Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

11 OCTOBER, 2011

Perversion for Profit: Vintage Anti-Porn Propaganda

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A vintage card from the Tea Party playbook, or what the Kama Sutra has to do with the fall of the Roman Empire.

Until the global crisis of 2008, the largest financial debacle in living memory was triggered by the Savings & Loan crisis of the late 1980s. And the face of that scandal was Charles Keating. When his bank, Lincoln Savings and Loan Association, failed in 1989, more than 21,000 investors, most of whom elderly, lost their savings, and the American taxpayer forked over $3.4 billion to clean up the mess. Political scandals followed — remember the Keating Five? — and Keating did federal time for wire fraud and bankruptcy fraud.

That’s when financial institutions began to lay waste to the American dream. But if you asked Charles Keating what posed the biggest threat to America’s bright future, he’d point you to something else — porn. (No, not the green kind.) Way back in 1958, Keating founded Citizens for Decent Literature, which became the largest anti-pornography organization in the U.S. As part of his crusade, Keating also produced Perversion for Profit, a 1965 propaganda film that stitched together scads of pornographic images, hoping to make the visual case that pornography, nd homosexuality right along with it, threatened to undermine America as a civilization. Domestic moral decay leads to external threat. That’s the essential argument of the film. And so we get lines like: “This moral decay weakens our resistance to the onslaught of the communist masters of deceit.” And then this, the closing words narrated by Los Angeles newsman George Putnam:

This same type of rot and decay caused sixteen of the nineteen major civilizations to vanish from the Earth. Magnificent Egypt, classical Greece, imperial Rome, all crumbled away not because of the strength of the aggressor, but because of moral decay from within. But we are in a unique position to cure our own ills: our Constitution was written by men who put their trust in God and founded a government based in His laws. These laws are on our side. We have a constitutional guarantee of protection against obscenity. And, in this day especially, we must seek to deliver ourselves from this twisting, torturing evil. We must save our nation from decay and deliver our children from the horrors of perversion. We must make our land, ‘the land of the free’, a safe home. O God, deliver us, Americans, from evil.”

You can watch this vintage piece of reactionary Americana on YouTube, or find it housed in Open Culture’s collection of Free Movies Online.

Dan Colman edits Open Culture, which brings you the best free educational media available on the web — free online courses, audio books, movies and more. By day, he directs the Continuing Studies Program at Stanford University. You can find Open Culture on Twitter and Facebook

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10 OCTOBER, 2011

Poets Ranked by Beard Weights

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Calculating aptitude by way of facial hair, or what Walt Whitman’s “hibernator” has to do with phrenology.

It’s common knowledge that a poet is only as good as his beard. Or so went the wisdom of Poets Ranked by Beard Weight, a privately printed subscription leaflet authored by Upton Uxbridge Underwood and distributed by the Torchbearer Society of London across the reading bins and cocktail tables of turn-of-the-century parlor cars and smoking lounges to keep the era’s literati informed and entertained. The exceedingly rare work eventually became a prized collector’s item for bibliophiles and beard-historians alike, and inspired many of today’s beard-grooming competitions.

Poets Ranked by Beard Weight: The Commemorative Edition, flagged by the ever-fascinating 50 Watts, collects the best of this Edwardian esoterica in an entertaining volume based on the original 1913 edition, resurrecting the seminal text from out-of-print obscurity and into hipster-readiness. From comparing how Walt Whitman’s “Hibernator” beard stacks up against Henry David Thoreau’s “Wandering Jim” to perusing the code of beard poses and gestures found in the Fundamentals of Beard Flirtation, the tome even peeks inside Underwood’s curious beard-sorcery. Critic and literary historian Gilbert Alter-Gilbert writes in the preface:

The Language of the Beard […] vaunts the premise that the texture, contours, and growth patterns of a man’s beard indicate personality traits, aptitudes, and strengths and weaknesses of character. A spade beard, according to Underwood’s theories, may denote audacity and resolution, for example, while a forked, finely-downed beard signifies creativity and the gift of intuition, a bushy beard suggests generosity, and so on. Moreover, in keeping with the tenets of such sister systems as palmistry, numerology, and phrenology, Underwood posits the power of the ancient art of pogonomancy, or divination by beard reading, to foresee future events.”

The beards are ranked on Underwood’s Pogonometric Index of 0 (“Very very weak”) to 60 (“Very very heavy”), which attributes numerical values to “poetic gravity” and relative “beard weights,” citing 10 to 24 as the normal range for the average person, with the exceptionally gifted scoring upwards of forty. Though the book features only black-and-white illustrations, 50 Watts’ Will Schofield, whose 2009 post on beard weights inspired the book, has culled some photographic examples of the beards in Underwood’s ranking.

Samuel Morse (1791 – 1872)

Beard type: Garibaldi Elongated

Typical opus: What Hath God Wrought

Gravity (UPI rating): 58

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828 – 1882)

Beard type: Italian False Goatee

Typical opus: The Blessed Damozel

Gravity (UPI rating): 38

Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862)

Beard type: Wandering Jim

Typical opus: Within the Circuit of This Plodding Life

Gravity (UPI rating): 29

Sidney Lanier (1842 – 1881)

Beard type: Spade

Typical opus: The Song of the Chattahoochee

Gravity (UPI rating): 41

William Cullen Bryant (1794 – 1878)

Beard type: Van Winkle

Typical opus: To a Waterfowl

Gravity (UPI rating): 43

Sir Walter Raleigh (1552 – 1618)

Beard type: Van Dyke

Typical opus: The Lie

Gravity (UPI rating): 27

Walt Whitman (1819 – 1892)

Beard type: Hibernator

Typical opus: O Captain! My Captain!

Gravity (UPI rating): 22

As for the obvious “What about the lady-poets?” question, lest we forget what era we’re dealing with here, here’s a proper map of woman’s heart to remind us.

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10 OCTOBER, 2011

Animation Pioneer Max Fleischer Illustrates 1944-1945 News Wires

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From the most expensive kiss on record to university classes on how to choose and keep a husband.

We’ve previously seen artists visually capture the news, from Félix Fénéon’s illustrated three-line “novels” circa 1906 to Sophie Blackall’s brilliant illustrated Craigslist missed connections. In 1944-1945, iconic animation pioneer Max Fleischer, while heading the animation department at the Handy (Jam) Organization (remember them?), created a series of humorous “news sketches” based on human interest stories from the Associated Press wires.

If the stop-motion timelapse editing and Fleicher’s illustration style look familiar, they should be — they presage the excellent and ever-popular RSA animations by over half a century and no doubt inspired everyone’s favorite intellectual sketchnote-storytelling.

The film is now in the public domain and available as a free, legal, remixable download courtesy of the Internet Archive.

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07 OCTOBER, 2011

Apple and the Bananas: A Steve Jobs Personal Remembrance

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From Jules Verne to the Iron Curtain, or why ‘bondi blue’ is the defining color of my curiosity.

I grew up in Bulgaria in the 1980s. Before the fall of the communist regime in 1989, scarcity underpinned the status quo — of commodities, of information, of opportunity. So limited were Western imports that once a year, around New Year’s, a handful of grocery stores would make available “exotic” produce like tropical fruit. The supply-demand ratio was so skewed that the store had to ration these exorbitantly priced annual luxuries — one banana and two oranges per person — and people would line up around the block to get them. (Meanwhile, the unworthy apple, Bulgaria’s most ample fruit crop, would sit neglected in the produce aisle at 50 stotinki a kilogram, roughly $0.15 per pound.) The most ambitious parents would camp out in front of the store overnight to make sure they got the bananas and oranges first thing in the morning as they went on sale.

In my lifetime, I’ve only seen such lines twice since — first in front of the Apple Store on June 29, 2007, when the iPhone was released, and then again in April of last year, when the iPad became semi-available. Under Steve Jobs, Apple became the bananas of the West.

In the 1990s, my mother joined Bulgarian Business Systems — Bulgaria’s first and, for over a decade, only official Apple dealer. I had grown up reading Jules Verne, so when we got our first Macintosh, I remember thinking that the man behind it — because, let’s face it, such was the cultural conditioning that I wouldn’t have expected a woman — must be some modern-day Jules Verne, having just handed me a portal for curiosity and exploration that helped me lean into knowledge in a way that has since become the fundamental driving force of my intellectual life.

That iconic 1984 Apple commercial, with its undertones of Big Brother rebellion and escapism, always had special resonance with me.

In the early 90s, about a year after I had started learning English, my mother reminds me of this jingle I wrote for a Macintosh Performa ad in one of the big newspapers:

An Apple a day keeps the doctor away

A Performa a day lets you thrive and play

(Oh come on, cut me some slack. I was nine.)

By the mid-90s, I was spending my school holidays folding Apple brochures and helping my mother set up the big annual Apple Expo, held every December at the Zemyata i Horata (‘Earth and People’) museum.

In 1998, my high school was the only school in the country to have Macs in its library. I vividly remember the day the first candy-colored iMac G3 arrived. It was the bondi blue flavor, the kind of translucent greenish-blue I’d always imagined as the backdrop to Captain Nemo’s world. When I was exploring the budding Internet on it, I felt like it had opened to me to the doors to the library on Nautilus.

When I came to the states for college, I went through a 13-month period I’ve since referred to as “the dark days” — being broke and beguiled by a sweet-talking UPenn senior, I bought his lightly used Dell laptop for the bargain price of $400, rationalizing it as a handy investment in class assignments. It was a foreign land to me, with its confusing navigation menus and counterintuitive interface. The blue screen became a frustrating frequent.

Finally, one fine day in 2004, I bit the bullet and walked into the campus bookstore, which had an official Apple section. I was working three jobs at the time, to pay my way through college, so I ended up eating canned tuna and store-brand oatmeal for a couple of months to offset the expense, but I did walk out with a brand new iBook G4. It was promptly named Francis by my friends, since I was going through my Frank Sinatra period and that’s all that streamed from my iTunes, the same iTunes through which I discovered Sinatra in the first place.

It was like I had undergone a personal Renaissance. I started taking Francis to all my classes and, often, classes I wasn’t actually enrolled in — curious lectures across various departments, from criminology to nutrition to design history, that I would drop in on. I never thought much of my secret hobby, until I heard Steve Jobs’s now-iconic 2005 Stanford graduation address. In it, he recounts the power of a serendipitous visit to a calligraphy class he wasn’t enrolled in, which went on to shape his landmark contributions to design and graphic interfaces:

If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later. Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.” ~ Steve Jobs

Long before I was able to articulate it, he was a living testament to the power of networked knowledge and combinatorial creativity.

The semester I got Francis, I was one of three students to have a Mac in the large Annenberg Center lecture hall, where I had many of my classes. Over the next three years, I watched with wonder as the white lids proliferated, taking over the rows until, by my senior year, you could count on the fingers of one hand the students who hid in the back with their PCs. And it wasn’t because — or, okay, only because — to have a Mac was a status symbol of early hipsterdom. It was because it changed how we did everything, from taking class notes to designing presentations to listening to music. Most importantly, it changed our expectations about taking notes and designing presentations and listening to music.

This is the true legacy of Steve Jobs. He didn’t just transform technology, design, and entertainment — he transformed our expectations about technology, design, and entertainment. He not only made us eager to line up for the bananas of our time, but also made us willing to step into the Nautilus library of fascination and never want to leave.

Thank you, Steve, for shaping my childhood, my curiosity, and my creative and intellectual destiny. May you rest in peace 20,000 leagues under the sea.

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Brilliant top image by Jonathan Mak

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