I saw Peter Jackson’s WWI movie They Shall Not Grow Old where they restored clips frame-by-frame and colorized them, and then combined those visuals with audio recordings of soldiers talking about the war, and on the surface it was an interesting project that really brought home how young everyone was and how brutal the war was. Being limited to audio interviews meant it had no historical context besides what someone told an interviewer 50-60 years ago. Thanks to a 30 minute short that played after the film, Jackson shared stories of how the movie was made and assembled and after getting more context and information, I felt ultimately it was kind of a big dumb vanity project for Peter Jackson that fell short of the mark.
He set out to make a movie for non-historians to watch, made by non-historians, and that’s an interesting concept and I get that making a big Ken Burns style exhaustive historical film would add a ton of work and become a different beast. But ultimately through the 30min follow-up extras, Jackson makes it clear he chose to cut out any archive film about the navy ships and battles, cut the entire story of the first airplanes in war, and chopped out any war front footage besides that from the fields of Belgium and France.
The moment that crystallized it for me was when he showed his own research photos he took during the colorization process, including a scene we saw of soldiers looking scared in a gully below a field, and he located the exact field and the exact gully and took a photo from the same angle and casually mentioned the look of horror on the young soldiers’ faces was due to them getting ready to storm the field above them which was filled with German soldiers in camp, and how almost certainly 90% of people in that piece of film died about 30 minutes after it was captured.
That’s quite a revelation to pick up in a small aside, and reframed the bit of film and explained so much that was lost in how the movie was ultimately made. By adding no historical context, the segment of scared soldiers just felt like an odd moment among hundreds of other clips, notable only for the frightened looks on a couple faces that are unexplained and entirely left to the viewer.
We should never forget the horrors of war. If we ignore the lessons we are doomed to repeat them, and I think the concept of the project was a wonderful one, but the execution fell far short of the mark. It didn’t have to be an exhaustive Ken Burns style project that takes 5-10 years to complete, but on the other hand, 90 minutes of daily life footage combined with soldier stories isn’t quite enough to tell a full picture of what took place.
I wanted to like this more than I did, and I wanted it to be a great piece of history, but ultimately, it was not.
Lately I’ve thought of all the ways my life would change if I ever became a rich guy. Think of this as an action plan, if I ever got to act this way. It’s sort of like becoming a prepper, it’s just I’m prepping for opulence instead of post-apocalyptic annihilation.
I’ve come up with three things so far.
Number one is easy. Guac on everything. Yes, I would like to add avocado to my omelette. I’ll take chips and guacamole as soon as I sit down anywhere serving it. Yes I know it’s extra, but I’m fine with that. Always and forever going forward.
It’ll be the first immediate switch that flips in my life. No hesitation, no delay, I want guac in everything and I’m going to order it that way. Every chef wants to offer it, but it costs a little more. With such low-level worries in my rearview mirror, I’ll finally be ready to always say yes to extra fat and flavor from then on out.
Two. This might not be universal, but pebble ice is the best ice in drinks on planet earth and I want a personal ice maker in my house that makes perfect pebble ice on demand. I know this isn’t that outlandish. I might have even tracked various sales on Amazon and remember a tabletop pebble ice maker once dropped to about $250 down from $600, but I still couldn’t make myself pull the trigger. Two hundred and fifty dollars (on sale) just for ice? Are you kidding? What am I, some kind of rich guy?!
A real pebble ice maker fit for a bar or restaurant runs in the two to three thousand dollar range new. Trust me, I’ve looked. On eBay, you can find shuttered places selling off their pebble ice makers for less, often around $1500, sometimes as cheap as $900. But they’re big, about the size of a hotel ice maker from the 1970s. As much as I love pebble ice, I can’t justify that, but a tabletop maker? Someday, I hope to make one mine.
Third, and perhaps most indulgent on the lifestyle change list is buy the entire dessert menu, whenever the opportunity arises. Let me explain.
Often you’re at a nice place and you had a good meal and you’re asked if you’re interested in dessert. I never know how to convey how very much interested I am in dessert, always. I love talking about it, thinking about it, and eating it. I think about it more than I think about steaks or appetizers or cocktails.
Every time I go out, near the end of the night I’m presented with an impossible quandary. Here are six things. Here are eight things. Here are five things. Almost all of them sound amazing, but most importantly for almost everyone: you may only choose one.
A bunch of years ago, I took a group of friends out for a special dinner and at the end we realized there were eight different desserts that sounded good and there were eight of us. And even though all eight people wanted a mix of 5 or 6 of the options I got to utter the most powerful words to our server I’d ever wielded inside a restaurant: “I’d like to order all the desserts. Yes. We’ll take the entire dessert menu for the table.”
Everyone got a bite of all eight things. And of course we all loved two or three things more than the rest and maybe one or two options were deemed unsuccessful, but it was the principle of the thing.
“I’ll take one of everything, my good sir.”
I’ve only been in two other situations in the last twenty years where it worked out that we had enough people to match the number of dessert menu items and I got to order the entire lot. And let me tell you I remember each one of those three meals and all the desserts entailed within each.
So, my new rule once I become a rich guy is when the dessert menu arrives I’ll wave it away with a flourish of my wrist and I’ll say “yeah, I’ll have them all.”
To be clear, I don’t want to eat all of them—a bite of each is the perfect amount to figure out what works and doesn’t and why. It would be tremendously wasteful but I’d finally get to leave no stone unturned at the end of any posh meal.
I was there with a friend documenting the work done by the social clubs that put them on, and as much I tried to stay on the sidelines and away from the action, every person I encountered and was introduced to was warm, gracious, and welcomed me as a guest in their space.
We began at the house where the procession started, awaited the kickoff at noon, and watched one brass band after another play out dance squads and parade kings and queens as they emerged from the home. Then we spent a few hours following the parade at various points.
I remember a moment early in the day, when the first groups were coming out of the house and I heard this incredible live music all around me along with all the smells of food and drink being prepared in the street and everyone was cheering on a dance squad decked out in matching suits with big feathers to accentuate their moves and then another brass band joined in and then there was the queen surrounded by 5 feet of feathers all around her head looking absolutely like queen of the entire planet earth. It hit every one of my senses at once. It was a celebration and a culture unlike anything I’d seen before. And it was beyond wonderful. I just lost it and started crying at the pure joy of everything happening all around me.
We followed our favorite brass bands for a few miles and walked up and down the route amidst all the people taking part. There were so many cool examples of people doing what they loved. There were bicycle clubs, motorcycle clubs, people on horses, people with huge 4x4s and people in lowriders. There were people selling burgers, beers, drinks, and cocktails from the backs of their cars and trucks. There were dogs everywhere and people with snakes and people smoking weed in the streets and dancing along and there were even cops at the start and finish of the procession but everyone was cool with each other. I didn’t hear a single voice raised in anger anywhere. I never saw the cops do anything but shake people’s hands and keep the party moving. It just was so many handshakes, hugs, and dancing for hours.
It was an entire day of pure joy and celebration of great music and people. And it happens every week! Over 40 Sundays per year! I was overwhelmed in the best way possible by the whole day and I couldn’t help but think it must be incredible to get to experience it every week. No matter how bad your week was, or how unfair things seem, there’s always the party on Sunday to feel good again and celebrate the best life has to offer.
When I read Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy a few years ago, I remember being shocked not just by the stories about today’s justice system, but the revelation that the first slavery museum in the US was opened to the public just a few years ago. Hundreds of years of detailed, brutal history and zero museums dedicated to it before 2014? I knew the next time I went to New Orleans, I would visit the Whitney Museum, and today I finally got to experience it.
I’d read Just Mercy, I’ve read the People’s History of the United States, I’ve read a bunch of Ta-Nehisi Coates, so I naively thought I had some idea of how bad slavery was.
After visiting and hearing the stories from my guide and seeing the displays, I really had no clue.
Think of the worst thing you can possibly imagine that one human being might do to another and know that what really took place was a hundred times worse.
It was a real journey today that I’m still processing. But it began immediately with a memorial showing the names of all the slaves that lived and died on the property, as it went from farming indigo to sugar cane.
Name after name after name, almost all of them anglicized to remove their history, family, and heritage. To remove their humanity. To reinforce they were property. To make it clear that they were little more than machinery for the farm. For profits. People can do horrible things to one another when their overseer doesn’t consider their slaves to be human and instead treats them like cheap, replaceable farm equipment.
In another memorial, we visited the results of a genealogy project that displayed 107,000 names of recorded slaves between 1719 and 1820 in Louisiana (this misses the 45 years at the height of slavery that followed). It was a tremendous amount to take in at once, just slab after slab of granite etched with thousands and thousands of names going all around a big open field around you.
Late in the tour, a third memorial was devoted to the 2,000 children who died on the plantations in just the local parish (parishes are treated like counties in Louisiana, there are 64 total). There we learned the birth rate on the plantations around New Orleans was -13%. That for every 100 children born into slavery, 113 died before they reached the age of an “adult” which is ten years old. This was the second time I cried this day.
The darkness and brutality of slavery was evident from start to finish on the tour. In the “Gold Coast” around New Orleans, slaves lived for only 7-10 years after arriving on plantations in the region, no matter what their starting ages were. Slave owners insured their property (including their slaves) and would get up to 75% of their investment back when slaves died, so plantation owners had every incentive to work everyone to death, making many times over what they paid thanks to their free labor and when their slaves did die, owners were rewarded by recouping most of their original investment. The entire economic system was designed to support it.
The utter danger of plantation work was made clear. Slaves on this plantation had to weed 1,800 acres of cane fields by hand, frequently encountering venomous snakes. Sugar cane was harvested with long sharp blades that could easily slice you open or take off a foot accidentally. Sugar cane processing started with huge grinders which caused gruesome accidents.
The worst was hearing that pressed and ground sugar cane had to be boiled down in these large, wide vats, going from largest to smallest as they boiled off all the water to get sugar. Anyone that’s ever done any kind of candy making today knows that getting just a drop of molten sugar on your skin can burn it deeply and severely. Imagine people tending boiling vats of sugar 24 hours a day in shifts for several months a year. Mixing and mixing around the clock, being exhausted, and trying not to make a mistake that can instantly kill you.
Slave quarters were appalling. And we learned there was no metal in the buildings, which were assembled with tongue-and-groove woodwork along with wooden dowels to hold beams together, as nails and spikes could be used as weapons, so they were completely omitted from construction.
I didn’t know most plantation owners and their families typically only visited during harvest, to oversee the most valuable part of the work from about October through December. All that pomp and circumstance of constructing those opulent buildings but they only got used a fraction of the year, with most rich families living in fancier New Orleans houses, or spending their summers on the coast to escape the heat and bugs on the farms.
The most disturbing aspect of the entire tour was hearing about the slave rebellion of 1811. It was the story of an elaborate escape, and the freeing of slaves at other plantations, but also their eventual capture, and their sentencing to death, and their decapitation, then finally the story of plantations mounting their heads on pikes to display along the river, to serve as a lesson to others to never try anything like it again.
Other things I learned that were new to me:
Automation revived slavery in the early 1800s. As the indigo trade was dying, it wasn’t economical to keep slaves, until the cotton gin and the paddle wheel steamboat and other processes to increase output made agriculture profitable again.
African resistance to diseases like malaria made them ideal slaves over any Europeans or indigenous people more susceptible to disease.
Today’s racists try to revise history to make slavery seem less barbaric because even they are aware in hindsight that slaves were humans and the actual practices that took place were almost unbelievably brutally barbaric.
In the 1800s you received more whips as punishment for having a pencil and paper (even if you were illiterate) than for escaping from the plantation.
Plantation houses are placed, built, and landscaped to optimize for cool breezes off the river, and all those ideas were taken from their African slaves. African homes were constructed in these ways to keep homes as cool as possible in summers.
The blacksmiths and the cooks were the most valuable slaves on a plantation, and both had multiple apprentices aged 10 and up, there to learn the trade in case anything happened to their mentors so they could replace them quickly.
It’s fascinating to think how all of this history could be so easily forgotten, due to how little records were kept. The Whitney plantation has records on their slaves due to a variety of unusual circumstances. There was a lawsuit between two descendants of the family fighting over their fortune in the 1800s that introduced all their slave record keeping as evidence in the case. The children who died were recorded in church documents for their parish. The WPA did first person interviews in the 1930s with former slaves (who were all in their 80s and 90s) and recorded their stories of being children at the Whitney Plantation. Without any of these, details are forgotten and 200 years does a lot to soften memories. It’s abhorrent that we don’t have museums dedicated to this subject all over the country. Or that the first one in America opened in 2014.
Our guide Ali, was incredible. In fact, I’d suggest you phone ahead to make sure he’s your guide when you visit. He told grim stories and always broke them down to their elements. How people were separated and pitted against one another. How a tiny minority controlled a vast army of slaves. How you keep oppressed people down, how you keep them away from education, how you remove any shred of self-worth, and how you make it seem like there’s no other option.
He also connected those lessons to today. How we still continue to repeat these brutal processes to keep much of humanity down. How we live in a country where 1% controls the other 99% and makes laws to benefit the 1% and the other 99% go along with it. How tools of oppression worked then and still work today (we passed a large for-profit prison on the way to the plantation, which provides a sub-minimum wage workforce to companies and offers little-to-no rehabilitation to help prisoners escape the system)
Overall, it was a sobering and haunting day, and I’m still weighing the gravity of the visit. I would recommend anyone wanting to know more about slavery should visit the Whitney Plantation.
It was an incredible experience I won’t ever forget.
It was nine years ago today that I fell at home after passing out, and later learned I had a tumor growing at the base of my brain. Since then, it’s been good news as a drug regimen helped shrink the tumor and restore my hormone levels.
I’m still on two pills to this day, one keeps the tumor in check and the other makes my thyroid function.
Nine years on, I still remember Anil Dash posting this tweet. And I remember and thank Charlie Park for archiving all the related tweets on a site especially for it.
During my recovery, it was an amazing experience to see hundreds of people saying nice things about my work and I still periodically return to it when I need a pick me up. I’ve long said it was like getting to attend my own funeral and hear the eulogies and I’m thankful to all the nice things people said. It still keeps me going every day.
I’ve been a fan of emoji for many years, and every year I love seeing the new ones get released. They enter our phones and most of them are pretty descriptive, but you never know how people will adopt them, which of them will hit meme status, and ultimately what their meanings will entail.
To help quantify that scenario, my spouse, who is a psycholinguistics researcher that studies language, decided to start a quick survey just about the new emoji.
If you have a few minutes today, can you help us out and take the survey and give your take on the new faces of emoji in iOS 12.1?
Don’t open this post until you’ve watched the entire second season of Patriot, and then only after you’ve watched season one as well. It’s the most fucked up comedy/action movie-like TV show there is. Smart and funny, and thought-provoking too.
I just uploaded a new episode of Hobby Horse with Erin McKean. If you’ve never seen her blog Dress A Day, you’re in for a treat. Erin has spent the past 13 years documenting how she makes her own clothes, what patterns and fabrics she chooses and posts photos of the final product. She’s got a really amazing backstory too, starting as a kid when she fell in love with dictionaries and spent her life becoming a lexicographer.
I honestly have no idea how I’m going to handle it when someone that hosts a podcast I’ve listened to for hundreds of episodes over many years ends up dying.
I think about how much time face to face I spend with friends, even those I’ve known for over a decade, and then I contrast that with some podcasts where they’re on episode four hundred and something and I’ve heard them all going back many years.
Aside from immediate family, I don’t think I’ve spent thousands of hours interacting with almost anyone on earth.
Maybe I’ll feel like I did when Bowie and Prince died. Both made music that acted like a soundtrack to my life listened for thousands of hours over years, and both times it made me feel like an empty hole was just punched into me by their absence.
Most people don’t get how serious being denied the ability to vote is.
I was purged from voter rolls this year and I was pissed. I had heard about widespread, rampant voter purging and feared I was caught up in a bigger effort. I talked to my local city councilman who had connections to the county and election board and in the end we realized it was just one person reviewing past election records and he was worried my signature changed from my original Oregon voter registration from 15 years ago.
When I first showed up in the state, I was younger and took my time and probably did a legible signature, but over the years I’ve realized signatures barely matter much anymore and I’ve reduced mine to a much simpler squiggle, just to save time.
Apparently I had gotten a couple letters asking me to re-register that I missed, and the final one I saw was telling me I was officially ineligible to vote. I only had two months before today’s election day to re-register.
As I went to fill out the paperwork again, I realized how fucked up this was. It’s not “just a vote.” I was literally being denied one of our core constitutional rights by one guy with a clipboard judging me.
The gravity of it hit me on the way to the county records office. By the time I parked my car, I was fully prepared to file a lawsuit and contact the ACLU for resources if re-registering didn’t clear things up immediately.
It’s extraordinarily unfair when we remove the right to vote from anyone. Even people that served time for felonies still should keep their rights to vote when they get out. They did the time, paid the price, and still have a say in how the world works once they’ve gone through rehabilitation. They can also work as a check and balance on overzealous policing and imprisonment and should never be denied their constitutional right.
And I’ll never, ever understand anyone pushing for voter suppression of any kind. Even if the majority of people voted against my interests, every voter should be able to cast their ballots quickly, easily, and our shared goals should be as close as possible to 100% of eligible voters getting to vote in every election.
Anything less than that is fighting against a true democracy.