Saturday, June 3, 2017

Creeping, Crawling, Nursing?

File this under the "crazy stuff I see at work" basket.

I spend time in strangers basements, lately, and I found this dude hanging out in the window.
It took me aback, because I didn't realize the Northeastern US had spiders this big.

The Nursery Web Spider, pisaurina mira, is from the family pisauridae, which includes fishing spiders and raft spiders. It is a hunting spider, only spinning webs to mate and suspend egg sacs, not to entrap prey. It looks terrifying, but like most spiders in New England, this one is mostly harmless.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Another Win for American Indians and Prehistoric Mammals!
The other day Amherst College announced a change to their school mascot. Previously, the college apparently had no official mascot, but Lord Jeffrey Amherst was considered an unofficial mascot. Amherst College claims to have the oldest collegiate athletics department in the United States, and competes in the NCAA division III as part of the Little Three in the New England Small College College Athletic Conference.

The college, founded in 1821 in Amherst, Massachusetts, was technically named after the town. However, the town was named for Lord Jeffrey Amherst, First Baron Amherst, hero of the Seven Years War, known in the United States as the French and Indian War. Afterward, he was appointed Governor-General of British North America.

As Governor-General, Lord Jeff oversaw the defense against Pontiac's Rebellion. The controversy stems from his suggestion in 1763 to use smallpox as a biological weapon against Pontiac's allies. This has been historically preserved through a letter chain between him and his subordinate Colonel Henry Bouquet. The letters express not just a desire to eliminate combatants, but to "extirpate this execrable race".

The town of Amherst has also wrestled with its namesake, and there have been petitions to change the town's name as well. Even though Lord Jeff had put his stamp on the region (Amherst, MA is not the only place to bear his name in the Northeast), his legacy as a war hero is tarnished by his participation in passive genocide.

Amherst College, however, has indeed decided to take steps to distance themselves from Lord Jeff and his history with Indian extermination. There is a hotel on campus that bore Lord Jeff's name, and that too will be renamed, according to Cullen Murphy of the Amherst board.

As before there appears to not have been an official Amherst College mascot, now the school has adopted one. The Beneski Museum of Natural History on campus has a complete mammoth skeleton, unearthed by Amherst professor Fredrick Loomis in 1913. And so, Amherst begins a new chapter, with a new official mascot, the Amherst Mammoth. Congratulations!

A quick google search for "mammoth mascot logos" proves mammoths could be potentially terrifying. There are a few mammoth mascots already. The Colorado club from the National Lacrosse League and HC Ugra from the KHL both use the Mammoth, and also the Omaha franchise from the now defunct FXFL were the Mammoths. Both Tufts and Alabama have elephant mascots, which are almost the same thing. All of these examples lead me to believe the newly chosen mascot has potential. I look forward to seeing Amherst College's new identity unfold in the coming months.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Battle of Man and Machine

Recently, there has been a focus on an American labor force that has been displaced. The Conservative Right has successfully blamed migrant workers and overseas outsourcing. But realistically, the jobs do not exist anymore for manual laborers, they have been steadily replaced by automation. Technology has replaced good old fashioned man power.

Folklore sometimes uses fables to illustrate actual struggles within society. The story of John Henry has been used for decades by labor and civil rights movements, but it best highlights the changes presented during the Industrial Revolution and the losing battle against technological innovation. Industrial and technological advances have drastically changed economies, and this particular song echoes themes and issues still at the heart of our society.

Not only is the story of John Henry a fable for displacement of labor at the hands of technological advancement, but it is also a story of equality. Of all the American folk stories of the last 200 years, John Henry is one of a few that feature a hero of color, and probably the only one easily recognized by most of the public. John Henry is a black man. Not only is he a black man, but presumably a free black man, and a symbol of a hard working man in pre civil rights America.

The story of John Henry has been translated to song many times in a few different ways, but essentially the story is the same, and ends in tragedy. The many musicians to record songs about the American folk hero include Pete Seeger, Ramblin Jack Elliot, Mississippi John Hurt, Harry Belafonte, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Johnny Cash, Van Morrison, and Bruce Springsteen.

The lyrics seem to be pretty standard, although I can't find evidence of a credible writing credit. Songs usually share 3 parts, young John Henry foreshadowing his fate, the race against the machine, and John Henry's wife taking up where his legacy left off. I've included the lyrics to Woody Guthrie's version below.

John Henry, when he was a baby
Settin' on his mammy's knee
Picked up an hammer in his little right hand
Said, "Hammer be the death of me, me, me
Hammer be the death of me"

Some say he's born in Texas
Some say he's born up in Maine
I just say he was a Louisiana man
Leader of a steel-driving chain gang
Leader on a steel-driving gang
Well, the Captain said to John Henry
"I'm gonna bring my steam drill around
Gonna bring my steam drill out on the job
Gonna whup that steel on down, down, down
Whup that steel on down"

John Henry said to the Captain
(What he say?)
"You can bring your steam drill around
You can bring your steam drill out on the job
I'll beat your steam drill down, down, down
Beat your steam drill down"
John Henry said to his Shaker
"Shaker, you had better pray
If you miss your six feet of steel
I'll be your buryin' day, day, day
I'll be your buryin' day"

Now, the Shaker said to John Henry
(Yes sir)
"Man ain't nothing but a man
(No he ain't)
But before I'd let that steam drill beat me down
(I believe him)
I'd die with an hammer in my hand, hand, hand
(I believe him)
I'd die with an hammer in my hand"

John Henry had a little woman
Her name was Polly Anne
John Henry took sick and was laid up in bed
While Polly handled steel like a man, man, man
Polly handled steel like a man
They took John Henry to the graveyard
Laid him down in the sand
Every locomotive comin' a-rolling by
Hollered, there lies a steel-drivin' man, man, man
There lies a steel-drivin' man
There lies a steel-drivin' man, man, man
There lies a steel-drivin' man

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

To Everything (turn turn turn) There is a Season

Calendar Man was created in 1958 by Bill Finger and Sheldon Moldoff. The character made seven appearances from 1958 to 1996. In 1996 Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale rewrote him for the Long Halloween where he played a major role in the murder mystery.

His real name is Julian Day. For most of his existence in the Batman mythos Calendarman was essentially a gimmick character, committing larceny according to days of the week, holidays, and seasons. He morphed into a supervillain with super weapons used to pull heists, and then built elaborate traps to kidnap victims for ransom.

Loeb rewrote him as a Hannibal Lector type of character. This idea of him being a high functioning sociopath, a dangerous mastermind with an obsession with dates helped resurrect the character and save him from being forever a joke character, like Kite Man, the Polkadot Man, and Crazy Quilt. This version of Calendarman was also used in the Batman Arkham games, which painted him as a very dangerous adversary, contrary to his long history of gimmicky nonsense. In those games Calendarman is a serial killer who plans elaborate mass killings based around holidays.

Recently, Scott Snyder rewrote the character again, bringing in a supernatural element. Julian Day now lives, dies, and reincarnates according to seasons. Each time he dies, he then molts into a new Calendarman. Apparently, each time he dies and is reborn, his personality changes.

Like many other classic Batman villains, Calendarman has evolved from a silly crook obsessed with committing crimes based on calendar dates into a much darker psychotic mass murderer with creepy superpowers and possible immortality. However, the character just appears to mirror traits from other villains. The Joker creates mass murder events, the Riddler builds elaborate traps, the Mad Hatter kidnaps victims, Mr. Zsasz is a serial killer, even Alberto and Sofia Falcone murder people on holidays. Solomon Grundy dies and is reborn also, each time his personality changes.

Snyder hadn't given his new Calendarman an origin. Now that his run on Batman is over, we will see if a new writer expands on this new take on the character. Despite the obvious borrowing from other villains, the calendar/seasonal/holiday theme is a good one, taking elements of time, cycles, and celebration and warping them into something to be feared. Calendarman, like many other lame comicbook villains seems to have been redeemed and turned into something truly terrifying.

Monday, March 6, 2017

The Chocolate Covered Descent into Hell

I like to waste my time reading articles from sites like Cracked, or The Chive that have headlines like "Top Ten Useless Things from Stupid Crap That You Argue About in Bars with Casual Friends". I like these posts mostly because I like neat convenient lists of things, and also because a lot of that nonsense is stuff that I already think about, and it's nice to see other people's perspectives and then wonder how they can be so wrong about everything.

Recently, I read Fan Theories that will Make These Movies even Freakier on The Chive. The link is on the banner below. The premise of the post was the fan communities for these various films had these radical ideas about what the movies were really about that made them better/scarier/weirder? The poster was absolutely right about most of them being freaky. The Kevin McCallister is Jigsaw theory is my favorite.

But Home Alone/Saw mashups is not what I'm writing about today. Explore that mindfuck on your own time. I really want to get at this Roald Dahl/Dante collaboration. It is on the list above, but it doesn't really fit into the Fan Theory part of the post, as it may be intentional.

I did a few searches for anything on the internet to corroborate this idea, but there isn't anything from official Roald Dahl sources, and nothing on fan sites or articles about the fan theory really delves into the source material on more than superficial levels. I also couldn't find anything linking the original book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to the Divine Comedy. It is all about the film. So... here is a look at the comparisons of the Divine Comedy by Dante, and the actual Charlie and the Chocolate Factory written by Roald Dahl.

mmm stuck in all that frozen chocolate!
The Divine Comedy, if you didn't know, follows the 14th century (AD) Italian author Dante, and his spectral buddy Virgil (the actual 1st century BC Roman poet who wrote the Aeneid) as he climbs down into Hell, and then back up through Purgatory and into Heaven. The work is in three parts, the Inferno, which people are most familiar, the Purgatorio, and the Paradiso. For this discussion, Inferno is really the only important thing. Here are the basic important stuff we need to glean from the Inferno:
  • Dante outlines Hell in a way and with such detail as no one else before had done, and influenced the way people thought about Hell ever since. The sign outside the door that says "Abandon Hope all Ye Who Enter Here" is Dante.
  • Hell is designed in tiers, or levels that descend deeper and deeper. Dante specified 9 Circles of Hell divided into 3 distinct parts that coincided with certain types of sins. The first few levels of Lust, Gluttony, and Greed are considered the levels of incontinence, sins of the flesh. These levels culminate in the City of Dis, the city of anger. The 6th Circle, for Heresy, begins the circles of Violence. Level 7 is divided into 3 rings for Violence. Violence toward Others, Violence to Yourself, and Violence to God/Nature are separated out. Finally the 8th and 9th circles are all about Fraud and Treachery. At the very bottom of Hell, in the deepest part of the 9th circle is Satan, Lucifer the Light Bringer, the greatest traitor of all.
  • Dante doesn't go through hell alone. He is guided by Virgil, a classic writer who has been dead for 1400 years.
  • Souls in each circle of Hell are beset upon by various demons meant to pay them back for their specific sins. For example, Gluttons are attacked by Cerberus, Harpies and Centaurs go after the Violent, horned demons persecute the Frauds.
and over there are the flaming caskets for the unruly kids...
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was written by Roald Dahl and published by Alfred Knopf Inc in 1964. It was followed up by a film in 1971 starring the late great Gene Wilder (pictured above), directed by Mel Stuart. Basically, the plot involves a boy, Charlie, who wins a chance to tour a famous chocolate factory with four other lucky winners and their parents. The factory is owned by infamous recluse Willie Wonka who guides the tour with the hope of finding an heir to his business in the process. One by one, each candidate falls prey to their idiosyncrasies and gets kicked off the tour, leaving Charlie as the last survivor. Sounds promising so far. Here are some important things about this book:
  • The factory is divided into rooms. Each room has a different theme, and a different tourist does something stupid in each room and gets kicked out.
  • The factory is run by oompa loompas, little orange men from another "country". They also have to clean up after each tourist screws up, and are involved in escorting them out of the factory in one piece.
  • Each contestant/tourist/winner has a foible, a personality flaw that then leads to that character's downfall. For example, Veruca Salt is a self entitled brat, and her greed leads her to attempt to take one of the highly trained counting squirrels in the Nut Room. She ends up throw down the garbage chute.
  • There are 5 children who go through the tour, with their 5 chaperone parents. They seem to correspond to a few of the 7 Deadly Sins. These characters are:
    1. Charlie Bucket. Charlie is obviously Dante in this scenario. He is praised at the end for refusing to indulge in vice.
    2. Augustus Gloop, the fat kid. Gluttony, naturally
    3. Violet Beauregard. Pride.
    4. Veruca Salt. Greed. She's essentially a high-class, snobby garbage person.
    5. Mike Teavee. Sloth. His obsession with television keeps him from doing anything else.
Aside from the obvious themes of Cause and Effect, Sin and Consequence, and paying for your poor behavior, there is a case to be made that Roald Dahl set out to create a Dante's Inferno fable for children from the beginning. There are different rooms, like the different circles, where each sinner ends up failing. There are demon-like things that live there and aid the tormented. Wonka acts like Virgil, leading the group through. Charlie, like Dante, observing everything without fully participating in the madness.

Despite all of this I wasn't completely convinced of this theory. An obvious hole in this theory is there isn't a direct correlation to Dahl characters and Dante's 9 circles. There are only 5 child tourists after all. If Wonka is Virgil, and Charlie is Dante, that means the other 4 kids have to be metaphors for sinners in 9 different circles? The characters don't really match up to sins from Dante anyway. Where is the angry kid? the lustful one? the scheming fraudster? It doesn't add up. 

However, I then read about extra characters and chapters left out of the original publication. There were a few things left out and rewritten by Dahl as suggested by the publishing company. There apparently were plans for 10 Golden Tickets for 10 contestant/tourists originally, which would correspond to the 9 Circles of Hell, plus one ticket for Dante/Charlie.

There are also a few missing chapters published from earlier drafts. Spotty Powder, The Vanilla Fudge Room, and Warming Candy Room, all feature extra characters. These chapters did not go through extra edits, and some of the character elements pop up in other characters.
  • Miranda Piker is a strict no-nonsense, "humorless" school girl, daughter of a Headmaster. She goes on an angry, violent tirade to try and sabotage Spotty Powder, a sugary substance that briefly makes the eater break out in hives, so they can fake being sick and skip school. She would undoubtedly be the sin of Anger, and probably fill the Circle of Anger, and/or the Circle of Violence.  
  • The Warming Candy Room is about 3 characters Clarence Clump, Bertie Upside, and Terence Roper who eat an excessive amount of warming candies, which heat people up from the inside, so they can be out in cold weather and still be nice and warm. Eating too many of course, ends in them having to end the tour in a cold room. This may have been an early attempt to fit the Sin of Lust into a kids' book without having to talk about sex. Getting "worked up and over-heated", and then having to spend time "cooling off" sound like dirty metaphors to me.
  • These are only the missing chapters and early drafts that have been found to survive, but they certainly give an insight into how the process changed. Who knows what other plans Dahl had in mind.
Lastly there is a character mentioned briefly in the book. Arthur Slugworth is mentioned as a past adversary to Willie Wonka. He is another rival candy maker. Slugworth is responsible for Wonka's public disappearance, due to corporate espionage that allowed Slugworth to steal and copy Wonka's ideas. If Dahl had originally started out to do a direct homage to Dante, then Slugworth would be the ultimate villain. The bottom of Hell is reserved for Fraud and Treachery, and Slugworth certainly fits that bill. Slugworth, though, becomes a passing thought, a distant memory to fill in the plot hole of why this factory had been shuttered for so long, enshrined in secrecy.

Ultimately, though, I think upon further investigation, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory can not be linked directly to Dante's Inferno. There is too much missing, and too much would need to be stretched to fit. However, I do think that perhaps Dahl had meant to write his book this way, but through rewrites and issues with the publisher, settled for a fable of children meeting consequences for behaving poorly.

Also to help destroy this otherwise awesome theory that I wish were true: apparently Dahl had originally planned for 3 books about Charlie and Willie Wonka. 3 books to coincide with the 3 parts of the Divine Comedy, right? But the Great Glass Elevator, which follows the Chocolate Factory story has nothing to do with an ascent through Purgatory. It has to do with space and nasty aliens, and the White House, and all sorts of weirdness. So, nevermind.