Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Elephant That Was Almost Forgotten

Via Brooklyn Based:
It was the first figure to take shape, hulking in the mist. Between 1885 and 1896, before the tired and poor even glimpsed Lady Liberty, a 122-foot elephant was gatekeeper to the promised land. Huge and fat with opulence, the Coney Island Elephant Hotel and brothel greeted those weary sea-locked immigrants.

The Coney Island Elephant was a hotel and brothel built in the shape of an elephant, and located on Coney Island.

In 1885, the Elephant Hotel, also known as the Elephantine Colossus, was built by James V. Lafferty and was 122 feet high with seven floors and had 31 rooms.

The hotel became associated with prostitution and in 1896 it burnt down in one of the Island's many fires.

Lafferty also designed Lucy the Elephant.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Sieg ... Apple?!

The Front Deutscher Äpfel (short F.D.Ä.; German for Front of German Apples), also called Apfelfront (Apple Front) is a satirical organisation, founded in Leipzig in 2004. It satirizes right extremist parties, especially the Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands (NPD). In the style of former and existing right extremist organisational structures it is subdivided into numerous sub-groups like the youth organisation Nationales Frischobst Deutschland (NFD; National Fresh Fruit of Germany), the women's organisation Bund weicher Birnen (B.W.B.; League of Soft Pears, compare League of German Girls; Birne, pear, is a German colloquial term for head, "eine weiche Birne haben" ("to have a soft pear"), is synonymous to "being very stupid") and many further local Gaue.

Monday, July 27, 2009

I'm Not Going To Be Able To Sleep Tonight (Part 6)

The Axeman of New Orleans was a serial killer active in New Orleans, Louisiana (and surrounding communities, including Gretna, Louisiana), from May 1918 to October 1919. Press reports during the height of public panic about the killings mentioned similar murders as early as 1911, but recent researchers have called these reports into question.

As the killer's pseudonym implies, the victims were attacked with an axe. In some of the crimes, the doors to the victim's homes were first bashed open with the same tool. "The Axeman" was not caught or identified at the time, although his crime spree stopped as mysteriously as it started. The murderer's identity remains unknown to this day, although various possible identifications of varying plausibility have been proposed.

Not all of the Axeman's victims died, but the savagery and utter randomness of his attacks terrorized much of the populace. Some early victims were Italian American, in particular the son of Pietro Pepitone who had killed Black Hand extortionist Paul Di Cristina (Paolo Marchese) several years before, leading the newspapers to assume the killings were somehow Mafia related (similar to Chicago's Black Hand assassin "Shotgun Man"). However, later crimes clearly did not fit this profile, and the apprehension of the general public grew. His victims included a pregnant woman and even a baby killed in the arms of its mother. The Axeman also seemed to draw direct inspiration from Jack the Ripper: he (or someone claiming to be the Axeman) wrote taunting letters to city newspapers hinting at his future crimes and claiming to be a supernatural demon "from Hell".

Most notoriously, on March 13, 1919, a letter purporting to be from the Axeman was published in the newspapers saying that he would kill again at 15 minutes past midnight on the night of March 19, but would spare the occupants of any place where a jazz band was playing. That night all of New Orleans's dance halls were filled to capacity, and professional and amateur bands played jazz at parties at hundreds of houses around town. There were no murders that night.

Not everyone was intimidated by the Axeman. Some well armed citizens sent the newspaper invitations for the Axeman to visit their houses that night and see who got killed first. One invitation promised to leave a window open for the Axeman, politely asking that he not damage the front door.

Crime writer Colin Wilson speculates the Axeman could have been "Joseph Momfre, a man shot to death in Los Angeles in December, 1920 by the widow of Mike Pepitone, the Axeman's last known victim". Wilson's theory has been widely repeated in other true crime books and web sites. However, true crime writer Michael Newton searched New Orleans and Los Angeles public, police and court records as well as newspaper archives, and failed to find any evidence of a man with the name "Joseph Momfre" (or any reasonable facsimile) having been assaulted or killed in Los Angeles. Newton also was not able to find any information that Mrs Pepitone (identified in some sources as Esther Albano, and in others simply as a "woman who claimed to be Pepitone's widow") was arrested, tried or convicted for such a crime, or indeed had been in California. Newton notes that "Momfre" and variants was not an unusual surname in New Orleans at the time of the crimes. It appears that there actually may have been an individual named Joseph Momfre or Mumfre in New Orleans who had a criminal history and may have been connected with organized crime; however, local records for the period are not extensive enough to allow confirmation of this, or to positively identify the individual. Wilson's explanation is an urban legend, and there is no more evidence now on the identity of the killer than there was at the time of the crimes.

Two of the alleged "early" victims of the Axeman, an Italian couple named Schiambra, were shot by an intruder in their Lower Ninth Ward home in the early morning hours of May 16, 1912. The male Schiambra survived while his wife died. In newspaper accounts, the prime suspect is referred to by the name of "Momfre" more than once. While radically different than the Axeman's usual MO, if Joseph Momfre was indeed the Axeman, the Schiambras may well have been an early victim of the future serial killer.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Mom, I'd Like You To Meet -

Gwar is an American Grammy-nominated metal band formed in 1985. The band is best known for their elaborate sci-fi/horror film inspired costumes; raunchy, obscene lyrics; and graphic stage performances, which consist of humorous re-enactments of political and moral taboo themes.

Originally, the group's musical style was largely influenced by punk rock and the band composed short, simple songs, which would evolve over the years into heavily hardcore-influenced crossover thrash, with Gwar's musical experimentation becoming present in Scumdogs of the Universe, America Must Be Destroyed and This Toilet Earth. Later, this experimental sound would partially eclipse their heavy metal style and Gwar would become a chaotic blend of genres that would be most noticeable on Ragnarok and Carnival of Chaos (the latter showcasing the most variety in musical styles of any point in Gwar's career). 1999's We Kill Everything would present an unusual sound, but based largely on Gwar's Hell-O era sound, resulting in an album that the band dismisses as their worst. Indeed, the band's rejection of We Kill Everything would drive them to return to their thrash metal sound with Violence Has Arrived, which would later evolve into a more technical form of thrash, present in War Party and Beyond Hell.

The band's characteristic costumes are generally made of foam latex, styrofoam, and hardened rubber. The costumes cover very little, with the rest of their bodies accentuated with makeup. They further their production in concert by spraying their audiences with fluids. Most of the fluids are made of water and powdered food coloring which, for the most part, flakes off or washes out easily. The thicker fluids are made from a clear seaweed extract called carrageenan which is also used in ice cream and milkshakes. Gwar does not use syrups or stage blood because they dry solid and can damage the band's costumes. In concert, Gwar has been known occasionally to perform their encore without costumes.

Another trademark of Gwar's live show is their lampooning of celebrities and figures in current events. Targets of Gwar's humor have included O. J. Simpson, John Kerry, Mike Tyson, George W. Bush (as well as every other President since Ronald Reagan), Jerry Garcia, Osama Bin Laden, Michael Jackson, Steve Wilkos, Al Gore, John McCain, Hillary Clinton, Paris Hilton, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Adolf Hitler, Bernard Madoff, Jerry Springer, and many others. The band also makes frequent references to political and historical figures, fantasy literature, and mythology. For instance, the song "Whargoul" makes reference to Minas Morgul as well as the eternal warrior of Michael Moorcock. Gwar also has many references to H. P. Lovecraft themes (Antarctica, Yig, Giant Penguins, Fleshy Insanities, etc.). In addition, the title of their fifth album Ragnarok comes from Norse mythology. They were nominated for two Grammys, one for Best Metal Performance "S.F.W" and one for Best Long Form Music Video "Phallus in Wonderland". The band also performed fire dancing until the character "Slymenstra Hymen" left the band.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Books You Haven't Read But Should: Roger Zelazny's Lord Of Light

"His followers called him Mahasamatman and said he was a god. He preferred to drop the Maha- and the -atman, however, and called himself Sam. He never claimed to be a god, but then he never claimed not to be a god."

Lord of Light (1967) is an epic science fiction/fantasy novel by Roger Zelazny. It was awarded the 1968 Hugo Award for Best Novel, and nominated for a Nebula Award in the same category. Two chapters from the novel were published as novelettes in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1967.

The novel is structured as a series of long semi-independent chapters; each a distinct story within a long campaign by the protagonist Sam – a classic trickster character – against the established gods of the world. The stories are not presented chronologically. The first story relates Sam's return from Nirvana to continue the struggle after decades of exile. The next stories are presented as flashbacks as Sam remembers the beginning of his campaign, and the tactics he employed, leading up to the titanic battle of Keenset. In the final chapter the newly returned Sam completes his campaign against the gods, with bittersweet results.

The story of Sam is based partly on the myths that surround the Buddha, the future buddha Maitreya, and Kalki, the coming tenth avatar of Vishnu. Each chapter begins with an extract from a legendary version of the story, and extensive quotes, in English, from Indian literature such as the Sanskrit Vedas and the Buddhist text, the Pali Canon. Several events in the plot are accompanied by dialogue from the Upanishads.

In an intentional match with Hindu and Buddhist mythology and teachings, the first six chapters of the book describe actions which occur in the 'Great Wheel of Life'. These are repetitive actions, and thus the end of chapter six feeds directly into the beginning of chapter one. If read in this way, of course, the book will never end, in exactly the same way as an unenlightened life will never escape the cycle of desire, and be continually reborn. Eventually, an enlightened soul can achieve Nirvana, and release themselves from the action of the Great Wheel.

[And don't forget the weird tale of Lord of Light, Jack Kirby ... and the CIA]

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

I'm Not Going To Be Able To Sleep Tonight (Part 5)


Thug Behram (or Buhram), (ca 1765 – 1840) of the Thuggee cult in India, was one of the world's most prolific killers. He may have murdered up to 931 victims by strangulation between 1790–1840 with the ceremonial cloth (or rumal, which in Hindi means handkerchief), used by his cult. Behram was executed in 1840 by hanging.

While Behram is sometimes credited with 931 murders, James Paton, an East India Company officer working for the Thuggee and Dacoity Office in the 1830s who wrote a manuscript on Thuggee, quotes Behram as saying he had "been present" at 931 cases of murder, and "I may have strangled with my own hands about 125 men, and I may have seen strangled 150 more."

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Fastest Thing on Reels: The Last Chase

The Last Chase is a 1981 science fiction film, featuring Lee Majors, Burgess Meredith and Chris Makepeace and directed by Martyn Burke. It was produced by Argosy Films.In a future United States, "the oil has run out" and all personal vehicles have been impounded by The Government. Franklyn Hart (Lee Majors), a former race car driver, decides to reassemble his race car hidden from confiscation, and sets out for "Free California" which has broken away from the new regime. He is aided by Ring (Chris Makepeace), a young technically savvy teen who feels alienated from this "social" society. Agents of the new government must stop Franklyn Hart at any cost to destroy what he represents, and the instability that such a desire for personal autonomy could mean to the society. An old Korean War veteran Captain J.G. Williams (Burgess Meredith) and his F-86 Sabre jet are called into service to chase down and destroy Franklyn Hart.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Cool Words: Interrobang

The interrobang or interabang (pronounced /ɪnˈtɛrəbæŋ/), , is a nonstandard English-language punctuation mark intended to combine the functions of the question mark (also called the interrogative point) and the exclamation mark or exclamation point (known in printers' jargon as the bang). The ligature is a superimposition of those two marks.

Many writers, especially in informal writing, have used multiple punctuation marks to end a sentence expressing surprise and question.

What the...?! Neves, Called Dead in Fall, Denies It (headline from San Francisco Examiner, May 9, 1936)

The question mark frequently comes first (to emphasize that it is a question), although there is no universal style rule on the subject.

It is not uncommon for writers in very informal situations to use several question marks and exclamation marks for even more emphasis:

He did what?!?!?!

Like multiple exclamation marks and multiple question marks, such strings are generally considered poor style in formal writing.

Writers had combined question marks and exclamation points (along with using multiple punctuation marks) for decades before the interrobang was invented. They were prevalent in informal media such as print advertisements and comic books.[citation needed] They are also currently used in algebraic chess notation with "!?" showing an interesting move that may not be the best, and "?!" showing a dubious move that may be difficult to refute.

American Martin K. Speckter invented the interrobang in 1962. As the head of an advertising agency, Speckter believed that advertisements would look better if copywriters conveyed surprised rhetorical questions using a single mark. He proposed the concept of a single punctuation mark in an article in the magazine TYPEtalks. Speckter solicited possible names for the new character from readers. Contenders included rhet, exclarotive, and exclamaquest, but he settled on interrobang. He chose the name to reference the punctuation marks that inspired it: interrogatio is Latin for "a rhetorical question" or "cross-examination"; bang is printers' slang for the exclamation point. Graphic treatments for the new mark were also submitted in response to the article.

In 1966, Richard Isbell of American Type Founders issued the Americana typeface and included the interrobang as one of the characters. In 1968, an interrobang key was available on some Remington typewriters. During the 1970s, it was possible to buy replacement interrobang keycaps and typefaces for some Smith-Corona typewriters. The interrobang was in vogue for much of the 1960s, with the word interrobang appearing in some dictionaries and the mark itself being featured in magazine and newspaper articles.

The interrobang failed to amount to much more than a fad, however. It has not become a standard punctuation mark. Although most fonts do not include the interrobang, it has not disappeared: Microsoft provides several versions of the interrobang character as part of the Wingdings 2 character set (on the right bracket and tilde keys) available with Microsoft Office. It was accepted into Unicode and is present in several fonts, including Lucida Sans Unicode, Arial Unicode MS, and Calibri, the default font in the new Office 2007 suite.

The French equivalent is "point exclarrogatif", expressing a similar idea - the fusion between "point d'interrogation" (?) and "point d'exclamation" (!).

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Dark Roasted Weirdsville

Head over to Dark Roasted Blend if you want to read my little piece about how to keep out the Joneses - in other word, Great Walled Cities.

It’d be so nice if it was true, but the fact is it ain’t: the first settlements – before bronze age, before iron age, even probably before the stone age – didn’t happen because folks liked each other’s company.

As the old saying goes: there really is safety in numbers … and fortifications.

If you have any doubt about how wood -- and then stone and later even steel – walls helped shape human civilization, all you need to do is take a close look at most of our cities, especially the older ones.

Sometimes it’s easy to see where the boundaries between “Us In Here And You Out There” once were. Just look at the lovely city of Utrecht, in the Netherlands: a picture postcard of lovely homes, sparkling waterways, brilliantly green parks, and meandering walkways – a true jewel of civilization. Except that Utrecht, and a huge number of other cities throughout Europe, were built as walled fortresses. In the case of Utrecht that’s pretty obvious when you look at the city from either the air or at the old city plans. With other cities, like London and Paris, their urban growth has completely overrun the original walls and fortifications – though they’re there if you look hard enough.

If you want real defensive architecture you have go step back to Medieval times, and away from Europe. Sure, cities like Utrecht, Amsterdam, Berlin, Lucerne, Winchester, and so many others have their fortifications – either still visible or all-but invisible – from their Medieval, or even Roman, roots. But it wasn’t long before these separate city/states looked out from their battlements and discovered that instead of keeping themselves safe they were keeping their good neighbors out.

Another reason why the battlements in Europe crumbled was because of a force even more powerful that the weapons of the time: money. As trade increased and financial empires bloomed war became a bad investment. Then there was the fact that as cities expanded far out beyond their old protective walls it became simply impossible to defend them without constantly building and rebuilding fortifications which, money again, was just too darned expensive.

But when you step before the relative comfort of Western Europe and out towards the rocky cruelty of Eastern Europe – and beyond – you find some cities were the walls went up, and stayed up, for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

One of the jewels of the Adriatic is the (now) Croatian city of Dubrovnik. Beyond it’s current beauty and charm, the city is also considered to be one of the greatest, and best preserved, of the great walled cities. Even looking at it today you can see ghosts of it’s ancient strength: the specters of magnificent walls and towers surrounding a modern city.

A truly spectacular walled city is actually part of Europe, though at the bottom of it. Recently declared a Unesco World Heritage site, the Spanish city of Cuenca is mostly a monstrously huge citadel – a stone maze of ancient fortifications, churches, famous ‘hanging houses’ and other delightfully unique architectural treasures. Walking the streets of Cuenca is like stepping back in time, becoming a Medieval citizen who knows that no matter the danger your stalwart city will protect you.

Stepping away from Europe again, another beautiful example of a walled city is another Unesco site: the Azerbaijan city of Baku. Again, what makes Baku so wonderful is the juxtaposition between the ancient fortifications with the modern world: the way you can stand on a immaculately paved street, with your iphone in your hand, and look up at walls that were constructed … well, let’s just say a very, very long time ago. What’s sad, however, about this one particular walled city is that while the fortifications may have held back legions of threats, generations of hostiles, the ancient ramparts and defenses may finally crumble and fall – partially because of earthquake damage but also because people simply don’t care enough to preserve them.

While it might be a bit of stretch, it’s interesting to look at how – as recent as the last century– some people still thought about defense as a fort, a fortress. While it didn’t surround Paris, the French military – aching from the First World War – tried to prevent the same kind of invasion of their homeland by creating what they hoped would be the wall to end all walls: an immense network of tunnels, bunkers, gun emplacements, gas-proof chambers, and even a carefully-protected narrow-gauge railway connecting a large percentage of it. Colloquially called the Maginot Line, the fortifications were – and are – a staggering achievement of military planning and architecture.

There’s only one problem: it didn’t work – or it didn’t work that well (depending on who you talk to). The fact is that while the Maginot Line was well planned and executed it was an artifact of the past – it simply didn’t have much of a chance against the kind of war the 20th century brought against it.

Like with the ancient cities all around it, the Maginot Line proved that the idea of hiding behind walls is, in the end, futile.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Music Is Where You Find It ....


Shipwreck Radio is a series of albums by Nurse With Wound documenting their residency in Lofoten, Norway during June and July 2004. Invited to stay in the unofficial capital, fishing village Svolvær, Steven Stapleton and Colin Potter were commissioned to produce 3 radio broadcasts per week for local station Lofotradioen of music constructed from whatever they heard or could find around the island. The project was instigated by Anne Hilde Neset and Rob Young of The Wire and by Kunst I Nordland, an organisation committed to bringing contemporary art to county of Nordland.

The duo created 24 broadcasts in total, each of either 15 or 30 minutes duration. Each broadcast was preceded by a jingle of a male voice saying "Velkommen Til Utvær" followed by a female voice saying the English translation "Welcome To Utvær", Utvær being the most remote island in Lofoten, with no permanent residents but 2 lighthouse keepers on hand. Many of the broadcasts treated or manipulated the two introductary voices with one comprised of nothing but such manipulations. 20 of these transmissions have been made available by Nurse With Wound across a number of separate releases with all tracks listed only by the date of original broadcast.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Cool Words: Dancing Diamonds

Shock diamonds (also known as Mach diamonds, Mach disks or dancing diamonds) are a formation of shock waves in the exhaust plume of an aerospace propulsion system, such as a supersonic jet engine, rocket, ramjet, or scramjet. It is formed when the supersonic exhaust from a nozzle is slightly over or under-expanded, meaning that the pressure of the gases exiting the nozzle is different from the ambient pressure. A complex flow field results as the shock wave is reflected at the free jet boundary and a visible diamond-shaped pattern is formed which gives the shock diamond its name.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Adrift In A Sea Of Sand?

The Lost Ship of the Desert is the subject of legends about ancient ships found in California's Colorado Desert. Since after the U.S. Civil War, stories have been told about buried ships hidden in the desert lands north of the Gulf of California.

The Galleon stories started shortly after the Colorado river flood of 1862. Colonel Albert S. Evans reported seeing it in 1863. In the Los Angeles Daily News of August 1870, it was described as a half buried hulk in a drying alkali marsh or saline lake, west of Dos Palmas, California and 40 miles north of Yuma, Arizona. It could easily be viewed at a distance of several miles from a mesa that lay between Dos Palmas and Palma Seca, California. (Stories have given Palma Seca other names: Soda Springs, Indian Springs, and Bitter Springs, as the area was not well mapped in 1870.) Expeditions were sent out in search, but the ship had vanished into the sand and mud once again. The Galleon, according to old timers, is now under the waters of the current Salton Sea.

There are those who claim this ship is Cavendish's Content (ship) filled with pirate plunder; others, that she is the Iqueue, a ship of Spanish mutineers.

The Viking Stories started sometime around 1900 by the Mexicans and Indians who live in the Colorado River delta region near the Laguna Salada basin. The ship is consistently described as an open boat with round metal shields on its sides in the badlands someplace westerly of Mexicali, Mexico.

Around 1933, Myrtle Botts, a librarian from Julian, California, had an encounter with an old prospector who showed her photos of what she calls a Viking ship. He gave her and her husband directions to the location but an earthquake prevented the Botts from following the prospector's trail to the ship. Has Julian's Pioneer Museum, which inherited Myrtle Botts' papers, also inherited those directions.

The Pearl Ship may be the same ship as the Lost Galleon but it has always been reported close to the sand hills west of El Centro, California. Its descriptions when given are closer to the size of one of Columbus's small Caravels.

The Pearl Ship is rumored to have been seen as recently as the 1970s. The story goes that in 1615 Spanish explorer Juan De Iturbe sailed a shallow-drafted caravel up the Gulf of California, and a high tidal bore carried him across a strait into Lake Cahuilla, which was in the process of drying up. Unable to sail out again, Iturbe beached his craft and made his way back to the nearest Spanish settlement leaving a fortune in black pearls behind.

This ship has been seen and lost several times and there are several stories about this ship having been looted. A mule driver of the de Anza expedition was said to have removed the pearls in 1774. Around 1917 an El Centro farmer named Jacobsen was said to have found a very small chest of jewels that he quietly sold in Los Angeles and that he used timber from the pearl ship to build his pig pens.

This story really grew out of an effort to explain or debunk the Lost Galleon story. It was thought that an abandoned ferry or steamboat that had broken away during a Colorado River flood and left dry in the vast sands of the river delta was the start of the rumors. Others claim that it was a schooner that gold seekers wishing to search the more inaccessible portions of the Colorado River had built in Los Angeles and hauled through the desert by a mule or oxen team until the animals perished leaving the boat mired in soft sand.

The Ferryboat story changed over time more often than the Lost Galleon story. One incarnation said that a small ferry (a two man sweep) was built away from the river in a place a hundred feet or so above sea level where a source of wood was found and that a six oxen team (or more) perished hauling it through the sand near Los Algondones.

From a smattering of first-, second- and third-hand accounts, a variety of fictional (especially graphic and cinematic) variations of the Lost Ship stories have been created, but first-hand accounts are extremely rare. Many of the above references fit the Lost Mines and Urban Legends molds, where the story passes from ear to ear, with all evidence disappearing along the way.

Searching for and finding the remains of a Lost Ship now would be rather problematic. The greater part of the Salton Sink is submerged under (highly polluted) water. Much adjacent land is under military control and has even been used as bombing ranges, rendering on-the-ground searches highly hazardous. The military has undoubtedly performed intensive aerial surveillance of the area, but apparently has not released any information about lost ships.

Lands adjacent to Laguna Salada in Baja California (Mexico), and between the Gulf of California and the Salton Sea, regularly receive wind-blown sand from the desiccated delta of the much-diverted Colorado River, generating vast sand dune systems. Aerial searches using ground-penetrating radar might (or might not) reveal ships' remains.

Whether or not any such ships actually existed, the legends are obviously entertaining, as are stories of other lost artifacts and treasures. See the More Lost Ships sub-page at the Harry Oliver Fan Center site for tales of submarines, an aircraft carrier, and wagonloads of booze, in the Southern California deserts.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Eccentric Brilliance of Stan Mott

"The History of Tanks"
{Racing Tanks, that is}

"Very Expensive Thrills"

"Les 24 Heures de Choo-Choo"
[the 24 Hours of Choo-Choo
(as in Le Mans)]

The Eccentrically Brilliant Man Himself

(images from S. Berliner's wonderful archive site of Stan's artwork, via s.a.)

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

It's Not The Fall -

Franz Reichelt (1800s- February 4, 1912) was an Austrian tailor best known for his accidental death.

Reichelt, known as the flying tailor, designed an overcoat to fly or float its wearer gently to the ground like the modern parachute. To demonstrate his invention he made a jump of 60 meters from the first deck of the Eiffel Tower, at that time the tallest man-made structure in the world. The parachute failed and Reichelt fell to his death. The jump was recorded by the cameras of the gathered press.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Books You Haven't Read But Should: Edward Abbey's The Monkey Wrench Gang


The Monkey Wrench Gang is a novel written by American author Edward Abbey (1927–1989), published in 1975.

Easily Abbey's most famous fiction work, the novel concerns the use of sabotage to protest environmentally damaging activities in the American Southwest, and was so influential that the term "monkeywrench" has come to mean, besides sabotage and damage to machines, any violence, sabotage, activism, law-making, or law-breaking to preserve wilderness, wild spaces and ecosystems. It is the bible of what some critics call "eco terrorists".

The book's four main characters are ecologically-minded misfits — a Jack Mormon river guide, a surgeon, his young assistant, and a rather eccentric Green Beret Vietnam veteran, George Hayduke. Together, though not always working as a tightly-knit team, they form the titular group dedicated to the destruction of what they see as the system that pollutes and destroys their environments, the American West. As their attacks on deserted bulldozers and trains continue, the law closes in.

The book was praised for its erudition, flair, down-home wit, and the accuracy of its descriptions of life away from civilization. (Abbey made the West his home and was a skilled outdoorsman.)

Interestingly from a 21st-century viewpoint, the Gang in some ways bears little resemblance to the modern media's portrayal of environmentalists — they eat lots of red meat, own firearms, drink beer (and litter the roadside with empty cans), drive big cars, etc. (Abbey's habits were reportedly similar.) Also, Abbey's politics are not "bleeding heart" (as most of the characters dismiss liberalism): they attack Indians as well as whites for their consumerism, hold little regard for the Sierra Club, etc.

The Gang sees the 'enemy' as those who would develop the American Southwest: despoiling the land, befouling the air, and destroying Nature and the sacred purity of Abbey's desert world. The greatest hatred is focused on the Glen Canyon Dam, a monolithic edifice of concrete that dams a beautiful, wild river, and which the monkeywrenchers seek to destroy. Indeed, one of the book's most memorable scenes is that of Abbey's character Seldom Seen Smith, as he kneels atop the dam praying for a "pre-cision earthquake" to remove the "temporary plug" of the Colorado River.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Mutually Assured .... Madness!

The Supersonic Low Altitude Missile or SLAM (not to be confused with the U.S. Navy's current Standoff Land Attack Missile) was a cancelled U.S. Air Force project conceived around 1955. Although it never proceeded beyond the initial design and testing phase before being declared obsolete, it represented several radical innovations in tactical aircraft, some of which are now considered at the cutting edge of military technology. It was nicknamed The Flying Crowbar for its conceptual simplicity and structural strength.

The SLAM was designed to complement the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, and as a possible replacement for or augment to the Strategic Air Command system. In the event of nuclear war it was intended to fly below the cover of enemy radar at supersonic speeds, and deliver thermonuclear warheads to roughly 26 targets.

The primary innovation was the engine of the aircraft, which was developed under the aegis of a separate project code-named Pluto, after the Roman god of the underworld. It was a ramjet that used nuclear fission to superheat incoming air instead of chemical fuel. Project Pluto produced two working prototypes of this engine, the Tory-IIA and the Tory-IIC, which were successfully tested in the Nevada desert. Special ceramics had to be developed to meet the stringent weight and tremendous heat tolerances demanded of the SLAM's reactor. These were developed by the Coors Porcelain Company. The reactor itself was designed at the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory.

The use of a nuclear engine in the airframe promised to give the missile staggering and unprecedented low-altitude range, estimated to be roughly one hundred and thirteen thousand miles (almost 182000 km or over four and a half times the equatorial circumference of the earth). The engine also acted as a secondary weapon for the missile: the stream of fallout left in its wake would poison enemy territory, and when its fuel was spent it would severely contaminate its strategically-selected crash site. In addition, the sonic waves given off by its passage would damage ground installations.

Another revolutionary aspect of the SLAM was its reliance on automation. It would have the mission of a long-range bomber, but would be completely unmanned: accepting radioed commands up to its failsafe point, whereafter it would rely on a Terrain Contour Matching (TERCOM) radar system to navigate to preprogrammed targets.

Although a prototype of the airframe was never constructed, the SLAM was to be a wingless, fin-guided aircraft. Apart from the ventral air intake it was very much in keeping with traditional missile design. Its estimated airspeed at thirty thousand feet was Mach 4.2.

The SLAM program was scrapped on July 1, 1964. By this time serious questions about its safety had been raised, such as how to test a device that would emit copious amounts of radioactive exhaust from its unshielded reactor core in flight, as well as its efficacy and cost. ICBMs promised swifter delivery to targets, and because of their speed (the Thor traveled at roughly Mach 12) and trajectory were considered virtually unstoppable. The SLAM was also being outpaced by advances in defensive ground radar, which threatened to render its stratagem of low-altitude evasion ineffective.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Movies You Haven't Seen But Should: High and Low


High and Low (Tengoku to jigoku literally "Heaven and Hell"?) is a 1963 film directed by Akira Kurosawa, starring Toshirō Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, and Kyōko Kagawa in the lead roles. It was loosely based on King's Ransom, an 87th Precinct police procedural by Evan Hunter (written under the pseudonym Ed McBain).

High and Low is told in two acts. The first act is about an executive named Kingo Gondo (Toshirō Mifune) who mortgages all he has to stage a leveraged buyout and gain control of a company called National Shoes, with the intent of keeping the company out of the hands of its other executives. Gondo disagrees with the executives over the direction of the company. One faction wants to make the company a modern mass market low quality manufacturer while the founder of the company tries to keep it conservative with good quality. Gondo believes he can split the difference by making high quality modern shoes. Then he learns that his son has been kidnapped. Gondo is prepared to pay the ransom, until he learns that the kidnappers have mistakenly abducted the child of Gondo's chauffeur, instead of his own son ....