Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Andrewsarchus (or, the blog post that took an unexpected and nauseating turn)

I've come to realize that I never get tired of weird animals. I am going to be a hit at dinner parties once I am old enough to be invited to them. Behold the latest addition to my repertoire: the Andrewsarchus.

Undebated facts about the Andrewsarchus: almost none.

It may have lived 36 million years ago, or 45 million.
It may have weighed 500 pounds, or 1500.
It may have been beefy, or slender.
It may have been terrifying, like this:

Or adorable, like this:

Fact: The one surviving skull of the Andrewsarchus is three feet long.

The skull was found by Kan Chuen Pao in the Gobi Desert in 1923, on an expedition led by an American "adventurer" named Roy Chapman Andrews. Guess which one has a Wikipedia page. Andrews was evidently an indirect inspiration for Indiana Jones. His party also discovered Velociraptor, so we can thank him (or maybe Kan Chuen Pao) for this, this, this, this, and this. (For those new to xkcd, don't forget to mouse over the comic.) (For those new to mousing over, that means put your cursor on the comic and wait for a little box of words to come up.) Andrews also taught himself taxidermy. For fun, I guess.

Hey, funny story, last time Ivan and I were at the Strong Museum of Play we had the misfortune to come across this diorama made in 1875, entitled "Whimsey with squirrels." Photo courtesy of Ivan, whose copyright I am violating. Please don't sue, Ivan. I have a feeling this has appeared on this blog before, anyway. It is somewhat infamous.

We were both horrified by this, and, as Ivan said, "I find almost nothing about this to be whimsical."

We thought this was a one-off bizarro event that would never be repeated. Then one day Ivan sent me this picture.

Apparently "anthropomorphic taxidermy" is a thing. It started, as all creepy things do, with the Victorians, but this particular example is brand new and you can buy it here, if you have a strong stomach.

Someday when I visit Ivan in New York, I'm making her take me to the Natural History museum to see that skull. But we will avoid any section of the museum involving taxidermy that is remotely anthropomorphic. And if we can't avoid it, we will at least have the decency not to mention it at future dinner parties.

Monday, November 23, 2009

One if by land, two if by pig.

I recently watched the movie The Good Shepherd, which came out in 2006. As I recall, it was billed as a spy film, and while that is not untrue, it is a much better example of a tragedy than it is a spy film, a fact which delighted this English major to no end. Boy, it was great. I could extol its virtues at length, but that's not what this post is about. This post is about pigs.

Before I go on I would like to mention that when I took American history, we spent most of the year studying the Revolution, the second World War, and everything in between. We covered the period from 1945 to about the year I was born in roughly a month. Consequently I have no idea what happened between 1982 and about 1998, which is when I was old enough to really start paying attention. I think there might have been an iditarod and an Olympics during that time, but I'm not sure. The name "Kristi Yamaguchi" is coming to mind. The point is: I'm sketchy on the events of the second half of the twentieth century, and it isn't entirely my fault. In my defense.

But back to the pigs. In the beginning of The Good Shepherd, Matt Damon goes to Cuba because something important is going on at the "Bahía de Cochinos." Having never taken Spanish, I deduced from the period eyewear and the fact that Cuba was involved that the mysterious fuss was over the invasion at the Bay of Pigs. However, when the fuss was all over, I wasn't entirely sure what had happened because no clear facts are revealed in spy movies until the end, if ever. So I thought to myself, "Maybe that wasn't the Bay of Pigs." And THEN I thought, no kidding, "It couldn't have been: there weren't any pigs."

And it occurred to me then that for my entire life I've had some vague, never-entirely-debunked idea that actual pigs were somehow involved in the invasion. And while that misconception is (unfortunately) probably not uncommon, I bet most people did not, as a consequence, grow to connect Cuba, for their entire life, with ham. The word Cuba means two things to me: Hemingway and a sizzling slice of ham. Castro, Desi Arnaz, communism, no. Ham, yes.

The irony is that apparently "cochino" actually refers to a species of fish. And you have to admit, it makes a lot more sense to name a bay after the kind of fish that live there than to name it after pigs. In light of this, I don't think it was totally out of the question for me to assume that since it was such an odd name, there must have been a reason for it, and that that reason must have been the presence of pigs. So the fault does not belong to me so much as to the first stupid American who did not look up alternative meanings of "cochino" before immortalizing "Bay of Pigs." If it had been called "the Bay of Fish" invasion, I honestly think it would have seemed like less of a fiasco. Pigs are just silly.

Friday, November 20, 2009

sleep cycles

As it always goes at the end of a show I've been working some late nights, and after a couple weeks of getting home at 4, 5, 6, even 8am my sleep schedule is so off I don't know which way is up. This last week I'd fall asleep when I got home, wake up a few hours later, take a nap in the afternoon, go to work, rinse, lather, repeat.

And last night I was so sick of this disjointed existance, I stopped at the pharmacy and picked up some over the counter sleeping pills. I took one at 3am, fell asleep almost immediately and woke up feeling refreshed and alive! But it was dark out... I looked at the clock and it said 6:07 and I panicked! 15 hours of sleep! I'm going to be late to work!

And I rushed to shower and get dressed and I checked my email-- only one email... usually Friday I wake up to about 15 emails. But whatever-- that sleeping pill! Thank goodness for modern medicine! I needed that sleep! And as I went to call my boss and tell him that I was running insanely late it dawned on me... literally... as the sun started to rise... that this was not 6pm. This here hour, this was 6AM.

and that's the story of why I'm an exhausted train wreck of a hedgehog right now. At this point I'm just looking forward to thanksgiving--

here's hoping tryptophan is more powerful than the drugstore pills.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

plankton plankton plankton plankton

I know you've been wondering how I'm doing with that Richard Dawkins book. Well, I just renewed it for the second time yesterday. In six weeks I read 250 pages. In the next three I am going to need to read 350. This seems unlikely to happen, especially given that I keep stopping to read novels. However, the book remains interesting and full of things I didn't know. For example: paddlefish.

First of all, I didn't know paddlefish existed in the first place, but apparently they live (or used to live) in rivers all over the country. Who knew? Alas, it's one more species which has not benefitted from the human race, but so far they are not in immediate danger of going extinct. (Except for the Chinese paddlefish, which already did).

The paddlefish is interesting for three reasons. (1) It looks funny. Hahaha. (2) It has a giant creepy mouth

which it uses to catch plankton like a baleen whale, which I have just realized is really only interesting because of how much I like the words "plankton" and "baleen." And, (3) its enormous paddle detects electrical signals from the little fishies that it feeds on, which is one way it finds its dinner. I'm not sure why I find this so amazing, but I do. IT DETECTS ELECTRICITY WITH ITS NOSE.

Incidentally, which I also did not know, sharks do this, too, with the ampullae of Lorenzini, which are connected to the pores pictured here.

Stefano Lorenzini, by the way, was an Italian physician who discovered the ampullae in 1678. He got in trouble with the Medicis (who didn't), and that is all I know because the Wikipedia page is brief and in Italian. Anyway, you may wish to know that if you are planning to go for a swim in shark-infested waters and you don't have Fezzik with you, you can bring instead a can of electropositive shark repellent and swim in somewhat greater safety. (Actually I don't think it comes in cans, but I picture divers using it like spray bottles on cats.) Unfortunately, in order to use it, you have to be awfully close to the shark, and I predict it will only be a matter of time before sharks learn to turn off their electrical sensors at will and the repellent becomes totally ineffective. Sharks always win.

Now for the part that's extra weird: not only do sharks and paddlefish use electrolocation, but so do platypuses! I swear, when we covered the animal kingdom in elementary school, no one mentioned this. Or if they did I was too busy saying "plankton" and "baleen" to myself to notice. Anyway, I am quite sure I never learned that the males of the species are also venomous. That's right, they have ankle spurs full of poison that will kill small animals and give humans months of chronic pain. So I guess platypuses (or platypodes if you would like the correct though rarely-used plural) always win, too.

Plus, they are very cute, poison spurs and all.

I would add electric eels to this post, but since they short-circuit in saltwater, are not actually eels, and are not cute, I see no point.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Instructional Booklet for Planet Earth

Sometimes I'm grateful for Wikipedia's articles on really basic things; other times I think it sounds like it's written for aliens who have just landed on earth but can for some reason understand English and use the internet.

Yesterday I needed to know when spiral-bound notebooks were invented, and in my search I of course came upon Wikipedia's article on notebooks. It included the following gem of wisdom: "It is frequently cheaper to purchase notebooks that are spiral-bound, meaning that a spiral of wire is looped through large perforations at the top or side of the page." So, aliens, once you have assumed human shape, gotten a job, and earned some money, and would like to know which kind of notebook would be most economical to purchase so that you can afford to take as many notes as possible on the weaknesses of the human race and how to thrash us, here is your answer: the spiral-bound kind. And we have provided a description so that you'll know it when you see it.

Also, aliens, ballpoint pens won't work in outer space, FYI. Fortunately we have invented a pressurized space pen that should do nicely. That's right, we're always thinking of your welfare. Please don't hurt us.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

White Gold, or, Fun for the Luddite

I've lived without a microwave for almost three years and the only time I miss it is when I get a hankering for microwave popcorn, which is almost all the time. I don't remember the last time I had popcorn that wasn't movie theater popcorn, which is always slightly stale and tastes of heart attack. I had resigned myself to this sad state of affairs when the Boy Scouts and my mother came to my rescue: the Boy Scouts by forcing my mother to buy stovetop popcorn, and my mother by handing half of it over to me because I happened to be there at the time.

I'm sure there was a time when we made popcorn on the stove, but that was probably back when we had an original Apple Macintosh and 3-2-1 Contact was still on. In other words, the good old days. Incidentally I specifically remember the day my dad came home with a CD player and we set it up in the living room and played Vivaldi on it. It was amazing. And so is stovetop popcorn. It's so easy, even I could it.

Step 1:

Step 2:

Internet, you haven't had fun until you've popped popcorn on the stove in a pot with a glass lid. And then played Microsoft Flight Simulator. (Pull up!)

Monday, November 09, 2009

Genesis, with Vikings

Three or four years ago, a couple of friends and I decided to make a short stop-action film because we are gluttons for punishment. The film was to be called "Genesis" and it was to be very funny. That's all I remember. I have no idea what the overall arc of the plot was and it is not really evident from the "footage" on my hard drive, which I ran across tonight while looking for some old picture to post about. Of course, we did not make notes, and we abandoned the project after one night. (Because why work in the daytime when you can work at night?)

Using the poorest possible editing software, and guessing at the story we originally planned, I put this very strange little movie together. It's about four minutes long, it could really use some fine-tuning, and many if not all of you will probably not be able to watch it due to software issues. Nevertheless, here it is.

P.S. Please ignore that I spelled "hastened" wrong. It's too much trouble to go back and fix it at the moment.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Richard Dawkins and the Ratpocalypse

Right now I'm reading Richard Dawkins's The Ancestor's Tale. I've been reading it for about a month and I'm on page 188. There are 600 pages. I don't expect to finish before 2010. It's a slog but it's an interesting slog: it traces the evolutionary ancestors of humans all the way back to whatever we originally came from a gazillion years ago. I am currently at the 75 million mark, and I have just passed probably the best page in the entire book, which I will now quote extensively.

Excerpt A: Bizarrely indeed.
"Capybaras are prized for meat, not just because of their large size but because, bizarrely, the Roman Catholic Church traditionally deemed them honorary fish for Fridays, presumably because they live in water."

Excerpt B: The size of a WHAT?
"Large as they are, modern capybaras are dwarfed by various giant South American rodents that went extinct only quite recently. The giant capybara, Protohydrochoerus, was the size of a donkey."

I'd put in a picture, but what do you know, it looks just like a regular capybara. Hint to reconstructive artists: Try putting a donkey in your drawings for scale.

"If nuclear war destroys humanity and most of the rest of life, a good bet for survival in the short term, and for evolutionary ancestry in the long term, is rats. I have a post-Armageddon vision. We and all other large animals are gone. Rodents emerge as the ultimate post-human scavengers. They gnaw their way through New York, London and Tokyo, digesting spilled larders, ghost supermarkets and human corpses . . . In a period of intense competition, short generations perhaps with radioactively enhanced mutation-rates boost rapid evolution. . . . Within 5 million years, a whole range of new species replace the ones we know. Herds of giant grazing rats are stalked by sabretoothed predatory rats. Given enough time, will a species of intelligent, cultivated rats emerge? Will rodent historians and scientists eventually organise careful archaeological digs (gnaws?) through the strata of our long-compacted cities, and reconstruct the peculiar and temporarily tragic circumstances that gave ratkind its big break?"

In addition to being an outspoken proponent of evolution, Dawkins is probably the most famous atheist alive, and many people have very strong opinions about him. My opinion so far is that he is a big geek. Giant radioactive sabretoothed scientist rats? Man, that is awesome. I hope someone makes a blockbuster movie about it.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Emergency Canadian Man Soap

So when I went to Canada I didn't realize I would need bath soap, and I didn't bring any. So I had to buy some. So I went into a drugstore and I bought the cheapest soap they had and I went on my way. And although in retrospect I suppose the dark blue and orange packaging should have been a giveaway, I did not realize until I opened it ten hours later that the soap I chose was definitely made for men.

I like to think my disregard for the coloring on the package goes to show that I am impervious to marketing. Or that it stood out in the sea of pink and white. Or that I am just really cheap. But, whatever, soap is soap, and there is nothing in it that will make your skin boil if you are not a man. So I used it, etc. etc., and all was well.

Since I'm thrifty, I brought the soap home with me, because it's soap and it cost a whole $1.75, and why not? I figured I would use it some time when I needed emergency soap, which happens more than you'd think because I keep my stockpile of soap in the dark recesses of my bathroom cabinet and I never know when I'm out until I reach in and nothing's there. It's not the best way to run things, and I should really talk to the management, but that's not the issue here.

So the day of accidentally running out of soap arrived much earlier than I thought, and I was very happy I had brought that emergency Canadian man soap back with me. I hauled it out of the cabinet in its nice man-colored package, and chucked it in the shower, and it works perfectly well, and that is why I will be smelling like a dude for the next two and a half weeks. But at least I'll be smelling like a clean one. So it could be worse.