Saturday, September 12, 2009

Hiatus: Until March 20th 2010

Things have been a little chaotic here recently. In fact, the whole summer has been nuts. I am trying to build a house (and so far failing), finishing two novels, and sorting things in order to someday move into a smaller place; we were evacuated for the Lockheed fire in August and are just getting things back in order; and suddenly, I am realizing I need to really get some writing out there now that I've been published a little bit.

So I am taking a 6-month hiatus from the blog. I don't know what that will do to my readership, but it seems more fair to simply state when I'll be back, writing about things that are cool and interesting, than to simply fall away like I've been doing recently.

I'll hopefully collect weird bits during the coming six months and come back fresh and full of new things to talk about.

In the meantime, take care and feel free to use these pages as a source of inspiration for writing or art, a place to come to be reminded that the world is not a dull place, or just resource for finding out about something obscure which just might be here.

Please, feel free to email me at mcdougal dot heather at gmail dot com and let me know if there's anything you think I should be blogging about. And thanks to those who already have. I'm thinking about it, I promise.

I'll be back on March 20th, 2010.


Sunday, August 23, 2009

Hubble: Deep Field

My friend Gwyan just sent me this and I actually can't find many words to describe the effect it had on me. There was a moment, and I will let you find that moment, when I caught my breath and actually became too emotional to speak. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. It is, quite literally, awesome.

Saturday, August 8, 2009


"Cent mille milliards de poemes" (A hundred thousand billion poems), by Raymond Queneau

For a number of years I've been really interested in the possibilities of hypertext as a vehicle for really interesting and complex narrative. I diddled around with writing stories in hypertext, but was never satisfied with the result; they seemed to me either confusing or aimless or simply mechanistic, and at best I came up with something so voluminous that I couldn't possibly complete it in one lifetime.

I decided to try poetry instead.

Poetry has the virtue of being all about simplicity, about using as few words as you can to create complex images and ideas. It's about making little windows into reality, places where the world stops for a moment and you see, really see, something unexpected.

It's really a perfect place for hypertext, being spare and clear and often having a specific structure. And there is a long history of what is called combinatorial poetry, or combinatorial text - the creation of poems that can be changed around by the reader, usually based on some mechanism in the book form. I decided that I would try haiku, since the form is so fixed. This would a) allow me to work within a specified framework, so I didn't have to also create (and get tangled up in) my own system; and b) would keep the poems from wandering off on a tangent, keeping them simple and clear. I also decided I would specify the number of links so as to keep it as structured as a traditional haiku.

What I came up with, using the simplest tools I could, was an HTML frameset system in a set window size. The top frame held the top line, the middle frame held the middle line, and the bottom frame held - well, you get the picture. Then in each line I chose one word which would be emphasized, making that the link word. When the reader clicks on that link, the line changes, creating a new haiku. (more about my process here)

It's difficult to describe it, and I can't actually insert one here in the blog, so I suggest you try one. Here's my little MetaHaiku site, where you can see a few that I've written.

The thing I like about these is that it enlarges the tiny window of a haiku without compromising its essential qualities. By nature, haiku are traditionally supposed to describe a moment, and they are supposed to contain some clue about season, and they are supposed to speak only of small things - which of course capture something much larger. So when you make a haiku with hypertext, you are creating a series of moments, a progression of snapshots which move slightly through time, describing a longer moment than a regular two-dimensional haiku. It's not so much that they describe more as that they describe longer, and the reader can unveil the moment in a way that is pleasingly exploratory.

The haiku have five links on the top line, seven on the middle, and five on the bottom, echoing the syllabic line-structure. The experience is a lot like our experience of real moments - in other words, you can't go back. There is a starting haiku and and ending haiku, and any number of ways to get there. In the present structure, you have more than 175 ways to get from the beginning to the end, so the process is surprisingly repeatable.

What I've decided is that I'd really like to share these, and see if others are interested in writing some. What I'd really like to do is to find a simple way to do it, given that mine are done in a clunky and complicated way, and then broadcast the template for everyone to use. I'm working on having a friend make a Flash interface to simplify things, but in the meantime if anyone wants to know the more lame way I did it you can email me (look in the sidebar for the address) and I'll do my best to define it for you.

Vive la Interactif!

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Many Personalities We Live With

This is Garky. Garky spent almost a whole day sitting in chairs with Younger Daughter, shooting down the vampires in the trees, and generally sharing many other adventures before geting injured and requiring bandages. Now she lives in this vase.

You might mistake her for some kind of Sogetsu Ikebana*, but you would be mistaken. Despite my daughter's belief that she can hold vampires at bay, she is really an onion flower (don't tell Younger Daughter).

This is the same daughter who personifies such characters as Snitch, Miru, Grumpo, Cute-o, Wadro, Sicko, and Happo.

They all talk in a strange way, saying "You too nice to me" instead of "You're too nice to me".

Snitch likes to eat hair and fingers, because it thinks they are worms. You must keep these things away from it, or it will grab and eat them.

Miru likes to eat fresh skulls with brain juice, as well as having a fondness for the flavor of cactus, and always hugs its pillow. If it loses its pillow it gets really sad and goes and looks for it. If anyone steals its pillow, it bites them.

Grumpo complains all the time, about everything, including nice things. If you're nice to it, for example, it says you're nice to it too much.

Cuto is incredibly cute, but loves to bite off your limbs, and can go for ages and ages without food or water.

Wadro loves its hole. Its hole is any area of water (other than the ocean). If you go in its hole it drags you under and drowns you. When there is no water, Wadro cries, "Hole! Where hole!" in a piteous voice.

Sicko barfs on you.

Happo is always happy and okay with everything. Even if you beat on it or say mean things. Happo is the teflon of characters, to the detriment of itself and everyone else's sanity.

Characters appear when Elder Sister bings them into existence with her invisible magic wand.

The term "characters" is not to be confused with Annoying Little Character, a hand-creature who is incredibly annoying and cheerful, singing its Annoying Little Character song and dancing until someone slaps it, whereupon it lies down and gets sick for awhile. Only time passing can improve its health.

These are not the only characters who appear. When Elder Daughter was three she became intensely enamored of a butternut squash that my father had drawn a cartoon face on with a Sharpie. She called it her "heavy baby" and carried it everywhere, in the car and into bed. We had difficulty with the gales of mirth trying to get out, but we bore with it until it got so shrunken that it had to be disappeared, whereupon she spent several weeks looking for it.

I remember reading an interview with Frank Zappa many years ago in which he talked about following his son Ahmet (aged perhaps three at the time) around trying to catch the lyrics to a song he sang called Frogs With Dirty Little Lips. It fascinated him, he said, because it was such a great concept, and because the words changed all the time, and it drove him crazy. Now I find, looking it up, that he actually did put the song (or some momentary version of it) on his album Them or Us. I need not mention how much I love how Frank Zappa's mind worked. It is a secret, or used to be.

So I suppose, despite our poor housekeeping skills, my household has its interesting moments. At least the Characters don't argue with me much.

An example of Sogetsu

*More on Ikebana and Sogetsu: "the great difference between the Sogetsu School and [traditional] Ikebana lies in the belief that once all the rules are learned and the techniques mastered, there is an unbounded field for freer personal expression using varied materials, not just flowers." [wiki] Curiously, I think the same kind of thing could be said about play. And about storytelling. Or even, perhaps, things like manners and who you feel like being, at the moment.

Here also, some Sogetsu masters' work. And a little about the man who started it. I think I might do a photo post about it, sometime...

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Summer Cleaning

Cleaning out the basement is meant to be a boring, thankless task. Fortunately for me, I seem to have been doing it for years, so now that I absolutely have to get rid of some stuff, I'm finding only the less junky stuff is really left to deal with. And so I find myself going through years of lovely stuff, things I had forgotten I own. Nice things. Things from my travels and other odd life-experiences...

George Carlin had a thing he used to do about "My stuff and your shit," but it seems to me this stuff is pretty interesting shit..

So I took some pictures.

But then, my thinking it's interesting is exactly the reason why it's in my basement.

This is one of those nesting Russian dolls, called a Matryoshka doll, but instead of those pretty girlie figures we get all the main Russian leaders, from Boris Yeltsin right back to a teeny-tiny little Ivan the Terrible.

They seem to be trying to educate us about some of the leaders, here...

Can't remember where I got these. Somewhere in Asia, during my rambles; they are opium tools, probably made for tourists, but then again, I'd bet they aren't too far off from the originals.

Glass soda bottles from a street vendor in Japan. You pay your money and the vendor bashes in the top, which is a little glass ball held in place purely by the pressure of the carbonation (see the picture below). Then you stand there and drink it, give the bottle back to the vendor, and go on your way. Needless to say, I wasn't a very good citizen, or I wouldn't have these.

The glass shell of a streetlight. Notice the interesting combination of Fresnel lens on the inner surface and wavy texture on the outside. The Fresnel lens focuses the light, and the wavy lines make it feel less like a spotlight. It's imprinted with the GE logo (see below).

A solid glass ball, about the size of a small grapefruit.

One of the few items left from my days blowing glass, probably my favorite.

Edward VIII coronation cup, horribly mended.

Everyone needs some good English stripey ceramicware!

A few of the many, many cups my father made for my wedding celebration...

...And my baby cup, also made by him.

Outside and...

...inside of a millivoltmeter, which seems to record its measurements on a soot-coated wheel marked with the hours.

A fan from a flea market in Japan. Anyone know what it says?

A very old, very beautiful, very well-loved double bridge pack of cards from the house of family in England.

And lastly, a child's toy from the same house (as are all the dolls in the bin at the top of the page).

This is only one afternoon's worth of finds. There is much more, like the things I unearthed last Friday: a set of opium weights, an opium pipe, a carving of a nasty little man from, I think, Irian Jaya (though I bought it in Kuching, on Borneo) who is clutching his penis and a knife, and who seems to have real teeth. A set of tiny old ninepins with beautiful wormholes in them. Some souvenir china from the Museum of Jurassic Technology. And on and on. I couldn't possibly put it all in my house, yet I have a hard time relinquishing it...

Friday, July 17, 2009

Social Sewing and Networked Objects

My friend Gwyan sent me a link (via O'Reilly Radar) to a project developed for Microsoft Research's Design Expo, wherein a group of students came up with a wonderful networked object which is designed to be a comfortable improvement for a grandparent. The project is called Social Sewing, and was designed for Despina, grandmother to one of the people in the design group.

Despina was a dressmaker before she retired, working in a shop with several other people, all sewing and gossiping together as they worked. She did this for many years, until it became too hard to get to the shop. Apparently she is still working, but now does it from home – and finds it incredibly lonely work. So the group designed three little sewing-machine-like-objects, with different colored fabrics on each one, which are networked with her friends' sewing machines. When her friends are sewing, the needles on the faux machines go up and down and the wheels go around - with apparently the right sound - and a light goes on to illuminate the fabric, just like in a real machine. When Despina sits in her sewing chair, communication is activated by her weight, and she can talk to whichever friends are sewing at that time, thus making her sewing the interesting gossip-and-sew experience it used to be in the shop. Apparently the friends are all such good seamstresses that they can tell, just by listening to the sound of the others' sewing, what the others are making. By making the devices familiar in shape and sound, the group have enhanced Despina's life dramatically without making her learn anything outside her comfort zone.

For years people have been talking about humanity getting wired into the world, wearing earrings that talk to the bus (and pay the fare) and so on. But I think that is largely chatter. The real impact is going to be in ways like this, where individual people find ways to make their lives better in ways that corporate entities could never imagine. How well would a device like this sell - or perhaps I should ask how many people out there are retired seamstresses? Not many. And yet people like this group, and many of the people who come to events like Maker Faire, are finding incredibly individual and creative ways to use technology - including, as in this case, networking everyday objects so as to make them familiar and fun, without all the learning involved in a designed corporate interface. As far as I'm concerned, this is where combining humanity and technology will have real impact, when we have the tools to design our own technological objects, when the tools are in our own hands to make what we please, in much the same way we knit sweaters or design our own websites. We are all different from any other person; and so, too, should our technology be different. And part of our everyday world, not as "technology", like cell phones or the Internet, but incorporated into our clothes, our knitting needles, the things we like to do. It's where all the personalized interfaces are trying to go, but in a much better, much more interesting way.

(PS. I'll be posting about Maker Faire in the next few days, I hope).

Old Man Bites Tenderly

I came across this entirely by accident, but it's hilarious (if a bit brutal), especially toward the end.

When I lived in Japan, the TV was full of shows like these: people having to put their faces into cages full of live snakes or having to dance on giant slimy inflatable balls, or being dropped in cars from 100-foot-high cranes. Most of the time they didn't seem funny to me, being largely about humiliation and doing things that looked insanely dangerous. This one, however, is made funnier by the inanity of the punishments and by the stricture of having to be quiet in a library. And what the heck is that American guy doing there? No idea, but it's very typical of the genre.

There was also a series of Arnold Schwarzenneger commercials when I was there for what we called a "genki drink" (energy drink), where Arnold behaved like a lunatic, which struck all of us gaijin (foreigners) as extremely funny, in that "Oh, my God" kind of way. Here's one, below: "Bui" is how the letter "V" is pronounced in Japanese, and "Daijobu" means "no problem"; so the "Daijobui" is a kind of play on words for the name of the product.

Hard to imagine, in those days, that he would become the governor of California.

My closest brush with this kind of silly show was when a TV crew came to the gaijin house (a kind of residence hotel) where I lived for awhile and filmed us all making dishes of our own concoction out of Japanese ingredients. The crew were very polite, but the TV show, when it came on the air, ended up just as sensationalized and inane as all the others. Still, it was extremely interesting to see oneself through the lens of another culture's media.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Number 9, Number 9

So I was contacted recently by the people at Focus Films, who are whipping up a buzz about the forthcoming film called 9, a post-apocalyptic animation piece about some little stitched-together folk who must survive in a harsh environment full of really strange and feral machines who hunt them. It sounded familiar, so I did some research and found the original short film by Shane Acker, which won a number of awards (and was nominated for an Oscar) - for good reason. Below is the full film, courtesy of Youtube. It runs about 10 minutes long, and is really excellent.

Apparently Mr. Acker is directing this new, longer, and more complete film, which is produced by Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov. The website given to me by the Focus people, full of backstory and cool imagery, was very interesting, much more encouraging and intriguing than the trailer I originally unearthed, which looked and sounded, as my ten-year-old daughter said, "Like it was made by gamers."

I often wonder how authors feel when their efforts are, by editorial command, given garish book-covers and inaccurate blurbs, as has happened to many fine writers like Philip K. Dick, supposedly to appeal to the genre reader. In previews, when choices are made about music and editing that feel like they are aimed at a specific kind of audience (not who the art and direction of the film seem to be targeting), it does make you wonder how the filmmaker feels about it, and if they get some say in the publicity.

In fact, it does look like it has the makings of a complex and even clever film, with a slightly grimy aesthetic that includes cobwebs, parchment, brass navigational instruments, books, dead machines and things in jars, to name a few, and an interesting glowing quality of light which perhaps is part of this particular vision of a doomed world. The vision is pretty interesting, a bit like Mad Max meets da Vinci meets the Muppets, with a steampunk twist.

I admit, though, I'm still trying to figure it out. The marketing is strangely mixed, and seems to be trying to appeal to the steampunk contingent while keeping an eye on metal-loving gamers. Perhaps the director has some kind of hybrid vision? For some reason, the fact that only one out of nine main characters is female makes me think this might be true. It's really an enigma, one I'm not entirely certain will work. The victoriana of steampunk and the geeky back-to-basics wonder of clockpunk communities tend to be very female-friendly, with a strongly feminine streak mixed into the rivets and brass. So, unless the art direction is only giving a sort of nod in that direction, I am curious to see how they will pull it off.

On the other hand, perhaps the marketing assumption is that gamers watch previews, and other types look at websites...? Or perhaps, that women look at the web, and men look at previews?

Still, (and I am getting on my soapbox here) it strikes me as strange: I've seen three trailers now and they all use the same song, a generic semi-metal instrumental by Coheed and Cambria. What's with this sole choice of music to represent their movie? My beef with it is not so much a matter of my personal taste so as the genericness of the choice. If they are wanting to make the film look intriguing, why are they going so mainstream (and such a specific kind of mainstream, at that)? It's true that Mr. Bekmambetov has made movies of comics, and the lead singer of Coheed and Cambria wrote the Amory Wars series, above, but still. Does that style (see picture) really reflect the kind of movie they're making here? I mean, I actually had goosebumps watching the most recent preview - until the music started. If it's supposed to be a creative film, why not use more creative music, like Abney Park, or the awesomely versatile talents of In The Nursery, who did, among other (and totally disparate) things, the modern soundtracks for such silent classics as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and the wonderful Hindle Wakes? I mean, we might get tired of Danny Elfman sometimes, but even he could do better than this; his music would at least be tailored to the film (he did do a passable semi-metal thing himself for Mr. Bekmambetov's own movie Wanted). Or try looking at some of the other possibilities, like these and these. {/soapbox}

In any case, the people at Focus have vowed to send me cool stuff, and I will duly filter it and pass on anything that seems truly unusual. It's not my style to hype about media, but I do have to say some of the initial images and stories in the website above seem potentially quite in line with the Cabinet, so I am ever-hopeful. Keep your fingers crossed.

(Update: I seem to have gotten on some kind of list. I've now gotten another email from another cinema company asking if I would participate in the discussion of some other upcoming films. Sorry, guys, that's just not my cup of tea. Live and learn!)

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Little Vampire (and Other Little Folk)

Just a brief post to say I love Joann Sfar. And possibly Emmanuel Guibert.

I first became aware of his work through, bizarrely, a little annual comic (a compilation of stuff put together for kids to read, in a cheap format similar to a TV guide) which my kids bought at a vide grenier (a village-wide garage sale) in France. Mostly it was full of fluffy kids' comics, but there was this one story which caught our attention, in which evil mermaids who make horrible honking and tooting noises (expressed in French as "Onk! Onk!" and "Tut! Tut!") capture a girl and boy. The kids fight the mermaids with a found sword, and then... well, the next frame is of them sitting around a table with a couple of huge fish skeletons on plates, looking very full. The annoying mermaids (sans tails) are left on an island, still alive and honking, to enrage a skinny guy and a superhero-type guy, while the two kids and their pirate friend fly off in a spaceship.

Now, first of all, the concept of cutting off (and eating) mermaid tails is wildly arresting. I was initially rather shocked, and then thought, "Wow, the French sure are open-minded!" But the whole thing - drawings and all - was weird: who was the guy in the superhero suit, and the skinny guy with the tall head and beak-like lips? And why are these kids flying around in a spaceship with a pirate guy? My French simply wasn't good enough to get my head round it.

But I also couldn't forget it.

Then one day I was in my local comic book store and there it was: a little comic called Sardine in Outer Space, by Emmanuel Guibert and Joanne Sfar. I couldn't believe my eyes: a whole book of that gross humor, drawn in hilarious style? I had to get it, and then I got the skinny: Sardine, a girl (or little witch?) whose black cat rides around on her hat, and her friend Little Louie, travel around space with Sardine's uncle, Captain Yellowshoulder (known as such, apparently, because of his ubiquitous shoulder-riding parrot), committing deeds of derring-do (and sometimes deeds of pure annoyingness) against the stupid President of the Universe, Supermuscleman (known by the same name in French) and his evil genius advisor/superior Doc Krok. The stories are unique, individually and as a collection. My daughters love them, particularly the younger, who likes funny stories with occasional gross jokes about badly-behaved people - and particularly if they are drawn as wildly as these.

Sfar has gained some fame in the U.S. with The Rabbi's Cat, which won an Eisner Award and has gotten excellent reviews. He also did the Donjon (Dungeon) series with Louis Trondheim, another of my favorite (very irreverent) comic people. Sfar's Klezmer: Tales of the Wild East sounds pretty fun, and The Professor's Daughter seems intriguing. I have to admit, though: I haven't personally read any of his adult stuff yet.

I did just get Little Vampire, which includes three stories about a, well, little vampire, the son of the man from the Flying Dutchman and his suicide bride. He lives in a haunted house with his horrific-looking but kindly father and his beautiful, but blue, mother, with a small red demon-like dog and a host of yucky monsters. When he makes friends with a human boy, these create some minor obstacles, being initially daunting for the boy; but the boy soon gets used to it. The stories are, in true Sfar style, truly unusual, though they have more structure and a little more empathy than the unapologetically bad-mannered Sardine books.

I really, really like them. Sfar has an unerring eye for what it's like to be a kid, and a certainty about a child's understanding of its place in the world: he understands the simple irritants of kids trying to deal with stupid adults, and finding ways to mess with their boring desire to control things; at the same time he knows that adults are not always bad, and that being a kid can be difficult and confusing. If his adult stuff is this spot on, I'm in.

Monday, June 29, 2009

A Bit of Soap

Warning: one slightly gruesome picture, below, about halfway down)

There is a story in my head, certainly a conflation of two different stories. In one of the stories, a man who endowed some institution stipulated in his will that he should be preserved upon his death and seated in a cabinet in the foyer of the institution, so that he might oversee the comings and goings of the people who came after him. The other story involved a fat man who had been buried in just the right conditions that he had been turned entirely to soap. I pictured him, my conflated man, sitting in a chair in a cabinet somewhere with a suit on, a solid block of man-seeming soap, watching with saponified eyes the comings and goings of his modern brethren.

The man in the cabinet turns out to be Jeremy Bentham, an influential London philosopher (and the founder of Utilitarianism) who had his body preserved and set into a cabinet he called his "auto-icon" (see more here). The soap-man of my conflation, on the other hand, is actually a man who was dug up at the same time as the Soap Lady who resides at the Mütter Museum, that holiest of weird medical museums. Both bodies had been disinterred somewhere in Philadelphia, possibly as part of a street-widening project.

"Due to the unusual nature of the two bodies, Dr. Joseph Leidy, a prominent physician, scientist and professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, was notified. It is unclear how Dr. Leidy acquired the cadavers, but he eventually presented them to two separate museums." (link) The woman ended up in the Mutter Museum, and the man went to the Smithsonian. Unfortunately, the man is no longer on display, but the Soap Lady can still be seen, for a fee.

My early vision of a person converted into a solid block of soap, liable to dissolve in floods, is not actually accurate either. Adipocere, otherwise known as grave wax or mortuary wax, "is a water-insoluble material consisting mostly of saturated fatty acids. It is formed by the slow hydrolysis of fats in decomposing material such as a human cadaver by action of anaerobic bacteria...Corpses of infants and overweight persons are particularly prone to adipocere transformation. Adipocere formation begins within a month of death, and in the absence of air it can persist for centuries."

This process, called saponification (also used to refer to the reaction which makes common soap) happens in cold, moist environments where the lack of oxygen keeps aerobic bacteria and other agents of dissolution from doing their work. My guess is that the anaerobic bacteria actually live off some byproduct, such as the alcohol which comes from the conversion of fats to soap, and so they actually precipitate the transformation to that end.

In regular soap, fats or oils are boiled with an alkali agent, such as lye or wood-ash, and the resulting mess which comes from this combination of heat and pH is a solid substance with a curious molecular makeup. On one end of the molecule is hydrophilic, meaning it likes water: it can be dissolved by water. The other end of the same molecule is hydrophobic, meaning it doesn't like water, and this end is actually able to dissolve grease molecules. "The hydrophobic portion (made up of a long hydrocarbon chain) dissolves dirt and oils, while the ionic end dissolves in water. Therefore, it allows water to remove normally-insoluble matter by emulsification." [wiki]

In other words, it magically bridges the gap between two universes: that of oil and water, which we all know do not normally intermingle.

Interestingly, one of the beneficial uses of hot-fat saponification is in the kitchen:

"Fires involving cooking fats and oils... burn hotter than other typical combustible liquids, rendering a standard class B extinguisher ineffective. Such fires should be extinguished with a wet chemical extinguisher. Extinguishers of this type are designed to extinguish cooking fats and oils through saponification. The extinguishing agent rapidly converts the burning substance to a non-combustible soap. This process is endothermic, meaning it absorbs thermal energy from its surroundings, decreasing the temperature and eliminating the fire." [wiki]

In the ancient world, many people did not, apparently use soap for bathing. The earliest form of soap, made by boiling fat with ashes, was probably only used for washing Babylonians' clothing; and there is some evidence that the Phoenicians were producing it, probably as a hair pomade, in about 600 BC. The Greeks and other mediterranean ancients, commonly cleaned themselves by rubbing with scented oils and then scraping themselves with a metal strigil, bringing off the dead skin and dirt with the oil (this is making a comeback now as a "modern" beauty method).

The Celts, on the other hand, seem to have had soap from a relatively early period. While the Romans had baths, and seem to have looked down on soap's crude smelliness, the Celts may have had a cruder approach to cleaning altogether. When one is crouched in a cold stream, in a cold country, one tries to get on with the job as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Castile soap came to London in the 1500s, the first true hard soap to be seen in those parts; it was made by boiling wood ash and olive oil, and then adding brine to make the soap float to the surface. By adding salt, the soap separates itself more thoroughly from the lye and the other byproducts of the soap-making - creating a hard, white soap which grows harder with time (without losing its whiteness).

Which is interesting, because people who have observed saponified corpses have often compared them with this kind of soap. Sir Thomas Browne describe it this way:

"In a Hydropicall body ten years buried in a Church-yard, we met with a fat concretion, where the nitre of the Earth, and the salt and lixivious liquor of the body, had coagulated large lumps of fat, into the consistence of the hardest castle-soap: wherof part remaineth with us."

In Lake Crescent, Washington, a murdered woman's body came to the surface of the lake three years after her death in 1937, and a witness said, "She had the consistency of... Ivory soap."

The Higgins children, from the Hopetoun Quarry murder case, Edinburgh

But how could a body, submerged in water, be acted upon by anaerobic bacteria? One would think the oxygen in the water would preclude it. A very likely answer is that there is a thermocline, a layering effect where the upper, changeable parts of a body of water separate out from the deeper, colder, temperature-stable areas; these remain undisturbed for long periods of time. This means the oxygen mixing that goes on at the upper reaches of the water doesn't make its way to the lower reaches. I suspect the cold environment and the stillness, also mean that any aerobic bacteria use up extra oxygen until there isn't enough to support more oxygen-thirsty life forms.

So when Hallie Illingworth's body was pulled out of that cold Washington lake, she looked almost perfect. "She was full formed as in life; what had been an attractive woman; even her mass of auburn hair seemed strangely natural, almost untouched in appearance by the watery grave from which she had just been removed." She was white as marble, almost shiny in her perfection. If she were a saint, it would be safe that she would be designated incorruptible.

Grave wax (adipocere) tends to be a strange substance, smooth and, when it's had time, relatively hard and brittle (not always; it depends on the conditions). The Soap Lady is considered so fragile that they don't dare move her unless absolutely necessary. It tends to begin on the outside of the corpse - the longer the body has been interred, the deeper the saponification penetrates. This has led to some rather extraordinary mistakes. Augustus Granville, for example, in 1821, performed the first really scientific dissection of an egyptian mummy, taking six weeks to unwrap it and examine every inch of the remarkably beautifully-preserved corpse. He very accurately surmised a number of things about her: that she was in her mid-50s, that she had been quite well-fed, that she had an ovarian tumor. However, in examining the body he found she had been preserved in a way not described by Greek historian Herodotus' 5th-century eyewitness accounts - that being the record which Granville was working from.

There were, according to Herodotus, two ways of preserving a corpse: the cheap way and the expensive way. Both ways involved removing the organs from the corpse - and yet, Granville's mummy's organs were still almost entirely intact and in place.

"Granville concluded that the embalmers had used a method Herodotus had missed. One clue to the technique was the softness of the skin and muscles and the pliable joints. Another was the presence throughout of a waxy substance, which Granville believed was a mix of beeswax and bitumen. He deduced that the body "must have been plunged into a vessel containing a liquefied mixture of wax and bitumen and kept there for some hours or days, over a gentle fire." He tried the treatment on stillborn babies. It seemed to work." [from New Scientist's article on same]

Granville decided to give a scientific presentation of his findings, but was unable to resist his flamboyant urges, and made his presentation in a room lit entirely by candles made from the "wax" he scraped from the corpse. It wasn't until Egyptologist John Taylor joined the British Museum in the late 1980s that Granville's sample cases were found again, and the "wax" discovered to be the saponified flesh of the mummy herself.

Making candles of the flesh of the dead is not unheard-of, however, though it is usually done more intentionally than Granville's dubious debut. The Hand of Glory, for example, is a sort of grisly candle holder made from the cut-off hand of a hanged man. Take a candle made from the fat of a (possibly the same) hanged man and put it into the grasp of, or attach it to the fingers of, the hand. Now light the wick (preferably made from the hair of the dead man), and all the people in the house will sleep without waking while you plunder their treasure. It cannot be put out by any means except dousing with fresh milk, and there are many stories (rather startlingly like urban myths in their repetition and style) of intelligent chamber-maids putting out the candle and waking the house when the thieves were busy.

The recipe for preparing the hand, which must be cut from the corpse while it is still hanging in the gibbet, goes as such:

"Squeeze the blood out of the hand; embalm it in a shroud and steep it in a solution of saltpetre, salt and pepper for two weeks and then dry in the sun. The other essential for its use is a candle made from hanged man's fat, wax and Lapland sesame." (This according to the Whitby Museum in Whitby, England, where such a hand is housed. There is also, supposedly, one in the museum in Walsall, England).

Hangings these days are rare, and when executed are rather brief and hygenic. It is hard to imagine there would be an opportunity for cutting off the hand while the body is still in the gallows (since gibbets are no longer used, this would be your only option). Still, it is tempting to consider a discreet proviso in one's will about where you will be buried - in the hopes, someday, that your remains might be turned to soap. As a contribution to science, of course.


James G. Mundie's awesome photos and drawings of exhibits in the Mütter Museum

A Short History of Soap: fascinating stuff!

Soap Lady, a children's book by underground comics writer/artist Renee French, about a dirty boy who meets a naked woman made of soap who has washed up near his town. With its storyline about friendship and acceptance, it was apparently a departure from her usual style, which has been described as "surreal" and "grotesque."

A thirteenth century description of soapmaking by King Al- Muzaffar Yusuf ibn `Umar ibn `Ali ibn Rasul

A creepy post-mortem love/obession story

Germany's modern problem with their corpses not rotting properly

Top 10 famous corpses

An interesting article about a corpse garden created for forensics students at the University of Tennessee to learn about rates of decomposition (WARNING: Not for the squeamish)

Make your own castile soap with these soap recipes.

The Hand of Glory in the Harry Potter Wiki, which I only just discovered.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Ze Widow, She Is Black

One of the not-so-great joys of my new trailer is that it came with an infestation of black widow spiders. We would open the galley, and there one would be: black, and shiny, with horribly pointy legs and a big, fat abdomen. And a few days ago, for the first time, I saw the Hourglass. Red and very clear, it shone on her chitinous tummy. She quivered in her web, horrified that we had opened the lid on her lovely darkness.

We don't see a lot of black widows here; they tend to like it warm and dry, like in the central valley, and they don't like being disturbed. They like the dark. They like it still and they like hard, close places like the spaces between woodpiles or behind cabinets.

Latrodectus hesperus, the Western black widow, is, like all widow spiders of the Latrodectus genus, very shy. If you intrude on her life she will flee first and ask questions later. Though her bite is incredibly venomous, she prefers not to bite unless grabbed, pinched or squeezed. I have seen black widows (in my precious trailer, no less) with abdomens more than a quarter inch across, and leg-spans close to one and a half inches (the males look very different, smaller and differently-colored and -patterned, so when I say "she" I know for sure that it's the female I'm talking about).

The male black widow isn't even black, most of the time

Unlike brown recluse spiders, whose venom is cytotoxic, meaning it is meant to slow down the prey, partially digesting the tissues and making for failure of the prey's systems, the black widow spider's venom is based on a neurotoxin, which I would much prefer. In mammals, when they are bitten by a spider with cytotoxic venom, it means the tissue surrounding the bite turns necrotic (dies) and is often unable to heal afterwards. There are some truly horrific pictures on the Internet of brown recluse spider bites several months on, which I would rather not contemplate.

"Spider venom falls into two categories: neurotoxic and cytotoxic. Neurotoxic venoms interfere with the transmission of nerve impulses to the muscles, frequently causing spasm and paralysis. Neurotoxins act rapidly, important to spiders confronted with large or dangerous prey intent on escape or retaliation. Cytotoxins, on the other hand, act more slowly. They principally act to slow down the prey, and actually begin the process of digestion by liquefying the tissues of the prey. Such venom can cause tissue necrosis in mammals, wherein the flesh surrounding an injection site dies, and heals very slowly or not at all."

The venom of a black widow, being a neurotoxin, has a more widespread effect, entering the bloodstream and being deposited at the nerve endings where the endings insert into the muscles. This causes intense, painful cramping and muscle spasms, and is very painful. It lasts a few days and then disperses, leaving only a few minor symptoms - spasms, tingling, nervousness and weakness - to remember her by. For me - though I would not want to encounter a black widow bite - the biggest fear has been for my children, because the smaller the body mass, the more likely the venom is to cause shock to the system and death.

Ultimately, though, I think black widows have gotten a bad rap. They really, really do not want to bite you. And only one kind of widow has been sighted as actually devouring the male of its own species after sex, in the wild. And although they are not artistic - building sticky, tangled and irregular webs from which they hang upside down to catch their prey - their silk is, like many spiders, stronger than its own weight in steel. If you built a bridge of spider silk, I remember hearing, it could be a hundred times thinner than the steel cables used in modern suspension bridges, and still just as strong. Less brittle, too. In fact, the strands are so fine and strong that for many years they were used in the crosshairs in the reticles for rifles and navigational instruments.

The chitin of the black widow, her exoskeleton, is so shiny and tough that simply spraying her living quarters with Raid will not kill her; you must spray it directly on her body for the insecticide to take effect. Even then, you have to use some pretty strong stuff for it to work. And it means you can't kill her without a little personal, face to face combat. Some people say that any strong essential oil will drive the spider away, as they prefer unlively quarters with little or no smell. Personally, I'm a big believer in a tightly-constructed house and a live and let live mentality; usually, I catch them in a glass (or get someone braver than me to do so) and release them far from where my children are likely to be. Sometimes, when I'm enraged (usually because I've been taken by surprise), I squash one - and then immediately regret it, because it always feels like I am killing someone, not something, when I kill a spider - they are so very much smarter than flies and their ilk. Plus, those widows are big, and it just isn't pleasant.

I remember once, in a shop in southern San Francisco where I went to buy a lizard when I was younger and had more time to be interested in the impression I made on others, I saw a large tank full of black widow babies. The shop was either displaying them (presumably under the same youthful impulse to be cool that made me buy a tegu, one of the world's most hostile lizards - sorry, another story) or they were selling them. I remember being in awe that the store owners, or the future pet owners, could be that hardcore. Despite the heavily-tattooed and pierced person behind the counter (very much less prevalent then than now), and the array of odd pets on display, I hadn't considered that anyone would be into selling poisonous spiders. Now, when I look back, I can't help seeing it as a little irresponsible, spreading poisonous beings who are pretty good escape artists via people who probably have no idea how venomous their new pets really are.

In any case, we tend to live side by side, the spiders and I, and I try to keep to the busy light and let them live in their quiet darkness. And if I or my children enter or move those dark places, we check carefully to see who we're disturbing before we go there. We demand the same awareness of the denizens of the dark, and if they cross that line, we do not forgive them. But all in all, we leave each other alone, living our lives and raising our children as if the other side did not exist.


Stringybark graphics has a fabulous redback spider pattern which they will put on t-shirts, linen dress shirts or any clothes they produce (click on the "prices" link). Guaranteed to stop conversations when you walk in. My friend Gwyan has had one for years and loves it.

A gruesome article, in the vein of the tegu store people, from the oh-so-reliable Sun tabloid where, of all the poisonous species in a man's home, the Widow takes the rap.

The Black Widow Hearse Club is a group of people who love funeral coaches.

Arachnids poster from the Big Zoo

Spider web ear wrap, covers your ear with a silver spider web

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Travels and Travails

Life the past month has been unending chaos, so my apologies for the silence. Summer vacation starts NOW, this MINUTE - so I will work to remedy things, as soon as my head reinflates. Expect something in the next week or so, as I've had numerous posts churning around in my head for ages now!

On a (hopefully not too) prosaic note, LOOKIT my NEW TRAILER!! This is my investment in cheap travel, for the economic travails ahead. I have long loved teardrop trailers, as they are called, and this is a nice one, made by a man who creates hot rods in the Central Valley of California.

The typical teardrop is basic, just a bed and a little galley (kitchen) area, and this one is no exception, except for the extra-wideness of it and the spoke tires, apparently a sign of hot-rodness incarnate (and to be honest, not a selling point for me, though I get many admiring remarks - about the trailer - from certain kinds of men at gas stations, probably for that reason particularly).

The teardrop trailer was a phenomenon popular from the 1930s through the 1950s, an era (interrupted by a war) where the streamlining of lifestyle was a popular pursuit; the Ayn Rand vision of individual freedom and the pursuit of aesthetic practicality were in full swing, and Gernsbackian visions of shiny, teardrop-shaped futuristic vehicles were sending ripple effects throughout American culture.

My own reason for liking these trailers is more practical. Cuteness and coolness aside, I like the fact that they are still about "real" camping (well, car camping anyway) - in other words, about being outside. You live outside, you cook outside, you only go into it to sleep (which feels a bit like being in a tiny, round cabin. And we all know I love tiny spaces). But mostly, it's a practical place for your stuff to live, so you don't have to spend a lot of time packing and unpacking, setting up and taking down. I am rubbing my hands at the mere thought.

Full of plastic bins: not the cool way to go.

Now that I have a bit of time, I want to put a little work into the galley, making shelves and little spaces for storing things so they don't rattle around on the journey, and every object, like in a ship's galley, has its place. Bwahaha. It will be like a Camping Wunderkammer. I might even try a mod or two, think of ways to get it really weird and fun. Any suggestions?

But then, I do awfully like it how it is...