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24 March 2017
Morning Sedition

The Jacket You Wear to the Big Dance

Traditional Navy Blazer

Traditional Navy Blazer

When I opened my mail this morning I found a question from a friend: "do you know what the difference between a blazer and a sportcoat is?" Hardly a surprising question given my renown both as a clotheshorse and as a collector of trivia, fashion and otherwise. I replied, "Yes, I do. The question I think you wanted to ask is, 'what is the difference between a blazer and a sportcoat?'" Here's the difference.

A blazer generally refers to a single-breasted sportcoat (typically) in a solid color, usually bright — blue, red, yellow, green — but not always; there are blazers in blue, black, pastel, wine, etc. These days, a blazer is always solid, but the originals often had stripes. Some blazers have a crest on the pocket for a school logo or, for a while, a trendy fashion designer's logo. Naval officers, current and former, often wear their ship's crest. (Each ship of the line had a different crest.) While the origin is often claimed to be from "blaze" meaning bright, allegedly derived from the Cambridge crew team's bright red jackets, this explanation is quite wrong.

Blue-Striped School Blazer

Blue-Striped School Blazer
(Original In Picture Frame)

The name comes from a visit by Queen Victoria to the shop of the line HMS Blazer in 1837. At the time, sailors were a rather scruffy lot, as there were no uniforms or dress codes, and the Blazer's captain wanted to make a good impression. (It was, after all, the queen.) So he had short jackets made for his crew using a blue serge with brass buttons with the naval insignia.

Crest for HMS Blazer

Crest for HMS Blazer

The queen was so impressed with the sailors sartorial splendor that the jacket spread to other ships and then to the general public. This is why we still talk about "navy blue" blazers, and why for many years the slang term for a sailor was a "blue jacket." (The navy also invented bell-bottom trousers because they could be rolled up for sojourns among the rigging.)

Blue, by the way, comes from indigo dyes, the first natural dye that was reasonably color fast. Indigo was really the only option for stable dyes until Perkin, while searching for a means to synthesize quinine, synthesized mauve from coal tar and ended up a very, very, very wealthy man.

1970's Polyester Blazer

1970's Polyester Blazer

I'll spare you the gory details about pocket styles, lapel widths, fabrics, double versus single breasted, etc.

Red-Striped Blazer

Red-Striped Lounge Blazer

A sportcoat is any jacket that isn't part of a suit or formal wear. A morning coat or frock coat, for example, is not a suit component, but it is most certainly not a sportcoat. I don't know if a Nehru jacket would be called a sportcoat; I would call it a total fashion disaster.

I'm sure this was more than you wanted to know.

So, the short answer to the question is: All blazers are sportcoats, but not all sportcoats are blazers.

You gotta wear the blue blazer when you go to the big dance.

— Al McGuire, coach of Marquette, 1977 NCAA Basketball Champs, in response to reporter's inquiry if he would be wearing his lucky blazer. This is how the NCAA Tournament received the name the "Big Dance."

When Three Isn’t A Crowd

Photograph of Three Sisters Volcanoes

Three Sisters Volcanoes in Oregon, by Lyn Topinka, United States Geological Survey

Bad things, as the saying goes, come in threes. So do the fates.

In Greek mythology, the fates are called "Moerae" or "Moirai." (The word moerae means to apportion or divide.) There were three, described using metaphors drawn from weaving. The poet Hesiod is likely the source of their names:

These are Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos, and they give mortals their share of good and evil.

— Hesiod, Theogony, 905-6

Each of the three has a separate role. Clotho, who spins the threads of human life, Lachesis, who measured its span, and Atropos, who cut it with a shears. (Atropos is the eldest, a wizened creature who, of all the fates, is most feared. Her name, meaning inexorable or inevitable, is the source of the name for the drug "atropine," a belladonna derivative that relaxes, or paralyzes, muscles by interfering with nerve conduction.)

Meanwhile he'll not suffer harm or trouble, not before he sets foot on his own land. After that he'll undergo all those things Destiny and the dreaded spinning Fates spun in the thread for him when he was born, when his mother gave him birth.

— Alcinous, The Odyssey, Homer, Book 7, line 240

The fates predate the gods of Olympus, and their relationship is much like the United States Constitution's balance (separation) of powers. She who cuts cannot measure. She who measures cannot alter the thread (events) of life. She who creates the life cannot determine its length. And so it goes.

Behind the power of the gods and beyond all the efforts of men, the three Fates sat at their spinning. No one could tell whence these sisters were, but by some strange necessity they spun the web of human life and made destinies without knowing why. It was not for Clotho to decree whether the thread of a life should be stout or fragile, nor for Lachesis to choose the fashion of the web; and Atropos herself must sometimes have wept to cut a life short with her shears, and let it fall unfinished. But they were like spinners for some Power that said of life, as of a garment, Thus it must be. That Power neither gods nor men could withstand.

Old Greek Folk Stories Told Anew by Josephine Preston Peabody, 1897

The Romans called the fates Parcae or Fatae; there were Nona, Decuma, and Morta: Nona, like Clotho, spins; Decuma, like Lachesis, measures; and Morta, like Atropos, cuts.

The Norse had the three Norns who wove human life: Urth or Wyrd, for the past or fate; Verthandi, for the present or necessity (of dying); and Skuld, for the future or being. When the end of the world arrives, Skuld will lay death upon the universe itself; in the meantime, they weave a tapestry of such unimaginable complexity that it will never be finished. The Norns live in a cave at the base of Yggdrasil, the world tree — situated in the Nornenberg (Nuremberg) mountains — where they try to stop its decay by pouring mud and water from the Well of Fate over its branches. (It is interesting, if not ironic, that the trials of Nazi war criminals were held at Nuremberg.)

The three weird sisters of destiny in Shakespeare’s Macbeth has the three weird sisters of destiny; these are the Scottish equivalents of the Moerae, the Parcae, and the Norns. (Weird is derived from "wryd," the Anglo-Saxon word for fate.)

First Witch: Thrice the brinded cat hath mew'd.
Second Witch: Thrice and once, the hedge-pig whin'd.
Third Witch: Harpier cries:—tis time! 'tis time!
First Witch: Round about the caldron go;
In the poison'd entrails throw.—
Toad, that under cold stone,
Days and nights has thirty-one;
Swelter'd venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i' the charmed pot!
All: Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and caldron bubble.

MacBeth, by William Shakespeare, Act 4, Scene 1

David Brin wrote a science-fiction novella, "The Loom of Thessaly" (published in The River of Time, 1981, but available online), about the fates. I quite liked it, but YMMV.

Danger! Falling Lawsuit!

Sign for "Falling Debris"

Sign from Building at Intersection at Washington and Laight Streets

I shot this a few years ago near the Holland Tunnel (one block south of Canal and two blocks west of Hudson Street) where a long-empty building was being converted into housing for rich people. The sign had been painted on the wall years ago, and every time I saw it I wondered why the city allowed the risk of debris which could destroy property, injure, or kill, and why no ambulance-chaser lawyer had solved this safety issue through the effective application of litigation. (Use only as directed.) The sign — and building — are long gone. Soon the building will be finished, and the falling debris will have been replaced with wealthy republicans. You tell me which is more dangerous...

"A gang of villains profoundly skilled
in Pneumatic Chemistry."

Sign for "Air Loom Tomato"

I shot this last summer at the Union Square Greenmarket. (You Say Tomato, I say Tomahto... but Dan Quayle Says "Air Loom Tomato." Or, more accurately, "Air Loom Tomatoe.")

Bedlam means "mad confusion." Dating to 1667, the word is eponymous, being the vernacular's corruption of "Hospital of Saint Mary of Bethlehem", a lunatic asylum in London. (St. Mary's is one of the oldest, having been founded in 1247 as a priory, used to a hospital circa 1330, and then converted into a lunatic asylum — the original British term — in 1402. The state assumed control over it in 1547. The original, and archaic, bastardization was "Bedlem", which later morphed into "Bedlam".) This wasn't a nice place to be sent to, especially if you were being victimized by the Air Loom Gang:

His patient's name was James Tilly Matthews, and his view of the world had by this point become one of the strangest ever recorded in the annals of psychiatry. Haslam's account is still acknowledged as the first example in history of the now-familiar notion of mind control by an 'influencing machine'. For everyone who has since had messages beamed at them through fillings, mysterious implants or TV sets, or via hi-tech surveillance, MI5, Masonic lodges or UFOs, James Tilly Matthews is Patient Zero.

Matthews was convinced that outside the grounds of Bedlam, in a basement cellar by London Wall, a gang of villains were controlling and tormenting his mind with diabolical rays. They were using a machine called an 'Air Loom', of which Matthews was able to draw immaculate technical diagrams, and which combined recent developments in gas chemistry with the strange force of animal magnetism, or mesmerism. It incorporated keys, levers, barrels, batteries, sails, brass retorts and magnetic fluid, and worked by directing and modulating magnetically charged air currents, rather as the stops of an organ modulate its tones. It ran on a mixture of foul substances, including 'spermatic-animal-seminal rays', 'effluvia of dogs' and 'putrid human breath', and its discharges of magnetic fluid were focused to deliver thoughts, feelings and sensations directly into Matthews' brain. There were many of these mind-control settings, all classified by vivid names: 'fluid locking', 'stone making', 'thigh talking', 'lobster-cracking', 'bomb-bursting', and the dreaded 'brain-saying', whereby thoughts were forced into his brain against his will. To facilitate this process, the gang had implanted a magnet into his head. As a result of the Air Loom, Matthews was tormented constantly by delusions, physical agonies, fits of laughter and being forced to parrot whatever nonsense they chose to feed into his head. No wonder some people thought he was mad.

"The Air Loom Gang: James Tilly Matthews and his Visionary Madness" by Mike Jay, Strangeness, 3 July 2003

And in the plus ca change category:

On the basis of this testimony [that he was not mad, that his symptoms were those of a man wrongfully confined, and that he posed no threat to others], Matthews' family brought a writ of Habeas Corpus against Bedlam, forcing the governors to state their precise legal reasons for holding him. They produced a stack of affidavits from other doctors contradicting Clutterbuck and Birkbeck's testimony, but the case eventually turned on a letter from Lord Liverpool, who insisted that Matthews was a dangerous lunatic who should be confined in perpetuity. So the writ failed, but on grounds which suggested that Matthews' alleged lunacy was irrelevant: he was effectively, though apparently unconstitutionally, being confined as a state prisoner.

"The Air Loom Gang: James Tilly Matthews and his Visionary Madness" by Mike Jay, Strangeness, 3 July 2003
TitleThe Air Loom Gang: The Strange and True Story of James Tilly Matthews and His Visionary Madness
AuthorMike Jay
ISBN1568582978
PublisherFour Walls Eight Windows

Cover for "Air Loom Gang"

In some apartment near London Wall, there is a gang of villains profoundly skilled in Pneumatic Chemistry.

— John Haslam, Illustrations of Madness, 1810, Page 1

Sources and Further Reading

  1. "The Air Loom Gang" talk by Mike Jay, Isle of Wight Fortean Society, 29 July 2004
  2. "The Air Loom Gang" Mike Jay, Four Walls Eight Windows (publisher)
  3. "Genius Of Bedlam" by Paul Collins, review in Village Voice, 5 April 2004

Move. Click! Move. Click! Move. Click!

Banner Image for EatPES.com

I learned a great deal of patience—that was important in stop-motion.

— Ray Harryhausen, Stop-Motion Animator

PES may not be Ray Harryhausen, but he still does damn fine work. So, before you check out the films, here's a very brief bio:

PES studied printmaking and literature at the University of Virginia and film at New York University. His work has been featured internationally in film festivals and on TV and has amassed a cult following through the Internet.

Square Footage Films (NYC Independent Animation)

Informative, wasn't it? Anyway, here are a few of the animations I liked. There are plenty more on PES's Website.

"Roof Sex" by PES

"Roof Sex" by PES

What can I say about "Roof Sex", other than that I fully support it as long as all the participants are attractive and stay fully visible to me while they are doing it. Oh, wait a minute. Sorry about that. Wrong question. Let's just say that you'll like "Roof Sex", too. Unless you're a cat. (Watch it and see why.)

"Roof Sex" required 20 shooting days over the course of 2 1/2 months to complete principal animation. Absolute blue skies were necessary to ensure consistent exposure. The Gold Chair immortalized in the film was the hiding place for PES's family's money throughout his entire childhood. "Roof Sex" is PES's first film and first animation.

Square Footage Films (NYC Independent Animation)

"Coinstar" by PES

"Coinstar" by PES

PES created an ad for Coinstar, the company that has machines in supermarkets converting change dumped into them into cash, while taking a cut. (Hey, the mob always gets the vig, and the bookie always gets his cut, right?) The PES ad is entertaining and clever; AdWeek called it "TiVo-Proof". It was shot on 35mm — very expensive! — and took multiple animators four days to shoot:

The battle scene with 1,000 coins racing toward the table took four hours, and we used every frame of it. I don't shoot much fat. In animation it is too costly to shoot film you won't use. This is one of the reasons I stay involved through the editing. I have to put the jigsaw puzzle together.

"If you can't find him, check the lost and found", 6th Annual Firstboards Awards

"Missing" by PES

"Missing" by PES

The "Missing" piece asks us "Are We Missing Anything?". This was one of the brilliant ads created for MoveOn's campaign to educate people about why it was time to vote out the republicans. (Except they hadn't been voted in the first time, except by one vote of the Supreme Court. Too bad Rhenquist didn't have throat cancer then; maybe it would have been 4-4 and we would have learned what really happened in Florida...)

"Beasty Boy" by PES

"Beasty Boy" by PES

As far as "Beasty Boy" goes, well, all I can do is quote the piece's tagline: "What are your kids learning?". What indeed? (This piece isn't stop motion, by the way.)

"Wild Horses Redux" by PES

"Wild Horses Redux" by PES

The "Wild Horses Redux" piece was done, on spec — on spec! — for Nike.

Miniature football figurines motor along mink coat landscapes and through T-bone mountain passes all to the soundtrack of Nike's aural pleasure-ride "Wild Horses Redux".

Director PES says the spot began as an "electric footbal epic short film" which is still in production. Remembering last year's Silver Lion-winning spot he says, "I just said, 'What the hell, let me just cut the first 30 seconds of my film as a whacked-out version of the original Nike spot, and get it out there for peole to chew on'."

While the spec was not approved by Nike - "I'm definitely not above appropriating" - he was the first to bring it to their attention, and gives due props to the original creatives Mike Byrne and Monica Taylor at the end of this clip.

The spot was in to way sanctioned by Wieden + Kennedy. They had no clue till last week when I sent it to them and said, "Hey, run this on the Superbowl!!!"

"SPEC: Wild Horses Redux" by Rae Ann Fera, Boards Online, 14 August 2003

Anyway, these were the ones I liked; check out PES's Website for more. As always, YMMV.

Too Small, Too Cramped, and Just Right

Churhill Inspecting Damage to Parliament After its Destruction in 1941

Churhill Inspecting Damage to Parliament After its Destruction in May of 1941

I used this Churchill quote in my entry about Soviet Architecture:

We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.

— Sir Winston Churchill, speech 28 October 1943 to the House of Commons (meeting in the House of Lords) regarding the rebuilding of Parliament after its destruction by the Germans

Architects love this quote. But taking it out of context eliminates much of it's true power. Here is the full quote:

On the night of May 10, 1941, with one of the last bombs of the last serious raid, our House of Commons was destroyed by the violence of the enemy, and we have now to consider whether we should build it up again,and how, and when. We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us. Having dwelt and served for more than forty years in the late Chamber, and having derived very great pleasure and advantage therefrom, I, naturally, should like to see it restored in all essentials to its old form, convenience and dignity.

— Sir Winston Churchill, speech 28 October 1943 to the House of Commons (meeting in the House of Lords for obvious reasons)

But, first, an aside. It should be pointed out that the scale of the German's 10 May 1941 raid on London was enormous: 550 bombers dropped more than 700 tons of bombs and thousands of incendiaries. The fires did more damage than the bombs, as was the case throughout the Battle of Britain. This raid seriously injured 1,800 and killed almost 1,500. Many buildings, including the House of Commons, were destroyed. This was the last major attack on Britain until the Germans started using the V1 and V2 rockets. Ok, enough history of World War II. Back to Churchill.

By urging that the House of Commons be rebuilt as it was, Churchill wanted it to be too small to hold all the members, with no private desks "giving each member a desk to sit at and a lid to bang." But why would he propose replacing a building that was too small with another inadequate in size? Years later, in his memoirs, he explained his reasoning:

Finally, on October 28 (1943) there was the rebuilding of the House of Commons to consider. One unlucky bomb had blown to fragments the chamber in which I had passed so much of my life. I was determined to have it rebuilt at the earliest moment that our struggle would allow. I had the power at this moment to shape things in a way that would last. Supported by my colleagues, mostly old Parliamentarians, and with Mr. Attlee's cordial aid, I sought to re-establish for what may well be a long period the two great principles on which the British House of Commons stands in its physical aspect. The first is that it must be oblong, and not semicircular, and the second that it must only be big enough to give seats to about two-thirds of its Members. As this argument has long surprised foreigners, I record it here.

There are two main characteristics of the House of Commons which will command the approval and the support of reflective and experienced Members. The first is that its shape should be oblong and not semicircular. Here is a very potent factor in our political life. The semicircular assembly, which appeals to political theorists, enables every individual or every group to move round the centre, adopting various shades of pink according as the weather changes. I am a convinced supporter of the party system in preference to the group system. I have seen many earnest and ardent Parliaments destroyed by the group system. The party system is much favoured by the oblong form of chamber. It is easy for an individual to move through those insensible gradations from left to right, but the act of crossing the Floor is one which requires serious attention. I am well informed on this matter for I have accomplished that difficult process, not only once, but twice. Logic is a poor guide compared with custom. Logic, which has created in so many countries semicircular assemblies with buildings that give to every member not only a seat to sit in, but often a desk to write at, with a lid to bang, has proved fatal to Parliamentary government as we know it here in its home and in the land of its birth.

The second characteristic of a chamber formed on the lines of the House of Commons is that it should not be big enough to contain all its members at once without overcrowding, and that there should be no question of every member having a separate seat reserved for him. The reason for this has long been a puzzle to uninstructed outsiders, and has frequently excited the curiosity and even the criticism of new Members. Yet it is not so difficult to understand if you look at it from the practical point of view. If the House is big enough to contain all its members nine-tenths of its debates will be conducted in the depressing atmosphere of an almost empty or half-empty chamber. The essence of good House of Commons speaking is the conversational style, the facility for quick, informal interruptions and interchange. Harangues from a rostrum would be a bad substitute for the conversational style in which so much of our business is done. But the conversational style requires a small space, and there should be on great occasions a sense of crowd and urgency. There should be a sense of the importance of much that is said, and a sense that great matters are being decided, there and then, by the House.

This anyhow was settled as I wished.

Winston S. Churchill, Closing the Ring, Volume 5 of The Second World War, Chapter 9.

The argument against debates "conducted in the depressing atmosphere of an almost empty or half-empty chamber" replayed decades later, but in a totally different circumstance and across the pond. The United States Congress rules allows members, during a few hour-long period each day, to give speeches on whatever they wish. These speeches are called "special orders":

Please explain "special order speeches." What is their purpose and why do Members bother giving them to an empty House? Helena, MT - 5/10/00

"Special order speeches allow Members of the House of Representatives to speak on any topic they wish for periods of time reserved in advance, anywhere from 5 up to 60 minutes in length. They occur routinely at the end of a day's legislative work. It is true that most Members have left the House floor by the time special orders begin. However, the chief target for these speeches is the C-SPAN audience, most notably constituents, and not other Members."

The origin of the term "special order speech" dates back to the 1930's when it was first used to mean a floor speech given outside of the regular order by the unanimous consent of all those present. Speaker Sam Rayburn (D-TX) began recognizing Members for special order speeches as a regular practice in the 1940's.

Special order speeches are not a procedural right, but a privilege granted by daily unanimous consent. Since House rules do not permit speaking on subjects other than pending legislative business, "non-legislative debate" can occur only when no one objects. Whenever the House steps outside of its "regular" order of procedure, it needs a "special" order to proceed, hence the shorthand reference to "special orders" when describing these speeches.

C-SPAN's Capitol Questions

The problem is that the members act as if the televised special-order speeches are genuine ones, gesturing to the cameras, turning from side to side as if addressing colleagues on a particular point, when the reality is that the chamber is empty. The whole thing is just bad political theatre designed to hoodwink constituents, but the viewers might not realize it.

But first, some history. When the democrats controlled congress — yes, this was actually the case for decades — they shut down the republican minority cold and did what they wanted. (Payback, as the saying goes, is highly upleasant.) Newt Gingrich got the bright idea of using C-SPAN coverage of special orders as a way to make inflammatory and antidemocratic (against the democrats but also against democracy as well) speeches as if he were doing this, uncontested, in front the full House. He got away with his antics for a while, until he made the mistake, in 1984, of going after House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill. Now, that was playing with fire. Unfortunately, it was O'Neill who ended up with third-degree burns in the ensuing firestorm, not Gingrich.

Here's the official take:

"In May 1984, Speaker O'Neill asserted his control over the House cameras, provoking cries of protest from House Republicans and leading to a disruption on the House floor. In the process, the way that television covers the House underwent permanent change.

On May 10, 1984, the speaker ordered House cameras to break with precedent and provide a full view of the empty House chamber during Special Orders speeches. With Rep. Robert Walker (R-Pennsylvania) on the floor, the camera for the first time showed a representative gesturing and talking to a chamber of empty seats.

Minority whip Trent Lott (R-Mississippi), watching in his office, dropped what he was doing and raced to the floor to denounce the surprise camera angle as "an underhanded, sneaky, politically motivated change." The press picked up on the story immediately and gave it the name of "Camscam"; Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales called it a "knockabout slugfest" and wrote that "the brouhaha over control of the cameras has ignited the House and in the process served to dramatize again the huge presence television has in the political process."

"Camscam" came to a head on May 15, when harsh words flew on the House floor between Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Georgia) and Speaker O'Neill. Mr. O'Neill called a Gingrich speech `'the lowest thing I have ever seen in my 32 years in Congress"--a remark that the House parliamentarian ruled out of order. The speaker's words were taken down and the phrase was struck from the official congressional record, the first such rebuke to a House speaker in this century.

In time, "Camscam" died down, but today the cameras continue to show the whole chamber during Special Orders, giving audiences a fuller view of the post-legislative business proceedings. Later, in response to an initiative by the Republican leadership, cameras also started showing varied shots of the House members during votes. Slowly, the early restrictions on what the viewing audience could see through television were easing. "

Thanking C-SPAN for its Service on the 25th Anniversary of its First Coverage of Processings of House, House Resolution 551, Committee on House Administration 18 March 2004

And the unofficial view from the left:

Last May, U.S. Representative Newt Gingrich stood in the well of the House to rebut charges made by Speaker Tip O'Neill. For months, Gingrich had been harassing the Democrats in evening speeches broadcast over C-Span, the cable channel that carries House sessions. He called them "blind to communism"; he threatened to "file charges" against ten Democrats for a letter they wrote to Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega; he accused one Democrat of placing "communist propaganda" in the Speaker's lobby. In retaliation, O'Neill ordered the C-Span cameras to sweep the floor every few minutes to show the world that Gingrich and friends were declaiming before empty seats. And on May 14, he attacked Gingrich for questioning the patriotism of members of Congress.

Now the showdown was at hand. The chamber was full, the hubbub audible. Cocksure and articulate, Gingrich repeated his attack on Democratic foreign policy. O'Neill's words, he said, came "all too close to resembling a McCarthyism of the Left." He had accused no one of being un-American, he insisted: "It is perfectly American to be wrong." When Democrats rose to challenge him, he deflected their criticisms, ignored the tough questions, pounced on the easy ones, and demonstrated all the techniques of a master debater.

Finally O'Neill took the floor, repeatedly interrupting Gingrich. Back and forth they went, the brash young Republican from Georgia and the indignant white-maned Democrat from Massachusetts. "My personal opinion is this," O'Neill roared at last, shaking his finger at Gingrich. "You deliberately stood in that well before an empty House, and challenged these people, and challenged their patriotism, and it is the lowest thing that I've ever seen in my 32 years in Congress."

Immediately, Minority Whip Trent Lott rose and asked that the Speaker's words be ruled out of order and stricken from the record. in the House, normally a bastion of civility, members are forbidden from making personal attacks on one another. After five minutes of nervous consultation, the chair ruled in Lott's favor. That night, the confrontation between Gingrich and O'Neill made all three network news programs. The third-term Republican from Georgia had arrived.

Newt Gingrich: Shining Knight of the Post-Reagan Right by David Osborne, 1 November 1984

It was the first time a Speaker had been rebuked that way since the 1790s, and gleeful Republicans had television ads on the air within days. With that smirk that still drives the Democrats crazy, Gingrich announced: "I am now a famous person."

Master of the House, by Nancy Gibbs and Karen Tumulty, Time Magazine, 1995
or Master of the House, by Nancy Gibbs and Karen Tumulty, Time Magazine, 1995

And that, boys and girls, is why C-SPAN, for a brief time, panned around the empty room showing that these are not serious speeches given in the course of legislative debate. But only for a while, mind. After both sides realized that it was worse to have the phoniness and emptiness of the whole process televised, it decided to change the camera rules to require a fix on the speaker or the rostrum. Anyway, back to Churchill.

Biker Tony's Photograph of Parliament at night

Biker Tony's photograph of Parliament at Night

So, Churchill got his goal of having a building be filled beyond capacity, overflowing into the aisles with members, a vast sea of humanity all gathered for the purpose to argue and vote. Passion compressed to a small space, breathing life into democracy, like voting to support Bush in an illegal war. To bad Churchill never realized that their whole structure — lords, commoners, and a monarch — was the antithesis of democracy. The American system is far superior; we have three branches of government — lords, more lords, and even more lords — and a fuhrer to lead them to victory and us into slavery. Much better!

Oh, yeah. And the outcome of that famous shot of the empty chamber to which House members had been so pompously and fatuously opining? Well, even C-SPAN's founder has no idea what the effect was:

Ms. HILLGREN: What is the greatest impact C-SPAN has had on the political culture of the United States? Did Republicans exploit it to spread their philosophy by droning on to an empty chamber?

Mr. LAMB: I have absolutely no idea what our impact has been. But I hope Republicans have exploited it and I hope Democrats have exploited it and I hope Perotistas have exploited it. What is it about us that we all think we should not argue? I think we should argue all the time. I think that's part of getting to a decision. Exploit the living daylights out of us. It's up to us, like the call-in lines, to not be overly exploited by anybody. And that's the beauty of the system. We have 17,000 hours a year to fill. And we're not in a hurry. We don't have ratings. We don't have to fuss over all this stuff. It's an oasis. That's what makes it so much fun. So exploit us, have at us, all of you.

Brian Lamb, C-SPAN Chairman and CEO, in Interview at the National Press Club, 6 January 1997

Yo Momma Cooks Like a Whore

"Puttanesca" by Jared Gutekunst

"Puttanesca" by Jared Gutekunst, 2003, Oil on Canvas, 24"x36"

Cookery simulates the disguise of medicine, and pretends to know what food is the best for the body; and if the physician and the cook had to enter into a competition in which children were the judges, or men who had no more sense than children, as to which of them best understands the goodness or badness of food, the physician would be starved to death. A flattery I deem this to be and of an ignoble sort...

— Socrates, "Gorgias" by Plato

Pasta puttananesca is a staple of Italian cooking. It is one of those dishes that is so hard to screw up that even a mediocre restaurant can do a passable job. The name "puttananesca" is is derived from the Italian "puttana", literally "whore". (I suspect it is a dish the more prudish eschew entirely or order only by pointing, lest their lips be sullied with the word.) The dish is simple: tomatoes, garlic, anchovies, capers, basil, oregano, and a little olive oil. Some like black olives, cut in half, but I'm not normally a fan of vegetables so indebile they must be first soaked in lye. Others add pignolis — pine nuts — which I find to be a distraction, although I do adore them in spicy Chinese cuisine. But this has nothing to do with the name.

Various stories purport to relate how the dish was named, and each has varying degrees of credibility. One has it that the dish could be quickly prepared by sex workers in between clients. Another is that it's spicy nature inflamed the passions like a lady of sin. Yet another is that the wafting ordor was used to lure in clients, as an appetizer to what was to come. The last one, of a more practical nature, is that the working girls in the state-owned brothels could only do their shopping once a week — to avoid offending the "respectable" women in the marketplace — and needed ingredients that would keep. So which should we believe? Maybe none of them.

Personally, I don't hold with the feeding clients beforehand. As every woman knows, after eating a huge plate of carbs, men fall asleep. Some even snore. But even without the nap and the snoring, there certainly ain't gonna be no carnal activities until that blood sugar spike wears off. (The argument that nobody wants a lover with garlic breath doesn't hold water, because if both parties eat it nobody can smell the wonderous perfume of the allium.) As far as shopping once a week, it makes no sense as one cannot live on sauce and carbs, and Italians always eat a great deal of fresh vegetables. But why ruin a good explanation, especially when it can be delivered with so much poetry:

Legend has it Spaghetti alla Puttanesca, or whore-ish pasta originated from the state run brothels in 1950’s Italy. Unlike most respectable Italian ladies who went out everyday for fresh groceries, these women went out once a week to do their errands. Consequently their larders were stocked with basic ingredients that kept well. Like braids of garlic, cans of salty anchovies olives, boxes of pasta and long-lasting parsley.

Spaghetti alla Puttanesca is a full-on encounter with some willful ingredients. Garlic, capers, black olives, anchovies and parsley make a brash sauce that works by intensity but doesn’t know when to quit. Its scent sashays around well after the meal is over and the dishes are put away. It doesn’t catch on to the polite clues that dinner is over and the day is done. Turn off the kitchen lights and you’ll smell capers, close the curtains - there’s parsley in the folds. Open the closet door and anchovies in olive oil spill out.

Puttanesca loiters. It’s the morning breath of stale garlic and oily olives. It’s last night’s mini dress in high heels greeting you while you’re still in your pajamas having a cuppa-joe. Fresh newsprint, toast and eggs don’t stand a chance. It needs a swift kick in the ass but the only thing you can do to escape and clear out is open the windows and rinse with Listerine. It’ll eventually go. And when it’s gone - you’ll want it back. It’s that good. Regardless of its virtue or vice - Puttanesca is quick and dirty, unforgettable and persistent.

"Spaghetti alla Puttanesca", by Ali Berlow, A Cook's Notebook, WCAI broadcast, 5 March 5 2003

It's an easy dish to make. (Yes, you could just buy pre-made puttanesca in a jar, but it is so easy to make, and so much tastier when made so that the capers and basil haven't been cooked into oblivion, that there's no reason not to make it yourself.) Now I suppose should regale you with tales of cooking down whole tomatoes from those huge tins of the imported Italian whole variety, slaving over a hot stove like some widowed Italian grandmother in black, but I won't. I'm a busy lad so I don't cook my sauce from scratch. Shocking, yes, but true. Instead, I start with a good marinara base — usually either Rao's or Patsy's — and add anchovies, capers, fresh basil and fresh oregano. (What, you don't have basil and oregano plants on your windowsill? And you didn't have the forsight during the summer to wash, dry, and wrap individual portions of basil and oregano in plastic wrap so you could pop them into your freezer until needed? That's sooooo sad! What kind of chef are you?) Some add sun-dried tomatoes — chopped fine so they disperse evenly, giving an extra tomatoey burst of flavor — or fire-roasted pappers.

Cook the anchovies in, so that they disintegrate completely, then, when you're close to being done, add the basil and oregano, and add the capers a few minutes before you serve the dish, so that they get cooked but don't get mushy or lose their flavor. Smaller capers are tastier, but cost a little more. (Takes more of them to make a pound. Don't save your pennies here, though. The cost differential is a dollar or so per bottle, and you'll get a few meals from each jar.) If you have fresh basil leaves, garnish each plate with a few of those. Put it over a pasta with lots of nooks and crannies to hold the sauce, like rotelli or fusilli. But you can also use tortellini, ravioli, or just about any other pasta. (Even the lowly linguini.)

Mmmmm. Now I've gone and made myself hungry. Except I don't eat pasta much anymore. (Pastry, pie, and muffins are a much tastier way to get one's carbs.) But the sauce is also excellent over fish.

Pasta Puttanesca

Regardless of its virtue or vice - Puttanesca is quick and dirty, unforgettable and persistent.

"Spaghetti alla Puttanesca", by Ali Berlow, A Cook's Notebook, WCAI broadcast, 5 March 2003

Architecture Fit for an Emperor
Errr, I mean, Fit for a Comrade!

Russian Seal

The Soviet Union — this is more properly pronounced "Stalin" — decided to completely redo Moscow in the image of a people's paradise. (We all know what happened to anyone who voiced doubts about the wisdom of destroying the city's architectural heritage to build monstrous buildings.) And, since this was a people's paradise, the people were invited to contribute entires. Well, architects were invited, at any rate.

One of those entires proposed building the tallest building in the world. Just to show the bourgouise capitalists how it was done, of course. At 1572 feet (415 meters) the building would be taller than the Empire State building (highest at 1250 feet, 381 meters) and Eiffel Tower (second highest at 984 feet, 300 meters, excluding the transmitting tower at the top.) Hard to imagine a time when the (now) relatively puny Empire State building was seen as competition. But that's because we're spoiled; every decade the ante gets upped by some country eager to make a name for itself by building towers that are difficult to use. (Who wants a ten minute elevator ride to get lunch?) The latest project scraping the heavens, Burj Dubai, is going to be 2,275 to 2,925 feet or (700 to 900 meters) tall. But back to Russia.

Many of the grand — one might even say grandiose — plans have an architecture that one cannot help but be impressed by. This is the sort of architecture at which Albert Speer excelled. (Or, say, the WWII memorial in Washington, D.C. If that isn't an edifice worthy of Triumph of the Will, I don't know what is.) Anyway, I found the entries interesting, overall, from both architectural and historical contexts. Two of them were particularly interesting; one because of its sheer mass and height and the other because it reminds me, on a much smaller scale, of some of the rounded, yet boxy, glass buildings being built in the city today.

Among the far-reaching projections of the first stalinist "five year plans", the 1935 General plan for the reconstruction of Moscow overshadowed all others. According to this plan, Moscow was to become, in the shortest possible time, the showpiece capital of the world's first socialist state. The General plan envisaged the development of the city as a unified system of highways, squares and embankments with unique buildings, embodying the ideas and achievements of socialism. This plan contained a number of major flaws, especially in connection with the preservation of the historical heritage of the city. The specific nature of the architectural process of this period was determined wholly by ambitious government schemes. In order to realize them, extensive architectural contests were held and architects of diverse orientations and schools of thought were invited to tender their projects.

"Architecture of Moscow From the 1930s to the Early 1950s (Unrealised Projects)"

"Palace of Soviets (Dom Sovetov)" B.Iofan, V.Gelfreikh, Ya.Belopolsky, V.Pelevin, Sculptor S.Merkulov, 1946

Palace of Soviets (Dom Sovetov)
B.Iofan, V.Gelfreikh, Ya.Belopolsky, V.Pelevin, Sculptor S.Merkulov
1946

The Palace of Soviets was planned to be the largest building in the world. Its height was to reach 415 metres - higher than the tallest buildings of the time, the Eiffel Tower and the Empire State Building, The building-postament was to be topped by a 100 metre statue of Lenin. The constuction of the Palace of Soviets developed into an independent economic and scientific field. This system included special laboratories dealing with optics and acoustics, for the development of special construction materials such as "D.S. steel" and "D.S. brick", mechanical and ceramic-concrete works, The building site was serviced by its own railway branch. By special decrees of the Soviet of People's Commissars and the Council for Labour and Defence, the construction of the Palace of Soviets was designate a priority project in 1934, and by 1939 the foundations of the upper part were completed. Construction was suspended in 1941 because of the war and never resumed. However, work on the Palace of Soviets project continued until the end of the 1940s.

"Palace of Soviets (Dom Sovetov)" B.Iofan, V.Gelfreikh, Ya.Belopolsky, V.Pelevin, Sculptor S.Merkulov, 1946

"The Building of the People's Commissariat of Heavy Industry", A.Vesnin, V.Vesnin, S.Lyaschenko, 1934

The Building of the People's Commissariat of Heavy Industry
A.Vesnin, V.Vesnin, S.Lyaschenko.
1934

Four towers, up to a height of 160 metres, on a stylobate which harmonizes with the Kremlin wall. A rhythmical construction, expressed in four vertical elements and the colonnade of the stylobate, creating a visual extension, essential to the longitudinal framing of the Square and responding to the Kremlin wall. The vertical divisions correspond to the four divisions of the Kremlin tower and are necessary for the inclusion of the building into the overall ensemble. The project envisages a single vestibule the length of Red Square.

"The Building of the People's Commissariat of Heavy Industry", A.Vesnin, V.Vesnin, S.Lyaschenko, 1934

We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.

— Sir Winston Churchill, speech 28 October 1943 to the House of Commons (meeting in the House of Lords) about the rebuilding of the House of Commons which had burnt down in a fire started by the Nazis.

"Automated City Register Information System"

Seal of the City of New York

Seal of the City of New York

I was parked outside a building on 13th Street and some workmen splashed paint on my car and scratched the crap out of my windshield by powerwashing the buildings facade without a tarp or protective covering, in violation of the law. After trying to months and months to get the contractor to pay for compounding and a new windshield — he kept promising to send me a check or asking me to visit him at a construction site since he was too busy to go to the post office — I got the idea to go after the owner; first by telling him to pay up for his contractor's mistakes and then in small-claims court if he refused. But to do this, I need to know the owner's name. Which, as you should know, is public record.

I first tried 311 which put me on hold — repeatedly — for about ten minutes while they "located" the information. They finally gave up and transferred me to the "City Register" where I waited on hold for fifteen minutes. All that waiting only to discover that all of this information is available online, courtesy of the "Automated City Register Information System". (Part of the Office of the City Register in the New York City Department of Finance.) You can find all sorts of good information on property there; deeds, tax liens, transfers, etc. Anything that's public record, you can see. (About time.) I managed to track down the building's owner who turns out to own a gallery in SoHo. (Yeah, what a surprise. Who else could afford to buy an entire building on East 13th between 3rd and 2nd?)

Anyway, if you want to dig up information on a property in New York City, here's how to do it.

  1. Go to the "Automated City Register Information System" (ACRIS) homepage.
  2. Click on "Start Using Acris" (A new window will appear.)
  3. Click on "Find Addresses and Parcels"
  4. Type in the street address to obtain the lot and block numbers. Wirte those numbers down.
  5. Go back to the page that appeared when you clicked on "Start Using Acris" and click on "Search Property Records".
  6. Now key in the lot and block numbers to get all the records for that property. The "DET" button gives you textual details while "IMG" gives you the actual scans of the documents. (You can zoom in.) You'll have to click on the entries and use the back button a lot; open-in-new-windows doesn't work.

If you run into problems, and the help button doesn't give anything useful, the number for the Office of the City Register at the New York City Department of Finance is 212.487.6300.

"Moping Melancholy, and Moon-Struck Madness."

"Melencholia I" by Albrecht Dürer

"Melencholia I", Albrecht Dürer, 1514, 9 1/2 x 7 3/8 inches (24 x 18.5 cm) (various museums)

I hold that the perfection of form and beauty is contained in the sum of all men.

— Albrecht Dürer, Four Books on Human Proportions, 1528

I first encountered Albrecht Dürer's "Melencolia I" twenty-five years ago, when I was in high school. (I remember seeing it in Science, not the JAAS journal, which I also leafed through, but in their magazine designed to compete with Scientific American.) Since then, I've thought about it from time to time, but never dug into exactly what all the symbolism meant.

A few weeks ago I was thinking about Dürer again — he was a very smart and accomplished fellow, and his accomplishments include inventing etching (hey, baby, want to come up and see my etchings?), making numerous advances in art, and creating a mechanical device for accurately drawing perspective — and was inspired to again dig out Melencolia I for a look. That led me to some searches for the symbolism — an option that was not easy twenty-five years ago — and after doing so I was inspired to write it up.

I spent a bit of time digging out Webpages and papers on Melencolia I, and have only included the ones with detailed analysis, and those not in the realm of the delusional, spiritual, or occult. The "The Melencolia Code" by David Finkelstein, a physics professor at Georgia Institute of Technology, has the best writeup of the lot, so I'll be quoting extensively from him. This isn't to say he's correct, just that he summed up the arguments cogently and succinctly. I won't write up all of the symbolism, just enough to give you a flavor for the piece.

The Melencolia I (1514) of Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) might be the most studied engraving ever made, and it influenced European art for centuries. It represents science well before Newton. Many riddlers have tried to decode it. The art historian Erwin Panofsky saw in it Durer’s own melancholy frustration at the gap between artistic and divine creation. Frances Yates, historian of the Hermetic tradition, took its melancholia to be an inspired creative fever, not sadness at all, and read the engraving as a declaration of the harmony between microcosm and macrocosm. The art historian Patrick Doorly sees it as an illustration for Plato’s Greater Hippias, a dialogue on beauty; the angelic melancholy represents the inability to define absolute beauty. Long before I heard of their studies, I saw in it a feeling about science that I could not quite read. Was the angel truly melancholy? If so, was it for knowing too little? Or too much? Is the angel dreaming of a Final Theory? Isn’t she actually smiling slightly? What is the joke?

"The Melencolia Code" by David R. Finkelstein, School of Physics, Georgia Institute of Technology, Page 3

The Name and the Bat

"Melancholia I" by Albrecht Dürer

To unscramble it [the name Melencolia I] I proceeded as follows. Since so many Durers, father, mother, and repeated son, already hide in the engraving, I guessed that the motto might hide another. This amounts to a prediction. To test it I went to Durer’s coat of arms to see how he might depict himself. There I found if I did not invent the caelo rebus by which Durer represents his art. CAELO indeed fits into MELENCOLIA. The leftover letters quickly arrange themmselves into the common noun LIMEN, commonly meaning gateway, doorway, threshold, lintel, walls, house, home, boundary path, and limit, according to context. MELENCOLIA then decodes to LIMEN CAELO, gateway in heaven. This describes the Durer coat of arms itself quite accurately, fulfilling the prediction that the anagram hid a name for Durer. It indirectly supports the rebus theory of the coat of arms. It also applies well to the dim archway in the heavens that frames it, and will acquire further meaning as we go.

The speed with which this prediction checked out suggested that I read Durer correctly. The proposition before us is that Durer constructed the motto MELENCOLIA I from the covert one LIMEN CAELO I, put melancholic elements and the mooonbow to fit them, and added the hell-bat to signal that the cover message was ironic.

"The Melencolia Code" by David R. Finkelstein, School of Physics, Georgia Institute of Technology, Page 11

The Solid

"Melancholia I" by Albrecht Dürer

There are observations about the geometrical figure to the right of Melencolia. Geometrically, the polyhedron is simply a cube or rhombohedron which has been truncated at the upper vertex. Somebody has proposed that the shape is a very elaborate optical illusion. It is made to appear as though it is a truncated cube, with 90 degree angles, but in reality, it has no 90 degree angles at all. Panofsky describes it simply as a "truncated rhomboid." It is possible to proportion it so that the vertices project onto a 4-by-4 square grid like that of the magic square (T. Lynch, "The geometric body in Durer's engraving Melancholia I," Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Inst., pp. 226-232, 1982.). Schreiber (P. Schreiber, "A New Hypothesis on Durer's Enigmatic Polyhedron in His Copper Engraving 'Melencholia I'," Historia Mathematica, 26, pp. 369-377, 1999. ) proposes that it comes from a rhombohedron with 72-degree face angles, which has been truncated so it can be inscribed in a sphere....and on and on.

"Dürer's Polyhedra" by George Hart

Dürer's solid is the 8-faced solid depicted in an engraving entitled Melancholia I by Albrecht Dürer (The British Museum, Burton 1989, Gellert et al. 1989), the same engraving in which Dürer's magic square appears, which depicts a disorganized jumble of scientific equipment lying unused while an intellectual sits absorbed in thought. Although Dürer does not specify how his solid is constructed, Schreiber (1999) has noted that it appears to consist of a distorted cube which is first stretched to give rhombic faces with angles of 72°, and then truncated on top and bottom to yield bounding triangular faces whose vertices lie on the circumsphere of the azimuthal cube vertices.

"Dürer's Solid" Mathworld

What triggered my own new interest in Melencolia I and Durer were two faces that I found hiding in the polyhedron in April 2004. Anyone who steps back several paces from a good print and focuses on the shading of the front face of the polyhedron patiently for a minute or so, will soon find or construct a face, either a man with his head cocked to the right or a woman with her head erect. Both are there, at di erent angles and scales, apparently waiting to be seen for centuries. Some viewers see the man first and some the woman; one cannot see both at once. Both disappear if we come too close. Digitizing and reducing the engraving for the internet sometimes outlines one of the faces crisply, bringing it completely out of hiding. That is how I found the woman by chance and was drawn into this study. Absent such electronic aids, the faces emerge from the polyhedron slowly the first time but are inescapable thereafter. They are subtle and draw much on our own perceptive process, so that as we see them taking shape, we are not entirely clear whether they are really there or are our own projections. One can resolve these doubts to some extent. We may note that we cannot find such faces in all of Durer’s shadings. We can verify the faces we see with other viewers. We may assume that Durer’s vision was more sensitive to variations of shade than most, and infer that if we see these faces then so did Durer, and therefore they are part of his intention.

In 1604, long after popular demand had worn out Durer’s original copper plate, the Dutch engraver Jan Wierix (ca. 1553-1619) produced a new engraving of Melencolia I from scratch, so to speak. In order to distinguish his copy from the original he left out a flourish between “Melencolia” and “I” in the motto. Less publicly, he also systematically changed both hidden faces to hidden devil’s masks. By this change he left a secret sign that he saw the hidden faces and rejected what they stood for. This convinces me that they are not of my creation. And later they will lead us to the function of the polyhedron.

...

One can read the surface of the polyhedron in three ways: as blank, as a woman’s face, or as a man’s face. This is the only such triple image I find in Durer’s work. The two hidden faces resemble somewhat Durer’s last portraits of his mother and father, and have the same poses. Durer’s father died in 1507 at the age of 75 and a Durer portrait shows him beardless at 70, but five years is enough for the small beard on the hidden face of the man. Durer did his last portrait of his mother two months before her death and Melencolia I soon after. There is not enough detail in the hidden faces for positive recognition but since the ages, poses, and general features match, and the picture has already been recognized as autobiographical, perhaps they represent his mother and father. They have another function that I will point out later. They are part of a joke that Durer is playing on us.

I am less certain of a third hidden face. The black axle-hole in its center of the millstone might pass for a silhouette profile of a lean young man, presumably Albrecht again. Unlike the two parental ghosts, this hidden face reverses figure and ground, a common way to hide faces at the time.

"The Melencolia Code" by David R. Finkelstein, School of Physics, Georgia Institute of Technology, Pages 5-6

The Magic Square

"Melancholia I" by Albrecht Dürer

We need not look far [to find the meaning of the magic square]. The sum of the whole table is 136. Pursuing the autobiographical hypothesis, I computed the Latin gematria for “Albrecht Durer,” ignoring the non-Latin umlaut. The sum is 135. Since there is no “u” in the Latin alphabet, the name should really be “Albrecht Dvrer, ” but this would not change the sum, since “v” would then replace “u” as letter 21 of the alphabet. There is a significant discrepancy of 1 between 135 and 136. One must separate the 1 from the rest of the table to make the sum “Albrecht Durer.” This amounts to a prediction: that Durer did so. Returning to the engraving to check this prediction, we see that he made the 1 unmistakably taller than all the other numerals, as I did in transcribing the Durer Table above. This again di erentiates the Durer Table from the Jupiter Table. In addition, one wing of the angel brushes the 1 in the table, and only that numeral, verifying it divinity.

By splitting the sum into 136= 1 +135 Durer again puts himself into his own Table, next to God. The magic square provides two more Durer signatures within a symbol of the divinity of mathematics.

"The Melencolia Code" by David R. Finkelstein, School of Physics, Georgia Institute of Technology, Page 9

The Comet

"Melancholia I" by Albrecht Dürer

The great comet 1471Y1 was first seen on Christmas Day in Durer’s birth year, and Durer wrote of seeing a comet in 1503. The physical natures of meteors and comets were not yet known in 1514. Even Galileo would still believe that comets were formed from atmospheric vapors leaving the Earth. But da Vinci already mocked the idea that events in the sky foretold events on Earth, and so did Durer.

"The Melencolia Code" by David R. Finkelstein, School of Physics, Georgia Institute of Technology, Page 21

The Balance (Scales)

"Melancholia I" by Albrecht Dürer

The balance is one of the few scientific instruments in the picture. They all hang on the wall and the artisan tools litter the yard, as the experimental philosopher is sanctified above the craftsman. The scales hang on the side wall between the angel and the putto, level and balanced. One dish touches the putto, the other the angel. There is a balance between putto and angel, first literally, there it hangs between them, and then metaphorically, they have equal weight in some sense; perhaps equal divinity. The putto-angel equation seems to be a literally central message of the engraving. This fully supports Yate’s interpretation of the triumphant artist and of a balance between the Intellectual and Terrestrial spheres represented by the angel and the putto.

"The Melencolia Code" by David R. Finkelstein, School of Physics, Georgia Institute of Technology, Pages 14-15

The Angel

"Melancholia I" by Albrecht Dürer

If she had melancholia, it would have to be the creative form of the humor, not the depressive. In fact she is visibly not creating. Her compasses are held in a way that puts them out of service. Her book is sealed. The unresolved tension between her positive expression and attitude and the apparently negative legend is part of the hold that the engraving has on us.

She looks at nothing in the scene. The polyhedron, the putto, and the dog are directly to her right, and the globe is beneath her line of sight. She looks up out of the frame, right past what is going on in the sky behind her, meteor, hell-bat, moonbow and all. This is consistent with her representing the faculty of Contemplation that connects its user to the Intellectual Sphere of Forms and angels. What the angel is doing is remarkable. She is doing nothing.

I propose that her main function in this engraving is that of the knight between Death and the Devil: to ignore evil. She sees nothing and does nothing. She is unlike the putto, who studies the dog intentlly and draws it. But neither see the bizarre night sky.

"The Melencolia Code" by David R. Finkelstein, School of Physics, Georgia Institute of Technology, Page 14

Sources and Further Reading

  1. "Dürer's Solid" Mathworld
  2. "The Melencolia Code" by David R. Finkelstein, School of Physics, Georgia Institute of Technology
  3. "The Melencolia Code" by David R. Finkelstein, School of Physics, Georgia Institute of Technology (CitizenArcane copy)
  4. "Dürer's Polyhedra" by George Hart
  5. Melencholia I, Albrecht Dürer, 1514, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Oh, and since I know you were wondering, the title line is from Paradise Lost, by John Milton, (book XI, l, 485). I'll leave you with one more thought:

Gone is the mystical mathetic vision of absolute truth, the perspective of infinity, but also the self-deification and the gloom. Both halves of the picture live on Earth. Knowledge, with all its limits, is no longer a light in the night sky but a record of actual experience.

"The Melencolia Code" by David R. Finkelstein, School of Physics, Georgia Institute of Technology, Page 22

"Creative Genius Destroyed
by Neglect and Misunderstanding"

Edwin Arlington Robinson

Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869-1935)

Well, it isn't a perfect poem, but it is certainly a remarkable one.

— John Lucas on "Richard Corey"

I often run into people who either aren't familiar with the work of Edwin Arlington Robinson or who are passingly familiar with it but either don't know the whole piece or the author. Fewer still know that Robinson moved from Maine to 28 MacDougal Street in New York City's Greenwich Village — holding such jobs as time checker for construction of the IRT subway and as a clerk in New York City custom's house (he was appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt, who liked his poetry) — where he spent the last twenty-five years of his life, largely solitary, until his death on 6 April 1935.

A Maine poet whose numerous volumes of verse explore the repressive life of small-town American, Edwin Arlington Robinson drew inspiration for his portraits and tales from the tortured lives of his family and acquaintances. Transforming autobiography into myth, he set these stories in the fictitious Tilbury Town, the poet's emblem of the American dream gone awry, a place where creative genius is destroyed by neglect and misunderstanding.

Reared in Gardiner, ME, and educated at Harvard, Robinson's philosophical perspective came to combine the idealism of the waning Romantic Age with the dark pessimism of the dawning century. While he believed ardently in the divine spark within all man and nature, he inevitably found that spark clouded with what he called "the black and awful chaos of the night." Given the bleak history of Robinson's own life--poetic neglect, unrequited passion, and family problems with alcohol-- his view is not surprising; what is more amazing is the stoicism with which he persevered, ultimately winning national recognition for his long Arthurian poem, TRISTRAM, in 1928.

Robinson claimed to have experienced his poetic vocation as an epiphany when, at age seventeen, he became "violently excited over the structure of English blank verse." An admirer of Robert Browning's dramatic monologues, he set about to cloak his own poetic persona in a series of masks, creating a gallery of characters, who were at once thinly veiled incarnations of his relatives and townsfolk and subtle manifestations of his own psyche.

"I Hear America Singing", Public Broadcasting Service

Robinson was born the third son of a family whose hearts were so set on having a daughter this time that they had made no provisions for the name of an unwanted son. For more than six months the boy remained unnamed, until strangers at a summer resort, feeling that he ought to be granted an identity beyond that of simply "the baby," put slips of paper with male first names written on them into a hat and chose someone to draw one out. The man who drew out the slip with "Edwin" written on it happened to live in Arlington, Massachusetts, which seemed to provide the easiest choice for a second name; and so by an "accident of fate," we have a poet named Edwin Arlington Robinson. Robinson hated the name and thought of himself as a child of scorn--and he had reasons.

American Poets: From the Puritans to the Present by Hyatt H. Waggoner

Robinson's most famous poem is likely "Richard Corey":

Richard Corey

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
"Good-morning," and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich — yes, richer than a king,
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

Edwin Arlington Robinson

A few notes. Robinson's brother Hennan drank himself to death. It may not have been as quick as a bullet, but it was just as certain.

Here we have a man's life-story distilled into sixteen lines. A dramatist would have been under the necessity of justifying the suicide by some train of events in which Richard Cory's character would have inevitably betrayed him. A novelist would have dissected the psychological effects of these events upon Richard Cory. The poet, with a more profound grasp of life than either, shows us only what life itself would show us; we know Richard Cory only through the effect of his personality upon those who were familiar with him, and we take both the character and the motive for granted as equally inevitable. Therein lies the ironic touch, which is intensified by the simplicity of the poetic form in which this tragedy is given expression.

The Poetry of Edwin Arlington Robinson: An Essay in Appreciation, by Lloyd Morris, 1923

While "Richard Corey" is likely his most famous poem, "Miniver Cheevy" runs a close second:

Miniver Cheevy

Miniver Cheevy, child of scorn,
Grew lean while he assailed the seasons
He wept that he was ever born,
And he had reasons.

Miniver loved the days of old
When swords were bright and steeds were prancing;
The vision of a warrior bold
Would send him dancing.

Miniver sighed for what was not,
And dreamed, and rested from his labors;
He dreamed of Thebes and Camelot,
And Priam's neighbors.

Miniver mourned the ripe renown
That made so many a name so fragrant;
He mourned Romance, now on the town,
And Art, a vagrant.

Miniver loved the Medici,
Albeit he had never seen one;
He would have sinned incessantly
Could he have been one.

Miniver cursed the commonplace
And eyed a khaki suit with loathing:
He missed the medieval grace
Of iron clothing.

Miniver scorned the gold he sought,
But sore annoyed was he without it;
Miniver thought, and thought, and thought,
And thought about it.

Miniver Cheevy, born too late,
Scratched his head and kept on thinking;
Miniver coughed, and called it fate,
And kept on drinking.

Edwin Arlington Robinson, 1907

Some Notes. The khaki suit refers to the brown military uniform, common until after World War I. The Medicis ruled renaissance Florence, and combined a love of knowledge, art, and scholarship with naked brutality when it came to remaining in power. Priam was king of Troy and killed during the Trojan war. Thebes was a Greek city in Egypt, on the Nile. Camelot, of course, was the mythical home of King Arthur's court. The line "He mourned Romance, now on the town," is tied to the meaning of "on the town" as being unable to support onesself and thus dependent upon the town's charity. The poem has some relation to Robinson's life, given that he felt unwanted as a child. (See the biography above.)

Oh, one more thing. The title line is from "I Hear America Singing", Public Broadcasting Service. It referred to Tilbury Town, but it summed up many things about Robinson and, indeed, about the world in general.

Sources and Further Reading

  1. Children of the Night by Edwin Arlington Robinson (contains "Richard Corey")
  2. The Man against the Sky by Edwin Arlington Robinson
  3. The Three Taverns by Edwin Arlington Robinson
  4. "Edwin Arlington Robinson", The Academy of American Poets
  5. "On Richard Corey," Modern American Poets
  6. "On Miniver Cheevy," Modern American Poets
  7. "I Hear America Singing", Public Broadcasting Service

"The one who gives gifts
goes naked and does without."

"The Three Graces", circa 323-146 B.C.

"The Three Graces", circa 323-146 B.C. (Louvre, Paris)

The other day I saw a reproduction of the Louvre's Three Graces relief, and it reminded me of all the mythology I used to read when I were a lad. (As opposed to all the mythology I read today in the New York Times; Fox News isn't mythology, of course, it's pure Lovecraftian horror.) Anyway, I remember the three graces and have thought that the message they carry is a nice one. So I wrote it up.

"The Three Graces", Fragment of Wall Frieze, Pompeii

"The Three Graces", Wall Frieze, Pompeii, circa 60 AD

The three graces, all sisters, are the daughters of Zeus and Euryeome or Hera. (Zeus, as you'll recall, had a serious problem keeping it under his toga.) As the attendent goddesses to Aphrodite — the goddess of love — the three were all that is grace and beauty personified. Each represents a different facet of the goddess: Aglaca, splendor; Euphrosyne, joyfulness; and Thalia, abundance.

"The Three Graces" by Raphael, 1504

"The Three Graces" by Raphael, 1504 (Musee Conde, Chantilly)

Artists and writers have been influenced by the three graces through the ages; the Greeks painted vases and made sculptures, the Romans made friezes at Pompeii, and painters like Rubens and Raphael memorialized them forever. They are typically depicted as two figures facing us and one facing away, with the two outer figures looking in different directions from the center one. They have their hands on each other's shoulders, as if in dance. Without the graces, there can be neither pleasure nor dancing.

In addition to the artists who were inspired, was Andrea Alciato, a sixteenth century writer:

The three Graces attend Venus, and follow their mistress, and so prepare delights and things to eat. Euphrosyne brings happiness, Aglaia, glorious radiance, and Pitho is Persuasion herself, winsome and pleasing of speech.

Why are they naked?

Because loveliness resides in honesty of mind and pleases through its utter simplicity.

Is it because the ungrateful give nothing back that the Graces' casket is always empty?

The one who gives gifts goes naked and does without.

Why have their feet been recently attired with winged sandals?

The one who gives quickly, gives twice; generosity that is slow to appear is almost worthless.

Why does one turn with the others' arms around her?

Giving graciously makes interest. When one is let go, two remain to the giver.

Jupiter is father to them all. From heavnly seed Eurynome brought forth the divine creatures, dear to all.

Emblematum Liber (Book of Emblems) by Andrea Alciato, 1531

Andrea Alciato's Emblematum liber or Book of Emblems had enormous influence and popularity in the 16th and 17th centuries. It is a collection of 212 Latin emblem poems, each consisting of a motto (a proverb or other short enigmatic expression), a picture, and an epigrammatic text. Alciato's book was first published in 1531, and was expanded in various editions during the author's lifetime. It began a craze for emblem poetry that lasted for several centuries.

Emblematum Liber (Book of Emblems) by Andrea Alciato, 1531

"The Three Graces" by Peter Paul Rubens, 1639

"The Three Graces" by Peter Paul Rubens, 1639 (Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain)

Photograph of "The Three Graces", a Victorian Cameo

"The Three Graces", Victorian Cameo

Of course, not everyone has the same take on the same concept:

Photograph of "Bachelor and Three Graces" (tree grouping)

"Bachelor and Three Graces" (tree grouping) by Marlene Bruce, a photograph of three trees with the same name in the Calaveras Big Trees State Park

"Composition VII: The Three Graces" by Theo van Doesburg (1917)

"Composition VII: The Three Graces" by Theo van Doesburg (1917), (Gallery of Art, Washington University In St. Louis)

"Labour Isn’t Working"

"Labour Isn't Working" Billboard

Billboard for 1979 Tory Campaign, "Labour Isn't Working (Britain's Better Off With the Conservatives)"

It became the benchmark for political advertising. It has influenced all political advertising since and effectiveness is measured against it.

— Martyn Walsh, creator of "Labour Isn't Working" Campaign

In my tax day entry about the IRS and what a joyous day April 15th is, I mentioned how the Wilson's labour government led to the election of Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady, in 1979. The real force behind her campaign was the advertising firm Saatchi & Saatchi. It created the "Labour Isn't Working" advertising campaign that is widely credited as winning the election. This is widely regarded as one of the most brilliant ad campaigns ever. (What's interesting is that Charles Saatchi, who gets credit for designing it, apparently didn't create it and was initially skeptical about it.)

"The Conservative party's 1978 poster of a snaking line of people queuing for the unemployment office under the slogan "Labour isn't working" has been voted the poster advertisement of the century.

Created by the Saatchi brothers, the poster is cited as instrumental in the downfall of James Callaghan's Labour administration in the 1979 election and the rise of Margaret Thatcher, partly because he rose to the jibe and complained. It also marked a sea-change in political advertising as, aiming at traditional Labour supporters who feared for their jobs, it was the first to adopt the aggressive marketing tactics which characterise modern elections.

Judged the poster of the century by a jury of advertising creative staff for the trade magazine Campaign, Labour Isn't Working beat a first world war recruitment poster into second place."

"Tory Advert Rated Poster of the Century" by Janine Gibson, Guardian, 16 October 1999

Now, there's nothing like mixing advertising and politics. On the one hand you have a cesspool of lies and on the other you have... Wait just one minute! I can't tell them apart! The best part of the "Labour Isn't Working" campaign is the lies it portrays as fact. First, consider the sanitized, and self-serving Saatchi & Satchi version of their political work:

In 1979 Saatchi & Saatchi London became the first agency to be appointed by a British political party to help them win an election. The Conservative Party did precisely that, with Margaret Thatcher becoming Britain’s first woman Prime Minister. Indeed, the Conservatives won an unprecedented four consecutive terms in office. This didn’t go unnoticed by Boris Yeltsin. With some help from Saatchi & Saatchi, he went on to become Russia’s first democratically elected President.

"Who We Are" by Saatchi & Saatchi

Now, some truth from the BBC:

A new form of political advertising was created for the election campaign which was original, slick and a benchmark for the future.

The now infamous slogan 'Labour Isn't Working' was borne from it and is credited with helping the Tories to power in May 1979.

Labour had postponed the election until May 1979 by which time the 'Winter of Discontent' was in full swing and campaigning for voters took place against a back drop of strike action.

Saatchi & Saatchi later developed the slogan 'Labour Still Isn't Working' but it caused controversy when it was revealed its depiction of people queuing at the dole office was actually of actors.

Many were Tory workers and their images had been superimposed to give the illusion of hundreds of people, although in reality there were only about 20.

"On this Day 1978: Tories Recruit Advertisers to Win Votes", BBC, 30 March 1978

And the difficulty in making the ad — in the days before computer graphic programs like Photoshop or (my favorite) PhotoPaint made this trivial — is interesting:

"Immediately there was a problem. Instead of the 100 volunteers promised to the ad's designer, Martyn Walsh of Saatchi and Saatchi, fewer than 20 turned up - far too few to create the desired effect.

"It was a problem," Walsh remembers. "At one point I though briefly about calling it all off. But the deadline was very tight and it was a case of 'it's now or never - we've got to do it today'."

Rope trick

Walsh then hit upon the idea of photographing the same group of people over and over and then striping the photos together back in his studio.

A long rope was used to mark out the shape of the queue and the volunteers, over a period of hours, had to move along it in a tight group.

"Because of budget we could not use a lot of extras," Walsh remembers.

"And we could not use the real unemployed. They might have objected to appearing in Tory publicity. We wanted people who would not object - which is why we used the Young Tories. But we still made them sign a form to say they wouldn't sue us if they didn't like the result."

Bottom of the pile

The end result, after the pictures had been superimposed on each other, gave the impression of far more than one hundred people standing in a queue."

"'Epoch-making' poster was clever fake" BBC News Online, 16 March 2001

Amazing, isn't it? Advertising people lie! Shocking! This campaign was so famous and so ingrained in British thought that the Labour Party co-opted the concept a few years back for Tony Blair — a Labour Party candidate:

"The Labour Party has rehashed Saatchi & Saatchi's highly successful "Labour isn't working" poster campaign which helped Margaret Thatcher's pre-election bid in 1979.

Labour is running a colourful poster and ad campaign proclaiming the reverse - "Britain is working" under Tony Blair."

"Labour in Cheeky Rehash of Tory Ad Campaign" Politics.co.uk, 30 November 2004

Ad Campaign for "Britain is Working" Under Blair

It's a pretty lousy ad, though, since it really says nothing about who deserves credit and why. (Way too subtle.) Meantime, the Tories decided they needed to repeat their earlier success by going after Blair in a big way. (Make the big, bad labour monster go away, mommy!) Unfortunately, the new campaign has no heart at all, as you can see.

Ad Campaign for "New Labour, New Danger"

The real genius — and I don't use that term lightly — behind Saatchi & Saatchi was Charles Saatchi. (The firm was started by two brothers, Charles and Maurice. Charles was the creative talent and Maurice the businessman. Together they built an advertising powerhouse. After huge excesses in the eighties and nineties, leading to a loss of about a hundred million dollars (tough to spin that), they were forced out of the company that bears their name. They started M & C Saatchi right down the street and there was a massive lawsuit when their old clients deserted the now-braindead Saatchi & Saatchi for M & C Saatchi. (But that's a story that probably only interests advertising people.) Anyway, you know Charles; he's the man behind Sensation, an art exhibit he paid a million dollar bribe to the Brooklyn Museum to host. This rather boring art exhibit was marketed as "offensive" in order to drum up interest and thereby inflate the values of the pieces, all so that Saatchi could liquidate his collection, which was long past its freshness date. Too cynical? Mmmmm-hmmmm.

Between Chris Ofili's "Dung Madonna" and Damien Hirst's readymade shark, the furor appears to have been carefully scripted to inflate the value of worthless "art" so Saatchi could sell it (unlikely) or donate it (likely). This is part of how rich people shelter income; they take a fundamentally worthless piece of "art" purchased for relatively little, get a huge valuation slapped on it by curators with an incentive to enhance their own importance (or maybe bribed), donate it to a museum eager to have a "valuable" work (or possibly bribed), write off the fake valuation on their taxes, and get 40% of the "value" back as a refund in dead presidents. What a great deal! Like Leona says, only little people pay taxes.

There was no feeling that we were making history. In a way it was a pretty routine job. A question of we've got to whistle something up quickly.

— Martyn Walsh, creator of "Labour Isn't Working" Campaign

Happy Tax Freedom Day!

Chart Showing Tax Freedom Day by Calendar Year

Chart of Tax Freedom Day Dates by Year, "Tax Freedom Day to Arrive April 17 in 2005", National Tax Foundation

At the beginning of the 20th century, taxes accounted for 5.9 percent of income, and the nation celebrated Tax Freedom Day on January 22.

"America Celebrates Tax Freedom Day", National Tax Foundation Special Report, No. 134, April 2005

Today is Tax Freedom Day; that is, today is the day that marks the demarcation of the period worked to pay for federal, state, and local taxes and that where Americans work for themselves. (Yay!)

The report compares the number of days Americans work to pay taxes to the number of days they work to support themselves.

“Despite all the tax cuts that the federal government has passed recently, Americans will still spend more on taxes than they spend on food, clothing and medical care combined,” said Hodge.

In 2005, Americans will work 70 days to afford their federal taxes and 37 more days to afford state and local taxes. Other categories of spending measured in the report include housing and household operation (65 days), health and medical care (52 days), food (31 days), transportation (31 days), recreation (22 days), clothing and accessories (13 days), saving (2 days) and all other (42 days).

"Tax Freedom Day to Arrive April 17 in 2005", National Tax Foundation

Chart Showing Tax Freedom Day by Calendar Year

Chart of Taxes vs. Expenses, "Tax Freedom Day to Arrive April 17 in 2005", National Tax Foundation

The full, and quite detailed, report is interesting, but mostly disturbing. Once again, the red staters are like lampreys that have opened up a vein into us blue staters. Sigh.

Overall, the largest importers [of federal tax dollars] are Florida (+$1,478.5 million), Washington (+$1,275.2 million), Virginia (+$1175.8 million) and Georgia (+$999.7 million); and the largest exporters [of federal tax dollars] are California (-$2,686.31.3 million), New York (-$2,076.3 million) and New Jersey (-$1,885.0 million). The District of Columbia is a net tax exporter with -$125.3 million.

"America Celebrates Tax Freedom Day", National Tax Foundation Special Report, No. 134, April 2005

So, celebrate the fact that you're working for yourself today. And remember the secrets of success: Be your own boss, run a cash business, and don't extend credit.

Vitruvian’s the Name. Vitruvian Man.

Vitruvian Man

Vitruvian Man, Leonardo da Vinci, circa 1492

The "Vitruvian Man" is an image that everbody — at least anyone with even the most rudimentary knowledge of history and art — knows, and yet whose name seems to be unknown by everybody. Circa 1492, while the Spanish were funding what would become the systematic rape, pillage, and looting of the New World — and the return of virulent syphilis; I think the native peoples didn't give as good as they got, but it was a nice thank-you present to the Europeans — Leonardo da Vinci was exploring the relationship between architecture and the human body's proportions.

The outgrowth of that exploration was "Vitruvian Man"; the name originates with the Roman architect Vitruvius, who was one of the first to argue in De Architectura (original latin and English translation), written between 27 and 23 BC, that human proportions should be the basis for architecture. (Vitruvius also argued that the job of the architect was to design useful and aesthetically pleasing buildings, a lesson that Frank Gehry would do well to learn.) But, back to Vitruvian Man.

Da Vinci was certain to have read Vitruvius' treatise on role of the human body's proportions in temple architecture:

1. The design of Temples depends on symmetry, the rules of which Architects should be most careful to observe. Symmetry arises from proportion, which the Greeks call a)nalogi/a. Proportion is a due adjustment of the size of the different parts to each other and to the whole; on this proper adjustment symmetry depends. Hence no building can be said to be well designed which wants symmetry and proportion. In truth they are as necessary to the beauty of a building as to that of a well formed human figure,

2. which nature has so fashioned, that in the face, from the chin to the top of the forehead, or to the roots of the hair, is a tenth part of the height of the whole body. From the chin to the crown of the head is an eighth part of the whole height, and from the nape of the neck to the crown of the head the same. From the upper part of the breast to the roots of the hair a sixth; to the crown of the head a fourth. A third part of the height of the face is equal to that from the chin to under side of the nostrils, and thence to the middle of the eyebrows the same; from the last to the roots of the hair, where the forehead ends, the remaining third part. The length of the foot is a sixth part of the height of the body. The fore-arm a fourth part. The width of the breast a fourth part. Similarly have other members their due proportions, by attention to which the ancient Painters and Sculptors obtained so much reputation.

3. Just so the parts of Temples should correspond with each other, and with the whole. The navel is naturally placed in the centre of the human body, and, if in a man lying with his face upward, and his hands and feet extended, from his navel as the centre, a circle be described, it will touch his fingers and toes. It is not alone by a circle, that the human body is thus circumscribed, as may be seen by placing it within a square. For measuring from the feet to the crown of the head, and then across the arms fully extended, we find the latter measure equal to the former; so that lines at right angles to each other, enclosing the figure, will form a square.Link to the editor's note at the bottom of this page

4. If Nature, therefore, has made the human body so that the different members of it are measures of the whole, so the ancients have, with great propriety, determined that in all perfect works, each part should be some aliquot part of the whole; and since they direct, that this be observed in all works, it must be most strictly attended to in temples of the gods, wherein the faults as well as the beauties remain to the end of time."

De Architectura by Vitruvius, Book III, Chapter 1 (original latin and English translation)

Notice the key portion:

It is not alone by a circle, that the human body is thus circumscribed, as may be seen by placing it within a square. For measuring from the feet to the crown of the head, and then across the arms fully extended, we find the latter measure equal to the former; so that lines at right angles to each other, enclosing the figure, will form a square.

De Architectura by Vitruvius, Book III, Chapter 1 (original latin and English translation)

Now, this starts to possibly explain why da Vinci drew the figure the way he did. While it might be that he was simply following Vitruvius' instructions, there may be another explanation rooted in mathematics. Da Vinci may actually have been attempting to solve the famous mathematical problem of "squaring the circle".

The secret concerns a geometric algorithm in human form. In this unity, Leonardo saw the solution to the problem known as squaring the circle.Leonardo‘s man is an algorithm! Squaring the circle is an ancient geometrical problem whereby of a pair of compasses and a ruler are used in an attempt to construct a circle and square of equal area.

In the 19th century it was proven beyond doubt that this is not possible in a finite number of constructional steps. Solutions do exist in infinite numbers of steps, however. The algorithm in the Vitruvian Man is based on an approach in-volving a continuation into infinity.

For the first time, the reconstruction of the algorithm provides an insight into the unique and bold image of man which Leonardo da Vinci has bequeathed to us in the form of this mystery. The Vitruvian Man may not be the sole mystery of this type. You can now witness the unfolding of the mystery with the aid of computer animations.

"The Secret of the Vitruvian Man" by Klaus Schroeer

This seems cumbersome and forced, however. It may simply be that da Vincia was following Vitruvius' lead in delighting in the joy of the human body's proportions. Vitruvian Man might, therefore, be just an exploration of human geometry. There are, of course, other explanations, involving everything from sacred mathematics to alchemical imagery. Consider this one — the massive geometry lesson not being quoted — blending geometry with alchemy:

The most fundamental composition consists of a circle, a square, and a triangle, a sigillum known to magicians and alchemist, sometimes called the Universal Seal of Light or the Seal of Hermes. The compositional triangle on this drawing is concealed, even though that it outlines important segments. It is drawn in the circle within the square and it coincides with the progression of squares as depicted on the illustration.

The main proportional lines come from the progression of squares, every second square is half the size of the original, and the measures thus obtained are the same as described by Vitruvius.

Distinguished is also the triangle with the size of a square and apex in the navel.

It seems that the drawing, or better the original design as explained by Vitruvius, contains many layers of geometry and symbolism that concord in one single image delineating the proportions of the human body. This idea of 'reason' governing 'form' was the fundamental theme of the Renaissance and is traceable in best architecture and art in general. It would not be odd if Leonardo had a close contact with scholars that spread the source of the Renaissance thought which didn't distinguish between art, science, and magick in terms of conflicting or opposing discourses as is the case today.

"Vitruvian Man: On Planning of Temples" by Morphvs

Regardless of its purpose, we can always appreciate the drawing as pure art. You can see the original at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Venice, Italy, in the unlikely event you ever end up there.

And, lest I forget to mention it, yesterday (15 April) was da Vinci's birthday. (Tax day, too.) Google, of course, observed it with a special logo (replicated here for after it vanishes):

Google Logo for Da Vinci's Birthday

Sources and Further Reading

  1. De Architectura by Vitruvius (original latin)
  2. De Architectura by Vitruvius (English translation)
  3. "Vitruvian Man: On Planning of Temples" by Morphvs
  4. "The Secret of the Vitruvian Man" by Klaus Schroeer

The Annual Mugging of Americans

IRS Form 8302: Electronic Deposit of Tax Refund of $1 Million or More

IRS Form 8302: "Electronic Deposit of Tax Refund of $1 Million or More"

We don't pay taxes. Only little people pay taxes.

— Leona Helmsley

When I were a lad — and we walked uphill to school both ways, in the snow, while dragging hundred pound cinderblocks and fending off ravenous sabre-tooth tigers and rabid voles — there were virtually no enterprising capitalists extorting money, I mean, soliciting donations from their fellow students using the threat of dire consequences if a suitable contribution was not made. Most, instead, went after the less-risky, an immensely profitable, upscale market by providing substances that were, shall we say, unavailable at Deliah's Liquors. (Deliah's was the place in town to buy if you were, ahem, underaged. I'm revealing no secrets here as they sold the business many years ago and the statute of limitations has long since run out.) But back to extortion.

Not that I'm complaining about the lack of regular muggings, of course, but the funny thing is that if more outright coercive theft had been committed in school it would have better prepared us for the joys of dealing with the IRS. For what is the IRS but a big bully that siezes our assets and puts us in jail if we don't cough up our lunch money? (Oh, wait. The breakfast, lunch, and dinner money. These days the average American works for the IRS until April 17th.)

The form above — "Electronic Deposit of Tax Refund of $1 Million or More" — is absolutely, 100% genuine, by the way. You can see it at www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/f8302.pdf if you don't believe me. I'm uncertain which disturbs me more; that the Bush tax cuts have returned such vast sums or that so many are receiving them that a special form exists to receive the largess as quickly as possible.

Oh, sure, taxes are the price we pay for civilization. Except, as we know, rich people don't pay taxes. And neither do the red states; they get back vastly more than they send to Washington. The report from the National Tax Foundation has all the gory details. It seems, in short, that we in the blue states subsidize the bad behavior and fiscal irresponsibility of the red states. But isn't that what compassionate conservatism is all about?

Federally Favored States

“During fiscal 2003, taxpayers in New Mexico benefited the most from the give-and-take with Uncle Sam,” said Sagoo. New Mexico received $1.99 in federal outlays for every $1.00 the state’s taxpayers sent to Uncle Sam. Other big winners were Alaska ($1.89), Mississippi ($1.83), and West Virginia ($1.82). (See tables below).

The District of Columbia’s Special Status

Though not comparable as a state, the District of Columbia is by far the biggest beneficiary of federal spending: In 2003 it received $6.59 in federal outlays for every dollar its taxpayers sent to the U.S. Treasury.

“The District’s share of federal largesse amounted to $60,109 for every man, woman and child,” said Sagoo. “That’s more than ten times the national average.”

States That Help Others

If some states are beneficiaries, then naturally some must be benefactors—those states where so much is collected in federal taxes that any federal spending they receive is overwhelmed.

New York has often been the biggest payer in the Tax Foundation’s annual comparison of taxes to spending, which inspired Daniel Patrick Moynihan and the Kennedy School of Government to launch their annual reference book comparing state taxes with spending (www.ksg.harvard.edu/fisc99) more than 25 years ago. In recent years, however, other states have eclipsed New York for the “blessing” of being the state that gives far more than it receives.

Combining the third highest tax burden per capita with the ninth lowest federal spending, New Jersey had the lowest federal spending-to-tax ratio (57¢). Other states that had low federal spending-to-tax ratios in FY 2003 are New Hampshire (64¢), Connecticut (65¢), Minnesota (70¢), Nevada (70¢), and Illinois (73¢).

"Federal Tax Burdens and Expenditures by State", National Tax Foundation, Report No. 132, December 2004

Hard to believe it was forty years ago that the Beatles complained about the 95% marginal rate — no kidding! — that forced many successful people into tax exile. That's the meaning of the line "There's one for you, nineteen for me." in Taxman — the Beatles were able to keep only five percent (one part in twenty) of their income above a certain level. Revolver was the Beatles' seventh album, so they were, by this point, rolling in filthy lucre. The "Mr. Wilson" and "Mr. Heath" in the song refer to Harold Wilson, the British Prime Minister (Labour Party) and the opposition leader Edward Heath (Conservative). The Labour Party had just won the 1966 election; the mess they made of the country would later lead to Margaret Thatcher's election.

Taxman

One, two, three, four...
Hrmm!
One, two, (one, two, three, four!)

Let me tell you how it will be;
There's one for you, nineteen for me.
'Cause I’m the taxman,
Yeah, I’m the taxman.

Should five per cent appear too small,
Be thankful I don't take it all.
'Cause I’m the taxman,
Yeah, I’m the taxman.

if you drive a car, car;
I’ll tax the street;
if you try to sit, sit;
I’ll tax your seat;
if you get too cold, cold;
I’ll tax the heat;
if you take a walk, walk;
I'll tax your feet.

Taxman!

'Cause I’m the taxman,
Yeah, I’m the taxman.

Don't ask me what I want it for,
(ah-ah, Mister Wilson)
If you don't want to pay some more.
(ah-ah, Mister Heath)
'Cause I’m the taxman,
Yeah, I’m the taxman.

Now my advice for those who die,
(taxman)
Declare the pennies on your eyes.
(taxman)
'Cause I’m the taxman,
Yeah, I’m the taxman.

And you're working for no one but me.

Taxman!

"Taxman" by George Harrison, Revolver, The Beatles, 1966

Porn Is Also Great and Would Suffice

Sign in Beacon Hill, MA saying "Porn Is Great"

"If State’s 'porn' Sign Won’t Slow Down Drivers, Nothing Will" by O’Ryan Johnson, Boston Herald 11 April 2005

Seems someone in Boston decided that the city should take a break from flashing empty, mindless, fear-inspiring messages like "If You See Something, Say Something," "Homeleand Insecurity Is Job #1," "Don't Let the Terrorist Win!," and "Your Tax Dollars at Work":

An electronic road sign on Cambridge Street flashed "EXPECT DELAYS" and "ROAD WORK AHEAD" but also alerted drivers that "PORN IS GREAT."

It's the second time such a message has appeared along the delay-plagued stretch of roadwork in Beacon Hill, but state officials aren't laughing.

"Obviously the message is unacceptable and will be taken down (Sunday) tonight," said Jon Carlisle, spokesman for the state's Executive Office of Transportation.

He said while there are some electronic signs that can be hacked into remotely, someone broke through a locked panel to change the flashing message on this one.

"That's pretty clever," said Chris Hickey, 27, of Boston while walking by the sign yesterday.

But her friend, Andrew D'Agostino, said he would have aimed for something more original.

"Of course it's (porn) great, tell me something I don't know," he said.

"If State’s 'porn' Sign Won’t Slow Down Drivers, Nothing Will" by O’Ryan Johnson, Boston Herald 11 April 2005

Finally, a message from the government that I can actually say I fully endorse. It just proves that in an infinite universe all things are possible, just not equally probable. Besides, even a stopped clock is right twice a day. (The government being the stopped clock, of course, and not me.)

Oh, and the title line? It's an allusion to a poem by Robert Frost:

Fire and Ice

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

Robert Frost, 1920

I found the balance between desire (eros, lust) and hate (puritanism, censorship) particularly apt here.

"Whattya Mean, I’m funny?"

Restaurant Scene from Goodfellas

After I wrote up the "you talkin' ta me?" entry I was asked if the extensive quote from Travis was the real deal. Sure, I replied. It's just everyone misquotes it. Here's another movie bit that gets done to death, especially in NYC, but one who's accuracy is honored more in the breach. I hereby present to you, the unadulterated, full and unabridged "Funny How?" bit from Goodfellas (1990). (Or you can listen to the audio track. Everything except the last dozen words. 325 Kbytes.)

(Dialog between Henry Hill and Tommy DeVito)

(Tommy has just told a story that's cracked up the entire company of gangsters at a table)

Henry: (laughing hard) Really funny. Really funny.

Tommy: Whattya mean I'm funny?

Henry: You're just funny, y'know, the story. It's funny. You're a funny guy.

Tommy: Whattya mean? They way I talk? What?

Henry: It's just, y'know, it's just funny, you know the way you tell the story and everything...

Tommy: Funny how? I mean, what's funny about it?

Anthony: (worried) Tommy, no, you got it all wrong...

Tommy: Whoa, whoa Anthony! He's a big boy, he knows what he said. What'd you say? Funny how? What?

Henry: Just you know you're funny.

Tommy: You mean, let me understand this... cuz I... maybe its me, maybe I'm a little fucked up maybe. I'm funny how, I mean funny, like I'm a clown? I amuse you. I make you laugh? I'm here to fuckin' amuse you? Whattya you mean funny? Funny how? How am I funny?

Henry: I don't know just... you know how you tell the story. What?

Tommy: No, no I don't know. You said it. How do I know? You said I'm funny. (yelling now) How the fuck am I funny? What the fuck is so funny about me? Tell me. Tell me what's funny? (Long suspenseful pause: is someone going to die?)

Henry (cracking up): Get the fuck outta here! (everyone laughs, the tension is gone)

Tommy: Ya motherfucker, I almost had him! I almost had him! You stuttering prick here! Frankie, was he shaking? I wonder about you sometimes, Henry. You may fold under questioning!!

"Goodfellas", written by Nicholas Pileggi & Martin Scorsese

Ok. There you have it. So when you call me funny, smile. (Extra points if you can name, without using Google, the movie that comes from.)

Aryan Glue
(Elsie the Cow Meets Elmer the Bull)

Elmer's Glue Bottles

When I were a lad, and dinosaurs roamed the earth, I used to hear all manner of nonsense in grade school. Not just from the teachers, either. My fellow students used to confabulate the worst sort of nonsense out of the proverbial wholecloth. Like how the building on the way to school that was being erected by the "Mack Construction Company" was going to be used to hold a museum for Mack Trucks and we'd be able to go on field trips. (Really. I am so not making this up. It ultimately turned out to be for Chubb Insurance, which is pretty much what I expected. I got a beating from my fellow students for saying, during construction, that the office building was waaaaaay too small for a museum and why would the Mack company want such a small building in New Jersey when they were in someplace like Ohio. Then I got beat up again after Chubb moved in for saying I was right. Ok, I should have kept my mouth shut.) Or that Bubble Yum had spider eggs that would hatch in your heart and kill you. (I got a beating for pointing out that this made no sense, saying that the stomach broke down food and that included spider eggs. And I got puched again after Bubble Yum took out full-page ads saying something like, "People are saying bad things about your gum." Hey, it was the mid-seventies; I don't know if people were stupider and less informed, especially after the last election I think not, but they probably were.) Or that Elmer's white glue was white because it was made from milk. (I asked my chemist father and he said it wasn't. So I said it wasn't milk and got... Ok, enough already.) Anyway, I heard that canard again the other day and thought it was time for an entry.

Elmer's white glue is made by Borden, a company that started out as a dairy but branched out from inedible cow-secretion products like cheese into chemical products. (The founder of Borden invented a vacuum process for making condensed milk, instead of the common heat-based deyhdration method which altered the color and taste in undesirable ways, which is why Borden became such a powerhouse in the food industry.) There's a good reason for a food company to be involved in things like paints, glues, and even plastics; for a long time these were dervived from casein, a milk-cheese phosphoprotein. In 1970, after protest from vegans and other radical vegetarians, the glue was reformulated to be made from polyvinyl acetate (PVA), a polymer, emulsified in water. (Ok, so I totally made up the part about the vegans and vegetarians. The polymer part is true, though.)

Chemical Structure of Polyvinyl Acetate

Structure of Polyvinyl Acetate (PVA)

When the water evaporates, the glue repolymerizes into long chains and hardens. The tricky part is getting the emulsion right so that one has a smooth glue instead of gelled lumps in water. PVA is bioligically inert; you can — or so says the Materials Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) — eat as much as you want and not get sick. (This is not from personal experience; there are limits to CitizenArcane's committment to accurate blogging. Sorry. If you ever try consuming it for a bar bet, or similar idiocy, be sure to write and let us know how it turned out for you.)

One of the likely reasons for reformulation is that PVA is soluble after it's cured, but casein glue is most definitely not. Casein glues, in fact, turn out to be virtually impossible to remove after use, which makes furniture assembled with them basically unfixable. (Hide glue, another early glue, is easily removable.) Casein paint, relying on the same adhesive principle, is nearly impossible to remove, as most modern strippers simply won't touch it. Reformulating of the glue from casein to PVA was likely done for cleanup purposes:

How can I remove glue?

Elmer's makes a variety of products and clean-up can vary depending upon the formula. School Glue or Glue-All products - soap and water are usually all you need to clean up these products. If it's on clothing, just launder as recommended by the manufacturer.

Elmers.com FAQ

Elsie the Cow

So, the logo is just the dairy company's cow, right? Well, not exactly. In 1939, Borden, a dairy-products company, acquired the Casein Company of America, a manufacturer of milk-based chemicals. (Moving up the foodchain and going vertical locks in profits, then and now. Plus ca change...) The new company was called Borden Chemical and needed a logo. The smart people on the dairy side decided it would devalue their brand to have ther food products — which are borderline chemical waste, anyway, being fat, salt, and artificial color — associated with chemical products, even if they did come from milk. The chemical people, however, were way craftier than the dairy-products people:

Where Did Elmer's Name Come From?

Elsie the Cow became Borden's very popular "Spokescow" in the late 1930's. She was a big hit at the 1939 New York World's Fair, and soon afterwards the character of Elmer the Bull was created as Elsie's husband. In the late 1940's, Borden's new Chemical Division asked to use Elsie for its new white glue product. The thought of Elsie representing a non-food product didn't seem appropriate, so as a compromise, Elmer was loaned to Chemical as their very own "spokesbull". To this day, Elmer the Bull still represents the most recognized adhesive company.

Elmers.com Fun Facts

So there you have it. Elmer is Elsie's, uh, consort. One more factoid: Elmer's white glue is the official glue of the Aryan Nation. (Ok, so I made that up, too. You want everything here to be purely factual?)

Cellphonus Interruptus
(Just a Moment, Dear. I Have a Cell Call.)

Paris Hilton Cell Phone

When I read this story I immediately thought of my entry a few weeks back about William Ayrton's comment from 1897 that someday phones would be wireless and portable, and if one's friend didn't answer when called, well, then, the friend was dead. I made the comment that there were some times I didn't answer the phone because I wasn't Paris Hilton. (Have you see the infamous sex tape? The point where she answers her cell phone in the middle of the action, much to the well-vocalized consternation of her companion, is really funny. It's the only watchable part.) Well, it turns out that a lot of people, unfortunately, have remarkably similar behavior:

Fourteen percent of the world's cell phone users report that they have stopped in the middle of a sex act to answer a ringing wireless device, Ad Age reported.

The highest incidence of cellular interruptus was found in Germany and Spain, where 22 percent of users interrupted sex to answer their cell phones; the lowest was in Italy, where only 7 percent reported doing so. In the U.S., the figure was 15 percent, the magazine said, citing a study conducted by BBDO Worldwide and Proximity Worldwide.

"Cell Phone Users Interrupt Sex for Phone Calls" Consumer Affairs, 11 April 2005

I wonder how the meme that a cell phone call is more important than anything else managed to spread so far and wide. The study, however, did not report the percentages of those answering the phone getting laid again by the partner put, ahem, on hold, shall we say. I think that's the really interesting number.

"Breaking the Law, Breaking the Law…"

Camera Use Prohibited

I must have a real problem with authority. (Yeah, I know, realizing this was a shock to me, too.) Whenever I see a sign saying "no cameras" I, of course, feel obliged to take pictures. When the police harass me, I quote the First Amendment as if it were some ur-document of holy writ. (For some reason they have not been impressed by my recitations.)

I've been taking pictures in the Holland Tunnel for some time; most don't come out, because it is difficult to take a shot one handed, without looking, at 45 miles per hour. But I've lusted after the "Camera Use Prohibited" sign outside the Holland Tunnel for ages. Why? Not just because it sums up everything that's wrong with the post-9-11 view that the citizens are cattle to be herded from illegal war to illegal tax cut. That's a lot of it, true. But the biggest reason is that the area is crawling with cops, so it's a hard shot to get without being arrested. And the intersection is usually so packed with cars that I can't get a clear line of sight to it.

But it was a torrentially rainy day with flood-watch warnings, so the area was empty enough for a shot, even if it was overcast. I took this one almost perpindicular to the sign, and through my windshield, though. Sometimes discretion is the better part of not having your day ruined by jackbooted thugs.

Breaking The Law

You don’t know what it’s like,
you don’t have a clue
If you did you’d find yourselves
doing the same thing too

Breaking the law, breaking the law
Breaking the law, breaking the law

"Breaking The Law", Judas Priest, British Steel, 1980

Cujo, Whitefang, or Just Spot?

Police With Dog in Grand Central

When I was at Grand Central looking at William Wallace's sword I noticed the substantial police presence, complete with bomb-sniffing dogs. It disturbs me that such things used to be anomolies worthy of remark; now they are all too routine. Anyway, two women were all over that dog, and he was so happy to have the attention. They asked the policeman if he put the dog in a kennel at night and he seemed much taken aback by that. "No," he replied, "he comes home with me." "Does he sleep on the bed?" the women asked with a smile? The policeman was scandalized. "No," he said, rather emphatically, with a shake of the head, "he's not allowed on the bed."

I asked if I could take a picture and nobody had any objections. The women started to back out of the frame and I told them they were the reason I wanted to take the shot. The whole situation, I think, reflects the basic futility of the police presence throughut the city. No terrorists, no threat, just a few bored cops, some friendly women with time to spare, a police dog happy to get some attention, and a slice of NYC life.

This was very different from my last interaction with the police.

Haggis, Tatties & Neeps (Oh My!)

Wallace Sword - Full Length

Och, laddies and lassies, ya dinna ken tha Tartan Day celebration is a happenin' in New York? Whot kind a Scotsman, are ye? (I actually think it's a lot like St. Patrick's day when everyone gets to be honorary Irish, at least for the corned beef sandwiches and pub crawl part.) As part of the Tartan Week celebration, which culminated in a rained-out parade on Saturday, William Wallace's sword was at the Vanderbilt Hall in Grand Central for the celebrations. (2nd to the 10th, 11am until 8pm.) This is the first time the sword has left Scotland in more than 700 years — ever since the British murdered Wallace. (No Geneva convention back then. Oh, wait. No Geneva convention now! Bush repealed it. Forgot!)

I had been looking forward to the parade filled with bagpipes and hearing claidheamhmor pronounced with that delightful burr. (I picked up a taste for bagpipes in highschool since we had a Scottish marching band. Nothing like the sound of a cat being squeezed in ways it doesn't like.)

Anyway, the torrential rains dissuaded me from going to the parade since it seemed that not much was going to happen. I did go to Grand Central see the Wallace sword — I'm not going to Scotland anytime soon — where I met several Scotsman — in kilts with delightful burrs! — who told me there was a tiny parade segment during a lull in the rain followed by celebrations with single malts at pubs. (You can see some of the pictures of participants in whatever the Scots call ponchos over at Campbell's NYC. Frame site, so I can't link directly. Just pick "Photos->Tartan Day 2005->Tartan Day Parade.) They told me that the parade is always short, so if you plan to attend next year don't believe the Website that says it runs from 2-4 pm; the true time is more like 2-2:30 pm. When I commented that they'd come a long way for such bad weather they said, "Oh, we live here. In Queens." (Who knew?)

Wallace Sword - Pommel

The sword wasn't worth a trip from anywhere, unless you're a military buff or someone who really hates the English. Or maybe if you are a huge fan of Braveheart. (Isn't everyone off Gibson films ever since The Passion?) I'm none of these, but odd bits of history interest me. One of the docents told me that the leather handle is an Englishman's face killed by Wallace in battle. I spent a bit of time with your friend and mine Google, but I couldn't verify this. Closest I came was that Wallace reportedly had an opponent's skin tanned and made into a belt. But who knows how true any 700 year old story really is, anyway.

The blade is very thin and weighs around five pounds. Swords had to be easy to wield, lest their owner be killed by a more agile adversary. Hard to believe that wars hinged upon, and so many men died, at the hands of such wispy, insubstantial blades nearly as big as their owners. (Remember, people were short because of poor nutrition.) The blades are frightfully sharp, though.

Wallace Sword - Guard

I've read that the cleighdemornach is not a weapon requiring much finesse. One landed blow would amputate limbs or cause such blood loss that death was guaranteed. It's also sharp enough to chop down a spear, which was the only weapon other than a sword posing a threat in hand-to-hand.

I'm a little bummed that it poured and I didn't get to hear bagpipes, but not at all bummed that I didn't eat any haggis. (Tastes offal!) Or tatties or neeps.

For those of you unfamiliar with the delights of Scottish "cooking" — I think there's a reason Scots were so eager to paint themselves blue and run buck naked into battle; they were fleeing dinner — Haggis is meat scraps, offal (lungs, heart, and liver), and ground oatmeal cooked in a sheep's stomach; Neeps are boiled, mashed, buttered and sugared turnips; and Tatties, well, those are mashed potatoes with milk (sometimes with nutmeg); and, finally, Orkney Clapshot which is Neeps, Tatties, and cheese, together in perfect disharmony. Yum! (Sometimes nutmeg is added to the potatoes and allspice to the turnips, and sometimes both are browned on the stove like hash; I have no idea if any of this tinkering could possibly be considered an improvement, but, after all, how could it make it worse?)

Oh, and for all of you vegetarians? There is a vegan haggis. (I mean, ok, but why would you want to make something that tasted like the original?)

So, for your Robbie Burns Day celebration, you might have a hard time finding a haggis here in the States (it's difficult to get them imported too; I understand that the USDA has declared them "unfit for human consumption" ...). Now you can make haggis yourself!

Our Beloved Haggis! The National Dish of Scotland

Unfit for human consumption? I think that's an understatement.

Your Petrodollars at Work

Burj Dubai

Burj Dubai, United Arab Emirates

Petrodollars from the West have to go somewhere. Some countries, like, oh, say, Saudi Arabia, use them to fund vicious terrorist attacks upon the hand that feeds them — 9-11 was a Saudi operation, and they pay for most of the attacks by Muslims upon the West — and to indoctrinate vulnerable population segments worldwide in the hopes of inciting a civil war between those who favor the rule of law and those blinded to all but the cruel, death- and suffering-oriented laws of Allah. (Just working hard for a better, more peaceful world.) Others, like Dubai (part of the United Arab Emirates), erect the most amazing buildings as a testament to their financial success. (After Saudi Arabia, Dubai is the Persian Gulf's largest oil and gas producer.)

Most of the money the UAE gets from the West goes into building buildings instead of killing people, blowing things up, and promoting strife worldwide. Well, much of the money, at any rate. Remember, this a country so hardcore Muslim it has Islamic law and keeps its chattel women in potato sacks; they aren't the good guys by any stretch of the imagination. And they buy — yes, slavery is alive and well in the UAE — four year olds to be jockeys for their camel races. But, damn, if this isn't a beautiful building, even if it was paid for by those who would destroy every freedom we in the West hold dear. Skidmore, Owings and Merrill clearly did a fine job of design. But the real credit goes to Samsung the (Western) firm that will erect the building.

Anyway, a few days ago I saw another drawing of their latest effort and decided to write it up. When completed, Burj Dubai will be the world's tallest building; estimates range from 2,275 feet or 700 meters to 2,925 feet or 900 meters. The cost? Well, that ranges anywhere from one to two billion dollars. Yup. That's with a B, folks.

Whatever the final height, it will be roughtly half a mile of building. Think about this: half a mile of building. That's big. Really big. Enough to easily dominate the Petronas Towers in Malaysia (1483 feet, 452 meters) the miniscule 442 meter-tall Chicago's Sears Tower, or the current king of the hill, Taipei 101 (1667 feet, 508 meters). It will also outrank the unbuilt, and hideously ugly, Freedom Tower (1776 feet, 541 meters).

Burj Dubai

Burj Dubai, United Arab Emirates

Building something that tall isn't easy. Far from it:

Early designs placed the massive residential and hotel tower well above 2,000 feet. At that height, "vortex shedding" — eddies of wind, like the wake behind a boat — develops at a building’s top stories. As air whips around the tower at speeds reaching 120 mph, low- pressure zones occur on one side, then the other, setting up vibrations, known as resonant frequencies, that can literally shake the structure to death—which is what happened to Washington State’s infamous Tacoma Narrows bridge in 1940, when high winds snapped a cable and sent the third longest suspension bridge in the world crashing into Puget Sound. Older skyscrapers like the Empire State Building are immune because they are built out of heavy steel. But to erect a tower more than twice as high requires a construction with even greater damping qualities. The Burj will be made of poured concrete that contains blast furnace slag and microsilicates—a material that’s almost as strong as cast iron, yet more resistant to damage due to vibrations because the natural cracking in concrete dissipates the energy.

The taller a building is, though, the more it flexes, increasing its likelihood of flexing to its breaking point. Abetted by extensive computer and wind-tunnel testing, SOM designed a building with numerous setbacks and wings to scatter the wind. "The wind sees 18 different sections," says Baker, "each with a different vortex-shedding frequency. If we didn’t do that, the building would just fall down sideways.”

Keeping the building standing is only the first of a complex series of problems in a tower so high. The Burj’s relatively small footprint requires a single 11,000-voltage power line routed through a series of transformers throughout the building; Dubai’s burning sunlight necessitates coating the windows with special glazing; water pressure must be enhanced with a series of zoned pumping stations; and, to minimize commuting time, the elevators will zoom at 3,600 feet per minute. Going up, that is. "Coming down has to be a lot slower," says Raymond J. Clark, SOM’s partner in charge of mechanical and electrical engineering, "or else you’d blow out people’s ears."

"Burj Dubai: The world's tallest building", by Carl Hoffman, Popular Science, April 2004

Sources and Further Reading

  1. Burj Dubai's Official Website
  2. Archnet Images of Burj Dubai
  3. "Burj Dubai: The world's tallest building", by Carl Hoffman, Popular Science, April 2004
  4. Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (Flash site, so direct linking to the project is impossible)
  5. "Child camel jockeys in the UAE", Anti-Slavery International
  6. "The trafficking of child camel jockeys to the United Arab Emirates (UAE)", Anti-Slavery International

Fugu! Oh yeah? Fugu, you too, ya zombie!

DVD Coverfor Night of the Living Dead

Dennis Allen: What do you want?
Dargent Peytraud: I want to hear you scream, Doctor Allen.

The Serpent and the Rainbow, 1988

We talk about zombies all the time. For example, today I was saying that if one connects a machine to the Internet without a firewall, either hardware or software, it takes about 2.5 minutes before the machine is colonized and turned into a zombie to perform such tasks as deliver spam or initiate denial-of-service attacks. We also talk about how the Democrats have been turned into zombies that do the Republican's bidding. But, mommy, where do zombies come from? Well, that's an interesting question.

The word itself comes from the Bantu language Kimbundu, in northern Angola, and means ghost of the dead. (Various interpretations say it is an evil ghost or an ancestral ghost; my poor fluency in Kimbundu makes it difficult for me to know for sure.) As for the flesh-eating zombies, well, Virginia, these horrible creatures come from the red states and they suck up blue-state blood, I mean, money. An alternative explanation has them coming from Haiti where they are "manufactured" by witch doctors. (But we in the blue states know the truth!) And what is a zombie like? Well, it aint' pretty, folks. In 1927, William Seabrook, a journalist, wrote about Haitian zombies:

They were plodding like brutes. The eyes were the worst. It was not my imagination. They were in truth like the eyes of a dead man, not blind, but staring, unfocused, unseeing. The whole face, for that matter, was bad enough. It was vacant, as if there was nothing behind it. . . . For the flash of a second I had a sickening, almost panicky lapse in which I thought, or rather felt, "Great God, maybe this stuff is really true.". . . Then suddenly I remembered-and my mind seized the memory as a man sinking in water clutches a solid plank- the face of a dog I had once seen in the histological laboratory at Columbia. Its entire front brain had been removed in an experimental operation weeks before..."

William B. Seabrook, 1927, quoted in "Voodoo Research Topic Study Guide" (warning: you have to pay to read more than this)

There are a few hypotheses regarding the origins, but I'll start with the most famous one.

Wade Davis, a graduate student in ethnobotany at Harvard, was sent to Haiti at the request of his advisor to investigate a zombie story:

Davis was still working toward his Ph.D. when, in 1982, commissioned by a group including the psychiatrist Nathan Kline (a pioneer in the use of drugs for treatment of mental disorders) and the theatrical producer David Merrick, he traveled to Haiti to investigate legends of a "zombi poison." The so-called poison was supposedly made from human bones and parts of lizards, poisonous toads, sea worms, puffer fish, and other items; it was said to lower the metabolism of anyone who swallowed it and paralyze his or her vital functions, leaving the individual in a condition that could easily be mistaken for death. Davis's supporters believed that the drug might have important applications for anesthesiology and artificial hibernation (the latter considered potentially useful for controlling neurological diseases). Voodoo priests were rumored to use the drug on individuals during certain rituals; after burying the people alive, they would later "magically" revive them. This process was called zombification. (Voodoo is commonly thought of as a kind of black magic or sorcery; Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines it as a "religion that is derived from African polytheism and ancestor worship and is practiced chiefly in Haiti.") "I think [voodoo sorcerers] probably see this poison as a support for what is essentially a magical belief," Davis told Carla Hall. "[A Haitian] is not made a zombie by a poison. He's made a zombie by a [voodoo priest's] capturing his soul."

Wade Davis, Current Biography Monthly Magazine, January 2003

It makes sense that pharmaceutical companies — and politicians — would be interested in any drug that turns someone into a mindless slave. Ok, ok, and any drug that might be a good anaesthetic. Now, the big case in zombies, and the one that attracted the interest of Davis' patrons, is Clairvius Narcisse:

When Clairvius Narcisse entered the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, he appeared to be suffering from malnutrition, high fever, and aches throughout his body. His condition deteriorated rapidly as he developed respiratory problems, became unresponsive, and then slipped into a coma. Two days later, on May 2, 1962, he was declared dead by two attending physicians. His sister, Angelina, identified the body, and another sister, Marie Claire, authenticated the death certificate by placing her fingerprint on it. The next day Angelina, Marie Claire, and the rest of the family buried Clairvius in a small cemetery near their village of l’Estere. Here the saga of Clairvius Narcisse should have ended, but 18 years later, in 1980, a shuffling, vacant-eyed man approached Angelina in the village marketplace and identified himself as her brother, Clairvius. His family and many villagers recognized him immediately, and he told them a fantastic tale of being dug up from his grave, beaten to his senses, and led away to work as a slave on a remote sugar plantation. Though surprised, the villagers accepted his story because they believed that the power of voodoo magic made such things possible. It was clear to then that Clairvius Narcisse had been a member of the living dead—a zombie.

"The Zombie Poison" by Clair G. Wood ChemMatters, October 1987

The problem is that nobody has ever verified that the "returned" Narcisse was actually whom he claimed to be, and his poorly-investigated story is the only one that gets trotted out as "proof" of zombies. But, back to Davis:

Davis claims there is a poisoned powder which causes the target person to fall into a death-like trance. It was to seek this drug that originally got Davis the assignment to track down the zombie poison. His sponsors reasoned that such a drug must exist, and if they could find it might have valuable pharmacological possibilities as an alternative to currently popular but unsafe anesthetics.

The great controversy which Davis' book has caused is mainly connected to his claim that the chemical tetrodotoxin, gotten from the puffer fish, is the primary active ingredient in this "zombie powder."

However, what seems to be universally missed by Davis' critics, or simply ignored, is his claim that the powder alone cannot adequately account for nor make a zombie. Davis describes the "set and setting" which is required for the powder to work. "...set, in these terms, is the individual's expectation of what the drug will do to him or her; setting is the environment--both physical and, in this case, social--in which the drug is taken." (p. 181.)

Thus the poison in the powder, which is a psycho-active drug (one whose effect is related to specific personal psychological factors), will have different effects depending on who one is, what one's socialization and expectations are. In the case of Haitian members of the Bizango sect, they have been socialized to recognize the possibility and process of zombification and are psychologically attuned to the appropriate effects of the drug, i.e. zombification.

Davis' book presents a strong hypothesis concerning the why of zombification. In a country so drastically poor as Haiti, with labor costs for farm hands only being about $1.00 a day, one cannot account for zombification on the grounds of seeking cheap labor. One might imagine zombification as a way to get at enemies, but the violence of Haiti's history suggests much simpler ways of solving that problem. Davis' hypothesis is perhaps attractive simply because it is so grand! He tells the story of a long history of secret societies stretching back into the earliest days of slavery. Escaped slaves, the maroons, living deep in the mountains, created an alternative society, more African than Western. These societies brought with them the remembered lore of Africa, including knowledge of the use of local poisons. The poisons were used as tools of social control within the maroon communities. After independence and the radical split between the life in the rural areas and the cities, these maroon social organizations became the secret Bizango societies, and zombification is, effectively, their death sentence for serious violations of the code of conduct required in Bizango.

Professor Robert Corbett's Review of Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie by Wade Davis

Fugu Sushi

Fugu (Pufferfish) Sushi Being Prepared

Now, the active ingredient here is tetrodotoxin, a toxin produced by puffer fish. (Heard of fugu? That's pufferfish sushi and it has enough of the toxin left to give diners a tingling sensation on their lips and tongue. Yeah, playing with neurotoxins is fun, fun, FUN!) Anyway, tetrodotoxin is bad stuff. Really, really, really bad stuff. (Fortunately, it isn't being used as a bioweapon yet. I'm glad Homeland Insecurity is keeping us safe from badly prepared sushi.)

"The first symptom of intoxication is a slight numbness of the lips and tongue, appearing between 20 minutes to three hours after eating poisonous pufferfish. The next symptom is increasing paraesthesia in the face and extremities, which may be followed by sensations of lightness or floating. Headache, epigastric pain, nausea, diarrhea, and/or vomiting may occur. Occasionally, some reeling or difficulty in walking may occur. The second stage of the intoxication is increasing paralysis. Many victims are unable to move; even sitting may be difficult. There is increasing respiratory distress. Speech is affected, and the victim usually exhibits dyspnea, cyanosis, and hypotension. Paralysis increases and convulsions, mental impairment, and cardiac arrhythmia may occur. The victim, although completely paralyzed, may be conscious and in some cases completely lucid until shortly before death. Death usually occurs within 4 to 6 hours, with a known range of about 20 minutes to 8 hours."

FDA/CFSAN Bad Bug Book Tetrodotoxin

Cover for the Serpent and the Rainbow by Wade Davis

TitleThe Serpent and the Rainbow
AuthorWade Davis
ISBN0684839296
PublisherSimon & Schuster

Having discovered the "recipe", Davis returned to the US and wrote a book, The Serpent and the Rainbow, about his alleged experiences in Haiti allegedly learning about the alleged creation of alleged zombies. (I say "alleged" based on criticisms. More on that in a bit.) The book was made into a truly atrocious movie, which isn't worth the price of a rental, nor the hour and a half out of your life. Davis and others claim that his findings regarding tetrodotoxin have been confirmed:

A powder prepared by Haitian voodoo sorcerers for the making of zombis was extracted with acetic acid, the extract concentrated and applied to a small cation exchange column followed by elution with water and then acetic acid. The water and acetic acid eluents were analysed by gas chromatography-mass spectrometry and liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry. The analyses indicated the presence of an alkaline degradation product of tetrodotoxin, namely 2-amino-6-hydroxymethyl-8-hydroxyquinazoline, after base treatment, and of tetrodotoxin and an isomer on direct thermospray mass spectral activity.

Evidence for the presence of tetrodotoxin in a powder used in Haiti for zombification. by C. Benedek, L. Rivier, Toxicon., 1989;27(4):473-80

But all of this may just be a combination of gullability, naivete, and confabulation, perhaps mixed with a healthy dollop of outright scientific fraud.

Davis tells of providing samples of zombie powder to pathologist Leon Roizin, who tested them on rats. Roizin told him the animals became completely immobilized and unresponsive, though heartbeat and brainwaves were still detectable. After 24 hours the rats recovered, apparently without lingering effects. Davis never actually saw the creation of a zombie and concedes there is much about Haitian society he doesn't understand. But one might conclude that tetrodotoxin was the drug used to create zombies.

It ain't necessarily so. Davis's hypothesis has been bitterly disputed by other scientists. Two experts on tetrodotoxin, C.Y. Kao and Takeshi Yasumoto, tested two of his samples and found they contained only a minute amount of it, too little to have any pharmacological effect. They also condemned Davis for his involvement in grave robbing. According to an account of the controversy in the journal Science, Davis himself fed zombie powder to rats without result, a fact not cited in his books. Roizin never repeated his experiments, published his results, or determined what was in the samples he was given. In the Science article he was quoted as saying he was "embarrassed" by his involvement in the affair.

How do I go about creating a zombie?, Straight Dope, 21 May 1999

Cover for Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie by Wade Davis

TitlePassage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie
AuthorWade Davis
ISBN0807842109
PublisherUniversity of North Caroline Press

Davis subsequently wrote a second book on Haiti and zombies, Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie, which didn't clarify things at all. The basic problem here is not only may the voodoo powder be fictional, but so, Virginia, may be zombies themselves:

Belief in zombis is widespread in Haiti and in many communities there are individuals who are considered to be zombis not only by their neighbours but even their families. Indeed the phenomenon is taken so seriously the Haitian Penal Code considers making someone into a zombi as a form of murder.

But in a paper in this week's The Lancet, two researchers, professor Roland Littlewood of the department of anthropology and psychiatry at London's University College and Dr. Chavannes Douyon of the Polyclinique Medica in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, conclude many so-called zombies may in fact be individuals with psychiatric disorders or brain damage.

In their study, the researchers report on three individuals who were considered to be zombis by their families and neighbours. They found the first individual appeared to have a severe psychiatric condition called catatonic schizophrenia, which can make a person mute and immobile; the second to have brain damage and epilepsy, perhaps due to an episode of oxygen starvation of the brain; and the third individual, a severe learning disability, perhaps due to fetal-alcohol syndrome.

Zombis May Not Be What They're Reputed To Be

Haiti: Serpent and Rainbow and Passage and Ethnobiology of Haitian Zombie

"The most recent writing on zombies is a curious mixture of sensationalism and scholarship--and much of the scholarship is questionable. As a doctoral student in botany at Harvard University, Wade Davis investigated the ethnobotany of zombification in Haiti. Although he spent relatively little time there and spoke no Creole, Davis had the apparent good fortunate to come across some informants who give him information on the potions used by Voodoo sorcerers to poison people. Davis thought that he had discovered the active ingredient in the poison, tetrodotoxin, and wrote an academic article on his findings in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology in 1983, as well as a Ph.D. dissertation at Harvard University--with some of his conclusions written before the laboratory results were in.

Not everyone, however, accepted these conclusions. In fact, C. Y. Kao, a pharmacologist at the State University of New York Downstate Medical Center and an authority on tetrodotoxin, is quoted on page 7 of the January 1989 issue of Discover characterizing Davis's research as "a carefully planned, premeditated case of scientific fraud." An article by Kao and his associate Takashi Yasumoto in a 1986 issue of the journal Toxicon pointed out that the amounts of tetrodotoxin in the zombie portions is insignificant.

As if his pharmacological conclusions were not controversial enough, Davis wrote a overheated and fictionalized book about his time in Haiti that reads like the first draft for a Hollywood movie with Davis himself as an Indiana-Jones-type hero. This book, titled The Serpent and the Rainbow, did, indeed, become the basis for the latest Hollywood insult to Haiti, a movie of the same title released to theaters on February 5, 1988, and appropriately made by the director of "A Nightmare on Elm Street.""

Professor Robert Corbett's Review of Serpent and the Rainbow by Wade Davis

"In June, 1989 I attended a seminar in Port-au-Prince on zombification. During the discussion I raised the question to the 40 or so people in attendance, had any one of them every seen a zombie "bab pou bab," the Haitian equivalent of face to face. Everyone had. So I randomly questioned one person about her experience. It turned out it wasn't she herself who had seen the zombie, but her first cousin. The next person hadn't actually met a zombie, but his aunt had. Someone else's father, another's best friend and so on around the room. In the end not one single person was able to tell a tale of having actually, personally been face to face with a zombie.

Are there really zombies in Haiti? Wade Davis devotes two long sections to this question. He first looks at the popular views and then explores cases where there have been some attempts to carefully and more scientifically determine the status of suspected cases. His key candidate for zombiehood is Clairvius Narcisse. In spring, 1962 Narcisse "died" at the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Deschapelles, Haiti. His death was verified by the hospital staff. 18 years later Narcisse turned up alive and well, and claimed to be an escaped zombie."

Professor Robert Corbett's Review of Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie by Wade Davis

My personal take on all this is that Davis is either delusional or lying. Tetrodotoxin has been thoroughly studied, especially in cases of fugu poisoning, and it's effects do not vary according to one's "cultural background". Survival is also dependent on modern hospital technique, not leaving people comatose in a crushed-in coffin after being buried alive.

After reading all that, if you were still inclined to have some fugu here are some guidelines.

* Always call the restaurant in advance and make a reservation; a skilled itamae who knows how to prepare fugu is hard to find, and may come to the restaurant just to prepare the fugu for you.

* Beware of a restaurant that will prepare fugu for you without a reservation unless you're a regular patron.

...

* Can you feel your tongue? No? Stop eating immediately and call the ambulance.

...

* Tip the itamae generously. You will notice that he is much older (and presumably experienced) than other sushi chefs you might have run into. In fact, avoid eating fugu from a itamae who looks younger than forty. Experience is a friend of caution in this case.

Sushi-Eating HowTo by Eugene Ciurana

Think about that, boys and girls, the next time you feel you are being daring by ordering white-tuna sushi. Oh, and if you want to get fugu, there are places in the city offering it. (They don't advertise, though, and you may have to be Japanese to get in.) Be careful with the tetrodotoxin, though — it's a killer.

Lest you go away thinking that CitizenArcane has debunked all the mystery in the world, or is not educational, here's how you can make your very own zombie:

Ingredients

Creme de Almond: 0.5 oz.
Rum (Light): 1 oz.
Rum (Overproof/151 Proof): 0.5 oz.
Triple Sec: 0.5 oz.
Orange Juice: 1.5 oz.
Sour Mix: 1.5 oz.
Cherries/Maraschinos: 1 whole
Glass to Use: Collins glass

Mixing Instructions

Shake everything except the 151 rum in a cocktail shaker with ice. Strain into a collins glass over ice and float the 151 on top. Garnish with a cherry.

Drink Nations' Guide to Making Zombies

Zombie Glass for Drinks

Oh, and you'll have to get your own skull mug if you want it to be authentic, though.

Sources and Further Reading

  1. Wade Davis, Current Biography Monthly Magazine, January 2003
  2. Professor Robert Corbett's Review of Serpent and the Rainbow by Wade Davis
  3. Professor Robert Corbett's Review of Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie by Wade Davis
  4. FDA/CFSAN Bad Bug Book Tetrodotoxin
  5. How do I go about creating a zombie?, Straight Dope, 21 May 1999
  6. Zombis May Not Be What They're Reputed To Be
  7. Evidence for the presence of tetrodotoxin in a powder used in Haiti for zombification. by C. Benedek, L. Rivier, Toxicon., 1989;27(4):473-80
  8. Sushi-Eating HowTo by Eugene Ciurana
  9. Drink Nations' Guide to Making Zombies

Better to Burn Out Than it is to Rust

It's better to burn out, than it is to rust...

— Neil Young, "My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)", Rust Never Sleeps

Corroding Aluminum I-Beam

"The Amazing Rusting Aluminum", by Theodore Gray, Popular Science

Aluminum is rusty; that's what makes it useful. Really. There is a fine surface coat of aluminum oxide — rust — that protects the rest of the metal from oxidation. Without that layer, aluminum would be useless, because it would corrode (oxidize) while we watched. Copper is similar, which is why it was used for roofing. (That very same green coating on copper roofs is identical to the oxide coating the Statue of Liberty.)

Iron is quite different, because its oxide coating flakes off instead of tightly adhering to the surface. This means that new, unreacted iron is constantly being made available to oxygen's deadly embrace. Aluminum, to contrast, always has a hard layer of aluminum oxide (Al2O3) on the surface. To give you an idea how hard it is, this same molecule is the building block for abrasives and gemstones like corundum, alumina, sapphire, and ruby.

I found it interesting that the delicate oxide coat can be disrupted by mercury. Once this happens, the protective oxide layer fails to form and the aluminum literally crumbles before our eyes. This photograph shows what happens when an I-beam comes in contact with mercury; it corrodes as the seconds tick by. The photo above was taken after only an hour after mercury was applied. The problem is not just in the lab; it exists for any critical structure that might come into contact with mercury. Like, oh, say, airplanes. Yup, airplanes. Boeing's maintenance manual for the 747 specifically sets forth the risks:

The spillage of mercury or a mercury compound, within an airplane, requires immediate action for its isolationg and recovery to prevent possible corrosion damage to and possible embrittlement of aluminum alloy structural components. C. All metallic aircraft structure which is wetted by elemental mercury suffers severe degradation in strength. The rate of diffusion of mercury into a metal is dependent on the specific metal contacted and the protective finish applied; however, once diffusion has started it cannot be stopped.

Boeing 747 Maintenance Manual Guidelines for Mercury Spills

The problem was recently written up by Popular Science, with some hype about terrorists. I've come across stories from the 1970s, during the peak of the terrorist-hijacking epidemic, about professors who were more worried about mercury being applied to aircraft than they were about bombs.

Unless you are a representative of a national meteorological bureau licensed to carry a barometer (and odds are you’re not), bringing mercury onboard an airplane is strictly forbidden. Why? If it got loose, it could rust the plane to pieces before it had a chance to land. You see, airplanes are made of aluminum, and aluminum is highly unstable.

...

Applied to aluminum’s surface, mercury will infiltrate the metal and disrupt its protective coating, allowing it to “rust” (in the more destructive sense) continuously by preventing a new layer of oxide from forming. The aluminum I-beam below rusted half away in a few hours, something that would have taken an iron beam years.

I’ve heard that during World War II, commandos were sent deep into German territory to smear mercury paste on aircraft to make them inexplicably fall apart. Whether the story is true or not, the sabotage would have worked. The few-micron-thick layer of aluminum oxide is the only thing holding an airplane together. Think about that the next time you’re flying. Or maybe it’s better if you don’t.

"The Amazing Rusting Aluminum", by Theodore Gray, Popular Science

This is not news; there's an old magic trick called "hypno heat" which involves taking a piece of aluminum foil, typically from a stick of gum a cigarette pack, and reacting it with HgCl2 (mercury bichloride) which used to be widely available as an antiseptic. (Before people realized that getting mercury into the body was very, very bad.) The aluminum oxidizes, giving off heat, which is attributed to the abilities of the magician. Viking Magic, to my amazement, still sells it by special request:

Question: I have a document created by you in 1989, and revised in 1995 titled: "Hypno heat/hot & cold-The tin foil trick". I was given hypno heat by an old friend in both solid pellet, and liquid form, but cannot find any suppliers in the UK. Could you tell me if you, or anyone you know supplies it please. Thank you in advance.

Answer: Hypno-Heat is a mercury by-product as as such can be dangerous if mishandled. I have been using HH for my own use for over 40 years with no adverse affects but then I am cautious and I know how to handle it. This item is not available to the general public any more but if you write me directly, I can put you in touch with it: NOSPAMhaenchen@msn.NOSPAM.com Do NOT use the liquid form. This is very dangerous as it is absorbed into the skin on contact. As with all chemmicals, keep this out of the hands of children or anyone not professional enough to handle it.

Viking Magic FAQ

One has to be really, really, really stupid to handle any mercury compound, even if you aren't on an aircraft.

It's better to burn out, 'cause rust never sleeps...

— Neil Young, "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)", Rust Never Sleeps

Sometimes Opium is the Opiate of the Masses

The Velvet Underground, 1966

The thing is, heroin gets you addicted to heroin. But opium is 40 to 50 different alkaloids, meaning 40 to 50 different drugs I was becoming addicted to.

"Confessions of an EBay opium addict" by Peter Thompson, News Review, 31 March 2005

You might be able to find anything you want at Alice's Restaurant, but if there isn't one local, or it isn't open a 4 am, try eBay instead:

Like anyone trolling the Internet at 4 a.m., I had been looking for some kind of temporary drug fix. I found it on eBay under Crafts>Floral Supplies>Flowers, Foliage>Dried.

Crafting. Sure. I liked art.

A query turned up all sizes and quantities of poppies. Some, called gigantheums, were as big as tennis balls. A special of “600 XXL-sized gigantheums” was selling for $399. Fortunately, for crafting projects requiring so many poppy plants, financing was available for $17 per month. For all of us hard-core flower arrangers, of course.

The recipe was simple enough. Hot water and crushed poppies. A blender and a strainer or an old T-shirt to squeeze out the pulp. I ordered a few dozen dried flowers from a seller with more than 3,000 positive-feedback points and a clever handle that was a clear double-entendre on horticulture and getting high.

At first, the plants came double-boxed, rubber-banded by the dozen with the stems intact. But after a few more orders, the seller seemed to cut out the pretense that I might actually be using the poppies for floral arrangements and just sent the pods themselves.

The first taste gave off a steamy insult. Even after being filtered twice, the manna was as putrid as a bowl of warm pus. It seemed completely undrinkable. Its fermented, earthy taste--a little like a liquid squeezed from gym socks--had to be chased with something sweet. The dark grinds of crushed seed and sediment formed a repulsive grit in a half-ring around the bottom of the bowl.

As I poured the slosh into what would become my ceremonial chalice--a plastic child’s cereal bowl with a built-in silly straw on the side--I learned how to drink it. Rather, it seemed to teach me how. Its nauseating properties demanded that it be downed fast at first, and then titrated for the rest of the session.

"Confessions of an EBay opium addict" by Peter Thompson, News Review, 31 March 2005

He just makes it sound so, well, attractive, doesn' t he? (And I wonder what fungicides those dried flowers may have been treated with, too. Some of them will give you liver cancer for sure, and maybe even Parkinson's as a bonus.) Television may be the opiate of the masses, but sometimes, it seems, opiates are the opiate of the masses.

Another thing opium tea slows down is the bowels. As an experienced pod-head, I learned to carry a Fleet two-pack before any major binge. (Those are the enemas in the green box.) Opium bunged things up the way eating a beach towel might. When things did finally make their exit, they felt like pine cones being forced through a tiny hole in a dry brick.

"Confessions of an EBay opium addict" by Peter Thompson, News Review, 31 March 2005

TORA! TORA! TORA!

DVD Cover for Tora! Tora! Tora!

In chatting about The Gates, I mentioned Kyoto's torii gates and again made my comment, "Torii! Torii! Torii!" (What's the point of coming up with clever things like this if you you can only use them once?) I got a blank look; guess everyone hasn't seen the movie or read my blog entry. (Hard to believe, isn't it?) Anyway, here's the explanation of "Tora! Tora! Tora!"

The official version is that the message indicating a successful attack on Pearl Harbor was a repeated "to ra", this being the Japanese word for "tiger":

7:49 a.m.

Air-attack commander Mitsuo Fuchida, looking down on Pearl Harbor, sees no aircraft carriers, which the Japanese hoped to destroy and thus thwart U.S. retaliation. He orders his telegraph operator to tap out to, to, to: attack. Then other taps: to ra, to ra, to ra: attack, surprise achieved. Though not meant to have a double meaning, to ra is read by some Japanese pilots as tora — tiger. According to a Japanese saying, "A tiger goes out 1,000 ri (2,000 miles) and returns without fail."

"Pearl Harbor: Plus Sixty Years", Honolulu Advertiser

Nice story and even nicer metaphor, full of animal imagery of the bold tiger hunting its prey. Too bad it was constructed after the fact and isn't at all true:

Most articles and books on the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941, note that the Japanese codeword for a successful surprise attack radioed back to their carrier was "TORA, TORA, TORA." However, on Dec. 7, 1991, the 50th anniversary of the event, Japanese historians at symposia being held both at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, and at CAF Headquarters in Midland, Texas, revealed that the actual codes were individual syllables, not the word "TORA." The first code, "To," indicated that the attack had begun, and the second, "Ra," that success had been achieved.

When these transmissions were heard by the American radio operators in the heat of the attack, they were translated as a single word, the "To, To, To—Ra, Ra, Ra" becoming "TORA, TORA, TORA", the Japanese word for "Tiger."

What's TORA?

So, there you have it. Go forth and impress people with your newfound knowledge. Ok, ok. At least rent the movie and get some cultural literacy.

Knives Not Included

Voodoo Knife Rack By Raffaele Iannello

This knife rack, in sumptuous red plastic, designed by Raffaele Iannello is just too cool for words. Viceversa carries it; there aren't any ViceVersa distributors in the US that I could find. The closest is Canada.

"You have to be fucking kidding!"

The Velvet Underground, 1966

The Velvet Underground, 1966, by Lisa Law

When I were a lad, growing up in New Jersey suburbia, I first heard the Velvet Underground on an album my brother bought. I don't know how he found out about them. (I think he still has that 33 tucked away somewhere.) What made it particularly interesting was the bit of folklore that the VU had played a gig at the local high school the year I was born. Now hold that thought for a moment while we flash forward to today.

And so earlier this year, with flickering expectation, Warren Hill picked through some old records at a yard sale in Chelsea, New York. They seemed out of place compared with the rest the junk, like a box that had been forgotten in the attic and left untouched by a string of disinterested tenants. He pulled out a soggy copy of the Modern Lovers' first LP and then he saw it, a record with no sleeve and only a few hand-written words on the label: "Velvet Underground... 4/25/66... N. Dolph." He bought it for $0.75.

...

On a single day in April, [Columbia Records sales executive Norman] Dolph sat behind Scepter's mixing boards as the band recorded what they thought would be their first record. Dolph had an acetate (a metallic "master" record) pressed after-hours at Columbia and sent it to the executives at the label. He still has the handwritten response he received when the acetate was returned, one he has paraphrased as, "You have to be fucking kidding!"

After the initial rejection, the band would enlist another "ghost" producer, Tom Wilson, re-recording some of the songs and adding others. Eventually, all the master tapes would be re-mixed by Wilson and the final product would be released as The Velvet Underground and Nico.

...

Hill tracked down the phone number for Norman Dolph and, after verifying the serial number, the former producer confirmed that it was the record he had pressed for Columbia executives. Because the original master tapes of the Scepter session have been lost or destroyed, it remains as a one-of-a-kind testament to the band's first studio session, containing "lost" versions of "Venus in Furs," "I'm Waiting for the Man," and "Heroin." The last time Dolph saw the record, it was collecting dust in Warhol's estate. How it ended up in a Chelsea attic remains a mystery, as does its future.

"We're petrified and don't really know how to sell it" says Isaacson. "We got an offer right away for $10,000, but we turned it down."

Not bad for a $0.75 investment. It now seems likely that the record will become the most expensive ever sold, exceeding the sale of Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde acetate and topping $40,000. Like finding the U.S. Constitution behind a painting, it's the kind of event that will drive yard sale attendance for years to come.

"The Velvet Underground Play Portland", by Ryan Dirks, The Portland Mercury, Volume 5, Number 26, 25 November - 1 December 2004

Now we return to the past. It turns out that the first VU gig was not at Governor Livingston, but one town over, at Summit High School on 11 Dececember 1965. (We never liked Summit; pretentious, wealthy, and very stuck up. For years there was a fellow, somewhat potty, who walked around the town holding his nose because "Summit stinks.") The VU made $75 which, even in those days, wasn't enough to lure anyone to New Jersey without a very good reason. But, lured they were, and the story of their performance is amusing. Just picture all the shocked Wall Street and other professionals as you read this:

Towards the end of 1965 there was a lot of good music on the airwaves. But for us kids, High School was a real drag and life in our little suburban town (ONLY thirty miles west of Greenwich Village) wasn't too exciting. Except for one thing: a local band called the Myddle Class! To us, they were as good as the Rolling Stones ANY day and their concerts were the most exciting ones we'd ever seen. They were managed by a man who lived in our town -- Al Aronowitz. My friend Judy was the Aronowitz's babysitter and she would tell us the most amazing stories about the people who would call for Al or come home from New York with him to hide out in the suburbs: people like Brian Jones, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and Carole King, who wrote songs for everyone including the Myddle Class. We would hide outside Al's house for hours at a time just to catch a glimpse of those stars. Al usually hired other local bands to open for the Myddle Class but for the December 11th concert at Summit High, he hired (for $80) a NY band called the Velvet Underground. Judy told us that the band was feeling low because they had just been fired from the Cafe Wha for being undanceable, so we were not expecting too much from them.

Nothing could have prepared the kids and parents assembled in the auditorium for what they were about to experience that night. Our only clue was the small crowd of strange-looking people hanging around in front of the stage. When the curtain went up, nobody could believe their eyes! There stood the Velvet Underground -- all tall and dressed mostly in black; two of them were wearing sunglasses. One of the guys with the shades had VERY long hair and was wearing silver jewelry. He was holding a large violin. The drummer had a Beatle haircut and was standing at a small oddly arranger drumkit. was it a boy or a girl? Before we could take it all in, everyone was hit by a screeching surge of sound, with a pounding beat louder than anything we had ever heard. About a minute into the second song, which the singer introduced as "Heroin", the music began to get even more intense. It swelled and accelerated like a giant tidal wave which was threatening to engulf us all. At this point, most of the audience retreated in horror for the safety of their homes, thoroughly convinced of the dangers of rock & roll music. My friends and I moved a little closer to the stage, knowing that something special was happening.

Backstage after their set, the viola player was seen apologizing profusely to an outraged Myddle Class entourage for scaring away half the audience. Al Aronowitz was philosophical about it, though, "at least you've given them a night to remember" and invited everyone to a party at his house after the show.

"I Was a Velveteen" by Rob Norris, 1979

There is another funny story about that performance. Turns out that Angus MacLise quit after being told the rules of the gig:

You mean we start when they tell us to start and we have to end when they tell us to? I can't work that way.

— Angus MacLise

So why the story about the Governor Livingston gig? Turns out that Al Aronowitz lived in Berkeley Heights — until he turned full-time manager for rock & roll groups and ended up losing his house in the process — so people just assumed that's where the infamous "suburban New Jersey gig" was held.

So there you have it.

Oh, and in the course of doing research for this entry, I found this commentary on Nico:

Now, at this time I have been crazy about Nico ever since we spent a night together in a motel stoned out of our gourds on LSD. She had just arrived from Europe with a bottle of the stuff, which she picked up in a Swiss lab. While sticking our pinkies into the bottle and sucking the LSD off each other's pinky, we decided to drive to the Delaware Water Gap. It was very romantic but after she took off her clothes and got into the motel bed, she wouldn't give me any. That's the night she told me she likes her lovers half-dead.

So, like a schmuck, I still had eyes for her, but she has been using my head for a doorknob. She keeps turning it any way she wants. Except there's one way she can't turn it. She wants me to manage her but I tell her I can't stand her singing. Not only does her singing sound like a harmonium stuck on one note, but her songs are so morbid she ought to be an undertaker. Still, she is one of the most gorgeous creatures ever conceived and I have had the privilege of seeing her naked. And would like to see her naked again.

— Al Aronowitz, The Blacklisted Journalist, Column 80, 1 December 2002

One final note. I'm not a really big VU fan. (I'm not a big Lou Reed fan either, my entry on Metal Machine Music notwithstanding.) I was just interested in finding out if the old story about the VU and GL was actually true.

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