30 December 2017

"Poison in Jest" and "The Bowstring Murders" (John Dickson Carr, 1932-33)

Continuing my re-reading and reviewing of the mysteries of John Dickson Carr, we move now from the Henri Bencolin novels to the "other detectives."

In the 1930s, Carr seems to be searching for a proper identity for his detective.  He leaves behind Henri Bencolin, and in the space of the next five years will test out five other personas - ending up, of course, with his iconic Gideon Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale classics.

"Poison In Jest" introduces Rossiter, a clownish but insightful problem-solver, who incorporates an element of humor that seems to serve as a counterbalance to the grimness of this novel (this "goofiness" quality will be developed more fully by Carr with his later detectives).  This is Rossiter's only novel.

As always I won't offer any spoilers regarding the plot.  It involves a deeply dysfunctional family, resulting in serial poisonings in a country estate.  Frankly, it's a rather routine mystery story, solved mostly by analysis of psychology of the family rather than by analysis of the clues.  One saving grace for the story was that the malefactor was the very last character I would have suspected of being the murderer.

So we turn now to the language and the "things you wouldn't know" material in the book.  There were not many clever turns of phrase, although I liked "It had that air of secrecy belonging always to the rooms of those who live alone; of small trinkets jealously massed..."
"I can see him, gaunt and smelling of bay rum, stalk the brown library while he talked."  [Bay rum is an aftershave lotion made by distilling leaves of bayberry with rum.]

"Through them would always blow the wind of stagecoaches, and the note of the key-bugle from the great days of the National Highway..."  [from Britannica: "In 1810 Joseph Halliday patented the key bugle, or Royal Kent bugle, with six brass keys (five closed, one open-standing) fitted to the once-coiled bugle to give it a complete diatonic (seven-note) scale. It became a leading solo instrument in military bands until replaced by the cornet.]

"She was flustered, trying to arrange her hair unnecessarily and acutely conscious of her swollen eyelids.  She tried to grow arch.  "Imagine seeing you, of all people!" ["cunning, sly, roguish, mischievous" - not sure how the word came to mean that].
"...you may see barges crawling on an oily Danube, where the shields of Rome came, and Bonaparte's sharp-clawed eagles, and hair-and-steel Crusaders moving under scarlet crosses to the Black Sea." [I have absolutely no idea what he's referring to.  Anyone?]
"A brand stirred uneasily in the fireplace; rustled, and fell." [A word one doesn't see much nowadays since monster-hunts have gone out of fashion, obviously referring to a burning piece of wood.  Apparently the word "brand" is related to "burn" and a trademark "brand" may have been something originally etched into products].

"Holding out on you?" yelped Reed.  "Me? Why, damn your pictures, Joe Sargent, you've got a nerve..." [In the context of the story this exclamation had nothing to do with actual pictures.  I presume it was an expostulation briefly popular in the 1930s, maybe related to some movie or story.]

"This naturally led to a discussion of the Borgia..." [This phrase was repeated the same way a couple times in this novel about poisoning.  Interesting that it's not "the Borgias" but "the Borgia" singular.  It clearly implies family, but one doesn't refer to "the Kennedy" or "the Roosevelt."]

"In the embrasure of a high window..." [In fortification, an opening through which missiles may be discharged, from French "to widen."  The term has been used in dentistry to refer to the space between teeth.]

"The reply was beribboned, but it was none the less a whip.  For the first time (and heaven knows why) he had really infuriated the county detective." [unusual use of the term]

"I stumbled across the room, struck a match, and lighted the three mantles in the chandelier." [I had to look this up.  "Mantle" in general is something that covers (from Latin for "cloak.")  In a chandelier, a mantle would be an incombustible cover for a gas jet. So I guess technically you're not lighting the mantle...]

"'Have you heard the argument: Is there no offence in't?" -- 'No, no, they do but jest, poison in jest; no offence i' the world.'"  [I found the citation in Hamlet, Act III, Scene 2]
HAMLET Madam, how like you this play?
QUEEN The lady doth protest too much, methinks.
HAMLET O, but she’ll keep her word.
KING Have you heard the argument? Is there no offense in ’t?
HAMLET No, no, they do but jest, poison in jest. No offense i’ th’ world.
"...the judge was on his uppers." [new to me, but I found it as the last definition of upper in my dictionary: "Informal. reduced to poverty"]

Next is The Bowstring Murders (with this work Carr introduced his alternative pseudonym of Carter Dickson).  Another new detective - John Gaunt - makes his appearance and then as far as I remember, will make his exit stage left never to reappear.  The plot involves a series of murders in an old family estate (castle).  A much unloved man is found in his armory with a crossbow bowstring knotted about his neck.  Then a second death, and a third.  Carr uses the novel to have his protagonist discuss some of the tricks of the sleuth/novelist trade - lying and detecting lies, hiding things, etc.  One thing that is lacking is a floor plan of the castle, since the solution depends on where various rooms are.

The first time I read this book, I wrote on the flyleaf "easy," but it wasn't easy this second time twenty years later.  I was not able to predict the method or the motive, and the murderer was not among my first three choices.  *sigh*

So - on to the language and things-you-wouldn't-know:
This phrase has a certain truth to it: "The clock boomed, and went on leisurely beating out the hour of nine.  They all listened to the strokes - having the dim idea, as people will, that it may hit more than the indicated number."

Billycock hat. ["This was a popular nickname for the Bowler hat in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The name, and indeed the hat, originated in England at Holkham in Norfolk. It  was intended as a practical version of the top hat for use by gamekeepers on the estate."]

Ulster. [The Ulster is a Victorian working daytime overcoat, with a cape and sleeves. It is often seen in period productions of Victorian novels.]

"glass cases of racks containing swords - broadsword, claymore, basket-hilt, estoc, schiavona, and cup-hilted rapier..." [The claymore was a medieval two-handed sword, the word being an anglicization of Gaelic for "great sword." The estoc is a longsword designed to fight against armor.  Schiavona was Renaissance, name derived from Slavs.]

"... the Norman chain-mail and the Gothic plate, the tilting-heaume and the morion..." [Heaume = helm(et).  Morion also a helmet]

"The walls were very thick, and the windows had their mullioned panes stamped with the Rayle arms..." [A mullion is a vertical division between divisions of a window or door. "In Gothic architecture windows became larger and arrangements of multiple mullions and openings were used, both for structure and ornament. This is particularly the case in Gothic churches where stained glass is set in lead and ferramenta between the stone mullions. Mullioned windows of a simpler form continued to be used into the Renaissance and various Revival styles."]

"a filigreed decanter of whiskey" [Delicate metalwork, word from the Latin filium=thread.  Pix here.]

"a suit of what is called half-armor, of the middle seventeenth century, extending not far below the waist in steel skirts called vambrances" [web page here, though they appear to be more associated with arms than with legs]

"... a shaken Mephistopheles, with hair as heavy as a casque..." [An open, conical helmet, or any helmet-shaped head-covering, from Spanish word for helmet]

"plashing of a waterfall" [used several times in place of "splash."  My dictionary suggests the word is "probably of imit. orig."]

"But I want you to be sure without it, because it might merely be suggestion, and then I should be no forrader." [Meaning in context "no further forward." Not in my Random House dictionary or in my OED.  I've seen the word used in this context in other novels, usually spoken by an uneducated person but in this story that's not the case.] 

"He poured out a drink, and at Sir George's frown he held up the glass to him, said, "Slog Tabs!" and took a deep pull." [I think this was repeated a second time in the book, so it's not a typo.  The "Tabs" is capitalized.  Google has no citations.  It probably is a colloquial (and transient) toast from the 1930s.  Has anyone heard of it???] [Addendum - multiple ideas and a likely explanation in the Comments to this post].

"I was trimming the bart at billiards."  [I can't find anything]

"Let's avoid the suggestion of a bally row, shall we?" [all I can find is that it might be British slang euphemism for "bloody."]

"With one gloved hand he dived behind the body, and produced a small revolver with a goat's foot trigger..." [Google associates goat's foot with crossbows, but not with guns]

29 December 2017

New Year's greetings 2018 from TYWKIWDBI and its readers

"Wishing you all Health, Wealth and Happiness in 2018. Always find the diamond in the mud." 
 - The Slide Guy

"Happy xMas and Felicitous New Year! Remember in this new year that, 
'when in danger or in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout!'"  - Dutch Galaxy

"Wishing everyone well- no matter where, or how or who you are..." - Stan B.

New Years greetings to TYWKIWDBI followers from Soapy and the rest of us @herbariasoap
 - Ken

 "Above all, Enjoy life, not just the holidays. It's all we have for now and later." - MuddyValley

"New year's greetings from Flippism is the Key!" - Professor Batty

To a MUCHMUCH Better 2018 for all of us! You (and The Minnesotastan)are my people! - Pamela

Spread your wings and fly high this New Year! - Emily

Bought it in '89. Served me well while I was teaching in northern BC...
And now this year I will be retiring... Happy New Year! - Mr. Hogan

Wishing everyone good health and the ability to make the world a better place,
through whatever talents you may have. - Ninabi

"On behalf of RobsWebstek I wish all the readers of TYWKIWDBI a peaceful and healthy 2018!" 
- Rob From Amersfoort

May 2018 be all that you wish for, and a better year for us all.- Miss Cellania

Happy New Year! Count me in for making the world a better place.
I'll do my best on my end.  How about you? - Revashane

May you see what you look at, and, look at what you see! - Skeetmotis

Happy New Year! Now go out and look at some art. - Brett Waller

Happy new year from California, where the weather keeps the roses blooming even in winter.
- PlumTreeCastle

Hello and Happy New Year from a cold Ohio guy desperately seeking Florida.- wjs

Have a sweet New Year! - Heather Hutchinson/ahnkadragon

From me and my extended family to the readers of TYWKIWDBI - best wishes for 2018!
- Minnesotastan

22 December 2017

And now we are 10

It was ten years ago today that I started writing TYWKIWDBI.  It's deeply ironic that I created the blog in an effort to save myself time (so I wouldn't have to be emailing interesting links to family and friends).  I absolutely didn't have any vision at that time of continuing the project for a decade.

There are now over 14,000 posts in the blog, over 50,000 comments, and about 1500 followers.  Blogger says TYWKIWDBI has experienced 23,000,000 pageviews.

When I started blogging in 2007, the word "blog" was about 10 years old, so I wasn't a pioneer.  Just as my birth was part of the famed baby boom, my blog was part of a blog bloom in that era:
The early 2000s were a period of growth for blogs. In 1999, according to a list compiled by Jesse James Garrett, there were 23 blogs on the internet. By the middle of 2006, there were 50 million blogs according to Technorati.
In 2008, when Technorati was still tracking and ranking blogs, they noted that out of 133 million blogs, only 7.4 million had been updated in the previous 4 months.  The rest were effectively dead.  It has been suggested that most blogs have an audience of one person.  By 2011 the number of blogs had mushroomed to an estimated 158,000,000.  I don't know whether anyone has bothered to track or estimate the number since then.


My "ten-year tenure" is not particularly a reflection of any great accomplishment - it is simply a matter of not quitting.  The main support group for polio survivors has adopted the motto "We're Still Here" to remind the public that even though the disease has fallen out of the headlines, the victims from previous epidemics are still alive.   I would echo that in terms of the blog to affirm that "I'm still here."

And I intend to stay a while longer.  With some changes.

Back in 2013 Jason Kottke, one of the doyens of blogging, averred in an op-ed piece for Nieman Lab that the traditional blog was dying.
Sometime in the past few years, the blog died. In 2014, people will finally notice. Sure, blogs still exist, many of them are excellent, and they will go on existing and being excellent for many years to come. But the function of the blog, the nebulous informational task we all agreed the blog was fulfilling for the past decade, is increasingly being handled by a growing number of disparate media forms that are blog-like but also decidedly not blogs.

Instead of blogging, people are posting to Tumblr, tweeting, pinning things to their board, posting to Reddit, Snapchatting, updating Facebook statuses, Instagramming, and publishing on Medium. In 1997, wired teens created online diaries, and in 2004 the blog was king. Today, teens are about as likely to start a blog (over Instagramming or Snapchatting) as they are to buy a music CD. Blogs are for 40-somethings with kids...

Over the past 16 years, the blog format has evolved, had social grafted onto it, and mutated into Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest and those new species have now taken over. No biggie, that’s how technology and culture work.
In a companion piece at Kottke, he indicated that he was changing as well:
Through various blogrolls (remember those?) and RSS readers, I used to keep up with hundreds of blogs every day and over a thousand every week. Now I read just two blogs daily... I check my RSS reader only occasionally, and sometimes not for weeks. I rely mainly on Twitter, Facebook, Digg, Hacker News, and Stellar for keeping up with news and information…that’s where most of the people I know do their “blogging”. I still read lots of blog posts, but only when they’re interesting enough to pop up on the collective radar of those I follow…and increasingly those posts are on Medium, Facebook, or Tumblr.

I'm going to be evolving too.  TYWKIWDBI has changed gradually over these ten years, with minor tweaks of the format and alterations in the focus of the content.  I've particularly enjoyed engaging readers to generate content, especially with my series on stonework of the Civilian Conservation Corps and the surprisingly interesting "Show Us Your Bookcase" series.

At some time in the coming year, after certain details get worked out, I'm going to undertake a new project.  I hope to be posting details in the spring or early summer.

I will continue TYWKIWDBI, because as I said on my fifth blogiversary -
I still struggle with motivation to keep blogging because of the seemingly unending distractions of real life.  But I do get a great deal of satisfaction from the depth and breadth of knowledge, the sophistication, and the almost always unfailing courtesy of readers who comment on the posts.  I learn things, I teach things, and every now and then I get help with my car or my computer for free.  Such a deal.

The embedded images are screencaps from a Google Image search of images previously posted on TYWKIWDBI.   Oldtimers who want to take a trip down Memory Lane and newbies who are wondering what they have missed may want to do the search and click on some of the results.

To access the images, go to Google Images, type in

 site: tywkiwdbi.blogspot.com 

and hit return.  Warning - following those images to their source posts may keep you busy longer than you intended.

And now it's time for Christmas.  Back to the blog next week.

Planning a "collective New Year's greeting card" to fellow readers.

I did this is December of 2009 as a Christmas card, then revived the concept in 2015 as a New Year's endeavor, which is what it will be this year.

Here are the instructions on how to participate:
1) In the comment section of this post, give me a link to a photo (or a bit of artwork or other image) that you have in your blog, or in your Flickr photostream or in some other online storage site. Don't email me the photo - just give the link and I'll go there and copy/repaste it.

The picture can be of you, or your family, or your computer, or your cat, or whatever - it doesn't matter.  It should belong to you (not a commercial image with copyright issues).

2) Also in your comment write a brief (25 words max) greeting, directed to the other readers and visitors.

This is to be a greeting to other readers, not a comment to me or about TYWKIWDBI.

3) Sign with the avatar name you use in commenting here, or in your blog, or your real name if you wish. This is not a venue to be used by anonymous people.  I totally recognize that a number of regular readers here prefer to leave comments anonymously - which is fine - but this greeting card is for identifiable people.
Note - as various trolls have realized and bitched endlessly about, for this blog I am the "autocrat at the breakfast table" and reserve absolute right to control the content.  For this venture I may edit comments for length and trim pictures if they are too big.  I may limit the number of entries if there are too many, and I will absolutely vaporize anything that hints of spam or might be offensive to other readers.

Addendum:  DONE (final result here).

21 December 2017

The Yule cat

The Yule Cat (Icelandic: Jólakötturinn or Jólaköttur) is a monster from Icelandic folklore, a huge and vicious cat said to lurk about the snowy countryside during Christmas time and eat people who have not received any new clothes to wear before Christmas Eve. The Yule Cat has become associated with other figures from Icelandic folklore as the house pet of the giantess Grýla and her sons, the Yule Lads.

The threat of being eaten by the Yule Cat was used by farmers as an incentive for their workers to finish processing the autumn wool before Christmas. The ones who took part in the work would be rewarded with new clothes, but those who did not would get nothing and thus would be preyed upon by the monstrous cat.
See also the troll cat.

How to defeat the earthlings

Cixin Liu's science-fiction novel, The Three-Body Problem, won the Chinese sci-fi Galaxy award in 2006, and then in translation won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2015 - the first work ever to do so in translation.

I won't review the book, which I found a bit disappointing, but I wanted to share one excerpt.  The novel is about "first contact" with an alien society, with emphasis on the "dark forest theory" that any civilization advanced enough to make contact is a priori a threat.  In this book, the first of a trilogy, both earthlings and the aliens are preparing for an encounter with one another.  Here is the initial alien strategy:
The princeps said, "What we must do next is contain the progress of science on Earth.  Luckily, as soon as we received the first messages from Earth, we began to develop plans to do so.  As of now, we've discovered a favorable condition for realizing these plans...

Given a time gap of forty thousand hours, the strategic value of any traditional tactics of war or terror is insignificant, and they can recover from them.  To effectively contain a civilization's development and disarm it across such a long span of time, there is only one way: kill its science... In addition to highlighting the negative effects of progress, we'll also attempt to use a series of 'miracles' to construct an illusory universe that cannot be explained by the logic of science... Then unscientific ways of thinking will dominate scientific thinking among human intellectuals, and lead to the collapse of the entire scientific system of thought..."
What an outrageous concept - conquer the earth by steering earthlings away from the fundamental principles of science.  How ridiculous - no advanced earth society would allow itself to be deluded in such a fashion....

Wait a minute...

20 December 2017

Divertimento #141

A gifdump today because it's faster than a regular linkdump (I just received a game of Civilization V as an early present and it's a major timesuck).

A man jumps across a street.

Behold the Golden Pheasant (awesome color).

The beauty of an ocean wave.

The port of Amsterdam during a "sail festival."

Street art created with hydrophobic materials.

Ferrero gears.

This is one man in a costume.


He pushed when he should have pulled.

Not sure how to describe this.

How an airplane escape slide inflates.

Machine vs. people.

This machine makes rolls of turf.

This development is called Interlace (it's in Singapore).

This competition is called "bouldering."

This is what happens when you wrap a watermelon with rubberbands.

Another invisible box.

During the California wildfires, this man stopped his car to rescue a rabbit.

A wedding oops.

Tornado wrecks the inside of this building.

Candy floss maker loves his job.

Some people are not afraid of heights.  Some people are.

The fine control of a glassmaker's torch.

Lacemaking with bobbins.

Red stripes on a white cane have a special meaning.  Good to know.


Safe at home.

Wrestling judge on the move.

Football catch of the year.

From the tumbling world championships, 2015.

Pets and animals:

Dog rescues cat.

Cat rescues a puppy.

A golden retriever protects her puppy.

Cape gannets diving.

Amazingly camouflaged bird (common potoo)

Canada Goose stands its ground against cows.

Lion very happy to see a friend.

Lion cub learns about floating vegetation.

Bird swallows a fish.  A large fish.

An octopus instantly matches the color of the floor of a boat.

Dog hugs his owner after surgery.

Dog at a waterpark.

And I have to finish with the worst chocolate fountain ever.

Today's embedded images are photos of seeds, from a gallery at The Washington Post.  Identities and credits at the link.

19 December 2017

15 December 2017


A Taraxacum officinale (dandelion) cross section showing curved stigma with pollen, magnified 25x.

Honorable Mention in the 2017 Nikon Small World photography competition. 
Credit: Dr. Robert Markus, Nottingham, United Kingdom

Facadism explained

Facadism, façadism (or façadomy) refers to an architectural and construction practice where the facade of a building was designed or constructed separately from the rest of a building. More often it refers to the practice where only the facade of a building is preserved with new buildings erected behind or around it.

There are aesthetic and historical reasons for preserving building facades. Facadism can be the response to the interiors of a building becoming unusable, such as being damaged by fire. In developing areas, however, the practice is sometimes used by property developers seeking to redevelop a site as a compromise to preservationists who wish to preserve buildings of historical or aesthetic interest.
Photo via the Pics subreddit, where it is noted that the same procedure was undertaken with the White House in 1949-1952.

"In June 1948 a leg of Margaret Truman's piano crashed through the floor in her second floor sitting room and through the ceiling of the Family Dining Room below. Investigators found the floor boards to have rotted, the main floor beam was split completely through, and the ceiling below had dropped 18 inches. The investigators determined that the west end of the Second Floor was sinking...

In October the ceiling of the East Room began to collapse and required wood supports. The structure under the Main Stair was found to be crumbling. The president's bathtub had begun sinking into the floor. The investigators discovered that the foundations of the interior walls supporting the upper floors and roof were all but non-existent. As they sank into the ground, the interior walls and floors were pulling away from the exterior walls leaving large gaps. They determined that the interior of the house was sinking and in danger of collapsing inwards; the entire mansion was unsafe..."
No. 10 Downing Street also had to be extensively rebuilt.

White House image credit Abbie Rowe - U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain

Lutefisk - "It's a acquired taste"

Lutefisk was created as a way to preserve fish, prior to refrigeration. The cod was dried on outdoor racks. Then, to make it expand, it was soaked in water and then in lye, which was made out of wood ash. Lye expands the fish to an even bigger size than when it was dried, and gives lutefisk its characteristic jelly-like quality...

"Lutefisk sales, ever since I started [in 1995] has dropped down, I would say, anywhere from 5 to 8 percent a year," said Chris Dorff, president of the Olsen Fish Company in Minneapolis, the only high-volume producer of lutefisk left in the country.

Still, the dinners persist, and Dorff said the churches he sells to report that attendance has held firm — there's just a lot less lutefisk stomached. Dorff said he used to plan a pound of fish per person. Now he cuts that in half.
More information in an article at the Minnesota Public Radio website.  And if you think lutefisk sounds disgusting, remember at least it's not kiviaq.

Kiviaq - auks fermented in sealskins

Here are excerpts from a report in the BBC's Food Blog in 2010:
The delicacy is created by first preparing a seal skin: all the meat is removed and only a thick layer of fat remains. The skin is then sewn into a bag shape, which is stuffed with 300-500 little auk birds. Once full and airtight, the skin is sewn up and seal fat is smeared over all over the join, which acts as a repellent to flies. The seal skin is then left under a pile of rocks to ferment for a minimum of three months to a maximum of 18 months.

As winter arrives and hunting for other game becomes difficult due to the darkness and unsafe ice, Ikuo and his family look forward to digging out the kiviaq and sharing it with their family and friends. They always eat it outside as the smell is so overpowering that it would linger inside the house for weeks. The seal fat helps to both preserve and tenderise the bird meat so it can be eaten raw and whole, bones and all. It was quite a sight to see the family holding bird’s legs in their teeth and stripping off the feathers before chowing down on large parts of the bird.
And here's a video of the auks being cleaned for consumption -

The knee-jerk reaction is that the Inuit are comsuming "rotten" meat, but that is certainly an oversimplification.

When kiviaq is prepared, the meat of the seal was removed, leaving only a fatty bag; then the BBC description describes the sealskin as "airtight," and the Wikipedia entry says "as much air as possible is removed from the seal skin, which is then sewn up and sealed with grease, with a large rock placed on top to keep the air content low."

So what the Inuit are doing is storing the bird carcasses in what effectively becomes an anaerobic environment, and the birds would then undergo fermentation.  The other variable must be the subarctic climate of Greenland.  At Food Lorists I found a comment that the kiviaq is buried in permafrost before being compressed by the rock, so perhaps the low ambient temperatures modify or inhibit the bacterial flora in some way to minimize the risk of the production of botulinum toxin.

This is most interesting way to prepare food.  It's probably the end result of several millennia of trial and error (the latter leaving behind a smattering of dead Inuit).  If someone reading this blog can explicate more on the food chemistry (or find relevant links in this regard, I - and other readers - would be most appreciative).

Top photo and video via Oddity Central and Neatorama

Reposted from 2012 to accompany the adjacent post about lutefisk.

Creative vandalism

Apparently there is a cologne called "Sauvage."  Via the Funny subreddit.

Jólabókaflóð - the Icelandic Christmas book flood

With around 330.000 inhabitants, Iceland is certainly one of the smallest book markets in the world. Nevertheless, it boosts one of the highest rates of books per capita (3.5 books every 1,000 inhabitants!) and Icelanders are famous to be a nation of bookworms. According to a study conducted by Bifröst University in 2013, 50% of them read at least 8 books per year, while an impressive 93% of them read at least one. What is more, according to BBC Magazine, one in ten Icelanders will publish a book in their life!..

Jólabókaflóð refers to the Icelandic tradition of publishing the majority of new books during the weeks before Christmas. I guess this tradition can be traced back to when the variety of goods available in Iceland was very limited and therefore opting for a book as a Christmas present was a good bet...

In 2014, each Icelander bought on average 2.1 books as Christmas presents, and received 1.2 books as a gift!..

555 monthly salaries are paid every year to authors of fiction/children’s literature from the government through the Icelandic Artists’ Salaries.
Image cropped for size from the original at Jolabokaflod, where it is noted that "During the festive season, gifts are opened on 24 December and, by tradition, everyone reads the books they have been given straight away, often while drinking hot chocolate or alcohol-free Christmas ale called jólabland."


This infographic compares the market cap of the Dutch East India Company at the height of tulipmania to modern corporations.

Image cropped for size from a larger one at Market Capitalist.

12 December 2017

Audubon describes a profusion of passenger pigeons in early America - updated

In the autumn of 1813, I left my house at Henderson, on the banks of the Ohio River, on my way to Louisville... The air was literally filled with pigeons; the light of noonday was obscured as by an eclipse; the dung fell in spots, not unlike melting flakes of snow, and the continued buzz of wings had a tendency to lull my senses to repose.

Before sunset I reached Louisville, distant from Hardinsburgh fifty-five miles. The pigeons were still passing in undiminished numbers and continued to do so for three days in succession. The people were all in arms. The banks of the Ohio were crowded with men and boys incessantly shooting at the pilgrims, which there flew lower as they passed the river. Multitudes were thus destroyed...

It may not, perhaps, be out of place to attempt an estimate of the number of pigeons contained in one of those mighty flocks, and of the quantity of food daily consumed by its members. The inquiry will tend to show the astonishing bounty of the great Author of Nature in providing for the wants of His creatures. Let us take a column of one mile in breadth, which is far below the average size, and suppose it passing over us without interruption for three hours, at the rate mentioned above of one mile in the minute. This will give us a parallelogram of 180 miles by one, covering 180 square miles. Allowing two pigeons to the square yard, we have 1,115,136,000 pigeons in one flock. As every pigeon daily consumes fully half a pint of food, the quantity necessary for supplying this vast multitude must be 8,712,000 bushels per day...

Let us now, kind reader, inspect their place of nightly rendezvous... The dung lay several inches deep, covering the whole extent of the roosting place, like a bed of snow... As the period of their arrival approached, their foes anxiously prepared to receive them. Some were furnished with iron pots containing sulphur, others with torches of pine knots, many with poles, and the rest with guns.. Suddenly there burst forth a general cry of “Here they come!” The noise which they made, though yet distant, reminded me of a hard gale at sea passing through the rigging of a close-reefed vessel. As the birds arrived and passed over me, I felt a current of air that surprised me. Thousands were soon knocked down by the pole men. The birds continued to pour in. The fires were lighted, and a magnificent as well as wonderful and almost terrifying sight presented itself. The pigeons, arriving by thousands, alighted everywhere, one above another, until solid masses as large as hogsheads were formed on the branches all round. Here and there the perches gave way under the weight with a crash and, falling to the ground, destroyed hundreds of the birds beneath, forcing down the dense groups with which every stick was loaded. It was a scene of uproar and confusion. I found it quite useless to speak, or even to shout to those persons who were nearest to me. Even the reports of the guns were seldom heard, and I was made aware of the firing only by seeing the shooters reloading.

No one dared venture within the line of devastation. The hogs had been penned up in due time, the picking up of the dead and wounded being left for the next morning’s employment. The pigeons were constantly coming, and it was past midnight before I perceived a decrease in the number of those that arrived... Toward the approach of day, the noise in some measure subsided, long before objects were distinguishable, the pigeons began to move off in a direction quite different from that in which they had arrived the evening before, and at sunrise all that were able to fly had disappeared. The howlings of the wolves now reached our ears, and the foxes, lynxes, cougars, bears, raccoons, opossums, and polecats were seen sneaking off, while eagles and hawks of different species, accompanied by a crowd of vultures, came to supplant them and enjoy their share of the spoil.

It was then that the authors of all this devastation began their entry among the dead, the dying, and the mangled. The pigeons were picked up and piled in heaps, until each had as many as he could possibly dispose of, when the hogs were let loose to feed on the remainder.

Persons unacquainted with these birds might naturally conclude that such dreadful havoc would soon put an end to the species. But I have satisfied myself by long observation that nothing but the gradual diminution of our forests can accomplish their decrease.
The latter proved to be a prescient comment.  The last known passenger pigeon died in 1914, as a result of combined predation and habitat loss.

Text excerpted from Audobon's Ornithological Biography, via Lapham's Quarterly.  Image source uncertain, via The Scientist.

Addendum: Reposted from 2013 to add some salient paragraphs from an essay in Harper's Magazine (November 2015) entitled "Rethinking Extinction: Toward a less gloomy environmentalism" -
The birds that most of us eat today are chickens — lots of them — and turkeys, with the occasional duck, quail, or pheasant thrown in. So it is something of a shock to remember that, not so long ago, Americans were happy to eat just about anything with wings. An 1867 inventory of fowl available in the game markets of New York City and Boston featured not only wild turkeys, partridges, and grouse but also robins, great blue herons, sandpipers, meadowlarks, blue jays, and snow buntings.
In season, passenger pigeons were especially plentiful. Alexander Wilson reported they were sometimes eaten for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The pigeon potpie — sometimes garnished with pigeon feet stuck in the middle — was common fare in colonial America. Passenger pigeons were preserved for out-of-season consumption by being salted, pickled in apple cider, smoked to make jerky, or sealed in casks with molten fat.

According to Schorger, the birds were “a boon to the poor”: in 1754, a half dozen sold in New York for a penny, a sum equivalent to thirty cents today. In times of surplus, they were fed to hogs.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, railroads had connected the cities of the eastern seaboard to the great nesting colonies of the Midwest. Word of the flocks’ locations spread rapidly thanks to another new technology, the telegraph, which allowed professional market hunters, as well as local amateurs, to converge on a site.

The most common way to kill passenger pigeons was to shoot them. Because the birds clustered so densely, no great skill was required to blast them from trees or out of the sky with a shotgun. Nets were widely used as well. Trappers broadcast grain and deployed captive “stool pigeons” to attract the birds, enabling them to snare hundreds at once. Captured pigeons could be killed by crushing their skulls between the thumb and forefinger, though, as Schorger notes, “It was difficult to continue this method without fatigue when many birds were handled.” Some hunters used specially designed pliers to break the birds’ necks. Others used their teeth...
Continued at the link.

Psychopathic children

Excerpts from an interesting read in The Atlantic:
Starting at age 6, Samantha began drawing pictures of murder weapons: a knife, a bow and arrow, chemicals for poisoning, a plastic bag for suffocating. She tells me that she pretended to kill her stuffed animals.
“You were practicing on your stuffed animals?,” I ask her.
She nods.
“How did you feel when you were doing that to your stuffed animals?”
“Why did it make you feel happy?”
“Because I thought that someday I was going to end up doing it on somebody.”
“Did you ever try?”
“I choked my little brother.”..

When Samantha got a little older, she would pinch, trip, or push her siblings and smile if
they cried. She would break into her sister’s piggy bank and rip up all the bills. Once, when Samantha was 5, Jen scolded her for being mean to one of her siblings. Samantha walked upstairs to her parents’ bathroom and washed her mother’s contact lenses down the drain. “Her behavior wasn’t impulsive,” Jen says. “It was very thoughtful, premeditated.”...

One bitter December day in 2011, Jen was driving the children along a winding road near their home. Samantha had just turned 6. Suddenly Jen heard screaming from the back seat, and when she looked in the mirror, she saw Samantha with her hands around the throat of her 2-year-old sister, who was trapped in her car seat. Jen separated them, and once they were home, she pulled Samantha aside.
“What were you doing?,” Jen asked.
“I was trying to choke her,” Samantha said.
“You realize that would have killed her? She would not have been able to breathe. She would have died.”
“I know.”
“What about the rest of us?”
“I want to kill all of you.”
The article continues with extended discussion of the role of the amygdala and the possible biology of the disorder.  I thought this was interesting:
The best physiological indicator of which young people will become violent criminals as adults is a low resting heart rate, says Adrian Raine of the University of Pennsylvania. Longitudinal studies that followed thousands of men in Sweden, the U.K., and Brazil all point to this biological anomaly. “We think that low heart rate reflects a lack of fear, and a lack of fear could predispose someone to committing fearless criminal-violence acts,” Raine says. Or perhaps there is an “optimal level of physiological arousal,” and psychopathic people seek out stimulation to increase their heart rate to normal. “For some kids, one way of getting this arousal jag in life is by shoplifting, or joining a gang, or robbing a store, or getting into a fight.” Indeed, when Daniel Waschbusch, a clinical psychologist at Penn State Hershey Medical Center, gave the most severely callous and unemotional children he worked with a stimulative medication, their behavior improved.
Continue reading at The Atlantic.

"Good wine needs no bush."

That aphorism was cited in the movie "Iris" (excellent, btw...) and was unfamiliar to me.  It was not unfamiliar to Edward deVere:
“If it be true that good wine needs no bush,
'tis true that a good play needs no epilogue;
yet to good wine they do use good bushes,
and good plays prove the better by the help of good epilogues.”
                                 ― William Shakespeare, As You Like It
The Oxford University Press Blog expands upon the subject:
As early as 1873, Walter W. Skeat wrote authoritatively (as was his wont) that bush in the saying good wine needs no bush “is well known to be that which was tied to the end of an ale-stake.” Perhaps so (though we will see that what is well-known may not be indubitable), but there was a Latin proverb sounding suspiciously like its English analog: “Vino vendibilis suspensa hedera [“ivy”] non (or nihil) opus est.” As Shakespeare’s Taverner explains at the close of As You Like It: “Wine that is saleable and good needeth no bushe or garland of yvie to be hanged before.” This aphorism, in the Latin form cited above, has been attributed to Erasmus. In any case, it is “modern” and apparently had no currency in England before Shakespeare’s or at least Camden’s time...

I would like to refer to a note by R. R. Sharpe in Athenæum/2 for 1888, p. 260. In a document going back to 1350, he found evidence that it had been customary to place a bunch or bush of rosemary or other herb in a drinking vessel, either to give a particular flavor to the beverage or, as he remarked, to disguise the inferior quality of the wine. “Of bush in this sense it is clear that good wine stands in no need.” Sharpe’s conjecture sounds convincing (and, if so, the traditional reference to the pole is the product of folk etymology).
I favor the sense that "bush" refers to "enhancement" rather than "advertisement," but it's a matter of little import.  More at the link.

Pic: rosemary in white sangria with blackberries.  See also in champagne.

All the horizontal lines are identical

They just look different from one another.  Some look to be continuous sine-wave curves, while others resemble staggered split-rail fences.  But they all have the same shape.  The optical illusion arises from the way they are colored.

The illusion was developed by psychology professor Kohske Takahashi of Chukyo University.  Via Neatorama.

Haircuts as political statements

Haircuts/hairdos, along with clothing and makeup, have always served as tools by which anyone can declare (or disguise) their social status and worldview.  In an article at Buzzfeed, a hair stylist explains how she helps men look less fascist.
We love our race, the alt-right began to loudly proclaim. They also love their undercuts — the “fashy” look, as fascists like to call it. But many others have loved the undercut before them.

When the undercut grew popular in the German empire ruled by Prussian kings in the late 1800s, it was known as der Inselhaarschnitt — the island cut, in reference to the patch of hair sitting atop a shaved head. English street gangs, like the Peaky Blinders in Birmingham, were soon wearing the same style, and it made it to the United States on the heads of working-class European immigrants.

As Hitler’s Third Reich rose to power, its members embraced the undercut as a way to connect with the military success of the Prussian armies that came before them. Later, it became popular in the US Armed Forces, but in the wake of World War II it became associated with wartime violence, and European men chose looser, short hairstyles to counter the military connection.

It resurfaced in black barbershops, where fades and military cuts transformed into edgy sharp styles. The hi-top fade emerged in part out of the undercut in those barbershops during the 1980s and early '90s, wrote Quincy Mills in Cutting along the Color Line: Black Barbers and Barber Shops in America, and was most popularized by the coolest of the cool, Grace Jones.

What’s fascinating is how one haircut has signified so many different things, across different historical moments and different constituencies. As a queer stylist, it’s a cut I saw in militaristic homoerotic photography in the 1990s and fashion magazines in the 2000s.
More at the link.  Comments closed here; if you wish, you can contribute to the snarky miscommunications at the Buzzfeed thread.

"...we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric..."

"I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works. The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we’ve created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth. You are being programmed"
I pretty much agree with this guy (he was one of the original Facebook executives).  Worth listening from the 21:20 mark to about the 25:30 mark or so.

Ummm... no.

Bath and Body Works markets their "Fresh Balsam" scented candles with a birchbark-patterned jar.

Photo via the Minnesota subreddit.

"Implacable. Inexorable. It WILL win."

"Iris" was released in 2001, but I saw it for the first time last evening.  It's really not so much a biography of Iris Murdoch as it is a lamentation on the ravages of Alzheimer's.  Anyone who has a family member with this affliction will appreciate the forthright but sensitive treatment of the subject in this film.

10 December 2017

Marcescence is the secret to squirrels' nests

I've blogged on several occasions about squirrels' nests ("dreys").  At our latitude they are a prominent feature of the suburban landscape, especially when one lives next to a woods.

I've always been intrigued at how squirrels are able to tolerate arctic cold in such a porous structure, but I've been even more fascinated by the apparent sturdiness of what would appear to be a fragile construction (dead leaves and twigs).

I wrote about marcescence about seven years ago.
"Retention of dead plant organs that normally are shed."  Etymology from Latin "marcere" = "to wither." ( I can't think of any related words).
"This phenomenon, when leaves fail to fall, is called marcescence. Most evident on all the oaks around the metro, it's an explainable but puzzling occurrence. At the petioles, the point of attachment to the tree, hormones flow back and forth. As the days shorten and temps fall, the amount of one in particular, auxin, is reduced. The area becomes sealed and a digestive enzyme helps to release the leaf. In fancy science talk, this all happens in the abscission zone."
This year I had the opportunity to test and illustrate the process.  In late summer I needed to prune some branches of a large oak tree that were shading our vegetable garden.  After I clipped off a small branch, instead of tossing it on the brush pile I brought it indoors.  In time the leaves duly shriveled, turning a dark green rather than brown.  But they didn't fall off.  Today I took it out in the back yard and held it up in front of its parent tree (photo), which dropped its leaves after a couple freezes and windy days.

After I took the photo I shook that branch vigorously.  The leaves stayed attached.  When I grabbed the leaves with my hand and squeezed, they were friable and crumbled to fragments.  So I suppose the squirrels must use fur or other padding not only for warmth but also to prevent traumatizing the leafy branches that make up the next (as suggested by the illustration here).

Related: Word for the day: dreyAnd again here.

Tropical butterfly

Gotta go get ready for football games, but I wanted to end the blogging day with a colorful image - in this case a tropical butterfly from Ecuador related to the clearwings, photo via Treehugger.

Library sign

Image cropped for size and tweaked from the original at the Mildly Interesting subreddit.

A man "comes out" regarding his cleft hand

Google Images offers a quick overview of the amazing diversity of the anomaly.


Neatorama has a small gallery of horse mustaches.

One has to assume that at one time there was an evolutionary advantage to having a mustache*.  Question for those of you who have horses - do you clip/shave these? or are they best left alone?

* I was trying to work out an etymology from "mus" = mouse + "tache" = pocket.  Didn't work.
1580s, from French moustache (15c.), from Italian mostaccio, from Medieval Greek moustakion, diminutive of Doric mystax (genitive mystakos) "upper lip, mustache," related to mastax "jaws, mouth," literally "that with which one chews," from PIE root *mendh- "to chew" (see mandible).  Borrowed earlier (1550s) as mostacchi, from the Italian word or its Spanish derivative mostacho. The plural form of this, mustachios, lingers in English. Slang shortening stache attested from 1985.
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