Tag: UK

Day 998: Crossing Abbey Road

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This Friday marks the 45th anniversary of what I believe to be the greatest album of all time.

Before you flick lint in my beer or pelt me with wads of Big League Chew for not designating this title to Pink Floyd’s Piper At The Gates of Dawn or Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ Too-Rye-Ay, allow me to point out that there are many albums that are flawless – sometimes in spite of a number of actual flaws. Nary a wayward note blemishes Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key of Life, and Paul Simon’s Graceland is among the few utterly perfect slabs of 1980’s vinyl. For me, “the greatest” combines not only artistic and technical brilliance, but the subjective distinction of having served as the soundtrack to many of the most fantastic moments of my life. Your results may (and probably do) vary.

The story of Abbey Road is one of pure, primal mirth, flecked with auburn specks of encroaching melancholy. It is the last glorious and romantic trip to Maui for an otherwise doomed marriage. It marks the greatest rock band in history (an assertion I’ll stand by as wholly factual) producing one final brushstroke upon their legacy before heading their separate ways.

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This is not a happy group.

In January of 1969, the Beatles were moving in four different directions, and had been for over a year. Their plan was to return to the studio, record a back-to-their-roots album, perform their first concert since the summer of 1966 (the Pyramids in Egypt were a proposed locale, as was a barge adrift in the Atlantic), and film it all for posterity. This attempt to reconnect resulted in a cavalcade of arguments, the grandiose concert reduced to a noon-hour gig on the roof, and the temporary quitting of George Harrison. Read more…

Day 909: The Real Grand-Daddy Of Motion Pictures – Louis Le Prince

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As an aspiring young (using the most broad and generous definition of “young”) film studies major, I was fascinated by the pre-Edison attempts at capturing moving pictures for subsequent viewing. Eadweard Muybridge used a long row of still cameras to capture a galloping horse’s stride, only to spurt the images in semi-full-motion through his zoopraxiscope. Coleman Sellers invented the kinematoscope, using a hand-cranked paddle machine to bring pictures to life. Then there’s Henry Renno Heyl’s phasmotrope, which demonstrated that every early cinematic invention had a cool name.

But we can’t forget ol’ Louis Le Prince, the Frenchman who patented his own camera that created a sequence of photos on treated paper. Like Muybridge, Sellers and Heyl, Le Prince’s work is seen as part of the multi-textured groundwork that gave birth to Thomas Edison’s magical moving-picture camera – the real genesis of the movie biz. Or so they say.

Except that Louis Le Prince’s story goes a little deeper than that. His is a tale, not only of innovation and genius, but of a curious – some might say suspicious – disappearance, and a very smarmy lawsuit against the man who would eventually get the credit for being the brains behind movie technology.

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Louis was a brilliant photographic technician, which was the 19th-century way of saying he was a brilliant photographer. There wasn’t much one could artistically accomplish with cameras back then, but Louis was renowned for his skills at fixing color photographs onto metal and pottery surfaces, which earned him the privilege of creating portraits of Queen Victoria and Prime Minister William Gladstone. He moved from Leeds (where he had been situated since his mid-20’s) to New York in 1881, a pioneer in his field. Read more…

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

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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.

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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…

Day 893: The Weird Cocoon-Like Prison Of The Gibbons Twins

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Growing up as an only child, whose only companions were the top-notch offerings of prime-time network television, I always wanted a sibling. But beyond that, I was downright fascinated with twins. That unspoken connection – some even say psychic communication – poked at the crusty, ashen embers of my imagination with a tempting stick. I always wanted that intrinsic bond, and I just wasn’t finding it with Mr. Belvedere.

Researchers have found that as many as one in eight pregnancies starts off as a twin pregnancy. One in eight. Sometimes one of the little zygotes dies so early in the pregnancy it isn’t detected, other times they might fuse together and form a single embryo. That’s a creepy thought, that there’s a real possibility that I might be made up of two pre-people.

But I’m interested in actual twins, those who split the rent on their womb with a view. And there’s a particular set of twins that has piqued my interest today, a pair of Barbados-born, Welsh-raised girls named June and Jennifer Gibbons. Their story grabs hold of the symbiotic closeness of twin lore and twists into something remarkably strange.

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Language development in twins has always been of interest to those who like to poke and prod at young’uns. There is a higher rate of delay among twins in grabbing hold of language, and not because of any hiccup in their cerebral wiring. Twins often exhibit something called idioglossia, which is a made-up language (okay, I suppose all languages are ‘made-up’ if you want to be picky about it) spoken by only a few people, sometimes only one. Read more…

Day 831: France’s West Wing – Saint Pierre & Miquelon

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If I were to ask you how far away France was located from Canada, the well-travelled among you might answer 3000 miles. The hopelessly cheesy among you might answer “only as far away as my lover’s eyes.” And those among you who value accuracy and specificity would come up with twelve.

Twelve miles. In a peppy little motorboat it would take you about twenty minutes. That won’t get you to the street-crepes of Paris of course, but it will take you to the shores of Saint Pierre and Miquelon, a small archipelago just off the coast of the Burin Peninsula of Newfoundland. These eight little islands are the last vestige of pre-Canada and pre-America, when England and France (and to a lesser extent the Dutch and the Portuguese – anyone else who wanted a slice of New World pie) were jostling for control over the continent.

Because of their tasty position on the front porch of North America, these little islands were significant slabs of valuable real estate. They also played a tiny but significant part in the history of our continent, despite never officially belonging to either Canada or the United States. Let’s pull up a historical lawn chair and see if these little water-logged land-specks are worth fighting over.

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By the time the Europeans dropped by Saint Pierre and Miquelon, no one was calling the place home. Native artifacts were eventually scraped from under the soil, but when Jacques Cartier and his French buddies swung by in 1536, the islands were empty. Even when the white folk showed up, the islands became little more than an overnight campground for cod fishers who were pillaging the sea creatures off the coast of what is now Canada. It took until around 1670 for the first year-round settlers to call the place home. Read more…

Day 815: Warriors Of Virtue

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While the bulk of our news sources have us scouring the globe for a missing plane, watching for the next drunken act of buffoonery by Toronto’s mayor or collectively pretending that Kim & Kanye’s pampered offspring has any relevance to anything, the mainstream western media has skipped a few stories. Perhaps not ‘skipped’, but ‘demoted’ beneath the whodunit-appeal of the Malaysian aircraft and the partisan theatrics in local and national politics. For example, did you know that 89% of the population of Veneto, the Italian province which includes the seductive city of Venice, voted to secede from Italy last week?

I will begrudgingly admit that my own ignorance is self-imposed. I plow through news-hungry waves, gobbling up current events stories like they were crab legs and bacon strips at the MGM Grand buffet. Then, once I find myself teetering upon the brink of abandoning all hope for humanity, I stop. I insulate myself with escapist entertainment and blissfully allow the world to shimmy and quiver on its own, on the other side of my heavy black curtains.

This is how I missed the extraordinary tale of Aitzaz Hasan. Here’s a kid who, at the age of fourteen years old exhibited a greater demonstration of pure cajones than everyone I knew at fourteen combined. It sickens me (with a slightly hypocritical acceptance of my own cross-cultural ignorance) that so many people are willing to pay hundreds of dollars to watch an unrepentant douche like Justin Bieber in concert, yet they miss out completely when someone like Aitzaz makes the news.

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Aitzaz Hasan was in the ninth grade, fifteen years old. He was a good student, perpetually busy and with no shortage of friends. His home was the Hangu District in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan, where a number of Shiites live, and where the local government has come under fire for attempting to negotiate peacefully with Taliban militants. One such militant, a fetid splotch of sub-human filth who had aligned himself with the extremist Sunni group known as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, crossed paths with Aitzaz on the morning of January 6, 2014.

(Perhaps this is what sours me on reading the news – most news sources will refrain from referring to people like this as ‘sub-human filth’, even when it applies.) Read more…

Day 787: A Splatter Of Ketchup (or Catsup)

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Of all the emails I receive, not counting those that pitch erectile magic or discount OxyKAUNTtiN, many implore me to tackle some of the most serious issues of our time in my articles. Sure, it’s fun to read about thought experiments or serial killers, but when am I going to tackle society’s real concerns? Like whether ‘catsup’ or ‘ketchup’ is the correct word?

Well, that’s an easy one. It’s ketchup – most of the world knows this, and most of the world will back me up with nary an argument. But that’s ‘most’ of the world – surely there must be an argument for the other side, right? After all, it’s not like the condiment was invented here. Surely its origin story would reveal the truth.

So here I go, diving valiantly into the fiery pool of controversy, my virtual word-sword ready to smite one side of this debate with molten splatter and expensive CGI effects, before I turn and walk slowly away from the topic, allowing it to explode behind me. Yes, this is the noble bad-assery of my duty: to find the facts and Michael-Bay the shit out of them.

Koe-chiap

As with many of our most prized (and traditionally, most American) delicacies, the origin of Ketchup hails from far, far away. Probably from China, though the true origin story of our favorite condiment may be a bit foggier than we historians would like. In the sunny Fujian region along China’s southeast coast there existed a brine made from pickled fish, known as ‘kôe-chiap’ in the Xiamen accent or ‘kê-chiap’ in the Zhangzhou accent. This is most likely the sauce which western explorers brought home. Read more…

Day 770: The Summerless Summer

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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.

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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 768: Archimedes Spins The Wheel

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There are days when I sit at my desk, look at what I do (my tedious day job, not this particular knuckle-scrunchingly thrilling task) and the weight of my uninspiring career seems to drag down my insides like a kidney stone the size of a tennis shoe. I considered myself to be wildly innovative the day I rubber-banded two pens together so I could reach a third pen that had fallen on the floor, meaning  I wouldn’t have to scoot over to pick it up. I even had a little paperclip on the end so it would lift up a bit and I wouldn’t have to touch the carpet where I regularly spill root beer and pastrami grease.

I felt like frigging MacGyver.

Thankfully, some people are afforded the opportunity to think bigger, and devise clever solutions for problems that get measured in tonnage. When the southern tip of South America proved to be too much of a detour, they figured out how to blast a shortcut through Panama. When too many hardworking souls lost their teeth from trying to open a beer bottle in the manliest way they could think of, they invented the twist-off so we wouldn’t have to. And when a pair of waterways were no longer functioning as conduits for commerce and shipping, they came up with the Falkirk Wheel.

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Before our planet was blanketed in a lattice of asphalt and concrete, we relied on waterways to get our stuff (and ourselves) to its destination. Where the Forth and Clyde Canal and the Union Canal meet in Scotland, a bit of ingenuity – even greater than that of my Pen Reachenator (patent pending) – was required. The Union Canal, which was completed in 1822, is located on land that sits about 110 feet above the surface of the Forth and Clyde. Engineers back then were already on top of their game; they devised a series of eleven locks to connect the two. Read more…

Day 766: My Anti-Kilo Kilograph

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As a young child, awash in homework that involved converting decameters to hectometers and other such metric mathery, I asked my father why the Americans (from whence he came) continue to make use of inches, feet, ounces, pounds, gallons, quarts and Fahrenheit when the system we use, where everything is neatly divisible by 100, makes more sense.

“Not now,” he told me. “I’m sleeping.”

And so I remain historically in the dark and culturally trapped between two opposites. Height I measure in feet and inches, travelling distance in kilometers, fluid containers in millilitres, and for penile length I’m thinking of switching to centimeters because it sounds more impressive.

Canada had tossed away its metric water wings long before I wandered into the school system, and we have been kicking it in the deep end of kilos and centis and such ever since. Imperial measurements I learned on the mean streets: a pint only appears in my mind with ice cream inside it, and a mile is a unit of distance that simply sounds better in a song (“I would walk five-hundred kilometers” just doesn’t fit the rhythm).

So how about the arguments against the metric system? Why won’t the Americans, Burmans and Liberians hop on board?

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It ain’t natural.

We have been using non-metric measurements for as long as we’ve needed to know how far it was between the angry woolly mammoth and the nearest tall tree. In some parts of Malaysia, the locals referred to the distance between towns in terms of ‘rice cookings’, believing that everyone walked at roughly the same rate and they all knew how long it took to cook a thing of rice. Sure, the context of how big one ‘foot’ was would depend on which member of the populace is doing the measuring, but that’s how it was and we damn well liked the spontaneity of it all. Read more…