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October 8, 2013

Show me your favorite gorilla (non-political thread)
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 04:30 PM * 469 comments

Remember when we used to do non-political threads? I think we need one right about now.

Someone in another context was talking about worldbuilding in fantasy, and about the feeling that changing one element from our own world (like adding magic) would cause too many deep seismic effects on the shape of society. Here’s what I wrote back.

If women warriors existed, the world would be different. Except… If there had been people of color in Europe throughout its history, we’d have noticed. Well… The Early Middle Ages actually happened. Not everyone buys that. I could go on.

The fact is, a lot of what we know about history is wrong or incomplete. There are tremendous numbers of back-formations and elisions: places where we already have a picture how it was, so we ignore, or don’t see, evidence to the contrary. This is relevant.

History is full of gorillas.

(I should emphasize that I already knew about women warriors, am agnostic about the black royalty theory, and do actually believe in the Early Middle Ages.)

What’s your favorite historical gorilla, strolling through the basketball game of stories we tell ourselves about the past? Please avoid ones that lead inevitably to partisan political discussions.

Comments on Show me your favorite gorilla (non-political thread):
#1 ::: Sarah ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2013, 04:55 PM:

A much milder, but very face-palmy anecdote -- someone on Ravelry mentioned came across a "Steampunk for Newbies" article that advised there was no need to stick to wearing brown and gray, because steampunk was set in an alternate Victorian universe where they had brightly-coloured synthetic dyes in the mid-19th century.

#2 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2013, 05:04 PM:

No gorilla, but there's a photo of our 'redshirt' group doing a chorus line on page 44 of Locus #633's worldcon issue.

#3 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2013, 05:05 PM:

Can't think of a favourite historical gorilla, but when I needes a unicorn chaser earlier today I Googled "cats in sinks", visited various suggested websites and spent several minutes chuckling.

#4 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2013, 05:08 PM:

Speaking of the Early Middle Ages...

"Who's that then?"
"I dunno, must be a king."
"He hasn't got shit all over him."

#5 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2013, 05:08 PM: Christmas, my mother in law gave me a Star Trek DVD box set and a long-sleeved red shirt.

Both gifts were appreciated. But I had a terrible time convincing her I wasn't offended after I explained why I collapsed in fits of giggles.

(Also not a gorilla.)

#6 ::: Clifton ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2013, 05:14 PM:

Here's a couple of interesting gorillas for you:

Among the exceptionally valuable treasures stored in some of the oldest Japanese temples, which are taken out of their archives and exhibited on very rare occasions, are glassware from the Roman empire.

In the 13th century poetry of Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Balkhī, better known as Rumi, there's a passage in which he, at least in Coleman Barks' translation, refers to Zen Buddhists in China; and there are also some teaching stories which appear nearly identically in the Sufi and Zen traditions.

The Silk Road was a real thing, and trade goods and treasures were being carried both ways along it for almost two thousand years. So was wisdom.

#7 ::: Fade Manley ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2013, 05:14 PM:

I love the peculiarity of running into things that feel distinctly modern in the middle of properly ancient history. For example, fast food and product endorsements from celebrities, in ancient Rome. Perfectly straightforward things that aren't reliant on modern technology in any way! But both of those got a double-take and "wait, what?" from me when I first ran into them.

#8 ::: Carrie S ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2013, 05:21 PM:

Fade: That's why Lindsay Davis's hardboiled-detective-in-Vespasian's-Rome series works so well, IMO.

Though someone needs to spread the word that knitting wasn't invented till the 1000s (CE, that is).

#9 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2013, 05:24 PM:

Carrie S @ 8... knitting wasn't invented till the 1000s

I wonder what TexAnne did with her free time before then.

#10 ::: Jon Meltzer ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2013, 05:25 PM:

Is Making Light trying to attract viewership by having a lead story on gorillas?

#11 ::: Will "scifantasy" Frank ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2013, 05:28 PM:

Jon Meltzer @10: It always worked for DC and Marvel...

#12 ::: Mongoose ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2013, 05:33 PM:

Maid Marian's conical hat.

I'm a bit of a historical costume geek, and I'm particularly interested in the twelfth century. This is why it drives me absolutely nuts when I see a supposedly twelfth-century woman wearing one of those tall conical hats with a bit of voile or something attached to the tip. That is not authentic twelfth-century headgear, not by a long way.

Anyone have a clue where it came from, out of interest?

#13 ::: Jenny Islander ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2013, 05:34 PM:

Americans were never cut off from access to the Old World and I made sure to correct my copy of Hakim's otherwise excellent history textbook on that topic. People were sailing skinboats across the Bering Sea on a regular basis, to trade,* find marriage partners, and just get away for a while. They did not have any idea that they lived on a lost continent because it wasn't lost!

*There was a coastal trade route, for small boats making short trips, from village to village all the way from China to coastal Alaska. Very old Chinese knives** have been found here.

**People were already working iron on their own in parts of Alaska; between that and the China trade, they didn't think of iron as the mysterious super-stone from the foreigners' ships, they were just impressed by how much of it there was. Also, they only knew how to do cold-hammering using native iron or pieces of shipwrecks.

#14 ::: Jenny Islander ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2013, 05:51 PM:

@Mongoose #12: It's a hennin, an anachronism from the 15th century. Someone has argued (can't find the link ATM) that the hennin evolved from a small high-crowned cap worn as a foundation for the complex starched veils of the 14th century; eventually someone decided, what the heck, let's go nuts with the underlying hat and turn the veil into an afterthought. The same person also argues that the things stayed on because they were constructed over lightweight wire frames that kept them in shape and also clung to the head. Usually the hair was pulled tightly back, to show off the fashionable high forehead, and stuffed into the hennin, so with a wire frame and some pins, the fashionable lady could keep the thing on.

Maid Marian in the 12th century would probably wear a veil, with or without a wimple, and probably over bands, IMO.

This leads me to another gorilla: The earlier, unstarched medieval woman's veil was not held on by the fillet around the outside; that's a decoration, and if you try to use it to hold your veil on you will get a muffin head. The veil was pinned onto a head and/or chin band that were worn underneath the veil, wimple, etc.

#15 ::: Jeremy Leader ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2013, 05:59 PM:

I don't think I've told this story here before...

About 30 years ago, I was in college, and a classmate had recently emigrated from the (then) Soviet Union. Somehow, we were talking about climber's ice axes, and I made some reference to Trotsky. My friend was flummoxed; what did ice axes have to do with the death of Trotsky? When I explained (Trotsky was murdered in Mexico City, struck in the head by a climber's ice ax wielded by an undercover NKVD agent), he vehemently protested. He'd been taught in school that Trotsky had died after being accidentally hit by a car. "Everyone knew" that it wasn't really an accident, but he was resolute that the "struck by a car" part was absolute truth. It was only the "accident" part that was a lie.

Ever since, I've wondered what "truths" I know that are just as suspect?

#16 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2013, 06:06 PM:

My favorite historical gorilla is the fact that cameras were in use by European artists quite early (some medieval paintings show their use). By "camera" I mean a small room with a hole in it that the artist stood in to sketch the image projected onto the wall opposite the hole. Then the artist would turn the canvas upside down and paint it. This is why such extremely accurate perspective appeared so early.

What they didn't have was film. Not in Christendom, anyway; I saw an article some years ago that claimed that the light-recording properties of silver nitrate were discovered in the Islamic world hundreds of years before they were known in the West. But they didn't have cameras.

Suggested allohistory: Christianity and Islam make peace in the 12th Century and start cultural exchanges. Result: photographs of the Tudors etc.

#17 ::: Mongoose ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2013, 06:18 PM:

Jenny @ 14: ah, thanks - that explains it! Yes, the band under the chin was called a barbette. The wimple was around in the early twelfth century, but was pretty much out of fashion by Maid Marian's time, although some older women still wore it.

Xopher @ 16: I love that allohistory idea. You're making me want to write it. If I only had the time!

#18 ::: Jenny Islander ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2013, 06:48 PM:

@Mongoose no. 17: Right, barbette, I'd forgotten that. My favorite century for medieval fashion elevated the headband to visible status, as a stiffened cloth circlet called a torque. I wear my torque and barbette very simply, with my hair braided and stuffed into a snood in the back and straight pins holding everything together. Mine has a nice ruffle along the top edge, but you could have one entirely plain or on the other hand studded with gems with your hair and/or hair extensions in Princess Leia buns stuck inside gold wire cages on either side. I could toss a floaty veil over mine, but I opt not to: less to wash.

#19 ::: Niall McAuley ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2013, 06:56 PM:

Jeremy Leader@ #15 writes: ice axes, and I made some reference to Trotsky

I am flummoxed.

My whole life, I knew that Trotsky was killed in Mexico by an assassin with an ice-pick, just as The Stranglers sang it.

I always pictured a scene from Dr. No where the assassin stabs Leon in the ear, and then drops the weapon in the ice bucket on the cocktail bar.

Only to learn now that it was a climber's ice-axe! How much more like an assassin could you look if someone frisks you in Mexico and you are carrying a mountaineer's ice-axe?

Bah, history. I prefer my imagined version. Moscow mule, anyone?

#20 ::: Ken Brown ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2013, 07:00 PM:

Educated people did not generally think the Earth was flat in the Middle Ages.

In Early Modern England (and probably through most of the Middle Ages as well) ordinary women did not get married in their early teens and their families had no legal powers to force them to marry agsinst their will. The same almost certainly applies to most other northern European countries.

#21 ::: chaosprime ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2013, 07:02 PM:

I deeply suspect there was a lot more pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact than is established to have taken place.

(Not that the fact that any of it has been established to have happened is other than a flat contradiction of the dominant narrative.)

#22 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2013, 07:28 PM:

I've read somewhere (sorry, can't remember source to cite!) that "hennin" was actually a derogatory nickname for that style of headgear, much in the way that some people have referred to a certain style of pointy-toed boots as "roach-killers". It had something to do with the braying of donkeys.

According to the article, the name favored by the people who LIKED that headgear was "atout".

#23 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2013, 08:31 PM:

I've bumped up against something which might be a gorilla.

I've been mildly annoyed by standard Jewish mother humor for years because my mother wasn't like that.

And now that I'm thinking about it, I don't think I've heard other Jewish people saying their mothers were like that.

It's certainly possible that I've missed something, but it's also possible that it's not especially common for Jewish mothers to use guilt for manipulation. It may just be something that makes it easy to write funny comedy routines.

#24 ::: thomas ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2013, 08:42 PM:

My favorite one is the recurring idea that people in the past liked tasteful colours, unlike the lurid present.

Polychrome Parthenon, anyone?

#25 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2013, 09:13 PM:

Nancy Lebovitz @ #23, my Jewish brother-in-law said he never had a Jewish Mother until he married into my family. (My mother pretty much fit the stereotype, except for not being Jewish.)

#26 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2013, 09:21 PM:

Were graffiti a common occurrence in the real Ancient Rome - as opposed to the Rome of Falco, who's already been mentioned here? A few years ago, I was watching "Quo Vadis" (being a sucker for biblical epics) when I noticed scribbling on a wall.

(In one scene of "Quatermass and the Pit", one can clearly see on a wall the words "Killroy was here".)

#27 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2013, 09:30 PM:

Serge, they've found graffiti in Pompeii and Herculaneum. (And on stones that came off the Pyramids.)

#28 ::: SummerStorms ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2013, 09:51 PM:

Carrie S @ 8: knitting wasn't invented till the 1000s (CE, that is).

I suppose it depends on what you consider "knitting". Single-needle knitting (for example, nålebinding) has been around since at least the 4th century CE in the Old World (in places as diverse as Egypt and Scandinavia) and may date as far back as the 4th century BCE in the New World.

Xopher @ 16: I'd definitely read that particular allohistory.

#29 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2013, 09:55 PM:

P J Evans @ 27... Thanks for the confirmation.

#30 ::: Carrie S ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2013, 10:03 PM:

SummerStorms, nalbinding is not knitting; nalbinding takes the whole strand through the loop and knitting takes a loop through a loop. Very different operations. Marcus Didius Falco could have had nalbinded socks, but not knitted ones.

#31 ::: Paula Helm Murray ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2013, 10:08 PM:

With the Robin Hood myth, all the movies have 'issues.' Saw "Yo Merry Dudes" with a bunch of SCA folks, there was lot of pointing and laughing about the fact that every scene change led to anachronistic costume changes and etc. Marian went from early period to 1920s costumes through the movie.

Though we did cause a lot of consternation afterwards because someone noted there was a Calon cross and etc. in a decoration just inside the entry for the men's room. "Would you lookit that!" was one of the statements.

It was an old timey movie palace with all the decor still intact. It has, alas, been torn apart and turned into expensive shops.

#32 ::: SummerStorms ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2013, 10:16 PM:

Paula Helm Murray @ 31:

Nearly everything is better when I do it with my SCA friends. Just sayin'.

#33 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2013, 10:37 PM:

Nalbinding may be an ancestor of knitting, but it's not very close, being mostly buttonhole stitch.

My pet theory is that knitting was invented by some armorer's apprentice who had to spend a day untangling a couple of mandrels of wire loops that had gotten enmeshed (and maybe also stepped on). Said apprentice noticed that it looked a lot like the finished chain mail, and started trying to reproduce it by meshing the mandrels of loops deliberately, and found that (a) it was much easier when he used his mother's leftover weaving supplies, and (2) he put points on the mandrels.

#34 ::: Magenta Griffith ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2013, 10:38 PM:

And much of that graffiti is obscene - advertisements for sex, bragging about sex, and the like.

#35 ::: Theophylact ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2013, 10:41 PM:

Xopher Halftongue @ #16: There's a wonderful scene in the first volume of John Crowley's Aegypt tetralogy in which a teenage Shakespeare has his photograph taken by the alchemist (and advisor to Queen Elizabeth) John Dee. Coulda happened... .

#37 ::: BigHank53 ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2013, 10:57 PM:

Someone once told me about a couple of bodies they pulled out of a bog in Siberia: a couple of redheads. Wearing plaid. From something like 600 AD. Them Celts get wandering feet...

#38 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2013, 10:59 PM:

Many years ago, I read a hardcover collection of graffiti, old and new.

The Roman stuff was well represented. The one I recall best was found in a lavatory, and went something like: "Senator Octavius Smith was just here and left an fine enormous tan turd."

#39 ::: ErrolC ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2013, 11:11 PM:

It is often said that New Zealand declared war on Germany before the UK ("due to time zones"), often accompanied with snide comments about colonial over-eagerness. This is not true, and there is plenty of evidence that it is not true (messages confirming time zones etc).
People only mention it to make a point, and they are wrong.

#40 ::: Mark Gritter ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2013, 11:56 PM:

Speaking of pigments, a lot of Dutch "Golden Age" painting is presented as stylistic choice or tradition, when much of it was forced by simple unavailability of materials. When the Dutch and Spanish truce expired in 1621, all the pigments imported from the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, and Spanish America became horrifically expensive. Yellowy-brown and grey were still available, though.

So painters like Pieter Claesz who specialized in "subdued colors" and nearly-monochromatic paintings were operating out of necessity, not choice. But 400 years later all that fine detail washes out because just a few years separates the brilliant flower-painting pre-1621 with the banquet pieces in the following years.

#41 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 12:07 AM:

Not my personal favorite, but part of my childhood. (sorry for the earworm, if you're susceptible...).

#42 ::: idgecat ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 12:10 AM:

Jenny Islander @13 People were sailing skinboats across the Bering Sea on a regular basis, to trade,* find marriage partners, and just get away for a while. They did not have any idea that they lived on a lost continent because it wasn't lost!

So good to see that someone outside my own family and the peoples of that region actually knows this! My great-grandparents were missionaries posted at what is now called Wales, AK from the 1880's to the early 20th century and knew that the people of three communities (Wales, the Diomodes and a village on the Siberian coast) were all cousins with considerable traffic among them. See the book Ice Window for some anecdotes about the area at that time.

#43 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 12:29 AM:

-- Globalization Is Not New. The reason the Plymouth settlers 'conveniently' (so conveniently that 8yo me suspected it was made up for kidmyth entirely, and that he was fictional) found a reasonably-native person who spoke quite good English and was willing to take their side and intercede in negotiations with non-English-speaking natives is due entirely to globalization.

Squanto boarded (willingly or not, depending upon your source -- I tend to believe he was abducted and pressed into service) an explorer's ship, and helped crew the ship not only up and down the eastern seaboard of what is now the US but across the seas to the western coast of Africa and even to England. He may have rounded the Cape of Good Hope; one source states it but it's a murky source. He unshipped in England (among other places; he had a tangled biography) and spent some time there trying to find a ship going back home.

He finally managed it and jumped ship somewhere in what is now the southern US. He walked the rest of the way home ... to find his village recently, completely, wiped out by European-introduced diseases. Less than a year after his return, a bunch of endearingly ignorant Englishmen show up and start settling what used to be his grouping's land. They survived their first winter in part by eating the buried food stores of Squanto's dead relatives and friends.

Politically, the next group inland had no reason to be friendly to Squanto, so he built himself a bit of a power base with the English. If ever someone deserved an epic-scale massive historical biopic, it's Squanto.

Separately, Carribean shells have been found in arctic-natives archaeological contexts since long before even the intrepid Basques were sailing west to mine the cod off Grand Banks. And Cahokia Mounds, near St. Louis, contain artifacts originating in South America. So there were serious trade networks webbing the entire Western Hemisphere, presumably by foot and small craft.

-- I also got some historical whiplash (from noticing the gorilla, as it were) when it was mentioned that what a lot of the northeastern Colonies were building their (colonial, resource-extraction) economy upon was logging out nice tall straight old-growth trees, putting them through water-powered sawmills, and shipping the dressed boards back to England. "Sawmills?!?", the back of my head sputtered, "Industrial production? That was Ye Olde Pioneer Times!" Yes, but it was also the 1750s, and England was getting nice steam engines all over the damn place right then.

-- The pristine, darkling, native-haunted wildernessy woods whose passing James Fenimore Cooper lamented were in upstate New York, a landscape I'd only ever previously thought of as thoroughly domesticated ...

#44 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 12:37 AM:

A lot of colonial-era north-country woodsman also made their living via the nasty business of making potash. Boiling down ashes in a bit pot until the white stuff could be harvested.

(Potassium gets its name from potash. Run electricity through the stuff, and beads of the metal form.) (Sodium . . . you can probably guess.)

#45 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 12:52 AM:

(That should be "big pot." 3 feet across or wider. These still turn up now and then in rural areas of upstate NY.)

#46 ::: Jeremy Leader ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 01:12 AM:

Niall McAuley @19: How much more like an assassin could you look if someone frisks you in Mexico and you are carrying a mountaineer's ice-axe?

Keep in mind that Mexico City is about 45 miles from Popocatépetl, a 17,800 foot volcano which had glaciers until about a decade ago (supposedly due to volcanic activity more than climate change).

#47 ::: Jenny Islander ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 01:16 AM:

@PJ Evans no. 27: And the Pyramids weren't built by slave labor, either. The graffiti on the core blocks of the Pyramids (obv. it would have been hidden beneath the shiny limestone facing when the Pyramids were new) is stuff like, "Drag Team Ramses Broke the Record" or "Go Team Amon, Beat Them All." There are also records of teams going on strike because they weren't being paid on time.

#48 ::: janetl ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 01:18 AM:

Charles C. Mann's books 1491 and 1493 are chock full of gorillas roaming north and south America. Highly recommended! The globalization that Elliott Mason mentions @ 43 is part of it. I was astonished to learn that more than half of the silver mined when the Spanish took over south America ended up in China instead of Spain.

#49 ::: Beowulf ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 01:40 AM:

Jenny Islander@46 While its been well know among history buffs for awhile the fact that the pyramids used to have shiny coatings is a gorilla to many people. Ditto for the idea the the Romans and ancient Greeks used paint rather then the bare marble associated modern classical architecture.

#50 ::: Ouranosaurus ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 01:49 AM:

During the First World War, there were a few cases in which French soldiers came very close to being shot for disobeying orders. Because they didn't understand French. Or more precisely, because they understood the wrong kind of French. Languages like French and English existed as spectrums, lots of micro-dialects from village to village, until fairly recently. The process of imposing a central dialect was carried out mostly between the 1700s and 1900s in most European countries. It was a kind of internal colonialism, on a smaller scale.

#51 ::: weatherglass ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 01:57 AM:

On graffiti: there's a nice recent student collection of Latin graffiti, inscriptions, dipinti, and so forth, aimed at readers with intro-level knowledge of Latin. By Roman Hands, by Matthew Hartnett; might be of interest to some here. It's arranged in groups of inscriptions which illustrate particular grammatical points of (roughly) increasing complexity.

I didn't appreciate just how fond of doodling the ancients could be until I visited Greece and Turkey. Some of the temples that I saw had stick figures, sketches of animals, freeform squiggles, and words inscribed all over their steps by bored people. My favorite graffito was where someone had sat down next to the base of a pillar and tried to copy the Greek key pattern that decorated it. They'd had trouble figuring out how to make all the lines interlock correctly, and their sketch trailed off in what looked like frustration.

Not exactly a gorilla, but a misconception, at least: gladiatorial combat was generally not to the death. (Not to the deliberate death, anyway; plenty of gladiators died of injury or accident. But that wasn't the desired outcome.) Notions of Roman bloodthirstiness notwithstanding, it wouldn't have been economically viable: training a gladiator took a substantial investment of time and resources that needed to be recouped by hiring their services out repeatedly. (And, back to graffiti, there's a substantial amount of Pompeiian graffiti concerning gladiators, including comments on their sexual prowess and their win/loss records, sketches of them in action, advertisements for shows, and complaints about a local ban on gladiatorial combat following a riot in the Pompeiian amphitheater. Sports hooliganism: not a new phenomenon. There's also a marvelous wall painting from Pompeii depicting the riot in progress.)

More of a gorilla: there was a thriving amateur/semi-pro athletics circuit for young women for a certain period of the early to mid Roman empire. The evidence is patchy, but includes things like an inscription by a proud grandpa commemorating his granddaughters' (two or three of them, iirc) victories.

#52 ::: Older ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 02:01 AM:

This may not be the type of gorilla you're looking for, but:

When I was a child, I was told that malaria was carried by the dread anopheles mosquito, of which there were none in our area. Too cold, doncha know. I observed with interest that the local mosquitoes looked an awful lot like the pictures of the dread A M in the text books. But they couldn't possibly be, the teacher said so.

This is not the only gorilla I met in elementary school.

And all those people from the health department, oiling every little pond and puddle every year? Just eliminating an annoyance.

And the native inhabitants? Poor feeble folks, they were wiped out by measles, a mere child's disease.

Now that I'm Older, I know that the Willamette Valley was known as a malarial swamp, and the reason it was possible to settle so many white folks here was that there had been a particularly bad year for malaria, and the entire populations of some native towns had died. And it was not at all too cold for the dread A M, and we were very lucky that oiling all the ponds held their numbers down. That, and all the human carriers had died.

Oh, and measles is a serious disease and killed millions before there were vaccinations for it. And the survivors of that malaria epidemic married white folks and "disappeared".

This is not the only gorilla I met in elementary school.

#53 ::: Don Simpson ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 02:20 AM:

Surely I am not the only person who noticed the visual resonances between Northwest Coast art and ancient Chinese bronzes....

#54 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 02:45 AM:

Reading Laxdaela Saga, in translation, and thinking it was awfully like Dynasty.

#55 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 02:52 AM:

For me, it would be the story of the Roman soldiers who might have marched to China. It's actually reasonably respectable.

Then the story of how the Shah of Persia's gift of an elephant got to the court of Charlemagne.

Then, after that, possibly, the story of how the silkworms got smuggled out of China in the late fifth century CE and ended up in Byzantium.

#56 ::: Farah ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 03:40 AM:

I strongly recommend Bloody Foreigners by Robert Winder for much the best account of who was and wasn't in England at any time period. There are some interesting surprises (Jews never left, there have always been Black people and Scots were really rare in London until the seventeenth century).

#57 ::: Chris Lawson ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 03:53 AM:

Early cannons were used in the Siege of Calais in 1346 and Chinese soldiers used a gunpowder-powered spear-launcher back in 1000 AD. Good luck finding either of those in a story set in those times.

I'm also interested in reverse gorillas: historical facts that are "revised" by neglecting real history. My current pet peeve is the Galileo-was-an-arrogant-bastard-and-the-Church-was-not-at-fault argument. I don't care if Galileo was the most arrogant bastard in human history, he was forced to recant on threat of torture and placed under house arrest until his death, all in order to preserve a theological interpretation that contradicted his physical observations. See also: Reagan was great for the economy, Hitler was an atheist, ancient Rome ran a laudable civilisation, the US Civil War wasn't really about slavery, Rommel was a military genius, Orwell was anti-communist.

#58 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 04:06 AM:

chaosprime @21: I note that Tim Severin's "The rendan Voyage" shows that it was possible to cross the Atlantic in a leather boat, via the "stepping stone route." Actually what most impressed me in that book was the big advantage of a leather boat over a steel one, when holed by ice: it's a lot easier to sew a leather patch on that to patch the hole in the steel boat.

Nancy Lebovitz @23: Sorry to disappoint you, but my (Jewish) mother has using guilt for manipulation down to a fine art.

#59 ::: etv13 ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 04:14 AM:

Hey guys, a gorilla isn't a false belief; it's something that's really there, but that we don't notice because our attention is focused elsewhere.

#60 ::: Martin Wisse ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 05:05 AM:

And the survivors of that malaria epidemic married white folks and "disappeared".

Now there's a gorilla: were the Native Americans in what would become the US almost all wiped out, either deliberately or due to introduced diseases, or was there much more interbreeding than taken for granted in official histories and "Indians" became "white" that way?

(Erik Lund's Benchgrass blog is recommended reading for this and other gorillas.)

#61 ::: Chris Lawson ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 06:04 AM:


There's a famous set of frescoes at the Villa del Casale of Piazza Armerina depicting daily life in Rome -- including a pair of young women in light clothing tossing a ball around.

#62 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 07:02 AM:

#58 ::: dcb

I wasn't suggesting that *no* Jewish mothers use guilt as a tool, just that it may not be more common among Jewish mothers than non-Jewish mothers.

#63 ::: Cassy B. ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 07:45 AM:

Chris Lawson @61, there's a gorilla for ME! I've been at least vaguely familiar with most of the gorillas in this thread, but I honestly believed that the bikini (as a set of garments worn in public; not undergarments) was invented in 1946 (after the Bikini Atoll bomb tests).

Thanks; I love learning new things.

#64 ::: William Burns ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 07:49 AM:

Martin Wisse:

Actually, a fair number of Natives became black through intermarriage.

My favorite historical gorilla is the Empire of Lithuania, a big pagan empire sprawling across a good chunk of East-Central Europe in the fourteenth century.

#65 ::: Paul A. ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 08:08 AM:

Nancy Lebovitz @ #23, et seq.:

Isaac Asimov, in his Treasury of Humor, remarks "that the stereotype, like all stereotypes, is greatly exaggerated, and that Jewish ladies do not take kindly to it." He goes on to relate the following anecdote:

Once at a dinner party, I listened to an Indian (from India, not from Arizona) telling funny stories about his mother. I listened with interest for he looked thoroughly Indian, and finally I could no longer resist. I asked in mock amazement, "Is your mother Jewish?"

He looked at me quite calmly and said, "My friend, all mothers are Jewish."

#66 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 08:24 AM:

The pristine, darkling, native-haunted wildernessy woods whose passing James Fenimore Cooper lamented were in upstate New York

Nor were they pristine and darkling, though native-haunted is debateable. The landscape the European settlers found had been thoroughly shaped by the native population, who had realized that both actual wilderness and huge farmlands tend to cut down on the good hunting.

#67 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 08:33 AM:

Martin Wisse @ 60

Now there's a gorilla: were the Native Americans in what would become the US almost all wiped out, either deliberately or due to introduced diseases, or was there much more interbreeding than taken for granted in official histories and "Indians" became "white" that way?

Well, the introduced diseases (most especially measles) were extremely deadly. But it's one of the gorillas for non-Virginians--almost all the FFV's (the oldest English families in Virginia) have Indian ancestry. (Partly, but not entirely, via John Rolfe's marriage to Pocahontas.)

#68 ::: Carol Kimball ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 08:37 AM:

Personal observation/experience:

People love to make marks on their environments, be it drawing on the sand on a beach, scratching on a wall, hand prints. Smear something on your hand, smack it on a rock. Variation: trace around it. Most hand prints have the pigment manipulated with the right (you get a better print if you paint your hand rather than dip it), and so are of the left hand.

Received Wisdom: early art was all done by shamans for magical reasons, and they were predominantly left-handed.

Nine-mile Canyon in Wyoming has drawings on most available rock surfaces. Looks to me like some pre-Anglo ran sheep in the valley, watching from the vantage above, and idled away the time making marks.

More sensible than a nest of magical persons.

#69 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 08:49 AM:

Nancy Lebovitz@62: Okay! Actually, thinking about it, neither my (Jewish) stepmother nor -her- (Jewish) mother use/used it, to my knowledge.

#70 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 09:20 AM:

Nancy Lebovitz #23: I suspect that the stereotype owes a lot to particular Borscht Belt comedians -- while the behavior may have been fairly common in the time and place of their childhood, they were the ones who made it a global stereotype. Certainly a lot of parents use guilt for manipulation and Jewish parents basically don't have access to religious guilt -- so, more likely to lean on the family/empathy side of that.

#71 ::: Richard Hershberger ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 09:48 AM:

I think the discussion of the portrait of Queen Charlotte linked to in the original post misses the interesting part.

That she had a distant(ish) ancestor who may or may not have been black African is mildly interesting: more for how the illegitimate line was a respectable illegitimate line rather than being considered merely a by-blow. The presence of black Africans in Portugal is unremarkable to anyone with even a passing knowledge of Portuguese history.

What is interesting is the portrait itself, showing distinctive black African facial features. Other portraits of Charlotte don't show them, or nothing like so pronounced. There has to be a story behind that portrait: why the artist (who was, I gather, a strong abolitionist) chose to portray her that way, and why he was permitted to do so. I would love to know the fully story.

#72 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 10:02 AM:

janetl @48 mentioned Charles C. Mann's 1491, which I was about to cite as well. I was raised in naturalism, hanging out at natural areas, getting lectures on native species/introduced species/successional environments/urban nature issues. Despite all this, when I heard about the sky-blackening flocks of passenger pigeons, the buffalo herds stretching to the horizon in both directions, I did not suspect someone was palming a card.

Mann points out that both those phenomena (and some others) are almost certainly the result of the pre-white-settlers heavily-managed, very productive (of food and useful things) environments of North America being knocked seriously out of balance by largely removing their maintainers and peak predators, the native inhabitants. The earliest white settlers ate plenty of passenger pigeon, but nobody mentioned flocks whose alighting broke tree branches (as later residents marveled at). &c. That's an absolutely classic example of an ecosystem destructively boomeranging out of control to find a new equilibrium after a constraint is removed (rather like deer overpopulation in our modern, nearly-wolf-free US forests). But I believed the narrative applied to the phenomenon by the generation of white inhabitants who'd grown up in a completely natives-free environment, who never even considered that the people whose removal their parents and grands had justified by saying "but they weren't even using the land" had, in fact, been intensively managing it.

Ouranosaurus @50 mentioned European language regionalism and the making of central dialects. I have some familiarity with and a deep interest in linguistics and languages, but am effectively a monoglot. When I was studying Spanish at community college I was amused at what counted as 'irregularity' in its verbs -- I took four years of Latin and a year of Homeric Greek in high school, I was expecting stem-changing random you-just-have-to-memorize it wackiness. Instead, in Spanish, there are two basic kinds of irregularity: what I call 'checkbox' irregularity (there are predefined types A, B, C, etc, each of which does a certain thing; some verbs check two boxes and have both kinds) and respelling. The respelled verbs, which our teacher described as 'irregular' to my never-taken-any-other-language classmates, were PERFECTLY regular ... in their pronunciation. They respelled themselves to remain regular in the pronunciation, due to the conjugation pattern and what happens to the sound when you spell certain letters next to each other. Because the pronunciation/phonics in Spanish is really regular.

Implausibly regular, to my way of thinking at the time. As in, "someone fixed this" levels of regular. The kind of regular that doesn't just grow like that. I asked my teacher; she said, no, it's just the way Spanish is. I suspect Franco, it seems a Francoish sort of thing to regularize spelling and phonics across a whole language while also imposing an official nationwide dialect ...

#73 ::: Two Z ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 10:03 AM:

I always find it interesting that people claim pizza was NOT made in Italy. Actually, it was. Roman soldiers, trying to stretch their pay and/or food alotment, would take flat bread, spread cheese on it, and roast it over open fires. (Precursor to brick oven pizza?) I'm thinking the sauce was added later, as tomatoes are an excellent foodstuff for soldiers on the march.

#74 ::: lorax ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 10:04 AM:

janetl @48:

Charles C. Mann's books 1491 and 1493 are chock full of gorillas roaming north and south America. Highly recommended!

Oh, yes. 1491 in particular has many sfnal moments, as you realize that the European settlers beyond the Atlantic coast were moving into a post-apocalyptic landscape; their diseases had preceded them.

It occurs to me there's a lot of similarity between gorillas and what Jo Walton has called the "Tiffany problem" - how do you use a bit of historical detail that is right but that a less-informed reader will be convinced is wrong?

#75 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 10:11 AM:

I'm thinking the sauce was added later, as tomatoes are an excellent foodstuff for soldiers on the march.

The Romans did not eat tomatos; they are a New World plant.

#76 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 10:16 AM:

The thread is beginning to remind me it's been decades since I've read "Asterix".

#77 ::: beth meacham ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 10:24 AM:

@72 -- Roman soldiers on the march would not have had tomatoes to add to their flatbread and cheese, unless that's another trade gorilla. The tomato is a New World plant, and was not introduced to Europe until after the Spanish conquest.

#78 ::: janetl ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 10:25 AM:

Older @ 52: Some malaria gorillas that I learned of from Mann's 1493. Malaria had become a major problem in southern England—boggy soil and mild temperatures. The English brought it with them to north America, and it flourished in the warm, wet southeast. Immigrants usually fell ill their first year, and couldn't be worked hard until their second year, assuming they survived at all. That was a major reason behind the demand for enslaved Africans. European indentured servants weren't as economical as people who were more resistant to malaria.

As I said above, Mann's two books are gorilla-a-riffic.

#79 ::: lorax ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 10:27 AM:

Elliott Mason @72, the part about the passenger pigeons was absolutely my favorite part of 1491, and for months after I read the book I told anyone who would sit still about it. (One supporting detail you didn't mention is that the number of passenger pigeon bones in pre-Columbian middens in the right areas wasn't nearly as high as it should have been if the pigeon population had been at blot-out-the-sun levels of abundance.)

#80 ::: Sandy B. ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 10:29 AM:

Jewish mothers: I've heard the stereotype from Jewish children. Might just be "ALL mothers are Jewish."

Trotsky: Whoa.

Celts in Siberian bogs: The explanation I heard, and have done no research to confirm, was that northern European redheads [redheadism?] pretty much started with Vikings and got carried around from there. "Rus" (for whom Kievan Rus, and Russia, was named) means "...the Red" and was some redheaded Viking. The Irish were supposedly a dark-haired people until they brought in all those mercenaries from Denmark etc. Looping around, all those Russian Jewish redheads from my high school would, in fact, have gotten it from the same place the Irish did. Lovely story, could be true.

Getting to a more historically confirmed gorilla: The Duke of Burgundy was powerful enough for a couple centuries to refer to the King of France as "The Duke of Paris".

#81 ::: Theophylact ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 10:39 AM:

And tartan plaid, Braveheart to the contrary, dates only from about the 16th Century.

#82 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 10:40 AM:

More of the common* gorilla: The middle ages weren't so dark as all that-- a lot was invented then.

Spices weren't used to cover the taste of spoiled meat. The link goes into a lot of detail.

*this thread hasn't surprised me so far, but I'm still hoping

#83 ::: Jack V ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 10:50 AM:

I'm trying to remember what I was taught about Trotsky. As best as I can remember, I _heard_ "ice pick", but the picture in my head was of something more like an ice axe...

#84 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 10:53 AM:

Although, as a weaving pattern, plaid probably has existed for a lot longer than that. Gingham has to be the minimal version: two colors.

#85 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 10:56 AM:

When I hear of Trotsky, I think of the Monty Python skit. Does that make me a bad person?

#86 ::: Cassy B. ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 10:56 AM:

Jack V@83, I had the general impression it was a pickaxe, but then I grew up hundreds of miles from anything resembling a mountain so ice axes weren't really a thing to me. Certainly, it's a refinement of detail that doesn't surprise me and I don't consider a "gorilla" (I saw a non-human ape; I just misidentified the species.)

#87 ::: Andrew M ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 10:59 AM:

The Irish were supposedly a dark-haired people until they brought in all those mercenaries from Denmark etc.

Not necessarily mercenaries; parts of Ireland were actually under Danish control for a while. When in 1988 there was a celebration of the millennium of Dublin, it seems that strictly speaking this was not the millennium of the city's foundation, but of its occupation by the Irish, after they liberated it from the Danes.

#88 ::: Andrew M ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 11:02 AM:

75 and 77: Well, Two Z did say 'later'.

#89 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 11:20 AM:

Sandy B @80: My understanding of the redheadedness in central Europe is that the Vikings came along the rivers from northern Europe into Kievan Rus, which makes sense. They could navigate rivers and trade would have brought them in as far as they could go. (Plus, they could also have sailed into the Med, through the Bosporus, and into southern Rus as well, then up those rivers.)

#90 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 12:10 PM:

Redheadedness and plaid: There are artifacts mentioned in Elizabeth Wayland Barbour's textile history tome (I forget if it's called Women's Work: The First 50,000 Years or if that's the popularization of the same work) that preserve redheaded individuals in connection with plaid cloth quite quite far back. The Urumchi silk-road mummies, for one; some really old salt mines in eastern Europe for another.

#91 ::: Anne Sheller ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 12:19 PM:

Well, it would take me longer than I'm willing to spend to check all the details, but a quick look into a couple of Elizabeth Wayland Barber's books, Prehistoric Textiles and The Mummies of Urumchi (there should be a couple of umlauts but I don't know how) shows a wide early distribution of tartan/plaid type cloth patterns. The earliest she presents is a black and yellow one from a kurgan north of the Caucasus, dating from the 3rd millennium BCE. There are a lot from Hallstatt salt mines, 1st millennium BCE, likely Celtic or proto-Celtic. There are some from roughly the same time from Central Asia, possibly related to Tocharian speakers.

The take I got from this and other textile technology she discusses is that tartans/plaids may have been a new and widespread fashion when Indo-European language speakers were starting to disperse and break up into the many language groups now under that umbrella, and that the cloth style persisted particularly long on the western fringe. Clan tartans are recent, but tartans as a cloth pattern go way back.

#92 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 12:33 PM:

Tom 41: Since I am susceptible to earworms, what's the song, please? I'm not clicking the link without knowing.

weatherglass 51: Not exactly a gorilla, but a misconception, at least: gladiatorial combat was generally not to the death.

I understand, from information I believe was presented on this very website, that when a gladiator was severely wounded, the decision about whether to treat him or put him down quickly was made by someone called an editor. (Now they only make live-or-die decisions over books, of course.) Also that "thumbs up" was the "kill" order (short for drawing said thumb across the throat) and "thumbs down" was the "save" ("put down your sword") order.

But I no longer have links to any documentation. Can any confirm or refute this?

Sandy 80: I was taught (in Irish class) that full-blooded Celts have light brown to dark brown hair. The blond and red in Scotland and Ireland are all Norse, and the black is all Spanish (from the time in Iberia before coming to Ireland, not from the Spanish Armada).

Btw, Iberia, Hibernia, Ierne, Eire, and Ireland are all from the same root.

Andrew 87: I thought they were Norwegian. They were called the "Dublin Danes," but I had understood that was a misnomer (possibly deliberate on their part).

#93 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 12:35 PM:

Plaid is very popular, even twill plaid, for the simple reason that it's very easy to weave; people have probably been making twill plaids since they've been making twill. What's a fairly recent innovation is the idea that a particular pattern should go with a particular family.

(I have recently been rereading the Barber book mentioned, which is as Elliott says the popularization.)

#94 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 12:59 PM:

I have a poll up about Jewish and non-Jewish mothers.

So far, the answers have been that the Jewish mothers of respondents are much less likely to use guilt as a major motivator than non-Jewish mothers. Perhaps the Jewish mothers are embarrassed by the stereotype?

Questions about mothers the respondents have known turn up extremely similar percentages for Jewish and non-Jewish mothers.

Unfortunately, after I posted the poll, I realized that the question should have been about guilt for hurting the mother's feelings rather than guilt in general. I'm not sure whether this is likely to affect the results enough to worry about.

Is there such a thing as producing a poll which is completely satisfying, or are there always second thoughts and new information which makes one wish the poll had been different?

#95 ::: SummerStorms ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 01:01 PM:

Xopher @ 92, on red hair: I don't know about that. This seems like it might contradict that.

#96 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 01:26 PM:

Xopher @92: Magilla, the opening theme. Which has now earwormed the susceptible.

Nancy Lebovitz @94: Polls are never completely successful in hindsight. Trust me on this -- I've got a poll of pollsters here in my back pocket....

Actually, there's a reason for this -- a successful poll gets good information, which allows me to know better what question I want to ask now, and I conflate that knowledge with the knowledge I had before I designed the poll, so I want that question in the poll from the start. There's always more to know!

#97 ::: Sarah ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 01:31 PM:

Serge Broom @ #85

Trotsky? Il ne chante pas.

I'm one of the people who thought it was an ice pick. Wouldn't an ice pick be easier to carry as a concealed weapon?

#98 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 01:35 PM:

SummerStorms, might do, but might not. Once I could read it instead of just staring at the tousle-headed picture of the most attractive member of the royal family.


#99 ::: Andrew Wells ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 02:10 PM:

Anne @91 and others, I am tempted to get "Woven into the Earth: Textile Finds in Norse Greenland", by Else Ostergard; and you might be too.

Carrie @75, maybe the Romans who travelled across the Atlantic (cf chaosprime @21) ate tomatoes ;-)

dcb @58, I think that Tim Severin didn't actually show it was possible to get all the way across the Atlantic; instead, he showed it was possible to get 90% of the way across, and then get caught in ice.

#100 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 02:20 PM:

Andrew, I have a copy of that book; if you'd like it, you can have it for the shipping--it's a lovely book, but I'm trying to pare down the reference collection.

As for the Romans, I imagine that the ones who crossed the Atlantic might well have eaten tomatoes, but the ones in Italy making proto-pizzas certainly did not. :)

#101 ::: Andrew Wells ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 02:38 PM:

Carrie, that would be very kind of you, thanks. If you could email me (andrew at avro707 dot force9 dot co dot uk), we can arrange the details.

#102 ::: praisegod barebones ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 02:49 PM:

Re early pizza (Two Z @73):

The Turks have a dish called pide, which is a kind of of flat-bread with various different kinds of topping (generally *not* including tomato.) baked in a wood-fired stove. Despite the fact that it's generally long rather than round, I find it inconceivable that its not related to pizza (especially given the name). But the direction of transmission puzzles me. One possibility is Constantinople to Venice in 1453. The other possibility is that it was brought by the Genoese to Turkey - they had lots of forts on the Aegean coast. Either way, it has to happen before tomatoes reach Europe.

Re early Celts (SandyB @80 et seqq): There's quite a lot of red hair in Turkey, especially on the Black Sea - especially among an ethnic group called the Laz, who speak a very non-Turkic language (maybe Caucasian, maybe a linguistic island like Basque.) There were also Celts in Anatolia at some point: Ankara was in the Roman province of Galatia (as in Paul's Epistle to) and Galatia and Gaul are cognates. I don't know if these facts are related in any way.

Neither of these things are gorillas. The fact that some of the earliest Turkish novels were written in Ottoman (which was standardly written in Arabic) but in the Greek, Armenian or Hebrew alphabets may be one - at least where I live..

#103 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 03:11 PM:

Flatbreads are common everywhere. See: tortillas in Mexico, bing in China, naan in India, flatbreads in central Asia, and the ubiquitous middle-Eastern pita. (I think the Romans used olive oil to hold the cheese and herbs on the crust.)

#104 ::: clew ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 03:23 PM:

There's a cookbook Flatbreads and Flavors that is mostly a modern survey of same but has a little anthropology in it. Accidental anth research includes semi-directed knowledge trasmission (well, semi-transmission) in modern life, not quite like the theories of same we use to deduce the historical range of the metaphorical gorilla.

Bit of followup to Martin Wisse's #60: well, (a) in my family, we know a north-Ohio man in the 1850s or so married a Native American woman from the next town over with no social opprobrium. (One of their children was a football star and state representative.) As far as we know, she was another farmer's daughter and her town was a farming Native town.

(b) Railroaded, which suggests that we not only didn't need the transcontinental railroads to be built when they were, but that they cost the nation big to enrich a few, outright says that a whole lot of the Native Americans on the then-frontier -- just past the Mississipi, maybe just past the Alleghenies -- were living in literate farming assimilating towns by then, and that the railroad/newspaper magnates pushed the `wild Indian' stereotypes to support laws that transferred land to the railroads, and undercut the economy of the native settlers. Oh. Oh, think of the alternate history, in which midwestern ag develops much more slowly, because it's mostly done by civilizations with some memory of long-term weather trends.

#105 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 03:25 PM:

Beth, #77: Is the "tomatoes were thought to be poisonous for a long time" thing an urban legend?

#106 ::: praisegod barebones ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 03:25 PM:

PJ Evans @103.

Fair enough, but pide seem a lot closer to pizzas than either of them do to tortillas or naan bread: apart from the shape, it really does seem like a tomato free pizza - toppings are typically things like mushrooms, cheese, beef sausage and so on. And then there's the name - a sound-shift from d to zz seems like a reasonable possibility.

#107 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 03:30 PM:

Carrie S. #75: The Romans did not eat tomatos; they are a New World plant.

I had thought the Romans had tomatoes early as an ornamental, but believed they were poisonous. On the other hand, that came with a too-pat story involving Thomas Jefferson, and a couple of thousand years is plenty of time to notice that the fruit aren't killing birds, rats, etc. (They are in the nightshade family -- the other nightshades with edible parts are eggplant and potatoes.)

#108 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 03:31 PM:

"You say 'to-may-to' and I say 'to-mah-to'..."

#109 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 03:33 PM:

clew @104: WRT your (b), see the opening to white settlement and promotion to state hood of Oklahoma, previously known as "Indian territory", that is, the lands guaranteed to eastern tribes who "consented" to give up their lands and move west. Because those Indians couldn't possibly use the land as well as white people could, no matter how settled, educated, and properly organized (from a late 19th-early 20th century white perspective) they were.

Also, a few years later, see the Osage Indian murders, which are covered in the FBI's archives. Because those Indians couldn't possibly make wise use of the oil money they managed to negotiate for.

#110 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 03:45 PM:

Dave Harmon: I have never seen a source that indicates tomatoes in Europe before the Columbian exchange. I've read the thing about ornamental-and-believed-poisonous, but in reference to 16th Century England, not ancient Rome.

#111 ::: Clarentine ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 03:48 PM:

(Not Beth @77, but) Lee @105: tomato leaves and stems, like potato leaves and stems, are poisonous. The plants are members of the nightshade family. Fortunately, the fruit contains far less of the toxic ingredients, though is still known to cause poisoning in sensitive creatures (like dogs).

#112 ::: Clifton ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 03:53 PM:

Besides tomatoes, don't forget that hot chilis are definitely a New World thing.

That means a lot of the world cuisines we think of first when we think of hot food - Indian, Thai, Szechuan - could only have incorporated chilis into their cooking and farming after they appeared in trade from the New World.

And potatoes too - my Joy of Cooking refers to a statue to Sir. Walter Raleigh in some German town, gratefully erected in honor of his bringing the potato to Europe.

A lot of traditional European and Asian recipes must have been really new new NEW in the 1500s or 1600s when all these cool new ingredients started to appear.

#113 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 03:55 PM:

Our tour guide at the Colloseum (uh, Flavian Ampitheatre) mentioned that flat bread topped with oil and seasonings were sold as fast food.

Also: Collector wine glasses engraved with names of famous gladiators!

#114 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 03:58 PM:

Dave Luckett @ 55:
Then the story of how the Shah of Persia's gift of an elephant got to the court of Charlemagne.

That would be the Caliph's gift of an elephant, actually; there were no Shahs of Persia in Charlemagne's time.

Elliot Mason @ 72:
I suspect Franco, it seems a Francoish sort of thing to regularize spelling and phonics across a whole language while also imposing an official nationwide dialect ...

No, the tendency to regularize (and update) the spelling of Spanish goes back to the 18th Century, with the establishment of the Real Academia Española.
(Franco was interested in suppressing other languages, like Catalan and Basque.)

#115 ::: lorax ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 04:00 PM:

Dave Harmon @107:

I had thought the Romans had tomatoes early as an ornamental, but believed they were poisonous.

Nope. Like chilies (also a nightshade) and potatoes, they're originally a New World plant - eggplants are, IIRC, the only edible Old World member of the family.

#116 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 04:03 PM:

Many centuries ago, what amounted to whale ham was a staple of poor European coastal folks.

#117 ::: Older ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 04:05 PM:

abi, Can you help me? I made a comment last night that has still not posted. It contained no links, no trade names, I really have no idea what was wrong with it.

#118 ::: Mongoose ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 04:05 PM:

Before there were chillies in India, they used various types of pepper. There are still curries today that rely heavily on black pepper for their kick. There were also curry leaves, which aren't very hot at all, but they have an interesting spicy taste. Those, too, are still used.

#119 ::: Older ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 04:09 PM:

abi -- Never mind, it did too get through.

#120 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 04:51 PM:

Xopher @ 16:
I saw an article some years ago that claimed that the light-recording properties of silver nitrate were discovered in the Islamic world hundreds of years before they were known in the West. But they didn't have cameras.

But they did! The basic principle of the camera obscura goes back to ancient Greece (and also ancient China), and the most advanced medieval understanding -- for example, the realization that an entire image was being projected, not just a single light source -- was due to the work of Ibn al-Haytham in Egypt, ca. 1000 AD. (Chinese scholars seemed to have reached a similar level of understanding around roughly the same time.)

#121 ::: Cygnet ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 05:07 PM:

Carol Kimball @ 68 -- I've seen quite a bit of "rock art" in southern Utah. All the experts claim the meaning is unknown. My suspicion? At least some are the prehistoric version of "You Are Here" on a map. The random squiggly lines match up to topo maps with a reasonable degree of accuracy.

#122 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 05:30 PM:

Peter 114: Wait, so the Shah (Shaheh Shahan, the King of Kings) disappeared and was re-established later? Wasn't the Persian Emperor in Alexander's time called Shah in Persian?

ibid. 120: Rats! Then why don't we have photographs of the late Middle Ages, at least from the East? They had the cameras, they had the film...are you saying it's just that no one thought of putting them together?!?!?!?11sin²+cos²!

I gotta go back in time and just slap some people.

#123 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 05:44 PM:

lorax @ #115: eggplants are, IIRC, the only edible Old World member of the family.

As evidence for which, note that the Mandarin word for tomato is "barbarian eggplant".

#124 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 05:47 PM:

I am not sure if it is a Gorilla, because it is based on relatively new science rather than a rediscovery of something not talked about, but The Origins of the British: The New Prehistory of Britain by Stephen Oppenheimer deals with the way that genes flowed into Britain after the last Ice Age. And there are some Gorilla elements in that account.

First, the genetic differences between the Celts and non-Celts are very old, and they match with what can be expected from the different post-Ice-Age groups which repopulated northern Europe. The Celts originated in the area of Iberia and southern France, and moved up the Atlantic coast. The non-Celts came from the Balkans, via the Danube and the Rhine.

Second, a Gorilla element: read what Caesar wrote about the Gallic War, and he is quite clear that there was a linguistic split in Gaul. The Celts were in the south and west, and the Gauls of the north-east spoke a different language. It was these non-Celts who had the links to the tribes of SE England, and there are signs that they were essentially Germanic. The Anglo-Saxons were already here.

Third, there was another stream of population movement which went across Russia by the various river systems, bringing settlement to Scandinavia from the far south. The Norse traders who became the Rus were a return journey, and that stream also seems to have reached Scotland in pre-Roman times.

It's a fascinating story, and it's a little depressing how the reviews suggest the book is stodgy and over-technical.

#125 ::: Mycroft W ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 06:19 PM:

86 Sandy B: Getting to a more historically confirmed gorilla: The Duke of Burgundy was powerful enough for a couple centuries to refer to the King of France as "The Duke of Paris".

And here I thought the King of France, for hundreds of years, was referred by the French with the (correct) term of opprobrium "former Duke of Normandy". Of course, at that time the Duke and Duchess of Burgundy *were*, according to themselves at least, the King and Queen of (England and) France. So we may be speaking of the same thing...

#126 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 06:57 PM:

It's my understanding that chiles replaced whatever they'd used before for heat. (Long pepper was one of the ingredients that was replaced; it doesn't keep well, I hear.)

#127 ::: rea ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 07:00 PM:

"Wouldn't an ice pick be easier to carry as a concealed weapon?"

The account I read indicated that the ice axe belonged to Trotsky--the killer, who was a regular visitor to Trosky's house, was always searched for weapons before meeting Trotsky, and he seems to have grabbed a weapon of opportunity. A little googling will get you a picture of what is apparently the axe itself.

#128 ::: Jenny Islander ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 07:01 PM:

Chili-hot food was available in parts of medieval Europe before chiles were brought from the Americas. If you wanted your food hot hot HOT, you used long pepper, which provides all of the heat of chiles, but without the floral aftertaste. You could also use cinnamon, cassia, ginger, black pepper, and culinary lavender, which in small amounts provides a hint of the floral heat of chiles (use too much and it tastes like pine cleaner). Most recipes in medieval cookbooks I have read call for one or more of these, suggesting that a more complex flavor than mere heat was desirable.

I suspect, although I cannot prove, that the early chile-flavored recipes of the West were simply conversions of recipes that called for black or long pepper. The one-two punch of chile peppers reduced black pepper to the number 2 spot and kicked long pepper right out of Western cuisine. It probably didn't hurt that you can grow chiles in parts of Europe.

#129 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 07:16 PM:

Xopher @ 122:

Wait, so the Shah (Shaheh Shahan, the King of Kings) disappeared and was re-established later? Wasn't the Persian Emperor in Alexander's time called Shah in Persian?

Well, yes. The first set of "Shahs" (or "Shahanshah" in its more imperial form, as you point out) were the Achaemenids (starting with Cyrus around 550 BC), who were the ones overthrown by Alexander.

After that, you have as possible or definite candidates:

Parthians (3rd Century BC to 220 AD): Northeast Iranian in origin, called themselves "King of Kings" (though in Greek!), so you could perhaps call them "Shahs of Persia". Overthrown by the Sassanids.

Sassanids (220-561): Very deliberately used the title "Shahanshah", so they definitely qualify (they claimed that by overthrowing the "outsider" Parthians, they were restoring true Persian rule). Overthrown/conquered by the early Muslim Arabs.

At some point after the breakup of the Mongol Empire, some of the Turkish rulers of (parts of) Iran started including "Padishah" and even "Shahenshah" as titles, so you could possibly count them (e.g., the Aq Qoyunlu or "White Sheep" Turkomen, who ruled Iran from the mid-1400s to about 1500.)

Then you get the Savafids (early 1500s-1722), who definitely called themselves Shahs, and after this point it usually seems to be the case that whoever is ruling Iran makes sure to call themselves "Shah".

#130 ::: Niall McAuley ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 08:15 PM:

The Celts originated in the area of Iberia and southern France, and moved up the Atlantic coast. The non-Celts came from the Balkans, via the Danube and the Rhine.

People in Ireland (and Britain) certainly arrived up the coast from the direction of modern Spain as the ice melted, but these were not the Celts. This was the Mesolithic, 7000 BC.

I vaguely recall a TV show[*] DNA testing locals in the west of Ireland, and finding that the black hair/blue eyes Conan the Cimmerian/John Carter/Galway girl type is closely related to 3000 year old remains in the area, before the Celts ever arrived hereabouts.

[*] Ha ha! footnotes!

#131 ::: Allan Beatty ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 09:46 PM:

Well, that was easier than I thought. My other half finished the last round of revision to his book (mentioned in the political open thread). He took out sentences here and there but not enough in one chapter to change the page count. I gave it one last check to make sure he did not change any em dash back to a hyphen and a space. Now it has been sent off to the printer.

40% of the print run has been pre-sold by advertising on his Facebook page. (It sounds so much more impressive to say it that way than to give the actual numbers.)

#132 ::: Henry Troup ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 09:50 PM:

Roman pizza may have been similar to Provencal pissaladiere, which is olive oil stewed onions on yeast bread crust. Anchovies and black olives sometimes also added. I've made it, it was pretty good.

#133 ::: runeghost ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 10:02 PM:

This is a fascinating topic, so I'll delurk to toss out my absolute favorite little gorilla: the United States Navy had flying aircraft carriers back the early 1930's, decades before S.H.I.E.L.D. was even a glimmer in the minds of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. (Yes, they were lighter-than-air dirgibles, but that just makes them even more awesome.)

#134 ::: John M. Burt ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 10:44 PM:

I am fond of isochronisms: words which seem anachronistic, but are actually entirely correct.

Example: "He's as tall as a skyscraper!" [Not a tall building, but the highest sail on a clipper ship.]

#135 ::: Steve Smith ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 11:20 PM:

Sex: Before the Twentieth Century, people didn't have sex, except for procreation. Actually, they just didn't write about it, except indirectly. (I was rather popular in High School; my father was a Shakespeare scholar and I got to explain all the dirty jokes.)

I've heard that prior to the 20th century, female servants were expected to have sex with the master of the house and any male guests.

Food: If you don't refrigerate food properly, You Will Die. I like to tell people "Yes, that's why all our ancestors died in early childhood". Invariably, they nod sagely and agree.

Spices and spoiled meat: spoiled meat and the human digestive system react violently and very badly. Always have.

#136 ::: Steve Smith ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 11:26 PM:

Possibly the biggest one is the casual assumption that "primitive" people (the definition of "primitive" varies depending on who's talking) are/were stupid. The extreme form of this is the Ancient Astronaut belief -- they couldn't have *possibly* have done that stuff by themselves.

Looking objectively at history, our Honorable Ancestors were pretty clever, given what they had to work with. There are some big gaps -- European medicine was absolutely ghastly, for example -- but generally pretty good.

#137 ::: Carol Kimball ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 11:35 PM:

#135 ::: Steve Smith

[...] I've heard that prior to the 20th century, female servants were expected to have sex with the master of the house and any male guests.

There was a notorious double standard: the women were fair game for any upper-class fellow feeling frisky, while they were threatened with being turned out without a reference for even a hint of sexual behavior, much less getting pregnant.

#138 ::: Tim May ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2013, 11:56 PM:

Xopher @ 122:

Wasn't the Persian Emperor in Alexander's time called Shah in Persian?
To be pedantic, the Achaemenids called themselves xšayaθiya "king" and xšāyaθiya xšāyaθiyānām "king of kings", in Old Persian.

#139 ::: eric ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2013, 12:02 AM:

Not sure how historical this gorilla is, but...

The last few times $kid and I have watched the vortex from the bath water draining, it's started going one way, then stopped, reversed direction, and then stopped again and reversed back to the the original direction just as the water disappeared. This time, I watched the directions, CCW, CW, then CCW.

Classic but wrong explanations for the direction involve Coriolis forces and some relationship to the equator. I find it difficult to believe that my bath is really in a significantly rotational frame of reference, especially one that changes over the course of a couple minutes.

If only I remembered any of my undergraduate fluid mechanics...

#140 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2013, 12:24 AM:

Steve S., #136: ObSF: "Anthropology, sir. Wery good teacher. She said if we had to do it ourselves, we would learn that 'primitive' did not mean 'stupid'."
- Chekov, in Uhura's Song by Janet Kagan

#141 ::: Steve Smith ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2013, 12:53 AM:

Something that moderns simply Do Not Get is the huge role that servants played, pre WWI. From why "the butler did it" was funny to the social background of Nana* the nurse in "Peter Pan", it requires *a lot* of explaining ...

* Nana was a large dog.

#142 ::: SummerStorms ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2013, 01:12 AM:

Xopher @ 122: no one thought of putting them together?!?!?!?11sin²+cos²!

It's a good thing I wasn't drinking expensive red wine just now, as I think snorting that out through my nose would've caused tears of a different nature than the ones I got from the cheap stuff. Or at least would've caused rather more of them.

#143 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2013, 01:26 AM:

Heheheh. Every once in a while I win one.

#144 ::: Josh Berkus ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2013, 02:56 AM:

Praisegod #102:

Well, flatbread with cheese on it is a rather obvious and universal concept, so it was likely invented independantly in multiple places, and in some of them, multiple times. That being said, the origin of pizza-as-we-know-it was in Napoli (in the late 19th-cent), which would have had a fair amount of shipping trade with the Near East. The origin of pasta-as-we-know-it was also Napoli, where it was originally the food of a distinctive subculture of what was already a large city in the 16th century.

Which brings us to a Gorilla/misconception pairing: the presence of noodles in Europe back to Roman times. People just really like that Marco Polo story!

Lee #105:

It's fairly likely that many Europeans would have attempted to eat fresh tomatoes while underripe, and gotten horrible stomachaches thereby. After all, a ripe tomato seems squishy-rotten to people used to firmer fruit.

So, one more Gorilla:

Entire pagan nations and cities continued to exist in Europe until the 13th century, including some quite powerful, wealthy, and civilized ones in the Baltic.

Related to that: more Crusades, numerically, were against European heretics than ever went to the Holy Land. Everybody just thinks of the First, Second and Third Crusades.

#145 ::: pericat ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2013, 03:13 AM:

Xopher @92 - my Cambridge Latin Unit 1 series defines the 'thumbs-up/down' meanings as you have them.

(and now I'm up way too late)

#146 ::: Branko Collin ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2013, 03:43 AM:

What sometimes surprises me is how histories of countries in reference works start long before those countries came into being. In a way that makes sense, as you want to put the things that happened in a specific geographic area in an easy to find spot, but why then did the history of Russia start 45,000 years ago and that of the USSR in 1917?

It gets weirder with Italy and downright absurd with Israel, which according to Wikipedia can boast human occupation since milions of years. Makes you wonder when those Palestinians will go back to their own country.

#147 ::: Ingvar M ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2013, 05:25 AM:

praisegods barebones @ #102:

There were also quite a few people of a Nordic extraction running about down there (possible gorilla, a lot of Vikings did not go westwards, towards the British Isles, Ireland, Iceland, Greenland, Vineland and the east Atlantic coasts; but rather went east and south). To what extent they stayed and/or left children behind is, I believe, mostly unknown.

#148 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2013, 08:46 AM:

A gorilla that only really trips up USians: An awful lot of things we think of as "authentically" ethnic cuisine were invented here on these shores, sometimes through cross-pollination with other cultures (say, in rooming-houses among factory workers, or through Brooklyn neighbors sharing tips).

For example, the corned beef and cabbage that's universally offered for sale on St. Patrick's Day here (itself not a holiday that matters much in Ireland for anything but going to church) is unknown in Irelandfor the most part. They do it with pork. However, when Irish immigrants here were looking for a dead-cheap stewing cut of meat to use, their Jewish neighbors pointed out the benefits of a nice piece of brisket.

Or most USian 'Chinese' food, which is heavily modified for gwailo palates and preferences, often by Chinese cooks who originally came over to be railroad workers (always side-eye a Chinese restaurant in a town the railroad never came through; sometimes its contents are, um, really odd). Half the stuff we think of as normal components ofthe menu, they've never heard of if Beijing. I had the advantage, as a child, that my grandfather was friends with a lot of people from the consulate, so I got to go to dinner and be the 'cute precocious kid' there to entertain the wives while the men talked business over at the other end of the table. One such diplo-lady had the interest and kindness to teach me what 'good table manners' would look at her mother's table in the rural back-country, or at an expensive restaurant in Beijing -- boht very different fromeach other, but also from what I was raised to think of as 'polite'.

Likewise, a lot of Italian food in the US is really Italian-American food.

#149 ::: Anne Sheller ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2013, 09:02 AM:

Andrew @99: I would be interested in that book, but I'm not sure I can afford it. And now you have dibs on Carrie's copy, which if I'd known she had and wanted to give away I could have taken off her hands at Pennsic last. Oh, well, it's going to a good home.

Josh @144: I have eaten with great pleasure many an underripe tomato. Fried green tomatoes, anyone? Though I suppose raw and in quantity they might provoke gastric distress.

#150 ::: Andrew Wells ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2013, 09:12 AM:

Anne @149, if (as I think) you are in North America, it would make more sense for you to have it, as the postage would be (much?) cheaper to you than to me. If you & Carrie would like to email me to confirm, I will be happy to look for a copy on this side of the pond.

#151 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2013, 09:19 AM:

See The Fortune Cookie Chronicles for lots about the adventures of Chinese food around the world.

The chapter about trying to find General Tso's chicken in China is a hoot. General Tso is a national hero, but for being a general, not for a chicken dish-- that chicken dish was unknown in China, but I'm willing to bet a small amount of money that there are now attempts to recreate it as a result of the author telling people about it while trying to find it.

The American dish is apparently very un-Chinese. Anonymous blocks of chicken, heavy sweet sauce, broccoli, and possibly some other features I've forgotten.

An experiment with bringing British curry to India.

Are there any books that do an overview of cuisine outside its home country?

#152 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2013, 09:24 AM:

Cygnet #121: topgraphic lines? That's an insight you should definitely share with any local archeologists.

#153 ::: Anne Sheller ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2013, 09:50 AM:

Andrew @150: Yes, we're both in the US. Kind of you to offer, but since Carrie has offered it to you for the shipping cost it's not going to cost her any more than if I paid her the lower amount it would cost to send it to me. You've got the first claim as far as I'm concerned. Anyway, it's Carrie who has the deciding vote.

My e-address is annesheller at sciotowireless dot net, if either you or Carrie needs to discuss this with me privately.

#154 ::: Megpie71 ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2013, 09:51 AM:

Fun (marsupial prosimian) ones recently uncovered here in Australia: Indigenous Australian peoples were creating permanent shelters, making permanent inscribed maps of watercourses and what later became dreaming paths, and creating permanent art long before white Europeans had got past the stage of "just bang the rocks together, guys". Forty thousand years of history is gradually being uncovered (or rather, recognised) by predominantly white archaeologists and social scientists.

#155 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2013, 10:35 AM:

People don't just have some Neanderthal ancestry, they also have some Denisovian ancestry.

I suppose this implies that more branches might be discovered.

A lot of medical research isn't replicable.

#156 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2013, 10:55 AM:

On the SBS channel this evening, we had an Indian cook tasting curries that were conceived in Scotland by immigrants, using Scottish foods. One of them was curried haggis puffs. She pronounced them excellent - more "traditional" than most Indian curry now is, since it uses chili, but these were spiced with black pepper.

#157 ::: Tim May ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2013, 12:21 PM:

praisegod barebones @ #102

Laz is definitely a South Caucasian language (the same family as Georgian). It's closely related to Mingrelian - they're almost but not quite mutually intelligible - and linguists group them together under the name Zan.

Map of the South Caucasian languages at Wikipedia.

#158 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2013, 12:28 PM:

Nancy Lebovitz @155: Re. reproducibility, that's why diagnostic laboratories do blinded multi-laboratory tests periodically: catches if any of the laboratories is having problems (which can then be investigated).

#159 ::: guthrie ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2013, 12:38 PM:

Ohh, red heads and tartan!

When it comes to red hair, there was definitely a genetic study done a few years ago now which identified a mutation causing red hair as having orinated in west/ north west SCotland about 4 or 5,000 years ago. It subsequently spread through the population, hence the high incidences of red hair in that part of the world.

What confuses things is the existence of red haired jews, but according to someone I spoke to, their mutation for red hair is different from the Scottish one.
It turns out that there's several different mutations for red hair, so those from central europe may or may not have another mutation again; I'd have to go read up on it to find out.

As for tartan, the oldest British sample is the black and white checked Falkirk tartan, which is 3rd century AD, but then that's quite well known.

What is less well known and also rather amusing is that there are people who take Braveheart as being a realistic depiction of circa 1300 Scottish dress and habits, without realising that actually tartan is found in England and Spain and other places. There's pictures showing minstrels wearing tartan like fabrics from Spain, and even better, they've found several checked fabrics in London, see the Museum of London book on fabrics in the medieval period.
So tartan is a much more widely used and not exclusively scottish and was found in England at the time during which a lot of people think it was actually worn in Scotland!

#160 ::: Liz Coleman ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2013, 12:58 PM:

I'd heard that bog mummies tend to have red hair because the chemicals in the peat leach out the pigment.

#161 ::: SummerStorms ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2013, 01:57 PM:

Anne Sheller @149, with additional reference to Carrie S:

I see you mentioned Pennsic! I didn't make it there this year, but normally I always go. I would love to meet up with fellow Fluorospherians at the next one!

#162 ::: J. L. Mandelson ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2013, 02:11 PM:

For me, it was the uniform gray color of warships, ever since we switched from making them of wood to metal. And then I learned of them in flashy paint jobs.

#163 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2013, 02:19 PM:

Camouflage: I can't help but wonder if Iams chose this particular pair because they match so well.

#164 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2013, 05:33 PM:

Elliot Mason #72, Peter Erwin #114:

The Spanish Academy is noted for its descriptive approach, and for changing spelling to follow pronunciation and usage. They also have delegates from all(almost all?) the Spanish-speaking countries. The result is that Academy Spanish is quite close to regular Spanish.

What's surprising about Spanish is how readable older Spanish is. My teacher brought in El Cid in the original orthography (eleventh century!) and I could read every word. The changes in spelling were that minor.

#165 ::: Diatryma ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2013, 10:13 PM:

I loved my History of the Spanish Language class in college; we never chased down 'perro', which was my first job for the professor (I like languages that connect to each other in general) but everything was so interesting. Particularly debunking the Hapsburg Lip myth: it's not a lisp. The myth is that inbreeding led to a pronounced lower jaw, which led to a lisp that everyone at court and thus all of Spain immortalized because if the king says it, it must be the real language. But it's not a universal /s/ --> /th/ sound. It's only the /s/ that comes from C and Z.

#166 ::: Jenny Islander ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2013, 11:20 PM:

A pair of authors whose names and book I have unfortunately forgotten argue that "Atlantis was totally made up by Plato" is just as much of a gorilla as "Atlantis existed, and stuff went on there that is scientifically and/or historically impossible." Observing that archeologists have been able to map major incidents in the Odyssey onto the historical Mediterranean by thinking on a Bronze Age scale, these two authors apply the same method to Atlantis and point to a location near present-day Mount Spil in Turkey that is overlooked by a 30-foot relief carving of a goddess. There used to be a lake there. They connect this to classical mentions of a city called "Tantalis" in that region, that apparently was destroyed in an earthquake and flood.

As for all the Atlantean super-science and whatnot, and the name "Atlantis" instead of "Tantalis," the authors point out that Plato begins his account by claiming that priests in Egypt, of all places, would ever admit that there was a civilization before Heliopolis arose from the primordial waters. IOW, those parts were indeed made up.

This provides for an interesting interpretation of the Tantalus myth. These authors observe that Tantalus, Tantalis, and Atlas are names applied indiscriminately to cities, mountain ranges, giants, and hero-ancestors in a region east of the Mediterranean. This happens to be a region that is infamous for earthquakes. Tantalus the hero-ancestor/city-builder/city/mountain/giant pushes the boulder up the hill, and down it comes again.

#167 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2013, 12:12 AM:

It's Sisyphus who pushes the boulder up the hill. Tantalus is condemned to stand hungry and thirsty in pure water beneath trees laden with delicious fruit. When he tries to get some water, it recedes away from him; when he grasps at the fruit, it pulls out of reach.

It's tantalizing him.

I suppose it's just possible there may be versions of the story where Tantalus pushes the rock, but I don't think so. I think they committed serious crimes (feeding people their own children), so that may be the source of the confusion.

#168 ::: Jenny Islander ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2013, 12:20 AM:

'Mawdang. Another pretty theory gone west.

I should point out that the whole "Tantalus = boulder" thing was my goof-up. Everything before that was the other guys.

#169 ::: Bill Stewart ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2013, 02:32 AM:

Nancy Lebovitz @151 - a friend of mine claims that her great-grandfather's cook invented General Tso's Chicken. I don't remember the details, but it was around the 1930s, and her GGF was something like premier of the Nationalist government at some point before the Japanese invasion. I think the dish was named to honor the general (when somebody else important was visiting, not the general himself.) The GGF was also at some time a diplomat in Washington, but I think the dish was invented over in China.

#170 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2013, 02:52 AM:

Diatryma @165: I've never heard anybody come up with a theory for perro. But it's tantalizing to contemplate this: a common Czech word for dog is pes. So I'm wondering if both of those words could possibly have come from some other language that was indigenous in parts of Europe before -- well, just before because I certainly can't imagine exactly who that would be.

But the Slavs came kind of later to Bohemia than I had thought, and the Pargue City Museum identifies the people who lived there when the Slavs arrived only as "Celts," which is a pretty catch-all name, if you ask me.

#171 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2013, 06:05 AM:

Diatryma @ 165:
But it's not a universal /s/ --> /th/ sound. It's only the /s/ that comes from C and Z.

From my point of view, the really cool thing is that this is just the slightly unusual Castilian version of the general evolution of Classical Latin's "kay" and "kee" sounds, which were originally spelled "ce" and "ci", respectively. I believe the initial evolution was /k/ --> /ts/, which is why in Germany (and at least some East European countries) the standard way to pronounce the "c" in Latin "ce" and "ci" is with a /ts/ sound. And then in France and southern Spain it further evolved into an /s/ sound, while in northern Spain it turned into /th/ and Italy into /ch/. (There's an alternate argument that the initial evolution was /k/ --> /ch/, and then in Western Late Latin outside Italy /ch/ --> /ts/ and on from there.)

You can see this in the different ways "Cicero" is pronounced:
Classical Latin: /keekero/
German: /tseetsero/
Italian: /cheechero/
Castilian Spanish: /theethero/
French + Latin American Spanish[*]: /seesero/
(and of course the English pronunciation is borrowed from the French practice)

[*] and southern Spain, where most Spanish colonists of the Americas originated

#172 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2013, 07:20 AM:

So, a question about the original post and the nature of "historical gorillas"...
The gorilla video is about people failing to notice (or being more generally unaware of) things that are actually present, which kind of agrees with the first two examples (women warriors in actual history, people of color in medieval Europe). But I'd say the third example -- Heribert Illig's "Invented Middle Ages" theory -- is a different sort of beast: barking-mad pseudohistory.

So does "favorite historical gorillas" include "favorite demented crackpot theories about history"?

If, so I've got one: mathematician A.T. Fomenko's "New Chronology".

Illig wants to do away with about three centuries of history -- those between about 614 and 911 AD, making Charlemagne (for example) an invention of Emperor Otto I. But Fomenko is much more ambitious -- as far he's concerned, pretty much nothing prior to about 1000 AD ever really happened: everything that supposedly did is really just stuff invented by historians in the 1500s and 1600s, including various events and persons after 1000 AD duplicated and redated to earlier times. So "Jesus" was actually crucified around 1150 near Constantinople (and may have been based on a Byzantine Emperor, or Pope Gregory VII), Rome was only founded in 1380, the "Peloponnesian War" was actually fought in 14th Century Spain, "King Solomon of Israel" is really the Ottoman Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent, and so forth and so on. It's kind of a Monster Raving Looney version of history, really.

#173 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2013, 08:08 AM:

Peter Erwin @ 172... It's kind of a Monster Raving Looney version of history, really.

Somebody call the Doctor!

#174 ::: guthrie ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2013, 08:44 AM:

Pete ERwin #172 - obviously Fomenko has travelled here from another universe where history was broken the same way as has happened in a Terry Pratchett story. The monks did a bad job patching it up and he noticed.

#175 ::: Larkspur ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2013, 12:18 PM:

I am unsure if this is a gorilla or not, because if I am the only one who didn't know anything about it, it may be my own private gorilla. I recently read a fascinating book about Edo Japan called Just Enough: Lessons In Living Green From Traditional Japan. Prior to industrialization (like 200 years ago), Japanese society was very carefully structured to be "conservation-minded, waste-free, well-housed, well-fed and economically robust". (It could be ruthless, too: if you had a third child, it was often "sent back" - i.e. euthanized - as exceeding the necessary reproduction rate.)

The descriptions of how everything was re-used, how simply people lived even in close quarters in the city, how people devised ways of adapting to very little privacy, it's all interesting as heck. I knew that aboriginal peoples lived more sustainably that industrialized peoples, but to see sustainable methods in an urban setting was new to me. I mean, I knew that post-WWII Americans like me didn't invent recycling or conservationism, but I had no idea about how people lived in Edo Japan.

#176 ::: Anne Sheller ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2013, 12:51 PM:

SummerStorms @161: A couple of years ago we had an actual planned Gathering of Light at Mark Gaukler's booth. This year it was just me dropping in to visit Carrie at her camp. I had Tracie's phone number, but didn't get around to calling before I went up. Stopped by the harp gathering hoping to catch her there, but no luck.

Next year I won't be at the War, will be visiting family instead. Have fun if you make it.

#177 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2013, 01:43 PM:

LOLAM! I typed 'serious' when I meant 'similar'. Please read my comment above with that substitution, and it will make much more sense.

#178 ::: Sarah ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2013, 01:48 PM:

Peter Erwin @ #172

Out of curiosity, what does he think was happening before the year 1000? Stuff too boring to remember? Aliens?

#179 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2013, 02:08 PM:

As I understand it, they think they fudged the calendar to make it look like a lot more time went by than actually did. So it's not that aliens kidnapped everyone in 600 and returned them in 800 (making up those dates), it's that they wrote calendars that said 800 when it was really only 600 years after the putative date of the birth of Christ.

#180 ::: SummerStorms ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2013, 02:57 PM:

Anne Sheller @ 176: Crud, there was a Gathering planned and I managed to miss that it was happening? Rats, drat and argh.

Well, maybe any of us who do make it this coming year can get together, and with any luck it can become a regular thing so it'll happen again the next time you're at War.

I don't know where you're located, what Kingdom, etc. but at the moment I'm in the Midrealm, and my Barony is the Cleftlands. (I expect this to change sometime in 2014 as I'm trying to relocate to greener pastures.) If you or any of the other SCAdians reading this would like, feel free to drop me a line at anaofthelake (at) gmail (dot) com.

#181 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2013, 03:11 PM:

guthrie @ 174:

Hah -- I like that explanation.

Sarah @ 178:
Out of curiosity, what does he think was happening before the year 1000? Stuff too boring to remember? Aliens?

I have to admit I've only skimmed summaries of it; I think the idea is writing was invented only a thousand years ago, and all orthodox "history" prior to then is just copying and pasting with errors (or deliberate obfuscation) from the actual historical events of the last millenium. Thus, if I'm parsing the hints correctly, it was all "prehistory" up until about a thousand years ago.

So if you want aliens, you have to go looking in other crackpot pseudohistories, like that of Zecharia Sitchin. Regarding the latter, I don't think I can do any better than just quoting from Kenneth Hite's nifty "Ancient Astronaut Texas Steel Cage Death Match" essay (from his first Suppressed Transmission collection), which has a gallimaufry of ancient aliens messing around in history:

Sitchin calls [the aliens] Nefilim, known to the Mesopotamians as the Annunaki. These Nefilim hail from Nibiru, the twelfth planet of the Solar System, and to protect Nibiru’s atmosphere, they need to mine gold from the Earth. They set up the city of Eridu in 445,000 B.C. (!), breeding humans as slaves when the low-ranking Annunaki rebel. The Nefilim interbreed with humans, which causes great turmoil within the hierarchy -- one softhearted Annunakim warns the humans of a great flood caused by the close approach of Nibiru in 11,000 B.C. The Nefilim rebuild their space centers in 10,500 B.C., using the Pyramids as navigational beacons with a control center on Mt. Moriah (Jerusalem). Quarrels break out among the Nefilim as Set rebels against Osiris and Horus against Set, with the humans always angling for new power and advantages. Finally, at the end of a final great human proxy war, the Annunaki destroy the rebel capital of Sodom with nuclear weapons and withdraw in 2024 B.C. Cooool.
#182 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2013, 03:18 PM:

That sounds an awful lot like the behavior of the Goa'uld in Stargate: SG1. I wonder which one came first.

#183 ::: Anne Sheller ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2013, 04:12 PM:

SummerStorms @180: I'm about as far away from you as is possible to get within the state of Ohio. Portsmouth, on the Ohio river. The southern edge of the Barony of the Middle Marches.

#184 ::: Diatryma ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2013, 09:35 PM:

The interesting thing with 'perro' is that it has the erre, which is seen in Basque. So it probably came from something Basquelike.

One of my historical gorillas is Canada. In US history classes, colonies only matter if they're English-- you'll hear about St Augustine as the oldest city, but that's really it. It never occurred to me to ask why only some colonies seceded from England.

#185 ::: Norvin ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2013, 10:20 PM:

Like Spanish 'perro', the English word 'dog' also has an unknown etymology (the ordinary Germanic word would be 'hound').

#186 ::: Teka Lynn ::: (view all by) ::: October 11, 2013, 11:11 PM:

I spent a ridiculous amount of time one night trawling through Spanish dictionaries for a cognate of Portuguese "embora", a very useful, multi-purpose word for any number of contexts. Couldn't find it anywhere. ("Embuera"? Nope.)

Finally had the sense to check my big fat Portuguese dictionary. There is no direct Spanish cognate. "Embora" is a contraction of "Em boa hora", Shakespeareanly, "In good time."

#187 ::: Jenny Islander ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2013, 02:10 AM:

Argh. My previous post should read, " . . . that between the assumption that Plato invented Atlantis, and the assertion that Atlantis was a real city of super science, lies a gorilla."

#188 ::: Arete ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2013, 05:47 PM:

Throwing myself upon the good will and nature of all the language folk here, especially those with good Latin:

In world-building with my friend, we have a character - call him Auroch - who is the slave of another character - call him Capra. Auroch is both a favorite and a favored slave, and acts as Capra's "deputy", literally acting as Capra's voice and hand. Anything done by Auroch is viewed to be in the service and for the betterment of Capra. (Their relationship is hideously more complex than that, but [backstory].)

Another friend said there was a Roman slave title or word for what type of slave Auroch is. I've found "vilicus" (but Auroch isn't overseeing a rural villa, so I dunno), atriensis (which as far as I can tell changes depending on the era), epistates (I can't tell if this was for free(d)man or slaves), and ministerialis (which I'm not sure is period, or later Latin). Can someone tell me if I'm even looking in the right direction? Half the time, when explaining a word, the books start quoting more Latin, leaving me confuzzled.

#189 ::: Arete ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2013, 05:55 PM:

Reading back over that, I forgot that this wasn't an actual open thread, so I apologize for going completely off topic when there's another OT post to begin with.

#190 ::: Jordin ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2013, 06:39 PM:

I've thought for some years that the task of Sisyphus has been mis-recorded, and that what he was actually condemned to do was to push a cat off a tabletop.

#191 ::: Melissa Mead ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2013, 07:03 PM:

"The interesting thing with 'perro' is that it has the erre, which is seen in Basque. So it probably came from something Basquelike."

"Like Spanish 'perro', the English word 'dog' also has an unknown etymology (the ordinary Germanic word would be 'hound')."

So this is the mystery of the Hound of the Basquervilles?

#192 ::: Inquisitive Raven ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2013, 08:00 PM:


Sitchin was earlier by at least a couple of decades. Amazon link to his first book (That I know of anyway). You'll need to use the Look Inside feature to check the copyright date (1976) because the edition linked is only the most recent one, published in 2007.

Bill Stewart@169: The author of The Chinese Takeout Cookbook begs to differ. According to her, General Tso's Chicken was invented by a Hunan chef named Peng Chang-Kuei who fled to Taiwan in 1949 to escape the Communist revolution and devised the recipe during his exile there. It was introduced to the US by a couple of chefs from New York who ate at his restaurant in Taiwan.

May I pre-emptively offer the gnomes some of Diana Kuan's version of the recipe?

#193 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2013, 08:52 PM:

Arete @188: If it's not specifically a Roman setting I'd go with 'factotum', which is a good general term for what he's doing.

#194 ::: SummerStorms ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2013, 08:56 PM:

Xopher @ 182:

Actually, I think the Goa'uld storyline makes more sense.

#195 ::: Arete ::: (view all by) ::: October 12, 2013, 11:49 PM:

Elliott @193: Thank you! I'm sending the words to my friend to see if that's what she was thinking of... and yeah, not a Roman setting for the characters. It was just the world-building tickled the friend's memory.

#196 ::: Cygnet ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2013, 01:05 AM:

Dave @ 152 -- I have mentioned it to random archeologists, and had it soundly dismissed.

I should clarify that the squiggly lines correspond fairly well to waterways. They're not actually anything that resemble topo maps, but they do seem to indicate the general route and distances between point A and point B. Waterways would have been natural trade routes, so it would make sense for them to have signposts along the way telling the traders where the water was and the villages were ...

I'm specifically thinking of the Escalante river, plus a few of the other canyons that feed into the Glen Canyon/Escalante area.

The last archeologist I suggested this to (several years ago) said, essentially, that the local people would have known the area and would not have NEEDED maps. So why would they put maps on the walls? (For traders? Or the traders put them up?)

Oh, one of my favorite gorillas is that when white folks arrived in the Southwest US, it was an untamed, unspoiled, untouched-by-man wilderness, with a handful of Native Americans scratching out a subsistence living from whatever they could hunt or gather. Let's just say the vast meadows, scattered old growth trees, bubbling creeks, and prolific wildlife that early settlers encountered in this area were not entirely natural. There was a good bit of planned human intervention to create that lush, productive, wilderness.

#197 ::: Jenny Islander ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2013, 02:25 AM:

@Cygnet no. 195: I caught the last half of an interview on NPR with a member of a California tribe. He was standing in the midst of a "wild" oak forest in the foothills of a mountain range and pointing out the ancestral landmarks that delineated ownership/picking rights. IIRC he also showed how the local "natural" boulder formations had been fiddled with to create better microclimates for oak seedlings. In his opinion the hillside had probably first been managed for acorn production about the same time as the olive tree was being domesticated, and it had probably been in production more years than not. ISTR that the area he was standing in had been a freshly planted acorn grove when some government initiative or other had forced the local people to move out. Due to an agreement with the Forest Service, his tribe was moving back in to get the farm back into production.

The interviewer said, "You know, you've told me all this, and I believe you, but when I step back and take a look around my eyes still keep telling me I'm standing in a wilderness. Even though all these trees are the same age and species. I just keep assuming that I'm going to see a straight line or standardized spacing."

To which the acorn farmer replied cheerfully, "Oh, that's just ignorance."

#198 ::: Andrew Plotkin ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2013, 02:39 AM:

SummerStorms@194: "Actually, I think the Goa'uld storyline makes more sense."

Devlin and Emmerich took a random sampling of Sitchin's ideas, threw in some WW2 war-movie tropes that they thought were cool, and produced _Stargate_ the movie.

A different group of writers took _Stargate_ the movie and spent (what I'm sure was) a great deal of effort to construct a setting, background, and tech-magic rules for _Stargate: SG1_ the TV show. It must have been a great deal of effort because the show's setting *does* pretty well make sense, *and* it retcons quite large chunks of the movie into making sense, *and* it contradicts the movie in shockingly few places.

Neither Devlin, Emmerich, nor Sitchin get credit for that, though.

("Toynbee idea in Kubrick movie Stardisc resurrect dead on Planet Atlantis!")

#199 ::: TomB ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2013, 03:44 AM:

haggis pakora
bridie samosa
channa neeps
black pudding bhaji
saag crowdie paneer
venison tikka pasanda
cheese and mango pickle sandwiches

#200 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2013, 04:14 AM:

Jenny Islander @196:

I would love a link to that, if you still had it about.

When we were on vacation in the California/Nevada desert this summer, the kids and I found three groups of items: the shed skins of cicadas, obsidian flakes, and bullet shells. The first and third were near-ubiquitous. The middle item was rarer, because it's not obsidian country. (The nearest obsidian is a hundred miles away or more from where we were camped.)

And we got into classifications. The obsidian looks like it should be classed with the cicada skins: a natural item. But it's got distinct pressure flaking marks, and it was concentrated in a couple of quite small areas. So it really belongs with the shells. The instinct to class it wrongly is certainly one of the biggest gorillas in the popular view of the ecology of the Americas.

(I have some messy philosophical ideas about how much the three items are not all in one single bucket, but that's a post in the making.)

#201 ::: Andrew Wells ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2013, 06:23 AM:

It isn't really a gorilla, but this story about the Roman legacy in Algeria may be of sufficient interest in to people here to warrant the post.

#202 ::: guthrie ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2013, 07:40 AM:

Cygnet #196 - maybe drawings of the local waterways were useful for education, apportioning parts of them, or, the old archaeological standby, religious purposes! Certainly they don't have to be maps like modern ones.

#203 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2013, 09:32 AM:

Re: Acorn-farming; the east-coast mixed-species Darkling Woods that the New England settlers encountered (and learned to exploit) were also heavily planted and managed. We have been discovering recently that if you just let them alone you don't get anywhere NEAR the amount of productivity out of them (both fruit/nut-bearing trees, and trees that encourage good insects/birds/etc that make the other trees more productive) that the settlers 'found' 'just laying around' when they got there. Again, it was a heavily-human-managed landscape that didn't look like the Europeans expected a heavily-human-managed landscape to look, though they were familiar with hedgerow-ing and coppicing from England. Because so little of the natives' food production was from flat, cleared cropland (and that was mostly 'grow one year and let it cover over, grow it somewhere else next year'), the boundaries were amorphous enough that they were completely overlooked.

Nature Is Just Bountiful, y'all, and this New (uninhabited) World was designed by God to be a paradise!

Good info about all this (including bibliography) in 1491.

#204 ::: Pfusand ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2013, 10:56 AM:

Well, actually, Roger Williams (the one who founded Providence Plantations) did notice the husbanding of the woodlands (or had it brought to his attention by the Narragansetts). So he wrote to the Crown, and pointed out that the people of Massachusetts had therefore taken land that was under cultivation, and that the locals were entitled to compensation. The Crown then required their colonists to pay for the land they had taken.

(The people of "Plimouth and the Bay" already hated Roger Williams. This was just another reason.)

#205 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2013, 11:19 AM:

Cygnet #196: The last archeologist I suggested this to (several years ago) said, essentially, that the local people would have known the area and would not have NEEDED maps.

Oy gevalt! Oh right, because <sarcasm>Everyone knows "primitive tribes" keep everything in their Tribal Memory, after all, we hadn't given them paper yet, and... {insulting stuff how They Can't Do Anything} ... </sarcasm>

Hmm... By any chance, were all of those archaeologists male?

#206 ::: nerdycellist ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2013, 12:00 PM:

The two "gorillas" that have gotten me thinking about it more aren't quite proven facts, but are theories that make me start to question all the assumptions I've made about pre-history. The first I saw on some Discovery or NatGeo Channel program about the history of humans. They pinned the development of agriculture on women. While there's no proof of anything that early, why wouldn't it be women? In hunter/gatherer societies, I would imagine that the gatherers would eventually develop new efficiencies (as my resume says) and figure out how to grow things where they wanted them. And if women are assumed to be the gatherers...

The second was news that came out last week that judging by finger length, some of those ancient cave hand stencils were painted by women. Again, the statistical pool is small, and finger length only narrowly correlates to gender, but why not? There is as much evidence that they are all male as there is that they are all female, so why not a little bit of everyone?

#207 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2013, 12:09 PM:

I'm not sure this is a gorilla, but I seem to remember reading that dogs descended from the wolves who couldn't fit with their lupine packs. Would that make dogs the nerds of the wolf world?

#208 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2013, 12:35 PM:

Dave H., #205: When we were at Mesa Verde National Park in 2009, one of the exhibits at the museum there was a jumbled collection of beads described as a trader's wares. I took one look at that and said, "The people who came up with that were all men, weren't they?" Because a trader's wares wouldn't have been a jumble like that; they would have had more of each type of bead, and the different types would have been separated for easy handling. What I was looking at there was obviously a beader's stash -- a little of this and a little of that and a little of the other thing, all in one place to keep it from spreading out and taking over the living quarters! I did say that (rather emphatically) to the docent in charge, but I doubt anyone will have paid attention to what a fat middle-aged woman with no credentials thought about one of their exhibits.

#209 ::: Neil W ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2013, 12:43 PM:

#166 - As part of the promotion for the BBC Saturday evening family entertainment show Atlantis* they had a guest on a magazine show talking about the historical basis for Atlantis (not much) and made the extraordinary revelation that they thought some of the tales of it's destruction were based on the eruption of Thera. Which was revealed as though this most mainstream of Atlantean theories was a great breakthrough.

* Crete or Knossos would be a slightly better title

#210 ::: Steve with a book ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2013, 12:57 PM:

Back in the 1980s, I read in a British amateur radio magazine about an unlikely-sounding, but charming, notion (I think someone had just published a book pushing it): that ancient (pre-Roman?) European societies had managed to cut quartz crystals in such a way that they could make primitive, entirely-mechanical very-low-frequency radio transmitters and receivers. Bang the crystals together hard in the 'transmitter' and the similar crystals in the distant 'receiver' would tremble in response. Implausible; but quite a few societies over two thousand years ago had the chemicals to make a battery and the jewellery skills to make wire and cut quartz and fashion a primitive LC circuit and antenna. Shame they never bothered.

Going back to actual 'gorillas': almost every political decision in Western history was made by men who were slightly or very drunk. (British political memoirs frequently mention the author's feeling 'sleepy' during post-lunch Cabinet meetings.)

#211 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2013, 01:09 PM:

Andrew 198: Pity they didn't keep the Egyptologist on staff. One of the few ways the movie was better than the TV show was that in the movie they spoke real Egyptian (I could even find some of the words in my Middle Egyptian textbook).

One of the ways in which I wish they had contradicted the movie was in the Point of Origin thing. A whole lot of stupid (discussed at length here already, so I won't repeat it) could have been avoided if they'd just quietly forgotten about that.

#212 ::: Heather Rose Jones ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2013, 01:14 PM:

(Please forgive me for being several days behind in reading the thread.)

Cassy B. @63 (in reference to Chris Lawson @61) re: ancient roman "bikinis":

I honestly believed that the bikini (as a set of garments worn in public; not undergarments) was invented in 1946 (after the Bikini Atoll bomb tests).

Like many of the gorillas in this thread, the answer isn't quite as simple and straightforward as either the gorilla or anti-gorilla position stake out.

The exercising women depicted in the mosaics are highly unlikely to have been wearing "a set of garment worn in public; not undergarments" in the strictest sense. Keep in mind that in that general era men normally performed gymnasium exercises naked (gymno = naked). But people seeing a mosaic of naked men exercising are unlikely to come to the conclusion that nakedness was a common public state for the average man.

The "tube top"-like garment the women are depicted wearing is the strophium, definitely an undergarment (the functional equivalent of a bra). In classical Roman popular art, when you see a woman depicted with her torso stripped down to the strophium you are typically looking at erotic art, generally with an overt sex act depicted or imminent. That is, the usual semiotic context of a strophium is that of salacious undress (as opposed to depictions of complete female nudity which are not necessarily salacious in intent).

The best technical discussion of the strophium (structure, social context, depictions, etc.) I've ever run across is Emma J. Stafford's "Viewing and Obscuring the Female Breast: Glimpses of the ancient bra" in The Clothed Body in the Ancient World (ed. LIza Cleland, Mary Harlow, Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones, Oxbow Books, 2010 ISBN 978-1-84217-165-3)

The "bikini bottoms" are also discussed in Stafford, but here we also have at least a couple of surviving examples of the garment (in leather, although the vagaries of survival mean we have no idea whether that was the usual or a common material). I believe in that case, the context of the finds suggests an interpretation of an entertainment/performance context but I'd have to check my sources.

So regarding the Roman bikini girls:

* A depiction of typical public clothing of ordinary women for a specialized activity? Probably not.

* A deliberately eroticized depiction of typical undergarments of ordinary women normally worn only in a single-gender space for a specialized activity? Possibly. (At least for the strophium; there's no evidence I know of for the underpants as a normal women's garment in this time and place.)

* A deliberately eroticized depiction of "entertainers" (possibly prostitutes or slaves) involved in performance art for a primarily male audience? Even more likely.

#213 ::: Jenny Islander ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2013, 01:16 PM:

I used to deeply respect archaeologists as the Finders and Keepers of Lost Memories, until the summer I spent on a ranch near the eastern California border. The resident archaeologist showed us the "house rings" that "held down the flapping edges" of the stick-and-leather houses the people "lived" in. These were rings of boulders each about the size of several stacked-up couch cushions and roughly rounded, with a diameter of about 5 feet. So teenage me raised her hand and asked where the people slept, cooked, and kept their stuff. Archaeologist guy said condescendingly that the houses just looked small to our eyes and we mustn't assume and so on, to which I replied after a brief struggle with the lump in my throat (because he was an Authority and I mustn't contradict), "But--but look at the diameter of the rings. Only one person, or maybe one person and a baby, could curl up in there unless they slept on top of each other. So did they keep their stuff in pots outside and take the pots with them? Did they keep their stuff in the stone rings to keep out the coyotes and sleep outdoors? Where were the fires? And what did they do in winter?"

He mumbled something and wandered off. I was there for another week and a half and never did get an answer.

#214 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2013, 01:21 PM:

Heather Rose Jones @ 212... ancient roman "bikinis"

A funny thing happened on the way to the Forum?

#215 ::: Jenny Islander ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2013, 01:24 PM:

@Steve with a book no. 210: There's an interesting thought experiment. What kind of technology would be possible in a society that somehow never got the idea of concentrating and directing the force of combustion, but had free communication of ideas and enough wealth to support people who just dinked around for at least part of the day? Purely mechanical radio probably couldn't do more than semaphore at an extremely slow signal rate, but that would provide an advantage because it would be unaffected by darkness or bad weather. Someone pointed out that cameras and the technology for making a silver nitrate medium existed together for centuries before they were combined. What else might have been possible if circumstances had been different?

#216 ::: Cassy B. ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2013, 01:33 PM:

Heather Rose Jones @212, thank you VERY much for the information on strophiums (strophii? Sorry; Latin was discontinued in my high school the year before I started there). It's fascinating, truly.

(I *love* this place; I learn things!)

#217 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2013, 02:40 PM:

The development of the swimsuit in the 20th century is both warped and misrepresented by the cinema.

Briefly, there was a division between entertainment costumes and respectable costumes. A cinematic example would be the stereotypes saloon-girls in Westerns. And cinema was to some extent biased towards entertainment. There's some pretty striking instances before the Hays Code. That essentially erotic overlay can be seen in many silent movies.

Of course, comparing the USA and Europe, you had Jesephine Baker in Paris, with her bananas, which is several large cans of worms.

Consider Johnny Weissmuller, who went from a fairly well-covered Olympic swimmer to Tarzan of the Apes.

But in the 1930s the movies showed various ambiguous female swimsuits, which might have been two-piece, a tshirt and shorts, or could have been a more respectable one-piece. As long as there was no gap actually showing, you could get away with it. It's the Hays Code which encouraged evening dresses with a plunging back, and the use in the movies which made the style popular.

As an example from the silent days, a still from the Clara Bow movie Hula

And this pic shows Maureen O'Sullivan as Jane (+ Tarzan) which indicates some of the shift.

Anyway, it all means that movies are an unreliable guide to what people wore on the beach. It should, perhaps, be pointed out that the sky-clad witches depicted in The Wicker Man are a touch optimistic for a Scots summer.

#218 ::: MinaW ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2013, 02:43 PM:

#31 Paula Helm Murray and others

When I was a kid, used to watch Robin Hood (maybe?) and other historical TV shows with neighborhood girls. We were into horses - not that any of us had a horse, of course... And the horses in those old costume dramas were all quarter horses. (American breed, cow herding horse). We would point and hoot.

We didn't know costumes in those days.

But to TV studios, (and Hollywood?) a horse was apparently a horse.

#219 ::: Ian C. Racey ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2013, 02:46 PM:

Arete @188, Elliott Mason @193:

I wonder if the Latin word your friend was in fact "factotum", since it's so thoroughly Latin-looking a word. (Because it is Latin, though so far as I know the Romans never used it as a noun.) The other possibility that occurred to me was "major domus", root of "majordomo".

Cassy B @216: strophia, assuming the word is regular.

#220 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2013, 03:08 PM:

MinaW @ 218... When I was a kid, used to watch Robin Hood

Michael Praed, or Richard Greene?

#221 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2013, 03:09 PM:

MinaW @ 218... When I was a kid, used to watch Robin Hood

Michael Praed, or Richard Greene?

#222 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2013, 03:15 PM:

You can, though, see photos of normal bathing costume, and there are photos of knitting patterns for them. Wool swimsuits are probably suitable for some parts of the world, but getting them to stay in shape must have been interesting.

#223 ::: Carrie S ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2013, 04:12 PM:


Going by bacterium:bacteria, probably "strophia", assuming it's not an irregular word. "I" is the plural for words ending in "us".

#224 ::: Mongoose ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2013, 05:37 PM:

nerdycellist @ 206: I have a pet theory, which is completely unprovable one way or the other. I think the wheel was invented by a woman. With a bad back.

Consider. It's believed that early human women did a lot of squatting while they were grinding corn and other labour-intensive stationary tasks (I believe that there are still places where it's common, though I'm not absolutely certain of that). There would have been a lot of bad backs. So you're a Palaeolithic woman, your back's absolutely killing you this morning, and you need to go and fetch quite a lot of water from the river, which is downhill from here and therefore uphill coming back. You're not very happy.

It occurs to you that things tend to roll down hills. Maybe you've also seen, or heard of, blocks of stone being moved around on rollers. You start thinking, maybe there's a way to make something stay on top of a thing that rolls. If you can do that, you can put a box on top of your rolling thing and haul your water instead of carrying it, which will be a lot easier on your back. Perhaps if you had rollers with notches all the way round that were held by ropes... nope, that'd soon wear through the rope. Well, what if...? And after a little while, you'd hit on the idea of the fixed axle.

You might have to persuade someone else to actually build the thing, what with your back killing you and all. But once you've got your basic cart thing, you're away.

#225 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2013, 06:35 PM:

Serge @207: There's a big slapfight (in the most positive, collegial, we're-enjoying-this-a-lot sense) in the dog phylogeny people going on right now about exactly how you go wolf >> dog. Part of the problem is that while it's easy to tell a beagle's or golden retriever's (or even, say, a Roman coursing hound's) skull, bones, etc from a wolf's, when you go back far enough the anatomy gets really muddy and there's a lot of discussion about which changes happened 'first'. Then there's the "how many times were dogs domesticated, and from how many original species" argument, which I'm not getting into right now. :->

One interesting line of argument (and genetic exploration) with some good data related to it ties into the Russian fox-dog experiments. To summarize radically: if you select a breeding population of most canids for behavior -- and specifically to REDUCE aggression and fear-aggression behaviors -- what gets selected against is a big gloppy regulatory gene-complex that affects A LOT of things, including not only the brain chemistry that encourages the behavior in question, but also things like making ears floppy instead of standy, introducing spots to the coat (!!!), and shortening the face. Even if all you're specifically choosing is friendly critters that are less bitey aggressive stressed-out-by-people assholes, you GET critters that look 'more like dogs'.

Within a surprisingly few generations you can get something that looks very doggy.

A more speculative (but I still like his evidential supports) theory that's been erected in this region of Dog Studies involves looking at remains buried with, around, and in association with some very-early-agricultural humans. By the time you get a human skeleton buried with a canid skeleton at their feet you're CLEARLY dealing with companion animals (or, at least, hunting/herding helpers or town protection).

Then he studied modern middens and the canids that live on them (mostly random-breeding modern dogs), and came up with a great idea. The big conceptual leap towards dog domestication requires that some human look at a BIG SCARY MONSTER that eats their stock and attacks their kids, and think, "Hey, I bet if I hand-raised its babies I could make them friendlier". This is a big leap to take. Modern agriculturalist or herding societies living around wolves do not think it. However, if a population of wolves near an agricultural village was taking advantage of their midden as a source of easy calories, there would BE a selection pressure for at least a sub-population of wolves (possibly social outcasts from the main pack?) to become less human-aggressive ... because in modern midden packs, the dogs who can stand to get closer to the humans get first snatch at freshly-tossed-out waste.

So if our hypothetical midden-specialist pack did this for several generations (call it 10 years), they'd start looking distinctively non-wolfy, less threatening, and might not visually ping the farmers quite so strongly on the STOCK-EATING MONSTER scale. Modern-day midden dogs also learn to act endearing and generally charm the trash-hauling humans (to get first snatch, again).

Once you have a somewhat pre-domesticated midden-wolfish creature, with spotty coat and flopped-down ears, the mental leap towards "I bet if I raised its pups they could be my friends" becomes a much lower hurdle to cross. And when humans are controlling the breedings, domestication can progress much faster. Note: this is not a widely-held consensus "of course it's that way" theory among dog-studies scientists, but it's a respectable one and I like it.

#226 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2013, 08:13 PM:

Carrie S @223 -- very close to correct, and good enough for here (depends on whether the -us ending is second or fourth declension, and -um is only second, if my 40-year-old memory of Latin nouns is still reliable). The -um ending is neuter, in the nominative, and the plural goes to -a; there are exceptions. Language is messy.

#227 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2013, 08:40 PM:

Elliott Mason @ 225... this is not a widely-held consensus "of course it's that way" theory among dog-studies scientists, but it's a respectable one and I like it.

Thanks for the explanation. I rather like it too. By the way, I've been told that, if we took the various breeds of dogs and bred them all back together, we might wind up with something like the Basanji, which I understand is one of the oldest dog breeds around.

#228 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2013, 09:13 PM:

Serge Broom #227: I thought that the dingo represented what happens when you let dogs breed freely without human selection.

#229 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2013, 09:21 PM:

Dave Harmon @ 228... I may have heard about that, but I'm not sure. Elliott?

#230 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2013, 09:23 PM:

Basenjis aren't very smart, which might go with 'ancientish'.

#231 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2013, 09:47 PM:

Dave Harmon @228: It's complicated, and there are arguments. :-> I'm going to quote from Wikipedia here to give you sort of a consensus maybe-we-agree overview of the shape of the argument. There are links on actual Wikipedia explaining and expanding on what's below, but I didn't want to try to paraphrase. The part surrounded by double-square-brackets is my interjection:

The subdivision of Canidae into "foxes" and "true dogs" 
may not be in accordance with the actual relations; also, the 
taxonomic classification of several canines is disputed. 
Recent DNA analysis shows that Canini (dogs) and Vulpini 
(foxes) are valid clades (see phylogeny below). Molecular 
data imply a North American origin of living Canidae and an 
[[subsequent to that one! -- Elliott]] African origin of 
wolf-like canines (Canis, Cuon, and Lycaon).
Currently, the domestic dog is listed as a subspecies 
of Canis lupus, C. l. familiaris, and the dingo (also 
considered a domestic dog) as C. l. dingo, provisionally 
a separate subspecies from C. l. familiaris; the red wolf, 
eastern Canadian wolf, and Indian wolf are recognized as 
subspecies. Many sources list the domestic dog as Canis 
familiaris, but others, including the Smithsonian Institution 
and the American Society of Mammalogists, more precisely 
list it as a subspecies of C. l. familiaris; the red wolf, 
eastern Canadian wolf, and Indian wolf may or may not be 
separate species; in the past, the dingo has been variously 
classified as Canis dingo, Canis familiaris dingo and 
Canis lupus familiaris dingo.

Some scientists consider dingoes to be descended entirely from dogs brought by the ancestors of the Australian native population of humans (who for various reasons we know arrived via Polynesia, a very VERY long time ago by human-migration standards). Some argue for a pre-human-arrival native canid species in Australia, which either gave rise to dingoes (via de novo domestication) or interbred with the arriving dogs to create dingoes. Some of these arguments hinge on related academic slapfights over exactly HOW long ago humans came to Australia, and interpreting the prefossils (not old enough to be really fossilized all the way) of various mammalian remains that exist from wherever. Think 'the Clovis thing' only on a different continent and with a fraction the total number of sites to give data at all, if you know what the Clovis/pre-Clovis 'thing' is in the prehistory of the settlement of the Americas.

More detailed inside-baseball level analysis is available on Wikipedia's dingo page. There is also, for those willing to toss themselves headlong down the scientific-jargon rabbit hole, a very recent paper analysing strings of DNA information from dingo Y chromosomes (a lot has been done in the past on mitochondrial DNA, which is passed down the maternal line only; Y chromosomes track the male-line inheritance). The paper's info is consistent with a very small founding population of domesticated dogs fathering all tested dingoes' ancestors.

#232 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2013, 09:49 PM:

(pant, pant) That said, if you take a largeish sample of mutt and purebred dogs and let them breed as they like for multiple generations, you do tend to converge on a rangy midsized body type, with flopped short-triangular ears and a dappled/agouti yellowish coat, sometimes with spots.

Sufficiently large populations of cats random-breeding tend to converge on midgrey tabby.

#233 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2013, 09:58 PM:

Thanks, Elliott.

#234 ::: Cygnet ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2013, 10:31 PM:

Jenny Islander @ 215 -- most prehistoric homes that I've seen have been very, very tiny. I suspect they only slept in them to get out of bad weather, and they probably didn't have the issues with personal space we did. If you don't mind sleeping sardine fashion, you can fit quite a few people in a 4X6 room. Anyone too tall to fit would have just had to scrunch up a bit ...

However, they probably cooked, worked, ate, and played outside. Food would have been stored outside -- there's any number of ways they could have kept it safe from animals. (You really wouldn't want food in your house. It would be a good way to draw in rodents.)

#235 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2013, 10:34 PM:

Serge Broom @233: There's an alternate universe next door in which I became a practicing zoologist, and sometimes it's nice to stretch those muscles again. :->

(There's another where I became an architect, something else I was really serious about for a while ...)

#236 ::: Jenny Islander ::: (view all by) ::: October 13, 2013, 11:13 PM:

@Cygnet no. 294: Yes, but each round hut would have been 5 feet across at its widest part. So unless everybody slept curled up in a ball like an octopus, they couldn't get more than two people in there, and neither of them better have stiff joints. Also these were complete rings, so you had to climb over a boulder to even get in. After the first person lies down, where does the second person put his feet? Or head? These had to have been squatty little huts, if they were huts.

At the time I figured that they were actually supports for circular food drying racks or the remaining walls of aboveground food storage pits, the lids having been made of something organic, and the people slept in slightly larger brushwood huts or lean-tos that are now gone. But the guy wouldn't talk to me after that, so I couldn't ask him about it.

#237 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2013, 01:18 AM:

Elliott Mason #231: Thanks for the info!

#238 ::: janetl ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2013, 01:31 AM:

P J Evans @ 230: A friend of mine had a pack of Basenjis, and spoke of how smart they were. He got a breeding pair, and then ended up keeping an entire litter. One of his stories was that they were raiding the kitchen trash can, so he put a mouse trap on the lid to frighten them. He observed the young dogs (not quite puppies any more) waiting patiently, while mom carefully picked up the mouse trap along its edge with her teeth, and set it on the floor. Then they knocked over the can.

#239 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2013, 03:01 AM:

Not all roads marked on maps as "Roman Road" are Roman.

The example I know of is between North Kelsey and Caistor. It's straight, except for a double right-angle corner at the Caistor end. There was a Roman fort at Caistor, and there have been a few very small finds of Roman artefacts which line up pretty well, but there's no good evidence for a settlement around North Kelsey, it's a bad route for crossing the Ancholme valley, and the known settlements on the other side of the valley from Caistor, on Ermine Street, don't match up. Also, this road didn't exist before the Enclosure of North Kelsey, and is explicitly laid out in the Enclosure Acts which cover the "Moor", a tract of shared common land. And no trace of an ancient road was found when things such as water pipes were laid across the road.

But somebody in the Ordnance Survey marked those random Roman finds and saw a straight road and wrote down "Roman Road".

#240 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2013, 05:53 AM:

Elliott Mason @ 225:
So if our hypothetical midden-specialist pack did this for several generations (call it 10 years)

Probably several hundred generations; the Russian fox-breeding experiments were rather extreme examples of selective pressure: generally only the tamest fox pups of a given generation were allowed to breed the next generation. (Here's a quote from the American Scientist article by one of the researchers: "From the outset, Belyaev selected foxes for tameness and tameness alone, a criterion we have scrupulously followed. Selection is strict; in recent years, typically not more than 4 or 5 percent of male offspring and about 20 percent of female offspring have been allowed to breed.")

(I can imagine a more plausible case being wolves which start to specialize in raiding not one particular midden, but occasional middens here and there; in a region with somewhat denser, more stationary human populations, you'd have stronger pressure for this and more humans who might eventually try the "raise a pup" trick.)

#241 ::: Peter Erwin has apparently(?) been gnomed ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2013, 07:18 AM:

Since my post was in regard to the domestication-of-wolves issue... perhaps I can offer some tasty scraps from the midden heap?

#242 ::: Peter Erwin has apparently(?) been gnomes ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2013, 08:04 AM:

Jenny Islander @ 215:
Someone pointed out that cameras and the technology for making a silver nitrate medium existed together for centuries before they were combined.

A few thoughts:

1. Practical cameras use lenses in place of a traditional camera obscure's pinhole; the result is an image which is significantly brighter (and, if the lens is of reasonable quality, sharper as well); this doesn't seem to have come about until the 1500s.

2. I believe photographic emulsions (plates or film) use silver halides, not silver nitrate; the latter isn't actually very light sensitive, but is useful (in this context) primarily as a precursor to silver halides. (The first quasi-successful photographic process actually used bitumen instead of silver compounds, and was based partly on the technology of lithographs.)

3. Practical photography also requires at least on more step, which is some means of "fixing" the image: something which stops the process of exposure. Otherwise, every time you take your photograph out into the light to look at it, it gets darker... (This was the drawback to Thomas Wedgwood's early 19th Century experiments, which actually did use silver nitrate on paper or leather.)

So it's not quite a case of "They had both for centuries, why didn't they just combine them?"...

More generally, though, I think it comes down to a combination of technical capability (how easy is it to isolate or make a light-sensitive chemical?), availability of eduction, and, as you point out, the combination of "free communication of ideas and enough wealth to support people who just dinked around for at least part of the day."

When only a few alchemists know about the light-sensitive properties of a certain obscure chemical, and only a few philosophers and artists know about camerae obscurae, it's not very likely that the necessary combination of knowledge, capability, and interest will successfully come together. When there are lots of literate, educated people and affordable books that make it easier to learn these things (and journals that communicate the results of people's experiments), the likelihood goes up a lot.

#243 ::: Peter Erwin notices his name is getting long & strange ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2013, 08:09 AM:

Ah, the joys of Safari's auto-fill (combined with auto-correction turning "gnomed" into "gnomes")...

#244 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2013, 09:04 AM:

Jordin @ 190: I've thought for some years that the task of Sisyphus has been mis-recorded, and that what he was actually condemned to do was to push a cat off a tabletop.

I think that needs emending. Try this: condemned to do was to push a cat off a tabletop whichever piece of furniture the cat had decided to colonize.

#245 ::: Ellen ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2013, 09:47 AM:

One gorilla we still seem to have difficulty noticing here in North America - the real adventures of Christopher Columbus. The Oatmeal hits it out of the park again: He discovered the New World much like a meteorite discovered the dinosaurs.

Happy belated Bartolomé Day USians! And Happy Thanksgiving to the other Canadians hanging out here.

#246 ::: Ellen is visiting the gnomes ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2013, 10:28 AM:

Delighted to share some roast beef, home-made bread and pumpkin pie with our gnomish underlords.

#247 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2013, 03:55 PM:

Ellen @ 245: Bartolomé is certainly better than Columbus, but as is argued here, why not follow the lead of native peoples who are already reclaiming Columbus Day as Indigenous People’s Day?

(via Xopher on twitter)

#248 ::: Ellen ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2013, 07:41 PM:

heresiarch @247: Indeed! Were I to live in a country that celebrates Columbus day, reclaiming/reframing it as Indigenous People's Day would make much more sense.

There is already an International Day of the World's Indigenous People declared by the UN (Aug 9, now in its second decade of observance), of which I would have been completely oblivious but for looking it up now.

#249 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2013, 10:04 PM:

Berkeley, California went to "Indigenous Peoples Day" decades ago.

#250 ::: B. Durbin ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2013, 11:31 PM:

In most of the U.S., Columbus Day is basically summed up by, "oh, the Post Office isn't open today, is it?" I think it's been quietly dropped by most groups, including schools.

#251 ::: MinaW ::: (view all by) ::: October 16, 2013, 06:55 PM:

#65 Paul A, with reference to Isaac Asimov's Jewish mother anecdote, I was thinking that this story, while relevant to the anecdote, wasn't really relevant to this historical thread. And then I realized it is a gorilla, just a cultural not historical one.

Years ago, I knew a woman who told us that what she and her husband had most in common was their cultural background. She illustrated this by saying that when they met new people, their separately-formed judgements of them would be very similar when they compared impressions later.

That sounds reasonable from a couple; what surprised us was that she was New York Jewish, and he was from India, from a Hindu family.

The "cultural" background they had in common was that they each had a mother who followed the letter of the religion only, and a father who followed the spirit, not the letter.

We see the visible cultural differences but not the more subtle similarities, which are perhaps more profound.

#252 ::: MinaW ::: (view all by) ::: October 16, 2013, 07:00 PM:

#232, from Elliott Mason,
Sufficiently large populations of cats random-breeding tend to converge on midgrey tabby.

Some years ago, there was a highly publicized effort to breed spotted cats. They brought in genes from wild species, it was a big deal.

At the same time, somebody wondered what would happen if they crossed a Siamese and an Abyssinian (ticked-coat) cat. The answer, spotted.

Just like Darwin's crossing exotic varieties of pigeon, and getting the basic rock-pigeon color back.

#253 ::: MinaW ::: (view all by) ::: October 16, 2013, 07:16 PM:

One of my favorite gorillas is that our brains are smaller than those of early humans. Temple Grandin suggests that with the domestication of animals, we delegated some jobs to them (smelling things, in the case of dogs), and then it didn't matter if we lost part of that ability. IIRC the dogs also lost some brain size from wolves.

And who wrote, approximately, by a dog, "even roses are not what they supposes".

#254 ::: MinaW ::: (view all by) ::: October 16, 2013, 07:20 PM:

And from the notes to Sam Kean's The Violinist's Thumb, something relevant.

For whatever reason, the local judge took the case — centuries of literary criticism apparently fell under his jurisdiction — and, incredibly, sided with Fabyan. His decision concluded, "Francis Bacon is the author of the works so erroneously attributed to William Shakespeare." and he ordered the film producer to pay Fabyan $5,000 in damages.

Most scholars look on arguments against Shakespeare's authorship about as kindly as biologists do on theories of maternal impressions. But several U.S. Supreme Court justices, most recently in 2009, have also voiced opinions that Shakespeare could not have written his plays. The real lesson here is that lawyers apparently have different standards of truth and evidence than scientists and historians.

#255 ::: MinaW ::: (view all by) ::: October 16, 2013, 07:23 PM:


And from the notes to Sam Kean's The Violinist's Thumb, something relevant.

For whatever reason, the local judge took the case — centuries of literary criticism apparently fell under his jurisdiction — and, incredibly, sided with Fabyan. His decision concluded, "Francis Bacon is the author of the works so erroneously attributed to William Shakespeare." and he ordered the film producer to pay Fabyan $5,000 in damages.

Most scholars look on arguments against Shakespeare's authorship about as kindly as biologists do on theories of maternal impressions. But several U.S. Supreme Court justices, most recently in 2009, have also voiced opinions that Shakespeare could not have written his plays. The real lesson here is that lawyers apparently have different standards of truth and evidence than scientists and historians.

#256 ::: J Homes ::: (view all by) ::: October 16, 2013, 08:36 PM:

Mina W @253.

As I thought, G K Chesterton.

Full words here.

J Homes.

#257 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: October 16, 2013, 09:22 PM:

MinaW, #252: There are at least 3 recognized breeds of spotted cats that I know of -- Ocicats, Bengals, and Egyptian Maus -- and I don't believe any of them are wild outcrosses. And then there's our Loki, who's your basic silver spotted tabby (aka mutt-cat with good markings).

#258 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: October 17, 2013, 01:56 AM:

Savannah cats are a cross between domestic cats and servals.

#259 ::: Sica ::: (view all by) ::: October 17, 2013, 04:55 AM:

Bengals are hybridised with the Asian Leopard Cat (P. bengalensis) which is where the name for the domestic breed comes from. It's not connected to bengal tigers.

The immediate crossbreeds are mule type fertile. i.e. only the females but after 5 generations of breeding those back to domestic cats the males are fertile too. Most pet bengals sold these days are many generations of careful breeding of bengals but breeders still outcross sometimes back to the Asian Leopard Cat.

My personal bengal cat is I think 12 generations removed from the wild cat but since after 5 they stop mixing in non bengal domestic cats it's hard to say just how their dna is mixed exactly.

Ocicats and egyptian maus don't have any wild blood (or any wilder blood than is in normal domestic cats). The extra genes coming through from the asian leopard cat have proviced the bengal breeders with the opportunity to get some really spectacularly spotted cats, more so than with the ocicats and maus (although both are gorgeous too)

Show bengal cats

Egyptian Mau


The bengals are the only ones that can display the leopard like two toned spots which is a quality that's come through the wild cat genes.

Savannahs are less developed as a breed so far, the first few outcrosses are absolutely gorgeous but too close to a serval to be awesome pets for "normal" people.

#260 ::: MinaW ::: (view all by) ::: October 17, 2013, 08:03 PM:

J Holmes @ 256
Thank you! Something totally different came up when I googled.

I think what I had seen before had only the first and last verse. The others are quite different…

Serge Broom @ 221 Sorry, no idea. It was a long time ago.

Lee @ 257 Your Loki is beautiful. Wonder what ancestry? I used to think all grey tabbies looked alike.

Thanks, all, for cat info.

#261 ::: Cygnet ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2013, 01:41 AM:

Jenny Islander @ 236 -- ah, I didn't realize they were THAT small. I've seen circular walls for ancient homes in the Verde River valley that were about 8 foot in diameter. Aside from the difficulty of playing Tetris at bedtime to fit everyone in, a five foot circle would be hard to heat effectively. Too small of a fire would go out too easily. Too big of a fire would cook everyone inside.

Food storage would be a good guess. I'd observe that some big rocks might not stop a hungry bear, but they'd slow it down long enough for the camp dogs to raise the alarm and the occupants of the village to put a few arrows in it.

#262 ::: Sica ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2013, 07:00 AM:

I forgot to say that Loki is gorgeous, has he made you regret it yet naming him after a trickster god? :D

Anyway to carry on with the spotted cat subthread here's Nikita my bengal cat. Doesn't have as dramatic a coat as the show quality cats these days but she is a wonderful cat, very charismatic and fun to live with.

#263 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2013, 06:37 PM:

Jenny@236: in Skara Brae (Orkney, ~3KBCE) the rooms are much larger, but almost all have little slab boxes that investigators think the inhabitants actually slept in. Sleeping as we do loses significant heat; curling up saves some of it, or reduces the area of covering needed to stay warm. Not that this makes the resident correct, but ISTM that the offered theory isn't impossible. (Yes, winters on Orkney may be worse/longer than where you were -- but the "rooms" were under several feet of midden, which provided rather more insulation than a ring of stones in the open.)

#264 ::: Sandy B. ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2013, 09:11 PM:

Sleeping (e.g. @261): Speaking from an engineering and not historical perspective, piling a bunch of people into one bed helps with the heat-loss problem.

Domesticating dogs (e.g. @225): A friend of mine in India met a mercenary guard dog. They were picnicking and the dog kept hanging around them begging. They chased the dog off, and little grey monkeys dodged in and grabbed food... the dog came back and guarded them from LGM's in exchange for food.

Is it possible that a smart protodog made this, or a similar, bargain back in the day?

#265 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2013, 10:11 PM:

Let me just note that while Bengals are beautiful cats, they are not the cat you want if you want a cat that is not pretty relentless and single-minded about getting into things and rearranging the landscape to suit said car.

Twice today one of ours has shoved a sewing machine (weighing more than he does) off the table as it was in his way.

He is still alive at this time.

#266 ::: Henry Troup ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2013, 10:37 PM:

Fidelity @#265
A friend used to refer to his Bengal kitten as the "tiny terrorist". That kitten could jump from the floor to his shoulder, too. Impressive strength to weight ratio.

#267 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2013, 12:08 AM:

fidelio @265: that's not just Bengals. Our deaf white cat really enjoys throwing things onto the floor -- sometimes they turn into really interesting shapes, and the humans come and pay attention to her when she does this trick.

At 15, she's remarkably strong, and strong-willed.

#268 ::: PJ Evans ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2013, 12:30 AM:

My grandparents for a while had custody of a deaf white Persian. He liked to get up on the mantle and gently push things off, watching them fall. (He also liked to sit on the fence and drive the dog next door crazy. They had him on a leash and a line, so he couldn't go over the fence.)

#269 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2013, 12:43 AM:

MinaW, #260: Loki is one of a litter of 4 that we rescued from our back yard. His momcat is an agouti (we caught her too, had her spayed and released), and we're pretty sure his sire is the orange-tabby-and-white that she hangs out with. The others in the litter were a mostly-white, a dilute brindle tortie, and a lovely torbie-and-white. If you click thru from Loki's picture to the set "Cats", they are identified as Mr. Snarly, Catgirl, and Kitsune respectively.

Sica, #262: Occasionally. His (mostly affectionate) nickname is "Little God of Chaos". Also, Nikita is lovely!

Tom, #267: Around our place, that's called "gravity testing".

#270 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2013, 12:50 AM:

Oh, I forgot to mention that our white cat's name is Sheba. I frequently refer to her as Shiva instead.

#271 ::: Mongoose ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2013, 05:27 AM:

Superintelligent Tabby is coming up so often that I had better give him his name: he was called Minsky, after Marvin of that ilk. (His brother was Chomsky, and, alas, turned out to be embarrassingly misnamed. Let's just say there were two cats and two brains, and Minsky got them both.)

Anyway, he was another extremely strong cat. I had a small black kitten for a while, who had to be kept indoors at first. To stop him getting out through the cat flap, I had a friend nail a bit of wood over it. Minsky forced the bit of wood from the inside until the nails came out.

He really didn't like litter trays.

#272 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2013, 07:30 AM:

My (black, non-deaf) domestic shorthair tom also likes to push things off horizontal surfaces. His greatest achievement to date has been emptying a large bowl of cherries, one at a time, onto the dining room table and thence to the floor. He also likes to sit on my dresser and stare at me while pushing my stuff off. He's no longer allowed in the bedroom, and we don't put cherries on the dining room table either.

#273 ::: nerdycellist ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2013, 11:44 AM:

My mother's cat, an orange tabby named Julius, is partial to harassing her Nativity every Christmas. He frequently walks past it and knocks the baby Jesus off the mantle to the point where my mother has had to borrow from other Christian traditions and leave the baby Jesus out until the 25th just to avoid too much damage. Last year he began his campaign of terrorizing the Blessed Virgin Mary by gnawing on her halo. I bought her a beautifully carved in relief triptych in Poland so she could enjoy a Nativity scene without his predations, but she's afraid he'll decide to throw his weight behind it and knock the whole thing over. He doesn't seem to have any issues with knocking non-Nativity tchotchkes off the various surfaces in their house. He's just blasphemous I guess.

#274 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2013, 11:57 AM:

nerdycellist (273): My guess would be that it has something to do with the fact that the Nativity isn't up all the time. And/or the cat is possessive about the place where your mother puts it, for some reason.

#275 ::: Jenny Islander ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2013, 12:24 PM:

There's an intriguing book called At Day's Close that uncovers an entire pre-industrial night culture that we think we invented. The author cites studies of people experiencing pre-gaslight levels of illumination. They go to sleep fairly early in the evening, wake up naturally after 4 or 5 hours, spend an hour or three doing stuff, then go to sleep again. If you keep this in mind, otherwise puzzling references in primary sources become clear. People planned to get up for a while after their "first sleep." This was how monastic Rules could realistically call for midnight prayer centuries before the invention of chiming clocks. Fresh vegetables were available early in the morning in urban markets because people had brought them in on foot or by cart between their sleeps the night before, having a second sleep after setting up in the wee hours. Poachers plied their trade without going cuckoo from sleep deprivation because they knew they could wake up in the night without harm. Going to sleep relatively late in the evening and sleeping straight through eight hours is the brain's reaction to a light-saturated environment.

#276 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2013, 12:25 PM:

Has anyone asked Mike Godwin whether he's considered revising his well-known law to replace Hitler with cats?

#277 ::: Cadbury Moose ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2013, 06:56 PM:

John A Arkansawyer @ #276

No need: there's already a "Cats that look like Hitler" site.

#278 ::: pericat ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2013, 08:05 PM:

Jenny Islander @275, there was a paper somewhere online a couple of years ago that talked about first and second sleep patterns. Don't have the address or anything, but may be by the same person as your book. I remember it said that people used to go for strolls in the wee hours of the morning (in dressing gowns, I think?), and might visit with their neighbours while doing so. Weather permitting, of course.

#279 ::: TomB ::: (view all by) ::: October 20, 2013, 02:12 AM:

Going to sleep relatively late in the evening and sleeping straight through eight hours is the brain's reaction to a light-saturated environment.

Like it's always midsummer.

#280 ::: Nix ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2013, 11:46 AM:

MinaW@253, like a lot of Temple Grandin's speculations regarding animals, this seems unlikely to be right to me. Humans likely have a bad sense of smell because other primates have a bad sense of smell, because you don't need a sense of smell to hunt fruit, and genetic drift destroyed many of the scent-reception genes now they were no longer being selected for. (We can also see red, unlike most non-primates, for much the same reason: ripe fruit is red, thus seeing red is a valuable signal. It's not so important for humans as for other primates, so the ability is slowly decaying by genetic drift: hence red-green colourblindness.)

(Other Grandin speculations which I consider deeply implausible include her speculation that autistics are in some way 'closer to animals' and thus better at understanding them. No, just because you've focused on animal behaviour and got damn good at understanding it doesn't mean every autistic has: many of us are scared of animals because they're even harder to predict and even more irrational than humans.)

#281 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2013, 01:30 PM:

For folks who like Really Small Gorillas (chimpanzees, or possibly lemurs?) I would recommend the Fifth Report of the Record Commissioners of Boston, from 1880; it's a collection of little historical essays written in the 1850s, mostly correcting things "Everybody Knows" about Boston. I'm working through it slowly, but there are some delightful bits to it. I'd link to it on Project Gutenberg if I could find it, but I can't: Google Books has it here.

There is some truth to the rumor that I might be biased in thinking so, however, since the volume was edited by my great-grandfather William H. Whitmore.

#282 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2013, 08:23 PM:

Nix #280: Humans likely have a bad sense of smell because other primates have a bad sense of smell,

Heh, that qualifies as an evolutionary "gorilla"!

I've been thinking lately about Dr. Grandin and her ideas on animals, with a slightly different slant on her wrongness therein. Certainly, a lot (certainly not all) of spectrum folks are really good with animals, and prefer their company to humans. But yeah, not because we're "closer" to animals, but more because animals don't offer the social frustrations that humans do. Yeah, there are similarities in our perceptions, notably the failure/lack of certain filters, but those are almost coincidental, and not really as similar as they look at first glance.

Then too -- in my own case, I do find it easier to "read" animals than most humans,; that'spartly because my social-perception disabilities don't affect the lower-level ("animal level") signals as much, but also because I've learned the simpler repertoire of the species I see most. Even with humans, I can quickly see the lowest-level signals (hurt, fear, interest, affection) -- but humans often suppress those as part of social conditioning, which throws me off.¹ Of course humans aren't actually unique in that, either: I (sadly) didn't see when my late cat was hiding her developing cancer. As it turns out, cats are infamous for hiding when they're sick (probably a predator thing).

And on the flip side -- my dog Gracie is worse at reading humans (and possibly other dogs) than I am -- she tries to accost people who I can see want to be left alone. Her behavior is dominated by the point that her intellect and restraint are comparable to an early toddler (of affectionate but distractable temperament).² By comparison, my sister's dog is much smarter -- she (the dog) quickly adapts her behavior to individual dogs and people. Compare this video: The title and description are pitching "wonderful dog manages to make friends with the poor insensible Down's kid". To me, it looks like the dog is being pushy, insisting on playing with a kid who was happy enough just sitting together, but who's tolerant enough to eventually give the dog a bit of a hug anyway.

¹ I can usually figure out the subtler signals of social interaction eventually, but reaction time is socially significant. So is the distraction from trying to figure things out in mid-conversation.

² In my ongoing battle to keep her from eating "ground snacks", her advantages are that she can smell them from some distance, she's closer to them (countering her worse vision), and they matter more to her -- that is, I'm not putting as much energy into the contest as she is. My advantages (besides the leash) are that I can usually recognize her behavior when she's localizing a smell, and sometimes when she's preparing for a "food lunge". Unfortunately, those are both ambiguous, confusable with when she's looking for the "right place" to poop....

#283 ::: Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2013, 12:11 AM:

Tom Whitmore, #281: also has a copy of that book.

#284 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2013, 01:25 AM:

I'm happy with my physical copy (unfortuntely, not signed!), but thanks for the alternate reference!

#285 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2013, 01:19 PM:

Lee @269: Around our place, that's called "gravity testing".

"Yup, still works!" Well, you never know when it might fail, right?

Dave Harmon @282: As it turns out, cats are infamous for hiding when they're sick (probably a predator thing).

Actually, a prey thing, as preditors like to go for the weakest. Though it may just be a "wild animal" thing.

#286 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2013, 02:19 PM:

Illness in many animals manifests as "hiding" or "go away and leave me alone" behaviors, but it's not related to being predators or prey. When you're not feeling well, you don't want to be bothered by anything. Call it crankiness, if you like. Essentially, any major change in the routine behavior of the individual is an indication of potential illness.

#287 ::: Jenny Islander ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2013, 03:11 PM:

It's not as much of a gorilla as it used to be, but "no metal" still gets conflated with "crude and inadequate." Consider the exceedingly complex and precise craftsmanship required to create the Inuit/Inupiaq/Yup'ik/etc. suite of cold-weather gear, without which a person would die within minutes.

#288 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2013, 03:44 PM:

Nix @280 re. Temple Grandin, what I understood from reading her work isn't so much that people on the autistic spectrum are "closer" to animals as that they have some of the same traits regarding perception of objects/light & shade, thus her ability to realise what the animals are perceiving and focusing on - the details that most people don't see, because most neurotypical people tend to see the whole rather than focusing on the parts - but which (from what I've read) people on the autistic spectrum appear more likely to see (hence the tendency to sensory overload).

YMMV, and please correct any factual errors in this.

#289 ::: Benjamin Wolfe ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2013, 05:21 PM:

[Note: vision science nerdery - this is pretty close to what I'm getting a PhD in]

dcb @288 : There's a pretty extensive and ongoing debate in the vision research community on exactly this topic. I've bumped in to it a little (I've colleagues and friends who have more direct interests along these lines, but usually with higher-level visual features and stimuli; e.g., they're not interested in light/shadow, but rather in face perception or perceiving ensembles of stimuli [i.e., what's the mean emotion of this group of people]). My understanding is that there isn't a strong consensus on any of this yet - there's been more and more research on it in the last couple years (for example, the conference I went to back in May had an entire poster session on the effects of autism on various aspects of visual perception - this was, I believe, new at the conference this year). From what we know now, there are some differences, but I've not heard anything believable that they reflect low-level (brightness/shadow/motion/etc) differences; studies have found differences in high-level vision (face perception and other complex aspects of visual perception). No one is saying that there aren't differences, but they're not likely to be low-level at the level that Grandin's view would likely require.

The idea of seeing the whole vs. the sum of its parts isn't that dichotomous an idea; it's a major question in the field (given the limits of our visual input, how do we assemble a detailed mental representation of the visual world), but I don't know of anyone doing research who would argue that people with autism aren't capable of getting a global percept.

#290 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2013, 06:54 PM:

Benjamin Wolfe: Well, I can toss in some anecdata from observing my guinea pigs:

Guinea pig vision seems to emphasize (in order): motion, eyes, and green. I theorize that this is because seeing motion means somebody may be trying to eat you, seeing eyes may mean somebody's looking at you, with the intent of eating you, and green because, well: food.

It can take astonishingly tiny movements to startle a whole herd of guinea pigs into diving for cover. For example, if I'm sitting and reading, and have my hand up in between turning pages, and I just cock my hand slightly, this can provoke the mad dash.

Guinea pigs have a supernatural ability to suss out your field of view (including blindspots produced by intervening objects), and can thus make themselves virtually invisible. Likewise, if you're offering them a treat, you hold the treat between your eyes and theirs, otherwise they won't see it. People usually offer it by holding it down near the pig's eye level, like they would a dog. But the pig's not looking at your hand, she's looking at your eyes (to see if you're thinking about eating her).

Interestingly, guinea pigs don't use their vision when they're diving for cover: for that they depend on muscle memory from having compulsively run that route repeatedly while "playing." In fact, if you put an obstacle in their path between the time they've practiced it and the time they run to hide, they'll crash right into it. I presume this is because their visual attention is all on watching for motion and eyes.

And green: I've had guinea pigs more than once gazing longingly out the window at the GREEN of the tree outside, and other variations.

#291 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2013, 07:51 PM:

dcb #288: It's been a while since I read any of her books, but ISTR she does take it a little further. It does seem likely that neurotypicals don't attend to certain details that both animals and autistics find prominent, but again, I suspect this is largely an accidental similarity. I'm certainly distracted more than most people by motion and bright colors (peripheral vision from hell, I haz it), but I'm also similarly distracted by text (hyperlexia), and that's obviously different from animals.

#292 ::: Benjamin Wolfe ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2013, 02:39 AM:

I'll append another Vision Science Nerdery Warning here, because this is very much what I do, and I can bore people to tears on the topic. I'm ruminating on this at length because I don't usually get to talk shop on ML, and it's a cool topic to me.

Yes, this has resulted in me looking up a pile of papers and books online about guinea pig physiology and vision. I don't mind. I nerd out about this stuff for a living.

It turns out, in relation to Jacque's description at 290, that there's actually been some descriptive work done on guinea pig vision - this is really pretty surprising to me, because they're not one of the species that you commonly come across in the nonhuman literature (although people study chicken vision, so I'm not too surprised). I'd bet that there isn't much work on guinea pig vision because they're on the wrong side of the brain size / body size function. Guinea pigs do have some color vision, but they're dichromats (we're trichromats, as a general rule). Specifically, guinea pigs are protanopes; the work I found described S and M cones (peaking at 429 nm and 529 nm, respectively), but no L-cones, which means they're pretty much insensitive to anything much past 650nm (e.g., a pure red to a typical trichromat would appear black to a guinea pig). I can well believe that they're motion sensitive in the extreme - their visual acuity isn't particularly great, so they need some way to avoid becoming something's snack in the wild. There's precious little research on this; but the little that there is says that they're generally myopic (one study found an average myopia of +2.3 diopters in their sample), with middling acuity (2.7 cycles per degree; a good way to imagine this is to imagine your thumb at arm's length being one degree of visual angle; a guinea pig can't see more detail than it would take to draw three bands on the ball of your thumb). I'd bet that they can recognize some food objects close up, given the described myopia, but I'd wonder how much of that is scent-based rather than vision-based.

That said, I can well believe that they're wildly sensitive to motion - looking at the raw facts, they don't have particularly high-acuity visual systems, so there's got to be something that's allowed them to survive. A quick search didn't turn up anything on the details of their motion sensitivity; what I have found is that they've got the standard cellular package in visual cortex (columns and hypercolumns), so motion processing ought to come along with that - it's really easy to build a sensitive motion detection system given the early processing that they seem to have. I'd guess that rather than being really in to green (unless, Jacque, you've got trichromatic guinea pigs that are utterly unknown in the literature, which would be really cool), I'd guess they're attracted to the motion of the tree, rather than the color.

From Dave Harmon's comment, I'd call that a significant difference in visual attention - particularly in attentional filtering. Usually, visual attention gets divided into endogenous attention and exogenous attention, as well as covert (attending somewhere you aren't looking) and overt (attending and looking at the same location in space) attention; what you've described sounds like a difficulty in ignoring exogenous cues. I'd be curious what that means for how many objects you can attend to simultaneously; the usual rule is that most people who try multiple object tracking tasks (a decent measure of how many different things you can attend to at once; the task is track [x] moving items among [y] total after having the [x] items cued) is that they can track about four items.

Hyperlexia seems to be an entirely different kettle of fish from anything I've bumped in to; but my research and studies have centered on more fundamental aspects of vision (the study of reading is a different and relatively seperate subfield; reading has been heavily studied for over a century - I've read some of the early work as part of my study of the earliest eyetracking methods), but a quick poke at the online databases says that there isn't much consensus on the topic from a vision science point of view. I'd wonder, given other work I've read, if it reflects a reduction in visual crowding - Dave Harmon, you described it as "peripheral vision from hell" - visual crowding is essentially a perceptual simplification of how the visual system represents the visual periphery, and I'd wonder if diminishing visual crowding, particularly for lexical stimuli, might be an underlying mechanism for hyperlexia. Just a wild, late-night thought. Kind of want to ask a couple of faculty members who study lexical crowding the next time I see them if they buy this idea...

#293 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2013, 08:48 AM:

I've often had opticians give me a funny look when I say, "I need frames with the largest lenses I can get, or anyway shaped so I can't see around the edges: having uncorrected blurriness in my peripheral vision drives me up a wall." I wonder if they visually-process differently, such that tiny fields of corrected vision (with vast seas of unseeable crap around them) just seem normal and desirable to them? I've always had a wide peripheral-vision-attentiveness area, or at least my family always found it oddly large.

#294 ::: Carol Kimball ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2013, 09:20 AM:

Elliott Mason re: large lenses

Me, too. I want more than a tiny area of clarity, whether or not it's fashion-correct this season.

#295 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2013, 09:44 AM:

I have glasses with fairly small lenses, but I don't mind it at all--in fact I mind it less than the infuriating thing where the lenses are large enough that I get reflections of things that are happening behind me.

I've had glasses since the age of roughly 13, which might have something to do with it; at this point it's just ingrained in me that I'll have to move my head to clearly see something I notice in my peripheral vision.

#296 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2013, 10:18 AM:

Carrie S: I got glasses at 16, when large lenses were normal; the gap that drives me maddest is the one between the bottom of the glasses and my cheekbones.

#297 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2013, 10:27 AM:

Elliott: My first glasses had big lenses too--this was the late 80s, big was in. :) My current ones are small, rectangular, and rimless, and I love them unreasonably.

The bottom gap doesn't bother me at all, though my vision is good enough that anything likely to be visible in that gap will be sufficiently clear anyway; I can, for example, easily read the keys on my keyboard with uncorrected vision. I'm actually pretty good out to about 3 feet, but it drops off *quickly* after that.

#298 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2013, 10:28 AM:

I've worn glasses for years and used to have a bit of a preference for larger lenses but didn't care strongly. Then, about 5 years ago, I began to need progressive lenses. For those, I need large lenses, period.

#299 ::: PJ Evans ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2013, 10:50 AM:

I like larger lenses, too - the current pair is large enough that the uncorrected-peripheral area is actually out far enough to not bother me.

#300 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2013, 11:26 AM:

Ah. Well, my proper focus-point for my good eye is less than a foot in front of my face, so walking around out in the world, for example, I can see blurry ground and things somewhat in front of me, with small lenses.

#301 ::: eliddell ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2013, 12:08 PM:

I'm another preferrer of large lenses—my current set are around the size that was common in the 80s, with decent peripheral coverage. I've been wearing glasses since I was six, and I'm nearsighted enough these days that things start to blur in less than a foot without them.

From some remarks made to me by a couple of optometrists and technicians working for same, I get the impression that some people complain about the weight of the larger lenses, something that would never have occurred to me on my own. I suspect that people who complain about this sort of thing also have better uncorrected visual acuity than I do.

#302 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2013, 12:09 PM:

I have progressive bifocals, and the strip of lens that's the right focal length for computer work is so uselessly narrow that I have to take my glasses off to use the computer. I asked at my last eye exam if I could have a pair of single-vision lenses of that focal length made up in addition to my bifocals, and the optometrist refused to do it. So I just kept my old glasses. Prescription hasn't changed much and the cheapest glasses I could get were going to be well over $300 even with insurance, so to hell with it.

#303 ::: Jenny Islander ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2013, 12:10 PM:

That brings up another gorilla: the possibly enormous effect eyeglasses had on Western culture. The invention of eyeglasses got maybe a passing mention in a caption under a picture in history class when I was in school. Their implications were well understood at the time of their invention, however; within 20 years, Giordano da Rivalto was preaching about how awesome they were. Assorted magnifiers had been known before this time, but eyeglasses could be produced more quickly and they were cheap enough that a prosperous artisan could buy a pair. Also, previous magnifiers generally had to be laid right on the object to be magnified, which restricted their use mostly to reading, but eyeglasses magnified everything in your normal field of vision. So not only scholars, but also artists and artisans, could continue their working lives for decades longer than they might have done.

I don't think it's a coincidence that the spread of eyeglasses happened during the beginnings of the Renaissance.

#304 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2013, 12:15 PM:

Lila, if you know the correct prescription for the lenses that allow computer work, may I suggest that you get a pair from Zenni Optical? They are a dot-com.

My last pair of glasses from them cost $12--including shipping. Now, those were bare-bones plain, no anti-scratch coatings or anything, but if all you want is a pair of computer glasses...

#305 ::: PJ Evans ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2013, 12:23 PM:

Getting a pair just for computer work - call them 'reading glasses' - shouldn't be a problem. Your optician is wrong.

I did that when I was getting to bifocal stage. Now I just have the progressives (for indoor/night) and regular bifocals in sunglasses (because the dark tint helps mask the edge of the close lens). I still have to take my glasses off to see really small stuff, and I have Windows set to 'large text'.

#306 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2013, 12:31 PM:

Carrie: if I'd had that information, I wouldn't have needed to ask the optometrist.

I have been to Zenni, just out of curiosity, but it seems that even the prescription I do have has missing information, so even for my bifocal prescription I can't order glasses independently.

[Will spare all the rant about U.S. health care and insurance.]

I suppose eventually I'll find a reasonable optometrist. I went to this one because the previous one (actually an ophthalmologist) kept putting his hands on my knees and making flirtatious remarks about my "Confederate Blue" eyes. No witnesses, of course. Have NEVER had any other health care professional behave anything like that in my 5 decades.

#307 ::: Cassy B. ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2013, 12:34 PM:

eliddell @301, I just got new glasses. I told them I wanted big lenses; they were able to find me what I'd consider moderate-sized glasses, but the fashion is for small. They warned me that the edges would be unsightly-thick and they'd weigh a lot; I looked at them blankly and told them that I was old enough that I remember GLASS lenses that deserved the moniker "coke-bottle". And I didn't care how unsightly the edges were; I cared that I could SEE. Seeing, not being seen, was my goal. I got blank looks in return...

#308 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2013, 12:42 PM:

I'm sorry, Lila, I read "refused to make them up" as not giving you the glasses, not the prescription. I wonder if it would be possible to take your current glasses to an eye doctor and say "What is the prescription of this spot?" I don't know enough about optics to know if that would work; anyone got a clue?

#309 ::: Sarah ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2013, 12:47 PM:

Sort-of related:

Up until now I'd assumed the near-total lack of peripheral vision frequently demonstrated by characters in movies was a dramatic convention along the lines of "bad guys can't shoot straight, at least not when it's the hero they're aiming at."

Based on Elliot's experience with the optometrists, I'm now wondering if a lot of people really do either lack peripheral vision or tune it out. Certainly, now that I come to think of it, I've quite inadvertently startled a lot of people over the years by assuming my presence was obvious to them when it wasn't.

#310 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2013, 12:51 PM:

Benjamin Wolfe @289: Possible poor communication: I wasn't saying that people with autism "aren't capable of getting a global percept" rather that they might be more likely to see the parts - which neurotypical people don't consciously see - so most people consciously see just the whole, while autistic people might see the whole AND the parts - and hey, if there are 100 parts and only one whole, that's 101 things to process rather than one - which fits with what Dave Harmon says @291.

Lila: sympathies for the problems with the optometrist. Re. glasses just for computer work (reading glasses) how about a cheap off-the-shelf pair bought at e.g. a pharmacist - take a book along, try a few pairs on while holding the book about computer screen position... (I've even seen them in 99p stores(!))

Now I'm in my mid-40s I'm expecting to need glasses for close-up stuff in the next few years unless I'm really lucky (last exam I think I was told they were 0.25 out, too little to bother getting a prescription pair, but to go buy a pair of off-the-shelf glasses if I started to feel any eye strain).

#311 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2013, 01:14 PM:

Elliott, #293: Very likely we just pay less attention to what's in our extreme peripheral vision. Which is not by any means the same thing as "normal and desirable" -- the description I would use is "tolerable". It's something I can live with, even though it's less than ideal. Rather like the climate in Houston. :-)

I have the opposite problem; no matter how much I may like the field of vision, owl-eye lenses are both physically uncomfortable and wildly unflattering to me, and it's been very difficult for me to find something small enough until just recently; this is one of the reasons I've gone back to wire-rims for my last couple of frames.

This past time, I ran into a different issue. Since I have both very strong myopia and age-related presbyopia (which, contrary to what I used to think, do NOT cancel each other out!), I've been in progressive bifocals for several years now. This means that I have to have at least 50mm in the vertical axis for the progression to work properly, and also should not have really wide lenses to prevent the outer edges from becoming too thick. Guess what the current fashion trend is? "Ugly Betty" frames which are both extremely wide and extremely shallow. And ugly. Oy.

Carrie, #295: That last bit could apply to me as well; I've had glasses since I started kindergarten, which is when someone finally noticed that I was nearsighted.

eliddell, #301: The (relatively) new hyper-refractive plastics have been a godsend to me. Without them, I have the canonical "Coke-bottle" lenses, a problem that gets drastically worse the larger the lens gets. With them, my glasses look no different from anyone else's, and are light enough to sit comfortably on my face.

Carrie, #304: My partner buys all his glasses from one of the cheap online sites. I don't dare, because I have to try on frames to see if they're comfortable. Also, he can switch back and forth between old and new prescriptions with no trouble at all. It takes me 5 to 7 days to adjust to a new prescription, after which the old one is useless and I end up donating the old glasses to one of those programs that provide glasses for poor people.

#312 ::: Lee is visiting the gnomes ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2013, 01:16 PM:

Long post, probably a punctuation issue. I have Chile y Limon Pringles...

#313 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2013, 01:20 PM:

Lila @ 306

When I had a pair of glasses break while I was traveling, LensCrafters was able to put the lenses on a little machine and identify the prescription.

#314 ::: PJ Evans ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2013, 01:35 PM:

Some doctors want you to come back in with the new glasses so they can make sure the prescription was done correctly (opticians do sometimes get things reversed - it happened to my mother once). And yeah, little gadget - but plastic lenses have the base value right in the plastic, you can see it if you hold the lens at the correct angle.

#315 ::: GlendaP ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2013, 01:44 PM:

Back in the '80s I ran into the problem of not being able to get my prescription for certain frames because the lens blanks weren't thick enough. Even the ones I did get ended up resting on my cheeks as much as my nose. I'm glad those huge frames went out of style, but I've never been able to understand the tiny ones. I definitely prefer more rather than less.

#316 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2013, 01:50 PM:

Another large lens wearer here. I have good peripheral vision and having a fuzzy area anywhere in my field of vision annoys me. I love my progressive lenses.

Re: the gap at the bottom of the frame -- if my lenses are too small, I fall UP stairs.

I always go to the men's frames, and as close to an aviator lens as I can get. I have sworn off designer frames, they break within six to nine months. The economy men's frames seem to be built of sturdier stuff.

I get my eye exams and frames at the Opthalmology Clinic at Ohio State. The people there listen when I tell them what I need.

#317 ::: Benjamin Wolfe ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2013, 02:54 PM:

I'm in lab right now, and up to my eyeballs (appropriately) in analyzing eyetracking data, but Elliott Mason's question at 293 "I wonder if they visually-process differently, such that tiny fields of corrected vision (with vast seas of unseeable crap around them)" is one that my colleagues and I have been considering quite recently. My Amazing Girlfriend has been running a study that might actually speak to that, or at the very least, intersects with portions of that question in interesting ways. My current theory is that the stronger the correction you require, therefore the greater the difference between corrected and uncorrected vision, the greater the difference you'd see between the corrected region and the uncorrected region. There's been evidence in nonhuman models if you correct one eye's input but leave the other uncorrected that there are meaningful changes in the cortex those eyes project to respectively, so I wouldn't be surprised to find out that the same applies for humans. I'd bet the effect would be stronger if strong correction was required in childhood, rather than adulthood, but the effect probably exists for basic perception and visual attention, if the correction is strong enough. I've had the idea kicking around my head for a few years that if you've got a limited field of correction (from, say, the current fashion for narrow-frame glasses), you might show differences in visual attention in the region of your visual field where you don't have a corrected percept. This entire line of reasoning doesn't really take into account the differences in acuity as you get further and further out in the visual periphery; while our perception is that we see the world with roughly even acuity throughout the visual field, the anatomical reality is that the input gets worse the further away from the fovea you get, and our percept of a detailed world is constructed by our visual cortex, rather than reflecting what we're getting as direct visual input at any given time.

I really want to discuss the question that dcb brought up at #310, but I think that'll have to wait until after lunch. I know quite a few people here (at Berkeley) who study variants of that question, and it's a bit more complicated than I thought it was at first blush.

#318 ::: Mongoose ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2013, 03:24 PM:

I'm another fan of big lenses. I want as much of the world as possible to be in focus.

Having said that, my peripheral vision is good, at least in the sense that I rapidly notice movement in my peripheral vision field and will then turn my head to get it into the line of my glasses.

I put this down to many years of road cycling (before my wrists got into too bad a state to continue). When you're on a bike surrounded by larger, faster, heavier vehicles with internal combustion engines, you need 360-degree perception, or at least the best approximation to it that you can muster. Hence I got very good at detecting anything untoward happening at the edge of my visual field. I also learned to rely heavily on my hearing for stuff going on out of sight; again, if my ears alerted me, I'd turn and look.

This is why I cannot understand why anyone cycles in headphones. I mean, mileage varies and all that, but it would totally freak me out if I couldn't use my ears.

#319 ::: Benjamin Wolfe ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2013, 04:02 PM:

Well, there are ways to give you a 360º field of view, but they look astonishingly weird (I'm imagining some sort of strange lens assembly with a very wide field of view mounted above the cyclist). Unless you've got a couple weeks to adapt first, this is a wildly bad idea.

That said, you can adapt to having your visual input flipped 180º. It just takes a week, and the first couple of days are vomitous.

#320 ::: Elliott Mason is having posting problems ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2013, 04:49 PM:

It takes a loooong time thinking about it after I press the 'post' button, and then gives me this error:

Internal Server Error

The server encountered an internal error or misconfiguration and was unable to complete your request.

Please contact the server administrator, and inform them of the time the error occurred, and anything you might have done that may have caused the error.

More information about this error may be available in the server error log.

Additionally, a 404 Not Found error was encountered while trying to use an ErrorDocument to handle the request.

I got it approximately 1min ago.

#321 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2013, 04:52 PM:

Benjamin Wolfe @317: Ooo! I'll get to learn stuff. Great. I'll wait.

#322 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2013, 05:12 PM:

Carrie S. @308: Ordering glasses from Zenni requires, among other things, pupillary distance, which is not something that's usually put on a scrip, and if you ask the optometrist for it they'll know it's because you want to buy your glasses elsewhere. The prescription itself mostly just specifies the characteristics of the lenses; necessary information about what kind of frames are needed (like whether they'll be wide enough/too wide for your skull -- usually done by trying on, but it can be measured) and how to position the lenses IN the frames (like pupillary distance) are usually measured on-the-spot by the people making your glasses, who may or may not be in the same office as the person who did your eye-prescription measuring. In Zenni's case, not the same country. However, you can't go into Zenni's office and have THEM measure it; you need to have glasses-measuring people do it, and then they have a chance to get shirty at you. I've never once managed to get an eyeglass shop to give me that information, so I've never gotten to order from Zenni.

Mongoose @318: My latest glasses (Hobson's Choice for lens size and price, sigh) have big wide side-pieces, such that if I want to check behind my car before lane-changing I need to tilt my head so I can see past them. Really disorienting; I've been practicing it to try to make the motion reflexive. In re headphones, I use podcasts on one headphone as a mental prosthetic to make me capable of going outside and Doing Stuff without anxiety freak-outs; I keep the volume low enough that I can hear even quite quiet things (feet scuffing in leaves half a block behind me, planes overhead) 'through' them. I also do this while riding my bicycle, because riding my bike freaks me out harder than almost anything else I do on a regular basis, and I cannot do it at all if I cannot do it with my podcasts on. I can still hear the outside world just fine, but that's not necessarily visible from the outside (which is one reason I only use one earbud at a time, so people can tell I can hear them).

#323 ::: Benjamin Wolfe ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2013, 05:18 PM:

Ok, since my Amazing Girlfriend is running in an experiment for me right now, I've some time to chew on dcb's question from #310. There's a basic idea in vision that dcb mentioned of global vs local perception; the classic example (from a paper in the 1970s) is seeing the forest or the trees. There's an enormous amount of research since then that has looked at various aspects of this question - do we perceive details? do we perceive gist? how do we do any of this? and the like, but the salient portion for dcb's question is are there differences in ensemble coding between people with autism and people without autism. There was the prevailing belief at one point that people with autism couldn't ensemble code (that is, they couldn't get an average of a group of stimuli). This is almost certainly wrong, in light of more recent evidence - people with autism often aren't as good at ensemble coding as people without autism are, but they can do it. One very salient detail in ensemble coding is that you don't need to examine each and every object in the group to generate an ensemble percept - if you're looking at a group of people, you can get their average emotion with less than a second of viewing time. That, and other research (a certain portion of it is, hopefully, going to become part of my thesis once I finish wrangling the story out of a rich dataset) says that you're generating the ensemble code from information throughout your visual field, rather than just the objects you look at. So, from my understanding, it's less "having 101 things to process" and more of a difficulty getting the gist of all the objects within one class (for example, getting the average emotion of a group of faces, or the average direction of motion for a group).

Interestingly, and as a bit of an aside, you don't need to be able to recognize faces (e.g., you can be fully prosopagnosic - totally unable to recognize any faces) to be able to get an ensemble percept of faces - this is part of a friend's thesis. True prosopagnosia means you can't recognize your significant other but you can still determine the average emotion of a group.

#324 ::: Andrew Plotkin ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2013, 05:22 PM:

I successfully measured my inter-pupil distance by holding a 15-cm ruler against my nose and staring into a mirror. (There are web pages about this.) The glasses work, so I must not have gotten it too wrong.

#325 ::: Janet K ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2013, 05:50 PM:

Shame on Lila's optometrist.

I have four pairs of glasses I use regularly: regular progressives, transition progressives (that darken in sunlight), reading glasses, and computer glasses.

The Kaiser optical service was fine with making up the single correction reading and computer glasses in cheap frames. I'd measured the distance from my eye to my laptop screen so they could get the proper correction for my computer glasses.

I want reading glasses because the progressives are not good for reading in bed and reading newspapers. I used to just take off my glasses to read but that doesn't work as well since I had cataract surgey on one eye.

#326 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2013, 05:55 PM:

Benjamin Wolfe @323: That's really interesting, but I don't think it contradicts my suggestion that people with autism are doing both (hence my "that's 101 things to process rather than one", not "that's 100 things to process rather than one"). That is, they're consciously seeing the individual trees at the same time as seeing the forest, rather than just labelling it as "forest". Or am I missing something?

#327 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2013, 06:19 PM:

I wonder if some of this ties in to what my husband refers to as my functional car-blindness. I am capable of getting glance-quick info-dense visual input in certain domains in which I have trained myself -- birds, for example, or trees. But for cars? Almost everything kinda-midsized with rounded style lines looks just the same to me, whereas to him a 2002 Accord and a 2005 Corolla are as visually distinct as the on-the-wing silhouettes of a sharp-shinned hawk and a raven are to me.

I've tried to explain to him what the quick-glance characters of cars I DO see are, but he just files it all under my incompetence.

#328 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2013, 06:20 PM:

And I'm still having trouble posting one particular reply; no idea what in its content is objectionable, but I'm getting the same error-code and behavior as I reported @320 when I try it.

#329 ::: Mongoose ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2013, 06:33 PM:

Elliott @ 327: I'm also functionally car-blind. This is undoubtedly because I haven't the slightest interest in cars. A car, to me, is a metal box on wheels that gets people from A to B. I'll notice if it's an unusual colour or has a mathematically significant number in the registration. Other than that, a car's a car.

In fact, I am extremely good at tuning out irrelevant information in general. I couldn't, for example, tell you whether or not there was a bookmaker's on one of the main pedestrian precincts in this city, because I don't use bookmakers. I also very rarely see advertising; I clock that there's one of those dreadful street display units in order not to walk into it, but I won't be able to tell you what was on it.

On that subject, I once did an online survey thingummybob which, as I discovered towards the end, was designed to investigate people's reactions to street advertising. I must have been a nightmare for them. First of all, you had to look at each of a set of scenes for a certain time and click on anywhere your gaze rested during that period. (If there was a bicycle anywhere in the scene, it would get lots of clicks.) Then they showed a set of advertisements and asked which of them had appeared in the scenes. I correctly identified only one of them, and that on the grounds that it was bright yellow; I wouldn't have been able to say what it was advertising.

Turned out they'd all been in the scenes. And I hadn't registered any of them except the yellow one, and that as a visual nuisance.

#330 ::: Mongoose is gnomed ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2013, 06:36 PM:

...for waffling about their own functional car-blindness and related ability to tune out other irrelevant items in the visual environment.

Would the gnomes enjoy some of my famous casserole?

#331 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2013, 08:10 PM:

When I got my first pair of mirror-shade prescription glasses, I asked the optometrist whether I could save a little (mirror shades are way more expensive than I'd expected!) by getting monofocals. He said that wasn't a good idea and I said that I didn't see why, since the primary thing I was doing with them was driving and I surely wouldn't read much in them. I forget if he told me or led me to tell myself that might make using the dashboard problematic.

One more argument for fast trains over Google GasGulpers--cheaper glasses!

#332 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2013, 08:12 PM:

dcb @ #310, I've tried "readers" but they don't work well for me, as my two eyes have pretty different degrees of nearsightedness, and I am also astigmatic. My husband (at his ophthalmologist's suggestion) wears readers OVER his bifocals.

Janet K, I'm jealous but also encouraged that SOMEONE SOMEWHERE is willing to do what I want. Now I just need to spend a couple days on the phone....

I have an odd problem with frames: my skin apparently eats away at them. I've had plastic frames just spontaneously snap in half at the nosepiece while I was just standing there. After the second time it happened, I switched to wire frames permanently.

#333 ::: Benjamin Wolfe ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2013, 08:14 PM:

Note: This is fun - it makes for a great distraction from trying to refine a troublesome experiment - it's nice to actually use this information outside the field.

dcb, from my understanding, having a detailed (as in, you know where each item is and what each item is, rather than just being able to detect the presence of a bunch of items) conscious percept of all of the individual trees isn't something that has been observed in any population. What has been observed is more conscious access to the items within a group (for example, the trees within the forest) than might otherwise be expected, but this isn't what I'd call detailed conscious access to identifying information. This additional information might be, say, the ability to enumerate the items in the group, but not the ability to identify one tree versus another. Object identification, especially with peripheral representations and visual crowding (an inability to identify and discriminate proximate objects in the visual periphery), is remarkably hard. Generally, most people think they've a detailed percept of peripheral items, but it's nowhere near as detailed as the item they're currently attending to. What might well be going on - and has been studied to some degree - is the idea of "sticky" attention. The idea being that it's harder for people with autism to disengage their visual attention from the item they're currently looking at. This is a debated point at the moment, but there seems to be some validity to it.

Elliott Mason, you've just tapped in to one of the more acrimonious debates in higher-level vision of the last twenty years. The backstory is that humans (and other primates) have several specialized areas in the ventral aspect of the occipital lobe that specialize in responding to faces. The best known of these is the Fusiform Face Area (FFA); the debate has been, essentially, if faces are special or not. To a lot of researchers, it doesn't seem particularly efficient to have a single brain area devoted to faces and only faces - yes, we're social animals, but that's a lot of overhead for one aspect of our visual world. Our visual systems aren't generally built that modularly (we thought they were; that's being proven more wrong by the day). The consensus at the moment is that FFA, while it does have a commonly-trained preference for faces, is also involved in any expert discrimination task with complex objects. So, to return to your example - you can't distinguish various models of cars, but your husband can - your husband has been trained to make this distinction, and you haven't. Your husband's FFA has been trained to help discriminate between similar stimuli, whereas yours hasn't - but I'd bet there's a domain in which you are a visual expert and your husband isn't.

Mongoose, the survey procedure you described is the cheap and effective version of what a lot of my studies are, except that I'm not interested in where people look in scenes, but rather how they get the information to do so (and how much information they acquire). I've actually done a study, back in 2011, using the make-an-eye-movement-and-click method, and it's surprisingly accurate. Give me a 1000hz, high-precision tracker any day, but it works surprisingly well. I'd call what you're describing being drawn to attentionally salient stimuli in the scene - the ad was bright yellow, and that was able to draw your attention away from other items in the scene.

#334 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2013, 08:39 PM:

Benjamin Wolfe @333: Makes sense. In attempting to explain to him why "all recent sedans look the same to me", it helped me characterize what I LOOK at in cars, which seems to include (in side views), mostly in this order:

a. The shape, height, and angularity of the outer corners of the car: the tip of the hood and the back of the trunk

b. The roof-line contour, that is to say, the shape a 5yo would draw as the 'top' of the car object

c. The shape, angle, length of the bottom-of-windows style line

d. Any other bulgy visible lines on the door panels

From the back or front it's harder, because I look at less, but I'm definitely cueing off the car's "face" -- the geometry of windshield/headlights/bumper/grille and its overall gestalt feeling to me, and the same in the back. Everything else inside these 'outlines' of the car is kind of a visual wash to me unless I specifically pay attention to it.

To me, since the introduction of the Ford Taurus, more and more cars have been competing really hard to avoid using ANY characters I can use to discriminate between them, looking 'the same' to me even as they all look visually distinctive to John. Some of it is the aerodynamic streamlining, though there are plenty of streamlined cars out there that DON'T look all-the-same to me.

Oh, and any car that I've lived in a household with for over a year gets easier to recognize, just as I can tell apart my two beagles effortlessly when to strangers they look almost identical. :->

#335 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2013, 09:00 PM:

I'm not sure how much of Benjamin's information I'm absorbing just now, mostly because my birthday dinner (Asian tapas, very good) came with a very large cocktail. ;-)¹ But it does look interesting, and I'll review it when I get a chance (but prob'ly not tomorrow morning, lest I miss my physical-therapy appointment).

Miscellaneous notes:

The last time I got glasses (~5 years ago, before I moved down to C-ville), the optometrist assured me (to my dismay) that my previous style was "preceding me into the room". Fortunately, my unaided vision isn't that bad (I can distinguish most of the keys on my keyboard; F/P is pushing it). Even with the smaller glasses, I do get some resolution in the side fields, it's not just motion. I specifically bought goggle-like sunglasses with side pieces (they fit over my regular glasses) because sun-brightness in my peripheral vision (top/bottom or sides) is Unacceptable.

I've been assuming for a while that the peripheral vision was somehow linked to my ADD diagnosis, though that doesn't explain the hyperactivity part. I was also an avid biker up through high school, college, and indeed until I moved down to NYC, when I found the traffic too intimidating. (And found the same in C-ville, since I'm living near the corner of two highways.)

A few years ago in SciAm, they had pictures of a wraparound rig for 360° vision, more prisms than lenses; besides research, some "aspiring cyborgs" (that had been in the geek-news lately), were playing with it.

Re the hyperlexia, it only recently occurred to me that reading very fast didn't necessarily "go with" being able to rapidly scan a bookshelf for titles and remembered book-appearances (which latter is very useful working at a bookstore), but I have both. I'm also fairly good at seeing past animal camoflage (OK, now even my spellchecker is giving up on that word), but a small animal in a busy (or deep) field is likely to get past me.

Catching up with comments since I started typing here, I'm also "functionally car-blind" -- it could be for the same reason as Mongoose, but I also have trouble retaining the salient details of other things I'm more interested in, like different species of plants. It feels like I'm getting a gestalt at the expense of interpretation. (Also, my trouble with names extends to species names.) I also actively filter out advertising as noxious stimuli, but they are still distracting.

¹The newly-chill night has probably contributed a dose of sensory overload too.

#336 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2013, 10:28 PM:

Elliott, #327: This is not the first time you've talked about your husband thinking you're "incompetent" for not knowing offhand things it took him years to learn, and it still makes me twitch. That ain't right.

There is NOTHING WRONG with not being able to distinguish, at a glance, one type of jellybean car or box SUV from another one. The differences are largely in things like the fender shapes and accessory detailing, which a lot of men are going to have in their heads because it interests them. My partner can place the make, model, and year of a car half a football field away by the shape of the fucking taillights. And yes, there are some cars I recognize immediately at a distance too -- a VW Toonbug or Mini Cooper really doesn't look like anything else. But under normal circumstances, gross identifying detail ("that blue one" or "the red pickup") is perfectly adequate for communication purposes. This has NOTHING to do with "competence" and everything to do with the interests on which you choose to focus your attention. Calling you "functionally car-blind" is really triggery for me because it suggests that everyone else in the world has this ability and you don't and are therefore broken, which is NOT TRUE AT ALL.

My partner and I have a similar issue in the area of pop music. I have an extensive mental database of songs from circa 1967 to the mid-80s, with increasingly less-complete coverage of later eras. He has never enjoyed listening to pop music, so any given song is likely to get one of two reactions from him: either he doesn't remember hearing it at all, or he worked somewhere that had soundtrack radio during the period when it was played to death and never wants to hear it again. This doesn't mean there's anything wrong with him, it just means we've had different life experiences.

(It does becroggle me a bit, though, that he can't tell the difference between 4/4 and 6/8. That seems really, really basic to me -- the sort of thing that if you listen to music at all you can't help but be aware of. And he does like classical.)

#337 ::: KayTei ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2013, 01:24 AM:

I get the ultralight lenses too, but I can't imagine wanting larger lenses - my glasses are already heavier than I like. My glasses have been getting smaller and smaller for years. I guess I'd like to have better peripheral vision, if it were possible, but the trade off in weight isn't worth it.

It actually takes concentration for me to look out the corner of my eye without turning my head; I'm so acclimated to my glasses that when I reach the end of them I automatically adjust position to move whatever I was looking at into range.

That said, out of focus, for me, means I can't read anything, including faces; details of everything else blur into smoother, slightly darker versions of the same kind of thing. So I'm not too bothered by transitioning past the edge of crisp vision into my peripheral cloud - I could still dodge an urban couch tiger if it jumped at me, I just couldn't tell you if it was orange with brown stripes, brown with orange stripes or an ordinary sofa pillow moving at unusual speed (true story).

#338 ::: Bill Stewart ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2013, 01:56 AM:

Another "shame on the optometrist for not telling you pupillary distance if you ask" and recommendation for Zenni Optical. My optometrist was willing to give me separate pupillary distances for book-reading and computer-reading glasses. On the other hand, she's also the one who came in to the office on Christmas when I scratched my eye that day, ironically by opening up a pair of drugstore reading glasses that had gotten tangled. (She's Indian, and Buddhist, so Christmas isn't a big deal for her, but her kids are American so it's still a holiday.) She's very good, and her glasses do cost too much, though I've bought one or two pairs from her.

In addition to reading glasses, I did try one set of distance-correction glasses for driving, which are half a diopter plus some astigmatism correction. They make my central vision a bit better, at the cost of having a distracting edge which interferes with peripheral vision, so I don't use them very often, but it was worth the ~$10 from Zenni. (They're half-rimless, but the change in refraction angles between glass and no glass hits about where peripheral vision kicks in.) I keep good reading glasses in the places I do serious reading, and tubes of cheap folding drugstore glasses in lots of places and my car.

And yeah, most mainstream cars pretty much look all the same to me, especially the ones that are trying to all imitate whatever's popular, and I have a bit of prosopagnosia with regard to human faces as well.

#339 ::: James Moar ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2013, 04:57 AM:

"That seems really, really basic to me"

I think there are probably a few possible levels of awareness. I understand the basic concept of time signatures, I heard a medley recently with some awkward lurches that I'm fairly sure came from shifting time signatures, I really can't tell you the time signature of a given tune.

#340 ::: Mongoose ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2013, 06:03 AM:

Elliott @ 334: ah, yes! For a long time I had two very similar dark tabby cats and two very similar ginger cats (both pairs of siblings). I could always tell them apart very easily. I'm now down to one ginger cat, who recently caused me a brief period of confusion by finding herself a little friend who looked almost exactly like her. It didn't take me long to learn to tell those two apart, though.

#341 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2013, 08:03 AM:

#333 ::: Benjamin Wolfe

...except that I'm not interested in where people look in scenes, but rather how they get the information to do so (and how much information they acquire).

That's a *really* interesting question.

#342 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2013, 08:44 AM:

There's another reason why people have trouble telling these sedans apart, though: it's because they do all look alike. Part of it is wind tunnels, and part of it is just being bland. In 2006 Kia got so tired of being essentially ignored that they hired Peter Schreyer away from Audi specifically to get him to put some design notes on their cars so people didn't mistake them for every other far east sedan. The result was the "tiger nose" (if you're being respectful, or if not, the "hamster nose" in honor of a certain commercial) which may not be the smartest design cue ever, but it makes them easy to pick out in a parking lot.

Also, I suspect that the truth is that, excepting certain manufacturers who like Kia have gone out of their way to cultivate a distinctive overall look, most guys tell a lot of cars apart by the logo.

#343 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2013, 09:07 AM:

Emergent properties of being a glasses-wearer: i have very specific preferences about where I sit in a movie theater. It wasn't until surprisingly few years ago that I realized they boil down to "I prefer to sit where the movie screen fits comfortably within the outlines of my glasses-corrected visual field without me having to pan left and right. Plus no having to lean my head back and look strongly UP, please."

STILL having problems posting a particular reply to Benjamin Wolfe @317; the site keeps hanging. It has, so far as I can tell, nothing objectionable in it, and I've tried rewriting it to avoid. No dice.

#344 ::: Elliott Mason got gnomed ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2013, 09:08 AM:

I know not why.

[The pronoun "I" non-capitalized. -- Morrix Reque, Duty Gnome]

#345 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2013, 09:13 AM:

C. Wingate @343: There's a recent style line I call "the butt cleavage" where there's sort of a ... you know the wiggle some kids use to draw a faraway bird in flight? That kind of pointy thing between two curves, making the bottom of the rearmost side window and flowing into the trunk. The new Dodge Charger has it, but it's not the only thing -- which I know because I said confidently, "Hey, a red Charger," but Mr. I Have A Car-Identifying Superpower said it wasn't a Charger, it was a -something else I have forgotten-. But there's still only the two of them so far, so WOOHOO! for distinctiveness.

Mr. IHACIS, btw, doesn't think Hondas and Toyotas and Fords look anything alike, btw, but that's clearly just him.

#346 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2013, 10:10 AM:

Elliott @ 322: I just got my first pair of Zenni glasses, and measured my interpupillary distance using the Zenni pdf and a mirror. I'm sure you could get someone else to help you; their pdf has two measuring scales, one for the self measurement in the mirror, and one for when you have someone else who's helping.
Elliott @ 327: Count me as another person who just finds your husband's attitude a little annoying. There's nothing at all wrong with not finding cars interesting enough to "learn" them the way he does. I'll bet he can't distinguish animals that look very much alike, not the way I can. Heck, I'd be surprised if he could tell a rat from a mouse in a photo. That doesn't make him an idiot, just someone who doesn't know the identifying characteristics of different species. You and I can distinguish beagles at a glance, and that's a skill too.

Dave Harmon @335: Happy Birthday!

#347 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2013, 10:21 AM:

Visual attention and perception are fascinating, and since marrying Kyndra I've noticed much more how much they differ between people.

My family in general has excellent color vision and memory--inherited from my mother, who can reliably match cloth (including blues and browns) to things she saw months prior. (So she can send a child a coat in the fall, and a matching shirt in the spring, and they will match.) We also have reliably good ability to build a 3-d picture and move it around and look at it.

It took me a long time to understand that my wife can do neither of those things. Everyone I'd worked closely with before had been able to.

However, Kyndra has a superpower that I'm completely lacking. (Like "move it around and look at it in your head" for her, it's so foreign to me that I didn't know it could be done and can't really figure out how it would be doable.) She can use her mirrors when driving and keep a completely accurate map of where everything on the road is at all times--effectively, 360 degree vision.

#348 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2013, 11:02 AM:

Elliott @327 re "functional car-blindness" and the ensuing discussion.

The visual perception work that's being cited by Benjamin Wolfe and others is much newer than this, but I remember from a cognitive psychology class in grad school that experts in a domain perceive things differently from novices. The research example I remember was positions on a chess board; experts view a mid-game position as a gestalt, while novices viewed it piece by piece. The expert no longer has to think piece by piece, he just knows. Similarly, your husband doesn't have to match feature by feature to identify a car, he just recognizes it. He is a car expert and you are not. But that's neither a moral nor an intellectual failing on your part.

#349 ::: Roy G. Ovrebo ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2013, 11:06 AM:

Elliott Mason @345: See, that's all there is to it. What you need to do is memorize a million different little design details - grilles, headlights, chrome strip placements, door handle shapes and more obvious things like logos - and you can become a car nerd like me.

Or you can do something useful with your time instead.


There are gorillas that eventually get noticed too. I think everyone by now knows that vikings did not wear helmets with horns on them.

#350 ::: lorax ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2013, 11:14 AM:

Re "functional car-blindness":

I think there's an intermediate step between OtterB's "noticing the details" and "noticing the gestalt", and that's noticing the right details. Elliott's mention of birds is what made me think of this. Unless there's something extremely unusual about a bird, non-birders are likely to notice only plumage colors. If they see, say, a Carolina Wren, they'll likely describe it as "a brown bird with a light brown belly", which can describe anything from a hawk to a sparrow. I know from experience that when someone asks me about a bird with this sort of description that it can be really hard to identify it for them. Someone with a little more experience will notice a fat little bird with an up-cocked tail and a long, thin, curved bill, and an expert will take in those details at a glance and name the bird - but they take in the relevant details, rather than the ones that don't matter. As someone else who couldn't care less about cars, when I do see one I probably don't even look at the right ones of the "million little details" to make a distinction, much less take them all in at a glance.

#351 ::: PJ Evans ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2013, 11:36 AM:

And then there are the birds that experts refer to as 'LBJs': little brown jobs. They look pretty much alike, and move too much to get a good look at them. (The floral euqivalent is DYC: damned yellow composite.)

#352 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2013, 12:20 PM:

Color vision: in addition to being eidetic, my mother has really, really good visual color discrimination (of the "see something and then see something else months later in different light and know if it will match" level). She at one point memorized the whole Pantone chart, which also gave her an external scale to measure things against ...

It is a feature of my childhood that I know how to tell whether a given board/card game is one at which an eidetic will have an unfair advantage. :->

#353 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2013, 12:25 PM:

This whole discussion on car blindness strikes me as an example of the "un/conscious in/competence" grid-of-4, with the cycle going unconscious incompetence (I don't know I can't do that) to conscious incompetence (I know I can't do that) to conscious competence (I know how I do that) to unconscious competence (I don't know how I do that). Repeat cycle with something else, or at a different level.

There's a whole range of thinks like LBJs for birds: intermediate-level mycophiles refer a lot to LBMs, little brown mushrooms. These are not to be confused, of course, with Little, Brown books.

#354 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2013, 12:48 PM:

I'm not a vision researcher, but the mention of prosopagnosia above makes me suspect that people who can effortlessly distinguish individual beagles/marmalade cats/models of cars are processing those things more like faces than like random objects.

ISTR having read something about people who raise cattle being able to identify the faces of cows as reliably as the faces of people, which for most of us is definitely not the case.

To go along with DYCs and LBJs, "AFR" stands for Another F***ing Rock. I have also heard a layperson's classification for birds, which lumps all birds into Big Brown Birds, Little Brown Birds, and Owls.

#355 ::: Jeremy Leader ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2013, 01:21 PM:

The discussion of car-blindness reminds me of a discussion I had with a geology-major friend in college. He could look at a rock, and tell you with reasonable certainty what it was, and what minerals it probably contained, before going through the whole streak plate, acid dropper, hardness test, look the results up in a book process we were taught in Freshman Geology. We saw a car on the freeway and he asked if it was similar to one another friend had just bought, and I said "well, it's the same make, but probably several years newer", and when he asked how I knew that, I couldn't explain how I knew.

Elliott Mason, the first thing I thought of when you gave your list of identifying car characteristics was "no logos?!?" I'm OK at distinguishing cars by shape, but I also check the logo, which helps me connect new cars I haven't seen before to other cars from the same brand. That's how I would distinguish a Dodge Charger from one of the other recent neo-muscle-car designs (Chevy Camaro, possibly Ford Mustang) that try to ping the same "this is a tough manly car" style notes.

Oh, and the geology acronym I learned from my friend was "FRGOK", for "Funny Rock, God Only Knows".

#356 ::: Mongoose ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2013, 01:49 PM:

I'm very bad at identifying birds. I have tried to learn, because I'm quite interested in them, and my mother is something of an expert. Ogden Nash summarised my problem in a nutshell (except that I still have no idea what a towhee is):

We don't need much birdlore, do we,
To tell a flamingo from a towhee;
Yet I cannot, and never will
Unless the silly birds stand still.

I riff on this slightly by joking that I can more or less tell a flamingo from a penguin at twenty paces. It's not that much of an exaggeration. I spot a wild bird, and by the time I've got the blasted fowl into focus it's flown off again. But then I'm short-sighted, astigmatic, and these days also presbyopic; my mother's always had the relative advantage of being long-sighted.

However, context is everything. In my last job, I had an office at the far end of a long corridor. Apart from the other people with offices near mine, people didn't generally come down there unless they wanted to see me about something, and I found it useful to have some advance warning of who was approaching. (In particular, if it was Immediate Boss, I needed a minute or two to brace myself. She meant well, but she wasn't easy to cope with.) After a while, I discovered that not only could I recognise people all the way down the corridor by the way they moved if I was able to see them, but if I was sitting at my desk and couldn't see them, I could tell who was approaching from the sound of their footsteps.

You may laugh. In some jobs, that's a survival skill.

#357 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2013, 02:35 PM:

C. Wingate, #342: Also, I suspect that the truth is that, excepting certain manufacturers who like Kia have gone out of their way to cultivate a distinctive overall look, most guys tell a lot of cars apart by the logo.

*snerk* Good point. If I can make out the logo at all, that's definitely an important cue. OTOH, it does require having memorized the logos.

Ginger, #346: What bugs me about the attitude, specifically, is the "What's WRONG with you that you can't do this?" aspect of it.

lorax, #350: Your Carolina Wren would immediately parse to me as "sparrow" due to size, shape, and approximate markings.

P J Evans, #351: We call those "compositensis nearoadia" -- daisy-like yellow flowers near the road.

Mongoose, #356: In any kind of dysfunctional environment, that's a survival skill. And the ability to recognize people you know at a distance either from kinesic cues (the way they move) or from the sound of their footsteps is not at all unusual, although many people don't consciously recognize that they do it. Being able to tell the difference between your partner returning from a shopping trip and your neighbor parking in the adjacent driveway by the sound of the car's motor and tires falls into the same category.

#358 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2013, 02:57 PM:

I measured my pupilary separation using the ruler and mirror method. The glasses I got mail order were darn near perfect and a good bargain.

If you want a plausible reason for having your optomitrist write down the figure: Tell her or him that you are planning a trip overseas, and want a complete prescription on hand in case you need to buy a pair of replacements.

#359 ::: Clifton ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2013, 03:11 PM:

Speaking of gorillas and vision, there was a new gorilla experiment (fairly) recently, with results out in February 2013. Did you know that even expert radiologists don't do very well at spotting dancing gorillas in your lungs?

Granted, one shouldn't expect to find a small dancing gorilla in X-rays of the lung, but one of the motivations for this study was repeated incidents in which radiologists - sometimes several radiologists in succession - failed to notice surgical tools or similar objects left in the body, even though they were clearly visible in X-rays. As with the original gorillas experiment, it's a matter of inattentional blindness.

#360 ::: Benjamin Wolfe ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2013, 03:48 PM:

I consider Clifton's post at 359 proof that the world is much smaller than I think it is. You see, up until the Brigham/Harvard Medical School got severely cranky about it back in 2010 or so, one of my email addresses lived off the server... since I asked my father for an email address back in elementary school (c.1997 or so), and it's his server. Didn't expect to see work from his lab linked to on ML, but it makes me happy.

I'm also quite fond of that study and friends with the two authors (Trafton Drew and Melissa Vo) who I'm not related to by blood.

#361 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2013, 05:12 PM:

Now that we have the Little Brown Bird, the Damned Yellow Composite flower, and the Little Brown Mushroom, I think we have the start of a painting. Is there a Blobby White Cloud and a Vague Green Plant to go with them?

Yesterday, I chivied a bird out of the kitchen. It was small (maybe half the size of a pigeon, but bigger than a chickadee), and excitingly, it had both brown and gray in a complex pattern that I didn't bother to memorize.

I don't remember ever seeing a bird like that out of doors in Philadelphia.

Research suggests it was some sort of sparrow.

#362 ::: Cassy B. ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2013, 05:56 PM:

Some years ago, I saw a Very Peculiar Bird standing in my driveway. (I was looking out the window). It was, if memory serves, about duck-sized but NOT duck-shaped (a 45% angled body rather than level), vaguely brownish, I think it had a bib (but I no longer recall if it was white or black or some other color), and I quite clearly recollect it had Bright! Yellow! Legs! And! Feet! Not webbed; it was a land bird of some kind. No longer recall head shape or beak morphology. Never did figure out what it was.

Out that same window, years later, whilst eating breakfast, I had occasion to call my husband over. "Um, strange question -- what color is that flock of birds over in the neighbor's tree?"
<blink> "Green."
"Thought so."
I live near Chicago. Not a tropical climate. One doesn't expect to see green birds, and indeed I never had, other than on tropical vacations.
On further investigation, it turns out there are several wild flocks of parakeets that stay alive through the Chicago winter by building (and huddling in) one enormous nest. Apparently they escaped from pet stores and houses decades ago and have been breeding merrily ever since. I'd never see the local colony before; never have since, either. Hope they're ok...

#363 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2013, 06:01 PM:

Benjamin Wolfe @292: Vision Science Nerdery Warning: Guinea Pig Division

they're generally myopic

Oh, my lord, yes. So much so that, if you have a guinea pig that has cataracts, the only discernible behavior difference from a sighted guinea pig is that she will be somewhat less likely to startle from visual stimuli (though she'll be more than happy to dive for cover if the others do), and if you want her to know you have a snack for her, you either have to let her smell it (blow past the item toward her nose) or tickle the ends of her whiskers with it.

I'd bet that they can recognize some food objects close up, given the described myopia, but I'd wonder how much of that is scent-based rather than vision-based.

See also: touch-based. If they're eating stuff that's on the floor of the cage, you can almost see them groping around with their whiskers and their lips, trying to find it, while they're watching upward for Evil Flying Predators.

When you're offering them snacks, my presumption is that it's not so much the food item that they're recognizing as it is that you're holding something between your eyes and theirs, and (in our house, anyway) that's nearly always a signal that there's a snack on offer. (There's a verbal cue that goes along with: guinea pigs are verbal enough that they will respond to simple verbal instruction—given sufficient familiarity and motivation.)

And the offering of snacks isn't effective farther away than about five feet. But I stand by my assertion that they can see eyes—from at least six feet away. I'm betting that's a neural thing rather than an optics thing, in the same way that human vision is heavily weighted to seeing face-like configurations. They will actually discernibly make eye-contact with me from at least that distance.

As to the motion sensitivity, I speculate that, where humans (well, me, anyway) are configured to be most motion-sensitive in the peripheral vision (which is correspondingly poor in detail), guinea pigs' entire visual field is pitched toward motion. Or at least the aft/upper 75%.

As to color: I wonder if it's not necessarily the green wavelengths they're responding to. IANAOptician, but it sticks in my mind that green is not the only wavelength that plant leaves reflect. Might be some other color in the mix that isn't as noticeable to humans. So maybe it's more accurate to say that they're sensitive to plant colors, rather than green, per se.

The motion of plant colors is plausible, at least in some circumstances: the most conspicuous experience I had was when I was taking Little Pig to the vet when she started losing the strength in her jaw muscles. She was, as you might expect, slowly starving to death, and as we were riding across town, the bus would pass a bank of trees or other greenery, and she'd try to leap at the bus window to get to it. Other pigs get really interested in tree leaves we pass when I'm carrying them around the neighborhood.

#364 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2013, 06:05 PM:

The main ancestors of the Chicago population of monk parakeets escaped from a broken crate at Midway in the 60s, and were considered "Hyde Park parrots" for decades afterwards. During the West Nile worstness, when the corvids all died out, the monk parakeets (apparently immune, or at least not bothered) suddenly had massive range jumps, taking over former crow nesting spots.

One of them was the cell tower at the end of my block in Austin, so suddenly we had parrots. :-> Charismatic buggers. And not at all bothered by ice and snow. They really like black-oil sunflower seeds and peanuts, if you're into feeding them. Jays like both those things too, but I didn't see any jays on my feeders until there'd been a consistent supply of peanuts available for over 8 days, at which point they'd come have some. Bluejays are much bigger than I remember, every time I see them ... and they act very crowy.

The ravens and crow populations are finally rebounding, but now the parakeets don't want to give up their prime nesting locations. "Whaddaya mean, the nest-homeland of YOUR ancestors? My parents were hatched here, buddy -- and there's twice as many of us as you! I don't care HOW big you are, shove off!"

#365 ::: James E ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2013, 06:31 PM:

Admittedly it doesn't have Chicago's bitter winters but there's a wild population of escaped parakeets in London, too. Origin stories range from "escaped from the set of The African Queen" to "intentionally released by Jimi Hendrix to add some colour to to the city".

#366 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2013, 06:43 PM:

Lee @336: I listen to a lot of classical music, and enjoy it, but I wouldn't be able to tell you what time signature any piece is being played in - well, maybe a very clear ONE-two-three-four, ONE-two-three-four or I suppose a strong ONe-two-three, ONE-two-three, but it's not something I'm usually consciously aware of and I would have to stop and concentrate hard - and might not get it anyway. Neither can I reliably identify pieces of music or even composers, with rare exceptions - Gershwin I can usually identify. Strauss and waltzes are so intertwined in my brain that I'll say "well, it's either Strauss or it's a waltz." I can reliable identify Holst's "The Planets" - but can never remember which section is which.

Neither can I recognise makes/models of cars: but I can tell all 15 species of crane apart at a glance, and after completing a project on waterfowl (ducks, geese and swans) I knew all those species as well (about 150) - but now, 13 years later, I can't remember all of those any more (probably about 50 or so with certainty).

On the other hand, I remember a book in which, for some reason, snippets of a few lines each from various SF books were set out. I got eight of ten of them correct (author and book); the other two, I hadn't read. And they mostly didn't have obvious clues such as character names.

Cassy B. @362: We have green birds in south-east London as well, but ours are Indian ring-necked parakeets rather than monk parakeets (brighter green, no pale grey ventrally, and a ring around the neck are the most obvious differences).

#367 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2013, 06:49 PM:

Lila @332: Ah, that makes sense (I though that there must be a reason, just couldn't work out what). Sorry, thought I'd posted this earlier).

#368 ::: Steve Downey ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2013, 06:53 PM:

James Moar @ 339

One of my favorite pieces of music is House of Tom Bombadil by Nickel Creek. The composer, Chris Thile, changes time signatures almost every measure, but in such a way that you don't notice, unless you attempt to keep time. And then you discover you are suddenly off by one beat and no idea where it went.

We used to joke that it was in 1/1 time at 240bpm.

It's also a ridiculously happy tune. Here on youtube

#369 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2013, 07:56 PM:

Benjamin Wolfe @292: what you've described sounds like a difficulty in ignoring exogenous cues.

Which, I gather, is also the failure mode in ADD: evidently the mechanism of caffeine's effect is that it strengthens the suppressive neurons, allowing the excitory neurons to do their work without distraction.

Elliott Mason @293: "I need frames with the largest lenses I can get, or anyway shaped so I can't see around the edges: having uncorrected blurriness in my peripheral vision drives me up a wall."

Though I'm still deep in the North African Delta, I anticipate this would be an issue for me, as well.

I grew up having extremely good vision. Pile onto that years of riding a bike in traffic, plus karate training, I depend heavily on my peripheral vision's motion-detection to keep me alive in traffic.

I made my driving instructor nuts, Back In The Day. When we'd approach an intersection, she'd want me to Look this way, and then Look that way. I didn't have the presence of mind to tell her that if I did that, I was (a) using focal vision, which meant I wasn't as sensitive to motion and also meant I couldn't see the opposite direction to where I was Looking, and that (b) what I was doing was using the martial artist's non-focus to track my whole field of view, which is much more effective at spotting cars coming at you, because you can see left, right, and forward simultaneously, and you're more sensitive to motion.

The annoyingly tedious peripheral field test that my optometrist makes me do makes me crazy, because it doesn't test anything further out than about 60° from straight ahead. The stuff I depend on most in traffic to stay alive is outside of that.

Currently-fashionable small lenses: yes, let's spend life peeping out a knothole, that sounds good to me. :-\

Lila @302: I asked at my last eye exam if I could have a pair of single-vision lenses of that focal length made up in addition to my bifocals, and the optometrist refused to do it.

Because why? "Computer glasses" are bog-standard equipment, in the circles I haunt.

See also: standard bifocals can play merry hell with your neck, if you're using them for your computer, because they make the ergonomics of looking at the monitor all wrong.

& @306: Maybe a different optician/optometrist is indicated? If you have another health care provider you really like, ask them for a recommendation. I've found a couple of good practitioners that way.

Sarah @309: I've quite inadvertently startled a lot of people over the years by assuming my presence was obvious to them when it wasn't.

On the flip side, I was standing in line at the cafeteria at work one day. A friend was standing behind me. I'd set my wallet down on the counter. A few minutes later, I'd moved a place ahead in line, but wasn't far enough away to have moved my wallet yet. I'd say, if straight ahead is 12 o'clock, the wallet was sitting at 4:30. I caught a hint of motion, and noticed my friend slide my wallet away. I turned around and gave him a Look.

"What?" he said.

"Put it back."

"Put what back?"

I Looked at him, tilting so I was looking through my eyebrows. And waited.


"Put. It. Back."

Another three heartbeats go by.

Finally, he sighs, and puts my wallet back on the counter. "I can't believe you saw that."

"Don't spend much time on a bike in traffic, do you?"

Looking back, I think he was just teasing me.

dcb @310: Re. glasses just for computer work (reading glasses)

I gather that, in general, the prescription needed if you need glasses for the computer is different than simple magnification; at least, that's the report I've gotten from my computer-glasses-wearing friends. Simple grocery-store reading glasses won't do the job. Certainly wouldn't for me, as I have my monitor well outside of the useful range of reading glasses.

Benjamin Wolfe @317: There's been evidence in nonhuman models if you correct one eye's input but leave the other uncorrected

And, of course, there's that old dodge of setting one contact lense for near-field and the other for distance. My optometrist was snarking at me last-but-one visit; apparently I've managed to configure my actual nekkid eyeballs to do just that. (Couldn't tell you which is which, though.)

Heh. Randomly: my astigmatism(s) is(are) getting strong enough to be noticeable (and annoying) (but not annoying enough for me to be willing to deal with glasses). On the way down to the con last weekend, as we were approaching the I-25 exit from 36, I looked up, and the highway sign pointed to "Demnennemver."

Mongoose @318: This is why I cannot understand why anyone cycles in headphones.

Oh, ghods, right!? Darwin Award contenders, the lot of 'em.

Benjamin Wolfe @319: Well, there are ways to give you a 360º field of view, ... Unless you've got a couple weeks to adapt first, this is a wildly bad idea.

Nah. You just practice in parking lots a lot, first. As it happens, they do make rear-views for cyclists. Hanging as they do out at the end of a little wire, I really wonder about their utility.

My biggest issue anymore with 360° traffic perception is that I have severly constrained range-of-motion in my neck—on the left, of course.

Benjamin Wolfe @323: there differences in ensemble coding between people with autism and people without autism.

It's also influence by culture. There's a b&w, absolutely eye-burning portrait of Edward VIII (which my Google-fu is failing to turn up) wherein he's dressed in clashing geometric patterns of shirt and trouser, and lounging in a room decorated in more clashing geometric patterns. According to my (likely faulty) memory, the comment was to the effect that, while Brits would find this to be an entirely acceptable design option, focusing as they do on the individual elements in the room, Americans are prone to regard the room as a whole, and therefore find that particular composition to be, um, unpleasant. Can't remember the source, but it must have been Scientific American or Science News, though it might have been National Geographic.

Elliott Mason @327: I am capable of getting glance-quick info-dense visual input in certain domains in which I have trained myself

Me, too, with the car-blindness. See Mongoose @329. In my world, cars are things friends insist on getting around in, and things to not get hit by.

but he just files it all under my incompetence.

I get the sense that, sometimes, your husband is kind of a dick. This is not the only behavior you've reported that gives me this feeling.

&328: And I'm still having trouble posting one particular reply

I wonder if you've stumbled onto a similar Movable Type bug as the close-curly-quote-line-return one Jim dug out a week or two back. The failure mode and specificity you describe sound similar. Try stripping out all the non-alpha-numeric characters and see if it'll post...?

Mongoose @340: It didn't take me long to learn to tell those two apart, though.

One of my hobbies is portraiture, so I can certainly Do Faces. But I about fifteen years ago, I finally worked out that I don't recognize people by how they look. I recognize them by how they move and sound. Which means that, unless there's something really distinctive about their appearance, I won't be able to reliably identify them until I've known them for a little while.

Lila @354: people who can effortlessly distinguish individual beagles/marmalade cats/models of cars are processing those things more like faces than like random objects.

And, also, probably picking up on on-visual cues that they may or may not be aware of. I have (well, had) two white guinea pigs with red eyes, who were litter mates and were about the same size. But I could tell them apart at a glance because (in addition to other things) the set of their ears was completely different.

Mongoose @356: I could tell who was approaching from the sound of their footsteps. ... You may laugh. In some jobs, that's a survival skill.

Basic situational awareness. I track my coworkers auditorily just out of habit.

Had one coworker Back In The Day that, whenever she would come into the women's restroom, I'd say, "Hi, Lynda!" Having recognized her within a single step inside the door, beyond two visual barriers. "How—how did you—?" What I never told her was that she had an absolutely characteristic sniff that she would do when she came through the door.

I'm not a birder by any stretch, but I've been startled to realize that I apparently track the bird vocalizations outside my apartment pretty closely. When, a couple of weeks ago, Mr. Red Ribbed Flicker alighted on my balcony rail and started casting aspersions on the character of Mr. Window Reflection, I sat up and went to look, because it was a vocalization I hadn't heard before (in addition to being Really Loud). Took me a long time to work out that several of the odd bird-calls I'd hear periodically were coming from my downstairs neighbor's bird clock. (Like a cuckoo clock, only with different bird calls for every hour. The calls of local birds just dropped into the ambience, but the alien ones reliably attract my attention.)

#370 ::: Jacque, gnomed ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2013, 07:57 PM:

But there will be London Broil when I get home.

#371 ::: Diatryma ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2013, 08:11 PM:

I sometimes wish I'd gotten into the habit of sunglasses, but I changed prescriptions too often as a child to get real ones and the problem with clip-ons is that you have to put them somewhere. So instead of carrying a fragile wire-and-plastic thing in my hand most of the day, I just got used to bright sun all the time.

This became a problem when the CW11 class went to Mount Rainier. All the white! All the bright! No pupils whatsoever!

I'm probably due for new glasses-- it's been four years-- but lack of insurance and money means I just put it off and put it off. I'm not sure what I'm supposed to be able to see, either, and the road sign trick* only works if you have unfamiliar road signs.

*If you have trouble reading road signs or billboards, your eyes are worse than the signmakers expect them to be and you should probably get them checked out soonish.

As far as distinguishing members of groups, I can pick out some types of cars, but only if they're distinctive enough for me to notice them, and some types of trees, assuming that all the things I call 'ash' are in fact 'ash'. More jarringly, there was a book published more than four years ago that had a Mercedes Lackey cover, but it was by Katherine Kerr, I think. But it looked so Mercedes Lackey, no really, what was going on, it was wrong. Another book had a Naomi Novik cover, Boneshaker covers are more common now, and I think many readers of science fiction and fantasy can pick out a Baen at ten paces.

#372 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2013, 08:45 PM:

Ginger #346: Thanks!

#373 ::: Clifton ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2013, 08:47 PM:

Diatryma quoth: "the road sign trick only works if you have unfamiliar road signs"

Oh God. That brings back a rather unpleasant memory, of when my then-teen daughter and I visited my mother in Cincinnati. It was a bit of a white-knuckle ride when she drove us around her neighborhood, but she'd always been a bit of an erratic driver.

It wasn't until the end of the visit when she drove us to the airport, a trip she rarely made, when we realized with horror that she could not read any of the highway signs or road signs and had been going on memory for all the roads she normally drove. At that point we were in a "LANE ENDS MERGE LEFT" to the right of a lane packed solid with enormous fast-moving semis.

We survived that somehow - I think she had to pull off onto the shoulder, stop, and rejoin traffic after the semis had passed, which was terrifying enough now that I knew how bad her sight was. Around then I started trying to get my relatives to get her license pulled, which didn't happen for several years until her doctor got it pulled after a stroke. It's amazing she never hit anyone during that period.

#374 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2013, 09:17 PM:

Diatryma #371: More jarringly, there was a book published more than four years ago that had a Mercedes Lackey cover, but it was by Katherine Kerr, I think....

Fonts do that to me. Apparently, they're now reusing a font that used to be distinctive to Piers Anthony's Xanth series. :-~

#375 ::: Cheryl ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2013, 09:20 PM:

@372, Clifton

The Société de l'assurance automobile du Québec requires seniors to pass a medical and eye exam in order to maintain their driving privileges.

I'm guessing that this is not an idea that would go over well in other places?

Of course, that didn't help my then 30 year old friend. She was driving us somewhere we hadn't been, and I had the directions printed. When I said, there's our turn coming up, she was puzzled: you can read that from here? I can't.

Um. So I asked her to read the license plate of the car directly in front of us.


I have no idea how long she had been driving like that. She did go for glasses afterward - she had no idea that her vision wasn't normal. She'd never compared it to anyone else's.

#376 ::: PJ Evans ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2013, 10:13 PM:

Then there was the guy jogging with headphones on ... on a main railroad track. During morning peak travel. He didn't notice the train until it whistled at him - and we'd been going dead slow for a couple of minutes before that, waiting for him to notice.

#377 ::: Jenny Islander ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2013, 10:13 PM:

I'm listening to "House of Tom Bombadil" now. This is what I used to call "arty NPR bluegrass," meaning no disrespect. Also it's perfect for Tom Bombadil. >D "I'm slightly mad and also better at pretty much everything than you. Keep up! --Ooh, look, water lilies!"

Water lilies-->water-->gorillas: There are two huge gorillas in the Mississippi and Missouri watershed, one prehistoric, one only partly so. It has been known for some time, but is for some reason not much publicized, that a whole suite of mighty big species were living in the bottomland when humans first arrived in the Southeast. There were huge capybaras, glyptodonts, woolly tapirs, giant armadillos, and "giant beavers" (related to beavers, but appear to have lived more like muskrats, except on the scale of a black bear). The mastodons and mammoths get most of the press, but these animals were at least as common.

Also, the so-called Piasa Bird, originally on the bluffs of the Mississippi River in/near Alton, Illinois, was recarved in altered form from an older mural of a kind of jaguar/crocodile hybrid monster that appears repeatedly in art of the Mound Builder cultures. It appears to originally have been a border marker. Not far south of this sign is Cahokia, Illinois. Cahokia is known for its huge animal-shaped mounds. Not so well known is that at its height in the early 13th century, there were 20,000 to 30,000 people living in Native American Cahokia. That's about the same size as 13th century London.

#378 ::: Henry Troup ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2013, 10:14 PM:

Cheryl @#375

Ontario requires an annual eye test after age 70, I recall, and a road test every two years after so later age. I'm in favor of retesting every driver every ten years or so, for various reasons, including that rules change.

I recall the Ontario license eye exam. They made me take off my glasses and look in the machine. "What number do you see?" "number ? I see a fuzzy blob." "thank you" (marks "corrective eyeware" ticky box). My correction was then in the -8 range, now -10; 20/200 or so uncorrected.

#379 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2013, 11:09 PM:

Steve D., #368: Holy cats, that's awesome! I would bet that odd numbers figure prominently in the time signatures, because that's usually how you "lose" a beat. That album, plus his solo album Not All Who Wander Are Lost, are now on their way to me from Amazon.

Jacque, #369: I'd call that a pretty mean trick from someone who claimed to be a friend.

#380 ::: Bill Stewart ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2013, 12:25 AM:

Cheryl@375, most of the US states require seniors to get eye exams every few years when renewing their drivers' licenses, but it's just the standard eye chart and colorblindness test. There was some grumbling, but not as much as you'd expect.

I reached the point a few years back that I can no longer read the copyright notice on the bottom of the charts, as well as needing reading glasses. Last time my license came up for renewal, I read the eyechart for them, put my reading glasses back on to fill out the form, and didn't notice until my license came in the mail that the clerk had checked the "eyeglasses required" box, assuming I'd had them on during the test. Had to go back and get that fixed, but fortunately the lines at the DMV near my office are much shorter than the ones near home.

#381 ::: Diatryma ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2013, 12:39 AM:

Clifton, I can somewhat frighteningly beat that.

So Dad. Dad drives. That is what Dad does. When I was nine or so, before I got glasses but on the trip where I insisted I needed them so I could see the Wall Drug signs, we drove out to South Dakota and parts west from Illinois-- both Washingtons, some New York, a bunch of Badlands and such. When we got home, my father went to the eye doctor because his vision had gone double somewhere along there. Never mentioned it to anyone on the trip, just went to the doctor and had his retina reattached.

Much later, his eyes were terrible. Legitimately no-seriously I cannot believe it terrible, due to cataracts I guess. While he did eventually lose his night license, he also drove to pick up my brother from college because he knew the road well enough-- DeKalb is a distinctive sign-- and then drove out to Maryland to visit his brother. With a pair of binoculars on his lap so he could read the signs.

This went on until his retina went walkies again (the other one, this time, which was a surprise*) and couldn't be fixed without first taking care of the cataracts in that eye. Textbook-perfect surgery, suddenly he realizes that oh hey this is totally fixable and worth fixing, and now both his eyes are decataracted (with variable results-- the other one isn't as great) and he's back to driving all over the place again.

In the meantime, he told his science classes that if he couldn't see their answers, he wasn't grading them, so they'd better use dark pens, and he had my brother's girlfriend do his computer work for him. He didn't tell anyone in the school administration what was going on because they might use it against him.

*Dad's had four detached retinas, three in one eye and one in the other. Tell that to an eye doctor and they will dilate you so fast....

#382 ::: Andrew Plotkin ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2013, 12:49 AM:

Diatryma@371: "More jarringly, there was a book published more than four years ago that had a Mercedes Lackey cover, but it was by Katherine Kerr, I think."

I'll guess that it was a Jody Lee cover. If one grew up in the era of the Vanyel series, will trigger that response, for example.

(It's a bit unfair to the artist, who *does* have a life beyond "Mercedes Lackey cover machine".)

#383 ::: Mongoose ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2013, 06:07 AM:

Jacque @ 369: And, of course, there's that old dodge of setting one contact lense for near-field and the other for distance. My optometrist was snarking at me last-but-one visit; apparently I've managed to configure my actual nekkid eyeballs to do just that. (Couldn't tell you which is which, though.)

If you did that on purpose, that's kind of awesome. If it happened by accident, you are not alone. My friend the Star Tenor is also short-sighted in one eye and long-sighted in the other, so he can look at his music with one eye and the audience with the other. (Not that he tends to look at the audience when he's singing. Even at this stage in his illustrious career, it still makes him nervous.)

This turned out to be useful at a concert in Paris. I don't know Paris at all, and, as quite often happens, I'd entered the very large concert hall via the public entrance, gone backstage afterwards to see Star Tenor, and left the building with him through a different exit, so just for once I'd lost my bearings. After we'd chatted out on the pavement for a while, I had to ask him if that sign over there was a Metro station, being the myopic mongoose that I am.

All he had to do was close one eye.

#384 ::: James E ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2013, 09:12 AM:

Proposed classification system for birds:

* Those that are big and brown
* Those that are little and brown
* Those that are bright green and belong a thousand miles away but seem happy enough where they are
* Those that have just crapped on my head
* Those that look like they're seriously considering it
* Those that will make off with your entire ice-cream given half a chance
* Those that are eagles
* Those that are owls
* Those that are both

#385 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2013, 10:41 AM:

* Those that are far smarter than a bird should be
* Those that form huge, vaguely sinister flocks as part of their daily business
* Those that are some bright color other than green
* Those that bully all the other birds away from the feeder

#386 ::: Sica ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2013, 11:01 AM:

* Those that pretend to be injured to get you away from their nests
* Those that dive bomb you to get you away from their nests

(As a side note, arctic skuas are scary scary birds, arctic terns less so, even though the dive bombing is somewhat alarming)

* Those wearing tuxedos and monocles

#387 ::: Sica ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2013, 11:07 AM:

Ok fact checking here, the bird I thought of as the Arctic Skua is apparently the Great Skua instead (Icelandic: Skúmur) anyway, scary divebomber either way.

#388 ::: Cassy B. ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2013, 11:12 AM:

Birds that might potentially croak "Nevermore" at you. (Pretty much any black-feathered member of the corvid family.)

#389 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2013, 11:47 AM:

Is 3D printing to the point where it would work for printing frames for glasses?

#390 ::: PJ Evans ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2013, 11:51 AM:

Those that hide in foliage, but you can hear them twittering and chirping.

#391 ::: joann ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2013, 12:25 PM:

Birds that have just knocked themselves out by confusing the window five feet from my head with a patch of blue sky right in the middle of a house, and flying into it at speed with a great "thwack!"

#392 ::: Mongoose ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2013, 12:30 PM:


Those that habitually sit on the surface of water and swim with their feet.

#393 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2013, 12:38 PM:


Those that belong to the emperors third mistress's chief servant.

Those that sing only at the moment of their second death.

Those that fly east for the autumn.

#394 ::: James E ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2013, 01:06 PM:

* Those that can fly backwards
* Those that can mimic car alarms
* Those that can disembowel with a kick

#395 ::: James E ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2013, 01:12 PM:

* Those that feature in folk songs
* Those that feature on national flags
* Those that feature in sandwiches

#396 ::: cajunfj40 ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2013, 01:37 PM:

Nancy Lebovitz @#389: Is 3D printing to the point where it would work for printing frames for glasses?

That depends on what price point you consider "working" and/or how chunky you mind them being. inexpensive DIY desktop ABS plastic based systems could do a passable job of a set of chunky frames, but they would have a distinct pattern from the printing process and may have a fair bit of warpage. More expensive industrial ABS based systems could do slightly less chunky, less textured versions with generally less warpage. High-end industrial plastic type machines could do very well, though I don't recall the UV resistance available. You could sand and paint, too, for better surface finish (and some vendors offer this service - some even chrome coat, which makes great mold surfaces.) Fine detail wax types could make a good positive to sprue and vent up for making an investment casting mold from, which would allow very complex and fine shapes to be cast from a variety of metals. Thin castings, though, may be fragile. Laser sintered powder metallurgy would get you reasonable detail in a metal frame - they can make gas turbine blades this way.

I can get more specific, what did you have in mind?

#397 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2013, 01:49 PM:

I didn't have anything very specific in mind-- just frames which are light and strong and good-looking. The goal was for vendors to not be constrained by current fashion.

#398 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2013, 02:12 PM:

Meanwhile, on the glasses front: Last optometrist visit my vision hadn't changed at all, so therefore no new glasses. Now some months later the anti-scratch coating is disintegrating, which besides the interference that has with clarity, the edges also attract finger grease and every other vision-obscuring contaminant. Annoyingly, they cannot just strip the coating off, at least not without sending the lenses to the lab and maybe it won't work well anyway. However, because of said previous visit I don't think insurance will pay for another, and not sure they'll pay for new lenses in any case.

#399 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2013, 03:11 PM:

* Those that are eaten fried.
* Those that are flipped.
* Those that are dirty.
* Those that surf.

#400 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2013, 03:13 PM:

* Those that must be traveling on now, 'cause there's too many places they've got to see.
* Those that you cannot change

These two are frequently confused. The longer one is typically found live, whereas the shorter one is usually found in the studio.

#401 ::: cajunfj40 ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2013, 03:24 PM:

Nancy Lebovitz @#397:
I didn't have anything very specific in mind-- just frames which are light and strong and good-looking. The goal was for vendors to not be constrained by current fashion.

Certainly possible now. For a pretty good intro, check out Shapeways for a consumer-level product, and Stratasys for a more industrial view. Note that Stratasys recently bought Makerbot, so they have a machine available from the "prosumer" end DIY level all the way up to high end production units. At the very DIY end, there is RepRap where you can build your own 3D printer.

I don't know if there are any prosumer level DMLS units out yet, but mailorder is already here. Custom stuff from a 3D file in about a week.

Have fun. :-)

#402 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2013, 03:56 PM:

Are the lenses less of a constraint than the frames? Because there are certainly a lot of used frames out there....

#403 ::: James E ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2013, 04:28 PM:

* Those that are used in the scoring system of golf
* Those that are unhappy about this given the damage done to their habitats by golf courses

#404 ::: PJ Evans ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2013, 04:31 PM:

Birds that swear at you because you're in their way.

#405 ::: Heather Rose Jones ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2013, 05:33 PM:

Cassy B. @ 362

Some years ago, I saw a Very Peculiar Bird standing in my driveway. (I was looking out the window). It was, if memory serves, about duck-sized but NOT duck-shaped (a 45% angled body rather than level), vaguely brownish, I think it had a bib (but I no longer recall if it was white or black or some other color), and I quite clearly recollect it had Bright! Yellow! Legs! And! Feet! Not webbed; it was a land bird of some kind. No longer recall head shape or beak morphology. Never did figure out what it was.

This is a rather good example of "noticing the right details". Now, given the size, body orientation, and lack of webbing, if you'd said "Bright! Yellow! Feet!" without adding the legs, I'd be 80% certain you were looking at a Snowy Egret.

Maybe even so, since some seem to have a yellow stripe up the legs as well, but usually it's just the feet.

#406 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2013, 07:24 PM:

More likely some other egret: snowy egrets are Very Big Birds. Much bigger than a duck, on much longer legs. And if you see them up close, they move like aliens, not like something from earth. I watched one on a dock at about 15 feet from behind a window for about 10 minutes once.

No way I would describe it as "duck sized."

#407 ::: Cassy B. ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2013, 07:36 PM:

Heather Rose Jones @405, those are certainly Bright! Yellow! Feet! <grin> But if memory serves (and it's been probably fifteen years now, so it may not) the bird was some neutralish brownish or grayish color, rather than bright white. (And I think it had a bib of some contrasting color, but I wouldn't swear to it.) My primary memory of the bird is of thinking to myself, "that bird is wearing galoshes!" So I'm pretty sure the legs as well as the feet were shockingly yellow.

#408 ::: PJ Evans ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2013, 08:05 PM:

maybe something like a bittern?

#409 ::: Diatryma ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2013, 09:47 PM:

I've spent some minutes at entering Cassy B's identification things in. Got it narrowed down to thirteen maybes, and I like the common gallinule or the least bittern best. Although the yellowlegs does seem to fit the description as well.

#410 ::: Benjamin Wolfe ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2013, 10:20 PM:

Nancy Lebovitz at 341 It turns out to be a really weird question. So, barring major neurological damage, humans make several large, directed eye movements (saccades) per second to facilitate our interaction with the world. Note that there's a small but significant delay between when something occurs in the world and when activity representing that event appears in visual cortex (call it 100 milliseconds for the early areas of visual cortex - V1, and up to 200-300ms for areas like MT [which is involved in global motion processing], to say nothing of the specialist areas like FFA [which is involved in face perception]). Also, when you want to make an eye movement, there's a delay between programming that eye movement and actually initiating it - interesting things happen in this delay period. I'd mentioned visual attention upthread; one particularly interesting thing that happens is that there's presaccadic allocation of attention to the area in space you're about to saccade to. By way of analogy, imagining targeting a missile before firing it - you'd really like to know where to target it, since it's (fundamentally) a dumb brick after you've lit the motor. Your saccades are similarly ballistic. The question I've been doing the bulk of my research on is what kind of information the visual system acquires before the saccade even begins.

Jacque at 363 You're basically right about visual systems being attuned to motion; a good general rule is that any neurological system is really interested in change - the visual system is particularly interested in changes over time (e.g., motion).

On guinea pig color vision - the one report I found only described two cone types with a pretty clean overlap for human S and M cones, so they're probably not detecting IR reflectance. I'd wonder if anyone has tried to get a real systemic sense of the limits of guinea pig sensory processing; I'd guess (having not handled one in well over a decade) that they're rather more scent-acute than we are, in an effort to make up for limited vision (since their acuity is lousy at best). It's too bad no one has much detailed information on guinea pig sensory systems, and I've enough fun making humans bored for science.

Jacque at 369 Yep. Large doses of caffeine work much the same way - I've a friend (I've mentioned his work before) who makes the Black Blood of the Earth, which is supercoffee… and is one hell of an attentional drug.

I'd bet, from your description later in the same comment, that you've driven your optometrist mildly bonkers… I do the same thing, but for a very different reason. Very few patients who come in for an eye exam have voluntary control over one set of lateral ocular muscles. I can cross one eye at will, which freaks them right smooth.

Yet further down in that comment, you mention a portrait of Edward VIII with potentially retina-searing patterns. I've not found the portrait, but what I'm describing as ensemble coding or ensemble perception isn't taking the room in as a whole, but rather being able to quickly, and without a sequence of saccades to individually examine each element, determine the average of a series of objects within the same domain. An example would be the average emotion of a group of people - their clothes don't matter, their faces do - or the direction in which a group is walking - will it intersect where you're walking?

In regard to the 360º view, I'm talking about immersive vision systems, rather than, say, a mirror or two allowing you to see behind yourself on a bike - there are accounts of what it's like to wear 180º inversion goggles for a week or two, and they don't sound pleasant. The Amazing Girlfriend and I are in a lab that owns a couple of pairs of 180º goggles, and I can well believe it.

#411 ::: Cassy B. ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2013, 11:13 PM:

Diatroma @409, Oh-my-ghod. North American Common Gallinule! That's the Weird Bird with the Funky Yellow Legs!!!!

I don't remember the red face, but the wiki note says that juveniles don't have it, so it's possible it was a juvenile. Or it might have had the red face and I remembered it as a bib instead (15-year-old memories being malleable like that). But the body shape is right; the size looks good, and it has bright yellow (unwebbed) feet and legs. Thanks, Diatroma! (I love the Fluorosphere.)

Never seen one before or since, but it's nice to know what the heck it was.

#412 ::: Kevin Reid ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2013, 12:30 AM:

Jacque #369: …what I was doing was using the martial artist's non-focus to track my whole field of view…

Can you point me at more information about this? Because it sounds like something I found I could do, but never managed to put to practical use, and I've never heard of it in anyone else's experience before.

#413 ::: Benjamin Wolfe ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2013, 01:44 AM:

Kevin Reid at 412: I'm not a martial artist, but looking at it from a vision science perspective - which is what I've been doing 'round these parts lately - I'd describe it as looking for change in the environment. You're not trying to track the details of everything in the environment (believe me, your visual system doesn't do this), but you're looking for local changes as a cue that you should attend more closely to that region of space. Calling it a global allocation of attention isn't quite right, but the idea of being aware of what's changing isn't too far off.

#414 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2013, 02:28 AM:

* Those who were human beings (female) in the 60s
* Those who were human beings (male) in the 50s
* Those who are sweet, and of youth
* Those who are fun, fun, fun until Daddy takes them away

#415 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2013, 08:03 AM:

Cassy B. re. common gallinules (we call them moorhens): Yes, the juveniles are more a dull brown on the top and grey on the breast, and lack the bright colours on the head. Young chicks are amazing little balls of black fluff with a red-and-yellow bill and a balding spot on the top of the head showing red skin.

The other bird that's often mistakenly referred to as a duck (specifically, "the black duck with a white bill") is the coot (there are no duck species with a white bill).

Jacque @369: Re. reading glasses not being adequate for computer work, that's going to be a pain!

Benjamin Wolfe: Thank you for your reply to me @333 (sorry - just realised I hadn't thanked you yet for that). And I'm glad you're getting some pleasure from answering our questions; I'm certainly learning by reading your answers.

#416 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2013, 09:08 AM:

Benjamin Wolfe @410: I'd guess (having not handled one in well over a decade) that they're rather more scent-acute than we are, in an effort to make up for limited vision

Don't know about scent-acute, as the one reference I have on the subject puts them at about the same sensitivity as humans. Might be somewhat more scent-oriented, though. I get the sense that they are more auditorily-oriented, though. They're much more likely to kick up a fuss when hearing food-associated noises, for example, than when smelling food-associated smells.

I'd bet, from your description later in the same comment, that you've driven your optometrist mildly bonkers

Nah; she's another Virgo, and I think finds me mostly entertaining.

I can cross one eye at will, which freaks them right smooth

Me, too. My brother had amblyopia, so had to learn to do that to exercise his weak eye. I, of course, then had to learn how to do that, too.

there are accounts of what it's like to wear 180º inversion goggles for a week or two, and they don't sound pleasant.

My guess is that, contrary to the upside-down transform one has to do to wear upside-down goggles (which is just a reverse of a calculation we already do to correct for the orientation of the world's image on our retina), the 180° to normal-visual-field transform probably involves a rather more drastic and processor-heavy transform, since not only do you have to rejigger how much of the world happens within a given span of visual field, but you'd also have to recalculate all the associated proprioception along with it. Can you say, "Instant motion sickness?"

Bird legs: So Boulder County is marketing a line of photo products (Wall-size hangings, gift cards, etc.) to fund open space projects. A selection is on display in our lobby. One is a cute photo of a couple of juvenile owls. Aw...I think, every time I pass it on the way into the women's room. Then one day, I happen to notice that, hidden amongst the tree-bark texture below the tree-hollow opening—Is that—? Yes, it's a foot. Um. Looking at it more closely, it becomes clear that the owner thereof pretty much has to be lying face-down on the floor of the hollow. I share this with a coworker, who then points the other foot, hanging out a little to the right of the first, fetchingly adorned by a bit of fluff. Presumably the original owner was, shall we say, brought home for dinner. Which leads one to some unpleasant speculations as to how that nest smells.

Kevin Reid @412: "martial artist's non-focus to track my whole field of view…." Can you point me at more information about this?

Googling [martial arts sparring non-focus of eyes], two good references come up. The latter refers to this technique as "The Dragon's Gaze," which I totally love. :-)

Benjamin Wolfe @413: I'm not a martial artist, but looking at it from a vision science perspective - which is what I've been doing 'round these parts lately - I'd describe it as looking for change in the environment.

This is probably just a quibble, but the way I was taught, you're not looking for anything. You're just seeing. Because the minute you direct your attention at anything, you are also directing your attention away from everything else, giving your opponent a fine opportunity to whack you from the other direction.

dcb @415: reading glasses not being adequate for computer work, that's going to be a pain!

Well, I'm sure mileage varies, and it doubtless depends on how you've got your workstation configured, but this is what I've been given to understand by my glasses-wearing and computer-using friends. Certainly it's easy enough to try, especially if you already have occassion to want reading glasses on hand.

#417 ::: Jacque, gnomed ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2013, 09:08 AM:

Sorry, have already finished the oatmeal.

#418 ::: Diatryma ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2013, 09:48 AM:

Cassy B, happy to help! I feel like I WON THE INTERNET or possibly I WON BIRDING. I got the website from here, too, and it's really useful for figuring things out.

#419 ::: PJ Evans ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2013, 10:57 AM:

Jacque, I can confirm that guinea pigs recognize food-associated sounds. Frisbie had one that recognized the fridge-door sounds and expected a delivery of greens every time it heard that sound.

#420 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2013, 11:19 AM:

Cats also recognize food-associated sounds. All of ours will come running whenever someone opens a pop-top food can, because they expect it to be either gooshyfood or tuna (of which they get the leftover juice). And there's a possibly-apocryphal story about a family whose cat got out, and they were able to find her by cruising the neighborhood streets playing a recording of the electric can opener.

#421 ::: PJ Evans ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2013, 11:26 AM:

Sammy and Harry could tell if you were getting into the freezer for frozen yogurt. (Their other favorite food was the milk on cereal, and they weren't picky about whether you'd finished the cereal first.)

#422 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2013, 11:28 AM:

Lee @420 there's a possibly-apocryphal story about a family whose cat got out, and they were able to find her by cruising the neighborhood streets playing a recording of the electric can opener.

In our case the cat didn't get out, but my mother, who was visiting us, was afraid he had. She couldn't find him anywhere in the house and called to ask me what she should do. I told her to run the can opener. The cat materialized in the kitchen.

And I think I've talked here before about my dog who, when he hears me in the kitchen say, "Oh, crap!" comes running in to see if I dropped anything tasty. It's not the specific words, it's the tone of voice.

#423 ::: Mongoose ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2013, 11:52 AM:

I keep a special fork for cat food. I recognise it by the distinctive handle; Her Furriness, however, recognises it by the particular sound it makes when it jostles against something else in the drawer. It doesn't seem to matter what it clatters against. She will always pick up the sound and come running. I can't tell the difference between that and the rattle of any other item of cutlery.

#424 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2013, 12:14 PM:

Our cat recognises the sound of the opening of the cheese box, the sound that indicates her (cat-specific) treats packet is being opened and the sound of a yoghurt pot being opened. She is equally sure she is getting a treat, whichever of these is opened. If she doesn't materialise when I get out either cheese or yoghurt then I know she's really fast asleep. She also likes broccoli leaves, malted breakfast cereal, corn crackers and various other carbohydrate-based foods.

She also seems to distinguish between the rustle of Sainsbury's standard plastic bags and those from other supermarkets, ever since she stuck her head through the handle opening and Plastic Bag Monster chased her all over the house when she was young. (Thankfully she finally went to ground, still with Plastic Bag Monster attached, under the sofa, and I was able to reach her and disentangle).

#425 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2013, 12:24 PM:

Our dogs, even the old mostly deaf wirehaired dachshund, come dashing into the kitchen whenever the veggie drawer is opened, and demand their statutory tribute of baby-cut carrots. We also cannot say the word "carrot" around them without arousing this expectation. They haven't cued into "orange root vegetable" yet, perhaps because we don't say that when we're offering them one.

#426 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2013, 12:27 PM:

Karen had a cat (Bosco) who could recognize when you were thinking of milk. Seriously -- go into the fridge for anything else, and no response. Think of milk, and the cat shows up. I never knew this cat, myself.

#427 ::: Cassy B. ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2013, 01:31 PM:

I had a cat once who knew the smell of gin. Perhaps I should back up a bit...

My husband sometimes makes himself a martini-on-the-rocks when he's had a long day at work. One day he saw that the cat was fishing in his martini. More amused than angry, he watched for a bit, figuring the cat was after an ice cube. But the cat was fishing for an olive. Turns out he loved and craved olives, to the point where my husband started putting a (cheap) olive on the kitchen floor when making a martini for himself to save the drink (and the more expensive martini olives). After a while, the cat started appearing when he made gin-and-tonics, although he carefully explained to the cat that gin-and-tonics did not get olives put into them. The cat didn't care, and the floor got an olive. No other bottle opening got that reaction; only the gin bottle. So we suspect it was the smell of the gin...

#428 ::: Mongoose ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2013, 01:49 PM:

Cassy @ 427: that's kind of awesome.

Minsky the Superintelligent Tabby loved the smell of vanilla. He always knew when I was opening the bottle of extract, and would come bounding into the kitchen for a sniff. I would then have to hold it to his nose while he enjoyed the distinctive scent. Can't say I blame him; it's one of my favourite smells too.

#429 ::: Clifton ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2013, 02:28 PM:

Here's another gorilla which I had read about a while ago, but forgot until I stumbled on this essay again (via Metafilter):

The cure, or rather preventive treatment, for scurvy was discovered (and proven) in the mid-1700s, and was then lost again by the early 20th century due to imprecision in language use*, among other things. This was a major factor in the disaster of Scott's Antarctic expedition in 1911.

* The whole lemons/limes question is an interesting example of why precise use of words sometimes matters very much indeed.

#430 ::: Clifton is gnomed ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2013, 02:29 PM:

... while talking about scurvy, mostly, and lemons vs limes. Have some, they're good for you!

#431 ::: John M. Burt ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2013, 02:30 PM:

Sika @ 386: Okay, now show me the penguin with a cigarette holder....

#432 ::: John M. Burt ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2013, 02:37 PM:

I live in Corvallis, a city which for some unexplained reason has crows where other towns have pigeons.
Not far away (and no closer to the coast) is Eugene, which has seagulls in place of pigeons.

#433 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2013, 04:11 PM:

Kevin Reid #412: I suspect the "soft focus" I learned from Starhawk's book (as a Wiccan magical exercise) is similar.

#434 ::: Nancy C. Mitttens ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2013, 08:50 PM:

-Those that appear in my vacation pictures.
-Those that are not named Bert.

#435 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2013, 09:53 PM:

Lila@302: I second, third, ... the comments about your optometrist; if one did that to me I'd report him to his professional association. (I can understand an optician not wanting to take the responsibility, but an optometrist should know what to do.)
I'm a software engineer, so I \have/ to be able to see a screen in toto; my first set of progressives drove me mad until I got single-focus intermediates. The trick is to get an optometrist who would actually test for the right prescription at computer distance rather than just writing a prescription splitting the difference.
I can imagine someone who has been an optometrist a long time not understanding the first request for computer glasses, but such glasses are a common need nowadays. I don't know whether (cf the discussion on eye exams for drivers) optometrists are required to show competence wrt current tech to keep their licenses.

Cassy@362: tilted bodies don't disprove ducks; see "Indian runner duck" (which is also raised in North America).

various re unexpected green birds: a few years ago there was a documentary (released in theaters, not just on TV) about a colony somewhere in San Francisco. Granted that's not as cold as Chicago -- but it's not as warm in the summer either.
I suppose if you start with a large enough population you can get selection to withstand atypical environments; cf the examples of Canada goose around Boston (et al) that don't migrate -- IIRC they're heavier than the migraters so they lose less heat. I've read that the reason for these pests is more gradual than the green birds; when live decoys (some bred?) were barred, some keepers just released theirs.

#436 ::: Bill Stewart ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2013, 10:47 PM:

Nancy Lebovitz @397, on 3D printing glasses frames: I'd expect there to be two issues - do they have strength/stiffness/volume characteristics that will let them be adequate frames to hold the weight of themselves and the lenses on your head comfortably, and do they have enough fine control over shape to let them hold onto the lenses, compared with other ways of forming plastic.

For the former, it's probably no trouble to make glasses frames similar to cheap plastic sunglasses using a 3D printer, and maybe a bit finer than that, but for reading glasses I find thick plastic frames to be distracting, and even thick metal ones, and prefer skinny metal frames or rimless. I don't think 3D printing is close to covering the whole market, but there may be market segments it can do ok.

But as far as fine resolution goes, I think most of the cheap extrusion printers get to about 1-2mm. The really expensive printers can get finer than that, down to maybe 0.1mm, which would be a lot more flexible about how you design your frames. You're going to need to do multiple pieces just for the part that holds the lenses (unless you want to print about halfway, drop in the lenses, and print the rest, which may or may not be very practical), and then fasten them together. You'll probably also want to have the overall design use hinges for the earpieces rather than one solid piece (I've got one set of one-piece glasses, made of springy metal, and they're not totally annoying, but that's probably a bad design for plastic frames.)

They're also going to cost a good bit more than molded plastic, but the tradeoff is that you get to customize them for each person instead of mass-producing industrial quantities, so a few extra dollars don't matter; if you were doing 3D printed glasses commercially you'd be charging a good bit more for your artwork than for the extra plastic and amortization of a low-end printer.

#437 ::: Rainflame ::: (view all by) ::: October 26, 2013, 11:45 PM:

John M Burt @432
The seagulls in Eugene are especially noticeable scavenging around the stadium after a football game.

#438 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2013, 01:14 AM:

#435 ::: Bill Stewart

These days, there's also 3D printing in metal (shapeways offers sterling silver) but I'm not sure whether there's anything light and strong enough.

#439 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2013, 02:15 PM:

Speaking of cats and odd aromas they love: my late Cinder absolutely adored bleach. Whenever I mopped the concrete floor in their room, she would follow, rolling with ecstasy on the newly mopped floor. When she died, I wrapped her in a t-shirt spritzed with bleach, just for old times' sake.

#440 ::: PJ Evans ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2013, 02:45 PM:

I met one cat who was very much taken with the split-hide purse I carried at the time - we had to put it in a drawer to keep it out of her reach.
Another one loved socks - but only if one particular person had worn them.

#441 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2013, 07:00 PM:

John M. Burt #432: Those birds require the presence of either Burgess Meredith or Danny de Vito.

#442 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2013, 09:16 PM:

I briefly had a rat by the name of Rat Rat. She would scavenge any used kleenexes she could find and hoard them away in her nest, so I quickly got in the habit of just dropping them on the floor when I was done with them. Come time to clean her cage, I'd put down an fresh batch for her to put in her nest. But she wasn't interested in them if they were unused, so to get her to pick them up, I had to systematicially spit on each one.

#443 ::: Clifton ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2013, 02:39 AM:

Awww, thanks for the Diffraction hat tip! I'm honored.

#444 ::: joann ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2013, 11:11 AM:

PJ Evans #440:

The late-lamented Great Cat Sophie loved to sleep in the upper half of pants--but only if they were $husband's. Also loved snuggling up with leather belts, ditto.

She would also lick perfume off my wrist, and always loved it when I came back from a pho expedition (lime and cilantro).

#446 ::: Cassy B. ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2013, 12:34 PM:

More re: cats and odors.

We had a cat, Hobbsie, who loved the smell and taste of photographic fixer. We had to take extreme care to keep her out of the darkroom; after my husband had spent time developing photographs she'd rub all over him when he emerged from the darkroom. (I sometimes think that's what cemented my husband as *her* human. Me, she tolerated.)

She'd also lick-lick-lick any photographs left unattended. Once she'd licked all the taste off, she'd scratch up the photograph in order to release more tasty-tasty fixer...

#447 ::: lorax ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2013, 01:36 PM:

Unexpected green birds:

There are a number of species of feral parrots and parakeets in the Los Angeles area, especially the San Gabriel Valley east and south of Pasadena. One of the more numerous species is the Mexican Red-crowned Parrot; it's in fairly serious trouble in its native range, and by some estimates there are more of them in LA than there are in Mexico. A flock of these feasting in an avocado tree is an impressive (and noisy) sight.

#448 ::: PJ Evans ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2013, 01:52 PM:

And they're very rarely seen in ones. Twos and more is the norm. (There are a lot of feral/escapes of various avians in LA. Apparently, some ethnic groups have been in the habit of loosing one or more as part of a wedding.)

#449 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: October 28, 2013, 03:17 PM:

There is a small (but noisy!) flock of feral parrots that often roosts in the large trees by the house across the street from ours. They are mostly green, but definitely not parakeets.

#450 ::: Chris ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2013, 10:37 PM:

@369, 412, 413, 416 re: "martial artist's non-focus"

This sounds very much like what I think of as "expanding my field of attention to fill my field of vision". It's useful for situational awareness in all sorts of circumstances, and can also provide an entirely new perspective even on places I go every day.

An odd side-effect I've noticed is that when I do it to the fullest extent, I lose a couple of layers of verbal pre-processing.

#451 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: October 30, 2013, 04:43 AM:

445 ::: James E @445: Mallard and mallard/domestic crosses (Anas platyrhynchus and Anas platyrhynchus x Anas platyrhynchus domesticus. In case you wanted to know!

Lee @449: I have a book with excellent colour plates of all the parrots and related birds, so I might be able to ID, given a picture to work from. If you're interested in knowing.

#452 ::: UrsulaV ::: (view all by) ::: October 30, 2013, 09:13 PM:

Is it too late to suggest "Juvenile black-crowned night heron" on the mysterious yellow-legged brown bird?

#453 ::: Cassy B. ::: (view all by) ::: October 30, 2013, 09:35 PM:

UrsulaV @452, the bird I saw was less... um... lanky. More stocky. I think it's likely it was a juvenile common gallinule as Diatryma suggested.

Of course, it's been some fifteen years, and I only saw it for a few minutes, so at this point I'm trying to reconstruct the memory...

#454 ::: PJ Evans ::: (view all by) ::: October 30, 2013, 10:15 PM:

The winter birds are showing up in my area: yellow-rumped warblers and white-crowned sparrows.

#455 ::: Henry Troup ::: (view all by) ::: November 01, 2013, 12:29 AM:

PJ Evans @454

The geese are in full migration here. They are pretty noisy in large numbers. Mostly Canada geese, but I have spotted three snow geese this year. Many corn fields here are just being harvested, so the geese come down and glean.

As do the crows, Saturday morning I saw a field full of crows, at least a couple of hundred.

#456 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: November 01, 2013, 07:08 AM:

I had a slightly distressing encounter yesterday with a little green bird -- distressing because it was in distress, but I couldn't do much about it because I had Gracie towing me around, which would have led to high chance of squashing it, never mind if she noticed it and decided it moved like prey. It was nestled at the base of a tree, occasionally fluttering, but appeared unable to go elsewhere.

This bird was rather smaller and rounder than a sparrow, parrot-green with a distinctive red dot on the top of its head.

Images and a scrap of video.

#457 ::: Dave Harmon has been gnomed ::: (view all by) ::: November 01, 2013, 07:09 AM:

Bird pics. I'll be nuking a plaintain for breakfast soon....

#458 ::: lorax ::: (view all by) ::: November 01, 2013, 10:21 AM:

Dave Harmon @456, that's a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, a native bird. Not having seen this one I'll take your word that it was in distress, but they're known for being frenetic little birds and it may just have been catching insects - this frantic behavior is one of the most reliable ways to distinguish them from some similar-looking birds (the distinctive red patch isn't always or even usually visible.)

#459 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: November 01, 2013, 05:40 PM:

lorax #458: Thanks! That certainly looks similar! Amusingly, hasn't heard of it, by common or scientific names.

At the time, I was assuming it was in distress because it was sitting on the ground and not running away from me or my dog. Also, from the size I was thinking "baby bird" despite the plumage.

On the one hand, Wikipedia notes that they can do a "broken-wing" act, on the other, it says Virginia should be securely in their nonbreeding winter range, so now I don't know what it was up to.

#461 ::: PJ Evans ::: (view all by) ::: November 01, 2013, 07:04 PM:

There's also this page from the Cornell bird people.

They're very busy little birds - they don't stay still for long.

#462 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: November 01, 2013, 11:27 PM:

David Goldfarb #460: Hmm, I wonder why I didn't get anything from searching for its name? Aha... I suspect the name search didn't override the keywords I'd been trying unsuccessfully!

The birds I found before that looked most similaer were mostly flycatchers, but there seem to be a surprising number of little green birds.

#463 ::: B. Durbin ::: (view all by) ::: November 04, 2013, 12:46 AM:

I once had a hard time identifying a pigeon because it was doing something I'd never seen before—sort of folding itself up with its head pulled back against its tail, and a weird sort of fearless strut. It must have been some kind of display, but I've never seen it before or since... and mind you, I was taking pictures of it in a parking lot, no other birds in sight, from the open window of my car because I'd stopped so I wouldn't run over it as it strutted around my vehicle. Weird bird.

#464 ::: Mishalak ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2013, 11:34 AM:

How is this for a late arriving gorilla.

In the last three days I watched a BBC program called The Story of England that explored the lives of ordinary people living the the town of Kibworth. The unexpected thing for me was a letter from a 1400s butcher to the college that owned the village fields. Apparently while literacy was not widespread it was not strictly limited to priests, scribes, and the gentry. The letter, incidentally, was describing the great intelligence of a boy and seeing if there could be a place for him at the college, the boy having reached the limits of what could be taught in the village. BBC description of the letter.

#465 ::: V ::: (view all by) ::: November 29, 2013, 09:26 PM:

Sorry if this has been posted already:

#466 ::: Paul A. ::: (view all by) ::: November 30, 2013, 03:17 AM:

Nancy C. Mitttens @ #434: Those that are not named Bert.

Hail to thee, Bligh's parrot!
Bert thou never wert...

#467 ::: David Goldfarb sees spam ::: (view all by) ::: April 24, 2014, 12:49 AM:

I already have all the baby pictures I can handle, thanks.

#468 ::: Benjamin Wolfe sees spam ::: (view all by) ::: May 12, 2014, 06:30 PM:

It's spam.

#469 ::: Mary Aileen sees lingering spam ::: (view all by) ::: May 22, 2014, 12:00 PM:

#468 is still there from last week.

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