weird and wacky holidays happening in August

August 18 is Mail Order Catalog Day

mail order catalog dayToday is Mail Order Catalog Day. On August 18, 1872, Aaron Montgomery Ward issued the first mail order catalog of Montgomery Ward & Company of Chicago, Illinois. It was a one-sheet list of 163 items.

Several years earlier, while working as a traveling salesman, Ward learned that customers in rural areas lacked access to quality goods. He hit upon a way to serve this untapped market: direct mail sales.

While this is hardly shocking to us—Amazon is, in essence, a giant catalog—his idea was so revolutionary at the time that he had trouble raising capital for the project; friends told him it was lunacy.

He had just gathered the inventory he needed to launch the business when it was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of October 1871. Convinced of the soundness of his plan, he rebuilt the stock and mailed the catalog the following August.

At that time, far-flung consumers had no recourse if they received shipment of a shoddy product. The “bait-and-switch” routine was common. A scammer would display and sell an item to an out-of-towner, then deliver something inferior and refuse to take it back.

Some say Ward coined the phrase “satisfaction or your money back.” He certainly ran his company by that credo and his customers showed their appreciation with their business. By 1883, the catalog had grown to 240 pages selling 10,000 items ranging from handkerchiefs to handguns.

As we can attest but not explain, people began to refer to the company, with great delight and affection, as “Monkey Wards.” The catalog was called the “Wish Book.” Retailers who lost business showed no such fondness and were inspired on more than one occasion to make a bonfire of it.

A print catalog seems quaint today: What can it show us that we haven’t seen before? (If it can, how did we get on that mailing list?) It’s a vestige of an earlier time. Before everyone had an automobile, before flight, before motion pictures and television, Ward brought the world to our doorsteps.

Happy Mail Order Catalog Day!

Copyright © 2017 Worldwide Weird Holidays

August 17 is Black Cat Appreciation Day

Black Cat Appreciation DayToday is Black Cat Appreciation Day. Although we’ve been unable to track down the origin of this holiday, we’ve found that the ASPCA celebrates the occasion each year by discounting its adoption fees for black cats and kittens, which it states are less likely to be adopted because of superstition.

Black Cats weren’t always considered bad luck. In ancient Egypt, cats were so highly regarded that killing one was a crime. Their bad reputation began during Europe’s Middle Ages when stray cats became associated with the spinsters who fed them.

Unmarried women were ostracized; living without a man was considered unnatural. Ignorance and fear of female sexuality fueled accusations of witchcraft and the cats those women showed kindness to were labeled as familiars, demons who did their bidding.

Folklore in the 16th century made matters worse when a popular tale told of a witch shapeshifting into a black cat. The hysteria reached its nadir one hundred years later during the Salem witch trials in colonial Massachusetts. Some would say that the fear of feminine power continues to exert its corrosive influence around the globe.

So give your cat a big hug and a handful of treats, bring a rescue into your home or just show kindness to your neighbor. (That last one we should be doing all year.) Have a happy Black Cat Appreciation Day!

Copyright © 2017 Worldwide Weird Holidays

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August 16 is International Wave at Surveillance Day

international wave at surveillance dayToday is International Wave at Surveillance Day, created in 2001 by privacy activist Zorbitor to provide “a chance for the watched to reach out to the watchers both at home and in public venues.” First, a little history is in order.

Video Surveillance

In 1942, the surveillance camera was invented by German engineer Walter Bruch and installed by Siemens AG to observe the launch of V-2 rockets.

In the U.S. the first closed-circuit television system (CCTV), Vericon, was introduced in 1949. It required constant monitoring because there was no way to record and store information. As video cassette recorder (VCR) technology became widely available, surveillance became more practical. Tapes could be saved for later playback or erased and reused.

Cameras were placed in New York’s Times Square in 1973. In the decades that followed, video surveillance spread across the country, especially in public and theft-prone areas. In 2005, the New York Civil Liberties Union tallied 4,176 cameras below 14th Street. London has approximately 500,000, while the UK as a whole has more than 4 million.

Of course, waving at a camera would be largely ceremonial given that modern surveillance systems are automated and thus incapable of appreciating irony, sarcasm, snark or a friendly greeting. Chances are, we wouldn’t get any attention from the spy satellites whizzing over our heads either—but they’re there.

Satellite Surveillance

On March 5, 1946, a secret treaty called the UKUSA Agreement created a worldwide network of listening posts run by the US National Security Agency (NSA) and UK Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ).

The countries agreed to exchange intelligence gathered from the interception and translation of foreign correspondence. One passage stated: “It will be contrary to this agreement to reveal its existence to any third party whatever.”

Within nine years, Canada, Australia and New Zealand joined the signal intelligence (SIGINT) sharing operation. The group became known as Five Eyes (FVEY), shorthand for the AUS/CAN/NZ/UK/US EYES ONLY classification level. The network connecting the alliance became known as Stone Ghost.

In 1964, FVEY established the International Telecommunications Satellite Organization (INTELSAT), which would go on to own and operate a fleet of satellites under the guise of civilian control . In 1966, the first satellite of the new ECHELON system was launched into orbit.

In 1970, GCHQ set up a secret signal station in Morwenstow near Cornwall, England, to intercept satellite communications over the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Soon afterward, the NSA built a station in Yakima, WA, to begin interception over the Pacific Ocean.

Omnipresent Surveillance

Most reports on ECHELON focus on satellite interception, which has dwindled to a small percentage of traffic. It has been revealed that the program also employs other means to monitor all landline and cellular telephone calls, email, faxes and texts and augments them by purchasing information from corporate entities.

Modern fiber optic cables deliver data much more efficiently than satellites ever could. Advances in technology, convenient for consumers, are a boon to those who vacuum up information. Most of us carry mobile phones at all times, emailing, texting, surfing, sometimes even talking.

To eavesdrop on terrorists, druglords and hostile foreign governments, ECHELON must capture everyone’s communications and use its supercomputers to analyze them for keywords. That can lead to mistakes such as the listing of a woman as a possible terrorist after she called a friend and told her that her son had just “bombed” in his school play.

Fear of terrorism since September 11, 2001, has led many to believe security and privacy are mutually exclusive. No matter where anyone stands on that issue, one thing is clear: The apparatus used to surveil everyone was in place long before that attack.

Can you hear me now?

In the US, the NSA grabs three billion conversations each day and stores the “metadata”—phone numbers, date and time, length of call—for 18 months. Spoken conversation is legally protected; the audio is not supposed to be monitored. (The experience of that mom would seem to put the lie to that.) NSA computers also capture every out-of-country call and email to or from a US citizen. In this case, the content is considered fair game. Agents are authorized to read or listen to any of them.

When paired with public information on services such as Google, Yelp and Facebook—which is not subject to the same legal protections as phone calls—Stanford researchers were able to use metadata to identify names, partners, pregnancies and medical problems as well as calls to gun stores, head shops and prostitutes.

In 2013, after Edward Snowden‘s act of whistleblowing, treason or both,  Stewart Baker, former general counsel for the NSA, admitted,  “Metadata absolutely tells you everything about somebody’s life.”

Its XKeyscore program captures approximately 40 billion Internet records every month, adding them to its digital storehouse, including emails, Google searches, websites visited, Microsoft Word documents sent, etc.

NSA’s annual budget includes $250 million dollars for “corporate-partner access,” a term of art for its payments to acquire material compiled on corporate computers. It collects so much data that it maintains 700 servers at 150 sites.

On August 13, 2016, a group calling itself the Shadow Brokers announced it had hacked Equation Group, which allegedly carries out cyber attacks on behalf of the NSA. It proved its claim by releasing two sets of highly sophisticated malware and hacking tools used by Equation Group and promises to sell the rest for $1 million in Bitcoin—roughly $574 million US dollars.

Do the Wave?

We must admit we don’t feel much like waving, and not just because today’s observance has been called the laziest protest ever. During our research, we’ve conducted 28 Google searches and read 47 posts at 34 sites, excluding Wikipedia entries. We suspect that even if we don’t wave at surveillance today, it may be waving, however briefly and figuratively, at us.

Try to have a happy International Wave at Surveillance Day. We can all blame Zorbitor if we end up on a no-fly list.


Copyright © 2017 Worldwide Weird Holidays

August 14 is Navajo Code Talkers Day

Navajo Code Talkers Day

Solomon Islands, WWII

Today is Navajo Code Talkers Day, a holiday that honors the distinguished record of soldiers who transmitted military messages in the Navajo language during World War II. The Axis powers were unable to break the code, which helped safeguard U.S. military communications and may have hastened the end of the war.

In May of 1942, 29 Navajo recruits graduated boot camp at Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, CA, and subsequently developed a dictionary that translated U.S. military terminology. They kept no written records, memorizing each word during their training.

Navajos were able to encrypt, transmit, receive and decode a three-line English message in 20 seconds. By contrast, devices of the era such as the German Enigma machine required an average of 30 minutes to perform the same task.

Code talkers participated in every operation conducted by the U.S. Marines in the Pacific theater. In February of 1945, during the first two days of the battle of Iwo Jima, six of them worked around the clock to send and receive more than 800 messages in Navajo.

Their service went unrecognized for decades due to the language’s continued use by the military.  After it was declassified in 1968, Major Howard Connor, signal officer of  the 5th U.S. Marine Division during World War II, stated, “Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.”

President Ronald Reagan declared August 14, 1982, National Navaho Code Talkers Day. (He preferred Americanized spelling.) The last of the original 29 Navajo code talkers, Chester Nez, died on June 11, 2014, at the age of 93. Due to the program’s secrecy, the total number can only be estimated, at 400.

Let’s remember them now and every day. Happy Navajo Code Talker Day!

Copyright © 2017 Worldwide Weird Holidays

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