Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Game That Plays YOU


Polybius is a supposed arcade game featured in an Internet urban legend. According to the story, the Tempest-style game was released to the public in 1981, and caused its players to go insane, causing them to suffer from intense stress, horrific nightmares, and even suicidal tendencies. A short time after its release, it supposedly disappeared without a trace. No evidence for the existence of such a game has ever been discovered.

According to the story, an unheard-of new arcade game appeared in several suburbs of Portland, Oregon in 1987, something of a rarity at the time. The game, Polybius, proved to be incredibly popular, to the point of addiction, and lines formed around the machines, quickly followed by clusters of visits from men in black. Rather than the usual marketing data collected by company visitors to arcade machines, they collected some unknown data, allegedly testing responses to the psychoactive machines. The players themselves suffered from a series of unpleasant side-effects, including amnesia, insomnia, nightmares, night terrors, and even suicide in some versions of the legend. Some players stopped playing video games, while it is reported that one became an anti-gaming activist. The supposed creator of Polybius is Ed Rotberg, and the company named in the urban legend is Sinneslöschen (German for "sense-deletion"), often named as either a secret government organization or a codename for Atari. The gameplay is said to be similar to Tempest (a shoot 'em up game utilizing vector graphics), while the game is said to contain subliminal messages which would influence the action of anyone playing it.

The origin of the legend is unknown. Some internet commentators think it originated as a usenet hoax. Other bloggers believe the story is a true urban legend – one that grew out of exaggerated and distorted tales of an early release version of Tempest that caused problems with photosensitive epilepsy; the game was reported to have caused motion sickness and vertigo, and was therefore pulled.

Several people have claimed to have a ROM of the game, but none of them have made it available for public scrutiny, a "lack of hard evidence" situation typical of hoaxes and conspiracy theories. Conflicting information is even circulated regarding the style or genre of the game. Some sources claim it is a maze-style game, while others describe it as an action space-fighter.

The Polybius legend received some mass-market attention in the September 2003 issue of GamePro magazine, as part of a feature story on video game urban legends called "Secrets and Lies". The magazine determined the legend to be neither true nor false, but "inconclusive".[3] Additionally, Snopes.com claims to have debunked the myth as a modern-day version of 1980's rumors of "Men in Black" visiting arcades and taking down the names of high scorers at arcade games.

On March 20, 2006, a man under the name of Steven Roach made a post on coinop.org telling the story of his involvement with Polybius, and how he hoped to "lay it to rest". He claimed to have been working for a South American company that wished to promote a "new approach" to computer graphics (probably vector graphics). The game was claimed to be very inventive and addictive but the graphics, through mistake rather than design, were dangerous and prompted epileptic fits. The product was recalled, the subcontractors (Sinneslöschen) were disbanded, and the program was lost.

On April 26, 2006 Duane Weatherall of Gamepulse.co.uk (now bitparade.co.uk) interviewed Roach after Roach posted this message onto another forum. The Roach story contained a number of inconsistencies: some of it seems to be directly sourced from Wikipedia, such as the suggestion of Cyberyogi's involvement, which was the product of extensive searching through Usenet archives on the part of a Wikipedia editor. The interview also included some of Roach's background, including the revelation that he comes from Rhyl, Wales, and a possible recreation of the storyline.

On July 20, 2007 a Sinneslöschen website went online, offering a freeware Polybius game for download, as well as artwork for the cabinet. The game (created with DarkBASIC and featuring gameplay and graphics based on the interview with Steven Roach) and the site were made by the same person who created and released other freeware games at the site RogueSynapse. In fact, both sinnesloschen.com and roguesynapse.com point at the same IP address, while the PC Polybius game can be seen running in a custom cabinet in a photograph at RogueSynapse.

Several videos of this game have been made and uploaded to YouTube, where it is often described as if it was the actual game the urban legend is about. Some videos, due to their spinning graphics, may cause negative effects to those with epilepsy.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

That's MISTER Melon Head to You


Melon Heads is the name given to legendary beings found in Germany, England, and the long-running urban legends in parts of Michigan, Ohio, and Connecticut. They are described as small humanoids with bulbous heads who occasionally emerge from their hiding places to attack people. Different variations of the legend attribute different origins.

The melon heads of Michigan are said to reside near the Felt Mansion in Laketown Township. According to one story, they were originally children with hydrocephalus who lived at the Junction Insane Asylum near Felt Mansion. The story explains that, after enduring physical and emotional abuse, they became feral mutants and were released into the forests surrounding the asylum. The Allegan County Historical Society asserts that the asylum never existed, although it was at one point a hospital; however, the story has been part of the local folklore for several decades. Laketown Township Manager Al Meshkin told the Holland Sentinel that he had heard the tales as a teenager, noting that his friends referred to the beings as "wobbleheads". Some versions of the legend say that the children once lived in the mansion itself, but later retreated to a system of underground caverns. Other versions of this legend say that the children devised a plan to escape and kill the doctor that abused them. It is said that the children had no place to hide the body, so they cut it up in small pieces and hid him around the Mansion. There are still rumors that teenagers who had broken into the mansion saw ghosts of the children. They also claimed to see shadows of the killing of the doctor through the light coming from an open door.

The legend of the melon head is also found in central England within a small hamlet known as Risbury, Herefordshire. Here, there is an extended family of Melon Heads, thought to be the result of inbreeding. The large round headed family is mentioned in Mary Letherbarrow's seminal work on the Folklore of Herefordshire (1955). Hannah Williams (1961, 56) refers to the Melon Head family of Risbury as 'Weeble Heads' and were noted for their very 'roundish heads'. She also notes that the family-tree section of the early and late 20th century was rather 'complex', referring to the problems of 'isolated' Herefordshire inbreeding (ibid. 57). This hitherto undiscovered phenomenon may have origins in nearby Wiltshire where other Melon Heads have been recorded, similar to that of the 'Wobble Heads' lore in the USA (ibid. 59-60). Since adding to this web page in mid 2009, further evidence has been uncovered concerning the Melon Heads lore, Risbury (England). A sighting of this rare phenomenon has been recorded around the Sandpits Estate, west of Leominster (Herefordshire). This is supported by documentary evidence held by British DHS records (Ref: MH 245367).

The melon head stories of Ohio are primarily associated with the Cleveland suburb of Kirtland. According to local lore, the melon heads were originally orphans under the watch of a mysterious figure known as Dr. Crow (sometimes spelled Crowe or Kroh). Crow is said to have performed unusual experiments on the children, who developed large, hairless heads and malformed bodies. Some accounts claim that the children were already suffering from hydrocephalus, and that Crow injected even more fluid into their brains.

Eventually, the legend continues, the children killed Crow, burned the orphanage, and retreated to the surrounding forests. Today, some believe that the melon heads may be sighted along Wisner Road in Kirtland, and Chardon Township. The legend has been popularized on the Internet, particularly on the websites Creepy Cleveland and DeadOhio, where users have offered their own versions of the story.

Several variations of the Melon Head myths can be found Fairfield County, Connecticut. Most instances can be found in Trumbull, Shelton and Monroe, but other instances can be found in Seymour, [Easton, CT] Weston, Oxford, Milford, and Southbury. There are two primary Connecticut variations.

According to the first variation of the myth, Fairfield County was the location of an asylum for the criminally insane which burned down in the fall of 1960, resulting in the death of all of the staff and most of the patients. however 10-20 inmates were unaccounted for, having survived and escaped to the woods. The legend states that the Melon Heads' appearance is the result of them having resorted to cannibalism in order to survive the harsh winters of the region, and due to inbreeding. According to the second variation, the Melon Heads are descendants of a Colonial era family from Shelton-Trumbull which was banished after accusations of witchcraft were made against them. The family retreated to the woods. As with the first legend, this variation attributes the appearance of the Melon Heads to inbreeding. In Shelton, the Melonheads supposedly live on Saw Mill City Road, while in Monroe they supposedly live on Velvet Street (which is affectionately referred to by locals as "Dracula Drive"). Saw Mill City is now a paved road while Velvet street is a dirt road, surrounded by woods, in close proximity to bodies of water. A popular dare among teenagers in the area is to have someone drive down one of these roads at night and park, or even worse, have a passenger get out of the car and then drive away without them to give them a good scare. There have been several recent sightings at the end of the road around the woodland area.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Welcome to Weirdsville: Within and Without You

Here's a brand new - well, something actually from my cold and dark files - Welcome to Weirdsville piece, this time on the very strange, very odd, and more-than-a-bit creepy world of bacteria and parasites. Enjoy!

It's come to my attention that a few folks have been insufficiently creeped, weirded, disturbed, freaked, frightened, terrified, or just plain disgusted by the idea and behavior of parasites, especially ones that demonstrate the nasty habit of affecting their host's behavior. Never one to disappoint, I'm here again -- lucky you -- with some further examples of how nature isn't just playful puppies and frolicking kittens.


This time we're going to be bouncing around a bit, so keep your trays in the upright position. Parasites, you see, aren't the only living things living in other living things. In fact there is a whole world of organisms that take up residence in us and other creatures that are all but guaranteed to make us rethink the idea of what it means to be "alone."

Before we get to the exotics let's visit the deep blue sea again and another parasite. This one didn't get mentioned the last time around because although Cymothoa exigua is a perfect example of a creature taking advantage of another creature it doesn't immediately make its host do anything it normally wouldn't do. But that doesn't make it any less ... well, you'll see.

Your hand is your hand, right? Your foot is your foot, correct? No one snuck in during the night and replaced them, lopped them off, and exchanged one or the other with something else. You're lucky, because if you were a fish then that might not be ... not your foot or your hand but rather your tongue.

Cymothoa is a crustacean that, while as a larvae, enters a fish's gills and makes its way to the mouth where is latches onto the tongue. No, it doesn't stop there. Yes, it gets worse.

Ready? Here we go: cymothoa then methodically eats the fish's tongue, chewing it up until there's nothing left but a little stub. But this crustacean isn't in it for the short term, just a snack of tongue and then onto the next unlucky fish. Instead, the crustacean hangs in there for the duration: Cymothoa becomes part of the fish, joining its host as a surrogate tongue. It spends the rest of its little crabby life feeding when the fish feeds, and the two of them go along swimmingly through life.

If you think that's bad, let's talk about sex.

Marlene Zuk, with the University of California, Riverside, has an interesting theory, and it's a whopper. First, let's talk evolution, let's chat survival of the fittest: the critter that breeds the most passes the secret of its success along to the next generation while the ones that don't have a leg-up die off. This is true of every critter on the earth, including us as well as bacteria.

Even bacteria like syphilis. For those who didn't see the film in high school, syphilis is what's commonly called a social disease. You catch it if you sleep with someone who has it. The good news is that it's treatable and really isn't a big deal anymore.

The bad news is that it's evolving with the rest of us, and according to Dr. Zuk, syphilis is working to make us better looking -- or at least not looking sick.

Think of it this way: dumb disease acts up, makes itself known. We spot it, we cure it, and it dies. A smart disease works to keep itself quiet, so we don't know we have it and so it doesn't get killed -- and so we pass it along. What I want to know is how long it'll take for the bacteria to take the next step: if it wants us to pass it along why shouldn't it work not just to make us less infected but rather more attractive? Give it time ... give it time ....

Let's go one step beyond parasites, when an organism doesn't merely look for a free ride but becomes such an integral part of the host that the two basically become one. The cell, the smallest part of any living thing -- excluding viruses, if they qualify as being alive -- began as individual protobacteria that figured out, over a very long time, that working together was better than swimming along through primordial soup. That happened before and it's still happening now.

Behavior can be affected by parasites, creatures can take over parts of other bodies, bacteria have developed to be more easily spread, but we are ourselves, right? We own our biological domain, correct?

Sorry but that's not true.

There are approximately 100 trillion cells in the human body. They make up our feet, our hands, our faces, our minds: blood cells, skin cells, brain cells, etc. That's a lot of cells.

But there are more of them than there are of us. They live even between our cells, in our guts, our mouths, our blood, our skin, and even in our brains. Conservatively speaking, there are are ten times as many bacteria – more than 100,00 species -- in our bodies than there are human cells. Some of them are invaders, sure, but many of them are symbiotic: they can't live without us and we can't live without them. We live together in - mostly - biological harmony.

You are reading this. The words appear like a voice in your mind. But do they? Living in you, mixed with your human cells, are those tens of millions of bacteria. Are they listening in, wishing you would read something much more interesting or are they, somehow, adding their own tiny opinions? Where do you start and they stop?

I know: that's a lot to think about. Let's take a walk, let some of this heady stuff float around in a brain that may or not be only yours.

Oh, look; it's snowing. Isn't it nice? All those little flakes floating down from the sky: ice crystals supposedly unique. There's a whole world in each of those little things. Weather, chemistry, geometry, physics, and – I hate to tell you this -- biology.

They are all around us and, they outnumber us. And they are falling from the sky. Researchers recently discovered that snowflakes are snowflakes not just because of cold temperature and water vapor. According to these scientists a snowflake has needs. It has formed a kind of biological/chemical symbiosis with the very creatures that outnumber you in your own body: bacteria.

That's all for now, but that's not all there is. Go on with your day, your life, just remember one important little thing: you are never, ever, alone.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

One of Our Favorite Heroes: James Randi


James Randi (born August 7, 1928) (stage name The Amazing Randi) is a Canadian American stage magician and scientific skeptic best known as a challenger of paranormal claims and pseudoscience. Randi is the founder of the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF). Randi began his career as a magician, but when he retired at age 60, he switched to investigating paranormal, occult, and supernatural claims, which he collectively calls "woo-woo." Although often referred to as a "debunker," Randi rejects that title owing to its perceived bias, instead describing himself as an "investigator". He has written about the paranormal, skepticism, and the history of magic. He was a frequent guest on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and is occasionally featured on the television program Penn & Teller: Bullshit!.

The JREF sponsors The One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge offering a prize of US $1,000,000 to anyone who can demonstrate evidence of any paranormal, supernatural or occult power or event, under test conditions agreed to by both parties.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Weirdsville on The Cud

Check it out: The Cud, a fantastic Aussie zine, has just posted my article (originally from Dark Roasted Blend) Welcome to Weirdsville: On Destroying the Earth:

We like scientists. We really do. After all, without them – and the scientific method – we’d still think lightning was Zeus hurling thunderbolts, the sun was an enormous campfire, and the earth itself was balancing on huge turtles. Without science we’d be ignorant troglodytes – too stupid to even know that we’d evolved from even simpler life forms.

Yep, we love science – but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t scare us. After all, when you’re dedicated to cracking the secrets of the universe it’s kind of expected that sometimes, not often, you might crack open something a tiny bit … shall we say … dangerous?

The poster child for the fear that science and engineering can give us – beyond Shelley’s fictitious Frankenstien, of course -- was born on July 16, 1945, in New Mexico. Not one to miss something so obvious, its daddy, the one and only J. Robert Oppenheimer (‘Oppy’ to his pals) thought “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds” from the Bhagavad Gita – but Kenneth Bainbridge, the Test Director, said it even better: "Now we are all sons of bitches."

Sure, the Trinity Atomic Bomb Test -- the event that began the so-called atomic age, leading to our now-constant terror that one day the missiles may start to fly and the bombs begin to fall -- was the first, but since then there have been all kinds of new, if not as flashy, scientific investigations that could be ten times more destructive. In other words, we could be one beaker drop from the destruction of the earth.

Naturally this is an exaggeration, but it’s still fun – in a shudder-inducing kind of way – to think about all these wildly hypothetical doomsdays. Putting aside the already overly publicized fears over the Large Hadron Collider creating a mini black hole that immediately falls to the core of the earth – eventually consuming the entire globe – some researchers have expressed concern that some day we may create, or unleash, a subatomic nightmare. The hunt for the so-called God particle (also called a Higgs boson), for instance, has made some folks nervous: one wrong move, one missing plus or minus sign, and we could do something as esoteric and disastrous as discovering that we exist in a metastable vacuum – a discovery made when one of our particle accelerators creates a cascade that basically would … um, no one is quite sure but it’s safe to say it would be very, very strange and very, very destructive. Confusing? Yep. But that’s the wild, weird world of particle physics. It's sometimes scary. Very, very scary.

A new threat to everyone on the planet is the idea of developing nanotechnology. If you've been napping for the last decade or so, nanotech is basically machines the size of large molecules: machines that can create (pretty much) anything on a atomic level. The question – and the concern – is what might happen if a batch of these microscopic devices gets loose. The common description of this Armageddon is "grey goo." The little machines would dissemble the entire world, and everything and everyone on it, until all that would be left is a spinning ball of, you guessed it, goo.

Another concern for some folks is that, for the first time, we’ve begun to seriously tinker with genetics. We’ve always fooled with animals (just look at a Chihuahua) but now we can REALLY fool with one. It doesn’t take a scientist to imagine – and worry about – what happens when we tinker with something like ebola or, perhaps even worse, create something that affects the reproduction of food staples like corn or wheat. Spreading from one farm to another, carried perhaps on the wind, this rogue genetic tweak could kill billions via starvation.

And then there’s us. What happens if the tweak – carried by a virus or bacteria – screws not with our food but where we’re the most sensitive: reproduction? Unable to procreate we’d be extinct as few as a hundred years.

While it’s become a staple of bad science fiction, some scientists see it as a natural progression: whether we like it or not, one day we will create a form of artificial intelligence that will surpass and replace us. Even putting aside the idea that our creations might be hostile, the fact that they could be better than us at everything means that it would simply be a matter of time before they go out into the universe – and leave us poor throwbacks behind.

There are frightening possibilities but keep this in mind: if something does happen and it looks like it’s going to be the End Of The World As We Know It, there is going to be one, and only one, place to turn to for help: the world of observation, hypothesis, prediction and experiment.

In other words, we’d have to turn to science. They would have gotten us into it, and only they will be able to get us out.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Radioactive Weirdness On Nanda Kot

Nanda Kot is a mountain peak of the Himalaya range located in the Pithoragarh district of Uttarakhand state in India. It lies in the Kumaon Himalaya, just outside of the ring of peaks enclosing the Nanda Devi Sanctuary, 15 kilometres (9 mi) southeast of Nanda Devi itself. The name Nanda Kot literally means "Nanda's Fortress" and refers to the abode of one of the sacred forms of the Hindu Goddess Parvati who in legend has made her sanctuary amongst the ring of lofty mountains in the region.

In 1965, a covert mission was launched by an Indo-American team with the goal of installing a surveillance device on the top of Nanda Devi mountain to monitor Chinese nuclear and missile activity in Tibet. Shortly after delivery to the mountain, the thermonuclear generator designed to supply power to the sensor was lost during a storm and threatened to become a source of radioactive contamination to the area. Following upon at least three futile attempts between 1966-1968 to locate and recover the lost apparatus, it is said that in 1968 a similar device placed only the year before on Nanda Kot was dismantled. After more than a decade of secrecy, this story hit the Indian news media in 1978. There is still debate over these expeditions and whether any remnants of the radioactive materials remain in the vicinity of Nanda Kot to this day.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Space Disaster ... Your Never Heard Of

With a bow to itsfullofstars


Intelsat 708 was a telecommunications satellite built by the American company Space Systems/Loral intended to be launched into a geostationary orbit and operated by Intelsat. It was destroyed during a launch failure on February 15, 1996, causing fatalities near the Xichang Satellite Launch Center at Xichang, People's Republic of China, and prompting political controversy around the world.

The Intelsat 708 satellite was to be launched aboard a Long March 3B rocket. This rocket failed at launch due to an engineering defect and crashed into a village near the launch site, which reportedly killed an unknown number of Chinese civilians and caused other damage. The nature and extent of the damage remain a subject of dispute; the Chinese government, through its official Xinhua news agency, reported that six people were killed and 57 injured. Neutral sources claimed that the number of fatalities was likely to number in the thousands and possibly tens of thousands.

Because Intelsat 708 contained sophisticated communications and encryption technology, and because portions of the debris were never located by the satellite's developers and may have been recovered by the government of People's Republic of China, Intelsat and the Clinton administration suffered criticism in the United States for allowing a possible technology transfer to China. (See also export controls.) These concerns prompted an investigation by the U.S. Congress. In 2002, the United States Department of State charged Hughes Electronics and Boeing Satellite Systems with export control violations in connection with the failed launch of Intelsat 708 and the prior failed launch of the APSTAR II satellite.

Thursday, March 18, 2010



Benjamin Rucker (1892-1934) was an American stage magician, better known by his stage name Black Herman. Born in Amherst, Virginia, he was the most prominent African American magician of his time.

Black Herman learned the art of staged illusions from a performer called Prince Herman, who was first his teacher and later his partner. The two sold patent medicine as well as performing prestidigitation, making their act as much a medicine show as a stage show. When Prince Herman died, in 1909, Rucker, then only 17 years old, took the name Black Herman in his friend's honour and continued to tour, focussing on the stage act and dropping the medicine show aspects of his performance.

Eventually, Herman made Harlem his home base. Jim Crow policies were in effect at that time, so in the Northern states he could perform before racially-mixed audiences, but when he travelled through the South, often with his own tent show, segregation laws kept his audiences primarily Black. His specialities included the "Asrah levitation," the production of rabbits, release from knots tied by audience members, and a "buried alive" act which began with his interment in an outdoor area called "Black Herman's Private Graveyard" and continued three days later with his exhumation, revival and a walk to the stage venue, where he performed the rest of his show.

Herman was the ostensible author of "Secrets of Magic, Mystery, and Legerdemain," a book published in 1925 that contains his semi-fictionalized autobiography, directions for simple illusions suitable to the novice stage magician, advice on astrology and lucky numbers, and a sampling of African American hoodoo folk magic customs and practices. An announcement on the book's title page, "Black Herman Comes Through Every Seven Years", referred to Herman's pattern of returning to venues on a regular basis; the book was sold at his performances, although it has been determined that he was not the author.

Black Herman died in Louisville, Kentucky in April 1934 after collapsing on stage, presumably the result of a heart attack. Due to the fame of his "buried alive" act, many people in the audience refused to believe he was really dead, and thus it came about that his assistant, Washington Reeves, charged admission to view Rucker's corpse in the funeral home, bringing a dramatic close to a life spent in showmanship. He was buried in the Woodlawn Cemetery in New York City.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Hey, Buddy - Spare Some Red Mercury?

Red mercury is a fictitious substance of uncertain composition purportedly used in the creation of nuclear bombs, as well as a variety of unrelated weapons systems. Samples obtained from arrested would-be terrorists invariably consisted of nothing more than various red dyes or powders of little value, which some suspect was being sold as part of a campaign intended to flush out potential nuclear smugglers. The hoax was first reported in 1979 and was commonly discussed in the media in the 1990's, with prices for this substance as high as $500,000 per kilogram being reported.

The story of red mercury apparently began when in 1991 Urals Regional Economic Committee appealed to the government asking for permit to export red mercury. President of Russian company Promekologia, situated in the Urals Sadykov wrote a letter to then-president of Russia Boris Yeltsin asking permission to sell the red mercury abroad which, he claimed, could solve Russian economic troubles. In the early 1992 Boris Yeltsin signed a decree giving Promekologia monopoly to sell 3 tonnes of red mercury a year during 3 years. In 1993 the affair became known to the Russian Supreme Council which led to investigation and speculations in press.In 1992 a special parliamentary commission was instituted to investigate the red mercury affair

Former Prosecutor-General of Russia Yuriy Skuratov said in an interview that in 1992 the Prosecutor's office had a version that the red mercury legend was invented to finance Russian privatization through RSFSR State Secretary Gennady Burbulis. He said "red mercury" was used to cover up exports of strategic materials from Russia.

According the other sources a substance named "oxyde of red mercury" was officially listed as a substance prohibited from export from the USSR other than to "socialist countries" as early as 1990.

References to red mercury began to appear in major Russian and western media sources in the late 1980s. The articles were never specific as to what exactly red mercury was, but nevertheless claimed it was of great importance in nuclear bombs, or that it was used in the building of boosted fission weapons. Almost as soon as the stories appeared, people started attempting to buy it. At that point the exact nature of the substance started to change, and eventually turned into anything the buyer happened to be interested in. As New Scientist reported in 1992, an Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory report outlined that:

When red mercury first appeared on the international black market 15 years ago, the supposedly top secret nuclear material was 'red' because it came from Russia. When it resurfaced last year in the formerly communist states of Eastern Europe it had unaccountably acquired a red colour. But then, as a report from the US Department of Energy reveals, mysterious transformations are red mercury's stock in trade.

The report, compiled by researchers at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, shows that in the hands of hoaxers and conmen, red mercury can do almost anything the aspiring Third World demagogue wants it to. You want a short cut to making an atom bomb? You want the key to Soviet ballistic missile guidance systems? Or perhaps you want the Russian alternative to the anti-radar paint on the stealth bomber? What you need is red mercury.

A key event in the history of the red mercury story was an article in the daily Russian newspaper Pravda in 1993. Claiming to be based on leaked top secret memos, they noted that red mercury was:

[A] super-conductive material used for producing high-precision conventional and nuclear bomb explosives, 'Stealth' surfaces and self-guided warheads. Primary end-users are major aerospace and nuclear-industry companies in the United States and France along with nations aspiring to join the nuclear club, such as South Africa, Israel, Iran, Iraq, and Libya.

Red mercury was offered for sale throughout Europe and the Middle East by Russian businessmen, who found many buyers who would pay almost anything for the substance even though they had no idea what it was.

A study for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 1997 has perhaps the best summary of the topic:

The asking price for red mercury ranged from $100,000 to $300,000 per kilogram. Sometimes the material would be irradiated or shipped in containers with radioactive symbols, perhaps to convince potential buyers of its strategic value. But samples seized by police contained only mercury oxide, mercury(II) iodide, or mercury mixed with red dye — hardly materials of interest to weapons-makers.

A variety of different items have been analyzed as putative samples of "red mercury" since the substance first came to the attention of the media, but no single substance was found in these items. A sample of radioactive material was seized by German police in May 1994. This consisted of a complex mixture of elements, including about 10% by weight plutonium, with the remainder consisting of 61% mercury, 11% antimony, 6% oxygen, 2% iodine and 1.6% gallium. A formula reported for the powder component of the mixture was Hg6Sb2O8, with some of the mercury present in its pure metallic form. The reason why somebody had assembled this complex mixture of chemicals is unknown, equally puzzling was the presence of fragments of glass and brush bristles, suggesting that someone had dropped a bottle of this substance and then swept it up into a new container.

In contrast, an analysis reported in 1998 of a different "red mercury" sample concluded that this sample was a non-radioactive mixture of elemental mercury, water and mercury iodide, which is a red colored chemical. Similarly, another analysis of a sample recovered in Zagreb in November 2003 reported that this item contained only mercury. One formula that has been claimed previously for red mercury was Hg2Sb2O7, but no antimony was detected in this 2003 sample.

One televised report indicated that the Soviet Union, which had a vested interest in nuclear non-proliferation, encouraged the KGB and GRU to arrange sting operations for the detection of those seeking to deal in nuclear materials. The Soviet intelligence services created a myth of the necessity of "red mercury" for the sorts of nuclear devices that terrorists and rogue governments might seek. This would provide a neat explanation for the sudden "appearance" of red mercury in the press, but it also seems difficult to understand why they would then publicly discount red mercury in what would appear to be a successful programme.

The substance found is a mere pigment devoid of properties suitable for nuclear weapons; it is speculated to be mercury sulphide (cinnabar), mercury(II) iodide, mercury antimony oxide (Hg2Sb2O7) or any other red-coloured mercury compound.

Following the arrest of several men in Great Britain in September 2004, on suspicion that they were trying to buy a kilo of red mercury for £300,000, the International Atomic Energy Agency made a statement dismissing claims that the substance is real. "Red mercury doesn't exist," said the spokesman. "The whole thing is a bunch of malarkey."[12] When the case came to trial at the Old Bailey in April 2006, it became apparent that News of the World's "fake sheikh" Mazher Mahmood had worked with the police to catch the three men, Dominic Martins, Roque Fernandes and Abdurahman Kanyare. They were tried for "trying to set up funding or property for terrorism" and "having an article (a highly dangerous mercury based substance) for terrorism". According to the prosecutor, red mercury was believed to be a material which could cause a large explosion, possibly even a nuclear reaction, but whether or not red mercury actually existed was irrelevant to the prosecution. All three men were acquitted in July 2006.

Red mercury was described by many commentators, and the exact nature of its supposed working mechanism varied widely among them. The most popular explanation is that it was a highly energetic explosive-like chemical known as a ballotechnic, although the popularity of this particular explanation appears to be due largely to the popularity of its main supporter, Samuel Cohen. Other claims include that it is used as a shortcut to the extraction of fissile material, that it is in fact weapons grade material being sold under a code name, or that it is completely unrelated to nuclear devices at all, and is in fact a stealth coating for aircraft. In general, however, none of these explanations appear to be scientifically or historically supportable.

The name 'red mercury' is a code word used in the USSR nuclear weapons program since the 1950s to describe enriched lithium-6. Lithium-6 has two nuclear weapons uses: as a reactor target for production of tritium, and in the form of lithium-6 deuteride as a thermonuclear weapon material. The most common production process uses large amounts of mercury as chemical agents. The code name originated because mercuric impurities contaminate the lithium- 6 during production, giving it a red color. 'Red mercury' has been identified by many European media reports as 'any of several simple mercuric compounds and tinctures offered for sale by Russian and European agents,' but none of these had any nuclear value. The uses for lithium-6 are consistent with claims about the uses of 'red mercury.' The USSR built a large complex in the early days of their nuclear weapon program to produce and stockpile lithium- 6. Some was also supplied to China in the 1950s. Russian and Western officials have both stated that no lithium-6 from Russian or Chinese inventories has been diverted since the disintegration of the USSR.

Traditional staged thermonuclear weapons consist of two parts, a fission "primary" and a fusion/fission "secondary". The energy released by the primary when it explodes is used to (indirectly) compress the secondary and start a fusion reaction within it. Conventional explosives are far too weak to provide the level of compression needed.

The primary is generally built as small as possible, due to the fact that the energy released by the secondary is much larger, and thus building a larger primary is generally inefficient. There is a lower limit on the size of the primary that can be built, known as the critical mass. For weapons grade plutonium, this is around 10 kg. This can be reduced through the use of neutron reflectors or clever arrangements of explosives to compress the core, but these methods generally add to the size and complexity of the resulting device.

Due to the need for a fission primary, and the difficulty of purifying weapons-grade fissile materials, the majority of arms control efforts to limit nuclear proliferation rely on the detection and control of the fissile material and the equipment needed to obtain it.

Cohen, the "father of the neutron bomb", has been claiming for some time that red mercury is a powerful explosive-like chemical known as a ballotechnic. The energy released during its reaction is enough to directly compress the secondary without the need for a fission primary. He claims that he has learned that the Soviet scientists perfected the use of red mercury and used it to produce a number of softball-sized "pure fusion" bombs weighing as little as 10 lb (4.5 kg), which he claims were made in large numbers.

He goes on to claim that the reason this is not more widely known is that elements within the US power structure are deliberately keeping it "under wraps" due to the frightening implications such a weapon would have on nuclear proliferation. Since a red mercury bomb would require no fissile material, it would seemingly be impossible to protect against its widespread proliferation given current arms control methodologies. Instead of trying to do so, they simply claim it doesn't exist, while acknowledging its existence privately. Cohen also claims that when President Boris Yeltsin took power, he secretly authorized the sale of red mercury on the international market, and that fake versions of it were sometimes offered to gullible buyers.

Cohen's claims appear to be difficult to support scientifically. The amount of energy released by the fission primary is thousands of times greater than that released by conventional explosives, and it appears that the "red mercury" approach would be orders of magnitude smaller than required. Furthermore, ballotechnic materials are those that do not explode, so it is difficult to understand how their energy could be used to produce compression at all.

Additionally, it appears there is absolutely no independent confirmation of any sort of Cohen's claims to the reality of red mercury. The scientists in charge of the labs where the material would have been made have publicly dismissed the claims (see below), as have numerous US colleagues, including Edward Teller.

According to Cohen, veteran nuclear weapon designer Dr. Frank Barnaby conducted secret interviews with Russian scientists who told him that red mercury was produced by dissolving mercury antimony oxide in mercury, heating and irradiating the resultant amalgam, and then removing the elemental mercury through evaporation. The irradiation was reportedly carried out by placing the substance inside a nuclear reactor.

Another theory popular in the mid-1990s was that red mercury facilitated the enrichment of uranium to weapons-grade purity. Conventionally, such enrichment is usually done with precision centrifuges, and takes several years. Red mercury was speculated to eliminate this costly and time-consuming step. Although this would not eliminate the possibility of detecting the material, it could escape detection during enrichment as the centrifuges normally used in this process are very large and require equipment that can be fairly easily tracked internationally. Eliminating such equipment would greatly ease the construction of a clandestine nuclear weapon.

Another common claim is that Red Mercury is in fact nothing more than a code name for high-quality uranium or plutonium, extracted from any number of Soviet weapons labs and being offered on the open market.

Russian weapon designers have reported (1993) that red mercury was the Soviet codename for Lithium-6, which has an affinity for mercury and tends to acquire a red colour due to mercuric impurities during its separation process. Lithium-6 deuteride is used in the second stage of some fusion bombs, as a way of boosting the yield of the fusion reaction.

As mentioned earlier, one of the origins of the term "red mercury" was in the Russian newspaper Pravda, which claimed that red mercury was "a super-conductive material used for producing high-precision conventional and nuclear bomb explosives, 'stealth' surfaces and self-guided warheads." Any substance with these sorts of highly differing properties would be suspect by most, but the stealth story continued to have some traction long after most had dismissed the entire story.

Organisations involved in landmine clearance and unexploded ordinance disposal noted a belief amongst some communities in southern Africa that Red Mercury may be found in certain types of ordnance. Attempting to extract Red Mercury, purported to be highly valuable, was reported as a motivation for people dismantling items of unexploded ordnance, and suffering death or injury as a result. In some cases it was reported that unscrupulous traders may be deliberately promoting this misconception in an effort to build a market for recovered ordnance.

In April 2009 it was reported from Saudi Arabia that rumors that Singer sewing machines contained "red mercury" had caused the prices of such machines to massively increase in the Kingdom, with some paying up to SR 200,000 for a single machine which could previously have been bought for SR 200. Believers in the rumor claimed that the presence of red mercury in the sewing machines' needles could be detected using a mobile telephone; if the line cut off when the telephone was placed near to the needle, this supposedly proved that the substance was present.

In Medina there was a busy trade in the sewing machines, with buyers seen using mobile phones to check the machines for red mercury content, while it was reported that others had resorted to theft, with two tailors' shops in Dhulum broken into and their sewing machines stolen. At other locales, there were rumors that a Kuwait-based multinational had been buying up the Singer machines, while in Al-Jouf, the residents were led to believe that a local museum was buying up any such machines that it could find, and numerous women appeared at the museum offering to sell their Singer machines.

There was little agreement among believers in the story as to the exact nature or even color of the red mercury, while the supposed uses for it ranged from it being an essential component of nuclear power, to having the ability to summon jinn, extract gold, or locate buried treasure and perform other forms of magic. The official spokesman for the Riyadh police said that the rumors had been started by gangs attempting to swindle people out of their money, and denied the existence of red mercury in sewing machines

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Where Did The Lake Go? (2)

Beloye (Russian: Белое) is a large freshwater lake in Nizhny Novgorod Oblast, Russia. It lies approximately 300 meters from the village of Bolotnikovo. In May, 2005, the lake disappeared overnight for unknown reasons. It is speculated that the lake may have drained into an underground river or cave system due to subsidence. Seventy years prior to the 2005 disappearance, several houses were destroyed under similar circumstances.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Demon Core

The Demon Core was the nickname given to a 6.2-kilogram (14 lb) subcritical mass of plutonium that accidentally went critical on two separate instances at the Los Alamos laboratory, in 1945 and 1946. Each incident resulted in the acute radiation poisoning and subsequent death of a scientist. After these incidents, the core was referred to as the Demon Core.

On August 21, 1945, the plutonium core produced a burst of neutron radiation that irradiated Harry Daghlian, a physicist who made a mistake while working alone doing neutron reflection experiments on the core. The core was placed within a stack of neutron-reflective tungsten carbide bricks, and the addition of each brick moved the assembly closer to criticality. Daghlian, while attempting to stack another brick around the assembly, accidentally dropped one of the bricks onto the core, thereby making it critical. Despite moving the brick off the assembly quickly, Daghlian received a fatal dose of radiation. He died 25 days later.

On May 21, 1946, physicist Louis Slotin and other scientists were in a Los Alamos laboratory conducting an experiment that involved creating a fission reaction by placing two half-spheres of beryllium (a neutron reflector) around the same plutonium core. Slotin's hand holding a screwdriver separating the hemispheres slipped, the beryllium neutron reflector hemispheres closed, and the core became supercritical, releasing a very high dose of radiation. He quickly pulled the two halves apart, stopping the chain reaction and hence saving the lives of the seven other men in the laboratory. Louis Slotin himself, however, died 9 days later from acute radiation poisoning. The scientist assisting received sufficient radiation dose to cause serious injuries and some permanent partial disability, while the others in the room suffered no permanent injuries from the accident.

The Demon core was put to use for the ABLE detonation test of the Crossroads series on July 1, 1946, demonstrating that the criticality experiments of Daghlian and Slotin increased the efficiency of the weapon.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Hopping Terror: Jiang Shi


Jiang Shi (simplified Chinese: 僵尸; traditional Chinese: 僵屍 or; pinyin: jiāngshī; literally "stiff corpse" or "zombie") are reanimated corpses that hop around, killing living creatures to absorb life essence (气/氣) from their victims. Jiāngshī is pronounced gœngsi in Cantonese, or kyonshi in Japanese. They are said to be created when a person's soul ( ) fails to leave the deceased's body, due to improper death, suicide, or just wanting to cause trouble.

Generally their appearance can range from plain ordinary (as in the case of a recently deceased person) to downright horrifying (i.e. rotting flesh, stiffness, rigor mortis, the like commonly associated with corpses that have been in a state of decay over a period of time). A peculiar feature is their greenish-white furry skin; one theory is this is derived from fungus or mold growing on corpses. They are said to have long white hair all over their heads. The influence of Western vampire stories brought the blood-sucking aspect to the Chinese myth in modern times.

A supposed source of the jiang shi stories came from the folk practice of "Traveling a Corpse over a Thousand Li" (千里行屍), where traveling companions or family members who could not afford wagons or had very little money would hire Taoist priests to transport corpses of their friends/family members who died far away from home over long distances by teaching them to hop on their own feet back to their hometown for proper burial. Taoist priests would transport the corpses only at night and would ring bells to notify other pedestrians of their presence because it was considered bad luck for a living person to set eyes upon a jiang shi. This practice (湘西趕屍) was popular in Xiangxi where many people left their hometown to work elsewhere. After they died, their corpses were transported back to their rural hometown using long bamboo rods, believing they would be homesick if buried somewhere unfamiliar. When the bamboo flexed up and down, the corpses appeared to be hopping in unison from a distance. Once it was a myth. Some people speculate that the stories about jiang shi was originally made up by smugglers who disguised their illegal activities as corpse transportation and wanted to scare off law enforcement officers.

They are sometimes called Chinese vampires by Westerners, despite the fact that unlike vampires, most jiang shi usually have no self-awareness, consciousness or independent thought, so they are also called Chinese zombies

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A Wooden Skyscaper ... That's Far From Sound


Sutyagin house was a wooden house in Arkhangelsk, Russia. The 13-story, 144-ft tall residence of the local entrepreneur Nikolai Petrovich Sutyagin was reported to be the world's, or at least Russia's, tallest wooden house. Constructed by Mr. Sutyagin and his family over 15 years (starting in 1992), without formal plans or a building permit, the structure deteriorated while Mr. Sutyagin spent a few years in prison on racketeering charges. In 2008, it was condemned by the city as a fire hazard, and the courts ordered it to be demolished by February 1, 2009. On December 26, 2008, the tower was pulled down, and the remainder was dismantled manually over the course of the next several months.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

And His Merry Men -

The Green Feather Movement was a brief-lived college protest fad directed against McCarthyism. It began on March 1, 1954 with five college students at Indiana University who clandestinely tacked a green feather to every bulletin board on campus. The gesture was inspired by Mrs. Thomas White, a member of the Indiana school textbook commission who had expressed her desire to see Robin Hood banned from the grade school curriculum because of his supposed Communist connotations. Blas Davila, later a psychology professor at the University of Indianapolis, was one of the five undergraduate students who came up with the plan. They called themselves Robin Hood's Merry Men and circulated an anonymous protest against McCarthyism, owning up to the deed in a letter to the student paper. They explained that they wore a green feather in sympathy with Robin Hood, whose Merry Men wore (according to them) a green feather in their caps. Students at other colleges learned of their activities and contacted them to order literature, protest buttons and feathers, and in the course of a few weeks the protest mushroomed into a nationwide campus movement, starting with chapters in Wisconsin and Michigan and spreading around the country. By May 21 the Harvard Crimson was reporting that a Green Feather club had formed at Harvard and was seeking recognition in order to distribute Green Feather buttons in the dining halls. The movement lasted through two semesters and came to an end after Sen. McCarthy was censured by the US Senate in December, 1954 for his extreme anti-communist activism.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Three Mile Mississippi


John Banvard (November 15, 1815 – May 16, 1891) was a U.S. panorama and portrait painter known for his panoramic views of the Mississippi River Valley.

John Banvard was born in New York and was educated in high school. When his father went bankrupt, he began to travel around the United States, and supported himself with paintings he exhibited.

1840 he began to paint large panoramas of the whole Mississippi River valley. He traveled through the area in a boat, made preliminary drawings and supported himself with paintings and hunting. He combined the preliminary sketches and transferred them to a canvas in a building erected for this purpose in Louisville, Kentucky. His largest panorama began as 12 feet (3,6 m) high and 1300 feet (369 m) long and was eventually expanded to about half a mile (about 800 meters) although it was advertised as a "three-mile canvas". It toured around the nation, and was eventually cut up in to hundreds of pieces, none of which still exist today.

In 1846 he began to travel with this panorama in Europe, Asia and Africa and even gave Queen Victoria a private viewing. During his travels he also painted panoramas in Palestine and the Nile River Valley.

On his return his invested part of the fortune he had made in 60 acres overlooking Cold Spring Harbor on the North Shore of Long Island, where in 1852-55, in competition with P. T. Barnum's palace "Iranistan" in Bridgeport, Connecticut, he proceeded to design and have built a baronial residence from its eastern shore, which, it was given out, was intended to resemble Windsor Castle; he named the place Glenada, the glen of his daughter Ada, but the locals called it "Banvard's Folly". After his death it became a fashionable resort hotel, The Glenada.