Making Beauty Amid the Ugliness

This is a fascinating story about the art — as well as clothing, musical instruments, furniture and other things — that internees made while they were incarcerated in Japanese internment camps during World War II. Collectively, this kind of art-making behavior was often referred to using the term “gaman,” a Zen Buddhist term meaning “enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity.”

Being stripped of all their resources made the newly incarcerated extra resourceful. At first, they used every little scrap they could get their hands on to make necessities like chairs, drawers, door signs, Buddhist altars, walking sticks, and shower shoes, as well as doilies and decorations to make their barrack rooms less bleak. But eventually, many of the Issei, who were given fewer responsibilities than their American-born children who could speak fluent English, turned to art as a way to pass the time. Hirasuna first documented these artifacts as artworks made to lessen the emotional pain of being locked up and having their civil rights stripped in her book, The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps 1942-1946.

As many as 120,000 people — about 90 percent of the ethnically Japanese people in the US at the time — were forced to give up their homes and belongings and take up residence in these camps, surrounded by soldiers and barbed wire. They had to grow and cook their own food, make their own clothes, and so on. And to keep themselves busy, they made things: sandals from blocks of wood, bird brooches from planks taken from the crates that brought in food and other supplies, even working model trains they fashioned out of watch parts and old cans.


The Death of the Black Utopia

A little-known fact about New York’s Central Park is that it was created in part by evicting 1,600 or so people who lived there, including the residents of Seneca Village, Manhattan’s first significant settlement of black property owners and the epicenter of black political power in Manhattan during the mid-19th century. The village occupied land along what is now Central Park’s western edge, between roughly 83rd and 89th Streets. From its modest beginnings in 1825, the village had grown over three decades to include homes, gardens, a school, cemeteries and perhaps as many as 300 residents. By the time it was razed more than 30 years later, the settlement counted several distinguished citizens among its property owners, including a boarding-house for sailors that served as a crucial stop on the Underground Railway.

Source: Opinion | The Death of the Black Utopia – The New York Times

The starling and falcon dance

Starlings are well known for the patterns they make as they flock in large numbers, a phenomenon known as “a murmuration,” which I’ve always thought was a great word. And when they flock, predators often come after them — including falcons — which creates a kind of swirling, Aurora Borealis effect in the air, but made out of birds. A great example appears in the video below, shot by Nick Dunlop:

The Starling and Falcon Dance from Nick Dunlop on Vimeo.

A bizarre mansion built by the heiress to the Winchester rifle fortune

Sarah Lockwood Winchester was the widow of William Wirt Winchester, who died in 1881 of tuberculosis and left Sarah his fortune, which at the time amounted to $20 million (about $450 million in today’s dollars), since he was a member of the family that invented the Winchester repeating rifle. She moved to the Santa Clara Valley and started building a house, one that she kept adding onto until her death in 1922, which has come to be known as the Winchester Mystery House. By the time she died, the building covered more than 24,000 square feet.

The main mystery is why she built the house the way she did — not only did it have 160 rooms (including 40 bedrooms) and a number of towers and other features, but it also contained a number of bizarre rooms and features that seemed to have no purpose. There’s a staircase that ends at a ceiling, a closet that is only an inch deep, a “door to nowhere” that opens into empty space, and a magnificent stained glass window that is behind a wall, and so doesn’t receive any light with which to illuminate it (the house has about 10,000 other panes of stained glass to make up for it though).

Walter Pitts, the Homeless Genius Who Revolutionized Artificial Intelligence

Pitts stayed hidden until the library closed for the evening. Alone, he wandered through the stacks of books until he came across Principia Mathematica, a three-volume tome written by Bertrand Russell and Alfred Whitehead, which attempted to reduce all of mathematics to pure logic. For three days he remained in the library until he had read each volume cover to cover—nearly 2,000 pages in all—and had identified several mistakes. The boy drafted a letter to Russell detailing the errors. Not only did Russell write back, he was so impressed that he invited Pitts to study with him as a graduate student at Cambridge University. Pitts couldn’t oblige him, though—he was only 12 years old

Source: The Man Who Tried to Redeem the World with Logic

This is a fascinating story about someone I had never heard of before. Walter Pitts was born to a working-class family in Detroit, and had taught himself Greek, Latin and high-level mathematics by the age of 12. After getting the letter from Bertrand Russell, he eventually ran away to Chicago and found odd jobs at the university, until he met Warren McCulloch, a 42-year-old, chain-smoking philosopher poet who “lived on whiskey and ice cream and never went to bed before 4 a.m.” At the time, Walter was just 18, a shy young man with a squat, duck-like face.

McCulloch was trying to come up with a mental model of the brain, and a paper by Alan Turing convinced him the brain was a computing machine, and the functioning of the neurons could be modeled just like the Principia modeled complex mathematics. He and Pitts started working on it, and Pitts moved into McCulloch’s house in a suburb of Chicago. Together, they described what would become an entire field of mathematics and computing called “neural networks.”

Soon, Pitts had also impressed Norbert Weiner, one of the leading scientists at MIT and the father of cybernetics. Weiner was so taken with Pitts’ ability that he promised him a PhD in mathematics, despite the fact that he had never graduated from high school. He soon started collaborating with John von Neumann, a leading Princeton mathematician and physicist and one of the inventors of the first “stored program binary computing machine.” Von Neumann used Pitts’s theories about a mathematical model of memory to design the modern computer. McCulloch described Pitts this way:

He has become an excellent dye chemist, a good mammalogist, he knows the sedges, mushrooms and the birds of New England. He knows neuroanatomy and neurophysiology from their original sources in Greek, Latin, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and German for he learns any language he needs as soon as he needs it. Things like electrical circuit theory and the practical soldering in of power, lighting, and radio circuits he does himself.”

McCulloch made it to MIT as well, and he and Pitts started working together again. But Wiener’s wife disapproved of the late-night parties at McCulloch’s farm in Connecticut, where whiskey flowed and everyone went skinny-dipping. She told Wiener that several of McCulloch’s friends had tried to seduce their daughter Barbara, who was staying at McCulloch’s house in Chicago. Wiener cut off Pitts, and Pitts sank into depression. He started drinking heavily, never finished his PhD and eventually set fire to his notes and papers. He died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1969, at the age of 53.

Looking to move abroad? Why not buy an ancient village in Spain

In a pattern that has also been seen in a number of other countries, people in Spain have been moving away from small villages in the countryside into larger centres, and as a result many small towns are dying — and being put on the market. In some cases, you can buy a hamlet with half a dozen buildings for less than $100,000. A site called Aldeas Abandonadas specializes in selling both small villages and stately manor houses that have been abandoned. One listing describes a village with nine houses and about 4,000 square metres of land for just 73,000 Euros or about $80,000 US, and another is for an 18th century manor built for a judge, including a former dungeon that has been turned into a guest house, as well as a pool and an attached farm, for 275,000 Euros or about $300,000 US.

For her recent holiday gift guide, Gwyneth Paltrow advertised a village that was for sale on Aldeas Abandonadas for just $172,000. According to Spain’s prime minister, over half of the country’s municipalities have less than 1,000 residents, and many of them continue to shrink because there is nothing to keep young inhabitants interested in staying and the existing population is aging rapidly. In 2014, the mayor of a municipality in the Barcelona region was willing to give away an ancient village of 12 buildings to anyone who would promise to restore them, and a village called O Penso was for sale for about $230,000 — for 100 acres of land, half a dozen houses, two farms and an ancient wood-fired oven bakery.

The most expensive — and weirdest — restaurant in Ukraine

If I ever manage to get to Lviv, Ukraine, I would very much like to visit this restaurant, which is referred to as The Most Expensive Galician Restaurant. It isn’t really, but it might be the most bizarre. According to the description by Atlas Obscura, the only way to get access to the restaurant is to request entry from a man sitting in a cluttered room in what looks like someone’s apartment. In most cases, he will turn you away, saying he doesn’t know what you are talking about. He may do this several times before you gain entry.

If you are persistent, however, he will allow you to enter — at which point you might notice a number of things, including a piano, but also a full-size automobiles hanging from the ceiling, and another parked in the middle of the restaurant. You may be serenaded by musicians, or entertained by actors, while eating your meal. When the bill comes, it could easily be thousands of dollars — but then, all you have to do is ask for “the 90 percent discount” and magically your bill will be several times smaller.