Weekend reading: coffee, bees, blogs, faith

Weekend Reading is a collation of 3-5 articles that have caught my attention, published on Saturday mornings. Previous editions can be found here.

The flowers are from my garden and don’t have anything to do with the articles this week. But aren’t they nice?

1. How the world’s first webcam made a coffee pot famous (BBC)

“It didn’t vary very much,” explains Dr Stafford-Fraser. “It was either an empty coffee pot, or a full one, or in more exciting moments, maybe a half-full coffee pot and then you’d have to try and guess if it was going up or down.”

Word got out, and before long millions of tech enthusiasts from around the world were accessing images of the Trojan room coffee pot.

Dr Stafford-Fraser remembers receiving emails from Japan asking if a light could be left on overnight so that the pot could be seen in different time zones.

2. You’re Worrying About the Wrong Bees (Wired)

Honey bees will be fine. They are a globally distributed, domesticated animal. Apis mellifera will not go extinct, and the species is not remotely threatened with extinction.

The bees you should be concerned about are the 3,999 other bee species living in North America, most of which are solitary, stingless, ground-nesting bees you’ve never heard of.

3. Back to the Blog (DanCohen.org)

It is psychological gravity, not technical inertia, however, that is the greater force against the open web. Human beings are social animals and centralized social media like Twitter and Facebook provide a powerful sense of ambient humanity—the feeling that “others are here”—that is often missing when one writes on one’s own site. Facebook has a whole team of Ph.D.s in social psychology finding ways to increase that feeling of ambient humanity and thus increase your usage of their service.

When I left Facebook eight years ago, it showed me five photos of my friends, some with their newborn babies, and asked if I was really sure. It is unclear to me if the re-decentralizers are willing to be, or even should be, as ruthless as this. It’s easier to work on interoperable technology than social psychology, and yet it is on the latter battlefield that the war for the open web will likely be won or lost.

4. Composer Steve Reich on turning 80, writing live music, and finding faith (The Globe and Mail)

Oh that’s very, very valid. I was brought up a secular, Reform Jew, which means I didn’t know Aleph from Bet. I knew nothing, and therefore I cared nothing. My father cared culturally, but that’s all. So when I came home from Africa, I thought to myself, there’s this incredible oral tradition in Ghana, passed on from father to son, mother to daughter, for thousands of years. Don’t I have something like that? I’m a member of the oldest group of human beings still known as a group that managed to cohere enough to survive – and I know nothing about it. So I started studying at Lincoln Square Synagogue in midtown Manhattan, an Orthodox temple, that had an incredible adult-education program for the likes of me – and I asked whether they would teach a course in biblical Hebrew, and they said sure, and they brought a professor down from Yeshiva University to teach that, and I studied the weekly portion – I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a weekly portion and commentaries thereon.

So this whole world opened up for me – it was 1975, at about the same time as I met my wife, Beryl, and so all of this sort of came together and it did occur to me – isn’t it curious that I had to go to Ghana to go back to my own traditions because I think if you understand any historical group, or any other religion for that matter, in any detail, then you’ll be able to approach another one with more understanding. So the answer to your question is yes. The longest yes you’ve ever heard.

Eastern Jewels: the squares (work in progress)

One of the things I’ve learned about myself as a crocheter/crafter is that I often suffer from project boredom. By the time I’m 3/4 done a project, I never want to see it again, can hardly be bothered to finish it, and will just add it to my pile of “I’ll finish it one day” abandoned projects if I don’t force myself to keep going. See, for example, the queen-size quilt I started back in… 2009. Which was eleven years ago, which makes me feel very suddenly old.

What helps, though, is having more than one thing on the go at a time, so that when I start getting bored with one project I can switch out for something else, and then rinse and repeat as needed.

Along with the virus shawl I finished earlier this week, I’ve been making some slow progress on the Eastern Jewels blanket. This is a pattern that was designed by Janie Crow and originally released as the Persian Tiles blanket in a blue/orange/red colourway. It was subsequently re-coloured by Lucia of Lucia’s Fig Tree  and called Eastern Jewels. I absolutely love the colours Lucia picked for this blanket, and so last year I bought the blanket kit as a birthday present for myself. 

(Note that the squares haven’t been blocked and I haven’t woven in any ends yet. I keep telling myself that I should do them now instead of having a huge amount to do at the end… but… I think we all know that I’m going to have a huge amount to do at the end.)

The blanket is constructed out of multiple repeated motifs: nine squares (pictured above), sixteen large octagon tiles, and then sixteen triangles. After those are all made and sewn together, there’s also a pretty border to go around them. It’s going to take… a while. But I really like having those small motifs to work on when I’m getting tired of a larger project (like the shawl) that just goes on and on and on…

I decided to start with the granny squares in part because I just like making granny squares. My tension was a little tight on the first one, and so I might end up re-making it at the end if I have enough yarn left in the appropriate colours. But overall these were very pleasant to work on, and even taught me a new stitch (the longer buttermilk-coloured “posts” that dip down and wrap around a previous row). I think there are one or two squares that I managed to do without any errors — no shade on Janie Crow for that, as the pattern is well written and easy to memorize. Blame my faulty memory for things I have allegedly memorized.

Since the octagons are so much larger than the squares, I decided to take a different approach with them. Instead of doing them all one at a time, I’m taking more of an assembly-line approach where I do round one sixteen times, then round two sixteen times, then round three, etc. Here they are all strung together on a long piece of yarn so that I don’t get their order mixed up; only three more iterations of round four to go. I’ll post better pictures when they’re finished!

Fiesta Virus Shawl

No, not “fiesta virus” … although that sounds distinctly more fun than corona virus (olé!). This is my latest finished project, a virus shawl made with Red Heart’s It’s A Wrap (Rainbow) in the colourway Fiesta.

When I made my mini-lotus blanket back in April (now lending my nightstand a splash of colour), I still was left with an entire second skein of the same yarn. I didn’t want to make another lotus — it’s a great project but doing two of anything in a row is pretty boring — so I set it aside for a while and worked on other things.

The virus shawl pattern has been around for a while, but as you can perhaps imagine, it’s gained a lot of popularity recently due to the name. What’s more apt than spending your quarantine/self-isolation crocheting something with a viral name. As my feed filled up with virus scarves an shawls and blankets, I figured, hey, why not hop on this bandwagon too?

There was only one problem: there isn’t a written pattern for the virus. There’s a printed pattern, and there are a lot of videos, but that’s it. Now, I far prefer written patterns to printed ones, which I still have trouble deciphering. And I’m not crazy about video tutorials because you’re always either rushing to catch up or waiting around for the next step… not to mention how few content creators include useful things like timestamps for their videos. But what can you do? Sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and… watch the video. I know, I know, the sacrifices I make!

Much to my (pleasant) surprise, the pattern turned out to be much easier than it looks, consisting of a simple four-row repeat that was easy to memorize. It’s also seriously customizable in terms of yarn weight (any will do) and overall size (since you just keep repeating until you either decide to stop or run out of yarn). This is definitely a pattern I’ll keep in my back pocket to make again.

(With many thanks to my model, Perpetua, who loves to be fancy.)

The libraries are open! Sort of.

Big news on the home front: our local libraries (kind of) opened for business this past week. In the before-times, we had a weekly routine of hitting up our local branch on Tuesday afternoons, after lunch and before Anselm’s piano lesson. I don’t know who enjoyed it more, me or the kids, but it’s one of the features of our pre-pandemic life that we have perhaps missed the most. We got in one last visit when Tertia was about a week old, and then: boom. Closed. No more libraries for us.

Now, I will say that our library system has been great in terms of offering other means of engagement with their services. They’ve done storytimes via Facebook live, upped their borrowing limits on Hoopla and CloudLibrary, and even offered a service where you can call a librarian just to chat, if that’s something you need. And amazingly, we could still check physical books out via phone or email. You gave the librarians some ideas as to what you like to read, and a few days later, a bag full of books would show up on your doorstep. I gave some broad topics for Anselm and Perpetua, and I have to say, they absolutely nailed it with their selections.

However, this left us with a bit of a problem. When the libraries closed, we had around twenty-five to thirty books checked out — not hard to do when you’re reading picture books and flying through Geronimo Stilton and Captain Underpants. Then we got our book delivery and ended up with around fifty-five books out at once, a family record, and one that quickly highlighted a problem: when our capacity gets stretched, we actually run pretty low on shelf space. I have a special bin next to the kids’ bookshelf where library books go, in an effort to make them at least a little easier to collect on return days, but it was full and overflowing. Around this time Perpetua discovered the box of baby board books I had stashed in the basement playroom and brought them up as well. I never thought I would be the one to complain about having too many books, but, well, here we are.

Or I should say: here we were. Because the libraries have started accepting returns! This is almost more exciting to me — ok, I lie, this is more exciting to me — than the fact that we can now make appointments to come and collect our sanitized holds. Which, don’t get me wrong, is also great. But it was a joy indeed when I got my pick-up appointment on Thursday and was able to drop off a large bag of books. The first to go were the ones that I found annoying to read — and after that, I just stuffed whatever I could fit in the bag. We still have a lot of books checked out, and our shelves are still crammed, but I can see a light at the end of the tunnel. In a few weeks, they tell us, they’re going to trial letting people set foot in the library to browse, a few at a time. I hope I can bring the kids.

The libraries are open! The libraries are open!

Weekend Reading: Couches, Flour, Attention Muggers

Weekend Reading is a collation of 3-5 articles that have caught my attention, published on Saturday mornings. Previous editions can be found here.

1. It Came from the ’70s: The Story of Your Grandma’s Weird Couch (Collector’s Weekly)

But there’s so much more going on with these sofas than the country-home themes, the shabby barns, red and brown leaves, mantel clocks, or horses on the prints. While Kueber and I weren’t able to nail down an exact year or a maker, she was able to help me put the Grandma Couch into context.

“This couch is a hat tip to Early American or Colonial Revival décor, which was massively popular through most of the 20th century—married to an indestructible, essentially plastic Space Age fabric, which our grandparents would have found appealing because our grandparents didn’t tend to redecorate constantly,” Kueber explains. “They had one sofa. They bought their furniture on a layaway, and by the time they found enough money for a sofa, they wanted it to last forever. So the good news was that fabric was going to last forever—but the bad news was that fabric was going to last forever.”

2. Inside the Flour Company Supplying America’s Sudden Baking Obsession (Medium)

Within hours, a simple truth became clear. Flour was flying off grocery-store shelves, propelled by a sudden and seemingly insatiable demand that was carrying into King Arthur’s much smaller online business, too. It was as if half of America had decided all at once that they needed to bake. A lot.

At first, it seemed like a complete mystery. It’s not that Colberg and others at the company were unaware that outbreaks of a nasty new virus had struck China and Italy, and that concerns were rising about flare-ups in the U.S. But in the sleepy New England village of Norwich, the disease felt a million miles away. No one was thinking about lockdowns.

Of course, the lockdowns were already starting in New York, and other parts of the country were just days away from following. And tens of millions of people were looking to stock up on whatever sorts of items might become essential if they were trapped in their homes for weeks or even months. Toilet paper was high on the list, as was hand sanitizer. And in a twist that almost no one saw coming, baking supplies were a high priority, too. Cakes, cookies, and most of all, fresh-baked bread would serve as balms for the anxiety, boredom, and alienation sure to follow on the pandemic’s heels. In a sense, baking was the first treatment to emerge for the coronavirus.

3. Not So Much (Snakes and Ladders)

Human beings have overwhelmingly powerful cravings for novelty and unanimity. We want new problems to face, because we’re tired of the old ones: they bore us, and remind us of our failures to solve them. And, especially in times of stress, we crave environments in which dissent is silenced and even mere difference is erased. We call that “solidarity,” but it‘s more like an instinctual bullying. You must attend to the thing I am attending to. I despise both of those tendencies. They’ve turned everyone into attention muggers.

If three months ago you were primarily focused on addressing sexism in the workplace, it seems to me that you ought to be allowed, indeed encouraged, to keep thinking about and working on that now, when everyone else is talking about police brutality. If your passionate concern is the lack of health care in poor communities, here or abroad, I think you should feel free to stick with that, even if it means not joining in protests against police racism. If you’ve turned your farm into a shelter for abused or neglected animals, and caring for them doesn’t leave you time to get on social media with today’s approved hashtags, bless you. You’re doing the Lord’s work.