Michael sez, "Apparently medieval Russian schoolroooms used birch bark for things like writing practice. Erik Kwakkel, medieval book historian at Leiden University, Netherlands, has some charming photos of stick-figure illustrations on bark by kids who, like kids everywhere, got a bit bored with the lesson and started doodling in the margins. There are links to more images (and an interesting scholarly article) at the bottom of the post."
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A September report from the Library of Congress's National Film Preservation Board called The Survival of American Silent Feature Films: 1912–1929 [PDF] paints a dismal picture of the archival record of silent movies. In all, "14% of the 10,919 silent films released by major studios exist in their original 35mm or other format," although some of the missing items are extant in lesser transfers and foreign editions. But in all, "we have lost 75% of the creative record from the era that brought American movies to the pinnacle of world cinematic achievement in the 20th century."
It's a sobering reminder of the fragility of even relatively recent media, and the need for preservation. An appreciable slice of the missing archival materials are still in copyright, with attending difficulties in clearing them for the purpose of striking and circulating new prints. As we close in on 2018, the date at which materials from 1928 onward will begin entering the public domain again, this is an important reminder of what can happen if we let the profitability of a tiny slice of commercially viable ancient materials trump the preservation of the vast bulk of cultural materials.
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This is a photo of the Chernobyl "Elephant's Foot", a solid mass made of a little melted nuclear fuel mixed with lots and lots of concrete, sand, and core sealing material that the fuel had melted through. The photo was taken in 1996. At that point, the Elephant's Foot had cooled enough that a human being could stand directly in front of it for an hour before receiving a lethal dose of radiation. When the Foot was first discovered, shortly after the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl power plant, it delivered a lethal dose in just five minutes. You can read Kyle Hill's interesting history of the Elephant's Foot at Nautilus. And be sure to check out this 1991 video that shows how people were able to rig up robotic camera systems to safely take photos of the thing (though, as Hill points out, not all the photos of Elephant's Foot were taken safely).
I like this Smithsonian story that plays with the Edison/Tesla mythology, wherein Edison was the guy who made business-savvy decisions and Tesla was the financial failure. Set your schadenfreude to stun and enjoy this list of 7 Edison ideas that fell flat
, including a supremely creepy talking baby doll. — Maggie
Zack writes, "In 1957, Nevil Shute's classic anti-nuclear-war novel On The Beach was published -- and the Newspaper Enterprise Association (NEA) put out a heavily-condensed adaptation with art by Ralph Lane that ran in 29 comic strips distributed to newspapers. All 29 strips are collected here -- I found these through a link in an eBay auction that is selling original art to 21 of the 29 strips."
This is one of those novels that brings me to tears no matter how many times I read it -- a powerful and moving piece of minatory fiction that really does the heavy lifting of science fiction with utter brilliance. The comic strip carries some of that freight (as does the 1959 classic film with Ava Gardner and Gregory Peck), but the novel really is the best version by far.
On The Beach
A British teacher and artist named Guy Tarrant has assembled two cases' worth of toys confiscated from London schoolchildren, soliciting them from fellow teachers. The collection represents items from 150 schools and 30 years, and is on display at the excellent Victoria and Albert Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green. The Childhood Museum is very close to my home, and it's one of my favourite London museums -- I like it better, even, than its enormous parent institution, the V&A down in South Kensington.
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The Mutter Museum — a freaky fantastic collection of medical curiosities — is trying to restore and preserve a collection of 139 skulls that were once used to debunk the pseudoscience of phrenology. You can help by adopting a skull for $200
. — Maggie
16th century German soldiery sure understood how to strike terror into their enemies' hearts: the rooster-headed armored visor (ca 1530) must have been a sight to behold. Now on display at the Met in NYC (Bashford Dean Memorial Collection, Bequest of Bashford Dean, 1928)
Close Helmet with Mask Visor
Oxford University academic Dr Stephanie Dalley believes she has identified the precise location of the fabled Hanging Gardens of Bablyon: near Nineveh, hundreds of miles north. Dalley's hypothesis has the gardens built not by Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, but by Assyrians under Sennacherib about 2,700 years ago. Nineveh's ruins now lie on the city limits of modern-day Mosul.
I'm really enjoying Jason Colavito's reviews of The History Channel's hilarious/infuriating hit show Ancient Aliens
. What makes them better than the average blog? Colavito is an author who has written extensively about the anthropology of pseudoscience, and the connections between pseudoscience, religion, and science fiction. So his recaps are less about debunking the claims made on Ancient Aliens
(because, really, that's just too damn easy) and more about exploring where those claims come from, pop-culturally, and what makes them so appealing, to begin with. Fascinating stuff. — Maggie
Hate that smarmy, too-good-to-be-real Christmas episode of World War I? Annoyed by the lazy montage scene that took us from the first airplane to the Moon in just 66 years? Think "rocks fall, all the dinosaurs die" was just a total cop-out? Here's a fun Reddit thread you will appreciate
, pointed out to me by Karen James
. — Maggie
If you've got 10 minutes, you can learn the history of English — including some interesting background on where specific words and phrases came from. (If you don't have 10 minutes, you can also watch the whole thing one chapter at a time in less-than-two-minute segments.) Interesting note: The equal importance of both The King James Bible and early scientific publications/societies to the formation of English as we speak it today.
Sometimes, you forget about things that happened during your own lifetime. For instance, I'd completely forgotten that, back in 1997, cosmonauts accidentally ran an unmanned spacecraft full of garbage into the side of the space station Mir
, temporarily knocking out power and sending the space station into an uncontrolled spin. NASA has the full story, an oral history from an astronaut who was on board Mir at the time, and some nifty animations showing what happened. — Maggie