Tag: USA

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 975: All Hail Norton I, Emperor Of These United States Of America

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For all her achievements and triumphs, America just hasn’t been the same since the good ol’ days when the Emperor ran the show.

It was a brief sliver of eccentric history (or ‘eccentristory’ – I’m copyrighting that title) that should never be forgotten. And for some who live in San Francisco, where Emperor Norton breathed the free air of his glorious domain, it’s a cause worth championing. If nothing else, he was a testament to the spirit of the San Franciscan penchant for enfolding the quirky and unrepentantly goofy into the city’s lore. This wouldn’t have happened in Omaha.

Consider this an education on the potential of the politic of passion, a reimagining of a man’s place in the society that – to his mind – has clipped the wings of his security and left him abandoned in the ether. One cannot be defeated if one is the champion of one’s own self-proclaimed might. Kudos to Emperor Norton for making up his own rules, and Super-Kudos to San Francisco for buying in.

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No one knows for certain the details of his origin story, but we do know that Joshua Abraham Norton came to us from somewhere in England via South Africa in 1849 after receiving a hefty bequest of $40,000 from his late father’s estate. He parlayed that money into a successful dance around the real estate market, building his fortune up to a cool quarter-million within a few short years. But Mr. Norton was always on the lookout for the next big opportunity. In this case, it drifted beneath his nose in the form of a news release from China. Read more…

Day 974: Punishing The Politicos – Worst Politicians Part 2

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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.

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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 971: Forget The Superheroes – This Man Literally Saved The World

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Look deep into his eyes. Ignore the fact that he might at any moment pitch forward from the weight of all those medals; he deserves your reverent gaze. Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov is very possibly the reason you are alive right now. Depending on how deeply you’re willing to reach into the pocket of his story – and it’s a story of such divine magnificence I’m personally ready to ink it in the history books with the crimson blood of unquestioned truth – Vasili’s stoic glare was once all that stood between us and the apocalypse.

The story of how Vasili derailed a potential nuke-storm is only part of his exceptional life, one that could not possibly fit between the frames of a biopic unless Peter Jackson was around to puff up the length beyond three hours. Part of his life actually did find its way into a Harrison Ford flick (though Ford himself played some other scowling Soviet), but not the part that earned him a spot in today’s kilograph.

Had Vasili not found himself stationed in precisely the correct submarine on that fateful day in 1963, while the Cuban Missile Crisis was doling out the likely ineffective instructions of “duck and cover” to the Western world, the physical landscape of our little planet might be significantly more pock-marked and desolate. But let’s start in the preamble, somewhere around the second act of Kathryn Bigelow’s K-19: The Widowmaker.

"Get off my sub!" was never uttered in this film. What a wasted opportunity.

“Get off my sub!” was never uttered in this film. What a wasted opportunity.

The summer of 1961 was a rough one for Vasili. While serving aboard the K-19, scooting around the North Atlantic and performing some just-in-case exercises, the sub developed a nasty leak in its reactor coolant system. The radio had also failed (I could make a joke about why the USSR lost the Cold War here, but that would be too obvious), so that meant the sub was drifting alone with a reactor that was heating up faster than Lewis Black opining about the current state of Fox News. Read more…

Day 964: The Engineering Of Consent

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To be perfectly clear, Edward Bernays was not in advertising. Yes, he was hired by companies, corporations and entire industries to convince the public that they should buy a given product, but there’s a fundamental philosophical difference here. Advertisers want the public to accept a product or service, and then to pay for it. Edward Bernays made use of the public’s sense of morality or their collectively accepted world-view, then manipulated those as needed in order to get us to pay for a product or service.

The correct term for Bernays’ life’s work is ‘public relations’. To say that Bernays invented P.R. would not be an overstatement – in fact, he helped to coin the term in the early 1900’s, and subsequently taught the first course on the subject at New York University in 1923. That we presently live in a society that can be manipulated and swayed by an expertly-placed pile of verbal bullshit is, in part, Bernays’ fault.

But don’t hold it against the guy. He changed the world – and in particular the North American way of life – more than almost anybody else in the 20th century. You may have never heard of him, but you have almost certainly conformed to his machinations, even if only subconsciously. As long as he gets to you – that’s all he needs.

He even has me convinced that's a real mustache.

He even has me convinced that’s a real mustache.

Sigmund Freud, the great grand-pappy of psycho-analysis, was perched upon two branches of Edward Bernays’ family tree. His mother was Anna, Sigmund’s sister, and his father was Sigmund’s wife’s brother. As such, it is little surprise that psychology wormed its way into everything Bernays did. Beginning as a press agent in 1913, fresh out of Cornell University, Bernays tweaked the concept of the ‘press release’ (which at the time was only a few years old) into something magical. Read more…

Day 962: Moriarty, Unmasked

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What can be said of a criminal mastermind? I’d always been deterred from a life of misdeeds by my utter conviction that I’d be lousy at it, and that the inevitable consequences of such a career are either prison, demise by the hand of the swarthy hero, or if one is lucky, a paranoid, skittish retirement. With my luck, I’d be foiled by some cartoonish gaggle of meddling kids and their talking stoner-dog.

Some of history’s most capable crooks have piqued my interest throughout this project, more out of my fascination at the tenacious longevity and the sometimes-cinematic flair with which they’d plied their trade. While I don’t aspire to join their ranks, I do envy how they have crafted their own good fortune.

The key here is that the criminals about whom I’ve written are famous – or at minimum, famous enough to warrant at least a brief Wikipedia page. But shouldn’t the truly successful master-crooks still be anonymous to us, even after the final curtain of death has ushered them off the mortal stage? Perhaps. But I believe a case can be made for the exquisite professionalism and enduring evil genius of those bad guys whose names nonetheless appear in print – even those who have risen to become legends. Take, for instance, the near-perfect vocational aptitude of the 19th-century criminal genius, Adam Worth.

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Adam turned to a life of crime as soon as he’d been kicked off the grid. Raised in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Adam ran away from home at ten, then at seventeen he lied about his age so he could join the Union Army to fight in the Civil War. After getting wounded at the Second Battle of Bull Run, Adam learned he’d been listed as Killed In Action by accident. He took advantage of his premature death and disappeared.

He found easy work as a bounty jumper; he’d be paid off by citizens to sign up for the army in their name, then after he’d collected his army paycheck he’d flit back to the shadows. Adam pulled this off several times, never getting caught, though he did attract some attention. Local law enforcement was in no position to help out the armed forces, but a new type of heroic protagonist had emerged on the scene in the form of Allan Pinkerton and the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. Pinkerton’s was the first private investigation firm in American history, and they were happy to chase after Adam Worth and the other bounty jumping scum who were profiting from military desertion.

Curiously, Pinkerton PI went for the exact opposite of Magnum PI's swarthy mustache.

Curiously, Pinkerton PI went for the exact opposite of Magnum PI’s swarthy mustache.

The war ended, and Adam settled into the pickpocket business in New York. He was an entrepreneur, however, soon acquiring his own gang of pickpockets, and working his way up to little robberies and heists. Well-known criminal fence Marm Mandelbaum took Adam under her wing, helping him plan more elaborate capers. At Mendelbaum’s request, Adam helped to tunnel under the soil outside the White Plains jail in order to liberate safecracker Charley Bullard. Charley and Adam became close friends and partners in their nefarious deeds. Read more…

Day 953: Please Forget Me (When I’m Gone)

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There are a few moments in my life that I wish could be collectively forgotten by all who had witnessed them. Throwing up in my high school parking lot after downing a half-bottle of Southern Comfort at 1:00 in the afternoon. Shooting that spitball in the sixth grade that missed my target and thwacked my teacher in the face. Accepting that dare to chug back a large KFC gravy like it was Gatorade.

But those are the curses strung like sooty leis around the neck of my conscience – the snarky memories that promise to surge into my brain at unwanted moments, when I’m otherwise feeling good and groovy. We’ve all got them, and some are even more awful to imagine than the gravy thing. The question I’m asking today is how much are we legally allowed to wipe from the societal record?

The “Right To Be Forgotten” sounds like a foray into self-imposed hermitism, of declaring one’s intention to leave the grid and skitter out of civilization’s crosshairs. And while that can play into it, the right to be forgotten is a far less dramatic and demanding concept, yet nearly as tricky to achieve. What about simply yanking something off the record? Booting the search engine results that conceal that most jagged bone of the skeleton in your closet? It’s not so simple.

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The European Union addressed this issue early in the internet age, adopting something called the European Data Protection Directive in 1995. This is a lengthy bill, full of rollicking puns and nineteen colorful applications of the word “fuck-bucket”. Actually, I haven’t read the thing, but I’m sure it’s a laugh riot from start to finish. It sketches out that fine twisted squiggle between privacy and transparency, offering a legitimized perspective of where human rights trump the right to knowledge. And if you’re someone who’d like to keep a little nugget of your past quiet, it’s a really good thing. Read more…

Day 950: Washington’s One-Off Moment Of Calm

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The 1810’s were a weird time in American history. The capital city burned to the ground, the country was poised to split in half (an east-west rift, not the north-south one that would roll in a half-century later), and it all culminated in a segment of time so groovy it was actually named the Era of Good Feelings. Political divisiveness faded away, a renewed sense of warm, cuddly patriotism tickled everybody’s squishy bits, and for just the briefest of pages in that grand ol’ tome of history, the States truly felt United.

We are currently dredging our political boots through a period of ludicrously sticky partisanship. Reading through a newspaper, through the finger-wagging of the left and the manic hypocrisy of the right, has launched me into several grey periods of willful ignorance over the last few years, in which I find myself skimming through the pages, pausing only at the movie and television news, and any articles involving puppies.

But while we gaze briefly and longingly at this mystical nugget of political respite, we’d bestn’t pine for the nation’s lost idealism. The so-called Era of Good Feelings was little more than the deceptive breath of a cool breeze on a day so hot it could boil the paint off the Capitol dome. When it fell apart, so began the nation’s journey toward the scissor-snip of the Civil War.

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The story begins with the Hartford Convention of 1814, which probably did not take place in the Hartford Convention Center, pictured above. This was a gathering of curmudgeonly white guys representing the Federalist Party. These men had more gripes with the administration running the country than would a modern-day gaggle of hemorrhoidal Fox-News bobbleheads. Here’s why they were pissed:

–       The War of 1812 was not going well. The cocky British, fresh off their victory over Napoleon, had careened into Washington DC back in August and burnt much of it – including the Capitol and the White House – into ashes. This did not bode well.

–       The war was also wrinkling the smooth flow of overseas trade. You don’t mess with old New England money. Read more…

Day 949: Rumble In The Laotian Jungle

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The air was as thick as a steak and almost as full of blood. Lieutenant, Junior Grade Dieter Dengler stared at each of his fellow P.O.W.s and wondered which of them would be up for the escape. There were three men from Thailand, one Chinese man, and an American “kicker” named Eugene DeBruin, all of whom had been working for the CIA’s Air America, covertly delivering food and supplies to refugees in the early stew of the Vietnam War. The other man was First Lieutenant Duane W. Martin, the only other American serviceman among them.

The Chinese man, Y.C. To, was suffering from a fever – he wasn’t likely to keep up. But postponement of the escape was not an option; one of the Thais had overheard a guard mutter something about taking the seven men out to the jungle and shooting them, making it look like they’d been trying to flee. Now the flee would have to be.

Dieter was the one who drew up the scenario. He’d slip out of his restraints while the guards were eating, grab some weapons, then let the bullets fly. Dieter had trained for this. He was ready.

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As a boy in Wildberg, Germany, Dieter had always dreamed of being a pilot. He’d never met his father, and was raised under the tutelage of his grandfather – the lone citizen of his hometown who had not voted for the Nazi Party. Dieter packed up what little he had and made for New York City, where he lived on the gritty streets for a week before popping into the local Air Force recruiting station. Read more…