Wednesday, December 30, 2015

2015: My Year in Review

I began last year’s year in review post by apologizing for not having blogged enough last year, and it looks like I’m going to have to begin this one by again apologizing for not having blogged enough last year. I’m sorry I didn’t blog enough last year, you guys. I know I’m only hurting myself by allowing my readership to drift off, but running a blog is hard and unlike some blogs I write for, it’s not like anyone is paying me for this one.

Unlike last year, this year has been really interesting. Here’s what I’ve been up to:

I Spent Three Months in France

As I mentioned in my 2014 post, I spend the first few months of the year in France. My plane landed at Geneva seven minutes before they closed the airport for the night, and I missed my Easybus shuttle transfer to Chamonix, so I had to spend the night in the airport. When I finally arrived at like noon the next day, I discovered that there was no power in the apartment because the previous tenant didn’t pay his bill and the landlord hadn’t got the shutoff notice because he lives in the UK and never goes to the flat. It was a real clusterfuck. Luckily I was able to get the power turned on after only three bitterly cold nights in the French Alps in the middle of winter. 

I guess I shouldn’t complain, though, I did get to spend three months in France. But while I was away, ants built a nest in one of the burners on my range. I didn't realize this until I put something on the stove to boil, turned away for a minute, and turned back to find the top of my stove swarming with ants. They were even falling off the front of it like teeny-tiny September 11th victims. It was an exciting five minutes.

I Dumped a Guy

Many moons ago now, I ended a relationship and decided that I needed some time alone to figure myself out. I told myself I’d give myself a year. A year went by, but I still didn’t feel like I’d adequately figured myself out. So I gave myself another year, and then another, and then before I knew it, six years had gone by and I was all, “Shit, I forgot to start dating again.”
So while I was back in France, I got together with an old friend. He’d wanted to date me before, but I turned him down on the grounds that I didn’t think it would work out between us. Unfortunately for all involved, I was correct in that initial assessment.

I Got Dumped

This is notable because I hadn’t been dumped since like 2009, and I had forgotten what an ego blow it can be. Sure, I was upset that the guy didn’t want to date me anymore, but it was more because it hurt my pride than because I actually liked him all that much. He was kind of an odd duck, to be fair. He didn’t know who Neil DeGrasse Tyson is and he once brought me a potholder for no reason.

I Started Grad School

And this, Dear Reader, is why I haven’t blogged in a while. I’m working on a Master of Arts in Professional Writing and Editing at WVU while teaching two sections of English 101, freelancing on the weekends, and working on that book that I resolved to finish in 2014. So, blogging hasn’t been a big priority for me over the past few months, but I’ve got high hopes for next year.

I Found a Snake in My Kitchen 

It was a baby rat snake, about three inches long. I had to catch it in a plastic cup and slide a manilla envelope under it and then do that thing where you turn the cup over real quick, except I kept fucking it up and dropping the snake and then Fatty saw the snake and then it became a kind of race against death for the snake. I prevailed in the end and was able to release the (probably traumatized) snake into my flowerbed, and then I only spent like a month worrying that there might be a whole nest of baby snakes under my fridge or something.

I Didn’t Finish the Book

As I mentioned above, I resolved to write a book in 2014. At the end of 2014, I confessed that I had only written about 17,000 words. I still haven’t finished the book, but I’ve made a lot of progress – I now have a little more than 47,500 words, or about 200 pages. Up until five minutes ago I was all, “I’m making terrible progress on this book I’m supposed to be writing,” but then I wrote this paragraph and now I’m actually quite pleased with myself. 

Thursday, December 24, 2015

A Special Report on the War on Christmas*

Previously, we here at Don’t Call Me Marge declared the War on Christmas over, with Christmas emerging victorious from the long-running conflict that has devastated major world economies and spawned a decade-long worldwide refugee crisis. But tensions have been riding high ever since, and now our correspondents report that the cease-fire has crumbled. The Christmas Treaty has been broken, and the War on Christmas is raging once again.

It’s not yet clear who fired the first shots in this latest escalation in the war on this embattled holiday, but the fighting is already terrible and bloody. A coalition of international authorities has not yet been able to penetrate the most volatile areas, but reports of chemical warfare are circulating. Sources indicate that the enemies of Christmas may even be using tinsel and sparkly fake snow against civilian noncombatants.

In a shocking new development, it appears that Thanksgiving has entered the War on Christmas in an effort to regain the vast swaths of territory it has lost to Christmas’s unimpeded encroachment over the past several years. Representatives for the November holiday say that Thanksgiving is “sick of all this bullsh*t” and “ready to show that red-suited f*cker what happens when you mess with The Turkey.”

Early reports suggest that Thanksgiving’s longtime ally, Halloween, has also entered the War. “It’s only a matter of time before Christmas comes for us, too,” Halloween says.

Meanwhile, some believe that all may not be as it seems with the War on Christmas. “This is a classic proxy war,” says a source who wished to remain anonymous. “Hanukah and Kwanzaa are funneling in weapons and troops. Follow the money, man.”

At press time, Homeland Security was taking steps to protect noncombatants on U.S. soil. Children around the country may be nestling all snug in their beds, but Santa Claus has been banned from the country. The foreign national holds no passport, and has regularly flouted the authority of customs officials and the TSA.

Presidential hopeful Adolph Trumpler supports the ban on Santa. “Every year, that socialist violates our air space to give handouts to lazy children who can’t even do an honest day’s work to pay for them,” says Trumpler. “It’s time real Americans took a stand.”

*With special thanks to my friend Mark for basically coming up with this whole idea.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Fun Friday Facts #117: Why Doesn’t America Use Metric?

When you’re an American living abroad, you’re subjected to any number of rude questions like “Why are you all so fat?” and “Why are you all so stupid?” One French girl even wanted to know why America refuses to split up into several smaller countries, because obviously, “It’s too big.” No, this woman has never visited the United States, as far as I know, and when I asked her if she felt the same way about Canada, she appeared unaware that Canada is really big.

You’re also expected to provide thoughtful, cogent responses to questions that would take most people years of thorough research to answer, such as “What’s the deal with all the guns?” or “Why don’t you guys have universal health care?” or, if the person in question has traveled or lived in any part of the country besides New York City, “Why isn’t there any public transport?” (Of course, if the person has traveled or lived in New York City – AND THEY ALL FUCKING HAVE – the question becomes “Why don’t you just walk places instead of driving? Then you all wouldn’t be so fat.” “I live ten miles from the nearest town” is not the most convincing response to such a remark, because they all think “ten miles” is the equivalent of like 500 meters or something.

I don’t want to discuss guns, health care, or the obesity epidemic at this juncture, but there’s one question that has remained foremost in my mind throughout my many travels, and as you might have guessed, that’s “Why doesn’t America use the metric system?” The whole rest of the world uses it, except for the aptly named Liberia and Myanmar, but Myanmar has recently chosen to metricate, like a bunch of sissies.

Though there are some differences between the British Imperial system and the American customary system, the American system is based on the British Imperial system, which spread throughout the English-speaking world courtesy of, you guessed it, British imperialism. That system was developed in an era when most people couldn’t do much math – the most the average person could do was divide things into halves, quarters, and possibly thirds. They certainly couldn’t cope with tenths, a necessary skill for working with the metric system. That’s why the weights and measurements of the Imperial and customary systems are, for the most part, easily divisible into halves and quarters and thirds – just about any illiterate medieval peasant could figure out what one-third of a foot is, but one-third of a decimeter is BURN THE WITCH.


The French government implemented the metric system following the Revolution as a solution to the growing clusterfuck of non-standardized and conflicting systems of measurement that was engulfing the country as a whole, standing in the way of commerce, and generally causing giant pains in everyone’s culs. Stephen Mihm, associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, told The Atlantic that “it took many decades for France to get its citizens to adopt [the metric system] – there were many, many setbacks and a staggering amount of resistance.” The implementation of the metric system was part of the First French Republic’s attempt to decimalize the whole of French society, introducing the French Republican Calendar and implementing ten-day weeks and 100-minute hours that were twice as long as normal hours. (I bet you can guess how well that went over.) While most of the changes were eventually abandoned, the metric system quickly caught on among other countries looking for a standardized system of measurement.

By the end of the 19the century, most countries around the world had adopted the metric system, but the United States, among other Anglophone nations, clung to the Imperial/customary system. Initially, American reluctance to switch to the metric system hinged on the objections of Industrial-era machine and tool manufacturers, who had already based the whole of their manufacturing systems on the inch. They claimed that retooling their entire factories to produce metric tools and equipment could be financially disastrous, and successfully lobbied to block the adoption of the metric system numerous times over the 19th and 20th century.

Nevertheless, if you’re American, you may have noticed that you buy your soda in liters and that there are centimeters down one side of your ruler. At some point, a school teacher may have even fruitlessly attempted to teach you metric conversion. There was a time in more recent history when the United States almost joined the rest of the world in counting by tens. As former British colonies around the world, and even the UK itself, began adopting the metric system in the 1960s, America decided to do the same. In 1975, Congress passed the Metric Conversion Act and established the Metric Board to oversee the transition to metric. However, Congress made metrication voluntary, and the public rebelled. Some argued that metrication was unpatriotic. The director of the National Cowboy Hall of Fame called the proposal “definitely communist.” Some feared it would pave the way for a Soviet takeover of the United States. But mostly, people just didn’t want to learn a whole new system. By 1982, the dream of metric in the United States was dead. President Reagan disassembled the Metric Board, and democracy was safe once again.

For now.
Image by Catherine Munro at Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Fun Friday Facts #116: The History of Menstrual Products

If you’re one of those dudes who gets all completely freaked out at the mere mention of menstruation or any of its associated commercial products, you might want to consider not reading this post. Some other things you might want to consider include growing the fuck up.

As a person who is biologically female, I’ve often wondered what women did before the days of tampons and sanitary napkins – although normally, these feelings would be superseded by an overwhelming feeling of gratitude that I was born in the days of routine vaccinations, indoor plumbing, and women’s rights. My child psychologist (because I had that kind of childhood) once told me, to my horror, that when she was a girl self-adhesive sanitary napkins hadn’t been invented yet, so she had to wear a belt to which the sanitary napkin would attach on both ends, in the manner, I imagined, of a loincloth.

More or less.

What did women use before the invention of sanitary napkins and tampons? For centuries, women relied on strips of folded cloth. The earliest recorded mention of sanitary napkins appears in the Suda, a 10th century Byzantine encyclopedia of the classical world. Fourth-century Greek philosopher, astronomer, and mathematician, Hypatia, is also said to have rejected a gentleman caller by flinging her used menstrual cloth at him.

My kind of woman.

Tampons were not unheard of in the ancient world. They are mentioned in the world’s oldest medical document, the Papyrus Ebers, which discusses the Egyptian use of tampons made of soft papyrus as far back as the fifteenth century B.C., aka a damn long time ago. The ancient Greeks wrapped lint around small slivers of wood to make tampons (ouch). Roman women used tampons made of wool, while Japanese women used paper tampons that had to be changed 10 to 12 times a day (omg fuck that). Native Hawaiian women fashioned tampons from a furry, native fern known as hapu’u, and throughout Asia, women still use mosses, grasses, and other plant materials to make tampons to this day.

The first cotton tampons were actually invented for use in medicine in the 18th century, when they were treated with salicylic acid (which you may recognize as the main ingredient in aspirin) and used to staunch the bleeding from gunshot wounds. Tampons are still classified medical devices in many countries today, including the United States, where they may continue to serve their original purpose in the operating theater.

Image by Shattonsbury~commonswiki at Wikimedia Commons.

The first commercial sanitary napkins were available near the end of the 19th century, with the first American sanitary napkin being Lister’s Towels, marketed by Johnson & Johnson in 1896. Sanitary napkins failed to catch on with American women for some time, due to a combination of (allegedly) widespread prudishness and the fact that they were cost prohibitive for many women.

Throughout the early years of the 20th century, women continued to deal with their periods much as they had always done, by using homemade products. Women’s underwear of the time was crotchless, so women held cloth sanitary napkins in place by pinning them to their underwear or wearing a homemade sanitary belt. Most women fashioned homemade menstrual pads out of the same absorbent fabric they used for their babies’ diapers. For traveling, women would stuff a cloth sack with flattened cotton. The used cotton could be thrown away and the reusable sack filled afresh as needed. Many women wore specially designed bloomers or sanitary aprons to protect their clothes from stains.

Disposable pads entered the scene in the 1920s, when Kotex pads were first marketed. Shopkeepers would save women the embarrassment of asking for these products out loud by placing a money box on the counter next to the Kotex so female customers could take a box and pay discreetly. It was during this decade, too, that women started wearing closed-crotch underwear, which made it easier to hold the newly fashionable disposable sanitary napkins in place. Though the first self-adhesive menstrual pads appeared in 1969, women continued wearing sanitary belts and napkins until the early 1980s. I didn’t realize they hung around that long, because after the aforementioned session with the child psychologist, I went home and asked my mother if she had ever needed a belt to hold up her maxi pad.

She replied, “No, Mom bought me the self-adhesive ones.”

Way to be progressive, Grandma.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Fun Friday Facts #115: Tortoises (and Turtles)

The other day the dude and I went swimming at the lake and whilst undergoing the grueling several-minute hike from the parking lot to the swimming beach, we crossed paths with a couple of his friends, having a picnic with their respective pets. This was interesting because one of the pets was a bird of some kind (I can’t remember what species, but it was tropical; guess I should’ve taken notes), and the other pet was a red-footed tortoise. It was surprisingly adorable, and now I want one.

Unfortunately, over-collection has made this species vulnerable to extinction.
Red-footed tortoise by user OldUncleMe from

Until today, I thought that tortoises stayed on land and turtles live in the water. I must have thought that because l spent too much time hanging around with British people (ha, as if such a thing were possible) because that’s consistent with British usage. In American usage, however, “tortoise” is used to describe slow-moving, land-dwelling turtles, specifically those of the order Testudines. Examples include the Aldabra giant tortoise, one of the world’s largest tortoise species, which is native to the Aldabra Atoll in the Seychelles.

“Turtle,” on the other hand, is a general term referring to all members of the order, whether land or water-dwelling. Box turtles, for example, are not tortoises, but dwell on land.

Speaking of box turtles, did you know that they can die if you take them away from their territory? A box turtle that is removed from the area in which it lives may “wander aimlessly” in an attempt to return home, until it expires. You heard it here first, people – don’t pick up box turtles and carry them off to release in your back yard or whatever. It kills them.

"Don't kill me!"

Also, you should probably not keep a box turtle as a pet, or if you do, do your research first and don’t get it as a pet for a child. Box turtles are pretty hard to care for. They need to hibernate in the winter and require a varied diet consisting of earth worms, insects, millipedes, fruits, berries, and vegetation. Box turtles need to spend time in an outdoor enclosure, so they can get sunlight. Pressure from the pet trade is threatening box turtle populations in many areas. As many as half of box turtles captured in the wild die in captivity before making it to market. In many states, it’s illegal to collect box turtles from the wild, and your state may require a permit for these animals.

While box turtles live for an average of 50 years, it’s more than possible for these turtles to live for more than 100 years. As you may already know, tortoises (and turtles) are some of the longest-lived animals. Individual tortoises have been known to live longer than 150 years. Green sea turtles can live for 80 to 100 years or longer. The oldest known tortoise that ever lived was called Tu’i Malila. It was a radiated tortoise that lived from 1777 to 1965, or 188 years, and was allegedly a gift from Captain James Cook to the royal family of Tonga. The body of the tortoise is supposedly preserved on display at the Tongan National Center on the island of Tongatapu. Only one other vertebrate has been confirmed to have lived longer than Tu’i Malila, a koi named Hanako who died in July 1977 at the age of 226.

But you can't get a goldfish to live for a week.

Adwaita, an Aldabra giant tortoise that lived in India’s Alipore Zoo, was another extremely elderly tortoise. Adwaita took up residence in the zoo when its keeper, Lord Wellesley, gave it to the Alipur Zoological Gardens in 1875. Zoo records confirm that the tortoise was at least 150 years old, but unspecified “other evidence” suggests that the tortoise may have been as much as 250 years old. A Seychelles giant tortoise, Jonathan, currently living on St. Helena, may be between 178 and 182 years old, making him the oldest living animal on the planet.

Here he is as a young tortoise of 70 years.

When I was a little girl, a man in the neighborhood killed a snapping turtle and brought it to my grandparents. Grandpa apparently loved to eat snapping turtle, and in his excitement, he showed me how to butcher the animal. I fear Grandpa wasted his time, because I have never felt the need to eat a turtle and, barring an apocalypse, I never will. I hope there isn’t an apocalypse because I don’t really remember much of that long-ago lesson, but I do remember Grandpa removing the snapping turtle’s heart from its body and placing it in my hands, with the words, “A snappin’ turtle’s heart keeps beatin’ for hours after its death.” And yes, friends, that snapping turtle’s little heart sat there in my palm and pumped away for no reason at all.

I mention that because 17th century Italian naturalist (that’s that they called scientists back then) Francesco Redi performed an experiment in which he removed a tortoise’s brain, presumably to see how long it lived. It lived for six months.

I'll show myself out.

Monday, July 20, 2015

5 Drawbacks of Working from Home No One Talks About

I’ve been working at home for going on seven years now, and now I’m just going to take a minute because holy shit, that’s longer than I’ve done anything. Wow.

Everyone’s super jealous that I get to work from home, and sure, it’s got it’s upsides – no getting up at unholy hours, no hellish commute, less wear and tear on the car, smaller gas budget. But working from home has its drawbacks, and yes, most of them involve the lack of sick days, vacation days, or other benefits of any kind. There are lots of other things that you don’t see coming, however, until you're right in the middle of them.

5) You Start Getting Fat

I didn’t really start getting fat until after I moved back to America, quit smoking, and started taking antidepressants, so I’m 100% certain that those things played a significant role in my unprecedented weight gain. When you have access to your kitchen all day long, you have to be careful not to abuse it, because writing is surprisingly hungry work. I suspect it has something to do with how the brain needs glucose to function.

Also, when I lived in France, people didn’t show up to my house with multiple cakes they apparently expected me to sit and eat by myself, as I complained about recently. French people don’t try to make you eat yourself to death, inadvertently or otherwise. As my friend Kelly pointed out, I don’t have an office full of co-workers who can eat leftover desserts for me. I was going to say those cakes won’t eat themselves, but I guess they might if I leave them in the fridge long enough.

I'd feed them to the woodland creatures, but you don't want to know what sugar does to that woodchuck.

4) Running Errands Becomes a Real Mission

When other people need to pick up a jug of milk, they do it on the way home from work. When I need to pick up a jug of milk, I drink black coffee for two weeks until I finally break down and make a Special Trip to get a jug of milk. Then I get so irritated over having spent a huge chunk of my evening driving from my house, in the middle of nowhere, to the shops, in the middle of somewhere, that I contemplate buying my own cow.

Still not any easier, tbh.

And if I have to go to the bank, well, I don’t go to the bank. The president of the cat rescue I used to volunteer with can back me up on that, because I supervised the Sunday adoption events sometimes and collected a bunch of money in cat adoption fees, and then kept the money at home for two weeks until the president texted to nag me about it. I can’t stop at the bank on the way home from work until they open a branch office in my spare bedroom, which they’re not going to do, no matter how many sternly-worded letters I write them about it.

3) You Work Your Ass Off, but No One Realizes It

By now you’re probably thinking, “What do you mean you can’t find time to run errands, you work from home! Why can’t you just go to bank whenever you want? What do you do all day?”

Well, in answer to your question, Gentle Reader and/or People at Bars and/or All of My Extended Relatives, freaking work is what I do all day. Most people appear shocked to discover that I actually do have to complete specific assignments by a certain time each day, if I want to keep getting paid. 

I can either run around doing personal errands and meeting friends and relatives for leisurely lunches, or I can work. There isn’t time in the average day for both. This is a simple concept that lots of people can’t seem to grasp when they’re calling me up at 9 a.m. on a Tuesday to see if I can drop everything and meet them for ice cream. When anyone else says, “Sorry, can’t, got to work,” it’s accepted without question, but when I say it, it leads to twenty-minute argument about whether I or not I really need to work at that specific moment.

2) You Have More Pajamas Than Real Clothes

It seems like every freelance-writing, work-from-home-advice blogger has to write at least seven obligatory posts about how you shouldn’t work from home in your pajamas. You should put on proper, business-casual attire, do your hair, put on makeup, and coordinate your accessories. This, the (presumably) well-meaning bloggers say, will put you in a “businesslike” mood, make you feel “ready to take on the day,” and ensure that you’re prepared in case you have to hurry out for a last-minute, emergency client meeting.

Well, if you’re considering getting into freelance writing, I can tell you that no one really expects you to wear pantsuits. In all the years I've been freelancing, I’ve had to personally meet with a client exactly once, and he was happy to schedule a meeting at my convenience and did not demand that I hang up the phone and rush out to meet him in my pajamas. If I needed to wake up an hour earlier to go through the rigmarole of hair, makeup, and uncomfortable clothes to “get in the mood for work,” I daresay I would not have what it takes to succeed in this business. Besides, if I'm not getting health insurance, paid time off, or a 401(k), you can bet your sweet ass I'm going to take full advantage of those perks I do have, namely, "wearing whatever I damn well please or nothing at all if that's what strikes my fancy." Screw you, work-from-home-advice bloggers.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t get out of bed, feed the cats, and shuffle into my office wearing the same pair of pajamas that you probably imagine I’ve been wearing for days on end. No, each morning I change out of my night pajamas and into my day pajamas. That’s a lot of pajamas. And yes, once in a while I do forget and wear them to Walmart. Whatevs, everyone else in Walmart is wearing pajamas, too.

1) Dear God, So Lonely

If you’ve never worked from home before, I’m here to tell you that you don’t realize how important your daily interactions with coworkers and customers can be when it comes to not going batshit insane. Being anintrovert, I foolishly thought that I’d make a smooth transition to working from home, alone, in silence, all by myself, all day long, but I took to it about as well as a fish takes to water when the water is in fact vodka.

So...not very well.
Image by torbakhopper from Flickr.

All those little “hellos” and “how are yous” and “would you like some cakes” add up, man. Of course, having been at this for several years, I can say that once you do go batshit insane, it all gets a lot easier.


Friday, July 17, 2015

Fun Friday Facts #114: How Do Bumblebees Fly?

If you’re a person who exists, you’ve heard the urban legend that bumblebees shouldn’t be able to fly. Ignore the empirical evidence presented by thine eyes, plebe, for almighty Science declares that bumblebee flight defies the laws of physics! Those scientists, always with their laws and theories! When will they ever learn!

As you may have guessed, bumblebee flight does not defy the laws of physics. No one is quite sure how this urban legend got started, but its proponents insist that it was birthed from the mind of either a mathematician or an engineer at a party in the 1930s. That this unnamed but truly hard-hitting scientist was probably drunk at the time is conveniently left out of the stories.

Seriously, though, some accounts do attempt to name the scientists responsible for starting the rumor that bumblebee flight is a physical impossibility. The rumor has been pinned on German aerodynamicist Ludwig Prandtl, who lived from 1875 to 1953 and taught at the University of Gottingen. Others blame Swiss aeronautical engineer Jakob Ackeret.

A perhaps more credible theory is that the assertion first appeared in French entomologist Antoine Magnan’s 1934 book, The Flight of Insects. Magnan referenced calculations supposedly made by French mathematician André Sainte-Lague when he made the assertion that the flight of insects – not just bumblebees, but insects in general – should be scientifically impossible. No one knows how bumblebees, specifically, got stuck with the burden of impossible flight, but perhaps it’s just a natural consequence of being so fat and derpy and having such tiny, tiny wings.

Bumblebee in flight by Pahazzard from Wikimedia Commons.

However, Saint-Lague made at least one crucial mistake on the way to concluding that bees can’t fly – he based his calculations on the principles of fixed-wing aerodynamics, which you may recognize as the science of airplane flight. Bumblebees are not planes. Of course, if bumblebees were planes – with rigid, smooth, fixed wings – they wouldn’t be able to fly. Their bodies would be too big and they wouldn’t be able to generate enough lift.

But bumblebees aren’t planes, and they don’t have rigid, fixed wings. Their wings are flexible. Bumblebees don’t glide; they obviously flap their wings. But how does a bumblebee generate enough lift to take flight and stay aloft? Bumblebees’ wings aren’t long enough to generate adequate lift by flapping up and down, the way birds’ wings do. Instead, bumblebees flap their wings back and forth, in a horizontal figure-of-eight motion. That motion creates vortices, described as tiny hurricanes, above the bee’s wings. Because the air pressure is lower in these vortices than in the surrounding air, the bee is able to stay aloft.

How did scientists figure this out? In one experiment, Chinese researcher Lijang Zeng of Tsinghua University and his team strapped tiny mirrors onto bumblebees and then fired lasers at them. I am not even making this up. Somehow, this allowed the scientists to create precise models of natural bee flight that were more accurate than those created in previous experiments, for which scientists were forced to use tethered bees. Tethered bees apparently don’t fly right, for some reason. 

I'll leave it up to you to imagine how they attached the tethers to the bees. 

Friday, July 3, 2015

Fun Friday Facts #113: How Did Dinosaurs Become Birds?

I just saw Jurassic World tonight, and was disappointed to see that none of the dinosaurs were depicted as having had feathers. But that’s Hollywood for you, I guess. Historical accuracy doesn’t sell movie tickets. Abraham Lincoln hunting vampires sells movie tickets.
Also, if scientists did go too far and bring dinosaurs back to life for profit, they’d probably go ahead and tweak the genome to remove the feathers. You’ve got to give the people what they want, and the people want two things: naked, leathery behemoths, and, occasionally, to get eaten.

I heard about the birds-evolved-from-dinosaurs thing when I was a kid, and I’ve always sort of wondered how that happened. Researchers have only recently been able to put together a complete picture of the evolution of birds. For a long time, scientists knew of only one evolutionary link between large, land-bound dinosaurs like the T. rex and the tiny, feathered creatures that seem to line up and take turns going at my birdfeeder (ooh, that reminds me, I’d better fill up my birdfeeder). That link was Archaeopteryx, a birdlike dinosaur that lived about 150 million years ago and weighed about 1.7 lbs (0.8 kg).

Image by Nobu Tamara from Wikipedia.

While researchers previously assumed that Archaeopteryx represented a sudden and mysterious evolutionary jump of just 10 million years, a plethora of fossil evidence uncovered in the last decade has revealed that Archaeopteryx and other early birds were the result of a much more normal, slower progression. Instead of birdlike dinosaurs emerging suddenly about 150 million years ago, dinosaurs began evolving birdlike traits pretty much from the time they first emerged on Earth about 245 million years ago. Modern birds evolved from the maniraptoran theropods, of which the velociraptor is one. As the millennia passed, theropods developed increasingly birdlike traits. The dinosaurs that would eventually become birds also got smaller and smaller over about a 50 million year period. The earliest bird ancestors weighed around 359 lbs (163 kg), but they would eventually shrink down to the size of the smallest modern songbirds.

Birds slowly became birdier, and when the basic components of birdiness – hollow bones, birdlike pelvises, three-fingered hands, wishbones, fully articulated quill feathers, and small size – came together in the Archaeopteryx, conditions were finally ripe for bird evolution to take off. As early birds began learning to fly, they started shrinking faster, and the smaller they became, they more adept they were at flight – large winged animals can glide, but true flight requires the right ratio of weight to wing size. The lineage that would become birds proved itself to be far more adaptable than other dinosaur lines, and shrank 160 times faster than other lines were growing.

The earliest birds also pulled an evolutionary trick that has helped other animals, such as humans, nurture greater intelligence: paedomorphosis. Paedomorphosis occurs when an animal stops developing physically at an earlier stage of its life than its predecessors, in a way proves advantageous from an evolutionary standpoint. Dinosaur embryos had larger, rounder skulls and shorter faces, and as birds evolved, they began to retain that larger, rounder skull shape into adulthood. This allowed adult birds to develop bigger skulls and bigger brains to fill them. It also allowed birds to ditch their ancestral snouts and start developing beaks, which would rapidly become specialized to the needs of each species.

As seen here.
Image by L. Shyamal from Wikimedia Commons.

Their newly small size must have provided dinosaur-birds with an evolutionary advantage, since it allowed them to fill ecological niches left unexplored by their larger cousins. Of course, when a six-mile-wide asteroid slammed into the Earth about 65 million years ago, the small, easily adaptable birds, with their powers of flight and their significantly reduced nutritional needs, were able to ride out the cataclysm, while their enormous cousins dropped dead all around them. And that, friends, is why we have chickens.  

And that, friends, is why we have chickens.
Image by misha3637 from Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Fun Friday Facts #112: Same-Sex Marriage in History

Today, the Supreme Court ruled that state bans on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional, thus effectively bringing marriage equality to every state in the Union. This made me fantasize about what it would be like to buy a newspaper (for proof), climb into my time machine, and travel back to 1997, where I would interrupt my mother in the middle of her I-don’t-care-if-you-like-women-but-no-one-needs-to-know-about-it speech, and tell her to kiss my ass. But we don’t have time machines yet, and I’m going to hazard a guess that we don’t have them in the future either because I don’t remember Elderly Me showing up waving a photo of the first gay president and First Husband. So in recognition of this wonderful, wonderful day, on which a ray of rainbow-colored hope has emerged to suggest that, as Allie Brosh would say, “Maybe everything isn’t hopeless bullshit,” I’ve decided to dedicate this Friday’s facts to the history of gay marriage.

Image by Benson Cua from Wikimedia Commons

The history of same-sex marriage is one that is along as the history of civilization itself. Same-sex marriages existed in both ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. In Egypt, at least one same-sex couple was buried in a pharaonic tomb, suggesting that the couple enjoyed legal status. In Mesopotamia, which I might point out has been dubbed the cradle of civilization, same-sex marriages were well-documented and were just one of various so-called “non-traditional” forms of marriage practiced. Among some of the other forms was polyandry, the practice of marrying multiple husbands, which sounds like it could simultaneously be both the best and worst thing ever.

As most people know, same-sex unions were common in ancient Greece, where the most common form of the institution involved an older man and a younger boy. Scholars insist that these unions were mostly, ahem, educational in nature, with the older man acting as a teacher and the younger boy as a pupil. Such a relationship certainly didn’t end when the participants both married women, as they were expected to do.

Romans also practiced same-sex unions, and more than a dozen Roman emperors either played for both teams or were outright gay. No less than two Roman emperors are rather famously known for marrying men, including Nero and Elagabalus. At least one of Nero’s cronies, on being asked if he approved of the emperor’s choice of a teenaged eunuch as a spouse, declared, “You do well, Caesar, to seek the company of such wives. Would that your father had had the same ambition and had lived with a similar consort!” Because you know, then Nero wouldn’t have been born. Sick burn.

On the other side of the world, folks in ancient China were gay-marrying it up, too. History brings us the story of Pan Zhang and Wang Zhongxian, two Chinese men who fell in love at first sight and lived together as domestic partners for the rest of their lives thereafter. They were said to be as “affectionate as husband and wife, sharing the same coverlet and pillow with unbounded intimacy for one another.” Legend has it that the two men died simultaneously, and were buried at the peak of Mount Luofu by their grief-stricken neighbors. A tree sprang up from the grave, and its twigs grew wrapped around one another as if embracing.

According to controversial historian John Boswell, a form of same-sex marriage known as “brother-making” existed in premodern Europe, as detailed in his extremely dense tome Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe. Boswell claims that the brother-making ceremony served as a form of religious same-sex marriage in the medieval Catholic Church. 

Saints Sergius and Bacchus were alleged participants.

While church officials and theologians alike dispute this claim, there is some evidence to suggest that a similar practice did exist in late medieval France. Affrèrement, or “enbrotherment,” allowed two or more unrelated men to establish a household in which all members shared property jointly, as in a marriage, and became one another’s legal heirs. These contracts were entered into via public oath before a notary and witnesses, and while they may not always have been used to formalize a same-sex relationship, the parties involved “frequently testified that they entered into the contract because of their affection for one another.”

In 19th-century and early 20th-century America, a similar practice emerged among women who chose to live together as committed partners instead of taking husbands. These unions were known as Boston marriages. Charity Bryant and Sylvia Drake entered into one of the better known Boston marriages. The couple was recognized by their families and community, and to some extent even by the law, as a married couple. They share a tombstone in Weybridge, Vermont. 

Friday, June 19, 2015

Fun Friday Facts #111: The History of Eyeglasses

A dear friend who is also blind as hell recently asked me what people did before they invented eyeglasses.

“Well, glasses were invented in like 1300 so they probably just wore glasses,” I said, pulling what I now know was a completely accurate tidbit of information right out of my ass.

“No, I mean, before that,” he replied.

“Oh, I don’t know, squinted a lot I guess,” is what I would have said if I were half as clever as I let on. According to poster Kathleen Grace, “They didn’t do much, they just tried to cope as well as they could.” While ordinary people may well have been reduced to squinting, holding things really close to their face, and feeling around for stuff on tables, but lucky for them, there weren’t a lot of things in their daily lives that required sharp vision. Books were uncommon and widespread illiteracy meant that most people didn’t need to write, either. Neither was there any driving. But now that I think of it, I wonder if all those alleged “blind people” that Jesus healed in the Bible weren’t just really, really myopic.

Seneca the Younger noted that “Letters, however small and indistinct, are seen enlarged and more clearly through a globe or glass filled with water.” The Roman Emperor Nero used an emerald as a corrective lens to watch the gladiatorial contests. Lenses made of rock crystal, such as the Nimrud lens, have been in use for at least 3,000 years, but it is unclear whether these ancient lenses were used for magnification or simply as burning lenses à la Lord of the Flies.

Both uses are legit:
Photo of the Nimrud lens in the British Museum by user Geni from Wikipedia Commons.

The first mention of a convex lens used to produce a magnified image appears in 1021 in Alhazen’s Book of Optics. By the 11th or 12th century, Vikings were crafting rock crystal lenses capable of producing imaging quality on a par with 1950s technology. “Reading stones” made of glass became common in the scriptoriums of European monasteries between the 11th and 13th centuries, as they helped nearsighted monks work on illuminated manuscripts.

By the early 1200s, the imaging properties of lenses were well-known. In China, sunglasses made of smoky quartz had already been invented, and in the Arctic, the Inuit were already using snow goggles. Eyeglasses were invented in Italy sometime between 1286 and 1306, according to a 1306 sermon by Dominican friar Giordano de Pisa, who mentioned that “It is not yet twenty years since there was found the art of making eyeglasses.” It should be noted that Marco Polo claims to have seen glasses in China as early as 1275, though it is unclear whether those glasses were for vision correction or just to look cool. By 1301, guilds in the glass making city of Venice had established regulations governing the lawful sale of eyeglasses.

Earpieces would not be invented until much later. Early pairs of glasses had to be held in place with the hand, as depicted in this Renaissance-era painting, Seated Apostle Reading While Feeling Annoyed as Hell:

"I wish Jesus would heal me of my blindness already so I could hold this anachronistic book with both hands."

Pince-nez style glasses stayed in place on their own by pinching the nose, hence the name (which is French for “pinch nose” for you non-Francophones readers). Modern-style glasses with clearly superior temple earpieces had been invented by at least the 17th century, as they were depicted in this circa-1600 El Greco painting of Fernando Nino de Guevara:

However, the modern style of glasses did not catch on immediately due to what many considered their sheer ugliness. Four-eyed freaks like George Washington, Napoleon, and Lafayette preferred ornate French-style binocles-ciseaux (“scissor glasses”) like these, which date from 1805:

Lorgnettes, or spectacles with a long handle, became popular in the 19th century, especially among fashionable ladies, although these were considered more like jewelry than corrective eyewear. Today, Wikipedia notes that “glasses remain very common, as their technology has improved.”

No shit.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Fun Friday Facts #110: What Makes a Person a Cat Person or a Dog Person?

I don’t want to write this blog post, because: a) I’m tired, OMFG, what was I thinking when I decided FRIDAY would be a good day to write a regular blog post? Past Me was about as sharp as a marble sometimes; and b) I’m now pissed off after spending the past 45 minutes doing research, which in this case amounts to reading generalization after generalization about how dog people are friendly, extraverted, and conscientious, while cat people are cold, aloof, and introverted, and dog people should never, ever marry cat people because we are so deeply, horribly, and fundamentally flawed.  

I don't want your smelly dog in my house anyway. *pout*

According to research performed at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI, dog and cat owners do tend to have differences in personality. In a survey of 600 college students, the researchers found that dog lovers are “more energetic,” extraverted, and more likely to follow the rules. Cat lovers, on the other hand, are non-conformists who tend to introversion, sensitivity, and open-mindedness. Cat lovers are, somewhat perplexingly, both more neurotic and more open to new experiences – adventures, art, new ideas, etc. Cat lovers are also smarter, BECAUSE OF COURSE WE ARE.

Carroll University researcher Denise Guastello believes that extraverted people may decide they prefer dogs because they believe that dogs’ supposed personality traits make them an ideal pet for an active, extraverted person, while introverted or shy people may choose cats for themselves for a similar reason. The study also suggests that dog and cat people want different things out of their pets – dog people say they want “companionship” from their dogs, while cat people claim to want “affection” from their cats. That’s all well and good, but if you want companionship, cats are the reason why bathroom doors have locks.

I took this picture while I was writing this.

One sociologist has a different theory about cat people and dog people – and it’s one I like, because I’m a feminist killjoy. Lisa Wade PhD, writing for the blog Sociological Images at The Society Pages, asserts that the cat person/dog person debate is really a discussion about one’s perceived masculinity – or lack thereof. She writes,

After all, don’t we stereotype women as cat people and men as dog people? And don’t we think men with cats are a little femmy, or, at minimum, sweeter than most…even, maybe, gay? And don’t we imagine that chicks with dogs are a little less girly than most, a little more rough and tumble? The cat person/dog person dichotomy is gendered.

Dr. Wade goes on to point out that, while dogs are considered a “manly” pet, this is only true if the dogs in question fulfill an arbitrary size requirement. A large dog is a “real” man’s perfect companion; it is loyal, dependent, obedient, and perhaps crucially, doesn’t talk back. A small dog, on the other hand, emasculates its male owner more and more with each high-pitched yap. I would take this a step further and venture to suggest that the breed is important as well; I recently got into an argument with some man somewhere (I can’t remember who or where) about whether or not a standard poodle makes an appropriate “man pet.” Apparently it doesn’t, because despite the fact that standard poodles are huge and also a hunting breed, the word “poodle” alone is enough to make a red-blooded man’s balls just shrivel up and drop right off. Even so, Dr. Wade points out that cat owners are considered “less cool” than dog owners and “no one ever fears ending up a ‘crazy dog lady,’” although that might have at least as much to do with the lowered risk of toxoplasmosis as with the gendering of pet preferences. In any case, one thing is clear: men who love cats (and small dogs) need feminism, too.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Fun Friday Facts #109: Why Do We Laugh?

In another Friday Facts column long, long ago, I answered the question “Why Do We Cry?” – or failed to answer it, as the case may be, because as it turns out NO ONE KNOWS (dun dun DUN). Now, literally like two years later, it finally occurred to me to address the opposite emotional response. Why do we laugh?

According to Robert R. Provine, a University of Maryland Baltimore County professor of psychology and neuroscience and author of the book Laughter: A Scientific Investigation, laughter’s primary function is to strengthen social relationships. Provine and his students studied “laughter in the wild” by eavesdropping on conversations taking place in public. A full 80 to 90 percent of the 1,200 laughs Provine and his students recorded occurred in response to thoroughly unfunny remarks like “I see your point” or “It was nice meeting you, too.” A mere 10 to 20 percent of the laughs were in response to intentional jokes.

Provine believes that laughter is the oldest form of human communication, predating the first spoken languages by hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years. Though animals don’t seem to have a sense of humor, they laugh, too. The evolutionary origins of human laughter can perhaps be seen in the laughter of apes, which takes the form of a distinctive facial expression and a rapid, open-mouthed panting. Apes laugh during play and have been known to laugh at many of the same things that human babies laugh at. Other animals, particularly rats, will laugh in response to being tickled.

Of course, there’s more than one type of laughter – laughter researchers have identified two types, which originate in two different parts of the brain. Spontaneous laughter, such as that connected to humor or being tickled, is uncontrollable and comes from an evolutionarily older part of the brain; it is most likely the original form of human laughter. Non-spontaneous laughter, such as forced or nervous laughter, originates in a different, more recent, part of the brain. Both types of laughter may be used to solidify social bonds.

It is possible to die from laughter. Excessive laughter has been known to cause heart attacks, embolisms, and strokes. Some famous people alleged to have died from laughter include:

  • Zeuxis, a Greek painter who died laughing in the 5th century BC, after an old woman commissioned a portion of the goddess Aphrodite and insisted on modeling for it herself. Way to be an asshole, Zeuxis.
  • Chrysippus, a Greek Stoic philosopher who laughed himself to death in the 3rd century BC having watched a donkey hilariously eat too many figs and drink too much wine. Sounds like that donkey wasn’t the only one who had too much wine that night.
  • King Martin of Aragon, who “died from a combination of indigestion and uncontrollable laughter” in 1410. Back in the day, just about anything could kill you.
  • Thomas Urquhart, a Scottish aristocrat who died laughing in 1660 when he heard that Charles II was king. I mean, that doesn’t sound too funny.

Never fear; people are still dropping dead from laughter, because it turns out it’s not the best medicine after all. Englishman Alex Mitchell died on 24 March 1975 while watching an episode of “Kung Fu Kapers” in which a traditionally-clad Scotsman battled a man wielding a black pudding. He was later found to have had a heart condition. In 1989, Danish audiologist Ole Bentzen died laughing while watching “A Fish Called Wanda,” and in 2003, Thai ice cream man (that’s an ice cream man who was Thai, not a man who sold Thai ice cream) Damnoen Saen-um died in his sleep after two full minutes of sleep-laughter. He was 52.

Tickling has been used as a form of torture in the past – in the Han Dynasty, where it was considered a dignified form of torture fit for members of the nobility. In ancient Rome, torturers allegedly dipped a person's feet in salt and allowed a goat to lick it off. Once all the salt was gone, the feet would be re-salted, until eventually, the person’s feet would become blistered and raw and eventually the flesh itself would begin to come off.

That doesn't sound too funny either.
Image by Jon Stammers from Flickr.

Heinz Heger, a gay German imprisoned by the Nazis for his homosexuality, wrote in his book The Men with the Pink Triangle of an incident in which SS soldiers tortured a fellow prisoner viciously by tickling him. In research for his book Sibling Abuse, Vernon Wiehle discovered that tickling is a common form of abuse between siblings that is capable of engendering such extreme reactions as loss of consciousness and vomiting. While it is unknown whether or not anyone has been tickle-tortured to death, WebMD admits that the physical exertion and stress of being tickled could be sufficient to cause a brain hemorrhage or heart attack, if continued long enough.