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Blame the Gerbils

© The Pierpont Morgan Library/Art Resource
The Black Death originated in Asia, and once it got to Europe, it killed millions in outbreak after outbreak over the next 400 years. We all learned in school that the disease was spread by rats, but apparently, rats may have had very little, if anything, to do with it. Tree-ring records of contemporary weather patterns show that "there is no relationship between the appearance of plague and the weather," says the University of Oslo's Professor Nils Christian Stenseth. "We show that wherever there were good conditions for gerbils and fleas in central Asia, some years later the bacteria show up in harbor cities in Europe and then spread across the continent." The one constant here is the fleas, which we all know are evil little messengers of the devil, disease or no disease:

The History of Bunk

The word "bunk," which is short for "bunkum," isn't used all that much anymore, but maybe it should be. A word like this deserves to be kept around, if just for its history (and to remind us that Congress has always had its ... moments ...). It seems that on February 25, 1820, Congress was all in a dither. The focus of their debate was actually quite a serious one, the Missouri Compromise. Well, during this agitation, the representative from North Carolina, one Felix Walker, stood up and began a long and rambling speech that had little, if anything, to do with the matter at hand. When his colleagues objected, he told them that he was speaking not to them but to his constituents in Buncombe County. Buncombe, bunkum, long-winded digressions ~ you see where this is headed (

Lights, Color, Action

the Peacock Mantis Shrimp                                                    Samuel van Eldik
Meet the mantis shrimp. Really? Shrimp, yes; praying mantis, yes. But mantis shrimp? Qué es? Well, first of all, it is for real ~ I googled it. But it doesn't seem like it could really exist. For one thing, there are about 400 species of this little guy (that we know of so far). Their eyes have 16 color-receptors, as opposed to our 3. They usually grow to about a foot long, and yet most of them can break through aquarium glass. Their attack is so fast, it creates a shock wave that will stun or kill their prey even if its initial strike doesn't. It's also so fast that it produces sonoluminescence, or bursts of light coming from imploding bubbles. (Thank you, Pike, for introducing me to this fascinating little creature) (infocomic):

Upper Crust to Dust

Mobutu's palace                                                                                Sean Smith for the Guardian
If ever there was a country that embodied the true meaning of the word "irony," it would have to be the Democratic Republic of the Congo (,, And if ever there was one site that exemplified all that country's tragic history and misfortune, it would have to be Gbadolite, former Congo President Mobutu Sese Seko's birthplace and home to his private paradise, now slowly sinking back into the jungle. Mobutu (aka Joseph Mobutu, aka "a voice of good sense and goodwill," according to President Ronald Reagan) was arguably one of the world's most corrupt leaders, amassing an estimated $5 billion during his 31-year rule of the Congo (which he renamed Zaire). One of the things he did with his fortune was build himself a town complete with schools, hospitals, three palaces, and a runway for the Concorde he chartered. Still, many there remember him fondly. “He was a dictator, that’s right, but he was also a builder,” says Congolese sculptor Alfred Liyolo. “He was a man of culture who wanted his home furnished by local artists. He was generous and allowed local artists to be known throughout the world and immortalised" (story, link to fascinating photos):

The Commercial Cowboy

Darrell Winfield, who died last month, was not the first Marlboro Man, but he was the realest. Philip Morris couldn't have found a better spokesperson. For decades, Marlboros were considered a women's cigarette. According to this article, "Their debut slogan in 1924 was 'Mild As May.' Early ads presented black-and-white sketches of listless flappers, slouched over an ashtray at a bistro table—or a sultry profile of a Gibson girl whose dark lipstick remained unblemished after a drag. It wasn’t until the 1950s that, as a Stanford study put it, the brand underwent a 'sex change.'" And that change was spearheaded by the image of the dusty, ultramasculine, hard-working cowboy ~ never mind that fact that most hard-working cowboys chewed rather than smoked their tobacco:

Notes on the Brain

screen shot
"Music," wrote William Congreve (1670-1729) in Act I, Scene 1, of The Mourning Bride, "has charms to soothe a savage breast." And to stimulate the brain, as we have since learned. Now, with MRIs and PET scans, we are able to understand more about that phenomenon, including how differently the brain reacts to playing an instrument than to just listening to music being played by someone else. Note to self: Get back on the piano (video):

The Meaning of the Word IS

Islamic State continues to grow and to perpetrate unbelievably inhuman acts that shock and disgust the world. (To be fair and honest, it must be admitted that these acts are only barely less human than some of those carried out legally by some governments and officers of the law.) What daily life must be like for those unhappy individuals, particularly women, who have been caught in the areas now under their control is hard to imagine. And few of us outside their organization understand either them or their actions. “Slavery, crucifixion, and beheadings are not something that freakish [jihadists] are cherry-picking from the medieval tradition,” explains Bernard Haykel, an expert on their ideology. IS fighters, he says, “are smack in the middle of the medieval tradition and are bringing it wholesale into the present day.” According to Haykel, IS's goal is to recreate the earliest days of Islam and to follow the precepts of the Koran to the letter. And, as with most religious fanatics, in the end, it all comes down to the Apocalypse:
   Related information, on the origins of Islam, seems in some ways to differ considerably from the above. No wonder we're confused! from
   Today's selection -- from Fields of Blood by Karen Armstrong. The founding of Islam by Muhammad came at a time when the new-found wealth of Arabs in Mecca had led them to ignore the plight of the poor. Muhammad's message was a reminder to his fellow merchants to take responsibility for one

Unfortunate Son

Yakov Stalin
Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin (1879-1953) did not have a happy childhood. Apparently, he personally made sure that at least one of his three children didn't, either. from

Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin really did hate his son Yakov. In fact, Stalin refused to surrender German soldiers in exchange for releasing his son from capture during World War II. In 1943, Yakov Stalin reportedly committed suicide while being held prisoner in a German concentration camp. Stalin is thought to have despised his first born son, which may be due to his beloved first wife dying when Yakov was just nine months old. At the funeral, he claimed that his wife had softened his hard heart and without her he would never be able to love anyone again. Although Stalin remarried and had another son and a daughter, his relationship with his oldest son was so contentious that Yakov attempted suicide as a result, leading the dictator to scoff about his son’s poor gun aim.

Owl's Well

Flammulated Owl                                                                          Brad Wilson
Of all the creatures Brad Wilson has photographed ~ and there have been many ~ perhaps his most challenging subjects have been the owls. For this series, he focused on owls at St. Louis's World Bird Sanctuary and Española, New Mexico's Wildlife Center. While we may think first of their eyes when we think of these birds, apparently, it's not so easy to get them to look directly into a camera ~ and, as Wilson discovered, it's also not so easy to gain their trust (story, gorgeous photos):

Just Because: 'Invitation to Love'

Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) wrote his first poem when he was 6 and published two in his city's newspaper at the age of 16. His parents had been slaves in Kentucky before the Civil War, and his mother learned to read specifically so that she could help him in his studies. Dunbar wrote poems in both dialect and standard English. In all, he wrote a dozen books of poetry, four novels, four compilations of short stories, one play, and the lyrics for a musical. from Poem-a-Day:

Invitation to Love
Come when the nights are bright with stars
Or come when the moon is mellow;
Come when the sun his golden bars
Drops on the hay-field yellow.
Come in the twilight soft and gray,
Come in the night or come in the day,
Come, O love, whene'er you may,
And you are welcome, welcome.

You are sweet, O Love, dear Love,
You are soft as the nesting dove.
Come to my heart and bring it to rest
As the bird flies home to its welcome nest.

Come when my heart is full of grief
Or when my heart is merry;
Come with the falling of the leaf
Or with the redd'ning cherry.
Come when the year's first blossom blows,
Come when the summer gleams and glows,
Come with the winter's drifting snows,
And you are welcome, welcome.

Do U Heart Conversation Hearts?

Couldn't let Valentine's Day go by without a shout-out. As we used to say in high school, Happy VD, everybody! And what more Valentinesy thing can we learn about on this day than those little pastel-colored hearts with messages stamped into them in red? As always, we turn to Mental Floss for that kind of invaluable information. And we read, for example, that there's a good reason those things taste suspiciously like NECCO (which stands for New England Confectionery Company, btw) wafers, and that's because they are NECCO wafers, just in a different shape. For both, we have two brothers from Boston to thank. (We have another Bostonian, Esther Howland, to thank for popularizing Valentine's cards.) Today, NECCO estimates, it pumps out almost 100,000 pounds of hearts every year:

Spring Into Action

Glacier National Park                                   Robert Zavadil
The sudden appearance of three beautiful poppies in our yard got me thinking spring. Of course, many areas are still covered in snow, but eventually we'll all be celebrating the green season and the reemergence of the sun. In anticipation, here's a list of nine of the national parks where the wildflowers will be popping. Given the selection, there's got to be one not too far from just about everyone (slideshow):

For a Change

an Action Hero and his socks
Last year's winners include a high-school student who founded a group of volunteers around his age to teach music to younger children, a seventh-grader who started Boxes of Love for children around the world impacted by disaster, and a preschooler who has collected 1,256 (at that point) new pairs of socks for various nonprofits. Who will this year's be? Volunteers between the ages of 8 and 15 who are doing something to make a difference in the world ~ either globally or locally ~ can become Hasbro Community Action Heroes and get a $1,000 educational scholarship and $500 donated to the charity of their choice (website):

Just Because: 'Wonder and Joy'

Tor House and Hawk Tower                                         Hella Mitschke Rothwell
In a happy example of things going around and coming around, an appreciation of this poem by Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962) led to the discovery that he was the one who built a fascinatingly quirky home in Carmel that many often wonder about. Born in Pennsylvania, Jeffers was accepted into Occidental College in Los Angeles at the age of 16, graduated, and moved on to the University of Southern California. He adopted the state as his own, and many of his poems celebrate its central coastal area. In 1913, Jeffers and his wife (after a sojourn in Europe to escape the commotion caused by their pre-marriage affair) moved to Carmel, where they built Tor House and later added the rather Gothic Hawk Tower (, which Jeffers built himself. In 1922, he wrote, "Poetry is more primitive than prose. It existed before prose and will exist afterward, it is not domesticated, it is wilder and more natural. It belongs out-doors, it has tides as nature has ... ." from Poem-a-Day:

The things that one grows tired of—O, be sure
They are only foolish artificial things!
Can a bird ever tire of having wings?
And I, so long as life and sense endure,
(Or brief be they!) shall nevermore inure
My heart to the recurrence of the springs,
Of gray dawns, the gracious evenings,
The infinite wheeling stars. A wonder pure
Must ever well within me to behold
Venus decline; or great Orion, whose belt
Is studded with three nails of burning gold,
Ascend the winter heaven. Who never felt
This wondering joy may yet be good or great:
But envy him not: he is not fortunate.

Amazing Grace

Hopper at the UNIVAC, 1957                    photo taken for Philadelphia Inquirer
Grace Hopper (1906-1992) was one of those amazing people most of the rest of us mortals never hear about. What made her amazing was not just the things she managed to accomplish but that she did them at a time when women weren't expected to be interested in, let alone doing, such things. Things like continuing to serve in the Naval Reserve past the war and eventually attaining the rank of rear admiral and becoming the oldest active-duty commissioned officer in the Navy. Things like getting a PhD in mathematics from Yale and going on to invent the first compiler for a programming language, popularizing the term "debugging," and being the driving force behind the development of the computing language COBOL. "What I felt was that there was a large number of people in the country who did not like symbols. They were not mathematicians, and they hated symbols, so let them write their programs in English," she recalled of her role. "It was common sense." Common sense from a very uncommon person (video):

Tales From the Ebola Zone

Pete Muller/Prime for the Washington Post
The fourth of a National Geographic four-part series on the Ebola crisis (which, though we may have forgotten about it, continues to wreak havoc) is a Q&A with photographer Pete Muller, who has spent time covering it in Sierra Leone. Asked about any differences he noticed between his most recent trip there and the one he took in August, Muller says, "I think people are exhausted at this point. Hotels have closed. People lost their jobs. There's not much tourism; there's not as much movement from one place to another. But life is continuing" (story, short video):


You're about to make a great pasta dinner and realize you used the last of the pasta a couple of weeks ago. You rush to the store, and there you are once again, staring at shelves of spaghetti ... and rigatoni and fusilli and farfalle and capellini and pappardelle and ... And now what? Which to choose? Does it matter? Turns out it's all about the sauce:

Meditation Upon a Monk

Welcome to the Ripley's Believe It or Not installment of somanyinterestingthings. It's unbelievable enough that a man was going to sell a 200-year-old mummy of a meditating monk on the black market, but that's not the end of it. Some people who are familiar with such things believe that this monk is not dead but is instead in a deep state of meditation called tukdam (story, video):

It's a Slug! It's a Leaf! It's E. Clorotica!

Patrick Krug
"In the future," according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, "[gene therapy] may allow doctors to treat a disorder by inserting a gene into a patient's cells instead of using drugs or surgery." For now, however, it is still an experimental procedure ~ for us humans. In one of the only known examples of what could be called natural gene therapy, the sea slug E. chlorotica embeds chloroplasts from an alga in its digestive cells so that it can perform photosynthesis on its own. The question has always been, How does it keep those chloroplasts alive and functioning for up to nine months? And now we have the answer. "One of several algal genes needed to repair damage to chloroplasts and keep them functioning is present on the slug chromosome," explains the University of South Florida and the University of Maryland, College Park's Sidney K. Pierce, the study's co-author. "The gene is incorporated into the slug chromosome and transmitted to the next generation of slugs." So now that we have a model, the expectation is that we'll be able to figure out the mechanism (thanks to Pike):