Underground Cinema

In September 2004, French police discovered a hidden chamber in the catacombs under Paris. It contained a full-sized movie screen, projection equipment, a bar, a pressure cooker for making couscous, a professionally installed electricity system, and at least three phone lines. Movies ranged from 1950s noir classics to recent thrillers.

When the police returned three days later, the phone and power lines had been cut and there was a note on the floor: “Do not try to find us.”

01/25/2012 The likely explanation. (Thanks, Nina.)

Voynich Manuscript

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Voynich.png

Some writers seem to crave anonymity. None more so than the author of the Voynich manuscript, who invented a mysterious language and an unknown alphabet that has been defying scholars for 500 years.

To judge from the illustrations, the text deals with astronomy, biology, cosmology, herbs, and recipes. Handwriting experts say that the glyphs were written with speed and care, as if the author were facile with them. Statistical analysis seems to show that it’s a natural language, but the vocabulary is unusually small, and in some ways it seems to resemble Arabic more than European languages.

Because no one knows precisely what the 240-page book is, it’s hard to guess who wrote it. Suspects include a who’s who of Europe in the Middle Ages, Roger Bacon and John Dee among them. The cipher has resisted even the National Security Agency, leading some to think it’s a hoax, but even that is hard to prove conclusively.

There’s a great irony at the bottom of this. The mysterious author was one of the most successful cryptologists in history — so successful, in fact, that we may never know who he was.

Big-Band Propaganda

http://www.sxc.hu/index.phtml

The biggest trouble with diabolical schemes is the quality control.

Case in point: Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels once actually put together his own big band, plotting to use “degenerate” swing music to hypnotize decadent Americans.

“Charlie and His Orchestra” were broadcast to the United States, Canada and England, playing popular tunes like “I Got Rhythm,” “Stardust,” and “The Sheik Of Araby.”

About halfway through each song, when he had the audience’s attention, “Charlie” (Karl Schwendler) would leave off singing and launch into a Nazi tirade about war, privation, death, pain, and the master race. Unfortunately, Schwendler’s snarling is not on a par with his bandleading, so he comes off sounding like Colonel Klink in fourth grade:

Thanks for the memories/It gives us strength to fight/For freedom and for right/It might give you a headache, England/That the Germans know how to fight/And hurt you so much …

It’s said that the act picked up its own following in Germany after the war. The band is actually not bad, but whoever wrote the propaganda probably raised American morale.

Easy Street

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Image:Baldwinstreet.jpg

Don’t laugh, you don’t have to mow it.

Baldwin Street, in Dunedin, New Zealand, is thought to be the steepest public street in the world. It has a grade of 38 percent; San Francisco’s steepest are 31.5 percent.

There’s a sign warning motorists not to attempt it, but that hasn’t discouraged runners, who gather each summer for the “Baldwin Street Gutbuster.” In the first event, serious runners climb to the top, then, even harder, try to get down again. In the second, skaters, skateboarders, and pram-pushers try to cover the same 400-meter circuit. One guy actually succeeded on a unicycle.

There’s also a charity event each July in which contestants roll candies down the hill. No injuries have been reported.

Rubber-Stamp Poetry

“Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den,” a poem by Zhao Yuanren, in English:

In a stone den was a poet Shi Shi, who loved to eat lions, and decided to eat ten.
He often went to the market to look for lions.
One day at ten o’clock, ten lions just arrived at the market.
At that time, Shi Shi just arrived at the market too.
Seeing those ten lions, he killed them with arrows.
He brought the corpses of the ten lions to the stone den.
The stone den was damp. He asked his servants to wipe it.
After the stone den was wiped, he tried to eat those ten lions.
When he ate, he realized that those ten lions were in fact ten stone lion corpses.
Try to explain this.

… and in Hanyu Pinyin:

Shishi shishi Shi Shi, shi shi, shi shi shi shi.
Shi shishi shi shi shi shi.
Shi shi, shi shi shi shi shi.
Shi shi, shi Shi Shi shi shi.
Shi shi shi shi shi, shi shi shi, shi shi shi shi shishi.
Shi shi shi shi shi shi, shi shishi.
Shishi shi, Shi shi shi shi shishi.
Shishi shi, Shi shi shi shi shi shi shi.
Shi shi, shi shi shi shi shi, shi shi shi shi shi.
Shi shi shi shi.

Musaeum Clausum

Imaginary pictures “cataloged” in Thomas Browne’s Musaeum Clausum of 1684:

  • “A Moon Piece, describing that notable Battel between Axalla, General of Tamerlane, and Camares the Persian, fought by the light of the Moon.”
  • “A Snow Piece, of Land and Trees covered with Snow and Ice, and Mountains of Ice floating in the Sea, with Bears, Seals, Foxes, and variety of rare Fowls upon them.”
  • “Pieces and Draughts in Caricatura, of Princes, Cardinals and famous men; wherein, among others, the Painter hath singularly hit the signatures of a Lion and a Fox in the face of Pope Leo the Tenth.”
  • “Some Pieces A la ventura, or Rare Chance Pieces, either drawn at random, and happening to be like some person, or drawn for some and happening to be more like another; while the Face, mistaken by the Painter, proves a tolerable Picture of one he never saw.”

Borges wrote, “To write vast books is a laborious nonsense, much better is to offer a summary as if those books actually existed.”

Loup-Garou

http://www.sxc.hu/index.phtmlMythologyWeb has the full text of Sabine Baring-Gould’s Book of Werewolves, one of the creepier reference works of the 1860s.

In America we think of lycanthropes as turning into wolves, but legends actually vary throughout the world. People tend to turn into the most important carnivore in the area: dogs in Greece, tigers in India, bears in Northern Europe, foxes in Japan, leopards in Africa, and jaguars in South America. In Polynesia there are even were-sharks.

Correspondingly, there’s a psychiatric syndrome called clinical lycanthropy, in which people think they’ve turned into animals. Here, too, though, wolves are in the minority. Clinicians have reported patients who thought they’d become cats, horses, birds, tigers, frogs, even bees.

Baring-Gould’s vision was quite a bit darker, but he was a weird guy himself. A Victorian hagiographer, antiquarian, novelist, and scholar, he used to teach with his pet bat on his shoulder. His book wanders from lycanthropy down into grave desecration and cannibalism — kind of an odd area for the guy who wrote “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” To each his own.

L’Enfant Sauvage

FeralChildren.com has harrowing stories of almost 100 resilient children — kids raised by ostriches, raised in henhouses, running with jackals, or simply living alone in a forest.

Tarzan and Mowgli were hugely romanticized fictions. Real feral kids walk on all fours, their growth is retarded, they have keen senses, and they’re impervious to heat, cold, and rain. What an awful life. Linnaeus even classed them as a separate species.

A Great Big Hand

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Polydactyly_01_Lhand_AP.jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Once thought to be a sign of witchcraft, extra digits are actually the most common developmental abnormality found at birth. About two children in a thousand have extra fingers or toes.

They’re even more common among the Amish, probably due to the “founder effect” — because the original settlers were few, their genetic legacy is amplified among their descendants, and apparently one of them had an extra finger.

If it’s so common, why does it creep people out? Fictional villains from Hannibal Lecter to Count Rugen have been given extra digits, to make them seem alien and somehow menacing.

They’re actually in quite good company. Marilyn Monroe didn’t have extra digits, urban legends notwithstanding, but Anne Boleyn and Winston Churchill both did. And Atlanta Braves pitcher Antonio “The Octopus” Alfonseca was born with six fingers and six toes. I’d like to hear him play the piano.

Jack the Ripper

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:FromHellLetter.jpgThis is the “From Hell” letter, sent by Jack the Ripper to the president of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee that was pursuing him. He included a bloody fragment to prove his identity:

“I send you half the Kidne I took from one woman and prasarved it for you tother piece I fried and ate it was very nise. I may send you the bloody knif that took it out if you only wate a whil longer”

Whoever he was, Jack certainly had a flair for dramatic horror. But much of his fame is really due to newspapers, which were becoming popular at the time. His crimes, which combined sex, violence, mystery, class warfare and police ineptitude, were tailor-made for cheap sensation. (In fact, it was probably a journalist who invented the “Ripper” nickname.)

Casebook: Jack the Ripper has gathered examples of lurid accounts from as far away as Poland, Jamaica, and Mexico. “All London is ringing with the horror of the thing,” writes one New Zealand editor. “The woman who reads, with hair standing on end, the details of some fresh outrage to-night cannot feel sure that on the morrow she may not be the next victim.” The whole episode is a low point for responsible journalism.

BTW, today the Ripper’s story has spawned a rather unwholesome fanbase, with concentration games, crossword puzzles, and fan fiction. Somehow time can make even serial murder seem quaint.