Tag: World’s Fair

Day 992: The John Wilkes Booth World Tour

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When John Wilkes Booth was crouching in Richard H. Garrett’s tobacco barn, listening to Lieutenant Colonel Everton Conger’s orders to surrender, he decided to go out with a bang. He refused the surrender, then once the barn was lit on fire he took a bullet to the neck, delivered by Sergeant Boston Corbett. He was dead by the break of dawn, less than two weeks after he had prematurely terminated the presidency of Abraham Lincoln in Ford’s Theatre.

Or was he?

Way out in the sprawling suburbs of historical perception there exists the notion that the man whose life was snuffed to a nub in that barn was actually a man named James William Boyd, a Confederate soldier who looked enough like Booth that his body passed through ten pairs of identifying eyes (not counting the pair that aimed the gun that took his life), as well as an official autopsy. The composers of this theory also posit that the government knew about the mix-up and let it happen. Because where is the fun in a murder without a deep and sinister government conspiracy?

As for the “real” John Wilkes Booth… well, on the off-chance that this is all true, we can say with a relative certainty that Booth was, in fact, this guy:

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One day in 1873, some eight years after the furor over the Lincoln assassination had been pressed between the leaves of history, Memphis lawyer Finis L. Bates met and befriended a liquor and tobacco merchant named John St. Helen. It’s good to get to know the man who sells you booze and smokes, and Bates was particularly taken by John’s ability to spout Shakespeare from memory. The two became good friends outside the seller-consumer relationship.

Five years later, John St. Helen was on what he believed to be his deathbed, profoundly ill. He confided in Finis Bates that he was in fact John Wilkes Booth. He asked Finis to advise his brother, Edwin Booth, of his demise. Then he recovered. Read more…

Day 980: The Man In The Zoo

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Within the margins of human behavior, how is it possible for our hunger for self-awareness to coexist with our penchant for abandoning empathy and basic compassion? History’s most exquisite brains have combed the mines of knowledge and speculation in order to pilfer as much truth about ourselves as can be swallowed by mortal minds, yet in doing so they have occasionally stomped upon our collective dignity by treating the subjects of their study as though they belonged to an unrelated sub-species.

Ota Benga was just a dude. Had the trajectory of his existence not been marred by western interference, he might have lived a blasé life of hunting, storytelling and raising a family. Instead he was plucked from the lush, equatorial forests of his youth and made a slave, a sideshow wonder, and a zoological exhibit for slack-jawed tourists.

Most of the injustices thrust upon Ota’s arc were done with the false pretense of anthropological education, cloaked in evolutionary flim-flammery and racist eugenics. But what did we learn, apart from humankind’s tragically vast tolerance for our own assholishness?

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A member of the Mbuti tribe in what was then called the Belgian Congo, Ota Benga’s life was first derailed by Belgium’s King Leopold II around the turn of the 20th century. Leopold had dispatched the Force Publique, a heavily-armed militia aimed at reminding the Congolese natives that they’d best remain devoted to producing rubber for Belgium’s financial gain. Ota was out on a hunt when the armed men showed up and murdered his wife and two children. When he returned to his village, he was captured as a slave. Read more…

Day 840: Baby You Can Drive My Car – Or Better Still, Your Robot Can Do It

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As I trepidatiously shuffle toward the edge of the board, ready to leap into the warm waters of turning 40 this year, I realize it’s time to release my hopes of seeing the skies filled with flying cars. That Jetsons-style future-scape is not going to cross paths with my personal timeline, just as I probably won’t experience the food replicator from Star Trek or the Cleveland Browns winning a Super Bowl. That’s okay, I can live with that.

But what we lack in personal airborne transport (I don’t see the jetpack taking hold as any type of standard either) we are making up for in robot technology. If we can’t buzz the upper windows of the Chrysler Building in our 2033 Buick Fly-lark then at the very least we can have a nap in the back seat while our car safely transports us to work and parks itself. And from the looks of things, I won’t have to wait until my octogenarian days to experience this.

The robot-car, or autonomous vehicle, is a reality. And we can thank Google, the company that has created the technology to allow us to accurately simulate the experience of walking in a strange city with blurred-out faces, for having successfully tested a driverless car to the extent where it seems almost marketable. This idea has been in the works for a long time.

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In 1926 the Houdina Radio Control Co., which had been founded by a former US Army electrical engineer named Francis P. Houdina, demonstrated a radio-controlled driverless car through the crowded streets of midtown Manhattan. It was a novelty and it very much required human control in some fashion, but it was a start. The experiment garnered enough attention to piss off Harry Houdini, who stormed into Houdina’s offices with his secretary and trashed the place, believing Houdina to be capitalizing on Harry’s famous name. The 20’s were a wild decade. Read more…

Day 824: Lights… Camera… Stink!

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Imagine if you will the scent of Scent Of A Woman. The stink of Mel Brooks’ Life Stinks. The sweet smell of The Sweet Smell of Success. With so many leaps in the technologies of CGI to improve a film’s look and the constant reinvention of pristine Dolby sound, it feels as though our other senses are being neglected. Movie theatres are offering pre-assigned seating, full bar service and popping Sam Worthington’s face off the screen in terrifying 3D, but why the hell can’t I smell his sweat?

A couple days ago I wrote about an April Fools’ prank in which the BBC convinced viewers they’d be introducing new technology that would allow their TV audience to experience the smells of their favorite programs without having to purchase any additional equipment. The mental image of millions of curious viewers pressing their shnozzes up against their TV tubes still tickles my giggle-muscle.

But I was inadvertently gobsmacked by the extensive available information on legitimate attempts to incorporate the olfactory into the public cinematic experience. Perhaps it’s time for Smell-O-Vision to make a resurgence; they’re trying to lure us away from our torrents and our Video-on-Demand by encouraging us to sit among the chatty teens and cell-phone-happy nudniks for $15 a pop in the theater; why not give us the visceral experience of finding out what Kevin James really smells like?

Surprisingly, he smells a little like old crackers.

Surprisingly, he smells a little like old crackers.

As I learned a few days ago, Samuel Roxy Rothafel, the brains behind Radio City Music Hall, first tried to engage the sense of smell in his Forest City, Pennsylvania theater in 1906. The story goes that he had a pile of cotton wool that had been soaked in rose oil placed in front of an electric fan, titillating the nostrils of his patrons while they watched the Tournament of Roses Parade. This was two decades before the movies had figured out how to fuse themselves with sound – Rothafel was jumping the curve with this. Read more…

Day 658: The Sumptuous Buttery World Of Popcorn

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The esteemed American poet James Joseph Brown Jr. once wrote, “But when I get funky, I do the sap. And when I want lovin’, mother, she got to have. Say, you got to have a mother for me. Yeah, popcorn.”

And so it was.

Popcorn is one of the most universally beloved snacks by folks who don’t wear braces. It can exude so many personalities, from the puckish kiss of sweet caramel to the warm seductive sploosh of melted butter to that weird pink stuff in the box with the elephant on the front. That’s the popcorn the other popcorns don’t talk to at parties. There’s something not right about that guy.

But for the most part popcorn is a friendly snack, sharing our greatest movie experiences with us and even reminding us about the importance of flossing when one of its stubborn husks decides to take refuge behind a molar. And popcorn is a big business. Americans snarf down more than sixteen billion quarts of popcorn a year, which works out to about 51 quarts per person. That’s a lot of popcorn.

Having been raised with the metric system, I can only assume that 51 quarts looks something like this.

Having been raised with the metric system, I can only assume that 51 quarts looks something like this.

There’s an old legend about the Native Americans giving popcorn to the newly-landed Europeans, but a fair amount of archeological poking around the US has uncovered absolutely no evidence to support it. Corn was, however, a major crop down South America way, around where Peru sits today, and there’s evidence of popcorn having been consumed there close to seven thousand years ago. To be clear, they found corncobs that date from around 4700 B.C. – how they extrapolated that the corn was devoured in pop form, I have no clue. But the Smithsonian Museum said it happened, so who am I to argue? Read more…

Day 474: Disney’s Hidden Corners

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Anytime someone uses the term ‘Mickey Mouse Organization’ to denote a company or government that is inexperienced, ineffectual or somehow incompetent, I wonder why such a saying exists. The real Mickey Mouse organization – in particular the theme parks with Mickey’s trademark ears plastered all over the place – is about as slick and capable a machine as you’ll ever see.

Every facet of the theme park experience is engineered and monitored, from the admin buildings and garbage cans being painted to blend into the landscape, to the meticulous litter monitoring and hidden camera setups.

Oh and there are secrets. Crazy, amazing secrets. Tiny corners of the park that you can’t wander into as a tourist, but with the right connections, you can witness for yourself.

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High on my bucket list of places to visit is the mysterious Club 33, located in the New Orleans Square district of Disneyland, not far from the Pirates Of The Caribbean ride. You can approach the door with the number ‘33’ beside it, but unless your name is on the list, you aren’t getting in. Read more…

Day 460: The World Of Tomorrow… Yesterday!

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Every so often, a new technology grabs the public’s attention by the short hairs and doesn’t let go until it has gone mainstream. The iPad caused massive line-ups, earned gazillions in pre-sales, and offered the world an entirely new way to stream pornography. The first portable mp3 players showed us the potential for listening to all our illegally-obtained music on the go, without the fascist constraints of a 74-minute audio CD. And the first time I tried out a car with a back-up camera, I wanted to hit the highway in reverse, just because I could.

But the great innovations seem to space themselves out. We can watch the tech news for leaks, and we can visit the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas every January for a look at some of the new innovations in TVs, computers and sex dolls, but in the not-too-distant past, the world would get together and watch the future explode into being. All at once.

Take, for example, the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City.

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The idea emerged from the murky depths of the Great Depression. A bunch of retired NYPD officers came up with the Fair as a way to lift America up from its economic funk, and attract the world’s attention (and hopefully a lot of its money) into New York. The scientists on board were hoping to flood the fair with the wonder and majesty of modern science, but former police chief Grover Whalen pushed for a heavier focus on technology and new products. The toys would get the people’s attention. Read more…

Day 401: The Eiffel Towerses

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In my (albeit limited) experience, the buildings that have earned the reputation of being among the world’s best usually live up to the hype. The CN Tower in Toronto pierces the sky like a deranged steel phallus, the Empire State Building’s mastery of art deco ensures New York will never become too cold and modern for its own good, and Telus Plaza in Edmonton, where I work, is just as ugly in real life as it looks in photos.

It even smells bland inside.

It even smells bland inside.

Then there’s the Eiffel Tower, which rises like a strikingly cool fountain of intricately woven lattice above Paris, offering some of the most lens-liquefyingly exquisite views of France’s boldest metropolis. Such an incredible architectural accomplishment is truly a unique volume within the world’s library of magnificent structure.

Well, sort of. The word ‘unique’ might need to be yanked from that sentence. ‘Cause it totally isn’t.

There are more than thirty Eiffel-ish Towers around the world, all emulating Gustave Eiffel’s contribution to the 1889 World’s Fair. The original – the one that ends up on the postcards – is about 1050 feet tall. Most of its impersonators don’t quite match up. Read more…

Day 394: Who Do Hoodoo?

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You’ve surely heard of voodoo, but what about hoodoo? They both originate from the same part of the globe, but they’re stems growing from different roots. Voodoo is religion, be it Haitian, Louisianan or West African. Hoodoo is a long distance call to the spirit world. Voodoo is the zesty tonic inside an exotic glass; hoodoo is the spicy salt under the rim that could save you or kill you, depending on the whim of the bartender who served it. Hoodoo isn’t religion – it’s folk magic.

To its devotees, when God looked up the recipe for concocting an Earth in a half-dozen sleeps, He checked under ‘H’ for Hoodoo. God is the original Hoodoo doctor, neither a capital-H ‘He’ nor a capital-S ‘She’. Ever since some time in the 19th century, when Christianity bled its tales of crimson magic into the skulls of rapt hoodoo-lovers everywhere, the Bible took on a new interpretation: one of magic, conjuring, and hoodoo. Moses’ reputation among the Jews gets a whole lot funkier when he is depicted as a hoodoo master.

Even more so when depicted as a Jedi master.

Even more so when depicted as a Jedi master.

In hoodoo, the bible becomes a talisman, its psalms and passages acting as vessels of spells and magic. Secrets of the Psalms, a book that occupies real estate on every hoodoo adherent’s shelf, claims that one little corner of the bible holds a particularly chewy slab of magic. Worried about your flight doing a spiral dive into Lake Superior? Have a headache so big you could write Excedrin on it thirty-one times and it still wouldn’t do you any good? Are you getting frustrated that the frequency of your marital relations is more spaced apart than the frequency of lunar eclipses? The Book of Psalms holds the hoodoo key. Read more…