Saturday, February 28, 2009


What's Good For General Motors Was...

...maybe not so great for you.

I'm in this week's New Scientist with a piece on the Cornell-Liberty Mutual Survival Car, and the tremendous resistance safety reforms faced from Detroit in the 1950s and 1960s:

"The level of safety [in cars] which we accept for ourselves, our wives, and our children is... on a par with shipping fragile, valuable objects loose inside a container," warned Hugh DeHaven, a crash investigator at Cornell University's aeronautical laboratory in New York. As part of its pioneering Automotive Crash Injury Research Project, and with the help of two crash test dummies dubbed Thin Man and Half Pint, DeHaven and his colleagues vividly demonstrated how unbelted car drivers could be thrown into angular metal dashboards and unpadded steering wheels that concentrated the force of the impact like a meat cleaver. More often, the dummies were ejected through windscreens and doors, or propelled into rigid steering columns that snapped their necks or impaled their chests....

To show that a safe car could be made cheaply and appealingly from existing models, they produced Survival Car II: a 1960 Chevrolet Bel Air retrofitted for safety at minimal cost.... Crandell logged 240,000 kilometres driving one around the country to exhibitions.... American car firms were still not interested. A safe vehicle like the Survival Car was "completely unrealistic", proclaimed John Gordon, president of General Motors. "This company is run by salesmen not engineers," an engineer at Ford observed later. "The priority is styling, not safety."

The results of those rigid steering columns, by the way, are visible in photographs made public as early as 1961 from this UCLA crash test. These two dummies -- impaled on the spear-like column, and neck snapped and staring skywards -- is mute testimony to the near-criminal callousness of Detroit during those years:

Sunday, February 22, 2009


The Mendacity Society

A piece in TLS reviews Jenny Hartley's new study of a little-known casebook kept by Charles Dickens:

He catalogued the stories told him by the women – prostitutes, confidence tricksters, thieves and attempted suicides – whom he interviewed before they were admitted to Urania Cottage, the refuge for fallen women he established in Shepherd’s Bush in the 1840s and effectively directed for a decade or more.
What's remarkable to me is how ready Dickens was to help people that he hadn't even interviewed. Years ago -- as part of the old Collins Almanac site -- I jotted down this (truncated) transcription of an Illustrated London News article from May 25, 1844:

On Wednesday John Walker, a man of about forty-five years of age, was brought up in custody, and placed at the bar before Mr. Rawlinson, charged with having attempted to obtain from Mr. Charles Dickens (Boz), of No. 1, Devonshire-street, New-road, by means of false and fraudulent representations. The prisoners seemed in great distress of mind, and in the course of the inquiry frequently shed tears. It appeared Mr. Dickens had frequently relieved the prisoner in his distress, although he knew nothing of him whatever, until at last, after the most importunate solicitations, he instituted an inquiry, and found that, although the tale of distress was true enough, that many of his representations, such as the death of his wife etc., were fabricated for the purpose of stimulating the generosity of his benefactor. He considered he had no alternative.

Mr. Sturgen, the chief clerk of the Mendacity Society, proved that on the previous evening, between seven and eight o'clock, he went to 5 Mitre-Street, and the door was opened by a child. The prisoner, who came down, led him into a back kitchen, and, in answer to questions, he said he was in very great distress, so much so, as to be totally unable to procure even a very scanty meal. Witness told him that he thought it was great pity his wife didn't take in needle work to help support her family, when he said she had been ill, but was now much better, and that she would soon get into employ.

Upon prisoner's admission that his wife was living, he (prisoner) was given into custody, and after he was locked up, witness went back to the house, where he saw the wife and four children, who were evidently onto very great distress; he gave the poor woman a trifle, and afterwards sent to the station-house, and afforded relief to the prisoner; he had previously ascertained that the wife had recently been very ill.

[Judge] Mr. Rawlinson (to Mr. Knyvett): The prisoner, no doubt, has done wrong; but here is a case of great distress, and that distress is proved out of the mouth of the of your own officer; after that, do you really wish me to commit this man?

Mr. Knynett: No sir, I do not.

Mr. Rawlinson (to the prisoner): What have you to say?

Prisoner (after some hesitation, and in a faint tone of voice): I wrote that last letter at the eleventh hour, when we were so badly off, that we knew not what to do. I am sorry I overstepped the truth in saying that my wife was dead, but my motive was good, as we had not a bit of bread to eat. I have been a clerk and accountant, and from the period of losing my last situation, I have not been able to support myself or my family.

Mr. Rawlinson: You are evidently a man of good education, but it cannot be denied, and even you admit it yourself, that you put a falsehood in your last letter to Mr. Dickens. Under all the circumstances, you are discharged, and I am very sorry that you have all been brought here.

The man burst into tears, and before he quitted the court several persons relieved him.


Hometown Papers on the Ropes

When I was growing up, the local papers in my part of Pennsylvania ranged from the mighty Pottstown Mercury (circulation 27,500) to the Kutztown Patriot, published by Berks-Mont Newspapers:

Berks-Mont Newspapers can trace its history back to the beginnings of The Boyertown Area Times. The Times was founded on June 15, 1857. It was first published as a German weekly paper, Der Bauer, by G. H. Sassaman, who continued the publication until March of 1870. The owner sold the business to an employee, Augustus Moyer, and left Boyertown owing creditors between $3,000 and $4,000.

History repeats itself: the Journal Register Company, a chain that owns the Mercury and Berks-Mont and innumerable other little papers (as well as the New Haven Register), filed for bankruptcy yesterday.

Postscript: While I was posting this today, both of Philadelphia's dailies also went bankrupt.

Saturday, February 21, 2009


Noted Without Comment

(Found in St. Nicholas magazine, December 1917)


The Future!

Brought to you by Peter Ustinov after a couple pints:

(Omni: The New Frontier TV series, 1981)

Saturday, February 14, 2009


Must-Geek TV

I'm over in Slate with a piece on whether the sitcom The Big Bang Theory is built around a character with Asperger's.

TBBT took a while for me to warm up to -- to even consider watching, actually -- because it's hidden beneath conventional production, the kind of multi-camera configuration and laugh-trackish studio audience that usually warns you that spherical cow jokes need not apply. In other words, TBBT exists in Sitcom World: a place where all events take place indoors at an elevation of four to seven feet in a left-to-right band across a soundstage. (Think I Love Lucy and its many descendants, versus roving single-camera shows like 30 Rock.)

But the writing is what caught me, because -- as Discover columnist Phil Plait told me -- "Whoever wrote The Big Bang Theory understand geeks."

And when I called series co-creator and head writer Bill Prady -- guess what?.....

"I had a short-lived career as a computer programmer," admits co-creator Bill Prady on the phone from Warner Bros. Television. "I was a college dropout in New York City, working at a RadioShack, and I got involved creating the FilePro software for the TRS-80 at my friend Howie's place in Brooklyn." That would be Howard Wolowitz—whose name is now immortalized as one of the show's main characters...

"I just think of his actions as 'Sheldony.' Some things feel instinctively correct for his character," says Prady, who recalls one software colleague who couldn't go anywhere alone that he hadn't been to before. "He'd say, 'I can't go to 47th Street Photo by myself.' And it was maybe three blocks away. It was never questioned. Quirks were never challenged—they were simply accepted as a quality of the person."

"Are these things Asperger's?" he asks. "I don't know."

One interesting thing from talking with Prady that didn't make it into the piece was that originally he and producer Chuck Lorre were developing two separate shows -- one about Sheldon and Leonard, and another about an aspiring actress named Penny moving to the big city -- and both ideas seemed to be missing something, until one afternoon they went... "Say, what if...?"

Sunday, February 08, 2009


Catalogs as Fiction

From the Times earlier this week: the fictitious auction catalogue.

That a work of fiction has now assumed the form of an auction catalog could be seen as a sign of the times — deeply materialistic and, with a big recession on, increasingly for sale. But the artist and writer Leanne Shapton said that the idea for her novel, being published this week by Farrar Straus & Giroux under the unwieldy title “Important Artifacts and Personal Property From the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry,” came to her because she noticed how the lot descriptions in some estate catalogs added up to elliptical plots about the lives of the former possessors.

Curiously enough, a quick search turned up a 1790 "satire, in the form of an auction catalogue":

(The Fortsas hoax catalogue of 1840, incidentally, now appears to have a "1st person" account from none other than, ahem, Mssr. Fortsas himself...)


Bloody Foreigners

The latest Rolling Stone has a fun piece by David Browne on a 2,200 LP album library hidden in the White House:

During the waning days of the Nixon administration, the RIAA, the record companies' trade group, decided the library should include sound recordings as well as books. In 1973, the organization donated close to 2,000 LPs. The bad news: The selection was dominated by the likes of Pat Boone, the Carpenters and John Denver. In 1979, legendary producer John Hammond convened a new commission to update the list for the hipper Carter administration. "They felt they needed to redress some of the oversights that might have taken place the first time around," says Boston music critic and author Bob Blumenthal, who was put in charge of adding 200 rock records to the library.... They picked the Kinks' Arthur for its "theme of empire," and Blumenthal snuck in favorites like David Bowie's Hunky Dory.

On January 13th, 1981, the LPs — each in a sleeve with a presidential seal — were presented to Jimmy Carter at a White House ceremony. But the collection — placed in a hallway near the third-floor listening room, complete with a sound system — didn't remain upstairs long. When Ronald Reagan took office that year, the LPs were moved to the basement.

When I talked with Browne a few days ago, he had a neat tidbit that got cut for space from the piece: one of the great committee battles was whether to include an album by Foreigner. One "sorta more mainstream" member really liked "Double Vision," David explained, but the New York music critics on the panel clutched their heads in agony.

I don't know why, but I just find this an amusing scene to imagine.

Saturday, February 07, 2009


Sugar and Spice and Hops and Malt

A 1906 ad for Rainier Beer -- aka "Vitamin R" -- targets a wide demographic:

(Hat tip: The Stranger)


Are you a TOUGH GUY?

The Boing Boing title says it all: " t-shirts re-imagined as Mary Blair-style children's book illustrations."

Sunday, February 01, 2009


Dear Sir

Over in the Times of London, a review of a new history of personals ads:

In 1915, while other men fought the battles of Loos and Ypres, a comic novelist called Alfred Barrett, the former editor of Family Circle, spotted a gap in the market for a new magazine... Link specialised in the lonely-hearts column. Personal ads had been around since the late 17th century, but this was the first magazine entirely devoted to the search for marriage and companionship. This idea proved so shocking to early 20th-century public opinion that the title was closed down in 1921, and Barrett was sentenced to two years'hard labour for corrupting public morals.... Police were particularly interested in the number of young men who claimed to be artistic, musical, unconventional, or fans of Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman. Officers also had their doubts about women who claimed to be “jolly” or “sporty"...

Once newspapers had been invented in the middle of the 17th century, it didn't take long for personal ads to appear. By the 1750s they were so well established, albeit rather disreputable, that single men in possession of a good fortune would advertise even when they were not, strictly speaking, in want of a wife. An advert from 1750, featured in the book, reads: “Advertisements of this kind are often inserted by Gentlemen for their Diversion. I do therefore declare myself in earnest, and the real foundation of applying in this public way is a Want of Acquaintance in London sufficient to introduce me in a private one.” He was fussy, though: suitable young ladies must have no children, and a fortune of between £8,000 and £10,000.

It's a curious and peculiarly revealing subject -- check out this selection of 1820s personal ad responses that I included a couple years ago in The Believer. The rich history of classifieds has only really just begun to be uncovered.


Nooo Springs!

Can you get an 8 minute film out of obsessing over coiled metal springs?

Indeed you can:

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?