Proof that I am an intellectual magpie hopelessly derivative an amazing synthesist – a blog post that brings together two of my (many) favorite Fretmarks posts – Facts and Figures and It must be the weather. Via the Federation of American Scientists Project on Government Secrecy we have FM3-05-213 (warning – large PDF), aka Special Forces Use of Pack Animals. Regarding elephants we are advised:

10-41. Elephants are considered an endangered species and as such should not be used by U.S. military personnel. There are about 600,000 African elephants and between 30,000 and 50,000 Asian elephants. Approximately 20 percent are in captivity, so it is difficult to estimate their numbers exactly. The Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species regards both species as threatened. Elephants are not the easygoing, kind, loving creatures that people believe them to be. They are, of course, not evil either. They simply follow their biological pattern, shaped by evolution. The secret of becoming a good trainer is to learn this pattern. The handler can then apply it to himself and the elephants under his control.

There you have it – “not evil either” – applies pretty well to most animals! The rest of the manual looks quite interesting – most of what I know about pack horses and mules I learned by reading Norman Maclean and can be summarized as one, loading is an art and two, done poorly it is a very bad thing.

I always thought (when I thought about it at all) that War Pigs was just the title of a Black Sabbath tune. Not so – it seems that war pigs, also known as incendiary pigs, may have been used as a counter to war elephants.
A siege of Megara during the Wars of the Diadochi was reportedly broken when the Megarians poured oil on a herd of pigs, set them alight, and drove them towards the enemy’s massed war elephants. The elephants bolted in terror from the flaming squealing pigs often killing great numbers of the army the elephant was part of (Aelian, de Natura Animalium book XVI, ch. 36). *
I’ll never look at a greased pig contest the same way again. Also – Aelian, in his Varia Historia, gives an account of fishing using hooks dressed with red wool and feathers – it’s all connected.

I’m pretty confident that quite a few readers of this blog will recognize the type of handgun pictured above and know why it’s included in an ‘elephants’ post. If I ever fall into a pile of money (very unlikely I’ll get that kind of coin by the sweat of my brow) one of my eccentricities will be a collection of howdah pistols. They are an echo from a different time – tangible, beautiful evidence of a world that is no more.

For those that aren’t up on obscure firearms, a howdah pistol was sometimes carried as a last line of defense when tiger hunting from atop an elephant. If an extremely upset tiger tried to get into the howdah with you, you’d use the pistol. Heavy caliber, not too accurate, brutal recoil, but better than a mauling…

Soma and synchronicity


An interesting coincidence: I’ve been on a bit of a soma jag recently (research, not use) because of a brief mention of it in Helen Macdonald’s excellent Falcon. I started by re-reading Brave New World for old time’s sake; back in high school it added soma to my vocabulary; college brought R. Gordon Wasson and the idea of entheogens. Soma has been off the back burner and on a slow simmer in my head for a while; there seems to be a connection between the bowls found in Central Asian burials and either soma or Amanita muscaria use (allowing that A. muscaria might not be soma). The picture at the top of the post is a handle for one of these bowls. Falcon brought the simmer to a boil, so – in preparation for (maybe) writing a long soma post – I’ve been spending the past couple days reading things like The Soma-Haoma Problem. Now comes the coincidence – last night I was lying in bed reading The Areas of my Expertise and laughing my head off (not a great way to get to sleep, I discovered); page 87 consists of the following:



The famous Cole Porter tune “I’m In, You’re In” was actually Porter’s typically wry response to the urine-drinking craze of the 1920s.

The practice originated with the fierce reindeer herders of Siberia known as the Koryac, who centuries ago had devised a means of purifying the hallucinogenic toadstool known as fly agaric. A local shaman would eat the mushroom, using his body to filter out the poisonous muscarine; its mood-altering compounds were preserved in his urine, which was then ritually consumed by other Koryac and also some of the more favored reindeer.

Marco Pensworthy, a monocled young libertine and staff member of the American Museum of Natural History, who was later dismissed for seducing the skeleton of a giant ground sloth, introduced the custom to New York. During Prohibition, many a tuxedoed, thrill-thirsty swell attended one of Dr. Marco’s private “Siberian Tea Parties,” beneath the frozen gaze of the stampeding elephants of the Hall of African Animals, where, wrote Porter…

There isn’t any shame in
Meeting with the Shaman
And making like the reindeers do…
It’s just a little wonder
That will unfreeze your tundra
I’m in, you’re in. You’re in too.

After his disgrace, Pensworthy would wander Central Park humming Porter’s tune and offering passersby swigs from a suspicious flask. Finally arrested and institutionalized, he trepanned himself to death in 1952.

Like a lot of good tall tales, there’s a grain of truth in there – the Koryac references are accurate regarding the mushroom and the urine (I’d be surprised if they shared their pee with the reindeer – but I could be wrong).

I’m running into these kind of coincidences more and more frequently (the one before this was putting Lost World of the Moa down, flipping the teevee to Animal Planet, and falling into the middle of a segment on Haast’s Eagle). I’m developing a hypothesis that rests on two factors – both Internet related – the immediate availability of information and the number of personal contacts with like-minded people that communication technology provides us with. I’ll do some more thinkin’ on it – perhaps a later post.


Hug me till you drug me, honey;
Kiss me till I’m in a coma:
Hug me, honey, snuggly bunny;
Love’s as good as soma. *


4th Gen Media, part II

My last post on the subject was less coherent than I would have liked; I’m going to keep this one short and linky. First, the link from the quote above to Tim O’Reilly’s essay on online distribution is worth following. Tim is a middleman – a publisher – and he gets it (his lesson #5: File sharing networks don’t threaten book, music, or film publishing. They threaten existing publishers.) What he publishes may have helped him see the light – O’Reilly is responsible for some of the internet’s canonical dead-tree resources. So, for the 4GM II web tour, start at Kung Fu Monkey for a couple quick observations and jump from there (or from here) to Alice’s snippets from a keynote speech given by Chris Anderson. The Long Tail (Mr. Anderson’s phrase for a power-law tail applied to businesses/distribution channels) is another key element in the 4GM puzzle. Be sure to check the comments on Alice’s post – a good reality check. Also – credit where it’s due – I lifted the O’Reilly quote from a recent kfmonkey post.

Big black nemesis, parthenogenesis!?!?

Ol’ Ma Nature, She’s a tricksy one. I found a just-out-of-the-water froglet in my D. pumilio Green 2006 vivarium. Why is that surprising? Long story; here goes… Last summer I got a pair of green pumilio from a friend (and kick-@ss frogger) and within a few weeks I started seeing evidence of breeding activity. In the fall, the friend asked if I had a froglet to spare – he was doing a trade and wanted to include a frog from my pair to get an additional bloodline in the hands of a third breeder. I went to pull the biggest froglet and found a corpse – a few days later I lost what I thought was the female of the pair. I was saddened; I figured that this spring I’d look around for a new female and try again. In late November, I got a little concerned – I hadn’t seen or heard the (supposed) male in over a month – so I went though the viv pretty thoroughly. I found him and heaved a sigh of relief. Yesterday I look in the viv and see a couple of pumilio – one that is smaller than I remember the male being, and a tiny one! For those of you who aren’t dart frog fiends, here’s why I’m shocked – it takes a pair of pumilio to raise a froglet. The pair lay and fertilize eggs on leaves or in leaf litter. When the tads hatch, they are transported to a water-filled bromeliad axil. The female feeds the tadpole special infertile decapsulated eggs (pumilio are known as obligate egg-feeders, along with D. histrionicus and D. lehmanni), often assisted by the male, who will call from tad-containing axils to encourage the female to swing by and feed the kids. If a tadpole is close enough to morphing, it can sometimes make it over the hump if something goes wrong with the food supply, but either I’ve had a tadpole getting along by itself for 3 months or a froglet that I never saw became sexually mature in less than, let’s say, 5 months. Either way, an amazing event. I’m going to call my friend and see if he wants the little guy – it would be good to get another bloodline established in the hobby.

Priests and cannibals, prehistoric animals
Everybody happy as the dead come home
Big black nemesis, parthenogenesis
No-one move a muscle as the dead come home
Shriekback, Nemesis

Goodbye Brad

Bradford Washburn died last Wednesday. He was 96. To describe him as a legend (at least in New England) doesn’t do him justice. He was a cartographer, a mountaineer, the Director of Boston’s Museum of Science and, of course, a photographer. Of the three who I think of as the holy trinity of New England tech photography (Doc Edgerton, Ed Land and Brad Washburn), he was the one who combined technological achievement with an amazing eye for beauty. A friend of mine ran into Mr. Washburn on the summit of Mount Washington a few years back – Washburn was in his late eighties and still storming around the high places. With respect and admiration – goodbye…

Cell phone strategies

As a measure of how much things have changed – I almost left the ‘cell’ off the title of this post. The lowly land line is that invisible/insignificant. My daughter, who is off on her own, has never – as far as I know – had an old style hard wired phone connection. Enough of that – on to the subject I really wanted to discuss…

Curse you, Steve Jobs! I’ve been thinking about upgrading my cell phone – looking at smartphones like the Motorola Q and the Samsung Blackjack. As I read reviews, it became clear that these phones have a fatal flaw – they lock up and crash. It comes with the territory – with more complexity and with a general purpose OS, Murphy has bigger opportunities for fun and chaos. So, after thinking about it a bit (and admitting that really, what I need a cell phone for is making phone calls) I’d settled on what I’m callling the unix approach – loosely coupled devices, each good at the thing they are supposed to do. A cell, with 3G capabilities for data, to make phone calls on; maybe a Nokia N800 for data/web connectivity; a headset; and so on – all tied together with Bluetooth. Sounds like a plan. Then comes the announcement of of Apple’s jPhone and I’m overwhelmed by techno-covetousness. It’s still very early – I’ll be very interested to see the reviews – but mein Gott, what eye-candy. It is, for sure, pricey, but if it performs as advertised reliably it will be a contender and may knock my plan all to hell. Sounds like Apple is trying to ensure reliability – they may be using what I’ll call the PS/2 software model. Developers will have to get software blessed by Cupertino before it’ll be available (through the iTunes store?) – maybe, again, not a lot of details – it’s pretty clear, though, that the iPhone won’t be an open platform. Time will tell and the cell decision delay is for the best – with the boy going off to college in the fall on one of the 2 US coasts (TBD), there are likely to be more important cell plan considerations – like coverage and minutes.

Later – the Colbert Report on the iPhone – I love the fact that he hits the multiple device v. integrated platform thing:

Being thankful

Heard this Kevin Kling commentary on NPR this afternoon. Kevin is my favorite NPR commentator – he can tell a wicked funny tale and I enjoy his accent. Though I don’t believe in God, Jesus or Santa (the three supernaturals he invokes) I do believe in, every so often, taking a good look around and appreciating things. Stop a minute and be thankful – we’re completely insignificant in the overall scheme of things and yet are lucky – we’re all (I hope) self-aware – might as well enjoy the ride…

4th Generation Media

First, let me recommend this 4GM note over at kfmonkey. For a while it’s been pretty clear that ‘appointment based’ teevee was and is getting battered by new technology – TiVo was the thing that really crystallized out a couple of trends (time shifting, ad skipping), and as we move forward content pops up in more and odder places. Additionally the range of entertainment options available keeps growing; games (computer and console based) are an entire genre that didn’t exist at all in the heyday of 3 (here in the US) networks. It’s never been easier to be creative – there are lots of tools to make stuff: music, video, even writing – and to get your work in front of people. Sure, much of it is of questionable quality but 80% of everything is crap and a certain amount of work is produced for the pleasure of creation. So, on the one hand we have blossoming diversity and on the other hand? We have folks like the RIAA and MPAA who are desperately trying to, if not put the genie back in the bottle altogether, at least control something they can’t. The record industry’s anti-piracy efforts are a joke. They can’t be bothered to obey their own rules. They sue first graders and grandmothers. They vandalize their customer’s PCs. They’ve also managed to cripple an entire distribution channel – legal music downloads. The DRM the industry insists on is such a pain in the @ss that, in my experience, it often drive folks to abandon online music services in favor of other approaches. I don’t mess with the iTunes store or with p2p stuff – I buy used CDs, rip ’em (FLAC format – lossless) and either keep or re-sell the CD. The RIAA/MPAA customer-hostile approach is about to jump to the next level with all the ‘protection‘ features built in to Windows Vista and the hardware Vista will run on. The protection being engineered in will protect copyright holders from the folks that bought and are using the computer. I’ve got no plans to upgrade – in fact this may be the event that causes me to exit the Windows world (on machines that I own) in favor of Linux and OS X – but as someone who fields a lot of computer questions, I’m afraid… Aside from pissing a lot of folks off, I wonder what effect this mess will have on consumer electronics manufacturers and the adoption of HDTV. Sony’s consumer electronics wing is the poster child for serving 2 masters – the customer and the content folks (Sony Pictures, Sony BMG), but unfortunately, it looks like all the big guys (MS, Intel, AMD) are rolling over and playing dead rather than serving the paying customer – not usually a good business plan. Although I wouldn’t mind a nice new 16:9 teevee, I’m going to wait until the dust settles – I have better things to spend money on and I can’t shake the feeling that this is yet another attempt to rope me in to monthly fees for something I don’t need.

Yeah, it’s all hilarious until someone loses an eye…

I realize I’m going to feel pretty damn stupid if it turns out to be something bad, but some of the comments in the NYT’s ‘the Lede’ blog regarding the bad smell in NYC and parts of New Jersey are lots o’ fun:

Wasn’t it Walt Whitman who wrote, “O Captain, Mercaptan”?
– Posted by bg

It could just be the scent of the Giants and Jets returning home.
– Posted by Tom

Perhaps it’s General Tarkin’s foul stench.
– Posted by JR

Read this headline again and tell me that it wasn’t already run in the Onion.Mayor Says Odor Doesn’t Appear Dangerous: Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said that the source of the smell was unknown, but officials were “very confident” it was not dangerous.
– Posted by Dan Lowndes
And one that harkens back to an earlier question on air quality:

If Christy Whitman would just issue a statement,then I would be reassured
– Posted by rob
Later – I found a post I wanted to link in but couldn’t locate when I was initially tossing this out – Chaos Theory – an interesting piece on the homogenization of NYC. If you are in the mood for an ‘only (I hope) in New York’ story, click through to This American LifeThe Super Episode, Act One. Funny and creepy. Act Three – involving a snowman – is just a riot.

It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity

My thermometer reads 64F at 1:30 in the afternoon. I took the panther chameleon outside to catch some rays – no UV bulb can compare with the real thing. He’s loving it:

The horses across the street are having a high old time – bucking, kicking, taking mud baths and acting like it’s April (boy are they going to be disappointed in a week or so). I’m glad I won’t be cleaning ’em up…

P.S. – for those who don’t know, I live in New Hampshire. It’s a state that’s not usually noted for it’s balmy winters.