Wichita Mind Control

Tags: Old weird America; Ratched, Wormer, and Hogg; the banality of anti-Americanism; your cheating humu humu nuku nuku a’pua’a.

“One measures a circle beginning anywhere,” said Charles Fort. Our expedition to the old, weird America will begin in Kansas: home of Dorothy, Bob Dole, Clark Kent, Brown v. Board, and the world’s largest ball of twine (disputed). This may seem an odd place to begin. Isn’t Kansas the anti-weird? The bluest of blue states, the pancake-flat heartland? Well, yes and no. Frank Baum knew what he was doing when he put the gateway to Oz there. But before we hit the road, a little discussion of what the old, weird America is good for, and why we might value it at this particular point in time. Read more


The Old, Weird America

Tags: Harry Smith, $60 t-shirts, Hoover’s hobo-fighting robots, regrets.

My colleague Alan stopped me in the hall the other day and said, “I don’t want to start this conversation by saying ‘hey, Rob, you’re into weird stuff, aren’t you?’ but, um, you are into weird stuff, aren’t you?” It’s a fair cop. He wasn’t inviting me to his swingers club or anything like that. The local news had called looking for someone to do fifteen seconds of talking head on the history of Halloween. Which I ended up doing.

I don’t know if anyone has noticed the change to my sidebar, which no longer mentions robots. (I still like robots, I just rarely post about them. Though to be fair, I never promised I’d post about robots, I just said I liked them. Which I still do.) Now the sidebar promises dowsing for “the old, weird America.” That mellifluous phrase comes from Greil Marcus; it’s the title of his book about Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes and his name for that semi-buried world of often eerie Americana that Dylan and the Band tapped into by way of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. The old, weird America is a land of juke joints and revival preachers, medicine shows and haunted battlefields. It’s the music of Harmonica Frank, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Cannon’s Jug Stompers, and the Alabama Sacred Harp Singers. It’s the home of Tom Joad and John Henry, Mike Fink and Stagger Lee. Where preachers speak in tongues and tricksters make deals at crossroads, where grifters run long cons and hoboes lure young lads with songs of candy, where eggheads make breathless, pointless lists of rustic exotica, the old, weird America is near.
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Bon Appetit

Tags: Miserable careers of eccentric characters (present company excluded), Regency-era overuse of exclamation marks, kittens, kugel, French cuisine.

All we want to do is eat your brains
We’re not unreasonable
I mean, no one’s gonna eat your eyes

Happy Thanksgiving to all my American readers and friends. I’d meant to post this morbid little slice of historical polyphagy on Halloween, but it seems no less appropriate to serve it up now with your Yanksgiving yams and kugels. I quote the following verbatim from an essential little book entitled Biographical Sketches of Eccentric Characters, published in 1832. Harvard’s Widener Library has not one but two copies of this handy volume, on the stacks in open circulation–there’s a lot to love about Widener–which I used to peruse occasionally when procrastinating there. And now Google Book Search has the whole thing online, in a slightly unwieldy format–there’s a lot to love about Google, too. I’ll probably dip into the sketches again next time I’m feeling a little Kirchnerian. For now, I give you: The Miserable Career of Tarrare! Read more


Leaving Las Vegas

Tags: The UWO-GMU axis of digital evil, a virulent meme.

I was and still am hoping to blog about the SHOT conference in Las Vegas a week ago, but this week finds me a bit overmatched, so what happened in Vegas will have to stay in Vegas a little longer yet. I can tell you that I met Josh Greenberg, one of the clever elves at CHNM and a fellow plot point on the “UWO-GMU axis of digital evil,” along with many other excellent people who inexplicably do not have weblogs. I can also tell you that I was in Las Vegas for about 72 hours, and probably heard or made one “what happens in Vegas…” reference per hour. Apparently my wife actually went to college with the guy who originally came up with that “…stays in Vegas” ad campaign. I hope his boss let him take the rest of that afternoon off.


Superman III

Tags: Kicking ass for justice.

I can’t believe I left this out of the History Carnival: I got an email last month from a guy named Jake Lowen, who saw my post about Superman vs. the Klan and did a video podcast about it. Jake is a community organizer in Kansas, Superman’s adopted home. He trains disenfranchised people, including kids, to fight for self-determination and political change. “I have the greatest job in the world,” Jake says on his site. “I fight evil for a living.” He keeps a video blog describing his adventures “kicking ass for justice,” and it’s pretty inspiring stuff. He gives me too much credit for digging up the Superman / Stetson Kennedy / KKK story, which was in Freakonomics after all, but I’m chuffed that somebody who is actually out in the world fighting for “truth, justice, and all that stuff” found something relevant or useful in my scribblings.

In other news, I’m leaving right this instant for the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT) annual conference in Vegas, baby. I’m commentator for a panel on “The Rhetoric of Telecommunication Policy,” comparing the political and rhetorical construction of telecom networks in the U.S., Canada, and Sweden. We have scored the less-than-coveted Sunday morning slot, but it’s a good trio of papers, and I’m looking forward to the panel. And there’s lots of great stuff on the program this year, plus apparently this Las Vegas is something of a tourist town. So if you happen to find yourself on the Vegas strip early Sunday morning, in the vicinity of the Imperial Palace, fresh out of chips and looking for something to do… We’ll even waive the usual two drink minimum. Seriously, though, if anyone reading this is on their way to the conference, hit me with an email and we’ll get together.

In the hopper: What happens in Vegas, biographical sketches of eccentric characters, what I’m not reading.