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Ethel the Blog
Observations (and occasional brash opining) on science, computers, books, music and other shiny things that catch my mind's eye. There's a home page with ostensibly more permanent stuff. This is intended to be more functional than decorative. I neither intend nor want to surf on the bleeding edge, keep it real, redefine journalism or attract nyphomaniacal groupies (well, maybe a wee bit of the latter). The occasional cheap laugh, raised eyebrow or provocation of interest are all I'll plead guilty to in the matter of intent. Bene qui latuit bene vixit.

The usual copyright stuff applies, but I probably won't get enraged until I find a clone site with absolutely no attribution (which, by the way, has happened twice with some of my other stuff). Finally, if anyone's offended by anything on this site then please do notify me immediately. I like to keep track of those times when I get something right.

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Saturday, October 30, 1999

MUSIC
While the
Fabulous Thunderbirds are still a pretty good band, their early 80s line-up was as good as it gets. The combination of Kim Wilson (the only original member in the present lineup) on harmonica, (the late) Keith Ferguson on bass, Jimmy Vaughn (Stevie Ray's brother) on guitar, and Fran Christina on drums put out four classic albums worth of Texas-flavored R&B and blues. The Fabulous Thunderbirds (1979) and What's the Word (1980) are out-of-print as far as I can tell, although Butt Rockin' (1981) and T Bird Rhythm (1982) are available together on a single disc CD. Their commercial break-through came with Tuff Enuff in 1986, by which time Preston Hubbard had replaced the heroin-addicted Ferguson on bass. I had the pleasure of seeing that line-up live in San Diego that year (along with the Beat Farmers and Mojo Nixon and Skid Roper the very next night, damn those were the days).

I was very excited to recently hear of a live disc from those years called Different Tacos (1996). This was produced by Denny Bruce, the band's first manager and producer, and the 20 selections include live tunes from both a European tour and the Bottom Line in Austin as well as outtakes from their first four studio albums. The only downside about this glorious CD is finding it. The Country Town label on which it was released is, as far as I can tell, defunct (at least their web address is unreachable). But, fortunately, there are other sources including Club Louisianne. I got a copy from Jim's Ithaca Music Shop several months ago, and even if they're out the rest of their inventory still well worth checking out.

The liner notes provide further pleasures. For instance, we learn that upon first meeting Bruce, Jimmie Vaughn told him, "We're an encyclopedia of all the good shit from the Gulf Coast, you know, Lightnin' Slim, Lazy Lester, Excello, Texas shuffles, rockin' cajun. Muddy Waters helped get us a gig in Boston when he said Kim, our harp player, is the best he has heard since Little Walter. Our bass player did a gig with Johnny Winter and then went across town to play bass in a chicano show band where he had to dance the side-ways pony with a tambourine on his hip."

Other Thunderbird-related discs worth a listen include Carlos Santana's solo project Havana Moon (1983) (featuring the T-Bird line-up from that year on a couple of cuts), Kim Wilson's work on dozens of projects including several solo albums, Jimmie Vaughan's albums Out There (1998), Strange Pleasure (1994) and (with brother Stevie Ray) Family Style (1990). Lastly, from the "cross-pollination of great bands" corner, David Hidalgo of Los Lobos provides guest vocals on Tuff Enuff.
posted by Steven Baum 10/30/1999 03:25:16 PM | link

SITINGS
Jump the Shark chronicles when television shows have reached their peak and have nowhere to go but downhill. Reader input comprises quite a bit of the content and definitely enhances the site. The name comes from that moment in Happy Days when Fonzie attempted to jump over a shark with his motorcycle. The entry for each TV show lists all the nominations for the shark jumping moment and the number of votes each has obtained (with one of the categories being that the show hasn't or never reached that moment).

In addition to the individual entries, there are several categories of frequently occurring shark jumping moments including:

  • Same Character, Different Actor, where the same character is replaced by a different actor, e.g. Darren in Bewitched;
  • Ted McGinley, the site's patron saint whose mere appearance on a show bodes ill for its future;
  • Puberty, that magic moment when a character goes through the big change from being cute to annoying;
  • They Did It, where the sexual tension between two characters that drives a show is obliterated by them doing the nasty;
  • I Do and Birth, those two magic moments for crass emotional manipulation; and
  • A Very Special..., that very annoying phrase used by NBC for some supposedly cathartic moment on an upcoming show.

There's also a Stumping the Shark section in which the attempt to answer reader's questions and a Never Jumped section containing the shows the majority think never jumped.
posted by Steven Baum 10/30/1999 02:41:52 PM | link

Friday, October 29, 1999

STRANGE PIC
If I could think like
this I'd die happy tomorrow. There's a lot more than a thousand words here. Update: Eric at Kestrel's Nest tells me that you can get a t-shirt with this from Northern Sun.
posted by Steven Baum 10/29/1999 01:52:59 PM | link

STRANGE LIT
expression is the need of my soul
i was once a vers libre bard
but i died and my soul went into the body of a cockroach
it has given me a new outlook upon life

Thus did the saga of archy and mehitabel begin. Archy the cockroach and Mehitabel the alley cat were created (discovered?) in the early 1920s by Don Marquis, a writer for the New York Sun. The reason for the unusual typography consisting of all lower case letters and no punctuation is illustrated by Marquis's description of what he saw on that first fateful morning, "We came into our room earlier than usual in the morning, and discovered a giant cockroach jumping about on the keys. He did not see us, and we watched him. He would climb painfully upon the framework of the machine and cast himself with all his force upon a key, head downward, and his weight and the impact of the blow were just sufficient to operate the machine, one slow letter after another. He could not work the capital letters, and he had a great deal of difficulty operating the mechanism that shifts the paper so that a fresh line may be started."

In addition to the various online excerpts from Archy's output, one can still obtain anthologies of this most literary of cockroach's best work. And, in one of those remarkable conflations that make you realize that the deities probably aren't completely capricious bastards, the illustrations for the originally published Archy and Mehitabel books were drawn by George Herriman, the creator of Krazy Kat, one of the best and most influential cartoon strips of this century.
posted by Steven Baum 10/29/1999 10:54:45 AM | link

SCIENCE
Insight into climate change can be gained via both modeling and analogy, with the latter involving finding past (on both historical and geological time scales) situations similar to the present. Current estimates of the amount of carbon that will be added to the atmosphere by human activity over the next millenium range from 2000 to 4000 gigatonnes. Analogies for this were thought not to exist. Richard Norris and Ursula Rohl beg to disagree (
Science, "Carbon cycling and chronology of climate warming during the Palaeocene/Eocene transition," Vol. 401, 1999, pp. 775-778), describing an event called the late Palaeocene thermal maximum (LPTM) wherein 1200 to 2000 gigatonnes of carbon were injected into the atmosphere over less then 10,000 years around 55 million years ago.

During the LPTM, temperatures at high latitudes and in the deep ocean increased by 5-7 deg. C (a huge amount in such a short time). This was accompanied by an unusual decrease in the C13/C12 ratio of carbon on the Earth's surface, i.e. the carbon isotope ratio. This ratio of carbon (C12) to its most common isotope (C13) differs for known carbon reservoirs (e.g. atmosphere, ocean, biomass, methane hydrates), allowing sources to be inferred from changes in the ratio. In the LPTM case, only the methane hydrate reservoir contains sufficient (an estimated 14,000 gigatonnes today) C12-enriched carbon to have caused such a change. These hydrates are ice-like solids composed of gas and water that are stable at high pressure, low temperature and high gas concentration, i.e. the conditions on the continental slopes where they are found. (A crackling good read that posits a massive release of these hydrates today to cause a hyper-hurricane hell-on-earth is Mother of Storms by John Barnes.)

The scenario described by Norris and Rohl (derived from the C13/C12 ratios in a high resolution sediment record across the LPTM obtained by the Ocean Drilling Project in the western Atlantic Ocean) has the huge carbon pulse being injected into the atmosphere and ocean over 10,000 years and changing the C13/C12 ratio, with the ratio then gradually returning to its previous value over the next 140,000 years. The mechanism that caused the initial release remains an enigma, although fortunately that doesn't detract from the predictive value of the analogy.

And just what is that value? One of the great unknowns about predictions of climate change induced by greenhouse gas (i.e. carbon) emissions is how long it will take the other reservoirs to absorb the excess of carbon in the atmosphere and return things to normal. If we assume that the exchange of carbon between the reservoirs (i.e. the carbon cycle) operates via the same mechanisms as it did during the LPTM, we can estimate that it will take about the same length of time as it did after the LPTM, i.e. over 100,000 years.
posted by Steven Baum 10/29/1999 09:29:04 AM | link

Thursday, October 28, 1999

SCIENCE
The benefits of improving our ability to predict the interannual variability of hurricanes and their intensity include:
  • allowing the reinsurance industry and financial markets to get a better handle on risk;
  • allowing government agencies to set aside supplementary disaster funds for those years more likely to see hurricane damage; and, most importantly,
  • allowing those in live in danger-prone areas to make more rational decisions about safety preparedness.
According to
La Nina, El Nino, and Atlantic hurricane damages in the United States (in press) by Roger Pielke and Christopher Landsea of the Environmental and Societal Impacts Group at NCAR, annual differences can be predicted, at least statistically.

The key to prediction is the seemingly unrelated El Nino phenomenon or, more accurately, that and the related La Nina. These are the popular terms used to describe alternating cold (La Nina) and warm (El Nino) temperature phases in the eastern and central Pacific off the western coast of South America. A quantitative method for distinguishing between the phases involves calculating the average temperature in a rectangular portion of the aforementioned area during the months of August, September and October. If the average for a given year is a given amount warmer/cooler than the long-term average, then an El Nino/La Nina event is said to occur. Given this objective definition, there have been 22 El Nino, 29 neutral, and 22 La Nina years in the last 73.

A statistical analysis comparing these years with the actual hurricane damage occuring over the same period shows that the probability of hurricanes causing over $1 billion in damage is 77% for La Nina years, 32% for El Nino years, and 48% for neutral years. The difference with more catastrophic storms causing over $10 billion in damage is less remarkable, although the relatively small number of such events in the record makes these results less reliable. The upshot: La Nina events are significantly correlated with a greater frequency of damaging storms and more damage per storm. The authors are careful to point out that this doesn't mean that El Nino years mean no hurricanes. They also remind us that the El Nino/La Nina events have to themselves be predicted before the fact for us to be able to act on these results, although the current state-of-the-art of El Nino prediction is well advanced and sufficient for most years. There are also other related factors that may make such predictions even more accurate once they're properly quantified.
posted by Steven Baum 10/28/1999 11:32:32 PM | link

VERY STRANGE LIT
A lipogram is prose or poetry written such that one or more letters are not used. According to C. C. Bombaugh's
Oddities and Curiosities of Words and Literature, the practice can be traced back at least to Tryphiodorus, a poet who wrote an epic poem about Ulysses in 24 books, each of which omitted one letter from the then 24 letter alphabet. In 1824 a Lord Holland wrote a short piece called "Eve's Legend", omitting all vowels but e. The first sentence is, "Men were never perfect; yet the three brethren Veres were ever esteemed, respected, revered, even when the rest, whether the select few, whether the mere herd, were left neglected."

This seems an impressive feat until you compare it to an entire novel called Gadsby written without the letter e by Ernest V. Wright in the late 1930s. It begins with, "If Youth, throughout all history, had had a champion to stand up for it; to show a doubting world that a child can think; and, possibly, do it practically; you wouldn't constantly run across folks today who claim that `a child don't know anything.'" Not to be outdone, the eccentric French writer Georges Perec penned a novel called La disparition in 1969 that was also bereft of the letter e (and included a character named Gadsby V. Wright). Perec's book has been translated into both English (A Void, translated by Gilbert Adair) and German (Anton Voyls Fortgang, translated by Eugen Helmle). Perec eventually got annoyed with all those extraneous e's lying around and used them as the only vowel in a novelette called "Les revenentes" in 1972 (translated as "The Exeter text: jewels, secrets, sex" by Ian Monk and available in a collection called Three).

A recent discourse on lipography can be found in Douglas Hofstadter's immensely enjoyable, everything-and-the-kitchen-sink book Le Ton beau de Marot - in which translating a short French poem is the launching pad for over 600 fascinating pages about, as the subtitle puts it, "the music of language." It is also perhaps the longest and most technically challenging love letter ever written. You'll have to read it to find out why.
posted by Steven Baum 10/28/1999 09:10:44 PM | link

SITINGS
As an ardent fan of
Tom Swift books in my formative years, one of my strong memories is the canonical scene in which Tom and Bud sweat over a red-hot slide rule to finish some spiffy invention before dawn. I first learned to use a slipstick in high school in 1975, and even used the Keuffel & Esser Log Log Duplex Decitrig model given to me by my uncle into my first year of college in 1977 - until I was seduced over to the dark side by a TI-58 calculator. I still have more than a modicum of affection for these and other scientific instruments that predate the age of electricity. And, as I expected, there's no lack of sites maintained by those who feel likewise including:
posted by Steven Baum 10/28/1999 02:08:50 PM | link

YAMMERING
Geez, Wendell over at
OneSwellFoop is attempting to swell my already aching head. His nom de blog had me flashing back to a Roy Blount Jr. title although, upon looking it up, I've obviously misremembered (big surprise, there) One Fell Soup, or I'm Just a Bug on the Windshield of Life (there's another potential blog name in that title, by the way). Very funny book, that, like most of Blount's stuff. He also wrote for Sports Illustrated for quite a few years, lagging behind only Frank Deford as my favorite there. Speaking of Deford, does anybody else remember that national sports daily (called, strangely enough, "The National") he edited that lasted for only a few weeks?
posted by Steven Baum 10/28/1999 11:00:10 AM | link

STRANGE LIT
Burgess's
99 Novels (out-of-print of course although the list is available) introduced me to Robertson Davies. I started with the recommended Rebel Angels (part of Davies's so-called Cornish Trilogy) and have been slowly and pleasurably working my way through all his novels. A less well-known part of the Davies output is The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks, comprising the Diary, The Table Talk and A Garland of Miscellanea by Samuel Marchbanks. Marchbanks is the curmudgeonly and often gut-wrenchingly funny alter ego of Davies, originally appearing as a regular column in the Peterborough Examiner during Davies's tenure there as editor.

A sample column, entitled "Of Mead, or Metheglin" goes "Somebody has sent me a clipping which attempts to prove that the drinking of mead was given its death-blow by the Reformation. The implication is that the Reformation was therefore a Bad Thing. It may be so. I can never decide the matter to my own satisfaction. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays I am a rollicking Chestertonian medievalist, shrieking against the Reformation, exulting in manifestations of unreason, and shoving wads of my shirttail into delicate machines to harm them and show their inferiority; on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays I am a fiery-eyed Puritan, attempting to reconcile modern progress with the blackest Old Testament morality, and yelling for a church which is both completely secular and all-powerful. On Sundays I rest from these theological exercises and read Voltaire ... As for mead, I have been told that it is a delectable drink, and I suppose that my Welsh ancestors drank it out of the horns of rams, in true Celtic style. But they were hearty, outdoors, types, innocent of the complications which beset a man today, and I suppose that if one of them had a horrible mead hangover nobody noticed it, or mistook his mutterings for poetry."

I'll venture to add that the phrase "horrible mead hangover" is doubly and arguably triply redundant. The book has a strange reading history for me. The tag says I bought it in May 1988, at which point I read about three-quarters of it. I moved from one side of town to the other at that point and it got placed in a box of miscellanea rather than books so I wouldn't forget about it. In 1996 I reopened that box of really important things and found it.
posted by Steven Baum 10/28/1999 09:52:25 AM | link

STRANGE LIT
The most painfully accurate description of a hangover I've read is in the first chapter of Graham Chapman's
A Liar's Autobiography: Volume VII. Yes, it's the Chapman who's been bereft of life for a little over a decade and who was a member of the comedy group for which the Python language was named. I've read this a half dozen times at least and am still amazed at not only what a prolific comedy writer he was (for "Doctor in the House" and "The David Frost Show" and others before Python), but how he was able to do this while ingesting two or more bottles of gin per day. His description of drying out is also painfully evocative. A not unrelated note involves a site that's collected and sells a huge number of British comedy videos.
posted by Steven Baum 10/28/1999 08:56:42 AM | link

Wednesday, October 27, 1999

TALKIES
The song "Me and My Arrow" has been a frequent player in the mental jukebox since I first saw
The Point on TV back in 1971. It's an allegorical cartoon about a round-headed kid named Oblio who's born in a city of pointy-headed people. He and his dog Arrow are banished into the Pointless Forest where he must find a point. He goes through a series of adventures, meeting various strange folks and learning the usual lessons about life in this great big universe. Woven throughout the cartoon are a series of marvelous songs performed by Harry Nilsson, the most memorable being the aforementioned boy and his dog tune. It's amazing how many of those in my immediate circle of friends have similarly fond memories of this. My copy's been making the rounds ever since I got it.

As you've probably guessed, there's no lack of symbolism and metaphor in this cartoon. But, while even the most brain-dead of videodroid adolescents should get the reasonably subtle lessons about tolerance, there are deeper levels of humor and symbolism meant for we clever older folk. Like that other classic ostensibly meant just for juveniles, The Wizard of Oz (the book, NOT the movie), there's more going on than cute, infantilized creatures having a good old time and showing the meanies where to get off. On the other hand, you can skip the analysis crap and enjoy it just as much taking it at face value.
posted by Steven Baum 10/27/1999 07:52:46 PM | link

SCIENCE
The Los Angeles Basin or South Coast includes parts of four counties in Southern California - Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino. The region's population has risen 50% since 1970 (to 15 million, i.e. half the state's population) and it has the highest ratio of cars to people in the world. Smog has been a problem there for decades, with all sorts of schemes having been offered to ease the problem including:
  • drilling tunnels through the surrounding mountains and installing big fans to blow the smog into the desert;
  • constructing towers along the coast to spray-wash air as it wafts offshore at night; and
  • ripping a hole in the atmospheric inversion layer that traps smog by firing cannonballs through it, dumping hot water on it, or burning it with mirrors.
Randy Showstack reports in
EOS (Vol. 80, Oct. 12, 1999, p. 481) that more sensible pollution abatement programs have served to significantly reduce some smog components. For instance, while ozone levels exceeded federal standards for 194 days in 1976, the number had been cut to 62 days by 1998. But, although air quality has improved, the region has a long way to go to meet federal clean air standards by 2010, with some pollutants needing to be cut by 70% just to get rid of the persistent smog.

Smog is a mixture of several components including:

  • ozone, formed when nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons combine and chemically react in sunlight;
  • particulate matter, a combination of diesel soot, soil dust, vehicle exhaust and sea salt;
  • carbon monoxide, 2/3 of which is emitted by motor vehicles; and
  • nitrogen dioxide, from motor vehicles, factories and power plants that burn fossil fuels.
While more people driving more vehicles is certainly a big part of the problem, topography and weather also conspire against clean air in the region. In addition to the surrounding mountains physically restricting the movement of the smog, the average sea breeze is only a third as strong as that experienced in New York. Persistent sunshine and high temperatures cause both pollutant interactions that form additional pollutants and the formation of a thermal inversion barrier that acts like a lid over the basin.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District is developing the first air toxics control plan for urban areas, considering new emission reduction regulations for products ranging from windshield wiper fluid to deodorants to portable gas cans. Neither the people or the mountains are leaving in the foreseeable future, leaving no magical, costless solutions to the pollution problem. Indeed, solutions will cost in the billions. There are alternatives, however, for instance holding your breath, purchasing an oxygen supply and a breathing mask, evolving to breath smog, or moving to Montana.
posted by Steven Baum 10/27/1999 02:47:45 PM | link

MY LUNCH WITH BILL AND MATT
Just got back from lunch with Bill and Matt at the local Japanese/Korean eatery called Haiku. We all had the lunch special consisting of three pieces of sushimi, four pieces of sushi, a bowl of miso, a salad, and a choice of beef or chicken teriyaki. Yum. I realize that this is fairly dull news, but Matt read my earlier item about anchovies and snarled something along the lines of "So I guess you're writing this one up even as we eat, eh blog boy?"

This jogged the neurons into remembering a particularly funny series of Doonesbury strips in which David Halberstam is interviewing Rick Redfern. Halberstam mentally composes sentences about Rick even as he conducts the interview. (I used the Doonesbury Search Engine to find that series, but so far only the Sunday strips for July 1979 seem to be available.) This of course led to a meal chock full of self-referential asides just waiting for publication, e.g. "His bemoaning the shortage of ginger slices belied his words of fulsome praise for the meal." Perhaps this will provide that final, elusive push needed to put him over the edge.
posted by Steven Baum 10/27/1999 01:44:50 PM | link

FOOD
There are those who like
anchovies on their pizza and those ne'er-do-wells who don't. While watching last Sunday's Futurama episode - one of the subplots of which concerned the chief protagonist buying the last can of anchovies for $50 million so he could have them on a pizza - I got a craving. Matt - who had dropped by to watch same - felt likewise (it's not that I only hang out with those who like anchovies, but that those I hang out with almost always seem to like them). So down we went to the local Double Dave's Pizzaworks and ordered the super deluxe with everything including achovies. We were shocked - shocked AND appalled - to discover they didn't have them. And it wasn't that they'd just run out because of the great demand - they didn't carry them at all. Just when I thought that College Station was being dragged kicking and screaming into the 17th century something like this happens. Out of curiosity I almost asked for the chicken-fried pizza, but the fear that they would have such a thing stopped me.

To make sure the cancer wasn't spreading, I checked various pizzerias on the Web. To my great relief I found that most civilized establishments still offered this delicious little fish. I also found The Extra Anchovies! Menu, a most friendly site with an ample supply of recipes for anchovy dishes (although the history, humor, literature and various other sections leave something to be desired), a chain of restaurants in Florida called No Anchovies! (who fortunately aren't true to their name), an item in the Detroit News with the happy title In praise of anchovies (although the writer likes them in Caesar salads and not on pizza), and a report on the effect of El Ninos on the Peruvian anchovy catch (summary: not good, with the 1972 El Nino and overfishing combining for devastating effects on yields until relatively recently).
posted by Steven Baum 10/27/1999 10:13:43 AM | link

MUSIC
If you enjoy that which is called
world music (basically any and all regional music styles from around the world, i.e. anything other than U.S. Top 40 stuff) or are wondering what's in it for you, try Global Meditation: A Collection of Spiritual, Ritual and Meditative Music. The title is horribly misleading and doesn't begin to do justice to the music contained on this 4 CD collection. To be blunt, it's NOT 4 discs worth of airy new-age warbling, tinkling and tooting. The collection - divided into rhythm and percussion (The Pulse of Life), songs and chants (Voices of the Spirit), melody (Music from the Heart), and ensembles (Harmony and Interplay) discs - contains 41 selections from as many different ethnically/regionally defined groups and performers from around the world.

My favorite is the Pulse of Life disc containing 9 percussion tracks from places as diverse as Zimbabwe, Haiti, Ghana, Morocco and Japan. I cycle this one over and over here in the office, and usually pause other work to listen more intently to the last track featuring ancient Japanese Taiko drums. If your only previous experience with long percussion tracks is the interminable drum solo on In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, then you need to try this if only to clear your mind of that bad mojo.
posted by Steven Baum 10/27/1999 09:21:05 AM | link

Tuesday, October 26, 1999

BIO LIT
If you're as devout a
Marxist as I am, you'll enjoy Harpo Marx's autobiography Harpo Speaks as much as I have several times. He was as garrulous offstage as he wasn't on, and apparently knew everybody worth knowing in show business for over 40 years. His list of pals ran from the Algonquin Round Table to Greta Garbo to George and Ira Gershwin to the Prince of Wales to Oscar Levant to George Bernard Shaw to Harold Ross. But it's the accounts of his years on vaudeville and in the movies with his brothers that make the book (well, that and the stories of his croquet games on Long Island).

This book has held up remarkably well over the years (I first read it in 1975), much better so than my second favorite book by a Marx: Groucho's Memoirs of a Mangy Lover. Another fine read is The Groucho Letters, with his exchange with the Warner Brothers studio over the title of his movie A Night in Casablanca (they thought it interfered with a famous title of their own) riotously funny. Groucho was a very witty and funny man who didn't need anyone to put words in his mouth. He was extremely intelligent and well read, and even sang the lead in a production of The Mikado, his favorite opera. The Marx Brothers were much more than a funny clan who reinvented comedy films, although they'll surely be remembered if only for that for a very long time.
posted by Steven Baum 10/26/1999 10:34:55 PM | link

ART LIT
Switching from woodcuts to steel engravings, J. G. Heck's Bilder Atlas zum Conversations Lexicon was first published in Germany in the early 1800s, and then saw a first American edition called the Iconographic Encyclopedia of Science, Literature, and Art in 1851. It was a monstrous six-volume compilation of illustrations and information about nearly everything in the natural and technical worlds. The most lasting feature was more than 11,000 superbly detailed steel engravings which have recently (1994) been republished without the textual material by, you guessed it,
Dover Books (I'm linking to a general search for Dover at Amazon since Dover unfortunately doesn't yet have an online presence).

The illustrations have been split into three volumes by Dover:

The quality of the reproductions is uniformly excellent as with every such Dover book I've encountered, and if you're looking for a plan view of Madrid in the early 1800s, a drawing of any gadget known to man at the time, or detailed drawings of a huge range of architectural styles, then these volumes are for you. I'd pepper my web pages with examples from the trilogy if I weren't too damned lazy to scan them.
posted by Steven Baum 10/26/1999 09:50:22 PM | link

SITINGS
I'm a complete sucker for
Japanese woodblock prints, especially (well, almost exclusively) landscapes and seascapes. Some particular favorites are: The best resource I've found is The Floating World of Cyberspace, a catalogue of Japanese woodblock prints on the Internet, and World Wide Arts Resources has a page listing woodblock galleries resources. For those interested in the gory details, the Encyclopedia of Woodblock Printmaking (under construction yet still a substantial resource) is worth a look.
posted by Steven Baum 10/26/1999 07:59:16 PM | link

MUSIC
Let us now praise
Brave Combo, a self-described nuclear polka band from Denton, TX who've been putting out delicious albums since 1979. Among their accomplishments are being chosen by David Byrne as the band for his wedding reception, a collaboration with Tiny Tim, and playing music in over 30 styles (see their FAQ for the list). I've got maybe half a dozen of their many albums and have seen them live once. The five current members play a variety of instruments that allow them to filter tunes in nearly all musical genres through their unique polka sensibility. Or, to dispense with the pedantic reviewspeak bullstuff, they're one hell of a party band.
posted by Steven Baum 10/26/1999 04:11:45 PM | link

SITINGS
The
image gallery at ATTRITION.ORG is, in the words the site uses to describe itself, "sick and beautiful". They've gathered many timeless classics in a single place for your edification and cheap thrills. The contents include: You might want to check out the rest of their site, too. Keep in mind that their site description contains, "ATTRITION staff, system and respective pets are NOT upbeat people. Deal."
posted by Steven Baum 10/26/1999 03:04:12 PM | link

DELIBERATELY MISTAKEN
Remember the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade on May 7? The usual gummint sources claimed that outdated maps caused the the so-called tragic mistake. The maps produced by the
National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) and used used for targeting purposes by the high-altitude B-2 bombers were supposedly out-of-date and inaccurate. Not ten days later, on May 16, NIMA issued a press release stating (in the fourth paragraph after three full paragraphs of qualifications written in the very finest sort of bureacratese), "Recent news reports regarding the accuracy of NIMA maps have been inaccurate or incomplete."

While the release also states that NIMA would not address specific questions concerning the issue, Yoichi Shimatsu reports (in an account written for AlterNet) phoning NIMA and asking how recently the maps were up to date. The answer? At the very least a week before the bombing. Additionally, on October 17 Politiken in Copenhagen and the Observer in London jointly reported that several NATO officials and military officers had admitted that the bombing was deliberate. The reason why is apparently that the Embassy had started being used as a radio rebroadcasting center for President Milosevic after the transmitter in his residence had been destroyed in a bombing raid on April 23.
posted by Steven Baum 10/26/1999 01:10:16 PM | link

STRANGE BREW
Speaking of the kindler, gentler cartoon moose, the pun I most often recall from the
Rocky and Bullwinkle Show is "absinthe makes the heart grow fonder," so a recent short piece in the New Yorker about the trendy resurgence of that brew most vile in British social circles gave me a case of moose on the brain. Given the toxicity of that beverage, regular partakers thereof are ending up with brain problems a bit worse than images of quadrupeds. According to the FAQ, the potent ingredient is thujone, as extracted from an herb called wormwood. The "dain bramage" thing also isn't ameliorated by the potion's 60-85% ethanol content.

Although the brave/foolhardy have been known to shoot it straight, the traditional method of ingestion involves pouring cold water over a slotted spoon containing sugar into a glass holding a shot of absinthe. This precipitates out the oils and changes it from a clear emerald color to an opaque, milky white. After this it's straight down the piehole. The romantic notions involving this beverage are inextricably linked with its use by such artistic notables as Van Gogh, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Gauguin and Wilde., who all claimed that its use stimulated the creative juices.

So how can you join in on the fun? Tricky. The sale of beverages containing thujone is either banned or severely restricted in most western countries (with the recent relaxation of the laws in England leading to its current trendy status there). It is, however, available in several European countries including Spain, Portugal, Denmark and the Czech Republic. I'm sure you can probably even smuggle it into the U.S. without too much trouble, what with most of the Feds too busy shooting goatherders and performing other valiant acts in the Holy War on Drugs. You could also try the wormwood-free versions of absinthe marketed under the names Herb Sainte and Pernod. Small amounts of thujone are also contained chartreuse, benedictine and vermouth, with the latter even taking its name from the German for word for wormwood.
posted by Steven Baum 10/26/1999 10:15:23 AM | link

SITINGS
Tired of the same old vanilla comic strips you find in the newspapers? Are you ready to go berserk if you see that cursed dashed line in the
Family Circus one more time? Are you ready to be offended regardless of your nationality or beliefs? Is even South Park insufficient to sate those inner urges? Then try Spacemoose. Although it's as scatalogical and otherwise tasteless as they come, the author Adam Thrasher has a pretty good sense of humor. A good interview with Thrasher can be found at Fade to Black, in which he explains that his strip "challenges one's imagination by presenting appalling behavior as lighthearted gaiety." In the jargon of the moment: IF YOU'RE EASILY OFFENDED OR EVEN MODERATELY DIFFICULT TO OFFEND, DON'T GO THERE. SPACEMOOSE ISN'T YOUR FATHER'S BULLWINKLE THE MOOSE.
posted by Steven Baum 10/26/1999 09:16:49 AM | link

Monday, October 25, 1999

YAMMERING
Heh. Lotta that action/reaction stuff going on about 'blogs. How about we just consider them a pretty good idea rather than The Idea of the Century of the Week (in a steal from the
Daily Show, a continual source of hearty chortles and guffaws). Given the gaping and spreading jaw of the media beastie (one can almost hear the voice of Levi Stubbs screaming "FEED ME!!!" in the remake of Little Shop of Horrors), it's question of how quickly the action/reaction cycle will take rather than if it will happen. I remain nonplussed and will continue to engage in this alternative to talking loudly in restaurants.
posted by Steven Baum 10/25/1999 08:58:03 PM | link

EMPTY FILLER
What with Monday Night Football, the demands of three dogs (one of my own and two bonus bowsers being sat), and the ever-tasty quarter-case of Celis White, an empty entry seems to have snuck in the back way. This will fill that empty space in the same way
Emma Thompson will fill mine when she comes to her senses (or perhaps finds herself bereft of them). Speaking of bereft, Boomer Esiason just uttered the scariest line I've heard in quite a while. In a voice totally lacking sarcasm or contempt, he said, "How great is Regis Philbin?". Must drink more.
posted by Steven Baum 10/25/1999 08:31:18 PM | link

STRANGE LIT
In addition to having the most fascinating repertoire of any magician on the planet when it comes to playing cards,
Ricky Jay has written two books that are favorites in my collection: Cards as Weapons and Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women: A History of Unique Eccentric and Amazing Entertainers. The subtitle of Cards is "A treatise on the art of throwing, scaling, juggling, boomeranging, and manipulating ordinary playing cards with particular emphasis on impressing one's friends and providing a deadly yet inexpensive means of self-defense." And he's not kidding (well, not much). He describes, with a delightfully warped sense of humor, how he has learned to perform such feats as throwing playing cards through open windows and burying them in pumpkins and similar objects from appreciable distances.

Jay also delves into the history of the topic, with his sense of and appreciation for the history of his and related professions really shining through in Learned Pigs. The stars of this tome include:

  • Harry Kahne, a mental marvel who could write five different words simultaneously using his four limbs and mouth;
  • Clarence Willard, a contortionist who could extend his height from 5'10" to 6'4";
  • Matthew Buchinger, a man lacking feet, thighs, or arms who could play half a dozen music instruments, shoot a pistol like a marksman, and exhibit remarkable artistic skills;
  • Max Malinia, a Houdini contemporary who drove other magicians to distraction trying to figure out his illusions;
  • Datas, the Memory Man who sold the rights to his brain to four doctors for 2000 pounds cash and outlived them all;
  • LaRoche, who climbed into a two-foot diameter steel sphere and rolled it up a spiral ramp 24 feet high;
  • Seamus Burke, the world's only "enterologist", i.e. one who makes a living getting into boxes and other contraptions rather than escaping them; and, of course,
  • Le Petomane, who wowed fin de seicle Parisians by breaking wind in spectacular fashion.
Each chapter includes, in addition to the headliner, descriptions of related remarkable people. Jay doesn't treat the topic like a freakshow - indeed, a genuine affection for all of his subjects is clearly evident. In addition to the clear and vivid writing, the book is packed with reproductions of period posters and photographs, and includes an extensive reference section.

Jay has also seen quite a bit of work in films, starting out as a technical advisor for the obvious things and even getting into acting in recent years. I recently recognized him in David Mamet's The Spanish Prisoner. He's been in several of Mamet's films, with Mamet producing and directing Jay's Broadway show "Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants." A damned interesting chap, he.
posted by Steven Baum 10/25/1999 07:39:37 PM | link

STRANGE LIT
The folks at
The Onion have released a book called Our Dumb Century: 100 Years of Headlines from America's Finest News Source. I can't remember anything that's made me laugh as long and hard as this, and it's also aging well, with each further dip into its pages causing further mirthful outbreaks. Example story headlines include:
  • Holy Shit! Man Lands on Fucking Moon! (this one seems to kill everybody)
  • Korean War Ends in Tearful 3-Hour Finale
  • Six Minute Moving Picture Photo-Play Agonizingly Long, Say Critics
  • World's Largest Metaphor Hits Ice-Berg!
  • Pretentious, Goateed Coffeehouse Types Seize Power in Russia
  • Fixed World Series Heralds First-Ever Moment of Excitement in Baseball
  • Sacco, Vanzetti Executed for Murder, Italian Descent
  • Kennedy Slain by CIA, Mafia, Castro, LBJ, Teamsters, Freemasons
  • God Kills Oral Roberts for Fundraising Shortfall
The obligatory tie-in products include an audio version and a calendar.
posted by Steven Baum 10/25/1999 03:35:22 PM | link

META-LIT
Another fine piece of meta-literature is Noel Perrin's
A Reader's Delight, featuring 40 essays about works of fiction and non-fiction he considers forgotten, remembered, honored or orphaned. He only followed two rules in making the selections: no books less than 15 years old (as of 1988, that's right, more maddeningly out-of-print stuff) and no book that more than three of his colleagues had heard of. The recommendations on which I've acted are:
  • Joseph Mitchell's McSorley's Wonderful Saloon and The Bottom of the Harbor as reprinted in Up in the Old Hotel and Other Stories (more about which in a later entry);
  • Robert Graves's Watch the North Wind Rise, a fantasy taking place 1000 years from now in what is now southern France;
  • Henry Adams's Democracy, called the best political novel yet written in America;
  • James Gould Cozzens's Guard of Honor, called the best American novel about WWII;
  • James Branch Cabell's Silver Stallion, a marvelous fantasy written before trilogies filled with vowel-less gnomes and dwarves inundated the planet;
  • Peter S. Beagle's A Fine and Private Place, another work of fantasy;
  • Walter de la Mare's The Three Royal Monkeys, ostensibly a children's fantasy about a quest; and
  • Austin Tappan Wright's Islandia, a huge and brilliant fantasy with the best ditch-digging scene ever written.

posted by Steven Baum 10/25/1999 01:45:36 PM | link

UPDATE
In my recent musings about vintage bicycles, I mentioned the banana-seat, sissy-bar bikes popular in the late 60s and early 70s but couldn't find a really good example of them. The
C.H.U.N.K. 666 site resolves that difficulty in the most entertaining sort of way.
posted by Steven Baum 10/25/1999 08:25:30 AM | link

Sunday, October 24, 1999

PRECIS
From today's
New York Times:
  • This claims a life every 17 minutes in the U.S. More young people died of this in 1995 than from AIDS, cancer, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, birth defects, and heart disease combined. It was responsible for nearly 2% of worldwide deaths in 1998 - putting it well ahead of both war and homicide. It's also getting worse - with the likelihood of a young man dying from this up 260% since the 1950s. What is this epidemic? Suicide. Kay Redfield Jamison's Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide presents the case that suicide is a significant public health crisis - and is not perceived as such because of our great unease about the topic.

    In this follow-up to her earlier, more technical writings on manic-depressive illness (half of whose victims attempt suicide), Jamison assigns blame to researchers, sensationalist media, and the American health care system for lack of sufficient coverage and treatment for the mentally ill. Speaking of the present system, she says, "We have filled these netherlands past any pretense of civilization; we have swollen their ranks with the psychotic and the incapacitated, taken the hopeless and made them more so, and then we have disregarded what they need to survive. ...[The mentally ill] make us uncomfortable, but not so uncomfortable that we protect or house, insure or tend or heal them."

  • In the Magazine section, "A Linguistic Big Bang" chronicles the birth and growth of a complex sign language among deaf children in Nicaragua. Nicaraguan Sign Language - differing from the more than 200 existing sign languages in the world as well as the Spanish used by their teachers - is seen by some as further proof of Chomsky's universal grammar concept, i.e. that human language acquisition is hard-wired inside the brain.

  • In "How Much Give Can the Brain Take?" in the Week in Review, challenges to apparent myths about the brain are described. The notion that new neurons don't form in the brain is being challenged by a findings that they do indeed form in the brains of both monkeys and people. Also, the notion that the brain is hard-wired at an early age (3 to 10) is being challenged in The Myth of the First Three Years by Dr. John T. Bruer, who claims that only the most severe deprivation or damage is irreparable. This is in turn countered by Antonio Damasio's research showing there are limits to the brain's curative powers, as illustrated by two people who suffered severe brain injuries in infancy and apparently irretrievably lost the ability to tell right from wrong. Say tuned, for every study there is an equal and opposite study.

posted by Steven Baum 10/24/1999 11:54:34 AM | link

SITINGS
The beginnings of the Top 100 "Top 100 Lists" List of the Century/Millenium.

And equal time for the "worst" lists.


posted by Steven Baum 10/24/1999 11:23:18 AM | link


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