Jan 26 2019185 The Georgia Guidestones

In 1980 a mysterious benefactor who only identified himself as “R.C. Christian” commissioned a granite monument in rural Georgia bearing advice on how to reconstruct civilization after the apocalypse. Unfortunately, it’s not very good advice.

Sep 14 2018174 Approved by the Comics Code Authority, Part One

From 1964 until 2011 comic books were nominally approved by a content regime called the Comics Code Authority. The Authority grew out of anti-comic book sentiment in the early part of the twentieth century. Anti-comics advocates like Fredric Wertham portrayed comic books as filled with crime, sex, and corrupting ideas. In 1954 a senate subcommittee headed by Tennessee senator Estes Kefauver all but put comic books on trial, with Kefauver grilling EC Comics publisher Bill Gaines about the content of then-popular horror comics. The exchange would change comic book publishing forever.

Jun 30 2018168 Dorothy and Friends

In the early 1980s the US Navy was determined to uncover a secret gay subculture at the Great Lakes Naval Base just outside of Chicago. All of the men they were looking for seemed to be friends of Dorothy. If the NIS could find, Dorothy, they thought, they could blow this whole thing wide open.

We’ve talked about The Wizard of Oz and monetary policy before. This is different.

Jun 04 2018166 North Korea Part Fourteen, How to Escape From North Korea

Escaping North Korea is difficult, but it can be done. Notable escapees include Choi Eun-Hee and Shin Sang-Ok, a South Korean actress and director who Kim Jong Il captured and forced to make movies, like the Godzilla knockoff Pulgasari, pictured below. Kenji Fujimoto is the pseudonym for Kim’s personal chef who escaped to Japan in 2001. But, the vast majority of North Koreans escape the country because of famine and desperation, and the trip is a long and arduous one through China and Southeast Asia.

Mar 28 2018158 North Korea Part Nine, The DMZ, Assassinations, and the USS Pueblo

During the Cold War, North Korea primarily interacted with South Korea and the United States via building the DMZ, several assassination attempts on South Korean presidents, and the taking of the USS Pueblo, the crew of which are pictured below. Note how they held their fingers when being photographed by their North Korean captors.

Jul 17 2017135 Pad Thai, Nationalism, and Mandatory Hats

Pad Thai is now heavily associated with Thai cuisine, but it’s a relatively modern invention. Noodles were probably imported to Thailand via either China or Vietnam, and the style of cooking of the noodles seems to indicate that it stems from other noodle dishes from southeast China. Noodles in general, and pad Thai in particular, were popularized in the 1930s and 1940s as a way of intentionally giving Thailand a national dish. The prime minister behind reforms, Plaek Phibunsongkhram, also attempted to give his country a militaristic code of valor, fewer vowels, gendered names, and mandatory hats. Of his reforms, pad Thai is the only one that remains.

May 22 2017128 Quest For Thundercows

In 1910 the United States almost imported hippos as a meat animal. Had it done so, the US would have imported the single most dangerous large land animal on Earth and treated it like a cow. HR2361 also known as the American Hippo Bill, would have allocated $250,000 for the importation of hippos and other animals to the US. The bill had the support of former president Theodore Roosevelt, and even the New York Times favored importing hippos, calling it “lake cow bacon.”

Dec 08 2016109 Moose Cavalry

In this episode we tackled one of the major issues of our time: Why haven’t more countries used moose as Cavalry? Sweden tried it. The Soviet Union also tried it. But, the mighty moose has consistently resisted being turned into a weapon of war.


Dec 01 2016108 How Not to Kill Fidel Castro

Fidel Castro, after being in power in Cuba since the 1950s, is finally dead. Castro was known for his long reign as Cuba’s dictator, but he was also known for surviving a large amount of assassination attempts. The most common figure bandied about regarding the total number of attempts on Castro’s life by the U.S. is 634, but that number only comes from a single source. We’ll probably never know, really, how many attempts on his life there were, but some of the most notable examples included a series of unconventional ways to potentially murder someone.


Apr 28 201678 A Statue of Crazy Horse

If it’s ever completed, South Dakota’s Crazy Horse Memorial will be the largest statue in the world. The gigantic structure will feature the Lakota leader’s face, upper body, and mount, and will dwarf every other monument and memorial on Earth. Crazy Horse’s head and headdress, for instance, will be larger than Mount Rushmore.

If, that is, the work is ever completed. The first blasts to transform Thunderhead Mountain into a memorial were in 1948, and since then, only Crazy Horse’s face has been totally carved. The memorial is also controversial among present-day Lakota, many of whom do not think that blasting into a mountain is the best memorial to Crazy Horse. One person who’d almost certainly opposed to the memorial is Crazy Horse himself. The Lakota leader did not allow himself to be photographed, and turning his image into a statue of epic proportions seemingly runs counter to what the man himself believed in.

Crazy Horse Memorial 2010

Dec 10 201560 The Goose’s Crusade

At the end of the eleventh century, a group of would-be conquerors followed a goose on crusade.

The standard (and almost certainly overly simplistic) narrative of the First Crusade is that, in 1095 Pope Urban II rallied religious leaders at the Council of Clermont to retake the Holy Land. After a few stirring speeches and cries of “deus vult!” (God wills it!) a holy war began. Again, this narrative is almost certainly factually incorrect, but it’s stayed in the popular imagination.

The First Crusade, though, was far more disorganized than its neat and tidy origin myth suggest. Several lords, kings, and independent military leaders operated more or less independently. One of the most notable leaders of what would become known as the People’s Crusade was an itinerant preacher named Peter the Hermit who stirred his followers with tales of apocalypse, end times, and final battles. Among Peter the Hermit’s followers was a group of crusaders who followed a goose, claiming that that bird was speaking to them through the Holy Spirit.


Sep 24 201549 Destroy All Emus!

1932 was a bad year for farmers in Australia. Hot weather withered grain, because of the Great Depression, promised agricultural subsidies were not forthcoming and, worst of all, there were emus. The large flightless bird devoured Australian grain, prompting the government to go after them with machine guns.

It was called the Emu War, and the emus won.


Related Links:

Veritable Hokum did a delightful comic about the Emu War. It features an emu in a hat. Emus probably did not wear hats.

Attack on Emus from the Melbourne Argus, 1932.

Jul 23 201540 Prison of the Mind

“Morals reformed – health preserved – industry invigorated instruction diffused – public burthens lightened – Economy seated, as it were, upon a rock – the gordian knot of the Poor-Laws are not cut, but untied – all by a simple idea in Architecture!” Those are the words of Jeremy Bentham, an English philosopher who is now known as one of the founders of utilitarianism. The architecture that he refers to is a proposed prison known as the panopticon, a circular prison that would allow a single guard to see all of the inmates, and the inmates would not know if they were being observed or not. Bentham hoped that, because prisoners would not know whether they were being watched or now, that they would always act as if they were being monitored, and that the panopticon would lead to a gradual change in behavior for those confined within it.

No true panopticons were ever built but several prisons (such as Cuba’s Presidio Modelo, pictured below) were based on the design. The panopticon’s true legacy is as a metaphor, most notably one used by the French philosopher Michel Foucault in his book about power and the history of prisons Discipline and Punish. In a panopticon, the discipline of the prison is not something that comes from chains, whips, or gross application of power. Rather, power and discipline is inscribed upon the mind of those imprisoned.

Presidio Modelo

Related Links:

Bentham’s writings on the Panopticon.

Foucault on the Panopticon from Discipline and Punish.

Jeremy Bentham’s wishes were that his corpse be preserved in a cabinet called an “auto-icon” and viewable by… anyone who wanted to view it. The auto-icon now sits at University College London and you can find more info here and an interactive auto-icon here.

Jul 16 201539 How to Steal the Mona Lisa

The Mona Lisa wasn’t always an icon. Before 1911 Leonardo’s painting was certainly known and respected, but it wasn’t yet the most famous, most adored, most duplicated, and most parodied piece of art in the world. It was not yet the symbol and pop culture juggernaut that it is today. What made the Mona Lisa famous its theft at the hands of Vincenzo Peruggia who, along with two accomplices, lifted the painting off of the wall of the Louvre and simply walked out with it. He kept the portrait in a box in his apartment for over two years before attempting to ransom it, and, upon its return, the Mona Lisa went from merely a respected piece of Renaissance art to the single most famous painting in the world.

The image below shows the blank spot left by Peruggia, and the four wall hooks that had previously held the Mona Lisa before its 1911 abduction.

Mona Lisa Wall Hooks

Jul 09 201538 The Secret Plan to Nuke the Moon

In 1959 the United States had a secret plan to explode a nuclear weapon either on or near the surface of the moon. The plan was known as Project A119 and the hope was that a nuclear explosion on the moon would kick up a cloud of dust visible from the Earth, and would act as a demonstration of American power and technology. The project was shelved (obviously) and classified for years, and the only reason we know about it now is because Carl Sagan, who was involved with A119, let slip the existence of the plan to nuke the moon on a job application.

While it might sound absurd, the idea of a nuclear demonstration to awe the world was a common idea among scientists in the waning days of WWII and the early days of the Cold War. There were multiple proposals for detonations on desert islands or other, similar uninhabited areas to show off the power of nuclear weapons and, hopefully, impress America’s enemies into submission.


Related Links:

A Study of Lunar Research Flights, Volume One

The Franck Report

The New York Times on Leonard Rieffel, the physicist who headed up Project A119.

And, it wasn’t just the US. There were also rumors that the Soviets, too, wanted to bomb the moon.

Jun 18 201535 Clairvoyance and Free Love on Campaign Trail ’72

It’s very likely that Hillary Clinton will become the Democratic nominee for president in 2016. When/if she does, some talking head will likely call her “the first women to run for president.” That talking head will be wrong. Women have been running for president for decades. The first woman to do so was Victoria Woodhull, a former Wall Street trader, traveling clairvoyant, spiritualist, newspaper publisher, and advocate for women’s suffrage. Woodhull advocated strongly for free love, i.e., the ability for women to marry whomever they chose, and for the disentangling of marriage as a social institution from the law.

Woodhull obviously lost the 1872 election (Ulysses S. Grant won it) but many of her ideas about gender, women’s rights, free love, and marriage, have been integrated into what is now considered “normal.” Woodhull was a firebrand and a revolutionary at the time and, even though she lost that electoral contest, we now very much live in her world.



Related Links:

victoriacwoodhull.org is a site devoted to, obviously, Victoria Woodhull.

An 1871 report of one of Woodhull’s campaign speeches. (Requires login)

Woodhull was demonized for her support of free love. As in, cartoonists drew her as a demon. A famous caricature of her declared her to be “Mrs. Satan.”

Jun 11 201534 Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico

If you were out and about in San Francisco between 1860 and 1880, you might have seen a curious figure on the streets. Joshua Abraham Norton wore a uniform reminiscent of European nobility, made proclamations, and styled himself as “Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.” Norton seems to have been embraced by the city he “ruled” over, to the point where citizens actually used the currency that he issued. His proclamations were popular reading in the city at the time, and often reprinted and imitated by newspapers of the era. He’s best known for proposing a bridge between San Francisco and Oakland, and renaming the Bay Bridge in honor of Norton has been proposed numerous times.

Norton today is remembered as an eccentric and benevolent monarch, and his grave, just south of San Francisco, proclaims him simply as “Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.”


Related Links:

Emperor Norton’s grave on Atlas Obscura.

Read a collection of Norton’s proclamations from the Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco, who have tried to suss out which ones are genuine and which are hoaxes or pranks.

Renaming the Bay Bridge as the Emperor Norton Bridge is a perennial topic of discussion, and (unsurprisingly) there’s a change.org petition out right now to do exactly that.

There’s a tour guide who apparently dresses up as Norton and does walking tours of San Francisco. That sounds absurd, and I’m totally signing up for one of those the next time I’m in the Bay Area.

May 21 201531 The Kingdom of North Sudan

The British Empire and other colonial powers did a lot of things wrong, and they famously ignored actual human patterns when drawing borders of Africa. In 1899, the British drew a border between Egypt and Sudan that simply ran in a straight line across the 22nd parallel, ignoring how people in the area moved and identified. A few years later, in 1902, they corrected their mistake and re-drew the boundary.

The result has led to a border dispute between Egypt and Sudan where Egypt claims the 1899 border, and Sudan the 1902 border. This dispute means that a small patch of desert, Bir Tawil, is not claimed by either nation. In 2014 a man from the United States attempted to claim the land and declare it to be the Kingdom of North Sudan. Why? So his daughter could be a princess, of course.

The image below shows Bir Tawil on Google Maps, with the pin in its location. Next to it is the Hala’ib Triangle, which both countries claim.

bir tawil


















Related Links:

Bir Tawil on Atlas Obscura.

An opinion piece about Jerimiah Heaton and his micronation over at the the Independent. The author points out, with cause, how bad it looks for a white westerner to suddenly be claiming to own a chunk of Africa.

A piece about Disney’s Princess of North Sudan on Deadline Hollywood.

The official website for the Kingdom of North Sudan.

Apr 30 201528 Attack the Rock

The foreboding form of Alcatraz Island looms just beyond San Francisco, an obvious symbol of isolation and punishment. Alcatraz was never the biggest, or worst, or longest-lived prison in American history, but it’s definitely the most iconic. The island fortress seems to invite resistance and escape attempts, a setting like Alcatraz demands a narrative just as striking. In 1946 a handful of convicts attempted to violently escape from the island, giving that dramatic setting a dramatic narrative to match it. The resulting conflict, known today as the Battle of Alcatraz, claimed the lives of five people and wounded just over a dozen others. Ordinary San Franciscans were able to watch from their city as guns, explosives, and conflict raged just beyond the bounds of civilization.

The image below shows the exterior of Alcatraz as U.S. Marines pelt the prison with mortars in an attempt to kill and suppress the rebels inside.


Related Links:

Watch 1946 newsreels of the events here and here, in all of their retro media glory.

Read more about the battle and other Alcatraz history here.

This map via Wired of how other Alcatraz escapees could have, possibly, maybe survived.

Mar 05 201520 The Lost Empire of Scotland

In the late 1600s Scotland, in an attempt to start an international trade empire, founded a small settlement in what is now modern Panama. The venture was frustrated at every turn by the English, who did not want their northern neighbor competing on the international scene, and the Panamanian jungle proved to be an inhospitable environment. The settlers were plagued by starvation and malaria, and eventually the Scots were ousted by the Spanish.

The dramatic failure of the colony led to the end of Scottish independence, and a few years later 1707 that country would permanently join with England. Had the colony succeeded, the map of Europe and Central America could look very different today, but as it is Scottish ambitions and independence vanished hundreds of years ago in the jungles of Central America.

New Caledonia in Darien

Related Links:

The BBC on the Darien Scheme.

A look at the Darien Chest, the object that held the money and papers for the Darien Scheme.

One settler’s account of this history of Darien.


Jan 02 201511 Maps of Time

Happy New Year! It’s January First, 2015, and you probably have a new calendar. Calendars tend to be irregular, weird, and uneven, but some folks have attempted to smooth that out throughout history.

Below is the Soviet Calendar. Workers were assigned colors, and based on the color assigned to you, that would be your day off.

Soviet calendar 1930 color

Related Links:

Read about the Soviet Calendar on History Today (login required)

Convert Gregorian dates into French Republican dates here.

The current time and date according to the Hanke-Henry Permanent Calendar.

Scientific American on the Hanke-Henry Permanent Calendar.

An overview of the Symmetry454 Calendar.

Dec 11 201408 Sealand

Defining what is and is not a country, state, or nation can sometimes be sort of difficult. China, obviously, is a country. So are Brazil and Morocco. Some states, like Kosovo, East Timor, and Vatican City, are independent and sovereign on paper, yet don’t seem to have the ephemeral legitimacy of an established state, the kind of undefinable real-ness that Frank Zappa alluded to when he said that “you can’t be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline. It helps if you have some kind of football team, or some nuclear weapons, but at the very least you need a beer.”

And then there are some states which just declare independence and call it good. Like Sealand, for example, an ostensible principality off the coast of Britain that has endured as one of the world’s most successful micronations.


Related Links:

Sealand’s official website, where you can become a lord, lady, baron, or baroness, depending on your preferences.

Sealand The Mystery Solved is a four-part YouTube series about the micronation. It was made in cooperation with the principality, so, in a way, it is official Sealand government propaganda. Of a sort.

Fettes Brot, a German hip-hop group, shot the music video for their song Echo at (on? in? what is the proper preposition for a fort/micronation?) Sealand.