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Interesting miscellany from our events & elsewhere. Earlier Posts

November 18: UNQLE-0X

(Note: The title is more than just gibberish.)

otd161118It seems silly now, but there were push-button telephones before rotary dials were invented. Maybe not; people have been pushing buttons and pulling levers for centuries, but if you ever used a rotary phone, looking back on it now, it seems like such a weird action to take to interface with a machine.

But they first tried buttons on the very earliest versions of telephones, in 1887, before phone numbers existed. The only person to reach would have been an operator to connect you to one of the handful of people with a phone line, but still. Almon Strowger, a civil war veteran and undertaker living in upstate New York, developed the rotary dialer as protection against a local telephone operator, who was supposedly funneling all funeral business to her husband and away from Strowger. Using a round collar box and some straight pins, he created the first direct-dialing system in 1891.

phones-compOperators continued to exist in various forms until the 1950s, when the last of them were phased out, and it was a decade of all rotary dialing, until November 18, 1963, when push-button dialing was officially offered as a pilot project to people in test markets outside Pittsburgh. Adoption was slow; it wasn’t until the 1980s that most people had push-button phones, and rotary phones still exist today, in an era when land lines as a whole are being phased out. (I’m guessing… mostly hipsters.)

The letters-over-the-numbers thing came along for two reasons: first, telephone numbers used to start with two letters, as a way of designating what neighborhood you were in, and secondly, as a way for advertisers to make their numbers more memorable. If you needed people to memorize a random seven- (or ten-)digit number, making a word out of it made it easier.

(Start at 2:04 to get a good example of how much we needed the letters over the numbers.)

Now, the alphabet doesn’t divide cleanly into sets of three, so the two least used letters, Q and Z, were often dropped so everything would fit on the buttons. These days, that doesn’t matter as much, what with design advancements, and so those letters have returned to the 7 and the 9 keys, respectively.

#OTD runs weekdays.

November 17: Sashay, Shanté!

otd161117(Note: This entry contains the single greatest video ever made. Be sure you’re prepared before you continue.)

Born in San Diego on this day in 1960 and named for the base used to make gumbo by his Louisianan mother, the answer to today’s question moved with his sister, Renatta, to Atlanta to learn performance. From there, he migrated north to New York City, where he fell in with the gay scene in the Lower East Side, appearing in various shows, videos, stage productions, and all the other goofy parts of the scene in those days.

(You can see him in this, the greatest video ever released on YouTube ever, a glorious one-minute riff from artist Tom Rubnitz):

In the early 1990s, when everyone else was discovering grunge and gangsta rap, RuPaul Andre Charles was deep into dance music, and true to his theorem, she made. it. work.

rupaul-x2After that, music & acting career has kept Ru busy ever since, and when RuPaul’s Drag Race premiered in 2009, he was already America’s most famous Drag Queen. (How RuPaul hasn’t hosted Saturday Night Live — or the Emmys — yet, I haven’t a clue. She’d rock either one without slowing down. I’m assuming it’s only a matter of time.)

We at TNYC are huge fans, and Ru, if you read this, your persistence in fierceness is an inspiration way beyond your core audience. Happy birthday, you supertall goofball.

November 16: Turn Off Your Mind, Relax, & Float Downstream

otd161116If you get migraines, you’ve probably heard of the drug ergotamine. For centuries, doctors have used it as a curative for intense headaches. It acts as an aid to neurotransmitters, helping to constrict blood flow and slowing down the reactions that make up migraines. It’s terribly useful.

It also affects the dopamine receptors, which is where things get interesting (unless you’re a neurologist, in which case, things were already interesting).

(That’s the end of the medicine lesson.)

On November 16, 1938, Albert Hoffmann, a Swiss chemist, was playing around with this stuff, looking for ways to improve it, and he came up with something he called Lyserg-Säure-Diäthylamid, or Lysergic Acid Diethylamide. It was another five years before he realized its psychedelic properties, through accidentally dosing himself.

(Think about that. Imagine being the first person to ever drop acid! I know, right? I mean, like, I know, right?)

lsd-tom-wolfe-electric-kool-aid-acid-testOf course, the Cold War-era CIA thought LSD would be a good tool to help with interrogations or mind control experiments, and so they dosed a ton of people without telling them, which I need not tell you is extremely bad karma. Seriously, never do that. Also, you may get new truths out of your interrogation subjects by dosing them with acid, but those truths are going to involve purple unicorns, and the everlasting healing power of moonbeams, and how hamsters can read your thoughts, man, I swear it.

The CIA eventually figured this out, but by then, word was out that this new chemical was… rather fun in certain dosages.

Which is where Timothy Leary comes in. A psychologist at Harvard, he experimented with LSD & psychedelics as recreational & self-discovery tools, which kick-started what we now think of as a crucial piece of the 1960s counterculture movement.

This is the part you might know. Art got crazy. Music went from I Wanna Hold Your Hand to Picture yourself in a boat on a river, with tangerine trees and marmalade skies in like two years.

lsd-comp

And Ken Kesey took full advantage. Although best known for his semi-autobiographical novel, One Flew over The Cuckoo’s Nest, which later became a Best Picture Oscar winning film, for most of the 1960s he led a small group called the Merry Pranksters.

That group included other writers, most notably Jack Kerouac & his buddy Neil Cassady, and also many of the people who eventually became the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane, both of whom formed and started playing at parties in San Francisco as all this stuff was happening. Kesey procured a bus, which he named “Further,” did up in full psychedelic colors, and drove across the country with everyone in tow, spreading the gospel of groovy peace and love.

lsd-blotter-further-bus-1At that point, LSD was being delivered to people via bowls full of dosed punch, which Tom Wolfe (who was not there to recall it first hand, curiously) memorialized in the book, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. And by the time they finally made LSD possession illegal, it was late 1968, long after the genie had been let out of the bottle. Acid wasn’t easy to make, but you could learn how to do it without a PhD in nuclear physics, and now, psychedelics are part of the chemical amusement landscape, and the inspiration for all kinds of crazy art and new ideas. I’m not saying you should do them, but I am saying at some point, you enjoyed the work of someone who did.

And for that, thanks, Albert Hofmann. (Thofmann.)

November 15: For Liberty

(Apologies in advance for anyone looking for the American Brahman Breeders Association. I’m sure you get this from time to time.)

otd161115First off, happy birthday to Anni-Frid Lyngstad. She made out alright.

The pop star now officially known as Her Serene Highness Princess Anni-Frid Reuss of Plauen was born in Norway, where she got into singing fairly early, starting in choirs and beer halls in her early teens. By the time she first met her future boyfriend & husband, Benny Anderson, she’d already been a teenage bride, and was into her first solo recording contract. As a late-1960s solo act, she did quite well; she won a Swedish “New Faces” contest, becoming famous almost overnight.

Benny was putting out albums as well with his new group, and eventually the two of them, plus Bjorn Ulvaeus and Agnetha Falthskog, put a band together, naming it after their four initials.

Frida was the one with the fashion sense. She came up with the outlandish costumes they wore onstage, and hers was the smokier of the two lead voices. (Agnetha had a sunnier-sounding voice. I remember listening to them as a kid and not being able to tell them apart, but once you start listening, the difference between their voices is really stark.)

abba

[L-R: Bjorn, Agnetha, Ann-Frid, Benny]

Given that, when the time came to record “Fernando,” a song that in the original Swedish was a sad breakup song, there was no question who would take it. And the English translation, with its complete lyrical rewrite into a story of two old Mexican revolutionaries remembering the old times, was a bit of a perfect pop storm.

Fernando isn’t ABBA’s best song — They could have recorded “Waterloo” and walked away from music forever, and that four minutes’ work would have been their ticket to heaven Valhalla — but it’s certainly their best-selling single ever, and one of only a handful of singles to have ever sold 10 million copies. When’s that going to happen again, to anyone, ever.

(By the way, if you’re ever in Stockholm, visit the ABBA Museum.)

No one will ever call ABBA, or Frida herself, the greatest soul act ever, but to say there was no depth to their music is just flat-out wrong, and no one — no one — constructed a song better than they did. And even without hearing it, even if you hated them, or 1970s pop in general, or Eurovision-style glitz, or whatever other silliness you decide to ascribe to yourself, I’d be willing to bet you can hum the chorus to “Fernando.” (You’re doing it right now, aren’t you. There was something in the air that night, the stars were bright…)

And if the lyrics seem a bit close to home, especially given the current political climate, well, that says something too. If I had to do the same again, I would, my friend.

Here it is, in Swedish. You’ve heard the English-language version plenty in your life.

November 14: Call Me, Ishmael!

otd161114Was American Literature (with a capital A and L) born with the November 14, 1851 publication of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick; or The Whale? Possibly. (Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published the following year, and sold vastly better, so maybe… let’s just charitably call it a twin birth.)

Certainly, its all-over-the-place narrative, told from the point of view of an unreliable second-hand account, and interspersed with sermons, songs, asides and half-remembrances sprinkled through the central tale is something that feels very “American” in the way we now know it, through writers like Fitzgerald, Delillo, Acker, Pynchon, Fran Lebowitz, & David Foster Wallace*.

Melville’s whale story was culled from his own experiences on boats in the early 19th century, as well as the tales told of a couple of whales that seemed to capture the national imagination: Timor Tom, a whale that became famous sailors for multiple encounters in the Pacific…

Was it not so, O Timor Tom! thou famed Leviathan, scarred like an iceberg, who so long did’st lurk in the Oriental Straits of that name, whose spout was oft seen from the palmy beach of Ombay?

…and Mocha Dick, who (despite the name) was, like Timor Tom, an albino whale that terrorized sailors off the coast of Chile from about 1810 through 1838, when (it is suspected) he was finally killed, yielding a hundred barrels of oil, and a goodly amount of ambergris, which at the time was as valuable per ounce as anything on Earth.

The whaling industry was a large part of the global economy in the 19th century, though it waned fairly quickly in the post-industrial age, and an international moratorium on whaling (except for certain aboriginal societies) went into effect in 1986. (Even the Hartford Whalers moved down the coast 20 years ago.)

Little Irvy was a whale that died in 1997, and was bought by Jerry Malone, a trucker who spent the next 25 years showing it off at county and state fairs around the country.

*This was just off the top of my head; I’m sure there are dozens more that fit this list, maybe better. Which I think kind of proves the point.