Esoteric Interests

A New Book That Is Relevant to My Interests

Confession time: I’ve long had this odd little fascination for… brothels.

Oh, stop! I don’t mean it like that. My interest is purely academic. Well… mostly academic. When you grow up in strait-laced Utah, you can’t help but feel some attraction to the seedier side of things, especially when the notorious flesh-pots of Nevada are only a few hours away. (The Mustang Ranch outside of Reno had a near-legendary quality among my peers when I was in my early twenties; I remember much discussion of taking a little road trip… of course, it never happened, but the idea occupied a large patch of real-estate in our imaginations for a time.)

Seriously, though, youthful rebelliousness and licentiousness aside, I really am interested in the history and sociology of the whole phenomenon, especially in the context of how puritanical American culture tends to be, generally speaking. Basically, there are certain underground economies that flaunt traditional morality and that flourish in spite of — or maybe because of? — the country’s surface-level propriety, and these never really go away despite periodic attempts to stamp them out. I’m intrigued by that dichotomy, and by the hypocrisy of a society that’s unwilling to legitimize these economies even while so many individual Americans privately embrace them. So naturally a new book by Jayme Lynn Blaschke called Inside the Texas Chicken Ranch, which is just out today, has been on my radar for some time.

The Chicken Ranch (I don’t know why these places are always “ranches,” but that’s the way of things) is probably the best-known brothel in America, thanks to its being immortalized in the stage musical and Dolly Parton/Burt Reynolds film The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, as well as that staple of classic-rock radio, ZZ Top’s “La Grange.” Jayme himself is a native of the La Grange area who grew up hearing tales of the infamous “home on the range,” and spent years researching the real story behind the legend, followed by further years trying to find a publisher for his book. I’m really delighted for him that he’s finally succeeded. Here’s the book’s official promo:

As I said, Inside the Chicken Ranch is on the market as of today, available from all the usual outlets, including Amazon and direct from the publisher. Congratulations, Jayme, I can’t wait to read it!


Scotland Votes!


We very nearly woke up in a different world, kids. You no doubt already know that the Scottish vote for independence came down on the side of remaining part of the United Kingdom, but it was pretty close, only 55% to 45%, and at certain times during the evening, it looked like it was going to be even tighter.

While the notion of a free and independent Scotland has some romantic appeal for me, I’m not unhappy about the way this turned out. I’ll confess that I’m not terribly well-informed on the independence movement, but much of the rhetoric I personally saw in the days leading up to this referendum, both pro and con, struck me as more emotional than rational arguments, and I found that troubling. Secession isn’t something to be taken lightly, and I’m the sort who always wonders what the unintentional consequences of something this major might be. Local actions have global consequences; if Scotland had broken away from its centuries-old union, would that have established a precedent for other separatist movements throughout Europe? Who would’ve been next? Catalonia, maybe? Northern Italy? And what of the secessionist feelings here in the U.S.? If it’s all right for Scotland to break away, then why not the former Confederate states? Or the Republic of Texas? How about the so-called “Mormon corridor” that roughly corresponds to Brigham Young’s original vision of a massive state called Deseret? Granted, I have occasionally grumbled after a particularly head-smacking political folly that breaks along regional lines that we might have been better off if Lincoln had just let the South go… but would we really? Does anyone actually believe we’re not stronger together than we would be as a loose aggregate of many small nations?

I suppose this gets into my basic political inclinations — I don’t believe that smaller government is always better, and I am greatly troubled by the resurgence in recent years of tribalism, regionalism, and nationalism right at a point in human history where we need to be coming together to confront some really big issues — as well as my tendency to resist change in general. I may be a social liberal, but I’m very conservative in that regard. Guess I wouldn’t make much of a revolutionary; if I’d been around 200 years ago, I probably would’ve been a Tory, just because I’m uncomfortable with shaking up the status quo too much.

And there’s something else to consider about the Scotland situation… what if it had been a “yes” vote with a margin that close? Would secession have been moral and ethical without more of an overwhelming majority in favor? What would happen to the half of the population who didn’t want to go it alone? Would they have felt compelled to leave their homeland? And how unfair would that have been?

For that matter, what happens now? Has this issue opened — or at least exposed — a rift in the Scottish population? Will it lead to some kind of partisan dysfunction like the clusterfarg here in the U.S.?

I don’t know, I’m just spitballing here, the way I always do. Running scenarios in my mind. In the end, I honesty don’t have terribly strong feelings on the matter one way or the other. I’ve long wanted to visit Scotland and I feel a certain affinity for the place (largely generated through movies I have enjoyed), but when it comes right down to it, I’m not Scottish and I don’t have Scottish ancestry, so I can’t make any claims of having a dog in this race. But it is something to talk about, I suppose…


Wherein I Travel to the Fringe…

In my wandering across the InterWebs this holiday weekend, I encountered something pretty fascinating. It’s a short documentary film about a little-known power-generating technology fueled by a substance called thorium, as well as the enthusiasts who are hoping to make this stuff the energy source of the future. I’ve run across references to thorium reactors before, but it seems like they’ve always been in the context of science fiction — if I recall correctly, that comic book I mentioned last week, The Micronauts, featured thorium-powered spaceships — or else they were coming out of the same dank, yeasty-smelling lairs where people assert that the government is suppressing cars that run on water and there was more to the Philadelphia Experiment than just a 1980s B-movie starring Michael Paré. However, unlike all the other paranoid-fringe, pseudo-scientific technobabble I’ve heard over the years — and for some strange reason, I’ve heard quite a bit of it — thorium reactors apparently are for real. Or at least they could be, given the proper funding and interest. And if the proponents of this technology are correct, thorium could solve just about every energy-related problem this planet has got, from safety to fuel supply to environmental concerns. Thorium itself is plentiful, even ubiquitous, and even though it’s radioactive and produces a form of nuclear energy, it’s not especially dangerous. It’s also difficult to create bombs with it. The promise of thorium is near-limitless power that would carry us far into the future with little in the way of harmful waste material or proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Or so thorium fans claim. It’s hard for me to completely buy into their utopian visions, given that I’ve been hearing cheap and abundant solar power is right around the corner since I was a kid in the ’70s. And of course every Utahn of a certain age remembers the hype surrounding cold fusion, and how quickly it turned into a punchline. You know the cliche: if it seems too good to be true…

And yet it seems to this admittedly ill-informed layperson that thorium power is something the United States ought to at least be investigating. Other countries are pursuing it as we speak, and there was an experimental reactor built on U.S. soil back in the ’60s. (The documentary implies that the test program was killed by the Nixon administration because Tricky Dick had personal problems with Alvin Weinberg, the scientist in charge. Honestly, I think future historians are going to someday trace every single thread of America’s decline back to that paranoid, small-minded, corrupt, twitchy little weasel of a man.) Even if you don’t believe in peak oil and global climate change, I don’t see any good reason not to explore a potentially better form of energy than what we’re using now. Aside from the fact that we don’t fund basic research in this country anymore, not unless there’s a guaranteed return on investment. In more rational times, we would have justified it as a patriotic thing, like the Space Race, in which the goal is to put America back in the forefront of emerging technology and big engineering goals that would benefit all mankind… and wouldn’t that be grand?

Anyhow, here’s the doc. Give it a look. It’s just under 30 minutes, and like I said, I found it to be fascinating and fairly convincing, even if some of the people interviewed seem to have the same social maladjustments I sometimes encounter in a certain class of nerdy sci-fi fandom. But then, I suppose that’s to be expected given the subject matter, isn’t it? Also, watch out for the wild-eyed environmentalist doing the “Fukishima scream” at about 17 minutes in; I think the subject loses a little credibility for including her, but that’s just me…

If you have any trouble with the embedded video, you can watch it at the source. Thorium power… hey, lots of other science fiction seems to be coming true these days, so maybe…


D.B. Cooper Identified at Last?

Longtime readers will probably recall my affection for a certain category of stories that swirl around in the basement of our popular culture. You know, those romantic half-legends that always involve some open-ended mystery: Did Butch and/or Sundance somehow escape death in Bolivia, return to the U.S., and live until well into the 20th century? Was Brushy Bill Roberts actually Billy the Kid, or just an elderly nutcase? Did Melvin Dummar really give Howard Hughes a lift one dark night in the middle of nowhere and get written into one of Hughes’ many wills? Could those three guys who broke out of Alcatraz have survived the frigid waters of San Francisco Bay? And lastly — and most importantly for today’s blog entry — whatever happened to D.B. Cooper, the man who bailed out of a 727 over the Pacific Northwest in 1971 with $200,000 in ransom money on his person?

Some of that money was found in 1980 by a young boy camping with his family along the Columbia River, and many people have taken that as evidence that Cooper — if that was his real name — died during his parachute jump and the money washed away downstream. However, earlier this week, the word went out that the FBI was investigating a new lead on a person it described as a “credible suspect,” and he didn’t die in ’71. The Feds were pretty tight-lipped in the initial reports, but further details were released Wednesday, and they are compelling. You can read the complete story from the Salt Lake Tribune here, but in a nutshell, there’s a woman named Marla Cooper who believes her uncle, known to the family as L.D. Cooper, was in fact the notorious skyjacker who called himself D.B. Cooper. She claims to have childhood memories of L.D. and another uncle planning something that involved walkie-talkies, and of L.D. returning to the house after the hijacking was reported looking “bloody and bruised and a mess,” which would certainly seem the likely outcome of a skydive over a heavily forested area. Tragically (depending on how you view these things), if L.D. was in fact D.B., he apparently lost the money during his jump — all that effort and risk ultimately amounted to nothing.

Marla Cooper lost touch with her uncle and believes he died in 1999, after raising a family somewhere in the Northwest. The FBI is currently trying to obtain some good-quality fingerprints belonging to L.D. to compare with partial prints left behind on the plane by D.B.

Marla’s story certainly seems plausible enough. I kind of hate the thoughts of a definitive answer laying the mystery to rest, though. Much of the fun of these stories is the speculation (especially when it has a local angle; a book I picked up in college makes the case that D.B. Cooper was actually a Utah resident named McCoy), and knowing for certain what happened robs them of their larger-than-life quality. But in this case, I suppose an interesting story could still be told of an ordinary joe and his brother who planned an unprecedented crime in order to improve their working-class lives, and who actually managed to pull off the actual crime part, only to lose the damn money during the escape phase of the scheme. Yeah, that still makes for a pretty good tale, doesn’t it?


Amazing Restoration Job

You’d never know it based on my recent posting habits, but believe it or not, I really am interested in things other than space shuttles. No, really! I’m serious… stop laughing! I’m interested in all sorts of things! There’s movies and old cars and pin-up art and Googie architecture and neon signs and toys and travel and animals and historical subjects of all kinds… And I’m positively fascinated by old photographs. I love looking at them, even photos of people I don’t know or have no real connection to. To invoke a cliche’d idea, the images are like windows to the past, and if you stare long enough and hard enough, you start to feel as if you can slip right through them and enter that other time, talk to these long-dead people, and generally experience… some place else.

The problem with old photos is that they’re often in pretty bad condition: dirty, scratched, faded… sometimes, in the case of paper prints, they’ve been creased or stained, or they’re missing pieces. And all that of course makes it difficult to see the very details that are so fascinating. Fortunately, technology has made restoring old photos much easier. Even laypeople with consumer-level equipment can do things with images that would’ve been downright impossible only a few years ago. And if you put a professional on the job, the results can be nothing short of astounding.

Consider, for example, this before-and-after comparison:

The image on the left is a tintype, a photo printed on a thin sheet of metal, dating to the 1870s. The image on the right is the restored version. The restoration brought back so much detail that the photo’s owner can now date it using the wedding ring on her ancestor’s hand — a ring that was virtually invisible in the original, discolored version.

It’s no secret that I am somewhat uncomfortable with many aspects of our modern digital age, and especially with the ease with which movies and photographs can be altered. You can no longer trust that what you’re seeing is what was originally captured, and images no longer have a sense of permanence… although I suppose you could argue they were never permanent anyway, considering what simple time did to that tintype. But in any event, this sort of restoration is one aspect of digital technology that I am completely onboard with. I just hope the owner of that image above kept the original tintype as well; the actual artifact is as important as the image, in my opinion, as much a link with the past. Perhaps moreso, since it is the traveler that’s brought the image down through the years.

You can read the full details of this restoration here, if you’re interested, and check out some of this man’s other restoration work here. Simply amazing stuff…

Oh, on a somewhat related note (in the sense of old photography), did you hear about the lost Charlie Chaplin film purchased in a UK junk shop last week for the equivalent of about five bucks? The movie is a propaganda piece from 1917 called Zepped — it was apparently intended to calm Londoners’ fears of zeppelin attacks during World War I — and there’s only one other known copy of it. It never fails to astound me when stuff like this turns up in such prosaic settings.You never know what’s out there hiding in people’s attics and garages, and oftentimes, they don’t know either. You can read about the find here, and more about Zepped here.

Attribution where it’s due: I found the tintype restoration story via Boing Boing.


Desert Empire

Here’s another entry that probably won’t be of much interest to anyone except me and possibly those readers who grew up in Utah or are otherwise familiar with the place, but I’ve been utterly enchanted by this find and want to share it with somebody. It’s a 30-minute film called Desert Empire, which I stumbled across over on the Internet Archive — a fascinating repository of all kinds of material that doesn’t quite fit the YouTube paradigm, and isn’t ever going to see a DVD release, but is still worth preserving in some fashion. The film is a 1948 travelogue in which two lovely ladies journey by train through my very own home state of Utah, stopping in such places as Arches National Park (then known as Arches National Monument), Provo City, Bingham Canyon, the original Saltair pavilion at the Great Salt Lake, and of course, Temple Square in Salt Lake City. The voiceover narration is pretty outrageous even by the charmingly effusive standards of the 1940s, but the visuals are incredible. It’s fascinating to see very familiar places as they used to be, back when this state’s entire population was probably less than the modern-day citizenry of metro Salt Lake, and it’s even more fascinating to see how little some of these places have changed in 60 years.
Anyhow, if your curiosity is even remotely piqued, the film appears in three parts below the fold. I’ll be providing a few little observations on the things that struck me about each segment…



If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you probably know that I’ve long been fascinated by the so-called “Poe toaster,” the mysterious figure in the hat and white scarf who for 60 years visited the grave of Edgar Allan Poe in the middle of the night on the writer’s birthday (January 19) to leave behind offerings of cognac and roses. Something about this theatrical ritual appeals to my romantic heart, the part of me that thrills to pulp adventure stories involving secret societies and ancient duties passed down generation to generation. I like the idea of continuity.

Sadly, the toaster has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years. In 2006, overzealous spectators tried unsuccessfully to detain the toaster. In 2007, a man claimed he was the toaster. In 2010, there was no toaster at all. And now this year he has failed to appear for a second time, leading some to speculate that the tradition is over, either because the heirs of the original toaster aren’t willing to continue, or possibly because the 200th anniversary of Poe’s birth was seen as a good place to stop.

I’d like to think the toaster has just grown tired of the efforts to unmask him and is laying low for a few years, until the crowds get tired of waiting around and go home, so he can resume his tribute in solitary peace. Of course, I also like to think that the toaster is actually an immortal being who is fulfilling some obligation owed to Poe himself for reasons we will never know. The odds of either of these ideas being true aren’t very good. I’m afraid the modern world of ubiquitous video surveillance and would-be debunkers everywhere just doesn’t have room for these little mysteries anymore; sooner or later, the mythbusters will uncover the truth of all them. And how much less fun will there be in a time when we know for sure whether Butch and Sundance survived Bolivia, and where Amelia Earhart’s plane went down, and whatever happened to D.B. Cooper, and if Melvin Dummar made up the whole damn thing? These sorts of stories, these little remnants of harmless magic, enrich our culture, in my opinion. Clearing up the ambiguity of them diminishes us, just as Tolkien’s Middle-Earth was lessened by the departure of the elves. How’s that for a geeky comparison?

Meanwhile, in related news, I’ve learned via Boing Boing that one of my favorite actors, John Cusack, will be playing Poe in an upcoming movie titled — what else? — The Raven. Go here to see him in costume. No idea what the story is about, but he certainly looks the part, if nothing else. The Raven is due out sometime this fall…


I’m Going Down, Down, Down

This morning, Jaquandor points us toward a fascinating graphic illustrating the contrast between the highest and lowest points of our globe — and where British Petroleum’s busted oil well lies in relation to those extremes.

As you scroll downward, you’ll see lots of fascinating trivia, such as the fact that Mount Everest and its companion peak K2 stand well above those wispy, feathery cirrus clouds you see on dry summer afternoons… that Tibet is higher than the puffy cumulus clouds that roll across the sky like bolls of cotton, and that the Saturn V rocket that sent men to the Moon is about the same height as the Statue of Liberty. But notice in particular Mount McKinley, the tallest mountain in North America at a height of 20,320 feet, and the city of Denver at an elevation of 5,280 feet. Keep those figures in mind as we plunge below the waves and follow the “riser,” the pipe that connected the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig to the well on the ocean floor before the accident.

The riser quickly descends past the limits of human divers (the “atmospheric diving suit,” or ADS, is essentially a wearable submarine that lets a person descend safely to about 2,000 feet). At 3,000 feet, there is no longer any sunlight penetrating from the surface, but the riser keeps going down. It passes the level of the deepest-diving combat submarines, which is roughly 3,500 feet, and keeps going… down to the failed blowout preventer at 5,000 feet below the surface. The leaking wellhead is as far down as the city of Denver is high. The pressure at those depths is 150 times greater than the atmosphere at sea level. Not that I feel the slightest amount of sympathy for BP — I am heartsick and outraged by what we stupid humans have done to the Gulf of Mexico, and if there’s any justice in the world, BP will go bankrupt cleaning it up — but this graphic provides some invaluable perspective on why they’ve had such a difficult time stopping the leak. Imagine trying to do anything by remote control, in the endless dark and unimaginable pressure. I almost think building a space station is an easier task.

But the amazing thing is that the well itself, the hole drilled by the Deepwater Horizon, goes much, much deeper yet. Deeper than the Grand Canyon, deeper than the range of the deepest-diving whale, deeper than the wreck of RMS Titanic, almost as deep into the crust of the planet as Mount McKinley rises above it. I don’t know about you, but my mind completely boggles at the thought. And there is a part of me — the same part that marvels at the Moon shots and Hoover Dam, the machine-loving part of my DNA — that finds it really unbelievably cool that we silly apes can do something like this, something so gobsmackingly big. If only the risks weren’t so equally gobsmacking, as we’ve now learned…


We’ve Come a Long Way, Baby…

A WASP air crew with their B-17, the Pistol-Packin' Mama
Spotted an interesting story over at NPR last night about the WASPs, the Women Airforce Service Pilots of World War II, whose primary role was to ferry freshly minted warbirds from the factories where they were made to the airbases where they would be dispatched overseas. The idea was to free up male pilots from mundane flying duties so they were available for combat missions.
My Loyal Readers know that I’m fascinated by the aviation exploits of that era, so naturally I’ve heard of the WASPs, but I confess I really didn’t know much about them until today. They have a pretty awesome story, and I advise all of you to click that link and “read more about it,” as the old TV PSAs used to say. I’ve been reading more about it all day during my odd moments of free time, and I’m frankly amazed no one has made a big feature film about these ladies yet. Incredible anecdotes abound. But perhaps the most striking detail I’ve gleaned from various articles about them is the casual sexism these women confronted nearly every step of the way.
We take women in the military more or less for granted these days. There have been female support pilots flying cargo and tanker planes as long as I can remember, and women fighter pilots for least a decade now (in the U.S. services, anyway — other nations had women flying combat long before we did). But in 1942, there was a debate over whether women could even physically handle a warplane. (To be fair, this concern wasn’t without warrant. The big bombers, in particular, demanded a lot of upper-body strength to operate; I’ve read that the joke used to be that you could always tell a B-24 captain because of his overdeveloped left arm, acquired through wrestling with his controls during 12-hour — or longer — missions.) The military didn’t want to expend any extra resources training women pilots from scratch, so basic piloting licenses had to be earned on the ladies’ own dime, before they signed up. (By contrast, male recruits could come into the AAF without ever having touched an airplane.) Their parachutes weren’t even properly fitted to their bodies, because they were designed for male pilots. And for the 38 WASPs who died in service to their country, there were no funds to ship their bodies back to their families and no flags for their coffins, because they were technically civilian volunteers. The WASPs would be classified as such until the mid-1970s, ineligible for veteran benefits and unrecognized by history until that time.
But in spite of all this crap — or maybe because of it, because they had something to prove — the WASPs prevailed. They mastered every type of U.S. aircraft used during the war, from light trainers to high-speed fighters to the lumbering bombers I love. When male test pilots complained that the new B-29 Superfortress was a deathtrap because of various developmental problems, a pair of WASPs demonstrated that it could be flown safely, and repeatedly. (It was likely male egos, as much as anything, that led to the disbanding of the WASPs in 1944… the menfolk figured the war would be ending soon, and they didn’t want the competition for aviation jobs.)
Do you get the idea that I admire the hell out of these women? Well, you’re right. I am inspired by stories of people who are constantly told they can’t do something, for whatever reason, and who then proceed to excel at it, usually to the utter consternation of those who put them down. And my antennae always go up when I get wind of some chapter of history that’s been largely neglected.
This morning, these awesome ladies finally got their due, as they were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor our government can bestow. Of the 1,100 women who served as WASPs, only about 300 are still alive, and roughly two-thirds of them were present at the award ceremony, along with family members of all the others. living and dead, who couldn’t make it.
It’s about damn time.
Incidentally, if you like that picture up there at the top — one of the most famous WASP-related images, I believe — check out a related NPR article for some gorgeous and rare color photos, all shot by one of the WASPs named Lillian Yonally. This one of a PT-19 at sunrise is breathtaking…


Salvaging Flight 1549

In case you missed it, this past Friday was the one-year anniversary of the so-called “Miracle on the Hudson,” in which airline captain “Sully” Sullenberger successfully ditched his crippled Airbus A320 in the Hudson River alongside Manhattan without losing a single life. (Human life, that is; God only knows how many poor birds got themselves puree’d inside Flight 1549’s massive CFM International turbofan engines.)

This morning, there’s a new video floating around the ‘net that shows what happened after the passengers and crew were rescued. It’s a fascinating timelapse of the salvage operation that lifted the sunken airliner out of the freezing waters of the river and got it placed onto a barge. The photographer had a perfect vantage point, and the video is really quite beautiful. In particular, I found the ice surging and waning around the plane’s wing and vertical stabilizer — the only parts of 1549 that were above the water for three days — weirdly hypnotic. Give it a look:

Exclusive unseen video footage of the Miracle on the Hudson, flight 1549 New York City from David Martin on Vimeo.

I am one of those weirdos who sentimentalize and anthropomorphize machines, especially those that perform beyond expectations to save the lives of the people who ride within them, so I’m not at all ashamed to admit that I teared up a bit when 1549 re-emerges into the air. Of course, the music probably helps. It’s a selection from the soundtrack of Michael Bay’s Transformers, and I found it unexpectedly effective.

The guy who created this video, David Hugh Martin, has posted a number of still photos and some comments here; I found his video via Andrew Sullivan.