Lesson #307: Dueling is not, in fact, legal in Paraguay (in case you were worried about your upcoming trip)

Earlier today, I came across this. For those of you too lazy to be bothered, it’s a page from the Chicago Tribune with a line that reads: “In Paraguay, pistol dueling is legal as long as both parties are registered blood donors.”


My first thought was, ‘this has to be one of those bizarre old laws that’s still on the books.’ My second thought was, ‘what difference does their donor status make? No one gets blood from dead people!’

As I have no Paraguayan friends to whom I can pose this question, I went looking.

Now, I’m good at research; if it exists online, I can find it. It might take me a bit of time, but if it exists, I’ll eventually get there. I did find a source (dubious, naturally) that expounded that by law the duel must be registered with the authorities and medical staff must be present, but I couldn’t find any legitimate source to verify this.

Let it be known that I put more time into this than was reasonable for something I quickly figured out was not actually an old law still on the books. But I have a compulsive need for proper information, so once I’d abandoned the search for validity on the law as stated, I went looking for any sort of legal documentation to refute it. 

In the end, I finally came across this page. It seems the Mississippi Library Commission went ahead and called the Paraguayan Embassy to ask and were assured that there is no truth to this “fact”.

Lesson #306: Riding shotgun

I heard from a (very) dubious source, today, that the term “riding shotgun” comes to the vernacular from the days of the stagecoaches when there would be a man sitting next to the driver with a shotgun in his lap in the event the coach was attacked by bandits, one of the native tribes (which obviously differed depending on where one was), or some sort of wild animal.* This seemed…too easy; slang rarely works this way.

Naturally, I went and did a bit of research because I’m me and I can’t take anything at face value. It turns out it seemed too easy because it is too easy.

While the term “riding shotgun” was originally used to describe the shotgun guard in the stagecoach era, its first appearance can only be traced to a story published in The Ogden Examiner in 1919. It might be interesting to note that the story put quotation marks around the word “shotgun.” However, “riding shotgun” to describe one’s position on the coach (or, later, in the car) didn’t become a popular usage until the era of western movies and television. Fittingly, the first reference on film comes in the 1939 movie Stagecoach.**

The use of the vernacular to mean riding in a car’s passenger seat first occurred in 1954 and by the early 1960s, “shotgun” was universally understood to mean the passenger seat.

Long story short, do your research before you tell me something is a fact. I will  look it up.***

More can be read here and here.

*That he carried a shotgun is not surprising, by virtue of a shotgun firing pellets; bouncing up and down on a stagecoach doesn’t exactly make for sniper-like precision.

**Point of interest, this is one of two westerns I’ve actually seen. The other was The Magnificent Seven (I think? All I remember about it was that there were people shooting guns from a rooftop, which is so very not helpful when describing a western). The former was for a grade 11 history class, the latter was for a unit in my pop culture class in grad school (I think? It might have been my class on the Mexican Revolution…it was the same professor.)

***This drives one of my closest friends nuts. He has threatened to stop telling me anything because he knows I won’t believe him until I’ve verified said information.

Lesson #305: Shuffled cards

I love being reminded of how small I am in the grander scheme of the universe; I find it oddly reassuring.* So when I learned today’s lesson, my brain kind of exploded in a totally awesome way.

It is highly improbable, to the point of near impossibility, that any** standard decks of cards have ever been or will ever be randomly shuffled to come out in the same configuration. Ever. In the history of the entire universe.

When you look at it mathematically, it seems kind of impossible that this is the case. I remember algebra; it’s just 52 factorial. I busted out the calculator; it turns out, though, that 52! comes out to 8 x 1067. I don’t actually know what that means on the larger scale, so I went to the interwebs and asked it to tell me what that looks like in a number.  It looks like this: 80,658,175,170,943,878,571,660,636,856,403,766,975,289,505,440,883,277,824, 000,000,000,000

Just for a little bit of perspective, assuming science is correct in its assertion that the universe is 13.77 billion years old, there have been roughly 434,538,871,020,000,000 (give or take a few trillion) seconds in the history of the universe. Even if you convert that to nanoseconds, you still don’t even come close (434,538,871,020,000,000,000,000,000) to the number of possibilities that exist in shuffling every deck of cards that has ever and will ever be made.

To recap: there are 80,658,175,170,943,878,571,660,636,856,403,766,975,289,070,902,012,257,824, 000,000,000,000 more ways to shuffle a single deck of cards than there have been nanoseconds in the entire 13.77 billion year history of the ENTIRE EFFING UNIVERSE.

So…yeah. Science.

*I find I’m not in the majority on this. One of my closest friends refuses to talk about it because it makes her feel like she doesn’t matter. Nihilistic as it is, I think that’s kind of the point.

**Serio, any standard deck of cards ever.

Lesson #304: Lefthandedness

Sometimes, I learn things that if I’d ever stopped to consider just for a moment, I could probably have deduced on my own.

Today, I learned that lefthandedness is genetic*, and therefore, hereditary (which I’d never thought about, but is totally obvious).

Of course, in thinking further on this, I’m struggling to remember who my lefthanded friends are** and am therefore having a hard time remembering whether their parents/siblings/children are also lefties.

More about the lefthandedness gene here and here.

*Which, if you’ve taken a biology class past grade four, duh.

**Autobiographical note: oddly, though only 10-15% of the population are lefties, there was a point in my life where slightly more than half the guys I’d dated were lefties. I’m not sure what that says about me. 

Lesson #303: General Lamarque

Sometimes, I wind up at lessons that could have been arrived at in a very direct way in the most indirect way possible. Today’s lesson comes as a result of what my friend in the Texas capital once described as, “suddenly, it’s two in the morning and you’re reading about Cairo, wondering how you got there.” These are the dangers of Wiki links.

I’m honestly surprised, given my combined love of failed revolutions and decade of theatre work in my younger days, that it took me this long to learn this. If you’ve read Hugo’s Les Miserables (or seen the musical*), you’ll at least have a passing knowledge of who Lamarque was. But somehow, despite the fact that Les Miserables is one of my favourite books and my general understanding that it’s a historical fiction novel, it never occurred to me to look up the events Hugo was writing about.

What’s totally stupid about this is that my great love of revolution can be traced directly to two (semi)fictional characters: Les Miserables’ revolutionary leader, Enjolras, who I read when I was 14 or 15, and, more, Mila 18‘s Andrei Androfsky, who I read at 17.** 

Anyway…Jean Lamarque was a commander during the Napoleonic Wars who later became a Member of Parliament. He was vocal in his criticism for Louis Philippe’s constitutional monarchy and was a proponent for French support of the Polish and Italian struggles for independence, which made him popular with the French people.

In the spring of 1832, France was in the midst of a slew of problems. Five years crop failures led to a food shortage and, consequently, a sharp rise in the cost of living, which bred discontent. Further, there was a continent-wide cholera outbreak that exacerbated things. As the constitutional monarchy was effectively a government for the middle class, when Lamarque died on 1 June, republican and Bonapartist (those who felt that Napoleon should be the leader of France, which feels obvious) opponents of the monarchy decided that his funeral on 5 June would be the place to make themselves known. So, with the support Polish, Italian, and German immigrants, they did and roughly 3000 revolutionaries took control of parts of eastern and central Paris. And then Louis Philippe brought in 20,000 National Guardsmen overnight, followed by 40,000 army troops the next day, and by sundown on 6 June, the June Rebellion had been quashed.

Interestingly, and this is actually common in violent revolutions, the rebels didn’t suffer the losses you’d expect. Their casualties came to 93 dead and 291 wounded. The damage they inflicted? 73 dead, 344 wounded. Also not surprising if you’re familiar with revolutionary theory, about two thirds of the participants in the uprising had come from the working class.***

*The proper musical, not the abomination that is the movie. The movie is terrible (and that’s coming from a girl who loves a. the source material, b. theatre, and c. Hugh Jackman). It took almost all of the points regarding the revolution out of it entirely and what was left in was poorly explained at best. And lest you think this is some sort of fluke, I have an even bigger problem with the musical version of Wicked. Wicked is my very favourite book of all time because it’s about revolution in a way that’s about who is right and who is wrong, where the line is drawn, and who gets to draw that line. The musical, while a good show in its own right, is an atrocious adaptation of the book because it removes all of the politics that make the book so deep. And I find it insulting that it calls itself “based on the novel” because it abandons everything that makes the novel great.

**Full disclosure: Mila 18 is the book that complete changed the way I saw the world. The first time I ever understood the broader implications of war (and revolution, even a failed one) was the direct result of that novel. This was also, incidentally, right around the time that I happened to walk through the living room just as the news was airing footage of a shell-scarred wall of a bombed out building in Sarajevo on which someone had spray painted “Welcome to Hell.” Draw whatever obvious conclusions you like between those two events and my later study of revolution.

***More can be read on Lamarque and the June rebellion here, here, here, and, combining a brilliant review of the rather revisionist history presented by the movie of Les Miserables with actual scholarship, here. If you want information on revolutionary theory, read Brinton’s The Anatomy of Revolution, which is the Bible of revolutionary theory, and Blackey and Paynton’s Revolution and the Revolutionary Ideal. And possibly Johnson’s Revolutionary Change and Hagopian’s The Phenomenon of Revolution.

Lesson #302: Tattoos…in Latin

Autobiographical note: I have seven tattoos, all of which my mother disapproves of to varying degrees. This post will entertain her.

The Latin word for tattoo is “stigma.” This actually makes perfect sense, when you think about it; the English word stigma means “a symbol of disgrace or infamy” and, historically, “a mark made on the skin by burning with a hot iron.”

Etymologically, the word English word is taken directly from the Latin word, which is, in turn, taken directly from the Greek word, meaning “mark” or “puncture,” specifically one “made with a pointed instrument.”*

On a slightly related note, when the Swede and I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau on our road trip, I learned that only those prisoners of the Auschwitz complex (Auschwitz, Birkenau (Auschwitz II), and Monowitz (Auschwitz III)) were tattooed. And that only those who were fit to work were tattooed. The second part of that seems intuitive, — because, really, what point is there to taking the time to issue a serial number to and then tattoo it on someone you’re about to gas? — but I had thought that all of the camps tattooed their prisoners. That’s a pretty big gap to exist in the education of someone who took two separate classes (one as an undergrad and one in grad school) on the Holocaust.**

*That information here.

**Full disclosure, I had a far lesser reaction to being at Auschwitz than I had expected to have. The Swede had a more severe reaction than he had anticipated. I imagine that this in, in part, because the US system focuses so much more on the Holocaust than the Swedish one does. And I think that’s partly down to the far more significant Jewish presence in America; there aren’t a whole lot of Jews in Sweden. (Point of interest, I was the only gentile in my undergrad Holocaust class.) So as someone who a. has two higher level semesters specifically focused on the Holocaust and b. studies revolutions in general, it was a more academic experience than I’d expected, whereas he was approaching it without the benefit (disadvantage?) of too much learning. This is not to say, however, that I was all “yeah…Auschwitz! Woo! Awesome!” or anything; just that it was less visceral than I’d anticipated.

Lesson #301: The Uilleann Pipes

I have always loved the uilleann pipes, especially when used for a lament. And lest you think you’ve never heard them, you have. You probably just don’t know it. 

I came about this all because I’ve spent the last five days of my current (miserable) unemployment re-watching the entire series of Battlestar Galactica*, which is not only my very favourite full run of any television series ever (the epilogue notwithstanding), but is also, by far, my favourite example of television scoring. Because it’s gorgeously scored.**

Anyway, you may be wondering where the uilleann pipes come in and that’s actually quite an easy segue. It turns out my favourite (and probably the most recognizable) of the leitmotifs*** that the BSG composer wrote uses the uilleann pipes. 

I am one of the seven (ten, max) people on the planet who like the sound of the Scottish bagpipes. And this is, admittedly, because I grew up with a piper in the extended family. The uilleann pipes are the lesser known, Irish cousin of the Scottish highland pipes. They’re softer, have a larger range, are played sitting down, and do not require a breath on the drone. But, like the Scottish pipes, they have a bag and a drone. They also have, to me, a very distinctive plaintive sound that I adore.

Anyway, the history is, like all things, evolutionary. The earliest mention of pipes in Ireland comes from the fifth century Brehon Laws (early Irish law that was in place more or less until the Norman Invasion in the 12th century). However, it is likely that this instrument was a bagless forebear of the modern pipes. The earliest reference specifically to the bagpipe is from a 13th century poem called  “Aonach Carman,” and illustrations have been found dating as far back as the 16th century. Until the 18th century, the Irish bagpipes closely resembled the highland pipes, but by 1790, the uilleann pipes were a completely separate instrument from the highland pipes.

The popularity of the modern instrument was fairly limited. After the famine, the mass exodus, combined with a shift in musical preferences, resulted in a declining number of pipers. In 1893, the Gaelic League stepped in and made a push for a nationalist movement (probably not coincidentally, this is also about the time when the Irish started to push back against English rule) and traditional pipers became teachers for a new wave of students. Eventually, the movement was abandoned — probably in the face of a revolution and two world wars — and it was 1968 (this one’s almost definitely not coincidental, this was exactly the time of a new Irish nationalist movement) before Na Píobairí Uilleann (The Uilleann Pipers) was established to help preserve the piping tradition in Ireland.****

*The first time I ever watched the series, none of my dozens of friends who are madly in love with the series warned me; I saw all four seasons (and the miniseries remake that preceded it) in six days. I cannot advise more against ever, ever, ever, ever, ever doing that on one’s first viewing. It’s so (awesomely) dark and so emotionally draining that it completely devastated me. And I’m a girl who has been called “emotionally unavailable”; I can’t imagine what seeing the entire series in six days would do to a normal person.

**You are entitled to your opinion on the value of the series itself, but you have nothing to stand on if you want to argue the validity of the score. The score is brilliant, and if you call yourself a lover of music and disagree, you’re wrong. I will fight you on that. Because you’re wrong.

***And, as a fan of Wagner, I’m all for the use of leitmotifs.

****More information can be read here and hereIn case you’re interested in learning how, exactly, the uilleann pipes work, you can read about it here