Tuesday Mar. 31, 2015

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The Cat

                The cat
                              licks its paw and
        lies down in
                            the bookshelf nook
                                                                 She
                                    can lie in a
                                              sphinx position
        without moving for so
                                         many hours
and then turn her head
                                to me and
                                          rise and stretch
       and turn
                       her back to me and
              lick her paw again as if
                                    no real time had passed
                     It hasn’t
                                    and she is the sphinx with
                        all the time in the world
                                             in the desert of her time
             The cat
                    knows where flies die
                               sees ghosts in motes of air
                                                   and shadows in sunbeams
She hears
                  the music of the spheres and
       the hum in the wires of houses
                           and the hum of the universe
             in interstellar spaces
                                                      but
                prefers domestic places
                             and the hum of the heater

“The Cat” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti from These Are My Rivers. © New Directions, 1993. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

On this day in 1930, the Motion Picture Production Code was put into effect, setting guidelines for the depiction of sex, violence, crime, and religion in American movies. Also known as the Hays Code after Hollywood censor Will Hays, it was originally a list of 36 "Don'ts" and "Be Carefuls," and as such it was pretty ineffectual and tough to enforce until 1934, at which time films needed to pass review and receive a certificate of approval to be released. The Hays Code was used until 1968, when it was replaced by the Motion Picture Association of America rating system that we use today.

Hays, a former Postmaster General, was hired at the sum of $100,000 a year to polish Hollywood's image, which had gotten rather tarnished in the 1920s by risqué content and off-screen shenanigans. The Supreme Court had ruled in 1915 that the First Amendment right to free speech did not extend to movies, and the film industry adopted the code hoping to avoid further government interference.

Based on a document created in 1929 by a lay Catholic and Jesuit priest, the document was decidedly moralistic in tone and actively set out to promote traditional values. Crime must be punished and criminals must not be presented as sympathetic characters; pre- or extra-marital sex must never be portrayed in a positive, enticing, or titillating light; authority figures must be portrayed with respect; the church and the clergy must not be laughable or villainous. Showing drug use and interracial romance were likewise outlawed. In 1934, the newly created Production Code Administration strictly enforced the code and gave itself the power to change scenes and whole scripts. As a result, Rick and Ilsa's Paris affair and Inspector Renault's sexual extortions in Casablanca were only hinted at. The film's original ending, in which Ilsa doesn't get on the plane but lives in sin with Rick, was also scrapped, and we saw instead Rick's unselfish renunciation of his true love.

In the 1950s, the code was increasingly subverted by more racy foreign films, which weren't bound by the Code, and the lure of television, which offered competition for the moviegoing audience. Some studios began releasing films without the PCA's approval and found that they could still make a buck. Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot (1959) was one such picture, and it was a box office hit with its gambling, bootleg gin, cross-dressing heroes, and Marilyn Monroe's tales of topless pillow fights. The Code's death knell could clearly be heard, even over the movie's hot jazz soundtrack.

There's an old joke that goes like this: A bunch of scientists created a huge machine capable of complex calculations and called it UNIVAC. Eager to test their invention, they asked it, "Is there a God?"The vacuum tubes hummed and the tape spools spun for several minutes. Finally, the machine spit out a little card, on which was written, "THERE IS NOW." On this day in 1951, the Remington Rand Corporation signed a contract to deliver the first UNIVAC computer to the U.S. Census Bureau. UNIVAC I (which stands for Universal Automatic Computer) took up 350 square feet of floor space — about the size of a one-car garage — and was the first American commercial computer. It was designed for the rapid and relatively simple arithmetic calculation of numbers needed by businesses, rather than the complex calculations required of the sciences. It was intended to compete against IBM's punch card-reading computers, but UNIVAC read magnetic tapes, not punch cards, so a special "card to tape converter" had to be designed.

Though the government contract was signed, and a ceremony held, on March 31, the computer wasn't actually delivered until the following December; this was because there was only one UNIVAC I, and Remington Rand wanted to use it for demonstration purposes. So they asked for and received time to build a second computer.

The government was the first big customer of the UNIVACs, with subsequent models going to the Air Force, the Army Map Service, the Atomic Energy Commission, and the Navy. The first commercial sale was to General Electric, for their Appliance Division, followed soon after by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, in 1954. There were 46 UNIVAC I's built and delivered, in all.

The computer first came to the notice of the general public in 1952, when CBS used one to predict the outcome of the presidential election. UNIVAC correctly picked Eisenhower and predicted his electoral count within 1 percent, but the network didn't release the results until after the election was called, so as not to affect the outcome.

It is the birthday of Ukrainian-born Russian humorist, novelist, and dramatist Nikolai Gogol (books by this author), born in the Cossack village of Sorochintsy in 1809. His mother was a descendant of Polish nobility, and his father was a poet and playwright. As a boy, Gogol helped his uncle stage Ukrainian plays in his home theatre, and he also discovered he had a gift for mimicry, so he considered becoming an actor, but his audition was unsuccessful.

While attempting unsuccessfully to land a civil servant job in St. Petersburg in 1828, he remembered a poem he'd written in school, and published it himself, hoping to gain fame as a poet. It was badly received, even ridiculed, and so he bought up all the copies himself and burned them. Then he absconded to Germany with the money his mother had given him to pay the mortgage on her farm.

Eventually, he returned to St. Petersburg and got a government job. He also began writing stories of his childhood memories of Ukraine, combining realistic portrayals of the landscape and peasants with fantastic folkloric tales of witches and devils. In 1831, he published these tales in a two-volume collection called Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanki. The short-story form was still very new, and this, combined with his vivid portrayal of Ukraine, caused a sensation. Poet Aleksandr Pushkin was one of his first admirers and mentors.

In 1834, Gogol was given a position as assistant professor of medieval history at St. Petersburg University, a position he was utterly unqualified for. He lectured by regurgitating a list of historical facts, or mumbled unintelligibly, or didn't show up at all. During final exams, he wrapped his head in a handkerchief and pretended to be disabled by toothache, allowing his colleagues to administer the exams. He managed to pull it off for a year, relying largely on his excellent storytelling skills, before he admitted defeat and resigned his post.

In 1835, he returned to literature, producing several St. Petersburg stories over the next seven years. He also wrote a play, The Inspector General, which opened in 1836 and which he felt was greatly misunderstood. It's not surprising that he was unhappy with the harsh reaction of conservative critics, but he was also annoyed with the praise of the liberals, which he felt was misguided. He left the country and spent most of the next six years in Europe, where he produced his most famous work, Dead Souls (1842). He began the novel in 1835, on the suggestion of Pushkin, and envisioned it as a kind of Dante's Inferno, in which God would use Gogol's talent to guide Russians to a right way of living. He planned two more volumes to echo Dante's Purgatorio and Paradiso and show the redemption of the protagonist, Chichikov, but though he labored on the second volume for 10 years, it was never completed, and he felt God had abandoned him.

"As it is so strangely ordained in this world, what is amusing will turn into being gloomy, if you stand too long before it, and then God knows what ideas may not stray into the mind," Gogol wrote in Dead Souls. He became increasingly religious, even ascetic, and went on pilgrimage to Palestine in 1848. Under the influence of a fanatical priest, Matvey Konstantinovsky, he became convinced that his writing was a sinful act, and he burned the manuscript of the second volume of Dead Souls in 1858. Then he took to his bed, refusing to eat, and 10 days later he died. He was buried at the Danilov Monastery, and years later, when the monastery was to be demolished, his remains were exhumed. His body was discovered to be lying face down, which gave rise to rumors that he was buried alive.

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