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Annalee Newitz looks at the Great Plague of London and 17th century social distancing

1 d'abril[ —]

Annalee Newitz has a piece in The New York Times about the "Great Plague" of London (1665-1666)--the last outbreak of bubonic plague in England--which ended up taking the lives of almost a quarter of the city's population.

A lot of English people believed 1666 would be the year of the apocalypse. You can’t really blame them. In late spring 1665, bubonic plague began to eat away at London’s population. By fall, roughly 7,000 people were dying every week in the city. The plague lasted through most of 1666, ultimately killing about 100,000 people in London alone — and possibly as many as three-quarters of a million in England as a whole.


It felt like Armageddon. And yet it was also the beginning of a scientific renaissance in England, when doctors experimented with quarantines, sterilization and social distancing. For those of us living through these stay-at-home days of Covid-19, it’s useful to look back and see how much has changed — and how much hasn’t. Humanity has been guarding against plagues and surviving them for thousands of years, and we have managed to learn a lot along the way.


It was most likely thanks to his [King Charles II] interest in science that government representatives and doctors quickly used social distancing methods for containing the spread of bubonic plague. Charles II issued a formal order in 1666 that ordered a halt to all public gatherings, including funerals. Already, theaters had been shut down in London, and licensing curtailed for new pubs. Oxford and Cambridge closed.

Isaac Newton was one of the students sent home, and his family was among the wealthy who fled the cities so they could shelter in place at their country homes. He spent the plague year at his family estate, teasing out the foundational ideas for calculus.

Read the entire piece here.

Image: Public Domain

A virtual fireside chat with Erik Davis, Dennis McKenna, and the premiere of a never-released Terence McKenna lecture at Esalen Institute, 1989

31 de març[ —]

Boing Boing pal Erik Davis will be joining Dennis McKenna (Terence's brother) on April 3rd for an online screening and virtual chat centered on a previously unseen lecture that Terence McKenna delivered at Esalen Institute in 1989.

From Erik's monthly newsletter.

This Friday, at 5:30 PST, I will be participating in a TRIBUTE TO TERENCE MCKENNA hosted by Dennis McKenna and our mutual friends at Psychedelic Seminars. Terence died twenty years ago, and over the next few weekends, Dennis will be hanging out with some of T’s wonderful friends, like Eduardo Luna, Bruce Damer, and Rupert Sheldrake.

On Friday we will be streaming a recently discovered hour-long film of Terence shot at Esalen in 1989. After the showing, Dennis and I will have a chat—the first in-depth conversation we have had since the publication of High Weirdness.

You can sign-up for the screening and chat here. You can find more info on the whole series here.

And if you're looking for something provocative and mind-bending to read while you're cowering in your invisible zombie apocalypse hidey hole, check out Erik's wonderful new tome, High Weirdness: Drugs, Esoterica, and Visionary Experience in the Seventies

[H/t Laurie Fox]

Image: Promotional art

What Steve Forte can do with a pack of cards borders the unbelievable

31 de març[ —]

When watching a magician perform some card tricks, it's a legitimate question to ask: "Would you be able to cheat at a card game?" Most performers will smirk and wink, implying they could. Truth is: they probably can't. Sleight-of-hand with cards for conjuring and entertainment purposes is one thing; gambling techniques to cheat at cards is a whole other story. Sometimes these two domains overlap, in that liminal zone of the so called "gambling demonstrations." However, the gamblers' "real work" entails a very different skillset from that of a magician—while true gambling techniques are among the most fascinating and difficult to master.

The gambling expert

In the realm of gambling techniques with cards, one name immediately commands undivided admiration and respect. That name is Steve Forte. It's no hyperbole to say that what Forte can do with a pack of cards borders the unbelievable; his skillful handling is the closest thing to perfection in terms of technique. Here is a taste of his smooth and classy dexterity:

Steve Forte's career spans over 40 years within the gambling industry. After dealing all casino games and serving in all casino executive capacities, he shifted gears to a spectacularly successful career as a professional high-stakes Black Jack and Poker player; shifting gears again, he later became a top consultant in the casino security field. To dig deeper into Forte's adventurous and shapeshifting life, the go-to place is the enduring profile penned by R. Paul Wilson for the October 2005 issue of Genii Magazine.

Although Forte spent his whole professional career in the gambling world, in the early '90s he became widely known in the magic community after releasing his famous Gambling Protection Video Series. These tapes turned him into an almost mythical figure, someone with a uniquely vast repertoire of gambling moves, and the remarkable ability to execute these moves—all of them—flawlessly. These tapes still remain the gold standard for any serious gambling enthusiast. 

In 2009, the Academy of Magical Arts honored Steve Forte with a Special Fellowship Award, in recognition of his outstanding creative contribution.

Forte Years of Research

Steve Forte just released his magnum opus, Gambling Sleight of Hand - Forte Years of Research: the most ambitious compilation of gambling sleight-of-hand and cutting-edge card techniques published to date. Forte offers his encyclopedic research from the privileged perspective of someone who has been around card games for his entire life, gambled professionally, met all kinds of cheaters and hustlers, and been a lifelong fan of magic. Separating the wheat from the chaff with his elegant prose, Forte shares the "real work." This book it's about "the pursuit of technical excellence for magicians and sleight-of-hand hobbyists, a modern starting point for cardmen and cardwomen to continue an exploratory journey where dedicated research, practice, and passion will forge ahead and advance the art."

Gambling Sleight of Hand - Forte Years of Research is already a classic, a must have for collectors and anyone interested in gambling sleight-of-hand.

The man behind the expert

In any art and craft, there are experts, heroes, role models. Sometimes these people are friendly and accessible, other times they are plain abstractions or disappointing idealizations. In this weird domain of gambling techniques, Steve Forte unintentionally became a mentor to many—myself included. What strikes everyone meeting Steve is his kindness, his modesty, his unbound generosity. Besides his exceptional expertise and mastery, worldwide fame and success, he remains a laid back and unassuming guy. What're the odds that one of the brightest minds in your field of interest, someone whom you'd dream to hang out with, is also one of the nicest human beings you could hope to meet? Steve Forte is a total mensch.

Listen: 1991's 'This Is Ponderous' by 2nu

31 de març[ —]

'...and the horns kicked in..."

Can you solve the "artist's dilemma" problem?

31 de març[ —]

I found this puzzle in a book I've had since I was a kid:

Simply put, your task is to draw the figure at the right without crossing a line, without taking your pencil from the paper and without retracing a line.

The book is called Merlin's Puzzler. It's out of print, but used copies are pretty cheap.

These toys and games can keep the kids busy while you’re all trapped inside

31 de març[ —]

These toys and games can keep the kids busy while you’re all trapped inside.

As rough as all this time cooped up inside the house is on us adults, it’s even worse for kids. All that borderline maniacal energy along with an unquenchable thirst for stimulation and attention make home sequestration like a life sentence for them. Unfortunately, they have no problem taking out all that pent-up disappointment and boredom on you, the unwitting adult who must take the rap for a worldwide pandemic.

These are difficult times and we all have to do what we must to survive. We wouldn’t normally endorse this, but under our current conditions...bribe them. Tell the kids that if they can be good for a day, or just through your workday or heck, even for a few hours, you’ll get ‘em one of the cool toys and games we’ve assembled here.

Everything here is on sale. They won’t care. You will. And peace will still reign in your household. For now. But for today, it’s all we’ve got…

Video games

Every kid loves video games -- and this is a good time to plant some of the old-school retro gaming love you had when you were a kid.

From the folks at 8BitDo, both the Gbros. Wireless Adapter for Nintendo Switch ($14.95; originally $19.99) and the SN30 Bluetooth Gamepad ($23.95; originally $29.99) gives you the retro-style gaming controller that’s compatible with all the latest gaming systems. Whether your kids have a Switch or play games on Windows, Android, macOS or Steam-based platforms, these Bluetooth-connected devices will take you all right back to the 90s and 2000s...even if it's your kids’ first trip.

Sticking with both retro and handheld gaming, the GameBud Portable Gaming Console ($19.95; originally $74.99) sure looks a heck of a lot like another gaming system of old. Boy, I wish I could remember its name. This also brings back the 8-bit days, includes 400 different classic games and the won’t even be draining your phone battery to play.

And if the whole family wants to get in on the action, the Throwback Gaming Console ($34.95; originally $99) hooks right up to your TV with an HDMI cable with a pair of controllers to fire up any of 600 preloaded video game classics. That’s enough games to keep them busy through even the worst of global crises.

For kids who really want to disconnect from the world, the IPM 3D Virtual Reality Glasses ($14.99; originally $69.99) plunge you right into the VR world instead. Drop-in a smartphone and these glasses make any TV or movie a truly immersive experience.

Arcade games

Maybe rather than playing video games on a TV or phone, it’s time to go back to arcade-style gaming -- without the super mammoth cabinets, of course. With both the Street Fighter II: Champion Edition X RepliCade ($99.99; originally $119.99) and the Tempest X Replicade ($99.99; originally $119.99), you get exact fully-functioning replicas of these two arcade classics -- but they’re each only a foot high.


How about bribing your kid with a robot? If you’re looking for pure entertainment value alone, the Dancebot Dancing Robot ($49.99; originally $79.99) is virtually unbeatable. Sure, it’s an ingenious little dancing robot who syncs to your streaming player and throws hot moves based on the rhythm and tempo of any music you throw at him. Best of all, even when he isn’t rocking out, Dancebot also doubles as a Bluetooth speaker.

For the parent who’d like their kid to also be learning a little something about robotics, the DJI RoboMaster S1 STEM Education Robot ($549.95; originally $549) is undiluted learning in one cool robo-body. With 46 customizable components, inventive kids can configure their bots any way they want, all while learning math, physics, programming, and even the AI skills to make it happen.

Games, non-video variety

Not every game has to be played on a screen, right? At first glance, Mega Nanodots ($24.99; originally $27.99) may not even look like a game, even though they are marble-sized magnets covered in a flexible rubber to help them create all kinds of interesting shapes, desk art, and more. But when you include a bunch of Nanodots as part of the 16" Nanopad Game Board ($39.99; originally $47.98), the accompanying two-sided magnetic game board becomes ground zero for all kinds of inventive gameplay.

The Mokuru Card Game ($34.99; originally $47) is also a traditional board game with a twist, challenging players to race each other up the board, completing tricks that require skill (and even a little deceit) to win the coveted Grand Master belt.

If your kids a little more action to stay stimulated, the AstroShot Zero G Floating Orbs Target with Dart Blaster Gun and Foam Darts ($28.99; originally $34.99) combines NERF accessories and zero-gravity as kids try to blast orbs that are suspended in mid-air. It’s like a video game -- only it’s happening in real life.

Ride a bike

Okay, you can’t send the kids TOO far outside, but if you’ve got a toddler learning the ins and outs of big-boy biking, the Brilrider FLIGHT, billed as the World's Lightest Balance Bike ($83.95; originally $159) is gonna be a huge hit.  Tough, durable, and insanely light, even a 1-year-old can take control of a regular two-wheeler with confidence and safety.

Play guitar

For older kids, the Jamstik 7 Guitar Trainer ($179.99; originally $199.99) is the next best thing to guitar lessons...and maybe even better. This go-anywhere guitar playing tool connects wirelessly to an app-enabled device, sensing your finger positioning and even the pressure to perfectly replicate your fingering while you learn to play. And with a pair of headphones, kids can practice with the Jamstik 7 all day long -- and you’ll never hear a thing.

Outstanding, free, and far-out music stream from Aquarium Drunkard

31 de març[ —]

Aquarium Drunkard is an incredible audio hub of reviews, podcasts, features, interviews, and sessions sure to please all crate diggers, outré musicologists, fringe culture fanatics, and deep music geeks. Their genre-bending curation spans jazz, folk, garage, psych, experimental, and every other niche of music to present oft-unheard gems from across time. As the creators say, Aquarium Drunkard is "for heads, by heads." In author Erik Davis's own excellent newsletter, he shares word that Aquarium Drunkard has now launched a free online radio stream, Radio Free Aquarium Drunkard. Tune in and turn on. Erik writes:

I have been in love with Aquarium Drunkard’s mailing list, streams, and musical curation chops since I stumbled across a three-part collection of rare 70s Jesus Freak music they posted years ago. Given that millions of us are now stuck at home, addictively trawling newsfeeds while trying to stay sane, the AQ kids just launched Radio Free Aquarium Drunkard, a wonderful 24/7 radio stream of joy, verve, and reflection. Admittedly, I find my own sensibility uncannily mirrored in RFAQ’s mix of scruffy indy, ladyfolk, 90s basement tapes, spiritual jazz, weird country, and deep deep 70s. But I am particularly enjoying the intimacy, wit, and kindness of the selections, segues, and overall vibe. These days we should all be paying close attention to the collective process of meaning-making. This means ignoring the algos and opening up to playlists, personal recommendations, and DJs. Tune in!

The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe

31 de març[ —]

We've covered Theodore Gray on Boing Boing a lot, and for good reason -- he's amazing. His Mad Science book was filled with spectacularly fun science experiments, he built a Periodic Table table with little compartments to hold samples of elements, and now he has a new coffee table photo book called The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe.

Each element is treated to a gorgeous two page spread, with photos and a fascinating short history.

Did you know:

... if you keep your household smoke detector around for a couple of thousand years, most of the americium will have decayed into neptunium (wait another 30 million years or so and it will become thallium, which the CIA can use to make Castro's beard fall out, if he's still alive)

... if you touch tellurium you will smell like rotten garlic for a few weeks?

... arsenic is commonly added to chicken feed (to promote their growth)?

... a chunk of gallium will melt in your hand (you can buy a sample here)?

... a speck of scandium ("the first of the elements you've never heard of") added to aluminum creates a very strong alloy (like the kind used in the Louisville Slugger that was involved in a lawsuit)?

Books that reveal how truly weird our world is are always welcome in my home. This one's a gem.

Max Barry on how science fiction prepares us for the apocalypse

31 de març[ —]

I greatly enjoyed Max Barry's 2013 novel Lexicon (Cory loved it, too -- here's his review). Barry has a new novel that came out today from Putnam, called Providence, which I started reading. It's a space thriller about a four person crew on an AI controlled spaceship programmed to seek and destroy "salamanders" - creatures that kill by spitting mini-black holes. It's terrific so far (I'm 70% finished).

I'm happy that Max wrote this op-ed for Boing Boing, titled "How Science Fiction Prepares Us For the Apocalypse." -- Mark

My favorite theory on why we dream is that we’re practicing for emergencies. Asleep, unguarded, our minds conjure threats and dilemmas so that once we wake, we’ve learned something. Maybe not very much—maybe only what not to do, because it rarely goes well. But we learn more from our failures than our successes, and this is what our minds serve up, night after night: hypothetical dangers and defeats. Whether we’re fleeing a tiger or struggling to persuade a partner who won’t listen, we fail, but we also practice.

I suspect that’s also why we read fiction. We don’t seek escapism—or, at least, not only that. We read to inform our own future behavior. No matter how fanciful the novel, in the back of our minds, something very practical is taking notes.

Popular fiction regularly mirrors the times in which it’s published. Two hundred years ago, society readers were thrilled by dangerous flirtations in Jane Austen novels; a century ago, people living in newly urbanized cities devoured mysteries and detective stories; and the 1930s gave rise to the Golden Age of science fiction, with stories that asked where technology might take us.

All of these types of books entertained, and occasionally stretched the bounds of plausibility, but they also delivered something very pragmatic: a chance for a reader to observe a dangerous new situation and explore ways to get out of it. In this way, every novel is not only a journey but also a guidebook.

This might seem a long bow to draw with science-fiction novels, which have, in their most popular variants, included giant sandworms, interstellar warfare, self-aware spaceships, and Morlocks. But those of us who have always devoured such stories know they are painted cloth pulled over real people. For every alien world, there is a foreign country or another race; for every threat from the stars, there is one from a government, or an evolving society, or a neighbor.

But beyond this, there is also the fact that a lot of these far-fetched stories are coming true. We are already living in the world of Fahrenheit 451—not the part where they burn books, but everything else. “Orwellian” has become useless as a descriptor, because it applies so neatly to so much; it has lost all context, all contrast.

Portrait of Australian novelist, Max Barry. Photograph by Chris Hopkins

And the post-apocalyptic stories have never seemed more directly relevant. Some are obviously so: There is no shortage of excellent novels featuring a terrible pandemic, or at least the threat of one, including The Stand by Stephen King, The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton, and Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. Blindness by José Saramago, published in 1995, tells a gripping story of quarantine in the face of an unknown viral affliction: A small group are locked down inside an asylum and guarded by soldiers—and what happens next, I will be very glad to have read if the current world situation gets much worse.

We might have read these stories for thrills, but in truth they offer an unexpected comfort: a sense of preparedness. Although I don’t know what’s coming, I do know what happened when the man and the boy walked The Road (Cormac McCarthy), and I watched how people survived, or didn’t, in Cloud Atlas (David Mitchell).

Some part of my brain has tucked away lessons from these books, I’m sure. What they’re worth, if tested, remains to be seen. But I feel better for having them. And for many of us, whether we are health patients or citizens, workers or parents, acting decently and rationally—keeping our heads even as the world gets weirder—is among the most important things we can do. Nothing is as terrifying as the unknown, and for science-fiction fans, who have been reading stories of blasted cities and fractured worlds for years, this is all known. No matter what happens next, or how bad it gets, we’ve been here before. We have, at least, dreamed about it.

Kinky medical role play and fetish supplier donates scrubs to hospital

31 de març[ —]

MedFetUK, a UK fetish company that deals in medical supplies and equipment for sex play has donated its supply of scrubs to a National Health Service hospital.

“It was just a few sets, because we don’t carry large stocks, but they were desperate, so we sent them free of charge...” MedFetUK tweeted.

"When we, a tiny company set up to serve a small section of the kink community, find ourselves being sought out as a last-resort supplier to our National Health Service in a time of crisis, something is seriously wrong. In fact, it's scandalous."

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