Saturday, November 29, 2008

"I cut down trees, I skip and jump, I like to press wild flowers, I put on women's clothing, and hang around in bars"

Jumping Frenchmen of Maine is a rare disorder originally described by George Miller Beard in 1878.

It results in an exaggerated "startle" reflex, and was first noted among related French-Canadian lumberjacks in the Moosehead Lake area of Maine. It is not clear if the disorder is neurological or psychological.

The "Jumping Frenchmen" seemed to react abnormally to sudden stimuli. Beard recorded, for instance, individuals who would obey any command given suddenly, even if it meant striking a loved one, and repeat back unfamiliar or foreign phrases uncontrollably. Beard also noticed that the condition was often shared within a family, suggesting that it was inherited.

The interest sparked by Beard's publication about the disorder inspired Georges Gilles de la Tourette to investigate what later became known as Tourette's syndrome. Further studies of the condition in the 1980s, however, cast doubt on whether the "Jumping Frenchmen" phenomenon was in fact a physical condition like Tourette's. Documentation of direct observation of "Jumping Frenchmen" has been scarce, and while videotape evidence was recorded by several researchers that showed the condition to be real, Saint-Hilaire concluded from studying eight affected people that it was brought on by conditions at their lumber camps and was psychological, not neurological.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Movies You Haven't Seen But Should: Seven Days In May

Seven Days in May on the IMDB:
At the height of the cold war, a weakened President and a popular four-star general face off in a battle for control of the US government. President Jordan Lyman has successfully negotiated an arms reduction treaty with the Soviet Union, but his measure is unpopular and does not sit well with General James Mattoon Scott, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who has been quite vocal in his opposition. Marine Corps Col. Jiggs Casey, who works for Scott, comes to the conclusion that senior military officers are plotting a coup to overthrow the government. Working with a small circle of reliable and loyal officials, President Lyman tries to get the evidence of Scott's treachery and stop him.

General James Mattoon Scott: And if you want to talk about your oath of office, I'm here to tell you face to face, President Lyman, that you violated that oath when you stripped this country of its muscles - when you deliberately played upon the fear and fatigue of the people and told them they could remove that fear by the stroke of a pen. And then when this nation rejected you, lost faith in you, and began militantly to oppose you, you violated that oath by not resigning from office and turning the country over to someone who could represent the people of the United States.
President Jordan Lyman: And that would be General James Mattoon Scott, would it? I don't know whether to laugh at that kind of megalomania, or simply cry.
General James Mattoon Scott: James Mattoon Scott, as you put it, hasn't the slightest interest in his own glorification. But he does have an abiding interest in the survival of this country.
President Jordan Lyman: Then, by God, run for office. You have such a fervent, passionate, evangelical faith in this country - why in the name of God don't you have any faith in the system of government you're so hell-bent to protect?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

"One Jump, One Whistle -"

Roland the Farter (also know in contemporary records as Roland le Fartere) was a medieval flatulist who held Hemingstone manor in Suffolk and 30 acres of land in return for his services as a jester for the king. Each year he was obliged to perform "Unum saltum et siffletum et unum bumbulum" (one jump, one whistle, and one fart) in King Henry II's court at Christmas.
[See also The Performer Of The Century]

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

"... with their thunder, the sonic boom, they were punishing all living creatures on earth."


The Oklahoma City sonic boom tests, also known as Operation Bongo II, refer to a controversial experiment in which 1,253 sonic booms were unleashed on Oklahoma City, Oklahoma over a period of six months in 1964. The experiment, which ran from February 3 through July 29, 1964 inclusive, intended to quantify the effects of transcontinental supersonic transport (SST) aircraft on a city. The program was managed by the Federal Aviation Administration, which enlisted the aid of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the U.S. Air Force. Public opinion measurement was subcontracted to the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) of the University of Chicago.

It was not the first experiment, as tests had been done at Wallops Island, Virginia in 1958 and 1960, at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada in 1960 and 1961, and in St. Louis, Missouri in 1961 and 1962. However, none of these tests examined sociological and economic factors in any detail. The Oklahoma City experiments were vastly larger in scope, seeking to measure the boom's effect on structures and public attitude, and to develop standards for boom prediction and insurance data.

Oklahoma City was chosen, as the region's population was perceived to be relatively tolerant for such an experiment. The city had an economic dependency on the FAA's Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center and Tinker Air Force Base, both of which were based there.

Starting on February 3, 1964, the first sonic booms began, eight booms per day that began at 7 a.m. and ended in the afternoon. The noise was limited to 1.0 to 1.5 pound-force per square foot (48 to 72 pascal) for the first twelve weeks, then increased to 1.5 to 2.0 psf (72 to 96 pascal) for the final fourteen weeks. This range was about equal to that expected from an SST. Though eight booms per day were harsh, the peak overpressures of 2.0 psf were an order of magnitude lower than that needed to shatter glass, and are considered marginally irritating according to published standards. The Air Force used F-104 and B-58 aircraft, with the occasional F-101 and F-106.

Oklahomans initially took the tests in stride. This was chalked up to the booms being predictable and coming at specific times. An FAA-hired camera crew, filming a group of construction workers, were surprised to find that the booms signalled their lunch break.

However, in the first 14 weeks, 147 windows in the city's two tallest buildings, the First National Bank and Liberty National Bank, were broken. By late spring, organized civic groups were already springing into action, but were rebuffed by city politicians, who asked them to show legislators their support. An attempt to lodge an injunction against the tests was denied by district court Judge Stephen Chandler, who said that the plaintiffs could not establish that they suffered any mental or physical harm and that the tests were a vital national need. A restraining order was then sought, which brought a pause to the tests on May 13 until it was decided that the court had exceeded its authority.

Pressure mounted from within. The federal Bureau of the Budget lambasted the FAA about poor experiment design, while complaints flooded into Oklahoma Senator Mike Monroney's office. Finally, East Coast newspapers began to pick up the issue, turning on the national spotlight. On June 6 the Saturday Review published an article titled The Era of Supersonic Morality, which criticized the manner in which the FAA had targeted a city without consulting local government. By July, the Washington Post reported on the turmoil at the local and state level in Oklahoma. Oklahoma City council members were finally beginning to respond to citizen complaints and put pressure on Washington.

The pressure put a premature end to the tests. On July 30, the tests were over. An Oklahoma City Times headline reported: "Silence is deafening!" Zhivko D. Angeluscheff, a prominent hearing specialist serving with the National Academy of Science, recalled: "I was witness to the fact that men were executing their brethren during six long months ... with their thunder, the sonic boom, they were punishing all living creatures on earth."

Monday, November 24, 2008

I'm Not Going To Be Able To Sleep Tonight (Part 2)


The Dyatlov Pass incident refers to a mysterious event that resulted in the deaths of nine ski hikers in the northern Ural mountains. The incident happened on the night of February 2, 1959 on the east shoulder of the mountain Kholat Syakhl (Холат Сяхл) (a Mansi name, meaning Mountain of the Dead). The mountain pass where the accident occurred has been named Dyatlov Pass (Перевал Дятлова) after the group's leader, Igor Dyatlov (Игорь Дятлов).

The mysterious circumstances and subsequent investigations of the hikers' deaths have inspired much speculation. Investigations of the deaths suggest that the hikers tore open their tent from within, departing barefoot in heavy snow; while the corpses show no signs of struggle, one victim had a fractured skull, two had broken ribs, and one was missing her tongue The victims' clothing contained high levels of radiation. Soviet investigators determined only that "a compelling unknown force" had caused the deaths, barring entry to the area for years thereafter. The causes of the accident remain unclear.

[Here's Mark Forford on the incident]

Friday, November 21, 2008

Dark Roasted Science Fiction: The Computer Connection

Here's a new classic science fiction review, this time for Alfred Bester's wonderful The Computer Connection.

This is a toughie - not because this isn’t a great book, or that it’s hard to define - but because it’s one of my all-time favorites. You know: ‘stuck on a desert island with only three books’ kind of favorite. That’s the tough, you see - I know why it’s a great book, the trick is trying to find a way to tell you, out there, how good it really is.

So ... let’s start with the basics: Alfred Bester, the legend. Winner of the first Hugo for "The Demolished Man", established Grand Master of SF with such ground breakers as "Fondly Fahrenheit", "The Stars My Destination", and - later - with "The Deceivers" and (you either loved it or hated it) "Golem 100". Bester is also a legend in the radio and comic world, having worked on scripts for Charley Chan, The Shadow, Superman, Batman, and Green Lantern - in fact the Lantern Oath ("In brightest day, in blackest night, no evil shall escape my sight, let those who worship evil’s might, beware my power, Green Lantern’s light") is Bester’s. Alfred was the original writer’s writer: he wrote for everyone, everywhere - but it’s his SF that he’s most known for.

For the longest time, the only place you could find Bester’s stuff was in the dusty halls of used book shops. Now you can pick up some of his best: "The Demolished Man", "The Stars My Destination", "Virtual Unrealities" (a collection of his marvelous short stories), "The Computer Connection", and even the book he left unfinished (and Roger Zelazny completed), "Psychoshop".

Even though his books are available it’s still sad that people don’t know Bester. Sigh. It’s especially disappointing when I hear people praise the stylistic endeavors of certain popular SF writers - when Bester blew them all away decades ago. As Harlan Ellison correctly states in his introduction to the "Computer Connection": “Bester was the mountain, all the rest of us merely climbers toward that peak.”

So what is it about Bester that just absolutely delights me? Well, man, you just have to be in the groove, capiche? You gotta plug in and ride the crazyhouse currents. Y? Y! Reading a Bester book is a trip, a stroboscopic madhouse of ideas, brilliant concepts, delightful characters, crackling language, and just plain fun. Now I don’t mean the kind of empty-headed fun you get nowadays - no, Bester’s fun is multi-language word play, obscure (but still understandable) references, and absolutely incredible, mind-boggling inventiveness.

Take, for example, "The Computer Connection" (also called "Extro" or "The Indian Giver"). In one blistering romp we have immortality, time-travel, cyberpunk (long before Gibson was born or computers got personal), cloning, an Amerinds nation in the toxic dump that was Lake Erie, characters like the nymphet Fee-5 Graumans Chinese (so named because she was born in the fifth row of the theater and is kinda of snotty about it), Dr. Sequoya Guess, a trip to Titan, a merging of man and computer, and, and, and ... overload!

Our hero is one Ned Curzon; a delightful fellow who’d been transformed into an immortal through an strange accident involving the explosive destruction of Krakatoa, and a member of an extended family of same eternal and eccentric folks: Nemo, Herb Wells, The Syndicate, Hillel the Jew, Borgia, Jacy (yes, that J.C.), Sam Pepys (not their realsies, you understand, just their ‘nom de years’). Ned, it seems, has been nicknamed Guigol (Guig for short), for his attempts to indoctrinate other people into their unique group. The problem, you see, is that to become immortal you have to go through a lot of terror and pain - and a lot of folks just don’t make it. Guigol as in Grand Guigol.

Then, right out of left field, the Group has a new member, the brilliant Amerid scientist Dr. Sequoya Guess - but an unforeseen side effect slipped into the immortality process as well, a side effect that has linked Guess to the Extro, the planet-wide system of intelligent machines and has given him incredible abilities and a lethal intent towards Guig and the members of his delightful group. As the back cover puts it: so how do you kill an immortal?

Stop, wait - I’ve sinned: you can’t describe a Bester book like you’d give a pitch for a block-buster flick. His ideas are mercurial: slippery and brilliant. Each page - no, each paragraph - sparkles with insane wit and crackling imagination. Now that trick - pyrokinetic writing - isn’t all that hard, but the miracle is that when Bester does this he also makes you care for these people. When characters get hurt, die, you might have only known them for a few lines, a few pages but - damnit - you feel the tears start. You really want to know these people, this glorious family of immortals and the various other folks that dance and cavort in any of Bester’s books. Bester was never a ‘hard’ SF writer - his science is as slippery and quick as his style - but then you don’t read his books to see if he crossed all his t’s or dotted his i’s ... no, you read Bester to take a wondrous trip, to be told a story by one of the few true masters of science fiction, of modern literature.

Well, I tried folks - tried my ever-lovin’ darnedest to pin down the beautiful brilliance of Alfred Bester. I gave it my best shot, trying to capsulize the effervescent, freeze-frame lightning. I guess there’s only one way to find out if I succeeded or not: go out - now - and pick up a copy of any of his books and see. It’s more than worth it.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Funny, You Don't Look Javasu: Princess Caraboo


Mary Baker (née Willcocks; 1791 – 4 January 1865) was a noted imposter who went by the name Princess Caraboo. She pretended to be from a faraway island and fooled a British town for some time.

On 3 April 1817, a cobbler in Almondsbury in Gloucestershire, England, met an apparently disoriented young woman with exotic clothes who was speaking a language no one could understand. The cobbler's wife took her to the Overseer of the Poor who left her in the hands of the local county magistrate, Samuel Worrall, who lived in Knole Park. When he and his wife could not understand her either, they sent her to the local inn, where she insisted on eating a pineapple and sleeping on the floor. Later, Mrs. Worrall let her stay at her family's mansion.

All they could immediately find out was that she called herself Caraboo and that she was interested in Chinese imagery. They sent her to the mayor of Bristol who ended up sending her to St. Peter's Hospital. There she declined all meat. A week later, Mrs. Worrall brought her to her husband's offices in Bristol.

Locals brought many foreigners who tried to find out what strange language the lady was talking, but apparently in vain. Then came a Portuguese sailor named Manuel Eynesso (or Enes) who said he knew the language and translated her story.

According to Eynesso, she was Princess Caraboo from the island of Javasu in the Indian Ocean. She had been captured by pirates and after a long voyage she had jumped overboard in the Bristol Channel and swum ashore.

The Worralls brought Caraboo back to their home. For the next ten weeks, this representative of exotic royalty was a favourite of the local dignitaries. She used a bow and arrow, fenced, swam naked and prayed to God, whom she termed Allah Tallah. She acquired exotic clothing and a portrait made of her was reproduced in local newspapers.

Eventually the truth came out. A certain Mrs. Neale recognised her from the picture in the Bristol Journal and informed her hosts. The would-be princess was actually a cobbler's daughter, Mary Baker (née Willcocks) from Witheridge, Devon. She had been a servant girl in various places all over England but had not found a place to stay. She had invented a fictitious language out of imaginary and gypsy words and created an exotic character. The British press had a field day at the expense of the duped rustic middle-class.

Her hosts arranged for her to leave for Philadelphia and she departed 28 June 1817. In the USA, she briefly continued her role, but lost contact with the Worralls after a couple of months.

There was a contemporary legend that she had visited Napoleon in the island of Saint Helena, but that is probably untrue.

In 1821, she had returned to Britain but her act was no longer very successful. She briefly traveled to France and Spain in her guise but soon returned to England and re-married. In September 1828, she was living in Bedminster with the name Mary Burgess and gave birth to a daughter the next year. In 1839, she was selling leeches to the Bristol Infirmary Hospital. She died on January 4, 1865 and was buried in an unmarked grave in the Hebron Road cemetery in Bristol.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

One of Our Favorite Heroes: The Phantom

This is a special hero as he is a favorite of one of our oldest, and best, friends, C. R. "Buzz" Peirce.

"I swear to devote my life to the destruction of piracy, greed, cruelty, and injustice, in all their forms, and my sons and their sons shall follow me".

This is for you, Buzz!

Roger Creed as The Phantom

The Phantom is an American adventure comic strip created by Lee Falk, also creator of Mandrake the Magician. A popular feature adapted into many forms of media, including television and film, it stars a costumed crimefighter operating from the African jungle. The series began with a daily newspaper strip on February 17, 1936, followed by a color Sunday strip on May 28, 1939; both are still running as of 2008.

In the jungles of the fictional African country of Bangalla, there is a myth featuring "The Ghost Who Walks", a powerful and indestructible guardian of the innocent. Because he seems to have existed for generations, some believe him to be immortal. In reality, the Phantom is descended from 20 previous generations of crime-fighters who all adopt the same persona. When a new Phantom takes the task from his dying father, he swears the Oath of the Skull: "I swear to devote my life to the destruction of piracy, greed, cruelty, and injustice, in all their forms, and my sons and their sons shall follow me". (The comic strip sometimes runs flashback adventures of previous Phantoms.)

The Phantom of 2008 is the 21st in the line. Unlike most costumed heroes, he has no superhuman powers, relying only on his wits, physical strength, skill with his weapons, and fearsome reputation to fight crime.

A signature of the character is his two rings. One has a pattern formed like four crossing sables, "The Good Mark", that he leaves on visitors whom he befriends, placing the person under his protection. The other, "The Evil Mark" or "Skull Mark" has a skull shape, which leaves a scar of the corresponding shape on the enemies he punches with it. He wears the Good mark on his left hand because it is closer to the heart, and the Evil Mark on his right hand.

His base is in the Deep Woods of Bengali (originally “Bengalla,” or “Bangalla” and renamed Denkali in the Indian edition), a fictional country initially said to be set in Asia, near India, but depicted as in Africa during and after the 1960s. The Phantom's base is the fabled Skull Cave, where all previous Phantoms are buried. For a period of time, he also lived with his family in a tree house built by the Rope People - a tribe he had assisted. The Phantom has an Isle of Eden in which he has trained animals that are natural enemies to live in harmony, a Mesa in America called Walker's Table and a castle in the Old World.


Monday, November 17, 2008

Dark Roasted Science Fiction: The Cosmic Rape

MKF is pleased to announce a new feature: classic science fiction reviews published on the always-wonderful Dark Roasted Blend. For the first one, here's the already-mentioned Cosmic Rape by Theodore Sturgeon. Enjoy!

Good science fiction is fun to read. Great science fiction says something. Fantastic science fiction changes the way you think.

The Cosmic Rape by Theodore Sturgeon is good, great, and – most of all – fantastic. Sturgeon’s writing is (as always) fun and engaging, the story addresses identity and individuality, and – best of all -- Sturgeon changes the way you’ll think about one of the most common science fiction bug-a-boos: the idea of collective consciousness, a human hive mind.

Originally published in Galaxy Magazine as a novella called To Marry Medusa, the Cosmic Rape is initially told through a series of characters, each one separated from everyone around them and the rest of the world by shame, miscommunication, guilt, fear, and inexperience. Paul Sanders is a empathy-less sexual opportunist, Guido is a teenage musical genius trapped by an abusive history into a life of violence against the music he subconsciously craves, Dimity Carmichael is a self-satisfied abstinent getting off on the sexual sufferings of others, Mbala is a tribesman fighting his own fears along with the demon stealing yams from his family’s scared patch, Henry is a boy living a life of unrelenting fear, and Sharon Brevix is a little girl lost in the middle of the desert.

Flowing, separately at first, between these characters is the skid-row loser Gurlick who just happened to have bitten into a discarded hamburger – a hamburger containing a scout seed from a galaxy-spanning hive mind called Medusa.

But Medusa has a problem: every other lifeform it’s absorbed into itself has been in some way a shade of its own collective consciousness. Humanity, though, is different: here everyone is separated and alone, disconnected and unique.

So, thinking that humanity must have been together at one time but then broke apart, Medusa the alcoholic out to find a way to "put people’s brains back together again" by promising the smashed-up and broken Gurlick whatever he wants.

Like everything of Sturgeon’s, The Cosmic Rape is brilliantly written: the characters are rich and full and alive, the language is equal parts lyrical, poetic, and carefully structured and classical. Also like everything else of Sturgeon’s, the story is bright and clear, a sneaky trick that takes you completely by surprise without ever resorting to cheap devices.

Here too are Sturgeon’s favorite subjects: the explosion of what is sex and sexuality (as in Venus Plus X), the careful and perceptive look at humanity (as in Godbody) and especially the reinvention of what consciousness is and could be (as in More Than Human).

There is a part of The Cosmic Rape that lays it all out: the fun reading, the perfect ‘something’ that great science fiction has, and especially the way Sturgeon changes how we think but I won’t just excerpt it here because that would be … well, wrong. Like – maybe, just maybe overdoing it a bit -- pasting in Michelangelo’s God Creates Adam without the whole of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling. You have to read it yourself, but to give you an idea of what happens in that chapter, as well as the whole conclusion of the book, just think about the idea of a hive mind, a united human consciousness.

It’s an old science fiction cliché, from Star Trek’s borg to the Flood of Halo: "resistance was futile" and all that. Lots of folks lay awake at night and shudder at the thought of being merged, combined with something else, of losing their identity to some monstrous and hungry collective. But what Sturgeon did with The Cosmic Rape is to take that idea and twist it, turn it upside down and make it not hideous and frightening but warm, welcoming and wonderful: a humanity without judgment or fear, loneliness or shame, a united mankind of acceptance and understanding.

I can’t recommend The Cosmic Rape enough. It's fun to read like all good science fiction, it says something important like all great science fiction, but best of all it’s fantastic because Sturgeon manages to change the clichéd terror of a collective humanity into something that, like the book itself, is brilliant and wonderful.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Self Promotion of a Shameless Variety

- that I have (ahem) a few books out right now. Please support this humble author by buying a few:

Dark Roasted Weirdsville

Here we go again, folks: another fun article for the always-great Dark Roasted Blend. This time it's about some of the biggest BOOMS, KABLAMS, and KABLOOIES - the world's biggest non-nuclear explosions. Enjoy!
For most of us BOOM, KABLAM, KABLOOIE mean a mushroom cloud and a cute little animated turtle talking about ducking and covering – as well as the possible End Of All Life As We Know It.

But, unfortunately, not every monstrous explosion began with J. Robert Oppenheimer saying “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." Even putting aside natural blasts such as the eruption of Krakatoa, which was so massive the sound of it was heard as far away as London, the earth has still to be rocked by more than it’s fair share of man-made, non-atomic BOOMs, KABLAMs, and KABLOOIEs.

One of the more terrifying non-nuclear explosions ever to occur was in 1917 up in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Back in December of that year the Mont-Blanc plowed into another ship, the Imo, starting a ferocious fire. Ten minutes later the Mont-Blanc went up, creating what is commonly considered to be one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in earth history.

The Mont-Blanc was a big ship carrying a lot of extremely dangerous cargo -- almost 3,000 tons of munitions bound for the war that was then tearing Europe apart. What happened that morning, which lead to the blast and the nightmarish loss of life, reads like a textbook example of whatever could go wrong, did. To avoid being torpedoed, the Mont-Blanc wasn’t flying any dangerous cargo flags, so no one except for her crew knew her cargo was so dangerous. When the fire got out of control, the Mont-Blanc’s crew tried to warn as many people as possible – but they only spoke French and the language of Halifax was English. Not realizing the danger, crowds began to form to watch the blaze. The Mont-Blanc, on fire, also began to drift toward a nearby pier … that was also packed with munitions bound for the war.

When everything finally came together – the criminal negligence, the miscommunication, and worst of all the fire and the explosives – the blast was roughly equal to 3 kilotons of TNT. The fireball roared up above the town and the shockwave utterly destroyed the town and everything within one mile of the epicenter. Metal and wreckage fell as far away as 80 miles from the blast and the sound of the detonation was heard more than 225 miles away. The explosion was so huge it generated a tsunami that roared away from the epicenter and then back into the harbor again, adding to the death and destruction.

It wasn’t until days later that the true horror of what had happened was realized: Halifax was completely gone, erased from the face of the earth, along with every ship in the harbor and most of the nearby town of Dartmouth. Approximately 2,000 people died from the explosion and another 9,000 were injured.

Unfortunately Halifax wasn’t the first such explosives-related accident in 1917. Unbelievably, before the Mont-Blanc destroyed the town, 73 people were killed in the explosion of a munitions factory in Silvertown in West Ham, Essex. The sound was heard as far away as 100 miles. A year earlier, the Johnson Barge No.17 went up Jersey City. Although only a few people were killed, the explosion managed to damage not only Ellis Island but also the Statue of Liberty. There were many other blasts as well, but these are only a few of the more dreadful highlights.

You’d think after these nightmarish explosions, caution about things that go BOOM would have sunk in a bit, but the second world war also saw more than its fair share of explosive accidents. In 1944, for instance, the SS Fort Stikine went up while docked in Bombay, India. When her cargo went up, the blast killed 800 men and injured 3,000. The fire that followed took more than three days to control.

Also in 1944, the UK experienced what is commonly considered the largest blast ever to occur on British soil when 3,700 tons of high explosives were accidentally detonated in an underground munitions store in Fauld, Staffordshire. The explosion was so massive it formed a crater ¾ of a mile across and more than 400 feet deep -- and destroyed not only the base but a nearby reservoir (and all the water in it).

But one of the biggest blasts – aside from the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan – was also one of the largest in human history, and one of the most tragic.

Once again in 1944, on July 17 to be specific, munitions being loaded onto a ship in Port Chicago, California, (very close to San Francisco) detonated. No one knows what exactly caused the blast, but the damage was biblical. All in all, more than 5,000 tons of high explosives, plus whatever else was in the stores on the base and on any ships docked, was involved. The explosion was so massive it was felt as far away as Las Vegas (500 miles distant) and people were injured all over the Bay Area when windows were shattered by the immense pressure wave.

320 were killed immediately and almost 400 were seriously injured, but that’s not the real tragedy. Most of these men were African American and this single disaster accounted for almost 15% of African American casualties during that war.

Still fearing for their safety, the remaining men, who had just spent three weeks pulling the bodies of their fellow sailors from the wreckage, refused to load any further munitions. The Army, in a characteristic show of support, considered this an act of mutiny and court-martialed 208 sailors, sending an additional 50 to jail for 8 to 15 years.

Fortunately, the ‘mutineers’ were given clemency after Thurgood Marshall fought for them, though the final member only received justice in 1999 in the form of a Presidential pardon by President Bill Clinton.

Today in Port Chicago there’s a marker on the spot and it states that the event was a step toward "racial justice and equality."

And all it took was one of the largest non-nuclear, man-made, blasts in the history of the world -- and the deaths of 320 sailors.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Fastest Thing on Reels: Used Cars


Used Cars is a 1980 comedy satire film. It stars Kurt Russell, Jack Warden (in a dual role), Deborah Harmon, and Gerrit Graham.

Kurt Russell portrays a devious car salesman who goes to work for affable but monumentally unsuccessful used car dealer Jack Warden. Warden's principal rival is his more prosperous twin brother, also played by Warden, who schemes to take over the "good" brother's lot.

The supporting cast includes Frank McRae, David L. Lander, Michael McKean, Al Lewis, Dub Taylor, Dick Miller, and Sarah Wills.

The movie was directed by Robert Zemeckis and written by Zemeckis and his long-time writing partner Bob Gale with Steven Spielberg and John Milius as executive producers. The original music score was composed by Patrick Williams.

Filmed primarily in Mesa, Arizona, the movie was released on July 11, 1980. Although not a box-office success at the time, it has since developed cult film status due to its dark, cynical humor and the Zemeckis style. It is also marketed with the tagline "Like new, great looking and fully loaded with laughs."

[Used Cars on the IMDB]

Rudy: C'mon Jeff! You've seen how bad business is. Thanks to Fuchs, our name is mud! Look... we had nuns, protesting out front when I got here this morning.
Jeff: Nuns?
Rudy: Yeah. I had to have Jim turn the firehose on them.
Big Jim: [holds up the still wet firehose] And I knocked them motherfuckers right on they asses, too.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008



A Freischütz, in German folklore, is a marksman who by a compact with the devil has obtained a certain number of bullets destined to hit without fail whatever object he wishes. As the legend is usually told, six of the Freikugeln, or "free bullets", are thus subservient to the marksman's will, but the seventh is at the absolute disposal of the devil himself.

Various methods were adopted in order to procure possession of the marvelous missiles. According to one, the marksman, instead of swallowing the sacramental host, kept it and fixed it on a tree, shot at it and caused it to bleed great drops of blood. He then gathered the drops on a piece of cloth and reduced the whole to ashes, and then with these ashes added the requisite virtue to the lead of which his bullets were made. Various vegetable or animal substances had the reputation of serving the same purpose.

Stories about the Freischütz were especially common in Germany during the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries; but the first time that the legend was turned to literary profit is said to have been by Johann August Apel in the Gespensterbuch or Book of Ghosts. It formed the subject of Weber's opera Der Freischütz (1821), the libretto of which was written by Johann Friedrich Kind, who had suggested Apel's story as an excellent theme for the composer. The name by which the Freischütz is known in French is Robin des Bois.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Land Of Dead Hiccups And Extinguished Light Bulbs


In Douglas Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach, Tumbolia is "the land of dead hiccups and extinguished light bulbs", "where dormant software waits for its host hardware to come back up".

Tumbolia, viewed by many readers as one of Hofstadter's more intriguing inventions, occurs only four times in the book. The concept is introduced in the dialogue "Little Harmonic Labyrinth" (based on the piece of the same name by J.S.Bach) with the words quoted above. In the later dialogue "A Mu Offering" (named after Bach's Musical Offering), the Tortoise gets rid of a knot in a string by tying a second one, and both disappear to Tumbolia; apparently, this is "The Law of Double Nodulation" (a parody of the law of double negation). The return of the two knots from Tumbolia prompts the speculation that some "layers of Tumbolia" are more accessible than others; this is the only information we are given about what Tumbolia itself may be like. It is mentioned that "pushing" or "popping" potion can be used (drunk by the characters) to navigate up and down the various levels of Tumbolia.

In Chapter 9, Hofstadter compares Tumbolia to the Zen view of life after death, using the image of a snowflake, a self-contained subsystem of the universe, dissolving into "the larger system which once held it". Finally, in the book's last dialogue, Hofstadter (himself appearing as a character) tells us that Tumbolia is where dreamed characters go when the dreamer wakes up.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Movies You Haven't Seen But Should: The Man Who Would Be King


The Man Who Would Be King is a 1975 film adapted from the Rudyard Kipling story of the same title. It was adapted and directed by John Huston and starred Sean Connery as Daniel Dravot, Michael Caine as Peachey Carnehan, Saeed Jaffrey as Billy Fish, and Christopher Plummer as Kipling (giving a name to the story's anonymous narrator).

The Kipling story tells the tale of two time-served, NCO, rogue ex-soldiers of the British Raj who set off from 19th century British India in search of adventure, and end up as kings of Kafiristan. The story is believed to have been inspired by the travels of American adventurer Josiah Harlan during the period of the Great Game between Imperial Russia and the British Empire.

[The Man Who Would Be King on the IMDB]

Friday, November 7, 2008

Strangely, It Doesn't Taste Like Chicken -

Right up there with Hufu ...


ManBeef was an elaborate hoax site beginning in January 2001, news of which spread primarily by means of e-mail forwarding. The site purported to sell human meat, and even offered tips and recipes on preparing meals. Colorful pictures and illustrations adorned the site to further the appearance of legitimacy. Like Bonsai Kitten, many individuals fell for the hoax and were disgusted. E-mails circulating would often be in the form of petitions pushing to stop the immorality.

To avoid exposing the hoax, ManBeef claimed they did not allow customers to purchase meat products from the site itself. "We do this, because we prefer to deal with our customers on a more personal basis," the disclaimer stated in part. The only products actually available to purchase were souvenir merchandise such as mousepads, mugs and t-shirts.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Books You Haven't Read But Should: The Cosmic Rape by Theodore Sturgeon


The Cosmic Rape is a science fiction novel by Theodore Sturgeon, originally published as an original paperback in August 1958. At the same time, a condensed or edited-down version of the novel was published in Galaxy magazine as a short novel, probably condensed by the editor, under the title To Marry Medusa.

Its plot concerns an extraterrestrial hive mind named Medusa, which has assimilated many worlds and life forms and plans to absorb Earth as well. Dan Gurlick is an alcoholic who unknowingly ingests a spore from Medusa, and turns him into a host.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Dark Roasted Weirdsville

Head on over to Dark Roasted Blend for our newest article, this time on some crazy (or brilliant) early aircraft pioneers.

As the old saying goes: "If at first you don't succeed." But there's also the saying: "The line between genius and insanity is a fine one." In the case of aeronautics the success of early pioneers like Gustave Whitehead, Alexander Feodorovich Mozhaiski, Clement Ader, and - of course - those bicycle mechanics from Ohio seem to have been a combination of both trying a lot and being a bit nuts.

We remember Whitehead, Mozhaiski, Ader, and the Wright Brothers because they did what they sought out to do, with varying degrees of victory: get themselves into the air. Alas, there is a while world of people who kind of, sort of, just barely did the same - or even sometimes not at all. But certainly not for a lack of trying.

Like with whole actually flew, what actually counts as flying is a matter of debate. The Wrights took their bows for the first heavier-than-air controlled flight, but there were a lot of other inventors who flew, but didn't have any control. For instance:

* In 1848, for instance, John Stringfellow flew a short distance in a steam-powered craft - wowing the crowds at London's Crystal Palace.
* Jean-Marie Le Bris is credited as flying higher than where he lifted off from by using a the very terrestrial power source of a horse to pull his elegant glider into the air. This was in 1856
* The affor-mentioned Clement Ader made his way into the record by taking his Avion III more than 30 feet in 1897 - but it depends on who you talk to as what he did is a matter of some debate.

Then there's the inventors who flew machines that were (sort of) controlled but not exactly heavier than air”

• The legendary Montgolfier brothers were the kings of the skies for a long time, notably around the middle seventeen hundreds, when their hot air balloons gave people their first taste of flight.
• Jean-Pierre Blanchard did the brothers one better by adding a motor to a balloon – though it was a hand-cranked one.
• Henri Giffard, in 1852, added steam to a balloon making, for many people, the first true powered airship.

But then there’s one special person who not only tried and tried again but who also skated very near that edge separating brilliant and nuts: the man who flew without power, without much control, and heavier than air.

Ladies and gentlemen, and children of all ages, I give you the flamboyant, the amazing, the possibly-crazy Samuel Franklin Cody!

What Cody flew isn’t all that new, but his showmanship and dedication to his own unique way of defying gravity certainly is. The Chinese, after all, had been putting men into the skies with kites for a long time (just read Sun Tzu's The Art of War), but Cody was a human-kite flying zealot.

Cody – who took his moniker from that other great showman Buffalo Bill Cody – went from a music hall and wild west show star to sky when he became fascinated by the idea of using human-carrying kites in all kinds of unique and imaginative ways.

Determined not to just talk a good game, Cody used his natural flamboyance to drive the point home: around the turn of the century he crossed the English channel in one … though it was towed by a boat the whole way. In 1906 Cody was tasked by the British Army to develop his kites for military uses and soon was using his designs to set world records like getting a kite to a incredible 1,600 feet. So impressed with the Brits with Cody’s kites they used them successfully during the first world war to spy on the Germans – until airplanes became more reliable and Cody’s kites were shelved.

Not to be undone, Cody mixed power and kits and began to leave the ground, and his tow-rope, behind. In 1908 he created his imaginatively created named British Army Aeroplane No 1 and successfully flew it an impressive 1,390 feet – which, according to some, was the first heavier than air flight in Britain.

Cody went on to become a real legend in the early days of flight, winning the Michelin Cup in 1910 and an military flying contest one year later.

A perfect capper to his larger-than-life career with kites and then planes Cody met his end at the controls of one of his machines. In 1913, while flying his unique seaplane, he and a passenger were killed.

Even though he is sometimes cruelly dismissed as just a showman, Cody deserves respect and admiration – one of those early fliers who never gave up, and who used their crazy brilliance to get them higher than anyone had been before.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Our Favorite Hero...

By Alex Ross


Bella In The Wych Elm -


WHO PUT BELLA IN THE WITCH ELM is a 1970's graffito that comments on a 1943 murder that, as of 2008, remains unsolved. The graffiti was last sprayed on to the side of the 200 year-old obelisk on the 18th August 1999, in white paint. The obelisk known as Wychbury Obelisk is on Wychbury Hill, Hagley near Stourbridge, in Worcestershire.

On 18 April, 1943, four boys (Robert Hart, Thomas Willetts, Bob Farmer and Fred Payne) from Stourbridge were poaching in Hagley Woods on the nearby Wychbury Hill when they came across a large Wych Hazel, a tree often confused by local residents with a Wych Elm. Hagley Wood is part of the Hagley Hall estate belonging to Lord Cobham.

Believing this a good place to hunt birds' nests, Farmer attempted to climb the tree to investigate. As he was climbing, he glanced down into the hollow trunk and discovered a skull, believing it to be animal. However, he quickly realised, after seeing human hair and teeth, that, instead holding a animal skull, he was holding a human skull. As they were on the land illegally, Farmer put the skull back and all four boys returned home without mentioning their discovery to anybody.

On returning home the youngest of the boys, Tommy Willetts, felt uneasy about what he had witnessed and decided to report the find to his parents. When police checked the trunk of the tree they found an almost complete human skeleton, a shoe, a gold wedding ring, and some fragments of clothing. After further investigation, a severed hand was found buried in the ground near to the tree.

The body was sent for forensic examination by Prof. James Webster. He quickly established that the skeleton was female and had been dead for at least 18 months, placing her time of death around October 1941. He found taffeta in her mouth, suggesting that she had died from asphyxiation. From the measurement of the trunk he also deduced that she must have been placed there "still warm" after the killing as she could not have fitted in once rigor mortis had taken hold.

Since the woman's killing was so soon after the start of World War II, identification was seriously hampered. Police could tell from items found with the body what the woman had looked like but with so many people being reported missing from the war, and people regularly moving house, the records were too vast for a proper identification to take place.

Monday, November 3, 2008

What Was That Again? Please Speak Up ....

In Jewish and Christian mythology, the Lords of Shouting, or Masters of Howling, are a group of 1,550 myriads of angels (15,500,000 angels) who gather at dusk and sing the evening Trisagion prayers. The choir is led by Jeduthun, a former master of music appointed by David, who by tradition ascended to become an angel. Other choirs, led by Jeduthun's former companions Heman and Asaph, continue the singing during the other times of day. It is said that at dawn, because of chanting of the Lords of Shouting, judgment is lightened and the world is blessed.