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article-imageTony Sarg & an elephant balloon (via

As the procession of bands, balloons, and high-production spectacles makes its annual appearance in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, let's time travel back to the 1920s to the innovative puppeteer who made the inflatable characters part of the American holiday.

The Macy's parade started in 1924, but in 1927 its collaboration with Tony Sarg took things way up a few whimsical notches. Working with fellow puppeteer Bil Baird, a 60-foot balloon dragon, tottering Felix the Cat, hummingbird, and other buoyant wonders made their way down the Manhattan streets, and the crowds went wild.

As Jimmy Stamp wrote at Smithsonian Magazine, these first balloons were inflated with oxygen (although by 1928 they'd switched to helium, often soaring higher than our balloons today). Furthermore, in the early years they were let to ascend at the end of the parade and people got rewards for their retrieval. Stamp explains that ended in 1932 "when a daredevil pilot thought it would be fun to capture the balloons with her biplane and nearly crashed when the rubberized canvas wrapped itself around the plane's wing."

Sarg also worked on the annual Macy's holiday window displays from 1935 to 1942, the year he died of appendicitis. He considered the balloons "giant, upside down marionettes," and saw no limits to what they could do.  Each year of the Macy's parade, he added new fanciful figures, ever more animated like a policeman shaking a nightstick, a 20-foot elephant, and a sea monster. That inflatable sea serpent was eventfully part of a hoax Sarg staged at his home in Nantucket, where in 1937 he had the balloon wash ashore to the delight of the locals and tourists. In 1939, Sarg was a host for the first television broadcast of the parade. 

Melissa Sweet's children's book Balloons Over Broadway playfully tells Sarg's story, and in the video below you can see Sarg's creations in action on the New York streets, where they even had to fit below the elevated train.

Felix the Cat in the 1927 parade (via bennypdrinnon.blogspot)

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article-imageAi Weiwei's "Bloom" installation of porcelain flowers in a bathtub and sink in the Alcatraz hospital (all photographs by the author)

Usually locked and off-limits, the abandoned hospital at Alcatraz is accessible to the public for a brief time. @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz, which opened in September and is on view to April 26, 2015, has the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei infiltrating the cells, wards, and rarely-seen buildings with art examining human rights and free expression.

article-imageAi Weiwei has himself been subject to arrest and detention, and is still prohibited from traveling out of China. This means his exhibition on Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay is a statement on control that he is blocked from personally seeing. His art in the prison hospital, along with the ordinarily-closed New Industries Building and A Block, has installations that use the windswept history of the "Rock" as a backdrop to ongoing issues of free speech and imprisonment. Faces of 176 prisoners of conscience are formed by LEGO bricks in one space, and a large dragon kite scrawled with quotes from people imprisoned for activism winds through another

The hospital opened along with the Alcatraz prison in 1934, although medical facilities on the island date back to the 19th century when it housed an army fort. With an operating room, psychiatric cells, wards with beds, and other resources, a general practitioner and visiting surgeons and specialists gave regular care to the maximum security prisoners, without risking their escape. 

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article-imageThe Miracle of America Museum in Montana (all photographs by Eliza Berman & Dan Logan)

It would be easy to drive right past the Miracle of America Museum were it not for the rusty orange VW Bug perched on its flat roof. Two billboards on the west side of U.S. Highway 93 implore drivers to make a pit stop in Polson on their way toward northern Montana. But with no explanation for what, exactly, the Miracle of America is, it’s hard to know whether it will be worth the detour.

If you do pull off the highway and walk by the sign announcing “This Is Not a Tourist Trap,” past the piece of paper listing the five dollar cost of admission and a slice of half-eaten lemon meringue pie languishing on the counter, you’ll find the Miracle of America in one of the largest collections of American memorabilia owned by a private individual.

Nestled in the northeast quadrant of Montana's Flathead Reservation, just west of the Flathead National Forest, the museum boasts more than 150,000 relics of American history, from fishing tackle to taxidermy. But a limited advertising budget has kept it off most tourists’ radar. A good day might see 50 visitors, and a bad day, at the height of winter, might see none.

article-imageGil Mangels, who founded the museum in 1981 with his late wife Joanne, wears large round glasses and a name tag. After taking my five dollars, he remarked on the clicking fax machine in the corner of the room. He admits he doesn’t really know how to use it. “Why don’t they make things like they used to make radios?” he asked rhetorically. “Turn it on and off, volume up and down, and that’s it?” The question makes him sound like a Luddite, but that’s not the case at all. In fact, to Mangels, one of the miracles of America is innovation. That, and freedom.

Mangels is a collector, and has been since he was a boy of about four and found a sharp rock on the ground. He showed it to his mother, who told him it was an Indian arrowhead. “You need to save that,” she told him. “And I’ve been saving ever since,” he says, as though he’s told the story more than a few times.

After a stint in the military, Mangels began to see a greater meaning in the objects he collected. “I had the occasion to go behind the Iron Curtain when the wall was still up,” he recalls of his time in Germany. “And I didn’t like the feeling in a Soviet-controlled country. I'd taken my freedom for granted prior to that.” When he and his wife opened the museum years later, this patriotic spirit wove its way through the exhibits.

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article-imagephoto by Jeff Creamer

The Amazon is the most biodiverse tropical rainforest, which 1 in 10 known species in the world call home, including about 2.5 million species of insect. This October, as reported by Neatorama, a group of scientists may have discovered one more: a predatory glow worm. 

The term "glow worm" is a catch-all for the bioluminescent larvae of various insect species, from fireflies to beetles. They are most commonly found in Australia and New Zealand, where they tend to congregate in dark, dank spots like the Waitomo Glowworm Caves and the Newnes Glow Worm Tunnel, dangling strands of sticky mucus to trap smaller insects that are attracted to their glowing bodies. 

But the glow worms in the Peruvian rainforest were found in a dirt wall. They were first spotted a few years ago by wildlife photographer Jeff Creamer, during a nighttime hike in the rainforest in Tambopata. He posted pictures to Reddit, hoping to crowdsource an identification. No one was able to do so successfully, so last month he went back to Peru, bringing along entomologist Aaron Pomerantz and two grad students from the University of Florida to try to learn more about the creatures. 



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Devoured by a monstrous worm or boiled nude in a vat of searing pus — what sort of extraordinary agonies await you sinners in the afterlife? Mythological and religious concepts of death and the afterlife are loaded with convolution, ambiguity, and speculation. Many cultures embrace a trial of judgment after death, whereupon their souls are either salvaged or pitched into eternal damnation. Here we will look at five representations of hell, and what transpires during that final judgment.

Chinese Mythology: Diyu

article-imageFengdu Ghost City, which was built to represent Diyu (photograph by Robin/Flickr)

In Chinese mythology the concept of Diyu, or "earth prison," meshes the combined afterlife variants of Confucianism, Taoism, folk tales, and the Buddhist hell realm of Naraka. Diyu serves as a temporary zone in which the dead are brutally smited until their tenderized souls are ready for reincarnation. Originally consisting of over 90,000 hells, various interpretations have reduced the number to ten courts or 18 levels, each dealing with a different atonement.

King Yama, wrathful ruler of Diyu, oversees the punishment of all the dead and administers a formidable yet temporary, atonement that directly correlates to the severity of their sins. Perpetrators may be sawed in half, trampled and penetrated by a horned beast, deep fried in a wok, or be forced to climb mountains barbed with knives.

For mortals who want to get a taste of Diyu before their judgment day comes, they may visit Fengdu, the Chinese "ghost city" modeled after the nether world and its daunting trials.

Torture in the afterlife in Fengdu City (photograph by GS3/Wikimedia)

Norse Paganism: Niflheim

article-imageNidhogg at the Wodan Timbur Coaster (photograph by Jérémy Jännick)

As one of the Nine Worlds of Norse mythology, Hel, or Helheim, is the kingdom of souls for the common civilian who did not earn his death through battle. Eponymously named for this underworld, Hel was also the guardian of the realm, a hulking beast of a woman with a half-blackened face of corpse-like beauty. In the 13th century, Poetic Edda and Icelandic poet Snorri Sturlson’s Prose Edda, suggest that Hel and its even icier netherworld Niflheim ("World of Fog") were places of the blackest, bitterest, frigid dread.

In the depths of Niflheim, the lowest roots of Yggdrasil, the World Tree, stretch down for nourishment from Hvergelmir, a boiling cauldron of a well. Nidhogg (meaning “malice striker,” or “striker in the dark”), a 30-foot, carrion-obsessed worm gnaws on the roots of the tree while she waits for delectable corpses of perjurers, adulterers, and murderers to wash up on Dead Man’s Shore. Before Christian influence brought focus to individualized punishment for one’s moral standing, the pagan concept envisioned a neutral destination of rot and renewal. Like worms in a compost bin, the messengers of death in the Norse underworld act to encourage rebirth. Old branches die off so that new ones grow stronger. As is true for the Earth itself, the living can only flourish with the existence of decay.

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