Lunch Hour at the New York Public Library

The New York Public Library has, among other treasures, a great collection of menus. These have become part of the impetus for a new online and in-person exhibit, “Lunch Hour NYC.” The Automat is there, as is the power lunch. The breadline too. The “iconic foods” section includes hot dogs, naturally, and pretzels, a penny a piece sold by this pretzel woman in this great image from by a NYTimes photographer in 1923 (a short story captured in a single frame).

Predictably, but possibly accurately, the exhibit asserts that New York not only perfected lunch, but invented it!

Nice piece on the exhibit by Alexandra Lange at Design Observer as well, with her photo of a wall of 1970’s lunch boxes. I remember them well.

TACO: Terrible Adult Chamber Orchestra

NPR’s classical music blog, Deceptive Cadence, tipped me off to the encouraging news that the terrible orchestra movement is alive and well in California. A group in Los Altos gets together for the hell of it, to participate directly in music making in a way that is open to all, regardless of skill level and experience.

Broader goal? Simple, according to conductor Cathy Humphers Smith,

“The goal is to play music together. That’s it. People are wanting something that’s nurturing of the soul.

Part of the appeal is the laughter, of course. Comic writer Alexander McCall Smith relates his own experience on the sousaphone and contrabasson in Scotland’s Really Terrible Orchestra, [audiences] “wait for something to go wrong, and we never disappoint them.”

But I bet the experience for the players isn’t disappointing, but rather a real kick. As an avid amateur musician myself (passable pianist, bargain basement tenor, and non-observant violinist), I’ve always looked enviously at amateur sports. Lots of participation, and no needless hang ups about excellence.

Excellence is a value of classical music, of course (see my earlier post on Victoria De Los Angeles) but it’s not the only one, becoming a kind of insurmountable barrier for musician or listener. Participation is an even more important value, and sometimes it’s best not to outsource our engagement with music but instead, ice the “is it any good? question, and get out and do it. Faces and the sounds from the Mercury News piece on TACO show that’s a reward in itself.

Turing and the Test of Time

Why do some figures pass “the test of time,” while others flunk it? Is the judgment permanent? What about these figures for whom a small, but ardently industrious group of rescuers pop up? (Yes, Frida Kahlo, I’m talking about you.)

I’ve thought about this a lot, mostly in light of artists and composers. Sometimes it seems to me not so much an argument about eternal value, but feebly, just a clumsy, way to talk about aesthetics, society, and style. In essence, to make new arguments about what matters right now, but to clothe this in battles of the canon, preferably seasoned with large helpings of righteous indignation about past injustices.

Whatever the reason, we certainly spend a lot of cultural effort in these kinds of discussions. Is science immune to these gab fests? Alan Turing certainly has just come off a few laps with the test of time, besting her easily and wrapped in winner’s colors of a rainbow hue. A friend co-wrote a piece that pads comfortably through his mighty achievements, noting a few of the persuasions and arguments (Frank Kermode’s words about passing the “test”) that Turing brings up, and the many narratives he fits into: AI pioneer, war hero, rallying point for renouncing mi-treatment of gays in the 50’s Britain.

Still, why now? Is there anything beyond the convenience of the anniversary (a nice coincidence for Turing to have both birth and death dates in June, now gay pride month) and some vague feeling that we should do a better job of paying attention to technical innovators? Even my being a gay nerd, for whom he might be expected to be a hero, does not provide me a way to connect. He remains just a mysteriously brilliant man and sad case.

Michael Wood Quoting Mel Brooks

In a perceptive, and not particularly favorable, review of Sasha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator, Michael Wood invokes a political lesson from Mel Brooks. Talking about a bit of Cohen’s film that seemed to be “grossness for grossness’ sake,” he writes,

One can’t adjudicate these things, only report on them. It is important, as Mel Brooks has shown us, to defend bad taste in principle, even if we don’t like its results. It’s one of the few media freedoms left.”

Not perhaps what Brecht was after in his line, “There are times when you have to choose between being a human and having good taste.” But certainly something that John Waters, now probably bicycling around P-Town or controversially admitting his love for San Francisco’s MUNI, would endorse.

Library Exhibit at PEM

Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum is a quirky treasure, and despite some sleek modern elements still retains the “cabinet of curiosities” quality that has been curated out of many museums.

So what’s even quirkier than its main galleries? The library I bet. There’s a show from the library up now, with, among other things, this oddly Warhol-like chromolithograph of Beethoven (it would make a great CD cover for a recording of some of his piano variations.)

Carl Zimmer on “Neuro” Drinks

Science writer Carl Zimmer writes about drinks that claim to enhance your neural performance. Good reporting, and he used himself as a guinea pig.

In passing mentions the trend of college students taking ADHD drugs to get an academic edge:

A growing number of college students are taking Adderall—typically prescribed for attention deficit disorder—in hopes of boosting academic performance. But Farah and other neuroscientists have found some of those students are fooling themselves. “There are a decent number of null results,” she says.

I’d heard of pre-med students taking up smoking (in a rather vivid irony) to get a point or two on the boards. It all seems a little nuts, perhaps “cognitive enhancers,” aren’t here now, but they will arrive soon enough, bringing a host of philosophical and educational issues. And I thought the steroids in sports controversy was full of tough calls.

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