Friday, December 10, 2010
Monday, November 22, 2010
Sunday, November 07, 2010
Saturday, October 23, 2010
Monday, October 18, 2010
Horse and buggies, hoop skirts, steam engines, bustles ... oh, yes, life around the turn of the previous century was a delight of simplicity and workmanship. But that doesn't mean that the artisans and engineers of way-back-when didn’t at least have their hearts and minds in the right place.
Take, for example, what writing used to be like before a few very bright bulbs thought to create machines to make it easier: pens that constantly ran dry, ink that spilled or smeared, illegible handwriting ... getting the message across -- any message across -- by hand was problematic at best, totally confusing at worst.
One of the earliest of those bright bulbs was William Austin Burt who, in 1829, created what he called a 'typewritor.' If Burt's machine was the first is a matter of much debate as another, similar, machine had also built by Pellegrino Turri around the same time. Some even say the crown of 'first' should go to Henry Mill, who created a writing machine way back in 1714.
But all of these devices were just baby steps: more potential than actually being helpful to people whose job it was to be clear, concise and fast with their writing. There were a lot of others after them these early pioneers, but none of them were ever a real commercial success. Looking at them you can see why: in many of these very early models – called 'index typewriters,' by the way – the typing was done by selecting the letter to be used on a slider and then pressing it against the paper. To call these early monsters 'slow' is being kind. Changing the alphabetical slider to a disc version helped a bit but not enough to make any of these machines easy or popular.
In 1865, what many consider to be the true ancestor to the first true, efficient, and financially successful was developed by Rasmus Malling-Hansen: The Writing Ball. What's fascinating about Hansen's creation isn't just its efficiency but also it's strangely elegant beauty. Just look at it: a brass half-sphere covered with keys above a cylinder that held the paper. It was finely made, unlike some of the unsuccessful machines before it, looking more like a gentleman's watch than a piece of office equipment.
Sure, Hansen's Ball has some rather serious flaws – like the fact that it was hardly cheap and, because of the position of the ball and the paper under it, the typist really couldn't see what they were typing until they were done and the paper was removed from the machine -- but that didn't stop it from selling better than many other previous models. One quirk of the ball was that, unlike the QWERTY keyboard that pretty much every typewriter after it and every computer after those typewriters became extinct had, the ball's keys had been positioned to make typing easier for the typist and not the typewriter. By the way, in case you don't know the sad, strange story of QWERTY – which haunts us to this day -- the alphabet were originally put in that order because otherwise users would type faster than the machine could handle, thus jamming the keys. So QWERTY was created to keep that from happening: to keep the machine happy at the cost of typist efficiency.
Here's a fun bit of trivia for you folks now interested in Malling-Hansen's elegant writing ball: one particular person was interested in this new, wondrous invention – a celebrated writer who was having a hard time with his diminishing eyesight. While Nietzsche did get and use his writing ball he sadly didn't love it – though it is fascinating to visualize the author of Thus Spoke Zarathustra clicking and clacking on the mechanical beauty of one of Hansen's creations.
Eventually, though, other – and cheaper – machines were developed, saving generations of writers, secretaries, business people, and anyone else who used to have to put pen to paper, from cramp and bad handwriting. Though Hansen and his elegant ball have been almost lost to time it's nice to be able to show a new, QWERTY-slaved generation, the beauty of his creation.
Monday, October 11, 2010
Just to get the obvious out of the way, the current world record for solving one of Rubik's cubes is a fraction over 7 seconds (yes, you may gasp) which is held by Erik Akkersdijk. But there are also mind-boggling records for, of all things, blindfolded puzzle solving (Haiyan Zhuang: 30.94 seconds), solving with feet (Anssi Vanhala: 36.72 seconds), and even one-handed solutions (Piotr Alexandrowicz: 11.19 seconds).
The smallest, yet playable, cube is a 3x3 one – meaning it has only 9 faces on a side – measuring a painfully miniscule 12 millimeters.
On the other ends of the scale, the largest playable cube was built by Daniel Urlings, and is big enough to contain 64 regular cubes. Daniel is a bit of a legend among cube fanciers as he also has created fully functional cubes out of cardboard and even matchsticks.
Still talking about records, the most expensive cube created is called the Masterpiece Cube, assembled by Diamond Cutters International back in 1995. Made of gold, amethyst, rubies, and emeralds this completely playable puzzle has been priced at around 1.5 million bucks – probably more if you can actually solve the thing.
And here, in a very charitable gesture, is a version of the puzzle designed for the sight-impaired: a Braille Cube. Because, after all, why should the sighted have all the 'fun' of being driven nearly mad by a Rubik's Cube?
But there's another puzzling quality to Professor Rubik's creation: that his mind-bending creation is also a source of astounding inspiration for artists, engineers and even chefs.
Yes, you read that last one right. Skeptical? Well, take a look at this Rubik-inspired culinary creation: a cubic sandwich! Please refrain from jokes about 'square meals' until the end of the article.
But cubes aren’t just the subject of art but can be just as a medium to create wonderfully pixilated masterpieces. This cute little dragon, for instance, was created by some anonymous Parisian artist out of cubes and stuck some ten feet off the ground.
And here are some more examples of using the already-digital boldness of the legendary cube to create some marvelous, almost 8-bit, creations.
But getting back to the biggest, but still talking about using the puzzle as the medium in incredible artistic creation, we come to the works of the aptly-named Cube Works Studio, who haven't just created cube-portraits of Marilyn, Warhol's famous tomato soup can, David Bowie, and Van Gogh's Starry Night, Chairman Mao, da Vinci's Last Supper, and many others but with their recreation of Michelangelo's Creation of Man they are now the Guinness Record holders for the largest artwork ever created using Rubik's Cubes.
What's not puzzling about their creation is its brilliance, though if to create it -- and all of their artwork – means that they had to configure each cube to make the right colors and patterns you have to wonder how long it takes them to solve a regular cube ... no doubt far faster, and more artistically, than any of us could.
Saturday, October 09, 2010
Tuesday, September 28, 2010
Saturday, September 25, 2010
You have to admit, it does make a kind of twisted sense: After all, we've been feasting on their fibrous, nutrition-packed stems, leaves, tubers, and fruits since we began to actually eat the salad that came with our steaks so, naturally, there must have been a certain ... well, 'desire' for reciprocity. In other words if we eat them why shouldn't they want to eat us?
For all you geeks out there – and, yes, we know who you are – it's commonly thought that the first depiction of a salad making a meal out of a man comes from Dr. Carl Liche, writing in 1881. J.W. Buel echoed the idea in his Land and Sea in 1887. Unluckily for Liche and Buel they've been since exposed as 'imaginative' instead of 'accurate.' Hate to disappoint but true man-eating plants are a total myth.
But that doesn't mean that the next time you sit down to feast on a supposedly defenseless potato there aren't other forms of plant life that are also having a tasty meal of, while not us humans, then most definitely other animals – and sometimes rather large animals.
The poster-plant for botanical carnivores has got to be the legendary Venus Flytrap. A resident of swamps and bogs, the flytrap has evolved a dramatic solution to its lack-of-nutrient diet: it catches flies – and pretty much anything big enough to get caught. What's amazing about this plant is its mechanism. Anything that happens to stumble between the two halves of its unique mechanism will find itself in caught in a quickly-snapping-shut botanical bear trap. What's even worse is that after being caught the Venus then fuses those leaves together, turning them into a kind of stomach to digest its prey. What's extra-fascinating is that the trap has two triggers, and that both of them have to be tripped for the leaves to snap shut, to avoid misfires.
While the flytrap looks like something out of a monster movie it rarely grows to any really impressive size – unless you happen to be a housefly. But one carnivorous plant that really is impressive, and recently discovered, is what's called a passive hunter. Instead of using snapping traps its family instead has evolved fluid filled pitfalls lined with very slippery sides, and baited with a very alluring perfume.
Pitcher plants come in a wide variety of shapes, types, and sizes – including a special one native to the Philippines. Most pitchers feast on bugs and sometimes small lizards: pretty much whatever's unfortunate enough to get seduced by the plant's alluring smells and is small enough to fit down its leafy throat. While its mechanism is similar to its smaller kin, nepenthes attenboroughii (named after journalist and TV presenter David Attenborough), has traps that are large enough to catch not only bugs, lizards, and – what's more than a bit scary – rats.
Another device carnivorous plants use is to make its prey stick around long enough to be digested. The sundew, for instance, has leaves covered with dozens of tiny stalks, and each stalk is covered with very, very, very sticky stuff. When a bug happens to walk across these leaves it gets – you guessed it – very, very, very stuck. What's more, though, is that the plant then contracts, bringing more and more of those stalks into contact with its prey, completely trapping and then digesting it.
While there are other plants that can, and do, eat whatever they can catch there is at least other plant that deserves at least a mention and one very special one that seems to be the best candidate for what could be a real maneater.
There are lots of things the very versatile bamboo is known for: building material, food, and everything betwixt and between. What's not as commonly known is that the bamboo is a botanical racehorse. Got a spare day to kill and want to see the fastest plant in the world grow two feet (in the right soil on the right day)? Then plop your behind down and stare at some bamboo. Okay, it might not be THAT thrilling but it is a plant that you can actually watch grow – which, no matter how you slice it, is pretty impressive.
But then there's the other, the monster, the beast, the chlorophyll creature that could – if any plant could be – considered a bona fide killer. Innocently imported to the US in 1876 from its native Japan, it was sold as a botanical miracle: ink, paper, jelly, tea, you name it and you could make it from this wonderful plant. But what no one could expect that this so-called marvel would have darker roots.
Kudzu is its name and right now it covers – in some cases quite literally – a huge part of the Southeastern United States. While bamboo is a racehorse at two foot a day, Kudzu is hardly a slacker at covering half that distance in the same amount of time. In the South there are homes, cars, houses and entire communities that have been hungrily, potentially, covered – and subsequently strangled – by this ferociously determined plant.
Sure, kudzu may not be carnivorous, but it's green infestation, it's emerald conquest, it's verdant domination is definitely worth a mention – and maybe a serious shudder of fear. Or, as they sometime say in the South: "A cow won't eat kudzu, but kudzu will definitely eat a cow."
Wednesday, September 08, 2010
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.
Thursday, August 12, 2010
Here's a fun fact for you: did you know that you, an unprotected human being, can last for about two whole minutes in a vacuum -- say on the surface of the moon? Here's another amusing bit of knowledge: did you also know that you, still just an unprotected homo sapiens, would last only the barest smidgen of a second before being totally, completely pulped by the crushing pressures at the bottom of the sea?
Still with the facts and, hopefully, still fun: there is more light on the dark side of the moon than there is down, down, down in those ocean depths.
But what's especially chilling is that these facts -- amusing or otherwise -- are some of the few of things we know for certain about the deep sea: it's commonly said we know more about the surface of the moon than we know about what happens right here on our own planet, in that murky world at the bottom of the sea.
One thing we do know, though, beyond that despite the crushing pressure (at least 16,000 pounds per square inch) and the absolute, total, complete darkness, there is life.
Even at the deepest part of the ocean, the Mariana Trench, and the deepest part of the Trench, the Challenger Deep, there are living things. Auguste Piccard, who made an adventurous trip in 1960 to the bottom of the Deep in his bathyscaphe, the Trieste, saw a few extreme creatures that managed to made that extreme environment their home.
While not as deep – but just as dark – as the Deep, scientists have found, and continue to find, an amazing, and sometimes nightmarish, world of creatures in the abyssal plains, which make up more than a staggering 50% of the earth's surface.
Light is so rare down there that its uniqueness is an allure, for mating, as well as a lure, for eating. Grammatostomias flagellibarba, a dragon fish to you and I, uses bioluminescence – biological light– mainly for the latter: any deep, deep, deep swimmers that notices, and becomes interested in, a certain tiny flickering light will end up becoming caught by the dragon fish's monstrously huge, and needle-sharp toothed, mouth. The light being a glowing lure at the end of a long, thin filament connected to the underside of the fish's jaw.
The sea angler uses a similar trick, though it's more globular instead of having the dragon fish's lean and nasty body. The angler's lure is the same in function, but different in location: its flashing trick is a kind of deadly finger between its eyes and it's similarly sharp-toothed mouth rather than being at the end of a thin strand like the dragon fish.
While neither of these fish – and there are far too many to name here – are monsters in size, there something called abyssal gigantism, the tendency for other forms of extremely deep-dwelling organisms to not only be odd, strange, bizarre and darned creepy but also oddly, strangely, bizarrely and – yes, you guessed it – creepily huge.
Do you have a small dog, a cat, or a larger-than-average tortoise? How would you like to have a pet the size of any of them but isn't just from a different species but from a whole different phylum?
Cute? Not really. Cuddly? Absolutely not. But the giant isopod would certainly be a conversation starter if you took it out for a walk: imagine a pill bug weighing over four pounds.
Other abyssal giants include the poster child for arachnophobia, the Japanese spider crab, which averages 12 feet from leg to creepy leg; and then there's the giant ... well, we'll get to him in a minute.
While not a heavyweight, one of the most oddly lovely creatures living in the dark depths is the very-correctly named vampire squid. Blood red, with soft hooks instead of a squid's regular suckers, it has the neat trick of flipping it's legs over its soft body turning itself into a spiny ball. The vamp has its own bioluminescent trick as well: glowing when it wants to be seen but turning its lights off when it wants to vanish into the darkness.
The so-called Piglet variety of squid is, for want of a better word, actually cute: looking for all the world like the strange mating of a cartoon character, a bunny rabbit, and a kitten, this deep water oddity is almost a complete mystery – though scientists, not reputable ones, have speculated that the piglet's defense mechanism is to make adversaries go "Awwwwww..." and leave them alone.
The granrojo is almost the vamp and the piglet's relation, despite the fact that it's a jellyfish and not a squid. While neither hooked or spiked -- or cute -- this deep-water creature is just as odd, with chubby arms and an almost plastic looking crimson bell.
Yet another contender for the oddly pretty prize is the so-called barreleye. This fish takes vision to a new level of spooky strange. Sure, it has eyes, but instead of having to deal with an oh-so-annoying skull that gets in the way of what it's trying to see, the barreleye's head is transparent: to look up it just moves its eyes to focus through its clear – and a bit disturbing – cranium.
We could go on, and there are certainly more than enough odd and strange and weird and beautiful and disturbing creatures out there, but it has to be mentioned that while we know about some, there are still possibly thousands of even odder, stranger, weirder, more beautiful and disturbing creatures in the deep seas.
Remember the promise about getting back to one particular example of abyssal gigantism? Well, there is one creature that is a mix of the known and the unknown, almost a poster-child for the wonder, and horror, of the dark oceans. For a long time it was thought it was just a myth, a story shared by sailors who'd been out at sea too long. But then there was evidence: the disturbing marks on the sides of Sperm Whales, the kings of the sea -- evidence of nightmarish battles between one and the other miles below the surface.
These giants are out there, possibly the largest species currently on the planet: eyes the size of dinner plates, 30 foot tentacles dotted with razor-toothed suckers, and a massively strong beak. Architeuthis, the giant squid to you and I, was recently filmed, for the first time, but there is still much – too much – we don't know about it.
So take a moment and look up at the full moon, wonder about the mysteries that may be up there, but then go to the shore, look out at the sea, and think that we may very well know more about a hunk of rock 250,000 miles away than we know about a world full of life just a few miles away, and many, lightless, miles straight down.
Tuesday, July 06, 2010
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 were too much of a perfect targets.
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.
Saturday, June 19, 2010
Roll up, roll up, roll up! You, sir, say that you dream of fame, and all the rewards it offers, but lack any talent whatsoever? And you, over there, wish beyond anything in this world to be the recipient of innumerable offers of marriage? And you, kind sir, desire to earn a considerable fortune but without all the trauma of actual work? Well, ladies and gentlemen, I can make all these dreams and far more a reality. How, you ask? How can I impart to you kind and far-too-simple souls the possible ability to become known the world over, perhaps have innumerable ladies of fine, and maybe not-so-fine, breeding ask for your hand in matrimony, as well as maybe receive substantial financial rewards?
The answer, you see, is in this box. But before I reveal its contents, and the answer to all your desires, I must first tell you all a story – the story of one Harry Bensley.
Harry was, to put it mildly, a bit of a rogue, a rascal, a rake, a rapscallion. Born around 1877, Harry soon proved to as wily with his businesses and investments as he'd was with the ladies, the bottle, and the cards – creating for himself an self-indulgently lavish and totally outlandish lifestyle.
But, alas – or so some stories go – Harry's luck deserted him one day and he lost it all on a foolish wager. Facing absolute ruin, Harry had few options – until, that is, the intervention of John Pierpont Morgan and Hugh Cecil Lowther (the 5th Earl of Lonsdale).
What Morgan and Lowther did was offer poor Harry an opportunity to regain his fortune. All Harry had to do was accept another, very possibly, foolish wager.
THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK
Outrageous? Definitely! Bizarre? Assuredly! Insane? Absolutely! But what choice did Harry have?
Harry, you see, had to take a stroll. But not one simply down to the local for a point, or even a few dozen, or even hundred, miles. No, according to the terms of Morgan and Lowther's wager, Harry had to walk not just across England, or even down and through Europe, or into the Middle East and then China. No, ladies and gentlemen, Harry had to walk all the way around the entire Earth.
Yes, you may gasp. Assuredly, you want shake your heads in disbelief, but those were the terms of the bet. But that's not all. For not only did Harry have to walk all the way around this lovely world but he also had a few other, well, 'unusual' terms to obey if he was to regain what he'd lost.
First of all, Harry had to follow a very specific path through no less than 169 separate British cities, getting in each one a signature proving his visit. After this would follow travels to 18 other countries, again in a strict order.
Second, Harry would begin his incredible journey with no more than one British pound in his pocket. Any money made on the trip could only be made by selling novelty picture postcards explaining the bet.
Third, his only change of clothing would be a spare set of undergarments.
Fourth, he pound push a baby carriage the entire way.
Fifth, Harry would have a companion who would make sure that Harry obeyed every term and requirement of the wager. No cheating, Harry!
Sixth, Harry would have to – somehow, somewhere – find himself a wife.
As said, this was outrageous, bizarre, insane, but Harry agreed to every requirement and term of the bet. He would push his stroller, he would have only a change of underwear, he would have no money except for what he made selling his postcards, and he would find himself a wife.
But there was one other term, ladies and gentlemen, one other requirement that Harry had to meet to win back his fortune. And that thing, the final condition, has to do with this box, right here at my feet.
You see Harry had to complete his round-the-world walk without a single, solitary person recognizing him. Yes, my rapt audience, Harry had to travel through Britain, across Europe, into Asia and beyond without even once being recognized – even by the woman he would somehow manage to agree to marry him.
And how was Harry supposed to accomplish this? And did Harry win his bet? Ah, but first things first – and now I shall open the box.
HOW TO WIN FAME, FORTUNE, AND MARRIAGE PROPOSALS
Amazing, isn't it? A real antique, too. It's hard to believe that anyone ever wore anything like this – or that Harry Bensley agreed to wear it on planned trip around the world.
The helmet is from a suit of armor and weighs almost five pounds and, yes, Harry had to wear it constantly.
On January 1, 1908, Harry began his journey: wearing his helmet, pushing his pram, followed by his monitor, he began his walk around the world.
Did Harry succeed in his outrageous, bizarre, insane voyage? Did he win back his fortune or did some cruel accident void the terms of the wager? Well, for a while things got sticky. As he traveled, the tale of the Man In The Iron mask grew and people began to flock to see him – as well as try and guess his identity. Even a newspaper of the time, in a moment of cruelty, offered a reward of one thousand pounds to anyone who could guess his identity.
Eventually Harry arrived in Italy, having walked over 30,000 miles in six years without ever voiding the terms of the wager. Alas, the fate – and the failure of diplomacy – intervened in 1914.
The details of what occurred next are hazy, at best. Some claim that Harry called off the wager to serve his country in World War 1, while others say that Morgan called it off and gave Harry a small sum, and there are even a few who argue that other, unknown, causes interfered. In any event, Harry fought for his country and, again the cruelties of fate, was seriously wounded – but Harry's poor luck continued when he lost whatever else he had and ended up having to take a series of low-end positions until his death in 1956.
You say you desire fame but lack talent? You say you lust after fortune but do not want to soil your hands with work? You say you crave the attention of women?
Well, maybe you will have better luck than poor Harry when you put on this ancient helmet and try to stroll around the world without once being identified. But before you disparage Harry Bensley you should know that even though Harry never won back his fortune, and his story is not as famous as some people's, Harry did manage to receive 200 or so marriage proposals from women who'd never seen his face.
But Harry, the once-rake, the once-rapscallion, never once accepted their offers. So maybe Harry did win a bit of something with his amazing bet after all: a special form of nobility befitting the knight's helmet he wore for over six years.
Thursday, June 03, 2010
Crumbling plaster, broken and splintered lath, cracked cement, fractured concrete, gap-toothed brick walls, rusting iron, daggers of shattered glass … no argument about it: there's something hypnotically alluring, darkly fascinating, about a truly great ruin.
What's now decay and rot once was bright and brilliantly full of hope: Who lived here? What were their lives like? What happened? How did it all come apart? How did it all crumble to almost nothing?
In the case of Hashima Island, or Battleship Island as it's often called, hope and optimism became dust and decay because one black resource was replaced by a cheaper black resource. Populated first in 1887, the island – which is 15 kilometers from Nagasaki – only began to really, and phenomenally, become populated much later, in 1959.
Hashima is, for many ruin fans, the rotting and collapsing grail, the benchmark all other crumbling structures are measured against – and seeing pictures of the place it's easy to see why. Not only is Hashima frighteningly preserved in some places, as if the residents had just stepped out as few minutes before, but it is also, contrarily, spectacularly falling down. Beyond its current awe-inspiring state of decay, the island's dramatic isolation and its bizarre history make it the ruin of ruins.
Before that day when coal, the old black resource, was replaced by oil, another black resource, Hashima was the most densely populated area – ever. On that tiny island, crammed into what are now decaying tenements, were thousands of miners, their families (including children), support staff, administration, and everything necessary to make their lives at least tolerable. It's hard to imagine when looking at the empty doorways, ghostly apartments, and hauntingly vacant corridors what the lives of those people might have been like.
Unlike the post-apocalyptic drama of Hashima, we can very easily imagine what the lives of the residents of the famous Walled City of Kowloon were like – in fact we can ask them, as their city was torn down in 1993. The reason why the Walled City gets so frequently mentioned as a ruin is, while it was there, it was as if the people who lived in it were living their lives in the guts of some great, monstrous, maze.
To say that the city had a long history is an understatement, as its roots go back to the Song Dynasty (960 AD, if you need to know the date). The city was a curiosity for a very long time – a strange bit of legal knotting making it Chinese and not British -- but the labyrinth didn't start to grow appreciably until after the second world war when it became a haven for … well, people without a state: refugees, squatters, thieves, drug-dealers, and much more (and much worse). Neither Great Britain nor China refused to have anything to do with the immense warren of walkways, apartments, workshops, factories, brothels, gambling dens, and opium dens.
The Triad, who represented most of the criminal element, were pretty much forced out in the 70s – by a police attack some 30,000 strong, no less -- but the city remained as a kind of anarchist warren, a world-unto-itself where the residents built and maintained pretty much everything. Looking at pictures of the city today, it looks like some kind of ramshackle prison, a cyberpunk nightmare of florescent lights, spectrally flickering televisions, and mazes of perpetually damp hallways and trash-strewn alleyways. Yet, for many people living there, it was simply home.
Alas, the end of the living ruin that was the Walled City came to an end in the 90s when the residents were evacuated and their fantastic city-within-a-city was torn down. Interestingly, the Walled City has a strong connection to Hashima as, at its height, the Walled City had a population density almost rivaling that Japanese island. Before the bulldozers came, it had a staggering population of 50,000 people, all living in an area the size of a few city blocks.
But if you're talking ruins you have to talk about the ruin FROM THE FUTURE .. or at least a ruin that looks like it came from there.
If you travel to Taiwan, up north to be specific, you will find yourself in a what looks like the fantastic set from some kind of big-budget science fiction epic: the resort of San Zhi. Built in the 1980s, the resort was supposed to be, planned to be, a vacation spot from the next century .. BUT TODAY!
Unfortunately, the dreams of the developers stayed just that and, beyond a few remarkably-well-preserved, sections, San Zhi never materialized. But what they did build, and that's still there in all it's ruinous glory, is amazing: crumbling residential pods on a bleak and blasted landscape, a mini-sprawl of the future falling apart BUT TODAY!
Decaying, rotting, crumbling, collapsing – ruins are the remains of what was, of the lives of the people who lived in them. In the case of Hashima Island, what remains teases us with thoughts of what it must have been like to live in the most densely populated area in the world, ever; with the Walled City of Kowloon, we instead dream of what it must have been like to a resident of a labyrinthine living, breathing ruin; and then there is the painful folly of San Zhi – a ruin not from the past but strangely, wonderfully, from a tomorrow that might have been.
Saturday, May 08, 2010
We always seem to short-change the past. The pyramids? Must have been aliens: those Egyptians couldn't have been smart enough to build them. The Eiffel Tower? Sure it's impressive but it probably should have fallen down decades ago: after all, Gustave Eiffel didn't have computers and modern witchy mixtures of alloys and composites.
Bur our smug superiority is misplaced, our 21st century dismissal of everything created before the integrated circuit and plastic insultingly arrogant. The fact of the matter is that the past was more than grand, more than amazing, more than impressive.
Take, for example, Coney Island, or, as it was called, The City of Fire, around the turn of the previous century.
Originally just a tiny, sandy dot of land full of itchy scrub and wild rabbits -- or "Conies" which is where the place got its name -- the island became first a waypoint and then a tawdry vacation spot for the weary citizens of the Big Apple. But soon Coney began to change, to become a phantasmagorical place: a world of wonders, dreams, and -- tragically as well as mystically -- a City of Fire.
Take, for instance, Coney Island's elephant. Created in 1885 by James V. Lafferty -- who also created Atlantic City's famous pachyderm, which still stands today -- it was one of Coney's first amazements. The elephant wasn't just a statue, some cheap tourist novelty. It was an actual, functional, five-storey hotel and, to give you an idea of what kind of world early Coney Island was, a brothel.
But the elephant, while grand at the time and would have remained grand today like her sister in Atlantic City, was only a tusked taste of what was to come. In 1897, George C. Tilyou created one of the island's lost yet enduring parks: Steeplechase Park.
It's hard to imagine what it must have been like to be a visitor to Steeplechase in those early days. No one had ever seen anything like it: wild and raucous, rude and amazing, Steeplechase was a playground of laughter and thrills. The main attraction were the mechanical ponies. Racing at almost dangerous speeds on a up-and-down and round-and-round iron track, the horses were thrilling, terrifying and, as someone perfectly put it: Gave the boys a chance to hug girls, and girls a chance to be hugged by boys.
But the fun at Steeplechase didn't end with the ponies. Exiting riders, under the frighteningly cheery face of Tillie, the park's mascot, were assaulted by a clown and a dwarf. The clown would hit the boys with a cattle prod and try to blow the women's skirts up over their heads with a blast of compressed air. The giggling and shrieking boys and girls would then be allowed to sit on bleachers to watch other fun-seekers go through the same treatment.
In what would be a common theme for the island, Steeplechase burned in 1907 but was rebuilt on a scale that's hard to comprehend for us 21st century folks. In addition to the restored mechanical horses, Tilyou also added an immense steel and glass "Pavilion of Fun" with dozens of other rude rides including the Human Roulette Wheel, the Barrel of Love, the Cave of Winds, and many contraptions guaranteed to make men and women alike shriek and wail with laughter.
Steeplechase was amazing, to be sure. But it was mostly a broad and guttural place, acres and acres of architectural joy buzzers and whoopee cushions.
Then there was Luna Park, and with it Coney Island became a land of dreams. Built by Frederic Thompson and Elmer "Skip" Dundy, Luna was a hallucination, a disorienting vision of twisting minarets, undulating arches, and – at night – the brilliant spectacle of hundreds of thousands of then-novel electric lights. At Luna Park visitors were treated to rides – such as the famous soaking Shoot-the-Chutes, and the legendary animals, including the park's own herd of elephants – but, more importantly, they could walk the sprawling promenades of Luna Park and feel like they'd been whisked away from their ordinary lives in 1903 to a world of rapturous imagination: a world of fantasy made real. Albeit in lath and plaster.
The spectacle of Luna Park's, well, 'spectacles' is staggering, even today: mock navel battles, including an attack on Manhattan by the combined navies of Germany, France Spain and even Great Britain, only to be beaten back by Admiral Dewey's fleet; a trip to the moon that included mischievous 'moon men'; a trip to the north pole by submarine; and too many more for this small space.
Luna also featured the world of the time, which for most people touring the park might as well have been the north pole or the moon: entire villages, such as Samoan's, were uprooted and placed in the park for the education – and amusement – of the visitors.
Luna Park is a legend, and with it, unprecedented spectacle came to Coney Island. But then came Dreamland.
Built in 1904 by the very crooked William H. Reynolds, Dreamland was to be the crowning glory of the island, a factor-of-ten grander park than either Steeplechase and Luna.
It's hard to picture imagine the scale and majesty that Reynolds made with Dreamland, the outrageousness as well as the beauty that he created on the island. While Luna had a reported quarter of a million electric lights, Dreamland claimed to have more than one million: all of these lights giving the island its nickname of The City Of Fire.
Dreamland was an entire dazzling world, a complete universe of dazzling spectacle. Every hour on the hour 2,000 firemen would put on a performance of extinguishing a roaring blaze in a six-storey building. An entire town was built – half scale of course – for the park's resident 350 midgets. A 375-foot-high central tower lit up so bright it was often seen from Manhattan. There were also performances of the Biblical view of creation as well as a tour of Hell. And let's not forget the incubator babies.
Yep, that's right: one of the most famous exhibitions of Dreamland were the baby incubators, compliments of the brilliant Dr. Martin Arthur Couney. Unable to get hospitals to take his inventions seriously, Dr. Couney worked with Reynolds and – through some showmanship – finally got the world to take notice of his technique to save the lives of premature babies.
Unfortunately, as with that original elephant, Steeplechase, and many other Coney Island amazements, the City of Fire lived up to its name and Dreamland burned to the ground in a hellish blaze that, too ironically, began in the Hell Gate exhibition in 1911. Fortunately there were only a few tragedies, including a lion that had escaped from the fire and had to be shot by police. Unfortunately, the park never recovered and Dreamland became only a memory, the ghost of a dream for those lucky enough to have seen it before it became soggy ashes.
Even more sadly, Luna and Steeplechase's appeal and popularity slipped away in the decades afterward until they collapsed into tawdry ruins, their majesty becoming tainted by the desperation and failures of their autumn years.
These days we have our Disneylands and dozens of other parks around the world and feel like we've managed something amazing – but then you look at the pictures of Coney Island in its heyday and realize that what we consider amazing now is actually small and cheap and easy. For truly wondrous playlands and amazing spectacles, you have to go back at least a hundred years, to Coney Island, to that legendary City of Fire.
Saturday, April 17, 2010
ONE ISLAND, OFF THE COAST OF SCOTLAND
ONLY ONE PREVIOUS OWNER (HER MAJESTY'S GOVERNMENT)
It's a nice enough place, this barren dome of rock between Gairloch and Ullapool. Conveniently close to the mainland, like most of Scotland it's not without a certain bleak charm. Just the place for a Heathcliff to do some Wuthering Heights or some Shakespearian witches to stir up a bubbling pot of trouble.
But if you'd landed on its shores just 17 years ago, you would have probably had a very different opinion, one formulated just before you began to suffer something kind of like a cold (high fever, aches, trouble breathing, etc.) and then ... well, how to put it?
For most of the world post-9/11, the word has an immediate stomach punch of frightening recognition. But well before some of it was sent out in envelopes piggybacking the terror of Al-Qaeda, anthrax has been tossed around as a weapon of last resort. There's only one problem when you toss anything around: you just might drop it.
Gruinard Island wasn't an accident, but it could be argued that the testing that took place there in 1942 exceeded the British Government's wildest expectations to a frightening degree. The special breed of anthrax, Vollum 14578l, that was released there via special bombs killed the flock of test sheep within only a few days but had the side effect of leaving that Scottish hunk of rock completely uninhabitable for close to fifty years. In 1990 the island was decontaminated and today it's considered safe for man and beast, though I doubt Gruinard will become a common tourist spot.
Once again, Gruinard can't really be considered an "ooops" if the island was intentionally turned into a terrifyingly lethal spot, though that doesn't really make it any easier to think about.
But then there's the town of Sverdlovsk, as it was called back in the days of the USSR (it's now called Ekaterinburg). Lovely little spot, I'm sure, full of all kinds of restfully quiet quaintness and charm, or maybe just the heavy grayness of a typical Soviet town. On a bad day back in 1979, though, Sverdlovsk got even quieter. It was close to a biowarfare lab; one that had an accident.
What happened to Sverdlovsk wasn't known until 1992 when the KGB finally released its death grip on the info. What came to light was this: because of Soviet slippery fingers, some people died from anthrax exposure.
Sixty-eight of them to be precise.
Another scary Russian spot is Vozrozhdeniya Island in the Aral Sea. Ironically meaning "Rebirth," Vozrozhdeniya was used for extensive biowarfare testing. That is until the Soviet Union fell and researchers stationed there decided to walk off the job in 1991, leaving behind anthrax and bubonic plague containers. Bad enough, but what's chilling is that the containers weren't treated with the respect they deserved and many began to [shudder] leak. Vozrozhdeniya was cleaned up in 2002 but between 1991 and 2000, the island was simply
posted as a no-go zone. Vozrozhdeniya and Sverdlovsk are scary enough, without getting into the fact that anthrax and bubonic plague can survive for decades even i some very harsh environments, but consider this: we know about Sverdlovsk and Vozrozhdeniya. What about other places we don't know about?
The Japanese against the Chinese in World War II, Iraq versus Iran, Irag against the Kurds, the Holocaust, Germany against the allies in World War I, the Aum Shinrikyo cult against Japan, Russian troops against Chechen terrorists: all kinds of countries and groups have used chemical weapons in battle, or as an attempt at genocide, and what hasn't been used has been developed and stored as forms of chemical and biological Mutual Assured Destruction. In addition to the Russians and the British, we've also conducted more than our fair share of experiments with nasty bugs and chemicals. And although the U.S. hasn't had any accidents -- that we know of -- we've not been particularly careful with these nasties, either.
While anthrax is frightening because of its longevity and biological spread, for really scary stuff, dig into such delights as Novichok, the v-series, the g-series, and VX. Death in the animal kingdom is one thing, but if you really want to kill, leave it up to our own inventiveness: choking, nausea, salivating, urinating, defecating, gastrointestinal pain, vomiting, then comes the twitching and finally coma. Nerve gas exposure is not a fun way to go.
If reading about Vozrozhdeniya and Sverdlovsk leaves a bad taste in the mouth about the way Russia's handled its biological weapons, how about the way the U.S. has handled what could be potentially worse: until 1972 the military basically had carte blanche to dispose of nerve gas agents by dumping them into the ocean. Let's let that sink in for a moment. Nerve gas -- 32,000 tons of it. In the ocean. Not just any ocean, mind you, but in 26 dump sites off the coast of 11 states.
Bad? Hell yes, but it gets worse. "How can it get worse?" you ask. Well, how about this: we know where about about half those sites are.
But the rest, because of poor record keeping, are a mystery. Those drums are out there, right now, rusting and no doubt leaking, spilling nasty death into the sea, doing who knows what to crabs and lobsters, fish and ocean flora, and thanks to the food chain, probably even us.
Thursday, April 15, 2010
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 an 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 bus 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 it’s 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.
Tuesday, March 23, 2010
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.
Saturday, February 27, 2010
For as long as humans have had the concept of 'tomorrow,' they've dreamed about what a better world might be, and fantasized about living in a utopia.
Sure, those early fantasies were probably pretty crude: bigger bison, fewer big critters waiting in the shadows to eat you, plenty of fire ... that kind of thing. But as humans got more sophisticated so did their fantasies of what tomorrow -- and the day after that and the day after that -- might be.
Some dreamers have tried to be realistic, to ground their fantasies in the brick and mortar of today, to go all out and be outrageous but always with a realistic foundation. But then there are those whose architectural visions of the World Of Tomorrow has been more ... well, visionary.
If not totally hallucinatory.
Frank Lloyd Wright was -- without hyperbole -- brilliant. Looking at his designs, it's easy to view them as simple in their loveliness: elegant mixtures of natural and artificial, Asian and Western, minimal and dramatic. But it's easy to forget that Wright completely rewrote architecture when the cars parked in front of his houses like Falling Water, his Taliesin studios, and the long lost Imperial Hotel in Tokyo were Model T Fords. It's one thing to dream about the future when you're in a world -- like today -- that's always looking forward, always thinking of grandly dramatic tomorrows, but quite another when you're in a time when men are wearing spats, and women hoop skirts -- and the future was relegated to cheap pulps, at best.
And Wright certainly had his eyes to the future. One of his most visionary designs was of a decentralized city, called Broadacre. Although not as striking as some of his other designs, it was radical for its time. But even more radical was what was to be Wright's masterpiece, a single soaring accomplishment: The Illinois.
Soaring is right, as the Illinois was to be a skyscraper -- a rare thing for Wright. But not just any twenty or thirty or forty floor pinnacle of his skill. Nope, The Illinois was to be a Chicago landmark to end all landmarks: a mile-high skyscraper.
Alas, Wright never came close to seeing his creation as anything but sketches and blueprints.
Another architectural visionary with very long-distance sight was Buckminster Fuller. Bucky created what some consider overly practical geodesic and polished steel future with a staggering array of designs and inventions -- many of which had gone beyond the blueprint stage and could be seen, touched, or even driven. Like Wright's, his designs were often even more incredible in light of when they were created. His Dymaxion House, for example, was created in 1929, and his amazing Dymaxion car actually drove the streets of New York in 1933. Fuller's designs were, to put it mildly, rigorously practical: his Dymaxion Houses were to be created on an assembly line with inflexible specifications, not in their manufacture but for those who were to live in them. The houses might have been absolutely brilliant in their design -- integrating many inspired features such as their ability to recycle water -- and his car literally could have driven rings around the cars of 1944, but in Fuller's future visions humanity would have been less flesh and blood and more like uniform parts in his many intricate mechanisms.
Other architects and visionaries have taken a much more natural approach to their far-forward speculations and designs. Luc Schuiten, for instance, looked at tomorrow and saw not steel and chrome, metal and heavy industry but instead a world of living green. His designs are for cities grown and tended like orchards. Living in Luc's world would be like existing in a city of skyscraper trees, hedgerow houses, forest stores, and prairie parks -- a magnificent dream for those who long for man to finally live with -- and not against -- nature ... though maybe a ring of hell if you have an hay fever.
Wright is art, Fuller is cold logic, Luc is nature, but if you want a vision of the future that's none of the above, in every way, you have to look at the work of Superstudio. Created in 1966 by Adolfo Natalini and Cristiano Toraldo, Superstudio's plans for the future are outrageous, disturbing, and -- most of all -- surreal. To be fair, Natalini and Toraldo never really thought about actually creating their visions of the future -- unlike Wright and Fuler and Luc -- and, considering some of their designs, that might be a very good thing.
Take, for example, their plan to make all the buildings in Pisa lean -- every building except for the town's famous tower; or their famous "Brain City" where the residents would be just that: brains in jars, with the concept of a perfect city fed into their cortexes via direct stimulation.
A contemporary of Superstudio, Archigram created designs that weren't quite as avant guard -- in fact they were almost realistic, at least in comparison. One of their most famous visions is for a city that perambulates across the countryside ... and before you leap to your dictionary, they meant for their cities of the future to be monstrous walking machines, strolling from one part of the world to the other. Another of their designs was for a "Plug In" city, where the metropolis would be a framework providing the necessities and the residents would simply connect where they wanted to be at any time. Although it might sound like a Fuller concept, Archigram at least tried to create something the residents might actually enjoy, giving their residents a choice of where and when to go and live.
Tomorrow might not be here yet, but thankfully there have been, and still are, some dreamers who have tried to look forward to how we might be living. All we can do is hope that some of their more outrageous visions become a reality, and that others never do.