Sunday, March 30, 2008


The House of Cards

I'm in New Scientist with a piece on the Mundaneum, an early 20th century proto-Internet (or really, a proto-Wikipedia) where information was broken down into over 15 million index cards -- that's just a few of them in the picture above. In 1934, founder Paul Otlet envisioned users at multi-tasking telephone and TV equipped desks calling in information requests and commentary from around the world.

After being badly damaged in World War II, the Mundaneum wound up neglected in a former anatomy theater in Brussels; one of my interviewees recalled going up in a former cadaver elevator in 1968 and finding Otlet's office untouched 24 years after his death: "The building was freezing cold... Panes of glass were broken, and pigeons flew in. So the piles of books and documents were covered in these... layers. It was like an archeological dig."

Searching the history of index cards also led me to this odd incident:
Index cards used to be information technology's killer app... literally. In the US, for instance, the War Department struggled with mountains of haphazard medical files until the newly touted method of card filing was adopted in 1887. Hundreds of clerk transcribed personnel records dating back to the Revolutionary War. Housed in Ford’s Theatre in Washington DC - the scene of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination a generation earlier –the initiative succeeded a little too well. Six years into the project, the combined weight of 30 million index cards led to information overload: three floors of the theatre collapsed, crushing 22 clerks to death.

Saturday, March 29, 2008


The Prince of Chunkness

The recovery of a French paper-disc recording that predates Edison's gramophone does have admittedly low-fi sound -- but, to be fair, check out my favorite from WFMU's great Museum of Flexi-Discs: a Real Player movie of a novelty "self amplified" Skippy promo disc that sounds like the voice of Satan promoting peanut butter...

Sunday, March 23, 2008


Hello KC!

I'll be speaking at the Kansas City Art Institute this Wednesday night.


J-Rock + Alpacas = Art!

Someone has taken a great recent Japanese single -- "Beautiful Target" by 9 mm Parabellum Bullet -- and inexplicably matched it to pictures of staring alpacas:

I don't know why it works so hilariously well, but it does.

(Is Eggagog behind this?....)


I Am Haunted... The New-York Ghost!

I have a piece in there this week about, among other things, "a workshouse rave":

Forest Gate was the sort of London poor-school that might have been founded by Uriah Heep on a bad day. It had a long and distinguished history of providing medical journals with case studies in injury and mortality, beginning with a mass narcotic poisoning in 1875. It seems that fifty-six boys had taken to chewing laburnum roots—this, newspapers of the day graciously suggested, was due to root's resemblance to licorice sticks. Alas, Twizzlers do not grow underground, nor are Red Vines actual red vines. My own suspicion is that the grubby-faced boys had some notion of what was coming next after they started chewing. The result, recorded in 1876 by the journal Materia Medica, can only be described as a workhouse rave:

Their pupils were somewhat dilated. The sleepiness is said to have been intense... [and they] showed very strange waving motions of the arms to and fro, whilst now and then their legs, first one and then the other, were convulsively drawn up; in one of them there was a slight frothing at the mouth.

Confronted by the sight of nearly 5 dozen Victorian urchins simultaneously tripping their asses off, the Forest Gate staff administered duly Victorian remedies. The laburnum root was strong alkaloid stuff, though; ten hours later the boys still "went to sleep [even] while being walked about yard, after having cold douches, strong coffee, etc."

There is no record of any further root experimentation by the children.
If you haven't already subscribed to the Ghost (free!) by email -- then, god heavens, why not?

Saturday, March 22, 2008


Looking Up the Phone Book

I'm in Slate this week with a piece on the lost history of phone books:

The print run for the Manhattan directory alone passed the million mark in 1921. Within five years, it rose sixfold again and required a corps of 500 deliverymen, more than 500 rail-car loads of paper, and 100 tons of binding glue. And that's just in one city. The humble phone book spent the 20th century as the prince of print jobs. When AT&T gave all 2,400 local editions the same bicentennial commemorative cover, the resulting run of 187 million copies probably became the most reproduced book cover of all time. (Stanley Meltzoff's illustration of American archetypes playing "telephone" will induce the shock of long-forgotten memory in anyone over 35.)...

But despite being the most popular printed work ever, there's never been a single scholarly monograph on the phone book. There should be one: Its omnipresence has made it a barometer of societal change. In 1906, Jews in Trenton threatened to boycott Bell over a resort listing's promise, "Free From Hebrews and Tuberculosis Patients." Temperance groups in the North agitated to ban brewery ads from directories, while some Southern directories segregated into separate sections for "white" and "colored" numbers. Women's directory struggles are still within living memory: NYNEX's first listings for birth-control counseling only appeared in 1967, while Bell fought well into the late 1970s to deny women equal billing alongside their husbands in household listings, claiming it required too much extra paper and ink.

The phone book's familiarity also lent it to whimsical uses. The diminutive jazzman Errol Garner toured with one to toss on his piano bench. (You can glimpse it in the first seconds of this 1962 Amsterdam performance.) The Chiquiri Land Company once ordered two tons of used Manhattan directories for its armored payroll cars in Panama; they slipped perfectly between the studs of the armor for a handy extra layer of protection...

Weirdly enough, what got me thinking about phone books in the first place was an oddball search result that turned up a website -- and I am not making this up -- for a DVD titled How To Tear Phone Books In Half,

It champions the use of "legitimate" phone ripping techniques:

As for what illegitimate phone-book ripping must entail, well, the mind boggles.

Sunday, March 16, 2008


Cruel But Funny...

...Yesterday's Onion story Novelists Strike Fails to Affect Nation.

The strike, which scholars say could be the longest since 1951, when American novelists may or may not have voluntarily committed to a six-month work stoppage, has brought an immediate halt to all new novels, novellas, and novelettes from coast to coast, affecting no one.

Nor has America's economy seen any adverse effects whatsoever, as consumers easily adjust to the sudden cessation of any bold new sprawling works of fiction or taut psychological character studies. "There's a novelists strike?" Ames, IA consumer Carl Hailes said. "That's terrible. When is it scheduled to begin?"...


Nothing Doing

I've a Lost and Found piece in the latest Tin House about the hands-down winner for the best book title ever:
I don't know about you, but I wasted all but about fifteen minutes of my childhood. Those fifteen minutes were spent on a beach in Cornwall busting a nodule of quartz out of a fist-sized chunk of flint; thirty years later, I still have it somewhere in my office, in an old coffee can. Everything else I made during those years—the swords nailed together from old pickets, the forest forts that defended nothing from nobody, the poorly assembled Revell model cars with Tester's paint smeared lazily on them, the Sherman tanks drawn in near-medieval 2D perspective—they're all pretty much gone now.

Come to think of it, I haven't used the piece of quartz for much either.

But if I want reminding of where the rest of that time went, I have Robert Paul Smith's 1958 book How to Do Nothing With Nobody All Alone By Yourself. A step-by-step guide to grinding oyster shells against the front stoop for no damn reason, to turning buttons and string into buzzsaws that won't cut anything, and to making paper boomerangs that don't come back, Nothing is about what you do when you're nine years old and have neither money nor anyone paying much attention to you, and where your one guiding principle is that you avoid grown-ups and don't ask for help....

It is, in effect, a Dangerous Book for Boys for the 1950s. There's even a 20-page section on how to play Mumblety-Peg with a penknife -- something which no children's publisher in their right mind would dare to publish today.

Oh, the jolly lawsuits that would follow!

Saturday, March 15, 2008


At Death's Doorknob

Back in 2002 I had a piece in Cabinet covering Hemacite, a Victorian proto-plastic made from compressed cow's blood and sawdust. What, exactly, is cow blood and sawdust good for? Let's consult the Times for October 11, 1885:

Skating... on bloooood!

Even though the stuff was used for everything from drawer pulls to telephone receivers, Hemacite (and its French precursor, bois durci) has never really gotten its due in design history. But -- at last! -- someone has actually gone to the trouble of writing a book on it: Bois Durci: Un Plastique Naturel -- A Natural Plastic .

Sunday, March 09, 2008



The Times of London has an amusing little story this week on the respective Amazon bestsellers in different countries:
The British prefer celebrity chefs, TV presenters and trivia, with a light sprinkling of literary fiction.... There are only three novels in the list, the fewest of any country... There are seven works of fiction in’s Top Ten, most of them spectacularly French-sounding novels. They include: L’élégance du hérisson, about a suicidal girl and her apartment building’s philosophy-loving caretaker; Chagrin d’école, about a miserable student; and Un secret, set in the aftermath of the Nazi occupation and is the story of a sickly boy who invents an imaginary brother only to find out that such a brother did exist....

The American list is dominated by self-improvement . . . [while] Germans like books about travel and the outdoors.... Where the Germans really excel though is in the search for the driest bestseller. Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch, in eighth place, is the country’s civil code.

The Japanese list is all over the place, with books on health and beauty, a comedian's memoir, a book on viruses, the Tokyo Michelin guide, and -- of course -- three manga titles.

The best line of the piece, though, comes from the reader responses. The rather unfortunate headline "We Are, Literally, Stereotypical" brings this priceless comment: We aren't *literally* stereotypical or else we would look like printing blocks.

Saturday, March 08, 2008


Wolves: Not So Good at Child Care After All

A little trip down memory lane to a Weekend Stubble posting in May 22, 2005 about Misha Defonseca:

Cared for by a pack of wolves?


... I see that the book is also selling well under the title Surviving With Wolves on Amazon UK -- though, oddly, I don't see any newspaper coverage or reviews of it over there, either. Incidentally: has there ever been an actual substantiated case of a child being tended to by wolves? I mean, outside of Kipling stories?

Just wondering.

Well, I need wonder no more.

The small avalanche of faked memoir stories this week probably have as much to do with (ahem) pack reporting as with any sort of zeitgeist. The Australian's ongoing coverage of Ishmael Beah has around for a while with little traction; in fact, I was stunned a couple weeks ago to find them reporting a PSU colleague's discussion in Portland about the book's veracity. Why was I stunned? Because not only hadn't the Oregonian covered it, even the PSU campus newspaper hadn't run anything on it.

After Thursday's lengthy Slate piece on the alleged discrepancies, I suspect that situation will change.

In the mean time, the most extraordinary angle of the Defonseca case might not be the shockingly silly fiction that she used -- yes, and then magical unicorns carried me over the Swiss border! -- but that it was her own publisher who went after her with a blog asking for leads on the author's true identity....

Sunday, March 02, 2008


Best Anti-Sellers

Paul Constant in the week's issue of The Stranger on chasing bookstore thieves:
I chased them down crowded pedestrian plazas in the afternoon, I chased them through alleys at night, I even chased one into a train tunnel. I chased a book thief to the waterfront, where he shouted, "Here are your fucking books!" and threw a half-dozen paperbacks, including Bomb the Suburbs and A People's History of the United States, into Puget Sound, preferring to watch them slowly sink into the muck rather than hand them back to the bookseller they were stolen from....

Once, a scruffy, large man approached me, holding a folded-up piece of paper. "Do you have any Buck?" He paused and looked at the piece of paper. "Any books by Buckorsick?" I suspected that he meant Bukowski, but I played dumb, and asked to see the piece of paper he was holding. It was written in crisp handwriting that clearly didn't belong to him, and it read:

1. Charles Bukowski

2. Jim Thompson

3. Philip K. Dick

4. William S. Burroughs

5. Any Graphic Novel

This is pretty much the authoritative top five, the New York Times best-seller list of stolen books. Its origins still mystify me. It might have belonged to an unscrupulous used bookseller who sent the homeless out, Fagin-like, to do his bidding...
Not an entirely crazy notion, since a bookseller in Ann Arbor was busted last week for doing exactly that. When I was living in the Haight in the mid-90s, there was a huge bust of a multimillion dollar Bay Area book theft ring run by John Capman, the owner of the Writer's Bookstore over on Webster Street. (Capman's house, rather inconveniently for him, had 89 cartons of stolen books in it when he was arrested.)

The MO never changes much: jackets with special pockets for art books are de rigeur. Over twenty years ago, one bookseller complained in a letter to the Times:

For many years, I purchased books for and managed large bookshops in the Rockefeller Center area and in the World Trade Center. When I was first alerted to the rings of professional book thieves I was stunned, appalled, enraged and frustrated.

Some thieves have special pockets made in coats or jackets to hold what we term in the trade a ''pocket of books,'' that is, five or six copies of a title. These men are slick. They wait for an opportune moment and are in and out, often with as much as $500 to $1,000 of books at a clip...

Some have more than 100 arrests. They get off, so police action is mostly a lost cause. Before Brentano's closed, the head of security gave me his rogues gallery of photos of the top 10 pros in the area. I posted the photos near the door. One of my regulars stopped by to tell me the picture of him was not flattering. Once I shouted, ''Stop you rotten thief!'' The retort was: ''I am not rotten. I am the best!''
The choicest titles for thieves -- what Constant brilliantly labels Best Anti-sellers -- also haven't changed much. In a 1999 article for SF Weekly, Jack Boulware nails the eternal best anti-seller:
"A lot of film books, a lot of Bukowski," says a clerk at City Lights in North Beach, when asked about local shoplifting tastes.

"I have, in the past, locked up Kerouac and Bukowski," says Jude Sales, manager of A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books.

"Always Bukowski," says Gary Frank, of the Booksmith in the Upper Haight.

"Bukowski!" exclaims a clerk at Modern Times in the Mission. "I just had to stop someone last week, who was taking the entire section!"

"I would have to say Bukowski," says a clerk at Green Apple Books in the Richmond.

Also vying for top honors, according to Book People in Austin: the King James Bible.

Saturday, March 01, 2008


The Plagiarism God Hurls Down a Thunderbolt

Writers keep stealing, and Google keeps cutting off their hands.

The extraordinary thing about yesterday's White House aide flap is just how quickly it unfolded. Timothy Goeglein's newspaper column ran in the Fort Wayne News Sentinel on Thursday; at 7:38 Friday morning, Nancy Nall's blog entry eviscerated the piece with paragraph after paragraph of Google-linked damning evidence. By 11:12 Talking Points Memo picked it up, and by 2:08 the Washington Post reported that competing hometown paper Journal Gazette had a confession from Goeglein. By 2:38 the AP announced that the White House had issued a statement of "disappointment" in their aide; he resigned within about an hour, and by 4:31 word of his resignation had even gone international with a BBC story.

It probably tells you something about the hee-lariously arthritic pace of print media that, as of this morning, the News Sentinel website has not added any kind of, um, editorial note to the article that caused all this fuss. It's still just sitting there, innocent and apple-cheeked, edifying the fine folk of Fort Wayne.

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