Lessons #398-399: Sleep Sneezing and Milk Frogs

Right…end of semester. You know how it is. So…two very interesting links about things that I’ve learned this week.

1. As I was drifting off to sleep the other night, I sneezed. Which got me to wondering whether people sneeze in their sleep. To my knowledge I’ve never heard it. It turns out, you cannot sneeze in your sleep because your brain shuts that area of your brain down. You can read about that here.

2. Before refrigeration was a thing that existed, people put frogs in their milk to preserve it. Which is gross on so many levels, but apparently is totally scientifically sound. You can read more about that here.


Lesson #380: Puffin Cams!

Ever since I was about 12 and we visited some extended family in Maritime Canada, I’ve had a thing about puffins. I even had a Newfoundland tourism poster with puffins on it on my bedroom wall as a teenager.* Because they’re adorable. Seriously. Look at them.

single-puffin_18377_990x742At some point when I still lived in a southern state, there was a pair of fluffy orange socks in my Christmas stocking that my mother referred to as my “puffin feet,” something I still call them to this day. Now, there is no creature on Earth cuter than otters, but puffins are a close second. And if you’ve ever watched them try to take off from the water, it’s hilarious. Because they’re such chubby little things, they have to flap their wings really, really hard to get themselves airborne, and they fail on a fairly regular basis and take a nosedive back into the water. It’s hard not to laugh when they fail — because it truly is funny — but they’re tenacious; they give it another go and are off. They’re also delicious to eat, which is something that still makes me feel guilty more than four years after the fact, but when in Rome. Or, you know, Reykjavik.

Anyway…because the internet is occasionally for more than just cat videos and porn, the Audubon Society has a trio of puffin cameras up on Seal Island in Maine. Which I spent a good 45 minutes watching this morning. I can’t help it; they’re so effing cute!

Here’s what I observed in those 45 minutes: I started watching at 5:30, right as the first puffin arrived. He kind of hung out for a bit and did that thing people do where they’re looking around for their friends. Another puffin came through at 5:35, but didn’t stay long. The first puffin just sat on the ledge and watched the ocean for a bit. His friends (or whatever…I don’t know if puffins have friends) started coming by at 5:40. All was good for about 10 minutes…puffins arrived, hopped about, groomed themselves, sat and stared at the ocean (or whatever puffins do when they’re facing the water), but then it started to get a bit crowded on puffin rock, and puffin number one — which is the one I was specifically watching — started getting a bit irked at everyone bothering him when he clearly just wanted to hang out and watch the sun rise (or whatever puffins do when they’re facing the water). A few times he chased other puffins off. Mostly, he kind of wandered from place to place, and every time someone invaded his personal space, he’d travel closer to the camera so he could be alone. He eventually found a little crevice to hang out in. I liked this puffin because this is exactly how I am…leave me alone, jerks, I’m just trying to hang out here! About 5:55, they started to hit a critical mass for puffins on the ledge. Not because of the lack of space in general, but because of a lack of landing space. See, puffins land a bit like jets on an aircraft carrier; it’s a bit of ‘oh God, oh God, I have to stop NOW!” It is not at all graceful, but it is funny. Because after a while, there’s not a whole lot of real estate large enough for landing, so they start kind of half landing on each other. By 6:00, the first puffin had been joined by 17 others. At 6:03, the first puffin wandered out of frame. Anyway, once the puffins are on land, they walk everywhere, which makes sense if you’ve seen them take off/land. Also, I learned, puffins don’t make sound unless they’re hanging out in their burrows, and then they sound kind of like a chainsaw.

If you happen to be an insomniac (like me) or you enjoy a leisurely “getting ready for work” pace (not at all like me), check them out. Audubon suggests the best time to watch them is between 5-9 am EST.

The loafing ledge video is here. This is the feed I was watching.

The boulder berm video is here.

The burrow video is here.

*I also had posters of athletes (mostly swimmers) and cute boys like every other teenage girl.

Lesson #346: Tree Lobsters

We got here by way of an infographic I was reading that talked about islands around the world where specific animals live en masse. Among the animals listed was the tree lobster. I legitimately said, out loud, “what the hell is a tree lobster?” Because seriously? Tree lobster?

It turns out that tree lobsters are not the awesome thing I had created in my imagination; they’re a species of stick insect that live on Lord Howe Island in Australia.

The tree lobster had once been used as fishing bait, but were thought to have been eaten into extinction by the early 1920s by black rats introduced to the island when the S. S. Makambo ran aground in 1918. But it turns out they didn’t actually go extinct; they just went into hiding for a couple generations before being rediscovered in 2001.*

An adult can grow to 15cm (roughly 6″) in length — which is terrifyingly large for a stick insect, thank you — and looks like it’s got a lobster’s exoskeleton.

For more, you can read this, this, or this.

*This is called the Lazarus Effect.

Lesson #336: Damnatio ad Bestias

Damnatio ad bestias is the Latin for “condemnation to beasts.”

As you may remember, if you’ve been reading long enough, the Roman Army was not especially tolerant of rebellion within its ranks, which led to the practice of decimation.

Turns out, they were even less a fan of desertion. At least if you took part in some sort of rebellion, you stood a nine in ten chance of surviving your failed attempt at change.

Deserters were sentenced to death by being thrown, woefully under-armed — if they were armed at all — into the arena with angry, hungry wild animals that wanted to, and did, tear their throats out. Sometimes, they were simply tied to a pole. Sometimes, they got their skulls crushed by elephants. Sometimes, if they were especially bad, smaller animals were introduced to kill them more slowly. Good times! The Romans certainly took their bloodsport seriously.

Damnatio ad bestias wasn’t strictly a sentence for deserters. It was also handed down to early Christians, but was most often the fate of criminals. Both the Codex Theodosianus (429-438 CE) and the Corpus Juris Civilis (529-534 CE) actually stipulate who may and who may not be sentenced to damnatio ad bestias. The list of those who were allowed to be executed by damnatio ad bestias includes: deserters, anyone hiring a sorcerer with the intent to harm another, plebian prisoners*, counterfeiters, political prisoners, anyone who committed patricide**, anyone instigating an uprising (!), and kidnappers.

The practice of damnatio ad bestias originated in Asia, where it was practiced from the sixth century BCE. One of the earliest recorded instances is the biblical story of Daniel being thrown to the lions (from which he was delivered, if you remember your Sunday/Hebrew school lessons).*** There is some question as to whether the earliest instances of damnatio ad bestias were actually human sacrifice rather than the punishment the sentence would later become, though by the time of Alexander’s campaigns in the fourth century BCE, the sentence was being carried out as punishment.****

According to historians Polybius and Pliny the Elder*****, damnatio ad bestias arrived in Europe in the second or third century BCE by way of the Punic Wars, and by the first century CE, the practice had become an entertainment event, including being part of the first games at the Colosseum in Rome (under the Emperor Titus). Nero became the first emperor to use the punishment as a way to persecute early Christians. His version involved simply wrapping Christians in animal skins and throwing them to the dogs******, but later emperors changed this practice to become more entertaining-bloodsport-in-the-arena and less guy-on-the-street-being-attacked-by-dogs. This aspect of damnatio ad bestias continued until the 313 CE Edict of Milan, which granted freedom of religion. However, the practice itself continued for another three hundred years, until it was (purportedly, I can’t find any evidence that this is true*******) outlawed in 681 CE.

For more reading (in case the citations above weren’t enough), see here (this one’s a whole book!), here, and here.

*Patricians were beheaded, slaves were crucified.

**Apparently, the usual punishment for any crime of parricide was drowning whilst sewn into a bag of snakes (poena cullei), but damnatio ad bestias was the fallback in case a sufficient body of water could not be found.

***The Tanakh version of that story is here. The Old Testament version is here. They’re exactly the same story in almost exactly the same words, but people are weird about acknowledging that the Tanakh and the Old Testament are nearly identical, so in the interest of fairness, I give you both. In the Old Testament link, I’ve provided the NIV text, but the link gives you a drop down menu that allows you to choose from 47 different English versions. And if that doesn’t suit you, there are options in 61 other languages.

****See Plutarch’s Life of Demetrius.

*****Polybius’ The General History of Polybius and Pliny the Elder’s Natural History.

******See Tacitus’s The Annals.

*******While I can’t speak to the legal accuracy of this, everything suggests that after the seventh century CE, the practice all but disappears, though there are a couple notable instances that take place much later.

Lesson #335: Dachshunds Are Badger Hunters

I randomly learned today that dachs is the German word for badger.*

I’m a pretty smart girl with some fairly decent language skills. I know the German word for dog (incidentally, the Swedish word is the same). I also have some fairly decent deductive reasoning skills. That makes those hilariously shaped Dachshunds badger hunters. Which makes total sense. Those ridiculously short legs and that long body? Perfect for diving into badger setts. That aggression that until today struck me as a bit off? Yeah…badgers aren’t exactly cuddly.

And apparently, the Dachshund was long a symbol of Germany, which led political cartoonists in the First World War and, to a lesser extent, the Second World War to use the dog as a representation of Germany. I also found a couple from the 20s that can be seen here and here. And one from 1934 here.

*This isn’t even close to the weirdest linguistic thing I’ve learned in the last week. As my linguistic life somehow revolves around bears (don’t ask), I learned to say something very odd about bears in American Sign Language at the weekend. On a street corner. Outside a bar. In a popular neighbourhood. In the middle of the day. If you saw a group of people on Sunday afternoon all dressed in navy and white, gesticulating wildly, and laughing hysterically, that’s what was happening.

Lesson #325: Cambyses II’s Cat Army

A word about my prolonged absence: I have no excuse, really, except that I’ve been focused on other, sometimes (but not always, unless you count plowing through all of Breaking Bad, Friday Night Lights, and Sons of Anarchy as more important) more important, things.

Also, I’ve had no word from Fulham. Evidently, they didn’t think I was being sincere, despite my best efforts at explanation. Anyway, Spurs have shown reasonably well, even without Gareth Bale, so that’s what’s important.*

Moving on…

There are many things I love about history. Not the history you learned about in school because school history — all memorized names, dates, and events to be forgotten as soon as the final has been taken — is the worst. I’m talking about the history that’s interesting.**

As we all know from our grade four history unit on Ancient Egypt, — we all had that, right? — the Egyptians believed in the sanctity of cats. They also lived in an era when there Persians were enjoying a delightful conquering romp through the better part of the known world. Enter Cambyses II, son of Cyrus the Great, who, five years after the epic death of his father, leads the Persian army on a little jaunt to make friends with Egypt.

There’s some pretty Game of Thrones-type political stuff involving powerful people, deposed monarchs, marriage of daughters, trickery, betrayal, and subversive doctors that leads up to the Battle of Pelusium*** in 525 BCE, but by May, Cambyses and the Egyptian Pharoah, Psamtik III, were at war over an insult to Cambyses’ pride (or honor…whatever, there was a slight, and Cambyses didn’t take it well).  It turns out, though, that Cambyses was prepared to completely obliterate the Egyptian army. He brought cats.

Knowing the Egyptians’ veneration of cats, Cambyses had the image of Bastet, the cat goddess, painted on his army’s shields and sent cats (as well as other animals the Egyptians held sacred, including dogs, sheep, and ibexes) out to march ahead of the first wave of soldiers. The Egyptians decided it was better to run screaming to Memphis and hole up there than to anger the Gods by fighting and wound up victims of a vicious rout. According to the historian Ctesias, 50,000 Egyptians were killed.**** Cambyses then wandered on down to Memphis with his troops and laid siege to it until it fell, after which he executed 2,000 of the city’s more important citizens. Psamtik was captured in the aftermath and, by all accounts, treated well, living out his life in Memphis (or jailed in Susa, depending on what you read) under the watchful eye of the Persians — right up until the point where he decided to lead a revolt against his captors, which earned him an execution.

Cambyses defeat of Psamtik ushered in the 27th dynasty, which was overseen by the Persian Shahs from Cambyses’ takeover in 525 BCE and running through Darius II’s overthrow in 404 BCE.

For more information see here and here.

*I just need to record for posterity that during the Northern Ireland/Portugal qualifier in Belfast a few months back, fans chanted “you’re just a cheap Gareth Bale” at Cristiano Ronaldo (of whom I have many things to say, few of them nice), which made me giggle. And then he turned around a scored a hat trick, which did not make me giggle. Other Cristiano Ronaldo hat tricks that didn’t make me giggle include the one he scored in the second leg against Sweden in the World Cup qualifier playoff that knocked Sweden out of the tournament before it even started. Between me and The Swede, that didn’t go over well, though he took it much better than I did.

**To be fair, my version of interesting history and other people’s versions aren’t necessarily the same. I like the chaos, idealism, and aggression aspects. Other people like quilts.

***See Herodus’ The Histories, Volume I, Book II

****See Persica

Lesson #314: Please Declare Your Snakes

You are required, by New Zealand law, to alert the authorities to any snake you see in the country.

There are no endemic species of terrestrial snake in New Zealand, and laws are in place under the umbrella of “bio security” to keep out any and all foreign species, lest they upset the ecosystem. There are no snakes in any zoos or research facilities, they may not accompany travelling performers on tour in the country, and ownership of a snakes as pets is strictly forbidden.

New Zealand does, however, employ snake handlers just in case and these handlers train with live snakes in Australia (where they have all manner of snakes that can kill you). This is an interesting article on the subject.