Sports before radio

I was just talking about this with a friend, so I was happy to randomly come across photos of it via It’s somewhat in the same vein as the Harris 20th Century Railroad Attachment in the sense of My god, I can’t believe this was commonplace one hundred years ago.

Prior to the advent of radio broadcasts, people would actually mass in the streets to stare intently at this really mechanical “baseball game reproducer” that looks like a pinball machine. Updates would be phoned in or delivered via telegram and then be put up on the board to – one assumes – thunderous reaction. Amazing how the standards of what passes for entertainment change over time. I can’t imagine announcing to my wife, “OK, I’m off to stare at the baseball game reproducer. See you in three hours!”


The Gram Parsons Zone

2416_gramparsonsYesterday, I made my annual attempt to develop an interest in Radiohead. As usual, it lasted about 20 minutes. We’ll see what happens in 2010, but 20 minutes seems to be the standard. I have 7 Radiohead albums that people have given me and yet have probably played only about 10 songs on those albums. (Clarification: I’ve heard Radiohead songs zillions of times when someone else put them on or they’ve come on the radio, so it’s not like I haven’t been exposed to them; I’m just talking about how seldom I’ve personally chosen to listen to them). About once a year, I choose an album, put it on, and experience an immediate swell of respect and regard for the band, followed by an almost immediate lapse into disinterest. After a few songs, I realize I haven’t paid attention for the last 10-15 minutes and terminate the exercise.

The weird part is that I literally don’t have a single negative thing to say about Radiohead. I entirely respect them, find them utterly innovative and can immediately detect clear evidence of artistic integrity and creativity in their music. It’s just that I’m not interested in listening to them. Nick Hornby has a great comment on this difference between respecting music and liking it in 31 Songs – I’m paraphrasing here, because I don’t have the book on hand, but he’s basically talking about some dorky pop song he’s recently fallen for and says, “And, yes, I know it’s not as good as Astral Weeks. But when is the last time you’ve actually put on Astral Weeks? It’s something like falling in love: we don’t necessarily choose the best person, or the smartest, or the best looking. There’s something else going on.”

I’ve come to think of this phenomenon as The Gram Parsons Zone– when there’s an artist, or album, or song that you consciously recognize as good and feel you should like, but it just doesn’t take. Of course, the name I’ve given is dangerously subjective– if you love Gram Parsons, or have never heard of him, then it doesn’t make any sense. But, I’m sure everyone can come up with their own artist that fits this description for them. You really know you’re in the Gram Parsons Zone when you feel both guilty and secretly relieved about throwing in the towel. Incidentally, the Gram Parsons Zone can apply to things outside of music. I’ll never forget the liberation I felt when I finally admitted to myself that I don’t enjoy transcendental meditation, Thomas Pynchon or herbal tea.

Mock friends

A few words on each of our buddies in the blogroll:

  • Everyone should check out JohnnyO’s Burrito Justice blog and his excellent post on Mission District trees in particular. This blog shares a lot of the topical preoccupations of Mock Duck (San Francisco, lost urban artifacts, bacon, etc) but manages to cover these themes without falling back on the appalling generalizations, loose inferences and blatant contradictions that riddle this blog.
  • Mission Mission is another San Francisco Mission District-related blog (the authoritative one, I suppose), for those interested.
  • FWIS and NYTimes Book Design Review are both devoted to book cover design, my singular interest.
  • ModularLab is the site of my friends Mark and Kathrin and contains nice visual images.
  • Muzikifan is maintained by the inimitable Alastair Johnston: typographic authority, publisher, world music collector, and occasional Thelonious Monk masquerader.
  • Moonraking is written by Ivan K, professor of English lit and former music critic and Lemonheads poster boy.

Pneumatic tube update

In response to the Pneumatically Prague post, readers TK and DS sent along this link with more info on the system, including this impossibly-cool photo of the control system…


… and this description of what sounds like a really fun technological show-down between pneumatic tube, messenger and telex system:

There was an experiment in about 1970 in which they tried to deliver 50 telegram forms (it is the maximum capacity of the capsule) from the Prague main post office to the Prague castle post office by the messenger, by telex system (with the fastest operator – winner of the typewriter competitions), and by the pneumatic tube system. The tube system was the absolute winner, taking 8 minutes to deliver the package.

If you could apply advertising trends from 30 years later to promote the tube, it would have been fun to print t-shirts that read Got Pneu?

Faking your own death

Last night, I caught up with a friend of mine who’s back in Prague after an interlude of living in China. One of the things he’s been doing since he got back is bicycling to Hungary to visit a friend in jail. What’s the friend in jail for? I naturally asked. Faking his own death, I learned. Oh.

Apparently, the friend – one Zoltan Rex, no less – ran up a lot of debt and faked a surfing accident with a few conspirators, including his wife. But, he did a really clumsy job of it, made it really obvious by taking out multiple life insurance claims, etc. My friend originally met him when he was ‘dead’, living under an assumed identity in the south of the Czech Repubic, and never knew there was a prior identity until he was arrested out of the blue. Details of his story are here. What this article doesn’t mention is that he’s now wasting away in a Hungarian prison and has no idea when he’ll be brought to trial.

The jail visit apparently consisted of my friend biking 500 kilometers to Budapest, then standing outside the prison window with binoculars and yelling conversational rejoinders to the jailed guy, who isn’t allowed to yell out the window himself and was therefore reduced to making enthusiastic hand gestures in reply. It seems that the jailed guy had been a big Michael Jackson fan, so my friend attempted to communicate his death by moonwalking and making the cutting finger-across-the-neck gesture at the same time. Which I thought was pretty resourceful.

Edit: Incidentally, there’s a good post up at Moonraking on the very same topic of staged disappearances.

Halfway goats and Malick Sidibé

Friday’s goats in trees post brought to my mind the fact that several acquaintances of mine who have travelled in central African countries have mentioned spotting goats that are half white and half black– not speckled, but divided neatly down the middle.

Here, via Flickr user Maody, is one example:


I also noticed another such goat in a book of photographs by Malick Sidibé:


(Although, to be honest, I think that this animal is actually a sheep).

While surely the half-and-half coloring of these animals serves some Darwinian purpose, it’s hard not to see it as a result of indecision on the part of their maker. More than anything else, they remind me of those mixed boxes of ice cream one gets at the supermarket that are equal parts vanilla and chocolate, presumably for conflicted eaters and/or divided families. I’m also reminded of a great tongue-in-cheek Minor Threat-style hardcore song my friend wrote when we were 13 years old called “Halfway Man”, whose lyrics excoriate the man who eats half a sandwich and then folds the rest up in his pocket for later (‘Eat it now or eat it later HAAAAALFWAYYY MANNN!‘). With that it mind, I hereby christen these creatures Halfway Goats (or Sheep).

While we’re here, I might as well blog a bit on Sidibé, one of my favorite photographers. One thing that’s cool about Sidibe is that he has worked more or less as a commercial portrait photographer his whole life, rather than aspiring to art-for-arts-sake. Another cool thing is the fact that prosperous citizens of Mali would come into his studio with objects they considered to be status symbols, which were generally: hip clothes, bicycles, radios, guitars and motorbikes. These happen to be some of my favorite visual items and make for great portrait photography. So much cooler than if, say, nowadays people went into his studio with Bugaboo baby strollers and really fresh arugula and whatever else currently constitutes an upper-middle class status symbol.

Some of his photos:







Casey Stengel Community Supper

061403Guest-blogger Grandjoe checks in from his vacation in Vermont on a peculiar fusion of baseball, charity and cuisine:

This week, on June 30, the Woodstock Vt. community supper celebrated the the 119th anniversary of Casey Stengel’s birth.

The menu, as always, comprised, 5 courses.  This week: an hors d’oeuvre of baba ganush and bread; creamy fennel soup; cucumber delight salad; a main course of phylo chicken pie; and  pink pudding of some for desert.

The menu had nothing to do with  Stengel’s birth, which was just a pretext for dishing out another weekly dinner to anyone who wanted to come.

Unlike most  meals that are regularly served in the basement of a church, these are not specifically for people in need. The rich and the poor sit at the same long tables.  ( Woodstock itself is a boutique town; but poor people come down from the hills.)  A server asks you deferentially if you’ve  finished the present course before presenting you with the next. You’re being treated like royalty for no reason at all. Is this some kind of joke?

These meals have been going on for three years, now, week after week.  They make no sense to me. They might have something to do with Universalism, as the supper takes place  in a Unitarian-Universalist church, to which most of the cooks and waiters belong.

Universalists were originally reacting against the Calvinist notion that God has elected only a small group for salvation and heaven, the rest of us being predestined to eternal damnation. The community supper goes to the opposite extreme of letting everyone into the feast, scott-free.

If unmerited grace makes you uncomfortable, you can volunteer to wash the dishes– 5 courses multiplied by  60 to 80 people. Extracting dishes and silverware, still scalding hot from an industrial dishwasher, barehanded, rack after rack, is an exquisitely purgatorial payment for one’s sins.  But the people who put on these dinners don’t see them at all as an ordeal. They get some sort of kick  out of it.

Thursday nights, from 5-7pm– in case you want to pass through this strange experience.

Note: It’s not clear to me what – if anything – connects Stengel (longtime former manager of the New York Yankees, shown above) to Univeralism and/or Woodstock, Vermont. But perhaps we’ll get an update on that.

What Colonel Sanders listened to

Guest-blogger Grandjoe checks in by email on the subject of the real-life Colonel Sanders, whom I blogged on a few weeks ago:

In the mid-1950s, a friend of mine from college and his family owned a cabin in Keene Valley, NY that had previously been owned by Colonel Sanders. The latter left there a collection of 78 rpm records, including “There goes Barney Google with his Goo-Goo-Googley Eyes.”  We played it quite a lot, with fascinated amusement.  That’s it.

I had never heard “There Goes Barney Google…” before, but I gather it was something of a smash hit at the time:


In general, I’m pretty interested in early pop music from 1930s, 40s and 50s– not the jazz stuff that we now regard as classic, but the mainstream ephemera pop like “How Much Is That Doggy in the Window?” And when I say ‘interested’, I don’t mean that I think it’s good. Most of it is blandly cheerful, shrill and somewhat creepy. What I mean is that it interests me because it was the last beachhead of really white pop-culture music sensibility before basically everything became influenced (generally to its benefit, I would add) by African-American music. You can argue that later artists like Pat Boone provided a super-white alternative to conservative teens, but musicians like Boone operated in a kind of consciously reactionary way, presumably aware of their own non-blackness. ‘How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?’ or, for that matter, ‘Barney Google’ are sung with no apparent awareness of their racial makeup, an awareness that was impossible to skirt after Elvis. As far as I can tell, Perry Como (who I do legitimately enjoy) is the the cut-off point, as he was the last big star before Elvis.

Another corollary group of interest is pop songs from the 40s and 50s that were in fact clearly influenced by African-American musical traditions, but seem to have a total lack of self-awareness about the point. I’m sure there are zillions of good examples of this, but the one that jumps to mind is the great scene in The Big Sleep where Bogart stalks Lauren Bacall to a party and inexplicably finds her singing with a band in some kind of parlor room:


What a knockout. Anyway, as a disclaimer, I should probably add that I’m grouping together three instances of pop culture that occurred in a 30 year span, so my generalizations about pre-Elvis pop aren’t terribly specific. Or informed. But, if it’s a necessary pretext to posting footage of a 22 year-old Lauren Bacall, so be it.