Sunday read: The fabric that vanished

Image via edtimes.in.

When I was a kid, I read a creepy book that had a title that went something like “22 Creepy Stories of the Unexplained That Will Give You the Creeps.” It gave me the creeps.

The stories included stuff like a devilish figure whose tracks were seen in 19th-century Britain, a Caribbean family whose mausoleum, no matter how secured, was always in disarray when it was reopened to bring in another coffin, and a Pacific islander (if I recall) who was able to tell when ships would be arriving well before they could be seen on the horizon. That last passed his knowledge to younger members of the area, who did the same for the next generation, but eventually it disappeared. Nobody knows how it was done.

(It would be interesting to find the book now and see how many of the stories remain unexplained, or were made up entirely. Also, it’s interesting what gives you the creeps. I had a “Ripley’s Believe or Not” collection that had a simple drawing of a gravestone somewhere out west on which the death date was listed as “February 30, [year].” I don’t know why that gave me the shivers, but it did.)

We’re still figuring out some mysteries today, ancient — like the Antikythera mechanism, the 2,000-year-old Greek computer that had engineering (if not accuracy) not achieved until many centuries later — and more recent, like Dhaka muslin, a centuries-old fabric that was the most valuable in the world in the late 1700s but whose construction has been lost to time. The latter is the topic of my Sunday read.

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Sunday read: It’s the pictures that got small

The Oscar nominations will be announced Monday morning, and I mean no offense to the prospective nominees when I say they seem … small.

I saw a handful of them — “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “Mank,” “Da 5 Bloods” — and I plan to catch up with “Sound of Metal,” “Judas and the Black Messiah,” and “One Night in Miami,” among others, in due course. But, like probably all of you reading this (that is, both of you), I saw them on my television, in my living room — not in a theater on a big screen among dozens or hundreds of people. And an HDTV, even a home-theater-sized one (which mine isn’t), is no substitute for the moviegoing experience. I mean, I also watch “Saturday Night Live” reruns and the wonderful “Ted Lasso” on a TV.

So, even though many of those Oscar hopefuls probably look great on the big screen, virtually nobody saw them on the big screen. We saw them on streaming services.

As a result, they seem diminished. They’ve become just another TV show, something to flick past as you’re channel-surfing, or to freeze-frame when you go to the bathroom. (I can hear Christopher Nolan sobbing.)

The films of 2020, at least in the way they were presented, are another victim of Covid.

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Sunday read: What would E. Howard Hunt think?

Image of the “three tramps” being led away after the JFK assassination. E. Howard Hunt may be the man in the hat. Or he may not.

Late last week, a former State Department employee and Trump appointee, Frederico Klein, was arrested on charges that he took part in the January 6 U.S. Capitol insurrection and assaulted an officer. And then Friday, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) released a 2,000-page report that noted the social media activity of GOP members of Congress between the election and the riot.

I wonder what E. Howard Hunt would think.

Hunt, famously, was the former CIA agent who got wrapped up in Watergate as one of Richard Nixon’s “plumbers,” who were tasked with stopping administration leaks but ended up planning wiretappings and the Watergate burglary itself. He was a mysterious fellow who ended up as one of the threads Woodward and Bernstein pulled on to unravel the whole scheme.

Hunt had a history well before Watergate. He’d helped bring down the government of Guatemala in 1954. He wrote dozens of spy novels, some highly praised. And he may have had knowledge of John F. Kennedy’s asssassination.

The last, from a 2007 story in Rolling Stone, is at the center of my Sunday read.

Now, I’m an agnostic on the Kennedy assassination. It’s always seemed a little odd that an eccentric figure named Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, killed JFK on November 22, 1963. Surely he must have been connected to something — the Mob, the CIA, Texas oilmen, maybe the whole racket. On the other hand, it’s always seemed odd that an eccentric figure named Gavrilo Princip killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand and helped kick off World War I when the archduke’s car, having avoided a thrown grenade not long before, flukily went past him as he was waiting near a delicatessen. History is full of such improbabilities.

I’m not going to get into the details of Hunt’s confession — that’s why I’m linking to Erik Hedegaard’s story. I’m not even sure I believe much of it. Hunt very well could have been one of the “three tramps” in Dallas that day (many sources say otherwise), but he also fingers Lyndon Johnson as one of the conspirators, and having read the most recent volume in Robert Caro’s LBJ biography, I don’t buy that.

But as part of the CIA? Allen Dulles‘ CIA? The place that tried to get Fidel Castro’s cigars to explode? Which had an operative who met with Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy about their idea of smearing LSD on muckraker Jack Anderson’s steering wheel? I can see that. And Hunt himself was the kind of guy who didn’t flinch about such things.

“He was a complete self-centered WASP who saw himself as this blue blood from upstate New York,” says his son in the Rolling Stone article. ” ‘I’m better than anybody because I’m white, Protestant and went to Brown, and since I’m in the CIA, I can do anything I want.’ “

I don’t know what we’ll find out about January 6. There are many loose ends and unexplained events — Rep. Ayanna Pressley’s torn-out panic buttons, why folks are pushing off-the-wall conspiracy theories — that may lead to some dark places. Or they may lead nowhere at all. E. Howard Hunt died in 2007, so there’s no way to get his opinion on things. But he left behind some interesting stories.

You can read “The Last Confession of E. Howard Hunt” here.

Sunday read: The book of forgetting and forgetting

Image by Peter Fordham © Yoko Ono via UDiscoverMusic.com.

Do you remember Fred Allen?

You probably don’t. You probably have never heard of Fred Allen. But at his peak, in the 1930s and 1940s, he had one of the most popular radio shows on the air, was hailed as one of America’s foremost humorists, and influenced everybody from contemporaries Jack Benny and Groucho Marx to future talk-show host Johnny Carson (the “Mighty Carson Art Players” was a take on the “Mighty Allen Art Players”). One of the characters on his show, Sen. Beauregard Claghorn, was the inspiration for the Warner Bros. character Foghorn Leghorn.

Do you remember Harold Robbins? James Michener? Fannie Hurst? They were some of the best-selling authors of their day. Robbins was greatly responsible for the kind of sex-dripping novel we now think of as an airport potboiler. Michener wrote doorstops, such as “The Source” and “Hawaii,” that tried to sum up centuries of history through a handful of characters. Hurst, who is name-dropped in Mel Brooks’ song “Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst,” wrote some of the best-selling books of the 1920s and ’30s. She was, perhaps, the Jodi Picoult of her day, seizing on social themes and getting hooted at by critics.

Do you remember “Imagine”? The 1971 John Lennon song?

Of course you do. It’s practically an anthem. As recently as last year, Gal Gadot rounded up a bunch of celebrities to sing it in the face of Covid. It didn’t go over well, but it wasn’t the song’s fault.

But if you asked one of Cesar A. Hidalgo’s students at MIT about “Imagine,” she would be clueless, as Hidalgo found out while listening to the song one day.

“Is it Coldplay?” the student asked.

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Sunday read: The Hammer and the man

Photo by Focus On Sport/Getty Images via NBCNews.com.

Many years ago, when I was free-lancing for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, my editor asked me to provide the copy for a special section on the Boy Scouts. Most of the article pitches we discussed were fairly low-key, ranging from a profile of a local Scout-oriented exhibition to a talk with Eagle Scouts. But one stopped me in my tracks: Could I call Hank Aaron, a Scout growing up, and get his thoughts on Scouting?

A dirty little journalist’s secret — well, MY dirty little journalist secret — is that making cold calls is a knee-knocking affair. It’s your job to approach complete strangers, and sometimes those complete strangers are celebrities whose gatekeepers can hold you off for the foreseeable future while you pursue your one necessary quote or response. Call Hank Aaron? I was shivering with anxiety.

So it took me some time to get up the nerve to call the Atlanta Braves corporate office, where Aaron was an executive, and ask to speak to him. I fully expected the secretary to tell me that Mr. Aaron wasn’t available, and could I leave a message, and I would never hear back. Why would Hank Aaron want to talk about his boyhood as a Boy Scout?

Instead, she put me right through and Aaron got on the line. I honestly don’t remember much of what he said, only that he was thrilled to say it — Scouting really had made a difference for a black boy in Jim Crow-era Mobile, Alabama — as he regaled me with tales of walking to Scout meetings and taking part in activities. For me, who only perceived him as a taciturn slugger and Hall of Famer, it was interview heaven. I would think about it every time I passed Hank Aaron Stadium off I-65 in Mobile when I traveled from Atlanta to visit my parents in New Orleans.

And now Hank Aaron is gone. He died Friday, in his sleep, at age 86. Hank Aaron, the first hitter listed in the Baseball Encyclopedia, still the all-time leader in RBIs and total bases, barely second in HRs, third in hits (a great detail: if you take away Aaron’s 755 home runs, he still has 3,000 hits), the namesake of the award that goes to each league’s top hitter, the incredibly consistent, classy, coolly understated Hank Aaron — Hank Aaron has passed.

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Sunday read: This pretty much sums it up

Image from the Washington Post.

The 88 pages of the Jan. 4-Jan.11 issue of The New Yorker contain one feature article, a 39-page chronicle of how Covid-19 went from obscure coronavirus to the colossus of death that has killed 2 million human beings as of mid-January, including close to 400,000 Americans.

It’s my Sunday read.

I know, I know. You’ve had enough of reading about Covid. I’ve certainly had enough of posting about it. But — and this means no disrespect to the Atlantic’s Ed Yong or the diligent folks at Stat — this piece was written by Lawrence Wright, a terrific writer who wrote the best book on the lead-up to 9/11, the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Looming Tower,” and an excellent work on the Camp David accords, “Thirteen Days in September.” (In an eerie coincidence, “The End of October,” his novel published in May but written earlier, concerns a worldwide pandemic.)

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Sunday read: A scientist hero

Image from Cosmos Magazine.

I grew up in the 1970s, which means that my bloodstream and organs are probably full of contaminants that will take decades, if not centuries, to break down — long after they may have contributed to my death. I’m sure I’ve eaten my share of plastic, inhaled plenty of tar and nicotine, and probably consumed some radioactive heavy metals.

I’ve certainly been exposed to greater-than-healthy doses of lead (which is to say, more than zero), because until 1975, it was in pretty much every gallon of gasoline we pumped in America. That means it was also in every ounce of exhaust that our internal combustion engines produced.

But at least we’ve moved in the right direction — away from leaded gasoline. And, in part, we have Clair Patterson to thank.

Patterson, “The Most Important Scientist You’ve Never Heard Of,” is the subject of my Sunday read.

Patterson, who was trained as a chemist but practiced geology and physics, was an eccentric. His discovery that his laboratory was infested with lead prompted him to go to extreme lengths to clean it (as well as hypothesize where the lead came from), at a time before “clean rooms” existed. And that wasn’t all.

On smoggy Pasadena days, he’d amble across the quad wearing two different colored socks and a gas mask. He went distance running when distance running was a hobby for weirdos. He didn’t look or act like a professor. He wore t-shirts, khakis, and desert boots. He refused tenure. Later in his career, he soundproofed his Caltech office and installed two doors, two layers of walls, and two ceilings. As his colleague Thomas Church noted, Patterson was like his rock samples: He did not enjoy being “contaminated” by outside influences.

This made him easy to caricature for the corporate interests — oil and auto companies — that wanted to keep their leaded fuel in the pipeline. After all, it eliminated knocking!

And no-knock leaded gasoline was a small price to pay for all that lead in the environment. After all, miniscule amounts of lead couldn’t cause that much damage. Could it? The leading lead researcher certainly didn’t think so, and nobody was looking over his shoulder.

Kehoe also made mistakes that might have been caught had his work been subject to independent scrutiny. In one study, Kehoe measured the blood of factory workers who regularly handled tetraethyl lead and those who did not. Blood-lead levels were high in both groups. Rather than conclude that both groups were poisoned by the lead in the factory’s air, Kehoe concluded that lead was a natural part of the bloodstream, like iron. This mistake would grow into an unshakeable industry talking point.

That probably sounds familiar.

Mental Floss’ Lucas Reilly shows how indefatigable Patterson was. The scientist went to Greenland to take samples, then Antarctica. He took days to test each one. What they showed was undeniable: lead contamination had risen sharply in just a few decades. And then he went to a mountain in Yosemite and made his conclusions even stronger.

Oh, we’d polluted with lead before — just ask the ancient Romans — but this was of a scale that was frightening, not to mention unnecessary. After all, we weren’t making utensils, just stopping our cars from making noise.

You should read it all. Sometimes, even against entrenched corporate interests, science (and safety) will out.

Read “The Most Important Scientist You’ve Never Heard Of” here.

Sunday read: The losses of 2020

Every year, The New York Times Magazine runs an issue it calls “The Lives They Lived” on the last Sunday of the year. The issue is devoted to highlighting some of the people who passed in the year previous, both the famed and the footnotes.

Well, it’s the last Sunday of the year, and right on schedule, here’s “The Lives They Lived.” It’s my Sunday read.

You’ll know some of the names — Tom Seaver, the legendary Mets pitcher; Chadwick Boseman, the “Black Panther” actor who died, far too young, of colon cancer; Helen Reddy, the celebrated singer. But you’ll also learn about Mimi Jones, who became momentarily famous during the Civil Rights movement for one shocking photograph, and James Harvey, a movie critic’s movie critic.

That’s the joy of “The Lives They Lived,” and the sadness, too — that it takes a special issue of the NYT Magazine to give many of these lives the proper consideration.

Take a little time and read it here.

Sunday read: When Paul was still a Beatle

Paul McCartney recording “Abbey Road,” July 1969.

I was surprised how gleeful I was to read a new interview with Paul McCartney — or, should I say, another interview with Paul McCartney.

Because I’ve read and seen many interviews with Macca, whether in magazines, excerpted in books, or broadcast on air. And yet I never get tired of them, even when it’s obvious he’s playing to the camera (so to speak).

He comes across as a working-class lad made good: still slightly stunned by the success of the Beatles, still trying new things (his new album, “McCartney III,” is due out December 18), still taking great pleasure (perhaps greater pleasure) in his family and friends in this, late in the eighth decade of his long, rich life.

I remember reading a comment by U2’s Bono that, upon arranging to meet McCartney and expecting him to pull up in some priceless overly large car with a chauffeur, McCartney himself pulled up in some little runabout. He tries to keep himself down to earth, even though much of the public would be willing to literally roll out red carpets for him to walk on.

And yet, he’ll always be a Beatle. That’s the way most of us think of him, despite 50 years of him being a non-Beatle, and also despite the perhaps apocryphal story of the 1970s teenagers who found a Beatles album in a record store and said, “Paul McCartney was in a band before Wings?”

Well, yes he was, and it was a miracle.

At the time, though, who knew that almost nothing would ever compare to the music and the impact of the Fab Four? Certainly not the Fabs themselves.

So, for my Sunday read, I dug through the endlessly interesting archives of beatlesinterviews.org. In there there’s this everyday chat with one Mr. P. McCartney, conducted by the BBC’s David Wigg in September 1969. “Abbey Road” was about to be released, and McCartney took the opportunity to talk about his favorite songs on the album, the relationship between the Beatles, and what else was going on in his life. You would never know that the band was just months away from its official split, and the cracks had already started widening. (This was not long before it was revealed that McCartney had died and been replaced by the mysterious William Campbell, but that’s a very different story.)

McCartney has generally been a sunny, optimistic type, and in many respects the tone in this interview is little different from the one he gave The New York Times’ David Marchese. Still, there are nuggets of recognition for future scholars. My favorite is this exchange, when Wigg asks Paul about his just-born daughter:

DAVID: “How is the baby?”

PAUL: (proudly) “She’s fantastic, yes, she’s beautiful. She’s about the best looking baby I’ve ever seen. Nicest. Just started on cereal, took every drop!”

DAVID: (laughs)

PAUL: “For all the mothers and fathers listening.”

DAVID: “And now, are we going have a ‘Mary’ song?”

PAUL: “I don’t know.”

DAVID: “Soon?”

PAUL: “I don’t know. There’s, we did a song which has Mary in it, but it was written before she was born.”

DAVID: “I see.”

That song may sound familiar.

We now know that “Mary” was a reference to Paul’s mum, and that the idea for the song came to him in a dream. And as he tells the NYT’s Marchese, he’s a big believer in dreams.

Which I find charming, since pretty much all of his dreams came true — enough, in fact, for the rest of us to indulge in them.

You can read the 1969 McCartney interview with David Wigg here.