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kottke.org

Something interesting everyday from one of the oldest and best independent sites on the Web.

A feed by Jason Kottke

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Jet Li Turned Down The Matrix Because He Didn’t Want CGI Versions Of His Moves

Permalink - Posted on 2018-10-19 19:45

Jet Li - Hero.jpg

In an interview with Chinese anchor Chen Luyu, actor and martial artist Jet Li revealed that he turned down the role of Seraph, guardian of the Oracle, in both sequels to The Matrix after the filmmakers made an unusual request.

“It was a commercial struggle for me,” Li said, “I realized the Americans wanted me to film for three months but be with the crew for nine. And for six months, they wanted to record and copy all my moves into a digital library.”

He added, “By the end of the recording, the right to these moves would go to them.”

Li said back then, he was already worried that future technology would allow US filmmakers to digitally reproduce his moving body and superimpose the face of any actor onto it.

“I was thinking: I’ve been training my entire life. And we martial artists could only grow older. Yet they could own [my moves] as an intellectual property forever. So I said I couldn’t do that,” Li said.

Instead, Li made Hero, which was probably the right call. Still, I wonder whether who else has been in Li’s position, and how often we’ve seen one actor’s face in pantomime over another actor’s body? Or whether requests like these helped kill the short-lived boom in big budget martial arts movies we saw in the late 1990s/early 2000s?


The Library of Congress’s Collection of Early Films

Permalink - Posted on 2018-10-19 19:25

National Screening Room, a project by the Library of Congress, is a collection of early films (from the late 19th to most of the 20th century), digitized by the LOC for public use and perusal. Sadly, it’s not made clear which of the films are clearly in the public domain, and so free to remix and reuse, but it’s still fun to browse the collection for a look at cultural and cinematic history.

There’s a bunch of early Thomas Edison kinetoscopes, including this kiss between actors May Irwin and John C. Rice that reportedly brought the house down in 1896:

Or these two 1906 documentaries of San Francisco, one from shortly before the earthquake, and another just after (the devastation is really remarkable, and the photography, oddly beautiful):

There’s a silent 1926 commercial for the first wave of electric refrigerators, promoted by the Electric League of Pittsburgh, promising an exhibition with free admission! (wow guys, thanks)

There’s also 33 newsreels made during the 40s and 50s by All-American News, the first newsreels aimed at a black audience. As you might guess by the name and the dates, it’s pretty rah-rah, patriotic, support-the-war-effort stuff, but also includes some slice-of-life stories and examples of economic cooperation among working-to-middle-class black families at the time.

I hope this is just the beginning, and we can get more and more of our cinematic patrimony back into the public commons where it belongs.


How Precision Engineering Made Modernity Possible

Permalink - Posted on 2018-10-19 18:30

Antikythera-Mechanism-Exploded.jpg

Simon Winchester, author of The Professor and the Madman, has a new book out called The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World. It’s the history of a concept, which makes it tricky to write about, but it’s an uncommonly generative and illustrative concept. James Gleick shares this anecdote in his book review.

North Wales, “on a cool May day in 1776.” The Age of Steam was getting underway. So was the Industrial Revolution—almost but not quite the same thing. In Scotland, James Watt was designing a new engine to pump water by means of the power of steam. In England, John “Iron-Mad” Wilkinson was improving the manufacture of cannons, which were prone to exploding, with notorious consequences for the sailors manning the gun decks of the navy’s ships. Rather than casting cannons as hollow tubes, Wilkinson invented a machine that took solid blocks of iron and bored cylindrical holes into them: straight and precise, one after another, each cannon identical to the last. His boring machine, which he patented, made him a rich man.

Watt, meanwhile, had patented his steam engine, a giant machine, tall as a house, at its heart a four-foot-wide cylinder in which blasts of steam forced a piston up and down. His first engines were hugely powerful and yet frustratingly inefficient. They leaked. Steam gushed everywhere. Winchester, a master of detail, lists the ways the inventor tried to plug the gaps between cylinder and piston: rubber, linseed oil-soaked leather, paste of soaked paper and flour, corkboard shims, and half-dried horse dung—until finally John Wilkinson came along. He wanted a Watt engine to power one of his bellows. He saw the problem and had the solution ready-made. He could bore steam-engine cylinders from solid iron just as he had naval cannons, and on a larger scale. He made a massive boring tool of ultrahard iron and, with huge iron rods and iron sleighs and chains and blocks and “searing heat and grinding din,” achieved a cylinder, four feet in diameter, which as Watt later wrote “does not err the thickness of an old shilling at any part.”

By “an old shilling” he meant a tenth of an inch, which is a reminder that measurement itself—the science and the terminology—was in its infancy. An engineer today would say a tolerance of 0.1 inches.

This corresponding concept of “tolerance” turns out to be equally important. The ancient world was certainly capable of creating complex machinery (see the Antikythera Mechanism above), and the early modern period was able to put together the scientific method and new ways of conceptualizing the universe. But it’s the Industrial Revolution that created — or was created by — this notion that machines could be made in parts that fit together so closely that they could be interchangeable. That’s what got our machine age going, which in turn enabled guns and cars and transistors and computers and every other thing.


In Praise of Oscar the Grouch

Permalink - Posted on 2018-10-19 16:20

Oscar.png

Sesame Street puppeteer Caroll Spinney is retiring after almost 50 years, and everybody is leading with the fact that he played and voiced everybody’s favorite, Big Bird. And then, if they get a chance, they might get around to mentioning that other iconic character he gave a voice and a soul, one of my favorites, Oscar the Grouch.

Karen Zraick writes about Oscar and his origins in the New York Times:

In his book “The Wisdom of Big Bird (and the Dark Genius of Oscar the Grouch),” Mr. Spinney wrote that he based Oscar’s voice on a surly cabdriver from the Bronx who took him to a meeting.

“He was the stereotypical cabby of the time — a guy in his 40s from the Bronx wearing a tweed cap with a little brim — and he kind of growled out of the corner of his mouth, ‘Where to, Mac?’” Mr. Spinney wrote.

He had found “the ideal model” for his new character, and he marveled as the driver “went on and on, colorfully expressing his opinion of Mayor Lindsay with a lot of four-letter words.”

Travis Andrews does the same in the Washington Post:

The purpose of Oscar, according to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s description of the character, is to teach “the importance of understanding, tolerance, and diversity.” According to Robert W. Morrow’s book “‘Sesame Street’ and the Reform of Children’s Television,” Oscar acted differently and lived in a different kind of home as a metaphor, “to dramatize tolerance for those who are different. … In segments about conflicts between Oscar and the others on the street, the show taught how children might cope with diversity in the context of school desegregation.”

Ok, sure. Ariane Beeston at Essential Kids more thoroughly spells out Oscar’s character, and its effect and appeal:

1. It’s okay to be different;
2. One man’s trash is another grouch’s treasure;
3. Embrace who you are and be yourself;
4. Just because you’re grouchy, doesn’t mean you can’t also be kind;
5. Emotions can be confusing.

Almost everyone gives credit to Spinney for giving Oscar his emotional complexity, with a simple mandate: Oscar is always grouchy and contrarian, but Oscar is never mean or cruel. In short, Oscar always has a heart. Let’s hope Spinney’s successor can continue to thread that needle. The kids of the present and the future deserve an Oscar who can be everything that he is.


The Chicago Tylenol Murders of 1982

Permalink - Posted on 2018-10-19 13:45

I don’t know how many people under the age of 35 know about the Chicago Tylenol murders, but for a few weeks in 1982, it was a national news sensation. Seven people in the Chicago area died after ingesting Tylenol capsules laced with potassium cyanide. Retro Report took a look back at this episode, with a focus on how Johnson & Johnson and other drug companies modified their packaging to prevent in-store tampering.

The company considered renaming Tylenol, a word that incorporates some of the letters from 4- (aceTYLamino) phENOL, a chemical name for acetaminophen, the drug’s active ingredient. But a name change was rejected.

Instead, a mere six weeks after the crisis flared, the company offered a different solution, a new bottle with the sorts of safety elements now familiar (if at times exasperating) to every shopper: cotton wad, foil seal, childproof cap, plastic strip. Capsules began to be replaced with caplets the following year.

Johnson & Johnson was viewed as an exemplar of corporate responsibility, and enjoyed what some people described as the greatest comeback since Lazarus. Nowadays, all sorts of products come in containers deemed tamper-proof, or at least tamper-evident, meaning that consumers can readily tell if a seal has been broken or something else is amiss.

Incredibly, the case is still unsolved…no one knows who did it or why. Thinking about the amount of in-store surveillance that we have, it seems unlikely that such a crime would go unsolved for long today.


The World Needs More Moral Heroism Like This

Permalink - Posted on 2018-10-18 22:47

For the NY Times, rabbi David Wolpe writes about the moral courage of Chiune Sugihara, The Japanese Man Who Saved 6,000 Jews With His Handwriting.

In 1939 Sugihara was sent to Lithuania, where he ran the consulate. There he was soon confronted with Jews fleeing from German-occupied Poland.

Three times Sugihara cabled his embassy asking for permission to issue visas to the refugees. The cable from K. Tanaka at the foreign ministry read: “Concerning transit visas requested previously stop advise absolutely not to be issued any traveler not holding firm end visa with guaranteed departure ex japan stop no exceptions stop no further inquires expected stop.”

He wrote the visas anyway…thousands of them.

Day and night he wrote visas. He issued as many visas in a day as would normally be issued in a month. His wife, Yukiko, massaged his hands at night, aching from the constant effort. When Japan finally closed down the embassy in September 1940, he took the stationery with him and continued to write visas that had no legal standing but worked because of the seal of the government and his name. At least 6,000 visas were issued for people to travel through Japan to other destinations, and in many cases entire families traveled on a single visa. It has been estimated that over 40,000 people are alive today because of this one man.

What moral heroism. Fred Rogers often quoted his mother as saying, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” That message was directed at young children who he wanted to help feel secure. For us adults, Rogers might have encouraged us to exercise more moral courage and become those helpers, not just look for them. The world today could use more of that.


Stephen Hawking’s Brief Answers to the Big Questions

Permalink - Posted on 2018-10-18 20:40

Stephen Hawking passed away back in March, but left us with a final book that just came out this week: Brief Answers to the Big Questions. There are 10 questions asked and answered in the book:

Is there a God?
How did it all begin?
Can we predict the future?
What is inside a black hole?
Is there other intelligent life in the universe?
Will artificial intelligence outsmart us?
How do we shape the future?
Will we survive on Earth?
Should we colonize space?
Is time travel possible?

Here are a couple of reviews from Physics World and NPR.

Take the chapter on “Can we predict the future?”. Starting with regular astronomical events, it swiftly moves on to scientific determinism, quantum physics, hidden variables and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. Under the guise of a simple question, Hawking has managed to take the reader on a whistle-stop tour of the quantum world (bottom line: no we can’t predict everything). It’s a clever ruse. Ask a simple question and you’ll draw in readers who might otherwise not know they’d be interested in complex science.

P.S. The UK cover of this book is so much better than the US cover. Why?? (via open culture)


Vermont Foliage 2018

Permalink - Posted on 2018-10-18 19:06

It’s snowing right now in Vermont, but fall was extra lovely this year, so I’m sharing some foliage shots I’ve taken over the past month or so.

Vt Foliage 2018

Vt Foliage 2018

Vt Foliage 2018

Vt Foliage 2018

Vt Foliage 2018

Vt Foliage 2018

Vt Foliage 2018

Vt Foliage 2018

All photos taken with the iPhone XS. I’ve previously shared some of these on my Instagram account, where you can see, for instance, that my 11-year-old goes the extra mile to get the good photo by polishing the apples on the orchard tree.

Update: For some other views of fall, try this photo series from In Focus: part 1, part 2.


How Do You Help a Grieving Friend?

Permalink - Posted on 2018-10-18 17:19

One answer to the question of “How do I help a grieving friend?” is to acknowledge their circumstances…to “join them in their pain” instead of trying to take it away from them. As Megan Devine says in this video:

Cheering people up, telling them to be strong and persevere, helping them move on…it doesn’t actually work. It’s kind of a puzzle. It seems counterintuitive, but the way to help someone feel better is to let them be in pain.

One of the odd things about getting older (and hopefully wiser) is that you stop chuckling at cliches and start to acknowledge their deep truths. A recent example of this for me is “the only way out is through”. As Devine notes, in this video and her book It’s OK That You’re Not OK, there’s no shortcut for dealing with pain…you have to go through it to move past it.

In a new TED podcast, writer Elizabeth Gilbert talked about the grief she felt when her partner and longtime best friend Rayya Elias was diagnosed with and died from cancer.

Grief… happens upon you, it’s bigger than you. There is a humility that you have to step into, where you surrender to being moved through the landscape of grief by grief itself. And it has its own timeframe, it has its own itinerary with you, it has its own power over you, and it will come when it comes. And when it comes, it’s a bow-down. It’s a carve-out. And it comes when it wants to, and it carves you out — it comes in the middle of the night, comes in the middle of the day, comes in the middle of a meeting, comes in the middle of a meal. It arrives — it’s this tremendously forceful arrival and it cannot be resisted without you suffering more… The posture that you take is you hit your knees in absolute humility and you let it rock you until it is done with you. And it will be done with you, eventually. And when it is done, it will leave. But to stiffen, to resist, and to fight it is to hurt yourself.

The only way out is through.

Update: When Gary Andrews’ wife Joy died, he documented his pain and his family’s grief through a daily doodle posted to Twitter. (thx, matt)


The Typographic Ticket Book

Permalink - Posted on 2018-10-18 15:45

Type Ticket Book

Hoefler & Co are selling copies of The Typographic Ticket Book for type nerds on the go. The idea is that when you’re out and about, you can issue citations for “use of display font at text size” or “unironic use of Helvetica” to people and businesses misusing type.

Contains fifty tickets, each neatly perforated for a satisfyingly loud rip prior to presentation. Bound in soul-deadening municipal pressboard, with a heavy-duty 100pt millboard backing, and foil stamped with an official-looking clip art emblem in gold. Police uniform not included, nor recommended. For novelty use only.

Looks like the book contains a few in-jokes as well…I spotted “” as the fine for “failure to replace dummy copy” and the kerning on the fine for “improper kerning” looks a liiittle tight to me.


Seven Square Miles

Permalink - Posted on 2018-10-18 13:38

Seven Sq Miles

Seven Sq Miles

Seven Sq Miles

Over at In Focus, still the world’s best photoblog (remember those!?), Alan Taylor is looking at different parts of the world from the same height.

Spending time looking at the varying and beautiful images of our planet from above in Google Earth, zooming in and out at dizzying rates, I thought it would be interesting to compare all of these vistas at a fixed scale-to see what New York City, Venice, or the Grand Canyon would look like from the same virtual height.

Each of the 38 images selected by Taylor shows about seven square miles of the Earth’s surface. The three images I’ve excerpted here are, from top to botton, Venice, Wisconsin farmland, and Manhattan. This planet really is dizzyingly beautiful.

This reminds me of The Jefferson Grid project (showing 1 sq mile satellite photos of the US). There’s another project which I swear I’ve seen recently that shows the grids of streets in cities from around the world and how they vary widely, but I can’t find it. Anyone?

Update: Re: the other project I couldn’t remember, several people sent in Geoff Boeing’s city street orientation project (which I posted about here) but it was probably another project of Boeing’s that I was thinking of: Square-Mile Street Network Visualization. He based the project on the work of Allan Jacobs in Great Streets. (thx, @simiasideris)


Take the Ball, Pass the Ball

Permalink - Posted on 2018-10-17 17:03

In his four seasons as manager for FC Barcelona, Pep Guardiola led the club to 14 trophies, including winning the Champions League twice and La Liga 3 times. Sure, he had players like Messi, Eto’o, Xavi, Iniesta, Puyol, Alves, Henry, and Ibrahimović, but as the trailer says, he also knew exactly what to do with them. Take the Ball, Pass the Ball is an upcoming documentary about the Guardiola years at Barca. I’m excited for this…Pep’s first year was right around when I started watching the team in earnest.


Embroidery that Breaks the Fourth Wall

Permalink - Posted on 2018-10-17 14:40

Sheena Liam

Sheena Liam

Oh, I love this embroidery art by Sheena Liam that leaps off of the fabric and out of the hoop. Great name too: Times New Romance. (via colossal)


RIP Paul Allen

Permalink - Posted on 2018-10-17 00:18

Tech titan Paul Allen died yesterday at the age of 65 of complications from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. His Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates remembered his friend in a short piece called “What I loved about Paul Allen”.

Paul foresaw that computers would change the world. Even in high school, before any of us knew what a personal computer was, he was predicting that computer chips would get super-powerful and would eventually give rise to a whole new industry. That insight of his was the cornerstone of everything we did together.

In fact, Microsoft would never have happened without Paul. In December 1974, he and I were both living in the Boston area — he was working, and I was going to college. One day he came and got me, insisting that I rush over to a nearby newsstand with him. When we arrived, he showed me the cover of the January issue of Popular Electronics. It featured a new computer called the Altair 8800, which ran on a powerful new chip. Paul looked at me and said: “This is happening without us!” That moment marked the end of my college career and the beginning of our new company, Microsoft. It happened because of Paul.

Gates also noted Allen’s love of music. In an interview earlier this year, legendary producer Quincy Jones said Allen “sings and plays just like Hendrix”.

Yeah, man. I went on a trip on his yacht, and he had David Crosby, Joe Walsh, Sean Lennon — all those crazy motherfuckers. Then on the last two days, Stevie Wonder came on with his band and made Paul come up and play with him — he’s good, man.

Here’s a short clip of Allen melting some faces:


The Wrong Color Subway Map

Permalink - Posted on 2018-10-16 21:18

Wrong Color Subway Map

From the orange 123 line to the green ACE to the purple 456, the color designations on the NYC subway lines on the Wrong Color Subway Map will mess with your head. Get the print here. From the folks who brought us the One-Color Subway Map. (via @khoi)


The Death of a Loved One from Opiate Addiction, Plainly & Honestly Told

Permalink - Posted on 2018-10-16 18:32

From an independent newspaper here in Vermont, the heartbreaking and brutally honest obituary of Madelyn Linsenmeir, a 30-year-old mother who died from a drug addiction to opiates that lasted for more a decade.

When she was 16, she moved with her parents from Vermont to Florida to attend a performing arts high school. Soon after she tried OxyContin for the first time at a high school party, and so began a relationship with opiates that would dominate the rest of her life.

It is impossible to capture a person in an obituary, and especially someone whose adult life was largely defined by drug addiction. To some, Maddie was just a junkie — when they saw her addiction, they stopped seeing her. And what a loss for them. Because Maddie was hilarious, and warm, and fearless, and resilient. She could and would talk to anyone, and when you were in her company you wanted to stay. In a system that seems to have hardened itself against addicts and is failing them every day, she befriended and delighted cops, social workers, public defenders and doctors, who advocated for and believed in her ‘til the end. She was adored as a daughter, sister, niece, cousin, friend and mother, and being loved by Madelyn was a constantly astonishing gift.

This is powerfully straightforward writing by Linsenmeir’s family…my condolences are with them. They devoted a few paragraphs at the end of her obit to address addiction and its place in our society:

If you are reading this with judgment, educate yourself about this disease, because that is what it is. It is not a choice or a weakness. And chances are very good that someone you know is struggling with it, and that person needs and deserves your empathy and support.

If you work in one of the many institutions through which addicts often pass — rehabs, hospitals, jails, courts — and treat them with the compassion and respect they deserve, thank you. If instead you see a junkie or thief or liar in front of you rather than a human being in need of help, consider a new profession.

As in many other states, more and more people are dying of opiate overdoses in Vermont even as doctors cut the number of opioid prescriptions they write faster than other areas of the country.

Update: On Facebook, Burlington, VT’s chief of police Brandon del Pozo wrote a response to Linsenmeir’s obituary that is very much worth reading.

Why did it take a grieving relative with a good literary sense to get people to pay attention for a moment and shed a tear when nearly a quarter of a million people have already died in the same way as Maddie as this epidemic grew?

Did readers think this was the first time a beautiful, young, beloved mother from a pastoral state got addicted to Oxy and died from the descent it wrought? And what about the rest of the victims, who weren’t as beautiful and lived in downtrodden cities or the rust belt? They too had mothers who cried for them and blamed themselves.

She died just like my wife’s cousin Meredith died in Bethesda, herself a young mother, but if Maddie was a black guy from the Bronx found dead in his bathroom of an overdose, it wouldn’t matter if the guy’s obituary writer had won the Booker Prize, there wouldn’t be a weepy article in People about it.

Why not?

But if there had been, early enough on, and we acted swiftly, humanely, and accordingly, maybe Maddie would still be here. Make no mistake, no matter who you are or what you look like: Maddie’s bell tolls for someone close to you, and maybe someone you love. Ask the cops and they will tell you: Maddie’s death was nothing special at all. It happens all the time, to people no less loved and needed and human.

(thx, caroline)


The Twerking Robot

Permalink - Posted on 2018-10-16 17:34

Hot off the heels of their video showing a humanoid robot casually doing parkour, Boston Dynamics has made a clip of their robot dog doing a hip hop dance routine to Uptown Funk.

While the robot in the parkour video looked distinctly un-human at times, I have to say that this dog robot is a much better and more fluid dancer than I expected — it’s got better moves than most of the people I’ve seen dancing at Midwestern weddings. The robot does what looks like the running man and then twerks while mugging for the camera. I don’t know what level of cultural appropriation this is and Boston Dynamics is probably just doing this to distract from the whole Terminator narrative, but was anyone else the tiniest bit jealous of and turned on by (and then deeply ashamed of those feelings) the robot’s moves?


The Gerontocracy is Driving America into the Ditch

Permalink - Posted on 2018-10-16 16:13

As Eric Levitz writes in a piece called Millennials Need to Start Voting Before the Gerontocracy Kills Us All, younger Americans are under-represented in American political life.

The United States, circa 2018, looks like a place run by people who know they’re going to die soon.

As “once in a lifetime” storms crash over our coasts five times a year - and the White House’s own climate research suggests that human civilization is on pace to perish before Barron Trump — our government is subsidizing carbon emissions like there’s no tomorrow. Meanwhile, America’s infrastructure is already “below standard,” and set to further deteriorate, absent hundreds of billions of dollars in new investment. Many of our public schools can’t afford to stock their classrooms with basic supplies, pay their teachers a living wage, or keep their doors open five days a week. Child-care costs are skyrocketing, the birth rate is plunging, and the baby boomers, retiring. And, amid it all, our congressional representatives recently decided that the best thing they could possibly do with $1.5 trillion of borrowed money was to give large tax breaks to people like themselves.

See also Dear Young People: Don’t Vote. As Levitz says though, one of the reasons that young people don’t vote is that it’s often more difficult for them than for older people. Making it easier for everyone to vote would alleviate many of these concerns and result in higher turnout, more political engagement, and better representation for young Americans.

Millennials in the U.S. are more underrepresented than their peers in most other developed countries. Primary responsibility for this fact lies with our nation’s political parties, which have made America an exceptionally difficult place to cast a ballot. If Democrats wish to increase turnout among the young, they’d be well advised to implement automatic voter registration, a new Voting Rights Act, and a federal holiday on the first Tuesday in November, when and if they have the power to do so.

Inflexible work schedules, lack of transportation, voter ID laws, fewer polling places, etc…it amounts to voter suppression of young people.

Voter suppression is often, correctly, viewed through a racial or class-based lens — however, these same laws also target younger people. A group that tends to vote more often for third-party and Democratic candidates.

For example, states such as Texas and Ohio require voter identification at the polling place — a college or university ID doesn’t qualify. In Wisconsin, voter ID laws permitted college IDs but not out-of-state drivers licenses, which, local news reported, resulted in many university students getting turned away in the April 2016 primary. In North Carolina, another key state in the Electoral College, hundreds of students cast provisional ballots in 2016, unsure whether their vote would even count because of their strict voter ID laws — which were struck down this year by the Supreme Court, but not before disenfranchising potentially thousands of American citizens.

(thx kate & @lauraolin)


How the Sears Catalog Undermined White Supremacy in the Jim Crow South

Permalink - Posted on 2018-10-16 14:35

Sears Catalog

Sears has filed for bankruptcy protection and plans to close hundreds of stores in an effort to keep the company afloat. The Sears catalog is perhaps one of the most important and under-appreciated innovations in American life. Starting in 1888 with a mailer advertising watches and jewelry, Sears introduced millions of Americans to in-home shopping by using the growing networks of the railroad and US Postal Service, much like Amazon and other retailers would using the internet decades later.

The time was right for mail order merchandise. Fueled by the Homestead Act of 1862, America’s westward expansion followed the growth of the railroads. The postal system aided the mail order business by permitting the classification of mail order publications as aids in the dissemination of knowledge entitling these catalogs the postage rate of one cent per pound. The advent of Rural Free Delivery in 1896 also made distribution of the catalog economical.

As historian Louis Hyman explained on Twitter, the way Sears sold goods to their customers also provided new opportunities for black Southerners living under the Jim Crow system.

Every time a black southerner went to the local store they were confronted with forced deference to white customers who would be served first. The stores were not self-service, so the black customers would have to wait. And then would have to ask the proprietor to give them goods (often on credit because…sharecropping). The landlord often owned the store. In every way shopping reinforced hierarchy. Until Sears.

The catalog undid the power of the storekeeper, and by extension the landlord. Black families could buy without asking permission. Without waiting. Without being watched. With national (cheap) prices!

This excellent piece by Antonia Noori Farzan has more info. Reading this, I couldn’t help but think of blind auditions, the practice of auditioning orchestra musicians behind a screen to help cut down on gender bias during the hiring process. While not entirely free of bias — opportunities for discrimination by postal workers and Sears employees were still possible — the Sears ordering process was essentially a blind retail transaction, a screen placed between the store and black customers. (The catalog also advertised racist costumes so obviously Sears wasn’t some bastion of social progressivism…they simply wanted to sell more goods to more kinds of people.)

According to Sears historian Jerry Hancock, Sears also developed a policy to help those who couldn’t read or write that well to be able to place orders:

One of Hancock’s discoveries was Sears’ response to the needs of a rural South in which literacy was rare. For someone who could neither read nor write, placing orders and following written protocols were problematic. Richard Sears responded with a policy that his company would fill any order it received, no matter what the medium or format. So, country folks who were once too daunted to send requests to other purveyors could write in on a scrap of paper, asking humbly for a pair of overalls, size large. And even if it was written in broken English or nearly illegible, the overalls would be shipped.

Music scholar Ted Gioia notes that blues musicians were able to buy instruments from Sears that were unavailable to them from local retailers.

With Sears declaring bankruptcy, it’s worth remembering how much impact this company had on American music. In my research into blues and other traditional styles, I found that many, many musicians started out on Sears instruments.

Even under Jim Crow, music was an avenue for upward mobility for African Americans, and Sears and other mail-order retailers were more than happy to provide them with instruments.


The Microscopic Fabric of Butterfly Wings

Permalink - Posted on 2018-10-15 22:16

Chris Perani

Chris Perani

Chris Perani takes macro photographs of the delicate microscopic makeup of butterfly wings. When you look at the thumbnails on his site, you almost can’t tell they aren’t woven rugs. The detail on these are incredible…here’s a closeup of the top photo:

Chris Perani

(via colossal)