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How many women did Jack the Ripper kill?

11 Mar

In my early 20s I took off on what was then an Australian right of passage – a two-year working holiday in England.

Now, for many and varied reasons I didn’t stay very long, but it was enough time to fall in love with Soho, Oxford St and the Piccadilly line on the tube. I also stumbled across Buckingham Palace, which I imagined to be in the country but which was actually in the heart of the city.

The place I loved most, though, was The London Dungeon. Forget chapels and cathedrals, this was much more my cup of tea with its focus on the dark and macabre side of history. Just take infamous serial killer Jack the Ripper.

I think there’s something incredibly intriguing about a murderer who could hold the entire city – particularly Whitechapel – hostage in such brutal fashion and then slip into the shadows without being identified, let alone brought to justice.

But while everyone from Hollywood to historians have thrown up plenty of theories on his identity – author Patricia Cornwall even published a book claiming he was painter Walter Sickert – his victims seem to hold less interest, perhaps because most, if not all, of them were prostitutes.

So today I decided I would like to know their names. And while some people believe Jack’s kill tally was 11, the official total stands at five, all murdered during a three-month reign of terror in 1888. Here they are:

  • Mary Ann Nicholls, 42, killed August 31
  • Annie Chapman, 47, killed September 8
  • Elizabeth Stride, 44, and Catherine Eddowes, 43, killed September 30
  • Jeanette Kelly, killed November 9

All of the women were horrifically mutilated. Catherine, for one, had her throat slashed, both eyelids cut and part of her nose and right ear cut off. Her uterus and left kidney were removed and her entrails were thrown over her right shoulder. This led police to suspect the killer must have had surgical training, but as history shows he was never found.

Here’s some other Ripper facts I found at the Dungeon site.

  • On September 30, the day he killed two women, police followed a blood trail to a doorway, where a chalk message read: “The Jewes are not the men to be blamed for nothing”. However Metropolitan Police head Sir Charles Warren ordered the words to be rubbed out, thereby destroying what could have been a valuable clue.
  • Letters from a writer or writers claiming to be the murderer were received by media outlets and Scotland Yard. The From Hell letter, sent to George Lusk of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee, included half a preserved human kidney, supposedly from one of the victims.
  • During the hunt for the killer, more than 2000 people were interviewed, “upwards of 300” people investigated and 80 people detained

Suspects for the crimes are many and varied, including Prince Albert Victor.

You can read more about them, and the case itself, at a site called Casebook: Jack the Ripper. Very interesting.



What inspired Suzanne Collins to write The Hunger Games?

3 Mar

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As mentioned yesterday, I finally got around this week to buying The Hunger Games trilogy of books by Suzanne Collins.

It’s something I’ve meant to do for a while but I’m glad I waited until I had a relatively free weekend. Because I haven’t been able to put book one down.

It is, in a word, phenomenal. Brutal yet caring, heartfelt yet sympathetic, incredibly detailed but also a broad enough canvas on which to showcase issues such as poverty, the corrupting nature of power and the ability of reality shows – and TV in general – to de-sensitise viewers.

Then there’s a kick-ass heroine called Katniss, who I CANNOT wait to see on the big screen portrayed by Jennifer Lawrence.

Anyway, as I so often do, I went looking for more information on Suzanne Collins as it’s never enough just to enjoy a book. I always want to learn more about an author – who they are, what their writing ritual is like and, most of all, where they get their inspiration from.

And I found her answers in an interview on the official Scholastic website.

Here’s an excerpt from the story..

You weave action, adventure, mythology, sci-fi, romance and philosophy throughout The Hunger Games. What influenced the creation of The Hunger Games?
A significant influence would have to be the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. The myth tells how in punishment for past deeds, Athens periodically had to send seven youths and seven maidens to Crete, where they were thrown in the labyrinth and devoured by the monstrous Minotaur.
Even as a kid, I could appreciate how ruthless this was. Crete was sending a very clear message: “Mess with us and we’ll do something worse than kill you. We’ll kill your children.” And the thing is, it was allowed; the parents sat by powerless to stop it. Theseus, who was the son of the king, volunteered to go. I guess in her own way, Katniss is a futuristic Theseus.
In keeping with the classical roots, I send my tributes into an updated version of the Roman gladiator games, which entails a ruthless government forcing people to fight to the death as popular entertainment. The world of Panem, particularly the Capitol, is loaded with Roman references. Panem itself comes from the expression “Panem et Circenses” which translates into “Bread and Circuses.”
The audiences for both the Roman games and reality TV are almost characters in themselves. They can respond with great enthusiasm or play a role in your elimination.
I was channel surfing between reality TV programming and actual war coverage when Katniss’s story came to me. One night I’m sitting there flipping around and on one channel there’s a group of young people competing for, I don’t know, money maybe? And on the next, there’s a group of young people fighting an actual war. And I was tired, and the lines began to blur in this very unsettling way, and I thought of this story.

Suzanne also tells of the delicate balance in transferring her story from page to screen and of the research she did into hunting and gathering techniques. But the other Q&A that really drew me in was this…

The Hunger Games tackles issues like severe poverty, starvation, oppression, and the effects of war among others. What drew you to such serious subject matter?
That was probably my dad’s influence. He was career air force, a military specialist, a historian, and a doctor of political science. When I was a kid, he was gone for a year in Vietnam. It was very important to him we understood certain aspects of life. So, it wasn’t enough to visit a battlefield, we needed to know why the battle occurred, how it played out, and the consequences. Fortunately, he had a gift for presenting history as a fascinating story. He also seemed to have a good sense of exactly how much a child could handle, which is quite a bit.

I don’t know about you, but I find that fascinating. What an interesting life and perspective she has. I love it when an author feeds part of their own life experience and soul into what they write.

I will certainly be looking into her other books, but for now you can check out The Hunger Games trailer and more here.

How did Scott Adams come up with the name Dilbert?

28 Feb


Some people find their kicks in slapstick and gross-out comedy. But I prefer my laughs to be sarcastic and office-related. And when the two come together, it’s gold. Which brings me, via the movie Office Space, to Dilbert.

This long-running cartoon strip, created by Scott Adams, is the only reason I ever turn to the business section of a newspaper. It skews and pillories the corporate environment to perfection, although I secretly one day hope to be The Boss, who’s made an art form out of downtreading his staff.

The central character of the strip is corporate engineer Dilbert, whose name is not one that often features on lists of most popular baby monikers. So my challenge for today was to find out where it came from.

And a Google search led me straight to Scott’s blog, and the following answer…

“I developed Dilbert as a doodle during my corporate years. He had no name, but my coworkers thought he needed one. So I had a “Name the Nerd” contest on my cubicle whiteboard. My boss at the time, Mike Goodwin, wrote down “Dilbert,” and I closed the contest. We had a winner. After I submitted Dilbert for syndication, Mike sheepishly told me he realised why Dilbert seemed such a good name for a comic. He was looking through his dad’s old military artifacts and realised he had seen a Dilbert comic before. Since WWII, a comic called Dilbert had been used by military pilots in the context of telling them what not to do. A “Dilbert” was synonymous with a pilot who was being an idiot. It was too late for me to turn back at that point. I kept the name Dilbert, and I never heard from the family of the original artist. Obviously they are aware of my version of Dilbert. I appreciate that they evidently decided to not make it an issue.”

And I appreciate it too.

BTW Scott also uses his blog to answer another FAQ: Why does Dilbert’s tie always curl upwards? Apparently it’s because “He’s glad to see you.”

 Now let’s enjoy one of my favourite strips from the series.


Who is Tabatha Coffey and why is she taking over?

26 Feb

If I owned a hairdressing studio in America, I would live in fear of Tabatha Coffey taking over. I mean the woman is shear genius (see what I did there?) but absolutely terrifying.

I’ve been ever so slightly addicted to her reality TV show, Tabatha’s Salon Takeover, for several years now. And when I say I’m addicted, there’s good reason. This is reality TV at its most engrossing (OK equal most engrossing as I also love Project Runway) as she takes on struggling salons, turns them and their staff upside down, and puts them back on the road to success.

But what gives her the right and the gumption to do it? I had to learn more about her background. And I’m glad I did as she’s just as fascinating off screen as on.

The biggest surprise came from something I already knew, which is that she is Australian. With all the black she wears I had her pegged as a Melburnian, but she actually hails from beach country – Surfers Paradise on the Gold Coast.

It’s the land of sun, surf and sea, but clearly this held no real appeal or interest as career inspiration. Instead, it seems she was always destined to work in hair, as she details in this anecdote from Pink News.

“I can honestly never remember a time not doing hair,” she says. “I was the quintessential kid, playing with and chopping off dolls’ hair. I would play with the hair of anyone who would let me. My parents ran transsexual strip clubs in Australia, and I spent a lot of time in the back with the girls when they were getting ready. At a young age they put me to work setting their wigs for them, which I loved. I learned not only how to set wigs, but also how hair could transform someone. I would sit there and watch the drag queens get dressed and the last thing they did was put their wig on. They’d put on their make-up and costume, but it was only when they put on their wig that everything came together. That’s how I fell in love with hairdressing.”

Heading to London at an early age, Tabatha worked with the likes of Vidal Sassoon and Toni and Guy before America beckoned. She then ran her own salon in New Jersey, but her career really took off like a shot when she entered the reality TV show Shear Genius. Although not the winner of season one, she proved a fan favourite and was soon asked to headline her own show, the aforementioned Tabatha’s Salon Takeover.

It’s now had a slight tweak to Tabatha Takes Over, where she puts her skills to use helping a range of small businesses turn themselves around. Then, of course, there’s associated projects such as her book, The Honest Truth About Life, Love and the Business of Beauty, which reveals, among other things, how breast implants nearly killed her. It’s fascinating stuff. And for the record, she says she’s a natural blonde.

Check out some of her best moments from the show below…

Is it true no mummies were found in the Great Pyramid of Giza?

21 Feb

This blog is called What Can I Learn Today? But sometimes it should be called What Did I Learn Today, as I stumble across knowledge quite by accident.

And so it was today.

I was reading – of all things – Karl Pilkington’s book An Idiot Abroad, which details his travels through places such as Egypt and Brazil. And I came across a fact I found hard to believe, especially given the comedic tone of his writing.

Karl casually revealed no mummies have ever been found in the Great Pyramid of Giza and I couldn’t quite fathom it as I thought the structure was actually built as a giant tomb for the pharaoh Khufu.

But it’s true, as detailed at the site for the 7 Wonders, of which the pyramid is the only one still standing.

This is actually just one of the mysteries surrounding the pyramid, others including the scarcity of hieroglyphics, the use of ascending and descending passages, the presence of a Grand Gallery and mystery shafts extending from the Kings and Queens Chambers.

Even today, historians and archeologists are still working to unlock its secrets. But I suspect some of them will forever be left untold.

At least until we invent time travel . . .

In the meantime, have fun learning about more Egyptology mysteries here.

And for some fun, let’s cast our minds back to the heydays of The Bangles.


Who created the Mr Men?

30 Jan

Doing a massive (and well overdue) spring clean of my house I came across a shirt I hadn’t seen for ages. It was plain white with a picture of Little Miss Bossy across the front and a bunch of signatures from former workmates.

Now, this was given to me as a joke – well half a joke – so it was a nice walk down memory lane to find it. But it also prompted me to look into who created the Mr Men collection, which was a favourite growing up. Even if the likes of Little Miss Brainy and Little Miss Curious should possibly be going by the more modern term of ‘Ms’ by now.

Anyway, in a name that came back to me as soon as I read it, the character creator was Roger Hargreaves and the idea for the series came to him one morning in 1971 when his son, Adam, then six, asked “What does a tickle look like?” It was a very good question and prompted Roger to draw a little orange man with a big toothy grin, a blue hat and extraordinarily long arms. Thus the first Mr Men was born.

From there Roger went on to populate his universe with everyone from Mr Nosy and Mr Grumpy to Little Miss Busy and Little Miss Curious. And in a nice turn of fate Adam has now grown up to be the writer and illustrator of the books he inspired so many decades ago.

How did Stephenie Meyer name Bella and Edward in Twilight?

28 Jan

Unlike 99 per cent of the world’s female population, the Twilight phenomenon somehow passed my friend Amanda by the first time around. And now that’s she’s finally discovered the pull of the Cullens and their kin, I regularly find myself roped in to help her play catch up. Which is how I came to be glued to the couch on a Saturday night watching New Moon.

As I patiently reassured her (again) I would pre-warn her about the “scary” bits (god forbid she ever discovers a real vampire movie) I tuned out a bit, being well versed in the bleak times endured by all the leads in this second installment. And it got me thinking about their names.

Like most fans, I knew the story had come to author Stephenie Meyer in a dream, but I had never read anything about how she christened her star-crossed lovers. So I turned to her official website for an answer. And here it is…

“For my vampire (who I was in love with from day one) I decided to use a name that had once been considered romantic, but had fallen out of popularity for decades. Charlotte Bronte’s Mr Rochester and Jane Austen’s Mr Ferrars were the characters that led me to the name Edward. I tried it on for size, and found that it fit well. My female lead was harder. Nothing I named her seemed just right. After spending so much time with her, I loved her like a daughter, and no name was good enough. Finally, inspired by that love, I gave her the name I was saving for my daughter, who had never shown up and was unlikely to put in an appearance at this point: Isabella. Huzzah! Edward and Bella were named. For the rest of the characters, I did a lot of searching in old census records, looking for popular names in the times that they’d been born. Some trivia: Rosalie was originally “Carol” and Jasper was first “Ronald.” I like the new names much better, but every now and then I will slip up and type Carol or Ron by accident. It really confuses the people who read my rough drafts.”

So there’s the story. And thank god Stephenie went backwards in time for the names rather than modern day, in which case we might all be in love with the story of Zaquisha and Monaro. In the meantime, only 10 months to go until Breaking Dawn: Part 2. The countdown is on….

Where did Mills & Boon come from?

25 Jan

There’s a great scene in the movie 10 Things I Hate About You where the tempestuous Kat is sent to see guidance councillor Ms Perky.

She interrupts the older woman part way through writing a romance novel. And we know it’s a critical juncture because she’s desperately trying to find another word for ‘engorged’ (use your imagination). The wannabe writer eventually decides on ‘tumescent’, but the exchange makes me laugh because I do admire the creativity romance authors put into finding replacements for X-rated words.

As anyone who’s ever read one of their novels knows, romance fiction has a tenuous grip on reality. And that’s exactly how it should be. I mean, who wants to read about an unemployed yob with a mullet who romances women by taking them pig shooting?  

Far better, I say, for the hero to be a Greek/Italian, count/entrepreneur whose bedpost notches far exceed those of the maiden he seduces/claims/owns. And no cellulite or beer guts either please. We’ll have creamy thighs, silken erections and the ubiquitous chiselled jaw. After all, a hero is only half a man without one.

Anyway, contrary to how it might sound, I can certainly appreciate the art that goes into a romance novel. And while there may be a formula there’s often very good writing, most of it by women and most of it under the banner of Mills & Boon (technically Harlequin Mills & Boon). So I wanted to know how it got started. And would you believe it was the brainchild of two men?

More specifically I’m talking about Gerald Mills and Charles Boon, who lived in London and created a publishing house back in 1908. They set out to cover a broad range of topics, but in the 1920s, with the Great War over, they capitalised on a growing market in light romantic fiction books. It soon became their bread and butter and the die was cast.

You can read more about their legacy here. But for a sassier take on the genre visit Smart Bitches Trashy Books, which takes no prisoners when it comes to cliches and corny deflowering. In the meantime check out ultimate romance novel cover boy Fabio’s top 10 pick up lines.

Fun fact: In the past four decades alone, Harlequin Mills & Boon characters have kissed each other more than 20,000 times, shared about 30,000 hugs and headed for the altar at least 7000 times.

Who named the T-Rex?

23 Jan

Every month I watch at least one of the Jurassic Park movies.

I couldn’t tell you why, as there’s nothing left to see or learn from them, but it’s just one of those things that caught my attention years ago and never let go.

The main part of this attraction is the dinosaurs. Like many people I am fascinated by these magnificent beasts and never tire of learning about them, be it through Michael Crichton’s books or my DVD series of Jurassic Fight Club.

And so it was I once again found myself slotting Jurassic Park 3 into the DVD for no other reason than I was in the mood for some beast-on-beast carnage.

To be honest, this was never my favourite film of the trio. It was just one too many cases of people being tricked into visiting Isla Sorna or Isla Nublar, being told they probably wouldn’t survive and then making it to safety anyway.

But it did have one thing I really liked – a new superpredator called Spinosaurus.


Now, in one of the best monster fights ever committed to celluloid, this finned beast took on and vanquished the mighty T-Rex, whose neck was broken in quite spectacular fashion.

And while rumours have long suggested he might reappear in Jurassic Park 4, all I knew was he had been a great villain who had earned his reputation.

However, the fight did make me wonder about who came up with the name. And it seems finders aren’t always keepers.

The first full T-Rex skeleton was discovered in Montana in 1902 by famous fossil hunter Barnum Brown, an assistant curator with the American Museum of Natural History.

However it was his boss, museum director Henry Fairfield Osborn (also the man behind Pentaceratops, Ornitholestes and Velociraptor), who got to name him in 1905, opting for a moniker which equated to “tyrant lizard king”.

Don’t feel too bad for Barnum though. He did get to name a few other dinosaurs including Ankylosaurus, Corythosaurus, Leptoceratops and Saurolophus. Not that they sound quite as terrifying . . .
In the meantime here’s the big fight I mentioned.



PS: If you’re as eager for JP4 as I am (doesn’t it seem like we’ve been waiting forever?) there’s a website that is solely dedicated to keeping track of all news, rumours and mentions. Visit it here

What are the seven ancient wonders of the world?

13 Jan

Aussie novelist Matthew Reilly writes an absolute cracking book.

No, he didn’t pay me – or even ask me – to tell you that. Probably because he doesn’t know I exist. But we have met once, for all of five seconds, when I had one of his books signed at a breakfast.

Anyway, what I like about him is that a) he started off self-publishing before getting picked up by a publisher  – I love people who make their own dreams happen – and b) he writes action stuff that boys like to read, which can be hard to get them to do.

But what I also like about his books is I always turn the final page having learnt something new. And so it was I turned to him to answer a question that had me stumped – what were the seven ancient wonders of the world?

The question had come up in conversation with my friend Angie and between us we could only name two with any certainty – the Great Pyramid of Giza and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

We were stumped, but luckily I knew where to find the rest, since they were a key part of Reilly’s book Seven Ancient Wonders, part of the Jack West Jr series that also includes The Six Sacred Stones and The Five Greatest Warriors.

Now, I’m not going to recite the plot chapter and verse, but basically it supposes that thousands of years ago, the capstone on the summit of the great pyramid absorbed the energy released by something called the Tartarus Rotation, thus saving the earth from catastrophe. Alexander the Great then divided the stone up and hid a piece inside each of the seven wonders.

Fast forward to modern times, and the capstone must be reassembled to ward off another world-threatening solar event. Of course this is easier said than done as many of the wonders have been lost to knowledge and some of the pieces have been moved too.

But there’s also a bonus to the quest – whoever lays the final piece will secure 1000 years of peace or power for their nation. And yes, competition is fierce.

So anyway, several years after I bought the novel, I paid it another visit to find out what the wonders were. And here’s the end result:

– Great Pyramid of Giza
– Hanging Gardens of Babylon
– Temple of Artemis at Ephesus
– Statue of Zeus at Olympia
– Mausoleum of Halicarnassus
– Colossus of Rhodes
– Lighthouse of Alexandria

You can read more about each of them  at the 7wonders site, which also has lists such as the new wonders, underwater wonders and man-made wonders.

Strangely though, there’s no list of the male wonders who rock a mean superhero cape.

Perhaps I could do my bit for knowledge and write that list myself. Starting, of course, with Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings. Mmmmm, Aragorn . . .