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The Column of Lasting Insignificance: November 5, 2011

by John Wilcock


JOANNA SOUTHCOTT’S BOX is a centuries-old mystery that may never be solved. Does it even exist? Well, it did once (see below) but its supposed custodians, the London-based Panacea Society, decline to answer questions about whether they have it, which could be that they are hanging on to a spurious reason for their own existence.

Like the bigamist Joseph Smith, who claimed to be visited by an angel six years after Ms. Southcott’s 1814 death, Joanna, a farmer’s daughter in Devon, professed to have divine inspiration, writing and dictating prophecies in rhyme. Her arrival, she claimed, had been prophesied, by the Book of Revelation (ch.12.v.1-6).

At the age of 64, she announced specifically that she was pregnant with the New Messiah. (She wasn’t.) When she died not long afterwards, she left behind 100,000 followers and a sealed box which supposedly contained the solution to all the world’s problems. It could only be opened, she decreed, at a time of grave trouble and in the presence of 24 bishops.

Since then there have been repeated attempts to rally this unlikely conclave. Interest peaked during the Crimean War (1853 ) and World War 1 (1914). No bishops would ever cooperate, suggested a certain Mary Robinson in 1929, because “the contents might be a hoax, making them look ludicrous.”

The box came into the possession of various clergymen during the decades that followed, one of whom weighed it (156 lbs.) in 1856. When transferred again in 1898 it was discovered a mouse had been gnawing at the ropes so the box was put inside another box.

In 1923, the Panacea Society actually got some response when they wrote requesting cooperation from the head of the Anglican Church, the Archbishop of Canterbury, whose letter denying help added: “You are doubtless aware that there are rival boxes in different parts of England which claim to be the authentic article.”

One of these boxes had been acquired in 1920, by London’s famous ‘ghost-hunter’ Harry Price, who claimed to have opened the box, finding inside only some worthless papers, a pistol, and a lottery ticket. The Panacea Society, claiming that Price’s box was a fake, was as recently as a few years ago still trying to corral the 24 bishops.

RE-EMERGING INTO the world this week will be the six astronauts who have spent 520 days cooped up in a Moscow isolation chamber as a rehearsal for their mission to Mars. The enforced holiday, a joint project of the European Space Agency and Russia’s Institute for Biomedical Problems, will end with a debriefing that will concentrate on the mental state of the three Russians, two Europeans, and one Chinese, who will have worn spacesuits and conducted various experiments. Hopefully, the report will confirm that living in such close quarters with no escape for more than a year was amicable and not like an extended version of Big Brother.

SAN FRANCISCO BASHING hasn’t been heard much lately but writer Gerald Nachman (who lives there) devotes 3,000 words to “the nation’s fruitcake capital” in The American Spectator terming it “California’s Ditsyland corporate headquarters.” It’s a place that’s “bursting with self-importance,” he charges, with disease-of-the-month walks and runs “that allow the city to pat itself on the back for its altruism and all-embracing acceptance.” Nachman calls Berkeley’s restaurateur Alice Waters the Dalai Lama of dining whom orthodox foodies pray to regularly and ask forgiveness from should they dare to eat a politically incorrect fish, an out-of-state tomato, or a chicken with a sketchy resume.”

HOPING FOR A COMEBACK long after its automobile industry collapsed, Detroit is welcoming entrepreneurs with one investment group having sponsored ten tech companies in the past year. Michigan’s Small Business & Technology Center says it has helped 66 other small companies in the same era. Inc. magazine pinpoints a former French high school teacher, Torya Blanchard who credits low rents with her ability to launch a couple of restaurants, a bar, and vintage clothing store, all offshoots of her company Good Girls Go to Paris Crepes.

LACKING ANY SPECIFIC TASTE, vodka has to be tarted up with a unique bottle, fancy packaging, or added flavor if it hopes for success in a crowded marketplace. Any of these enhancements can double the price. That’s more or less the tale told by the weekly Standard which traces the drink’s progress from the days when the U.S. was “a brown-spirits nation” to last year’s vodka sales of 141 million gallons. “Part of the reason for vodka’s popularity is precisely its flavorless, odorless nature,” the mag suggests, blending harmoniously with almost everything. And, of course, marketing has been a major factor, from its early placement in the first James Bond movie, (Dr. No, 1962) to the brilliant “bottle plus two-word headline” of Absolut + something. Then there’s the hutzpah of Grey Goose, at $30 a bottle. Almost half of that is pure profit.

ALTHOUGH RUSSIANS AREN’T big beer drinkers, consumption has been rising to challenge the demand for vodka, and now more than 40 foreign brands, ranging from Heineken to Guinness, have been licensed for production inside the country. The Moscow Times reports that such clones, unlike the originals, carry a certain amount of stigma, generating complaints by some drinkers that they cause headaches. Consuming about 139 pints a year, Russians are in fourth place among beer drinkers, behind Czechs (319 pints), Brazilians, and Germans.

BRITAIN’S NATIONAL HEALTH SERVICE should be called the International Health Service says a columnist in BBC History magazine because between 30 and 40% of its doctors and nurses were born outside the country, mostly from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. “The Health Service would have collapsed,” writes Chris Bowlby, quoting an eminent doctor, “if it had not been for this enormous influx.” Where did all the British doctors go? Apparently to Australia and the U.S. in search of better pay.

BIGGER CARS NEED bigger tires says Smart Money and the latest variety are being made from exotic materials like citrus oil and synthetic rubber which are designed to improve handling and to perform at higher speeds — “and it doesn’t hurt that they look cool, too.” One drawback, the mag says, is that speedier tires tend to wear out more quickly and have a smaller cushion of rubber which means a bumpier ride.

THE WILCOCK WEB: It’s just a couple of years since Bush-the-Warmaker conned Congress into paying $1.3 billion for a new embassy — the world’s largest — in Baghdad. It houses 5,000 Americans in 21 buildings on a tract said to be almost as big as Vatican City….The crooked Hamid Karzai says that if it came to a choice, he’d back Pakistan against the U.S. So why don’t we bribe him to withdraw immunity from Americans, and then we could pull out of Afghanistan, too?…Robert Scheer writes that NYTimes former editor Bill Keller’s dismissal of the Wall Street protesters displays the “arrogance of disoriented royal privilege. Perhaps his contempt for anti-corporate protesters was honed by the example of his father, once the chairman of Chevron”. …The Pakistan Illusion: The friend of our enemies is not our friend is the title of a current story in the weekly Standard…. Santa Barbara Independent columnist Barney Brantingham says a protester outside the Supreme Court carried a sign reading: I Won’t Believe Corporations Are People Until Texas Executes One…..Who shot Qaddafi? Who cares…..Sandwiched between two oceans, America could have pioneered desalinization techniques years ago, but we didn’t, so now China is taking the lead in that, too…..Before he died in 1870, Charles Dickens asked that no monument be built to him, but Bournemouth, his birthplace, will erect a bronze statue of him next year, the bicentenary of his birth……..In Italy, 48% of adults under 39 still live at home….…Variety reports that the Oprah Network is reworking a BBC show for next year in which a group of experienced matchmakers will base themselves in some small town and see how many eligible singles they can set up with partners in 30 days …. “Unless the international community acts to ban them,” wrote Jon Peterson in a letter to the Los Angeles Times, “eventually there will be drones over the United States”….Westways reports that the number of people texting or using electronic devices while they drive has tripled since the law banning these activities went into effect in January 2009. The AAA magazine is offering a $25,000 prize for a one-minute video by high school students that discourages such bad driving practice…..The American Kennel Club bans perfume from the show ring, but elsewhere dogs are commonly bathed in Fresh Pet Cologne ($8 a bottle). Now Les Poochs VIP, made from the rare osmanthus flower, is available for a mere $250…. More than 13,000 bulls are killed in Spanish bullfights each year but starting in January they will be banned in the province of Catalonia…. Dutch right-wingers plan to ban foreigners from Amsterdam‘s marihuana coffee shops starting next year ….“Design is not just how it looks. Design is how it works.” — Steve Jobs (1955-2011)