Observations (& Inspirations)

Reflections on the Monolith: Kubrick, McCracken, Zeppelin, Nothing

2001 A Space Odyssey - Monolith with apes
John McCracken - Nine Planks IV (1974)
Led Zeppelin - Presence album cover
Nothing

Images from top to bottom: 1) Stanley Kubrick, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Monolith with apes; 2) John McCracken, Nine Planks IV (1974), with viewer; 3) Led Zeppelin, Presence (1976) album cover; 4) a Nothing object (2013-present).

The artist John McCracken (1934–2011), who I had the privilege to know and work with as an undergraduate art student, began making his famous leaning “plank” sculptures and freestanding “monoliths” in the mid-1960s, before Stanley Kubrick’s famous monolith appeared in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). McCracken apparently didn’t care for the connection, as noted here in this William Poundstone review of the Stanley Kubrick exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), November 1, 2012–June 30, 2013, which made the connection by including one of McCracken’s iconic planks:

LACMA has added a few more generally related works by better-known artists. A John McCracken plank sculpture, Nine Planks IV (1974) appears in the 2001 gallery in lieu of a monolith. McCracken produced his first planks at just about the time that Kubrick and sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke were adapting Clarke’s 1951 story, “The Sentinel,” into the screenplay for 2001: A Space Odyssey. In Clarke’s original story, the alien artifact is a tetrahedron. In the screenplay it became a black monolith of 1:4:9 proportions. It’s unlikely that Kubrick/Clarke knew of McCracken, or vice-versa. For years afterward, McCracken was annoyed by comparisons of his art to the 2001 monolith. He was not the first L.A. artist to feel steamrollered by the movie business.

He may have been annoyed with the 2001 monolith comparison, but McCracken was very much into such topics as space and time travel, extra-terrestrial beings, and psychic phenomena. In his 2011 obituary of John McCracken, the art critic Jerry Saltz wrote:

[McCracken’s] remarkable exhibition at David Zwirner in 2006 consisted of tall, black, shiny columns that had the presence of sentinels or guideposts and seemed to mark some kind of landing strip for extraterrestrials or UFOs, both of which he spoke of often. These almost-perfect freestanding keepers-of-metaphysical-secrets and celestial-navigation devices made Chelsea slip away and other worlds seem possible, even probable, as I entered a blessed-out dimension where these obdurate things, with the bearing of basalt Egyptian columns, became abstract angels in the architecture. I thought of Wallace Stevens’s writing about “a geography that would be intolerable except for the non-geography that also exists.” A physical fullness filled the almost empty room.

McCracken kept what he called a diary of “Remote Viewing & Psychic Traveling,” in which he recorded contacting “aliens,” “high-minded beings,” “the ghost of my grandfather,” and of being “in a spaceship with a female copilot…approaching earth,” seeing “huge, spider-like creatures.” He concluded that these creatures were “expressions of fear coming from the human race.” All this, he wrote, had “the feeling of home, a good feeling.” It’s no wonder that many thought that the monolith featured in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey was a McCracken sculpture.

Eight years after 2001 came the Led Zeppelin album Presence, with a cover by Hipgnosis, the art-design collective that created the cover art for many rock albums from 1968-1982, including the Pink Floyd’s iconic Dark Side of the Moon album. The Wikipedia page for the Presence album tells the story of the album design and the mysterious “object” featured in multiple tongue-in-cheek photographs:

The cover and inside sleeve of this album, created by Hipgnosis, features various images of people interacting with a black obelisk-shaped object. Inside the album sleeve, the item is referred to simply as “The Object.” It was intended to represent the “force and presence” of Led Zeppelin. In the liner notes of the first Led Zeppelin boxed set, Page explained:

There was no working title for the album. The record-jacket designer said ‘When I think of the group, I always think of power and force. There’s a definite presence there.’ That was it. He wanted to call it Obelisk. To me, it was more important what was behind the obelisk. The cover is very tongue-in-cheek, to be quite honest. Sort of a joke on [the film] 2001. I think it’s quite amusing.

The background used in the cover photograph is of an artificial marina that was installed inside London’s Earl’s Court Arena for the annual Earl’s Court Boat Show that was held in the winter of 1974–75. This was the same venue where the band played a series of concerts a few months after the boat show, in May 1975.

In 1977 Hipgnosis and George Hardie were nominated for a Grammy Award in the category of best album package.

Ultimately, this scenic detour into the world of the monolith arrives at Nothing, a smallish, nicely-finished black rectangular block of sculpture, with a perfect name that we have written about in our CAN. The promise of presence has arrived at the evocation of absence, of Nothing.

Let’s conclude this journey with another Kubrick-McCracken pairing. Top: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Monolith in the Louis XVI-style bedroom in space; Bottom: John McCracken, three column sculptures, from left to right: Luster (2006), Stardust (2006), and Ring (2006), installation view of the 2009 solo exhibition John McCracken at Inverleith House, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh; image courtesy David Zwirner gallery.

2001 A Space Odyssey - Monolith in the Louis XVI-style bedroom in space
John McCracken -- 3 columns, installation view, 2009

Zen in action: No tree, no mirror, no dust

Hui-neng (638-713)

Bodhidharma left his robe and bowl to his chosen successor; and each patriarch thereafter handed it down to the monk that, in his wisdom, he had chosen as the next successor. Gunin was the fifth such Zen patriarch. One day he announced that his successor would be he who wrote the best verse expressing the truth of their sect. The learned chief monk of Gunin’s monastery thereupon took brush and ink, and wrote in elegant characters:

The body is a Bodhi-tree
The soul a shining mirror:
Polish it with study
Or dust will dull the image.

No other monk dared compete with the chief monk. But at twilight Yeno*, a lowly disciple who had been working in the kitchen, passed through the hall where the poem was hanging. Having read it, he picked up a brush that was lying nearby, and below the other poem he wrote in his crude hand:

Bodhi is not a tree;
There is no shining mirror.
Since All begins with Nothing
Where can dust collect?

Later that night Gunin, the fifth patriarch, called Yeno to his room. “I have read your poem,” said he, “and have chosen you as my successor. Here: take my robe and my bowl. But our chief monk and the others will be jealous of you and may do you harm. Therefore I want you to leave the monastery tonight, while the others are asleep.”

In the morning the chief monk learned the news, and immediately rushed out, following the path Yeno had taken. At midday he overtook him, and without a word tried to pull the robe and bowl out of Yeno’s hands.

Yeno put down the robe and the bowl on a rock by the path. “These are only things which are symbols,” he said to the monk. “If you want the things so much, please take them.”

The monk eagerly reached down and seized the objects. But he could not budge them. They had become heavy as a mountain.

“Forgive me,” he said at last, “I really want the teaching, not the things. Will you teach me?”

Yeno replied, “Stop thinking this is mine and stop thinking this is not mine. Then tell me, where are you? Tell me also: what did your face look like, before your parents were born?”

*Yeno (Hui-neng, 638-713), traditionally considered the Sixth Patriarch of the Zen sect in China


Sources: Yin4men, Myoshinji, D.T. Suzuki, Zen Stories

Congratulations to the San Francisco Giants — 2014 World Series Champions!

2014 Giants - Mad Bum

Congratulations to the 2014 World Series Champion San Francisco Giants, our hometown team, whose parade through downtown San Francisco is happening right now. In honor of this momentous feat — their third Championship in five years! — we’ve updated our very popular blog post, Nicknames and slang of the San Francisco Giants. Check it out, and use the Comments on that post to submit more Giants nicknames that we’ve missed, and we’ll keep adding them. And Happy Halloween!

Zinzin founder speaking at Re:Design conference in Palm Springs

Re:Design Conference

Zinzin founder Jay Jurisich will be speaking at the Re:Design / Creative Directors conference in Palm Springs, CA, on Monday, November 3. He will be one of 24 featured speakers giving 15 minute talks followed by a 45 minute interactive dialog. Notes Re:Design:

The theme for 2014 is Adaptation: How we change (and what we change) has ever greater importance and ever greater meaning. Whether translating ideas from one medium to another, morphing old infrastructures into new platforms, or reinventing entire careers, adaptation is the choice between what becomes the future and what remains the past. RE:DESIGN/Creative Directors convenes designers, artists, writers, strategists, inventors and thinkers to explore and explain the role adaptation plays in shaping their creative practice, their clients’ businesses, and themselves.

Here’s what Jay will be speaking about:

Bacteria, Brands and Ballyhoo

The language of brands is the new avant garde, the rapidly evolving bacteria of culture. How the meanings of words and brand names mutate, adapt and evolve over time, and how chance, layering, distraction, humor, misunderstanding and chaos contribute to the mutation of language and the creation of transient poetry in the moment. Adaptation will be put into action as we discuss how adaptation has been put into action.

Here is the full schedule for the conference. Tickets to the conference may still be available. If not, but should you find yourself wandering around the California desert, stop in during the evening and say “hi.”

Poetry is making the private world public

“Poetry is not an expression of the party line. It’s that time of night, lying in bed, thinking what you really think, making the private world public, that’s what the poet does.”
~Allen Ginsberg

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A Brief History of John Baldessari

A Brief History of John Baldessari, directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman and narrated by Tom Waits.

Sweet and sour: Orwellian sugar ads of the 1960s

vintage sugar ad diet hint

This was a 1970 ad that appeared in National Geographic magazine. We have come a long since the days when the sugar industry could so blatantly advertise the lie of sugar’s “nutritional value,” yet most people still consume way too much of this stuff, often without even being aware of it.

Here’s another great vintage sugar ad, from 1966, where sugar is being marketed as legalized speed — Mary “needs energyless, artificially sweetened foods and beverages like a turtle needs a seat belt”:

vintage sugar ad - energy

The “Note to Mothers” in the box is especially disturbing, as it plays on a mother’s desire to protect her children from harm (the “bugs and ailments that are always lying in wait”) by suggesting they feed their tots a substance that could kill them in the long run:

Note to Mothers:
Exhaustion may be dangerous — especially to children who haven’t learned to avoid it by pacing themselves. Exhaustion opens the door a little wider to the bugs and ailments that are always lying in wait. Sugar puts back energy fast — offsets exhaustion. Synthetic sweetners put nothing back. Energy is the first requirement of life. Play safe with your young ones — make sure they get sugar every day.

Such is the legacy of the “Mad Men” celebrated today. Here are more vintage sugar ads, from which I’ve excerpted the following grains of pure, Orwellian gold:

  • Are you getting enough sugar to keep your weight down?
  • Sugar can be the willpower you need to undereat.
  • YOU NEED SUGAR
  • Lisa needs a sugarless, energy-less soft drink like a kangaroo needs a baby buggy.
  • SUGAR — a Builder of the West
  • Tommy needs a sugarless, powerless soft drink like a moose needs a hatrack.
  • Sugar puts the musclepower in sweetness.
  • Judy needs a sugarless, go-less soft drink like a kangaroo… [you already know the rest — this copywriter got lazy]
  • How sugar helps the weight you lose stay lost
  • Why do they put sugar in the pickle jar? It’s not just to sweeten the pickles. Recent experiments show that sugar brings out the natural flavor. Pickles taste “picklier,” fruit tastes “fruitier,” even soup tastes brighter. Next time you make vegetable soup, add a little sugar and see for yourself.

I like that, “recent experiments show,” like something out of Dr. Frankenstein’s lab. These ads, by the way, were “Published in the interest of better nutrition by SUGAR INFORMATION, INC. a non-profit organization.” The copywriting is priceless, and I find especially fascinating all the strange, mash-up word coinages: energyless (which is “energy-less” in another ad), undereat, musclepower, and the especially awkward hyphenate, “go-less.” The ads feel as though their creators were definitely hopped-up (“hoppedup”) on a superpowerful, energypacked magicalnectar — i.e. sugary soft drinks.

As a counter example, Sami Inkinen and Meredith Loring are currently rowing across the Pacific Ocean to raise money and awareness in the fight against sugar. They call their project, brilliantly, Fat Chance Row, which both mocks the hubris required to row all the way across the ocean, as well as being a forum for “chewing the fat” about obesity-causing sugar. Brilliant. It recalls for me another use of “fat chance” in a title, this time playing off the word “chance” and the indeterminacy of John Cage: Bruce Nauman’s installations, Mapping the Studio I (Fat Chance John Cage) and Mapping the Studio II with color shift, flip, flop & flip/flop (Fat Chance John Cage), 2001.

The Ballad of the Fallen: in memory of jazz great Charlie Haden

Charlie Haden

The world has lost a great, deep musical and humanitarian soul. Jazz bassist Charlie Haden (August 6, 1937 – July 11, 2014) created an amazing body of work over six decades of work with the likes of Ornette Coleman, Keith Jarrett, Carla Bley, Hank Jones, Pat Metheny, and many, many others. Take a listen to Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child, with Charlie Haden on bass and Hank Jones on piano, from their amazing 1995 Grammy-nominated album Steal Away:

The Atlantic has a nice appreciation of Haden by David A. Graham, complete with video song selections from throughout his career. Graham writes,

No one wants to be remembered most for what they did at 22, but history will forever recall Charlie Haden for his role in Ornette Coleman’s great quartet of the late 1950s…. Coleman remains surprisingly controversial today, but he and Haden and Don Cherry and Billy Higgins had incontrovertibly changed the direction of music.

Haden—who died Friday at 76, from complications of the polio he contracted as a child—was perhaps the least likely revolutionary in the bunch. Born in Shenandoah, Iowa (a town that shares a name with a famous folk song), Haden grew up playing country music in a family band. Despite making his name in a genre that often rewards flashiness, he was a resolutely unpretentious player, notable for the notes he didn’t play and for always being in the right place. Haden and his most frequent and fruitful collaborators during a long career were musicians steeped in American traditions, who synthesized a range of musical genres and spat them back out in varyingly eccentric and original ways. While Haden may have seemed like an unlikely revolutionary, his firm grounding in the roots seems to have been what enabled him to be such an effective radical.

Here are some words to live by from Haden himself, from one of five interviews he did from from 1983 to 2008 with Terry Gross on Fresh Air, talking about the value of improvisation and being in the moment:

“I think it’s very important to live in the present. One of the great things that improvising teaches you is the magic of the moment that you’re in, because when you improvise you’re in right now. You’re not in yesterday or tomorrow — you’re right in the moment. Being in that moment really gives you a perspective of life that you never get at any other time as far as learning about your ego. You have to see your unimportance before you can see your importance and your significance to the world.

“The artist is very lucky, because in an art form that’s spontaneous like [jazz], that’s when you really see your true self. And that’s why, when I put down my instrument, that’s when the challenge starts, because to learn how to be that kind of human being at that level that you are when you’re playing — that’s the key, that’s the hard part.”

The New York Times obituary concludes,

At the heart of Mr. Haden’s artistic pursuits, even those that drew inspiration from sources far afield, was a conviction in a uniquely American expression. “The beauty of it is that this music is from the earth of the country,” he said. “The old hillbilly music, along with gospel and spirituals and blues and jazz.”

Since the world has lost a deep soul of music, it seems appropriate to conclude with a track called “Silence,” with the also late, great Chet Baker on trumpet, recorded in Rome, Italy, November 11 & 12, 1987, just six months before Baker’s death. Haden and Baker are joined by Billy Higgins on drums, and Enrico Pieranunzi on piano.

If you’re alive you’ve got to flap your arms and legs

“Look, I don’t want to wax philosophic, but I will say that if you’re alive you’ve got to flap your arms and legs, you’ve got to jump around a lot, for life is the very opposite of death, and therefore you must at very least think noisy and colorfully, or you’re not alive.”
~Mel Brooks

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Garry Winogrand retrospective at the The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Garry Winogrand "El Morocco, New York" 1955. Gelatin silver print. © The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

Garry Winogrand “El Morocco, New York” 1955. Gelatin silver print. The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

The incredible Garry Winogrand retrospective that premiered at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art last March is currently on exhibit at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City through September 21, 2014. Here is a wonderful introduction to Winogrand’s work from The Met’s website.

The first retrospective in 25 years of work by Garry Winogrand (1928–1984)—the renowned photographer of New York City and of American life from the 1950s through the early 1980s—will open at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on June 27, 2014. Garry Winogrand brings together more than 175 of the artist’s iconic images, a trove of unseen prints, and even Winogrand’s famed series of photographs made at the Metropolitan Museum in 1969 when the Museum celebrated its centennial. This exhibition offers a rigorous overview of Winogrand’s complete working life and reveals for the first time the full sweep of his career.

…Born in the Bronx, Winogrand did much of his best-known work in Manhattan during the 1950s and 1960s, and in both the content and dynamic style he became one of the principal voices of the eruptive postwar decades. Known primarily as a street photographer, Winogrand, who is often associated with famed contemporaries Diane Arbus and Lee Friedlander, photographed with dazzling energy and incessant appetite, exposing some 26,000 rolls of film in his short lifetime. He photographed business moguls, everyday women on the street, famous actors and athletes, hippies, politicians, soldiers, animals in zoos, rodeos, car culture, airports, and antiwar demonstrators and the construction workers who beat them bloody in view of the unmoved police. Daily life in America—rich with new possibilities and yet equally anxiety-ridden and threatening to spin out of control—seemed to unfold for him in a continuous stream.

Yet if Winogrand was one of New York City’s premier photographers, he was also an avid traveler. He generated exquisite work from locations around the United States including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Dallas, Houston, Chicago, and the open country of the Southwest. “You could say that I am a student of photography,” he said, “and I am; but really I’m a student of America.” Winogrand’s expansive visual catalogue of the nation’s evolving social scene has led to comparisons to Walt Whitman, who also unspooled the world in endless lists of people, places, and things.

Winogrand’s pictures often bulge with 20 or 30 figures, and are fascinating both for their dramatic foregrounds and the sub-events at their edges. Even when crowded with people or at their most lighthearted—he was fond of visual puns and was drawn to the absurd—his pictures convey a feeling of human isolation, hinting at something darker beneath the veneer of the American dream. Early on, some critics considered his pictures formally “shapeless” and “random,” but admirers and critics later found a unique poetry in his tilted horizons and his love of the haphazard.

“Winogrand was an artistic descendant of Walker Evans and Robert Frank, but differed sharply from them,” says Leo Rubinfien, guest curator of the exhibition. “He admired Frank’s The Americans, but felt the work missed the main story of its time, which in his mind was the emergence of suburban prosperity and isolation. The hope and buoyancy of middle-class life in postwar America is half of the emotional heart of Winogrand’s work. The other half is a sense of undoing. The tension between these qualities gives his work its distinct character.”

After serving in the military as a weather forecaster, Winogrand began working as a photographer while studying painting on the G.I. Bill at Columbia University (1948–51). During that time, he also studied briefly with Alexey Brodovitch at the New School for Social Research. While pursuing his personal work, he supplied commercial photographs to a number of general-interest magazines such as Life, Look, Sports Illustrated, Collier’s, and Pageant, which were then at the height of their power and reach. His career was shaped further by the decline of those magazines and the rise of a new culture of photography centered in the art world.

While Winogrand is widely considered one of the greatest photographers of the 20th century, his overall body of work and influence on the field remain incompletely explored. He was enormously prolific but largely postponed the editing and printing of his work. The act of taking pictures was far more fulfilling to Winogrand than making prints or editing for books and exhibitions, and he often allowed others to perform these tasks for him. Dying suddenly at the age of 56, he left behind proof sheets from his earlier years that he had marked but never printed, as well as approximately 6,600 rolls of film (some 250,000 images) that he had never seen, more than one-third of which he had never developed at all; these rolls of film were developed after his death.

“There exists in photography no other body of work of comparable size or quality that is so editorially unresolved,” says Rubinfien, who was among the youngest of Winogrand’s circle of friends in the 1970s. “This exhibition represents the first effort to comprehensively examine Winogrand’s unfinished work. It also aims to turn the presentation of his work away from topical editing and toward a freer organization that is faithful to his art’s essential spirit, thus enabling a new understanding of his oeuvre, even for those who think they know him.”

The exhibition is divided into three parts, each covering a broad variety of subjects found in Winogrand’s art. “Down from the Bronx” presents photographs made in New York from his start in 1950 until 1971; “A Student of America” looks at the same period during journeys outside New York; and “Boom and Bust” addresses Winogrand’s late work—from when he moved away from New York in 1971 until his death in 1984—with photographs from Texas and Southern California, as well as Chicago, Washington, Miami, and other locations.

5 Reasons A Name May Be Killing Your Brand

If your brand isn’t reaching the potential you think it should, perhaps it’s time for a brand audit. Specifically, take a long, hard look at the name of your brand, and see if it might be suffering from one or more of these fatal flaws:

  1. Your brand has a boring, generic, descriptive name. This is causing it to blend in with a crowded field of weakly-named competitor brands. If you want people to notice, pay attention to and care about your brand, you must not act out of fear. Be bold and unafraid, not ruled by FOSO — Fear Of Standing Out.
  2. Your brand name is an invented mash-up with no meaning. Don’t be fooled into thinking that the semantic meaning of individual morphemes translates into real-world brand engagement. It doesn’t. Such names may technically (linguistically) have “meaning,” but, like snowflakes in a blizzard, they are not meaningful.
  3. You brand name came from a visit to the thesaurus. Nearly all companies who move beyond the boring, descriptive name and the incomprehensible mash-up go this route, so it’s another excellent way to get lost in the crowd. Get over the idea that finding the right experiential synonym for “advanced,” “intelligent” or “powerful” in a thesaurus will lead to the perfect name. It won’t, because those names have already been done to death. Ditch the thesaurus and go deep instead – a poetic metaphor that maps to your brand positioning will transform your brand identity from a liability to a powerful business asset. Let you competitors adopt boringly “appropriate” names from a thesaurus — they’ll be doing you a great favor.
  4. Your brand is shrouded in vacant, overused words like “solutions.” A quick web search will confirm that you can find a solution for nearly every problem, except perhaps for the problem of having too many “solutions.” Other empty vessels include “network,” “business,” “business solutions,” “leading provider” (“leading” anything, for that matter), or the ultimate, “a leading provider of business solutions.” Search that last phrase in Google, in quotes, and you will see that millions of results are found. Don’t toss your beautiful needle into that haystack.
  5. Your brand name is different only for the sake of being different or extreme in any way just for the sake of being extreme. The most powerful names are those that best support their brand’s positioning, no matter what, and depending on the circumstances, a name might be “extreme” or it might not. If your name is trying too hard to be different just in order to stand out, it won’t — it will blend in with all the other names that are also trying too hard, and failing, to stand out. This is a mistake frequently made by technology startups.

The most important thing is that you should never “settle” for a mediocre name for your brand, when a great name can be such a powerful force for business success. Find a lot more tips in our Naming & Branding Manifesto, or download our free Naming Guide, which includes the Manifesto and much more.

A Brief History of X (1895-2014)

A group of U.S. experimental aircraft (X-Planes). In the center, the Douglas X-3 Stiletto; around it, clockwise from bottom left: Bell X-1A, Douglas D-558-1 Skystreak, Convair XF-92A, Bell X-5, Douglas D-558-2 Skyrocket, Northrop X-4 Bantam.

A group of U.S. experimental aircraft (X-Planes). In the center, the Douglas X-3 Stiletto; around it, clockwise from bottom left: Bell X-1A, Douglas D-558-1 Skystreak, Convair XF-92A, Bell X-5, Douglas D-558-2 Skyrocket, Northrop X-4 Bantam.

Patient X

I first encountered the X modifier in my youth. As an aviation enthusiast I was introduced to the radical X-3 Stiletto. The X-3 Stiletto was an experimental jet aircraft designed and manufactured by the Douglas Aircraft Company for the U.S. National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). The NACA was the precursor of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

The X-3 looks like a personification of the beaked-nose white spy from Mad magazine’s Spy vs. Spy, with its a slender fuselage, a long tapered nose, and ultra-modern white-on-white paint scheme. The X-3 was part of a series of experimental United States airplanes, helicopters and rockets used to test and evaluate new technologies and aerodynamic concepts, referred to as “X-Planes”:

The majority of X-Plane testing has occurred at Edwards Air Force Base. Some of the X-planes have been well publicized, while others, such as the X-16, have been developed in secrecy. The first, the Bell X-1, became well known after it became, in 1947, the first aircraft to break the sound barrier in level flight. Later X-planes supported important research in a multitude of aerodynamic and technical fields, but only the North American X-15 rocket plane of the early 1960s achieved comparable fame to that of the X-1. X-planes 7 through 12 were actually missiles(used to test new types of engines), and some other vehicles were un-piloted (some were remotely flown, some were full-on drones). (Wikipedia: X-Plane)

X has many other uses in addition to designating an experimental aircraft: it is a common variable for unknown or changing concepts in mathematics; in astronomy, X stands for a comet of unknown origin; X is a symbol on a treasure map to mark the spot where the treasure is buried; in bowling X signifies a strike; and X is a placeholder for the legal signature of an illiterate person. On a more romantic note, Xs symbolize the kisses paired with the Os of hugs in warmhearted salutations.

Besides these common uses, the X modifier is often deployed as branding shorthand to differentiate some person, product, or service as being advanced, audacious, bleeding-edge, bold, contemporary, daring, earth-shattering, forward-looking, fresh, game-changing, genuine, ground-breaking, gutsy, innovative, modern, newfangled, novel, original, pioneering, rejuvenated, sophisticated or unique. The use of X is everywhere, and seems to be the gift the keeps on giving. So I decided to look into the origins of the X that so often marks the spot. Here is a brief summary of my findings.

A Brief History of X (1895 -2014)

1895 | X-Rays: Physicist Wilhelm Röntgen discovers X-rays. Röntgen named it X-radiation to signify an unknown type of radiation. »»»

James Lipton is an Exaltation of Collective Nouns

Vincent Gallo & Christina Ricci form A Vintage Of Hipsters or possibly  A Festival Of Indie Filmmakers or perhaps  An Enigma Of Conceptual Artists.

Vincent Gallo & Christina Ricci form A Vintage Of Hipsters, A Ring of Opera Goers, A Rave of DJs, A Salutation of Yoga Instructors, A Festival Of Indie Filmmakers or perhaps just a run-of-the-mill Enigma Of Conceptual Artists.

Last week NPR’s Studio 360 announced the winners of its 2014 Collective Nouns contest. Host Kurt Andersen challenged listeners to create collective nouns for this group of people: Conceptual Artists, Critics, Djs, Hipsters, Indie Filmmakers, IT Guys, Opera Goers, Trekkies, Venture Capitalists, and Yoga Instructors. James Lipton, perhaps best known as the host of Inside the Actors Studio, served as the judge. Turns out James Lipton actually wrote the definitive book on the subject:

Generations of word lovers have been turned on by James Lipton’s An Exaltation of Larks. The book details the provenance of more than 1,100 “nouns of venery,” as they are were called in the 15th century, including a pride of lions, a smack of jellyfish, an ostentation of peacocks, and many more.

In his research for the book, Lipton discovered that linguists in 1486 delighted in making up names for people, as well: a superfluity of nuns, an eloquence of lawyers, an incredulity of cuckolds. “And that’s when I began to play the game,” he says. He would invite his friends over to invent new ones — the playwright Neil Simon suggested “a mews of cathouses.”

Here is the audio clip of the Studio 360 segment:

And here, dear reader, is the list of winners selected by Mr. Lipton:

  • An Enigma Of Conceptual Artists
  • A Deck Of Trekkies
  • A Rave Of Djs
  • A Hedge Of Venture Capitalists
  • An Altcommandcontrolshift Of IT Guys
  • A Pan Of Critics
  • A Festival Of Indie Filmmakers
  • A Vintage Of Hipsters
  • A Salutation Of Yoga Instructors
  • A Ring Of Opera Goers

Dylan’s Gospel

1969_Brother_Sisters_Dylan's_Gospel

This weekend on NPR’s All Things Considered there was an incredible and moving segment devoted to music producer Lou Adler’s gospel rendering of a collection of ten Bob Dylan songs from the 1960s, including The Times They Are A Changin’I Shall Be Released and Lay Lady Lay. The album, “Dylan’s Gospel,” by The Brothers and Sisters, was recorded in 1969 and features an all-star line-up of gospel singers recruited by Adler from Baptist churches throughout South Central Los Angeles. Unfortunately, the album fell quickly into obscurity due to record company blunders, scuffles and snafus. Renowned singer Merry Clayton was one of the featured artists on the album, and is interviewed along with Adler in this insightful and inspiring piece. Definitely worth a listen, or two.

In addition you can sample the recently reissued album at Light In The Attic Records.

Paul Tudor Jones, founder of The Robin Hood Foundation, on the power of a great name

In September, 2013, 60 Minutes aired a story, Modern-Day Robin Hood, about the billionaire Paul Tudor Jones. Tudor Jones’ charity, the Robin Hood Foundation, “fights poverty with the hard-nosed, business sense of Wall Street.”

At one point in the interview, Tudor Jones had this to say about the power of having a great brand name:

If you said to me what part of our success is due to our name, I’d say it’s a big part of it ’cause it’s a great name, right? It says everything.

It does indeed “say everything,” but not in the usual, descriptive way. Instead, the name tells a great story, tapping into the Robin Hood mythos of “robbing from the rich to give to the poor,” updated for the 21st century. The way The Robin Hood Foundation pulls off this feat is very smart, and well-told in the 60 Minutes piece.

It is refreshing to hear a successful business leader, let alone a billionaire, acknowledge that success in business is not merely the result of a great product, vision, or  founder’s genius. That having the right name can make all the difference in the world between achieving average results or phenomenal success.


Such desiderata of desiderata. Many antiquary. So curiosa. Wow.

Francis Peck - Desiderata Curiosa

Desiderata Curiosa: Or, A Collection of Divers Scarce and Curious Pieces Relating Chiefly to Matters of English History. By Francis Peck, M.A., 1779. Thomas Evans, London

Or, what do an 18th Century English antiquarian, an early 20th Century Indiana lawyer, Adlai Stevenson, Commander Spock and an obscure 1970s singer have in common?

Apologies for invoking the faddish Doge meme in the title of this piece, but it seemed oddly and counter-intuitively appropriate for a discussion of desiderata, a strange English word from from the Latin desideratum (plural desiderata), meaning: something that is wished for, or considered desirable. According to the OED, the first appearance of the word “desiderata” in the English language was in 1651 in the religious treatise Act of Oblivion, by English theologian Nathanael Culverwell. Culverwell employs a “book of life” metaphor for good Christians achieving the perfection of divine grace (emphasis mine):

Whereas a Christian’s life shall be set out in a new edition; for all errata shall be corrected. Every iniquity shall be blotted out, and all desiderata shall be supplied; the book shall become perfect, and be looked on as a fair object to all eternity

This is basically the same sentiment that returns nearly three hundred years later in the song “When You Wish upon a Star,” written by Leigh Harline and Ned Washington for Walt Disney’s 1940 adaptation of Pinocchio:

When you wish upon a star
Makes no difference who you are
Anything your heart desires
Will come to you

But let’s back up a bit. Francis Peck (1692–1743) was an English antiquary who published the book pictured above, Desiderata Curiosa, in 1779. An “antiquary” is itself a nice piece of antiquarian language, defined by Wikipedia like this: »»»