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5 Cults We Feel OK With

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Maybe it's all the news of "Anonymous" protests against Scientology that have been dominating the blogs lately, but it seems the word "cult" is on a lot of people's minds. Which makes me think about just how many cults there are out there -- and not just the religious kind, either. Merriam-Webster has not one but five definitions for "cult," the most expansive of which is "a great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work ... usually by a small group of people." We're gonna take that pony and run with it.

Cult Movies: Fat Guy Goes Nutzoid!

Produced by Troma Studios, cultiest of cult film producers, notorious for birthing films like Sgt. Kabukiman, NYPD and Trey Parker and Matt Stone's freshman effort, Cannibal! The Musical. Fat Guy Goes Nutzoid!, however, holds the dubious distinction of being one of Troma's strangest films, and probably my first "cult" favorite (my friend Laurie had the tape in her massive video library; to her utter frustration, every time I came over, I would pull it down and insist we watch it). The "plot" revolves around two brothers who befriend an escaped mental patient (the titular "fat guy") and accompany him on his misadventures in the big city. What follows is barely comprehensible but highly entertaining, depending on your sense of irony; "fat guy" screams at a lot of people, busts up a funeral, there are a lot of jokes stemming from the brothers being high on 'ludes ... you get the idea. Variety actually reviewed it, dubbing it "A steady source of cheap, vulgar gags," a blurb which appears prominently on the back of the video box. That's Troma for you.

Cult Cars: the Subaru BRAT

brat.JPGThere are plenty of cars out there that people call cult, like the Lamborghini Countach or the Volkswagen Beetle, but if car was on every teenage boy's wall in poster form in the 80s (the former) or is one of the best-selling cars in history (the latter), we say it doesn't count. Cult means rare, and cult means a small, devoted following. That pretty much defines the devotion of BRAT owners. One of the ugliest cars in history (with the possible exception of the El Camino), devotees call its looks "quirky" and extol it as ahead of its time. Its name is actually an acronym for Bi-drive Recreational All-terrain Transporter, and it was essentially a four-wheel-drive station wagon with the wagon-top cut off. Other quirky features included a jumpseat welded into the back, which allowed Subaru to classify BRAT as a passenger car rather than a truck, and skip out on some otherwise pricey import duties; it also explains much of the cult appeal of this weird vehicle. I had a BRAT-owner friend, and his favorite feature was that the Subaru logo in the middle of the steering wheel could be pried off, revealing a tiny empty space. "That's where you keep your weed," he explained. (I think that pretty much says it all.) BRATs haven't been made since the 90s, but there's a healthy used-BRAT trade -- apparently they just won't die. (Sounds like Troma should make a movie: Drug-addled BRATs Must Die!!!, or something.)

Cult Whiskies: Port Ellen

portellen.jpgOld, increasingly rare and made in small quantities, Scotch is the perfect cult item. For you non-whisky-geeks out there, one of the most popular styles of Scotch whisky comes from the Scottish island of Islay (pronounced ee-luh), known for its strong peaty flavor. This is one of those love-it-or-hate-it whiskys (even for lovers of whisky), with tasting notes that usually go something like "iodine, tar, explosive salt, hospital gauze, like standing downwind from a fire on the beach." A special sub-strata of whiskys are those that come from distilleries that have been mothballed, and Port Ellen was one of many that didn't make it through the whisky slump of the 1980s -- but happened to make really excellent whisky. Supplies of Port Ellen are still being released, incrementally, but as they become rarer and rarer, Port Ellen becomes cultier and cultier. It's not uncommon to find bottles selling for well over $1,000.

Cult Computers: the Apple Lisa

lisa.jpgThis is a cult that the Floss' own Chris Higgins belongs to -- I know he's been keeping his eye out for a used Lisa for years. Here's what he had to say about it: "For Mac geeks and computer people in general, it's a fascinating look into a very special time in computer history — after the success of the Apple II, Steve Jobs and crew at Apple were attempting to create the next big thing. After releasing the Apple Lisa, which was a flop primarily due to its $9,995 price tag, Apple needed a hit." That's $20,000 in today's money, which Apple felt was justified because the Lisa included such cutting-edge (for 1983) features as a graphical user interface (GUI), a mouse, a built-in screensaver and a then-blistering 5Mhz clock speed. (By the way, if anyone knows where Higgins can get ahold of an original Lisa, let us know.)

Cult Fiction: A Confederacy of Dunces

200px-Confederacy_of_dunces_cover.jpgDunces is cult for a few reasons -- one because it's rare; the author, John Kennedy Toole, killed himself 11 years before the book was published in 1980, so there are no more Toole novels in the ol' pipeline. It was plucked from obscurity by a giant of Southern literature, Walker Percy, and was awarded the Pulitzer in 1981. Hollywood has been trying to turn it into a movie for years -- Steven Soderbergh was recently attached to the project -- but so far, nothing doing. It's also considered cult for its quirky subject matter, namely its protagonist, Ignatus J. Reilly, a brilliant but slothful slob finally forced out of the house to seek a job by his mother at age 30. Eccentric and deluded, Reilly's inner monologue is one of the funniest we've read.

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
A Chinese Museum Is Offering Cash to Whoever Can Decipher These 3000-Year-Old Inscriptions

During the 19th century, farmers in China’s Henan Province began discovering oracle bones—engraved ox scapulae and tortoise shells used by Shang Dynasty leaders for record-keeping and divination purposes—while plowing their fields. More bones were excavated in subsequent years, and their inscriptions were revealed to be the earliest known form of systematic writing in East Asia. But over the decades, scholars still haven’t come close to cracking half of the mysterious script’s roughly 5000 characters—which is why one Chinese museum is asking member of the public for help, in exchange for a generous cash reward.

As Atlas Obscura reports, the National Museum of Chinese Writing in Anyang, Henan Province has offered to pay citizen researchers about $15,000 for each unknown character translated, and $7500 if they provide a disputed character’s definitive meaning. Submissions must be supported with evidence, and reviewed by at least two language specialists.

The museum began farming out their oracle bone translation efforts in Fall 2016. The costly ongoing project has hit a stalemate, and scholars hope that the public’s collective smarts—combined with new advances in technology, including cloud computing and big data—will yield new information and save them research money.

As of today, more than 200,000 oracle bones have been discovered—around 50,000 of which bear text—so scholars still have a lot to learn about the Shang Dynasty. Many of the ancient script's characters are difficult to verify, as they represent places and people from long ago. However, decoding even just one character could lead to a substantial breakthrough, experts say: "If we interpret a noun or a verb, it can bring many scripts on oracle bones to life, and we can understand ancient history better,” Chinese history professor Zhu Yanmin told the South China Morning Post.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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6 Eponyms Named After the Wrong Person
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Salmonella species growing on agar.

Having something named after you is the ultimate accomplishment for any inventor, mathematician, scientist, or researcher. Unfortunately, the credit for an invention or discovery does not always go to the correct person—senior colleagues sometimes snatch the glory, fakers pull the wool over people's eyes, or the fickle general public just latches onto the wrong name.

1. SALMONELLA (OR SMITHELLA?)

In 1885, while investigating common livestock diseases at the Bureau of Animal Industry in Washington, D.C., pathologist Theobald Smith first isolated the salmonella bacteria in pigs suffering from hog cholera. Smith’s research finally identified the bacteria responsible for one of the most common causes of food poisoning in humans. Unfortunately, Smith’s limelight-grabbing supervisor, Daniel E. Salmon, insisted on taking sole credit for the discovery. As a result, the bacteria was named after him. Don’t feel too sorry for Theobald Smith, though: He soon emerged from Salmon’s shadow, going on to make the important discovery that ticks could be a vector in the spread of disease, among other achievements.

2. AMERICA (OR COLUMBIANA?)

An etching of Amerigo Vespucci
Henry Guttmann/Getty Images

Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci (1451–1512) claimed to have made numerous voyages to the New World, the first in 1497, before Columbus. Textual evidence suggests Vespucci did take part in a number of expeditions across the Atlantic, but generally does not support the idea that he set eyes on the New World before Columbus. Nevertheless, Vespucci’s accounts of his voyages—which today read as far-fetched—were hugely popular and translated into many languages. As a result, when German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller was drawing his map of the Novus Mundi (or New World) in 1507 he marked it with the name "America" in Vespucci’s honor. He later regretted the choice, omitting the name from future maps, but it was too late, and the name stuck.

3. BLOOMERS (OR MILLERS?)

A black and white image of young women wearing bloomers
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Dress reform became a big issue in mid-19th century America, when women were restricted by long, heavy skirts that dragged in the mud and made any sort of physical activity difficult. Women’s rights activist Elizabeth Smith Miller was inspired by traditional Turkish dress to begin wearing loose trousers gathered at the ankle underneath a shorter skirt. Miller’s new outfit immediately caused a splash, with some decrying it as scandalous and others inspired to adopt the garb.

Amelia Jenks Bloomer was editor of the women’s temperance journal The Lily, and she took to copying Miller’s style of dress. She was so impressed with the new freedom it gave her that she began promoting the “reform dress” in her magazine, printing patterns so others might make their own. Bloomer sported the dress when she spoke at events and soon the press began to associate the outfit with her, dubbing it “Bloomer’s costume.” The name stuck.

4. GUILLOTINE (OR LOUISETTE?)

Execution machines had been known prior to the French Revolution, but they were refined after Paris physician and politician Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin suggested they might be a more humane form of execution than the usual methods (hanging, burning alive, etc.). The first guillotine was actually designed by Dr. Antoine Louis, Secretary of the Academy of Surgery, and was known as a louisette. The quick and efficient machine was quickly adopted as the main method of execution in revolutionary France, and as the bodies piled up the public began to refer to it as la guillotine, for the man who first suggested its use. Guillotin was very distressed at the association, and when he died in 1814 his family asked the French government to change the name of the hated machine. The government refused and so the family changed their name instead to escape the dreadful association.

5. BECHDEL TEST (OR WALLACE TEST?)

Alison Bechdel
Alison Bechdel
Steve Jennings/Getty Images

The Bechdel Test is a tool to highlight gender inequality in film, television, and fiction. The idea is that in order to pass the test, the movie, show, or book in question must include at least one scene in which two women have a conversation that isn’t about a man. The test was popularized by the cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985 in her comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” and has since become known by her name. However, Bechdel asserts that the idea originated with her friend Lisa Wallace (and was also inspired by the writer Virginia Woolf), and she would prefer for it to be known as the Bechdel-Wallace test.

6. STIGLER’S LAW OF EPONYMY (OR MERTON’S LAW?)

Influential sociologist Robert K. Merton suggested the idea of the “Matthew Effect” in a 1968 paper noting that senior colleagues who are already famous tend to get the credit for their junior colleagues’ discoveries. (Merton named his phenomenon [PDF] after the parable of talents in the Gospel of Matthew, in which wise servants invest money their master has given them.)

Merton was a well-respected academic, and when he was due to retire in 1979, a book of essays celebrating his work was proposed. One person who contributed an essay was University of Chicago professor of statistics Stephen Stigler, who had corresponded with Merton about his ideas. Stigler decided to pen an essay that celebrated and proved Merton’s theory. As a result, he took Merton’s idea and created Stigler’s Law of Eponymy, which states that “No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer”—the joke being that Stigler himself was taking Merton’s own theory and naming it after himself. To further prove the rule, the “new” law has been adopted by the academic community, and a number of papers and articles have since been written on "Stigler’s Law."

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