From Many Imaginations, One Fearsome Creature

Wednesday, April 30th, 2003

A recent New York Times article, From Many Imaginations, One Fearsome Creature, discusses one of my favorite subjects, dragons, and presents a few explanations for why people around the world believed in them:

In “An Instinct for Dragons” (Routledge, 2000), Dr. David E. Jones, a professor of anthropology at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, posits a biological explanation that jibes with the Jungian notion of unconscious collective fears. He argues that the dragon image, fermented in the primal soup of man’s first nightmares, is a composite of the carnivores who fed on human ancestors when they were tree-dwelling monkeys: the pythons, the big cats and the raptors.

Professor Jones was struck by the idea, he said, while reading about the three-alarm calls of the vervet monkey. The first, for leopards, makes them leap for the treetops. The second, for eagles, makes them duck to low branches, and the third, for snakes, makes them jump.

Obviously, there is quite an evolutionary gap between vervet monkeys and the Sumerians of 5000 B.C., the first people known to have drawn dragons. But Dr. Jones argues that the same elemental fears persist in humans as snake and bird phobias, and he cites as evidence the fact that infant chimpanzees who have never seen snakes are terrified of them.

This explanation makes some sense:

Pliny, ignoring Greek and Roman mythology, held that “dracos” did exist, but just in faraway India, where he reported that they were large enough to prey on elephants by dropping out of trees and strangling them. Modern naturalists assume that he heard reports of pythons, which not only grew bigger in retelling, but also turned into fish stories. Some dragons, Pliny wrote, had such large crests on their heads they could sail to Arabia to hunt.

This could also explain some sightings:

In 58 B.C., Pliny reported, the “spine of the sea serpent killed by Perseus at Joppa” (modern-day Jaffa) was displayed in Rome. Karl Shuker, author of “Dragons, A Natural History” (Simon & Schuster, 1995), surmises that the monster Cetus, swimming up to eat Andromeda, might have grown out of rare sightings of oarfish, a snakelike fish up to 30 feet long with a coral red head crest. Other scholars theorize that the skeleton might have been one of the sperm whales that once commonly beached near Jaffa. A half-rotted whale, with its jawbones and vestigial leg bones exposed, would look rather dragonlike, they say.

Of course, there’s one particularly good reason for believing in dragons — dragon bones:

But there is another obvious source for the dragon myth: the bones of dinosaurs and extinct mammals. Bones exposed by storms, earthquakes or digging were well known to the ancients, said Dr. Adrienne Mayor, a professor of folklore at Princeton and the author of “The First Fossil Hunters” (Princeton, 2000). She argues that the myth of gold-guarding griffins arose in the red clay of the Gobi Desert, a landscape literally scattered with white Protoceratops skulls, with parrot beaks and bony neck frills.

Othenio Abel, an Austrian paleontologist, speculated as early as 1914 that the central nasal holes in skulls of prehistoric dwarf elephants were the source for Homer’s Cyclops. Abel added that the skulls of cave bears — ursus spelaeus, half again as big as grizzlies — could have given rise to tales of dragons.

Medieval Europe is “full of stories of knights fighting dragons in caves,” Dr. Mayor said.

Some extinct mammals have startlingly dragonlike skulls, and Asian dragon myths may be based on Pleistocene and Cretaceous fossils, which were at one time universally known as “dragon bones,” Dr. Mayor added.

Sivatherium giganteum, a huge proto-giraffe, has a pointed three-foot-long skull, and another, Giraffokeryx, has four swept-back horns.

Mount Pilatus in Switzerland abounds in pterodactyl fossils, and with stories of fights between men and dragonets — small, scrawny winged dragons.

The head of a dragon sculptured in 1590 by Ulrich Vogelsang for the city of Klagenfurt, Austria, was modeled on a “dragon skull” found by quarrymen in 1335. It is now known to be that of an Ice Age woolly rhinoceros.

Paleontologists can even account for the legend that dragons have jewels in their foreheads. Big calcite crystals form on long-buried skulls.

Of course, dragon-like crocodiles and komodo “dragons” exist in the real world, but, interestingly enough, dragon myths are more common where there aren’t any quasi-dragons:

[A]lthough draconian crocodiles appear in the mythology of Australian aborigines, dragons are just as common in the myths of Vikings, who might have been eaten by bears, but never by crocs. And dragon lore is rare in Africa, where crocs are common, but predator myths revolve more around lions and hyenas.

The kindest cutter of all

Wednesday, April 30th, 2003

In The kindest cutter of all, Munro Price reviews Guillotine: The Timbers of Justice by Robert Frederick Opie:

The guillotine is a paradoxical device. It was conceived with a humanitarian purpose: to spare criminals condemned to death in 18th-century France the horrors that had traditionally been their lot — primitive hanging, breaking on the wheel or, for those who had been foolhardy enough to try to kill the king, tearing apart by wild horses. Compared to these medieval barbarities, swift dispatch by a state-of-the-art beheading machine was infinitely preferable. Yet within two years of its inauguration, the guillotine had gained a notoriety unequalled by any of these earlier, and far nastier, methods.

Before the invention of the guillotine, beheading en masse was prohibitively expensive:

Under the old regime, the luxury of decapitation, usually by the sword, was strictly reserved for the nobility; one of the Assembly’s first decisions, prompted by the eponymous Dr Guillotin, was that this boon should be extended to all Frenchmen regardless of birth.

This high ideal, however, concealed major practical difficulties. Beheading the occasional aristocrat was one thing; applying the same method en masse to common criminals, not all of whom could be relied upon to rise to the occasion, was enough to make the stoutest headsman tremble. As the state executioner Charles-Henri Sanson put it, in a masterpiece of professional understatement: “In order that an execution may be completed according to the requirements of the law…the executioner [must] be very skilful and the condemned very composed, otherwise it may be impossible to complete the execution by the sword without the risk of dangerous incidents occurring.

“After each execution the sword is unfit to perform another; it is essential that the sword which is liable to damage be sharpened and reset if there are several condemned persons to be executed at the same time. It is therefore necessary to have a number of swords available in a state of readiness…The Paris executioner has only two swords.”

Of course, most of us associate the guillotine with 1790′s France, during the revolution, but the guillotine had a 189-year career that went beyond France, “and by the mid-19th century [it] had become the standard means of execution in most of the Italian and German states, Greece and even Newfoundland.” Even the Nazis used the guillotine:

Its worst abuse occurred not in 1790s Paris, but in Nazi Germany. The guillotine claimed just under 3,000 French lives in Paris during the Terror, but 10,000 German ones in 1944 and 1945 alone.

One-Toy-Fits-All: How Industry Learned to Love the Global Kid

Tuesday, April 29th, 2003

According to One-Toy-Fits-All: How Industry Learned to Love the Global Kid, the same toys are popular with kids around the world; they don’t need to be “localized” for varying tastes:

For years, Barbie dolls sold in Japan looked different from their U.S. counterparts. They had Asian facial features, black hair and Japanese-inspired fashions.

Then, about three years ago, Mattel Inc. conducted consumer research around the world and learned something surprising: The original Barbie, with her yellow hair and blue eyes, played as well in Hong Kong as it did in Hollywood. Girls didn’t care if Barbie didn’t look like them.

“It’s all about fantasies and hair,” says Peter Broegger, general manager of Mattel’s Asian operations. “Blond Barbie sells just as well in Asia as in the U.S.”

It’s all about fantasies and hair. I would say that little boy’s toys are all about fantasies and weapons, but German kids rarely play with action figures (1% of their toy market, versus 5% of ours), and I suspect Old Europe’s kids aren’t allowed to play with guns. At least they play with cars — Formula One though, not Nascar.

It Ages Well, Is Kept in Cellars, Goes With a Good Cigar — Beer?

Tuesday, April 29th, 2003

What happens when you take micro-brewing to the extreme? You get extreme beer. It’s extreme! From It Ages Well, Is Kept in Cellars, Goes With a Good Cigar — Beer?:

At 24% alcohol by volume, Utopias is also one of the strongest beers ever brewed, though it has an extreme rival down in Delaware: World Wide Stout, produced by Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, at slightly more than 23%.

Extreme beer is being made with wine grapes and chili peppers. It is aged for years in barrels and put away in cellars. Blended in the tradition of Scotch whisky, it’s collected and resold for profit, like fine wine.

It’s also commanding extreme prices. Vermont’s Magic Hat Brewery, Washington State’s Fish Brewing Co., and several other U.S. brewers now make beers retailing at more than $20 a bottle. So do some beer-makers in Belgium, the European heart of extreme beer.

“To me, making extreme beer simply means pushing the boundaries of what people have always thought of as beer,” says Jim Koch, Boston Brewing’s founder and president — and the father of Utopias. One extreme example: Mr. Koch (pronounced Cook), following a medieval recipe, once made up a batch of beer by throwing a cooked chicken into the beer kettle.

“I’m not really so much about trying to sell ‘better beer’ to beer drinkers as I am about trying to win over the cognac and wine crowd,” says Sam Calagione, founder and owner of Dogfish Head in Milton, Del., whose motto is “off-centered ales for off-centered people.”

Besides the ultrastrong World Wide Stout, Dogfish Head sells a beer called Midas Touch. It is concocted from a 2,700-year-old-beer recipe reverse-engineered by a University of Pennsylvania molecular archaeologist; he took scrapings from a gold-filled tomb in Turkey, which some think was the burial place of King Midas. The ingredients, along with the usual beer components of hops, malt, water and yeast, include honey, white muscat grapes and saffron.

Skipping Meals May Help, Not Hurt, Health

Tuesday, April 29th, 2003

From Skipping Meals May Help, Not Hurt, Health:

A report released Monday found that a diet in which mice ate only every other day appeared to protect them more from diabetes and the memory-robbing Alzheimer’s disease than either a low-calorie diet or eating as much food as they wanted every day.

Interesting. How did they test this exactly?

The mice were forced to fast for a day and then given free reign to gorge on food the next. Consequently, those who fasted ate as many calories as did mice given as much food as they wanted every day, the researcher explained. A third group of mice ate every day, but consumed 40 percent fewer calories than the other rodents.

After the mice followed the diet for five months, the researchers gave them a neurotoxin that selectively damages nerve cells important for learning and memory, a pattern typically seen in Alzheimer’s disease.

The researchers found that the toxin damaged fewer nerve cells in the brains of mice who fasted than in those who either ate freely or followed the low-cal diet.

Furthermore, blood tests revealed that mice who fasted had lower insulin levels than those who followed the other diets, an indication they also had a reduced risk of developing diabetes.

So fasting and gorging may be healthier than eating a steady diet because…it protects mice against a neurotoxin that selectively damages nerve cells important for learning and memory?

U.S. Says Preventable Injuries Serious Health Threat

Tuesday, April 29th, 2003

Some interesting stats from U.S. Says Preventable Injuries Serious Health Threat:

Injury is the top killer of Americans in the first four decades of life and costs the nation at least $260 billion in health care, lost productivity and other expenses each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

One in 10 people ends up in an emergency room each year as a result of car crashes, falls or violent acts.

Naturally this leads me to ask, how many of those people going to the emergency room need to go to the emergency room? That number seems quite high, since I’m certainly not in the emergency room — knock on wood — every ten years.

The Empire Slinks Back

Monday, April 28th, 2003

In The Empire Slinks Back, Niall Ferguson (“a fully paid-up member of the neoimperialist gang”) defends American imperialism (or “humanitarianism”) — if America will just follow through:

The British Empire has had a pretty lousy press from a generation of ”postcolonial” historians anachronistically affronted by its racism. But the reality is that the British were significantly more successful at establishing market economies, the rule of law and the transition to representative government than the majority of postcolonial governments have been. The policy ”mix” favored by Victorian imperialists reads like something just published by the International Monetary Fund, if not the World Bank: free trade, balanced budgets, sound money, the common law, incorrupt administration and investment in infrastructure financed by international loans. These are precisely the things Iraq needs right now. If the scary-sounding ”American empire” can deliver them, then I am all for it.

Animal Liberation at 30

Monday, April 28th, 2003

In Animal Liberation at 30, Peter Singer reviews the state of animal rights 30 years after he first reviewed Animals, Men and Morals for The New York Review of Books. He presents the following argument:

If we ignore or discount their interests, simply on the grounds that they are not members of our species, the logic of our position is similar to that of the most blatant racists or sexists who think that those who belong to their race or sex have superior moral status, simply in virtue of their race or sex, and irrespective of other characteristics or qualities. Although most humans may be superior in reasoning or in other intellectual capacities to nonhuman animals, that is not enough to justify the line we draw between humans and animals. Some humans — infants and those with severe intellectual disabilities — have intellectual capacities inferior to some animals, but we would, rightly, be shocked by anyone who proposed that we inflict slow, painful deaths on these intellectually inferior humans in order to test the safety of household products. Nor, of course, would we tolerate confining them in small cages and then slaughtering them in order to eat them. The fact that we are prepared to do these things to nonhuman animals is therefore a sign of “speciesism” — a prejudice that survives because it is convenient for the dominant group — in this case not whites or males, but all humans.

I guess he finds that convincing.

Animal Rights Leader Wants to Be Barbecued

Friday, April 25th, 2003

Animal Rights Leader Wants to Be Barbecued reports on PETA-president Newkirk’s darkly comical last will and testament:

The leader of a prominent U.S.-based animal rights group said she had drawn up a will directing that her flesh be barbecued and her skin used to make leather products in protest at man’s ill-treatment of animals.

Ingrid Newkirk, 53, president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), said on Thursday she had chosen to donate her body to her organization for use in a variety of startling protests.
Newkirk also suggested her feet be removed and made into umbrella stands similar to those made from elephant feet that she had seen as a child.
In the document she also suggests her liver be vacuum-packed and sent to France to be used in a campaign to persuade shoppers not to buy foie gras, made from the livers of force-fed ducks and geese.

Beethoven’s ninth symphony

Friday, April 25th, 2003

The Economist presents an amusing bit of Beethoven trivia

[The ninth symphony's] status as an icon of western classical music is unquestionable: in order that listeners could enjoy the entire work at one sitting, the 74-minute ninth symphony was used to set the standard capacity for a compact disc.

Newsweek Columnist Fareed Zakaria

Thursday, April 24th, 2003

Fareed Zakaria (“Indian-born, educated at Harvard, conservative”) is a Newsweek foreign-affairs columnist who’s getting quite a bit of press these days. Newsweek Columnist Fareed Zakaria explains how he became a conservative:

Zakaria became a conservative, he says, from observing the Indian state. “People often say, ‘How could you, living in India, end up a Reaganite?’ Well, the answer is, live in India. There are two things that people don’t understand. One is the degree to which a highly regulated economy produces masses of corruption because it empowers bureaucrats. It just has to be seen to be believed.

“The second,” he continues, “is that you are very quickly inured to the charms of pre-industrial village life. Whenever someone says the word community, I want to reach for an oxygen mask.”

Heroin Busts Point to Source Of Funds for North Koreans

Thursday, April 24th, 2003

There isn’t much difference between a criminal gang with enough “muscle” and a corrupt government, as North Korea demonstrates. From Heroin Busts Point to Source Of Funds for North Koreans:

North Korea’s exports from legitimate businesses totaled just $650 million in 2001, according to South Korea’s central bank. But its annual revenue from illegal drugs runs between $500 million and $1 billion, officials at the U.S. military command in South Korea estimate. Another source of hard currency: secret missile sales that U.S. forces in South Korea estimate added up to $560 million in 2001.

As long as the market for drugs is a black market, we have to expect a lot of money to find its way into criminal (or corrupt-government) hands.

Aldous Huxley: An English Intellectual

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2003

Dennis Drabelle opens his review of Aldous Huxley: An English Intellectual with the story of Huxley’s death:

Aldous Huxley died while tripping on acid. On Nov. 22, 1963 (the day President Kennedy was assassinated), mortally ill with cancer, unable to speak, he wrote out a request for an injection of LSD, a drug he had taken several times before. His doctor consented. Huxley’s second wife administered the injection and, two hours later, a second one. In keeping with the principles of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, she encouraged him to let go. When it was time, he did.


Tuesday, April 22nd, 2003

While reading that MTV is updating Wuthering Heights, I had to ask myself, just what does “wuthering” mean anyway? Merriam-Webster OnLine provides an answer:

Main Entry: wuth·er
Pronunciation: ‘w&-[th]&r
Function: intransitive verb
Etymology: alteration of whither to rush, bluster, hurl
Date: circa 1825
dialect English: to blow with a dull roaring sound

Why a ‘No Fly List’ Aimed At Terrorists Delays Others

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2003

Why a ‘No Fly List’ Aimed At Terrorists Delays Others explains how poor name-matching algorithms are turning the No Fly List into a serious pain for certain travelers — every time they fly:

The No Fly List, quietly introduced after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, is designed to keep suspected violent types off airliners. It includes terrorism suspects thought to pose an imminent danger to flights. Some people who present a general threat to air safety because of violent behavior also make the list.

But the system comes up with an alarming number of “false positives” — often because the name-matching techniques were designed “to let agents find passenger records quickly without having a full name or a name’s precise spelling”:

One name-matching technique that airlines have used, called Soundex, dates back more than 100 years, to when it was invented to analyze names from the 1890 census. In its simplest form, it takes a name, strips out vowels and assigns codes to somewhat-similar-sounding consonants, such as “c” and “z.”

The result can be bizarre. Hencke and Hamza, for example, have the same code, H520. If there’s a Hamza on the No Fly List, a traveler named Hencke could be pulled aside for a background check before being allowed to board.

A 40-year-old method designed specifically for airlines does something similar, stripping names down to consonants and pulling up names that have the same consonants in the same order. A third technique sometimes used by airlines hunts for matches based on the first few letters of surnames.

Hence Mr. Musarra’s troubles in Juneau. In an algorithm used by Sabre, whose software runs Alaska Airlines’ reservations system and many others, “Musarra” appears to pop up as a match for any name starting with “Mus.” A fair number of names from the Mideast and Central Asia begin that way, including at least one on the No Fly List.