Friday, August 28, 2009

Cool Music: Possibly Maybe

What song am I listening to right now? "Possibly Maybe" by Björk.



She is from Iceland. I want to say that she looks like she could be part like-native Greenlander or something. But I think I heard her whole family is just Icelandic going way back. Here is a pic I took when I was in Iceland last May.



Does any else remember how they played a clip from this song on that music video show on VH1 called Insomiac before it went to commercial? Insomniac was really such an evil name. I remember seeing it and thinking "I'm watching insomniac music theater? Damn, what time is it!" Kind of a buzzkill.


Apparently, this show is still on the air only now they call it "Nocturnal State". Hmm, good to know.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Qu'est-ce que c'est Art Nouveau?

I've been an admirer of Art Deco for a long time, and for years now I've been saying that Gaudí is probably my all-time favorite architect, but earlier this year I realized that I am a huge fan of the Art Nouveau style. I guess I didn't really know what Art Nouveau was until I picked up The Children's Book, A.S. Byatt's latest novel, which takes place around the turn of the 20th century and discusses at length some of the era's movements in decorative arts (including Art Nouveau and the Arts & Crafts style popular in Britain at that time). A couple of the main characters were potters.

Anyway, once I read a little about it, I was like "Oh, so that's what Art Nouveau is! I love that shite." Allow me to elaborate.



What is Art Nouveau?

The Art Nouveau movement gained prominence around the turn of the 20th century (wikipedia lists the movement's heyday as 1890-1905). Most of the movement's artists were active in Continental Europe, but its resonance can be seen worldwide. In German, Art Nouveau is often called Jugendstil after a German magazine (Jugend) which promoted the movement.

The central tenant of the movement's philosophy is that artists' designs should be incorporated into everything: not only the fine arts (painting, sculpture) but also architecture and the decorative arts (including pottery, furniture, jewelry...). The movement represents a departure from the academic schools that reigned during the Victorian era. Those tended to be formalistic and backward-looking, but Art Nouveau freed artists' creativity from the constraints of the past.

Characteristics of the Art Nouveau Style

Art Nouveau as an international movement embraces a lot of local variations and idiosyncratic artists, but there are some stylistic elements we can point to as being characteristic. The first and most important of these is definitely the use of curved lines (early on, one critic likened these to the crack of a whip). Another common element is the incorporation of nature designs like flowers, leaves, vines and even insects. Fairies and other mythological figures -- from the folklore native to Northern Europe (e.g. the Arthurian cycle, Norse sagas) as opposed to Classical myths -- also appear in Art Nouveau artwork. I would say that the combination of these three elements lend the style a "fairytale" feel.

Wrought iron and glass, including stained glass, can be seen in a lot of Art Nouveau works. Some of the movements' artists also drew inspiration from non-European artwork, such as Japanese woodblock prints.



Examples of Art Nouveau

In Paris, the Metro entrances designed by Hector Guimard have become emblematic examples of the Art Nouveau style. Paris was also the site of the Exposition Universelle in 1900 which introduced the movement to people from across the world. Some of the structures built for the occasion and still standing today also represent the new style (in particular, I would point your attention to the gallery of the Grand Palais). Some people even consider the Eiffel Tower (finished in 1889) to be an Art Nouveau structure.



In neighboring Belgium Victor Horta was an important Art Nouveau architect and his maison and atelier in Brussels is now a museum, while in Austria the movement was represented by the Vienna Secessionists whose first president was the artist Gustav Klimt.

The Catalan architect Antonio Gaudí's structures are Spain's most famous examples of the Art Nouveau. Some critics might consider his style to be too personal and unique to fit comfortably under the movement's aegis, but I would say that his curvilinear, organic forms and flights of fancy are definitely characteristic of the style. The majority of Gaudi's works are concentrated in Barcelona, and they represent Art Nouveau at its most surreal.

Another European city worth mentioning is the Latvian capital of Riga, where the wealth of Art Nouveau architecture earned the city center recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Many of these works were designed by architect Mikhail Osipovich Eisenstein, father of Soviet filmmaker Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein.



The United States was geographically removed from the epicenter of Art Nouveau. Moreover, here the movement faced competition from the rival Arts & Crafts school. Nevertheless, two American artists worth mentioning in this context are Louis Comfort Tiffany, famous for his work in stained glass, and Chicago architect Louis Sullivan, whose buildings include Art Nouveau elements.



Art Nouveau vs. Arts & Crafts

I've already mentioned the Arts & Crafts movement twice. This school was popular in the English-speaking world around the same time that Art Nouveau predominated in Europe (in the US, it is often called the American craftsman style). Arts & Crafts and Art Nouveau can be considered sister movements: they share many similarities but also harbor some key differences which make it difficult to reduce Arts & Crafts to the British branch of the larger Art Nouveau movement.

Ideologically, Arts & Crafts proponents romanticized the role of the (working class) craftsman, and thus the movement had a progressivist, Luddite inclination. This political element was largely absent from Continental Art Nouveau, making it a more bourgeois/intellectual/elite movement. Stylistically, I would say that a lot of Arts & Crafts work tends to have an earthy, cottagey feel, whereas Art Nouveau tends more towards the sophisticated and elegant.

The British artist and writer William Morris is usually considered the spiritual father of the Arts & Crafts movement, which was also inspired by the writings of John Ruskin. I also strongly associate the pottery of the Martin Brothers with the Arts & Crafts style.

Art Nouveau's Place in Art History

Although the golden age of Art Nouveau has come and gone, the movement holds an important place in the history of Western Art. Through Art Nouveau, one can see the progression from the traditionalist schools that preceded it to the modernist styles that replaced it, particularly Art Deco. In Art Deco, the wrought iron and stained glass remain, but the curves and natural designs are replaced by the straight lines and geometric shapes of the machine age.

More recently, Art Nouveau also served as a major source of inspiration for a lot of the psychadelic artwork of the '60s and '70s such as the posters of Wes Wilson, Alton Kelley and Stanley "Mouse" Miller.



Links:
National Gallery of Art page for 2000 Art Nouveau exhibit;
Flickr feed of Louis H. Sullivan's work by user Atelier Tee;
Images of Art Nouveau Architecture in Latin America by photographer Peter Langer.


Images: Jugend cover from Oscar Wilde - Standing Ovations; Paris Metropolitan entrance from FashionMista; Horta museum, Brussels interior uploaded on wikipedia by user Rafaelij and used under GNU license; detail of facade of 10b Elisabetes Iela, Riga designed by Eisteinstein found on riga-life.com; Wisteria panel by Louis C. Tiffany on display at Morse Museum in Winter Park, FL (image from metmuseum website); 1966 poster by Wes Wilson found on lysator.liu.se.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Truth About Fiji Water


Do you know Fiji, that brand of fancy, pricey bottled water that you sometimes see in convenience stores? I've drunk a bottle or two in my day, but I never really spent much time thinking about Fiji Water. When I did, I guess I associated the brand with a tropical paradise and beaches with clear blue water. Fiji's popularity among celebrities has made it the US's #1 imported bottled water, and apparently the brand has to some extent insulated itself from the green backlash against bottled water by tauting itself as an eco-friendly business. But last week I read a damning expose in Mother Jones which has forever changed my opinion of the brand.


Is Fiji Water Green?

No. According to the article, Fiji Water imports the plastic for its bottles from China, and its bottling plant runs on diesel generators. A lot of the green initiatives that the company credits itself with have yet to be implemented. The article also points out that -- you know -- having your water shipped to you from halfway across the world is not such a green choice.


Is Fiji Water Socially Conscious?

Fiji Water also likes to publicize its charitable donations, especially its contributions to bettering the lives of Fijians. Mother Jones points out that the company does not release the exact figures of how much it gives to charity, but forget about that... I was more struck by the fact that, whereas Fiji Water comes from a pristine aquifer that was discovered in the early '90s, many Fijians do not have access to clean drinking water and as a result outbreaks of diseases like typhoid are common. The company purchased a 99-year lease to the land over the aquifer and almost no one else has tapped into this source.

And did you know that Fiji is ruled by a military dictatorship that has suspended freedom of the press and committed human rights violations? Fiji Water has a very close relationship with the island chain's government: the foreign-owned company represents 3% of the nation's GDP, and it enjoys favorable tax treatment. In return, the company of course keeps its mouth shut about any government oppression. The article notes that when Fiji's government attempted to levy an additional tax on the bottling company, Fiji Water condemned the measure as "draconian" and temporarily closed down its plant in protest, but they haven't reacted similarly to measures infringing on the human rights of the people of Fiji.

Fiji's government actually loves Fiji Water and it loves being associated with the company given that some of the world famous brand's goodwill and coolness rubs off on the island nation. When Anne Lenzer, the journalist who wrote the article for Mother Jones, travelled to Fiji to investigate the company, she was arrested and questioned by police. In addition to complaining about her seditious activity (reporting abroad on the junta's crackdown via email), the police also accused her of being sent by a rival water company (Kentwood? Poland Springs?) to tarnish Fiji Water's image.

Conclusion

When I think of Fiji Water the first person who comes to mind is my friend Nicole. She has been drinking Fiji for like ten years (trendsetter!). We used to joke about how she was broke and her car was busted, but she'd have on designer sunglasses and be sipping $4 bottles of water. When I forwarded her the link to this article her reaction was "OMG, I had no idea! I am never buying Fiji Water again!" Neither will I.

Image: photo taken from piecesofflair blog.

Vampire in Venice

During last month's vampire research kick, I happened upon an article from this March about the corpse of a neutralized vampire which was recently uncovered by archaeologists in Venice, in a mass grave of 16th-century plague victims. Let's discuss!




Vampires and disease

If you ask me, there seems to be a strong connection between vampire legends and diseases. I guess I first noticed this a year or so ago when I read "The Shunned House," a short story by H. P. Lovecraft. As a former New Orleanian, I remember thinking that the vampire explanation for the health problems plaguing the house's inhabitants could have easily be replaced by toxic mold.

We also saw a connection to diseases in the 18th-century vampire cases examined in a previous blog post: villagers suspected the recently deceased of being a vampire when family members and neighbors began to fall ill soon after his death. In one of the cases a contagious disease expert was even sent to the village in question to investigate whether this wasn't the start of an epidemic.

The association between vampires and disease is even present in the novel Dracula, where the vampire's first victim in England, Lucy Westerna, lies bed ridden for weeks -- wasting away -- before she finally expires. When Lucy's friend Mina is later "infected" by Dracula she cries out that she is "Unclean! Unclean!" echoing the passage in Leviticus (13:45) dealing with lepers.

The link between vampires and plague/infectious disease is even clearer in the variation on the traditional vampire myth known as the nachzehrer.

Shroud Eaters

The nachzehrer, also known as a "shroud eater" in English, is a type of vampire which doesn't rise from its resting place, but rather lies in its tomb -- chewing through its burial garments. As the nachzehrer eats its way through the shroud, the deceased's family members, neighbors and friends fall ill and die. According to some accounts, one can sometimes hear the nachzehrer noisily chewing like a pig, and after it has finished with the shroud it may move on to chewing on its own flesh or that of other corpses in its vicinity. Some also claim that when the ghoul has gained sufficient sustenance in this manner it can then rise from the grave as a true vampire.

According to Matteo Borrini, the archaeologist/forensic anthropologist who discovered the corpse in Venice, shroud eater myths seem to have originated in Poland in the 1300s (the century in which the Black Death first spread through Europe). These folktales also became popular in parts of Germany such a Bavaria and Silesia which may explain the international use of the German name "nachzehrer." Over the centuries, several treatises were written on the subject of the nachzehrer including Dissertatio Historico-Philosophio de Masticatione Mortuorum ("Historical/Philosophical Dissertation on the Chewing Dead"), published in Leipzig in 1679 by Philuppus Rohr, and De Masticatione Mortuorum in Tumulis ("Of the Chewing Dead in the Tomb"), published in 1728, also in Leipzig, by Michaël Ranft.

It's no surprise that this latest specimen was found in a mass grave for plague victims. On the contrary, the nachzehrer myth seems to have become closely associated in people's minds with plague. Many examples of recently interred cadavers who seemed to have chewed a hole through their burial shrouds were found during bouts of plague, and the actions of the shroud eater were blamed for spreading the plague among those who knew him.

In order to stop the malevolent shroud eaters from further oppressing surviving friends and family members, something hard and inedible like a stone or brick could be shoved into the corpse's mouth. This would sometimes break the corpse's teeth or even the jaw bone.

Vampire in Venice




The skeleton uncovered in Venice belonged to a woman who died during a 1579 outbreak of bubonic plague in the city. A brick was driven into her mouth so as to put an end to any postmortem chewing once and for all. She was one of over 1,500 people laid to rest in a mass grave on Lazzaretto Nuovo, an island in the Venetian lagoon which served at the time as a quarantine and decontamination site for people and goods suspected of carrying plague. The name "lazzaretto" or "lazaretto," applied to quarantine stations such as this, derives from the gospel figure Lazarus.

What really happened to the shrouds of corpses like this? Scientists believe that moist gases produced during decomposition would escape from the cadaver's mouth. This would make the shroud damp and heavy and cause it to eventually sink into the corpse's mouth where it might then be consumed by bacteria.

Regarding shroud eaters and other vampires, Borrini notes that these myths derived in part from popular ignorance and misinterpretation of thanatological data. Most people would only be familiar with the characteristics of bodies soon after death (when they grow cold and stiff with rigor mortis) and then perhaps with bodies in advanced stages of decomposition when little but the skeleton remains, such as might be glimpsed when crypts were opened years after burial. They were, however, unfamiliar with intermediary stages like the "emphysemateous" phase, which lasts for 3-4 months, during which the cadaver is under pressure caused by a build up of putrefying gases. As noted in the above-mentioned 18th-centry vampire post, during this stage the body may grow bloated with gases, which people misinterpreted as lively plumpness. Likewise, liquid blood might be pushed out of the corpse's orifices.

It makes sense that more vampire-corpses would be encountered during plague time given that the resting place of the recently buried would often be disturbed so that the bodies of new victims could be thrown in. Borrini also notes that during the Middle Ages, many Europeans attributed the Black Death to the devil, and thus it would make sense to see his agents on earth -- like the nachzehrer -- spreading the plague.

One final note: I previously read that vampire stories first became popular knowledge in the Anglo Saxon world during the 18th century when sensationalist reports of cases from the Austrian Empire and elsewhere in Eastern Europe were disseminated in Western Europe. If we assume that vampire myths are of Slavic origin, should we then be surprised to see a nachzehrer in 16th-century Venice and earlier stories of these creatures in parts of Germany? Not really. Silesia, Bavaria and Leipzig are all in Eastern Germany and thus fairly close to the parts of Poland (specifically, Pomerania) where we're told the shroud eater myths began. Moreover, Venice in the 1500s was a cosmopolitan port city. Located in northeastern Italy, Venice isn't far at all from Yugoslavia, and at this time the Venetian Empire included Slavic territory, such as part of the Istrian peninsula and Dalmatian coast. Thus I wouldn't be surprised if vampire myths spread here before they reached other parts of Western Europe.


Link: shroudeater.com, a site dedicated to shroud eaters and other old school vampire mythology.

Images: Skull image by Matteo Borrini found on newscientist.com; drawing of Lazzaretto Nuovo taken from lazzarettonuovo.com.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

More on Healthcare


I realize this isn't the most interesting topic and it's easy to get sick of hearing about it (no pun intended), but I think Healthcare Reform is probably the most important issue facing this Congress and the President and the one which will likely have the greatest and most lasting impact on all our lives.

Who knows if it helps at all, but at lunch today I emailed my Congressmen and two Senators asking them to support including a strong public option in the final bill. I thought it was important to let my representatives know that this issue was important to me given all the media coverage focusing on those who oppose healthcare reform.

Here's a copy of the cheesy letter I sent. Feel free to copy and edit it and send a message to YOUR representatives (you can find their contact info at usa.gov).

My name is [Meeg] and I live in Arlington County, VA. I am one of your constituents as well as a supporter of the Democratic Party (who voted for you in 2006 and 2008, moreover).

I am writing to you now to urge you to SUPPORT A STRONG PUBLIC OPTION in the healthcare reform bill currently being debated. I still remember what it was like being uninsured for several years after I finished college, and my heart goes out to the millions of American families who do not have health insurance or the means to pay for necessary medical treatment. This is one of our great nation’s worst and most embarrassing problems.

Today, I am lucky enough to have health insurance, but I still run into hurdles with the insurance company dictating what medical treatment it will pay for. Worse still, I know that if I were to develop a major medical problem my current health insurance would only cover a fraction of the cost of treatment.

The health insurance and pharmaceutical companies are using all their considerable wealth and influence to block any reform which would reduce their profit margins. Right now they are basically the decision makers running our nation’s healthcare system, but we all know that they do not have Americans’ best interests in mind. It’s time for the government to step up and put a check on their power. Health insurance companies won’t start offering Americans better, more affordable coverage unless they have to compete with a strong public healthcare option.

I wholeheartedly believe that this is the most important issue this Congress faces and that it is the one which will have the greatest, most lasting impact on Americans’ lives.

I urge you to do the right thing, make the tough choice, and fight to include a strong public healthcare option in this bill. The media may be giving a lot of coverage to those who oppose healthcare reform, but YOU SHOULD KNOW THAT VIRGINIA VOTERS LIKE ME CARE STRONGLY ABOUT THIS ISSUE and our eyes are on Congress, on our Senators and Representatives, and on their voting records.

Thanks for your time,


SOME RECENT ARTICLES ON HEALTHCARE

I also read a few interesting articles on this issue today. First, there is the Wall Street Journal op-ed piece written by the CEO and Founder of Whole Foods. It turns out, I guess, that he is a libertarian who doesn't believe in a "government takeover" of the country's healthcare system. I was pretty surprised by this. I know that Whole Foods offers its employees good healthcare and other benefits (better than most big corporations employing a large "unskilled" workforce, I dare say).

Here's my take on his editorial: first of all, a lot of the reforms he calls for seem to do more to help out health insurance companies than anything (eliminating legislation which requires them to offer certain types of coverage, allowing people to chose health insurers who operate in other states). I guess this is all part of his less government, trust in the market, give people a choice philosophy. I would say that allowing insurance companies to opt-out of offering coverage currently required by law (I have no idea what sort of coverage he is talking about) would probably result in less comprehensive coverage. Allowing people to chose from health insurers in different states, however, might actually result in healthier competition and better, more affordable coverage for people -- who knows. Then he goes into the typical BS about tort reform....

Where this guy really lost me, however, is in the second half of the article where he denies that people have an intrinsic right to healthcare(!). Basically, if you're poor or unemployed or whatever and you can't afford to pay for the medical treatment you and your family needs, tough luck! I would expect more from the CEO of a company normally associated with organic food and fair trade and all that other crap.

Article #2 is from theroot.com and it suggests that the president has to stop "punking out" -- not pushing too hard on the healthcare issue and being so ready to compromise. I agree with the author that this is the sort of change that voters like me elected him to enact, and maybe he needs to start thinking about his supporters a little more and about the dissenting minority on the right a little less. Also, what ever happened to whipping your party members into shape? I understand that HMO and drug companies have a strong lobby, but the president still has a lot of political capital. Why isn't he putting more pressure on Congressmen from HIS OWN PARTY to step in line and back this key initiative for his administration??


Photo of Obama at Aug 15, 2009 town hall meeting by Ed Andrieski/AP.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

It's a Good Thing I'm Not the President



Lately, it seems like there is this group of crazies out there whose strategy is to just jump up and down and scream and shout nonsense ("Let's see your birth certificate!" "Death panels!") so that nothing will get done. And for some reason the media has decided to devote like 80% of its airtime to these nutters and their irrational concerns. Also, I am now 100% convinced that all these healthcare protests are being funded by pharmaceutical and health insurance companies, etc.

If I was the president I would totally be like "Fuck it! I give up. I don't want to hear what's going on, and I'm over trying to make any changes for the better or get anything accomplished." (You may remember that this was Bush's mindset from at least 2007 onwards.)

It is really a good thing that Obama is so good at keeping his cool and keeping his eye on the prize because people (protesters, pundits, Congress) are just infuriating.


UNRELATED: for some reason it really grinds my gears whenever I read POTUS or SCOTUS; can we all agree to stop using these godawful, secret service acronyms or whatever the hell they are?

Image: photo of shouter at town hall meeting with Arlen Specter by AP Photos/Carolyn Kaster

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Ninja Warrior

My friend Des first brought this show to my attention like two years ago: she told me how she stumbled upon it channel surfing one night and after watching for a bit she woke up her husband and told him "I just found the best show ever." Despite this endorsement, I didn't actually get a chance to really sit down and watch Ninja Warrior until earlier this summer when I found myself in the middle of a weekend marathon on G4 (that channel that's sort of like Spike TV, but maybe it's aimed at teenage boys who play video games). Anyway, all it took was a few episodes for me to get hooked.

So what is Ninja Warrior (or "Nin JAH Warrior" as G4 invites you to pronounce it)? It's basically a televised athletics competition where participants race through this obstacle course-on-steroids. Each season (I think every year there's a competition in the spring and fall), 100 competitors tackle the Ninja Warrior course -- out of whom perhaps as many as 15 advance past stage one. Besides the Ninja Warrior All Stars, who are returning veterans, some of the most successful competitors are gymnasts, firefighters, rock climbers, track athletes, Olympians and former Olympians. Moreover, there's always an assortment of joke competitors, including Japanese TV clowns, the model (like model airplane) enthusiast who races in a crash helmet, and my personal favorite Mr. Octopus, who no one expects to make it very far. I think it was last season when there was this one TV comedian who raced the course dressed as Obama while the crowd of spectators all shouted "Yes we can!" -- that was nuts.

Despite this injection of levity early on in the competition, Ninja Warrior is no joke. The obstacle course requires speed, balance, agility and strength, and -- like I said -- on a good day maybe 15 out of 100 competitors make it on to stage 2 (sometimes the number is much less). The next two stages are even more difficult, and the select few who make their way through them get a chance to try and "climb to the top of Mount Midoriyama" and achieve "Total Victory." Thus far, in the 22 Ninja Warrior competitions, only two guys have ever gone all the way. The 1st (way back in Season 4) was this crab diver from Hokkaido named Kazuhiko Akiyama who has freaky-looking eyebrows and who has since declined as a contestant apparently due to failing eyesight. More recently, in Season 17, a fishing boat captain named Makoto Nagano made it.

It's unclear whether you get some sort of cash prize for achieving Total Victory, in addition to bragging rights and title of "Nin JAH Warrior," but since only two people have ever done it it's basically a moot point. At the very least those who go far are often recruited to join the Ninja Warrior All Stars which seems to be a paying gig. Anyway, despite the questionable monetary rewards, there are people who take the competition very seriously -- even quitting their jobs to focus on training and constructing facsimiles of the course's obstacles to practice on.

The Course

There's basically two ways for competitors to get eliminated on Ninja Warrior: you either slip up and fall into the muddy water below (actually, if any part of you touches the water you're out of the competition), or you can run out of time (all of the stages except Stage 3 are timed).

The people who design the course are pretty much evil, and they are always changing things around to make it even harder. After Nagano's win in Season 17 they completely overhauled the course and since then a lot of the veterans who advanced pretty far in the past have been unable to match those performances. It seems that no one ever questions whether they might have made things too difficult. In Season 19, for example, only two competitors cleared Stage 1 and both of them fell early in Stage 2. You might think this would lead the producers to make the early parts of the course a tiny bit easier (if only to keep things interesting for the audience), but, on the contrary, they didn't change much of anything for Season 20. I guess if no one gets half way through the course that's fine, and they'll just need to step it up next time.

Favorite Stage 1 obstacles include the Log Grip (grab onto the log and hold on for dear life as it makes its ways down a shaky track), the Great Wall (get a running start, jump for the top of the curved wall, and then try and pull yourself up), and the Jumping Spider (bounce as high as you can off a trampoline and then IN MID AIR brace yourself between two walls "spiderman style"). Stage 2 features the incredibly difficult Salmon Ladder (it's like the pull-up bar from hell), and then Stage 3 is all about hanging from your arms for a really long time (not to mention the next to impossible leap you have to make on the Cliff Hanger). The rarely glimpsed Stage 4 seems to be all about beating the clock as you rope climb up this like 30 foot tower.



Favorite Competitors

Besides Nagano, some of the other front running competitors are village hall worker and former track star Bunpei Shiratori (I want to say he's really tall and skinny but apparently he's only 5'9"), fire rescue worker Toshiro Takeda, and gas station manager Shingo Yamamoto (I think it's cute how he wears his uniform and ball cap when he's competing). Then there's Levi Meeuwenberg this young American free runner who won G4's American Ninja warrior contest and came out of nowhere to get further than anyone in Season 20. There are other international competitors as well like Taiwanese rock climber Lee Enchi who got to Stage 3 in the last competition (#22). Women also compete in Sasuke, the main competition, in addition to the all-ladies Kunoichi, but I think only one or two female competitors have ever completed Stage 1.

The Allure of Ninja Warrior

So not only is Ninja Warrior fun to watch, but the obstacle course also looks like a lot of fun (although I'm sure in reality it would be more like scary and difficult). At the height of my obsession I was all "someday I will be a competitor on ninja warrior!" If that somehow happened, my aim would basically just be to finish Stage 1 (you've got to be joking with that salmon ladder shit). Logistics aside, I'd obviously have to get in super good shape to have a chance -- I somehow don't see myself building my own obstacles to practice on though. I hoped that maybe I could use my dream (or passing interest, whatever) to be on ninja warrior in order to get my lazy arse to the gym more regularly, but so far results have been mixed.

I imagine the hardest parts for me would be the jumping spider and the wall climb (maybe I would be at a height disadvantage?). Plus, did I somehow learn how to climb a rope since high school gym class? Even if you're a true ninja warrior you can still slip up and fall at any point in the course, and then you don't get another chance for six months. Also, at some point, I wised up to the fact that although it all looks like fun and games on TV I'm sure some of the obstacles that involve heights are daunting and overcoming the fear probably plays a big factor. Maybe jumping off that tree thing in Jamaica was a good start.

Alright, chances are I will never get the opportunity to compete on "Mount Midoriyama" (i.e. the Ninja Warrior course), but at the very least I think I'll have to have some kind of viewing party when Season 23 airs.





Images: Mr Octopus, Log Grip, Spider Jump and Salmon Ladder screen captures all found on funnystrange.com. Videos showing Levi Meeuwenberg and Lee Enchi competing in Sasuke 22 posted on youtube by BLM.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Real Dracula

So I realize that I may be giving people the impression that I'm big into vampires. This blog already has three vaguely vampire related posts, and there's probably more to come since I've been reading even more on the subject in the last month or so (I want to call it "research" for this book idea that came to me recently which actually has nothing to do with vampires). Before I begin post #4 (on the historical Dracula) maybe I should stop and take a second to clear up any misconceptions people might be formulating. I can assure you all that I have not, since the last time you may have seen me, become a Twilight fanboy (although I totally watch that HBO, chick-dating-a-vampire series True Blood), nor have I started to dress like the Marquis de Sade and paint my fingernails black. That said, here we go...



Vlad Dracula

Vlad III of Wallachia (1431-1476), also known as Vlad Tepes ("Vlad the Impaler") or Vlad Dracula, reigned off-and-on as the Voivode of Wallachia during a time when the region was caught in the middle of a bloody, ongoing struggle between the Ottoman Turks and the Christian army led by the Hungarians. His father Vlad II Dracul ("Vlad the Dragon," c. 1390-1447) had also been a Voivode of Wallachia and his mother Cneajna was the daughter of Alexander the Good of Moldavia. Vlad II was given his curious surname because he was a member of the Order of the Dragon, a group whose member's swore an oath to defend the Christian faith, and Vlad III's surname, Dracula, means "son of the dragon."

Despite his oath to the Christian cause, when Vlad II regained the Wallachian throne in 1443 he agreed to pay tribute to the Sultan and also to send Vlad Dracula and his younger brother Radu the Handsome to the Ottoman capital as hostages to ensure his good behavior. The two probably received a good education during these years spent at the Sultan's court, and they certainly learned much about Turkish ways.

That next year, 1444, the Kingdom of Hungary launched a large-scale offensive against the Turks under its regent John Hunyadi (the "White Knight"). Vlad II was stuck between a rock and a hard place and his loyalty was divided so, rather than joining the Magyar offensive himself, he sent his eldest son Mircea to fight in his stead. Hunyadi's crusade ended in a disastrous defeat at the Battle of Varna, and when the dust settled the Magyars were probably disillusioned with Dracul and his son. Thus, in 1447, they were assassinated (Mircea was reportedly blinded with a red hot poker before being buried alive), and the Kingdom of Hungary put Vladislav II, a member of the rival Danesti clan, on the Wallachian throne.



At this point, the Turks decided to advance Dracula as their candidate to the throne. With Ottoman support, he briefly seized control of Wallachia in 1448, but he was deposed by the Hungarians in less than two months and forced to flee to his cousins' Principality of Moldavia. During this period, Dracula -- who never really liked the Sultan anyway -- effected a rapprochement with the Hungarians (in the meantime, Vladislav II, who was once again in control of Wallachia, had apparently drifted closer to the Turkish camp). The Hungarians put Dracula in charge of Transylvania (a region in the northwest of present-day Romania) and planned on helping him win back his father's principality. But before that happened, the city of Constantinople fell to the Sultan Mehmet II in 1453. The Hungarian counter-offensive came in 1456, when Dracula regained control of Wallachia (killing Vladislav in hand-to-hand combat that same year) while Hunyadi died of plague in the aftermath of the Siege of Belgrade.

Thus began Dracula's six-year reign as ruler of Wallachia and Transylvania. In 1459, Dracula ceased payments of tribute to the Sultan, and in 1461-1462 he mounted a vicious attack on the Ottoman-controlled lands to the south. The Turks struck back in 1462, sending a large army to depose Dracula and put his younger brother -- Radu the Handsome, who had remained loyal to the sultan and converted to Islam -- on the throne. The numerically-superior Ottoman troops quickly took the Wallachian capital, but Dracula kept up his resistance using guerrilla tactics. These attacks were supposedly so troubling that they convinced the Turkish officers to scram, leaving Radu to duke it out alone. But Radu cut some sort of deal with the King of Hungary (Matthias Corvinus, Hunyadi's son) and Dracula had alienated his nobles, so he was ultimately defeated by the end of 1462. There is a story that, while the couple was under siege in Poenari Castle, Dracula's first wife leapt to her death so as not to allow the enemy to take her prisoner.



Dracula, on the other hand, was imprisoned in Hungary. It's uncertain how long he remained locked up, however, by 1467 he had not only been released but he had also married a member of the Hungarian royal family. It's thought that this reversal of fortune may have been due to public opinion (Dracula had heroically battled against the Turks), as well as the Magyars' displeasure with the pro-Ottoman Radu. The fact that Dracula had also converted to Catholicism (I think he had been a nominal Orthodox Christian up until then) probably didn't hurt either. Anyway, in 1467 he managed to regain control of Wallachia one last time before being killed in combat against the Turks later that year. His head was reportedly carried to Constantinople to prove to the Sultan that this nasty thorn in his side had been removed once and for all.

His Bloody Reign

During his six-year reign (1456-1462) as Voivode of Wallachia, Vlad III Dracula sought to consolidate his power and bring law and order to the war-torn principality, in addition to punishing his enemies. By all accounts he is responsible for executing ten of thousands of men, women and children: not only Ottoman prisoners of war, but also supporters of his rivals the Danesti clan (who were his cousins), boyars (the principality's nobles whom he suspected of supporting the Danestis and of being responsible for the murder of his father and brother), and Saxon Transylvanians (ethnic Germans, and a privileged class with ties to the boyars). As you may have guessed, his preferred method of execution was impalement: this would usually result in a slow and torturous death, with the victim being lowered on to a long spike which would enter through the anus and rip through his insides, eventually exiting through the mouth.

Of all the stories surrounding Dracula, the German-language accounts are the most damning, portraying him as an insane, bloodthirsty fiend. These no doubt originated with the Saxon Transylvanians who were among the chief victims of his mass executions. The stories recorded in Russian under the early tsars tended to paint Dracula in a better light, as a strong ruler. Granted, the Russians didn't deny that he committed these atrocities, they were just more forgiving of them. Meanwhile, to the Romanians, Vlad Dracula would become a symbol of national pride -- a hero who fought fiercely against the enemies and oppressors of the Romanian people. Dracula lived during brutal times (remember how his older brother was blinded with a red hot poker and buried alive?), but it is also clear that he was among the most savage princes of the day. If his name inspired fear in the Turks, this was due not only to his reputation as a formidable warrior but also to the barbarous way he dispatched with his enemies en masse.

Connection to Vampires Legends

Dracula may have been a tyrannous, homicidal bastard, but his name was not connected to vampire legends prior to the publication of Bram Stoker's novel in 1897. Accounts of the book's genesis indicate that Stoker found the name "Dracula" in a history book listing Romanian rulers and decided to adopt it for his vampire count. Besides the name, Stoker seems to have known almost nothing about Vlad III of Wallachia. Indeed, in the novel Dracula identifies himself as a Székely -- an ethnic group represented in Transylvania and closely related to the Magyars -- whereas Vlad was an ethnic Romanian. Later in the book, Van Helsing describes Dracula as having been a fearless warrior who fought his way into the heart of "Turkeyland." Vlad did indeed devastate Ottoman-held territory in the Balkans during his 1461-1462 campaign, but this seems to suggest that the vampire crossed over into Anatolia -- something which the historic Dracula never did. In short, it seems that Stoker named his villain after this bloodthirsty figure quiet accidentally, and if he had known of Vlad's butchery he would have surely mentioned it in the book.

Link: The Historical Dracula


Images: 1453 map from Heritage History; portrait of Vlad from about.com; photo of Poenari castle taken by flickr user retro traveler and used under Creative Commons license.