No. 53 | Stones
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Two hours east of Los Angeles, three hours west of Las Vegas, and many miles from the nearest traffic light or roadside diner lies a single boulder in the Mojave Desert claimed to be the largest rock in the world—at least until 2000, when a large chunk broke off, neatly and without provocation. Now split in two, it is still called Giant Rock. Graffiti blackens the lower surface and ATVs roar nearby. There is an occasional tourist.
For two eccentric Californians, Frank Critzer and George Van Tassel, the immense girth of Giant Rock was not simple geological happenstance but a sign portending mystical significance. In the hands of these two men, Giant Rock became the locus of a strange episode in the twentieth-century history of the American West. Like all Western heroes, Critzer and Van Tassel felt themselves poised between worlds, and at the threshold of civilization. Both felt vitalized and validated by the rock, and both saw it as a natural hub, laboring for decades to make it a gathering place. Absolutely inert and yet fecund, Giant Rock was less a rock than a destiny.
There are approximately two billion wooden shipping pallets in the United States.1 They are in the holds of tractor-trailers, transporting Honey Nut Cheerios and oysters and penicillin and just about any other product you can think of: sweaters, copper wire, lab mice, and so on. They are piled up behind supermarkets, out back, near the loading dock. They are at construction sites, on sidewalks, in the trash, in your neighbor’s basement. They are stacked in warehouses and coursing their way through the bowels of factories.
The magic of these pallets is the magic of abstraction. Take any object you like, pile it onto a pallet, and it becomes, simply, a “unit load”—standardized, cubical, and ideally suited to being scooped up by the tines of a forklift. This allows your Cheerios and your oysters to be whisked through the supply chain with great efficiency; the gains are so impressive, in fact, that many experts consider the pallet to be the most important materials-handling innovation of the twentieth century. Studies have estimated that pallets consume 12 to 15 percent of all lumber produced in the US, more than any other industry except home construction.2
Christopher Turner and Simon Schaffer
The fantasy of perpetual motion—of machines that run on nothing, and never slow or tire—has come to be virtually definitional of a certain form of vain, irrational ambition. But in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it occupied a significant place in political, economic, and philosophical discourse, situated as it was at the intersection of the market, science, and technology. In his article “The Show That Never Ends: Perpetual Motion in the Early Eighteenth Century,” historian Simon Schaffer traces the idea’s pedigree across an era of fervent speculation, both scientific and commercial, and tells the story of the celebrated, perpetually spinning wheel devised and promoted by the Saxon engineer and clockmaker Johann Bessler, better known as Orffyreus. Why did figures as diverse as Newton and Leibniz show interest in perpetual motion? And what did the phenomenon have to say about the status of “value” and “power” (political, scientific, economic) in the midst of the Enlightenment? Cabinet editor Christopher Turner spoke with Schaffer, professor in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge, by phone.
In an article in the Spectator in July 1711, the eponymous character Mr. Spectator—as written by Joseph Addison, one of the magazine’s founders—described his exercise routine. When in town, and therefore not able to go out riding, “I exercise myself an Hour every Morning upon a dumb Bell that is placed in a Corner of my Room, and pleases me the more because it does every thing I require of it in the most profound Silence.”1 We know dumbbells now as handy at-home pieces of gym equipment—free weights that have been around, in some form, at least since ancient Greek athletes used halteres to increase the length of their long jumps. But the dumbbell that Mr. Spectator refers to, and from which the heavy gym weights borrow their name, is something different. An illustration of a similar piece of equipment, published in the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1746, shows a wooden contraption in which two crossed bars with weights on the ends are mounted on an axle, around which is wound a length of rope. This mechanism would be elevated within a room, or placed in a garret, with the rope hanging down for a person standing below to pull. It mimics the apparatus used for ringing church bells, with the bell itself replaced by two weighted bars—it’s these that resemble the dumbbells of today.
D. Graham Burnett
In a park I once watched a small boy attempting to feed shelled peanuts to a cautious squirrel. The boy squatted on his haunches, and held forth an open hand: “Here!” he offered with ingenuous sweetness. The squirrel took a hop in his direction, twitching its bushy tail nervously. “Here, eat them,” the boy encouraged, his voice just above a whisper. The squirrel drew a little closer, carefully eyeing the hand and the nuts and the squatting boy. “Eat them!” the boy said again after a pause, a little louder this time—but the scene did not change. And there they stayed, in a taut tableau, until, suddenly, the boy, overcome by love and generosity and other things, sprang to his feet and leapt forward in pursuit of the squirrel, now streaking for the nearest tree. “Eat them! Eat them!” he cried as he ran, wild-eyed, flinging the nuts before him.
Cinema tends to make beautiful people look more beautiful, but it wasn’t always so. In its earliest days, film had an adversarial relationship to beauty, exaggerating the tonal and textural variations of the human face so that even the most stunning heroine became a blotchy caricature. Early black-and-white film stocks—first, orthochromatic film, dominant until 1927, and to a lesser degree its successor, panchromatic film—rendered dark colors darker and light colors lighter, turning features that seemed innocuous off camera (rouged cheeks, a constellation of moles) into distracting blemishes when seen on the screen. Pimples and freckles looked like spots of mud and blue eyes seemed colorless; lipstick made the mouth a cavernous hole and a complexion with sallow or pink undertones appeared, in the term of the time, “negroid.” Techniques borrowed from the stage also proved problematic: face paint used to suggest wrinkles to a theater audience, for example, read as tattoos on film. Cinematic makeup, then, was not born from vanity—it was a necessary antidote to the flawed medium of film.