Archive Page 2
If you’re a beer nerd, or have a friend who’s a beer nerd, you’ve heard of Belgian beers. Belgians take beer very seriously. Amongst the 200 Belgian breweries, there’s a very specific sub-type: Trappist beers.
According to our reporter Cyrus Farivar (also from Episode #36 “Super Bonn Bon”), there are two things you need to know about Trappist beers. First, they’re amazing. Second, they’re made by Trappist monks. These monks trace their roots to a monastery in 17th century France, and have since spread out to all over the world.
The main concept behind the Trappist lifestyle is that the abbey should be economically self-sufficient. In other words, the monks should make something and sell it to the public as a way to fund the operations of the abbey itself. Some make cheese. Some make spirits. There’s even one in Germany that makes lentil soup. But none of the Trappist products are as famous as the beer.
The beer that is considered the best of the best is Westvleteren 12. With its plain brown bottle, no label, the only writing is on the cap- the beer is super cool. It’s quite rare and year after year it’s rated the best beer in the world.
But here’s the thing about Westvleteren. You can’t just go there and have as much beer as you want. You can’t even have it shipped from the abbey. If you want to buy beer to take with you, you have to look up the beer reservation phone number on the abbey’s website. Then, you call certain phone number during certain hours, on certain days.
If you’re lucky enough to talk to a monk to take your reservation, you have to give your license plate number and be available to come pick up your crate during the appointed time that weekend. You’re limited to one crate per person per car, maximum two per car. And, you can’t buy more than one crate during a 60-day period. You also have to agree not to resell the beer.
This sort of thing is not unheard of: velvet ropes and random reward have long been imposed to create artificial scarcity to heighten demand, but the mainstream trend today seems to be more geared toward greater access and accommodation for customers. The new ideal is that everything is available, at all times, no matter where you live. Yet the Westvleteren Trappists are trying to make it as difficult as possible.
Jef van den Steen, author of a book called Trappist: The Seven Heavenly Beers and an acclaimed brewer himself, says that’s not the case, “Before, Westvleteren was only well-known was in Belgium. And now it’s worldwide, and that’s the problem. They decide we will brew the same amount as the last 40-50 years, and they have enough for that, so why must they brew more? Because you want? No. They live between the walls of the abbey, so for them it’s not a problem.”
The “customer service” is not designed to provide convenience for the consumer of their beer, it is designed for monks themselves. Their “customer” is God, so to speak. They have a mission, and making beer is only a fraction of that. The Head of the Abbey says, “We are not brewers. We are monks. We brew beer to be able to afford being monks.”
Cyrus Farivar recently returned to California after having lived in Bonn, Germany for two years. These days, he can be found frequenting The Trappist bar in downtown Oakland. He plans on presenting a bottle of Westvleteren 12 to his favorite bar owners. His book, The Internet of Elsewhere, was published last year.
US paper currency is so ubiquitous that to really look at its graphic design with fresh eyes requires some deliberate and focused attention. So pull out a greenback from your wallet (or look at a picture one online) and just take really take it in. All the fonts, the busy filigree, the micro patterns…it’s just dreadful.
Even though paper currency itself, just idea of money, is a massive, world changing technology, the look and feel of US paper money is very stagnant. Richard Smith is the founder of the Dollar ReDe$ign Project and in an article in the New York Times, he pointed out five major areas where the design of US currency could improve: color, size, functionality, composition, and symbolism.
It just so happens that Australian currency addresses each and every one of the points made by Richard Smith. Tristan Cooke and Tom Nelson of the blog Humans in Design are big fans of all the design innovations in Australian money. Aussie polymer notes are varied in color, get larger with each denomination, are more durable and are generally considered better and easier to use than US currency.
But there are some interesting reasons why the greenback is the way it is. David Wolman, author of The End of Money, explains that the legacy features that make US paper money look stale and anachronistic are meant to convey stability and timelessness. Since the US economy is so important in the world economy, why mess with it? Some fear that changing the design of the currency significantly (or eliminating the penny) could undermine the faith in the federal reserve note.
Even though Tristan and Tom are fans of the Australian polymer bills, they share Wolman’s view that the more interesting future innovations are not going to have anything to do with physical cash. Clever user interfaces that help us manage our money better, while providing even greater convenience, are getting more refined and accepted. So that ugly $20 in your wallet may never actually get prettier and more functional, it’ll just be gone.
What happens when we build big?
Julia Barton remembers going to the top floor of Dallas’s then-new city hall when she was teenager. The building, designed by I.M. Pei, is a huge trapezoid jutting out over a wide plaza. Julia found the view from the top pretty fantastic, especially when munching on a Caramello bar from the City Hall vending machines.
But once she went to a protest in the plaza below. And those same windows, now hulking over her, made her feel small, and the whole event insignificant. Texans have a fondness for big structures—big arenas, big houses, big freeways. Julia wasn’t sure if their hidden message wasn’t simply this: I’m important, you’re nobody.
For people who distrust the big project, Edward Tenner’s 2001 essay “The Xanadu Effect” is some comfort. Tenner, a visiting scholar at Princeton University, ponders the ways in which obsession with bigness can presage hard times for a business or even a nation. Tenner named his essay not for Olivia Newton-John’s anthem or even the Coleridge poem, but for the palace Xanadu built in the movie “Citizen Kane.” That Xanadu, of course, was based on a real-life palace that newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst built in his waning days of empire:
On its 24,000 acres were a 354,000-gallon swimming pool, a private zoo and four main buildings with a total of 165 rooms. Along with other such extravagances, the estate helped send Hearst into trusteeship late in life. The cavernous halls of Welles’ gloomy cinematic Xanadu seemed to filmgoers — as the real, happier building must have appeared to many Hearst Corp. public investors — the very image of the pride that goes before a fall.
The downside of the Xanadu Effect has seen itself play out in other places—the Empire State Building, for example, was conceived in the 1920s but completed during the Great Depression, when it was known as “the Empty State Building.” Tenner’s not arguing that big things shouldn’t be built; he’s saying bigness is a gamble. It pays off when it it uplifts people, gives them a sense of grandeur and purpose. It fails when it crushes them or just makes life a pain, as in the big-built city of Moscow, where pedestrians have to scurry under the wide avenues in tunnels.
On a recent reporting trip to Russia for PRI’s “The World,” Julia travelled to Sochi, Russia’s southern-most city and upcoming host of the 2014 Winter Olympics. Sochi is Europe’s biggest construction site right now, with Xanadu-like ice-palaces going up right on the Black Sea.
All the construction—including billions of dollars of infrastructure—is good news for the Russian state and shoring up its presence in the Caucasus. It’s not necessarily good news for the locals. Julia interviewed a Sochi resident, Alexei Kravets, who’s been in a stand-off with authorities about the fate of the home he built by the Black Sea.
Kravets’s court case to save his home has been standing in the way of a new railway complex. Construction workers have been throwing rocks through his windows, scraping his walls with backhoes, and hauling away his storage units. Kravets has been confronting them on film.
It’s a dramatic example of big vs. small, but this type of conflict often happens in the face of massive development. Edward Tenner says beyond just governments or private developers, we all need to think more carefully about the costs and benefits of building big.
“Bigness is a strategy that just about always fails, unless it succeeds. Or you could say it always succeeds except when it fails. And there really is no one way that you can regard it. You have to see it as a very powerful, easy-to-misuse, but also tempting way to go about things in life,” he says.
Even during the construction of the original Tacoma Narrows Bridge, the deck would go up and down by several feet with the slightest breeze. Construction workers on the span chewed on lemon wedges to stop their motion sickness. They nicknamed the structure Galloping Gertie.
The original Tacoma Narrows Bridge design by Clark Eldridge was pretty conventional for a suspension bridge, but it was later modified by Leon Moisseiff to be slimmer and more elegant. The most notable change was that the 25 foot lattice of stiffening trusses underneath the bridge on the original drawings, were replaced with 8 foot solid steel plate girders. The new solid girder along the side in Moisseiff’s design made for a much lighter and more flexible bridge— it also caught the wind like a sail— but they didn’t know that. Moisseiff’s design was also 2/3 the price of the original Eldridge design and that fact ultimately won the day.
Motorists who used the bridge found out first hand why it got the name Galloping Gertie, and during the four months while the bridge was open, many traveled from far away just to ride the undulating waves as they crossed high above Puget Sound. The thrill ride didn’t last long.
On November 7, 1940 stiff winds caused the road deck to twist violently along its center axis. The center span endured these brutal torsional forces for about an hour and finally gave way.
The collapse of the twisting suspension bridge is one of the most dramatic images caught on film.
I talked to John Marr from the seminal zine Murder Can Be Fun for this story and I’d like to give a shout out to Alan Bellows of Damn Interesting for independently suggesting Galloping Gertie as a show topic and publishing a great, much more detailed account of the disaster on his site.
“Cities exist to bring people together, but cities can also keep people apart” - Daniel D’Oca, Urban Planner, Interboro Partners.
Cities are great. They have movement, activity and diversity. But go to any city and it’s pretty clear, a place can be diverse without really being integrated. This segregation isn’t accidental. There are design elements in the urban landscape, that Daniel D’Oca calls “weapons,” that are used by “architects, planners, policy-makers, developers, real estate brokers, community activists, neighborhood associations, and individuals to wage the ongoing war between integration and segregation.”
Daniel D’Oca is an urban planner with Interboro Partners, an architecture and design firm based in New York City. Over the past few years, D’Oca, along with colleagues Tobias Armborst and Georgeen Theodore have been cataloging all the stuff inside of a city that planners use to increase or restrict people’s access to space. They’re publishing their findings in a book called The Arsenal of Inclusion and Exclusion: 101 Things That Open And Close the City (Fall 2012).
D’Oca took our own Sam Greenspan and Scott Goldberg on a tour of Baltimore to demonstrate the subtle ways different neighborhoods are kept apart.
The acoustics of a building are a big concern for architects. But for designers at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC, it’s the absence of sound that defines the approach to architecture.
Gallaudet is a university dedicated to educating the deaf and hard of hearing, and since 2005, they’ve re-thought principles of architecture with one question at the forefront: how do deaf people communicate in space?
Unlike hearing people, the deaf have to keep sightlines in order to maintain conversations. So when deaf people walk and talk, they’ll lock into a kind of dance. Going through a doorway, one person will spin in place and walk backwards to keep talking. Walking past a column, two deaf people in conversation will move in tandem to avoid collision.
Spaces designed for the hearing can also give the deaf a great deal of anxiety – when you can’t hear footsteps from around the corner or behind you, you can’t anticipate who or what is around you.
Robert Sirvage is a deaf designer, researcher, and instructor at Gallaudet, and in collaboration with Hansel Bauman — who is not deaf – and a group of staff, students and architects, they’ve developed a project called DeafSpace. Reporter Tom Dreisbach took a tour through the new building at Gallaudet that is incorporating the innovations of DeafSpace to create an environment more pleasing to everyone, both hearing and deaf.
In the US, it’s called a line.
In Canada, it’s often referred to as a line-up.
Pretty much everywhere else, it’s known as a queue.
My friend Benjamen Walker is obsessed with queues. He keeps sending me YouTube clips of queue violence. This preoccupation led him to find a man known as “Dr. Queue.” Richard Larson is a queue theorist at MIT and he talks us through some of the logic behind the design of queues.
Whereas US companies like Wendy’s and American Airlines once prided themselves on their invention of the single, serpentine, first-come first-served queue, more and more companies are instituting priority queues, offering different wait times for different classes of customers.
“I have this habit of walking into any door that’s unlocked…You start poking around, going into doors…you find the coolest things…” -Andrea Seabrook, NPR Congressional Correspondent
In the eight years Andrea Seabrook has been reporting on Congress, she has made it a point to get to know the whole Capitol building. "The members of the House Republican Caucus--and sometimes the Democrats--meet in the basement for their closed door secret strategy sessions," Andrea says. "And it's really good place to get a tip from members that you know about what’s going on." One day, after getting the info she needed for her story, she decided to press further on into the depths of the Capitol.
That's when she found the marble bathtubs.
The bathtubs were installed around 1860 during the expansion of the Capitol. DC is known for its swampy summers, and legend has it that senators could be banished from the chamber if they were too smelly. But lawmakers--like most Americans at the time--didn't have indoor plumbing at home. They needed a place where they could wash up.
So the Architect of the Capitol ordered six marble bath tubs, each three by seven feet and carved by hand in Italy, to be installed in the Capitol basement--three on the House side, three on the senate. Today, only two tubs remain on the Senate side, in a room which now stores the building's heating and cooling equipment. But evidence of room's former grandeur remains.
Somebody might be able to do a great painting that’s 20 x 30 inches, but you take that down to 1 x 1.5 inches, and it’s a challenge to make it work.
-Ethel Kessler, Art Director for USPS Stamp Services
Stamps design takes, on average, a year to a year and a half, from conception to execution. Unfortunately, most of the stamps we encounter on a day-to-day basis are the rather predictable flag, bell, and love stamps, but there are some really fantastic commemorative stamps, which are supremely functional and affordable tiny works of art.
To determine what should go on a US stamp, the Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee combs through nearly 50,000 suggestions per year offered by the general public. Once the subjects are chosen and approved by the Postmaster General, they are assigned to a handful of art directors to be designed.
There are loads guidelines to help stamp subject selection, but one of the big rules recently changed. In 2012, the first living person will be commemorated on an official USPS stamp.
Julie Shapiro, Artistic Director of the Third Coast International Audio Festival, produced this episode. Julie spoke with Terry McCaffrey, the retired manager of stamp development for the USPS Stamp Services Office, and Ethel Kessler, an Art Director who’s been working with Stamp Services for over 15 years.
Before the 1850s, dentures were made out of very hard, very painful and very expensive material, like gold or ivory. They were a luxury item. The invention of Vulcanite hard rubber changed everything. It was moldable, it could be precisely fitted, and it was relatively cheap. Everyone began making dentures with Vulcanite bases. But in 1864, a long disputed patent application, originally filed in 1852, was awarded and then acquired by the Goodyear Dental Vulcanite Company. It was an outfit created to collect fees, or very often, sue dentists who already used vulcanite, and there were plenty of dentists to go after.
The person in charge of pursuing the violators was Josiah Bacon, the treasurer of the Goodyear Dental Vulcanite Company. The patent was enforced with extreme prejudice, despite the protestations of the US dental profession.
To quote the secretary of the Goodyear Dental Vulcanite Company, Ernest Caduc: “Many dentists…relying upon the secret nature of the business, prefer to steal this property rather than buy it…”
It all came to a head on Easter Sunday in 1879. A Vulcanite denture patent violating dentist named Samuel Chalfant went to settle his business with his pursuer, Josiah Bacon, in his San Francisco hotel room. Chalfant brought a gun.