Tag: Technology

Day 976: The Non-Medicinal Medicine

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Along with the oil industry, the communications industry and the elevator ‘Close Door’ button industry, the pharmaceutical industry is one of the least trusted clubhouses in the great corporate tree. “They want to keep us sick.” “They’d rather treat us than cure us.” “I don’t speak English.” These are all impassioned criticisms I heard whilst skulking around my local pharmacy, asking strangers how they felt.

The problem with the pharmaceutical industry is that its sheer size has led to corruption and sophisticated flim-flammery, all in search of a quick profit off the desperation and ignorance of the common folk. Also, the industry has pretty much always been corrupt and full of flim-flammery. Only now the bullshit fits neatly into a pill instead of a good ol’ fashioned Wonder-Balm.

We have regulation now – oversight from way on high, which insists that someone actually prove that goat-scrotum extract cures eczema before they can advertise it on a product label. This is why the really fun claims of outlandish hooey can be found in the ‘supplement’ aisle these days. But even our modern snake oil derivatives can’t compare to the creative mangling of truth from the patent medicine days.

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Back in the 1600’s, if you could make friends with someone in the royal camp you might be lucky enough to be issued ‘letters patent’. These were legal papers which allowed you to use the official royal endorsement in any of your advertising. For purveyors of bottled cures, this was a huge deal; it added a legitimacy to whatever freakish claims they might be making for their product. This led to the term ‘patent medicine’, which is misleading in that it’s not likely that any of these products were actually patented. Read more…

Day 965: The Inaugural Road Trip

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Roll down your windows, crank up the vintage Lindsey Buckingham and ready your innards for a deluge of fast-food grease – we are hitting the open road.

In 1903, right around the time those two bike-shop brothers in North Carolina were writing the first stand-up routines about in-flight meals, the general public was underwhelmingly embracing the automobile. Many thought it was a passing fad, that nothing could beat classic oat-eating, poop-dispensing horse travel. Those who disagreed were eager to test the physical boundaries of motorized transportation. They pushed for faster speeds, longer voyages and snazzier features. Even the kids were too enthralled with the technology to ask, “Are we there yet?”

It was a magical time of firsts for car fans. Among them were Toronto-born doctor Horatio Nelson Jackson and his mechanic friend, Sewell J. Crocker. When the opportunity arose to break the bi-coastal barrier, they couldn’t resist. This is how they grabbed hold of their own little chunk of history.

For those of you who now have "Holiday Road" stuck in your head, I apologize.

For those of you who now have “Holiday Road” stuck in your head, I apologize.

While visiting friends at San Francisco’s University Club, someone bet Horatio a whopping $50 (which is about $1300 in today’s money) that he couldn’t drive from coast to coast in one of those new-fangled auto-thingies. Despite the initial handicap of not owning a car, Horatio agreed to the bet. He had faith in the technology, the kind of faith that propels men to stupid manly endeavors. Endeavors that either result in a comical or ironic death, or a dusty little corner in the cubbyhole of history. Read more…

Day 948: Tales From The Crapper

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This morning I am balanced upon rickety stilts at a creative crossroads. Do I unfold a tale of Vietnam War bravery and the enduring flame of the unsnuffable human spirit? Or do I write about toilets?

Those who know me are aware of my unflinching love of a powerful narrative. I have frequently slapped upon my little corner of the world-wide-windowpane stories of survival, of heroism and of triumph against gruesome odds. But they also know how much I love cheap laughs, and after yesterday’s gnarly story of necrophilia and cannibalism I feel it more appropriate to ruminate on flying poo-bags and assorted low-bar humor-jabs than to contemplate the nightmares of grizzly torture and starvation.

So poop it is, decorum and dignity be damned. Let’s start the turd-fest rolling with one of the more misunderstood gents of bathroom history, the infamous Mr. Thomas Crapper.

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One of the most joyously jocular strips of fluttering trivia I learned upon the nefariously untrustworthy schoolyard at recess was that Thomas Crapper invented the toilet, and the defecatory euphemism known as ‘crap’ is derived from his name. What a glorious gem of lexicographical synergy that would be, were it even remotely true. While flush toilets have been bubbling through different incarnations since the Neolithic age, we owe a lot more credit to 16th century author John Harrington’s first commode, and to 18th century watchmaker Alexander Cummings’ s-shaped plumbing innovation than to Crapper’s later work. Read more…

Day 936: Number One With An Irreverent Bullet

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Here’s the part where the guy twitching in the hungry crosshairs of 40 tells you how the music topping the charts these days won’t inspire so much as a quiver of his trigger finger. But really, who cares? The purveyors of popular song have no interest in capturing my iTunes money. Just as my parents wondered desperately who on earth would want anyone to Rock Them Amadeus, I can’t fathom why Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy”, a piece of simplistic monotony with a Clueless rip-off video, spent a month this summer at #1.

Ever since the end of the halcyon days of 80’s pop, the soundtrack that flipped the pages of my childhood, I have paid scant attention to the Billboard Hot 100 chart. While MC Hammer’s parachute pants flapped in the raucous wind of his success, my high school friends and I were discovering the mystical quests within the grooves of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd records. So I guess I haven’t been hip in about twenty-five years. I’m okay with that.

I’d always been a trifle suspicious of this chart anyway. What is it counting? Sales? Radio airplay? Likelihood of ending up as a parody on Weird Al’s next album? There is actually some math to this madness, and it’s far too complex for my mid-week brain to tabulate without a nap under its belt. But I’ll do my best.

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For almost two decades prior to the Hot 100’s debut in the pages of Billboard (yes kids, Billboard was and is an actual magazine. A magazine is kind of like Buzzfeed.com made out of trees), the chart tabulators kept track of three separate stats: the best-sellers, the songs most played by disc jockeys and the songs most played in jukeboxes. That last one was key, as a disgraceful clump of radio stations were refusing to play rock ‘n roll in the mid-1950’s. Billboard had to track what was big with the kids. Read more…

Day 935: Ah Yes, But Is There Any Evidence Of Semen?

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You can have your John McClanes, your Alex Murphys, your Jimmy McNultys. When it comes to picking out the Hollywood super-cops, we shouldn’t look any further than network television’s procedural potentate: the CSI family of formulaic programming. On the CSI shows, the stars are scientific swamis, investigative prodigies, precocious and apt interrogators, and almost inevitably the gun-bearing heroes who take down the guilty party, usually within 44 minutes.

Unsurprisingly, in the 14 years since Gil Grissom first suited up and embedded CBS’s flag atop the summit of Mount Nielsen Demographic Age 34-55, enrollment in college forensic courses has exploded, while the public’s perceived understanding of crime scene minutiae has ballooned. That’s perceived understanding – if one bases one’s knowledge on what Horatio Caine says or does right before he takes off his sunglasses and elicits Roger Daltrey’s unrestrained shriek, then one is most assuredly not a forensic specialist.

Experts in the fields of law, law enforcement and science call this the CSI Effect, and the reverberations of its repercussions can tingle the spines of professionals all across the justice spectrum. We know more, we expect more, and we understand more, but all stemming from the basis of fiction. If that doesn’t scare you just a little, then you simply aren’t trying hard enough.

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CSI was not the first dramatization of the justice system to throttle public perception into a bewildered shimmy. Jurors who regularly feasted upon the antics of Perry Mason between 1957 and 1966 often awaited the dramatic confession on the stand; one juror actually admitted to a defense attorney that his jury had voted ‘guilty’ because the prosecution’s key witness hadn’t erupted in a tearful admission of wrong-doing. Read more…

Day 930: The Other Foo Fighters

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I admit it, I frequently dip into the tart, opaque candy bowl of skepticism, filled with lemon drops of doubt and sour-chews of crotchety fact-checking. That said, I like my sour sweets to end with an upbeat aftertaste, a smidgen of optimism that my aforementioned leeriness will be heartily disproven. Deep down, I don’t believe in the hibber-jabber of ghosts, of karmic energy tallies or Earth-snooping alien life, but even deeper down, I kind of hope I’m wrong.

If this miasma of rambling self-reflection seems like a hopelessly clunky introduction to a kilograph on one of the greatest rock bands of the past two decades… well, it would be. But while the caliber of Dave Grohl’s rocktastic ass-kickery certainly merits a lengthy diatribe of praise (hell, I could do a thousand words on nothing more than the rib-clenching, cerebrospinal-throttling bridge of “Monkey Wrench”), that’s not what today is about.

Today we look at the original foo fighters: no foot-swiveling grooves, no cinematic videos and no capital ‘F’s. These foo fighters transport us back in time, into the goose-feather fury of the second World War, then up into a nebulous sky filled with illusionary aberrations – gravelly bumps in the smooth road of logic and comprehensible reason.

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The word ‘foo’ was a popular nonsense word of the 1930’s, much like any of Doctor Seuss’s whimsical wordage or much of what you’ll hear on Fox News today (hey! A topical joke! Three points for me!). It grew from the work of popular Chicagoan cartoonist Bill Holman and his Chicago Tribune strip known as Smokey Stover. Foo was an anarchic dalliance into the lexicon of imagination. It functioned as a noun, an adjective, and a G-rated exclamation of disbelief. Did it morph into the 1940’s-era military term FUBAR? Perhaps. But it certainly held ground in the American military landscape at that time. Read more…

Day 921: The Luddites Rage Against The Machines

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You don’t often hear the term ‘Luddite’ in conversation anymore. The word has come to represent one who is resistant to new technologies or despises them altogether. There simply aren’t as many of those people around anymore. While I was spending my youth hunched in front of a luminously green screen, fighting off orcs in Ultima IV or inputting some three-page BASIC program from a magazine, it made sense for my parents’ generation to scoff at such frivolity. Now we’re all getting soaked on the technological flume ride.

Being a Luddite today takes a lot of work. One would have to give up most modern means of communication, sacrifice access to history’s greatest research tool (this website, of course) and deny oneself the most extensive collection of free pornography ever known to humankind. Also, one may need to look up what the hell a Luddite actually is.

Fortunately, due to my commitment to making this site the nexus of all human knowledge (at least on 1000 various topics… well, 999 if you don’t count my final column, in which I’ll be ranting at length about all the people I know who piss me off), I’m here to help. The story of the Luddites combines my two favorite morsels of history: angry, violent people and a grotesque over-reaction by the government.

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The Luddites showed up in England in the early 19th century, right around the time Napoleon was collecting the chunks of Europe that his army hadn’t yet destroyed. But their origin story (which may or may not be a piece of fiction) dates back to 1779 when a weaver from Anstey (near Leicester) named Ned Ludd unleashed his rage on a pair of stocking frames, used for industrial knitting. The story goes that he was either being whipped for idleness – a common motivational technique prior to the advent of posters involving group parachuting formations – or else he was being taunted by local youths. Read more…

Day 920: Getting Dirty With QWERTY

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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.

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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 894: Take A Journey To The Center Of Your Mind With Jose

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Over the last 894 days I have had the opportunity to gain a sparkly new appreciation for medical science, and for how far we have progressed over the last 150 years or so. Back then, doctors didn’t even wash their damn hands, and now we’re allegedly on the threshold of swapping brains with one another. That’s quite the leap. But where science gets weird, my fingers get a-tapping, and it doesn’t get much weirder than the work of José Manuel Rodriguez Delgado.

Dr. Delgado also worked with the human brain, though his concern was less with its relocation and more with what it does. Specifically, what he could make it do, using radio waves and cranial implants. Dr. Delgado was into some spooky shit.

Where the realm of mind-control has been traditionally left to voodoo practitioners, nightclub hypnotists and goofy faith-healers, Dr. Delgado believed that it could (and should) occur at the chemical/electrical level. He wasn’t looking to control minds as a parlor trick; he actually foresaw a practical and beneficial application for his work. I wonder if he was also aware how many people felt skeeved out by it.

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Dr. Delgado had wanted to follow in the footsteps of his eye-doctor father, but once he stumbled upon the work of Santiago Ramon y Cajal, the Nobel laureate who is considered to be the grand-pappy of neuroscience, he changed his mind. The eye is a goopy glob of curiosity, but the brain is a vast network of mysteries, with so much shadowy terrain left to uncover. This was where José’s passion was jolted to life. Read more…