Sunday, July 29, 2007


Déjà Stupid

An article from last week's Times of London:

A frustrated author has confirmed what other unpublished writers have long suspected: even Jane Austen would have difficulty finding a book deal in the 21st Century. But what really astonished David Lassman was that only one of 18 publishers and literary agents recognised her work when it was submitted to them under a false name. Mr Lassman, 43, had spent months trying without success to find a publisher for his own novel Freedom’s Temple. Out of frustration – and to test whether today’s publishers could spot great literature – he retyped the opening chapters of three Austen classics: Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.....

Since the Times can't be bothered to come up with a new dumb stunt, I can't be bothered to come up with a new reply to it.


Gravity: The Original Kryptonite

In catching up on an issue of New Scientist I found this:

IT WAS not so much the title "Superhero-related injuries in paediatrics: a case series" that amused us (Archives of Disease in Childhood, vol 92, p 242), as its use of language in this statement in the text: "Three of them tried to imitate Spiderman and one Superman. Three were injured after initiating flight without having planned for landing strategies."

The authors' abstract for the paper over at PubMed goes even one better: "The children we saw have all had to contemplate on their way to hospital that they do not in fact possess superpowers..."


Get Miffed!

Great news from a Believer reader: the insanely rare and insanely odd 1886 novel Don Miff -- utterly impossible to find ever since my November '04 Believer article about it -- is now available free and in its entirely thanks to a Microsoft-sponsored scan of a U California copy.

Sunday, July 15, 2007


The Travel Log

I've an article in this week's New Scientist on Charles Kellogg, the "Nature Singer" of the vaudeville circuit who took his act onto the road in 1917 to save California redwoods. Namely, to draw attention to them he toured in this Flinstonian proto-RV that he hacked and sawed out of a single whopping chunk of Giant Sequoia.

He's quite a character indeed:

He liked to announce, with a showman’s hyperbole, that he had a 12 1⁄2 octave range—nearly double that of a piano.... By 1916 The Nature Singer had squawked and twittered his way into an RCA recording contract, teaming up with the Victor Orchestra to create nature-themed novelty songs. He also developed another curious claim to fame by discovering in John Tyndall’s 1867 treatise On Sound a trick worthy of “high-class vaudeville”: that a carefully regulated flame could be extinguished by the right frequency of sound. Kellogg learned to pitch his voice to achieve this, and showed off the feat to audiences and fire departments alike. To the latter he popularised a curious notion about the future of firefighting. “According to this theory,” reported the New York Times in 1912, “one may live to see giant tuning forks or musical instruments taking the place of fire engines.”....

His 1916 recording of “Flower Song” was recently dubbed “The Most Annoying Record Ever Created” by an audio engineer handling its digital transfer: “He sounds more like an angry cat being slowly pressed to death... I had to leave the room when transferring it.”
One fun fact I left on the cutting room floor: Kellogg revived his "Fire Extinguisher" act in 1926 for fire departments, leaving the New York Times to credulously report--this is an actual headline-- TUNING FORK SCREECH PUTS OUT 24-INCH FLAME; FUTURE FIREMEN TO STAY HOME, SAYS SCIENTIST. By using Oakland's radio station KGO to put out a flame in front of a speaker miles away, Kellogg floated the idea of extinguishing house fires by just turning on the radio.

I love that image: Friend, is your house burning down? Well, just ease back in your recliner and turn on some relaxing music to put it out....

Saturday, July 14, 2007


Little Red Riding Hood and the Monsters

One word: AMAZING.

Slate V has more on K Gordon Murray and his freaky dubbed Mexican children's films.

Saturday, July 07, 2007


John Philip Sousa, the.... Novelist?

I'm on NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday to talk about the novels of John Philip Sousa.

Yes, the novels.

While pawing through a pile of old books a while back I came across this:

Not only did Sousa's debut novel get published, it sold amazingly well -- 55,000 copies, a very successful run even today, let alone in 1902. He wrote two more novels: Pipetown Sandy in 1905 (a Tom Sawyer-ish tale of his childhood in 1868 Maryland) and The Transit of Venus in 1920. Pipetown Sandy is a vast improvement in craft over his first novel, and consequently sold.... er, less than a third as many copies.

Transit of Venus did so badly that not only can't you find any copies now, Sousa himself scarcely bothered to mention it in his own memoir a few years later.

Still, one bestseller is more than most people have in them. Check the city-by-city bestseller lists that were a regular feature of Bookman magazine back then -- fascinating reading, especially for anyone under the misapprehension that the Times invented the bestseller list -- and you'll find that in the spring of 1902 The Fifth String was all over bestseller lists in Southern and Midwestern cities... Atlanta, Indianapolis, Louisville, Omaha, etc. Curiously, though, he's conspicuously absent from the bestseller lists of the Northeast and West coast.

One outright discovery in reporting this piece was that a movie was made from The Fifth String. I found an ad for it in a September 13 1913 issue of the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette. The sole modern reference I've found is a nearly blank listing on the British Film Institute database. So I can tell you this: the film was made by Selig Polyscope Company, and it was a 2000 foot film -- a "two-reeler." Silent films were literally advertised by physical length of the film -- the running time depending on how fast or slow the projectionist ran it, and in this case it would probably have been in the range of 24 to 28 minutes.

And like most films from back then, it doesn't look like any copies have survived...

UPDATE: Elizabeth Dalabahn from the Library of Congress sends this very happy news: they have a partial print! The cast includes one Thomas J Carrigan.

Sunday, July 01, 2007


Doc's Revenge

On Friday the Supreme Court threw out the ban on minimum pricing that has been around since the Dr. Miles decision of 1911. In short, manufacturers haven't been able to dictate prices to retailers, only "suggest" them. But now?...

From Forbes:

In a 1911 decision, the Supreme Court had declared that minimum pricing agreements always violate federal antitrust law. But minimum price agreements can benefit consumers, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority, by enabling retailers to invest in customer service or provide more retail space to a specific product without fear of being undercut by discount rivals....

During oral arguments in the case in March, Justice David Souter suggested that the success of big-box discounters such as Wal-Mart, Target Corp. and Home Depot Inc. is related to the elimination of minimum price agreements.

It's a remarkable decision, and all the more noticeable in that it has generated no conversation yet on its potential effects over the long term to bookselling. Chains live on a steady diet of deeply discounted bestsellers. Should a major book conglomerate decide to impose minimum pricing, chains will no longer take this tactic entirely for granted, and may lose a vital advantage over indies.

There's no telling yet whether this is even remotely likely to happen, but it's certainly not a hypothetical notion. From 1899 to 1996 British publishers had minimum pricing under the Net Book Agreement; its repeal threw open the doors to chains and the reign of King Wottakar and Sir Pot Snack.

The NBA survived a number of legal challenges and revisions over the years, for the simple reason that it did at least some good for the British public. A 1963 Modern Law Review article quotes the UK's Restrictive Practices Court 1957 ruling on what they feared would happen if minimum pricing was eliminated:

"The number of stockholding booksellers in the country would be reduced. The stocks held by surviving stockholding booksellers would be less varied than at present. Althought in rare cases purchasers might be able to buy particular titles more cheaply than if the the agreement remained in force, the retail prices of most books would be higher. Fewer titles would be published, and those which failed to find a publisher... would include works of probable literary and scholastic value."

Sound familiar?

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