Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Game Show Host

Last night I had a dream that I was going to be a contestant on a game show (something like Jeopardy! or Who Wants to be a Millionaire?). I was very excited... and Tina Fey also figured into the dream somehow? Anyhow, I was slightly disappointed when I woke up and realized I was not really going to be on any quiz show and thus I had no chance of winning cash prizes anytime soon. But then I thought "whatever! Even if I got on Who Wants to be a Millionaire? chances are I wouldn't make it into the 'hot seat' which is the only way you can win anything."

This got me thinking about my aunt and uncle (Aunt Ro and Uncle Pete, if you will) with whom I have fond childhood memories of watching many a game show. If you've viewed any of these shows semi-regularly you can't help but develop your own theories about how the show works and your own strategies for what you would do if you were ever a contestant. I figured it might be fun to share my aunt and uncle's pet theories (and my impression of some of these classics) so here it goes...

The Price is Right



Ah, the granddaddy of all game shows (in my mind at least). Can you believe it's still on the air? The Price is Right kind of hearkens back to the fifties (when it originated) what with how it asks contestants to speculate on the price of washer/dryers and shit. It also kind of makes me think of like Sabado Gigante or something what with how it throws together and mixes up all kinds of different games (e.g. plinko, that alpine mountain climber dealie, the big wheel).

My aunt was convinced that the audience members who were chosen to "come on down" to contestants' row were totally not selected at random (for the record, I don't think that the show ever made this claim). First off, she was convinced that there was some kind of affirmative action policy in place as maybe the audience often seemed to be mostly white people but the producers liked to show a higher degree of diversity among contestants. Maybe. She also pointed out that audience members who were in the armed services (preferably in uniform) or who were like college students in a big group all wearing matching Ohio State sweatshirts seemed to have a greatly increased chance of getting called.

Aunt Ro was also a big advocate (in the hypothetical situation where one found oneself in the position of a contestant on the Price is Right) of listening to the audience when you don't know what to bid. It seemed like the hive consciousness in that studio usually had a pretty good idea about how much crap cost.

Oh and do you remember the Price is Right girls (or "Barker's beauties" I guess they used to be called)? I remember my aunt and I agreed that Kathleen, who at the time was the "foxy" black model, was the most beautiful. Also, there was that blonde Dian who accused Bob Barker of sexual harassment! Shockingly, I feel like I remember hearing that Barker's "defense" to the allegations wasn't even that none of it happened but that whatever flirting or grabbing or whatever went on was consensual! (I really don't think I made that up.)

Like I said, I can't believe this show is still around (and why are we not watching it?)

The $25,000 Pyramid



This was that show that played kind of like the board game Taboo, where someone had to get her teammate to guess a word without saying it. And then in the final round a member of the winning team had to get her teammate to guess categories like "things you find in a bathroom." They would always have these C-list celebrities teamed up with ordinary people (Betty White was a mainstay).

I just wanted to mention how this was perhaps the only game show that was basically impossible to play along with at home since they would flash the answers across the screen the whole time. You have to think that was a big con when they were pitching this show back in 1973 or whenever. It's kind of like how Columbo was a detective show with no suspense given that you saw the murder (and the murderer) at the beginning of the episode. No, I never got into watching Columbo.

Wheel of Fortune

I always thought this was the most boring game show. Do you remember way back in the day when the winner would pick crap to spend their prize money on, and you'd see him in an oval at the corner of the screen (like someone signing the news for the deaf) as the camera spun around some lame looking showroom? I guess the producers wised up to how boring and tacky that part was as it was edited out at some point. And then there was the bonus round where the winner could win some big prize if he could solve the final puzzle: he was asked to pick five consonants and a vowel, and everybody always picked "R,S,T,L,N and E" since they're the most popular letters in the English language (and I guess everybody who appeared on the show knew that).

So anyway, my Uncle Pete would shout at the screen anytime someone would "buy a vowel" perhaps employing an amusing phrase such as "you stupid broad." His point (and it was a very good point) was that if you know that the missing letter in "TH_" or whatever is an "E" why bother spending your money to uncover all the "E"s. More recently, I remember discussing Wheel of Fortune -- for some reason -- with my friends in college. The consensus seemed to be that maybe they don't pick the brightest bulbs in the set to compete on that show.

Jeopardy!



Ah yes. The thinking man's trivia show that requires contestants to answer in the form of a question and which drilled phrases such as "daily double," "potent potables," and "final jeopardy" into our heads. Uncle Pete would always decry Jeopardy! as the "cheapest game show on television" due to the fact that only the winner got to keep the prize money racked up during the show. If he ever made it to final jeopardy, Uncle Pete would just bet it all because, if you get the question wrong and come in 2nd place, it doesn't matter whether you have $80,000 or $10 you still go home with the same thing. This was another good point, although I think my aunt would point out how the runner up seemed to win something like a trip to Acapulco whereas the third place contestant got nothing but a hot-curling iron or whatever junk the sponsors' were pawning off (V05 maybe). So keep that in mind as well I guess. A lot of the contestants are wusses about betting though.

I always fancied that I could probably make a decent Jeopardy! contestant what with my wealth of useless information and my usually pretty good showing at Trivial Pursuit. My biggest problem with the show is, of course, the host, Alex Trebek. He always comes off as such an asshole what with the condescending way he reads the answer to the questions no one gets right. "And, of course, that man was Cecil Rhodes." He really does use the word "of course" like that sometimes as if this were common knowledge. This begs the question of whether he really knew these things himself or whether it's just something he's reading off a cue card (I actually don't doubt that he's a smart guy, but still). His tendency to pronounce foreign words with a bit too much gusto can also grate on one's nerves. I don't know if the Jeopardy! jerkfest is brought on by old age or the high brow air of the show, or if it's like written into his contract that he must act like a pompous asshole, but if you ever watched him host an episode of Classic Concentration (that matching/rebus show) back in the day he came off as much more affable and funny.

I feel like one time I heard that Trebek was being obnoxious to a flight attendant and maybe even said something along the lines of "do you know who I am?" but I couldn't find any reference to this incident on the internet so maybe I just want that to be the case. We do, however, have video footage of him cursing and sort of losing his temper. Also, when Who Wants to be a Millionaire? was the next big thing, Trebek said that its questions were too easy and that host Regis Philbin was not that smart. OK, Alex, maybe you are smarter than Regis but that was still a bitchy thing to say.

Moving on from Trebek, I also think that sometimes the unseen judges can be very nitpicky about what answers they will accept -- like with song titles ("I'm sorry but you answered 'Somewhere Beyond the Sea,' the title we were looking for is 'Beyond the Sea'"). And how about the part of the show where we learn a little bit about the contestants? That's always a snoozefest, like "so Mary you've been a librarian for 20 years? I hear you have a story about the wildest book you ever checked out for someone?"

Heheh, the sad thing is that I could go on with this topic (Press Your Luck, anyone?) but I'll stop right here for today.


Images: screen capture from Season 37 of CBS's the Price is Right found on wikipedia; image from NBC/Merv Griffin Production's Jeopardy!; image from $25,000 Pyramid with Dick Clark found on tylersmagicalblog.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Meeg at the Movies: Grindhouse

Around a month ago I finally got around to watching Grindhouse (some channel on cable actually showed the whole thing all together) and I feel like I should talk about it.




The idea behind Grindhouse was to recreate the B-movie double feature: Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino each directed a feature-length movie and in between they added some fake coming attractions for other bad-looking movies (filmed by other directors such as Eli Roth and Rob Zombie) along with the kind of announcements and stuff that you might see at the movie theater back in the seventies. To further enhance the atmosphere they were going for, Tarantino and Rodriguez treated the film so that it would look aged and lo-res and busted and in each feature they included a "missing reel" where the story suddenly skips ahead fifteen minutes or so without warning.

When I first heard about Grindhouse, I was pretty psyched: the concept sounded fun (after all, Kill Bill was heavily styled on the exploitation flicks of yesteryear and that kicked ass), Tarantino is one of my favorite directors and Rodriguez was riding high, in my estimation, after Sin City. Thus, I was a little surprised when it totally bombed at the box office. Some of this no doubt had to do with the fact that people today have a hard time sitting still for 4 hours (I watched it on DVR and took at least one long break in the middle of viewing), but I somehow got the impression that it went deeper than that: that most people maybe just didn't like the movies.

Could they really be that bad? I was dubious, especially in regards to Tarantino's half: maybe I liked some more than others (Jackie Brown wasn't my favorite I don't think, but it's been a long time maybe I just need to go back and see it again), but I don't think I've ever seen anything by him that I would give a thumbs down. Thus, I decided to see for myself. My final conclusion: the detractors were maybe half right.

Planet Terror




Based on the trailers, I thought that this was the story that was going to be more fun to watch. I mean, come on, Rose McGowan with a machine gun for a leg?! But in reality I was super bored about halfway through this flick and just waiting for it to end already.

The issue here is that Rodriguez did an excellent job of parodying bad horror movies: the plot was convoluted and nonsensical, there were way too many characters to keep track of, the special effects were cheap looking and gross. Also, as is the case with these movies, pretty much all the highlights (the machine gun prosthetic, the cameo by Bruce Willis) were crammed into the trailer (this was a good touch I feel, adding all kinds of gimmicks that sound awesome in the promos but end up making the movie a mess). I'm sure some people loved it, but for me this made the movie tedious to sit through. I bet the cast and crew had a blast making it, but watching it I kind of felt like "if I wanted to watch a bad old horror movie I could rent Critters or something. Why would you purposely set out to make another movie like this?" I found Planet Terror to be neither a fun send off of the monster movie genre, nor a movie that transcended its cheesy inspiration to actually tell an engaging story.

Death Proof




My expectations for Death Proof were kind of all over the place: on one hand there's my love for Tarantino, and on the other hand the movie seemed to be about fast cars and crap like that that doesn't necessarily interest me all that much. What I wasn't expecting, for some reason, were great characters and intelligent dialogue reminiscent of Resevoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction.

The first half of the movie fulfills the obligatory genre quotient (dated feel, crappy film quality, the "missing reel," also the credits make it seem like the title was changed at the last minute from "Thunderbolt" to "Death Proof"), but it also builds suspense and kind of makes you care about the characters. This part takes place in Austin and follows around a group of girls (I didn't really love the main girl "Jungle Julia," but they were all fairly sympathetic) who run into a creepy loner played by Kurt Russell who calls himself "Stuntman Mike." I don't want to give it away, so let's just say that Stuntman Mike is a perv and what gets him off involves girls and fast cars.

The second half of the film is even better than the first, and it focuses on another group of girls who are involved in the production of some movie (one is a make-up girl, another is a stuntwoman). They're stranded somewhere in the rural South with nothing to do for a few days, until the stuntwoman (an awesome character, played by a real life stuntwoman) suggests they check out a vintage muscle car (a white 1969 Dodge Charger as featured in the film Vanishing Point) that's on sale nearby and try to convince the owner to let them take it for a test drive. And, hmm..., I wonder if Stuntman Mike is going to make another appearance in the film?

Half way through the movie, all the B-movie conceits like the aged film have been abandoned (it took me a while to pick up on this as by then I had become absorbed in the story) and I think this is a good symbol of what makes Death Proof superior to Planet Terror: at some point it sets aside the homage/parody business and becomes a good, entertaining movie in its own right.

Final verdict: fuck Planet Terror, Death Proof rocks, can't wait to watch Inglourious Basterds!


Images: posters for Grindhouse, Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror, Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof from the Weinstein company

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

David Foster Wallace and the Unfinished Novel

My first post of the year was about David Foster Wallace and his hefty novel Infinite Jest. Back then (Jan 4) I was nearing the end of book, after having first been introduced to Wallace by news of his September 2008 suicide, and I mentioned the post mortem article on Wallace in October 2008's Rolling Stone. I've since finished the novel, and months later I'm still slightly haunted by the impression it made on me. I thought I'd revisit the topic of Wallace if only to recommend the March 9 New Yorker article entitled "the Unfinished." The biggest news item contained in this very lengthy but informative article is that, when he succumbed to depression and took his life, Wallace left behind an unfinished manuscript for another big novel which is going to be published by Little, Brown sometime next year.

I'm going to use this post discuss (a) what we know about this unfinished novel, (b) the unfinished novel as a genre, and (c) some other random Wallace crap I want to talk about (you'll have to indulge me -- or, you know, skip that part and if you run into me sometime and I ask you about it just nod and be like "oh, yeah...").

The Pale King

Several months after Wallace's death, in the garage where he did his writing and in his files, his wife and agent found several thousand words which comprised the manuscript for the "Long Thing" he had working on intermittently since 1997. Of these, several hundred pages represent a continous narrative.

This unfinished novel, called the Pale King, in terms of its scope and its themes is basically a follow up to Infinite Jest. The story centers around a group of IRS agents who work in a field office in suburban Illinois. Whereas a key theme in Infinite Jest was America as the land of addiction (to drugs, entertainment, etc.), in the Pale King Wallace explores the idea of learning to live with boredom as an antidote to our dependence on diversion. Thus, the IRS employees, whose work mostly consists of the mind-numbing task of reviewing tax forms all day, embody the virtues of mindfulness and sustained concentration and thus they stand for (as Wallace once put it) "adult sanity... the only unalloyed form of heroism available today."

The New Yorker article contains a few more Wallace quotes which further elaborate on this idea: first, at a commencement speech in 2005, Wallace stated that freedom meant "being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to." Secondly, it references a character in the Pale King who suggests that boredom is associated with pain because it doesn't distract us from our lives' deep-seated, ambient-noise-level pain. Not to go too off the wall, but this reminds of the Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi and his "universal pessimism": he came to believe that the myths of the ancients and imagination in general brought pleasure because they obscured the true nature of the universe which was filled only with pain and boredom (only, as per Wallace, I guess we've replaced myths and imagination with entertainment and drugs).

In terms of style, Wallace wanted to move away from the gimmicks and the "self-consciously maximalist style" of Infinite Jest which he had come to find too coy for his purposes: he feared that they were a distraction, or worse that they were incompatible with the moral he was trying to get across. Thus, the story in the Pale King is purportedly told in a more straight-forward manner. Wallace had already rejected sarcasm and snark and now it appears he was trying hard to also abandon the more showy elements of his personal style in order to write (as he once said about Dostoevsky) in an emotionally engaged and morally sound way. When one adds to this the fact that he was writing at length about the subject of boredom, it's not so surprising that he struggled with this work for so long. D.T. Max, the author of the New Yorker article, even goes so far as to suggest that Wallace's decision to go off the antidepressant he had been taking for decades may have been motivated in part by a fear that it was preventing him from engaging with his work the way he wanted to.

If you're interested in the Pale King there are three passages that have been published in magazines: "Wiggle Room" which accompanies the article in the New Yorker, "Good People" which first appeared in the same magazine in 2007, and "The Compliance Branch" which ran in Harper's in Feb 2008.

The Unfinished Novel as a Genre

There are actually a lot of great works of literature which were never completed by their authors. In English literature, perhaps the earliest is The Canterbury Tales (our #2 classic that nobody reads ): I think it's universally acknowledged that the work as a whole and even some of the individual tales remain unfinished even if scholars are not sure how much more Chaucer intended to write or whether he had a clear plan at all (there's some doubt whether he ever intended to follow up on the innkeeper's suggestion that each pilgrim tell a story on the road to Canterbury and another on the way back).



In European literature, all three of Kafka's novels (Amerika, the Trial, the Castle) sat unfinished when they were discovered by Max Brod after the author's death. Likewise, Gogol's masterpiece, Dead Souls, is an incomplete work. It is well known how Gogol intended this to be a work in three parts with the first outlining the problems of contemporary Russia and the next two going on to suggest the solution. Today we are left with part one complete and fragments of part two, although there is a legend that Gogol once had a complete (or near complete) manuscript for part two which he was unsatisfied with and threw into the fire. It's also said that Dostoevsky's masterpiece (and final novel) the Brothers Karamazov was meant to be the first volume of a larger work which would go on to recount the life of his hero Alyosha.

More recently, we have Nabokov's incomplete final work, the Original of Laura, which I blogged about and which is finally going to be published after all these years. Out of all of these unfinished novels it's interesting to speculate about which ones were left unfinished as a result of the author's interceding death (a grim warning to all us aspiring writers) and which were destined to remain incomplete no matter what (I mean, is it any wonder Gogol was unsatisfied with his attempts to pen a solution to the ills plaguing Russian society?). Likewise, I wonder which category we should put the Pale King in.

A Little David Foster Wallace/Infinite Jest Lagniappe

In addition to the mammoth New Yorker article (which is summarized by the Washington Post here), I also came across an interview with Glenn Kenny about what it was like to edit Wallace's essays for Empire magazine.

And then there's the Slate Audio Book Club podcast which tackles Infinite Jest. I have to say I was a little shocked at how dismissive the book clubbers were about the novel (although I guess having to read the book again might make one a little bitter). I've been thinking about it, and I guess I can see how some people might not be able to roll with all the encyclopedic tangents. Likewise, some readers might be less tolerant of the sillier parts of the story (which I'd liken to A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) or the more juvenile elements (which make sense in the context of the book, seeing as how a large part of it takes place at a tennis academy full of adolescent boys). One of the book clubbers went so far as to suggest that the novel is universally recognized as a mess, which is quite the assertion given its many fans and critical kudos. I mean, if I were teaching a class on how to write a novel I wouldn't use Infinite Jest as an example, but I thought it kind of worked. I guess I would have rather heard them spend more time discussing the book's many themes, etc (which they do get around to somewhat), and less time whining about how long it was and how it was all over the place.

One thing I have to thank the podcast for, however, is drawing my attention to the "Yorick" scene (which I half picked up on when I read the book). In the first and the last scene of the novel, the two main characters (who never quite meet) both have a vision of the two of them digging up a grave together. Whether this actually happens or not (in the gap between the novel's final scene and the epilogue, which comes at the beginning) is just one more of the novel's unanswered questions.


Images: Photo of David Foster Wallace from Getty Images found on nymag.com; 1906 photo of Franz Kafka with bowler hat and dog found on themodernworld.com

Friday, May 15, 2009

In the Age of Vampires

Since we already have a blog post on vampire bats and on Hungary's "vampire countess," Elizabeth Bathory, I thought I would go for the hat trick (wow, my first sports analogy ever! for the record, I almost wrote "complete the trilogy") and tackle the subject of the 18th-century vampire controversy.

18th-century Vampire Epidemic

It seems that in the 1700s, a wave of vampire hysteria swept across Eastern Europe. Many incidents of alleged vampire attacks and of the exhumation and desecration of corpses by angry villagers occured among the, mainly Slavic, subjects of East Prussia and the Austrian Empire. In some cases there were even reports written by government officials or doctors attesting to the unnatural appearance of the disinterred bodies of suspected vampires. These events received wide attention, introducing Western Europe to vampire legends (in fact the word "vampire" first entered the English lexicon during this period, probably coming via German from a Serbian root) and leading a lot of educated people to entertain the notion that these monsters might actually exist.

From what I've read the average vampire incident basically went like this:

(1) someone dies (we'll call him or her "patient zero")

(2) not long afterwards, some other people in the same village die, maybe after only a short illness. Invariably, one of these victims reports being tormented by visions of patient zero or one of the other previously deceased.

(3) the villagers dig up the body of the suspected vampire (probably patient zero), maybe after getting permission from some local authority. Sometimes they note how the body doesn't look decomposed at all but is rather fat and healthy looking. They may also notice liquid blood coming out of the suspected vampire's mouth/nose/eyes/ears. Some of the other people who died may also have become vampires in which case their bodies can be dug up too.

(4) the villagers finish off the suspected vampire(s) by doing one or more of the following: driving a stake through the corpse's heart, decapitating it, burning it.

Peter Plogojowitz and Arnold Paole: background information

Two of the oldest, most famous, and best documented cases of the 18th-century vampire epidemic are those surrounding "Peter Plogojowitz" and "Arnold Paule" (as their names have been recorded): both of these episodes took place in Serbia in the 1720-30s (during the reign of Emperor Karl VI), and both involved the participation of Imperial authorities.



It's interesting to note that Serbia, along with Lesser Wallachia and a tiny bit of northern Bosnia, had been under Turkish rule up until 1718 when it changed hands under the Treaty of Passarowitz. Austria would later return these lands to the Ottoman Empire under the 1739 Treaty of Belgrade. So at the time Serbia was ravaged by war: its population was poor and partly nomadic, and agricultural activities were mostly limited to raising cattle. This newly conquered territory was also under direct military control. The Austrians tried to encourage German-speaking subjects to move to the region, and many Serbs migrated here from territories that were still under Turkish rule. Those who served in the Austrian army as hajduks (freemen and infantry soldiers) were rewarded with certain legal rights and small parcels of land.

The Case of Peter Plogojowitz

Plogojowitz was a Serbian peasant who died in 1725. Within 8 days of his death, 9 others in his village died after a 24-hour illness. Before their demise, some of these victims supposedly claimed that they were throttled by the late Plogojowitz at night. Other phoney sounding stories told how after his death Plogojowitz came to his wife asking for his shoes and/or that he came to his son begging for food (and then he killed him!).

At this point the remaining villagers decided to dig up Plogowitz's corpse, and they called on the local priest and one Imperial Provisor Frombald (I'm not sure whether the "kameralprovisor" was an ecclesiastical, administrative or military official) to bear witness as representatives of the State. According to his report, Frombald told the villagers that they should first request permission from the Imperial authorities in Belgrade, but they refused to wait saying that otherwise the whole community might be wiped out (this sort of thing had happened before in Turkish times) and threatening to quit the village.

So they disinterred the body, and Frombald was surprised to discover that it had not decomposed (it sounds like it'd been less than 2 weeks). He wrote that its hair and beard had grown and that its skin and fingernails had fallen away revealing new skin and nails underneath. Also there was blood in its mouth. Satisfied that he was a vampire, the angry mob of villagers drove a stake through Plogojowitz's heart which caused a load of fresh blood to gush out of his ears and mouth. After that they burned the body. Problem solved!




The Case of Arnold Paule

Paule (his last name in Serbian was probably "Pavle") was a hajduk who had moved to Austrian Serbia from Turkish-controlled territory. Villagers later claimed that, when he was alive, Paule would talk about how he had been plagued by a vampire back in Kosovo and that he had eaten dirt from the vampire's grave and smeared the vampire's blood on himself in order to ward it off.

Around 1726, Paule broke his neck falling off a haywagon. Within 20-30 days of Paule's burial, 4 other villagers fell ill, claiming that the late Paule was tormenting them, and died. After 10 more days had passed, the people of the village dug up his grave. Once again the corpse wasn't decomposed; his fingernails had fallen off and new nails had grown in their place. Liquid blood flowed from his eyes, nose, mouth and ears and his coffin and clothes were also bloody. When they drove a stake through Paule's heart, he bled and groaned audibly. They then burned his body and dispatched of the other 4 deceased in the same way.

For five years after that everything was quiet, but then in 1731 there was a second outbreak in the village. 17 people died over the course of 3 months, many of them previously healthy and after only suffering a short illness. The vampires were back! The villagers attributed this new outbreak to the fact that some people (specifically one of the deceased, a 69yo woman named Miliza) had eaten the flesh of sheep that had been killed by the first round of vampires. Another victim (a 20yo woman named Stana) had admitted to smearing herself with vampire blood for protection. Another classic way to catch vampire! Way to go, ladies! For those who need further convincing that vampires were behind these deaths, one of the victims (Stanoika a 20yo hajduk's wife) had complained before her death of being tormented by the ghost of Milloe (a 25yo hajduk and yet another victim).

The people of the beleaguered village complained to one Lt. Col. Schnezzer, a military commander in charge of the area, who in turn called on an Imperial Infectious Disease Specialist ("Contagions-Medicus") by the name of Glaser to investigate. Glaser found no evidence of an epidemic and he attributed the string of deaths to malnutrition. Nevertheless, when the people threatened to abandon the village, he agreed to have the bodies disinterred. Some of the bodies were found -- surprise, surprise -- to be undecomposed and plump with blood in their mouths.

Glaser recommended that authorities allow the villagers to "kill" the vampires if only to pacify them. The vice commandant in Belgrade then sent a second commission to check things out, led by a military surgeon named Johann Fluckinger. It is through Fluckinger's report (which you can read in its entirety, translated into English here) that we learn of this incident.

Fluckinger's report is really an interestingly window into not only the incident but also the time and place in general. First off, he notes that 10 or so of the bodies (some or all of which had presumably been exhumed some time ago) showed the classic vampire characteristics (fresh new skin, healthy-looking coloring or plumpness, intact organs that look like those of the living, blood in the chest cavity or mouth) while the rest had decomposed normally. Specifically, the old woman Miliza had achieved a pleasing plumpness in death that she had never achieved in life. Another interesting fact (neither here nor there really in terms of the vampire discussion), is that he noted that Stana, who had died soon after giving birth, had an inflamed uterus and that the corpse of her baby, who had died soon after birth and before being baptized, had been half eaten by dogs due to its careless burial.

At the end of the report, Fluckinger notes how the vampires' bodies were decapitated by the gypsies who had been called on for this purpose (interesting that the gypsies are the people who know how to deal with vampires) before being burned and having their ashes thrown in the river.

The Scientific Explanation

It turns out that most of the unnatural traits that were noted in the vampires' bodies are actually consistent with documented characteristics of cadavers in various stages of decomposition. First off, the timing and nature of a dead body's decomposition is affected by many factors such as how the person died, how he was buried, and the temperature of the soil.

As a body rots in the ground, it is normal for the skin to peel away revealing the pinkish layer of skin underneath. The corpse's hair and nails do not keep on growing post mortem but it is possible for people to get the impression of longer hair because of how the dermis rots away around the follicles and I guess people might misinterpret the bed of the corpse's fingernails as new nail. As for the healthy plumpness, this is actually swelling caused by the bodies decomposition (it's being consumed by bacteria). This swelling of gases in the cadaver's abdomen is also responsible for creating pressure which may push blood out through the orifices of the body. Likewise, the ruddy or healthly-looking coloring may be discoloration which is another result of decomposition (cf. livor mortis).

Depending on conditions, the blood in a dead body can indeed coagulate and then liquify again, and we shouldn't be surprised if this liquid blood comes gushing out when a stake is driven into the body's heart. And believe it or not it is also not unheard of for a corpse to emit a sound like a groan when air is pushed over the vocal cords and out through the mouth -- say, by the force of a stake being driven into the body's heart.

The End of the Controversy

During her reign, the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria sought to modernize the Empire and put an end to superstition. Thus, in 1755, when people suspected the recently deceased Rosalina Polakin of being a vampire she sent her court physician, Dr. Gerhard van Swieten, to Silesia to investigate.




The Dutch-born van Sweiten wrote a treatise called "Discourse on the Existence of Ghosts" in which he noted that factors such as lack of oxygen can inhibit a corpse's decomposition and that it wasn't unheard of for a body to still be largely intact even after being buried for 50 years. As for those uneducated villagers who claimed to be haunted by the recently deceased they were probably just trippin', and their deaths were undoubtedly due to some natural cause. Moreover, van Sweiten fiercely denounced the barbaric way people would deal with "vampires," desecrating the deceased's body and maligning the reputation of him and his family. Armed with his report, Maria Theresa banned these practices throughout the Austrian Empire.


Images: map depicting Southeastern Europe and the lands gained to Austria under the Treaty of Passarowitz found on emersonkent.com; 1864 "Le Vampire" lithograph by R de Moraine found on wikipedia; title page and frontispiece from Gerhard van Sweiten's Abhandlung des Daseyns der Gespenster found on magiaposthuma blog.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Hot Peppa

Have you ever wondered why chili peppers are spicy? I was asking myself that question several months back and here's what I uncovered.

What makes chilies spicy?


The chemical compound in chili peppers that make them spicy is called capsaicin. It is an irritant for mammals and causes a burning sensation (it actually triggers the same nervous system response as fire or other intense heat) whenever it comes into contact with our mucous membranes (e.g. tongue, lips, nostrils, eyes, genitals...). Interestingly, other animals such as birds are not affected by capsaicin in this way.

Why are chilies spicy?

This is a slightly different and more complicated question. What sort of evolutionary advantage might capsaicin represent for the chili plant?

In general, a lot of plants bear fruit in order to attract animals who, ideally, eat the fruit while the seeds pass through their digestive system intact. When they later excrete the remnants of the meal they will probably have transported the seeds some distance from the mother plant and left them in a pile of fertilizer to boot.

Leaving aside the issue of humans with indoor plumbing, not all of the animals who may be attracted to the fruit are desirable from the plant's perspective. One example are small mammals, such as rodents, who chew up the seeds. Joshua Tewksbury, the University of Washington biologist who seems to be at the forefront of studying chili peppers, originally hypothesized that chili plants evolved this way in order to deter small mammals from eating their fruit. Birds, on the other hand, which would be better for transporting seeds, are unfazed by the capsaicin.

This hypothesis fell short for a couple of reasons. The biggest reason is the timeline: chilies evolved well before birds. Also, in other plants which have developed similar defenses, making them toxic or unpleasant tasting, these effects are found in other parts of the plant as well (e.g. leaves) whereas with chilies only the fruit contains capsaicin.

Tewksbury then came to suspect that capsaicin's purpose might be to protect chilies from another type of predator. Fungal rot is a big problem for wild chilies growing in the tropical forests of South America and capsaicin has strong antimicrobial qualities (protecting against fungus as well as other microbes such as bacteria). In the wild, the amount of capsaicin found in the fruit of different chili plants varies greatly even between members of the same species. Tewksbury observed that fungus was present in the majority of chilies he found in the wild (it seems to be aided by the holes left behind by insects); there also seemed to be a correlation between how spicy the chilies were and how much fungus was present (with the spiciest chilies seeming to be the most resistant to fungus).

Tewksbury is continuing his research to determine whether, in the wild, chilies growing in moister areas where fungal rot is a bigger problem might tend to be spicier on average than those in drier area, and to gather more evidence which might show that chilies with more capsaicin are heartier.

Another interesting fact is that fungus can sometimes be found on even the spiciest chilies, suggesting that different strains of fungus have evolved so that they are able to withstand more capsaicin. Tewksbury says that this shows that there is an evolutionary "arms race" going on, where chilies get spicier so as to ward off fungus, and fungus grows tougher so that it can feed on spicier chilies.

Why do people eat chilies?

Humans are pretty much the only mammals who voluntarily eat spicy chili peppers. Archaeologists have found evidence of people in the New World using wild chilies in their cooking over 8,000 years ago, and they began cultivating the plant around 6,000 years ago.


After Columbus (who called chilies "peppers," forever confusing them with a different group of spice plants that are native to India), the Spanish and Portuguese brought chilies back to the Old World where they would soon become an important ingredient in African, Indian, and Southeast Asian cuisines.

Some scientists believe that one of the reasons chilies became such a popular ingredient, particularly in tropical cuisine, is because of capsaicin's antimicrobial qualities. Because of this chili pepper (along with other spices such as cinnamon, clove, mustard) helped preserve food's freshness longer in the days before refrigeration.

Other reasons people like to eat chili peppers include taste, obviously, as well as the exhilarating effects capsaicin can have on the body like making you sweat, making your heart beat faster, getting your adrenalin pumping, and triggering the release of endorphins. In antiquity, chili peppers may have also been prized for their medicinal benefits as capsaicin can be used as a local anesthetic or to reduce/inhibit infection.

For more information on chili peppers and Tewksbury's research check out his interview on NPR and this article from April's Smithsonian magazine (also check out the Q&A with the guy who wrote the article about what it was like tagging along on one of his expeditions in the jungles of Bolivia, fueled by caffeine, coca leaves and chilies).


Images: Photo of woman in Rajasthan chili field by Giacomo Rossi found on timesonline, photo of chilies in French market by Per Karlsson found on allposters.com

Friday, May 8, 2009

Tribune of the People

Hey, hey. So a couple of weeks ago I told you about all the depressing articles I've been reading (or half reading) about how our technocrat friends in the Treasury are botching the bailout and how basically everyone in Washington is in the tank for the banks because bankers have deep pockets and give generously to election campaigns and "what's good for Wall Street is good for America" (also, the business of America is... finance?). This article gives a really great, concise explanation of the crisis...

What was I saying? Oh right; so there's a wide choice of villains to point to in connection with the financial meltdown, but there's one character in this story who in my opinion seems to stand out as a hero.



Allow me to introduce you to Neil Barofsky who is the Special Inspector General that oversees the Troubled Assets Relief Plan or, as he likes to style himself, the "TARP cop." He was appointed to his post by President Bush last November (and I like him?! I know; the world's gone mad). Barofsky's job is basically to keep tabs on all the bailout money the Treasury is shelling out under the program: reporting his findings to Congress, making recommendations to Treasury Secretary Geithner, and investigating possible cases of fraud or corruption.

Investigations

As Barofsky explains it, whenever the government launches a big program like this where it starts writing out checks (and the scale of TARP is basically unprecedented) there will always be opportunities for fraud. Shoot, at the end of 2007, the government estimated that around $500 million in fraud had been committed in connection with Hurricane Katrina relief.

Criminal activites and misdeeds that might crop up in relation to TARP could run the gambit from cases of misrepresentations/fraud in the accounting of companies who've come looking for a handout, to instances of insider trading by executives with foreknowledge about companies that will receive TARP funds, to failure to adhere to the caps on executive pay specified by Congress in the enacting legislation. As of two weeks ago, when he presented his report to Congress, Barofsky said that he had 20 investigations and 6 audits underway. These are said to include verifications into the propriety of the bonuses paid out to Merrill Lynch executives on the eve of the brokerage firm's sale to Bank of America as well as those infamous AIG bonuses.

Recommendations

One of the big recommendations Barofksy made in his report is that the Treasury should put in place a better system for determining the value of the shares and other securites it is receiving from companies in exchange for TARP money. This will become even more important if and when the Treasury starts trading in its preferred shares for common shares in order to magically give companies more equity capital without having to ask Congress for more money.

The inspector general is also concerned that the planned mortgage rescue effort be safeguarded against potential real estate scammers and that TARPs public-private investment program be adequately protected against conflicts of interest.

But probably the biggest point of contention between Barofsky and Geithner is that Barofsky wants to require TARP recipients to submit documentation specifically accounting for how all the funds they receive are used. Geithner argues that this is impractical/silly given that money is fungible (i.e. a company has $10 million in cash to begin with and it receives $10 million from TARP, if it allocated $5 mill to a specific program who's to say whether that came out of the TARP money or the previously existing liquidity?) and that the Treasury can adequately see what the companies are doing by consulting their financial statements. But Barofsky says that he recently sent out letters requesting some such specific information from recipient companies and he received a 100% response, thus proving that gathering this information was neither impossible nor impractical. When it was suggested in his interview with NPR that these disclosure requirements might discourage some banks from participating in TARP, Barofsky answered "Good. If they're afraid to tell the American people how they're using the money we don't want them."

I'm curious to see what else Barofsky will do, what will come out of these investigations, and how Congress and the Treasury will respond to his recommendations. But, in the meantime, knowing this guy is watching out for our collective interest makes me feel slightly better about things.

Photo of Neil Barofsky by Susan Walsh found on NPR website.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Hobbit hunters

Even before I watched the Nova episode entitled "Alien from Earth," I had been thinking about writing a post about the discovery of prehistoric "hobbit" bones in Indonesia. Who were these hobbits? Are they really members of new species? Nova presented a good case for new species status, as well as making some intriguing suggestions about what this may tell us about human evolution. Here's the story as I now see it...




Homo floresiensis

In 2003, paleoanthropologists were looking for evidence on early man's migration from East Asia to Australia when they made a surprising discovery. In the Liang Bua cave on the Indonesian island of Flores, they uncovered the remains of several hominids including one near complete skeleton with a complete skull. At first, they assumed these bones belonged to a child as it would have only stood about 3' tall, but they soon realized this was an adult woman around 30 years old. She was about the size of the average three-year-old, but her skull was even smaller: like the size of a grapefruit. Because of its uniquely small stature, the discoverers hypothesized that this was a new species which they dubbed Homo floresiensis and which has been widely nicknamed "the hobbit" in the scientific community and the press.

Near these hobbit bones, scientists also found the remnants of what looked to be fairly advanced stone tools as well as charred bones belonging to the pygmy elephants which once roamed the island. Not only that, but the youngest set of bones was dated to around 18,000 years ago – at least 5,000 years younger than the latest Neanderthal remains; this means that hobbits would have existed well into the age of modern man.

A New Species?

Since the bones were unearthed, many scientists have disputed the discoverers' new species claim and advanced less radical explanations for the hobbits' unusual size. It's been suggested that these could just be modern human pygmies. But no modern pygmies are even close to this tiny, and what about the hobbit's small brain which is closer in size to that of a chimpanzee or australopithecene (very early hominid, like Lucy) than that of a modern human?

Another theory is that the main hobbit skeleton belonged to a modern human suffering from some sort of disease. Specifically, a lot of scientists have suggested that she was microcephalic. Microcephaly is a disorder in which the brain and cranium do not grow to normal size: microcephalics are usually mentally retarded, and the disorder is also associated with dwarfism. Could our hobbit have been a microcephalic pygmy?

This theory had been espoused by many anthropologists who rejected the new species claim, but in 2007 a new study was published which seems to definitively rule out this possibility. American scientists compared a 3D computer generated model of the hobbit's brain with that of 9 contemporary microcephalics. They found that, although the hobbit's brain was similar in size, its features were wholly dissimilar to that of microcephalic humans.

Other anatomical studies of the hobbit bones have added further weight to the theory that these were not modern humans. An examination of the bones in the hobbit's wrist show that they are more akin to those of chimpanzees and australopithecene than to those of Homo sapiens. Another study looked at the hobbits' teeth (in addition to the female skull there was also another jaw bone found). The study found that these sets of teeth were similar to one another and yet very different from those of modern humans. Thus, either the two specimens (which were dated over a thousand years apart) are Homo sapiens that both shared the same rare condition, or perhaps they are not human and their teeth are typical of their species.

All this evidence seems to point in the direction of the hobbit being a new species of primitive hominid, but seeing as how we only have one fairly complete skeleton and some other assorted bones (although, hey, the fossil record for a lot of other hominid species is even more fragmentary) we'll have to wait for more physical specimens before we can say for sure. One of the priorities of scientists as they continue excavation work on Flores is to try to recover fossils which preserve Homo floresiensis DNA so that it can be compared to that of other species.

What were the hobbits like?

The discovery of the hobbits presents a bit of a paradox: the hominids' small cranial capacity and other anatomical characteristics seem to indicate it was a sort of throwback to the earliest human ancestors and to apes, but at the same time their remains were found near stone tools. Some scientists say that these tools don't look all that different from those developed by australopithecene in East Africa (Developed Oldowan tools). But there's also evidence that these might be the type of more advanced tools usually associated with modern man (there's some evidence suggesting wood working and use of bamboo).

And what about the scorched stegodon bones? Not only do they suggest that the hobbits knew how to build fires, but in order for these toddler-sized hominids to take down a pygmy elephant (around the size of a large cow and weighing as much as a Mini Cooper) they would have had to hunt in groups. This would imply sophisticated social skills and communication, maybe even (most controversially) some sort of language.

Thus, some scientists theorize that the hobbits were more intelligent than their diminutive brains suggest. And this may well be because, although the hobbit brain is smaller than that of Homo sapiens or Homo erectus, some of its features are associated with higher thought processes.

Where did the hobbits come from?

This is perhaps the biggest question. If Homo floresiensis is indeed a new species, distinct from Homo sapiens, then what species did it evolve from? When did its evolutionary path diverge from that of modern man? The neatest explanation would be that it evolved from Homo erectus, a species that is closely related to Homo sapiens if not a direct ancestor and which is usually identified as the first hominid to migrate out of Africa. If this were the case then perhaps the hobbits' smaller size can be attributed to island dwarfism: populations of mammals isolated on islands often evolve to be unusually small in size (like those pygmy elephants) or unusally large in size (like the komodo dragon, which is a giant monitor lizard).

On the Nova documentary, a scientist from the Flores excavation team rejects this hypothesis stating that there is no evidence of island dwarfism ever resulting in diminished cranial capacity in humans. Homo floresiensis' small stature and brain size and primitive proportions all seem to point further back in the evolutionary chain, so maybe the hobbits' unique evolutionary path started even earlier.

The suggestion that Homo erectus was not the first hominid to leave Africa is controversial, but the Nova documentary mentioned the discovery of Homo georgicus, to date the earliest fossil found outside Africa, in Dmanisi, Georgia which is thought to represent an intermediate step between Homo habilus and Homo erectus. Moreover, on the Nova website, Michael Morwood, one of the leaders of the team that discovered the hobbit, mentions recent evidence of remains found on the isle of Java which may be more primitive than Homo erectus (Meganthropus).

At another interesting site on the isle of Flores, called Mata Menge, scientists have found stone tools similar to those found in Liang Bua which date back 880,000 years. It's hypothesized that whoever created these tools (Homo erectus? They're too old to be the work of modern man) may be the ancestors of our hobbits.

Conclusions

It's amazing to think that the diminutive hominids found on the isle of Flores might belong to a new, fairly intelligent race whose evolution diverged from our own over a million years ago. Likewise, they may have developed there in relative isolation over the course of over 800,000 years. We'll need to find a lot more evidence before we can have any certainty about the origins of the hobbit, but one thing is certain: coupled with other recent findings such as Homo georgicus and Meganthropus, Homo floresiensis suggests that the human evolutionary family tree may have more branches and be much richer and more complex than we assumed up until now.

And when did the hobbits die out? Some scientists think they may have been killed off around 13,000 years ago by the same volcanic eruption that finished off their prey, the island's pygmy elephants.


For the answers to more questions regarding the hobbit I would direct you to the Q&A with Dr. Michael Morwood on Nova's website.


Images: cast of Homo floresiensis skull found in New York's American Museum of Natural History; photo Homo floresiensis fossil jaws by Djune Ivereigh/ARKUNAS found on Turkana Basin Institute's webpage on the hobbit.