Monday, 18 May 2015

circe or the call of the wild

Intrepid explorer Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett first became enamoured with South America and the allure of the dense, uncharted jungles when as a surveyor was invited to help resolve a border dispute between Brazil and Bolivia. Some twenty years after the initial encounter (with World War I intervening), Fawcett resolved to return, ostensibly, to seek out a mid-eighteenth-century anecdote he’d learned of: a slave-trader who’d come across a mysterious city deep in the jungles. Braving the elements, predation and potentially hostile tribes, Fawcett assembled a small expedition and embarked to find this place he called the Lost City of Z.

The colonel, who had the imagination of colleagues and contemporaries like Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle and JM Barrie (Peter Pan), was setting out in search of El Dorado, many thought and considered reason enough, but his actual goal may have been far more elusive in reality and far harder to locate. As Fawcett himself reflected, Englishmen have quite the penchant for going native, which is usually a very positive attribute since it tends to cast a humanising light on the lands England has colonised—with some glaring exceptions, and must have felt himself too led onward. The expedition vanished without a trace and despite many rescue parties who themselves suffered not insignificant losses but all those who came after may have all been following a red-herring in the mysterious, lost city. Private correspondence and supposed membership instead suggest that Fawcett’s objective was to establish a utopian commune in the jungle, wiled by the ageless charms of a female spirit guide—a sith, a supernatural harbinger, messenger in the folk-tradition of his native Scotland, the colonel was going to establish a society based on his own religious beliefs, including deification of his own son (who happened to be in that original party) and the neo-theosophy, receiving the wisdom of God through the occult, which was popular, parlour interest at the time. Whatever the objective, no one knows the fate of Fawcett and company.  Reportedly, Fawcett’s family have tried to mask these supposed cult accounts by emphasising the hidden city. It is possible that Fawcett did not care to be found and surely didn’t want pursuers to come to a bad end while on a wild goose-chase, and he himself may have understood the city as metaphorical or at least incidental (like Camelot or the Grail quests) to his real aim and might have discovered Z after all.

dirty-laundry or romeo and oubliette

I wonder what happens—though not exclusively in the sense of data-retention and potential for blackmail and embarrassment, to one’s neglected and moribund dating profiles. Of course, there’s that distracting, distasteful feeling that the internet could be easily induced to vomit up everything—and nosy governments and those capitalising on what we’ve magnanimously shared make this seem like an inevitability—that’s specific to you and you alone, everything shady, exaggerated, secret, plus the occasional stray terror plot.
It’s funny to think of how that fear, which is something coddled like those forgotten avatars and familiars that we’ve no nostalgic feeling for that were once preened and shown for whatever audience, that signals the end of privacy as we understand it was pedigreed in the same fashion. We’ve surrendered, commoditised and compartmentalised every aspect of ourselves little by little, and at first only under our own compulsion and satisfy our own vanities—legitimising the argument that if one does not brand himself or herself, someone else will surely do them the favour. And like those dating or professional matchmaking dossiers, the transitional parts of our characters, habits, predilections are shed and cast away until that picture, even long after we’ve moved away from it, is complete in the enduring sense. What do you think? Do these past identities and identifiers have an unseen, unloved lives of their own (careering onward singlemindedly absent status updates), waiting to be sprung at the worst possible moment?

Sunday, 17 May 2015


storyboard: scene-by-scene recreation of Doctor Strangelove using everyday objects

exoplanet: retro, WPA style NASA travel posters

enclava: another aspiring micronation cleaved out of terra nullius

riff-solo: a website that turns one’s typing into drum-beats

century of progress: seven maps that could only be made in the last one hundred years

daytrip: schmalkaden oder good knight, sir ywain

With the promise of nice weather and a reliably immaterial flea-market as passable excuses, we drove a bit north into Thรผringen and took a tour of the town of Schmalkalden—a place we’d seen before but it had been a few years and revisiting these nearby places always makes me appreciate the history that the familiar, the accessible are quick to overshadow.
The medieval Altstadt displays some of the finest examples of Fachwerk (half-timbered) architecture in the region, and the place had a nice penchant for story-telling murals and wall-art that really tied together much of the historical context for us in the end.
The per- sonage of Martin Luther—beside the image of the Landgrave of Hessen, Philip I with a video game-control, was meant to depict the founding of the so-called Schmalkaldic League, a free-association of Protestant princes founded here under the auspices of Luther’s Reformation, first for religious reasons and later for political pretexts, to afford members with an overlord aside from the Holy Roman Empire. In fact, the county of Schmalkalden (presently Landkreis Schmalken-Meiningen) endured as an exclave of Prussian Hessen for over four centuries until WWII. It was the area’s status as a rail-hub that made it a target during the war.
And while I am not sure what the motivation was for the bat, this graffiti reflects another of the town’s celebrated treasures: Arthurian author Hartmann von Aue (a tributary of the Werra flowing near Schmalkalden) chronicled the tales of the Knight Ywain in the early eleventh century, the exploits of this errant-scholar influencing later, continental treatments of the Matter of Britain, including Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parcival and the later adaptations of Richard Wagner.
Having this legacy associated with the literature and the legend surely is sufficient on its own, but these writings are also illustrated—uniquely and in some of the oldest, surviving secular sgraffito in Germany. The original illustrations were committed, around a century after von Aue’s active career, to the vaulted ceilings of the wine-cellars of the town’s chamber of commerce, since cordoned off from the public for preservation but were faithfully reproduced (for the benefit of the public) beneath the castle that dominates the city.

Wilhelmsburg, an auxillary residence of those afore-mentioned high counts, is somewhat singular as its Renaissance faรงade is essentially unaltered from the time of its construction and is a tidy time-capsule of the era. Afterwards, on the way home, we took a slight detour and saw the so-named Johanniterburg of the village of Kรผhndorf nearby—the short form of the Bailiwick of Brandenburg of the Chivalric Order of Saint John of the Hospital at Jerusalem—which is, testament to the Schmalkaldic League, the only surviving stronghold of the direct inheritors of the line of the Knights Hospitaller, this venerable and extant cadet branch being the protestant thrust of the knights.
It’s amazing how concentrated and noddingly near history can manifest itself, and I’d encourage all of you to take a little time and reconsider one’s hometown, old haunts and what’s in the vicinity from the periscope of a curious historian.

Friday, 15 May 2015

gold bug or strong room

I didn’t know this when H and I were visiting Columbus, Georgia and enjoyed an iced-coffee in this historic bank building (nor did we think to snap a picture at the time of the vault that one can sit in), but it was supposedly from the very vaults here that a teller refused to relinquish the cache of semi-legendary Confederate gold, having been evacuated from New Orleans as the Union armies advanced for safe-keeping, to General P. G. T. Beauregard when ordered to take it from its temporary depository. According to Bearegard’s own memoirs, it was taken then by force but no one knew what happened to that treasure afterwards.  Gold bugs, incidentally, not only refer to those with a compelling desire for prospecting but also to those who humbug the government’s stewardship of the treasury and doubt that there is any gold in Fort Knox. 


mincing words: neon gyrating sailor greets Russian submarines entering Swedish waters

not a stay-cation: service links talent abroad with short-term jigs called jobbaticals

please press zero for more options: surly AI being developed for automated customer-service applications

why are we listening to grandma singing: Mulder and Scully cover Neil Young

wingman: fantastic documentary on the life and times of Biggs Darklighter, X-Wing pilot

Thursday, 14 May 2015

mobsters and magic lanterns

Years before Thomas Edison was able to secure the credit of popular memory, an inventor from Metz working in a studio in Leeds by the name of Louis Aimรฉ Augustin Le Prince created cinematography in 1888 with the filming of two short outdoor sequences, developed on strips of photographic paper and then projected.

Struggling to win a patent for his suite of devices and techniques, La Prince resolved to undertake a promotional tour in the United States, where competition over proprietary rights was particularly stiff and Le Prince feared losing out on any royalties to the likes of Edison’s Kinetoscope empire—which is tragically exactly what happened though what help or hindrances fate had is pretty mysterious. After a visit home (the pioneering inventor was helped by the wealthy family of a college buddy whose sister he ended up marrying), La Prince made arrangements to begin a series of public demonstrations of his moving pictures in America but vanished without a trace after boarding the express-train from Dijon to Paris, the first leg of his journey. Neither Le Prince nor his luggage was ever seen again, and while there is nothing to suggest foul-play outright, many theorise that the forgotten founder was a casualty of the patent-wars in the early days of photography and film-making. Indeed, Thomas Edison, after Le Prince’s tour never materialised, rather callously claimed that all the missing Le Prince’s ideas were Edison’s own. Le Prince’s widow and son fought desperately to defend his discoveries but their hopes were dashed. La Prince’s son was found dead himself just two years later while duck-hunting on Fire Island in New York. Their name was later vilified by history as more and more come to acknowledge La Prince’s contributions.

chiaroscuro or all light is mute amid the gloom

Corporate Europe Observatory releases a quite in-depth investigation on some of the peripheral consequences of the on-going TTIP negotiations, which I dare say is compounded with the perception and reality of dragnet snooping by America that included business espionage, in the codification of trade-secrecy.
The proposed trans-Atlantic jurisdiction would afford confidential practises the same degree of protection as another juicy legal-fiction, intellectual-property, and obscure dealing even more with the onerous cloak of mystery, impenetrable for the mere consuming public, reporters, and politicians without a lobby. Arguments keep reverting (circling for excuses) to the supposed language of TTIP, which is also played close and not disseminated except as glosses, as justification for creating a unified front against this self-affirming threat. The scope of this special-interest apparatus is truly alarming with some three thousand letter-box offices are encamped in Brussels, roosting at the European Union’s corridors of power to ensure that their message is duly pardoned, sanctioned and muted.