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|The B Side by Ben Yagoda. |
Christmas music has long been big business for the recording industry:
"Seasonal songs [became a recording industry] commodity, especially when it came to the big kahuna of seasons. The trailblazer was Crosby's record of Berlin's 'White Christmas,' which annually made the top ten from 1942 through 1949 and topped out at number thirteen the next two years. The example was impossible for songwriters, publishers, and A&R men to ignore, and they made the postwar years the heyday of the holiday novelty number, producing scores of contenders each year. The most direct imitation of Berlin was 'Blue Christmas,' a country-and-western hit for Ernest Tubb in 1950 and for Elvis Presley seven years after that. But it turned out that the most successful Christmas records tended to have two common qualities: catchy, upbeat melodies and imagined unlikely scenarios for anthropomorphized yuletide characters. 'Frosty the Snowman' was a triumph in 1950 for the cowboy turned mainstream singer Gene Autry, and 'I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus' for thirteen-year-old Jimmy Boyd in 1952. The biggest Christmas song of all came about with Johnny Marks's 'Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.' Gene Autry's recording, released by Columbia just before Mitch Miller's arrival at the label, shot to number one and had impressive legs.
"In 1950, Paramount was putting together a Bob Hope movie called The Lemon Drop Kid; based on a Damon Runyon story, it was an obvious attempt to capitalize on the popularity of Frank Loesser's Broadway hit Guys and Dolls. It was set in New York at Christmas, and the studio asked Livingston and Evans for a holiday number. Ever the efficient and compliant craftsmen -- and aware that their contract was up for renewal in a brutal time for studio songwriters -- they produced a simple but memorable song called 'Tinkle Bells,' about the Salvation Army workers on busy city streets. When Jay told his wife about it she said, 'Are you out of your mind? Do you know what the word 'tinkle' means to most people?' The boys kept the melody and changed title to 'Silver Bells.' Bing Crosby and Carol Richards's recording, released before the film, was so popular that the studio called Hope co-star Marilyn Maxwell into the studio to reshoot a more elaborate production number. Hope made 'Silver Bells' his Christmas theme, performing it every year on his holiday television special. The website devoted to Ray Evans's legacy website lists 224 recordings of a song, from Clay Aiken through Stevie Wonder. And, yes, their contract was renewed.
"Another postwar holiday hit was 'The Christmas Song,' which is sometimes known by its opening line, 'Chestnuts roasting on an open fire.' Mel Tormé and Bob Wells had written it back in 1944, and it shared some of the wartime melancholy of Berlin's own chestnut and 'Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.' The first recording was by King Cole Trio, a jazz combo consisting of guitar, bass, and Nat King Cole on piano. The sharp-eared Johnny Mercer signed the group after cofounding Capitol Records, and the group produced jump jazz of the highest order, often featuring Cole's intimate, precise, and swinging vocals. Through 1946, the group charted with a half-dozen numbers, including 'Straighten Up and Fly Right' and '(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66.' But they didn't crack the top ten until they replaced swing with sentiment. That word was part of the title of their first big hit, '(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons,' which was number one for six consecutive weeks in the fall of 1946. 'The Christmas Song' was originally recorded with just the trio. But Cole, shrewd about the market, insisted on a new session, with strings and a harp. That version became a perennial classic."
The B Side: The Death of Tin Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great American Song
Author: Ben Yagoda
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Copyright 2015 by Ben Yagoda
Knocking on Heaven's Door by Lisa Randall. The "Large Hadron Collider" (LHC) is the largest, coldest, most magnetic, and most expensive machine ever built:
"The collisions [scientists] study at the LHC are akin to those that took place in the first trillionth of a millisecond after the Big Bang. They will teach us about small distances and about the nature of matter and forces at this very early time. You might think of the Large Hadron Collider as a super-microscope that allows us to study particles and forces at incredibly small sizes -- on the order of a tenth of a thousandth of a trillionth of a millimeter.
"The LHC achieves these tiny probes by creating higher energy particle collisions than ever before achieved on Earth -- up to seven times the energy of the highest existing collider, the Tevatron in Batavia, Illinois. ... Quantum mechanics and its use of waves tells us these energies are essential for investigating such small distances. And -- along with the increase in energy -- the intensity will be 50 times higher than at the Tevatron, making discovering the rare events that could reveal nature's inner workings that much more likely.
"Despite my resistance to hyperbole, the LHC belongs to a world that can only be described with superlatives. It is not merely large: the LHC is the biggest machine ever built. It is not merely cold: the 1.9 kelvin (1.9 degrees Celsius above absolute zero) temperature necessary for the LHC's superconducting magnets to operate is the coldest extended region that we know of in the universe -- even colder than outer space. The magnetic field is not merely big: the superconducting dipole magnets generating a magnetic field more than 100,000 times stronger than the Earth's are the strongest magnets in industrial production ever made.
Map of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN
"The LHC also stores huge amounts of energy. The magnetic field itself stores an amount equivalent to a couple of tons of TNT, while the beams store about a tenth of that. That energy is stored in one-billionth of a gram of matter, a mere submicroscopic speck of material under ordinary circumstances. When the machine is done with the beam, this enormously concentrated energy is dumped into a cylinder of graphite composite eight meters long and one meter in diameter, which is encased in 1,000 tons of concrete.
"The extremes achieved at the LHC push technology to its limits. They don't come cheaply and the superlatives extend to cost. The LHC's $9 billion price tag also makes it the most expensive machine ever built."
Take a Virtual Tour of the Large Hadron Collider at http://home.cern/topics/large-hadron-collider
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Ten Restaurants that Changed America by Paul Freedman. We all recognize the cuisines of places like France, Mexico, and Thailand. What is America's cuisine?:
"Is there such a thing as American cuisine? In many countries the very idea provokes amusement because Americans are assumed to be uninterested in any food that doesn't come from McDonald's. More knowledgeable foreign observers admire the variety of American 'ethnic' restaurants but are mystified about what, if anything, native to the United States underlies this diversity. Even in a country like Germany, with a multitude of Italian, Greek, Turkish, and Thai restaurants, there is a strong sense of regional and national ingredients and recipes -- something missing from the modern United States.
"In the nineteenth century, the United States presented considerable regional culinary variety, from Chesapeake Bay terrapin (turtles) to New Orleans gumbo; from Low Country (South Carolina) perlou (a rice dish) to Western bison and other game. The twentieth century witnessed the erosion of regional distinction caused by a decline in the number of farms and the rural population; the degradation of the environment, thus endangering local specialties; and the proliferation of burgers, pizza, doughnuts, and other fast-food items that are the same from one end of the country to the other. ... Antoine's [Restaurant in New Orleans] ... exemplifies the most robust of American regional food traditions -- that of Louisiana and particularly New Orleans. Apart from isolated areas of the country, however, there are few other places that have preserved their culinary legacies except in an artificial and commercialized sense, as found in Texas chili cook-offs, Maine lobster festivals, and the like.
"Dividing the country into culinary regions is too weak to support a unified concept of American cuisine, however, and so dining out in the United States might better be considered in terms of an eclectic collection of options, particularly with the availability of dozens of different ethnic restaurant types. As early as 1873, the indefatigable and celebrated French writer Alexandre Dumas observed that, after Paris, San Francisco had the most restaurants and that unlike Paris, there were restaurants representing the cuisine of every country, even China. Twenty years later, L. J. Vance, writing in Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly, could boast of New York's culinary internationalism, where it was possible to 'breakfast in London, lunch in Berlin, dine in Paris and have supper in Vienna.' In 1892 San Francisco was again singled out for its variety. A reporter named Charles Greene, writing in The Overland Monthly, said that San Francisco provided the gastronomic equivalent of a grand tour, and he was a little more adventurous than his New York colleague in including Chinese, Italian, Jewish,
and Mexican possibilities.
"A correspondent for a magazine called The Steward in 1909 declared that with regard to food, as with much else, 'Europe lives on tradition, America lives on variety,' a perceptive remark that shows a fundamental difference between what Americans look for in food in contrast to the approach of almost everywhere else. To take just one example: Lucknow, India, has a local specialty called shirmal -- a flat, leavened bread flavored with saffron. Derived from Persian influence, this bread is found elsewhere in northern India but is associated particularly with Lucknow, where, in fact, there is a street whose shirmal makers are renowned. On that single lane crammed with shirmal vendors, one stand is generally regarded as producing the best example (in terms of taste and texture) of something that can be found everywhere on this street, in the city, and throughout this part of Uttar Pradesh. The shirmal has only a few ingredients, but it requires skill in preparing, resting, and baking the dough. Factors affecting the quality of the shirmal include the difficult process of incorporating the ghee (clarified butter) into the dough, where to place the dough in the tandoor oven, when to splash on the saffron milk, oven temperature, timing, and so forth.
"The erosion of regionalism and the standardization of food supply and preparation have tended to promote variety rather than comparison among different kinds of the same thing. Instead of discussions over who can best make tortellini in Bologna, or dosas in Chennai or rice pilaf in Isfahan, the American scene has offered mass-produced products in many flavors. The yogurt might not be very good, since it is produced in a factory and consumed hundreds of miles from where it was prepared, and weeks afterward, but it is available in dozens of flavors; the orange juice in the market comes to processing plants in trucks and then is sealed in plastic-coated paperboard cartons, but it can be purchased with pulp, added calcium, without pulp, or mixed with grapefruit juice. Providing options is a way of diverting the subject away from quality."