Briefly Noted for March 11, 2008

How to make a Leyden jar out of a two-liter Coke bottle, from MAKE Magazine.

Top Ten Moments in Sitcom History. I think you’d have to put Lucy and Ethel’s stint at the conveyor belt at the top of the table, but a good list nevertheless. (Thanks, Jerm.)

Prolific “junior ranger” Chance Finegan on the history of Mt. Rainier National Park.

Keeping with my management kick, here are 14lessons from 37signals for good digital project management and organizational development.

Years Ago

I have a confession to make. I actually subscribe to very few of the amateur history blogs I mention here on Found History. 10 Years Ago looks like an exception. According to it’s German author, “Every day a historic event will be posted which happened on the same day but years ago. The illustrations will all be done in a Moleskine 2008 Daily Planner.” Yesterday’s entry commemorates the 1964 opening of Whisky a Go Go on the Sunset Strip with this image:

Whisky a Go Go

Today the blog remembers the 1966 debut of the television show Batman:


Very cool.

(Thanks Jerm.)

Schill, Scorpions, and Louis Gossett Jr.

We all know the Mitchell Report has been digging into ball players’ pasts. So, it seems, has Boston Magazine. In particular, they have found a few embarrassing skeletons in Curt Schilling’s closet. For sure, there’s nothing in the signed 1986 minor league program found by the magazine as offensive as performance enhancing drugs. But the young Schilling’s fondness for Scorpions, Iron Eagle, and Miami Vice comes pretty close.

Curt Schilling Rocks Like a Hurricane.

Thanks, Ken.

Bowie's in Space

One last music post before I return to Found History‘s bread and butter.

If you haven’t been watching HBO’s Flight of the Conchords, you’re really missing something. Take my word, it’s the best comedy to hit TV since FOX inexplicably pulled Arrested Development from the air more than a year ago. It’s way too weird to explain fully here, but it’s basically a story about a pair of New Zealanders—Bret and Jemaine—trying to make it as novelty musicians in New York. Between meetings with their agent Murray and chance encounters with their lusty “fan” (singular) Mel, the Conchords regale us with their truly awesome music videos.

This week the Conchords did some history—some freaky Bowie history. Three times during the episode, Bret is visited in his sleep by a vision of Bowie past: the 1972 Ziggy Stardust Bowie, the 1980 Scary Monsters Bowie, and finally the 1996 Labyrinth Bowie. This final visit launches the Conchords into “Bowie’s in Space” a brilliant parody of Bowie’s “Space Oddity”. Then, to top it all off, the video continues into the credits where the music changes from the 1970s space kitsch of “Major Tom” to the 1980s wood block and rolled up sport jacket sleeves of “Let’s Dance.” Too funny, man.

A Million Little Pieces

This is a little (lot) late in coming, but I want to say something about this past winter’s Oprah-James Frey controversy. For those of you who don’t remember, the controversy erupted when Oprah discovered that James Frey had “lied” in writing “A Million Little Pieces,” the memoir of his struggle with drug addition, which Oprah recommended to her viewers as part of “Oprah’s Book Club.” In a memorable episode, Oprah invited Frey to her program to scold him for his disingenuousness and to demand an apology. A clearly frightened Frey aquiesced to Oprah and dutifully took his medicine.

This episode excited an army of pundits, most of whom joined Oprah in condemning Frey. It also elicited widespread commentary on Oprah’s cultural importance, both as an arbiter of ethics and taste and as a king-maker in television, publishing, and other media.

There was also a discussion of how now to shelve Frey’s book, as fiction or non-fiction. Most of this discussion hinged on just how much of Frey’s book was factual and how much was fabricated. Implicit in these discussions was a firm equation of the terms “non-fiction” and “fact.”

This equation, I think, demonstrates a key difference in the way professional historians view history and the way the general public views history. Or at least in the way the two groups view historical sources. That is, I don’t think there are many professional historians who would surprised if they found certain details of any given memoir, whether by Frey or Honest Abe, to have been fabricated, exaggerated, etc. Trained to be critical of sources, historians view even “non-fiction” books (especially memoirs) critically, and they do not trust every “fact” presented to them as such.

At the same time, this does not mean that historians dismiss out-of-hand any book containing factual errors or fabrications as wholly untruthful. We all know that a lot of valuable truth can be gleaned from mis-recollected, or exaggerated, or self-serving personal narratives. I guess you could say that historians have a more subtle notion of the relationship between “facts” on the one hand and “truth” on the other.

I hope nobody thinks I’m defending Frey. The guy is a confessed liar. But sources—especially auto-biographies—are always slippery, and they always stand in complex relationship to historical truth.

Storm Stories

Just like VH1 and MTV, The Weather Channel has padded its schedule with history. Filling the gaps between this week’s flood, last week’s blizzard, and the tornado two weeks from now, Storm Stories is one of the Weather Channel’s only non-news programs:

Storm Stories focuses on the inspiring experiences of ordinary people who are placed in extraordinary circumstances due to the weather. Storm Stories features diverse programming ranging from a historical look at a typhoon that battered the Navy during WWII; to a Mid-Western family struggling to survive a tornado; to a group of snow rescuers falling victim to a deadly mountain avalanche.

The Weather Channel, presenting narrative accounts of past weather events, every night at 8 p.m.

I want my HTV?

Many people have commented on the disappearance of music from music television. Fewer people have looked closely at what has been installed in its place. Whereas music videos were once mainstays of MTV and VH1, historical programming increasingly dominates these channels, especially VH1.

The move towards historical programming at VH1 began in 1997 with Behind the Music, a program the network describes as taking, “an intimate look into the personal lives of pop music’s greatest and most influential artists, tracing their struggles, setbacks and successes in more than 150 episodes to date.” The historical orientation was made more explicit and became more entrenched with the hit series, I Love the 80s, in which:

Each one-hour episode takes viewers on a stream-of-consciousness tour of one year of the Eighties with vivid flashbacks of the people, music, movies, TV shows, products, fashions, fads, trends and major events that defined pop culture that year.

This success was followed in turn by I Love the 70s, I Love the 90s, I Love the 80s Strikes Back, I Love the 80s 3-D, and I Love the 90s Part Deux. VH1 now offers a wide range of historical programming, including Behind the Movie, Before They Were Rock Stars, Driven (a sort of celebrity hagiography), and 40 Most Awesomely Bad [blank] Songs Ever. To a lesser extent, MTV has also entered the history biz with programs such as The Social History of Hair and The Social History of Body Piercing.

I suspect that at first the music channels didn’t know it was history they were doing. But they’ve definitely caught on. The producers of one of VH1’s newest shows, When [blank] Ruled the World clearly know it:

When [blank] Ruled The World is a one-hour oral and visual history of pop culture phenomena for VH1. This is not history. This is POPhistory — the story of a cultural history as it was felt collectively by a mass culture.

So by now VH1’s producers know this kind of programming is history. But the apology implied by the use of the term “POPhistory” suggests they’re worried about calling it history lest they turn someone off. This in turn suggests that VH1’s producers think their audiences haven’t yet figured out for themselves that this stuff is history.

I’m not so sure. I suspect audiences have known it was history all along and have liked it in spite—-or perhaps because—-of that. I wonder if VH1 has any research on this.