Day 841: Hunting The Lost City Of Z

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There are days when I look at my life story and say, “Woah. This is not the stuff of exquisite drama. Where’s the page-turning twist, the perilous element of surprise?” Then I flip on the TV and get distracted by an old episode of Seinfeld and feel much better.

I suppose looking at the life of someone like Percy Fawcett shouldn’t instill a sense of regret or jealousy – after all, while it’s easy to admire his balls-on-his-sleeve bravado and fearless conviction to unpeeling what little mystery remained of the earth’s unexplored regions in the early 20th century, things didn’t end well for the guy. The truth is, my reasons for not pointing my footsteps into the murky depths of the Amazon jungle have nothing to do with cowardice or western-culture pussification. That sort of craziness just doesn’t tweak my interest.

Adventure… excitement… a Jedi craves not these things. And neither do I. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not forehead-thwackingly flummoxed by the souls who dare to venture forth, chuck their health and well-being into the scrap-heap along with their common sense, and live the kind of adventure that makes for good cinema. Percy’s life arc was a hell of a ride.

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Like any manly man born in 19th century England, Percy served his time in the Royal Artillery, beefing up his macho fortitude by blowing stuff up. He met his wife… actually, the article states that he met his wife in Ceylon but I’m pretty sure she wasn’t his wife when he met her. That’s just lazy writing. Let’s just say he married Nina Agnes Paterson in 1901 and within five years they had two young, strapping boys: Jack and Brian.

Percy studied map-making and surveying with the Royal Geographic Society, then served for a period with the British Secret Service in North Africa. There he became chums with Allan Quartermain author H. Rider Haggard and Sherlock-concoctor Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle would later use some of Percy’s tales from the depths of the Amazon as the inspiration for his novel The Lost World. Read more…

Day 840: Baby You Can Drive My Car – Or Better Still, Your Robot Can Do It

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As I trepidatiously shuffle toward the edge of the board, ready to leap into the warm waters of turning 40 this year, I realize it’s time to release my hopes of seeing the skies filled with flying cars. That Jetsons-style future-scape is not going to cross paths with my personal timeline, just as I probably won’t experience the food replicator from Star Trek or the Cleveland Browns winning a Super Bowl. That’s okay, I can live with that.

But what we lack in personal airborne transport (I don’t see the jetpack taking hold as any type of standard either) we are making up for in robot technology. If we can’t buzz the upper windows of the Chrysler Building in our 2033 Buick Fly-lark then at the very least we can have a nap in the back seat while our car safely transports us to work and parks itself. And from the looks of things, I won’t have to wait until my octogenarian days to experience this.

The robot-car, or autonomous vehicle, is a reality. And we can thank Google, the company that has created the technology to allow us to accurately simulate the experience of walking in a strange city with blurred-out faces, for having successfully tested a driverless car to the extent where it seems almost marketable. This idea has been in the works for a long time.

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In 1926 the Houdina Radio Control Co., which had been founded by a former US Army electrical engineer named Francis P. Houdina, demonstrated a radio-controlled driverless car through the crowded streets of midtown Manhattan. It was a novelty and it very much required human control in some fashion, but it was a start. The experiment garnered enough attention to piss off Harry Houdini, who stormed into Houdina’s offices with his secretary and trashed the place, believing Houdina to be capitalizing on Harry’s famous name. The 20’s were a wild decade. Read more…

Day 839: The Stars Of Our Show – The Alphabet

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I love playing around with the format of this little experiment and trying to cram as much (seemingly) meaningless trivia into a tiny thousand-word cubicle. To that end I’m going to offer a specific number of trivia slices to spread across your plate of knowledge today, awaiting the fork of your understanding to spear them into your hungry maw of learning so that you can digest them, extracting their knowledge-nutrients and converting the rest into cerebral poo. Also I’ll throw in that over-wrung metaphor for free. Such are the bargains here at Marty’s House o’ Stuff.

Twenty-six snippets for twenty-six letters. It’s fun getting a little meta, writing about writing – or in this case, writing about the microorganisms that band together and excrete the bulk of my daily output for your enjoyment. Every picture tells a story, and every story is made up of letters and every letter is a picture with its own story… it’s the circle of linguistic life.

For your consideration, I present the Latin alphabet in all its glory.

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The letter A (under its old-school name, aleph) was the first letter of the Phoenician alphabet. It was derived from the ox-head pictogram from the Bronze Age proto-Sinaitic script, which in turn came from the Egyptian hieroglyph. The horns pivoted around and by the time the Romans adopted their own written language from the Greek alphabet and a mix of other influences in the 7th century BC, the horns were pointed downward.

The glyph that may have spawned the letter B could represent the floor plan of a cottage. Clearly the Egyptians weren’t big on fancy layouts back then. The Greeks gave the B its bulbous curves when they crafted their symbol for ‘beta’. Read more…

Day 838: More Strangeness From The Road

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Despite my wife’s overwhelming disinterest, one of my dream vacations involves combing the secondary highways of North America and tracking down the most boisterously benign roadside attractions the western world has to offer. I think it’s fantastic when a small town builds a UFO landing site, a massive ball of twine or the world’s largest collection of business convention name tags. It’s like the town can say, “Here – we offer the world this. Nothing else but this.”

I imagine there’s an inherent pride in curating one of these roadside spectacles. You might print out the tiny two-paragraph page on some obscure website like Weird-Iowa.net, then boast to passers-by about the dozens of hits your page has received, proving that the world is truly ready to embrace the magic of the two-headed squirrel corpse you found beside the highway and subsequently placed behind glass in an accurate Civil War-era Confederate uniform replica.

Some towns have pushed a little harder for their morsel of fame – never quite achieving the cosmopolitan status of a two-theatre town but still achieving enough notoriety to merit a two-minute segment on some show on the Travel Channel. For some, this is the pinnacle of their fifteen flickering minutes, and that suits them just fine.

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I’ll start with a town I couldn’t possibly visit because it only existed for a very short time, and only for the purposes of one explosion. William George Crush, a passenger agent for the Missouri-Kentucky-Texas Railroad (also known as the Katy to you blues fans), thought it would be a great idea to stage a head-on train collision. Just for fun. Read more…

Day 837: The Chess Moves Of Nuclear Madness

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I hate to get all gloomy and dark, but as blissful as the post-Cold-War afterglow may have been (and oh, how it was), we need to take a step back and remember that we still live in a world saturated with nukes, ready to pop out of the ground like strategic pimples speckling a teenager’s face. While it’s somewhat comforting to know that the people who really hate us are not equipped with the ability to bury us under a mushroom cloud, I still don’t feel right about this. I live near my country’s primary oil reserves – if the bad guys want to kick Canada in the crotch, I live in that crotch.

That said, it isn’t likely. I grew up with the knowledge of precisely where Ground Zero would be, based on the Soviet nuke that was perpetually aimed our way, according to the local rumor. I didn’t let this knowledge derail my existence – I had food to eat, girls to chase and weekly doses of Quantum Leap to enjoy. But the knowledge was there.

I’m fascinated by the way nuclear weapons swiftly and immediately changed the face of military strategy. The discussion went from “we’re stronger” and “we’re smarter” to mutually-assured destruction. You attack us, we die – but we attack you and you die too. Not a lot of wiggle-room for options there. But the intricacies of nuclear strategy are far more complex.

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Richard Nixon took over the presidency in the middle of an unpopular war, after having campaigned with the promise that his “new leadership” would end it. He knew that negotiating with the North Vietnamese (or with the USSR, who – let’s face it – were really on the other side of that blood-stained coin) wasn’t going to cut it. So he borrowed a page from Machiavelli and employed the Madman Theory. Read more…

Day 836: When Wars Simply Won’t End

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I don’t like to get overtly political on this site, but I’m going to roll the dice and potentially alienate some of my audience by taking a firm stand: war, for the most part, is not good. What’s worse is a war that doesn’t end when it’s supposed to. You know the deal – people sign papers, citizens throw parades, social studies textbooks get updated and B.J. spells out “GOODBYE” in rocks for Hawkeye to see as he’s flying away. Wars end.

Except when they don’t. Every so often there’s a logistical glitch, a “diplomatic irregularity” that causes two sides of a conflict to skip out on writing the war’s final chapter. Sometimes the paperwork just doesn’t seem necessary – the fighting ends, the troops go home and have little troop-babies, and the historical record simply reflects the moment when hostilities ceased as the end of the war. But paperwork does need to happen. A declaration of war gets filed, and a declaration of peace should follow suit.

This is how World War I and World War II are still – technically speaking – underway. This is how our official records tell us that one war lasted for over 2000 years before finally being settled. This is the weird side of peace.

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The Punic Wars were a trio of individual wars fought between Rome and Carthage – currently a suburb of Tunis in Tunisia. These were the two big muscle-flexers of the ancient world and they were well matched. Carthage had a kick-ass navy that Rome couldn’t possibly fend off, but Rome had the most powerful army on the planet. The two empires started fighting in 264 BC, and it was fierce. The third Punic War wrapped up when Carthage was burned to the ground in 146 BC.

So… Rome won? Read more…

Day 835: Presenting The… French King Of England?

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It’s surprising how often I find myself stopped on the street by a complete stranger – often a fan of my articles and almost always totally imaginary – asking me why I don’t write an article about the Magna Carta. These folks invariably get my mind-wheels turning; all I know about that particular historic document is that it’s generally taught at the beginning of most modern history courses and forgotten about by the time the final exam is written, and that it had something to do with telling the king to be a little bit less of an asshole.

Well, a little bit of actual reading has taught me that this piece of paper very nearly caused a string of domino-ish events that could have led the crown of England on a permanent (inasmuch as anything in history is “permanent”) road trip to France. These people were so pissed off at their king they almost kicked their kingdom’s entire history square in the proverbial nut-sack.

If there is a moral to the story of the First Barons’ War, it might be that if you’re going to try to mellow out your king, you’d probably be better off just beheading him and starting fresh. Maybe the moral here is that partnering with your enemy will come back to bite your ass eventually. As with many snippets of history, it could be that there is no moral – it’s just some stuff that happened.

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On June 15, 1215, King John of England was forced to slap the royal seal on something called The Articles of the Barons. This was a lengthy bitch-scroll penned by a number of wealthy British barons who were pissed off at the king’s rotten leadership and his despot-like iron-fist rule of the land. Screw that – these barons worked hard for their wealth (okay, they inherited it. But it took a lot of long hours waiting for their folks to die), and the king still had supreme control over the land. That wouldn’t do. Read more…

Day 834: The Dark Knight Redux

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When Hollywood scores a hit, we all know they will run it as far into the ground as possible, often forgoing quality and integrity somewhere within the planet’s crust and plunging deep into the molten core with a hot and hungry grab for easy audience bucks. The current crop of superhero / comic book flicks have been fairly consistent, with few features splatting upon the pavement of suckiness, at least since the era of Daredevil and Spider-Man 3. But it’s probably just a matter of time.

The problem as I see it is that we have just as many superhero / comic movies in various stages of production as we have seen released in the last couple of years. Studios have plunged their hands elbow-deep into the sticky pie of superherodom, and if a run of crappy returns happens to tilt the public’s interest away from the genre, they’re going to be in trouble.

We saw five years between Tobey Maguire’s final Spider-Man film and Andrew Garfield’s reboot. Now we’ve got Ben Affleck re-introducing us to Batman (not to mention a new Smallville-like origin story TV series on the way), and the lights on the set of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy are still warm. These movies are still money-printing magic and no one wants to let a valuable property sit still. But Batman movies have not always been a sure thing – and no, I’m not talking about Joel Schumacher’s unfortunate smiting of the Tim Burton reboot.

I’m talking about Batman Dracula.

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In 1964, two years before Adam West donned the menacing cowl and did the Batusi on television, Andy Warhol concocted his own film about the caped crusader. Warhol’s Batman was apparently a true forerunner of the series’ campy approach. Not a lot is known about the film’s content, and it was actually considered a lost film until quite recently. Warhol didn’t have the permission of DC Comics to use the character; he was simply a fan and he thought it would make a fun film. A search online revealed only a few small clips, none of which appear to follow a linear, sensical plot. Most of what I found consists of artsy double-exposed film accompanied by some Velvet Underground music. It’s not particularly good. Read more…

Day 833: Tales From The Motown Snakepit

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The music that roared through the stucco and plaster of Hitsville U.S.A. to become the Motown sound that defined soul music in the 1960’s was crafted by some of the most formidable talent the music world has ever cradled. Unfortunately, while stars like Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson and Martha Reeves are free to bask in the wondrous afterglow of their landmark careers, some of Motown’s elite suffered a premature closing curtain.

Mary Wells, the one-time Queen of Motown who helped to launch the label into the mainstream suffered from an unfairly tragic end, while the unappreciated fuel that fed the funk-tank, James Jamerson, is anything but a household name today. Both deserve to have their story told, if not within the fiery glow of a major studio bio-pic at least with the delicate and reverent touch of a kilograph written by an eternal fan.

By the time I was born, each of these individuals had already ridden the crest of their relative stardom. That means nothing to me – I grew up in an era when people paid actual money to own “We Built This City” on vinyl. The music industry, which has always been a pit of snakes and scammers, had become a wretched den of Milli-Vanillified lies. That’s why the music that rocked my youth was mostly culled from an era I’d never seen. And it’s fair to say that no one rocked my innards quite as much as James Jamerson.

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James moved from Edisto Island, South Carolina to Detroit with his mother when he was a teenager, and he learned to play stand-up bass in high school. On nights and weekends he began playing in local jazz and blues clubs, which led to a steady gig at Barry Gordy Jr.’s studio in 1959. I don’t feel it is any measure of exaggeration when I say that James’ bass playing, which appeared on roughly 95% of Motown’s recordings between 1962 and 1968, was the most fundamental ingredient in the label’s extraordinary, genre-defining success. Read more…

Day 832: The Anti-Farting Law That Nearly Was

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Every so often a story wanders down the legal footpath, leaving in its wake the floral stench of incalculable weirdness. In the case of the 2011 Air Fouling Legislation in the tiny southern African country of Malawi, the scent is remarkably different. This is the smell of post-legume discipline and puckered determination. This is the smell of one nation doing its best to think green, to live clean and to do right by its citizenry.

This is Malawi telling people: thou shalt not fart.

Well, not really. But for a brief period this was the government’s message, and it was this message that scooted around the globe and lit up the grins of news editors everywhere. It might have all stemmed from a misunderstanding, and deeper still from a genuine desire for a nation’s self-improvement, but it was one of the first pebbles in an eventual landslide that would throw the country into chaos and prematurely end the lives of several people.

I’m sure the backstory to the violent 2011 protests in Malawi can be traced much further than an anti-farting legislation. But this all happened right at the soil level, where the roots become the tree. It’s a strange tale with a downright cheek-clenching twist.

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Malawi in 2011 was not about to challenge Disneyland’s claim to being the happiest place on earth. There were fuel shortages, electricity shortages, corruption, nepotism, a controversial new national flag and a general distrust of democratically-elected President Bingu wa Mutharika. The press was struggling with partial suppression, and the tenuous thread of democracy that was holding the country together was beginning to fray from the constant pull of the people’s discontent. Read more…