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24 March 2017
Morning Sedition

"133t5p33k" or "!337$p34k"

Leet Keyboard

Microsoft has disocvered Leetspeak and the risk it poses to children:

Key points for interpreting leetspeek

• Numbers are often used as letters. The term "leet" could be written as "1337," with "1" replacing the letter L, "3" posing as a backwards letter E, and "7" resembling the letter T. Others include "8" replacing the letter B, "9" used as a G, "0" (zero) in lieu of O, and so on.

• Non-alphabet characters can be used to replace the letters they resemble. For example, "5" or even "$" can replace the letter S. Applying this style, the word "leetspeek" can be written as "133t5p33k" or even "!337$p34k," with "4" replacing the letter A.

• Letters can be substituted for other letters that may sound alike. Using "Z" for a final letter S, and "X" for words ending in the letters C or K is common. For example, leetspeekers might refer to their computer "5x1llz" (skills).

• Rules of grammar are rarely obeyed. Some leetspeekers will capitalize every letter except for vowels (LiKe THiS) and otherwise reject conventional English style and grammar, or drop vowels from words (such as converting very to "vry").

• Mistakes are often left uncorrected. Common typing misspellings (typos) such as "teh" instead of the are left uncorrected or sometimes adopted to replace the correct spelling.

• Non-alphanumeric characters may be combined to form letters. For example, using slashes to create "//" can substitute for the letter M, and two pipes combined with a hyphen to form "|-|" is often used in place of the letter H. Thus, the word ham could be written as "|-|4//."

• The suffix "0rz" is often appended to words for emphasis or to make them plural. For example, "h4xx0rz," "sk1llz0rz," and "pwnz0rz," are plural or emphasized versions (or both) of hacks, skills, and owns.

"A Parent's Primer to Computer Slang: Understand how your kids communicate online to help protect them" by Microsoft Corporation

And here's a set of kewl words that Microsoft says you should be on the lookout for:

Leet words of concern or indicating possible illegal activity:

• "warez" or "w4r3z": Illegally copied software available for download.

• "h4x": Read as "hacks," or what a malicious computer hacker does.

• "pr0n": An anagram of "porn," possibly indicating the use of pornography.

• "sploitz" (short for exploits): Vulnerabilities in computer software used by hackers.

• "pwn": A typo-deliberate version of own, a slang term often used to express superiority over others that can be used maliciously, depending on the situation. This could also be spelled "0//n3d" or "pwn3d," among other variations. Online video game bullies or "griefers" often use this term.

"A Parent's Primer to Computer Slang: Understand how your kids communicate online to help protect them" by Microsoft Corporation

Remember, kids, if someone offers you some "pron" just say, "Thanks, Dude!". Or, more properly, "10x d00d!"

Leet Cereal

"Number Nine, Number Nine, Number Nine"

Record Albums

When I were a lad, and humans hadn't yet evolved opposable thumbs, we listened to music on eight-tracks and vinyl. Sad, but true. Now, one of the interesting things you can do with vinyl that you can't do with a CD is play it backwards, ruining both vinyl and needle in the process. (Ok, ok. One can now buy scratch CD players which allow you to do this, but Joe Sixpack doesn't have this specialized gear.) There was what amounted to a cult following for which albums contained secret messages only audible to the faithful. Mostly idiotic mumblage about how Paul McCartney was dead and had been replaced by a robot, or how various songs really were tributes to Satan. As anyone who doesn't live in red-state America knows, these alleged "messages" are really nothing more than artifacts created by our brains:

The human brain with all of its capabilites and control has difficulty with one thing: time. It can only understand it when it goes in one single direction. To us it's forward; to other particles in the universe it's sideways, or tangential, or even crooked. When we are presented with something where time has been changed more than just slightly - reversed, for example - it seems nothing but completely foreign and incomprehensible. Only in the past 50 years has man even been able to hear sounds in reverse. These new sounds are not based in our reality, and to the uninitiated, quite scary. It's no wonder reversing of sound in popular culture has been linked with Satan or other devilish conduct - that's how most cultures deal with things they can't comprehend.

Sofanic Messages in Frank Zappa's Music revealed

The technique of laying down reversed audio on top of a normal piece of music is called "backward masking". This is a different technique than choosing words that will sound out the proper message when played in reverse. The latter is much more interesting — and harder — than the former. The key to a message audible only in reverse is picking the proper forward phonemes — phonemes are the discrete sounds making up each spoken word — so that the reverse phonemes yield the desired message:

The combination of reversed phonemes in English results in yet more complication. In most cases the end result cannot be estimated from the initial sounds, because of many factors.

1. Slang - in most English phrases, words are strung together for ease of speaking. Certain consonants are lost, vowels shortened, etc. Phonetic analysis of the word as it is properly spoken usually has very little in comparison to how it is spoken in real life, and can even depend upon how the word is used in the phrase itself.

2. Pitch - The English language uses pitch to designate ends of phrases, emphasized words, etc. When these are reversed, the whole sense of the phrase is misdirected - the emphasis goes to a certain syllable (or combination of phonemes) which when reversed adds to its unusual rhythm.

3. Human experience - the most undefinable of the result of combined reversed phonemes is how they are combined in the human mind to form something discernable. Correlations with known slang words, changing vowels, and numerous other things are added or removed in order to interpret the vocal sound to something understandable. As we will see, this factor plays almost the biggest role in 'secret message' finding...

Ev: Audio Reversal In Popular Culture

Ok, so what does this mean in practice? Let's consider a famous example:

The simplest of examples (and one of the most popular) comes from The Beatles' "Revolution 9". Throughout the piece is a spoken phrase repeating "number nine" in a slight British accent:

nUXmbUXnAOIHnUX

Note the removal of the 'r' in number , the deep swell in vowels in 'nine', from 'au' to 'i' sounding more like 'nauighn', and the addition of the vowel sound at the end. The pitch of the voice is very important as well - the note stays nearly the same throughout 'number', but rises quickly in 'nine', and ends on a high pitch for the final vowel sound.

When reversed at the phonetic level, the result is:

UXnIHAOnUXbmUXn

The heavy pitch drop at the beginning stretches out the first vowels, which come across as two words because of the different vowel sounds from the British accent, and the reversed consonants in 'number' separate the words as well:

UXn IH AOn UXb mUXn

...which has been loosely translated in the English language to "Turn me on dead man".

By loosely I mean that many of the consonants are dropped (which is usual for this phrase in slang): the starting "t" is dropped, the "r" is dropped (normal for British accents), the "m" is dropped, the first "d" in "dead" is dropped (usually combined with the preceding consonant anyway), the "b" changes to "d" (a very close relation as well), and the vowel sound for "man" changes from "AE" to the lazy-sounding "UX".

Ev: Audio Reversal In Popular Culture

Turntable With Hand

So who's used this technique? Just about everyone.

Led Zeppelin's epic "Stairway To Heaven" creates possibly the most amazing phoenetic accidents known in popular music. To further the mystery around the song, a little background is necessary.

Led Zeppelin had it's popularity in the 1970s mostly in the grass-roots rock and roll community. Influences for the band included J.R.R. Tolkien books, mystical folks stories, and the like - most of which had paganistic overtones, easily interpreted by the public as closely satanic. The growth of Led Zeppelin seemed mystical in itself - though minimal promotion was done by the group's record company Atlantic Records, the group's popularity spread by word of mouth, something not usually expected or calculated.

The song "Stairway To Heaven" became a legendary song in rock and roll music culture. Stranger than the fact that it was the most-played track in radio history, stranger than the fact that the song's length was nearly 8:00 (most radio stations played nothing over 4:00), stranger than the fact that it is a staple of rock and roll guitar players everywhere, was the way the lyrics were written. Robert Plant, the lead singer and lyric writer described it: "I just sat down next to Pagey (Jimmy Page, guitarist) while he was playing it through. It was done very quickly. It took a little working out, but it was a very fluid, unnaturally easy track. It was almost as if - uh-oh - it just had to be gotten out at that time. There was something pushing it, saying 'you guys are okay, but if you want to do something timeless, here's a wedding song for you."

What makes this song truly amazing on another level is that in a stretch of nearly one minute, you could find 7 different consecutive phonetically reversed "phrases" seeming to refer to the same subject: Satan. Never in the history of popular music has this happened before or since.

Ev: Audio Reversal In Popular Culture

There are many examples in Frank Zappa's musical output that were recorded at higher or lower speeds or backwards. In addition, there are many examples of conceptual continuity where musical themes in one piece can be found in another context somewhere else. The purpose of this Web page is to decode some of some of these puzzle pieces using some of the frightening little techniques science has made available. What was sped up is slowed down. What was recorded backwards is reversed. Themes that are found in entirely different musical contexts are recorded side by side -- version one on the left channel and version two on the right.

Sofanic Messages in Frank Zappa's Music revealed

Another One Bites the Dust
Queen, The Game

Rumor: When played backward, the lyrics say, "It's fun to smoke marijuana."

Findings: There is something that sounds like "It's fun to smoke marijuana" in the reversed music. It is repeated over and over. It might be rendered no less faithfully, however, as "sfun to scout mare wanna." This "message" is the reversal of the song title, which is repeated a a line in the song.

Big Secrets by William Poundstone, 1983

But that's just a few of the many examples. Other bands claimed to use backwards masking include Jefferson Starship. Electric Light Orchestra, The Cars, Pink Floyd, etc.

Digital Voiceprint

Religious fundamendalists then mounted a campaign to label every album with backward masking to protect children:

Phonograph Record Backward Masking Labeling Act of 1982 - Makes it unlawful for any packager, labeler, or distributor to distribute in commerce phonograph records containing "backward masking" without a label bearing a specified warning.

Defines "backward masking" to mean an impression upon a phonograph record which makes an audible verbal statement when the record is played backward.

Makes any violation an unfair or deceptive act or practice under the Federal Trade Commission Act.

H.R.6363, "A bill to require that jackets in which phonograph records containing backward masking are packaged bear a label warning consumers of such backward masking.", Sponsored by Representative Robert K. Dornan (CA), 12 May 1982

Which the Congress wisely referred to the "Subcommittee on Commerce, Transportation and Tourism" where it was allowed to die a peaceful, and unreported, death. But groups other than fundamentalists were fascinated, as well. The lunatic fringe weighed in, saying the wonders of the universe are contained in backwards music and speech:

The pioneer and 20 year veteran of this field, Australian David John Oates, describes Reverse Speech as another form of human communication. He states that language is bi-level, forward and reverse. As the human brain constructs the sounds of speech, it forms those sounds in such a way that two messages are delivered simultaneously. One forwards, which is the conscious mind speaking, and the other in reverse, which is the unconscious mind speaking.

The applications of this discovery are exciting. On the surface level, it can act as a sort of Truth Detector as Reverse Speech will usually correct the inconsistencies of forward speech. If a lie is spoken forwards, the truth may be communicated in reverse. If pertinent facts are left out of forward speech these may also be spoken in reverse. It can reveal hidden motive and agenda and other conscious thought processes. At deeper levels, Reverse Speech can reveal thought patterns that are unconscious, including reasons behind behaviour and disease. This information can be used to greatly enhance the therapeutic and healing processes.

TalkBackwards.com - Backmasking & Reverse Speech

Yeah, I know. They are at least forty cards shy of a full deck. Who could make this nonsense up? Anyway, if Geraldo or Jerry Springer aren't satisfying your need for satanic messages, you can make your own. That's right, boys and girls, the lunatics over at TalkBackwards.com have a page where you can upload a .wav file and have it reversed:

Upload an audio file to our server, wait a few seconds for it to be reversed, and then you will hear it played backwards. No download or special software required.

Talk Backwards

And if you claim to hear secret Satanic messages in speeches from Bush, Cheney, or Rumsfeld, well, all I can say is, I hear those same evil messages when their words aren't reversed.

Sources and Further Reading

  1. Ev: Audio Reversal In Popular Culture (includes audible example)
  2. Sofanic Messages in Frank Zappa's Music revealed (includes audible examples)
  3. Talk Backwards
  4. Excerpts from Big Secrets by William Poundstone, 1983

Aryan Glue
(Elsie the Cow Meets Elmer the Bull)

Elmer's Glue Bottles

When I were a lad, and dinosaurs roamed the earth, I used to hear all manner of nonsense in grade school. Not just from the teachers, either. My fellow students used to confabulate the worst sort of nonsense out of the proverbial wholecloth. Like how the building on the way to school that was being erected by the "Mack Construction Company" was going to be used to hold a museum for Mack Trucks and we'd be able to go on field trips. (Really. I am so not making this up. It ultimately turned out to be for Chubb Insurance, which is pretty much what I expected. I got a beating from my fellow students for saying, during construction, that the office building was waaaaaay too small for a museum and why would the Mack company want such a small building in New Jersey when they were in someplace like Ohio. Then I got beat up again after Chubb moved in for saying I was right. Ok, I should have kept my mouth shut.) Or that Bubble Yum had spider eggs that would hatch in your heart and kill you. (I got a beating for pointing out that this made no sense, saying that the stomach broke down food and that included spider eggs. And I got puched again after Bubble Yum took out full-page ads saying something like, "People are saying bad things about your gum." Hey, it was the mid-seventies; I don't know if people were stupider and less informed, especially after the last election I think not, but they probably were.) Or that Elmer's white glue was white because it was made from milk. (I asked my chemist father and he said it wasn't. So I said it wasn't milk and got... Ok, enough already.) Anyway, I heard that canard again the other day and thought it was time for an entry.

Elmer's white glue is made by Borden, a company that started out as a dairy but branched out from inedible cow-secretion products like cheese into chemical products. (The founder of Borden invented a vacuum process for making condensed milk, instead of the common heat-based deyhdration method which altered the color and taste in undesirable ways, which is why Borden became such a powerhouse in the food industry.) There's a good reason for a food company to be involved in things like paints, glues, and even plastics; for a long time these were dervived from casein, a milk-cheese phosphoprotein. In 1970, after protest from vegans and other radical vegetarians, the glue was reformulated to be made from polyvinyl acetate (PVA), a polymer, emulsified in water. (Ok, so I totally made up the part about the vegans and vegetarians. The polymer part is true, though.)

Chemical Structure of Polyvinyl Acetate

Structure of Polyvinyl Acetate (PVA)

When the water evaporates, the glue repolymerizes into long chains and hardens. The tricky part is getting the emulsion right so that one has a smooth glue instead of gelled lumps in water. PVA is bioligically inert; you can — or so says the Materials Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) — eat as much as you want and not get sick. (This is not from personal experience; there are limits to CitizenArcane's committment to accurate blogging. Sorry. If you ever try consuming it for a bar bet, or similar idiocy, be sure to write and let us know how it turned out for you.)

One of the likely reasons for reformulation is that PVA is soluble after it's cured, but casein glue is most definitely not. Casein glues, in fact, turn out to be virtually impossible to remove after use, which makes furniture assembled with them basically unfixable. (Hide glue, another early glue, is easily removable.) Casein paint, relying on the same adhesive principle, is nearly impossible to remove, as most modern strippers simply won't touch it. Reformulating of the glue from casein to PVA was likely done for cleanup purposes:

How can I remove glue?

Elmer's makes a variety of products and clean-up can vary depending upon the formula. School Glue or Glue-All products - soap and water are usually all you need to clean up these products. If it's on clothing, just launder as recommended by the manufacturer.

Elmers.com FAQ

Elsie the Cow

So, the logo is just the dairy company's cow, right? Well, not exactly. In 1939, Borden, a dairy-products company, acquired the Casein Company of America, a manufacturer of milk-based chemicals. (Moving up the foodchain and going vertical locks in profits, then and now. Plus ca change...) The new company was called Borden Chemical and needed a logo. The smart people on the dairy side decided it would devalue their brand to have ther food products — which are borderline chemical waste, anyway, being fat, salt, and artificial color — associated with chemical products, even if they did come from milk. The chemical people, however, were way craftier than the dairy-products people:

Where Did Elmer's Name Come From?

Elsie the Cow became Borden's very popular "Spokescow" in the late 1930's. She was a big hit at the 1939 New York World's Fair, and soon afterwards the character of Elmer the Bull was created as Elsie's husband. In the late 1940's, Borden's new Chemical Division asked to use Elsie for its new white glue product. The thought of Elsie representing a non-food product didn't seem appropriate, so as a compromise, Elmer was loaned to Chemical as their very own "spokesbull". To this day, Elmer the Bull still represents the most recognized adhesive company.

Elmers.com Fun Facts

So there you have it. Elmer is Elsie's, uh, consort. One more factoid: Elmer's white glue is the official glue of the Aryan Nation. (Ok, so I made that up, too. You want everything here to be purely factual?)

Cellphonus Interruptus
(Just a Moment, Dear. I Have a Cell Call.)

Paris Hilton Cell Phone

When I read this story I immediately thought of my entry a few weeks back about William Ayrton's comment from 1897 that someday phones would be wireless and portable, and if one's friend didn't answer when called, well, then, the friend was dead. I made the comment that there were some times I didn't answer the phone because I wasn't Paris Hilton. (Have you see the infamous sex tape? The point where she answers her cell phone in the middle of the action, much to the well-vocalized consternation of her companion, is really funny. It's the only watchable part.) Well, it turns out that a lot of people, unfortunately, have remarkably similar behavior:

Fourteen percent of the world's cell phone users report that they have stopped in the middle of a sex act to answer a ringing wireless device, Ad Age reported.

The highest incidence of cellular interruptus was found in Germany and Spain, where 22 percent of users interrupted sex to answer their cell phones; the lowest was in Italy, where only 7 percent reported doing so. In the U.S., the figure was 15 percent, the magazine said, citing a study conducted by BBDO Worldwide and Proximity Worldwide.

"Cell Phone Users Interrupt Sex for Phone Calls" Consumer Affairs, 11 April 2005

I wonder how the meme that a cell phone call is more important than anything else managed to spread so far and wide. The study, however, did not report the percentages of those answering the phone getting laid again by the partner put, ahem, on hold, shall we say. I think that's the really interesting number.

Fugu! Oh yeah? Fugu, you too, ya zombie!

DVD Coverfor Night of the Living Dead

Dennis Allen: What do you want?
Dargent Peytraud: I want to hear you scream, Doctor Allen.

The Serpent and the Rainbow, 1988

We talk about zombies all the time. For example, today I was saying that if one connects a machine to the Internet without a firewall, either hardware or software, it takes about 2.5 minutes before the machine is colonized and turned into a zombie to perform such tasks as deliver spam or initiate denial-of-service attacks. We also talk about how the Democrats have been turned into zombies that do the Republican's bidding. But, mommy, where do zombies come from? Well, that's an interesting question.

The word itself comes from the Bantu language Kimbundu, in northern Angola, and means ghost of the dead. (Various interpretations say it is an evil ghost or an ancestral ghost; my poor fluency in Kimbundu makes it difficult for me to know for sure.) As for the flesh-eating zombies, well, Virginia, these horrible creatures come from the red states and they suck up blue-state blood, I mean, money. An alternative explanation has them coming from Haiti where they are "manufactured" by witch doctors. (But we in the blue states know the truth!) And what is a zombie like? Well, it aint' pretty, folks. In 1927, William Seabrook, a journalist, wrote about Haitian zombies:

They were plodding like brutes. The eyes were the worst. It was not my imagination. They were in truth like the eyes of a dead man, not blind, but staring, unfocused, unseeing. The whole face, for that matter, was bad enough. It was vacant, as if there was nothing behind it. . . . For the flash of a second I had a sickening, almost panicky lapse in which I thought, or rather felt, "Great God, maybe this stuff is really true.". . . Then suddenly I remembered-and my mind seized the memory as a man sinking in water clutches a solid plank- the face of a dog I had once seen in the histological laboratory at Columbia. Its entire front brain had been removed in an experimental operation weeks before..."

William B. Seabrook, 1927, quoted in "Voodoo Research Topic Study Guide" (warning: you have to pay to read more than this)

There are a few hypotheses regarding the origins, but I'll start with the most famous one.

Wade Davis, a graduate student in ethnobotany at Harvard, was sent to Haiti at the request of his advisor to investigate a zombie story:

Davis was still working toward his Ph.D. when, in 1982, commissioned by a group including the psychiatrist Nathan Kline (a pioneer in the use of drugs for treatment of mental disorders) and the theatrical producer David Merrick, he traveled to Haiti to investigate legends of a "zombi poison." The so-called poison was supposedly made from human bones and parts of lizards, poisonous toads, sea worms, puffer fish, and other items; it was said to lower the metabolism of anyone who swallowed it and paralyze his or her vital functions, leaving the individual in a condition that could easily be mistaken for death. Davis's supporters believed that the drug might have important applications for anesthesiology and artificial hibernation (the latter considered potentially useful for controlling neurological diseases). Voodoo priests were rumored to use the drug on individuals during certain rituals; after burying the people alive, they would later "magically" revive them. This process was called zombification. (Voodoo is commonly thought of as a kind of black magic or sorcery; Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines it as a "religion that is derived from African polytheism and ancestor worship and is practiced chiefly in Haiti.") "I think [voodoo sorcerers] probably see this poison as a support for what is essentially a magical belief," Davis told Carla Hall. "[A Haitian] is not made a zombie by a poison. He's made a zombie by a [voodoo priest's] capturing his soul."

Wade Davis, Current Biography Monthly Magazine, January 2003

It makes sense that pharmaceutical companies — and politicians — would be interested in any drug that turns someone into a mindless slave. Ok, ok, and any drug that might be a good anaesthetic. Now, the big case in zombies, and the one that attracted the interest of Davis' patrons, is Clairvius Narcisse:

When Clairvius Narcisse entered the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, he appeared to be suffering from malnutrition, high fever, and aches throughout his body. His condition deteriorated rapidly as he developed respiratory problems, became unresponsive, and then slipped into a coma. Two days later, on May 2, 1962, he was declared dead by two attending physicians. His sister, Angelina, identified the body, and another sister, Marie Claire, authenticated the death certificate by placing her fingerprint on it. The next day Angelina, Marie Claire, and the rest of the family buried Clairvius in a small cemetery near their village of l’Estere. Here the saga of Clairvius Narcisse should have ended, but 18 years later, in 1980, a shuffling, vacant-eyed man approached Angelina in the village marketplace and identified himself as her brother, Clairvius. His family and many villagers recognized him immediately, and he told them a fantastic tale of being dug up from his grave, beaten to his senses, and led away to work as a slave on a remote sugar plantation. Though surprised, the villagers accepted his story because they believed that the power of voodoo magic made such things possible. It was clear to then that Clairvius Narcisse had been a member of the living dead—a zombie.

"The Zombie Poison" by Clair G. Wood ChemMatters, October 1987

The problem is that nobody has ever verified that the "returned" Narcisse was actually whom he claimed to be, and his poorly-investigated story is the only one that gets trotted out as "proof" of zombies. But, back to Davis:

Davis claims there is a poisoned powder which causes the target person to fall into a death-like trance. It was to seek this drug that originally got Davis the assignment to track down the zombie poison. His sponsors reasoned that such a drug must exist, and if they could find it might have valuable pharmacological possibilities as an alternative to currently popular but unsafe anesthetics.

The great controversy which Davis' book has caused is mainly connected to his claim that the chemical tetrodotoxin, gotten from the puffer fish, is the primary active ingredient in this "zombie powder."

However, what seems to be universally missed by Davis' critics, or simply ignored, is his claim that the powder alone cannot adequately account for nor make a zombie. Davis describes the "set and setting" which is required for the powder to work. "...set, in these terms, is the individual's expectation of what the drug will do to him or her; setting is the environment--both physical and, in this case, social--in which the drug is taken." (p. 181.)

Thus the poison in the powder, which is a psycho-active drug (one whose effect is related to specific personal psychological factors), will have different effects depending on who one is, what one's socialization and expectations are. In the case of Haitian members of the Bizango sect, they have been socialized to recognize the possibility and process of zombification and are psychologically attuned to the appropriate effects of the drug, i.e. zombification.

Davis' book presents a strong hypothesis concerning the why of zombification. In a country so drastically poor as Haiti, with labor costs for farm hands only being about $1.00 a day, one cannot account for zombification on the grounds of seeking cheap labor. One might imagine zombification as a way to get at enemies, but the violence of Haiti's history suggests much simpler ways of solving that problem. Davis' hypothesis is perhaps attractive simply because it is so grand! He tells the story of a long history of secret societies stretching back into the earliest days of slavery. Escaped slaves, the maroons, living deep in the mountains, created an alternative society, more African than Western. These societies brought with them the remembered lore of Africa, including knowledge of the use of local poisons. The poisons were used as tools of social control within the maroon communities. After independence and the radical split between the life in the rural areas and the cities, these maroon social organizations became the secret Bizango societies, and zombification is, effectively, their death sentence for serious violations of the code of conduct required in Bizango.

Professor Robert Corbett's Review of Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie by Wade Davis

Fugu Sushi

Fugu (Pufferfish) Sushi Being Prepared

Now, the active ingredient here is tetrodotoxin, a toxin produced by puffer fish. (Heard of fugu? That's pufferfish sushi and it has enough of the toxin left to give diners a tingling sensation on their lips and tongue. Yeah, playing with neurotoxins is fun, fun, FUN!) Anyway, tetrodotoxin is bad stuff. Really, really, really bad stuff. (Fortunately, it isn't being used as a bioweapon yet. I'm glad Homeland Insecurity is keeping us safe from badly prepared sushi.)

"The first symptom of intoxication is a slight numbness of the lips and tongue, appearing between 20 minutes to three hours after eating poisonous pufferfish. The next symptom is increasing paraesthesia in the face and extremities, which may be followed by sensations of lightness or floating. Headache, epigastric pain, nausea, diarrhea, and/or vomiting may occur. Occasionally, some reeling or difficulty in walking may occur. The second stage of the intoxication is increasing paralysis. Many victims are unable to move; even sitting may be difficult. There is increasing respiratory distress. Speech is affected, and the victim usually exhibits dyspnea, cyanosis, and hypotension. Paralysis increases and convulsions, mental impairment, and cardiac arrhythmia may occur. The victim, although completely paralyzed, may be conscious and in some cases completely lucid until shortly before death. Death usually occurs within 4 to 6 hours, with a known range of about 20 minutes to 8 hours."

FDA/CFSAN Bad Bug Book Tetrodotoxin

Cover for the Serpent and the Rainbow by Wade Davis

TitleThe Serpent and the Rainbow
AuthorWade Davis
ISBN0684839296
PublisherSimon & Schuster

Having discovered the "recipe", Davis returned to the US and wrote a book, The Serpent and the Rainbow, about his alleged experiences in Haiti allegedly learning about the alleged creation of alleged zombies. (I say "alleged" based on criticisms. More on that in a bit.) The book was made into a truly atrocious movie, which isn't worth the price of a rental, nor the hour and a half out of your life. Davis and others claim that his findings regarding tetrodotoxin have been confirmed:

A powder prepared by Haitian voodoo sorcerers for the making of zombis was extracted with acetic acid, the extract concentrated and applied to a small cation exchange column followed by elution with water and then acetic acid. The water and acetic acid eluents were analysed by gas chromatography-mass spectrometry and liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry. The analyses indicated the presence of an alkaline degradation product of tetrodotoxin, namely 2-amino-6-hydroxymethyl-8-hydroxyquinazoline, after base treatment, and of tetrodotoxin and an isomer on direct thermospray mass spectral activity.

Evidence for the presence of tetrodotoxin in a powder used in Haiti for zombification. by C. Benedek, L. Rivier, Toxicon., 1989;27(4):473-80

But all of this may just be a combination of gullability, naivete, and confabulation, perhaps mixed with a healthy dollop of outright scientific fraud.

Davis tells of providing samples of zombie powder to pathologist Leon Roizin, who tested them on rats. Roizin told him the animals became completely immobilized and unresponsive, though heartbeat and brainwaves were still detectable. After 24 hours the rats recovered, apparently without lingering effects. Davis never actually saw the creation of a zombie and concedes there is much about Haitian society he doesn't understand. But one might conclude that tetrodotoxin was the drug used to create zombies.

It ain't necessarily so. Davis's hypothesis has been bitterly disputed by other scientists. Two experts on tetrodotoxin, C.Y. Kao and Takeshi Yasumoto, tested two of his samples and found they contained only a minute amount of it, too little to have any pharmacological effect. They also condemned Davis for his involvement in grave robbing. According to an account of the controversy in the journal Science, Davis himself fed zombie powder to rats without result, a fact not cited in his books. Roizin never repeated his experiments, published his results, or determined what was in the samples he was given. In the Science article he was quoted as saying he was "embarrassed" by his involvement in the affair.

How do I go about creating a zombie?, Straight Dope, 21 May 1999

Cover for Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie by Wade Davis

TitlePassage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie
AuthorWade Davis
ISBN0807842109
PublisherUniversity of North Caroline Press

Davis subsequently wrote a second book on Haiti and zombies, Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie, which didn't clarify things at all. The basic problem here is not only may the voodoo powder be fictional, but so, Virginia, may be zombies themselves:

Belief in zombis is widespread in Haiti and in many communities there are individuals who are considered to be zombis not only by their neighbours but even their families. Indeed the phenomenon is taken so seriously the Haitian Penal Code considers making someone into a zombi as a form of murder.

But in a paper in this week's The Lancet, two researchers, professor Roland Littlewood of the department of anthropology and psychiatry at London's University College and Dr. Chavannes Douyon of the Polyclinique Medica in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, conclude many so-called zombies may in fact be individuals with psychiatric disorders or brain damage.

In their study, the researchers report on three individuals who were considered to be zombis by their families and neighbours. They found the first individual appeared to have a severe psychiatric condition called catatonic schizophrenia, which can make a person mute and immobile; the second to have brain damage and epilepsy, perhaps due to an episode of oxygen starvation of the brain; and the third individual, a severe learning disability, perhaps due to fetal-alcohol syndrome.

Zombis May Not Be What They're Reputed To Be

Haiti: Serpent and Rainbow and Passage and Ethnobiology of Haitian Zombie

"The most recent writing on zombies is a curious mixture of sensationalism and scholarship--and much of the scholarship is questionable. As a doctoral student in botany at Harvard University, Wade Davis investigated the ethnobotany of zombification in Haiti. Although he spent relatively little time there and spoke no Creole, Davis had the apparent good fortunate to come across some informants who give him information on the potions used by Voodoo sorcerers to poison people. Davis thought that he had discovered the active ingredient in the poison, tetrodotoxin, and wrote an academic article on his findings in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology in 1983, as well as a Ph.D. dissertation at Harvard University--with some of his conclusions written before the laboratory results were in.

Not everyone, however, accepted these conclusions. In fact, C. Y. Kao, a pharmacologist at the State University of New York Downstate Medical Center and an authority on tetrodotoxin, is quoted on page 7 of the January 1989 issue of Discover characterizing Davis's research as "a carefully planned, premeditated case of scientific fraud." An article by Kao and his associate Takashi Yasumoto in a 1986 issue of the journal Toxicon pointed out that the amounts of tetrodotoxin in the zombie portions is insignificant.

As if his pharmacological conclusions were not controversial enough, Davis wrote a overheated and fictionalized book about his time in Haiti that reads like the first draft for a Hollywood movie with Davis himself as an Indiana-Jones-type hero. This book, titled The Serpent and the Rainbow, did, indeed, become the basis for the latest Hollywood insult to Haiti, a movie of the same title released to theaters on February 5, 1988, and appropriately made by the director of "A Nightmare on Elm Street.""

Professor Robert Corbett's Review of Serpent and the Rainbow by Wade Davis

"In June, 1989 I attended a seminar in Port-au-Prince on zombification. During the discussion I raised the question to the 40 or so people in attendance, had any one of them every seen a zombie "bab pou bab," the Haitian equivalent of face to face. Everyone had. So I randomly questioned one person about her experience. It turned out it wasn't she herself who had seen the zombie, but her first cousin. The next person hadn't actually met a zombie, but his aunt had. Someone else's father, another's best friend and so on around the room. In the end not one single person was able to tell a tale of having actually, personally been face to face with a zombie.

Are there really zombies in Haiti? Wade Davis devotes two long sections to this question. He first looks at the popular views and then explores cases where there have been some attempts to carefully and more scientifically determine the status of suspected cases. His key candidate for zombiehood is Clairvius Narcisse. In spring, 1962 Narcisse "died" at the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Deschapelles, Haiti. His death was verified by the hospital staff. 18 years later Narcisse turned up alive and well, and claimed to be an escaped zombie."

Professor Robert Corbett's Review of Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie by Wade Davis

My personal take on all this is that Davis is either delusional or lying. Tetrodotoxin has been thoroughly studied, especially in cases of fugu poisoning, and it's effects do not vary according to one's "cultural background". Survival is also dependent on modern hospital technique, not leaving people comatose in a crushed-in coffin after being buried alive.

After reading all that, if you were still inclined to have some fugu here are some guidelines.

* Always call the restaurant in advance and make a reservation; a skilled itamae who knows how to prepare fugu is hard to find, and may come to the restaurant just to prepare the fugu for you.

* Beware of a restaurant that will prepare fugu for you without a reservation unless you're a regular patron.

...

* Can you feel your tongue? No? Stop eating immediately and call the ambulance.

...

* Tip the itamae generously. You will notice that he is much older (and presumably experienced) than other sushi chefs you might have run into. In fact, avoid eating fugu from a itamae who looks younger than forty. Experience is a friend of caution in this case.

Sushi-Eating HowTo by Eugene Ciurana

Think about that, boys and girls, the next time you feel you are being daring by ordering white-tuna sushi. Oh, and if you want to get fugu, there are places in the city offering it. (They don't advertise, though, and you may have to be Japanese to get in.) Be careful with the tetrodotoxin, though — it's a killer.

Lest you go away thinking that CitizenArcane has debunked all the mystery in the world, or is not educational, here's how you can make your very own zombie:

Ingredients

Creme de Almond: 0.5 oz.
Rum (Light): 1 oz.
Rum (Overproof/151 Proof): 0.5 oz.
Triple Sec: 0.5 oz.
Orange Juice: 1.5 oz.
Sour Mix: 1.5 oz.
Cherries/Maraschinos: 1 whole
Glass to Use: Collins glass

Mixing Instructions

Shake everything except the 151 rum in a cocktail shaker with ice. Strain into a collins glass over ice and float the 151 on top. Garnish with a cherry.

Drink Nations' Guide to Making Zombies

Zombie Glass for Drinks

Oh, and you'll have to get your own skull mug if you want it to be authentic, though.

Sources and Further Reading

  1. Wade Davis, Current Biography Monthly Magazine, January 2003
  2. Professor Robert Corbett's Review of Serpent and the Rainbow by Wade Davis
  3. Professor Robert Corbett's Review of Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie by Wade Davis
  4. FDA/CFSAN Bad Bug Book Tetrodotoxin
  5. How do I go about creating a zombie?, Straight Dope, 21 May 1999
  6. Zombis May Not Be What They're Reputed To Be
  7. Evidence for the presence of tetrodotoxin in a powder used in Haiti for zombification. by C. Benedek, L. Rivier, Toxicon., 1989;27(4):473-80
  8. Sushi-Eating HowTo by Eugene Ciurana
  9. Drink Nations' Guide to Making Zombies

"Cigarson"

Art Deco Cigar Ad

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

— Sigmund Freud, attributed

I heard a story and instantly knew it for what it was; it took only a few minutes with Google to confirm my first impressions. To begin, here's the jist of the story:

A man bought several boxes of cigars and had them insured against fire. When he had smoked them, he put in a claim against the insurance company that they had been destroyed by fire.

The company refused to pay, and the man sued. The judge ruled that the company had given the man a policy protecting against fire, and must pay.

As soon as the man accepted the money, the company had him arrested on a charge of arson.

"Cigarson", Snopes.com

This is, of course, an urban legend that's been debunked:

Insurance policies are generally written so that deliberate actions on the part of the policyholders cannot trigger payouts. Furthermore, destroying your own property isn't arson, as long as the act isn't intended to defraud anyone. If a court had already ruled that the insurance company was required to pay, then obviously no fraud was committed, and thus the burning could not be considered arson.

"Cigarson", Snopes.com

Sometimes an urban legend is just an urban legend.

What Song Is It You Wanna Hear?

Album cover for "Pronounced leh-nerd skin-erd"

If this were the Make-a-Wish Foundation, and you were going to die in 20 minutes — just long enough to play 'Freebird' — we still wouldn't play it.

— Modest Mouse's Isaac Brock quoted in "Rock's Oldest Joke: Yelling 'Freebird!' In a Crowded Theater" by Jason Fry, Wall Street Journal, 17 March 2005, page A1

There were a few superbands when I was growing up, but none held a candle to Lynyrd Skynyrd. (Hard to believe I was eight when this was released, and twelve when the plane crashed. Man do I feel old.) Just in case you've been living in a cave for the past thirty years, here's the official word on Freebird:

A towering rock anthem crowned with the mother of all guitar solos, Freebird almost never got made at all. When guitarist Allen Collins first brought it into rehearsals, volatile singer Ronnie Van Zandt was unenthusiastic, claiming it had too many chords. Eventually he relented, writing a lyric paying tribute to the late Duane Allman. Opening with a gospel-like organ flourish which flows majestically into Collin’s sweeping slide guitar hook, Van Zandt sings with sensitivity at odds with his band’s redneck image. The climatic guitar duel was added late in the day, but soon became a centrepiece of the band’s live shows. Freebird became the template for a certain style of southern rock showstopper – witness Green Grass and High Tides by The Outlaws or Highway Song by Blackfoot for songs with similar dynamics – and assumed even greater poignancy when Van Zandt was killed along with two other band members in a plane crash in 1977. When Skynyrd reformed in the late 80s it was performed as an instrumental, with an empty mic stand centre stage adorned with Ronnie’s trademark cowboy hat. To this day it continues to live on as a rock radio staple matched only by Stairway to Heaven.

BBC Top 100 - Number 33 - Freebird

Yeah, what he said. Anyway, Freebird has achieved what few songs ever do: it has become a meme.

One recent Tuesday night at New York's Bowery Ballroom, the Crimea had just finished its second song. The Welsh quintet's first song had gone over fairly well, the second less so, and singer/guitarist Davey MacManus looked out at the still-gathering crowd.

Then, from somewhere in the darkness came the cry, "Freebird!"

It made this night like so many other rock 'n' roll nights in America.

...

Yelling "Freebird!" has been a rock cliché for years, guaranteed to elicit laughs from drunks and scorn from music fans who have long since tired of the joke. And it has spread beyond music, prompting the Chicago White Sox organist to add the song to her repertoire and inspiring a greeting card in which a drunk holding a lighter hollers "Freebird!" at wedding musicians.

Bands mostly just ignore the taunt. But one common retort is: "I've got your 'free bird' right here." That's accompanied by a middle finger. It's a strategy Dash Rip Rock's former bassist Ned Hickel used. According to fans' accounts of shows, so have Jewel and Hot Tuna's Jack Casady. Jewel declines to comment. Mr. Casady says that's "usually not my response to those kind of things."

...

So what do the members of Skynyrd think of the tradition? Johnny Van Zant, Ronnie's brother and the band's singer since 1987, says "it's not an insult at all -- I think it's kind of cool. It's fun, and people are doing it in a fun way. That's what music's supposed to be about."

Besides, Mr. Van Zant has a confession: His wife persuaded him to see Cher in Jacksonville a couple of years ago, and he couldn't resist yelling "Freebird!" himself. "My wife is going, 'Stop! Stop!' " he recalls, laughing. "I embarrassed the hell out of her."

"Rock's Oldest Joke: Yelling 'Freebird!' In a Crowded Theater" by Jason Fry, Wall Street Journal, 17 March 2005, page A1

If I leave here tomorrow
Would you still remember me?
For I must be travelling on, now,
’cause there’s too many places I’ve got to see.
But, if I stayed here with you, girl,
Things just couldn’t be the same.
’cause I’m as free as a bird now,
And this bird you can not change.
Lord knows, I can’t change.

Bye, bye, it’s been a sweet love.
Though this feeling I can’t change.
But please don’t take it badly,
’cause lord knows I’m to blame.
But, if I stayed here with you girl,
Things just couldn’t be the same.
Cause I’m as free as a bird now,
And this bird you’ll never change.
And this bird you can not change.
Lord knows, I can’t change.
Lord help me, I can’t change.

"Freebird" by Allen Collins and Ronnie Van Zant, Pronounced leh-nerd skin-erd, Lynyrd Skynyrd, 1973

A Plank, A Rope, And Thou?

Fractal Circles Crop Circle

On a moonless night in July 1990 I found myself in the middle of a Wiltshire field with a plank, a rope, and... well, you can guess the rest.

— Mike J. quoted in "I Was A Teenage Plasma Vortex"

In yesterday's entry about sand circles, I said that the Circlemakers had, as far as I knew, used the technique first. This induced me to write up their more famous work: crop circles. No matter what the UFOlogists say, crop circles are the work of humans. And most of them were the work of the bad boys of circle making over at Circlemakers.org. (Sorry to suck all the mystery out of the world. Well, not really. I mean the being sorry part, not about the removing the mystery part.) A few years ago I saw a documentary on the Discovery Channel about how they wield their talents and it is both amazing and beautiful. All that sacred geometry comes from using lengths of rope to do the measuring. Who knew?

In their own words:

Doug Bower, assisted by his pal Dave, made his first circle in a Hampshire wheat field sometime during the summer of 1978. They made it on their hands and knees with a four-foot metal bar normally used to secure the back-door of Doug's Southampton studio.

"I'd always been interested in UFOs and flying saucers", he remembers, "...so I thought I'd make it look like one had landed." Whatever initially inspired him - divine guidance, the 1966 circle in a Queensland reed-bed, close to where Doug lived at the time, or simple ale-induced prankishness - the leap from provincial trampler to extraterrestrial super-force was swift.

Doug's daytime work-bench doodles transmogrified by night into gleaming sun-blessed articles of faith. This genius - fast-possessing others - couldn't be re-bottled.

Thousands of circles have since appeared world-wide in wheat, barley, oil-seed rape... grass, oats, linseed, peas, maize, mustard and rye... Gradually, inevitably, the circles grew appendages; curled scrolls unravelled into straw-perfect aisles; simple circles' sets became cathedral-like floor-plans - vast temporary sacred sites morphogenised the Gaiaic cry of nautili, whales, serpents, snails, scorpions, and spider's webs.

Equally spectral were the people who studied them; a veritable zoo of new-scientists, cerealogists, ufologists, vicar's-voiced dowsers, orgone revivalists, channellers, and myriad mystics, all seeking phenomenal genuineness in one form or another.

That genuineness proved elusive. Once wrapped in darkness with the warblers and the rabbits, cold air hitting the throat like mint as they raced around and around and around in decreasing spirals; dew-soaked wheat whooshing and splaying under skidding rollers, crunching under planks; ever-widening swaths laid flat as a mat in their path; Doug, and his many imitators, have since retired unseen.

The Circlemakers by Rob Irving

Wavy Line and Concentric Circles Crop Circle

Want to make your own? It isn't hard.

Although the circles have appeared worldwide in wheat, oats, spinach, grass, peas, rice, linseed, maize, oil-seed rape, sunflowers, mustard, barley, sugar-beet, rye, and a multitude of other crops, most cereal artists prefer to concentrate upon just three. These are grown and harvested in a smooth, overlapping progression; oil-seed rape in April through May, barley throughout May and June, and wheat from June until early September. In this guide we will give you all the information you will need to work with these plants, and eventually, with a little practice, produce genuine, dowsable, scientifically proven un-hoaxable circles patterns.

Equipment

The tools you will need are relatively unsophisticated; a 30 metre surveyors tape - this is preferable to string which tends to tangle easily... a 1-2 metre board or plank with a rope attached to each end to form a loop - this is known as a stalk-stomper... dowsing rods - these should be made of copper, and purchased from an expensive new age shop, or, in an emergency, a couple of bent coat-hangers will do... and a plastic garden roller (available from reputable garden centres, or, if only for occasional use, these may be rented from tool-hire shops for about £2 a night). A luminous watch is also useful as a summer night can be surprisingly brief.

Circlemakers guide to making crop circles

Windmill Crop Circle

The Windmill Hill formation is often cited as being too complicated to have been made by humans. Well, they've got a nice rebuttal to that argument:

According to Silva these formations were tiny - a sixth and tenth of the size respectively compared to the Windmill Hill formation, which he states "dwarfs man made attempts".

The Windmill Hill formation was 375ft across, (It was measured by researcher Paul Vigay, amongst others who created a very accurate scale diagram from his measurements) though it is often inaccuarately cited as being nearly 1000ft across.

Our formation was 200ft across (made by three of us in 2.5 hrs). Matthew Williams' formation was a respectable 218ft across, made in only 2hrs by two people. Not the minute size that Silva alleges.

Myth Men By Rod Dickinson

Sparsholt Crop Circle

The Sparsholt formation is often cited as "proof" that aliens were making crop circles. Who else, after all, would combine a portrait of an "alien" with "DNA" evidence. (Nobody ever asks why the aliens don't just land on the Whitehouse lawn. Didn't anyone ever see "The Day The Earth Stood Still"?)

It's a massive ring which houses what looks like a 360 degree three-dimensional representation of a twisting DNA strand! According to reports there are 1296 squares that make up the grid that the DNA is laid out on and the formations stretched for over 200ft. Interestingly, the formations center is located between tram lines in standing crop, as you can see from the aerial photos there is no trace in the crop, now how did THEY do that?

Circlemakers: Top of the Crops 2002

Star Pattern Crop Circle

King Philip Came Over For Good Sex

The other day a question about species taxonomy came up. (I wasn't hanging out with evolutionary biologists this time; it was related to a crossword puzzle entry.) The question had to do with subdivisions, and I trotted out the handy mnemonics to remember them:

King Philip Came Over For Good Sex
King Philip Came Over For Good Soup
King Philip, Come Out For Goodness Sake
Kindly Pay Cash Or Furnish Good Security

The letters specify: Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, and Species.

Another variant is:

Kindly Place Cover On Fresh, Green, Spicy Vegetables

Since the "Vegetables" adds "V" for variety, a subdivision of species. Except I don't think kings, like children, eat their vegetables, spicy or otherwise.

Of course, now that the biologists went and added "domain" it doesn't work anymore. We now have: domain archea for peculiar — and evolutionarily ancient — bacteria, like thermophiles; domain eukarya for cells with a nucleus (Protista, Fungi, Plantae, Animalia); and domain eubacteria for true bacteria. Damn biologists! Well, it's easily fixed:

Demented King Philip Came Over For Good Sex

Works for me. Except who has sex with demented kings? Oh, right. Everyone. It's good to be the king.

Year of the Rooster

Rooster Stamp From Hong Kong

Rooster Stamp From Hong Kong

The Chinese New Year is again upon us and Chinatown will again be filled with the Annual Chinatown Lunar New Year Parade & Fireworks Ceremony. (Sixth year!) Be sure to refrain from violating any taboos lest your good fortune for the coming year vanish.

The entire house should be cleaned before New Year's Day. On New Year's Eve, all brooms, brushes, dusters, dust pans and other cleaning equipment are put away. Sweeping or dusting should not be done on New Year's Day for fear that good fortune will be swept away. After New Year's Day, the floors may be swept. Beginning at the door, the dust and rubbish are swept to the middle of the parlor, then placed in the corners and not taken or thrown out until the fifth day. At no time should the rubbish in the corners be trampled upon. In sweeping, there is a superstition that if you sweep the dirt out over the threshold, you will sweep one of the family away. Also, to sweep the dust and dirt out of your house by the front entrance is to sweep away the good fortune of the family; it must always be swept inwards and then carried out, then no har

Chinese New Year Taboos

But beyond the traditional superstitions is one likely to have serious impact for anyone in the wedding business. This year's lunar cycle begins on February 9th which means it does not include lichun, the auspicious day beginning spring. (It falls on February 4.) What does this have to do with nuptials? Well, because this year is missing lichun, it is called a "widow year", and nobody wants to get married in a widow year. (Bad for the bride, bad for the groom.)

Couples across China are rushing to get married in the next few days before the Year of the Rooster, chickening out of what they believe to be a jinxed time to tie the knot.

This year the lunar cycle begins relatively late, on Feb. 9, which means it will not contain "lichun", the auspicious day that marks the start of spring, earning it the dubious distinction of being a "widow year", or unlucky for wedlock.

Chinese media have reported that marriage registrations are soaring around the country as people scramble to get hitched in the last days of the Year of the Monkey.

"Business is normally low for us this time of year, but this year, in keeping with traditional Chinese beliefs, many people want to get married before the spring festival and we have lots of customers," said Ms. Wang, manager of Beijing's Luowei wedding photo studio.

The phenomenon normally occurs on average about every nine years. The last "widow" year came in 2002 and sparked a similar marriage rush.

"Though the 'widow year' is nonsense, the fact that people try to avoid it reflects their strong desire for a happy marriage," Zhang Youde, a sociologist at Shanghai University, was quoted as saying by Xinhua news agency.

Chinese avoid weddings in Year of Rooster

The origins of the New Year celebration itself are interesting:

The Chinese New Year is now popularly known as the Spring Festival because it starts from the Begining of Spring (the first of the twenty-four terms in coodination with the changes of Nature). Its origin is too old to be traced. Several explanations are hanging around. All agree, however, that the word Nian, which in modern Chinese solely means "year", was originally the name of a monster beast that started to prey on people the night before the beginning of a new year (Do not lose track here: we are talking about the new year in terms of the Chinese calendar).

One legend goes that the beast Nian had a very big mouth that would swallow a great many people with one bite. People were very scared. One day, an old man came to their rescue, offering to subdue Nian. To Nian he said, "I hear say that you are very capable, but can you swallow the other beasts of prey on earth instead of people who are by no means of your worthy opponents?" So, swollow it did many of the beasts of prey on earth that also harrassed people and their domestic animals from time to time.

After that, the old man disappeared riding the beast Nian. He turned out to be an immortal god. Now that Nian is gone and other beasts of prey are also scared into forests, people begin to enjoy their peaceful life. Before the old man left, he had told people to put up red paper decorations on their windows and doors at each year's end to scare away Nian in case it sneaked back again, because red is the color the beast feared the most.

From then on, the tradition of observing the conquest of Nian is carried on from generation to generation. The term "Guo Nian", which may mean "Survive the Nian" becomes today "Celebrate the (New) Year" as the word "guo" in Chinese having both the meaning of "pass-over" and "observe". The custom of putting up red paper and firing fire-crackers to scare away Nian should it have a chance to run loose is still around. However, people today have long forgotten why they are doing all this, except that they feel the color and the sound add to the excitement of the celebration.

Origins of the Chinese New Year

So take a trip on the subway and see the demons chased away and look at the costumes. It's likely a bad day to eat in Chinatown unless you get there early.

Chinatown Lunar New Year Firecracker Ceremony
Date: Wednesday, February 9, 2005
Time: 11AM - 5PM
Location: Mott St. & Bayard St., Firecrackers at noon
Market St. & E. Broadway, Firecrackers at 2PM
Chinatown Lunar New Year Parade & Festival
Date: Sunday, February 13, 2005
Time: 1PM - 5PM
Location: Major streets of Chinatown (Mott, Canal, Bowery, East Broadway, Chatham Square, East Broadway, Forsyth, Division, Worth)

Sources and Further Reading

  1. 6th Annual Chinatown Lunar New Year Parade & Fireworks Ceremony
  2. Chinese Culture Cente, San Francisco
  3. Chinese New Year Taboos
  4. MTA's Map of Chinatown and Subways
  5. "Explore Chinatown"'s Map of Chinatown and Subways (Simpler than MTA map)

Third Rails Other Than Socialist Insecurity

License Plate with 'Third Rail' on it

Why not? Anything that gets the adrenalin moving like a 440 volt blast in a copper bathtub is good for the reflexes and keeps the veins free of cholesterol... but too many adrenalin rushes in any given time span has the same bad effect on the nervous system as too many electro-shock treatments are said to have on the brain: after a while you start burning out the circuits.

Hunter S. Thompson
Fear and Loathing: On The Campaign Trail '72, page 17

I was listening to the news and again heard the comment that Socialist Insecurity is the "third rail" of American politics. So I said to myself — yes, I'm back to talking to myself since I ran out of meds — and nobody ever wants to piss on that third rail either. Which got me thinking about the endless debate is it or isn't it an urban legend that doing so is fatal.

But first, what is this "third rail", anyway? Well, for those of you who live in Red State America where there are no underground trains, the subways have a third track running parallel to the rails that the train rests on. This rail is used only to deliver 625 volts (DC) to the subway cars through a collecting shoe. Sounds like a dumb idea? Well, it's pretty much the only way to distribute power if you don't want the overhead transfer approach used by most trains:

There were numerous methods of conducting electricity to car motors. Street railways relied on overhead trolleys and underground conduits of various designs. During the last two years of the nineteenth century the elevated railways, unfettered by crowded street conditions, began to adopt third rail conduction.

Design and Construction of the IRT: Electrical Engineering

But back to our topic of dumb things to urinate on. Third-rail injuries are, fortunately, rare. A paper by doctors at the Department of Emergency Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, reports on a mere sixteen injuries over a fifteen-year period:

BACKGROUND: Railway and subway-associated electrical trauma is rare and typically involves high voltage (> 20,000) arc injuries. Not all rail systems utilize such high voltage. We report 16 cases of electrical trauma due to 600 V direct contact with subway 'third' rails. METHODS: A case series of injured patients presenting to Shriners Burns Institute, Boston or Massachusetts General Hospital between 1970 and 1995 was retrospectively analyzed. RESULTS: A total of 16 cases was identified. Among seven subway workers, the mechanism of rail contact was unintentional by a tool, a hand or by falling; no deaths occurred. Among nine non-occupational victims, injuries involved suicide attempts, unintentional falls, or risk-taking behavior. This group suffered greater burn severity, operative procedures, and complications; three deaths occurred.

"Electrical injury from subway third rails: serious injury associated with intermediate voltage contact." Burns, 1997 Sep;23(6):515-8

Ok. So has anyone died from urinating on the tracks? The short answer is, well, a strong maybe to a weak yes. But we are going to make you sit through the details uncovered on our quest for the truth. We quickly turned up an intriguing first possibility which is, at best, inconclusive and potentially erroneous.

The case of Lee v. Chicago Transit authority is often cited as demonstrating a need for legal reform:

On October 21, 1977, the morning preceding the accident, the decedent informed plaintiff that he planned to attend a party in the evening. Decedent apparently left the party after dark. He proceeded up Kedzie Avenue, a north/south street which intersected with the northwest-bound Ravenswood rapid transit line. At this point, he apparently proceeded into the CTA's right-of-way in order to urinate. In the process of doing so, he came into contact with the third rail, and suffered fatal injuries.

Brief filed by Estate of Sang Yeul Lee (deceased) vs. Chicago Transit Authority, Supreme Court of Illinois, Case No. 71304

In addition to the signing, sharp triangular shaped boards had been installed between the sidewalk and the third rail to make it extremely difficult and awkward for a person to walk up the tracks. Nonetheless, the decedent walked up the tracks approximately 6 1/2 feet to the point where the third rail began. There, attempting to urinate, he was electrocuted.

Decision, Estate of Sang Yeul Lee (deceased) vs. Chicago Transit Authority, Supreme Court of Illinois, Case No. 71304, 22 October 1992

The problem with Lee v. CTA is that nowhere in the briefs or decision does it actually cite direct contact of urine and the third rail as the cause of death. The closest the legal papers come to addressing the issue is the vague, "In the process of doing so, he came into contact with the third rail, and suffered fatal injuries." What were those fatal injuries? How were they obtained? Did he fall onto the third rail? Trip over it? Inquiring minds want to know!

So let's turn back to Gotham, which is what we care about, anyway, where we have the curious case of Joseph Patrick O'Malley:

Marshall Houta's [sic] Where Death Delights contains the sad story of one Joseph Patrick O'Malley, a man with two unfortunate habits: heavy drinking and wandering through subway tunnels.

One morning, O'Malley's mangled body was found in a tunnel 50 yards from the nearest station. He had apparently been struck and killed by a train.

But an autopsy turned up another cause: "The burns on the head of the penis and on the thumb and forefinger were obviously electrical burns....The stream of urine had come into contact with the 600 volts of the third rail. The current had coursed up the stream to cause the burns on his body as the electricity entered it.

"In all probability, he was dead from electrocution before the train ever hit his body."

Straight Dope

Ok, so that's the story. (By the way: the book is by Marshall Houts, not Houta, and the title is Where Death Delights: The Story of Dr. Milton Helpern and Forensic Medicine. Mistakes like these make me doubt the rest of Cecil Adam's — ok, Ed Zotti and staff's — work.) But would electricity really race up a stream of urine in practice? Can a stream of urine arc almost ten feet long and be continuous enough to electrocute someone? Can this story actually be true? Maybe:

The combination of water and electricity is notoriously volatile--so much so that there might be a built-in safety factor, i.e., the shock would be great enough to knock you down. This would spoil your aim and cut off the current before the electricity could do its lethal work on your heart muscles.

Straight Dope

I'm not buying it, but because of the distances involved, not the conduction factor. Remember, air insulates at about a thousand volts per millimeter, so the 625 volts of the subway can't jump the multi-millimeter gaps. (Urinating onto high-tension lines, however, is probably a bad idea.) Having said that, I recently watched the Mythbusters episode on this very myth where Adam urinates on an electric fence in the name of science. (Not to worry, paramedics were standing by. Kids, don't try this at home.) Adam, fortunately, does not have a shy bladder so he was able to perform on camera. (A career in fetish porn clearly awaits.) The question Mythbusters asked was:

Is it really that dangerous to answer the call of nature on the electrified third rail of a train track?

Episode 3: Barrel of Bricks, Pissing on the Third Rail, Eel Skin Wallet

The answer? Well, after Adam complained, "I've been painted gold and anal probed for you today... What else do you want?" the experiment proceeded forthwith. The conclusion was no, it doesn't, mostly because the stream of urine breaks up too much to conduct electricity. (Which seems to be confirmed by the sites listed at the end of this entry. But I'm getting ahead of myself.) I'm not sure that stream breakup is the sole reason. Yes, there is the air gap problem. (See above.) But my take was that the experiment is faulty: Adam simply wasn't grounded enough.

I've heard stories from people who grew up in farm country who'd apparantly heard stories about close encounters of a urinating kind with electric fences, mostly involving dogs that quickly learned to not do this. (Dogs make a lot of sense as the primary victims of electric fences because, like Wall Street bankers, they're always marking their territory and with four paws on the ground they are thoroughly grounded, completing the circuit.) But, once again, who knows how true those stories really are? And how, exactly, do they relate to the subways?

Ok. Let's get the data from the people who really do know. Years ago I read Dead Men Do Tell Tales: The Strange and Fascinating Cases of a Forensic Anthropologist by William R. Maples which relates the finding by New York City Medical Examiner Milton Helprin that a man didn't commit suicide by leaping onto the subway tracks but was rather electrocuted when he answered a call of nature on the third rail. (Burns on the thumb, index finger, and glans clinched it. Ouch!) But I can't find the details of that online. (Dead trees are so hard to search!).

I was able to locate the relevant bit from Marshall Houts' book online, but don't know how accurate it is. (I haven't seen my copy of Where Death Delights or Dead Men Do Tell Tales in a long time. Both, like the thousands of other volumes in my library, are boxed up pending finding sufficient space.) So here's what Houts allegedly wrote about it:

Milton Heprin, longtime chief medical examiner in New York City, used to tell the story of a young Irishman seen standing on the far reaches of a subway platform by several witnesses. At a certain point he suddenly and silently pitched forward right in front of an oncoming train. He was found dead beneath the wheels, horribly mangles. But his family was Catholic and did not readily accept the initial conclusion of suicide. They were quite certain that their son had no reason to commit suicide, and in the end they were proved right. Helprin reexamined the mangled body and noticed tiny burn marks on the right thumb, index finger, and the tip of the penis. He was able to reassure the family their son had died accidentally. He had been urinating on the subway tracks, and the stream had accidentally reached the third rail. The arc of falling water, rich with salts favoring conduction, instantly became an arc of lethal electricity. The lad was probably dead before he hit the tracks.

Darwin Digest, quoting from Where Death Delights: The Story of Dr. Milton Helpern and Forensic Medicine by Marshall Houts

And now, the piece de la resistance:

It was surely one of the most bizarre deaths in the annals of New York history, let alone its medical history. An unidentified man was traveling the subways one day when he felt the urgent call of nature. Unable or unwilling to seek out a public toilet, he proceeded to relieve himself on the subway tracks. But alas, relief was not forthcoming. The arc of the man's urine hit the third rail, conducting a high-voltage electrical current back to his body and killing him instantly.

Newsday, 28 January 1988, Part II, page 3

But I can't fully confirm that, either. Finally, one more tidbit:

Just did an interview with Bob Lobenstein... the General Superintendent, power Operations, Traction Power Historian, Maintenance of Way - Electrical systems and all round good guy of the New York City Transit Department. NYCT are the guys who power the third Rail in NYC.

He claims that he has not only heard of the pissing on the third rail myth... he thinks it's true. From the day he began with NYCT his trainers and supervisors told him the story... although when asked he could not produce any names or paperwork. This seems to back our case that there are no cases on Medical record.

He gave us a demonstration at full power 625 Volts... 10,000 amps. with a squeeze bottle on a curcuit.. filled with saline water.

USENET Posting by Peter Rees, 14 July 2003

So where were we... ah yes... the third rail experiment... well he managed to get a connection up to three feet from the rail. Unfortunately I think he hadn't taken into consideration the fact that his squeeze bottle... under pressure from two hands... was capable of producing a far higher pressure urine stream that is feasible for the average human. We measured a urine stream and noted that on average a male produces around 200ml in 14 - 18 seconds. At this rate the stream breaks up in a little over six inches.

By the way I had a message from Danny Burstein that I though you giys might be interested in hearing. Danny, I hope you don't mind.

Danny said that he had heard of a charred member.. the product of third rail pissing... in the collection of the NYC medical examiners office. We dutifully made the calls and to date have not received a conclusive answer. The NYCMEO claims that their collection was transferred to the Smithsonian some years ago. They had no recollection of the charred member.

USENET Posting by Peter Rees, 20 July 2003

So there you have it. Urinating onto the third rail may or may not kill you if you do it in the subway. It will, however, destroy your career if you do it in Washington DC.

After all, Social Security has been called the third rail of American politics, but the President has grabbed onto this rail and insisted that it be discussed.

Dr. N. Gregory Mankiw, Chairman Council of Economic Advisers, Annual Meeting of the National Association of Business Economists, 15 September 2003

Sources and Further Reading

  1. "Electrical injury from subway third rails: serious injury associated with intermediate voltage contact." Burns, 1997 Sep;23(6):515-8
  2. Straight Dope
  3. Darwin Digest
  4. Design and Construction of the IRT: Electrical Engineering
  5. Brief filed by Estate of Sang Yeul Lee (deceased) vs. Chicago Transit Authority, Supreme Court of Illinois, Case No. 71304
  6. Decision, Estate of Sang Yeul Lee (deceased) vs. Chicago Transit Authority, Supreme Court of Illinois, Case No. 71304, 22 October 1992
  7. USENET Posting by Peter Rees, 14 July 2003
  8. USENET Posting by Peter Rees, 20 July 2003
  9. Dead Men Do Tell Tales; The Strange and Fascinating Cases of a Forensic Antrhopologist by William R. Maples, 1994
  10. Where Death Delights: The Story of Dr. Milton Helpern and Forensic Medicine by Marshall Houts, 1967
  11. Autopsy: The Memoirs of Milton Helpern, The World's Greatest Medical Detective by Milton Helpern, 1977

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