Sirens, for the ancient Greeks, were mythical creatures who sang out to passing sailors from rocks in the sea. Their music was so beautiful, it was said, that the sailors were powerless against it—they would turn their ships towards these sea nymphs and crash in the impassable reefs around them.
(The Siren, Edward Armitage, 1888)
There’s moment in Homer’s Odyssey where Odysseus and his men are traveling near an area that Sirens are known to inhabit. Odysseus knows that if he hears the siren’s song, his ship is going to sink. But he still wants to hear what they sound like. So he comes up with a plan: Odysseus has his men tie him to the mast of his ship so that he can’t give commands. And then Odysseus has his men fill their own ears with beeswax so they can’t hear anything. They set sail in striking distance of the sirens’ call.
(Ulysses and the Sirens, John William Waterhouse, 1891. Sirens were sometimes depicted as giant birds with heads of women)
The plan works: Odysseus gets to hear the music, his men don’t, and they sail on to safety—with Odysseus pleading with his crew to crash the boat the whole way.
And for the next 2000 or so years, that’s what a siren was: a creature that makes a beautiful sound.
But that all changed in 1819, when a French engineer named Charles Cagniard de la Tourdecided to give that name to call the artificial noisemaker he was working on the “siren.” (It could, after all, emit sound under water.)
And this new, mechanical siren became one of the signature sounds of the turn of the Century. Sirens announced the beginning and end of the workday at factories. Sirens warned people about immanent bombing raids during World War I. Sirens announced incoming fire engines, and ambulances, and police.
Thanks in part to the siren, the world of the the early 20th Century had become a lot louder than any time in human history. And we can probably assume that the sirens that people heard in cities all over the world sounded nothing like the Siren songs of Greek myth.
At least to most. One man, a composer, named Arseny Avraamov heard music in the cacophony of the modern world.
(Arseeny Avraamov (photographer unknown). Courtesy of Andrey Smirnov.)
In November of 1923, Avraamov stepped onto a Moscow rooftop clutching two oversized flags. The flags were his conductor’s wand—for his plan was to conduct an orchestra comprised of the city itself.
(Avraamov conducting the Symphony of Sirens (photographer unknown). Courtesy of Andrey Smirnov)
Enthralled with the Russian Revolution’s break from the past, Arseny Avraamov envisioned a “music of the future” made from factory sirens, barge foghorns, soldiers’ footsteps, artillery fire, workers songs, steam whistles, and proletarian shouts. Put together, he thought, the clatter of the newly formed Soviet Union could be music.
Avraamov called his composition The Symphony of Sirens.
(Graphical score for Avraamov’s Symphony of Sirens. Appeared in Gorn Magazine, 1923.)
(Graphical score for Avraamov’s magistral. Appeared in Gorn Magazine, 1923. Author unknown)
As it happened, the Moscow debut of the Symphony of Sirens coincided with a military parade, a celebration of the Soviet Union’s sixth birthday. Most people didn’t even know that they were witnessing—and creating—a work of music.
Moscow-based producer Charles Maynes investigated the legend of Arseny Avraamov and his forgotten masterpiece. This story was part of the Global Story Project, presented by PRX with support from the Open Society Foundations.
For more on the avant-garde audio experiments of the 1920s Soviet Union, check out Andrey Smirnov’s Generation Z (though a working knowledge of Russian might be helpful). And Sergey Khismatov, composer of Symphony of Industrial Horns (a reconstruction of Avraamov’s work, which appears in Charles’s story), has a website in English.
Americans have always had an uneasy relationship with gambling. To circumvent anti-gambling laws in the US, early slot machines masqueraded as vending machines. They gave out chewing gum as prizes, and those prizes could be redeemed for cash.
That’s where the fruit logos come from. In fact, in the UK, slot machines are called “fruit machines.”
Despite outward appearances, slot machines have evolved dramatically since they first appeared in 1895.
To play the first slot machines, you slipped in a coin and pulled the lever to set the machine’s wheels in motion. The slot machine’s crank-action operation (and the way it took your money) earned it the nickname of the “one-armed bandit.”
But today, those hand-crank levers are uncommon, and where they do exist they are known as “legacy levers,” because they have zero relation to how the machine actually works. Everything inside a slot machine has been computerized and automated—from how you enter money, to how you bet, to how you play, to how you win and lose, and even to how you feel when leave.
At first, gambling machines existed at the fringes of casino culture—both figuratively and literally. The real money was in tabletop games—or so it was thought—and the slots were set up around the edges of the casino to give gamblers’ wives something to do while they waited.
But then video technology expanded what slots could do. Now a machine could have more rows and columns than the standard three-by-three, and allowed you to place multiple bets on a single spin. A penny slot machine could let you place a hundred different one-cent bets per spin—so even if you win 40 cents on one line, and the machine congratulates you with flashing lights and chimes, you still lose 60 cents.
And that’s how video slots have become the most lucrative—and addictive—game in a casino.
At the same time, a shift happened in how some people gamble (or maybe in experts’ understanding of how people had always gambled). People don’t just play to win—people play to win to play. Gamblers don’t just want to win money, but rather to extend play for as long as possible.
And there’s a specific type of uninterrupted play that gamblers want to extend. Slot players call this being in “the zone.”
“The zone” is a sort of trance-state that players experience while they’re playing. One’s sense of time, space, body, and sense of self can disappear.
So there’s an imperative to design against interruption. Which is why machines lost their levers. It’s why some players will create ways to signal to cocktail waitresses that they don’t want to be bothered. It’s why so many people play a game where the odds of winning are completely unknown.
Our guest this week is Natasha Dow Schüll, an MIT-based anthropologist who has been studying Las Vegas and the culture of gambling for more than fifteen years. Schüll is the author of Addiction by Design.
To learn more about Schüll’s work, check out her book Addicted by Design and her above talk at the Gel 2008 conference. Schüll also created the documentary film Buffet: All You Can Eat Las Vegas, about the fascinating spectacle that is the Las Vegas buffet.
Episode 77- Game Changer
Regardless of how you feel about basketball, you’ve got to appreciate the way it can bring groups of strangers together to share moments of pure adulation and collective defeat.
Case in point: the buzzer beater:
You know this moment: time is running out, the team is down by one, a player arcs the ball from downtown just as the buzzer sounds—and sinks it. it’s exhilarating. It’s heart breaking. And most of all, it’s good design. But it’s not the way basketball was originally designed.
The invention of basketball is credited to James Naismith, a phys ed instructor who had the idea to mount peach baskets to a the walls of a Springfield, Massachusetts gymnasium, and have his students attempt to throw a leather ball through them.
After points were earned, the game was put on hold until someone could retrieve the ball with a ladder.
(The first basketball court at what is now Springfield College)
Eventually, the bottomless basket became the standard, and early 20th Century basketball became a speedier game than in the 1890s. But watch any game from as late as the 1950s and it still seems dreadfully slow compared with how the game looks today.
Here’s what’s missing from the basketball of yore: the shot clock.
During pro basketball’s infancy in the 1950s, nothing forced a player to shoot the ball. If a team was winning, and they wanted to keep their lead, the team could literally hold on to the ball for ten minutes and run the clock out.
The game may not have seemed slow to the players, but it wasn’t a particularly compelling spectator sport. Especially when you had games like the November 22, 1950 bout between the Ft. Wayne Pistons and the Minneapolis Lakers, which had a final score of 19-18.
Fast forward to 1954. Enter Danny Biasone, owner the Syracuse Nationals. Biasone had crunched some numbers, and he believed that some simple arithmetic could save basketball.
By this point, an exciting game of pro ball would have teams scoring 80 or more points—a score that Biasone figured was high enough to retain the audience’s interest. Biasone started tracking how many shots a team needed to make to score the requisite 80-something points, and he found that each team needed to take an average of 60 shots per game.
60 shots per game x 2 teams = 120 total shots per game
One game = 48 minutes = 2880 seconds
Thus, divide the number of shots needed by the length of the game…
2880 seconds per game / 120 shots
And you get…
24 seconds per shot
Therefore, Biasone reasoned, an exciting game of basketball needed a team to take shot every 24 seconds. To hold players to that standard, Biasone instituted a 24-second shot clock, and a new rule to go with it—if a team doesn’t take a shot by the time that clock runs out, it’s a violation and they lose possession of the ball. No more running the clock for minutes at a time.
There’s any number of reasons a basketball fan can love the sport—the pace, the intensity, the sheer athleticism of the players—but it just might be that they all take root in that tiny, nearly invisible 24 second shot clock.
Danny Biasone was posthumously inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2000. Basketball legend Dolph Schayes, who played under Biasone’s leadership on the Syracuse Nationals, offered a tribute at the ceremony.
Reporter Eric Mennel spoke with Dolph Schayes—who played pro basketball both before and after the advent of the shot clock—about how Biasone’s contribution to the game shaped basketball into what it has become today.
On the streets of early 20th Century America, nothing moved faster than 10 miles per hour. Responsible parents would tell their children, “Go outside, and play in the streets. All day.”
And then the automobile happened. And then automobiles began killing thousands of children, every year.
(Credit: New York Times, Nov 23, 1924)
Much of the public viewed the car as a death machine. One newspaper cartoon even compared the car to Moloch, the god to whom the Ammonites supposedly sacrificed their children.
Pedestrian deaths were considered public tragedies. Cities held parades and built monuments in memory of children who had been struck and killed by cars. Mothers of children killed in the streets were given a special white star to honor their loss.
(Courtesy of Peter Norton)
The main cause for these deaths was that the rules of the street were vastly different than how they are today. A street functioned like a city park, or a pedestrian mall, where you could move in any direction without really thinking about it. The only moving hazards were animals and other people.
Turn-of-the-century footage from San Francisco’s Market Street shows just how casually people strode into the street.
If a car hit someone, the car was to blame. From the New York Times, November 23, 1924:
The horrors of peace appear to be appalling than the horrors of war. The automobile looms up as a far more destructive piece of mechanism than the machine gun. The reckless motorist deals more death the artilleryman. The man in streets seems less safe than the man in the trench. The greatest single lethal factor is the automobile. It left shambles in its wake as it coursed through 1923.
(From left: poster by Harry de Bauffer, reproduced in “Poster Wins Second Prize,” Milwaukee Journal, September 28, 1920; poster by George Starkey, reproduced in “Winning Safety Poster,” Milwaukee Journal, September 25, 1920.)
Automotive interests banded together under the name Motordom. One of Motordom’s public relations gurus was a man named E. B. Lefferts, who put forth a radical idea: don’t blame cars, blame human recklessness. Lefferts and Motordom sought to exonerate the machine by placing the blame with individuals.
And it wasn’t just drivers who could be reckless—pedestrians could be reckless, too. Children could be reckless.
This subtle shift allowed for streets to be re-imagined as a place where cars belonged, and where people didn’t. Part of this re-imagining had to do with changing the way people thought of their relationship to the street. Motordom didn’t want people just strolling in.
So they coined a new term: “Jay Walking.”
In the early 20th Century, “jay” was a derogatory term for someone from the countryside. Therefore, a “jaywalker” is someone who walks around the city like a jay, gawking at all the big buildings, and who is oblivious to traffic around him. The term was originally used to disparage those who got in the way of other pedestrians, but Motordom rebranded it as a legal term to mean someone who crossed the street at the wrong place or time.
Over time, Americans began to view their relationship to the automobile as a sort of love affair—which means that logic need not always apply. Groucho Marx even said so himself!
(Credit: Works Progress Administration/Federal Art Poster illustrated by Isadore Posoff, 1937)
We just learned today (literally!) that Peter Norton previously appeared on BackStory With the American History Guys in 2008, speaking with host Brian Balogh (who also happens to have been Peter Norton’s dissertation adviser). Check out that interview here.
We had help recreating historical (and counterfactual) America with the vocal talent of Snap Judgment’s Pat Mesiti-Miller, Stephanie Foo, Anna Sussman, Will Urbina, and Nick van der Kolk. Their recent episode Making It Work is an instant classic!
Support for this episode comes in part from Tiny Letter—email for people with something to say!
Support also comes from Squarespace, offering listeners a free trial and 10% new orders—head to squarespace.com/99invisible and use the code “invisible4”.
Episode 75- Secret Staircases
Wherever there is sufficient demand to move between two points of differing elevation, there are stairs. In some hilly neighborhoods of California—if you know where to look—you’ll find public, outdoor staircases.
The large number of often hidden, public staircases is part of what makes California so great. San Francisco’s tourist-crushing Filbert Steps to Coit Tower are not to be handled lightly. The Monument Way staircase just off the corner of 17th and Clayton leads the intrepid walker to what used to be Sutro’s Triumph of Light and Liberty statute. There’s just something about a secret staircase that beckons you to go out of your way to use it.
(Credit: Charles Fleming)
Charles Fleming is one of the world experts of coastal California’s public stairs. Charles has documented and mapped walking routes through nearly every useable public staircase in San Francisco’s East Bay, as well as in Los Angeles (where he lives). He published his findings in two walking guides, appropriately titled Secret Stairs.
Producer Sam Greenspan met with Charles in the Pacific Palisades, where people from all over Los Angeles had gathered to attend one of Charles’ monthly stair walks.
Charles’s fascination with public stairs began with a basic need to walk. “I was trying to walk my way out of a surgery,” he says. “I had had two hip replacements and two spinal surgeries in the space of about 6 years, and I was up for a third spinal surgery. I simply couldn’t face it…so I told the surgeon I’m not coming, because I had found that a little bit of walking relieved the pain I was in.”
Charles started walking flat streets, the moved to hilly streets, and eventually graduated to the stairs. He looked for a city inventory of all the staircases, but couldn’t find one. So he started making his own.
(Walk #41 from Secret Stairs, the route Charles took Sam through. Credit: Charles Fleming.)
The staircases are generally either from the 1920s boom years or from the Works Progress Administration in the 1940s. They were built because developers in hilly areas needed to find a way for prospective home buyers to get down from their houses to a school, church, or streetcar line. But the Depression, and then World War II, halted most staircase construction.
The “favorite place in San Francisco” referenced in this piece is Sutro’s forgotten monument, the subject of Episode #5
Episode 74- Hand Painted Signs
There was a time when every street sign, every billboard, and every window display was painted by hand. This sounds unremarkable until you actually think about what that actually means.
(Sign painter Chancey Curtis in Mankato, MN, ca. 1930. Courtesy of Sign Painters and Princeton Architectural Press.)
Every single sign in existence was made by a sign artist with a paint kit and an arsenal of squirrel- or camel-hair brushes. Some lived an itinerant lifestyle, traveling from town to town, knocking on the doors of local shops, asking if they could paint their signs.
(From Wagner’s Blue Print Text Book of Sign and Show Card Lettering.
Courtesy of Sign Painters and Princeton Architectural Press.)
And this was the way things were until as recently as the 1980s, when everything was upended by the vinyl plotter. Now, sign-making was faster, easier, and cheaper than ever before. Moreover, vinyl signs didn’t require any skill to make. But over time, they created an environment of anonymity and impermanence.
Our contributor Benjamen Walker spoke with Faythe Levine and Sam Macon about their new book and documentary project, Sign Painters, which profiles more than two dozen contemporary sign painters keeping the tradition alive.
(Ken Davis and Caitlyn Galloway of New Bohemia Signs. Courtesy of Sign Painters and Princeton Architectural Press.)
(A collection of work from New Bohemia Signs. Courtesy of Sign Painters and Princeton Architectural Press.)
Benjamen also spoke with sign painter and cartoonist Justin Green, who draws the comic series Sign Game (among others).
(Courtesy of Sign Painters and Princeton Architectural Press.)
Sam Greenspan also visited New Bohemia Signs in San Francisco to get their take on the sign painting scene. Damon Styer, the store’s owner, was working on a “rickshaw obscura” for the San Francisco Exploratorium.
There comes a time in the life of a modern city where it begins to grow up—literally. Santiago, the capital of Chile, has been going through a tremendous growth spurt since its economic boom of the mid 1990s. It happened fast. In just a few years, single family homes all over the city gave way to high rises.
A man named Rodrigo Rojas played a small part in Santiago’s “upward mobility.” This wouldn’t be that remarkable if he were an engineer, a real estate developer, or an architect. But Rodrigo Rojas is a poet.
This is how it worked: a developer bought an old house, tore it down, and had an architect draw up plans for a new high rise. And then Rodrigo stepped in to give the building a name.
In a way, these names of buildings became Rodrigo’s first published poems. Sometimes these poems were just about flattering his clients—like when he’d named a building after the developer.
But sometimes these poems—like good poetry in general—could be transformative. In one particularly cold and humidneighborhood, El Llano, Rodrigo gave buildings names that made it seem almost tropical. He imagined that residents could forget the weather. Sitting on their balconies, staring off into the slate gray sky, they coulddream of beaches. He called several buildings the Cancúns. Developers were so excited they planted palm trees—which are atypical in Santiago.
Rodrigo even fabricated whole stories in the service of building an identity. He came up with one story about a ship called the Zanzibar, a luxury liner built with the Titanic, but slightly smaller. And the Zanzibar never sank.
“When you mix luxury with survival of tragedy, it’s very important for Chile,” says Rodrigo. ”It’s the search of status, and the survival of earthquakes.”
And if a developer rubbed him the wrong way, he’d sneak in a joke. There’s a building in Santiago named Infantes de Carrión. In Spanish, “infantes” are children of kings, which gives it an air of nobility and prestige. Unless, of course,you happen to have readEl Mio Cid, one of the most famous epic poems in the Spanish language, andknow that the Infantes de Carrion are horrific villains.
But on the whole, Rodrigo was a kind of interpreter of dreams—he tapped into the psyche of what the people of Santiago wanted to become, and tried to give that a name.
Walking through the historic district, it’s just like any other quaint European city. There are tourist shops, horse-drawn carriage rides, church spires. The buildings are beautiful—but they arenot original.
During World War II, German forces razed more than 80% of Warsaw. After Soviet troops took over, much of the city was rebuilt in the with communist style: fast, cheap, and big. They built apartment blocks, wide avenues, and heavy grey buildings. It was communist ideology in architectural form.
But when it came to the historic district of Warsaw—the Old Town and a long connecting section called the Royal Route—they decided not just to rebuilt, but to restore. Builders would use the same stones, and use special kilns to make special bricks to preserve its authenticity. After six years of reconstruction, the new Old Town was opened. Poles were ecstatic to have it back. Even in the West, it was seen as a triumph of the human spirit.
But here’s the thing: Warsaw’s historic Old Town is not a replica of the original. It’s a re-imagining. An historic city that never really was.
(From left: Warsaw’s Old Town Square in 1913; in 1945; and in 2009)
Not long after the Old Town was rebuilt, people started to notice that it was a little bit off. People wandered around and feeling this uncanny disjuncture between the city that they remembered and the city in which they now found themselves.
(From left: Nowy Swiat (“New World”) Street, c. 1915-1918; in 2009)
Despite the push for authenticity, it turned out that the major inspiration for the rebuilding of the city were the paintings of an 18th Century Italian artist named Bernardo Bellotto. Bellotto was a “vedutista,” one who specialized in the Venetian style of painting in which cityscapes are depicted realistically, with their details and documented precisely.
(“Dluga Street,” Bernardo Bellotto, 1778.)
But Bellotto had a tendency to make “improvements” on the cities he painted, relying as much on his artistic license as what he actually observed. The paintings from the 18th Century were never meant to match reality—they were supposed to be better than reality.
(From left: John’s House on Castle Square in the 1920s; John’s House as depicted by Bellotto, c. 1768; John’s House After the 1948 reconstruction.)
For the Soviets, this reconfiguration of the Old Town served two purposes. FIrst, they wanted to send the message that the Old Town—and Warsaw as a whole—would be better than it was before the war. Second, they didn’t want Poles to long for this lost part of the city. By recreating Old Town, the past could stop being such a distraction, and they could get to work on a drastic overhaul of the country.
This week’s episode is sponsored in part by Sidewalk Radio with Gene Kansas, which covers the art, architecture, design and urban planning of Atlanta, GA and beyond.
Design Matters with Debbie Millman
Last year I appeared on Debbie Millman’s Design Matters and now the episode is on Soundcloud for easy sharing. This is my mom’s favorite interview with me. Design Matters has posted 141 past episodes for your listening pleasure!
Though its official name is JFK Plaza, the open space near Philadelphia’s City Hall is more commonly known as LOVE Park, after the Robert Indiana sculpture installed there.
Designed by Edmund Bacon and Vincent Kling, the park was fashioned in high modernism: sleek, granite benches; geometric raised planter beds, and long expanses of pavement. Its success as a pedestrian plaza is debatable.
But it turned out to be perfect for skateboarding.
Skaters started filming themselvesat LOVE Park in the early 1990s. Once their videos found their way to California—the epicenter of the skating world—Philadelphia became a skating destination. As the skateboarding industry grew, so did the popularity of LOVE Park. By the end of the decade, professional skaters moved to Philly just to skate in LOVE everyday.
LOVE Park may have become the Mecca of skateboarding, but skateboarding was never a legal activity there. Police chased (and still chase) away skateboarders, and can issue fines or even confiscate boards. And as the city gentrified, the grip on skating in LOVE Park tightened, and the city announced that the park would undergo a $1 million redesign to make the park unskateable. DC Shoes, a skateboarding footwear company, offered to match the city’s $1 million if they would keep the park as-is and use the money to repair the wear and tear done by the skaters. The city declined, and renovated the park in 2002.
“The major thing they did was they removed all the of the granite benches that were there, these giant slabs of granite that were these great skateable elements,” says Philadelphia architect Tony Bracali. ”And they replaced them with Williams and Sonoma-ish wood benches that look like they belong in an 1890s kind of park.”
(LOVE Park after the renovation. Credit: Tony Bracali)
Though Bracali is not a skateboarder himself, he’s become an advocate for skateboarders’ rights, and argues that skateboarding actually improves the life of public places.
Here’s Bracali giving a tour of LOVE Park after the renovation in a documentary called Freedom of Space (beginning at 36:30)
LOVE Park’s renovation didn’t just upset the skateboarders. Edmund Bacon, one of the park’s designers, was so impressed with the skateboarders’ ability to find a new use for the space he designed, that at age 92, Bacon skated in LOVE Park in protest of the crackdown..
Other cities deployed anti-skating countermeasures as well. In San Francisco, innocuous-looking marine life sculptures were installed around the Embarcadero to render ledges ungrindable, and “skatestoppers” were put on ledges at another SF skating landmark called Hubba Hideout.
But skateboarding culture is a culture of adaptation. DC Shoes, after failing to keep LOVE Park from being renovated, opened their own skate park in Kettering, OH, using similar features found in LOVE Park. Tony Bracali, the architect, is working to create skateable public places. so skating doesn’t have to be confined only to the skate park. And in Tacoma, WA, skateboarders won the right to remove skatestoppers in what is now known as Thea’s Park.
If you don’t skateboard, don’t live in Philly, or don’t want to get chased by the cops, you can skate LOVE Park virtually—and in a few different ways, too. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 was the first to include a LOVE Park level, but some gamers have re-created their own LOVE Park in other games, such as EA Skate 3.
Our reporter this week is Andrew Norton, a Toronto-based skateboard photographer-turned-radio producer. Andrew Norton is a proud graduate of the Transom Story Workshop, led by our friend Rob Rosenthal from HowSound.