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As David Letterman heads into the victory lap of his TV career, I think back on Brother Theodore, one of my favorite guests during the host’s early great years, when the brilliant tandem Steve O’Donnell and Merrill Markoe were working their magic behind the scenes. Theodore had previously guested on many other talk shows–Merv Griffin gave him the “Brother” moniker because of a collared shirt the performer wore–but it was with Letterman that the stand-up tragedian left his most indelible impression.

If the mad monologist Theodore Gottlieb’s biography was true, he a had enough drama for ten people: a prisoner of the Dachau concentration camp, a chess hustler in Switzerland, a friend of Albert Einstein (who reportedly was his mother’s lover) and a stage performer unlike all others in New York. He passed away at 94 in 2001.

 

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For those moments when it seems we’re being fed bread and Kardashians nonstop, when the culture has have never been so dumb, let us refer back to 1979′s Playboy Roller Disco & Pajama Party, which aired in primetime on ABC. The show starred Richard Dawson, the Village People, Dorothy Stratten, Wayland Flowers and Madame (and a crudely racist puppet), the San Diego Chicken and lots of good, wholesome cocaine. Meanwhile, the hostages in Iran waited for help.

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R. Crumb, who likes cans (and LSD), and Al Goldstein, the late admirer of beaver (and electronics), compare hairy palms in the latter half of the ’80s in Northern California. Prior to the interview, Goldstein kindly offers Sean Penn an ass-whooping.

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Whether we’re talking about American Graffiti or J.G. Ballard’s Crash, we’re discussing freedom and power. And when no person handles the wheel anymore, how will we replace that sensation of controlling time and space? Virtual reality? Something else?

Ballard, tooling around.

An amazing 1966 British Pathé newsreel about a jetpack that was tested in the U.K. at the Brand’s Hatch race circuit. It  was apparently intended for use by astronauts.

Gary Numan performing his 1978 technology cautionary tale, “M.E.,” in which he envisioned the Singularity arriving and then running out of juice.

And M.E. I eat dust
We’re all so run down
I’d call it my death but I’ll only fade away
And I hate to fade alone
Now there’s only M.E.

We were so sure
We were so wrong
Now it’s over, but there’s no one left to see
And there’s no one left to die
There’s only M.E.
Why should I care?
Why should I try?
Oh no, oh no, I turned off the pain
Like I turned off you all
Now there’s only M.E.

In a 1960 episode of Face to Face presented by John Freeman, Evelyn Waugh made his television debut. The novelist was nervous, and it was considered at the time that he gave his interviewer the business. Of course, the definition of “rude” has changed a lot since then.

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Roger Ebert, as a part of “Cyberfest ’97,” interviewing Arthur C. Clarke via computer.

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It’s possible that gasoline stations and fast-food restaurants are the Easter Island totems of the modern world. Of course, the difference is that the sculpture of that bygone civilization didn’t prompt its fall nor did it kill off other societies. And like Easter Island’s statuary, I think filling stations and burger-chain restaurants are often amazingly designed. How beautiful our doom.

Along with many great sights from NYC’s 1964 World’s Fair, this 1964 film from Sinclair oil company displays its glorious dinosaur-juice outlets.

Four years before his death, Anthony Burgess sat for this Face to Face interview in 1989. It amazes me that he was wounded by bad reviews.

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Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter, completely unknown on the national stage in 1974, appears on What’s My Line? a mere two years before becoming President of the free world’s most powerful country.

Zooey Deschanel can only have her darling discussions about tomato soup with Siri on rainy afternoons because of pioneering work in computer voice recognition that was done decades ago. Trippy video from Stanford University, 1968.

I’ve put up posts before about Immanuel Velikovsky, the Russian-born psychiatrist turned catastrophist crank who presented a radical alternative to accepted planetary history. He was friends with Albert Einstein and Freeman Dyson, and was always perturbed that they and others in the scientific community didn’t take his science fiction “Worlds in Collision” theory seriously. From “Visionary to the Fringe,” by Paula Findlen in the Nation:

“Early in the project, Velikovsky’s research took an unexpected turn. Seeking to confirm the historical reality of Exodus, he read the modern translation of the Ipuwer Papyrus and began to consider the potential correlation between ancient Egyptian catastrophes and biblical plagues: What had caused them, and were they indicative of a common pattern across cultures? After consulting Columbia anthropologist Franz Boas, he explored the records of ancient Mesoamerican civilizations. Velikovsky’s quest led him from the textual and archaeological challenges of deep history to the empirical findings and theoretical underpinnings of astrophysics, geology and paleontology. There, too, he found his greatest inspiration in historical sources, namely the scientific literature of the late seventeenth through early twentieth centuries, which lay neglected and largely forgotten in the stacks of the Columbia University library. Science’s past inspired his new vision of the present.

Velikovsky later observed that he rarely met professors in the library, lamenting the narrowly defined limits of their erudition in comparison with the breadth of his own. He read musty tomes that experts considered hopelessly out of date, attempting to absorb something from every possible domain of knowledge. In defense of his methodology, Velikovsky declared himself a historian and not a scientist, while nevertheless proclaiming the revolutionary importance of his findings for science. Historical data became his tool for rethinking science, though since Velikovsky failed to meet the empirical standards of either subject or to demonstrate his competence in basic research skills to expert satisfaction, neither discipline embraced him. However, scholarly disapproval has never been a serious impediment to public acclaim (consider the case of Trofim Lysenko or Malcolm Gladwell). Indeed, it became the cornerstone of his reputation as an anti-establishment figure, a latter-day Giordano Bruno or Galileo willing to be condemned as an intellectual heretic for defying authorities in pursuit of truth.

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Velikovsky appearing on a 1964 episode of Camera Three:

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I find all the Star Wars films intolerable, but I will acknowledge some entertainment value in seeing Sir Alec Guinness speak about the original movie in a 1977 interview with Michael Parkinson. Neither one of them took George Lucas’ blockbuster too seriously.

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Incredibly cool 1965 CBS Evening News report presented by Walter Cronkite about underground filmmaking in NYC. Features footage of “a musical group called the Velvet Underground” and interviews with Jonas Mekas, Stan Brakhage, Andy Warhol and Edie Sedgwick.

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Alistair Cooke brought his Omnibus TV show into the New York Times newsroom in 1954 to see how men–and only men–published news in that era. Listen to those clunky typewriter keys tapping. The paper began to computerize two decades.later.

Dr. Barbie.

Dr. Ken.

Skipper.

Skipper has lupus just like Flannery O’Connor. Thankfully, she enrolled in Obamacare before the deadline, or she’d likely have died because Dr. Barbie and Dr. Ken are too busy with their courtship. They’re beautiful and irresponsible, with a dubious commitment to medicine. Enjoy your cocktails, assholes. I hope you don’t pass, Skipper.

A clip from Walter Cronkite’s sit-down with Anwar Sadat in the shadows of the pyramids, in 1977, four years before the Egyptian president was assassinated. Sadat denies slave labor was used to build the incredible tombs.

Long before Louis C.K. thought it was amazing that people could complain about airplanes while they’re “sitting in a chair in the sky,” Brian Eno focused on the same in his 1978 sound installation, Ambient 1: Music for Airports.

Edward O. Thorp, a mathematics professor who lives to bring down the house-the house being a casino–has focused a sizable portion of his career on mathematical probability in betting games. He also created, in tandem with Bell Labs unicyclist Claude Shannon, what is arguably the first wearable computer. The device, which was contained in a shoe or a cigarette pack, could markedly improve a gambler’s chance at the roulette wheel, though the bugs were never completely worked out. From a 1998 conference:

“The first wearable computer was conceived in 1955 by the author to predict roulette, culminating in a joint effort at M.I.T. with Claude Shannon in 1960-61. The final operating version was rested in Shannon’s basement home lab in June of 1961. The cigarette pack sized analog device yielded an expected gain of +44% when betting on the most favored ‘octant’. The Shannons and Thorps tested the computer in Las Vegas in the summer of 1961. The predictions there were consistent with the laboratory expected gain of 44% but a minor hardware problem deferred sustained serious betting. They kept the method and the existence of the computer secret until 1966.”

Thorp appeared on To Tell the Truth in 1964. He didn’t discuss wearables but his book about other methods to break the bank. Amusing that NYC radio host John Gambling played one of the impostors.

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As you probably realize if you read this blog with any regularity, I’m fascinated by religious and secular cults, groups of people who give themselves over to an idea, a hoped-for utopia, outside the mainstream, often threatening the mainstream. These offshoots can bring about death or disappointment, and sometimes they’re driven by genuine madness, though occasionally the mistrust is misplaced. I suppose what makes me so interested in them is that I’m a really individualistic person who can’t even fathom trusting so wholly in a culture, let alone a subculture. I’d like to know how that process works. What’s the trigger?

In his just-published New Yorker piece about The Journey to Waco, a sect member’s memoir that revisits the FBI’s disastrous 1993 siege of the compound, Malcolm Gladwell points out that negotiating with the devoted is different than making deals with those devoted solely to profit. A passage that compares Branch Davidians with early Mormons:

The Mormons were vilified in those years in large part because Joseph Smith believed in polygamy. But the Cornell historian R. Laurence Moore, in his classic book Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans, points out that the moral hysteria over the Mormons was misplaced. The Mormons were quintessential Americans. ‘Like the Puritans before them, the Mormons linked disciplined labor with religious duty,’ Moore writes. ‘Mormon culture promoted all the virtues usually associated with the formation of middle-class consciousness—thrift, the denial of immediate gratification, and strict control over one’s passions.’ Polygamy, the practice that so excited popular passions, was of little importance to the Church: ‘First, the vast majority of nineteenth century Mormons did not practice polygamy, and many of them found it distasteful, at least as a way of conducting their own lives. Second, those who did practice plural marriage scarcely exhibited the lascivious behavior made familiar in anti-Mormon literature. Plural wives were commonly the widowed or unmarried sisters of the original wife.’

So why were nineteenth-century Americans so upset with the Mormons? Moore’s answer is that Americans thought the Mormons were different from them because the Mormons themselves ‘said they were different and because their claims, frequently advanced in the most obnoxious way possible, prompted others to agree and to treat them as such.’ In order to give his followers a sense of identity and resilience, Joseph Smith ‘required them to maintain certain fictions of cultural apartness.’ Moore describes this as a very American pattern. Countless religious innovators over the years have played the game of establishing an identity for themselves by accentuating their otherness. Koresh faced the same problem, and he, too, made his claims, at least in the eyes of the outside world, ‘in the most obnoxious way possible.’

The risks of such a strategy are obvious. Mainstream American society finds it easiest to be tolerant when the outsider chooses to minimize the differences that separate him from the majority. The country club opens its doors to Jews. The university welcomes African-Americans. Heterosexuals extend the privilege of marriage to the gay community. Whenever these liberal feats are accomplished, we congratulate ourselves. But it is not exactly a major moral accomplishment for Waspy golfers to accept Jews who have decided that they, too, wish to play golf. It is a much harder form of tolerance to accept an outsider group that chooses to maximize its differences from the broader culture.”

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“Was there no plan?”

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William M. Gaines, the legendary publisher and impresario behind Mad magazine, appears on To Tell the Truth in 1970. He looked like a plate of spaghetti that fell on the floor.

To this day I recall being amazed as a child by an old Mad that had a reprint of Will Elder’s existentialist Melvin Mole comic.

The opening of Gaines’ 1990 obituary in the New York Times:

“William M. Gaines, who as publisher of Mad magazine conferred immortality on a goofy-faced, gaptoothed cover boy and the ‘What — me worry?’ motto, died yesterday at his home in Manhattan. He was 70 years old.

He died in his sleep, editors at Mad said.

The first issue of the magazine hit the newsstands in 1952, with sharp-eyed sendups of movies, advertising, celebrities and comic strips: Mickey Mouse became ‘Mickey Rodent’ and Superman ‘Superduperman.’ To the delight of its largely teen-age audience, it brought satire into the mainstream, along with up-to-the-moment New York humor sprinkled with Yiddish, nonsense and non sequiturs.”

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Since baseball season has gotten underway (at least in Australia), here’s a rare video of Ty Cobb, one of the sport’s best players ever and one of the damndest sons of bitches to strap on the spikes, appearing in 1955 on I’ve Got a Secret. Seems like a sweet grandfather here, but he strangled to death at least eight or ten peanut vendors during his career. The first two players are Leon Cadore, who pitched an entire 26-inning game in 1920; and Johnny Vander Meer, who threw back-to-back no-hitters in 1938. Cobb shows up at roughly the 12:15 mark, just as Vander Meer walks off with his complimentary carton of cancer-causing Winston cigarettes.

The Bay Area, home of Moneyball, seems to have created a market inefficiency waiting to be exploited: tech workers who’ve reached their thirtieth birthdays. A strong bias in favor of not just young employees but very young ones, a culture with values akin to Logan’s Run, has left talented people fearing their first wrinkle or gray hair. Where will these “olds” go? The opening of Noam Schieber’s New Republic article “The Brutal Ageism of Tech“:

“I have more botox in me than any ten people,’ Dr. Seth Matarasso told me in an exam room this February.

He is a reality-show producer’s idea of a cosmetic surgeon—his demeanor brash, his bone structure preposterous. Over the course of our hour-long conversation, he would periodically fire questions at me, apropos of nothing, in the manner of my young daughter. ‘What gym do you go to?’ ‘What’s your back look like?’ ‘Who did your nose?’ In lieu of bidding me goodbye, he called out, ‘Love me, mean it,’ as he walked away.

Twenty years ago, when Matarasso first opened shop in San Francisco, he found that he was mostly helping patients in late middle age: former homecoming queens, spouses who’d been cheated on, spouses looking to cheat. Today, his practice is far larger and more lucrative than he could have ever imagined. He sees clients across a range of ages. He says he’s the world’s second-biggest dispenser of Botox. But this growth has nothing to do with his endearingly nebbishy mien. It is, rather, the result of a cultural revolution that has taken place all around him in the Bay Area.

Silicon Valley has become one of the most ageist places in America. Tech luminaries who otherwise pride themselves on their dedication to meritocracy don’t think twice about deriding the not-actually-old. ‘Young people are just smarter,’ Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told an audience at Stanford back in 2007. As I write, the website of ServiceNow, a large Santa Clara–based I.T. services company, features the following advisory in large letters atop its ‘careers’ page: ‘We Want People Who Have Their Best Work Ahead of Them, Not Behind Them.’

And that’s just what gets said in public.”

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“There’s just one catch…”:

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The AT&T Picturephone demo from 1970. The service, which did not catch on, cost $160 per month.

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