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Emperor Norton

Emperor Norton

“Everybody understands Mickey Mouse. Few understand Hermann Hesse. Hardly anybody understands Einstein. And nobody understands Emperor Norton.”
(Principia Discordia)

A conversation last weekend reminded me that not many people know the story of Emperor Norton, even though many of you will have seen him regularly as I use a picture of him (larger version to the right) as my avatar on Twitter and some other forums.

Joshua Norton was the first – and to my knowledge, only – Emperor of the United States of America (and Protector of Mexico). Now, you might quibble over that description, given that the Constitution of the USA doesn’t mention an Emperor amongst all its clauses and amendements and you’d be right. Unromantic, but definitely correct. You see, while other Emperors waited around for Popes and assemblies to crown them, Norton took a much more can-do attitude to life and simply declared himself Emperor one day. You would expect nothing less from an American Emperor, simply embodying the declarative pioneering spirit of his nation by going ahead and just doing it, then waiting for everyone to catch up.

The punchline, of course, is that eventually people did catch up. Norton’s reign lasted for over twenty years from his proclamation in 1859 to his death in 1880 and he received the sort of attention you’d expect a ‘genuine’ Emperor to get – free meals in San Francisco’s finest restaurants, his decrees and declarations published in all the city’s newspapers, police officers saluting when he passed them on the street and the respect and admiration of his fellow citizens/subjects. A tale is told of him preventing a mob from lynching Chinese workers by standing between the two groups and praying, with no one daring to cross the space he’d created.

As I argued in a post I wrote for The Sharpener a few years ago, Norton was a man who saw a gap in the market for a monarch and filled it. His is a story that reminds us that however often we might fantasise about power and the ways to achieve it, in the end it all comes down to consent – a man can only be your Emperor if you want him to, and if you do feel like having an Emperor, then there are many worse options than one who “shed no blood; robbed no one; and despoiled no country”.

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This is real:

Cass Sunstein, a Harvard law professor, co-wrote an academic article entitled “Conspiracy Theories: Causes and Cures,” in which he argued that the government should stealthily infiltrate groups that pose alternative theories on historical events via “chat rooms, online social networks, or even real-space groups and attempt to undermine” those groups

This is The Onion:

I’d introduce the two of you, but it seems you’ve already met.

(Original link via Stuart Sharpe)

Here’s an interesting collection of photos of empty American shops and shopping malls, including the abandoned mall near Chicago where one of the chases in The Blues Brothers was filmed. Interestingly, it had been recently abandoned when the filming took place, and remains unused and undemolished today. (original link via Anton Vowl on Twitter)

For more on the subject, see the Dead Malls website – another of those collections of urban arcana that would probably never have existed without the web – and I’m sure that a couple of the malls they list around Toledo, Ohio are ones I would have visited when I was living there back in the early 90s.

However, seeing the scale and sheer number of dead or dying malls in the US does prompt a theory – that I’m sure will be shot down in comments – about the differences between the US and Britain (and probably much of Europe too). While there are some common features in both retail economies around the abandonment of town and city centres in favour of ‘big box’ retailing on the outskirts – though the US is much further down that path, with downtown shopping districts becoming increasingly rare – the availability of space within the US has enabled a second wave of abandonment to occur, which has led to the dead malls. Because there was the space to build a number of malls, strip malls and all the other types of extra-urban development you see in the US, competition ensured that some of these developments failed to attract sufficient businesses and/or customers to be viable. In Britain there’d be pressure to regenerate a failed area like that because there would be fewer, if any, alternative locations, but in the US, there’s almost always another patch of land in a seemingly better economic position that you can go and develop instead, leaving the old one to rot.

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Interesting story here about employees of a Las Vegas casino being arrested for scamming money from the poker room’s bad beat jackpot. (via Tao of Poker) Especially interesting to me as the Planet Hollywood poker room was one I played at a few times when I was in Las Vegas last year, so it’s possible that I may have met one or more of the people who were running the scam. However, I can’t claim to have been affected by the scam as they were skimming money off the top of the jackpot pool, and I didn’t win one of those while I was there – and not just in Planet Hollywood, I failed to win one anywhere.

It’s a shame, because the poker room at Planet Hollywood was a nice place to play, but I can’t see that poker players are going to want to go there again now this news has broken. They’re a superstitious lot, and there’ll be lots of them muttering ‘once bitten, twice shy’ before turning away from the threshold of Planet Hollywood.

But the best take on this does come from Pauly at the Tao of Poker:

The Planet Ho 4 are lucky that it’s 2009 and not 1979. Thirty years ago, they’d be listed as missing persons with their bodies nowhere to be found. Back in the rough and tumble days when the mob ran Vegas, if you got caught stealing from a casino, you’d end up in a hole on the edge of Death valley sleeping with the scorpions.

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Update: You know what they say about something being too good to be true? Yes, this was. Nicely done fake, though.

The Mayor of Baltimore responds to Chris Grayling’s comments, and proves that she’s got a sense of humour. Or humor, given that she’s American.

o present a television show as the real Baltimore is to perpetuate a fiction that dishonours our city. It is as pointless as boasting that Baltimore has a per capita homicide rate a fraction of that in the popular UK television show Midsomer Murders.

(via Liberal Conspiracy)
At this rate, I give it a week before Boris Johnson is putting out a statement claiming responsibility for the fact that London hasn’t suffered an alien attack at Christmas since he was elected.

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Amongst the Guardian letters today, Godfrey Eland wonders:

Having carefully read about Greyhound buses coming to the UK (Report, 20 August), I am at a loss to understand how these buses will be any different from National Express, Megabus or any other of the existing services on our motorways. Can someone enlighten me as to what all the fuss is about?

The fuss, of course, is quite simple to explain. Whil your average travel journalist would never think of travelling anywhere by coach in Europe – after all, why slum it with the plebs for days on end when you can just hop on an EasyJet to your destination? – they’re quite likely to have taken at least one journey in the US on a Greyhound coach, possibly going between Los Angeles and Las Vegas whilst wearing a trucker-style baseball cap in an ironic fashion. They’ll have hundreds ofways of telling the story about the slightly strange man who sat near them at the bus station, but they’d probably look at you blankly if you asked them where you get a bus from in this country.

Meanwhile, of course, their American counterparts – who’d never take a Greyhound, especially when you can fly so cheaply with Southwest – are no doubt lamenting just why they can’t have those cool National Express coaches over there.

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Enough people have linked to the latest stop on Tory MEP Daniel Hannan’s ‘Look at me, America! Look at me!’ tour – an appearance with bloviating imbecile Glenn Beck – that I thought I ought to take a look. And I managed a couple of minutes before the urge to smash my head against a wall – though at least I could get the NHS to deal with that without them claiming that my medical insurance doesn’t cover me for self-inflicted injuries – became too strong to allow me to continue.

But, in that time, I learnt something. Mainly that while many people may hold to the belief that the plural of anecdote is not data, for Hannan the singular of it definitely is, with his tale of his friend with a broken ankle’s experience of an NHS A&E Department on a Friday night enough to damn not just the NHS, but the entire idea that American healthcare needs reforming in any way.

Let’s break down this tale of Hannan’s. First, he doesn’t tell us that his friend is a medical professional, but he appears to have self-diagnosed his broken ankle, and got to A&E all by himself – note that there’s no mention of an ambulance in this story. So, at one of the busiest times in the week for A&E, someone presents themselves at reception with what seems to be a non-critical case. With there not being a line of doctors and nurses waiting at reception to diagnose and triage patients immediately on their arrival – they were probably spending their time with people who were inconsiderately in danger of death whilst earning less than Hannan’s friend – he’s told to wait, and most likely take a seat, while they arrange for one of the finite number of medical professionals they have to come and see him. Remember – this is at the busiest time of the week.

Now, this isn’t good enough for our intrepid hero who demands that they give him – with his amazing powers of self-diagnosis – painkillers there and then. Now, the worst I’ve ever done to my ankle is sprain it, and I suspect breaking it hurts a lot more, so you’d probably want painkillers that are somewhat stronger than the ones you can buy in Boots. When the receptionist – most likely not a medical professional – says they can’t just give them out on demand, and there are many many reasons why no competent medical institution in any country would do that, Hannan’s friend demands that they sell him painkillers, yet they won’t do that. And for Hannan, this is a damnation of the NHS, not a triumph for a responsible member of NHS staff.

Let’s look at it from the perspective of the A&E worker – someone comes in, insists they have a broken ankle, refuses to wait to see a member of the medical staff and insists you give them painkillers. When you refuse, they start offering you money in order to get them. Now, is this the action of a responsible member of society with remarkable skills in self-diagnosis, or could it be a clever addict attempting to get hold of some prescription drugs with a vaguely-clever if unoriginal ruse? Even if we assume that you recognise that the man is a friend of Daniel Hannan’s and thus a totally sane and upstanding member of the community, do you – not being trained to prescribe drugs to random members of the public – give him some anyway, sure that whatever you give him will do the job required and not cause any undesirable side-effects or allergic reactions?

Is Hannan claiming the situation is different in American hospitals? Having only limited knowledge of them, I can’t say for sure, but I’m pretty sure that emergency rooms – even at their busiest times, when Americans are indulging in their ‘quaint custom’ of shooting each other on every night of the week, not just Friday – don’t just dish out prescription painkillers to anyone with a handful of cash who claims to have a broken ankle.

But then, we are talking about a discussion between Daniel Hannan and Glenn Beck, so we’re at a level where reality as you or I might understand has been left far behind.

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