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“It is the same in love as in war; a fortress that parleys is half taken”*…

The AT&T Long Lines Building, designed by John Carl Warnecke at 33 Thomas Street in Manhattan, under construction ca. 1974.

Further to yesterday’s post on historic battlements, Zach Mortice on a modern fortress that’s become a go-to location for film and television thrillers…

When it was completed in Lower Manhattan in 1974, 33 Thomas Street, formerly known as the AT&T Long Lines Building, was intended as the world’s largest facility for connecting long-distance telephone calls. Standing 532 feet — roughly equivalent to a 45-story building — it’s a mugshot for Brutalism, windowless and nearly featureless. Its only apertures are a series of ventilation hoods meant to hide microwave-satellite arrays, which communicate with ground-based relay stations and satellites in space. One of several long lines buildings designed by John Carl Warnecke for the New York Telephone Company, a subsidiary of AT&T, 33 Thomas Street is perhaps the most visually striking project in the architect’s long and influential career. Embodying postwar American economic and military hegemony, the tower broadcasts inscrutability and imperviousness. It was conceived, according to the architect, to be a “skyscraper inhabited by machines.”

“No windows or unprotected openings in its radiation-proof skin can be permitted,” reads a project brief prepared by Warnecke’s office; the building’s form and dimensions were shaped not by human needs for light and air, but by the logics of ventilation, cooling, and (not least) protection from atomic blast. “As such, the design project becomes the search for a 20th-century fortress, with spears and arrows replaced by protons and neutrons laying quiet siege to an army of machines within.” The purple prose of the project brief was perhaps inspired by the client. AT&T in the 1970s still held its telecom monopoly, and was an exuberant player in the Cold War military-industrial complex. Until 2009, 33 Thomas Street was a Verizon data center. And in 2016, The Intercept revealed that the building was functioning as a hub for the National Security Administration, which has bestowed upon it the Bond-film-esque moniker Titanpointe.

Computers at Titanpointe have monitored international phone calls, faxes and voice calls routed over the internet, and more, hoovering up data from the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and U.S. allies including France, Germany, and Japan. 33 Thomas Street, it turns out, is exactly what it looks like: an apocalypse-proof above-ground bunker intended not only to symbolize but to guarantee national security. For those overseeing fortress operations at the time of construction, objects of fear were nuclear-armed Communists abroad and a restive youth population at home, who couldn’t be trusted to obey the diktats of a culture that had raised up some in previously inconceivable affluence; an affluence built on the exploitation and disenfranchisement of people near and far.

By the time the NSA took over, targets were likely to be insurgents rejecting liberal democracy and American hegemony, from Islamic fundamentalists to world-market competitors in China, alongside a smattering of Black Lives Matter activists. For those outside the fortress, in the Nixon era as in the present, the fearful issue was an entrenched and unaccountable fusion of corporate and governmental capability, a power that flipped the switches connecting the world. At the same time, popular culture had begun, in the 1970s, to register a paranoia that has only intensified — the fear that people no longer call the shots. In its monumental implacability, Titanpointe seems to herald a posthuman regime, run by algorithm for the sole purpose of perpetuating its own system.

It is, in other words, a building tailor made for spy movies.

John Carl Warnecke did not realize, of course, that he was storyboarding a movie set…

How (and why) a windowless telecommunications hub in New York City embodying an architecture of surveillance and paranoia became an ideal location for conspiracy thrillers: “Apocalypse-Proof,” from @zachmortice in @PlacesJournal. Fascinating.

Margaret of Valois


As we ponder impenetrability, we might recall that it was on this date in 1780, during the American Revolutionary War, that Benedict Arnold, commander of the American fort at West Point, passed plans of the bastion to the British.

Portrait by Thomas Hart, 1776 (source)

“Who, who, who, who”*…

From 99% Invisible, the remarkable– and revealing– story of an all-time champion earwig…

All kinds of songs get stuck in your head. Famous pop tunes from when you were a kid, album cuts you’ve listened to over and over again. And then there’s a category of memorable songs—the ones that we all just kind of know. Songs that somehow, without anyone’s permission, sneak their way into the collective unconscious and are now just lingering there for eternity. There’s one song that best exemplifies this phenomenon— “Who Let The Dogs Out” by the Baha Men.

The story of how that song ended up stuck in all of our brains goes back decades and spans continents. It tells us something about inspiration, and how creativity spreads, and about whether an idea can ever really belong to just one person. About ten years ago, Ben Sisto was reading the Wikipedia entry for the song when he noticed something strange. A hairdresser in England named “Keith” was credited with giving the song to the Baha Men, but Keith had no last name and the fact had no citation. This mystery sent Ben down a rabbit hole to uncover the true story and eventually lead to a documentary about his decade-long quest called Who Let the Dogs Out

Whomst Among Us Let Out The Dogs (Again),” from @99piorg.

Anslem Douglas, “Who Let the Dogs Out?


As we contemplate catchiness, we might recall that on this date in 1995 the #1 song in America was “Gangsta’s Paradise” by Coolio.

Interpolating Stevie Wonder’s 1976 song “Pastime Paradise,” “Gangsta’s Paradise” features vocals from American singer L.V. who served as a co-composer and co-lyricist with Coolio and Doug Rasheed. (Wonder was also being credited for the composition and lyrics.) The single was certified Platinum in October of 1995 and ultimately sold over 5 million copies.

Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 9, 2023 at 1:00 am

“The best way to destroy the capitalist system is to debauch the currency”*…

… the capitalist system or for that matter, just about any economic system. So the keepers of those systems, the 169 authorities that issue money around the world, take that threat very seriously. About half of them depend on one company, De La Rue. As Samanth Subramanian explains, the pandemic has been a roller coaster ride for cash– and thus for De La Rue…

… De La Rue… is in the high-stakes business of authentication. It designs and prints national passports, as well as the silver foil labels that mark cigarette packs and alcohol bottles as genuine. Most crucially, it works with roughly half of the world’s central banks on their currency notes: designing them, developing security features to protect them from counterfeiting, and printing them. From its presses in Asia and Europe, De La Rue turns out up to 6 billion banknotes a year, making it the world’s largest commercial printer of currency.

That number is only a fraction of all the notes printed worldwide annually. The biggest central banks—such as those of the US, China, India, and Brazil—tend to have their own presses. Still, many smaller countries outsource their production of money. De La Rue prints British pounds, Fijian and Barbadian dollars, Qatari riyals, Sri Lankan rupees, and dozens more currencies…

[There follows a fascinating history of the company…]

… A major issuer like the Bank of England will place a currency order annually; smaller banks can order once every few years. But the past is not always a reliable guide. During times of inflation, for instance, the demand for notes grows. De La Rue is one of the few companies for which inflation—or, for that matter, regime change—is a good thing. The fall of Saddam Hussein warranted new notes; so did the creation of South Sudan.

Most countries are better prepared for more predictable cycles of cash use. Around the Middle East, central banks arrange to have more currency on hand before Eid al-Fitr, when it’s customary not only to spend money on festivities but also to hand out gifts of crisp new notes. The same goes for the Chinese New Year and Christmas.

The pandemic proved to be unexpectedly disruptive. A casual observer may have expected cash use to plunge in 2020, as people stayed home during lockdowns and worried about catching the virus from banknotes. In fact, disasters tend to drive people toward cash, as a physical store of safety and wealth. As a result, in most countries, the average value of notes drawn from ATMs went up by about 25-30%. Central banks also wanted new, cleaner notes, and larger stocks of notes in general, so they ordered more.

Across the US and Eurozone, total currency in circulation in September 2020 was more than 10% higher than the previous year. In the US, the number of notes circulating usually tends to rise by an annual 1-2 billion. In 2020, that figure surged to 6 billion.

De La Rue welcomed the bonanza. It had suffered a setback in 2019, when it failed to win a £490 million contract to print the new, post-Brexit British passport. (Ironically, the job went to an EU company). But after the pandemic glut of orders for new notes, demand sank to lower-than-normal levels between 2021 and 2022. The currency division’s revenues fell 2.1%, to £280.9 million. The chair of De La Rue’s board resigned in April 2023 after the company put out a profit warning—its third in a year (a new chair was appointed in May). For De La Rue, the hangover from the pandemic has been more challenging than the pandemic itself…

The world’s largest money printer made bank during the pandemic: “De La Rue: Currency printer to the world,” from @samanth_s in @qz.

* Vladimir Lenin


As we muse on money, we might recall that it was on this date in 1939 that The Wizard of Oz was first shown to the public in Dennis, MA, one of three test screenings ahead of the official release. Fearing the film would be unpopular, MGM executives opted to gauge audience reaction. The film was of course well received, and the studio proceeded with the star-studded Hollywood premier at Grauman’s Chinese Theater (on August 15).

And on the subject of currency, it’s worth noting that many view Dorothy’s trek to the Emerald City to be a lightly-veiled critique of the Gold Standard


Written by (Roughly) Daily

August 11, 2023 at 1:00 am

“Better not bring up a lion inside your city, but if you must, then humor all his moods”*…

A competitor dressed as a Spartan warrior takes part in the 2010 Tough Guy race in Telford, England, on Jan. 31, 2010

Historian Bret Devereaux on why it’s ill-advised to idolize Spartans…

The Athenian historian Thucydides once remarked that Sparta was so lacking in impressive temples or monuments that future generations who found the place deserted would struggle to believe it had ever been a great power. But even without physical monuments, the memory of Sparta is very much alive in the modern United States. In popular culture, Spartans star in film and feature as the protagonists of several of the largest video game franchises. The Spartan brand is used to promote obstacle races, fitness equipment, and firearms. Sparta has also become a political rallying cry, including by members of the extreme right who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Sparta is gone, but the glorification of Sparta—Spartaganda, as it were—is alive and well.

Even more concerning is the U.S. military’s love of all things Spartan. The U.S. Army, of course, has a Spartan Brigade (Motto: “Sparta Lives”) as well as a Task Force Spartan and Spartan Warrior exercises, while the Marine Corps conducts Spartan Trident littoral exercises—an odd choice given that the Spartans were famously very poor at littoral operations. Beyond this sort of official nomenclature, unofficial media regularly invites comparisons between U.S. service personnel and the Spartans as well.

Much of this tendency to imagine U.S. soldiers as Spartan warriors comes from Steven Pressfield’s historical fiction novel Gates of Fire, still regularly assigned in military reading lists. The book presents the Spartans as superior warriors from an ultra-militarized society bravely defending freedom (against an ethnically foreign “other,” a feature drawn out more explicitly in the comic and later film 300). Sparta in this vision is a radically egalitarian society predicated on the cultivation of manly martial virtues. Yet this image of Sparta is almost entirely wrong. Spartan society was singularly unworthy of emulation or praise, especially in a democratic society…

Eminently worth reading in full. U.S. admiration of a proto-fascist city-state is based on bad history: “Spartans Were Losers,” from @BretDevereaux in @ForeignPolicy.

In the spirit of offering alternative perspectives: Brad DeLong in defense of Gates of Fire, if not of the worshipful view of the Spartans.

* Aristophanes, The Frogs


As we rethink role models, we might recall that it was on this date in 1951 that Disney’s Alice in Wonderland had its American premiere (in New York, two days after premiering in London).

Walt Disney first tried to adapt Alice into a feature-length animated feature film in the 1930s, but were scrapped in favor of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). The idea was revived in the 1940s. The film was originally intended to be a live-action/animated film, but Disney decided it would be the fully animated feature film. During its production, many sequences adapted from Lewis Carroll’s books were later omitted, such as Jabberwocky, White Knight, the Duchess, and Mock Turtle.

Alice in Wonderland was considered a disappointment on its initial release, so was shown on television as one of the first episodes of Disneyland. Its 1974 re-release in theaters proved to be much more successful, leading to subsequent re-releases, merchandising, and home video releases.


“The avant-garde always has a bad time of it.”*…

Whither the innovative, the experimental, the challenging in our arts and culture? The Drift explores…

It’s commonplace to note that sociopolitical upheaval and artistic experimentation often flourish side by side. But today — despite an alleged “polycrisis” — new modes of cultural production don’t seem to be emerging. Three years after the start of the Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent George Floyd rebellion, the arts seem stagnant and stubbornly centralized: franchise fare dominates at the box office; literary output is hampered by monopolized publishers; even the obsession with so-called nepo babies suggests a cultural bloodline without disruption. The internet, meanwhile, tends to both homogenize art and silo audiences by algorithm. We’ve begun to wonder if we’re overlooking experimental movements, or if they’re going extinct.

For Issue Ten, we asked artists and thinkers across disciplines — novelists, sculptors, composers, dancers, critics — to reflect on the current state of the avant-garde. What’s to blame for the lack of a coherent movement? If the avant-garde is dead, what killed it — and what’s been lost along the way? In politics, nothing seems to surprise us anymore. In art, can we still be shocked? Should we?…

An example, from the contribution by Liza Batkin (@LizaBatkin), a writer, attorney, and former dancer

When dancers refer to the avant-garde, they tend, counterintuitively, to mean something old: experimental artists in the 1960s and 1970s in New York, who worked largely out of lofts and Judson Memorial Church. Modern dance, by that point, had moved beyond ballet’s pointe shoes, tilted heads, and sweet violins, but the avant-gardists went further. Yvonne Rainer wrote a manifesto in 1965 that rejected spectacle and virtuosity. Trisha Brown strung unremarkable motions together into what she called “accumulations.” A lot of the work, like Lucinda Childs’s “Dance,” a mesmerizing collaboration with Philip Glass and Sol LeWitt, was slouchy, cool, and organic. It didn’t express emotion or match its music, and no one smiled. 

Avant-garde dance had gone so far past ballet that it may have seemed it could go no further. But then it aged into the establishment. When “Dance” was restaged at the Joyce Theater in 2021, the performers were so virtuosic that they strained to recreate Childs’s nonchalance, and a show of Trisha Brown’s works on Rockaway Beach last summer, against sparkling blue water, could hardly be seen through the crowd. Choreography invented a half century ago — thrown limbs that propel the body, controlled movements that break into swinging, relaxed ones — is now vernacular.

Even as it borrows from the past, today’s dance has found new rules to break… 

What Happened to the Avant-Garde? “Publicists, Manifesto Pushers, Propagandists,” the current issue of @thedrift_mag.

* Anton Chekhov


As we explore the edge, we might send envelope-pushing birthday greetings to László Moholy-Nagy; he was born on this date in 1895. An artists and educator, his pioneering work in painting, drawing, photography, collage, sculpture, film, theater, and writing, was, in the words of art critic Peter Schjeldahl,  “relentlessly experimental” and was hugely influential in the European avant-garde. His artworks were included in the infamous 1937 “Degenerate art” exhibition held by Nazi Germany in Munich.

Moholy-Nagy taught, in the 1920s, in the Bauhaus school. In 1937, fleeing the Nazis, he emigrated to Chicago, where he founded the School of Design in Chicago, which survives today as part of the Illinois Institute of Technology, and which art historian Elizabeth Siegel called “his overarching work of art.”

The photo included with Moholy-Nagy’s Declaration of Intention for US citizenship in 1938 (source)

Written by (Roughly) Daily

July 20, 2023 at 1:00 am

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