Sunday, May 31, 2009

Bottom's Up, George!

George Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence (21 October 144918 February 1478) was the third son of Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York, and Cecily Neville, and the brother of kings Edward IV and Richard III. He played an important role in the dynastic struggle known as the Wars of the Roses. He is also remembered as the character in William Shakespeare's play Richard III who was drowned in a vat of Malmsey wine ....

... The Neville sisters were heiresses to their mother's considerable estates, and their husbands vied with one another for pride of place, with Richard eventually winning out. Clarence, who had made the mistake of plotting against his brother Edward IV, was imprisoned in the Tower of London and put on trial for treason. Following his conviction, he was "privately executed" at the Tower on 18 February 1478, and the tradition grew up that he had been drowned in a butt of Malmsey wine. The tradition may have originated in a joke, based on his reputation as a heavy drinker. However, a butt was equal to three hogsheads — 105 imperial gallons (477.3 litres) — enough to easily drown in. A body, believed to be that of Clarence, which was later exhumed, showed no indications of beheading, the normal method of execution for those of noble birth at that time. Another possibility is that George's remains were sent to the abbey in a barrel of Malmsey, as Horatio Nelson's were sent home in a barrel of brandy.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

An Evil Wind

In geology, a mazuku is a pocket of oxygen-poor air that can be lethal to any human or animal life inside. The term comes from Swahili and means "evil wind." Mazukus are created when an odorless and invisible gas such as carbon dioxide accumulates in pockets low to the ground. CO2 is heavier than air (oxygen and nitrogen) which causes it to stay close to the ground, and is also undetectable by human olfactory or most visual conditions. (Other volcanic gases such as sulfur dioxide have pungent odors and sometimes a yellowish/off white haze associated with them). Gases that form mazukus themselves simply displace the local oxygen supply, essentially creating the outdoor hazard one would expect in a confined space depleted of breathable air.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Movies You Haven't Seen But Should: Renaissance

Renaissance is a 2006 animated cyberpunk/science fiction detective film by French director Christian Volckman. It was co-produced in France, United Kingdom and Luxembourg and released on 15 March 2006 in France and 28 July 2006 in the UK by Miramax Films. Renaissance features a rare visual style in which almost all images are exclusively black and white, with only occasional colour used for detail.

In Paris in the year 2054, where every deed and gesture is checked and filmed, Ilona Tasuiev, a young female scientist, is kidnapped. Avalon, the megalithic corporation for which Ilona works, puts pressure on Karas, a controversial policeman specialising in abductions, to find her as quickly as possible. But Karas soon feels a little presence in his wake.

He isn't alone in the quest for Ilona, and his pursuers seem poised to overtake him. Finding Ilona becomes vital: the brilliant young woman is involved in a conspiracy which is bigger than any imaginable. She holds the key to a secret that puts humanity's future in question: The Renaissance Protocol...

[Renaissance on the IMDB]

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Ooops (almost)


Able Archer 83 was a ten-day NATO command post exercise starting on November 2, 1983 that spanned Western Europe, centred on SHAPE's Headquarters situated at Casteau, north of the Belgian city of Mons. Able Archer exercises simulated a period of conflict escalation, culminating in a coordinated nuclear release. The 1983 exercise incorporated a new, unique format of coded communication, radio silences, participation by heads of state, and a simulated DEFCON 1 nuclear alert.

The realistic nature of the 1983 exercise, coupled with deteriorating relations between the United States and the Soviet Union and the anticipated arrival of Pershing II nuclear missiles in Europe, led some members of the Soviet Politburo to believe that Able Archer 83 was a ruse of war, obscuring preparations for a genuine nuclear first strike. In response, the Soviets readied their nuclear forces and placed air units in East Germany and Poland on alert. This relatively obscure incident is considered by many historians to be the closest the world has come to nuclear war since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The threat of nuclear war abruptly ended with the conclusion of the Able Archer 83 exercise on November 11.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Pushing Up The Tulips -

Herbert Khaury (April 12 1932 – November 30 1996) better known by the stage name Tiny Tim, was an American singerukulele player, and musical archivist. He was most famous for his rendition of "Tiptoe Through the Tulips" sung in a distinctive high falsetto / vibrato voice (his normal singing voice was baritone). He was generally thought of as a novelty act, though his records display a wide knowledge of American songs. He had no official middle name, though some web sites report that it was "Butros," his father's first name, but adopted Buckingham for no explained reason. Accordingly, his headstone reads "Khaury / Herbert B / Tiny Tim / 1932 1996".

Toward the end of his life Tiny Tim became a fixture at "Spooky World," an annual Halloween-themed exposition in Massachusetts, just outside of Boston. He also appeared in tongue-in-cheek television commercials for area merchants.

He befriended a young musician and neighbor, Conductor Jack Norton, acted as his mentor, and taught Norton how to play the ukulele.

In September 1996, he suffered a heart attack just as he began singing at a ukulele festival at the Montague Grange Hall (often confused in accounts of the incident with the nearby Montague Bookmill, at which he had recorded a video interview earlier that same day) in Montague, Massachusetts. He was hospitalized at the Franklin County Medical Center in Greenfield, Massachusetts for approximately three weeks before being discharged with strong admonitions to no longer perform due to his state of health and the difficulty of proper dietary needs for his diabetic and heart conditions.

He continued to play concerts despite the warnings that, due to the fragile state of his heart, he could die at any moment. While playing "Tiptoe Through the Tulips" at a Gala Benefit at The Woman's Club of Minneapolis on 30 November of that year, he suffered another heart attack on stage. He was led out by his third wife, Susan Marie Gardner ("Miss Sue", whom he had married on 18 August 1995), who asked him if he was okay. Tim responded, "No, I'm not!", his final words. He collapsed shortly thereafter and was rushed to Hennepin County Medical Center, where he died after doctors tried to resuscitate him for an hour and fifteen minutes. He is interred in the mausoleum ofLakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Dark Roasted Weirdsville (flashback)

If you like your cities big - REALLY big - then head over to Dark Roasted Blend to read about the acrologies of Paolo Soleri:

Whatever happened to the future? It's still around, of course, mostly in Europe and Japan, but over the years the Fantastic World of Tomorrow's gotten ... cheaper, simpler, and -- most tragically of all -- the future's gotten too damned small.

Luckily there are a few visionaries left who aren't frightened of a future that doesn't fit in your pocket, a tomorrow with a vast scope, a monstrously dramatic scale, a time of awe-inspiring dimensions: they've dared to look over the horizon and visualize a truly big tomorrow.

One of those more special of special minds, someone who's imagined a future world that’s big on almost a geologic scale, is Paolo Soleri.

Born in Italy in 1919, Soleri studied with Frank Lloyd Wright (you might have heard of him) before setting up his own architecture studio in Arizona. It was in Scottsdale that Soleri began to dream big. Very, very, very big.

Soleri created the concept of an "arcology," a combo of architecture and ecology. The idea is pretty uncomplicated, though what Soleri did with his concept is wonderfully elaborate: cities have traditionally been urban slime mold, grinding away at the planet as they’ve crawled across the landscape. So why not create cities with as many people as possible in a small as possible footprint? And not only that but why not also make these super cities magnificently, tremendously, elegantly … beautiful?

One of my treasured belongings as a kid was a copy of Soleri’s Arcology: The City in the Image of Man. I would spend hours carefully turning page after page, mesmerized by Soleri’s majestic future, imagining myself strolling under immense vaults, along astounding spans, gazing up at soaring rises, down into artificial canyons of homes, stores, schools, businesses, living in a city the size of … well, big.

Really, really friggin’ big.

Just look at his design for Babel (IID, if you want to be specific): an immense flared cylinder of apartments sitting in a saucer-shaped base of commercial and civil spaces, with some parks, of course. Total population? 550,000. That’s Seattle. That’s Portland. All in one structure -- a structure that’s 1,900 meters high and 3,000 meters at its widest.

Okay, okay, you ignorant Americans: that’s more than a mile high and almost two miles wide. Want even more perspective? If you look at one of Soleri’s fantastic plans you’ll often see a strange little symbol to one side, an icon to give you an idea of the scale of his designs: an icon that represents the Empire State Building.

Then there’s Hexadredon, an incredible geometric mountain rising on three immense supports. Home to more than 170,000, it would rise half a mile into the sky and stretch about that same distance across the landscape. Like all of Soleri’s designs, it looks more like a cathedral carved from a mountain than what you might envision for a single vast building; as much art as architecture, as much sculpture as a structure for living.

Soleri’s designs are not limited to the dull flatness of the plains. Some of them, like the poetic Stonebow that bridges a canyon with its 200,000 population, the dam city of Arcodiga, or Arcbeam whose mere 65,000 inhabitants live on the side of a cliff, show his amazing ability to visualize a future not only of incredible size but also to work with any location.

Even the ocean: Novanoah’s 400,000 people live, work, and play in a city floating at sea. Even space: Asteromo’s 70,000 people live, work, and play in near-earth orbit.

But what’s even more amazing than Soleri’s designs and grander-than-grand visions is that out in the cactus and scorpion wilds of Arizona he and his students are building one: Arcosanti.

Originally planned to house a grander number, the new target for this test-bed arcology is about 5,000 residents, mostly students and artists. Right now it’s home to only about 120 -- with roughly 50,000 tourists stopping by every year to see how things are going.

Sure arcosanti might be a tad on the small side, and, yes, it’s not exactly been blossoming into reality at a rapid pace, but it’s there nonetheless: a beautifully arched and vaulted beginning to what could be a staggeringly beautiful, and breathtakingly immense, future.

Say what you want about the realism of Soleri’s visions but you have to always give him and his student this: in a world where the future is small and cheap they are looking toward tomorrow with big dreams: big, hopeful, dreams.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

More Animals That Go BOOM!

Exploding rats were a weapon developed by the British Special Operations Executive in World War II for use against Germany. Rat carcasses were filled with plastic explosives. The idea was that when what seemed to be a dead rat was discovered in the boiler room of a factory, the stoker tending the boiler would likely dispose of the unpleasant discovery by shoveling it into the furnace. The dummy rat would explode, causing significant damage. However, the first shipment of carcasses was intercepted by the Germans, and the plan was dropped. The Germans exhibited the rats at top military schools, and conducted searches for further exploding rats. (C.f. coal torpedoes.)

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Dark Roasted Weirdsville (flashback)

Head over to Dark Roasted Blend for a article on the weird phenomena of mass hysteria:

For a topic involving laughter, what you’re about to read is not amusing. Creepy and disturbing, yes. Funny, no.

Things supposedly started innocently enough. Kashasha, near Lake Victoria in Tanzania in 1962: One girl in a boarding school there told another girl a joke. Maybe, “Have you heard the one about?” or “A Jew, an Indian, and Herbert Hoover walk into a bar …” or “Take my wife, please … ” Whatever the setup, the delivery, or punch line, the result was laughter. Whether it was a giggle, a guffaw, a chortle, a snort is irrelevant. The listener found it funny.

But then things went dark, weird, and creepy: one girl laughed, but then so did another, and then another, and then another, and then another.

After exposure, the incubation period from nothing to hysteria was short, from a few hours to a couple of days. There was no fever, no physical symptoms, just laughter and occasional crying between short moments of exhausted recuperation. When victims were restrained they sometimes became violent.

No one knew what to do. The school administrators were puzzled, local doctors were confused. Trying to put a lid on the phenomena, the administrators shut the school down.

But that was too little, too late: Whatever it was began to spread. It infected other schools and worked its way into the village, seemingly carried by infected students. It traveled to another village 20 miles away, and another 55 miles from Kashasha.

Even weirder, it wasn’t a constant thing. Like little hysterical explosions, the laughter would pop up, disable small groups for days at a time, then vanish.

Want to know what it was like? Well, it wasn’t funny, I can tell you that: one victim in Tanganyik reported watching it spread around him, hitting one neighbor after another: giggles, guffaws, chortles, snorts – horrible, nightmarish laughter. Terrified, he retreated into his home. But then he began to feel it too, a compulsion to join in with the hideous joke. He shouted and cried and – naturally -- laughed throughout the night.

The phenomena is called Mass Psychogenic Illness, more commonly known as mass hysteria, and although the Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic is an extreme version, it’s more common than you think. In fact what’s really scary about the giggling madness that sprung from one girl’s joke in Kashasha isn’t that it occurred but that many researchers believe it happens so often, and is so powerful, that we simply aren’t aware of it. Or rather we aren’t aware how much the phenomena controls us.

Ever hear the one about the Mad Gasser of Mattoon? In the 1930s -- all the way through to the mid 40s -- the residents of Botetourt County, Virginia, and Mattoon, Illinois, were terrorized by a surreal specter. Also called the “Anesthetic Prowler" or "The Phantom Anesthetist," he was supposedly a dark, mysterious figure responsible for dozens of victims falling ill from mysterious gasses flooding their homes. Whole families reported sudden attacks of choking, dizziness, headaches and various respiratory ailments.

The cops couldn’t catch him and doctors were baffled by the mysterious ailments of his victims. The FBI was called in but they couldn’t catch him either. Bulletins were circulated, newspapers warned residents to be on the lookout, vigilante groups roamed the streets trying to catch him -- in short, everyone went more than a little nuts trying to catch this gassy assailant.

But evidence suggests that he never existed. Sure, lots of people got sick, dozen and dozens and dozens more reported seeing dark and mysterious figures up to hideous no good stalking the night, and the authorities were run ragged with reports but there were no leads, nothing solid; nothing but suggestion, victims suffering from anxiety and fear, and the bizarre power of mass hysteria.

Ever hear the one about the Monkey Man of New Delhi? About four feet tall, sporting a metal cap and steel claws, he terrorized many a New Delhi night in 2001. Victims reported being savagely scratched and bitten by the odd ape. What’s worse is what happened to people scared of the ape: an unlucky short man was beaten by a mod who suspected him of being the ape, a pregnant woman fell down some stairs because neighbors had shouted that the ape had been seen, and others were said to have seriously injured themselves running away from what they thought was the ape.

The punch line for the Monkey Man is the same as for the laughing girls of Kashasha and the Mad Gasser of Mattoon: it was all in their minds.

You might guffaw and giggle about how silly those girls behaved, or how naive the folks of Mattoon were, or how ridiculous the Monkey Man sounds, but before you do too much laughing think about what some researches are hypothesizing: that much of what we believe about the world, about its horrors and mysteries -- including witch trials of every sort, communist conspiracies, UFOs, Satanic cults, white slavery, environmental illnesses, and so much more -- are nothing but signs of the tremendous power of the human mind, coupled with the drive to become one with the crowd in order to deceive itself.

Now ain’t that funny?

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Dark Roasted Weirdsville

Here we go again: another article for the always-great Dark Roasted Blend. This time it's about magnificent kinetic sculptures. Enjoy!

The word definitely gets tossed around way too much -- and too frivolously -- but even so, everyone pretty much agrees that Hemmingway was one, Einstein was one, Michelangelo was one, Frank Lloyd Wright was one, Freud was one ….

And then there’s Theo Jansen.

Without a doubt, with no hyperbole: Theo Jansen is an absolute genius.

You might not have heard of this particular Dutchman – unlike, say, others like Vermeer, Leeuwenhoek, or Huygens – but believe me, Theo Jansen deserves to be among their genius standing.

You see, Theo Jansen is an artist, but not just any artist. He doesn’t paint, doesn’t work in clay. Theo Jansen is a sculptor: he creates, from his own mind and imagination, intricate mechanisms. There have been other sculptors who've created work that moves – and there will be again – but what makes Theo’s work so amazing, so blindingly brilliant, is that his creations walk, stroll, stride, and amble. Yes, they walk.

Instead of being powered by primitive steam or modern electricity,
Theo’s creations are propelled by the air, by wind. They are strolling clipper ships, sauntering sailboats.

Just watch them -- they’re hypnotic, dreamy. Undulating beasts marching along the seaside, elaborate mechanisms walking through the surf spray ….

But Theo Jansen is not the only magnificently original artist out there doing things with gears and pulleys and wire and leverage. Many other artist/engineers are working on a wide range of ways to mix mechanical joints with organic precision to create devices that walk like living creatures -- though whether those creations are as whimsical as Jansen's is open to debate.

One truly spectacular group, lead by François Delarozière, is called La Machine. Uniting engineers – who know how to make things move –and artists – who have outrageous visions -- La Machine has created some truly awesome devices for some truly amazing events.

Recently, for instance, a 37-ton spider descended down the side of a building in Liverpool, in the United Kingdom. La Princesse, as she was called, proceeded through the city, her elegantly mechanical walk controlled by a team of skilled puppeteers. To say that the sight of this playfully nightmarish creature took the city by surprise is an understatement.

But the masterminds of La Machine have had other tricks up their wildly inventive sleeves, as well. In 2005, in public squares in cities all around the world, a massive Jules Verne inspired rocket ‘crashed’ to a landing. After a brief time a girl emerged from it. But this was not just any girl: she was a immense marionette controlled by dozens of skilled La Machine performers. Dreamlike, she walked – and even rode a scooter -- through city streets, taking in the adoration and amazement of the crowds.

But soon she was joined by an even greater kinetic marvel. Another elaborate puppet, the Sultan’s Elephant of La Machine, is an artistic and engineering marvel: a 50-ton imitation operated by more than 22 puppeteers. Watching the girl and the elephant … well, I’ve already called it ‘dreamlike.’ How about mesmerizing, incredible … or just unbelievably very cool?

Since we’re chatting about amazing mechanical/artistic creations, we have to mention the artist Frederick Roland Emett. Sure, you can point to Rube Goldberg, who certainly deserves praise, but Frederick Roland Emett has a leg up on Goldberg for his incredibly diverse work. Not only are his illustrations wild, fanciful, and outrageous but he also created many insanely elaborate sculptures and creations. Looking like Willy Wonka’s hallucinations, or Dr. Suess' nightmares, Emett’s sculptures have an entrancing craziness that’s dazzlingly hypnotic.

Creating something beautiful and wonderful takes one kind of skill, but to bring it to mechanical life – well, that takes genius.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

"The alicanto's wings shine during the night with beautiful, metallic colors, and their eyes emit strange lights ....


The Alicanto is a mythological bird of the desert of Atacama, pertaining to Chilean mythology.

The legend says that the alicanto's wings shine during the night with beautiful, metallic colors, and their eyes emit strange lights; making a luminous flight some would not project shade on the desert.

This bird brings luck to any miner who sees it. Alicanto live in small caves between hills containing minerals, and feed on gold and silver.

If the lucky miner follows an alicanto without being caught, they can find silver or gold. But, if the alicanto discovers them, the bird will guide the greedy miner off a cliff, causing them to fall to their death.

Alicanto should not be confused with the Alicante, a fictional Mexican snake that drinks mother's milk and impregnates women, or uses the human stomach as a living place.

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Old Lady's Looking A Bit Stiff


Martin van Butchell (1735-1814) was an eccentric British dentist who put his dead wife on display, reputedly because of a clause in a marriage contract.

Butchell became a dentist in the 1760's London. He advertised in St. James's Chronicle with a text: "Real or Artificial Teeth from one to an entire set, with superlative gold pivots or springs, also gums, sockets and palate formed, fitted, finished and fixed without drawing stumps, or causing pain."

When his wife Mary died on January 14 1775, he decided to have her embalmed and turn her into an attraction to draw more customers. He contacted his teacher of surgery and anatomy Dr. William Hunter and Dr. William Cruikshank who agreed to do the job.

Doctors injected the body with preservatives and color additives that gave a glow to the corpse's cheeks, replaced her eyes with glass eyes and dressed her in a fine lace gown. The body was then embedded in a layer of plaster of Paris in a glass-topped coffin.

Butchell put the body on display in the window of his home, which also housed his practice, and always referred to her as "my dearly departed". Many Londoners came to see the body but Butchell also drew criticism on his gruesome display. A rumor, possibly started by Butchell himself, claimed that a clause in their marriage certificate had provided income for Butchell as long as Mary was "above ground".

Eventually Butchell remarried and the new wife, Elizabeth, demanded that he remove the body of her predecessor from his window. Butchell gave the body to a brother of doctor Hunter for his museum. The body ended up in the Royal College of Surgeons.

The embalming was not very effective; the body begun to slowly deteriorate. In 1941, the body of Mary Butchell was finally destroyed in a German bombing raid.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Dark Roasted Science Fiction: Vacuum Flowers By Michael Swanwick and The Anubis Gates By Tim Powers

Here's another review of classic science fiction novels for Dark Roasted Blend:

There’s a lot of ways you could label Vacuum Flowers by Michael Swanwick: cyberpunk, post-cyberpunk, pre-transhuman, post-posthuman … and all those other silly labels pretentious science fiction reviewers and nit-picking analysts have been sticking on various books since the genre began to be taken -- or took itself -- too seriously.

But I have a better label for it. One I think says a lot more about this delightful book than any pre- or post- definition anyone could give it.

Sure, Vacuum Flowers does neatly fit into the cyberpunky domain (pre- or post- or whatever): set in an accessible where earth has been overrun by The Comprise, a voracious digital hive-mind, and the remaining free-will humans has escaped out into the solar system. The protagonist, Rebel Elizabeth Mudlark, begins the story like all good protagonists, as the subject of shadowy forces out to get something she possesses – and, naturally, what she isn’t exactly what she possesses.

But what makes Swanwick’s novel so wonderfully unique is that Rebel isn’t really Rebel. Originally a restless personality tester, someone who tries on artificial identities, she did the unthinkable and found a perfect one for her – Rebel’s – and stole it. See, in the post/pre (whatever) world of Vacuum Flowers personalities, memories, abilities, are as changeable as putting on, or taking off, make-up. In fact, Swanwick is credited by many as being one of the first creators of wetware, the idea of ‘painting on’ software to do just that.

And a lot of painting goes in Vacuum Flowers, but to Swanwick’s credit he takes this esoteric and possibly-confusing concept and makes it deceptively easy to understand, the book completely readable and totally enjoyable.

Just like the best of Alfred Bester, Swanwick is also deliciously and dazzling inventive, each page sparkling with memorable details and dazzling inventiveness: a blindly-focused quasi-communistic society dedicated to terraforming Mars, a renegade ‘mob boss’ who entertains himself by twisting the minds of his prisoner/guests, a multiple-personality ‘hero’ who has just the right mind for pretty much any job … Swanwick coolly and seductively brings the reader into Rebel’s kaleidoscopically fantastic, yet completely real-feeling world.

Yep, there are a lot of labels that could be tossed at Michael Swanwick’s Vacuum Flowers: post-this, post-that, transhuman, posthuman, cyberpunk ... whatever. The best label, though, and one that fits the novel so very well is one that every writer wants to get: A Really Good Book.

There’s a scene in The Anubis Gates that’s stayed with me ever since I first read it, some twenty or so years ago: our hero, Brendan Doyle, a professor at California State University Fullerton (one of my old alma maters, by the way), has found himself magically transported back to London in 1810.

Doyle, fascinated by a time he’s only read about, but also devastated that he’s trapped forever in the past, is walking through a street market when he hears someone whistling a tune, a song he suddenly realizes he knows.

The tune? “Yesterday” by the Beatles.

For me, that’s a special moment of brilliance in a novel packed full of all kinds of brilliances: a shivering little touch of perfect story-telling. One of the things I think is particularly excellent about the book is the way that Powers sort of restrains himself in his writing. Put it this way, if someone else were to write The Anubis Gates, especially these days, they’d have a tendency to make the book’s language too closely mirror the style and language of the time. But what Tim Powers does in The Anubis Gates is, instead, get to the basic – and fantastic – nature of a book from that time without resorting to overly-elaborate tricks.

The story-telling language in The Anubs Gates is the best kind of writing, smooth and seamless – infinitely readable and totally enjoyable.

But back to what makes The Anubis Gates so special. Like I said, what Powers has done is create an marvelously enjoyable book filled with the characters and details that feel like they’ve come from every Penny Dreadful and broadsheet from the 1800s: Horrabin, the nightmare clown and king of the London beggars; Jacky, the beggar who is actually the daughter of nobility on a quest for revenge; Amenophis Fikee, magician and leader of a gypsy clan cursed to become the body-thief Dog-Faced Joe, and so much more.

But The Anubis Gates is not just a playground for the author’s vivid imagination, for many real literary and historical celebrities also walk across the stage: Byron, publisher John Murray and many others. The world Powers creates – or just the past of the real world he plays in -- feels vivid, real, and always enjoyable.

In the end, the Anubis Gates remains a classically stylish and brightly imaginative novel told in a delightfully elegant way – an enjoyable read that feels timeless, which is quite an accomplishment for a book about time and travel.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Dark Roasted Science Fiction: The Puppet Masters By Robert A. Heinlein

Here's another review of classic science fiction novels that are either up on the always-great Dark Roasted Blend:

There are a lot of ways to look at Heinlein's classic, The Puppet Masters: as a perfect example of what makes a 'Heinlein' book (a determined uberman, a fiery female, sparkling language, etc), an ideal cold-war parable (US vs relentless, soul-sucking invaders out to turn us into mindless slaves), or as an examination of classic paranoia (who can you trust?), but for this review let's take a look at The Puppet Masters as a book about hunting dragons.

No, there are no dragons in The Puppet Masters. Set in a near future US after a limited nuclear war, the book is about a covert alien invasion -- a rarity for Heinlein -- by 'slugs:' parasitic lifeforms that control their human hosts. In this way it's a perfect companion to Jack Finney's Body Snatchers: an unearthly threat not just to our world but to our sense of identity. With Finney the aliens impersonated the people around us; with The Puppet Masters the aliens control everyone around us -- two sides of a similar coin.

But while Finney approached the theme with sly terror and sneaky suspense, Heinlein puts us in the shoes of 'Sam' an opperative for a so-secret-no-one-knows-about-it-but-the-presdient organization simply called 'The Section' -- run with an iron fist by 'The Old Man' -- that discovers and then fights against the invading parasites.

This is what makes the book so interesting. Sure it has Heinlein's fun use of language, a tough-but-not-robotic hero, a flamboyant female character, and his always-interesting social commentary (some so subtle as to escape everyone but a very determined reader); absolutely it works as a Cold War analogy with its war between unique identity and faceless uniformity; and, certainly, it works as a paranoiac mind-game where you literally cannot trust anyone; but then there is the dragon.

What I mean is 'dragon' in the Nietzsche sense: "The man who fights too long against dragons becomes a dragon." Sure "Sam" is our hero but he is also a victim of his own organization's ruthlessness: he cannot remember his original face, for instance, for his so many disguises and alterations. The "Section" reads less like a 'boy's own hero' bunch of freedom fighters than it does a Kafka nightmare bureu of manipulation of everyone and everything. Sure the 'slugs' are nasty, evil, horrible creatures, but reading through the book a niggling suspicion rises that the forces that are working against them are ... well, if not as bad then are just a different flavor.

This devilish gray area of what makes the book so enjoyable -- in a dark and disturbing way. Reading The Puppet Masters you come away with the unsettling feeling that Heinlein's mind-controlling 'Masters' may mean creatures from outer space, our own ruthlessly cold determination to stop them or ... well, both.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Bark Worse Than Bite?


The earliest well known report of a man-eating tree originated as a hoax. In 1881 German explorer "Carl Liche" wrote an account in the South Australian Register of encountering a sacrifice performed by the "Mkodo" tribe of Madagascar:

"The slender delicate palpi, with the fury of starved serpents, quivered a moment over her head, then as if instinct with demoniac intelligence fastened upon her in sudden coils round and round her neck and arms; then while her awful screams and yet more awful laughter rose wildly to be instantly strangled down again into a gurgling moan, the tendrils one after another, like great green serpents, with brutal energy and infernal rapidity, rose, retracted themselves, and wrapped her about in fold after fold, ever tightening with cruel swiftness and savage tenacity of anacondas fastening upon their prey."

The tree was given further publicity by the 1924 book by former Governor of Michigan Chase Osborn, Madagascar, Land of the Man-eating Tree. Osborn claimed that both the tribes and missionaries on Madagascar knew about the hideous tree, and also repeated the above Liche account.

In his 1955 book, Salamanders and other Wonders, science author Willy Ley determined that the Mkodo tribe, Carle Liche, and the Madagascar man-eating tree itself all appeared to be fabrications.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Welcome to Weirdsville: The Golden Rivet

For as long as men have sailed the seven seas they’d tried to keep women off their boats. It’s a sad fact, but for hundreds of years -- and in the case of certain civilizations, thousands of years -- water and women simply haven’t mixed.

That’s not to say that as the ships have rocked and rolled on the high sees the crew didn’t do their own kind of rhythm magic. Women might have been banned -- with extreme penalties in many cases for any attempts to break the rule -- but sex and the sea have always been part of a sailor’s life.

The logic behind banning women from being sailors appears sound -- for about a minute: to keep the swabbies in line, and to prevent in-fighting among those who might be getting, and might not be getting, it was thought better to keep the ships all male. In response to the obvious homosexual outlet for all that testosterone juice, many admiralties prohibited sex between crewmates -- with punishments ranging from simple monetary fines to floggings.

The fact though was that the big-wigs with the fruit salad on their chests were hundreds or thousands of miles away, so it was usually the discretion of the Captain on whether queer sex was a good thing or a bad thing.

Some captains and ships even bent the rules considerably, and thus was born the Captain’s Wife or Daughter: a courtesan brought on board simply to service the officers of the ship. Other Captains obeyed the letter of the law, while not embracing the spirit -- and thus allowing their crews to ‘embrace’ their own smuggled-aboard women, cross-dressed as fellow swabbies.

Even pirates, who some would think would be lax when it comes to rules and regulations, were much more stern in their sharing of the sexual favors of their fellow crews. Always concerned with equality among their crews, some pirate charters went as far as requiring ‘stranding’ on a desert or severe floggings as punishments for bring aboard women. It’s ironic that two of the more legendary pirates, Anne Bonny and Mary Read, were women -- and who managed to escape the gallows by the singular female plea of the time: “we plead our bellies” meaning they were pregnant.

Pirates, by and large, during this time treated women -- particularly women captives -- rather well. Part of it was wanting to stay on fairly good terms with the authorities (nothing like ravaging some women to get your ship hunted down) but also because women fetched high prices as merchandise as well as in ransom from rich fathers and husbands. A crewman guilty of harming a female captive was treated as someone who had either stolen or damaged merchandise -- a very serious charge in pirate law.

While women (when they weren’t captain, that is) were banned from ships, sailors managed to keep their sanity by keeping any number of common-law wives in a variety of ports. The system worked actually rather well, since the pirates were at the whim of the wind and available profit -- and many of their wives were also the wives of other pirates, sailing on other ships. The only time there was a problem was when there was a question of seniority, such as when a husband died and his goods had to be divided among his wives -- in such cases the women he was married to the longest usually won out, unless the younger one had children. Pirates, for their mush-maligned reputations, were remarkably civilized.

Other pirate societies, such as the buccaneers, created a form of partnership that often included homosexual love. Matelots were a form of permanent relationship between two men that served in many ways the needs of both financial as well as emotional well-being. Many men were more protective and emotionally tied to their matelots than their own wives -- going so far as to will them their lands and goods.

Early Christian Missionaries -- and puritans in general who sought to kill or capture pirates -- often used these forms of same-sex marriage to condemn their society, though it’s telling that the fact that these men where practicing homosexual love and marriage wasn’t as damaging as the rumor that was also spread that some of the gay pirates were converting to Islam -- a more accepting faith (at least at the time): religious intolerance obviously being a greater motivator than simple queer sex.

In more rough-and-tumble pirate societies, such as among the famous South China sea pirates, sex and love between men became a political force as well as a sexual one. Kidnapped as children from raided ships, the boys would often form long-lasting sexual relationships among themselves as well as their captors that later helped hold together the scattered pirate tribes.

While women were always a question, at best, or a big problem, at worst, on ship there was a long-standing tradition of sexual release in the form of the cabin boy. For many years, the position of cabin boy required duties that weren’t on the usual cook/captain/first mate’s job description. Often, however -- especially for those ‘boys’ with experience -- the other requirements were pretty obvious, in other words to sexually service either the officers or the entire crew.

For those not familiar with these duties, the crew had a special tradition to ‘enlighten’ a new cabin boy. What makes this tradition interesting is the masking they used to lure the young lad into the bowels of the ship. The story they told was of an ancient maritime tradition (presumably concurrent with keeping women off-ship), where each and every ship -- when it’s keel was laid -- was given a special, good-luck, gold rivet.

It’s taken thousands of years, but finally women are serving without a problem on ships -- both civilian as well as military (well, depending on the country). But if you’re on-board an get an invitation to view the lucky golden rivet I would still think twice -- unless you’re into that kind of thing, of course.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Musical Interlude: "Endicott" By Kid Creole & the Coconuts

Wasting Away -


Fasting girls is a Victorian term for young females, usually preadolescent, who, it was claimed, were capable of surviving over indefinitely long periods of time without consuming any food or other nourishment. Fasting girls were not only girls who refused food but who also drew attention to their fast by claiming to have special religious and/or magical powers. The ability to survive without nourishment was attributed to some saints during the Middle Ages, including Catherine of Siena and Lidwina of Schiedam, and regarded as a miracle and a sign of sanctity. Numerous cases of fasting girls were reported in the late 19th century. Believers regarded such cases as miraculous. In some cases, the fasting girls also exhibited the appearance of stigmata. Doctors, however, ascribed the phenomenon to fraud and to hysteria on the part of the girl. Joan Jacobs Brumberg believes it to be an earlier incarnation of anorexia nervosa.

Mollie Fancher, otherwise known as the "Brooklyn Enigma," was extremely well known for her claim of not eating, or eating very little for extended periods of time. She attended a reputable school and by all reports was an excellent student. At age 16, she was diagnosed with dyspepsia. At around the age of 19, reports came out that she had abstained from eating for seven weeks. It was after two accidents in 1864 and 1865 that she became famous for her ability to abstain from food. As a result of the accidents Mollie Fancher lost her ability to see, touch, taste, and smell. She claimed to have powers that involved her being able to predict events as well as to read without the ability of sight. By the late 1870s she was claiming to eat little or nothing at all for many months. Her claim to abstinence from food lasted for 14 years. Doctors and people in the public began to question her abilities and wished to perform tests to determine the truthfullness of her claims. The claims to abstinence were never verified, and she died in February 1916.

A tragic case was that of Sarah Jacob (May 12, 1857-December 17, 1869), the "Welsh fasting girl," who claimed not to be eating any food at all after the age of twelve. A local vicar, initially skeptical, became convinced that the case was authentic. She enjoyed a long period of publicity, during which she received numerous gifts and donations from people who believed she was miraculous; but doctors were becoming increasingly skeptical about her claims. Doctors eventually proposed that she be monitored in a hospital environment to see whether her claims about fasting were true. In 1869, her parents agreed for a test to be conducted under strict supervision by nurses from Guy's Hospital. The nurses were instructed not to deny Sarah Jacob food if she asked for it, but to see that any she got was observed and recorded. After two weeks, she was showing clear signs of starvation. The vicar told the parents that she was failing and that the nurses ought to be sent away so that she could get food. The parents refused. They continued to refuse even when informed that the girl was dying, insisting that they had frequently seen her like this before and that lack of food had nothing to do with her symptoms. Sarah Jacob died of starvation a few days later because she had actually been consuming very little amounts of food, which she could no longer do under medical supervision.

Another tragic case was that of New Jersey's Lenora Eaton in 1881. Reputable citizens in Eaton's town promoted her as someone who had "lived without eating". During these times, Eaton was marked as a "special person and symbol of faith in the miraculous". When these claims were investigated and doctors were sent to help her, Eaton continued to refuse to eat and died after forty-five days.

In 1889, the Boston Globe ran a story, "Who Took the Cold Potato? Dr. Mary Walker Says the Fasting Girl Bit a Doughnut." Dr. Walker reported that Josephine Marie Bedard, known as the Tingwick girl, was a fraud. The evidence was circumstantial: "At the hotel I searched her clothing and found in one of her pockets a doughnut with a bite taken out of it.... On Fast day I had a lunch served to me... I left a platter with three pieces of fried potato on it. I went there and one of the pieces was gone... when I returned, Josephine had her handkerchief to her mouth." Asked whether that was all the evidence, she said "after I accused her of it she broke down and cried."

Writing in 1954, Bergen Evans called Therese Neumann (1898-1962) "the most famous of contemporary non-eaters. The number of ecclesiastical and medical dignitaries who have vouched for the truth of her claims is impressive.... millions of sober, sensible people believe beyond doubt that this woman does not eat or drink." She claimed that after 1927, nothing but the Eucharist had passed her lips. She was also a stigmatic. Evans said "The Roman Catholic church has never, officially, recognized her claims as true."

Because fasting girls were such a curiosity in the Victorian era, many companies and individuals rushed to put them on display. In the case of Josephine Marie Bedard, two different Boston-based enterprises, the Nickelodeon and Stone and Shaw's museum, competed in court for the right to "exhibit the girl" publicly. Still, even as she was used for blatant commercial gain, there was also an element of scientific inquiry in regarding Bedard as a medical phenomenon. This shows the general shift throughout the Victorian era from seeing the fasting girls as pious figures to seeing them as diseased ones, and from regarding religion as the ultimate authority to putting that faith in science and medicine.

Friday, May 8, 2009

"Woof! Woof! Woof!" KABLAM!


Anti-tank dogs, or Hundminen as they were known by the Germans, were dogs taught to carry explosives under tanks and armoured vehicles where they would detonate and inflict the most damage upon the vehicle.

The most concerted effort to use dogs as anti-tank weapons came during World War II when the Soviet Union used them against German tanks. When training the dogs, the Soviets kept them hungry in order to teach them to find food beneath tanks. On the battlefield a dog was fitted with an explosives-packed box and then released before oncoming German tanks. When the dog dove under a tank, a wooden lever sticking up from the top of the box was tripped which detonated the charge. Because the chassis was the most vulnerable area of these vehicles, it was hoped the explosion would gut the vehicle.

Among the plan's failings was the Soviet use of their own diesel tanks to train the dogs rather than German tanks, which had petrol engines. On the battlefield this resulted in the dogs tending to seek food under and thus destroying the Russian tanks with which they were familiar instead of the strange German tanks. This was not always an issue, however, as the dogs were sometimes spooked by the noise and vibration of the tank engines and fled the field immediately upon release.

Despite these problems the anti-tank dogs were said to have been successful at the Battle of Kursk, the Soviets claiming 12 German tanks destroyed by 16 dogs. As such the Germans were compelled to take measures against them. An armored vehicle's top-mounted machine gun proved ineffective due to the relatively small size of the attackers, the fact that they were low to the ground, their speed and the difficulty in spotting them. Consequently orders were dispatched that commanded every German soldier to shoot any dogs seen on sight as they might be rabid. Eventually the Germans found tank-mounted flame-throwers to be much more successful in warding off the attacks

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Dark Roasted Weirdsville

Here we go again: another article for the always-great Dark Roasted Blend. This time it's about underground cities. Enjoy!

The whys shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. After all, when Mr. and Mrs. Neanderthal tut-tutted about the sorry state of the neighborhood, what with all those Homo Sapiens moving in and all, they did it around a nice warm fire – in a cave.

What is surprising is that even though early man lived in caves for a very, very long times we’ve pretty much abandoned having granite floors and ceilings, homes hewn – or simply found – inside stern mountains.

Pretty much, though, isn’t everyone – and even though most of now live above ground a few very back-to-basics people have returned to living below ground: out of necessity in many cases, and, a rare few, because they simply liked it.

One town that bridges below ground and above ground is the charming Spanish city of Setenil De Las Bodegas. While a lot of the elegant town is above ground, many of it is also tucked in a wandering network of caves under its sheltering cliffs. Because Setenil De Las Bodegas has been a living city for centuries it also lacks the dust and decay that sometimes haunts a lot of ancient underground settlements.

If you want to talk about an almost mystical kingdom that lived as much under the ground as on it then you have to talk about the Cappadocians. So in tune were these ancient Turks (who were there long before there was a Turkey, actually) with the earth when they carved entire towns and cities into like natural outcroppings they did it so elegantly as to look as flowing and natural as … well, nature. Sure, time has ruined a lot of their work but still today you can see hints of their craftsmanship and geological architectural skill in what of their cities and tunnels still survive.

What’s also fascinating about underground cities is how they can hide, right under out feet, for centuries. Another Turkish underground city was discovered in 1972 when a local farmer noticed his water supply was going somewhere it shouldn’t – that somewhere turning out to be a massive underground city, called Özkonak, that – at it’s height – could have been home to (wait for it) over 60,000 people. Yes, you may whistle.

There’s not enough space here to go into every ancient underground city – mainly because, like with Özkonak, some of them have no doubt yet to be found – especially if we decide to be generous and stretch the definition of what a city might be. After all, sometimes underground chambers and tunnels never planned to be cities have become makeshift ones, like with the catacombs of Paris and the Resistance during the Second World War.

It gets even fuzzier if you include man-made underground structures and not just cities carved by hand into stone. If you use that definition the world is honeycombed by modern underground cities, especially in congested cities like Tokyo, Singapore, London, and New York.

Putting aside the questions of what is or isn’t a real underground city there’s one that has to be mentioned. Yes, it’s ancient, but it was also a living subterranean community up until very recently.

What’s also odd about it was that it was carved not from stone but from salt. Started sometime in the 13th century (again, you can whistle), the Wieliczka Salt Mine in Poland has been in almost continuous operation until 2007. Stretching over 300 kilometers long, it goes as deep as 327 meters. Okay, that’s impressive, but what’s really staggering is that the mine was home to generations of workers and their families, who transformed their simple mine into a cathedral of brilliant and awe-inspiring art.

Purely a labor of love, the miners carved the salt into statues, a chandelier, and even into a chapel. But that’s not all: the mine also features a movie theater, an underground lake, a café … all the amenities of life on the surface but rather deep in the living earth.

As with narrow houses we talked about before, as the population rises and living space shrinks, its looking more and more likely that many people will be living as their great, great, great ancestors did: below the ground – though at least this time when we complain about the neighbors it’ll be by the light of something much more sophisticated than a roaring fire.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Starring ....


Walter Plinge is a pseudonym, traditionally used in London theatres when a part has not been cast, an actor is playing two parts or an actor does not want his or her name in the programme. Plinge was supposedly a real London pub owner, honoured by a group of actors with the borrowing of his name.

The name has also been used occasionally in American theatre, as has the more popular George Spelvin. Similar pseudonyms are David Agnew at the BBC and Alan Smithee in Hollywood.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Books You Haven't Read But Should: Kim By Rudyard Kipling


Kim is a novel by Rudyard Kipling. It was first published serially in McClure's Magazine from December 1900 to October 1901 as well as in Cassell's Magazine from January to November 1901, and first published in book form by MacMillan & Co. Ltd in October 1901. The story is set against the backdrop of The Great Game, the political conflict between Russia and Britain in Central Asia. It is set after the Second Afghan War which ended in 1881, but before the Third, perhaps in the 1890s.

The novel is notable for its detailed portrait of Indian people, culture, and its varied religions. It is generally considered by critics to be Kipling's best serious long novel.

Kim (Kimball O'Hara) is the orphaned son of an Irish soldier. He earns his living by begging and running small errands on the streets of Lahore. He occasionally works for his friend, Mahbub Ali, a horse trader who is one of the native operatives of the British secret service.

One day, he befriends an aged Tibetan Lama who is on a quest to free himself from the Wheel of Things by finding the legendary 'River of the Arrow'. Kim becomes his chela, or disciple, and accompanies him on his journey. On the way, Kim incidentally learns about parts of the Great Game and is recruited by the British to carry a message to the British commander in Umballa. Kim's trip with the Lama along the Grand Trunk Road is the first great adventure in the novel.

By chance, Kim's father's regimental chaplain identifies him by his Masonic certificate, which he wears around his neck and Kim is forcibly separated from the Lama, although the Lama insists to Kim that he should comply with the chaplains plan because he believes it is in Kims best interest, and sent to a top English school in Lucknow. The Lama insists on funding Kim's education and Kim remains in contact with him through his years at school. Kim also stays in contact with his secret service connections and is trained in espionage while on vacation from school, by Lurgan Sahib at his jewellery shop in Simla. For example, he looks at a tray full of mixed objects and notes which have been added or taken away; a pastime still called "Kim's Game".

After three years of schooling, Kim is given a government appointment so that he can begin his role in the Great Game. Before this appointment begins, however, he is granted time to take a much-deserved break. Kim rejoins the Lama and, at the behest of Kim's superior Hurree Chunder Mookherjee, they make a trip to the Himalayas. Here the espionage and spiritual threads of the story collide, with the Lama unwittingly falling into conflict with Russian intelligence agents. Kim obtains maps, papers, and other important items from the Russians -- who were working to undermine British control of the region. Mookherjee befriends the Russians under cover, acting as a guide and ensures that they do not recover the lost items. Kim, aided by some porters and villagers, help to rescue the Lama ....