Archive for March, 2011

Everyone Starts at 0 and 0

Baseball, as a whole, seems a rather weary exercise right now, even with impending labor strife in the other two major professional sports leagues. From the stodgy business decisions of its management to the avarice and idiocy of local owners to the mostly polished, and therefore dull, players, baseball seems kind of joyless. But baseball continues to inspire chestnuts to spring, nostalgia, and other handy column topics. At least one writer cashed in with a nice riposte. As Joe Mathews intimates, Major League Baseball might be staring at the other side of the bubble, much like the U.S. economy after its tumultuous fall:

Baseball’s Opening Day might be the Christmas of this American myth of renewal. On most Opening Days, fans and announcers speak the shiny optimism that all things are possible, that the pitiful Pittsburgh Pirates and the rich and talented Boston Red Sox have the same record (0-0) and the same chance. But these days Opening Day feels different and less hopeful. Perhaps that’s because the country feels different.

Baseball and America are each stuck, and in similar ways. The game and the country rode high for a long time. They seemed to reach new heights of individual achievement (record home runs, record personal wealth) and economic growth (baseball and Americans had never been richer than they were in 2007). And then the bubbles burst, and we saw that our gains had mostly been illusory.

And at least the start of the season has given a local historian to shed light on the earliest recollections of Los Angeles:

On Aug. 2, 1769, members of the expedition became the first white men to view the site of the future Los Angeles, and Crespi described the occasion:

“After traveling about a league and a half through the pass between low hills, we entered a very spacious valley, well grown with cottonwoods and alders, among which ran a beautiful river from north-northwest, and then, doubling the point of a steep hill [Elysian Park], it went on afterward to the south.

“This plain where the river runs is very extensive. It has good land for planting all kinds of grain and seeds, and is the most suitable site of all we have seen for a mission, for it has all the requisites for a large settlement….

“As soon as we arrived, about eight heathen from a good village [Yang-na] came to visit us; they live in this delightful place among the trees on the river…. They presented us with some baskets of pinole made from seeds of sage and other grasses. Their chief brought some strings of beads made of shells, and they threw us three handfuls of them. Some of the old men were smoking pipes well made of baked clay, and they puffed at us three mouthfuls of smoke. We gave them a little tobacco and some glass beads and they went away pleased.”

Today, not much more is known about the peaceful Yang-nas, except that they spoke in a Shoshone Indian dialect, lived in huts made from the surrounding brush, and their diet included pinon nuts. It’s not such a big leap from pinon nuts and the Yang-nas to peanuts and baseball.

Had O’Malley known of this connection, he surely would have jumped at the chance to rename his team and the stadium in honor of the first Los Angeles residents. Visualize his portly body shaking with laughter at the thought of pitting his Los Angeles Yang-nas against their former bitter New York borough rivals, the Yankees, in a World Series in Yang-na Stadium.

Categories: Uncategorized

Time for a Cackle Bladder

A rather irrestible story today on Slate about 2010’s most popular con games. Of course, identity theft is, and will continue to be a major source of fraud, but other swindlers’ standards are still thriving, including, incredibly, sweepstakes and contest scams.

Who are the marks? I would have guessed they’re mostly old people, but, in fact, people aged 70 and older accounted for only 7 percent of the total; the only age group responsible for a smaller share was those aged 19 and under, and of course kids are usually too young to swindle. The sucker mother lode, I’m shocked to report, is my own slice of the baby boom age cohort, ages 50 to 59. We supplied 24 percent of fraud complaints in 2010. Fortysomethings were a whisker behind us with 23 percent. Roughly the same pattern held in 2008 and 2009 (though in 2008 the fortysomethings pulled ahead to 26 percent).

Before Midge Decter seizes the opportunity to blame my generation’s credulousness on the same spirit of naive exploration that characterized youth in the 1960s—sex, drugs, radical politics, etc.—she should note that the earliest baby boomers, who created most of the ruckus, have already graduated to the 60-plus cohort, which matches the over-70 set’s modest 7 percent of consumer-fraud complaints. When the 1960s ended I was only 11 years old. But I will admit that this isn’t the first time my age cohort’s collective smarts was called into question. In 2008 it was identified by Neil Howe, a longtime parser of generational identities, as “the dumbest generation.” Still, a simpler explanation for the fiftysomethings’s pre-eminence is the Willie Sutton principle. Con artists are probably likeliest to target people who have lived long enough to accumulate some money but not so long that they’ve stopped working and started drawing down those savings as they enter retirement.

The article also mentions a great book and one that I’ve recommended to several  people, David Maurer’s The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man. The book recounts the history, technique, philosophy, and best of all, language of swindle men, circa 1964. In several cases, Maurer, a linguist by training, I think, takes the reader step by step through several of the most popular cons. I’ve almost ordered his other book, Whiz Mob: A Correlation of the Technical Argot of Pickpockets with Their Behavior Patterns, several times but am holding out hope that a cheap copy will one day manifest itself to me at a library book sale or estate sale.

Another fine contribution to the history of cheats, bamboozlers, tricksters, and charlatans is the 1948 autobiography of Yellow Kid Weil, Conman : A Master Swindler’s Own Story, reissued in a new edition in 2004 as part of Broadway’s wonderful Library of Larceny. Stories and language from a lost America….



Categories: Uncategorized

Defensive Chemistry

A piece today in the New York Times resuscitates the debate about the ethics of eating living things. Why stop at the consumption of animals when other objects, such as plants and fungi, are clearly living beings?  According to the “special issue” article,  fungi are closer to us on the evolutionary tree than plants, and some plants have a more highly developed nervous system than the brainless jellyfish, creatures we firmly include as part of the animal kingdom. Of course, this argument is a variation on a theme that has seen many iterations, from literary provocations by Jonathan Saffron Foer and David Foster Wallace to the original investigations of the Jainist community. But the parts here that fascinate me the most are descriptions of plant reactions on the cellular level.

Unlike a lowing, running cow, a plant’s reactions to attack are much harder for us to detect. But just like a chicken running around without its head, the body of a corn plant torn from the soil or sliced into pieces struggles to save itself, just as vigorously and just as uselessly, if much less obviously to the human ear and eye.

When a plant is wounded, its body immediately kicks into protection mode. It releases a bouquet of volatile chemicals, which in some cases have been shown to induce neighboring plants to pre-emptively step up their own chemical defenses and in other cases to lure in predators of the beasts that may be causing the damage to the plants. Inside the plant, repair systems are engaged and defenses are mounted, the molecular details of which scientists are still working out, but which involve signaling molecules coursing through the body to rally the cellular troops, even the enlisting of the genome itself, which begins churning out defense-related proteins.

Plants don’t just react to attacks, though. They stand forever at the ready. Witness the endless thorns, stinging hairs and deadly poisons with which they are armed. If all this effort doesn’t look like an organism trying to survive, then I’m not sure what would. Plants are not the inert pantries of sustenance we might wish them to be.

This article from a few years back describes some more about plant reactions and defenses. “Not only can bugs detect the odors plants emit for protection, but many farmers notice when army worms are in their cornfield. They smell very sweet. And plants react to each attack differently, emitting different odors to attract different bugs to help defend them.”

Categories: Uncategorized

How the Ancestors of Jethro Tull Bootleg Collectors Helped Avoid the Black Death

Since I’m a modest collector myself, I’m fascinated with the obsessive mind of the collector. An article in the New York Times seems to indicate that social scientists are also busy figuring out why collectors gravitate toward certain objects. Recently published papers draw on ideas of “‘celebrity contagion’ and ‘imitative magic,’ not to mention ‘a dynamic cyclical model of fetishization appropriate to an age of mass-production.’”

One of their conclusions is that the seemingly illogical yearning for a Clapton relic, even a pseudorelic, stems from an instinct crucial to surviving disasters like the Black Death: the belief that certain properties are contagious, either in a good or a bad way. Another conclusion is that the magical thinking chronicled in “primitive” tribes will affect bids for the Clapton guitars being auctioned at Bonhams in Midtown Manhattan.

The replica’s appeal is related to another form of thinking called the law of similarity, Dr. Newman said. That is a belief in what is also called imitative magic: things that resemble each other have similar powers.

“Cultural practices such as burning voodoo dolls to harm one’s enemies are consistent with a belief in the law of similarity,” Dr. Newman said. “An identical Clapton guitar replica with all of the dents and scratches may serve as such a close proxy to Clapton’s original guitar that it is in some way confused for the real thing. Of course, the replica is worth far less than the actual guitar that he played, but it still appears to be getting a significant amount of value for its similarity.”


“Consumers use contagious and imitative magic to imbue replica instruments with power,” Dr. Fernandez and Dr. Lastovicka write in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Consumer Research. “Semiotically signified magical thinking causes replicas to radiate aura and thus transforms them into fetishes.”

Of course, the collectors still preferred a beat-up guitar used by a star to a brand-new replica of it. One of them told the researchers how he had improved his own guitar-playing by using old guitar strings that had been discarded by Duane Allman. This belief in contagious magic may sound illogical, but it makes a certain evolutionary sense, Dr. Lastovicka said.

“Beliefs about contagion, and especially biological contagion, by our ancestors are one of the reasons why we are here today,” he said. “Those who did not stay away from those who died from the plague in the Dark Ages also died of the plague; those who died of the plague in the Dark Ages likely have few, if any, descendants today. So in our modern and scientific world, these manners of magical thinking still persist.”

Categories: Uncategorized

The Surrender of Kandahar


Apparently, this illustration depicts the successful Mughal campaign to take Kandahar during the reign of Shah Jahan, 1628 to 1666 A.D. (1037-1076 H.). Assisted by brothers Kamran Khan and Malik Maghdood, the Mughal armies seized Kandahar in 1637. After the battle, the pair were made governors of the region. After the death of his brother, Malik Maghdood made a doomed attempt to usurp the governorship of Kabul, and his death was apparently noted with some sorrow by the Shah. These details are drawn from the Padshahnama, a 17th century illustrated history  from the court of Shah Jahan chronicling the exploits of his reign.  Most of the Padshahnama now resides in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle, though other parts are at museums in Patna, India, and, for this particular painting, the Muisee Guimet in Paris. Here’s what the museum says about the painting:

This miniature depicts the surrender of Persian troops- seen on the right, on horseback or on foot-handing over the keys to the city to Kilij Khan whose haughty silhouette appears on the left, mounted on a white steed and wearing a black-plumed turban. The panoramic tableau- heightened by the plunging view over the city that creates an open-air atmosphere- is uncommon in Mughal painting. The painting is typical of the finest productions from the imperial workshop around 1640. The composition includes separate, symmetrical registers, skilfully rendered in a subdued vein. The upper background of this extremely well organized painting shows a citadel-probably Kandahar-treated in casually expert perspective. The surrender scene itself takes place in the foreground, and is inscribed in a virtual square, vertically subdivided into two parts.

Shah Jahan (1628-1658) was doubtless the most splendid of the Mughal emperors. The sovereign’s Official Chronicle, or Padshanama brimmed with illustrations by the greatest imperial artists. Certain miniatures (including this one) were in all likelihood removed from the manuscript in the 18th century. This page, depicting the surrender of a city- probably Kandahar- is one of the most interesting paintings in the chronicle. It provides a pictorial account of a key military event which took place in 1637-1638 under Shah Jahan’s reign. The great Afghan fortress of Kandahar, commanding a strategic position on the road to India and a hub of trade, was bitterly fought over by Safavid Persia and the Mughal Empire in 1595 and 1622. In 1638, Shah Jahan again forced Kandahar to surrender but the city was definitively re-annexed by the Persians in 1653. The manuscript of the Padshanama is today in the collections of the Royal Library at Windsor Castle.

Several years ago, Thames & Hudson published The King of the World: The Padshahnama: An Imperial Mughal Manuscript from the Royal Library, Windsor Castle, which looks lovely and too expensive for my current means.

Categories: Fogs of Time, Persian

Black Junior Boy

The squelchy sounds of a Chicago bassline have seldom been matched to a slow jam stomp this well. Like something that might have come out of the Outkast camp under the direction of Morgan Geist. Bonus points for referencing a Marcel Duchamp photo.

Categories: Disco Non-Stop

Almost Oriental Politeness

I always keep tabs on Gregory Rodriguez, for both his Zocalo lecture series and his L.A. Times opinion pieces. His book from a couple years back, Mongrels, Bastards, Orphans, and Vagabonds: Mexican Immigration and the Future of Race in America, is a welcome and balanced perspective on the history of Mexican immigration. Plus, he’s a rare critical voice examining the shape of urban and cultural space in Los Angeles in a way that tries to contend with the city without indulging in the tired cliches that dog most of the discussion about the city. Despite the fact that he hangs a little too heavily on a PR release/magazine puff piece about Los Angeles assuming the title of America’s rudest city, his recent article nicely positions an issue that has always plagued the city: “a fundamental lack of a shared civic culture in Los Angeles.”

Like New Yorkers we are mostly transplants, but there’s a difference. People tend to move to the Big Apple expressly to make themselves part of a famous, ongoing civic enterprise. By contrast, I think what our late Mayor Tom Bradley once said is still true: People who come to L.A. “are looking for a place where they can be free” — from tradition, the past, even from community. More than NYC, L.A. is a city of disconnected exiles.

I like the way Rodriguez uses Bradley’s apt characterization of the city to show that such partitions are well-embedded in its cultural and civic fabric, as well as his inclusion of critic/author’s Edmund White’s description of West Coast manners as Asian detachment: “’The almost Oriental politeness of the West Coast,’ he wrote, ‘is one of its distinctive regional features, in marked contrast to the contentiousness of the East Coast…. So few human contacts in Los Angeles go unmediated by glass (either a TV screen or an automobile windshield) that the direct confrontation renders the participants docile, stunned, sweet.’” Docile and sweet: if that were only the case!

Categories: Los Angeles