Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Buckminster's Clouded Mind

Years before Star Trek envisioned the cloud city of Stratos, and before Star Wars gave us Lando Calrissian's cloud city, there was the mad genius Buckminster Fuller, who attempted to create such places for real, not science fiction.

One of Bucky's lost and languishing inventions was his "Cloud Nine Project", in which entire communities would live inside giant inflatable polyethylene geodesic spheres. These spheres would theoretically float up among the clouds, which sounds like a fun trick for a brief balloon ride, but doesn't sound desirable to me at all as a permanent home.

Wikipedia describes the scheme like this:

Geodesic spheres (structures of triangular components arranged to make a sphere) become stronger as they become bigger, due to how they distribute stress over their surfaces. As a sphere gets bigger, the volume it encloses grows much faster than the mass of the enclosing structure itself. Fuller suggested that the mass of a mile-wide geodesic sphere would be negligible compared to the mass of the air trapped within it. He suggested that if the air inside such a sphere were heated even by one degree higher than the ambient temperature of its surroundings, the sphere could become airborne. He calculated that such a balloon could lift a considerable mass, and hence that 'mini-cities' or airborne towns of thousands of people could be built in this way. The 'cloud nines' could be tethered, or free-floating, or maneuverable so that they could 'migrate' in response to climatic and environmental conditions, such as providing emergency shelters.

Well, I have trouble wrapping my head around this concept, but hey, he's Buckminster Fuller and I guess he knows what he's talking about. I haven't found any explanation of exactly how the people inside these giant wafer-thin Buckyballs keep from getting jostled around and buffeted by random high altitude winds.

Nor I am sure what happens if someone accidentally punctures the thin plastic membrane. I can guess though.

Perhaps there's a very good reason why some of ol' Buck's inventions are "lost" today. Still, the simplicity of the design and the grandiosity of the idea make this an ideal dream for the Steampunk generation to attempt to resurrect...

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Confectioner's Glaze

On many food items - especially candies - you'll see "Confectioner's Glaze", "Resinous Glaze", or "Pure Food Glaze". These are all names for food-grade versions of Pharmaceutical Glaze, an edible resinous shellac produced from - are you ready for this? - the excretions of the insect Kerria Lacca.

The insect was first classified by modern researchers in 1782, but man has harvested its secretions, known as "Lac" (and this is literally where the term "shellac" comes from"), for thousands of years. The Mahabharata makes reference to a palace built entirely from it.

It is literally the same substance as the shellac which 78rpm records were made of, and the very same shellac with which wood is stained and protective-coated. So how is it possible that a human could digest such a thing? Well, guess what - it isn't. Shellac is practically insoluble in stomach acid, and it mostly passes through your system undigested. This is how it came to be used in pharmaceuticals, to provide an ultra-thin coating for time-release pills.

Being the by-product of an insect (and almost always containing bits of dead insects in the harvesting process), anything containing this glaze is not Kosher, and because of its alcohol content, it is not Halal. And some vegans - those extremists who won't even eat honey because it came from an insect - certainly won't approve.

Most candies out there - from candy corn to Junior Mints - are loaded with the stuff. If you eat a lot of candy (and I do), then you and I have consumed a lot of bug secretion in our times, friend.

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Gentleman Scientist

In another era, the concept of "science" was not something closed off to the common man; rather, it was as commonplace a hobby as gardening or philately. Scientific discoveries of immense value were frequently made by home enthusiasts.

Nowadays, one of the few remaining areas of science still considered wide open to so-called "amateurs" is astronomy. But even then, any discovery that doesn't jibe with what the "experts" have already decreed will be suppressed or ignored. Just about every other field of science has been encircled with barbed wire by career "scientists" - and, of course, the universities, government agencies, and corporations who fund them.

But in days of old, from colonial times to the Victorian age, a man didn't need a fancy college degree or the blessing of academia. If he built a science lab in his carriage house and declared himself to be a scientist, then dammit, he was, and nobody laughed when he said so.

"Gentlemen Scientists", they were nobly called. Even many early members of the Royal Society were Gentlemen Scientists. One was Antoine Lavoisier, the father of modern chemistry. Benjamin Franklin, who was a pioneer in electrical research, was another.

There are still a few Gentlemen Scientists out there, toiling in the night pursuing their vision like an artist slaving away in his garret, shaking up consensus reality until it coughs up the elusive truths he seeks. Others are somewhat independent but still rooted in the status quo, such as J. Craig Venter and James Lovelock. These men are not so much Gentlemen Scientists per se (though scientists and gentlemen they may be) but simply independent mavericks within the existing system of Big Science.

If there are any fellow Gentlemen Scientists out there, we'd love to hear from you.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Xanthan Gum

If you look at the ingredients on everything you eat (and if you don't, maybe you should), you'll see Xanthan Gum listed for all kinds of products, even including non-food ones. Since you're eating so much of the stuff, don't you think you owe it to your innards to find out just what it is?

No? Tough. I looked it up for you anyway.

Xanthomonas campestris is a bacterial species that causes many different kinds of plant diseases - from citrus canker to leaf rot, as seen in the photo shown above. In the 1950s Allene Jeanes discovered that a combination of Xanthomonas campestris fermented in a corn sugar culture produced a colorless slimy substance. It's also been done with wheat, whey, soy, and other plants; even dairy products can be a useful medium for the bacteria.

Xanthan Gum, as it was ultimately called, turned out to be a useful stabilizer and thickener. And best of all, it's ridiculously cheap to produce - it's just biofermentation of a plant-rotting bacteria. For that reason, its use has skyrocketed in recent times, and is imported heavily by Chinese manufacturers.

With the gum's propensity to increasing the viscosity of any substance at a remarkable degree by adding only a timy amount - and given its ability to sort of take on that substance's taste, color and characteristics, one has to wonder just how much of the stuff they're putting in consumer products as filler. Xanthan gum allergies are on the rise, which leads me to suspect that we're eating a lot more of it now than we used to. Anyone who compares fresh homemade ice cream (ingredients: cream, sugar) to store-bought ice cream (lots of ingredients including Xanthan Gum, Guar Gum, Cellulose Gum, Locust Bean Gum and Carrageenan) can see the obvious difference between the two, and after eating the former, one might ask whether the latter is actually more gum than anything else.

Also, it's been demonstrated that people with wheat allergies will also react to Xantham Gum that used wheat as its fermentation base. Other adverse reactions and side effects include dry skin, respiratory problems, and bowel problems. Sufferers of Celiac Disease have been warned by many doctors and nutritionists to avoid Xanthan Gum.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Old New Thought

Recently, in my meanderings around the net, I chanced upon the site for a company called Seed Of Life Publishing. They offer for sale PDF files of rare and obscure metaphysical texts from the Victorian age, including New Thought Common Sense by Ella Wheeler Wilcox, The Message of New Thought by Abel L. Allen, The Law of the New Thought by William Walker Atkinson, The Science of New Thought by E. Whitford Hopkins.

And if you'd like a book that doesn't have "New Thought" in the title, try This Mystical Life of Ours, by Ralph Waldo Trine. Trine, seen pictured at right striking a pose that Edgar Cayce would mimic years later, was born in 1866 in Illinois, and died in California in 1958, at the age of 91. During those years, he wrote at least 24 books - including the aforementioned and In Tune with the Infinite, which was a huge success and its philosophical advice was championed by such luminaries as Queen Victoria and Henry Ford.

They also carry the complete collected works of Phineas Parkhurst Quimby, an inventor, philosopher, and - some say - a faith healer whose work inspired Mary Baker Eddy.

Today, the Church of Spiritual Science (not to be confused with Eddy's Christian Science, Ernest Holmes' Religious Science, Malinda Cramer's Divine Science Federation or L. Ron Hubbard's Churches of Scientology) keeps Quimby's reputation out there, plus other related New Thinkers like Prentice Mulford, C.W. Leadbeater, and the Queen of Theosophy, Helena P. Blavatsky.

Quimby was something of a savant in that he was an stirring orator and prolific writer even though he had very little in the way of a formal education and his manuscripts had to be proofread and corrected. He also was a whiz at watchmaking and clockmaking, and a huge clock he made for a church in Belfast, Maine (see image below) still ticks on to this day.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Arabic Automata

In the 12th century, a Muslim inventor by the name of Abū al-'Iz Ibn Ismā'īl ibn al-Razāz al-Jazarī ( أَبُو اَلْعِزِ بْنُ إسْماعِيلِ بْنُ الرِّزاز الجزري‎) single-handedly pioneered the field of Islamic robotics.

His book Kitáb fí ma'rifat al-hiyal al-handasiyya ("Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices") was published in 1206, the year of his death. Known during his lifetime for his amazing inventions, he wrote this book at the end of his life to reveal his secrets of how he did it. The book is, in fact, written in the style of a "do-it-yourself" instruction manual. It contains plans of how to build his camshaft, crankshaft, water wheels, water clocks, and elaborate improvements on the candle clock. His most impressive clock was the "Castle Clock", however, about which Wikipedia says:

"al-Jazari's largest astronomical clock was the "castle clock", which is considered to be the first programmable analog computer. It was a complex device that was about 11 feet (3.4 m) high, and had multiple functions besides timekeeping. It included a display of the zodiac and the solar and lunar orbits, and an innovative feature of the device was a pointer in the shape of the crescent moon which travelled across the top of a gateway, moved by a hidden cart, and caused automatic doors to open, each revealing a mannequin, every hour. Another innovative feature was the variable ability to re-program the length of day and night everyday in order to account for the changing lengths of day and night throughout the year. Yet another innovative feature of the device was five robotic musicians who automatically play music when moved by levers operated by a hidden camshaft attached to a water wheel. Other components of the castle clock included a main reservoir with a float, a float chamber and flow regulator, plate and valve trough, two pulleys, crescent disc displaying the zodiac, and two falcon automata dropping balls into vases."

But it's his humanoid automatons that represent his true genius. One was a robotic waitress that would serve beverages to guests. By turning the machine on, a tank with a reservoir filled with tea would drip into a cup. Wnen the cup was full, it would trigger the waitress to move forwatd through an automatic door to serve the drink.

Another was a female humanoid standing by a basin filled with water. When the user pulls the lever, the water drains out of the basin and the automaton refills it. In creating this, al-Jazari invented the flush mechanism that is now standard in modern toilets today.

His grandest creation was a musical robot band, which may have been the first truly programmable automata in history. It consisted of a boat with four automatic musicians, which floated on a lake to entertain royal guests. According to Wikipedia, "It has a programmable drum machine with pegs (cams) that bump into little levers that operated the percussion. The drummer could be made to play different rhythms and different drum patterns if the pegs were moved around. According to Charles B. Fowler, the automata were a "robot band" which performed "more than fifty facial and body actions during each musical selection."

The Italian Renaissance inventor Leonardo da Vinci was almost certainly influenced by al-Jazari, as were countless subsequent experimenters in the field.

Anton LaVey was a collector of exotic automata and was said to own highly programmable female mechanical companions that made Disneyland's animatronics look like hand puppets by comparison. The leading automata of that time, such as "Isis" (pictured above), were the handiwork of Dr. Cecil Nixon. They also played a significant role in LaVey's Erotic Crystallization Inertia theories, which posited the quantum youth-enhancing effects of controlling one's environment with an intent to disregard the modern era.

(And whether it actually works or not, we applaud the concept strictly for its own culture-jamming sake.)

Monday, March 21, 2011

Horizontal Gene Transfer

Once upon a time - not that long ago, really - science strictly thought of genetics in terms of an organism receiving genetic material from its parents or other ancestors. You passed your genes down to your offspring, and that was that.

Hold onto your seats. Nowadays, that's known as "Vertical Gene Transfer" and a previously undreamt-of Horizontal variety has changed everything. With Horizontal Gene Transfer, two entities can exchange genetic material without being related.

Horizontal Gene Transfer was first postulated in Japan in 1959, when it was demonstrated that antibiotic resistance seems to magically transfer itself between different species of bacteria; this had previously been thought impossible. The unoiled gears of empirical science grind slow, and very few people really sorted out for themselves the implications of that study until 1985. That's when M. Syvanen published his paper "Cross-species gene transfer: Implications for a new theory of evolution".

Syvanen's groundbreaking hypothesis was that genes could potentially be transferred laterally in all species (possibly even humans), without reproduction. "The cross-species gene transfer model could help explain many observations which have puzzled evolutionists," he said, "such as rapid bursts in evolution and the widespread occurrence of parallelism in the fossil record." Today, we now know that Horizontal Gene Transfer takes place frequently with bacteria, but proof that it happens with humans isn't concrete - yet.

The frightening implications of Horizontal Gene Transfer are numerous. For one, it means that transgenic DNA could jump from one genetically engineered species to a natural one, wreaking untold havoc in nature. And many opponents of GMOs say that's already happening.

Agrobacterium causes large galls (tumors) on plants by injecting its own DNA into them. According to Wikipedia:

"Although generally seen as an infection in plants, Agrobacterium can be responsible for opportunistic infections in humans with weakened immune systems, but has not been shown to be a primary pathogen in otherwise healthy individuals. One of the earliest associations of human disease caused by Agrobacterium radiobacter was reported by Dr. J. R. Cain in Scotland (1988). A later study suggested that Agrobacterium attaches to and genetically transforms several types of human cells by integrating its T-DNA into the human cell genome."

Scarier still, Agrobacterium has been theorized as a possible culprit behind the mysterious Morgellons Disease, which continues to baffle doctors - to the extant that many still don't believe the condition even exists. A 2007 study by Raphael Stricker and Vitaly Citovsky claimed to have found Agrobacterium in skin samples from all the Morgellons patients examined in the study; however, an attempt by Dr. Randy Wymore in 2010 to duplicate their work failed to find any Agrobacterium.

The cleanup crews of the BP Deepwater Horizon Disaster in the Gulf of Mexico have been using a toxic mix of methods: at the same time as the controversial Corexit dispersant has been applied, experimental genetically-engineered bacteria that thrive on oil have also been put into the environment. According to Florida Gulf Skywatch:

" These microbes were designed to literally consume the oil and hydrocarbons leaking into the gulf. However, some of these microbes (even before they are genetically engineered) can cause skin rashes and immune responses in humans.

All of these bacteria can transfer genes to other bacteria through a process called, "Horizontal Gene Transfer." What is potentially terrifying is that we do not know exactly what genes were added to these bacteria and could have been transferred to bacteria native to the Gulf of Mexico. We could have countless new strains of bacteria growing and multiplying in the gulf as we speak!"

According to World Vision Portal, that is exactly what has happened, and doctors are finding the resultant "blue plague" harder to dismiss than Morgellons.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Lip Hair Follies

Back in my antique-hustling days, I always enjoyed the peculiar Victorian relic known as the Mustache Cup. In days of old, men would lift these specially-made teacups and mugs to their mugs, and sip secure in the knowledge that the enclosure on the inside of the lip would protect their precious mustache.

But all this time, I just thought the idea was that a gentleman didn't want to get his stache wet. In fact, men of those times invariably had their proud facial hair waxed heavily, and hot coffee and tea would quickly soften and melt the wax. This not only left the fellow with a wilted face but rendered his drink nasty-tasting due to post-meltoff drip.

Which got me thinking: it's easy enough to find antique mustache cups these days, and some diligent souls even manufacture new ones - but where does a Transylvania Gentleman go to procure some mustache wax today? Besides the Interzone Mercantile, of course.

A quick tiptoe through Google's tulips revealed that mustache wax never went away and is apparently used by hordes of men, even though the subject has never come up in conversation with anyone I know. There's Gravy Jay's, Oregon Wild Hair, Firehouse, Clubman, and many more. There's a whole mustache subculture going on that I'm not privy to.

The British Handlebar Club has been keeping the lanolin lip hip since 1947. You can read their mustache wax FAQ here and check out their fascinating history here.

Since they all seem like a good bunch of old fashioned headcoat-wearing, pipe-smoking chaps, I'd probably fit right in with them, but for one sad fact: I cannot abide facial hair. For myself, I mean, on my own face. Other than an occasional Don Johnson-ish field of stubble (usually the spawn of laziness, not fashion), I'm strictly all about the clean-shaven look. Although you never know - when I get older I might finally experimentally descend into it. Till then, I'll live vicariously through the adventures of these blokes.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

As The World Churns

It's horrific enough that the recent 8.9 earthquake in Japan has had such a tragic death toll, and even worse that the world faces nuclear contamination that could make Chernobyl look like a backyard weenie roast. But what's really boggling my mind this evening is the news that whatever just happened under the sea and under the Earth's crust, it was bigger than we thought. It was big enough to move Japan by 8 inches, and it shifted the entire Earth on its axis about 6.5 inches.

And this isn't trash talk from the tinfoils, this is on mainstream media like CNN.

According to, "A new analysis of the 8.9-magnitude earthquake in Japan has found that the intense temblor has accelerated Earth's spin, shortening the length of the 24-hour day by 1.8 microseconds, according to geophysicist Richard Gross at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory". And this is apparently a growing trend, indicating big Earth changes are underway deep down below the surface; the articles goes on to note, "The 8.8-magnitude earthquake in Chile last year also sped up the planet's rotation and shortened the day by 1.26 microseconds. The 9.1 Sumatra earthquake in 2004 shortened the day by 6.8 microseconds."

Add to this the eye-opening data on hydrothermal vents spewing primordial soup from far inside the Earth; the Yellowstone caldera which many believe is on the verge of a cataclysmic explosion literally any minute now; and the far-ranging subterranean damage done in the BP disaster that seems to be getting worse even as the mass media clams up on the subject.

And then consider the rise in unexpected sinkholes and cracks in the Earth.

And now, on top of everything else, this.

When the hippies say "we're all just fleas that Mother Earth is trying to shake off", brother, they're not far wrong.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Candid Camera, 1890

This YouTube video from a documentary is short and sweet, but a nice glimpse at ordinary life in Oslo, circa 1890. The photographer walked around the streets with a disguised camera, surreptitiously snapping pictures of people who were unaware, even as he chatted with them.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Granite Mountain Records Vault

One of North America's greatest achievements sits quietly in the Utah desert, and most are unaware of its existence, except for genealogy enthusiasts.

Granite Mountain is a massive and imposing formation of solid quartz monzonite (not actually granite), one mile up Little Cottonwood Canyon in the Wasatch range of Utah. Since 1963, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints have operated the world's largest collection of genealogical material at this site. They've collected 2.5 million microfilm reels of every kind of public-records document you can think of: birth certificates, death certificates, marriage licenses, church rosters, census files, wills, probates, and personal memorabilia and paper ephemera - some of which dates back to the Middle Ages.

All in all, the Granite Mountain Record Vault contains information on around 2 billion deceased persons, and approximately 40,000 new rolls of microfilmed documents are added to its archives each year. This makes the Mormon Vault a mind-blowingly invaluable resource for geneologists, and before the advent of the internet, it was commonplace to make records requests to the LDS Church when seeking information about one's own family tree. But since 1999, the contents of the Vault have been made public to the world for free, at

Why do they do it? Because genealogy is very important to the Mormon ideas regarding salvation of the dead, which allows for retroactive, posthumous baptism of one's ancestors under certain circumstances.

It is said that specially constructed Mosler vault doors, weighing fourteen tons at the main entrance (see image above) and nine tons at the smaller ones (see image below), are designed to withstand a nuclear blast. If, in the event of a global disaster, the bugs that evolve and take over the planet will at least know who we were.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

العمارة الإسلامية

There's no getting around the fact that some of the most beautiful architecture on this planet comes from the Islamic world. One example is the Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Istanbul, pictured above. More examples:

Mosque of the Prophet, Saudi Arabia. ( المسجد النبوي )

Jeddah Mosque, Saudi Arabia.

Ahat Jami Mosque, Ukraine.

Mazar-e Sharif Mosque, Afghanistan.

Bibi-Khanym Mosque, Uzbekistan.

Imam Hussein Mosque, Kuwait.

Mosque Maryam, Chicago, Illinois.

Al-Abbas Mosque, Iraq.

Fanar Mosque, Qatar.

Imam Ridha Shrine, Iran.

Id Kah Mosque, China.

Assalam Center, Boca Raton, Florida.

Abu Darweesh Mosque, Jordan.

Coquimbo Mosque, Chile.

Al-Masjid al-Ḥarām, Mecca. ( المسجد الحرام‎ )

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Follow the Smoke

Before there was telephone and the internet, there was smoke. And where there's smoke, there's fire.

Cro-magnon man, or something like him, realized that building a fire is fine and all, but in so doing you are broadcasting your location from a great distance via the smoke. And so the earliest forms of smoke-signal commnication came between cavemen who simply used the smoke like a flare, to say "hey, I'm over here" in order for separated groups on a hunt to keep tabs on one another's location.

As man's mind became more complex over time, so did his smoke signals. Simultaneously in the Arab world, in China, and in ancient America, tribal peoples began to employ variations of smoke and imbue them with meaning. Using forked sticks piled high with damp grass (which smolders far better than dry), one could place them on the fire and off again, creating a sort of morse-code staccato pattern to be interpreted.

Around 150 BC, the Greek scholar Polybius devised an elegant alphabetical code for use with smoke signaling.

The Polybius Square as seen here is a 5x5 grid in which each letter is represented by its coordinates - therefore, the word "help" would be rendered numerically as "23 15 31 35", and via smoke signal using two torches, one representing the first numeral and one representing the second. Some versions of the square get 26 letters into 25 squares by combining the I and J; others omit the K and use C in its place. Prisoners have used this as a "tapping code" for centuries to subtly communicate with one another, and still use it to this very day. The acronym-heavy "text talk" of cellphones and the internet actually began here, before any of us were born - in order to shorten tapping time and hasten the message, abbreviations began to appear such as "GN" for "goodnight" and "GBU" for "God Bless You".

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Great Auk

"The Great Auk is known to have been preyed upon by Neanderthals more than 100,000 years ago, as evidenced by well-cleaned bones found by their campfires."

"In July 1840, the last Great Auk seen in the British Isles was caught and killed. Three men from St Kilda caught a single "garefowl", noticing its little wings and the large white spot on its head. They tied it up and kept it alive for three days, until a large storm arose. Believing that the auk was a witch and the cause of the storm, they then killed it by beating it with a stick."

"The last colony of Great Auks lived on Geirfuglasker (the "Great Auk Rock") off Iceland. This islet was a volcanic rock surrounded by cliffs which made it inaccessible to humans, but in 1830 the islet submerged after a volcanic eruption, and the birds moved to the nearby island of Eldey [pictured above], which was accessible from a single side. When the colony was initially discovered in 1835, nearly fifty birds were present. Museums, desiring the skins of the auk for preservation and display, quickly began collecting birds from the colony. The last pair, found incubating an egg, was killed there on 3 July 1844, with Jón Brandsson and Sigurður Ísleifsson strangling the adults and Ketill Ketilsson smashing the egg with his boot."

(All quotations from Wikipedia.)