Sunday, February 26, 2012

Spend a Sunday browsing the Museum of Bad Art

One hardly knows what to make of The Museum Of Bad Art. Some pieces, sure enough, are terrible, but then others at least show some technical proficiency. At least this is more than I could muster by hand.

But other works are defying of any explanation. What was the artist thinking, for instance, when they painted this? What cocktail of childhood traumas could possibly make someone draw such a creepy mother-child nightmare?

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Bill and Coo - A movie for the birds

In 1948, producer Ken Murray was sitting around with a lot of time on his hands and thought "Hey, I'll just make an entire film about birds! Not a nature documentary, no, I mean birds as actors, telling a story, putting on a SHOW!" And this was the result.

Had enough? If not, view the entire 61-minute Bill and Coo here.

Admittedly, this is the corniest idea you've ever seen go into a feature film, and they don't spare one kernel while they're at it - gag signs, lame puns, and endless gawking at the cute widdle birdies ensue. For being birds, they're pretty clever and do little tricks while the typicalmid-20th-century narrator yammers on and on about what the birds are doing since the birds don't actually talk - they really missed out not getting Alex the grey parrot - alas, it was before his time.

Just, y'know, don't expect A-list acting. It's just enough to sit through this thing in jaw-dropping astonishment that it got made.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Bizarre Problem Of Japan's Shrinking Population

Japan has an interesting and unique problem: Their population is bombing drastically. As of recent numbers, 21% of Japanese citizens are over the age of 65, and their birth rate just dipped below their death rate in recent years, meaning negative population growth.

 The Huffy-Poo estimates a one-third decline in population by 2060, while this Japan Times article declares that the population already shrunk by 75,000 in 2009.

While such things as overzealous family planning and factors which discourage large families have traditionally been to blame, this Escapist story makes the bold claim that the problem is, to put it bluntly, too many young males spending their time with anime and manga - in other words, too much gratification from cartoon porn instead of finding their gratification from actual flesh-and-blood women. (Yes, we know, there is more to manga and anime than porn - but come on, it isn't Mobile Suit Gundam or Deathnote that these guys would be using in place of a girlfriend.)

Still, if this is the real cause of the problem, one wonders what on Earth the females are doing. Are they just passively sitting at home watching the phone not ring? It takes two to tangle, you know.

This is also a possible omen for the rest of the human race. Japan is a first-world country. Are other first-world countries in danger of having their populations become so socially stunted that they can't manage to meet, mingle, and breed as well? Is there, in fact, a possible reverse-Malthusian disaster in our future?

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Mystery of Mont Sainte-Odile

An ancient monastery has stood in the low mountains of Alsace, France, for 1,200 years. It is celebrated for its beauty and is a must-visit stop on every scenic tour. It is encircled by a wall, known as the "Pagan Wall", composed of 300,000 blocks up to three meters tall, itself dating back to the 7th century AD. It was also the site of the crash of Air Inter Flight 148 in 1992, which killed 87.

But its history also contains an intriguing episode of daring-do. For, just after the turn of the century, books began to disappear from the Mont Sainte-Odile library. Over a two-year period, over one thousand books vanished, many of them priceless relics dating back to the 15th century, some with wooden covers and weighing several kilograms.

Now, this was no small theft. The monastery is secluded, perched atop rocky peaks, surrounded by a wall, and furthermore is inhabited by the priests. Yet over the years, as a new book disappeared every day or so, they could not find the elusive thief. Locks were changed, steel doors were reinforced, and yet the thefts continued, the phantom thief never leaving a trace except for one single rose he left one night just to taunt them. It wasn't until the historic monastery turned to modern technology that the thief was finally caught.

In June of 2003, a hidden video camera tripped up one Stanislas Gosse, aged 33, from the nearby town, who had been squirreling the books away in his home attic. He had discovered a secret route into the monastery from studying old maps at a public archive. A cupboard in the library let into a secret chamber, and a narrow stairway leading to access via climbing the wall.

His motive?

"It may appear selfish, but I felt the books had been abandoned. They were covered with dust and pigeon droppings and I felt no one consulted them any more."

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Why Do We Say "Hello" When Answering The Phone?

Thomas Edison started it, as a suggestion for a greeting to say over the first telephones. His logic was that it could be clearly understood.

Alexander Graham Bell preferred "ahoy", like greeting a ship at sea, but the nautical reference didn't stick. The English had been using "hullo" as a standard greeting, whose entomology derives from Old High German expressions "hallo" and "hollo" and such. "Hollo" shows up as far back as Coleridge's <em>The Rime of the Ancient Mariner</em>, from 1798.

"Once the telephone was perfected, people had to learn to use it.  There was a very fundamental question to be answered, one that seems quite odd to us today, and that is: What do you say when you answer a ringing telephone?"

"It was kind of a riddle in a way, because when you hook up a telephone and you are speaking basically to a stranger, it ran counter to what people expected in their day-to-day meetings, which was their previous experience.  And you have to be properly introduced.  And you're never introduced on the telephone that way.  So you have to find a word or a phrase that very quickly cuts to the chase and allows people to start speaking, and 'hello' was pressed into service."

We could have just as easily ended up with "namaste" (pronounced "NAH-mess-tay"), since much of English is derived from Sanskirt.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Amazing reverse-gravity ramp illusion

It won the Neural Correlate Society’s "Best Illusion of the Year" contest.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Getting Big Stuff Done

Neal Stephenson blasts our minds with a much-needed reality check about the death of science progress in America.

Stephenson is shy about providing examples, but I'd be more than happy to show what kinds of progress we could be making:

Energy independence - Even without worrying about nuclear power or other "scary" concepts, plain old dumb wind and solar power could easily power the whole country. Why aren't we building windmills at the same rate we built oil-wells all across America?

Transportation - I just recently posted about "smart road surfaces", which could power electric cars, store data such as directions, and even possibly steer the vehicles themselves. Why aren't we laying these suckers all over the country at the same rate we laid transcontinental railroads?

Medicine - Stem cell and genetic technology has regenerated organs, reversed aging symptoms, and helped treat degenerate diseases. Why aren't we pushing forward with this technology at the same rate that we eliminated polio?

For that matter, even computers could be put to better uses. Why do we still have colleges and universities, when we could do all of our teaching online? MIT has led the way with online university courses, but there they sit unused. Why haven't elections gone on the Internet? We can conduct banking transactions online, but we still have to fill in bubbles on a paper ballot and mail it in? Why aren't telemetrics automating more tasks in life, like lawnmowers and street sweepers?

There's nothing to stop us from doing these things. The technology is simply there, all ready to go. We could do research until we're blue in the face, but America does nothing with the research we already have. And don't tell me "well, there's a budget crisis." There's always a budget crisis.That never stopped us before.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

I Want A Solar Roadway In My Town Right Now

A solar roadway is a "smart road" which combines energy generation and driving surface. This is an idea us science fiction enthusiasts have been burbling about for years. Not only could enhanced road surfaces provide electricity for electric vehicles, but they could also have LEDs embedded into them for transmitting messages such as road conditions.

It sounds like a Utopian fantasy from the 1950s, but the US Department of Transportation granted $100,000 for a solar roadways prototype in 2009. Then the Federal Highway Commission granted a follow-up $750,000 for continued development of the project in 2011.

In addition, (now this is purely my own speculation), if the road can transmit a data signal, then why couldn't it also direct a vehicle? Imagine being able to hop into your car and say "take me to the Post Office" and the GPS works together with the road to drive you there automatically, removing the need for a human pilot at all. No more accidents from sleepy or intoxicated drivers! Road accidents kill over 40 thousand Americans per year. It would be a giant leap from solar roadways as we are presently seeing launched to autopilot roadways, but it would be a leap worth taking.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Earliest Human History Found In Tassili n'Ajjer Cave Paintings

When most people talk about "caveman paintings", it's sites like Tassili n'Ajjer they have in mind. Human civilization in the area dates back to the Neolithic era (about 11,000 to 3,000 years ago) when earliest humans showed the first traceable signs of agriculture. The paintings depict herding, farming, and battles, showing the early use of crude tools and weapons.

It's also the site of a lot of controversial theories from the New Age crowd. While the images are doubtless very crude and the product of people unstudied in representational art (because they freaking invented it on the spot), some people point to different-shaped figures as evidence that there were once giants, aliens, and other fantastic creatures.

Those interested in this view can check out this write-up asking "ETs stalking primitive tribesmen?". This is also the same site (and the same paintings) that inspired Terence McKenna (author of Food of the Gods series) and other authors to speculate that ancient peoples ate psychedelic mushrooms and talked to space aliens - not necessarily in that order.

The big story here is that there was once a grassy savanna where the Sahara desert now lies, and that there was a sudden leap in human progress ten thousand years ago when humans transitioned from hunter-gatherers to herder-farmers that gave them such luxurious living that they could afford the time to loll around drawing pictures on the rock. And, by the way, could incidentally have such a sense of community that they could choose sides in a war.

Monday, February 6, 2012

We all need a little Baffling Mystery in our lives

Jason Scott, of textfiles fame, has scanned in some vintage pulp comics for preservation at the Internet Archive. The Ace Comics Collection so far includes Ernie, Baffling Mysteries, Atomic War, Andy, Western Adventures, and many more. These are from the somewhat rusty pre-golden age of pulp comics between the 1930s and '50s.

Ace Comics were a notorious pulp publisher, not to be confused with David McCay Publishing's Ace Comics title. Ace Comics published horror / detective series for the boys and love story / soft porn for the girls, and never mind justifying the art. In fact, they were an early scapegoat for the moral panic over comics that lead to the Comics Code Authority.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Merry Candlemas!

I definitely...   SEE MY SHADOW!

In the Western world, we know today as Groundhog Day. However, this is yet another mistranslated holiday on the American calendar. It's actually known as the "Presentation of Jesus at the Temple", the day when Mary was supposed to have taken Jesus into the temple 40 days after childbirth (in accordance with Abrahamic law) to participate in the purification ritual.

The event is also called "Candlemas" (because candles are blessed on that day, in references to the Gospel of Luke which calls Jesus "the light of the world"). It also answers to "Feast of the Purification of the Virgin" and several other names.

Wait, what does this have to do with groundhogs and weather? Like the crucifixion and bunnies and eggs of Easter, the answer lies once again in Pagan tradition. In the UK and Scotland, February 2nd is supposed to be the day that bears and wolves come out of hibernation and scout around to see if winter's over yet.  Woven in with Pagan tradition, ancient holidays dating back to the Romans have early February as a time to watch the behavior of animals for omens and signs of the nature of the coming year.