Cool Things In Random Places

A little refreshing randomness from around the globe

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It’s where the ‘four-knights opening’ could inspire a rap song.

The Hip-Hop Chess Federation holds tournaments that combine chess, poetry, and martial arts. Founded by a lecturer and a visual artist, its last tournament in October was frequented by multiple founders of the Wu-Tang Clan, members of Hieroglyphics and Living Legends Crew, and black-belt Ralek Gracie. Chess master and child prodigy Josh Waitzkin didn’t play – it wouldn’t be fair – but instead, he spoke on a panel.

Many rappers have a tendancy to use chess metaphors in their songs. Rap star GZA once opined, in Queen`s Gambit’: You know, war, capturing, thinking, strategy; Planning, music, it’s hip-hop, and sports; It’s life, it’s reality.` That song was only one of the songs on his 2005 album. It was titled, ‘Grandmasters.’

This federation was founded, first and foremost, to help educate young people. Chess, martial arts, and poetry all involve strategy, deep thinking, patience, focus – all the things that are so underemphasized in popular culture. Their chess tournaments are often mixed, for example, with symposiums on non-violence.

Florence Nightingale kept an owl in her pocket. It was named Athena.

Nightingale saved this owlet as a baby, after it fell from it’s nest at the Parthenon in Athens. For the next five years, she would care and tend to this owl, carrying it everywhere in the most convenient traveling case available – a pocket. The owl would become a trademark, of sorts, although a slightly dangerous one: it had a tendancy to peck at strangers.

It only lived five years, even with Ms. Nightingale as her keeper. After being posted to the Crimea for her nursing duties, Nightingale left Athena behind in the attic, thinking that she’d be able to fend for herself on local mice. Athena was found later, starved. A heartbroken Nightingale had her stuffed.

Nowadays, you can no longer keep owls as pets. To do so is illegal.

He was the ‘bard’ of the Soviet Union.

The government didn’t like to admit it, of course. Vladimir Vsotsky, for all of his massive popularity, was an official non-entity. He sang about the parts of Soviet Russia that weren’t supposed to exist – in the beginning, his famous ‘outlaw songs’ told tales about the drunks and prostitutes of Moscow. Over time, he would come to write dozens of serious satires, particularly about war. In the end, he would pen over six hundred songs that ranged over every imaginable subject – almost all of them written in the first person, and traded on bootlegged tapes by most of the Soviet population.

He battled with alcoholism his entire life. He spent his last ten years battling it with the help of Marina Vlady, a French actress who eventually joined the Communist Party in order to go to the Soviet Union more freely. In attempting to build their first home, Vsotsky had to provide free concerts to permit offices, factories and lumbermills. It was the only way to get the materials and proper paperwork.

On his grave stands a stirring monument, complete with angel wings. It is the last thing he or his wife wanted: such a monument is an expression of Soviet Realism. He continues to be almost completely unknown, outside of Russia.

It’s a window to the world.

More specifically, it’s a window between London and New York City, and it’s called the Telectroscope. It claims to be a tunnel, buried through the earth, connecting the two cities. If you stand on one side in Brooklyn, you can see out the other end, in London City Hall.

It isn’t quite the first of its kind. In 2003, people began to talk about a system called ‘Tholos,’ which aimed to network the cities of the world. Huge cylindrical screens would connect London to Vienna, Warsaw to Copenhagen, New York to Shanghai. But Tholos never got off the ground – whereas the Telectroscope goes straight through it.

Brits and New Yorkers alike have been waving hello for over a week now. The Telectroscope is an ‘art project,’ running for a mere month. As the story goes, the ‘tunnel’ was begun a hundred years ago, by the artist’s great-grandfather, Alexander Stanhope St. George. The reality is actually just some high-speed broadband – but the tunnel story is more fun.


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The line goes down the block, at five in the morning.

The Tsukiji Market, in Tokyo, has some of the freshest sea food you will ever see, let alone taste. This gigantic, sprawling epicenter of Japanese seafood commerce features hundreds of restaurants, kitchen wholesalers, and forklifts traveling at breakneck speeds. Octopus meatballs, grilled eels, and uni – sea urchin gonads – are all available, at not unreasonable prices.

For years, the tuna auctions were a must-see: starting from 5am, gigantic tunas are laid out for the highest bidder. In 2008, the first specimen sold for over six million yen – about $60,000 dollars. This was not a record: in 2001, a 400+ lb. tuna sold sold for over twenty million yen. More than anything, tourists would flock to this auction, if only to see for one hour the cutthroat competition that only a fishing empire can produce.

Sadly, this same sort of competition has run several fishing stocks to near extinction, at least commercially. In 2006, one investigation discovered that Japanese had illegally caught three times their fishing quota – for the past twenty years, every year. It was a fraud worth $2 billion, in bluefish tuna alone.

These days, tourists are no longer allowed to attend the tuna auction. Officially, camera flashes were distracting auctioneers. But unofficially, tourists just didn’t want to get up at 4am – and had stayed up all night, drinking.

It was found in an English garage.

This seemingly pickled dragon was also found with technical papers, in German. The papers suggested that in the 19th century, German scientists had created the creature – most likely out of india rubber, or wax – in order to hoax their British counterparts at the Natural History Museum. Supposedly, it was rejected and sent to be destroyed – but was intercepted by a porter in the process, and saved.

But it wasn’t just a fake – it was a marketing scheme. The entire story – the garage, the porter, the duplicitous 19th century scientists – was actually created out of whole cloth by a British fantasy author. The dragon, meanwhile, were created by modern model makers. But in the resulting media furor, he managed to finally score a book deal – about, of course, dragons.

It even has an umbilical cord. And hoax or no hoax, it was enough to make a few scattered dreamers very, very happy.

It’s cannibalism at its sweetest.

The body bakery, in Thailand, specializes in delicious body parts
. Made out of dough, raisins, cashews and chocolates, this specialty draws up to a hundred customers a day. The baker isn’t merely macabre – he’s an artist.

Kittiwat Unarrom has a master’s in fine art, but a family in the baking business. Sixty miles from Bangkok, he applies his art skills to the otherwise innocent profession of breadmaking. Faces seem especially popular, but the bakery provides tasty pastries for every limb.

Kittiwat’s ‘Human Bread‘ unnerved the neighbors at first – but the business is still going strong. And Kittiwat likes to suggest that there is a lesson in all of this: not to put so much stock in outward appearances.


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In 1971, a former military barracks in Copenhagen had a surprising rebirth.

In the face of rising rent, a group of journalists, anarchists, and hippies took the place over. They christened the place ‘Christiania,’ and released a mission statement announcing that the barracks would form a ’self-governing society.’ Residents would make their own rules through consensus. These rules would include, for example, no violence, cars, or bulletproof vests.

“Pusher Street” is one of its major thoroughfares: for years, it was the center of the local drug trade. Within a decade of the community’s beginning, however, hard drugs nearly tore the community apart – heroin overdoses killed several residents. Residents instituted a Junk Blockade in 1979, patrolling the community in groups and and issuing ultimatums to junkies.

Hash remained. Permanent hash stands lined the street, and the business was (at best) tolerated by the Danish government. In 2002, the government asked the citizens to make the hash trade less visible – so residents dressed their stands in camouflage. But two years later, police moved in. Residents tore down their own stands.

Christiania still exists, albeit precariously
. Riots in its defense have occurred as late as 2007. It is seen by many as a testament to how ideals can fade.

It used to be a power plant.

Nowadays, the Tate Modern is one of the most popular museums in London – it specializes in modern art. One huge room, in particular, is the site of some of its more unique works: the Turbine Hall, which once housed the power generators themselves.

It was here that a Danish artist exhibited his work: a gigantic, perpetual sunset. The Weather Project would run for five months, and some locals would return on a regular basis – just so that they could lie on the floor and stare at a single moment, for hours. The entire ceiling was replaced with mirrors, so they would stare straight up at their own shimmering reflection.

The Weather Project even gave some visitors a contact high. The meditative experience it inspired – by staring a hundred feet up at your own reflection – had some patrons comparing the experience to a drug trip. Some staff, sadly, didn’t fare quite as well: they said that the sugar water mist, used to set the scene, simply made them ill.

They are revered, praised, and toasted.

They are cherry blossoms – sakura – and they bloom for mere days
. In Japan, their arrival is a national event: wide-eyed newscasters narrate elaborate national maps, explaining how one particular region is in 60% bloom. When forecasters get their predictions wrong, by even one day, they issue national apologies.

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