Monday, April 30, 2012

Nothing Really Matters

One fine night on the Island of the Cyclops, Odysseus the many-schemed plunged a sharpened stick into the eye of the bone-gnawing Polyphemus.  "Who are you to blind me?" Polyphemus bellowed, his story nearly done.  "Who am I?" answered the canny Ithican, "I am no one."  Polyphemus' friends came running to see why Polyphemus had a stick in his eye.  "Who did this to you?" they asked.  Polyphemus, son of Poseidon answered:  "No one!"

Odysseus demonstrated that nothing can really matter.  Today we're going to take a look at one of the greatest inventions in the history of thought:  zero.

Math For (Homeric) Poets
The importance of zero can be seen just by imagining how Odysseus might have done math.  For us this calculation is straightforward:

2345 -

We chop the equation into manageable chunks.  First we subtract one-thousand from two-thousand, then two hundred from three hundred, and so on.

Odysseus--so cunning that he was beloved of the godess of wisdom herself--would have struggled with this simple act of arithmetic.  For him the equation would have been reckoned like this:

Two-thousand-three-hundred-forty-five minus one-thousand-two-hundred-thirty-four.

And done in the head or scratched on clay using primitive numerals--Odysseus being most probably illiterate.

With the development of writing, math became a little easier.  But only a little.  Here's how Caesar would have contended with our arithmetic problem:


This kind number system is called additive notation because all you do is add up a series of symbols.  One thousand for the Romans is just M.  You want two thousand?  Just write MM.

The number system we use today is a positional notation, and it is infinitely more useful than additive notation.  In positional notation, the value of a given numeral depends where it comes in the figure.  In 1234, the symbol 1 stands for one-thousand.  In 4321, the same symbol 1 simply stands for one.  The same symbol--two different values depending on where in the number the symbol is.

There's a problem with positional numbering systems that you would never think was an actual problem unless you had to deal with it.  How do you represent one hundred and one?  You have one hundred, no tens, and one one?  Does it just look like this?

1 1

Enter The Zero

This is why zero makes all the difference.  Once you have zero, you can just plug it in whenever you have an empty column, and our previously unclear mark above becomes the familiar 101.

It's entirely possible to have a positional numbering system without a zero--though it must be quite awkward.  The Babylonians, Indians and Mayans all stumbled around with positional systems for hundreds of years before coming up with a zero.  The Chinese positional notation system never introduced a zero ever, and it continued to produce stunning mathematicians for longer than America has been putting bacon on hamburgers.

Super Zero
An amazing thing happens when the symbol zero becomes more than just a mark representing a gap in the tens column, and becomes a real number--a number every bit as solid as seven or seventy-seven.  This happened only once in human history, in India around the sixth century.  For comparison, at this time in Europe we were busy lolling around in mud and ruin.

Once zero is recognized as an actual number, a whole new universe of mathematics opens up.  Zero allows us to envision negative numbers.  The positive numbers stretch on infinitely to the right of the zero, the negative numbers stretch on infinitely to the left of the zero, and the zero stands as a fulcrum between plus and minus.  Zero also allows the development of complex algebra, allowing whole extra years of math courses to be added to the school curriculum.

There are a ton of great sources that I consulted for today's post.  Etymology Online and Mediatinker were particularly helpful.  If you're still curious about more of the odds and ends of zero, check out Numbers of Interest on Zero.  If you still haven't had your fill, the always chin-scratchingly good In Our Time has an episode on Zero as well.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Yankee Doodle: The Secret History

Often traditions are like a culture's vestigial organs--atavistic throwbacks that once held purpose and meaning but now just do nothing better than dangle.

Earlier on this blog we explained how carrying a bride over the threshold originated from an ancient Roman rite symbolizing nuptial kidnapping.  Today, we'll be dissecting another beloved institution.  This one is as American as apple pie.

Every young American learns Yankee Doodle, a song combining two of childhood's most revered institutions:  drums and macaroni.  After every young American learns Yankee Doodle, they ask their parents why a man would stick a feather in his hat and call it macaroni.  Here is, verbatim, what my mother and father told me:
Well today we will tell you.  Get ready to call your parents and let air any long-simmering song-lyric-based resentments.

Yankee Doodle probably started out as a national insult.  In the 1750s, British troops fought the French and Indian war alongside their ruder American cousins.   The British troops would tease their backwards American brothers-in-arms by singing Yankee Doodle.  The Americans were dogged by the song--feisty British troops even going so far as to sing the song during church services.

But what did the arrogant British sing?  The early years of the song is wrapped in veils of mystery, put into a box of obscurity, sealed up with tape of confusion, and then filed in the library subbasement of silence.  No one knows where the tune came from (though it is likely from a nursery rhyme called Lucy Locket) and the lyrics were only written down in 1775, a full quarter of a century after the song is supposed to have been written.

But even then it wasn't very flattering to the colonists.
Brother Ephraim sold his Cow
And bought him a Commission;
And then he went to Canada
To fight for the Nation;

But when Ephraim he came home
He proved an arrant Coward,
He wou'dn't fight the Frenchmen there
For fear of being devour'd.

The nature of the song changed during the Revolutionary War.  The American soldiers started to sing the song before battles, turning what had once been a national insult into a swaggering defiant stand against colonial arrogance.  Here's a newspaper account that came out a month after Lexington and Concord:
Upon their return to Boston [pursued by the Minutemen], one [Briton] asked his brother officer how he liked the tune now,-- 'D--n them,' returned he, 'they made us dance it till we were tired.' -- Since which Yankee Doodle sounds less sweet to their ears.
So what does the song actually mean?

The song--at least the famous verse that we all know--seems to be about a foppish young colonist putting on airs too fashionable for his backwoods upbringing.  He--foolish young thing--thinks that to impress the ladies all he has to do is to stick a feather in his cap.  That is what is takes to be macaroni.

Macaroni Style
By the middle of the 17th Century, the word macaroni had become a synonym for over-the-top style.  But why should a penchant for crazy duds be associated with elbow-shaped pasta?  Because of rich young men going abroad.  After returning from their expensive grand tours of Italy, young British dandies were said to have developed a taste for that most exotic of pasta shapes, the elbow.  Some even dubbed themselves unofficial members of the Macaroni Club.  You know--for people cultured enough to have tasted macaroni.

Now only a single mystery remains.  What's a doodle?  Some say it means fool.  But here--we strike the bedrock of thought and history.  Our spade is turned aside.  We can dig no more.

But wait!  There is more!  We have a single fact left!  According to some, doodle might have been the origin of our much-used term for everyone and everything dude.

Well fellow dudes, I hereby propose that we bring macaroni back as a term of overly exuberant style.  Now we must only wait for that lovely day someday surely in the future, when a fine young Atlana MC rhymes macaroni with honey.

My main source for today's post is the always informative Straight Dope.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Was The Ancient Roman 9/11 An Inside Job?

In 468 A.D. a combined fleet of Roman and Byzantine ships sailed across the Mediterranean to the city of Carthage.  They were going to teach a hard lesson to the Vandals, a group of Barbarians who had sacked Rome twelve years earlier.  Since then the Vandals had set up an independent kingdom in North Africa, sending out pirates with impunity, living proof to anyone who looked that Rome was in true decline.

In a final act of unity, Westren Rome and Eastern Rome gathered their strength to defeat the Vandals.  103,000 pounds of gold were spent to outfit a fleet of 1,100 ships.  At the time it was the most expensive naval fleet in history.

It was supposed to be the new dawn of Roman power.  It was supposed to mean an end of Vandal aggression.  It was supposed bring glory to its generals, and terror to the enemies of Rome.

It did none of those things.

The fleet was commanded by the Byzantine Empress' brother, a sniveling schemer named Basiliscus.  The general earned himself a few early successes.  In the first sea battle, the Vandal King Genseric's forces were trounced, leaving the Imperial fleet free to surround Carthage.  Ground forces were closing in.  Genseric holed himself up in his palace, waiting for the vengeance he deserved for sacking the eternal city of Rome.

But instead of attacking, general Basiliscus anchored his fleet about 45 miles from Carthage, at Promontorium Mercurii, what is now known as Cape Bon, and waited.

Genseric sent an embassy to the Roman ships promising an easy surrender and buckets of gold.  We need only a small truce before the actual surrender can happen, the Vandal embassy said.  Just so that we can get the whole idea of giving up an okay by the rest of the Vandals.  Basiliscus agreed, passing his fate into braver men's hands.

In Carthage Genersic called a council of war.

Five days later, night fell on the ancient city of Carthage.  The wind picked up, blowing towards the Roman fleet.  This was the time that Genseric was waiting for.  As the clouds pulled over the moon, Roman soldiers saw something strange flicker across the water.  At first, they must have been curious.  Then they were afraid.

The ships in the Vandal harbor were on fire.  At once the wind hit the sails of the burning ships, blowing them towards the Roman fleet.

Genseric was using his own fleet as flammable missiles.

The Roman ships were packed closely together, and since they were wind-powered, they couldn't easily get out of the way of the approaching fire ships.  They were sitting ducks.  Vainly, the Romans tried to lash their ships to rowboats and paddle away.

But it was too late.  The unmanned flaming ships rammed themselves against the Imperial fleet, and fire spread from one ship to another.  It was then that the un-firey Vandal ships attacked.  The result was that the Roman fleet--the largest group of ships gathered for battle ever--was crippled.  Over half of its ships had been destroyed.  The survivors limped back home, dogged by pirates the entire journey.

At the Battle of Cape Bon, Europe learned that the barbarians would not be defeated.  Soon, the Romans would be gone.

Only eight years later, the Westren Empire fell.

But Was It An Inside Job?
Coin from the reign of Basiliscus

The Byzantine historian Procopius thought that there was something suspicious about the battle.  He insists that Genseric bribed Basiliscus to agree to the five-day truce, thus giving the Vandals enough time to prepare their flaming ships.  Maybe Basiliscus wanted his brother-in-law Emperor Leo to suffer an embarrassing defeat.  Maybe he was just stupid.  It is always possible that he was merely greedy.

Or maybe Basiliscus was no traitor at all.  Maybe he had been framed.  The Romans had a habit of pinning the blame for defeats on treachery and ill-fortune, while taking all the credit for the victories.  This is a natural quirk of human psychology.

And it's not like Basiliscus didn't have any enemies.  About ten years after his defeat at Cape Bon, Basiliscus briefly acceded to the throne of the Eastern Empire, having deposed the unpopular Emperor Zeno.  But after a year Zeno wrested power back from Basiliscus, killing the former Emperor.  Now Basiliscus' enemy was free to write the histories, blaming the hapless brother of an Empress for everything that had gone wrong ever.

My inspiration for this post is the amazing and soon-to-be-completed History Of Rome podcast by Mike Duncan.  My main sources are the Fall Of The Roman Empire by Peter J. Heather and A History of The Vandals by Brian 'Gaiseric' Adam.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Of Barks And Bites

Dogs have been living with humans for at least 14,000 years. In this time the dog has picked up some human traits.  Number one is a capacity for joint attention.  This means that a dog can look at what you're looking at, and know that you're looking at it, too.

Simple, right?  Wrong.  Most animals--even our closest relatives like chimps and dull uncles--have only a tiny capacity for joint attention.

At Harvard Brian Hare tested the joint attention of chimps, wolves and dogs by hiding food in a container and having the creature guess where the treat was.  The trick of this experiment was that the experimenter stayed in the room with the animal, hinting vigorously towards the correct container--either by tapping it or staring at it.  Dogs--even puppies--could follow their human friend's attention to find the treat.  Chimps could not, and neither could wolves.

But while the dog curls at humanity's collective feet as we read our collective newspaper, we must sometimes wonder--what really goes on in that floppy-eared head?  What dog-dreams make dog legs twitch?  What dog words are dogs saying when they bark?

Bad Dogs
In an elegant experiment, Alexandra Horowitz at Barnard University in New York has figured out a way to peek into doggy brains.  Her subject is this.

This is the guilty look.  It is as common a pose in dogs as it is in humans when--in our roughs and tumbles--we happen to break a mug, or eat every piece of chocolate in the house even though we are told not to.  To figure out whether dogs are actually feeling guilt when they look guilty, Horowitz lied.

She brought fourteen dog owners and their dogs into a room with a tasty treat, and got the dog owners to tell the dogs not to eat the treat.  Then, the dog owners left the room.  Half of the dogs were allowed to eat the treat.  The other half were not.

But Horowitz told all the dog owners that their dogs had eaten the snack against their master's prohibition.  Predictably, the dog owners scolded their dog.  The dogs responded with the guilty look.

But all the dogs displayed the guilty look--even the dogs that hadn't eaten the forbidden treat.  This suggests that the dogs weren't feeling what we would call guilt--that is, remorse at doing something wrong.  How can you be guilty of something you have not done?  What we see as guilt in dogs must be some other kind of emotion--submission in the face of an irate master, perhaps?  A cringe at being yelled at?  But not guilt.

This is an enticing hint that what happens in doggy brains is different than we imagine.  But it is only a hint.  Now we will turn to the doggy bark.

Bark and Bite
Every dog on the planet barks, from Alaska to Australia.

But there is mystery, even in this truism.  While dogs bark, adult wolves don't.  This suggests that the bark is something essential that separates dogness from wolfness.  Sometime in the very earliest period of dog-development, dogs who barked were heavily selected for.

But the question is, why?  Barking is no good for hunting.  A bark--no matter how well-timed--just alerts your prey that you are coming.  And it's not like early humans enjoyed the sound of dog barks, even though they couldn't get the latest Okkervil River album.

It could be that dogs were neolithic security alarms.  Ancient humans might have put dogs on the outskirts of their camps, using their bark as a signal that a stranger was approaching.

And yet, for all this trouble trying to figure out the essence of dogginess, Pixar said it best.

My main sources for this post were Brian Boyd's On The Origin of Stories and Nicholas Wade's Before The Dawn.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Why The Fork?

God in his wisdom has provided man with natural forks—his fingers. Therefore it is an insult to him to substitute artificial metal forks for them when eating.
European dining before forks was a messy, finger-licking, stab-happy affair.  The most common eating utensil was the knife, used to cut and spear meat.  Everything you didn't spear with your knife-point, you ate with your fingers.

These knives had a troubling habit of being used in knife fights, finding their way into kidneys and other people's faces.  This actually is the reason for the popularity of chopsticks.  Confucius himself said:
The honorable and upright man keeps well away from both the slaughterhouse and the kitchen. And he allows no knives on his table.
Which makes sense if you want to reduce the number of dinnertime stabbings.

The fork was first used in the classical Mediterranean world, but not to transfer food from plate to mouth.  Instead forks were used to hold meat down while it was being carved.  The good Greeks and Romans ate with their hands, like any other sensible person would.

The practice of eating at the table with forks came, like so many other things, from the East.  Around the 7th Century people in the Middle East and Byzantine Empire started to use forks at the dinner table so that eating wouldn't leave their fingers covered in spittle and sauce, and by the 10th Century forks were common on the wealthy table of the East.

So it makes sense that at the turn of the 11th Century, when a son of the Doge of Venice married Byzantine Princess Maria Argyropoulina, the bride-to-be would bring in her luggage a set of golden forks.  She proceeded to eat with these peculiar pronged things during the wedding feast, scandalizing proper Venetian society.  Because, you know, why not use your fingers like everyone else?

The scorn of proper Venetian society quickly turned to schadenfreude when the Princess died of the plague two years later.  Could her overly delicate fork-use have anything to do with it?  Saint Peter Daiman certainly thought so.
Nor did she deign to touch her food with her fingers, but would command her eunuchs to cut it up into small pieces, which she would impale on a certain golden instrument with two prongs and thus carry to her mouth. . . . this woman’s vanity was hateful to Almighty God; and so, unmistakably, did He take his revenge. For He raised over her the sword of His divine justice, so that her whole body did putrefy and all her limbs began to wither.
A fitting demise for such an affected princess.

Even though forks seemed to carry the promise of death-by-plague, they became popular in Italy. The history of the fork in Europe now becomes a story of intrepid travelers foisting the new convenience on an unwilling society.  Catherine de Medici went from Italy to France to Marry Henri the Second she brought forks.  Along with the entire concept of what we now call French cooking.

The first person to bring forks to England was a traveller named Thomas Coryat who had walked his way through much of Europe and picked up the habit of using forks in Italy.  For bringing his own forks back home he was lambasted, mocked, and given the nickname furcifer by his friends--a pun on the word fork, and also someone doomed to hang.

But the fork was now in England, and it would not be ignored so easily.  In Shakespeare's time, the fork was used by dandies and the rich to mark just how different they were from the common rabble.  Look, they said, with their gilded, crystal-studded, bejeweled eating utensils--I don't have to stick my fingers in my mouth when I eat.  I am using a fork.  Which you cannot afford.

I was inspired to write this post by the Shakespeare's Restless World episode Snacking Through Shakespeare.  My main source was the fantastically detailed post The Uncommon Origins of the Common fork on Leite's Culinaria.

Why Having Low Status Is Bad For You

Respect is like electricity.   It runs beneath the surface of our lives, powerful and essential yet easy to ignore.  The desire to be respected--to have our coworkers and families look up to us--is potent enough to make us buy Ferraris, the latest iPad, and expensive bags.  In some ways it even drives our lives.

Harvard students were made to choose between these two (hypothetical) alternatives.
  1. You can earn $50,000 a year and everyone else earns $25,000; or
  2. You can earn $100,000 a year and everyone else earns $200,000.
Over half the students chose the first option.  This means they preferred having half as much money as long as they got to have more money than their friends.  If that doesn't prove to you the eldrich power respect commands, I don't know what will.

And why shouldn't we want to be respected?  Higher-status people get better mates, better food, and better art.  They even have longer lives.

To figure out why higher status gives us better health, Jenny Tung and Yoav Gilad at the University of Chicago looked at rehsus macaque monkeys.  The social pecking order of these simians is easily fooled around with making them perfect experiment fodder.

If you ever want to mess with some rehsus macaques, here's how.  Get a new room for the monkeys.  The monkey who moves in first is at the top of the pack.  The monkey who moves in second comes next.  The monkey who moves in third comes third, and so on.

What Tung and Gilad found out was that the monkeys at the bottom of the monkey heap had higher activity in genes dealing with immune response which could make them less healthy.

It turns out that this is caused by a process called epigenetic change.  Epigenetic change is when genes get turned on or off by something else.  This means that having high status literally turns on the genetic switch that makes you be more healthy.

What's the upshot?  Next time you call in sick, blame your boss.

My source for this article was the article Misery Index in the Economist.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Why Gossip Is Good For You

Ever since humanity first distinguished itself from other species, we have wondered what it is exactly that marks the line between man and beast.  Here's a brief survey of failed attempts to find humanity's unique quality:

Tool use. But tons of animals use tools.  Woodpecker finches use cactus pines to pin tasty grubs.  Chimps fish for ants using stalks of grass.  Octopuses build homes from coconut shells.  Pigs can even learn to play pong.  Examples abound.

Language?  Nope.  Dolphins give themselves unique names, chimps and gorillas can learn sign language, and bees do a funny waggle dance to inform other bees about whatever it is bees need to know.

Even hedonism is not safe from animal emulation, as this video of actual real-life drunken monkeys can attest.

But humans do something unique on this crooked earth.  We gossip.

Children start to gossip as soon as can speak.  And only 10% of gossip is about good deeds.  Maybe that's why so many religions have taken a stand against gossip.  Historical punishments for gossiping include such special-ordered torture devices as the Dunking Stool and the Gossip's Bridle.

Why do we gossip if we think it's bad?  One reason might be that gossip as a kind of low-cost punishment to people who break social norms.  Instead of going up and hitting Ugbert on the head after he got too drunk at my feast, I can just talk smack about him behind his back.  I don't risk getting hit by Ugbert (unless he gets wind of my gossip) and everyone finds out that he's a bit of an ass after he's had a few brews.

Gossip is also educational.  It gives us examples about what our communities disapprove of, at the same time as it informs us about who in our communities is doing the deeds that need disapproving.  If my bitchy story about Ugbert and the twelve-steins-of-beer goes viral, and people start calling Ugbert Professor Twelve-Stein behind his back, it reinforces the social norm of holding your alchohol, and also shows us that Ugbert is a notorious breaker of this norm.

Finally, gossip is a great way of making friends.  When I gossip with Tugmert about Ugbert's regrettable projectile vomiting at my feast, I'm showing Tugmert that I trust her so much that I'm not scared that she's going to gossip to Ugbert about my gossiping.  I'm also showing that Tugmert is the person I gossip to, not the person I gossip about.

So next time you start polishing up your Dunking Stool looking to punish a gossip, please--forgive the poor gossip.  They're only being human.

My sources today are an article on the social psychology of gossip in In Mind Magazine--which has more than you ever needed to know about gossip, and the book On The Origin of Stories by Brian Boyd.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Spartan Jokes

The past is a broken, forgotten thing. We have only small pieces of it, which, with some effort, we might stick together roughly. Then we might find the shape of the past--but not its color, or heft.

Just think of this:  We have lost nine-thousand-nine-hundred-and-ninety-nine jokes out of every ten-thousand that have ever been told.  That means someone sometime has told the funniest joke in history.  And we can't laugh at it anymore.

But even if all the jokes of antiquity were preserved, we might not be able to understand them.  What will make one person laugh until they cry will make another merely scratch their head.  So much more with the wit of the ancients.

Take the Spartans, please!

Plutarch admires the Spartans for their dry, restrained wit.  Though the jokes he records do not exactly leave you rolling on the floor, laughing.

Here's one (slightly edited):
One day a Spartan was invited to hear a man imitate the nightingale.  He said: "I won't waste my time.  I have heard the bird with my own ears."
Here's a second:
Another Spartan, seeing men seated on stools in a privy, said: "May I never sit where I cannot give place to an elder."
Could you stand a third?
A youth, when someone promised to give him game-cocks that would die fighting, said, "Don't do that, but give me some of the kind that kill fighting."

If you want some more very old jokes (including some that are actually funny), check out this post about the world's oldest jokes.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Why Do Grooms Carry Brides Over The Threshold?

If you ask someone why they follow a particular tradition, often they can offer no answer more enlightening than a shrug. The curious, though, know that everything that happens in the cacophony of human life has an explanation. Many of these explanations can be found on this humble blog.

Today we'll be explaining the odd practice of carrying a newly-wedded bride over the threshold of the new home. Why is that exactly?

According to Plutarch, this practice dates back to the very founding of Rome. Back then Rome was not Rome. It was little more than a refuge for felons fleeing justice and slaves fleeing their masters. The new city had a problem shared by parties of middle school boys throughout the ages: no women.

The Romans came up with a particularly Roman solution. They would simply kidnap the women of the village next door and then bam!--instant sex ratio rebalancing! The Romans invited their neighbors the Sabines over to a party and, at the signal of Roman head-honcho Romulus, every lonely Roman man took himself an unclaimed Sabine girl.

Like, took them. With swords and force and killing and kidnapping. This became immortalized ever after as the legendary rape of the Sabine women.

So what about the whole carrying the bride over the threshold thing--how does that fit into a three-thousand year old mass-kidnapping?

According to Plutarch,
It continues also a custom at this very day for the bride not of herself to pass her husband's threshold, but to be lifted over, in memory that the Sabine virgins were carried in by violence, and did not go in of their own will.
So every time a new husband takes wife in arms and walks across the threshold of their new home, the couple is participating in a symbolic kidnapping that stretches all the way back to the legendary founding of the eternal city of Rome.

Makes you feel happy to be human, eh?

More weird wedding traditions can be found over at How Stuff Works.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Three Stupid Things The Internet Did NOT Invent

When visionary futurists imagined the internet, they pictured artists and intellectuals from every corner of the world exchanging ideas in order to enlighten mankind and further science.  They would not have dared predict our obsession with cats and fruit-based headwear.

With a full six tenths of the internet devoted to memes and three tenths devoted to porn, it's easy to think that the internet was made for stupid stuff, and that stupid stuff was made for the internet.  But my careful study of history shows that people were doing stupid stuff long before the era when we are able to look at stupid stuff in a little glowing rectangle.

Today we will be looking at three stupid things the internet invented, and how the internet did not actually invent them.

Cats Being Cute

If a far-advanced civilization should find the internet in some future eon, it will think that our culture, economy and religion were all cat-based--or at least cat-dominated.  We have cats looking like Hitler.  Cat-bonsai.  Even a cat-based bible.

But pictures of cats have been captivating people long before that.  People were embarrassedly snickering at cats doing stupid stuff way back in the 1870s!

An early British photographer named Harry Pointer shot hundreds of pictures of cats looking funny a hundred and fifty years before I Can Has Cheezburger ever even registered for a domain name.  He was followed by countless other funny feline photographers, including Harry Whittier Frees--who one-upped Mr. Pointer by dressing the animals up in silly little costumes.  Behold the inevitable march of progress.

People Making Fools Of Themselves
Nothing makes a person feel better about their flaws--their love-handles, their propensity for jokes no-one understands, their trivial blog devoted to obscure miscellania--than watching another person make an even bigger fool of themselves.

Let us now propose the Karaoke Rule.  This rule has two axioms.
  1. If you are going to make a fool of yourself, you will do it while singing.
  2. For any act of atrocious singing, the embarrassment level of the act is positively correlated with the singer's confidence level.

To wit:

But choral cruelty neither begins nor ends in a 13-year old's YouTube comment trolling of a Tay Zonday video.  No.  Back in the early years of recording--and we're talking super early here, like 1900s, when vocals were still pressed in little wax cylinders--music aficionados found the worst opera singer in the entire world.  She had no pitch.  She had no rhythm.  Best of all she had no clue she wasn't awesome.

Her name was Florence Foster Jenkins.  She dismissed the laughter of the audience as mere jealousy.  She kept on performing ridiculous, atrocious, utterly hilarious renditions of operatic classics until her death at age 76.


From attempting to send Justin Bieber to North Korea to insisting that basement rapist Josep Fritzl is from Australia and not Austria, the internet gets its lulz wherever it can.

But the past even has its own trolls.  Legendary radio raconteur Jean Shepherd did one of the greatest trolls of all time--before the word trolling was ever coined.  If you have the time, click on the link and listen to Shep tell the story himself--it's really worth it.

To those who don't care to listen to FORTY-TWO MINUTES OF WONDER AND EXCITEMENT AND LAUGHTER, I'll boil down the story as best I can.

Shepherd was a radio personality who commanded the ears of a loyal army of listeners.  With his insomniac army--which he called the Night People--Shep played a prank so big it got into the New York Times Bestseller List.

The prank was called I, Libertine.  Shep encouraged his listeners to go into every single bookstore they could and request a book that did not in fact exist.  Together they came up with a title--I, Libertine--an author--Frederick R. Ewing, an expert on 18th century erotica--and a plot.  Thousands requested the book at local bookstores.  Some manufactured counterfeit cards for it at local libraries.  Another wrote a book report on it, and got a B+.

Bemused book-sellers called publisher after publisher trying to find out how they could get this new hot title I, Libertine--and no one knew!

Eventually the hoax was traced back to Shepherd and his army of night people, a writer was commissioned, and an actual I, Libertine was proudly foisted on the world.  Where it did it become a best-seller.  A real best seller.

Remember folks, there is nothing new in this world.  Not even memes.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

A Hillbilly Holiday

Is there any sweeter moment in the put-upon life of man than summer vacation?  For a few delicious months, young humans are burdened by no homework, no textbooks and no teachers.  Instead they are free to plash in pools, rot their minds with videogames, and stuff themselves with candy.  It's the greatest experience of liberty most people will ever enjoy.  It's enough to make you want to sing and dance around with puppets.

Today we're going to be looking at a time in America when students actually had to fight for their right to go on vacation.  Spoiler alert:  it involves violence.  And a poem.

The people of the backcountry of the United States are known by a number of names.  Hick.  Hillbilly.  Redneck.  Trailer trash.  But even though they might be disparaged, their culture has a long history, stretching back to the borderlands of England and Scotland.

In the backcountry of the US and the borderlands of Britain schoolchildren enjoyed a wild ritual called the 'barring out' which lasted until the beginning of the 20th Century.  The practice also went by the name of the shutting out, the penning out, or the exclusion.  (Any of these would be great names for a tough cable police procedural, if any TV writers are reading.)

The barring out happened every year around Christmas--and sometimes around other times of the year if the students were particularly frisky.  The bigger, tougher students in the class would push the teacher out of the school and barricade the door until the teacher allowed them a holiday.  If the schoolteacher granted this freedom, the kids gave him small presents.  Because, you know, thanks for not doing your job Mr. Teacher.

Sometimes this would get bloody.  One source records the school students filling the door "with benches and other heavy things."  The schoolboys and the school master's friends ended up facing each other in a 'fair fight.'  Although I have no idea how the fight could be fair because, you know, it was between grown men and children.

Here's a poem about barring out, from Scotland:
Liberty, liberty under a pin
Six weeks holiday or never come in!
Your humble blog-writer himself is an elementary school teacher, and I can assure you--if my students barricaded my classroom door with desks and threatened to beat me up if we didn't have a six week holiday, I just might give in.  Perhaps.  Just try me kids.  See what happens.

I learned about this ritual from the much-be-blogged Albion's Seed by David Hackett Fisher--also the source for my posts on Puritan Sex, Gander Pulling and Andrew Jackson's dating tips.

There's a History Today article on barring out as well--but it's behind a paywall so I could not consult it for this post.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Why Is A Face So Fast?

It takes a little more than three days to get from the earth to the moon.

It takes between 24 and 72 hours to digest a meal.

Your Google search is retrieved in about 200 milliseconds.

In only 100 milliseconds your brain recognizes a given lump of color and shape as a face.  70 seconds more and your brain will tell you whether know that face or not.

The brain is really good at recognizing faces.  The question is--why?

A view of the mind has emerged in recent years that suggests the brain is less like a meat computer and more like a meat app-store.  We aren't born with some tabula rasa of grey and white matter that we can program any old way we want.  Instead, our brain comes pre-installed with a number of modules for stuff like learning language, analyzing visual inputs, and yes--identifying faces--modules that are mostly hard-wired.  And really good at what they do.

So why is one of our modules devoted merely to identifying faces?

Humans are a perversely social creature.  We are more likely to live and die because of another person than because of any other factor.  Out there on the red-in-tooth-and-claw ancestral veldt I know that if I see Bert he'll buy me a pizza because he's cool.  But if I see Bobby I should be wary because Bobby likes hitting my head with rocks.

So it's important that our brains devote a huge amount of care to figuring out whether that lump of pink over there is a pig or OH MY GOD ITS BOBBY RUN GUYS RUN!

Sorry.  False alarm.  Not actually Bobby.  You see, sometimes the machinery of the mind goes wrong.  Usually what happens is that our face-finding module is set a little bit too high, so we like to find faces in places where faces just aren't.  This is called pareidolia and it is awesome.

All evidence to the contrary, this is not a smile.

And this is not Marlon Brando.
This is not actually a creeper.

And this is not a real dog.  Turns out it's just some pixels.  I KNOW.  I WAS FOOLED TOO.

Sometimes our face-finding module is set too low, or even turned off entirely.  Some of Oliver Sacks' most evocative writing is about people who suffer from a disorder called prosopagnosia, the inability to distinguish a face from the other mass of color and angle that splatters the visual field.  For them, a face isn't a face, it's just a vaguely face-shaped object.

The more we understand the brain, the more amazing even our simplest actions become.  So this Friday night as you and your friends indulge in your post-employment toasts, remember that merely to recognize that your friends are your friends takes thousands of years of careful evolution.

And watch out for Bobby.  I don't trust that guy.

If you're curious about the modularity of the mind, here's a fun video explaining it all.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Five Surprisingly Cool Clocks

Clocks must be one of the most ho-hum pieces of technology in our modern techno-overwhelmed world.  So cheap that they are absolutely everywhere.  So everywhere that we forget they even exist.  But clocks used to be fantastically precious pieces of high technology, the culmination of all the mechanical genius of their time.

Today we'll be looking at five clocks that will remind you how cool telling the time actually is.

Drip Drop Instead Of Tick Tock

Time-keeping started when people watched the progress of shadows on the ground.  It just makes sense.  Should be easy.  Okay!  Blog post finished guys, everyone go home!

Except there's a problem with solar clocks.  Let's say that you want a particular event (religious ritual; bacchanal) to last the same amount of time every single day.  You stick a pole in the ground and mark the shadow cast at the beginning of the event, and then mark the shadow cast at the end of the event.  The next day you just start when the shadow hits the first mark, and finish when the shadow hits the second mark.  Problem solved, right?

Wrong.  You're forgetting that the sun rises and sets at a slightly different time every day, so the positions of those shadows will change as the year does its always going forward thing.

The water clock is an ingeniously simple solution to this problem.  Here's how it works:
  • Take a basin.
  • Puncture a hole in said basin.
  • Fill Mr. Basin with water.
  • Stick a measuring stick in the water.
  • Wait.
  • There you go.
The earliest water clock was found in the tomb of Pharoh Amenhotep back in 1500 B.C--it's the big jug thing pictured above.  But the water clock continued to be a useful way of keeping time for another three thousand years.

The water clock reached its finest expression in the Muslim scholar al-Jazari's book called Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices published in the beginning of the 13th Century.  In this tome al-Jazari describes the Castle Clock, a water-powered clock which had so many special features it was like a 12th Century Casio.  Not only did it show the time.  Not only could you reprogram the length of the hours to account for the changing seasons.  Not only did it show the position of the zodiac.  Not only did it reveal one of five musical mannequins every hour.  But the thing had two falcon robots that would drop a ball into a vase.  Take that, iPod.

Smells Like Turmeric--Must Be Two O'Clock

Of course, no matter how advanced your timepiece is, you're not going to be able to actually tell the time unless you can see the timepiece.  This was a problem during that long era before light-switches.  If you happened to want to know what time it was at night, you had a problem.

But for every problem there's a solution.  The genius of nocturnal time-keeping was enterprising French inventor called M. de Villayer, who created a spice clock.  The hour hand of the clock would point to a bowl of spices--a different one for every hour.  You followed the hour hand with your own hand, dipped a finger in the appropriate bowl, and literally tasted the correct time.

But like all great European inventions, this one was anticipated in the east by a good number of centuries.  Starting in the 10th Century the Chinese made incense clocks like the one pictured above.  These held specially calibrated sticks of incense known to burn at a particular rate.  The first hour would smell of sandalwood, for instance, and the next of cinnamon.  Instead of a sideways glance at your wrist-watch all you needed to do to tell the time was sniff.

Too Useful For You?

The clocks we've seen today are all built on a human scale.  If I know anything about my decadent readers it's that you want something a little bit more impractical.  Well our final clock is so lacking in applications, so abstract in conception, that it must stand either as one of the coolest things on earth--or one of the dumbest.  Or both.

Buried deep in a mountain in Texas, the 10,000 Year Clock will tick at the speed of continents drifting. It will tick once a year for ten-thousand years.  Why?  The short answer:  because.

Mock all you want, but I find the long answer is inspiring.  Our lives--everything that we ever will know and feel, every terror and every heartbreak, all the love and all the trouble, the sum of this incredibly important biological lump I call me--it comes to only an instant in the turning of the universe.  We are here, we proudly beat our chests--and then we are gone.  And it's staggering to think of how much time there has been before us, and how much time will indifferently move on after we are gone.  Around us the stars grind on, the arms of our galaxy slowly spin, our planet changes--and to those slow movements, does a me or a you really amount to much?  The 10,000 Year Clock stands for me as a metaphor for one of mankind's greatest virtue:  our ability to step up on our tippy-toes and look beyond our cramped perspective, seeing what lies beyond--the proud mountains washed away by ten thousand years of rain, the lakes dried by a hundred years of sun--the ape evolve into a man.

This post was inspired by the In Our Time episode on the Measurement of Time, which might be one of the finest forty minutes of erudite discussion I have ever had the pleasure of listening to.

A note:  surprisingly little documentation exists about the spice clock.  The only source I could find of it is a book by Carlo Cipolla called Clocks and Culture.  Check it out if you are interested.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

In Which Andrew Jackson Doles Out Dating Tips

This is Andrew Jackson.  Mr. Twenty Dollar Bill, US President Number Seven, poster-child of the Second Party System.  Look at the proud cut of his jib.  Look at the horse in the background.  Who owns that horse?  Andrew "Old Hickory Jackson," that's who.  He probably owns the leftmost clump of trees as well.  And that charming house in the background.  And the painter who painted his portrait.  And I'd suggest he owns the rightmost tree-clump, too.  He's just that rich and cool and ANDREW JACKSON PLEASE BE MY FRIEND.

Ahem.  Regardless of your politics--Whig or Tory or Democrat--you have to admit Andrew Jackson is a bit of  badass.  Well prepare for some badass relationship advice because today Andrew Jackson is going to help you get the girl-friend or boy-friend of your dreams.

There she is, Mrs. Rachel Jackson herself--nee Rachel Donelson.  But when Andrew and Rachel first met, Rachel went by Rachel Donelson Robards and was unhappily married to one, Lewis Robards.

What happened next is unclear for a number of reasons.  One reason is that in frontier Tennessee, people weren't sitting around chronicling all the amazing things they were doing on their blogs or twitters whatever--they were busy trying not to die--so the paper trail on the Jackson courtship is a little tangled where it even exists.

But the biggest reason for the story's muddy nature is that when Andrew Jackson ran for the office of President, his political enemies siezed on his dubious nuptial status as proof of Jackson's dubious character.  The events surrounding Andrew and Rachel's love story became subject to politics and so, as always, two truths emerged--one for each party.

Anyway--here's one story of how Andrew won Rachel.

Jackson announced to Lewis Robards that in order to solve the whole Rachel-being-married-to-someone-else thing he would "cut his ears out of his head."  Jackson was arrested for this threat.  But before Jackson'a case came to trial, Old Hickory chased Robards out of town, brandishing a butcher's knife.  Jackson's court case was disimssed because the plaintiff didn't show up for the trial because the plaintiff was too busy trying not to get hacked to pieces by the defendant.  Sounds like an episode of Justified.

At this point Jackson thought that his courtship was a done deal, married Rachel, and called it legal seeing as Rachel had been abandoned by Lewis.  You know, because he skipped town.  Because Andrew Jackson would kill him if he got back in town.

Andrew Jackson displayed so much bravery and mettle and balls that when the movie was made of his life he was played by Charleton Heston.

To compare, John Adams got played by Paul Giamatti.

The story doesn't end there though because Andrew Jackson wasn't just any old imperious butcher-knife wielding slave-owning bad-ass.  He was a politician.  Dogged by insults about his wife, in 1806 Jackson did the only rational thing.  He challenged his slanderer to a duel.  TO THE DEATH.

Jackson's opponent Charles Dickinson was a very good shot.  Jackson let Dickinson fire first.  Jackson was hit in the chest but the bullet missed his heart by inches.  Under the rules of the duel Dickinson had to stand still and await his opponent's reply.  He did.  And Jackson shot Dickinson dead.

You couldn't challange the facts to a duel, though, so the slanders kept on coming--especially as Jackson's political career improved.  In 1828 Jackson ran for President and the whole 'stealing his wife from another man at butcher's-knife-point' came up in the campaign.  His enemies--of which you can guess were legion--seized on it like Fox News seizes on terrorist fist bumps.

Here's what one of the anti-Jackson crowd said:
Ought a convicted adulteress and her paramour husband to be placed in the highest offices of this free and Christian land?

Actually this stuff evidently really did hurt.  Rachel Jackson died a few months before Jackson was sworn in as President.  Andrew Jackson blamed the stress of the campaign for her death.

To recap, Andrew Jackson's dating tips:
  • Use a butcher's knife.
  • Survive gunshots to the chest.
  • Beware the Whigs.
Try them out at the meat-market of your choice!

Monday, April 2, 2012

Dolphins Play Awesome Dolphin Games

When I was a kid I thought that everyone knew the toy store was the best place on the planet.  Where else could you find Silly Putty, Frisbees, transforming robots, Slinkys, and all the other lumps of molded plastic that in human hands become gateways to wonder?  When I watched adults get together at dinner parties and stand around and talk to each other for hours without even the tiniest action figure appearing in their hands I was possessed by infinite pity.

Humans seem unique in the animal kingdom in the sheer ubiquity of our play.  Humans play in every single recorded culture.  We play sports, we play imagination games, we play Playstation--from Greece to the Gambia, from Kansas to the !Kung.

Today we'll be looking at another animal that plays games.  Dolphins.  No.  Not Dolphin Olympics.  We're talking about something that actually happens.

In the wild some dolphins blow bubbles from their blowholes to confuse fish--a little like an underwater smokescreen.  This is fine and pragmatic animal behavior because it gets the dolphins food.  But what's cool is that some dolphins have been observed not just blowing bubbles to get tasty fish--but blowing bubbles to have fun.

The basic game is that the dolphins blow bubble rings, like smokers blowing smoke rings.  Individual dolphins have individual takes on the behavior.  One dolphin blows two bubble rings and then nudges them together to make a super-big bubble ring.  Another makes a sort of floating helix in the water by blowing her bubble ring into her own wake.

Whatever these dolphins are doing, two things are certain.  It's not useful.  And it looks really fun.  Toy-makers out there:  why do I not have a bubble-blowing dolphin toy yet?