Will “ghost papers” “haunt” science? And can I come up with a worse pun?
The philosopher John Stuart Mill questioned whether “…all the mechanical inventions yet made have lightened the day’s toil of any human being”; William Shatner takes a more sanguine view: “I love technology. Matches, to light a fire, is really high tech. The wheel is really one of the great inventions of all time.” So if your beeper has ever not beeped, your computer not computed, or your terminator not terminated, then read on for a roundup of people and places foiled by technology.
The trivia of db cooper, hedy lamarr, socialist utopias, and the pony express
thoughts on the links between dishonesty and creativity. or lack of a link. one of the two.
a byzantine and bizarre story of yellow journalism, sensationalism, unbridled reportorial enthusiasm, dismemberment, hate, jealousy, love triangles, and Kafkaesque trials.
hated trivia roundup
If you’ve ever felt animosity, enmity, hostility, or antipathy; been filled with loathing, rancor, or repugnance; or been moved to abhor, despise, detest, abominate, deprecate, execrate or disparage a person, place, or thing, then read on for a roundup of the DAMNED. Or more accurately, people and things hated for reasons big, small, personal, political, historically validated, or long forgotten.
1. Étienne de Silhouette, at the age of 50, was named the Controller-General of Finances for France in 1759. An important but not highly-regarded title, and Silhouette stepped into an unenviable position. With the Seven Years War ongoing, France faced an economic crisis, with a bloated deficit and a great need for capital to satiate the war machine. Silhouette’s initial forays into economic policy were well-received: he reduced spending by the royals and cut taxes. But with a massive deficit for 1760 predicted, he undertook a series of increasingly deranged austerity measures that earned him the nickname “the next Machiavelli” and linked his name with miserliness.
He started, perhaps inauspiciously enough, by “taxing the rich” by implementing a tax on outward signs of wealth—luxury goods, servants, large tracts of land…and then, doors and windows. Catching flak for this approach, he worked his way even further down the rabbit hole by ordering all gold and silverware melted down and added to the nation’s coffers before institution still further taxes. He was hated by the wealthy for curbing their conspicuous consumption and by the lower classes because they were starving to death.
Before photography, a fast and cheap way to make a “portrait” of someone was to do a paper cutout of their profile, something Silhouette was particularly preoccupied with. This did not escape the notice of the starving masses, who began protesting him by dressing all in black and chanting “We are shadows, too poor to wear color. We are Silhouettes!” After eight months on the job, Silhouette was effectively exiled, and his name became an insulting term applied to cheap things or cheap people, including paper cutouts. Eventually, the negative connotation dissipated and we’re left with silhouettes.
2. Bayard Rustin was a seminal figure in the american civil rights movements, and also a pacifist, communist, socialist, anti-nuclear advocate, advocate against anti-semitism, critical figure in the independence movements of several African states, and community organizer of the highest degree. But he’s also largely forgotten, because he was also a prominent figure in the gay rights movement.
Rustin began his political career by organizing protests against Japanese internment camps. He didn’t get far with that before he was imprisoned for avoiding the draft (though while in prison, he—and I love this so much—organized protests against segregated dining halls). He moved to advocacy in the (then nascent) civil rights movements, even cofounding the Fellowship of Reconciliation (a nonviolence movement) and SCLC. It was those two organizations that perhaps best highlight the odd and difficult position in which Rustin found himself.
Rustin was gay, and while his organizing skills often outweighed concerns about his sexuality, those concerns were a ceaseless point of conflict—and while Rustin would might downplay his sexuality, he refused to ignore it or lie about it. He’d been arrested on a charge of “sex perversion” in 1953, and that arrest was the real fuel in the fire. The leader of the FOR, for example, essentially forced him out because of it, and Adam Clayton Powell—his ally—blackmailed him into leaving the SCLC by threatening to enter Rustin’s arrest record into the congressional record (that turned out not to matter anyway since the assfaced Strom Thurmond did it for him, calling Rustin a “Communist, draft-dodger, and homosexual” all of which are at worst neutral and at best strong positives). He had a seemingly preternatural ability for organizing (even the nuts-and-bolts of it; he was responsible for planning the successful 200,000+ person March on Washington) and coalescing disparate political factions (drawing together labor unions and civil rights movements). If MLK was largely the voice and face of the civil rights movement, Bayard Rustin was the engine. He continued as a political force well into the autumn of his years, constantly thumbing his nose at the establishment (my favorite point: unable to get married, Rustin adopted his partner. In a move that either demonstrates crass politicization or a total lack of research, his partner was called only an “adopted son” in Rustin’s 1987 NYT obituary). He was recently awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, there’s a documentary about him that you should watch, has a great name, and is totally fucking awesome.
3. Caravaggio came of age (physically and creatively) at a time when the Catholic church was working to fill every church, palace, and plaza with works of inspiring religious art. Not because they were art lovers: it was the Counter-Reformation and they sought any means—up to and including simply awing people with profound and ubiquitous works of art—to beating back the sacrilegious Protestant movement (here’s something interesting about John Calvin). Caravaggio’s contribution to art was in taking the chiaroscuro style (highly contrasting light and dark elements) to the very extreme, producing some visually striking works of realism:
Much like Roman Polanski or any number of lesser transgressors, Caravaggio posed a dilemma for people who respected his creative works while viewing him as a repellent person. He was an ill-tempered man prone to fisticuffs and brawling—and it’s theorized that surviving court records understate this tendency, as they only reflect the times his wealthy patrons couldn’t buy his freedom. Indeed, he was contemporaneously described thusly: “after a fortnight’s work he will swagger about for a month or two with a sword at his side and a servant following him, from one ball-court to the next, ever ready to engage in a fight or an argument..”
After killing a man in a fight over either a gambling debt or—no lie—a bad tennis game, he was forced to flee Rome under threat of prosecution. He lammed it to Naples, where he only lasted a year of so before fighting again and taking off to Malta, where he was only briefly before going back to Naples. There he was attacked and left with a severely disfigured face (it’s believed this attack was coordinated by enemies, possibly the Knights of St. John). But with a pardon on the horizon, he geared up for a triumphal return to Rome, only to die of a fever at 38 even before leaving (or, possibly, was finally killed by the same group that had tried previously). Besides his violent disposition, Caravaggio also generated scandal by the realism in his paintings; he was considered vulgar for depicting the bare legs of the virgin Mary. Though wildly famous in his day, he was actually largely forgotten before being (re)discovered in the 20th century; he’s now presumably right on schedule to be the focal point of the next Dan Brown novel. Interestingly, his bones were discovered in 2010.
4. Barbara McClintock was a pioneering corn geneticist, which it turns out is a distinctly nontrivial field if you’re studying genetics. In the 1940s she did pioneering work demonstrating the existence of “transposable elements” or “jumping genes”, in which certain parts of the genetic sequence can sometimes change position during reproduction, leading to mutations and altering the genetic sequence in sometimes-predictable ways. In other words, she laid out some novel ways in which gene transmission was more complicated than the simple dominant/recessive gene changes of Mendelian genetics.
Her ideas, though, were so far outside accepted paradigmatic thought that she was mostly ignored (after hearing her idea, one colleague remarked that she was either a crazy or a genius). So encompassing was this collective bias (enhanced, no doubt, by her gender) that after a 1953 paper she simply stopped publishing her results—which, for a scientist, would normally be a career-ending nuclear option. She opted instead to tour the country giving seminars, hoping to convince people of her findings (this met with only moderate success). Thus, the same results that earned her the Nobel Prize in 1983 were so transgressive in 1953 as to force her out of standard modus operandi of science and into a sort of traveling scientific sideshow. It wasn’t until the 1960s, when someone else (re)discovered transposable elements in bacteria, that her work was recognized. She’s also known for being the first scientist to speculate on epigenetics—the idea that the same gene sequence can be expressed in different ways depending on external factors.
5. The 1948 Tucker Sedan (aka the ‘Tucker Torpedo) was the brainchild of entrepreneur Preston Tucker, Michigan native and the son of a peppermint farmer. Tucker was a racing fanatic whose first company developed race cars. Later he was contracted by the Dutch government to build an armored combat car which never made it past the prototype stage (Germany invaded before he could deliver) but looks like a circa-1940s version of the Batmobile:
It was topped with the modestly-named ‘Tucker Turret’, which was a larger success and showed up in PT boats and B-29 bombers. Following the war, with the “Big Three” automakers making no effort to produce new car designs, Tucker saw an opportunity to develop something fresh and new. Inarguably, he did exactly that; the arguable part is whether it was the work of a crazed genius, insane madman, or the doomed concept of a man in over his head.
A true “car of the future”, the Tucker sedan had streamlined looks and a host of novel features: interchangeable seats (make sure your upholstery wears evenly), padded dashboards and large bumpers (for safety), a third center-mounted headlight semi-affectionately called the “Cyclops Eye” that swiveled to illuminate during turns (oddly, having three headlights was actually illegal in many states at the time), disc brakes, and optional backseat hibachi (not really). His first prototype included a 9.6 liter engine that produced only 88 horsepower and couldn’t go in reverse (it drove power directly to the wheels with no transmission like a fixed-gear bike; also for reference that’s ~7x the size of 1950 VW Beetle engine and less than 3x the horsepower). He later purchased a helicopter engine company and retrofit their engines to work in the car, much more efficiently.
But only 50 or so prototypes were ever produced (they fetch up to $2 million at auction), and therein lies the real story of Tucker. In building the cash reserves and infrastructure for his company, Tucker had sold cars and accessories in advance as well as made a multi-million dollar stock offering. When it became increasingly clear the car wouldn’t make it to market, the SEC filed charges against him—suggesting that the company was really the longest of long cons: a plan to collect venture capital, never produce anything, and abscond with the money. The case was thrown out of court, but the company couldn’t recover (it’s also claimed that the “big three” automakers stepped in to prevent Tucker for securing the steel contracts he needed for mass production). At the time of his death a few years later, Tucker was working on an even more audacious prototype: