Sunday 24 June 2018
My name is Weena. I work one day a week.
“Hi-tech is where it’s at! You folks who can’t find work, my best advice to you is this: Go back to school and pick up some of those new, computer-oriented 21st century skills so you can compete in today’s job market! Speak SQL, Python, and jQuery and you’ll be able to write your own ticket!”
Really? Let’s take a look. For this or that individual with certain types of aptitudes such a thing might be worth looking into. In terms of making so much as a dent in our worsening underemployment problems, though, it’s snake oil. The fundamental purpose of automation is to turn out the same goods and services with ever-fewer resources, especially people. Hire another mad scientist so you can lay off fifty more hunchbacks. It’s called productivity.
Ever gotten trapped in an infinite loop on a phone tree? Once upon a time you could ring a company or your doctor’s office and count on a living, breathing human on the other end, greeting you personally and either handling your inquiry on the spot or transferring you to someone who can. But boy, why keep all those employees on payroll? We have software now. And while we’re at it, why not just shutter that quaint, hey-howdy-do physical storefront we’re tired of sweeping up after and set up shop online, where we can satisfy thousands of customers with only a fraction of our present staff? Cost-cutting is always good. If we don’t do it, our competitors will.
But there’s an existential crisis growing out of this that quite literally threatens to exterminate hundreds of millions of us through starvation. We’re entering the Post-Work Era, courtesy of Artificial Intelligence and robotics. You can talk about “skill gaps” and retrain people this way and that way, but without a drastic restructuring of the economy and of society as a whole there will be absolutely no work for most of the population well before mid-century.
Picture Chuck’s Chewy Chocolate Easter Bunnies, LLC, circa 2030, run with excruciating efficiency by Chuck, Jamie the accountant, and a couple of programmers, Chris and Sandy. A gang of self-repairing robots out on the factory floor expertly crafts hundreds of styles of rabbits, hares, and similarly cute rodents in twelve varieties of chocolate and loads them into a fleet of drone trucks for around-the-clock delivery. Aside from the executive compensations in the front office, production costs now consist almost solely of raw materials and energy.
In a free market, most personal livelihoods derive from inefficiency. Get rid of that, and there won’t be any work for C3EB’s customers and consequently nobody — aside from Chuck, Jamie, Chris, Sandy, and an ever-shrinking clique of equally lonely fellow entrepreneurs — to buy its products. And as things are going now, get rid of it we will.
The restructuring? Through taxes, pay everyone a minimum salary — nowadays referred to as a Universal Basic Income. What you’re doing is distributing the fruits of all that efficiency more evenly, at least enough so everyone can maintain an acceptable standard of living whether there’s a job available for them or not. And since the same goods and services are coming out the door as before, in ever greater quality and abundance, there’s nothing artificial about those paychecks.
But here’s where things get even better. We’d still have rank-and-file employment but most of it would lean toward the concierge, human touch end. The very things technology has been progressively robbing us of. Jack and Sally would ride with the C3EB drone truck to meet and shoot the breeze with its customers along the route. In hospitals where perfectly attentive automatons lift, bathe, monitor, and otherwise attend to their patients (and yes, where AI-driven hardware performs surgery far more intricately, swiftly, and reliably than any human could), a comfort crew would circulate to say hello, hold trembling hands, arrange the flowers, man the string quartet, wrangle the visitors, and even (gasp!) answer the phones.
Phone greeting jobs, in fact, may well see a renaissance and displace most of that depersonalizing “If you’d like a company directory, press 9” we’d so much like to get rid of anyway. To keep involuntary unemployment as low as possible, many work weeks would get super-short. You might show up for two hours a day, or maybe all day but only on Tuesdays. Or if you’re happy with your UBI or simply despair of finding work, never. We’ll lead a poverty-free existence resembling that of the Eloi in The Time Machine — but only in its best parts. There won’t be any Morlocks to eat us, and we’ll still create, wonder, learn, care, explore, and love just as we always have.
However well it works in practice, sooner or later we’ll be forced to implement a UBI or the economy will simply implode. Best to start easing into it now. The longer we wait, the more painful the transition. I’ll bet many other civilizations throughout the universe, such as they might exist, have had to deal with this very same challenge.
Odd, entirely unrelated facts IV
Human head hair grows at, typically, four-tenths of a millimeter per day. If you have 100,000 hairs, that comes to about 40 meters (130 feet) of hair you’re extruding every 24 hours. A finger nail grows only a quarter the speed of a hair, plus you have far fewer of them. In total, your fingers and toes collectively produce a bit over a millimeter of nail each day.
The King James Bible was published in 1611 before English spelling was standardized. Consequently a word like he could also appear as hee or hie. The letters U and V were being distinguished from each other by this time, though in the opposite way we eventually settled on: trust was spelled trvst, live was spelled liue. There was no distinction between I and J, though for Roman numerals with trailing units the final I was printed with that curve: xviij. The project took about seven years. By year three the 50-odd translators still hadn’t been paid for their work so they went on strike until The Most High and Mightie &c himself relented. The first edition was received poorly.
It’s not you: For all practical purposes the human body per se does not generate disagreeable odors. Those such as bad breath, sebaceous and apocrine body odor, the sulfurous components of intestinal gas, and that swamp foot you reel back from when you finally get to take your shoes off at the end of the day are compounds excreted instead by the many varieties of microbes that live with us symbiotically. We depend on some of those thousands of species and sub-species for our survival as quite a few of them process nutrients we wouldn’t otherwise be able to absorb while others defend us against attack from pathogens.
Researchers at Arizona State University have determined experimentally that puppies are at their cutest (to humans, anyway) at around four months of age. That’s also approximately when their mothers wean them. Since domestic dogs, even those who have gone feral, have depended on human contact to thrive as a species, this ability to bond with us at an early age likely evolved as a survival benefit. As reinforcement, many domestic varieties have been either consciously or unconsciously bred to retain a childlike appearance throughout adulthood. Even wild canines such as foxes, when experimentally domesticated, sport floppier ears and more rounded snouts after only three or four generations. Nature’s pulling a mind game on us!
Pop culture factinos on Richard The Third
I’ve just finished publishing the lipogram section on Curious Notions. Since its last entry involves my shameless butchering of William Shakespeare’s Richard The Third, I thought I’d share some notes I collected sometime back on the play’s film versions. There have been at least four motion pictures based more or less directly on it (1912, 1955, 1995, and 2008) along with a number of others focusing on various parts of the story.
The absolute barnburner among all of these is 1955’s Richard III starring Laurence Olivier (who also produced and directed), Ralph Richardson, Claire Bloom, Cedric Hardwicke, and John Gielgud. Sir William Turner Walton, who collaborated with Olivier on three other films, wrote the score for Richard III which like some of his others is so towering it’s more often than not performed and savored entirely on its own.
Sir Cedric has always been one of my favorites. He shows up in approximately eighty films, and I particularly enjoyed him in Richard III as well as in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and The Ten Commandments.
He also appeared on TV in the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode Wet Saturday as a patriarch sanitizing a murder scene his snivelling daughter threatens to blow the lid off of, and on the original Twilight Zone as the tyrannical Uncle Simon who builds Robby the Robot so he can continue browbeating his niece in proxy from beyond the grave. His son is Edward Cedric Hardwicke, now 78, Lord Stanley in the 1995 film version of Richard III.
Young soon-to-be-murdered Edward V was played in the 1955 film by Paul Huson who, most atypically, went on to establish himself as an authority on the occult and write a number of books on it.
Vincent Price starred as King Richard in Roger Corman’s 1962 Tower of London in which he gleefully smothers his nephews played by Eugene Martin (who like Paul Huson above still busies himself in film if not necessarily witchcraft) and Donald Losby (later a familiar face in many TV shows of the 60s and 70s).
Little Hollywood story No. 3: To Willy Loman
Way back during the Carter administration I sold encyclopedias door-to-door in Los Angeles. Or to be more precise, I rarely sold encyclopedias door-to-door in Los Angeles.
I had been shopping my art portfolio around town in those days. I wrangled interviews with such disparate prospects as the studios of Saul Bass, a company making shower curtains looking for someone to design their patterns, the Farrah Fawcett Fan Club, and a white goods store where the sales manager staged a phone call for my benefit as I entered his office (“Is he worth it? No? Then GET RID OF HIM!!” ). I also got a letter from Larry Flynt Enterprises inviting me to drop by but chickened out just in time for him to get shot.
Now this particular help wanted directed me to the Taft Building at the corner of Hollywood and Vine, across from the Pantages Theatre. The Taft is best known for having housed the Hayes office that enforced the Motion Picture Code from 1930 to 1968. For the job: Young folks right out of school welcome? Check! No experience necessary? Check!
They held a five-day class for us to practice our pitch on “Mr and Mrs Jones,” then cut us into groups who would pile into cars each midafternoon and fan out to young, childbearing neighborhoods calculated by the Home Office to be at least slightly less hostile toward door-to-door peddlers than usual. At the time, Monty Python had aired a piece showing “an unsuccessful encyclopedia salesman” (obviously a mannequin) leaping from a high-rise. Ho, ho.
When you canvass “the field” for hours and hours, knocking on doors by the dozen while simultaneously trying to remain invisible to apartment managers, your chief preoccupations come down to water and restroom opportunities. We couldn’t be direct while introducing ourselves, which would have been, “Hi. I’m selling a set of encyclopedias for about six hundred forty dollars, growing to maybe twice that if you opt for easy monthly payments that go on forever. May I come in?”
Rather, you were there to talk about education, to “ask a few questions,” to reply “I can help you out, there” should they explicitly demand to know what you’re up to, and to reveal the contents of your increasingly wondered-about satchel but only if you can get into their living room and adjudge them “qualified” (meaning did they have a phone and a checking account at the very minimum). We strove to be scrupulously honest, though, and never say anything that wasn't, at least technically or obliquely, true. At one presentation I gave to a couple the wife said, “Hmm. Every time we ask you a pointed question you give us a non-answer. I’m a lawyer and I give non-answers for a living.”
I only averaged a half dozen or so sales a month, though I do recall one couple in particular who did readily sign on the dotted line. In sales, you grab onto what’s handed to you. The husband mentioned he had recently arrived from Egypt. I brought up my childhood King Tut-nuttery and also asked him how on earth you pronounce those mysterious emphatic consonants ص and ض and ط and ظ in the Arabic alphabet. Sold!!
Epiphany: The sort of people who would appreciate our Merit Students Encyclopedia — which was, quite honestly, wonderful — already owned a set of Britannicas or the like plus typically dozens or hundreds of books beyond that and therefore had no need for it, while those who could have benefitted the most were of the incurious type who couldn’t care less which side their spleen was on, how fast hummingbirds beat their wings, or why the capital of Bolivia has such little use for a fire department.
Like 98 percent of the people who sign on, I saw the futility of trying to scrape by on about eighty dollars a week and quit long after I should have. As it happened I would revisit the Taft Building a couple of years later, to have two wisdom teeth pulled by a Sayeed Ali, DDS, also late of Egypt, while I was working on the TV series Buck Rogers. Through the miracle of the modern Internet, I now know Clark Gable also went to a dentist there.
Low counterparts of things usually high
Low treason Rebelling against one’s boss or, if a slave, one’s master
Low explosive An explosive, typically a gunpowder, whose expansion velocity is generally subsonic
Low Holy Days Celebration periods in the Jewish calendar of secondary importance, such as the Shabbat Hagadol and Yom Rishon Hagadol
Low energy physics The areas of physics not directly involving atomic-scale dimensions, substantial radioactivity, or relativistic speeds
Low Sierra The Sierra Nevada region in the western U.S. of medium altitude — 7000–8500 feet (2100–2600 meters) on the east side and 3000–7000 (900–2100) on the west. This is the sole habitat of the celebrated sequoia.
Low C The note two octaves below high C or one below middle C, sounding at approximately 130.813 Hz*. Expressed in technical literature as C 3, this is also the lowest note on the viola and the banjo.
Low German Alluding roughly to altitude, the West Germanic languages and dialects spoken in northern Germany and some eastern regions of the Netherlands. Less formally the term can expand to include Dutch and Frisian and their dialects.
Low temperature superconductor A substance that needs to be cooled to 30 K (-243 °C or -406 °F) or lower to conduct electricity without resistance. In other words, the easier superconductors to procure since any metal will superconduct if you get it cold enough.
Low tension line Informally, a power line carrying 1000 volts or less. (The high tension Ekibastuz-Kokshetau line in Kazakhstan holds the world’s record at the other extreme, 1.15 million volts.)
Low horse The figurative position of someone boasting or arrogantly making an assertion, but doing so while intoxicated or relying on faulty information. (Not especially common, but attested at least as far back as 1930.)
Low altar A secondary, shorter altar in a house of worship placed forward of the main (high) altar. As the officiant can stand between the two and face the congregation, the structure can serve as a kind of lectern. In a temporal context the term can refer to a coffee table or a low-slung chest of drawers.
Odd, entirely unrelated facts III
A man named Quintus Pompeius Senecio Roscius Murena Coelius Sextus Julius Frontinus Silius Decianus Gaius Julius Eurycles Herculaneus Lucius Vibullius Pius Augustanus Alpinus Bellicus Sollers Julius Aper Ducenius Proculus Rutilianus Rufinus Silius Valens Valerius Niger Claudius Fuscus Saxa Amyntianus Sosius Priscus was appointed Roman consul in 169. His name repeats “Julius” three times and “Silius” twice. He was known as Quintus Pompeius Senecio Sosius Priscus for short.
Peach Melba (peaches served with raspberry sauce and vanilla ice cream) and Melba toast were named after legendary soprano Nellie Melba. Born Helen Porter Mitchell, she had chosen her stage name to honor her birthplace of Melbourne, Australia. Melbourne had in turn been named after British Prime Minister William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne, whose title referred to Melbourne Hall in Derbyshire, UK. That site’s name evolved from an Old English term for a mill stream or spring and was first mentioned in the Domesday book of 1086.
William Windom, great grandfather of TV actor William Windom (My World… and Welcome to It), was U.S. Secretary of the Treasury in 1881 and from 1889 to 1891. Ivy Baker Priest, mother of actress Pat Priest (best known for having played Marilyn on The Munsters), was U.S. Treasurer from 1953 to 1961. Ivy Baker Priest appeared as the mystery guest on the TV show What’s My Line? in August 1954.
You often see old-time newsreel footage of what was originally represented to be the Titanic departing for America in which there are spooky blobs wiggling around on surfaces where you would expect to see the name of the ship. That’s because all genuine moving footage of the Titanic's departure and voyage was lost with it along with its cinematographer, first-class passenger William Harbeck. To sidestep that inconvenient detail the newsreel producers of the day took footage of its sister ship Olympic and had someone paint out its name frame-by-frame. It’s theoretically possible that any nitrate film at the wreck site is still physically intact and viewable, should anyone manage to retrieve it.
Two anagrams of “Ronald Wilson Reagan” are “No, darlings, no ERA law“ and “insane Anglo warlord.” An anagram of "Reaganomics” is "A con game, sir.”
Kerosene was originally marketed as a substitute for whale oil in lamps. It’s a mixture of molecular chains containing between 6 and 16 atoms of carbon, more or less. Gasoline, whose carbon chains average about 20 per cent shorter, was originally discarded as a worthless byproduct of kerosene production though some was bottled and sold off at the time under the trade name Petrol as an effective — if horrendously dangerous — head lice cure.
Little Hollywood story No. 2
One busy Friday evening I found myself working the cash register at the Hamburger Hamlet at 6914 Hollywood Blvd, right across from Mann’s Chinese Theater.
To the left you see Rex Reed and Raquel Welch negotiating that very same eatery’s terrazzo steps about eight years earlier, so you can do the math. Back then you had to phone in customers’ credit card numbers to validate them and then do your ka-chunk ka-chunk with a mechanical imprinter. Hamburger Hamlet was founded by actor Harry Lewis (you might have seen him in the film Key Largo as one of Edward G. Robinson’s henchmen, the one who keeps making the wisecracks) and his wife Marilyn.
Now a week and a half before, I had thrown in the towel from the strain of that very same job at the Pasadena outlet. The stroke-inducing pace of it, not to mention my inability to scarf down my complimentary dinner fast enough that after a few interruptions to ring up more customers the food would still be there when I ran back, had done me in. The manager said she was sorry I had quit and all, but her Hollywood counterpart Omar had no cashier to work that particular night and so could I please, please drive over there and come through for them just this once.
It turned out to be a singular experience.
Like me, Omar had lately arrived from Ann Arbor, Michigan. Small world. Both he and his senior waitress were glad to help out when my work load got out of hand. There was also plenty of bittersweet diversion. A customer went wild in the bar section and police had to be called to help Omar eighty-six him, a garishly made-up woman sat at the counter nursing her coffee and muttering to herself (“They told me I was going to be an actress…” one could speculate) for almost five hours before she left, and at around half-past ten two cars collided just outside and their drivers exited and started duking it out.
When the disturbance threatened to work its way toward our front door Omar got ready to lock it. At that point I noticed the bottom glass section had been boarded over, which he explained had taken place earlier in the week when a potential customer crashed through it an hour after closing time to ask for a hamburger.
Other memories of that same corner linger, like the time the Popeye cast and crew had my yellow VW Rabbit towed away late one night while I was watching their competition Flash Gordon at the Chinese.
I had parked it legally enough on Orange Drive. But to accommodate the limousines shuttling celebrants to the Popeye wrap party I knew nothing about, the management installed temporary NO PARKING — TOW AWAY signs along that stretch shortly thereafter while I was inside the theater ogling Ornella Muti.
Choice #1: Commit to a midnight stroll twelve blocks northeast to my apartment and then see to getting the car back the next day, likely with added storage fees. Side streets, dark, no witnesses.
Choice #2: Brave a similarly unnerving trek southward, but this time only ten blocks, to the impound garage. (The facility stood just across an alley from where many of us had produced art for a Star Trek movie, but I was in no mood to reminisce.)
I yielded to #2, plus the eighty-dollar extortion. The attendant, a lanky, bespectacled sort in a white short-sleeved dress shirt, lept between me and the car and did the windmill thing with his arms to make sure I didn’t try to escape with it.
Coda: Popeye was critically panned.
“I am but a simple priest.”
Our fourth timeline machine installment will examine the Roman Catholic popes — also known as bishops of Rome.
Since these chronologies lack any real precision up until the year 1000 or so, I won’t graph anything before that. Where records show no birth year, I’ll approximate a pope’s pre-accession interval by assuming the average age of an electee (about 64 years) and shade it in green stripes. Again, pretenders — within this genre known as antipopes — will show blue-striped terms.
Let’s first zoom in to the very prince of pontifical chaos and mayhem, Theophylactus. He was a scion of the Tusculuns, the richest and most powerful family in Rome at the time. Popes Benedict VII and VIII; John XI, XII, and XIX; and Sergius III were paternal uncles. His father installed him as Pope Benedict IX (second bar from the top) in October 1032.
In 1036 an opposing faction drove Benedict out of Rome for the short time approximated by the tiny green gap. John, Bishop of Sabina, ousted him unequivocally in a bloody coup in September 1044 and reigned as Sylvester III. But Benedict was just warming up. He raised an army, and by the following April retook the papacy. Come May, though, he had second thoughts and sold it — for around 20,000 troy ounces of gold, according to some sources — to his godfather John Gratian who became Gregory VI.
But Benedict returned later that same year. The record doesn’t say whether or not Gregory got his money back, but in either case Benedict considered himself Pope again. (I’m giving him antipope stripes for this period because Gregory continued to be recognized.) In December 1046 the Council of Sutri ejected both Gregory and Benedict and installed Clement II. When Clement died from lead poisoning a year later, back came Benedict. He enjoyed another eight months until he was deposed for good, in favor of Damasus II, on 17 July 1048.
The interval highlighted by the thin lilac bar to the left is unique as it saw one sitting and 16 future pontiffs living simultaneously. You can also see that among them Celestine IV served only 17 days before he died in November 1241.
This graph also shows two major vacancies. The first, between the death of Clement IV on 29 November 1268 and the election of Gregory X on 1 September 1271, remains the longest on record at 1006 days.
Up until this era the cardinals would deliberate intermittently on papal candidates but otherwise go about their daily lives. But by late 1269 the French/Italian deadlock had dragged on for almost a year, so officials of the host city of Viterbo sequestered them. Further along they snatched the roof from the building to let in the rain and cut the occupants’ menu choices to bread and water. Two of the cardinals present during this ordeal died and a third cited health problems and resigned.
The celebrated Western Schism opened in 1378 when the Catholic church split into two factions, that of Rome and of Avignon, and each recognized its own pope. In June 1409 Pisa got into the act and three popes coexisted during the time shown by the darker highlight. Though the Schism is generally recognized to have ended with the election of Martin V toward the end of 1417, Avignon-based Benedict XIII flipped the Council the bird and kept up his pretense until he died at 95.
Further antipope shuffles continued until almost 1450, which included two Benedict XIVs in succession. Both were Antipope Benedict XIII partisans. The first, born Bernard Garnier, operated from a lair and died sometime in 1430, at which point the four cardinals he had created elected a successor who awarded himself the same name and Roman numeral. Some accounts have this Antipope Benedict XIVb captured by [at that point former] Antipope Clement VIII in 1433 and spending his last days imprisoned in the Château Foix.
As we’ve learned from recent news stories concerning Benedict XVI, papal retirements are rare — some 3.5% of the total — and usually involuntary. Excluding antipopes, the timeline machine reports the following:
Benedict IX’s nemesis Sylvester III (~6534 days), Benedict IX himself (~2907 days), Gregory XII (837 days), Martin I (821 days), Benedict IX’s godfather Gregory VI (~560 days), Celestine V (523 days), Benedict V (376 days), John XVIII (a few months or less), Silverius (~3 months), and Pontian (~2 weeks).
They made me… Tsar! (Yeah, that’s it.)
Where would Russian art, literature, and opera be without the Time of Troubles (1598-1613)?
England’s Henry VIII had nothing on Ivan the Terrible, whose own family values ran, as far as his wives were concerned, as follows.
Anastasia: Believed poisoned by Boyars
Maria #1: Believed poisoned by Ivan
Marfa: Accidentally poisoned by her mother
Anna #1: Infertile, and so banished to the nunnery
Anna #2: Banished to the nunnery, later tortured to death
Vasilisa: Forced to watch her paramour impaled, then off to the cloisters
Maria #2: Figment of someone’s imagination (Ivans?)
Maria #3: Survived (but wound up in a nunnery anyway)
Three of those valiant souls produced eight children, but out of that brood only Feodor and Dmitri survived their dad. The elder Feodor acceded, but though adored by his subjects he was incapacitated in vaguely documented ways and entirely ineffectual.
His brother-in-law Boris Godunov graciously filled that power vacuum and, upon Feodor’s death at 40, seized the throne officially.
Ivan IV’s younger son Dmitri most likely met his end through Godunov’s henchmen in May 1591, but once Godunov himself was out of the picture three Dmitri Ivanovich impostors emerged in rapid succession to exploit that ambiguity. Among them False Dmitri I was by all accounts the most convincing, but ten months into his pretense a mob shot him, cremated him, then combined his ashes with gunpowder and fired him out of a cannon.
For the record, Russia also saw its largest royal crowd-sourcing during this era with ten simultaneously living emperors and emperors-to-be between 12 July 1596 and 7 January 1598. (I’m generously including Irina Godunova, Feodor I’s widow, who in principle served as empress for about a week before checking in — by her own volition, in this case — to another nunnery.)
Here’s a chart extending from 1755 to the present, showing the last six Russian emperors and arguably a few more. Again, pretenders — more fairly referred to in this case as claimants, since all carry unassailable pedigrees — are indicated by stripes on their styled reigns.
In an alternate universe, Russia would have had a democratically elected Emperor: Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich Romanov, youngest son of Alexander III, who would have been Michael II. When Nicholas II abdicated on 15 March 1917 at the Pskov railway station he signed the throne over to his son Alexei (“Baby”). Toward midnight he had second thoughts in light of Alexei’s hemophilia, though, and shifted that onus to brother Michael with a decree backdated to 3 PM. The latter immediately made it known he would only accede on the condition that the Russian people agree “by universal, direct, equal and secret suffrage.”
Nicholas had been conceding most of the old Divine Right orthodoxy lately and might eventually have approved. In any event Michael found himself under several variations of house arrest and imprisonment over the next few months. Finally, despite his wife Natalia Brasova’s repeated personal appeals to Lenin, Trotsky, and other Bolshevik officials, five secret police agents rousted him from his hotel room and shot him on 12 June 1918. Natalia lived, first in London and then Paris, until 1952.
Next: The Vatican
Too many Carolingians
I couldn’t resist the temptation to run my graphic timeline machine (which you’ll recognize from the previous blog entry) on chronological listings of autocrats in past centuries to see what kinds of patterns pop out.
US presidents past, present, and prospective can play hardball but unless they’ve had a very bad day tend to draw the line at intramural murder and kidnapping. Royalty and nobility haven’t always been quite so circumspect — or until the last century stood such a fighting chance against serious injury or disease — so let the fun begin. For educational purposes only, of course.
Let’s start with France.
Carolingian France shows a logjam of seven simultaneously living kings and future kings between 867 and approximately 882. For reference, you’re seeing the last half of Charlemagne’s 46-year tenure at the top.
From 867 through most of 877 there was Charles II and kings-to-be Louis II and III, Carloman II, Charles the Fat, Odo, and Robert I. By 882 Charles II and Louis II were gone but Charles III the Simple and (possibly — his birth year is a wild guess) Rudolph had come aboard.
Having weathered this entire period, Robert would finally get his chance but reign a scant 352 days before being killed by the forces of his predecessor Charles III. Charles himself lost that battle, though, and spent the rest of his days in a dungeon.
Jumping forward eight and a half centuries, here are the last hundred years of the French autocracy. Its other two periods of seven-stacking occurred at that time: 1785-1793 (Louis XVI, the theoretical Louis XVII, Napoleon, Louis XVIII, Charles X, Louis XIX, Louis-Philippe) and 1811-1821 (losing Louis XVI and XVII and gaining Napoleons II and III).
Louis XVI and his family made a break for the Austrian border in June 1791 (Marie Antoinette was a sister of Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II) but he was recognized from his portrait on all the coins and hauled back to Paris. He remained king, at least officially, until 21 September 1792; so his “retirement” from that point until his date with the guillotine lasted 122 days.
Royalists recognized his sole surviving son as Louis XVII. The boy succumbed in captivity to tuberculosis on 8 June, 1795 and chief surgeon Philippe-Jean Pelletan preserved his heart the following day; but for the next couple of generations dozens of claimants came forward as Le dauphin perdu. Some of them spun some pretty good yarns. Over the holiday season of 1999-2000 mitochondrial DNA from Marie Antoinette’s hair and from that heart was compared by two independent laboratories and the samples matched as closely as one would expect between mother and child.
In the second lavender area you can spot the musical chairs between Napoleon, Louis XVIII, and Napoleon II (“King of Rome”). It’s interesting to note Napoleon’s cumulative exile (2487 days) ran fully two thirds the length of his career as emperor (3709 days). The second Napoleon, twice emperor but both times probably unaware of it, spent the balance of his life in Austria and died at 21 of tuberculosis.
The gray ellipse indicates the singular moment during the July Revolution of 1830 when, with the encouragement of angry mobs, Charles X abdicated and Louis-Philippe and his supporters took to the throne. Some recognized Charles’s son Louis Antoine as Charles’s successor Louis XIX. In any event the son abdicated some twenty minutes into his own supposed reign in favor of his nephew the Duke of Bordeaux who, until his death in 1883, stood by as pretender Henry V.
Next: The Russian Empire
So many presidents, so little time
Unlikely as it might seem, there have been four separate moments in history during which no fewer than eighteen U.S. presidents — future, sitting, and former — were all living. The first nine presidents of the longest (1479 days) of those streaks are pictured above; the remaining nine, at the bottom of this entry.
Here’s a chart I generated starting on the left side with the 1732 birth of George Washington and extending to 2016 when President Omama’s second term finishes and assuming all four of his current living predecessors stay that way.
Green indicates lifespan; blue, terms of office. (Note the two separate blue blocks in Grover “Big Steve” Cleveland’s timeline where he bookended one-termer Benjamin Harrison.)
The lilac bar highlights that 1479-day period. It extended from Grover Cleveland’s birth on March 18, 1837 to William Henry Harrison’s death on April 4, 1841. The following were alive at that time: John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, James Polk, Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James “Old Buck” Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, U.S. Grant, Rutherford Hayes, James Garfield, Chester Alan Arthur, Cleveland himself, and Benjamin Harrison. A touch wider and it would have taken in Madison and McKinley.
The chart yields some other intriguing perspectives. One thing you can see in there, for example, is that when Abraham Lincoln was born (1809) all his future predecessors except George Washington were still alive. Warren G. Harding would be the first U.S. president after Lincoln not to have had a living memory of him.
On a related subject, the following presidential siblings or half-siblings aside from those of Barack Obama and George W. Bush are still with us as I write: Bill Clinton’s half-sister Sharon Lee Pettijohn (born 1941) and brother Roger (1956), George H.W. Bush’s sister Nancy Walker Bush Ellis (1926) and brothers Jonathan James Bush (1931) and William Henry Trotter “Bucky” Bush (1938), Richard Addison Ford (1924), Edward Nixon (1930), and Jean Kennedy Smith (1928).
Odd, entirely unrelated facts II
John B. “Jack” Kelly, Sr, perhaps best remembered nowadays as the father of actress and later Monaco princess Grace Kelly, won three Olympic gold medals for rowing during the 1920s. As a brickwork contractor, he ensured payment by secretly installing a sheet of glass inside his clients’ chimneys to block the draft. When the check cleared he’d have an employee drop a brick down the chimney from the top.
The title song from Arlo Guthrie’s 1967 album (and later 1969 film) “Alice’s Restaurant” exactly parallels, in its phrasing and 8-measure structure, the 1918 song “Ja-Da” by Bob Carleton. If you play them together they harmonize and counterpoint precisely.
Actor Eddie Albert first appeared on television on 6 November 1936 for a live presentation of his 40-minute play “The Love Nest.” The show, also featuring the Ink Spots and comedian Ed Wynn, emanated from Radio City in New York at 346 lines of resolution. (“Green Acres” premiered almost 29 years later on 15 September 1965.)
History’s first charge card transaction took place on 8 February 1950 at Major’s Cabin Grill adjacent to the Empire State Building in New York City. The party consisted of attorney Frank McNamara, loan company executive Ralph Schneider, and press agent Matty Simmons who later founded The National Lampoon. The card was Diner’s Club (#1000).
Author, commentator, spy novelist, and National Review founder William F. Buckley, Jr’s first language as a child was Spanish. His second was French.
Incandescent light bulbs convert only a small fraction of their energy input to light, but that extra energy isn’t necessarily wasted. If the bulbs are indoors and the weather is cool enough for the furnace to run, they simply share some of that burden. Modern LEDs generate virtually no heat, but that can actually be a problem for such applications as traffic lights since during the winter the snow and ice won’t melt off.
Israeli military leader Moshe Dayan was such an enthusiastic archaeology buff he rarely hesitated to help himself to any little treasures he’d come across. Throughout his lifetime he amassed a spectacular collection this way. Shortly after the Six-Day War of 1967 Dayan sneaked alone into a dig near Holon, south of Tel Aviv, to try his luck. The dirt caved in on him, leaving only one hand visible. Children happened onto the hand sometime later and directed rescuers to dig him out.
Little Hollywood story No. 1
Back in 1986 I was working at an animation facility in Burbank, California when we got a job to design and shoot a bunch of writhing pink tunnels for the live action fantasy film Howard the Duck.
I won’t mention names, but a certain concern in northern California had more work than it could comfortably handle at that moment and so farmed this project out to us through our art director on the condition that we keep the whole thing a deep, dark secret and expect no screen credit. Plus there would be hell to pay if they could see any “ridging” (superfine stripes caused by equipment vibration or rattle) in the textures on the final product. The code name they instructed us to use for the film was “Huey.”
It was an exasperating effort involving half a dozen of us but we eventually turned out between 20 and 30 tunnel sequences and several of them wound up in the final film. I had high hopes for “Huey” because I remembered the title character as the wry, cigar-chomping, wisecracking waterfowl not entirely dissimilar to Bobby London’s Dirty Duck who appeared regularly in the National Lampoon’s funny pages during the 70s.
Shortly before Howard the Duck was released to the public we were welcomed to attend a screening at the Alfred Hitchcock Theater at Universal City. The room was packed and I was told Stephen Spielberg was in attendance.
Now being perfectly aware of how much blood and sweat go into making a movie — whether it turns out good, bad, or indifferent — I always try to find something to like and appreciate when I watch one. Howard the Duck certainly did have its moments, and I think so even more to this day. But you could hear a pin drop in there at times when it was obvious we were all supposed to be laughing. As we filed out at the end there was a lot of polite murmuring.
The next day at work we were saying things like, “That’s OK, the kids’ll like it!” and “Boy, there was a lot happening in that movie, wasn’t there?” As everyone knows, the film went down in history as a spectacular failure. The trade magazines tried to outdo each other by brandishing headlines like “HOWARD THE DUCK, A NEW BREED OF TURKEY,” “THE DUCK LAYS AN EGG,” and so forth. Rumors even flew that Universal production heads Sid Sheinberg and Frank Price literally got into fisticuffs over who had been more to blame for greenlighting Howard in the first place.
One of the more amusing aspects of this was something Michelle Pfeiffer said in a 1990 issue of People magazine: “You know, I look like a duck. I just do. And I’m not the only person who thinks that. It’s the way my mouth sort of curls up or my nose tilts up. I should have played Howard the Duck.”
Buckminsterfullerene, lab rats, and you
Feeding laboratory rats purplish buckminsterfullerene-infused olive oil makes them live twice as long.
At least that’s the observation published by researchers recently at the University of Paris-Sud. In their experiment one set of Wistar rats went olive oil-free, the second set got the oil alone, while the third had their olive oil enriched with buckminsterfullerene.
Median lifespans came out to 22 months, 26 months, and 42 months respectively. One lucky participant in the third group lived 66 months — pretty much a Jeanne Calment-like record for any rat. For further details you can go here, here, here, here, and for the complete technical account by the authors, here.
Buckminsterfullerene, named after futurist and geodesic dome pioneer Buckminster Fuller, is a form of carbon consisting of a spherical shell of 60 atoms. They’re arranged into 20 hexagons and 12 pentagons identical to the pattern on a regulation soccer ball. C 60 was first prepared in a laboratory at Rice University in 1985 but since then it’s been found to occur naturally in small traces in soot and meteorites. It’s odorless and flavorless.
Over the intervening 25-plus years an entire technology has flourished around fullerenes in general (buckyballs in sizes aside from just 60), graphene (individual chicken wire sheets of carbon atoms) nanotubes (that same chicken wire wrapped into cylinders), and other novel carbon-based geometries. These substances are exhibiting some pretty unusual properties, to put it mildly, and they’ve been creeping into virtually every branch of science and engineering.
Now that these lab-generated fullerenes and their kin threaten to take over the world, the experimenters at Paris-Sud and others have rightly wondered if some or all might be toxic in some way. Remember asbestos? Dioxins?
At least in terms of C 60 and as far as their rats are concerned, the answer seems to be the exact opposite. Of course it’s possible that what’s beneficial during the lifespan of a rat might be deleterious — or for all we know at the moment, even fatal — over longer periods of time in humans.
So, where would you (hypothetically, of course — for your, uh, “rats”) get this stuff? What does it cost? What different varieties are there, and what do they look and act like?
All about buckyballs
Fullerenes appear whenever you vaporize carbon in an inert atmosphere. The team of Sir Harry Kroto, Robert Curl, and Richard Smalley at Rice produced the first samples of C 60 in 1985 by firing a pulsed laser at a spinning graphite disc under pressurized helium. They shared the Nobel prize for chemistry for this work in 1996.
But the method of choice nowadays involves zapping an electrical arc between the tips of two graphite rods, also surrounded by helium but under a partial vacuum. A fullrene-rich soot builds up on the walls of the chamber which technicians then mix with toluene, filter, and then process through a device called a chromatograph that sorts the components according to their differing flow rates and colors (deep purple for C 60, then gradations through red for C 70 and orange and gold beyond that).
Most of the output emerges as buckminsterfullerene, C 60, followed a distant second by C 70. A tiny remainder yields other sizes in the 60s, 70s, 80s, and beyond. Both C 60 and C 70 form dark brown crystalline solids. They don’t dissolve in water, but rather in oils and in organic solvents like the toluene mentioned above and benzene and ethanol. A liter of either olive oil or ethanol will dissolve about 8/10 of a gram.
In principle any pioneering chemicals like fullerenes are assumed toxic until proven otherwise and so handled under strict protocols. As all these years have worn on, though, technicians blessed with anything less than superhuman diligence have undoubtedly ingested them. Had any dropped dead or even sickened noticeably it’s certainly been kept a secret.
The cosmetics industry has been hawking products containing fullerenes for some years now, though independent analyses have revealed the actual content of some representative samples to be stingy if not downright homeopathic — on the order of a microgram or less per gram of lotion.
Safety testing with fullerenes for internal use has more work ahead of it, but at least one early observation is encouraging. The buckminsterfullerene in the rats at Paris-Sud passed completely through their systems and out within a couple of days. Whatever free radical-scavenging and/or other effects it had, it did its thing and then politely excused itself.
Choose your color
In an ideal world in which fullerenes of all sizes were available at reasonable cost, you’d want to run a similar but far more exhaustive set of lab rat experiments trying out each C-something separately to find the holiest grail.
Smaller than C 60 they get increasingly unstable, though some parties claim they can produce and store (how cold and for how long, I don’t know) fullerenes down to C 36. In the other direction they grow in size by even numbers, well into the hundreds and theoretically into the thousands.
Right now our world is less than ideal and realistically speaking you can get C 60, C 70, C 76, C 78, and C 84 and little else unless you have influential friends in the nano business. Prices vary according to your bulk discount and the degree of refinement you’d like, so for comparison purposes let’s stick to 1-gram lots at 99% or so purity.
So C 60 isn’t bad right now*, but C 70 costs ten times as much and the last three belong in a vault someplace. This appears to reflect the proportions of each you get through that catch-as-catch-can carbon arc technique. But fortunately there are, or presently will be, a couple of loopholes around this.
A less refined product called fullerene extract, consisting of a lot of C 60, a little C 70, and traces of the others goes for bargain rates of around $13 per gram. This is what comes out of the chamber after it has had all its non-fullerene riffraff filtered out but before it undergoes its final separations.
If at some point this extract could be left with its C-number imperfections but otherwise cleaned up to pharmaceutical standards, it should still come in at a very reasonable price. (At worst the C 70-plus still in there would just be deadwood. Or better, maybe it will turn out those varieties are just as effective as C 60 or even more so.)
The second thing to consider is that the buckyball industry is getting more crowded and competitive by the week. Other production methods waiting in the wings should prove vastly more economical and it’s just a matter of time before market pressures force one or more of those to come on line.
One stellar candidate involves firing a near-ultraviolet laser at C 60H 30 against a platinum plate. The chemical C 60H 30 is basically an unwrapped buckyball with hydrogens lining the edges, called a polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon or PAH, and relatively easy to prepare. The combination of the laser and the platinum catalyst makes the hydrogens pop off and the remaining carbon cage snap itself closed into a C 60 molecule.
Moreover it’s expected different varieties of these PAHs will sire different-sized, made-to-order fullerenes. Then we could get going on that multicolored olive oil trial described above.
Oh no, not another ivory-billed woodpecker
The other day while I was driving I saw something flutter through the air that I thought was so important I immediately pulled over, got out, and backtracked half a block.
It was an enormous woodpecker, mostly black but with small white markings and a head with a scarlet crest.
Now the ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) has been presumed extinct for decades and was officially declared as such in 1994. About every couple of years the papers will carry a story about an alleged sighting of them. The ornithological community will then furrow its collective brow and examine all the evidence, but so far its skepticism has prevailed.
As in the case of Bigfoot and the Tasmanian tiger, there are also some infuriatingly ambiguous photographs and sound recordings making the rounds. Cornell University has an outstanding offer of $50,000 to anyone who can lead their researchers to an indisputably living, breathing ivory-billed.
The bird alit on the trunk of a honey locust next to the road and started its rapid thonk-thonk-thonk, but it was cagey enough to stay on the side I couldn’t see. As I rounded the tree it scooched in the same direction to stay ahead of me but eventually decided to hell with it and flew off. As it did so, I could see large white areas on the trailing undersides of its wings.
This was in Michigan. Since ivory-billed woodpeckers live (or lived) primarily in the southeastern US and the Caribbean I wasn’t expecting any big miracle here. It turned out that, yes, what I had spotted was actually a ringer for it, the perfectly common pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus). A true ivory-billed would have been even larger — about 20 inches long with a 30-inch wingspan — and would have had more white on the top near its tail. In addition it had a doubled pecking rhythm whereas the bird I saw and heard kept things perfectly even.
There’s an ivory-billed lookalike that’s larger yet, and again rare if not extinct: the imperial woodpecker (C. imperialis). Their traffic-stopping appearance sped their final demise as it encouraged people to shoot them simply out of curiosity. The last confirmed live specimen was dispatched in this manner in Mexico in 1956 (specifically Durango, where The Treasure of Sierra Madre had been filmed a decade earlier), so you might keep a semi-jaundiced eye out for this bird, too.
Three unusual afflictions you don’t usually hear about
Empty nose syndrome
Inside our nasal passages on each side there’s a set of three roughly parallel horizontal folds called turbinates. Since the early 1900s people suffering from serious nasal blockages have undergone surgery to cut away some of this tissue.
It turns out the turbinates induce a necessary turbulence into the airflow through the nose and help slow evaporation, and that overly zealous excision of these structures can paradoxically make the patient’s nose feel even more stuffed up than before. This can be fiendishly distressing and has been referred to as empty nose syndrome. Treatment typically involves restoring the moisture inside with a saline mist.
Zero stroke (or cipher stroke)
This was first identified in patients by their doctors during the German Weimar Republic hyperinflation of the early 1920s. The constant stress of having prices rise so feverishly — at the peak of the crisis they doubled every 90 hours — caused some people to pass into a sort of trance and obsessively write down row upon row of zeros on sheets of paper.
The Weimar hyperinflation hasn’t been the worst, though. That honor belongs to the Hungarian version which maxed out in July 1946 when prices were doubling about every 15 hours.
It’s exceedingly rare, but some people are born with all their major internal organs flipped horizontally so that their heart is on the right, their liver is on the left, and so on. Normally this doesn’t produce any symptoms and the patient only learns of this state of affairs through a routine x-ray or while being prepped for an organ transplant. Humorist Catherine O’Hara is switched around like this.
But there are partial versions of situs inversus in which, say, the heart is on the left side as normal (levocardia) with everything else flipped or the heart alone is on the right (dextrocardia) with everything else in the normal location. Either of these invariably give rise to serious circulatory problems.
Castle or Corman?
William Castle (1914-1977) and Roger Corman (b. 1926) are known for their [usually] low-budget, [usually] high-concept movies.
Castle typically incorporated some kind of gimmick into his pictures — joy buzzers installed into selected seats, nurses stationed in the lobby, a magic coin, a 45-second “fright break” timer overlaid onto the screen, burial insurance for patrons who might die of shock, and so forth.
Corman is probably best known for 1960’s Little Shop of Horrors which featured a human-eating plant and Jack Nicholson as a masochistic dental patient. It went on to spawn a stage musical — which itself then ricocheted back into yet another movie, directed by John Waters (who himself grew up as a Castle zealot).
Naturally Vincent Price saw plenty of action with both Castle and Corman. He plays child-killing Richard III in Tower of London, and in The Tingler he exhorts us to "Scream! Scream for your lives!!”
In The Thing With Two Heads, Ray Milland is a cantankerous and openly racist physician who, as a consequence of multiple organ failure, has to have his head grafted onto the body of a black death row inmate played by Rosey Greer. Much of the film consists of this bizarre Milland-Greer “Thing” racing around the countryside on a minibike.
The one A-list picture in this glorious morass was Rosemary’s Baby, produced by William Castle and directed by a new Polish kid hardly anybody had then heard of named Roman Polanski. Castle himself appears in a cameo as the man waiting for Mia Farrow to get off a pay phone.
Let’s see if you can tell some of the pictures of William Castle and Roger Corman apart. Click below for the answers:
1. 13 Frightened Girls (banned in Finland)
2. Attack of the Crab Monsters
3. House on Haunted Hill
4. Let’s Kill Uncle
5. Not of This Earth
6. The Thing With Two Heads
7. The Tingler
8. X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes
9. Tower of London
2. Corman (starring Russell Johnson)
3. Castle (starring Vincent Price)
4. Castle (starring Nigel Bruce)
5. Corman (starring Beverly Garland)
6. Corman as producer (starring Ray Milland and Rosey Grier)
7. Castle (starring Vincent Price)
8. Corman (starring Ray Milland)
9. Corman (starring Vincent Price)
10. Castle (starring Tom Poston)
2. Corman (starring Russell Johnson)
3. Castle (starring Vincent Price)
4. Castle (starring Nigel Bruce)
5. Corman (starring Beverly Garland)
6. Corman as producer (starring Ray Milland and Rosey Grier)
7. Castle (starring Vincent Price)
8. Corman (starring Ray Milland)
9. Corman (starring Vincent Price)
10. Castle (starring Tom Poston)
Odd, entirely unrelated facts
Neither birds nor naked mole rats are sensitive to the heat (capsaicin) in chili peppers.
Few people have ever read a real King James bible (1611). The one you normally see is a 1769 modernization of it. The original featured a lengthy foreword by the translators along with an almanac. The foreword reflected more modernistic language than the main content.
Icelanders like to eat shark meat that’s been fermented for six months. They call it hakarl. In this sense they have something in common with the Japanese, who before the era of modern refrigeration made their sushi this way.
From her roles most people inferred that character actress Nancy Walker was Jewish, but she wasn't. Also, she was very small at 4′10″ (1.5m) — a fact to which I can attest because she walked past me once on a sidewalk.
The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has detected a mysterous underwater noise called “the bloop” on several occasions. Researchers say it appears to be biological, but any animal producing it must be many times larger than a blue whale.
Jerome “Curly” Howard of the Three Stooges hated having a shaved head, so each year during the summer hiatus he would let his hair grow out.
Napoleon Bonaparte’s native language wasn’t French. He learned it in school beginning at the age of nine.
A tossed penny isn’t perfectly fair. The obverse (“heads") is slightly heavier so the coin lands with "tails” up about 50.5% of the time.
Actor Khigh Dheigh, best remembered as the North Korean brainwasher in The Manchurian Canidate and recurring arch-criminal Wo Fat in the TV series Hawaii Five-O, wasn’t even Asian. His real name was Kenneth Dickerson, he was born in New Jersey of north African ancestry, and he lived out his retirement years in Arizona.