Wednesday, February 25, 2009

At the Mountains of Madness By H. P. Lovecraft

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

Talking about an H. P. Lovecraft book is -- to paraphrase that old chestnut -- like singing about food, or writing about music. What makes it doubly difficult is that so many others have tried: Lovecraft’s probably been analyzed and dissected more than any other fantasy author. So much so that a comprehensive review has also to mention every other review, and so on and so forth ad infinitum.

But putting aside the difficulty of a review, and every other review, At the Mountains of Madness is still a brilliantly told horror story. Best of all, it’s almost a "perfect" Lovecraft story, combining everything that makes Lovecraft … well, ‘Lovecraftian:’ constant impending dread, mysteries beyond time and space, characters driven to the brink of -- and then beyond -- insanity, science knocking at the doors of the nightmarish unknown, and tantalizing clues to a star-and-time-spanning mythology.

Told by William Dyer, of Lovecraft’s ubiquitous Miskatonic U (“Go Pods!”), At the Mountains of Madness is about an expedition to Antarctica, which, in 1936, might as well have been the dark side of the moon. While there, Dyer and the other members of the expedition encounter various dreads and haunting mysteries (this is Lovecraft after all: specifics isn’t what he’s all about) until they discover an ancient city and with it, the horrifying secret of the Elder Things, the once-great-but-now-extinct terrifying rulers of time and space.

For a book written more than 70 years ago, At the Mountains of Madness still has a dreadful power. Like the tomes so often mentioned by Lovecraft, the novel crawls under the skin before twisting around the knots of the spine before working its way to the brain and then straight into the mind. Hallucinatory and haunting, the book reads more like a narrative nightmare than what most people think of when they think of a novel.

What’s particularly interesting about At the Mountains of Madness is how it forms a ‘bridge’ between Lovecraft’s mythology. Before it, his "horrors from beyond" were more mythological, but with At the Mountains of Madness he instead moves in a more science fictionlike direction -- a change many other reviewers have called extremely significant for his very long-lasting popularity.

Dream, nightmare, hallucination -- Lovecraft and especially At the Mountains of Madness might be hard to pin down, hard to quantify, but the work, and especially its author, remain truly great legends of horror, and not to be missed … if you want to lose sleep.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

You Can Hear A Pin Drop ....

The Silent Zone is the popular name for a desert patch near the Bolson de Mapimí in northern Mexico. It is located between the states of Durango, Chihuahua, and Coahuila, between parallels 26 and 28, in a place known as "Trino Vertex".

On July 11, 1970 an Athena rocket belonging to the US Air Force apparently lost control, invaded Mexican air space, and landed in the region. The rocket was carrying two small containers of Cobalt 57, a radioactive element. Immediately, a team of specialists arrived to find the fallen rocket. The aerial search extended over three weeks. Finally, when the rocket was found, a road was made to transport the wreckage, as well as a small amount of contaminated top soil. All operations were made under high security, spurring rumors and myths about the area.

The area is called the "Silent Zone" because of a myth which states that radio waves cannot be transmitted due to local magnetic fields. The Silent Zone frequently is compared to the Bermuda Triangle, the Egyptian Pyramids, and the Sacred Cities of Tibet, all being located between parallels 26 and 28.

It was first reported in the 1930s by Francisco Sarabia, a Mexican pilot, who claimed that his radio had mysteriously failed to function while flying over the zone. Claims have been made by other persons who have visited the zone, that radio signals were lost and compasses unusable. Other claims are that the area attracts meteorites and causes various mental problems.

Many myths relating to the Silent Zone were born shortly after the US Air Force operation:

  • Inside the zone you cannot hear the conversations of other people
  • It is the location of a UFO landing spot
  • This was a pole where Earth energy was concentrated, and that in the other side of the world a place like this existed

No documented evidence exists to support any of these claims.

After gaining fame for being a hot-spot of paranormal activity, it was flooded with tourists in search of UFOs, or cultists wanting to use the area for rituals. The fossil banks were sacked, only to be replaced by a circle of giant tourist-made Stars of David for "rituals of intergalactic connections". Many other archaeological pieces disappeared thanks to the curious masses. Given the poverty of the locals, many of them sell fossils found on banks that are unknown to tourists. Eventually, the cacti and the exotic desert tortoise were brought to the brink of extinction.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Dark Roasted Weirdsville

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

Scientists love a mystery. Biologists used to have the human genome, but now they have the structure of protein. Physics used to have cosmic rays, but now they have the God particle. Astronomers used to have black holes, but now they have dark matter.

And then there’s the puzzle, the enigma, the joyous mystery that dots the world over: the riddle of what’s commonly called Mima Mounds.

What’s an extra added bonus about these cryptic ‘whatevertheyares’ is that they aren’t as miniscule as a protein sequence, aren’t as subatomic as the elusive God particle, and certainly not as shadowy as dark matter. Found in such exotic locales as Kenya, Mexico, Canada, Australia, China and in similarly off-the-beaten path locations as California, Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, and especially Washington state, the mounds first appear to be just that: mounds of earth.

The first thing that’s odd about the mounds is the similarity, regardless of location. With few differences, the mounds in Kenya are like the mounds in Mexico which are like the mounds in Canada which are like the … well, you get the point. All the mounds aer heaps of soil from three to six feet tall, often laid out in what appear to be evenly spaced rows. Not quite geometric but almost. What’s especially disturbing is that geologists, anthropologists, professors, and doctors of all kinds – plus a few well-intentioned self-appointed "experts" – can’t figure out what they are, where they came from, or what caused them.

One of the leading theories is that they are man-made, probably by indigenous people. Sounds reasonable, no? Folks in loincloths hauling dirt in woven baskets, meticulously making mound after mound after … but wait a minute. For one thing it would have been a huge amount of work, especially for a culture that was living hand-to-mouth. Then there’s the fact that, as far as can be determined, there’s nothing in the mounds themselves. Sure they aren’t exactly the same as the nearby ground, but they certainly don’t contain grain, pot shards, relics, mummies, arrowheads, or anything that really speaks of civilization. They are just dirt. And if they are man-made, how did the people in Kenya, Mexico, Canada, Australia, China, California, Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, and especially Washington state all coordinate their efforts so closely as to produce virtually identical mounds? That’s either one huge tribe or a lot of little ones who somehow could send smoke signals thousands of miles. Not very likely.

Next on the list of explanations is that somehow the mounds were created either by wind and rain or by geologic ups and downs – that there’s some kind of bizarre earthy effect that has caused them to pop up. Again, it sounds reasonable, right? After all, there are all kinds of weird natural things out there: rogue waves, singing sand, exploding lakes, rains of fish and frogs – so why shouldn’t mother nature create field after field of neat little mounds?

The "natural" theory of nature being responsible for the Majorly Mysterious Mima Mounds starts to crumble upon further investigation. Sure there’s plenty of things we don’t yet understand about how our native world behaves scientists do know enough to be able to say what it can’t do – and it’s looking pretty certain it can’t be as precise, orderly, or meticulous as the mounds.

But still more theories persist. For many who believe in ley lines, that crop circles are some form of manifestation of our collective unconscious, in ghosts being energy impressions left in stone and brick, the mounds are the same, or at least similar: the result of an interaction between forces we as yet do not understand, or never will, and our spaceship earth.

Others, those who prefer their granola slightly less crunchy or wear their tinfoil hats a little less tightly, have suggested what I – in my own ill-educated opinion – consider to be perhaps the best theory to date. Some, naturally, have dismissed this concept out-of-hand, suggesting that the whole idea is too ludicrous even to be the subject of a dinner party, let alone deserving the attention and respect of serious research.

But I think this attitude shows not only lack of respect but a lack of imagination. After all, was it not so long ago that the idea of shifting continents was considered outrageous? And wasn’t it only a few years ago that people simply accepted the fact that the sun revolved around the earth? I simply ask that this theory be considered in all fairness and not dismissed without the same serious consideration these now well-respected theories have received.

After all, giant gophers could very well be responsible for the Majorly Mysterious Mima Mounds

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Pérák, the Spring Man

Pérák, the Spring Man was an urban legend originating from the Czechoslovakian city of Prague during the German occupation of Czechoslovakia in the midst of the Second World War. In the decades following the War, Pérák has also been portrayed as a Czech superhero.

According to historians Callum McDonald and Jan Kaplan in their book Prague in the Shadow of the Swastika: a History of the German Occupation 1939-1945 (London, 1995), "the Springer" was said to leap out from shadowy alleys and startle passers-by. Oral tradition suggests that some of Pérák's leaps were of an extraordinary magnitude, including the act of jumping over train carriages, similar to England's Spring Heeled Jack.

A contemporary and perhaps associated rumour concerned a "Razor Blade Man" who was said to slash at victims with razors attached to his fingers.

Researcher Mike Dash quotes George Zenaty, a noted authority on the policing of Prague during the war years, that:

... in 1940-1942 none of our police precincts in Prague informed us in their daily reports of the existence of a ‘Spring Man’. This does not mean that such rumours might not have circulated; however, it would have been impossible to include [them] in the reports without tangible proof."

The 14-minute Czech animated cartoon Pérák a SS (The Springer and the SS, also released in English-speaking markets as Jumping Jack and the SS, The Spring-Man and the SS Men and The Chimneysweep), which was released in 1946, portrayed the ‘Springer’ as a heroic and mischievous black-clad chimney sweep, with a mask fashioned out of a sock. He was capable of performing fantastic leaps due to having couch springs attached to his shoes.

This cartoon, created by the renowned Czech animator Jiří Trnka and film-maker Jiří Brdečka, featured Pérák taunting the German army sentries and the Gestapo before escaping in a surrealistic, slapstick chase across the darkened city.

Trnka's post-War interpretation of Pérák as a quasi-superhero, defying the curfew and the authority of the German occupying forces, formed the basis for sporadic revivals of the character in Czech science fiction and comic book stories.

In 1961, Pérák featured as a heroic character in the story Pérový muž (The Spring-Man), which was written by Czech science fiction writer Jan Weiss and published as part of a collection of short stories entitled Bianka Braselli, A Two-Headed Lady. In his 1997 biographical essay on Weiss, Vilém Kmuníček speculated that the inspiration for this story was in response to National Socialist propaganda:

... an original fantastic world, which develops the opportunities of the real world, the world of forced silence during the occupation, to the absurd, bringing the hope that this world contains the germs of something that will destroy it."

In 1986, Czech science fiction writer Ondřej Neff also portrayed Pérák as a heroic figure of resistance against the Nazi occupation of Prague. In 2001, he created (under the pseudonyme "Aston") a satirical comic strip titled Pérák kontra Globeman (Pérák versus Globalman) which conflates the figures of the Springer and the Razor Blade Man and pits him against a villain called Globalman, who bears a strong resemblance to McDonalds mascot Ronald McDonald.

Trnka and Brdečka's Pérák a SS is featured in a DVD anthology of World War 2 propaganda cartoons, Cartoons for Victory, which was released on May 2, 2006.

The cartoonist Adolf Lachman, in cooperation with scriptwriters Monge and Morten, is producing a new series of comic strips about Pérák, portraying him as a World War 2-era costumed superhero who battles the Gestapo with the aid of various weapons and mechanical spring-powered boots. In addition, the Czech magazine Živel is giving space on its pages to those Czech writers and artists who have been influenced by the stories of Jan Weiss, Jiří Brdečka, Jiří Trnka and Ondřej Neff.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

"Tan-tan-tanuki's testicles, there isn't even any wind but still go swing-swing-swing."


Tanuki (狸 or タヌキ?) is the Japanese word for the Japanese raccoon dog (Nyctereutes procyonides viverrinus). They have been part of Japanese folklore since ancient times. The legendary tanuki is reputed to be mischievous and jolly, a master of disguise and shapeshifting, but somewhat gullible and absent-minded.

Tanuki is often mistakenly translated as raccoon or badger.

Statues of tanuki can be found outside many Japanese temples and restaurants, especially noodle shops. These statues often wear big, cone-shaped hats and carry bottles of sake in one hand, and a promissory note or empty purse in the other hand. Tanuki statues always have large bellies. The statues also usually show humorously large testicles, typically hanging down to the floor or ground, although this feature is sometimes omitted in contemporary sculpture.

Statues of tanuki can be found outside many Japanese temples and restaurants, especially noodle shops. These statues often wear big, cone-shaped hats and carry bottles of sake in one hand, and a promissory note or empty purse in the other hand. Tanuki statues always have large bellies. The statues also usually show humorously large testicles, typically hanging down to the floor or ground, although this feature is sometimes omitted in contemporary sculpture.

Organizers chose November 8 as the date for the Tanuki holiday because the emperor made his famous visit in November and because the tanuki has eight special traits that bring good fortune. The eight traits are: (1) a bamboo hat that protects against trouble, (2) big eyes to perceive the environment and help make good decisions, (3) a sake bottle that represents virtue, (4) a big tail that provides steadiness and strength until success is achieved, (5) over-sized testicles that symbolize financial luck, (6) a promissory note that represents trust, (7) a big belly that symbolizes bold decisiveness, and (8) a friendly smile.

The comical image of the tanuki is thought to have developed during the Kamakura era. The actual wild tanuki has unusually large testicles, a feature that has inspired humorous exaggeration in artistic depictions of the creature. Tanuki may be shown with their testicles flung over their backs like travellers' packs, or using them as drums. As tanuki are also typically depicted as having large bellies, they may be depicted as drumming on their bellies instead of their testicles -- particularly in contemporary art.

A common schoolyard song in Japan (the tune of which can be heard in the arcade game Ponpoko and a variation of which is sung in the Studio Ghibli film Pom Poko) makes explicit reference to the tanuki's anatomy:

Tan Tan Tanuki no kintama wa,
Kaze mo nai no ni,
Bura bura
Roughly translated, this means "Tan-tan-tanuki's testicles, there isn't even any wind but still go swing-swing-swing." It then proceeds to continue for several verses, with many regional variations. It is sung to the melody of an American Baptist hymn called "Shall We Gather At The River?".

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

What's For Dinner Tonight?


Opsophagos was an ancient Greek term used to describe one who exhibited a seemingly uncontrollable desire for fish. This term had extremely negative connotations, as it was a criticism not of one's tastes, but rather of one's character.

To be labeled an opsophagos was to be accused of obsessive and over-indulgent behavior, and this was no small charge in ancient Greek society, since such behavior was understood to imply the corruption of the soul. Proper humans were expected to be rational and exercise moderation, so those who could not control their desires were seen as barbaric and uncivilized.

Tales of infamous opsophagoi (plural form) depicted men who took their obsession and greed to unbelievable levels, training their bodies in various ways to be able to consume massive quantities of fish immediately after they had been prepared, ensuring that they would have the fish to themselves, since they would be too hot for others to even touch, let alone eat. These tales of men with heat-resistant throats and padded fingertips were likely fictional, but they served as reminders to all who heard them that letting the pleasure-driven body overcome the rational soul was not the way to become an ideal human. One could enjoy fish, but one had to be careful not to take this enjoyment too far and become an opsophagos.

Monday, February 16, 2009

You Sure Got A Lot Of Moxie, Kid

Moxie is a carbonated beverage which was among the first mass produced soft drinks in the United States, and is regionally popular to this day.

Moxie was created in 1876 by Dr. Augustin Thompson, formerly of Union, Maine, while he was employed by the Ayer Drug Company in Lowell, Massachusetts. Accordingly, Moxie stands today as Maine's state beverage. Moxie was first marketed as a patent medicine in Lowell, Massachusetts, under the product name “Moxie Nerve Food." From 1928 through 1953 Moxie was bottled at 74 Heath St. in the Jamaica Plain section of Boston, Massachusetts. The building, known as Moxieland, featured an advertisement on the roof along with an arrow pointing in the direction of Logan Airport. Moxie was said to cure ailments ranging from softening of the brain to “loss of manhood.” In 1884, it was sold in carbonated form and merchandised as an invigorating drink, which claimed to endow the drinker with “spunk”. In the early phase of its life as a recreational soft drink, Moxie is said to have been kept handy by bartenders to give to customers who were too drunk to be given any more alcohol. This story may be apocryphal, however, considering Moxie's noted aftertaste, which many people find unpleasantly strong.

The popularity of Moxie produced popular advertising jingles, such as “Just Make It Moxie for Mine”, and President Calvin Coolidge was known to have favored the drink. Boston Red Sox slugger Ted Williams endorsed Moxie. Author E.B. White, an adopted Mainer and noted Moxie fan, once wrote “Moxie contains gentian root, which is the path to the good life."

Falling out of favor due to competition from Coca Cola, demand for Moxie has waned in recent years, although demand still exists in New England. It was designated on May 10, 2005, as the official state soft drink of Maine.

One of the key ingredients of Moxie is “Gentian Root Extractives”, which probably contributes noticeably to its unique flavor. For those without access to Moxie, the flavor can be approximated (and adjusted to taste) by adding Angostura bitters to root beer, or by mixing Campari with Coca-Cola. Its bitter taste is also reminiscent of Italian chinotto soda.

Moxie has also grown in popularity in recent years in regions of southern Maine and Connecticut due to its mixability with certain spirits. Notable Moxie-based mixed drinks include:

  • the “Welfare Mom”, which consists of equal parts Diet Moxie and Allen's Coffee Flavored Brandy;
  • the “County Girl”, a drink made up of one part bourbon whiskey and two parts Moxie on the rocks, with an optional lime garnish;
  • "The Vijay", which consists of equal parts of Moxie and blended American Whiskey.

Many people, even those who do not like the soda on its own, find it refreshing when mixed with whiskey.

Every summer, all things Moxie are celebrated at the Moxie Festival in Lisbon Falls, Maine.

Moxie is also available in a sugar-free version known as Diet Moxie, introduced in 1962.

Moxie is currently owned by Cornucopia Beverages Inc. of Bedford, New Hampshire, which is owned by Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of Northern New England Incorporated, a subsidiary of Tokyo-based Kirin Brewery Co. Ltd.

Cornucopia cites fielding requests for more Moxie from fans across the country in their decision to step up efforts to distribute the product. In 2007 they launched pilot sales in Florida and organized a sampling event at Mohegan Sun casino in Uncasville, Connecticut.

The Catawissa Bottling Company in Catawissa, Pennsylvania is one of the six remaining bottlers in the United States producing Moxie, and has produced Moxie since 1945.

Moxie was previously marketed with the so-called "Moxie Man" logo. In 2008, Cornucopia unveiled a new logo, much to the chagrin of some fans.

A 12-ounce bottled version of Moxie Original Elixir is distributed to specialty grocers by Real Soda in Real Bottles Ltd. based in Gardena, California. There is also a Moxie Energy Drink, although it does not appear on Cornucopia's products page.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

A Hallucinatory Encyclopedia

The Codex Seraphinianus is a book written and illustrated by the Italian architect and industrial designer Luigi Serafini during thirty months, from 1976 to 1978.[1] The book is approximately 360 pages long (depending on edition), and appears to be a visual encyclopedia of an unknown world, written in one of its languages, a thus-far undeciphered alphabetic writing.

The Codex is divided into eleven chapters, partitioned into two sections. The first section appears to describe the natural world, dealing with flora, fauna, and physics. The second deals with the humanities, the various aspects of human life: clothing, history, cuisine, architecture and so on. Each chapter seems to treat a general encyclopedic topic. The topics of each separate chapter are as follows:

  • The first chapter describes many alien types of flora: strange flowers, trees that uproot themselves and migrate, etc.
  • The second chapter is devoted to the fauna of this alien world, depicting many animals that are surreal variations of the horse, hippopotamus, rhinoceros, birds, etc.
  • The third chapter deals with what seems to be a separate kingdom of odd bipedal creatures, apparently engineered for various purposes.
  • The fourth chapter deals with something that seems to be physics and chemistry, and is by far the most abstract and enigmatic.
  • The fifth chapter deals with bizarre machines and vehicles.
  • The sixth chapter explores the general humanities: biology, sexuality, various aboriginal peoples, and even shows examples of plant life and tools (such as pens and wrenches) grafted directly into the human body.
  • The seventh chapter is historical. It shows many people (some only vaguely human) of unknown significance, giving their times of birth and death. It also depicts many scenes of historical (and possibly religious) significance. Also included are examples of burial and funereal customs.
  • The eighth chapter depicts the history of the Codex's alien writing system.
  • The ninth chapter deals with food, dining practices, and clothing.
  • The tenth chapter describes bizarre games (including playing cards and board games) and athletic sports.
  • The eleventh chapter is devoted entirely to architecture

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Dark Roasted Weirdsville

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

Back in the good old days -- which everyone pretty much agrees were pretty damned rotten -- what you wore was a matter of life and death: simple rotting cloth was common, leather was rare, but for the gentleman of standing, it was armor or nothing.

The first appearance of armor is a matter of much debate. Some say forged metal is key, in which case the toga-wearing crowd would be the first. Others insist that even wood worn as protection could count, in which case you'd have to go as far back as the sticks and stones brigade.

But most everyone agrees that back in those rotten times, when men were knights and women were damsels in distress, armor was at its height.

The first armors were life-and-death simple: crudely formed metal plates designed to keep spears and swords out and the knight inside them safe. But as weapons got more sophisticated during this Middle Ages arms race, smiths had to keep up, making their suits stronger, lighter, and more flexible until they'd reached the pinnacle of defense as well as offense.

One of their brilliant innovations was perfecting mail ... and, no, I'm not talking about the 'rain nor sleet' variety. Rumored to have been first created by the Celts many centuries before, it was a process that worked its way up through the ages until it reached armorers who took the basic idea to new heights. The idea is astoundingly counter-intuitive: instead of making your armor out of slabs of sturdy and very protective metal, why not make it out of thousands and thousands and thousands of carefully connected rings? It worked remarkably well: light as well as strong, it gave the wearer flexibility -- often the key factor between leaving a battle on horseback or on a stretcher. When plate armor was added to mail the result was the classic -- and devastating -- armor of the Middle Ages.

It's hard to imagine now, but for a long time a knight on horseback was the terror weapon of the age: galloping into battle on monstrous war horses, often also well-armored, they were as terrifying as they were indestructible. Nothing could touch them but they, with sword and lance, could pretty much take on anything and anyone -- except for maybe another knight.

As battle became more and more ritualized -- leading up to jousting, which we all know and love from the movies -- these metallic behemoths became less utilitarian tanks and more statements of rank and wealth. Only the rich or the nobility could afford armor, but only a really rich man or very wealthy Baron, Duke, Prince, or King could afford a fancy set.

And, Lordy, did they get fancy. After a point, armors began to look more like dinner services than battle gear: immaculate metal work, precious metals, often comically flamboyant crests and standards, useless -- though striking -- flairs and sculpted forms, and the gleaming reflections of meticulously polished metals.

Just take a look at the armor belonging to that spokesman for restraint and modesty, Henry the 8th: not only was it state-of-the-art for its day, but it was designed and built -- as was most armor of the day -- to the wearer's dimensions. In the case of Henry, though, his personal suit looked like it was more portly battleship than streamlined destroyer. And who can forget the Royal ... um, 'staff' shall we say? Looking at a set of his armor, the question becomes was it designed to protect or brag? But, to be honest, we can't fault Henry for his choice: his armor was never really designed for war -- mainly because the suit of armor's time had passed.

Absolutely, the suit of armor was the terror weapon of its day. But every day ends, and in the case of the classic suit of armor, its end was just about as bad as it can get.

1415, Northern France: on that side, the French; on the other side, the English. Although the numbers are a matter of much debate, it's commonly believed that the French outnumbered the English something like 10 to 1. For the English, under Henry (the 5th, forefather of the afore-mentioned 8th), it wasn't looking at all well. The likelihood was that they were going to be, to use a military term, 'slaughtered.' But then something happened that didn't just determine the outcome of the war but also changed Europe forever, as well as doomed the standing of the suit of armor as the ultimate weapon.

The French didn't know what hit them. Well, actually they did, which made their defeat so much more hideous: there they were, the cream of French soldiery, marching to seemingly certain victory, their mail and plate glistening in the sun, their monstrous metal weapons and protection the best of the best of the best.

Then the arrows started to fall, shot by Henry's secret weapon: the English (technically Welch) longbow. In one horrifying volley after another, the French were cut down by an enemy they couldn't even reach, their precious armor pin-cushioned, their army pinned to the muddy ground.

Clothes make the man, yes. And for a very long time armor was the end-all, be-all, go-getter power suit of the time. But times change -- and all it took was some people with a few bows and arrows to point that out.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

I'm Not Going To Be Able To Sleep Tonight (Part 3)

Aleshenka (Russian: Алёшенька, Alyoshenka, a hypocoristic for the Russian male first name Alexey) was a small creature found in the village of Kaolinovy, near Kyshtym, Chelyabinsk in August, 1996. Aleshenka was found by an old woman, Tamara Vasilievna Prosvirina, who was mentally ill. The creature had an unusual appearance, giving rise to rumors of its extraterrestrial origin. The local population readily supported this rumor, collecting easy money from reporters for interviews – at least two Japanese companies (Asahi TV and MTV Japan) made documentaries about the creature.

Aleshenka was a greyish creature about twenty-five centimeters (9.8 in) in length. Its head was hairless, with a number of dark spots on the head. The eyes were large, occupying most of the face. It breathed with the help of a small nose below the eyes.

A few days after the discovery, Tamara Prosvirina was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for treatment, and Aleshenka's corpse (the time and cause of death unknown) was passed on to local militsiya (police) by a neighbour. In 1999, Prosvirina was killed in an automobile accident in an attempt to escape the hospital.

Very little is known about what happened to Aleshenka’s remains, and accounts of its death and appearance vary greatly. A local ufologist claimed that the corpse was taken away by a UFO inhabited by members of Aleshenka's species. Some skeptics hold that it was bought by a wealthy collector of curiosities. A doctor from the local hospital who had allegedly seen the corpse claimed that it corresponded to a normal 20-25 week human foetus, prematurely born. It could have lived for several hours, but not several weeks, contrary to Prosvirina's claims.

According to genetic experts at the Moscow Vavilov Institute of General Genetics, DNA analysis of the clothes Aleshenka was wrapped in revealed no evidence that "he" was extraterrestrial. On April 15, 2004 the scientists made an official statement that the "Kyshtym creature" was a premature female human infant, with severe deformities.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Movies You Haven't Seen But Should: Brewster McCloud

Brewster McCloud is a 1970 movie directed by Robert Altman; it centers on a young recluse who lives in a fallout shelter of the Houston Astrodome building a pair of wings so he will be able to fly.
Brewster McCloud on the IMDB:
Brewster is an owlish, intellectual boy who lives in a fallout shelter of the Houston Astrodome. He has a dream: to take flight within the confines of the stadium. Brewster tells those he trusts of his dream, but displays a unique way of treating others who do not fit within his plans. When the fateful day arrives, and he enters the dome with his fanciful construction of bird wings, Brewster is surrounded by the police. Will he be caught before he attempts to fly?

Monday, February 9, 2009

I Am Sitting in a Room


I Am Sitting in a Room (1970) is one of composer Alvin Lucier's best known works, featuring Lucier recording himself narrating a text, and then playing the recording back into the room, re-recording it. The new recording is then played back and re-recorded, and this process is repeated. Since all rooms have characteristic resonance or formant frequencies (e.g. different between a large hall and a small room), the effect is that certain frequencies are emphasized as they resonate in the room, until eventually the words become unintelligible, replaced by the pure resonant harmonies and tones of the room itself. The recited text describes this process in action—it begins "I am sitting in a room, different from the one you are in now. I am recording the sound of my speaking voice," and the rationale, concluding, "I regard this activity not so much as a demonstration of a physical fact, but more as a way to smooth out any irregularities my speech might have," referring to his own stuttering.

Lucier had also specified that a performance need not use his text and the performance may be recorded in any room. However, Lucier himself has recorded the piece in at least one room he did not find aesthetically acceptable.

"I am sitting in a room different from the one you are in now. I am recording the sound of my speaking voice and I am going to play it back into the room again and again until the resonant frequencies of the room reinforce themselves so that any semblance of my speech, with perhaps the exception of rhythm, is destroyed. What you will hear, then, are the natural resonant frequencies of the room articulated by speech. I regard this activity not so much as a demonstration of a physical fact, but more as a way to smooth out any irregularities my speech might have."

Sunday, February 8, 2009

What Could Have Been: Frank Lloyd Wright's Plan for Greater Baghdad


The Plan for Greater Baghdad was a project done by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright for a cultural center, opera house, and university on the outskirts of Baghdad, Iraq, in 1957-58. The most thoroughly developed aspects of the plan were the opera house, which would have been built on an island in the middle of the Tigris together with museums and a towering gilded statue of Harun al-Rashid, and the university. Due to the 1958 collapse of the Hashemite monarchy, development of the project stopped, and it was never built.

Wright was among the many elite Western architects invited to Iraq as part of a campaign to modernize the capital city. Wright distinguished himself from this group by developing a plan making specific reference to Iraqi history and culture. For Wright, the plan was one of a handful of grandiose, outsize designs produced in the later part of his career.

Wright's opera house was designed for his island site, which he intended to rename from Pig Island to Edena. The island was to be connected to the mainland by two bridges. One, the Low Bridge, crossed the narrower west channel of the Tigris and met up with the planned King Faisal Esplanade; the line of the bridge and esplanade passed through the opera house and pointed toward Mecca. The larger Great Bridge was to cross the east channel of the river and connect the island to the university campus there.

At the north end of the island, Wright envisioned a 300 foot statue of Harun al-Rashid built of gilded sheet metal and placed on a spiraling base resembling the Malwiya Tower at the Great Mosque of Samarra. The vertical faces would depict camels climbing the spiraling ramp.

An avenue runs the length of the island from the statue to the opera house; the middle of the island is occupied by art museums and shopping areas, forming a cultural center.

The opera house itself was intended to serve the Baghdad Symphony Orchestra. Wright's design was flexible enough to accommodate anywhere from 1600 to 7000 people. The building sits on a hill and is approached by a road spiraling up from the base of the hill to the opera house at the top. A pool surrounds the theater and is itself surrounded by gardens.

The building's most significant feature was a large proscenium arch, which was visible inside the theater but also continued outside the building and plunged into the surrounding pool. The arch, which Wright described as a "crescent rainbow," contained roundels depicting scenes from The Book of One Thousand and One Nights. In additional allusions to the local culture, the building is topped with a statue of Aladdin holding his lamp and a spire which Wright intended to represent the "Sword of Mohammed."

The Iraqi government planned a new university campus for Baghdad University on a peninsula formed by a bend in the Tigris. Wright planned for a campus surrounded by a wide, circular earthen barrier, which Wright called the "curriculum." This barrier provides definition to the campus, and also contains roads and parking that served the campus's transportation needs. The space inside the barrier is reserved for pedestrian traffic only, and features fountains and gardens to create a parklike environment.

The school's various departments and academic faculties were in buildings attached to the circular "curriculum." The center of the campus is devoted to television and radio studios and towers, which were intended to demonstrate the modernity of Baghdad. Neil Levine observes that the circular plan for the University recalls the original plan for Baghdad developed by the caliph Al-Mansur.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

One Man's Trash -


Operation Tamarisk was a Cold War-era operation run by the military intelligence services of the US, UK and France through their military liaison missions in East Germany, that gathered discarded paper, letters, and rubbish from Soviet trash bins and military maneuvers, including used toilet paper.

It involved starving the Soviets of toilet paper. This led them to use official documents as toilet paper. The US, UK and the French then used their spies to retrieve the documents as the paper was not soluble and was put into bins. The spies actually complained to their handlers that they had to go through the bins that contained fecal matter and even amputated limbs. When the spies told their handlers this, the handlers immediately asked them to bring back the limbs as well so they could study what type of shrapnel the Soviets were using.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Polydactyls, Spinostomes, Panophidians, Picozoans And More: Life On Snaiad

Snaiad is a fictional alien planet and exobiology project created by Turkish artist Nemo Ramjet. Currently it exists in an ever-updating website format, but the artist and author has expressed a great deal of interest in getting the idea published. Snaiad is meant more or less to be a natural history guide to an alien world, talking about the planet's geologic past, the natural history and evolution of its inhabitants, and to a lesser extent the much shorter human occupation of the planet.

Snaiad is an old world, having a history of life going back almost eight billion years, almost twice that of Earth's. There have been several waves of complex life, and just as many mass extinctions; one setting the complexity of life back to essentially pond scum. Sentient life has possibly evolved twice on Snaiad, once 3.2 billion years ago with the findings of the Dosadi Screws, and again thirty million years ago with strange stone axe-like artifacts. The ancestors of the main "vertebrate" clan on Snaiad evolved from sea cucumber-like ancestors one billion years ago, crawling onto land in the form of plant-animal symbiotes. However, a mass extinction wiped the plant-animal symbiotes out and resulted in the modern body plan of Snaiad "vertebrates".

Like on Earth, humans only appeared on Snaiad very recently in the planet's long natural history. The people who colonized Snaiad were a "mixed bag" of settlers hailing from a group of Mediterranian countries, including Greece and Turkey. However, Snaiadi immigrants did not have to start from scratch, bringing with them numerous advanced technologies from Earth, including nanotechnology. This, along with Snaiad's human population only being about fifteen million at most, had prevented humanity from wreaking the same ecological effects on Snaiad that their ancestors had on Earth.

All snaiad vertebrates have a two headed system. The first, normal looking head, contains the eyes and reproductive organs. The eyes of Snaiad creatures are liquidless silicate lenses, surrounded by heat-sensing pads in most species, which increase vision and allow the eyes of Snaiad creatures to be small. The first head also contains the jaws, which originally developed from bony sheaths that protected the reproductive organs.

Although the first head will bite and chew its food, it does not actually consume the food. That is done by the second head. The second head varies from creature to creature, from a simple tongue-like organ of many Snaiad creatures, to the almost ungulate or kangaroo-like muzzle of the more advanced herbivores. Very few species can actually eat with their second head, such as the Tromobrachids, Jetocetes, and the advanced herbivores.

A Snaidi "vertebrate's" digestive system is very similar to ours. First the food goes from the mouth of the second head into the stomach, where it is digested. Afterwards it passes into the intestines. There are two kinds of intestines in Snaidi animals; thick and thin. Thick intestines seem to play a role analogous to the crop of a bird, and help to further break down the food. The thin intestines are similar to our intestines, both absorbing nutrients from the food and passing out waste products. Snaidi animal waste products are rather dry and pasty, much like the waste products of the birds of our world.

Like Earth vertebrates, Snaiaid "vertebrates" have an internal skeleton. However, Snaidi "vertebrates" skeletons are black or brown and made of a wood-like hydrocarbon, rather than calcium. Because of this, vertebrate fossils are not as common on Snaiad as on Earth. Another key difference between Snaidi vertebrates and Earth vertebrates is the presence of numerous hollows and indentation in the skeleton, which serve as anchorage points for the hydraulic muscles.

Most major muscles in Snaidi vertebrates are hydraulic, working on the principle of pushing out with fluid rather than contracting and pulling the bone. These muscles are filled with fluid, which accumulates in fluid reservoirs in their pectoral armature and skid (the snaidi equivalent of shoulders and hips), to be cleaned. Other muscles on Snaidi vertebrates work in a similar principle to Earth's vertebrates. These muscles are usually found in the first head, the second head, and the tail.

Snaiad vertebrates were originally ovoviparous, as some of the more primitive creatures like the Turtiformes and Polydactyls still are. However, most Snaiad vertebrates are viviparous, keeping their young in a pouch inside their first head, slightly reminiscient of a marsupial. Snaiadi animals mostly give birth by vomiting out the eggs or young. In some species with small first head beaks, the young rip their way out of the pouch with specially developed womb-beaks. This is not harmful to the mother, as the pouch is not needed for anything else and rapidly heals over.

Snaiad life comes in a huge variety of forms, like Earth. Unlike Earth, there are two types of plants, red plants and green plants. The former of the two is said to be closer related to animals. One of the major plants of Snaiad is sprog, a grassy, spongy plant that is relatively tough and covered large areas of the ground, similar to the grass of our world. Another odd plant of snaiad is a colonial plant, forming huge pinnacle ranges in several areas across the planet.

The author has mentioned many more groups of Snaiadi animals that do not belong to the main "vertebrate" clade, including arthrognathans, elastozoans, trikes, and others, but nothing in-depth has been written on them as of yet.

The snaiad "vertebrates" are very similar to the vertebrates of our world. However, they have two heads and hydraulic muscles. There are many different branches of these creatures, including...

Polydactyls - There are two major groups of these primitive animals, the generalized polydactlys and the more derived turtle-like Turtiformes. There were formerly larger species of the former, but most extant species are small and low-key in their activities.
Spinostomes - Similar in a way to the Xenarthrans of our world, these creatures mostly live in the continent of Aucaterra. The defining feature of the Spinostomes is the presence of small teeth on its second head, which help to break down food. Historically, the group was more diverse, but is now limited to a handful of species.
Panophidians - Unusually, many of Snaiad's animals seem to have adopted a snake-like body shape, unlike many animals on Earth. These creatures are loosely related in a large group, ranging from carnivores to herbivores, which may be polyphyletic.
Picozoans - A large branch of insect-like Snaiad "vertebrates" with skeletons made of cartilage. Unique among Snaiad animals, most picozoans have a larval stage, and instead of swallowing food, absorb it directly through their second head.
Titaniformes, Tromobrachids, and Monoanticherans - A group of unusual herbivores and carnivores native to the Australia-like continent of Thalassia. The titaniformes are rather allotaur-like, and take a similar niche here. The tromobrachids are a group who have fused their arms and second mouths together to create powerful jaws. The monoanticherans are a varied group, with both carnivorous and herbivorous forms.
Jetocetes - The whales and sharks of Snaiad, these creatures swim through the water with heart powered jets.
Allotaurs - Allotaurs are massive herbivores, which have extended second heads reminiscient of a diplodocid sauropod, as do most advanced Snaiadi herbivores. Most species are covered in armor, which protects them from predators.
Kahydrons and their Allies - This group includes many species of carnivores, such as the Kahydrons, as well as the odd and diverse Pescidonts and their penguin-like cousins, the Blumbomen.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Musical Interlude: "Vanz Kant Danz" By John Fogerty


... the song "Zanz Kant Danz" was altered and re-titled "Vanz Kant Danz" a few months after the release of the album in an unsuccessful attempt to avoid a defamation lawsuit from Saul Zaentz, owner of Fantasy Records. The altered "Vanz Kant Danz" version of this song appears on all post-1985 pressings of the album.

A Zaentz lawsuit claimed that "The Old Man Down the Road" shared the same chorus as "Run Through the Jungle" (a song from Fogerty's days with Creedence Clearwater Revival: years before, Fogerty had relinquished copy and publishing rights of his Creedence songs to Zaentz and Fantasy, in exchange for release from his contractual obligations to same). The defendant Fogerty ultimately prevailed, when he showed that the two songs were whole, separate and distinct compositions. Bringing his guitar to the witness stand, he played excerpts from both songs, demonstrating that many songwriters (himself included) have distinctive styles that can make different compositions sound similar to less discerning ears.

After prevailing as defendant, Fogerty sued Zaentz for the cost of defending himself against the copyright infringement. In such (copyright) cases, prevailing defendants seeking recompense were bound to show that original suit was frivolous or made in bad faith.

Fogerty v. Fantasy became precedent when the Supreme Court (1993) overturned lower court rulings and awarded attorneys' fees to Fogerty, without Fogerty having to show that Zaentz's original suit was frivolous.

Can he dance?

Monday, February 2, 2009

Paris, Strolling Across the Countryside ....

The Walking City was an idea proposed by British architect Ron Herron in 1964. In an article in avant-garde architecture journal Archigram, Ron Herron proposed building massive mobile robotic structures, with their own intelligence, that could freely roam the world, moving to wherever their resources or manufacturing abilities were needed. Various walking cities could interconnect with each other to form larger 'walking metropolises' when needed, and then disperse when their concentrated power was no longer necessary. Individual buildings or structures could also be mobile, moving wherever their owner wanted or needs dictated.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

"A Cure for the Living Dead"


Radithor was a well known patent medicine/snake oil that is possibly the best known example of radioactive quackery. It consisted of triple distilled water containing at a minimum 1 microcurie (37 kBq) each of the Radium 226 and 228 isotopes, as well as 1 microcurie of isothiouranium, a cheaper radioactive compound.

Radithor was manufactured from 1918-28 by the Bailey Radium Laboratories, Inc., of East Orange, New Jersey. The head of the laboratories was listed as Dr. William J. A. Bailey, not a medical doctor. It was advertised as "A Cure for the Living Dead" as well as "Perpetual Sunshine".

These radium elixirs were marketed similar to the way opiates were commonly advertised with Laudanum an age earlier, and electrical cure-alls during the same time period such as the Prostate Warmer.

The story of socialite Eben Byers's death from Radithor consumption and the associated radiation poisoning found its way into the New York Times under the title "The Radium Water Worked Fine Until His Jaw Came Off," which led to the strengthening of the Food and Drug Administration's powers and the demise of most radiation quack cures.