Sunday, February 24, 2013

Vampires And Other Immortals Part 2 of 2

Meet Turritopsis nutriculaas, a form of jellyfish that is the world's only known immortal creature.

Before we talk about fictional immortals, here's a bit of information about the above photograph.  Scientists have recognized Turritopsis nutriculaas as the only known animal that is capable of rejuvenating itself, thus sustaining life over and over again—the concept of being immortal.

Jellyfish usually die after propagating, but according to the London Times Turritopsis reverts to a sexually immature stage after reaching adulthood and is capable of rejuvenating itself.  It is the only known animal capable of reverting to its juvenile polyp state.  In theory, this cycle can repeat indefinitely, making it potentially immortal.

The creature is only 4-5mm in diameter and is found in warm tropical waters but is believed to be spreading across the world as ships discharge their ballast water in ports.

And now on to the other type of immortal—the characters in our myths, literature and movies/television.  I saw a list a while back of the top ten immortal characters, a cross-section sampling from various forms of storytelling.

10.  Peter Pan:  The famous boy who never grows up (or grows old) and prefers to live on the magical isle of Neverland.

9.  Dracula:  If you're desperate to live forever, you could try getting bitten by Dracula or any of the other well-known vampires.  Of course, you'd have to give up Italian food which is loaded with garlic and no more tanning at the beach.

8.  Lazarus Long:  A character in many of Robert Heinlein's science fiction novels.  Lazarus lives to be over 2,000 years old, travels to distant planets, and travels through time.

7.  Nicolas Flamel:  J.K. Rowling based Flamel's character (good friend to Hogwart's headmaster) on a real-life French 15th Century alchemist who legend claims successfully created the Philosopher's Stone, a mythical elixir that turns lead into gold and grants eternal life.

6.  Tithonus:  When Greek goddess Eos asks Zeus to grant her mortal lover, Tithonus, eternal life, she forgets to also ask for eternal youth.  Tithonus lives forever, but he grows old and frail, and begs for death.

5.  Dorian Gray:  Oscar Wilde created this character who remains young and handsome while his portrait ages.  He becomes corrupt, but his crimes and true age show only in the face of the painting which grows progressively more monstrous and withered.

4.  Highlander:  In the 1986 movie, Connor MacLeod is a member of the immortals, a mysterious race who die only when they are beheaded.  The immortals must battle each other until only one is left to claim The Prize: the gift of immortality. The movie created a television series starring Adrian Paul as Duncan MacLeod.

3.  Grail Knight:  A knight of the First Crusade.  In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade he is given the task of guarding the Holy Grail, a crucible that grants eternal life to any who drink from it.

2.  Methuselah:  He's the oldest person whose age is mentioned in the Old Testament of the Bible, becoming a father at the age of 187 and living to be 969 years old.

1.  Arwen:  A half-elven maiden in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings who renounces eternal life to marry her mortal sweetheart.  She lives to be 2,901 years old.

Do you have a favorite immortal character among the many?

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Vampires And Other Immortals—Part 1 of 2

Vampires are big business these days, their current popularity thanks in part to the Twilight series books and movies.  Of course, vampires have never really been out of style.  They were popularized in literature by Bram Stoker's 1897 novel, DRACULA, but stories of vampires go back many centuries before that.

Where did the concept of vampires come from?  The answer to that question exists somewhere in the space separating science and superstition.  Some sources claim the stories of vampires began with the Romanian prince Vlad Tepes who lived 1431-1476 and fought for independence against the Ottoman Empire.  His methods of dealing with his enemies included slowly impaling them on stakes, drawing and quartering, and burning them alive.  It all seems very brutal and sadistic by today's standards, but not all that uncommon for those times.  The same methods were used by the Catholic Church during the Spanish Inquisition and by other rulers and powerful leaders during the Middle Ages to torture and kill their enemies.

Bram Stoker is said to have patterned some of his Dracula character after Vlad Tepes as the birth of the modern fictional vampire.  However, the roots of real vampires have very different origins.  Stories of vampires are a worldwide phenomenon with localized versions of vampires coming from almost all cultures.  Before science progressed to the point where it could explain weather patterns and germ theory, any bad event that did not have an obvious cause could be blamed on a vampire.  The mythical creature was an easy answer to the age old question of why bad things happened to good people.

Superstitious villagers took their belief that something had cursed them and put it together with their fear of the dead and came to the conclusion that recently buried people who had risen from the dead to do evil deeds were responsible.  They dug up graves and were surprised by the way the corpses looked.  Not understanding the process of decomposition, they assumed bodies immediately turned to skeletons.

Even with the original vampires being long gone, the cultural phenomenon of vampires continue to fascinate the world.  And it isn't just the macabre and horror stories that draw on the vampire character.  We have several examples of vampires being used as objects of humor.  Certainly Al Lewis' Grandpa character on the old MUNSTERS television series.  We have comedy movies such as LOVE AT FIRST BITE and Mel Brooks' 1995 film DRACULA, DEAD AND LOVING IT.

Even children have been caught up in the commercialism of the vampire world.  There's General Mills' Count Chocula breakfast cereal, marketed to children.  And not even the long running award-winning children's television series SESAME STREET was able to ignore the vampire allure.  One of their popular Muppet characters is The Count, complete with black Dracula style cape and fangs.

Vampire movies have been around since the days of silent films with the 1922 classic, NOSFERATU.  What are your favorite vampire movies?

Next week (Sunday, February 24) I'm going to post Part 2 of Vampires And Other Immortals including a Top Ten list of immortals from myths, literature and movies.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Mardi Gras And The Tradition Of Flashing

This year Mardi Gras falls on Tuesday, February 12.  In the Catholic Church, it's Shrove Tuesday, also known as fat Tuesday.  The date for Mardi Gras depends on the date of Easter—always occurring forty-six days before Easter.

In the most literal sense, the Mardi Gras celebration is the three days prior to Ash Wednesday which is the start of Lent.  It's the last opportunity for partying and indulgence in food and drink.  In practice, Mardi Gras…or Carnival, as it is called in many countries…is usually celebrated for a full week before the start of Lent.

Celebrations take place all over the world with the most famous modern day festivities being in New Orleans, Louisiana; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Nice, France; and Cologne, Germany.

Even though Mardi Gras is a Christian festival, it dates back to the pre-Christian spring fertility rites and embodies many of the traditions of the ancient Greeks and Romans.  In the early Middle Ages, after converting pagan tribes to Christianity, the Catholic Church was still unable to abolish all the ancient traditions.  To combat this, the Church ended up taking many ancient feasts and festivals originally celebrated in honor of pagan gods and adapted them to Christian beliefs.  An example of the pagan roots: today revelers on parade floats still dress as Bacchus, the Greek god of wine.

The first Mardi Gras celebration in the United States was near modern day New Orleans on March 3, 1699, but it was the mid 1800s before parade organizations, known as krewes, came into being.  The official colors of Mardi Gras are purple, green, and gold, representing justice, faith, and power.

But what about that popular activity that has become a seemingly integral part of the New Orleans Mardi Gras, much to the chagrin of the festival purists?  Women pulling up their shirts and flashing their bare breasts to procure some worthless plastic beads?

Exactly where did this tradition come from?

Well, first of all, it's not really a tradition.  It's more along the lines of what has become a traditional activity in the same vein as getting stupid drunk and passing out now seems to fall into that same 'traditional' category.  Over the years more and more media attention has been directed toward the drunken revelry that occurs on Bourbon Street which has helped in defining flashing as a traditional part of the Mardi Gras celebration.

Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on your point-of-view, flashing in exchange for beads is mostly limited to the New Orleans' French Quarter.  And even in the French Quarter, it's an illegal activity.  Women flashing their bare breasts run the risk of being arrested.

Maybe flashing is not a true tradition, but you can't deny that it has become a custom.  After all, the history of wild Mardi Gras behavior comes from celebrating the last day before LentLent being a time of atonement.  And this naturally lends itself to activities of excess and craziness.

And also flashing.

But there is one crazy excess even more daring than the momentary baring of the female breasts known as flashing.  And what, you may ask, could that be?  And the answer is having clothes painted on your bare skin.  There are artists who specialize in this.  It may have started as something simple and basic like face painting, but has grown to include full body artistic renderings.  At a casual glance, it appears that the person is clothed.  But on closer inspection, you discover that's far from the truth.  Some of these examples shown below are basic and others are quite elaborate.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Internet Will Fail—Eight Bold Predictions That Didn't Come True

THE INTERNET WILL FAIL:  That bold prediction was made by astronomer Clifford Stoll.  He was quoted in a 1995 Newsweek story, "The truth is, no online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher, and no computer network will change the way government works."

Here we are, eighteen years later, and the newspaper industry is dying, people can earn college degrees online from accredited universities, and we can easily find information on anyone who has ever had their fifteen minutes of fame and even some who aren't that famous…yet.

Lots of people make predictions, many of whom are considered experts in their field.  And you have well-known prognosticators such as Nostradamus.  Five hundred years later people are still referring to his predictions and debating the validity of the interpretations of his quatrains.

Here's a list of eight bold predictions that failed miserably.

1)  "Using Twitter for literate communication is about as likely as firing up a CB radio and hearing some guy recite The Iliad."
—Science fiction writer and journalist Bruce Sterling.

Despite criticism, Twitter has proven itself to many thanks to its roles in breaking news and helping organize massive protests in the some of mid-East countries.

2)  "For the most part, the portable computer is a dream machine for the few…on the whole, people don't want to lug a computer with them to the beach or on a train to while away hours they would rather spend reading the sports or business section of the newspaper."
—Erik Sandberg-Diment, founder of early computer magazine ROM as reported by The New York Times in 1985.

And today people are using a wide variety of handheld and easily portable electronic devices at the beach and on a train to while away hours, many of whom are checking on sports scores and the stock market.

3)  "There's no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share.  No chance."
—Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft.

Obviously, not everyone agreed with Steve Jobs' vision about the device that has become a cultural icon in a few short years.

4)  "We don't like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out."
—Decca Recording Co., rejecting the Beatles in 1962.  And Dick Rowe, the Decca recording executive who made that fateful prediction, went on to say, "The Beatles have no future in show business."

And as they say, the rest is history!  The Beatles went on to release nineteen albums in seven years and sold approximately 140 million copies and I don't even want to guess how many singles.  To give Dick Rowe credit for learning from his mistakes, he did sign the Rolling Stones and Van Morrison.

5)  "TV will never be a serious competitor for radio because people must sit and keep their eyes glued on a screen; the average American family hasn't time for it."
—author unknown, quoted in The New York Times in 1939.

It's very easy to take cheap shots at television, especially with some of the truly low-brow programming that's out there.  We've been told television rots our brains and turns our children on to sex and violence.  But to consider it a fad that will fade away?

And to add another television prediction:  "I will believe in the 500-channel world only when I see it."
—Viacom and CBS Chairman Sumner Redstone in a 1994 speech to the National Press Club.

6)  "The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value.  Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?"—RCA response to David Sarnoff's pitch for investment in radio.

RCA rebuffed Sarnoff's vision in the 1920s, and he went on to found NBC and became one of the most influential executives in radio and television in a career that spanned fifty years.  After a few years, RCA did finally get it and jumped on the band wagon.

7)  "The abdomen, the chest, and the brain will forever be shut from the intrusion of the wise and humane surgeon."
—Sir John Eric Ericksen, British surgeon, appointed Surgeon-Extraordinary to Queen Victoria in 1873.

We've come a long way, baby.  Today heart surgery, organ transplant, and neurosurgery are common occurrences.

8)  "Printed books will never be the equivalent of handwritten codices, especially since printed books are often deficient in spelling and appearance."
—15th century monk, Trithemius, wrote in his treatise In Praise Of Copying

And aren't we all glad his prediction fell flat?  Printed books, and now eReaders (see item #2) are certainly an integral part of our world.

Have any of you come across any predictions that totally and completely bombed…other than the prediction that the world would end on December 21, 2012?