Culture Making is now archived. Enjoy five years of reflections on culture worth celebrating.
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from "Why Teenagers Read Better Than You," by Joanne McNeil, Tomorrow Museum, 20 June 2009 :: first posted here 23 June 2009

Certainly, the increasing quality of young adult books is a draw. But there are exceptional videogames, there are exceptional websites and exceptional television programs to fight for a teenager’s attention. So why are they still reading?

I think there is another reason why young adult novels are doing well, and it is less easy gauge. As of yet, there are no real studies determining this, but anecdotally, we all relate to it. A book is an opportunity to get “off the grid.” We read to break free of their digital tether. To experience what life was like before the net. To disconnect. To finally feel alone.

A book holds your hand in solitude and says, here you are alone in your room and everything is alright. You don’t need to call a friend or Twitter something. The world is still turning. If you go for a forty minute walk without your mobile, don’t worry, you’re not going to miss anything.

from "Monopoly Killer: Perfect German Board Game Redefines Genre," by Andrew Curry, Wired, 23 March 2009 :: via @jamescham :: first posted here 30 March 2009

Part of the reason we don’t play much Risk and Monopoly as adults is that those are actually poorly designed games, at least in the German sense. Derk Solko, a garrulous former Wall Streeter who cofounded the Web site in 2000 after discovering Settlers, explains it this way: “Monopoly has you grinding your opponents into dust. It’s a very negative experience. It’s all about cackling when your opponent lands on your space and you get to take all their money.” . . . Monopoly also fails with many adults because it requires almost no strategy.

German-style games, on the other hand, avoid direct conflict. Violence in particular is taboo in Germany’s gaming culture, a holdover from decades of post-World War II soul-searching. In fact, when Parker Brothers tried to introduce Risk there in 1982, the government threatened to ban it on the grounds that it might encourage imperialist and militaristic impulses in the nation’s youth. (The German rules for Risk were hastily rewritten so players could “liberate” their opponents’ territories, and censors let it slide.)

Instead of direct conflict, German-style games tend to let players win without having to undercut or destroy their friends. . . . Designed with busy parents in mind, German games also tend to be fast, requiring anywhere from 15 minutes to a little more than an hour to complete. They are balanced, preventing one person from running away with the game while the others painfully play out their eventual defeat.

I like hearing things incorrectly. I think that’s how I get a lot of ideas is by mishearing something.

—Tom Waits, interviewed here :: via Cheap Talk

from "The Chinese Restaurant Workers’ View of America: Through Area Codes," by Jennifer 8. Lee, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, 17 January 2009 :: first posted here 23 January 2009


These two are Chinatown bus advertisements for routes that go to the more obscure regions of the eastern United States. (Chinatown bus goes all over, not just Boston, NYC, Philly and Washington). Notice how they emphasize the area codes.

That is because many Fujianese restaurant workers are not educated and thus don’t really read and write English. Given that. How do you divide the United States? Not through towns and states. You do it through numbers—hence the area codes.

from "Once more, then giving this topic a rest," by James Fallows, James Fallows, 18 December 2008 :: via Alan Jacobs :: first posted here 19 December 2008

The culture of each building, and the culture of the more abstract sphere they represent—retail, water treatment, banking, undergraduate education, and so on—has its own history of making and remaking, of possibility and impossibility. Many things that are entirely possible in a cafeteria—say, a food fight—are all but impossible in a dentist’s office, and vice versa.

Culture Making, p.44

from "Visual distortion of a limb modulates the pain and swelling evoked by movement," VSL Science, 19 December 2008 :: first posted here 19 December 2008

The next time you stub your toe, take out a telescope and look at your foot through the wrong end: According to researchers at Oxford University, such visual distortions have a powerful effect on how we perceive pain.

The scientists found that subjects who looked at a wounded hand through the right end of a pair of binoculars felt more pain and experienced increased swelling in that limb. But when the binoculars were flipped around, the suffering and swelling were lessened dramatically.

excerpt Re-bonjour
from "Parisians, rude? Pas du tout!," by Sophie Pedder, More Intelligent Life, 18 March 2009 :: Clairfontaine French-ruled notebooks on sale here :: first posted here 26 March 2009

Everyone thinks that people in Paris are impossibly rude. The longer I spend in the city, the more I realise that this is untrue. In fact, they are impossibly polite. Understanding this is the secret to an effortless life in the French capital. Mastering lift etiquette is a good case in point. I arrived in Paris a few years ago from London, where even colleagues would rather stare blankly at the closed doors than venture a greeting. In Paris, by contrast, there is a tightly observed ritual. When the lift doors part, you step in and say “Bonjour”. Everybody says “Bonjour” back. Whenever anyone steps out, you wish them a “Bonne journée”. They do the same. And that’s not all. If later in the day you bump into anyone again, you start all over again with (I’m not making this up) “Re-bonjour”....

The general French respect for formality and form is nowhere more finely observed than in Paris. ... When my son was learning to write, his school report gave him marks for whether his boucles, or loops, of his joined-up letters respected to the millimetre the inter-line boundaries printed on the page. At the same time, he would bring back English exercise books filled with a chaotic caterpillar of mismatched letters. Why didn’t he use his neat handwriting in those books too, I asked him? He looked perplexed: “But that’s not how you write in English!”

The Holy City, by definition, is already a cultural artifact, the work of a master Architect and Artist. The citizens themselves are the redeemed people of the Lamb, drawn from “every tribe, language, people, and nation” (Rev. 5:9). But God’s handiwork, artifacts and people alike, are not all that is found in the city. Also in the city are “the glory and the honor of the nations”—brought into the city by none other than “the kings of the earth.”

Culture Making, p.166

from Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home, by Emily Post, 1922 :: first posted 13 November 2008

There are certain words which have been singled out and misused by the undiscriminating until their value is destroyed. Long ago “elegant” was turned from a word denoting the essence of refinement and beauty, into gaudy trumpery. “Refined” is on the verge. But the pariah of the language is culture! A word rarely used by those who truly possess it, but so constantly misused by those who understand nothing of its meaning, that it is becoming a synonym for vulgarity and imitation. To speak of the proper use of a finger bowl or the ability to introduce two people without a blunder as being “evidence of culture of the highest degree” is precisely as though evidence of highest education were claimed for who ever can do sums in addition, and read words of one syllable. Culture in its true meaning is widest possible education, plus especial refinement and taste.

As the philosopher Albert Borgmann has observed, human cultures have the strange yet fortunate property of always being full. No culture experiences itself as thin or incomplete. Consider language. No human language seems to its speakers to lack the capacity to describe everything they experience—or, at least, all our languages fail at the same limits of mystery. Even though our languages divide up the color spectrum very differently from one another, for example, every human language has a name for every color its speakers can see. No one is waiting for a new word to come along so they can begin talking about yellow.

Culture Making, p. 67

"Untitled" (Watts Towers), by Ryan Dickey, Wallula Junction/Flickr, 2009
from "Everybody Take A Seat," by Mariana Gosnell, Smithsonian, July 2004 :: image via Neeta Exports :: first posted here 17 November 2008

Maybe you’re sitting on one right now. It has a high back with slats, or arches, or a fan of leaf blades, or some intricate tracery. Its legs are wide and splayed, not solid. The plastic in the seat is three-sixteenths of an inch thick. It’s probably white, though possibly green. Maybe you like how handy it is, how you can stack it or leave it outdoors and not worry about it. Maybe you’re pleased that it cost less than a bottle of shampoo.

No matter what you’re doing, millions of other people around the world are likely sitting right now on a single-piece, jointless, all-plastic, all-weather, inexpensive, molded stacking chair. It may be the most popular chair in history.

That dawned on me recently after I started noticing The Chair in news photographs from global trouble spots. In a town on the West Bank, an indignant Yasser Arafat holds a broken chair damaged by an Israeli military operation. In Nigeria, contestants in a Miss World pageant are seated demurely on plastic chairs just before riots break out, killing some 200 people. In Baghdad, U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer III, during a ceremony honoring Iraqi recruits, sits on a white plastic chair as if on a throne….

The plastic chairs in all those places were essentially alike, as far as I could tell, and seemed to be a natural part of the scene, whatever it was. It occurred to me that this humble piece of furniture, criticized by some people as hopelessly tacky, was an item of truly international, even universal, utility. What other product in recent history has been so widely, so to speak, embraced? And how had it found niches in so many different societies and at so many different levels, from posh resorts to dirt courtyards? How did it gain a global foothold?

from "Edible Geography," by Nicola Twilley, Edible Geography, 2 February 2011

Several other researchers have shown that there is a disproportionate amount of alcohol advertising in predominantly black neighbourhoods compared to predominantly white neighbourhoods. Kwate’s study not only revealed that an astonishing twenty-five percent of the outdoor advertising space in Central Harlem was dedicated to selling alcohol, but also that exposure to these ads increased black women’s chances of being a problem drinker—by up to thirteen percent. That, as she puts it, is “a really big deal.”

The insight that culture has many different addresses, and that not every cultural good affects the same public, is the most basic form of “multiculturalism.” Multiculturalism begins with the simple observation that the cumulative, creative process of human culture has happened in widely different places, with widely different results, throughout human history.


Culture Making, p.41

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