Monday, December 30, 2013

A. C. Gilbert didn't have this in mind...serial killer Graham Frederick Young

"Young chemistry whiz Graham Frederick Young used his 'talents' to kill his stepmother and poison other family members"

Creepy London student sprinkled poison on victims' sandwiches. He was locked up in an insane asylum, later released and killed again.


Mara Bovsun

December 28th, 2013

 He seemed to be just an odd kid with a passion for science, but then Graham Frederick Young, 14, used his chemistry set to kill.

The first victim was his stepmother, Molly Young, 37. Early in 1961 she began to complain of stomach cramps and pain. Before long, other members of the London family — Fred Young, Graham’s father, and Winifred, 22, his older sister — were suffering similar symptoms.

Even after a schoolmate, Christopher Williams, another chemistry enthusiast, took ill, everyone chalked it up to some kind of stomach bug.

At least that was the theory until November, when Winifred became violently ill on the train to work. Doctors discovered that she had somehow taken belladonna, the ancient extract of deadly nightshade that was a favorite method for disposing of people in the Renaissance.

Winifred suspected her brother, whose behavior was weird, even more so than the average teenager. He idolized Hitler and wore a swastika to school. He drew pictures of family and friends being hanged or dangling over vats of acid. He reveled in tales of famous poisoners like 19th century serial killer Dr. William Palmer. One of his chemistry experiments blew up the family kitchen.

 Other pupils at his school called him “the mad professor.” His teachers characterized him as “creepy.”

Graham’s father confronted his son, who insisted that Winifred had only her vanity to blame for her illness. Graham said he had spotted his sister mixing shampoo in a teacup and that had to be what made her sick.

Fred Young searched the boy’s room. When he found nothing, he let the matter drop.

Winifred recovered, but Molly continued to weaken. By the spring, her hair was falling out and her body had wasted away. On Easter Sunday morning, she collapsed in the garden and died later at a hospital. Doctors attributed her death to problems caused by a spinal injury suffered in a recent bus accident.

Soon after losing his wife, Fred also began to suffer from stomach problems that were violent enough to land him in a hospital, where doctors found he had taken a near-fatal dose of antimony.

 Still, Graham’s father failed to link the family’s woes to his son’s budding talent in chemistry.

It wasn’t until May 1962, when Graham’s chemistry teacher, fearful of his precocious student, searched the boy’s desk and brought the truth to light. There, he found sketches of violent fantasies as well as a pharmacy of death — vials filled with some of the world’s most potent poisons.

The teacher turned it all over to the police, who brought the boy in for questioning. He confessed to a series of macabre experiments, in which he sprinkled deadly seasonings in sandwiches he shared with Williams and in meals eaten around the family table.

Antimony, administered over months, with a final dose of thallium had been the killer recipe for his stepmother, he boasted.

Young pleaded guilty to the attempted murder of his father, sister and schoolmate. He was not tried for Molly’s killing. Her body had been cremated before foul play was suspected and, without the body, there was not evidence enough to prove he had poisoned her.

 Off he went to Broadmoor, England’s high-security asylum for the criminally insane. Soon after Graham’s arrival, another inmate was dead, a victim of cyanide poisoning. No one blamed Young, even when the chemistry whiz kid told his captors that cyanide could easily have been extracted from cherry laurel bushes that surrounded the facility.

Years passed and Graham appeared to improve. A new psychiatrist came to Broadmoor, Dr. Edgar Udwin from South Africa, and he determined that Graham was “no longer obsessed with poisons, violence, and mischief.” Despite objections from other psychiatrists, Fred Young’s insistence that his son was too dangerous to be free, and the revelation by his caretakers that he dreamed of killing one person for every year of his incarceration, the boy poisoner found himself strolling out of Broadmoor in February 1971.

That April, an inmate at the halfway house where Graham was staying fell ill. He had been a strapping soccer enthusiast but ended up nearly paralyzed. Nothing was suspected at the time, but Graham would later reveal that he had been slipping antimony into his food.

Graham soon moved on, applying for a job with a company in Bovingdon that manufactured photographic lenses. His prospective employers peeked into his background and discovered his stint at Broadmoor. When questioned, however, Udwin said only that the former patient had made “an extremely full recovery.”

So when the firm’s employees began to fall ill, there was no reason to assume it was because there was a homicidal maniac on the payroll. To his colleagues, Graham was just a friendly fellow, always there with a smile and the offer of a cup of tea or coffee. The culprit had to be a germ, which the workers dubbed the “Bovingdon Bug.”

Suspicions eventually fell on Young, but not before two men were dead and many others were sickened. Investigators searched his home and found a diary, written on loose-leaf paper, in which Young described, with the cool detachment of a scientist recording a laboratory experiment, how and why he poisoned his co-workers. Years later, a movie based on his crimes, the “Young Poisoner’s Handbook,” inspired a Japanese girl to record the poisoning of her mother in a similar fashion on a blog.

In June 1972, Young was sent to prison for life. He remained behind bars until August 1990, when his jailers found him lifeless in his cell. Officially the cause of death was a heart attack, but many believe that he had finally gotten a taste of his own recipe.

The Young Poisoner's Handbook [Wikipedia]

Dr. William Palmer [Wikipedia]

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Post Christmas literary treat...Zelda Fitzgerald's short story "The Iceberg"

"The Iceberg: A Story by Zelda Fitzgerald"

December 24th, 2013

The New Yorker

In 1918, Zelda Sayre, later Zelda Fitzgerald, won a prize for this story, which she published in the Sidney Lanier High School Literary Journal. She was seventeen or eighteen years old when she wrote it; she would soon meet F. Scott Fitzgerald, her escape hatch from the restrictive world of Montgomery, Alabama, into a tumultuous life of literary striving. The story was recently unearthed, and the Fitzgerald estate was surprised to learn of its existence. The heroine of “The Iceberg” is Cornelia, a plucky young woman from an aristocratic Southern family, with no marriage prospects, who decides to seek her destiny at business college. She impresses a rich man with her dexterous typing, and, without telling her family, she marries him. When Zelda Fitzgerald’s granddaughter Eleanor Lanahan read the story, she said, “Who knew Zelda wrote stories before Scott entered her life? Who knew she’d give a working girl the happiest of destinies? This is a charming morality tale of sorts. Ironically, Cornelia’s ending up with a rich husband is her ultimate success. This is truly a fascinating story—about Zelda, the South, and women’s expectations in 1917 or so.” The tone is lighthearted, winking, and ironic, and the story seems to presage some of the tensions in Zelda’s own life: between independence and entanglement with a man, the twinned and, sometimes, conflicting desires to write and to be admired, and the pressures of a search for the right kind of self-expression. Read it in full below. (We’ve preserved most of the original spelling and typographical errors.)

The Iceberg

Cornelia gazed out of the window and sighed, not because she was particularly unhappy, but because she had mortified her parents and disappointed her friends. Her two sisters, younger than she, were married and established for life long ago; yet here she remained at thirty years of age, like a belated apple or a faded bachelor’s button, either forgotten or not deemed worth the picking. Her father did not scold. He kindly suggested that perhaps Neilie would do more for herself if the rest of the family would leave her alone. Her brother said, “Cornie’s a fine girl and good looking enough, but she’s got no magnetism. A fellow might as well try to tackle an iceberg.” For all that, the family cat found her responsive enough, and the little fox-terrier fairly adored her, to say nothing of a blue jay that insisted upon a friendly dispute every time she stole to her retreat in the old-fashioned Southern garden. Her mother said, “Cornelia is not sympathetic. She looks at a man with her thoughts a thousand miles away, and no man’s vanity will stand for that. What good are beautiful clothes and musical genius if humanity is left out? No! No! Cornelia will never marry, Cornelia is my despair.”

Now Cornelia sometimes grew weary of disapproval and resented it. “Mother,” she would say, “is marriage the end and aim of life? Is there nothing else on which a woman might spend her energy? Sister Nettie is tied to a clerical man, and, between caring for the baby and making ends meet, looks older than I. Sister Blanche finds so little comfort in a worked-down husband that she has taken to foreign missions and suffrage for diversion. If I’m an economic proposition, I’ll turn to business.”

So, without more ado, she secretly took a course at business college, and taught the fingers that had rippled over Chopin and Chaminade to be equally dexterous on the typewriter. Her eyes seemed to grow larger and more luminous as she puzzled over the hieroglyphics of stenography.

“That Miss Holton is a wonder,” said the manager of the college. “Yes, she’s a social failure, but she bids fair to be a business success,” agreed a young man who had once fallen into her indifferent keeping.

Just then the phone rang. “At once, you say! Wait a moment, I’ll see.” Proceeding softly to her desk, he said, “Miss Holton, I consider you quite efficient as a pupil. Do you care to answer an emergency call? The firm of Gimbel, Brown and Company wishes a stenographer at once. What do you say to the place?”

“What do I say? Why, it just hits the spot. Let me get my hat and I’m off.”

“Well,” said the manager, “I do like a girl who knows what she wants.”

If her mother could only have heard that! Perhaps, after all, Cornelia had always known what she wanted—and failed to find it. Perhaps, after all, a social equation in trousers had not been just what Cornelia craved. Perhaps, after all, Cornelia was seeking self-expression. At any rate, she lost no time in finding Gimbel, Brown and company, and was not the least aghast that this was the mighty multi-millionaire Gimbel who needed her services.

“Miss Holton, you say? Cornelia Holton, the daughter of my old friend, Dan Holton? Why bless your heart, have a seat! This is so sudden! When did you enter the business arena, pray?”

Cornelia was not abashed. With her usual straight-forward earnestness, she said, “Yes, I’m Cornelia Holton, and I’m in business to stay. If the arena is full of Bulls and Bears, I’m here to wrestle. What can I do for you, Mr. Gimble?”

With a twinkle in his eye and a queer little smile, he pushed toward her the pile of snowy paper and began to dictate. North, South, East, and West the messages flew, and Cornelia’s fingers flew with them. White, slender, and shapely, they graced the machine as they had the piano, and, when lunch hour came, her face had flushed, and the little brown curls clung to her forehead with a slight moisture of effort. Cornelia was beautiful over her first conquest of the typewriter!

As she rose to go, she blushed, and stammered, “Mr. Gimble, I’ll thank you not to tell my parents of this. They have no knowledge of my business enterprise and would be quite horrified. You know, nothing succeeds like success. I have been a failure long enough.” And she smiled as she left, the old grace of the distasteful ball-room clinging to her in spite of her steady resolve.

“Well, by jove!” exclaimed Mr. Gimble. “By Jove!” he reiterated, “who’d a thought a Holton woman would go into business! Why, that girl’s mother was the greatest belle that this city ever produced. Well, she couldn’t get married, maybe.” So he too, went his way thinking of the little wife that had died years ago and of the great emptiness that had taken her place and that he had tried to fill with money.

Several months flew by. The Holton’s had their shock when Cornelia announced her business success, and were again in the normal path of life. The cat said, “I told you so! I knew she had the element of success in her!” The little dog barked, “Doggone her! I always knew I didn’t wag my tail for nothing.” The blue jay noisily called, “Aw, come on now and let’s finish our dispute. You can build a nest if I can, and you can hatch a family, too, if you try. Aw go awn!” But that was nothing to what the society world said when Cornelia Holton and James G. Gimble walked quietly to the study of the Reverend Devoted Divine and were made one, eve: to the millions and the famous homestead was also a palace of art and aesthetic refinement.*

Mrs. Holton fainted over her coffee-cup when she unfolded the morning paper and beheld the head-lines, side-by-side with, and quite as large as the war news. Mr. Holton chuckled, as he emptied the water-bottle over her most expensive negligee. “I always said Cornelia had something up her sleeve.” “Well, the old girl must have warmed up at last,” added her brother.

The front door opened and in walked the disheveled sisters, screaming, “Mamma, mamma—Cornelia, the old maid—she has out-married us all!”

*There’s something askew or missing in this sentence—the sense is that Gimble and Cornelia are made one, down to his millions and the famous homestead. I think the “eve:” should be “even.”—Eleanor Lanahan

Some feline physics

Brian Greene's 23rd dimension cat.

Convex and concave.

Original Kliban "String Theory".

 The Curie's lab cats.

Two cats discover Newton's balls..


Presented by the Institute of Theoretical & Applied Cat Physics

1. Law of Cat Inertia

A cat at rest will tend to remain at rest, unless acted upon by some outside force, such as the opening of cat food or a nearby scurrying mouse.

2. Law of Cat Motion

A cat will move in a straight line, unless there is a really good reason to change direction.

3. Law of Cat Magnetism

All blue blazers and black sweaters attract cat hair in direct proportion to the darkness of the fabric.

4. Law of Cat Thermodynamics

Heat flows from a warmer to a cooler body, except in the case of a cat, all heat flows to the cat.

5. Law of Cat Stretching

A cat will stretch to a distance proportional to the length of the nap just taken.

6. Law of Cat Sleeping

All cats must sleep with people whenever possible in a position as uncomfortable for the people involved as is possible for the cat.

7. Law of Cat Elongation

A cat can make her body long enough to reach just about any counter top that has anything remotely interesting on it.

8. Law of Cat Acceleration

A cat will accelerate at a constant speed, until he gets good and ready to stop.

9. Law of Dinner Table Attendance

Cats must attend all meals when anything good is served.

10. Law of Rug Configuration

No rug may remain in its naturally flat state for very long.

11. Law of Obedience Resistance

A cat's resistance varies in inverse proportion to a human's desire for her to do something.

12. First Law of Energy Conservation

Cats know that energy can neither be created nor destroyed and will therefore use as little energy as possible.

13. Second Law of Energy Conservation

Cats also know that energy can only be stored by a lot of napping.

14. Law of Refrigerator Observation

If a cat watches a refrigerator long enough, someone will come along and take out something good to eat.

15. Law of Electric Blanket Attraction

Turn on an electric blanket and a cat will jump into bed at the speed of light.

16. Law of Random Comfort Seeking

A cat will always seek, and usually take over, the most comfortable spot in any given room.

17. Law of Bag / Box Occupancy

All bags and boxes in a given room must contain a cat within the earliest possible nanosecond.

18. Law of Cat Embarrassment

A cat's irritation rises in direct proportion to her embarrassment times the amount of human laughter.

19. Law of Milk Consumption

A cat will drink his weight in milk, squared, just to show you he can.

20. Law of Furniture Replacement

A cats desire to scratch furniture is directly proportional to the cost of the furniture.

21. Law of Cat Landing

A cat will always land in the softest place possible.

22. Law of Fluid Displacement

A cat immersed in milk will displace her own volume minus the amount of milk consumed.

23. Law of Cat Disinterest

A cat's interest level will vary in inverse proportion to the amount of effort a human expends in trying to interest him.

24. Law of Pill Rejection

Any pill given to a cat has the potential energy to reach escape velocity.

25. Law of Cat Composition

A cat is composed of Matter + Anti-Matter + It Doesn't Matter.

26. Law of Selective Listening

Although a cat can hear a can of tuna being opened a mile away, she can't hear a simple command three feet away.

27. Law of Equidistant Separation

All cats in a given room will locate at points equidistant from each other, and equidistant from the center of the room.

28. Law of Cat Invisibility

Cats think that if they can't see you, then you can't see them.

29. Law of Space-Time Continuum

Given enough time, a cat will land in just about any space.

30. Law of Concentration of Mass

A cat's mass increases in direct proportion to the comfort of the lap she occupies.

31. Law of Cat Probability (Uncertainty Principle)

It is not possible to predict where a cat actually is, only the probability of where she "might" be.

32. Law of Cat Obedience

As yet undiscovered.
And this, just for fun...

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Reindeer bucks

"Rudolph the Red-Nosed Cash Cow: Inside the Economics of Reindeer Farming"

The population of reindeer is plunging. Demand to rent them at Christmas is surging. But what's an owner to do with them the other 11 months out of the year?


Vickie Elmer

December 24th,  2013

The Atlantic

A lot of people assume that reindeer, just like Santa Claus, are make believe. But the antlered stars of Christmas stories such as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and the Santa Claus movie are real animals—that bring in real business. Renting reindeer for an hour for, say, the company Christmas party typically costs several hundreds of dollars; their day rate is several times that.

Some economics are at play: supply is dwindling as demand is growing, especially at this time of year. The number of Canadian reindeer and caribou has plunged 81% in a decade. The global reindeer population has fallen too, as humans encroach on their lands. In the US, some farmers have ceased showing their reindeer in the face of growing regulations and disease management rules.

Yet reindeer rental owners “are as busy as they can possibly be,” says Cindy Murdoch, a board member of the Reindeer Owners and Breeders Association. She’s also the owner of Timberview Farms in Oregon, which—like the original St. Nick—has a fleet of eight reindeer. “We have double, triple bookings to meet needs,” Murdoch says.

The marketing power of antlers

Reindeer are run ragged during the holidays as an attraction to bring in customers, or as a part of a winter festival or special event. Their novelty to adults and children alike helps their marketability. According to data from various reindeer farm websites, a pair of reindeer may rent for $200 to $300 or more an hour; Timberview rents reindeer for a minimum of $1,750 for an eight-hour day.

The main difference between a deer and a reindeer is reindeer have thicker fur and wider hooves that are designed for snow, while deer have thinner legs and dainty hooves. Both male and female reindeer grow antlers, while only male deer get pointed headpieces. Domesticated in northern Europe and Asia about 2,000 years ago, reindeer were almost certainly among the first domestic hoofed animals, according to some experts. But they are not as fast as horses.

Close cousins of caribou, they live in the tundra and start to grow winter coats in October. By December, the older males’ antlers fall off, while the females and calves keep theirs. Some owners specially treat male reindeer to preserve their antlers through Christmas so they’re ready to trot out.

“They’ve got this magical quality—big eyes, soft noses,” says Angie Flint, who says her rural England reindeer business has seen a double-digit increase in revenues; one of hers made an appearance at a holiday party for the prime minister in 2011.

Reindeer often serve as backdrops for holiday cards and photos— and sometimes, as spies for Santa. Murdoch tells boisterous children: “Dasher’s watching you and she’s the one who reports back. So you should be quiet and good so you get on the good list.”

They’re easy animals

Despite being curious, gentle and quite social, reindeer are also fairly sedentary. “They lie around most of the day,” says Murdoch, who has raised them for 13 years.  If  trained early and given proper cues from a herd leader or trainer, reindeer behave more like horses than lions or gazelles.

The best way to avoid a “National Geographic moment” in which the reindeer antlers clash and they fight for dominance, she said,  is to observe which ones mingle well in the fields—and then pair them together in public.

Still, many owners insist the animals stay in enclosed pens when they are taken out to events or as business promotions, since their sharp and pointed antlers can inadvertently prove dangerous. Only the well-trained reindeer can be guided through crowds on a harness or pose for photos at annual events.  Stress-free handling is important, owners say.

Santa came to reindeer farmers’ rescue

Some farmers have found ways to extend their reindeer rentals to other times of year. Crystal Collection Reindeer, a farm that’s been around for 20 years, has had Christmas in July events and brought its animals out to Halloween celebrations.  George Agilar in Alaska leases many of his 18 reindeer to a tourist attraction called Riverboat Discovery for four or five summer months.

“That definitely helps pay the feed bill,” said Aguiar, who also works as a University of Alaska research assistant on animal health and using reindeer as meat.  He used to view doing the “Santa thing” with your reindeer as a sign of selling out. So none of them have Christmas-y names; instead they’re named after friends: Dave, Willie, and Flea, for her small size.

“Now I realize I have to take advantage of those opportunities” to earn money, he said. He’s starting to work on plans for agritourism. In the last year, he even bought a couple of old sleighs and is training one reindeer to pull them.

“I want the reindeer to tow me on skis,” he said, noting that it’s taking quite a lot of training to perfect. It’s called skijor and in Finland, Norway and other countries, skijoring is an amateur or competitive winter sport. (In some places, horses or dogs are used instead of reindeer.)  Some tourist destinations in Norway now offer this to guests.

NORAD and Santa

"NORAD Tracks Santa's Path on Christmas Eve Because of a Typo"

In December 1955, a Sears ad misprinted a phone number—the North Pole's.


Megan Garber

December 16th, 2013
The Atlantic

It was 1955, and Christmas was approaching, and Sears had a new idea for a yuletide gimmick. In local newspapers, the department store placed ads ... on behalf of Santa himself.

"HEY, KIDDIES!" the ad read, in a greeting that would seem creepy only in retrospect. "Call me on my private phone and I will talk to you personally any time day or night."

The ads then listed local numbers for area children to call to get some one-on-one Kringle time. Which must have seemed, if you were a kid back then, pretty amazing. A direct line to St. Nick! Kids could, finally, bypass the middlemen that stood between them and their gifts—the Post Office, their parents—and go directly to the source. And, even more directly, to that source's enormous bag of loot. You can almost hear the Ralphie Parker voice-over.

Like many innovations, though, Sears's frictionless Santa scheme found itself with an unforeseen problem. In the ad the company had placed in the local paper in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Sears had listed Santa's number as ME 2-6681. Which, according to Snopes, contained a typo: It was one digit off of the intended one. The number Sears had ended up printing and distributing to the city's citizens? The one for, as it happened, the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD)—the predecessor of NORAD—which, like Santa, specialized in aeronautics. And which, unlike Santa, was based in Colorado Springs.

Suddenly, on Christmas Eve, phone calls intended for St. Nick were being received on a top-secret NORAD line—a line that was usually reserved for crises (which, back then, pretty much meant "Russians attacking"). When the first call came in, Colonel Harry Shoup, the officer on duty at CONAD, picked up the phone.

"Yes, Sir, this is Colonel Shoup."

As Mentalfloss puts it, the colonel received no reply—just silence.

“Sir? This is Colonel Shoup,” he said again.

More silence.

“Sir?" Shoup was probably, at this point, trying not to panic. Silence on the crisis line. "Can you read me alright?”

Finally, the caller spoke up. It was not a commanding officer. It was ... a little girl. And she was confused, too. "Are you really Santa Claus?" she asked.

Shoup, at that point, demanded to know who was calling, Terri Van Keuren, his daughter, remembers. He was brusque. This didn't make any sense.

"The little voice is now crying," Van Keuren recalls.

The voice didn't give up, though. "Is this one of Santa's elves, then?"

It must be a prank, Shoup thought. But, as he scanned the room, the "stony, serious faces" of his fellow men suggested otherwise. Then it occurred to him: Lines must have, literally, gotten crossed. There must have been "some screwup on the phones."
And then Shoup made a fateful, delightful decision: He decided to play along.

“Yes, I am,” he answered the caller, be-elfing himself. “Have you been a good little girl?"

More calls began coming in. Shoup grabbed an airman who happened to be standing nearby and told him to answer the calls, too. The direction Shoup gave, as Van Keuren remembers the story? "Just pretend you're Santa.'"

Soon, the pretending evolved: The CONAD staff were providing the calling children not just with bowlful-of-jelly replies to their inquiries, but also with informational updates about Santa's progress as he made his way around the world. As NORAD's Santa site puts it: "A tradition was born."

The tradition has evolved, slightly, since then. In 1958, when NORAD was formed, it continued to offer a "Santa tracking" service to anyone who called in—especially on December 24. And the tracking continues. The people who answer the calls now include "countless numbers of Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps personnel," Van Keuren notes. As of 2009, those volunteers were handling more than 12,000 e-mails and more than 70,000 telephone calls from more than 200 countries and territories. In 2011, Michelle Obama answered calls on behalf of the North Pole NORAD.

The geolocation tradition, today, also continues with the help of social media and dedicated apps (iOS and Android!) and, in particular, the web—via Which currently locates Santa, with the help of some complex satellite triangulation maneuvers, just where you'd expect him to be: at the North Pole. And which is, as far as I can tell, typo-free.

Update: Yoni Appelbaum, Atlantic contributor and historian extraordinaire, has passed along some of his own fascinating research into the Santa-tracking story. First of all, he wrote in an email,

It turns out that the military, and other government agencies, had been using Santa to sell their missions long before 1954. At the height of the Second World War, Eisenhower’s headquarters put out a release offering 'Christmas guidance' to war correspondents. It confirmed that 'a new North Pole Command has been formed,' that 'Santa Claus is directing operations,' and that 'he has under his command a small army of gnomes.' The censors, though, suppressed the location of Santa’s headquarters, directed that his delivery methods be described only as employing 'secret devices' or 'special scientific techniques,' and proscribed 'any mention of radar or speculation on the purpose of reindeer antennae.'

Which is both weird and delightful (army of gnomes! radar antennae!), and, regardless, suggestive of the fact that CONAD had a vested interest in PR campaigns as well as military ones. It was primed, basically, to take advantage of the good cheer of Christmas for its own ends—among them, promoting its military technology. Which makes sense, and which would help explain why NORAD would have so faithfully continued the tradition year after year.

Yoni has also found, it's worth noting, disparities in the early stories that informed NORAD's, Snopes's, and other current accounts of the intercepted North Pole calls. When Shoup told his story to the LA Times in 1980, he mentioned an unlisted line that a child had accessed. In a later newspaper story, in 1999, Shoup mentioned a much more limited, Red Phone-style line, and multiple children. My retelling originates from the Snopes account of what happened, but I'd love more documentation.

Lego's New Horizons

"A Model Spacecraft"

December 13th, 2013


NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is speeding quickly toward the first flyby of Pluto and its moons – nearing the destination on a voyage that has already captured the imaginations of millions and shown what perseverance and creativity can do.

The real spacecraft – developed at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland – is about the size and shape of a grand piano. But you might be able to own a smaller version, thanks to an effort to create a Lego model of the spacecraft.


New Horizons, the first NASA New Frontiers mission, is designed to make the first reconnaissance of Pluto, its moon, Charon, and other icy, rocky mini-worlds in the distant Kuiper Belt. In 2011, TIME magazine senior editor Jeffrey Kluger wrote in an article that "Of all the ships in NASA's active fleet, it is the Pluto probe — dubbed New Horizons — that is the least well-known but perhaps most ambitious." Launched on 2006 January 19 and at present en route to reach Pluto-Charon in 2015, New Horizons can tell us much about the origins and outer frontier of our solar system. The spacecraft is about 6 ft (2 m) on a side and 2 ft (60 cm) tall, about the size and shape of a grand piano.

The model is scaled to the diameter of the 10-stud dish element representing the high-gain radio antenna. By fortunate coincidence the shape of the "slope 53" brick elements made possible an excellent match to the wedge shape of the spacecraft main body. The entire suite of science payload instruments is represented on the model: Ralph, Alice, REX, LORRI, SWAP, PEPSSI, and SDC.

Creepy "magic" story for Christmas from H. G. Wells and Alfred Hitchcock

Out for a walk in London one day, Gip and his father happen upon a magic shop. At Gip's urging, the two go in — and things grow more and more curious by the minute. Counters, store fixtures, and mirrors seem to move around the room, and the shopkeeper is most mysterious of all. Gip is thrilled by all he sees, and his father is at first amused, but when things become stranger and sinister father is no longer sure where reality ends and illusion begins.

The Magic Shop


H. G. Wells

I had seen the Magic Shop from afar several times; I had passed it once or twice, a shop window of alluring little objects, magic balls, magic hens, wonderful cones, ventriloquist dolls, the material of the basket trick, packs of cards that looked all right, and all that sort of thing, but never had I thought of going in until one day, almost without warning, Gip hauled me by my finger right up to the window, and so conducted himself that there was nothing for it but to take him in. I had not thought the place was there, to tell the truth--a modest-sized frontage in Regent Street, between the picture shop and the place where the chicks run about just out of patent incubators, but there it was sure enough. I had fancied it was down nearer the Circus, or round the corner in Oxford Street, or even in Holborn; always over the way and a little inaccessible it had been, with something of the mirage in its position; but here it was now quite indisputably, and the fat end of Gip's pointing finger made a noise upon the glass.

"If I was rich," said Gip, dabbing a finger at the Disappearing Egg, "I'd buy myself that. And that"--which was The Crying Baby, Very Human --and that," which was a mystery, and called, so a neat card asserted, "Buy One and Astonish Your Friends."

"Anything," said Gip, "will disappear under one of those cones. I have read about it in a book.

"And there, dadda, is the Vanishing Halfpenny--, only they've put it this way up so's we can't see how it's done."

Gip, dear boy, inherits his mother's breeding, and he did not propose to enter the shop or worry in any way; only, you know, quite unconsciously he lugged my finger doorward, and he made his interest clear.

"That," he said, and pointed to the Magic Bottle.

"If you had that?" I said; at which promising inquiry he looked up with a sudden radiance.

"I could show it to Jessie," he said, thoughtful as ever of others.

"It's less than a hundred days to your birthday, Gibbles," I said, and laid my hand on the door-handle.

Gip made no answer, but his grip tightened on my finger, and so we came into the shop.

It was no common shop this; it was a magic shop, and all the prancing precedence Gip would have taken in the matter of mere toys was wanting. He left the burthen of the conversation to me.

It was a little, narrow shop, not very well lit, and the door-bell pinged again with a plaintive note as we closed it behind us. For a moment or so we were alone and could glance about us. There was a tiger in papier-mache on the glass case that covered the low counter--a grave, kind-eyed tiger that waggled his head in a methodical manner; there were several crystal spheres, a china hand holding magic cards, a stock of magic fish-bowls in various sizes, and an immodest magic hat that shamelessly displayed its springs. On the floor were magic mirrors; one to draw you out long and thin, one to swell your head and vanish your legs, and one to make you short and fat like a draught; and while we were laughing at these the shopman, as I suppose, came in.

At any rate, there he was behind the counter--a curious, sallow, dark man, with one ear larger than the other and a chin like the toe-cap of a boot.

"What can we have the pleasure?" he said, spreading his long, magic fingers on the glass case; and so with a start we were aware of him.

"I want," I said, "to buy my little boy a few simple tricks."

"Legerdemain?" he asked. "Mechanical? Domestic?"

"Anything amusing?" said I.

"Um!" said the shopman, and scratched his head for a moment as if thinking. Then, quite distinctly, he drew from his head a glass ball. "Something in this way?" he said, and held it out.

The action was unexpected. I had seen the trick done at entertainments endless times before--it's part of the common stock of conjurers-- but I had not expected it here.

"That's good," I said, with a laugh.

"Isn't it?" said the shopman.

Gip stretched out his disengaged hand to take this object and found merely a blank palm.

"It's in your pocket," said the shopman, and there it was!

"How much will that be?" I asked.

"We make no charge for glass balls," said the shopman politely. "We get them,"--he picked one out of his elbow as he spoke--"free." He produced another from the back of his neck, and laid it beside its predecessor on the counter. Gip regarded his glass ball sagely, then directed a look of inquiry at the two on the counter, and finally brought his round-eyed scrutiny to the shopman, who smiled.

"You may have those too," said the shopman, "and, if you don't mind, one from my mouth. So!"

Gip counselled me mutely for a moment, and then in a profound silence put away the four balls, resumed my reassuring finger, and nerved himself for the next event.

"We get all our smaller tricks in that way," the shopman remarked.

I laughed in the manner of one who subscribes to a jest. "Instead of going to the wholesale shop," I said. "Of course, it's cheaper."

"In a way," the shopman said. "Though we pay in the end. But not so heavily--as people suppose. . . . Our larger tricks, and our daily provisions and all the other things we want, we get out of that hat. . . And you know, sir, if you'll excuse my saying it, there isn't a wholesale shop, not for Genuine Magic goods, sir. I don't know if you noticed our inscription--the Genuine Magic shop." He drew a business-card from his cheek and handed it to me. "Genuine," he said, with his finger on the word, and added, "There is absolutely no deception, sir."

He seemed to be carrying out the joke pretty thoroughly, I thought.

He turned to Gip with a smile of remarkable affability. "You, you know, are the Right Sort of Boy."

I was surprised at his knowing that, because, in the interests of discipline, we keep it rather a secret even at home; but Gip received it in unflinching silence, keeping a steadfast eye on him.

"It's only the Right Sort of Boy gets through that doorway."

And, as if by way of illustration, there came a rattling at the door, and a squeaking little voice could be faintly heard. "Nyar! I warn 'a go in there, dadda, I warn 'a go in there. Ny-a-a-ah!" and then the accents of a down-trodden parent, urging consolations and propitiations. "It's locked, Edward," he said.

"But it isn't," said I.

"It is, sir," said the shopman, "always--for that sort of child," and as he spoke we had a glimpse of the other youngster, a little, white face, pallid from sweet-eating and over-sapid food, and distorted by evil passions, a ruthless little egotist, pawing at the enchanted pane. "It's no good, sir," said the shopman, as I moved, with my natural helpfulness, doorward, and presently the spoilt child was carried off howling.

"How do you manage that?" I said, breathing a little more freely.

"Magic!" said the shopman, with a careless wave of the hand, and behold! sparks of coloured fire flew out of his fingers and vanished into the shadows of the shop.

"You were saying," he said, addressing himself to Gip, "before you came in, that you would like one of our 'Buy One and Astonish your Friends' boxes?"

Gip, after a gallant effort, said "Yes."

"It's in your pocket."

And leaning over the counter--he really had an extraordinarily long body--this amazing person produced the article in the customary conjurer's manner. "Paper," he said, and took a sheet out of the empty hat with the springs; "string," and behold his mouth was a string-box, from which he drew an unending thread, which when he had tied his parcel he bit off--and, it seemed to me, swallowed the ball of string. And then he lit a candle at the nose of one of the ventriloquist's dummies, stuck one of his fingers (which had become sealing-wax red) into the flame, and so sealed the parcel. "Then there was the Disappearing Egg," he remarked, and produced one from within my coat-breast and packed it, and also The Crying Baby, Very Human. I handed each parcel to Gip as it was ready, and he clasped them to his chest.

He said very little, but his eyes were eloquent; the clutch of his arms was eloquent. He was the playground of unspeakable emotions. These, you know, were real Magics. Then, with a start, I discovered something moving about in my hat--something soft and jumpy. I whipped it off, and a ruffled pigeon--no doubt a confederate--dropped out and ran on the counter, and went, I fancy, into a cardboard box behind the papier-mache tiger.

"Tut, tut!" said the shopman, dexterously relieving me of my headdress; "careless bird, and--as I live--nesting!"

He shook my hat, and shook out into his extended hand two or three eggs, a large marble, a watch, about half-a-dozen of the inevitable glass balls, and then crumpled, crinkled paper, more and more and more, talking all the time of the way in which people neglect to brush their hats inside as well as out, politely, of course, but with a certain personal application. "All sorts of things accumulate, sir. . . . Not you, of course, in particular. . . . Nearly every customer. . . . Astonishing what they carry about with them. . . ." The crumpled paper rose and billowed on the counter more and more and more, until he was nearly hidden from us, until he was altogether hidden, and still his voice went on and on. "We none of us know what the fair semblance of a human being may conceal, sir. Are we all then no better than brushed exteriors, whited sepulchres--"

His voice stopped--exactly like when you hit a neighbour's gramophone with a well-aimed brick, the same instant silence, and the rustle of the paper stopped, and everything was still. . . .

"Have you done with my hat?" I said, after an interval.

There was no answer.

I stared at Gip, and Gip stared at me, and there were our distortions in the magic mirrors, looking very rum, and grave, and quiet. . . .

"I think we'll go now," I said. "Will you tell me how much all this comes to? . . . .

"I say," I said, on a rather louder note, "I want the bill; and my hat, please."

It might have been a sniff from behind the paper pile. . . .

"Let's look behind the counter, Gip," I said. "He's making fun of us."

I led Gip round the head-wagging tiger, and what do you think there was behind the counter? No one at all! Only my hat on the floor, and a common conjurer's lop-eared white rabbit lost in meditation, and looking as stupid and crumpled as only a conjurer's rabbit can do. I resumed my hat, and the rabbit lolloped a lollop or so out of my way.

"Dadda!" said Gip, in a guilty whisper.

"What is it, Gip?" said I.

"I do like this shop, dadda."

"So should I," I said to myself, "if the counter wouldn't suddenly extend itself to shut one off from the door." But I didn't call Gip's attention to that. "Pussy!" he said, with a hand out to the rabbit as it came lolloping past us; "Pussy, do Gip a magic!" and his eyes followed it as it squeezed through a door I had certainly not remarked a moment before. Then this door opened wider, and the man with one ear larger than the other appeared again. He was smiling still, but his eye met mine with something between amusement and defiance. "You'd like to see our show-room, sir," he said, with an innocent suavity. Gip tugged my finger forward. I glanced at the counter and met the shopman's eye again. I was beginning to think the magic just a little too genuine. "We haven't VERY much time," I said. But somehow we were inside the show-room before I could finish that.

"All goods of the same quality," said the shopman, rubbing his flexible hands together, "and that is the Best. Nothing in the place that isn't genuine Magic, and warranted thoroughly rum. Excuse me, sir!"

I felt him pull at something that clung to my coat-sleeve, and then I saw he held a little, wriggling red demon by the tail--the little creature bit and fought and tried to get at his hand--and in a moment he tossed it carelessly behind a counter. No doubt the thing was only an image of twisted indiarubber, but for the moment--! And his gesture was exactly that of a man who handles some petty biting bit of vermin. I glanced at Gip, but Gip was looking at a magic rocking- horse. I was glad he hadn't seen the thing. "I say," I said, in an undertone, and indicating Gip and the red demon with my eyes, "you haven't many things like that about, have you?"

"None of ours! Probably brought it with you," said the shopman-- also in an undertone, and with a more dazzling smile than ever. "Astonishing what people will carry about with them unawares!" And then to Gip, "Do you see anything you fancy here?"

There were many things that Gip fancied there.

He turned to this astonishing tradesman with mingled confidence and respect. "Is that a Magic Sword?" he said.

"A Magic Toy Sword. It neither bends, breaks, nor cuts the fingers. It renders the bearer invincible in battle against any one under eighteen. Half-a-crown to seven and sixpence, according to size. These panoplies on cards are for juvenile knights-errant and very useful-- shield of safety, sandals of swiftness, helmet of invisibility."

"Oh, daddy!" gasped Gip.

I tried to find out what they cost, but the shopman did not heed me. He had got Gip now; he had got him away from my finger; he had embarked upon the exposition of all his confounded stock, and nothing was going to stop him. Presently I saw with a qualm of distrust and something very like jealousy that Gip had hold of this person's finger as usually he has hold of mine. No doubt the fellow was interesting, I thought, and had an interestingly faked lot of stuff, really good faked stuff, still--

I wandered after them, saying very little, but keeping an eye on this prestidigital fellow. After all, Gip was enjoying it. And no doubt when the time came to go we should be able to go quite easily.

It was a long, rambling place, that show-room, a gallery broken up by stands and stalls and pillars, with archways leading off to other departments, in which the queerest-looking assistants loafed and stared at one, and with perplexing mirrors and curtains. So perplexing, indeed, were these that I was presently unable to make out the door by which we had come.

The shopman showed Gip magic trains that ran without steam or clockwork, just as you set the signals, and then some very, very valuable boxes of soldiers that all came alive directly you took off the lid and said--. I myself haven't a very quick ear and it was a tongue- twisting sound, but Gip--he has his mother's ear--got it in no time. "Bravo!" said the shopman, putting the men back into the box unceremoniously and handing it to Gip. "Now," said the shopman, and in a moment Gip had made them all alive again.

"You'll take that box?" asked the shopman.

"We'll take that box," said I, "unless you charge its full value. In which case it would need a Trust Magnate--"

"Dear heart! No!" and the shopman swept the little men back again, shut the lid, waved the box in the air, and there it was, in brown paper, tied up and--with Gip's full name and address on the paper!

The shopman laughed at my amazement.

"This is the genuine magic," he said. "The real thing."

"It's a little too genuine for my taste," I said again.

After that he fell to showing Gip tricks, odd tricks, and still odder the way they were done. He explained them, he turned them inside out, and there was the dear little chap nodding his busy bit of a head in the sagest manner.

I did not attend as well as I might. "Hey, presto!" said the Magic Shopman, and then would come the clear, small "Hey, presto!" of the boy. But I was distracted by other things. It was being borne in upon me just how tremendously rum this place was; it was, so to speak, inundated by a sense of rumness. There was something a little rum about the fixtures even, about the ceiling, about the floor, about the casually distributed chairs. I had a queer feeling that whenever I wasn't looking at them straight they went askew, and moved about, and played a noiseless puss-in-the-corner behind my back. And the cornice had a serpentine design with masks--masks altogether too expressive for proper plaster.

Then abruptly my attention was caught by one of the odd-looking assistants. He was some way off and evidently unaware of my presence-- I saw a sort of three-quarter length of him over a pile of toys and through an arch--and, you know, he was leaning against a pillar in an idle sort of way doing the most horrid things with his features! The particular horrid thing he did was with his nose. He did it just as though he was idle and wanted to amuse himself. First of all it was a short, blobby nose, and then suddenly he shot it out like a telescope, and then out it flew and became thinner and thinner until it was like a long, red, flexible whip. Like a thing in a nightmare it was! He flourished it about and flung it forth as a fly-fisher flings his line.

My instant thought was that Gip mustn't see him. I turned about, and there was Gip quite preoccupied with the shopman, and thinking no evil. They were whispering together and looking at me. Gip was standing on a little stool, and the shopman was holding a sort of big drum in his hand.

"Hide and seek, dadda!" cried Gip. "You're He!"

And before I could do anything to prevent it, the shopman had clapped the big drum over him. I saw what was up directly. "Take that off," I cried, "this instant! You'll frighten the boy. Take it off!"

The shopman with the unequal ears did so without a word, and held the big cylinder towards me to show its emptiness. And the little stool was vacant! In that instant my boy had utterly disappeared? . . .

You know, perhaps, that sinister something that comes like a hand out of the unseen and grips your heart about. You know it takes your common self away and leaves you tense and deliberate, neither slow nor hasty, neither angry nor afraid. So it was with me.

I came up to this grinning shopman and kicked his stool aside.

"Stop this folly!" I said. "Where is my boy?"

"You see," he said, still displaying the drum's interior, "there is no deception---"

I put out my hand to grip him, and he eluded me by a dexterous movement. I snatched again, and he turned from me and pushed open a door to escape. "Stop!" I said, and he laughed, receding. I leapt after him--into utter darkness.


"Lor' bless my 'eart! I didn't see you coming, sir!"

I was in Regent Street, and I had collided with a decent-looking working man; and a yard away, perhaps, and looking a little perplexed with himself, was Gip. There was some sort of apology, and then Gip had turned and come to me with a bright little smile, as though for a moment he had missed me.

And he was carrying four parcels in his arm!

He secured immediate possession of my finger.

For the second I was rather at a loss. I stared round to see the door of the magic shop, and, behold, it was not there! There was no door, no shop, nothing, only the common pilaster between the shop where they sell pictures and the window with the chicks! . . .

I did the only thing possible in that mental tumult; I walked straight to the kerbstone and held up my umbrella for a cab.

"'Ansoms," said Gip, in a note of culminating exultation.

I helped him in, recalled my address with an effort, and got in also. Something unusual proclaimed itself in my tail-coat pocket, and I felt and discovered a glass ball. With a petulant expression I flung it into the street.

Gip said nothing.

For a space neither of us spoke.

"Dada!" said Gip, at last, "that was a proper shop!"

I came round with that to the problem of just how the whole thing had seemed to him. He looked completely undamaged--so far, good; he was neither scared nor unhinged, he was simply tremendously satisfied with the afternoon's entertainment, and there in his arms were the four parcels.

Confound it! what could be in them?

"Um!" I said. "Little boys can't go to shops like that every day."

He received this with his usual stoicism, and for a moment I was sorry I was his father and not his mother, and so couldn't suddenly there, coram publico, in our hansom, kiss him. After all, I thought, the thing wasn't so very bad.

But it was only when we opened the parcels that I really began to be reassured. Three of them contained boxes of soldiers, quite ordinary lead soldiers, but of so good a quality as to make Gip altogether forget that originally these parcels had been Magic Tricks of the only genuine sort, and the fourth contained a kitten, a little living white kitten, in excellent health and appetite and temper.

I saw this unpacking with a sort of provisional relief. I hung about in the nursery for quite an unconscionable time. . . .

That happened six months ago. And now I am beginning to believe it is all right. The kitten had only the magic natural to all kittens, and the soldiers seem as steady a company as any colonel could desire. And Gip--?

The intelligent parent will understand that I have to go cautiously with Gip.

But I went so far as this one day. I said, "How would you like your soldiers to come alive, Gip, and march about by themselves?"

"Mine do," said Gip. "I just have to say a word I know before I open the lid."

"Then they march about alone?"

"Oh, quite, dadda. I shouldn't like them if they didn't do that."

I displayed no unbecoming surprise, and since then I have taken occasion to drop in upon him once or twice, unannounced, when the soldiers were about, but so far I have never discovered them performing in anything like a magical manner.

It's so difficult to tell.

There's also a question of finance. I have an incurable habit of paying bills. I have been up and down Regent Street several times, looking for that shop. I am inclined to think, indeed, that in that matter honour is satisfied, and that, since Gip's name and address are known to them, I may very well leave it to these people, whoever they may be, to send in their bill in their own time.

The Alfred Hitchcock Hour

Season 2, Episode 13

January 10th, 1964


Leslie Nielsen, John Megna, Peggy McCay, David Opatoshu, Paul Hartman, William Sargent, and Hugh Sanders.

Directed by Robert Stevens.


bare•bones e-zine


The young boy [John Megna] played Scout's brother in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Parasitic plant used for kissing...mistletoe

"Why do we kiss under the mistletoe?"

December 24th, 2013

Guardian News

Because it remains green year round, this parasitic plant has long been associated with fertility.

To the best of my knowledge, I never saw live mistletoe until after relocating to Europe. But the leafless trees in Germany make it plain that mistletoe is everywhere here.

European mistletoe, Viscum album, is native to Europe and Great Britain. It is a parasitic plant that obtains water and minerals from trees and shrubs. Its waxy white berries are toxic to humans, but several bird species certainly enjoy eating them and do so with impunity. The berries are coated with a sticky substance containing mucopolysaccharides and strands of cellulose. This adhesive, known as viscin, sticks the seed to a new host plant after a bird has wiped it from its beak or eaten it.

So why do we have a tradition of kissing under mistletoe?

Since mistletoe remains green throughout the year, many ancient peoples have ascribed these plants with magical healing powers and with fertility, and some cultures viewed it as an aphrodisiac due to the suggestive arrangement of its berries. Apparently, the association between mistletoe and fertility made it a traditional addition ancient Greek myths, where the custom of kissing under mistletoe may have started. This practice was later extended to wedding ceremonies.

Victorian England seems to have adopted this tradition, too. For example, if a girl refused a kiss whilst standing under mistletoe, it was said that she wouldn't receive any marriage proposals during the following year. Worse, it seems that many people would avoid her since they believed she would probably end up an old maid -- as if this was such a bad thing!

Interestingly, there is a proper etiquette for kissing under the mistletoe: first, the man can only kiss a woman or girl on the cheek and second, when he does so, he removes one berry from the mistletoe sprig. After all the berries are gone, the kissing ends, too.

Here's Fred Rumsey, the Botany Enquiries Officer at the Natural History Museum, musing upon the charms of mistletoe:

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Nelly Ternan, mistress of Charles Dickens, portrayed by Felicity Jones on film

"Ralph Fiennes: Charles Dickens 'absolutely had a child' with Nelly Ternan"

Speaking after the Toronto film festival premiere of The Invisible Woman, actor/director says evidence strongly suggests Dickens's affair bore offspring, and reveals his own complex relationship with the writer


Chris Michael    

September 7th, 2013

Contrary to his image as avuncular national treasure, Charles Dickens was a tormented figure, who likely fathered at least one illegitimate child and may have projected his affairs into his novels, says the actor Ralph Fiennes.

Speaking at the Toronto film festival the afternoon after the premiere of The Invisible Woman, in which Fiennes plays Dickens as he pursues an affair with much-younger actress Nelly Ternan, the actor said the gap between brand and man is much wider with Dickens than most people realise. "Dickens was tormented, he had huge extremes of emotion. We tend to get the sort of Christmas card Dickens – the smiling, jolly father-figure, entertaining the family. But when you read about him, you can identify this very disturbed man: a man in anguish."

Adapted by Abi Morgan from a biography by Claire Tomalin, the film's portrayal of Nelly (played by Felicity Jones) as a complex character torn between love and social suicide has reverberations in the novelist's work, Fiennes said.

"Great Expectations was written when we know he was involved with Ellen Ternan. And Felicity and I had a lot of conversations about the degree to which Estella might be inspired by Nelly. It's very interesting the extent to which you can identify elements of Nelly in many of his female characters, especially in his later books."

"I actually feel that his female characters get much better after his affair with Nelly," Jones joked.

Though Tomalin's biography stops short of declaring the couple definitely suffered a miscarriage, Fiennes is confident in his film's version of events. "Claire argues that although there is no absolute proof, she believes there was certainly consummation. And absolutely she believes there was a child, even possibly two. Other biographers have started to acknowledge that this is probably the best bet."

The couple also spent time in France, and great chunks of time are unaccounted for in Dickens's diaries. "France was the place people went to in England when they had to deal with illegitimate births. So I just followed the hints and the leads that Claire writes."

But Fiennes also felt it was important not to sensationalise the story. "I was wary of the quick leap to judgment – 'Dickens was a scoundrel.' An Irish friend of mine said, 'Oh he was a bit of a bollocks, wasn't he.' But there's a whole spectrum of Dickens. He was very loyal to his friends, incredibly generous, devoted to social causes that he really delivered on, wrote these amazing books, and then at home possibly was a very difficult father figure."

One of the Britain's leading stars of stage and screen, Fiennes had nevertheless had barely any contact with the country's most famous novelist until he started work on the film. "It's true that I was pretty ignorant about Dickens. I'd read Little Dorritt and seen some films, but Dickens had never been prescribed to me and I had never chosen to go through the canon of his work - and in a way that may have been a plus, I came open, and became completely fascinated."

The film casts Nelly's torment within the contemporary context of the struggles women faced in Victorian England, almost entirely dependent on the earnings of men. "Mrs Ternan, the mother, tacitly allows this relationship to happen," Fiennes said. "What's she going to do? She risks social ostracisiation for her daughter, but the security and the benefits of support of Dickens perhaps outweigh the risk of breaking the taboo."

It wasn't all strum and drag on set, however. "I had to wear this huge bow tie. I kept saying, it's too much it's too much – but then I looked at the pictures of Dickens and of course it's huge, out to here. So I embraced it." And, as both actor and director, Fiennes was able to weigh in on the two sides of himself. "Ralph Fiennes the actor is very difficult, he's very moody, tempestuous, storms off the set. And Ralph Fiennes the director … is also very difficult."

"Felicity Jones On 'The Invisible Woman' & The Strangest Christmas Gift She Ever Received"


Matthew Jacobs

December 23rd, 2013

Felicity Jones has starred alongside some of Hollywood's most buzzed about young actors, including Andrew Garfield in "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" and Eddie Redmayne in the Stephen Hawking biopic "Theory of Everything." She's pretty open about the latter movie, but, like much of the gossip surrounding the next "Spider-Man" installment, mum's the word for the 29-year-old Jones when it comes to her debut Peter Parker adventure.

All of that, however, is secondary to Jones' latest movie, "The Invisible Woman." A period piece directed by and co-starring Ralph Fiennes, "Woman" tells the oft-forgotten true story of Nelly Ternan, the mistress of Charles Dickens. The illicit love story is based on Claire Tomalin's book of the same name, and it marks Fiennes' second venture from behind the camera following 2011's "Coriolanus." HuffPost Entertainment sat down with Jones to discuss the new movie, and along the way we discovered she's not a fan of physics but she does enjoy kitsch.

“Like Crazy,” your breakout role, was a low-budget picture heavy on improv. This is not. Which do you prefer?

I like both. They test different things in you as an actor, so I’m happy to move between both styles. I mean, the main thing is just being truthful with the character and caring about them, and that’s sort of the focus. And then as an actor, you want to be in different films and different styles and work with different directors, so that’s always the focus.

Do you find an improv setting to be natural for you?

I love improvising. I love collaborating in that way. It’s like extreme sports -- you never know quite what’s going to happen, so there’s a lot of excitement in working that way.

You’ve done a ton of literary projects: “Northanger Abbey,” “Brideshead Revisited,” “The Tempest.” Are you a big reader yourself?

I love reading, yeah. I studied literature at university, and since a young age that’s always been a passion of mine.

Have you read anything lately that you’d recommend to us?

Yeah, I just read a book called “Life After God,” which I thought was really beautifully written, and I’m just starting “Crime and Punishment.”

That’s a big undertaking.

Dostoevsky is a bit heavy, yeah. I don’t just read nihilistic books, though.

What did you know about Nelly before being associated with "Invisible Woman"? Were you familiar with her story at all?

I didn’t know about her, and the film in many ways is bringing her to the fore. I’m so happy she’s not going to be buried in history. I do think she wanted to tell her story, of her relationship with Dickens. She was a big, big part of his life, and she shouldn’t be forgotten.

What were your assessments of who Nelly was as a woman?

A lot of it is your gut instinct. I think she was very proud, I think she was very willful, had a very strong sense of self. She didn’t want to be just some floozy mistress; she wanted to retain her dignity and her strength within their relationship. But from the outside, obviously Dickens had a lot of power, and it was a difficult relationship. But I think she had enormous inner strength. I just think about her now if I’m worried, and I think, “What would Nelly do?” She was a real survivor. She had no money. They were so poor, her family, that she sort of struggled for survival and did it.

Even though he’s known for such serious work, I picture working with Ralph Fiennes to be fun-loving. What was his presence like on the set?

He’s very committed and very devoted to his work. He doesn’t take it lightly -- he knows that he’s very privileged to be doing what he’s doing. It’s the seriousness of the endeavor that I respect in him. And it’s not taken on lightly, and I love the way he approaches both acting and directing. It’s absolute focus, and he wants to tell a story as honestly as possible.

What was it like working on someone’s film who’s also acting in the project?

Well, it’s obviously a different environment than I’m used to, but Ralph just created a set where we were really free to explore, and it was very focused and it was just totally about performance, which was a luxury. You don’t get that. Directors often have a million things to be thinking about, so you don’t get that laser focus on creating a performance of integrity. That was an intense but fascinating experience.

Is there a recent part you wish you could have played, or perhaps a famous one you’d love to take on?

I don’t know, I think there’s going to be a fashion of women playing men’s parts. Like, I’d love to play Hamlet.

A reverse Shakespearean kind of thing?

Yeah! Or something just to try. Obviously people like Tilda Swinton have done it. I think that’d be fascinating to try a different psychology.

You recently wrapped “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” which I assume required much more physicality than something like “The Invisible Woman” or “Like Crazy.” Did you have to adopt any particular physical regimen to prepare?

I really can’t say that much about it. So, you’ll have to wait and see. It was really good, I had a great time. I really respect everyone involved in the project; they’re all wonderful, and I loved the comics growing up.

Oh, did you read them?

Yeah, my brother had the Spider-Man pajama set, and like all kids, we loved cartoons. So it was really cool to put a part of.

Can you tell us whether you’re returning for “Amazing Spider-Man 3”?

You’ll have to wait and see.

You also have “Theory of Everything" coming up. Did you have any physics knowledge before taking the role of Hawking’s wife?

I was so bad at physics in school. Physics and math and chemistry, I was like, “No, I’ll just stick to English and history, thank you very much.” It’s definitely not my world, and I think Stephen Hawking actually is someone who’s made physics a lot more accessible to people. That’s really his legacy, so I enjoyed reading his books.

So we should all go read “A Brief History of Time”?

Yeah, it’s fantastic. But the character I was playing was much more literary and artistic, and so much of the film is about their different attitudes toward the world, their different ideologies.

In keeping with the season, what’s the strangest Christmas present you’ve received?

I once got a vase from an aunt that had a monkey on it.

Do you still have it?

You know what, when I first got it, I hated it. But now I think it’s quite kitsch, so now it has a presence in my life. It’s like fashion -- it’s always changing.

Kill, marry or bang: Andrew Garfield, Eddie Redmayne, James Franco.

[laughs] I am definitely not even entertaining that question.

Okay, at least tell us which of the three you find the hunkiest.

I can’t, I’ll get into so much trouble. I’m friends with all of them, they’re all lovely.

So they’ll all want to know which of them wins your heart.

They’re all very talented actors.

Of course. Favorite movies of the year?

“Blue is the Warmest Color,” and I actually loved “The Look of Love,” the Michael Winterbottom movie, as well.

What sense would you be most afraid to lose?

I think touch. Can you lose one? Yeah, you can lose sensation. Am I going mad? Touch is a sense, right?


What are the five senses? This is how gone from my own humanity I am.

Oh no, you’re not a science person, I get it. Sight, sound, smell, taste and touch.

Yeah. It’s a good name for a movie.

There: your first writing project.

Yeah, let’s do it.

Do you want to write or direct at any point?

At the moment, acting is my focus. But I wouldn’t want to rule anything out.

Well, if so, we just developed the title for your first movie, so you can figure out what that’ll entail. Not physics probably.

Yeah, no way.

I better get some kind of producer credit on that.

Oh, for sure.

Ellen Ternan [Wikipedia]