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Bizarre facts


My books gestate from a database of structures, many of which I started almost ten years ago, in a repository of ideas I keep stocked with many files.

When I settle down to write the book, often several years after assembling its structure, I review the scenes, check the items needing research and start investigating.

I subscribe to a number of on-line libraries: Questia, Britannica, World Book, Library of Congress, the libraries of several universities and a few specialized research facilities such as E-Medicine or Knovel.

Sleuthing through scores of papers and publications to flesh an event or concept, I’ve come across many stimulating facts.

I’ve listed a few below, naming the novel and plot point that triggered the research.

Pygmies, from Perfect Circle

I mention pygmies in the middle part of the novel located in the Congo’s Ituri Forest. While researching the fascinating history of these people, I came across several puzzling articles advancing the possibility that America’s prehistoric inhabitants were pygmies.

Gentlemen's Magazine, 3:8:182, 1837.

In 1837, a number of tiny human skeletons from 3 to 4 1/2 feet tall were found buried in tiny wooden coffins near Cochocton, Ohio. There were no artifacts found, but the number of graves led one observer to note that they "must have been tenants of a considerable city."

A short distance from Cochocton, Ohio, U.S., a singular ancient burying-ground has lately been discovered. "It is situated," says a writer in Silliman's Journal, "on one of those elevated, gravelly alluviums, so common on the rivers of the West. From some remains of wood, still apparent in the earth around the bones, the bodies seem all to have been deposited in coffins; and what is still more curious, is the fact that the bodies buried here were generally not more than from three to four and a half feet in length. They are very numerous, and must have been tenants of a considerable city, or their numbers could not have been so great. A large number of graves have been opened, the inmates of which are all of this pygmy race. No metallic articles or utensils have yet been found to throw light on the period or the nation to which they belonged."

A much larger burial ground, was later found in Tennessee as reported by Anthropological Institute, Journal, 6:100, 1876.

An ancient graveyard of vast proportions has been found in Coffee county. It is similar to those found in White county and other places in middle Tennessee, but is vastly more extensive, and shows that the race of pygmies who once inhabited this country were very numerous. The same peculiarities of position Observed in the White county graves are found in these. The writer of the letter says: "Some considerable excitement and curiosity took place a few days since, near Hillsboro, Coffee County, on James Brown's farm. A man was ploughing in a field which had been cultivated many years, and ploughed up a man's skull and other bones. After making further examination they found that there were about six acres in the graveyard. They were buried in a sitting or standing position. The bones show that they were a dwarf tribe of people, about three feet high. It is estimated that there were about 75,000 to 100,000 buried there. This shows that this country was inhabited hundreds of years ago."

Conddottieri Colleoni, from The Damn Book

There are literally hundreds of oddities in this strange book. To include a representative sample here would prove unrealistic. This snippet is particularly dear to me, for reasons I don’t intend to publicize.

George M. Gould and Walter L. Pyle wrote in their seminal Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine, a work not copyrighted in the US, about polyorchids thus:

Polyorchids are persons who have more than two testicles. For a long time the abnormality was not believed to exist, and some of the observers denied the proof by postmortem examination of any of the cases so diagnosed, but there is at present no doubt of the fact,——three, four, and five testicles having been found at autopsies. Russell, one of the older writers on the testicle, mentions a monk who was a triorchid, and was so salacious that his indomitable passion prevented him from keeping his vows of chastity. The amorous propensities and generative faculties of polyorchids have always been supposed greater than ordinary.

Russell reports another case of a man with a similar peculiarity, who was prescribed a concubine as a reasonable allowance to a man thus endowed.

Please, allow me the digression but the breathtaking lyricism of, ‘and was so salacious that his indomitable passion prevented him from keeping his vows of chastity.’ And, ‘was prescribed a concubine as a reasonable allowance to a man thus endowed.,’left me winded. I was inspired to write ‘The Damn Book’.

A symbol of three balls was part of the coat of arms of the Medici, a 15th century Italian family of bankers and lenders, with considerable fame and fortune. They became so well known in the finance and lending profession that others, wanting to share in their success, adopted similar coats of arms, signs, shields and symbols with three golden balls being the most popular. Throughout the Middle Ages, you can find many coats of arms bearing three balls, orbs, plates, disks, coins, and more as symbolic of monetary success. Only monetary success?

Many years ago, I went on pilgrimage to Bergamo, to pay my respects to Condottieri Colleoni. (If Italian is not your forte, ‘colleoni’ is Italian for ‘cojones’ or the meek English ‘balls’). I say ‘meek’ because ‘balls’ lack the splendid rotundity of ‘cojones’.

Bergamo is a city divided into two parts. There is the Città Alta and the Città Bassa, where most of the business of the town gets transacted. After dropping my bags at the hotel in the Città Alta and refreshed with a glass of Chianti, I strolled down the road to the Colleoni Chapel, the destination of my pilgrimage, with Venetian lions guarding the façade against a backdrop profusion of pastel pink marble.

Inside, the place is adorned with just about every decorative artistic technique the Italians ever dreamed up, including frescoes by Tiepolo. Outside I paused before the golden equestrian statue of the condottiere Colleoni to pay my respects and stepped back around the fence to his coat of arms where three balls; an accurate anatomical reference, gleam brightly because people rub them for good luck. For a considerable time, I rubbed Colleoni’s balls in awed reverence, before removing to the sanctity of a nearby taverna for another glass of Chianti.

Six tons of missing diamonds, from Moonshards

An old friend, diamond trader and excellent bridge player, once told me of a recurring topic of conversation in diamond circles: the disappearance of six tons of gems during WWII. I couldn’t resist the challenge and over the following years I researched the subject, sifting through declassified documents. Below are the facts:

The office for Economy and Administration—Schutzstaffeln’s SS—in charge of concentration camps, made regular deposits in the Reichbank: hundreds of suitcases, trunks, and boxes containing gold, silver, platinum and a large quantity of gems. Many Jews exchanged their wealth and possessions into diamonds: small, valuable, light, and easy to hide in clothes-seams and pockets. To this, we must add most diamond traders in Germany, at that time, were Jews. In the cases and trunks of the ‘private deposits’ were also the spoils from the pillage to Ambers’ diamond centers and cutting houses.

Bank officials credited gems and precious metals, pilfered from the wretches at concentration camps, into a ‘Melmer’ account, managed by SS captain Bruno Melmer. Once in the bank, workers sorted the objects into trays, the metals separated for smelting into ingots and placement in different markets. In another room, experts handled the gems, assaying, weighing, sorting, parceling and storing them in leather pouches. Once classification was complete, bank officers credited the goods to another account in the name of Max Heiliger, a pseudonym of Heinrich Himmler.

On March 18, 1945, workers loaded the gold, silver, and platinum remaining at the Reichbank into trucks for transport to the Merkers mine. By then, the bank was little more than a smoking ruin. As well as the bullion, there were 1,230 leather sacks and pouches with a total weight over six tons, packed into 150 wooden crates lined with layers of waxed paper and soldered tin sheets. The cargo destination was room 8 of the Merkers mine as detailed in the transport documents and bills of lading.

Patton crossed the Rhine on March 22 and by April 5 he knew of the mine and suspected its contents. He secured the area and ordered all accesses sealed with several companies and armored vehicles from the 712 battalion.

A thorough search of the mine didn’t produce spectacular results other than a solid-looking brick wall at the end of a deep gallery. In the wall, there was an armored door with a narrow-gauge rail disappearing underneath. On April 8, engineers from the 282d battalion blew a hole to the side of the door and breached the wall Inside they found 1,300 boxes of German marks, with a value of $2.76 billion; $520 million in gold, silver and platinum bullion, gold coins and foreign currency. Behind the room, there were 189 pieces of luggage with spoils from the camps; 110 suitcases, fifty trunks, eighteen canvas bags and eleven crates. No tin-clad wooden boxes.

This gave me the idea to write a novel about the crates’ hypothetical fate.

The Piri Reis Map, from Perfect Circle

Toward the end of the novel, I describe a piece of gazelle skin where Piri Reis, an admiral of the Turkish navy, drew a map of the world in 1513.

The Piri Reis map shows the western coast of Africa, the eastern coast of South America, and the northern coast of Antarctica. The northern coastline of Antarctica is perfectly detailed. The most puzzling however is not so much how Piri Reis managed to draw such an accurate map of the Antarctic region 300 years before it was discovered, but that the map shows the coastline under the ice. Geological evidence confirms that the latest date Queen Maud Land could have been charted in an ice-free state is 4000 BC.

Further and more accurate studies have proven that the last period of ice-free condition in the Antarctic ended about 6000 years ago. There are still doubts about the beginning of this ice-free period, which has been put by different researchers everything between year 13000 and 9000 BC.

The question is: Who mapped the Queen Maud Land of Antarctic 6000 years ago?

In 1953, a Turkish naval officer sent the Piri Reis map to the U.S. Navy Hydrographic Bureau. To evaluate it, M.I. Walters, the Chief Engineer of the Bureau, called Arlington H. Mallery, an authority on ancient maps, who had previously worked with him. After a long study, Mallery discovered the projection method used.  To check out the accuracy of the map, he made a grid and transferred the Piri Reis map onto a globe: the map was totally accurate and portrayed the Earth’s circumference with a precision of 50 miles. He stated that the only way to draw map of such accuracy was aerial surveying.

The Piri Reis map is something which is not supposed to exist: the relative longitudinal coordinates are accurate and the first instrument to calculate longitude was invented in 1761 by the English John Harrison.

In fact Piri Reis himself admitted he based his map on older charts, such as the "Dulcert's Portolano", year 1339, where the latitude of Europe and North Africa is perfect, and the longitudinal coordinates of the Mediterranean and of the Black sea are approximated of half degree. Then there’s the "Zeno's chart", year 1380. It shows a big area in the north, going up till the Greenland. Another amazing chart is the one drawn by the Turkish Hadji Ahmed, year 1559, in which he shows a land strip, about 1600 Km. wide that joins Alaska and Siberia. Such a natural bridge has been submerged under the ocean since the end of the glacial period when the sea levels rose significantly.

Oronteus Fineus was another one who drew a map of incredible precision. He too represented the Antarctic with no ice-cap, year 1532. These maps show Greenland as two separated islands, as it was confirmed by a polar French expedition which found out that there is an ice cap quite thick joining what it is actually two islands.

Although it doesn’t disturb my slumber one bit——I’m usually asleep before my head hits the pillow——I wonder who was the cartographer from whose measurements these maps sprang and how on earth did he manage such accurate readings?

The world’s rarest coffee, from The Folks next door.

The Folks Next Door is a two-volume collection of short stories prefaced with:

Whenever the news unveil a new horror to afford us a glimpse into the darker aspects of the human soul, we often forget the actors in these tragedies are people like you or me; the taciturn bus driver, the affable hotel porter or the prim lady walking her poodle. People who awake under the same sun, dream under the same moon and harbor the wickedest thoughts. The folks next door is a collection of short stories about ordinary people; someone’s neighbors, mine or, perhaps, yours.

The original concept was to tell stories of everyday life. I wrote tales of the lonely, the sick, the poor, the different, the frightened, the confused and the strange.

One of the tales, Rare Foods. Inc, is set in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia (a stone throw from Finland and Russia), where I spent some of the worst days of my life. The research of Rare Foods. Inc, yielded this gem: Coffee grows in dozens of countries around the world. Some varieties have earned a special reputation, often based on a combination of rarity, unusual circumstances and particularly good flavor. These coffees, from Jamaican Blue Mountain to Kona to Tanzanian Peaberry, command premium prices. But perhaps no coffee in the world is in such short supply, has such unique flavors and interesting background as Kopi Luwak. And no coffee even comes close in price: Kopi Luwak sells for $75 per quarter pound. Granted, that's substantially less than marijuana, but it's still unimaginably high for coffee.

Kopi (the Indonesian word for coffee) Luwak comes from the islands of Sumatra, Java and Sulawesi (formerly Celebes), which are part of the Indonesian Archipelago.

On these Indonesian islands, there's a small marsupial called the paradoxurus, a tree-dwelling animal that is part of the civet family. The furry animals climb among the coffee trees eating only the ripest, reddest coffee cherries. The locals gather the feces with the beans, which come through the digestion process fairly intact, still wrapped in layers of the cherries' mucilage. The enzymes in the animals' stomachs, though, appear to add something unique to the coffee's flavor through fermentation.

Japan buys the bulk of Kopi Luwak, estimating a total annual crop of less than 500 pounds.

Curiously, Kopi Luwak isn't the only "specialty" food that begins this way. Argan is an acacia-like tree that grows in Morocco and Mexico which, through its olive-like fruit, yields argan oil. In Morocco, the Berbers encourage goats to climb the trees to eat the fruit. They later gather the goats' excrement and remove the pits, which they grind for oil to be used in massage, in cooking and as an aphrodisiac.

Qumran’s missing scrolls from Letters from Judea

Letters From Judea reflects my lifelong fascination with the desert and its people. After spending time in the Sahara, Kalahari, Egyptian and Judean deserts and sharing bread with Bedouins, a man changes irreversibly.  Nothing can ever be the same. A night in the desert, any desert, when the stars float down to a point where you could reach out with your hand and touch them, is a rite of passage.

My novel is set in Qumran, Jerusalem, Cairo, Cambridge, Lhasa and Yumbulagang in Tibet, but the plot relies heavily on the finds in Qumran. Not the publicized and catalogued paltry few, but the thousands of scrolls and artifacts—— coins and pottery——excavated from the desert site overlooking the Dead Sea nearly 50 years ago and never seen since.

The Ecole Biblique et Archéologique Française, a Dominican French school of biblical archaeology in East Jerusalem, has held the rights to the materials because they were excavated by Ronald de Vaux, a French scholar. Although Father de Vaux published raw field notes and preliminary reports about his work over the decades, the Ecole has refused to publish a list of the finds.

My research yielded strange accounts of how locals literally shoveled scroll fragments into sacks in waiting trucks and how hundreds of sealed clay urns containing scrolls vanished.

Loose scroll fragments have intermittently surfaced in the black market. In 1998, two fragments, each the size of a cigarette packet, were offered as tantalizing bait to a London scholar. The fragments belonged to two different and unique scrolls: catalogs; lists naming other scrolls, artifacts, and their location.

This, of course, led me to ask ‘what if?’ every author’s starting point.

Human hibernation, from Prisoner

Researching the science behind Prisoner was like picking coins from Scrooge’s purse. Scientists in Italy, Russia and the US refused to part with much solid data, taking refuge not in the now worn ‘top secret’ formula but the ‘industrial property’ one. If they manage to pull this particular rabbit out of science’s hat, the world will change beyond our wildest dreams. Or nightmares.

The Times April 22, 2005

Suspended animation is poised to move from science fiction to reality: scientists have successfully induced a state of reversible hibernation in mammals for the first time, using methods that could eventually be applied to human beings.

The breakthrough in the United States promises to allow doctors to slow human metabolism almost to a standstill, protecting critically ill patients from damage to the brain and other organs that would normally be inflicted by oxygen deprivation. Patient trials could begin within five years.

Cell Press, Thursday, April 6, 2006

The discovery of a possible hibernation hormone in the brain may unlock the mystery behind the dormant state. Hibernation allows animals from bears to rodents to survive unscathed--in a state of suspended animation--under the harshest of winter conditions.

"One of the most curious biological phenomena in mammals is their ability to hibernate circannually, which allows them to survive unusually low body temperatures at or near freezing," said study author Noriaki Kondo of Mitsubishi Kagaku Institute of Life Sciences in Japan.

"The finding has more than passing biological interest because understanding how tissues cope with the cardiovascular and oxidative stresses associated with hibernation or torpor may have direct clinical relevance," he added.

Please, note the dates. After a vague five year forecast in 2005 the trials are slatted to commence this year.

London Evening Standard May 27, 2007

Now researchers claim they are close to the breakthrough that will enable them to put astronauts into a state of suspended animation to make deep space voyages to faraway planets. Human trials are planned this year to chill volunteers so they go into 'induced hibernation' and sleep safely, possibly for months.

The breakthrough is a spin-off from three arms of research: Into the apparently miracle recovery of those who have shown no signs of life after 'drowning' in icy water; into better ways to treat troops with serious injuries; and into bringing heart attack victims back to life who have been 'dead' for several hours.

Nasa, the U.S. space agency, abandoned work on induced hibernation 20 years ago, but the European Space Agency has been quietly taking another look at it for the last three years.

Tia Encarna’s tale, from Once upon a Madhouse

I wrote ‘Once upon a Madhouse’ in Spanish. In a section of the book there’s the account of an indomitable old widow who, after twenty years, still mourns the departure of her companion: an army sergeant killed in an act of service.

Her nephew discovers the truth behind the sergeant’s heroic death. When a drunken captain and his mount, also drunk after polishing two buckets of wine, cause a commotion at the officer’s mess, the frightened staff calls the sergeant on duty. Failing to convince the rider to dismount his sloshed mount, the sergeant attempts to maneuver the pair down a rickety staircase when the horse slips and causes the sergeant death.

In my army days, I learned of an unlikely inmate that had languished in the barrack’s stocks for several years: a mule guilty of killing an officer with a kick. This gave me the idea for the plot point.

As I translated ‘Once upon a Madhouse’ into English I checked to ascertain if the mule’s affair was an isolated case and discovered other four-legged criminals had shared similar fates.

On an EFE dispatch dated October 24, 2004 I found that a Rottweiller dog was arrested by the police and thrown in the slammer after attacking a passer-by. Police Colonel Rodrigo Tamayo, head of the judiciary police of Pichichia province, Quito, Ecuador, confirmed that ‘Toby’ is in custody but well, receiving the same treatment of other inmates with visiting hours, exercise and adequate diet, although his cell is a box on the prison’s exercise yard.

From an article by Anxel Vence, a journalist at El Faro Gallego, I learned that in 1999 the mayor of Baiona ordered a cow named ‘Pinta’ to be placed under arrest after being caught in fraganti chomping the lush grass of the municipal gardens. Only after several years of trials did the cow’s defense lawyers manage ‘Pinta’s release.

There’s a rumor to the effect that after a recruit’s accidental death by drowning, the army court-martialed the culprit: a pond, alas, I’ve not been able to substantiate such a many- splendored claim.

Raw milk, from The Christmas Tree

Researching big events is easy; there’s usually a mountain of data from where to extract single details. Tiny issues of everyday life are much harder: the information is scant, if it exists at all. Researching the minutiae is a labor of love, often stretching for years before hitting pay dirt.

A section in The Christmas Tree touches controlled substances: a product whose sale is illegal and can land its buyers and sellers in prison.

Tucked under a pile of newspaper articles about drug trafficking I found a dispatch from Thomas Bartlett, of the Washington Post:

The issue of selling raw milk is, legally speaking, dicey. To determine exactly how dicey, I called Ted Elkin, deputy director of the Office of Food Protection and Consumer Health Services at the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Elkin is in charge of making sure the state’s dairy laws are enforced.

“So,” I begin carefully, “Maryland’s position on raw milk is . . .?”

“Raw milk is illegal for sale,” Elkin says. “Period.”

“Huh,” I reply.

To help drive this point home, Elkin compares selling raw milk to selling pot.

That’s right, there is a dangerous underground cadre of debauched people who prefer to drink their milk straight from the cow, sans pasteurization and homogenization——and government is increasingly out to stop them. Some states, in fact, equate the sale of raw milk with the sale of drugs.

As a boy, my mother would send me to the local dairy armed with a metal jug and a few cents, (make that pesetas) to buy two pints of milk. I can now add controlled substance handling, pushing and dealing to the list of my accomplishments. Not bad.

The Wicked Bible, from The Damn Book

In chapter eight, there’s a reference to several priceless bibles, part of the treasure of a wealthy rare book collector. Among them there’s one called ‘The Wicked Bible’.

The 1631 King James Version Bible, known in the antique book trade as ‘The Wicked Bible’ is an unspeakably rare collector’s item. The printers were fined 300 pounds sterling, a huge sum at the time, for their terrible typographical error in printing one of the Ten Commandments. By error or omission the all-important word “not” is missing, thus rendering the verse as, “Thou shalt commit adultery” The total printing of 1,000 copies were ordered destroyed, but (you guessed it) a handful escaped destruction. Lat time I checked, a rare book dealer offered one for the paltry sum of $ 100,000.

The wood knot, from Bar Tales

In one of my multiple re-incarnations I served in the Spanish Army. While playing with explosives at training camp, I heard a group plotting a pilgrimage to a nearby village to honor a door.

It seems, a young recruit of humble extraction had for years pursued the village chieftain’s daughter. The girl’s father, his eye on a landowner’s scion, refused to give his consent. The hapless young man could only ogle his beloved from afar in the scant occasions she traipsed the village under her chaperone’s eagle eye.

In the evenings, Romeo would sneak to a door barring the entrance to the mansion’s grounds and vent his wretchedness to a receptive Juliet listening on the other side.

A few months later the father grudgingly consented to a shotgun marriage when he discovered that Juliet’s glow owed nothing to the abnormally mild weather but a healthy pregnancy.

After an eventful trek lasting several hours, with frequent stops to wash down ‘chorizo’ sausage with the fortifying contents of a goatskin, we reached the village and stood by an imposing door. I will never forget my fellow pilgrims’ faces, lit in awe, like those alabaster statues with a lamp inside. A knot must have loosened and detached from the door, leaving a circular opening, perhaps an inch and a half across. But the wonder of the moment sprang from the door itself, a massive construction darkened by age and a good four inches thick.

Chicozapotes, from Perfect Circle

In the third chapter there’s a paragraph:

‘The sheer incline, like the rest of the trail to Dulce Nombre de Culmí, is covered in dense groves of pine and oak, with a scattering of other trees——splendid mahoganies, Spanish cedars, balsa ceibas, guayacos, rosewoods, and chicozapotes. The forest formed a tunnel, usually soft-lit through the leafy canopy but now darkened by the torrential rain. On the floor and between the stones, water trickled in muddy streams toward the valley over a mile below.’

The description may not be Pulitzer Prize material but it’s as accurate as I remember from a wretched trek through the Agalta Cordillera in Honduras. I bet you recognized most of the trees: pine, oak, mahogany and cedar are common enough. Balsa Ceibas, even if the name doesn’t ring familiar, you might have seen pieces in the hobby section of some stores: feather-light strips of wood model engineers use to build aircraft or ships. But, what of the chicozapote?

The sap of this splendid tree was milked and known to Aztecs as ‘chicle’; women and young folks chewed it to clean their teeth.

As the popular story goes, in the year 1866, Mexican general Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana gave a kilogram of chicle gum to Thomas Adams, a dentist in New York City. After a year of experimentation, Adams marketed his first commercial chicle chewing gum, and the chicle industry was born.

The primary ingredient in chewing gum was the latex sap of the chicozapote tree. This sap was collected by native workers who came to be known as chicleros. They collected the sap by using a machete to cut v-shaped diagonal slashes in the bark of the tree. Latex would run down the slashes into bags at the bottom of the trunk, which were picked up by the chicleros the next day. After heating the latex to reduce its water content, it was formed into blocks and sent to factories in the United States. From about 1880 until the late 1940s, chicle was the most important use of the chicozapote tree. The industry declined after World War II, when cheaper synthetic substitutes were found for chicle, but has never stopped entirely.

Color power, from Light Bondage

Most of my professional life has centered on light and seven of my non-fiction published works deal with this subject. When researching ongoing investigations about the psychological effects of light in human beings, I pored over scores of papers, most of them outlandish and verging on quackery, when I came across this gem.

A Critical Analysis of Chromotherapy and Its Scientific Evolution
© Samina T. Yousuf Azeemi and S. Mohsin Raza
Department of Physics, University of Balochistan Quetta, Pakistan
(2005). Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.

A new technique that has been developed over the past two decades as a result of pioneering research is photodynamic therapy (PDT). This is based on the discovery that certain intravenously injected photosensitive chemicals not only accumulate in cancer cells but also selectively identify these cells under ultraviolet light. These photosensitive chemicals then exclusively destroy the cancer cells when activated by red light, whose longer wavelength allows it to penetrate tissue more deeply than other colors. PDT can be used for both diagnosis and treatment. Thomas Dougherty, who developed PDT, reports that in a worldwide experiment more than 3000 people with a wide variety of malignant tumors have been successfully treated using this technique.

Chromotherapy is now used to improve the performance of athletes; whereas red light appears to help athletes who need short, quick bursts of energy, blue light assists in performances requiring a steadier energy output.

By comparison, pink light has a tranquilizing and calming effect within minutes of exposure. It suppresses hostile, aggressive and anxious behavior. Pink holding cells are now widely used to reduce violent and aggressive behavior among prisoners, and some sources have reported a reduction of muscle strength in inmates within. It appears that when in pink surroundings, people can never become aggressive despite their desire, because the color saps their energy. In contrast, yellow should be avoided in such contexts because it is highly stimulating. Gimbel suggested a possible relationship between violent street crime and sodium yellow street lighting.

I get it. If I’m ever locked up with a bunch of dock hands after cleaning them up at a game of loaded craps I shouldn’t fret providing we’re in a pink holding cell. Despite their desire (we shoot my dice) the color will sap their energy. I must watch out, though. If the judge sends us home after dusk and the streetlights are on, I’m history.

Cockroaches, from Manhattan’s Prophet

This novel required in depth studying the habits of a particular insect. When I concluded the research, my knowledge of roaches would have made most entomologists pale with envy. These are a few of the snippets I unearthed.

During the Vietnam War, the U.S. used cockroaches to detect farmers who were doubling as Communist guerrillas. First, suspected Vietcong guerrilla meeting places were sprinkled with synthetic female cockroach pheromones. Then, questionable Vietnamese farmers were made to walk slowly past cages containing male cockroaches. If a farmer had visited the meeting place earlier, the female scent on him would make the male cockroaches react.

I bet you didn’t know roaches could rat out.

In Brazil, there's a species of cockroach that eats eyelashes, usually those of young children while they are asleep. The hungry little insect is attracted to the minerals and moisture from the tear ducts.

Don’t let the above disturb your slumber, the snippet is probably hearsay. I ask you... surely... it can’t be true... can it?

My favorite, however, is the discovery by an anonymous scientist of the causes responsible for global warming. Al Gore will go ballistic if he finds out.

Insect flatulence may account for one-fifth of all the methane emissions on this planet. (Termites are also prodigious farters; indeed, dogs trained to sniff out termites are actually following their farts.)  Cockroaches are among the biggest contributors to global warming, since they break wind every fifteen minutes. Furthermore, they continue to release methane gas for eighteen hours after they die.

Bezoars, from Prisoner

Prisoner required unusual research and several trips beneath the city streets to trample sewers in a bid to garner a whiff of the atmosphere. At the time, several enterprising young men offered guided sewer tours in Barcelona, Rome, London and Paris. During a particularly obnoxious sojourn I learned of a hairball legend I later used on one of the Prisoner scenes:

“A friend told me about giant hairballs clogging the sewers under the city streets.”

Laurel reached for his hand. “Hairballs?”

“It seems that over the decades, strands of hair molted by millions of citizens have built up.”

Lukas checked his watch again and stepped closer.

“You’re joking,” Laurel said.

“I’m not. Lacquered by grease and dirt, tons of hairs have formed huge furry, knotted boulders that swell all the time and trundle though the sewers.”

After countless hours poring over hard-to-get sewer data, I failed to confirm the hairball’s existence, an otherwise intriguing proposition, but discovered unexpected treasures in the unlikeliest of places:

Irish medical journal June 1992 volume 85 no 274
Qureshi. Nh; Morris. K; McDevitt. D.
Dept of Surgery, Sligo General Hospital, Co Sligo

Bezoars are repulsive bundles of hair, vegetable fibers, or food that form in the stomachs of humans (and animals). Incredibly, Queen Elizabeth I had a bezoar included in her crown jewels. Sometimes bezoars become large enough to cause trouble. One woman chewed her hair enough for a bezoar to form; it was large enough that it had to be surgically removed.

The complications of bezoar formation can be classified into two categories; mechanical and traumatic. The mechanical complications are obstruction and ileus. Obstruction of gastric outlet or intestinal obstruction is caused by either small broken off pieces or through long string like extensions of the main mass going in certain cases up to ileo-caecal valve or even transverse colon giving it the legendary name of 'Rapunzel Syndrome'.

Cases of trichobezoars should be seen as ones who have some underlying emotional stress leading to trichophagy. Although trichophagia is not frequently related to full blown neuro-psychiatric disturbance but it is said that the trait represents a personality disorder analogous to the finger nail biting.

I agree with the learned authors; ‘Rapunzel Syndrome’ truly is a legendary name.

Niguas, from Of Mice and Men.

This particular piece of research was easy, as I could draw from personal experience.

Once upon a time in Manaus (800 miles up the Amazon River and bear right at the confluence with Rio Negro) a French colleague harbored Niguas under his toenails. When he frowned at our kerosene-soaked stout boots, we had tried to explain that trampling the jungle in sandals was fine for the natives, but he didn’t listen. After untold suffering at the hands of the European doctor traveling with us, a local chaman saved his foot. The sage dislodged the troublesome insects with a high-tech instrument: an acacia thorn.

Niguas are referred by some as a burrowing tic, but it’s a sand flea, almost impossible to see with the naked eye. The nigua will burrow into any exposed skin, most commonly the toes, but also the hands. They must be removed with a small thorn or a needle. A way to prevent them is to step in kerosene daily. Those in the know keep a shallow pan of kerosene near the shack’s door for this purpose.

In places without electricity, the lack of radio or TV can foster long evenings with little to do. Niguas and other parasites provide much needed family entertainment. In the evening, Indian families will sit around and de-louse one another. I am sure you have seen the pictures where they appear to be eating the lice. Actually, they are only using their teeth to kill them. If they only remove them and toss them to the ground, they will be back. It’s a sign of affection to de-louse someone, although whenever I’ve attempted to demonstrate this affection to my wife, she’s refused.

Reading this far, singles you out as a fearless soul and you deserve a prize. I’ll share two priceless snippets of wisdom should you ever move through jungle:

Leave your aromatic conditioning shampoo home and steal the dog’s. Dog shampoo is great to keep lice at bay. If,(it’s almost inevitable) you end up with lice, cover your head in cooking oil, pop on a plastic shower cap for 24 hours, and then, shampoo out.

Hang on a minute... you mean trample through the jungle in a shower cap?

My friend, most therapies have side effects. Causing the locals to split their sides at the sight of you is a small price to pay for getting rid of lice.

Shanghaiing, from The Spaniard’s Woman

The Spaniard’s Woman is an ongoing project I’m co-writing with S.J. Thomas; an historical saga set in XVIII century England and Africa. Sifting through thousands of details to flesh a long and accident-riddled voyage in the age of sail, I pored through copious accounts of Shanghaiing.

Shanghaiing, was the act of forcibly conscripting someone to serve on a ship, usually after having been rendered senseless by alcohol or drugs. The term was mainly used on the west coast of the United States. Any friendless man in port cities like San Francisco, Portland and Astoria, Oregon, and Seattle and Port Townsend, Washington was in danger of being “shanghaied”. While most assume the phrase was named after Shaghai, the Chinese port, some veteran seamen claim the term comes from the British shilling. British recruiting agents dressed in civilian clothes would offer shillings to needy looking men for a drink. If a man took the shilling, he was then told that he had enlisted in the queen’s navy, and would immediately be whisked away and put on board a ship.

Shanghaiing flourished principally because of the nature of shipping in the 1890s. After arriving at Portland harbor, most ships would have to wait four or five months before getting another cargo. In stead of paying and feeding their crews, the skippers of these ships would let their unsuspecting charges go overboard and into Portland, then accuse them of desertion and forfeit their pay. Then, when another cargo had been arranged, the skipper would hire a “crimp” to pick up a new crew.

A crimp was a lot like a “sea-pimp,” and these bounty hunters practically ruled the Waterfronts of Portland and Astoria in the late 1800s. Originally a British slang term for “agent,” crimps would act as maritime middlemen, using any means necessary to deliver warm (at times), usually drunken or unconscious bodies to awaiting sea captains. The resourceful crimp would then receive his “blood money,” usually anywhere from $25 to $50 a head, sometimes going as high as $150, depending on the circumstances.

The practice of shanghaiing men was not limited to Pacific ports, but due to the efforts of Samuel Plimsoll, the United Kingdom passed the Merchant Shipping Act in 1876, which curtailed the practice. Demand for manpower to keep ships sailing to Alaska and the Klondike kept this a real danger in American ports into the early 20th century, when with the help of Andrew Furuseth, Senator Robert LaFollette pushed through legislation in 1915 that made this practice a federal crime, and finally put an end to it.

Killer Lake, from As Above as Below

My wife is always on the lookout for strange articles I may use in my stranger novels.  During banishment in Barcelona, she sent me a parcel laden with my favorite lemon cookies, letters from the children, sundry bits and pieces and a copy of a Science magazine with a weird account.

Somewhere in Africa, the people living around a particular lake died in their sleep along with their goats and other living creatures nearby. In the morning, when the disaster became apparent, medical personnel couldn’t fathom the causes of death. After years of careful observation, a team of scientists found the culprit: a killer lake. Yet, their findings couldn’t prevent another catastrophe a few months later.

From Europe Press June 16, 1986

At least 1,200 people are feared dead in Cameroon, West Africa, after a cloud of lethal gas escaped from a volcanic lake. The tragedy happened at Lake Nyos, about 200 miles (322 km) northwest of the capital, Yaoundé, during the night. Most of the victims died in their sleep.

It is not yet known what caused the gas to escape the lake, which lies in a volcanic crater. But independent scientists say this is unlikely, as the volcano is believed to be extinct. Rescue teams wearing gas masks have been rushing cylinders of oxygen to the remote area to help any who may have survived.

There was a similar escape of toxic gases at a nearby lake in the same volcanic crater two years ago which killed 37 people. The cause of that disaster, too, remains a mystery.

It appears gas leaks through fissures at the bottom of the lake and dissolves in the water. Eventually, the water becomes saturated and a sudden change in temperature or earth tremor can trigger a chain reaction releasing tons of gas into the atmosphere. Being heavier than air, a blanket of gas smothers anyone inside its lethal perimeter. In the morning, the breeze scampers the murder weapon leaving the corpses behind.

The Alexandria Lighthouse from Pharos

Instead of a novel needing research, this is an instance where research demanded a novel. A colleague once mentioned drawings depicting strange arrays of lenses and mirrors on display at an exhibition of rare manuscripts in a London auction house. After securing facsimiles of the drawings, I thought the measurements had to be wrong. The optical components were too large. I worked out the focal points to a distance of 60 miles and was about to discard the whole thing when I thought of a possible use for such an assembly of optical devices.

The story of the Alexandria lighthouse starts with the founding of the city by the Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great in 332 B.C.  Alexander died soon after in 323 B.C. and the city was completed by Ptolemy Soter the new ruler of Egypt. Under Ptolemy the city became rich and prosperous. However, it needed both a symbol and a mechanism to guide the many trade ships into the busy harbor. Ptolemy authorized the building of the Pharos in 290 B.C., and when it was completed some twenty years later, it was the first lighthouse in the world and the tallest building in existence, with the exception of the Great Pyramid.

The lighthouse's designer, Sostrates of Knidos, wanted to carve his name into the foundations. Ptolemy II, the son who ruled Egypt after his father, refused this request wanting his own name to be the only one on the building. A clever man, Sostrates chiseled: SOSTRATES SON OF DEXIPHANES OF KNIDOS ON BEHALF OF ALL MARINERS TO THE SAVIOR GODS into the foundation, then covered it with plaster. Into the plaster he carved Ptolemy's name. As the years went by the plaster aged and chipped away revealing Sostrates' declaration.

In the building, staircases allowed visitors and the keepers to climb to the beacon chamber. There, a concave mirror, made of polished metal, was used to shape the fire's light into a beam. Other accounts mention a huge lens and others still a series of lenses. It was said ships could detect the light from the tower at night or the smoke from the fire during the day up to one-hundred miles away.

Other stories recount that the mirror or the lenses could be used as weapons to concentrate the sun and set enemy ships ablaze as they approached. Another tale says that it was possible to use the mirror to magnify the image of the city of Constantinople from far across the sea to observe what was going on.

The interior of the building’s upper sections had a shaft with a dumbwaiter that was supposedly used to transport fuel up to the fire, yet measurements extrapolated from drawings indicate that the elevator was remarkably small.

Inscriptions in clay tablets and other accounts hint at something far removed from fuel transported to the beacon chamber.

As a lighting professional, the tales and descriptions of mirrors and lenses piqued my curiosity. So, I pored over the London drawings, assessed the dumb waiter, saw the light and started writing.

The oiran caste, from Tayū

A common strategy in chess entails the sacrifice of piece to gain a positional or ‘quality’ advantage in the endgame. When the offered victim is a pawn the ruse is dubbed a poisoned pawn gambit. The traditional poisoned pawn is a variation of the Sicillian Najdorf defense but if you’re not a chess buff this snippet is superfluous. I only wrote the sentence to place the keyword a distance away: gambit.

A gambit means giving something tangible in exchange for an intangible. In chess we offer a pawn to the contrary hoping he’ll take it and drive a big gun, usually the queen, to a corner where its power will be diminished.

Poisoned pawn is almost synonymous with poisoned gift: if you take it you may be doomed; if you don’t take it you may be losing an advantage and will play in your mind what would have happened had you taken it. A conundrum.

From these musings sprung the concept for Tayū, one of the novels I’ve earmarked for writing next year.

These notes are from Tayū’s research file.

People are generally mistaken about the meaning of geisha, or geiko to be precise. There’s considerable confusion among westerners and other non-Japanese about geishas and their precise role as escorts and entertainers without involving sexual commerce.

Geishas and maikos, their young apprentices, were ladies of great intelligence and beauty who entertained nobles and wealthy individuals with music, song, poetry and often wit.

The confusion probably stems from another class of pleasure companions: the oiran.

Oiran were high-class prostitutes originally of the Japan Edo period (1600-1868). Oiran entertained their clients in well-appointed zashiki (sitting rooms) and had one or several attendants. To be an oiran, a woman had to have a measure of intelligence and beauty but their core role was sexual. Oiran weren’t trained from birth in the arts the way a geisha would be and in some instances a geisha would play instruments to entertain the oiran and her customers.

Besides striking differences in hairstyles and clothing, two salient elements identified an oiran from a geisha or a maiko: Oiran didn’t wear tabi and showed off their bare feet atop impossibly tall geta wooden sandals. Also, oiran tied their obi in the front, apparently to be able to remove it with greater ease.

Tayū was the highest attainable rank for an oiran, a delicatessen for the lucky daimyo who could afford her fees.

Now you’re thinking, what on earth has to do a poisoned pawn with a Tayū?

My friend, it should be obvious:  the Tayū of my novel is a poisoned pawn.


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