Friday, April 24, 2015

Fun Friday Facts #104: Tulip Mania

Image by John O'Neill from Wikipedia

Tulips are one of my favorite flowers. I love them. Unfortunately, so do the deer, so I can’t grow them, although I was kind enough to plant some anyway. I enjoy looking at them for the five minutes between when they bloom and when the deer eat them.

The term “tulip mania” refers to the period in the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th century during which futures contract prices for tulip bulbs reached ridiculously high prices before abruptly collapsing, in what is debatably one of the earliest recorded examples of an economic bubble.

Most historians credit Ogier de Busbecq, who was Ferdinand I, Holy Roman Emperor’s ambassador to the Sultan of Turkey, with introducing the tulip to Europe in 1554. From Vienna, tulip bulbs soon made their way to Augsburg in Bavaria and Antwerp and Amsterdam in the Netherlands. In 1593, Flemish botanist Carolus Clusius planted his tulip bulbs in the Hortus Botanicus in Leiden, what is today the oldest botanical garden in the Netherlands. He found that the colorful flowers easily tolerated the colder climate of Northern Europe, and tulips began to grow in popularity, thanks to being more intensely colorful than any other flower in Europe at the time.

The tulip’s newfound popularity in Europe coincided with Dutch independence from Spain and the beginning of the Dutch Golden Age. Dutch merchants were cleaning up thanks to the Dutch East India Company, which allowed them to rake in profits of up to 400 percent from a single trade voyage. Tulips became a luxury item and a way for the nouveau riche to show off their money.

While single-color tulips in red, yellow, or white were popular, the most desirable tulips were multicolored, such as the Semper Augustus, which bears the dubious distinction of being the most expensive tulip ever sold – just before the tulip crash, a single Semper Augustus bulb commanded a price of 10,000 guilders. While it’s difficult to translate that amount of money in today’s currency, it would have been enough at the time to have “purchased a grand house on the most fashionable canal in Amsterdam or clothed and fed an entire Dutch family for half a lifetime.” Keep in mind that “an entire Dutch family” in 1637 would have been massive compared to today’s families, since people had so many more kids back then in order to increase the odds that one of them would live long enough to have kids of his own.

If tulip mania were happening today, this flower, the Semper Augustus, would be worth more than ten million euros.

While today’s variegated tulips are the result of careful breeding, the variegated tulips that commanded such high prices during tulip mania were the result of infection by the tulip breaking virus, so-called because it “breaks” the color of the tulip into two or more different colors. While the tulip breaking virus creates stunning flowers, it also weakens the plant, making it harder to cultivate new bulbs. This, as you can imagine, did not help keep tulip prices reasonable.

This flower, the Admirael van der Eijck, sold on 5 February 1637 for 1,045 guilders -- about seven years' wages for a skilled worker.

But by 1636, at the height of tulip mania, even ordinary, dull, unremarkable, single-color tulip bulbs were fetching between 150 and 200 guilders – more than a skilled worker could earn in an entire year. That year, tulip bulbs were the Netherlands’ fourth most popular export, after gin, herrings, and cheese. Though tulip prices were already high, especially for rare variegated tulips, speculation in tulip prices drove prices up to ridiculous levels by the end of the year, when some tulip bulbs were changing hands as often as ten times a day. In February 1637, the bottom abruptly fell out of the tulip market when, for the first time, buyers failed to appear at a tulip auction in Haarlem, which was in the grip of an outbreak of the Black Death. While some historians speculate that the Black Death contributed to tulip mania by giving the tulip speculators a general “fuck it, I’m just going to die of the plague next week anyway” attitude toward personal finance, it’s clear that the Black Death also contributed to the sudden drop in tulip prices, which would continue to fall for the next several decades.

The Black Death -- ruining your economy since 1346.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Things My Cat Has Eaten

Some of you may remember that almost three years ago now, I acquired an itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny, widdle bitty kitty cat.

That's the one.

Well, if you’ve been paying attention, you may have gathered that that cat is no longer itsy, bitsy, teeny, or weeny. He went from being small enough to hold in the palm of one hand to being so disastrously corpulent that if I’m not careful, I’ll throw my back out picking him up. Though he started out with the adorable moniker Shoe, he is now known as Fatty to all and sundry because…well, I bet you can guess.

Here he is in all his fat, fat glory.

In fact, at one point, when I got a second cat, I became concerned that it wasn’t developing properly and hauled it off to the vet to see what was wrong with it. There was nothing wrong with it. In the vet’s own words: “He’s a normal-sized cat. It’s just that the other cat’s so big that he looks unusually small next to it.”

How did the cat now known as Fatty get so fat? By eating ALL THE THINGS, ALL THE TIME, obvs. Here’s a short list of some of the more unusual things my cat has eaten:

Two Entire Stalks of Bamboo, Woody Stems and All

When I told a friend that Fatty had eaten two entire stalks of bamboo, the response was, “Well, pandas eat it.”


Luckily, bamboo is not toxic to cats, not that Fatty would have refrained from eating it if it had been. I should be clear that Fatty didn’t just sit there and nibble off the leaves. He made short work of the leaves, and then sat there for hours, gnawing and gnawing and gnawing, until he had consumed both woody stalks in their entirely. It was a show of dedication that was nothing short of inspiring.

A Yellow Rose from a Flower Arrangement

This one right here.

I have to admit that I didn’t see him steal the yellow rose from this flower arrangement – I just noticed the rose missing a few days later. I didn’t find any rose pieces anywhere in the house, but having seen what he did to the bamboo, I can only assume that he yanked the rose from the vase while I wasn’t looking and ate the whole thing, quickly and with a furtive demeanor.

A Corn Cob

Mind you, there was no corn left on this cob by the time Fatty yanked it from my plate and escaped behind the couch with it. I was a fool to think he wouldn’t be interested in my leftover corn cob, and an even bigger fool to leave it unattended for thirty seconds. When I tried to take it away from him, he growled and lashed out, so I let him have it. He ate the whole thing in less than a minute and then immediately barfed it all back up.

A Bag of Frozen Green Beans, Sort Of

After the corn cob incident, I should’ve known not to turn my back on food of any kind, no matter how briefly. But I guess I didn’t think Fatty would try to steal and consume an entire bag of frozen green beans.

Let me tell you how wrong I was.

The moment I turned my back on the bag of frozen green beans, Fatty snatched it and tried to make a getaway. Hilariously, he snagged the wrong end of the bag, so that he left a trail of frozen green beans behind him as he raced for his stolen-food-eating spot behind the sofa. I was able to rescue some of the green beans, and Fatty ate the rest.

Part of a Towel

Sometimes, people ask me why I don’t just put my fat cat on a diet. The reason is that the one and only time I tried to put him on a diet, he tried to eat a towel:

He met with no small measure of success.

Don’t worry, he pooped it out. But I figure eating towels can’t be good for him. I don’t want to have pay thousands of dollars to have a towel surgically removed from the inside of my cat.

Also, he tried to eat the vet once, so there's that.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Fun Friday Facts #103: The Pony Express

Coming and Going of the Pony Express, by Frederic Remington, 1900

Last Tuesday, the Google Doodle commemorated the 155th anniversary of the first Pony Express delivery with an interactive doodle that I did not play because dammit, Google, I have shit to do. Despite appearances, Web content does not write itself. But I noticed the doodle anyway, and it inspired me to write this blog post.

The Pony Express was the brainchild of these three men, William H. Russell, Alexander Majors, and William B. Waddell:

No, I don't know which is which.

Russell, Majors, and Waddell were in the shipping business and hoped to win a government contract for their mail delivery service, which was the first to allow Gold Rush settlers in the new state of California to contact the loved ones they’d left behind back east. East Coast dwellers at the time benefited from the U.S. Postal Service, which was founded in 1775. But, mind-boggingly, at the time the Pony Express was founded in 1860, there was no reliable means of communication between the East and West Coasts.

The three business partners put the Pony Express together over the course of two months in 1860, because they didn’t have the Internet to distract them. The service initially hired 120 riders, who were paid $100 a month, or about $2,857 in today’s money. Most unskilled laborers at the time could hope to earn about $857 a month if they were very well-paid.
The Pony Express riders worked for their money. Riding at a pace of 10 to 15 miles an hour for eight to 10 hours at a stretch and changing horses every 10 miles, they were able to achieve what many people of the era called an impossible feat – delivering mail from California to the nearest bastion of civilization, St. Joseph, Missouri, in just ten days. One hundred fifty years later, we get impatient if an email doesn’t send right away.

The first westbound delivery reached its destination in San Francisco at 1:00 a.m. on April 14, 1860. A single letter carried on that trip survives today:

The envelope, embossed with a 10-cent postage stamp, was issued by the USPS in 1855. They took upcycling seriously back in the day.

Though the Pony Express delivered about 35,000 letters in its nineteen-month span, only about 250 of those letters remain extant. The service didn’t handle many deliveries, due to its high cost – at the time of the inaugural delivery in 1860, it cost $5 to send a half-ounce letter from Sacramento to St. Joseph, or about $142 in today’s money. By the time of the final delivery in October 1861, the price had dropped to $1 – about $27 in today’s money. These days, you can send a piece of First Class Mail weighing as much as one ounce to any address in the country, no matter how remote, for just 49 cents, and it will usually arrive in three to seven days. But of course, that’s too slow.

"In my day..."

The Pony Express sought young, energetic riders “not over eighteen.” They had to weigh fewer than 125 pounds, and had to swear an oath on a special edition, Pony Express Bible not to swear, drink, or fight with other members of the firm. I guess it’s implied that they were allowed to fight with non-members, since this is the Wild West we’re talking about.

Famous riders include William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, who signed on at the age of 15, and later became famous for being Buffalo Bill. He made his longest ride when he made a round trip from Red Buttes Station to Rocky Ridge Station in Wyoming after he learned that his relief rider had come down with a sudden case of being dead. He rode 21 horses across 322 miles (518 km) and completed the journey in 21 hours, 40 minutes.

Jack Keetley, who joined the Pony Express at the age of 19 and delivered mail throughout the entire 19 months of the service’s existence, made his longest ride across 340 miles (550 km) over the course of 31 hours in which Keetley stopped only to change horses – he did not eat or rest. When he arrived at his destination, he was asleep in the saddle.

The most badass Pony Express rider, IMO at least, was Robert “Pony Bob” Haslam, an Englishman who immigrated to the United States during his teens. He was one of the riders who helped complete the fastest ever Pony Express delivery, that which delivered the results of the 1860 Presidential election to California in only 7 days and 17 hours. His portion of the ride covered 120 miles in eight hours, 20 minutes. He holds the record for longest Pony Express ride, a 380 mile (610 km) round trip from San Francisco to Smith’s Creek. He made the trip because when he arrived at his original destination, Buckland’s Station, he found his relief rider so afraid of the Indians that he refused to sally forth. Haslam agreed to press on, but during his return trip, he ran afoul of the Indians that had so frightened his colleague, and took an arrow through the jaw, an injury which cost him three teeth.

But none of his dignity.

The Pony Express never won the government contract its founders hoped for, but during its lifetime only one of its deliveries failed to arrive on schedule. The mailing, which left San Francisco on July 21, 1860, reached St. Joseph two years later (no, I don’t know what happened). The Pony Express closed on October 26, 1861, two days after the completion of the transcontinental telegraph made it obsolete. By the time it shut its doors, the Pony Express had earned about $90,000 dollars (over $2.4 million today) and lost about $200,000 (over $5.4 million today).

Friday, March 20, 2015

Fun Friday Facts #102: Why Do We Feel the Urge to Jump Off High Places?

A couple of days ago I said to the boyfriend, “Do you ever find yourself standing in a high place, and you feel the urge to jump off?”

He replied, “Ahhhh, stahhhp,” because he totally had. So I decided to look into it, and by “look into it,” of course I meant Google it.

Sigmund Freud explained urges like this one by theorizing that people have something called a “death drive” created by the “opposition between the ego or death instincts and the sexual or life instincts.”

The theory grew out of Freud’s efforts to understand the compulsion he saw in traumatized patients to revisit the traumatic experiences, such as in the case of World War I veterans struggling with what was most likely post-traumatic stress disorder. He postulated that the death drive must be what causes some people to continue re-experiencing traumatic events, whether through flashbacks, dreams, obsessive thoughts, or recreating the events over and over in their lives, even though the very nature of these traumatic events would go against the pleasure principle, his other theory that the seeking of pleasure and avoidance of pain is a driving psychological force. According to Freud, some people might commit suicide by jumping off a high place even though they’re not suicidal – because they looked over that cliff and just happened to succumb to the death drive.

That theory remains controversial, for some reason.

But in 2012, some researchers from Florida State University decided to investigate what they’ve dubbed the “high place phenomenon,” after some discussion in a lab meeting revealed that an unspecified number of them had felt the urge to fling themselves to their deaths. According to the NBC News column The Body Odd, the researchers found “no mention of it” in the psychological literature, so they decided to look into it, and when I say “look into it,” I mean perform legitimate, non-Google-related research.

Psychology doctoral student Jennifer Hames and team spoke to 431 college students and asked them whether they’d ever felt the urge to jump from a high place and also, if they’d ever thought of suicide. The researchers evaluated the students for symptoms of depression. They also assessed the students’ sensitivity to the symptoms of anxiety – people who feel the physical effects of anxiety more strongly are also more likely to perceive danger in anxiety-producing situations, like peering off the top of a cliff.

As seen here.
Image by Complexsimplellc from Wikipedia.

Thirty percent of the students said they’d experienced the urge to throw themselves to their deaths at least once. Perhaps unsurprisingly, students who had experienced thoughts of suicide were somewhat more likely to admit to having wanted to jump off a bridge. However, more than half of those who said they’d never felt suicidal had also experienced the urge to dive headfirst into the sweet embrace of death. So, if you’ve ever climbed to the top of a tall, medieval tower only to ponder what it would be like to hurl yourself onto the beautiful courtyard below, don’t worry – you’re perfectly normal.

The researchers hypothesize that when you feel the urge to jump from a stunning viewpoint, you’re really experiencing cognitive dissonance. You’re probably sensitive to the physiological symptoms of anxiety – a rapid heart rate, mild dizziness, and shortness of breath – and your brain will decide that you must be in danger. But at the same time, you know that you can’t fall – you’re not close enough to the edge, the place where you’re standing is sturdy, or there’s a six-foot-high barrier to discourage suicides, like there is around the top of the Eiffel Tower.

Pictured: The third most common type of suicide in France, apparently.
Image by Benh Lieu Song from Wikipedia

So, there you are, getting all anxious, even though you’re not in danger. Your brain puts this all together and decides that you must want to jump. The urge to throw yourself onto the sharp, craggy shoreline so very, very far below isn’t a self-destructive urge – it’s a misinterpretation of the survival instinct. If you’ve worried that your urge to go splat on the street like a gruesome tomato means that you secretly want to die, fear not – in fact, it’s the opposite.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Fun Friday Facts #101: Why Do We Ignore Scientific Fact?

If you’ve never argued with a pigheaded, obstinate fool who refuses to acknowledge scientific consensus, you’ve never really lived. Or maybe, like me, you know somebody who was convinced the apocalypse was going to happen, and then when it didn’t happen, postponed it. No? Just me?

I thought of that because one of the articles I read about this phenomenon cited the Seekers, a cult of which I have written before, as an extreme example of folks clinging to their beliefs in the face of undeniable evidence to the contrary. In case you forgot, they believed that the Earth was going to be destroyed by flooding on December 21, 1954, but that an alien spaceship was going to rapture them and save them from the end of days. When the apocalypse didn’t happen and the aliens didn’t come, the cult members rationalized that they had saved the world at the last minute through the strength of their belief, and I was like “Wait a minute, I’ve heard this one before.”

So why, and how, do these people ignore and/or rationalize hard evidence? Like everything else in life, it has to do with feelings. When we first encounter new information or a new conspiracy theory, our emotional response to learning that officials on all levels of government have been replaced with lizards wearing human suits occurs so quickly that we don’t have time to think about it rationally. We’ll decide whether or not Michelle Obama is a reptilian based on how we feel about it, and then later, we’ll think of what sounds like a rational argument to support it. If it’s an argument that no one can really prove or disprove, like regarding the existence of God, for example, so much the better.

Now, imagine someone comes along and says, “You’re being ridiculous, reptilians aren’t real, etc.”

“Well, even if they aren’t real, it can still be my opinion that they’re real, even if they’re not,” you say.

“Your opinion is wrong.”

“Opinions can’t be wrong."

This is what happens inside my head every time someone says opinions can't be wrong.

That happens because, according to Arthur Lupia at the University of Michigan, we react to information that feels emotionally threatening as if it were a real threat, like a tiger or something. Of course, it’s not a tiger, but we retreat from it anyway, even if that means shutting down the conversation.

Of course, verifiable scientific facts are different, right? Of course they aren’t, go crawl back under your rock. People, unsurprisingly, decide whether or not a scientist is credible based on how much they agree with what he or she has to say. FFS. Since scientists never agree with each other (Two percent of scientists don’t believe in evolution. Who are these people?), it’s easy enough for people on both sides of an issue to decide that their scientists are right and the other side’s scientists are wrong and wait a minute, I’ve heard this one before.

So that’s why 88 percent of scientists believe that GMOs are safe, but only 37 percent of the public does, for example. Something about GMOs threatens people, for some reason, and some, but not all, are using the opinions of the other 12 percent of scientists to back them up.

That’s not to say that people might not be compelled to change their minds about things. It makes sense that people who don’t have a particularly strong emotional attachment to an issue are more amenable to changing their minds about it. Some folks will also relinquish their most cherished beliefs to ally themselves with other members of their social group. Dartmouth professor Brendan Nyhan recently published research that suggests that thinking about a time when you felt good about yourself can help you come to a more accurate understanding of a loaded political issue. So, remember that the next time you get into an argument.

Put down the stick and think about the time you won the third-grade science fair.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Fun Friday Facts THE HUNDRETH: Funny Breeds of Chickens

This is my ONE HUNDRETH Fun Friday Facts post, and I’ve been stressing out about that because I didn’t know what to write about, so I typed “funny breeds of” into Google and it helpfully supplied me with these chickens. I’m sure I remember that some of you keep chickens, so that’s a bonus. Also, this might be an appropriate time to warn you that there are nude animal photos up ahead.

The Onagadori chicken appears to be an honest to goodness, real live thing, despite my appalled insistence that no chicken could possibly grow tail feathers that are 12 to 27 feet long. Even as I write this, I’m still a little skeptical, because although there are some images on the Internet of these alleged chickens sporting these alleged 30-foot tail feathers, you can’t believe everything you read online, and I should know. The Wikipedia page for this breed shows a chicken with tail feathers that are admittedly rather long, but not abnormally so. 

Image by Tsunade13 from Wikipedia.

This chicken grows such long feathers because it takes them at least three years to molt. 
They inherit this trait from the Green Junglefowl, a paternal ancestor.

A great uncle or something.
Image by Stavenn from Wikipedia.

Like it’s fellow French breed, La Fleche, the Crevecoeur has weird little red horns.

Look at it, it's chicken Satan.
Image by Blaise.desaintjouin from Wikipedia.

This chicken is one of the oldest types bred in France, and it may be an ancestor of La Fleche. It comes from the town of Crevecoeur in Normandy, to the surprise of absolutely no one. They are mostly bred for show, though it was originally developed for its plump, juicy flesh. Its name means “broken heart.”

The Naked Neck is also know as the Turken because it looks like a cross between a chicken and a turkey. In fact, it is a cross between oh god and why.

Image by Demontux from Wikipedia.

The breed originates in Transylvania, so it’s also known as the Transylvania Naked Neck, a name that is not improved by the dubious addition of the word “Transylvania.” Nothing good for necks has ever come out of Transylvania. Wikipedia notes that the naked neck gene is dominant and “fairlyeasy to introduce into other breeds.” Maybe they should cross it with the long-tail one. That would be fun.

Now for a prettier one to cleanse your eyes. The Sultan chicken is a Turkish breed that knows it looks fabulous:

Image by Eunice from Wikipedia.

These birds were, again to the surprise of absolutely no one, once bred for the gardens of the sultanate. They have, as you can see, “a great deal of decorative plumage.” The male weighs just six pounds (2.7 kilos), while the female weighs about four pounds (2 kilos). The bantam version weighs an adorable 22 ounces (625 g).

The Araucana chicken comes from Chile, lays blue eggs, and won the 1987 World Beard and Mustache Championships:

The blue eggs have caused some to speculate that the bird was developed from pre-Columbian breeds. These breeds would have come from Polynesia, and would establish proof of contact between pre-Columbian South Americans and seafaring Polynesians. Research into the matter has been inconclusive. The Araucana chicken has passed its blue egg-laying abilities on to other breeds, including the Ameraucana (ha ha, it’s the American version) and the Cream Legbar. A mongrel chicken that lays blue eggs is known as an Easter Egger, and gets its blue-egg-laying abilities from the Araucana too.

The eggs aren't really that blue though.

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.