Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Movies You Haven't Seen But Should: The Last Wave

The Last Wave is a 1977 Australian film directed by Peter Weir about a white Australian lawyer whose seemingly normal life is turned upside-down when he takes on a murder case and discovers that he shares a strange and unexplained mystical connection to the small group of local Australian aboriginals accused of the crime.
[The Last Wave on the IMDB]

Monday, March 30, 2009

"I Would Like Another Peanut"


Batyr (1969-1993) was an Asian Elephant claimed to be able to use a large amount of meaningful human speech. Living in a zoo in Kazakhstan, Batyr was widely published as having a vocabulary of more than 20 phrases. A recording of Batyr saying "Batyr is good","Batyr is hungry" and using words such as "drink" and "give" was played on Kazakh state radio in 1980.

Like all cases of talking animals, claims are subject to the observer-expectancy effect - may be a meaningless form of mimicry, and are subject to fabrication for many reasons.

Born on July 23, 1969, he lived his entire life in the Karaganda Zoo in Karaganda, Kazakhstan. He died in 1993 having never seen or heard another elephant. Batyr was the offspring of once-wild Indian Elephants (a subspecies of the Asian Elephant). Batyr's mother "Palm" and father "Dubas" had been presented to Kazakhstan's Almaty Zoo by Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

Batyr, whose name is a Turkic word meaning The Dashing Equestrian, The Man of Courage or The Athlete, was first alleged to speak just before New Year's Day in the winter of 1977. Zoo employees were the first to notice his "speech", but he soon delighted zoo-goers at large by appearing to ask his attendants for water and regularly praising (or, infrequently chastising) himself. By 1979, his fame as the "Speaking Elephant" had spread in the wake of various mass-media stories about his abilities. (Many of these contained considerable fabrication and wild conjecture.) Batyr's case was also included in several books on animal behaviour, and in the proceedings of several scientific conferences. These developments drew a spate of zoo visitors, and brought the offer of an exchange—Batyr for a rare Bonobo—from the Czechoslovak Circus; the offer was rejected by the zoo's employees.

A. N. Pogrebnoj-Aleksandroff, the doctor of sciences who studied Batyr's abilities and wrote many publications about him, said of the elephant:

«Batyr, on the level of natural blares, said the words (including a human slang) by manipulating a trunk. Having put the trunk in a mouth, pressing a tip of the trunk by the bottom of jaw and manipulating of tongue, said words. Besides, being in a corner of the cage (quite often at the nights) with the hanging down and weakened his trunk the elephant said words very silently — that sound is comparable with a sound of ultrasonic devices against mosquitoes or as peep of the mosquitoes, which human hearing well hears to approximately 40-year-old age. During pronouncing of words, only the tip of the trunk of the elephant has been clamped inside and Batyr made insignificant movements by a finger-shaped shoot on the trunk tip».

Various audiovisual recordings were made during Pogrebnoj-Aleksandroff's studies of Batyr;some of these have been transferred to Russia's Moscow State University for further study.

Batyr died in 1993 when zookeepers accidentally gave him an overdose of soporific drugs.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Jesus: Our Edible Messiah

Just had to share this bit (or would that be ‘bite’?) of sacrilegiously delicious weirdness my brother, s.a., and I stumbled across in a Long’s Drugs in Hayward, CA.

Do they have a raspberry filled one as well?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

One of Our Favorite Heroes: Trashman


Trashman is a fictional character, a superhero created and drawn by Spain (a.k.a. Manuel Rodriguez) who appeared regularly in underground comix and magazines from 1968 through 1985. Trashman's first appearance was as a full page serial comic strip in the New York City underground newspaper the East Village Other. After moving from New York City to San Francisco in 1970, Spain teamed up with fellow underground comix artists R. Crumb, S. Clay Wilson, Gilbert Shelton and others as contributers to Zap Comix, published by Last Gasp Publishing. Three full length Trashman: Agent of the Sixth International stories were published under the Subvert Comics title by "Saving Grace, a Division of Keith Green Industrial Reality", a Rip Off Press spin-off, from 1970 to 1976.

Since 1976, Trashman has appeared in such publications as High Times, Heavy Metal, Weirdo, San Francisco and the Fantagraphics anthology Zero Zero #2.

Trashman is a hero of the working classes and champion of the radical left causes. The Trashman stories are set in a dystopian near-future America, which has become a fascist police state.

Mild mannered Harry Barnes was chosen by the mysterious and elusive "Sixth International", an underground anarcho-marxist organization, and was trained as a master of the "para-sciences". He is typically cast as the defender of the working-class masses against the tyranny of fascist police/military forces, agents of governmental oppression, and the plots of the rich and powerful to oppress the common people.

He is depicted as a strong, rugged, black-clad militant figure, with dark hair and beard and eyes always in shadow, who wields conventional military weapons such as machine guns, pistols, daggers and explosives in addition to his super powers.

"Harry Barnes, known to the world as Trashman, trained by the elusive Sixth International as a master of the para-sciences, is able to change his molecular structure or decipher a crack in the sidewalk." (quote from Trashman's first comic strip in the East Village Other.)

Trashman's powers include superhuman strength, stamina, speed, agility, reflexes, equilibrium and durability. He is not invulnerable to harm, but his powers usually enable him to avoid being wounded or killed by conventional weapons. He also has the ability to "shape-shift", or alter his shape and molecular structure to any desired form, including non-organic ones. (For example, he once shifted himself into the shape of a copy of the East Village Other.) He retains his mental abilities even while shifted, and can change back to human form at will. Trashman also has a power called "Random Alert Factor", a kind of synchronicity-based precognition, which allows him to intuitively derive information about the world around him by making seemingly unrelated observations of reality. For example, on the inside back cover artwork of Subvert Comics #1, Trashman "hears" a crack in the sidewalk "speak" to him, warning him of an attack from behind.

The Trashman series is one of the very few super hero stories depicted in the underground comix of the 1960s and 1970s, particularly as a recurring character. Trashman's post-apocalyptic setting and Marxist-anarchist overtones expressed Spain's own social and political beliefs, as well as the sensibilities of the anti-Vietnam War movement and the underground counter-culture of the era. Like many underground comix, the Trashman stories are replete with graphic depictions of violence, sex and profanity, which were all but unknown in super hero comics of the past.

There are also many times that the characters break the "fourth wall" boundary between the fiction and the reader, typical of post-modern art. In one exchange with another character, Trashman "admits" he is a comic book character: "You heard Dr. Kranker. It was all figured out thru numantics. It's just odds and fixed points and all that stuff." "Fuck you! Do you expect me to believe that shit?" "Shhh! Don't blow it man. There's all those readers out there watching."

The style and setting of the Trashman comics are similar to many of the post-apocalyptic graphic novels and films that followed it years later, such as the Blade Runner and Road Warrior films, the Dark Night series of Batman graphic novels, and the V For Vendetta graphic novel and film. In an interview with John Ascher, Spain claims no direct influence on these later works, but concedes, "These ideas are out there. The artist pursues a cultural thread, and there are other people pursuing that cultural thread as well, so you exchange these ideas, they’re thrown back and forth, amplified, then the cultural thread goes underground, then it pops up again, often."

Monday, March 23, 2009

... And Jeremy Clarkson Has Hooked One Up To A V8 Engine ...

The Turboencabulator or turbo-encabulator is a fictional machine whose alleged existence became an in-joke and subject of professional humor among electrical engineers.

In 1946 one of the earliest references to the turbo-encabulator appeared in Time on, April 15, 1946 by Bernard Salwen, a New York lawyer working in Washington, DC. Part of Salwen's job was to review technical manuscripts. He was amused by the jargon and wrote the classic description of a non-existent turboencabulator.

In 1955 the turboencabulator was supposedly described by a "J.H. Quick" in "The Institution of Electrical Engineers, Students Quarterly Journal" 25 (London), p184 in 1955. (Other sources give vol 15 no. 58 p. 22, December 1944.)

In 1962 a turboencabulator data sheet was created by engineers at General Electric's Instrument Department, in West Lynn, Massachusetts. It quoted much of the above sources and was inserted into the General Electric Handbook. Perhaps to make the hoax more believable, the turboencabulator data sheet had the same format as the other pages in the G.E. Handbook. The engineers added "Shure Stat" in "Technical Features", which was peculiar only to the Instrument Department, and included the first known graphic representation of a "manufactured" turboencabulator using parts made at the Instrument Department.

Circa 1988 the former Chrysler Corporation "manufactured" the Turbocabulator in a video spoof. See external link in the bottom of this article.

Circa 1997 Rockwell Automation "manufactured" the renamed Retro-Encabulator in another video spoof. See external link in the bottom of this article.

The technical descriptions of all these turboencabulators remain remarkably similar over the years.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Dark Roasted Weirdsville

Here we go again: another article for the always-great Dark Roasted Blend. This time it's on monster helicopters. Enjoy!

Airplanes you can understand: they're basically just big birds. Wings? Check. Tail? Right-o. Body? Absolutely. But helicopters ... well, helicopters are seriously strange beasts. It's a wonder why anyone took Mr. Sikorsky (and his predecessors) seriously, and an even bigger wonder how they got anyone remotely sane enough to sit inside one of those early prototypes and hit the START button.

Beyond the fact that helicopters came out of left field (the far, far left field) the craziness continues when you begin to think about how easy it is for something to seriously -- and traumatically -- go wrong with one. An airplane, after all, can glide if its engines fail. An airship (dirigible, zeppelin, etc) can usually descend if it loses too much lift. But a whirlybird without power has one - and only one -- option: crash.

But, thankfully, Mr. Sikorsky didn't give up and today we are lucky to have the results of his work: incredibly flexible, wonderfully useful, spectacularly nimble aircraft. But although many breeds of helicopter have become quite safe, there is still a lingering kind of madness regarding whirlybirds: the drive to see how insanely huge we can make them.

Unlike airplanes, the size-wars with helicopters began after World War II. While, like a lot of aircraft technology, helicopters were jump-started into being useful and moderately reliable machines, the early 40s aircraft were lucky enough to get into the air -- let alone get into the air without killing the pilot.

But this clumsy infancy didn't last very long. The 1950s saw an explosion of radical -- and in some cases terrifying -- helicopter designs in both the United States as well as the Soviet Union. One of the grander designs is one that is pretty familiar as it's been used by both the US military as well as civilian companies in need of some heavy lifting. Looking something like a twin-rotored banana, the earliest Boeing Chinook popped up in the late 50s but because of its heavy lifting skills, stayed around for a very long time. Modern, updated versions are still used all over the world. The Chinook, in fact, is kind of the poster-child for big helicopters. Got something heavy that needs to go from impossible point A to impossible point B? More than likely the machine connecting the dots is a Chinook. While numbers are rarely impressive, the size of the numbers the modern Chinook can lift are still ones to give pause: 28,000 pounds of cargo, which is about 14 tons of whatever needs to be moved from pretty much any point A to pretty much any point B.

Another Goliath is the stylishly named (well, for the Soviets) MI-6. Again created in the 50s, the MI-6 was a true monster. While not as oddly stylish as the Chinook, this powerhouse could lift 26,000 pounds of cargo (12 tons) -- which was a lot of pretty much whatever you can think of. Almost all of these types of machines were very popular with the Soviets, spawning a whole range of monster helicopters, some of whose descendants are still in use today.

While the Chinook certainly appears odd, and the MI-6 is damned huge, other big helicopters begin to look like the designers were not trying for size as much as just plain weirdness. Take a gander at the also-colorfully-named Soviet MI-10. Although its guts were from the old, reliable MI-6, this misshapen cousin sported four monster legs, giving it the impression of a bug-phobics nightmare dragonfly. Whenever I look at the MI-10 I always wonder if the pilot ever forgot what he was flying and stepped out -- falling dozens of feet to the tarmac.

Not that the US hadn't had its own share of big, and damned ugly, helicopters. Perhaps because it was created by Hughes, the same Hughes of crazy-in-Las-Vegas and the Spruce Goose, the XH-17 Sky Crane was terrifyingly huge: the rotors alone were 135 feet across (the largest in the world). You can barely imagine the pants-wetting that might have gone on when the Sky Crane was fired up and those insane rotors began to swing around and around and around. Luckily, for the sanity of the people watching and the safety of the pilot crazy enough to fly it, the Sky Crane wasn't much of a hit and has since crashed down into aeronautical footnotes.

There are other huge whirlybirds, of course: the Sikorsky CH-54 Tarhe, the Aérospatiale Super Frelon, the Agusta A.101, and so on and so forth, but as we're running out of space, we have to jump to the biggest helicopter to date, and one of the very strangest.

Aside from the bug-geared machines like the Sky Crane and the MI-10, most big helicopters usually look like smaller ones simply writ large. Rotors? Check. Tail rotor for stability? Right-o. Fuselage? Absolutely. But the -- yet again -- poetically named Mil V-12 (from those lyrical Russians) looks nothing like anything before or since.

Sure it has rotors -- it wouldn't be a helicopter without them -- but with the V-12 they are placed on the side of its massive fuselage. Weird, right? But this is BIG weirdness as the V-12 is commonly considered to be the largest helicopter in the world. How big? Think of it this way: see that 747 over there -- that monstrous fixed wing machine? Well, the V-12 is as wide as one of those 747s. But unlike a 747, the V-12 can take off straight up, and haul close to 55,000 pounds at the same time -- or 88,000 if it takes off a bit less like a helicopter and more like a plane.

Sure, helicopters are strange beasts but what makes them even stranger is when they become nightmarish giants. Flying overhead, they go from head-scratching marvel to staggering wonders. Who'd be crazy enough to build them, let alone get behind the controls and fly them?

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

I Hear The Fishing Is Excellent


Vineta or Wineta (sometimes held to be identical with Jomsborg) is an ancient and possibly legendary town believed to have been on the German or Polish coast of the Baltic Sea. It was commonly said to be on the present site of Wolin in Poland or of Zinnowitz on Usedom island in Germany. Today it is said to have been near Barth in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. At all these places, Vineta museums and Vineta festivals try to attract tourists.

Around 970 Ibrāhīm ibn Ya`qūb, envoy of the Caliph of Córdoba, reported that in Pomerania was a large port "with twelve gates", whose armed force is superior to "all peoples of the north".

A Danish fleet destroyed Vineta in 1159 during the Christianizing of the Wends.

Traders in the eleventh and twelfth century reported about a town that was the most powerful port of the Baltic Sea. Bishop Adam of Bremen wrote that Vineta was the largest of all towns in Europe.

There is a legend that Vineta sank in a storm tide because of the sinfulness of its inhabitants, and that before the sinking there were warning portents. It is thought likely that Vineta sank because of shifting of distributary channels in the delta of the river Oder.

In the 1840s, Timofey Granovsky dismissed the town as a Medieval legend. Scientific evidence for the existence of Vineta is still missing.

In fiction, Vineta is visited by Nils Holgersson in Selma Lagerlöf's The Wonderful Adventures of Nils. and also Gunter Grass's The Rat.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Dark Roasted Science Fiction: The Body Snatchers By Jack Finney

As previously mentioned here's another review of classic science fiction novels for the always-great Dark Roasted Blend:

The Body Snatchers (1955)
By Jack Finney

I am not writing this review. Sure, I might look like, sound like, act like, your regular reviewer but I am, in fact, a flawless reproduction .....

There's a very special kind of story out there and, ironically, it is unique and rare: The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson is one, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" by Edgar Allan Poe is another -- and then there's Jack Finney's The Body Snatchers.

What makes these stories special? They are the beginning, a unique and fresh approach: Stevenson created the archetypal story of man's dual nature, Poe created the first detective story, and Finney created ... well, he created pod people.

It's hard in some ways to read Finney's book today. Not that it's not a good or even great book, because it's that and much more. Finney's restrained style is there, his wry sense of humor is there, his enviously lean prose is there, but if you'd never read The Body Snatchers and picked up a copy only today, you'd fail to see its incredible uniqueness against the now-ubiquitous theme. That's a shame because the world owes a lot to Finney's (deceptively) simple little book. For the first time, we saw the horror of a world growm cool and impersonal, distant and nightmarishly "the same."

So powerful is Finney's creation -- as well as the great 1956 film version directed by Don Siegel, starring Kevin McCarthy -- that even the tiniest glimpse of someone acting cold and remote, removed and distant, conjures up the entire idea of the book ... and, naturally, alien seed pods.

Alas, what a lot of people don't know about the book, as it was excised from every adaption of it, is that the aliens in the novel DO have emotions -- it's just that theirs are faked. That twist adds a whole new level of power to the novel: the impostors aren't just unemotional, they actually put a "face" on over their inhumanity -- which is a much more biting commentary than just the simple idea of a cold and drone-like inhumanity. Another horror of the book that's never been adapted is the idea that the pod-people can't reproduce. Once all of humanity has been replaced -- and the aliens have left for space again -- the earth will be left as nothing but a depopulated wasteland.

Again, the book really has to be savored, relished -- re-read again and again to appreciate Finney's sly genius. Just look at the characters. It would be easy to make Dr. Miles Bennell and Becky stand out, and so make the impostors more of a statement about conformity. Instead, they are anything but outraegous, which only adds to the chilling creeps when you realize that they, too, have been less than honest with their emotions, that they are too close -- far too close -- to the impostors in their emotional range, the depth of their feelings. Their fight almost feels like it's a battle against the end of the world, sure, but also to preserve the tiny, almost invisible contrast between the cold indifference of the invaders and the slightly-less-cold indifference of the real humans.

In the end, The Body Snatchers is a truly great book. The trick, though, is to read it for its uniqueness -- and not let all its subsequent impostors and imitators take away from its unique and special shine.

Monday, March 16, 2009

One of Our Favorite Heroes: Vasiliy Arkhipov


Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov (Russian: Василий Александрович Архипов) (1926-1999) was a Soviet naval officer. During the Cuban Missile Crisis he prevented the launch of a nuclear torpedo and therefore a possible nuclear war.

On October 27, 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, a group of eleven United States Navy destroyers and the aircraft carrier USS Randolph trapped a nuclear-armed Soviet Foxtrot class submarine B-59 near Cuba and started dropping practice depth charges, explosives intended to force the submarine to come to the surface for identification. Allegedly, the captain of the submarine, Valentin Grigorievitch Savitsky, believing that a war might already have started, prepared to launch a retaliatory nuclear-tipped torpedo.

Three officers on board the submarine — Savitsky, Political Officer Ivan Semonovich Maslennikov, and Second Captain Arkhipov — were authorized to launch the torpedo if they agreed unanimously in favour of doing so. An argument broke out among the three, in which only Arkhipov was against the launch, eventually persuading Savitsky to surface the submarine and await orders from Moscow. The nuclear warfare which presumably would have ensued was thus averted.

At the conference commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis held in Havana on 13 October 2002, Robert McNamara admitted that nuclear war had come much closer than people had thought. Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, said that "a guy called Vasili Arkhipov saved the world."

In Aleksandr Mozgovoy's 2002 book, Cuban Samba of the "Foxtrot" Quartet: Soviet Submarines during the Year 1962 Caribbean Crisis, a participant of the events, retired Commander Vadim Pavlovich Orlov, presents the events less dramatically (the captain lost his temper, but the two other officers calmed him down).

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Batman, Dracula ... and Andy Warhol?

Batman Dracula is a 1964 American film that was produced and directed by Andy Warhol, without the permission of DC Comics. It was screened only at his art exhibits. A fan of the Batman serials, Warhol's movie was a "homage" to the series, and is considered the first appearance of a blatantly campy Batman. The film was until recently thought to have been lost, until scenes from the picture were shown at some length in the 2006 documentary Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis.

Saturday, March 14, 2009


The Great Stink or The Big Stink was a time in the summer of 1858 during which the smell of untreated sewage almost overwhelmed people in central London, England.

Until the late 16th century, London citizens were reliant for their water supplies on water from shallow wells, the River Thames, its tributaries, or one of around a dozen natural springs, including the spring at Tyburn which was connected by lead pipe to a large cistern or tank (then known as a conduit): the Great Conduit in Cheapside. So that water was not abstracted for unauthorised commercial or industrial purposes, the city authorities appointed keepers of the conduits who would ensure that users such as brewers, cooks and fishmongers would pay for the water they used.

Wealthy Londoners living near to a conduit pipe could obtain permission for a connection to their homes, but this did not prevent unauthorised tapping of conduits. Otherwise - particularly for households which could not take a gravity-feed - water from the conduits was provided to individual households by water carriers, or "cobs". In 1496 the “Water Carriers” formed their own guild called “The Brotherhood of St. Cristofer [sic] of the Waterbearers.”

In 1582 Dutchman Peter Morice leased the northernmost arch of London Bridge and, inside the arch, constructed a waterwheel that pumped water from the Thames to various places in London. Further waterwheels were added in 1584 and 1701, and remained in use until 1822.

However, in 1815 house waste was permitted to be carried to the Thames via the sewers, so for seven years human waste was dumped into the Thames and then potentially pumped back to the same households for drinking, cooking and bathing.

Prior to the Great Stink there were over 200,000 cesspits in London. Emptying one cesspit cost a shilling - a sum the average London citizen then could ill afford. As a result, most cesspits added to the air-borne stench.

Part of the problem was due to the introduction of flush toilets, replacing the chamber-pots that most Londoners had used. These dramatically increased the volume of water and waste that was now poured into existing cesspits. These often overflowed into street drains originally designed to cope with rainwater, but now also used to carry outfalls from factories, slaughterhouses and other activities, contaminating the city before emptying into the River Thames.

In 1858, the summer was unusually hot. The Thames and many of its urban tributaries were overflowing with sewage; the warm weather encouraged bacteria to thrive and the resulting smell was so overwhelming that it affected the work of the House of Commons (countermeasures included draping curtains soaked in chloride of lime, while members considered relocating upstream to Hampton Court) and the law courts (plans were made to evacuate to Oxford and St Albans). Heavy rain finally broke the hot and humid summer and the immediate crisis ended. However, a House of Commons select committee was appointed to report on the Stink and recommend how to put an end to the problem.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Sea's Smiling Face


A Jenny Haniver is the carcass of a ray or a skate which has been modified and subsequently dried, resulting in a grotesque preserved specimen.

One suggestion for the origin of the term was "jeune d'Anvers" (French for Antwerp is Anvers), that is "young girl of Antwerp." British sailors "cockneyed" this description into the personal name "Jenny Hanvers."

For centuries, sailors sat on the Antwerp docks and carved these "mermaids" out of dried cuttlefish. They then preserved them further with a coat of varnish. They supported themselves by selling their artistic creations to working sailors as well as to tourists visiting the docks.

Jenny Hanivers have been created to look like devils, angels and dragons. Some writers have suggested the sea monk may have been a Jenny Haniver.

The earliest known picture of a Jenny Haniver appeared in Konrad Gesner's Historia Animalium vol. IV in 1558. Gesner warned that these were merely disfigured rays, and should not be believed to be miniature dragons or monsters, which was a popular misconception at the time. It is possible that Jenny Hanivers were the source of some tales of dragons during the Middle Ages, and they affirmed people's belief in dragons. Jenny Hanivers may also have started the legends of Mermaids.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Dark Roasted Weirdsville

Here we go again: another article for the always-great Dark Roasted Blend. This time it's on scientific experiments that might - just might - destroy the world. Enjoy!

We like scientists. We really do. After all, without them – and the scientific method – we’d still think lightning was Zeus hurling thunderbolts, the sun was an enormous campfire, and the earth itself was balancing on huge turtles. Without science we’d be ignorant troglodytes – too stupid to even know that we’d evolved from even simpler life forms.

Yep, we love science – but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t scare us. After all, when you’re dedicated to cracking the secrets of the universe it’s kind of expected that sometimes, not often, you might crack open something a tiny bit … shall we say … dangerous?

The poster child for the fear that science and engineering can give us – beyond Shelley’s fictitious Frankenstien, of course -- was born on July 16, 1945, in New Mexico. Not one to miss something so obvious, its daddy, the one and only J. Robert Oppenheimer (‘Oppy’ to his pals) thought “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds” from the Bhagavad Gita – but Kenneth Bainbridge, the Test Director, said it even better: "Now we are all sons of bitches."

Sure, the Trinity Atomic Bomb Test -- the event that began the so-called atomic age, leading to our now-constant terror that one day the missiles may start to fly and the bombs begin to fall -- was the first, but since then there have been all kinds of new, if not as flashy, scientific investigations that could be ten times more destructive. In other words, we could be one beaker drop from the destruction of the earth.

Naturally this is an exaggeration, but it’s still fun – in a shudder-inducing kind of way – to think about all these wildly hypothetical doomsdays. Putting aside the already overly publicized fears over the Large Hadron Collider creating a mini black hole that immediately falls to the core of the earth – eventually consuming the entire globe – some researchers have expressed concern that some day we may create, or unleash, a subatomic nightmare. The hunt for the so-called God particle (also called a Higgs boson), for instance, has made some folks nervous: one wrong move, one missing plus or minus sign, and we could do something as esoteric and disastrous as discovering that we exist in a metastable vacuum – a discovery made when one of our particle accelerators creates a cascade that basically would … um, no one is quite sure but it’s safe to say it would be very, very strange and very, very destructive. Confusing? Yep. But that’s the wild, weird world of particle physics. It's sometimes scary. Very, very scary.

A new threat to everyone on the planet is the idea of developing nanotechnology. If you've been napping for the last decade or so, nanotech is basically machines the size of large molecules: machines that can create (pretty much) anything on a atomic level. The question – and the concern – is what might happen if a batch of these microscopic devices gets loose. The common description of this Armageddon is "grey goo." The little machines would dissemble the entire world, and everything and everyone on it, until all that would be left is a spinning ball of, you guessed it, goo.

Another concern for some folks is that, for the first time, we’ve begun to seriously tinker with genetics. We’ve always fooled with animals (just look at a Chihuahua) but now we can REALLY fool with one. It doesn’t take a scientist to imagine – and worry about – what happens when we tinker with something like ebola or, perhaps even worse, create something that affects the reproduction of food staples like corn or wheat. Spreading from one farm to another, carried perhaps on the wind, this rogue genetic tweak could kill billions via starvation.

And then there’s us. What happens if the tweak – carried by a virus or bacteria – screws not with our food but where we’re the most sensitive: reproduction? Unable to procreate we’d be extinct as few as a hundred years.

While it’s become a staple of bad science fiction, some scientists see it as a natural progression: whether we like it or not, one day we will create a form of artificial intelligence that will surpass and replace us. Even putting aside the idea that our creations might be hostile, the fact that they could be better than us at everything means that it would simply be a matter of time before they go out into the universe – and leave us poor throwbacks behind.

There are frightening possibilities but keep this in mind: if something does happen and it looks like it’s going to be the End Of The World As We Know It, there is going to be one, and only one, place to turn to for help: the world of observation, hypothesis, prediction and experiment.

In other words, we’d have to turn to science. They would have gotten us into it, and only they will be able to get us out.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Did That Body Just Laugh?


Corpsing is a British theatrical slang term used to describe when an actor breaks character during a scene by laughing or by causing another cast member to laugh. Though the origin of the term is unknown, the term might refer to an actor "murdering" the scene. It could also be referring to actors trying to get attention when they are supposed to be lying dead on stage (this is in concurrence with the stereotype of the vain actor). In American comedy "corpsing" is more commonly known as "breaking face".

A BBC TV programme on 18 November 2006 stated an opinion that the term "corpsing" originated when a living actor played a corpse on stage; there was sometimes a tendency to try to make that actor laugh.

Corpsing is not a term exclusive to the theatre, but is also used to describe actions designed to cause hysteria in live television or radio. One of the most famous examples of this is on Test Match Special in the famous "Leg-over" incident and another cricket commentary in which it was noted that "...the bowler's Holding, the batsman's Willey".

Another example is in the sitcom Green Wing. In it, footage is sped-up and slowed down partly for comic effect, but is also used to hide corpsing. Green Wing actress Tamsin Greig (Dr Caroline Todd) has admitted to a tendency to corpse.

Corpsing is also a common event on the BBC Radio 2 Wake Up to Wogan breakfast slot with the show's presenter, Sir Terry Wogan, often breaking into fits of uncontrollable giggles and taking the rest of his team with him, such as Alan Dedicoat ("Deadly"), Fran Godfrey ("Mimi"), John Marsh ("Boggy"), with these occasions often lasting several minutes.

During the "Pete and Dud" sketches in the BBC comedy series Not Only... But Also, Peter Cook would deliberately ad lib in an attempt to make Dudley Moore corpse—and invariably succeeded. The comedian Spike Milligan often succeeded in making fellow cast members laugh during his BBC tv series Q through exaggerated characterisations.

A notable example in cinema is in a scene of Dr. Strangelove, whereby Peter Sellers, delivering a satirical monologue in the character of Dr. Strangelove, causes Russian Ambassador Alexi de Sadesky (played by Peter Bull) to visibly corpse, with the scene making the final cut unedited.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Dark Roasted Science Fiction: A Double Dose of Robert Silverberg

As previously mentioned here's another of several brand new reviews of classic science fiction novels that are either up on the always-great Dark Roasted Blend:

The World Inside (1971)
Robert Silverberg

Welcome to the year 2381. Things are perfect: very, very perfect. Everyone is happy, everyone is satisfied within the towering blocks of the Urban Monads -- monster monoliths of humanity towering hundreds of floors, and thousands of feet, above the surface of the planet.

If there is one rule, one overriding philosophy of the people living in the monads -- beyond their pathological satisfaction with the state of the world and their lives -- it’s “be fruitful and multiply.”

Each monad is made up of 25 cities, each existing within their own sections of 40 floors. Urban Monad 116, the setting of Robert Silverberg’s The World Inside, has a population of 800,000 happy, happy people, with the world population at 75 billion people … and climbing.

There have been many books about the horrors of overpopulation, most notably, Harry Harrison Make Room, Make Room, which you might know better as Soylent Green when it made it onto the big screen. But The World Inside is unique and powerful: a nightmare dipped in a super-sweet glaze, a hell made of smiles and sex. The residents of Urban Monad 116 -- the musician, the bureaucrat, the rebel, and all the other characters that rotate onto the novel’s stage -- don’t know they are living in a nightmare of bodies, bodies, and more bodies. For them, births -- and huge families -- are not just the norm but the ultimate desire of every citizen. To encourage this population explosion, the male residents roam their tower, falling into every available woman’s bed, each carnal encounter a possibility for -- joy, joy -- even more life.

The World Inside is, itself, a seduction. Because the reader follows each character, we first see their world as they see it: a bountiful celebration of humanity, a sensual monolithic rave. But then the glaze, the smiles, and the sex begin to wear thin for both the reader as well as the people of Urban Monad 116 we are following, and the book begins to show the horrifying isolation, the hollow monolith that is their building as well as their life.

As with everything Robert Silverberg has written, The World Inside is a literary treat: vivid and kaleidoscopic, richly textured but also smoothly told. It’s far too easy to read a book like The World Inside and forget the awe-inspiring literary skill and storytelling mastery that’s going on right before your eyes. The World Inside is a book that shouldn’t just be read but re-read and re-read and re-read: once for the pure enjoyment of this unique and powerful story, again to enjoy Silverberg’s magnificent talent as a writer, and yet again to enjoy the story's careful weaving of plot and story and theme.

The World Inside is a perfect example of a master storyteller’s craft: a timeless book and an eternal warning of substituting quantity for quality.

Born With The Dead (1971)
Robert Silverberg

Simple is hard: very, very hard. Not that complexity is, therefore, easy, but writing a story that's elegant yet lean, graceful yet subtly complex, lyrical yet spare -- that demonstrates the skill of a true master. A true master like Robert Silverberg. It's no wonder his Born With The Dead won the Nebula: the story is the absolute essence of a simple, powerful story told with true mastery of the storyteller's art.

The plot is pretty easy to explain. In the future (well, the 1990s ...according to the story) the recently dead can be reanimated, "rekindled" to use the term in the novella. The problem is that while they aren't dead, they aren't quite alive either: distant and removed, the resurrected live among themselves in Cold Towns, forming a whole population, an entire world, apart from the rest of still-alive humanity.

Having recently lost Sybille, his wife, Jorge is having a hard time adjusting to seeing her rekindled into an aloof and distant version of herself. A very hard time. In fact he begins to stalk her as she slips into the life of the reanimated dead. This is where Silverberg again shines: the world he creates, if just for the length of a novella, is rich and sensory, full of sparkling details woven with musically brilliant prose. Silverberg also manages, in the space of a few spare pages, to investigate and ponder the role of death in human society, as well as in various flavors of culture.

The ending of Born With The Dead comes almost too soon, but when it does come it arrives like a thunderclap. And like a thunderclap, when you think back on its arrival, you realize you saw it coming for a long time - a short journey of Jorge and Sybille makes for a perfectly executed story, a tight little package of character, theme, style. Born With The Dead is considered one of Silverberg's best works, and it's definitely worth to seek out.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Movies You Haven't Seen But Should: Targets

Targets (1968) is a film written, produced and directed by Peter Bogdanovich.

The story concerns an insurance agent and Vietnam veteran, played by Tim O'Kelly, who murders his wife and mother and then goes on a shooting rampage from atop a Los Angeles oil refinery. When police start tracking him down, he flees to and resumes his shootings at a drive-in theater where an aging horror film actor is making a final promotional appearance.

The character and actions of the killer are patterned after Charles Whitman, the University of Texas sniper. The character of actor Byron Orlok, named after Max Schreck's vampire Count Orlok in 1922's Nosferatu, is patterned after Boris Karloff himself, who in fact plays the part in his last appearance in a major American film (although Bogdanovich states that, unlike Orlok, Karloff was not embittered with the movie business and did not wish to retire).

In the film's finale, which takes place at a San Fernando Valley drive-in theater, Karloff — the old-fashioned, traditional screen monster who always obeyed the rules — confronts the new, nihilistic late-1960s monster in the shape of a clean-cut, unassuming multiple murderer.

Sunday, March 1, 2009


  • On 24 March 1975, Alex Mitchell, a 50-year-old bricklayer from King's Lynn, England, had died laughing while watching the Kung Fu Kapers episode of The Goodies, featuring a Scotsman in a kilt battling a vicious black pudding with his bagpipes. After twenty-five minutes of continuous laughter Mr.Mitchell finally slumped on the sofa and expired from heart failure. His widow later sent the Goodies a letter thanking them for making Mr.Mitchell's final moments of life so pleasant.
  • In 1989, a Danish audiologist, Ole Bentzen, died watching A Fish Called Wanda. His heart was estimated to have beat at between 250 and 500 beats per minute, before he succumbed to cardiac arrest.
  • In 2003, Damnoen Saen-um, a Thai ice cream salesman, is reported to have died while laughing in his sleep at the age of 52. His wife was unable to wake him, and he stopped breathing after two minutes of continuous laughter. It is believed that he died either of heart failure or asphyxiation.