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Off Book: Visual Culture Online

Off Book is a new online series from PBS Arts. In their fourth episode, shown below, various web people explain online visual culture -- web videos, animated GIFs, and (ugh) "memes." It's worth a look, at the very least for the origin story of Nyan Cat. For previous episodes check out: Light Painting, Typography, and some video that YouTube is reprocessing right now (perhaps it'll finish by the time you click on it).

Stick around until after the credits. The smartest comments in this thing are just after the eight-minute mark -- this meme stuff is not about making money, it's about making your thing; the "meme" or viral nature of online visual culture is an effect, not a property of the artistic process.

(Via Laughing Squid.)

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Orson Welles: Carl Van Vechten, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain. H.G. Wells: Keystone, Getty Images.
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History
When Orson Welles Met H.G. Wells: Two Years After The War of the Worlds Panic, the Two Icons Finally Met
Portraits of Orson Welles and H.G. Wells.
Portraits of Orson Welles and H.G. Wells.
Orson Welles: Carl Van Vechten, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain. H.G. Wells: Keystone, Getty Images.

Two years after narrating an adaptation of H.G. Wells's 1898 novel The War of the Worlds on the radio—and purportedly causing some listeners to panic, thinking that Martians were invading Earth—Orson Welles came face to face with the British author. Coincidentally, the two men were in San Antonio, Texas for separate speaking engagements, and radio station KTSA arranged for an on-air chat on October 28, 1940.

Welles, who was just 25 years old at the time, had a friendly conversation with the 74-year-old Wells, who expressed his delight at meeting "my little namesake, Orson," and joked that Welles should drop the extra "e" in his name. They touch on the author's visit to the United States, listeners' reaction to the radio show, Adolf Hitler, and Welles's next project, Citizen Kane.

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Cory Doctorow, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
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Pop Culture
When MAD Magazine Got in Trouble for Printing Counterfeit Money
Cory Doctorow, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
Cory Doctorow, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

MAD magazine has always prided itself on being a subversive, counter-culture presence. Since its founding in 1952, many celebrated comedians have credited the publication with forming their irreverent sense of humor, and scholars have noted that it has regularly served as a primer for young readers on how to question authority. That attitude frequently brought the magazine to the attention of the FBI, who kept a file on its numerous perceived infractions—like offering readers a "draft dodger" card or providing tips on writing an effective extortion letter.

The magazine's "Usual Gang of Idiots" outdid themselves in late 1967, though, when issue #115 featured what was clearly a phony depiction of U.S. currency. In addition to being valued at $3—a denomination unrecognized by the government—it featured the dim-witted face of MAD mascot Alfred E. Neuman.

The infamous $3 bill published in a 1967 issue of 'Mad' magazine
MAD Magazine

When taken at its moronic face value, there was absolutely no way anyone with any sense could have confused the bill for actual money. But what MAD hadn't accounted for was that a machine might do exactly that. Around the time of the issue's release, automated coin change machines were beginning to pop up around the country. Used in laundromats, casinos, and other places where someone needed coins rather than bills, people would feed their dollars into the unit and receive an equal amount of change in return.

At that time, these machines were not terribly sophisticated. And as a few enterprising types discovered, they didn't have the technology to really tell Alfred E. Neuman's face from George Washington's. In Las Vegas and Texas, coin unit operators were dismayed to discover that people had been feeding the phony MAD bill into the slots and getting actual money in return.

How frequently this happened isn't detailed in any source we could locate. But in 1995, MAD editor Al Feldstein, who guided the publication from its origins as a slim comic book to netting 2.7 million readers per issue, told The Comics Journal that it was enough to warrant a visit from the U.S. Treasury Department.

"We had published a three-dollar bill as some part of an article in the early days of MAD, and it was working in these new change machines which weren't as sensitive as they are now, and they only read the face," Feldstein said. "They didn't read the back. [The Treasury Department] demanded the artwork and said it was counterfeit money. So Bill [Gaines, the publisher] thought this whole thing was ridiculous, but here, take it, here's a printing of a three-dollar bill."

Feldstein later elaborated on the incident in a 2002 email interview with author Al Norris. "It lacked etched details, machined scrolls, and all of the accouterments of a genuine bill," Feldstein wrote. "But it was, however, freakishly being recognized as a one-dollar bill by the newly-introduced, relatively primitive, technically unsophisticated change machines … and giving back quarters or whatever to anyone who inserted it into one. It was probably the owner of those machines in Las Vegas that complained to the U. S. Treasury Department."

Feldstein went on to say that the government employees demanded the "printing plates" for the bill, but the magazine had already disposed of them. The entire experience, Feldstein said, was "unbelievable."

The visit didn't entirely discourage the magazine from trafficking in fake currency. In 1979, a MAD board game featured a $1,329,063 bill. A few decades later, a "twe" (three) dollar bill was circulated as a promotional item. The bills were slightly smaller than the dimensions of actual money—just in case anyone thought a depiction of Alfred E. Neuman's gap-toothed portrait was evidence of valid U.S. currency.

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