Petroushka\’s Miscellany

A List of Important Things That Everyone Should Know

It has been a while since I wrote anything, but I was thinking the other day that all schoolchildren ought to be taught certain Important Facts that will help them throughout their lives. And I thought a good place to begin a List of Important Things That Everyone Should Know would be here. So here goes:

  • what to do to avoid being struck by lightning (i.e., where’s the safest place to be if caught in a thunderstorm while walking in a park? (a) a covered gazebo; (b) the lawn; (c) under a tree; (d) in the fountain. If you guessed (a) you’re wrong—someone I know was just struck by lightning in exactly this situation. I don’t know the answer though. Check back later.)
  • what to do in case of various kinds of fires (i.e., cooking, electrical, gasoline, arson)
  • why the sky is blue
  • basic first aid
  • which pills should never be taken with alcohol

That’s all for now. I will add more as they come to me. And then begin to find the answers (and include them in later posts).


On Human Ingenuity

For the past six years, the New York Times Magazine has put out a “Year in Ideas” issue that compiles “the peaks and valleys of ingenuity—the human cognitive faculty deployed with intentions good and bad, purposes serious and silly, consequences momentous and morbid.” Humans are a species that defines itself in large part by the possession of reason, basically the ability to have ideas. And some of the things that we most value about ourselves are the remarkable ideas we have had, from the wheel, to medicine, to human rights, to how to make a good baguette, a delectable wine or a sublimely smelly cheese. Thank you, NYT Magazine, for choosing to catalogue the highlights of human history this way instead of just through our wars and the ever-more intricate ways we invent to kill each other. It brightened my December, and I hope it will brighten yours as well. In case it gets swallowed by the archives monster, I include a summary of some of the brightest and strangest ideas below.

  • Dan Nachbar has invented a one-man blimp. So it’s bigger than the Globe theatre when it’s in the air, big deal. Isn’t this what we’ve all been waiting for since the heady days of our youth when we watched with longing as the Goodyear blimp floated gently above us? Unlike a hot-air balloon, you can drive this zeppelin. Unlike the giant blimps we know and love, it can fly at low altitudes and low speeds. It can be launched from a back yard and then fold up into a tiny package (well, relatively) when not in use. For a measly $200,000, it’s a steal.
  • A London architecture firm, the Facility, has had the brilliant idea of putting generators under major pedestrian traffic areas to capture the vibration of our footsteps and make them into electricity. For example, at 3-5 watts per footstep, and with 34,000 people using the London Underground at rush-hour, you can generate enough to “power all the lighting and audio equipment within the building” says the firm’s director. They’re also building an energy-harvesting staircase and developing a way to capture the vibrations of trains going through subway tunnels in order to power street lights. You’ll see the generators soon in a place near you: the gym, the street, even your clothes.
  • Chicago chef Grant Achatz, at Alinea restaurant, has been feeding our senses of taste and smell by serving up such fabulous concoctions as: poached lobster and mushrooms with a cloud of rosemary-scented steam; air-pillows filled with the aroma of coffee; pheasant, Brussel sprouts and white beans served over a steaming bowl of oak leaves, pumpkin seeds, apples, cinnamon and hay; rabbit served with the scent of burnt oak leaves in an overturned glass. The scents complement the taste of the food, and make for an unforgettable dining experience.
  • Dutch radio DJ Bart Plantenga has made a CD called “The Rough Guide to Yodel”. Apparently yodeling is a much more widespread art form than we knew. It’s common from the Arctic to Bollywood, from the Hmong farmlands of Wisconsin to the dances of Mexico. It is not, as we previously suspected, the sole province of Alpine mountains with frisking goats and men in lederhosen. The thing all yodelers have in common, apparently, is that they celebrate the transition from the “chest voice” to the “head voice”, whereas other singers try to hide it. For those interested more in details than divas, he also wrote a book: Yodel-Ay-Ee-Oooo: The Secret History of Yodeling Around the World. These are essential gifts for the Christmas season.
  • Cambridge, Massachusetts, has commissioned art to reduce speeds at a busy intersection. They hired artist Wen-ti Tsen to paint a giant circular mural in the middle of the intersection in the hopes that it will make drivers slow from 30 miles an hour to 25, and thereby increase pedestrians’ chances of surviving if the drivers hit them. Early results show that the mural is working. The only downside: that the mural is not, as the artist originally considered proposing, a giant trompe-l’oeil pothole, or something similarly nerve-wracking for speeders.
  • Mark Osterloh of Arizona has been campaigning to turn ballots into lottery tickets. It would work like this: your ballot makes you eligible to win a million dollars—if you vote. If 2 million people vote (like they did in Arizona in the 2004 Presidential election), your chances of winning are 1 in 2 million, which is better than most lotteries. Every two years about $2.7 million accrues in Arizona’s unclaimed lottery fund. This would be the election jackpot, and would even provide enough for supplementary prizes of, say, $1,000, to increase the odds of winning even further and thereby encourage more people to get out and vote. It could increase the turn-out among poor voters, who are currently among the most underrepresented, strengthen democracy and inject some cash into the economy. So far, though, no one has taken the bait and it remains, for the moment, just an idea.
  • It’s true: you’re more likely to get hit by a car or bus if you wear a bicycle helmet than if you don’t. When psychologist Ian Walker tested this cyclist superstition, he found that drivers came 8.5 cm closer to him when he had his helmet on than when he left it at home. He suspects its because when drivers see the helmet, they judge the cyclist to be an experienced and skilful rider who doesn’t need as wide a berth as someone without a helmet. The solution: retrain drivers to give helmeted riders space. In the meantime, Walker is not wearing a helmet when he rides.

For more ideas, check out these resources:

  • Ideas, a CBC Radio show “about contemporary thought”, which has a podcast updated every Monday for those of you who don’t live in Canada
  • The Dictionary of the History of Ideas—such as agnosticism, alchemy, structuralism and satire—which has been digitized and is available free online for all to peruse.
  • The Boston Globe’s Ideas section, which “features colorful reporting and probing commentary on the ideas, people, books and trends that are shaking up the intellectual world” (you can sign up to get the headlines by e-mail).
  • The ideas database by Creativity Pool, where ideas are submitted and discussed by innovators and inventors of all stripes.

Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Americans, And More

This according to the 2007 Census:

  • Americans are getting taller: only 10% of people in their 20s are under 5’6, compared to 24% of people in their 70s. (Or perhaps this means that Americans are shrinking?)
  • Americans are still the fattest people on the planet. They watch 64 days of television a year, produce 4.4 pounds of solid waste a day, and are reproducing faster than ever before (except for brief and unaccountable spikes in 1960 and 1990).
  • Americans are killing their crustaceans at an unparallelled rate: 62 clams, 24 snails and 19 crustaceans are on the US endangered species list; elsewhere in the world, only 2 clams and 1 snail are in danger of extinction. Save the snails!
  • 75% of American college freshman say their goal in life is to be “very well off financially” . . . or, in other words, very very rich.
  • It appears they’ve been inspired by the success of their fellow Americans: in 2001, there were 572,000 millionaires in California (and 3,000 in Vermont, where people don’t need money—they have maple syrup).
  • In 2005, people in 1.4 million homes across America said something smelled so bad they wanted to move. Perhaps to California?
  • Also in 2005, US airports confiscated 9.4 million lighters, proving either that there is an unprecedented number of would-be shoe bombers flying around America, or that Americans cannot follow simple instructions.

For more fun facts about Americans, check out the New York Times census summary (hurry quickly, before it is transmogrified into a must-pay-through-the-nose-to-read-it archive).

Yet More Antarctic Christmas Carols

In case you weren’t already convinced that Antarctica is special, this should do it: a hut built for Robert Falcon Scott in McMurdo Sound in 1911 is still there, preserved on ice, in nearly the same shape today as it was back when Scott and Amundson were racing to the pole early last century. At the time, it was the biggest structure in Antarctica. It is full of tins of food, has a dark room full of dark room chemicals, and the remains of sled dogs are still preserved outside (ew). A somewhat creepy but probably very moving reminder of the hardships endured by Antarctic explorers, and of the fact that Scott’s team reached the South Pole, but didn’t make it back to the Sound. Check it out next time you’re in Antarctica!

Also, Christmas is coming up, and with it more lyrics for the Antarctic Christmas Songbook. Hurrah! All the lyrics have been put together on one easy-to-read page for your Christmas enjoyment. I hope many of you will be inspired to save a turkey and roast a penguin instead this year. I’m sure I will . . . .

The Antarctic Hut Song
Deck the Halls
It Came Upon A Midnight Clear
Polar Bear Migration Song

100 Things You Didn’t Know Last Year

I love the BBC. This is one of the reasons why. They have brought together a list of fun facts you should know, and probably don’t. My top 10:

  1. When faced with danger, the octopus can wrap six of its legs around its head to disguise itself as a coconut shell and walk slowly backwards to escape from danger. (Note: I didn’t know there were enough coconut shells at the bottom of the sea to make coconut shell camouflage a viable life-saving alternative. It just goes to show: you learn something new every day.)
  2. Baboons can tell the difference between English and French.
  3. Spanish flu, which killed 50 million people in 1918-1919, was called French flu by the Spanish. (Can baboons tell the difference?)
  4. Every winter, regular flu (not the bird kind) kills about 12,000 people in the UK.
  5. Rubber gloves could save you from lightning (so wear them always, just in case—don’t worry, there are stylish ones too, with red cherries on, to go with all your favourite outfits).
  6. Tactically, the best Monopoly properties to buy are the orange ones.
  7. The title of Oliver Twist in Chinese is Foggy City Orphan.
  8. 1 in 18 people has a third nipple.
  9. Putting a towel on a sun lounger at a five star hotel (for example) doesn’t give you any legal rights to the use of that sun lounger.
  10. The Japanese have a word that means “I wish there were more designer stores on this street”. In case you’re ever in Japan, the word is chokuegambo. You can use it if you don’t find any stylish rubber glove stores.

Read the rest of the list on the BBC news website.

The Antarctic Christmas Songbook, Part 2

More Antarctic Christmas (and Hannukah) songs, these ones written by Paul and Sus from New York City. Raytheon is the company where our friend is working, hence its recurrence in the Songbook. Also, Paul and Sus are Jewish and so know the tune to Hannukah, Oh Hannukah and were able to write brilliant lyrics for that too, which fits perfectly with the way the Songbook came about in the first place. Hopefully by Christmas we’ll have the whole world singing the Antarctic Christmas Songbook!

Here Comes Raytheon (to the tune of Here Comes Santa Claus)
Rudolph the Sunburned Scientist
Snowy Night (to the tune of Silent Night)
Penguins Roasting on an Open Fire
Antarctica, Antarctica (to the tune of Hannukah, Oh Hannukah)
The South Po-el (to the tune of The First Noel)
On the Seventh Continent (to the tune of Good King Wenceslas)
Amundson is Coming to Town  

The Antarctic Christmas Songbook

Antarctica is fascinating: It is the fifth-largest continent. It is considered a desert because its annual precipitation is less than 10 inches a year. The precipitation that falls on the Antarctic interior is lower than that which falls on the Sahara. The lowest temperature ever recorded on Earth was recorded in Antarctica: -89.2ºC. It has winds of up to 320km/h.

More than 99% of Antarctica is covered in ice. This is about 90% of the world’s ice, and more than two-thirds of the world’s fresh water. It also makes Antarctica the highest continent in the world. On Deception Island, you can have a swim in water heated by one of the two active Antarctic volcanoes, while being ogled by penguins.

The only plants in Antarctica are algae, lichens and mosses. There are also some fungi and one liverwort. The largest truly land-based animals in Antarctica (i.e. those that neither depend on the sea for their food nor leave Antarctica in winter) are mites, ticks and nematode worms. The seas surrounding Antarctica, however, have 200 different kinds of fish, some with antifreeze for blood; six species of seal; 12 species of bird; lots of whales; jelly-like creatures called salps; and so much krill that it outweighs all us humans put together.

The ozone hole measured this year over Antarctica is the biggest ever recorded: 29.5 km2 with a mass deficit of 39.8 megatonnes (i.e. the amount of ozone missing now compared to a baseline measured decades ago, before the ozone layer started disintegrating).

Read more interesting facts about Antarctica on the ozone hole website and on this fabulous website devoted entirely to all things Antarctic.

Anyway, during a recent trip to the Sinai desert, in the middle of Ramadan, we were thinking about a friend who is currently working in Antarctica. In between swimming, snorkling, lying in hammocks in the hot shade, and trying to avoid getting sunburnt, we came up with the Antarctic Christmas Songbook. The lyrics to some of the songs are below. I will add the rest when I get them from my friends, who have since returned to NYC after their Egyptian holiday.

Click here to get to the lyrics for all the songs below (and more!)

While Scientists Watch Their Rocks by Night (to the tune of While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night)
Oh Come All Ye Penguins
Hark, the Tiny Krill All Sing
God Rest Ye Merry Leopard Seals
Antarctica, Antarctica (to the tune of Oh Tannenbaum)
Antarctica Rocks (to the tune of Jingle Bell Rock)
The Leopard Seal and Penguin (to the tune of The Holly and the Ivy)
It’s Winter in the Antarctic (to the tune of We Wish You a Merry Christmas)
I Saw A Ship Come Sailing In (to the tune of We Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In)
We Three Penguins (to the tune of We Three Kings of Orient Are)
The Twelve Days of Antarctic Christmas

Mmmm… Mummification

How to mummify someone:

  1. Place body on wide table, with plenty of space on either side and ideally sloping down slightly so water can drain away easily.
  2. Wash the body, preferably with sacred water (i.e. from the Nile or the Ganges or the local baptismal font).
  3. Pull the brain out through the nostrils. This, as you might imagine, is rather tricky. You must make a hole in the ethmoid bone inside the nose, at the top of the nostrils, then insert a long thin hook and slowly remove as much brain matter as possible. Remove what’s left with a long, narrow spoon. Then rinse the inside of the skull with water, or palm wine and frankincense to purify.The ancient Egyptians discarded the brain; they believed the heart, not the brain, was the seat of knowledge and being. Knowing, as we do now, that they were wrong, you might want to keep the brain in its own special jar.
  4. Remove the internal organs: Cut a small slit in the lefthand side of the torso, being careful not to disfigure the front of the body. Carefully remove organs through the slit and set aside (note: the ancient Egyptians discarded the kidneys). Cut open the diaphragm to remove the lungs. Leave the heart in the body.
  5. Wash internal organs carefully with palm wine, frankincense and myrrh. Dry with natron. When dry, wrap in strips of linen, and store in pretty jars. Bury these alongside the mummy.
  6. Rinse the empty chest cavity with palm wine and frankincense to purify.
  7. Stuff body cavity with small linen bags filled with natron to aid drying from the inside. (Note: natron is a white, powdery mineral salt; it is also used in making soap and bavarian pretzels.)
  8. Cover entire body with about 600lbs of natron, making sure sides of body are also covered. Leave in warm, dry room for 35-70 days (i.e. 46ºC, 30% humidity).
  9. Remove bags of natron from body cavity. Swab body cavity with palm wine and fill with spices, myrrh, and linen bags of wood shavings.
  10. Rub body with mixture of sacred oils: frankincense, myrrh, palm, lotus and cedar.
  11. Sew incision shut and cover skin with layer of warm resin.
  12. Gather 4,000 square feet (372 square meters) of linen. Tear into long strips 3-8 inches across. Write magical words and incantations on some or all of them, depending on available time and knowledge of said magical words and incantations.
  13. First wrap body in a shroud. Then use strips to wrap individual fingers and toes, then hands, feet, arms, legs, torso and head. Then use strips to wrap body as a whole. If feeling adventurous, try wrapping in pretty patterns. As you apply new layers of bandage, coat with warm resin to glue them in place. While wrapping body, mutter incantations and lay protective amulets on body, wrapped in different layers.
  14. Place final protective amulet over the heart.
  15. Opening of the Mouth: touch various parts of body with an adze while incanting spells. This opens the senses that will be necessary in the afterlife (i.e. “opening” the mouth will allow the mummy to speak and eat).

If this is too elaborate, you can skip the removing and drying of the organs by filling the torso with a mixture of oils, stuffing up all the body’s orifices, leaving it for a few days, then unplugging the orifices and watching all the liquified internal organs pour out with the oil. From this stage, proceed as above with the drying.

How to have yourself mummified:

If you don’t relish the idea of becoming worm food or a noxious greenhouse gas, there are a couple of options open to you.

  1. Give your body to science!

    In 1994, a group of scientists from the University of Maryland and the Long Island University mummified an elderly man from Baltimore who died of natural causes and had never had surgery. They used ancient Egyptian methods and materials, and filmed the whole process. You can watch it on National Geographic’s Egypt – Secrets of the Pharaohs. Or you can go see Mumab, as he’s now known, on display at the Museum of Man in San Diego, CA.

  2. Go to Utah!

    If friends and universities decline to mummify you, and you have about $70,000, you can go to a company in Utah that has developed a technique for modern mummification. They will even put you in a bronze or stainless steel sarcophagus – they call it a mummiform – specially designed by a gifted artisan, with your life mask and special symbols and inlaid gold and jewels, and everything “created in exact accordance with your wishes, as set forth in your pre-need arrangement”. But you have to find your own mausoleum.

Before deciding whether being a mummy is for you, it is best to do some research. There are many mummy movies to show you what your afterlife might be like. Favourite titles include The Mummy and the Cowpuncher (1912), Oh! You Mummy (1914, silent), Die Augen Der Mumie Ma (1918, German), La Venganza de la Momia (1973, Spanish), and of course, the best of them all by far: Bubba Ho-Tep, starring Elvis, and Ossie Davis as JFK.


Fun flag facts

The Maple Leaf

The Great Canadian Flag Debate began on 15 June 1964, when the Prime Minister announced his plans for a new flag. Since 1867, when Canada officially became a country, it had flown either the union jack or a Canadian variant thereof. But a 1958 poll found that 80% of Canadians wanted a flag of their own, and 60% of them wanted it to have a maple leaf.

3,541 Canadians submitted designs for the new flag, most of them red, white, and blue. 2,136 of the flag designs included maple leaves; 408 had Union Jacks; 389 had beavers; 359 had fleurs de lys.

The red and white Maple Leaf flag was unanimously chosen by the 15-member special flag committee on 22 October 1964.

The Union Jack

The British union jack is made up of three flags superimposed on one another:

the cross of St. Andrew, patron saint of Scotland;

the cross of St. George, patron saint of England;

and the cross of St. Patrick, patron saint of Ireland.

The Welsh flag isn’t included in the union jack because Wales was already united with England when the flag was designed. This is really too bad, because the Welsh flag has a cool dragon on it that would look great on top of all those crosses.

People from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales have very strong opinions about the union jack.


Canadian flags graphic (c) Wikipedia

On wobbegong sharks etc.

Of all the sharks and rays that swim in the oceans, star in horror films, and murder innocent crocodile hunters, the wobbegongs have the most interesting name. [A brief aside: it turns out that sharks and rays are the same kind of animal: they’re all elasmobranchs. But since sharks have a real – albeit highly exaggerated – habit of chewing on humans, we know much more about sharks than about rays.]

The word “woebegone”, says Michael Quinion, has its origins in medieval English. It comes from an expression first recorded around 1300: “me is woe begone”, which he says means “grief has beset me”. Begone is the past participle of the verb to bego, which, until it died a quiet death four centuries ago, meant to go around, surround or beset. It seems that medieval humans liked the expression “me is woe begone” so much that eventually, through constant use, the words stuck together into the adjective we know and love today: woebegone. Shakespeare, of course, had a hand in changing the meaning a tiny bit from actually being afflicted by grief to having the appearance thereof. (He also invented the name Olivia, but that is another story for another time.)

Lake Wobegon, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average”, has also changed the English language. It brought us the Lake Wobegon effect: the tendency to treat all members of a group as above average, as in, It’s a moderation of the so-called Lake Woebegon effect, where every company’s board wants to consider their CEO to be above average.

And while Lake Wobegon itself appears to be a fictional place, it also appears that Minnesotans don’t mind using it to promote real camps on real lakes, such as Camp Courage, whose sessions include Sickle Cell and Siblings Camp, Hemophilia Camp, Cancer Camp and Augmentative Communication Camp. I’m sure they provide a much-needed service for kids who would otherwise not get to spend the summer covered in mosquito bites, poison ivy and various unidentifiable rashes. But I don’t think I’d want to be the one who, when asked where I spent the summer, had to answer “Augmentative Communication Camp”.

Now, if you will take a look at the Ornate Wobbegong (Orectolobus ornatus), you will no doubt agree that he does look forlorn, despite being so well camouflaged. The Ornate Wobbegong lives in Australian coastal waters and around Papua New Guinea.

ornate wobbegong

His cousin, the Spotted Wobbegong (O. maculatus), also lives in the shallow coastal waters of Australia from Queensland to Western Australia.

spotted wobbegong

Spotted and Ornate Wobbegongs can be told apart by their colouring: small white dots vs. dark spots. Both like to lie on sand or rocky ocean floors and be cryptic (i.e. well camouflaged). They are sometimes called carpet sharks. They can grow up to 3m and have very sharp teeth, M. McGrouther so try not to step on them, or provoke them, or block their escape routes. Apparently they are flexible enough to swivel around and bite you if you grab their tail, so don’t. Particularly since they seem disinclined to let go once they have bitten you. At least, this was the experience of a man who, after being bitten by a wobbegong, swam to shore, walked to his car and drove to get help with the shark still attached to his leg. Wobbegongs eat at night, mainly fishes, crayfish, crabs and octopi. Yum. Australians also eat wobbegongs – as fish & chips. Those crazy Australians.

Wobbegong, sadly, bears no relation to woebegone. Michael Quinion tells us that it comes from a New South Wales Aboriginal language and no one seems to have any idea what it actually means. But you can still watch the Ornate Wobbegong in action.

What else is in a name? Orectolobus comes from Greek: orectus, which means stretched out, and lobos, meaning a protuberance (like the ones on the head of the wobbegong shark). Maculatus comes from the Latin macula, which means spot. Ornatus means splendid dress, and turns out to be a common species name. Examples include:

the golden julie (Julidochromis ornatus);

golden julie

the spectacled bear (Tremarctos ornatus): the only bear that lives in South America, including darkest Peru, and the prototype for Paddington;

Photo © The Phoenix Zoo

the tree lizard (Urosaurus ornatus);

tree lizard
Photo © Wikipedia

and the rainbow bee-eater

Photo © Wikipedia
Sharp Teeth Photo © M. McGrouther