(Roughly) Daily

“To declare that Earth must be the only planet with life in the universe would be inexcusably bigheaded of us”*…


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If any intelligent life in our galaxy intercepts the Voyager spacecraft, if they evolved the sense of vision, and if they can decode the instructions provided, these 116 images are all they will know about our species and our planet, which by then could be long gone…

When Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 launched into space in 1977, their mission was to explore the outer solar system, and over the following decade, they did so admirably.

With an 8-track tape memory system and onboard computers that are thousands of times weaker than the phone in your pocket, the two spacecraft sent back an immense amount of imagery and information about the four gas giants, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.

But NASA knew that after the planetary tour was complete, the Voyagers would remain on a trajectory toward interstellar space, having gained enough velocity from Jupiter’s gravity to eventually escape the grasp of the sun. Since they will orbit the Milky Way for the foreseeable future, the Voyagers should carry a message from their maker, NASA scientists decided.

The Voyager team tapped famous astronomer and science popularizer Carl Sagan to compose that message. Sagan’s committee chose a copper phonograph LP as their medium, and over the course of six weeks they produced the “Golden Record”: a collection of sounds and images that will probably outlast all human artifacts on Earth…

More (including an interactive decoding of the symbols on the disc) at “The 116 photos NASA picked to explain our world to aliens.”

And for an update on NASA”s attempts at interstellar communication, check here.

* Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Death By Black Hole


As we contemplate co-habitation of the universe, we might send out-of-this-world birthday greetings to Alan B. Shepard; he was born on this date in 1923.  A naval aviator and test pilot, he was selected in the first class of American astronauts, the “Mercury Seven”; in 1961, he piloted the first American manned mission, “Freedom 7,” becoming the first American (and second man, after Yuri Gagarin) into space.  Ten years later, he was part of the Apollo 14 crew, piloting the lunar module for Nasa’s third successful moon landing.

Shepard during the “Freedom 7” flight



Written by LW

November 18, 2015 at 1:01 am

“What is that unforgettable line?”*…


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Samuel Beckett: avant-garde dramatist, brooding Nobel Prize winner, poet, and…gritty television detective?

Sadly, no, but he had the makings of a great one, at least as cut together by playwright Danny Thompson, cofounder of Chicago’s Theater Oobleck.

Some twenty five years after Beckett’s death, Thompson—whose credits include the Complete Lost Works of Samuel Beckett as Found in a Dustbin in Paris in an Envelope (Partially Burned) Labeled: Never to Be Performed. Never. Ever. Ever! Or I’ll Sue! I’ll Sue From the Grave!!!repurposed Rosa Veim and Daniel Schmid’s footage of the moody genius wandering around 1969 Berlin into the opening credits of a nonexistent, 70s era Quinn Martin police procedural.

The title sequence hits all the right period notes, from the jazzy graphics to the presentation of its supporting cast: Andre the Giant, Jean Paul Sartre, and Jean “Huggy Bear” Cocteau. (Did you know that Beckett drove a young Andre the Giant to school in real life?)

Thompson ups the verisimilitude by copping Pat Williams’ theme for The Streets of San Francisco and naming the imaginary pilot episode after a collection of Beckett’s short stories

More background– and other (real) 70s title sequences for reference, at “Watch the Opening Credits of an Imaginary 70s Cop Show Starring Samuel Beckett.”

* Samuel Beckett


As we wait for you-know-whom, we might recall that it was on this date in 1983 that the Apollo Theater in Harlem was added to the National Register of Historic Places.  Built in 1913-14 as Hurtig & Seamon’s New Burlesque Theater, and designed by George Keister in the neo-Classical style, the Apollo fell on hard times in the 20s and limped along until, under new management in the 30s, it became a mecca of the Swing Era.  It featured musical acts including Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Chick Webb, and Count Basie, dance acts such as Bill Robinson and the Nicholas Brothers.  And though the theater concentrated on showcasing African-American acts, it also presented such white performers as Harry James, Woody Herman and Charlie Barnet during the swing era, and, later, Dave Brubeck, Stan Getz and Buddy Rich, who was a particular favorite of the Apollo crowd.

The Apollo’s “Amateur Night,” a Monday-night talent contest launched many storied careers, from Ella Fitzgerald and Thelma Carpenter to Jimi Hendrix (who won in 1964).  Others whose careers were hatched or given an early boost at the Apollo include Billie Holiday, Pearl Bailey, Sammy Davis Jr., James Brown & The Famous Flames, King Curtis, Diana Ross &The Supremes, Parliament-Funkadelic, Wilson Pickett, The Miracles, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Rush Brown, Stephanie Mills, Dionne Warwick, Bobby Short, The Jackson 5, Patti LaBelle, Marvin Gaye, Luther Vandross, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Ben E. King, Mariah Carey, The Isley Brothers, Lauryn Hill, Sarah Vaughan, Jazmine Sullivan, Ne-Yo, and Machine Gun Kelly.

Restored 10 years ago, the venue draws an estimated 1.3 million visitors a year.



Written by LW

November 17, 2015 at 1:01 am

“… a waste of desert sand; A shape with lion body and the head of a man”*…


The sphinx before excavation

Thirty-three years ago, Peter Brosnan heard a story that seemed too crazy to be true: buried somewhere along California’s rugged Central Coast, beneath acres of sand dunes, lay the remains of a lost city. According to his friend at New York University’s film school, the remains of a massive Egyptian temple, a dozen plaster sphinxes, eight mammoth lions, and four 40-ton statues of Ramses II were all supposedly entombed in the sands 150 some-odd miles north of Los Angeles.

“It was an absolutely cockamamie story,” Brosnan says. “I thought he was nuts.” The ruins weren’t authentic Egyptian ones, of course. They were the 60-year-old remains of a massive Hollywood set—the biggest, most expensive one ever built at the time. The faux Egyptian scenery had played the role of the City of the Pharaoh in one of Hollywood’s first true epics, Cecil B DeMille’s 1923 film The Ten Commandments. The set had required more than 1,500 carpenters to build and used over 25,000 pounds of nails. The production nearly ruined DeMille and his studio. When the shoot wrapped, the tempestuous director supposedly strapped dynamite to the structures and razed the whole set, burying it in the sands near Guadalupe, California, to ensure no rival director could benefit from his vision.

Bullshit, Brosnan thought. But then his buddy pointed him to a line in DeMille’s posthumously published autobiography. “If 1,000 years from now archaeologists happen to dig beneath the sands of Guadalupe,” the director teased, “I hope they will not rush into print with the amazing news that Egyptian civilization…extended all the way to the Pacific Coast.”…

The City of the Pharaoh during filming

The extraordinary story of “The Cursed, Buried City That May Never See The Light of Day.”

* W.B. Yeats, “The Second Coming”


As we resolve to look more deeply, we might recall that it was on his date in 2001 that Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was released in theaters in the U.S.  It went on to gross nearly $1 billion worldwide, and to launch seven more films based on J.K. Rowling’s novels over the next decade.

At the premiere: stars Daniel Radcliffe (age 12), Rupert Grint (13), and Emma Watson (11)



Written by LW

November 16, 2015 at 1:01 am

“Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?”*…


From Julian Peters, the 24-page comic version of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (with larger, zoomable images).


* T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”


As we hear mermaids singing, we might send elegant birthday greetings to Marianne Moore; she was born on this date in 1887.   An American Modernist poet, critic, translator, and editor, she is known for formal innovation, precise diction, irony, and wit in her literary work… and for being probably the only highly-regarded poet ever to to be involved in automotive marketing.

She argues, in her best known poem, “Poetry,” that it is not formal attributes like meter that define poetry, but delight in language and precise, heartfelt expression…

… nor is it valid
to discriminate against ‘business documents and
school-books’; all these phenomena are important. One must
make a distinction
however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the
result is not poetry,
nor till the poets among us can be
‘literalists of
the imagination’–above
insolence and triviality and can present
for inspection, ‘imaginary gardens with real toads in them’, shall
we have
it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand,
the raw material of poetry in
all its rawness and
that which is on the other hand
genuine, you are interested in poetry.



“So may the outward shows be least themselves”*…


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Further our our recent look at movie posters that move, Henning Lederer: “How would these great book covers from the past look like when set in motion? Here we go…”


* Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice


As we celebrate cerebration, we might recall that it was on this date in 1851 that Harper & Brothers published Herman Melville‘s novel, Moby Dick; it had appeared in the U.K. about a month earlier as The Whale. Based on Melville’s experience aboard a whaler and dedicated to Melville’s friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, the book received mixed reviews and sold poorly. It is now, of course, considered a classic– the peak of the American Renaissance.

The (altogether-unanimated) title page of first American edition




Written by LW

November 14, 2015 at 1:01 am

“All investigations of Time, however sophisticated or abstract, have at their true base the human fear of mortality”*…


Thomas Pynchon’s earliest colonial ancestor, William Pynchon, was a key figure in the early settlement of New England (and, as the portrait above attests, less picture-shy than his descendant)… He was also the author of a book which became, at the hands of the Puritans against which it riled, one of the first to be banned and burned on American soil.

Read the extraordinary tale at “The Price of Suffering: William Pynchon and The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption.”

* Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day


As we celebrate free speech, we might send recently-reformed birthday wishes to Augustine of Hippo, AKA St. Augustine; he was born on this date in 354.  Augustine famously came to his faith later in life, after a youth filled with worldly experience… including a long engagement (to an underaged girl– to wit the length), for which he left the concubine who was the love of his life, “The One”– and which he broke off just before the wedding.

Imagined portrait by Philippe de Champaigne (17th cen.)


Written by LW

November 13, 2015 at 1:01 am

“There are optical illusions in time as well as space”*…


Since first stumbling onto an early type of image projector called a magic lantern over 40 years ago, Richard Balzer became instantly obsessed with early optical devices, from camera obscuras and praxinoscopes to anamorphic mirrors and zoetropes. Based in New York, Balzer has collected thousands of obscure and unusual devices such as phenakistoscopes, one of the first tools for achieving live animation.

The phenakistoscope relies on a disc with sequential illustrations to create looping animations when viewed through small slits in a mirror, producing an effect not unlike the GIFs of today. These bizarre, psychedelic, and frequently morbid scenes (people eating other people seemed to a popular motif) were produced in great volumes across Europe in the early to mid 19th century. Balzer and his assistant Brian Duffy have been digitizing and animating these discs and sharing the results on Tumblr since 2012…

Read more at “Newly Digitized ‘Phenakistoscope’ Animations That Pre-Date GIFs by Over 150 Years“; see more here.

* Marcel Proust


As we go ’round and ’round, we might send (differently) animated birthday greetings to John W. “Jack” Ryan; he was born on this date in 1926.  A Yale-trained engineer, Ryan left Raytheon (where he worked on the Navy’s Sparrow III and Hawk guided missiles) to join Mattel.  He oversaw the conversion of the Mattel-licensed “Bild Lili” doll into Barbie (contributing, among other things, the joints that allowed “her” to bend at the waist and the knee) and created the Hot Wheels line.  But he is perhaps best remembered as the inventor of the pull-string, talking voice box that gave Chatty Cathy her voice.

Ryan with his wife, Zsa Zsa Gabor. She was his first only spouse; he, her sixth.


Written by LW

November 12, 2015 at 1:01 am


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