Elizabeth Cotten and the “Shake Sugaree”

Not long ago, a song showed up on one of my Spotify playlists — the ones based on previous songs you’ve listened to — and something about it caught my ear. I listen to a lot of old folk songs, but this one sounded even older than usual, like turn-of-the-century even. It also used a term I had never heard before, with the singer saying “Oh lordie me, didn’t I shake sugaree.” I looked up the artist, and the guitar part was played by a woman named Elizabeth Cotten, a fascinating folk and blues singer who was born in the late 1800s. The singer, Brenda Evans, turns out to be Cotten’s great-grandaughter, who was only 12 when the song was recorded in 1967.

Elizabeth was born to a poor family in North Carolina, near Chapel Hill, and had to leave school at the age of nine to work as a maid. She earned a dollar a month, and when she was 12, her mother bought her a guitar at Sears & Roebuck for $3.75 (about $100 in current dollars). She was left-handed, but the guitar was strung for a right-handed player, so she just learned to play it upside down, using her fingers for the bass line and her thumb for the melody — a style that became known as “Cotten picking.”

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The life and death of the Nagakin Capsule Tower

Kyle Chayka writes in the New Yorker about the life and death of the Nakagin Capsule Tower, an iconic building designed by Kisho Kurokawa and completed, in 1972, as part of the Japanese architectural movement Metabolism. It looks like something from a dystopian science-fiction movie — tiny little cubes with just enough space for a bed, desk, and a tiny porthole window — but Chayka argues it was a symbol of an imagined future in which cities would grow and change over time, and in which artists and others would have multiple places to live, including their own pied a terre in the city.

Like many other utopian dreams, the Capsule Tower fell victim to reality: the capsules proved to be leaky and difficult to repair and/or replace, and the tower soon fell into disrepair and is being dismantled. Some hope to save a few of the capsules as a testament to the original architects’ vision.

The Nakagin capsules suggest a kind of utopian urban life style. Their paucity of space and equipment meant that activities typically done at home, like eating and socializing, would instead be conducted out on the street. The Nakagin capsules were not full-time residences but pieds-à-terre for suburban businessmen or miniature studios for artists and designers. The individual capsules were pre-assembled, then transported to the site and plugged in to the towers’ central cores. Each unit—two and a half metres by four metres by two and a half metres, dimensions that, Kurokawa noted, are the same as those of a traditional teahouse—contained a corner bathroom fit for an airplane, a fold-down desk, integrated lamps, and a bed stretching from wall to wall. Televisions, stereos, and tape decks could also be included at the buyer’s discretion.

The New Yorker

Palm-sized drone takes pictures and video

Pixy Lifestyle Still 4

I don’t usually do product stuff here, but this is pretty amazing. It wasn’t that long ago that drones cost thousands of dollars and were the size of your microwave. Snap is launching something called Pixy, a palm-sized yellow drone that will hover near and/or follow you, taking photos or video. When you are done, you put your hand underneath it and the drone lands. It sends the photos and video to your phone, where they are stored (of course) in your Snapchat. And it’s $230. According to Snap, it captures 2.7k videos and 12MP photos, and it weighs only 101g, with a replaceable battery that lasts for five to eight flights.

Twitter plus China could equal pressure for Elon Musk

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer. On Monday April 25, Twitter accepted Musk’s $44 billion takeover offer

Elon Musk’s attempt to acquire Twitter for $44 billion has caused some concern among regular Twitter users, including a fear that right-wing trolls may see some of Musk’s remarks promoting unrestrained freedom of speech as an excuse to engage in harassment, and his promise to “authenticate all humans” as a sign that anonymity will no longer be allowed. But some believe the biggest challenge Musk will face if he is successful in acquiring Twitter could come from China, where his interest in protecting free speech could run headfirst into the Chinese government’s desire to control the information that gets distributed about the country. And China has a significant point of leverage over Musk in Tesla, his electric-car manufacturing company.

Tesla and Musk have benefited from some unique concessions in China. Tesla was the first foreign carmaker to own its auto-assembly plant outright (other carmakers were required to partner with local companies, who then owned a majority stake in the factories.) The funding for Tesla’s “Giga Shanghai” plant reportedly included $1.3 billion in loans from Chinese banks, and the plant is the company’s largest, producing almost half a million cars last year, almost half Tesla’s production. China accounted for $14 billion worth of the company’s revenue, a quarter of the total in 2021. Musk has responded by “lavishing praise” on the country in the past, according to the Journal, and has refrained from criticism—including remaining silent on the draconian measures China has taken to halt COVID, after calling milder US restrictions “fascist.”

Twitter under Musk “will need to confront China’s leverage,” the Wall Street Journal wrote. Fergus Ryan, an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, told the Journal that China has a record of pressuring businesses to extract political concessions. “There will be lots of opportunities for Beijing to put the squeeze on Musk,” Ryan said. Nina Xiang, founder of the China Money Network, wrote that investors should “expect high drama” between Musk and China. “As the owner of Twitter, which is banned in China, Beijing may feel that it is able to pressure Musk to take down content that it does not like,” she wrote. “If Musk refuses, Beijing could start squeezing Tesla.”

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Fool’s spring, or the spring of deception

None of it looked good. That’s the secret about that first big horny spring day: It isn’t beautiful. Spring’s guts were out, parts spread haphazard around the driveway. Bare branches and cold ground left over from winter showed uglier with flowers trying to make inroads against them, and the paltry patches of green on the lawns only emphasized the dull muddy browns. The myths and the stories tell us that spring turns beautiful all at once, but that’s not really how it works. First, we have to lie to ourselves about it. To believe in resurrection, we have to talk ourselves into it.

Helena Fitzgerald, Griefbacon

The lost thread

“There are so many ways people might relate to one another online, so many ways exchange and conviviality might be organized. Look at these screens, this wash of pixels, the liquid potential! What a colossal bummer that Twitter eked out a local maximum; that its network effect still (!) consumes the fuel for other possibilities, other explorations. The amount that Twitter omits is breathtaking; more than any other social platform, it is indifferent to huge swaths of human experience and endeavor. I invite you to imagine this omitted content as a vast, bustling city. Scratching at your timeline, you are huddled in a single small tavern with the journalists, the nihilists, and the chaotic neutrals.”


What are days for?

Philip Larkin Quote: “What are days for? Days are where we live. They come,  they wake us Time and time over. Theyare to be happy in: Where can...”

“What are days for?
Days are where we live. 
They come, they wake us 
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in: 
Where can we live but days?

Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor 
In their long coats
Running over the fields.”

 Philip Larkin, “Days

from Whitsun Weddings. Copyright © Estate of Philip Larkin

A trip to Puglia and Matera, the city of caves

Thanks to a novel coronavirus that I’m sure many of you have heard of, we haven’t been able to make our annual pilgrimage to Italy for two years now. Obviously, other people have had much bigger problems, so I don’t want anyone to cry me a river because I haven’t been able to go to Italy (which is like a duke complaining that the Black Plague has made it difficult to go stag hunting). But I have definitely missed it a lot. So this year, we decided to throw caution to the winds and head to Perugia for the journalism conference we’ve been going to since about 2012. We’ll take N95 masks and be really cautious, we thought. 🙂 We wound up getting COVID, of course, but luckily it was relatively mild (click the photos for a larger version).

A big part of the reason we wanted to go — apart from seeing all of our international friends again, and enjoying Perugia’s ancient Etruscan architecture and amazing food — was to take a break after the conference and head south to Puglia, to stay at a BnB run by the daughter of our Italian friend Anna, a trip that we had all booked in 2020 before the conference was cancelled and everyone went into lockdown. So we dusted off our passports and luggage and flew off to Italy — after getting a COVID test first, since we had to connect in Washington, and the US still required a negative test to enter.

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Elon Musk puts his money where his mouth is

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer. On Monday April 25, Twitter accepted Musk’s $44 billion takeover offer

On April 4, Elon Musk filed a notice with the Securities and Exchange Commission stating that he had acquired enough shares in Twitter to give him a 9.2 percent stake in the company (“Oh hi lol,” he tweeted.) What followed was a somewhat bewildering series of announcements. Musk’s initial filing implied that he likely wouldn’t be an activist investor or push to join the company’s board, but that filing was later amended, at which point Twitter said he was joining the board (Musk also filed his documents late, which some said enabled him to acquire shares more cheaply). Then, just as suddenly, Twitter said Musk wouldn’t be joining the board after all. This led to rumors that he might be planning to acquire the company, and on April 14, Musk sent a letter to Twitter and filed a statement with the SEC detailing his plans to do exactly that.

The hostile nature of Musk’s bid soon became obvious, when Twitter filed a shareholders’ rights plan, often called a “poison pill.” Under the terms of the plan, if anyone acquires more than 15 percent of Twitter’s shares without the approval of the board, other shareholders will be allowed to purchase more shares at a discount. Musk responded by taking to the platform itself in an attempt to win support for his bid, asking users whether shareholders should decide on his takeover offer rather than the board (close to three million people voted, with almost 84 percent agreeing that shareholders should be able to choose.) Yesterday, Musk put even more money where his mouth is, by telling the SEC he has $46.5 billion in financing lined up for his bid, and that he is considering a tender offer that would be open to all Twitter shareholders.

In classic Musk fashion, all of these machinations have been accompanied by a series of joking tweets, in what appears to be an attempt to troll either the board or all of Twitter, or both. On the same day he filed a statement that he owned nine percent of the company, Musk polled his followers to see if anyone wanted Twitter to add an edit button; almost 4.5 million people answered, with about 74 percent of them saying they did (Twitter said it was already working on an edit function). On April 7, when it still appeared that he might join Twitter’s board, Musk posted a photo of himself smoking marijuana during an interview on Joe Rogan’s podcast, with the caption: “Twitter’s next board meeting is going to be lit.” On April 9, he posted a list of celebrity users he said hadn’t posted any tweets in months, and asked: “Is Twitter dying?”

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