unfunny, and more like a story my grandma, or bubbe as we say, might have told over a holiday dinner.) … 

“But the fact that the image suddenly appears hilarious in this remixed context struck me. …

“ ‘There’s something about the surprise of the medieval,’ said Sonja Drimmer, a scholar of medieval European art, and associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. ‘One of the conceptions about the European Middle Ages has to do with blind piety, prudishness, but when people see imagery that defies that, the disjunction leads to laughter.’ …

“ ‘I think there is something about Western medieval art that seems like a safe target … some of the memes — like the side-eye horse, if it were sub-Saharan Africa — you could imagine meme-ifying it, and then imagine it becoming deeply problematic very quickly,’ said Erik Inglis, professor of Medieval art history at Oberlin College. ‘I think with the very white faces of Western medieval art, it seems innocent. We are pretty willing to condescend to the Middle Ages, [which is] not fraught as it is to condescend to other ages.’

“Most of the medieval art history memes come from broader art meme accounts, such as @artmemescentral or @classical_art_memes_official, though there are some discontinued accounts that focus only on medieval imagery. …

“ ‘Medieval imagery is so phone-friendly,’ explained Cem A., an artist and curator who runs the popular art meme page @freeze_magazine (no association with Frieze magazine), and curatorial assistant at Documenta 15.

” ‘For me, its style is more simplified, representational, and cartoonish than our classical understanding of painting. Figures in these images usually have exaggerated (and therefore easier to grasp) relationships onto which you can build a meme. Its aesthetics works better on the compact screens of smartphones.’

“At the same time, medieval imagery isn’t all just easy fodder for funny memes. It can ‘be racist and quite terrible, and ground zero for white supremacy, said Drimmer. 

“The mob that stormed the United States Capitol Building on January 6, 2021, carried … symbols associated with the Crusades. The far Right’s use of medieval iconography gained steam after the September 11 attacks, with white supremacists picturing themselves as ‘modern Christian warriors fighting to preserve the idea of America as a white, Christian nation,’ according to a report in Teen Vogue

“This is an even more troubling connection for academics and those who study the era, but also speaks to the layers upon layers of racialized remix culture that make up the ever-pervasive American visual pop culture that keeps on spreading. There’s also an impulse to turn almost anything into a meme these days.

“ ‘The funny thing about retroactively searching through history to identify memes is that you start to see memes where they might never have existed before,’ noted Daniel Shinbaum, a Berlin-based cultural critic and memes researcher. ‘Almost anything can start to look like a meme.’ ”

More at Hyperallergic, here. No firewall.

Photo: Indian Country Today.
National Correspondent Mary Annette Pember, right, reports for Indian Country Today.

One of the things that Russia’s war in Ukraine has clarified is that good journalism is vital to democracy. Most people in Russia right now have access only to propaganda, which is why they have no idea what’s going on in Ukraine. In a tapped phone call, the mother of at least one Russian soldier refused to believe her son’s eye-witness account.

The US has its own threats to journalism — misinformation on social media, certainly, but also outlet consolidation. The loss of local papers to big chains, especially in rural areas, is increasingly recognized as dangerous.

Today’s story is about how nonprofit angels are helping local reporting hang on by the skin of its teeth.

Ben Morse writes at Current, “Water is an important issue to Joe Wertz. As climate and environment editor at Colorado Public Radio, he’s overseen a lot of reporting on water in the state and its scientific and political aspects. …

“CPR will be able to dive deeper into that complexity thanks to a new collaboration with the Institute for Nonprofit News. INN announced in November that it will launch a Rural News Network this year focusing on issues of concern to rural Americans, particularly communities of color. …

“Said Jonathan Kealing, chief network officer for INN, ‘It allows us to really put the equity lens on this storytelling thread throughout the project.’

“INN began planning the project in 2020 in response to interest from its members, Kealing said. The institute had previously convened rural news collaborations, and Kealing wanted to expand on that work.

“ ‘The success we had in previous coverage of rural issues, rural education, rural health care, and those stories really had an impact in their communities and really helped the newsrooms meet their mission of serving and informing their communities,’ he said.

“INN reached out to its 350 member organizations, and two — Daily Yonder in Whitesburg, Ky., and Investigative Midwest in Champaign, Ill. — expressed interest in leading and shaping the new project. The outlets, which specialize in rural and agricultural coverage, will provide RNN organizations with deep source networks and access to local community data, said Daily Yonder Editor Tim Marema.  

“Stories from the first pilot series, ‘Tapped Out: Power and water justice in the rural West,’ began coming out in November, funded by a $30,000 grant from the Water Foundation that will be divided among participating organizations. …

“The goal for the collaboration is to reach a bigger audience, said INN Member Collaborations Editor Bridget Thoreson. … ‘We’re taking work that’s already being done and connecting it to get this force multiplier effect, where it’s really able to reach and represent more people,’ Thoreson said. …

‘The real strength of radio is just its incredible reach across broad geographic areas.’ …

“In December, CPR published an article about how water shortages and policies governing the Colorado River affect tribal communities, who were excluded from negotiations over the river in 1922. The piece aired on CPR, Science Friday republished the article, and host Ira Flato interviewed CPR climate/environment reporter Michael Elizabeth Sakas Dec. 10.

“Another public radio station, KOSU in Stillwater, Okla., is participating in the second pilot program, which will cover economic issues within tribal communities. The pilot will feature 10 news organizations. … Each organization will cover stories in its region. Indian Country Today, leader of the series and an INN member, will publish a story about tribal economics across rural America. …

“The station is collaborating with tribal publications Mvskoke Media and Osage News on a story about Native-owned businesses, and KOSU created a survey asking Oklahomans which tribal businesses it should cover. …

“Community-driven reporting is an integral part of the tribal economics project, said Dianna Hunt, a senior editor at Indian Country Today who will lead the tribal economics project with Thoreson. …

“ ‘The first phase of the project is listening,’ Hunt said. ‘That part will kick off the project, and then the reporting will follow from the information that they get from their individual communities.’

“Hunt said that engagement with rural Americans is crucial because local communities will pick the stories that make up the pilot. Building trust is key, she added, because residents in rural and tribal communities lack trust in journalists due to negative stereotyping and parachute reporting by the national media.”

More at Current, here.

Photo: The Nap Ministry.

Although recent research into the connection between frequent, long naps and dementia has made all of us serious nappers nervous, I remain a big proponent. Sweet sleep “knits up the raveled sleeve of care” and calms us down. It lets us return to our activities with restored energy.

WordPress blogger Tricia Hersey has known this for a long time. And during the stressful summer of 2020, she was moved to spread the word to a wider audience. Napping is not escapism, she believes. Rather, if you’re refreshed, you can fight the good fight another day,

Hannah Good writes at the Washington Post that “years before the pandemic encouraged legions of people to question their relationship with work, Tricia Hersey was preaching the gospel of rest.

“A multidisciplinary artist, writer and community organizer, Hersey began thinking about the importance of rest as a theology graduate student at Emory University in 2013. She’d recently endured some personal trauma and grief, alongside her difficult graduate school research, which dealt with the cultural trauma of slavery. A few states away in Ferguson, Mo., the Black Lives Matter movement was gaining traction in response to a number of police killings of Black people — many of which were captured on video and shared ubiquitously on social media.

“In short, she was exhausted, and it led her to do something radically simple: She took more naps.

“A few years later, Hersey’s philosophy of rest as resistance took shape as an organization. The Nap Ministry, founded in 2016, is an artistic practice and community organization that focuses on the radical power of letting your body rest. …

“Since then, the Atlanta-based organization has hosted hundreds of writing workshops, lectures and communal events. … Hersey’s book, a manifesto on her philosophies called Rest is Resistance, is set to be released this October. …

“The ministry’s signature events are nap sessions: community events where people can rest together. Participants lie on yoga mats as a facilitator reads meditations and poetry; dim lights and soft music, sometimes performed by live musicians, set the tone. This helps assuage what can be a strange and vulnerable experience — falling asleep with strangers. When it comes time to wake up, the music grows louder and changes to something upbeat and joyful: a tone-setter to carry the lessons learned into the day, according to Hersey. …

“We asked Hersey to make our readers a playlist inspired by these themes of rest and resistance. … ‘The energy of this playlist is celebration, ease and leisure,’ she said. ‘It reminds us that we can daydream, wander, imagine and dance. We can just be.’ “

Hersey’s list starts with Duke Ellington’s ‘A New World Coming,’ which she believes is “a piece of magic. This composition is a call for imagining a new world. It opens the playlist because it taps into the expansiveness of dreaming with orchestra sound. To begin the journey of liberation via rest, we must first stay in a ‘DreamSpace.’ ”

“Lullaby” by Tasha, Hersey says, is “a classic lullaby with a specific request for Black girls to do less, dismantle the ‘superwoman’ myth and sleep.”

As for Nina Simone’s “Here Comes the Sun,” Hersey calls it “a joyful moment of ease and hope. The ultimate wake-up call. I have used this song to wake people up from their slumber slowly when they sleep at our collective napping experiences.’ “

Communal napping is weird at first. We had a nap room at my former job. You get over the awkwardness fast if you know you are exhausted and just need about 20 minutes of shut-eye to be good for the rest of the day.

When my sister was in the hospital and I was spending many long, anxious days there, I discovered I actually had quite a gift for taking brief, restorative naps. One time I went to sleep on a bench in a busy, lighted hallway next to an elevator bank, where a maintenance man was operating a huge floor polisher!

More at the Post, here.

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