Tiller

Today I learned some strange things and I want to share them with you

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  4. language (2)
  5. religion (2)
  6. ireland (2)
  7. stunts (2)
  8. indonesia (1)
  9. bali (1)
  10. non-conformism (1)
  11. lancashire (1)
  12. temperance (1)
  13. alcohol (1)
  14. cowboys (1)
  15. animal-cruelty (1)
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  17. hollywood (1)
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  22. technology (1)
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  25. vanuatu (1)
  26. eccentricity (1)
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  39. sheep (1)
  40. biological-warfare (1)
  41. british-army (1)
  42. scotland (1)
  43. wildlife (1)
  44. ghosts (1)
  45. folklore (1)
  46. japan (1)
  47. creativity (1)
  48. irish-language (1)
  49. culture (1)
  50. dance (1)
  51. jamaica (1)
  52. james-bond (1)
  53. animism (1)
  1. Japanese folklore has the idea of yōkai, spirits whose behaviour can be benevolent, merely mischievous, or actively harmful to humans. These spirits reside in all things: man-made objects, scenery, and natural phenomena like the wind.

    One specific kind of yōkai are the tsukumogami, human-made tools that have become inhabited by a shape-shifting spirit. One example is the boroboroton, bedding that comes to life at night and strangles its sleeping inhabitant, perhaps in revenge for the sleeper failing to look after the bedding properly.

    Katsushika Hokusai’s The Lantern Ghost depicts a tsukumogami spirit inhabiting a lantern.

    All objects contain spirits, but it’s believed that an object must be 100 years old before its spirit can become animated and sentient. For that reason, it’s common in Japanese culture to dispose of an object when it’s 99 years old, to avoid it developing a tsukumogami. Objects are also considered more likely to gain a malevolent spirit if they’ve been treated badly or discarded; for that reason, ceremonies are often performed to console broken objects, to decrease the chances of the object’s spirit becoming angry.

    It’s an example of a beautiful and rich storytelling tradition that’s evolved over the centuries, but also one that serves a useful purpose. Perhaps stories of the tsukumogami are at the root of the (admittedly somewhat stereotypical) Japanese reverence for objects and zeal for repairing and maintaining them.

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  2. If you ask people to summarise the sound of Irish music, you’ll likely get back a “fiddle-diddle-iddle-diddle-aye” sound.

    This isn’t just a casual summary of what the music sounds like; it’s also the basis for a whole musical form, often improvised or made in the absence of physical musical instruments. It’s called lilting, and it has a rich tradition and history in Ireland.

    The sounds in lilting are, as explained by Oscopo in the video above, “non-lexical vocables”, like the ones used in scat singing.

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  3. At university I was fascinated by the wordless film Baraka, which features incredible shots of humanity and nature from around the world, sometimes in slow motion and timelapse, in an experience that’s humbling and beautiful.

    One of the scenes features kecak, a Balinese Hindu ritual. Around a hundred men, dressed only in loincloths, sit in formation: sometimes a semicircle, sometimes facing each other in ranks. They chant and move in unison, directed by one leader, in a mesmerising display, all the while chanting “chak-chak-chak-chak”.

    I had always assumed that it was an ancient practice, but although it does have stylistic roots in ancient trance rituals, in the form we see it in Baraka it dates back only to the 1930s, when Walter Spies, a German artist, visited Bali.

    Spies had the idea of adapting local rituals into a dramatic form based on stories from the Hindu Ramayana, specifically the battle between the forest-dwelling Vanaras and the evil King Ravana. This drama was accompanied by dance, choreographed by local dancer Wayan Limbak, and was intended for consumption by Western tourists. The performance was toured internationally by a troupe of Indonesian dancers, and remains one of the most identifiable forms of Balinese culture.

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  4. In the 19th century the temperance movement emerged in Britain, initially advocating abstention from spirits but later, with the rise of “teetotalism”, the total rejection of all alcoholic drinks.

    Central to the movement were so-called “temperance bars”, which served only non-alcoholic drinks and aimed to offer an alternative to the temptations of the boozy pub. Countless non-alcoholic drinks that survive to this day were launched and marketed in this period, from Dandelion & Burdock to Vimto.

    The exterior of Fitzpatrick's temperance bar in Rawtenstall, Lancashire.

    Nowadays only one temperance bar remains in the UK: Fitzpatrick’s in Rawtenstall, Lancashire. Lancashire, with its strong traditions of working-class self-improvement and religious nonconformism, was the heart of the temperance movement in Britain. It was a natural location to move to for the Fitzpatricks, an Irish family who owned a herbalist business. They established the bar in 1899 when the temperance movement had already peaked, with countless temperance bars and hotels across the region.

    In an ironic twist, the owner of Fitzpatrick’s was arrested for drink driving in 2012, having been found with twice the legal alcohol limit in his blood at 2:30am in Burnley.

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  5. Yakima Canutt grew up a rodeo hand in Oregon and Washington, breaking broncos and wrestling steer in what turned out to be the dying days of the Old West.

    During the early years of Hollywood in the 1920s, with its insatiable appetite for westerns, Canutt found work as a stunt man and occasional actor; by 1928 he’d featured in 48 films. He became famous for his work with the actor John Wayne, who apparently modelled his on-screen persona on Canutt’s drawling speech and hip-rolling gait.

    A young Canutt with his rodeo trophies.

    Concerned with how many stuntmen were dying or suffering horrific injuries, Canutt started to develop new techniques for stunts, including the “L stirrup” that allowed stunt riders to fall off their horses without getting their legs tangled.

    He was also concerned with cruelty to animals. It’s difficult to overstate just how callous early Hollywood was in this regard: in the 1939 film Jesse James, the filmmakers pushed a live horse off a cliff for a stunt, killing it in the process.

    Canutt’s most famous invention was the “running W”, a way of tripping a horse with a hidden wire and sending its rider flying dramatically from the saddle that was much safer than the techniques that had been used before. (It’s all relative, of course; the running W could still stun or injure horses, and was itself eventually banned by the American Humane Association.)

    Perhaps the best summary of Canutt’s influence in Hollywood are two adaptations of Ben Hur, the chariot-racing epic. In the 1925 version, made before Canutt’s innovations, over 100 horses were injured and at least 5 were killed during the filming of the chariot race scenes. In the 1959 version, on which Canutt worked as a stunt coordinator, not a single horse was injured.

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  6. Desert Island Discs is a remarkable radio programme. It’s been broadcast for 3,227 episodes, from 1942 to the present day. The premise is fairly well-known: a guest is invited to imagine that they’re on a desert island, and is asked to choose eight songs, a book, and a luxury item that they’d take with them to make their stay on the island more bearable.

    Four incidents strike me as particularly remarkable:

    1. In 1958, the opera singer Elisabeth Schwarzkopf chose her own recordings for seven of her eight songs.
    2. In 1979, Schwarzkopf was outdone by pianist Moura Lympany, who plumped for herself for every one of her songs.
    3. In the early 1970s, presenter Roy Plomley attempted to interview the author Alistair MacLean, who wrote Where Eagles Dare, but ended up speaking to a member of the Ontario tourist board with the same name – who, as it happened, had never written a book. The episode was never broadcast.
    4. In 1971 the outspoken and somewhat gruff Yorkshire show jumper Harvey Smith declined to take a book to the island, on the basis that he’d never read one.

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  7. When people interact with computers, some interfaces require them to hold their arms up. They range from the light pens used to operate radar screens from the 1950s, to the futuristic displays used in the film Minority Report, to modern VR peripherals.

    Light-gun–operated radar screens used by NORAD

    But holding your arms out like that makes them, well tired. Human-computer interaction researchers have a wonderful term for this fatigue: they call it “gorilla arms”. As Steve Jobs said when he explained why he thought touchscreens on laptops were a bad idea:

    “We’ve done tons of user testing on this and it turns out it doesn’t work. Touch surfaces don’t want to be vertical. It gives great demo, but after a short period of time you start to fatigue, and after an extended period of time, your arm wants to fall off.”

    The term was originally coined in the 1980s, when touchscreens were first taking off. As the New Hacker’s Dictionary puts it:

    “It seems the designers of all those spiffy touch-menu systems failed to notice that humans aren’t designed to hold their arms in front of their faces making small motions. After more than a very few selections, the arm begins to feel sore, cramped, and oversized – the operator looks like a gorilla while using the touch screen and feels like one afterwards.”

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  8. Bislama is a creole language that’s the lingua franca of Vanuatu, the Pacific island country. Although the islands that make up Vanuatu are home to only ~300,000 people, those people speak 113 languages between them, and so a common dialect is necessary.

    It’s a really interesting language. From a vocabulary perspective, it’s 95% English, with a few words of French and some words from local languages to describe local flora and fauna. But from a grammatical perspective, it’s much closer to Oceanic languages. So it has the fundamental feel and appearance of English, but with a totally different grammar – which makes for a really interesting experience listening to it as a native English speaker. It’s simultaneously very familiar and uncannily unfamiliar.

    While interesting linguistically, the language’s history is more traumatic. It’s the result of “blackbirding”: the kidnapping of Pacific islanders to work as indentured labourers on farms and plantations in Australia and Fiji. These labourers developed their own mutually intelligible pidgin language and, when they eventually returned home, took the language with them where it flourished into the form that exists today.

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  9. In a leafy suburb of Brussels there sits a striking stately home called the Palais Stoclet. Despite being a UNESCO World Heritage Site it has never been opened to the public, and is still owned by the four granddaughters of the man who built it. Few have seen inside; those who have entered suggest that it has changed little since its initial construction – a portal into a forgotten world.

    It was commissioned by Belgian financier Adolphe Stoclet, who spared no expense. He employed the pioneering Austrian architect Josef Hoffmann to create a home unmatched in its modernity, its opulence, and its taste.

    The result was radical in every way. The exterior is strikingly modern even from a contemporary perspective: imposing, asymmetrical, and clad in marble. Hoffmann’s vision extended far deeper than the structure, though. The interior is opulent almost beyond words, with highlights including sculptures by Franz Metzner, mosaics by Leopold Forstner, and a dining room that features six-metre-long murals created by Gustav Klimt. The palace is often cited as both the first Art Deco house and as an example of a Gesamtkunstwerk, or “total work of art”, blending architecture, art, engineering, interior design and landscape gardening into a seamless whole.

    Owning the house has seemingly become a burden for Alphonse’s granddaughters. In 2006 three of the four went to court in an attempt to agree a sale of the house or at least some of its contents. But the court ruled that they must remain together as an indivisible whole; the Stoclets’ ownership of the house as property was less important than humanity’s collective ownership of the house as a work of art – albeit a work of art that few people have ever seen.

    The exterior of the Stoclet Palace. Image: PtrQs on Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 4.0

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  10. From 1918, in the aftermath of both World War I and the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, British industrialists were worried about the prospect of left-wing agitators and organisers in the UK. One of the ways they fought the interests of workers was to blacklist known “troublemakers” from employment, to prevent them organising in the workplace and pour encourager les autres.

    Remarkably – or perhaps not – one such blacklist survived well into the 21st century. The Consulting Association was the successor to the Economic League, which had been dissolved following a scandal in 1993. Like the League, the Consulting Association maintained a blacklist of workers, particularly in the construction industry. The list contained dossiers on thousands of people known to be members of trade unions, to have argued for better working conditions, to have reported health and safety violations, or simply to have expressed left-wing political views. It was compiled with the collusion of both trade union officials, the police, and the security services, and virtually all large employers in the construction industry checked against it when hiring workers.

    In 2009 the Consulting Association was raided by the Information Commissioner’s Office, responsible for enforcing privacy and data protection laws. The subsequent revelations led to a parliamentary enquiry, the paying of millions of pounds in compensation to those who had been affected, and the passing of a law that banned employment blacklisting based on trade union membership. Despite that, the practice is still thought to continue.

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  11. There was a whole genre of recorded blues music in the 1930s that came to be known as “dirty blues” for its suggestive lyrics about sex and drugs. Songs were generally banned from radio play and weren’t commonly available as recordings; they tended to crop up in jukeboxes in adults-only bars and clubs, or as live performances.

    Most of the song titles and lyrics are merely innuendo, like Lil Johnson’s Press My Button (Ring My Bell) or Harry Roy’s even more obviously childish My Girl’s Pussy. But the lyrics of some songs still have the power to shock even a hundred years later, like Lucille Bogan’s Shave ’Em Dry.

    It’s like the movies that were made in Hollywood before the advent of the Hays Code: because everything became so sanitised in the 1940s and ’50s, it’s easy to forget that popular culture has always had an undercurrent of… well, filth. Next time some old folks moan about how sexually suggestive modern music is and how the world’s going to hell in a handcart, send ’em Shave ’Em Dry.

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  12. In Belfast in 1932, at the height of the Great Depression, there were protests against poor working conditions in the jobs that men were forced to do in order to claim their unemployment benefits.

    The protests crossed sectarian lines, with Protestants and Catholics protesting side-by-side. The problem was that neither religion knew the others’ songs, their being mostly sectarian or religious in nature.

    So, as they marched down the Falls Road and the Shankhill Road, the workers sang the only song that both sides knew: Yes! We Have No Bananas, the 1923 novelty record about a Greek greengrocer with mangled English and a lack of produce. They were then violently attacked by the police, with two workers killed and 100 wounded.

    Dig deeper:

    1. Socialist Worker

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  13. The British Army in World War II requisitioned a Scottish island, Gruinard Island, and deliberately contaminated it with anthrax as part of an experiment into biological warfare. Eighty sheep were taken to the island and an anthrax bomb was detonated above it, killing all of the sheep in the process. The island remained contaminated with anthrax, and so completely uninhabitable, for decades afterwards.

    In the 1980s, a shadowy group called the Dark Harvest Commando of the Scottish Citizen Army campaigned for the decontamination of the island. In 1981 they apparently landed on the island, gathered anthrax-contaminated soil, and sent it to the Chemical Defence Establishment at Porton Down and to the Conservative Party Conference in Blackpool, threatening to release more anthrax around the UK if the island wasn’t cleaned up.

    Finally, in 1986, the decontamination process began. One of the scientists who worked on the cleanup was Dr. David Kelly, who would later play an infamous and tragic role in the build-up to the Iraq war. The decontamination was tested by sending a flock of sheep to the island, none of which died. Following the decontamination, the island was sold back to its original owners for £500.

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  14. In the James Bond film Live and Let Die, there’s a famous scene in which Bond, played by Roger Moore, ostensibly runs across the backs of live crocodiles in order to cross a river.

    The stunt looks a bit naff, and the crocodiles a bit mechanical. It’s easy to imagine that it’s an effect. But it turns out it was performed with actual, live crocodiles by crocodile farmer Ross Kananga.

    Kananga ran an exotic animal farm in Jamaica that was spotted by location scouts. The stunt took five attempts to complete, and Kananga required 193 stitches after a crocodile snapped at his heel during one attempt. He was paid $60,000 for his work, and lived a generally adventurous life; he died in 1978 while spear-fishing, aged 32.

    There’s a video of the stunt on YouTube. There’s also a rumour that Kananga performed the stunt despite the fact that his father was eaten by a crocodile, but that’s not true. His father ran a restaurant in Fort Lauderdale and actually outlived him, dying aged 90 in 2005.

    Dig deeper:

    1. Wikipedia

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