Thursday, February 04, 2010


The other day Steve Worth showed me his new $200 book on the circus. Well, actually it cost $126 on Amazon, but it was big and heavy, and I found myself wondering if the publisher could really make a profit on it, even at full price.

With that in mind, I thought I'd reminisce a little about my own two trips to the circus with my dad when I was a kid. Both were really big shows: one was in a convention center, and the other was in huge circus tents, just like the ones in "Dumbo."

The one in tents was my favorite. They were surrounded on three sides by a fence (above). To find the entrance you just followed the crowd.

There were was a side show (above), and it was so interesting that I didn't want to leave it, but once inside the canvas I completely forgot about it. The thrill of the interior volumes took my breath away and the smells and the hurly burly of the crowd were unforgettable.

There were audience "warmers" just like today, and a terrific band to whip the crowd into a frenzy. Just when the crowd was ready to burst a parade commenced and the ringmaster came out.

Every guy in the audience must have envied the ringmaster. He was completely masculine, intelligent, confident, impeccably dressed, and had a booming voice. He introduced all the acts, beginning with a horse show (above). after that came clowns splashing around in a pool.

Then came the aerialists (above) and tight rope walkers. You ended up falling in love with the women in the act, who had the knack of catching every man's eye and giving him the impression that he and he alone had been singled out for their special affection.

Then the sound of roaring lions heralded the lion tamer, and when he was done seals came out on a ramp and flopped into the clown pool.

The seals were great! They actually seemed to enjoy performing, then they left and human divers took their place. I can only guess at the condition of the water.

Then came a solemn time as the lights lowered and the men billed as the strongest in the world came on. Before they performed they strutted around the front of the crowd flexing their muscles for the ladies.

Then came the pugilists...well, not really. There were no pugilists when I was there, but this poster I found (above) makes a strong case that there should have been. Did they really fight all together as in the picture above? I wouldn't be surprised if they did, at least in the grand finale!

Enough testosterone! Next came the clowns again...a dozen of them at least!

The star clowns (above) got the center ring.

Next came the grand finale where everybody came out and performed all at once, then peeled off, one by one, to participate in a grand parade. Guys with stilts played instruments, girls on horseback shot balloons, clowns went bananas, and elephants did fancy walks, all at the same time.

The band went into overdrive, and at the creschendo of the music multiple canons went off, and all assembled gracefully bowed to the audience as a rain of baloons fell from the tent tops. The crowd went nuts and applauded almost til the skin came off their hands.

That was quite a show. Quite a show.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010


One of my guilty pleasures is this stuffed goat sculpture by Robert Rauschenberg. If you try to argue me out of this I'll have no choice but to turn and run. That's 'cause I don't have the slightest idea why I like it, I just do.

I confess that I like some of his environmental art, too. My favorite is the large, enclosed field of bubbling mud, above. I don't blame you if you're skeptical, but trust me, I've seen it and it looks a lot better than it reads in print. In real life it oozes, plops, bubbles and slaps, and you can't take your eyes off it.

Architects were dying to figure out a way to incorporate it into buildings, but nobody could think of how. It's not structural. You can't walk on it. Eveybody agrees that it's somehow architectural, but how? Nobody knows...but it certainly is inspiring. It's all about bringing nature into buildings. Rauschenberg made us want to see the wonders of the natural world inside our homes and workplaces, not just in zoos or museums.

Here's (above) some workers in an ugly modern room. But wait, what's that above their heads? You can't see it clearly here, but the designer put LCD screens above the workers' heads, and on the screens are videos of moving clouds, including thunder clouds. Imagine if the whole ceiling were like that. Imagine your overhead light being alternately dappled or partly cloudy. Imagine the mood of such an office at night with video moonlight illuminating the rims of clouds, and moody low-level lighting taking up the slack. The spirit of Rauschenberg strikes again!

Everybody wants to try out flight simulators. Soon LCD displays (above) will be so cheap that, sitting at home or at work, we'll see what an airline pilot sees outside his window, or what a ship captain sees when he's caught in a hurricane, or what a submarine commander sees when he looks out into the Marianas Trench. Maybe we can put little cameras on ants and see what they're seeing when they work all day inside their hill. Imagine that as a background while you work at a desk filling out insurance forms. Rauschenberg would have loved it.

Or maybe he wouldn't. I picture him saying, "No, no, no! What I meant was that we should bring real nature indoors!" That seems to imply indoor trees or birds, or aquariums.

Imagine a quarter mile-long, giant aquarium with mysterious caves and corals, as well as fish. Imagine if various businesses along its length shared walls with it. That may not be practical now, but you know it will be somewhere down the line.

Or maybe it's cheaper to have people look at other people rather than fish. If more buildings were shaped like inverted pyramids, we could have floors like this (above).

It would be best if the floor was clear, structural glass (above), with a minimum of metal bars. Here we're bringing nature indoors, but it's not trees or's the awesome fact of gargantuan real world volumes and spaces.

Rauschenberg did a lot to popularize the idea that architecture (above) should be fun. It doesn't have to cost a lot of money.

Thanks to the site "Crooked Brain" for most of these pictures. That's a terrific design site, frequently updated. Check it out!

Friday, January 29, 2010


I'm afraid I have only a limited respect for psychology. The field attracts too many quacks and sloppy thinkers. One of the most famous sloppy thinkers was Stanley Milgram whose famous experiment in the 6os was said to have proved that a large number of people are capable of cruelty when authorities sanction it. That's certainly possible, I just don't think Milgram proved it, or even came close to proving it.

Could Milgram's experiment have been as obviously flawed as this BBC re-do of the experiment? Here the victim's screaming voice is obviously fake. It sounds speeded up and is obviously pre-recorded to boot. Most of the students administering the charge must sense, at least unconsciously, that something's up, and the situation isn't to be taken seriously.

The controls in front of the scientist (who's dressed like a doctor, and acts like one) are never explained, and are plausibly misunderstood by the student to be a means of modifying the charge or keeping track of the subject's vital signs. It shouldn't be surprising that that most of the students weren't terribly worried about the health of someone who's under close medical supervision.

Add this to the fact that in the lawyered-up age we live in everybody knows that a university would never allow a casual test subject to be put in serious jeopardy. Further add that the researcher continuously assures the student that no lasting injury will be done to the subject, who can quit at any time. The student administering the charge has to conclude that the screaming man is probably not in real jeopardy. The fact that 30% of the students still refused to hurt an obvious or near-obvious fake could actually be taken as a ringing endorsement for the goodness in man.

A good experiment is one that definitely confirms or excludes an explanation and this experiment does neither. I'm amazed that Milgram didn't realize that, and even more amazed that subsequent academics failed to see it.

Milgram was an odd person. He's also famous for the "Lost Letter Experiment" in which he demonstrated that found mail addressed to unpopular people like famous nazis were less likely to be re-mailed than letters addressed to normal people. I hope my taxes didn't have to pay for that.

Psychology does have a place, but it seems like its misused as often as not. It's very trendy, very faddish. Here's (above) a cover of Psychology Today from 1974. It informs us that psychosurgery (remember the fake Philipino guys that removed chicken entrails from people's stomachs without breaking the skin?) is on the level, and that Yuri Geller (a magician who claimed to be a psychic, exposed by Randi ) is on the up and up. Other issues touted open marriage (how many of these ended in divorce?), kibbutz-style raising of children (since dropped by Israel), and a bunch of other later discredited ideas. This was an influential magazine in its day. What does that tell you about standards in the field of psychology?

As a footnote, here's a link to 5 experiments which the author says prove that humanity is doomed. Milgram's is number one. I liked the article myself, but then again, I don't take things like this too seriously. Most isolate the unsocial or uncaring thing the subjects did when tested, and ignore the social and caring things the subjects did during the rest of the day. A fun read, but not very good science.

Thursday, January 28, 2010


First the bad news: I tried to finish a post making fun of Chris Mathews' "Hardball" (sample frame above) in time to post it for Thursday morning, but it's not gonna happen. I bit off more than I could chew given the time I'm able to give this. Sorry about that.

Now the good news: have you seen the video introduction of the new ipad that debuted today? If not, go to and check it out. Be sure to watch the whole hour long video. Your first impression will be disappointment, because the machine Jobs describes at the start sounds like nothing more than a tablet-sized iphone...but stick with it. The Devil is in the details! You'll be cheering by the time the video's over.

Apple is revising their whole business model! Their idea is to give away the computer (I mean, sell it cheap) and make their money on the aps, which promise to be very appealing. The ap for Pages, which is Apple's version of word, is only 10 bucks, and it works faster and more intuitively than the regular version. Even if the ap version is scaled down, it's a bargain at 10 bucks. And the ibook'll put Kindle out of business.

It's also revolutionary in that it promises over time to make all consumer programs work by simple touch and drag and drop manipulation. I don't expect programs like Photoshop to convert overnight, but I wouldn't be surprised if a year or so from now an easy to learn, easy to use version of Photoshop Elements appeared. Apple has thrown down the gauntlet to the whole software industry: simplify or die! I loooove it! Steve Jobs is a genius!!!!!

Monday, January 25, 2010


Recently I started watching TV shows like "Forensic files" and "Cold Case Files." I watch them a couple of times a week for an hour before going to bed. Most of the crimes are solved by the testimony of disgruntled ex-wives or by simple physical evidence like tennis shoe tracks left on a bloody floor. It's hard to believe, but an awful lot of murders are solved because the murderer can't bear to part with a pair of cool shoes that he got for 50% off list price.

What keeps me hooked are the really bizarre cases. The best one had to do with a hospital doctor who raped his women patients while they were sedated. None of the women saw him do it but they all deduced that it must have been him because no one else was in a position to do it. Police took blood samples from him a few times and the DNA never matched the rapist's. Finally one women insisted that the blood sample be taken with witnesses present and with a film camera running. To her astonishment, the blood still didn't match.

Years passed and the frustrated woman finally convinced the police to take yet another sample in front of witnesses. By this time the police thought the woman was crazy, and they warned her that no further tests would be made. Another doctor extracted the blood, and to everybody's surprise the syringe filled with rust-colored powder. What the heck!!!???

In the lab it was confirmed that the powder was dried blood. It turned out that the doctor had slipped little condiment-size packets of someone else's blood under his skin, and the blood taken through the years really belonged to an old patient of his. He refrigerated the blood so he'd always have a fresh sample for the tests, but over time the blood got old and turned to powder. Now THAT was a TV show worth watching!

After you see dozens of these shows you begin to get a sense of how tragic life is for some people, even for the murderers sometimes. Imagine that you're a nice guy, a good neighbor and all that, but you attempt to buy some marijuana and the seller deliberately gyps you. You can't complain to the police, so for a couple of days you entertain thoughts of violent revenge. For most people it wouldn't go any farther because most people can't stay mad very long, and because taking revenge would more than likely result in serious grief for the revenge taker. But what if....

What if you had an irresponsible friend who at the height of your anger kept saying, "You're not gonna let him get away with that, are ya? Man, if someone did that to me I'd take a baseball bat and..." Geez, maybe some of us are just lucky that nobody gave us that kind of stupid advice at the time of our lives when we were most vulnerable.

I'm also amazed at how many modern murders result in multiple plausible suspects. In older times you could assume that the seedy stalker who was seen to have followed the victim for weeks before the crime, was probably the killer. Nowadays seedy stalkers are in abundance, and any one of them could have done it. I just saw a show where a girl was killed and police managed to find surveillance tapes of the places she'd shopped at during the day. It turned out that two unrelated seedy guys followed her at different times, though neither one turned out to be the killer. The killer was a third seedy guy.

Aaaaargh! Okay, all this is creeping me out. Maybe I should lay off these shows for a while.

BTW: Sorry there's no attribution for the nifty pictures. I lost the name of the site I got them from.

Saturday, January 23, 2010


Wow! Mike turned John and Kali and I onto a great film tonight: Edward G, Robinson's "Two Seconds (excerpt above)." If you liked Peter Lorre in "Stranger on the Third Floor," Lugosi in "The Raven," or John's favorite Kirk Douglas and Robert Ryan films, then you'll love Two Seconds.

After seeing the film I marvel that so many animation producers could be so clueless about what the real revolution in animation consists of....acting, or more specifically: stylized acting. Sometimes I think that animation is better suited for acting than live action because our industry can deliver the kind of funny, caricatured movement and expressions that really drive home an emotion, something live action can only dream about.

While I'm on the subject of live action acting I should mention Orson Welles' performance in another film I saw recently: "Prince of Foxes." Welles isn't funny like the actors mentioned above, but he does play a convincing Cesare Borgia. How did he do it? What did he do that's different than what other actors do?

It's a simplification I know, but the answer I'm looking for is that he wasn't afraid to employ stylized acting. Welles' method is to make his style so transparent that we're aware that he's playing a game with us. He's a game player and people love game players, especially when they're really skilled at it. That's why we like people like Billy Mays (spelled right?) and the guy who does the "Shamwow" commercials. I'll bet real-world con men don't even attempt to conceal that they're playing a game, so much do their victims crave to play roles in a great game.

Of course in real life Cesare Borgia was a master manipulator and game player. Who better to play him than a game player like Orson Welles?

Sunday, January 17, 2010


I'm a big fan of Legos, Brio and all that, but the building blocks I and my kids had the most fun with were the Froebel (also spelled "Frobel") blocks shown above. These are big, heavy, hardwood blocks that cost a fortune in the high-end toy stores. If somebody hits you with one of these, believe me, you'll know it.

The problem with these blocks, apart from the cost, is that modern kids will only play with them from ages 3 to 5. After that they won't touch them. Amazingly, the blocks continue to have a life after they're abandoned. I used mine to make bookshelves. Some people make permanent sculptures and even desk supports out of them. Someday when my kids have kids I guess they'll return to being toys again.

The inventer of these blocks, and possibly alphabet blocks as well, was the same man who invented kindergarten: Frederick Froebel (1782-1852). Froebel was a genius (I forgive him for the idea of kindergarten, which may not have been a good idea). The beechwood blocks are a treat to hold in your hand. The weight, the proportions, the finely sanded but still tactile surfaces, the way they sound when they collapse...really, they're an almost perfect toy.

Froebel's only failing was that he disdained to provide shapes like turrets and staircases. He believed that everything can be made from cones, balls, rectangles and triangles, which is not exactly true.

The Haba company, which makes the Froebel toys, finally gave in and added some accessories to the lineup. Poor Froebel is probably rolling in his grave, but I like them. The dormers on the roof add a nice touch, don't you think?

And turrets add a lot, too. One of the many things I wish I could sell in the Theory Corner Store is add-ons to the Froebel blocks, but I'm not a woodworker and the demand would probably be small, if not non-existent.

Some other companies put out building blocks (above), and those have no shortage of turrets, but the blocks are way too small and light. Froebel had a knack for finding the weight and proportion that works.

There's something out there (above) called "Anchor Blocks." You can buy them now, but I don't know the details.

Then there's something (above) called "Richter Blocks." They might be a variant of Anchor Blocks, made by the same company. The Richter people have disdain for the Froebel people. I think there's a kind of block fan war going on, and the discussions get pretty heated.

The Froebel people have accused the Richter people of making blocks that have irregularities on the surface, which limits the height and stability of what you can build. The Richterites reply through clenched teeth that their wooden blocks are meant to simulate stone, and stone can and should be irregular.

The Richter people are putting out a set they're really proud of later this year. I'll be featuring these blocks in The Theory Corner Store (no profit for me, I'm just a facilitator), so check the store when it's up for updates.

Some of the competitors' blocks (above) are pretty colorful, but the designs are just okay.

This (above) is what all toys would look like if accountants were allowed to design them.

You see modern-artsy, Matisse-type ones sometimes. Interesting, but I don't know if kids would play with them. Boy, am I imagining it or are blocks increasingly becomming an adult toy?

The set that would have dominated the post-Froebel world would have been one based on Disney's theme park ride, "Small World," but for reasons impossible to understand the Disney management showed no interest in it. Too bad. A set of colorful blocks based on Mary Blair's still-fresh ideas would have sold, no doubt about it. Every year they could have added new designs for collectors.

Kids aren't as attracted to building blocks as they used to be, a horrible state of affairs that I blame on the decline of war toys. Blocks make great forts. If boys are discouraged from making that sort of thing, then they loose interest in building. These are hard times for little boys.

Many thanks to Hans Flagon who reminded me of what Froebel called his "gifts" in a comment on the previous post.

BTW: While researching this I stumbled on a number of fascinating examples of 19th century toys and children's furniture. Here's (above) a writing desk with a chalk board writing surface and a beautiful scroll containing summaries of the subjects on the right.

I wasn't able to find the nested "Noah's Arc" tower site I was looking for, but here's something similar, sold through Amazon for 20 bucks. The 19th century version I had in mind was hard wood and about 5' high. This is a modern knock off that's probably made of cardboard and is about 3' high.

The Noah's Arc toy had hand painted pictures of animals and their keepers inside the wooden cubes.

Friday, January 15, 2010


Have you ever seen the stage play, "Noises Off?" It's a fast-paced farce where all sorts of misunderstandings occur because people enter the room at awkward and unpredictable times and frequently leave by the wrong door. People are always frantically looking for someone who's on the balcony right above their heads, or who's just disappeared behind another door. It's a play where the set design is crucial.

I've seen the story three times, both on stage and on film, and every time I see it I leave wondering if a real room in a real house could be built like that, a room made with the deliberate intention of provoking comic misunderstandings.

When you think about it, it's an interesting set (above). There are three doors on the bottom floor and four on the mezzanine, plenty of opportunity for confusion. Plenty of opportunity too, for the percussive sounds of slamming doors and thumping staircase runs. The set is electric with potential. Why can't a real living room be like that?

In the set design above (all these pictures are from different productions of the same play) the shower room is given it's own level, which is a great idea. That means people on the bedroom level attempting to take a shower have to walk along the ramp and down the stairs in a big old hangdog robe and carrying a brush on a stick...which strikes me as funny. If they forget something they have to do it all over again, calling attention to themselves when they'd rather be stealthy. It creates tension on the stage and would probably do the same in real life.

Some people (above) are bound to make a mad dash for the shower room in their underwear.

The sofa (above) has its back to the window and doors, a placement with lots of potential for surprise and gags. If you were sitting on the sofa you might have no idea that someone had just come in behind you, and don't even think about necking in private.

Of course if this were a real house the owner wouldn't be inconvenienced. He'd be sitting on a second sofa in the foreground facing the window, watching everybody else's confusion. This idea is too good to use only on the stage, or the Jerry Springer show. Let's see real living rooms designed like this.