How To Blow Stuff Up

Oh, sure, you could just go buy some fireworks, but where's the fun in that? To really leave your smoking, blackened mark on history there are two things you've just got to have.

Don't make the mistake of thinking you can do this alone. There's a reason James Bond's archenemies always have hordes of minions. Or, on a less intentionally evil note, think of the Manhattan Project. To build the world's first nuclear bomb, the U.S. government eventually ended up employing more than 130,000 people over the course of six years. And you wouldn't catch a single one of them slacking off on the job—not even for legitimate health concerns.

For instance, Elizabeth Riddle Graves, who worked at Los Alamos, New Mexico developing key parts of the bomb's core, didn't let her pregnancy stand in the way of science. In fact, when she went into labor at the lab, she first finished the series of experiments she was working on before heading to the hospital. In retrospect the whole "baby + Los Alamos" thing doesn't seem like such a great idea, but those were simpler times and the point is, she cared.

Almost as important are the staff members who will stick by you, and your vision, long after things go boom. Alfred Nobel invented dynamite and then assuaged his conscience by setting up a fund for peace awards—but had it not been for his youngest engineering assistant and executor Ragnar Sohlman, the name "Nobel" would still be synonymous with destruction. When the inventor died in 1898, his vast estate was stored in numerous bank accounts sprinkled through eight different countries. And while his will called for the money to go toward the pursuit of peace, some members of his family had other ideas of how it might be spent. To fulfill his boss' last request, young Ragnar armed himself with a gun and sped (relatively, this was the 19th century) from city to city collecting the dough, with Nobel's greedy relatives in hot pursuit. Then, after managing to withdraw all the funds and put them in a single Swiss bank vault, he spent the next three years fighting legal disputes before the first Nobel Prizes could finally be awarded in 1901. His descendant, Michael Sohlman, is the current director of the Nobel Foundation. You can't put a price on employees like that.

Innovation can take many forms. Sometimes, you build off the work of others—like in the development of the car bomb. The first vehicle-based bombardment actually involved a horse cart and was the creation of an Italian-American Anarchist named Mario Buda. In September of 1920, Buda pulled his horse up to the corner of Broad and Wall streets in New York City, across from the J.P. Morgan Company. Just after noon, his vehicle exploded, taking 40 bystanders (and the poor horse) along with it. More than 200 people were injured, but the real target of the attack—J.P. "Robber Baron" Morgan himself—was completely unharmed, being in Scotland at his posh hunting lodge; a fact that, no doubt, enraged Buda even more. It would be another 27 years before the concept he developed really took off, however. It's believed that the first modern car bomb exploded on January 12, 1947, when a fascist, paramilitary Jewish organization known as the Stern Gang drove a truck full of explosives into a British police station in what was then Palestine. Other times, however, innovation requires a little more imagination. During World War II, armchair generals often sent their "great" combat ideas to the U.S. military—and most were filed in the wastebasket. But one concept, the brainchild of Pennsylvania surgeon Lytle Adams, did make it into production. Dr. Adams big idea: Bats. On January 12, 1942 (we don't know what the deal is with January 12 and explosions), the doctor sent a letter to the White House proposing a system of bat bombs. According to records, the plan was to fill a bomb-like canister with hibernating bats and then drop the canister from a plane. Slowed by a parachute, the canister would open and the bats (somehow awakened) would fly out—each one carrying a tiny time-delayed napalm explosive. Impressively, the military spent two years and $2 million on "Project X-Ray" before deciding it was "unfeasible."

Mad Magazine
12 Things You Might Not Know About MAD Magazine
Mad Magazine
Mad Magazine

As fast as popular culture could erect wholesome depictions of American life in comics, television, or movies, MAD Magazine was there to tear them all down. A near-instant success for EC Comics upon its debut in 1952, the magazine has inspired generations of comedians for its pioneering satirical attitude and tasteful booger jokes. This month, DC Entertainment is relaunching an "all new" MAD, skewering pop culture on a bimonthly basis and in full color. To fill the gaps in your knowledge, take a look at these facts about the Usual Gang of Idiots.


Jamie, Flickr (L) // Boston Public Library, Flickr (R) // CC BY 2.0

MAD creator Harvey Kurtzman was in the offices of a Ballantine Books editor discussing reprints for the fledging publication when he noticed a grinning, gap-toothed imbecile staring back at him from a bulletin board. The unnamed figure was ubiquitous in the early 20th century, appearing in everything from dentistry ads to depictions of diseases. A charmed Kurtzman adopted him as MAD’s mascot beginning in 1954. Neuman later become so recognizable that a letter was delivered from New Zealand to MAD’s New York offices without an address: the envelope simply had a drawing of Alfred.  


MAD was conceived during a particularly sensitive time for the comics industry, with parents and watchdog groups concerned over content. (It didn't switch to a magazine format until issue #24.) Kurtzman usually knew where the line was, but when he was laid up with acute hepatitis in 1952, publisher William Gaines and others had to step in for him. Gaines thought it would be funny to offer a fictional biography of himself that detailed his father’s Communist leanings, his past as a dope dealer “near nursery schools,” and bouts of pyromania. When wholesalers were shocked at the content and threatened to boycott all of his titles, Gaines was forced to write a letter of apology.  


But it was a cheat. In the run-up to the 1960 Presidential election, MAD printed a cover that featured Neuman congratulating Kennedy on his victory with a caption that read, “We were with you all the way, Jack!” But the issue was shipped long before votes had been tabulated. The secret? It was a dual cover. Flip it over and Neuman is celebrating Richard Nixon’s appointment to office. Stores were told to display the “right” side of the magazine depending on the outcome.


MAD Magazine

A character named Moxie Cowznofski was introduced in the late 1950s as a female companion for Alfred. She made only a handful of cover appearances, possibly due to the fact she looked alarmingly like her significant other.


From the beginning, Gaines felt that printing actual advertisements next to the products they were lampooning would not only dilute their edge but seem more than a little hypocritical. After some back-and-forth, MAD cut ads starting in 1957. The decision was a costly one—most print publications survive on such revenue—but led to the magazine’s keeping a sharp knife against the throat of seductive advertising, including cigarettes. Faced with dwindling circulation in 2001, Mad finally relented and began taking ads to help pay for a switch to color printing.


Cuban cartoonist Antonio Prohias was disenchanted with the regime under Fidel Castro when he began working on what would become “Spy vs. Spy.” Because Prohias’ other newspaper illustrations were critical of Castro, the Cuban government suspected him of working for the CIA. He wasn’t, but the perception had him worried harm might come to his co-workers. To get out of the situation, Prohias came to America in 1960. With his daughter helping translate, he stopped by Mad’s New York offices and submitted his work: his sneaky, triangle-headed spies became regulars.


Artist Al Jaffee, now 94, has been with Mad almost from the beginning. He created the famous Fold-In—the back cover that reveals a new picture when doubled over—in 1964 after seeing the fold-outs in magazines like National Geographic, Playboy, and Life. Jaffee has rarely missed an issue since—but editors backtracked on one of Jaffee’s works that referenced a mass shooting in 2013. Citing poor taste, they destroyed over 600,000 copies.  


With the exception of Fox’s successful sketch series, 1994’s MAD TV, attempts to translate the MAD brand into other media have been underwhelming: a 1974 animated special didn’t even make it on air. But a 1980 film venture, a military school spoof directed by Robert Downey, Sr. titled Mad Presents Up the Academy, was so awful William Gaines demanded to have their name taken off of it. (Renamed Up the Academy, the DVD release of the movie still features someone sporting an Alfred E. Neuman mask; Mad parodied it in a spoof titled “Throw Up the Academy.”)


MAD Magazine

MAD has never made a habit of good taste, but a depiction of a raised middle finger for one issue in the mid-’70s caused a huge stir. Many stores wouldn’t stock it for fear of offending customers, and the company ended up accepting an irregular number of returns. Gaines took to his typewriter to write a letter of apology. Again. The relaunched #1, out in April 2018, pays homage to this cover, though it's slightly more tasteful: Neuman is picking his nose with his middle finger.


MAD writer Tom Koch was amused by the convoluted rules of sports and attempted to one-up them in 43-Man Squamish, a game he invented for the April 1965 issue. Koch and artist George Woodbridge (“MAD’s Athletic Council”) prepared a guide that was utterly incomprehensible—the field was to have five sides, positions included Deep Brooders and Dummies, “interfering with the Wicket Men” constituted a penalty—but it amused high school and college readers enough to try and mount their own games. (Short on players? Try 2-Man Squamish: “The rules are identical,” Koch wrote, “except the object of the game is to lose.”) For the less physically inclined, Mad also issued a board game in which the goal is to lose all of your money.  


In what must be some kind of fulfilled prophecy, lyrical satirist “Weird” Al Yankovic was named as a guest editor—their first—for the magazine’s May 2015 issue. Yankovic told Entertainment Weekly that MAD had put him on “the dark, twisted path to becoming who I am today … I needed to pollute my mind with that kind of stuff.” In addition to his collaborations with the staff, Yankovic enlisted Patton Oswalt, Seth Green, and Chris Hardwick to contribute.


In a scene so surreal even MAD’s irreverent editors would have had trouble dreaming it up, Fred Astaire decided to sport an Alfred E. Neuman mask for a dance number in his 1959 television special, Another Evening with Fred Astaire. No one seems to recall why exactly Astaire would do this—he may have just wanted to include a popular cultural reference—but it was no off-the-cuff decision. Astaire hired movie make-up veteran John Chambers (Planet of the Apes) to craft a credible mask of Neuman. The result is … well, kind of disturbing. But it’s a fitting addition to a long tradition of people going completely MAD.

Additional Sources:
Harvey Kurtzman: The Man Who Created Mad and Revolutionized Humor in America.

Can You 'Hear' These Silent GIFs?

GIFs are silent—otherwise they wouldn't be GIFs. But some people claim to hear distinct noises accompanying certain clips. Check out the GIF below as an example: Do you hear a boom every time the structure hits the ground? If so, you may belong to the 20 to 30 percent of people who experience "visual-evoked auditory response," also known as vEAR.

Researchers from City University London recently published a paper online on the phenomenon in the journal Cortex, the British Psychological Society's Research Digest reports. For their study, they recruited more than 4000 volunteers and 126 paid participants and showed them 24 five-second video clips. Each clip lacked audio, but when asked how they rated the auditory sensation for each video on a scale of 0 to 5, 20 percent of the paid participants rated at least half the videos a 3 or more. The percentage was even higher for the volunteer group.

You can try out the researchers' survey yourself. It takes about 10 minutes.

The likelihood of visual-evoked auditory response, according to the researchers, directly relates to what the subject is looking at. "Some people hear what they see: Car indicator lights, flashing neon shop signs, and people's movements as they walk may all trigger an auditory sensation," they write in the study.

Images packed with meaning, like two cars colliding, are more likely to trigger the auditory illusion. But even more abstract images can produce the effect if they have high levels of something called "motion energy." Motion energy is what you see in the video above when the structure bounces and the camera shakes. It's why a video of a race car driving straight down a road might have less of an auditory impact than a clip of a flickering abstract pattern.

The researchers categorize vEAR as a type of synesthesia, a brain condition in which people's senses are combined. Those with synesthesia might "see" patterns when music plays or "taste" certain colors. Most synesthesia is rare, affecting just 4 percent of the population, but this new study suggests that "hearing motion synesthesia" is much more prevalent.

[h/t BPS Research Digest]


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