Pectoral Fins

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Science [1] has taught us that dolphins are smart. Really smart. Arguably, they’re smarter than elephants, smarter than apes, smarter than dietitians. Dolphins exhibit behaviour previously believed to be exclusive to primates, both within and without the Catholic Church. Dolphins can use tools, they can recognize their own faces in the mirror, they can understand language. Dolphins even exhibit complex social behaviour. Anyone who has ever seen dolphins arguing over who gets to pay the dinner bill knows this.

This is all behaviour Science had previously observed in apes, but dolphins have recently displayed behaviour we once thought was unique to humans. For example, dolphins sometimes pretend to be sick to get out of work, then they update their Facebook statuses from home, forgetting that their boss friended them three months ago. Then they’re all like “OMG! My boss jus fierd me! Looks liek I need a knew job. #sickdayfail”

Dolphins are also bad at spelling.

Once, a person stood looking into the dolphin tank at an aquarium, smoking a cigarette. A dolphin calf watched the person smoke, swam back to its mom, took a sip of her milk, swam back to the person and blew the milk out of its mouth in imitation of the smoker. It would have been cute if it stopped there, but the calf began smoking real cigarettes within a month. It moved on to hard drinking and marijuana by the time it was two years old. After a very dramatic — and very public — breakdown in which it drunkenly swam around the tank in front of a group of elementary school students before collapsing in a pool of its own sick at the feet of its trainer, the calf was sent to rehab. Scientists stated they had never before observed such self destructive in behaviour in any species other than humans [2].

Dolphins’ command of language rivals that of the smartest apes and roughly 50% of thirteen-year-old boys. One dolphin, a four-year-old female called Ponga, used her beak and a sponge dipped in paint to scrawl what turned out to be a novel on the side of her tank at a research center in Bremen, Germany. Graduate research assistant Karl Schreiber witnessed the event. “Her prose was dull, vapid. The characters were two-dimensional. The plot, centering around a watch maker in Victorian England, was filled with anachronisms. But in her defense, she wrote the thing underwater. With her nose. And she’s a dolphin.”

Esther Lang, NPR book critic, disagrees with Schreiber’s assessment. “Ponga’s words strike at the heart of postmodern angst, exposing a festering malaise hidden beneath the crumbling façade of western prosperity, all in a style that is at once poignant and humorous — and, dare I say it, human — without being pretentious.”

When asked to comment, Ponga scrawled on the side of the tank, “Every1’s a cricket.”

Which brings me to pectoral fins.

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The more Science tells us about the intelligence of animals, the clearer it becomes that our position as the dominant species of this planet is far more precarious than we ever realized. If a species other than our own possessed the dangerous combination of intelligence, ambition and thumbs, they could build the machines needed to bring about our demise. Thankfully, no animal possesses the high intelligence/thumbs combo. “What about apes?” I hear your voice echo through the aether of the blogosphere. The most apes have ever thought to accomplish with their thumbs is to eat their own lice and fling their poo at passersby. We have little to worry about from them. No, the most serious threat comes from dolphins, and they’re mercifully saddled with worthless, thumbless pectoral fins.

 

And sometimes actual saddles.

 

The only thing keeping dolphins from building robotic bipedal machines that enable them to walk on land, to stalk our streets for human prey, to take our jobs for less pay, to steal our girlfriends and our boyfriends with their zestful dolphin charm — is a lack of opposable thumbs. Eventually they’ll figure a way around that little hurdle, but for now we can rest assured that our position as top species is secure.

 

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…or is it?

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[1] When I say, “Science,” I do, of course, mean “Douglas Adams.”

[2] This was six years before the Elephant Glue Sniffing Epidemic of ’82.

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The Life and Death(s) of Grigori Rasputin

Alexei Romanov, Tsarevich of the Russian Empire, suffered from haemophilia, a condition of the blood common among descendants of Queen Victoria.[1] Worried for her son’s life, Alexei’s mother the Tsaritsa Alexandra summoned a spiritual healer of some renown to the palace. After the holy man’s visit, the boy recovered. Crediting him with the cure of her son, he became a favourite of the Empress for the rest of his days. In the years following Alexei’s recovery, this monk rose to both fame and infamy through his association with, and influence over, the Tsaritsa.[2] This monk is, of course, “The Mad Monk” Grigori Rasputin, also known as “The Heir of Slytherin.” “Razzmatazz Ras” to his friends. You probably know him simply as Rasputin.

Rasputin’s close association with the Tsaritsa won him few friends; he was seen as a manipulator of the royal family, an enemy of the empire who must be stopped at any cost. Rasputin’s reputation was not helped by his notoriously depraved personal predilections. In short, he had an unhealthy fondness for good food, plentiful alcohol and beautiful women. When he wasn’t hobnobbing with the Romanovs, he was indulging his bacchanalian propensities in St. Petersburg’s taverns of good reputation and houses of ill repute.

Llllllladies...

Our tale, however, does not concern the life of Rasputin, but his death. Or rather his deaths. You see, among the many reasons for his fame, Rasputin was widely considered to be the least killable man in St. Petersburg. In fact, Rasputin was killed no less than twenty-seven times with no success.[3] The Russians even have a phrase[4], колющие монах, which literally translated means “stabbing the monk” but has come to mean “having fun.”

At first, the attempts on Rasputin’s life were fairly straightforward. Once as Rasputin was leaving church, a woman and disciple of one of his rivals stabbed Rasputin in the gut. Believing her assassination attempt successful, she screamed, “I have killed the Antichrist!” Sadly for our would-be killer our would-be Antichrist survived the attack.

After the botched stabbing, the attempts to kill Rasputin were rather silly. His enemies tried tickling him with feathers, they forced him to read Melville, they even fed him Russian food on one occasion.[5] He survived every assault. Inexplicably, they only seemed to make him stronger, more insidious, and strangely, more hirsute.

A weirdy, beardy, magiciany man.

Rasputin quickly gained a reputation for unkillableness, so the plots to kill him grew both plottier and more elaborate. Knowing his predilection for decadent food and beautiful women, a group of nobles, led by Prince Yusupov, lured him to the home of Princess Irina with the promise of a late night tryst. The conspirators told Rasputin to wait for the princess in the basement where they plied him with food and drink. Unbeknownst to Rasputin, it was all laced with poison.[6] The murderers watched as Rasputin ate enough poisoned food to kill five men, yet it had no effect on him. Running out of time to dispose of the body, Prince Yusupov shot Rasputin and left him for dead. The men returned several hours later to dispose of the body.

Among Rasputin’s many reputed spiritual gifts, he was widely considered a prophet (He was also believed to be able to talk to badgers, but that’s neither here nor there). So it can only be assumed that Rasputin had foreseen twentieth century horror movie tropes, because when Yusupov leaned over Rasputin to pick up his corpse, Rasputin’s eyes shot open and he lunged at Yusupov, grasping him about the neck.

He also predicted "The Shawshank Redemption" with eerie clarity.

At this point it becomes difficult for the historian and the verendicompendian to separate truth from legend. So we will err, as is fitting, on the side of awesome.

The other assassins shot Rasputin several more times in the back, saving Yusupov’s life. When they approached the body, Rasputin was somehow still alive, so they clubbed him repeatedly. They then bound him in chains, rolled him up in a carpet, wrapped the carpet in barbed wire, doused the bundle in gasoline, lit it on fire, wrapped the charred remains in yet another carpet, which was subsequently encased in concrete, which was also wrapped in barbed wire, doused in gasoline and lit on fire. Finally, they took the smoldering remnants of the smoldering remnants of the poisoned, shot, and bludgeoned remains of the monk and threw them in the frigid Neva River.

Rasputin, the Satan of St. Petersburg, was finally dead.

…or was he?

Rasputin?

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[1] About 87% of posh European people at the time.

[2] He is also the subject of the song “Rasputin” by the Euro disco group Boney M, a song so obscure, so utterly unheard of, if anything it has somehow made him less famous.

[3] The children of St. Petersburg even made a sport of killing Rasputin. The rules were simple: the first one to kill Rasputin wins. Extra points were rewarded for every minute he stayed dead. Rasputin used to take the long way to the palace just to avoid his own assassination at the hands of an incorrigible young street urchin.

[4] No, they don’t.

[5] Contrary to popular belief, Russians do not actually eat Russian food. They invented it during the Napoleonic Wars in hopes of discouraging invasion. They later used it to great effect during The Cold War as a means of weakening the will of the people of Eastern Europe.

[6] The poison poisson was particularly pernicious.

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Switzerland

To many Americans, Switzerland is either a) Sweden, b) a European theme park, or c) not real. To very few of us is it known as a small Alpine tassel adorning Italy’s boot. What we don’t know about Switzerland says as much as what we do know. For example, the fact that we don’t know Switzerland for its rampant gang-related violence – or for producing androgynous Europop stars – is a very good thing. With little to go on in the way of cold, hard facts, many Americans are forced to rely upon stereotypes to fill in the gaps. Now, I would as lief form judgments on a people group based solely on broad stereotypes as the next guy, but even Swiss stereotypes turn out to be vague and uninformative, and sadly, my countrymen go about their lives blissfully unaware of the awesomeness that is Switzerland.

Not from Switzerland

We know from common Swiss stereotypes that they make chocolate, cheese, clocks, army knives, banks and neutrality. In fact, according to a 2009 UN report, Switzerland is the number one neutrality producer in the world, accounting for 43% of earth’s neutrality. That’s more than Canada, Ireland, Sweden and Vatican City combined! But what does this tell us about Switzerland? That they can tell time? That they have currency? And how does making chocolate set them apart from any other European nation? Or for that matter any nation with access to cocoa and sugar? Or any nation founded after the advent of Dessert? We need more to go on!

There’s so much more to Switzerland than what products they export. Like the people who live there. The Swiss people speak four languages – French, German, Italian and Yodeling, reflecting their location between four countries we can prove exist – France, Germany, Italy and Austria – and one we can’t – Liechtenstein[1], as well as their eclectic mix of ethnic groups and lonely goatherds. The Swiss people may come from many different people groups, but they all have one thing in common: they make mediocre post-Cold War Bond villains.

One ethnically ambiguous Swiss banker on the wrong end of Mr. Bond's Walther.

Switzerland is also home of the Matterhorn, which, legend tells us, the last President of the Confederation will blow when all peace is lost in this world, when Swiss neutrality no longer protects them and their borders are overrun by foreign hordes. When the Matterhorn sounds, the last remnant of Switzerlanders will know to flee to the highest mountains to make their last stand.

The Matterhorn at the Annual St. Berchtold's Day Parade

Okay. Look, I’m going to level with you. I may have made some to all of that up. Swiss stereotypes really are all I have to go on, but you see, that is exactly what makes Switzerland so awesome. The less anyone knows about Switzerland, the longer it survives. It’s nearly impossible for a country as small as Switzerland to remain neutral when its next door neighbour is Germany, a nation which tried to take over Europe not once, but twice in the last 100 years. Italy, France and Austria don’t exactly have spotless records themselves. It’s far too risky to invade a country when you don’t know how many weapons they have, what kind of weapons they have or where those weapons might be. It’s even riskier when no one’s even exactly sure where the country is located. Sure, we all know Switzerland’s crammed in the middle of France, Germany, Austria and Italy, but finding it would be like looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack. The Alps form an impossible labyrinth, not mention the country’s less than twice the size of New Jersey, and I bet most of you couldn’t find that on a map either.

Which one of these is Switzerland again?

If Germany tried to invade Switzerland during World War II, Hitler would have spent half the war digging under the couch cushions of Europe for it. Then he would have yelled, “Eva! Have you seen Switzerland?”

To which she would have replied, “What?!” from her room.

“I said, ‘Have you seen Switzerland?’ I could have sworn I saw it next to Austria this morning, but it’s not there anymore!”

Then Eva would have said, “Have you tried next to Austria?”

And Hitler would say, “That’s what I said! I already looked next to Austria!”

“Oh, well look on Italy!”

“It’s not on Italy! Don’t you think that’s the first place I would have looked?!”

And the next thing they would have known, the Allies would have invaded Berlin, and they would have been on fire in a ditch before the Americans even knew what was going on in Europe.

You see, Switzerland grew up around bullies. Now, I’m a big fan of Germany, Italy and France. They’re our allies and our friends, but let’s face it: they’re bullies. To survive in a schoolyard full of bullies, the littlest kid in school either secretly takes karate lessons after school or he learns to hide really well. I suggest to you that Switzerland has learned to do both. Even if I’m wrong, even if Switzerland has no might to back up its neutrality, its existence is just vague enough to have kept more than one dictator from invading. That is no small feat, and it has earned Switzerland a permanent place in the annals of awesome.

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[1] The last Liechtenstein sighting was on July 27, 1978, in the form of a grainy photograph taken from the Austrian border by Swedish mountaineer and amateur cryptoethnologist, Erik Blomkvist. The so-called Blomkvist Photograph has gained its proponents, but it has yet to be verified by leading cryptoethnologists and is considered by many to be a hoax.

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The Shape of Things to Come

Darryl Hannah in 'Clan of the Cave Bear'

A while back I wrote about the Urso-Human Wars, back around the time that I, you know, still wrote posts. I don’t want to brag or anything, but it has been said[1] that this blog was solely responsible for alerting humans[2] to the dangers of bearkind. And yet even I was not aware how postscient[3] my words would prove to be…

This very week evidence has come to my attention that sheds new light on the urso-human conflict. Not only is a clash between bears and humans – a clash that will decide the fate of both our races – inevitable, it may have already happened. Scientists believe that when early man moved into the caves of prehistoric Europe, they clashed with the local population of cave bears. The cave bears, proud and curmudgeonly race that they were, were not eager to share their living space with the humans. Not to be denied prime cave-painting real estate, the humans fought back. There was bloodshed. There was the occasional bear-human hug and/or tummy rub too, but mostly there was bloodshed. In the end the humans proved victorious, free now to while away their time finger painting dirty comic strips on their walls in peace.

Luchadors may be humanity's last defense against a bearslaught.

The cave bears, however, went extinct. Scientists aren’t sure if this was a result of the war itself. Some suggest the cave bears simply couldn’t adjust emotionally to living outside of caves. After all, without caves, cave bears are just bears. Some of the cave bears went in search of other caves, never to be seen or heard from again. The cave bear religion even became centered around the notion of The Honey Cave that the Great Sky Bear[4] would lead them to after annihilating the human race at the end of the world. Other cave bears rejected the religion of their fellow bears as baseless superstition, choosing instead to adapt to the times they lived in. These bears believed that for their kind to survive, they had to break with the past and their identity as ‘cave bears’ and integrate themselves into other bear communities: grizzly, polar, black, teddy, gummi, to name a few.

It has yet to be seen if history will repeat itself. Will human and bear find a way to bury the hatchet and live together in harmony, or will bears take revenge on us by moving into our homes and repainting our walls? Is the stealing of our pic-a-nic baskets but a prelude to an all-out bear attack? We’ll have to wait and see, but I trust, my astute reader, that you already know what this awesome-munimentalist thinks.


[1] By me.

[2] About five of them.

[3] postscient – n having or showing knowledge of events after they have taken place

[4] Ursa Major

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The Autumnal Equinox

In recent years, a belief has spread that the Autumnal Equinox is the first day of Fall. This is clearly an urban legend with no basis in truth. Like all such myths, most of the support for this idea is based in tidbits of ‘scientific fact’ gleaned from internet forums and Wikipedia. Its proponents state that the Autumnal Equinox occurs when the axis of the earth is not pointed toward or away from the sun, resulting in roughly equal-length night and day. They also claim that ‘autumnal’ is an adjective meaning ‘pertaining to autumn’ and that ‘equinox’ comes from the Latin aequi meaning ‘equal’ and nox meaning ‘night.’ Such linguistic bamboozlement is a telltale sign of these modern tall tales, and is not to be believed under any circumstances.

Look at this carefully. It doesn't mean anything.

The truth about the Autumnal Equinox is far more interesting, and far older, than the explanation offered by poorly researched chatroom ‘science.’

The Autumnal Equinox is a legendary monster said to live in the ancient forests of Great Britain. The story goes that the  Celts and Anglo-Saxons who inhabited the forests and surrounding farmland lived in peace and security most of the year. But every September, for one night only, the Equinox would appear. The people would hear the ominous cry of the Equinox from the darkest parts of the forest exactly as the sun went down. It was the only warning they ever got. The Equinox would emerge from its secret den to prey upon the human population, gorging itself on the flesh of its victims. And then, just as quickly as it appeared, it would disappear at the crack of dawn, not to be seen or heard from again until the following year on the same night.

The word ‘autumnal’ is believed to originate with the Anglo-Saxon unman, meaning ‘un-man.’ The prefix aut-, from the Greek auto, meaning ‘self,’ was most likely added during the Jacobean period, when it was in vogue to attach Greek and Latin affixes to Anglo-Saxon roots. The overall sense of the word — literally translated ‘self-un-man’ — is of a creature originally human who for some horrible reason has willingly transformed himself into a monster by some agreement with dark forces. You see, the Equinox is no mere monster; it is the worst kind of monster: one that used to be man. It is no wonder, then, that the Autumnal Equinox held a place of special fear for the Celtic and Saxon tribesmen.[i]

The word ‘equinox’ is another example of Jacobean Latin-Saxon pairing. ‘Equi-‘ comes from the Latin equus, meaning ‘horse,’ and ox is an Anglo-Saxon word meaning, well, ox — literally translated, an ‘equine ox.’

A medieval portrayal of an Equinox killing a warrior with its dreaded projectile whatsit.

So the Autumnal Equinox is a monstrous beast — part horse, part ox — that used to be a rational man before he sold his soul to demons and was transformed into a flesh-eating hell beast.

Out of self preservation, the tribesmen started building large fires and holding religious ceremonies in order to ward off the Equinox. Later on a belief arose that if one could manage to balance an egg vertically on the night of the Equinox’s attack, it would act as amulet capable of warding the monster off. The custom continues to this very day.

Eventually, as the population of Britain grew, the forests were cut down, cities spread, technology improved, and the Equinox has scarcely been seen since. The only memory anyone has of it is in the continuing commemoration of the night named after it at the end of every September.

Still, there are those who say that if one is alone in an English wood on this inauspicious night, the ominous keening of the ravenous Equinox can still be heard.

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[i] The only creature more terrible and more feared than the Autumnal Equinox is the Vernal Equinox. ‘Vernal’ here is derived from the same Latin root as infernal, meaning ‘from hell.’

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A Letter of Apology to Labourers

18 September, anno domini 2010

Dear Sir or Madam,

Two weeks ago today I made a promise to you that I could not, as it turned out, keep. In an effort to remove from my back the burden of shame I have borne these many years for failing to live up to my family’s duel legacy of hard work and criminal activity, I intended to write a week-long tribute to outstanding men and women labourers. I could not live up to that promise. The only explanation I can offer you for my actions is that I was engaged in what I hope you will accept as a more fitting tribute to your labours: I was working.  I would like to extend a special apology to the intended subjects of my tribute, Messrs Henry and Heracles and Mmes Riveter and Virgin.

Were it not for you and your hammer, John Henry, the world may not have become aware of the intrinsic evil of machines. We would have been doomed to an apocalypse at the hands of our own creations. Because of you we — and by ‘we’ I mean ‘Hollywood movies’ — are ever vigilant against the machinations of technology, and the world is safe. For now.

Heracles, of your many labours, the cleaning of the Augean Stables stands out as particularly verendic. There are heroes enough in this world to face lions, boars and hydras; but rare is the man who would clean up a 30-year-old pile of whatsit. You stepped in a pile that even Mike Rowe would fear to tread in, and you came out victorious. Stinky, but victorious.

Rosie the Riveter. In Europe’s darkest hour, with the last of the free countries on the brink of collapse, you roused America to action. “We can do it!” you told us, and you were right. Japan may have awakened a sleeping giant when they bombed Pearl Harbor, but it was you who filled him with terrible resolve. The free people of the world owe you a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid.

Mary, the only labour for which you will ever be famous might have been over in a matter of hours, but from it you brought forth the Saviour of the human race. The ramifications of this act are so mind-blowing, the whole world is still trying to figure out what to do with it. On behalf of the faithful, I thank you for agreeing to an insane job offer from an angel you’d only just met. We will be marveling in the mystery of the Son you bore  — yet who created you — for eternity to come.

You are all worthy of  recognition for your awesome labours. If the opportunity presents itself, I plan to follow through on my promise and dedicate posts to you in the future. I sincerely hope I have not offended any of you.

Tenderly I remain your verendicompendist,

S. Hamley Bildebrandt

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Labourers

Monday is Labour Day. Here in America it’s spelt Labor Day because of the the Great Depression and the War. In order to create jobs and to stem the tide of global fascism, most of America’s U’s were melted down between 1937 and 1945 to increase the output of pro-war propaganda[i] and German ethnic slurs[ii] for the war effort. Roosevelt’s U Drive helped the Allies win the war, but it’s been causing us to lose Scrabble games to our friends across the pond ever since.

A vat of molten U's destined for the the Western Front.

In honour of the men and women who have spent their lives toiling long hours under impossible conditions just to earn an honest living, each post this week will be dedicated to an awesome labourer.

Like many payers of homage, there is an element of guilt inspiring my tribute. I don’t work, or at least I don’t do the kind of back-breaking, self-sacrificing manual labour I am here paying tribute to. And I feel guilty about it.

The sad truth is, I’m a disgrace to my family name. I come from a long line of manly labourers. Going back to my Scottish roots, my ancestors were cattle thieves. When they immigrated to the United States, some of them became train robbers. It may not have been honest work, but it was manly. And tough. On my father’s side I’m of lumberjack stock. Our ancestral town, which still bears our name, is an entire city of lumberjacks to this very day. My grandfather was a lumberjack too. And a coal miner. And a carpenter. Both of my grandfathers lived through the Great Depression and World War II.

A memorial to grandpa. He used to shave with that axe.

I, on the other hand, am a high school teacher and an artist who cries a lot.

Perhaps in writing this I hope to honour the ancestors who would shun me at family reunions were they still living. Perhaps I have it in me to be a great labourer as well, but I haven’t had the opportunity to test my mettle. Perhaps I just wanted to use the expression “test my mettle” without actually having to, you know, test it.

What is certain is that the labourers of this world are awesome and deserve our recognition and gratitude. Labourers, this week is for you.
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[i] “Uncle Sam wants you!” read “Ncle Sam wants yo!” until April, 1937.

[ii] Krat didn’t make quite as much sense as kraut.

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