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The Universe is a Cruel Slapstick Comedian

9 Mar

Bobby Leach (1858 in Cornwall, England – April 26, 1926) was the second person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel, after Annie Taylor, and the first male to ever do so, accomplishing the feat on July 25, 1911.


Bobby Leach with his capsule

A brave fellow, risking the sort of death-defying business we’ve generally outlawed, or outgrown, in the interim years.

Leach made a living, for a time, from his gamble – but cosmic justice is a cruel mistress.

(The emphasis is mine.)

In 1926 while on a publicity tour in New Zealand, Leach injured his leg when he slipped on an orange peel (according to some reports, it was a banana peel). The leg became infected […] Bobby Leach died two months later.


Spirits & Salty Water

14 Feb

Concept art for the Flying Dutchman from Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's ChestI assume you’re familiar with the Flying Dutchman, but have you ever heard the legend of the S.S. Ourang Medan?

In June, 1947, supposedly a distress signal was received by two American vessels, from a Dutch cargo-ship.

A radio operator aboard the troubled vessel reported the deaths of the ship’s captain as well as all of its officers, and possibly the entire crew, before sending out further garbled messages and finally declaring himself in dying condition with the words “I die”. – wikipedia

Anywhere we find loneliness, or a long disconnect from humanity, we seem to attribute the supernatural, or the bizarre. Tales of ghost ships stretch through history, (there’s even a handy list on wikipedia,) but they aren’t the only sea-story in which the barrier between reality and folklore grows thin.

A Fata Morgana is an unusual and very complex form of mirage, [which] is seen in a narrow band right above the horizon. It is an Italian phrase derived from the vulgar Latin for “fairy” and the Arthurian sorcerer Morgan le Fay, from a belief that the mirage, often seen in the Strait of Messina, were fairy castles in the air or false land designed to lure sailors to their death created by her witchcraft. – wikipedia

Carl Banks Oil Painting.The legend of the Flying Dutchman may have originated with sailors observing the reflection of an actual ship on the horizon, as projected onto the sky. The Ourang Medan, on the other hand, existed at sea level.

When the Silver Star crew located and boarded the apparently undamaged Ourang Medan in a rescue attempt, the ship was found littered with corpses (including the carcass of a dog) in what appeared to be terrified postures, with no survivors and no visible signs of injuries on the dead bodies. – wikipedia

In an odd way, these types of legends are a little like hearing a ghost transport truck story out of one of the Ice Road Truckers – actually, I suppose Pee Wee’s Big Adventure covered that exact angle.

In the case of the Ourang Medan, however, the truth of the matter is tough to know: as the ship was purportedly being hauled to port, it exploded and sank. While some skeptics doubt the ship ever even existed, another possible theory has been put forth:

Bainton and others hypothesize that the Ourang Medan might have been involved in smuggling operations of chemical substances such as a combination of potassium cyanide and nitroglycerin or even wartime stocks of nerve agents. According to these theories, sea water would have entered the ship’s hold, reacting with the cargo to release toxic gases, which then caused the crew to succumb to asphyxia and/or poisoning. Later, the sea water would have reacted with the nitroglycerin, causing the reported fire and explosion. – wikipedia

The Dutch merchantman Ottoland had almost completed her journey from New Brunswick, Canada when she hit a mine in the North Sea on 5th October 1940. -

What’s In a Name?

13 Feb

Mungo Park From "Scottish explorer Mungo Park (1771-1806), who explored the Niger River in Africa, on horseback encountering lion in jungle."From wikipedia

Mungo Park (11 September 1771 – 1806) was a Scottish explorer of the African continent. He was credited as being the first Westerner to encounter the Niger River.

Mungo Park can be said to have accomplished a number of incredible feats in his lifetime, but none so great as carrying the name Mungo Park.

Pigeon Holes

9 Feb

Pigeon PilotLike many people with a recognizable surname, I sometimes get questions from people regarding a non-relative – in my case, B.F. Skinner.

While I do find his work in behavioral conditioning interesting, I’ve always loved another of his inventions, and wish it was the one that had made his (our) name famous.

From the wikipedia:

[During WWII] [t]he US Navy required a weapon effective against the German Bismarck class battleships. Although missile and TV technology existed, the size of the primitive guidance systems available rendered any weapon ineffective.

What does a psychologist best known for working with animals have to do with missiles?

The project centered on dividing the nose cone of a missile into three compartments, and encasing a pigeon in each. Each compartment used a lens to project an image of what was in front of the missile onto a screen. The pigeons would peck toward the object, thereby directing the missile.

Pigeon Missile PrototypeThat’s right, the war could have been won with kamikaze pigeon pilots, if anyone had been able to take the idea seriously. Despite some apparent success in training and testing, the project was canned – but that wasn’t the only animal-weapon the military was dealing with at the time.

Again from the wikipedia:

Bat bombs were bomb-shaped casings with numerous compartments, each containing a Mexican Free-tailed Bat with a small timed incendiary bomb attached. Dropped from a bomber at dawn, the casings would deploy a parachute in mid-flight and open to release the bats which would then roost in eaves and attics. The incendiaries would start fires in inaccessible places in the largely wood and paper construction of the Japanese cities that were the weapon’s intended target.

After some testing, including an accident in which the Auxiliary Army Air Base in Carlsbad, New Mexico, was set on fire, the batbomb was also shelved – in favour of the “simpler” solution of dropping atomic weaponry.Some days you just can't get rid of a bomb!

One Possible Ending

8 Feb

Fussli, Johann Heinrich (Henry Fuseli) - The Night-Hag Visiting the Lapland Witches c. 1796The other day I heard an interesting tale regarding the island of Sardinia, which, frankly, had me thinking of Mother Gran. After doing some poking around, I came across some great information on Andrew Collins’ page on Sardinian Mysteries, from which all of the following quotes are taken.

Have you heard of an Accabadora? After reading this, you may be glad you haven’t – but let me say, the Eskimos have nothing on the Sardinians.

There would only ever be one accabadora in any one generation. Each would serve the local community until their own death, a successor having already been appointed and prepared for the role. Justification for the existence of the accabadora was offered in the fact that only a woman can bring life into the world, so only a woman can take it away.

I’m not sure what the resume for applicants to the role would look like; must have a strong arm, powerful thighs, an iron stomach, and an overwhelming hatred of the aged and sick?

[…] a mature woman who was appointed by a community to apply euthanasia to the old and the infirm. It is something she would carry out with the utmost precision using a cudgel made from a section of a tree branch from which extends another branch, the whole thing cut to form a hammer-like weapon similar in appearance to the Irish shillelagh stick. Another means of inducing death used by the accabadora was strangulation, either by applying pressure to the neck or by placing the victim’s neck between her knees

A Mazzulo, the stick used to end people.

Our Previously Terrifying Future

5 Feb

XB-70 in flightThere’s always a lot of nostalgia floating around regarding “the way things were”, and not always undeservedly so, but there are things we’ve had a hand in that leave me blinking at the possibilities for awe and disaster.

In the 1950s, nuclear power was all the rage – so much so that the American Government undertook to develop a nuclear-powered bomber aircraft that it could use to to deploy atomic weaponry from high altitudes, and at high velocity.

Not only would a nuclear-plane be able to maintain supersonic speeds, it could do so nearly indefinitely.

Imagine a sky full of planes that only need to land when their wings start to peel off.

Of course, reality came down heavy on the designers, and the radioactive aspects of the engine were pulled out of the contract.

This beast was the first proposal for an alternate. As the wikipedia notes, “the “floating panels” are large fuel tanks the size of a B-47″ – and they were intended to peel off once empty.

Like the atomic aspect, the extra tanks were also eventually left in the design-room’s trash, and two prototypes were built, with a third canceled mid-production. Technology had simply outpaced their need.

What happened to the orphaned birds that once dreamed of being nuclear?

On 8 June 1966, XB-70A #2 was in close formation with four other aircraft (an F-4, F-5, T-38, and F-104) for a photoshoot […] the F-104 drifted into contact with the XB-70’s right wing, flipped over, and rolling inverted, passed over the top of the Valkyrie, struck the vertical stabilizers and left wing and exploded, destroying the Valkyrie’s rudders and damaging its left wing […] the Valkyrie entered an uncontrollable spin and crashed into the ground north of Barstow, California. – wikipedia

A simple accident that could have happened in any, or to any, aircraft; nothing mechanical, just pilot error – still, in an alternate history of ever-flying planes, it would have been anything but a simple clean up.

The remaining prototype is in a museum, where it probably belongs.

Crushing Observations

10 Jan

Indian JuggernautYou’re familiar with the concept of a “juggernaut”?

The word is derived from the Sanskrit जगन्नाथ Jagannātha (meaning “Lord of the Universe”), which is one of the many names of Krishna from the ancient Vedic scriptures of India.

One of the most famous of Indian temples is the Jagannath Temple in Puri, Orissa, which has the Ratha Yatra (“chariot procession”), an annual procession of chariots – wikipedia

“Chariots”, in this case, really meaning “massive rolling temples”.

Another Indian Juggernaut

So, it seems like a fairly simple bit of logic to connect those colossal wagons with the modern definition of an unstoppable force that we currently use – but, oh, those wacky explorers and colonialists had to embellish an already impressive tradition.

A popular 14th-century work, The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, apocryphally describes Hindus, as a religious sacrifice, casting themselves under the wheels of these huge chariots and being crushed to death.

Based on this claim, British colonials promulgated the claim that Hindu devotees of Krishna were “lunatic fanatics who threw themselves under the wheels of these chariots in order to attain salvation”. – wikipedia

This, it seems to me, is something like having an alien observer of Earth determine that there must be a subset of human assassins who roam the highways in an attempt to cull the herd, since we so often hold a celebration, with plenty of drinking, then allow wobbly-handed executioners out onto the road to slam into unexpecting parties.

Others have suggested more prosaically that the deaths, if any, were accidental and caused by the press of the crowd and the general commotion. – wikipedia

Hindu Celebration