Friday, November 30, 2007
(Above: The Gulabi Gang)
If you're reading this and you're female, consider yourself very, very lucky. There are many parts of the world where girls and women lead much harder lives than most of us could ever imagine. Like the part of India known as Banda. There, women are rarely educated or allowed to work. Their marriages are often arranged when they're still children (sometimes as young as nine), and bridegrooms can demand large dowries before they'll accept the girls into their families. If a dowry isn't considered large enough, a girl can be severely mistreated, even killed.
But two years ago, a remarkable woman named Sampat Pal Devi formed an organization that seeks to protect Banda's women from violence and corruption. Known as the Gulabi Gang (Pink Gang), the group of female vigilantes gathers together whenever a little butt-kicking is in order. Wearing distinctive pink saris, the Gulabi Gang investigates and protests government corruption. They punish men who've abused their wives and teach other women self-defense skills.
While the Gulabi Gang is starting to make real progress, there's still a long way to go before women in Banda are treated with dignity. But Sampat Pal Devi is already one of my personal heroes.
Read more here.
Artist Jason Hackenwerth uses ordinary balloons to create enormous sculptures that resemble bizarre, often nightmarish creatures. His monsters have graced the Great Hall of Dinosaurs at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, mingling with the dinosaurs in an exhibit called "The Revenge of the Megadon." For parade and parties, Hackenwerth designed the Megamite (shown above), an anemone-like beast that fires off the balloon missiles whenever it gets excited.
If only he would decorate my next party!
See more photos here.
If you or any of your particularly well-dressed relatives intend to purchase Kiki Strike T-shirts and would like them to arrive in time for the holidays, make sure to get your orders in early! (I don't want any sad emails when the Postal Service gets bogged down.)
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
I'll admit I'm kind of fascinated by fungi. Neither plant nor animal, they can be delicious, disgusting, or downright deadly. (Some species are even rather pretty.) But the fungus that's always interested me the most is the truffle.
Though they often resemble deformed potatoes, truffles are one of the world's most sought after delicacies. A few thin slices can turn an average meal into a gourmet experience. (And add several zeros to your bill.) But high-quality truffles are difficult to find. They grow underground near the roots of deciduous trees. And anyone who intends to gather them must first seek assistance from the animal community.
Traditionally, truffle hunters have relied on pigs to sniff out the fungi. But pigs have an unfortunate habit of gobbling up all the truffles they find. So many have turned to dogs, which aren't always as effective as truffle hogs but show far more self-discipline.
In fact a dog named Rocco was responsible for sniffing out the enormous truffle shown above--one of the biggest discovered in more than half a century. It was more than two and a half feet underground, near oak tree outside of Pisa, Italy. It's expected to sell for more than $200,000. I just hope Rocco gets his cut of the profits.
Read more here.
(Below: A truffle hunt in progress.)
So I thought I'd follow up that last post with a little light-hearted controversy. Seems Madonna recently allowed the sheep that graze on the land near her home in the English countryside to be dyed pink, green, and yellow for a fashion photo shoot. Now animal-rights groups are up in arms, claiming that the hairdos might have caused the animals unnecessary stress.
However, the editor of Sheep! magazine (can you believe such things exist?) says that dyeing sheep doesn't harm the animals any more than an afternoon at the salon would harm the average human. In fact, farmers often paint their sheep's wool so their flocks can be easily identified.
I'm not a big fan of harming animals (to say the least), but this seems like a lot of nonsense. In fact, I think the sheep look kind of cute. (Feel free to argue.)
The Guardian newspaper appears to agree with me. It even offers handy tips for those who'd like to dye a sheep themselves. The trick? Using "a non-toxic vegetable dye [that's] applied with a sponge or silent spray." If only there were still sheep grazing in Central Park! (They were kicked out in the 1930s.)
Read more here.
Tuesday, November 27, 2007
I've enjoyed reading your recent comments about The Empress's Tomb. (Though I'm sorry if some of you are finding it difficult to get your hands on a copy. It's still pretty new. Don't give up.) I realize there are far more copies of books like the Gossip Girls out there right now. That's because those books appeal to everyone in one way or another.
But I didn't write the Kiki Strike books for everyone. (I have no interest in ordinary people.) I wrote them for YOU. I believe that the right people will find my books eventually. And then we'll all take over the world.
Cause lip gloss is great, but lip gloss and lock-picking skills will get you a whole lot farther.
(Above: The Paris Pantheon, inside and out.)
I had absolutely nothing to do with the story that follows, though I really wish I did.
One of the most beloved landmarks in Paris, the Pantheon is a former church that's sat in the heart of the Latin Quarter for more than two hundred years. But the French government hasn't alway done such a wonderful job of keeping monuments like the Pantheon in good repair. Sometime in the 1960s the building's famous clock stopped ticking, and since then, it's been allowed to slowly rust away.
About a year ago, an group of "cultural guerillas" finally decided to take matters into their own hands. Known as the Untergunther (or les UX), the organization's members have been described as "connaisseurs of the Parisian underworld." Previously, they'd dedicated themselves to restoring Paris's underground crypts and holding forbidden gatherings in the catacombs deep beneath the city. (Among their 150 recruits are the mysterious individuals known as the Perforating Mexicans.) But over time, the Untergunther began to focus their activities on restoring France's neglected historic buildings.
Under the leadership of a master clockmaker with first-class lock-picking skills, members of the Untergunther broke into the Pantheon one night in 2006 and "set up a secret workshop and lounge in a cavity under the building's famous dome." For over a year, they managed to avoid security guards and building employees as they repaired the ancient clock day and night.
When the work was finally finished, they revealed their good deed to the authorities. And what did the authorities do? They pressed charges. The clockmaker and his cronies faced a year in jail and $20,000 fines. Fortunately, the judge took only twenty minutes to rule in favor of the Untergunther.
The group is currently working on another secret project somewhere in Paris. Good for them. Stupid laws are meant to be broken.
Read the original article in the Guardian here. Those who read French can visit the Untergunther's website here.
Many, many thanks to TheMog for bringing this story to my attention.
Sunday, November 25, 2007
This morning, I came across a story about the Delhi Purple Sapphire, which will soon be on display at London's Natural History Museum. One of a handful of famous gems that are reputed to be cursed, the stone spent decades tucked away at the back of a dusty cabinet, accompanied by a note from its last owner, which read, “This stone is trebly accursed and is stained with the blood, and the dishonour of everyone who has ever owned it."
Like other "bloodstained" jewels, such as the Hope Diamond and the Black Orlov, the Delhi Purple Sapphire was brought to Europe from India. (In fact, a remarkable percentage of cursed gems are said to have been pried from the eyes of Indian idols.) Once it left its native land, the stone began to take its revenge on anyone who touched it.
One by one, the owners of the Delhi Purple Sapphire lost their fortunes, their health, and finally their lives. (A singer who wore the sapphire only once managed to keep her life--but lost her voice.) Eventually, the stone was donated to the museum, enclosed in seven locked boxes and surrounded by good-luck charms. A typewritten warning advised anyone who opened the boxes to cast the rock into the sea.
The Hope Diamond and the Black Orlov share similar dark histories. Those who've owned the Black Orlov (including two princesses) have displayed an unfortunate tendency to fling themselves from high places. The list of lives rumored to have been ruined by the Hope Diamond is even longer, and includes Marie Antoinette herself, who wore the diamond while she still had a head around which to wear it.
Read more about the Delhi Purple Sapphire here.
(Below: The infamous Hope Diamond.)
Saturday, November 24, 2007
(Photos by Marilynn K. Yee for The New York Times)
The New York Times has an interesting story this weekend about some of New York's hidden houses. Among those profiled in the article are the two shown above.
"A gate stands in between two town houses that front on King Street. Beyond the gate is another one, and a tunnel that extends the depth of the town house. But what no one peering through that first gate could possibly see is that the tunnel opens up onto a lushly landscaped courtyard and two carriage houses that, like the town houses, were built in the 1830s."
I'm horrified to admit that I lived less than a block away from these buildings for four years--and I never knew they were there!
Check out the article here, which also features one of the most charming spots in all of Manhattan, Pomander Walk.
Jellyfish are causing quite a few problems these days. The gigantic Echizen Kurage (shown above and below) have returned to the Sea of Japan, destroying fishermen's nets and poisoning the fish. The Japanese have responded to the threat by finding ways to turn the beasts into tasty treats, including sushi and cookies. (Mmmm. Jellyfish cookies.) But even if they taste as good as they sound, there are still far too many Echizen Kurage for one small country to gobble down.
In other invertebrate news, billions of tiny jellyfish recently attacked a salmon farm off the coast of Ireland. The swarm of Mauve Stingers covered ten square miles and reached thirty-five feet deep. The poor fish never had a chance. The ocean was so thick with jellyfish that farm's owners were unable reach the salmon's cages. The boats just couldn't push through. Read more here and here.
(Above: You'd never guess what lies beneath this house.)
Fifteen years ago, the police showed up at the door of Italian eccentric Oberto Airaudi. They'd heard a rumor that he might be building something beneath his house, and they wanted to see what it was. Airaudi reluctantly guided them to a secret door. When it opened, the police officers could barely believe their eyes. They were standing inside a circular chamber lavishly decorated with carved pillars, mosaic floors, and stunning murals.
As they explored the rest of the subterranean complex, the police discovered nine enormous and opulent rooms, each stranger and more beautiful than the next. Together they compose what's now know as the Temples of Damanhur--and what some people call the "Eighth Wonder of the World."
A former insurance salesman, Airaudi claims he began having visions of the beautiful temples when he was only ten years old. A few decades later, he purchased a house on a remote, rocky hillside and set out to make his visions a reality. With the help of a few volunteers, Airaudi spent more than 16 years secretly burrowing into the mountain. By the time the police arrived one day in the early 1990s, Airaudi and his friends had created the largest underground temple on Earth.
According to Airaudi, "[The temples] are to remind people that we are all capable of much more than we realize and that hidden treasures can be found within every one of us once you know how to access them." I think I like him.
You can read the original London Daily Mail article (and see more amazing pictures) here--or visit the temples by clicking here.
Thursday, November 22, 2007
Believe it or not, wild turkeys are regularly spotted throughout Manhattan. They stop for naps on 28th story balconies, roost inside garages in Greenwich Village, and strut through Morningside Heights.
Even more surprisingly, a couple of them have managed to live in our parks for years without getting captured and consumed. The most famous is Zelda, who spends her days in Battery Park, at the southern tip of the island. (When she isn't wandering through the streets, trying to pass as an enormous pigeon.)
Fortunately for Zelda, hunting turkeys is illegal in the city. But then again, I'm not sure how many New Yorkers would recognize a turkey that wasn't accompanied by a side of gravy.
Read more here and here.
(Below: The legendary Zelda. What a ham. Photo by Lorenzo Ciniglio.)
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
Base Camp Bigfoot is a vacation retreat run by a man named Chris who won't divulge his last name. It's somewhere in the United States, but only a few know its precise location. And all visitors must sign confidentiality agreements promising never to speak about their experiences at the camp.
Why all the secrecy? Well according to this wonderfully kooky website, the woods around Base Camp Bigfoot are home to the legendary ape-man himself. Chris has been studying Bigfoot for over four decades, and he claims to have spotted the creature on countless occasions. He's so confident that visitors will also catch a glimpse of Bigfoot that he offers a money-back guarantee.
The camp does have a few rules, of course. Proper dress is always required. No guns are allowed. And "cussing" won't be tolerated--because Bigfoot doesn't like it.
Unfortunately, Base Camp Bigfoot is fully booked until the Winter of 2008. (Supposedly it's a favorite with celebrities.) How will I be able to wait that long?
(Fabulous artwork by Cate Anevski.)
Scientists have discovered a fossilized claw of an ancient sea scorpion, which they estimate was more than eight feet long! It's the biggest specimen found so far, and according to the BBC, "the size of the beast suggests that spiders, insects, crabs and similar creatures were much larger in the past than previously thought." Noooooo!
Read more here. (Thanks for all the great tips, Willamena!)
Below are pictures of a nasty-looking creature that was discovered in a trench in the Russian city of Chelyabinsk. The photos are from Pravda, but no other information was given. I thought at first it could be a young horseshoe crab, but turns out it isn't. Any suggestions?
(I apologize for posting this right next to the ice cream!)
(I apologize for posting this right next to the ice cream!)
Tuesday, November 20, 2007
Believe it or not, some genius has invented the perfect device--a machine that dispenses extra ice cream to people who are unhappy. (Or deathly ill?) First a voice analyzer determines the level of stress in your voice, then the machine gives you an appropriate amount of ice cream. The more depressed are, the more ice cream you get!
(Original post at We Make Money Not Art.)
Wow! This has been one doozy of a cold. I'm still sick! (And I rarely get ill.) I hope none of you have managed to contract this dreaded disease. If we're all hobbled (like poor International Mastermind) or ailing, who's going to keep an eye on the neighbors?
Despite the fact that I feel like crud, I didn't want to leave you without anything strange to ponder, so I offer for your consideration the Mysterious Spheres of Costa Rica . . .
Back in the 1930s, when banana farms popped up all over Costa Rica, workers started finding hundreds (if not thousands) of strange stone spheres scattered throughout the forest. Some were as big as a hut, others no larger than a coconut, but they were all perfectly round and cut from extremely hard rock.
Today the bizarre spheres decorate lawns and parks. (As well as Costa Rica's currency.) Though they're clearly ancient, no one knows exactly when the spheres were made, who made them, or what purpose they were meant to serve. They're a good example of what's known as "Out of Place Objects." These are objects (also known as ancient anomalies) that are discovered in unexpected locations.
Two good examples of "Out of Place Objects" are the Iron Pillar of Delhi (which hasn't rusted in 1600 years) and the Antikythera Mechanism (a computer-like device that was found inside an ancient shipwreck).
Interested in learning more about the mysterious spheres? Click here.
Sunday, November 18, 2007
By a virus from Hades. I was really looking forward to posting some cool stuff about cave dwellers today. Unfortunately, I've been battling a serious bug, which has left me tired and dangerously cranky. (At least that's what people keep telling me.) Even thoughts of giant squid give me no pleasure. Very sad.
Hopefully, I'll return to duty tomorrow morning! In the meantime, feel free to talk amongst yourselves.
Saturday, November 17, 2007
Tomorrow, I believe I'll do a post or two on the subject of modern-day troglodytes (cave dwellers). You'll be suprised to learn how many people live underground! I'll start off the fun with this lovely little cottage built into a English cave. Though it doesn't have running water or electricity, it recently sold at auction for more than $200,000!
It's one of many "rock houses" in the area around Wolverley, Worcestershire. You can see pictures of some of the others here.
This story has been around for a little while, and I expected it to be quickly dismissed as a hoax. Somehow it hasn't. Even the people at the Museum of Hoaxes website won't say for sure. So since you're all expert hoax spotters by now, I thought I'd get your opinion.
Did the people above really have plastic surgery to make their ears resemble those of elves, pixies, or fauns? Or are the pictures on the right photoshopped? A website that claims to be the homepage of a Hungarian doctor contains a picture gallery of people (all quite normal looking) who've supposedly had the unusual procedure.
According to the site, "Ears becoming pointed as a result of plastic surgery not only enhance the attractiveness of the face, but also improve the experience of listening to music." Hmmm.
Take a look at Dr. Lajos Nagy's website, and report your conclusions.
(Below: A real faun.)
Friday, November 16, 2007
Today's two posts are intended to make you feel really great about your own hometown. Maybe you'll decide that you could live with New Delhi's monkey problem (below), but I can guarantee that you'd never, EVER want to move to the German town of Obereichstaett.
That's because every autumn, the village is overwhelmed by swarms of MILLIPEDES. (On a personal note, I once lived in a house that was infested with millipedes. I had to shake out my shoes every morning. Nothing--monkeys, rats, cockroaches, or leeches--could possibly be worse than millipedes.)
One villager described last year's infestation. "You couldn't take a step without crushing a dozen underfoot. The smell was disgusting." Now the town has erected a wall to keep the creepy-crawlies out. It hasn't worked as well as they'd hoped. Every night, the insects can be seen slithering around the wall in droves.
Read more about it here in the Daily Telegraph (London).
(I just found this picture on CNN. What is that girl thinking?)
New Delhi, India has a serious monkey problem. Rhesus macaques have taken over the city. And no, I'm not joking. I'm not even exaggerating. A gang of monkeys recently raided the city’s police headquarters. Mean-spirited macaques wait outside of hospitals and attack patients for their IV fluids. Others can be spotted bathing their infants in New Delhi’s fountains or even taking rides on the subway.
And then, just when the citizens of one of the largest cities on Earth thought the problem couldn't get any worse . . . their deputy mayor was murdered by monkeys. In October, four of the beasts attacked Sawinder Singh Bajwa while he sat reading the paper on his balcony. As he tried to drive them away, he lost his balance and fell over the side.
Yet despite everything, monkeys are still free to frolic through the palaces and parks. Most of New Delhi’s residents are Hindus, and their religion prevents them from harming the animals. In fact twice a week, followers of the monkey god, Hanuman, still gather to feed the creatures.
Meanwhile, the city's only official monkey catcher has quit in despair. The rich have begun hiring private monkey catchers who use bigger, meaner monkeys to frighten the macaques. (Not long ago, they tried this same approach in New Delhi's subways. The results were disastrous.)
Until the monkey problem can be solved, officials offer one piece of advice to the people of New Delhi. If you don't want to be attacked, "never look a monkey in the eye."
Read more here and here.
(Above: Photo by Manpreet Romana for Agence France-Presse. Below: The Hindu monkey god, Hanuman.)
Thursday, November 15, 2007
Wednesday, November 14, 2007
(Above: Have You Seen This Woman?)
The tomb of Nefertitti, the most famous of ancient Egypt's queens.
The wreck of a ship that sank while transporting $1 billion of gold.
Amelia Earhart's airplane, which crashed in 1937.
Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece.
The Holy Grail.
What do all of these things have in common? They're all lost--and some of them have been for centuries. Anyone smart (or lucky) enough to track them down will be rewarded with both fame and fortune.
Thinking of having a look? This article in the Wall Street Journal comes with an interactive map of the world's seven missing wonders.
It's interesting, but why only SEVEN? I would add a few more to the list . . . Blackbeard's treasure, the Florentine Diamond, The Ark of the Covenant . . . to name only three.
This terrifying tale from Lena is the last of our finalists in the Tales of Adventure contest! Again, congratulations, everyone!
This is also the longest of the entries, so I'm breaking it into two parts.
"Time to go." I snapped the goggles onto my head and checked Dylan and Savannah. They were suiting up with their hiking boots and goggles. They were both wearing matched cargo pants and green camo.
"O.K, K. We are all set." Dylan looked over and I had to stifle a laugh, his goggles looked weird on him. Dylan and Savannah are my best friends. They are a year younger than me, but they are normally able to keep up.
"Kaitlyn." Savannah looked over and redid her goggles. "Why do we need these things?"
Her brother looked at her like she was a doofus. "We're going to the Trail! " He rolled his eyes and made his way to the door.
"Got the survival kit?" I asked him. As he shook his head in a 'No', I handed him a light blue pillow bag.
"Don't know about you, but I think we'd need this." I said and he began opening the door. Savannah got a list and began to count off.
"Water?" She turned to me and I made a thumbs-up.
"Rubber ducky?" Dylan pulled out a rubber duck and looked confused. "Why do we need this?"
"Distraction. Just in case someone is about to find us, the other throws this in an opposite direction." I squeezed the rubber duck and it made a noise. I threw it to the floor and it played a small tinkering tune.
"Nice." Dylan tried to high five me, but I 'left him hanging'.
"Not now, Dyl." I shot him a dirty look and he pulled the next item out.
"Mirror? We are going to the wild, why would we need a mirror?" Savannah asked, but someone cut her off at 'Why?'
"If we need to blind someone temporarily."
The back door opened and my younger brother, Sam the genius, came in. "Even I know that, and I'm in fifth grade."
Savannah tried to giggle it off, but was hurt by Sam's remark. She blushed a deep red and I remembered that Savannah had a thing for younger guys, especially smart ones like Sam.
Dylan glanced at Sam for a moment before looking at me again. "Next?" He was obviously annoyed. Sam had that effect on him.
"There should be no one there tonight, you know. Earth Day celebrations are in three days. The hippies don't go and start their bongo banging until two days beforehand." Sam said, sounding older. "And you two look ridiculous, by the way." He snapped a pair of goggles on his own forehead. "I'm going." He said with finality.
"Bull Samuel. You aren't going anywhere. You've got GT Homework." I reminded him. "It's Friday, so you must have a ton."
"I'll do it Sunday. Besides, you are a freshman in High School, don't tell me I've got homework. You should be babysitting me right now." Sam was playing dirty.
"Shut it, Samuel." Dylan stepped in and waved us out the door. "We don't have much time, it's nearly Twilight."
For the rest, click here.
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
For all of you who thought there couldn't POSSIBLY be a castle in the middle of the Hudson River, I offer this wonderful photo essay as proof! Shown above and below is the very real Bannerman's Castle, site of Sidonia Galatzina's infamous party in the first Kiki Strike book. As you can see, it's just as I described it.
Though the ruins are beautiful, according to American Heritage, the building was even more spectacular before an unfortunate explosion toppled many of its walls.
"It was creviced and encrusted with battlements, towers, turrets, crenellations, parapets, embrasures, casements, and corbelling. Huge iron baskets suspended from the castle corners held gas-fed lamps that burned in the night like ancient torches. By day Bannerman’s castle gave the river a fairyland aspect. By night it threw a brooding silhouette against the Hudson skyline."
These stunning pictures are the work of photographer Shaun O'Boyle, who must have faced a fair number of ticks and snakes in order to take them. You can see more photos and read about the history of the castle here on one of my favorite blogs.
Monday, November 12, 2007
Every year, the good people at Jones Soda decide to spice up the holidays with limited-edition flavors. In 2007, the Christmas sodas include Sugar Plum (yumm), Egg Nog (umm . . . ok), Christmas Tree (what), and Ham (eeeewww).
For those of you who celebrate Hanukkah, you can choose from Jelly Doughnut, Apple Sauce, Chocolate Coins, and Potato Latkes. (Mmm. Latkes. Sign me up!)
I'm just wondering what they'll do for Kwanzaa.