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When Men Were Men And Women Were Glad Of It

Men used to expose themselves to all sorts of dangers and privations just to make a living. Take these loggers out west, back around the turn of the twentieth century.

They’re kept safe now, of course, by an intricate web of laws and government programs, in order to allow them to die of drug overdoses purchased with dole money at their girlfriend’s apartment in the projects, after shaking her baby a bit for caterwauling. It’s progress, surely. I mean, they have premium cable and everything. Ooh boy! America’s Deadliest Ice Road Hardcore Unsolved Trucker Survivors is on!

BTW, every woman in America would crawl over the freshly killed husk of their husband or boyfriend to get a crack at the firewood splitting dude that makes his appearance at 13:20.

Is Frank Bunker Gilbreth Senior The Greatest Man Maine Ever Produced?

Frank Gilbreth was born in Fairfield, Maine, in 1868. He never went to college except to teach at Purdue eventually. He’s famous, in a way, and anonymous in another. He’s the father portrayed in the original Cheaper By The Dozen, using a stopwatch to figure out how to make his family more efficient. That was his thing –efficiency.

He was a bricklayer. Built houses. He got to wondering if the repetition of laying one oblong slug of fired clay atop two others in a bed of mortar could be improved by observing the motions of skilled persons, breaking these exertions down into their component movements, and eliminating the wasted motions in the routines.  It can, and he did. I’ve been a hod carrier and mason tender, and I can tell you that working off the ground or a platform the same height as your feet would be backbreaking and slow way to assemble masonry. We always used the footing form boards and leftover planks to assemble ad hoc shelves just lower than waist height behind the mason so that they could turn and pick up a brick and some mortar and go back to the next slot in the wall. I had no idea Clifton Webb, er, Frank Gilbreth came up with the idea less than a century before. It would be literally impossible to calculate how much time, money, effort, and  how many worker’s backs Frank Gilbreth (and his wife, who was his partner and carried on after his early death) saved anonymously. His method is now universal and uncontroversial. How many people are incalculably useful to their fellow men?

Gilbreth’s ghost is in so many well-known aspects of everyday life that you can’t hope to find them all. He’s in here, in a scene that’s repeated one way or another in so many movies you can’t count them, never mind the tens of millions of real-life examples:

It’s Gilbreth’s method that’s used to train soldiers to be able to disassemble and reassemble the components of their small arms, even if they are in total darkness. It’s not a pointless trick; if your weapon doesn’t work and you can’t fix it under any conditions, including at night, you might pay for it with your life.

Want more? How about this:

Guess whose idea it was for a nurse to organize and hand instruments as called for to a surgeon. Think of how ubiquitous that method is. It’s universal and uncontroversial. How many people could tell you it was Gilbreth’s idea?

There was a contemporaneous and competing version of efficiency expert abroad in the land with Frank and his wife: Taylorism.

Frederick Taylor is the progenitor of so many things that are in the common language today that he deserves to be discussed with the most influential people of his time. That’s not necessarily a good thing. Almost all the fruit of Taylor’s tree is rotten.

Taylor is the guy standing behind dehumanized workers with a stopwatch, keeping track of bathroom breaks, and generally treating all work as a series of unrelated steps that any unskilled human could do, and constantly finding new ways of measuring it and subdividing it to harangue a little more out of the continually less and less skilled worker. “Scientific Management,” they called it. The Soviet Union loved it. They thought all people were just cogs in a big machine anyway. Most of the terms for malingering in dead-end jobs come from Taylorism. Goldbricking. Dogging it. Taylor observed that when normal people are in a group and everyone has the same duties, it is human nature for everyone in the group to devolve and perform at the level of the least capable and energetic member. His solution was a big expansion of management. He is the busted idol of micromanagement, and by extension, big government.

Taylorism is often touted as the reason you need unions. I don’t see it. The death embrace of unionized workers finding dignity in organized heel-dragging while management tries to find ways to lay everyone off is the most soul-destroying work setting I’ve encountered. Workers are just slaves with two masters instead of one, afraid to work too hard to suit the union, afraid to work too little for the boss. Unionized Taylorism simply puts off the benefits of creative destruction until in the end it leads to just plain destruction. See Detroit. Eventually Taylorism leads to management giving up and finding people for the mind-numbing work overseas, where the boss is the union and the government and the Pinkertons and the mafia rolled into one.

Gilbreth believed in craftsmanship, and in the dignity of productive work. His efficiencies were certainly scientific, in the true sense of the word, but he didn’t look at people as robots, or worse, as farm animals. Look at Taylor’s most famous nostrum for the men he observed unloading pig iron ingots at a factory:

…the labor should include rest breaks so that the worker has time to
recover from fatigue. Now one of the very first requirements for a man
who is fit to handle pig iron as a regular occupation is that he shall be so stupid and so phlegmatic
that he more nearly resembles in his mental make-up the ox than any
other type. The man who is mentally alert and intelligent is for this
very reason entirely unsuited to what would, for him, be the grinding
monotony of work of this character. Therefore the workman who is best
suited to handling pig iron is unable to understand the real science of
doing this class of work.

That is a profoundly malignant view of your fellow human beings. That view of the world is on display on every Internet comment section I’ve ever seen, now disguised as referring to people capable of only asking if you want fries with that. Unionizing the situation, or keeping the management in one country and the oxen in another (yeah, Apple, I’m looking at you) doesn’t alter the disdain the people in charge have for the people that work for them.

I like Gilbreth’s world of meaningful work that’s freed from plain drudgery, and I try to live in it, but it’s getting near impossible for the average person to cobble it together now. You don’t have to coerce people to follow sound advice. The government at all levels is all coercion, all the time, about everything, and in their hearts most government functionaries of both parties have a profound contempt for their constituents, and they get elected solely on assembling a coalition of voters with a profound contempt for just under half of their fellow citizens. Businesses solve all their problems by Taylor-ing their jobs overseas, and locally just annoy their white collar workers with Six Sigma slogans and cover pages for their TPS reports until they can find a javascript widget to do their job, too. Everyone’s angry and envious of everyone else, and no one knows how to do much except some weird little sliver of a byzantine process to earn their keep. Everyone thinks they have the right to micromanage everyone else’s life, right down to the lightbulbs and happy meals.

The abolition of drudgery through efficiency should allow people to be craftsmen, and scholars and healers, and counselors, and other meaningful things, and so have rich full lives — not make them obsolete and useless to themselves and everyone else.

Gilbreth or Taylor. Choose. I’m afraid we already have, and chose very, very wrong.

I Imagine She Smelled The Same The Day After As The Day Before

1901. The year Victoria died. The year my house was built. It’s a Victorian, natch. I think it’s fascinating that you can watch a video of her funeral.

You know, there really isn’t all that much history, if you’re talking only of civilization. Twelve thousand years ago, there was a wall of ice thick enough to cover the highest mountain in Maine sitting where I am now.  There’s still a wall of ice outside my door, but it’s on the porch roof and we don’t trouble one another.

My father was a WW II veteran, and his father was a WW I veteran, and the last veterans of the Civil War were wandering around, albeit rather slowly, less than a decade before I was born. Four years after Victoria shuffled off, you could have gone to Hiram Cronk’s funeral in New York. He was a veteran of the War of 1812.

George Washington had barely reached room temperature when Hiram was born in 1800. About a hundred years before ol’ borrowed-teeth George, Galileo was annoying everyone with his heliocentrism and halitosis. It’s easy, and interesting, to hopscotch backwards through the calendars like that until you find yourself up against the wall of ice.

Get busy being interesting — just plain old might do — and maybe someone will have claimed to have known you and Kevin Bacon in a blogpost in a century or so.

The Continental Climate

What is it today? What will wash over us like a tsunami? The ebb and flow of empires is a messy thing. Mongols. Turks. Cossacks. Nazis. Communists.

You can stay and long for a country gone, or go and it’s the same. But all invaders can be outlasted, if you pass down the memory of the time before they came. 

Bela Bartok

The First Piece Of Music Ever Broadcast

There are long periods of time during the workday when I have a mask over my face and earmuffs clamped on my head. It lends itself to a sort of underwater effect.

I have an MP3 player hooked up to some old computer speakers in my workshop. The little harddrive holds a lot of music, but I don’t bother much with it. With all the racket I rarely hear much of it, so the same things can cycle around quite a bit without getting boring.

Sometimes, during a quiet interregnum, the music will synch itself with the slant of the light through the window, and the lull in the fighting, and the effect can be quite profound. Like the shade of a tree on a hot day. Which brings us to Ombra mai fu, from Handel’s opera Xerxes. It’s an aria about the shade of a tree, after all.

Tender and beautiful fronds
of my beloved plane tree,
let Fate smile upon you.
May thunder, lightning, and storms
never bother your dear peace,
nor may you by blowing winds be profaned.
A shade there never was,
of any plant,
dearer and more lovely,
or more sweet.

Ombra mai fu was probably the first piece of music ever broadcast on the radio.


On the evening of December 24, 1906 (Christmas Eve), Fessenden used the alternator-transmitter to send out a short program from Brant Rock. It included a phonograph record of Ombra mai fu (Largo) by George Frideric Handel, followed by Fessenden himself playing the song O Holy Night on the violin. Finishing with reading a passage from the Bible: ‘Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to men of good will’ (Gospel of Luke 2:14). He petitioned his listeners to write in about the quality of the broadcast as well as their location when they heard it. Surprisingly, his broadcast was heard several hundred miles away, however accompanying the broadcast was a disturbing noise. This noise was due to irregularities in the spark gap transmitter he used. (Wikipedia)

Hmm. A beautiful piece of music, during a time of quiet and reflection, interrupted by a disturbing noise. Handel had me pegged.

Smokin’ In The Boy’s Room

Longtime reader and commenter and all-around swell guy Sixty Grit has poked me through the bars about an off-hand comment I made in “Tear The Roof Off The Sucka.” I’ve been living for about a year now in a house that was something of a drunkard’s nightmare cum insane asylum, so perhaps I’ve grown inured to the gaping strangeness of the place.

Wait, you can’t just throw out “shingled inside” without further explanation. I have seen some stuff, but I have never seen that. One of my houses was owned by a guy who used to saw off molding using a chainsaw, from the looks of it, square, sort of, then nail it next to another piece, on an outside corner. He didn’t know you could buy a saw with more than 1 tooth per inch _and_ saw an angle cut. But I never saw shingles inside.

I don’t want Sixty Grit to think I’m a liar. I am a liar, by birth, education, temperament, proclivity, and inclination; that’s why I don’t want Sixty Grit to think I’m a liar. But indeed, I hereby aver that a goodly portion of my house had cedar shingles applied to the interior walls like lumberjack wallpaper:

That’s my bedroom, which is still something of a horror, but at least it’s not shingled now. The foyer was shingled. A bedroom upstairs. The kitchen was shingled, too, including the backsplash –even the backsplash behind the stove. A cedar shingle dried indoors might as well be soaked with napalm. Using it for a stove backsplash tests the lower limits of behaviors that result in continuing to abide above the lawn. And at least some of the former occupants smoked like steamship funnels. There are scorch marks on the rim of the sink in the bathroom, and the ultimate sign of the hardcore smoker: scorchmarks on the wooden floor around the toilet where the truly dedicated would put down their ubiquitous butt to look after their other ubiquitous butt.

There’s a great deal that can be learned from my house. It’s a fine example of what happens when a house is worth a lot less than it cost to build it. Every single house in the town I live in is worth less than it would cost to build it. The United States is learning right now how people behave in, and towards, things that are currently worth less than they cost to build. No one takes care of  inexpensive expensive things. They amuse themselves with wrecking it, or tinker with it, like a Home Depot flyer exploded in it, pasting nonsensical gewgaws all over everything instead of fixing the roof or keeping the pipes from freezing. People become inordinately interested in “saving energy,” and are prone to listen to the siren song of rubber windows and plastic siding and willy-nilly insulation. The buboes appear as vinyl siding, generally; then the long, slow, slide with lots of stops along the way to copper thievery. Human beings are locusts to a house they don’t care about.

You can have expensive houses or you can have no houses. I’d exhort you to choose, but it looks like we already have. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got shingles to put on the roof, and take off the walls.

Electric, And Electrifying, Edwardians

Jamaica Street, Glasgow, 1901.

I can’t stop looking at these movies. They’re from a collection called Electric Edwardians. Two fellows, Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon, were hired by the equivalent of a circus to take movies of mundane activities in Great Britain. The promoters would then show the movies to the locals, who were mostly there just to see themselves, or people like themselves, for the sheer wonder of life captured on film. Getting amusement from the mundane to make a few quid. The ICANHASCHEEZBURGER of their day.

The films were ignored and lost for nearly a century, mouldering in a basement. They were only rediscovered because the building was going to be demolished. The British Film Institute restored them as best they could, and they’ve been shown as a television show, and now are available as a DVD.

I rarely watch television, read newspapers, or listen to the radio. I read books by dead persons, pretty much. I have little use for 99.9 percent of the Internet, because it’s just people telling me that they can watch TV and read the newspaper harder than me. The average intellectual’s head is full of tapioca. On the Intertunnel, it’s rancid tapioca.

You cannot tell what’s going on by what people say. You’re past daft if you think you can tell what’s going on by listening to a third party tell you what people say. You can only tell what’s going on by looking at what people are doing.

People say they want a time machine. But then again: Millions long for immortality who do not know what to do on a rainy afternoon. They sit in mom’s basement watching reruns of remakes of a crummy space opera and fantasize about what they’d do with their holodeck, if only they could live with the wonders of the future and access to the past. Unaware that this is the future, and by the way, here is the actual, unvarnished past, they’d turn the channel if this video came on — a real life time machine.

I wouldn’t. Look, there, on the screen. It’s not Tutankhamun’s tomb. It’s Tutankhamun.

Chicks Dig Guys With Skills. You Know, Like Nunchuck Skills; Bowstaff Skills; Computer Hacking Skills; Pinstriping Skills…

They’re building Royal Enfield motorcycles:

That’s a very cool bike. The company was founded in England in the 1850s; they originally made sewing needles. Then came boneshakers, springs for seats for “safety bicycles,” and then bicycles themselves. Then rifle parts –that’s where the “Enfield” moniker came from, and their slogan for all their stuff: Made like a gun. Then came motorcycle precursors: tricycles and quadricycles with small engines. They tried making cars around the turn of the twentieth century. They looked like lightly armored personnel carriers and had eight-horsepower engines, not considered enough to mow your lawn while sitting down nowadays. They got over that urge and started making true motorcycles, and sold a bunch to the army for World War I. They had a neato one with a stretcher sidecar.

The company was a pioneer in using the saddle tank (a fuel tank that sits atop and straddles the frame) which you see the fellow in the video striping so ably. In the late forties, the company opened up a shop in Madras, India, to supply motorcycles to the Indian army.  At first they just assembled parts sent from England; they eventually made the whole thing themselves. They made one design, unchanged, for thirty straight years. England gave up manufacturing pretty much anything in the second half of the twentieth century, and started importing the bikes from India.

Hand skills like that fellow in the video displays are always show-stoppers in any manufactory.

Paris, Texas, The Movie. Sorta

My son and I watched a movie last night. I hardly ever watch movies, so I thought I’d multi-task and review this one. Flyboys.

A guy that looks vaguely like that other guy that was The Joker in the Batman movie –no, not that Batman movie, the other one. No, not that “the other one.” The other, other one. Anyway, he died –no, not this guy, he didn’t die, the other, Joker guy, died — at any rate, our hero was a jolly rancher for a while in Texas, but for some reason the Depression showed up early, like twenty years early, and he lost the farm and took to hanging around in a movie theater like Lee Harvey Oswald, and the sheriff comes in and tells him to join the French air force or go to jail for punching Mr. Potter at the bank.

So he goes to France to smoke Newports and fly Nieuports, and I suppose World War One isn’t interesting enough, so his new best friend, who he doesn’t like much, has a pet lion instead of a dog, and they are, like, pilots and guys and depressed together about stuff. Then someone decided the movie needed Jack Johnson, the boxer, in it, only his name is different, I think — I don’t know; I was still wondering if guys like the guy that looks vaguely like the Joker actor would have highlights dyed into his hair in 1917 in the Lafayette Escadrille — so I didn’t get to wonder why they needed a poor man’s Jack Johnson in the Lafayette Escadrille. I guess French people and guys that keep lions aren’t exotic enough.

Anyway, the Jack Johnson-ish dude shoots a German dude right straight down in the top of his head using only an airplane and CGI, and that’s hard, and thereby saves a rich, overweight dude with Daddy Warbucks issues who previously didn’t care for the black dude because he’s black and all, but now he does you betcha. So the fat guy buys the black guy a drink, only he doesn’t buy it, he stole the booze from his father like Ferris Bueller would, and the fat guy says my father is rich, how about yours?  And even though the black guy is noble enough already for five movies if you ask me,  they double down and make his father a slave even though it’s 1917 and slavery was outlawed in 1865 and that seems like a long time between jobs, but who’s counting in this movie.

Then the Hindenburg was bombing the Eiffel Tower and the guy with the lion gets all shot up and whatnot defending it, and decides to become a kamikaze pilot and blows up the Hindenburg, and instead of bombing Paris I guess it sets Paris on fire when it crashes full of flaming bombs instead of just dropping them, but that happens out of the frame so he’s still a hero if you ask me.

Then yet another guy who is a brave guy acts like a coward a lot, because we all know brave guys are all cowardly in real life, and that guy hangs out a bit with another guy that reads the Bible all the time so you know he’s a weirdo and not a regular person in 1917 in America — everyone was reading Chomsky back then no matter what Ted Nugent says.

Then yet another guy, who is wanted in Wisconsin for armed robbery with a toy pistol (to pay the bookie in The Sting, I think) lands his plane in No-Mans Land between the trenches, which is hard to do indeed, but his hand is caught and he can’t run away, which normally would seem easier than landing a plane in No-Man’s Land. Just his hand is caught, mind you, and he looks like OJ trying on a glove when he’s trying to pull his hand out, not like a normal person would under shelling and machine gun fire; so the brave guy — not the guy with the lion, he’s dead; and not the brave guy that’s a coward all over the place — the brave guy with the highlights and the ranch near Dealey Plaza who doesn’t have it anymore. Anyhow, he lands his plane in No-Man’s Land between the trenches and parks it next to the guy trying on OJ’s glove and chops the guy’s hand off with a shovel he borrows from a dead French dude who was lying around handy, even though the airplane wing is just made of canvas and a little pine. I guess it’s just easier to chop the guy’s hand off; don’t ask me. So now that guy can only be a one-armed armed robber, not a regular armed robber with a toy gun, and he gets a hook instead, like in Peter Pan, and that improves his flying because he sucked before.

Later the guy with the hook and the cowardly brave guy save the regular brave guy, for a while, anyway; at least until he can find the German guy who sneers and waves a lot and kills guys and leaves orphan lions all over the landscape willy-nilly like a really bad guy would. This happens when the brave guy’s machine guns don’t work because a bullet hit them and they busted open like a pinata and spilled the wrong kind of bullets for that kind of gun all over the place like Jolly Ranchers, and then the brave guy…

No, not the brave guy with the lion; he’s dead, I told you! The guy with the highlights who’s now stepdad to a fatherless lion; the one that’s been stealing planes to go see a French woman all the time, and at first thinks the French woman is a prostitute — which I gather is normal for Americans sizing up French women for the first time — but she’s just the cleaning lady or something at the cathouse (which strikes me as a much less desirable job than being a prostitute, but maybe that’s just me) where the first guy that had the lion liked to hang around and act like Vince Vaughn would at a French cathouse, but he’s not even in this movie which is a shame because he couldn’t have done any worse, really.

Anyway, the brave guy that steals airplanes goes to save the one French girl that isn’t a prostitute because she’s hiding from the Germans in her attic quietly like Helen Keller…

… now they’ve got me doing it. Like Anne Frank, not Helen Keller. Anyway, at first he flies the stolen plane at night for a while, and then he flies it at night with the motor turned off for a good long while, and then lands it like a ninja next door to Anne Frank’s house and the Germans don’t notice, even though they’re in her living room drinkin’ wine spo-dee-o-dee; but after a while they decide to notice and shoot Anne Frank in the shoulder. But just so you know, I’m swapping back to calling her Helen Keller right now because she gets a Mauser bullet through the chest and says nothing, I shit you not.

Anyway, he saves her and gets a medal, not a hook or anything, for stealing the plane; and later he steals a motorcycle instead of the plane for once, and goes to another place all bombed out and full of Germans and finds her again and they decide to meet in Paris later — or at least the part of Paris that survived having a flaming Hindenburg dropped on it —  because she’s going to England with some kids that aren’t his, or even hers, now that I think about it, and he’s got a lion to take care of.

So the brave guy with the highlights and the second-hand lion is saved for a while by the cowardly lion and Captain Hook…

(Dammit, I mean the cowardly brave guy, not the cowardly lion; the lion seems legit, if strung out on barbiturates a little bit; and I don’t think Captain Hook is a captain, really, prolly just a corporal or a lieutenant or something, or whatever the French word for lieutenant is, I don’t know)

.. but he gets all shot up by the Red Baron, who inexplicably seems to be the only German not flying a red Fokker triplane in this movie, but that’s got to be him, he’s so evil; but anywho, this German guy shoots more bullets into our hero than a carnival attraction with ducks for some reason, and then stops shooting him for some other reason, shits and giggles I expect, and then Rolf or Heinz or Manfred or whatever his name is just pulls up next to our beauty parlor hero like a guy at a red light in American Graffiti, just to wave and smirk. Then the shot-up  brave guy — the guy with the used lion and the only French girl that’s more interested in housecleaning than prostitution —  why, he pulls out a revolver of all things and shoots that German Snidely Whiplash right through the eye, which is pretty good shooting indeed, considering he’s all shot to pieces and flying a biplane that’s all shot to pieces that was made by French people in the first place.

Then they ran out of money or interest or film or something, and explained over the credits that the Jack Johnson guy gets a job at the Post Office, and the rancher with the highlights never meets the girl in Paris, but he gets his ranch in Texas back, only it’s another ranch, not that one, but it’s way better so never fear.

I guess it’s not his fault the stupid French chick, the one that’s not a prostitute, didn’t know he meant Paris, Texas.

The End.

Tag: 1900s

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