Day 1.002: Sea-Science In Super-Comfort

In this age of crippling wealth disparity and with the zeitgeist-du-jour trending toward treating capitalism with a derisive scoff, dare I devote a day’s typesmanship to exploring superyachts? Yes, the superyacht is a thing, and no, I can’t afford one either. And while my desire to poke my attention into the sparkling crannies of a billionaire’s plaything is pretty close to nil, the Earth 300 has tickled my interest. I mean… just look at that thing.

The first thing you’ll probably notice – after the gargantuan black orb of doom perched upon its back – is the lack of lounging decks, hot tubs and polo fields like you’d normally find aboard a watercraft for the stupid-rich. No, the Earth 300 is a proposed palace of science. If built, this would be the Starship Discovery of research vessels. Working on board would be like performing experiments and studying marine species in the Playboy Mansion, albeit with fewer bikini-clad girls swimming through the grotto.

Maybe. We’re not entirely sure about that. More below.

The largest yacht in the world, pictured above because I like including something to scowl at in all of my articles (see Tom Brady yesterday), is 590 feet long. It’s owned by the royal family of Abu Dhabi (of course), and while I’m sure it has hosted many wild parties akin to what you’d see the bad guy throw in a James Bond film, it really contributes nothing to the world of science. If Earth 300 gets built, it will make this luxury vessel look like a boat for ants. Really, really wealthy ants.

Earth 300 will be 300 meters long, so about 980 feet. It would house 450 passengers working in 22 laboratories on all sorts of ecological and oceanological mysteries. The observation deck will swing out on a cantilever, and that big glass marble on its back will be a 13-story “science sphere”. What happens inside a massive water-bound science sphere? Science!

I imagine it’s going to be a big motorcycle Globe of Death thing… but with science!

This monstrous craft is set to be powered by a molten salt reactor. I was hoping this actually involved really, really hot salt and that its fuel reserves would be measured in shakers. But alas, this is just a fancy way of saying it will run on atomic power. From what I can gather, a molten salt reactor won’t spew out a bunch of radioactive fumes, as these get absorbed by the molten salt. Great idea, though they don’t expect the technology to be ready until the end of this decade or perhaps beyond. In the meantime, the Earth 300 will be built with some other eco-friendly power source with plans to retrofit it once molten salt reactors are all invented and ready to deploy.

The article I found on molten salt reactors gets into far more detail than I can possibly make interesting. In the list of ‘Disadvantages’ to the technology, they note that a modified molten salt reactor could be used to create weapons-grade nuclear material. So a particularly crafty batch of Somalian pirates could board and conquer the Earth 300 and use its propulsion system to turn themselves into the next global nuclear power. Cool!

All they have to do is modify this thing. Easy!

The Earth 300 will cost around $500-700 million to create, which is why we’re looking at maybe having one of these things, not a fleet of them. Entrepreneur Aaron Olivera has already dropped $5 million just to create the design. Actual construction has yet to begin, but when the news of this massive vessel dropped back in April, Olivera was confident they’d be splashing forth and saving the environment by 2025. Yacht-maker Ivan Salas Jefferson insists they will be “making science sexy” with this superyacht. As if science isn’t sexy enough – have you seen the tuchus on Neil Degrasse-Tyson? Come on.

So what can we compare this to? Is there any other ginormous slab of modernist architecture out there, combing the waves for the secrets of how to save our sad little self-destructive human race? Well… not really on this scale. The closest comparison to Earth 300 also lies in the realm of the theoretical, though as far as conceptual floating labs go, the SeaOrbiter is pretty bad-ass.

Standing 51 meters high (31 of those below sea level), the SeaOrbiter is more of a floating sea-base than a superyacht. Think of it as the Death Star of the sea, but with a massive laboratory instead of a planet-destroying cannon, and staffed with marine biologists instead of stormtroopers. It would also deploy underwater robots to explore the seabed beneath it, so if that doesn’t bump it into the realm of badassery, nothing will.

The estimated cost of this glorious structure was only pinned at about $53 million – a bargain by massive floating science vessel standards. Construction was due to start in 2014 but as of today it’s still only floating around on paper. Except for the “eye” of the station – that’s the pointy thing on the top. That was slapped together in 2015 with the intent of shipping it off to Cherbourg until the rest of the station is put together. Maybe.

It strikes me that a superyacht meant for the decadent kibbitzing of the ultra-wealthy stands a lot more chance of being built than one meant to undertake ecological research. I don’t know how deep Mr. Olivera’s pockets are, but it’s going to take some serious moneybags to get the Earth 300 off the ground and into the sea.

Like, Rich Uncle Pennybags money.

Once it’s out there though, the Earth 300 should be fine. This is because in addition to the scientists and their trusty assistants, the vessel will also be hosting up to 20 VIPs in super-luxurious cabins. This could be Puff Daddy, Guy Fieri or maybe the guy who played Newman on Seinfeld, assuming NBC paid him justly. The cost will be $3 million per luxury trip, and the celebs (or random wealthy folks) will be encouraged to participate in the science. Because what could go wrong with that? This is where we might find a bevy of bikini-clad girls – up on that top deck with the best view of the ‘science sphere’.

Whatever – those are the folks who will keep the Earth 300 afloat and in business, assuming it ever finds its way into the ocean. For now we can dream of superyacht luxury being laid out for scientists looking out for our collective welfare instead of oil-rich princes who live in excess at the expense of our collective welfare. Dreaming’s better than nothing.

Day 859: The Deliciously Dandy Fashion Zing Of The Macaroni

originally published May 8, 2014

As soon as I am catapulted to the pinnacle of my fame (which should be any day now I’m sure), I fear that the omnipresent gaggle of “star analysts”, “celeb-watchers” and “yammering space-fillers” will be particularly cruel when they analyze my sense of style. I am intentionally one of the most tedious dressers I know, opting for a rotating selection of blue jeans, grey socks and non-descript, logo-less T-shirts. I dress for comfort and convenience, with a rickety line in the sand that keeps me clear of anything stained or torn. Usually.

I can appreciate nice-looking fashion, to a point. I simply have no desire to strain the limits of my bank account to impress others, nor am I a fit for the Goodwill-ultra-value hipster wear. Years of sampling bacon and beer (for research, of course) has led to a modest expansion of my mid-section, so when I dress in an antiquated cardigan and form-fitting pant-wear I look less stylish and more like I should be selling used office furniture from the back of a van.

Perhaps I should expand my horizons and seek out a new look. My wife – who always looks better than me, though I blame nature for that one – has expressed a handsome disdain for my monotonous frockery, and she applauds fiercely when I deign to sport something with a subtle whiff of snazz when we go somewhere nice. It might be time for a drastic leap into the world of the macaroni.

Before there were metrosexuals, before flamboyance became a cocktail for the masses, there was the macaroni. These were young men, hungry to wrap their tendrils around the extremities of weirdness with no shame about flaunting it all to the public. Years ago (and I relish the opportunity to dip back into when this project was in the double-digits) I wrote of the Grand Tour, a rite of passage among northern European men in the 18th century. These men would venture into the cradle of art and culture – through Spain, Italy, Greece, and faraway locales that most Englishmen would never see. This is where it all began.

Many of these well-traveled Brits developed a fondness for macaroni, a food that was virtually unheard of among the unwashed masses. To know the glory of macaroni became a symbol of elitism; this led to the expression “very macaroni” as a means of describing something that was rather fashionable or trendy. Belonging to the so-called Macaroni Club simply meant you were hip and rich enough to be willing to go out in public looking like this:

The gentleman on the right is not actually attacking the other guy. It was part of the macaroni subculture to perch a small hat atop your tall powdered wig, such that you had to remove it with a sword. It was also part of the jive to wear lots of frills, slender, form-fitting tights (the 18th-century equivalent of skinny jeans) and to speak in an outlandishly affected manner. There is an element of androgyny at work in the macaroni lifestyle, though there should be no assumptions of a correlation with homosexuality – this was simply haute couture at its weirdest.

If anything, the macaroni is an evolution of the British ‘fop’, which first showed up on paper in 1440. A fop is a vain over-dresser, whose meticulous attention to appearance (often featuring French designs back then) was downright ridiculous. The fop became a stock character in English comedies. Not a well-revered one though, particularly if we judge it by the word’s lone appearance in Shakespeare: “He, like a Fop & Ass must be making himself a public laughing-stock.” (from King Lear)

The macaronis were undoubtedly ridiculed also, but perhaps the relative briefness of the fad kept them from becoming schtick. But then there’s that song…

British doctor Richard Shuckburgh wrote the lyrics to the song “Yankee Doodle” just before the Revolutionary War had raised its musky curtain in the colonies. The lyrics intended to mock the scruffy Americans, positing that they were naïve enough to believe that all one needed to do was stick a feather in one’s cap in order to be a macaroni. That’s right – this song, which somehow became intertwined with American patriotism, was nothing more than the British mocking the Yankee fashion sense. Because the Americans wouldn’t dress like silly, frilly hipster Marge Simpson-dudes.

By the end of the century, a macaroni likely appeared as out-of-place and misguided as someone sporting loud plaid bellbottoms and a neck-slung spoon in the late 1990’s. The Grand Tour would play out as a getaway for the affluent through the mid-19th century, but it was no longer fashionable to come back sporting such garish decadence all over one’s self. It was time to make room for the dandy.

The dandy was an evolution of the macaroni, boasting a deliberately elaborate fashion voice but without the necessary connection to bouffant wiggery and flamboyant mannerisms. A dandy is a gentleman, not a spectacle, an intentional homage to the uppercrust. Also… dude-corsets. That was a thing. The idea of suffocating my girth with a corset runs precisely opposite to my present, laissez-faire fashion choices. It ain’t happening.

But the dandy was more than a sharp dresser. He was a political statement; the specific old-schooly appearance was a call-back to the aristocratic sphere of the feudal or pre-industrial age. The western world in the 1800s was awash with egalitarianism and the societal boogie of the industrial revolution. The dandy was not necessarily opposing progress – he merely suggested that the retro notion of being an aristocrat was kind of cool.

The epitome of British dandyism was a guy named George Bryan “Beau” Brummell, a man who could arguably be considered one of the first ‘celebutants’ in history. He was buddies with the Prince of Wales, and after serving some years in the military (and inheriting a healthy clothing budget from his dad), he became the picture of high society. He went around wigless before it was fashionable to do so, and represented the dandy so exquisitely his fame carried on long after he died.

I have made it a mission to never become such a fashion icon, and so far I’m doing quite well. Maybe the plain look works best for me; maybe if I’m to make a bold physical statement I should do something unique, like grow my nostril-hair into dreadlocks or something. In the meantime I’ll continue to wear nothing bedazzled, I’ll continue to own zero “Keep Calm And…” shirts (nor will I sport a t-shirt that advises “Frankie Sez Relax”), and I’ll do my best to minimize the visible mustard stains, at least for formal occasions.

Sorry, honey.

Day 814: Little Boxes Made Of Ticky-Tacky

originally published March 24, 2014

I was perusing through the November 1952 issue of Popular Science magazine yesterday (yes, I’m a little behind in my reading), when I came across an interesting article. It boasted the proud promise of a fresh residential concept: cozy in its cohesive uniformity, a respite from the urban blues, and built for the future. This cookie-cutter community would come to be known as Levittown, Pennsylvania, the inevitable sequel to Levittown, New York, which had opened up five years earlier.

This was the dawn of the modern suburb, the great-grandpappy of today’s seemingly endless sprawl. Originally proposed as a fully inclusive solution to the post-war housing shortage, complete with parks, schools, pools and shopping districts, Levittown came to be a civic archetype. Its bones have since been copied onto the fringes of pretty much every major city on the continent. It boasts consistency, predictability… and no black people.

But we’ll get to that later. I’m going to do my best not to be too hard on William J. Levitt and his vision, in spite its initial dollop of explicit racism, and in spite of how I feel the overused splatter of pre-planned communities has ravaged the heart of my own city. He did solve a significant societal problem, even if that solution may have been somewhat crusty around the edges.

Abraham Levitt founded Levitt & Sons in 1929. Their specialty was in building upper-middle-class homes on Long Island, but while serving overseas in WWII, William Levitt (one of the sons) learned all about how to slap together some quickie military structures. He also saw the impending need for new properties once all the GIs returned home. William persuaded his architect brother and his father to put together a plan to mass-produce a swath of utilitarian one-floor homes on the cheap so that troops could move in with their families right away.

The trick to Levitt’s genius was in the construction. He borrowed from Henry Ford’s infamous assembly line process, except it was the workers hopping from house to house, doing their specialty on each one. The framers were followed by the electricians who were followed by the window guys and so on. With this smooth system, Levitt was popping out 30 houses per month by 1948. Eventually the process would be so slick, the company was completing a new home every 16 minutes.

The initial 2000 home community on Long Island, New York was set up as rentals. The government pitched in through the Federal Housing Administration, making it easy to set up mortgages for the returning troops, or for anyone who wanted to scoot out of the city and surround themselves with quiet banality. Renters were given the option of switching to a 30-year mortgage with no down payment and no increase in monthly cost. Houses could be bought for between $6,995 and $8,000, with monthly rental/mortgage payments of $57. Fifty-seven bucks – even by 1947 standards, that was fantastic, the equivalent of about $617 dollars today.

It was truly the American Dream realized for thousands of families. Community centers popped up, land was donated by Levitt & Sons to be used as schools, and though Levittown’s positioning across and between municipality borders created some confusion when it came to sewage and utilities, everything was worked out. Levittown, New York was seen as a brilliant solution to a nation-wide problem. Not only that, but the Levitt boys became rapid millionaires; the demand for a sequel was immense.

Levittown, Pennsylvania was designed with bendy, traffic-calming cured roads with no four-way intersections to be found. The community was built with only six different home styles, with just a few color tweaks on the outsides to differentiate them. Interior surfaces of all homes were coated in a green-flecked cream-colored enamel that made it hard to hang artwork, and many featured 3-sided fireplaces and over 100 square feet of double-glazed picture windows. Residents were happy to abandon their homes’ individuality for the low cost solution; while under construction, there was up to a six-month backlog of aspiring Levittowners waiting for a new home.

By 1950 all homes featured a carport and a built-in television. The company couldn’t hope to keep up with demand, and other developers around the country were swooping on the idea and building their own Levittown knock-offs along the outskirts of major cities. In William Levitt’s flagship communities, there was only one catch: if you wanted to move in, you had to be white.

Levitt & Sons owned all the property in Levittown, New York before the Federal Housing Association stepped in to fund mortgages. When that happened, the FHA made it quite clear that they would only provide mortgages in communities that were exclusively white. Because of this, all mortgages sold in Levittown came with a clause that stated the home could not be rented or sold to anyone who was not specifically Caucasian. William Levitt insisted these practices were not discrimination, they were in place simply to maintain property values. Right – not discriminatory at all.

Even Jews were off the table. This one hit close to home – William Levitt’s grandfather was a rabbi and he’d been raised as a Jew. But business was business, and it wasn’t until a number of anti-segregationist laws were passed in 1954 that the whites-only clause was yanked from Levittown mortgage papers. Still, it took until 1957 for the first black family to move into Levittown, PA, while the town’s Long Island counterpart (and predecessor) didn’t see a person of color on its streets until well into the 60’s. Even today, Levittown is 94.15% white, 2.85% Asian, and 0.5% black. This may have been the American dream, but only for certain Americans.

William Levitt had invented the American suburb. After Pennsylvania, his company built massive developments in Willingboro, New Jersey and Bowie, Maryland, then in the 1960s they built Strathmore, New Jersey and another Levittown in Puerto Rico. Levitt sold his company to International Telephone & Telegraph in 1968, and they helped to spread the suburban trend to Europe. Levitt and his family earned $90 million in the sale, most of which Levitt lost through subsequent bad investments.

It’s hard to decide where to land on William Levitt’s contribution to our society. On the one hand, it helped to provide affordable housing to a huge number of returning troops and fresh families – in total, Levitt & Sons erected over 140,000 houses around the country. On the other, he inspired the trend of bland, predictable suburbs that would subsequently siphon much of the populace from a city’s urban core, leaving it bereft of the cultural density and personality it once had. Coupled with the racist policies of the FHA, this process bred a whole host of new societal problems.

The Smithsonian Institution is currently seeking a seller in Levittown, New York – someone who still owns an unmodified original Levitt home. They want to tear the home down and rebuild it on display in Washington DC as part of an exhibit on post-war American life. Like it or not, Levitt’s contribution to our world was incalculably immense.

Day 807: Movies On The Wall

originally published March 17, 2014

While an inherent nobility may lie in ‘art for art’s sake’, occasionally we should lease a dollop of contemplation for art for the sake of someone else’s art. Film posters serve the purpose of sufficiently piquing our minds (and wallets) to lure us into a theatre. But the best of the medium can take on its own artistic statement. I grew up watching the cartoonish caricatures of the Animal House and American Graffiti casts mounted on my wall, carrying on like the inhabitants of an unusually clean R. Crumb illustration. Luke Skywalker’s intense stare behind the barrel of his blaster nudged me to our Betamax almost daily for a re-airing of my childhood’s holy trilogy.

A brilliant film poster should shimmy the soul. Despite the fandom’s collective verbal vomit of scorn eventually spewed upon George Lucas’s prequel trilogy, we all let loose a squeal of unfettered anticipation when we saw the teaser poster for The Phantom Menace. A movie poster delivers more than a glamorous depiction of our favorite stars and it should do more than inspire our hunger to see the film it promotes. A great movie poster can legitimately aspire to be a piece of art in itself, much like the pinnacle of any room in the grand old house of advertising.

Alternately, it might elect to simply show Matthew McConaughey leaning against someone. He does that a lot.

Throughout the golden age of cinema, film posters were intended for theatres and no one else. Fans weren’t slapping promotional material for Chaplin’s The Kid on their living room walls, and one had to leave their homes to swoon at a life-size photo of Douglas Fairbanks. The posters were all produced by a company called the National Screen Service, and when a theatre was done with a film, the posters were to be returned along with the prints. Movies stayed in circulation for years at a stretch, so when Cleveland had had its fill of Casablanca, the posters would travel with the film reels to Pit-Scratch, Kentucky for their next run.

When posters were deemed too withered to remain in circulation they’d get tossed by the NSS. The only ones that would squirm away to collectors’ walls were the ones theatre owners pilfered themselves. NSS posters could be identified by their distinctive numbers, found stamped on the back and in the lower-right corner of the posters. Star Wars posters received the number 77/21, indicating it to be the 21st film released in 1977.

This system continued until the 1980’s, when the studios themselves took over promotional duties for their own films, sentencing the NSS into irrelevance.

For those with the space to stash a memorabilia collection, movie posters are an easy pick. The hobby was elevated from fan-boy fad to legitimate investment on December 11, 1990, when a Christie’s auction solely devoted to vintage movie posters – the first auction of its kind – raked in a whopping $935,000 for 271 posters. Someone paid $452,000 for a poster of The Mummy (that’s Boris Karloff, not Brendan Fraser) in 1998. The record was hit in 2005, when a recently unearthed poster from Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece Metropolis was sold for $690,000.

Modern movie posters are tremendously common, and as such you won’t see a lot of drool puddled beneath collectors’ chins at anything released since the advent of the video store. There are exceptions of course – when Miramax first released Pulp Fiction in 1994, their initial poster featured a pack of Lucky Strikes on the bed beside Uma Thurman. Lucky Strike was ready to sue the film company (because I guess they hate free advertising?) so the poster was recalled and replaced with the offending brand name removed. Enough theatre employees lied about destroying them to create a black market of these posters though, which sell for $1000-$1500 on eBay.

Perhaps the best way to launch a fresh collection is to start with amassing lobby cards. These little 8×10 or 11×14 sheets were sent out by the studios for display in the box office or in the lobby of theatres. They would make up a set of 8-20 cards per movie, each displaying a still shot from the show. You don’t see this much anymore; multiplexes generally have the space for full-size posters on the wall. But lobby cards weren’t returned en masse to the NSS, so there are a lot of them on the market.

If you’re looking to slap a bevy of framed original posters around your house, keep in mind the standard size of a one sheet poster changed in the mid-80’s, shrinking from 27×41 inches to 27×40. No idea why – it just happened. If you’ve got the space, you could collect six sheet posters, which are assembled from four different pages and usually about 6 ½ feet squared. The most valuable movie poster in the world is a six sheet of 1931’s Frankenstein, of which there is only one on the planet.

That chunk of squint-worthy text at the bottom of a poster is known as the billing block. Each name you see in that block has been negotiated as part of the actor or crew member’s contract with the producer. Designers tend to use a condensed typeface in order to fit as many names as possible into the small space designated for the billing block. The contracts specify the heights of the credits’ letters (usually 25 or 35 percent of the height of the film’s title logo), but not the width. There’s a very strange and specific science to advertising.

Some posters are, as I mentioned, more deserving of a place on one’s wall than others. But while German expressionist films and 60’s art-house flicks inevitably landed some sweet artwork, there are several individual artists whose film poster work cemented their reputations and their careers. You’ve got the paperback pop-art of Robert McGinnis:

The cacophonic clutter of Jack Davis:

The glorious, almost era-defining brilliance of Saul Bass:

The fantastic sense of nostalgia and adventure in the work of Richard Amsel:

Then there’s the master of the character-montage, Drew Struzan:

Drew was responsible for one of the Star Wars posters from the first film and all of the franchise’s posters since. He produced dozens of iconic poster images, from Back To The Future to Blade Runner to Hellboy to that unforgettable image from The Goonies’ poster that features all the characters precariously hanging from a single stalactite. It pissed me off that such a scene wasn’t in the movie.

Drew Struzan is the Elvis of modern movie posters. He even has a slot on Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of top 100 album covers of all time, having inked the cover of Alice Cooper’s Welcome To My Nightmare. If you want to start a killer collection, an original Struzan might be a good prize for your wall.

Or you could forget about amassing these things for value and simply display them for the works of art they are, and for the joyous evocation of cinematic bliss they have enticed you to enjoy.

Day 795: Smelling The Glove – Controversial Album Covers Part 1

originally published March 5, 2014

As I’m often heard remarking to strangers in the check-out line at Safeway, music is best when it’s either controversial or being sung by the aural euphony of Michael McDonald. In those sepiatone days when rock music was still gathering its struttin’ legs beneath its warbly frame, artists found new and creative ways to bump their product toward the edge of edgy. And when it wasn’t enough to leave sensitive parental ears cringing in their wake, they’d go a step further.

The visual attack. Shake up that pelvis. Grow that hair. And just when the parents are starting to settle into your schtick, brew up an album cover that will send their socks a-quakin’.

The album cover is most certainly a distinctive facet of its contents’ artistic expression. Perhaps not as much so today, now that its predominant form has shrunk from 12-inch vinyl sleeves to 5-inch CD jackets to a tiny thumbprint embedded into an audio file. But when the Beatles looked up from their album covers at a young fan, rabid and anxious for the tuneage within, it meant something special.

Even when the Beatles were covered in blood, gore and severed doll heads.

For the Beatles’ ninth Capitol album, photographer Robert Whitaker thought it was a good idea for a little conceptual art to spice up the band’s image. The piece was called A Somnambulant Adventure, and it had literally nothing to do with “Drive My Car”, “Day Tripper”, “And Your Bird Can Sing”, or any other track on the album. After almost four years of mundane pretend-to-be-happy photo shoots, the band was happy to play along.

About 750,000 copies were printed before horrified dealers began to complain. Paul McCartney called the critics “soft”; John Lennon said the photo was “as relevant as Vietnam.” George Harrison thought the photo shoot was “gross”. Capitol recalled the album and reissued it with perhaps the most boring cover art ever created:

However one feels about this packaged piece of weirdness, it created one of the first rare-record super-finds for a top-tier group. ‘Butcher cover’ copies have sold for as high as $39,000.

Jimi Hendrix had a very specific album cover in mind for his magnificent double-album Electric Ladyland. Linda Eastman (who was not yet known as Linda McCartney) had taken a great photo of Jimi and the Experience in Central Park, gathered around an Alice in Wonderland sculpture with some children. This one, actually:

Instead, Reprise Records used a blurry photo of Jimi’s head – that’s the shot sitting on the front of the CD in my basement. But Track Records, who released the album in England, got a little funky with the inside sleeve. Double-albums had a fold-out gatefold package, and for the inside they dropped a pic of nineteen naked women hanging out with some old Hendrix vinyl. Jimi reportedly found this to be an embarrassment. No doubt countless male British teens back then would have disagreed.

Yep, that’s a topless 11-year-old holding a phallic-looking jet in her hands. This won’t get you slapped onto any government watch-list – it’s actually the cover art to Blind Faith’s much-lauded lone album, released in 1969. Atco, the American record company who released the record, opted for a bland band photo version instead:

Photographer Bob Seidemann has offered an explanation for his controversial vision, something about innocence, technology and the achievement of human creativity. Sure, okay. While there was undoubtedly a bit of backlash, most people were too busy digging the work of Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker, Stevie Winwood et al to really pay attention to the cover.

Interestingly enough, the offending photo was titled “Blind Faith” by Seidemann, which the group subsequently adopted as their name. Quite possibly the only time a group’s first album cover inspired their name.

Notable dreamers of California, The Mamas and The Papas, were not the kind of group that was known for courting controversy (John Phillips’ strange relationship with his daughter notwithstanding). But the above cover caused a major uproar. Orgy in the bathtub? Nope, that wasn’t it. Here’s the re-release version. See if you can spot how the record company saved our culture from ruin:

That’s right – it was the mere presence of a toilet in the shot that was deemed offensive, enough so that the record company was willing to slap a sticker overtop of all ensuing copies, letting us know which hits we’d find on the record instead. I don’t get it – are we supposed to deny the very existence of toilets? And how did we get from this scandal all the way to Millie Jackson’s Back To The Shit album in only about twenty years?

We are all doomed now, I guess.

More naked children. Rock stars – or those who designed album covers for rock stars – loved naked children back then. Led Zeppelin’s fifth album, Houses Of the Holy, features young Stefan and Samantha Gates clambering over the funky terrain of Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. Aubrey Powell had been inspired by Childhood’s End, the novel by Arthur C. Clarke. Since Led Zeppelin’s music often came bundled with a literary twinge, it fits.

The kids involved never heard the album that made their posteriors famous, and Stefan always felt there was something sinister about that cover. A BBC-4 documentary in 2010 brought Stefan back to Giant’s Causeway and showed him listening for the first time on a pair of headphones. He dug it.

This one wasn’t replaced by a panicky record company, though Atlantic Records did slap a wrap-around paper strap on the thing. This could be excused by the fact that neither the group name nor the album’s title appears on the cover art. They also did a bit of butt-crack airbrushing, just for good taste’s sake. The disc got a nod by the Grammys for best album package, so perhaps the world was loosening up by 1973.

Nothing controversial there. Just Lynyrd Skynyrd, standing amid some bad-ass fire for their fifth studio album. No sex, only the illusion of violence – and we all know our culture is much kinder to notions of violence over the possibility of visible boobs. And for three days there was no controversy. Then the plane crash happened.

The band was five shows into what was shaping up to be a monstrously successful tour when their Convair CV-300 ran out of gas mid-flight. In the ensuing crash three members of the band were killed, including guitarist Steve Gaines – the guy in the middle, engulfed in flames. Out of respect to Steve’s widow, MCA Records yanked the album and replaced it with a similar shot of the band against a black background.

The deluxe CD re-release in 2007 used the original fiery cover, suggesting that either enough time had passed or else MCA no longer cared about Steve Gaines’ widow. I’m thinking it’s the former; record companies aren’t really known for stirring up controversy themselves.

They leave that to the artists.

Day 570: The Crown Jewels Of Cinemas

originally published July 23, 2013

When Samuel Lionel Rothafel first arrived in New York, he had big plans for the place. The year was 1912, and people had been cramming into nickelodeons and converted vaudeville theaters to watch movies for more than a decade. But to Rothafel, movies were more than globs of sideshow kitsch or passing carnival entertainment, like plate-spinners or turtle jugglers. He knew movies were going to be important.

Mr. Rothafel, or ‘Roxy’ as he was known by the world, managed shows, he produced shows and – once radio showed up and became a thing – he had his own show. But were it only for these accomplishments, he’d be little more than a footnote to a footnote in the history of movies, or more importantly, in the history of New York City.

What Roxy unleashed upon the world redefined theatrical architecture, and it redefined the experience of going to the movies, transforming it from a viewing experience into a full-on sensory event. His brilliance resonated in two historic theatres, one of which is still standing (nobly and triumphantly) today.

The Roxy Theatre on 50th Street, between 6th and 7th Avenues was to be the flagship of a fleet of six monumental movie palaces in the city. Herbert Lubin, who had been producing movies but saw big money in theatres, was the money. Roxy was to be the brains. The aim was to build something more glamorous than Carnegie Hall, more regal than Madison Square Garden, and more astoundingly grandiose than any movie theatre in the country.

Roxy focused on every aspect of the theatre’s design. As such, he ran construction costs $2.5 million over budget, nearly bankrupting Herbert Lubin and forcing Lubin to sell his share to William Fox of Fox Pictures before the place even opened.  Walter W. Ahlschlager, who would go on to design the Beacon Theatre on Broadway the following year, was the architect. Harold Rambusch was the decorator. But the hands that pulled their strings and had the last say on every little design detail – that was pure Roxy.

The Grand Foyer featured the world’s largest oval rug and had its very own pipe organ. The off-stage area was cramped and impractical, but this was meant to be a movie house first, so that wouldn’t matter. It was built in 1928, which meant it was wired for sound films, but still the space was made for a rising orchestra pit for 110 players, and a massive pipe organ with three consoles. Amenities were in abundance, from the staff nap room to the billiard room to the on-site hairdresser.

And the staff had to work for it. The ushers at the Roxy were famous for their courtesy and discipline, having been trained and supervised by a former marine and facing daily drills and inspections.

Roxy coordinated elaborate theatrical and dance shows for each film, featuring the ‘Roxyettes’, a troupe of female precision dancers. He had his own nationally-syndicated radio show, The Roxy Hour, recorded every week on the premises. It was a dream come true for Roxy. But in 1932, he left the theatre to pursue his next dream.

You know how some of the best photos on the net are the result of exceptional photography, elevating the mundane to the level of exquisite through lighting, exposure and Photoshop? Let me assure you, the interior of Radio City Music Hall is truly knee-quiveringly awesome in person – no photo exaggeration necessary. This was Roxy’s next dream: an art deco masterpiece, but with a ticket price that was geared toward the people. And in 1932, ‘the people’ needed a pretty slim price tag to justify a night out.

John D. Rockefeller Jr. had leased a huge slab of land from Columbia University, with plans to build a sprawling 12-acre complex in midtown Manhattan. The first tenants of the complex were the Radio Corporation of America, or RCA. It is for their empire that the music hall changed its intended name from International Music Hall to Radio City.

Roxy wanted Radio City to be where people went when they couldn’t afford a night out at a Broadway theatre or even a lavish film ‘n dancing show at the Roxy. Not that Roxy had given up on putting on a show. He still had dancers, only now they were called Rockettes.

(the Christmas spectacular is still as much a New York annual tradition as the Macy’s parade and having a homeless guy in a Santa suit throw up on you)

When Radio City Music Hall opened up in 1932, it was the largest movie theatre in the world, with a seating capacity over 6000. The stage hydraulics were so advanced, the US Navy copied them for the inner workings of their aircraft carriers, apparently necessitating a round-the-clock federal guard team at Radio City during WWII, to make sure the enemy didn’t learn their secrets.

Donald Deskey, who should be knighted for his subtle contributions to our culture, took care of the art deco design details. He’s the same guy who designed the Crest toothpaste packaging and the bulls-eye in the heart of the Tide logo.

Every aspect of Radio City, down to the art in the grand lounge to the faucets in the men’s room, is exquisite and deliberate. Roxy’s legacy had been entrenched. He passed away in 1936, leaving behind two unshakable testaments to his panache and showmanship. Well, sort of unshakable.

By the 1950’s, little remained of the glorious opulence of the 1920’s-era Roxy Theatre. The screen had been widened for Cinemiracle movies (a widescreen format that never caught on), and the orchestra pit had been covered up with stage extensions. It wasn’t turning a profit, and it wasn’t quite old enough for anyone to view it as historic yet. The wrecking balls swung in late 1960, and Gloria Swanson, whose 1927 film The Love Of Sunya had christened the theatre a few decades earlier, posed for a series of poignant photographs for Life magazine. The golden age of the movie palace was over.

The site is now home to the largest T.G.I.Fridays in the world. So that’s something.

A few blocks away, Radio City Music Hall wasn’t doing much better. They weren’t getting exclusive bookings, and by the 1970’s they were mostly showing G-rated movies. Not a big draw for the Midtown crowd. By 1979, the theatre was on its way to becoming office space. A grassroots movement – along with a passionate rant by John Belushi on NBC’s Saturday Night Live – led to a renovation instead, and eventually a spot on the US National Register of Historic Places. Now the place is home to the NFL Draft, the Tony Awards, the MTV Video Music Awards, and the occasional movie premiere.

So only one of Roxy’s monuments to the glory of cinema still stand. I’m glad it does.

Day 508: Erecting The Erasable – Worst Architecture Part 1

originally published May 22, 2013

I enjoy writing about architecture. Not because I can pretend to know anything the subject, but because it gives me the chance to look at pictures. Letting my mind swim wildly through architecture books or drift free-form through a webpage filled with balustrades, mascarons and elaborate quartrefoils is an act of genuine bliss. I have styles I prefer (art deco) and styles that do nothing to stir my inner batter free from its natural state of lumpiness (international glass rectangle skyscrapers).

I have romantically prattled about the exquisite Chrysler Building and the sturdy Flatiron in New York. No doubt the mighty Empire State Building will be granted a thousand words of my time before the next 492 days have elapsed. I have a soft, melty spot in my heart for the buildings of New York City and the cloud-reaching triumphs of the early 20th century.

But I also have a penchant for things considered to be the worst – in fact, there’s an entire category of it here. But where I’ve often dug into movies and television that have scraped at the crud under the bottom of the barrel, I’ve never looked into objectionable architecture. Fortunately, Building Design magazine has, and they have created the Carbuncle Cup for the ugliest new buildings in Great Britain.

The 2006 winner, and in fact the inaugural winner of the Carbuncle Cup was the Drake Circus Shopping Centre, located in the heart of Plymouth. A ‘circus’ by this definition is when several roads meet, and has nothing to do with elephants or murderous men in greasepaint, packed into a Volkswagen. Back in the old days, you’d see some classy Edwardian buildings and an iconic clock packed around this oval roundabout. Now you see this thing.

The inside looks like any other shopping mall. It’s this one façade, the one that sits right behind the historic bombed-out Charles Church, that offends a number of residents. It reminds me of the wall tile in the boys’ room at my elementary school: institutional and strict. That the panels pull back ever-so-slightly to indicate that there may be better design inside is nothing more than an insult to any pedestrian unfortunate enough to have to look at this angle.

Opal Court, a residential building for the more unfortunate students at the University of Leicester, won the 2007 prize. I like the color motif – focus on beige, grey and white, with a smack of blue, just to keep residents from throwing themselves off the roof. I can understand the giant white beams holding up the overhanging roof, but the two supports extending from the ground are either a poorly-planned decorative addition or a suggestion that perhaps the architect hadn’t quite mastered the skill of constructing a large rectangular block that will stand on its own.

The Radisson SAS Waterfront Hotel, located in Saint Helier, Jersey, took the 2008 prize. I don’t know – this isn’t the most offensive crime against architecture I’ve seen. Sure, from above it’s just an L-shaped building with a big hinge at the joint. And it’s deceptive because that little frill above the hinge part almost makes it look like there should be a kick-ass helicopter pad on the roof (there isn’t), but is this building that heinous?

The hotel isn’t winning any awards, I’ll give it that. It did make the news this year though, when a drunken bonehead thought it’d be a fun idea to leap into the hotel’s six-foot, 12,000 liter fish tank. He got away with it too. All that architectural blahness and they couldn’t squeeze in some decent security?

Now we’re talking. The 2009 Carbuncle Cup winner is the Liverpool Ferry Terminal, which not only functions as a vital component to the city’s trade and economy, but also houses a Beatles museum on the second floor. I’m just guessing here, but there are probably dozens of Beatles museums on a lot of second floors in the city of Liverpool. Where’s the local love for Kim Cattrall?

The problem with this building is that it’s located on the sacred ground of a UNESCO heritage site, right across from the magnificent Three Graces complex. I find it hard to hate this one, as it’s simply more interesting to look at than most buildings in my city. It has a couple unflattering angles, but I’m going to side against the Carbuncle people on this one.

The Strata, which stands over Southwark, London, like a mighty tube of charcoal lipstick, claimed the Cup in 2010. A thousand residents call this architectural atrocity (or, architrocity) home. All this but only a one-floor parking garage? I’m hoping that’s a typo.

Those three circles up top aren’t just there to look pretty – which is good, because they don’t. They serve a purpose. The three wind turbines inside are expected to generate enough energy to power the common areas of the building. There’s a rainwater collection and recycling system, and the panels around the outside are thermally protecting the building’s innards. This thing has won numerous awards for eco-brilliance; it’s a shame they didn’t make the thing look a little sharper.

MediaCityUK won the 2011 prize, but I’m not going to focus on that – from what I can tell, they gave the award to a collection of dull buildings. But I have an issue with this – Phoenix High School in London was in the running for the Cup that year. This building is asymmetrical, bold and daring. I went to a high school where the only architectural feature was a twenty-foot-high totem pole outside the front door. Otherwise, it was as bland and brick and blah as anything.

I think it’s great that the UK has such a wide swath of architectural options to choose from that Building Design magazine can pick such quirky numbers to rag on once a year. Sometimes I think their venom is, however, slightly misplaced.

The 2012 winner isn’t even a building – I call foul on this one too. They picked the restored Cutty Sark ship that is permanently fixed in the Greenwich region of southeast London. During its 2007 renovations, the ship burned to the ground… or to the water, I guess. It has since been rebuilt and once again turned into a museum.

I’ll say it again – the UK is lucky to have buildings like this to soundly deride. I don’t know if the massive Shard skyscraper will make this year’s list (it was finished in 2012 but technically opened this past February), but I’ll disagree once again if it does.

After all, this is what I have to look at every day:

Day 501: The Origin Story Of Jeans

originally published May 15, 2013

When Jacob Davis wandered into the Levi Strauss & Co. wholesale dry goods company in San Francisco to buy some cloth, he had no idea he was going to change the world. Or maybe he did. People always ascribe an automatic naivety to the great inventors, as though everything had to be a happy accident.

Forget it – in my version of history, Jacob Davis walked into Levi Strauss’s wholesale store with a swagger, swinging his manhood in his hand like a pocketwatch. He’d had a dream the night before – he’d witnessed the future: greasers, stoners, cowboys, punks, hicks, and everyday everymen. And he saw the pale blue copper-speckled cloth that boldly enveloped their junk.

He saw jeans. And he knew Levi would be the guy who could hook him up with the materials he’d need to make it all happen.

Jacob Davis had been making a good living as a tailor, snipping, sewing and stitching without trying to reinvent the clothes he was tweaking to fit the Reno populace. Then one day in 1871, some woman whose name is lost to history wandered into Jacob’s shop and asked for a pair of pants that would hold up to the rigors of her husband’s work as a woodcutter. Jacob stitched together something out of heavy-duty duck cloth (which is not actually made from ducks – hey, I had to check), and reinforced the potential weak spots with copper rivets.

Jacob decided that what he made was not only functionally perfect, but it was also surprisingly bitching, or whatever word was used in the ‘bitching’ context back in the 1870’s. “Bully” maybe. He knew these things would sell like hotcakes (or, again, like whatever sold really well in the 1870’s; I don’t know if people really lined up for hotcakes back then the way they do now). But he needed a connection, a guy on the inside.

A guy with a crap-ton of material. Like maybe that guy out in San Francisco who sold him all his stuff.

When Levi Strauss wasn’t busy narrowly losing Abraham Lincoln Look-Alike contests, he was running his dry goods store, selling bay-area folks stuff like purses, combs, bedding, and a number of other non-wet things. Jacob paired up with Levi, filing the patent for rivet-reinforced pants together. The duck cloth was fine, but it wasn’t funky. Levi knew his fabrics, and he picked denim as the perfect material for this new crotch-hugging piece of indispensable clothing.

Denim is actually named for where it came. The idea of passing the weft under two or more warp threads (I have no idea what this means – just go with it) originated in the 1700’s in a place called Nimes, France. This is the slab of land where Julius Caesar’s Nile-weary soldiers were given a plot to call their own once their 15-year tour of duty was up. Nimes has a history that dates back to around 4000BC, maybe even further. But it was this little experiment in textiles that put them on the map. “De Nimes”, meaning “from Nimes” was shortened to ‘Denim’, and the rest was history.

Actually, that happened a long time ago, so I guess that was history too. Kind of a stupid saying, really.

Anyway, enough about Nimes.

It was the indigo-dyed denim fabric that Jacob Davis and Levi Strauss decided would be perfect for their product. The pants were a big hit with laborers, and with the Industrial Revolution exploding like soot-covered glitter all over the western world, laborers were a great demographic to capture. Men’s pants zipped up in the front, women’s on the right side. An odd choice, since arguably men are the ones with the dangerous zipper-catching body parts up front, but that was how it was to be.

Jeans actually originated in Genoa, Italy. They didn’t have the distinctive rivets though, and actually the material was more like corduroy than the jeans we know. But the name ‘Jeans’ (derived from the cotton fabric ‘jeane’ that the Genoans used to use) was not what Levi and Jacob wanted as their flagship product. The early Levi Strauss product was loose-fitting, and resembled a pair of bib overalls, but without the full-frontal bib. So Levi called the things ‘Waist Overalls’.

It was James Dean who helped to make jeans cool, more than 80 years after Levi and Jacob had spanked the first copper snap into a swatch of denim. In the 1950’s, jeans were seen in some circles as a symbol of youthful rebellion and something to be feared. They were banned in a smattering of restaurants, theatres and schools. Because those kids, dammit, they’d behave and follow all the rules if only they weren’t wearing those infernal blue pants!

There were some stupid people back in the 50’s.

By the 1960’s, jeans were more a symbol of ‘youth’, rather than ‘dangerous, obstinate youth who are probably just looking for something to light on fire.’ By the 70’s, they were as mainstream as floral-print shirt lapels that jutted out past the shoulder.

A store called Limbo in New York’s East Village gets credit for being the first establishment to wash the everloving hell out their jeans in order to sell them looking worn and broken in. This was in 1965. From that point, people started doing some funky stuff to jeans before putting them out on the rack.

Here’s a piece of trivia I didn’t know. Donald Freeland of my hometown, Edmonton, Alberta, was the first guy to use big rocks to rough up the fabric on its way to becoming jeans. Stone-washed jeans were first marketed by GWG in the early 80’s, and they became a mainstay of that horrible grotesque parade known as 1980’s fashion.

Pre-treating the denim with acryl resin, hypochloride, potassium permanganate and caustic soda creates the ‘acid wash’ look. More often than not, jeans that are pre-treated to look ‘worn in’ do a lot more environmental damage than those you can buy looking new. And make no mistake, these things have an ecological footprint: the average pair of jeans uses 919 gallons of water, from pre-treatment to regular washings, throughout its life.

If you think you’re going green with jeans that have been sand-blasted to look worn in when you buy them, you’d be wrong. Sure, you might be saving a stream and some fishies, but factory workers are in danger of contracting silicosis from the process. This has stricken more than 5000 Turkish workers so far, and killed at least 46. So yeah, you should still feel guilty.

I feel hypocritical picking on jeans. Sure, they might be somewhat of an elbow to the environment’s midsection, but they’re the only pants that pop up in my regular rotation. They were a symbol of western freedom and even acted as currency in the old USSR. Plus, they’re comfortable, and they’ll come in tremendously handy if I ever feel the need to become a woodcutter. Gotta love that versatility.

Day 476: The Most Glorious Buildings That Aren’t

originally published April 20, 2013

There’s something deeply magical about a skyscraper. It has the ability to transform the personality of a city, to allow its residents to survey their domain from within, and gives restaurants a reason to slowly revolve. When I was young, Edmonton used to have a 360-degree observation floor on the 33rd floor of the AGT Building, our tallest structure. Of course, that attraction has since been removed, and our city skyline has grown considerably (we now have a 35-floor building!), but my wonder at humankind’s vertical aspirations has never abated.

The Burj Khalifa is one of our species’ most exciting achievements. Taipei 101 is beauty in bulk. And my first trip up the sacred elevators of the Empire State Building in 2008 fulfilled a childhood dream on par with meeting Howard Hesseman or taking a ride in the General Lee.

But for each new monumental strike against our inherent vertigo, there are hundreds of grand schemes that never come to fruition. Today I’m looking at some of America’s skyline almosts.

If The Illinois had ever been built, it would have made the Burj Khalifa look like it had stunted its growth by smoking as a child. Proposed by the master of the organic and the horizontal line Frank Lloyd Wright in 1957, The Illinois would have towered a full mile above the Chicago soil beneath it. Wright believed that such a structure, with 76 elevators serving 528 floors, could be constructed using modern (now over 50-year-old) technology. Experts have combed through the possibilities and come to the conclusion that maybe – using today’s technology, mind you – this building could work. But probably not.

Steel starts to sway. Concrete, or specifically the newer concrete that came into use long after Wright’s death, is a possibility. Though the most intriguing part of Wright’s design might be the atomic-powered elevators, capable of moving a mile per minute. You’d better have a lid snugly over your coffee before you take that ride.

Can’t have an article about skyscrapers without Donald Trump’s name popping up at some point. In 1985, Trump had his sights set on a 152-story monster along the Hudson River just north of Midtown Manhattan. He wanted to call it Television City, and to lure NBC out of its musty old home in 30 Rockefeller Place to set down roots inside. Trump wanted a park. He wanted this massive structure to be surrounded by a handful of 70-story residential towers. The site was, when he bought it, a deserted rail yard, just aching for someone to build something spectacular on it.

But of course it wasn’t meant to be. Residents of the Upper West Side were not eager to bask in the shadow of a 1600-foot structure. They fought the development, Mayor Ed Koch fought the development as well, and Trump had to settle for his more modest Trump Place structure instead. Now that land is devoid of any significant attraction, unless you count the cat hospital around the corner.

Tucked between the perpetually unfinished Fontainebleau resort and the deceased Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas could have been the mighty Crown Las Vegas. Its peak would have eclipsed the already-built Stratosphere at the northern perch of the Strip. At 1888 feet, even the new World Trade Center in New York would have been the Crown’s tinier sibling. The Federal Aviation Administration stepped in and pooped all over the Crown party, stating that a structure that monstrous could not be built on land that was only 2.5 miles away from the runways at McCarran International Airport. A lesser version was proposed, topping out at just over 1000 feet, which would mean the Stratosphere would still be taller, but that’s just a tower – this would have been a fully operational 142-floor hotel.

The Crown fell victim to the same pesky downfall that has dragged its neighbor, the Fontainebleau, into abandonment: the damn financial crisis. The Crown was cancelled in 2008, and though there has been the occasional utterance that the project might come back to life, it doesn’t look like it ever will. In fact, the developer announced that they were walking away from the Crown specifically to focus on the Fontainebleau, a resort that has been frozen in midair for years now.

Over in the Vegas of the east, Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione had big plans to throw the Penthouse Boardwalk Hotel and Casino into the populace of the Atlantic City skyline. Bob figured he could finance the thing from the profits from Caligula, his massive porn flick starring Malcolm McDowell, Peter O’Toole and Helen Mirren. When the ticket returns weren’t all that great, Bob stayed optimistic, turning to investors. Then they ran into other problems.

First there was Vera Coking. She had lived in the same house for 25 years and didn’t want to sell, even for the million dollars Bob had offered. His gaming license was slowed down by the fact that Bob’s London casino was presently being checked out by Scotland Yard for allowing criminals to infest the joint. In a sting operation, an FBI informant tried to get Bob to bribe a gaming official for his license. Then Marjorie Lee Thoreson, the 1975 Penthouse Pet of the Year sued Bob and the company, claiming she had been whored out to woo potential investors. After a decade of lawsuits, the hotel was scrapped.

Once upon a time, a 2000-foot glass twist-tie was planned for the city of Chicago, a hotel/condo combination titan that would have dwarfed the rest of the skyline. Unlike Trump’s Manhattan tower, locals were all in favor of the Chicago Spire coming to life. In recent years, Chicago has pushed for taller, skinnier buildings so that views aren’t blocked and the city can continue to grow without necessarily resorting to an outward sprawl.

The loudest opponent to the Spire was, ironically, Trump himself. He felt the massive size would make the Spire a target for terrorism. Okay, maybe he’d changed his mind since the 9/11 attacks… except that he was also trying to get a superstructure built just a few blocks west of where the Spire was supposed to go. He was just trying to eliminate the competition.

After approval in March, 2007, ground was broken. This is what the Chicago Spire looks like today:

It was that damn recession again, killing off yet another grand project. By late 2008, the foundation had been laid for the giant building, but work was stopped. The architect hadn’t been paid, and there was no money left. The project was formally cancelled in 2010.

Initially, the building was supposed to be plopped down beside the proposed DuSable Park, a 3.24-acre patch of green in the city’s core. Even the park is just a barren thatch of ugly now, since they discovered the soil was contaminated with radioactive thorium from a nearby light bulb company.

I suppose it’s necessary for some grand plans to fail in order for others to achieve. But I’m looking eagerly forward to the end of this economic slump and a return to the spirit of building up to the clouds. Also, I heard Edmonton might be getting a 38-story tower soon. Progress is unstoppable!

Day 459: Remembering Your Astronomical Symbols

originally published April 3, 2013

So you want to learn more about astrology. Maybe you’re seeking answers and guidance from the stars, or perhaps you’re just looking to fleece a few bucks off the gullible suckers who think they can find answers and guidance in the stars. No matter – you’re going to need to learn the skill of identifying astronomical symbols.

These little pictographs were used to represent various thingies in the sky, beginning back in the days of the Greek papyri from the late classical era. The standard symbols have been used ever since, from the Byzantine era up through modern times, as a means for astronomers and astrologers to keep track of all those chunks of rock and gases that flicker and fly through the cosmos.

Here’s a handy guide to remembering which symbols are which. Because astrology appears far more mystical and cool when you’re reading unintelligible symbols instead of actual words.

This is the sun symbol. Easy to remember because it looks like a boob. If you need a more specific mnemonic, just remember that when the sun is out, the boob-to-clothing ratio is much more boob-heavy. This is science; there’s always a logical process at work.

Aries, the ram. Looks like of like a ram’s horns, unless you are fixated on the St. Louis Rams’ helmet as the ultimate depiction of a ram’s horns. In that case, the Aries symbol kind of looks like it could represent the fallopian tubes of a woman’s reproductive area. “Area” sounds kind of like “Aries”. Different mnemonics work for different people.

Taurus looks sort of like a bull. It also looks a little like a medal one might wear around one’s neck. The 2010 Ford Taurus SHO was named Car of the Year by Esquire Magazine, so if the medal thing is easier for you to remember, so be it.

Gemini II: The ReGemining!!! Gemini is the twins sign, so this one should be fairly self-explanatory.

Cancer’s symbol looks nothing like a crab. But it does evoke the idea that cancers are down for some fun though, doesn’t it? They are a very reciprocal sign, if you know what I mean.

Leo doesn’t really resemble a lion either. It looks more like the middle of a fantastic yo-yo stunt. Maybe that’s the best way to remember it – Leo is simply short for Leo-yo.

In all fairness, how does one easily represent Virgo, the virgin, in a little symbol? This one doesn’t even come close though. Best way to remember it is that it looks a little like a letter M wearing an AIDS ribbon. Virgins may still be virgins because they’re worried about AIDS. Sorry, that’s all I can offer.

Libra. Easy to remember this – think of a Libra you know (like me, for example). Think of how he or she would much rather be in bed (which is true, almost always). Now you’ll remember, Libra is the symbol that kind of looks like a stickman lying down with the blankets pulled right up to his chin.

Scorpio… well, the scorpion has a stinger, and so does that little ‘M’. The word ‘scorpion’ doesn’t begin with ‘M’ though, so you’re just going to have to remember the stinger part. It almost seems as though when the Greeks couldn’t figure out what to use for a symbol, they leaned on the letter ‘M’.

Sagittarius is the archer. Archers use arrows. This one really couldn’t be simpler.

Ah, Capricorn, the goat. Unfortunately, the Capricorn symbol doesn’t look anything like a goat. It sort of looks like a lower-case ‘n’ standing on the neck of a fleeing sperm. Yeah, you’re on your own with this one.

Aquarius, the water-bearer. Looks like water. It also somewhat resembles the top of Bart Simpson’s hair standing in front of a distant mountain range. If that’s an easier way for you to remember the symbol for Aquarius, use it.

The symbol for Pisces looks nothing like a fish. It looks like an ‘H’ that’s straining to stand up under its own weight. Perhaps the ‘H’ could drop a few pounds if it would lay off the red meat and eat more fish. It’s a roundabout mnemonic, but it might work for you.

The planets each get their own symbol as well, because astrologers are caring people, and don’t want them to feel left out.

Mercury is simple to remember. Just think of the symbol for ‘woman’, then put devil horns on her. Because she’s closer to the sun of course, not because she’s a conniving bitch. Come on! This is science! Leave your biases outside!

Venus is simply the symbol for woman. Most scientific films about Venus will cover the Amazonian she-goddesses who roam the planet, so this one is fairly self-explanatory.

Earth. It seems only logical that the planet upon which everyone wants to kill everyone else would have a gun-sight as its symbol.

The symbol for Mars is the symbol for ‘man’. Rather than refer to that self-help book which declares in its title that men are from Mars, I’d rather use something easier. ‘Mars’ and ‘man’ start with the same two letters. There you go.

Jupiter looks like a fancy number ‘4’. This is easy to remember, because Jupiter is the fourth planet from the sun. If you don’t count Mercury. And really, why would you?

Saturn looks like a lower-case ‘h’, because with its fancy rings looking like a brim, Saturn looks like it has a hat-urn. (Please note: if you’re still reading beyond this horrific joke, you are either a definitive sadist or clinically insane. You should look into this.)

Let’s see… how to describe this without making an anus joke. Nope, I’ve got nothing. Uranus’ symbol is an anus with a butt-crack above it. I’m so disappointed in me.

The trident of Neptune is so obvious, it’s hardly worth mentioning. So I hardly will.

Pluto doesn’t get a lot of love in the astronomical community anymore, but she does have her own symbol. If it kind of looks like a fancy monogram for someone with the initials ‘P.L.’ you’re actually not far off. The symbol stands for Percival Lowell, the guy who started tracking ‘Planet X’, which was later discovered to be Pluto.

Hopefully this handy guide will help you in your quest to understand astrology, or at the very least to come up with the basis for your next neck tattoo which you will no doubt regret once you sober up.