Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Stasi scent library

In the Stasi museum at Runde Ecke, in Leipzig, there are many examples of how far the East German secret police were prepared to go to maintain control over their own citizens.  Among collections of stolen mail, covert photographs, and disguises for their agents, there is one especially surprising example:

A row of sealed jars, each containing a seemingly innocuous yellow dust cloth, forms part of the museum's permanent exhibition. But these jars were part of the East German secret police's collection of scent samples used to keep track of dissidents.


Examples of the scent jars, photos from Maki Ueda

These scent samples were used as a kind of odour fingerprint.  When they got samples of materials being distributed by dissidents – like a flyer or a letter – those samples would have a faint trace of the people’s odour on it.  By matching it against their library of scents, they could identify who had been responsible.

When they found a piece of graffiti or a flyer then they took a dust cloth, which was usually yellow, and left it for a while lying next to the flyers covered by a protective piece of aluminum foil and then they had their sample. The cloth was then sealed in a pickling jar and stored. If the Stasi later came across a suspect in the process of the investigation, they tried to get a sample from this person as well -- of course, secretly. A trained dog was given the two smells, and if they matched, the Stasi had a concrete name.

They would often invite someone in for a talk with the police or other officials, for example, and undercover Stasi officers pretending to be police officers or an administrative person were usually present at this meeting. And while the person sat on the chair in the office, they would be, without knowing it, impregnating a yellow cloth hidden under the seat. When this fictive visit was over, the Stasi officer would then put the cloth in the pickle jar -- and they had their sample.


A store-room filled with thousands of jarred scent samples sounds would be a fine scene for a rather dark espionage or conspiracy game.  A dimly lit (or windowless) concrete building, row upon row of shelves with neatly labelled jars.  Can they find their own names there?  Loved ones, friends, people they have met?  The articles mention that apart from scents, they collected samples of hair, handwriting, even saliva – could the characters find a little cross-section of their lives?

Of course, you could also play this for laughs.  The characters have to collect scent, hair, saliva samples from various marks.  So they have to ingratiate themselves with the target and get close enough to take some swabs or snip off some hair.  Or break into their house to steal unwashed clothes, pull hair out of drains – but the suspect is at home and is hosting a dinner party, how are they going to talk their way out of this?

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Hungarian suicide song – Gloomy Sunday

In 1933 the Hungarian pianist Rezső Seress and poet László Jávor wrote the song Vége a világnak (‘End of the world’) which had the alternate title Szomorú vasárnap (‘Sad Sunday’).  The song gained a very special reputation: that dozens of people, on hearing it, had committed suicide.

The original version portrayed the image of a desolate and destroyed landscape; Javor changed the theme to be one of a man lamenting his dead lover.  He considers that if they will only be reunited again in death, then perhaps he shall commit suicide:

Gloomy Sunday with a hundred white flowers
I was waiting for you my dearest with a prayer
A Sunday morning, chasing after my dreams
The carriage of my sorrow returned to me without you
It is since then that my Sundays have been forever sad
Tears my only drink, the sorrow my bread...

Gloomy Sunday

This last Sunday, my darling please come to me
There'll be a priest, a coffin, a catafalque and a winding-sheet
There'll be flowers for you, flowers and a coffin
Under the blossoming trees it will be my last journey
My eyes will be open, so that I could see you for a last time
Don't be afraid of my eyes, I'm blessing you even in my death...

The last Sunday

[Literal translation from Phespirit] A year or so later the song was first recorded in English by Paul Robeson and then, more famously, by Billie Holiday.  The lyrics they used made the suicide theme clearer, although Holiday’s had to add an extra verse to say that the whole thing was a dream.  Suicide was a difficult subject to discuss in a popular song, after all:

Sunday is gloomy, my hours are slumberless
Dearest the shadows I live with are numberless
Little white flowers will never awaken you
Not where the black coach of sorrow has taken you
Angels have no thought of ever returning you
Would they be angry if I thought of joining you?

Gloomy Sunday

Gloomy is Sunday, with shadows I spend it all
My heart and I have decided to end it all
Soon there'll be candles and prayers that are sad I know
Let them not weep let them know that I'm glad to go
Death is no dream for in death I'm caressing you
With the last breath of my soul I'll be blessing you

Gloomy Sunday

Dreaming, I was only dreaming
I wake and I find you asleep in the deep of my heart, here
Darling, I hope that my dream never haunted you
My heart is telling you how much I wanted you
Gloomy Sunday

(Here’s a recording of ‘Gloomy Sunday’ sung by Paul Whiteman for your listening pleasure – if you dare!)

And then the stories began, stories of dozens of people killing themselves after hearing this song, leaving behind the lyrics in suicide notes.

In February of 1936, Budapest Police were investigating the suicide of a local shoemaker, Joseph Keller. The investigation showed that Keller had left a suicide note in which he quoted the lyrics of a recent popular song. The song was "Gloomy Sunday".

The fact that a man chose to quote the lyrics of a little-known song may not seem very strange. However, the fact that over the years, this song has been directly associated with the deaths of over 100 people is quite strange indeed.

Following the event described above, seventeen additional people took their own lives. In each case, "Gloomy Sunday" was closely connected with the circumstances surrounding the suicide.


The stories were, in fact, all bunkum and just part of a promotional campaign for the song (an early example of viral marketing).  And they did grow steadily stranger and less plausible – perhaps the ultimate being “an errand boy in Rome, who, having heard a beggar humming the tune, parked his cycle, walked over to the beggar, gave him all his money, and then sought his death in the waters beneath a nearby bridge”.

It is true, though, that the song was banned by several radio stations, including the BBC who only allowed it on their playlists again in this century.  But it was banned by the BBC largely because of their opinions on the kind of hearty fare that the listening public should get during the war.  It is also true that the composer, Rezső Seress, committed suicide, but that was in 1968 and was likely from depression after never having managed to write another successful song in the 35 years since penning ‘Gloomy Sunday’.

I do wonder if this story might have been the inspiration for Monty Python’s skit of the weaponized joke.  Could a cursedly sad song fall into the hands of the army, would they refine it?  And what would happen if Lord Haw-Haw was broadcasting it into Britain during the Blitz?

Or what about a bizarre assassination attempt: a diabolical scheme to kill the king by a visiting bard singing the cursed song in his very hall?  Or at a Royal Command Performance at Albert Hall - a famous singer has been brainwashed by Hugo Drax and James Bond must stop his next plan for revenge on Great Britain.  Was that what really happened to Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre?

Hair thieves

The New York Times report that across America salons are under siege from thieves targeting their stock of human hair extensions:

The thieves pulled the iron bars out of the windows, outsmarted the motion detector that would have triggered a burglar alarm and did not give the safe or cash register a second look.

Instead they went straight for what was most valuable: human hair. By the time the bandits at the My Trendy Place salon in Houston were finished, they had stolen $150,000 worth of the shop’s most prized type, used for silky extensions.

The break-in was part of a recent trend of thefts, some involving violence, of a seemingly plentiful material. During the past two months alone, robbers in quest of human hair have killed a beauty shop supplier in Michigan and carried out heists nationwide in which they have made off with tens of thousands of dollars of hair at a time.

(from the New York Times)

When I saw the headline “Thieves target human hair”, I didn’t think of salon break-ins so much as razor gangs plucking the hair from their victim’s heads.

Imagine a dark city street, a young woman walking back to her car.  Suddenly a hand covers her mouth and she is dragged into a van; she sees the glint of a knife and feels her neck exposed by a rough yank on her hair; she fears the worst.  But the savage blow cuts only the tresses from her head; the van door opens and she is thrown out, shocked and confused, into the night street.

The motivation given for this spate of robberies is that the hair extensions are simply valuable.  Surely that’s just to avoid alarming the populace and the real objective is a more esoteric one.  Are they constructing some sort of hair golem?  Are they using them to make voodoo fetishes?  Will they be woven into a hair shirt, perhaps to summon back the spirit of some long dead monk or ascetic?

Or are they looking for some specific hair, was the hair of some ancient sorcerer turned into a wig that has found its way into the salon trade?  Maybe it was changed from a wig into a set of extensions, some of which were sold.  So the crimes escalate from break-ins to seemingly random street-side hair slashings as they search for the last strands to rebuild the wig.

And why stop at hair on the head, what about beards?  In a fantasy world, how would dwarves feel about people stealing their beards?  Presumably it takes an eternity for them to grow, and they’re commonly thought of as status symbols, it would be very emasculating to lose it.  Would that disrupt the social order?  A quest, perhaps, to reclaim a chieftain's beard?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Texas Towers – off-shore radar stations

NPR’s news blog reported that President Obama gave official recognition to “the 28 men who died when a massive radar tower collapsed in the North Atlantic 50 years ago.”  The radar tower was one of five that sat out in the Atlantic ocean off the north-eastern coast of the USA.  They were a hybrid of a radar station and an offshore oil-rig, which gave them the nickname “Texas Towers”.

Texas Tower 4.  Photo from the office of Sen John Kerry.

The radar stations were needed to extend the warning time that the USA would have in the event that Soviet bombers flew across the Atlantic towards them.  These early-warning stations would give the mainland an extra 30 minutes to respond to an attack.  Improvements in radar technology and the change from bombers to (much faster) ICBMs made the stations obsolete.  Texas Tower 4, however, suffered a disaster prior to this.  In 1960 it was damaged by Hurricane Donna and it collapsed during a winter storm the following year.

This tower had already shown several problems: it was built in much deeper water than the others (180ft deep, where the others were 50-80ft) which meant it needed longer legs, and it’s foundations were in sand rather than rock.  Now it lies below the waves, acting as an artificial reef for scuba divers.

I love the pictures of the old radar tower, with the domes standing over the (rather tall) base.  It sounds like a good starting point for a game - a radar tower out in the ocean, largely cut-off from the rest of the nation, even though they may only be a hundred kilometres away.  Doesn’t this look like it should be visited by Avrocars?  Or that it should be en-route to Camp Century?  Or was there something important left behind on a now collapsed tower?  Could they have detected something out in the sky or sea?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

From Blackfriars to booksellers

With Bookhounds of London going to print right about now, it’s rather timely to see this story of a bookstore built in a 750 year old Dominican church.

From the store’s Flickr stream.

Whether you’re religious or not, this old Dominican church will certainly bring you the enlightenment you’ve been seeking. After months of renovation this magnificent structure originally constructed in 1294 has opened its doors to the public as a “brand new” bookstore in the heart of Maastricht. …

Dating back to the 13th century, the structure was a Dominican church until Maastricht was invaded by Napoleon in 1794 and the group was forced out of the country. Since that point it has been briefly used as a parish, then a warehouse, then an archive, then a giant parking lot for bicycles (not such a terrible idea) and finally made over into a bookstore.

One thing that strikes me as slightly odd is that while the whole design looks really classy, the crucifix shaped reading table in the nave seems a bit kitsch.

From Crossroads magazine.

Aside from this rather marvellous bookstore, what other things might be put in a disused church?  As the article mentions, this church has also been a warehouse and bike parking-lot, and there are many other churches that have become nightclubs (so many that it’s something of a cliché).  Might a church have become a hostel, a hospital, or even a home?  Might it be a factory, a restaurant, or a school?  Or perhaps one of those discount stores that seem to pop-up in malls to fill empty store-fronts.  And wouldn’t it surprise the new tenants to learn that the treasure of Abbot Thomas was still hidden there?

Reburying the dead

[Via BLDGBLOG]  The British government has given their archaeologists a very difficult condition to work with: all human remains must be reburied within 2 years of being excavated:

The dispute centres on legislation introduced by the Ministry of Justice in 2008 which requires all human remains excavated at digs in England and Wales to be reburied within two years, regardless of their age. The decision, which amounts to a reinterpretation of law previously administered by the Home Office, means scientists have too little time to study bones and other human remains of national and cultural significance, the academics say.

The ruling applies to any pieces of bone uncovered at around 400 dig sites, including the remains of 60 or so bodies found at Stonehenge in 2008 that date back to 3,000BC. Archaeologists have been granted a temporary extension to give them more time, but ultimately the bones will have to be returned to the ground.

[from The Guardian]

No doubt the government has reasons for this imposition that they aren’t prepared to reveal!  Is it that they want to restrict how long the scientists may study these early remains so that they cannot learn some shocking truth (such as that they are really white apes)?  Or is it that the bodies must be returned to the earth to prevent something from happening?  Or even that someone with influence over the government requires the bodies to return to Stonehenge soon so that some ritual may be completed?

And the law covers all digs in England and Wales, but not Scotland.  What’s going on there – are they trying to encourage more activity in the north?  Could there be something that someone wants uncovered that isn’t getting sufficient attention?

Another thought occurs to me, it would be an interesting purpose in life for a priestly character in a fantasy game not just to be a foe of the undead, but to give these misused corpses a proper burial.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Carnivorous furniture

Rather like the vermin accessories, here’s another strange meeting of design and dead animals.  This time it’s furniture – furniture that draws power out of dead insects or animals.  The devices capture insects or mice and deposit them in a fuel cell that uses bacteria and enzymes to generate electricity from their corpses.  All of these machines are very simple, but there is mention of a robot that can be powered by dead flies.

In a sci-fi setting this would add a macabre edge to things.  After all, by harvesting electricity out of human brains, the machines in The Matrix were essentially treating people as a fuel cell, why not just go the extra mile?

Alternatively, in a fantasy setting there may be machines that are artifacts of some ancient culture.  Devices that now require sacrifices to generate their power – something like Blackrazor only it devours flesh rather than souls.