Saturday, July 31, 2010

John the Other Revelator

In the 1930s, a new religion sprang up amongst the people of a primitive society living on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu. Supposedly a man in a white coat calling himself "John Frum" appeared to them with a revelation that they were God's chosen people, and that a new spiritual kingdom would be theirs just as soon as they cast off all influences of white European society. Anarchy ensued as the villagers abandoned "civilization" overnight, burning their money, wrecking churches and schools, and throwing away all white man's things.

European colonial authorities tried in vain to suppress the John Frum movement, and even arrested a black man who they claimed was Frum. But strangely, even though the legend of John Frum warns against the white man's influence, many eyewitness accounts of Frum describe him as white.

Even more contradictory, the John Frum movement become that from which we derive the term "Cargo Cult" during World War II, when presence of U.S. troops greatly inspired the Frumsters. Like the natives in The Gods Must Be Crazy whose chance encounter with a Coke bottle changed their lives forever, the cult of John Frum suddenly became enraptured by the mysteries of modernism, and became sycophantic of all things U.S. Army. Says Wikipedia:

After the war, and the departure of the Americans, followers of John Frum built symbolic landing strips to encourage American aeroplanes to once again land and bring them "cargo". In 1957, a leader of the John Frum movement, Nakomaha, created the "Tanna Army", a non-violent, ritualistic organisation which organised military-style parades, their faces painted in ritual colours, and wearing white t-shirts with the letters "T-A USA" (Tanna Army USA). This parade still takes place every year on February 15.

The cult is still active today. The followers believe that John Frum will come back on a February 15 (the year of his return is not known), a date which is observed as "John Frum Day" in Vanuatu.

Kentucky's own "Appalachian Voodoo" movement, which your humble scribe confesses involvement in by trying to promote their atonal music on my Creeps record label, were also unabashedly a Cargo Cult, and even went to far as to compare themselves directly to the Cult of Frum during their heyday in Rockcastle County in the 1990s. Grillo the Clown, the infamous Kentucky street musician and another Creeps alumnus, was also a part of the Appalachian Voodoo movement.

(Photo top: the Red Cross of John Frum, Vanuatu, 1967. Photo bottom: Grillo the Clown, Irvine, KY, 2004.)

Thursday, July 29, 2010

One for the Money

Consider a verse from a Mother Goose collection, circa 1850:

One to make ready
And two to prepare;
Here goes the rider,
And away goes the mare.

And then from Nursery Rhymes of England, James Orchard Halliwell, 5th Edition, 1886:

One to make ready
And two to prepare
good luck to the rider
And away goes the mare

From this simple couplet about horse racing, the seeds of rock and roll history were laid to ferment when Bill Haley recorded a song called "Whatcha Gonna Do" in 1953 and utilized a modified version of Mrs. Goose's ancient nursery rhyme:

One for the money
And two for the show
Three to get ready
And here I go!

Two years later, Carl Perkins specifically used Bill Haley's version of the couplet for his "Blue Suede Shoes". That he was directly inspired by Bill Haley is further evidenced by observing that the style of "Blue Suede Shoes" was plainly aping Bill's "Rock the Joint".

Though Carl enjoyed very brief fame as his record became a hit, Elvis Presley "sniped" Carl by rushing out his own version of it and stealing Carl's thunder while Carl was sidelined by a car wreck. Carl laid in his hospital bed watching Elvis steal his goldmine on live television. Sure, he got royalties, but that's scarcely the point. Carl's version was immediately forgotten as Elvis' punchier rendition stole the limelight.

(Poor Carl, utterly clueless about just what had made the song popular, kept desperately recording more songs about shoes, such as "Pink Pedal Pushers" and "Pointed Toe Shoes". And fantastic songs they were too, but they all failed to restore him to the hit parade.)

Bill Haley, never one to turn down a good song - even one ripping himself off - recorded his own versions of "Blue Suede Shoes" several times in his career.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Store Wars

As you may have heard, Wal-Mart is going full-speed-ahead with their plan to implement a vast RFID network in its U.S. stores. Starting next month, the radio-controlled electronic tags will be attached to Wal-Mart's blue jeans and underwear, and their goal is to have them on every other product in the store. These electronic tags, which can be capable of receiving and transmitting data as well as communicating with other tags and devices, stay "live" even after you walk out of the store with them, and privacy watchdogs are concerned.

According to the Wall Street Journal:

Starting next month, the retailer will place removable "smart tags" on individual garments that can be read by a hand-held scanner. Wal-Mart workers will be able to quickly learn, for instance, which size of Wrangler jeans is missing, with the aim of ensuring shelves are optimally stocked and inventory tightly watched.

"This ability to wave the wand and have a sense of all the products that are on the floor or in the back room in seconds is something that we feel can really transform our business," said Raul Vazquez, the executive in charge of Wal-Mart stores in the western U.S.

While the tags can be removed from clothing and packages, they can't be turned off, and they are trackable. Some privacy advocates hypothesize that unscrupulous marketers or criminals will be able to drive by consumers' homes and scan their garbage to discover what they have recently bought.

They also worry that retailers will be able to scan customers who carry new types of personal ID cards as they walk through a store, without their knowledge. Several states, including Washington and New York, have begun issuing enhanced driver's licenses that contain radio- frequency tags with unique ID numbers, to make border crossings easier for frequent travelers. Some privacy advocates contend that retailers could theoretically scan people with such licenses as they make purchases, combine the info with their credit card data, and then know the person's identity the next time they stepped into the store.

I'll be curious to see how much creative resistance occurs to this Orwellian idea. There are many ways that everything could go totally wrong for Wal-Mart by implementing this RFID plan, due to inherent flaws in the system. Since RFID tags operate by radio waves, they're susceptible to any external radio interference. Just think on that for awhile, monkeywrenchers. And if one were to save large quantities of the tags off their purchases, then sneak them back into the store and conceal them in various places (pockets of clothing, hard to reach places under and behind displays, etc.) then it could seriously screw up Wal-Mart's inventory. And that would just be a downright tragedy. Imagine the chaos if a store became filled with hidden tags still broadcasting a nonexistent product, and even after the manager determines the readings are false, still goes nuts tearing the store apart trying to find all the secretly placed rogue tags.

As RFID tags get smaller and smaller (they've already perfected microscopic RFID "smart dust"), the potential for mischief will be staggering - both on the part of retailers and consumers, taking the eternal battle between buyers and sellers to the level of actual high-tech espionage and war.

I don't actually recommend any of you people really go out and do anything like that, of course. I'm just speculatin' 'bout a hypothesis, that's all. Strictly for the sake of argument. An empirical inquiry, in the name of science and all its wonders.

There's no reason - absolutely no reason - Wal-Mart couldn't have implemented an RFID system that turns the tag off and permanently disables it at the point of checkout. Such systems already exist, and Wal-Mart has been studying on RFID for years now. No, the only reason you would want to keep the tags live and transmitting even after the customer gets in their car and goes home would be if you had something nefarious in mind. Just what that is, I don't know for certain right now. But what happens in the darkness will surely see the light of day.

(Photo above: on the left, Hitachi's super-tiny RFID microchips, shown next to a human hair. On the right is their previous advancement, the Mu-Chip, which was 64 times larger - not microscopic, but still only the size of a grain of salt.)

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The USB Typewriter

One from the JSH writing blog:

It's almost like this gizmo was created with me in mind: an antique typewriter transformed into a fully functioning keyboard, compatible with PC, Mac, and iPad. The $700 price tag gives me pause, but I have to admit it is a thing of beauty and I do deserve nice things, don't I?

Jack Zylkin, the brain behind this bionic typewriter, says on his website:

The USBTypewriter™ is a new and groundbreaking innovation in the field of obsolescence. Lovers of the look, feel, and quality of old fashioned manual typewriters can now use them as keyboards for any USB-capable computer, such as a PC, Mac, or even iPad! The modification is easy to install, it involves no messy wiring, and does not change the outward appearance of the typewriter (except for the usb adapter itself, which is mounted in the rear of the machine). So the end result is a retro-style USB keyboard that not only looks great, but feels great to use.

I have to wonder, though - does it really have the feel of old-school typing? Using a typewriter is a lot like a piano - you can touch the keys softly or you can pound them, reveling in the staccato slamming of the typebars against the paper, sometimes so hard that the interior of the letter "o" gets cut out and your finished product is perforated with little holes. There's a real Zen to the highs and lows of key-slamming intensity of manual typewriter usage, and those of us raised on them know it does make a difference in one's writing. Much was gained in the move to word processors and laptops, to be sure - but something was also distinctly lost.

I have a feeling that, lovely a device though the USB Typewriter is, it cannot withstand the abuse that an old Remington jockey such as myself would surely inflict upon it. If a typewriter is indeed like a piano, then I am its Cecil Taylor.

I suppose I'm just going to hold out till someone invents a true Clark-Nova, William S. Burroughs' sentient typewriter that dispenses two different types of intoxicating fluids when it likes what you've written.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Literary Werewolf

Whatever happened to werewolves?

It really bugs me that werewolves get short shrift in today's horror scene. These days, everything's vampires, vampires, vampires. I can't begin to tell you how sick and tired I am of vampires. Especially Dracula.

I've tried repeatedly to watch True Blood but I can't make myself care about any of the characters; I think the show jumped the shark pretty much right out of the starting gate, even though they have attempted to introduce werewolves belatedly into the storyline. I am also aware that there's some Twilight vampire thing that's hip with the kids these days, but I honestly don't have a clue what it is or what it's about, nor do I really want to know, having recently officially given up on modern pop culture.

If anyone brings the werewolf back around here, it might have to be me. My theatre company has already been looking into the possibility of staging a series of Grand Guignol stories, and having just this morning discovered a California company's charming rendition of Rudyard Kipling's The Mark of the Beast has put some steam in my stern.

There's certainly no shortage of lycanthropic material to draw from, most of it forgotten or obscure: there's an ancient French epic story-poem called Guillaume de Palerme, for instance, in which a Spanish prince named Alfonso is transformed into a werewolf by his witchy stepmother.

The Phantom Ship, a gothic novel about the Flying Dutchman ghost ship, contains a famous werewolf segment called "The White Wolf of the Hartz Mountains".

The Werewolf of Paris is a 1933 horror novel by Guy Endore, about a man named Bertrand Caillet who has been obsessed with inexplicable sadistic and sexual desires ever since childhood, and has vivid dreams of transforming into a wolf. As he enters adulthood, he gradually begins morphing into an actual wolfman with increasing frequency. His girlfriend Sophie attempts to keep his transformations at bay by cutting herself and allowing him to drink her blood, which is successful - for a while. The story was later adapted by Hammer Studios for the film Curse of the Werewolf.

Algernon Blackwood wrote a novel in 1921 called Running Wolf which I'm curious to locate and read - it's reportedly set deep in the Canadian wilderness and features a werewolf that is actually the ghost of a werewolf, and a Native American one at that. This brings to my mind Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, a tale of a seemingly haunted hotel in a frozen wilderness that was once a Native American burial ground, and features a running "wolf" motif involving Jack Nicholson's character.

And H. Warner Munn penned a marvelous series called Tales of the Werewolf Clan between 1925 and 1931, including The Werewolf of Ponkert.

Let's bark again, like Ozzy did last summer. Daddy is sleeping and mama ain't around.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Gustave Whitehead

Who remembers pioneer aviator Gustave Whitehead today? Probably not you, and not even me; for I only now just discovered his existence while randomly surfing the web. Gustave, who made powered flights in a rather insectoidal monoplane more than two years before the Wright brothers, is just another example of an early trailbrazer whose contributions to mankind have fallen down the memory hole.

From Wikipedia:

According to a witness who gave his report in 1934, Whitehead made a very early motorized flight of about half a mile in Pittsburgh in April or May 1899. Louis Darvarich, a friend of Whitehead's, said they flew together at a height of 20 to 25 ft (6 to 8 m) in a steam-powered monoplane aircraft and crashed into a three-story building. Darvarich said he was stoking the boiler and was badly scalded in the accident, requiring several weeks in a hospital.

The fireman, Martin Devane, who was called to the scene of the accident reported: "...I believe I arrived immediately after it crashed into a brick building, a newly constructed apartment house on the O'Neal Estate. I recall that someone was hurt and taken to the hospital. I am able to identify the inventor Gustave Whitehead from a picture shown to me". Because of this incident, Whitehead was forbidden to do any more flight experiments in Pittsburgh, so he moved to Bridgeport.

The aviation event for which Whitehead is now best-known reportedly took place in Fairfield, Connecticut on August 14, 1901. According to the Bridgeport Herald newspaper and a few witnesses who gave their statements more than 30 years later, Whitehead made a powered, controlled airplane flight in his "Number 21" aircraft for a distance of 800 meters (2,625 feet) at 15 m (49 ft) height and landed safely. The feat, if true, exceeded the best of the Wright brothers first powered flights by 540 m (1770 ft) and preceded the Kitty Hawk flights by more than two years. Herald sports reporter Dick Howell wrote the eyewitness account and drew a sketch showing the airplane in flight, but to the lasting frustration of Whitehead supporters, no photographs were taken. The newspaper, a Sunday weekly, published the article a few days later in its next edition, and the report was also reprinted in the New York Herald and Boston Transcript.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Can You Feel It Coming?

I'm breaking a cardinal rule of the JSH Manual of Style by presenting this YouTube video as embedded, rather than simply providing a link - it's that important that it be made as easy as possible for you to click and experience this masterpiece from the mastermind that is Gene Simmons. The band is KISS, the song is "Journey of 1000 Years", and the message is bigger than the both of us, friend.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Shine Like an Arclight

This summer I've been unable to get the Stanley Kubrick monsterpiece The Shining out of my head. Like all his works, the movie doesn't sit still: it keeps moving, twisting, roiling, morphing, fucking back in on itself no matter how many times you watch it. And like my good friend Freddy Riedenschneider says, "The more you look, the less you know."

Most people see the film strictly as it was presented to them: a writer (Jack) and his family get a gig as winter caretakers for an empty and spooky old resort hotel high in the Colorado mountains. The writer gets blocked and has trouble working on his novel, then slowly goes insane. Gradually we find that ghosts from an old murder on the premises seem to be manipulating Jack's mind. Finally, the child Danny, who has psychic abilities and an imaginary friend, saves the day by alerting the mother to escape, then by leading Jack into an enormous outdoor maze in which he (Jack) gets lost and freezes to death. The End.

But for our purposes here, there's something far more interesting going on here than mere ghosts.

Kubrick ignored Stephen King's novel almost entirely, to the extent that King wondered aloud why the heck Kubrick even bothered securing the rights to a story that he intended to change completely. The answer is, of course, that Kubrick needed the Stephen King name to help sell the film (especially after his last film Barry Lyndon tanked) and used the book as an excuse to tell some other entirely different story altogether.

From discussions with Kubrick and his staff, we know that he deliberately took great pains to avoid the "ghost" idea, if you define a ghost as the living soul of a dead person back from the grave to haunt people.

Kubrick wanted it left open-ended what sort of phenomena was really going on here, and he used Scatman Crothers' character Halloran to explain that "The Shining" (Halloran's term for Danny's extra-sensory perception) can pick up on the residue left behind of things that happened at any given point on the spacetime continuum.

This concept could mean that these 'ghosts' are like old recordings or holograms rather than living manifestations, but we know from Jack's direct interaction with the 'ghosts' that they are as real as anyone else. They talk, they spill wine on you, they even let you out of a locked pantry.

No, clearly the hotel is acting as an open channel for simultaneous co-existence of multiple times, spaces, and points on the time track. When we see Jack enter an empty bar and suddenly find it full of people, he isn't hallucinating (as many have suggested) nor are the people ghosts (that would imply that the liquor bottles are ghosts too!)... no, he's literally re-entering the past, at least in a fragmentary, temporary, and open-endedly interactive way. For lack of a better term, the Overlook Hotel is like William S. Burroughs' Interzone, a place where anything can happen - and does.

I also approve of interpretations that the resonance of the Native American burial ground beneath the Hotel has something to do with the spacetime anomaly, and that Danny's imaginary friend "Tony" is some sort of manitou that has come to help Danny survive through previous and ongoing abuse from his father.

And that's another key point of the movie that's right there in plain sight - Jack was clearly abusive to Danny before he went insane, and before the incident spoken of early on where Danny's arm was pulled out of the socket by Jack.

Danny's mom says it happened 5 months ago, but Jack later makes a reference to some sort of atrocity he did to the child three years ago. Casual watchers forget the timeframe in which the incident is first mentioned, and assume this is what Jack is referring to when he brings this up later while sitting at the bar. But Jack is clearly referring to some other, even more heinous incident that took place when Danny was younger. Some have speculated Kubrick intended us to deduce that Jack actually sexually molested Danny, and there's certainly plenty of clues to suggest this.

It isn't often that a 70's horror flick gets so roundly recast in a new light upon repeated viewing, and one finds deeper matters like Remote Viewing, quantum bilocation, and Satanism.

Wait, Satanism? Yep. It's oft-speculated that Kubrick was a practicing Satanist of some sort, or at least obsessed with the subject. Sly little references to Satanism and/or old-school Ceremonial Magick pervade most of his films. Some have noted the similarity to Baphomet in Jack's pose in the enigmatic final shot of the unexplained photograph that seems to suggest that Jack was either at the Hotel in a past life, or that the two realities merged as a result of whatever the heck happened.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

San Francisco, 1906

A 1906 cable-car ride through Gavin Elster's San Francisco paired with music by Air? So cash.

Put this puppy on full-screen mode. Dim the lights, chill the ham. Be still and know. Return to those glorious toothpaste-free days of cotton gins, wooden legs, and smallpox.