Why is this interesting? - The Sea Silk Edition

On mollusks, knitting, and the wonderful world of byssus

Edith Zimmerman (EZ) is a writer and illustrator who runs the comics section Spiralbound and illustrates the sobriety newsletter The Small Bow. She was the founding editor of The Hairpin, and she now publishes a newsletter called Drawing Links

Edith here. My mom and I just got back from a vacation to Sanibel Island, Florida. The area is famous for its shell-filled beaches, and on our last day there, we went to the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, which we’d been driving past and talking about daily. 

The whole museum was great (I’d had no idea that shells were so fascinating), but for me the best part was a small exhibition that I almost missed, about something called sea silk.

Why is this interesting?

Sea silk is a fiber made from the tufts of giant mussels (or, noble pen mollusks). These tufts—called byssus—can grow up to 2 1/3 inches, and their fibers are unusually strong and light. People have been collecting byssus since antiquity, to spin into thread and weave it into fabric, known as sea silk. Garments made of sea silk are prized for being both light and warm, but sea silk’s real allure is that when it’s submerged in something acidic, like cow urine or lemon juice, it turns from a dull brown into something that glitters like gold in the sun—and retains that quality permanently. Supposedly a pair of sea silk gloves were so light and fine that they could fit into half a walnut shell, although that seems likely to be apocryphal. 

I’m a knitter, and this all appealed to me immediately. I described the exhibition in a comic that I shared in my own newsletter, and which is included as the comic of the day below. I wish I had taken more photos of the exhibition itself—it doesn’t seem to be listed on the Shell Museum’s website—but it was arranged by a woman named Joyce Matthys, who’s an expert shell collector and a member of both the Oregon Shell Club and the Sanibel Shell Club. She ended up collecting byssus herself and making a tiny pseudo-garment, which she displayed in the exhibition, but I’m getting ahead of myself...

In the exhibition, Matthys said that she was the only person outside of the Mediterranean believed to be currently making any sea silk. 

She also mentioned an Italian woman, named Chiara Vigo, who’s been making sea silk in Sardinia for decades and is known as the last living sea silk master. (The noble pen mollusks from which the byssus is harvested are endangered and protected, so it is likely a dying art.) Vigo is also the proprietor of the Byssus Museum, in Sant'Antioco, which doubles as her workshop. The BBC ran a story about her in 2015, and I liked this quote she provided: "The byssus is the soul of the sea. It is sacred.” She apparently gives byssus bands to newlyweds, pregnant women, and others. 

There are photographs of sea silk on Vigo’s Instagram account and on her website, although for me they tantalize more than satisfy. I want to see it moving and glittering! Other photos of sea silk garments online are similarly frustrating, like the plain-looking brown glove featured on Wikipedia’s sea silk page.  

In the Shell Museum exhibition, Matthys included a photo of her own sea silk creation alongside a photo she took of it in direct sunlight. This came pretty close to capturing the glitter, but I still wanted to hold a whole ream of it, somewhere outdoors. Also to knit with it. It all began to remind me of the Rumpelstiltskin story, in which a young woman is temporarily gifted the ability to spin straw into gold. Maybe the ineffability is part of its appeal. (EZ)

Comic of the Day:

Here’s my comic (it takes some personal turns toward the end, feel free to skip past those): 

Quick Links:

  • A hat made of sea silk was auctioned in New York last fall. Its estimated price was $5,000 - $8,000, although the auctioneer told the Guardian that this was just a wild guess (and: “we’ll see how well-informed the market is”). I can’t tell how much the hat ended up selling for, although it might be still available? (EZ)

  • That Guardian story also had a nice section glossing over sea silk’s appearances in history: “According to the sixth-century historian Procopius, the Byzantine emperor Justinian I gave a gift of a sea silk cloak to five Armenian satraps. ... The British admiral Horatio Nelson wrote of his intention to send his lover, Emma Hamilton, a pair of gloves made from byssus. Jules Verne chose to dress his narrator in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Dr Pierre Aronnax, in ‘sea-boots, an otterskin cap, a greatcoat of byssus lined with sealskin.’” (EZ)

  • Byssus also reminds me of golden orb spider silk, which feels similarly perverted and decadent, in a kind of musty way. What else can we turn into fabric? (EZ)

Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Edith (EZ)

Why is this interesting? is a daily email from Noah Brier & Colin Nagy (and friends!) about interesting things. If you’ve enjoyed this edition, please consider forwarding it to a friend. If you’re reading it for the first time, consider subscribing (it’s free!).

Why is this interesting? - The Data Edition

On numbers, context, and clarity

Noah here. One of the things that comes up a lot when writing WITI is how much context to give when writing about different topics. As I wrote in the Correction Edition, a lot of the work is figuring out what is worthy of explanation, what can get away with just a link, and what doesn’t need to be contextualized at all. This is particularly true of data. While I make no claims of being an expert in how to best present numbers, many of the emails we write include some mention of costs (oil in the Oman Edition), frequency (accidents per million departures in the Turbulence Edition), or size (number of horses in Garzon in the Mallmann Edition) to help tell the story. 

Why is this interesting?

I was intrigued to read a few different bits of advice on how to best think about contextualizing data. The first comes from Randall Munroe, creator of XKCD and author of the very-fun What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions. Much of what Munroe does in the book is pull apart seemingly absurd questions and find ways to visualize the data and process behind trying to answer them. A good example of his approach can be seen in this comic comparing the relative security of various password requirements (one of my all-time favorites):

In an interview he did with FiveThirtyEight when What If? came out, Munroe explained his approach to estimating:

One thing that bothers me is large numbers presented without context. We’re always seeing things like, “This canal project will require 1.15 million tons of concrete.” It’s presented as if it should mean something to us, as if numbers are inherently informative. So we feel like if we don’t understand it, it’s our fault. … 

It can be more useful to look for context. Is concrete a surprisingly large share of the project’s budget? Is the project going to consume more concrete than the rest of the state combined? Will this project use up a large share of the world’s concrete? Or is this just easy, space-filling trivia? A good rule of thumb might be, “If I added a zero to this number, would the sentence containing it mean something different to me?” If the answer is “no,” maybe the number has no business being in the sentence in the first place.

He goes on to describe how he has memorized a bunch of random numbers to make for easier comparisons. “I remember that Wyoming is the smallest state and has a bit over half a million people,” he says, “and that New York’s metro area has about 20 million.” All quite helpful.

Taking things one step further, I recently stumbled on another bit of advice from Columbia statistics professor Andrew Gelman via his excellent (and more exciting than it sounds) blog Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science. After speaking to a group of science journalists about statistical paradoxes he was asked a question about how to do better with stats as a writer. The crux of his answer was:

I recommended to the reporter that, when he sees a report of an interesting study, that he contact the authors and push them with hard questions: not just “Can you elaborate on the importance of this result?” but also “How might this result be criticized?”, “What’s the shakiest thing you’re claiming?”, “Who are the people who won’t be convinced by this paper?”, etc. Ask these questions in a polite way, not in any attempt to shoot the study down—your job, after all, is to promote this sort of work—but rather in the spirit of fuller understanding of the study.

I probably should have presented these in the opposite order: Step one is to ask the right questions to understand the data, and step two is to contextualize it properly so that it’s meaningful. A good approach in writing and life. (NRB)

Bird of the Day:

A curl-crested aracari. Saw this on Twitter at some point and it was too good not to file away. Check out those stylish locks. (NRB)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

Why is this interesting? is a daily email from Noah Brier & Colin Nagy (and friends!) about interesting things. If you’ve enjoyed this edition, please consider forwarding it to a friend. If you’re reading it for the first time, consider subscribing (it’s free!).

Why is this interesting? - The Stamps Edition

On mail, meaning, and the artwork that appears on US postage

Praveen Fernandes (PF) is my brother-in-law and someone I have been trying to convince to write a WITI since we got started last year. His bio is far longer than I could list here, but briefly, he’s a lawyer, advocate, former Obama administration appointee, art lover, and a great uncle! Hugely happy to have him writing here. - Noah (NRB)

Praveen here. I enjoy old-school correspondence. Yes, handwritten letters, placed in envelopes, stamped, and then placed in mailboxes. I savor the idea that a letter I have touched will travel thousands of miles, across seas and time zones, and finally arrive at the home of loved ones, where it will be touched by their hands; atoms that I have rearranged on the page will be further rearranged by them in an act of communion, meaningful even before they get to the letter’s substance. I appreciate that loved ones know it is a letter from me even before opening it, as they recognize my handwriting; in turn, for a handful of family members and friends, I can instantly identify their handwriting. I realize that I’m a statistical outlier in an era of email and text messages, both of which are admittedly more efficient channels of communication and ones I use all the time. My relationship with mail is driven more by emotion than by logic. Stamps are a part of that.

I was reminded of this emotional connection this past December, when I was about to mail my holiday cards and agonized about which stamps to buy. In the end, I selected stamps featuring artwork from “The Snowy Day,” a beloved children’s book by Ezra Jack Keats, which won the Caldecott Medal in 1963, making it the first book with an African-American protagonist to win a significant children’s award. But the truth is, I was temporarily frozen by my winter stamp choices. There were Winter Berries, Holiday Wreaths, and Poinsettias, and that is before one even gets to the stamps that mark winter holidays, such as Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or Lunar New Year. Happily, there was a diversity in the offerings that would have been unimaginable in my youth.

Why Is This Interesting?

I spend a lot of time at my day job thinking about the arc of constitutional progress, meaning the way in which the United States Constitution, through its many amendments, has been strengthened and become more inclusive, reflecting our nation’s conversations about equality and liberty, and about the metes and bounds of the American family. However, the Constitution is only one locus for this national discussion; our cultural institutions and products, and yes, even our stamp subjects, reflect this conversation and can trace an arc of progress. (To cite just two examples, in 2006, children had their first chance to send letters with an Eid stamp, and in 2016, children had their first chance to send letters with a Diwali stamp, expanding people’s ideas about what could qualify as an American holiday and what traditions our friends and neighbors observed.) I became curious about how the United States Postal Service (USPS) chooses stamp subjects.  

As is often the case with important matters, there’s a committee associated with it. In this instance, it is the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee (CSAC), which advises the United States Postmaster General (PMG), who heads the United States Postal Service (USPS). The USPS describes the committee’s function as follows:

Using their collective expertise in history, science, technology, art, education, sports, and other areas of public interest, CSAC members consider and then recommend stamp subjects to the PMG, who makes the final selections.

There is a process, involving CSAC consideration of the proposals at quarterly meetings. And the process is not hasty—stamp programs and subjects are planned two to three years in advance. The USPS has established some clear criteria, including, but not limited to: (1) that the subject be American (although “other subjects may be considered if the subject had significant impact on American history, culture, or environment”); (2) that if the subject is a person, the person is deceased and died at least 3 years before the proposal; (3) that if the subject is the anniversary of a historical event, it should be in multiples of 50 (50th anniversary, 100th anniversary, etc); and (4) that the subject be positive, as “negative occurrences and disasters will not be commemorated on U.S. postage stamps.” Additionally, presumably to avoid any issues relating to entanglement with religion, the USPS will not issue stamps “to honor religious institutions or individuals whose principal achievements are associated with religious undertakings or beliefs.”

Any member of the public can submit a proposal for a stamp subject. And since “no in-person appeals, phone calls, or e-mails are accepted,” one is reminded that a proposal must be written and mailed using the USPS. (But, of course!) Roughly 40,000 ideas are submitted each year, and of these, roughly 25 proposals are selected by the CSAC and passed on to the Postmaster General for approval. Individuals whose proposals are not selected by the CSAC need not lose heart, as they can resubmit a proposal after a three-year interval. Stamp campaigns have lasted many years and involved numerous advocacy organizations. For instance, when the Marvin Gaye stamp was issued on April 2, 2019 (on what would have been Gaye’s 80th birthday), it represented the culmination of a campaign begun in 2003 to honor the music icon (often referred to as the “Prince of Soul”) and which involved both the Motown Alumni Association and the Marvin Gaye USPS Stamp Initiative, an organization founded by superfan Carla Johnson. As Johnson said in an article in The Charlotte Post, “…when we were finally able to see something that had been denied twice, we felt like we had definitely made history and I was excited to be a part of that.”  

While the professional artists with which the USPS contracts to produce stamp artwork are compensated, individuals who have submitted successful stamp subject proposals receive no credit or financial compensation. But I’m not sure anyone can put a price on having played a role in what we celebrate as part of our American heritage and who we honor as part of the American family. (PF)

Book of the Day:

There are many great collections of correspondence between famous writers, such as the compelling “Words in Air,” which is the complete collection of the decades of letters shared between the poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell.  But have you wondered about letters from people known more for images? “More Than Words: Illustrated Letters from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art” collects illustrated letters from artists and architects.  For instance, a 1978 letter from the architect and furniture designer Gio Ponti to American architectural historian Esther McCoy, a 1981 thank-you note from painter Edith Schloss, a 1971 letter from artist and social activist Miné Okubo, or a 1913 three-dimensional letter from illustrator Alfred J. Frueh to his future spouse Giuliette Fanciulli.

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Praveen (PF)

Why is this interesting? is a daily email from Noah Brier & Colin Nagy (and friends!) about interesting things. If you’ve enjoyed this edition, please consider forwarding it to a friend. If you’re reading it for the first time, consider subscribing (it’s free!).

Why is this interesting? - The Davos Edition

On gatecrashing, capitalism, and human observation

Colin here. As Davos gets underway, I am reminded of a fond memory: The time Benjamin Palmer and I semi-gatecrashed the event. There was a moment in time when it was possible to show up and just float a bit, without having a fancy delegate badge like WITI contributor and Davos-pro Felix Salmon. The idea was introduced to us by people that did it every year for purposes of fun (and networking) and we figured, why not? We were coming from another meeting in Europe and thought of the entire thing as a ruse that might yield some good stories or some creative business. The result was a strange whirlwind of a trip, in a place where bold-faced global leaders slip on the ice-covered pavement in front of you, where security is strong but oddly porous, and luxury brands preen and beckon for the attention of one of the most rarefied audiences in the world. Plus, in terms of prospecting, we swam so far upstream in our business (advertising) we barely knew where we were. 

On this trip, at a piano bar where everyone convened late at night, we watched the C-level executives and hot startup founders embarrass themselves doing karaoke renditions while weaving between private security henchmen, hedge funders, and the coterie of hangers-on (recognizing that we were squarely in the third category). The bar was a strangely egalitarian place, where you didn’t have to have a delegate badge, but also felt like a hyper-capitalized version of Mos Eisley Cantina. In the smoke-filled haze, I first met Nick Paumgarten, who wrote Magic Mountain for The New Yorker, the definitive piece on the weirdness that is Davos. Paumgarten has the unique ability to drop into a place (be it The Masters or Berlin’s infamous techno club Berghain) and somehow seem at home, capturing the sensibility of the place with an eye and ear that makes his writing a pleasure to read. Here’s how Nick described things that year

The participants have their preferred hovering areas. Wandering the center in search of people to talk to was like fishing a stretch of river; one could observe, over time, which pools held which fish, and what times of day they liked to feed. Jamie Dimon, running shoes in hand, near the espresso stand by the Global Leadership Fellows Program, in the late afternoon. Fareed Zakaria, happily besieged, in the Industry Partners Lounge, just before lunch. The lunkers would very occasionally emerge from their deep holes (there were rumors of secret passageways) and glide through the crowd, with aides alongside, like pilot fish. (The W.E.F. says that Davos is an entourage-free zone, but this doesn’t seem to apply to the biggest of the big wheels, like heads of state.) It is said that the faster you walk the more important you are.

Why is this interesting? 

Putting aside the obvious and very fair criticisms of Davos—the .1% discussing inequality and the preponderance of private jets flying in to talk climate change to name just two—it is some of the most interesting people-watching in the world. You simply don’t get to other opportunities to observe this concentration world power outside carefully presented contexts. Those lucky enough to hang around get a chance to witness see the hidden proclivities and odd habits of some of the world’s biggest newsmakers (and what songs they like to belt out when they are three sheets to the wind). But also the more mundane: Like Jamie Dimon mindlessly typing on his BlackBerry to pass the time. 

Also, the stratification of the entire shebang is worth its own piece in and of itself. In an audience that actually cares where they stand in society, status is a big big deal at Davos. Nick continues

The stratification begins with the badges. Every participant wears a badge on a lanyard. Every encounter begins with an unabashed glance or two down at the other’s badge. It is Davos Man’s defining gesture. So frequently did gazes slip to reëxamine my badge that I came to know what it must be like to have cleavage. The color of the badge denotes a role, and a degree of access. W.E.F. staff wear blue badges—dark blue for full time and light for temps. “Reporting Press” wear orange and can’t get in a lot of places. Entourages get mint green. The coveted pass is the white one, granting delegates free rein. There are variations: A Strategic Partner gets a blue dot and access to an exclusive lounge. A special hologram used to signal membership in an élite faction called the Informal Gathering of World Economic Leaders, or IGWEL, but now “serves boring logistical purposes,” according to Monck. I was given a white badge, which meant I’d been knighted a Media Leader. Media Leaders may trump Reporting Press (ha!), but they bow before the Media Governors (curses!), who get invited to the off-the-record sit-downs with Geithner and Merkel.

I’d like to think that security is much more locked down than it was when we gatecrashed: Can’t get into the McKinsey party? Follow the waiters in the side door! Plus, Palmer, my partner-in-crime in this caper has always had a gift with the doormen Jedi mind tricks. But it appears it hasn’t, at least in some respects. Zürich’s Tages-Anzeiger newspaper reported on a pair of Russian plumbers suspected of planting listening devices, saying that “police concluded that the pair were Russian spies employed by the Kremlin to record and tap into the conversations of important figures at the World Economic Forum.” But, given the tendency to bloviate that seems common in nearly every Davos attendee, it’s a safe bet that finding important conversations took plenty of sifting. (CJN

Chart of the Day: 

Speaking of Felix Salmon, today’s chart on the rise of work from home is from his excellent Axios Edge newsletter. (NRB)

Quick Links:

Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

Why is this interesting? is a daily email from Noah Brier & Colin Nagy (and friends!) about interesting things. If you’ve enjoyed this edition, please consider forwarding it to a friend. If you’re reading it for the first time, consider subscribing (it’s free!).

Why is this interesting? - The Genre-Bending Edition

On music, taxonomies, and the shift to a more ontological approach to categorization

Noah here. One of my favorite albums from the last few years was King Krule's 6 Feet Beneath the Moon. It's moody and weird, but undeniably interesting. It came out in 2013 when Archy Marshall—King Krule's real name—was only nineteen. That year belonged to another teenager, though, with the release of sixteen-year-old Lorde's album Pure Heroine.

I’m no music critic, but Sasha Frere-Jones is, and on a 2013 New Yorker podcast episode, he made a fascinating observation about the two artists and their genre-flouting abilities. Specifically, he outlined the role of unlimited access in their musical education. Answering a question about how both seemed to emerge fully-formed, Frere-Jones explained:

I’m going to say the internet has got to be a factor here because it allows you to get up to speed so quickly and both Ella (Lorde) and Archy (King Krule) were making references to lots of music that I did not think that they would know about but obviously they have instant access. Although Archy was actually citing his dad’s record collection … you heard that twenty years ago when hip hop started, people talked a lot about sampling their dad’s jazz collection. I think the internet has something to do with their savvy but it doesn’t entirely explain why they all sort of arrived at once.

Why is this interesting?

On the face of it, I want to believe in the idea that genre boundaries are dissipating. It feels right and certainly matches the widely-held experience of moving from a world organized around albums to one organized around algorithmically-generated playlists. On top of that, there’s no question that unlimited access is one of—if not the—critical techno-cultural shift of the 21st century. In all spheres—from finance to academia to journalism to marketing—access to a nearly unlimited supply of information is fundamentally shifting the possibilities for those with an appetite to seek it out. 

But the thing about genre is that it was never really about the input, it was always about the output. By that, I mean: I feel reasonably confident that the best artists have always been omnivorous, finding inspiration in places that others didn’t think to look. But when it was time to produce something new, it had to be categorized in order to be marketed. While you could argue this effect was more pronounced in a time where records and CDs sat in rows on store shelves, it’s not like Spotify doesn’t maintain some genre metadata with each song. 

In fact, rather than moving away from genres, Spotify has gone deep. The company organizes its songs across nearly 4,000 (and growing) “genre-shaped distinctions.” The image below comes from the site Every Noise at Once, which is maintained by Spotify “data alchemist” Glenn McDonald. As the page explains, “down is more organic, up is more mechanical and electric; left is denser and more atmospheric, right is spikier and bouncier.” And, crucially, artists can exist across multiple genres.

The truth is that music always worked this way: More of an ontology of sounds than a taxonomy of genres. Whereas a taxonomy is strict about its hierarchy—think of a list with bullets and sub-bullets—an ontology allows for any node to be connected to any number of additional nodes, creating a graph of relationships. Before music was entirely digitized (both the songs and the playback data), we didn’t have a particularly good way to map things. Once we start to see things this way, we realize that genre is a lot squishier than we may have originally believed. Take this explanation of the origins of different genres from McDonald:

In the same spirit, any artist can be in as many different genres as apply. The genres arenʼt even of the same sort: “tekno” is a very particular dance music style, defined by tempo and historical circumstance; “wind ensemble” is a configuration of performers; “Christian hip-hop” is philosophical distinction; “Slovenian rock” a cultural and geographic one. 

And, of course, this shift from taxonomies to ontologies isn’t unique to music. Nike is hiring a taxonomy/ontology lead, likely to help with product discovery in ecommerce, and the BBC built an ontology of sport for the 2012 Olympics, to name two examples. But clearly, the implications are bigger than that: As we acquire both the data and the means to process it, most things that are currently organized taxonomically will likely give way to more complex and accurate networked descriptions. (NRB)

Photo of the Day:

The inside of a Coke freestyle machine. Related: Why Dean Kamen Invented the Coca-Cola Freestyle (via The Prepared)

Quick Links:

Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

Why is this interesting? is a daily email from Noah Brier & Colin Nagy (and friends!) about interesting things. If you’ve enjoyed this edition, please consider forwarding it to a friend. If you’re reading it for the first time, consider subscribing (it’s free!).

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