(Roughly) Daily

“The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless”*…

 

It was hiding in plain sight, and yet it was almost designed not to be noticed at all. For several years from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, an experimental four-panel comic strip conceived and written by David Lynch ran in a handful of alt-weeklies under the title “The Angriest Dog in the World.” If you were the type of person who might have been flipping through the Los Angeles Reader or the New York Press or Creative Loafing or the Baltimore City Paper around 1987, you surely remember the peculiarly unfunny strip with the never-changing image of a tiny, spermatozoa-esque pooch straining at his lead in which the deadpan resolution was almost always a transitional nighttime image of the same godforsaken yard.

It is said that Lynch came up with the idea for the strip during the long gestation period for Eraserhead in the early to mid-1970s, but it was only after the prominent releases of The Elephant Man and Dune that Lynch was able to convince anyone to run the strip. James Vowell, founding editor of the L.A. Reader, was the first publisher to bite. Vowell told SPIN in 1990 that Lynch drew the template for the strip a single time and sent it on, and after that it was the task of David Hwang, the alt-weekly’s art director, to receive the dialogue for each new installment from Lynch himself or Lynch’s assistant Debbie Trutnik, and draw the new dialogue on a piece of wax paper that was then superimposed over the strip’s template…

More of the story– and more (and larger) examples of the strip– at “David Lynch’s memorably pointless comic strip “The Angriest Dog in the World.”

* Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg

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As we reconsider the ridiculous, we might send malleable birthday greetings to Randolph “Ralph” Dibny; he was born on this date.  Better known as “Elongated Man,” Dibney is a superhero in the D.C. Universe, a member of three incarnations of The Justice League.  A former police detective of the Central City Police Department, he gained his powers due to exposure to dark matter from the Speed Force.

Dibny was one of the earliest Silver Age DC heroes to reveal his secret identity to the public, and also one of the first to marry his love interest, Sue.  After teaming up with several other superheroes including Batman, Green Lantern, the Atom, Zatanna and the Justice League of America, he became a member of the team; eventually, his wife became a member as well.  The couple was notable for having a stable, happy, and relatively trouble-free marriage—an anomaly in the soap-operatic annals of super hero comic books.

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“When reality and your dreams collide, typically it’s just your alarm clock going off”*…

 

Mary Smith using peas as an alarm clock in London’s East End

The modern worker rolls out of bed, groans, and turns off an alarm clock. But industrial-era British and Irish workers relied on a different method for rising each morning. In the 19th century and well into the 20th, a human alarm clock known as a “knocker-up” (knocker-upper) would trawl the streets and wake paying customers in time for work. Armed with sticks—or, in the case of Mary Smith, a pea shooter—they tapped on windows or blasted them with dried peas.

During the Industrial Age, people toiled at unusual hours in mines or factories. They could have used alarm clocks—adjustable versions had been invented by the mid-19th century. But they were still relatively expensive items, and unreliable ones, at that.

Whether they wielded rods or pea shooters, knocker-ups became familiar presences throughout the United Kingdom. Many of them were older, and woke people up professionally for many years—they often wouldn’t leave people’s houses until they were sure they were awake…

More of this timely tale in “Remembering the ‘Knocker-Ups’ Hired to Wake Workers With Pea Shooters.”

* Crystal Woods

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As we sleep in, we might spare a thought for Regnier Gemma Frisius; he died on this date in 1555.  A physician, mathematician, cartographer, philosopher, and instrument maker, he created important globes, improved the mathematical instruments of his day, and applied mathematics in new ways to surveying and navigation.  Indeed, he was the first to explain how measurement of longitude could be made from elapsed time measurements with a portable timepiece– a technique late perfected by John Harrison (as chronicled in Dava Sobel’s Longitude).

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Written by LW

May 25, 2018 at 1:01 am

“It seems a long time since the morning mail could be called correspondence”*…

 

A Curtiss Jenny carrying mail for Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, before take off from the polo grounds in Washington, D.C.

On May 15, 1918, as hundreds of thousands of American troops fought from the trenches of Western Europe, a small number of U.S. Army pilots took on a domestic mission. Though they worked in the skies above East Coast cities, far from the carnage of World War I, their task was life-threatening, and it was as crucial to the nation’s psyche as any conflict fought on foreign soil. While their peers carried bombs across the Atlantic, these men carried the mail.

On a gloomy Wednesday morning, thousands of spectators gathered in Washington, D.C.’s Potomac Park to witness what would be the world’s first regularly scheduled airmail service. As the crowd buzzed with excitement, president Woodrow Wilson stood with the pilot, Second Lieutenant George Leroy Boyle. The two men chatted for a few minutes, Wilson in a three-piece suit and bowler hat, Boyle in his leather flying cap, a cigarette in his mouth. The president dropped a letter in Boyle’s sack, and the pilot took off for his journey from Washington, D.C., to New York, with plans to stop in Philadelphia for delivery and refueling. The flight, however, never made it to the City of Brotherly Love.

With only a map laid across his lap to guide him on his northbound journey, Boyle turned southeast shortly after takeoff. Realizing his mistake, he landed in a soft field in Waldorf, Maryland, damaging his propeller. Officials from the United States Post Office Department, the predecessor to the United States Postal Service, drove the load of mail back to D.C., and unceremoniously put it on a train to New York. Two days later, after blowing a second chance to fly the mail north and making an emergency landing in Cape Charles, Virginia, Boyle’s time with the Post Office came to an inglorious end.

Boyle may not have been the Army’s best pilot, but his misadventures highlight just how bold of a decision it was to begin airmail service at a time when flight was still in its infancy. “There was a rather general feeling that aviation was not yet sufficiently advanced to maintain mail schedules by airplanes,” said Otto Praeger, the Second Assistant Postmaster General, in a 1938 interview. “Strangely enough, some well known aircraft manufacturers themselves doubted the advisability of embarking upon a regular airmail service, and a number of them came to Washington to urge me not to undertake the project.” But Praeger stayed the course, determined to make airmail “like the steamship and the railroad, a permanent transportation feature of the postal service.”

Unfortunately, indelibly changing the nature of mail delivery came with serious risk for the pilots involved. Of the roughly 230 men who flew mail for the Post Office Department between 1918 and 1927, 32 lost their lives in plane crashes. Six died during the first week of operation alone…

Smithsonian reports on a new exhibition at the National Postal Museum honoring the nation’s first airmail pilots: “Delivering the Mail Was Once One of the Riskiest Jobs in America.”

* Jacques Barzun

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As we muse on our missives, we might recall that it was on this date in 1844 that inventor (and celebrated painter) Samuel F.B. Morse inaugurated the first technological competitor to the post when he sent the first telegraph message:  “What hath God wrought?”  Morse sent the famous message from the B&O’s Mount Clare Station in Baltimore to the Capitol Building.  (The words were chosen by Annie Ellsworth, the daughter of the U.S. Patent Commissioner, from Numbers 23:23.)

Morse’s original apparatus

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Written by LW

May 24, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Our civilization is flinging itself to pieces. Stand back from the centrifuge.”*…

 

Art work by Banksy (title unknown). Source: Flickr

For centuries, we have been telling ourselves a simple story about the origins of social inequality. For most of their history, humans lived in tiny egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers. Then came farming, which brought with it private property, and then the rise of cities which meant the emergence of civilization properly speaking. Civilization meant many bad things (wars, taxes, bureaucracy, patriarchy, slavery…) but also made possible written literature, science, philosophy, and most other great human achievements.

Almost everyone knows this story in its broadest outlines. Since at least the days of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, it has framed what we think the overall shape and direction of human history to be. This is important because the narrative also defines our sense of political possibility. Most see civilization, hence inequality, as a tragic necessity. Some dream of returning to a past utopia, of finding an industrial equivalent to ‘primitive communism’, or even, in extreme cases, of destroying everything, and going back to being foragers again. But no one challenges the basic structure of the story.

There is a fundamental problem with this narrative.

It isn’t true.

Overwhelming evidence from archaeology, anthropology, and kindred disciplines is beginning to give us a fairly clear idea of what the last 40,000 years of human history really looked like, and in almost no way does it resemble the conventional narrative. Our species did not, in fact, spend most of its history in tiny bands; agriculture did not mark an irreversible threshold in social evolution; the first cities were often robustly egalitarian. Still, even as researchers have gradually come to a consensus on such questions, they remain strangely reluctant to announce their findings to the public­ – or even scholars in other disciplines – let alone reflect on the larger political implications…

An important essay from David Graeber and David Wengrow: “How to change the course of human history (at least, the part that’s already happened).”

* Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

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As we rethink our roots, we might spare a thought for W. Lloyd Warner; he died on this date in 1970.  A sociologist and anthropologist, he is remembered for his studies of social class structure, in which he was a pioneer in applying anthropology research methods to the study of contemporary urban social communities.  Probably best-remebered for his (5 volume) study Yankee City, he was the first sociologist to use a six-fold classification scheme in attributing social class: Warner recognized three distinct groups – upper, middle and lower classes – each sub-divided into upper and lower sections… a rubric still very much in use.

An empiricist in a time when the social disciplines were increasingly theoretical, fascinated with economic and social inequality in a time when Americans were eager to deny its significance, and implicitly skeptical of the possibilities of legislating social change at a time when many social scientists were eager to be policymakers, Warner’s work was unfashionable in its time.  His interest in communities — when the social science mainstream was stressing the importance of urbanization — and religion — when the fields’ leaders were aggressively secularist — also helped to marginalize him.  But recently, more positive assessments of his work have emerged (e.g., Grant McCracken‘s, here).

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“All things are metaphors”*…

 

For much of the 17th century, Europeans believed that California was an island.  Indeed, readers who have suffered through your correspondent’s explanation of scenario planning know that a 17th century map in which California is depicted as an island, very like the one above, figures into the talk as an example of the way that incorrect maps– cartographical or mental maps– are hard to change and often lead us astray.

But as this appreciation of Stanford’s collection of California maps points out, there may be a deeper truth to the depiction:

The fact that a number of explorers knew that California was not an island was not enough to nip the idea in the bud. Yet it would be a shame to think of the idea as simply an error, a cartographical crease which needed ironing out. Even though maps may be presented as accurate, they cannot escape their metaphorical nature. They reflect much more than physical geography. That California was mapped as an island for so long speaks to its separateness. The writer Rebecca Solnit, a student of the Stanford maps, has argued that, “An island is anything surrounded by difference.” The state contains around 2,000 plant species found nowhere else. Its borders comprise dizzying mountains, harsh deserts and immense ocean. It has been home to the Gold Rush, the psychedelic era, the silicon boom. In several ways then, California is an island…

More (and more marvelous maps) at “Maps Showing California as an Island.”

* Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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As we remember that “the map is not the territory,” we might recall that it was on this date in 1570 that Gilles Coppens de Diest at Antwerp published Flemish cartographer Abraham Ortelius’ Theatrum Orbis Terrarum— a collection of 53 maps that is generally agreed to have been the first modern atlas.

Interestingly (for reasons explained in the article linked above), Ortelius’ maps, which pre-date the charts in the Stanford collection, portray California more accurately.

Title page from a 1606 edition

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Written by LW

May 22, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Tradition wears a snowy beard, romance is always young”*…

 

Thomas Gowing felt the mighty yet fragile English Beard to be threatened with extinction by an invasive foreign species, the Razor. So he set out to defend the furry face mammal in every conceivable way. The resulting lecture was received so enthusiastically by a bushy-faced audience in Ipswich that it was soon turned into The Philosophy of Beards (1854) — the first book entirely devoted to this subject.

It is Gowing’s ardent belief that the bearded are better looking, better morally and better historically than the shaven. To call him a huge fan of the suburbs of the chin would be an understatement. “It is impossible” he writes “to view a series of bearded portraits . . . without feeling that they possess dignity, gravity, freedom, vigour, and completeness.” By contrast, the clean-cut look always leaves him with “a sense of artificial conventional bareness”. Gowing’s apology for the beard makes frequent appeals to nature, some of them amusingly far-fetched: “Nature leaves nothing but what is beautiful uncovered, and the masculine chin is seldom sightly, because it was designed to be covered, while the chins of women are generally beautiful.” Sometimes his argument transforms from a shield for the beard into a swipe at the chin: “There is scarcely indeed a more naturally disgusting object than a beardless old man (compared by the Turks to a ‘plucked pigeon’)”.

Gowing was writing at a time when physiognomy — the art of reading a person’s character in their facial features — was still popular in Europe and America. So it is no surprise to learn that “the absence of Beard is usually a sign of physical and moral weakness”…

More tonsorial teaching at: “The Philosophy of Beards (1854).”

Read it in full at the Internet Archive; or buy a hard copy of The Philosophy The British Library republished it in 2014, for the first time since 1854.

* John Greenleaf Whittier

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As we hail the hirsute, we might recall that it was on this date in 2005 that Kingda Ka opened at the Six Flags Great Adventure Park in Jackson, New Jersey.  The world’s tallest roller coaster (and the world’s second fastest roller coaster), it offers riders an experience that lasts 28 seconds… during which the roller coaster cars are “launched” to a speed of 128 mph (in 3.5 seconds).  At the end of the launch track, the train climbs the main tower (or top hat) and rolls 90 degrees to the right before reaching a height of 456 feet.  The train then descends 418 feet (straight down through a 270-degree right-hand spiral.  The train climbs a second hill of 129 feet, producing a brief period of weightlessness, before descending, turning toward the station, and being smoothly brought to a stop by the magnetic brakes.

Cool.

Kingda Ka’s “top hat”

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Written by LW

May 21, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and the test of our civilization”*…

 

The phrase confuses me. I was born in California. My mom was born in New York. “Go back where you came from.” Um, okay. I mean, I was headed home anyways. My house is just a few blocks away.

I grew up in a mostly non-Asian city, so I used to hear the phrase sometimes. Kids like to pick on the one who looks a little different. But these days, when I hear an adult say it to another adult, it catches me off guard. It doesn’t make sense.

You traverse an American’s family tree, and eventually you find an immigrant. And most of the time, you don’t have to go back that far.

So … what if everyone went back where they came from?

Find at at Nathan Yau‘s “If We All Left to ‘Go Back Where We Came From’.”

* Gandhi (who also observed, “No culture can live, if it attempts to be exclusive.”)

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As we stir the melting pot, we might recall that today is the Feast Day of  Lucifer– more properly, of St. Lucifer of Caligari.  At least, it’s his feast day in Sardinia, where he’s venerated.  Lucifer, who was a 4th century bishop fierce in his opposition to Arianism, is considered by some elsewhere to have been a stalwart (if minor) defender of the orthodoxy; but by more to have been an obnoxious fanatic.

“Lucifer” was in use at the time as a translation of the the Hebrew word, transliterated Hêlêl or Heylel (pron. as HAY-lale), which means “shining one, light-bearer.”  It had been rendered in Greek as ἑωσφόρος (heōsphoros), a name, literally “bringer of dawn,” for the morning star.  The name “Lucifer” was introduced in St. Jerome’s Latin translation of the Bible, the Vulgate, roughly contemporaneously with St. Lucifer.  But the positive spin of Lucifer of Caligari’s name was, even in it’s day, in tension with the received idea of “Lucifer”; the conflation of “Lucifer” with an altogether evil “Satan” had begun centuries earlier.

Indeed, Satan had undergone a pretty profound transition: “Satan” is from a Hebrew word, “Saithan,” meaning adversary or enemy; in original Jewish usage (see the book of Job); but Satan is the adversary, not of God, but of mankind; i.e., the angel charged by God with the task of proving mankind an unworthy creation.  Thus Satan was originally not in opposition to God, but doing His will.

Later– during the Second Temple Period, when Jews were living in the Achaemenid Empire, and Judaism was heavily influenced by Zoroastrianism— the concept of an evil power ruling an underground domain of punishment for the wicked became fixed in doctrine (mirroring Angra Mainyu, the Zoroastrian god of evil, darkness, and ignorance).  Over time, elements of the Graeco-Roman god Pluto/Vulcan/Hephaestus, the Underworld, & various aspects of Nordic/Teutonic mythology also made their way into the Jewish, then Christian, understandings of Satan and his realm.

St. Lucifer of Calgari

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Satan doing God’s work: The Examination of Job (c. 1821) by William Blake

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Written by LW

May 20, 2018 at 1:01 am

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