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May 26, 2013

"What Jane Saw" — Time travel with Jane Austen


Wrote Jennifer Schuessler in a May 24 New York Times story, "On May 24, 1813, Jane Austen went to a crowded art gallery on Pall Mall in London, looking for Mrs. Darcy."

Caption for the graphic above which accompanied the article: "A preview of the exhibition 'What Jane Saw.'"

More from her piece below.


"I dare say Mrs. D. will be in yellow," Austen wrote that morning to her sister, referring to the romantic heroine whose happy ending she had sketched out in "Pride and Prejudice," published four months earlier.

She came back disappointed, having failed to spot a ringer for the former Elizabeth Bennet among the actresses, aristocrats, royal mistresses and assorted well-married ladies on the gallery walls, which were covered with portraits by Joshua Reynolds. "I can only imagine that Mr. D prizes any picture of her too much to like it should be exposed to the public eye," Austen wrote jokingly later that evening.

But now, precisely 200 years later, an ambitious online exhibition called "What Jane Saw" will allow modern-day Janeiacs to wander through a meticulous reconstruction of the exhibition and put themselves, if not quite in Austen's shoes, at least behind her eyes.

"It's the closest thing to time travel on the Web," said Janine Barchas, an associate professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin, who led the project.

Such time travel is on a lot of Austen fans' minds in this year of global celebration of the 200th anniversary of "Pride and Prejudice." And "What Jane Saw," which went live just before midnight London time on Thursday, can be seen as a scholarly answer to extravagant bicentennial reanimations like the Netherfield ball, the BBC's recent staging of the dance where Darcy and Elizabeth shared some pivotal banter.

But a reconstruction of the Reynolds show would be of interest, scholars say, even if Austen had never gone anywhere near it. It was the first commemorative museum show dedicated to a single artist, and perhaps the first modern blockbuster, attracting as many as 800 people a day. There were celebrities in the crowd — both Lord Byron and the prince regent attended the red carpet opening — and also on the walls, where the first thing visitors saw were portraits of George III, the reigning monarch, and the theatrical grande dame Sarah Siddons, juxtaposed in an Annie Leibovitz-like array.

The exhibition "was a wonderful moment in the history of celebrity culture," said Joseph Roach, a professor of theater and English at Yale University and the author of "It" (2007), a cultural history of the charisma that distinguishes "abnormally interesting" people. "There was a new kind of royalty emerging."

And Austen, Ms. Barchas said, would have been as interested in that new royalty as any modern reader gobbling up TMZ updates about Kate Middleton and Brangelina. In her recent book, "Matters of Fact in Jane Austen," Ms. Barchas traces the way Austen wove sly nods to actresses, artists, parliamentarians and scandal-ridden aristocrats into her novels — almost "in the spirit of a preteen adorning a bedroom with Justin Bieber posters," as one reviewer put it.

Ms. Barchas's celebrity-centric reading of Austen is part of a growing body of scholarship that emphasizes the worldly, history-minded side of a writer long seen as a country mouse preoccupied with timeless truths. But assembling "What Jane Saw" required meticulousness more typical of construction engineers than of paparazzi.

The gallery, in a building that was subsequently demolished, was recreated using the 3-D modeling software SketchUp, based on precise measurements recorded in an 1860 book. Ms. Barchas and her team then spent a summer working out how the 141 paintings listed in a 20-page pamphlet sold at the exhibition were arranged on the walls, a process that involved a lot of Rubik’s Cube-like playing around.

"I feel pretty sure this is the way the exhibit was actually hung," Ms. Barchas said.

Seeing the pictures on virtual walls, scholars who have visited the Web site say, reveals juicy "hidden narratives" that the viewers of 1813, including Austen, would have picked up on. Portraits of the prince regent and his mistress, for example, were kept at a discreet remove, while an image of George III was hung cheekily close to a painting based on "King Lear," a play whose performance was essentially forbidden at the time, lest it raise uncomfortable thoughts about the current monarch's madness.

"You can imagine what it would've been like as an early-19th-century viewer of this kind of painting as theater," said Devoney Looser, an Austen specialist at the University of Missouri (who, perhaps not incidentally, appears in her local roller derby as Stone Cold Jane Austen). "That would have been a really exciting part of life then."

Ms. Barchas's team at the university's Texas Advanced Computing Center is exploring a "gamified" version of the project, involving 3-D goggles that allow full immersion, including an option of bringing viewers' angle of vision in line with Austen's own. (Among the details still to be worked out: was Austen, who was described as tall and slender, closer to 5-foot-4 or 5-foot-8?)

May 26, 2013 at 08:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

35-cent money clip — "Dollah dollah bill y'all"


Mark Kiemele reviewed this clever hack of a tricked-out paper clip as follows in Cool Tools:


After nearly a lifetime of getting Costanza'ed in the bottom by my wallet, I began to use this 35¢ tool and have never looked back, so to speak.

It firmly clamps bills and even cards in place until use, is easily removable, and has caused much envious conversation.

The only drawback is that I bought a box of 12 (the smallest I could find) and am still using the same one after six years.

Appropriate technology rules!


12 document clamp money clips: $5.67 (47¢ apiece but remember Kiemele bought his in 2007).

May 26, 2013 at 04:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

"Side Effects" — Don't watch this movie if:

a. You've ever seen a psychiatrist 

b. You've ever been depressed

c. You're on psychiatric medication(s)

d. You've been on psychiatric medication(s)

e. You think you might someday be on psychiatric medication(s)

f. You think you might someday be depressed

Why the cautions a.-f. above?

Because if any of those conditions apply, this movie will scare the daylights out of you.

And if it doesn't, you should see a psychiatrist.

nuf sed.

May 26, 2013 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Nike Studio Wrap Pack — 3-part footwear system


That's different.


From the website:



The innovative Nike Studio Wrap Pack was designed to help you make the most of workouts typically done in bare feet, including yoga, dance, and barre.


Made up of a wrap, a ribbon, and a flat, this three-part footwear system combines a barefoot feel with protection, traction, support, and style.

Screen Shot 2013-05-25 at 4.15.58 PM



I'm thinking my homies over at Two Rivers Treads oughta take a close look and maybe a flyer.


[via feeldesain and Jo Woo Bay]

May 26, 2013 at 08:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Experts' Expert: Lior Lev Sercarz, Spice Therapist


Alex Halberstadt's April 4, 2013 New York Times magazine story "The Transformational Power of the Right Spice" opened a window to a world I hadn't even known existed.

Above, Sercarz's Reims, Blend No. 39, named for the French city famous for its gingerbread and featuring cinnamon, mace, ginger, and star anise.

Excerpts follow.


There's an eschatological thrill to walking into La Boîte, a shop wedged between an auto-repair garage and a dismal fenced-in garden on the far west side of Midtown Manhattan. At a cultural moment that has given us a storefront dedicated to artisanal mayonnaise, La Boîte manages to advance the genre. The shop is open to the public a total of 12 hours a week. Inside, it’s serene and nearly empty. At the entrance, a plexiglass obelisk contains a tin the size of a paperback packed with minuscule spiced biscuits (pronounced bis-KWEE; they're cookies, and the tin costs $65). Farther in, there’s a display with numbered canisters that look as if they encase costly Japanese cosmetics but in fact contain spice blends that have been doled out with a jeweler’s parsimony. As I took in the glossy photos of pods and rhizomes lining the walls and handled the decadently cool, silvery pucks, I couldn’t help wondering whether this is what ancient Rome must have been like near the end, before the Vandals trashed Palatine Hill.

Yet there is intelligence behind La Boîte, and it belongs to Lior Lev Sercarz, a man who describes himself as a "spice therapist" and considers spices to be both a vocation and a mission. Vocationally speaking, he has been devastatingly effective. He's a purveyor to some of the best chefs in New York and beyond. Le Bernardin's Eric Ripert has all but forsworn spices from other sources. Lev Sercarz was one of the first people Marc Forgione called when he opened his eatery on Reade Street. Blends from La Boîte turn up in pain d'épices in Paris, in hipsterish fried chicken in Philadelphia and in pasta with clams in Singapore. Generally, restaurant people make up a hard-bitten demographic, so when I repeatedly heard words like "magician" and "visionary, I imagined I might meet a nutmeg-dusted Timothy Leary.

As a home cook of middling talent and curiosity, I hadn't given spices much thought, contenting myself with the doleful little McCormick jars in my pantry, some of which were probably getting old enough to drive. In this, I'm apparently not that different from some professional chefs. "Most young chefs don’t know much about spices," Forgione says, "and they tend to stick to what they know." Lev Sercarz adds that culinary students "aren't taught how to taste and smell." One bright March afternoon at La Boîte, amid several dozen bulk containers of raw spices, Lev Sercarz told me to forget everything I thought I knew, and he set out to re-educate me in the mysterious byways of flavor.

The spices he laid out smelled and tasted nothing like the time-forgotten powders in my pantry. They were steroidally potent, burrowing in my nostrils like tiny aromatic voles. After giving an umber mound of cumin a whiff, I felt as if someone had probed my sinuses with a wire brush. I realized then how ignorant I had been.

Take pepper. Even the simple black peppercorn tasted smokier and more complex than I remembered. Lev Sercarz's come from Tellicherry, on India's Malabar Coast, just north of where Vasco da Gama debarked in 1498, braving scurvy to procure spices for the Portuguese crown. Green peppercorns, an unripe version of the black, were vegetal by comparison. Pink peppercorns aren't peppers at all, but dried Brazilian berries that tasted mild and sweet. There was tail pepper from Java, which tasted of pine resin and citrus, and wild Tasmanian pepper that crinkled on the tongue sweetly and then numbed it disconcertingly, like a curare-tipped dart. Sarawak pepper from Borneo, frankly, is too peculiar to describe. White pepper is actually black pepper put through a process called retting: the peppercorn soaks until the skin decomposes, then the seed is dried. Paul Liebrandt, the chef at Corton, calls it "hospital pepper," because much of what we consume has been retted poorly and begins to ferment, giving it a medicinal stink. The white pepper at La Boîte smelled heavenly, with a texture somewhere between good chocolate and truffle, followed by a flavor both mild and strange. This, Lev Sercarz made clear, was but a cursory glance at the syllabus to Pepper 101.

When I wondered out loud about how much spices could really matter — weren't they a mere flourish after the difficult work of cooking was completed? — Lev Sercarz invited me for a demonstration in his home kitchen. There, he seared filet mignon coated with Pierre Poivre (La Boîte Blend No. 7, with eight varieties of pepper); imagine an IMAX version of steak au poivre, the meat tasting the way neon looks. Then he did the same with Kibbeh (Blend No. 15, mostly cumin, garlic and parsley), and I could have sworn I was eating lamb: the mild tenderloin had turned gamy. That's cumin, Lev Sercarz explained, which the palate tends to associate with lamb. Next he cooked a cube of salmon in olive oil infused with Ararat (Blend No. 35, with smoked paprika, Urfa chilies and fenugreek leaves), transforming it into something I would have guessed, with eyes closed, to be pork belly. That, he said, was the smoke. Spices, I was learning, not only behave as intensifiers and complicators but also, in the right hands, can redraw the boundaries of flavor and confound the brain. For the finale, Lev Sercarz dropped a pinch of Mishmish (Blend No. 33, with crystallized honey, lemon zest and saffron) into the bottom of a glass and covered it with an inch of lager. The bitterness and hoppy flavors were gone — the beer smelled and tasted like a gingerbread milkshake. (I reproduced the trick for Garrett Oliver, the brewmaster at the Brooklyn Brewery, and he, too, was struck, staring into the glass as if he had glimpsed his future at the bottom.) With that, Lev Sercarz rested his hands on his hips and cocked his head, with a voilà expression, indicating the demonstration was over. Then he grinned.

If the story of spices is that of expanding global horizons, than Lev Sercarz is a suitable modern-day avatar. He grew up on a kibbutz in Galilee, near Israel's borders with Lebanon and Syria, and comes from sturdy German-Belgian-Transylvanian-Tunisian stock. His first significant experience with cooking for others came while he was a sergeant in the Israeli Defense Forces; he recalled sautéing 200 chicken cutlets on a propane stove in Lebanon while Hezbollah rockets whooshed overhead. His zeal for cooking eventually took him to a fishing village called Cancale, the oyster capital of Brittany, where he arrived in 1998 as a culinary student to intern at Les Maisons de Bricourt, a Michelin-starred seafood restaurant run by the chef Olivier Roellinger. For the first two weeks, he made decorative salt bases upon which appetizers were presented; eventually he graduated to baking seaweed bread with butter that had been spiked with the local fleur de sel. After kneading the dough, his hands burned, cut by the coarse salt. His epiphany came when he saw Roellinger’s spice rack — an average French restaurant kitchen contained perhaps a dozen and a half, but this one encompassed 120. There were 20 varieties of peppercorns, Moroccan and Indian coriander, white and black cardamom and assorted cumins and chilies. When Lev Sercarz began asking about them, Roellinger told him to conduct the research on his own, so Lev Sercarz spent nights at the village library, reading in French about roots and seeds and the Malabar Coast.

After cooking at a popular restaurant in Lyon, Lev Sercarz found himself working as a sous chef at Daniel in New York. He worked there for four years, eventually running the kitchen of the chef’s catering company, but soon enough the spices beckoned. "I knew I had to leave when the chime of the orders coming into the kitchen began to irritate me," he told me. He took a day job heading up Citigroup's executive dining room and worked on blends after he left the kitchen in the early afternoon. In his basement apartment, Lev Sercarz sorted raw materials, weighed, toasted, ground, mixed and then packaged the spice blends. He spent the bulk of his time sourcing the most flavorful ingredients, a dodgy prospect, as most importers sold vast lots to institutional buyers and were nonplused by Lev Sercarz's probing about quality. His fastidiousness and late nights of experimentation began to draw high-profile clients, and word about his blends began to spread.

Lev Sercarz drew up a business plan and tried to raise a six-figure sum to start a shop that would combine his interests in spices and baking. He would package the blends and sell the biscuits to show them off. He failed to raise a single dollar. One night, on the phone, Roellinger asked what he actually needed to start the business. Lev Sercarz replied, a room, an oven, a $15 coffee grinder and some containers. "See," the Frenchman said, "you don’t actually need the money. Just go ahead and start." The shop opened in 2010, offering a collection of 41 blends that took Lev Sercarz six years to develop. Each relied on a triad of principal spices augmented by a supporting cast — the number of ingredients ranges from 9 to 23, and Lev Sercarz does not divulge them.

But he delights in their propagation. He told me about a recent outing to Federal Donuts in Philadelphia, where he overheard a young guy say to a friend, "You got to try the Shabazi chicken, it's out of this world." The fried chicken was cooked with and named after one of his blends, which Lev Sercarz named after a 17th-century Yemeni-Jewish poet. The fact that these locals — his description made them sound like the most lumpen of bros — relished his work made Lev Sercarz feel at home in the world. "It was probably my proudest moment," he told me.

Still skeptical of the missionary aspect of Lev Sercarz's business, I asked about his so-called spice therapy, and he agreed to show me. I told him a little about my past, and at a late-night session at La Boîte, he made me a blend. I grew up on the periphery of Moscow during the waning years of the Soviet Union, and Lev Sercarz chose ingredients that spoke to him of Eastern Europe but also, he said, of New York: poppy seeds, coriander, sesame, paprika, caraway. He named it Stavia, a play on the Latin name for the black nigella seeds that dotted the rust-colored mixture. He instructed me to put it onto nearly everything.

At first, I had to admit to disappointment. Compared with more exotic blends inspired by Turkey and Indonesia, Stavia tasted — if you can say this about a taste — homely. Still, I dutifully plastered it on seared tuna, threw it on salads and rained it on pasta. I even flung Stavia onto frozen pierogies and store-bought chicken salad. The spices made everything taste more compelling, and there was an appealing stab of heat from the paprika, but the flavor transformation I expected never came.

Then, on Day 3, I noticed that the Stavia was affecting my mind. As I ate, my brain began to regurgitate childhood memories. First there was my mother's beef flank, simmered in gravy to a punishing doneness; then the smell of a sweet clear brew, dispensed from Moscow store counters, called birch juice; and finally I recalled mushrooms. My great-grandmother and I foraged for them around the polluted lake in the village where she rented a cabin in the summers, and afterward we combed the woods that ran along the wheat fields of the collective farm. She showed me how to pickle and jar them, and in the fall I presented the results to my parents and assembled kin, who congratulated me and bit into the mushrooms with an exaggerated relish, at least until the food poisoning set in. I must have been about 6. I remembered this in front of a plate of Stavia-dosed potatoes, where I sat engrossed until someone at the table waved a hand in front of my face.

Lev Sercarz had mentioned that when he designed blends for clients, he learned as much as he could about their backgrounds and how they lived. "Sometimes I feel like an investigator," he said. The things we eat as children haunt us as adults "whether we like it or not," he added. "Some people embrace where they come from, some rebel, but in the end, it really doesn’t matter." When I spoke to Srini Pillay, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School who studies the neurological effects of spices, he told me that olfaction is the only sense that communicates directly with the cortex in the brain without pausing at the relay station of the thalamus. "Smell has a very potent effect on the brain and, as a sense, it's very primitive," he said. For all its modish decadence, Lev Sercarz's trade is older than the Silk Road; the spices in the two-ounce jar he gave me provided a neurological link to my patrimony, however fleeting.

At the premiere of Lev Sercarz’s spring/summer 2013 collection, titled "The Tip of the Sword," friends milled around the shop while an employee handed out the postage-stamp-size biscuits. I nibbled on a square seasoned with Urfa chilies and dark chocolate. Lev Sercarz grasped hands and patted shoulders, his periwinkle lab coat smudged with a web of ocher and brown powders. He asked how Stavia had worked out, and I told him that I wasn't absolutely sure I liked the taste but that it had made me remember odd, embarrassing things about my childhood. He looked at me as if he'd been expecting my answer.

"You couldn't have paid me a bigger compliment," he said.

May 26, 2013 at 04:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

TV Test Card Coasters


From holycool: "Before they became a television test signal, test cards were physical cards at which a television camera was pointed." 


Right about this time is when I recall they'd come on as the three networks went off the air.


Early days.


Set of eight: $12.95.

May 26, 2013 at 12:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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