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Remarkable Paper Tablet

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No matter how good iPads and Surfaces get, they still can't compete with plain old paper for reading and handwriting. The Remarkable Paper Tablet aims to bridge the gap by...

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gradualepiphany
11 hours ago
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Hm, that actually looks kinda nice.

Writable kindle with a fast processor. If refresh rates are high enough it could be a significant improvement.

Of course, getting all of my kindle e-books out of amazon's system might be a challenge... and I'm not so sold on the large size.
Los Angeles, California, USA
wreichard
11 hours ago
I want this to be about half the price.
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RokBlok Record-Riding Player

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Pretty much all record players have one thing in common: they spin the record. The RokBlok Record-Riding Player turns this notion on its head, instead riding around on top of...

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gradualepiphany
13 hours ago
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Best way to destroy your collection.
Los Angeles, California, USA
kazriko
13 hours ago
I wonder if it would work for records that are already ridiculously scratched? Without the floating head, it seems like it would skip less.
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1 public comment
jepler
10 hours ago
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if you tried to sell me a "roomba for my vinyl" I'd be only 88% as much "lol wat". but also, couldn't they have made this look just a tiny bit more like a stick of butter?
Earth, Sol system, Western spiral arm

The Lost Art of Painting on Cobweb Canvases

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As far back as the 16th century, monks and peasants wandered the secluded Puster Valley fortressed by the icy mountains of the Tyrolean Alps in search of the glistening, silky homes of spiders and caterpillars. Gently plying away the gossamer material with fingertips or a small knife, they would take the cobwebs and transform them into a delicate canvas. The layers of silk became the bases for portraits of saints and sprawling landscapes.

Cobweb painting—a unique peasant craftsmanship native to the Tyrolean Alps in Western Austria and Northern Italy—has become a forgotten artform with fewer than 100 known paintings today.

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While they only average about the size of a large postcard, cobweb paintings, also known as gossamer paintings, involved a painstakingly intricate creation process. Artists had to collect cobwebs, layer and stretch them over an oval windowed mat, and paint with a special fine-tipped woodcock feather brush. A range of media were applied to cobweb canvases, from watercolor, India ink, to even print engravings.   

“When I first saw the gothic spider web design on the cover of [the paintings’] cases, I was expecting something rather dark and macabre inside,” says Jason Nargis, special collections librarian at Northwestern University’s Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections which contains four of the approximately 100 existing paintings. “Instead, the paintings were simple, light, and hopeful.”

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The very first cobweb paintings hung in windows of churches and cloisters. Artists sought to express their spiritual devotion and unwavering patience by mastering the most difficult canvas imaginable, Ina Cassirer wrote in the 1956 issue of Natural History. “The more fragile [the paintings] were, the more they were cherished,” she explained.

Additionally, artists were drawn to the transparent effect of the cobweb. When holding up renderings of The Madonna and the Child and The Lamb of God and the Book of Seven Seals to the light, the images are outlined with an ethereal glow. “The charm of the paintings lies partly in the fact that the background areas are left unpainted, so that the figures seem to float in an opalescent haze,” Cassirer wrote.

Eventually, the art pieces became a common household item, and featured pastoral landscapes, duchesses, kings, and military scenes in the 19th and 20th century.

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The optimal web for canvases was the more dense and fine gossamer spun by certain species of caterpillars and spiders. Artists in the Tyrolean Alps were said to prefer cobwebs from the caterpillar of the small silver-gray spotted moth Yponomeuta evonymella and funnel-weaver spiders of the family Agelenidae for their elasticity and tensile strength. However, webs produced by the common house spider Tegenaria domestica were also a good source. Some webs measured almost two feet long.

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Cobwebs were collected in sheets in the grass, on branches of bird-cherry trees in the winter, and in the nooks of attics. Threads measured between a fraction of a micron to three microns, which seems minuscule compared to the 13 to 26 microns of a silkworm’s string. The fragility of the material made it difficult to stretch the canvas without breaking. Little pieces of debris also easily got trapped between fibers, interfering with the translucency.   

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To overcome these challenges, artists would first thoroughly clean the web, stretch it over cardboard, and coat it with diluted milk to add strength. Johann Burgman, one of the most prolific cobweb artists of the late 1700s and early 1800s, found that soaking nuts in the water he used for painting extracted oils which helped transfer the color onto the delicate medium.

Most of the paintings were created with opaque watercolors, which are watercolors based with white pigment. Hair, eyes, flowers, and ribbons were all drawn with the utmost precision. Paintings in India ink contain lines and details so fine that viewers often mistake the minuscule brush strokes as penwork. But using a pen would just be asking for a tear—a gentle poke of a finger can completely destroy a cobweb painting.

Artists often chose to leave sections of the background unpainted or sometimes added an inconspicuous spider or insect in the bottom or corner to call attention to the amount of skill required to work with such delicate fabric, Cassirer noted.

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In addition to India ink and watercolor paintings, some craftsmen even printed on cobwebs with metal plates. The layered cobwebs were stretched flat over a blackened plate, and then pressed with a heavy weight, wrote Cassirer. There are only six such cobweb engravings known to exist.

After artist Johann Burgman died in 1825, the production of cobweb paintings began to dwindle in the Puster Valley. There have only been small resurgences of cobweb painting ever since. An artist based in Tennessee began practicing cobweb painting in the late 1890s after reading about the craft, and a few of her pieces were donated after her death in 1956 to the national Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. In the 1870s, art dealers Franz Unterberger and C. Czichna brought back the art practice in North Tyrol in western Austria, selling cobweb pieces of Tyrolean scenes as tourist gifts. A traveler who visited Unterberger’s shop in 1930 reported that the seven on display were the last of its kind. The artist Unterberger had commissioned had recently died, taking his secret cobweb painting techniques with him, wrote Cassirer.

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Given their extreme fragility, it's remarkable that the delicate fibers of cobweb paintings have been able to survive for hundreds of years. Nargis, who continues to look over the four precious cobweb paintings in the Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collection, says that analyzing these preserved artifacts “opens a new perspective on the history of the people who made and used them.” 

Object of Intrigue is a weekly column in which we investigate the story behind a curious item. Is there an object you want to see covered? Email ella@atlasobscura.com.

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gradualepiphany
14 hours ago
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Los Angeles, California, USA
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Don't Expect to See Any Rotary Cars for a While

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Don't Expect to See Any Rotary Cars for a While

We've been doing without Wankel goodness since 2012. That's when Mazda withdrew the RX-8, a relatively unimpressive car that still sparked our interest because of its lovable powerplant. There had been talks of reviving the RX tradition with the concept RX-9, but Mazda CEO Masamichi Kogai has since curtailed the vehicle's development. This comes as upsetting news to the rotary faithful as this was considered by many to be the last shot at rekindling the old flame that was Mazda's hotrod. So, what does this mean for the engine's future?

Mazda, not unlike any other manufacturer, must continue the pursuit for fewer emissions. The Japanese company has put emphasis on their SKYACTIV technology over the last few years, but the necessity for improvement is undeniable. With the production of electric vehicles increasing annually, there's no doubt that the company will look towards them as an aid to bring down their environmental impact. However, Mazda is always looking for something to seperate them from the rest of the crowd -- a rotary hybrid could be just that. This would also solve the issue of the rotary's less-than-notable efficiency. The company has already stated that they don't intend on building a sports car larger than the MX-5 Miata, so this seems to be the most probable application of the rotary engine in a consumer vehicle.

 

The Drive

If (and hopefully when) the Wankel is revisited, it's slated to be a more complete package. Expect its former flaws to be improved upon, including fuel efficiency and oil consumption. Kogai is quoted in his interview with Automotive News saying "If we were to restart production of the rotary engine again, we need to make sure it wouldn't be just short-lived". This promises that it would not be a half-hearted effort, solving many of the many concerns that hindered sales before.

While we're saddened by the death of the RX-9 project, hope isn't completely lost. Even in Mazda's most pedestrian vehicles, the handling and experience is consistently above par. We may not see another rotary powered sports car for years to come, but a little dash of excitement in Mazda's future model introductions could suffice for the time being. Until then, we will continue to beg and plea for the RX-7's spiritual successor that was left out in the RX-8. We know you can do this.

Please.

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gradualepiphany
1 day ago
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Don't hold your breath.
Los Angeles, California, USA
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Minimum Viable Citizen

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I’m a big fan of economic freedom. The freedom to buy and sell what I want, and to not buy and sell what I don’t want. And this is more than just a thinly veiled support of the free market. Private corporations make you buy things you don’t want all the time.

How many of you have television service? You probably pay a cable subscription in exchange for a ton of channels. But how many of those channels do you watch?  If you’re typical, probably not more than a dozen. So how is it fair to make you pay for over nine thousand channels when you only watch a handful? This is called bundling, and the folks over at Marginal Revolution talk about it all the time. Or, more precisely, they talk about unbundling.

See, the main purpose of bundling is to socialize the costs of niche products. So for example, you may only watch prime time mass market comedies on mainstream channels (actual cost: pennies), but you’re still charged the same $80/mo subscription fee as everyone else. Meanwhile, your neighbour might be a massive fan of ESPN (actual cost: a ton in licensing), but unwilling to pay the full cost of subscribing to it. In a world where each of you were charged only for what you use, you would pay a couple bucks a month, and your neighbour a couple hundred. But, of course, in that world, your neighbour would balk, cancel his subscription, and no sports would be watched. Thus, Shaw overcharges you to subsidize your neighbour, everyone gets more TV, and Shaw gets more money.

Economists though, don’t like this. As one of the normative beliefs they whisper between their catechism of impartiality, they’ll tell you over drinks that everything that can be unbundled, should be unbundled. Because, in effect: it’s not fair to make one person pay for someone else’s consumption. In the perfect world of frictionless economics, the market would hit equilibrium where peoples’ willingness to pay matches suppliers’ willingness to produce. S/D curves 101. By unbundling products, allowing each person to mix and match and pay for only what they want, each person has their resources freed up to better achieve their goals and priorities.


A while back, I was on a date with an AnCom activist from California. This was a bad idea, I know, but the spirit was willing and the flesh was weak. We were talking about air travel, as you do, and I mentioned that one of the things I missed about living in the States was cheap air travel. Air travel deregulation in the 70s is one of the greatest victories of free market economics. It’s why flying in the US is so much cheaper than up here, and it opened the door all sorts of other unbundling of the various aspects of flying. I don’t know about you guys, but I love it that wealthy businessmen pay $50 for priority boarding. It makes my flights that much cheaper.

The AnCom saw things differently. She raised as a counter-example Frontier Airlines. Frontier Airlines is the best example of airline unbundling. Their base fares are extremely cheap, but they charge for everything. $25 for a carry-on item ($50 if you don’t pay ahead of time). Selecting a seat at all carries a fee. In-flight drinks are not free. She saw this as a terrible example of an evil corporation squeezing every last profit out of their customers.

I protested. Gripe as you will, Frontier is knocking it out of the park with this. It turns out, given the choice, people would rather have a cheaper flight. Maybe for well compensated software professionals like myself, saving the $25 by not checking a bag doesn’t matter. But for poorer folk, it can make all the difference. To them, $25 can be the difference between flying at all. And insofar as people are voting with their feet, they seem to love it. For all that people complain, as NPR Planet Money reports, Frontier is seeing amazing success. People are freed up to only pay for what they need, and to save money when they don’t. How is this possibly a bad thing?

Her response, in a nutshell: This is predatory. People are lazy. People are stupid. They see the base fare and assume that’s the cost. They don’t bother to (for example) notice the $25 carry-on fee. And then when they show up at the gate, they’re not only charged a fee, but slapped with a “penalty” (Total fee $50) for their ignorance. This is grossly unethical and must be stopped.


This is an interesting complaint. On the one hand, I am objectively correct. Frontier Airlines is the fastest growing airline. Ignore the complaints; people demonstrably value this pricing structure. But she has a valid point as well. There are no doubt people getting burned by this, and since they’re people flying Frontier and not Virgin, it’s a safe assumption that they’re not likely in the best position to afford it. I thought on this, and I came to a question.

Grant for the sake of argument that this is unethical. Is there anything that could be done that would allow Frontier to keep this pricing structure, while not being unethical? Could they, say, communicate this better upfront? Do the Uber surge price thing and make you confirm that you accept it? Are there certain things for which this is intrinsically unethical, and others for which it’s not? What is the specific threshold at which this practice becomes unethical?

Of course, because she’s an AnCom, her answer is somewhere in the realm of “making me pay for a flight at all is wage slavery”, and so that’s not a fruitful line of inquiry. But lets prax this out. What is the root cause of the problem? The root cause of the ethical problem is that, uncharitably paraphrasing her comments, people are too stupid to reason through this. The corporation on some level knows this, and takes advantage of it.

The customers are stupid, and therefore the corporation is responsible for accommodating them. It sounds strange when phrased this way, but I suspect that most peoples’ instincts fall along these lines. But… why? We take it for granted that a corporation has an ethical responsibility along these lines towards the general public. But what is the general public’s ethical responsibility in return? What level of competency is it ethically acceptable for a corporation to expect from the public? What are the requirements for a minimum viable citizen?

This rarely gets discussed. When it does, it’s usually assumed as a background fact and taken for granted. Progressives and left-wing reformers generally assume that everyone is helpless, and push to accommodate the lowest possible common denominator. Libertarians like to hand-wave it all away with “voluntary exchange”, pushing 100% of the personal responsibility onto the individual. What is the “correct” value? I don’t know, and I’m interested in hearing your accounts of this. But I think it’s critically important that this discussion gets had.

We live in a world where technology is growing at an unimaginable pace. Things that seemed miraculous a decade ago are trivially commonplace now. But as technology progresses, our society becomes more complex. The cost of using these technologies is rarely zero. They all depend on some element of learning. They all hold some basic expectations on their users.

Some people, like the AnCom, find these expectations intrinsically unethical. But along that path lies ruin. Taken to the extreme, that reasoning would suggest that cars should be banned, because it’s too hard for horse riders to learn how a steering wheel works. That would be nuts; clearly the invention of cars has been an enormous boon for humanity. And yet… there are no doubt some people out there for whom driving is too challenging, and a country that expects people to have the ability to drive, is a country in which they cannot be first-class citizens.

But on the flip side, expectations of arbitrary responsibility don’t work either. Back when I lived in San Francisco, it was impossible to find housing. What I, and many other tech people did, was script Craigslist. I had a recipe on IFTTT set up. Every fifteen minutes it would scan Craigslist for new rentals in my desired neighbourhoods and price ranges. It would automatically reply to them with a brief introductory email, and CC me so I could review them and follow up on the promising ones. In this market, this was a necessity. And yet, a market that expects this behaviour of its participants is a market where the vast majority of humanity is excluded by default.

As technology progresses, it will entail ever-rising requirements for people to make use of this technology. Some people will be able to. Some people will not. If we sit here and do nothing, sticking our fingers in our ears, inequality will increase, as the people who can handle the vagueries of Frontier-style pricing economically dominate the people who can’t read the fine print. If we insist on 100% accessibility and inclusion for everyone, we’ll end up with a stagnant society that can never innovate.

If we spoke openly about this, we could discuss the merits and drawbacks, balance the tradeoffs, and set a standard. We could then innovate with that expectation, freeing us from having to worry about every corner case. And we could work to prepare people for that, holding standards for them and supporting them in the process of achieving those standards. But the closest thing to a discussion of this that I’ve ever seen is David Chapman’s Meaningness blog, where he talks about the critical task of leveling people up to a stage 5 mentality. Unfortunately, the only people familiar with his work are people like us, the people who don’t need it.

So what makes for a minimum viable citizen? What expectations of peoples’ ability is it reasonable to hold? Are people even able to rise to these challenges? How can we support them in it if they can?




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superiphi
1 day ago
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Saying 'people are stupid and corporations should take care (or not)" is the wrong way. It's about thinking, time and attention. People are busy, in a hurry, suffering of decision fatigue. Corporations have been pushing the intellectual and emotional labour on to the customer. In a many to one setting, the corporation could efficiently do it for thousands of customers, with econmy of scale, but instead it makes it's thousand of customers all do it, one time each. This is inefficient and error prone by design and it is NOT about stupidity. Why should simple transactions demand so much effort and thinking on the art of each customer, and if you miss one detail you will have a bad surprise. So much effort expected. And it's the same for too many commercial interactions
Idle, Bradford, United Kingdom
gradualepiphany
1 day ago
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This is indeed a great question. I can think of several possible answers, and many ways those answers can have awful implications.
Los Angeles, California, USA
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Lansky Deluxe 5-Stone Sharpening System

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If you are like me you have a bunch of kitchen knives that have slowly become unusable due to their dull blades. Using honing steel only lasts so long, and is not a replacement for a sharpener.

The Lansky Knife Sharpener gives you a precision knife sharpener that is as simple as it is easy to use, at a reasonable price. I have owned the knife sharpener for a few months now and have used it to sharpen a number of my knives.

The key to the Lansky system is how simple it is to operate. A couple of whet stones may be able to sharpen your knives better, but a beginner like myself who is not confident in being able to maintain a consistent angle will fail or might damage my cutlery. This is where the Lansky Knife Sharpener has a clear advantage. It provides you a guide which will maintain a consistent angle. You have the option to pick an angle at 17, 20, 25, or 30 degrees, depending on the type of work the knife is doing.

To use the Lansky Knife Sharpener you clamp the knife into the holder, attach the sharpening stone to the guide, put the guide through the hole marked with the desired angle, and put the stone to the knife. You then work through the desired grit to sharpen your knives. The Lansky Knife Sharpener is not perfect. Some people think the clamp could be improved. But I prefer the simplicity of the clamp — one less thing to fail with a potential sharp knife in your hand.

There is also an issue with the guides not being 100% straight from the factory, but all you need to do is put the stone flat on a table and slightly bend the guide till it’s straightened.

Again this is a very simple tool. No moving parts, no electricity required, nothing to fail. You can’t compare the Lansky system to one of the cheap pull through knife sharpeners. Those cheap sharpeners will chew up your knives leaving you with big chips in the metal. Trust me, I have ruined my fair share of knives by trying to make them better. Luckily I was able to salvage these broken knives with the Lansky Knife Sharpener. I was able to remove the chips that my previous knife sharpener created with the coarse grit, then put on a sharp edge by moving up to a fine grit.

It’s been said that a sharp knife is a safe knife. I took my old unsafe knives and made them safe, as good as new knives with the use of this cool tool.

-- Patrick Sawyer

Lansky Deluxe 5-Stone Sharpening System ($32)

International Amazon link

Available from Amazon

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gradualepiphany
1 day ago
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The clamp is terrible. It doesn't do a very good job with small / strongly beveled blades (the blade will slip & rotate in the clamp, which isn't very safe), and it scratches / marks up the sides of your blades.

It's better than nothing, but I vastly prefer a traditional whetstone or a belt-style sharpener.
Los Angeles, California, USA
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