Once ubiquitous in bustling metropolises like New York City, payphones have been cast aside as relics of a tethered time. In the rare instances that we walk past one, we don’t even bat an eye. We barely look up from the sleeker, shinier devices that made them obsolete.
And, well, payphones have something to say about that. “You don’t want to use us anymore? Fine. But do you even see us anymore?”
That comes from “Dead Ringer,” a four-minute film by directors Alex Kliment, Dana O’Keefe, and Michael Tucker that premiered earlier this month at the Tribeca Film Festival and was featured online Tuesday by the New Yorker. Against the backdrop of a somber, jazzy tune, one of New York City’s four remaining phone booths narrates its disdain for how invisible payphones have become, despite everything they’ve done for society.
Prior to his Apollo 15 lunar mission, astronaut David Scott met Belgian painter and printmaker Paul Van Hoeydonck at a dinner party. It was there agreed that Van Hoeydonck would create a small statuette for Scott to place on the Moon, though their recollections of the details disagree. Scott’s purpose was to commemorate those astronauts and cosmonauts who had lost their lives in the furtherance of space exploration, and he designed and separately made a plaque listing fourteen American and Soviet names. Van Hoeydonck was given a set of design specifications: the sculpture was to be lightweight but sturdy, capable of withstanding the temperature extremes of the Moon; it could not be identifiably male or female, nor of any identifiable ethnic group. According to Scott, it was agreed Van Hoeydonck’s name would not be made public, to avoid the commercial exploitation of the US government’s space program. Scott kept the agreement secret from NASA management prior to the mission, smuggling the statue aboard his spacecraft.
During the Apollo 15 mission, near the completion of his work on the lunar surface on August 1, 1971, Scott secretly placed the Fallen Astronaut on the Moon, along with a plaque bearing the names of eight American astronauts and six Soviet cosmonauts who had died in service:
In the age of Google Maps, everywhere can start to look the same. So it’s interesting to see historical maps of familiar places. The map above is of Lancashire, where I live, and it was produced by John Speed more than 400 years ago. The one below is the same view using Google Maps this year. Of course, it’s not a fair comparison. I can’t gesture to zoom in, drop into Street View, or expand out with Google Earth, on the John Speed version. But still, I know which one I prefer to explore from this perspective.
It’s also interesting to note that in 1610, of all the places in North West England, Lancaster deserved the box out showing the town centre.
Blank on Blank is a brilliant podcast dedicated to discovering lost interviews by famous people. They also set these interviews to animations on their website. The latest is a conversation with the legendary Carl Sagan about extraterrestrials.
In the 16th century, Ferdinand Magellan, searching for a new route to the nutmeg and cloves of the Spice Islands, sailed through the Pacific Ocean and named it ‘‘the peaceful sea’’ before he was stabbed to death in the Philippines. Only 18 of his 270 men survived the trip. When subsequent explorers, despite similar travails, managed to make landfall on the countless islands sprinkled across this expanse, they were surprised to find inhabitants with nary a galleon, compass or chart. God had created them there, the explorers hypothesized, or perhaps the islands were the remains of a sunken continent. As late as the 1960s, Western scholars still insisted that indigenous methods of navigating by stars, sun, wind and waves were not nearly accurate enough, nor indigenous boats seaworthy enough, to have reached these tiny habitats on purpose.
Archaeological and DNA evidence (and replica voyages) have since proved that the Pacific islands were settled intentionally — by descendants of the first humans to venture out of sight of land, beginning some 60,000 years ago, from Southeast Asia to the Solomon Islands. They reached the Marshall Islands about 2,000 years ago. The geography of the archipelago that made wave-piloting possible also made it indispensable as the sole means of collecting food, trading goods, waging war and locating unrelated sexual partners. Chiefs threatened to kill anyone who revealed navigational knowledge without permission. In order to become a ri-meto, you had to be trained by a ri-meto and then pass a voyaging test, devised by your chief, on the first try. As colonizers from Europe introduced easier ways to get around, the training of ri-metos declined and became restricted primarily to an outlying atoll called Rongelap, where a shallow circular reef, set between ocean and lagoon, became the site of a small wave-piloting school.
From the Awl, one of the best articles on the future of work I’ve read in a while:
As the nineties saw the rise of virtual offices based around email and webpages, workers transitioned to a scenario where their email addresses became more than the replacement for a physical mailbox. A corporate job became official when you received your email address: Your first message introduced yourself to coworkers with a company-wide blast; your last was a goodbye note to those same people. Then your email history, and you, were erased. In between, perhaps, thousands of messages: projects in various phases of completion, proof of work, meeting notes. Those, more than your presence in a cubicle, were the evidence of your employment and subsequent value to a company.
Our way of laying off now reflects our modes of communication. The story of a Florida restaurant canning its entire staff via text message brought out the Carrie Bradshaw Post-it references, but no one was surprised at the delivery method. Zirtual, a virtual assistant company, announced it was folding in an overnight mass email with no warning. George Zimmer, of Men’s Warehouse guarantees and the company’s founder, chairman, spokesperson, essentially found out he was fired via email. Rafa Benítez, the coach of Real Madrid (a soccer team of some sort?), found out he’d been replaced when the owner of the team announced it in a press conference. A Twitter employee received the news after a Yahoo notification on his phone sent him to a tweet from Jack Dorsey, the company’s CEO, announcing eight percent of its workforce was cut.
De Botton’s message, then, is fairly simple but valuable precisely because it is simple, readable and cogent. He wants to encourage his readers, and society more generally, to pay more attention to the psychological consequences of design in architecture: that architecture should not be treated as an arcane and specialist discipline to be left to professionals, but as something that affects all our lives, our happiness and well-being. He wants us to look more carefully at our architectural surroundings, pay attention to them and develop a language with which to judge them.
My super talented cousin, Katie Benge, is an artist and designer. Katie explains, “Born on Anglesey, Wales I have lived quite a nomadic life. First with my RAF family and then with my New Zealand husband and for the past four years in the Forest of Dean… My latest work is influenced by my Forest of Dean location, drawing the nature that surrounds me, capturing it on recycled wood or slate. All the pieces are hand drawn with Indian Ink and a quill.”
You can see more of Katie’s work here. You can also buy Katie’s prints and other things from here.
From the New York Times, a story of the mafia’s decline:
After he had helped pull off one of the biggest cash robberies in American history — the Lufthansa heist of 1978 — and stashed millions of dollars, along with burlap sacks of gold chains, crates of watches, and diamonds and emeralds, in his cousin’s basement, Vincent Asaro thought first about the code: Protect the family.
“He says, ‘We got to be real careful now,’” his cousin testified. “‘Don’t spend anything. Don’t buy anything major.’”
He kept quiet, but another part of Mr. Asaro, a Mafia yeoman working his way up through New York’s Bonanno crime family, could not resist. He bought a Bill Blass-model Lincoln and a Formula speedboat — symbols of a man who wanted to belong.
Mr. Asaro did not realize his world was vanishing.
Growing up in Lancaster, the old Moor Hospital used to terrify me. Originally known as the Lancaster County Lunatic Asylum, it was a large complex of imposing Victorian buildings, purpose built from the early 1800s onwards to house people not deemed fit to live with the rest of us. I dread to think how many people were taken there against their will for the flimsiest of reasons, and what kind of “treatment” they endured.
Today the site is being renovated. Already you can buy a luxury home at The Residence, as it is now is known, for upwards of £300k.
The photos above and below were taken by a team of urban explorers going by the names of Ben, Beardy, Travis and Chard in 2013, before the renovations began. I love their work. You should check out more here.
See more photos of the Lancaster Moor Hospital, and other locations, here.
Some photographers know how to make you feel alive, even when the moments they capture are long gone by the time you see them. I love the work of Janet Delaney, and I encourage you to seek out more of her photographs, and to buy prints from her website.
I just saw this image flash up on the Face of Britain by Simon Schama. I love the style of illustration. After deciphering the signature, I discovered these 1920s cigarette cards were by Alexander (‘Alick’) Penrose Forbes Ritchie. You can see more of his work here.
See more at the National Portrait Gallery website.
Roughly twice a year, the apparent positions of sun and moon coincide, and a fortunate few observers are treated to a solar eclipse. Watching such an event provides the opportunity to contemplate a strange coincidence: From the surface of Earth, the apparent sizes of the sun and moon in the sky are nearly equal. The sun is almost exactly 400 times larger than the moon, and it’s also almost exactly 400 times farther away.
There is no particular reason why they should appear the same size, and it wasn’t always that way. The moon has been retreating from Earth since the mega-collision that created it, 4.5 billion years ago. We’ve measured its rate of retreat with the help of equipment left on the surface of the moon by Apollo astronauts: It’s presently receding at about 4 centimeters per year. A billion years ago, it would’ve thoroughly covered the sun with every eclipse; now, depending on where the moon is in its elliptical orbit, some eclipses are total, but more are annular, with the moon appearing slightly smaller than the sun, leaving a “ring of fire” surrounding the moon (see image below). Fifty million years from now, the moon will have receded to the point that all eclipses will be annular.
In 1927, a hitherto unknown air mail pilot called Charles Lindbergh became the first man to complete a solo crossing of the Atlantic in his fragile plane, The Spirit of St Louis.
For hours, he flew in the most arduous conditions, braving wind, rain and storms. He saw clouds passing below him and distant thunder claps on the horizon. It was one of the profoundest moments of his life. He was awestruck and felt he was becoming, for a time, almost God-like. For most of the twentieth century, his experience remained rare and extremely costly. There was therefore never any danger that the human value of crossing an ocean by air would be overlooked.
This lasted until the arrival of the Boeing 747 and the cheap plane ticket in the summer of 1970. The jumbo fundamentally changed the economics of flying. The experiences of gazing down at clouds and seeing the world spread out stopped being (as it had been for Lindbergh) a life-changing encounter; it started to feel commonplace and even a little boring. It became peculiar to wax lyrical about the red-eye to JFK or a mention of a spectacular column of clouds that one had spotted shortly after the arrival of the chicken lunch. A trip that would have mesmerised Leonardo da Vinci or John Constable was now passed over in silence.
The view from the plane window underwent an economic miracle that led to a psychological catastrophe: its cost dropped and it ceased to matter, though its real value hadn’t changed.
More than 11,000 families in Iceland have offered to open their homes to Syrian refugees. Author Bryndis Bjorgvinsdottir created a Facebook group and wrote an open letter to the country’s welfare minister, Eygló Harðardóttir, asking her to allow people to help. She wrote:
“They are our future spouses, best friends, the next soul mate, a drummer for our children’s band, the next colleague, Miss Iceland in 2022, the carpenter who finally finishes the bathroom, the cook in the cafeteria, a fireman and television host,” she wrote.
“People of whom we’ll never be able to say in the future: ‘Your life is worth less than my life.’”
The International Rescue Committee is providing medical care and emergency supplies to Syrian refugees. You can donate here. See also Save the Children.
It started from a simple desire to share the funny, smart people in my life with all of you. I wanted to create a place where we could hang out together and like-minded people could join us. I wanted to make something that felt different than everything else I was hearing on the radio, something that felt funny and real, that didn’t shy away from the big questions (“why are we here?”), but still had room for the smaller questions (“why does this pork pie hat make my ass look fat?”). I wanted to make something that was weird and complicated in the way I knew life to be.
Well, they definitely achieved that goal. I think my favourite episode was about saltwater taps with Starlee Kine, who now hosts Mystery Show. The video above was posted to accompany news that the show was ending.
I know from my own experience as a parent, and as a child, that we aren’t very good at listening to those that came before us. But sometimes we really should. From the New York Times, a story from Japan:
The stone tablet has stood on this forested hillside since before they were born, but the villagers have faithfully obeyed the stark warning carved on its weathered face: “Do not build your homes below this point!”
Residents say this injunction from their ancestors kept their tiny village of 11 households safely out of reach of the deadly tsunami last month that wiped out hundreds of miles of Japanese coast and rose to record heights near here. The waves stopped just 300 feet below the stone.
“They knew the horrors of tsunamis, so they erected that stone to warn us,” said Tamishige Kimura, 64, the village leader of Aneyoshi.
Hundreds of so-called tsunami stones, some more than six centuries old, dot the coast of Japan, silent testimony to the past destruction that these lethal waves have frequented upon this earthquake-prone nation. But modern Japan, confident that advanced technology and higher seawalls would protect vulnerable areas, came to forget or ignore these ancient warnings, dooming it to repeat bitter experiences when the recent tsunami struck.
There have been many wonderful and moving obituaries of the great Oliver Sacks, but I think the most touching tribute is a recent episode of Radiolab, where Dr. Sacks was a regular guest:
When Radiolab was just starting out, Robert asked Dr. Oliver Sacks if he could help us, maybe send us a few story ideas. Over the years he has shared with us stories of chemistry, music, neurology, hallucinations and more, so much more. Because Oliver notices the world and the people around him with scientific rigor, with insight, and most importantly, with deep empathy. When he announced a few months ago that he had terminal cancer and wasn’t going to do any more interviews, we asked him if he’d talk with us one last time. He said yes. So Robert went, as he has done for 30 some years now, to his apartment with a microphone, this time to ask him about the forces that have driven him in his work, in his unique relationships with his patients, and in his own life.
We began with the thrill of his moving to New York to become an actor, the grubby glamour of him driving a cab in a New York that was just about to create Taxi Driver and Taxi (the last written by a cab driver who drove for the same firm as Goldfarb). In the first two episodes of Trip Sheets we met Philip Roth, Philip Glass, Peter Brook, Harvey Keitel… But as Goldfarb’s youthful innocence and self-belief changed, so did the essays, moving from “I had that Warhol in the back of my cab once, I did” anecdotes into more difficult areas. Goldfarb drove a young woman and her newborn child to a burnt-out Bronx and wondered how and, more importantly, why it got like that.
The final episode was on how New York, and New York cabbing, has changed. “If all else fails, I can always move back to New York and drive a cab,” he thinks, but instead goes over and sits in the back as a passenger. “The city is just too different,” he concludes.
As an added bonus, below is the trailer for Taxi Driver, which never gets old even though the world it depicts is long gone.
This article, about a photograph taken in São Paulo in 1960, is wonderful. Photographer and writer Teju Cole explains how ‘‘Men on a Rooftop,’’ by the Swiss photographer René Burri (1933–2014), became an obsession:
I’m not sure when my interest in ‘‘Men on a Rooftop’’ became an obsession. Through the years it gained a hold on my imagination until it came to stand as one of the handful of pictures that truly convey the oneiric possibilities of street photography. The celebrated Iranian photojournalist Abbas, who knew Burri well (they were both members of Magnum Photos), described ‘‘Men on a Rooftop’’ to me as ‘‘vintage René: superb form, no political or social dimension.’’ Abbas zeros in on the formal perfection of the image, but I’m not sure I agree that it lacks a social dimension. To me, it literally portrays the levels of social stratification and the enormous gap between those above and those below.
A great photo comes about through a combination of readiness, chance and mystery. Gabriel García-Márquez, once asked whom the best reader of ‘‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’’ was, responded with a story: ‘‘A Russian friend met a lady, a very old lady, who was copying the whole book out by hand, right to the last line. My friend asked her why she was doing it, and the lady replied, ‘Because I want to find out who is really mad, the author or me, and the only way to find out is to rewrite the book.’ I find it hard to imagine a better reader than that lady.’’ Like the lady in García-Márquez’s story, I thought some act of repetition would clarify things. And so I went to São Paulo in March, looking for René Burri.
I’m enjoying a new podcast called Seriously…, which features curated documentaries from Radio 4 that I would otherwise most likely miss. One of the latest to be featured is Philip Glass: Taxi Driver:
Philip Glass revisits his parallel lives in 1970s New York – driving a taxicab through threatening twilight streets while emerging as a composer in Manhattan’s downtown arts scene.
The Philip Glass Ensemble formed in 1968 and performed in lofts, museums, art galleries and, eventually, concert halls. Two of Glass’s early pieces – the long form Music In Twelve Parts and the opera Einstein on the Beach – secured his reputation as a leading voice in new music.
But America’s soon-to-be most successful contemporary composer continued to earn a living by driving a taxi until he was 42.
“I would show up around 3pm to get a car and hopefully be out driving by 4. I wanted to get back to the garage by 1 or 2am before the bars closed, as that wasn’t a good time to be driving. I’d come home and write music until 6 in the morning.”
Glass’s new musical language – consisting of driving rhythms, gradually evolving repetitive patterns and amplified voice, organs and saxophones – reflected the urgency of the city surrounding him. New York, on the brink of financial collapse, was crime-ridden and perilous. Driving a cab offered more than a window on this gritty, late night world. Almost every other month, according to Glass, a driver colleague was murdered. Glass escaped altercations with gangs and robbers in his cab.
One of the most successful films at the time was Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver starring Robert DeNiro. Glass couldn’t bring himself to watch it until years later. He says, “I was a taxi driver. On my night off, I was not going to go watch a movie called Taxi Driver.”
The Venera 7 was the first spacecraft to successfully land on another planet and transmit data back to Earth. It set off from Earth on 17 August 1970, and it landed on 15 December 1970. And it’s still there now, branded CCCP for all eternity to represent the Soviet Union, which of course no longer exists. If ever there was a metaphor to check human hubris, this surely is it.