• • • an aural noise • • •
• • • some of the things I read in antisocial isolation • • •
A collection of curious and wondrous views from around the world.
In Queen Square in Bristol, England, hearts have been sprayed onto the grass to encourage social distancing (July 2020). Embiggenable. Explore at home.
IN PHOTOGRAPHY, AS IN LIFE, sometimes a new perspective makes all the difference, and can make the mundane seem more special. Since photography was first introduced in the 19th century (the earliest surviving photograph was taken with a camera obscura in 1827 by Nicéphore Niépce in France), there have been daring and adventurous photographers who took this idea to heart and took to the air for a new point of view. The first successful aerial photograph (which is now lost) is credited to French photographer Gaspar Felix Tournachon, also known as “Nadar,” who used a tethered hot air balloon in 1858 to capture views of a French village outside of Paris. In the early 1900s, other photographers experimented with strapping cameras to kites, parachutes, and even pigeons. Technology has now given us drones, which make these on-high vantage points ever easier to attain.
The year 2020 has been a time like no other—moments of pain and confusion, but also beauty and grace, from Black Lives Matters murals to the replenishing floodwaters of the Okavango Delta in Botswana after a year of drought to an ambitious land art project to symbolically create the biggest human chain in the world. Atlas Obscura invites you to view the past year from great heights with our selection of our favorite aerial photos.
A herd of milu deer on a wetland near Dafeng Milu National Nature Reserve in Yancheng, Jiangsu Province, China. The deer are a conservation success story, with the population increasing from 77 in 1980s to more than 8,000 (August 2020). Embiggenable.
RELATED: These Coded Wine Glasses Were Used for Treasonous Toasts
The Jacobites slyly drank to a deposed king.
THIS GLASS HAS A SECRET. It’s encoded in the images inscribed around the bowl: a blazing star, an oak leaf, a rose blossom, and two delicate buds sprouting from a thorny stem. They may seem like mere decoration, but to the right eyes, they were a message, and a dangerous one at that. The original owners of this glass must have been careful who they let see it. In England, circa 1745, toasting with it could constitute treason.
Taken together, the rose, oak leaf, and star tell a story of loyalty to a banished king, James II of England. The blooming rose stands for James’s son and heir (known to his enemies as the “Old Pretender”); the oak leaf is a symbol of the House of Stuart, James’s family line; and the star reflects the hope that the Stuart family will once more rise to glory.
Crowned in 1685, the Catholic King James II reigned over a largely Protestant country. His faith was tolerated so long as his Protestant daughter, Mary, remained his presumptive heir. But in 1688, James had a son, stoking fears among the Protestant populace who believed a Catholic dynasty would lead to “popery” and absolutist rule. James’s son-in-law, the Dutch prince William of Orange, seized the opportunity and brought the Dutch fleet to English shores. James fled, and Parliament handed the crown to William, making him King William III of England.
But King James II’s loyal adherents, known as Jacobites, continued to hope for the return of their exiled king. This loyalty long outlasted James II himself. When he died in 1701, the Jacobites transferred their loyalty to his son, James Francis Edward Stuart. Many were Catholic; others were simply attached to the principle of heredity in royal succession. Forced to conceal their treasonous affiliations, they indulged in secret shows of support, which included collecting glasses etched with Jacobite symbols, to be locked away in special cabinets and brought out only in select, safe company. …
If you talk to these Panamanian fruit trees after dusk, they may attack you.
— Fake Atlas Obscura (@notatlasobscura) January 1, 2021
American author Hettiway Christensen’s book about her life as a circus bear resulted in this 1920s social movement.
— Fake Atlas Obscura (@notatlasobscura) January 1, 2021
The ‘gentrification-industrial complex’ isn’t who anti-growth progressives think it is.
From California to the Northeast, a funny thing has happened recently in America’s most expensive metropolitan areas: Rents have gone down. Ever since remote workers began fleeing urban cores at the start of the coronavirus pandemic—whether to the Hamptons or their parents’ basements—urban housing markets have been flooded with empty apartments. As a result, the prices that rental units command in certain large cities have dropped dramatically, to the tune of 18 percent in Boston, 19 percent in Seattle, and nearly 25 percent in San Francisco, according to a November survey by the firm Apartment List.
The cause of the drop should hardly be surprising. The pandemic has radically decreased demand for big-city living while also increasing the quantity of available apartments. Yet this basic fact, plain for all to see, flies in the face of much received wisdom about the factors that cause urban housing prices to go up or down. Among some leftists and liberals alike, as well as the politicians who court them, the idea that developers of pricey apartments and condo buildings are to blame for high housing prices has long been an article of faith. In this telling, new luxury housing is the reason that former working- and middle-class neighborhoods in their cities have become fancy enclaves. (“You know exactly what a gentrification building looks like,” read a recent viral tweet.) Fighting the construction of such housing would not only reverse the trend of unaffordability, but from the perspective of politicians and activists would also demonstrate support for working-class residents in the process. Since the spring, the pandemic has prompted a steady flow of stories about how urban life will change forever. But COVID-19’s most lasting impact on cities might be in helping put to rest this most persistent of myths about the relationship between housing supply, the cost of living, and that four-letter word of urban politics: gentrification. Not only is it a simplistic analysis that absolves nearly anyone who isn’t a developer of responsibility for the problem, but in portraying new housing as the proximate cause of gentrification it exacerbates the very housing crisis it seeks to solve.
Choose any major city in America with a high cost of living, and you’ll find that the suspicion of new housing is pervasive in local politics. On a sunny day in early September 2020, for example, Scott Stringer, New York City’s comptroller, stood at a lectern in a park in Upper Manhattan and launched his campaign for mayor. As an elected official of 27 years, he has telegraphed his desire to hold the city’s highest post for some time. But Stringer’s speech was notable for the way in which he positioned his campaign: not as the safe mainstream choice, as one might assume for a politician with his credentials, but as a revolution of the people against the powerful. Nowhere was this framing clearer than in his description of how he would change the trajectory of real-estate development in the city. A Stringer administration, he said, would mean “no more giving away the store to developers” and “an end to the gentrification-industrial complex.”
The New York mayoral race will be one of 2021’s most prominent elections, which makes Stringer’s campaign an interesting case study of some key trends happening within the progressive movement in cities. For one, it is evidence that politicians in deep-blue urban areas sense an unmet demand for the sort of unabashedly left-wing politics whose revival at the federal level began with Bernie Sanders’s unexpectedly strong primary challenge to Hillary Clinton in 2016. More importantly, however, it shows that left-wing candidates in local elections believe that they must take a strong stand against gentrification as a way of demonstrating their progressive bona fides. Stringer is not alone in this regard. One of his opponents, the Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams, made headlines last January for suggesting that gentrifiers should “go back to Iowa,” while another candidate, City Councilor Carlos Menchaca, decried “the wealthy developers who rezone our neighborhoods” in his campaign’s launch video. In Boston, which will also hold a mayoral election this year, City Councilor Michelle Wu has sought to distinguish herself on the question of housing growth as well. As chair of the city council’s planning committee, Wu has called for more community oversight of the city’s Zoning Board of Appeal and for the elimination of the Boston Planning and Development Agency, both of which she has characterized as out of touch and overly permissive in granting exemptions from the city’s zoning laws under the current mayor, Marty Walsh.
Gentrification is a notoriously slippery term, and the popular appeal of any attempt to address it depends largely on how one defines it. …
They are two young girls from two very different worlds, linked by a global industry that exploits an army of children.
Olivia Chaffin, a Girl Scout in rural Tennessee, was a top cookie seller in her troop when she first heard rainforests were being destroyed to make way for ever-expanding palm oil plantations. On one of those plantations a continent away, 10-year-old Ima helped harvest the fruit that makes its way into a dizzying array of products sold by leading Western food and cosmetics brands.
Ima is among the estimated tens of thousands of children working alongside their parents in Indonesia and Malaysia, which supply 85% of the world’s most consumed vegetable oil. An Associated Press investigation found most earn little or no pay and are routinely exposed to toxic chemicals and other dangerous conditions. Some never go to school or learn to read and write. Others are smuggled across borders and left vulnerable to trafficking or sexual abuse. Many live in limbo with no citizenship and fear being swept up in police raids and thrown into detention.
The AP used U.S. Customs records and the most recently published data from producers, traders and buyers to trace the fruits of their labor from the processing mills where palm kernels were crushed to the supply chains of many popular kids’ cereals, candies and ice creams sold by Nestle, Unilever, Kellogg’s, PepsiCo and many other leading food companies, including Ferrero – one of the two makers of Girl Scout cookies.
Ima, a girl who works informally to help her parents in a palm oil plantation, poses for a portrait in Sumatra, Indonesia. Explore at home.
Olivia Chaffin, 14, stands for a portrait with her Girl Scout sash in Jonesborough, Tenn. Explore at home.
Ed. I so much want to go edit Jonesborough’s Wikipedia page to mention this new acomplishment.
Olivia, who earned a badge for selling more than 600 boxes of cookies, had spotted palm oil as an ingredient on the back of one of her packages but was relieved to see a green tree logo next to the words “certified sustainable.” She assumed that meant her Thin Mints and Tagalongs weren’t harming rainforests, orangutans or those harvesting the orange-red palm fruit. …
It has been a veritable merry-go-round of misery, death, and solitude recently. To stave off cabin fever, many people have started new hobbies, like baking bread, or scrapbooking, or learning a new language to better understand the weird sex noises their Ukrainian neighbors are making. But maybe you’ve grown tired of those fads, and you’re looking for a fun new pastime to take your mind off all the doom and gloom. In that case, have you tried making your own coffin?
We’ve all been there. You’re attending the closed-casket funeral of your cousin, who thought face masks were a hoax created by Bill Gates to inject Windows Office into your brain, and as his body is lowered into the earth, you think: “Boy, that casket sure looks like a dime a dozen.” Then Coffin Club might be the right fit for you! Started in 2010 by former palliative care nurse Katie Willams of New Zealand, Coffin Clubs are a DIY arts and crafts collectives where members decorate their own caskets, blowing new life into the process of choosing your forever compost crate. As seen in this short:
Taking a page from the Ghanese book of the dead, members gather once a week to beautify their own coffin in the extravagant style of their choosing. Like painting your coffin to resemble a chequered flag to indicate you’ve reached your final lap. Or plastering it with pictures of Elvis to let people know you’ve left the building. Or, if you’re into that sort of thing, like Kate Tym, affix a life-size cutout of Kevin Bacon to the inside of the lid so that, quote, “he’s lying on top of me” for all of eternity.
Since we know that money is as tight as a chest with a ventilator jammed into it, joining a Coffin Club can save you a ton of cash as well. Instead of buying a casket from a funeral director, the second-hand car salesmen of the afterlife, CC members are provided with materials and workshops to construct coffins at a fraction of the price. Sure, they may look like they come straight out of the DODDENBOX section of IKEA, but that’s what the bedazzling is for. …
Mankind has always been inventive — it’s the reason why we no longer have to run away from gigantic jungle cats when we poop anymore. But for as far as we’ve gotten, we’ve kind of missed the mark by shunning some great ideas during our existence.
So here is our tribute to innovative technologies we could’ve had, if not for all the dumb, sneering philistines of the human race.
The very real, totally bizarre bucatini shortage of 2020.
Part I: The Mystery
Things first began to feel off in March. While this sentiment applies to everything in the known and unknown universe, I mean it specifically in regard to America’s supply of dry, store-bought bucatini. At first, the evidence was purely anecdotal. My boyfriend and I would bravely venture to both our local Italian grocer and our local chain groceries, masked beyond recognition, searching in vain for the bucatini that, in my opinion, not to be dramatic, is the only noodle worth eating; all other dry pastas might as well be firewood. But where there had once been abundance, there was now only lack. Being educated noodle consumers, we knew that there was, more generally, a pasta shortage due to the pandemic, but we were still able to find spaghetti and penne and orecchiette — shapes which, again, insult me even in concept. The missing bucatini felt different. It was specific. Frightening. Why bucatini? Why now? Why us?
We began to talk about it, quietly and carefully, in May. “Are you guys having trouble finding bucatini? We haven’t found any in a while,” said my friend Dan, one of my most bucatini-headed friends, during an otherwise innocuous Saturday-evening Zoom session. I felt a chill, like I’d seen a ghost, perhaps the ghost of Pietro Barilla, founder of the Barilla pasta empire. “We actually … haven’t been able to find it either,” I said. The conversation halted as dramatically as if we’d just seen someone stabbed to death with a bucatini noodle inside one of the little Zoom windows.
Our other friends stared at us in horror. “I also haven’t been able to find any bucatini, actually,” said another friend, slowly. “Maybe it’s just a temporary thing, and maybe it’s just in our neighborhoods,” I said, feeling the fear rise like pasta water in my throat. “I’m sure the bucatini will come back.”
But it did not come back. Spring turned to summer (allegedly; there is no hard proof of time actually moving forward). Summer turned to fall. All the while we searched high and low for bucatini, at Whole Foods and Russo’s and New York Market and Key Food, our friends searching at City Acres and Food Town and Brooklyn Harvest, stumbling upon it only occasionally and then panic-buying it, then feeling bad for panic-buying it, then repeating the cycle. As Dan’s partner, Chanan, recently recalled, “All I know is, once it ran out, it stopped being replaced. We’ve had to compromise and eat spaghetti, fusilli, and rigatoni. It’s an added layer of uncertainty during an uncertain time.” Still, we pressed forward, pretending things were fine, forcing smiles when we knew deep down all we wanted was to wring our hands and scream into the dark sky. Our only solace was that we assumed this was likely a New York–specific problem, one that, if we really wanted to solve, we could do so by traveling discreetly to another state. …
RELATED: The Sensitive Plant
The two-hundred-year search for botanical memory.
Sometime around the late eighteenth century, the French botanist René-Louiche Desfontaines took a plant on an outing around Paris in a horse-drawn carriage. At the time, botany was just emerging as an independent science separate from medicine and herbalism. Desfontaines, who’d been elected to the Académie des Sciences at the age of thirty-three and appointed professor of botany at the Jardin des Plantes a few years later, was a leading practitioner in the new field. Only a few decades before, Carl Linnaeus had sparked a fever for botanical knowledge with his revolutionary approach to classifying and naming species. The Linnaean system offered a rational way to understand nature and creation, and the educated elite readily embraced it. Up to five hundred Parisian botanophiles (as the new plant lovers were called) regularly turned out for Desfontaines’ thrice-weekly lectures at the Jardin, eager to learn more about his plant-collecting adventures in North Africa and the new species he’d carried home and was busy describing. Perhaps he told his audiences about his carriage experiment; it would have fit with botanists’ realization that plant sex was analogous to animal sex, something many laypeople found profoundly shocking. As it stands, Desfontaines left only a brief mention of this excursion in an obscure volume he wrote about the nature of French trees and shrubs.
From this account, we know that the plant he selected for the tour was one most of us call the sensitive plant or touch-me-not, Mimosa pudica. A member of the pea family, M. pudica is a small plant with tiny leaflets paired along the length of each stem and pretty lavender-pink globular flowers. The leaves give it a fernlike, feminine look, although it is also armed with thorns to ward off attacks. It’s native to Central and South America but has spread throughout the tropics partly because of its popularity as a novel ornamental that exhibits a fascinating behavior: if you touch a single leaf, the plant will swiftly fold up all its leaves before your eyes. Only a soft touch is required to bring on this collapse; after a while, you can also watch as the wilted-appearing mimosa sets about righting itself and reopening its leaves. You may have discovered the mimosa’s animal-like trick in an arboretum or store where the plants are sometimes displayed or sold. The rapid response to being touched is another defensive tactic—it startles most insects, as it does naive humans.
M. pudica and its curious actions were known to Western science even before 1753, when Linnaeus officially named the species. Many leading scientists of the day, including Robert Hooke (the English natural philosopher best known for being the first to see and describe a cell via a microscope) and later the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck studied the plant. Lamarck was particularly struck by how mimosas eventually no longer respond to being repeatedly touched. He thought this was likely due to the plant running out of energy. But sometimes they stopped responding long before they depleted their stores. He couldn’t explain why they stopped until he learned of Desfontaines’ carriage experiment.
Mimosas, in addition to touch, also droop as soon as the sun sets, when they are bumped, when water droplets fall on them, or when a slight breeze stirs their leaves. So Desfontaines knew the jostling movement of the carriage would trigger the plant’s wilting response. He closely observed the mimosa and its reactions to the ride. At first, the plant responded exactly as expected: it folded its leaves and drooped. But as the bumpy ride continued, it began to reopen its leaves and stood tall again. Most surprisingly, he later wrote, the leaves “remain open despite the agitation they continue to experience, while any other strange disturbance, even a slight breath of air, makes it move and close its foliage.” Desfontaines concluded, as did Lamarck upon learning of the experiment, that the plant had become “accustomed” to the sensation of the carriage. How could a plant do such a thing? …
THANKS to Comedy Central and The Daily Social Distancing Show with Trevor Noah for making this program available on YouTube.
CAUTION: Some language may not be appropriate for work or children.
Here’s me commentary on DJ disasters. Cheers!
歯ブラシに慣れるよう、ちょっとずつ練習していきます。This is an exercise for kittens to get used to the toothbrush.
FINALLY . . .
RELATED: Pale and gelatinous: I tried vegan seafood so you don’t have to
Plant-based alternatives may still be a work in progress but our overexploited oceans, and the fish in them, may force our hand.
‘Don’t yuck somebody else’s yum,’ someone at school once told my daughter. That’s how I feel about vegan seafood. Embiggenable. Explore at home.
MY FRIEND HENRY WALKED INTO MY kitchen and eyed the can of vegan “skallops” on the counter. My goal for the week was to try as many vegan seafood items as possible. I wanted to know if I could learn to love them, and if they could replace seafood the way Beyond Meat has replaced burgers in my house.
“You’re not really going to eat those, are you?” he said while raising an eyebrow. The skallops looked pale and gelatinous.
“I’m going to try,” I said.
“One of my very first jobs was at a restaurant on the Cape,” he said. “I had to plunge my hand into a bucket of freezing cold sea water and take the penis off of scallops before they were served.”
“So you’d try vegan scallops instead?” I asked, hopeful I could enlist him in my taste test.
“Never,” he said, looking resolute.
Later, when I produced a plate of small toasts with vegan tuna salad, Henry shook his head. “It looks like Fancy Feast,” he said, thinking of the cat food.
I couldn’t disagree. …
DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY: “Please don’t make us eat that.”
Ed. More tomorrow? Possibly. Probably. Maybe. Likely, if I find nothing more barely uninteresting at all to do.
ONE MORE THING:
— The Onion (@TheOnion) January 1, 2021
The Trump Presidential Library will be a deleted Twitter account.
— God (@TheTweetOfGod) November 7, 2020
Just had a spiffy idea…
ON THOSE DAYS where I blow this place off because I had something more barely uninteresting at all to do, I can just phone it in. Since yesterday I deleted everything prior to January 1, 2020, I can now run with the tagline January 2, 2021 in October 17, 2017’s words. Most, if not all, of my readers would probably not even notice.