Tag: Japan

Day 838: More Strangeness From The Road

Header

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.

CrushTexas

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 836: When Wars Simply Won’t End

Header

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.

PunicWars

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 799: Poon Adrift

Header

Each of us possesses a limited reach of survival, a finite extension of our  bodies’ and minds’ capabilities to endure. Fortunately, we live within the sanctuary of modernity, with a rather slim likelihood of our true survival being tested. This is a good thing. Let’s be honest, if most anyone you know was stranded Castaway-style on a deserted island, wouldn’t they be less likely to befriend Wilson the volleyball and more likely to drill a hole in it so they could use it as a sex toy?

We simply aren’t programmed to survive anymore. We can watch Lost or Gilligan’s Island and think we’ve got what it takes to build a wind-powered vibrating-coconut massage recliner, but we really don’t. At best, our instincts can kick in and hopefully lead us to devour some non-poisonous plants for a while to keep our bodies moving forward. But we won’t last long.

Then again, this might be the very thought that ran through the mind of Poon Lim, moments before he was launched into a most undesirable adventure, forced to contend with the elements and sustain his withering body upon the desolate void of ocean that imprisoned him for the better part of five months. His story is nothing short of astounding, if only because I know I could never have pulled it off myself.

PoonLim

Poon Lim was born in Hainan, China in 1918. When World War II broke out, he was happy to support the Allied cause, since China and Japan were anything but friendly neighbors at the time. Poon was second steward aboard the British merchant ship SS Ben Lomond, which was on its way from Cape Town, South Africa to the Dutch colony of Suriname, which is tucked into the northeastern armpit of South America. The ship was armed, naturally, but it was a slow-moving vessel and despite the constant threat of German U-boats, it was travelling alone. Read more…

Day 774: Beware The Madness Of Jerusalem & Paris

Header

A few days ago, I attempted to bake a word-brew that would adequately (or at least semi-adequately) justify the singular importance of the Beatles’ inaugural appearance in American culture on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. We all know what followed that show – the British phenomenon known as Beatlemania spent the next few years pummeling our culture and steering kids into an idolizing frenzy. But the Beatles were not the first to incite madness and hysteria in an adoring public. No, Elvis wasn’t the first either.

The original Rawk Gawd, the man whose very presence on a stage would incite heart palpitations, unrestrained shrieks and a swift swoon of consciousness-sapping wonder for ladies of a certain ilk was none other than Franz Liszt.

That’s right – no matter how passionately parents in the 1950s and 60s railed against the scourge of popular music that was causing their kids to devolve into manic, startled sheep, those folks merely had to look at their own great-grandparents to see how natural a phenomenon this could be. And for what, some classical pianist?

Alright, I guess he was kind of dreamy.

Alright, I guess he was kind of dreamy.

The term ‘mania’ as it existed in 1841 when this phenomenon was first observed meant something entirely different than it does today. Beatlemania (and ABBA-mania or Bay-City-Rollers-mania or Roxette-mania or whatever media soundbites have oozed out since) refers to a craze, a trend, even the unrestrained jubilation in the presence of the subject. An 1840’s mania was seen as a disease, a potentially contagious affliction that required the intervention of medical personnel. Read more…

Day 770: The Summerless Summer

Header

This year the news has been splattered by alarming weather reports like a silent film soundstage wall after take thirteen of an epic pie fight. Much of the western world has been grappling with weather that we in Edmonton call ‘regular winter’. I’m not trying to minimize the unusual meteorological hip-check nature has bestowed upon my more southernly friends – after all, up here we’re well stocked with snow tires, city plows and vehicle block heaters. The folks in Texas, not so much.

Perhaps the most common and least valuable platitude here is “it could be worse.” The bone-scraping cold and soul-squishing wind are brutal, but at least they’re unleashing their fury during the vacuum of the winter months. When the silver light of spring shows up, nature’s insipid polar fart will be nothing more than a series of old photos, buried deep in the tomb of distant newsfeeds.

In 1816, there was no such relief. The winter was winter, but spring and summer were slaughtered like calves en route to becoming veal marsala, cut down in the prime of youth. Historically they call it the Year Without A Summer. Its effects were cruel but the wonky residue may have given birth to the Old West, the Model T, the Book of Mormon and the Depression-era fad of spooky horror flicks. That’s a hell of a weather pattern.

MountTambora

It all began with the massive eruption of Mount Tambora, located on the island of Sumbawa in Indonesia. This was one of only two VEI-7 eruptions in the past millennium – and that scale only goes up to 8. This occurred on April 15, 1815, and while the 100 cubic kilometers of solid earth the volcano blasted into neighboring communities caused a virtual apocalypse for locals, the ash and toxins pumped into the atmosphere would sneak up and bitch-slap the rest of the planet several months later. Read more…

Day 754: Getting Both Jiggy And All That With My Lost 90’s Fads

Header

I’ll never forget the day I finally learned how to see the 3D image in those Magic Eye posters. I’ll never forget it because that day was today. I’m not joking – after over twenty years of trying to gaze “through” those colorful posters of blurs, shapes and pixels, I have at long last trained my eyes to witness their hidden image. I feel like Sir Edmund Hillary, stomping his triumphant foot upon Everest’s peak.

Well, I suppose the metaphor only works if Hillary had arrived atop Mount Everest’s snowy chapeau to find a gaggle of tourists, a shopping district and a nightclub that has long since passed its hipness date. I’m a little late to the party, I understand that. But I made it through the door and I’m pretty sure there are one or two semi-cold Coors Lights still drifting around the liquefied ice in the cooler.

I spent the 1990’s transitioning from a sloppy-haired, disenfranchised model of teen disconnect into a sloppy-haired, not-yet-enfranchised father of two, and along the way I paid only a trickle of interest in the current youth fads and cultural party favors of the generation after mine. I watched Top 40 radio disintegrate into something that didn’t interest me (though in all fairness, that wasn’t a big fall), noticed women’s hair lose its spray-locked poof, and exchanged most of my cultural congruence for a seat on the fringe, squinting from the outside at the weirdness within.

Perhaps it’s time I catch up.

MagicEye

The Magic Eye poster is technically an autostereogram, the 1979 brainchild of psychophysicist Christopher Tyler. The trick to the images is in the horizontal patterns, which differ just a little with each repetition, creating the illusion of depth. To see the hidden picture, I have been told to “relax the eyes” or “focus beyond the picture”, but neither of those instructions did a thing for me. On the Optometrists’ Network site I found the trick that tweaked my brain:

Eyes

It’s simply a matter of allowing the eyes to drift apart a little, to see two images (or four eyeballs in the above picture). If you can line up two of the eyeballs so that you can see three in a row, you’ve got it. That’s the technique that makes the Magic Eye image pop out. Read more…

Day 738: World War II – The 1970’s Edition

Header

When Hiroo Onoda set off to receive his first assignment in the Imperial Japanese Army in December of 1944, his mother handed him a keepsake dagger and told him to do his family proud. World War II was still hugging the headlines, showing no signs of relinquishing its constricting embrace. This didn’t bother Hiroo; he was a soldier. He had an unflappable sense of honor. He was committed to his cause, a cause he would not abandon until specifically ordered to do so.

Unfortunately, nobody got around to doing that until about thirty years later.

Hiroo was one of the final Japanese holdouts, the stalwart warriors who clung to the noble tenets of Imperial Japan long after the nation had become an American buddy and fervent supplier of tape decks and video games.

From one perspective, Hiroo is a shining example of the tenacity and loyalty exhibited by Japan’s armed forces and permeative throughout Japanese culture. That said, one has to question the perseverance of the armed forces that allowed Hindoo to dangle in the perpetual political breeze for so long. Did they really try hard enough to bring him home?

Hiroo-Young

Trained as an intelligence officer (which already kicks a sticky ball of irony down the rock-peppered slope of this tale), Hiroo Onoda was assigned to Lubang Island in the Philippines. His mission was to keep the enemy from taking the island by destroying the local airstrip and pier, but his superiors nixed those plans and ordered Hiroo to lay low. The US and Philippine Commonwealth forces swooped ashore in February, and the entire Japanese regiment was either killed or forced to surrender.

Everyone except for Hiroo and three others, who took to the hills. Read more…

Day 722: Santa A-Go-Go

Header

While shopping for a pair of Christmas socks for my personal cheese carver at the mall yesterday, I was overwhelmed by the straggling line of drooling children awaiting their turn on Santa’s lap. The expressions on their parents’ faces was one of zombified exhaustion and haunted anticipation that their kids will beg the old man for something they had neglected to buy.

I was reminded of when I stopped believing in Santa; it was about five minutes after I started asking questions. “He comes down the chimney,” they told me. But I spent every Christmas eve at my grandmother’s house, and she had no fireplace. “Oh,” they said.” “Well, he slips under the door then.”

Bullshit. Had my family been better liars I might have kept up with the fantasy a little longer. Maybe the flaws inherent in the Santa legend itself need to be addressed. Had Santa’s concoctors infused a bit of Gene Rodenberry-type imagination into the tale (“Lieutenant-Commander Blitzen beams Santa into every living room..”), they might have sold me. But Santa is a locally-brewed phenomenon – maybe one of the legends or traditions performed elsewhere has it right.

ZwartePiet

Saint Nicholas is the celebrity gift-giver throughout most of Europe, dropping his goodies almost three weeks before Santa makes his run here. His sidekick is a guy named Zwarte Piet, or literally ‘Black Pete’. He showed up in an 1850 book published by Jan Schenkman, an Amsterdam school teacher, as Saint Nick’s humble servant. Over the years the slave-boy got a name: Pete. Traditionally he is portrayed by a person in blackface. Read more…

Day 684: Ig-Nobly Speaking

Header

Every so often when perusing scientific news we come across a study that seems, to the layman observer, to be mildly superfluous. Do we need to know which phase of the menstrual cycle will bring in better tips for a lap dancer? Are horses so finicky with food that we need a study of their favorite flavors? Is it going to affect my day to know that attractive men tend to have longer ring fingers?

Those are all actual studies, and I have no doubt someone has already commissioned and researched a meta-study on how these dumb scientific studies affect the public’s perception of the scientific community. That’s why I’m glad we have the Ig Nobel Prize.

Handed out each October, these awards are to the science world what the Golden Raspberries are to the movie business, only the selections tend to be less awful and more amusing. The community has subsequently embraced the dubious honors, and actual Nobel Laureates hand out the prizes at a lavish ceremony conducted at the Sanders Theater at Harvard. Here are some of the ignoble Ig Nobel winners worth mentioning:

Zipper

It seems destiny is steering me this week toward medical maladies that have until now drifted beyond the fringes of my radar. Yesterday I wrote about cello scrotum – though that was revealed to be a hoax. But the 1993 Ig Nobel Prize for Medicine is about something very real: “Acute Management Of The Zipper-Entrapped Penis.” Three men who aim to secure our schlongs from the wrath of the gnashing teeth of our hungry Levis’ gaping maws penned this article from their home base of the Naval Hospital in San Diego. Read more…

Day 681: Six Heroes

Header-CharlesDavisLucas

You’ve probably never heard of Charles Davis Lucas.

Like most recipients of the Victoria Cross, the highest honor awardable to members of the British and Commonwealth military forces, his name is far from household. But that’s what today is about: slapping a virtual high-five with the ghosts of wars gone by, and lending a little praise and attention to the brave folks who stared potential death and/or dismemberment in the face and said, “Fuck it. I’m going after the bad guys.”

Charles Davis Lucas fought in the Crimean War, which was yet another conflict over religion and the Holy Land and all that. This time it was the Brits, French and Ottomans battling it out with the Russians back in 1853-56. Charles was aboard the Hecla, a ship in the Baltic Sea, where they were taking fire from a Finnish fort called Bumarsund. A shell landed on the ship’s deck with the fuse still hissing, and whomever was in charge ordered all hands to lay flat and prepare for the blast.

Not Charles. Charles ran up, grabbed the shell, and heaved it overboard where it exploded before it even hit the water. No one was killed, no one was injured, and it was all thanks to Charles disobeying orders and doing something that, by most objective standards was completely insane. His was the first act of bravery to earn the Victoria’s Cross.

StanleyHenryParryBoughey

Twenty-one years old. Another Brit, this time up against the Ottoman Army in the muck of World War I. The enemy was breathing down the neck of his gang of Royal Scots Fusiliers on a December day in 1917, when Stanley Henry Parry Boughey decided he’d had enough. He grabbed an armful of tossable bombs and ran at the bad guys, heaving blasts all over the place and somehow managing to not get knocked off his feet by a bullet. Read more…