Monday, May 31, 2010

The Power To Cloud Men's Minds ...


Beach Jumpers were U.S. Navy special warfare units, specializing in deception and psychological warfare.

Like the fictional character The Shadow, the Beach Jumpers had a "mysterious power to cloud men’s minds," though it came from the study and development of tactics, rather than "traveling in the Orient." Beach Jumper volunteers were recruited for "prolonged, hazardous, distant duty for a secret project." Their identities and activities were very highly classified, since the slightest leak of information could ruin even brilliant deceptions. Many Beach Jumpers went to their graves without ever revealing, even to their wives and children, what they had done in the Navy.

The U.S. Navy had active Beach Jumper units from 1943-1946 and 1951-1972.

Their early basic mission was "To assist and support the operating forces in the conduct of Tactical Cover and Deception in Naval Warfare." To accomplish it, they learned to simulate very large amphibious landings with very limited forces. Using specialized deception equipment, a few dozen Beach Jumpers could make the enemy believe they were a 70,000-man amphibious landing force, when in fact that force would be elsewhere, usually a great distance away.

The Beach Jumpers were formed in World War II after Lieutenant Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., the Hollywood actor turned naval officer, was assigned to duty with British Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten’s Commando in England. Fairbanks not only observed the training, planning, and execution of the Commando's raiding parties, diversions, and deception operations, but he trained with the unit and participated in several cross channel harassment raids. It was during these raids that he gained a true appreciation for the military art of deception.

When he returned to the U.S., he presented his idea for a unit of men trained to conduct tactical cover, diversionary and deception missions. Inspired by the success of the British Commando in using sonic deception on raids against the Nazis and Fairbanks' concept of operations, Admiral Ernest J. King, Commander-in-Chief, U. S. Fleet, and Chief of Naval Operations, issued a secret letter on 5 March 1943 charging the Vice Chief of Naval Operations with the recruitment of 180 officers and 300 enlisted men for the Beach Jumper program.

The recruits had to meet four general requirements: (1) no seasickness, (2) experience in small boat handling, (3) enough electrical knowledge to fix a home radio, and (4) at least fundamental knowledge of celestial navigation. The announcement further stated that "The Navy is requesting volunteers for prolonged, hazardous, distant duty for a secret project."

On 16 March 1943, the volunteers reported to the Amphibious Training Base at Camp Bradford, Virginia and formed Beach Jumper Unit One. The group was trained in small boat handling, seamanship, ordnance, gunnery, demolition, pyrotechnics, and meteorology. The unit was assigned ten 63-foot double-hulled plywood Air-Sea Rescue Boats (ASR), each to be manned by an officer and a six-man crew. The boats were equipped with twin 50 caliber machine guns, 3.5 inch window rockets, smoke pots and generators, and floating time delay explosive packs. They also carried the unit’s specialized deception equipment: the multi-component "heater," consisting of a wire recorder; 5-phase amplifier, and 1000 watt, 12 horn speaker; and ZKM and MK-6 Naval balloons to which strips of radar reflective window had been attached. The latter could be towed behind the boats to enhance their radar cross-section. Later, the Beach Jumpers acquired various jamming transmitters such as the APT-2 (Carpet); APQ-2 (Rug); AN/APT-3 (Mandrel); AN/SPT-4; AM-14/APT; AM-18/APT; and AN/SPT-1 (DINA).

The Beach Jumpers got their name because of their ability to quickly hit the beach and confuse the enemy with harassment and deception operations. During a high level conference, someone stated that the purpose of the Beach Jumpers’ work was "to scare the be-jesus out of the enemy." The term "BJ factor" was used thereafter in their planning, and is said to have inspired the cover name Beach Jumpers.

Beach Jumpers saw much action in WWII. Their first operation was in Operation HUSKY, the Allied invasion of Sicily. On the night of 10 July 1943, Beach Jumper Unit ONE was ordered to conduct a diversion off Cape San Marco, 100 miles west of the HUSKY landing area. The first attempt was recalled due to hazardous seas. On D+1, the weather was better and the operation began at 2200 hours. At 3,000 yards off shore, three of the ASRs prepared their heaters, one ASR proceeded a thousand yards ahead and began to lay smoke. As the sound boats prepared to make their run parallel to the beach, a searchlight from Cape San Marco illuminated the area, accompanied by small arms and artillery fire. At 0230 the sound boats were ordered to secure their heaters and approach the beach, which they did, firing guns and rockets. All boats retired on a course back to their home port at Pantelleria, Sicily.

To keep the Germans’ attention, the unit was ordered to conduct another operation on the night of 12 July 1943, using all available craft. This time the shore batteries were completely alerted. The Germans were convinced that a landing was about to take place. Salvos of six inch and smaller guns were thrown at the boats. The operation was a success and no casualties were sustained.

Operation HUSKY accomplished complete surprise due to the uncertainty created in the minds of some German Commanders by the diversions and deception operations. BJU-1 was responsible for an entire German Reserve Division being held in place, as the German Command was unsure where the actual landing would take place.

Beach Jumpers continued to work successfully in the Mediterranean through the summer of 1944. Beach Jumper operations in the Pacific were less rewarding, but at least one diversion proved effective, allowing the 34th Regimental Combat team and the 38th and 11th Airborne Divisions to land with little or no opposition.

Shortly after the end of WWII, all Beach Jumper Units were deactivated.

They were reactivated in 1951, in spite of the objections of those who questioned the worth of a deception unit in these more sophisticated times. A Beach Jumper unit was given a chance to prove its worth when an important training exercise was being planned. The Beach Jumpers knew that Fleet communications from the Force Commander to ships at sea were relayed through radio Washington. Pretending to be the Force Commander, they sent an official message, via Radio Washington, ordering every ship’s Commanding Officer to report aboard the flagship the next morning to discuss terminating the exercise. The next morning at least half of the ships’ Commanding officers were aboard the flagship in a state of mounting confusion and anger. There were no more doubts about the worth of the Beach Jumper program.

Through the late 1950s and into the early 1960s as the Cold War evolved into the "Counterinsurgency Era," Beach Jumper expertise in the area of manipulative and imitative deception and electronic warfare (EW) was employed in revolutionary new ways, both during scheduled fleet exercises and on actual operations. Additionally, they acquired a new secondary mission: "To plan and execute Psychological Operations in support of commands to which assigned."

Several Beach Jumper teams were active in the Vietnam War, responsible for tactical deception and for employing psychological operations (PSYOPS), which was also their unclassified cover activity. They operated from several naval platforms including the USS Iwo Jima (LPH-2) and USS Tripoli (LPH-10). Their primary mission was to assist and support the operating forces in the conduct of Tactical Cover and Deception. They conducted monitoring, tape preparation and Soviet Signal Intelligence SIGINT trawler jamming missions from destroyers. Some of the men became paratroopers, possibly to add credibility to the Beach Jumper cover name.

Other Beach Jumpers operated under the cover name "Yankee Station Special Surveillance Unit," aboard fleet tugs such as the USS Cocopa (ATF-101). Their mission was to deceive and jam Soviet Signal Intelligence (SIGINT) and Electronics Intelligence (ELINT) trawlers that were monitoring U.S. Naval operations in the Gulf of Tonkin. This group conducted counter SIGINT trawler activities which included random jamming with noises that even included bagpipe recordings.

The Beach Jumper name was retired in 1972, and the Beach Jumper mission was assigned to Fleet Composite Operational Readiness Group ONE (FLTCORGRU ONE). In 1986, Fleet Tactical Deception Group Pacific (FLTDECGRUPAC) and Fleet Tactical Deception Group Atlantic (FLTDECGRULANT) were formed, with the mission of "Assisting Commanders in the planning and conduct of tactical military deception operations."

Former Beach Jumpers are eligible to join the U.S. Navy Beach Jumpers Association and to be Associate Members of the UDT-SEAL Association.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Movies You Haven't Seen But Should: Quatermass And The Pit


Quatermass and the Pit is a 1967 British science-fiction / horror film, produced by Hammer Film Productions and based on the 1958 BBC Television serial of the same name. It was adapted by the writer Nigel Kneale from his own original television script, and directed by Roy Ward Baker. The film was designed by Bernard Robinson and scored by Tristram Cary. In the United States, it was released under the title Five Million Years to Earth.

The film was a sequel to two previous Hammer adaptations of Kneale's BBC serials: The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and Quatermass 2 (1957). It was the first Quatermass production to be made in colour, and starred Scottish actor Andrew Keir as Professor Bernard Quatermass, replacing the American Brian Donlevy, who had starred in the previous two films.

In contrast to Donlevy, Keir's performance as Quatermass has been very well-received down the years, and the film is generally felt to be the most faithful of the three cinematic adaptations, although it was not as commercially successful as its predecessors. Nigel Kneale's script is in particular extremely close to his original television version, with whole scenes and chunks of dialogue remaining essentially untouched.

Other actors included Julian Glover as the army officer Colonel Breen, James Donald as the archeologist Roney, and Barbara Shelley as Roney's assistant Miss Judd. Also appearing in a small role as the drill operator Sladden was actor Duncan Lamont, who in 1953 had played the major part of astronaut Victor Caroon in the original Quatermass television serial, The Quatermass Experiment. Gareth Thomas, later to appear in popular 1970s television series Children of the Stones and Blake's 7, makes a brief, non-speaking appearance in the opening scenes as a workman on the London Underground.

Quatermass and the Pit was the last Quatermass movie to be produced by Hammer, although after its release Kneale did pitch a storyline to the company for a further film written directly for the cinema. While it was not produced by Hammer, the storyline eventually formed the basis of the character's 1979 swansong television serial Quatermass, screened on the ITV network.

Andrew Keir returned to play the character of Quatermass again in the 1996 radio serial The Quatermass Memoirs for BBC Radio 3, becoming one of only two actors – Brian Donlevy being the other – to play the role for a second time.


Minister of Defense: You realise what you're implying? That we owe our human condition here to the intervention of insects?

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Ready ... Aim ...


Bombardier beetles are ground beetles (Carabidae) in the tribes Brachinini, Paussini, Ozaenini, or Metriini—more than 500 species altogether—that are most notable for the defense mechanism that gives them their name: When disturbed, the beetle ejects a noxious chemical spray in a rapid burst of pulses from special glands in its abdomen. The ejection is accompanied with a popping sound.

A bombardier beetle produces and stores two reactant chemical compounds hydroquinone and hydrogen peroxide in separate reservoirs in the rear tip of its abdomen. When threatened, the beetle contracts muscles that force the two reactants through valved tubes into a mixing chamber containing water and a mixture of catalytic enzymes. When combined, the reactants undergo a violent exothermic chemical reaction raising the temperature to near the boiling point of water. The corresponding pressure buildup forces the entrance valves from the reactant storage chambers to close, thus protecting the beetle's internal organs. The boiling, foul-smelling liquid partially becomes a gas (flash evaporation) and is expelled through an outlet valve into the atmosphere with a loud popping sound. The flow of reactants into the reaction chamber and subsequent ejection to the atmosphere occurs cyclically at a rate of about 500 times per second and with the total pulsation period lasting for only a fraction of a second.

The gland openings of some African bombardier beetles can swivel through 270° and thrust between the insect's legs so it can be discharged in all sorts of directions with considerable accuracy.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Beware The Snuff Puppets!


Snuff Puppets is an Australian puppet theatre company that was founded in 1992.

Originating in Canberra as part of Splinters Theatre of Spectacle, Snuff Puppets moved to a dusty warehouse in the industrial working class suburb of Footscray in Melbourne, and are now based in the historic Footscray Drill Hall. Snuff Puppets founding members were Pauline Cady and Simon Terrill and the current Artistic Director, Andy Freer.

The company tour nationally and internationally, with shows on the streets, in circus tents, theatres and at rock concerts. Snuff Puppets combine the elements of puppetry, live music, visual and physical theatre. The company refers to its 'roaming acts' as 'interventions' as Snuff Puppets specialize in creating mayhem in the streets, playing with traffic and shoppers.

Subjects that are considered taboo are tackled, with 'a vulgar, irreverent, gratuitously violent and a comic sensibility'.

Snuff Puppet elements: ‘a blackly dangerous humour, an incisive political satire, shamelessly handmade visual aesthetic; populist, free, joyous conflagration of art, audience and artist.’[2]

In the past the company had an interest in direct action on political issues. Over the years this had included appearances in dozens of political rallies and support for world peace, third world debt relief and support for asylum seekers.

Snuff Puppets has performed in over 15 countries, including tours of Japan, China, Korea, Brazil, England, Ireland, Western and Eastern Europe.

Local communities have worked with Snuff Puppets in workshops held in Australia, Japan, Singapore, Netherlands, Indonesia, England and at the World Social Forum in Brazil.

The troupe has won the 'Spirit of the Fringe' award from Melbourne Fringe and the 'Adelaide Fringe 2006 Circus / Physical Theatre Award'.

The Australian Federal and Victorian State Governments support Snuff Puppets with annual Arts Funding

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

They're Dalek Bumps!


Comic Relief is a British charity organisation which was founded in the United Kingdom in 1985 by the comedy scriptwriter Richard Curtis and Alexander Mendis in response to famine in Ethiopia. The highlight of Comic Relief's appeal is a bi-annual telethon held in March, alternating as Red Nose Day. Comic Relief is one of the two high profile telethon events held in Britain, the other being Children in Need held annually in November.

Comic Relief was launched live on Noel Edmonds's Late, Late Breakfast Show on BBC1, on Christmas Day 1985 from a refugee camp in Sudan. The idea for Comic Relief came from the noted charity worker Jane Tewson, who established it as the operating name of Charity Projects, a registered charity in England and Scotland.

One of the fundamental principles behind working at Comic Relief is the "Golden Pound Principle" where every single donated pound (£) is spent on charitable projects. All operating costs, such as staff salaries, are covered by corporate sponsors, or interest which is earned while money raised is waiting to be spent distributed to charitable projects.

Currently, its two main supporters are the public service broadcaster - the BBC, and the supermarket - Sainsbury's. The BBC is responsible for the live television extravaganza on Red Nose Day, and Sainsbury's sells merchandise on behalf of the charity.

Since the charity was started in the 1980s, Comic Relief has raised over £600 million.

In 2002, Comic Relief and BBC Sport teamed up to create Sport Relief, a new initiative, aiming to unite the sporting community and culminate in a night of sport, entertainment and fundraising on BBC One. Sport Relief is a biennial charity event, and the campaign deliberately alternates years with Red Nose Day, Comic Relief's flagship event. Comic Relief occurs in odd-numbered years, and Sport Relief in even-numbered years.

In 2009, Comic Relief launched a website calling for a financial transaction tax, the "Robin Hood" tax.

Red Nose Day is the main way in which Comic Relief raises money. The first Red Nose Day was held in 1988. It is held in the spring every other year, and is often treated as a semi-holiday, with, for example, schools across the UK having non-uniform days. The day culminates in a live telethon event on BBC One, starting in the evening and going through into the early hours of the morning, but other money-raising events take place. As the name suggests, the day involves the wearing of plastic/foam red noses which are available, in exchange for a donation, from Sainsbury's and Oxfam shops.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The (Maybe) Deadly 'White Tights'


"White Tights" (also "White Pantyhose" or White Stockings; the beliye kolgotki, Russian: белые колготки; Latvian: baltās zeķbikses) is a Russian urban myth surrounding the alleged participation of female sniper mercenaries in combat against Russian forces in various armed conflicts from late 1980s.

The myth describes these women as blond Amazon-like nationalistic biathletes turned anti-Russian mercenaries. They come predominantly from the Baltic states, but subsequent variations of the myth have diversified the ethnic composition of the snipers, including Ukrainian, Russian and even black women in their midst.

The name "White Tights" originates from the white-coloured winter sports attire these snipers were wearing and was first coined during the Nagorno-Karabakh War.

The phenomenon was first reported during the late 1980s, with female Baltic irregulars being rumoured fighting with the resistance in the Soviet war in Afghanistan. It appeared first in the English-language media only in conjunction with the post-Soviet First and Second Chechen Wars. Attempts have been made to link the alleged presence of the "White Tights" in Chechnya, not only with the special forces and intelligence services of the Baltic states, but also to the positive relations Chechen leader Dzhokhar Dudayev enjoyed with both the government of independent Estonia and Lithuanian politician Vytautas Landsbergis. Sergey Yastrzhembsky, the chief spokesman of the Kremlin during the early phase of the Second Chechen War, argued that female Baltic snipers actually existed based on evidence from GRU military intelligence, who "don't make mistakes". The government of Estonia has asked for the evidence behind the claims and sent diplomatic notes twice to Russia without receiving an official answer.

In November 2008, Aleksandr Bastrykin, head of the Russian Federation Prosecutor-General's investigative committee, has suggested that mercenaries from the Baltic states were among those known to have participated on the Georgian side during the 2008 South Ossetia war, including a female sniper from Latvia. Earlier during the conflict, Russia Today TV had reported the South Ossetian authorities as saying that "there was a group of women snipers operating in the city [i.e., Tskhinvali]", and that "Ukrainians and citizens of the Baltic countries have been among the prisoners they have detained." These reports have resurrected the rumours of "White Tights" operating in the Caucasus. A spokesman for the Latvian Ministry of Defence, Airis Rikveilis, commented Bastrykin's statements as follows: "We had thought that the ghost of the 'White Tights' had died in the Russian press, but now we see that it still roams Russia."

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Push the button, Max!


The 1908 New York to Paris Race was an automobile competition consisting of drivers attempting to travel from New York to Paris. This was a notable challenge given the state of automobile technology and road infrastructure at the time. Only three of six contestants completed the course. The winner was the United States team, driving a 1907 Thomas Flyer.

In 1907 the Peking to Paris automobile race had inspired an even bolder test of these new machines. The following year the course would be from New York City, USA, to Paris, France with a 150-mile (240 km) ship passage from Nome across the Bering Strait to East Cape, Siberia. It should be remembered this was at a time when "the motor car is the most fragile and capricious thing on earth."

It was in Times Square February 12, 1908 that six cars representing four nations were at the starting line for what would become a 169 day ordeal. The national flags of Germany, France, Italy and the United States flew, with the Protos representing Germany, the Züst representing Italy, three cars (De Dion-Bouton, Motobloc, and Sizaire-Naudin) representing France, and Thomas Flyer competing for the United States. At 11:15 AM a shot from a gold plated pistol signaled the start of an around-the-world race, with this still novel form of transportation. Ahead of the competitors were very few paved roads, and in many parts of the world no roads at all. Often, the teams resorted to straddling the locomotive rails with their cars riding tie to tie on balloon tires for hundreds of miles when no roads could be found.

The route then took them to Valdez, Alaska by ship. The Thomas crew found impossible conditions in Alaska, and the race was rerouted across the Pacific by steamer to Japan where the Americans made their way across to the Sea of Japan. Then it was on to Vladivostok, Siberia by ship to begin crossing the continents of Asia and Europe. Only three of the competitors made it past Vladivostok, the Protos, the Züst, and the Flyer.

The tundra of Siberia and Manchuria was an endless quagmire with the spring thaw making progress difficult. At several points, forward movement was often measured in feet rather than miles per hour. Eventually, the roads improved as Europe approached and the Thomas arrived in Paris on July 30, 1908 to win. The Germans arrived in Paris four days earlier, but had been penalized a total of 30 days for not going to Alaska, and for shipping the Protos part of the way by rail car. That gave the win to the Americans with George Schuster (the only American to go the full distance from New York to Paris) and Montague Roberts by 26 days. The Italians arrived later in September 1908.

The race was of international interest with daily front page coverage by the New York Times (a cosponsor of the race with the Parisian newspaper Le Matin). The significance of the event extended far beyond the race itself. It established the reliability of the automobile as a dependable means of transportation, taking the automobile from an amusement of the rich to a reliable and viable means of long distance transportation for the masses. It also led to the call for improved roads to be constructed in many parts of the world.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Toy Boats For Big Captains


The Port Revel Shiphandling Training Centre is a French maritime pilotage school that trains pilots, masters, and officers on large ships like supertankers, container ships, LNG carriers and cruise ships . The facility uses manned models at a 1:25 scale on a man-made lake designed to simulate natural conditions including harbours, canals, and open seas. It was the first such facility in the world. The Centre was created in 1967 near Grenoble, (France) by Laboratoire Dauphinois d'Hydraulique (now Sogreah).

The courses are given by former maritime pilots. Since 1967, the Centre has trained over 6 000 maritime pilots, captains and officers from all over the world. French, European and North American pilots make up 90% of the Centre's students.

The manned model training regime is now recommended by the International Maritime Organization under Resolution A 960 (23) of December 2005.

The facility was written about by John McPhee in an article for The Atlantic Monthly, also published in his book Uncommon Carriers.

The centre’s origin goes back to the fifties, when Port Revel’s mother company, Sogreah, was studying bank erosion on the Suez Canal using model ships sailing on a scale model with a movable bed (i.e. granular material subjected to erosion by turbulent water movement).

At the end of the sixties this experience with free sailing model ships was used by Esso to anticipate the manoeuvring behaviour of the new, much larger, oil tankers.

After three years spent with Esso captains between 1967 and 1970, the Centre was taken over by Sogreah in 1970.

During the 1970s, most students were captains, while the first maritime pilots came to discover the centre.

In the 1990s, the first refresher courses were organised for pilots, who returned every 5 years. These courses are less directive and leave more room for customisation, which is a way of optimising port operations to increase port accessibility.

Manned model shiphandling training has improved over the years because:

  • the instructors have become more proficient in delivering the courses and in their ability to structure courses as required,
  • lake facilities have undergone changes, such as the creation of extensive shallow water areas with currents, and can mimic specific port scenarios,
  • all kinds of large ships are available and model electronics have become more sophisticated in order to reproduce real ship manoeuvring behaviour,
  • tugs have become a part of the courses since 2000, providing realistic capability for berthing/unberthing operations and escort work,
  • pod propulsion is now available,
  • introducing quality assurance has increased the reliability of ships and equipment,
  • the lake area was extended from four to five hectares during the winter 2008-2009,
  • a large container ship (8 500 TEU) was added to the fleet in 2009,
  • a large LNG carrier of 266 000 m3, the Q-Max, was added in 2010.

Manned models are small scale models that can carry and be handled by at least one person on an open expanse of water. They must behave like real ships, giving the shiphandler the same sensations. Wind, currents, waves, water depths, channels and berths must be reproduced realistically.

Manned models are used for research (e.g. ship behaviour), engineering (e.g. port layout) and for training in shiphandling (e.g. maritime pilots, masters and officers). They are usually at 1:25 scale.

The aim of training on manned models is to enable seamen to acquire or to develop manoeuvring skills through a better understanding of a ship’s behaviour as it sails in restricted water conditions at manoeuvring speed. Manned models are considered by ships' captains and maritime pilots as the next best thing to a full-scale prototype for understanding a ship's behaviour.

Those who have trained on both claim that scale models are complementary to computer simulators. While manoeuvres with currents, waves, tugs, anchors, bank effects, etc. are reproduced more accurately on scale models, numerical simulators are more realistic when it comes to the bridge environment.

The 5 ha lake is located in the lower Alps near Grenoble where the wind regime is very mild. Moreover, it is sheltered by a forest. Hence uncontrolled wind effects on ships are minimised.

At 1:25 scale, the lake area represents a navigable zone of about 5 by 2 nautical miles, allowing several models to sail at the same time at normal manoeuvring speeds and to berth at one of the 50 berths and piers. Shallow and very shallow water areas (less than 10% under keel-clearance for certain ships) are to be found on about 70% of the lake area.

The lake is fitted with wave, current and wind generators and complex port approach configurations. Around 50% of the lake is subjected to currents.

The model ships are all at 1:25 scale. There are 11 ships and 3 tugs. All ships are equipped with indicators giving rudder angle, engine speed, ship speed, wind speed, etc. Most of the ships are equipped with bow and stern thrusters and anchors. Five ships are equipped with a DGPS tracking system.

See similitude of ship models for details of the scaling factors involved.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Ray That Wasn't

N-rays (or N rays) are a hypothesized form of radiation, described by French physicist Prosper-René Blondlot, and initially confirmed by others, but subsequently found to be illusory.

In 1903, Blondlot, a distinguished physicist who was one of 8 physicists who were corresponding members of the French Academy of Science announced his discovery while working at the University of Nancy attempting to polarize X-rays. He had perceived changes in the brightness of an electric spark in a spark gap placed in an X-ray beam which he photographed and he later attributed to the novel form of radiation, naming it the N-ray for the University of Nancy. Blondlot, Augustin Charpentier, Arsène d'Arsonval and approximately 120 other scientists in 300 published articles claimed to be able to detect N-rays emanating from most substances, including the human body with the peculiar exception that they were not emitted by green wood and some treated metals. Most researchers of the subject at the time used the perceived light of a dim phosphorescent surface as "detectors", although work in the period clearly showed the change in brightness to be a physiological phenomenon rather than some actual change in the level of illumination. Physicists Gustave le Bon and P. Audollet and spiritualist Carl Huter even claimed the discovery as their own, leading to a commission of the Académie des sciences to decide priority.

The "discovery" excited international interest and many physicists worked to replicate the effects. However, the notable physicists Lord Kelvin, William Crookes, Otto Lummer and Heinrich Rubens failed to do so. Following his own failure, self-described as "wasting a whole morning", American physicist Robert Wood, who had a reputation as a popular "debunker" in the period, was prevailed upon by the journal Nature to travel to Blondlot's laboratory in France to investigate further. Wood suggested that Rubens go since he had been the most embarrassed when the Kaiser asked him to repeat the French experiments and then after two weeks he had to report his failure to do so. Rubens, however, felt it would look better if Wood went since Blondlot had been most polite in answering his many questions.

In the darkened room, Wood secretly removed an essential prism from the experimental apparatus, yet the experimenters still said that they observed N-rays. He also secretly replaced a large file that was supposed to be giving off N-rays with an inert piece of wood, yet the N-rays were still "observed". His report on these investigations, published in Nature, suggested that N-rays were a purely subjective phenomenon, with the scientists involved having recorded data that matched their expectations. By 1905 no one outside Nancy believed in N-rays even as Blondlot himself is reported to have still been convinced of their existence in 1926. Martin Gardner, referencing Wood's biographer William Seabrook's account of the affair, attributed a subsequent decline in mental health and eventual death of Blondlot to the resulting scandal, but there is evidence that this is at least an exaggeration of the facts.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Cough ... Wheeze ... Sputter ...

The 1948 Donora smog was an historic air inversion wall of smog that killed 20 and sickened 7,000 people in Donora, Pennsylvania in the United States, a mill town on the Monongahela River, 24 miles southeast of Pittsburgh.

The smog first rolled into Donora on October 27, 1948. By the following day it was causing coughing and other signs of respiratory distress for many residents of the community in the Monongahela River valley. Many of the illnesses and deaths were initially attributed to asthma. The smog continued until it rained on October 31, by which time 20 residents of Donora had died and approximately a third to one half of the town's population of 14,000 residents had been sickened. Sixty years later, the incident was described by The New York Times as "one of the worst air pollution disasters in the nation's history". Even ten years after the incident, mortality rates in Donora were significantly higher than those in other communities nearby.

Sulfur dioxide emissions from U.S. Steel's Donora Zinc Works and its American Steel & Wire plant were frequent occurrences in Donora. What made the 1948 event more severe was a temperature inversion, in which a mass of warm, stagnant air was trapped in the valley, the pollutants in the air mixing with fog to form a thick, yellowish, acrid smog that hung over Donora for five days. The sulfuric acid, nitrogen dioxide, fluorine and other poisonous gases that usually dispersed into the atmosphere were caught in the inversion and accumulated until the rain ended the weather pattern.

One of the heroes to emerge during the four-day smog was Chief John Volk of the Donora Fire Department and his assistant Russell Davis. Volk and Davis responded to calls from Friday night until Sunday night, depleting their supply of 800 cubic feet of Oxygen, borrowing more from all nearby municipalities including, McKeesport, Monessen, and Charleroi. “I didn’t take any myself. What I did every time I came back to the station was have a little shot of whiskey. “

The eight doctors in the town, who belonged to the Donora Medical Association, made house calls much like the firefighters during the period of intense smog, often visiting the houses of patients who were treated by the other doctors in town. This was a result of patients calling every doctor in town in the hope of getting treatment faster. It was not until mid-day Saturday that Mrs. Vernon had it set up so that all calls going to the doctors’ offices, would be switched to the emergency center being established in the town hall. The smog was so intense that driving was all but abandoned; those who chose to continue driving were risky. “I drove on the left side of the street with my head out the window. Steering by scraping the curb.” recalls Davis.

It was not until Sunday morning the 31st of October, that a meeting occurred between the operators of the plants, and the town officials. Burgess Chambon requested the plants temporarily cease operations. The superintendent of the plants, L.J. Westhaver, said the plants already began to shut down operation at around 6am that morning. With the rain alleviating the smog, the plants resumed normal operation the following morning.

Researchers analyzing the event have focused likely blame on pollutants from the zinc plant, whose emissions had killed almost all vegetation within a half-mile radius of the plant. Dr. Devra L. Davis, director of the Center for Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, has pointed to autopsy results showing fluorine levels in victims in the lethal range, as much as 20 times higher than normal. Fluorine gas generated in the zinc smelting process became trapped by the stagnant air and was the primary cause of the deaths.

Preliminary results of a study performed by Dr. Clarence A. Mills of the University of Cincinnati and released in December 1948 showed that thousands more Donora residents could have been killed if the smog had lasted any longer than it had, in addition to the 20 humans and nearly 800 animals killed during the incident.

Lawsuits were filed against U.S. Steel, which never acknowledged responsibility for the incident, calling it "an act of God". While the steel company did not accept blame, it reached a settlement in 1951 in which it paid about $235,000, which was stretched over the 80 victims who had participated in the lawsuit, leaving them little after legal expenses were factored in. Representatives of American Steel and Wire settled the more than $4.6 million claimed in 130 damage suits at about 5% of what had been sought, noting that the company was prepared to show at trial that the smog had been caused by a "freak weather condition" that trapped over Donora "all of the smog coming from the homes, railroads, the steamboats, and the exhaust from automobiles, as well as the effluents from its plants." U.S. Steel closed both plants by 1966.

By 1949, a year after the disaster, the total value of the predominantly residential property in Donora had declined by nearly 10%.

The Donora Smog marked one of the incidents where Americans recognized that exposure to large amounts of pollution in a short period of time can result in injuries and fatalities. The event is often credited for helping to trigger the clean-air movement in the United States, whose crowning achievement was the Clean Air Act of 1970, which required the United States Environmental Protection Agency to develop and enforce regulations to protect the general public from exposure to hazardous airborne contaminants.

The incident was little spoken of in Donora until a historical marker was placed in the town in 1998 to mark the 50th anniversary of the incident. The 60th anniversary, in 2008, was commemorated with memorials for the families of the victims and other educational programs. The Donora Smog Museum was opened on October 20, 2008, located in an old storefront at 595 McKean Avenue near Sixth Street, with the slogan "Clean Air Started Here". Fewer than 6,000 people still live in Donora.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Dark Roasted Weirdsville

Check it out: a brand new Dark Roasted Blend piece I did just went up: this time about the incredible world that was Coney Island.

We always seem to short-change the past. The pyramids? Must have been aliens: those Egyptians couldn't have been smart enough to build them. The Eiffel Tower? Sure it's impressive but it probably should have fallen down decades ago: after all, Gustave Eiffel didn't have computers and modern witchy mixtures of alloys and composites.

Bur our smug superiority is misplaced, our 21st century dismissal of everything created before the integrated circuit and plastic insultingly arrogant. The fact of the matter is that the past was more than grand, more than amazing, more than impressive.

Take, for example, Coney Island, or, as it was called, The City of Fire, around the turn of the previous century.

Originally just a tiny, sandy dot of land full of itchy scrub and wild rabbits -- or "Conies" which is where the place got its name -- the island became first a waypoint and then a tawdry vacation spot for the weary citizens of the Big Apple. But soon Coney began to change, to become a phantasmagorical place: a world of wonders, dreams, and -- tragically as well as mystically -- a City of Fire.

Take, for instance, Coney Island's elephant. Created in 1885 by James V. Lafferty -- who also created Atlantic City's famous pachyderm, which still stands today -- it was one of Coney's first amazements. The elephant wasn't just a statue, some cheap tourist novelty. It was an actual, functional, five-storey hotel and, to give you an idea of what kind of world early Coney Island was, a brothel.

But the elephant, while grand at the time and would have remained grand today like her sister in Atlantic City, was only a tusked taste of what was to come. In 1897, George C. Tilyou created one of the island's lost yet enduring parks: Steeplechase Park.

It's hard to imagine what it must have been like to be a visitor to Steeplechase in those early days. No one had ever seen anything like it: wild and raucous, rude and amazing, Steeplechase was a playground of laughter and thrills. The main attraction were the mechanical ponies. Racing at almost dangerous speeds on a up-and-down and round-and-round iron track, the horses were thrilling, terrifying and, as someone perfectly put it: Gave the boys a chance to hug girls, and girls a chance to be hugged by boys.

But the fun at Steeplechase didn't end with the ponies. Exiting riders, under the frighteningly cheery face of Tillie, the park's mascot, were assaulted by a clown and a dwarf. The clown would hit the boys with a cattle prod and try to blow the women's skirts up over their heads with a blast of compressed air. The giggling and shrieking boys and girls would then be allowed to sit on bleachers to watch other fun-seekers go through the same treatment.

In what would be a common theme for the island, Steeplechase burned in 1907 but was rebuilt on a scale that's hard to comprehend for us 21st century folks. In addition to the restored mechanical horses, Tilyou also added an immense steel and glass "Pavilion of Fun" with dozens of other rude rides including the Human Roulette Wheel, the Barrel of Love, the Cave of Winds, and many contraptions guaranteed to make men and women alike shriek and wail with laughter.

Steeplechase was amazing, to be sure. But it was mostly a broad and guttural place, acres and acres of architectural joy buzzers and whoopee cushions.

Then there was Luna Park, and with it Coney Island became a land of dreams. Built by Frederic Thompson and Elmer "Skip" Dundy, Luna was a hallucination, a disorienting vision of twisting minarets, undulating arches, and – at night – the brilliant spectacle of hundreds of thousands of then-novel electric lights. At Luna Park visitors were treated to rides – such as the famous soaking Shoot-the-Chutes, and the legendary animals, including the park's own herd of elephants – but, more importantly, they could walk the sprawling promenades of Luna Park and feel like they'd been whisked away from their ordinary lives in 1903 to a world of rapturous imagination: a world of fantasy made real. Albeit in lath and plaster.

The spectacle of Luna Park's, well, 'spectacles' is staggering, even today: mock navel battles, including an attack on Manhattan by the combined navies of Germany, France Spain and even Great Britain, only to be beaten back by Admiral Dewey's fleet; a trip to the moon that included mischievous 'moon men'; a trip to the north pole by submarine; and too many more for this small space.

Luna also featured the world of the time, which for most people touring the park might as well have been the north pole or the moon: entire villages, such as Samoan's, were uprooted and placed in the park for the education – and amusement – of the visitors.

Luna Park is a legend, and with it, unprecedented spectacle came to Coney Island. But then came Dreamland.

Built in 1904 by the very crooked William H. Reynolds, Dreamland was to be the crowning glory of the island, a factor-of-ten grander park than either Steeplechase and Luna.

It's hard to picture imagine the scale and majesty that Reynolds made with Dreamland, the outrageousness as well as the beauty that he created on the island. While Luna had a reported quarter of a million electric lights, Dreamland claimed to have more than one million: all of these lights giving the island its nickname of The City Of Fire.

Dreamland was an entire dazzling world, a complete universe of dazzling spectacle. Every hour on the hour 2,000 firemen would put on a performance of extinguishing a roaring blaze in a six-storey building. An entire town was built – half scale of course – for the park's resident 350 midgets. A 375-foot-high central tower lit up so bright it was often seen from Manhattan. There were also performances of the Biblical view of creation as well as a tour of Hell. And let's not forget the incubator babies.

Yep, that's right: one of the most famous exhibitions of Dreamland were the baby incubators, compliments of the brilliant Dr. Martin Arthur Couney. Unable to get hospitals to take his inventions seriously, Dr. Couney worked with Reynolds and – through some showmanship – finally got the world to take notice of his technique to save the lives of premature babies.

Unfortunately, as with that original elephant, Steeplechase, and many other Coney Island amazements, the City of Fire lived up to its name and Dreamland burned to the ground in a hellish blaze that, too ironically, began in the Hell Gate exhibition in 1911. Fortunately there were only a few tragedies, including a lion that had escaped from the fire and had to be shot by police. Unfortunately, the park never recovered and Dreamland became only a memory, the ghost of a dream for those lucky enough to have seen it before it became soggy ashes.

Even more sadly, Luna and Steeplechase's appeal and popularity slipped away in the decades afterward until they collapsed into tawdry ruins, their majesty becoming tainted by the desperation and failures of their autumn years.

These days we have our Disneylands and dozens of other parks around the world and feel like we've managed something amazing – but then you look at the pictures of Coney Island in its heyday and realize that what we consider amazing now is actually small and cheap and easy. For truly wondrous playlands and amazing spectacles, you have to go back at least a hundred years, to Coney Island, to that legendary City of Fire.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Hail Progressive Political Pornography!

Octobriana is a fictional character, a comic superheroine originated from literary hoax made up by Czech artist Petr Sadecký. According to the 1971 book Octobriana and the Russian Underground by Peter Sadecký, Octobriana was created in the 1960’s by a group of dissident Russian artists calling themselves Progressive Political Pornography (PPP). Actually the story given by Sadecky was untrue and Octobriana was, in fact, his own invention.

In Octobriana and the Russian Underground, Sadecký describes the PPP, as a loose group of cells, not only in Russia, but throughout the Soviet Union. This group, Sadecký wrote, started around 1957, after the Twentieth Congress in 1956. At first they called themselves Progressivnaya Politika (Progressive Politics) and tried to go back to the pure principles of The White Russian people and their Scandinavian roots; the Swedish Rus' Vikings. Later they put together samizdat comics about the superheroine Octobriana. One of the stories was: "The living sphinx of the Kamchatka radioactive volcano 1934" in which she swims into a radioactive volcano and kills a giant walrus with her kris. Afterwards she brings the tribesmen of the Koryaks home with a giant flying ball. Another story was titled: "Octobriana and the Atomic Suns"

Octobriana was actually Sadecký's own creation. Petr Sadecký, while still in Prague, enlisted the help of two Czech artists, Bohumil Konečný and Zdeněk Burian, in creating a comic centering around the character of "Amazona." Sadecký told the two that he had a buyer interested in the comic, and they worked together on writing and illustrating the Amazona comic. However, Sadecký betrayed his friends by stealing all the artwork and escaping to the West, where, in his efforts to market the Amazona comic, he changed the dialog, drew a red star on the character's forehead, and was successful only after turning Amazona into a fake political statement, "Octobriana: the spirit of the October Revolution." Major inconsistencies in his story, and a frame in his book where Octobriana is referred to as "Amazona" (p. 83), lend credence to this story. In addition, Burian and Konečný sued Sadecký in a West German court, winning the case but never recovering all their stolen artwork. Since Octobriana is still widely thought to be the product of dissident cells within the U.S.S.R., she is not copyrighted, and has appeared in a variety of artistic incarnations.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Scream, Wilhelm! Scream!


The Wilhelm scream is a frequently-used film and television stock sound effect first used in 1951 for the film Distant Drums. The effect gained new popularity (its use often becoming an in-joke) after it was used in Star Wars and many other blockbuster films as well as television programs and video games. The scream is often used when someone is either pierced with an arrow, or falling to their death from a great height or because of an explosion.

The Wilhelm scream has become a well-known cinematic sound cliché, and is claimed to have been used in over 216 films.

The sound is named for Private Wilhelm, a character in The Charge at Feather River, a 1953 western in which the character is shot with an arrow. This was believed to be the second movie to use the sound effect and its first use from the Warner Brothers stock sound library.

The sound effect originates from a series of sound effects recorded for the 1951 film Distant Drums. In a scene from the film, soldiers are wading through a swamp in the Everglades and one of them is bitten and dragged underwater by an alligator. The scream for that scene was recorded later in a single take along with five other short pained screams, which were slated as "man getting bit by an alligator, and he screams." The fifth scream was used for the soldier in the alligator scene—but the 4th, 5th, and 6th screams recorded in the session were also used earlier in the film—when three Indians are shot during a raid on a fort. Although takes 4 through 6 are the most recognizable, all of the screams are referred to as "Symon" by those in the sound community.

The Wilhelm scream's revival came from motion picture sound designer Ben Burtt, who re-discovered the original recording (which he found as a studio reel labeled "Man being eaten by alligator") and incorporated it into a scene in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. Aboard the Death Star, just before Luke Skywalker and Leia swing across a chasm, Luke shoots a Stormtrooper who screams as he falls down the chasm. Burtt is credited with naming the scream after Private Wilhelm (see The Charge at Feather River). Over the next decade, Burtt incorporating the effect in other films he worked on, including most projects involving George Lucas and/or Steven Spielberg (it is used in all of the Indiana Jones movies). Other sound designers picked up on the effect, and inclusion of the sound in films became a tradition among the community of sound designers. It has also been used in several games and television series.

Research by Burtt suggests that actor and singer Sheb Wooley, best known for his novelty song "Flying Purple People Eater" in 1958, is likely to have been the voice actor who originally performed the scream. This has been supported by a 2005 interview with Linda Dotson, Wooley's widow. Burtt discovered records at Warner Brothers from the editor of Distant Drums including a short list of names of actors scheduled to record lines of dialogue for miscellaneous roles in the movie. Wooley played the uncredited role of Private Jessup in Distant Drums, and was one of the few actors assembled for the recording of additional vocal elements for the film. Wooley performed additional vocal elements, including the screams for a man being bitten by an alligator. Dotson confirmed that it was Wooley's scream that had been in so many westerns adding "He always used to joke about how he was so great about screaming and dying in films."