“Frankenstein” – John Entwistle’s monster bass


The Who’s John Entwistle is considered by many to be the best bass player in the history of rock.  Of the many basses Entwistle played during his career, the the most interesting has to be the bass guitar known as “Frankenstein.”

Entwistle crafted Frankenstein in 1967 out of the remains of five smashed basses, using the body of a ‘65 Fender Precision bass with an original sunburst finish, (refinished in the mid ‘70s to Fiesta Red/salmon pink).  Other parts came from a Fender Jazz bass, and three dead Fender Precision basses with “slab” fret boards, which were only produced in 1962 and 1963.

Continue reading

The origins of alchemy and the search for the philosopher’s stone


Medieval alchemists were concerned with discovering the “philosopher’s stone,” a hypothetical substance they believed could convert base metals into gold.  Though usually held to be a solid, sources sometimes describe it as a liquid also capable of curing diseases and/or staving off death — hence its alternative name, the “elixir of life”.

The first known references to alchemy exist in myths and legends about ancient China.  Alchemy in the Western world seems to have originated in Egypt, though early records were destroyed around the year 300.  The Roman emperor Diocletian was concerned that alchemically obtained gold and silver could be used to fund a revolt.  So Diocletian issued a decree ordering the destruction of all books on the subject.

Continue reading

The British Museum’s Secret Porn Stash

Fragment of "Modi" from the British Museum

“I know it when I see it.”  — U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, famously trying to define obscenity in Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964).

Governments have long struggled with identifying what material is so offensive to morals that publication and/or possession of it should be outlawed.  One of the earliest attempts in the English-speaking world dates back to 1787, when England’s King George III issued a Royal Proclamation “For the Encouragement of Piety and Virtue, and for Preventing and Punishing of Vice, Profaneness and Immorality.” 

The Proclamation proved ineffective, despite organizations such as the Society for the Suppression of Vice.  That organization was founded in 1802 to “check the spread of open vice and immorality, and… preserve the minds of the young from contamination…” 

It wasn’t until the Victorian era, however, that an increasingly prudish government really cracked down.  The Obscene Publications Act of 1857 sought to punish men such as William Dugdale.  Dugdale published guides such as Yokel’s Preceptor, which advertised gay cruising spots in the form of a warning to country folk about places they’d do best to avoid.

Continue reading

You May Not Be a Cat, But You Can Still Cough Up a Hairball



Anyone who has ever had a cat is well-acquainted with hairballs.  But humans are susceptible to hairballs, too.

Technically, a hairball is a type of bezoar (pronounced BEE-zore), a mass of indigestible matter found in an animal’s stomach or intestines.   Ruminants (cud-chewing animals) — such as cows, oxen, sheep, goats, llamas, deer, and antelopes — are particularly susceptible to bezoars.

Human hairballs — known as “trichobezoars” – are rare in people with a normal digestive tract.  In adults, they usually occur in connection with a medical condition such as diabetes, cystic fibrosis, renal failure, or a gastric resection.  Very rarely, trichobezoars can extend into the small intestine or beyond — a condition known as Rapunzel Syndrome.

Continue reading

Al-Buraq, the Steed that Took Muhammad to Heaven


Muslims believe that in around 620 A.D., the prophet Muhammad journeyed to Heaven, where he was purified and given the command to pray five times a day.  This is known as the Miraj –a/k/a the Night Journey or the Ascension to Heaven – and it wouldn’t have been possible without a white, winged steed known as al-Buraq.

The image of an immortal, winged steed that could journey to Heaven didn’t originate with Islam.  Pegasus, the winged horse of Greek myth, dates from at least as far back as the 4th century BCE.

In the Muslim account, however, the Archangel Gabriel awakens Muhammad from a sound sleep outside the Ka’aba (sacred mosque) in Makkah and leads him to al-Buraq, who lets Muhammad mount him.   Al-Buraq and Gabriel take Muhammad to the “Farthest Mosque,” believed by Muslims to be the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem.

There Muhammad dismounts and prays with prior prophets – including Abraham, Moses, and Jesus — after which he is presented with a vessel of wine and a vessel of milk. When he chooses the milk, Gabriel says to him, “you have chosen the true religion.”  From Jerusalem Muhammad ascends to Heaven on al-Burqa, returning to Ka’ba that very night.

The Battle of the Herrings – the most awesomely named battle ever



The Battle of the Herrings was actually a minor skirmish of the Hundred Years War.  But without it we may never have heard of Joan of Arc.

In February 1429, the English had the French town of Orléans under siege.  An English convoy of 300 carts, led by Sir John Fastolf (who would inspire William Shakespeare’s Falstaff), was on its way from Paris carrying crossbow bolts and cannon balls.  The carts also held barrels of herring for the upcoming meatless days of Lent.

At the same time, 16-year old Joan of Arc was in Vaucoleurs, trying to convince its captain, Robert de Baudricort, that voices from God had commanded her to raise the siege of Orléans.   She said Baudricort was to give her an armed escort to Chinon, where she would find the court of the dauphin – the future Charles VIII of France.   Baudricort laughed at Joan and told her male cousin to take her home so her father could box her ears.

But Joan persisted and – according to legend — told Baudricort that as they were speaking, the French were suffering a terrible defeat near Orléans.  Several days later a messenger confirmed Joan’s prediction.  The French had attacked the English convoy and been routed, losing 400 men.

This allegedly inspired Baudricourt to believe in the divine nature of Joan’s mission.  He gave her the requested escort and the rest, as they say, is history.  As is the Battle of the Herrings – the most awesomely named battle ever.

Cinderella and the Fur Slipper


If you don’t think spelling matters, consider the centuries-old debate about whether Cinderella’s slipper was really made of fur rather than glass.

Charles Perrault’s classic 17th century tale makes three references to a pantoufle de verre – literally, a glass slipper.  But “verre” has a homophone in French:  “vair,” a fur (probably squirrel) frequently used during the 13th and 14th centuries for lining and trimming the clothing of the wealthy.

In the mid-19th century, the writer Honore de Balzac insisted that Perrault meant the slippers to be made of fur which, under French sumptuary laws, only the upper classes had the right to wear.  It’s a logical argument if we think of fur slippers as the Prada of their day – something a fairy godmother might give a girl so she would blend in with the other guests at the Prince’s swanky soirée.

On the other hand, sometimes a pipe is really a pipe, and even Snopes.com dismisses the mistranslation theory.

But, then again, sometimes a pipe represents something sexual.  Early 20th century child psychologist, Bruno Bettleheim, argued in his The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, that the glass slipper was meant to represent a vagina:  “Something that is brittle and must not be stretched because it would break reminds us of the hymen.”

Of course, fur would work equally well as a metaphor for the vagina.  But then again, sometimes a pipe really is just a pipe.  And a slipper is just a glass slipper, something ethereal and impossible.

Or maybe we’ve been getting everything all wrong, and Caesar actually had a beer at his funeral.

Did Copernicus “Invent” Buttered Bread?


It’s a story, oft-repeated as fact, that Nicolaus Copernicus — the early 16th-century astronomer who first proposed that the planets revolve around the sun – invented the practice of buttering bread.

Alas, it isn’t true. The Oxford English Dictionary contains a reference to buttered bread from 1496.  But it’s still an entertaining tale.

As described in Mould’s Medical Anecdotes , the story is that in 1520, the Teutonic Knights — a military order that was at war with Poland — besieged the fortified town of Allenstein in PrussiaCopernicus was put in charge of organizing the defenses of the town and its castle, which eventually repelled the attack.

Some six months before the siege was lifted, however, an outbreak of plague allegedly struck Allenstein Castle.  As a youth Copernicus had studied medicine.  He noticed that the elderly men that had been left to guard the castle frequently dropped bread on the ground as they carried it up the steep steps from the kitchen.  Suspecting this might have something to do with the spread of the disease, Copernicus divided the inhabitants into groups and allotted each a different diet.

The group denied bread was the only one that remained plague-free.  But refraining from eating bread during a siege wasn’t practical.  Someone suggested that if the black loaves were coated with a thin layer of churned cream, it would make it easy to detect when they’d been dropped.   If they had, the dirt could be wiped off.  Copernicus supposedly adopted the suggestion and plague was eliminated at the castle.

The idea of plague being transmitted via dirt isn’t totally far-fetched.  Medieval castles were notably infested with rats, and the bacterium that causes plague has been found to survive for up to 24 hours in soil.   It seems far more likely, however, the plague was spread by fleas living on the rats, which is the most common way that plague is spread.

After Copernicus’ death, the story continues, an official named Buttenadt leaked Copernicus’ secret.  The practice spread to other parts of Europe, where it became known as Buttenadting – or buttering.

And if you believe that, I’ve got a grail to sell you.

Is That a Gun in That Duck’s Pocket?


It’s the oldest story in the book.  Drake meets hen, drake loses hen, another drake gets hen and cleans her oviduct with his penis.  What?!?

Most male birds don’t even have penises.  Rather, both sexes possess a cloaca, a single organ into which the intestinal and urogenital tracks disgorge.  Such birds copulate by means of a “cloacal kiss”, during which they briefly touch genital openings.

But a few species of birds do have penises, including turkeys, geese and ducks.  And one of these – the Argentine Lake Duck – has a penis almost as long as its body, nearly 17 inches (42.5 cm) when extended.

The Lake Duck’s penis is shaped like a corkscrew, and when not in use retracts into the duck’s abdomen.  Just as interestingly, it has a based covered with coarse spines, and a tip that is soft and brush-like.

Researchers postulate that the tip may serve to remove sperm deposited in the female’s oviduct by another male, thus increasing the latecomer’s chances of paternity.

And they say that romance is dead.

The 20-Cent Flop That Costs $400,00


The time: the 1870s.  The place: Virginia City, Nevada.  Some 100 saloons dotted the town.  Most of these were “bit” houses, where silver miners working on the Comstock Lode could purchase drinks and cigars for 12 ½ cents.

But in the post-civil war years, there was a shortage of coins in circulation.  Miners paying for their drinks with a quarter (two bits) were likely to get only a dime (a “short bit”) back.

Allegedly to remedy this situation, a group of mining magnates — backed by Nevada Sen. John Percival Jones — persuaded the U.S. government to begin minting a 20-cent silver coin. The 20-cent piece began production in 1875 and was an instant bomb.  Like the Susan B. Anthony dollar a century later, it was difficult to distinguish from a quarter.

Ironically, the coins proved especially unpopular in Nevada.  The Carson City mint – which produced just 10,000 in 1876 — was still doling out coins from 1875 when orders came in to melt the entire remaining inventory.  Only a small number from 1876 were to be spared and shipped back to the Assay office in Washington for record keeping.

Today, these 20-cent coins have a melt value of just $2.83.  But experts generally agreed that fewer than two-dozen 1876-CC (for Carson City) 20-cent coins still exist. So if you want one, you’d better start saving some serious coin of your own.  A mint condition 1876-CC sells for over $400,000 – assuming, that is, that you can find one.

Not too shabby for a flop.