(Roughly) Daily

“The fact is that no species has ever had such wholesale control over everything on earth, living or dead, as we now have”*…

 

From the always-amazing Randall Munroe, who reminds us that bacteria still outweigh us thousands to one– and that’s not counting the pounds of them in each of our bodies…

* “The fact is that no species has ever had such wholesale control over everything on earth, living or dead, as we now have. That lays upon us, whether we like it or not, an awesome responsibility. In our hands now lies not only our own future, but that of all other living creatures with whom we share the earth.” 
― David AttenboroughLife on Earth

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As we watch our weight, we might send carefully-calculated birthday greetings to John Graunt; he was born on this date in 1620.  A London haberdasher by trade, Graunt was fascinated the human tide that swelled around him– a fascination that led him to create the first statistically-based estimation of the population of London in his book Natural and Political Observations Made upon the Bills of Mortality, undertaken as Charles II and other officials were trying to create a system to warn of the onset and spread of bubonic plague in the city.  Profiled as one of Aubrey’s Brief Lives, Graunt has been called the first statistician, the first demographer, and was in any case the first statistician to become a fellow of the Royal Society of London.

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Written by LW

April 24, 2014 at 1:01 am

“Where’s Papa going with that ax?”*…

 

From the Grimms and Mother Goose to Edward Gorey, children’s literature can be… well, pretty chilling.  But for pure shock value, it’s possible that Don’t Make Me Go Back, Mommy—about Satanic ritual abuse—is the scariest children’s book ever written.   The book’s description explains…

The words of the text and the objects and situations illustrated are based on months of intensive research into the nature and practice of satanic ritual abuse. Any child who has been ritually abused will recognize the validity of this story.

The book was apparently marketed to school counselors, mental health professionals and support groups, as well as to concerned parent, to help identify signs of Satanic Ritual Abuse (or “SRA”).

Amazon reviewers weighed in with reactions including these:

- One HELL of a good read. Devilishly funny. My son, Damian, thought it was the funniest book he’s ever read. An all around great book to read around the sulfur pit with the family. They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but honestly, LOOK AT IT.

- 4 year old saw this book and she is begging parents to send her to this school, where on earth are we going find a satanist school for the brat.

- You have to be a detective to follow the “story.” The book forces you to deduce the storyline from the progression of settings, because the book never tells you what is happening or why, or even who is talking. The child in the “story” just materializes in new contexts without explanation. The reader’s reactions are constantly along the lines of, “Where is she now? What is happening? Who is this person? Who is talking?” Each page introduces a new disjointed scenario and a new unattributed quotation, and it’s up to the reader to try to figure out what’s going on.

Via the ever-illuminating Dangerous Minds.

* Fern, to her mother, as they were setting the table for breakfast. –E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web

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As we make the sign of the cross, we might wish a grateful Happy Birthday to the greatest poet and playwright in the English canon, William Shakespeare; he was born (tradition holds, and reason suggests) on this date in 1564.  In fact, there is no way to know with certainty the Bard’s birth date.  But his baptism was recorded at Stratford-on-Avon on April 26, 1564; and three days was the then-customary wait before baptism.

In any case, we do know with some certainty that Shakespeare died on this date in 1616.

The Chandos Portrait

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“I see that the fashion wears out more apparel than the man”*…

 

From a delightful piece called the “Future Dictates of Fashion” by W. Cade Gall and published in the January 1893 issue of The Strand magazine. On the premise that a book from a hundred years in the future (published in 1993) called The Past Dictates of Fashion has been inexplicably found in a library, the article proceeds to divulge this book’s contents – namely, a look back at the last century of fashion, which, of course, for the reader in 1893, would be looking forward across the next hundred years into the future. In this imagined future, fashion has become a much respected science (studied in University from the 1950s onwards) and is seen to be “governed by immutable laws”.

The designs themselves have a somewhat unaccountable leaning toward the medieval, or as John Ptak astutely notes, “a weird alien/Buck Rogers/Dr. Seuss/Wizard of Oz quality” to them. If indeed this was a genuine attempt by the author Gall to imagine what the future of fashion might look like, it’s fascinating to see how far off the mark he was, proving yet again how difficult it is to predict future aesthetics. It is also fascinating to see how Gall envisaged the progression of fashions across the decades – considering that, from our perspective now, his vision of 1970 doesn’t much look much different to 1920 – and to see which aspects of his present he wasn’t even able to consider losing to the march of time (e.g. the long length of women’s skirts and the seemingly ubiquitous frill). As is often the case when we come into contact with historic attempts to predict a future which for us is now past, it is like glimpsing into another possible world, a parallel universe that could have been (or which, perhaps, did indeed play out “somewhere”)…

Read more (and see more) at “Fashions of the Future as Imagined in 1893.”  Then read a full transcript of Gall’s piece at Forgotten Futures or in its original context on Internet Archive.

* Shakespeare: Conrade, Much Ado About Nothing, Act 3, Scene 3

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As we worry through our wardrobes, we might send slightly subversive birthday greetings to Henry Fielding; he was born on this date in 1707.  Fielding began his literary career as a dramatist, writing plays savagely satirical of the government of Sir Robert Walpole– so critical, in fact, that they led to the imposition of the Theatrical Licensing Act of 1737– which effectively outlawed satire on stage, and ended Fielding’s career in the theater.

Fielding became a barrister, but continued to pen satires of current politics and culture, first “printed plays” (published, but unperformed) like The Tragedy of Tragedies (for which Hogarth designed the frontispiece), then prose.  He wrote for Tory publications; then, in anger at the success of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, Fielding took to writing novels in 1741 and had his first major success– Shamela, an anonymous parody of Richardson’s melodramatic novel.  He followed up with Joesph Andrews.  But his greatest work was Tom Jones, the meticulously-constructed picaresque that tells the convoluted and hilarious tale of a foundling finding his fortune.

Interestingly– and perhaps ironically– Fielding also has an important place in the history of law-enforcement, having founded (with his half-brother John) what some have called London‘s first police force, the Bow Street Runners, using the authority he gained when he was appointed a magistrate.

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Written by LW

April 22, 2014 at 1:01 am

“That’s All Folks!”*…

 

If you drink two ounces of Windex glass cleaner within an hour you’ll be drunk. Fourteen ounces will shut down your nervous system. 

You can poison yourself with water: drink over a gallon in an hour and you’ll be irritable, drowsy, suffering from a headache, and behaving strangely. If you consume another three quarters of a gallon in that hour, your nervous system will shut down

From carrots and chewing gum to Pantene hairspray and Centrum vitamins– “How Not To Kill Yourself With Household Items.”

Epitaph of Mel Blanc, “The Man of a Thousand Voices.”

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As we practice the precautionary principle, we might recall that it was on this date in 1959 that Alfred “Alf” Dean, fishing in south Australian waters, used a rod and reel to land the largest great white shark recognized by the International Game Fish Association (IGFA).  Weighing 1,208 kilograms (2,664 lb), it was 16′ 10″ long.

Several larger great whites caught by anglers have since been verified, but were later disallowed from formal recognition by IGFA monitors for rules violations– the most common of which rule violation is using mammals as bait…  which Mr. Dean apparently also did (“I used kittens”).  But at the time of his catch this practice was not against IGFA rules, so his record stood.

Dean and his catch

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Written by LW

April 21, 2014 at 1:01 am

“Crime is terribly revealing”*…

 

Victim’s feet hanging on bed, 1934 © LAPD

An estimated one million images taken by Los Angeles Police Department officers and criminologists since the 1920s sit in storage at the City Records Center in downtown L.A. Later this month, 50 of these photographs will be on exhibit inside a fake police station at Paramount Studios.

The second annual Paris Photo Los Angeles has put together Unedited! The LAPD Photo Archive as part of its massive photo fair at Paramount Studios from April 25 through 27. The shots, most uncredited and taken between 1930 and 1960, show black-and-white crime reenactments, forensic scenes, even robbery notes…

Bank robbery note, 1965. © LAPD

Read more at “A Look Through the LAPD’s Stunning Photo Archives.”

* “Crime is terribly revealing. Try and vary your methods as you will, your tastes, your habits, your attitude of mind, and your soul is revealed by your actions.”  - Agatha Christie

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As we stick ‘em up, we might offer a tip of the birthday topper to Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin, remembering that on this date in 1841, Edgar Allen Poe’s story, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”– the first detective story in English– was published in  Graham’s Lady’s and Gentleman’s Magazine.  Its protagonist’s extraordinary “analytical power” was surely the mold for subsequent detectives, from Sgt. Cuff in The Moonstone (Wilkie Collins’ second hit, and the first detective novel in English) through Conan Doyle’s remarkable Sherlock to Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and his “little grey cells”…

Facsimile of Poe’s manuscript for “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”

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Written by LW

April 20, 2014 at 1:01 am

“Symbolize and summarize”*…

 

Saul Bass was one of America’s premiere graphic designers through the second half of the Twentieth Century. He created some of the best-remembered, most iconic logos in North America:  e.g., the Bell Telephone logo (1969) and the successor AT&T globe (1983), Continental Airlines (1968), Dixie (1969), United Airlines (1974), and Warner Communications (1974).  

But for your correspondent’s money, his major contribution was his extraordinary series of movie titles and posters, created for the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, Otto Preminger, Billy Wilder, Stanley Kubrick, and Martin Scorsese.  Prior to Bass, movie title sequences had largely been a series of “credit cards,” functioning in effect as title pages.  Bass developed the opening as a way to set the emotional stage for the film to follow.  As screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi said of Bass and his second wife and collaborator Elaine, “you write a book of 300 to 400 pages and then you boil it down to a script of maybe 100 to 150 pages. Eventually you have the pleasure of seeing that the Basses have knocked you right out of the ballpark. They have boiled it down to four minutes flat.”

In the broadest sense, all modern opening title sequences that introduce the mood or theme of a film can be seen as descendent of Bass’s innovative work. In particular, though, one can detect the influence of Bass in the title sequences for some recent movies and television series (especially those set in the 1960s) that have purposely emulated the graphic style of his animated sequences from that era: e.g.,  Catch Me If You Can (2002), X-Men: First Class (2011), and the opening to the AMC series Mad Men.

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See a more complete frame board of Bass’ North By Northwest opening here; browse more of his extraordinary canon here– all courtesy of our old friend Christian Annyas.

* Saul Bass

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As we mute our cell phones, we might recall that it was on this date in 1956 that Alfred Hitchcock’s muse, the Oscar-winning actress Grace Kelly, became Her Serene Highness Princess Grace of Monaco.

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Written by LW

April 19, 2014 at 1:01 am

“Wear these bright jewels, belovèd Beowulf; Enjoy them”*…

 

The first page of the Beowulf manuscript

Beowulf, the oldest surviving epic in British literature, exists in only one manuscript– a copy that survived both the wholesale destruction of religious artifacts during the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII and a disastrous fire which destroyed the library of Sir Robert Bruce Cotton (1571-1631). The 3182-line poem, now housed in the British Library, still bears the scars of the fire, visible at the upper left corner of the photograph above. 

Beowulf was written in Old English (or Anglo-Saxon) between 650 and 1000 in what we now know as England.  It recalls a golden age of valor and martial prowess via the adventures of a great Swedish warrior of the sixth century- Beowulf– who comes to the aid of the beleaguered Danes, saving them from the ravages of the monster Grendel and his mother.  In old age, and after many years of rule in his own country, Beowulf dies in the processof heroically slaying a dragon.

A great many translations are available, in both poetry and prose.  In his A Critical Companion to Beowulf, Andy Orchard lists 33 “representative” translations in his bibliography; it has been translated into at least 23 other languages.  Probably the best-known (and best-loved) current version is Seamus Heaney’s verse translation.  But surely the most-anticipated version is the translation completed in 1926– but never published– by J.R.R. Tolkein.

Tolkien’s academic work on the epic was second to none in its day; his 1936 paper “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” is still well worth reading, not only as an introduction to the poem, but also because it decisively changed the direction and emphasis of Beowulf scholarship.

Up to that point it had been used as a quarry of linguistic, historical and archaeological detail, as it is thought to preserve the oral traditions passed down through generations by the Anglo-Saxon bards who sang in halls such as the one at Rendlesham in Suffolk, now argued to be the home of the king buried at Sutton Hoo.Beowulf gives a rich picture of life as lived by the warrior and royal classes in the Anglo-Saxon era in England and, because it is set in Sweden and Denmark, also in the period before the Angles, Saxons and Jutes arrived on these shores. And, on top of the story of Beowulf and his battles, it carries fragments of even older stories, now lost. But in order to study all these details, academics dismissed as childish nonsense the fantastical elements such as Grendel the monster of the fens, his even more monstrous mother and the dragon that fatally wounds him at the end.

Likening the poem to a tower that watched the sea, and comparing its previous critics to demolition workers interested only in the raw stone, Tolkien pushed the monsters to the forefront. He argued that they represent the impermanence of human life, the mortal enemy that can strike at the heart of everything we hold dear, the force against which we need to muster all our strength – even if ultimately we may lose the fight. Without the monsters, the peculiarly northern courage of Beowulf and his men is meaningless. Tolkien, veteran of the Somme, knew that it was not. “Even today (despite the critics) you may find men not ignorant of tragic legend and history, who have heard of heroes and indeed seen them,” he wrote in his lecture in the middle of the disenchanted 1930s…

Read more of John Garth’s appreciation– and explore the influence of Beowulf on Middle Earth– in “JRR Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf: bring on the monsters.”

And pre-order the translation (with a bonus story by Tolkein), available late next month, here.

* Beowulf

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As we grapple with our Grendels, we might recall that it was on this date in 1958 that Ezra Pound should no longer be held at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for the criminally insane in Washington, D.C.  Pound has been imprisoned for 13 years, following his arrest in Italy during World War II on charges of treason.

Pound, a poet who was a major figure of the early modernist movement, was the developer of the “Imagist” school, and the “godfather” of a number of now-well-known contemporaries– among them,  T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, Robert Frost and Ernest Hemingway.  He was responsible for the 1915 publication of Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and the serialization from 1918 of Joyce’s Ulysses.

Deeply troubled by the carnage of World War I, Pound moved to Paris, then to Italy, and embraced the fascism of Benito Mussolini, whose policies he vocally supported; he was arrested by American forces in Italy in 1945.  While in custody in Italy, he had begun work on sections of The Cantos that became known as The Pisan Cantos (1948), for which he was awarded the Bollingen Prize in 1949 by the Library of Congress… setting off an enormous controversy.

His release in 1958 was the result of a campaign by writers including Archibald MacLeish, William Carlos Williams, and Hemingway.  Pound, who was believed to be suffering dementia, returned to Italy.

The best of Pound’s writing – and it is in the Cantos – will last as long as there is any literature.

-Ernest Hemingway

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Written by LW

April 18, 2014 at 1:01 am

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