Monday, January 28, 2013

The Worst Jobs In History - Victorian

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.

Tamara de Lempicka




(via artsandcrafts28)

Tamara de Lempicka - “The Blue Virgin” 1934

Aleppo, Syria



(via travelingcolors)

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Monday, January 21, 2013

One Hundred Scenic Spots of Edo



(via tofuist)

One Hundred Scenic Spots of Edo “Suruga-cho” Utagawa Hiroshige

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....



NUCLEAR EVERYTHING

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.

The Happy Rizzi House












(via rcruzniemiec)
Happy Rizzi House 
James Rizzi
Braunschweig, Germany 
James Rizzi was an American pop artist who was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. His “latest paintings combine his Picasso meets Hanna-Barbera drawing style with an increasingly chromatic palette and a complex graphic structure that simultaneously evokes cubism and the most sophisticated Amerindian friezes.” 
Photo Credits: 1, 2-6

(shudder)



(via clift-fanzine01)

Haunted Air, de Ossian Brown

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Uncle Leo

Glowing umbrellas...


 







(via wntrmute)

The modern performance company Pilobolus and MIT’s Distributed Robotics Laboratory teamed up at PopTech 2012 along with several hundred volunteers for a collaborative art excercise. Guided by a camera fixed on a towering crane, the volunteers moved around holding umbrellas fixed with LED lights to spontaneously create dramatic colorful formations in a darkened outdoor amphitheater.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Welcome To Weirdsville: The Not-Tall Tale Of The Very Tall Potsdam Grenadiers


Here's another fun article from my new book, Welcome to Weirdsville - this time on the (rather) tall Potsdam Grenadiers:


The Not-Tall Tale Of The Very Tall Potsdam Grenadiers 


If you're going to dream, the old saying goes, then you might as well dream big. But Friedrich Wilhelm I did more than dream because, as another expression says all too well: It's good to be the King.

Friedrich, born in 1688, was just one in a series of notable Prussian leaders. Friedrich, though, unlike his father, Frederick I – who achieved much during his reign, including wearing the crown for the first time, or Friedrich's son – Frederick II, who was a reformer and fervent supporter of reason and the arts – Friedrich, to put it mildly, loved a man in uniform ... in a secularly big way.

Friedrich, you see, had this thing about the military. Oh, sure, he did, during his reign, improve his then-tiny country's defenses, and carefully – almost pathologically – controlled Prussia's economy to the point when he finally passed away he left behind an awesome surplus. But Friedrich's military obsession wasn't really about keeping his people safe, or even about acquiring new territories: Friedrich liked – really liked – a grand spit and polish display.

How big? How grand? Well, Friedrich's all-consuming passion was for his grenadiers, a Regiment hand-picked not for their skill in battle, their heroic abilities, but for being tall.

In a time when the average height was probably around five foot something, the grenadiers – which quickly became known by the Prussians as the Lange Kerls (Big Guys) – began at six feet and went up up from there.

The Big Guys – and some of them were very big, coming in around seven feet – were the king's all-consuming passion, to the point where it became common for foreign dignitaries to use 'gifts' of very tall men to curry favor with Friedrich. But even these presents, many of them with little say in the matter, weren't enough to satisfy Friedrich's obsession: his agents, promised huge rewards, were dispatched to the far corners of Europe to get, by any means necessary, the tallest people they could find.

To say these agents were zealous would be an understatement: there are tales of them kidnapping farmers from their fields, innkeepers from their taverns, an Irish priest in the middle of a sermon, and they even had the audacity to try to grab a Austrian diplomat. There's even the story of one poor soul who was snatched off the streets of some foreign city and shipped back to Prussia, but who arrived stiff and cold because the agents forgot to punch air-holes in the crate.

Friedrich was so determined to fill the ranks of his grenadiers he even began his own program of selective breeding, offering tall women and men rewards to produce even taller children – and heaven help you if you knew someone nice and tall and didn't tell the king about it.

Oh, how the king loved his grenadiers: he would lovingly paint their portraits from memory, or order them to march for hours and hours around his palace courtyard just so he relish in their military tallness, and, if the king was feeling under the weather, he would even have them thunderously circle his bed until he got better. As he told the French ambassador: "The most beautiful girl or woman in the world would be a matter of indifference to me, but tall soldiers – they are my weakness."
Yes, it was very good to be the king – but, alas, it was not so grand to be one of his grenadiers. Even though Friedrich doted over them, many of his giants were in agony from diseases related to their gigantism, were painfully depressed after finding themselves in a unfamiliar land and unable to speak a word of German, or who – again as a tragic effect of their great height – were mentally the age of a young child. Desertions were common, but since the giants were, well, 'gigantic' they were quickly caught and subsequently, and brutally, punished. Some, sadly, made the ultimate escape – but even suicides didn't dissuade the king from begging, borrowing, or out-and- out stealing tall men for his grenadiers. At its (excuse me) 'height' the flamboyant regiment numbered over 3,000 men.

Not surprising, considering how incredibly infatuated Friedrich was with them, the grenadiers were never sent into battle.

Eventually, though, the king died, and with his death the kingdom, and Friedrich's beloved Potsdam Grenadiers, were passed down to his son, Frederick II. But while his father adored brass fittings, a good uniform, and everything else stern and military, the son – having been raised by a stern and military father – absolutely did not. Ironically, though, Frederick II did attack neighboring Austria, putting into practice some of his father's teachings. He also, after a time, put into actual combat what few of Friedrich's grenadiers remained.

There was one problem, though. Because they were considerably taller – very considerably taller – than their fellow soldiers, these surviving grenadiers didn't survive very long: they simply too big to miss.

Absolutely, if you're going to dream you should dream big. But if you're lucky – and you're a king – you don't have to settle for only dreams: you too, like Friedrich, can have your own marching, thundering fantasy brought to remarkably, and legendarily, tall life. 

Cranes

 

Hulot

 

Man Ray