Thursday, December 31, 2009

Love Without Gun Control - on your iphone!

Talk about a perfect match: my new collection of science fiction stories, Love Without Gun Control, is now available as an app on the iphone - technofetish stories on a technofetish device!

A Well-Known Character


Waldo Peirce (December 17, 1884 – March 8, 1970) was an American painter, born in Bangor, Maine.

For many years, until his death, Peirce was both a prominent painter and a well-known character. He belonged to no particular school of art, which may have diminished his long-term reputation, but was sometimes called "the American Renoir". His style was basically representational, colorful, and lusty, clearly denoting his Rabelaisian love of life. A long-time friend of Ernest Hemingway, of whom he painted the cover picture for Time magazine in 1937, he was once called "the Ernest Hemingway of American painters." To which he replied, "They'll never call Ernest Hemingway the Waldo Peirce of American writers." His reputation as an artist diminished sharply after his death.

Peirce led a lusty, bohemian life, spending the 1920s in Paris with the so-called Lost Generation celebrities, and was as much known for his eccentricities as for his painting. This may well explain why, upon his death at age 86, such a well-known personality virtually vanished from the history of American art even though he is well represented in most of the major American museums.

The offspring of wealthy Maine lumber barons, Peirce attended Phillips Academy, Andover [Class of 1903] and then Harvard. As he once said, he never worked a day in his life. He did, however, spend many hours every day for 50 years of his life painting thousands of pictures of his beloved families (he was married 4 times and had numerous children), still lifes, and landscapes.

In 1915. Peirce joined the American Field Service, an ambulance corps that served on the French battlefields, two years before the entry of the United States into World War I. He was later decorated with the Croix de Guerre by the French government for bravery at Verdun.

Peirce was a large man for his time (he was drafted onto the Harvard football team, he said, solely because of his size) and with a mustache and full beard and a large cigar jammed perpetually into his mouth he looked every inch of a cartoonist's notion of an artist. Peirce himself was adamant about one thing: "I'm a painter," he insisted, "not an artist."

His most famous episode occurred just after his graduation from Harvard around 1910. He and his friend John Reed, the American communist who is buried in the Kremlin walls, booked passage together on a freighter from Boston to England. As the ship was leaving Boston Harbor, Peirce decided that the accommodations were not to his taste. Without a word to anyone, he jumped off the back of the ship and swam several miles back to shore. Reed was then arrested by the ship's captain for the murder of his vanished travelling companion and thrown into the brig. When the freighter eventually arrived in England, Peirce was at the dock waiting to greet his friend Reed -- he had dried himself off and taken a faster ship to England. A further embellishment to the story is that Peirce had swum in a multi-mile swimming contest at Harvard a few days before.

Another story is recounted by the American humorist H. Allen Smith in a 1953 book called The Compleat Practical Joker. In it, the playwright Charles MacArthur recalls his favorite practical joke. Its perpetrator was Peirce, who was living in Paris at the time and made a spontaneous gift of a very small turtle to the lady who was the concierge of his building. The lady doted on the turtle and lavished it with care and affection. A few days later Peirce substituted a somewhat larger turtle for the original one. This continued for some time, with larger and larger turtles being surreptitiously introduced into the lady's apartment. The concierge was beside herself with happiness and displayed her miraculous turtle to the entire neighborhood. Peirce then began to sneak in and replace the turtle with smaller and smaller ones, to her bewildered distress.

Peirce was married four times and had five children. He was devoted to his children and painted them many hundreds of times. In a letter written in the mid-1930s, Ernest Hemingway described a visit by Peirce to his home in Key West, Florida: "Waldo is here with his kids like untrained hyenas and him as domesticated as a cow. Lives only for the children and with the time he puts on them they should have good manners and be well trained but instead they never obey, destroy everything, don't even answer when spoken to, and he is like an old hen with a litter of apehyenas. I doubt if he will go out in the boat while he is here. Can't leave the children. They have a nurse and a housekeeper too, but he is only really happy when trying to paint with one setting fire to his beard and the other rubbing mashed potato into his canvasses. That represents fatherhood."

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

It's A World of Laughter, A World of Tears -


Grūtas Park (unofficially known as Stalin's World; Lithuanian: Grūto parkas) is a sculpture garden of Soviet-era statues and an exposition of other Soviet ideological relics from the times of the Lithuanian SSR. Founded in 2001 by entrepreneur Viliumas Malinauskas, the park is located near Druskininkai, about 130 kilometres (81 mi) southwest of Vilnius, Lithuania.

After Lithuania regained its independence in 1990, various Soviet statues were taken down and dumped in different places. Malinauskas requested the Lithuanian authorities to grant him the possession of the sculptures, so that he could build a privately-financed museum. This Soviet-theme park was created in the wetlands of the Dzūkija National Park. Many of its features are re-creations of Soviet Gulag prison camps: wooden paths, guard towers, and barbed-wire fences.

Its establishment faced some fierce opposition, and its existence is still controversial. Some ideas originally meant to be a part of the park were never allowed. Examples include transporting the visitors in a Gulag-style train. Grūtas Park and its founder Malinauskas won the 2001 Ig Nobel Peace Prize (see List of Ig Nobel Prize winners#2001). Since January 2007 the park conflicts with the agency of Lithuanian copyright protection association. The agency requires the royalties to be paid to the seven Lithuanian artists who authored some of the statues.

The park also contains playgrounds, a mini-zoo and cafes, all containing relics of the Soviet era. On special occasions actors stage re-enactments of various Soviet-sponsored festivals.

The exposition, consisting of 86 statues by 46 different sculptors, is organized into spheres. Each of the statues features a Soviet or socialist activist, many of them ethnic Lithuanians. The Totalitarian Sphere features sculptures of the main Communist leaders and thinkers, including Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, and Karl Marx. The Terror Sphere is dedicated to sculptures of founders of the Communist Party of Lithuania (Zigmas Aleksa-Angarietis, Vincas Mickevičius-Kapsukas) and officers of the Red Army (Feliksas Baltušis-Žemaitis, Jeronimas Uborevičius). It also has a sculpture of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the organizer of the Red Terror.

The Soviet Sphere includes sculptures of the four leaders of Lithuanian Communists, executed in the aftermath of the 1926 Lithuanian coup d'état, and activists of the Lithuanian–Soviet War of 1918–1919. The Red Sphere is dedicated to Soviet partisans, including Marytė Melnikaitė. The Occupation and Death Spheres showcase the brutal side the Soviet regime: mass deportations, suppression of the Lithuanian partisans, etc.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Our Favorite Headstone

Melvin Jerome "Mel" Blanc (May 30, 1908 – July 10, 1989) was an American voice actor and comedian. Although he began his nearly six-decade-long career performing in radio commercials, Blanc is best remembered for his work with Warner Bros. during the so-called "Golden Age of American animation" (and later for Hanna-Barbera television productions) as the voice of such well-known characters as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Sylvester the Cat, Tweety Bird, Foghorn Leghorn, Yosemite Sam, Wile E. Coyote, Woody Woodpecker, Barney Rubble, Mr. Spacely, and hundreds of others. Having earned the nickname “The Man of a Thousand Voices,” Blanc is regarded as one of the most influential persons in the voice acting industry ...

... Blanc died on July 10, 1989 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, California of heart disease and emphysema. He was interred in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Hollywood, California. Blanc's will stated his desire to have the inscription on his gravestone read, "THAT'S ALL FOLKS."

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Bwythan Fallbutus is the 42nd victim of the Violent Unknown Event listed in the VUE directory


The Falls is a 1980 film directed by Peter Greenaway. It was Greenaway's first feature-length film after many years making shorts. It does not have a traditional dramatic narrative; it takes the form of a mock documentary in 92 short parts.

The premise of the film is that the world has been struck by a mysterious incident called the "Violent Unknown Event" or VUE, which has killed many people and left a great many survivors suffering from a common set of symptoms: mysterious ailments (some appearing to be mutations of evolving into a bird-like form), dreaming of water (categorised by form, such as Category 1, Flight, or Category 3, Waves) and becoming obsessed with birds and flight. Many of the survivors have been gifted with new languages. They have also stopped aging, making them immortal (barring disease or injury).

A directory of these survivors has been compiled, and The Falls is presented as a film version of an excerpt from that directory, corresponding to the 92 entries for persons whose surnames begin with the letters FALL-. Not all of the 92 entries correspond to a person - some correspond to deleted entries, cross references and other oddities of the administrative process that has produced the directory. One biography concerns two people - the twin brothers Ipson and Pulat Fallari, who are played (in still photographs) by the Brothers Quay.

In addition to the common VUE symptoms mentioned above, a number of themes run through the film. Among these are references to a number of bureaucratic organisations including the VUE Commission and the Bird Facilities Investments (a parody of the British Film Institute), the history of manned flight from Daedalus with the suggestion that birds may be responsible for the VUE (and that the film may thus be seen as a sequel to Hitchcock's The Birds), complex debates over the location of the epicentre of the VUE, and repeated references to Tulse Luper. Luper is a recurring off-stage character in Greenaway's early films, and would eventually appear on film in the epic series The Tulse Luper Suitcases (2003 onwards).

The Falls includes clips of a number of Greenaway's early shorts. It also anticipates some of his later films: the subject of biography 27, Propine Fallax, is a pseudonym for Cissie Colpitts, the central figure of Drowning by Numbers (1988), while the car accident in biography 28 prefigures that in A Zed and Two Noughts (1985).

The largely formal and deadpan manner of the narration contrasts with the absurdity of the content. The soundtrack is mainly by Michael Nyman and is partly based, like his later music for Drowning by Numbers, on the slow movement of Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola and Orchestra K. 364. It also includes numerous clips from various songs popular among the avant-garde of the time, including pieces by Brian Eno (in particular "Golden Hours" from Another Green World) and snippets of "Jugband Blues", the last song Syd Barrett recorded with Pink Floyd ...

... Bwythan Fallbutus is the 42nd victim of the Violent Unknown Event listed in the VUE directory. Bwythan Fallbutus was Betheda Fallbutus' eldest son. He was the officially-appointed VUE Commission's linguistic expert. He lived just off the Goldhawk Road within a three-minute walking distance of his mother, whom he visited every day. The VUE had given Bwythan a bone-marrow deficiency, wattles and cobs along his backbone, and a foot disease that shredded his toe-nails. He could drink salt water without harm but felt listless and debilitated away from the influence of chlorophyll, which is why there were always several plantpots in his office, and even on his desk. Bwythan could speak fourteen VUE languages and interpret successfully in nine of them at a diplomatic level. It was Bwythan who had organised the examination of Agropio Fallaver, the sole speaker of the language named after him. Although Bwythan had come to the private opinion that Fallaver was somehow a fake manoeuvred by FOX, the Society for Ornithological Extermination. Bwythan has privately researched the ten-thousand most popularly used words in forty-three of the main VUE languages and has produced a comparative dictionary. From this research he wrote a book, View from Babel, to explain, or attempt to explain the gift of tongues and the fragmentation of language. In trying to do this, and in his associated search for a common linguistic denominator, he successfully demonstrated that the names of birds were important key words. It was rumoured that it was because of the conclusions of his research that Bwythan was run down by a white van, registration number NID 92, on a zebra crossing in the Goldhawk Road. A van with the same registration had been seen outside Bwythan's house an hour before the accident. The police later found the vehicle responsible on a deserted airfield. It was supposed that the assailant, or assailants, had escaped by air.

Catch-Hanger Fallcaster is one of the victims of the Violent Unknown Event listed in the VUE directory. Her biography, number 49 in the movie, is one amidst several interrelated biographies concerning different members of the Fallcaster family. Catch-Hanger Fallcaster had been a teacher. She had taught Russian to Germans. And certainly before the VUE, she would never have admitted to a great knowledge of ornithology. The VUE had made Catch-Hanger three inches taller, paraylsed her index fingers and improved her eyesight. She now taught Abcadefghan to anyone who wanted to learn. Catch-Hanger has translated Tulse Luper's Some Birds of the Northern Hemisphere, establishing a definitive pronunciation of the Abcadefghan equivalents for the Falconidae. She has also started work on an Abcadefghan-English language primer that is based substantially on the three nursery rhymes, "Goosey, Goosey, Gander," "Who Killed Cock-Robin?," and "I Shot a Little Duck."

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Few college pranks can be said to be more grandly conceived, carefully planned, flawlessly executed, and publicly dramatic


The Great Rose Bowl Hoax was a 1961 prank at the Rose Bowl, an annual American college football game. That year, the Washington Huskies were pitted against the Minnesota Golden Gophers. At halftime, the Huskies led 17 to 0, and their cheerleaders took the field to lead the attendees in the stands in a card stunt, a routine involving flip-cards depicting various images for the audience to raise. However, a number of students from the California Institute of Technology managed to alter the card stunt shown during the halftime break, culminating in the display of the word "CALTECH," a common nickname for the Institute.

The prank received national attention, as the game was broadcast to an estimated 30 million viewers across the United States by NBC. One author wrote, "Few college pranks can be said to be more grandly conceived, carefully planned, flawlessly executed, and publicly dramatic" than the Great Rose Bowl Hoax.

The hoax was planned by a group of Caltech students, subsequently known as the "Fiendish Fourteen," in December 1960. They felt that their college, whose teams often played in Rose Bowl Stadium a few miles from campus, was ignored up to and during the Rose Bowl Game. The students decided to use Washington's flip-card show to garner some attention.

To discover the details behind the Huskies' show, a Caltech student disguised himself as a reporter for a local Los Angeles high school, and asked Washington's head cheerleader. They learned that, by changing the 2,232 instruction sheets, they would be able to trick unsuspecting Washington fans into holding up the incorrect signs.

The students broke into the hotel where the Washington cheerleaders were staying, and removed a single instruction sheet from a bedroom. They printed copies and altered each page by hand. On New Year's Eve, three of the "Fiendish Fourteen" reentered the cheerleaders' hotel, and replaced the stack of old sheets with the new.

At halftime on January 2, the Washington card stunt was executed as the Caltech students had hoped. NBC cameras panned to the section raising the flip-cards as they uneventfully displayed the first eleven designs.

The twelfth design modified the design of a husky into that of a beaver (Caltech's mascot) but was subtle enough that the audience did not notice.

The thirteenth design, which called for the depiction of the word "Washington" in script to gradually appear from left to right (starting with the capital "W"), ran backwards (with the small letter "n" appearing first). Other sources say that the routine intended to spell out, "HUSKIES," but that it had been altered to spell out "SEIKSUH." Regardless, it was dismissed as a simple mistake.

The fourteenth design, however, was an unmistakable prank. "CALTECH" was displayed in big block letters on a white background.

Mel Allen and Chick Hearn covered the game for an NBC national telecast. The announcers and the stadium fell silent for several moments, only to subsequently break into laughter. As the Washington band marched off the field, the cheerleaders did not give the signal for the fifteenth and final image. The Huskies were unaware that the Caltech students had not altered the last design of an American flag.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Movies You Haven't Seen But Should: Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (風の谷のナウシカ Kaze no Tani no Naushika) is a 1984 post-apocalyptic Japanese animated film, written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, based on his manga of the same name. The film has environmentalist undertones and was presented by the World Wide Fund for Nature when it was released in 1984. While created before Studio Ghibli was founded, the film is considered to be the beginning of the studio, and is often included as part of the Studio's works, including the Studio Ghibli Collection DVDs. Among its numerous awards, it won the Animage Anime Grand Prix prize in 1984.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Somewhere, In The Python Cluster of Asteroids ....


9621 Michaelpalin is an asteroid in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Michaelpalin is named after British comedian Michael Palin. The asteroid is one of many main belt asteroids named after famous personalities. It is the fifth in a series of six asteroids carrying the names of members of the Monty Python comedy troupe:

Michaelpalin was discovered on 21 March 1993, at the European Southern Observatory during the Uppsala-ESO Survey of Asteroids and Comets (UESAC). Its provisional designation was 1993 FT26.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Dark Roasted Weirdsville

Here's a brand new Dark Roasted Blend piece on the mysterious Chinese pyramids:

Egyptian pyramids? Sure, everyone knows about the ones at Giza - and a few aficionados might know about the 138 others scattered around them. Mesoamerican pyramids? Okay, a lot of folks know about them, too -- or even that the great one at Cholula is considered to be the largest one in the world.

But, unfortunately, not many people know that pyramids have come in other flavors as well, including the mysterious and legendary ones in China.

“Legendary” because the story of the Chinese pyramids initially reads like something from a wild and woolly dime-store pulp serial: JAMES GAUSSMAN AND THE JEWELED PYRAMID OF CHINA!

It all began in 1945 – well, actually it started way before that, but for most folks out here in the West, that’s when they first heard that pyramids might exist outside Mesoamerica and Egypt.

While winging his way from India to China, the aforementioned U.S. Army Air Corps pilot Gaussman supposedly saw ... well, a jewel topped pyramid. Depending on who you talk to or what books you read, either his was the first sighting of this remarkable artifact or it was just part of a surge of woolly dime-store pulp serial mythologizing. Even if Gaussman wasn’t the first to spot the pyramids, it’s still interesting that many photographs of them were supposedly locked away in military files for decades.

Making the subject even more murky was Hartwig Hausdorf's book on the subject, which fueled fires of outrageous speculation – aliens, anyone? – but didn’t give a lot of accurate or verifiable info.

Despite Gaussman’s sighting (and Hausdorf's book), the pyramids definitely deserve at least the same recognition and respect their Central American and Middle Eastern cousins have received. Also like the pyramids in Giza, many of them are truly immense: the one at Mount Li, for example, is an impressive 250 feet tall; and the Great White one is a close runner-up.

Also like their kin in the Middle East, the pyramids in China were burial chambers and mausoleums, monstrous headstones for royalty and various courtly hangers-on: Mount Li was built for the legendary Qin Shi Huang and the Great White was constructed for Emperor Wudi.

But what makes the Chinese pyramids so interesting for many people – serious archeologists as well as passionate amateurs – is what isn’t known about them. Although we know they were crypts for Emperors and Kings, their construction details are a mystery. What makes them even more elusive is that while many of them are obvious and impressive, there are others you could walk right by – and many people have for centuries -- without realizing they were
anything but just slightly angular rises or low hills. The current guestimate is that there are around 38 pyramids, but both the serious professionals as well as the dedicated hobbyists believe that number is just a fraction of how many actual structures there are scattered throughout China.

But this knowledge just raises bigger, and more bewildering questions. Naturally, people know about the ones in Egypt, the legendary structures at Giza. Absolutely, a lot of folks have heard about the huge structures scattered throughout Central America, including the gigantic one at Cholula … but only until relatively recently had any of us Westerners heard that there were pyramids in China – and maybe a century or so before that, even many Chinese didn’t know what was dotting their landscapes.

See that hill? See that mountain? See that slightly angular rise? I wonder what’s under them? I wonder what other secrets are out there, laying just under the surface … or under our feet?

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Things We Want Back: Automats

An automat (sometimes referred to coloquially as a wall) is a fast food restaurant where simple foods and drink are served by coin-operated and bill-operated vending machines.

Originally, the machines took only nickels but modern automat vending machines accept bills. In the original format, a cashier would sit in a change booth in the center of the restaurant, behind a wide marble counter with five to eight rounded depressions in it. She would serve many customers at once, taking their money from the depressions and dropping nickels in its place. She did this very rapidly, throwing down five nickels at a stroke, four strokes to a dollar. The diner would insert the required number of coins in a machine and then lift a window, which was hinged at the top, to remove the meal, which was generally wrapped in waxed paper. The machines were filled from the kitchen behind. All or most New York automats also had a cafeteria-style steam table where patrons could slide a tray along rails and choose foods, which were ladled out of steaming tureens. Automats are still very common in The Netherlands, but outside of there, few exist. In the United States, the last one, a Horn & Hardart automat at 42nd Street and Third Avenue in Manhattan, closed in April 1991. In 2006, an automat opened in New York City's East Village, but it was closed in March, 2009.

Unlike modern vending machines, food was served on real dishes with metal utensils, and drinks in glasses.

Inspired by the Quisiana Automat in Berlin, the first automat in the U.S. was opened June 12, 1902, at 818 Chestnut St. in Philadelphia by Horn & Hardart. The automat was brought to New York City in 1912 and gradually became part of popular culture in northern industrial cities. Horn & Hardart was the most prominent automat chain.

In its heyday, recipes were kept in a safe, and described how to place the food on the plate as well as how to make it. The automats were popular with a wide variety of patrons, including Walter Winchell, Irving Berlin and other celebrities of the era. The New York automats were popular with out of work songwriters and actors. Playwright Neil Simon called automats "the Maxim's of the disenfranchised" in a 1987 article.

The format was threatened by the growth of suburbs and the rise of fast food restaurants catering to motorists (with their drive-thru windows) in the 1950s; by the 1970s, their remaining appeal was strictly nostalgic. Another contributing factor to their demise was undoubtedly the inflation of the 1960s and 70s, making the food too expensive to be bought conveniently with coins, in a time before bill acceptors commonly appeared on vending equipment.

At one time there were 40 Horn & Hardart automats in New York City alone. The last one closed in 1991 after the company, which was exiting the restaurant business, failed to find a buyer for it. At the time, the quality of the food was described by some customers as on the decline

Saturday, December 19, 2009

All I Ask Is A Tall Ship And A Star To Steer Her By


The Rainbow Warrior (sometimes unofficially Rainbow Warrior II) is a three-masted schooner in service with the environmental protection organization Greenpeace. She was built from the hull of the deep sea fishing ship Grampian Fame, which had been built in Selby, North Yorkshire and launched in 1957. She was originally 44 metres long and powered by steam, but was extended to 55.2 m in 1966. Greenpeace gave the vessel new masts, a gaff rig, a new engine and a number of environmentally low-impact systems to handle waste, heating and hot water. She was officially re-launched in Hamburg on July 10, 1989, the fourth anniversary of the sinking of her predecessor, the original Rainbow Warrior.

She currently operates in support of the organisation's protest actions across the globe.

The Rainbow Warrior, piloted by skipper Mike Fincken, docked at the Legazpi City port in Albay on May 22, 2008 for her one month long "Quit Coal, Save the Climate" Philippines tour and campaign aimed to educate people on the effects of the use of coal on the environment, specifically on climate change. The tour proposed alternative energy sources such as geothermal and solar energy

Thursday, December 17, 2009

One of Our Favorite Heroes: Richard Francis Burton


Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton KCMG FRGS (19 March 1821 – 20 October 1890) was an English explorer, translator, writer, soldier, orientalist, ethnologist, linguist, poet, hypnotist, fencer and diplomat. He was known for his travels and explorations within Asia and Africa as well as his extraordinary knowledge of languages and cultures. According to one count, he spoke 29 European, Asian, and African languages.

Burton's best-known achievements include travelling in disguise to Mecca, The Book of One Thousand Nights and A Night, an unexpurgated translation of One Thousand and One Nights (also commonly called The Arabian Nights in English after Andrew Lang's abridgement), bringing the Kama Sutra to publication in English, and journeying with John Hanning Speke as the first Europeans led by Africa's greatest explorer guide, Sidi Mubarak Bombay, utilizing route information by Indian and Omani merchants who traded in the region, to visit the Great Lakes of Africa in search of the source of the Nile. Burton extensively criticized colonial policies (to the detriment of his career) in his works and letters. He was a prolific and erudite author and wrote numerous books and scholarly articles about subjects including human behaviour, travel, fencing, sexual practices, and ethnography. A unique feature of his books is the copious footnotes and appendices containing remarkable observations and unexpurgated information.

He was a captain in the army of the East India Company serving in India (and later, briefly, in the Crimean War). Following this he was engaged by the Royal Geographical Society to explore the east coast of Africa and led an expedition guided by the locals which discovered Lake Tanganyika. In later life he served as British consul in Fernando Po, Damascus and, finally, Trieste. He was a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and was awarded a knighthood (KCMG) in 1886 ...

... motivated by his love of adventure, Burton got the approval of the Royal Geographical Society for an exploration of the area and he gained permission from the Board of Directors of the British East India Company to take leave from the army. His seven years in India gave Burton a familiarity with the customs and behaviour of Muslims and prepared him to attempt a Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca and, in this case, Medina). It was this journey, undertaken in 1853, which first made Burton famous. He had planned it whilst travelling disguised among the Muslims of Sindh, and had laboriously prepared for the ordeal by study and practice (including being circumcised to further lower the risk of being discovered).

Although Burton was not the first non-Muslim European to make the Hajj (Ludovico di Barthema in 1503 is believed to hold that distinction), his pilgrimage is the most famous and the best documented of the time. He adopted various disguises including that of a Pashtun to account for any oddities in speech, but he still had to demonstrate an understanding of intricate Islamic ritual, and a familiarity with the minutiae of Eastern manners and etiquette. Burton's trek to Mecca was quite dangerous and his caravan was attacked by bandits (a common experience at the time). As he put it, although "... neither Koran or Sultan enjoin the death of Jew or Christian intruding within the columns that note the sanctuary limits, nothing could save a European detected by the populace, or one who after pilgrimage declared himself an unbeliever." The pilgrimage entitled him to the title of Hajji and to wear green head wrap. Burton's own account of his journey is given in A Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Medinah and Meccah (1855).

Some members of his entourage suspected there was more to Burton than met the eye. He came close to being discovered one night when he lifted his robe to urinate, rather than squatting as an Arab would. He thought he was unseen, but the youngest member of his group happened to see him. The lad accused him of being an impostor, but let Burton convince him to keep his doubts to himself.

When Burton returned to the British Army he sat for examination as an Arab linguist, which he failed ...

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Specter That Haunted Hitler

The Ghost Army was a United States Army tactical deception unit during World War II officially known as the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops. The 1,100-man unit was given a unique mission within the Army to impersonate other U.S. Army units in order to fool the enemy. From a few weeks after D-Day, when they landed in France, until the end of the war, they put on a traveling road show, using inflatable tanks, sound trucks, phony radio transmissions and even playacting. They staged more than 20 battlefield deceptions, often operating very close to the front lines. Their mission was kept secret until 1996, and elements of it are still classified.

Inspiration for the unit came from the British who had used similar techniques on a smaller scale at the battle of El Alamein. The unit had its beginnings at Camp Forrest, Mississippi, and was fully formed at Pine Camp (now Fort Drum), NY before sailing for England in early May 1944. In England they were based near Stratford, and some troops participated in Operation Fortitude, the British simulation of a landing force designated for the Pas des Calais.

Some troops went to Normandy two weeks after D-Day, where they simulated a fake Mulberry harbor at night with lights to draw German fire away from the real ones. Next the full force assisted in bottling up the German defenders of Brest by simulating a larger force than was actually encircling them.

As the Allied armies moved east, so did the 23rd, and it eventually was mostly based out of Luxembourg, where it engaged in deceptions of crossings of the Roehr river, positions along the Maginot line, Huertgen Forest, and finally a major crossing of the Rhine to draw German troops away from the actual sites.

Ghost soldiers were encouraged to use their brains and talent to mislead, deceive and befuddle the German Army. Many were recruited from art schools, advertising agencies and other venues that encourage creative thinking. In civilian life, ghost soldiers had been artists, actors, set designers and engineering wizards. Fashion designer Bill Blass, photographer Art Kane, the artist Louis Dalton Porter and the painter Ellsworth Kelly served as ghost soldiers.

Although the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops consisted of only 1,100 soldiers, the contingent used inflatable tanks and artillery, fake aircraft and giant speakers broadcasting the sounds of men and artillery to make the Germans think it was upwards to a two division 30,000 man force. The unit's elaborate ruses helped deflect German units from the locations of larger allied combat units.

The unit consisted of the 406th Combat Engineers (which handled security), the 603rd Camouflage Engineers, the 3132 Signal Service Company Special and the Signal Company Special.

The visual deception arm of the Ghost Army was the 603rd Camouflage Engineers. It was equipped with inflatable tanks, cannons, jeeps, trucks, and airplanes that the men would pump up with air compressors, and then camouflage imperfectly so that enemy air reconnaissance could see them. They could create dummy airfields, troop bivuacs (complete with fake laundry hanging out on clotheslines), motor pools, artillery batteries, and tank formations in a matter of hours. Many of the men in this unit were artists, recruited from New York and Philadelphia art schools. Their unit became an incubator for young artists who literally sketched and painted their way through Europe. Several of these soldier-artists went on to have a major impact on art in post-war America. Blass, Ellsworth Kelly, wildlife artist Arthur Singer and Kane were among the many artists who served in the 603rd.

The 3132 Signal Service Company Special handled sonic deception. The unit came together under the direction of Colonel Hilton Railey, a colorful figure who, before the war, had “discovered” Amelia Earhart and sent her on her road to fame.

With the help of engineers from Bell Labs, a team from the 3132 went to Fort Knox to record sounds of armored and infantry units onto a series of sound effects records that they brought to Europe. For each deception, sounds could be “mixed” to match the scenario they wanted the enemy to believe. This program was recorded on state of the art wire recorders (the predecessor to the tape recorder), and then played back with powerful amplifiers and speakers mounted on halftracks. The sounds they played could be heard 15 miles away.

"Spoof radio", as it was called, was handled by the Signal Company Special. Operators created phony traffic nets, impersonating the radio operators from real units. They learned the art of mimicking an operator’s method of sending Morse Code so that the enemy would never catch on that the real unit and its radio operator were long gone.

To add to the mix of techniques, the unit often employed theatrical effects to supplement the other deceptions. Collectively called "atmosphere", this included simulating actual units deployed elsewhere by sewing on their divisional patches, painting appropriate unit designators on vehicles and having the companies deployed as if they were regimental headquarters units. Trucks would be driven in looping convoys with just two troops in the seats near the tailgate, to simulate a truck full of infantry under the canvas cover. "MP's" would be deployed at cross roads wearing appropriate divisional insignia and some officers would simulate divisional generals and staff officers visiting towns where enemy agents were likely to see them. In addition, a few actual tanks and artillery pieces were occasionally assigned to the unit to make the dummies in the distance seem more realistic.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Death ray, fiddlesticks! Why, it doesn't even slow them up!

Harry Grindell Matthews (March 17, 1880 – September 11, 1941) was an English inventor who claimed to have invented a death ray in the 1920s.

Harry Grindell Matthews was born in 1880 in Winterbourne, Gloucestershire. He studied at the Merchant Venturer's School in Bristol and became an electronic engineer. During the Second Boer War he served in the South African Constabulary and was twice wounded.

In 1911 Matthews said he had invented an Aerophone device, a radiotelephone, and transmitted messages between a ground station and an aeroplane from a distance of two miles. His experiments attracted government attention and in July 4, 1912 he visited Buckingham Palace. However, when the British Admiralty requested a demonstration of the Aerophone, Matthews demanded that no experts be present at the scene. When four of the observers dismantled part of the apparatus before the demonstration began and took notes, Matthews canceled the demonstration and drove observers away.

Newspapers rushed to Matthews's defense. The War Office denied any tampering and claimed that the demonstration was a failure. Matthews backpedalled and stated that the affair was just a misunderstanding.

In 1914, after the outbreak of the First World War, the British government announced an award of £25,000 to anyone who could create a weapon against zeppelins or remotely control unmanned vehicles. Matthews claimed that he had created a remote control system that used selenium cells. He successfully demonstrated it with a remotely controlled boat to representatives of the Admiralty at Richmond Park's Penn Pond. He received his £25,000 but the admiralty never used the invention.

Next, Matthews appeared in public in 1921 and claimed to have invented the world's first talking picture, an interview of Ernest Shackleton. It was not commercially successful. (Other talking-picture processes had been developed before that of Matthews, notably one by William K.L. Dickson: these also were not successful, but they are thoroughly documented. Even if Matthews's process actually worked, it was certainly not the "first".)

In 1923 Matthews claimed that he had invented an electric ray that would put magnetos out of action. In a demonstration to some select journalist he stopped a motorcycle engine from a distance. He also claimed that with enough power he could shoot down aeroplanes, explode gunpowder, stop ships and incapacitate infantry from the distance of four miles. Newspapers obliged by publishing sensational accounts of his invention.

The War Office contacted Matthews in February 1924 to request a demonstration of his ray. Matthews did not answer to them but spoke to journalists and demonstrated the ray to a Star reporter by igniting gunpowder from a distance. He still refused to say how the ray actually worked, just insisted that it did. When the British government still refused to rush to buy his ideas, he announced that he had an offer from France.

The Air Ministry was wary, partially because of previous bad experiences with would-be inventors. Matthews was invited back to London to demonstrate his ray on April 26 to the armed forces. In Matthews's laboratory they saw how his ray switched on a light bulb and cut off a motor. He failed to convince the officials, who also suspected trickery or a confidence game. When the admiralty requested further demonstration, Matthews refused to give it.

In May 27, 1924, the High Court in London granted an injunction to Matthew's investors that forbade him from selling the rights to the death ray. When Major Wimperis arrived at Matthews's laboratory to negotiate a new deal, Matthews had already flown to Paris. Matthews's backers appeared on the scene as well and then rushed to Croydon airport to stop him, but were too late.

Public furor attracted interest of various other would-be inventors who wanted to demonstrate their own death rays to the War Office. None of them was convincing. On May 28 Commander Kenworthy asked in the House of Commons what the government intended to do to stop Matthews from selling the ray to a foreign power. The Undersecretary for Air answered that Matthews was not willing to let them investigate the ray to their satisfaction. A government representative also stated that one ministry official had stood before the ray and survived. Newspapers continued to root for Matthews.

The government required that Matthews would use the ray to stop a petrol motorcycle engine in the conditions that would satisfy the Air Ministry. He would receive £1000 and further consideration. From France, Matthews answered that he was not willing to give any proof of that kind and that he already had eight bids to choose from. He also claimed that he had lost sight in his left eye because of his experiments. His involvement with his French backer Eugene Royer aroused further suspicions in Britain.

Sir Samuel Instone and his brother Theodore offered Matthews a huge salary if he would keep the ray in Britain and demonstrate that it actually worked. Matthews refused again - he did not want to give any proof that the ray worked as he claimed it would.

Matthews returned to London June 1, 1924 and gave an interview to the Sunday Express. He claimed that he had a deal with Royer. The press again took his side. The only demonstration Matthews was willing to give was to make a Pathe film The Death Ray to propagate his ideas to his own satisfaction. The device in the movie bore no resemblance to the one government officials had seen.

In July 1924, Matthews left for the USA to market his invention. When he was offered $25,000 to demonstrate his beam to the Radio World Fair at Madison Square Garden, he again refused and claimed, without foundation, that he was not permitted to demonstrate it outside England. US scientists were not impressed. One Professor Woods offered to stand in front of the death ray device to demonstrate his disbelief. Regardless, when Matthews returned to Britain, he claimed that the USA had bought his ray but refused to say who had done it and for how much. Matthews moved to the USA and began to work for Warner Bros.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Recycling/Recyclable Paradise


Spiral Island I was a floating artificial island in a lagoon near Puerto Aventuras, on the Caribbean coast of Mexico south of Cancún. It was built by British eco-pioneer Richart (or "Rishi") Sowa beginning in 1998; he filled nets with empty discarded plastic bottles to support a structure of plywood and bamboo, on which he poured sand and planted numerous plants, including mangroves. It was destroyed by Hurricane Emily in 2005. Sowa has built a new Spiral Island II in Isla Mujeres, Mexico.

The original island sported a two-story house, a solar oven, a self-composting toilet, and three beaches. He used some 250,000 bottles for the 66ft (20 m) by 54 ft (16 m) structure. The mangroves were planted to help keep the island cool, and some of them rose up to 15 ft (5 m) high.

Sowa is a musician, artist, and carpenter. Now in his fifties, he is an environmentalist who believes in recycling and low-impact living.

A book about Rishi's journey in building the original island and his philosophies, titled Spiralogically Speaking written by the German author Tanja Samed along with Rishi, is due to be released in 2008.

Spiral Island has been featured in a number of newspapers and TV documentaries around the world, and was featured in an episode of the Ripley's Believe It or Not! TV show.

During the hurricane in 2005, Spiral Island I was washed completely onto the beach in one piece, and a small proportion of the bags of bottles washed up on the beach away from where it landed. The roots of the 7-year-old, 7-meter-tall mangroves were intertwined through the island's base and the strong net that was wrapped totally under the whole Island.

Almost all of the sand Rishi Sowa used for Spiral Island at Puerto Aventuras was taken from the end of the beach, where it came up against the man-made rock pier on the edge of the canal system where the Island was tied. Due to the prevailing winds, beach-sand was constantly being piled up because of the constant motion of the waves and wind. The beach sand was dredged out using large machinery so that boats could continue to come through the canal. Since Rishi gathered 8 to 10 large buckets per week, the builders of Puerto Aventuras canal did not need to dredge it again as Rishi was doing it for them.

In late 2007 and 2008, Rishi Sowa built a new Spiral Island in the waters of Isla Mujeres, the "Island of Women", also near Cancun. It opened for tours in August, 2008. Japanese TV and Korean TV have produced documentaries on the project.

The new Spiral Island is about 20 meters (60 feet) in diameter, and plants and mangroves are already growing on it. It contains about 100,000 bottles. The new island has beaches, a house, 2 ponds, a solar-powered waterfall/river, and solar panels. Volunteers helped with the project. Rishi will continue to make improvements to the Island, so it will always be a work of art in progress.

Thursday, December 10, 2009


Chung Ling Soo was the stage name of American stage magician William Ellsworth Robinson (1861–1918). He is famous for dying when his bullet catch trick went wrong

During his early career, William Ellsworth Robinson called himself Robinson, the Man of Mystery. To increase his allure with a touch of exoticism, he changed his name to Chung Ling Soo and took his show to Europe. He took the name as a variation of a real Chinese stage magician - Ching Ling Foo - and performed many of the tricks that Foo had made famous. Chung Ling Soo maintained his role as a Chinese man scrupulously. He never spoke onstage and always used an interpreter when he spoke to journalists. Only his friends and other stage magicians knew the truth.

In 1905 in London, when both Chung and Ching were performing in different theatres, they developed a public feud — possibly a publicity stunt — referring to themselves as the only "Original Chinese Conjurer" and the other as an impostor. Ching challenged Chung to perform his tricks but did not show up at the appointed time. Whether this was by design is unknown.

Chung's most famous illusion—partly because of his death while performing it—was called "Condemned to Death by the Boxers". In this trick Chung's assistants, sometimes dressed as Boxers, took two guns to the stage. Several members of the audience were called on the stage to mark a bullet that was loaded into one of the guns. Attendants fired the gun at Chung, and he seemed to catch the bullets from the air and drop them on a plate he held up in front of him. In some variations he pretended to be hit and spit the bullet onto the plate.

Actually, Chung palmed the marked bullets, hiding them in his hand during their examination and marking. The muzzle-loaded guns were rigged so that the bullet in fact never left the gun. The guns were loaded with substitute bullets, but the flash from the pan was channelled to a second blank charge in the ramrod tube below the actual barrel of the gun. The ramrods were never replaced after loading. The guns were aimed at Chung, the assistants pulled the triggers, there was a loud bang and a cloud of gunpowder smoke filled the stage. Chung pretended to catch the bullets in his hand before they hit him. Sometimes he pretended to catch them in his mouth.

The trick went tragically wrong when Chung was performing in the Wood Green Empire, London, on March 23, 1918. Chung never unloaded the gun properly. To avoid expending powder and bullets, he had the breeches of the guns dismantled after each performance in order to remove the bullet, rather than firing them off or drawing the bullets with a screw-rod as was normal practice. Over time, the channel that allowed the flash to bypass the barrel and ignite the charge in the ramrod tube slowly built up a residue of unburned gunpowder. On the fateful night of the accident, the flash from the pan ignited the charge behind the bullet in the barrel of one of the guns. The bullet was fired in the normal way, hitting Chung in the chest. His last words were spoken on stage that moment, "Oh my God. Something's happened. Lower the curtain." It was the first and last time since adopting the persona that William "Chung Ling Soo" Robinson had spoken English in public.

Chung was taken to a nearby hospital, but he died the next day. His wife explained the nature of the trick, and the inquest judged the case "accidental death".

The circumstances of the accident were verified by the gun expert Robert Churchill.

Some conspiracy-minded theorists suggest that the death was not accidental. In 1955 US stage magician Jack Clarkson claimed that Chung was in debt, that his wife was having an affair with his agent, and that the incident was an elaborate form of suicide. Others have suggested instead that the agent manipulated the gun so that Chung would be killed. Neither theory is supported by solid evidence.

His life inspired the opera 'The Original Chinese Conjuror' in 2006, by Hong Kong born British composer, Raymond Yiu.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Russian Atlantis


Kitezh (Russian: Китеж) was a legendary town in what is today the Voskresensky District of the Nizhny Novgorod Oblast in Russia.

The legend has it that Georgy II, Grand Prince of Vladimir, first built the town of Maly Kitezh (Little Kitezh) on the Volga River (today's Krasny Kholm). It is sometimes erroneously identified with Gorodets, which was actually founded some 30 years before Georgy's birth in 1189. Later on, the prince crossed the rivers of Uzola, Sanda, and Kerzhenets and found a beautiful spot on the shores of the Svetloyar Lake, where he decided to build the town of Bolshoy Kitezh (Big Kitezh). According to folk etymology, the name of the town came from the royal residence of Kideksha (near Suzdal), ransacked by the Mongols in 1237, while Max Vasmer labels the place-name as "obscure".

After having conquered some of the Russian lands, Batu Khan heard of Kitezh and ordered his army to advance towards it. The Mongols soon captured Maly Kitezh, forcing Georgy to retreat into the woods towards Bolshoy Kitezh. One of the prisoners told the Mongols about some secret paths to the Lake Svetloyar. The army of the Horde followed Georgy and soon reached the walls of the town. To the surprise of the Mongols, the town had no fortifications whatsoever. Its citizens didn't even intend to defend themselves and were engaged in fervent praying, asking God for their redemption. On seeing this, the Mongols rushed to the attack, but then stopped. Suddenly, they saw countless fountains of water bursting from under the ground all around them. The attackers fell back and watched the town submerge into the lake. The last thing they saw was a glaring dome of a cathedral with a cross on top of it. Soon, there were only waves.

This legend gave birth to numerous incredible rumors, which have survived to this day. It is said that only those who are pure in their heart and soul will find their way to Kitezh (ironically, the road to the lake is still called "Батыева тропа", or the Path of Batu). It is also said that in calm weather one can sometimes hear the wailing sound of chiming bells and people singing from under the waters of the Lake Svetloyar. Some people say that the most pious individuals may actually see the lights of religious processions (called "крестный ход") and even buildings on the bottom of the lake. This is why the Lake Svetloyar is sometimes called the "Russian Atlantis".