Friday, June 18, 2010

Life is a Ride

"The World is like a ride in an amusement park. And when you choose to go on it you think it's real, because that's how powerful our minds are. And the ride goes up and down and round and round, and it has thrills and chills and it's very brightly colored, and it's very loud. And it's fun, for a while.

Some people have been on the ride for a long time, and they've begun to question, 'Is this real, or is this just a ride?', and other people have remembered, and they've come back to us and they say 'Hey, don't worry. Don't be afraid, ever, because this is just a ride.' ...and we kill those people.

"Shut him up! We have a lot invested in this ride! SHUT HIM UP! Look at my furrows of worry. Look at my big bank account, and my family. This has to be real."

It's just a ride.

But we always kill those good guys who try and tell us that. You ever noticed that? And let the demons run amok. But it doesn't matter, because...'s just a ride."

Bill Hicks - "It's Just A Ride" (YouTube).

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Gloria Vanderbilt

The glamorous heiress Gloria Vanderbilt personifies the youth of the Dieselpunk era in many ways. Born in 1924, she became the recipient of half a $5,000,000 trust fund at the age of 15 when her father, Reginald Claypoole Vanderbilt, died of cirrhosis of the liver.

Amid accusations of going on spending sprees with the child's funds, however, her mother's parental rights were terminated in a noisy investigation and subsequent trial in 1933. Gloria's paternal Aunt Gertrude took custody of the child and became executrix to the trust fund. (When Vanderbilt came of age and took control of her trust fund, she cut her mother off entirely, although later in life she did provide for her needs in old age. Her mother died in 1965.)

Vanderbilt went to art school, then spent a lot of time in Hollywood, leading a laissez-faire bohemian existence on her trust fund. She went through a line of husbands, including conductor Leopold Stokowski, director Sidney Lumet (Twelve Angry Men, The Fugitive Kind, Serpico, Murder on the Orient Express, The Wiz, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead) and author Wyatt Emory Cooper.

It was with Cooper that Vanderbilt had two children: Carter Cooper (1965–1988) and Anderson Cooper. Carter committed suicide on July 22, 1988, leaping from the family's 14th floor apartment after reportedly suffering a psychotic episode brought on by a prescription pharmaceutical.

Anderson Cooper, of course, went on to fame as a CNN reporter with a reputation for "fluffy" reporting and playing fast and loose with the facts. Keith Olbermann once said of him on his "Worst Person in the World" segment: "Is Anderson Cooper the only person that doesn't know that Anderson Cooper is not actually a TV journalist but just an experiment in mass marketing?"

But before the job at CNN fell into his lap, he attended Yale and was a member of a Skull & Bones-related secret society called The Manuscript Society. After two years working for the CIA, Cooper abruptly decided to pursue a journalism career, despite having no formal journalism education. Stranger still, he took a year off from journalism in the 1990s and moved to Vietnam, where he studied at the University of Hanoi and learned to speak Vietnamese fluently.

(And yet, as a guest on the C-SPAN program Students & Leaders, Cooper said he has since forgotten how to speak the language. Something about that just doesn't jibe to me as I put it in my pipe and try to smoke it.)

During the 1970s and 1980s, Gloria became a fashion icon as her line of blue jeans made her a household name. Lines of perfume and home furnishings soon followed.

In 2009, at the age of 85, Gloria Vanderbilt released a novel entitled Obsession: An Erotic Tale, that shocked everyone. According to Wikipedia:

The book has garnered media attention for its racy content, including, "scenes involving dildos, whips, silken cords and golden nipple clamps... spanking... Mint, cayenne pepper and a fresh garden carrot.. deployed in ways never envisioned by "The Joy of Cooking." And there is also a unicorn, though, blessedly, it remains a bystander."

Cornelius Vanderbilt, the patriarch of the family, was born in 1794 and became the world's richest man by way of the rail and steamboat industries. It was said he had a keen interest in spiritualists and consulted them regularly.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Return of Lunokhod

Last fall here, we mentioned an obscure Russian robotic moon rover called Lunokhod 1 that had not been heard from since 1971 and was considered lost. Well, our old friend Lunokhod has turned up in the news, and he's back from the dead.

In April 2010, the location of Lunokhod 1 was discovered by the Lunar Recon Orbiter. The Apache Point Observatory Lunar Laser-ranging Operation team at UC San Diego then tried shining a laser beam at that location, because they knew it was fitted with corner-cube prisms that return any incident light back to the direction from which it came. That returning light can then be "caught" and analyzed. The team was astounded by what happened next. From NASA:

"We got about 2,000 photons from Lunokhod 1 on our first try. After almost 40 years of silence, this rover has a lot to say," notes Murphy.

Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Apollo astronauts placed three other retroflectors on the Moon to allow laser ranging of the Moon's orbit. Assisted by a fourth reflector on Lunokhod 2, a twin of Lunokhod 1 that landed in 1973, these mirrors constitute the only Apollo science experiment still operating.

Eric Silverberg, now retired from the University of Texas, was in charge of the lunar laser ranging activities at the McDonald Observatory from 1969 until 1982. "During that time," he recalls, "we successfully ranged all three of the Apollo corner reflectors and the Lunakhod 2 reflector. We also tried to range on the first lunar rover but had only one possible (but not definite) detection on Dec 31, 1970. Our lack of knowledge of the location of the rover and the pressures of keeping up with the Apollo program caused us eventually to lose interest in Lunakhod 1."

"When I read that Tom Murphy had discovered returns from the lost rover I was very surprised and elated," says Silverberg.

Murphy's initial reaction was disbelief: "The signal was so strong, my first thought was that our detector was acting up! I expected the rover's reflector to be degraded and dull after all this time, so I thought, 'this couldn't possibly be it.' But it was."

"This reflector is even strong enough to let us get measurements in lunar daylight – a first for this experiment!"

Silverberg continues: "The fact that Lunokhod 1's reflection is now stronger than that of its twin is a mystery."

Monday, June 7, 2010

Personal Submarine

I want one! As shown on, this Russian fellow has built his own personal one-man submarine, and it looks splendid.

Naturally, I'd like to have mine a little more tricked out with a Jules Verne sort of vibe, though. And with internet access, in-dash radio and mp3 player, and a fully stocked miniature bar so I can drink Blue Leaders and listen to Lud Gluskin records beneath the sea.

According to the site:

This small submarine can go as fast as four knots and can make a nonstop underwater trip from St. Petersburg to Helsinki, Finland and back again. The owner had made this personal underwater vehicle officially registered as a boat by Russian boat registry to get its personal name and number. It’s the smallest submarine in Russia, or perhaps in the globe.

The article doesn't say to what depths the mini-sub can descend, but even if it can't withstand much pressure, it would still be very useful to take a bunch of these out on an expedition to survey the situation at the current BP oil leak disaster.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Cog is Dead

My new favorite Steampunk band - The Cog Is Dead.

According to their own bio:

The Cog is Dead is a time traveling band with a bit of a musical identity crisis. Formed in Grimsby, England in 1893, the Cog is Dead have traveled to various points of time in an effort to save clockwork mechanics and steam power! Along the way they have discovered several types of marvelous music which has helped to inspire their own.

Hear their delightful anti-digital waltz anthem "Death of the Cog" on their YouTube here and check out more songs on their MySpace here.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Mysterious Marion Harris

For decades now, the generally accepted history of Jazz considers the first Jazz record to have been "Dixie Jass Band One Step"/"Livery Stable Blues", a 78rpm by The Original Dixieland Jass Band. It was released in May 1917 on the Victor label.

And the myth has been perpetuated that the earliest Blues (whatever that really means) recordings were those of Mamie Smith, circa 1920. As conventional historical wisdom used to have it, Mamie's pioneering recordings made way for more successful followers like Bessie Smith.

So it's a real anomaly, then, to find out that a white singer named Marion Harris was recording as early as 1916, doing Jazz-Blues standards such as "I Ain't Got Nobody" and "A Good Man is Hard to Find". By comparison, most other female vocalists making records at that time sounded more like Alma Gluck, with dry and dreadful pomposity conjuring up images of prim "society ladies" like Aunt Bee or Mrs. Drysdale.

The real lesson to be learned here is one which Nick Tosches so wisely pointed out long ago in his landmark book Country: that the line between genres like country, jazz, blues have always been nebulous and blurred, and have never known set-in-stone racial boundaries. It seems that for every instance of a historical 'first' in music one identifies, an earlier progenitor can always be found if you look hard enough.

Blues singer Ma Rainey, whose recording career began in 1923, was actually performing music in that same style as early as the late 19th century on the Vaudeville circuit, and for a time led a band called "The Assassinators of the Blues" - before the Blues supposedly existed!

Henry Thomas made Blues recordings in 1927, but he was old enough to be the grandfather of other musicians of the day - which therefore gives us a rare glimpse at what Proto-Blues music was like in the 19th century, before the genre became codified by the recording industry and mass popularization. (And years later, Canned Heat would rip off Henry Thomas' Bull Doze Blues for their hit "Going Up The Country".)

And then there's bizarre recordings like "The Ghost of the Terrible Blues" by the Peerless Quartet in 1915, whose peg doesn't logically fit into any historical hole. Before Dixieland, before Jazz and/or Jass, before the Blues as we came to know it, there many droves of Fox-trot bands like Prince's Orchestra who played everything from opera to marches to uncategorizable weirdnesses. Much of this obscure material was clearly jazz and blues before there was supposed to have been a jazz and blues.

Oh, to have lived in a time when no one felt a need to rigorously define musical genres, or assign non-musical baggage to it!

But back to Harris: not only has her contribution to musical history been largely forgotten and buried by the sands of time, so have the details of her biography.

She was said for most of the 20th century to have been born in Henderson, KY but scholars can't agree whether she was actually from there, or from over the river in Indiana. Her birthdate is presumed to be 1897, but her gravestone says 1906. The gravestone cannot be correct, as we know she was not ten years old when making her first records in 1916.

We actually know very little about her childhood, and her life. It's been rumored that she was related to President Benjamin Harrison and was persuaded to change her name from Harrison to Harris to avoid shaming the family name with her Vaudeville hi-jinks. We do know she married her agent, Leonard Urry, at some point and then died on April 23, 1944 at the Hotel Le Marquis in New York. She had fallen asleep in bed with a lit cigarette, igniting a fire that took the life of the pioneering "Jazz Vampire".