During project Acoustic Kitty the CIA implanted a microphone inside a kitten’s head and an antenna inside the same kittens tail with the hopes of turning it into the ultimate spy. Unfortunately, during the first test of their newest, cuddliest, agent, the cat, who was supposed to eavesdrop on a couple in a public park, ran out into traffic and was run over by a taxi. The Acoustic Kitty project was developed during the Cold War when the U.S. and Russia were so eager to get the upper hand that they were willing to try almost anything that seemed even slightly feasible. So, noting the kitten with the antenna tail, it’s not too hard to believe that during the Cold War the CIA invested a good deal of research into remote viewing.
Remote viewing is the practice of using one’s mind to detect far away or unseen objects. The CIA investigated the potential of remote viewing in Project Stargate where they claimed several successes and went so far as to claim that some of their subjects had achieved precognition. But before we had our own crop of psychic spies, and much before we had a movie about it starring George Clooney, we just had a man and his wife. Written by Upton Sinclair in 1930 Mental Radio is a self-published record of a series of experiments performed by the author and his second wife Mary Craig Kimbrough, a clairvoyant. And before you write Sinclair and the CIA off as a bunch of cooks, get this, Albert Einstein wrote the introduction when the book was published in Germany noting that Sinclair’s “good faith and dependability are not to be doubted.”
One of my great joys in life is reading about famous animals. There is something so absurd about how their biographies are written that I just can’t resist them. Most Wikipedia pages on famous animals will even include sections sincerely titled Personal Life and Retirement. As an example here is a brief excerpt from the biography of famous military goat, William Windsor. The excerpt comes under the heading of Temporary Demotion:
Billy was charged with “unacceptable behaviour”, “lack of decorum” and “disobeying a direct order”, and had to appear before his commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Huw James. Following a disciplinary hearing, he was demoted to fusilier.The change meant that other fusiliers in the regiment no longer had to stand to attention when Billy walked past, as they had to when he was a lance corporal.
What make’s William Windsor’s “lack of decorum” even funnier is that his behavior took place at a parade that was supposed to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II’s 80th birthday. So, basically the hi-jinks of any fraternity movie come to life. Had only the Queen bitten her pearls in dismay while his commanding officer shouted “WINDOSR,” it could have been perfect. Yet, as near perfect as William Windsor’s shenanigans and demotion might have been, his trial is only one of hundreds worth reading about. And when reading about animals on trial no page is better turned than that of E. P. Evans’ The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals.
There’s a small section of Cape Ann Massachusetts that the locals refer to as Dogtown but was once known as the Common Settlement. It was originally settled by farmers who enjoyed it’s distance from the sea as a buffer against pirates but had trouble planting due to its poor terrain. After the war of 1812, when fear of pirates was absent, many people moved away from Common Settlement in search of better land. After many families left the settlement it became reduced to abandoned houses and widows who didn’t see any reason to move. Many of the widows who stayed in the settlement would keep a dog for company but after the dogs started mating they soon outnumbered the people and Common Settlement became Dogtown. But there is more to the story of Dogtown than that.
As the dogs began outnumbering people, and after many of the widows died, they turned feral and intimidating. The abandoned houses of soon became a safe haven for vagabonds and other itinerants. Thomazine Younger, also known as “Queen of the witches,” was one of the last Dogtown citizens. Younger would curse the oxen that passed the settlement unless paid a toll by the driver. In 1830 the last person found in Dogtown, Cornelius Finson, was half dead lying in a cellar-hole. He was removed and taken to a poor-house where he died. A place once thought to be a haven was now one to be avoided at all costs. The story of Dogtown is the story of degradation; or, at least it was until the Great Depression when Dogtown found a way to rise up and redeem itself. Enter Roger Babson.
Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return. Genesis 3:19
Human combustion, especially but not limited to the spontaneous variety, has always been a subject of deep fascination for me. Both the idea of it, and the fact that learned folks such as scientists and scholars actually believed in it is mind boggling. What’s even more compelling is that back when it was a “reality” that people could just burst into flame the temperance movement said that they figured out why. According to them people were bursting into flame because they simply drank too much. Enter Thomas Trotter a young medical student who in 1804 writes his dissertation on the subject De Ebrietate ejusque effectibus in corpus humanum, or in English, An Essay, Medical, Philosophical, and Chemical on Drunkenness, and Its Effects on the Human Body.
Despite the fact that Trotter’s dissertation concerns people exploding from consuming too much
booze I expected that actually reading it would be pretty boring. For some reason I just can’t imagine medical dissertations from the 1800’s as pleasurable reading. Luckily, I found the majority of it to be a breeze. One passage I especially enjoyed was trotter describing the symptoms of drunkenness:
When I’m doing research for this blog my starting point is always Wikipedia. It’s the only site that intuitively eggs me on. Every article link I click on makes me feel like I’m reading my way towards something great. It’s like a thought crescendo. And when the music swells and you you finally reach that one article; it’s a fantastic moment. Last Friday I reached that point when I came across the article for Hawley Crippen and discovered one of the most bizarre [possible] murder stories I’ve ever heard. But since, in theory, this is a blog about books lets begin at the literary interpretation of Mr. Crippen’s crime in Arthur Machen’s 1927 story “The Islington Mystery.”
What I found particularly interesting about “The Islington Mystery” is how Machen begins his story. Plenty of horror stories, in an attempt to gain plausibility, begin with a foreword telling the audience that everything that follows is “true” but Machen takes it a bit farther. Machen not only mentions the Crippen case by name but talks about how much of sensation it was and how it’s constant coverage overshadowed what Machen felt to be more interesting crimes. In doing this he cheekily equates murder to an art form and gossip hounds to an audience who more often pass up “quality” for fanfare.
This week I’ve decided to use my two blogs on this site, Bibliophilia and Lucas’ Film Corner, to discuss the issue of irony in popular culture. Each post will be a sort-of response to Christy Wampole’s article How to live without Irony where I examine a piece of culture that seems ironic or plays with the idea of irony. If you have not read the article yet I’d recommend doing so before moving on to my response.
The most frequent question author David Rees gets asked about his new book, How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical & Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening for Writers, Artists, Contractors, Flange Turners, Anglesmiths, & Civil Servants, is “is this a joke?” I should also mention that along with writing a book on the subject, pencil sharpening is something David Rees does for a living. On Rees’ website www.ArtisinalPencilShaprening.com he offers his services as an expert sharpener. For a scant fifteen dollars (US) Rees will sharpen a pencil of your choice, ship it to you in a special container to preserve the sharpness, and enclose with it an autographed certificate of sharpness. So, the question again is “Is this a joke?”
Since the prevalence of the Dummies series of books satirical and ironic self-help or how-to books have been a common staple of humorous writing. Popular titles of the past and present include How to be Black, How to Live with a Huge Penis, and Lose Weight! Get Laid! Find God!: The All-in-One Life Planner. Some of these titles are written as one long joke and others are written as a criticism of this particular genre of writing yet I don’t believe that How to Sharpen Pencils really fits in either category. Rees’ book transcends the normal trappings of joke writing due to the fact that it’s largely not a joke.
There is something undeniably enjoyable in hearing or reading language mistakes. And, unlike most of the internet, the enjoyment I derive from these mistakes is in no way malicious. I’m not one who feels a need to correct others. If you typed “your” but should’ve typed “you’re” you won’t find me in the comment section pointing it out. To me being able to read or hear a garbled sentence and make sense of it is fun. It’s like a language puzzle and being able to solve it only points to the fluidity and poetic beauty of language that usually plays second banana to utility. Yet, despite my sincere appreciation of mistakes to deny any bit of schadenfreude (a German word for deriving pleasure from other’s misfortune) would be painting me in too kind a light.
For example, one of my all-time favorite typographical errors is rooted in pure schadenfreude. The infamous typo comes from a 1631 publication of the Bible in which proclaims “Thou shalt commit adultery”. That one missing “not” earned the publication multiple nicknames such as The Wicked Bible, The Adulterous Bible, and The Sinners’ Bible as well as ample amounts of scorn and book burnings. What I enjoy so much about this typo is the monstrous amount of attention it received. Obviously all of the readers understood it to be a human error instead of a change in the Almighty’s thoughts on swinging; however, it was still approached and condemned as blasphemy. To be honest, I think that’s what I enjoy so much about it.
Imagine if there was a book that you could only read once. Imagine a book where you only had one chance to commit its pages to memory because after you read it the words would disappear. A book that when you turn the page you know that there’s no turning back. Well, it just so happens that there is one.
The book is an anthology containing the writing of lesser known Latin American authors and properly titled The Book That Can’t Wait. The Book That Can’t Wait is a unique book because roughly two months after you first crack the cover the words literally disappear. But instead of being constructed as a way to inspire fatigued memories the small Argentinian publisher said that they created The Book That Can’t Wait to be “a message in itself, that encourages us to read those authors, before their stories disappear for real, right before our eyes.”
As a rule of thumb, anything going on behind a locked door is far more interesting than anything going on behind an unlocked door. A locked door implies fear, secrecy, and a whole assortment of acts better done in the dark. Just imagine the sound of a door being locked, the slow grind of the gears being turned, and that heavy eminent click of the latch dropping into place. Of course mystery writers figured this out ages ago and have exploited our fears and fascinations into an entire subgenre of mystery stories; locked-room mysteries.
Locked-room mysteries usually center on a murder in a locked room with no other possible exits. Also the door is usually locked from the inside. From the murder we then find the detective who refuses to believe any fanciful explanations for how and what happened, following the few sparse clues available to their logical yet astonishing end. These stories combine the absurdity of the impossible with the very tangible fear of death and combine them into a memento mori that investigates death in its most intricate and improbable realizations.
In 1913 H.G. Wells took a departure from telling tales of invisible men and intergalactic warfare to write a mawkish book of rules for playing with tin soldiers. The book is filled with the kind of loving sentimentality and deep respect for play that you would expect from any person used to creating worlds all their own. An early passage reads “We got two forces of toy soldiers, set out a lumpish Encyclopaedic land upon the carpet, and began to play.” Yet before I let you completely fall under the whimsical, if not twee, spell of this noted writer allow me to spoil everything by telling you the title of his book, Little Wars: a game for boys from twelve years of age to one hundred and fifty and for that more intelligent sort of girl who likes boys’ games and books.
You see, H.G. Wells was just a tad sexist. From another early passage, in the middle of an otherwise lovely description of friendship, he takes a moment to talk about how much women hate imagination. “Primitive attempts to realise [sic] the dream were interrupted by a great rustle and chattering of lady visitors. They regarded the objects upon the floor with the empty disdain of their sex for all imaginative things.” Unfortunately I don’t have a large enough vocabulary to better explain my immediate reaction upon reading that paragraph, so let’s just say that I thought it was a totally dick thing to write. The dickishness of that passage only becomes emphasized a few pages later when Wells writes “We then began to humanise [sic] that wild and fearful fowl, the gun.” So, to recap, women have no imagination and inanimate objects have personalities.