November 30, 2008

T-Shirt Literacy

Cafe Press has a bewildering variety of specialty products, including some good book-oriented garb. (T-shirt Editorial Alert: For the capitalization to be consistent, shouldn't the word "it" be upper case?) To the right is another shirt using the last line from James Joyce's Ulysses that I saw tattooed on the back of a woman's neck at a book reading. (Fascinating blog entry here.)

From endings to beginnings, Red Molotov runs the intro to J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye on a T-shirt (no cool graphic available).
"If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth."

November 29, 2008

Giving Us the Electrocuted Bird, Part II

“[They are] the most stupid in the nation, few of their children speak English and through their indiscretion . . . great disorders may one day arise among us.” Benjamin Franklin (Can you guess what group he was referring to?*)
As you may be saddened to know, I’ve been building a case against Benjamin Franklin. I believe he may be the most over-rated of our Founding Fathers, and let's see, where was I… yes, let the record show that Franklin didn’t even like his new nation’s name, preferring the United States of North America. (Rats, that’s actually a good idea.) Okay, let me start over.

Ah, here we are. In 1741, Franklin printed the first magazine ad ever to run in North America. It was a “Wanted” ad for a runaway slave. Nice.

And while much is made of Franklin’s success as a diplomat in France, he earned a spot at the bottom of a chamber pot during his tenure there. True, Franklin was enormously popular with the French. That was the problem; he was TOO popular. When King Louis overheard one of Marie Antoinette’s ladies-in-waiting swooning over how great Franklin was, the king took measures. He had a customized porcelain chamber pot made. At its bottom was a picture of Franklin. And it was sent to the lady-in-waiting, who, I’m guessing, took the hint.

* He was talking about German immigrants. My sources are here.

November 28, 2008

Wherein the Blog Pursues a Theme: SCATology

Introducing El Caganer

Readers of The Pocket Guide to Mischief are already acquainted with the Spanish character of El Caganer (“the great pooper”). Statues of him evacuating his bowels are a common sight in Catalonia, where the traditional figurine of El Caganer is the Catalan peasant pictured below.
While this may seem odd, in northeastern Spain, these figurines date back to the 1600s and are considered symbols of good health. Hey, it's a culture without prissy scatalogical hangups! Before dining, Catalans sometimes say, “Menjar bé, i caga fort, i no tinguess por de la mort!” (“Eat well, poop strong, and you will have no fear of death!”)

According to Der Spiegel, in the Christmas season, Catalan kids “play a Where's-Waldo-like game that involves searching for the caganer, who is hidden somewhere in the Nativity arrangement.” As a symbol of respect, the pooper is usually located at some distance from the manger’s holier occupants.

If you’re interested, this website offers 150 different El Caganer figurines, all of them assuming the position. The current U.S. president is the company's second-bestselling item, but other political leaders are also available, for instance, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. (See also the Friends of El Caganer.)

November 27, 2008

Giving Us the Electrocuted Bird

“[Benjamin Franklin is] a crafty and lecherous old hypocrite whose very statue seems to gloat on the wenches as they walk the States House yard.” —William Cobbett
Statesman. Scientist. Revolutionary. Writer of bad jokes. The United States was founded by a score of brilliant human beings, and Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) may have been the brilliant-est of all. But so many watts have been added to his legend over the years, it’s possible he’s also the most overrated of the Founding Fathers.

For example, much is made of the Franklin’s wisdom and wit, but today, many of his one-liners have lost their zip. “He that lives on hope, dies farting”? How crude! (Of course, there’s also “Men and melons are hard to know.” So true!)

Further tarnishing Franklin's luster is the fact that he tried to give us the bird! As is tiresomely reported every Thanksgiving, Franklin wanted the U.S. to adopt the turkey for its national emblem. He claimed it was a “bird of courage.” While it’s hard to argue with that (a turkey is not a chicken), Franklin then stooped to dirty politics, charging that the bald eagle was a bird of “bad moral character”! Despite this slander, Congress adopted the bald eagle as our national emblem in 1782.

As for Franklin's professed love for the turkey, in 1750, Franklin tried to electrocute one of the fowls to death as part of an experiment. (Really!) But instead, Franklin accidentally electrocuted himself. The great man then suffered short-term memory loss for a... short term.
My sources are here.

November 24, 2008

One-Horse Towns Need Bigger Parking Spaces

Horse-drawn carriages are so 19th-century. Our modern age needs new solutions to our clean energy needs. Enter the Naturmobil!

Invented by Abdolhadi Mirhejazi, the Naturmobil bounces along on six motorcycle wheels with exactly one horsepower above them. By walking or running on a treadmill, the horse powers the Naturmobil forward. As this article states:
[It] produces enough surplus energy to charge a small battery which powers the buggy’s lights, electrical system, and can even take over from the horse when [the horse] needs a rest.

When the horse’s body temperature gets too hot for comfort, a sensor attached to its side transmits its temperature reading to a controller which automatically turns off the treadmill and switches the vehicle to run on battery power.
You've got to love the humane touches; the horse gets a weather canopy and a helpful gearing system (and as far as I can see, doesn’t have to take a bit).

Buy one here! (Horse not included.)

November 23, 2008

Bagels and Bongos

Inasmuch as it has no competing titles, And You Shall Know Us by the Trail of Our Vinyl is destined to become a classic of its kind.

Authors Roger Bennett and Josh Kun were recently interviewed on NPR about their journey collecting and annotating their book of album covers. It's particularly worth listening to for the clips from the albums themselves.

While these images may suggest a certain kitschiness to the project, the book seems to be a legitimate labor of love. As the authors note, they were searching for answers to questions about thorny topics like their own Jewish heritage and why so many of these vintage records were available in Boca Raton.

November 22, 2008

Finally! The Vomeronasal System as Interpretive Dance

Ricky Jay wrote his book Learned Pigs (see previous blog entry) at UCLA. According to a New Yorker profile, Thomas Wright, (a professor of literature and librarian), tried to persuade Jay to apply for a postdoctoral research fellowship.

When Jay explained that he didn’t have a doctorate, Wright said, “Maybe a master’s degree would be sufficient.”

“Thomas, I don’t even have a B.A.” [said Jay.]

Wright replied, “Well, you know, Ricky, a Ph.D. is just a sign of docility.”

Add to that flexibility now that Science magazine has solicited videos for its “Dance Your Ph.D.” contest. The idea was for researchers to “interpret their Ph.D. research in dance form.” Here's a non-winning entry that's still among the best submissions. (Keep in mind that “best” is a limited word in this context.) For example, here's Wendy Grus's take on her thesis:Evolution of the vomeronasal system viewed through system-specific genes."

If you insist on seeing a winner, Vince LiCata, a biochemist at Louisiana State University, took the “Professors” category with this take on "Resolving Pathways of Functional Coupling in Human Hemoglobin Using Quantitative Low Temperature Isoelectric Focusing of Asymmetric Mutant Hybrids."

The four dancers are “representing the interaction of pairs of hemoglobin molecules." Wondering why Old Man Winter runs in to pour Styrofoam frost on someone? Muscle up and read the thesis. How hard could it be?

November 21, 2008

Un-Noosed and Not Kosher

This 1931 poster for the Man With the Iron Neck gives a good preview of his act. The Great Peters was a bungee-jumping pioneer; the rope he used covered a really long elastic band, so Peters could plummet, nearly touch the ground, bounce back, and un-noose himself.

Though the Man With an Iron Neck died in 1943 while performing this stunt, it wasn’t due to a weak spine. (Intestinal fortitude was also not to blame.) The Great Peters met his end when his rope broke. There’s no bouncing back from that.

In a not-very related story, the New York Times has a story today about Israeli gangsters sitting shiva for murdered crime boss Yaakov Alperon. Apparently, somebody didn't like Alperon despite attempts to rehab the family name. As part of this p.r. campaign, Alperon had opened up his family home to model Yael Goldman (above) "as part of a television reality show, 'Once in a Lifetime,' in which people were matched with different, often incongruous, types of families." Kooky!

Goldman was happy to do the show, but waxed philosophical afterwards. The model said,You see ‘The Sopranos’ and it sounds sexy that some Mafioso comes and charms you into the sunset. But in reality it is the opposite. It is very intimidating, scary, not kosher.” Oy.

The poster above is from Ricky Jay’s droll and vastly informative book on unusual performers, Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women.

November 20, 2008

The Coolest Water Balloon Video in the History of the World

NPR’s Talk of the Nation posted what is apparently the coolest water balloon video in the history of the world. (I know, that’s sort of a grandiose statement given that water balloons weren’t even invented until the 21st century.)

In it, mechanical engineers Mark Weislogel (of Portland State University) and Seth Lichter pop water balloons on NASA's low-gravity training aircraft nicknamed the “Vomit Comet.” Four years ago, NASA announced that crews kept track of the amount of astronaut vomit cleaned up in the jet over the years. The total was over 285 gallons. Sounds like Mr. Lichter may have added to that. (Sorry, can’t embed the video; click on the picture below to follow the link.)
Yes, this teaches us very important aspects of physics; as one observer noted, “In addition to the surface tension observations, it appeared they were doing some quick & dirty trials on fluid collision behavior—” Ooh, another one popped!

November 19, 2008

World Toilet Day

Dang, I almost forgot: Today is World Toilet Day.
Odds are that anyone reading this will use a toilet 6-8 times daily. (More if you visit here regularly.) Above, an exhibit of 50 toilets placed outside of Berlin's Central Station to heighten sanitation awareness. What I like about the photo (from Der Spiegel) are the people; you can almost re-create their train of thought:

"There are dozens of toilets laid out in a pattern over there. Let us wander among them."

Last Thing: Here are the toughest places in the world to find a toilet.

Look Into My Eye

Artist Isia Leviant came up with something called the "Enigma illusion," wherein the purple rings of an image like this seem to contain moving particles. Exploring how this illusion is created, neuroscientist Jorge Otero-Millan helped determine that tiny, involuntary jerks of the watcher’s eye create this false motion in the image. Otero-Millan than created the above homage to the idea: Look into the middle of the pupil to see it.

This is just one of the many fascinating instances where we humans see something that is not there. Instead, we see a false reality that we unconsciously create. I wish I’d reflected on this more fully before pulling the wool over my own eyes. Yes, I bought a human-powered treadmill.

I thought this machine would be superior to walking, hiking, jogging, or cycling. But it wasn’t until I got out on the road with it that I realized it doesn’t come equipped with the proper reflectors or lights. Braking is a problem, and signaling my turns by hand throws off my equilibrium. So why did I buy it? Why?

I blame the tiny, involuntary jerks in my eyes.

Here’s another illusion; both of the ones featured here come from a terrific slide show over at Scientific American. This one is a variation on what’s called the Hajime Ouchi illusion. Move your head back and forward while looking at it. But to get the full effect, paint this on the side of a building and then roll toward and away from it on your human-powered treadmill.

(You may also want to take a peek at Adelson's Checker-Shadow Illusion.)

November 18, 2008

When Houses Attack

My canon aside, I know no more about architecture than the next interested layperson. (Hey, did you see that? I wrote “My canon aside.” I promise not to do that again.)

But I do have a soft spot for novelty architecture. We don’t have that many “Gee whiz!” buildings in the Pacific Northwest (left, Portland's Jug, below, Tacoma’s ramshackle Bob’s Java Jive), but luckily there are sites like Unusual

For instance, the so-called "House Attack" from Vienna Austria (top, photo by Dom Dada) does the trick. While Unusual Architecture could be better annotated, the photo credits (and/or the Flickr groups the photos are in) usually lead to more brass tacks information on the buildings.
Above, the non-Photoshopped Crooked House of Sopot, Poland. (Photo by brocha.) Buildings with designs as freakish and original as these virtually force the onlooker to point at them while saying something clever like, “Look!” (Also acceptable: "Dude, that's so weird" and "I probably shouldn't have eaten that whole kielbasa.")

While it may not literally tower over these other buildings, Kansas City Library’s design is impossible to top. Photo by Jonathan Moreau. (Also of interest: Unusual Life.)

November 17, 2008

Thick Skins and Bouncy Centers

As professional jugglers and politicians know, it takes a thick skin to survive the public spotlight. (Hey, there’s not much need for “private spotlights,” is there?) In 2007, Senator Jim Inhofe (of Oklahoma) spoke to a receptive audience on this topic:
“I have been called—my kids are all aware of this—dumb, crazy man, science abuser, Holocaust denier, villain of the month, hate-filled, warmonger, Neanderthal, Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun. And I can just tell you that I wear some of those titles proudly.”
While I’m not sure which one of those titles the senator could happily don, Inhofe provides a role model of toughness that NBA players should take to heart. Take the oft-injured Baron Davis, for example. After incidental contact with Utah’s Mehmet Okur, Davis goes down like he was sniped by an assassin’s bullet.

More embarrassing is the celebratory chest bump that Sasha Vujacic of the Lakers (we hates ‘em!) tried to engage in… it’s like a physics experiment gone bad. In addition to having hollow bones, Vujacic apparently has a bouncy center.

Ooh! Looky!

November 16, 2008


The December issue of REAL SIMPLE includes The Pocket Guide to Games in its gift guide.

Many thanks to the RS staff for this unexpected kindness.

You're possibly wondering why the magazine isn't REALLY SIMPLE. It's because the two words in its title are meant to stand alone... and next to each other. That is, the magazine is REAL and it's SIMPLE. I suppose they could have gone with REAL/SIMPLE, but there were probably good reasons not to. Consumer resistance to backslashes and all that.

November 15, 2008

Stand-Up Comedians and Gangsta Horticulturists

Before Larry David was the writer/producer for Seinfeld, and the star of his own show, Curb Your Enthusiasm, he was a stand-up comic. Unsurprisingly, David was an idiosyncratic one; he didn’t do well with half-wits, hecklers, or the inattentive.

A memorable late 1970s performance of David’s is described in Richard Zoglin’s excellent book, Comedy at the Edge:
One night at Catch [a Rising Star], David came out, silently scanned the audience, muttered, “I don’t think so,” and walked off without saying another word.
Asked to reminisce about the moment today, David simply says, “I just didn’t like what I saw.”

What a mensch.

Along the lines of unfinished business, the Northwest Florida Daily News reports that three men were caught after they'd “attempted” to write an expletive on the road.

As the article diplomatically notes:
The expletive, which normally contains four letters, was missing the last letter — a "k." [A sheriff’s] deputy noted that although…the word was spelled wrong, the suspects will face criminal mischief/graffiti charge due to "the graphic nature of the word attempting to be spelled out."
Is attempted indecency more or less indecent than the regular kind? A wag has pointed out that they may have been a band of gangsta horticulturalists trying to spell “fuchsia.”

I don't think so.

November 14, 2008

Literary Look-Alikes

Portland’s annual literary festival, Wordstock, was held the other week. Its volunteers hosted an impressive diversity of authors and bookish offerings. For instance, let’s say that you like your get-togethers populated with Star Wars stormtroopers, Elvis impersonators, and Ovaltine samples. Wordstock had you covered!

Below: Star Wars writer Steve Perry,
an Ovaltine enthusiast, and Elvis.

But if I can offer a modest suggestion, perhaps Wordstock could profit from the example set by the Florida bar known as Sloppy Joe’s. Since 1981, Sloppy Joe’s has hosted one of the most prestigious literary awards in the nation. Yes, I’m referring to its annual Ernest Hemingway Look-Alike Contest.

What authors have the distinctive appearance and name recognition to merit a look-alike contest hereabouts? Oregon-based possibilities might include locals like Ken Kesey, Ursula LeGuin and Chuck Palahniuk (below, left).

Last Look-Alike Listing: Charlie Chaplin's distinctive walk, mustache, and appearance led to a number of Charlie Chaplin look-alike contests in the early days of motion pictures.

Just for kicks, Chaplin entered a Chaplin look-alike contest in San Francisco. He didn’t even make it to the finals!

November 13, 2008

Blogging While Adulterated

Yep, I’m writing this in an adulterated state.

Actually, I write everything this way, but I didn’t realize it until this morning. That’s when I read about Portland bicyclist Michael "Bobby" Hammond, who was just cleared of criminal charges for nude cycling. (Hammond celebrates, above.) Hammond did this to support bike riding and to protest against little things like "cars, foreign oil, the Iraq war and air pollution.”

My favorite part of the story, which ran in the Oregonian:
"[Hammond] stripped off all his clothes and hopped on his vintage 1970s 10-speed — in an effort, he says, to make clear that nothing was powering his mode of transportation but his own unadulterated body."
I’ve long suspected that adulterated bicyclists —that is, the ones with clothes— might be using something to power their bikes. Whether it’s a small electric motor strapped beneath a pant leg or a petite internal combustion engine up their sleeve, there’s something fishy about the whole corrupt spectacle of bikers with clothes.

My fears are laid to rest each June, when the World Naked Bike Ride rolls around. Over 1,000 unadulterated Portland bikers took part in the last one, something that Judge Jerome LaBarre noted in Hammond’s case. The judge said that the symbolic protest of naked bike riding is a "well-established tradition" here in the Pacific Northwest.

Just not in the winter.