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Brainiac

Um, what are ‘butter notes’?

And more recent highlights from the Ideas blog.

Jazz legend Herbie Hancock is delivering this year’s Norton lectures at Harvard, nominally a poetry lecture series that has drawn luminaries from across the arts: T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Igor Stravinsky, and Charles Eames, among others. Hancock’s first lecture was Monday in Sanders Theater, and it included an interesting anecdote. In a sound clip posted on the Harvard Gazette website, Hancock began by explaining that some years ago he found himself in a musical rut, “playing the same stuff over and over again.” One night he was onstage with the Miles Davis Quintet, at Lennie’s on the Turnpike in Peabody. Davis, sensing Hancock’s frustration, leaned over to him and said, “Don’t play the butter notes.”

A perplexed Hancock eventually decided that Davis meant “‘don’t play the obvious notes’—because I figured butter might mean fat, and fat might mean obvious.” He explained that the most obvious notes in a cord are the third and seventh notes, and whatever Miles meant, it worked for him: Once he decided to swap those out, he found a whole new set of creative possibilities awaited him.

How to feed a king

William Cogswell

King David Kalakaua of Hawaii.

Continue reading below

It’s funny to think about an island king riding to town on the railroad, but there he was: On Jan. 1, 1875, King Kalakaua, the last king of Hawaii, pulled into Boston on a state visit. Twelve years later he’d sign, at gunpoint, a new constitution that gave away most of his monarchal power. But when he arrived in Boston, he still had business to discuss.

According to a recent blog post by the Massachusetts Historical Society, King Kalakaua—otherwise known as the Merrie Monarch because of his embrace of hula, surfing, and other pleasures—had come to Boston to convince New Englanders to ease their support of American sugar tariffs, which were blocking one of Hawaii’s biggest exports to the United States. The highlight of Kalakaua’s visit was a lavish banquet at Revere House, an upscale hotel in the West End, on Jan. 2.

The feast began with oysters and also included turtle soup, sweetbreads a la Santa Cruz, an undoubtedly potent concoction known as Roman Punch, and a large array of pastries and desserts. The whole fete cost more than $3,000, and whatever was said amid all the merrymaking worked for Kalakaua: A few months later he signed the Reciprocity Treaty of 1875, and Hawaiian sugar was allowed into the United States, levy free.

Open table (for a reason)

If you don’t have dinner reservations yet for Valentine’s Day, you’re behind the eight ball. But even if the best tables have been snatched up already, there is still one thing that could save you: a flu outbreak.

A new study led by Elaine O. Nsoesie, a physician at Harvard Medical school and published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, used eight months of data from OpenTable—the restaurant reservation website—and compared it against flu trends. The researchers looked at four US cities, including Boston, and five cities in Mexico. They found that when flu rates spiked, table availability went up, too.

The study was about more than just what happens to restaurants: It’s part of a growing body of public-health research that uses things like search engine data and social media hashtags to infer underlying medical trends.

In this case, however, it also suggests an escape route for tardy date-makers. If you’re considering seizing on this opportunity, keep this fact of the study in mind: The researchers checked table availability 15 minutes prior to their desired reservation time, which allowed them to take advantage of any last-minute (potentially sickness-induced) cancellations.

Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at kshartnett18@gmail.com.
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