Atlas Obscura
Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders

May 25 2016 12:30 PM

The Pickle Barrel House

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At the end of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in northern Michigan, Grand Marais is a quiet town nestled in a cradle of arboreal forests. Not far from these beautiful lakeshore vistas an odd piece of architecture stands out: a small barrel-shaped cottage.

The history of the Pickle Barrel House is nearly as unusual as its appearance. It started out as a summer getaway for cartoonist William Donahey and his wife, Mary. Donahey was the creator of a cast of 2-inch-tall cartoon characters known as The Teenie Weenies that debuted in the Chicago Tribune in 1914. The Teenie Weenies were featured on food labels for Reid-Murdock & Co.'s Monarch Foods line. Among the larger-than-life structures in their teenie weenie world was their pickle barrel house. In 1926 Reid-Murdock had a 16-foot-tall version of the barrel built as a gift for the Donaheys, and it stood on the shore of Grand Sable Lake until 1936. After 10 years the Donaheys had tired of the stream of looky-loos trying to catch a glimpse of their little house, so they sold it to new owners who moved it two miles over to Grand Marais. There it served out the next few decades as an ice cream stand, an information kiosk, and a gift shop.

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By 2003 the barrel was abandoned and in disrepair, so the Grand Marais Historical Society took it over. Volunteers worked on the needed repairs, and two years (and $125,000 in restoration costs) later it began a new life as a museum dedicated to Donahey and his work. Today the Pickle Barrel House Museum showcases artifacts of Donahey and The Teenie Weenies, as well as a décor reminiscent of its old life as a cartoonist’s retreat.

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor ACReynard.

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May 24 2016 12:30 PM

The Rise of Pirate Libraries

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All around the world, shadow libraries keep growing, filled with banned materials. But no actual papers trade hands: Everything is digital, and the internet-accessible content is not banned for shocking content so much as that modern crime, copyright infringement.

But for the people who run the world’s pirate libraries, their goals are no less ambitious for their work’s illicit nature.

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“It’s the creation of a universal library of the best stuff,” says Joe Karaganis, who studies media piracy at Columbia University’s policy think tank, American Assembly. “That will not include the latest Danielle Steel novel.”

It does, however, include hundreds of thousands of books and millions of journal articles that otherwise are found only through expensive academic journals. Scanned or downloaded from journal sites, they are available through pirate libraries for free.

The creators of these repositories are a small group who try to keep a low profile, since distributing copyrighted material in this way is illegal. Many of them are academics. The largest pirate libraries have come from Russia’s cultural orbit, but the documents they collect are used by people around the world, in countries both wealthy and poor. Pirate libraries have become so popular that in 2015, Elsevier, one of the largest academic publishers in America, went to court to try to shut down two of the most popular, Sci-Hub and Library Genesis.

These libraries, Elsevier alleged, cost the company millions of dollars in lost profits. But the people who run and support pirate libraries argue that they’re filling a market gap, providing access to information to researchers around the world who wouldn’t have the resources to obtain these materials any other way.

The lawsuits, wrote one group of pirate library supporters, “come as a big blow” to researchers whose only source of scholarly material is in these sites. “The social media, mailing lists and IRC channels have been filled with their distress messages, desperately seeking articles and publications,” the brief states.

In other words, they believe there are researchers who are never going to be able to pay the steep price of academic articles; either they use pirate libraries, which give them efficient access to information, or they don’t get to read those books and journals at all.

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The old model of library.

Photo (cropped):Dr. Marcus Gossler/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Today’s pirate libraries have their roots in the work of Russian academics to digitize texts in the 1990s. Scholars in that part of the world had long had a thriving practice of passing literature and scientific information underground, in opposition to government censorship—part of the samizdat culture, in which banned documents were copied and passed hand to hand through illicit channels. Those first digital collections were passed freely around, but when their creators started running into problems with copyright, their collections “retreated from the public view,” writes Balázs Bodó, a piracy researcher based at the University of Amsterdam. “The text collections were far too valuable to simply delete,” he writes, and instead migrated to “closed, membership-only FTP servers.”

More recently, though, those collections have moved online, where they are available to anyone who knows where to look. One of the earliest pirate libraries on the web, lib.ru, was created by one of those Russian academics. In the past decade or so, there have been a succession of libraries—Gigapedia, Kolkhoz, Librusec, and most recently Libgen and Sci-Hub, that have grown to gigantic size, only to be broken up or shut down. Libraries that started as repositories primarily of Russian-language text grew to include a corpus of English-language works, which fueled their growth.

“There’s been a shift from Russian-language system to one that’s systematically mining the libraries of Western universities and publishers,” says Karaganis.

There’s always been osmosis within the academic community of copyrighted materials from people with access to scholars without. “Much of the life of a research academic in Kazakhstan or Iran or Malaysia involves this informal diffusion of materials across the gated walls of the top universities,” he says. What changed more recently is the speed and technology through which that happens.

Alexandra Elbakyan, the neuroscientist from Kazakhstan who created Sci-Hub, for instance, was able to rig up a system that basically jumped the fence of journal paywalls. When someone requested an article, her system first checked the LibGen database. But if the article wasn’t there, the system used donated passwords to log into journal websites, download the article, and deliver it both to the user who requested it and the main database. It’s a much more efficient system than the informal #icanhazPDF economy in which researchers would request certain documents on social media and hope a kind soul would provide.

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Libraries full of books fixed a different information scarcity problem.

Photo:BrunoDelzant/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Who’s benefiting from this? The workings of pirate libraries are necessarily opaque, but Bodó’s research into one in particular shows that users come from both countries with high gross domestic products and developing countries where students and scholars likely have poor access to academic materials. Bodó found that the most downloads came from Russia, Indonesia, and the United States, in the case of this library, with the most per capita coming from Central and Eastern European countries. The average document had been downloaded three times.

His research also showed that access could be driving the market for these libraries: Two-thirds of the downloads were for books that didn’t have a Kindle version, and in developing countries, people were more likely to be downloading titles that just weren’t available in print.

Publishers are facing great difficulty controlling the growth of the world’s pirate libraries, as they can be set up as open source entities that let anyone provide access to their base catalogue, along with whatever else they want to share at their particular site. But the pirate librarians also lack conventional library controls. Organizers can prevent books from entering the collection, but they can’t necessarily requisition or order particular articles or books, the way that a librarian would. The result is vast but eclectic collections of work, mostly very serious but sometimes not. Libgen, Karaganis notes, in addition to its high-brow academic collection, also has an enormous store of pirated comic books.

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May 23 2016 12:30 PM

The Merry Cemetery of Romania

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In the small Romanian town of Săpânţa, when you die, you can expect a colorful goodbye.

At the town's Merry Cemetery, colorfully illustrated crosses depict soldiers being beheaded and a resident being hit by a truck. And the epigraphs aren't sugarcoated. "Underneath this heavy cross lies my poor mother in law," reads one. "Try not to wake her up. For if she comes back home, she’ll bite my head off."

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The quirky graveyard is the creation of Stan Ioan Pătraş, who was born in Săpânţa in 1908, and, by 14, had already begun carving crosses for the local cemetery. By 1935, Patrash was carving clever or ironic poems—done in a rough local dialect—about the deceased, as well as painting the crosses with images depicting the ways in which the individuals died.

Pătraş soon developed a careful symbolism in his work. Green represented life, yellow was fertility, red was passion, and black was death. The colors were always set against a deep blue, known as Săpânţa blue, which Pătraş believed represented hope and freedom.

Pătraş single-handedly carved, wrote poems for, and painted well over 800 of these folk art masterpieces over a period of 40 years. He died in 1977, having carved his own cross and left his house and work to his most talented apprentice, Dumitru Pop. Pop has since spent the last three decades continuing the work, carving the cemetery's crosses, and turning the house into the Merry Cemetery's workshop-museum.

Despite the darkly comedic, or merely dark, tones of the crosses, Pop says no one has ever complained about the work.

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May 20 2016 12:30 PM

This Glacier Is Still Growing

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If you only visit one glacier in your life, Perito Moreno would be a good one to pick. It towers above the turquoise glacial water of Patagonia's Los Glaciares National Park, beaming a blinding white and exuding cold blue hues. Unlike most of Earth’s other glaciers, Perito Moreno is still growing.

The Perito Moreno Glacier, named for a 19th-century explorer, is currently 19 miles long and rises an average height of 240 feet above the water. Altogether, the glacier covers about 121 square miles. It is part of an ice field located in both Argentina and Chile that is the third-largest reserve of fresh water in the world. Part of an area known as Argentina’s Austral Andes, it became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1981.

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There are viewing platforms a safe distance from the glacier, overlooking Lake Argentino, the glacier’s terminus. You can get pretty close—to the point that you can basically feeling the glacier breathing cold air on your face.

If you wait for a while, you’ll likely witness huge chunks of the ice mass fracture off and crash into the water, creating a massive, reverberating roar. There are walking paths that allow you to check out the glacier from a few different vantage points, as well as a boat that takes you on a 45-minute trip around the base. There are also trekking tours that take you out to walk on parts of the glacier itself, surrounded by the beautiful Patagonian scenery of forests and mountains.

Submitted by Atlas Obscura fellow and contributor Tao Tao Holmes.

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May 19 2016 12:30 PM

The Grave of Carl Friedrich Gauss

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Carl Friedrich Gauss wasn’t born in Göttingen, Germany, but he spent most of his remarkable career there, so it's no wonder that he’s buried there, alongside several other math and science luminaries.

Gauss is often cited as the greatest thinker of the 19th century, and by some as the most singularly talented mathematician since the days of Euclid. He was born in 1777 in Brunswick, Lower Saxony, and as a child prodigy from a working class background, his remarkable mental gifts didn’t go unnoticed. He was first sent to university in Brunswick at the ripe old age of 15 but came to study in Göttingen three years later, in 1795. As his abilities grew, so did his reputation—and despite pleas from larger and more prestigious centers of learning, he stayed in his adopted hometown until his death in 1855.

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It’s hard to fully comprehend how important Gauss has been to mathematics and the sciences. His contributions include groundbreaking proofs and discoveries in algebra and geometry, numbers theory and statistics, physics and astronomy—and of course, contributing his name to the unit of measure used for magnetism. Anyone who has ever had to have their computer monitor, hard drive, or piece of video or audio tape “degaussed” has inadvertently paid tribute the man.

His grave is located in the Albini Cemetery, in a quiet park at the edge of the city, not far from the university he called home for 60 years. His grave is often accompanied by flowers laid down in respect of his achievements, and he rests in good company—surrounded by a small cluster of stones of several other well-known men of math and science. But Gauss has the largest headstone—a testament to his place as one of the greatest minds since antiquity.

Submitted by Atlas Obscura user CoolCrab.

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May 18 2016 12:30 PM

A Map of Italy Made Entirely of Trees

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Nestled on the side of a hill in Umbria, Italy is an unusual sight: a gigantic map of Italy, made entirely out of pine trees.

Trees line the hills and mountains of Umbria in patches, so if one were to come upon this patch of trees in particular, one might accidentally pass it off as one of the many. But Bosco Italia is no ordinary cluster of pine trees: It was planted there to form the shape of a map of Italy. This is not the only example of this in the world. In Northern Minnesota the "Minnesota Forest" has been shaped by a rogue forester over decades to look like its home state.

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A short distance below the town of Castelluccio in the Monti Sibillini National Park of Umbria lies the magnificent Piano Grande Di Castelluccio, which translates to "Great Plain of Castelluccio." In season, the fields of the plain are filled with stunning flowers, but there is one attraction that remains year-round: the Bosco Italia.

The pine tree seedlings were planted in 1961 to form the shape of Italy when the trees were fully grown. 

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor ahvenas.

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May 17 2016 12:30 PM

Victorians Wanted to Contact Aliens Using Giant Mirrors

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In 1899, while Nicola Tesla was working in his lab in Colorado Springs, he started registering strange electric disturbances on one of his sensors.

"The changes I noted were taking place periodically and with such a clear suggestion of number and order that they were not traceable to any cause known to me,” he later wrote.

They were not the sorts of signals that came from the sun, the earth, the Aurora Borealis, or atmospheric disturbances. He couldn't shake the experience or stop ruminating on what he might have encountered.

“A purpose was behind these electric signals,” he wrote several years later. “The feeling is constantly growing on me that I had been the first to hear the greeting of one planet to another.”

Tesla believed he had intercepted an interplanetary communication, and for the rest of his life, he would work on creating a system that would allow Earth to answer back. He wasn’t alone. As the French scholar Florence Raulin Cerceau has documented, for the previous century or so, a small group of serious, Victorian-era scientists had been working on proposals for extraterrestrial communication.

Mostly, they involved giant mirrors.

May 16 2016 12:30 PM

The Underground Carnival

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Deep underneath Transylvania in a huge subterranean cavern, kids ride a glowing Ferris wheel in the dark. Nearby, some people are playing mini-golf, while others row boats on an underground lake. Salina Turda, where all this takes place, is not your standard disused salt mine.

Mining has been taking place at Salina Turda since at least the 11th century and maybe as far back as the Roman Empire. Running as a continually working mine from the 17th century, Salina Turda peaked in production during the First World War when Romania’s armed forces demanded large amounts of salt. However, with a larger mine operating nearby and decreasing quality of salt as clay deposits were exposed, the mine closed in 1932. Salina Turda was in limbo for the next 60 years. It was used as a bomb shelter and for storing cheeses—in fact, part of the mine is still used to store cheese.

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In 1992, Salina Turda was transformed into the tourist attraction that exists today. Visitors enter the Salina Turda park through centuries-old vertical shafts once used to transport miners. Lowered 120 meters (394 feet) through the beautiful marbled salt walls, they descend into something that looks like a futuristic colony built after humanity had to retreat underground to rebuild civilization.

Inside they will find an 180-seat amphitheater, a carousel, ping-pong tables, basketball hoops, mini-golf, and bowling. Old machinery still stands within the underground expanse and some of it is used to lead people on tours. For many, the real showstopper is the Terezia Mine, a vast, cone-shaped chamber with an underground lake created by salt waste deposited over the years. Boats are available for rent to explore the lake and a Ferris wheel allows visitors to get a closer look at the cave's many stalactites.

Not feeling the carnival rides? The mine is used as a health spa where the cool temperature, high humidity, and clean air are said to help with respiratory ailments.

If that’s not enough, Salina Turda also has free Wi-Fi.

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May 13 2016 12:30 PM

A Mini Castle Built by a Sewing Machine Tycoon

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Sitting in the midst of the Glimmerglass Historic District on Otsego Lake is a mini-castle built by the founder of the Singer Sewing Machine Company.

Rising from the edge of the lake, the "Kingfisher Castle" was built by Edward S. Clarke around 1876 with the intention of making the lake more aesthetically pleasing for the public. Constructed in the Gothic Revival style, Clarke's folly measures 60 feet in height and was designed in conjunction with American architect Henry J. Hardenbergh, with whom Clarke and his eponymous Singer sewing machine co-founder Isaac Meritt Singer had previously worked to create the Dakota in New York City. 

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The structure was built of stone from the shores of Otsego Lake and in its earliest days boasted a drawbridge and portcullis made of solid oak. Though this feature has been lost to time, the rest of Kingfisher Castle remains as it ever was. Its diminutive base measures only 20 square feet in size, with the main floor seeming to float just five feet above the lake's surface. Ten feet above that sits the tower's first platform, from which rises a smaller, pyramid-shaped roof with a window on each side.  All throughout the castle, the windows are decorated with stained glass bearing a heraldic shield at their center.

The tower is located about 3 miles north on the east side of Otsego Lake at Point Judith and can only be reached by boat, as it is hidden in a forest with barbed wire fence. For those less drawn to wooded paths and prohibitive fences, a view of the folly can be enjoyed from land at Lakefront Park, or aboard local boat tours.

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor luciditea.

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May 12 2016 12:30 PM

The Birthplace of Silicon Valley

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Who knows where we’d be without the lowly garage, the site of so many innovations. No Apple computers? No Google? No Marc Maron? Without the work that happened in this small building there would almost certainly be no Hewlett-Packard, the Palo Alto, California, company that sparked the beginning of Silicon Valley.

William Hewlett and David Packard probably would have created HP without this specific one-car garage at 367 Addison Avenue, but you can’t deny there are few buildings that have made such an outsized impact. The history of electronics, technology, and computers can be traced back to this one little shed.

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In 1938, Dave Packard and his new bride moved into an apartment in the house on Addison Avenue. A year later he formed the partnership with Bill Hewlett, formalizing the company name with a coin toss. (Packard won but decided to put his partner's name first.) Hewlett ended up crashing for a time out back in the shed, and it was here that they built their first product: the HP200A audio oscillator. So good was their first venture into electronics that Walt Disney stepped up, buying eight of them so he could test the audio facilities of theaters showing his masterpiece, Fantasia.

Some famous “garage” stories have turned out to be more myth than reality, but the story of Bill and Dave forming their company in this Palo Alto garage is true. The site is now designated as a California Historic Landmark and is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor hrnick.

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