What does a high tech holiday look like?

Happy Holidays everybody! May your Portable Kitchen Audio Systems ring out loud and clear this festive season.

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What form of communication should we have never abandoned?

Two words. Pneumatic tubes.


And this is one of the best investigations of pneumatic tubes ever, from Roman Mars and the podcast 99% Invisible, featuring the lovely architecture/design and pneumatic tube aficionada Molly Wright Steenson. Enjoy. And check out the Ignite talk, too. It’s supersonic.

99% Invisible on Pneumatic Tubes

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What were California state mental hospitals like in 1900?

Allegations of cruel and inhuman abuse of the inmates at Highland surfaced in the summer of 1903, after San Bernardino papers published a series of investigations into graft and financial irregularities at the institution.  Nurses charged that female patients were routinely operated on without the benefit of anesthesia, and were punished by “protective sheeting” or immobilization in their beds under sheets of heavy canvas, sometimes for weeks at a time. Aides also testified to the common punishment known as “giving the hypo,” hypodermic injections of apomorphia, a violent emetic that causes hours of agonizing cramps, followed by hours of vomiting and eventual collapse. The injections were often repeated twice a day, for five days at a time, for such mild infractions as insubordination and “talking in excess.”

The nurses’ testimony was supported by F.E. Howard, the former druggist at Highland. He kept detailed records during his two years there, and supplied the names of more than forty victims of apomorphia injections, along with dates and dosages. He also testified that the drug hyosine was used to punish recalcitrant patients, a medication which works on the kidneys and has a narcotic effect.  He alleged that at least one patient died as a result of a punitive hyosine injection.

In addition Mr. Howard provided records that supported allegations of graft and fraud in the institution.  Highland’s Superintendent Dr. Campbell, and chief medical officer Dr. Stanley Dolan rewarded his whistle blowing with swift lawsuits, accusing Howard of stealing government records.  But they were unable to deflect the public outcry, or the findings of the investigation ordered by the Board of Directors of the state institution.  By the end of the Highland scandal, both men resigned under pressure. Anticipating his own dismissal, a lower level official committed suicide on the grounds of the asylum.  One year after leaving Highland, Dr. Dolan was also found dead, possibly by his own hand.

A patient is prepared for electroshock at Patton State Hospital, 1942. Credit: Associated Press.

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How did early 20th century spiritualists prove their clairvoyant and mesmerizing talents?

Peter LaFleur managed to win a championship blindfolded in the film “Dodgeball,” so how hard could it possibly be to drive a horse-drawn carriage at a breakneck pace through the streets of downtown Los Angeles while likewise deprived of sight?  That was the challenge mind-reader, mystic and clairvoyant Professor J. McIvor Tyndall faced on November 18th, 1895. At 3 pm, as a crowd of onlookers blocked traffic and sidewalks in front of the Hotel Ramona, the blindfolded Professor Tyndall took the driver’s seat in an open barouche, accompanied by his passengers, including the Chief of Police, the city clerk, and the Professor’s partner in adventure, Dr. K.D. Wise.  Tyndall took up the reins and whip in left hand, and enfolded Dr. Wise’s hand in his right.  Not only did Tyndall aspire to drive the horses blindfolded through the city, he also aimed to find an unknown object hidden by the members of his entourage somewhere in the vicinity of the hotel.  Somehow, no doubt due to his heightened mental sensitivity and muscle-reading powers, Tyndall managed to lead the horses on a wild dash down Spring Street, missing by mere inches streetcars, trucks, carriages and terrified pedestrians. He whirled up Fourth, turned on Broadway to Second, and then eastward on Second where he pulled the horses up short at the side entrance of the Hollenbeck Hotel.  Still blindfolded, and still grasping the hand of his friend and accomplice Dr. Wise, Tyndall felt along the façade of the stair entrance to the Hotel, where he quickly found a feather duster hanging from a nail above his head. Without further ado the sightless mystic, along with his amanuensis, Dr. Wise, re-embarked into the carriage, and drove it pellmell back along the route he’d come. Astonishment ensued among the crowd when the carriage arrived at the steps of the Hotel Ramona, although a few onlookers observed that in previous years Tyndall had performed the exact same feat, and that on these occasions the object had been hidden in the exact same spot.

McIvor-Tyndall’s ambitions did not end with mind-reading.  He also aspired to cheat death.  In December of 1985 he announced plans to place himself in a hypnotic trance, be buried alive in an airtight ten foot deep grave, and then be disinterred and resurrected at the end of thirty days. Taking his cue from Hindu fakirs, Tyndall’s method also required that he be coated in clarified butter. However, when his assistants learned that to bury a human being intentionally, even with his or her consent, constituted a felony, they refused the assignment.  While they educated themselves about the law, Tyndall rested in a cataleptic state for 32 hours, until he was finally awakened by these words, “Professor! Professor! Without quotation marks! Here’s the bold bad Times reporter and he says he will never put quotation marks around your “Professor” title again if you’ll only wake up!”

Tyndall continued his mystic exhibitions, lectures and experiments for years in the LA area, eventually graduating from “Professor” to “Dr.”, and founding an institute of psychic science at Grand Avenue and 15th streets. He also wrote a number of books, including Cosmic Consciousness, or The Man-God Whom We Await, How Thought Can Kill, a palmistry manual, Revelations of the Hand, and Sex: The Unknown Quantity. Presumably sex was not such an unknown quantity to Tyndall, as he married six times.

After leaving Los Angeles, Tyndall eventually took up residence in the spiritualism center of Lilydale, New York, and served as Pastor of the First Spiritualist Church in Syracuse, NY. He died in 1940.

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What do you see when you are hanging off a skyscraper?

If you are photographer Tom Ryaboi, you see this. He’s one of the most aesthetically skilled rooftoppers around. Rooftopping is a new twist on the early 20th century craze of steeple-jacking, in which photographers climb skyscrapers to catch the most vertigo-inducing shots possible. At 27, Canadian Tom Ryaboi seems to be leading the pack, having scaled 100 skyscrapers and taken thousands of photos. To avoid security and CCTV, Ryaboi usually disguises himself as an office-worker, or as a construction worker if it’s a building site.  He likes to tell people, “…it’s not really the height the matters. The coolest views are often from lower buildings nestled in between the tall ones….You really get a sense you’re in the urban ‘jungle’ then, surrounded by this forest of concrete, steel and glass.”

When asked where the urge came from, Ryaboi says, “It’s in my blood. When I was a child one day, my dad came home from work and found me sitting on top of the fridge….They had no idea how I had got there, but obviously I just liked climbing things.”

Read more here.

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What is that green stuff on Lebanese pizzas?

How did I ignore za’atar all this time? What was my problem? The stuff is dynamite. It completely transforms whatever it touches; pita bread, feta wraps, lentil soup, scrambled eggs, even tuna-fish salad. Somehow the citrusy sumac has the effect of lemon zest, without bitterness or astringency. It’s miraculous. Which is pretty much what the Middle East has said about za’atar for millennia.

Za’atar is the Arabic name for an herb blend that is ubiquitous in Middle Eastern cuisine. Traditionally, the blend was made from the za’atar plant, which is now an endangered species. Israeli law only allows people to harvest it at certain times of year for fear it might become extinct. The za-atar plant can be traced back to the Bible, where it appears as ‘eizov’ (often translated as hyssop, although biblical hyssop was an entirely different plant than the one we call hyssop today). In the Bible, eizov played a role in purification rites, likely due to its antibacterial, anti-fungal, and antimicrobial properties. It was used in the ritual cleansing of lepers, and for purifying anyone who had come in contact with the dead. According to the Torah, Israelites also used sprigs of eizov back in Egypt to sprinkle lamb’s blood on their doors in order to be spared the death of their firstborn sons.

On a more mundane note, eizov or hyssop has also traditionally been used to treat tooth decay, gum infections, and coughs.

You can get a brilliant za’atar fix at Shanto’s Bakery in La Crescenta. The manaish, or Lebanese pizza, has just right the mixture of crunch and chewiness, with some interesting egg, , cheese, meat and pomegranate sauced toppings. But I can’t get enough of the wraps. This is the only wrap sandwich I’ve ever even considered eating. Unlike the rest of the soggy travesties that go by the name of wraps, but are really just rubbery, stuffed burritos reeking of the AM/PM Mart, these are revelations of freshness, full of mint leaves, olives, cucumber wedges, and the fluffiest grilled pita outside of Lebanon. Get the za’atar special with grilled haloumi. And squirt some lemon on it. Go all out and order a vegetable plate to go with it. Trust me. This is lunch raised to a whole new level. This lunch goes up to 11.

Families pride themselves on their own special recipes for za’atar. Here are a just a few variations:



3 parts sesame seeds

2 parts dried spiked Thyme

1 part Syrian oregano

½ to 1 part powdered sumac




½ dried imported Syrian Oregano

¼ cup imported edible dried sumac

2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds

¼ teaspoon sea salt

Black pepper and dried garlic powder to taste

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What did Rudolph Valentino’s Los Angeles look like?

This short film has some of the best footage of various parts of downtown LA circa 1920. Note the bustling, soberly dressed throngs in Central Park (modern-day Pershing Square), the horse and buggies and Chinese graffiti in Chinatown, the frenetic chaos of 7th and Broadway.  The film is silent, so if you want a soundtrack, you can find a selection here.  (Thanks to historycomestolife’s youtube channel.)

Los Angeles in the 1920s





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Who was The Human Fly, from the Harold Lloyd film, “Saftey Last?”

I don’t know which is the more iconic shot from the film Safety Last!: this one, of Harold Lloyd, still dapper with his straw boater firmly in place, or the one below, in which he displays considerably more panic. At any rate, the film was shot in LA’s downtown in 1922, and could not have been made if it hadn’t been for Bill Strother, The Human Fly, who co-starred as Limpy Bill. Strother provided Lloyd with his initial inspiration as well as many of the harrowing climbing scenes. But who was Bill Strother, and what happened to him after his star-making turn in one of the most popular movies of his time?

William C. Strother was born in North Carolina in 1896.  Like Harold Lloyd’s character in Safety Last!, Strother started out as a clerk in a clothing store, and dreamed of becoming a successful businessman. In 1915 he was working in real estate when he happened to see a steeplejack climb a tall building. Not long afterwards, Strother was preparing for a real estate auction and anxiously awaiting a shipment of flyers by train, which was late. He was whiling away the time in a drugstore, where he struck up a conversation about his dilemma with another customer.  Strother casually mentioned that if the train didn’t arrive in time he reckoned he’d just have to “climb the courthouse” to pull in a crowd. The next morning Strother opened his newspaper to see that he was scheduled to perform the climb at 2pm sharp that afternoon (the same time that Harold made his ascent in Safety Last! eight years later). It turns out the drugstore patron was also the editor of the town newspaper.

Strother took up the challenge, and at the appointed time, before a crowd of a reported 5,000 spectators, he climbed the courthouse, in a suit no less. Afterwards, Strother sold 35 thousand dollars worth of property, and his stunt career was launched. For the next two years Strother continued to climb tall buildings to promote sales events for the real estate firm,  after which he went out on his own as a professional human fly.

Steeple jacks working on sign for Maurice L. Rothschild store, Fourth and Nicollet, Minneapolis, ca. 1925. photo credit: collections.mnhs.org

This was the height of the skyscraper climbing craze. America was in the midst of a building boom; nearly everywhere you looked in big cities you saw steeplejacks crawling along girders, scaling walls or showing off their acrobatic panache.  These cowboys of the skies inspired skyscraper climbing fever in the postwar period. The New York Times alone ran more than 12 stories about climbers between 1918 and 1928.

Bill Strother climbing the International Bank Building, Main Street, September 7th, 1922

For three years, Strother climbed many of the country’s tallest buildings, including the 57-story Woolworth Tower in New York, while raising funds for the Great War Liberty Drive as well as disabled veterans. Harold Lloyd recalled that he and producer Hal Roach were in the vicinity of the Roslyn Building when they spotted Strother scaling its granite walls. That gave Lloyd the idea for the movie.

In 1922, Strother climbed the International Bank Building on Main Street, as four cameras filmed the event. Lloyd used that footage for the long shots of Harold climbing the department store in Safety Last!.

Bill Strother made several more climbs in Los Angeles to promote the film, but by 1930 his human fly career was over. A fall landed him in the hospital, where he fell in love with his nurse. After the wedding, the young couple settled in Petersburg, Virginia, and opened a boarding house for military personnel from Camp Lee during World War 2. Bill Strother served as the cook.

Strother House, Petersburg Virginia

In 1942 Strother’s Hollywood background landed him a job as the Santa Claus for Miller and Rhoads department store in Richmond. He went on to become one of the more memorable, and most highly paid Santas in the business. Max Factor designed his elaborate makeup. Strother developed a routine in which he would emerge from a chimney, take children onto his lap, and, using a concealed throat-mike on an assistant who eavesdropped on the children in line, would greet the little ones by name, surprising them with his knowledge of their Christmas wishes. Crowds flocked to the store every year. 

In 1957, long before Strother was approaching the age when he would no longer need to take 2 whole hours applying his Max Factor makeup to appear wizened and white-haired, he died in a car accident. He was 61.



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What’s left of Paul Landacre’s Edendale?

I just got back from another Secret Stairs walk, this one in the part of Echo Park known as Edendale, or the “Semi-Tropic Spiritualists’ Tract.” This area was incorporated in 1905 by the Semi-Tropic Spiritualists’ Association  “to acquire, operate and maintain permanent camp grounds in the County of Los Angeles.” At the turn of the century the semi-rural lands just north of downtown provided an idyllic retreat where the city’s mediums, mentalists and spiritualists could hold meetings, lectures and concerts. (You can read more about the history of Echo Park at this excellent blog.)

Along the walk you can see artist Paul Landacre’s ramshackle Craftsman, which was declared a Cultural Historical Landmark in 2006. It’s boarded up, so you can’t get inside, but if you’re wearing a good pair of shoes you can walk around the steep overgrown hillside and get a sense of the wild beauty of the place. Even though you can see the Glendale freeway, it still feels like a campground.

Landacre is considered the country’s premier wood engraver and linoleum block artist of his time. He lived in the cabin from 1932 until 1963, when his wife and work partner of 38 years, graphic artist Margaret McCreery, passed away. Four weeks later Landacre committed suicide.

The Landacres were part of a thriving bohemian art scene in Edendale, including bookseller Jake Zeitlin, photographers Edward Weston and Will Connell, architect Lloyd Wright, writer and UCLA librarian Lawrence Powell, sculptor Gordon Newell, and printer Ward Ritchie. Daniel Hurewitz describes the enclave in his recent book, “Bohemian Los Angeles,”  as a kind of intellectual and creative commune, constantly in and out of each others houses on “The Hill”  with hot dish, new records to sample, and invitations to join organizations like “the Rounce and Coffin,” a club devoted to fine printing.

Many of Landacre’s works depict the neighborhood and the woods around his home in Edendale. His style blends meticulous, Dürer inspired craftsmanship with a sinuous modern sensuality. I love his studies of his wife.


Landacre struggled with various disabilities throughout his life. He said he chose the petrel as his trademark because they learn to fly by jumping off cliffs into the sea, where they have to hurl themselves over and over off the peaks of the waves to save themselves from drowning. They get battered on rocks, bludgeoned by surf, but finally, they take flight. He sometimes used a petrel in his work in place of a signature. You can still see the petrels he carved into the roof vents of his cabin.



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Why should you be careful about eating wild onions?

I joined a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) recently and picked up my first delivery at Knox Presbyterian Church in Pasadena.  The CSA folks stack the boxes in a locked breezeway behind the church offices. My box contained kale, chard, cilantro, broccoli, puny beaten-up spinach, three very tiny elongated yellow and orange beets, four equally stunted but terrifically sweet carrots, parsley, a bunch of romaine and what looked to me to be four small kohlrabi.  I wasn’t sure it was kohlrabi, so I took the safe route and sliced and roasted it along with the beets.  It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t good, either, and since my husband and I weren’t certain what exactly we were eating, and whether we were supposed to have cooked the leafy tops of the mystery vegetable instead of the bulbous root, we became increasingly more paranoid that we had poisoned ourselves. I imagined the headline:  “Journalists Fall Ill Due to Neglected Google Search.”

It reminded me of the time my friends spent the summer during college as national park docents in Hell’s Canyon, Idaho.  Every two weeks a ranger would pack a canoe with food and supplies for them and spend the day paddling to their remote riverside cabin.  But one week the ranger didn’t show up.  And the next week he was a no-show again. By the end of the fourth week Hannah and Isabel were down to half a head of moldy cabbage and some rice. They decided to forage for roots and greens in the woods around the cabin to pad out their evening meal.  Eventually they found a patch of wild onions, dug up the tender white shoots and carted them back for dinner.  They sautéed a mess of onions with the cabbage, doused them with soy sauce, served them up with the rice and enjoyed their stir-fry by the fire.

After dinner they both read for a while before bed, as they did every night.  Hannah had already read everything she brought with her, so she randomly pulled a book off the shelf of the bookcase in the cabin’s living room.  It was a field guide to poisonous plants of Northern Idaho. Leafing through it, she noticed a familiar looking plant. It looked exactly like the onions they had foraged and just eaten in copious amounts.  And then she read the caption:  Panacle Death Camas.  She repeated the words ‘Death Camas’ silently to herself.  “Isabel, look at this” she called out, waving the field guide and pointing at the blur of the photo, “Don’t these look like the onions we found today?  Isabel got up, leaned over Hannah’s shoulder, and read the entry aloud.

Death Camas

The grass-like leaves of death camas can be confused with wild onions (though death camas lacks the distinctive onion odor) and the edible blue camas (death camas flowers are creamy white). This plant is common in grasslands and shrub lands throughout our area. The entire plant is highly toxic and fatal to both humans and animals. Poisoning symptoms include profuse salivation, burning lips, mouth numbness, thirst, stomach pain, vomiting, diarrhea, confusion, slow irregular heart beat, low blood pressure and low temperature, difficulty breathing, coma, and death.

When she finished they both stared back at the photo.

“Oh my god, oh my god.” Isabel gasped, “Do you really think that’s what we ate?

Hannah leaned down to get a closer look at the photo.  “Well, it does look an awful lot like it.”  She looked up at Isabel.  “Do you feel anything unusual?”

“No, I feel fine.” Isabel said.  “But, you know, I don’t usually have so much spit in my mouth.  I keep on swallowing and swallowing but it’s like a fountain suddenly sprouted at the back of my throat.  Oh my god, do you think it’s the profuse salivation starting?”

“I don’t know.  Are your lips feeling hot, too?  Because my lips are feeling a little warm.  And I think, maybe, I think my mouth feels weird, like a little numb.”

“Oh my god, me too.  My mouth feels weird.  It’s all saliva-y and numb, too.  I’m breathing strange too.  The rhythm is all off.”

This went on for a while.  One of them would start to reassure the other that it was all in their heads, and they’d decide they had better read to take their minds off the fact that they might both lapse into comas and die before dawn.  So they’d start reading their books again, but then one would ask the other, “Do my lips look blue?”  Or “How does your stomach feel?  Because I felt a little twinge, like a little crampiness.”  And then the other would come back with, “Yeah, my stomach doesn’t feel so good either, and I’m so thirsty.  Are you just, like, dying of thirst?”  Finally they gave up on reading, and decided if this was going to be their last night on earth, they had better record it for posterity, so that after their deaths their friends and family would know how much they were thinking about them in their final hours.  They hauled out a cassette tape recorder, and recorded their last will and testament.

Two years after this episode I was sharing an apartment with Hannah and Isabel at college. One day I was rooting around in a narrow kitchen drawer looking for tweezers when I discovered an unmarked cassette tape.  “What’s this?”  I asked Isabel.  “Dunno, pop it in the stereo and see.” The stereo was turned up to ear-lacerating THE WHO calibrated volume, and suddenly the house shook with the sounds of two girlish voices half yelping and half whispering over each other again and again, “We love you guys, we love you guys, if we ever did anything to piss you off or hurt you we didn’t mean it, really I didn’t mean it the time I said your ass looked like a bad moon on the rise,” and then they’d collapse into hysterical laughter.  Or perhaps it was hysterical sobbing, I couldn’t be sure.

Isabel flipped. “You found the panacle death camas tape! It’s a joke, we did it as a joke, you are NOT allowed to listen to that.  Hannah said she burned it!”

The tape went on for seven minutes.  Hannah left Jules her favorite Frye boots.  Isabel said Molly could sleep with her boyfriend but only after he “goes out of his mind and loses like 25 pounds from unbearable grief and mourning and guilt about not spending enough time with me ever and drinking too much at football games and shaving Rob’s head that time after Rob passed out drunk.”  Each behest was punctuated by bouts of hyperventilating and escalating fits of giggling.  If they were faking it they were doing a really, really good job.

Isabel told me that after they made the tape, they were both so exhausted from the combined stress of mortal terror and uncontrollable laughter that they decided they had better just go to bed rather than stay up all night monitoring each other’s increasingly spot-on panacle death camas symptoms. She thought she wouldn’t be able to go to sleep, but after she got into bed, she stayed awake long enough to wonder whether she would regain consciousness just before her death, and whether her last thought would be “I’m such a dork for dying because of an onion. Everyone will think it happened because we’re art majors.”


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