Author Archives: Katherine

Minnie the Moocher

Have eight minutes? Watch Minnie the Moocher and learn a truckload of awesome stuff!

There’s so much going on with this film, I hardly know where to begin. So, let’s just start with the basics, and technical stuff, and go from there. First, this is a traditional hand-drawn animated film by Fleischer Studios, released in 1932. If you’ve ever made a sticky-pad flip book, you know how this works. In this case, though, the animation is done on “cells” or sheets of clear plastic, and photographed over painted backgrounds that show through, with each photograph exposing one frame of the film.

A neat thing to notice (and it’s easier if you re-watch it with the sound muted) is that the studio uses cycles of repeated cell sequences to make some parts cheaper to animate. Look for repeated motions in the animation – either the animation is reused outright, or short bits of repeated motions that can be traced are simply copied to new cells. Examples include Betty and Bimbo running out of town (in the case of just reusing the same sequence of cells), and the cork in the jar on the table hopping onto the table and back in the very beginning (for just a part of the animation being traced to new cells). Once you know that animation frequently does this, you’ll know what to look for, and you’ll be able to spot this technique in lots of other animated movies and series. Used with finesse, it adds a sense of rhythm and pacing.

Another cool animation technique on display is rotoscoping. You don’t have to re-use or trace other animation cells, you can actually trace live action footage, too. This is especially useful for capturing complex movements that maybe your artists don’t have a mental reference for already. The famous dancing walrus ghost (what, surprised? watch the film, seriously, it’s worth it) is actually traced over live-action footage of Cab Calloway dancing. So, not only did Cab Calloway provide the walrus ghost vocals, he’s also the reference for the walrus ghost’s slick dance moves. Kind of like modern motion capture, but without the aid of computers, and entirely by hand.

About that walrus ghost. Did I mention the style of the film? It’s seriously creepy and weird. Since everything in an animated film is drawn by hand, if you can draw it, you can animate it, limited only by your skill and your imagination. Scary, grim, and with a tacked-on last-minute wholesome ending, Minnie the Moocher was for general audiences, not just kids. The song’s about Minnie, who gets drawn into a life of poverty, crime, and drug use because she falls in love with an addict. Ghosts get electrocuted, and skeletons drink themselves to death. The implication, of course, is that this is where teen runaway Betty’s life is headed, if she doesn’t go back home to her first-gen immigrant parents who have a hard time relating to their Americanized daughter and insist she eat her hasenpfeffer.

Content-wise this short film doesn’t pull any punches, despite the superficially cartoony style. Even the idea that a cartoon would be kid stuff is very recent. There’s a huge difference between early Betty Boop – where she’s a rebellious teen flapper – and later Betty Boop – where she becomes a much more demure housewife type. The reason for this is the Hays Code. Movies didn’t have ratings for different audiences based on content. Instead, the Hays Code dictated what was allowed to be in Hollywood movies and what wasn’t. This kind of industry-run censorship is actually pretty common, historically. (Note that although the Hays Code came out in 1930, it wasn’t really enforced until later. So, Minnie the Moocher gleefully ignores the code, even though it was technically produced under it in 1932.) Compare the slightly-later Comics Code, for another example.

That’s a lot of technical, heavy, historical stuff for a film that’s less than ten minutes long, and we’ve barely scratched the surface, too.

The Surgeon General of Bacotania

I find that news releases on health research often do a lousy job of communicating what the findings actually are, and how they might inform people’s decisions. Often, in order to make sense of them at all, you have to know some statistics, read between the lines, and cut through the hype. The problem seems to be especially severe in the case of a study on the scale of something impacting populations, but hyped for the public because the authors don’t trust the reader to care unless they’re scared. There’s a difference between public health and personal health, and although the two are connected, statistically, the conclusions can be wildly different depending on your point of view – managing populations, or managing your own choices. Also, when people make decisions about their own health and safety, they fall prey to some particularly nasty logical fallacies (all natural means harmless, or it’s not cancer, so it’s fine – or, “not likely to be me” means that “it won’t happen to me”). Even nastier, research on sensational subjects – like all scientific research – often turns up complicated or ambiguous results that get distilled into inaccurate clickbait. Never fear, though, let’s play pretend, and sort through, now and forever, how to think about statistics and clickbait-y health headlines. (I sourced the images in this article from Wikimedia Commons, as usual, and the attributions are at the bottom of this page, to help maintain the suspension of disbelief.)

 

About Bacotania

Vintage photo of a woman wearing bacon slabs on her feet, standing in a giant skillet.

1. Skillet Skating is a Bacotanian folk dance, recently nominated for inclusion in the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists in which the dancer wears slabs of bacon on their feet and skates around a giant skillet with a giant spatula. A good performance is said to prevent the sticking of eggs in the coming year.

Bacotania is an imaginary country with a rich cultural history deeply intertwined with the consumption of cured pork. The total population is about 12 million, and national holidays include February 4th, Remembrance Sausage Day, and October 16th, Bacotanian Liberation Day. The festivities of Liberation Day culminate in a Liberation Day Bonfire Feast in which chunks of pork belly are roasted on sticks over Liberation Day Bonfires in honor of the heroic air drop of canned bacon into the besieged capital city of Schlachteplatte.

A giant can of bacon, 70 years old, WWII rations from the UK.

2. One of the historic bacon cans in the National Museum of Bacotania.

A fire pit with two long forks full of fresh raw bacon held over the flames.

3. Bacontanian Liberation Day Bonfire with skewers of bacon sizzling over the open flames.

Needless to say, bacon is very important to the people of Bacotania, and the loss of cured pork products would cause immense damage to the economy and culture of the country. The 2015 decision by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer to classify processed meat consumption as a Group 1 Carcinogen was met with increasing public unrest, including mass demonstrations outside the Surgeon General’s office in Schlachteplatte, which led to the Surgeon General stepping down from their post.

Congratulations! YOU have just been appointed Surgeon General of Bacotania.

What is your advice, concerning the consumption of cured pork products?

You’ll need some further information:

What is a Class 1 Carcinogen? In a masterpiece of shoddy journalism, a lot of press outlets didn’t discuss what the classes even meant. The IARC classifies substances based on how conclusive the evidence is that they cause cancer at all, NOT even remotely based on how dangerous they are. There’s only one item in Group 4, the Probably Does NOT Cause Cancer group, and that’s Caprolactam. I’d never heard of caprolactam before doing the research for this post. It’s used in nylon manufacture, and it’s definitely not harmless, but we’re pretty sure it doesn’t cause cancer. Nobody seems to have studied whether, say, pure water causes cancer.

What is an individual’s chances of getting cancer from bacon? The average lifetime chance of getting colon cancer is about 4%. According to the World Health Organization, the chance of getting colon cancer rises by 18% for every 50 grams of processed meat consumed per day. Now, we need one more bit of information, and that is the average consumption of processed meats. According to this study, average daily consumption of meat (all types) was 128 grams per day, and 22% of that was processed meat. So (22% of 128 grams gives you how many grams are processed meat) that means that the average person eats 28.16 grams of processed meat per day. So, if you start at 4% with 28.16 grams, and add 18% of 4% for every 50 grams eaten over the 28.16 gram starting point, you end up with an average Bacotanian’s cancer risk.

How much bacon does the average Bacotanian citizen eat? Bacotanians are very fond of processed meat, and a traditional Bacotanian Breakfast involves lots of sausage, so they eat twice the processed meat that Americans do, at 56.32 grams per day.

What is the average Bacotanian’s cancer risk then? Well, we need to figure out how much more processed meat than the American average an average Bacotanian eats, and then figure out what proportion of 50 grams it is, and then add that proportion of the 18% of 4% to the average 4%. Got it? Let’s go!

56.32 – 28.16 = 28.16, because it’s twice, remember? Easy!

28.16 extra grams eaten divided by 50 (grams to raise risk by 18% of 4%) = 0.5632 (amount of the 18% excess risk we should add)

0.5632 of 18% = 10.1376% Cool. Now we’re getting somewhere.

10.1376% of 4% = about 0.004, which is 0.4%

So, the average Bacotanian faces an elevated lifetime colorectal cancer risk of 4.4% on account of their huge processed meat habit. This means that for the average bacotanian, their MORTALITY ROULETTE WHEEL lands on DEATH BY BACON not much more often at all compared to the American population. (Bacotanian healthcare and mortality from colorectal cancer are comparable to ours.)

How many excess colorectal cancer cases are likely to occur in Bacotania if people continue to eat processed meat at this pace? Well, 0.4% of the total population are going to lose that roulette round, so…

0.04% of 12 million is… 48,000. YIKES! That means that Forty-eight THOUSAND Bacotanians are going to get cancer from bacon, above and beyond even the background colorectal cancer rates. If you factor that in, it’s a staggering 528,000 cancer cases. The cost to society, and the personal emotional toll on all those families is absolutely astronomical. And, clearly, partially preventable.

So, that’s how the same decision – eat the bacon, tell people not to eat bacon – ends up looking very different from the perspectives of an individual Bacotanian and the Surgeon General of Bacotania. The Bacotanian might well accept the risk, shrug, and tuck into a full Bacotanian breakfast of smoked sausages anyway. Note that although it’s a Class 1 Carcinogen, processed meat has a much smaller chance to cause cancer, compared to other Class 1 Carcinogens, like Asbestos, which (depending on your own exposure) can have lifetime risk rates as high as a 25% if you were a construction carpenter in the United Kingdom for a couple decades before 1980. Also, note that this only concerns cancer risk, not whether the cancer has a high mortality rate, and not concerning other health risks associated with the substance. (Remember that although Caprolactam is the sole occupant of Probably Does Not Cause Cancer Group 4, it’ll still cause your skin to slough off. Nice.)

So, maybe suggest that Bacotanians cut back on processed meats, but that the Bacotanian Liberation Day Bonfires likely won’t do you any harm.

Probably want to suggest the closure of Ye Wooly Salamander Particle Board Mill, though…

 

  1. Vintage Photo, United States of America. No, I have no idea what’s going on here. By UW Digital Collections [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons
  2. British Ration Can of Bacon from WW II. Seriously, my heaviest of two cats weighs 12 lbs. That’s a LOT of 70 year old bacon. By KingaNBM [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
  3. Hungarian Szalonnasütés By Christo [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

I Don’t Know

Is the most exciting phrase I know of. Any time I don’t know something, it means that I could find out, or maybe (even more exciting!) nobody knows the answer. For everything we do know, a huge mountain of other questions exists, and there’s no end of cool stuff to explore.

Do you know anything about beaked whales? Did you know beaked whales exist? You don’t? Good. Beaked whales are toothed whales, and generally they have just two big teeth on their lower jaw. They usually live in deep water in the middle of the ocean, and mostly they eat squid. Because of their lifestyle so far away from human activity, several beaked whales aren’t very well known at all. 

Andrews’ Beaked Whale Mesoplodon bodoini

A skeleton of an Andrews' Beaked Whale, mounted in a museum.

By Notafly [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

One of the most obscure of the already pretty obscure beaked whales is this, the Andrews’ Beaked Whale. This skeleton represents about 1/35th of our total knowledge of this animal, because everything we know is based on about thirty-five specimens. Click through to this species profile, and you’ll pick up a few more pictures of specimens. We’ve got some information about what they look like, and how their bodies are put together. But that’s just about it. The only way we know anything at all about them is that sometimes (very rarely), they’ve washed up dead on beaches.

How big are they? 15 feet or so long, 4.5 meters, we think. Thirty-five specimens isn’t much to work with.

Where do they live? In the circumpolar seas around Antarctica, probably.

What do they look like? Gray, with a bit of white. Males seem to have white on their rostrum, females a little less white, and juveniles more gray all over. Probably.

How long do they live? No idea.

What do they eat? Squid or something? Probably?

What do they do with their time? We don’t know.

How big are the babies? We don’t know.

How many of them are there? We have no idea.

How do they communicate? *shrug*

Do they live in groups? No clue.

Do they migrate? We don’t know.

Are they active during the day or night? No idea at all.

Here’s something we do know (again, anatomy) – those weird teeth are generally all below the gumline and never erupt in females it seems. In males, the very points might peek out of the gums, but that’s it. (Again, small sample size means that this is pretty shaky knowledge.) Weird.

Nobody has ever seen this animal alive.

 

Here’s an Andrews’ Beaked Whale Bibliography (APA format, because this is science):

Andrews, R. C. (1908). Description of a new species of Mesoplodon from Canterbury Province, New Zealand (Vol. 24). order of the Trustees, American Museum of Natural History.

Baker, A. N. (2001). Status, relationships, and distribution of Mesoplodon bowdoini Andrews, 1908 (Cetacea: Ziphiidae). Marine mammal science17(3), 473-493.

Dalebout, M. L., Van Helden, A., Van Waerebeek, K., & Baker, C. S. (1998). Molecular genetic identification of southern hemisphere beaked whales (Cetacea: Ziphiidae). Molecular Ecology7(6), 687-694.

Dixon, J. M. (1970). Two new whale records from Victoria, Mesoplodon bowdoini Andrews (Ziphiidae) and Balaenoptera edeni Anderson (Balaenopteridae). The Victorian Naturalist87(4), 88-93.

Hubbs, C. L. (1946). First records of two beaked whales, Mesoplodon bowdoini and Ziphius cavirostris, from the Pacific Coast of the United States. Journal of mammalogy27(3), 242-255.

Laporta, P., Praderi, R., Little, V., & Le Bas, A. (2005). An Andrew’s beaked whale Mesoplodon bowdoini (Cetacea, Ziphiidae) stranded on the Atlantic Coast of Uruguay. Latin American Journal of aquatic mammals4(2), 101-111.

Nishiwaki, M. (1962). Mesoplodon bowdoini stranded at Akita beach. Sea of Japan11.

 

I’ve scoured through several scholarly journal databases, and these seven publications compose pretty much literally all we know about the Andrews’ Beaked Whale (note that the Andrews, 1908 citation above is actually the species description). If you hunt down and read all those articles (maybe with the help of a library – hint hint), then congratulations, you’re now a world expert in the Andrews’ Beaked Whale. It’s not often you have the chance to learn everything humanity knows about a subject in a single weekend, yet here it is. Maybe you’ll be the one to finally see one in the wild, or, better yet, take video of one.

As for the Andrews’ Beaked Whale itself, just think:

They’re out there, right now, doing whatever it is that they do. 

Bicycle Built For Two

A tandem bicycle with a lady and a gent on it. Actual old photo.

Tandem bike, CA 1896

I frequently tell people that everything is interesting and cool, and only gets more awesome the closer you look. Here’s a relentlessly deep dive into a corny song that’s over 120 years old.

CAUTION: Daisy Bell (Bicycle Built for Two) is an earworm, and the insidious metaphorical kind, not the literal ones who are just trying to make a living that I like to cover on this blog. What’s that? You read the medical paper in that link and now your ears itch just thinking about it? Why watch horror movies at all when there’s all of nature’s untrammeled majesty just waiting to be discovered? Why, you’re welcome.

These are the lyrics for the version I know:

 

Daisy Bell

Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer true.

I’m half crazy all for the love of you.

It won’t be a stylish marriage;

I can’t afford a carriage.

But you’ll look sweet

Upon the seat

Of a bicycle built for two.

 

Henry, Henry, I’ll give you my answer true.

I’m not crazy all for the love of you.

There won’t be any marriage

If you can’t afford a carriage.

I won’t look sweet

Upon the seat

Of a bicycle built for two.

 

Heh. Read it really carefully. What’s this song about, and what’s going on? What happens in it? Don’t overthink it. I find, when teaching people to close read, they think there’s some kind of secret, super-hard trick answer to questions like this, when really, all I want is the obvious, basic stuff. Got an idea of what the song’s about? Click and drag over the following text for an overview, to check your answer: Henry proposes marriage to to Daisy, who rejects him. 

On the same page now, regarding the text? Good. Now, the interesting thing is, this isn’t the original version of the song at all. Turns out, the original version is this one, and it was written in 1892. Here’s a more listenable recording, from not much later. The complete soppiness of the original song drew parody second-verse replies almost instantly, and one of these became the version I know. I learned it from my mom, who learned it from her parents, who learned it from their parents, who learned it from their parents. Whoa. That brings us to official Interesting Point #1 – songs can be transmitted from generation to generation for over a century. It clearly mutated a bit along the way too. Fascinating.

So, bicycle built for two, huh? Bring on Interesting Point #2 – There was a full-on bicycle fad, at the end of the 19th Century. Daisy Bell was written to cash in on it while these newfangled velocipedes were all the rage. Tandem bicycles were also popular, with (according to pictures) lots of variants.

You’ve seen bicycles built for two, but how about three?

Old picture of three women on a bike in matching skirt uniforms. I guess this was a sport...

Three people on a bike.

Four?

Old timey picture of four gentleman athletes on a bicycle built for four.

Four on a bike. These seem to have come from the same album, so I’m guessing there were competitive sports for entire teams of people on tandem bicycles.

A legendary five-bike?

Five dapper gents on a five-bike.

My favorite thing about this picture is that enough time has passed that (in 2018) the haircuts are all back in fashion. Give these gents some skinny jeans and a plaid shirt and a smartphone, and you wouldn’t even look at them if you passed them on the street.

Anyway, bicycle craze over, the other Interesting Point about Daisy Bell is #3 this is the song that computers sing. If you know this song at all, it’s probably from 2001: A Space Odyssey and it was HAL 9000. Chances are really good that if you ask your voice activated digital assistant to sing their favorite song, they’ll sing this one. The reason is that the first speech synthesis program sang this as a demo on the IBM 704. Everything from the weather alert voice to Hatsune Miku and your digital assistant comes back to Daisy Bell.

Cat Samurai Mystery Solved!

Just in time for AnimeCon 2018, I have finally found out the origin of the samurai-walking-a-cat artwork, and what it’s all about!

You know, this amazing picture:

old scroll style artwork of a samurai taking a cat for a walk. Love the put out expression.

A samurai walking a cat. Thank goodness I figured out where it was from.

Anyway, it turns out it’s an artwork from an exhibit by contemporary artist Tetsuya Noguchi, who specializes in insanely well executed renditions of samurai in comical and surreal situations. Here’s a blurb about the exhibit, with more examples of the art, including a samurai on a penny-farthing bicycle!

Absolute respect for getting all the details dead-on accurate. There was a lot of research that went into this, in addition to the artistic skill. My favorite part is the multiple layers of humor, and the farther you look into it the funnier it is.

Modern parody artwork of samurai doing something incongruous, which quotes from historical sources, some of which are themselves parody artworks of samurai doing incongruous things, or which seem incongruous out of context. Nice.

A quick bit of said context so you can appreciate it all the more!

About “Samurai”:

  1. “Samurai” means, basically, “servant” so no high-class warrior would consider themselves a samurai, like some sort of ashigaru (footsoldier) prole. As for what to call a pre-modern Japanese warrior in general, I’m going to go with bushi (warrior), from here.
  2. During the eras of actual warfare, and not the long relative peace of the Edo period, where they were channeled into less destructive tendencies like loyalty and honor, bushi were all about one thing, and one thing only: cutting off heads and getting rewarded for it. (Acceptable hobbies include playing the flute or biwa, appreciating noh theater, flower arranging, and poetry.) This leads to a few developments:
    • Looking distinctive – Make sure your armor is unique, and instantly identifiable, so that you get properly witnessed by others on the battlefield if you do cut someone important’s head off, so you can get rewarded for it. This also serves to make sure that people know that YOU are important enough to try to cut your head off if you get killed, because it would be miserable, pointless, and horribly humiliating if you died, and nobody even bothered to harvest your noggin. This is also why you should also wear makeup and grow facial hair (high class gentleman!) if at all possible.
    • LOTS of paperwork. This whole system of Eternal War for Fun and Profit ran on bureaucratic red tape like an old timey steam engine ran on coal. Historians love this fact. How do we know who took what heads and got which rewards? We have the hearing transcripts and the severed head receipts.
  3. Awesome. Let’s look at some historical examples!

Probably late Sengoku Era, or in the style of that time, armor. Wearing a face guard so people can’t see your mustache? Just put a mustache on the face guard. Problem resolved! Probably lots of people are wearing a helmet that looks like a gentleman’s hat. Cover the hat with fur to match the mustache, and add some gilt bronze horns, for bonus distinctiveness points!

Closeup of the helmet and faceguard of a suit of Japanese armor.

By https://www.flickr.com/photos/tiseb/with/6454720709/ tiseb [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

D) : ( {>

Honestly, at this pace, kitty ear helmets aren’t out of the question. Here’s a rather worn example, of somewhat less fancy armor, with rabbit(?) ears.

Rabbit ears or maybe deer ears tacked onto a helmet.

By https://www.flickr.com/photos/oxborrow/ (https://www.flickr.com/photos/oxborrow/49836706/) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

[ : | <

Oh, Minamoto no Yoshistune, you were thirty when you died (1159 – 1189), yet the first thing people do to you in the future (by which I mean 1500-something) is make you prettier for extra romantic pathos:

Shizuka Gozen (Yoshitsune's girlfriend), Minamoto no Yoshitsune (on the horse), and a couple of scruffy ashigaru, in a 1500s painting. Note that they've apparently scrambled out of the house without shoes, but not before putting on makeup. It's all about priorities.

Shizuka Gozen (Yoshitsune’s girlfriend), Minamoto no Yoshitsune (on the horse), and a couple of scruffy ashigaru for contrast, in a 1500s painting. Note that they’ve apparently scrambled out of the house without shoes, but not before putting on armor and makeup. It’s all about priorities.

See you guys at Anime Con, where you can Ask Me Anything!

Of Pies and Birds

Bird pies, pied birds, and pie birds.

It all started when I wanted to do a full-on program on mute swans and swan upping. As it turns out, this was a weird idea, and maybe not suited for an actual mini-class that people would actually come to. I never did get enough material for a program, but I did keep turning up primary sources on a fairly bizarre historical food. Behold! A Mute Swan Pie.

Kitchen scene with fancy swan pie.

Kitchen Interior by David Teniers the Younger, 1644.

I know it’s a lot to take in, but take a minute, and really process this. In the back, there’s people roasting various birds on spits over a fire. There’s even more game birds, including teeny songbirds (Katherine, later: and a GREY PARTRIDGE!! They’re everywhere!), bottom left, probably also destined for their own pies. Various meats abound. The swan pie is right there, on the table, next to the red-skirted cook who’s peeling apples. It’s fancied up with a crown and flower garlands.

Sooo… what on Earth is with the swan pie? Well, the pie itself is the ancestor of pot pies. So, meat filling, and the crust is a lot thicker and tougher than our flaky pie crust is today, because it’s meant to seal in and support all that meat. People still make and eat meat pies of this sort in the UK. So, inside the elaborate crust is the roasted mute swan meat, in its own gelatin and drippings. Also, it’s decorated with its own severed wings and head, which, guessing from copious amounts of 17th Century paintings, was the fanciest possible way to cook and present a bird.

Turkey Pie

Turkey pie with a pink rose in its beak.

Still Life With a Turkey Pie by Pieter Claesz, 1627.

 

Some Kind of Personal Small Bird Pie (Grey Partridge Perdix perdix ?? That’s my best guess.)

A picture representing February of a cook holding a tiny pie - what looks like a gray partridge pie I guess.

February by Joachim von Sandrart, 1642.

I think that the personal pie bird in question really looks like it’s a gray partridge. What do you think?

Gray partridge in snow.

By K.Pitk [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Hmm. Gray neck and front. Speckled wings and tail. Rust colored face. Also, I’ve been looking at partridges long enough trying to figure out what that bird is that the word has started to look really weird. Partridge. Partridge.  P a r t r i d g e.  Gah! On to the next thing.

In addition to ending up inside pies, some birds are pied birds. Magpies, for example. Pied is an archaic word describing the pattern of having patches of different colors, usually black and white. The Eurasian Magpie is usually what people mean by magpie, and it’s easy to remember what it’s scientific name is, because it’s what Pikachu would say (although arguably misspelled.) Pica pica

Eurasian magpie on a fence

By Garry Knight (Flickr: Magpie on a Fence) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The Pied Piper 

A street fair in Hamelin, Germany, with a bunch of kids dressed up as rats, and a pied piper guy.

The city of Hamelin, Germany still has all sorts of stuff commemorating the Pied Piper from folklore, or, creepily enough, maybe based on historical fact.

Healthy surplus kids getting sold to slave traders is not off the table in this case. Especially since the rat-catching bit seems to have been added a couple centuries later, and doesn’t show up in the original sources we have for this folktale… Check it out at this nifty archive of folktales. Well, that took a horribly grim turn. You know what will cheer everybody up? Ponies and linguistics! Yay!

 

Piebald Horse

An old picture of a piebald drum horse.

A piebald horse is a horse that is black and white. A skewbald horse is a horse that is any other color than black and white.

Stewball was a racehorse. No. Really. He was an actual horse. And he was probably a skewbald. Hence the name. Also, if you’ve never heard this word used for horse colors before, it’s because in North America, we generally use the Spanish-derived pinto (painted) to describe a white-splashed horse. Then the word bounced back to English, and we call them paint horses too. Lest you assume that the picture is one of those dusty crusty remains of the long lost past, nah, they still totally have ceremonial drum horses. What’s harder than playing a slide trombone? Playing a slide trombone on a horse.

The Pied Crow Corvus albus

A pied crow - black with a white belly - in a tree.

By Thomas Schoch [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

These guys are native to sub-Saharan Africa, and not to be confused with crow pie, of course. As we’ve seen already, it’s totally reasonable that the four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie are literally an entire crow massacre cooked in their own juices in a pie. What a way to eat crow.

So, now that we’ve covered bird pies and pied birds, what about pie birds? If you made a totally sealed pie, with no holes cut in the top crust, the steam and pressure build up from cooking might cause a piesplosion. Or, less dramatically, at least soggy crust. To keep the steam from ruining your pie, you need to make sure the crust has a hole to let it out. Sure, it’s pretty easy to just cut holes in the crust, but, in true Victorian fashion, the people of the 19th Century weren’t going to leave it at that. A pie bird is a little ceramic piece shaped like a bird (usually with an open beak), and hollow, with an open bottom and top. You put the pie bird in your pie and poking up through the crust, to vent it. That’s it. Wikipedia has an article, but otherwise it’s hard to find more about the use of pie birds. We just don’t use pie birds much anymore. Instead, people collect them as prime examples of obscure consumer culture kitsch. Nothing quite like kitchen accessories that nobody really needs.

Death’s Scythe

Death in a cholera outbreak, mowing down people.

This is how it’s done. Death mowing down people like wheat in a cholera outbreak.

Here we go. RANT TIME. I draw things, often. I don’t know if you draw, but if you do, I hope this helps you out, or at least gives you something to think about. Even if you don’t draw, hopefully you’ll find plenty to think about. Maybe this sort of thing will become a series, too, about things that bug me about art. Being an artist is about training the eye and observational mind as much as the hand. The topic today is Death’s scythe. This is seriously one of my personal artistic pet peeves – understandable, but it really does impact how Death comes across. I’m talking here about personified Death itself. The Grim Reaper. If you take just one thing away, it should be this:

A SCYTHE IS A FARM TOOL, NOT A WEAPON. YES, THIS MATTERS.

Let’s get what a scythe is out of the way, because although it’s interesting, it’s not as interesting as why this matters, and how so many artists get this wrong, especially recently. A scythe is a farm tool for cutting down wheat or grass and such, really efficiently.

Like so:

Obvious Note: less physical work is not the same thing as faster.

A scythe is not an awkward weapon that has a blade that sticks out at right angles to the pole for some reason, with the edge on the wrong side. A scythe is an elegant mowing machine. In most models, the blade is angled, so that it’s horizontal to the ground when the scythe is in use. Why this matters: a scythe is not a tool for combat between roughly-equal beings. A scythe is a harvesting tool. Death carrying a proper scythe means that human lives are as single stalks of wheat before the blade. Look at that newspaper illustration at top again: that’s what a pandemic is like – death mowing people down like grass.

So, that’s what a scythe is, and why it matters. The last question – why do artists have trouble with Death’s scythe, especially recently? – is an open one, and interesting. I can think of two possible reasons, maybe even both at a time. Maybe artists in recent times don’t have much experience with scythes, and don’t have the chance to observe how they’re used or put together. We don’t generally harvest with a scythe anymore, so the chance to see one in action is more rare. The other half is that maybe the modern experience of death itself has changed. We’re used to people dying one at a time from disease, picked off with precision, not mown down. For contrast, this is what the 1918 Flu Pandemic looked like:

South Beach Hospital Ledger.

South Beach Hospital admissions ledger. Everybody’s got the flu, and four people are dead in a matter of days. WWI was just wrapping up, and still gets most of the attention, but this flu pandemic still killed more people than the entire infamous Great War, and in a matter of months. Here’s the document source!

Yikes. By contrast, our death, the death with a wonky, useless scythe is a much less fearsome entity than the Grim Reaper.

 

You Fight Like a Cow

Monkey Island notwithstanding, your life might just be better if you take “you fight like a cow” as a compliment. The truth of the matter is that – whatever Tennyson and the Victorians’ moralistic viewpoints – “nature red in tooth and claw” really mostly holds true only for predatory attacks on food animals in actual nature. Even then, few predators will attack prey with a mind to getting in a fight. After all, if your food stands a good chance of thrashing you in a fight, the predators won’t be around for long. An actual fight is just too risky. It’s not like there’s emergency veterinary hospitals in nature. Even a small cut could get infected and eventually kill you. A broken bone or chipped tooth could prove fatal if it means you can’t catch meals. As an aside, this is one of the major forces shaping the evolution of venom. The geographic cone snail has some of the most outrageously potent and fast-acting venom of any creature, purely because it’s a snail that eats fish. If a fish, once bitten, had any chance to run away or fight back, cone snails would have a very rough time just catching breakfast, let alone surviving it.

Given how much animals in the wild stand to lose from fighting, most will go to a lot of effort to avoid a fight in the first place. Lots of animals have specialized equipment – horns, antlers, ossicones, tusks, gill frills, song – specifically for settling disputes with other members of their own species in a way that keeps it from getting too violent too often. There’s a whole suite of behaviors that virtually all animals have to prevent fights in the first place and settle those that do occur as fast as possible.

Let’s talk about cattle. They actually have one of my favorite conflict sequences, and you can plainly see how cow disputes progress through several stages at each of which the parties have a chance to de-escalate the conflict, or decide to proceed to the next step.

The Official Cow Fight Procedure:

  1. Rival Cow Spotted!
    • If you know this cow, and you each know where you stand with each other, you’re cool, and both can back down now. If either has any doubts, proceed to step 2.
  2. Angry mooing.
    • Let the rival know you’re not happy about this incursion. If the rival responds with more angry mooing, and you don’t want to back down either, keep up the noise and proceed to step 3. Otherwise, if you get no response, the rival agrees to back down.
  3. Pawing of dirt to signal aggressive intent. 
    • If each cow is still prepared to get in a shoving contest, they’ll proceed to step 4.
  4. Standing sideways to each other to show off size.
    • If either individual decides that the other is too big to take on, they’ll just quiet down and walk away to eat grass. Otherwise, if both are convinced that they can take the other, proceed to step 5.
  5. Prepare to lock horns.
    • Both cattle lower their heads. This is the last chance to back down, and can be very brief.
  6. Shoving contest.
    • The rivals lock horns, or rest their heads against each other (if polled or hornless), and try to shove the other until one disengages and walks away.
  7. Resolution.
    • When one of the rivals backs down, it is possible to continue angry mooing, and allow the rival to angrily moo a bit to save face. If the issue isn’t settled, the cycle might repeat (but usually doesn’t) until the cattle can predict who will win the shoving contest and accept the results. Generally, just once is enough to settle the issue. Most of the time, cow fights don’t even get to step 6 at all before one of the rivals backs down.

You can watch the whole complicated sequence below, with these two Hereford bulls.

Switzerland has a whole sport based on introducing cows to each other in the Spring. The cows spend the Winter on their individual farms, but in the Spring, they get together again for the drive to alpine pastures. Of course the cows need to settle who’s top cow, and it was only a matter of time before people started painting numbers on their sides and setting up concession stands. Yes, these are actual cows, too, not bulls. Note udders. When a cow backs down, she’s removed from the ring until only one cow remains, and is crowned Queen of the Cow Thunderdome. Sorry: “Queen of Queens” technically, as the cow fighting is called the “combat de reines” or literally the “fight of queens.” Cows are Very Serious Business in Switzerland, in case you couldn’t tell.

These cows are all members of the Herens breed of cattle, and are selectively bred for cow fighting. Meet Penelope, a Queen of Queens.

Notice that nearly all of the Official Cow Fight steps are about communicating a problem and providing plenty of chances to back down. And if the other cow does, but they make a lot of noise about it, let them. It’s all just angry mooing.

Once everything’s settled, even Herens Queens are perfectly chill with each other, and pass their Summers in idyllic alpine meadows.

Plenty of other animals have an official fight procedure, like cows do, it’s just that in cows, it’s so clear and well-defined. There are plenty of videos of Complicated Cat Space Negotiations, for example. Just remember: if there’s video of it, someone found it interesting and exciting enough to record, so for all of these videos of cow fights, there’s lots and lots of cow fights that never happened. This is an example of selection bias – if you were to study how often cows fight, cow fight videos on YouTube would be junk data to draw on, because people are way more likely to record and post interesting video of cows fighting than the many, many allegedly boring instances of cows not fighting.

High Concept and Low Concept

Sometimes, if you’re discussing books that you read, games that you play, shows that you watch, music you listen to – basically any media you consume – you need some specialized ideas and terms to help you describe and discuss it. “It was great” or “It was bad” or “I thought it was OK” are all very well and good, but it’s so much more satisfying if you can also talk about WHY you liked/disliked something. If you want to win arguments and impress your friends, remember your ABCs – Always Backup Criticism.

Have examples, of course, of things you like or don’t and why. But, sometimes, you need some special vocabulary and ideas in order to help you with your critique. That means it’s time to add another idea to your toolbox: high vs low concept. This is all about how much concept a work of art contains, not how good the concept is. Think of it as a matter of the amount the concept itself contributes to the total content of the work.

Jane Austen’s novels are generally low concept. The idea of the novels – that people in various economic circumstances need to get paired up (or not paired up, or not paired up the way they thought) – is nowhere near as important to the books as the interactions between the characters, which is why people read them. Here’s an example pie chart, based on a very precise and academic guesstimate:

There’s also works that split it pretty much right down the middle, generating interest in equal parts from the idea that drives them, as well as the execution of the plot and characters:

On the far end of the scale, there’s also works that are high concept – that get their interest mostly from the ideas that drive them. I can think of no better example than 18 Days, which breaks down about like this:

As I’ve probably mentioned before, the library has the concept art book, if you want a look at the idea, but, sadly, they didn’t get full funding for the series as it was originally conceived. Instead, you can watch it in a few different languages on the Graphic India YouTube channel. Still pretty awesome, though.

Whatever the level of concept in your media, now you have a new way to talk about the things you love: is it high concept, low concept, or a balance of the two?