Tag: Canada

Day 986: James Randi & The Magic Of Truth

Header

One of the television landmarks of my childhood involved magicians/dissectors-of-bullshit Penn & Teller, performing the classic splice-the-assistant trick. They then performed the trick once more on a transparent stage with transparent props in order to reveal the gadgetry and choreography that had effectively deceived us. My mother loathed the bit; to this day her stalwart faith in pure magic remains uncompromised. For me, it was an awakening.

I saw Penn & Teller’s commitment to debunkery as an invitation to question the unexplained, and to search for the truth tucked under the throw-rug of perception. This curiosity need not be an omnipresent obsession – I would much rather share in the astounded guffaws of David Blaine’s close-up audience than pry into the secrets of his masterful sleight-of-hand – but when trickery is but a front for a more nefarious purpose, this well-worn skepticism is a handy frock.

James Randi has been an activist for truth and an intrepid explorer of paranormal hucksterism for decades. When Copperfield transformed the Statue of Liberty into furtive air on national television, Randi made no effort to deflate our collective entertainment. But when pseudo-psychics make ludicrous claims of otherworldly powers in their pockets, James Randi is there to reach in and show us the lint of deception.

Naturally, he has pissed off a lot of people along the way.

Escapologist

The Amazing Randi rose to fame as a magician in 1956 when he broke Harry Houdini’s submersion record by having himself locked inside a sealed coffin beneath the surface of a hotel swimming pool for 104 minutes on The Today Show. But while Randi was happy to entertain a gawking audience, he was always critical of the mysticism that people would invite into their lives as fact. While employed by the Canadian tabloid Midnight, he penned a recurring astrology column by simply rearranging horoscopes from other publications and pasting them randomly under each sign. Read more…

Day 984: Love For Freedom – The Biddle Boys Break Out

Header

Forever conjoined in the tomato sneer of fate, love and sacrifice provide the familiar minor-key chime beneath so many tragic tales. Our past is riddled with them, bleeding their florid twists onto the otherwise sterile emotional landscape of a history which is otherwise defined by dates and wars and steel-grey timelines. The great forgotten love stories are the smack of mustard upon the otherwise bland wiener of historical record.

The story of the notorious Biddle Brothers had reached its final chapter, and was stretching its leg toward its terminus when love intervened and produced an eleventh-hour twist. Two men were given a second chance at freedom. One woman sacrificed everything. Another man met his grisly end.

These are the stories that paint pink acrylic swirls upon the serifs of the font that transcribes our past. After nearly 1000 paths of investigative prose (with the occasional dab of poetry), these are the stories that still ignite my imagination and wonder.

JackBiddle-1

Jack Biddle, along with his little brother Ed and their friend Frank Dorman, became known around Pittsburgh as The Chloroform Gang. Their modus operandi was to assist their victims into slumber by using chloroform-soaked rags, then to rob them thoroughly. One morning, it all went wrong.

They were hoping to pilfer as much as they could from the residence of grocer Thomas Kahney. Someone – possibly Kahney’s wife, or perhaps one of the intruders – made some noise, and Kahney found himself face to face with the would-be thieves. One of them (and the brothers would pin it on Dorman) shot and killed the man. When the police came snooping for suspects at a nearby home where the gang was hiding out, another blast was fired, killing Detective Patrick Fitzgerald. Read more…

Day 978: Doc Brinkley’s Magical Goat Balls

Header

It makes perfect sense. If a man is having a hard time encouraging his noble groin-soldier onto the battlefield, perhaps his problem is a lack of testicular fortitude. If only he could harness the power of nature’s potential through his impetuous manhood. If only he could possess the unflinching might of goat balls.

That’s right: goat balls. These testicular orbs of revered bleat-meat might cure all your ills, male or female in nature. Such was the reasoning behind Dr. John R. Brinkley’s infamous medical gifts, and such was the foundation of his fortune. If you skim past the wrongful death suits, the federal investigations and the sheer audacity of his backhanded disregard for ethics and common sense, Dr. Brinkley could be seen as the medical luminary of his day.

But we aren’t going to skip those parts. For his lifelong devotion to greed, fraud, and the scrotal strength of the capra aegagrus hircus, we’re going to tell the whole of Dr. Brinkley’s story.

Brinkley-1

Shortly after the birth of his daughter in 1907, John Brinkley enrolled at Bennett Medical College in Chicago, a school of questionable repute due to its focus on ‘Eclectic medicine’, which is somewhat like modern herbal / homeopathic medicine, except with less Far Eastern wisdom and a lot more guesswork. He never finished, and he failed to pay his back tuition, which prevented him from transferring to another school. Eventually he did what any enterprising young would-be healer would do: he bought a diploma from a diploma mill in Kansas City. Read more…

Day 974: Punishing The Politicos – Worst Politicians Part 2

Header

Every few years – or sometimes sooner than that – those of us in democratic countries who feel compelled to do so will cast our vote in hopes that it might help to steer our nation from the cesspool in which it is presently mired toward a newer, less feces-laden cesspool. Sometimes we succeed. Also, there are times when we watch the news and wonder how anyone with an IQ greater than a puddle of artificial creamer might have voted for the current putz.

A few months ago I compiled a list of what experts have deemed to be the most egregious smudges upon the office of the Presidency of the United States. I met with no dissent in the comments section, perhaps because everyone agreed with the options presented, or maybe because those crappy presidents have also often evolved to become the most obscure and forgotten presidents.

Despite the fact that much of my reading audience is in America, I’m nevertheless going to present a deeper exploration of the obscure today. There have been garbage leaders all over the western world. Just for fun, let’s see who splatters the bottom of the list in some of the Commonwealth nations.

WilliamMcMahon-1

Sir William “Squinty” McMahon took over the top seat in Australia in 1971, an ugly win which oozed from a period of party infighting and disgruntled squabbling. Right away, McMahon’s opponent on the Labor Side was a well-spoken war hero named Gough Whitlam. Every time the two of them traded barbs it was McMahon who skulked away, shamefully coming up short on wit and rhetoric. Read more…

Day 939: When Juries Get A Little Bad-Ass

Header

When I was asked to serve on a jury back in 2006, my innards were polarized in their response. On the one hand, it would mean experiencing the justice system from the inside out, hearing evidence, steering the waves of someone’s fate, and perhaps getting to reenact the dramatic speech made by Henry Fonda in Twelve Angry Men. On the flip-side, I’d heard too many stories of people desperately seeking an escape from jury duty not to be suspicious of the supposed visceral experience of it all. What the hell, I figured. I had a dull job (though my current job makes computer tech support look like Indiana Jones-level archaeology by comparison), why not serve the system?

It was a three-day trial, resulting in me being sequestered in a hotel for three days, cut off from family, phone, newspapers, internet and television, lest I stumble across an episode of Law & Order that might taint my objectivity. I remember almost nothing else about the trial, except that Henry Fonda’s words failed to fall from my lips, and I missed three nights of The Daily Show. But I did my duty.

Little did I know the potential power of a jury to scrote-kick the law and even change it. Jury nullification is a quirky little corner of legal lore that has quietly but profoundly been a factor in how the judicial system works. Or fails to work, as the case may be.

MagnaCarta-1

The Magna Carta, one of those ancient leafs of yellowing paper that you’ll find behind glass so that generations of school kids can wander by and nod disinterestedly at it, established juries as a staple ingredient in the silty justice stew England was trying to put together in the 13th century. Back then, juries tended to side with the crown. This wasn’t a case of not wanting to piss off the king (though on occasion it might have been), but more a question of jury manipulation. Read more…

Day 933: The Thin Red Line Of Being An Offensive Jerk

Header

As a writer whose surrounding landscape is the unfiltered cessbucket frontier of the internet, I don’t spend much time worrying about offending my audience. Conversely, as a Canadian awash in synaptic decorum and apologetic genetics (or, apologenetics as we call them here), I feel compelled from the meaty core of my innards to fight the potentially offensive word choices that might trickle untowardly from my fingertips. This is why I don’t refer to my friends as my ‘niggaz’, why I reserve the word ‘Oriental’ to describe an avenue in the game Monopoly and not a collective of people, and why I won’t likely pen a kilograph on the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The issue has arisen – both here in this compositional marathon as well as in “real” life – regarding the appropriate label for that group of peoples whose presence in this part of the world predates that of us whiteys. We grew up calling them Indians – a game of Cowboys ‘n Indigenous Peoples doesn’t sound nearly as fun.

It seems as though every few years I am told that the politically appropriate appellation I’ve been using is incorrect. With only 68 remaining opportunities to explore the weird wide world in this project, I think it’s time I put this issue to rest.

OldTimeyMap-1

We all know Chris Columbus plopped his feet down on Antilles soil believing he had found the fast-track to India. His bewildered hosts were dubbed ‘Indians’ as a logical consequence, though it didn’t take long for Chris to figure out his mistake. The misnomer stuck, however. The Caribbean islands were dubbed the West Indies, and every explorer who nudged their hull against the east coast called the locals ‘Indians’. It was easier to adopt and embrace the mistake than come up with a new word, I guess. Read more…

Day 922: Riding That Train, High On Cocaine & Pretty Much Everything Else

Header

Within a span of about five months, the notion of the Grand Hippie Music Festival had deteriorated from a three-day swoon of good vibes, great drugs and phenomenal tuneage at Woodstock into an angry and disorganized mess at the Altamont Speedway in northern California. I’ve written about the latter already, and I’ll have plenty to say about the former in an upcoming piece, but the question left unanswered by Altamont can only be: “what happens next?”

The digestible myth is that the disastrous Altamont concert nudged the nail in the sixties’ coffin, not only landing near the decade’s calendar terminus but also smushing into ash any hopes that the peace ‘n love generation could haul their good vibes into adulthood. But beyond Altamont you’ll still find the stellar 1970 Isle of Wight festival and the poorly-managed (but heartily rock-tastic) Concert for Bangladesh in 1971. The dream wasn’t dead, it just took a nasty little hit in late ’69.

One of the first post-Altamont gathering of groups took place in Canada in the triumphant early days of 1970’s summer. Where festivals like Woodstock and Monterey Pop had previously lured fans from neighboring time zones and beyond to the event, the Festival Express was set to cruse across the country, bringing the idea of a super-conglomeration of super-groups to a myriad of cities. It was a concert game-changer, and solid proof that the perpetual party of the previous decade had not yet reached last call.

KenWalker-1

Originally known as the Transcontinental Pop Festival, Ken Walker (above) along with his partners Thor and George Eaton aimed for four cities: Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver. They secured a 14-car Canadian National Railways train for the artists, and booked a documentary crew to film the entire event. Walker and his associates booked passage for themselves on the train also, as no self-respecting businessman of that era was foolish enough to throw a party like that without attending it. Read more…

Day 920: Getting Dirty With QWERTY

Header

Just as I’m sure all guitar players secretly covet the 1932 cast aluminum ‘Frying Pan’ electric guitar unleashed by Rickenbacker that changed the very shape of modern music, I feel we writers should become equally as intimate with the lush history of our instruments. Unfortunately, the ancestry of Microsoft Word appears to be uninspiringly bland, while researching the birth of the typewriter reveals a plethora of names, all claiming to be the ‘first’.

Besides, I spent many of the early formative years of my writing addiction swimming in the white-on-indigo sea of Wordperfect, and due to the frantic and clumsy nature of my fat fingers I have resisted using a typewriter for decades. Besides, I publish my work online; a typewriter would be little more than a superfluous display of unnecessary retro-ism. I’m no hipster purist.

But there is one common thread that has tied together my word-weaving experience, from that first robins-egg-blue Underwood manual clacker to the up-to-date Computronic-9000 (bundled with Lode Runner!) that I use today: the QWERTY keyboard. This strategic splat of letters, numbers and functional squiggles has a digestible backstory, and today I’m cramming that story into my gullet. Because I can.

ChristopherLathamSholes-1

Christopher Latham Sholes and Carlos Glidden concocted a genuine predecessor to the modern typewriter in 1867 when they arranged a two-row piano-like keyboard to trigger swinging arms (known as typebars) at a blank page. There was an obvious flaw in the design, thanks to his alphabetical arrangement of the letters: odd numbers and N-Z on the upper row, even numbers and A-M on the lower. The only punctuation offered was a hyphen and a period. But when neighboring arms were flung at the paper in tight succession, they’d collide and jam. This proved to be a monumental pain the ass, especially for every word that contained the letter combination ‘ST’. Read more…

Day 907: Who Stole The Moon?

Header

I’d like to open today’s missive with a few kind words about President Richard M. Nixon. In an act of international fraternity and savvy diplomatic P.R., the Nixon administration celebrated the American victory in the Space Race by doling out gifts of free moon rocks to every state, every US territory, and a long list of nations. Ever since humankind first stretched its grumpy morning arms over its evolutionary head we have been fascinated by that giant glowing rock in the sky. Now Dick Nixon was dispersing little bits of it all over the world. It’s kind of sweet, really.

The rocks – four per gift, each about the size of a Nerds candy – were mounted in an acrylic bubble within a commemorative plaque that also featured that nation or state’s flag, which had been part of the Apollo 11 payload. So everyone was getting a print of their own flag which had been to space, as well as a few morsels of lunar gravel. The gift was repeated once more after Apollo 17 with a fresh batch of moon-crumbs.

NASA has always been meticulous about tracking the whereabouts of every lunar sample that has been packed in our cosmic carry-on and brought back home. But once these babies touched down into foreign palms, NASA no longer followed their progress, probably assuming that each would end up in some museum under armed surveillance and the snazziest of security. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

Apollo11Rocks-1

Out of 270 gifted rock-nugget plaques, roughly 180 have since gone missing. Nixon’s gesture of international goodwill clearly received a meh-level fanfare from the majority of its recipients. In 1998, NASA became sufficiently irked by the growing black market for lunar pebbles that they decided to team up with the US Postal Service for a sting operation. Joseph Gutheinz helmed the scheme for NASA, and along with postal Inspector Bob Cregger they plopped an ad into USA Today looking to buy up some moon rocks. Read more…

Day 906: Lord Gordon-Gordon & The Case Of The Tycoon’s Million Bucks

Header

How does one judge the success of a swindle? To my hopelessly naïve and tragically honest mind, I believe one must be able to enjoy the bounty of one’s evil in order to truly rate it as a win. Others might disagree, claiming the mere act of absconding with a victim’s money is sufficient grounds for a toast of victory champagne. No matter how the cards tumble, a good scam makes for great human theatre.

When a British man adopted the curious name of Lord Gordon-Gordon and set out to pilfer a fortune from American railway interests, he was likely after the money and not the thrill of the swindle. To Jay Gould, the man who found himself a million dollars lighter courtesy of Lord Gordon-Gordon’s smooth and smarmy charm, it didn’t matter. He’d been taken. Humiliated. Kicked squarely in the fiscal nads. And he’d get his revenge, dammit.

The revenge itself is as weird a tale as whatever backstory Lord Gordon-Gordon might have used to explain his bizarre moniker. This is the story of how one schmoozy Brit almost singlehandedly instigated a war between the United States and Canada, all for the sake of a few bucks.

NorthCountry-1

Almost nothing is known about this man’s history. There’s a rumor that he may have been the illegitimate child of a North Country priest and his maid, but we don’t even know his real name so tracing his origin story is little more than an effort in fiction. He first appeared in London in 1868 under the name of ‘Glencairn’, insisting he was soon to become the heir to the title of Lord Glencairn, along with the immodest fortune that came with it. Read more…