Monday, February 28, 2011

260 Miles to...the Thing.

This morning, the letters of my Alpha-Bits breakfast cereal re-arranged themselves to spell out "D O O M." While I'm hardly the superstitious type, it did remind me that February had departed and it was time for another exciting Monster of the Month installment.

Between El Paso, Texas and Dragoon, Arizona, there are hundreds of billboards alongside Route I-10; advertising 24 hour gas stations, restaurants, music clubs, and tourist destinations. Among these are more than two hundred billboards, painted a distinctive yellow, that alert drivers to a particular attraction off of Exit 322. The attraction in question rests at a local gas station.

They call it...the Thing.

Referred to by various signs as the "What-is-it" or "The Mystery of the Desert," the Thing can viewed at the cost of only a single dollar (75 cents for those under eighteen). After paying at the register, visitors are lead to three shacks made of corrugated steel, connected by a path marked out with bright yellow monster footprints. The first shack contains various tableaus depicting scenes of torture. Carved wooden figures menace caged prisoners with hooks, branding irons, and lashes. Shack number two contains an odd assortment of dust-covered antiques on display, along with some peculiar folk-art and a 1937 Rolls Royce said to have been owned by Adolf Hitler.

The third shack is dominated by the final "What is it?" sign. Beneath it is a white coffin-like box with a large glass lid. Therein lies...the Thing: a shriveled, freakish figure that may or may not have once been human. Pictures can be found on the Internet, but we decided it was best to preserve the mystery of the Thing and not completely reveal its appearance.

The history of the Thing has some gaps, but it is commonly accepted that it was created in 1950 by Homer Tate, a lifelong builder of sideshow exhibits like shrunken heads, Fiji Mermaids, and alligator men. At some point, the Thing came into possession of attorney Thomas Prince, who established the exhibit in 1965. Since then,legions of tourists have been compelled to see the Thing for themselves; beckoned by hundreds of billboards.

And within its glass sarcophagus, the Thing silently waits for them.

Would you like to know more?
-Visit this Homer Tate tribute
-Read this article from Roadside America

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Secret of the Space Tyrant!

Kalmykia is a small Buddhist republic in the greater Russian Federation. For 17 years, the nation was ruled by President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, a multi-millionaire who made his fortune in the privatization of the Russian auto industry after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Ilyumzhinov is also the head of the World Chess Federation and introduced compulsory chess-education in Kalmykian schools. His time as president was marked by ostentatious displays and charges of corruption. The people of Kalmykia remain the poorest in all of Russia, despite numerous expensive construction projects; most notably a still yet-to-be-completed "Chess City" which was intended to house and celebrate chess champions and facilitate competitions. In 1998, opposition journalist Larisa Yudina was found stabbed and bludgeoned to death after publishing articles critical of Ilyumzhinov. Her murderers were two former government aides to Ilyumzhinov, who promptly banned the publication of Yudina's newspaper. The organization Reporters without Borders currently rate Kalmykia as being "among the most repressive towards the media in the entire Russian Federation." If this wasn't enough, Ilyumzhinov also described having a friendly relationship with Libyan dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi and former Iraqi-dictator Saddam Hussien.

Despite these little controversies, Vladimir Putin, then president of Russia, seemed to think well of Ilyumzhinov. In 2002, after Putin abolished the direct election of regional leaders (with this power being relocated to the Russian presidency), he selected Ilyumshinov for another seven-year term. Ilyumzhinov's political future was assured, until 2010 when the Kalmykian president made a very serious gaffe on a televised interview.

Kirsan Ilyumzhinov announced that on September 17th, 1997, during a trip to Moscow, he was visited by aliens.

The abduction was a simple affair, really. As described by Ilyumzhinov, the aliens descended from the skies, took him from his apartment and brought him to "some star." Ilyumzhinov, fearing that he would be late for a meeting in Ukraine, asked the aliens if they could bring him back to Earth and they complied. During the voyage, Ilyumzhinov had the opportunity to talk at length with his newfound extraterrestrial friends and they implied that chess originated in outer space.

Shortly after the interview, Putin's successor President Dmitry Medvedev received a letter from an alarmed Russian MP Andre Lebedev, who asserted that Ilyumzhinov was unfit to rule Kalmykia. Rather than decrying Ilyumzhinov as delusional, Lebedev was primarily concerned that the Kalmykian president may have disclosed official secrets to the aliens and created a security risk for the Russian Federation. Lebedev went on to suggest that alien abduction protocol be drafted for government leaders to prevent breaches of sensitive information.

It was probably not a coincidence that after controlling Kalmykia since 1993, Ilyumzhinov announced that he would not run for another term. Medvedev's new appointed president of Kalmykia, Alexei Orlov, was installed into power on October 24th, 2010. Although he has lost his political power, Ilymzhinov continues to act as the president of the World Chess Federation. Chessplayers, it appears, are more familiar with insanity.

Would you like to know more?
-Read this article from the Guardian
-Read this article from the BBC
-Watch this interview with Illymzhinov

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The View from the Atom is Gorgeous This Time of Year

In 1958, Brussels was home to the first World's Fair Exposition to come after World War II. The event was super-saturated with post-war optimism and futurist ideas, and despite that more than fifty years has past since the Fair took place, those ideas can still be seen as embodied by the Atomium; a 335-foot tall structure inspired by the iron atom. Consisting of eight enormous steel spheres joined by sixteen tubes, the Atomium dominates the landscape like an alien spaceship. Each sphere is nearly sixty feet across and they house exhibit halls and (at one time) a restaurant. Sadly, due to safety concerns the three top-most spheres are off limits to the general public.

The building was intended to be demolished at the completion of the fair, but it proved to be such an iconic work of architecture that it was allowed to remain. Currently, it's the most popular destination in the city and a holdover to a unique period in history.

Would you like to know more?
-Visit the official Atomium site