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Monthly Archives: July 2011

Old Time Con Men: Joseph Weil

One aspect about the era spanning from the lat 1800s to the second world war that is one of the most colorful is the old time con men. In this series we’ll touch upon some of the most intriguing.

We begin, Ladies and Gentlemen, with one of the best and most clever: Joseph Weil.

“The desire to get something for nothing has been very costly to many people who have dealt with me and with other con men. But I have found that this is the way it works. The average person, in my estimation, is ninety-nine per cent animal and one per cent human. The ninety-nine per cent that is animal causes very little trouble. But the one per cent that is human causes all our woes. When people learn – as I doubt they will – that they can’t get something for nothing, crime will diminish and we shall live in greater harmony.”

Nicknamed ‘The Yellow Kid’ after the Yellow Kid in the comic strip Hogan’s Alley and The Yellow Kid, Weil was born in 1875 in Chicago. At the age of 17 he was involved in the load sharking industry and he saw some of his peers pocketing some the money they were otherwise obligated to hand over to their bosses. And this being Chicago, you can only imagine those bosses. He started a little protection racket, promising to keep it all hush hush for a small piece of the pie.

Mkaing his rounds in the loan sharking industry he became acquainted with Doc Meriwether, a big time con man, and Doc soon took Weil under his wing and taught him the tricks of the trade.

One of Doc’s Main swindles was Meriwether’s Elixir, good for whatever ails man or beast, but particularly helpful with tapeworms. During that period tapeworms were a bit of a boogeyman, thought to be responsible for a myriad of afflictions and actually responsible for none. Doc’s Elixir, whose chief ingredient was rainwater, mixed with with some cascara and alcohol cleared it right up.

We are talking literally, about the set up on the back of a wagon. Doc would roll up, park his wagon, couple of girls would do a little dance, Weil would act as either a barker or a shill (a plant in the crowd) and thus Doc would sell his magic elixir and make a killing.

From there Weil struck out on his own and gradually became one of the most successful con men of all time. His secret wasn’t that his cons were always more imaginative than the standard long cons of the day, (although they were indeed pretty imaginative. Honestly, a lot of his stuff is straight out he BBC series Hustle) his real secret was that he was an extraordinary judge of both character and psyche. He could tell exactly where the mark was in his head and play or change to it.

Some of his cons were as follows:

The Racehorse Con.

Weil and a partner would pose as representatives of The American Turf Association, who control  most of the better racetracks in the country. They would approach, say, the an Olive Oil Importer. They needed olive oil to bathe the horse in and give them their sheen. A large order would be discussed, but halfway through the meeting Weil would excuse himself to make an important call.

The mark would wonder what such a call could be to walk out on a meeting and Weil’s partner would begrudging tell him Weil did this every day at the same time and he was calling a betting commissioner. He explained how Weil mysteriously cleaned up at teh track and would show the mark a newspaper clipping from The Racing Form about Weil’s character and how he was so successful at the track.

When Weil returned the mark would question him and gradually drag out fo him that he was getting inside information. The mark would then ask if Weil could place a bet for him. Weil would begrudgingly agree, but just this once. Off to the back they’d go to get a sizeable stack of cash to make the one sure bet…

badda bing, badda boom.

The Faro Bank Pay Off.

So Weil hires a bunch of guys to play their various parts.

A rich woman wants to lease her 9 bedroom apartment on the Gold Coast for several months while she goes abroad. Weil rents it and to insure he gets it, pays in advance.

He and his crew set up an upper class gambling den in it, and declare it to be one of a small number of real clubs set up by a millionaire named Jettison who catered to the socially elite. The apartment was so luxurious that by the time Weil was done putting the games in, it looked like exactly what one would imagine such a gaming room to look like.

Next Weil approached mark 1. Mark 1 was not rich, but his close friend, mark 2 was. Mark 2 was the real mark, but he comes in much later.

Weil’s “uncle” works in the upper class club. After years and years of didicated service he’s being let go and screwed out of his pension, so before he goes he wants to screw the club. He needs mark1 to help. Weil’s character can’t help of course since it being his uncle, he’s known there and winning to big for him would be suspicious.

Weil’s uncle deals the game called Faro Bank. The Uncle teaches Mark1 is to play it and to pick up on his signals. Mark1 will go to the club, play the game with the uncle dealing, make a killing and split it with the uncle.

The game Faro Bank

Got it?

Mark1 will of course buy in a large amount: $50,000. (this is 1910 remember) Mark 1 doesn’t have the kind of money to buy in such an amount, but no matter. The club being upper class and with a selective clietelle, accepts checks. Makr1 will just use a check and deposit the money needed to cover it eh next day with his winnings.

Mark1 goes to the club, plays the game and wins big. $300,000 kind of big (and we’re talking early 20th century money) Mark1 goes to cash it, a veritable fortune, but the “pitboss” makes trouble.

The pitboss points out makr 1 is not a member, merely a guest invited by Weir’s character. Guests do not have check writing priviledges. Rules are rules. The winnings are indeed mark1’s to have, but the check will not do. He must buy in in cash. And no, he cannot use his winnings to do such a thing. Pitboss has no intention of bending the rules of the Gaming Comission. Everything must be above board.

Oh no… what to do what to do. Weir does not know anyone with that kind of cash. They are lost. Oh, but mark1 points out he does know someone with that kind of cash. He knows mark2, who he certain he can get to cover it.

So mark2 is brought in. Furthermore, unlike mark1, who is quite honest about his lack of knowledge about many things, mark is always int he know about everything. The next day, mark2, Weil and his “uncle” go back to the gambling den. Alas, pitboss is not there and has the money stored in the vault.

Hmm. Well now, while they wait why don’t they teach mark2 the game Faro Bank and he can use the $50,000 he brought to just buy in and win himself?

And so they play. And oh how mark2 begins to win. Last turn comes. The uncle signals mark2. Mark2 bets and goes all in. The uncle furiously signals to withdraw the bet. This is caught by the current pitboss who insists the bet stands. The hand loses. All is lost. Uncle and mark2 and Weil are kicked out of the club.

But here’s the kicker. What ultimately loses the hand is that the uncle signals mark2 to bet on the high card first, thus mark2 bets on the ace first.

Well for heaven’s sake! Don’t you know in Faro Bank the Ace is the low card?!? Mark2 had made out like he had some knowledge of the game. And thus mark2’s know it all attitude is used against him AND mark2 believes he’s the one who screwed up and lost the cash so he doesn’t blame anybody.

Badda bing badda boom.

Weil’s done phony oil deals, he’s been a chemist who figured out how to copy dollar bills,  he’s sold lots of land for lots of reasons (gold on it, oil in it, you name it), and tons and tons of stocks. In the 20s before the crash it was easy as cake to sell stocks and Weil made most of his monye off of stock selling. He hustled over $8 million dollars in his lifetime, only spent 3 years in jail, and died at age 100. He even wrote a book “Yellow Kid” Weil: The Autobiography of America’s Master Swindler. Which can be read in its entirety here.

Weil is legendary and one of the most sucessful con men of all time and one of the more colorful characters of  early 20th century America and grifter history.

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Posted by on July 30, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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Starmaker & First And Last Men: Olaf Stapledon

One of the towering giants of sci-fi fantasy, writing in the 1930s and whose works blew me out of the water when i read them 60 years later is Olaf Stapledon.

In particular, his two books First And Last Men and Star Maker, are two of the best sci-fi books i’ve ever read, and as such are naturally far, far outside the tropes and cliches of the genre. His works influenced the next generation of sci fi writers and he is the contemporary of C.S. Lewis and Tolkien. In fact, C.S. Lewis wrote The Cosmic Trilogy in horrified response to Stapledon’s Star Maker, which was too amoral for him.

These two seminal works by Stapledon, while hugely influential and wildly beloved by segments of the sci-fi, fantasy, speculative fiction reading community have not acheived anywhere near the level of popularity of Lewis or Tolkien, mainly because he neither dwells in a pleasant realm of elves, witches and medieval myths, nor does he actually tell normal stories, where heroes go on adventures to save great Lands which are in danger. Stapleton is something entirely other. He tells long histories until the end of species or the end of time.

Last And First Men

Last And First Men is  a history of the human race, from now through our next 18 evolutions.

“A work of unprecedented scale in the genre, it describes the history of humanity from the present onwards across 2 billion years and 18 distinct human species, of which our own is the first and most primitive. Stapledon’s conception of history is a repetitive cycle with many varied civilizations rising from and descending back into savagery over millions of years, but it is also one of progress, as the later civilizations rise to far greater heights than the first. The book anticipates the science of genetic engineering, and is an early example of the (up to now) fictional supermind; a consciousness composed of many telepathically-linked individuals.”

It is wildly imaginative, and indeed that is what Stapledon does: he throws deliciously awesome concepts at you, one after the other after the others. The human race undergoes incredible transformations across numerous planets, including inventive biological transformations.

But this is no space opera. Honestly, it’s like reading a fantastic history book of an  unknown future going on and on until the final end of humanity. I loved it. Adored it. Swooned over it. Didn’t think he could be any more awesome until i read:

Star Maker

What kind of history do you write after you’ve covered the entire rest of the human species? Well duh. The future history of the universe.

It’s not just that it’s jaw dropping, it’s not just that this guy eats psychedelic mushrooms for breakfast (okay, not really. I’m just saying he’s THAT creative), it’s not just that this books invents species and planets and species interactions that were a joy, a neverending orgasm to read… it’s that all this is within a through line of creation reaching, straining, desperately searching for its Creator.

Jorge Luis Borges, Arthur C Clarke, Doris Lessing, Virginia Woolf and Winston Churchill all raved about it.

I cannot recommend it highly enough. This is imagination, vision and creativity at work.

I give you an excerpt. As mentioned before, his work reads like remarkable history books of times and places unseen. You need to be able to embrace this instead of a character driven narrative:

One of these submarine worlds was exceptionally interesting. Early in the life of our galaxy, when few of the stars had yet condensed from the “giant” to the solar type, when very few planetary births had yet occurred, a double star and a single star in a congested cluster did actually approach one another, reach fiery filaments toward one another, and spawn a planet brood. Of these worlds, one, an immense and very aqueous sphere, produced in time a dominant race which was not a single species but an intimate symbiotic partnership of two very alien creatures.

The one came of a fish-like stock. The other was in appearance something like a crustacean. In form it was a sort of paddle-footed crab or marine spider. Unlike our crustaceans, it was covered not with a brittle carapace but with a tough pachydermatous hide. In maturity this serviceable jerkin was more or less rigid, save at the joints; but in youth it was very pliant to the still-expanding brain. This creature lived on the coasts and in the coastal waters of the many islands of the planet. Both species were mentally of human rank, though each had specific temperament and ability. In primitive times each had attained by its own route and in its own hemisphere of the great aqueous planet to what might be called the last stage of the subhuman mentality. The two species had then come into contact, and had grappled desperately.

Their battle-ground was the shallow coastal water. The “crustaceans,” though crudely amphibian, could not spend long under the sea; the “fish” could not emerge from it. The two races did not seriously compete with one another in economic life, for the “fish” were mainly vegetarian, the “crustaceans” mainly carnivorous; yet neither could tolerate the presence of the other. Both were sufficiently human to be aware of one another as rival aristocrats in a subhuman world, but neither was human enough to realize that for each race the way of life lay in cooperation with the other. The fish-like creatures, which I shall call “ichthyoids,” had speed and range of travel. They had also the security of bulk. The crab-like or spider-like “crustaceans,” which I shall call “arachnoids,” had greater manual dexterity, and had also access to the dry land. Cooperation would have been very beneficial to both species, for one of the staple foods of the arachnoids was parasitic to the ichthyoids.

In spite of the possibility of mutual aid, the two races strove to exterminate one another, and almost succeeded. After an age of blind mutual slaughter, certain of the less pugnacious and more flexible varieties of the two species gradually discovered profit in fraternization with the enemy.

This was the beginning of a very remarkable partnership. Soon the arachnoids took to riding on the backs of the swift ichthyoids, and thus gained access to more remote hunting grounds.

As the epochs passed, the two species molded one another to form a well-integrated union. The little arachnoid, no bigger than a chimpanzee, rode in a snug hollow behind the great “fish’s” skull, his back being stream-lined with the contours of the larger creature. The tentacles of the ichthyoid were specialized for large-scale manipulation, those of the arachnoid for minute work. A biochemical interdependence also evolved. Through a membrane in the ichthyoid’s pouch an exchange of endocrine products took place. The mechanism enabled the arachnoid to become fully aquatic. So long as it had frequent contact with its host, it could stay under water for any length of time and descend to any depth. A striking mental adaptation also occurred in the two species. The ichthyoids became on the whole more introvert, the arachnoids more extrovert.

Up to puberty the young of both species were free-living individuals; but, as their symbiotic organization developed, each sought out a partner of the opposite species. The union which followed was life-long, and was interrupted only by brief sexual matings. The symbiosis itself constituted a kind of contrapuntal sexuality; but a sexuality that was purely mental, since, of course, for copulation and reproduction each individual had to seek out a partner belonging to his or her own species. We found, however, that even the symbiotic partnership consisted invariably of a male of one species and a female of the other; and the male, whichever his species, behaved with parental devotion to the young of his symbiotic partner.

I have not space to describe the extraordinary mental reciprocity of these strange couples. I can only say that, though in sensory equipment and in temperament the two species were very different, and though in abnormal cases tragic conflicts did occur, the ordinary partnership was at once more intimate than human marriage and far more enlarging to the individual than any friendship between members of distinct human races. At certain stages of the growth of civilization malicious minds had attempted to arouse widespread interspecific conflict, and had met with temporary success; but the trouble seldom went as deep even as our “sex war,” so necessary was each species to the other. Both had contributed equally to the culture of their world, though not equally at all times. In creative work of every kind one of the partners provided most of the originality, the other most of the criticism and restraint. Work in which one partner was entirely passive was rare. Books, or rather scrolls, which were made from pulped seaweed, were nearly always signed by couples. On the whole the arachnoid partners dominated in manual skill, experimental science, the plastic arts, and practical social organization. The ichthyoid partners excelled in theoretical work, in literary arts, in the surprisingly developed music of that submarine world, and in the more mystical kind of religion. This generalization, however, should not be interpreted very strictly.

The symbiotic relationship seems to have given the dual race a far greater mental flexibility than ours, and a quicker aptitude for community. It passed rapidly through the phase of inter-tribal strife, during which the nomadic shoals of symbiotic couples harried one another like hosts of submarine-cavalry; for the arachnoids, riding their ichthyoid mates, attacked the enemy with bone spears and swords, while their mounts wrestled with powerful tentacles. But the phase of tribal warfare was remarkably brief. When a settled mode of life was attained, along with submarine agriculture and coral-built cities, strife between leagues of cities was the exception, not the rule. Aided no doubt by its great mobility and ease of communication, the dual race soon built up a world-wide and unarmed federation of cities. We learned also with wonder that at the height of the premechanical civilization of this planet, when in our worlds the cleavage into masters and economic slaves would already have become serious, the communal spirit of the city triumphed over all individualistic enterprise. Very soon this world became a tissue of interdependent but independent municipal communes.

At this time it seemed that social strife had vanished forever. But the most serious crisis of the race was still to come.

The submarine environment offered the symbiotic race no great possibilities of advancement. All sources of wealth had been tapped and regularized. Population was maintained at an optimum size for the joyful working of the world. The social order was satisfactory to all classes, and seemed unlikely to change. Individual lives were full and varied. Culture, founded on a great tradition, was now concerned entirely with detailed exploration of the great fields of thought that had long ago been pioneered by the revered ancestors, under direct inspiration, it was said, of the symbiotic deity. Our friends in this submarine world, our mental hosts, looked back on this age from their own more turbulent epoch sometimes with yearning, but often with horror; for in retrospect it seemed to them to display the first faint signs of racial decay. So perfectly did the race fit its unchanging environment that intelligence and acuity were already ceasing to be precious, and might soon begin to fade. But presently it appeared that fate had decreed otherwise.

In a submarine world the possibility of obtaining mechanical power was remote. But the arachnoids, it will be remembered, were able to live out of the water. In the epochs before the symbiosis their ancestors had periodically emerged upon the islands, for courtship, parenthood, and the pursuit of prey. Since those days the air-breathing capacity had declined, but it had never been entirely lost. Every arachnoid still emerged for sexual mating, and also for certain ritual gymnastic exercises. It was in this latter connection that the great discovery was made which changed the course of history. At a certain tournament the friction of stone weapons, clashing against one another, produced sparks, and fire among the sun-scorched grasses.

In startlingly quick succession came smelting, the steam engine, the electric current. Power was obtained first from the combustion of a sort of peat formed on the coasts by congested marine vegetation, later from the constant and violent winds, later still from photo-chemical light traps which absorbed the sun’s lavish radiation. These inventions were of course the work of arachnoids. The ichthyoids, though they still played a great part in the systematization of knowledge, were debarred from the great practical work of scientific experiment and mechanical invention above the seas. Soon the arachnoids were running electric cables from the island power-stations to the submarine cities. In this work, at least, the ichthyoids could take part, but their part was necessarily subordinate. Not only in experience of electrical engineering but also in native practical ability, they were eclipsed by their arachnoid partners.

For a couple of centuries or more the two species continued to cooperate, though with increasing strain. Artificial lighting, mechanical transport of goods on the ocean floor, and large-scale manufacture, produced an immense increase in the amenities of life in the submarine cities. The islands were crowded with buildings devoted to science and industry. Physics, chemistry, and biology made great progress. Astronomers began to map the galaxy. They also discovered that a neighboring planet offered wonderful opportunities for settlement by arachnoids, who might without great difficulty, it was hoped, be conditioned to the alien climate, and to divorce from their symbiotic partners. The first attempts at rocket flight were leading to mingled tragedy and success. The directorate of extra-marine activities demanded a much increased arachnoid population.

Inevitably there arose a conflict between the two species, and in the mind of every individual of either species. It was at the height of this conflict, and in the spiritual crisis in virtue of which these beings were accessible to us in our novitiate stage, that we first entered this world. The ichthyoids had not yet succumbed biologically to their inferior position, but psychologically they were already showing signs of deep mental decay. A profound disheartenment and lassitude attacked them, like that which so often undermines our primitive races when they find themselves struggling in the flood of European civilization. But since in the case of the symbiotics the relation between the two races was extremely intimate, far more so than that between the most intimate human beings, the plight of the ichthyoids deeply affected the arachnoids. And in the minds of the ichthyoids the triumph of their partners was for long a source of mingled distress and exultation. Every individual of both species was torn between conflicting motives. While every healthy arachnoid longed to take part in the adventurous new life, he or she longed also, through sheer affection and symbiotic entanglement, to assist his or her ichthyoid mate to have an equal share in that life. Further, all arachnoids were aware of subtle dependence on their mates, a dependence at once physiological and psychological. It was the ichthyoids who mostly contributed to the mental symbiosis the power of self-knowledge and mutual insight, and the contemplation which is so necessary to keep action sweet and sane. That this was so was evident from the fact that already among the arachnoids internecine strife had appeared. Island tended to compete with island, and one great industrial organization with another.

I could not help remarking that if this deep cleavage of interests had occurred on my own planet, say between our two sexes, the favoured sex would have single-mindedly trampled the other into servitude. Such a “victory” on the part of the arachnoids did indeed nearly occur. More and more partnerships were dissolved, each member attempting by means of drugs to supply his or her system with the chemicals normally provided by the symbiosis. For mental dependence, however, there was no substitute, and the divorced partners were subject to serious mental disorders, either subtle or flagrant. Nevertheless, there grew up a large population capable of living after a fashion without the symbiotic intercourse. Strife now took a violent turn. The intransigents of both species attacked one another, and stirred up trouble among the moderates. There followed a period of desperate and confused warfare. On each side a small and hated minority advocated a “modernized symbiosis,” in which each species should be able to contribute to the common life even in a mechanized civilization. Many of these reformers were martyred for their faith.

Victory would in the long run have gone to the arachnoids, for they controlled the sources of power. But it soon appeared that the attempt to break the symbiotic bond was not as successful as it had seemed. Even in actual warfare, commanders were unable to prevent widespread fraternization between the opposed forces. Members of dissolved partnerships would furtively meet to snatch a few hours or moments of each other’s company. Widowed or deserted individuals of each species would timidly but hungrily venture toward the enemy’s camps in search of new mates. Whole companies would surrender for the same purpose. The arachnoids suffered more from the neuroses than from the weapons of the enemy. On the islands, moreover, civil wars and social revolutions made the manufacture of munitions almost impossible.

The most resolute faction of the arachnoids now attempted to bring the struggle to an end by poisoning the ocean. The islands in turn were poisoned by the millions of decaying corpses that rose to the sea’s surface and were cast up on the shores. Poison, plague, and above all neurosis, brought war to a standstill, civilization to ruin, and the two species almost to extinction. The deserted sky-scrapers that crowded the islands began to crumble into heaps of wreckage. The submarine cities were invaded by the submarine jungle and by shark-like sub-human ichthyoids of many species. The delicate tissue of knowledge began to disintegrate into fragments of superstition.

Now at last came the opportunity of those who advocated a modernized symbiosis. With difficulty they had maintained a secret existence and their individual partnerships in the more remote and inhospitable regions of the planet. They now came boldly forth to spread their gospel among the unhappy remnants of the world’s population. There was a rage of interspecific mating and remating. Primitive submarine agriculture and hunting maintained the scattered peoples while a few of the coral cities were cleared and rebuilt, and the instruments of a lean but hopeful civilization were refashioned. This was a temporary civilization, without mechanical power, but one which promised itself great adventures in the “upper world” as soon as it had established the basic principles of the reformed symbiosis.

…………………

This is of course merely one world amongst many as the author joins with other sentient beings to create a cosmic hive mind which travels the universe and time to find its Creator.

So… great fantastic fiction of the Dieselpunk era. Olaf Stapledon.

 
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Posted by on July 27, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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Dieselpunk + Bauhaus + Music = Laibach

Formed in 1980, in the relatively early days of the industrial music scene, Laibach is a stunning example of a concept brought about to exemplary fruition.

 

They make music that is exactly what one would initially conceive as “industrial” is one had never heard any such music yet.  But not only is the music really interesting, as well as uncompromising and perhaps a bit too far out for some, but they marry it to a full on aesthetic and performance that over emphasizes totalitarian propaganda.

An example from an early album and an early concert:

Formed in Slovenia back when it was part of Yugoslavia. They draw heavily on militaristic and communist aesthetics, taken to extremes with never, ever a break in character.

“Laibach concerts have sometimes aesthetically appeared as political rallies. When interviewed, they answer in wry manifestos, showing a paradoxical lust for, and condemnation of, authority.” They have caused numerous stirs and upset people on both the far left and far right.  AT one point in the 80s their name was banned in Yugoslavia and their concerts were promoted with a black cross.

Their posters are often takes on well known propaganda posters from the Nazis or Stalinist Russia.

For example:

Famous Nazi painting of a Munich celbration of the anniversary of Hitler's Beer Hall Putsch

Laibach poster

“On June 23rd 1983, the group made its first  television appearance, an interview on the political/news  programme “TV Tednik”. The interview provoked numerous  reactions, and was followed by an administrative/political  ban on public appearances and the use of the name Laibach.”

They’ve been quite…. industrious in the intervening years and are still around. Some samples from a theater soundtrack (Macbeth) and a newer track:

 
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Posted by on July 26, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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Raygun Gothic: Googie

Yes, wtf indeed. No this is a real thing. Raygun Gothic is a general term for retro futuristic science fiction environments. Once upon a time, from the 40s to the 60s, they imagined the future. It was bright and slick and full of raygun wielding heroes, and they proceeded to build it.

And build it they did , until the Vietnam War and the hippies created new paradigms and finally the 70s came and bummed everybody out. But while it lasted it certainly LOOKED like the future. And it was called Googie.

In 1949, architect John Lautner designed a West Hollywood coffee shop called Googies.

It was unique, futuristic with bold angles. The editor of House and Home Magazine, Douglas Haskill, saw the shop as he was driving by and stopped his car. He wrote an article about it and dubbed the look “Googie”.  Other designers inspired by the site  in turn designed coffee shops, drive through and restaurants taking the simple idea even further.

It was an architecture for a new, car oriented society. Bold angles, colorful signs, plate glass, sweeping cantilevered roofs and pop-culture imagery were desgined not to entice teh passing pedestrian, but the driver of the automobile. And in the 50s, cars, the economy, the entire future were booming.

The Soviets put sputnik into space followed by Vostok 12, which carried the first human (Yuri Garagin). Eisenhower shit himself and Kennedy made competing with the Soviets a first class priority. The space race was born.

And in California it had arrived. Much of California was still being built. Unlike the big East Coast cities, already well established and based on the architecture of the past, California was being built now, for the future. Roofs at upwards angles, starbursts, boomerangs, all identify Googie.

Googie style signs usually boast sharp and bold angles, which suggest the aerodynamic features of a rocket ship.

Editor Douglas Haskell described the abstract Googie style, saying that ” The buildings must appear to defy gravity, as Haskell noted: “…whenever possible, the building must hang from the sky.” Haskell’s third tenet for Googie was that it have more than one theme, more than one structural system. Because of its need to be noticed from moving automobiles along the commercial strip, Googie was not a style noted for its subtlety.

 
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Posted by on July 22, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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Dieselpunk and Atompunk

Steampunk is technically the period from Victorian England to the first world war, but done in a science fiction way. A past that never was.

After WWI? It’s all dieselpunk, baby.

 

Dieselpunk is technically the period from 1920 until the end of WWII. You know, a retro future past.

Most of this blog is indeed about Dieselpunk era affairs, and most of the Steampunk Opera is Dieselpunk oriented: darker, more urban and industrial aesthetics.

Steampunk is hopeful and fun, Diesepunk has a tendency to be more intense, and either more twisted and psychologically murky, or contrarily, borrowing heavily from a pulp era aesthetic, art deco, WWII, 1940s era bombasticness.

dieslpunk

So Dieselpunk works can be stuff like Dark City for the dark,

or Sky Captain of Tomorrow for the light.

Return To Castle Wolfenstein, the amazing movies Delicatessen or City of Lost Children.

Eraserhead? Dieselpunk.

Bioshock? Dieselpunk.

But wait! There’s more!

Not only is there Dieselpunk, there’s now Atomicpunk!

Atompunk is a 1945 to 1965 era take on the future. Atomic era, space race type stuff.

Many times a future gone post apocalyptic. Nuclear war and red scare taken to extremes.  The Fallout video game series is exactly what we’re talking about here.

Art deco design factors in to Atompunk’s aesthetics. All that “house of the future” type stuff.

1950s era science fiction is all atompunk.

A Clockwork Orange: Atompunk.

GdDAMN that was a fucked up movie.

The Jetsons? Total Atompunk.

Atom sputnik kosmonautic communism nuclear powerplants Jetsons Gagarin communist paranoia man-on-the-moon Googie architecture mid-century modernism utopian futurism pre-digital punk communism paranoia space cyber oldnasa kgb east german gear industrial militairy power

Ray gun kid.

 
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Posted by on July 21, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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Haitian Drumming For Dummies

Haitian drumming comes directly from the West African drumming tradition, an amazing and diverse musical tradition going back beyond historical record. My intention for this post is to give a very, very basic overview of Afro/Haitian percussion for non musicians.

Let’s start with an example or two of Haitian drumming. I chose 2 vids which are very clear and easy to follow. There’s much cooler Vodou drumming vids, but for educational purposes these are much clearer.

Percussion playing all revolves around the idea of poly-rhythms. That is, each drummer plays a simple pattern. When these patterns are played at once, over top of each other, they create a much denser and more complicated sound.

A great example, one i use when i do artist in resident workshops with kids, is the use of nursery rhymes. Name some nursery rhymes: hickory dickory dock, ba ba black sheep, three blind mice. Okay, we have three people and each one is going to play one fo these nursery rhymes on a drum. When all three play their different nursery rhymes together, you get a really interesting and complex wall of rhythm.

This is the essential idea of percussion. The African tradition is an amazing one and the Haitian drumming for Vodou is a direct descendent of West Africa, Nigerian, and Congo traditions.

Sometimes rhythms will be of different lengths which creates wonderful layers of rhythm, and sometimes different time signatures are layered on top of each other. I notice a lot of drumming in which the bell plays at a fast 6 count (6/8) while other drums play at a slower 4 count (4/4). This also creates a wild effect, where the music seems to wrap around itself without any beginning or end. By this i mean when you listen to say a pop song, you an count along with it 1, 2, 3, 4 over and over. When these tempos layers occur it is harder to say where a 1 is… it can be more than one place or simply lost in the spiraling rhythm.

While putzing around the net watching videos of drumming i came across these 2 educational vids which are flat out fantastic. They illustrates perfectly how the entire concept works at its most basic level. You only need 1 in this post so we’ll use this one:

Bingo. You see? Different rhythms over top of one another. So percussionists in a tradition know numerous, very specific rhythms the way a western musician would know all sorts of well known melodies and chord changes.

Now, in Haitian Vodou drumming there are all sorts of specific rhythms one would use depending on what part of the ceremony one is in and which Loa is being called up. Usually the drummer playing the Maman Drum (the Mother Drum) leads the changes. The ensemble is playing a certain series of rhythms for a particular Loa spirit to come. When the Maman player perceives that one of the dancers is becoming possessed, he will break from the rhythm into a new, specific, counter rhythm to facilitate the spirit’s arrival and intensify the music. Sometimes the rest of the drummers will change with him and sometimes they will continue the groove while the Maman player eggs the Loa on to a state of full possession of the celebrant.

The Drums.

Unlike most West African percussion ensembles, Haitian drumming does not use a djembe. The Haitian ensemble is often made up of 3 drums plus a bell, although there is a type of ensemble made up of only 2 drums. We’re going to focus on the 3 drum ensemble, called the Rada Batterie.

The Maman (or Mother) Drum is the biggest, the Segon is medium sized and Boula is the small one.

There is always a bell, called an Ogan, but this can be any metallic object, such as a hoe blade that will make a good tinky sound.

This is the main ensemble, although occasionally a priest will use a gourd that functions as a rattle, and a bass drum can be added for very simple bottom rhythms.

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Here is another vid of drums in action during a real ceremony:

 
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Posted by on July 19, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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Haitian Vodou

As long as we’re using aspects of Haitian Vodou and drumming for inspiration on a music and plot idea, we might as well do some research and learn some stuff. Although it’s the drumming that interests me the most, educating myself in all apsects of the various tangents that pop up in writing this show has been a huge joy and the main purpose of this blog. I assure you, 90% of my posts here are on topics i knew nothing about prior to writing the show and blog. (This includes steampunk itself, the weimar era, etc.)

Vodou is an African religion that is actually a hodgpodge of West and Central African religious worship interlaced with Catholicism. The slaves captured and sent across the sea pooled together their religous knowledge, gods, spirits and ritual to create Vodou.

As Catholicism was forced onto the slaves, numerous similarities were found between Christianity and their ancient African heritage, and these were combined. For instance, Catholics saints each had particular attributes and were prayed to in hopes they’d intervene. This was just like the Loa spirits and many saints became stand ins for African Loa.

Baron Samedi

In Vodou, there is one father God, Bondje, above all else. Bondje is taken from the french Bon Dieu, or Good God. This ultimate one great God is distant and does not really interact with his Creation, so if one wants intereaction and assistance, one must turn to the saints and angels… the spirits under Bondje, the Loa (Iwa).

What is particularly interesting is that many of these spirits do indeed have counterparts in the Christian heirarchy of saints and angels. Peter gaurds the gates of heaven, and his image was used to represent Papa Legba, who guards the gate of the spirit world and who must be called and honored at the beginning of each ritual to let the gate open.

Erzulie is the beautiful female spirit of Love and water, and she is represented by the Virgin Mary. Each person has a particular spirit who is closest to them and who watches over them, essentially a replication of a Gaurdian Spirit.

So one is left with a large pantheon of spirits to interact with, honor, and ask favors of.

8 Loa: Ezili Freda, Ogou, Ayida Wedo, Danbala, Gran Brigitte of the Gede, Bawon Samedi of the Gede, Lasiren, and Agwe

These Loa fall into 3 general categories:

Loa Rada: The “cool” spirits. They are graceful, stately, elemental and cosmic in nature. Their songs and dances are decorous and graceful, and the drumming that accompanies them is of an even beat. During possession by Rada, the celebrants sing and dance beautifully. The  Rada trace back to Africa.

Loa Petwo: The “hot” Spirits. They are newer and we added when the various slaves reached Haiti. They are aggressive and they come from the times of slavery and the rage and frustration slavery produced. It was the Petwo who were called and cultivated to help with the Haitian uprising in 1791 which resulted in the slaves liberating themselves and establishing the first black peoples’ republic, which is now Haiti. The drum beat accompanying Loa Petwo is uneven, and celebrants possessed may cough up blood, stick themselves with pins or knives, or eat glass, all apparently without being harmed when they come to themselves again.

Loa Ghede: The ancestral spirits.  They are spirits of the family line which can date back to Africa  They are often “quite rowdy and raunchy, sprinkling their conversation with profanities and sexual innuendo. Haitian culture is generally very conservative and does not normally reward such behaviour, but the loa Ghede can commit such social transgressions with impunity – being dead, they are beyond punishment, and they seem to feel that shocking people is perfectly reasonable. They typically do not use profanity in an abusive manner, but prefer to make people laugh at their over-the-top behaviour. Predominantly male, and praised with raucous songs and enthusiastic dances, the loa Ghede are the ancestors who bridge the gap between ‘Gine’ (Africa) and the living of Haiti. The Ghede’s names all end in La Croix in honour of Baron and Maman Brigitte who reclaim the souls of the ancestors and make them into loa; both Baron and Maman Brigitte’s symbol is the cross. Vodouisants possessed by the Ghede often dance suggestively (though without desire – it is a paradox that the Ghede represent both eroticism and death), drink strong spirits, and behave outrageously.”

The Loa apparently all live in a city beneath the sea (except for Agwe) called Ile Ife or Vilokan. The number of Loa are substantial. They are grouped into nations and families. There are 21 nations of Loa. Loa are also related to each other in families, and each family has a surname. So for instance the Ezili family has two sisters who are rivals, Ezili Freda and Ezili Dantor. 

Boukman, a Vodou priest, began the Vodou ceremony that started the 1791 uprising that freed Haiti.

Rituals:

An altar

A ritual is either personal or public and seeks to provide communion between the individual or community and the divine and/or spirit. Personal rituals usually include an altar. The altar is a very important aspect of personal prayer and is often elaborately decorated with candles, cloth, herbs, items associated with the Loa, symbols of the Loa (veves) and offerings of food and drink. Worshippers can light candles, sing, dance, make offerings, or simply pray quietly

The public ritual on the other hand is where the wild stuff goes down.

“Public rituals are more dramatic in nature. They take place in the hounfort (temple) or peristyle (an open but roofed sacred space). Both have a central pole dedicated to Papa Legba, around which all the activities revolve. The hounfort is decorated with the “veves” of the loa and altars. Beginning with a salute to Legba, keeper of the gate between worlds, the congregation is led through a pre-ritual feast and then songs and dances for the Rada, the Ghede, and the Petro. Vodouisants may become possessed by loa during the ceremony; the loa may wish to pass on specific messages, or simply manifest to enjoy the music and dancing.”

From M. Rock: “After a day or two of preparation setting up altars, ritually preparing and cooking fowl and other foods, etc., a Haitian Vodou service begins with a series of Catholic prayers and songs in French, then a litany in Kreyol and African “langaj” that goes through all the European and African saints and lwa honored by the house, and then a series of verses for all the main spirits of the house. This is called the “Priye Gineh” or the African Prayer.

“After more introductory songs then the songs for all the individual spirits are sung. As the songs are sung spirits will come to visit those present by taking possession of individuals and speaking and acting through them. Each spirit is saluted and greeted by the initiates present and will give readings, advice and cures to those who approach them for help. Many hours later in the wee hours of the morning, the last song is sung, guests leave, and all the exhausted hounsis and houngans and manbos can go to sleep.”

One last little interesting tidbit: the Voodoo doll, you know, the one you stick little pins into, is NOT an African invention, it comes from European folk magic, the Poppet (from which puppet is derived). Vodou had ritual carvings of Loa or objects of power. The European Poppet was introduced by the Europeans and while the “voodoo” doll became used in Hoodoo,  which is folk magic not actually part of the religion, it is not a part of Haitian Vodou. Poppets are used by nailing them to a tree in a cemetery to act as liaisons to the afterworld, usually to carry some sort of message.

The “voodoo doll”  has become popularized due to movies and works of fiction. There is no question that Vodou has been on the receiving end of  a long campaign to paint it as evil, savage, and satanic, first by slaveowners and their culture, then by foreign Christians. Hollywood functions as a mouthpiece for painting fear and misunderstanding, mostly because it exists to excite popular imagination.

There is no question that Vodou and its very idea make Christians uncomfortable. One essential reason for this is that Christianity is mostly a fertility based religion; calm, pastoral, symbolizing the seasons and their renewal. Vodou is an ecstatic religion and its rituals promote altered states of consciousness. It is NOT calm. It is highly experiential. It is alien. It is however closer to the Charismatics and some evangelical forms of Christianity, althought they would vehemently deny this. (But look closely…)

One last thing: Vodou does also have rituals in which there are animal sacrifice. No doubt about it. The animals are killed in a very specific way which practitioners insist are humane and are indeed faster and simpler than most slaughterhouses where you get your meat from. The Loa feed off the life force of the animal and its blood. Make of this what you will.

Here is a list of some Loa:

Rada:

Papa Legba Atibon – He is imaged as an old man, St. Lazarus is used to represent him in the hounfo or temple. He opens the gate to the spirits, and translates between human languages and the languages of the spirits.

Marasa Dosu Dosa – They are twin children, either in twos or threes. Imaged with Sts. Cosmas and Damien, or the Three Virtues.

Papa Loko Atisou and Manbo Ayizan Velekete – The prototypical priest and priestess of the tradition. They confer the office of priesthood in initiation.

Danbala Wedo and Ayida Wedo – The white snake and the rainbow, together they are the oldest living beings. Danbala brings people into the Vodou. St. Patrick and Moses are used for Danbala.

Ogou Feray – He is a fierce general who works hard for his children but can be moody and sullen at times as well.

Ogou Badagri – He is a diplomat, and is Ogou Feray’s chief rival.

Ezili Freda – She is a mature light-skinned woman who enjoys the finest things, jewelry, expensive perfume, champagne etc. She is said to own all men (or she thinks she does) and can be very jealous. She gives romance and luxury. She is so pure she must never touch the bare ground. Her main rival is her sister Ezili Dantor

Agwe Tawoyo – He rules the sea and those who have crossed the ocean, and is symbolized by his boat named “Imammou”. St. Ulrich is his saint counterpart.

Petwo:

Gran Bwa Ile – His name means “Great Wood”. He is a spirit of wilderness. He is fierce and unpredictable, and a section of the grounds of a Vodou temple is always left wild for him. St. Sebastian is used to represent Gran Bwa.

Ezili Dantor – a Petwo lwa, she is a strong black single mother. She does not speak, but makes a “kay kay kay” sound in possession. She is nurturing and protective but is dangerous when aroused, even to her own children. Her image is the Mater Salvatoris of Czestokowa. She often uses a dagger or bayonet, and her colors are often red and dark blue. A little known fact is that she is actually a hermaphrodite, and takes both men and women in marriage.

Ti Jan Petwo – the son and lover of Ezili Dantor.

Simbi – the Simbi lwa live in fresh water rivers and are knowledgeable in the areas of magic and sorcery.

The Bawons – they rule the cemetary and the grave. There are three – La Kwa, Samdi, and Simitye.

The Gedeh – The Gedeh spirits are all dead spirits who rule death and humor and fertility. They drink rum steeped with 21 habanero peppers and bathe their faces and genitals with this mixture also, to prove that they are who they say they are. They are sung for last at a party for the spirits. Chief of the Gedeh is Gedeh Nibo, with his wife Maman Brijit. St. Gerard represents the Gedeh.

 
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Posted by on July 15, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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