Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Entry: Dancing Plague of 1518

Ah, here's one of those weird historical nuggets that you expect from a blog entitled "Things I've Learned from Wikipedia."

Submitted for your approval: the year is 1518. The place: Strasborg, France. A woman begins dancing uncontrollably in the street, continuing for days without rest. Within a month, she has been joined by 400 of her closest friends and family. Local officials attempt to cure the epidemic by opening guildhalls and hiring musicians, in hopes that that encouraging the dancers will allow them to stop. But unbeknownst to these medieval townsfolk, they are just about to foxtrot themselves into... the Twilight Zone.

Seriously though, a lot of people died.

The article includes several theories as to what caused the Dancing Plague. Mass psychogenic illness seems to be the most probable explanation, but there is another theory:

"Historian Nikhil Murthy of Emory University believes that the epidemic can largely be attributed to the accidental synthesis of MDMA. Although MDMA was not formally synthesized in a laboratory until 1912 by Anton Köllisch, an accidental mixture could easily have been concocted by subjecting Safrole, a commonly available plant in the area, with a basic substance."

DARK AGES RAVE! WHOOOOOOOOOOO! The next time I go to a Renaissance Faire, I'm bringing glowsticks and candy necklaces!

Monday, April 27, 2009

Entry: Road Rage

Someone randomly mentioned road rage yesterday, and I was wondering if it's still a "thing." The worst exchange I've ever dealt with while driving has been a honking horn or a middle finger (the latter of which is considered road rage by the article, but c'mon. With regards to driving, I spent my formative years in New Jersey; the bird is tantamount to saying hello).

Two things that stood out to me in the article:

1. The list of websites devoted to dealing with road rage by recording other drivers' license plate numbers and crazy driving habits. I guess this would help you deal with your anger after the fact, but it's not a very good preventative measure, unless you find a list of repeat offenders in your town and memorize their license plates. "Watch out, Louise, FPQ-4291 just merged into the lane behind us, and you know his reputation for tailgating!" Also, if you're in a dangerous driving situation, are you really going to take your concentration off the road and record the other person's plate number? Maybe if you licked your finger and traced it in the dust on your dashboard. Not that I've ever left a note to myself that way.

2. A 1988 newspaper article that was quoted as an example of an early usage of the term "road rage" has a grammatical error, complete with a finger-wagging [sic] added by the editor of the Wikipedia article. Sucks to be you, St. Petersburg Times! Now, I make my share of errors while writing, but that's why I don't work for a newspaper. Well, actually I don't work for a newspaper because it's hard to find an entry-level position in a dying industry, but I digress.

I don't consider my initial question to be answered by the Wik', though, because a lot of the statements in the article were followed by the "citation needed" superscript, a red flag in my mind. Perhaps this "road rage" is a fabrication cooked up by the liberal Jewish media. Or maybe it was the conservative Christian media. Or even the damned dirty neutral Buddhist media. Bastards.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Entry: the Lambeth Walk

"The Lambeth Walk", a song from the 1937 musical Me and My Girl, led to the creation of a popular dance of the time in England, which was performed "in a jaunty, strutting style." So far about as interesting as the Macarena will be in fifty years (in fact, I'm flinching right now from referencing the Macarena [seriously, what the hell is my problem?]), except for the fact that a few years later, the British Ministry of Information released a short film featuring "The Lambeth Walk" and some other folks known for walking around in a jaunty, strutting style:

It's a proto-remix!

The Wiki article describes it as a propaganda film, which I think is a pretty loaded term (although I can't think of a more accurate one to describe media released by the government to reflect a certain political view, despite that view being pretty cut-and-dry), but I'm generally in favor of propaganda that makes Nazis look foolish. Score one for Minitrue!

Just for the sake of comparison, here's the number from the 1987 Broadway revival:

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Entry: He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother

I'm probably not going to get a chance to update twice next week, and I feel like I've dropped the ball this week, so what the heck, a third post. Huzzah! Refill the flagon of chuckles*!

Also, this entry contains spoilers for the movie Once Upon a Time in the West. I know, not expected based on the title, but consider yourselves forewarned.

So I heard the old pop song "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother" on the radio today, which said was done by Earth, Wind, and Fire, but which Wikipedia attributes to the Hollies. I trust Wiki, but with some hesitation, as you shall soon see.

Hearing the song made me think of the story that inspired it, where a priest sees a young boy carrying a younger boy down the street, asks him if he's tired or something along those lines, and the boy responds with the title of the song. In four part harmony. I also seemed to remember that this inspired the creation of a non-profit, but couldn't remember which. (So this is technically a Thing I Recalled via Wikipedia, but I digress.)

The organization in question is Boys Town, but that's not the part of the article that caught my eye. Apparently, there were other versions of the story, including this... um... heartwarming account:

"It is also believed to refer to a native american story, of two brothers caught by aggressors. One was stood on the other's shoulders, with a noose hung around the top brother's neck. The idea being that when the bottom brother could no longer bear the weight, he would collapse, thus hanging his brother. The story then concluded, with the bottom brother standing strong, saying: 'He ain't heavy, he's my brother!' Or maybe this was from the movie Once Upon a Time in the West."

A few things spring to mind.

1. Grammar, please.
2. Who is the bottom brother talking to? The aggressors? Or is he delirious from the stressful encounter and addressing a hallucination?
3. Yeah, maybe it's from the movie Once Upon a Time in the West. Great idea. If that was the case, the name of the song would either be "He Ain't Moving, Because Henry Fonda Killed Him (and I'm Going to Spend Decades Seeking Revenge)" or possibly "It Ain't Tedious, It's a Western."

* I've been listening to a lot of Patton Oswalt standup lately.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Entry: the Principality of Sealand

Reader seeasea was kind enough to send me links to many an interesting Wikipedia article, including one about Sealand.

Although not recognized as a sovereign nation by the UN, Sealand is categorized as a micronation. Built as a sea fort during World War II, it was taken over by Paddy Roy Bates in 1967, over ten years after British Navy personnel had abandoned it. Since it is six miles off the coast of England, it is in international waters and out of the country's territorial water claim (at the time). Sealand had its own constitution, flag, currency, and passports-- it even had a war! So much better than a lame tree fort.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Entry: War Pigs

Last night's Daily Show was a repeat, but it did feature a bit on how funding is going to be cut for laser-mounted jet fighters. Tragic, but as it turns out, our ancestors had a [technically] long-range weapon that was six million times more badass and can be had for a fraction of the price: a herd of pigs set on fire. The finest in anti-war-elephant combat.

"Aelian reports that Antipater's siege of Megara during the Wars of the Diadochi was broken when the Megarians poured oil on a herd of pigs, set them alight, and drove them towards the enemy's massed war elephants. The elephants bolted in terror from the flaming squealing pigs often killing great numbers of the army the elephant was part of."

Despite that final run-on sentence, that's quite the mental image.

Now I know that some of you want to reply "Mmm, bacon." Guys, that's disgusting. Those pigs were covered in tar sometimes.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Entry: Jeffrey Hudson

Between this guy and Jack Churchill, I think I need to start a new category of entries specific to crazy-ass people doing crazy-ass things. Or some categorization of a similar nature. I'm going to quote the first paragraph of the article; I can't imagine how I could possibly embellish.

"Jeffrey Hudson (1619 – circa 1682) was an English dwarf at the court of Queen Henrietta Maria. He was famous as the "Queen's dwarf" and "Lord Minimus", and was considered one of the "wonders of the age" because of his extreme but well-proportioned smallness. He fought with the Royalists in the English Civil War and fled with the Queen to France but was expelled from her court when he killed a man in a duel. He was captured by Barbary pirates and spent 25 years as a slave in North Africa before being ransomed back to England."

To quote Ryan North: "Daaaaamn!"

According to the article, he joined the court of Queen Henrietta Maria when he was presented to her in a pie in a banquet. I thought that was pretty awesome-- "Oh man, he so had the edge over the dwarves who were just faxing in their cover letter and resume!"-- until I read on and discovered that he was in fact given to the Queen as a gift from the Duke and Duchess of Buckingham, who could apparently give their subjects as housewarming presents in those days. Um. Yay democracy?

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Entry: Snow Leopard Award

This is just a mini-entry as a follow up to the Mother Hero medal: the Soviet Union also gave the Snow Leopard Award to accomplished mountaineers who made it to the peaks of the five mountains in the USSR taller than 7000m:

"In Tajikistan's Pamir Mountains there are 3 Snow Leopard peaks, Ismail Samani Peak (formerly Communism Peak) 7,495 m (24,590 ft), Peak Korzhenevskaya 7,105 m (23,310 ft), and Ibn Sina Peak (formerly Lenin Peak) 7,134 m (23,406 ft) on the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border. In the Tian Shan there are 2 Snow Leopard peaks, Jengish Chokusu (formerly Peak Pobeda) 7,439 metres (24,406 ft) in Kyrgyzstan (divided by the border with China), and Khan Tengri 7,010 m (22,998 ft) on the Kyrgyzstan-Kazakhstan border."

Communism's got side quests!

Also, I love the fact that one of the mountains used to be called Communism Peak. That's so creative. Can we rename Pikes Peak as Capitalism Peak? No, wait, let's rename Mount Rushmore: Capitalism Mountain with Dead Guy Faces. You know you want to.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Entry: Mother Hero

Gender equality is very important to me. Since my last entry was about vasectomies, this time I will attempt to make the women in the audience feel sympathy pains in their bathing-suit areas. It's only fair.

In the Soviet Union, if a woman successfully raised 10 or more children who all survived until at least the tenth child's first birthday, she was awarded the title of Mother Hero. The exception for the children's life expectancy was if they died due to honorable circumstances. Additionally, one man was given the award for being a foster father to twelve boys. Seeing as a lot of Russians died in World War 2, they really needed to shore up the numbers.

Recipients got perks from the government and a snazzy badge-- a gold star on a silver background, as opposed to something more explicitly related to the accomplishment, such as a cartoon uterus with a frowny face. And, unfortunately for the Яolcats, I don't think litters counted.

Can you imagine how over-protective Soviet mothers must have been of their offspring after child #6 or so? "Dammit, Ivan, chew your borscht! I didn't get stretch marks in the pattern of the streets of Leningrad for you to choke to death!" You can't even chew borscht! Wild!

Oh, and: requisite Octo-mom joke! Heh. That woman's a clown car.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Entry: Vasectomy

On a recent road trip, we saw a billboard for a vasectomy clinic that was notable for two reasons:

1. The doctor looked a lot like Fred Willard,
2. The vasectomies were advertised as being done without scalpels or needles.

The last one left me nonplussed. How could a vasectomy possibly be performed without making an incision-- or at least a local anasthetic? I speculated that they might use a burdizzo, but considering the look of abject horror that earned me from my boyfriend, it didn't seem likely.

According to the article, a scalpel-less procedure known as a keyhole vasectomy is done with a sharp hemostat (those clamps that look like a long skinny pair of scissors). While that wouldn't technically be false advertising, it is pretty misleading. "We're not going to stick your scrotum with a needle or a knife... we're going to use doom-scissors!" There didn't seem to be a less-grisly option, so for the squeamish fellas in the audience: stick with condoms.