Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Welcome to Weirdsville: Nuclear Everything!

Here's a piece from my new book, Welcome to Weirdsville, on the crazy stuff that happened during age when adding atomic energy to everything seemed like a good idea....


Fans of the old, but still wonderful, Road Runner cartoons might remember Wile E. Coyote's favorite one-stop-shop for mayhem: The Acme Company. A clever person – not one of us, alas – once said that Acme's slogan should be "We Add Rockets To Everything."

This, in a kind of round-about way, gets us to the 1950s and the near-obsession that certain engineers had back then with a certain power source. To put it another way, their slogan should have been: "We Add Nuclear Power To Everything."

In all fairness, reactors have proven – for the most part – to be pretty reliable. Submarines, commercial power plants, and even monstrous icebreakers have proven that nuclear power can be handy if not essential. But back just a few decades ago there were plans, and even a few terrifying prototypes, that would have made the Coyote green with envy – and the rest of us shudder in terror.

Both the US and the Soviet Union had engineers with lofty plans to keep bombers in the air indefinitely by using nuclear power. Most folks, with even a very basic knowledge of how reactors work, would think that was a bit (ahem) risky, but what's even scarier is how far along some of those plans got.

Take, for example, the various projects the US undertook. In one case, arguably the most advanced, they made plans to power a Convair B-36 bomber with a reactor. Scary? Sure, but what's even more so is that they actually flew the plane, with an operational reactor, a total of 47 times.

While that the reactor never actually powered the plane itself, and that there were huge problems to overcome, didn't stop the engineers from drawing up plans for a whole plethora of atomic planes.

But what was perhaps even crazier than just powered a plane with a nuclear reactor was the idea to use that power source as a weapon. Here, for example, is a beautiful representation of the Douglas 1186 system, which was supposed to use a parasite fighter to guide the warhead to the target – and keep the poor pilot from engine's radiation.

But the craziest of the crazy was the "Flying Crowbar." Not only was the Supersonic Low Altitude Missile (to be formal), aka SLAM (to be short), supposed to be a nuclear bomb deployment system but was also to use a nuclear ramjet drive as a weapon: roasting the ground under it to a Geiger-clicking nightmare while leaving a mushroom-cloud parade of bombs behind it. Shuddering, by the way, would be a perfectly appropriate response. Luckily, the Crowbar never got off the drawing board.

Leaving the air to the birds, other engineers had different nuclear dreams: In 1958 the Ford Motor Car Company, not satisfied with the success of the Edsel, put forth the idea of bringing radiation into the American home ... or, at least, the garage, with the Nucleon: a family car with an on-board reactor.

While some engineers played with the highways, a few looked to the rails. Though neither the United States of the Soviet Union got very far with powering a locomotive with a reactor, the USSR at least looked far enough ahead to draw up some plans.

The Soviets, in a literally sky-high dream, even envisioned a new approach to flying their reactors: use a Zeppelin!

Still other inventive types, determined to find a new use for the atom, scratched their heads and came up with quite a few interesting, if not dubious, ways of playing with nukes – but this time of the explosive variety. Plowshare is one of the most commonly quoted of those operations intended to put a smiley face in a mushroom cloud. A few of their suggested uses include what they called the Pan- Atomic Canal: in other words, using atomic bombs to widen the Panama Canal. They also suggested using nukes for mining operations, though never really solved the problem of dealing with then-radioactive ore.

It's ironic that – what with the need to urgently replace our finite and global-warming fossil fuels – that many are suggesting a new look at the power of the atom. We can only hope that we, today, can be as imaginative about it as they used to be back in the 1950s ... and a lot more responsible.

Quinta da Regaleira-Sintra In Portugal

An underground tunnel with a spiral staircase, supported by carved columns, down to the bottom of the well through nine landings. The nine hole round landings, separated by fifteen steps, evoke references to Dante’s Divine Comedy, and may represent the nine circles of hell, paradise, or purgatory. 
The well is connected to laberíticas caves that lead to a spooky garden surrounded by a lake. 
The land that is now Quinta da Regaleira had many owners through time. But in 1892 it belonged to the Barons of Regaleira, a family of rich merchants from Porto, when it was purchased that year by Carvalho Monteiro for 25,000 réis. Monteiro wished to build a bewildering place where he could gather symbols that would reflect his interests and ideologies. With the assistance of the Italian architect Luigi Manini, he designed the 4-hectare estate with its enigmatic buildings, believed to hide symbols related to alchemy, Masonry, the Knights Templar, and the Rosicrucians. The architecture of the estate evokes Roman, Gothic, Renaissance and Manueline architectural styles. The construction of the current estate commenced in 1904 and most of it was concluded by 1910.  
(via via Yawn)

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Komuso “Basket” Monks



Komuso “Basket” Monks:

A komusō was a Japanese monk during the Edo period. Komusō were characterized by the straw basket (tengai) worn on the head, manifesting the absence of specific ego. They are also known for playing solo pieces on the shakuhachi flute. The Japanese government introduced reforms after the Edo period, abolishing the sect. Komusō means ”priest of nothingness” or “monk of emptiness”.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Spreepark, Berlin: Abandoned themepark

Spreepark, Berlin
Source: deNNiz-grafiX.com

Welcome To Weirdsville: Things That Shouldn't – But Still Do – Go Boom!

In further celebration of the release of Welcome to Weirdsville - a compendium of strange, bizarre, and - yes - outright weird stuff that's all around us, here's a nice one about things that shouldn't, but still do, explode:


There are rules about such things ... or so we think. After all, apples don't fall up, lions don't have feathers, and lakes don't explode.

Sure enough, Macintoshes don't fall skyward, and panthera leo doesn't have beautiful plumage.

But if you happened to be living in Cameroon you'd know all too well that lakes can, and do, explode.

Take for example the Lake Nyos in the Northwest Province of Cameroon. Part of the inactive Oku volcano chain, it's a extremely deep, extremely high and, most importantly, very calm, very still, lake.

But it hasn't always been so calm or still. In 1986 something very weird happened to Lake Nyos, a weirdness that unfortunately killed 3,500 head of livestock ... and 1,700 people.

No jokes this time. No clumsy 50's horror movie metaphors. What happened to the people in the three villages near that lake isn't funny. Most of them luckily died in the sleep, but the 4,000 others who escaped the region suffered from sores, repertory problems and even paralysis.

All because Lake Nyos exploded.

Before the why, here's some more: what happened to the villages of Cha, Nyos, and Subum that time isn't unique. The same thing happened to lake Monoun, also in Cameroon, in 1984. That time 37 people died, again not very pleasantly. What does sound like a scene from some only horror flick is the story of a truck that had been driving near the scene. Mysteriously, the truck's engine died, and then so did the ten people who got out: suffocating within minutes of stepping down. Only two people of the dozen survived, all because they happened to be sitting on top of the truck.

The technical term for what happened to Lake Nyos and Monoun is a limnic eruption. To get one you need a few basic elements: one, a very deep volcanic lake; two, said lake has to be over a slow source of volcanic gas; and three, it has to be very, very still.

What happens is that volcanic gas, mostly carbon dioxide but nasty carbon monoxide as well, super saturates the lake. A clumsy way of thinking about it is a can of soda: shake it up like crazy and the fluid in the can, held back by pressure, doesn't do anything.

But pull the top, or in the case of Nyos and Monoun, a small landslide or low magnitude earthquake, and all that trapped gas rushes out in an immense explosion. That's bad enough, as there are even some theories suggesting that the subsequent lake-tsunami from the gassy blast has wiped out still more villages, but what's worse is that those gasses trapped in the lake water are absolutely deadly.

Heavier than air, the carbon dioxide flows down from the mountain lake, suffocating anything and anyone in it's path – which explains how those two lucky passengers managed to escape: they were simply above the toxic cloud.

Fortunately scientists and engineers are working on ways to stop limnic blasts. Controlled taping of the gasses, bubbling pipes to keep the water from becoming super saturated, it's beginning to look like they might be able to keep what happened to the 1700 people of Nyos from happening again.

But what keeps other scientists awake at night is that there are more than likely lots of other lakes ready to explode, the question being ... when?

Okay, so lakes can explode. But fruit doesn't drop to the sky and feline African predators aren't born with fluffy down, and frogs don't pop ... right?

Not if you happened to live in Germany a few years ago: for awhile there toads were doing just that. And we're not talking a few here and there. Over 1,000 frogs were found burst and blasted in a lake that was soon stuck with the pleasant name "the death pool."

Theories flew like parts of an exploding frog: a virus? A crazy who had a thing for dynamite and toads? A detonating mass suicide? What the hell (bang) was going (boom) on (kablam)?

The cops checked out the area and the local nut-houses but there wasn't anyone with that very weird and very specific MO. Scientists check out the exploded remains but found no suspicious viruses, parasites, or bacteria.

They one veterinarian came up with the most likely answer: crows.

As anyone who has ever watched a crow knows they do not fit the label bird brain. Extremely clever and resourceful, crows are not only fast learners but they study, and learn from, other crows. What Frank Mutschmann, one clever vet, hypothesized was that it was happening was the meeting of smart crows and a frog's natural defenses – plus the allure of livers.

Wanting that tasty part of the toads, the crows had learned how to neatly extract it from their prey with a quick stab of their very sharp bills. In response, the toads did what they always go: puff themselves up. The problem – for the amphibians that is – is that because they now had a hole where their livers were that defense then became an explosive problem. Weasels might not literally go pop in that old kid's song but that seems to be just what was happening to that lake of German toads in 2005.

But that still doesn't change that Pipins don't fall up, and lions don't have tails like a peacock's, right? And what about ants? They don't explode, do they?

But they do. Ladies and Gentlemen allow me to present camponotus saundersi. Native to Malaysia, this average looking ant has a unique structure giving it an even more unique behavior when threatened.

Running the length of its little body are two mandibular glands full of toxins. That's bad enough, as any critter that decides to try a bite will get a mouthful of foul-tasting, maybe even deadly, venom, but what sets this ant aside from others is what happens when it gets pushed into a corner.

By clamping down on a special set of muscles these ants can commit violent and, yes, explosive suicide: taking out any nearby threat with a hail of nasty poisons. It's certainly a dramatic way to go but you can bet anything threatening it's colony will get a shock it won't soon forget.

Sure apples do not fall up and lions don't have feathers – but what with exploding lakes, bursting toads, and suicide-bombing ants it you might want to check that your grandmother's homemade pie doesn't float away or that lions aren't about to swoop down from the sky and carry you off.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Will Eisner And I?

As a long-time comics fan - and, if you remember, I even wrote one - this is extra-special: the great Renaissance E Books (who I'm an Associate Publisher for) has just stepped into graphic novels ... beginning by releasing classics like The Phantom Lady.

Well, one of the titles they also just released is a little-known treasure by the comic legend Will Eisner called The Flame - and guess who was asked to write the introduction?


If you were to create a Mount Rushmore for comic creators they'd certainly be a lot of controversy on who to immortalize.  Alan Moore?  Winsor McCay?  Art Spiegelman?  Osamu Tezuka?  Robert Crumb?  But the one that everyone – and I mean everyone -- would agree should have his face etched in stone is Will Eisner.
To say that Will Eisner, famed for his groundbreaking noir creation The Spirit, made comics what they are today is like saying the sun is just that warm thing in the sky.  Born in Brooklyn in 1917, Eisner made his first tentative steps onto the comic book stage at 16 by sending his artwork, with prodding from Batman creator Bob Kane, to Wow, What A Magazine!
Back in the late-1930s comic books were still deciding what they were and where they were going – it was a real wild west for writers and artists, with publishers, editors, writers, artists, and characters coming and going almost daily.
It was during these crazy times that The Flame was created by Eisner and Lou Fine – another illustrious member of those Golden Years.  Their brainchild, first appeared in Wonderworld Comic #3, July 1939. The Flame was so popular the character soon graduated to his own comic – but, alas, it was snuffed out after only eight issues, going dark on January 1942, a victim not of a vividly costumed menace or even the Nazis, but of the publisher's bankruptcy.
While The Flame's run in the superhero game was a short one the comic still – excuse me – burns quite bright for its originality.  In fact, you could easily trace a lot of The Flame forward to many now legendary comic characters.
Just look at his origin story: poor little Gary Preston was the only survivor of a flood that killed his father, Charteris Preston – a missionary in China.  Little Preston was saved by a benevolent order of Tibetan monks who taught him the mysterious power of heat and fire.  Gary knew that power must be used for good and The Flame was born.


Brattle Book Shop


Brattle Book Shop at 9 West Street in Boston, Massachusetts

Verner Panton

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Speaking of the Catacombs

Here's some fantastic shots I found at Lega Nerd



Luzinterruptus is an anonymous artistic group in Madrid who seek to highlight problems within the city using a wide variety of temporary light-based installations. The group is headed up by a duo including an artist and a photographer who have been using their art to create awareness of social and environmental issues since 2008. Via their website:
We began to act on the streets of Madrid at the end of 2008 with had the simple idea of focusing people´s attention by using light on problems that we found in the city and that seem to go unnoticed to the authorities and citizens. But everything that we do does not have a subversive aim. Sometimes we simply want to embellish, or to highlight anonymous places or corners that seem special or objects to which we think extraordinary artistic value, although they have been left on the streets for unknown seasons, with artistic intention, by anonymous people. (by Christopher)

Secret cinema found beneath Paris

In September 2004, French police discovered a hidden chamber in the catacombs under Paris. It contained a full-sized movie screen, projection equipment, a bar, a pressure cooker for making couscous, a professionally installed electricity system, and at least three phone lines. Movies ranged from 1950s noir classics to recent thrillers.

When the police returned three days later, the phone and power lines had been cut and there was a note on the floor: “Do not try to find us.” (via)

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Shout

One of my all-time favorite films...

The Shout is a 1978 British horror film directed by Jerzy Skolimowski, based on a short story by Robert Graves that was adapted for the screen by Michael Austin. The film was the first to be produced by Jeremy Thomas under his Recorded Picture Company banner.

Welcome to Weirdsville: The Fungus Among Us

Here's another great sample from my new book, Welcome to Weirdsville ... this time about the wonderful (and often creepy) world of mushrooms:

The Fungus Among Us

Let's play a game: animal, mineral, or vegetable?

The answer? Two out of three. Ladies and gentlemen: the wonderful, and let's not forget weird, world of fungi.

But first a ridiculously quick science lesson, and an explanation for the opening above: scientists consider fungi to be part of a separate and unique kingdom, in that they aren't plants and they're not animals -- so they really are two out of three.

It's this 'not one and not the other' that make fungi wonderfully – and somewhat disturbing – to study. At their most identifiable they an fundamental part of our diet: buttons, portobellos, shitakes, oysters, morels, chanterelles, and more – including the expensive yet ubiquitous truffle. But fungi are also essential to make many of our foods ... well, food: without them we wouldn't have cheese, beer, wine, bread and too many others to name. If that isn't impressive enough, our odd not-quite-an-animal, not-quite-a-plant, is also indispensable to medicine: penicillin, the cornerstone of antibiotics, was mold found in a Petri dish, after all. In fact some experts claim that if anything were to happen to our fungal friends humanity would be, at worst, extinct, or at best, pretty miserable.

But mushrooms and yeasts and molds are only the public face of the fungal world. Beyond beer, wine, cheese, and medicine there's a stranger side – in fact a rainbow of oddness. Mushrooms, you may think, are brown or white, right? But fungi can also be spectacularly colorful: the Parrot Waxcap is as green as grass, the Crimson Waxy Cap is sunset crimson, and the Slimy Spike-cap is even bright purple. There are even varieties of mushroom that aren't just colorful but actually glow in the dark: Omphalotus olearius, the Jack o' Lantern, for example, is a celebrated bioluminescent fungus, as is the Australian ghost fungus.

Even when fungi are brown and dull appearances can be deceiving: the aptly named stinkhorn, for example, produces the aroma of rotting meat to attract flies, which help the mushroom spread its spores. Speaking of spore-spreading, the puffball mushroom and its various relations do it in a very dramatic fashion, quite literally shooting their spawn into the air when touched.

But for all their color and their clever tricks, fungi have an even odder side, one that might make you look at that blue cheese in your sandwich, or that beer you were planning to have with lunch, a little differently – if not with out-and-out fear.

Sure, fungi have given us much but they can also take it away, and not just for people who mistake an amanita phalloides for an amanita caesarea: Cryptococcus gattii, though rare, is alarmingly fatal and is airborne. How fatal?  Well, it's considered to be one of – if not the – most lethal fungal infections you can get. There are other deadly fungi, and as most of them are extremely opportunistic and durable, they can spread wildly and are all but impossible to kill. Just think athlete's foot mixed with a rattlesnake.

It's fungi's ability to grow just about anywhere that makes it so amazing. If you name a hostile environment there's more than likely some form of mushroom or yeast that will not only grow there but prefer it over anywhere else. An extreme version of this is when researchers stuck their instruments into one of the most poisonous places on earth and found not only a species of mushroom growing there but one that actually appears to be feeding on the toxicity. How nasty is this place? Well, all you need to say is one word to shudder at the thought: Chernobyl.

But strangeness and fungi don't end with radiation-feasting mushrooms, for there are quite a number of them that feast on other things -- including animals.  Nematophagous fungi, for instance, grow miniscule rings that, if a nematode happens to squirm into one, rapidly contract, trapping the unfortunate lunch ... I mean 'worm.' If this makes you a bit nervous take a bit of consolation in that the popular oyster mushroom is also a nematode killer – and it's also tasty, so while it eats them we also eat it.

But eating isn't the only dark thing fungi do. One particular species has an extremely disturbing lifecycle – and a terrifying one ... if you happen to be an ant. Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, if it gets half a chance, will infect an ant and (ahem) eat parts of its brain, causing the poor little insect to basically become the walking dead The fungus finishes it off only after it clamps itself to the underside of a leaf, just where the fungus wants it to die – a location that works really well for the fungi, but definitely not the ant.

Yes, they have given us much: all those mushrooms and other amazing fungi. Without them we would have very bland food, let alone no booze, and would probably die a lot quicker without antibiotics. Some of them are as pretty as flowers, a few may be deadly to the unlucky or the tragically ignorant, while further species lurk in the soil for the unwary nematode, but – basically – they have been our friends for a very long time.

Besides, we'd better watch our step: while the jury is out on the subject, many experts point to a certain forest in Oregon. What's special about this hunk of land, that particular stand of trees? Well, the honey mushroom that lives there, and occupies over 2,200 acres of that forest, may very well be the largest organism on the earth.

So we had better treat them well -- all those wondrous fungi -- just in case that they, or just that single huge mushroom, should wake up and remind us of all they've done for us ... or could do to us.