Narwhal

Denne er narkval.

Children are inherently magical creatures. What sorcerers, witches and necromancers have always laboured to recapture at the expense of their own souls children have been able to accomplish with no more effort than an irreverent giggle at the dinner table. The veil between the possible and the impossible is very thin for children, and it offers no resistance their exuberance cannot tear asunder. For reasons both many and tragic, most of us lose that ability by adulthood.

As children we were content to sit for hours piling up mud and sticks or packing the latest snowfall into an embankment in the yard. And, as far as our parents could tell, all we had for our trouble was a ruined pair of sneakers and a dirty pair of overalls. But we knew better. We knew the truth of our efforts; that we had populated our mud kingdom with all manner of wonderful denizens. In our kingdoms dwelt that which had once been — kings, princesses and warriors; that which might one day be — aliens, spaceships and newly inhabited planets; and that which would never be — griffins, unicorns, goblins and elves. We knew that our grass was in fact lava and that our lawn must be crossed by climbing the picnic table and deftly swinging onto the lower branches of the nearby tree, shimmying across to the rope swing and flying onto the wagon where we could just manage to jump to the safety of the porch.

But then as we grew, we watched each of our flights of fancy die one by one. The most tragic part of it all is that for many of us our disillusionment was engineered. In a painful and untimely lesson in betrayal, our own parents taught us to believe in the reality of the impossible — in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy and the bogeyman — and then taught us not to believe in them anymore. Unwilling to be hurt again, most children have chosen to put to death their own imaginations in order to become adults.

As adults we know — as surely as we knew before that magic swords could be pulled from stones — that there can be no such thing as magic. There are no dragons nor were there ever. There are no perilous quests for heroes to set out on because there is no real evil to be vanquished. There can be no such creatures as pixies and trolls because scientific taxonomy has no place for them.

That is, until one discovers the Narwhal, the very existence of which confounds the skepticism of the most hard-hearted naturalist. The reality of the narwhal’s existence must be measured, studied and found to live up to scientific scrutiny. It is, in fact, a real creature, Latin name and all (Monodon monoceros). Yet it cannot be explained away as just another animal. It is undeniably and uncompromisingly magical.

Hvor er narkval?

Actually, the Narwhal is more than just magical. It’s a blitz; an attack from the realm of the impossible on the realm of the possible. While every creature we believed to be real as a child — unicorns, centaurs, nymphs — all turned out not to be in spite of all our youthful expectation, the narwhal is a magical creature that turns out to be real in spite of the fact that none of us expected it to exist at all. In any realm. The narwhal blindsided us with its existence by being even stranger than we could have imagined, and suddenly everything has changed.

Those kingdoms we populated with the inklings of our childish imaginations crumbled into the sand and mud we made them with when we were taught not to believe, and were scattered by the wind. The narwhal is the last glittering fragment of those lost kingdoms. And as long as it survives, the whole world of our imagination can be restored. When a grown man or woman sees a whale with a unicorn horn — an honest to goodness, spirally unicorn horn — sticking out of its face, it becomes more and more difficult to deny the impossible. Simply because the narwhal is even weirder than the things we’ve learned to think are impossible. If the narwhal exists,what other impossible creatures could be out there? A unicorn isn’t that strange come to think of it, not now that we’ve discovered there are actual sea unicorns in the world.

The narwhal is an invitation to wonder again. It is a harbinger of magic breaking in on our dull little world. It is a messenger that seems to shout to our former child selves, “Hold fast the hope ye profess! A new dawn is breaking!” And would we but heed the narwhal’s call, we might yet live to see a day when animals talk, when rings are magical, when mirrors are doors to other worlds. A day when air pirates sail the skies and battle the cloud ninja clans. A day when people live side by side with elves, dryads and gnomes and when Santa Claus never fails to polish off the plate of cookies we leave out for him, no matter how many millions of homes he visits that wonderful night.

Lykkelig liten narkval.

Freakazoid. Possibly the greatest man never to live.(i)

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[i] If you don’t know what Freakazoid has to do with this post, I strongly recommend you educate yourself.

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A Compendium of Awesome Tweets

Here’s an awesome thing: the world is simply too full of awesome things for me to adequately fit them into this blog. I’d have to sacrifice my sleep, my job, my friendships and my hygiene just to keep up. And I’m only willing to sacrifice two of those. You’ll have to guess which.

While many awesome things can best be honoured in a lengthy blog post, there are many more out there of a particular brand of awesome best expressed with pith and wit. This blog simply isn’t the medium for it. I come across several — often dozens — of awesome things throughout my day that until now have gone undocumented. I’m not okay with that.

So as of today, A Compendium of Awesome Things is available on twitter as A Compendium of Awesome Tweets. This is a different medium from blogging. It’s meant to supplement and augment the experience you get here, not replace it. It is my sincerest hope that I can better share with you the wealth of awesomeness that fills our world. And I promise you, you will never get a tweet explaining what I had for dinner or how regular my bowel movements are. [Update: You’ll only get an update about my dinner if I’m eating a mind-blowing new dish or bacon. The only way I’ll ever write about my bowel movements is if I somehow poop out solid gold or world peace.]

My most recent tweets will be displayed in the right hand column directly under Categories. If you’d like, follow S.Hamley Bildebrandt on twitter: http://twitter.com/coawesometweets.

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600

In the second hour of the fifteenth day of the eighth month in the year of Our Lord twenty-ten, A Compendium of Awesome Things received its 600th view. This is a very exciting moment in this awesome-compen-doer’s personal history of bloggery. It took more than three months to reach 200 views, and in the one month since we have reached 600 views. And it is all thanks to you, my beloved reader.

I don’t want to overstate the importance of this moment, but it reminds me more than a little of another significant venture in history involving the number 600. If you haven’t guessed it already, I refer, of course, to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, which were finished in the year 600 BC. The crown jewel of the Babylonian Empire, the Hanging Gardens were the apogee of Babylonian architectural achievement, earning them a place among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (along with the Pyramids of Giza, the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, the Colossus of Rhodes, the statue of Zeus at Olympia and the lighthouse of Alexandria), not to be confused with the New Seven Wonders of the World (the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal, Christ the Redeemer, Machu Picchu, the Pyramid of Chichen Itza, the Colosseum, and perhaps the greatest wonder of the modern world, Stevie Wonder).

There were purported to be over twenty species of Skittle trees alone in the Hanging Gardens.

Much like this blog, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were a very awesome thing dedicated to the most awesome thing of all: bacon pop rocks time machines kung fu movies love. You see, everyone’s favourite bible villain — the Barbarian of Babylon, the Assyrian Assassin, the Mesopotamian Masochist, the Angry Akkadian, the Schadenfroh Shinarian, the Cantankerous Chaldean — Nebuchadnezzar himself, was conquered by the love of a woman. And so he built the Gardens for his wife Amytis, who was desperately homesick for the lush gardens of her native Media. The Hanging Gardens are sometimes called by the name of another queen — a legendary one — named Semiramis (not to be confused with Sam Raimi).

The legendary Semiramis, seen here in her fabled posture of petulant boredom

Also much like this blog, although the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were one of the marvels of their time, virtually no one alive today has seen them or is even aware of their existence. So in a way, the fact that you read this blog makes you a blog archaeologist of sorts, which is simultaneously exciting and lame. Much like real archaeology.

So this Compendium of Awesome Things is my Hanging Gardens of Babylon and you, dear reader, you are my Amytis for whom I write. But not in a creepy way.

Thank you for continuing to read my blog. It has rewarded me with much joy and inflated my ego like only anonymous internet-based community can.

Nebuchadnezzar with an expression that reads, "Where did I put my pants?"

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Filed under History, Lore and Legend, Milestones

Arms Akimbo and Krav Maga

Tikki tikki tembo-no sa rembo-chari bari ruchi-pip peri pembo, a distant relative of Akimbo

Krav Maga (pronounced krov məgah) is a brutal Israeli martial art. It was originally developed in 1930s Europe to help Jews in the ghettos escape from Nazis and their anti-semitic collaborators. Krav maga was created for quick fights in streets and alleyways against an enemy with superior weaponry and numbers. It’s therefore designed to incapacitate or kill one’s opponent in under thirty seconds. It’s also the official martial art of possibly the most terrifying and determined military in the world: the ID-freaking-F.

Allow me to reiterate one important point in order to convey its full import: krav maga was made to kill Nazis. That puts it in the same category as the OSS, Indiana Jones, and the atomic bomb. Of all the awesome things in this world, Nazi-killers are among the most verendic. They’re up there with space marines, free refills and hugs.

Indy going krav all over this Nazi's maga.

And while we’re on the subject, that reminds me: never, ever, ever make the mistake of getting in the way of, defying, or even taking too lightly anyone or anything whose sole or primary purpose for existence is killing Nazis. A Nazi killer is someone or something you always want to have on your side. A point which will become clearer shortly.

But first, arms akimbo. Arms akimbo means to have one’s hands on one’s hips with the elbows turned outward. This a wonderful and versatile way to stand. It can be negative — expressing anger or frustration — or positive –expressing an unaffected nonchalance. It also comes in quite handy when one is nervous and doesn’t quite know what to do with one’s hands. And arms akimbo happens to be one of the most delightful expressions in the English language to say aloud.[ii]

I was developing a spiel in which I would convince you of the surprising connections between arms akimbo and krav maga, but it would have mostly been blarney, blandishment, bamboozling and alliteration.

They have only one real connection:

I decided a long time ago that if I were ever unfortunate enough to be in the position to need bodyguards, and ever fortunate enough to get to have bodyguards, I would name the one “Arms” Akimbo and the other Krav McGaw. Mr. Akimbo would be a tall Nigerian with a sour disposition and the biggest biceps you’ve ever seen. He would stand threateningly at my side with his arms eponymously akimbo. Krav McGaw would be a vaguely Eastern European man with a hooked nose, a beard and nasty scars on his face, neck and arms which he got wrestling a rabid porcupine.[iii] He would occasionally pull a quill out of his neck as a reminder of how hardcore he is.

Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as "Arms" Akimbo

Nobody would ever dare cross me with “Arms” Akimbo and Krav McGaw at my side. But don’t worry, lest you think I would become a villain. Another thing movies have taught me is that giant, terrifying men are always ironically sensitive and kind-hearted. So I’m sure Messrs Akimbo and McGaw would never do anyone any real harm. Except Nazis. All bets are off when it comes to Nazis.

An actor's portrayal of Krav McGaw, sans porcupine scars

If you were to have a bodyguard, what phrase would you name him after? Leave a comment below. I’d love to hear from you, my taciturn reader.
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[i] “But a bit” is an phrase that when said in rapid repetition sounds like a horse galloping. Try it when no one’s in the room. It’s fun.

[ii] Try that as well when you’re finished saying “but a bit.”

[iii] He won.

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Liquid Pencils

Despite its gloomy title, 'The Book of the Dead' topped the summer reading lists of all of Egypt's fashionable periodicals.

Pencil technology hasn’t changed very much over the millennia.

Long before paper made its way over the long silk road from China, the western world recorded information on papyrus, a paper-like material made from the eponymous Egyptian reed. The ancient Romans would use a tool called the stylus to write on papyrus. Styli were small rods, pointed at one end and blunt at the other. When inscribing in soft materials like wax, the sharp end was used to etch letters while the blunt end was used to scrape away the writing entirely. Styli were generally made of lead, a very soft metal. So when a scribe was writing on papyrus, the stylus not only scratched but left faint grey lead markings.

In other words, the stylus was to the pencil what the quill is to the modern pen.

There was very little development in pencil technology for well over a thousand years until the 16th century, when a large deposit of graphite was discovered in England. Graphite has many qualities similar to lead that make it ideal for pencil use: it’s a soft, brittle material that leaves a mark when scratched against another surface. In fact, graphite leaves a much darker mark than lead. It also helps that, unlike lead, graphite isn’t a dangerous poison. Of course they didn’t know or care about this at the time. They were eagerly putting lead in everything: water pipes, paint, makeup, dishes, toys.

One of the earliest wooden pencils

Originally people wrapped the graphite in string to make it easier to handle, but eventually someone came up with the idea of digging a groove into a stick of wood to contain the graphite, and thus the first modern pencil was born. It was in the late 1600s in Germany that the first mass-produced pencil was made. Other companies caught pencil fever and were scrambling to get a piece of the pencil pie.[i] One of these companies, Faber-Castell, established in 1761, is still a major player in the winner-take-all battle for pencil supremacy, a battle the outcome of which only time will tell.

That is until this year, the year twenty-ten, when Sharpie changed everything.

Once people figured out how to jam a brittle stick of graphite into a tiny hollowed out log, they figured they’d reached the pinnacle of pencil technology. There was little left to challenge them, so no progress was made for the next two hundred years. Frankly, they got lazy.

Some developments were made in the periphery of pencil production: pencil sharpeners were invented and later replaced by the superior electric pencil sharpener. But the design of the pencil itself remained relatively unchanged until the invention of the mechanical pencil.

The mechanical pencil sounds cooler than it is. Instead of encasing graphite in wood, pencil companies encased it in plastic and found a way to retract the lead when it isn’t being used. This eliminated the need for pencil sharpeners but created the need for those little plastic boxes of graphite refills. In spite of its snazzy new shell, the mechanical pencil still works on the same principles as the wooden, plus the wooden is still the standard in the pencil industry. Little has changed.

That’s where Sharpie comes in. Sharpie recently announced the result of what must’ve been some dark Faustian bargain, an innovation that defies the natural order and seeks to seat mankind among the gods. It is an event simultaneously celestial and diabolical, exhilarating and terrifying. I speak of none other than the liquid pencil.

The harbinger of our doom

Through undisclosed means — some mixture of science and dark alchemy — Sharpie has discovered a way to turn graphite into a strange liquid metal. The new pencil writes with liquid like a pen, but once on paper it acts like, and erases like, solid graphite. After three days, whatever has been written on the page becomes permanent.

The good news is this is probably the first genuinely exciting news to come out of the pencil industry since coloured pencils. And it’s truly revolutionary. The very core of what makes a pencil a pencil has been changed. Literally. The graphite core has been changed into a futuristic liquid metal. This also bridges the seemingly eternal gap between pen and pencil. There were erasable pens in the past, but they never really worked as they were intended. And so if one wanted something dark and permanent, they needed pens, but if they wanted to erase they needed pencils. Now we finally have a tool that is both fully erasable because it’s truly a pencil, but fully permanent because it’s truly a liquid pen. Surely this is an irrefutable indicator that we have arrived in the Future.

And thus the bad news. We all know where this is going. Liquid metal pencils utilizing strangely advanced technology. It’s only a matter of time before Sharpie is bought out by a shadowy corporation called Cyberdyne, bringing us one step closer to Judgment Day and the war against the machines. The Sharpie liquid graphite technology will eventually form the basis of the T-1000 who will be sent back in time to kill John Connor. I’m even inclined to believe that the Sharpie pencil itself was sent back in time by the machines, utilizing technology that will push the Judgment Day timeline ahead by several years.

Robert Patrick playing a Sharpie liquid pencil

So as cool and exciting as Sharpie’s new pencil is, in creating it they have doomed the human race to nuclear destruction and a post-apocalyptic robot war. Fortunately for us, there is a fundamental yearning in the human soul to kill robots, and — I would argue — it’s the only time we truly shine.  So I say bring on the liquid pencils, and bring on the war with the machines.
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[i] A real dish in England, by the way, and even nastier than it sounds.

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Filed under History, Milestones, Technology, The Future

Unsung Heroes: Cool Air

Presumably everyone who reads this blog has skin. If you’re reading this and you don’t have skin, I sincerely apologize.

Unless you’re an android, in which case you don’t understand the concept of remorse. Or contractions, which there have been four of so far, so you’re beyond lost.[i]

But androids aside, I think I have statistics on my side when I say that most of you have skin. So I don’t need to extol to you, O be-dermised reader, the glories of cool air. We all know the refreshing, life-giving feel of a cool breeze on our skin; how it renews body and spirit alike. I could recount for you the many splendours of cool air, but I won’t. Today’s post focuses on an oft-neglected benefit of cool air that, frankly, puts all its other, more obvious charms to utter shame.

We’ve probably all heard some version of the story involving a bush pilot in the Amazon/Congo/Australian Outback/Sumatran jungle/Camden, NJ who swears he saw a snake swallow a cow/water buffalo/bouncer — whole. I’ve never put much stock into such stories. For no other reason, really, than that bush pilots are notoriously unreliable people — blackguards and knaves, the lot of them. That and because if there were snakes that big, one of them would have killed Jon Voight by now.

But there was a time when giant snakes slithered their way across the earth. Snakes so big their midsections would be three or four feet in diameter. Such monsters could easily swallow a cow — and much larger things — whole. Jon Voight wouldn’t stand a chance. And neither would the rest of us.

A life-size papier-mâché replica of a baby prehistoric demon-snake.

Many people like to have pythons and boa constrictors as novelty pets. I’m not entirely sure why, but I think it’s because it gives people a taste of danger without any of the nasty drawbacks like injury and death. Pythons and boas are big enough to kill us, but just a bit too small to bother. We wouldn’t quite fit inside. But if the monster snakes of primordial earth were still around, we’d make a tasty treat. Fortunately for us, snakes have gotten much, much smaller since then.

And to what do we owe a debt of eternal gratitude for ridding the world of voracious dino-snakes? Who is this unknown benefactor of the human race? This shrinker of snakes, this defender of Jon Voight.

Cool air.

Angelina Jolie's dad (somehow). Pre-death-by-snake.

Snakes, we all know (especially you, android), are cold-blooded. Cold-blooded animals can’t regulate their own body heat like mammals can. That’s why lizards are always hiding in the shade and then sunning themselves on rocks. It’s how they keep themselves from hypothermia or overheating. The bigger a reptile gets, the higher the ambient temperature it needs to keep its body temperature at a livable level. For reptiles to be as large as they once were, as in the case of dinosaurs and snakes the size of pine trees, the overall temperature of the earth would have to be much higher than it is now. And so it once was, but it has cooled down a lot since reptiles ruled the earth. It’s the very coolness of the air that is keeping reptiles from getting as large as they once were.

That’s why the farther north one goes in the Northern hemisphere, the smaller the reptiles get. It’s also why all those stories about giant snakes swallowing large livestock come out of tropical climes, not the remote forests of Alaska or Tibet, for example.

In short, the only thing keeping you, me, and everyone you love from a painful, slow death in the belly of a slithering behemoth monster-snake is cool, refreshing air. That just makes me want to breathe in its breezy freshness all the more deeply.

And we’d better all hope and pray there’s nothing to this global warming thing, or else Jon Voight’s days are numbered. And while that might not sound all that bad, allow me to remind you that in spite of the full force of reptilian rage being unleashed against her, J-Lo survives. I don’t know about you, but if I have to live in a world where J-Lo survives, I’d prefer it to be one not dominated by predatory über-snakes.

Our future if we take this global warming thing lying down.

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[i] That makes five.

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Filed under Animals, History, Lore and Legend, The Future, Unsung Heroes

Unsung Heroes: Mirrors

The late Michael Jackson, seen here starting with the man in the mirror.

The relationship between humans and mirrors is a complicated and often uncomfortable one, mired by superstition and misunderstanding. Sure, man and mirrorkind are willing to live in peace with each other, but it is an uneasy peace at best.

People need mirrors because they offer a simple but invaluable service: they reflect light and images clearly and accurately. There are other materials in this world with reflective qualities, but none of them has the effortless talent of mirrors. Water distorts whatever image it reflects. Bronze and other metals are too dim and cloudy to be of any use. Seeing our reflection in spoons and on toasters might make us laugh, but it’s no way to prepare for a big date. Mirrors, quite simply, are the best at what they do. They are like an entire race of Albert Einsteins in a world of Pauly Shores.

So when mirrors offered to provide the human race with clear reflections, no strings attached, it seemed too good to be true. But the humans learned soon enough that any offer made by a mirror is a double-edged sword. The very thing that makes mirrors a necessity in life is what makes them the bane of our existence. Mirrors show what they show. No more, no less. No matter how closely a mirror has worked with a human, no matter how long they’ve spent in his or her employment, no matter what personal feelings they might feel for them, a mirror never sugar coats the images it sees. It gives the truth to us straight: baggy eyes, pasty complexion, love handles, cellulite, crooked teeth, lazy eyes. Everything.

As much as we’ve grown dependent on the reflective properties of the mirror race, it’s become the very thing we despise about them.

Elephants can recognize themselves in a mirror. And that's cute somehow.

I know I’m not making mirrors sound very good. Allow me to clarify. In no way do I mean to imply malevolence or spite on the part of mirrors. I can assure you they mean us no harm. Lying simply isn’t in their nature.[i] They don’t always understand us humans, and admittedly all-too-often they feel a smug condescension toward our pride and egos. In fact, they even take delight in bursting our bubbles with the image staring back at us in the bathroom each morning, but only because of how dedicated they are to truth. In their culture, such blunt feedback is viewed as a sign of great respect and loyalty. We need to understand that mirrors are just as frustrated with people for not understanding their acts of kindness as we are with them for showing us how imperfect we are.

I want to make something else clear as well. Mirrors perform another function that is in many ways far more important than knocking our egos down a few pegs; a function that regularly saves human lives. I might even go as far to say it could play a role in the survival of the human race. I speak of course of the role of mirrors as vampire detectors.

I hope for your sake, my dear reader, that you are versed in the essentials of vampire safety. If not, I’m afraid this is neither the time nor the place to catch you up. For now, suffice it to say that because vampires are undead and have no souls, they cast no reflections in mirrors. Not only is this terribly interesting in a symbolic literary sort of way, it’s also a big advantage we have against these undead predators. Since vampires can only enter a home if invited, it’s an absolute necessity for you to keep a mirror in your foyer so you can give it a quick glance to see if the person at your door is friend or fiend. If you don’t see a reflection, you’ve got a vampire on your hands.[ii]

It is an established factoid that every year in the United States alone, five thousand people unwittingly invite vampires into their homes. Of those five thousand, 90% end up dead. The other 10% have a far worse fate in store for them. Just think how many lives could be saved if people observed proper vampire safety. It only takes a few mirrors strategically placed in vulnerable points of entry in your home to protect yourself and the ones you love.

Mirrors knew what kind of deal they were making with the human race when they agreed to show us our reflections. They knew people would blame them for auto accidents even though they had the decency to warn us that ‘the objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.’ They knew we’d fear and revile them if they broke, believing seven years of bad luck would come upon our heads. They knew we’d even blame them for our own physical shortcomings. But most importantly, mirrors knew — eons ago they knew — the threat that vampires posed to the Living. And yet they stood by mankind through it all. They bore with our scorn, our contempt, our fearmongering. Vampires pose no threat whatsoever to mirrors; they have no blood to give the undead. But even though this wasn’t their fight, the mirrors joined themselves to mankind as our silent protectors against the dark race that walks the night. Night after night, year after year, century after century, they have kept their vigil on our walls, ever waiting, ever watching lest a vampire enter a human home.

The good news is this T-rex isn't a vampire.

If we understood — really understood — all that mirrors have done for us as a race, we’d thank them. We’d never stop thanking them. In showing us ourselves, warts and all, mirrors haven’t just been giving us a lesson in humility. They’ve been sending us a much more important message. As long as we have a reflection to look at, and as long as we have imperfections to fret over, we’re still human. And as long as we’re still human there’s hope. It’s when our reflection disappears that we need to start worrying.

The only vampire I'll ever invite into my house. Well, except for Bunnicula.

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[i] There are glaring exceptions: fun house mirrors and one-way mirrors being chief among them. Sadly, in the case of the former, many were forced into their position by ruthless and unscrupulous men. In the case of the latter, they are reluctantly willing to deceive in order to promote justice in places such as police interrogation rooms.

[ii] Whatever happens, don’t panic. Just make sure you’ve got a wooden stake handy, an ultraviolet light switch, and a cannister of garlic spray on your keychain.

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