The Twenty-Four Hour Bookstore

It no doubt sounds like a dream to most fellow bibliophiles: a well-stocked bookstore that is freely available 24/7 for as long as you want, even if you do not buy a single thing. Not only would I love to patronize such an establishment, but one of my dreams is open one of my own.

A recent article in the Guardian reveals that a company in Taiwan has already beat me to this idea by several years: Eslite, one of that country’s largest retail bookstores. (Official website, in Chinese, here.) Bucking the trend of most chain bookstores the world over, the company welcomes as many non-paying visitors for as long as they wish to stay:

When I visited the 24-hour shop, the busiest time was from 10pm to 2am. People were hunkered down in corners, sitting on the stairs, or hovering over the display tables. Everybody was absorbed in a book.

Yao Hong, a 31-year-old office worker, who was sitting on a set of small, hardwood steps, explained why Eslite’s Dunnan branch is a favourite hangout. “I come here three to four times a week. On Saturdays, I arrive around noon and stay till 4am the next day,” she said. “I’ve been to bars, but I don’t like them. I love to read. Here, I can read books I like and nobody bothers me.” That night, she had already ploughed through to page 275 of a 319-page memoir.

What attracts the large and loyal crowds is not only the wide selection of books – there are around 250,000 in the Dunnan store alone – but Eslite’s policy of allowing customers to read for as long as they want without having to buy.

Given the beleaguered state of a lot of bookstores across the world, from independent vendors to national chains, how does Elsite manage to pull this seemingly unprofitable business model and still remain highly successful?

Apparently, by coming one big arts and media center, offering everything from wine, tea, and food, to clothing, art exhibits, and film screenings. The company’s approach no doubt endears itself to customers as well: I would be more than happy to shell out a few extra dollars than I otherwise would if it meant keeping such an establishment afloat.

Bookstores seeking to innovate in an era of declining brick-and-mortar sales should take note of this approach — I know I will!

Millennials are out-reading older generations

Another pervasive myth about Millennials is called into question: not only are people under thirty reading more than previous generations, but they still place a high value on books and other “offline” sources of information — including “obsolete” public libraries — belying the perception that young people are too absorbed into new media to concern themselves with the “outside” world.

Granted, the quality of what is being absorbed is a different matter entirely — maybe it is mostly vapid pseudoscience and mediocre teen romance rather than philosophy or the classics — but even if that were the case, it would still be nothing new: as with most criticisms levied against “young people these days”, their trends and preferences are fundamentally no different than what older people have always complained about.

The Skull of a Child

The following caption, as well as the photo, is courtesy of io9:

Inside the mouth of every child is a terrifying double row of teeth. Not that you’d ever know it — muscle, skin and bone prevent most of us from ever catching a glimpse of this extra dentition. Here’s your chance to get a close-up look at what lies beyond the gum line.

On some level, most people probably recognize that a child’s erupting permanent teeth have to be situated more or less right on top of their smaller predecessors, in order to dissolve their roots and ultimately replace them (a process known as exfoliation).

What many fail to appreciate, however, is just how little room there is for exfoliation to take place. This picture [click for hi-res], taken by photographer Stefan Schäfer at the Hunterian Museum in London, reveals several permanent teeth crammed into a space so small, it almost looks like they’re burrowing outward in a bid to escape from the skull entirely — the front teeth via the eye and nasal cavities, the lower teeth by way of the jawline.

Stare at it too long, in fact, and the skull’s primary teeth almost start to resemble a set of pharyngeal jaws. Wonderful. Now I’ll never be able to look at a child again without thinking about xenomorph dentition. Biology: Not only is it fascinating, it’s also high-octane nightmare fuel.

It’s strange to think that this is what lies beneath the face of every child I see or talk to. It’s hard to remember that within our flesh is this otherwise alien-looking thing.

Cueva de las Manos

This is the Cueva de las Manos (Spanish for Cave of the Hands), a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in the province of Santa Cruz, Argentina (south of the town of Perito Moreno). Its name and claim to fame are obvious, although a variety of other art subjects are present. The art in the cave dates from 13,000 to 9,000 years ago, the oldest being 9,300 BCE. The site was last inhabited around 700 CE (or AD), possibly by ancestors of today’s Tehuelche people.

The age of the paintings was calculated from the remains of a very interesting tool: bone-made pipes used for spraying the paint. The inhabitants, who varied over time as different groups moved in and out, had actually developed stenciling, not an art style we usually associate with ancient people (note that most of the hands are left, suggesting that they used their right hands to hold the pipe).

The binder used to combine the paint is unknown, but these people were pretty sophisticated: they knew which mineral pigments to utilize and how to do so. Iron oxides, for example, were used to produce reds and purples, kaolin for white, natrojarosite for yellow, and manganese oxide for black. Art was serious business to them.

Other depictions include human beings, guanacosrheas, felines and other animals. Most amazing to me is the presence of geometric shapes and zigzag patterns, which shows that these people had conceptions of abstract art forms, rather than merely painting what they saw (although humans probably developed that far earlier anyway, it’s still fascinating to see it on display given the popular perception of prehistoric people as lacking such cognitive abilities).

There are also naturalistic portrayals of a variety of informative hunting techniques, including the use of bolas, a throwing weapon that was used like a sling. Perhaps they were just depicting everyday life, but maybe this was meant to be educational. I’d like to think they sat their kids down and went over these images like a teacher at a chalkboard.

Curiously, there are also red dots on the ceilings, probably made by submerging their hunting bolas in ink, and then throwing them up in the air. This suggests that these folks might have been experimenting with different art forms, although perhaps it was just some sort of ritual or form of practice.

Either way, it must be breathtaking to see this in person, to be able to put my hands close and realize that these were the physical marks of human beings just like me. And wonder what else they did in their spare time? What was their idea of fun? Maybe this art was recreational rather than utilitarian? Either way, it’s beautiful and a wonderful reminder of where we came from.

Color Ink on Water

The following are high-Speed photographs of color ink on water, by Alberto Emiliano Seveso.

There is so much beauty in this world, even in the most mundane things. Who would imagine that some ink blots in water could be this awe-inspiring? We just have to know where to look.

Happy 126th Birthday to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

The following comes form Huffpost:

Happy birthday to one of the principal shapers of our modern world, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

Along with other post-World War I architects, such as Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier (Charles-Édouard Jeanneret), van der Rohe’s aesthetic came to define what “modern” looked like in the 20th century. The bare framework and open floor plan that van der Rohe frequently employed came to be known as “skin and bones” architecture, never employing even the slightest detail if it wasn’t necessary to the overall feel of the space. To see an example of his work, go to Google today and click on the iconic Crown Hall building.

Mies was not just an architect of physical spaces, but his own reputation as well. Despite not having a formal college-level education, the young man began getting his own commissions after successfully working under Peter Behrens from 1908 to 1912. He even redesigned his name, adding in the “van der” and “Rohe” (his mother’s surname) prior to becoming the architect that we know and love today.

Even though van der Rohe created such iconic designs as the Seagram building in New York and the Farnsworth House in Illinois, it is was his ideas that were his greatest contribution to society. He famously told the New York Herald Tribune in 1959, “Less is more” and “God is in the details.” With those simple words, van der Rohe’s ethos would permeate not just architecture and modern living, but fashion, cinema and the culinary world, igniting a newfound love of functionality throughout the world.

Mies van der Rohe was truly an architect of the future, not just of structures, and his words still resonate today. His was arguably a style that will truly never go out of style.

Happy Birthday, Mies van der Rohe!

Below is a video related to the Google doodle that honored him:

And here are are a few examples of Van Der Rohe’s functional and minimalist designs:

The Barcelona Pavilion

The Toronto-Dominion Complex

The Farnsworth House, Illinois

You can find a list of his works here. I know modernism, especially of the Bauhaus school, isn’t popular with everyone (though what style is), but I personally don’t mind it.

Temple of All Religions

Russia doesn’t usually come to mind when you think of cosmopolitan or interfaith initiatives. But the country is in fact one of the most diverse in the world, with around 160 ethnic minorities and several of the world’s major religions, including Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism. In fact, the Russian Federation has the second largest number of immigrants in the world, after the United States (albeit most of them being from the former Soviet Union).

Sadly, despite this surprisingly multicultural make-up, there’s a nascent and widespread nationalist movement in Russia, which even includes Neo-Nazi elements. Racist attacks, including murders, are relatively common, including in cosmopolitan Moscow. The federal authorities have done little to appreciably reduce the incidence of this violent hate crimes.

Thankfully, many Russians are doing their part to push back against this unsettling development, and few have done so more uniquely than artist and philanthropist Ildar Khanov. His is by far the most creative project of it’s kind, as it is indeed the only one of it’s kind: an architectural wonder known as the Temple of  All Religions, also called the Temple of the Universe. It’s a marvel of both artistic and humanitarian achievement, and though it’s still under construction, it looks spectacular:

This beautiful complex combines the religious motifs of Islam, Russian Orthodox Christianity, Judaism, and other religions, with plans to add a total of 16 distinct cupolas to represent the world’s major faiths. Appropriately, it’s being constructed in Kazan, the capital and largest city of the Republic of Tatarstan, a region in Russia known for it’s peaceful and centuries-long intermingling of many cultures and faiths (indeed, it bills itself as the 1,000 year-old crossroad between Asia and Europe).

Despite it’s appearances, the structure may not actually serve any religious functions (I’ve read mixed things), but is instead intended to double as both a cultural center and a residence of Khanov and his assistance. The Tatar Russian humanitarian is known for his efforts to combat drug addiction, alcohol, and a number of diseases, making the promotion of tolerance and understanding just the latest in a long line of humanist causes. Many of those he’s helped treat are contributing funds and labor to the Temple’s construction, though I’m not sure when it’s going to be finished (it’s been under construction since 1992).

Unfortunately, most of the information I could find online is in Russian, with the sole exception of an article in Columbia University’s School of Journalism:

For the past eight years, Khanov has been building the Church of All Faiths, a temple he hopes will house 16 different religions, an astronomical society, a puppet theater and a school of classical philosophy. Most of the worship halls are still under construction. Khanov, who financed the entire project himself, relies on donations of brick and glass from the people he heals, while patients he treats for drug addictions help with the construction. …

Khanov’s plan to include a Catholic cathedral equipped with a separate bedroom for the Pope, whom he says has already agreed to visit the temple, left some students skeptical.

“He really had me going until he started talking about a separate room for the Pope,” said student Dan Evans.

Others found Khanov’s regimen of two hours of sleep, three hours of meditation and one meal a day strange. His insistence that he sees UFOs and communicates with Jesus Christ was met with skepticism by still more members of the group. But some were impressed by Khanov’s dogged pursuit of his vision.

Kazan in general is a beautiful city, a gem at the heart of the massive Russian state:

It certainly defies the popular Western perception of dour and grimy Soviet-era infrastructure. Think of how many other wondrous places – just in Russia – that are similarly unknown.

Here are more images of the Temple:

An Islamic Art Exhibit at the Met

I may be an (agnostic) atheist, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the beauty and cultural output produced by religious societies. For all its modern troubles, especially with the West, the Islamic world was one of history’s greatest civilizations, rich in artistic, scientific, and intellectual progress.

The innumerable achievements that emerged during the Golden Age of Islam – in areas ranging from medicine and agriculture to architecture and literature – cannot be understated. Indeed, the West owes much of its development to the contributions of Medieval Islamic scholars and thinkers, who were also the keepers of ancient philosophy that would have otherwise been lost.

It is for this reason, and my overall love of world culture, that I’m very excited to see one of the nation’s largest and most prestigious museums create a permanent gallery devoted to Islamic art, known by the unwieldy but descriptive title, The New Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia.

Since November, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City has established a 15-room venue featuring some 1,200 works across 13 centuries of Islamic civilization. Among the materials provided are manuscripts, textiles, glass, ceramics, jewellery, military equipment, paintings, scientific instruments and carvings (from wood, stone, or ivory). Even the rooms themselves are genuine works of art, designed to accentuate the aesthetic of the displays:

The attention to detail in these rooms is remarkable. Architectural elements help to convey the sensibility of different eras and regions. The Introductory Gallery, for example, is paved with a design of white and gold marble inspired by decorations at the Taj Mahal, a masterpiece of Islamic architecture. For the Moroccan courtyard the museum commissioned carvings by craftsmen from Fez. Among their creations during months on scaffolding at the Met are replicas of 14th-century wooden doors, and geometrically patterned cornices and capitals. The space itself is opulent and serene, complete with a burbling fountain—one of several in these galleries. It is not surprising to learn that the construction budget alone for these rooms was $40m. But given the results, it doesn’t seem profligate.

Multiple entrances are provided, which nicely suggests there is no one way to approach the art within. But use the main one the first time. Here visitors are greeted with a large and arrestingly modern earthenware bowl. Made in Nishapur, Iran in the tenth century, this creamy, white piece is decorated with a seemingly abstract design on its perimeter, in fact a Kufic script that reads: “Planning before work protects you from regret; prosperity and peace”. Like much of the Met’s Islamic collection, the bowl was intended for secular not sacred use. As a result, the works on view are more accessible to those unfamiliar with Islamic practices.

… The Greater Ottoman World gallery seems vast. Its domed ceiling, a later-Ottoman inspired, Spanish wood-lattice affair, rises to 23 feet. The walls and mottled marble floor are the colour of claret. The almost 30-foot-long “Simonetti Carpet” (made in Cairo around 1500) is unfurled in the centre of the room. Like the many carpets hanging on the walls, its dominant colour is red. For all its luxury there is something transcendently cosy about this room, which seems to hug viewers as it glows and pulsates with richly textured reds. It is easy to imagine the sight of it driving Mark Rothko into an envious rage.

It seems that merely passing through it could be a breathtaking experience. I can see why the Met took eight years to set all this up, whereas originally it intended for a much smaller and temporary gallery. The Economist article I hyperlinked provides a view highlights, as well as a mini-slideshow of featured works.

Calligraphy and the arabesque—a continuous leaflike design—dominate Islamic art, yet there are many figurative works here as well. One of the first and most striking examples is a three-foot high, bronze lion with pussycat ears (pictured above). This 12th-century incense burner is incised with calligraphy that identifies its maker and first owner. Figurative art is not prohibited by Islam, as is commonly supposed. A few discreet depictions of the Prophet Muhammad may distress some Muslims, who object to any images of the prophet. But here—and as with everything else in these galleries—the museum has handled the presentation with sensitivity.

When travelling in a counter-clockwise path from the main entrance, the layout is broadly chronological, with galleries arranged by region. The route takes the visitor through the spread of Islam from Arab Lands and Iran under the Umayyads and Abbasids (seventh to 13th centuries) all the way to Later South Asia (16th to 20th centuries). The wall texts are informative, but the revelation is how powerfully the works speak for themselves, and how varied Islamic art is. The arrangement reveals stylistic differences as well as interactions across regions and over time. Chess, for example, began in India before the sixth century. On display is one of the earliest surviving chess sets, made from a type of pottery in Iran in the 12th century.

…The marvels keep coming, from astrological and medical texts to a richly embellished 18th-century Damascus reception room. Also on view are a dozen pages from the magnificently painted Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp. This reviewer never imagined that carpets—and there are many here—could be so moving. (No reference to magical airborne travels intended.)

I would love to see all this for myself, for it sounds like it would be an unforgettable experience. When I visit New York City, I’ll definitely spend a day, if not more, at the Met.

I encourage you all to check out the gallery’s dedicated webpage, which includes a ton of photos and information. The display offers a rare glimpse into a poorly understood and underrated culture. As the article rightly concludes:

The Met’s Islamic galleries offer a grand voyage to faraway times and places, and an eye-opening display of art. If these rooms do anything to replace fear and suspicion about Islam with a sense of wonder and curiosity, then there is all the more reason to celebrate.

Though I have my personal reservations towards religion, I still value the magnificent ingenuity and creativity of our species, whatever their belief system.

Yosemite HD

This is one of the most breathtaking things I’ve seen in a while: it’s a time-lapse high-definition video of Yosemite National Park. It’s part of a creative effort known as Project Yosemite, which seems intent on capturing as much of this land’s fantastic beauty as possible.

This is a collaborative effort between photographers Sheldon Neill and Colin Delehanty. Kudos to them for sharing their incredible work. You can find their contact info on the video link. It’s amazing to think that this massive and mostly pristine land area is only a sample of our country’s natural beauty, let alone the world. There is so much that I’ll need to see for myself.

Hope you enjoy!