Monday, March 29, 2010

Theresa Berkley

Who was Theresa Berkley?

She was a celebrated Victorian-age dominatrix who specialized in flogging and flaggellation. We don't know what she looked like, unfortunately - no photograph, drawing or portrait of her is known to have survived. (The image above is merely a photo-illustration of some unknown Victorians engaging in erotic spanking.)

But we do know a little something about Theresa's livelihood.

The great pervert Henry Spencer Ashbee (aka "Pisanus Fraxi") wrote in his landmark pornographic reference work Index Librorum Prohibitorum:

The queen of her profession was undoubtedly Mrs. Theresa Berkley, of No. 28 Charlotte Street, Portland Place; she was a perfect mistress of her art, understood how to satisfy her clients, and was, moreover, a thorough woman of business, for she amassed during her career a considerable sum of money...

"Her instruments of torture were more numerous than those of any other governess. Her supply of birch was extensive, and kept in water, so that it was always green and pliant: she had shafts with a dozen whip thongs on each of them; a dozen different sizes of cat-o'-nine-tails, some with needle points worked into them; various kinds of thin bending canes; leather straps like coach traces; battledoors, made of thick sole-leather, with inch nails run through to docket, and currycomb tough hides rendered callous by many years flagellation. Holly brushes, furze brushes; a prickly evergreen, called butcher's bush; and during the summer, a glass and China vases, filled with a constant supply of green nettles, with which she often restored the dead to life. Thus, at her shop, whoever went with plenty of money, could be birched, whipped, fustigated, scourged, needle-pricked, half-hung, holly-brushed, furze-brushed, butcher-brushed, stinging-nettled, curry-combed, phletbotomized, and tortured till he had a belly full.

She also invented the Berkley Horse, an automatic flagellation machine still used in some S&M parlors to this very day.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Free Victorian House!

There's no catch - the house next door to Genny's Diner on Frankfort Avenue in Louisville is FREE to a good home.

As reported on Louisville Mojo, a judge has ordered Frank Faris to give away this great old Victorian mansion to anyone who wants to take it off his hands, since he has himself been unable or unwilling to make court-mandated renovations to the historic home.

Faris purchased the property for $100,000 years ago with the intent to demolish it, but the city declared it a historic building before he got around to that. Now he's forbidden to tear it down and saddled with the cost of maintaining it to code.

So yeah, I suppose there is a catch, and that was it. Anyone who takes the free building will find themselves with the same expensive task as Faris: trying to bring this crumbling, near-collapse edifice back to life.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Cherries Ripe, Boom-de-ay

Dan O'Brien's wonderful play The Cherry Sisters Revisited is playing at Actors Theatre of Louisville until April 11, and can't recommend it highly enough. Run, don't walk. Call now. Don't miss this chance to see one of the most important plays about the 19th century of the 21st century.

The Cherry Sisters - Addie, Effie, Ella, Jessie and Lizzie - were a group of spinster sisters from rural Iowa who formed one of the most notorious vaudeville touring acts of the late 1800s. Their traveling variety show featured musical numbers, dance routines, acrobatics, skits, morality plays and reading of essays - all authored and performed by the sisters, who had no training, formal or informal, at any of it.

Some of their songs were simply traditional standards with new lyrics substituted, such as their theme song being a rewrite of "Ta ra ra boom de ay":

"Cherries ripe, Boom-de-ay!

Cherries red, Boom-de-ay!

The Cherry sisters

Have come to stay!"

The soulless and hopelessly negative news media of today often randomly chooses things to go on crusades against for seemingly no good reason, but nothing can compare for the enmity it held for the Cherry Sisters. In 1930, Time Magazine noted: "In every town that the Cherry Sisters played, it was an invariable custom for the editor of the local paper to review their act with a column and a half of humor, satire, parody and biting sarcasm."

Cherry-bashing soon became a columnist's pasttime, and it soon reached the point where, even had the ladies put on a show that met their standards of taste, they almost certainly would still have lambasted them in print. Negativity sells papers.

Because of this unfair hounding, the Cherry Sisters soon developed a reputation for having an adversarial attitude to the media and to criticism. According to Wikipedia:

In January 1893, Fred P. Davis, the city editor of the Cedar Rapids Gazette, reviewed their performance at Greene's Opera House, noting, "...their knowledge of the stage is worse than none at all." The sisters demanded a retraction, and the Gazette complied, allowing them to write it themselves. The Cherry Sisters did not consider the retraction to be sufficient and accused Davis of libel. The complaint resulted in a light-hearted mock trial onstage at a Cherry Sisters performance in March 1893.

In 1898, the Odebolt Chronicle printed an extremely negative review of the Cherry Sisters' act, entitled "The Cherries Were Here". Critic and newspaper editor Billy Hamilton's piece described the sisters as being "three creatures surpassing the witches in Macbeth in general hideousness" and continued, "the mouths of their rancid features opened like caverns and sounds like the wailings of damned souls issued therefrom." The article was later reprinted in other newspapers around the state, including the Des Moines Leader.

In response, the Cherry Sisters sued the Chronicle and the Leader for US $15,000, claiming that the unflattering descriptions of their physical appearance presented in the article constituted acts of "false and malicious" libel. The Odebolt Chronicle kept an ongoing log of the progress of the proceedings, which included a courtroom performance by the sisters, noting on April 27, 1899, "we had lots of fun out of the case".

The Polk County Court decided in the newspapers' favor in 1899, and the sisters appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court. The Court upheld the verdict, stating in their May 28, 1901 decision, "the editor of a newspaper has the right, if not the duty, of publishing, for the information of the public, fair and reasonable comments, however severe in terms, upon anything which is made by its owner a subject of public exhibition, as upon any other matter of public interest; of privileged communications, for which no action will lie without proof of actual malice...Surely, if one makes himself ridiculous in his public performances, he may be ridiculed by those whose duty or right it is to inform the public regarding the character of the performance."

To this very day, the Cherry v. Des Moines Leader case is considered to be a landmark decision, setting a still-cited legal precedent regarding the media's right to fair comment and critical analysis. It was, as we see it, an unfortunate legal decision, one that opened the floodgates to the social disease of gossip columnists, trashy supermarket tabloids, and subhuman celebrity-dirt-dishing websites.

Even in her obituary, Jessie Cherry was not spared cruel mockery by the press. From the Daily Iowa State Press, October 6, 1903:

Jessie Cherry is Dead. Her passing recalls the occasion on which she appeared here, to vegetarian applause. Her greatest hit was appearing as the barefoot maiden in one of their songs, and many a newspaper ode has been written to her toes.

Their programs were so utterly unconventional and so entirely without artistic sentiment that they soon became a rage and the sisters were called to New York by a prominent vaudeville manager. There their fame grew and they followed up their financial success by a tour of the whole country. They had many exciting experiences and it became necessary for them to add to their stage accessories a large wire screen to stop the flood of bad vegetables which were nighly hurled toward the stage when they were singing.

One of the things I find most intriguing about O'Brien's play is its portrayal of Ella as being a sort of "idiot savant" clairvoyant, who foresees the future of her sisters, as well as her own. On a further occult note, the play makes extensive use of the concept of The Aether, and we gradually become aware that Effie's fourth-wall-breaking monologues to the audience make a certain sort of internal sense. She's stuck in a kind of purgatory, watching her life unfold again and again and again, trying to figure out what went wrong.

One by one the sisters died off, until Effie was the last woman standing. She opened a bakery in Iowa in her declining years, and reportedly sold only Cherry-flavored pastries. She passed away in 1944, her lifespan having bridged that mythically resonant space between the Civil War and World War II.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Cardboard Record Player

Seen on Gizmodo: Audio engineering company GGRP sent out this amazing cardboard record player as a promotional item. Comes mailed to you folded up, but all you have to do is quickly unfold it, place the record on its tiny spindle, and use a pencil to manually crank the record in a circular motion while the needle rests on its grooves. The sound is carried through the needle out through a tiny hole in the corrugated cardboard.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Zen of OCD

Contrary to popular belief, obsessive-compulsive disorder isn't just for people who wash their hands too much or who go to absurd lengths to avoid unlucky numbers number 13 and 666.

The condition, if we are to believe the word of the psychiatric profession - and that's an immense "if" - can take many seemingly disparate forms, and its outer fringes can surprisingly open up a whole new realm of meta-compulsion that borders on hallucination:

Some people with OCD may sense that the physical world is qualified by certain immaterial conditions. These people might intuit invisible protrusions from their bodies, or could feel that inanimate objects are ensouled. These intuitions and feelings do not stem from socially accepted religious or metaphysical convictions, such as animism; even a child with OCD might find their obsessive notions ultimately silly. However, even if the OCD sufferer understands that their notions do not correspond with the external world, they feel that they must act as though their notions were correct.

For example, an individual who engages in compulsive hoarding might be inclined to treat inorganic matter as if it had the sentience or rights of living organisms, but such an individual might find their consequent behavior irrational on a more intellectual level. However, Insel and Akiskal (1986) noted that in severe OCD, obsessions can shift into delusions when resistance to the obsession is abandoned and insight into its senselessness is lost.

Clearly, this extended interpretation of OCD encourages the casual observer to accept the findings of psychiatry, and to follow it wherever it leads - but it is now seeming to lead into the realms of religion, spirituality, superstition, and by osmosis, inevitably, quantum physics, consciousness, and the mind.

We here at this steampunk-scented organization without a name hereby officially go on record as decrying any psychiatric interpretation of these mystical satori-like experiences - especially the bit about the perceived anthropomorphization of so-called inanimate objects - as bunk, hokum, and quackery.

What's next - accusing millions of practitioners of the Catholic faith of being mentally ill for believing in transubstantiation?

Or children who, with one part of their brain believe a stuffed animal to have a life-force and a sentient personality, while another part of their brain is well aware that the toy is made of synthetic fibers, came from K-Mart, and is not alive in a conventionally held sense?

The above-quoted Wikipedia text also notes that although most people experience intrusive images in their heads from time to time, the OCD patient's error is in attaching "extraordinary significance" to the thoughts.

What's so wrong about being extraordinary?

We plant a flag here in the name of the Algonquin Manitou, individually and collectively. Tuning in to their transmissions is not a mental illness.

Don't touch that dial.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Andree's Arctic Balloon Expedition

On July 11, 1897, Swedish balloonist Salomon August Andree set off on a mission to explore the North Pole via hot air balloon. On board with Andree were his engineer Knut Frænkel and a photographer named Nils Strindberg, who was a second cousin to the playwright August Strindberg.

The journey was cursed, due entirely to Andree's irrational decisions and unpreparedness. He refused to hear advice that the drag-rope steering technique he had invented for the balloon could be ineffective, and as it turned out the question was moot anyhow: the gondola immediately lost two of its three dangling ropes that Andree intended to function as a sort of rudder by providing drag against the ice. The system probably would not have worked well had they not lost the ropes, but without them, the balloon was virtually impossible to steer.

Only 295 miles into the trip, they were forced to make an emergency landing on floating drift ice after encountering storms. From there, they attempted to head East but after two months of trekking, they found they actually gone West because the unstable ice mass they were on was drifting backwards as they moved forwards. This not only wasted two months of time, it physically and mentally exhausted the explorers.

They finally reached the shores of Kvitøya Island but died shortly thereafter. Their diary entries stop just days after arriving on land, and just prior the men had all complained of severe diarrhea - now believed to have been the cause of their deaths, via ingestion of polar bear flesh carrying Trichinella parasites. Another theory is that they committed suicide by overdosing on opium, which they brought with them in plentiful quantity. Indeed, the final pages of the diary become incoherent and seemingly insane.

The expedition became a national mystery for Sweden, much like the Amelia Earhart disappearance is for Americans. For the next 33 years, the fate of Andree and his men was shrouded in mystery. Then in 1930, The Norwegian Bratvaag Expedition, conducting a scientific study of glaciers, found the remains of the Andree expedition.

A tin box containing Strindberg's photographic film plates was recovered, and the photographs were developed from them 33 years after they were taken. The image of the crash-landed balloon below is one of them.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Oera Linda Book

Generally regarded as a hoax, this peculiar manuscript came to light in the 19th century and was presented as being an ancient text of a forgotten matriarchal Freyja cult. The book is dated 1256, and some adherents of its authenticity claim it is a copy of even older manuscripts that are supposedly written by several authors between 2194 BC and 803 AD.

The book is believed to have influenced H.P. Blavatsky, and because of its mention of the continent/island of Atlantis, it has been cited in many articles by proponents of that land's existence.

According to Wikipedia:

Within the first few years after the appearance of the Oera Linda Book, there was great skepticism concerning its authenticity, not only for the exceptional claims being made, but also because of a number of anachronisms it contained. Research was performed on the quality of the paper, and it was claimed to have come from a papermill in Maastricht circa 1850. This skepticism has not prevented the book from being a source of inspiration for a number of occultists, speculative historians, and political parties during the century or more since its emergence.

The authenticity of the book is supported by at least some Neo-Nazi groups, possibly because it indicates a Northern European origin for several Middle Eastern civilisations — this despite the fact that the book itself heavily criticises the ancestors of the Germans as uncouth barbarians.

You can view scans of the original document here and read an attempt at an English translation here.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Your Own Electron Microscope

Just when I think I'm ready to go downstairs and push the big red button on the internet and blow a kiss, something like this pops up like a gallery duck and restores my faith in its short-term potential.

Send in a sample of something and fill out a form, and the ASPEX Corporation will run it through their scanning electron microscope (for FREE!), and then post the images online for your retrieval (give them about 2 weeks turnover time on your job).

Click here to get started!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Don't Panic

When I was a kid, the solar system was simple. We were told in school that there were nine planets, with an asteroid belt in the middle that was mostly composed of debris. Past Pluto, there was nothing. Void. Emptiness all the way till you get to the Canis Major Dwarf Galaxy, currently thought to be the closest neighbouring galaxy to our location in the Milky Way.

But all that really mattered was our basic nine planets, sailing together like a family through space in our happy little boat called the solar system.

Times have changed. Up is down, black is white, night is day. Everything we knew about the solar system was wrong.

After the advent of the Hubble Telescope, scientists began to realize that many so-called asteroids were actually very planet-like. And then as we learned more about the planet Pluto, they realized it was much more like an asteroid. As new "minor planet" discoveries started pouring in at an unprecedented rate, our entire system of nomenclature became confusing, self-contradictory, and irrelevant.

The general public was briefly outraged over Pluto being "demoted as a planet" in 2006 by the IAU the before they forgot about it and moved on to the next distraction. But what most missed is that simultaneously, a new category of celestial object was also officially coined: the dwarf planet. This is seemingly part of a concerted effort on the part of organized astronomy to obfuscate the Heavens with unnecessary sub-sub-subcategories, and it only confuses the public - after all, when you get right down to it, a "dwarf planet" is still obviously a planet. A "minor planet" is still a planet of some sort.

Many astronomers know in their hearts that the 2006 IAU restructuring left a bigger mess than the one it was intended to clean up. Many objects are now classified as being both an asteroid and a planet. Others have attributes of those two and attributes of comets as well, creating a real quandary for those who are obsessed with making the Universe fit a series of pre-created boxes. Their solution? Create yet another hastily-contrived subcategory: "Centaurs".

Had this obsessive-compulsive zeal for classification been as prevalent in the past, they might have declared Earth to be the only "true" planet, and reclassified everything else - maybe calling Mercury a "Near-Sun Object", and relabeling Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune and Uranus to be not quite planets but "Gasoids".

So what are these minor planets and dwarf planets that have turned the textbooks upside down since my college days? Let's take a tour of just a few, shall we?


You've never heard of the planet Pulcova? Well, here it is in all its shiny glory, seen here with its moon - to which no one's bothered to give a real name so far. Pulcova was actually discovered in 1913 and classified as just another chunk of asteroid belt debris, but in 2000 astronomers realized it was relatively spherical and had a moon of its own.


Say hello to the planet Varuna, named after the Vedic/Hindu deity Varuna. Depending on which astronomer you ask and at what time of day, it's referred to as a minor planet, a dwarf planet, a Kuiper Belt object, a Trans-Neptunian object, or even all of the above. We say, it's big, it's round and it orbits the sun - just call it a planet, leave it at that, and be done with it.


Makemake is the third-largest known dwarf planet in the Solar System, about 3/4 the size of Pluto. Originally nicknamed "Easterbunny", it eventually was named after the creator deity of Rapa Nui, a.k.a. Easter Island. (For some reason, they were certainly determined to keep an Easter connection to the naming of this planet!)


Shown here in a NASA artist's rendering based on all available data, is the planet Eris and its moon Dysnomia. Covered in a layer of grey methane ice, Eris is approximately 1489 miles in diameter and has an orbital period of 557 years. Discordians cheered and partied in the streets when their favorite chaos deity, Eris, was honored with the nomenclature.

The discovery of Eris is actually a key part of what sparked the IAU to rush their ill-advised definition-parsing for planets. "2003 UB313", as it was called then, was heralded by leading astronomers as being a historic discovery of the 10th major planet in our solar system - until the IAU's new rule put the kibosh on that.


And then there's the planet Sedna. For this, I quote from a recent article about the increasingly accepted idea that our sun has an invisible dark nemesis twin:

A recently-discovered dwarf planet, named Sedna, has an extra-long and usual elliptical orbit around the Sun. Sedna is one of the most distant objects yet observed, with an orbit ranging between 76 and 975 AU (where 1 AU is the distance between the Earth and the Sun). Sedna's orbit is estimated to last between 10.5 to 12 thousand years. Sedna's discoverer, Mike Brown of Caltech, noted in a Discover magazine article that Sedna's location doesn't make sense.

"Sedna shouldn't be there," said Brown. "There's no way to put Sedna where it is. It never comes close enough to be affected by the Sun, but it never goes far enough away from the Sun to be affected by other stars."

Perhaps a massive unseen object is responsible for Sedna's mystifying orbit, its gravitational influence keeping Sedna fixed in that far-distant portion of space.


The planet Chariklo is orbiting the Sun between Saturn and Uranus, and infrared observations indicate its surface is covered in water ice. Its exact size, speed and period of rotation are still unknown, but it's been estimated as being only 161 miles in diameter. The montage above shows Chariklo and Pluto side by side to illustrate the guesstimated relative sizes between the two.

Chariklo was discovered on February 15, 1997 - 13 years ago - and almost no one on the street even knows this planet exists.


Haumea, pictured here with its two moons Hiʻiaka and Namaka, is thought to have formed billions of years ago from icy debris after a large impact disrupted Haumea's ice mantle. Hiʻiaka is of especial interest because it has large amounts of pure water ice on its surface.

Haumea is the third brightest object in the Kuiper belt after Pluto and Makemake, and is easily observable with an amateur telescope.


It's the most Earth-like planet out there and they're not even allowing it to be designated an "official" planet, just because other objects share its orbit (this arbitrary technicality is how the IAU avoided the nightmare of having to allow dozens or even hundreds of minor planets to become major).

Ceres has plenty of water on its surface as well as carbonates and clays, making it the most likely candidate in the search for extraterrestrial life. It is even suspected to have a bonafide liquid water ocean. The Dawn space probe will tell us for sure when it does a fly-by in 2015.

Like Pulcova, the planet Ceres got a raw deal historically - it was discovered in 1801 and for half a century was actually in the textbooks as an official ragin' full-on planet before being demoted.

Want more? Check out Wikipedia's List of Minor Planets: "As of January 2010 there are 231,665 numbered minor planets, and about as many yet unnumbered."

We're going to need a bigger boat.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

World Brain

The internet, or something like it, was first proposed by Victorian author H.G. Wells. In his little-known 1937 book World Brain: The Idea of a Permanent World Encyclopaedia, he spoke of an "information highway" in which all the world's information, great or trivial, would be placed on microfilm and dispatched on demand to anyone requesting it. He predicted that "any student, in any part of the world, will be able to sit with his projector in his own study at his or her convenience to examine any book, any document, in an exact replica".

He also foresaw that the information would become a synthesis because of the interaction of all the world's peoples coming together to learn at this universal trough of data.

Considering that technologies like the Telephone, the Telegraph and even the Fax Machine were already in place, it's surprising no one attempted to create a rudimentary primitive internet long before even Wells' book.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Fun Fax Facts

When do you think the first Facsimile Machine was invented? Go on, guess.

1970s? 1960s? Wrong.

1930s? 1920s? Not even close.

Try 1846.

From Wikipedia:

Scottish inventor Alexander Bain worked on chemical mechanical facsimile type devices and in 1846 was able to reproduce graphic signs in lab experiments. Frederick Bakewell made several improvements on Bain's design and demonstrated his device at the 1851 Great Exhibition in London. However, Bain and Bakewell's systems were rudimentary and produced poor quality images. They lacked synchronization between the transmitting mechanism and the receiving mechanism. In 1861, the first practical operational electro-mechanical commercially exploited telefax machine, the Pantelegraph, was invented by the Italian physicist Giovanni Caselli. He introduced the first commercial telefax service between Paris and Lyon in 1865, some 11 years before the invention of workable telephones.

In 1881, English inventor Shelford Bidwell constructed the scanning phototelegraph that was the first telefax machine to scan any two-dimensional original, not requiring manual plotting or drawing anymore. Around 1900, German physicist Arthur Korn invented the Bildtelegraph, widespread in continental Europe especially since a widely noticed transmission of a wanted-person photograph from Paris to London in 1908, used until the wider distribution of the radiofax. Its main competitors were the Bélinograf by Édouard Belin first, then since the 1930s the Hellschreiber, invented in 1929 by Rudolf Hell, a pioneer in mechanical image scanning and transmission.

The Hellschreiber machines, by the way, still have their enthusiasts today - check out the Feld Hell Club's website.

The image at top is an actual fax sent in 1865 by Giovanni Caselli. According to this site, Caselli instituted a fax service between Paris and several other French cities, and sent almost 5000 faxes in the first year alone.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

"Something is not right about Phobos"

Phobos has always been a bit mysterious, but the website for the European Space Agency's Mars Express mission comes right out and says what a lot of people have been thinking for a long, long time:

Something is not right about Phobos. It looks like a solid object but previous flybys have shown that it is not dense enough to be solid all the way through.

The same people who scoff at the idea of a Hollow Earth, or even small hollow pockets deep in the Earth's mantle, are now faced with possibly being forced to accept a body in the solar system that is largely hollow.

The ESA article again:

“Phobos is probably a second-generation Solar System object,” says Martin Pätzold, Universitat Koln, Cologne, Germany, and Principal Investigator of the Mars Radio Science (MaRS) experiment. Second generation means that it coalesced in orbit after Mars formed, rather than forming concurrently out of the same birth cloud as the Red Planet. There are other moons around other planets where this is thought to have been the case too, such as Amalthea around Jupiter.

Some researchers think Phobos might be riddled with vast caverns; the Mars Express spacecraft has been making a series of close flybys of Phobos this month, and high-resolution photos could be available any day now.

Phobos, which figures in numerous science fiction stories and real-life conspiracy theories as possibly being the site of an inhabited base (alien, CIA, Soviet, or Nazi, depending on which conspiracy theory you read) has a number of peculiar features that set it apart from other solar system bodies:

  • Extremely irregularly shaped
  • One of the least reflective objects in the solar system
  • At only 5,827 miles from the center of Mars, it's far closer to its planet than any other known planetary moon.
  • Images from Mars Global Surveyor indicate that Phobos is covered with a layer of fine-grained regolith at least 100 meters thick; it is believed to have been created by impacts from other bodies, but it is not known how the material stuck to an object with almost no gravity.
  • The Stickney Impact Crater on Phobos is so huge, many scientists are astounded such an enormous impact could have occurred on Phobos without its being destroyed. Especially if, as all tests show, it is not solid.
  • Sunday, March 7, 2010

    Vintage Printable

    Praise be for the Public Domain. Vintage Printable is a jaw-dropping website that heroically compiles and redistributes old forgotten dusty copyright-free graphics from bygone eras, so that you and I can recompile and redistribute them for our own sinister purposes.

    The image galleries are not only archived by subject - dentistry, mythology, holiday, juvenilia, ephemera, etc. - but by color. And I say to myself, what a wonderful world.