Thursday, March 14, 2013

Taste Test

William Seabrook was a journalist, active during the years of 1919 to 1945, whose thirst for esoteric knowledge was only matched by his thirst for booze. He got his start in the news business as a reporter and later editor for the August Chronicle of Georgia. After World War One, he contributed articles to the New York Times, Vanity Fair, and Reader's Digest.

Perhaps it was the suffocating boredom of Reader's Digest that pushed Seabrook into a life of world travel. He was fascinated by occult practices and foreign mysticism, and sought out then-unusual locales to investigate. He wrote accounts of his time spent with the Bedouins and Kurds of Saudi Arabia, the habits of voodoo practitioners of Haiti, his adventures with daredevil pilots, and what must have been an extremely stressful weekend with self-proclaimed evil wizard Aleister Crowley. In adherence to journalistic standards, he claimed to never embellish his stories, but the books were very much like pulp novels in their subject matter.

In addition to these pursuits, Seabrook also dabbled in culinary criticism, submitting perhaps the definitive analysis of the taste and texture of....human flesh. For Seabrook, cannibalism was apparently just another exotic experience to write about. The man had books to sell, after all.

While visiting the tribes of West Africa, Seabrook met up with some cannibals and was disappointed when they were unable to fully articulate the process of cooking and eating people. Determined to find out for himself, Seabrook departed for France and somehow managed to get a large chunk of flesh from a hospital. He proceeded to get a stew going and the results were apparently delicious, with Seabrook comparing human to "fully developed veal."

The decision to become a cannibal may or not have been made under the influence of alcohol. Despite checking himself into a mental institution to deal with his addiction (which he wrote about in his book Asylum) Seabrook's alcoholism lead to the ruination of his marriage to novelist Marjorie Worthington, which in turn lead to his suicide in 1945. Aleister Crowley marked the occasion in his diary, referring to the Seabrook as a "swine-dog."

An indecent epitaph, even for a cannibal.

But don't take my word for it!
-You can read about it in a book!

Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Death of a Spaceman

Neil Armstrong died today from complications resulting from an operation to open up some blocked coronary arteries. He was 82 years old. Armstrong is arguably the best known member of the Apollo 11 team and was the first man to walk on the moon, on a mission that had only a 50% probability of success.

Armstrong was a determinedly private man who disliked the celebrity status that was thrust upon him after returning to Earth. He refused to sign autographs and declined interviews, with one notable exception being an interview he gave in May, 2012, to the chief executive of the Certified Practicing Accountants of Australia. Reportedly he broke his silence due to his fondness for the accountancy profession, as his father had been an auditor.

The full legacy of Armstrong's achievement can never be known, but it stands among the discovery of fire and the invention of the printing press as one of civilization's finest moments. His famous speech (often misinterpreted as " small step for man" rather than "for a man" due to a glitch in the original broadcast) has exemplified the potential for a single individual to change the course of history. The bold spirit of optimism and discovery that Armstrong and Apollo 11 came to represent is sorely missed.

One hopes we can bring it back.

Would you like to know more?
-Read his most recent interview
-Read this statement from NASA administrator Charles Bolden

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Latest Dance Craze is...Death!

The next time you get that spontaneous urge to tap your feet and bust out some moves...beware. It could be a sign that you're not well. In fact, it might mean that you're stricken by an illness that once swept through medieval Europe.

I speak, of course, of the Dancing Plague.

In July of 1518, in the city of Strasbourg, France, a woman stepped out of her home and walked through an alley. Her name was Frau Troffea, and she was patient zero. She began a frantic dance in the middle of the street and continued to dance into the night. Five days later, Troffea was delirious from exhaustion, but still dancing. Soon the crowds of onlookers were compelled to join in the dance, and they too were unable to stop. More and more people were absorbed into the vortex of stomping feet and flailing arms. By August, four hundred people were dancing in the streets of Strasbourg, and they were dropping like proverbial flies thanks to heart attacks, strokes, and dehydration. 

The authorities were bewildered, and issued an order for halls to be opened and musicians to play, in hopes that the dance would subside if properly facilitated. Their plan failed, and in the end the dancers were forcibly rounded up and deported to a shrine in hopes that the power of prayer could cure them. It took another month before the Plague started to clear up. Those who survived could offer no insight into what prompted their non-stop boogie.

Remarkably, this incident is only one of ten accounts of infectious dance-a-thons. It's the best documented, but there are records of other outbreaks going as far back as the 1300's. This was not some apocryphal medieval folktale, like the Flying Saint of Cupertino. This was the real deal. So, the question that immediately springs to mind is: why did these ordinary people start dancing themselves to death?

Scientists have found no conclusive origin for the Plague but various theories have been forth. One commonly held notion is that the people of Strasbourg had eaten wheat contaminated by Ergot mold, which produces spectacularly unpleasant hallucinations and convulsions. This idea has a major problem, however, as all accounts very clearly describe rhythmic dancing and not the violent spasms associated with Ergot. 

The other possible answer is mass hysteria. Medieval France was a rough place to live, and perhaps after a lifetime of storms, famines, and genuine diseases, these superstitious people just snapped. There are other noted examples of contagious, compulsive behavior, so perhaps the Dancing Plague was just one big freak-out.

As this mysterious ailment still has no known cure, I think that we ought to prepare for worse in case there's a modern outbreak. I suggest rigorous regulation of all extended club mixes of pop songs and a ban on stylish discotheques. No one wants a public health emergency, even if it means destroying dubstep.

Would you like to know more?

Monday, July 30, 2012

Cat's Eye

Born in 1860 with a cleft lip, Louis Wain did not receive an education until age ten, thanks to the dubious advice of a family doctor who felt it wouldn't be suitable for young Wain to be around other children. After finally enrolling in school, Wain usually cut classes and spent his time exploring London.

Given this background, it is surprising that Wain developed into a talented artist. As a young man he supported his family through freelance illustration work, focusing on pastoral scenes. However, the field of freelancers was crowded, and Wain struggled to find prominence.

In 1883, he married Emily Richardson, but their happiness turned to tragedy when she became ill with cancer three years later. They found some comfort in the companionship of their much-loved pet cat, and Wain was inspired to make some cat drawings.

While his earliest illustrations were entirely naturalistic, Wain transitioned to amusing cartoons of anthropomorphised cats in order to boost his wife's spirits. Before she died, Emily Wain made her husband promise to continue drawing cats. Despite his grief, he devoted himself to his work. Gradually, the cats became even more human and were shown playing soccer, planning parties, and other merry activities. Wain submitted these illustrations to various newspapers, and eventually a Christmas-themed piece was bought by the London Illustrated News. There followed a flurry of production, in which Wain's illustrations were featured in several newspapers, magazines, and countless greeting cards. Unfortunately, Wain was credulous and naive when it came to the sale his artwork, and as a result he frequently received inadequate compensation. Often he lost the rights altogether.

After a stint in New York City doing a cat-themed comic-strip for the loathsome William Randolph Heart, Wain found himself broke and unable to sustain the whimsy of his previous work. He returned to London, where he learned that his mother had died in the 1918 flu pandemic. Unable to cope with his grief, Wain began to fray at the seams and his mental health declined. Accordingly, his cats no longer beamed with humor, and instead radiated paranoia and dread. Wain's relationship with his sisters deteriorated as he became obsessive, reclusive, and unstable.

By 1924, Wain had become violent and was committed to a mental institution. He spent the following years oscillating between calm lucidity and angry incoherence. The commonly accepted theory is that Wain had developed schizophrenia, but in lieu of a proper diagnosis it is impossible to tell what had happened to the poor man. When word spread that the once-famous illustrator was languishing in a drab hospital room, there was outrage amongst his fans and admirers, including such influential figures as the legendary science-fiction writer H.G. Wells.

At the behest of Wells and others, Wain was transferred to a far more a comfortable mental hospital. While Wain never recovered from his illness, the change of environment had a pronounced effect on him and his mood swings ended. Instead, he lived in quiet dementia, tending to a garden and caring for several pet cats that the hospital allowed him to keep. He also returned to art and produced many new beautiful illustrations. The pieces that he produced at the end of his life were highly abstract, and dazzlingly elaborate, and yet the familiar face of a cat is instantly recognizable.

Wain died on July 4th, 1939. His work is highly collectible, especially amongst both cat fanciers and psychology enthusiasts.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Everyone Needs a Hero

Alongside the personal rocket-pack, the household robot is one of the most eagerly anticipated accessories of Tomorrow. From Robby to Rosy, no bright future is complete without loyal robots tending to the chores and home maintenance; indeed, it's usually presented as being the pinnacle achievement of these far-flung societies. 

Still, our imagination always exceeds our technology, and we have not yet found a way to program the stoic professionalism of a majordomo onto a silicon chip. However, that doesn't stop us from trying.

In the 1980's, an electronics firm known as the Heath Company had found success manufacturing "Heathkit" do-it-yourself computers. By 1982, the Heathkit brand had expanded to include robotics. Known as HERO (an acronym for the Heathkit Educational Robot), the earliest models resembled little photocopiers on wheels. They were equipped with numerous sensors, a single mechanical arm, and 4 kilobytes of memory stored on tape-cassette. Through the use of a keypad in its "head," the HERO could perform simple tasks and even carry drinks.

The HERO was later followed by the smaller, more streamlined HERO Jr. This incarnation was designed with greater mass-market appeal and took cues from R2-D2 and other cute lil' robots from fiction. While Junior had less memory than its forebear, it did come equipped with a speech synthesizer that produced a voice that could be adjusted to the tastes of its owner. It could remember and repeat its owner's name, and then entertain them with pre-programmed poems, songs, and nursery rhymes. It also could patrol the home as a "guard" and remotely activate security systems if it detected intruders. Additional program cartridges were available to further broaden Junior's abilities.

Unfortunately, sales of the HERO Jr. and its successor (the bombastic HERO 2000), were not enough to sustain the Heath Company. Changes in computer technology and marketing had made the manufacture of kits a non-viable source of revenue. The Heath Company eventually folded in 1992, and was tossed back and forth by various investor groups. The once prominent company was a forgotten figure in the world of computing, and among its achievements, only its role in the nascent world of household robotics endured. 

 Recently, a new development has emerged from the ashes. Calling itself Heathkit Educational Systems, this company has partnered with a Canadian corporation called White Box Robotics. Their first major project is the most advanced HERO to date; a HERO for the 21st century. Perhaps believing that their creation needed a more manly name, they named the thing the HE-RObot. This model comes equipped with Windows XP, a web cam, USB port, wireless networking, and speech recognition software allowing for a unique degree of interactivity with its owners and its environment.  Heathkit and White Box hope to have the HE-RObot available for purchase sometime in 2012, all for a mere $8000. 

Be the first one on your block. 

Would you like to know more?
-Take a look at the HERO line here
-Visit Heathkit Education Systems official site
-Visit White Box Robotics official site

No Evil Can Defeat Our Combined Force!

Monday, April 02, 2012

Fire and Brimstone or the Rocket's Red Glare?

1942 was a breakthrough year for Jack Whiteside Parsons, an ambitious, brilliant, and mustachioed chemist hailing from California. Parsons came from a dysfunctional family and had little success in school, and yet (perhaps inspired by his love of pulp science-fiction magazines) he and a group of friends went on to found the now-famous Jet Propulsion Laboratory and win a contract with the U.S military. Doggedly searching for a stable solid fuel for rockets, Parsons finally came across potassium perchlorate. His discovery would allow for the development of superior rocket technology and ultimately lead to man's exploration of space. Besides his passion for chemistry and engineering, Parsons had another major interest. That same year, he was inducted into the Ordo Templi Orientis (or the O.T.O.); a brotherhood of black magic founded by none other than the notorious occultist Aleister Crowley. It was Crowley himself who oversaw the initiation and placed Parsons as the head of the California branch.

So, all in all, it was definitely a memorable time.

Parsons was a follower of Thelema, an elaborate mish-mash of arcane practices that Crowley had cribbed from archaic sects from around the world. Parsons fiercely believed that these mystic rituals were components of the same forces he observed as a scientist, and as the leader of the Californian O.T.O. lodge he took his duties seriously (even collecting dues from the other would-be-wizards). His esoteric ideas irked his colleagues and threatened his military employers. In spite of the valuable discoveries he had made, he was bought out of his own company in 1944.

It was around this time that Parsons had accumulated a gang of eccentrics living in his large Pasadena house (known as the Parsonage). The ranks of this motley crew included Robert Cornog (a physicist who had worked on the Manhattan Project), cartographer Marjorie Cameron, and L. Ron Hubbard, a hack writer with sinister ambitions. The group endured thanks to a mutual interest in science, science-fiction, and libertarianism. Parsons became especially friendly with Hubbard, and, in 1946, included him in an astounding plan to bring about a new age for mankind.

Drawing inspiration from Aleister Crowley's writings (and from some favorite pulp sci-fi stories) Parsons became convinced that the world was under the malign influence of a force called "Horus" that would eventually lead to "power governments, war, homosexuality, infantilism, and schizophrenia." As is the pattern with these things, a messianic figure was called for, and Parsons decided to perform a magical ritual called "Babalon Working" that would create a divine "Moonchild." He was to be the father, and Marjorie Cameron was to be the mother. Hubbard was appointed the official stenographer and took notes while observing the ordeal.

It didn't work.

Parson's life deteriorated after that. He tried to start a boat rental enterprise with Hubbard, only to have Hubbard steal the boat, the start-up funds, and Parson's off-and-on-again girlfriend Sarah Northrup. The coast guard intervened, but Parson was ashamed by the experience. He sold the Parsonage and resigned from the O.T.O. Hubbard, meanwhile, happily went off to found Scientology and ruin thousands of lives.

Parsons died in 1952, after being caught in an explosion of highly unstable mercury fulminate in his private laboratory. He had been reduced to making explosives for Hollywood special effects companies and was in a rush to complete a contract. Despite his crucial contributions to the world of rocketry and space travel, Parsons is a fairly obscure figure today, known mainly to modern Thelema cultists and enthusiasts of the paranormal. He received a rare posthumous tribute when a moon crater was named in his honor.

Would you like to know more?
-Feeling ambitious? Read Parsons' own Book of Babalon

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Okay...let's get a close up on Santo...

The legend relaxes in between takes, perhaps contemplating his many years of fighting vampires.