Wednesday 20 June 2018

doctor, is there something i can take

Frequently I wake up with a song in my head—usually quite random and completely non-sequitur, and this day was no exception with the “Coconut Song” by Harry Edward Nilsson III (1941* - 1994†)—which to be honest I couldn’t name the singer-songwriter behind it until my curiosity was piqued.
Leading a tumultuous, colourful life and career that was tangentially associated with the Beatles and the Monkees, I did some cursory research and learned he was the son of impoverished Swedish circus performers in upstate New York and ran away at an early age to Los Angeles, demonstrating first an aptitude for computers and electronics before pursuing music. Living in Mayfair for almost the entire decade of the 1970s, his flat in Curzon Place was decorated by Ringo Starr’s design company ROR (Ringo or Robin [Cruikshank]) who sublet the place during an extended leave of absence to performer Cass Elliot (former member of the Mamas & the Papas) who died of heart-failure after a strenuous show at the London in 1974. Nilsson ultimately sold the apartment in 1978 to Pete Townshend when band-mate of The Who Keith Moon died of an overdose whilst staying there. Other songs of Nilsson’s include “Me and my Arrow” from The Point!, the theme and incidental music for The Courtship of Eddie’s Father and score for the 1980 film adaptation of Popeye. In any case, one could wake up to far worse musical accompaniment.

Sunday 27 May 2018


Reckoned from when Tsar Peter the Great laid the groundwork for the Fortress of Peter and Paul at the estuary where the River Neva empties into the Gulf of Finland on the Baltic to protect his recent conquests in the Great Northern War from resurgent Swedish colonists, the grand city of Saint Petersburg’s founding is traced to this date (16 May, Old Style) in 1703, making this the three hundred and fifteenth anniversary.
In order to fulfil aspirations as a world power, Peter concluded that Russia needed a seaport and the empire’s harbour in Arkhangelsk which was frozen over half the year was not surfeiting that requisite. After conscripting labourers from all over Russia, the city was ready for occupation and the capital was moved from Moscow, where it remained until the dissolution of Imperial Russia after the October Revolution in 1917 and was renamed Petrograd—to remove any Germanic sounding elements and the capital restored to Moscow. Called Leningrad during Communist times, the original name was adopted again with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Along with Moscow and Sevastopol (another important port on the Black Sea founded some eight decades later with the annexation of the once independent Khanate of the Crimea as an outcome—previously here and here, of the Russo-Turkish War), Saint Petersburg is counted among three federal cities and constituencies of the Russian Federation. Learn more at the city’s official web-site, in Russian and English.

Monday 21 May 2018

playbill and pressbook

Though honoured and acknowledged throughout his career that spanned seven decades and intersected with the canon of every major producer, director and actor in Hollywood, the name Bill Gold, who passed away over the weekend at age 97, may not register for many though his signature style as the public face of cinema’s coming-attractions most certainly will be instantly recognisable. Establishing himself with a commission to do the publicity posters for Yankee Doodle Dandy in 1942, Gold created thousands of display materials for the box-office and bill-board, most prolific during the 1970s and 1980s—though coming out of semi-retirement to design posters for Mystic River and J. Edgar. Read a retrospective and sample a gallery of more of Gold’s iconic work at this American Film Institute profile from 2016.

homage to the square

Artist and educator Josef Albers (1888* - 1976†) joined the Bauhaus movement (previously) and was celebrated in both the Weimar and the Dessau camps matriculating new members into the principles of handcrafts and was promoted to a full professorship and collaborated with artists like Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky with furniture designs and glassworks, until the artistic cooperative was forced to disperse under pressure from the ascendant Nazi government. Albers immigrated to America and was sponsored by Black Mountain College of North Carolina, offered a teaching position at the new school of arts.
Perhaps best known for his series of mediations, studies—numbering in the hundreds like this “Homage to the Square: Unexpected Turn” (1959) or “Saturated” (1962) that he executed with a palette knife and meticulous recorded the pigments, Albers was completely given to teaching, owing that institutionalised no one was an artist or master and that all were learners and developed an influential treatise on the theory of colour (available as an app) as well as developing the foundational curriculum for the discipline which is now called graphic design.

Thursday 17 May 2018


First published and distributed in 1909 by the Wobblies of Spokane, Washington, the Little Red Songbook—officially Songs of the Industrial Workers of the World—was a rousing compilation of standards meant to engender solidarity and lift the spirits of the marginalised. Nearly two hundred different songs were captured in editions that ran until 1973, including the anthem “The Red Flag,” which was adopted in 1945 by the British and Irish Labour parties—later in translation by the North Korean armed forces. Traditionally sung at the conclusion of every party congress—though under the leadership of Tony Blair the practise was discouraged. With the chorus:

Then raise the scarlet standard high.
Beneath its shade we’ll live and die,
Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer,
We’ll keep the Red Flag flying here.

Sung to the tune of O Tannenbaum! (“Oh Christmas Tree” rather disconcertingly) the song’s stanzas (with the choral refrain in between) are as follows:

The People’s Flag is deepest red,
It shrouded oft our martyred dead,
And ere their limbs grew stiff and cold,
Their hearts’ blood dyed its every fold.

Look round, the Frenchman loves its blaze,
The sturdy German chants its praise,
In Moscow’s vaults its hymns were sung
Chicago swells the surging throng.

It waved above our infant might,
 When all ahead seemed dark as night;
It witnessed many a deed and vow,
We must not change its colour now.

It well recalls the triumphs past,
It gives the hope of peace at last;
The banner bright, the symbol plain,
Of human right and human gain.

It suits today the weak and base,
Whose minds are fixed on pelf and place
To cringe before the rich man’s frown,
And haul the sacred emblem down.

With head uncovered swear we all
To bear it onward ‘til we fall;
Come dungeons dark or gallows grim,
This song shall be our parting hymn.

Friday 4 May 2018

electoral college

On this day in 1733, polymath and political scientist Jean-Charles de Borda was born in the Aquitaine city of Dax whose most significant contribution to the sciences were his precise tables of logarithms meant to help with the transition to the metric system and decimalisation (including the calendar) in general after the French Revolution.
We are probably more familiar with him for his namesake method of voting, however, referred to as the Borda Count, wherein constituents rank candidates in order of preference and the overall winner secures his or her standing via consensus rather than a bald majority. Only three governments currently use the inclusive, weighted criteria of the Borda Count in some form for national elections—Kiribati, Nauru and Slovenia—but a large number of student body government and academic races are decided by these means as well as many sporting superlatives and significantly the winners of the Eurovision Song Contest are picked by a modified form of Borda’s system too. Maybe these other institutions are on to something.


We rather enjoyed considering the etiquette, etymology and superstitions attached to leftovers and the convention of the doggie bag and had to wonder if the term was really falling out of common-parlance—the “this is for my pet” cover story having been dispensed with a while ago and restaurants in many places glad to pack up the remainders of one’s meal (though as correctly pointed out, not all cultures are accommodating to this notion).
We couldn’t determine the prevalence of this vernacular phrase exactly, which some suspect might be a corruption of docky (lunch) bag from an old East Anglican word but we’re siding with the canines and hope it has not already fallen out of fashion, but did to our unending delight run into another inscrutable pet name in that a traditional English breakfast, constituted of leftovers from the night before—usually boiled potatoes (though after a special meal, sometimes meat) and fried cabbage, is called “bubble and squeak.” The expression is a bit of onomatopล“ia, referring to the sounds preparing the food side-by-side makes and first appears in print oddly in dramatist Thomas Bridges 1762 A Travesty of Homer, a parody of The Illiad: “We therefore cooked him up a dish of lean bull-beef, with cabbage fry’d, …Bubble, they call this dish, and squeak.”

Tuesday 27 February 2018

monte carlo method

Notwithstanding the adage that only God can generate truly random numbers—that is outcomes not contingent on some inscrutable or traceable series of prior actions—or the pronouncement that God does not play dice, in 1955 (and reprinted to the playful derision of critics in 2001) the RAND Corporation published its big book of random numbers, one of the last in the genre, under the title A Million Random Digits with 100,000 Normal Deviates. Made obsolete by the ability of computers to generate serviceably pseudo-random numbers (much like logarithmic tables), such endeavours, made with a roulette wheel and a computer, were important and foundational brokers in cryptography and security ciphers.

Sunday 25 February 2018

full fathom five

Our morning mediations come courtesy of Fancy Notions with a calm but catchy introduction to the cinematography and scoring of a pioneering New Zealander named Len Lye. Combining experimental film with kinetic sculpture and travelling widely through the South Pacific, Lye became a student of Aboriginal cultures and was one of the first European settlers (pฤkehฤ is the Mฤori term for such an outsider) to appreciate and incorporate their art.

This highlight reel from his 1936 animated short “Rainbow Dance” was filmed in Gasparcolor—one of the forerunners along with Dufaycolor, before Technicolor became the industry standard. You can find a wealth of his other works (including the above titled musical composition, which might have a familiar ring to it) curated by the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre, your local library or via your trusty search engines.

Monday 19 February 2018


Inscribed on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage in 2016, the priory on the hillside in ร‰veux near Lyon was commissioned by the local order of Dominican monks from architects Le Corbusier and Iannis Xenakis back in 1953—construction concluding in 1960, with the compound Sainte Marie de la Tourette coming to represent one of the most exemplary structures of the late Modernist and Brutalist style.
Its one hundred cells and study halls still serve an active though declining population of friars but the with the convent having become one of the pilgrimage destinations of adherents of iconic architecture, it still attracts many visitors and offers overnight accommodations to help offset the costs of upkeep.


a murder most foul: an interactive map of crime scenes and hauntings of Victorian London, via Things Magazine

crying in public: a comparable emotional map of New York City, via Waxy

klimaendring: receding glaciers are revealing ancient artefacts in Norway faster than archaeologists can keep up, via Strange Company

editorial board: moving beyond titles and suggested topics, neural networks are being trained to write Wikipedia articles, via Slashdot

expo 67: Canada Modern archives the early golden age of the country’s contemporary graphic design movement, via Present /&/ Correct

postcards from sakha: photographer documents like in Yakutsk, Russia’s arctic republic

Friday 16 February 2018

our russian chauffer, picov andropov

Our thanks to Weird Universe, the elevation of Monsignor Jaime L Sin, archbishop of Manila, to senior ecclesiastical leader, i.e., Cardinal Sin, the career-paths of several high court judges and the Mona Lisa smile of Dona del Giocondo for pointing us towards the term that describes how some individuals gravitate towards a profession that fits their family name, nominative determinism.
While there are surely more examples of people entering a trade where their name has no correspondence, when there is a match, it becomes quite resonant and theories abound regarding that calling, from unconscious wish-fulfilment, obligation or peer-pressure, and even inherited traits of careers passed down from one generation to the next—e.g., families of Smiths, Tailors, Bakers and Carpenters. Though fewer and fewer matriculate through those ranks these days, when one is true to their name, it is noteworthy and earns the neologism aptronym (rather than patronym) for being particularly apt and well-suited. Have you encountered any particularly good examples of this phenomenon? Doctors and lawyers seem really prone to such quirks of destiny.

Monday 12 February 2018


Though probably better remembered for his later career as an industrial designer and architect for his contributions to the Walt Disney Studios compound in Burbank, California and a few neighbourhoods of surrounding Hollywoodland, Kem Weber helped to inform the stylistic sleek and iconic “Streamline” look. Moreover, though not a commercial success despite inclusion in the 1928 International Exposition of Art in Industry due to the Great Depression and outbreak of war, Weber introduced the idea of furniture to be assembled by the consumer, rather than transporting a finished piece from the showroom floor a decade before IKEA grew from a workshop into a single outlet and then going on to become a global brand. Weber’s Airline Chair of 1934 was shipped in a cardboard box that was easily toted away, to be put together (with confidence) at home.
Years ahead of the mid-century whose style he defined, Weber was a pioneer but with the infusion of the talent of fellow creative individuals fleeing totalitarian regimes in Europe (of Berlin-extraction, his adopted first name was composed of the initial letters of Karl Emmanuel Martin, wanting to make a less Germanic new persona for himself) and materials and designs derivative of the war-effort, he was not considered on the cutting edge for very long, supplanted by subsequent generations, indebted to his vision.

Tuesday 6 February 2018


Recently my subscription to the Oxford English Dictionary’s Word of the Day (read about the founding contributors to the living document here) introduced me to the delightfully Latinate nonce word, uttered—or rather—committed to paper only once by Scottish epigrammist and translator Sir Thomas Urquhart of Comarty, quomodocunquizing. The term is defined as the act of making money by any means possible and appears in his 1652 work Ekskybalauron (Greek for gold out of dung and subtitled Or, the Discovery of the Most Exquisite Jewel, a prospectus on constructing a universal language) in the context, “those quomodocunquizing clusterfists and rapacious varlets.” On a side note, staunch Royalist and erstwhile political prisoner during the reign of Oliver Cromwell, Urquhart’s cause of death is listed as laughter, dying in a fit after having received the news of the restoration of the Stuart crown.

our daughters’ daughters will adore us

Today marks the centenary of some women in the United Kingdom securing the right to vote in the United Kingdom. As with most European nations, suffrage came as World War I was reaching its conclusion and during the inter war years that followed and marked a significant turning point but not the culmination of a decades’ long struggle for equal voice and representation.
After having expanded the vote to all males without qualification due to manpower shortages during the war-effort—occupational credentials having hitherto been a voting requirement for the unlanded, parliamentarians realised that they could not maintain the fiction that women, who were also stepping up to fulfil vital positions in industry and research, were incapable of political engagement. Negotiations ensued and the Representation of the People Act 1918 was passed that provided women who were married to householders or were heads-of-household in their own right, occupiers of property with an annual rent of at least five pounds sterling, graduates of a British university and over the age of thirty (for men, it was twenty-one) could vote. Momentum continued (though not without backbiting and periods of regression) and in November of the same year, an act was passed allowing women, twenty-one years and older, to stand for parliamentary elections and be elevated from within to ministerial positions. A decade later, the Equal Franchise Act made all terms and conditions the same.

Wednesday 31 January 2018

e.o. 9835

In 1974, Richard Nixon ordered the abolishment of the running compilation of groups considered as subversive and threats to the American way of life referred to as the Attorney General’s List of Subversive Organisations (AGLOSO) that was created in 1947 at the behest of the Harry S Truman administration to deflect increasingly vocal criticism by Republicans that the Democrats were tolerant of communists. One prong of the programme and image-campaign, it was drawn up after Truman issued an executive order that established a national litmus test for the leanings and loyalties of federal employees. Another tine provided for the establishment of a Loyalty Review Board to counter the reflex for a witch-hunt or purge by those deputised with the power of confirming and conferring allegiance. Screening could be conducted in the background and netted three hundred certifiable security risks out of three million workers. Though the decree was repealed by Eisenhower six years later—in deed but perhaps not in spirit—it’s immediate successor was the House Un-American Activities Committee and the impugning investigations that the original intent sought to avoid, recognising the danger of staffing a government from top to bottom with those with undeviating political views.

solve for x

With the exception of noted jerks like Edison and Ford, we’d like to think that our forward-looking titans of physics are above reproach and honest-brokers that give credit where credit is due, but I was rather deflated and despondent to learn how Wilhelm Conrad Rรถntgen rather brazenly took all the praise and recognition away from a fellow physicist for the discovery of x-rays.  Ivan Puluj (who did not win the Nobel prize and does not have a chemical element and a mountain in Antarctica named after him) taught with Rรถntgen at the University of Vienna, and Puluj’s focus was on research into the nature of beams of electrons (cathode rays) and how those might be harnessed and designed what was dubbed a Puluj lamp (tube) to produce and direct them. Recognising the potential for medical imaging, Puluj even produced photographs of skeletal structures—at a higher qualities than those that Rรถntgen exhibited—not with electrons but rather with a collateral, hitherto unknown ray and apparently his inability to couch his discovery in the latest terminology cost him the honours.

Sunday 28 January 2018

lady driver

Via the sub-reddit of the same name, today we learned about the intrepid Canadian adventurer who gave herself the appropriate travelling credentials as Aloha Wanderwell. Her family devotedly followed her father as he went off to combat in Ypres in World War I and remained there after he was killed in action. The mother, hoping to turn her daughter from her unladylike ways sent Idris (her given name) off to a series of boarding schools in Belgium and then in Nice—but to little avail. Still a teenager, she heard of an around the world endurance automotive race, a stunt to prove the reliability of the Ford line of vehicles, and met with its organizer a “Captain” Walter Wanderwell (an individual of Polish extraction called Valerian Johannes Pieczynski who was imprisoned during the during of the war under suspicion of being a German spy) to say she wanted to join the exposition.
Rather presumptively, she took the name Wanderwell with the stage-name Aloha, despite the fact that the captain was still married to his first wife Nell (no clear indication that she inspired the Perils of Penelope Pitstop) and became part of the crew in 1922. Learning to operate all manner of conveyance including a seaplane and documenting all the adventures across five continents and through over forty countries on sixty canisters of nitrate film, the team spent three years circumnavigating the globe, earning her the title of the “First Female to Drive Around the World,” doubtless an excellent superlative to have and well-earned but it did rather miss out on the other laudable work she performed as a mechanic, a translator, navigator and film-maker, which includes a lot of unique and rare footage. While on the South American leg of their journey in 1931, the Wanderwells travelled to Brazil and became the first Westerners to contact Borobo tribe while on their main, auxillary mission to track down Colonel Percival Fawcett missing on his own hunt for the legendary Lost City of Z. The Wanderwells failed to find that expedition and picked up a mutineer of their own in the process who murdered the captain once they arrived back in Long Beach, California where they had sent up home. Undaunted, Aloha recovered and re-married, eventually touring (under her own power) over eighty countries and driving over a half a million miles, dying surely restlessly at age 89 in 1996.

Sunday 21 January 2018

operation chrome dome

Fifty years ago today, a nuclear-armed B-52 stratofortress bomber was flying an alert mission over Greenland (well after America’s overtures to purchase the world’s largest island) and experienced a cabin fire that prompted six out of seven crew members to safely jettison and abandon the aircraft and its payload of four hydrogen bombs before it could reach the landing field at Thule.
The craft went down in the icy North Star Bay and the ensuing explosion of the fuselage and the conventional munitions on board caused the nuclear shells to rupture and contaminate the wider Bay of Baffin. The US and Denmark launched a massive containment and recovery effort that cost the equivalent of a billion dollars and one warhead was never recovered and the country’s tacit support of the deterrence exercises that kept twelve of such bombers aloft at all times (the US Strategic Air Command’s Chrome Dome) on the periphery of Soviet airspace was in direct violation of Denmark’s official anti-nuclear stance. Responders worked quickly to remove radioactive ice before the summer thaw that would have caused an even larger area to be impacted and hauled away tonnes of ice and debris during the extreme arctic winter in what was deemed officially Project Crested Ice (our faithful chronicler Doctor Caligari links to some news reel footage) but referred to by workers—many of whom later suffered radiation sickness—as Dr Freezelove in homage to the 1964 Stanley Kubrick release.

Sunday 14 January 2018

we have thought proper by these presents, to notify the good citizens of these united states

Though preliminary articles of peace were drawn up by the Continental Congress the previous April, the American Revolutionary War did not officially end until this day in 1784 with the ratification of the Treaty of Paris by the colonies’ assent in the Maryland State House in Annapolis, the then capitol. According to the rules on entering into treaties and accords established in the Articles of Confederation, delegates from at least nine colonies (states) were needed to comprise a quorum but due to the severity of the winter weather, only seven were present and it seemed unlikely any more could make the arduous journey.
The reason that more than a simple majority was stipulated and the cause for Thomas Jefferson’s insistence was that with only a bald majority’s acquiescing, Britain could later reasonably declare the terms of the treaty invalid and renege on the deal. Going ahead with just seven and compromising constitutional law this early on in the nation’s history was, according to Jefferson, a dishonourable prostitution of the Great Seal of the United States. Finally, a deal was reached whereby a stay of three months would be requested until such time as other representatives could arrive, or that if Great Britain were to sue for immediate resolution, that the matter be agreed to with seven members but without the competency of precedence nor of the legislature.