Friday, January 29, 2010

The People's Monster

Here's the scene:

The late seventies was a difficult time for acclaimed South Korean filmmaker Shin Sang-ok. His marriage to actress Choi Eun-hee had ended in an unhappy divorce and his career was in a slump. The once prolific director was frustrated by censorship of his films at the hands of the South Korean government. Unwilling to yield to their demands, his studio was dissolved in 1978. It appeared that his tenure as South Korea's premier filmmaker had drawn to a close.

Later that year, Shin received word that his ex-wife had vanished while pursuing an acting job in Hong Kong. Concerned for her safety and thinking the worst, Shin departed to Hong Kong to investigate but could find no trace of her. Remarkably, the situation only worsened from there. Shin was attacked by two men while walking to a restaurant, and was knocked unconscious with chloroform. When he awoke, he found that he had been kidnapped and was en route to North Korea. He spent the following four years in a prison, enduring attempts at brainwashing while surviving on a diet of rice and salt, all while trying to determine why exactly he had been captured. He made several attempts to escape, but all failed.

In 1983, Shin was released and was astonished to be reunited with his wife, whom he learned had been kidnapped back in 1978. The two were escorted to a party and came face to face with Kim Jong-il, son of then-president Kim Il-Sung. Kim explained that he had made it his personal mission to revamp the stagnant North Korean film industry. A true movie buff (aparently listing the James Bond and Friday the 13th franchises as his favorite films) Kim wanted to produce movies that would demonstrate the true granduer of the Worker's Party of Korea. Shin had been kidnapped to bring some new talent and fresh ideas to the table. For the next three years, Shin made movies for the North Koreans, under the careful scrutiny of the future dictator.

The result? Meet Pulgasari, the Monster of the Month.

At the insistance of Kim Jong-il (who was fond of Japan's Godzilla series in spite of the usual anamosity between the two countries) Shin had the thankless task of creating a giant monster film that showcased both communist values and the North Korean ideal of the "spirit of self-reliance." The result was bizarre film that featured a scaly, metal-eating minotaur called Pulgasari. The enormous creature was employed against a cruel emporer by the farmers he oppressed.

Shin was somehow able to convince Kim to enlist in the aid of Japanese special-effects artists and actors who had previously been involved in Godzilla movies. Within the rubbery Pulgasari suit was Kenpachiro Satsuma, who had previously portrayed Godzilla in several of those films. Pulgasari was released to theaters in Korea and Japan in 1985. The following year, Shin Sang-ok and Choi Eun-hee escaped to Vienna and then to the United States, dashing any hopes that Kim Jong-il might have had for making a sequel.

Sadly, this unique movie received only spotty distribution on VHS and has never had a proper release on DVD. As for the film's creators, Shin Sang-Ok directed the 3 Ninjas series in the 1990's, sadly dying in 2004 before he could begin work on a biography of Genghis Khan. Kim Jong-il continues to dominate the people of North Korea through his brutal State Security Department and an insidious cult of personality. Word is that they've gotten the bomb too.

-Listen to this story from NPR's Day to Day

Monday, January 25, 2010

Sour grapes or evil eyes?

The enlightened 21st century is merely a group consensus. If modernity doesn't suit you, there is always an opt out clause. Superstition continues to thrive all over the world, and its adherants recently made the headlines in Romania.

On December 6th, 2009, Romania held run-off elections so the nation could choose between closely-matched presidential candidates Mircea Geoana (of the Social Democratic Party) and Traian Basescu (of the Democratic Liberal Party). Basescu narrowly defeated his rival, and Geoana was quick to cry foul, his party alleging that the election had been rigged. While no concrete evidence of fraud was ever discovered, Geoana continued to level accusations at Basescu. Even for an election that was fraught with mutual mud-slinging and charges of corruption, Geoana's comments became especially bizarre.

According to Geoana, he lost the election due to the sinister mechanizations of one Alidor Manolea, a parapsychologist who employed "negative energy waves" to disrupt a crucial debate with Basescu. In short: he was hexed.

Manolea works as a "bioenergy therapist" and aparently posesses numerous psychic abilities (as stated by the Romanian Association of Transpersonal Psychology). Manolea is an aquaintence of Basescu, and Geoana insists that Manolea disrupted his concentration through supernatural methods. Photographs and video footage confirm Manolea's unexplainable pressence at the debate, standing directly behind Basescu.

Spokesmen for Basescu were slow acknowledge the story or divulge any influence Manolea might have had on the campaign, but finally denied any underhanded witchcraft at work. Geoana has been criticized for his claims, with some members of the Social Democratic Party calling for his resignation as party leader. Despite the pressure, he remains steadfast in his assertions. Perhaps he would be wise to acquire a psychic ally of his own. This may be the beginning of metaphysical politics.

Would you like to know more?
-Read this article from the Bucharest Herald
-Read this post from Romania News Watch

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Space Junk

China has recently supplanted Japan as Asia's largest economy and it stands just beneath the United States in the ranks of the biggest economies in the world. Its emergence as an economic superpower is basically without precedent; the product of an industrial revolution and relentless national drive. However, it has come at a considerable cost. The damage to China's environment is every bit as extreme as its recent financial success.

Power plants and factories belch out sulfurous fumes, resulting in a poisonous haze that continually cloaks China's cities. 300,000 die annually due to pollution-induced lung cancer. The smog can only be cleared away by the rain (which is usually of the acidic variety) but it invariably returns. Rivers run thick with detergents, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers. Clean water has become an increasingly precious commodity, and 500 million Chinese citizens are left wanting. This number is comparable to 62.5 New York Cities.

In 2003, China became the third nation in Earth's history to send men and women into space. Since then, Chinese taikonauts have gone on several more missions and multiple satellites have been launched. This achievement was also executed at a severe expense. Those villages unlucky enough to lie beneath the rockets' flight-path have have been blanketed by carcinogenic fallout and boulder-sized pieces of debris. 2 million people are thought to have been contaminated over the course of 50 launches, and plummeting scrap metal has damaged homes and administrative buildings.

It is now common for space launches to be accompanied by mass-evacuations and subsequent clean-up operations. Most recently, farmers from the province of Guangxi were paid to search for debris in the mountains and forests, despite that this material is effectively toxic waste. Meanwhile, the Chinese government struggles to counteract their ever-worsening problems with pollution, but the damage is so extensive that it seems impossible to reverse.

Would you like to know more?
-Read this article from the Guardian
-Read this article from the New York Times

Welcome to Club Infinity

You'll never want to leave.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Moscow's Devolution Dogs

While you'd be hard pressed to find a major city without stray dogs, Moscow is somewhat famous for them. It seems that they've been around for as long as the city has existed, although they were first formally acknowledged in the late 1800's by famous Muscovite journalist Vladimir Gilyarovsky. During the days of the Soviet Union, the dogs were actively captured and killed by patrolmen. Some avoided death, but instead became participants in the Soviet space program. 57 strays were launched into outer space from 1951 to 1966.

After perestroika ushered in economic and political reforms in 1987, the dog-catching was ultimately done away with. This, combined with a new abundance of food that indirectly resulted from perestroika, resulted in a population explosion. Currently there is thought to be around 35,000 of them; 500 of which live within Moscow's metro subway stations (and around 20 of these dogs have learned to make use of the trains).

Biologist Andrei Poyarkov has been studying the stray dogs of Moscow since 1974, originally surveying the 100 dogs that dwelled within an area of 6.2 square miles near his home. Since that time, his investigation as broadened to cover the entire city. Over the years, Poyarkov has observed that these dogs are steadily losing the traits that were bred into them over the centuries by humans and are returning to a state similar to pre-domestication. While they retain special adaptations for surviving in their unique urban environment, they no longer interact with humans in the ways that we are accustomed to.

Poyarkov has documented four distinct classes of stray dogs, determined by their habitat. Those that live around buildings with security guards and groundsmen (such as hospitals and warehouses) are naturally the most comfortable with people. They often form a bond with the guards and respond to commands. Such behavior cannot be seen in the dogs that live within the heart of the city, which display indifference, but retain a keen insight of the human mind which they exploit regularly to get food. They target specific people for begging, knowing that old ladies are most likely to give them hand-outs.

The strays that form packs are even further removed from conventional dogs. They have minimal relations with people and rely upon scavenging for food, finding meals in Moscow's garbage bins. Finally, there are the dogs that live in the wooded areas and industrial parks that feed upon vermin and unlucky cats. These are truly feral and while they typically are not aggressive towards people, they avoid contact. They are nocturnal, taking advantage of the empty night-time streets.

While killing strays became illegal eight years ago, the city government has taken efforts to keep the population under control. Spaying and neutering pets isn't customary in Moscow, and the ranks of dogs are continually replenished thanks to hundreds of unwanted, abandoned pets. Modern dog-catchers bring the dogs to be sterilized and housed in animal shelters. There is a problem with insufficient adoption, and those dogs that are taken in as pets often don't take well to living in confined spaces.

However, by and large, the stray dogs aren't viewed as a pressing public dilemma. Moscow's attitude towards the dogs ranges from the ambivalent to the amicable. Meanwhile, foreigners regard the dogs with a mixture of confusion and amusement.

Would you like to know more?

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Blood is Life (with Peppers and Onions)

In Ernest Hemingway's book The Green Hills of Africa, he describes a meal shared with the Masai tribesmen of Tanzania. As an aside, Hemingway mentions hearing stories of the Masai subsisting on blood, taken from their still-living cattle and mixed with milk. While ritualistic consumption of animal (and human) blood has been common all over the world, this was an early account of blood drinking for purely dietary needs. If you can get past the taboo, its nutritional value is considerable.

In modern Chad, meat shortages in the city of N'Djamena have resulted in a return to traditional blood-based dishes. A new variation, referred to as "vampire," consists of fried blood combined with peppers, onions, and other ingredients. The inexpensive blood can be purchased from slaughterhouses by the bucket, making vampire a real hit amongst families trying to save money. It has also become popular in bars.

Despite an exhaustive search, our Hyper Kitchen interns were unable to find any recipes for vampire, but given Hollywood's current infatuation with blood-suckers, it may not be long before some variation arrives in the United States eateries. Some may squirm, but we say that you can't go wrong with frying.

Would you like to know more?
-Read this BBC article

Sunday, January 10, 2010

"The Long Arm of the Law" or "Fist of Fury"

During the superhero boom of the early 1940's, comic-book publishers had assembly lines of artists and writers to churn out endless variations on the superhero formula. As a result, the comics landscape became crowded with interchangeable do-gooders, but occasionally a weirdo was produced as the demand for new gimmicks grew. Few were more bizarre than this one.

The origin of the mysterious Hand is never revealed, but it is suggested that it belongs to a crime-fighter who somehow reached into the scene from afar. In its debut in Speed Comics #12 (1941), the Hand defeats two crooks who are trying to rob an oceanic casino. Not only can it produce notes written in blood from out of the void, but it also possesses "superhuman strength" that comes in useful in dealing with the criminals.

The Hand is currently in public domain, so we feel that it's only a matter of time before we see an avalanche of Hand-themed merchandise, a Saturday morning cartoon, and eventually a multi-million dollar cash-in on Hollywood's current fixation on superhero properties. We think that Johnny Depp's hand would do a splendid job at portraying the famous appendage, but we're open to other casting suggestions.

Would you like to know more?
-Download the Hand's first appearance here for free (requires CDisplayEx viewing program)

Sunday, January 03, 2010

The Shape of Things to Come

It's day three of this New Era, and already the public is consumed with anticipation as to what the future has in store for them. Rather than wait to find out, we cracked open our copy of The Book of Predictions, authored in 1981 by the creators of the People's Almanac. Within its pages, there are the predictions of futurists, Las Vegas psychics, and mathematicians. In its final chapter, the authors offer their own guesses about the form of the future. It's unclear how likely they considered these developments, but here's what they wrote for 2010:
    • A robot can now cross a busy highway without being hit
    • Football coaches still direct their teams from the bench, but their teams consist entirely of robots.
    • Because of rising inflation, the U.S. issues a new currency to soften the impact of high prices. Many realistic people turn to barter.
    • There is an open market for used and reconditioned body parts.
    • An artificial brain, as complex as the human brain, proves to have conscious thoughts and emotions.
    • Authoritarian governments in various nations are using mind and behavior control chemicals on their subjects to suppress dissent.
    • The Soviet Union attempts to to change its history by using tachyons.
    • The black pope of Rome transfers the Vatican to Jerusalem.
    • International terrorists, employing nuclear weapons, destroy a major world capitol. This leads to police repressions, which in turn leads to a worldwide disarmament conference. As a result all nuclear-weapon systems are scrapped.
    • One million people are living permanently in space colonies.


Obviously 2010 is going to be a very incredible year. It's a shame that a world capitol is going to be destroyed, and I'm not sure how I feel about the Soviet Union coming back, but at least we'll have robots that can play football.

Source: Wallace, Amy; Wallace, Irving; and Wallechinsky, David. (1981). "The Chronology of the Future." The People's Almanac Presents the Book of Predictions. 468: pp. 11-20. ISBN: 0-553-20198-0. Buy it here for a single penny and learn the secrets of tomorrow.