Notes from Felix

Nota bene: The Axios era begins!

Hi friends! I ended up taking a break from this newsletter for the summer, at the end of which I got a job as the chief financial correspondent for Axios. I’ll be writing a weekly newsletter, coming out on Sundays, please sign up for it here. The first one is coming out this Sunday, which happens to be the tenth anniversary of the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers.

(A quick warning: If you don’t sign up now, you’ll get another request to subscribe from the Axios folks tomorrow. But then I won’t pester you any more.)

I’m still doing the Slate Money podcast, and I’m not giving up Nota bene either. Axios will be home to my newsy writing, but other stuff will live here. I already have a couple of future newsletters up my sleeve.

Finally, one request: I plan to end every Axios newsletter with a great piece of architecture. If you have any requests, especially if you have great photographs I can use or there are great photographs which I can get permission to use, please let me know!

-Felix

Nota bene: Nota bene

I don’t love talking about myself, or what I’m up to. (That’s why I created @felixbot, separate from my main @felixsalmon feed, just to tweet myself: if you just follow me, and not my bot, you’ll get relatively little self-promotion.)

But after a fair few of these Nota bene emails, and a few incoming queries, I guess I should try to explain what I’m up to. Even though I’m not 100% sure of that myself.

I started this iteration of my email newsletter back in February, sending it out to the former recipients of my old Counterparties newsletter, plus a few randomly-picked others. If you haven’t unsubscribed, and you’re still opening these emails, thank you!

Part of the reason for setting up the newsletter was to see what my natural writing cadence was, after four years hidden away doing mostly post-text stuff at Fusion. Another part was an experiment: If I started a newsletter, would people subscribe?

I think I’ve managed to answer both of those questions, at least tentatively. I’m writing pretty much daily, which is roughly what I thought I’d do when I started doing this in February. That writing appears in a bunch of different places. Most of it is at Slate, some is at Wired, and some of it is at other places like Artnet or Vinepair. And, yes, some of it is right here on my Substack newsletter.

As for the subscriber base, that’s been mostly steady, but basically trending downwards. (No hard feelings!) There are a lot of email newsletters out there, and while there are certainly people out there who are interested in what I have to say, it takes more than that to want to fill up your inbox with yet another newsletter. If I was interested in building a successful email product, I would have to have a much more focused subject matter, just for starters.

Perhaps it’s the software I’m using. This latest iteration of this newsletter is on the wonderful Substack platform, which is incredibly user-friendly, I’d recommend it to anybody. That said, Substack is focused mainly on generating paying subscribers, rather than just subscribers, and so it can be hard for people to realize that it’s entirely possible (and welcome!) to sign up for free.

I’ve never asked anybody to pay to subscribe to these newsletters, although I’m deeply thankful to everybody who’s done so. If you want to convert to a paid subscription, that would be amazing. For the time being, however, my income from newsletter subscriptions is tiny — my paying subscriber base is in the low double digits.

That’s why I haven’t written anything yet for subscribers only. So long as almost no one pays for this newsletter, it feels silly for me to send out an email for just, um, 18 people. Those 18 people are supporting me (thanks, again!), rather than paying for exclusive content (which, there isn’t any). But if there’s been any confusion on that front — if you handed over a credit card because you thought you were going to get exclusive newsletters, and now regret that purchase — then please just say the word and I’ll personally pay you back everything you can’t get refunded from Substack.

I like the idea of writing something of value, which people pay for insofar as they value it, rather than because of some paywall. Maybe that’s naive. Maybe I’ll start actually asking people to subscribe. And maybe, if that’s successful, I might start writing some things just for subscribers. Everything’s still pretty fluid right now, I’m still trying to work a lot of different things out.

All of which is to say: Thanks for bearing with me. And, as ever, all feedback and suggestions and requests are welcome. You can reach me on this email, or directly at felix@felixsalmon.com.

Nota bene: Tabular figures

Numbers appear on top of each other in all manner of contexts, from sports scores to menus to those incomprehensibly dry data tables at the back of academic papers which you always wish would be graphs instead. But it doesn’t matter: no matter the context, you always need to use tabular figures.

Tabular figures are a bit like riding a bike. Once you know about them, you’ll never forget, and you’ll harbor a desire to use them at every opportunity. But in reality you’ll do so much less frequently than you’d like.

For a fantastic introduction to tabular figures, go here, for Jonathan Hoefler’s crystal-clear explanation of how important they are and also how type designers have really thought of everything. But the short version is, simply: Tabular figures are numbers (1, 2, 3…) which all take up the exact same amount of horizontal space, even if they’re in bold or italics or both. Pretty much any time you’re using numbers outside a regular sentence, you should be using tabular figures. And, chances are, you’re not.

Hoefler has tried to rectify this a little bit with his set of office fonts, where all figures are tabular by default, but, well, you’re not using one of those fonts. And whatever font you are using, it probably has tabular figures if you look hard enough, but you don’t know how to look, and in any case they’re probably only part of a “pro” version of the font which you don’t have access to.

Some of the blame here lies with the low-level innumeracy of most graphic designers, although I should note that the latest versions of Microsoft Word have been pretty good about defaulting to tabular figures. Still, because you guys are special and numerate, you’ll understand my favorite reason why tabular figures are so important. Which is Benford’s Law.

Basically, in most fonts, most numerals are pretty much the same width, and there’s a good chance you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between tabular and normal figures — if it wasn’t for the pesky number 1, which is typically significantly narrower than all the others. And, wouldn’t you know it: The number 1 is the most significant digit about 30% of the time. The most significant digit is, naturally, the one that people pay the most attention to, so it feels off when it’s not properly aligned with the numbers below it.

So, next time you’re putting a table on the internet, remember the magic words. I’ll leave them here, so you don’t forget:

font-feature-settings: 'tnum';

Nota bene: Habitat 67

I had two indelibly memorable experiences the last time I traveled to Montreal, just over a year ago. One was a truly spectacular meal at Joe Beef; the other was a pilgrimage to Habitat 67, Moshe Safdie’s brutalist residential masterpiece.

I’ve written a bit about my own love of brutalism, but I’ve never attempted a piece on a single building. The fact is that smart and interesting journalism on the subject of individual buildings is very rare, and trying to find good writing on non-new buildings is, well, good luck with that.

Do, then, please tell me about any such writing you know and love. It’s a genre I’m a complete sucker for, alongside any and all book reviews of translations of much-translated works. I can certainly recommend Christopher Hawthorne’s amazing evaluation of Peter Eisenman’s City of Culture in Santiago de Compostela, and now I can also, happily, point you to an insightful essay from Tim Abrahams on Habitat 67.

Abrahams doesn’t really nail the feeling of walking and living in Habitat 67; for that you really need to just go there yourself. But he does give some hugely valuable context, including the fact (which I never really appreciated) that the complex looks completely different when viewed from the east, looking towards the city. This is the honest view of Habitat 67, the one which, in good brutalist style, truly reveals how the madcap jumble of prefabricated concrete boxes has been assembled.

Abrahams also locates Habitat 67 in its proper suburban context. It’s a long way from Montreal proper, as I can attest after having made the desolate walk there from the city; we ended up taking an Uber back, and even that took a long while to arrive. According to Abrahams, Canada is 67% suburban, and most of those suburbs are significantly denser than Habitat 67’s own neighborhood. A higgledy-piggledy apartment building doesn’t create density on its own, and Habitat 67 remains, half a century after its construction, bereft of the kind of schools and shops and other facilities that would help to kickstart a genuinely livable suburb.

That said, as Abrahams notes,

What Habitat 67 does most successfully is resist the lazy distinction of high-rise inner city and low-rise suburbia. The drift of history may have been against it in terms of city-centre dwelling, but it still acted as an exemplar of how apartment buildings might operate in a suburban setting… Habitat 67 shows what a suburban core might look like. 

In other words, this is what Silicon Valley is lacking. Abrahams notes that Habitat 67 falls short of its utopian egalitarian ideals when you start looking at its residents, who are largely drawn from Montreal’s creative elite. But for suburbs rich and poor which are struggling with both an undersupply of housing and a feeling that there’s no visual center to their town, Safdie has provided a largely ignored architectural blueprint for the future.

Abrahams also notes that Safdie has solved the “backyard problem,” whereby upper-middle-class families don’t want to buy into apartment complexes because they want to own their own backyard. One solution to the problem, it turns out, is to create a “market where the use of gardens has become performative and spectacular, rather than personalised and discrete”. The individual mini-gardens at Habitat 67 aren’t big, but they’re just as much status symbols as any half-neglected backyard.

It’s also incredibly heartening to see that Habitat 67 is in fine structural shape, the brutal Montreal winters notwithstanding. Brutalist buildings often age badly; Habitat 67 is proof that they don’t need to, not even when they’re built in a rush out of pre-fabricated units.

All that said, Abrahams does over-egg his pudding a little bit. For instance:

One should remember that the model for incorporating industrialisation into buildings was Corbusian Modernism which found its apogee in the USA in the Miesian tower. In the Americas, no other building confounded that model more than the Habitat and, after it, extruding the plan was no longer the default architectural means of capitalising on Fordian economies of repetition.

What he’s noting here is that if you want to build residential housing on an industrial scale, the default thing to do is to come up with a floor plan, and then just repeat it, floor after floor, vertically, over and over and over again. Think Hong Kong, or, for that matter, just about any modern Chinese city.

According to Abrahams, that model is “no longer the default,” thanks to Habitat 67. I wish he were right, but the fact is the repeat-the-floor-plan model is very much the default, still. Even when big-name architects are deliberately trying to follow the Habitat 67 model.

I’m thinking here of 56 Leonard Street, the Herzog & DeMeuron “Jenga tower” which was meant to be an updated luxury urban version of Habitat 67. In the end, the top few stories retained their asymmetrical vivacity, but the rest of the building got value-engineered into something boring and repetitive.

Which is really why the Habitat 67 model never took off. It’s a much-loved building, but it’s simply too difficult, practically, to try to construct apartments like that on a budget and at scale. Which is why Habitat 67 remains a unique masterpiece. Go to Montreal, and check it out. It’s well worth the trip, even if you don’t eat at Joe Beef.

Nota bene: Cheers!

It’s National Wine Day today, you don’t need me to tell you what to do. But by request, I’ll share three good wines:

Red: François Moutard’s Hérisson Pinot Noir/Gamay blend from southern Burgundy, at the edge of Beaujolais

White: La Petite Frog Picpoul de Pinet from Languedoc-Roussillion

Rosé: François & Benoit Moutard’s Hérisson Rosé, 100% Carignan from Costières de Nîmes

You should be able to get all three of these for somewhere in the $30-$35 range, which is the kind of price that you’re going to want and expect something pretty special. And, these are special! But there’s something I haven’t told you, which is that they all come in 3-liter boxes, which means that they all cost significantly less than $10 a bottle.

Wine-in-a-box is an incredibly obvious no-brainer. It’s vastly better for the environment, it lasts for weeks, there’s never any pressure to finish the bottle. The only problem with box wine — and it’s a big one — is that most of it is just disgustingly bad. And life’s too short to drink bad wine!

So, if you’re wary about navigating the treacherous waters of box wine, and you don’t want to bear the risk of coming home with three liters of something undrinkable, I feel you, I really do. That’s why I’m sending you this email. You don’t need to take a risk, just look for the Hérisson hedgehog, or the Picpoul de Pinet frog. And you’ll have delicious, quaffable wine all summer long, for a very attractive price.

Cheers!

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