Monday, August 20, 2012

The Emperors Of Ice Cream

One of the most profound things I've ever seen took place on a guided tour of Queensland.  In amongst the usual touristic sights of natural beauty--the LOTR-worthy lakes, the picture-book rain forests, and the prehistoric cassowaries--we stopped to get ice cream.

One of my fellow tourists was a young woman toting a squint-faced newborn.  The new mother scooped some ice cream up in one of those diminutive plastic ice cream shovels, then held it out to the child.

The baby's lips puckered.  She blinked.  Once the ice cream was on her lips, there was a moment of tension.

"This is her first ice cream," mom drawled.

The baby's eyes grew as large as baby eyes can go.  She laughed.  She reached out before.  This new stuff--it was good!  This new stuff--it was more than good!  It was fantastic!

I felt lucky to watch this--a person realizing that existance is awesome enough to include ice cream.

On the face of it, ice cream seems like it must go hand-in-hand with the glories of electric refrigeration.   Human beings are a crafty bunch however, and our sweaty summers have been relieved by ice-cooled treats for at least four millennia.

The Chinese--first at everything--produced the earliest recorded ice confection, made by taking milk, overcooked rice, and spices, and throwing the mix all together with some fresh snow.  Yum!

The Chinese practice of mixing snow with sweets passed along to the Persians, who add fruit juice to snow to refresh themselves during the summer.  This is the origin of the word sherbet--a Persian word meaning 'he drank.'  From here, the technology passed on to Alexander the Great who--in addition to his usual claim to fame of having one of the largest land Empires ever, must add 'bringer of iced delicacies to Europe.'  Alexander's gift to the western world shows up again in the reign of the maligned Emperor Nero, whose bacchanals often were accompanied by refreshing mixtures of fruit juice and snow.

But where did the snow come from in the summer?  The mountains.  In Rome's case, the ice came from the alps.  Back in the ancient world, there existed an ice trade.  Entrepreneurial mountain-dwellers would collect snow or lake ice, cover it with a thick sheet, then transport it to the the sweltering metropole for the refreshment of the pest-ridden city-dwellers. The ice was stored in icehouses--insulated sometimes underground storage rooms, in which a cache of ice could remain frozen even in the hottest month of summer.  The first recorded building of an ice house goes all the way back to 1700 BC, when the snow-loving Persians constructed one 'which never before had any king built.'

The Turkish Sultan so loved ice that they had an entire class of servant dedicated to the upkeep of the ice and snow stores.  (This was just some of the 1570 people who as of the 16th century were employed in the Sultan's kitchens, others including the oh-so-necessary yogurt makers, simit bakers, and wheat pounders.)

Simits, though not involving ice or ice cream in any way, remain food fit for a Sultan.
The Chinese came up with a further ice confection improvement around the 17th Century.  Salt.  You may remember making 'home made' ice cream back in school, and, because of the infinite cruelty of the education system, this somehow involving turning a crank.  You also for some reason needed salt.  No one could tell me why this was so.
Notice the hand-crank of cruelty.
Adding salt to ice reduces the freezing point of water.  Immersing a thing into this super-cooled brine allows for the freezing of more than just ice--now people could freeze ice or custard.  Sometime in the 18th Century a Sicilian Procopio Cuto at the Parisian Cafe Procope made some of the first for-sure European ice cream available to non-royalty.  (Cafe Procope is named after the Byzantine historian Procopious, he of the Secret History fame.)

Ice cream was an ever-popular dish for the illustrious rich.  George Washington spent over two hundred dollars on ice cream one summer.  Thomas Jefferson was such a fan of ice cream that, in very Jeffersonian fashion, he laid out an 18-step process on how to make the perfect ice cream.  Supposedly it tastes a little bit like a baked alaska.
Ice cream recipe written in the same hand as the Declaration of Independence.

It took until the middle of the Nineteenth Century for ice cream to reach the common people.  Then, a Baltimore man named Jacob Fussel, a dairy merchant, needed a way to get people to buy cream.  He started the world's first ice cream factory, became rich by selling affordable cream, and gave middle class America a taste for what Wallace Stevens called 'concupiscent curds.'  A devout Quaker, Fussel took time out of being an ice cream impresario by also supporting the underground railroad.

Ice cream is one of those parts of human life so unabashedly wonderful, so flawless, so pure, that it is certain to accompany human culture to the very twilight.  Indeed, in that last age, when man crouches in some burnt-out wasteland, if he still has culture, he will sometimes wipe the sweat off his brow and get a double scoop of chocolate.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

New Novel: Starseed

I recently finished a science fiction book.  And now you can read it in the comfort of your own home because of this cool new technology they call the Internet.

The book's called Starseed.  It's available on Smashwords.

So what do you get in Starseed?

Packed into 85,000 words of fine Mackie-crafted prose there's...

  • Psychics in cryogenic stasis.
  • Sex AND violence!
  • A singularity-eque Artificial Intelligence.
  • Metaphors!  Smiles!  Extended metaphors!
  • Deep-space travel.
  • Discussion of the nature of the human soul!
  • One hundred and seventy four (174) exclamation marks (!)

And more, much more.

I know you folks at home are already asking:  how much money do I need to throw at you so that I can get this marvelous e-Book?

The answer will leave you spraying Mountain Dew all over your monitor.

The book is pay-what-you-want.  So you can just pay nothing at all for the enjoyment of nearly two-hundred pages of finely written science-fiction action.  You can also pay fifty dollars.  Somewhere between those two numbers is probably a fair middle ground.

So don't wait a second more!  Click.  Buy.  Read.  Tell your friends.  Leave a nice review.  Name your first born in my honor.

A NOTE TO MY PUBLISHING FRIENDS:  You probably know that I've recently finished an ambitious manuscript I'm trying to get looked at by agents and editors.  Starseed is NOT it.  Though Starseed is cool, if you are an agent or editor, I'd much rather you take a peek at my fat big American novel, Please Give Me Money--contact me personally and I'll send you a copy.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Wallpaper That Named America

Columbus discovered America.  America is named after Amerigo Vespucci, who did not discover America.  In the lacuna between these two well-known facts there hides a story of adventurers, pickle-sellers, forged letters--and wall-paper.

Before the story begins, a Roman prologue.  In the Second Century AD there was a Greek-speaking Roman citizen from the province of Egypt named Ptolemy.  (Students of ancient history know that this is not anything unusual:  almost every Greek-speaking Egyptian ever was named Ptolemy.)  This Ptolemy, Claudius Ptolemy, put all of his era's geographical knowledge into a single book titled, with characteristic Roman creativity, the Geography.

Ptolemy's Geography mapped the known world, and mapped it well.  Europe is drawn with care.  The Persian Gulf looks suitably gulf-like.  Important rivers are all in the right places, including some in the far east.  The Indian Ocean exists.  The map even shows parts of China, though in blurry, uncertain haziness.

For more than a thousand years the Geography was the Google Maps of princes, merchants and explorers from Bruges to Baghdad.  In the late 15th Century, Christopher Columbus turned to it as he was trying to convince European kings to bankroll his ambitious globe-crossing voyage.  Columbus--who we've written about before--was the last man on earth to find the Geography useful.

That was because of what Columbus discovered once he sailed deep into the Western Ocean:  the New World.  But Columbus never knew the significance of his discovery.  When he first made landfall on that first unnamed idyllic Caribbean island, he assumed he was on East Coast of Japan, and that the Caribs were vassals of the great Khan.

Enter Amerigo Vespucci, a man Emerson derided as a mere "pickle seller" and a "thief."  Vespucci was a Florentine explorer who made two trips West.  A certain air of vibrant disreputableness hangs around him.

Amerigo Vespucci:  Explorer.  Lover.  Seller of pickles.
In the early 1500s, Vespucci wrote letters from the New World, describing a huge continent extending south of the Indies, bordered on both sides by ocean.  In Ptolemy's Geography--a book, remember, that had been state-of-the-art for 1,300 years--there was no huge southern continent that extended past the equator.  The conclusion was mind-blowing.  The world was big.  There was a whole new continent.  Florentine printers gathered these letters together, spiced them up a bit, and in 1502 or 1503 published them as a book called Mundus Novis.  The New World.

Instantly, people demanded an update to Ptolemy's previously immortal map.  A flurry of sextants and compasses scribbled across pages as publishers and map-fanciers rushed to be the first to make a accurate map of the new earth.

Enter two Germans--Martin Waldseemuller and Matthias Ringmann, cartographers.  They produced a map now known as the Waldseemuller map.  It was printed on 12 sheets measuring a massive four and a half by eight feet.  It was probably the largest map then made, and like all cool maps, it was meant for display as much as it was meant for navigation.  It was wallpaper.  If it were around now, it would be advertised in the Skymall catalogue.

The modern-day equivalent of the Waldseemuller map.
The Waldseemuller map was more than just big.  It was more than just cool.  It also included a certain brand new exciting continent hanging out to the far right, stretching below the Equator.  There, in the mostly empty space, was printed a name in serifed all-caps.  America.  The name was probably made up by Ringmann--a feminization of Amerigo.

The first printed instance of the name America.
The map was popular.  German universities clambered to pick up one of the thousand printed copies.  Students made copies of it and showed it to their friends.  In modern parlance, the map went viral.  As the map spread, so did the name America.  In the middle of the century Gerardus Mercador--he of the projection and a cartographical superstar in his own right--decided that the whole landmass of the New World should be called America.  Despite two centuries of Spanish complaints to the contrary, America would be America forever.

But a further twist complicates the story.  Remember those letters that Vespucci sent back to Europe?  The ones that inspired Waldseemuller and Ringmann to believe that South America was a distinct continent?  Those turned out to be faked.  Waldseemuller flip flopped, and when he published a new set of maps after Ringmann's premature death, South America was not shown a separate continent--indeed, no mention word America was made.  Waldseemuller explained the change:
As we have lately come to understand, our previous representation pleased very few people. Therefore, since true seekers of knowledge rarely color their words in confusing rhetoric, and do not embellish facts with charm but instead with a venerable abundance of simplicity, we must say that we cover our heads with a humble hood.
The inspiration for this post comes from Backstory's segment on Vespucci and the Waldseemuller map.  The always fantastic Smithsonian Magazine has an article on the Waldseemuller map, which proved to be a great trove of facts.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Arm That Wasn't Paralyzed

An intelligent, lucid 60 year old named Nora was interviewed by the neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran.  Ramachandran tells the story in his book, the Tell-Tale Brain.
"Can you walk?"
"Yes." (Actually, she hadn't taken a single step in the last week.)
"Nora, can you use your hands, can you move them?"
"Both hands?"
"Yes."  (Nora hadn't used a fork for a week.)
"Touch my nose with your left hand."
Nora's hand reamins motionless.
"Are you touching my nose?"
"Can you see your hand touching my nose?"
"Yes, it's now almost touching your nose."
Nora's left side is paralyzed.  But she won't admit it.  This is a more common phenomena than you'd think.  After suffering a stroke in the right hemisphere of the brain, many people suffer paralysis of the left-hand side of their bodies.  About one in twenty of these people will insist that they are not in fact paralyzed.  This is called anosognosia, which is medical-speak for denial-of-illness.

Anosognosia does not necessarily go along with any other mental impairment.  A person can be psychologically completely normal in every respect--except when it comes to the inert mass of their paralyzed left half.

A notable sufferer of anosognosia was Woodrow Wilson who became paralyzed in 1919 after being smitten with a flu-related.  He was bedridden, blind in his left eye, and paralyzed on the left side of his body.  He remained in office, even as he was on the brink of death, mumbling limericks to himself, his wife serving as his 'steward' (read: regent).  He didn't attend any cabinet meetings for a full half year, and when he finally presented himself to his cabinet, his staff were shocked at the frail state of his heath, and at the secrecy which had covered it up.  But Wilson grew angry with any mention of his incapacities, and fired many functionaries who dared suggest that there was something wrong with him.  He even pondered running for a third term.

Anosognosia can come in many exotic flavors.  Some anosognosiacs will refuse to admit that other paralytics are paralyzed.  A syndrome called somatoparaphrenia often accompanies anosognosia, in which a person will deny all ownership of their paralyzed arm.  Nora, mentioned above, had somatoparaphrenia.  "Whose arm is this?" Dr. Ramachandran asked her.  "That's my mother's arm," she replied.  "Where's your mother?"  "She's under the table."

People can be anosognosiac about more than just paralysis.  Patients with Wernicke's aphasia--brain damage which limits their communication to a fluent stream of babble--are often anosognosiac about their condition, nodding and smiling and talking even though they have no content to their speech.

Sources today are V.S. Ramachandran's the Tell-Tale Brain, and Errol Morris' five-part blog post on anosognosia which is fun, philosophical, and exhaustive--not words you usually associate with five-part blog posts, I know.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Puppies in a pool! (Open thread)

From r/aww
Hey reader!  I'd like to hear from you.  So I have a few questions.  Answer as many or as few as you'd like or just write a hello.

What do you like to eat for breakfast?  If you could be reincarnated in any historical period, when would you live?  Puppies or kitties?  Tapatio, tabasco, or siracha?  Cherries or peaches?

Also, if you happen to know any literary agents, I finished a novel I think is pretty damn good, and I'd like to show it to someone who can turn it into a real book.  Just sayin'.

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Almost Cure-All Urine of Albert Alexander

Hennig Brand, playing with pee, discovering the philosopher's stone.
Urine is useful.  The Latin poet Catullus mocked the Spanish for brushing their teeth with their own pee.  Drinking your mid-stream morning tinkle is recommended by some practitioners of yoga.  The Roman world collected piss to use for washing clothes--the ammonia would help bleach the coarse fibres.  And it was curiosity about the magical properties of wee which led Hennig Brand in the 17th Century to experiment with urine and so discover phosphorous.

None of this mattered for Albert Alexander, an Oxford County policeman who in 1941 was hospitalized with a severe infection resulting from an unfortunate rosebush scratch on his mouth.  He came down with vicious blood poisoning, and his face became so matted with weeping red abscesses that one of his eyes had to be removed.  The infection then spread to his lungs.  If he was not cured, he would die in writhing agony.  But the only cure at the time, the drugs called sulfonamides, were not effective with cases when the patient was as utterly suffused with pus as Alexander was.  He had no hope at all.

Enter Howard Florey and Ernst Chain, two scientists who had been experimenting with a drug that could very well become the magic bullet--the medicine that would destroy all infection.

To make the drug, they'd been culturing 500 liters of mold every week.  They hired three or four girls to grow the mold in every receptacle they could find--they used baths, bed pans, pie dishes, and even food trays, before finally settling on a purpose-made ceramic jar.

After successful trials on rats, Florey and Chain were finally ready to try the panacea on a human subject.  But they were concerned.  The drug was so strong it would probably reveal itself to be highly toxic to humans.  Would the cure be worse than the disease?

The mold was penicillin, and Albert Alexander was going to be the first person to be cured by it.

The magic mold itself.
On February 12th 1941, Florey injected Alexander with a large dose of penicillin, and the results were considered miraculous.  By the next morning Alexander's temperature had returned to normal and he had even regained his appetite.  He was cured!  But there was a problem.  To fight off the infection Alexander required an injection of about a gram of penicillin a day, and there just wasn't that much penicillin to go around, no matter how fastidiously the three or four 'penicillin grils' tended to their mold vats.

Enter urine.  The enterprising scientists collected Alexander's urine and processed it, retrieving whatever penicillin Alexander happened to piss out.  This was duly injected into Alexander again, and for nearly a week, his infection was beaten back.

But it was not beaten.  After five days, with their reserves of penicillin completely depleted and longer able to retrieve more penicillin from Alexander's urine, Alexander was left with his infection.  He succumbed to it on March 14th.

Albert Alexander did not die in vain.  His initial miraculous recovery was proof that penicillin actually worked in humans, and more--it proved non-toxic to people.  The next person to be treated with the magic bullet, a teenager whose temperature had shot up to almost 100 degrees as a result of an infected hip--was back to normal in two days.  A new era opened up in human history--one where we didn't ever have to worry about death from rose-thorn scratches.  In part, for this we have to thank that first brave medical guina pig, Albert Alexander, the constable from Oxford County who had an unfortunate pruning accident.

I heard about the case of Albert Alexander from Dr. Karl's Podcast.  My other sources are an interview with Norman Heatly on Science Watch, and the article the Discovery of Penicillin from the American Chemical Society.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Plato's Less-Than Ideal Arithmetic

Philosophy is nothing more than footnotes to this guy, so they say.
Plato rightly deserves his central place in the Western canon.  He founded a school--the Akademia--from which we get both the word and the inspiration for the modern academy.  His insistance on the immorality of the soul so suffused the Greek-speaking world--including the authors of the New Testament--that Nietzsche dismissed Christianity as mere 'Platonism for the masses.'  Plato wrote over thirty dialogues that survive as masterpieces of argument and storytelling--a feat made all the more striking by the fact that back when Plato lived there were no paper mills, no printers, no bookstores, and no pens.  Plato pretty much set the aims, the methods, and the questions of philosophy for the next two thousand years.

But despite his heavyweight resume, Plato seems to have flubbed his math a bit.

Here's Plato calculating the exact amount that the philosopher's life is better than the tyrant's, from Book nine of the Republic.
Or if some person measures the interval by which the king is parted from the tyrant in truth of pleasure, he will find him, when the multiplication is complete, living 729 times more pleasantly, and the tyrant more painfully by this same interval.

What a wonderful calculation! And how enormous is the distance which separates the just from the unjust in regard to pleasure and pain!

Yet a true calculation, and a number which nearly concerns human life, if human beings are concerned with days and nights and months and years.
Plato's math, according to the footnotes in the second edition of the Grube translation of the Republic are "hard to follow."  Here's a try.  The tyrant experiences only two-dimensional pleasures, while the philosopher experiences three dimensional pleasures.  Additionally, the philosopher is nine times away from the tyrant in terms of pleasure, so the philosopher's pleasure is represented by a nine-unit cube, while the tyrant's pleasure is represented by a one-unit square.  But Plato flubbed things getting to the number 729, which was sacred to the Pythagoreans.  He miscounted the number of times removed the tyrant was from the philosopher (it should have been five, not six) and multiplied where he should have merely added.  Sadly, it turns out that the philosopher is only 125 times happier than the tyrant!

But we can't blame Plato for having trouble with his sums.  In Plato's time, before zero, before calculators, before arithmetic notation, math was decidedly hard to do.  Here's another example of Plato doing math, from the Republic, Book 8:
Now that which is of divine birth has a period which is contained in a perfect number, but the period of human birth is comprehended in a number in which first increments by involution and evolution, obtaining three intervals and four terms of like and unlike, waxing and waning numbers, make all the terms commensurable and agreeable to one another. The base of these with a third added when combined with five and raised to the third power furnishes two harmonies; the first a square which is a hundred times as great, and the other a figure having one side equal to the former, but oblong, consisting of a hundred numbers squared upon rational diameters of a square (i. e. omitting fractions), the side of which is five, each of them being less by one or less by two perfect squares of irrational diameters ; and a hundred cubes of three. Now this number represents a geometrical figure which has control over the good and evil of births.
What Plato's trying to say--again according the Grube Edition's footnotes--is that the human number is the product of three, four and five raised to the power of four, or (3*4*5)^4, which comes to 12,960,000.  This can be shown geometrically in two ways.  First, by the area of a square with the sides of 3600 or as a rectangle with sides 4800 and 2700.  Simple enough for us moderns.  But we have the ease of working with arabic numerals.  You can see how Plato--even Plato!--can be forgiven for messing up his math.

And you thought math was hard in high school!  Sacrifice a cock to Asclepius in thanks that you were never a math student in ancient Athens.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

In Soviet Russia, Punchline Laughs At You

The dead do not laugh.  Everyone else does.  Earlier this year, we talked about the legendary humor of the Spartans and the world's oldest jokes.  Today we'll be talking about jokes so funny they could get you sent to the Gulag.  We're going to delve into the humour of Stalinist Russia.

Many of the jokes had to do with the Stakhanovites--workers who achieved supernaturally high production levels, becoming a legion of pseudo-celebrities.  Often Stakhanovites would get special privileges and gifts.
Four Stakhanovite milkmaids were getting prizes at a public ceremony.  The first got a radio receiver.  The second got a gramophone.  The third got a bicycle.  Finally the fourth came onstage, the leading pig-tender of the whole kolkhoz.  The audience held its breath.  Wiping tears from his eyes, the kolkhoz director shook her hand with great pride.  "I present to you the collected works of our beloved comrade Stalin!"  Silence.  A voice peeped up from the back of the hall.  "Just what the bitch deserves."
Others had to do with the tension that came from the suddenness of soviet-style repression.
"Did you hear that Petrov's been shot?"
"Nonsense!  That's Petrov himself walking on the other side of the street!"
"Yes, he hasn't heard yet."
Fear might make us try to stifle our laughter, but a few snickers always get out.  Here's another.
1937.  Night.  A ring at the door.  The husband answers it nervously.  He returns to his wife, glowing with relief.  "Don't worry, darling.  It is only bandits who have come to rob us."
Finally, jokes can offer us a way to imagine hope in a hopeless situation.
A riddle:  Stalin, the entire Politburo, and their whole entourage are on a steamer going down the Volga.  If the steamer were to sink, who would be saved?
Answer:  The peoples of the USSR.
My sources today were Sheila Fitzpatrick's Everyday Stalinism and Political Humour Under Stalin, edited by Michael Brandenburger.