Monthly Archives: August 2009

Friday Random 10: Dangerous sands edition


You may think that summertime is all sunshine, the ice cream man, cotton candy and rainbow sprinkles — but you could not be more wrong.

The truth is that danger lurks around every corner, especially in the summer. The sun can burn you and give you skin cancer. The ice cream man is probably a nose-picking child molester. And eating cotton candy and rainbow sprinkles may get you punched in the face by the other kids at school.

The latest threat to your health and well-being is sand. You may not have been aware of this, but sand is the #1 killer of people who dig holes in it and then climb in before the hole collapses. Just ask James Boyden, a 17-year-old who went on the Today show this week to drum up awareness of the dangers posed by sand:

Seventeen-year-old James Boyden of Scotland, Conn., told NBC’s “Today” show on Friday that he briefly blacked out after sand collapsed on him on East Beach on Tuesday. He was freed by emergency workers using heavy equipment after several hours.

While emergency workers have said the hole was 6 to 8 feet deep, Boyden and his family say the hole was much smaller and that the teen was trapped only because he was kneeling when the hole collapsed.

Boyden’s father, Kenneth Boyden, says his son was completely covered by the sand. “Even a smaller hole can be very dangerous,” he says.

I’m proud of the Today Show and the Boydens for highlighting this serious issue. As a survivor of a terrifying life-and-death tangle with a lump of pizza dough, I know just how critical issue like this are. Unfortunately the Today Show won’t have me on to discuss my incident, so please help me get the word out that wrapping uncooked dough around your head and trying to bake your face in the oven can be very dangerous.

The songs:

Gloomy Planets — The Notwist
Without the Benefit of Sight — Jay Bennett
Bows + Arrows — The Walkmen
I Don’t Always Know What You’re Saying — Ladyhawke
Campus — Vampire Weekend
Tap at my Window — Laura Marling
On the Water — The Walkmen
Anna Begins — Counting Crows
Believe Me Natalie — The Killers
Master of None — Beach House

Bonus video:

Let the Beat Ride — Lyric (Ed Note: Wow!)

The Rules: The Friday Random 10 is exactly that — random. We open up our iTunes, set the thing on shuffle, and listen to 10 songs. We are not permitted to skip any out of embarrassment or fear of redundancy. Commenters are encouraged to post their own.


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Take that, dike finger stickers!


The Dutch probably thought I had forgotten all about the incident in Rotterdam, in which my Hungarian manservant was accosted while loading my trunks onto the steamer ship by Hervils von van der Sluite — my rival on the Grand Council of the Great and Serious Men of Science.

The cowardly gingerbaby von van der Sluite had accused my Hungarian manservant of purloining a wheel of smoked Gouda from the council chambers — knowing full well that neither he nor I ever touch the stuff (we prefer Leyden, and in fact had concealed nearly two pounds of the stuff in my top hat case earlier in the trip).

Many council members expected me to retaliate swiftly and with great force, as is my wont. But instead I chose a more subtle approach, the fruits of which blossomed yesterday in this story:

The Dutch national museum said Thursday that one of its prized possessions, a rock supposedly brought back from the moon by U.S. astronauts, is just a piece of petrified wood.

Ahahahahhahahhahahaaa you Dutch pikers! You tulip-worshipping loafers! You dike finger stickers!!!

You were too busy clog dancing around your Delftware to notice my Hungarian manservant creeping into the Rijksmuseum with a lump of petrified wood in a velvet sack! Maybe you should spend more time guarding your moon rocks and less time painting flies on airport urinals, you orange-clad windmill humpers!

In conclusion, I’m awesome.

‘Moon rock’ in Dutch museum is just petrified wood []

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Cows more stompy, more killy this year

You lookin' at me, guv'nah?

You lookin' at me, guv'nah?

British authorities cast down their crumpets and rang their local constabularies this week to report that the cows are going bloody beserk! Four people have been killed by rampaging cows this summer alone, a situation I’m sure Fox News will blame on Britain’s perfectly good health care system. Oh, and dogs. Librul, librul dogs:

Cows have been thought to be generally docile, and this remains true, the National Farmers’ Union emphasised yesterday. However, the NFU pointed to the fact that at least two of the four deaths involved walkers with dogs, which may be a factor in turning cows from placid cud-chewing bystanders into potential killers.

“Cows can get aggressive in the presence of dogs, especially if they have their calves with them,” Robert Sheasby, the NFU’s rural surveyor, said yesterday. “They see the dog as a threat, and take exception to it. Cows are generally placid and docile, but when a mother animal feels the protection of her offspring is at risk, temperaments can change.”

Only 18 people have been killed by cattle of any kind in the past eight years, so the four dead this summer are statistically significant at least. My theory is that the cows finally found out what’s in a Cornish pasty. Mincemeat is made out of fruit, but something called a pasty is made out of meat? Makes a lot of sense, British people.

Hoofed and dangerous: Britain’s killer cows [Independent]

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Your appendix may actually do something

appendixThe decorous and genteel Mrs. Pax Arcana spent some quality time at Massachusetts General Hospital a few years ago on account of a tummy ache that turned out to be appendicitis. To correct the issue, doctors called in a rag-tag team of deep sea drillers to bore holes in her abdomen and extract the offending organ. They were then sent into outer space to blow up an asteroid.

For years we’ve been taught that the appendix was a vestigial organ left over from cavemen times, but recent research suggests otherwise. According to LiveScience, the appendix is actually a useful storage shed for bacteria. Because sometimes we need that. Like after a bad bout of the mud butt:

“Everybody likely knows at least one person who had to get their appendix taken out — slightly more than 1 in 20 people do — and they see there are no ill effects, and this suggests that you don’t need it,” Parker said.

However, Parker and his colleagues recently suggested that the appendix still served as a vital safehouse where good bacteria could lie in wait until they were needed to repopulate the gut after a nasty case of diarrhea. Past studies had also found the appendix can help make, direct and train white blood cells.

Other research has shown that the appendix has survived multiple stages of evolution in many different animals, which suggests that it is in fact a useful piece of internal architecture. Scientists also say that appendicitis is actually the result of the industrial revolution, because modern sanitation means less work for our good bacteria, which then gets bored and turns against the appendix.

I think this research is great. It’s high time we stopped looking down our noses at supposed “vestigial” body parts like the appendix and my foot thumbs. You think your kidneys are so great? Let’s see you hang upside down from a tree branch with them, tough guy.

The Appendix: Useful and in Fact Promising [LiveScience]

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White people walk like this. Black people walk like this

earlAs a white male, I suffer a lot of indignities in my daily life. For one thing, banks and mortgage companies and auto dealerships have for years pestered me with offers of low interest loans and other enticements. I am also plagued by incredible social pressure to keep my lawn immaculate and my khakis well-pressed. Because I’m also tall, my coworkers and employers always assume I possess abilities like leadership and common sense — often moving me up the ladder into positions I am not really qualified for.


But according to Slate, it appears black people may have legitimate gripes as well. This slideshow demonstrates how, in the 1970’s, advertisers first started adding targeted groups to their general market campaigns. The idea was to create advertising collateral that complimented the general campaign, but spoke to black people in a way they would understand.

Or, more specifically, the way a bunch of white advertising executives thought black people would understand, a practice known as “puttin’ hot sauce on it.” This practice, pioneered by “vice” advertisers, became so dominant that soon black neighborhoods were covered in jive-talking ads for everything that’s bad for you:

A recent study uncovered a 1973 document that showed that “Kools made a specific effort to market on buses and subways, since blacks disproportionately rely on public transit in most major cities, in hopes that Kool would ‘cover the top 25 markets in terms of absolute Negroes.’ “

Meanwhile, the inside of every Volvo is rife with ads for mayonnaise and asparagus. And every fourth McDonald’s commercial features a sassy-talkin’ black lady. Won’t we ever come together as one?

Have Mercy! [Slate]

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Friday Random 10: Big Macs are labor intensive edition

The Economist just posted an interesting graphic showing the average number of minutes people in various places must work in order to afford a Big Mac. At the low end, people from Chicago only have to work about 12 minutes for a tasty double-meat sangwich. If you work in Nairobi, on the other hand, you’d have to work almost three hours.

This explains why so many Chicagoans are paid in Big Macs — employers are just eliminating unnecessary red tape.


Also interesting is that people in Budapest have to work about an hour to afford a Big Mac. I thought Buddhists didn’t eat meat.

The songs:

Hare Krsna — Husker Du
Eagle on a Pole — Connor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band
Crazy Eights — Tapes N Tapes
Twilight Galaxy — Metric
Black Math — The White Stripes
The Medicinal Mind — Faces on Film
Under My Thumb — The Rolling Stones
The Pilgrim — Oxford Collapse
Like a Hitman Like a Dancer — A.C. Newman
Joe #1 — Fugazi

Bonus Video:

The Jimmy Carter UFO Sighting — Shouting and Pointing (starring Coach Football as a sweaty person)

The Rules: The Friday Random 10 is exactly that — random. We open up our iTunes, set the thing on shuffle, and listen to 10 songs. We are not permitted to skip any out of embarrassment or fear of redundancy. Commenters are encouraged to post their own.


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You can’t sing because your brain is defective

gong_showSinging has been a cornerstone of almost every human society for the last million years or so. It is a practice so well established that many believe singing is an instinctive, and not learned, behavior.

But if that’s true, what’s up with people who just can’t sing? I’m not talking about people with scratchy voices or old-lady vibratos — I’m talking about those people who couldn’t carry a tune if it were in a box with handles. The people who derail the Happy Birthday song with their caterwauling.

According to the most recent Journal of Neuroscience (you should see the latest amygdala centerfold), people who really, really can’t sing were born with a particular defect in their brains — between the right temporal and frontal lobes:

This region, a neural “highway” called the arcuate fasciculus, is known to be involved in linking music and language perception with vocal production.The arcuate fasciculus was smaller in volume and had a lower fiber count in the tone-deaf individuals. More notably, the superior branch of the arcuate fasciculus in the right hemisphere could not be detected in the tone-deaf individuals. The researchers speculated that this could mean the branch is missing entirely, or is so abnormally deformed that it appears invisible to even the most advanced neuroimaging methods.

So basically they’re saying that Cindy Crawford was brain damaged in that perfume commercial she made in the 1990s.

I’m skeptical. I mean, just because people are bad singers doesn’t necessarily mean they are mental defectives, right? Take this group of Dutch Idol cast-offs that were asked to sing in front of a soccer stadium full of people. Would you suspect that any of these people were born with parts of their brains missing?

OK, yeah. Now that I’ve seen it again — totally.

Brain Defect Found in Tone-Deaf People [Tech Review]

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Wolfgang Mozart has a cold…

mozartThe popularity of the 1984 Milos Forman film Amadeus — which was based on the 1979 Peter Shaffer play Amadeus, which was based on the opera Amadeus and Salieri by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, which was based on the short play Amadeus and Salieri by Aleksandr Pushkin — has inspired decades of conspiracy theories and century-spanning amateur CSI work to determine how Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart died.

In the film, Mozart dies at 35 after Salieri — jealous of his extraordinary gifts — knowingly works him to exhaustion under the guise of “helping” the composer regain his financial standing. Because Mozart was known for his wild eccentricities even during his own time, some have speculated that he died of mercury poisoning or a chronic condition that would have explained his personality. Others have suspected rheumatic fever, because he suffered from periodic bouts with it, and even trichinosis, because why the fuck not?

Anyway, a group of Dutch researchers descended from their ivory windmill recently to investigate. Their conclusion is that Mozart died from strep throat:

Their new study, reported in the Annals of Internal Medicine, was based on information from official death registers for Vienna in the winter of 1791 that places Mozart’s death in a wider context. He died in Vienna.

“Our findings suggest that Mozart fell victim to an epidemic of strep throat infection that was contracted by many Viennese people in Mozart’s month of death, and that Mozart was one of several persons in that epidemic that developed a deadly kidney complication,” researcher Richard Zegers, of the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, told Reuters Health.

Of course the researchers’ findings is not conclusive, since examining Mozart’s body is impossible. Viennese authorities insist Mozart was buried in a common grave, as was the custom of the day.

You are free to believe anything you like about Mozart’s demise. Maybe it was strep throat. Maybe it was trichinosis. Maybe Salieri worked him to death.

Or maybe, just maybe, zombie Galileo took his final revenge.


I guess we’ll never know.

Strep throat may have killed Mozart: study [Reuters]

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The British Government Should be Sorry

Pax Arcana

alan_turingNot since the Royal Academy of Sciences callously rejected my paper titled “Seven Hilarious Things I Saw on the Internet Yesterday” have I been so furious with the British government.

Last week I read a terrific book by Simon Singh called The Code Book, which details the history of cryptography from ancient times through the modern (at least up til 1999, when he wrote the book) computer era. A large part of the book concerns Allied efforts to crack the codes created by the Nazi Enigma machines during World War II. I’ll spare you the details, but basically Enigma machines were like fancy typewriters that used complicated internal wiring and settings to obscure the messages that were sent. Because the machines could be reconfigured in a host of ways, Enigma operators could choose from literally billions of different ciphers each time they sent a message.

Cracking the Enigmas required brilliance on a massive scale. Designing a mechanical electronic machine to automate the process of decrypting millions of words of Nazi radio messages was an accomplishment that was nearly unthinkable — until Alan Turing, a shy young British mathematics professor, did exactly that. Not only did Turing’s work lead directly to the invention of the electronic computer, but it also may have been the singular intelligence achievement of the 20th century.

Good thing he didn’t tell the army he was gay.

Or, as his intelligence colleague Jack Good put it:

“Fortunately the authorities did not know Turing was a homosexual. Otherwise we might have lost the war.”

Of course Turing’s luck didn’t last. In 1952 he was arrested for lewd indecency after accidentally admitting to the police that he’d been having sex with another man while his house was being robbed downstairs. Turing was allowed to avoid jail time by agreeing to take a cocktail of drugs aimed at reducing his sex drive. The chemical castration worked like a charm — he killed himself in 1954 at the age of 41.

Anyway, a group of British scientists has organized a petition calling on the government to apologize for its role in ruining the life of one of its shining lights. Obviously he’s dead now, so it doesn’t really matter one way or the other. But still, British people apologize for everything — I once stabbed a British guy and he apologized for getting blood on my knife. The least they could do is say they’re sorry. Only they shouldn’t use the phrase “No hard feelings,” since that’s kind of what they did the first time.

Campaign to win official apology for Alan Turing [Manchester Evening News]

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Kind of Blue Goes Gray

Pax Arcana

kind_of_blueI’m back from yet another research trip to the New Jersey Shore, and while I’m still months from compiling all the data I collected, I think it’s fair to conclude that yes, I will have another Margarita.

My return coincides perfectly with the 50th anniversary of Kind of Blue, the seminal Miles Davis album that was released on August 17, 1959. According to Fred Kaplan at Slate, the reason Kind of Blue stands out among all the other great jazz albums of the 1950s is that Davis (and his collaborators) were breaking new ground by freeing the musicians from the chords that dominated bebop improvisation:

One night in 1958, Russell sat down with Davis at a piano and laid out his theory’s possibilities—how to link chords, scales, and melodies in almost unlimited combinations. Miles realized this was a way out of bebop’s cul-de-sac. “Man,” he told Russell, “if Bird was alive, this would kill him.”

In an interview that year with critic Nat Hentoff, Miles explained the new approach. “When you go this way,” he said, “you can go on forever. You don’t have to worry about changes, and you can do more with time. It becomes a challenge to see how melodically inventive you are. … I think a movement in jazz is beginning, away from the conventional string of chords and a return to emphasis on melodic rather than harmonic variations. There will be fewer chords but infinite possibilities as to what to do with them.”

Most of us are familiar with Kind of Blue because it’s the one jazz album every white person owns. This is because many of us believe that professing our love of jazz will either endear us to cool black people or get us laid (preferably both). I once gave a ride home to a blond waitress with fake boobs. I had left the radio tuned to NPR earlier in the day, but after midnight the station only played jazz. When I started the car, she said “Oh you like jazz? That’s soooo cool.”

“Yes I do,” I said. “Have you ever heard of Miles Davis?”

Kind of Blue: Why the best-selling jazz album of all time is so great [Slate]


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