Sunday, February 28, 2010

Jacques Cousteau

Along with "Wild Kingdom," the "Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau" was a mainstay of my childhood - and I still find the sound of Jacques Cousteau's voice very soothing.

Cousteau left quite a legacy when he died at 87 in 1997. As a French naval officer, he received the Légion d'Honneur and the Croix de guerre; as an ecologist, he brought environmental awareness to public attention, founded an environmental protection foundation that now has 300,000 members, and received the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom; as a filmmaker and photographer, he produced and directed dozens of films and television episodes, winning 3 Oscars, the Palme d'Or at Cannes, and 10 Emmy Awards; as an author, he wrote more than 50 books, the 1st of which sold more than five million copies in 22 languages; as an explorer, he explored the world's oceans, financed many expeditions aboard the converted 66' minesweeper that he rechristened Calypso, uncovered the wreck of HMHS Britannic, and is credited with inspiring an entire generation of young scientists to become oceanographers; and as a scientist and innovator, he co-invented the aqua-lung, the self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (SCUBA) that allowed untethered undersea diving, discovered that dolphins used sonar echolocation as a means of navigation, and was admitted to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and was elected to the French Academy of Science.

Of diving, Captain Cousteau said, ''From birth man carries the weight of gravity on his shoulders. He is bolted to the Earth. But man has only to sink beneath the surface and he is free. Buoyed by water, he can fly in any direction -- up, down, sideways - by merely flipping his hand. Under water, man becomes an archangel.'' His son Jean-Michel (with whom he both collaborated and quarreled) said, "The work of my father was a hymn to life." Another hero...

Saturday, February 27, 2010


Raise your hand if you have patronized a bookmobile. I remember boarding one as a child, but can't confirm date or place. I just remember that it was a wondrous experience. The arrival of the bookmobile was more exciting than an ice cream truck rolling up!

The idea of a library on wheels to serve communities without access to a local public library goes back to 1859 in England with the Warrington Perambulating Library and to 1905 in the U.S. with the Washington County Library Book Wagon. These horse-driven bookmobiles gave way to the motorized variety seen here in photos from North Carolina (1st image) and Virginia (2nd image). Here are the interior and exterior of a bookmobile in Johnson County, North Carolina, in the 1950s. Here is the modern conversion of a vintage airstream camper into a bookmobile. If you scroll down here, you will see a contemporary Japanese bookmobile. Here you can watch the parade of bookmobiles at the 2009 conference of the American Library Association. And here we are back at the animal-powered version, the biblioburro used today to reach thousands of children in rural Colombia. Mobile libraries are drawn by donkeys in Zimbabwe and by camels in Somalia. Some counties in Norway are serviced by a library ship. Bookmobiles and other "roving resources" can be found in many countries and in all U.S. states except Maine. Of the states, Kentucky - with 98 - has the most. The 1960s were the "Golden Age" of bookmobiles, with a decline beginning in the 1970s, but they still serve the needs of the community. While they have traditionally operated in rural areas, they now additionally target urban centers like New York that suffer from cutbacks, cities like New Orleans whose libraries await renovation, and centers for children, senior citizens, and the disabled. Bookmobile programs are plagued by start-up costs and erratic fuel costs, but there are some 800+ traveling U.S. roads.

Author, musician, and documentary filmmaker Tom Corwin launched a bookmobile-inspired project after buying a decommissioned one for $7,500 on Craigslist. The multi-media film project "Behind the Wheel of the Bookmobile" follows a classic bookmobile across country with acclaimed authors taking turns at the wheel. At its stops, Corwin invites the public aboard and interviews individuals about books that have influenced their lives. He describes the project and shows some of that footage here and collects fans on Facebook. One of Corwin's interviewees is W. Ralph Eubanks, who - as an African-American - was not allowed in the local Mississippi library, but was allowed on the bookmobile and is now Director of Publishing at the Library of Congress and an author of his own. The author of the series Lemony Snicket did a stint on Corwin's bookmobile and says, "My life feels like nothing but a tapestry of ideas hijacked from literature."

Long live the bookmobile!

Friday, February 26, 2010

Temple Grandin

Meet my new hero: Temple Grandin. Arguably the best spokesperson for people living with autism, she continues to make her mark not despite having the condition, but because of it. "If I could snap my fingers and become nonautistic I would not do so. Autism is part of who I am," she has said. She has written several books that explain what it is like to have a mind like hers. One of these has been made into a film. The magical biographical film on HBO shows and tells the story of her struggles to communicate with people due to the many challenges of being autistic - which at the same time gives her incredible insight into the minds of animals. She was awarded a B.S. in psychology, and an M.Sc. and Ph.D. in animal science. In North America, almost half of the cattle are handled in systems she designed for the humane handling of livestock, so it's not an exaggeration to say that she has revolutionized the beef industry. Grandin has won the respect of PETA, even though she is not opposed to eating meat: "I think using animals for food is an ethical thing to do, but we've got to do it right. We've got to give those animals a decent life and we've got to give them a painless death. We owe the animal respect." She is also an autism advocate and, at the age of 18, invented the "hug machine" that gives comfort to autistics like herself. She wanted to make a difference with her life, and she has certainly done that.

Spend 20 minutes watching Dr. Grandin's recent talk on You will be amazed!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Remy Charlip

A few years ago - 2001 to be exact - my sister and I were reminiscing about our favorite book from childhood: Arm in Arm by Remy Charlip (1st image). The title refers to the illustration (4th image) of 2 octopuses who got married and walked down the aisle arm in arm in arm in arm in arm in arm in arm in arm in arm in arm in arm in arm in arm in arm in arm in arm. The subtitle, "A Collection of Connections, Endless Tales, Reiterations, and Other Echolalia," describes the wonderful drawings and writings that intrigued us for years. "Here is someone who transforms, embroiders and enchants ordinary experiences into magical excursions, encouraging children to imagine and improvise for themselves. His works abound in innovative narratives, wonderful word games, simple reading exercises with an appeal directly to children. There is no superfluous detail and lots of riddles, puns, jokes, chants, word-games and illustrations -- tempera, watercolors, cartoons and collages, silhouettes and simple line drawings,"praises Edith Cohen, a volunteer in the Children's Literature Center at the Library of Congress. I decided to refresh our memories, and ordered a copy of the book for each of us - and then went a step further. I found what I hoped was a recent address on the web and sent Mr. Charlip a fan letter, along with the 2 books, a return envelope, and a request that he autograph them. In my letter I wrote, "I, too, am an author, but of the morbid sort, so a little whimsy is good for me!" His kind response included the note above (3rd image), which I read with delight!

Charlip is a creative guy. Not only has he written and/or illustrated 29 children's books, he was a founding member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company (3rd image) and the Paper Bag Players. It was his theater family who helped him struggle back from a stroke in 2005 and, as one of them says, "It became obvious that despite the communication challenge, Remy the Artist is as strong and compelling as ever." As a choreographer, Charlip has used drawings to inspire the members of dance troupes to help create "air mail dances." He has also designed sets and costumes, directed plays, and taught in the Children's Theater and Literature Department at Sarah Lawrence College. His theater work has been honored by the Village Voice and his books have won awards fron the New York Times. Charlip reveals, "I love sequence - how one thing follows another. That's why I love picture books. When you're reading to a child, he can't wait to get to the next page. 'Turn the page, turn the page!' That's because each new page is a door to another different world." As San Francisco journalist Rachel Howard put it, he's divided his talents between children's books and dance - two worlds that meet in the lines of his illustrations, which seem to dance off the page.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010


Librarians hate it, cultural historians love it - under certain circumstances:

pl.n. Notes in the margin or margins of a book. [1832, from L. marginalia, neuter plural of marginalis "marginal," from marginis].

The word was coined by English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), who wrote notes in almost every book he read - marginalia that has been collected in several volumes of its own. Other famous marginalia includes notes written by French philosopher Voltaire (1694-1778) while in prison, a statement written by English aristocrat Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618) before his execution, and writings by English poet John Bethune (1801-1851), who could not afford paper. Many consider a formula by French mathematician Pierre de Fermat (1601-1665) to be the most important margin note, and that of American novelist Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) on her copy of The Great Gatsby among the most poignant. Marginalia can also refer to the drawings in medieval illuminated manuscripts, a topic on the blog Got Medieval. But more recent scribbles are the topic of this blog post, "Always Bring a Pencil." Good advice, as is that of Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849), who writes the following in his essay "Marginalia":
"In getting my books, I have been always solicitous of an ample margin; this not so much through any love of the thing itself, however agreeable, as for the facility it affords me of pencilling suggested thoughts, agreements, and differences of opinion, or brief critical comments in general."
In deference to librarians, just make sure the books are yours.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Göbekli Tepe

The world's oldest temple complex - built 6,000 years before Stonehenge and 7,000 years before the Egyptian pyramids - has been excavated over the last decade. Göbekli Tepe - also the earliest example of monumental architecture - was discovered in southeastern Turkey by Klaus Schmidt of the German Archaeology Institute and just might be the first thing humans ever built. It predates the formation of villages, the creation of pottery, the domestication of animals, the development of agriculture, and the invention of writing.

This "Rome of the Ice Age," as Schmidt puts it, is where hunter-gatherers met to build a complex religious community. The site features carved and polished circles of stone up to 90' wide surrounded by massive T-shaped pillars as tall as 17', with terrazzo flooring and double benches. Four of the temples and 50 of the pillars - some blank and some elaborately carved - have been uncovered to date and ground-penetrating radar reveals more than a dozen more circles. Schmidt plans to leave some of the remaining 95% of the site for future generations to excavate with more sophisticated tools. He actually rediscovered the site in 1994; it had been dismissed by American and Turkish anthropologists in the 1960s as nothing more than an abandoned medieval cemetery.

This changes everything, agree the archaeologists. It turns the idea that cities were established before religion on its head. Schmidt's theory is that it was the urge to worship 12,000 years ago that brought people together in the very first urban settings, spurred them to build and maintain this temple, and drove them to seek stable food sources and settle down to guard their new way of life. He estimates that it required at least 500 people to hew the 10- to 50-ton stone pillars from local quarries as far as 1/4 of a mile away, and stand them up. The feat would have required supervision, and suggests the existence of a priestly caste - much earlier than is evident at other Near Eastern sites.

Schmidt speculates that nomadic bands from hundreds of miles in every direction were already gathering here for rituals, feasting, and initiation rites before the first stones were cut. And the stones evidence that they came with a ready vocabulary of spiritual imagery, including animal totems of power and intelligence. The remains of the same animals depicted on the stones were found at the site, having been ritually sacrificed.

The surrounding area gave rise to the first domestication of wheat and the corralling of sheep, cattle, and pigs within the next 1,000 years, and Çatalhöyük, the oldest-known Neolithic village, is 300 miles to the west. The lack of human remains at the site is attributed to ancestor worship, which would require taking the remains to their distant homes, and the absence of traces of daily life, like fire pits and trash heaps - confirms that Göbekli Tepe was not a village. "First the temple, then the city," Schmidt concludes.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I

Take a close look at this portrait of England's Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603). The orange fabric of her outer garment is covered with eyes and ears! Of the many portraits of the monarch, this one may be laden with the most symbolism. It is called the "Rainbow Portrait" and was painted c. 1600, when Elizabeth was in her 60s - although she is depicted as ageless. It is attributed to Isaac Oliver (c. 1565-1617), although it may have been the work of Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (c. 1561-1636), and hangs at Hatford House in Hertfordshire, U.K.

The queen is costumed for a masque and the wildflowers on her gown indicate that she is Astraea, the chaste Greek goddess of justice - although the flowers may also have the more political meaning that she is restoring to England an eternal spring, like that of the Golden Age. The crown of her headdress symbolizes her royalty, the astrolabe represents her royal command over nature, and the eyes and ears on her garment imply that she hears and sees all (or reference her fame, seen and heard by so many). Her virginity is symbolized by the pearls on her headdress and veil. The crescent-shaped jewel above her crown refers to Diana, virginal goddess of the moon and the hunt in Roman mythology. The wisdom symbolized by the serpent on her left arm has captured the ruby, which is equated with the queen's heart, meaning that Elizabeth's passions are controlled by her wisdom. She holds a rainbow, symbolizing peace, in her right hand, and it reads, "Non sine sol iris" ["No rainbow without the sun"]. This means that her wisdom alone can assure peace and prosperity.

This interpretation is made in light of the fact that the queen was entertained at costume balls in the latter years of her life by the poetry of Sir John Davies (1569-1626), who writes of classical figures, including a rainbow goddess, and puns the words "rain" and "reign":
"Cynthia* Queene of seas and lands,
That fortune euery where commands
Sent forth Fortune to the sea
To try her fortune euery way.
There did I Fortune meet, which makes me now to sing,
There is no fishing to the sea, nor seruice to the king..."
A religious reading of the painting sets Elizabeth I up as a defender of the Christian faith. The rainbow and the serpent provide symmetry in their Biblical allusion to peace and salvation, respectively. The serpent, because it sheds its skin, has long been a symbol of rebirth. The sun in the motto is not the queen, but Christ himself, whose death made that rebirth possible. The eyes and ears appear in the context of divine blessings, with which she is favored:
"Blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. For verily I say unto you, that many prophets and righteous men have desired to see those things which ye see, and have not seen, and to hear those things which ye hear, and have not heard them." (Matthew XIII: 16-17)
And she wears those blessings like a mantle. Her hair styled in ringlets invokes the Elizabethan wedding and coupled with her virginal appearance characterizes her as a bride of Christ (like a nun).

Another reason forElizabeth's youthfulness in this portrait is suggested by Eyewitness to History: "In this portrayal we see a Queen who is relatively young, vibrant and the personification of strength. Politics, of course, provides an explanation for the discrepancy. The 'Virgin Queen' was now approaching the end of her reign. She was childless and without a natural heir. The portrayal of her as much younger than her actual age may have given her a false vitality that deflected questions about the uncertain future of her Crown."Elizabeth was succeeded by James I, her cousin's son.

Layers of meaning like layers of paint...

*Another name for Diana.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Salt: The good, the bad, and the tasty

To the layperson, salt seems to be a very contrary compound. On the table, it has always seemed monochromatic, but an aerial photograph (1st image) reveals its vibrance in evaporation ponds. On the streets it is spread to melt snow, but it can also be used to superchill beverages.

Salt has been used to appease the palate for millenia. But it is only recently that the modern palate has been treated to prehistoric salt. Sur la table offers slabs of pink Himalayan salt (2nd image) handcut from ancient mineral deposits and used to grill, fry, bake, chill, or serve food. Ingestion of some salt is necessary, and the iodine deficiency that results from the lack of it is responsible for reduced mental capacity, goiter, and other problems. But eating more than the recommended daily allowance can lead to health complications, something several U.K. councils have tried to forestall by taking the controversial step of introducing salt shakers with fewer holes.

Salt can in fact actively kill you or your unborn child. Injecting a saline solution into the uterus is a means - rarely used today - of ending a pregnancy. And hypernatremia - having more salt in the bloodstream than the body can process - is an electrolyte imbalance that can cause death. Salt poisoning can result from drinking seawater, perspiring or urinating excessively, or eating large amounts of salt - as has occurred with people suffering from pica. It would also seem to be a potential problem of people with sleep-related eating disorder, who have been known to munch on salt sandwiches.

But salt can also cure you or the meat you eat. Between 1993 and 2005, several "salt mummies" were found in Iran. The bodies of 6 men dating to roughly 2,000 years ago were well-preserved in a functioning salt mine, with hair, clothing, and stomach contents surviving intact. It was the salt natron that the ancient Egyptians used to preserve their dead, a method replicated by New York schoolchildren mummifying chickens with table salt.

Salt sometimes features in newsworthy events, such as when its use in de-icing the streets causes underground transformers to explode. It's occasionally mentioned in the weird news, for instance when a vendor decided to offer an alternative to kosher salt and began offering "Christian salt." Or when a man from India attributes his survival of hundreds of snakebites to never eating salt. And salt is often the subject of science news. The world's oldest DNA was discovered in an ancient salt deposit in Michigan. Researchers in New Mexico have found signs of ancient life in salty halite crystals. Climate scientists from Maine are using the saltiness of Antarctic ice samples to determine which way the wind was blowing 700 years ago. And German scientists have theorized that the salt in the earth's crust "cooked" the chemicals necessary to form the prebiotic molecules that led to life on earth.

And still it is of two minds. In piles salt will not necessarily hold its shape, except when used on a chladni plate to demonstrate sound waves, but formed into bricks - as is done in the salt desert of southwestern Bolivia - it can be used to construct buildings (3rd image). Salt water is being used in Washington to combat an invasive species of snail, but is being worked around by Australian biologists who are working to develop salt-tolerant crops. Salt is not the complement of pepper, it appears, but the complement of itself.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Showmen's Rest

There are several cemeteries or sections of cemeteries in the U.S. set aside for the burial of people connected with the circus.

A 750-plot section of Woodlawn Cemetery in Oak Park, Illinois, was purchased in 1917 by the Showmen's League of America for use by its members. The following year, it became the resting place of 56 of the 86 victims - many of them unidentified - of the Hammond Circus Train Wreck. Showmen's Rest is surrounded by statues of 5 elephants with their trunks lowered in mourning. Although no animals died in the wreck, the ghostly cries of elephants can occasionally be heard, but are said to come from the nearby Brookfield Zoo.

A total of 180 plots in Ferncliff Cemetery, in Hartsdale, New York, are owned by the National Showmen's Association in a section known as St. Peters and marked by a bronze statue of the NSA's symbol, a lion.

A Showmen's Rest section (photos above) of Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Hugo, Oklahoma, is dedicated to the circus. Those interred include animal trainers, clowns, acrobats, agents, and owners, and some of the epitaphs read:
  • "Concessions, circus, fairs, carnivals, rodeos, ice shows, street corners. We have had the good life but the season ended."
  • "There's nothing left but empty popcorn sacks and wagon tracks--- the circus is gone."
  • "Give life the best that's in you for it's only a one night stand. There are no repeat performances brought back by popular demand."
A few miles away is the winter home of some of the remaining circuses.

The Showmen's Rest section of Woodlawn Cemetery in Tampa, Florida, was established in 1952 and has 454 plots. Purchased by the Greater Tampa Showmen's Association, it is dedicated to circus, carnival, and outdoor amusement workers, and contains the graves of "Lobster Boy" Grady Stiles (1937-1992) and "Human Cannonball" Edmondo Zacchini (1894?-1981).

The largest Showmen's Rest is said to be at Southern Memorial Park in Miami, Florida. The many markers are flanked by statues of a lion and an elephant.

Rather than being buried, some performers - among them Percilla "The Monkey Girl" Bejano (1911-2001), her husband Emmitt "The Alligator-skinned Man" Bejano (1918-1995), and Melvin "The Human Blockhead" Burkhardt (1907-2001) - were cremated.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Praying mantis

Today's focus: the incredible praying mantis. The name comes from their prayer-like stance, but when those raptorial forelegs (3rd image) are not in repose they are incredibly powerful. I had no idea that praying mantises regularly kill and feed on birds, mice, and even snakes. My friend Sheila witnessed a dramatic feeding and was kind enough to share the story in her own words:

"It was the summer of 1997, very hot and sticky as Washington is known to be. My friends and I had just finished painting my house and were having a much needed beer on the back deck right outside the kitchen. We didn't have any outdoor mood lighting, but did have one spotlight that was placed on the outside wall between the second and third floor. It gave us enough light to feel comfortable being outside, but not enough to illuminate with any clarity. We were having many beers that evening, and perhaps a margarita or two, when I noticed a shadow of a praying mantis on the outside kitchen wall. At first I thought it was someone making a finger puppet, but the definition of the beast was too perfect and the shadow too high and too large. Soon we were all talking and watching, watching and talking, but were transfixed when the big fella picked up a little lady bug, looked at it for a minute, and then proceeded to bite off its head. Mind you, this was illuminated on our wall into cinema proportion. We were completely mesmerized by its gigantic size, mercilessness, and cleanliness. Not one drop of liquid was dropped, not one smear made. He continued to eat the little lady bit by bit, cleaning his hands and feet throughout the process. We felt like we had just helplessly witnessed a murder. It was unforgettable!"

Not only are they photogenic, praying mantises are striking in many different media: giant corrugated iron sculpture (scroll down), medium-sized pen and ink drawings, and life-sized origami. This cursor-chasing mantis in the weird news may or may not be computer-generated. These insects may be weird, but they are not often featured in the weird news. The only stories I could find, other than the praying mantis that ate the hummingbird (linked above), are their use of ultrasonic hearing to avoid capture by bats, and the discovery of a rare 87-million-year-old fossil in a Japanese amber mine (4th image).

Praying mantises evolved from the same ancestor as cockroaches. Their predatory style is to lie in wait - except when they are mating, at which time the females are known to sometimes bite the heads off the males. Their heads are in fact very flexible, with large compound eyes (1st image). Praying mantises are masters of camouflage: their coloring helps them blend in with leaves or tree bark, they sway from side to side as if they are foliage moved by the wind, and some species even molt to black to match fire-damaged surroundings when necessary. They can bite, grasp, spike, and hiss at their prey, and are prized by gardeners as a form of biological pest control. Organic gardeners, in particular, "plant" the oothecas (egg masses) so that the nymphs that emerge will spend their year-long life protecting the vegetables and making pesticides unnecessary.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Olympics deaths

The death in Vancouver last Friday of 21-year-old Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili (pictured above in his casket and on the track) was one of only a handful of deaths of athletes and others at the Olympics Games over the years:

Francisco Lazaro, 1912 Stockholm
This 21-year-old Portuguese long-distance runner collapsed during the marathon at the Summer Olympics and died the next day.

Knut Enemark Jensen, 1960 Rome
This 22-year-old Danish cyclist suffered from heatstroke in the sweltering temperatures at the Summer Olympics. He fell from his bicycle and hit his head on the road, dying of a fractured skull later that day. An autopsy revealed amphetamines in his system, which spurred subsequent emphasis on testing for performance-enhancing drugs.

Kazimierz Kay-Skrzypecki, 1964 Innsbruck
This Polish-born British luger - a former RAF pilot in his 50s - died in a crash during a practice run at the Winter Olympics.

Ross Milne, 1964 Innsbruck
A 19-year-old Australian downhill skier was also killed during a training run at that year's Winter Olympics after striking a tree, which his manager insisted was not due to lack of experience, but a course obscured by spectators.

Jorg Oberhammer, 1988 Calgary
This 47-year-old Austrian team doctor was killed in a lull in competition at the Winter Games when he collided with another skier and was knocked into the path of a snow-clearing machine.

Nicolas Bochatay, 1992 Albertville
This 27-year-old Swiss speed skier died of internal injuries immediately after crashing into a snow-grooming machine during a practice run at the Winter Olympics, where speed skiing was a demonstration sport that year.

This list does not include the 11 Israeli athletes and coaches killed by Palestinian terrorists at the Summer Games in Munich in 1972 or the 2 spectators killed when a pipe bomb was detonated at the Summer Games in Atlanta in 1996. As tragic as these deaths are, occurrences are more rare than deaths caused by running marathons, which are estimated to average 4 to 6 of the 425,000 annual competitors. Deaths are more prone in the Winter rather than the Summer Olympics, but the athletes are aware of the risks of their extreme sports at this level of competition.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Kumbh mela

I just learned about the largest religious gathering in the world last night, and was mesmerized by the photographs of the sadhus. The Kumbh mela in Haridwar, India, is held every 12th year and in 2010 lasts from January 14th to April 28th. This most sacred of the 4 pilgrimages held at 3-year intervals is attended by millions of Hindus, who come to bathe in the Ganges. Hindus believe bathing in the sacred river will cleanse them of their sins and free them from the cycle of life and rebirth. "Because of the way the stars are aligned during the Kumbh, all the good things you do get multiplied and your sins are washed away," said one pilgrim. The crowds include naga sadhus, Hindu ascetics with matted hair and ash-covered bodies, and the saffron-robed members of many other sects. Snake-charmers, palm-readers, and soothsayers can also be found. The city has made preparations for the millions of devotees, including sweeping and repaving roads, adding security forces and shuttle buses, and setting up camps to provide lodging, facilities for electrical outlets, and stations for medical assistance.

Each of the photos above - except for the holy man who hasn't moved his arm for 32 years (3rd image) - will lead you to a slideshow of more of these colorful photographs. As Canadian photographer Algis Kemezys (2nd image) says, "I wanted this collection of Sadhu Portraits to be like going to the Kumbh Mela Festival itself. When walking around Haridwar, you will see thousands of sadhus in one day, but in the end you'll remember only a handful. It is these few that will make a difference to you when looking deeply into the image you feel attracted to by breathing deeply and clearing your head of all the chatter , then see what thoughts enter your mind. A sadhu's image reaches beyond space and time and will always have a soothing effect."

Tuesday, February 16, 2010


Time for another animal infusion. Let's have a look at the world from their point of view today. This is possible because of the invention of the Crittercam in 1987 by scientist and filmmaker Greg Marshall. I heard Marshall speak in 2007 at National Geographic's Animal-Borne Imaging Symposium, where he explained that the idea had been sparked during a dive in Belize by the sight of remora fish clinging to the side of a shark. Since the Crittercam's original deployment, it has been improved dramatically. It is now a fraction of the size of the original, films for a longer time at higher resolution, and records a huge amount of environmental data (like temperature, speed, and direction) in addition to audio and video. After the data collection, the Crittercam drops off or is remotely released and recovered. As the VP for Remote Imaging at NatGeo since 1993, Marshall has assisted and inspired biologists to attach cameras to dozens of creatures:
And now that the cost of the Crittercam has also been reduced (from $13,000 to $1,500), it can be used by even more biologists in the field. Says Marshall, “It’s an entirely new paradigm for us. We can fully expect for the first time ever to put [one] in a box and send it to a scientist researching in the middle of nowhere alone. It’s an opportunity to observe unimagined phenomenon.

The 1st footage from a Crittercam that I saw was from a domestic housecat. Marshall describes, "...she's a really loving creature. She's the kind of cat you really want to cuddle, and her owner cuddled her routinely and kissed her regularly and got kisses back. Then the owner would let the cat out at night and kind of wonder what she was doing, because she would disappear for hours at a time. We discovered she was actively going out and eating rats. Capturing and eating them head to tail from under dumpsters in the back alleys of Washington, D.C. It was pretty horrifying to see." I can't find the video on YouTube, but distinctly remember the rat dangling from the cat's mouth! If you haven't seen enough, there are more animal-borne images cataloged at the Museum of Animal Perspectives.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Mother Cabrini

Another body preserved in a church - but under much different circumstances than Jimmy Garlick - is that of Frances Xavier Cabrini (1850-1917). This Italian-born nun founded an institute of missionary sisters, more than one hospital, and 67 orphanages around the world. When she died in Chicago at age 67, she was interred at one of these orphanages - the St. Cabrini Home in West Park, New York. Fourteen years later, her remains were moved to the chapel at New York's Mother Cabrini High School. As part of the beatification process, her body was exhumed and examined by the Vatican. In 1946, Mother Cabrini became the 1st American to be canonized by the Roman Catholic Church. Her sainthood was predicated on the authentication of 2 miracles: restoring sight to a blind child believed to be beyond medical help, and healing a terminally ill nun who would have died within days. Her head lies in repose in Rome, but her incorrupt body was placed under glass in the altar of the St. Francis Cabrini Shrine that the high school built in 1959 to honor her and accommodate the crowds who came to pay her homage.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Jimmy Garlick

In the tower of this English church, which may date back to Saxon times, lies a mummy - but more about that in a minute. First, I find that St. James Garlickhythe has been rebuilt numerous times: in the 14th c., when it was established as a religious guild; in the 17th c., after the Great Fire of London; in the mid-20th c., after it was damaged in World War II; and in the late 20th c., when it was struck by a construction crane. The name "Garlickhythe" refers to an important landing-place on the River Thames nearby where garlic was delivered to market. The mummy in question was dubbed "Jimmy Garlick," and I can't find a single picture of him. The embalmed body was discovered in the vaults in 1855 and - after examination by the British Museum - believed to be that of an adolescent child from the turn of the 18th c. For years (some say centuries), Jimmy was on display in a cupboard in the vestibule. In 2004, the Discovery Channel focused on the "Mummy from the Tower" during an episode of the series Mummy Autopsy. The investigation indicated that Jimmy was not a teenager after all, but an older man with signs of balding, tooth decay, and osteo-arthritis. Carbon dating placed his death between 1641 and 1801. Jimmy Garlick remains a lasting presence, not only physically (he now rests in a new casket in the privacy of the tower) but spiritually: strange noises and transported objects are blamed on his ghost.

Friday, February 12, 2010


Ironic deaths 2/4/10 A woman who fell from her high-rise apartment in Hong Kong died - along with the woman she fell on. British researchers find that people really can be bored to death. And singing Frank Sinatra's "My Way" at a karaoke bar in the Philippines might get you killed.

The chair and the car 2/3/10 Reader Brian points out that the stain at the top of the Lincoln chair is due to hair pomade and not the bloodstain that many mistake it for.

Bees 1/30/10 After reading this post, reader Lisa Wood sent me the link to this charming short film. An Australian study shows that bees may be able to recognize faces. As few as 30 Asian giant hornets can decimate a hive of 30,000 honeybees.

Vivisection 1/22/10 Reader Cynthia said this post reminded her of the scene in the movie "Hannibal" where Lecter opens the cranium of his drugged but ambulatory victim and serves him up some of his own brains. Here are some photos of a prefrontal lobotomy. An article debating having pets "debarked" - and 2 examples of what dogs sound like afterward. A Rhode Island man has been charged with animal cruelty and unauthorized practice of veterinary medicine after operating on his own dog. A California biologist made headlines in the 1930s when he put a dog to death and brought it back to life.

Gatorland! 1/21/10 Two British crocodiles have been taught to respond to their names. An alligator has been found in Kansas. New York marks the 75th anniversary of the urban legend about alligators in the sewers.

Disaster intensity scales 1/13/10 Yellowstone National Park is being shaken by hundreds of small earthquakes.

Views from space 1/11/10 A schematic drawing showing the distribution of satellites orbiting the earth. Previously unseen video of the Challenger disaster is released and evidence reveals that the astronauts were alive during the fall. The International Space Station is getting a new observation dome. Take this fantastic video tour of the ISS.

Thwarted 1/7/10 A suspect in the theft of the Auschwitz sign has been arrested in Sweden.

Good cove, bad cove 1/6/10 Bats and dolphins evolved separately from the same sonar gene.

Volcano videos 1/5/10 Scientists discovered a new type of lightning during the eruption of Mt. Redoubt. Lava threatens the last home in Royal Gardens, Hawaii.

Snakes to the rescue 1/4/10 The tentacled snake of Southeast Asia tricks its prey. A dog in New Zealand saves 3 kids from a deadly tiger snake. Giant extinct snake likely fed on crocodiles, according to American researchers.

Happy New Year! 1/1/10 This man uses glass(es) as an instrument.

Bushmeat 12/27/09 If you want to wear fur without feeling guilty, wear nutria fur. If you want to get rid of your fur coat, the Humane Society suggests giving it away to be used by a needy orphaned animal. Read about the strange things - including bushmeat - that U.S. Customs officials confiscate.

Secret rooms 12/25/09 A Georgia couple has discovered a trapdoor leading to a secret room in their house.

Child heroes 12/23/09 A New Jersey toddler has saved her grandmother's life.

Otis elevator, part 2 12/13/09 A woman in Ukraine is killed by an elevator.

Hermit - 2 scenarios 12/8/09 A Chinese couple lived in a cave for 50 years. Worms are eating away the centuries-old carvings in England's Royston Cave.

More white tigers 11/24/09 A live bull put in a tiger's cage in a Chinese zoo has failed to provoke the beast's natural instincts. More about China "farming" tigers. Genetic analysis reveals that tigers evolved much earlier than thought. The Sumatran tiger may go extinct by 2015. A leopard tries unsuccessfully to snack on a porcupine. Meanwhile, a friendly porcupine begs for food at a Colorado ski resort.

Stone/house 11/19/09 A 10' boulder crashed through the wall of a Tennessee woman's house.

Cloaca 11/17/09 Artist William Delvoye also tattoos pigs. A Japanese company has invented a device that recycles office waste paper into toilet paper.

Circus animals on the lam 11/13/09 A monkey has been spotted roaming the suburbs of Darwin, Australia. Three cheetahs made their escape from a New Zealand wildlife park by swimming across a moat.

Fatal coyote attack 11/2/09 A pack of vicious beagles is terrorizing Long Island.

Engineering feats 11/1/09 A list of the world's 18 strangest tunnels includes the Chunnel.

Tree mummies 10/30/09 Chemists have discovered the female sex hormone progesterone in walnut trees.

Burqa 10/20/09 Dubai has annulled a marriage contract after the groom found, upon lifting his bride's niqab that she was cross-eyed and had extensive facial hair.

Dinosaur eggs 10/3/09 China is reexamining the sites of major paleontological discoveries. A list of 14 bizarre dinosaurs and extinct species. Di0nosaur extinction caused some birds to become flightless. The color of dinosaur feathers is identified. American paleontologists discover a new species of tyrannosaur in New Mexico. Thousands of dinosaur footprints have been found in China. An American scientist has uncovered a nearly pristine spider fossil in China. Large fossils found in Utah are challenging existing notions of mass extinction.

Oarfish 9/25/09 Video of the elusive oarfish swimming in the Gulf of Mexico.

Optical illusions 9/23/09 Stare at the outer figures and the inner figure appears to change directions.

Eskimo snow 9/14/09 The last speaker of the Bo language of the Andaman Islands has died. Meanwhile, King's College London has done away with its Palaeography Department.

World's heaviest insects 8/28/09 Scientists in Costa Rica are growing edible insects to evaluate them as an alternative food source. Here is an amusing slow-motion video of a dragonfly escaping from a frog.

Stain 8/6/09 Rapatronic photographs captured in the instants after a nuclear explosion.

Creative cremains 7/24/09 An artist in the U.K. creates sculptures that are displayed underwater and become artificial reefs.

Humboldt squid
7/17/09 A New Zealand scientist wants to attempt to keep a giant squid alive in captivity. The incredible vampire squid turns itself inside out to avoid predators.

Birthing and hoarding bunnies 6/18/09 An Ohio woman has 70 cats thanks to an abusive husband. A vengeful ex-husband in Sweden pushed 19 mice through his ex-wife's mail slot. Fifty animals have been removed from the home of a Texas couple.

Hazards of hail 6/16/09 Atmospheric ice crashed through a Pennsylvania woman's roof. The world's largest meteorite fell in Namibia. Crystals harder than diamonds have been found in a meteorite by French scientists. American astronomers may have found evidence of giant meteors hitting the earth 1,500 years ago.

Two of a kind 6/12/09 A list of 15 Cute animals that will cause you horrible harm includes the platypus.

Gladiators 6/5/09 Fire festival features helmet much like those worn by gladiators. Roman army knife has the ingenuity of a Swiss army knife. British filmmakers uncover the lost source of a Roman aquaduct.

Elusive animals 6/4/09 Two new fossil rodents have been discovered in Utah. A new species of frog identified in Papua New Guinea changes color. A new kind of single-celled organism has been found in a British pond. A new spiny pocket mouse has been found in Venezuela. An Israeli scientist went on a secret mission to Iran to capture 4 Persian fallow deer and save them from extinction. Meet Japan's "living fossil," the giant salamander. A Canadian scientist is analyzing the recent evolution of birds' wings. A Canadian study shows that some birds use their feathers like cats use their whiskers. Scientists are filling in the evolutionary family tree of arthropods.

Forked tongue 5/13/09 The latest trend in body modification is a lip window.

Vultures 5/4/09 Watch what happened when a vulture crashed through the windshield of a helicopter.

Skellies 4/29/09 Italian police have found a skeleton that was pieced together from the remains of 5 people. Extra bones were also found at the site of the disposal of a Minnesota murder victim. Three Neanderthal teeth have been found in Poland. Skeletal remains dating back 8,000 years have been found in Malaysia. The skeleton of a Western man has been found in an ancient Mongolian tomb. DNA testing on ancient bones in Italy reveals East Asian ancestry.

Mastectomy tattoos 4/27/09 Every time you click at the Breast Cancer Site, sponsors pay for free mammograms.

Ocean garbage dump 4/23/09 More effects of trashing the ocean.

Frank Gehry 4/13/09 A slideshow of the World's 18 strangest homes.

Robo-animals 4/9/09 A cat in the U.K. is the 1st feline recipient of an artificial knee. An injured eagle's beak is repaired by a dentist. A lame duck inspires a handicapped British boy to walk.

Centenarians - and then some 3/26/09 The last U.S. veteran of World War I has turned 109. A 100-year-old pedophile released from prison in New York has been rearrested.

Toads encased in stone 3/23/09 In 1897, a horned toad was placed in the cornerstone of a Texas courthouse; in 1928, the courthouse was demolished - but "Ol' Rip" was still alive.

Designer legs 3/15/09 A Scottish prosthetist was fired for outfitting an amputee with 2 left feet. It is suggested that the aesthetics of today's prosthetic limbs will stir envy. An ancient skeleton proves that amputations were performed in the Stone Age.

Kangaroo home invasion 3/15/09 Australians are asked to keep whacking cane toads to kill the invasive species. Australian farmers are told to dynamite rabbits. And authorities are going to feed the feral camels to the crocodiles.

Shark attack capital 3/12/09 Florida researchers have created a shark-bite severity scale. An Australian surfer has fought off a shark with his fists and a New Zealand girl survives being bitten by a shark. A neary 10' hammerhead was caught and released at a Florida beach. And a wind-surfer at another Florida beach was killed and eaten by a shark. The whorl-tooth shark lived 250 million years ago and the elusive frilled shark is a "living fossil." A tiger shark eats an underwater camera set up to monitor the Great Barrier Reef. A killer whale takes down a great white shark.

Shakespearean insults 3/10/09 British archaeologists have found that Tudor theater-goers liked to snack on oysters, crabs, and mussels during performances.

Killer chimpanzees 2/17/09 A film shot entirely by chimpanzees will air on British television. Nonja the orangutan is selling the photographs she takes on e-bay. Chimps more selfless than they have been given credit for, according to new German study. A Dutch team has found legendary giant lion-eating chimps in Congo.

Marine creatures 2/15/09 A 10' Japanese spider crab was caught by fisherman and is now on display in Britain.

Disturbingly young parents 2/14/09 A 9-year-old Chinese girl has given birth to a healthy infant. A woman with no vagina got pregnant after being stabbed during a knife fight. Ultrasound cannot detect the condition of being born without eyes.

Embalmers and anthropologists
2/4/09 Dario Piombino-Mascali's book about embalmer Dr. Alfredo Salafia has been published (with text in Italian).

Natural mummification
1/23/09 The mummified body of a woman who has been death for about 4 months has been found in Moscow.

Corsets and wasp-waists 1/12/09 Meet Cathie Jung, who has a 13" waist.

Diagnosing the canvas 1/2/09 Italian scientists have applied for permission to exhume the remains of Leonardo da Vinci to compare them to the "Mona Lisa," which some believe to be a sel-portrait. Danish and Czech researchers have been given permission to exhume the remains of astronomer Tycho Brahe to determine the exact cause of his death.

Progeria 12/24/08 Photographic portraits of a 24-year-old man with progeria. Photos of the transformation of a 67-year-old actor into a young man with progeria.

Auroras 12/23/09 A strange object in photographs of the aurora borealis has been identified.

Conjoined twins 11/29/08 The parents of South African conjoined twins have decided not to separate them. After surgery, an Indian girl born with 8 limbs is thriving. Siamese crocodiles.

Ice swimmers
11/20/08 A description of what it's like to freeze to death. A man stranded on ice in the North Sea is rescued after a German woman spots him on a webcam. Photos of the "bleeding glacier" in Antarctica. An international team of scientists has confirmed a mountain range under the antarctic ice. The winter of 1779-1780, when the Hudson River and Long Island Sound froze over. New glaciers discovered in the mountains of Albania by British geographers.

Oldest zoo in the world 11/10/08 A parasite is spreading between zoo animals and their keepers. Specialists at the Philadelphia Zoo saved the life of the victim of a cobra bite. Baby giraffe is born at the Memphis Zoo. A pack of stray dogs kills 13 animals at a Bulgarian zoo.

First U.S. face transplant! 2/17/08 A Canadian girl is having rare craniofacial surgery to correct a genetic condition.

Elephants 10/30/08 A California collector has run into trouble with the law by selling an elephant skull. Elephants do not walk or run, they do both at the same time.