Phineas Gage walks into a bar…

July 31, 2009

Phineas Gage was a railway worker who survived an accident that blew a large iron rod through his brain in an accidental explosion in 1848. The subsequent brain injury changed his personality from friendly to belligerent, a phenomenon that challenged the then accepted theory of personality, and opened people’s minds to the idea that the physiology of the brain was involved in personality and disposition.

The above photo- the only known photo of Phineas Gage- was recently identified after being posted on Flickr by its owners, who, not realizing who the subject was, had titled it “One-eyed man with harpoon”. A random internetter correctly identified the photo’s subject in a Flickr comment, supposing that the “harpoon” he held might actually be the iron tamping rod that had injured him. Awesome. Here’s lots of info in a solid post on Metafilter. Internet for the win.

Crows can tell us apart. Why can’t we tell crows apart?

July 29, 2009

Interesting article, 3-minute video, and surprisingly hard crow-identifying game at NPR.

No-money Suelo: a response

July 28, 2009

A few days ago I posted this article about a dude named Daniel Suelo who chooses to live in a cave in Utah with no money. Someone on Metafilter wrote a response to that same article.

Apologies to Mr. Suelo, but modern western civilization is the shit

I am by no means a rich man, but in comparison to most of the world and most humans who lived in any age preceding ours, I live like a king. By the mere accident of birth, I came to live in a country that bombards its citizens with comforts. I woke up this morning and put two cups of fresh, clean water into a metal pan and boiled it on my electric stove. I then stirred in some 7-grain porridge and some raisins and cooked up my breakfast. I didn’t have to grow the grains and process them and I didn’t have to grow the grapes and dry them into raisins – it all came from the store, packaged and ready to go! From the same store, I also obtained some butter without having to own a cow and some honey without having to put on an apiarist’s suit and squeeze it out of a hive. I put the porridge and honey and butter into a ceramic bowl that I did not cast and stirred it all together with a metal spoon that I did not forge.

Scarcely half an hour after climbing out of my bed – that is, a queen-sized mattress supported by a boxspring and a metal frame, covered with flannel sheets that I did not and could not weave – I had prepared myself a delicious, nutritious breakfast. And I know how long it took because of the digital alarm clock sitting on my bookshelf – a bookshelf that is packed out with volumes on a wide variety of subjects which were written by learned men and women from all over the planet. Were I to pick up one of these books, I would find pages filled with words in clear, uniform type on smooth, machine-pressed paper. Their spines are sturdily bound and some of the covers have absolutely beautiful art or photographs printed on them. I could read it on my sofa while an electric fan controlled the temperature in my apartment and better see the pages by way of an electric light if I found the sunlight streaming in through my double-paned windows wanting. Fucking. Awesome.

Instead, I decided to watch a DVD of Flight of the Conchords while I ate. A DVD player built in Taiwan streamed images of a sitcom filmed in New York, built around the act of a guitar-playing folk-satire duo from New Zealand into a cathode ray device built in China, all for my amusement. Once upon a time, only nobility got to be so entertained, and only then if they shipped in live performers. Today, a machine on a shelf above my television used a fucking laser to extract entertainment from a paper-thin disc, all because I pushed a few buttons on a small, infrared transmitter called a “remote control.” Wow! No Pharaoh ever had it so good!

I looked at Mr. Suelo’s site for as long as I could stomach the sanctimony and noticed a number of quotes from luminaries of ages long dead. These quotes make for good copy, but I don’t know how good a job they do of decrying our age and our currency, given that these people never saw it and never spent it. Is Suelo absolutely certain that Thoreau wouldn’t have loved microwave popcorn? That Lincoln wouldn’t have wanted the extended editions of the Lord of the Rings trilogy? He did fancy a play from time to time, after all. St. Augustine’s piety was never, ever tested against central air conditioning or drive-thru burger joints.

The folks who lived without money and modern comforts in ages gone by did so largely for lack of any other choice. People crave comfort and safety – greed is naught but an extreme expression of these universal needs. The average Roman legionnaire would have gladly killed to know the comforts of a Victorian and a Victorian would have done the same to enjoy the leisurely life of a modern American, same as I would to vault into the 24th century, where waste-processing nanites keep my large intestine clean and translator microbes in my Broca’s region enable me to speak with anyone in the world as if we grew up with a common language. I’m aware that greed and sloth have us in a bit of a mess right now and I’m confident that greed will lead us back out. The energy problem won’t be cracked because we all come together and build non-profit solar power co-ops. It’ll happen when some greedy son of a bitch decides he wants in on the ground floor of The Industrial Revolution, Part Two – Green Electric Boogaloo.

The modern world absolutely teems with marvels. In a couple hours, I’m gonna hop on my bike, a miracle of a machine with a fiberglass frame and rubber tires, and ride on paved, light-controlled roads to a job where I help disabled folks manage their lives. These guys have disabilities that would doom them in a fortnight in Mr. Suelo’s ideal world. But thanks to modern medicine and machines, these men may live for much longer and in much more comfort than they ever could before. I know what a lucky bastard I am, living in the twenty-first century United States. I’m thankful to live in such a place, where a man with cerebral palsy can have orange juice whenever he pleases and even folks who elect to live in a goddamn cave get to wear sturdy boots and maintain a blog that the whole planet is welcome to read.

… umm, so good. I heart MeFi.

Simon’s Cat

July 27, 2009

Worth watching full-screen; there are some very cute details you can’t see in the smaller version. It’s so well-done; really sharp observation, impeccable timing, and great sound design. Lots of really complex work and yet it all looks so simple.
I heart this. Thanks to Carly for finding it.


July 25, 2009

I’m pretty sure I just saw a ghost.

Saturday night, 10:30 pm. I’m walking down a dark street in the middle of the city, in search of an evening coffee to fuel some writing work. It’s a busy street, but a stretch of it that’s kind of pedestrian unfriendly, all big hulking buildings with no storefronts or people, and it feels weirdly dark even though there are streetlights. But I’m a city girl and that kind of stuff never bugs me, this is Toronto and I’m a fast runner, so I don’t sweat it.

I’m walking fast, in a good mood, enjoying the warm humidity since the rain stopped a few hours ago. Ahead of me is what I take to be a goth/raver girl- maybe 5’3″, slumped shoulders and wide hips with very wide-leg shoe-eater crimson pants, black hoodie tied around her waist, and a rickety black umbrella.

I’m not paying her any attention, gaining on her fairly fast, and am about a yard behind her when she takes a sharp, screamy, gasping breath and suddenly spins on me in an unbelievably creepy, uncannily smooth and graceful move that makes her clothes kind of flare out around her like a spectre. The move is so weirdly fluid, so intense, and so totally unexpected that I actually yelp. And then she’s standing stock still, close enough to touch, staring me dead in the face with piercing, totally blank, glittering blue eyes. Not breathing. Barring my path. Not moving at all.

She’s in her mid 40s. Her face is kind of shiny and her eyes are very clear and pale. She has a bright red bindi dot drawn between her brows. She’s not moving, but her stare is unbelievably intense, and I’m caught in it like a rabbit hypnotized by a snake. She is definitely close enough to lunge for my neck, which I’m utterly certain she’s about to do. Her mouth is closed but I’m pretty sure it’s full of needle-sharp teeth and maybe a jaw that can unhinge when she pounces.

She’s clutching her black umbrella close on this rainless night, and a bundle of newspapers. She’s blocking the narrow sidewalk and hasn’t blinked yet, standing so still she’s like a statue. My heart is racing. And she’s still not moving. I seriously don’t think I’ve ever been so scared.

I gradually unfreeze and look at the papers- I can’t read the title but judging from the size, it’s either the Epoch Times or the Outreach, both of which are publications I tend to associate with people who are strange but usually harmless. Ok. She’s not a vampire or a werewolf, she’s just a strange lady and maybe my approaching footfalls scared her. Poor thing. I can normalize this situation.

ME: Hi.
HER: Stony, stock-still staring, silence.
ME: You startled me a little!
HER: Stony, stock-still staring, silence.
ME: You ok?
HER: Stony, stock-still staring, silence.
ME: Let’s just keep walking, ok? You first.
HER: Stony, stock-still staring, silence.
ME: We’re ok. Let’s go.
HER: Stony, stock-still staring, silence.
ME: Come on. OK. Time to move.
HER: Stony, stock-still staring, silence.
ME: (slightly authoritaitve) Hey. Let’s go. Come on, let’s walk.

She pauses so long I shake my head and look past her with the intent of passing her on the narrow sidewalk when suddenly she shrieks in another hissing breath and lunges towards me. She moves like a character in a horror movie, all sweeping grace and sharp sudden freezes. I yelp again. She opens a mouth with no teeth and slurs, “Buy a paper?”

I’m really annoyed now, partly at her for her aggressive posture and hugely at myself for actually being scared of a middle-aged woman three inches shorter than me, so I shake it off and walk briskly past her into the donut shop. My hands are actually shaking, and I’m not very easy to scare. She follows me in, of course, and makes a beeline for an empty table in the corner beside four laughing Korean teenagers. She takes another hissing breath and lunges at the table really dramatically, drops her newspaper bundle, and straightens up again to stand stock still. I marvel at the economy and grace of her creepy movements- I’ve never even seen a dancer move so precisely.

She sits and stares at the teenagers, who are about four feet away from her. None of them are facing her, but they should all be able to either see her in their periphery, or her reflection moving in the dark plate-glass window they’re facing. But they don’t seem to see her. She notices me looking at her and holds her umbrella out towards me like a shield for a sec, then points it at the teens. Again they ignore her. She puts down the umbrella and holds out a newspaper to the teens. I still can’t tell if they even see her- the rhythm of their conversation hasn’t seemed to change and they’re all laughing quite naturally.

I notice she’s wearing a Toronto Film Festival baseball cap from 2007. This kind of absurd detail makes me positive I’m not imagining the occurrence.

She reaches into her pocket and pulls out a tiny stuffed cat. The kind made of rabbit fur, the size of a bagel. She holds it out to the teens.


This is hard to describe, but the four teenagers kind of act the way people act in a movie, in the scene when the lead character is discovering he’s really a ghost. Like they don’t see her there but they register something slightly unpleasant in the spot where she’s standing, so they slightly avoid that spot.

She holds her ratty little hair-cat out towards one of the teens, should be in his peripheral vision, but he doesn’t move at all. She pokes him in the shoulder and he leans away from the poke slightly, but still chatting and laughing. I mean, they must be aware of her, but I’ve never seen teenagers play it so cool. Then she stands up and holds the mangy little toy beside his ear. NONE OF THE TEENAGERS REACT. I begin to think she must be invisible.

She puts the friggin cat ON THE KID’S SHOULDER and he doesn’t move, just keeps chatting. Even she’s amazed. I can see her body language change- now she and I are both wondering if she’s imaginary. This poor woman can’t get a normal reaction from anyone, even a teen with a mangy bagel fur cat (model # C97W, it appears) on his shoulder. Of course her grip on reality is loose- I can feel my own grip loosening and I’ve only known her for four minutes.

I look around the restaurant and nobody else seems to have noticed her. The cat is still perfectly balanced on the teenaged boy’s shoulder like a little dead hamster, and he takes a bite of his doughnut. She’s staring at him like, “But didn’t I just put a fur cat on this kid?” I realize that I may be the sole living person in this movie that can see the ghosts wandering around, and maybe I should leave before an army of them start following me, demanding favours and using me as a medium to make out with their wives while spinning pottery.

I order my coffee. I see a movement out of the corner of my eye: the teenager, without turning his head or pausing the conversation, casually takes the little cat off his shoulder, looking as nonchalant as though he’s just straightening his shirt, and places it in front of him on the table. Still none of them have reacted to the woman’s lurking presence directly beside them, and none of them look at the scruffy little scrap of rabbit fur on the table now. They don’t even look unnaturally stiff like they’re ignoring her, they just look like they’re having a nice night.

The woman is now in a predicament. She didn’t get any reaction from her creepy offering, but now she can’t get it back. She looks sort of confused and a little crestfallen, making small hissing noises while moving back and forth behind one of the boys with small, quick, precise steps, looking for a way to get her ragged kitty back but also not wanting to blow her Gothic mystique by speaking to the teens, who are still engaged in calm, happy chatter.

I wish wish wish I’d brought my camera, but since she’s clearly a ghost I’m pretty sure she’s not capturable in pixel format anyway. My heart hasn’t quite stopped pounding yet, but I brush out of the Tim Horton’s, licking the icing off my donut and kind of proud that I’ve just survived my first face-to-face with a poltergeist.

Goodbye, Barth

July 23, 2009

Canadian actor Les Lye, 1924-2009.
Via Metafilter.

One small step for… someone else

July 22, 2009


By Defective Yeti.

No money, no problem

July 22, 2009

Daniel Suelo decided to quit money cold-turkey. He lives in a cave in Utah and scavenges for everything he needs.

His hands are black with dirt, and his hair, which is going gray, looks like a bird’s nest, full of dust and twigs from scrambling in the underbrush on the canyon floor. Grinning, he presents the booty from one of his weekly rituals, scavenging on the streets of Moab: a wool hat and gloves, a winter jacket, and a white nylon belt, still wrapped in plastic, along with Carhartt pants and sandals, which he’s wearing. He’s also scrounged cans of tuna and turkey Spam and a honeycomb candle. All in all, a nice haul from the waste product of America.

This isn’t really a sustainable lifestyle for everyone, even if none of us cared about being dirty and having mice in our caves. He’s living off the garbage of a system he denounces, but without the system, he wouldn’t have any cans of Spam or honeycomb candles. Still, this kind of lifestyle is interesting.
Via The Awl

Facebook Hamlet

July 21, 2009

McSweeney’s has a wicked Facebook News Feed version of Hamlet. Written by Sarah Schmelling, and Photoshopped by Angela Liao; click the graphic below to view large. Awesome.

CLICK TO ENLARGE.  written by Sarah Schmelling; art by Angela Liao.

CLICK TO ENLARGE. written by Sarah Schmelling; art by Angela Liao.

Thanks to Carly for the tip!

Yoga, sort of

July 21, 2009

Yogis are supposed to be moderate in their recreational activites, no?


More here. Thanks to Andrea for the tip!