Wednesday, August 30, 2017

On the publication of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and the rise of literacy during the Industrial Revolution

A Facebook friend posted an old link from The Economist magazine on Mary Shelley whose birthday it was. She prefaced it with "When Frankenstein was published only 10% of people could READ and WRITE, /there is a big historical tell."
The Economist,  August 30, 2016 · The author of “Frankenstein”—who was born on August 30th 1797—was marked out from the beginning. As a child, Mary Shelley was intensely interesting to intellectuals for being the creation of an anarchist political philosopher, William Godwin, and a feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft, who died—like Dr Frankenstein?— in giving life.  Mary Shelley: complex and unpredictable, a woman of hidden fires. The poet was born on this day in 1797 The Economist 
The 10% literacy rate figure grated upon what I knew of 18th and 19th c. England. So I said: That's not entirely true. It is estimated that literacy was about 12% worldwide. And how would anyone ever be able to figure that out? It's some scholar's guesstimate.

I'm sure literacy was significantly higher in Great Britain, and Ireland. People who could read, read aloud to their families. Reading aloud was a family social affair in Europe. And, thanks to John Knox's teachings, the Bible was read aloud in many households. Direct experience to the Word of God, and all that.

During the Middle Ages, in Ireland, the need for literacy became significant. Especially after the Viking invasions. True, only the learned scholarly class would have been literate. But the Irish went on to found the universities of Europe.

So I let my fingers do the walking, erm, Googling. I discovered that by the end of the 17th c., the Industrial Revolution (which began in 1760) created a new class of male readers (read how the Mechanics' Institutes, Mechanic's Museums, and Mechanic's Libraries were founded in the 1790s).

Also, concurrently when gaslight illumination was introduced in 1825, literacy went way up. The former darkness of night was suddenly illuminated. People could read by gaslight. Think how that must have changed people's lives. Gaslight changed night into day. By 1825, most middle class and upper class boys went to elementary school in England, and there was also education for the poor. By 1900, school was compulsory for all.

The rise of the serial novel drove newspaper publication as it was still expensive to produce books in the 1700s. (In France, L'Astrée ran from 1607-27, and the TEN volume Le Grand Cyrus ran from 1649–53). I'm sure they were rambling, confusing tomes. I dare say literacy rate was higher than 10% in western Europe during 1810 when Frankenstein was published.
"The wild success of Charles Dickens' The Pickwick Papers, first published in 1836, is widely considered to have established the viability and appeal of the serialized format within periodical literature... In literature, a serial is a printed format by which a single larger work, often a work of narrative fiction, is published in sequential installments. The installments are also known as numbers, parts or fascicles, and are either issued as separate publications or within sequential issues...  Serial (literature) - Wikipedia
Well, unbeknownst to me, my friend took umbrage that I: a) challenged her statement, and b) gave examples to support my thoughts. As if it were a personal affront.
She said: Depends on where you read I guess you seem to believe everything you research but facts are reported differently by different people...I used this as a teaching tool for 8th grade English Summer School for the students who had failed. The two best A+ students were from China and Mexico wow in a class of 30
Still oblivious to the fact that she was upset by my posting of facts, I replied:  And I'm sure the literacy rate was different in China as well (books were published during the T'ang Dynasty). The literacy facts are entirely dependent upon which group you're looking at. I hate sweeping generalisms, so, yes, I do tend to research to understand the story behind the sweeping 'facts'. The Industrial Revolution radically changed social customs. And reading became a critical thinking skill.

The more I delved into the literacy issue, the more, fascinated I became, and the more I uncovered. And the more I shared (I tend to revise my comments, so I don't post too many separate comments—just long ones): My bad. I was on a roll. I said: Also, in Ireland, England deliberately quashed all education for the Irish, hence the rise of scoil chois claí, or "hedgerow schools." My family was a part of that movement.
Catholic schools were forbidden under the Penal laws from 1723 to 1782...The laws aimed to force Irish Catholics of the middle classes and gentry to convert to Anglicanism if they wanted a good education in Ireland.... Subjects included primarily the reading, writing and grammar of Irish and English, and maths (the fundamental "three Rs")." Hedge Schools, —Wiki
I explained to her: You see why that 10% literacy rate figure grates...there's too much proof otherwise, to suggest that people attended school, and it was not just the aristocracy. My Irish teacher was the chair of Rhetoric at UC Berkeley, so we learned early on to ask questions, and to examine the basic tenants.

(I later discovered that according to East Yorkshire parish registers, 33% of grooms and 66% of brides in the 1750s were illiterate (60% average in England); by the 1800s that percentage dropped to 50% for women, then 0% illiteracy rate was achieved by 1900. "...many children in the eighteenth and ninteenth century could read by the age of seven or eight." University of Leeds. But, writing (like math) was taught only to boys, never to girls. So this Leeds literacy study only measured who could scribe their names, not IF they could read.)

Well, hand me down in a hand basket, she had lost her shit and claimed I was harassing her. And here I thought we were having a conversation. Silly me. My first clue that something was amiss was when she began deleting my comments. Luckily, I managed to save this paragraph. (She then attempted to undermine the veracity of my posts because I used Wiki, as if the dates would be wrong).

I reiterated: That by the time Frankenstein was published only 10% of the English-speaking populace could read, simply isn't true. Look up the foundation of the Mechanics' Institutes, about the time Mary Shelley was born...main emphasis? Reading. Libraries. Books. Periodicals. The Industrial Revolution changed literacy rates. That has nothing to do with the veracity (or lack of) of Wikipedia. Dates are fairly accurate.

She then messaged me: Please stop trying to undermine my osts  (stet)

Stunned, I replied: Got it! Truth be known, I don't necessarily note whose post it is when I reply, so I didn't notice it was yours. If you post it in the newstream, it is a public forum, BTW. So, I'm no longer "following" you which means I won't see your posts in my newsfeed. That should resolve the problem. Done!
Her reply: Just drop me as a friend ever heard of rounding off to the nearest 10 Actually you made me feel HARASSSED in your mind you are the winner...I have a different style  (And this woman is a teacher.)
I had to laugh as it was a case of coming full circle, and said to her: Well, you also harassed me every single time I posted in the traditional Irish music group. So I just gave up. I guess it all depends upon the context. It's not about winning or losing. My intent was not to harass, but to share. And for that I do apologize. It was not my intent.

I was responding to an unsupported fact that was wildly inaccurate. I said: I didn't even know it was your page. It said The Economist on it. A repost. I assume the 10% figure was from The Economist?

FWIW, By the time Frankenstein was published in 1818, lots of people could read...because of the Industrial Revolution, and the rise of the Mechanic's Institutes. (Glasgow was in the forefront). Mostly men belonged to these clubs, mind you, but that was also during the era of the wildly popular serial novel. Newspapers flourished. It was a very literate time. People were not illiterate troglodytes like the 10% figure suggested...

Anyway, not too sure why you're so upset as it's not your original post but The Economist is a known right-wing rag that often skews facts to the point of clickbait. 

I mused on: I guess one could count Maria Edgeworth's first historical novel, Castle Rackrent as the forerunner to widespread popularity of English historical fiction (1800)....because she published a 2nd book the next year! And a 3rd book in 1805. Wow. And of course, Jane Austen began publishing as well.

It always amazes me, as those books were writing in longhand with goose quill pens. At first I hated 18th c. literature, but as I began to learn of the era, my opinions changed. I grew to like Castle Rackrent. Thaddy's line Yes sor! for sir (it meant louse, in Irish).

I said to her: I know you don't like Wiki, I also don't lean on its veracity, but it's a copyright-free handy reference for dates. Check out the 1800 in literature link. See what was being published in 1800, or 1810 or 1818 Not only Mary Shelley, but also Maria Edgeworth, Jane Austen, and Walter Scott—not to mention the poets Gordon Ramsey, aka Lord Byron, and PB Shelley).

It really gives a wider perspective of the era. Lots of books were being published, which means people were buying them. (Over a hundred books of fiction were published in ten years (1800-10), not counting all the children's books, and non-fiction). Doesn't sound like an illiterate populace to me. (The reason why Scotland became literate earlier during the Enlightenment, was because of John Knox wanting the populace to read the Bible first-hand.)

Well, I guess I should thank her for this rather one-sided exchange, because because in my trying to over-explain (and support) why I thought that unsubstantiated fact was just plain wrong, I seem to have the makings of a blog post. Who knew?

And her loud response was to unfriend me. I guess my apology was not accepted. She is now a former Facebook friend. Apparently she's not too keen on facts or differing viewpoints. Oh bhuell.


FWIW, this transcript is, for the most part, verbatim. I added transitions and explanations for clarity. Thanks to Margaret Maugham for the Coffee Party Movement meme!

Wednesday, August 23, 2017



Rather than living in a Confederacy of Dunces,
it seems as if we are living in a nation of idiots
with a jester-in-chief & there's no consolation prize.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

My morning resting bitch face

In my nicest morning (I'm not awake) resting bitch face, I explained to a neighbor who had blocked the driveway to the garages with her car without leaving a note, that my partner didn't know it was her car, and so, had to park the car way down the hill, as it's a cleaning day.

As I was explaining the situation, (I was sweeping the steps) and not gratuitously grinning at her at the same time, she snarled, and called me a bitch. And when I laughed it off, while still sweeping the steps, it made her madder yet.

Apparently I am also a troll. And I haven't even had my second cuppa tea yet. Now, the resting bitch face is the real deal. And the steps and driveway are really, really clean! LOL. The thing is, I was actually very restrained (for me). She has no idea of what I'm capable of....heh. I tend to avoid conflict. Until I don't. Then I'm all in. Next time, I'll just be my usual snarlly self. Save the bother.

She was spoiling for a fight. She's always been rude to me whenever I say hi, so I no longer interact. She actually said I was messing with the wrong woman. I said Likewise, I'm sure. 

I believe self-righteous indignation is the mantle she's wearing. I needed to step out of the verbal circle sooner, even though she was the aggressor. I think she wasn't expecting me to talk back. Now that makes me laugh!

And ultimately it has to do with the fact that I don't readily engage in the rules of superficial social etiquette. Yeah, and I don't do small talk well on a good day....  At least not before my third cuppa. She's never liked me, which doesn't help matters. Because she's been rude in the past, I often act like she's not there—but I do mutter under my breath....

We're 10 cottages sharing the same driveway, but she doesn't have a garage, so her parking in the driveway to avoid a cleaning ticket, I get. But not the rudeness. She thought I was rude. So it was a preemptive strike on her part. But I could care less. Which made her madder yet, hence the taunts. As if name-calling actually worked.

I didn't say anything denigrating, or hostile, not even once. I just refused to engage in her rules. And yes, I do talk to myself, I mutter under my breath...which drove her nuts. Apparently she didn't get the message that I was born under a sarcastic sign. I'm not a fire dragon for nothing. It's a good thing she's not the thought police. Or she would've really gotten a real earful.

Must be the post eclipse-alistic blues, or there are far too many planets in retrograde.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Bread & Roses certificate of appreciation

I worked for Bread & Roses at the end of the 1970s through the early 1980s; I've been singing in the holiday chorus for nearly a decade, and I sometimes volunteer at the booth at the Kate Wolf Festival. This is the first time I've ever received a certificate of appreciation. Wow! Thrilled. Tickled, even. Ironic, also, in that I was the resident in-house calligrapher for Mimi Fariña, and times have evolved since then. Now a Mac can mimic calligraphy. My calligraphy teacher was a student of Lloyd Reynolds. Another odd note: Steve Jobs attended Lloyd Reynolds' calligraphy classes at Reed, which impressed him so much, that it became the design face of Macs, ushering in the desktop revolution. Full circle.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Gettin' jiggy with 23andme

On DNA testing and the idea racial "purity", it seems that many of the alt-right folks have some bones to pick with DNA genetic sequencers upon finding, shall we say, alt-white in their family trees. Call it family weeds and grafts on the old family tree. Or alt-right vs. alt-white in the family tree. Gettin' jiggy with 23andme.
...if you traffic in alt-right circles, proving your ‘whiteness’ is essential. ...members of the movement are using genetic testing to “prove their whiteness” to win bragging rights within the movement and establish their place in the American white elite. —23andMe: Alt-right mistaken, DNA tests can’t ‘prove their whiteness’
White nationalists are flocking to genetic ancestry tests to prove their superior whiteness so they can be bona-fide -toting members of the big-daddy white supremacist racist organization, Stormfront, that promulgates racial hatred. But some Alt-rightists don’t like what they find. So they keep retesting or reinterpreting the findings until they get the results they want. One way of coping with extra family tree branches is to reject all genetic ancestry testing with the mirror test:
(“When you look in the mirror, do you see a Jew? If not, you’re good”) were better tests of racial purity, some suggested. Others offered up conspiracies about DNA testing companies led by Jews: “I think 23andMe might be a covert operation to get DNA the Jews could then use to create bio-weapons for use against us.” —When White Nationalists Get DNA Tests That Reveal African Ancestry
But my personal favorite is this one:
“Sweetheart, you have a little black in you,” the talk show host Trisha Goddard told Craig Cobb. But that didn’t stop him from redoing the test with a different company, trying to alter or parse the data until it matched his racist worldview." —White nationalists are flocking to genetic ancestry tests. Some don’t like what they find
The Irish, and the Italians were once considered to be alt-white and denied citizenship based upon race and religion. Add Portuguese, Poles, Spanish and Greeks to that list. (Or any Catholic, or Jewish immigrant group.) 

But what's most frightening is how the accuracy of the DNA test results are are explained away with a distorted white-nationalist interpretation of history. "For example, the mixing of DNA in a region would be explained by the heroic conquest of Vikings. Or a white female ancestor was raped by an African man." (White Nationalists) Call it alt-history After the election of Trump, the ultra right-wing white supremacists are crawling out of the woodwork and they are swarming. Where will they land next?

Oh, how the world burns.
from a FB post, rev. 8/19

Monday, August 14, 2017


He said: I will break
you. Too late, I am shattered
well beyond repair.

But I'm the willow
resilient stems weeping
on the farthest shore.

I spend the morning
writing of Paul's last concert.
We knew all the words.

Now I've none at all
Summer fog filled with useless
tears, laden with anguish.

His apology
like spitting in the ocean.
Sky mirrors my thoughts.

White bridge, a life-line
shrouded shore of no return.
Barricaded heart.

An act of selfless
preservation, or fear?
Run from the enemy.

Who says: I will break
you, expecting no resistance?
The picket line crossed.

I have no words left.
No tears to soften the heart,
this final trespass.


Friday, August 11, 2017


Classmate Steve Tristano in Oregon 1952-2015

We were in 2nd grade, Mrs Burge had left the room,
Lennie's son, Steve Tristano climbed up
onto the piano bench to bang out a boogie woogie,
we were all rocking out—until she returned.
Busted. Instead of praising him, she raged
and let out an anachronic scream
that ripped open the fabric of the universe.
The planets cowered as Steve took the brunt of her anger.
In that way, we knew jazz was bad, very bad.
A siren call, a farewell to arms. An addiction.
And with that, Steve slipped off his moorings a bit—
the descent into darkness had begun.


Tristano & Son (Amie Street)
Sutton & Tristano

Defiant Fruitcakes

Filed under "Lost Desserts" Hundred-Year-Old Antarctic Fruitcake Found in 'Excellent Condition Conservators with Antarctic Heritage Trust have uncovered a perfectly preserved fruitcake that dates back to Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated Terra Nova expedition, which began in 1910.
A curious headline made me think of my Victorian grandmother who made fruitcake, or steamed pudding, every fall for Christmas gifts. It did seem like they would keep forever. I guess that Hundred-Year-Old Antarctic Fruitcake Found in 'Excellent Condition is proof enough.

When the nights began to draw in, my grandmother would haul out the dried fruit she had stockpiled in the closet, usually three types of raisins, including tiny tart currants, and golden sultanas; sometimes she had dried figs, prunes, or Medjool dates; candied ginger, and the prerequisite jars of preserved glacéed fruit—a mixture of citrus, citron (candied melon peel) and candied cherries. (She used to make glacéed fruit from scratch—I remember helping her make candied orange rinds.) She'd gather kidney suet for the lard. And a bottle of port.

We'd crack pecans and walnuts from 25-pound bags, tossing the buggy ones in the fire along with the shells. They'd sizzle and hiss like snakes as we gazed into the fire while she told me stories.

In Ireland, Valencia oranges were a special Christmas gift. They arrived from Spain wrapped in foil, and were cherished right down to the rind. Dried raisins and nuts were hard to come by, and spices were a luxury few could afford, so women hoarded the ingredients, when they could get them, for that special steamed Christmas pudding or wedding cake. In Ireland, wedding cakes are traditionally fruitcakes: a symbol of wealth and abundance.

The key ingredients of the fruitcake were part of a curious family history. They were foot soldiers marching in an act of defiance against unjust land laws. During the 1920s, Asians and Indians, ineligible for US citizenship, couldn't own farmland in California. This made my Irish grandfather angry, so he bought farmland in Fresno for his friend Jahn Singh, and held the land title to circumvent the unjust alien land laws. 

Every autumn Jahn Singh remembered our family with bushels of fruits and nuts.  My grandmother would receive crates of oranges, raisins, pecans and walnuts as payment for the Fresno farmland that my grandfather had bought for Jahn. 

When the anti-Japanese California Alien Land Laws of 1913, and of 1920, also known as the Webb-Haney Act, were repealed in the 1950s, my grandfather turned the land title over to Jahn Singh. 
The law prohibited "aliens ineligible for citizenship " from owning agricultural land or possessing long-term leases over it. It affected the Chinese, Indian, Japanese, and Korean immigrant farmers in California....The California Alien Land Law of 1920 continued the 1913 law filling many of its loopholes... the leasing of land for a period of three years or less was no longer allowed; owning of stock in companies that acquired agricultural land was forbidden; and guardians or agents of ineligible aliens were required to submit an annual report on their activities. —Wiki
Something ancient was evoked as my grandmother assembled the ingredients. Making fruitcake was a many day affair, from making the candied fruit, to shelling the nuts, and soaking the dried fruit.

My grandmother soaked the dried fruit overnight in port, or rum. Next morning, she sifted the flour with baking soda, and a litany of spices (equal parts cinnamon, ginger, and a scant measurement of nutmeg, allspice, clove and mace) to coat the dried fruit and nutmeats. Then she doused the dry mixture with a mixture of creamed butter, eggs, brown sugar and molasses. During Prohibition, bootleg whiskey was used to soak the dried fruit if a bottle port couldn't be finagled from the church stores.

My grandmother mixed the ingredients up with her large knotted hands in vast ceramic vats, standing over them like a field marshall. The round, and half round cake pans were already well greased and the bottoms lined with oiled brown paper bags.

She filled the cake pans to the brim (fruitcake doesn't rise), tamping them down on the table with soft thuds to dislodge any air bubbles. Then she placed the cakes in three tiers on tall racks inside the vast aluminum canning pot half-filled with water. The canning pot was a modern day version of the cauldron. It double-trouble, boiled and bubbled. 

The fruitcakes were steamed atop the stove for several hours, they were never baked in the oven. The stem vent atop the canning pot lid, with its three roller latches, chattered a little song and dance into the evening hours as I drew pictures with my finger on the steamy kitchen windows dripping with condensation. By the way, fruitcake, a steamed pudding, is a medieval dish, pretty much unchanged across the centuries. 

Once the fruitcakes (or steamed pudding) had cooled overnight, there was a bathing ritual (in whiskey) a swaddling ritual (wrapped in thin muslin or in cheesecloth) and a cloaking ritual (in tinfoil), before they were placed in their air-tight Christmas tins. They needed to be carefully tended during the first few months, dressed and bathed every few days until they ripened. She kept a few extra fruitcakes on hand to ripen, as fruitcake was deemed best when it was left to ripen (or ferment) at least 3 months, to a year, or longer. A union of space and time.

Fruitcake (aka figgy pudding) was never eaten fresh from the steamer. The flavors needed time to mellow and meld into a rich marriage of spiced goodness. Months, years, even. She had a few fruitcake that were ancient. Not 100 years old, but old enough. The time-defying secret was in the ritual bathing in booze. Fruitcakes were unwrapped to receive an annual anniversary bath of booze to preserve them, then rewrapped, placed in tins, and stored in dark cupboards. And later, the back of the refrigerator.

Whenever unexpected guests came over, she'd bring out thin slices of the dense, boozy, nut-studded fruitcake, along with the pot of Irish tea and whiskey. The thin fruitcake slices were like a rich mosaic of stained glass panes on the shining plates, Sadly, they wouldn't touch the fruitcake, perhaps thinking it was the commercial American version, a baked sawdust hockey-puck affair, studded with plastic candied citron and day-glo cherries, so she eventually quit making it. And I never thought to ask her for the recipe.

How did the fruitcake, something once so opulent, and made with love, become such a hated symbol of the holidays? The substitution of facsimile ingredients: rancid nuts, inferior dried fruit, and the prerequisite jars of commercial glacéed fluorescent fruit that swept the market during the 60s and 70s, directly led to the fruitcake's fall from grace. The honeymoon was over. Americans said, Let's call the whole thing off. Another tradition bit the dust. And the very word was beggared and denigrated to an insult of insanity: She's a real fruitcake.

It must've made my grandmother sad to let go of such a venerable tradition, to let die a family labor of love that was passed down the generations from her mother, and her mother's mother, in Ireland. A family heirloom. I still collect the fruitcake tins, though I haven't made a fruitcake, ever. None of my cousins would dream of making fruitcake today, My mother was not domestic, and all my aunts are gone now... no one left to carry on the tradition.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Mill Valley's Unknown Museum and the Gluers Junk Art Movement

Embedded in my hitchhiking blog post, was a small story on the Unknown Museum, time for its own post, something i've been resisting for years—then I found the old photos. This is still very much in progress... Also, I found some slides I took and I scanned them. I'll need to add them in. But you can visit the gallery I made on my Facebook page Nico Morris was able to ID most of the work.
In 1969, on the long coattails of the Summer of Love, at the age of 22, eccentric LA artist Mickey McGowan moved to Sausalito with nothing more than the proverbial shirt on his back. Penniless, he shared a studio with a friend, Rat Soup, at the Sausalito Art Center for $80 a month. 

"A lot of us had our first shows there, myself with my drawings. Rat Soup with his sculpture." To make ends meet, he slept in his car, or sometimes in the studio, and worked at the Trident kitchen for chickenfeed. "Every night Miles would stroll in and Janis, or Crosby, the mainstays of the place." (Marin Nostalgia). My mom, who was working at the Trident, between theater performances, said even Perry Como used to drop in. And of course, the Limelighters All, were in situ.

McGowan, taught himself to make shoes, called himself the Apple Cobbler, and set up a funky little shop in downtown Mill Valley in 1973, and soon was court shoemaker to the rockstars (Grateful Dead, the Doobie Brothers, The Tubes, Journey), artists, and fashionistas. His wild hand-stitched leather boots and quirky one-of-a-kind brocade boots festooned with doll heads and toy tanks were in high demand. 

Mickey also made non-functional art shoes. (Combat Boot Stepping Out Shoes in World Culture, on exhibit at SFO International Terminal until Nov. 12, 2017.) Mickey was a Marin City flea market regular, often seen collecting kitsch for his art shoes and assemblage art. The small accumulations of ephemera and knick-knacks decorating the shop corners soon became a monstrous collection threatening to engulf the shop.

Around 1974, McGowan, in need of larger digs, moved into an old 
radiator shop at 35 Corte Madera Ave., at the corner of Lovell, across from City Hall, in Mill Valley to house what later was dubbed "the world's largest private collection of pop cultural artifacts" (Paul Liberatore). He also took over Ted’s Richfield gas station next door. Mickey shared his low-rent garage-atilier ($200 a month) with a motley collective of psychedelic-era glue artists, and the Unknown Museum was born.

Mickey had teamed up with other like-minded junk artists, later dubbed “gluers” or glue-artists, Larkspur artist Dickens "44" Bascom, Larry Fuente, and David Best at the Sausalito Art Center. 

I remember meeting them at the annual Sausalito Art Fair, held at the closed Bayside School—where the glue artists made a big splash when they lined a toilet bowl with copper pennies. And yes, it worked. The toilet made a serious impression on me as I really had to go. Pennies from heaven. (In those days the 65-year-old Labor Day festival was more of a funkadelic extension of the Marin City flea market, than the swanky affair it is today.)

Used with permission from David E. Gilbert's Lost Marin post on Facebook

My first recollection of the Unknown Museum was when it was firmly housed in the stucco automotive garage circa 1976. The roof was crenulated with 1950s-style TVs anchored along the ramparts. Mysterious banks of TV sets were o
vergrown with nasturtiums and electrical cords dangled down like roots. A decomposed teddy bear was caught napping too long in the baby carriage by a leafy green spear of dandelion blooming from his navel. A life-sized Colonel Sanders in front reigned over his court. A flying horse sign. The only thing missing was a Doggie Diner dog.

A bejeweled mannequin with a crown of antlers greeted the brave visitor at the door. Inside, you were assaulted by all manner of weirdness: there were stacks of tin lunch boxes, stuffed animals pickled in formaldehyde jars, homages to white bread. A large doll covered with spikes in a traveling trunk. A twist on the proverbial bed of nails. 

The visceral impact of seeing so much 20th c. detritus, everything in multiples, was overwhelming. Everywhere you turned there was also an invisible cloudbank of metaphors waiting to be plucked from the air. Mandalas made of bullets, toy cars, lighters, pens and pencils, bloomed like supernovae on what little wall space there wasA tower of dead clocks. A school of plastic sharks swam in a dry aquarium, other aquariums filled with toy water pistols, armies of GI Joes and Mr. Potato Heads. 

Broken TVs doubled as curio and diorama display spaces. McGowan said he had something like 300 TVs, many of them often blaring at the same time. Art was an act of resistance. We were confronted with bureaus transformed into nostalgic altars to JFK and Camelot, deep fur-lined drawers with tableau elegies to the massive backdrop of Vietnam, the fallout from Reganomics, and the threat of nuclear war. 

The museum was also home to a full-sized découpage fiberglass horse, along with odd metaillic otherworldly creatures that were vacuum cleaners in a former life. Another toilet lined with an assortment of coins at the back of the store looked like it also served as a de facto coin purse during more desperate times. 

I remember a very large record collection, 10,000 albums, and that's not counting the 45s; an eclectic musical archive, more records than one could listen to in a lifetime (I only owned a few records), and the impish gluer Mickey McGowan himself, a blue-eyed son in horn-rimmed glasses, presiding over his mad-hatterly realm. 

Gowan, in Irish, means smithy, as in the Goibniu, an alchemist god who forged iron from dirt. Mac means "son of." Mickey was a true son of the great Goibniu, the Tuatha Dé Danann patron god of blacksmiths. He hammer and tonged art from the most unlikely of things, making art from detritus. He was also a son of Lugh, patron god of shoemakers, the god of both skill and the distribution of talent. And we all know that Leprechauns are cobblers.

Declutter was not in his vocabulary.You might say he had highly refined hoarding instinct skills. A fertile garden for the mind bordering on the nightmarish guaranteed to haunt your dreams. But the controlled chaos was also very zen-like. Mickey arranged ordinary objects according to thematic structure, aesthetic sensibility, and often with humor. Because of Dickens and Mickey, arranging random objects is something I do to this day.

Mickey McGowan said in an Image Magazine interview: "I always thought that if your mom threw it away, the Unknown Museum was the place to come. Once I tried to create a sort of Zen space there, a room that was spare and austere, but when I'd go in there I'd go nuts wondering what I should put in. Gor me the perfect Zen space is jammed with all kinds of stuff. Zen is all one, isn't it? Well this is all one, the purity of allness." (Cabinet of Wonders).

The Unknown Museum was the place where one man's trash was magically transformed another one's art. It was an amalgam of Americana, or an "assemblage of American life," as Mickey dubbed it. Art masterpieces were created from the recycled detritus collected from the discards of American consumerism. The artist movement
was spearheaded by a group called the Moligator Manufacturing Company, the Northern Frog Works. They met and exchanged gluable materials like costume jewelry, rubber mice, teeth, baby heads, tennis balls, bottle caps, plastic salt shakers and beyond. Dickens Bascom, a noted northern California gluer, looked forward to the day when he could join other gluers and purchase a large office building and decorate it in their fashion. “I’m determined to do it,” he says. “I think it’s something people need.” —Art Car Central
The Unknown Museum became a counter-culture pilgrimage site (along with the Garden of Allah), where artists and the likes of John Beluchi and Bill Graham dropped in to check out the weirdness. It became a Sunday afternoon destination outing. I imagined zen beatnik Alan Watts, who championed disengaging from the past to live in the moment, also visiting and laughing his great laugh, as he lived down the street at the time. When queried about Watts' idea of the past and time present, Mickey said:
To deny the past would be foolish it seems to me, because it’s what you’ve lived – you can’t change it. You should accept what lessons you’ve learned and what’s gone on, and of course, look to the future....
As we sit here in this room now we have to think of the present, what’s happening. But we’re affected by the past and consequently we’re going to affect the future.... The past is a great teacher. (Donnakova interview)
Almost famous: The Unknown Museum was featured on Bay Area Backroads, and in museum guides, including Art in America. The Unknown Museum posthumously became the nostalgic darling of myriad articles, books, films, and television news spots, long after the museum met its ironic demise in 1984, when the old radiator shop was purchased by Smith and Hawken and morphed into an upscale nursery and garden shop. From proverbial eyesore to gentrification in one fell swoop. There went the neighborhood in more ways than one.

McGowan hauled his cargo of Americana to a rambling ranch-style house up the street
at 243 E. Blithedale Ave (now condos). I remember the gates were made of discarded skis. Bowling ball brooded in nests. The museum was off the beaten path, less accessible, but a sign, "This is your life" greeted you at the entrance. And it was true. It was what you made of it. (photos)

I'm not quite sure how I wound up with several pairs of skis, to carry on the slippery slope of collection. Or how much the museum impacted my own art. I recently found a cigar box art from my class with Inez Storer's class, lined with white rabbit fur. The Unknown Museum was something to behold with all its repurposed Americana detritus as iconography—the ultimate recycler's wetdream. But that too came to an end.

What survives the Unknown Museum are images frozen on film. Arrested time. The trashman cometh and he taketh away. Recycled technology. One man's garbage. Out of the rubbish heap, a phoenix circles the place of its birth. Glittering birds of memory.

The Unknown Museum closed its doors for good in 1989, and some 50 truckloads later, McGowan moved, with proverbial lock, stock, and barrel to San Rafael.The curious contents of the museum are shoaled up in a large old Victorian house that McGowan bought San Rafael, and to this day, vintage stuff continues to accumulate in every corner. According to Marin IJs Paul Liberatore:
He still collects every day, making a living liquidating estate sales and buying, selling and trading rare books, manuscripts, "ephemera" and neglected recordings of weird folk songs, bird calls and sound effects that he stores in a nearby warehouse. —Unknown Museum lives on, privately
McGowan may no longer be in the public eye, he gave up cobbling shoes, but he does rent out 50s-70s furniture and memorabilia to local film production companies. He also exhibited a collection of installations at the Falkirk Cultural Center in San Rafael in 1994. Mickey was also a curator for "Take Two: Refuse, Rescued & Re-created," at the O'Hanlon Center for the Arts in Mill Valley in 2009. The tradition has been passed onto the next generation of junk artists in the exhibit. Said Mickey:
"The Unknown Museum began by recycling and re-using things and paying attention to what we're discarding," McGowan noted. "It evolved into pop culture, but that was later.... We made our contribution as a matrix for the creative spirit," he said of the Unknown Museum and the "glue artists" he worked with, among them David Best, Dickens Bascom and the late Lois Anderson. –Exhibit of 55 recycled, reused artworks gets once-over from Mill Valley's Unknown Museum's ex-curator
When asked why he collected things by Marin Nostalgia, Mickey answered: "It’s a relaxant much like, perhaps, a mental Xanax. And that’s therapeutic. It’s cheaper and healthier. You don’t get the drugs in your system…" Mickey cobbled his last shoe in 1979. He said the glue was getting to him, he didn't charge enough money for his work.

Mickey's co-curator, Dickens Bascom (photo) is reportedly back in Marin after long sojourn on a small island near Costa Rica or Panama. (His recent work was exhibited at Sol Food in San Rafael a few years ago), Larry Fuente was spotted in Mendocino, and last seen slouching toward west Texas in an art car. David Best can be found in situ at Burning Man each fall when he's not at his Petaluma ranch on Sonoma Mountain.

Meanwhile, McGowan still dreams of resurrecting a new Unknown Museum at a new site. What brave new dreams may come of it, who knows?

Whatever happened to this silly creature?


Long before Burning Man, art cars were commonplace in Marin during the 1960s. The Merry Pranksters' school bus, Further was one trippy ride. I speak from personal experience. We saw a lot of Janis Joplin's a psychedelic painted white Porsche convertible, as she lived on my road. She never gave us a ride. But she'd always wave, her hair flying wildly behind her. To be fair, it was only a two-seater.

Most of the VW buses with their peace symbols hiding the VW logo, tooling up and down Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, were constantly evolving works of art. And they always braked for hitchhikers.

The Unknown Museum was the unofficial watering hole for art cars in need of a touch-up or a make-over. Dickens "44" Bascom's Ford Falcon mosaic art car was a moving mandala with a stupa on top. Apparently Dickens "44" Bascom, whom I called Dick, was born on the 44th day of 1944 at 44 minutes past 4:00 AM. The man famous for being a curator of the Unknown Museum and the car with a 1000 soles.

An old Rambler station wagon filled with doll's heads, and a vintage black Fiat chock-full of stuffed toys and imprisoned dolls with their faces pressed against the glass, were permanently parked out front of the Unknown Museum garage.

On the defunct Art Car Central website & Pinterest

Dickens Bascom's Ford Falcon car had sole, a lot of soles, actually. About a thousand crepe rubber sneaker soles standing in as scales on the fins.  It also had a resident typewriter ensconced on the trunk, which still worked, I once composed a ditty on it when it was parked outside the hardware store in Fairfax. He sometimes gave me a lift to Fairfax where he lived, when I was hitching home to Forest Knolls. I once gave him a bag full of my brother's broken toys to mend his car as some of the toys had fallen off. People used to toss coins into it, as if it were a wishing well, which took care of the gas money.

Bascom himself (gleaned from M. Kathryn Thompson, Facebook)
The Desert Sun, Palm Springs, CA 15 Feb 1974  • Page 44

David Best, a friend from ceramics class, told me about a chia-seed sprout covered Oldsmobile. He said they couldn't drive the car very fast. Late at night the deer came down to graze on the car. David said they were constantly repairing the bald spots from the deer's late night picnics. The burly bison head hood ornament didn't scare them off. And you had to water the car to keep the chia seed alive—this was during the drought.

One day, David invited me over to the Unknown Museum to take photos of his latest art car. David decoupaged an entire vintage ’50s Cadillac. The hood ornament was a water buffalo head with red eyes. The flanks of the car were lined with broken mirrors, like a Matisse study of light on water.

The Fiat stuffed with Disney toys and Barbie dolls, didn't run, but David's Caddy did—we sat in it, but I never got a ride in it. It was an occupational hazard to ride in an art car and expect to get to your destination.

That Cadillac was like a homage to water. A Las Pulgas water temple on wheels. This was during the great Marin County water drought, which rode hot on the heels of the great gas shortage. 

The sides of that gas-hog were of faceted glass and on the mink-lined back seat, plastic ketchup bottles, stuffed toys, rubber ducks, and toasters were chauffeured about in style.

Myriad mirrored prisms followed me as I circled the car. I was taking photos of my own reflections. It was a vast fragmented kinetic jigsaw puzzle. 

I was sufficiently blown away by the sheer magnitude of stuff ensconced on every available surface. The incredible attention to detail was overwhelming. These cars were glued together with resin and epoxy. Superglue hadn't yet been invented. At least I remembered to take some photos.

Perhaps the biggest surprise were the happy toasters nestled like lovebirds in the backseat. Thus began my career as a curiosity correspondent, and an arranger of things.

I'm not sure when these photos were taken, somewhere between 1973 and 1977.  Mickey McGowan said that the museum wasn't founded until 1974. I went to College of Marin until 1973. I returned for a few classes at CoM, as I didn't like San Francisco State, I dropped out, and was transitioning to Sonoma State by 1976-77. So, other than the horse, which I clearly dated on my photo album, the photos are anywhere from 1973 -1976ish. I also have slides awaiting digital somewhere. 


One time, Dickens Bascom and Larry Fuente hauled the decoupaged life-size model horse out to a pond where the Dollar house once stood—on the San Geronimo Golf Course in the winter of 1977. Luckily I had my camera with me (and a fresh roll of Kodachrome) so, I stuck around. 

Larry and Dickens did a great Lady Godiva number at sunset. The girl wore a red cape and had a lot of red hair. Not much else. Commuters returning from in town nearly drove off the road, when they spotted her. With that kind of horsepower, I'm sure some were muttering about looking under the hood. Alas, I don't have any photos of Lady Godiva on the horse, perhaps I was too shy, but I did manage to get a few shots of the horse.

Larry Fuente & Dickens Bascom tacking up the horse.

You can see the foreleg and chest of the horse inside the Unknown Museum in this photo which was probably taken between 1974 and 1977.

I never got a photo of Dickens' art car, but I did manage to document his horse at the San Geronimo Golf Course. Sadly Long's Drugs Kodak developer sliced all my negatives in two lengthwise. I was able to salvage a few sliced photos (magically healed with a cloning tool). I don't actually know if the horse was Larry's or Dickens' creation. (Or both.) But Dickens and I were friends of sorts, so I mostly related to him.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

A reflection on Women & Technology: James Damore's Google Manifiasco

It seems yet another Facebook post got the better of me (but not bested me), and my comments have manifestoed and manifestered into fodder for a blog post of sorts.

Wow! When I read Google engineer James Damore's Google manifesto argued that biological differences make women less apt to perform in the tech industry, I saw red. Biology has nothing to do with a lack of women in technology. Why it's a hot issue is because Damore's so-called 'manifesto" advances patently incorrect assumptions about harmful gender stereotypes. 

I have several relatives who are/were forefront in the field of technology. A cousin, key mathematician on the Manhattan Project, an aunt who did programming for IBM back in the early 1960s, cousins who work/ed for Apple, Pixar, Dropbox, etc. I happen to fix (or rebuild) the computers, and problem-solve all the software issues in our household, and for family and friends too. Not my male partner.

So, I'm quite sure competent women in the technology field are not an anomaly, nor the only reason why they're in the industry is solely because of equality, or affirmative action, as Damore suggests in his ten-page Alt-rightish manifesto. Alas it's couched with a request to open up dialogue—after taking potshots at women in general. The reason for the low numbers of women in the technology workplace is about discrimination at the grassroots level.

And for the record, among the first to create a computer program, to create a compiler, and create object-oriented programming were women. (See my list below).

BTW, I'm taking some flack over on Facebook from a few men for daring to counter their perceived male enclave, and swim with their sharktank mentality. One asshat had the audacity to ask me to stop posting on my own FB thread, thinking that I couldn't possibly a) have read said manifesto, and b) didn't understand or comprehend what it said.

I object to Damore's use of absurd clichéd gendered stereotypes to support his argument that enough women aren't in the technology field.Biology is not the reason why there are fewer women in the technology field. Discrimination is. 

KQED News, SF Gate, and Tech Insider paraphrased, but did not publish the memo, which you can read on Gizmodo, along with prefaces and an interesting epigram. What was more enlightening was a post from Yonatan Zunger, former senior Google employee: 
"So it seems that someone has seen fit to publish an internal manifesto about gender and our “ideological echo chamber.” I think it’s important that we make a couple of points clear.
(1) Despite speaking very authoritatively, the author does not appear to understand gender.
(2) Perhaps more interestingly, the author does not appear to understand engineering.
(3) And most seriously, the author does not appear to understand the consequences of what he wrote, either for others or himself.

It’s true that women are socialized to be better at paying attention to people’s emotional needs and so on — this is something that makes them better engineers, not worse ones. ...
And this is addressed specifically to the author of this manifesto.

What you just did was incredibly stupid and harmful. You just put out a manifesto inside the company arguing that some large fraction of your colleagues are at root not good enough to do their jobs, and that they’re only being kept in their jobs because of some political ideas.  Read the entire rebuttal at Medium.
(With much thanks to BizTech Insider's excellent article: Mothers of Technology: 10 Women Who Invented and Innovated in Tech)

Among the first to create a computer program, to create a compiler, and create object-oriented programming were women (in no particular order):
  • Ada Lovelace invented the world’s first computer algorithm. Lovelace was hired by Charles Babbage in 1843, to document his never-to-be-realized “computer,” the Analytical Engine, intended to count Bernoulli numbers. 
"Many persons who are not conversant with mathematical studies imagine that because the business of [Babbage’s Analytical Engine] is to give its results in numerical notation, the nature of its processes must consequently be arithmetical and numerical, rather than algebraical and analytical. This is an error. The engine can arrange and combine its numerical quantities exactly as if they were letters or any other general symbols; and in fact it might bring out its results in algebraical notation, were provisions made accordingly,” —Ada Lovelace
  • Dr. Erna Hoover invented a telephony switching computer program that kept phone lines functioning under stressful loads. Her 1971 patent for telephony technology was one of the first software patents ever issued. She developed on her idea while in the hospital after the birth of her second daughter. 
  • Common Business-Oriented Language, based on the FLOW-MATIC language, was invented by Grandma COBOL, Grace Hopper. Hopper was the first person to create a compiler for a programming language and one of the first programmers of the Mark I computer in 1949. The programmers of the ENIAC computer, were six women mathematicians; Marlyn Meltzer, Betty Holberton, Kathleen Antonelli, Ruth Teitelbaum, Jean Bartik, and Frances Spence. Adele Goldstine was one of the teachers and trainers of the six original programmers of the ENIAC computer in 1944. Hopper also popularized the term "debugging" from a moth fowling up the works. 
  • During WWII, Hedy Lamarr and composer George Antheil developed an Allied torpedo anti-jamming radio guidance system which utilized a spread spectrum and frequency hopping technology to defeat tampering by the Axis powers. The US Navy did not adopt the technology until the 1960s, but the principles were incorporated into Bluetooth technology, and legacy versions of CDMA and Wi-Fi.
  • Margaret Heafield Hamilton was Director of the Software Engineering Division of MIT Instrumentation Laboratory, which developed on-board flight software for the Apollo space program. In 1986, she founded Hamilton Technologies, Inc. The Universal Systems Language was based on her paradigm of Development Before the Fact (DBTF) for systems and software design.
  • Adele Goldberg was one of seven programmers that developed Smalltalk in the 1970s, one of the first object-oriented programming languages, and the base of today's current graphic user interface. Smalltalk was utilized by Apple to launch Lisa in 1983, and Macintosh in 1984. Windows 1.0 was launched in 1985. 
  • IT trailblazer Barbara Liskov of MIT, invented CLU, a programming language that was the foundation for object-oriented programming; Argus, a programming language, an extension of CLU, that supports distributed programs; and Thor, an object-oriented database system. Which led to the invention of Mac OS X, Objective-C, Visual Basic.NET and Java. 
  • Another object-oriented language, Simula 67, was created by Kristen Nygaard and Ole-Johan Dahl of the Norwegian Computing Center in Oslo. 
  • In 1985 Radia Perlman developed Ethernet technology. Her Spanning Tree Protocol (STP) made it possible to build massive networks by creating an innovative mesh network of layer-2 bridges—by disabling the links not part of that tree. This had a significant impact on network switches, thus making Perlman the Mother of the Internet. She has done extensive and innovative research, in the field of encryption and networking. 
  • Mary Lou Jepsen co-founded and served as chief technology officer of MicroDisplay in 1995, and created the small display screen. She also headed the display division at Intel, until she co-founded One Laptop Per Child. She invented the X O, the lowest-power, and lowest cost green notebooks ever made. She is the the founder of Pixel Qi. 
  • Meg Whitman is President and CEO of Hewlett Packard Enterprise. 
  • Then there's Marissa Mayer, Google’s first female engineer. Mayer, who stepped down as President and CEO of Yahoo! when it was sold to Verizon, was Google’s first female engineer. She led product management and engineering for Google Maps, Local Search, Google Earth, Street View and Latitude. Her user interface designs and product vision placed Google at the forefront as the leading web, mobile, and search engine company. 
“The number one most important thing we can do to increase the number of women in tech is to show a multiplicity of different role models," Mayer said in article for The Huffington Post. “The stereotype of that very complete and rigid picture of what being a computer scientist means really hurts people's understanding and ability to identify with the role and say, ‘Yes, this is something I can be in and want to be in.’”

Yeah, please mansplain to me again Mr. Damore, or is it Mr. Want (I am entitled to) Damn More, why women don't belong in technology because of "biological differences." You got your 15 minutes of fame. The Alt-right is rolling out the Breitbart carpet.

Women in Computing
Mothers of Technology: 10 Women Who Invented and Innovated in Tech
Google Fires Engineer Who Wrote Memo Questioning Women in Tech
Contra Grant On Exaggerated Differences
Fired Google engineer who wrote controversial memo sues tech firm
Google engineer James Damore, fired over gender memo, sues company