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Photo: Ryan Collerd
Bowerbird, a group of musicians in Philadelphia, is streaming late-night concerts that may help you sleep — or at least put you in a relaxed state
.

When I wrote about people having trouble falling asleep, here, it was September 2020. It seemed like a more stressful time than January 2021, despite today’s increasing numbers of Covid cases. Readers who had their own reasons for stress in September, weighed in with their techniques for getting to sleep. Today, I offer a new one.

David Patrick Stearns remarks at the Philadelphia Inquirer that musicians work hard to keep audiences awake, but “not in the new Bowerbird concert series Liminal States, seven streamed events slotted at 10 or 11 p.m. that aim to put listeners into a sort-of slumber somewhere between sleeping and waking. The series is co-produced with West Philly’s Rotunda, Bowerbird’s home venue.

“ ‘Everybody is so traumatized and beat up that if a concert involves another state of awareness, that’s a very attractive prospect,’ said pianist Marilyn Nonken, who [opened] with Morton Feldman’s spare, meditative, 90-minute Triadic Memories.

‘It’s not a piece so much as it’s an environment, a sanctuary, where you can go and stay a while. … where your brain waves change.’

“If the other Liminal musicians have anything in common it’s a concept of sound that proceeds without a predictable end in sight.

“The hard-to-categorize indy artists include Jeff Zeigler (Jan. 31), next on the schedule after Nonken, an engineer and producer whose own music falls in the ambient zone. Philadelphia-born Laraaji (Feb. 14), the series’ third performer, is described as often as a mystic as he is a percussionist who creates shimmering, luminous sound environments.

“Laura Baird (Feb. 25) arises more from the folk tradition but crosses over into the electronic zone. Tatsuya Nakatani (March 10) has a gong orchestra, with instruments gently bowed more often than they’re struck. If there’s such a thing as an experimental harpist, it’s Mary Lattimore (March 25), whose ambient collaborations with Zeigler have her harp giving definition to his washes of sound.

“Relatively traditional — at least on the surface — is Variant 6, a Philadelphia-based vocal sextet that ends the series on May 6, and typically sings a range from Monteverdi to newly written vocal works. …

“Bowerbird artistic director Dustin Hurt is encouraging live performances — a particularly atmospheric possibility for Nakatani’s gongs, since the East Coast streaming time will be around dusk in the New Mexico desert where the artist lives. Some artists will be pre-recorded, though nocturnally, in the late-night slot that their streaming will occupy. …

“ ‘This idea has been around, inside my mind, for a long time,’ said Hurt, who has enjoyed liminal states when listening to Feldman while lying on the floor (an option not available at most in-person concerts).

” ‘The music levitates very slowly, so that when you wake up, you wonder “Was I asleep for 10 minutes or an hour?” ‘

“Variant 6 member Elisa Sutherland said working remotely, and given the lag time that can come with conference technology, ‘there’s potential for a powerful, somewhat spooky experience.’

“Liminal States concerts are pay-what-you-wish, with a suggested donation of $25. Information: bowerbird.org.

More at the Inquirer, here.

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Photo: Jean Couch via The Lost Art of Bending Over
A man bends with a beautiful hip hinge in Puerta Vallarta, Mexico.

Did you ever wonder why you have to work so hard at exercise when for millennia, humans did OK with whatever movement was part of their normal day? Some folks say we’ve been overdoing things.

At National Public Radio (NPR), Terry Gross interviewed Daniel Lieberman, a professor in the department of human evolutionary biology at Harvard, about his new book on exercise. The interview relieved me of some preconceptions, but I didn’t see anything about getting the heart beat up.

“For much of history, human beings needed to be physically active every day in order to hunt or gather food — or to avoid becoming food themselves. … a professor in the department of human evolutionary biology at Harvard [says] that the notion of ‘getting exercise’ — movement just for movement’s sake — is a relatively new phenomenon in human history. …

“Lieberman says, ‘When I go to these [remote African tribal] villages, I’m the only person who gets up in the morning and goes for a run. And often they laugh at me.’…

“Lieberman has spent a lot of time with indigenous hunter-gatherers in Africa and Latin America, cataloging how much time they spend walking, running, lifting, carrying and sitting. He writes about his findings, as well as the importance of exercise and the myths surrounding it in his new book, Exercised.

” ‘If you actually look at what our ancestors do, they walk about 5 miles a day, which turns out to be, for most people, about 10,000 steps,’ Lieberman says.

“Lieberman notes that many people are moving less than they did before the pandemic. He says if 10,000 steps feels out of reach, it’s OK to shoot for less — just so long as you’re focused on movement. Even fidgeting can keep your muscles engaged.

‘The more we study physical activity, the more we realize that it doesn’t really matter what you do. You don’t have to do incredible strength training. … It’s all good in different ways.’

Prof. Daniel Lieberman

Interview Highlights
On the demonizing of sitting as “the new smoking”
“When I walk into a village in a remote part of the world where people don’t have chairs or a hunter-gatherer camp, people are always sitting. … Some friends and colleagues of mine actually put some accelerometers on some hunter-gatherers and found that they sit on average about 10 hours a day. …

“It’s not unnatural or strange or weird to sit a lot, but it is problematic if, of course, that’s all you do. As I started to explore the literature more, I was fascinated because most of the data that associates sitting a lot with poor health outcomes turns out to be leisure-time sitting. …Then the numbers get a little bit scary.

On the importance of “interrupted sitting”
“Just getting up every once in a while, every 10 minutes or so — just to go to the bathroom or pet your dog or make yourself a cup of tea — even though you’re not spending a lot of energy, you’re turning on your muscles. … It uses up fats in your bloodstream and sugars in your bloodstream, and it produces molecules that turn down inflammation. So the evidence is that interrupted sitting is really the best way to sit. In hunter-gatherer camps, people are getting up every few minutes, to take care of the fire or take care of a kid or something like that. …

“A seat back essentially makes sitting even more passive than just sitting on a bench or a stool because you lean against the seat back and you’re using even fewer muscles, even less effort to stabilize your upper body. And the result is that we end up having very weak backs. So there are a lot of muscles that we use in our backs to hold up our upper body, and those muscles, if we don’t use them, just like every other muscle in your body, they atrophy. And weak muscles then make us more prone to back pain. …

On the idea that running is bad for your knees
“There’s this kind of general idea out there that running is like driving your car too much, [but] study after study has shown that in terms of ‘wear’ — by which we really mean arthritis, degeneration of the cartilage in your joints — that people who run more are not more likely to get arthritis in their knees. … That said, it’s also true that the most common site of injury for runners is their knees. But a lot of those injuries, I think, are preventable by learning to run properly. …

On becoming frail with age
“One of the most important points about physical activity is that as we age, it becomes not less but more important to be physically active. Muscle atrophy is the perfect example. … We have plenty of evidence that older individuals in America are less physically active and they do fewer activities that involve strength. And one of the really sort of serious negative consequences of that is that our muscles dwindle, they atrophy. … That’s the bad news.

“But the good news is that it doesn’t take a huge amount of physical activity to kind of reverse that, turn it around. Think about Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She was celebrated for her vim and vigor, which meant that a lot of that came from the fact that she kept working out and as she got older, she went to the gym several times a week. Now, she didn’t do crazy. … She did a few rounds of weight training every week and that helped keep her marvelously active and vigorous up until her late 80s. “

Lots more advice at NPR, including how much sleep we actually need, here.

I better stand up now. I’ve been sitting more than 10 minutes.

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Photo: @JasonThorne_RPP on Twitter
Seattle artist Stacy Milrany has come up with a new twist on the Little Free Library concept: Take some art, leave some art.

You know about the Little Free Library movement (e.g., here and at Fake Flamenco, here). And you know about the miniature art gallery that blossomed in Boston at the start of the pandemic (here). But did you know about the Little Free Art Library in Seattle? You may be interested to see how the idea evolved from something the artist had done for her mother. Cathy Free at the Washington Post has the story.

“Stacy Milrany probably runs the only art gallery in the country where visitors are encouraged to walk away with the art. And as far as she knows, her Little Free Art Gallery in Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood is likely the only museum where all of the works will fit neatly in a pocket.

“Milrany’s miniature gallery, which opened for public view on Dec. 13, sits five feet off the ground inside a white wooden box in front of her house. The head curator and painter said she based her idea on the popular Little Free Libraries in neighborhoods coast to coast.

‘The idea is pretty simple — anyone is welcome to leave a piece, take a piece or just have a look around and enjoy what’s inside,’ said Milrany, a painter who runs a small, appointment-only gallery featuring her works. …

“Milrany gave her wee museum a contemporary design [and] installed a tiny bench and small plastic people who, she said, appear to be reflecting on the art. The bench and people are part of the permanent collection and not for the taking. …

“Said Milrany, ‘Just the surprise of seeing what people put in there has made this super fun for me.’ So far, she has seen works featuring bulldogs, masked heroes and a chicken farmer, as well as intricate collages and painted seashells.

“It was March 2019 when she first started creating miniature art pieces. … Milrany’s mother had just been diagnosed with cancer and was about to begin chemotherapy treatment in Portland, Ore., about 2½ hours away from her home.

“ ‘I decided if I couldn’t be with her every day she was going through treatment, I could offer a little piece of something via UPS every single day — something made by a human hand to add some brightness to those dark days,’ she said.

“Friends and gallery visitors offered to help when they learned what Milrany was doing for her mother, and together they created 140 pieces of mixed-media pieces of art measuring 4-by-6 inches each. Her mother, who is now healthy, said the daily deliveries helped her to get through the most difficult time of her life, Milrany said.

“When the pandemic took hold in Seattle last year, she decided to expand her idea and paint 500 more small artworks and send them to people who were isolated because of the virus. She called her project ‘Dose of Art.’

“ ‘I put a notice on Instagram and people started asking me to mail them to people who were in nursing homes or their moms or dads who were home alone,’ Milrany said. …

“Then last month, Milrany came up with the idea for her Little Free Art Gallery.

“A carpenter friend helped her build an 18-by-15-inch cedar display case, paint it white and install it on a post out front, along with a sign:

“ ‘Welcome to the smallest free-est art gallery in the world. Have a look around! If you’d like to take a piece, please leave another piece in its place for the next art-lover who comes around.’ …

“ ‘In three days, 10 pieces had come and gone,’ Milrany said. She was a bit saddened, however, to discover that one of her plastic miniature gallery figures — a character she named Chef — had gone missing.

“Milrany posted a sign asking for the return of her ‘4.7 inch chef and arts patron’ — and a week later, an anonymous donor mailed her an entire new set of whimsical plastic people to place inside the museum. …

“Many of the people who tuck artwork inside her gallery are Seattle-area artists, delighted to find a new venue for their work.

“Artist A. McLean Emenegger created a piece that features her grandfather as a young man, enjoying some time with a friend. ‘It’s a nod to joyful abandon,’ said Emenegger, 53, who added beeswax, sewing thread and bits of turquoise and coral to an old family photo for her contribution. … She said, ‘There’s something charming and reassuring about the Little Free Library concept. And translating that into an art exchange is genius.’

“Burton Holt, an artist who primarily creates works with found objects, donated a piece he’d made from colorful rubber bands. ‘The gallery is a real shot in the arm for the neighborhood in these difficult times,’ said Holt, 80, a retired ship captain.”

More at the Washington Post, here. Follow Milrany on Instagram @stacy_milrany_art.

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Photo: Robbie Pruitt
Assistant pastor Robbie Pruitt repairs bikes for neighborhood children at his home in Virginia. Pruitt is repairing and giving away bikes free during the coronavirus pandemic.

I’m one of those nosy old ladies who calls the police for things like abandoned bicycles. I used to see them a lot near the train, and if a bike was in the same place with no lock for several days, I would call. The police usually have a list of people upset about a stolen bike.

Kyle Melnick reports at the Washington Post about an assistant pastor who was also upset when his bike disappeared. At least at first.

“Someone stole Robbie Pruitt’s mountain bike off the rack of his Honda Odyssey in September. Pruitt visited a local bicycle store in Ashburn, Va., the next day only to find there were very few bikes in stock available to buy.

“That’s when an idea hit him — the thief might have stolen the bike because they’re in short supply during the coronavirus pandemic. What if the thief needed the bike to get to work? Pruitt, 44, wanted to help people who might be in such a predicament.

“Pruitt, an assistant rector at the Church of the Holy Spirit in Leesburg, Va., posted on a private Loudoun County Facebook page that he’d fix anyone’s bicycle free. In the post he also said he was accepting unwanted bikes, which he’d fix and donate to people in need. …

“That day, he received about 30 bicycles at his townhouse. After his next post, about 500 people expressed interest in either donating bikes or having Pruitt fix them.

“He set a goal of fixing 100 bikes before the end of 2020. He surpassed that, repairing more than 140 bicycles — donating about 60 percent of them and returning the rest to their owners. He gives bikes to anyone who asks, but tries to support children and families who are struggling. …

“Perhaps more important, along the way, he has taught more than a dozen young people in Loudoun County to mend their own bikes and the bikes of others. …

“Pruitt’s interest in helping people with their bikes during the pandemic started a couple of months before his was stolen.

“One July evening, after returning from a mountain bike ride in Reston, Pruitt was revamping the disc brake on his red Diamondback bicycle in front of his house when a group of four children from the neighborhood approached on their own bikes. Pruitt asked if they wanted to learn how to repair parts of a bike. Pruitt also noticed their bicycles were in bad condition, and some had flat tires. That night, he fixed them. It was the start of a friendship, and a neighborhood project.

‘All the neighborhood kids are spending a lot more time doing something that’s hands-on,’ said Danny Offei, Pruitt’s next-door neighbor. ‘Almost everybody in the neighborhood has a bike now, and he’s helped put those bikes together.’ …

“Pruitt grew up with his mother and two siblings in Columbia, S.C., where he said he’d always been interested in building and fixing. … In 2004, when working for Epiphany Episcopal Church in Herndon, Pruitt began repairing and donating bicycles as part of a church project. …

“In July after his family moved to Ashburn, [he] saw the condition of some of the neighborhood children’s bikes. Now, many nights, Pruitt is online, buying materials such as seats, brake levers, handlebars, training wheels, shifters, pedals and brakes. He estimates he has spent almost $1,500 on parts. Pruitt said repairing each bike takes around 30 minutes, depending on what it needs. He tries to restore each one so it’s as good as new.

“ ‘The feeling you get when somebody rides off with a bike that didn’t have one … there’s a lot of gratification,’ said Pruitt. …

“Pruitt’s favorite part of his bike project is creating friendships. He said after he fixes bikes, the owners will sometimes drop by his backyard just to chat. Some people will bring him food, including a Greek family that dropped off chicken souvlakia on Christmas Eve.”

More at the Washington Post, here.

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Photo: Christian Kuntz
After Gurdeep Pandher
became a Canadian citizen in 2011, he traveled across the country, dancing bhangra with people of all faiths and finally settling in the Yukon because it reminded him most of his village in Punjab.

I liked today’s story about bringing joy through dance. I especially liked learning about research showing that differences drop away when people move in unison.

Sara Miller Llana writes at the Christian Science Monitor, “He has led firefighters and police officers to the rhythms of bhangra – a centuries-old dance that hails from the farming fields of Punjab. He has danced in front of Canada’s Parliament in Ottawa and amid crashing waves of the country’s Pacific Coast.

“But these days, Gurdeep Pandher has more fans than he ever has – by posting videos of himself dancing in the snow-covered forest behind his cabin near Whitehorse in Yukon, Canada’s northwesternmost territory.

“At this time of year, it’s not until about 11 a.m. that the sun comes out, filtering through the trees and drawing him outdoors. ‘It looks so beautiful, to me it looks just like magic,’ he says. ‘I do feel like I live in a winter wonderland.’

“On the winter solstice last month, in a bright blue sweater, an orange turban, and brown snow boots, Mr. Pandher posted a new video of himself doing what he calls a ‘happy dance’: arms raising to the sky, knees as high as they go, and the broadest of smiles. …

“Bhangra began as a farmer’s dance in Punjab to celebrate a good harvest, but it’s found its way across the globe, from trendy DJ fusions to entertainment on basketball courts of North America. Mr. Pandher has been dancing it since he was a child, and he says there’s no surprise to him that it’s caught on – for its upbeat sounds and its core value of joy.

‘If you’re dancing bhangra, and you are not happy, that is not bhangra, even if you are doing all the moves perfectly,’ he says.

“That’s why he believes his videos, one after the other, keep going viral during the pandemic, when there is so much darkness and heaviness.

“ ‘There’s a Punjabi saying that when there’s a lot of darkness, we value brightness more. And I’ve noticed that, a lot of the sort of people who never cared about watching my videos before, like lawyers, or politicians, or diplomats, are sending me messages,’ he says.

“ ‘Before maybe they didn’t feel like something light was professional, or important, but now in these difficult times they realize the importance of someone dancing to create happiness, someone who’s preaching that kindness is important, what our ancestors from centuries have been preaching.’

“He’s not the only one feeling a new buzz around bhangra. Harshjot Singh, who founded Power Bhangra with his wife in Montreal, is these days offering popular bhangra fitness classes over Zoom. It’s a physical workout, but he says it’s also the culture of bhangra that he believes keeps his students – who span Canada and even North America – signing up. ‘You have to smile, it’s just the rule of the dance. And as students learn about it, slowly and steadily, it just comes naturally.’ …

“Peter Lovatt, the author of new book The Dance Cure, says that dancing, unlike just plain fitness, has four key benefits in the realms of social, thinking, emotions, and the physical – which, fittingly, spell STEP.

“All of those areas are suffering during the pandemic, and everyone benefits from things like physical activity or disconnecting from the Internet. But there is something especially compelling about the synchrony of dance in today’s climate. ‘When people dance in synchrony, it increases how much they like each other,’ Dr. Lovatt says.”

More at the Christian Science Journal, here.

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Photo: Hornplayer
JustALittleFurther: “We rose extra early to be here to witness Paramaribo’s most unusual pastime … a bird singing competition.”

In Suriname, a country that borders Brazil on the south and the Atlantic Ocean on the north, there’s an unusual sport that only men engage in — from businessmen in suits to tough-guy boxers. It involves songbirds.

Anatoly Kurmanaev reports at the New York Times, “Every Sunday just after dawn, while much of the city sleeps, a group of men gather on the overgrown lawn of a public park in a quiet neighborhood in the capital of Suriname, South America’s smallest country. They huddle together, and hush.

“They have bird cages, each carrying a songbird — a picolet, a twa-twa or a rowti, as the species are known here. Over the next few hours, the men will lean in, silent and focused, and listen to the birds as referees note the duration of each burst of singing, and rate each songster’s performance on a chalk board.

“The audience is engrossed, but wins and losses are greeted by handlers with the same quiet collegiality that has marked the morning.

“Birdsong competitions, a sort of a Battle of the Bands between trained tropical birds, are a national obsession in Suriname. …

“ ‘Some people like football or basketball,’ said Derick Watson, a police officer who, on his days off, helps organize the competitions with a cigar in his mouth. ‘This is our sport. It’s a way of life.’ …

“The yearly bird song championship, which culminates in final rounds that are broadcast on national television in December, draws around a hundred competitors that square off for trophies and a moment of national glory. …

“The most accomplished birds, with renowned stamina, sell in Suriname for up to $15,000, a fortune in the poor former Dutch colony, which gained independence in 1975. But part of the sport’s appeal is that at entry level, it is accessible to anyone, with young untrained birds available for just a few dollars in pet shops.

‘It’s a tradition,’ said Arun Jalimsing, a Surinamese pet shop owner and one of champions of last year’s competition. ‘We grew up with it. When my father gave me money to buy a bicycle, I went and bought a bird.’ …

“Training a songbird requires expertise, but also immense patience and perseverance. To build the birds’ singing endurance, aficionados spend years stimulating them through interaction, regulating their diets and putting them in proximity with female or male partners, according to elaborate training strategies meant to elicit courtship or competitive behavior from each songbird. …

“Suriname is a diverse country, a legacy of the Dutch colonial system, which brought enslaved people and indentured laborers from around the world to work sugar, coffee and banana plantations. … The bird enthusiasts support different political parties and often live in separate, ethnically-defined neighborhoods.

“Suriname’s few decades since independence have been turbulent. … Yet politics, race, class and other differences that have bred confrontations in other arenas seem not to intrude on the collegiality of the songbird owners’ community.

“ ‘Everybody is friends when they come here,’ said Marcel Oostburg, a bird aficionado and a senior official at Suriname’s National Democratic Party, which dominated the country for decades before being ousted in a tense election last year. ‘We never talk politics here.’ ”

More at the New York Times, here.

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Photo: Nobu Koch/ Sealaska Heritage
Haida artist Sgwaayaans TJ Young paints the cedar house post he created called “Waasguu (Seawolf) hunting two killerwhales.”

It makes me happy when people are proud of their culture, especially people who have long felt marginalized. Today in Alaska, increasing numbers of indigenous residents are embracing their history and art.

Jennifer Nalewicki writes at the Smithsonian, “A community-wide effort began in Juneau in late 2017, when Sealaska Heritage Institute, a private nonprofit that promotes cultural diversity through the arts and public services, announced its plans to make ‘Juneau the Northwest Coast arts capital of the world.’ They’d meet this goal through the promotion and support of several Indigenous cultures that are strongly interwoven into the fabric of the region, and whose works exemplify this artistic style.

“By definition, Northwest Coast art is recognizable by its usage of ‘formline designs,’ according to The Canadian Encyclopedia, or ‘the continuous, flowing, curvilinear lines that turn, swell and diminish in a prescribed manner.’ The term was coined by art historian and author Bill Holm in his 1965 book Northwest Coast Indian Art: An Analysis of Form. Indigenous artists, particularly the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian peoples, … apply this style of art in everything from drawings and paintings to sculptures and weavings. …

“A closer look at Juneau reveals a city populated by art museums, galleries, murals and statues promoting the artistic endeavors of local artists. Public art can be seen all over the city, from the Old Witch totem pole created by Haida carver Dwight Wallace in 1880 that creeps up the side of the State Office Building to the ‘Raven Discovering Mankind in a Clam Shell’ mural by painter Bill Ray, Jr. located on the side of the City Municipal Building. …

“One of the first steps Sealaska Heritage took to reach its goal occurred in 2015, when it opened phase one of its Sealaska Heritage Arts Campus. … Once complete, the 6,000-square-foot campus will [comprise] both indoor and outdoor spaces that are designed for artists to create different mediums of Northwest Coast art, both on a small and ‘monumental scale,’ the latter of which will include totem poles and canoes. …

Photo: Nobu Koch/ Sealaska Heritage
Ravenstail and Chilkat weaver Lily Hope works on a Chilkat robe.

“Lily Hope, a Juneau native known for her colorful and intricate weavings that have been on display at the Alaska State Museum, Portland Art Museum and the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle, is hopeful that Juneau’s Indigenous art scene will get the recognition that it deserves. As a member of the Tlingit people, she has been weaving since she was 14 years old, when her late mother taught her the craft.

“Now 40, Hope continues their legacy by weaving arm bands, face masks and jewelry using techniques she mastered while working alongside her mother for many years. Hope also serves as the president and co-founder of Spirit Uprising, a nonprofit ‘dedicated to preserving the integrity of Ravenstail and Chilkat weaving.’ …

“ ‘Our focus is on art forms that were starting to become extinct,’ [Rosita Worl, president of Sealaska Heritage,] says. ‘We want Northwest Coast art to be recognizable and to be everywhere. We’re working with our local congressional district to try to get it to become a designated national treasure. … We want art everywhere in our community, from street signs around Juneau to pieces on street corners. When people visit Juneau, we want them to be excited about our art.’ “

More at the Smithsonian, here.

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Photo: NBC
Promotional photo of Ray Bolger from the television program the Bell Telephone Hour.

This story sent me straight to TikTok. I love both the creativity of Cory Linger’s idea and his professional execution. He is someone who really made isolation work for him.

Leigh Scheps reports at DanceSpirit, “With #SocialDisDancing still very much in place, it’s a challenge for dance partners to perform safely, and even harder to perform safely together.

“But Broadway’s Cory Lingner may have found the solution — on TikTok. He’s using the app to tap alongside some of the most iconic movie stars. …

“Lingner has perfected the use of the app’s duet feature. On one side of the video is a clip of the tap-dancing icon and on the other is Lingner, dancing in unison. And as a bonus, Lingner’s also giving viewers facts about the stars and the performances as they watch.

“Lingner’s danced in everything from On the Town to An American in Paris, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Carousel. But still, his tapping TikToks may be one of his favorite challenges yet. …

“Without a stage and a live audience, he’s getting his fill of performing from his social media duet series. And it’s so popular on TikTok, he’s gained more than 8 thousand followers in a mere month.

“Dance Spirit: How did your ‘Cory’s Duet Series’ on TikTok get started?
“Cory Lingner: … The very first spark of inspiration was another fellow tapper, Nicole Billow. She actually did the first side-by-side with Gene Kelly from An American in Paris. I watched it and I was like, ‘This looks really fun.‘ …

“The majority of what I’ve tried to focus on is introducing new performers so I don’t repeat dancers too much. The last time that I repeated was with Vera Allen in White Christmas, since it was the holiday. I also try to find sections where not only I can do the choreography in my limited space, with my little piece of plywood, but also if they’re able to stay on a single camera shot for long enough for the 20 to 30 seconds. …

DS: What do you think about the skill level of some of Shirley Temple’s tap steps?
“CL: It’s remarkable the fact that she did that many films and had that kind of tap dance skill set at such a young age. … People were commenting on that video too, writing, ‘Oh my gosh, I didn’t even realize what she can do.’ …

DS: What is some of the feedback you’ve been getting?
“CL: Oh, my goodness. It’s so lovely, all the comments and messages. There was a grandmother that said, ‘I think you just inspired my 3-year-old grandson to start taking dance.’ It warms my heart. …

DS: What are some dream duets that you need to do?
“CL: There were other duets people were recommending, like James Cagney. So I’m trying to find a moment when he stays still. I learned ‘Moses Supposes’ from Singin’ in the Rain many years ago, which would be really fun to tackle again. Maybe I’d do that one in two separate sections, so I can do one with Gene Kelly and one with Donald O’Connor.”

Are you on TikTok? It’s worth it, just for this. More at DanceSpirit, here.

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Photo: Jay Godwin
At a 2018 LBJ Library Future Forum, climate scientist Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, a professor at Texas Tech University, discusses how climate change is affecting Texas.

Some people think religion is incompatible with science, but that depends on the individual and the particular field of science you’re talking about. One of my brothers is both devout and a scientist. And at his Zoom retirement party this past year, I learned he wasn’t the only one in his lab.

A woman who heads up an important climate change center is Texas is another example. Sarah Kaplan wrote about her at the Washington Post.

“ ‘What world have I brought my child into?’ the new mom pleaded. ‘What can I do to make sure my baby isn’t brought up in a world that’s being destroyed?’

“It was 2019, and climate researcher Katharine Hayhoe was at a church breakfast in Fairbanks, Alaska, when a young woman tapped on her shoulder and confessed that she was terrified. Ever since the birth of her daughter, the young woman said, she couldn’t stop worrying about the threat of a rapidly warming planet.

“ ‘That heartfelt question is one I thought I could only really answer as a fellow mom,’ said Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist at Texas Tech University and an evangelical Christian who has spent years trying to educate the public about climate change.

“Hayhoe told the Alaska woman the same thing she sometimes had to tell herself when she worried about her own son’s future: Channel your fear into action. Talk to your friends and family. Advocate for change in your town, your church, your school, your state. Now, Hayhoe aims to replicate that exchange on a much bigger scale.

“Along with five fellow climate scientists who are also mothers, she has teamed up with Potential Energy, a nonprofit marketing firm, to launch Science Moms, a $10 million campaign to educate and empower mothers to do something about climate change.

“Advertisements featuring Hayhoe and the female scientists will air on national TV and online for the next month. The initial push will be followed by ads in several key states where the effects of climate change are already being felt, including North Carolina, Arizona and Wisconsin. …

“In one video, Colorado State University atmospheric scientist Melissa Burt narrates a montage of images of her 4-year-old daughter, Mia, juxtaposed with footage of a hurricane.

“ ‘You don’t have to be a climate scientist to want to protect the Earth,’ she says. ‘And for Mia, I want you to know that I worked really hard to be a part of the change and to make it a better place for you.’

“The campaign also has a website featuring facts and resources, including links to books on talking to kids about climate and a form for contacting elected officials. …

“Mothers are the ‘sweet spot’ for inspiring social change, said John Marshall, a veteran marketing executive and consultant and a founder of Potential Energy. They have a long track record of political activity: Mothers Against Drunk Driving helped lower the legal limit for blood alcohol content in drivers. Moms Demand Action has lobbied for initiatives to prevent gun violence. …

“His research suggests that mothers are not more vocal about the warming threat because they’re not confident they understand the science and are unsure of what to do about it. That’s where Science Moms comes in.

‘Moms trust moms,’ said Burt. She hopes that viewers will see her — a Black woman who studies the warming Arctic and presents at scientific conferences but also cooks spaghetti for her family and gardens with her daughter — and feel represented.

“ ‘I want to connect with moms who look like me. … We are disproportionately affected by the impacts of climate change. I just want other moms who look like me to know they have a role in combating this crisis,’ she added.

“Science Moms is funded through donations, including large gifts from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott and former Nature Conservancy chief executive Mark Tercek. The group says it will be the biggest educational awareness campaign around climate since Al Gore’s $100 million ad blitz about the issue in 2007. [The] group cannot engage in political campaigns or seek to influence legislation.

“Marshall will measure success in heightened awareness of the threat posed by global warming and increased willingness to take action. He said his aim is to double the proportion of Americans who say they are ‘alarmed’ about climate change — a number that hovers around 26 percent, according to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. …

“Hayhoe hopes the ads will help counter the climate misinformation and misconceptions that so many Americans are exposed to: claims that it only affects polar bears (weather-related disasters cost the United States $95 billion and killed more than 200 people last year); assertions that the climate is always changing (in 4.6 billion years it has never warmed this fast); accusations that other countries are more at fault (the United States is the largest historical source of planet-warming emissions). …

“ ‘What we want to do is empower other moms to become messengers in the most-trusted category, which is friends and family,’ she said. ‘I really believe that using our voices is the way we can make a difference.’ ”

More at the Washington Post, here.

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Photo: Denis Y Suspitsyn/Anthony Barboza
Members
of the Kamoinge in 1973. The coalition of black photographers gave one another support and advice — and gave their subjects empathy.

A new exhibit at the Whitney in New York City highlights the art of some outstanding black photographers, a group that worked not just in New York but around the world.

Nadja Sayej reports at the Guardian, “In 1973, a group of 14 New York photographers huddled into a photo studio on West 18th Street in Manhattan, posing in front of a Hasselblad camera for a group shot authored by Anthony Barboza, who stands smiling in the picture.

“ ‘I remember arranging the lighting and then my assistant took the photo,’ said Barboza to the Guardian. ‘It’s a photo of a family. That’s what it is. A family photo.’

“It shows the members of the Kamoinge Workshop, a collective of black photographers who formed in 1963 to document black culture in Harlem, and beyond, from live jazz concerts to portraits of Malcolm X, Miles Davis and Grace Jones, as well as the civil rights movement and anti-war protests.

“A selection of over 100 photos by the group are on view in a survey at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York called Working Together: The Photographers of the Kamoinge Workshop, which runs until 28 March. …

“The Kamoinge (pronounced kom-wean-yeh) collective all started in 1963, when a group of 14 black New York photographers came together to form a group, to trade skills and offer critiques to one another. They chose ‘Kamoinge,’ as it means ‘a group of people acting together’ in Kenya’s Gikuyu language. They worked to tell black stories by depicting black communities, from local neighbors to superstars, and saw their rise around the same time as the Black Arts Movement. Kamoinge photographer Adger Cowans, who is 84, always believed the group could show the truth of black lives, more so than an outsider. …

“ ‘When I wasn’t shooting commercial work in the studio, I was shooting out in the streets,’ … said Barboza. ‘We all learned from each other. They were my greatest mentors.’ …

” ‘I did a lot of portraits of black artists and musicians in my spare time,’ said Barboza who photographed Michael Jackson at 21, as well as James Baldwin and Gordon Parks. Nine of the 14 original artists are alive today, working and living in New York, including Beuford Smith, Ming Smith and Herb Randall. …

“As one of the group’s members Ray Francis said in 1982: ‘We were a group that stars fell on,’ and credit observational photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Gordon Parks and Dorothea Lange as influences. Another member, Ming Smith, calls it: ‘Making something out of nothing. I think that’s like jazz.’

“The Whitney exhibition is organized into five sections, including one community-focused section, which details the day to day life of people in the city, at work, play and travel. Another section is focused on music, as jazz has been a prime influence in the group. …

“There are also sections devoted to abstraction and surrealism, civil rights, depicting figures in the movement, and one global section, focusing on African diasporic communities, as the photographers traveled to Cuba, Senegal and Jamaica to shoot, as well as the South. …

“Harlem-born photographer, Shawn Walker, one of the group’s founding members, is showing a photo depicting two dapper men in white suits and hats on Easter Sunday in Harlem, dated 1972. ‘I would go to the churches and after everyone came out of mass, I’d go to 125th Street to lurk at everyone hawking off all their new wares,’ he said. …

“ ‘I would hang out around Hotel Theresa, even now if you’re not doing anything and you hang out in that area, you’re bound to come home with some photos. Even if I’m coming home from shopping and I have an extra 30 minutes, I’ll grab a seat and watch people come by and start shooting.’

“It has been a tough year for Walker. ‘I caught the virus and lost a leg, but I’m alive,’ he says. …

“Ming Smith was the group’s first female member. She recently said in an interview: ‘Being a black woman photographer was like being nobody,’ explaining that: ‘It was just my camera and me. I worked to capture black culture, the richness, the love. That was my incentive. It wasn’t like I was going to make money from it, or fame – not even love, because there were no shows.’ …

“As Barboza says, the key to a good portrait is not necessarily technical savviness, but to convey emotion, a feeling. It isn’t about over-thinking anything. .. ‘There’s a quiet, spiritual feeling from the photographs,’ said Barboza. ‘It’s beauty. I call it “the eye dreaming.” ‘ ”

More at the Guardian, here.

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Photo via the Met
This caravan account is recorded on a cuneiform tablet from the ancient city of Kanesh.

Sometimes we forget that the way things have been in recent years — or even recent centuries — are not the way things always have been. For example, we imagine women have come a long way in the business world since Victorian times, but the fact that women were managing their own caravans and accounts in 1870 BC is no longer part of our collective memory.

At the BBC Sophie Hardach reports on a new book that aims to rectify our ignorance. Women of Assur and Kanesh is by Cécile Michel, a senior researcher at the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) in France.

Hardach writes, “Around 1870 BC, in the city of Assur in northern Iraq, a woman called Ahaha uncovered a case of financial fraud. 

“Ahaha had invested in long-distance trade between Assur and the city of Kanesh in Turkey. She and other investors had pooled silver to finance a donkey caravan delivering tin and textiles to Kanesh, where the goods would be exchanged for more silver, generating a tidy profit. But Ahaha’s share of the profits seemed to have gone missing – possibly embezzled by one of her own brothers, Buzazu. So, she grabbed a reed stylus and clay tablet and scribbled a letter to another brother, Assur-mutappil, pleading for help: 

“ ‘I have nothing else apart from these funds,’ she wrote in cuneiform script. ‘Take care to act so that I will not be ruined!’ She instructed Assur-mutappil to recover her silver and update her quickly.

‘Let a detailed letter from you come to me by the very next caravan, saying if they do pay the silver,’ [the businesswoman wrote]. ‘Now is the time to do me a favor and to save me from financial stress!’

“Ahaha’s letters are among 23,000 clay tablets excavated over the past decades from the ruins of merchants’ homes in Kanesh. They belonged to Assyrian expats who had settled in Kanesh and kept up a lively correspondence with their families back in Assur, which lay six weeks away by donkey caravan. A new book gives unprecedented insight into a remarkable group within this community: women who seized new opportunities offered by social and economic change, and took on roles more typically filled by men at the time. They became the first-known businesswomen, female bankers and female investors in the history of humanity. 

“The bulk of the letters, contracts and court rulings found in Kanesh date from around 1900-1850 BC. … The Assyrians invented certain forms of investment and were also among the first men and women to write their own letters, rather than dictating them to professional scribes. It’s thanks to these letters that we can hear a chorus of vibrant female voices telling us that even in the distant past, commerce and innovation were not the exclusive domains of men.

“While their husbands were on the road, or striking deals in some faraway trading settlement, these women looked after their businesses back home. But they also accumulated and managed their own wealth, and gradually gained more power in their personal lives. 

“ ‘These women were really strong and independent, because they were alone, they were the head of the household while the husband was away,’ says Cécile Michel. … Through more than 300 letters and other documents, the book tells a strikingly detailed and colorful story of the women’s struggles and triumphs. …

“The businesswomen’s story is tied to that of the Assyrian merchant community as a whole. In their heyday, the Assyrians were among the most successful and well-connected traders of the Near East. Their caravans of up to 300 donkeys criss-crossed mountains and uninhabited plains, carrying raw materials, luxury goods and, of course, clay letters. 

“ ‘It was one leg of a huge international network, which started somewhere in Central Asia, with lapis-lazuli from Afghanistan, carnelian from Pakistan, and the tin may have come from Iran or further to the east,’ says Jan Gerrit Dercksen, an Assyriologist at Leiden University in the Netherlands, who has also worked on the Kanesh tablets. …

“Assyrian women contributed to this bustling commercial network by producing textiles for export, issuing loans to merchants, buying and selling houses, and investing in naruqqum [stock] schemes. Their skills as weavers allowed them to earn their own silver. They kept a keen eye on foreign fashions and market trends to secure the best prices, as well as on taxes and other costs that dented their profits. …

“ ‘They know perfectly well what they should get back in exchange for their textiles. And when they earn this money from the sale of their textiles, they pay for the food, for the house, for daily life, but they also invest,’ says Michel, who has also co-created a new documentary about the women. 

“This commercial acumen allowed some to slip into positions that were unusual for women at the time, by functioning as their husbands’ trusted business partners. The traders in turn benefited from having literate and numerate wives who could help with day-to-day business as well as emergencies.

“One Assyrian merchant writes to his wife, Ishtar-bashti: ‘Urgent! Clear your outstanding merchandise. Collect the gold of the son of Limishar and send it to me… Please, put all my tablets in safekeeping.’ Others ask their wives to pick specific tablets from the household’s private archives to find financial information or settle a business matter. …

“The women in turn don’t shy away from sending their husbands or brothers instructions and admonishments. ‘What is this that you do not even send me a tablet two fingers wide with good news from you?’ an Assyrian woman called Naramtum writes to two men.”

Lots more at the BBC, here.

Photo: Wikimedia
Ancient sites of Mesopotamia, including Assyria. In the lower right is what we now call the Persian Gulf.

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons
MacArthur Fellow and environmental health advocate Catherine Coleman Flowers of Alabama.

Today’s article is about an environmental health advocate from rural Alabama who was honored recently by the MacArthur Foundation. One thing her story suggests to me is that when parents demonstrate concern for the world around them, later generations can work miracles. The parents of Catherine Coleman Flowers were civil rights activists in the 1960s.

Sarah Kaplan writes at the Washington Post, “To Catherine Coleman Flowers, this is ‘holy ground’: the place where her ancestors were enslaved and her parents fought for civil rights and she came of age. …

“Yet this ground also harbors a threat, one made worse by climate change. Untreated sewage is coursing through this rural community, a consequence of historic government disinvestment, basic geology and recent changes in the soil. On rainy days, foul effluent burbles up into bathtubs and sinks, and pools in yards. Some residents have hookworm, an illness rarely seen in developed nations.

“It’s America’s ‘dirty secret,’ Flowers said. … Heavier rainfall caused by climate change is saturating soil and raising water tables — confounding septic systems. From the flooded coasts of Florida to thawing Alaska towns, an estimated half-million U.S. households lack adequate sanitation.

“Now Flowers, a MacArthur Foundation ‘genius,’ is partnering with environmental engineers at Columbia University on a solution. They are working on a new kind of toilet that will act as a mini sewage treatment facility.

Instead of flushing waste, the system they’re working to build will filter, clean and recycle waste on site. Instead of sending raw sewage into the soil, it will turn it into water for use in washing machines, and into nutrients for fertilizer, and perhaps even energy for homes. …

“What was once a problem can become a solution, Flowers said. And the change will start in Lowndes County, as it has before.

“To Flowers, 62, the Lowndes County of her childhood was part rural idyll, part activism hotbed. … In 1965, about 80 percent of the county’s population was Black, but not a single Black person was registered to vote. …

“But then protesters from Selma marched down Lowndes’s dirt roads on their way to Montgomery, and a wave of activism erupted. … Flowers’s father, a military veteran and salesman, and her mother, a teacher’s aide, were heavily involved. Civil rights leaders streamed to their cinder-block home. …

“Her parents’ activism connected Flowers to the world beyond Lowndes County. As a teenager, she joined the Alabama Students for Civil Rights and spent a summer in D.C. as a youth fellow at the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Foundation. She read ‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X,’ wrote politics-infused poetry and dreamed of becoming the first Black woman on the U.S. Supreme Court.

“In 11th grade, frustrated with subpar conditions at her high school, Flowers wrote an exposé for a local newsletter. That led to the formation of a community group, then a lawsuit and, ultimately, to the resignation of the principal and school board superintendent.

“ ‘My father’s famous thing he would always say was, “Catherine, if you take one step, God will take two,” ‘ Flowers said. It meant that change was possible, but you had to do the work.”

The article goes on to say that after Flowers had moved away, she learned her home county was suffering and that part of the problem was that the soil had changed and no longer worked for septic systems, which “require permeable soil. … All over the county, septic systems were breaking down. Heavy rainfall would seal up the soil until effluent had nowhere to go but up onto lawns or back into homes. …

“Flowers — then director of the nonprofit Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise (ACRE) — set out to determine the scale of the problem. …

“ ‘This is America,’ Flowers said. ‘We’re not supposed to have these kinds of problems — at least, that’s what we tell ourselves. But we do.’ …

“Climate change is making existing deficiencies worse. Rising sea levels have elevated the water table in coastal areas, shrinking the depth of leach fields and increasing contamination. Days of extreme rainfall — which have doubled in the Southeast as a consequence of warming — stymie septic systems. …

“ ‘Climate change is like a magnifying glass for everything,’ Flowers said. It exacerbates neglect, widens inequality and exposes problems once hidden. …

“Flowers has a vision for a better septic system. It’s cheap to buy and easy to run. It’s equipped with sensors that can monitor for signs of pathogens, including the coronavirus. Instead of allowing sewage to seep into the ground, the system separates waste into its component parts, which can then be recycled. …

“In Kartik Chandran, she found a partner who shares that vision. They met five years ago at a conference on wastewater issues. Chandran, an environmental engineer at Columbia University, was struck by how similar Lowndes County’s waste problems were to those in his native India. Flowers remembered hearing about Chandran’s research and thinking, ‘This is the technological solution we need.’ ” Read how it would work here.

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Photo: CNN
In Japan, wearing a mask was common even before the pandemic.

I’m told that in Sweden, it’s been hard to get people to start wearing masks now that the authorities have changed their approach to the pandemic. In Japan, where mask wearing on subways and elsewhere is normal to protect health, dialing up usage has not been a problem.

That has created an opportunity for a robotics company with an idea about putting a multipurpose mask over your Covid-19 mask.

As Rebecca Cairns reported at CNN Business last November, “When the Covid-19 pandemic made face masks an everyday essential, Japanese startup Donut Robotics spotted an opportunity. They created a smart mask — a high-tech upgrade to standard face coverings, designed to make communication and social distancing easier.

“In conjunction with an app, the C-Face Smart mask can transcribe dictation, amplify the wearer’s voice, and translate speech into eight different languages.

“The cutouts on the front are vital for breathability, so the smart mask doesn’t offer protection against the coronavirus. Instead, it is designed to be worn over a standard face mask, explains Donut Robotics CEO Taisuke Ono. Made of white plastic and silicone, it has an embedded microphone that connects to the wearer’s smartphone via Bluetooth. The system can translate between Japanese and Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Indonesian, English, Spanish and French.

Donut Robotics first developed the translation software for a robot called Cinnamon — but when the pandemic hit, the robot project was put on hold. That’s when the team’s engineers came up with the idea to use their software in a face mask.

“Donut Robotics started life in a garage in Kitakyushu City, in Fukuoka prefecture, in 2014. … With venture capital investment, [Ono and cofounder engineer Takafumi Okabe] applied to Haneda Robotics Lab — an initiative that sought robots to provide services for visitors at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport. …

“Donut Robotics’ Cinnamon robot — designed to provide tourists with useful information and help them to navigate the airport — was one of four translation robot prototypes selected by the project in 2016. Haneda Robotics Lab says Cinnamon beat the competition because of its appealing aesthetics and user-friendly design, and because the translation software performed well in noisy environments. …

“The team started testing a prototype at Haneda Airport in 2017 and continued developing the technology. But earlier this year, Covid-19 hit Asia and the airport project ground to a halt. ‘We were running short of money and wondering how to keep the company going,’ says Ono. The team sought a solution and came up with the idea to adapt its software for a product that would sell well in a pandemic. …

“Donut Robotics launched a fundraiser on Japanese crowdfunding platform Fundinno in June. They raised 28 million yen ($265,000) in 37 minutes, says Ono. ‘It was very surprising,’ he says. …

“A second round of crowdfunding on Fundinno in July raised a further 56.6 million yen ($539,000), which Ono plans to use to develop translation software for the international market. … Ono says the first wave of distribution is expected to take place in Japan, with 5,000 to 10,000 masks available by December [2020]. They will be priced at $40 to $50, he says, with an extra subscription for the app. Donut Robotics will not expand overseas until April 2021 at the earliest. …

“The mask’s Bluetooth chip can connect to smartphones up to 32 feet (10 meters) away, says Ono. He hopes the mask will make new social distancing norms in locations including hospitals and offices easier, by enabling good communication.”

Photo: Donut Robotics

More at CNN, here.

As I write this, the English language class where I volunteer is about to start. At the risk of throwing a wet blanket over this robotics story, I can’t help mentioning that translation devices really slow language acquisition.

But I do think the Donut software’s ability to clarify your words and make social distancing work better is great. I’m constantly misunderstanding muffled words spoken through a mask — which gave a granddaughter a really good laugh the other day.

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Photo: Jeremy O. Harris
When, to his surprise, this playwright earned a windfall, he knew he had to share.

When I was 12, I was a playwright. I’d had a terrific gig as an actor in community theater at age 10 and just fell in love with the whole scene. At 12, I rounded up cousins to perform my play about a talking snowman outdoors for parents. We save things in our family. Not long ago one cousin sent me her tattered, penciled script.

Theater people are often very generous. Most are not celebrities and don’t make good money. The playwright in today’s story did have a successful show on Broadway, but the bulk of his money came from sidelines. When he saw how much it was, he decided to help theater people who were struggling.

As Michael Paulson reports at the New York Times, “Jeremy O. Harris is a playwright, a performer, and a provocateur. And now, he’s a philanthropist.

“The 31-year-old author of Slave Play, which is nominated for 12 Tony Awards, emerged during the pandemic not only as a vocal advocate for the beleaguered theater industry, but also as someone determined to model generosity.

“After years in which he earned very little making theater — he said his total commissions over four years amounted to about $22,000 — this year he made nearly $1 million, primarily from collaborations with the fashion industry and an HBO deal. (Fashion and television pay better than Broadway.)

So in the months since the virus shuttered theaters across America, Harris has:

“He has also used his bully pulpit to champion theater. He sent a letter to President-elect Biden, urging him to revive the Federal Theater Project, and then used an appearance on ‘Late Night with Seth Meyers’ to push that show’s host to rally support for the idea.

“In a telephone interview, Harris explained why in dire times he believes everyone should be committed to ‘protecting, uplifting and sharing,’ adding: ‘Some might call it philanthropy, but I call it upkeep or maintenance.’ These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

How would you describe the kinds of artists or works you’re looking to support?

“I want to make sure that we have a really fertile artistic landscape when we return to the theaters. And I think it’s been pretty evident that I’m really excited about work that’s challenging, that’s scary, that probably wouldn’t get support otherwise. …

“Even before the tumult of this year, you’ve had an interest in highlighting Black theater artists.

“It was so exciting to see myself in Tennessee Williams, in Beckett and Caryl Churchill. But there came a point where I was like, ‘Wait, have Black people never done anything like this?’ And when I discovered that not only had they, but so many had done it to wild acclaim, and yet no one I talked to remembered that acclaim or knew those people, I knew that something had to be done about this cultural amnesia. …

“The $50,000 commissions are above the norm for playwrights. How did you arrive at that amount?

“I wanted to give someone a living wage in New York. I wanted someone to feel excited about spending a year and a half, maybe two, working on one play, and not feeling compelled to work in a coffee shop.”

More at the New York Times, here

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Photo: Acoustics Research Centre /University of Salford, Manchester.
Acoustical engineer Trevor Cox works with a scale model of Stonehenge in a sound chamber.

One day last week, I was writing a letter to Brandeis admissions to help Shagufa get a bit more support for grad school, and I used a thumbnail description of this blog to explain how I met her. I said it was tied to my daughter’s jewelry company, which I always say, but then I added something I’d just thought of: “my goal is to share inspiring stories.”

Is that right, Dear Reader? These stories are not always inspiring, but I didn’t think the university would care that they were merely topics some stranger calling herself Suzanne’s Mom finds interesting. I’d be grateful for your own thumbnail description of SuzannesMomsBlog.

Today’s story is in the interesting department. (I wonder if everything interesting is by its nature also inspiring.)

Sarah Cascone writes at Artnet, “We may never fully solve all the mysteries of Stonehenge, the monumental prehistoric circle of stones built on the Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, England. But a new study suggests that it may have been designed to amplify sound in very specific ways.

“To recreate the acoustic properties of the stone circle as it was originally built around 2,500 BC, acoustics engineers at the University of Salford in Manchester constructed a 1:12 scale model they called ‘Minihenge.’ The results of their research have been published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

“ ‘Constructing and testing the model was very time consuming, a labor of love, but it has given the most accurate insight into the prehistoric acoustics to date,’ Trevor Cox, the project’s lead researcher, said in a statement. ‘With so many stones missing or displaced, the modern acoustic of Stonehenge is very different to that in prehistory.’

“Thanks to laser scans of the site conducted by the governmental research group Historic England, Cox and his team were able to replicate the exact dimensions and precise topography of the monoliths using a computer-aided model and a 3-D printer. Missing stones were replaced where they were believed to have originally stood — 157 in all, based on the latest archaeological research.

The simulated stones were treated to replicate the acoustic properties of the site’s actual materials, allowing for more accurate results than in past models. … Researchers then tested the model, placing speakers and microphones in and around it while working at the university’s Acoustics Research Centre, which boasts a specialist acoustic chamber. (To account for the difference in scale, all sounds were 12 times their normal frequency, in the ultrasonic range.)

“The study found that people who spoke or played music inside the monument would have heard clear reverberations against the massive standing stones. Testing on the model also suggests that the stones increased the volume on interior sound, kept exterior sound out, and made it hard for anyone outside the structure to hear what was going on inside. …

“The placement of the stones was capable of amplifying the human voice by more than four decibels, but produced no echoes. Music and other sounds would have been enhanced such that someone standing within the outer circle of stones would have heard conversations from the center with perfect clarity, even as the sound was obscured to those outside. …

“While sound appears to have been an important consideration for the ancient builders, researchers still believe that astrological alignment was the primary factor in the placement of the stones. And mysteries about Stonehenge’s musical properties still abound.

“ ‘Stonehenge hums when the wind blows hard,’ musicologist Rupert Till of the University of Huddersfield in England, who has previously conducted acoustic research on the site, told ScienceNews.

“There is also speculation that some of the smaller stones used in the ancient site’s construction may have been chosen for their musical qualities. Making a sound much like a metallic gong when struck, they could have been used as percussion instruments, Cox suggested in the Guardian in 2014.

“That theory was tested in a 2013 study conducted by researchers from the Royal College of Art in London, who were able to ‘play’ Stonehenge’s ringing stones like a giant xylophone in a unique form of ‘rock’ music. According to their findings, published in Time & Mind: The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness, and Culture, the stones’ musical properties were likely even more pronounced in antiquity, before they were set in reinforced concrete.”

More at Artnet, here.

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