Posted in No Politics Friday on October 1st, 2015 by Ed

I am not a wine person. Emphatically not. I enjoy it and if you put it in front of me I will drink it, but I don't know anything about it and no effort is made to disguise that fact. The only adjectives you'll hear me use to describe it are on the level of "Good." or "This tastes like communion wine / Nyquil." Its history has some interesting moments though. Like the Great French Wine Blight in the 1860s.

Sometime in the 1850s – best estimates suggest 1858 – an unwelcome visitor made its way from the United States to Europe. No one knows where it went first or how it got there but it is known that by 1863 a North American aphid called Daktulosphaira vitifoliae, aka Phylloxera, was appearing in vineyards. The aphid specializes in the roots of grape vines. Being endemic to the Americas, American grapes are largely resistant to Phylloxera. In a reversal of the introduction of European diseases like smallpox to the Americas during colonization, European grapes had no resistance whatsoever to the new visitor. French wine grapes with famous names that became wine of exorbitant value died en masse. There was nothing anyone could do to stop it.

Well, there was one thing. But the French didn't want to do it. They could graft France's legendary wine grape vines onto American grape roots. In theory this maintained the integrity of the French grape varieties, but many purists thereafter considered French grapes tainted by the process of being crossed with their American cousins. Regardless of one's position on that issue one thing is certain: had the American roots not been used, most or possibly even all of France's legendary wine grapes would have been lost. So the bright side is that they all survived for us to enjoy today.

There is a segment of the wine enthusiast community that reveres wine made from the "pure" French grapes, i.e. wine bottled before the aphid made its journey and changed everything. While wine from before 1860 would be valuable today regardless, French wines of that era are especially sought after for their use of the untainted Gallic grapes. Stories of people paying insane prices for such bottles of wine are numerous. Two are particularly amusing to me. They will amuse you too, provided you are a terrible person like me.

In 1985 Malcolm Forbes, magazine publisher and father of 90s punchline presidential candidate Steve Forbes, paid over $150,000 for a bottle of something called Chateau Lafite 1787. Then he did as rich d-bags tend to do and showed off his grand acquisition in the most conspicuous way. He put it in a grand display case under a light. A very bright light. A very bright light that generated a lot of heat. Heat that dried and withered the centuries-old cork. Eventually it shrank and fell into the precious beverage. That was $150,000 well spent.

Forbes looked like a miser compared to wine collector William Sokolin, who paid over $500,000 for an 18th Century Chateau Margaux. While showing off his purchase at a social event in New York, Sokolin – wait for it – accidentally knocked the bottle off a serving cart and, in what I can only imagine was the slowest slo-mo in human history, watched it tumble to the ground and shatter. What does one even do in that situation? For half a million bucks I would get down and lick it off the carpet. I mean, if the alternative is having everyone at a fancy social event watch you have a complete emotional breakdown then I don't think it's any more shameful. At least get some on your finger and rub it on your tongue. No shame. Do what you gotta do.

The only potential consolation is that many wine experts believe that wine of such advanced age is likely undrinkable anyway. Sure, let's go with that.


Posted in No Politics Friday on September 18th, 2015 by Ed

In 1716 Edmund Halley (He of the comet, although he did not actually discover it – instead he determined that several previous recorded appearances of a comet were in fact the same one reappearing at intervals) published a paper showing how a transit of Venus could be used to calculate with remarkable precision the distance from the Earth to the Sun. A transit occurs when the planet passes directly between Earth and the Sun, and hence is observable as a black dot moving across the solar "surface" as viewed from Earth. Venusian transits are rare. We experienced two in our lifetimes but will never live to see another one; the solar system treats us to two separated by eight years (2004 and 2012) but then does not repeat the phenomenon for more than a century. The next one is in 2117.

Halley did not live to make anything of his idea, dying in 1742 and therefore missing out on the upcoming 1761 / 1769 pair of transits. Other astronomers took up the task, though. A worldwide effort led by Russian Mikhail Lomonosov attempted to coordinate hundreds of observations and measurements from every corner of the globe. Combining all of that data, even with the slow, cumbersome technology available in the 18th Century, would be a gold mine for astronomers. Some historians have suggested that this was the first truly international, coordinated scientific effort. Regardless, a great deal of data was collected and Halley's theory proved correct with time.

Many of the scientists who took part in the Venus effort were or would become famous. A pair of Englishmen, the famous Charles Mason and his assistant Jeremiah Dixon, would later become household names in America when they settled a border dispute between Pennsylvania and Maryland with a surveyed line that still bears their name. One who was not famous, though, was a Frenchman grandly named Guillaume Joseph Hyacinthe Jean-Baptiste Le Gentil. He failed miserably in his attempts to make observations in a series of misfortunes that borders on absurd.

In 1760 he set out to observe from the French possession of Pondicherry on the eastern shore of the Indian subcontinent. Reaching Ile-de-France (Mauritius) he found that further progress was made impossible by the ongoing naval war between France and Britain (in fairness, Mason and Dixon were fired upon numerous times by French ships too). He finally secured passage on a private merchant ship that had secured permission to travel to India by both navies. Unfortunately it went off course in a storm and floated aimlessly for five weeks, and when they finally reached Pondicherry they found that the French had lost it to Britain and Gentil was not allowed to disembark. The ship instead was forced to return to Mauritius, and on the appointed day, June 6, Gentil was unable to observe the transit from the deck of a ship pitching and rolling around in the Indian Ocean.

Surely that disappointed him, but he had another shot in the not too distant future. He remained in the Indian Ocean and took up projects like mapping the African coast, surveying Madagascar, and so on. He sent back word to France to let his family know that he would not be returning until after the second transit. After lengthy consideration he decided to observe the 1769 event from Manila. The Spanish colonial government, however, put him back on his ship when he arrived for some reason lost to history but probably having to do with the petty rivalries that defined the three great European powers in that era. Exasperated, he returned to Pondicherry (won back by France in a 1763 peace treaty) and set up his equipment to make his long-awaited observation. When it arrived – June 4, 1769 – Pondicherry, which had been chosen specifically for its unusually San Diego-like weather, was completely overcast. It was the first and only overcast day in more than six months Gentil spent at Pondicherry. He didn't see a thing.

Defeated, he returned to France on a ship on which dysentery broke out, killing many of the passengers and horribly sickening Gentil himself. When he finally arrived, haggard, half-dead, and spiritually deflated, he found that none of his letters to France had reached their destination. He had been removed from the Academy and declared legally dead; his wife re-married and avaricious relatives "enthusiastically plundered" his estate.

Only the direct intervention of Louis XVI, who found beyond pitiable the story of this man who had tried so hard to achieve something for the sake of the Academy and had been roundly kicked in the ass in return, restored him to something of a normal life. He was restored in his position at the Academy, remarried, and lived an additional two decades.

So if you had a bad week or you're having a bad day, it could be worse. You could be Guillaume de Gentil. Or on a ship when dysentery breaks out. Or both.


Posted in No Politics Friday on September 11th, 2015 by Ed

Three things to help you pass the time on Friday. All three officially beat working.

1. Since moving I've reacquired the urge to do things that are productive, if we define productive as anything short of a complete waste of time. As I also enjoy being obsessively thorough and complete with my hobbies, I've started making publicly available Google Maps (with downloadable .kml data) of architectural things. Here is a map with the location of every remaining structure from Frank Lloyd Wright. If you're interested in more varied and lighter fare, here is a map of the American Institute of Architects list of America's 150 favorite buildings. That list had an element of public input, so some of it is a bit soft. Nobody really finds Wrigley Field all that impressive as architecture. Overall it's not a bad overview though, although by no means a complete one of American architecture (I couldn't help adding 150a and 150b at the end. I mean. Come on.) Currently I'm working on a Louis Kahn map, and a few other ideas bouncing around for after that.

2. Things We've All Seen but Haven't Thought about In Ages: Those re-dubbed parody GI Joe PSA cartoons. You probably haven't watched them in years and therefore you're likely to have forgotten how amazing they are.

The first time I saw these was at the Chicago Underground Film Festival (1999? 2000?) in a room full of pretentious artsy film festival people. For the first two (maybe 60 seconds total) we collectively couldn't believe we had to sit through this low-brow, sophomoric shit. By about minute four a good 90% of the audience was literally doubled over and gasping for air. They're still funny even when you know what's coming, so it's hard to convey just how hilarious this was the first time we heard "BODY MASSAGE!" or the reggae one (@ 3:05).

3. Speaking of ridiculous things taken much further than anyone could reasonably expect, my shuffle playlist reminded me about Austrian Death Machine on a long drive today. It's a joke-metal outfit with songs that are all vintage Arnold Schwarzenegger movie quotes.

Enjoy hits like "Get to the Choppa!" and "Screw You Benny." Who is your daddy and what does he do, indeed.


Posted in No Politics Friday on September 4th, 2015 by Ed

Bonus NPF!

Several months ago a friend sent me this picture of a nearly perfect, impeccably maintained and restored vehicle from the automotive past.


In case you didn't recognize it – and honestly I'm a bit worried about you if you did – that's a 1979 Plymouth Arrow Truck. It's something of a punchline, the only truck produced by now-defunct Plymouth and a perfect example of the compact pickup boom of the El Camino era. In no real sense is it a Plymouth (it's a rebadged Mitsubishi Forte, predecessor of the Mighty Max) and in no real sense is it famous, highly regarded, valuable, or sought-after. 36 years have failed to make it collectible.

Why do I like this picture so much? Because we see crap on the road every day. Only very, very rarely does one see perfect, mint condition crap. A restored, flawless car from 1979 is not in and of itself a rare thing. But the vintage auto market and "Trailer Queens" (cars of perfect appearance that are never actually driven) on the Concours circuit are universally high end. Lots of people restore 1970s cars – Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Corvettes, Rolls-Royces, and so on. When lower end cars are restored they inevitably come from the American Muscle Car genre – Mustangs, Camaros, Roadrunners, Challengers, Barracudas, and their ilk. What you see in this picture is the equivalent of seeing a perfect, factory condition 2001 Chevy Cavalier on the road in 2040.

It's so unusual that all I can do is stare at it and think, "Who would do this? Why that car?" And then I want to meet whoever did it and shake the magnificent bastard's hand. Like I wanted to do to the guy who spent $55,000 absolutely flawlessly restoring an AMC Pacer a few years ago.

It doesn't take much taste to appreciate a high priced Italian sports car from the past. Any nouveau riche hedge fund grunt can go to an auction and drop $250,000 on a 1970 Mustang that someone else restored to perfection. That's why I hate the auction/collector car market. It would be far more interesting, at least to me, if more people did things like this. There is nothing interesting about seeing an old Cadillac someone dumped six figures into because he remembers the first time he got a handjob in one back in the Eisenhower years. There's something compelling – if also ridiculous – about having a perfect Matching Numbers 1989 Dodge Shadow, Dodge Shadow Registry No. 0000001. Automotive history isn't just about the highlights. It's about the cars people actually bought and drove. That turquoise Taurus says more about the early 90s than your mint condition ZR-1.

Good on you, Mr. 1979 Plymouth Arrow Truck. If you're going to have an obsession, why have the same one everyone else has?


Posted in No Politics Friday on September 3rd, 2015 by Ed

Ever have an idea so ridiculous that you think it might actually be brilliant? For the past few months I've been haunted by the phrase "Ed Lauter Film Festival." That would be, as the name implies, an event organized around the most notable works of career character actor Ed Lauter. You might recognize him as That Guy who's in That Movie you like. Or that TV series. Ed Lauter was like an electron, simultaneously everywhere and nowhere at once.

Wait. Hear me out.

An academic friend and I are more than a bit unnaturally obsessed with Mr. Lauter, but the more I thought about our comedic suggestion that he be honored with a film festival the more I thought that it's just stupid enough to work. How could our irony-saturated society fail to love the idea of a festival held in middle America to honor the workhorses of Hollywood…people who form the backbone of your favorite movies and shows, adding layers beneath the leading men and women who get all the attention? Isn't that, like, almost poetic? In addition to being bullshit?

The fact is that I have no idea how one goes about organizing a film festival is an impediment. So is the obvious potential for it to be a disaster with nobody showing up. But if that is the worst thing that can happen, I'm pretty sure that's survivable. I happen to know a number of fairly successful people who might be talked into performing to add more entertainment to wrap around the Lauter films. I know a lot of people who write about movies and movie stuff to a substantial audience. And I can be pretty tenacious once I get obsessed with something.

Good idea, or the best idea? Or is it actually neither of those because it's a terrible idea? Maybe a Friday-Saturday event that wouldn't cost much ($20?) and could offer movies, live music at night, comedy, panel discussions and lectures on Ed Lauter, and more? Sure, it wouldn't exactly be Coachella, but with luck we could pack a whole lot of entertainment for not much money into a weekend. Aside from the potential that nobody would go because it's clearly a nutty idea, what are the most obvious roadblocks I should think about as I move from the "Hmm" phase to actual brainstorming? Do you think anyone (not necessarily you) would come to such a thing?

Moving was a great idea. I feel like doing things again. Even if they are Ed Lauter related and kind of illogical.


Posted in No Politics Friday on August 20th, 2015 by Ed

Mysteries don't have to be grand in scope in order to be compelling. Consider this story, true in every detail, as evidence.

On February 11, 1979 an ex-hippie named Scott Moorman, who had given up life in the mainland U.S. to live as a fisherman in Hawaii, boarded a boat christened the Sarah Jo with four of his friends. Their plan was simply to spend the day fishing as they often did. A few hours after they departed Hana, HI the day's perfect weather took a rapid turn for the worse. A near-hurricane passed through the island chain, causing a great deal of damage on land as well as to ocean vessels. The Sarah Jo did not return that evening or the next day. One of Moorman's companions was one Peter Hanchett, which is important because Hana resident John Hanchett – Peter's father – was the only person who realized that the five men were out on their comparatively tiny boat during the storm. Being free spirited Beach Bum types none of the men had thought to inform anyone of their itinerary or specific destination, if one even existed.

The elder Hanchett and a neighbor went out to sea but quickly threw in the towel on account of the weather. The next day Hanchett resumed the search with the help of a local marine biologist named John Naughton. The day after that the U.S. Coast Guard got involved, eventually searching over 73,000 square miles of open ocean. No trace of the Sarah Jo or its passengers was found. Eventually the men were presumed dead.

"Ed, this story isn't very interesting so far." You're not wrong. But.

In 1988 a marine biologist doing research in the Marshall Islands came upon the wreckage of a boat on a remarkably isolated atoll called Bokak. If Bokak is not the actual middle of nowhere, that point certainly must be visible from it. Bokak (Population: 0) is so remote that it is 450 miles from Majuro, the main atoll of the famously remote Marshalls. It is the remote corner of a remote country. It is also 2,200 miles from Hana, HI.

Analysis of the wreckage proved definitively that it was the Sarah Jo. No trace of Scott Moorman's four companions was found, but under a neatly stacked pile of stones not unlike a burial marker the researcher found an intact human jawbone. Dental records matched it to Scott Moorman. The researcher, by the way, was John Naughton. He had set out looking for Moorman the day after his disappearance and found him nine years later entirely by accident. Oh, and there was something buried with the skeletal remains:

"It was a sheaf of paper, and I’d say a book, except it was not bound. Probably three inches by three inches by maybe 3/4 of an inch thick. But between each one of these pieces of paper, there was a very small square piece of tin foil material. We have not been able to determine who placed that there or, what purpose it serves."


It is hardly surprising that Moorman and his friends died after becoming lost at sea. It is not hard to imagine a scenario in which the boat broke apart and the other four men disappeared into the waves. But who buried Scott Moorman – on a deserted atoll hundreds of miles from…anything, really – and why? Why would anyone go through the effort to do that, and in the middle of nowhere at that? What explains the seemingly random but intricate papers buried with him? The most likely scenario in my mind is that someone buried him because they feared that by informing the Coast Guard they would somehow become suspects in Moorman's death. This is patently silly, though, as the fact that Moorman and the others died from exposure after drifting out to sea seems obvious.

It's not exactly the gunman on the grassy knoll or the disappearance of Lord Lucan, but it would be interesting to know who performed this rather strange ritual with Moorman's remains, why they did it, and why they chose such an odd location. It would have made approximately as much sense if his body had been discovered, partially buried, on the Moon.


Posted in No Politics Friday on July 16th, 2015 by Ed

I am a man who loves, and regularly makes, a good Edsel reference. That car and New Coke are probably American culture's most prominent examples of commercial failure, although I'm not sure if either are familiar to younger generations anymore. Although historical revisionism has emboldened some defenders of both – It is often claimed, for example, that the Edsel failed but contributed to the development of important technologies, which is very stupid and false and also its grille looked like a vagina – they largely deserve their reputation as disasters. We could probably add Netflix's "Qwikster" to the pantheon if it hadn't disappeared so quickly (see what I did there) that already almost nobody remembers it. Americans love winners but are fascinated by losers, provided they lose spectacularly enough. Nobody notices a 2-14 football team, but go 0-16 and suddenly we can't get enough.

What I find really interesting, though, are things that fail but then become huge successes later. My stock example when attempting to explain this phenomenon (side note: we should come up with a name for it. Lazarus effect?) is Zima. Remember Zima, the first mass-marketed "malt beverage" in the United States? Released in 1993, Zima was the butt of about 10% of all American jokes for the duration of that decade. Letterman and Leno beat it to death. Saturday Night Live lampooned it. The public ridiculed it; one commentator noted in a retrospective that, "There are a million ways to slight a rival's manhood, but to suggest that he enjoys Zima is one of the worst." I remember being in junior high – before anyone was even drinking beer or had any meaningful point of reference – and hearing regular Zima jokes. The product disappeared from shelves despite Coors' valiant (and expensive) marketing efforts, but the ironic part is of course that such "alco-pop" and non-beer bottled malt beverages are now wildly popular – Smirnoff Ice and Zima are virtually indistinguishable. While the masculinity-destroying stigma remains, malt beverages are available in hundreds of varieties now and sell briskly. From "hard lemonade" to Smirnoff to a newly available alcoholic root beer, things that come in a beer bottle but aren't beer have never been more popular.

Another example is nowhere near as well remembered as Zima: the Lincoln Blackwood. It is notable mostly as the answer to the trivia question, "What is the worst-selling car of all time in the United States?" Put to death after only a single year on the market, barely 3,000 were sold and today they are about as common as Yugos on American streets. The Blackwood was the Ford Motor Company's attempt at a high-luxury pickup truck. Those terms didn't seem to fit well together when the vehicle was released in 2002. Luxury buyers didn't want a truck, and truck buyers didn't want the image of softness that comes with a luxury vehicle. So it went down in flames, yet just over a decade later the ultra-expensive, high end luxury truck is one of the most profitable market segment in the U.S. Lincoln now sells tons of Mark LTs, and even utilitarian pickup trucks like Ford F-Series, Rams, and Chevrolet Silverados are regularly sold at sticker prices exceeding $50,000 (it's possible to top out an F-150 at nearly $70,000, with luxury features comparable to any Mercedes or Cadillac). And for some generations the word "Escalade" is synonymous with wealth and luxury now.

Maybe it is in our character to laugh at new ideas as a knee-jerk response and then, when sufficient time passes, to fall in love with them. There are plenty more examples out there, I'm sure. Sound off in the comments if you have a particular favorite.


Posted in No Politics Friday on July 2nd, 2015 by Ed

Early in June I checked an important item of my list of ridiculous and obscure things I want to see before I die. Today I want to share with you another one that I will probably never see in person, although as recently as the 1980s you could hear it at any point on the globe.

The Soviet Union, and Russians before and after it, equate size with power and success. When they build something, they build it big. Real big. Because if it's the biggest, it must be the best. And the best things are necessarily made by the best people. The logic is impetuous.

I talked a little about the idea of ABM (anti-ballistic missile) systems in the previous post. The American approach to getting early warning of a sneak attack was to build a series of small radar stations across the remote Canadian Arctic. The Russian approach, not altogether surprisingly, was to build a really, really big radar. A radar so goddamn big that it could essentially see halfway around the globe. The result of this brute force approach was known to the Soviets as Duga-3, and to the prying eyes of NATO as "Steel Yard." To every amateur radio user on the planet, though, it was called the Russian Woodpecker.


To make the concept work requires a very big radar and a huge amount of power. The huge amount of power produced a radio signal that created an equally huge amount of interference with radio signals and other forms of communication. If the nickname "Russian Woodpecker" was not self-explanatory, here's a clip of what the interference sounded like on normal radio channels. It took almost no time to locate the source of the signal as this massive pile of metal Tinker Toys near Chernobyl, Ukraine. Good thing nothing bad would happen there around 1986!

The USSR shut the contraption down pretty quickly when its functions were taken over by other, less cumbersome technology like satellite monitoring. The "Steel Yard" itself remains standing, though, and despite having been abandoned to nature over 30 years ago it remains in remarkably good condition. It's a rather popular destination for thrill-seekers, armchair Cold War anthropologists, and base jumpers. Eventually the elements (or a tactical airstrike) will take it down, but until then it will keep calling my name. Metaphorically. Unless they decide to turn it back on again.


Posted in No Politics Friday on June 12th, 2015 by Ed

I have very limited and intermittent internet access up here in the Yukon (which is lovely, except for the 9 months annually in which I'm sure it is Hell on Earth, or rather the Hoth System) and I'm also remarkably depressed for someone who's on vacation so this will have to be quick. Part of the problem is that it's not really a vacation, but 30 days of aimless driving for the sole purpose of not having to live my actual life. I'm bad at pretending, including pretending that I don't have to go back to Central Illinois and its ugliness (in every sense of the term) shortly. But anyway.

1. Pictures! I have lots of pretty pictures! Look at them. If you didn't know me better you would swear I'm having fun.

2. I was going to write about this but instead you must make do with a link about the international incident that nearly occurred when Nikita Khrushchev was forbidden to visit Disneyland (for logical security reasons, as the LAPD could not guarantee that a heckler would not throw a tomato at him or worse, as happened several times on his visit). What is the point of writing about anything, really. Someone else has already written about it.

3. Nearly all of my friends are far more successful than me (personally and professionally) and they all, in conversation, reference the role of luck in their success – being in the right place at the right time, knowing somebody somewhere who gave them a leg up, etc. I'm thinking a lot about whether I'm unlucky (in this specific sense – being born White, Male, and American is pretty goddamn lucky) or whether I have opportunities that I'm too stupid to recognize or too untalented to take advantage of.

4. I'll be in Alaska in about 8 more hours. 4100 miles driven so far. The only life goals I have ever actually accomplished are ones that can be accomplished by driving long distances. So congratulations Ed, you can sit patiently and operate cruise control.


Posted in No Politics Friday on June 4th, 2015 by Ed

It has been a few years since I took a lengthy road trip, enough that this is my first one undertaken with GPS to tell me where to go. In the past I made do, somehow, with a road atlas and enough patience to get lost on occasion without worrying too much.

GPS is one of those things that makes life so much easier that we don't even notice (or mind) that it's making us dumber. Don't get me wrong, I would never recommend against using it. I am curious, though, to see what would happen if you handed a teenager who has never lived without "navigation" a map. Or hell, try the same with an adult who has been taking orders from the disembodied voice of gentle authority for more than a decade now. Cue the mental image of Michael Scott driving a car into a lake because the GPS voice told him to keep going. Is that the route (SWIDT?) we're headed?

In Nicholas Carr's The Glass Cage (recommended, if a bit dry) he talks about GPS as an example of how automation makes our lives better but imposes a strange sense of detachment on our actions in many cases. This week I am putting his claims to the test, and he's not wrong. Without having to worry about where I'm going the amount of involvement in the process of driving falls sharply. It's great – I reach my destinations and I can devote my attention to things (audiobooks) other than finding the correct route. But at the end of the day, it's remarkable how little I can recall: what highways I drove on, what towns I passed through, and so on. Without even trying I've tapped into the Autopilot mode, paying only enough attention to hear the voice tell me to turn right in 1/4 mile.

It's tempting to engage the Who Cares argument here; paper maps are archaic. Why bother learning a skill that cheap, widely available technology can do faster and better. I'm not about to start a Hipster Luddite No Navigation Movement that encourages people to revert to street maps (and, on longer trips, a sextant) to find their way. It is just one of the more interesting examples of the mixed blessing of labor-saving technology. Finding our way is one less thing for us to think about now, for better and worse.