Sir F. Chook, Inventor of Leopard Oil

Likeness captured upon a daguerrotype machine in Japan, July 1891

Lettres

Wherein the Author reflects upon certain topical & personal issues of the Day.

Fantastic Real-Life Reading

Penned upon the 11th of August, 2009

If you’re much like me, you’ll find it easy to get lost in a good non-fiction work. Encyclopaedias have always been my page-turners – since I was tiny, I was endlessly sparking my imagination with facts about mushrooms or electricity or physiognomy. Ms Merah will attest that the internet has been very bad for this interest of mine – I’ll open an interesting archive and still be reading it months later. Some are professional sites – scientific journals and so on. Some are the work of dedicated individuals – hobbyists and so on, a splendid bunch. Some are wikis, which somehow retain their quality even in the face of public interest. I thought it not unreasonable to share a few which have particularly caught my attention. Most readers will no doubt be familiar with many of them, but if I do succeed in introducing you – enjoy!

The Urban Legend Reference Pages – I first found Snopes as a teenager, and it soon occupied many of my evenings – spooking myself out reading the horror stories, and so on. I remember getting into a frightful argument with a schoolmate over contradictions between the ULRP’s claims and those of the History Channel. All these years later, which of those two still has any credibility?

The TV Tropes Wiki – A catalogue of, well, tropes, as well as literary forms, clich├ęs, archetypes, symbols, metanarratives, storytelling traditions and, frequently, puns. As well as being near-infinite in scope, Tropes is fascinating to watch, in its organic growth. For instance, the character archetype ‘Boisterous Bruiser’ – the big, hammy, rough-and-tumble sort of fellow who usually appears as a mature friend and ally to the young hero – was previously named after a single gag from an episode of MST3K. But ‘Narm’, an unintentional disruption of a scene’s drama, named for a single scene from an episode of Six Feet Under, retains its obscure name. Interesting, no?

The Straight Dope – Thirty years of collected newspaper columns on every subject it’s philosophically possible to discuss. Well, damn near. Cecil Adams and team answer questions about astrophysics, folk history, evolutionary biology, sociology, law, etymology, the lot. Furthermore, I’m extremely impressed by their cautious, academic manner – while they very rarely shy away from a topic, they always take care to source their facts and allow for a degree of doubt where appropriate.

The Museum of Hoaxes – This is my latest find. It’s the mental lovechild of a fellow name of Alex Boese, recording all manner of scams, pranks, frauds, misprints and blatant lies across the years. Boese clearly loves his work – he’s written three books on bizarre history, and the museum boats hundreds of pages of blogging as well as a wiki-style archive. After reading a few years’ worth of posts in a few days, I’ve started seeing hoaxes in everything. “Toilet paper, twelve for six dollars? Pah! Snake oil, chicanery!” (Incidentally, the fascinating thing about snake oil is that it actually often worked, even when it contained no parts of snake. Certainly not because of the snake, if it was ever present. Turns the paradigm on its head, doesn’t it?)


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