Treasures from the Sea

The Miskito Coast of Nicaragua is the storied haven of conquistadors and the pirates of the Spanish Main. However, today it’s an even stranger and more difficult place – poor and far from the oversight or assistance of the government. Unemployment is extraordinary at over 80%. But some people live very, very well. The secret to the strange wealth of the town of Bluefields is the mysterious and valuable white lobster that washes ashore. La langosta bianca is actually bales – literally bales – of cocaine. Each is worth about US$122,000. The coast off Bluefields is so commonly used as a drug trafficking route that locals call it the “country road” from Colombia northward, eventually ending up in American cities. The US Navy and Coast Guard is often hot on the heels of the speedboats. The fleeing drug runners will throw the drugs overboard, and the currents wash the contents ashore on the Bluefields beaches. Locals troll the beaches and sell it for cash to itinerant dealers and traffickers. The 50,000 residents can’t possibly use that much cocaine themselves so they sell it to the “used clothes dealers” who sell it on. Besides large houses, cars, and entertainment the money seems to be spent disproportionately on beer. However there is little to buy in the local stores and electricity is on and off. It is isolated and culturally closer to Jamaica than Nicaragua – people speak English and use US dollars as the main currency as well as Costa Rican and Honduran money.

There is surprising little crime and violence in Bluefields considering there is also very little law enforcement and almost zero assistance from the federal or state government as it is classified as an autonomous region. People openly consume cocaine in the street. People donate a portion of any “lobster” harvests to the church and school since the government doesn’t provide funding out here. Despite the bales of cocaine and cash stashed all over the town and the surrounding hills, the indigenous Miskito tribe have automatic weapons and plenty of guerilla warfare experience which deter potential Colombian druglords from retaking their drugs.

Black and White and Red All Over

While the human eye can distinguish about 10 million different colors, we have a limited number of words we can use to talk about color. You could argue that you don’t need all that many basic color terms – after all English only has a dozen or so. (A basic term being a color word without any modifiers; green is a basic color word but not light green or forest green). Different languages have different numbers of basic color words ranging from over a dozen to as few to two. Although a language might only have 2 color words, usually “light” and “dark”, it doesn’t mean that its speakers don’t perceive or recognize other colors. In fact regardless of language of origin and how many basic color words it has, everyone around the world mostly agrees when asked to pick out the “purest” or “reddest” red (or other color) from a group of samples.

The best way to explain this confusing concept is with a word that English is missing. For example, Italian and Japanese have a basic color word that isn’t found in English, azzurro and sorairo. The first translates as royal blue and the second as sky blue, but it’s considered different from “regular” blue in the way that we consider orange and yellow to be different basic colors. Of course, once translated, we English speakers have no problem understanding the concept of azzurro or sorairo and we can distinguish it from blu and ao (regular blue, respectively) in a lineup.

In particular, the world seems to linguistically diverge specifically in the green, blue, and gray family. Many languages all over the world have one word that covers two or three of these colors. Some scholars think this could be related to the color of the ocean, which can vary so much in perceived color. This blue/green/gray phenomenon is very common, cropping up in African, Scandinavian, Celtic, and East Asian languages. Irish is even more unusual in that it has two words for green. One refers to green plants, and the other refers to artificial green, such as paint and clothes. This distinction has to be made even if the hues are exactly the same.

Of course, we adopt and exchange words, too. Japanese has no native word for the color pink, as it used to be considered just another shade of light red. This is changing as they now have borrowed the English term giving them pinku. However, English didn’t originally have a dedicated term for pink either – we also thought it was light red. The word pink was originally the name of a flower. It still is the name of the flower, but almost all usage is to talk about other pink-colored items. Same story for orange.

Another interesting cultural artifact is the colors associated with political parties. Speaking in very general terms, most of the world (particularly Europe) traditionally associated blue with conservatives (what’s more traditional and stable?) and red with liberal (energetic and progressive). This used to be true in America as well, since our political heritage is European. However, only in the last decade or so we’ve begun discussing Red states and Blue states as conservative and liberal, respectively. And even more recently, we can sometimes talk about swing states as purple states.

Try this interesting site that compares colors and the names we give them. Is your mustard yellow the same as others'? It's broken down by gender, too, since men and women anatomically and sometimes culturally perceive color differently.

If You Believe They Put A Man on the Moon

There is an early, experimental, and once-slightly-long-lost film that you may be more familiar with than you realize. The film is called Le Voyage dans la lune, or A Trip to the Moon by Georges Meliès from 1902. It's a melodramatic but heartfelt imagining of launching a manned rocket to the moon. The film is heavily influenced by contemporary science fiction by Jules Verne and HG Wells. It follows the journey from conception to building the rocket and ship, launching it, and landing on the moon. Various anthropomorphized stars and planets appear. They encounter and fight aliens and make their escape back to earth.

The special effects are very impressive for the time period. It is not the first science fiction or fantasy film, but it's the best from this era. Meliès was particularly inventive in the use of special effects and made use of multiple exposures, time-lapse photography, dissolves and hand-inked color. The iconic image from Voyage dans la lune is the man in the moon being hit in the eye with a spaceship.

Meliès made hundreds of short films, mainly to show the experimental possibilities of various effects. Much of his work was destroyed and recycled and is lost today. The original version had a final scene of a celebratory parade back on earth, but this was lost for almost 100 years. A print of the film was discovered in 2002 in a barn in France. It contained the full film and was also completely hand-colored. Meliès wanted to release his film in America, but Edison’s team made illegal copies and distributed it themselves. Meliès eventually went bankrupt and exited the film business.

If the film or the style looks somewhat familiar, the Smashing Pumpkins based their 1996 music video “Tonight, Tonight” on this film. You can see the direct reference in both plot and style. The production ran into difficulty because James Cameron was filming Titanic at the same time and had bought up nearly every turn-of-the-century costume and prop in LA. EMI won't allow video embedding, so here is a link to the video. 

The Cat Piano: Worst Instrument Ever

The first order of business on Misfiled History is to explain the title illustration. It is a musical instrument devised (but probably never created) by Misfiled History Patron Saint Athanasius Kircher, a 17th century Jesuit scholar. It is called a katzenklavier, or cat piano. The cats' tails are placed under the keys so when the keys are pressed the cat yowls. Naturally, the cats are placed in order of their vocal pitch to create a scale. It's a cruel device with no redeeming moral, societal, or musical value. But it was funny in the mid 1600s and it's amusing now.

Cats are not the only musical animals. Here is a video of the Thai Elephant Orchestra. While pretty good for elephants, it's not Mozart. On the plus side, no elephants are harmed in the making of this music.

Auspicious Beginnings

History has so many hidden nooks, crannies, and forgotten back alleys. Some deserve obscurity, but others have been unfairly banished to the corners - misfiled and misplaced. 

The goal here is to shed light on these forgotten events, people, and things. As long as it's strange, obscure, and interesting it could get its day in the sun here. If you're curious about what the Romans ate, how the founders of Apple started as criminal entrepreneurs, or how the Monopoly board game helped WWII POWs, so am I.

Follow along and see what misfiles we can bring back to the light!