Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Trick or Tritium

Another quick hit: some secret declassified history sure to provide Halloween chills...

"There is no reason to believe the apocryphal story about the British Army choosing red uniforms because they do not show blood. But after 60-odd years of nuclear accidents, incidents, and whatnot, I can recommend that the STRATCOM commander consider brown pants."

Mercury Delay Lines


When I read this line in the article, my heart literally skipped a beat: "There were tanks of mercury (Mercury Delay Lines) where data was stored as sound waves for memory."

This is one of those days I wish I didn't have to do any actual work... all I want to do is spend hours going down the Wikipedia rabbit hole reading about these 'Mercury Delay Lines' and the alchemy of early computing.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Worshipful Livery Companies of the City of London

A while back I was looking at the Wikipedia entry for Sacha Baron Cohen after finding out his cousin was a fairly well-known neurobiologist. Looking at the former's educational history, I was bemused to find out his pre-university school was something called the "Haberdashers' Aske's Boys' School," and of course with a name like that I had to find out what was going on there. A school... founded for the sons of haberdashers? Even for the convoluted and idiosyncratic history of English education, that seemed a reach.

Turned out I was not far off. And this is how I first learned of the Livery Companies of London.


The Livery Companies are just what they seem like at first glance; a group of medieval guilds that survive in various forms to this day. The Haberdashers (sorry, "The Master and Four Wardens of the Fraternity of the Art or Mystery of Haberdashers in the City of London," I mean come on, how can you not get sucked in by a name like that??) are one of the "Great Twelve," the first 12 of these guilds to be formed (don't be fooled by the sign above, the Haberdashers have been around 1448). These guilds were prototypical late medieval guilds, formed to support the skilled craftsmen of the City of London, and as the years went on they took on many patronages, including funding mystery plays, almshouses, and schools.

For me, what fired my imagination was the diversity of these Companies. You can chart the history of London by looking at the "order of precedence," which, while not strictly chronological, does give an idea of the vast range of occupations that have made London their home over the past six centuries. The vast majority of the Companies were founded and given their Royal Charter well after the heyday of the medieval guild, during the rise of London as a world-class city in the 17th and 18th centuries. In these Companies you see the mercantile concerns of the era reflected: the Stationers and Newspaper Makers, the Clockmakers, the Tobacco Pipe Makers and Tobacco Blenders, the Makers of Playing Cards.

While most of the Companies only hold a ceremonial or charitable role these days, some are active in licensing their members. Most notable of these is the famous test of "the Knowledge" given to all London cabbies by the Worshipful Company of Hackney Carriage Drivers. The contrast between the more ancient guilds and the modern Companies is a lovely juxtaposition to ponder; it is difficult to imagine men in Elizabethan or Restoration garb as members of the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists (although I am sure somewhere out there someone is writing a steampunk novel where this Company exists in the Victorian era). The proposed Worshipful Company of Public Relations Practitioners seems a particularly good example of this as well. Other Companies, like the Salters and the Horners, have branched out into modern trades (industrial chemistry and plastics, respectively).

Why does this seemingly pedestrian, anachronous listing of professions fire my imagination so much? The Livery Companies just barely whisper of secret histories. Especially considering the magic woven into the streets of London, the idea of these seemingly vestigial traces of an older London having occult agendas and hidden rivalries in plain sight is absolutely right up my alley. The Companies have ancient secret headquarters, and Latin mottos, and fight for the Order of their Precedence regularly... how could the Companies not contain a secret history waiting to be uncovered‽

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Vortices of Blood: The Magic of Early Mexico City



Oh, right. It's finally time to talk about Colonial Mexico City and teleportation.

About a year ago I happened upon the mysterious case of Gil Pérez. Short version: in October 1593, a palace guard in Manila in the Philippines is witness to the news that colonial governor Gómez Pérez Dasmariñas has been slain by mutineers in the Mulaccas. He falls faint against a wall, and wakes up in Mexico City, over 9000 miles away. Imprisoned as a deserter and questioned by the Inquisition, his assertion that Governor Dasmariñas was killed was proven correct by passengers of the next Manila Galleon to arrive in Mexico two months after Pérez's sudden appearance. And then, Gil Pérez disappears from history, after having returned to his post in Manila and returned, one presumes, to a normal, non-teleporting life.

Here's the thing: this isn't the only case of teleportation in the records of colonial Mexico City.

Last month I caught this story on one of my news feeds. It occurred a full half-century prior to Pérez's accidental teleportation, and gives us a very different specimen of teleporter. Father Pedro Ruiz Calderón was a roué and blackguard, a black magician, alchemist, seducer of women, a braggart and a blasphemer who, yes, also happened to be a Catholic priest. During a sojourn in Mexico City, he ran afoul of the local Inquisition and was given a surprisingly light sentence from the local "hanging" archbishop, Juan de Zumárraga. He was exiled back to Spain where he presumably continued teleporting, turning invisible, mesmerizing women and living the life of a mid-16th century alchemical charlatan who claimed to have descended to Hell and stolen the devil's spellbooks.

But Mexico City as a nexus of weird, space-warping power has a bit of a pull, doesn't it? After all, the Spanish had erected their colonial capital on the site of the Aztec Empire's own capital, a city built into an imperial seat remarkably quickly on the bones and blood of massive human sacrifice. And let's take into consideration the thorough decimation that the Aztec population around Mexico City went through immediately post-Spanish takeover, in a sacrifice much more bloody than the thousands sacrificed in the dedication of the Templo Mayor. Tenochtitlan sat on an island in Lake Texcoco, and that along with its uniquely royal/holy status made it a strikingly liminal locale. Early Spanish conquistadores called Tenochtitlan a "dream city," unsure if it was real or an illusion.

That's a lot of heavy, dark power for a genius loci to soak up. No wonder that ambitious magicians like Father Ruiz Calderón were drawn to it, and that an innocent like Gil Pérez, in the aftermath of a smaller blood sacrifice in another Spanish colony half a world away, slipped into its vortex.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Voynichpunk


I'm trying desperately to not let Renfusa become a gaming blog. Let's just say that Tuesday night's Mage game, which is now visiting this blog's titular inspiration, found itself in the hoary area where Bacon's New Atlantis may or may not be the secret identity of the Voynich Manuscript. This area has been best explored in this fantastic blog, but what I want to talk about today is what the technology of Bacon's House of Salomon might visually resemble.

Is the New Atlantis science fiction? Well, it is clear that the scientists of Bensalem can do things undreamed of in even the modern era: perpetual motion, changing the sizes and physical properties of animals and plants, weather control, etc. The "what" of the genius of Salomon's House is richly explored, but quite left alone is the subject of "how." And from the "how" would inevitably spring, "what does this look like?" For a man who was seeking to enshrine something close to an experimental method in the courts of Europe, Bacon was frustratingly vague on how all these miracles of Bensalem became commonplace.

Even more interesting to me, from an aesthetic and storytelling sense, is what all this Bensalem tech looks like. If we just go kind of crazy and take as a given that the Voynich Manuscript is meant to be a descriptive missive from Bensalem, one rife with city plans and plans for scuba suits and pictures of women using Bacon's "baths of Adam and Eve," then we have to next ask ourselves, how would a society like this build and design their grandest, most complicated inventions?

Well, the interesting thing about our virtual tour of Salomon's House as detailed in the New Atlantis is that it begins underground. And that the fact they are able to dig deeper than any mine in the real world gives them access to "imitation of natural mines and the producing also of new artificial metals, by compositions and materials which we use and lay there for many years." So not only is Bensalemite metallurgy superior to that of Europe, the House of Salomon are essentially able to create ex nihilo (or perhaps "ex caverna" is more appropriate) completely alien and superior artificial metals. Again, with no explanation as to the "how" except an intimation that distance from the rays of the sun and moon allow this wondrous deed to happen. Remember, the pre-scientific tradition was the metals were found in the Earth's crust due to the influence of the planets (sun and moon included). So essentially what we're looking at here is some kind of "clean room" where fantastic metallurgy can be practiced.

In manufacturing, again, Bacon is frustratingly vague but we get a sense of what the ordinary run of Bensalemites gain from the pioneering work of Salomon's House: "We have also divers mechanical arts, which you have not; and stuffs made by them, as papers, linen, silks, tissues, dainty works of feathers of wonderful lustre, excellent dyes, and many others, and shops likewise as well for such as are not brought into vulgar use among us, as for those that are. For you must know, that of the things before recited, many of them are grown into use throughout the kingdom, but yet, if they did flow from our invention, we have of them also for patterns and principals." Salomon's House holds the patents, and slowly leaks out inventions that provide the greatest benefit. Everyday items are better than European ones, but similar, and they're made by machines.

It's in the crystaltech/vitritech that Bensalem begins to far surpass contemporary European technology. Like the metals mentioned above, Bensalem makes "precious stones, of all kinds, many of them of great beauty and to you unknown, crystals likewise, and glasses of divers kind." And these crystals and prisms are used in the House of Salomon's deceits of the senses: optics allow for magnification at a distance and close up. Optics was a burgeoning science in the 1620s, and Bacon makes sure that Bensalem has already perfected every use possible. Not only can they split light into the spectrum, but they can make full-fledged illusions with their prisms and lenses.

Heading back to Voynich for a second, it's interesting how evenly divided the manuscript is between the organic and the celestial. Plant life abounds in Voynich (indeed as it does in the New Atlantis), and the plants, as unrecognizable to modern eyes as they would have been to someone in the 17th century, seem to be combinations of familiar plants. The House of Salomon has gardens in which they "practise likewise all conclusions of grafting, and inoculating, as well of wild-trees as fruit-trees, which produceth many effects... [coming] earlier or later than their seasons, and to come up and bear more speedily than by their natural course they do." The plants in Voynich are huge and wild and and alien and they grow all over the pages.

Bensalem seems most like our modern world when we look at their skills in transportation and communication. It's strongly implied that the House of Salomon has taken the horse out of the equation for ground transportation ("[we have] swifter motions than any you have, either out of your muskets or any engine that you have.. [we] make them and multiply them more easily and with small force, by wheels and other means)" and that the air and underwater are also opened up to them. Also? Bensalem has the telephone. It's a tin-can telephone, granted, but it's immediately recognizable as a telephone. ("We have all means to convey sounds in trunks and pipes, in strange lines and distances.") A "series of tubes" could honestly describe both the visual appearance of Bensalem and that of Voynich.

The Bensalemites: crystal mages who are skilled in near-instantaneous genetic engineering, fantastic metallurgy, and can make powerful machines and facilitate long-distance communication using clockworks and pneumatic tubes respectively. It's a catalog of crackpot alternative technologies from the 17th century all the way to the present. Taken as a whole, it's Voynichpunk.