The Heart’s Memory

Medical science might be on the verge of a truly amazing discovery. For decades, it’s been thought that the only organ responsible for human memory is the brain. And while it’s true that the lion’s share of memories and preferences are indeed kept in the brain, it turns out that the brain might not be the only organ where such things are kept.

It all began when two American doctors – working separately on either coast – noticed something odd about heart transplant patients. Once the patients had recovered, their personalities started to undergo subtle changes. For example, a woman named Claire Sylvia started drinking beer and eating green peppers and chicken nuggets, even though she’d never enjoyed doing so before. Bill Wohl, a middle aged man from Phoenix, was a dedicated businessman that rarely – if ever – exercised before his heart transplant; as soon as he was healthy enough to do so, he stopped working so much and took up extreme sports. An Englishman named Jim that had barely graduated from school and led the decidedly non-academic life of a truck driver suddenly began writing poetry. An unnamed woman that hated violence so much that she’d even leave the room when her husband watched football started watching football and swearing like a sailor while doing so. Another unnamed person – this time a 47 year-old male – suddenly developed a fascination with classical music, and could even hum obscure classical pieces he’d never heard before.

Continue reading “The Heart’s Memory”

Spring Heeled Jack

Just about everyone in the English-speaking world – and probably the entire world – is familiar with the story of Jack The Ripper, the mysterious serial killer that haunted London’s Whitechapel district in the second half of 1888. But many have never heard of another Jack that terrified the entire English nation decades before the Ripper. He was, in a way, much more frightening than Jack The Ripper, even if this Jack didn’t kill anyone. This is because hundreds of people saw him and were terrified by what they saw. Ladies and gentlemen… meet Spring Heeled Jack.

He was called Spring Heeled Jack because of his ability to effortlessly leap over walls that were 8, 10 or even 15 feet high. But that’s not what scared people. It was his appearance – like that of a devil – that put the fear of God into people. He was tall and thin, with claws for hands, pointed ears and eyes that glowed red in the night. Some even said that he could breathe white or blue flames. The few that were unlucky enough to actually be touched by Spring Heeled Jack reported that his skin was ice cold.

Reports of Spring Heeled Jack exist from as early as 1817, but he didn’t become a phenomenon until September of 1837, when reports of bizarre happenings hit the London press. A perfectly upstanding businessman reported that Jack had jumped over the tall wall of a cemetery and landed right in his path. Shortly thereafter, a group claimed that a man with similar features had attacked them, and one of the party even had her coat ripped by the unknown assailant. Another of the party – a barmaid named Polly Adams – wasn’t so lucky. She was found bloodied and unconscious in the same spot hours later with her blouse torn and deep scratches in her belly. A few weeks later, a girl named Mary Stevens was assaulted on Clapham Common by someone (or something) meeting Jack’s description, and in much the same fashion as Polly Adams had been. Jack returned the next day, this time by leaping from a wall to block the path of a moving horse carriage, causing it to crash. A few days later, Jack struck yet again… and this time he left physical evidence: police noted two footprints “around three inches deep” in the immediate area. This implies someone jumping from a great height. Upon further examination, one police officer noted “curious imprints” within the footprints which led him to believe that springs or some other gadget might have been involved. Sadly though, the concept of “forensics” hadn’t developed yet, so casts were never made of the prints.

Continue reading “Spring Heeled Jack”

The Bacteriaophage

Back in the 1920s and 1930s, millions of dollars were poured in to the study of bacteriophages – viruses that kill bacteria but are otherwise harmless to humans. Back then, diseases like cholera and dysentery were running rampant throughout the planet, and millions died from those two diseases alone. But then Alexander Fleming discovered the antibiotic properties of penicillin in 1928, and Western medicine dropped bacteriophage study almost en masse to move into the new and sexy world of antibiotics.

Looking back on it now, that was a pretty boneheaded move. The overuse and misapplication of antibiotics has helped to hasten the day when bacteria become resistant to many (if not most) types of antibiotics. You see, not every single bacterium is affected equally by an antibiotic. Some antibiotics merely weaken a bacterium until the antibiotic ceases to be administered. Other bacterium might be completely immune to an antibiotic. Regardless, the important thing is that those bacteria most able to survive against antibiotics are the ones that survive and multiply. And given the short life of bacteria in general, natural selection can work its magic in months or even days, instead of the centuries and millennia that humans tend to associate natural selection with. Staphylococcus aureus is not only one of the most common infections in hospitals, it’s one of the hardiest too, having developed resistance to penicillin as early as 1947. MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) is now considered to be “quite common” in British hospitals. And to show you what a problem its become, MRSA was the cause of 37% of all fatal cases of blood poisoning in the UK in 1999; less than a decade earlier, only 4% of blood poisoning deaths in the UK were caused by MRSA.

Continue reading “The Bacteriaophage”

One-Hit Wonders

Like pornography, “one-hit wonders” are hard to define, yet people know them when they see them.

A “one-hit wonder” is technically defined as “a band that has a single hit song in a nation’s official music charts, then fades into obscurity forever”. But, in reality, it’s a bit more complicated than that.

For example, it’s often implied that the “one hit” is huge, like Los del Rio’s “Macarena”, Baha Men’s “Who Let the Dogs Out?” or Chumbawumba’s “Tubthumping”. This is to differentiate it from a long-running, well-respected indie band who just happened to have one song peak at #39 in the mainstream charts. I call this the “Pixies Clause”, because although the Pixies had a long career and several hits on the US Alternative charts, most mainstream music fans only remember them for “Where Is My Mind?” (a song, incidentally, that was never a single).

But even this is open to interpretation. The Swedish band a-ha landed at #8 on VH1’s “100 Greatest One-Hit Wonders” list of 2002, not to mention countless “One-Hit Wonders of the 80s” lists. But the band actually had two Top 20 singles in 1985: “Take On Me” reached #1 while the arguably better “The Sun Always Shines on TV” reached #20. Similarly, Great White are often considered one-hit wonders for their #5 hit “Once Bitten Twice Shy”, even though “The Angel Song” also made it to Billboard’s Top 40.

Geography is integral with one-hit wonders. A band can be hugely successful in one country but still be considered a one-hit wonder in another. Sweden’s The Cardigans had ten Top 40 singles in the UK, yet are thought of as “one-hit wonders” in the US for their hit “Lovefool”, which became popular after being featured in Leonardo DiCaprio’s version of Romeo + Juliet. Other geographically-hindered bands in the US include Nena, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Dexy’s Midnight Runners and Crash Test Dummies. Flipping it around, Brownsville Station and Alphaville are considered one-hit wonders in the UK, even though both had more than one hit single in the US.

Continue reading “One-Hit Wonders”

Industry “Standards”

Anyone familiar with the IT industry is surely aware of the hundreds of “industry standards” that have come and gone over the years: USB, FireWire, PictBridge, 802.11g, Bluetooth, Ethernet, PCI, ISA, RS-232… the list goes on and on. Most of these standards are (were) well thought-out systems created by engineers working with designers and marketing departments. But that’s not always the case. Industry standards are sometimes determined by available components or corporate warfare… or even one man’s random decision! And you can find all three of those reasons in the chequered history of the phonograph record.

As you probably know, the first commercially viable recording and playback system was invented by Thomas Edison in 1877. The system used a needle to cut grooves into a spinning wax cylinder. The only problem with the system was the the cylinder was turned by a hand crank. This meant that you could record something at 30 cranks per second (cps), while your neighbor might record something at 50cps, while the guy down the street might use 60cps. It wasn’t long before Edison’s engineers were asking him to create a “cranks per second” standard so that any recording would play back correctly on any machine. Edison found a machine and played with it for a while before setting on 80cps… “because it sounded right”. No scientific testing, no focus groups, no careful study of the results… just Edison playing around with the machine for 15 minutes.

Continue reading “Industry “Standards””

How A Flea Spawned The Middle Class

There are around 2.8 billion people in Europe, North and South America, Japan and India. A huge chunk of these people are middle class. Neither rich nor poor, the middle classes are able to obtain comfortable shelter, an adequate supply of food, clothing and basic utilities like electricity and sewer service, as well as education for their children and entertainment for themselves. But I wonder how many people in the middle classes know that they owe their existence… to a flea!

Well, not to a flea, exactly. But rather Yersinia pestis, a bacteria that piggybacked on the flea… which in turn piggybacked on rats in the holds of ships. You might have guessed that I’m talking about the Black Death (a.k.a. the bubonic plague) which happened in Europe and the rest of the world between 1347 – 1351. Little is known about the epidemic outside of Europe except that it was also found in the Middle East, India and China and killed around 75 million people worldwide – around 34 million of which were Europeans. Of course, most of us learned about the Black Death in high school, yet we were often never taught about what the disease actually meant at the time and what happened after the disease had run its course…. which is odd, because one of the most important things to come out of the Black Death was the middle class itself!

Continue reading “How A Flea Spawned The Middle Class”

The Sad Saga of Diego Garcia

Imagine a scenario where Venezuela wanted a military base somewhere in the Caribbean and offered the United States a nice discount on oil if it would move the residents of Puerto Rico off their island, demolish all existing structures and lease it over to Venezuela in perpetuity… Sounds improbable, doesn’t it? Perhaps Puerto Rico isn’t a good example – with a modern infrastructure, a population of almost four million people and thousands of American businesses on the island, it would be a monumental task (logistically as well as politically) to pull something like that off. But what if the island’s population was much smaller? Could something like that happen?

Well, something like that already did. You might of heard of the island of Diego Garcia on the news. Located in the Indian Ocean, Diego Garcia is one of the largest American airbases in the world, and planes regularly take off from the island for missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. What you probably haven’t heard is how it came to pass that America got an airbase there in the first place. It’s a story of realpolitik, nuclear weapons, a few thousand Creoles and the mysterious powers of the British monarch.

Continue reading “The Sad Saga of Diego Garcia”

Hedy Lamarr, Adolf Hitler, and your cell phone

Can you name the Hollywood bombshell that partied with Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, then developed a communications system to defeat them both… which is still an integral part of modern wireless communications?

Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler was born in Vienna on November 9, 1913. Aside from being amazingly beautiful, Eva was as smart as a whip, too. When she married her first husband – Friedrich Mandl, a German arms manufacturer – it wasn’t long before she knew his trade inside and out. And it was at various “business social” events that Kiesler ran in to Hitler and Mussolini… which is ironic, because both Kiesler and Mandl were Jewish. Mandl did everything he could do disguise his Jewish background, even converting to Christianity. Mandl was also insanely protective of his wife, and had her followed nearly everywhere she went. Between her husband’s obsessive jealousy and Germany’s ever increasing anti-Semitism, Kiesler just couldn’t take it anymore, so she fled to London.

It was in London that Kiesler met movie legend Louis B. Mayer – the last “M” of MGM. Mayer hired her on the spot and personally changed her name to the one film buffs and geeks everywhere still remember: Hedy Lamarr. She had already appeared in several European films – including the sexually provocative Ecstasy. But it would be in Hollywood where she’d have her greatest success, appearing in Algiers (1938), White Cargo and Tortilla Flat (both 1942) and Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949).

Continue reading “Hedy Lamarr, Adolf Hitler, and your cell phone”

How John Wilkinson Created The Modern World

If you’re a fan of the modern world, you owe a debt of gratitude to John Wilkinson. Wilkinson, whose father was an ironworker and a part-time inventor, was one of those fantastic industrialists that envision the entire world using his product in as many forms as possible. In Wilkinson’s England, people would sit at iron tables eating off of iron plates using iron cutlery in iron houses. Wilkinson was such a fan of iron that he was buried in an iron coffin and had an iron obelisk for a tombstone. But it wasn’t iron tables or iron plates that led John Wilkinson to change the world… it was cannon.

Prior to Wilkinson, almost all manufactured goods were made “in-house” by individuals. By that I mean that each product – and all the component parts therein – were either made by the manufacturer or someone local to him. Take a cabinetmaker, for example. It’s entirely possible that a cabinetmaker would have made all of his tools himself, as well as all of the component parts of a cabinet, such as the nails. And when he made those nails, he might make them the length of his pinky finger or as thick as his favorite book – or any other measure he chose. He might have “outsourced” his nail production to a local blacksmith, but that blacksmith was just as likely to use some other non-standard measure (such as the diameter of a coin) to determine the length of a nail. And, of course, a cabinetmaker or blacksmith in another town might use an altogether different measure to make his nails.

Of course there were large factories, especially when it came to complex products like carriages. Making a carriage required a blacksmith, a slew of carpenters and an upholsterer at a minimum. But a factory like this was more like a collection of tradesmen working under one roof than the single entity we think of today. If an upholsterer were to leave the factory, his replacement might have completely different tools and components than his predecessor. Of course, the factory owner had the ultimate say in the quality and appearance of his products, but by and large the tradesmen were left alone to do what they did best. And most of the time, “their best” was close enough.

Continue reading “How John Wilkinson Created The Modern World”

The War of Jenkins’ Ear

Wars have been started for any number of reasons: money, land, religion, xenophobia… you name it. But one of the strangest beginnings to any war in history has to be the War of Jenkins’ Ear (1739-1748).

Under the terms of the Treaty of Seville (1729), the British agreed not to trade in Spanish colonies. To enforce the treaty, the Spanish were allowed to board and inspect any British ship in Spanish waters.

In 1731, the British ship Rebecca was boarded and searched under the terms of the treaty. However, it seems that the Spanish minister and the British ship’s captain – Robert Jenkins – had some sort of disagreement that resulted in the Spanish minister cutting Jenkins’ ear off. For some reason, this news didn’t make it back to Westminster until 1739, but when it did the British public weren’t happy. British Prime Minister Robert Walpole reluctantly declared war on Spain, and the War of Jenkins’ Ear had begun.

The war itself wasn’t particularly interesting – which is why you’ve probably never heard of it before – but several interesting things did result from the war:

Continue reading “The War of Jenkins’ Ear”