Things I Learned in 2023
The Internet is a super cool repository of all the world's knowledge. I mostly use it to look at videos of flatworms synced up to dance music. (Hey, it beats Joe Rogan.) But hey, let's use the Internet for its intended non-pornographic purpose for once. Every day in 2023 I'll be researching something I've been wanting to know more about, and write it up in a little paragraph here.
Click HERE to go down to a week prior to today.
Jan. 1: It's Public Domain Day! Tons of famous work published in 1927 is now yours and mine to adapt however we see fit, including Arthur Conan Doyle's last Sherlock Holmes stories and the films Metropolis, Wings, and The Jazz Singer. But my eye was really drawn to the literature section, including such fun novels as Hesse's Steppenwolf, Kafka's Amerika, and Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop (none of which I have read, yet, but have an interest in doing so). In particular, I was interested to see Countee Cullen's Copper Sun on that list - an important poetry collection from a leading light of the Harlem Renaissance... that doesn't have its own Wikipedia page, somehow!?
But lots of things about Cullen are seemingly obscure these days. Born... somewhere... in 1903 and adopted by Frederick Cullen (pastor and future president of the Harlem NAACP), he became an absurdly well-educated dude, fluent in French, Greek, and Latin; while getting a Master's at Harvard he edited Caroling Dusk, possibly the most notable anthology of Black American poetry of the era. (One of the poets, Lula Lowe Weeden, was 9 at the time the book was published, and she died quite recently - perhaps if my Google fu was stronger I could find out more about her.) Countee Cullen was mentored by Alain Locke, and he in turn served as mentor to James Baldwin. The title of Copper Sun, the newly public anthology of his work, comes from a line in his poem Heritage.
Jan. 2: We all know the story of how two Steves founded the most profitable company in the world in their basement (or whatever)... but did you know that those two Steves were originally joined by a Ronald? Ronald Wayne was working at Atari in the '70s when two of his colleagues got into an argument, which Wayne invited them to settle at his California home. Those two colleagues were, of course, Jobs and Wozniak, and that night Jobs suggested the three of them go into business together. Per their founding arrangement Wayne held a 10% stake in Apple Computer (being twice Jobs & Wozniak's age, he was the "adult in the room")... which he sold back to Jobs & Wozniak 12 days after they founded the company, for $800. His most lasting legacy was drawing Apple's original, ornate, beautiful Isaac Newton tribute logo... which was replaced not even a year later by the now-inescapable bitten apple.
Jan. 3: Marion Davies was among the most successful movie stars of the silent era, getting such meaty roles as Mary Tudor in 1922's When Knighthood Was In Flower; unfortunately for her, despite her talents, she is known these days pretty much exclusively as the mistress of William Randolph Hearst, and thus as the inspiration for the title character's hopelessly tone-deaf wannabe-diva wife in Citizen Kane (and by extension the most misunderstood gif of all time). Davies was played by Kirsten Dunst in 2001's The Cat's Meow, a movie about the rumor that Hearst fatally shot a man on a cruise for making sexual advances towards Davies. (Although the alleged victim, Thomas Ince, was not the actual lothario - Davies' actual pursuer was... *checks notes* ... Charlie Chaplin!?!?!?)
Jan. 4: I've always dismissed the Godzilla films as, if not stupid per se, not especially intellectual, but there's one regard in which those movies are low-key witty, and that's in the character of Rodan. Specifically, his name. No, he's not named after Auguste Rodin... because in Japan his name is Radon, which is a triple entendre:
- It's a clipping of pteRAnoDON.
- It's a radioactive element.
- It's a Greek mythology reference.
Jan. 5: I was aware that the "Christmas #1" is a huge thing across the pond; I did not realize that for the fifth straight year, that #1 single has been by Mark "Ladbaby" Hoyle, an influencer/"wife guy" from Nottingham whose shtick seems to be taking bad rock songs from the '80s and changing the lyrics to be about sausage rolls. In 2022 he exhumed "Do They Know It's Christmas" and got that to #1, beating Wham's "Last Christmas," a drill track by the supergroup Sidemen, and what the BBC called "a political protest song about the Conservative government, the title of which is unprintable [...] the fourth such song to make the Christmas charts for an act whose stage name is also unprintable on the BBC News site."
Jan. 6: Digging through my bookshelf a few days ago, I found a pair of Utne Readers from the early '90s. Blast from the past, am I right? Well anyway, one of these Utnes claimed that while running for president of Peru in 1990, Alberto Fujimori would play up his Japanese heritage by dressing up like a samurai at press conferences. Well, this might have been an exaggeration - there don't seem to be any photographs of him doing so, for instance - but it would appear that he DID wear a karate gi and chop wooden blocks in half for the Peruvian public. (Shout-out to GrzesiakJ on the LearnedLeague fora for digging up this photograph.)
Jan. 7: Oh my god, look at this weird frog. It's called the common Surinam toad (although it's actually found throughout most of the Amazon, not just Suriname) and before its eggs turn into tadpoles, they live in a honeycomb-like matrix of holes in the mom's back. Cool, and gross.
Jan. 8: As we all know, the film Apocalypse Now prominently features "The End" by The Doors in its opening minutes. Apparently, not content with just having *one* '60s stoner band provide music for his soundtrack, Francis Ford Coppola commissioned original percussion pieces for the film from The Rhythm Devils, a band consisting of several regular musicians with The Grateful Dead. The Rhythm Devils then put out the songs they wrote for the film on an LP with disconcertingly jaunty cover art in which (per Wikipedia) "on the banks of a river flowing through a jungle, skeletons play various percussion instruments." Adorable...?
Jan. 9: Can you imagine a world without cats? Do you even want to? Well, you don't have to. Paleontologists have long debated the reasons for the "cat gap" - a 6.5-MILLION-YEAR-LONG stretch of the fossil record where felines seemingly went extinct in North America. The reason for this gap? Well, in prehistoric times the felines native to America were weird and deadly creatures called nimravids, which were kind of like sabertooth tigers but also a teensy bit like bears, and which had a diet almost exclusively comprised of meat. It turns out that having an all-meat diet worked out about as well for them as it does for humans, and that when America's forests turned into grasslands and their prey stopped existing, they were SOL and died off as well. Eventually, sometime around 1,800,000 BC, a lynx-ish kitty called "pseudaelurus" made its way over a Bering land bridge (but not THE Bering land bridge) and closed the gap, becoming the ancestor to our furry friends.
Jan. 10: Lest you think royals do nothing but sit around all day and occasionally get frostbitten in the dong, there's one living royal with an actually impressive track record as an athlete - Karim al-Husseini, a.k.a. the fourth Aga Khan, was an Olympic-level skier who competed for Iran at the '64 Winter Games in Innsbruck, Austria. Although his father Aly Khan was more famous for his philandering than for his political career, Aga Khan IV is no joke - he traces his lineage back to Imam Ali and is thus a religious figurehead for millions of Shia Muslims (specifically Nizaris) around the world. Also, he's a literal billionaire. (Let's hope he pays his zakat.)
Jan. 11: Sure, there are one-hit wonder artists, but are there one-hit wonder artists? As in, visual artists who made one great piece and then spent the rest of their life trying to live up to that work? May I posit that Georges Seurat, father of pointillism, qualifies as one? Now, I will admit that he has more paintings of note than A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, even if those paintings didn't inspire a Pulitzer-winning musical. Like Les Poseuses, which depicts three nude women standing... in front of Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. Personally, I find that kind of hilarious - there's precedent for "meta" in fine art (this is some 200 years after Velazquez painted himself into Las Meninas, for instance), but it's wild to see this kind of self-referentiality in the 1800s, IMO. Now here's another clue for you all, man - the walrus was Paul Cezanne!...
Jan. 12: A decade or so ago, back when I was a metal chick, I thought it would be cool to name a band "Escape from Spiderhead" after the George Saunders story. (This was well before that story was adapted into a mediocre Netflix original movie.) That was a bit highbrow for my then-friends, whose favorite band names were more in the vein of Dying Fetus.
So what's the most literary band name? Here is, in chronological order, my running list of the most bizarrely literary band name, in my opinion.
- Steely Dan, as you probably know, are named after a steam-powered sex toy in Burroughs' Naked Lunch.
- Every six months I make a comment to the extent of "What kind of name is 21 Pilots?" to which someone responds "um actually it's a reference to the twenty-one pilots who die in Arthur Miller's All My Sons", and then I say "oh, I figured that it was a reference to the 9/11 hijackers, I mean, have you seen their logo? C'mon, tell me that doesn't look like the towers coming down," and then that person blocks me on Discord.
- But it turns out there is an even more literary reference, because today I learned that the indie rock band The Airborne Toxic Event is named after the catastrophe that initiates the events of Don DeLillo's White Noise, which must surely be the most unexpected highbrow reference?
- Haha, just kidding, because not even half an hour afterwards I found out, indirectly, via a crossword in the New Yorker, that the Dead Milkmen, of all bands, are named after a character in Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon!! JFC.
Jan. 13: The band Ween used to be a favorite of mine in high school, and I've always liked their tune "Joppa Road" - a sort of "style parody" of "Ventura Highway" and songs of that ilk, except with a goofier title. But I spent the weekend in the Baltimore-D.C. area, and was on the real Joppa Road that inspired the song (the one with the Sunoco), so I had an excuse to find out where the name comes from. "Joppa" is cognate with "Jaffa" and "Yafo" (as in Tel Aviv-Yafo), and more likely than not is derived from the Biblical character of Japheth, one of Noah's three sons (along with Shem and Ham).
Jan. 14: Who holds back the electric car? Who makes Steve Guttenberg a star? Well, the first question's easy enough to answer, the second one, not so much. I didn't realize just how many films Mr. Guttenberg was actually in, just how much money they made, and just how little anyone cares about these movies in 2023 - his filmography is a graveyard of '80s cinema IPs too lame for nerd culture and too obscure to be exhumed by IP-hungry corporations. Three Men and a Baby was the highest grossing film of 1987! Cocoon won two Oscars! There were five zillion Police Academy movies! The Day After is still the most watched TV movie ever! Short Circuit... had Fisher Stevens playing an Indian guy, I guess?
Now, the real question is, who is the Steve Guttenberg of 2023? A friend suggested Timothee Chalamet, but he's got too much of a personality - or at the very least a carefully-calculated simulacrum of one - to qualify. My immediate thought was Justice Smith... but then a friend suggested Miles Teller, and I was like, yeah, that's right. They even kinda look like each other, IMO!
Jan. 15: Wikipedia has a page called "list of individual dresses," including such fun ones as the green Versace number that J. Lo wore to the Grammys in 2000, which inspired the creation of Google Image Search (as well as an all-timer Onion article), Lizzy Gardiner's gold dress made of AmEx cards worn to the '95 Oscars, and - of course - The Dress. It's a fun rabbit hole.
Jan. 16: Remember Where's Waldo? It turns out that Where's Waldo is merely the most famous Anglophone iteration of a wildly popular genre of German picture book called - in true German fashion - the Wimmerbilderbuch. (That's German for "teeming picture book.") While there's precedent for the form in the likes of Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights, the father of the wimmerbilderbuch was Ali Mitgutsch, who died around this time last year and made just beautiful, beautiful illustrations. The subreddit dedicated to these pictures is r/wimmelbinder, which is jam-packed with beautiful and not-so-beautiful drawings from both pros and amateurs in the Waldoid vein.
Jan. 17: We've all heard of Pete Best, the fifth Beatle... but have you heard of Phillip Wilcher, the fifth Wiggle? He's a classical composer - and was in fact a classical composer well before he was a part of Australia's #1 musical export. His time in the Wiggles predates their colorful skivvies bit, but he does appearently own a gold record from sales of their debut album.
Jan. 18: Rachel Whiteread is a British artist - a Young British Artist (of the school that gave us Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Jenny Saville, Chris Ofili, et al), to be precise. Contrary to the shock jock antics of some of her colleagues, though, Whiteread's most famous piece is dead serious - it's the Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial in Vienna, a huge and deliberately unbeautiful sculpture commissioned by Simon Wiesenthal with the aim of creating a monument that "must hurt." It's striking in its austerity - sort of like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, in that way.
Jan. 19: Abel Meeropol, an English teacher at Dewitt Clinton High School in the '30s, is known for exactly two things: writing Billie Holliday's signature song "Strange Fruit" on the one hand, and adopting Julius and Ethel Rosenberg's orphaned sons on the other.
Jan. 20: Us digital natives are all intimately familiar with the school of moronic urban legend which claims that some soft-spoken, universally beloved media personality was actually an uber-violent military guy. The most famous of these myths is the one that says that Mr. Rogers was a Navy SEAL who nunchakued eleventy Viet Cong in the groin or whatever - which is, needless to say, total horseΑΒΓΔΕΖ.
This made it all the more bizarre to learn that Dr. Ruth was a sniper in the IDF, and that in the recent Hulu documentary Ask Dr. Ruth there is apparently footage of the now-90-year-old Westheimer assembling a Stet gun without looking. Wowza.
Jan. 21: Draco, a lawmaker who lived in Athens in the seventh century BCE, lives on in the language via the word "draconic," an eponym that is seemingly apt for a man who decreed that seemingly any crime more malign than jaywalking deserved the death penalty. But, contra his rep for... um... draconian policy, he did institute several key reforms. For instance, he publicly posted his laws for all to see, which isn't all that impressive in the scope of history more broadly (e.g., Hammurabi's Code was explicitly pitched at a normie audience, hence the long prelude at its start claiming it was divinely inspired) but was a significant reform in Athens, where the law was oral (and thus easy to fudge, particularly if you were wealthy). The more unique innovation was a distinction between premeditated murder and crimes of passion; Draco's generally credited with inventing the concept of "manslaughter."
Oh, and also he apparently died when too many people threw their clothes at him. Or so they say - I think that anecdote has just about the same truth value as the one where Aeschylus allegedly died when an eagle tried to bash a turtle against his head.
Jan. 22: There's not actually a rule in the Constitution saying that officeholders must be sworn in on the Bible - they're allowed to use any text they wish. Keith Ellison, famously, was sworn in using Thomas Jefferson's copy of the Quran; Tulsi Gabbard, a copy of the Bhagavad-Gita; Kyrsten Sinema (the only atheist in the Senate's history - although she rejects the label) was sworn in on a law book. But freshman Congressman Robert Garcia (D-CA) has 'em all beat: he got sworn in on, among other things, the Library of Congress's copy of Superman #1. Garcia, who was born in Peru and will be Congress's first LGBTQ immigrant, says he learned English by reading comic books, and that Superman is an immigrant with a double life which resonated with him, which is very sweet. Still, though, I gotta say it: NEEEEEEEERD!!!
Jan. 23: It's odd, after the fact, to think of Prince of Persia as having been a flop - but apparently it took several years, several console ports, and a cool new bowtie-shaped box before the game became a classic. So says this op-ed from the game's creator, Jordan Mechner, anyway - the game took ages to create, and by the time it released, publisher Broderbund had shifted away from "gaming" as such and more towards edutainment (most famously for my '90s girl heart, we have them to thank for Carmen Sandiego), and the platforms it had been released for were all thoroughly outmoded. (It is funny to realize how collapsed these eras of gaming are from our modern perspective - see also this video about the NES and its three "eras," which makes it clear why the most technically impressive games on the system flopped relative to the earlier, most iconic titles of the '80s.) The really insane fun fact about this article, though: apparently the model for Jaffar on the Prince of Persia box art was... SNL's Kevin Nealon??
Jan. 24: The Tug Fork river, which more-or-less divides Kentucky (on its west) from West Virginia (on its east), is notable as the locale where America's most infamous family feud was born: during the Civil War, "Devil Anse" Hatfield, a Confederate lieutenant, was accused of killing Union soldier Asa Harmon McCoy, which triggered some thirty years of violence and executions. The feud has been resolved something like four times at this point, which led to the truly bizarre spectacle of a Hatfield-McCoy week of Family Feud episodes, where the two families ran out pointing guns at one another and competing for a pig. (I'm not making this up.)
Jan. 25: The Caesar salad isn't actually named after Julius Caesar, nor one of his immediate descendants. No, it was actually named after Italian-born restauranteur Caesar Cardini, who ran a restaurant named Caesar's in Tijuana (on its famous Avenida Revolucion thoroughfare/tourist magnet). He had owned places in Canada and the States, but he set up shop in Mexico in the '20s while the US was ailing under Prohibition.
Jan. 26: Eddie Cochran was a name I knew on paper - largely because The Who famously covered his hit "Summertime Blues" - but I didn't realize he was so influential on early rock'n'roll (Paul McCartney auditioned for the Quarrymen - the band that would later become... well, you know... by playing Cochran's "Twenty Flight Rock" on an upside-down guitar), nor that he died so, so young. In fact, the car crash that took his life at 21(!!!) almost killed Gene Vincent (of "Be-Bop-a-Lula") fame too. (Vincent died at ... 36!? Christ, did all the rockabilly guys have a Final Destination scenario?)
Jan. 27: "A luta continua" is Portuguese for "the struggle continues." The phrase was first used in a political context in the '60s, by Mozambican revolutionary Eduardo Mondlane, who left a cushy job as an anthropologist at Syracuse University to lead the fight against colonialism, founding FRELIMO (which would become the dominant political party in Mozambique, operating first under Marxist-Leninist principles and then shifting towards democratic socialism in 1989) before his unsolved 1968 assassination. Mozambique eventually attained independence, in part due to Mozambican militants' use of women and in part due to Portugal's authoritarian regime being overthrown in 1974's Carnation Revolution. The slogan is still used in other, non-Lusophone contexts, including by Ugandan LGBT activists, youth in the Nigerian #EndSARS movement, and... um, Jonathan Demme films?
Jan. 28. Is the aforementioned Sunday in the Park with George the most famous work of musical theater inspired by a painting? Maybe, but maybe not - enter Gian Carlo Menotti, who was inspired to write the opera Amahl and the Night Visitors after coming across Bosch's Adoration of the Magi (or, um, one of the three times he painted that theme) and being reminded of his youth in Italy, receiving presents not from Santa but from the Three Kings. The opera was the first commissioned and performed for American television.