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“Presenting honest stories of working people as told by rich Hollywood stars”*…

A self-contained four-man comedy troupe of writers/actors whose medium was the audio record, they created brilliant, multi-layered surrealist satire out of science-fiction, TV, old movies, avant-garde drama and literature, outrageous punning, the political turmoil of the Sixties, the great shows of the Golden Age of Radio, the detritus of high and low culture (James Joyce meets the found poetry of used-car pitch men) and their own intuitive understanding of the technological possibilities of multi-track recording. Their thirteen albums for CBS, recorded in various group permutations between 1967 and 1975, reveal them to have been at once the Beatles of comedy, the counter-cultural Lewis Carroll, and the slightly cracked step-children of Kafka, Bob and Ray, Jorge Luis Borges, Philip K. Dick, Stan Freberg, Samuel Beckett and the Goon Show.

Stereo Review

Firesign Theatre started to assemble during 1966 at KPFK, a freeform stereo FM radio station in Los Angeles, which was then a very new thing, during Peter Bergman’s “Radio Free Oz” show. Phil Austin and David Ossman worked at the station and would appear on RFO, while Philip Proctor, an actor friend the “Wizard of Oz” (Bergman) knew from Yale, was invited to join a bit later. The name refers to the fact that all four were born under fire signs in the zodiac, and to Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre. The late night Radio Free Oz show was so popular—and they were regularly gigging in Hollywood’s folk and rock clubs—that they were quickly offered a record contract.

There are four undisputed “classics” in the vast Firesign canon, all recorded between 1967 and 1971, titled (in order) Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like HimHow Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere at All (which includes their most famous creation, “The Adventures of Nick Danger, Third Eye”), Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers, and I Think We’re All Bozos on This Bus. Their first album was recorded in the same CBS radio studio where The Jack Benny Show was taped using vintage microphones and sound effects. By the time of their second record they were using 16-track tape machines in the studio, constructing tightly assembled radio plays with extremely creative sound effects and spatial cues that suggested time travel, watching something at a domed planetarium, being on a people mover, getting into a car where the inside is bigger than the outside and so on. These four records are the ultimate presentation of their unusual artform—literature as much as performed comedy that’s been carefully sculpted in a recording studio—but there are at least 20 other albums, dozens upon dozens of hours of live performances recorded onstage and during their radio shows, and TV and film work. Dear Friends, a 1972 released two record compilation of the best of their syndicated radio show of the same name is also considered to be a classic Firesign album, but being culled from live radio, it’s less elaborately constructed, and more spontaneous and improvisational. 

These five albums represent the cream of the crop and they are all masterworks of surrealist “theater of the mind” sci-fi counterculture comedy. There was nothing else like them, and the sole thing I can think of to compare them to would be the Monty Python albums. Firesign Theatre were often called “the American Monty Python,” but this comparison would stop at the Python albums, as Firesign were a strictly audio proposition for the most part, and certainly during their late 60s/early 70s golden years. [They are actually much more akin to lysergic Goon Show, of which all four of the Firesign Theatre were fanatical fans. In fact, Peter Bergman wrote some TV comedy sketches in London with Spike Milligan in the early 1960s.]…

These days, everybody is always listening to their favorite podcasts, at the gym, in the car, cooking, whatever, they’ve all got a podcast going on in the background. Why not think of the Firesign oeuvre as the greatest comedy podcast ever made?

Well, you’re in luck as all of the major (and much of the minor) works of Firesign Theatre are streaming from the exact same sources as that weekly true crime thing you always listen to. Spotify, TIDAL, YouTube, Amazon Music, Apple Music, all of them are pumping Firesign Theatre directly into your home. The four (or five) classic albums are super easy for you to listen to. Just a few clicks away from where you are reading this…

An appreciation of past masters: “Firesign Theatre’s ‘Dope Humor of the Seventies’” from @DangerMindsBlog.

* Firesign Theatre

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As we slip on the headphones, we might recall that it was on this date in 1987 that ABC premiered Max Headroom (which had originated on the UK’s Channel 4 in 1985). Painfully prophetic, the series followed the near-future exploits on the digital avatar of Edison Carter, a news host/reporter who hosts the most popular show on Channel 23.

As SyFy Wire explains, this future is a:

…dystopia in which several television networks essentially rule the world. That’s no exaggeration — the government knows all about it too, and plays along, while the networks do what they want without anyone to curtail their schemes. There are no “off” switches on TVs, so you can’t escape the watchful eye of the networks, who’ve even gone so far as to watch citizens through their TVs.

Each episode revolved around the various evil plans the television conglomerates planned to enact on the unsuspecting public. Network 23 is one of the major stations with the highest-rated “new” program, which Edison Carter himself hosts. Real-time ratings are more important than ever in this world, as they translate to money put toward advertisements. In fact, ads have taken over stocks in this world, making whoever performs the best on-air essentially the most powerful entity on the planet.

Every installment of the series is about the inner workings of the crooked conglomerates, up to and including advertisements known as “Blipverts,” which are completely capable of killing people just by airing on television. They’re meant to condense longer ads into a few seconds so the station can run more, but they’re much deadlier than that…

Catch an episode here.

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Written by LW

March 31, 2021 at 1:01 am

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is the most terrifying thing I have ever witnessed!”*…

As a teenager I was completely suckered in by a television documentary hoax (Forgotten Silver, by Peter Jackson pre-Lord of the Rings). For many years it was quite a sore spot for me that I was duped. I imagine the many people who believed that The War of the Worlds depicted an actual Martian invasion felt the same way. And twelve years before Orson Welles’ famous 1938 radio play another hoax on the airwaves was terrifying the innocent public.

Broadcasting the Barricades by the mystery writer [and Catholic priest] Ronald Knox was performed on BBC Radio in early 1926. Styled like a news report, it described a Bolshevik revolution running through the streets of London. Government ministers were captured and strung up; the Savoy Hotel and the Palace of Westminster were both blown up (thus toppling the Clock Tower and Big Ben too).

Now, there were plenty of clues that it was a hoax. Not least of which was that they told everyone it was not real at the start. Not everyone caught that [as was the case with World of the Worlds], or the many announcements to the same effect on the same channel later that night. Complicating matters, a snowstorm prevented the next day’s newspapers getting out of London, stoking fears that the capital city was in ruins or occupied by revolutionary forces. And 1926 UK was a tense place already: four months after Broadcasting the Barricades, 1.7 million workers joined a general strike in support of locked out coal miners…

The radio hoax that presaged– and inspired– Orson Welles’ The War of the Worlds: “From the Barricades.”

The BBC’s own account of the occasion (the source of the image above) is here. And here is the amusing tale of an Australian variation on the theme, broadcast a year after Knox’s pioneering effort.

Oh, and Forgotten Silver is wonderful!

* “Reporter Carl Phillips” (Frank Readick), The War of the Worlds

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As we check our sources, we might recall that it was on this date in 1843 that John Browne Bell published the first of his London-based newspaper, The News of the World. Bell’s competitive strategy was to focus on the sensational and the lurid– basically, crime and vice… a strategy that served him and subsequent owners, most recently Rupert Murdoch and News Corp., extremely well. Indeed, its long suit in celebrity scoops, gossip, and populist news– especially its somewhat prurient focus on sex scandals– gained it the nickname News of the Screws.

In 2011, 25 years after Murdoch had made it into the Sunday edition of his paper The Sun, The News of the World was closed… sort of. In its last decade it had developed a reputation for exposing celebrities’ drug use, sexual peccadilloes, or criminal acts, by using insiders and journalists in disguise to provide video or photographic evidence, and covert phone hacking in ongoing police investigations. Many of these allegations proved true. On July 4, 2011 it was revealed that, nearly a decade earlier, a private investigator hired by the newspaper had intercepted the voicemail of missing British teenager Milly Dowler, who was later found murdered. Amid a public backlash and the withdrawal of advertising, News International announced the closure of the newspaper three days later.

After a brief hiatus, the fun continued in The Sunday Sun (with many former News of the World staffers), but without several senior News of the World editors, who were arrested and indicted for illegal wiretapping, bribing police officers for information, and other offenses.

Front-page of the first issue

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“Moore’s Law is really a thing about human activity, it’s about vision, it’s about what you’re allowed to believe”*…

 

Karen-fungal-computing-2

 

In moments of technological frustration, it helps to remember that a computer is basically a rock. That is its fundamental witchcraft, or ours: for all its processing power, the device that runs your life is just a complex arrangement of minerals animated by electricity and language. Smart rocks. The components are mined from the Earth at great cost, and they eventually return to the Earth, however poisoned. This rock-and-metal paradigm has mostly served us well. The miniaturization of metallic components onto wafers of silicon — an empirical trend we call Moore’s Law — has defined the last half-century of life on Earth, giving us wristwatch computers, pocket-sized satellites and enough raw computational power to model the climate, discover unknown molecules, and emulate human learning.

But there are limits to what a rock can do. Computer scientists have been predicting the end of Moore’s Law for decades. The cost of fabricating next-generation chips is growing more prohibitive the closer we draw to the physical limits of miniaturization. And there are only so many rocks left. Demand for the high-purity silica sand used to manufacture silicon chips is so high that we’re facing a global, and irreversible, sand shortage; and the supply chain for commonly-used minerals, like tin, tungsten, tantalum, and gold, fuels bloody conflicts all over the world. If we expect 21st century computers to process the ever-growing amounts of data our culture produces — and we expect them to do so sustainably — we will need to reimagine how computers are built. We may even need to reimagine what a computer is to begin with.

It’s tempting to believe that computing paradigms are set in stone, so to speak. But there are already alternatives on the horizon. Quantum computing, for one, would shift us from a realm of binary ones and zeroes to one of qubits, making computers drastically faster than we can currently imagine, and the impossible — like unbreakable cryptography — newly possible. Still further off are computer architectures rebuilt around a novel electronic component called a memristor. Speculatively proposed by the physicist Leon Chua in 1971, first proven to exist in 2008, a memristor is a resistor with memory, which makes it capable of retaining data without power. A computer built around memristors could turn off and on like a light switch. It wouldn’t require the conductive layer of silicon necessary for traditional resistors. This would open computing to new substrates — the possibility, even, of integrating computers into atomically thin nano-materials. But these are architectural changes, not material ones.

For material changes, we must look farther afield, to an organism that occurs naturally only in the most fleeting of places. We need to glimpse into the loamy rot of a felled tree in the woods of the Pacific Northwest, or examine the glistening walls of a damp cave. That’s where we may just find the answer to computing’s intractable rock problem: down there, among the slime molds…

It’s time to reimagine what a computer could be: “Beyond Smart Rocks.”

(TotH to Patrick Tanguay.)

* “Moore’s Law is really a thing about human activity, it’s about vision, it’s about what you’re allowed to believe. Because people are really limited by their beliefs, they limit themselves by what they allow themselves to believe about what is possible.”  – Carver Mead

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As we celebrate slime, we might send fantastically far-sighted birthday greetings to Hugo Gernsback, a Luxemborgian-American inventor, broadcast pioneer, writer, and publisher; he was born on this date in 1884.

Gernsback held 80 patents at the time of his death; he founded radio station WRNY, was involved in the first television broadcasts, and is considered a pioneer in amateur radio.  But it was as a writer and publisher that he probably left his most lasting mark:  In 1926, as owner/publisher of the magazine Modern Electrics, he filled a blank spot in his publication by dashing off the first chapter of a series called “Ralph 124C 41+.” The twelve installments of “Ralph” were filled with inventions unknown in 1926, including “television” (Gernsback is credited with introducing the word), fluorescent lighting, juke boxes, solar energy, television, microfilm, vending machines, and the device we now call radar.

The “Ralph” series was an astounding success with readers; and later that year Gernsback founded the first magazine devoted to science fiction, Amazing Stories.  Believing that the perfect sci-fi story is “75 percent literature interwoven with 25 percent science,” he coined the term “science fiction.”

Gernsback was a “careful” businessman, who was tight with the fees that he paid his writers– so tight that H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith referred to him as “Hugo the Rat.”

Still, his contributions to the genre as publisher were so significant that, along with H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, he is sometimes called “The Father of Science Fiction”; in his honor, the annual Science Fiction Achievement awards are called the “Hugos.”

(Coincidentally, today is also the birthday– in 1906– of Philo T. Farnsworth, the man who actually did invent television… and was thus the inspiration for the name “Philco.”)

[UPDATE- With thanks to friend MK for the catch:  your correspondent was relying on an apocryphal tale in attributing the Philco brand name to to Philo Farnsworth.  Farsworth did work with the company, and helped them enter the television business.  But the Philco trademark dates back to 1919– pre-television days– as a label for what was then the Philadelphia Storage Battery Company.]

Gernsback, wearing one of his inventions, TV Glasses

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“[TV commercials] are about products in the same sense that the story of Jonah is about the anatomy of whales”*…

 

Mikhail-Gorbachev-Pizza-Hut-commercial-James-Fosdike-homepage

 

Since his involuntary retirement, Mikhail Gorbachev has raised money for worthy causes, attempted to make a comeback in Russian politics, and, notoriously, made an advertisement for Pizza Hut.

The ad would have become a footnote were it not for its long second life online, where it’s rediscovered every few years. There’s an undeniable voyeuristic frisson of seeing a man who once commanded a superpower hawking pizza.

Each time it repeats, it leaves behind a new flood of clickbait—Time listing it among the “Top 10 Embarrassing Celebrity Commercials” in 2010, Mental Floss using Gorbachev’s birthday as a hook to link to it in 2012, Thrillist naming it the sixth-most bizarre celebrity endorsement of all time. Most of the facts dredged up in these deluges are recycled from a 1997 New York Times article.

More serious authors treat the commercial as a free-floating signifier to prove whatever thesis they are peddling, as when Jacobin cites it as another data point showing that Gorbachev was a sellout or David Foster Wallace uses it to prove the vacuity of popular culture.

But the conventional stories don’t really hold up. Gorbachev isn’t actually the star of the commercial. He doesn’t even speak. He’s a bystander to the commercial’s central drama, a fight over Gorbachev’s legacy between a fiery, pro-reform young man and a dour, anti-Gorbachev middle-aged man—possibly father and son. The two exchange charges and defenses of Gorbachev’s record—“Because of him, we have economic confusion!” “Because of him, we have opportunity!” “Complete chaos!” “Hope!”—before an older woman settles the argument: “Because of him, we have many things … like Pizza Hut!”

In a lot of ways, it’s a beautiful short film and a very weird advertisement: Who would have thought that a bunch of Muscovites bickering about the end of communism would be a natural pitch for pizza?

For the people who created the ad—the executives, the agents, the creatives—it was a professional landmark. But for Gorbachev himself, the story of the ad is a tragedy: one man’s attempt to find—and to fund—a place in a country that wanted nothing more to do with him…

Finally, the full (sad) story of the Pizza Hut ad that became a meme: “Mikhail Gorbachev’s Pizza Hut Thanksgiving Miracle.”

* Neil Postman

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As we grab for a slice, we might recall that this is an important date in broadcast history.  On this date in 1896, Guglielmo Marconi introduced “radio”: he amazed a group at Toynbee Hall in East London with a demonstration of wireless communication across a room.  Every time Marconi hit a key beside him at the podium, a bell would ring from a box being carried around the room by William Henry Preece.

Then exactly five years later, on this date in 1901, Marconi confounded those who believed that the curvature of the earth would limit the effective range of radio waves when he broadcast a signal from Cornwall, England to Newfoundland, Canada– over 2,100 miles– and in so doing, demonstrated the viability of worldwide wireless communication.

 

 

Written by LW

December 12, 2019 at 1:01 am

“The future isn’t what it used to be”*…

 

Blade runner

 

When Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner was released in 1982, its dystopian future seemed light years away. But fans of the critically-acclaimed science fiction film might [be] feeling a little funny. As its opening sequence informs us, the movie takes place in Los Angeles, November 2019…

That’s to say, from now on, Blade Runner is no longer set in the future.

220px-Blade_Runner_(1982_poster)

For a list of other works whose futures are already past, visit Screen Crush (the source of the image at the top); and for a more complete list, click here.

* variously attributed to Paul Valéry, Laura Riding, Robert Graves, and (with the substitution of “ain’t” for “isn’t”) Yogi Berra

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As we adjust our expectations, we might send imaginative birthday greetings to Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler; she was born on this date in 1914.  Better known by her stage name, Hedy Lamarr, she became a huge movie star at MGM.

By the time American audiences were introduced to Austrian actress Hedy Lamarr in the 1938 film Algiers, she had already lived an eventful life. She got her scandalous start in film in Czechoslovakia (her first role was in the erotic Ecstasy). She was married at 19 in pre-World War II Europe to Fritz Mandl, a paranoid, overly protective arms dealer linked with fascists in Italy and Nazis in Germany. After her father’s sudden death and as the war approached, she fled Mandl’s country estate in the middle of the night and escaped to London. Unable to return home to Vienna where her mother lived,  and determined to get into the movies, she booked passage to the States on the same ship as mogul Louis B. Mayer. Flaunting herself, she drew his attention and signed with his MGM Studios before they docked.

Arriving in Hollywood brought her a new name (Lamarr was originally Kiesler), fame, multiple marriages and divorces and a foray into groundbreaking work as a producer, before she eventually became a recluse. But perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Lamarr’s life isn’t as well known: during WWII, when she was 27the movie star invented and patented an ingenious forerunner of current high-tech communications…

The story of the movie star who invented spread-spectrum radio, the secure signal technology that helped the Allies avoid having their radio communications intercepted by the Axis forces, and that lies at the heart of the cellular phone system that we all use today: “Why Hedy Lamarr Was Hollywood’s Secret Weapon.”

“Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid” – Hedy Lamarr

220px-Hedy_Lamarr_Publicity_Photo_for_The_Heavenly_Body_1944 source

 

Written by LW

November 9, 2019 at 1:01 am

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