1. Saturday Afternoon Video Club: Dock Ellis on LSD + Stalin's Bunker Tour

    New thing, folks. Pretty self-explanatory.

    First up, an excellent animated tour through Dock Ellis’ LSD-infused 1970 no-hitter for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

    Then, cool off with a tour through the House That Stalin Built: a bunker under Moscow meant to keep Russian officials alive just long enough to guide a nuclear counterattack and end the world.

    Thanks to my man Gorilla Face for the heads up.

  2. Boris Rose, King of the Bootleggers

    Sucker for buried treasure that I am, the story of Boris Rose, jazz bootlegger supreme caught my attention as I perused Syncopated: An Anthology of Nonfiction Picto-Essays [preview]

    Around 1940, Boris began dubbing 78RPM records to 10-inch red vinyl disks with hand-written white labels.  He would sell these dubs of Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, and other great early jazz musicians to anyone interested in buying them….

    Over the years Boris captured thousands of hours of recordings that likely did not exist anywhere else — his was easily the largest private collection of its kind anywhere in the world.  Eventually Boris began recording every sort of broadcast imaginable — he even recorded the soundtracks of entire movies as they were broadcast over television.

    What Rose became known for is the bootleg LPs of these recordings from old 78s and live jazz radio broadcasts.  He sold these records commercially, complete with liner notes and illustrated covers, under the names of invented “foreign” record labels like Alto and Radiex.  Despite being fairly prolific for a unauthorized distributor, the vast majority of his recordings have never been released.

    Boris Rose died on the last day of the 20th century, leaving his collection to his daughter Elaine.  The recordings remain in storage, largely unheard by anyone other than Rose himself an presently unavailable anywhere else.  That’s thousands of hours of unheard sounds sitting in a storage shed in the Bronx, an archive that’s hard to fathom.

    r a n d o m g o o g l i n g p r o d u c e d l i t t l e m o r e i n f o on Mr. Rose.

    illustration by Brendan Burford

  3. Haiti: Humanitarian Invasion

    A hotly debated aspect of the global response to the Port-au-Prince earthquake has been the role of military forces in providing aid and security.  Several dominant narratives have emerged:

    • The always popular ‘They’re looting! What savages!’  This can be used as either a justification for one’s indifference to the situation or as a call for an aggressive posture.  Pretty standard media response after any disaster that affects a non-wealthy demographic.  (Just once I’d like to see CNN helicopter footage of Tori Spelling looting in a burned over Malibu neighborhood.)
    • The “How dare you say they’re looting!” The BBC’s Matthew Price assures us that no one in Haiti would dream of getting violent over food and water and instead are peacefully expiring in the streets from the fumes of Western paranoia, arrogance and stinginess.
    • The U.S. hegemonic invasion line taken by Chavez, Cuba and the usual gang of disgruntled European political figures.  This isn’t helped by the Heritage Foundation kinda sorta maybe y’know almost hinting that we ought to be doing exactly that.

    It is apparent that in discussing global events, shades of grey are not popular.  Bold strokes get pageviews but offer little in the way of constructive thinking.  Unfortunately this overshadows discussion of the practical matters of the relief effort.  Like the seemingly incongruous fit of military forces to a rescue and repair operation.

    To most, “military” calls to mind a destructive force projected against a country’s enemies.  True, but the ability to project force requires a massive portable infrastructure that can sustain troops, allies and civilians in dangerous and deprived circumstances.  The upshot of the U.S.’s massive spending on defense is that their portable infrastructure is far more extensive than that of NGOs dedicated to disaster relief.  Airdrops, water purification, clearing port facilities and building and operating airstrips are all functions that the military excels at beyond the capabilities of NGOs or the private sector.  Haiti’s crumbling infrastructure was inadequate to accommodate a massive influx of aid, personnel and equipment even before the earthquake.  When the quake crippled the primary airport and clogged port facilities with crane wreckage, the U.S. military (and the F.A.A.) was pretty much the only game in town for getting things running again.

    What particularly interests me is how this sort of relief work has become more and more integrated with the core mission of the U.S. military.  Think of  projecting “soft power” and giving targeted aid to developing areas as the equivalent of preventative care, hopefully preventing the need down the road for the chemotherapy of military intervention when societal breakdown foments violence and desperation.  The example foremost in my mind is the lack of large-scale, competent reconstruction and restoration/extension of basic services like electricity and running water in the wake of U.S. military “victories” in Afghanistan and Iraq.  The ability to provide these, along with a basic measure of security, are a primary battlefield between an insurgency and a government, as shown in Iraqi insurgent attacks on the power grid and the present Maoist Naxalite uprising in India.  When the controlling power in a region cannot provide the basics of life, they lose their support.  Using the mobile infrastructure building capacity of the U.S. armed forces is an important way to boost support for friendly governments and bolster the rule of law.

    Further, distributing aid in a damaged area is a rough business.  Even before the earthquake, the U.N. has been having a tough time fighting armed gangs, defusing food riots and adequately distributing aid in a country ranked as one of the world’s most corrupt.  In desperate situations, there’s a sharper sense of survival of the fittest.  With the Haitian police force largely overwhelmed, some men with guns riding along with the rice and tents might not be a bad idea.

    The trouble with doing this in Haiti is that the U.S. military has a long history of invading and occupying small, weak nations in the Western hemisphere.  The U.S. has serious work to do to repair the its image.  An efficient, dedicated response to Haiti’s infrastructural challenges would go a long way towards that work.

  4. What Haiti Looks Like From Far Away

    Now, finally, the world looks at Haiti.  The typical disaster storylines are served up, readymade from the bin previously marked “Hurricane Katrina” or “Kashmir Earthquake” or ‘Tsunami ’04”.  There’s the first wave of shock and speculation, an awe of the tragedy’s magnitude and not a little voyeuristic jolt of seeing such a terror from a safe remove.  The actuaries run the numbers and give ranges of deaths and tallies of expense while satellite photos are shot for before and afters.  Then, come the survivor stories and amateur footage from the apocalypse’s dress rehearsal, bookended by grimacing news anchors and wrapped in the networks’ scrolling ribbons of text.

    As I write this, we’re wading into the judgment stage where the horrors are put into context and the axes that have been grinding all along are revealed.  Survivors become ‘looters’, the victims are ‘impatient’ and the powers who gather with gifts begin to elbow each other as they jockey for position.  This is the part of the narrative arc of disaster where Haiti becomes a Rorschach test.

    Pat Robertson says the earthquake was called up by God to punish Haiti’s Satanic originsHugo Chavez and the French cooperation minister call U.S. aid an occupation.  The Heritage Foundation notes that Amidst the Suffering, Crisis in Haiti Offers Opportunities to the U.S.  In the hermetically sealed bubble of politics, the usual cartoons debate what a serious effort would mean for Obama’s re-election chances.  And the usual cries rise up to name-call about who is a racist and who is unrealistic and who is cruel and who is kidding themselves, none of which I consider useful enough to link.

    The sickness of our times is that we cannot separate all this noise, this mediated hologram from the actual fact of what is taking place in Haiti.  There’s a massive, sudden, depopulation and a breakdown of all support systems in a country with far less than adequate resources to deal with such a crisis.  This country is close to the U.S. with a large population in the U.S. and a long history of being manipulated, corrupted and drained of resources by larger foreign powers.  Such a long term poverty trap has driven a large amount of the population, especially the urban population hardest hit by the earthquake, to the brink, even before this present crisis.  Anyone else recall the last bout of poverty voyeurism where we recoiled from Haitians eating the earth itself for lack of food in a speculation-driven food crisis?

    The poverty, violence and despair in Haiti have always been as real as it is today.  We’ve just never had to confront roadblocks made of bodies on CNN before.  A year’s worth of misery was unleashed in one spasm as the earth shook and collapsed the presidential palace in a media-ready symbol of the country’s fracture.

    To those who say we can’t afford to help amid our economic woes and those who claim that this isn’t our crisis, I say: this has always been our crisis, we’ve just never been called to account for it.  First enslaved, then enslaved by debt, invaded at every turn and long crushed under a kleptocratic and cruel regime, Haiti’s been the vision of broken promises lurking just offshore of the American Dream.  It’s time we did more than just trickle foreign aid into the hands of whoever in Haiti can grab it first and then invade every twenty-five years.

    Rather than try to swallow the ocean and cram it all into this post, I’ll be writing over the coming days about the future of Haiti, a fit of speculation about what could or should or might be done.  Provoked by the horrors and the bile flowing out of all media channels, I want to write about hope.

  5. Founder of Taco Bell, Dead at 86

    Amidst a million other things going on this week, I thought I’d take a moment to note the passing of the man behind Taco Bell, Glen Bell, Jr.  I grew up waiting with barely contained excitement for taco night, which in my gabacho household meant the ritual spooning of meat, colby-jack cheese and lettuce into a crispy tortilla.  Later, it became the first meal I ever figured out how to make myself (with help from a kit), starting me down the road of culinary self-sufficiency I walk today.

    According to the New York Times’ obituary page, I have a man to thank for this glorious innovation of the pre-crisped taco shell:

    … Mr. Bell, a fan of Mexican food, had a hunch that ground beef, chopped lettuce, shredded cheese and chili sauce served in the right wrap could give burgers a run for the money. The problem was which wrap. Tacos served in Mexican restaurants at the time were made with soft tortillas.“If you wanted a dozen, you were in for a wait,” Mr. Bell said. “They stuffed them first, quickly fried them and stuck them together with a toothpick.”

    The solution: preformed fried shells that would then be stuffed. Mr. Bell asked a man who made chicken coops to fashion a frying contraption made of wire.

    Much innovation has come from the creative abuse of chicken wire.  May ever more tasty creations be spawned from the hands of geniuses with pliers.

    So Mr. Bell, for cheaply feeding generations of mall employees, for prepping my tender palette to the wonders of churros, and for introducing the joys of beans and tortillas to the North American masses, long before many in those white bread zones had ever met a real live Mexican, I salute you.

  6. Rewire: The Library as Cloud Storage

    Libraries are storage repositories for books, but just certain books, not your books. No, you have to store those yourself.  Most of the time, those books are speed bumps or structural elements because most of the time you aren’t reading them.  While a well-stocked bookcase or two can be good for showing off to friends and potential mates when you have them round the place, there’s something to be said for not having a half ton of dead tree hanging about the place, taking up valuable space that could be used for holding broken electronics or a knife throwing range.  See where I’m going with this yet?

    Two things about me: I’ve got no money and I live in what would be considered a treehouse if it was in a tree, rather than over a store that sells do-rags and tire chains. Thus I think a lot about making use of the limited space I’ve got and keeping myself stimulated without laying out a lot of cash.  Add that to my nerdish tendencies and it’s a no brainer that I have a pretty steady relationship with the local library.

    I took a big box of books down there yesterday to donate after cleaning out the apartment. (My New Year’s resolution had something to do with house guests not getting tetanus)  They thanked me, dropped in a coat closet and would presumably be storing them until they can be bought at some semi-annual sale by other people who will also use them to clutter up their apartments.

    So I got thinking: what if we applied out internet age expectations of resource sharing to Dead Tree Media?  What would that look like?

    Now a library is an old, old approach to a problem that doesn’t really exist anymore: books being rare, expensive and the only way to reliably preserve and transmit the written word.  True, it can still expensive to build up a book collection of one’s own, especially if the knowledge you’re after is something that might be captured within the textbook/university publishing ghetto where the writing is dry and the prices are high.

    These days, libraries are struggling.  Cities everywhere are deeply in debt and over budget so they’re slashing funding to everything they can.  At the same time, the gushing info pipe that the internet provides has made the modest offerings of the local public library seem less important to those well-off enough to afford their own computer and net access.

    So how can we rewire libraries to increase their relevance?

    Well, one suggestion would be to have them work more like cloud storage, crossed with a little bit of file sharing. (yeah buzzwords!) Dig: Libraries could take a patron’s books, either assuming full ownership or holding them for a mutually agreed upon term.  Then, the patron would be able to get them back at any time, provided no other library patron has checked them out.  Donating patrons would have priority on retrieving any books they donated (i.e.: could skip ahead of the line if an item was heavily reserved) and donated books would be stored in their donor’s home branch, keeping them nearby most of the time.  The donor gets imperfect access to his books but for most books, who needs them right at hand 24/7?  I could certainly wait a week if I ever got the yen to read Glamorama for the third time.

    Downsides would include the additional cost for libraries to absorb many many more books.  This could be partially offset by requiring patrons to pay a fee upfront for storage of their books within the system. I’d gladly pay 10-15 cents a book to have it nearby but out of my apartment.  These payments could also be credited in-kind to a patron’s account to reduce their overdue charges or pay off future fines.

    Another downside would be a significant hit to sales for book publishers.  If libraries were suddenly flush with free books, they wouldn’t have to spend as much.  Likewise, such a system could encourage less people to actually buy popular books if they knew that it was sitting there for free at their local library.

    All in all, not perfect but worth a shot.  Thoughts?  How would you rewire your public library?

  7. FU1K: Submarine, 659 words

    As promised, we’re diversifying our offerings to give you some short fiction, collected as Fiction Under 1000 words (FU1K).  As that I personally find reading a story off a screen to be lacking, we’ve got a specially formatted print version as a PDF for you to print out.  It’s adapted from the Pocketmod so it should fit nicely into your pocket and be ideal for reading on public transportation, no matter how crowded.  Print and fold ’em, leave ’em in public places, sneak them into friends’ jackets.

    print version

    Admission is five hundred yen, which I chop the last two zeroes off of to get dollars. I pay for both our tickets even though we never said this was a date. The attendant closes the door behind us silently and the rivets on our jeans click together as we sit down next to each other. When the ride slows near the top, my thumb is tracing the underside of her bra back underneath her shirt. A man comes on the intercom and says something I tune out and she translates: “He say we stop.” We stop moving. I slide my arm down and she moves closer.

    Before I moved to Japan, I spent my last month or so drinking in local bars and making a lot of calls from the payphone to lie to old friends and acquaintances. These were important last steps, the calls and the bars, because I figured I ought to make myself good and sick of where I’m from by overexposure and I just might need that last hit of barroom wood paneling, pointless gossip and dusty neon beer signs that are part of my DNA, for better or worse. Besides, there’s that whole theory of relativity where time moves differently in different spaces and at different speeds and while I live my life here a day in the future, back home they may be all aging terribly or enslaved by a race of superintelligent lizard men or something. Its important to establish a base line measurement of lies and hazy last memories to figure out the path you’ve taken once you return. If you return. I told several people I was on a submarine making a documentary on polar lichen so they shouldn’t expect any quick replies. Now I get letters from ex-lovers that read like:

    I think of how we could of been and what you mean to me while you’re so far away under the icy waters and I feel frozen like the lonely lichen and…

    The letters usually wrap up with something about Jesus, pot brownies or trying a new prescription on advice of an ad in a women’s magazine. These are the thoughts that stagger through my brainpan while I’m clinking glasses with salarymen to Health, Wealth and Stealth and still telling lies in bars and on phones and acting completely simian. I email back home from under a table:

    I’m talking to you from the future where there’s an electronic board that lists the date and hour of your death. I have a cell phone that looks like a ten year old’s idea of what cell phones are like in Japan. Its the size of a baby hamster and can tell the future if you type to it in Kanji. I eat bento for lunch that I buy from a man wearing a rubber horse’s head.

    This is the stuff of daily life, so far out of context that the only point of reference I can grasp is a dim idea of a slow, quiet apocalypse approaching behind the jumbled skyline like the flat grey clouds of a summer storm.

    On my wrist, my watch beeps and says in a tiny computer voice “Do you remember the nineties?” I look out from the top of the 8th largest ferris wheel in the world built on the top of a thirteen story building with my hand down the pants of a girl wearing a tshirt that reads “There is no now, only Couture”. There’s more lightbulbs flaring at me than visible stars in the sky. Through her hair I see fields of neon hustle for my shifting consumer whims. I think of the oil that lubes the gears of it all and the grim ugliness that will come when it runs out, the darkened grey buildings, the unfashionable desperation of hunger and the dust of stalled progress and I shift my hand down a few more centimeters to the places forbidden here on video.