Friday, February 27, 2015

Fun Friday Facts #99: Foreign Accent Syndrome

I know it’s been a couple of months since I last blogged, but after two months of everyone asking, “Are you still writing your blog?” I’ve decided that yes, I am still writing my blog. So here you go.

Foreign accent syndrome (FAS) is a rare medical disorder in which the patient develops a foreign accent. The accent usually occurs as the result of a brain injury or stroke, but can also be the result of a migraine or developmental problem. Foreign accent syndrome gets its name because those listening to the affected person perceive them to have an accent, but in fact, it’s not an accent, it’s a speech impediment that kind of sounds French, Italian, Lithuanian, German, or Japanese.

Foreign accent syndrome, or FAS, was first identified in 1907 by a French neurologist, Pierre Marie. Another early case occurred in Czech in 1919. In Norway in 1941, a woman in her 30s identified only as Astrid L. sustained a head injury after being struck by shrapnel during an air raid. According to one source, she suffered “a splintered skull and exposed brain,” which is unfortunate, because I was eating whilst I wrote this. Though Astrid did recover, she woke up with a German accent in perhaps the worst time and place to have a German accent.


As a result, she was “ostracized and sometimes refused service in shops,” which is probably the best she could have hoped for under the circumstances.

Only 62 cases of foreign accent syndrome were recorded between Astrid L. in 1941 and 2009. Documented accent changes have included Spanish to Hungarian, British English to French, American English to British, and Japanese to Korean. One British woman, Kath Lockett, woke up in 2006 with an Italian accent. A Canadian woman, Sharon Campbell-Rayment, fell from a horse and developed a Scottish accent, complete with the use of “words such as ‘wee,’ ‘grand,’ ‘awright,’ and ‘brilliant.’”

 Ms. Campbell-Rayment, whose ancestors had emigrated to Canada more than a century prior, decided this turn of events was “definitely a sign” and not in any way random at all, like it actually was. She went so far as to travel to Scotland with her husband to perform genealogy research, and is writing a book about her experiences with traumatic brain injury (which has to be difficult, given she’s experienced a traumatic brain injury). Another British woman, Sarah Colwill, went into hospital with a migraine in 2010 and woke up with a Chinese accent. Hilariously, Ms. Colwill can no longer say the word can’t: “I always say ‘you can not,’ because otherwise it comes out, ‘you cunt,” she told The Huffington Post.

All jokes aside, most people (with the exception of Ms. Campbell-Rayment, who is Canadian after all), seem pretty distraught about their new accents. Ms. Lockett told the Mirror that she felt like she’d been “robbed” of her native accent, and Ms. Colwill told documentary filmmakers that “you don’t even know who you are anymore.” I mean, wow. I’d like to think that I’d still know who I was no matter what accent I had, and I’m saying that as someone whose accent has changed quite a lot over the past 15 years thanks to living literally everywhere, but maybe that’s just me.

The speech changes that occur with FAS are usually consistent, and include deletion, distortion, or substitution of consonants; prolongation, distortion, or substitution of vowels; and unusual prosody, or the rhythm and intonation of speech. The disorder appears to occur due to damage to specific parts of the brain, those that control linguistic functions including speech patterns and pitch. The cerebellum may also be implicated. Though people with FAS don’t actually gain the ability to speak the language whose accent they’ve developed, it is possible for others, especially children, to pick up the new accent from the affected person. 

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014: My Year in Review

If you thought I was dropping the blogging ball last year, you should have waited until this year because you guys, I only wrote like 25 posts this year including this one. Ok, I mean, last year I wrote over 100 posts, so maybe I just need to learn to pace myself a little better.

Now it's New Year’s Eve, and that means it’s time to get drunk. That’s going to be easier for me this year than it has been in subsequent years, because I’m back in Chamonix, where hard liquor flows right out of the taps. Not really, but sometimes I think it might as well.

Again, this hasn’t been a super eventful year, but it’s been more eventful than the previous. Let’s take a look at some of the things I’ve been up to this year, in no particular order.

I Quit Rescuing Cats

Nothing against the cats, but being involved in the cat rescue was becoming more trouble than it was worth. Would you believe that many people who become involved in animal rescue don’t have the best people skills? It’s true. Plus, my duties with the cat rescue continued to expand more and more – well, I say that, but in fact they didn’t because I know how to say “No.” But once I’ve made it clear that “No” is always going to be the answer, don’t keep asking me again and again in hopes you’re going to wear me down and get a “Yes.” Not cool.

Also not effective, unless your goal is to make me all stabby.

I Got Another Cat

Yeah, I know I did this last year, too. But I swear this will be the last new cat, honest.
But I’ll tell you what, this new cat is the nicest cat I have. It doesn’t bite, doesn’t scratch my furniture and doesn’t howl incessantly.

Her name is Penny, and she even knows how to use the computer.

By all rights, I should get rid of the other shitty cats and just keep this one.

I Went to My Tenth College Reunion

The three of you who are still following along at home will know that I went to my tenth college reunion back in June. Yep, I may be getting old, but I’m not getting any more mature, as those of you who read the post will have surmised.  

I Read a Bunch of Books

I was going to keep track of how many books I read this year so I could wow you three by listing them all, but I stopped counting sometime in November. Suffice it to say that my reading list this year included more than 25 classics such as “When You and Your Mother Can’t Be Friends,” by Victoria Secunda, “It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single” by Sara Eckel and “How to Be a Woman” by Caitlin Moran. My favorite book I read this year was “Scriber” by Ben S. Dobson and even though I enjoyed it immensely, I hesitate to buy another of his books because he’s wearing a fedora in his Amazon author photo.

I Joined a Writer’s Group and Started Writing a Book for Realsies

I only have about 17,000 words so far, which was not, for the record, enough to impress the last guy I dated, but that’s okay, because when I say “dated” I mean I went out with him four times. He should be proud – that’s a full two to three more dates than most guys get.

The group, Morgantown Writer’s Group, is great, and they really seem like my work-in-progress, which is both a surprise and not a surprise, if that makes sense. 17,000 words may not be a lot (it’s about 30-35 pages), and it isn’t enough to fulfill my 2014 New Year’s Resolution of writing a whole book this year, but it’s 17,000 more words than I had 365 days ago and it fills me with a perhaps misguided confidence in my ability to finish a manuscript for once in my life.

I Spent Christmas in England

I spent Christmas with my friend Sarah, who lives in Brighton. I had a blast, and I will probably return next Christmas if I can afford it and she will let me. Yes, I could spend the holidays bickering with my family as is traditional, but that’s actually optional. I can tell it is because Christmas was almost a week ago and God hasn’t stricken me down yet. Of course, He’s probably just real busy not existing, as Lisa Simpson would say.

And I Returned to France

I’m back in France for an extended visit, and I didn’t tell a lot of people I was coming, so it’s been great seeing everyone’s looks of surprise, delight, and occasionally, horror upon seeing me again. Lots of my Facebook friends are freaking out right now, too, because I didn’t tell them I was going to be spending time in France even though I never actually speak to any of them in real life. If you want me to tell you what I’ve got going on, you might want to pick up the phone once in a while, guys.

So that’s my year in review. Here’s hoping 2015 is even better, for all of us. 

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Fun Friday Facts #98: What Do Cats See?

As an owner of cats, I spend my fair share of time idly wondering how these little creatures that live in the world see me and my home. What do I look like to my cats? Do they think I’m just a big, dumb cat? Do the words I say when I talk to my cats sound the same to them as their howling and chirping sounds to me? Why does Max sit in the other room and make noises that alarm my guests? Finally, I decided to investigate.

According to Dr. John Bradshaw, author of “Cat Sense,” my cats may not exactly think of me as though I was another cat, but cats do interact with humans exactly the way they interact with other cats. When cats knead, purr, or rub up against your leg, they’re demonstrating the same behavior they used to get affection from their mothers as kittens -- and when you pet the cat, you’re basically responding the same way Mama Cat did when she groomed her little babies. Unlike dogs, for example, domestic cats have not evolved a specific set of behaviors with which to interact with humans, probably because they haven’t been bred for specific purposes like dogs have. This leads scientists like Bradshaw to conclude that cats don’t really see humans as different from themselves, although I don’t know about that because I’ve never seen my cats ask each other for treats.   

Though to be fair, they probably would if they had thumbs.

As for how my cats actually see physically see me, well, they do it with their eyes. Ha.
Live Science reports that cats have a much wider field of peripheral vision – about 200 degrees to our 180s degrees. Cats are also nearsighted, and can only clearly see objects within about 20 feet. That means they can probably see my face, which is something I’ve always wondered.

As you may be aware, cats have great night vision, thanks to their large corneas, elliptical eye shape, but also because of their tapetum, a layer of reflective tissue that directs a larger amount of light to the retina. Cats have between six and eight times more light-sensitive rod cells than humans, which help them to more easily perceive the spirits of the restless dead I mean see in the dark. The tapetum in cat’s eyes may allow them to see different wavelengths of light, so that ghosts stand out more sharply against the nighttime shadows. Cats can also spot motion in the dark far more easily than humans.

Cats can’t see all of the colors that we can, since we have more color-sensitive cone cells in our eyes. Humans, as you’re aware, can see a range of shades of green, red and blue. Cats, however, may only see blues and grays, although the results of a study published earlier this year in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B suggest that cats can see colors on the UV spectrum that humans can’t see.

Human eyes don’t allow a lot of UV light to reach the retina, a fact that scientists credit for our unusually sharp vision. Cats’ eyes, on the other hand, are sensitive to UV light, and can presumably see brilliant patterns and colors on objects like birds’ wings, flower petals, and sheets of paper. This, the study authors speculate, may be why cats love paper and, presumably, cardboard boxes so much. 

Friday, December 5, 2014

Fun Friday Facts #97: RIP Frank and Louie

It is with a heavy heart tonight that I must deliver some sad news – Frank and Louie, the world’s oldest two-faced cat, has died at the age of 15. His owner, Martha Stevens of Worcester, MA, euthanized him after learning that he had been stricken with cancer and was probably suffering. At age 12, Frank and Louie was named the world’s oldest surviving Janus cat, as two-faced cats are called, and awarded a place in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Despite appearances, Frank and Louie was only one cat. He suffered from a condition known as diprosopus, or cranial duplication, characterized by the duplication of facial features. Unlike conjoined twinning, which occurs when two embryos fail to separate completely, diprosopus occurs due to a genetic mutation that results in excessive widening of the face and duplication of facial features. Like other Janus cats, Frank and Louie had two working eyes, a central, non-working, weird-looking eye, two mouths and two noses. Unlike some animals born with diprosopus, Frank and Louie had only one esophagus and trachea, a fact which contributed to his survival. 

In fact, Frank and Louie is the only two-faced cat known to have survived to adulthood; most kittens born with two faces die within a few days. Many of them are unable to suckle. Some probably suffer from brain or other internal abnormalities, since the cranial duplication can also cause duplication of some or all of the brain and other parts of the head and neck. Even those who are able to feed and suffer no internal deformities often suffer the same fate as Ditto, a two-faced pig born in Iowa. Though Ditto survived to adulthood, he contracted aspiration pneumonia after literally inhaling food whilst breathing and eating at the same time through his duplicate snouts.

When Frank and Louie was born, veterinarians told his owner that he wouldn’t live long. But she didn’t give up on the little freak of nature, tube-feeding him for the first three months of his life until he was finally able to eat and drink on his own. Frank and Louie was reportedly friendly, and his owner says she would be happy to have another cat with two faces.

Diprosopus is different from polycephaly, the condition of having more than one head. Humans can be born with two faces, but like kittens, they don’t tend to live long after birth if they are born alive at all. Most die within a few hours of birth. A girl, Lali Singh, was born with diprosopus in India in 2008, but lived for only two months, making her one of the longest-surviving babies with the condition. She possessed two complete faces, and suffered from cleft palate, which made it difficult for her to eat. She was admitted to the hospital – over the protests of her extended family and village leader, who believed she was the incarnation of the Hindu god Durga – to be treated for vomiting and dehydration. Though she initially improved under medical care, she died suddenly of a heart attack on her two-month birthday.

A second baby, or pair of babies, depending on how you look at it, Faith Daisy and Hope Alice Howie, was born in Australia in 2014. Faith and Hope demonstrated not only complete facial duplication, but also complete duplication of the brain, with two brains attached to a single brain stem. The babies even cried and slept at different times, which brings a whole new meaning to “don’t wake the baby.” That’s not a joke – the parents told The Sydney Morning Herald, “Sometimes Faith will cry and wake Hope up, who then looks sideways as if to say, ‘Thanks for that.’” Faith and Hope passed away after just 19 days.

While most children born with diprosopus don’t live long, one little boy in Missouri has defied the odds. Tres Johnson, who was born with a milder form of the condition that left him with two eyes, two noses, and one mouth, just celebrated his 10th birthday. He has suffered from epilepsy from the age of four months, and experiences about 120 seizures per day. He has to be resuscitated four to six times weekly, and has died in his mother’s arms twice. TWICE. Excuse me while I go and add “only have one face” to my Gratitude List.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Fun Friday Facts #96: Why Do We Eat the Things We Eat for Thanksgiving?

If you’re reading this in the United States, Thanksgiving Day is nearly upon you/us. (If you’re reading this in Canada, I hope you had a lovely Thanksgiving, and if you’re reading this in Europe, yes, we really do eat that much, and no, we don’t do it every day. Honest.) If you’re the red-blooded American I know you are, you’re fixin’ to chow down on turkey, pumpkin pie, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, green beans, stuffing and Waldorf salad.

Wait, was it just my family that served Waldorf salad? See, this is why I don’t go home for Thanksgiving anymore.

But you probably never gave much thought to why we eat the specific things we eat on Thanksgiving. You probably just assumed that we eat the same things the Pilgrims ate at the First Thanksgiving. But while the Pilgrims definitely feasted on some unspecified “wild fowl,” we have no way of knowing that it was turkey. They also didn’t eat potatoes, or pumpkin pie, and probably didn’t eat cranberry sauce – if they did, they would have sweetened it with maple syrup because granulated sugar wasn’t a thing back then. Don’t even get me started on the Waldorf salad.

In fact, the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag at the first Thanksgiving feast ate a lot of venison, thanks to the generosity of the Wampanoag chief, who donated five deer to the feast. The “wild fowl” they ate could have been turkey, but since wild turkeys are aggressive, hard to catch and kind of stringy, they probably ate pheasant, goose or duck instead. They also probably ate a lot of fish and seafood, onions, nuts, beans, a cornbread dish known as boiled bread, and squashes of all kinds, including pumpkins, most likely stewed with butter, vinegar, and spices.

So, if the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag ate random birds, venison, fish, and boiled things for the first Thanksgiving, why do we eat turkey and pumpkin pie? Well, obviously because pumpkin pie is much, much better than boiled pumpkin slurry, duh.

There are different theories as to why we eat turkey on Thanksgiving. Some feel that the choice was a practical one – turkeys are perhaps the only birds large enough to satisfy the American appetite, I mean, feed the entire family. Turkeys are also native to the Americas, and were apparently almost our national bird, which would have made Thanksgiving interesting indeed.

Others point out that Scrooge gave the Cratchit family a turkey at the end of A Christmas Carol, a book that was published right around the time that enthusiasm for the creation of a national Thanksgiving holiday was building. I never actually read A Christmas Carol because fuck that, so this was news to me.

Yet another theory holds that the Thanksgiving turkey tradition originates with Sarah Josepha Buell Hale, of whom I have written before. The editor of Lady’s Magazine and Godey’s Lady’s Book, Ms. Hale is credited with single-handedly nagging Thanksgiving into existence by writing letters to Congress, the governors of every state, and five Presidents. In her 1827 novel Northwood: A Tale of New England, Ms. Hale wrote of a roasted turkey as the centerpiece of a fictional Thanksgiving meal. The meal also included “a huge plum pudding, custards, and PIES OF EVERY DESCRIPTION,” Mom.

No mention of Waldorf salad, however.

Image by Nillerdk

Hale took things a step further, detailing the preparation of Thanksgiving turkey in her annual November editorials. It would take the 20th century, and the advent of convenience foods, to bring such dishes as cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie to our modern Thanksgiving tables.

While cranberry sauce was served at Thanksgiving meals as early as 1623 – two years after the first Thanksgiving in 1621 – cranberries grow in New England, and like most berries, they don’t keep well. Thanksgiving was originally a New England tradition, but as it spread across the country thanks to the efforts of Ms. Hale, cranberry sauce did not initially go with it. It wasn’t until 1912 that the inventor of canned cranberry sauce, Marcus Urann, came on the scene and left his mark on both Thanksgiving and the cranberry industry. The innovation made it possible for Americans around the country to enjoy “cranberry sauce” on Thanksgiving Day, and I’m using quotation marks around that because I grew up with homemade cranberry sauce, I don’t know what the fuck is wrong with you people.

It almost made up for the Waldorf salad.

By the mid-20th century, the pre-packaged food revolution was under way, bringing such Thanksgiving staples as stuffing (made with stuffing mix), green bean casserole (I don’t know what that is either because I grew up eating string beans that my grandmother grew, stringed while watching Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and canned herself) and pumpkin pie – made with canned pumpkin puree. Now everyone can have Thanksgiving, even those of us who don’t want to spend half the day doing whatever it is you need to do to a pumpkin to make it fit into a pie shell.

I don't even know what is wrong with you people.

Image by Rick Kimpel 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Charles Manson Is Getting Married, But I’m Still Single

By now you’ve heard the news – 80-year-old convicted mass-murderer Charles Manson has been granted a marriage license to wed his TWENTY-SIX-YEAR-OLD fiancĂ©, Afton Elaine Burton, or, as Manson calls her, Star. Charles Manson has found someone who is willing to marry him, but I – an attractive, educated, well-traveled woman who can cook at least five things – am still left searching halfheartedly for love once in a while.

Oh well, I guess it could be worse – I could be marrying Charles fucking Manson.

The future Mrs. Manson told CNN that she and Manson already consider themselves husband and wife, even though “the paperwork hasn’t gone through yet.” 

The couple hasn’t set a date for the wedding yet. In fact, it seems like Ms. Burton had some trouble getting Charles Manson to commit to marriage – and now I need a minute because that, dear readers, is a phrase I never thought I’d ever type. Wow.

Anyway, as I was saying, Manson was apparently reluctant to marry, having gone on the record in December 2013 to call rumors of his impending wedding to Ms. Burton “a bunch of garbage.” Personally, if someone asked a guy I was planning to marry if we were really getting married and he replied that it was a bunch of garbage, I would stop planning to marry him, but what do I know, I’m not marrying Charles fucking Manson.

Ms. Burton first started corresponding with Charles Manson when she was 17. Later, she moved from her parents’ home in Illinois to Corcoran, CA to be close to Charles Manson’s prison, where she has been visiting him since 2007 and dating him since she was 19. I'm not sure, but I think this might mean that Charles Manson is this girl's first love. What's she going to tell the next guy? You would think being Charles Manson's widow would make you undateable, but somebody married Amy Fisher so I guess it takes all kinds. Burton talks to Manson on the phone “almost every day,” according to CNN, and visits him on the weekends. Because Charles Manson is serving a life sentence, the pair won't be able to enjoy conjugal visits when they get married -- if they go through with it, that is. Personally, I’ve got my money on Charles Manson getting cold feet.

Even though she won’t be able to have conjugal visits with an 80-year-old man (her loss, I’m sure), Ms. Burton wants to marry Charles Manson because she believes he’s innocent and wants to work on his release, and there are “certain things next of kin can do,” like access documents and information about his case that, she believes, would allow her to prove his innocence. When asked by an incredulous CNN reporter if she was in love with Charles Manson, Ms. Burton responded that she was, to which the reporter replied, “People get married for all kinds of reasons.” AHAHAHAHAHA.

Ms. Burton and Charles Manson’s other followers – holy shit you guys, Charles Manson still has followers, plural! – insist that all he wants to do is save the trees, which is noble and all, but when you’ve masterminded the murders of seven people, I think that harms your credibility as an environmentalist a bit. In her downtime from working on proving Charles Manson’s innocence, his fiancĂ© maintains his websites, which I’m not going to link to or visit, because I’m afraid to.

The parents of the bride will not be attending the wedding. They have made it clear to their daughter that Manson won’t be welcome in their home, although somehow I don’t think that will be an issue. Ms. Burton’s father, Phil, told the Daily Mail he and his wife would never disown their daughter, “no matter what she does in her life.” There are still parents tossing their gay kids out onto the street, but this guy can bring himself to stand behind his daughter even though she’s marrying Charles Manson. There’s a lesson to be learned here, folks.

And shockingly, it's NOT "don't hang around with Charles Manson." Although, you know, don't.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Fun Friday Facts #95: World’s Tallest Birds

I came up with this idea because one of my search keywords this week was “list of tall birds,” which means that someone happened upon my blog this week in their search for tall birds. I have no idea why a search engine would bring them here, as I have never blogged about tall birds before, but I am about to rectify that oversight and hopefully, in the process, rake in some of that sweet, sweet tall bird traffic.

You probably already knew that the tallest living bird is the ostrich, a bird native to Africa that can grow as tall as 9.2 ft (2.8 m) and weigh more than 345 lb (156 kg). The ostrich is also the fastest flightless bird, capable of reaching speeds up to 40 mph (70 km/h). It also lays the largest eggs in the world; its eggs can weigh up to 3 lb (1.4 kg), and can be eaten, although I’d imagine you’d need a pretty big frying pan for one of those. Cracking open an ostrich egg is a bit of an ordeal, too, according to this YouTube video in which a lady carefully taps her ostrich egg endlessly with the edge of a knife until she’s finally able to crack a small hole in it and pry off the top.

The ostrich bears the dubious distinction of being the second most likely bird to kill you, and not from high cholesterol. Though ostriches will usually run away if they can, they will attack to defend their young or territory, which they do by kicking at you with their powerful legs and large claws. In the town of Oudtshoorn, South Africa, the “Ostrich Capital of the World,” two to three people each year are seriously injured or killed by ostriches. Domesticated ostriches are just as territorial and violent as wild ones, which may at least in part explain why a single ostrich egg costs between $45 and $90 depending on its size, although that website I linked to does make allusions to a “bargain” egg that you probably don’t want to eat.

In many countries, especially South Africa and the United States, ostrich racing is a popular pastime. Some ostrich jockeys hitch the bird to a special cart, but it’s possible to fit an ostrich with a saddle and ride it, though Wikipedia notes that the birds are “harder to manage than horses.” You see examples of both these riding styles in this Dutch newsreel from September 1933:

If the ostrich is the world’s second-most-deadly huge bird, you may be wondering which enormous bird is the world’s deadliest. That bird is the southern cassowary, a species native to the rainforests of northwestern Australia and New Guinea. This bird can grow to more than 6’3” tall (190 cm) and weigh up to 187 lb (85 kg), so it is bigger than me, though not by much.

Although the cassowary is no more aggressive than the ostrich, it will still attack when it feels threatened – and since their natural habitat is in an UNESCO World Heritage rainforest, tourists often approach them and try to feed them, a gesture that, in general, does not go over well. Though urban legends that describe the southern cassowary as capable of disemboweling a human with one slash of its 4.7 inch (12 cm) claw are untrue, the bird can inflict some nasty injuries and is capable of killing an animal as large as a horse. The northern cassowary, the third largest bird in the world, is very similar to the southern cassowary, except for its accent and slightly smaller size.

I will cut you.

Image by