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 www.viajar24h.com

Friday, November 7, 2014

Fun Friday Facts #94: What Was the Greatest Thing BEFORE Sliced Bread?

It’s Friday again, and you know what that means – it’s time for another Fun Friday Facts! As some of you will be aware, I sometimes ask my readers to suggest a topic for this column. Reader @VikingtotheMax (aka my friend Mark) wanted to know, “What was the greatest thing BEFORE sliced bread?”

If I had to guess, I would have said it was latex condoms, which were invented in the early 1920s, several years before sliced bread, but I would’ve been wrong. The greatest thing before sliced bread was wrapped bread. Yes, I know, it’s rather anticlimactic.

But etymologists (those are the scientists who study the origins of words and phrases, not the ones who study bugs – those are entomologists) believe that the phrase “greatest thing since sliced bread” refers to a back page ad placed in the daily newspaper in Chillicothe, Missouri on 6 July, 1928. The ad touted the Chillicothe Baking Company’s new bread slicing machine, which it purchased from Otto Frederick Rohwedder of Davenport, Iowa, the visionary who invented pre-sliced bread. The ad claimed that the advent of pre-sliced bread (or as we call it now, pre-sliced bread) was the “greatest forward step in the baking industry since bread was wrapped.” The first recorded use of the idiom occurred in a 1952 interview comedian Red Skelton (if you know who that is, you might be too old for the Internet) gave to the Salisbury Times, a Maryland newspaper, in reference to the newfangled invention of the day, television.

It was only after many setbacks that Rohwedder finally managed to sell his bread-slicing machine to the Chillicothe Baking Company in 1928. He first invented the automated bread slicer in 1912, but bakers of the era rejected the device, claiming that customers would want to be doing their own bread-slicing, please and thank you. Clearly, Rohwedder was ahead of his time.

As if that weren’t bad enough, Rohwedder lost not only the blueprints but also the prototype for his bread slicing machine in a fire in 1917. No quitter, Rohwedder was willing to jump right back on the sliced bread horse, but couldn’t convince investors to fund the revival of the project. It wasn’t until ten long years later, in 1927, that Rohwedder was finally able to produce another working model of his bread-slicing machine, but by this time, the world was ready.

This may be the very bread-slicing machine in question.

Sliced bread quickly became popular, as customers loved the convenient, uniform slices. It would take another innovator, baker Alexander Taggart, to distribute sliced bread on a nationwide scale. Taggart was a baker from the Isle of Man. His father had been a baker before him, and his father was a baker before him. Taggart immigrated to the United States after the Civil War, starting his first bakery in 1869. He teamed up with another baker, Burton Parrott, to open Parrott-Taggart Baking Company. They would go on to found the United States Baking Company, which would later merge with the National Biscuit Company, to form Nabisco. Though Taggart and Parrott continued to sell their baked goods under their own name, it would be this affiliation with Nabisco that would help them make history.

On 24 May 1921, Parrot-Taggart Baking Company introduced Taggart’s Wonder Bread, today known simply as Wonder Bread. In 1930, thanks to Mr. Rohwedder and his stubborn refusal to give up on his dream of eating pre-sliced bread in spite of long odds and much criticism, Wonder Bread became the first loaf of sliced bread to be distributed nationally.


OMG NOW I'M GETTING ALL MISTY-EYED ABOUT FUCKING BREAD, FUCK.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Fun Friday Facts Are Back! FFF #93: Halloween Edition the Third

It’s Halloween again, woot woot, my favorite holiday after Saint Patrick’s Day, New Year’s Day, and Bastille Day, when baguettes fall right out of the walls. I bet you thought I’d stopped doing Fun Friday Facts, and well, you’re not wrong. But I’m going to start again because a cursory glance at my traffic data reveals that’s all anyone’s reading around here.

In previous Halloween posts, I’ve discussed haunted places; the origins of Halloween, trick-or-treating and jack o’lanterns; and candy. These days, we still practice many relatively ancient Halloween traditions in one form or another, but there are also some traditions that have fallen out of favor.

In the past, when getting married was a much more important part of a young woman’s life, several Halloween rituals centered around trying to help a young lady land a man. In Ireland in the 1700s, a young woman might hope to find a ring in her mashed potatoes at dinner on Halloween night, which would bring true love or at least a binding contract within the next year. (The tradition continues in Ireland to this day, but the ring, along with other small charms, is baked into a cake called a barmbrack.) Young women in Scotland would name hazelnuts after each of their boyfriends, then throw the nuts into the fire; the nut that burned straight to ashes instead of exploding either did or did not represent the man she would marry, according to which (presumably haggard, old and warty) fortune-teller she was talking to that night.
Other superstitions say that eating a bedtime sweet made of hazelnuts, walnuts and nutmeg on Halloween night will cause a young lady to dream of her future husband. Peel an apple in one long strip and throw the peeling over your shoulder; the peel will fall in the shape of your husband-to-be’s initials (no, no it won’t, not really). When you’re planning your kid’s Halloween party, you may want to skip the bobbing for apples – the first person to successfully bob (?) an apple will be the first to get married that year. Another technique involved standing in front of a mirror with a candle in a darkened room; allegedly, the future husband’s face would appear in the mirror, floating behind the single lady’s shoulder. Sounds like a great plan, if you want to marry a murder-ghost from another dimension.

Now that you mention it, I think my grandmother told me to do this.

Fortune-telling was popular at Halloween parties in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One game involved using milk as invisible ink – hosts wrote fortunes in milk on slips of paper, than inserted them into walnut shells. Later, party guests would warm the walnut shells, causing the milk to burn and totally mystical writing to appear on the slips of paper. This is your chance to convince your friends they’re ALL GOING TO DIE, or get married, depending on your personal idea of a fate worse than death.

As some of you may know, many Christians are freaked all the way out by Halloween, because tiny witches and zombies are pretty scary. Many Protestants celebrate Halloween as Reformation Day, because it’s the day that Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg. I always pictured him doing that furtively under cover of darkness, but I guess not, because he timed it to coincide with one of biggest holy days of the year. The children of these families dress up as characters from the Bible or as Reformers, which I don’t even know what that costume might look like.

Like this?

Many Christians don’t celebrate Halloween at all. Some “celebrate,” if you can call it that, by sending their children to Hell Houses, which are like haunted houses except they give you a glimpse of the eternal torment waiting for you in the afterlife. Others take the opportunity to proselytize by handing out religious tracts to kids who come trick-or-treating.


And you thought the guy handing out sugar-free candy was bad.