Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Other Causes of Hallucinations

I should have mentioned that hallucinations are also frequently related to cerebral cortex problems such as epilepsy and migraines.  About 1/3 of migraine sufferers see auras preceding the onset of the headache. 

In addition, people frequently report having hallucinations as they are falling off to sleep, known as "hypnopompic hallucinations."  They can be frightening, particularly if they are accompanied by sleep paralysis (as they often are).  These are often images of faces floating over the person.

Illusions and Hallucinations

Why do we sometimes see things that are not there?

The phenomenon of “seeing things” comes in two varieties: illusions and hallucinations. If you see something but misinterpret what you are seeing, it is an illusion. If you see something that is unrelated to visual stimuli, then that is a hallucination.

There are, of course, non-visual illusions and hallucinations. Any sense that you have can be fooled. You can learn how to experience some tactile (sense of touch) illusions by clicking here.  An example of a tactile hallucination would be the phantom limb phenomenon, in which people who have had an amputation still feel the missing limb.  I am now experiencing another type of tactile hallucination caused by neuropathy in my left foot resulting from Achilles' tendonitis.  My left toes and the front part of my foot constantly feel as if they are in heated water.  For the most part it is not too unpleasant, although I miss feeling other sensations in my toes.  Another sense that is often subject to illusions and hallucinations is the sense of smell.  People often misidentify smells (illusion) or smell things that simply are not there (hallucination).

Visual illusions are caused by misinterpreting visual stimuli.  Since humans are visual animals, we make sense of our world primarily based on what we see.  We are constantly taking in images and trying to fit them into the world we construct in our mind.  Every time we see something new, we tend to compare it to things that we already know to make sense out of it.  So, for example, visible heat waves rising in the distance might be interpreted as water in classic illusion known as a "mirage."  Since faces are so important to our lives we tend to see faces even in inanimate objects, which is another classic type of illusion called "pareidolia."  (Strictly speaking, pareidolia does not merely mean seeing faces, but seeing the familiar in the unfamiliar - but we usually use it for seeing faces.)  There are many websites that give cool examples of pareidolia.

The reason behind seeing illusions is pretty well understood.  People will try to make sense of the world in accordance to learned patterns, and if something does not fit into those patterns, we try to make it fit.  For some cool examples and an explanation of how our mind tricks us, click here.

Hallucinations are less well understood.  Hallucinations can happen at any time, but most frequently are caused by physiological conditions brought about by stress, exhaustion, drug intake, starvation, repeated rhythmic activity, etc.  Hallucinations are typically individual phenomena, although there are many interesting cases of shared hallucinations related to "mass hysteria."

Visual hallucinations are a fertile field for investigation, and scientists still debate what exactly is going on during hallucinations.  The famous neurologists Oliver Sacks dedicated much of his life to understanding hallucinations, and his work was still in progress when he died.

That being said, scientists are pretty sure that hallucinations are related to dreams.  The physiological impetus that leads to hallucination seems to allow the brain to dream while you are still awake.  In other words, you see the dream at the same time that you can interact with the ordinary world.  Most people who are hallucinating can tell which are the hallucinatory images and which are not, although in cases of severe schizophrenia or under the influence of certain drugs (such as the daturas), the person is unable to distinguish.  It is not unusual for people who recover from an episode of such hallucination to have little or no memory of it, much as people rarely have memories of their dreams.

In fact, it seems that forgetting dreams is necessary for maintaining a healthy sense of reality.  If people are consistently awoken during their dreams and made to write down what they dreamed, they can start to show symptoms of schizophrenia.  Schizophrenics often can remember their own dreams, and can't always tell whether their memories were of things that actually happened.

Finally, let me take a minute to implore you not to experiment with any of the daturas.  They are extraordinarily poisonous, and people who have used them "recreationally" report the experience as extremely unpleasant.


Why do farts stink?

I am answering this unsavory question mostly because the student who asked it asked me to answer it, and he was a student who demonstrated an admirable spirit of inquiry throughout the year.

People have a symbiotic relationship with numerous bacteria that live in our intestines. In fact, there are more bacteria cells in our bodies than human cells. Many of these bacteria live in our intestines and help is to break down food. There are many gasses produced as a byproduct of these processes, and farting (flatulence) is our main way of expelling these gasses. It has long been debated which of these gasses were most responsible for the smell, but recent research has shown that it is caused by hydrogen sulfide and other volatile sulfur compounds. This is why eating high-sulfur foods such as cabbage or eggs can result in stinky flatulence.

There is also the question of why people find sulfur compounds so malodorous. Flatulence does not have much sulfur in it, but we are able to smell it quite easily. Most likely our sensitivity to volatile sulfur compounds is adaptive because it helps us to avoid eating rotten meat and eggs.

There are a couple of other interesting compounds that contributes a little to the smell of flatulence, but quite a bit to the smell of feces: skatole and indole, both of which are produced by the bacterial breakdown of tryptophan in the intestines. In small amounts these compounds have a flowery fragrance, and they are found in many flowers – most notably jasmine and orange blossoms. In larger amounts they smell like feces. They tend to be most prominent in the feces of carnivores, and that is one of the reasons carnivore feces generally smells worse than that of herbivores. (Another reason is that many carnivores have glands that add distinctive aromas to their feces to help them mark their territories.)

One of the most interesting characteristics of skatole and indole is that they make smells linger. This is why it is so hard to get the stink off of your shoes when you step on dog poop. It is also the reason that people who make perfume add these chemicals to their products. If you make your own fragrance from pure essential oils, it will be strong at first, then will quickly fade. Commercial perfumes can last all day, largely due to the addition of skatole and indole.

I once speculated that animals that harbor a large amount of skatole- and indole-producing bacteria do so because it is adaptive; it would make the territory-marking characteristic of their feces last longer. I cannot find any research to back up my hunch, and there seems to be some animals (Homo sapiens, for example) that produce large amounts of skatole but who are not known to mark their territories this way (although we may have in our past).

Wednesday, June 22, 2016


What happened to the Anasazi?

This is an enduring question, and I become less certain the more I look into it.

The term “Anasazi” is derived from a Diné (Navajo) term that means “ancestor of my enemy.” Since this is an exonym (a term applied by an outside group) that is often considered derogatory by their modern descendants – the Pueblo Indians – it is now more common to refer the Anasazi as “Ancestral Pueblo People” or “Ancestral Puebloans.” Of course, the term “Pueblo” originated with the Spanish, so I think it is best to use the Hopi term “Hisatsinom” – which means “ancient people” – although other Pueblos have their own terms.

The Hisatsinom lived in communities in the Four Corners region from around 1200 BCE to 1250 CE. Their architecture varied quite a bit, but the most distinctive characteristic of their towns and cities is the kiva, which likely served a ceremonial role similar to that served by the kiva among modern Pueblos. Various settlements had housing that included pit houses, elaborate pueblos, and cliff dwellings. They often used stone for their houses rather than the adobe that was common later, and many of their structures are well preserved.

What happened to the Hisatsinom is relatively easy to determine: they left their communities and settled in the nearby pueblos, which were already populated by related peoples. This explanation is satisfactory because it is consistent with traditional stories of the Puebloans and with the archaeological record.

The place where it gets sticky is when you try to find out why they did this. For decades, the story has been that Hisatsinom settlements were founded during a period in history with above-average rainfall. Since they relied on dry-land farming (farming without elaborate irrigation systems), their lives became increasingly difficult as the wet period came to an end in an event called the “Great Drought.” As they found it harder and harder to produce adequate food, the Hisatsinom slowly left their settlements and moved to the pueblos, which were close to major rivers and reliable seasonal streams.

There are a couple of problems with the Great Drought theory. At first, tree-ring data seemed to indicate an enormous drought that came without precedent. Further research indicates that the Hisatsinom had survived many droughts before, and it is not clear that they were experiencing widespread famine at this time. Also, the Hisatsinom had actually started to leave before the Great Drought, which indicates that something else might have been happening.

The departure from the Hisatsinom settlements was also accompanied by other changes. Stone habitations were closed up or dismantled. Pueblo tradition holds that their ancestors had found ways to manipulate the weather, and that this brought unexpected and disastrous consequences. They tried to reverse these changes by destroying their sacred buildings.

Some recent research finds evidence of warfare and cannibalism that began a few decades before the towns and cities were abandoned completely. Some people speculate that this was caused by the scarcity of food, but there are other possibilities. Christy and Jacqueline Turner propose the possibility that Meso-American invaders may have taken over the Hisatsinom territories. They required offerings of food that would be stored in Great Houses (large, centrally located structures that seem to have had ritual and storage uses). The Turners proposed that the ritually prepared human bones that were found at several sites could be victims that were offered as tribute to the invaders, who had established themselves as the rulers. In this view, the Hisatsinom left because they were escaping.

The Turners' theory has not been universally accepted by scientists, and most Pueblo leaders have rejected it. Anthropologists claim that there are other reasons to ritually prepare bones. Most Pueblo elders say that the Hisatsinom were peaceful, and they had no tradition of cannibalism. That being said, I have a vague memory of a man who came from San Ildefonso Pueblo to tell us stories at campfire program at Bandelier National Monument. He said that the horrors that took place when the Hisatsinom were practicing black magic before they dispersed were “unspeakable.” If I remember what he said correctly, it seems possible that there is some oral tradition that is consistent with cannibalism and warfare.

Among the descendants of the Hisatsinom there are many stories about the reason they migrated to the pueblos, but the best known is that told by the Hopi. They say that the Hisatsinom left because they had a spiritual dedication to a life of movement. They started to experience bad luck caused by staying in places that were meant to temporary, so they left to respect the practices of their ancestors.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Wheel of Fortune, Ficino

What is the medieval Wheel of Fortune? Who was Marsilio Ficino?

I shall attempt to answer both of these questions, unrelated as they are, in a single essay. For the record, the latter question was asked by a student who should have known who Ficino was.

While there are several important medieval figures who are little known today, the two whose reputations have diminished the most are Boethius (who wrote very early in the middle ages – the sixth century), and Ficino (who wrote late in the middle ages, and helped inspire the Renaissance). Both of these philosophers were quite famous in their times, but today few people could tell you who they are.

Boethius was an important member of the court of Theoderic the Great, the Ostrogothic ruler of Italy. Boethius was a Nicene (Trinitarian) Christian, while Theoderic was an Arian – meaning he was a member of a branch of Christianity who believed in a type of Trinity, but in which the Father was superior to the Son. Even though the time in which Boethius lived was characterized by conflict between Nicene Christianity and Arianism, Boethius and Theoderic were very close until Boethius stood up for another member of Theoderic's court who was accused of treason for corresponding with the Byzantine Emperor Justin I. This resulted in Boethius himself being accused. He was imprisoned and eventually executed.

While he was in prison, he wrote The Consolation of Philosophy, which is written in the form of a dialogue between Boethius and Sophia (“wisdom”). The Consolation starts with Boethius complaining of the injustice of his situation. Sophia tells him that he should not despair because nobody knows the will of God. As long as people are subject to fate, they will undergo injustice. It is useless to rail against the ways of the world; trust in God and live a life of virtue, and you will know true consolation.

In order to illustrate the unexpected whims of fate, Boethius reintroduced the ancient concept of the Wheel of Fortune (Fortuna). Fortuna was a Roman goddess of fate. She was shown turning a wheel with people moving up and down in a circle. As people move up in the wheel, they encounter unexpected luck and happiness, but they inevitably will start to go down after they reach the pinnacle. Boethius makes it clear that all people – rich and poor, virtuous and wicked – are subject to these turns of fate. Since there is nothing a person could do to change one's own fate, the correct attitude to have to misfortunes and inequalities is tranquil acceptance. Even though the Wheel of Fortune was known before Boethius wrote about it, it seems that the widespread appearance of the wheel in medieval art is due to the influence of the Consolation of Philosophy.

Boethius' writing was well-known in the middle ages, and his doctrine of stoic resignation was widely accepted in those times. The striking inequalities and injustices of the middle ages were largely placidly accepted throughout much of the middle ages. Peasant uprisings were quite rare until the Black Death led people to question the propriety of the status quo.

The philosophy of Marsilio Ficino was quite different than that of Boethius, although both drew heavily on Plato. During most of the middle ages, art and music were mostly commissioned by the Church, and the purpose was to communicate religious lessons. While the notion that medieval artists did not think art should be beautiful is an exaggeration, beauty was not the prime objective of art. Ficino revived the classical notion that beauty was the true objective of poetry, painting, music, and other arts. While Ficino was a Christian who believed that sublime experiences brought about by experience of beauty would bring one closer to God, his writings renewed interest in the philosophies of pre-Christian thinkers – particularly Plato.

Ficino's influence is clearly seen in the art of the Renaissance. Beauty – particularly the beauty of the human figure – again became the object of art. Artists became the most well-known figures of the age, and churches, cities, and wealthy individuals competed to commission the most striking works of art.

The theme that ties these two philosophers together is that we can see the influence their philosophies had on their respective eras even though they, as individuals, are mostly forgotten.

Thursday, June 16, 2016


I changed the settings on this blog so that you do not need to sign in to leave comments.  Please keep it clean and be nice!

Tuesday, June 14, 2016


What is your favorite type of sloth - two-fingered or three-fingered?

There are currently two families of sloths and six species.  While it is customary to designate the two families as "two-toed" and "three-toed," in fact all sloths have three toes on each foot.  The distinction is in their fingers - so it is good that the student who asked this question did not make that mistake.

People typically are most familiar with three-fingered sloths, and they love the sort of black mask they have on their faces.  Two-fingered sloths are less flashy in appearance.  They typically have brown fur that is lighter in color on their faces.  They have a bunch of moss growing on their fur that they graze on from time to time.  The fur also provides a habitat for moths.  Recently scientists have discovered that the moths provide nutrients for the moss, which then is more nutritious when the sloths eat it.  In exchange, the moths get a nice, warm home and some protection from predators.  Sloths are fascinating animals.

I personally met with some two-fingered sloths at the Zoological Wildlife Center in Rainier, OR.  For the most part, they were pretty friendly, although I did spend quite some time getting a particular old grump to warm up to me.  My family had a better experience feeding and petting some more personable sloths.

I usually say that I prefer the two-fingered sloths.  Mostly, I like them because they look cool, they are less popular, they are friendlier (I think), and Mr. Sloth (my puppet) is a two-toed sloth.

Recently, though, I have developed a soft spot for a particular species of three-fingered sloth: the pygmy sloth.  This is the most endangered of all the sloths.  These sloths are endemic only on one island near Panama.  They have coloring similar to that of other three-toed sloths, but are much smaller.  An adult pygmy sloth is 19 - 21 inches long.  I like these sloths because they are small, cute, and people need to know about them so we can try to save them.

Africanized Bees

How do bees become Africanized?

There are many different varieties of honeybees (Apis mellefera), and any of them can hybridize if they are put together.  While there are native bees in the Americas, the honeybees that are kept for pollination and honey production are all imported.  The most common variety is the European honeybee.  These bees are pretty hardy, but they are best adapted to cooler climates that one finds in the tropics.  Their honey production and the stability of the hives is lower in the hotter areas of the Americas.

In the 1950s, a biologist named Warwick E. Kerr, tired of merely being a guy with a cool name, decided he would interbreed bees from Africa that were adapted to a hot climate with honey-producing European bees.  He was working in Brazil, and he figured that he could benefit from the combined traits of these two bees: the large capacity for creating honey of the European bees, and the heat tolerance of the African bees.

The bees that Kerr created were good at tolerating heat.  They were also more aggressive than European honeybees, more likely to swarm, and more persistent in pursuing invaders.  In fact, they can chase an animal a quarter of a mile.  This is pretty good stamina (although you can still outrun bees if you keep it up for long enough - click here if you don't believe me).  Kerr managed these hives as an experiment, and he did not intend for them to be set free in the wild.  He put a special type of screen on the hives called "queen excluders" on the hives.  These are meant to allow the worker bees to enter and leave the hives, but hold the queens and drones - who are larger - in the hive.  This will keep the hives intact and prevent swarming.  Somebody removed the excluders, and 26 colonies swarmed and started to spread.

Since the bees were quite suited to the tropical heat of Brazil, they started to spread.  Due to their aggressiveness, people became afraid and started calling the Africanized honey bees "killer bees."  There was a lot of sensationalism about the possible spread of Africanized bees, including a popular movie in 1974 called Killer Bees.  It is still common to hear people use the term "killer bees," although most bee experts object to the term.  Africanized bees are more aggressive than regular honey bees, but bees who do not feel threatened are not a danger to anybody.  There are definitely precautions you should take around bees - particularly near their hives - but you have probably seen hundreds of Africanized bees without incident.

Africanized bees did spread, and they are quite common in the southern United States.  Exactly how common they are is a matter of some debate.  A recent study in California showed that among managed colonies, 13% have DNA of African bees, while the percentage of non-managed bees who are at least partially Africanized is over 60%.  Thorough research has not been done on bees in Arizona, but most bee experts believe the percentage will prove to be higher here.

Africanized bees have likely reached their northernmost boundary by now.  They thrive in places with mild winter temperatures because they do not store enough food to make it through a long, cold winter.  In places like Arizona, though, it is likely that bees will increasingly show Africanized traits because they are so suited to hot climates.

Bees become increasingly Africanized in three different ways:

1.  Existing hives will swarm and form new colonies;
2.  Their drones will interbreed with European honeybee queens;
3.  and they will take over existing honeybee hives.

This last method is fascinating, and it was only recently discovered.  Africanized bees can go into an existing colony, kill their queen, and replace her with one of their own queens.

Each colony of bees has its own personality, and there are Africanized colonies that are relatively docile.  Since Africanized bees are so well adapted to our environment, maybe the best way to deal with their increase is to replace hostile queens with less aggressive ones.   The colony will quickly take on the personality of their new queen.  


Friday, June 10, 2016

Favorite Color

What's your favorite color?

 There were a lot of questions like this.  Even though I dress in a drab manner, I love colors.  My favorites are blue, green, and purple.

Tutankhamun's Tomb

Do you have an update on the secret chambers in Tutankhamun's tomb?

Yes, I do.  A couple of students asked about this, and it is gratifying that they care about these historical mysteries.

It has long been known that many of the grave goods were not originally crafted for Tut, but were re-purposed goods made for someone else.  Nicholas Reeves, a highly-regarded Egyptologist from the University of Arizona, claims that most of the grave goods were originally for a mysterious female pharaoh known as "Neferneferuaten," who was probably Nefertiti.  The most famous artifact from the tomb, Tut's death mask, was clearly retrofitted by cutting the face off and replacing it with Tut's face.  Reeves found evidence that there was originally an inscription inside identifying Nefertiti as the owner; that inscription was scratched out and replaced with Tut's name.

Other people have pointed out that Tut's tomb itself seems to have originally been made for someone other than Tut.  They had to cut into the walls to make room for the sarcophagus, and the shape of the tomb is more typical of a queen's tomb than a king's.  Since we haven't located Nefertiti's tomb, some people speculate that Tut's tomb was originally meant for her, and that she may have been hastily buried somewhere else (or some other random thing happened to her mummy).

Reeves developed a theory that the tomb is actually Nefertiti's, and  that she is not buried elsewhere - but she is still inside that tomb!  He looked carefully at images of the walls and noticed evidence that there might be hidden chambers behind a wall in the same room where Tut's sarcophagus was.  He started to believe that the ancient Egyptians took an existing tomb and built walls to retrofit it into a new tomb for Tut.

Evidence to support Reeves' theory mounted earlier this year when Japanese radar expert Hirokatsu Watanabe used ground-penetrating radar to show that there may be hidden chambers.  Watanabe said the images shows the presence of metals and organic material within the chambers, which obviously would be consistent with a hidden tomb.

Some Egyptian tourism officials were excited about these findings, since visits to Egypt have dropped off as a result of political turmoil.  Perhaps a major discovery would be able to bring people back.

Other experts were not convinced.  Former Egypt Antiquities Minister Zahi Hawass was skeptical of the claims, and other radar experts interpreted Watanabe's scans as being inconclusive.  In March and April of this month there was a large, well-coordinated effort to duplicate Watanabe's results.

Egyptian officials stalled on issuing the results, and they have been reticent to publicize them, mainly because the more detailed scans indicate that there are no hidden chambers.

As for me, I still hope they find something, but I doubt it.  I am especially disappointed in further research into Watanabe's scans.  He enthusiastically claimed that there almost certainly were hidden chambers, although most experts say that his scans don't show any evidence.  Watanabe has an eccentric way of interpreting results that he refuses to explain to anybody.  It seems Watanabe may have been using this as a means of self-promotion and not as a serious attempt to further scientific inquiry. 

Thursday, June 9, 2016


Why is the drinking age 21?  Where did the 21 come from?  It seems like an arbitrary age.

In 1984, Ronald Reagan signed the National Minimum Drinking Age into law.  This law told the states that if they did not change the drinking age to 21 they would lose 10% of their federal highway funding.  Eventually all the states fell into line, and this led to a reduction in the number of drunken-driving deaths, so it seems the law had a good effect.  I know you may be wondering why a person who found this sneaky way of forcing states into changing their laws to align with federal policies - even though the 21st amendment defers the power to regulate alcohol to the states - is considered to be the hero of limiting federal control over the states, but I don't want to argue about it.

The question here is how did 21 come to be seen as the age of majority in this case.  Why not 20 or 22?  The absolute origin of 21 as a magic age is lost to antiquity, but it is clear that it came to our country from English Common Law, which was once the law of land here in the states, where our legal heritage originates with the original 13 colonies, which were all bound by British law.

You may ask, What is English Common Law?  A quick answer two this is that the British do not have a constitution like we have: a document that was written down and you can go and read.  Their law consists of statutes that have been passed by kings and parliaments throughout history  (known as "statute law"), and various legal judgments and conventions (known as "common law").

English common law gave people increasing responsibility as they aged.  Common law took into account the fact that girls mature more quickly than boys, so they do not always get rights at the same age.  Men began to gain rights at the age of 14, while girls would begin at 12. For example, a man could sign a contract at 14, but could choose not to ratify it at 21, even though an adult who entered a contract with a minor was bound to follow it.  It raises the question of why anybody would enter a contract with a child since the child could so easily abrogate it, but that is the law.  A man could marry without parental consent at 21.  An interesting rundown of various rights by age can be found here; I can't vouch for its accuracy, but it is pretty interesting.

Outside of England and its colonies, the age of 21 doesn't have the magic power as it has here.  There are a handful of countries that have a minimum drinking age of 21.  All of these countries are either former British colonies, Islamic countries who have additional restrictions concerning who can purchase alcohol, Pacific islands that have a history of close ties with the United States.  Taking a world-wide perspective, a drinking age of 21 is very rare.  18 is the most common, although some places have 19 or 20.  Because of our success in reducing accidents by raising the drinking the age, there have been attempts in places like New Zealand, Australia, and the Philippines to increase the drinking age, but we are still relative outliers.    

An interesting sidenote is that the original Selective Service Act of 1917 required men to register at 21.  The age was lowered to 18 in 1918.  Since some people object to men being required to register at 18 even though they are not allowed to drink until 21, maybe Selective Service should be changed back.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016


How did ancient people fight off the first allergies?

This is a good question, and there is not much information.  In fact, there is not much mention of hay fever type allergies in ancient sources, although ancient people were aware of allergic reactions to animals and foods.  According the Psychoneuroimmunology by Robert Ader, the earliest report of an allergic reaction was King Menses of Egypt, who died of a wasp sting some time between 3640 - 3300 BCE.  Ader also reports that Britannicus, the son of emperor Claudius, was so allergic to horses that his eyes would swell shut and he couldn't see where he was going.  In these cases, the remedy was to avoid horses as much as possible.

Hay fever -  which is an allergic reaction to dust, mold, and pollen -  was not formally described until 1906.  This does not mean these did not exist (although see below), just that it was not recognized as a specific phenomenon.  The ancients did know about breathing problems (asthma), and there are numerous treatments mentioned in ancient sources.  These fall into two categories - inhaling steam that has been scented with herbs, and taking tea that includes stimulants known to cause bronchodilation (particularly ephedra in China).  Both of these methods are somewhat effective.

For a while, I lived in a place called Johnson Mesa, New Mexico.  I never figured out what it was, but I was extraordinarily allergic to something there.  I read in a book that a common folk remedy for allergies was to take the resinous sap of a plant and paint that inside your nose.  Supposedly this remedy went all the way back to Plains Indians.  The theory is that the sap causes pollen to stick so you don't inhale it.  It did not work so well.

While we find that there are symptoms described in ancient sources that are similar to allergies, it definitely was not very important to them.  In fact, research shows that allergies are much more common among industrialized nations, and that they are becoming more and more common as people become increasingly urbanized.  The cause for this seems to be related to the reduced incidence of parasites.  Our immune system evolved to fight off parasites, and if you do not have parasites it will turn against things like pollens and molds.  Allergies are essentially an over-reaction to these relatively harmless irritants.  People can reduce their allergies by infecting themselves with parasites.  If you are interested in ordering some hookworms, click here.   There is an interesting article about parasites and allergies from Smithsonian Magazine that you can read here.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Name of the Blog, Antony and Cleopatra

Why did you name your blog Smells Like Pirates?  Why?  Do you know what pirates smell like?  Have you ever been a pirate?

I have never been a pirate, but do have a pretty good guess what pirates smell like, mostly based on how other people smell when they do the sort of work pirates do.  As to why I gave the blog this name, I answered that (more-or-less) in the first post, but I will give a little backstory that should make it clearer.

Several years ago I was teaching that class, and during that class we were talking about sewage systems.  I don't remember why, but that was a topic of discussion.  I pointed out that in places where the sewers depend on gravity to bring the sewer waters to the treatment plant, it is not unusual for a clog to cause the sewage of people living in the hills to flood into the houses of people living in the valleys.  Most of the students understood instinctively, but somebody wanted me to draw a picture.  I drew a house on a hill and said it was Matthew Padgett's, and a house in the valley and said it was mine.  I drew the sewer lines under the house and showed where the clog was.  I then said, "At first it is not a big problem, but as the sewage gets more and more backed up it will eventually start to fill up my bathtub and sinks.  One day I will come home, open the door, and say 'It smells like Padgett in here.'"

As a result of this story, the phrase "It smells like Padgett" became one of the catchphrases of that class.

When I submitted my proposal to travel to museums to study how pirates are portrayed, I remembered how catchy the phrase about Padgett was, so I just replaced "Padgett" with "pirates."  The name does cause some confusion, but it has proven to be rather memorable.

Is the story of the deaths of Antony and Cleopatra in Shakespeare historically accurate?

I think what the student is wanting to know here is related to Cleopatra's motivation in telling Antony that she is dead.  In the play Antony and Cleopatra, Antony becomes angry at Cleopatra after he is abandoned by his cavalry.  He believes it is a result of Cleopatra betraying him.  Cleopatra runs to a mausoleum and locks herself in.  There here servant Charmian tells Cleopatra that she should send a servant to tell Antony that she (Cleopatra) is dead, so she does.  She then wants the servant to return to tell her how Antony took the news.

The clear implication is that Cleopatra is trying to see if Antony still loves her.  She wants to know if he will mourn her or callously claim that he is relieved.  Cleopatra's insecurity was previously seen when she was taken aback that Antony did not mourn more passionately for his wife Fulvia; she wonders if he will act the same when she herself dies.

The historical records we have, even those used by Shakespeare, do not make such a clear case for her wanting to test his love.  Shakespeare's main source for the play was Plutarch's Life of Antony.  Shakespeare's description of the death of Antony is very similar to the one in Plutarch.  The main difference is that Plutarch does not make it clear that she is trying to test his love.  In fact, Plutarch implies that she sends the message so that Antony, who believes he had been betrayed, will stop pursuing her.  In other words, she is lying to him to save her own neck.

I think the notion that Cleopatra wants to see if Antony still loves her is mainly Shakespeare's idea, and I can't find it clearly stated as a motivation in any of the historical documents.  On the other hand, it seems at least - which is why that is how I wrote it into the puppet show that I created to review this story.

As an interesting side note, almost all of the people who wrote a summary of the story of Antony and Cleopatra for the final included the detail that Cleopatra did it to test to see if Antony still loved her, even though I barely mentioned it in class.  The puppet show seems to have been influential on how my students viewed the historical event.  It is always best to look stuff up for yourself, and not to trust a puppet show too much. 

Friday, June 3, 2016

Two new questions

Many students asked me personal questions.  If you don't find these sorts of questions interesting, just drop me a message below.

What is your favorite dessert?

Probably brownies with dark chocolate chips.  It really depends on my mood.

What is your favorite place that you have visited?

This is a hard question to answer.  I teach and live in Mesa, so I travel during the summer when it is over 110 degrees much of the time.  Any place that is cooler than here (almost anyplace) is a welcome break.  I think, though, I will say Prince Edward Island.  It has an interesting history, the people were nice, and the kids enjoyed it.  We saw many of the sites relating to Anne of Green Gables, and it is interesting to see how people preserve the memory of Lucy Maude Montgomery.  The air there smells great, it is cool, the prices are pretty reasonable in the summer (it is a winter vacation spot for many Canadians), and the temperatures were really nice for summer.  Also, I was waiting to use a computer in the hotel lobby one evening and there was a group of high school students having a heated discussion of the Iiad.  Apparently their public schools include a pretty strong classical element.

Another student asked a similar question, "What is your favorite place to visit?"  The question is worded a little differently, and is easier for me to answer.  My favorite place to visit is Los Alamos, where I grew up.  Some people don't have an enormous affection for the place they are from, but I do.  I dream of Los Alamos at night, and daydream of it in the day.  I love the piñon trees, the mountains and mesas, the cool evening breeze, the arroyos, the views, and the people.   It is a bit disheartening to see how different it looks after the Sierra Grande fire, but I still love it there.  My father lives there, and he is the nicest man I know.  I have a lot of memories there, some of them quite poignant, but I do enjoy returning for a visit.  As a resident of Mesa, I appreciate that it is considerably cooler there.  I can remember it getting to 90 degrees there, but that is rare. 

Thursday, June 2, 2016

The Hardest Sport

What is the hardest sport?

I am glad that I got this question, because it was the topic of discussion on Coast to Coast AM at one point, and I did not like the reasoning the callers were using. I can remember one guy said that it was baseball because of how hard it is to hit something so small that is traveling so fast with a little ashwood stick. I know that what he says is correct, as I saw a show in which they were trying to make robots hit a baseball and it was almost impossible. People are amazing, and it is good to reflect a while on how many remarkable things you see every day without thinking about it. That being said, a lot of people can hit a baseball. I can hit a baseball, and I have hit baseballs that were thrown by college players at high speeds, so it can't be the hardest sport.

I have two criteria for a sport being hard:

1. Hundreds or thousands of people try to master the sport.
2. Almost nobody does.

The reason for the first criterion is that there are some sports that only about eight people have tried. For a sport like that, maybe the reason nobody really mastered it is that no skilled people have dedicated adequate effort into trying. The reason for the second criterion is obvious; if there is something that seems really hard if you look at the physics of it, such as hitting a baseball, but thousands of people can do it, then it can't be the hardest.

That being said, I don't think you can say there is a hardest sport. In this age of extreme sports, probably any athletic competition that can done anywhere can be taken to an extreme level that only a handful of people can compete at. Take holding your breath, for example. Kids compete at it all the time. Probably anybody who has access to a swimming pool has tried this sport at one time or another. On the international level, though, there are very few people who can hope to compete. Most people know about magician David Blaine, who combined intense self-discipline and excessive self-promotion to make himself famous by breaking the record for extreme submerged breath holding (17 minutes and 4 seconds) – a record that was broken by less well-known Stig Severinsen in 2012 (22 minutes).

Extreme sports qualify for the title of “hardest sport” for the reasons I gave, but also because you can die competing in them. In one famous example, extreme diver Nicholas Mevoli died soon after a dive to a depth of 236 feet.

Another example of an extreme sport that many athletic and dedicated people try is the ultramarathon. Perhaps the most grueling is the Badwater Ultramarathon, which is 135 miles run in Death Valley in July. I live in Mesa, AZ – which is HOT, but not as hot as Death Valley – and it is hard for me to imagine running water, much less running a race, in July. Everyone who competes in this race is an ultramarathoner who has trained years in various extreme conditions, but very few people complete the race. I know sometimes baseball players can't finish a game, but it would be an entirely different sport if almost the entire team didn't make it through the ninth inning.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Armenian Genocide

I recently asked my students to ask me a question for my blog as part of their final.  I received well over 100 new questions!  I do not have over 100 students; many students asked several questions.  I had originally intended to cull the most interesting questions to answer and dispense of the rest, but now I have decided to answer the questions at the rate of about one per day until I lose energy.

Today's question: What do you know about the Armenian Genocide?

Among scholars of modern history, the Armenian Genocide is widely studied and discussed.  It is not well-known among non-scholars, and most of my students say they have never heard the phrase "Armenian Genocide."

The modern country of Armenia is located in Western Asia, bordering Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, and Nakhchivan. Although occupying a small territory, Armenia has had an immense influence on the history of the world. Although the Persian Empire was centered in Persia (Iran), it had its roots in Armenia, as did the Persian Zoroastrian religion – which is regarded as the first world religion because it was spread through Western Asia and Eastern Europe by the Persians.

Armenia is predominately Christian, and it was the first kingdom to adopt Christianity as its official religion in 301 CE. In fact, the Armenians' tenacious adherence to Christianity is connected to much of the persecution they have suffered throughout the ages. As Islam spread through Eastern Europe and Western Asia, traditionally Christian ethnic groups like the Armenians and Assyrians have been persecuted, dislocated, and virtually exterminated.

For the most part, the Armenian Genocide did not occur where the modern day country of Armenia is, but where Turkey is now located. By the 1800s, there were large communities of Armenians living in Constantinople (now known as Istanbul) and in the Eastern region of the Ottoman Empire. These Armenians had been there for centuries at this time, and the Ottoman Empire largely tolerated them. There were limits on their right to travel, to do business, and there were special taxes, but the Armenians mostly kept to the regions that they had traditionally held and everybody was happy.

This changed in the 1890s. The Ottoman Empire started to crumble, and Sultan Abdul Hamid II blamed this on Christians within the empire, saying that Christians were likely to prefer being ruled by Russia and they couldn't be trusted. At first he merely cracked down on their travel and trade, but eventually authorized the military to kill as many Armenians as they could. Nobody knows how many were killed at this time, but it amounts to hundreds of thousands.

This was definitely a hard time for Armenians, but it got worse. In the early 20th century, the Young Turk revolution replaced the totalitarian monarchy with a constitutional democracy. At first, the Armenians welcomed this change because they saw in it the possibility that they would be able to have a voice in the government. In fact, the Young Turks were the worst thing that happened to the Armenians.

The Young Turks believed that Turkey should be for the Turks, and not for non-Turkish, non-Muslim people like the Armenians. Even though the Armenians had been living in their territories for centuries upon centuries, the Young Turks viewed them as foreigners who did not belong.
During World War I, the Ottomans made an alliance with the Germans and joined the Central Powers. Many Ottomans suspected that the Armenians would be disloyal, so they called for removing Armenians from the military. Also, the Ottomans began removing various Christian groups from their ancestral lands, arguing that their loyalty could not be trusted.

Until this point, most Armenians had loyally served the Ottomans militarily, but now that their loyalty was being questioned and many non-Armenians were being killed, many of them teamed up with Russia to oppose the Ottomans. The Russian Empire, which was Christian, was seen by many Armenians as their best hope for liberation.

On April 24, 1915, the Ottomans officially began their attempt to “cleanse” their lands of the Armenians. They forcibly removed them from their homes and forced them to march through the desert to concentration camps. Many of them died in the intense heat. People who stopped were shot on the spot. Bands of thugs went through the neighborhoods of Armenians and other Christians, killing the adults and taking the children to be raised by Turks. The genocide lasted until the end of World War I.

By the end of the war, an estimated 1.5 million Armenians had been killed in massacres, worked to death in concentration camps, or marched to death in the desert. To put that number in perspective, it is almost exactly the population of Phoenix. Next time you are driving through Phoenix, look around and imagine what it would mean if every person you see – every old man, every baby, every teenager – were brutally murdered. Really, do it. This is as close as you can come to imagining the horror of this event.

The Turkish government still resists referring to this mass killing of Armenians as “genocide.”

Monday, April 11, 2016

Logical Fallacy slideshow

Here is the slideshow.  Use comment feature if you have any questions or comments.

link to slideshow