Shared posts

05 Dec 06:00

What We’ve Got Here is Failure to Communicate

by Adam


08 Dec 08:47

A simple trick to improve your memory

by tomstafford
Scott Akerman

I'm so glad I don't have to deal with this kind of rote memorization on a regular basis anymore.

Want to enhance your memory for facts? Tom Stafford explains a counterintuitive method for retaining information.

If I asked you to sit down and remember a list of phone numbers or a series of facts, how would you go about it? There’s a fair chance that you’d be doing it wrong.

One of the interesting things about the mind is that even though we all have one, we don’t have perfect insight into how to get the best from it. This is in part because of flaws in our ability to think about our own thinking, which is called metacognition. Studying this self-reflective thought process reveals that the human species has mental blind spots.

One area where these blind spots are particularly large is learning. We’re actually surprisingly bad at having insight into how we learn best.

Researchers Jeffrey Karpicke and Henry Roediger III set out to look at one aspect: how testing can consolidate our memory of facts. In their experiment they asked college students to learn pairs of Swahili and English words. So, for example, they had to learn that if they were given the Swahili word ‘mashua’ the correct response was ‘boat’. They could have used the sort of facts you might get on a high-school quiz (e.g. “Who wrote the first computer programs?”/”Ada Lovelace”), but the use of Swahili meant that there was little chance their participants could use any background knowledge to help them learn. After the pairs had all been learnt, there would be a final test a week later.

Now if many of us were revising this list we might study the list, test ourselves and then repeat this cycle, dropping items we got right. This makes studying (and testing) quicker and allows us to focus our effort on the things we haven’t yet learnt. It’s a plan that seems to make perfect sense, but it’s a plan that is disastrous if we really want to learn properly.

Karpicke and Roediger asked students to prepare for a test in various ways, and compared their success – for example, one group kept testing themselves on all items without dropping what they were getting right, while another group stopped testing themselves on their correct answers.

On the final exam differences between the groups were dramatic. While dropping items from study didn’t have much of an effect, the people who dropped items from testing performed relatively poorly: they could only remember about 35% of the word pairs, compared to 80% for people who kept testing items after they had learnt them.

It seems the effective way to learn is to practice retrieving items from memory, not trying to cement them in there by further study. Moreover, dropping items entirely from your revision, which is the advice given by many study guides, is wrong. You can stop studying them if you’ve learnt them, but you should keep testing what you’ve learnt if you want to remember them at the time of the final exam.

Finally, the researchers had the neat idea of asking their participants how well they would remember what they had learnt. All groups guessed at about 50%. This was a large overestimate for those who dropped items from test (and an underestimate from those who kept testing learnt items).

So it seems that we have a metacognitive blind spot for which revision strategies will work best. Making this a situation where we need to be guided by the evidence, and not our instinct. But the evidence has a moral for teachers as well: there’s more to testing than finding out what students know – tests can also help us remember.

Read more: Why cramming for tests often fails

This is my BBC Future column from last week. The original is here

01 Dec 15:00

The Golden Fleece and the Argonauts

by AdrienneMayor

"Ram-bird"by Adrienne Mayor

The origins of the oral traditions about the voyage of  Jason and the Argonauts across the Black Sea to the land of golden treasure (ancient Colchis, modern Georgia) are uncertain. The tale evolved into an epic poem sometime before Homer (8th century BC). While the epic sailing expedition to find the Golden Fleece is an imaginary adventure set in the Bronze Age and features several magic and other mythic episodes, the story also contains many nuggets of historical, ethnographic, geographic, and natural realities. Greek travelers reached the far shores of the Black Sea at a very early date, since names from the languages of Colchis and the Caucasus are preserved in archaic Greek myths and appear in inscriptions on ancient Greek artifacts. For example, Apsyrtos, Medea’s brother, has an Abkhazian name, and Circe, the seductive sorceress in Homer’s Odyssey) means “The Circassian.”


The Golden Fleece sought by the Argonauts has been taken by scholars to merely symbolize the wealth of Colchis. But the true identity of the Golden Fleece was already recognized in antiquity, by the the natural historian Pliny. The meaning of the Golden Fleece was also understood by the geographer Strabo, a native of Pontus who had probably traveled to neighboring Colchis.

Appian (Roman historian born ca. AD 95), gives the fullest explanation of the local tradition that explains the Golden Fleece. People of western Colchis (Svaneti) submerged ram’s fleece in streams and rivers to collect gold grains and flakes carried down from the mountains. This ancient technique is still used by local mountain villagers in Svaneti. It is plausible that it was employed in the Bronze Age. Geologists today report that gold is still suspended in rivers of western Colchis. The fact that gold adheres to the fleece would have been discovered serendipitously when people washed new lambskins in rushing streams that contained plentiful gold flakes.

When Greek adventurers sailed to Colchis and reported on its golden treasures in archaic times, they may have repeated vague rumors about the mysterious “Golden Fleece,” as something unknown associated with the fabulous gold treasures of Colchis. Later Greek travelers heard explanations of the technique and then observed it firsthand.
By the 7th century BC, Greeks had established trade colonies along the coast of Colchis in order to obtain the famous Scythian and Caucasian gold. Archaic Greeks were fascinated by the romance and mystery of “golden fleece” before they understood the technology.

This fleece technique was mystery to the Greeks because it only works in certain geographic/geological conditions, where rivers and streams are laden with gold sand eroding from high mountains bearing igneous rock with rich veins of gold. In the famous Scythian gold fields of the Central Asian deserts, for example, Bronze Age prospectors could not use the fleece method; they sifted sand for placer gold, brought down by erosion into dry gullies along the silk route below from the Altai (“gold”) Mountains.


Among the small gold and bronze artifacts of rams of Colchis are what scholars describe as a curious “ram-bird” figurine (see image above), supposedly combining a ram’s head with a bird’s tail. But it seems obvious that this figure is not meant to depict a hybrid ram-bird. Instead it resembles a ram’s hide with the head attached, a common way to display and identify hides (think bearskin rugs with head attached). The texture on the hide indicates gold particles. The so-called ram-bird figurines likely represent the Golden Fleece.

About the author: A Research Scholar in Classics and History of Science, Stanford University. Adrienne Mayor is the author of  “The Poison King: Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy,” a nonfiction finalist for the 2009 National Book Award, and “The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World” (2014).

03 Dec 19:06

My email is a monster

by Matthew Inman
Scott Akerman

Ugh, the fake courtesy in writing an email is a butt. I still send and get emails from people I talk to everyday of the form: "Hi ____, Yadda yadda yadda. Thanks, ___"

01 Dec 23:00

#1081; The Lingering Icebergs (1 of 3)

by David Malki

the only thing not crossed out on this list is 'figure out how to reconcile yourself to a level of productivity that you can reasonably achieve'

28 Nov 05:00

#1080; In which Excitement is sought

by David Malki

Meanwhile, for the deer, it's just another Thursday.

16 Dec 11:00


by Justin Boyd


Hello me.


Bonus Wendell for everyone. This is the face he makes when you give him a bit of an orange. My girlfriend and I call it his Orange Face.


This Orange Face is currently the wallpaper on my phone and it makes me happy.

bonus panel
04 Dec 11:00


by Justin Boyd


I just opened up a couple of my todo.txt files. Yeah, there is a lot of stuff that was never to-done…

Maybe I’ll go old school and go with the Post-It approach.

bonus panel
10 Dec 21:01

Hark, A Vagrant: Lady's Favor

buy this print!

It's always Stupid Medieval Type Joke Day here at Hark A Vagrant

Topatoco's holiday shipping deadlines approach, so get it while it's hot/available!

Clicking on the image will take you to the store. Hooray!!

12 Dec 18:31

DIY Gift Idea: Surprise Balls!

by Tara

DnD Surprise Ball

Surprise balls are one of the ultimate DIY gifts. Seriously. These gifts are like mini parties in one: your recipient has the joy of unwrapping their gift and getting multiple tiny surprises, while covering themselves with colorful crepe paper! Plus, you look like a wonderful and creative human being, and it only took you a few bucks and a few minutes! Win-win.

The premise is simple: Start with your largest gift in the center and wrap around it with crepe paper streamers. Continue to wrap the streamer around, working it towards a ball-shape, and pause every once in a while to add another small gift. Continue to do this until all gifts are fully wrapped inside of the ball. That’s it!

Surprise Ball Steps

The fun, though, is coming up with ways to decorate and theme the ball. You can change the color of the streamers throughout by taping two colored streamers together, you can dress up the front with washi tape and stickers, or you can create a replica of a round object and theme the gifts inside appropriately.

Harry Potter Surprise Ball

Here are some ideas for geeky surprise balls:

HP Ball Contents

The Golden Snitch

Using gold crepe paper, create a surprise ball and add wings to the back. Fill with Harry Potter-themed goodies! These can include:

  • Bertie Botts Every Flavor Beans
  • Gold from Gringotts Bank
  • A Time Turner
  • Pins, stickers, and other accessories in the recipient’s house colors
  • Favorite quotes from the books

DnD Ball Contents

The Dungeon Master

Invite your friends to a Dungeons and Dragons game, and give them everything they’ll need to start their adventure! This can include:

  • A set of dice
  • A miniature
  • Riddles or puzzles
  • Clues that will help them during the campaign
  • “Coupons” they can cash in during the campaign. For instance:
    • Redeem this slip of paper for: One re-roll. (Can be given to another player or NPC.)
    • Redeem this slip of paper for: One random item from the Trinkets page.
    • Redeem this slip of paper for: Advantage or Disadvantage on the roll of your choice. (Can be given to another player or NPC.)

Here are some other fun ideas:

  • Put a bunch of stocking stuffers/candies in a surprise ball with black crepe paper streamers–it’ll look like coal!
  • Make a pokeball-themed surprise ball with mini Pokemon goodies inside!
  • Know a sports fan? Put sports-themed goodies (or a note saying you’ve got tickets to the big game) inside a surprise ball that looks like their sports ball of choice!

What type of surprise ball do you want to make? Let me know in the comments!

09 Dec 14:00

Recipe: Edible Fireballs

by Tara

Edible FireballsTruffles are one of my go-to treats for the holidays. They’re a delicious treat that would be considered a bit of a luxury when bought from a chocolate shop. Once you get the hang of the recipe, it’s a lot of fun to create custom flavor and presentation combos to suit the recipient. These fireball truffles were created for a Dungeons and Dragons lover. The truffle, named after a popular spell from D&D, has a hint of spice and a bit of a kick from the Pop Rocks. Use them to butter up a new DM or make them for everyone in your adventuring party!


  • 3/4 cup heavy whipping cream,
  • 2 12 oz. bags of semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • red Pop Rocks


In a medium-sized saucepan, mix the cream, cayenne pepper, and cinnamon together over medium-low heat. Heat until it starts simmering.

Turn off the stove and start adding 12 oz. of semi-sweet chocolate chips into the mixture. Stir until the chocolate has melted and everything is smooth and mixed together.

Pour the mixture onto a wax paper lined pie plate or shallow casserole dish. Place in the fridge to chill for 1+ hours or until firm but scoopable.

Remove the plate from the fridge and roll the truffle filling into small balls using a spoon and your hands. Sizing of the balls is up to you, I’d recommend sizing them somewhere between a teaspoon and a tablespoon. Place the balls on a plate covered in wax paper and place back in the fridge for 30 minutes.

Place the other 12 ounces of chocolate in a bowl and microwave for 30 seconds. Stir, then microwave in 10 second intervals while mixing in between until the chocolate is smooth.  Microwaving for longer can result in burnt chocolate. Trust me–you don’t want that. (If your chocolate stops melting/mixing and starts looking clumpy/gritty while smelling bad, you’ve burnt it.)

Pull the truffle balls out of the fridge and dip into the melted chocolate. (Use a fork to fish the truffles out of the chocolate so any excess can go through the tines.) Place the dipped chocolates on a wax paper lined plate or cookie sheet.

While the chocolate is still wet, sprinkle red Pop Rocks on the top.

Place back into the fridge until you’re ready to serve!


05 Dec 07:16

Nuclear Reactor Building, North Carolina State College, Raleigh, N.C.

by Raleigh Boy

NC State Reactor_web

Did you know Raleigh is the home of the nation’s “First Temple of the Atom”? You can find out why this week on Flashback Friday as we visit the Nuclear Reactor Building on the NC State campus.

NC State Reactor_back_web

No message this week!

Nuclear Reactor Building
This is the first facility of its kind to be devoted exclusively to peacetime development of the atom. The unique one-story building which houses the reactor also contains the training and research laboratories, and an observation room.This is the first college-owned reactor and is open to the public without restriction.

The R-1 reactor was the first non-government-run nuclear reactor in the world and the first designed, built, and operated by an academic institution. Design and construction began in 1950, and was completed in 1955.

Photo courtesy NCSU Libraries Special Collections Research Center

Photo courtesy NCSU Libraries Special Collections Research Center

In this ca 1955 photo the brand new Nuclear Reactor Building is ready to split its first atom.

“The First Temple of the Atom”

National attention was brought to NC State in 1955 when the first nuclear reactor in the world devoted solely to the peacetime application of nuclear fission was installed in a building on campus specifically designed for the purpose.

Nicknamed the ‘first temple of the atom’ by the Associated Press, the nuclear reactor building, later renamed Burlington Nuclear Laboratories, was designed in 1951 by Raleigh architect G. Milton Small, Jr. It was his first major commission following the establishment of his own firm in 1949, and the first of his several subsequent projects for NC State.

The site chosen for the reactor building was an open, unpaved plaza on central campus, adjacent to the Diesel Engineering Building. At the time, a large concrete fountain, which had been built in 1947 as a cooling  tower for the diesel engines, occupied the site.

Photo courtesy NCSU Libraries Special Collections Research Center

Photo courtesy NCSU Libraries Special Collections Research Center

The futuristic-looking concrete fountain cooled the water which cooled the diesel engines located in the nearby Diesel Building. It was well over 20 feet tall.

(Note to readers: the structure seen in the background is not the Diesel Building. Anybody care to guess what that building is and what later replaced it; and where the Diesel Building itself is located?)

Photo courtesy NCSU Libraries Special Collections Research Center

Photo courtesy NCSU Libraries Special Collections Research Center

Construction of the Nuclear Reactor Building began with the installation of the R-1 reactor. Below, the steel framework of the building and its cooling tower takes shape.

Photo courtesy NCSU Libraries Special Collections Research Center

Photo courtesy NCSU Libraries Special Collections Research Center

The reactor sits in the center of a room that is 8 feet below ground level, 60 feet in diameter, and 35 feet high.

Photo courtesy NCSU Libraries Special Collections Research Center

Photo courtesy NCSU Libraries Special Collections Research Center

Here is the control panel which operated the reactor.

Photo courtesy NCSU Libraries Special Collections Research Center

Photo courtesy NCSU Libraries Special Collections Research Center

At the dedication of the Nuclear Reactor Building in 1955 Gov. Luther Hodges himself takes the controls.

State Archives of North Carolina photo

State Archives of North Carolina photo

This 1960s video features technicians operating the R-1 nuclear reactor. (Run time 6 minutes. Courtesy NCSU Libraries Special Collections Research Center)

Curiously, in November 1963, as a condition of maintenance, 60 gallons of anti-freeze were poured into the reactor’s cooling tower to keep the 250 gallons of water in the tower from freezing during the winter.

The nuclear reactor building was enlarged in 1973, at which time the name was changed from Burlington Nuclear Laboratories to Burlington Nuclear Engineering Laboratories.

Nowadays nuclear studies at NC State University include training of nuclear reactor operators, methods of power generation using nuclear science, and the medical and industrial uses of radiation.

Photo courtesy NCSU Libraries Special Collections Research Center

Photo courtesy NCSU Libraries Special Collections Research Center

This mid-1960s aerial view shows Burlington Labs and the adjacent diesel cooling fountain. The oddball campus landmark was demolished in 1972 to make way for a three-story addition to Burlington Labs. The rest of the plaza was later transformed into the Gardner Arboretum in the mid-1970s.


Our Flashback Friday photochrome postcard this week was printed by Colourpicture Publishers of Boston, MA.

Colourpicture Publishers  (1938-1969)
Boston and Cambridge, MA

A major publisher and printer of linen view-cards of the United States. They later went on to publish photochromes and small spiral bound picture booklets under the name trade name Plastichrome in the 1950’s.


“Flashback Friday” is a weekly feature of Goodnight, Raleigh! in which we showcase vintage postcards depicting our historic capital city. We hope you enjoy this week end treat!







18 Nov 08:39

Evidence based debunking

by tomstafford
Scott Akerman

Debunking (especially online debunking) is so tricky and the backfire effects are largely why I've just stopped trying.

Fed up with futile internet arguments, a bunch of psychologists investigated how best to correct false ideas. Tom Stafford discovers how to debunk properly.

We all resist changing our beliefs about the world, but what happens when some of those beliefs are based on misinformation? Is there a right way to correct someone when they believe something that’s wrong?

Stephen Lewandowsky and John Cook set out to review the science on this topic, and even carried out a few experiments of their own. This effort led to their “Debunker’s Handbook“, which gives practical, evidence-based techniques for correcting misinformation about, say, climate change or evolution. Yet the findings apply to any situation where you find the facts are falling on deaf ears.

The first thing their review turned up is the importance of “backfire effects” – when telling people that they are wrong only strengthens their belief. In one experiment, for example, researchers gave people newspaper corrections that contradicted their views and politics, on topics ranging from tax reform to the existence of weapons of mass destruction. The corrections were not only ignored – they entrenched people’s pre-existing positions.

Backfire effects pick up strength when you have no particular reason to trust the person you are talking to. This perhaps explains why climate sceptics with more scientific education tend to be the most sceptical that humans are causing global warming.

The irony is that understanding backfire effects requires that we debunk a false understanding of our own. Too often, argue Lewandowsky and Cook, communicators assume a ‘deficit model’ in their interactions with the misinformed. This is the idea that we have the right information, and all we need to do to make people believe is to somehow “fill in” the deficit in other people’s understanding. Just telling people the evidence for the truth will be enough to replace their false beliefs. Beliefs don’t work like that.

Psychological factors affect how we process information – such as what we already believe, who we trust and how we remember. Debunkers need to work with this, rather than against if they want the best chance of being believed.

The most important thing is to provide an alternative explanation. An experiment by Hollryn Johnson and Colleen Seifert, shows how to persuade people better. These two psychologists recruited participants to listen to news reports about a fictional warehouse fire, and then answer some comprehension questions.

Some of the participants were told that the fire was started by a short circuit in a closet near some cylinders containing potentially explosive gas. Yet when this information was corrected – by saying the closet was empty – they still clung to the belief.

A follow-up experiment showed the best way to effectively correct such misinformation. The follow-up was similar to the first experiment, except that it involved participants who were given a plausible alternative explanation: that evidence was found that arson caused the fire. It was only those who were given a plausible alternative that were able to let go of the misinformation about the gas cylinders.

Lewandowsky and Cook argue that experiments like these show the dangers of arguing against a misinformed position. If you try and debunk a myth, you may end up reinforcing that belief, strengthening the misinformation in people’s mind without making the correct information take hold.

What you must do, they argue, is to start with the plausible alternative (that obviously you believe is correct). If you must mention a myth, you should mention this second, and only after clearly warning people that you’re about to discuss something that isn’t true.

This debunking advice is also worth bearing in mind if you find yourself clinging to your own beliefs in the face of contradictory facts. You can’t be right all of the time, after all.

Read more about the best way to win an argument.

If you have an everyday psychological phenomenon you’d like to see written about in these columns please get in touch @tomstafford or Thanks to Ullrich Ecker for advice on this topic.

This is my BBC Future column from last week, original here

18 Nov 17:42

Handwritten Russian Cipher Stumps FBI

by April Stevens
Scott Akerman

Ciphers are so friggin cool. I need to read up on this stuff more so I can actually have decent understanding of them.

By Riley Dankovich (Guest Contributor)

Hollow Nickel

FBI (2008). The hollow nickel handed to the Brooklyn paperboy

In the wake of World War II, when cryptography had largely become mechanized, no one expected one of the most difficult-to-crack ciphers to be one created using pencil and paper.

In the summer of 1953, a young boy in Brooklyn received payment for a newspaper sale — unlike ordinary payment, one of the nickels was hollow. Something about the nickel seemed strange to the boy; he threw it to the ground, where it promptly split open. Inside was a piece of microfilm with 10 columns of numbers. Within days, word had reached a detective about the hollow nickel, which was quickly turned over to the FBI. The nickel, it turns out, was given to the paperboy by the wife of a Russian spy.

For four years, the FBI struggled with this cipher. They referred to the case as the “Hollow Nickel Case” (Rudolph), as they knew next to nothing else about the cipher text on the piece of microfilm, and had no further cipher text. Fortunately for the FBI, in 1957, a man approached them, declaring that he was a Russian intelligence officer, and wanted to defect. This man was Reino Häyhänen, codenamed “VICTOR,” from which the VIC Cipher, as this cipher came to be called, derives its name. After nearly four years without making much progress, Häyhänen’s defection was the FBI’s lucky break.

Likely the most complex pen and paper cipher ever created, the technical name for the VIC Cipher would be “a ‘straddling bipartite monoalphabetic substitution superenciphered by modified double transposition’” (Kahn). Most hand ciphers are either substitution ciphers, in which the letters are substituted for either other letters or numbers, or transposition ciphers, in which the order of the letters is scrambled. As cryptography became more advanced, cryptographers began to combine the two. The VIC Cipher contains not only a substitution and two transpositions, but also is passed through a straddling checkerboard to obtain the substitution, and then split in half (bipartite). Though this all seems incredibly complicated, the agent enciphering the text needed only to remember four simple key words or phrases, making messages much simpler to encipher for the Russians than to decipher for foreign intelligence.

The Straddling Checkerboard

A straddling checkerboard is a manner in which to obtain a more complex substitution, one that is therefore more difficult to decipher. It needs a keyword, which, in the case of the VIC Cipher, was СНЕГОПА, or “snowfall” in Russian. The numbers 0-9 are scrambled and placed above a ten-column-by-four-row grid.

Transposition Table 1

Riley Dankovich (2014). Straddling checkerboard using the keyword СНЕГОПА (“snowfall”)

Under the numbers, the keyword (СНЕГОПА) is placed in the first row, leaving the last three columns blank. In the next three rows, the rest of the Russian alphabet follows, including a “.” and a “,” as well as the symbols Н/Ц, П/Л, Н/Т, and ПВТ, each of which have a meaning helpful to decipherment. The three numbers above the blanks left by the keyword are placed at the beginning of the second, third, and fourth rows. The letters in the first row, the keyword, will be enciphered as the numbers at the top of their subsequent columns. Any letter in the other rows, however, will be enciphered as two numbers: first, the number at the beginning of its row, and then the number at the top of its column. The word СПОСИБО (“thank you”) would be enciphered as 5 9 8 5 8 20 65 8. Before the plaintext is run through the straddling checkerboard, it is bisected. As a bisected cipher, the plaintext is cut into two parts in some random place, and the first half is attached to the end of the last half. The symbol H/T is placed before the true beginning of the cipher.

Next Comes Transposition Tables

After being run through the straddling checkerboard, what is now the cipher text is run through two transposition tables. This cipher uses three pieces of information (the first twenty letters of a popular Russian song, the date of Allied victory over Japan, and Häyhänen’s personal identification number) to generate a string of seemingly random numbers. These numbers determine the number of columns and rows in the tables, and several other minor factors. The cipher manipulates these three pieces of information, which have all been converted to numbers, using arithmetic modulo 10 and chain arithmetic. In modulo 10 arithmetic, once two numbers are added, the digit in the tens place is dropped. In chain arithmetic, numbers in a series are added continually until a desired series length is reached.

Transposition Table 2

Riley Dankovich (2014). Beginning of Transposition Table 2, with disruption areas outlined

If the original series is, for example, 4, 9, 5, 3 7, the first two digits, 4 and 9, are added together (dropping the tens digit) to get 3, which is then added to the end of the series. Then the second and third digits, 9 and 5, are added to get 4, to get a series of 4, 9, 5, 3, 7, 3, 4, … until the desired series length (one of the factors determined by the seemingly random numbers) is reached. The numbers obtained from the straddling checkerboard are arranged in the first transposition table and then taken out in a different order and put into the second table. The numbers are taken in order from this table to form the final ciphertext.

Transposition ciphers, even without added manipulations, are difficult to decipher, though less so with the use of a strong computer. Because a transposition cipher simply rearranges the letters, the number of possible plaintexts can be determined easily, though the correct one is difficult to determine. If a cipher text has only 10 letters, it will have 10! (10 x 9 x 8 x 7 x 6 x 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1) possible arrangements. This amounts to upwards of three million possibilities, and the VIC cipher is a great deal longer than 10 letters.

Original VIC cipher

FBI (2008). The original cipher text of the VIC Cipher on microfilm

The VIC Cipher that Häyhäden explained to the FBI was sent to him from the Soviet Union soon after he arrived in the United States. Far from containing sinister instructions, the beginning of the decoded message read (in Russian): “We congratulate you on a safe arrival. We confirm the receipt of your letter to the address “V repeat V” and the reading of letter number 1” (Rudolph). Knowing the mechanism of this cipher, however, allowed the FBI to arrest, among others, Colonel Rudolf Ivanovich Abel, a Russian spy. He was sentenced to prison on three counts of conspiracy. As written in the FBI’s article Rudolph Ivanovich Abel (Hollow Nickel Case), “an investigation which had started with a newsboy’s hollow nickel ultimately resulted in the smashing of a Soviet spy ring.”

This cipher, though written with the simplest of utensils, pencil and paper and some arithmetic, stumped the United States’ foremost intelligence bureau for four years. Without the defection of Häyhänen, the world would still probably see the VIC Cipher as only 1035 numbers on microfilm (Kahn).Widely regarded as “the most complex hand-operated cipher ever seen,” the VIC Cipher was, to put it simply, an astronomically impressive feat of cryptographic skill.


This post is part of a series of essays on the history of cryptography produced by students at Vanderbilt University in honor of the release of The Imitation Game, a major motion picture about the life of British codebreaker and mathematician Alan Turing. The students wrote these essays for an assignment in a first-year writing seminar taught by mathematics instructor Derek Bruff.  For more information on the cryptography seminar, see the course blog.  And for more information on The Imitation Game, which opens in the US on November 28, 2014, see the film’s website.


Book cipher, running key cipher, vic cipher and secom cipher. Retrieved October 14, 2014, from,%20RUNNING%20KEY%20CIPHER,%20VIC%20CIPHER%20AND%20SECOM%20CIPHER.pdf

Clarke, B. (2008, October 13). Hollow nickel spy case. Retrieved October 14, 2014, from

FBI. (2008). Hollow Nickel [Photograph], Retrieved October 14, 2014, from:

FBI. (2008). Hollow Nickel Message [Photograph], Retrieved October 14, 2014, from:

Kahn, D. (1993, September 22). Number one from Moscow. Retrieved October 14, 2014, from

Rudolph Ivanovich Abel (hollow nickel case). (n.d.). Retrieved October 14, 2014, from

19 Nov 14:46

Let’s Play Fair: A Deceptively Simple Cipher

by April Stevens

By Nathan Dumessa (Guest Contributor)


“Good Bye.” by Zarko Drincic via Flickr CC.

What is the best way to keep your secret messages safe? Using a cipher that is deceptively simple. This is what makes the Playfair cipher stand out among the other ciphers.

Charles Wheatstone may be more famous for his contributions to the invention of the telegraph, but what some may not know is that he invented the Playfair cipher, which he named after his friend, Lyon Playfair. Wheatstone was also an important figure in the study of vision. He made a revolutionary contribution with his invention of the stereoscope in 1838 (Banerjee, 2014). This was one of his greatest inventions that led to his popularity. In addition, his work on the telegraph may have led to the creation of the Playfair cipher. After all, the invention of the telegraph was a game-changer in the world of cryptography.

One of the most famous uses of the Playfair Cipher involved John F. Kennedy during World War II (Lyons, n.d.). He was able to send a message encrypted using this cipher when his PT-109 sank in the Solomon Islands and managed to get his crew and himself rescued.

What I really admire about this cipher is how simple it can seem, but is actually difficult to decipher. The structure of the Playfair cipher is a 5×5 grid of the English alphabet. This will of course exclude a letter, but in this cipher, the letters I and J are combined to represent one letter. Similar to the Keyword Cipher, the Playfair cipher also uses a keyword. The rules for the keyword apply here as well with the addition of one new rule: If any letter is repeated in the key, it is eliminated, the entire grid has to contain all of the letters except for J since it is represented by the letter I, and finally the key cannot contain the letters J and I.

The next step to setting up this cipher is to split up your message into two-letter pairs called digraphs. When doing this, you have to disregard all punctuation and write out any numbers that may be included. Now there are a few restrictions that apply here: Any double letters are separated by the letter X, and if you have an odd number of letters in your message, you add an extra X at the end to make it even, for example, the word BELL would be written as BE LX LX. Now the only thing left is to encrypt the message. So for this example our sentence will be HE RANG THE BELL AT SEVEN PMPlayfair Cipher

The sentence would then be broken apart into: HERANGTHEBELLATSEVENPM


Note that it was not necessary to put an X between the two L’s in the word BELL because they were in two separate digraphs.

The encryption process has a specific algorithm. For our example, we will use the keyword LYON and set up a grid first.

Now to encrypt our message, we will look at each pair of letters at a time.


The way you encrypt each pair is by looking at their locations in the grid, so HE forms a 2×3 rectangle. You start by looking at the H and following it to the E column and you get the letter K. Then you follow the E left to the H column and you get the letter B. So the first pair will be encrypted to KB.

If two letters are located in the same row, you would shift one position to the right. For example, if you are trying to encrypt the letters IM, it would be translated to KP. If the letters are in the same row and in the first or last columns for example LA, you would translate it to YL. Similarly, if two letters are in the same column, you would shift down one position so the letters AP for example, would be encrypted to GU, and following the same pattern, CW would be translated to IY.

So our message would be encrypted to:





“Time Is Running out.. Explored.” By via Flickr CC..

The main weakness of the Playfair cipher is the fact that the sender would have to inform the recipient of the keyword. If an enemy were to intercept this information, the message would be decrypted in a very short amount of time. However, without information on the key, cracking this cipher would prove to be a daunting task.

In attempting to cryptanalyze a message like this, one would first need to figure out whether or not it is a Playfair cipher. The important characteristics are: an even number of letters, no double letters, and if it’s a long message, a frequency analysis that shows no more than 25 letters. Once that is done, most of the approach involves a trial and error method. Contextual evidence would help because it would provide some plausible guesses. Because the cipher is digraphic, substituting a pair of letters at a time, frequency analysis would not be an efficient method to decipher it. Therefore, a cryptanalyst would have to use a different approach to crack this cipher. One thing to consider is that in this cipher, reversed plaintext digraphs correspond to reversed cipher text digraphs, so that would help pick out a few letters.

The Playfair cipher was actually used in World War II by the German army, but instead of using the regular cipher, they used a double Playfair which eliminated the weaknesses in the cipher (Christensen, 2006). In the double Playfair, the first letter of the digraph would be in one grid and the second would be in the other. Therefore, reversed plaintext digraphs would not actually correspond to reversed cipher text digraphs. In addition, double letters could be present in the cipher text which can give a false pattern to a cryptanalyst.

The Playfair cipher is one that is very simple to utilize but time consuming and difficult to decipher. The main weakness is how easy it is to crack it if someone knows the keyword. Otherwise, it is one of the best ciphers to securely encrypt a message as long as your intended recipient knows the key. It is important to note that the keyword is vital. The security of the message depends on the mutual understanding of the key between the sender and recipient and as little written evidence of it as possible.

I will leave you with this:


This post is part of a series of essays on the history of cryptography produced by students at Vanderbilt University in honor of the release of The Imitation Game, a major motion picture about the life of British codebreaker and mathematician Alan Turing. The students wrote these essays for an assignment in a first-year writing seminar taught by mathematics instructor Derek Bruff.  For more information on the cryptography seminar, see the course blog.  And for more information on The Imitation Game, which opens in the US on November 28, 2014, see the film’s website.


Akins, T. Playfair Cipher. (n.d.). Retrieved October 15, 2014.

Banerjee, J. (2014, August 15). Charles Wheatstone (1802-1875). Retrieved October 15, 2014.

Christensen, C. (2006, January 1). Playfair Cipher. Retrieved October 15, 2014.

Lyons, J. Playfair Cipher. (n.d.). Retrieved October 15, 2014.

18 Nov 05:00

#1077; In which it’s Lonely at the Top

by David Malki

Chompsenberg had a few good turns in that Krandanayev anthology but Krandanayev was never the same post-Trantlydoff.

14 Nov 07:56

Downtowner Motor Inn, Raleigh, N.C.

by Raleigh Boy

Raleigh Downtowner_web

This week’s Flashback Friday postcard is a colorful depiction of Raleigh’s Downtowner Motor Inn, one of the handful of urban motels that once dotted the downtown area in the 1960s.

Raleigh Downtowner_back_web

Downtowner Motor Inn
309 Hillsboro St
Raleigh, North Carolina

Combined advantages of Motel and Hotel facilities in a Downtown location. 82 Spacious Rooms — Free T.V. — Heated Swimming Pool — Free Parking — No Tipping — Candlelight Restaurant — Free TWX Reservation Service. For the finest in accommodations Phone: 833-5771

That ‘free TV’ was color TV, I’m sure — Nonetheless, the description of the Raleigh Downtowner says it all!

This week’s card was postmarked on April 11, 1967.

Hi: Hope all is well with the two of you. I’m fine, & am working here. Head housekeeper, and am living at 410 Elm St. Raleigh. Thought you might like a card & stamp.


Love the way ‘Lillian’ crossed out the motel’s address and wrote over it her own. I wonder how her tenure as head housekeeper at the Downtowner worked out?

The Thing About the Downtowner Motor Inn

The Downtowner Corporation was organized in 1958 in Memphis, TN. The chain targeted downtown business districts in medium-sized cities throughout the South and Midwest as the focus location for its motels.

Downtowner Motor Inns opted to locate near larger established hotels with the aim to accommodate room shortages during conventions, trade shows and other similar big-draw events.

The company embraced a modernist architectural style as their building brand, characteristically using a grid pattern of colorful panels as their signature street facade.

downtowner_Columbia SC_web

These two 1960s chrome postcards depict the Columbia, SC Downtowner Inn, above; below, the Downtowner Motor Inn in Wheeling, WV bears a striking resemblance to the Raleigh Downtowner.

DowntownerInn-1967 Wheeling WV

Before It Was Raleigh’s Downtowner

Raleigh’s Downtowner was erected in 1964 at 309 Hillsboro St., once the site of the grand Jeremiah Stainback residence.

State Archives of North Carolina photo

State Archives of North Carolina photo

The Jeremiah Stainback residence at 309 Hillsboro St, ca 1905.

The Victorian era house had been built on Raleigh’s fashionable residential Hillsboro St. in the 1890s. Jeremiah Stainback acquired it around 1903, and lived there with his family until the mid 1920s.

By 1927 a partnership of five local physicians bought the property, and, with one of the partners living in residence, occupied the mansion for nearly 35 years.

The Rise and Fall of Raleigh’s Downtowner Motor Inn

Raleigh City Directories listed the former Stainback lot as ‘vacant’ in 1962, ‘under construction’ in 1963, and finally as the ‘Downtowner Motor Inn and Candlelight Restaurant’ in 1964. Sadly, though, too much, too late.

As Raleigh’s downtown business district declined during the late 1960s and into the 1980s, so did its urban motels, including, among others, the Raleigh Cabana Motel, the Heart of Raleigh Motel, the Raleigh TraveLodge and the Raleigh Downtowner Motor Inn.


The Heart of Raleigh Motel opened about 1960 in the repurposed Faircloth Hall, a onetime dormitory on the former downtown Meredith College campus.

By 1973 the motel had been renamed the Golden Eagle Motor Inn. From 1977 to 1978 the Downtowner name was back. In 1979, following a corporate merger, it was rebranded the Downtowner/Eagle Motor Inn. Then for two years, 1980-82, it operated under the name Downtowner/Capital Motor Inn. As the decline continued, the motel became an EconoLodge Motel, 1983-89; and finally, 1990-92, a Friendship Inn.

By that time the former Downtowner was a lost cause and could no longer maintain any measure of profitability.  The hulking and deteriorating building, which had long lost its bright modernist color scheme, was demolished in 1993. The site of this once vibrant urban motel today is a parking lot.


Our Flashback Friday photochrome postcard this week was printed by the Curt Teich Co. of Chicago under the trade name ‘CurTeichColor.’

Curt Teich Co. (1893-1974)  Chicago, IL

A major publisher and printer. Their U.S. factories turned out more cards in quantity than any other printer. They published a wide range of national view-cards of America and Canada. Many consider them one of the finest producers of White Border Cards. The Linen Type postcard came about through their innovations as they pioneered the use of offset lithography. They were purchased by Regensteiner Publishers in 1974 which continued to print cards at the Chicago plant until 1978.

Curt Teich logo


“Flashback Friday” is a weekly feature of Goodnight, Raleigh! in which we showcase vintage postcards depicting our historic capital city. We hope you enjoy this week end treat!


13 Nov 20:07

Twitter Tuesday: The Dogs Selection

by Ursula Rodriguez

Our #TwitterTuesday theme for this week was #Dogs. Usually it’s tough to make our weekly selection but this time was certainly quite a challenge. You let us see how big is the love for your canines and the work we found in each of your photos was purely amazing! With so many different stages dogs were the super stars. Happy faces, sad faces, thoughtful faces… A wonderful awakening to the animal world.

Here are our favorites, but we highly recommend you to go directly to our Twitter Feeds to see all the original furry submissions.

Loving Spring
Hasta la vista Darla
Myrtle Smiling
Self and dog. Fujicolor Superia 200
27 - Aug - 2013 - Dog Day
#twittertuesday #dogs
Preguiça (Em preto, branco e amarelo)
King Socrates
I got snow on my nose!
365 weekly theme, #46.3, one subject
Sup Dog! - Border Collie
Cone Life.
The dog that thought he was an ostrich.
Lily, Mam Tor, Derbyshire

10 Nov 10:42

The history of tampons – in ancient Greece?

by Helen King

by Helen King

Did ancient Greek women use tampons? It’s clear that women today are curious as to what women in the past did when they were menstruating. As regular readers of Wonders & Marvels know, I did my PhD on ancient Greek menstruation and I also feel I’m on a crusade to clear up some of the ‘creative’ (actually, just plain wrong) statements about Hippocrates that are out there on the WWW. In a previous post here I’ve looked at the ‘using rags’ theory. But recently I’ve come across another claim that seems to originate in the marketing for Tampax but which has been picked up without any critical analysis by a lot of other sites. The original source seems to be the claim on the Tampax site that “The Greek physician Hippocrates, writing in the fifth century B.C., described another type of tampon, which was made of lint wrapped around lightweight wood” .

Leaving aside the ‘did Hippocrates write anything in the Hippocratic corpus?’ question, can we really find anything like that in ancient Greek medicine? Variations on other internet sites that seem to derive from the Tampax claim include “as described in the writings of Hippocrates, a tampon used pieces of wood, wrapped [sic] fiber” and, with a cheerful disregard for the whole Greece/Rome thing, “Apparently Hippocrates documented that Roman women used wooden sticks wrapped with lint.”. I like that ‘apparently’. Someone else has realised that there is an important question about how we are supposed to know this: what’s the evidence?

The wonderful Museum of Menstruation site, which makes a real effort to identify its sources and to engage with historians working on the topic, is much more cautious, talking about ancient usage of “tampons for contraception, which possibly means that women also used material as tampons to control menstruation.” Note that ‘possibly’. Just because you insert things into the vagina for one purpose doesn’t mean you do it for another; although at least, as the founder of the Museum of Menstruation, Harry Finley, pointed out when we had a chat about this, it shows that there is no sort of taboo attached to such insertion.

Tampons up the nose?

So what about the ancient Greek medical texts that came to be known as the ‘Hippocratic corpus’? In the Hippocratic treatises Joints and Instruments of Reduction, when the nose is fractured, the physician is told to roll up lint in a rag or in thin Carthaginian leather (chosen because it is so soft) and insert this into the nose. The ancient Greek word used here is motos. This, as here, can mean lint for dressing wounds, but in its entry for motos the indispensable ancient Greek-English dictionary by Liddell, Scott and Jones (known cheerfully to classicists as ‘LSJ’) also gives ‘tent, tampon’. Is this where the imaginary ‘Hippocratic tampon’ comes from?

Now, in a medical context, a tent is not somewhere you spend the night during an outdoor vacation, but an expansible plug of soft material for opening up an orifice. In medical English, tampons also have a rather different meaning to that which we now assume. Before Tampax came on the scene, there were tampons, but not as we know them. A tampon was simply a plug of some sort, used to stop bleeding, and inserted into a wound or, if menstrual flow seemed excessive, into the vagina. The word comes from the verb ‘to tamp’ meaning to stop up a hole, or to push down – you can ‘tamp’ tobacco into the bowl of a pipe before smoking it. But when Tampax came on the scene as a commercial product, the word was shifted more narrowly towards menstruation, so today’s near-exclusive application of the word to menstrual products is the result of the invention of Tampax.

Does the motos feature in the Hipppocratic treatises on women’s bodies? Yes, but not in the context of a way of absorbing normal menstrual flow. In Diseases of Women 1 (Littré 8.138.12) it means some soothing lint applied to the mouth of the womb and in book 2 of the same treatise (Littré 8.332.18) there are three motoi of increasing size inserted into the mouth of the womb because the neck of the womb is hard and closed so the menstrual blood can’t get out. Similarly, although different words are used, when a remedy needs to be inserted into the vagina – for example, beetles to irritate the womb and bring on a delayed menstrual period – it is wrapped up in wool first. But none of these uses concerns management of normal menstrual flow.

The pig-pen?

There is one other isolated reference worth mentioning. This comes not from the ancient Greek medical texts but from the fifth-century BC comic playwright Aristophanes (Lysistrata 1073) who refers once to men looking like they are wearing a ‘pig-pen’ (choirokomeion) round their thighs. One of the ancient words for the female external genitalia is choiros – piggy – used for the genitals of a young girl, or – if depilated – of an older woman. So is the joke here about wearing something around your piggy that looks quite bulky – such as a home-made menstrual pad? The word choiros itself has an interesting masculine/feminine dimension, in that if it is used in the masculine it means ‘female genitalia’ but in the feminine, it’s ‘pig’! In fact, when the men who look like they are wearing pig-pens open their cloaks, what they are hiding under there are their erect penises.

If anyone would have made a choiros joke like this, it would be Aristophanes. He was well aware of the entertainment value of the word. Another of his plays, Acharnians, has an extended joke about a poor man who is trying to sell his daughters as ‘piggies’.  And in support of my suggestion, I can cite LSJ, not a dictionary to make daring assumptions. It gives as the meaning of choirokomeion – on this occasion only – ‘bandage used by females’. So is this what men called a menstrual pad, or what women called it? In any case, if we follow this line of reasoning, it could be further evidence that menstrual management in ancient Greece was by home-made pads of rags, rather than tampons.


For more on Aristophanes, try James Robson, Aristophanes: an Introduction (London: Bristol Classical Press, 2009) and watch the free online series ‘The Birth of Comedy’ that starts here.


04 Nov 20:40

Hallucinogenic bullets

by vaughanbell

An article in the American Journal of Forensic Medicine & Pathology discusses the history of ‘modern toxic antipersonnel projectiles’ and it has a short history of ammunition designed to introduce incapacitating hallucinogenic substances into the body.

As you might expect for such an unpleasant idea (chemical weapon hand guns!) they were wielded by some fairly unpleasant people

The Nazi Institute of Criminology then ordered a batch of more powerful 9-mm Parabellum cartridges that could be used with the Walther P38. This time the bullets contained Ditran, a mixture of 2 structural isomers comprising approximately 70% 1-ethyl-2-pyrrolidinylmethyl-alpha-phenylcyclopentylglycolate and 30% 1-ethyl-3-piperidyl-alpha-phenylcyclopentylglycolate (also known as Ditran B). Ditran B is the more active of the 2 isomers, both of which are strong anticholinergic drugs with hallucinogenic properties similar to those of scopolamine. Victims are thrown into such a state of mental confusion that they are incapable of reacting appropriately to the situations they find themselves in…

3-Quinuclidinyl benzilate, also known as QNB and coded BZ by NATO, is a military incapacitating agent. Like Ditran, it is an anticholinergic causing such intense mental confusion as to prevent any effective reaction against an enemy. These bullets were featured in the arsenal of the Serbian forces invading Bosnia-Herzegovina, particularly in Srebrenica in the 1990s.


Link to locked article ‘Modern Toxic Antipersonnel Projectiles’

04 Nov 11:00

Cabin Fever

by Justin Boyd
Scott Akerman

Haha, ha...ha....hmmmmm

Cabin Fever

Sometimes, you just gotta take things into your own hands and wait until someone else makes something happen.


Team Fortress 2 was a lot of fun! Thank you to everyone who made it out for the hangs and plays! I totally forgot how much fun that game is.

I definitely gotta keep planning gaming sessions for all of us. They always end up being a really great time.

bonus panel
03 Nov 06:36

I wanna go where the people aren't

by Jam

Really excited about this show! *puts on pyjamas*

The first time I went to a teambuilding rave I didn't bring earplugs because I thought they would think I was a dork but they all brought earplugs and I suffered like an IDIOT. 

27 Oct 22:58

Davis in the Ice and Cold

Davis in the Ice and Cold

27 Oct 21:32

Davis in the Forest, Teeming with Life

Davis in the Forest, Teeming with Life

22 Oct 17:48

Wildlife Wednesday: Foxes

by Arnold Chao

For this week, we’re highlighting fans of the fox in our photography community with a photo roundup of these sly mammals, from red foxes in Canada to bat-eared foxes in Kenya.

Somethings Missing...

Newfoundland, Canada.

“This small, nocturnal animal was hanging out in the late morning next to an old termite hill that he had taken up as his shelter.” – Richard Rhee

Baby Fox

Ontario, Canada.

A lesser seen member of the family group, a vixen I think.
Full Of Life

“This family and the neighbouring one disappeared completely at the end of the summer, just like the family living here last year, no prizes for guessing what happened to them. Still I have some nice memories, not easy finding new fox families so I’ll probably find myself back here in the new year. I was gonna say hopefully new foxes will move in ( which they probably will ) but then it’s obviously not safe is it, but for a fox where is safe?” – Dan Belton

Fox on the Run

“This season I seem to have seen more foxes than usual, so I’m wondering if maybe their numbers are up. This stretch of road in the Cavendish section of PEI [Prince Edward Island] National Park is known for having a lot of foxes. Many tourists and locals feed them, which was really obvious with this one. It came running to our car looking for food, and moved on when it realized we had none. We stayed and saw it to this a few more times with other cars, and it spent a lot of time on the road. The parks staff are working to get people to stop feeding them, but I don’t think they’re having much success.” – Brianna Scott

Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes)

Lingfield, Surrey, U.K.

Bat eared foxes in dew L

Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya.

Bat-Eared Fox (Kenya, Day 4)

Tsavo, Kenya.

Bat-eared Fox - Otocyon megalotis, Tsavo West NP, Nov 11

Tsavo West, Kenya.

This photo selection is inspired by the The Fox group.

To join this series, tweet @flickr with your favorite wildlife photos, and include the hashtag #WildlifeWednesday. And if you’d rather not tweet, simply include the same hashtag in your Flickr photo title, or tag it with WildlifeWednesday.

We look forward to seeing your contributions and featuring a new selection of your photo submissions and ideas every Wednesday here on our blog.

Previously featured in this series: Wildlife Wednesday: Bears

23 Oct 06:55

Girl Warrior Fantasies, c. 1700

by Holly Tucker
Scott Akerman

Damn SJWs have been perverting classical fiction since the 1600s.

By Christine A. Jones (Regular Contributor)

Anne Bonny

Chic girl pirate Anne Bonny

Fairy tales are how we imagine the unimaginable. Beans can be magic and grow to the heavens. Frightening beasts turn out to be great princes in disguise. And girls are saved from annoying home lives by fairies and talking animals. Crazy things can happen.

Fairy-tale history contains some really juicy stuff, not all of which made it into the Mother Goose canon. For instance, how about a girl who shows up at court dressed as a knight and becomes the queen’s lover? Crazy indeed! Well, during the 1690s three French women authors thought up an ingenious plot for fairy tales where girls did their fighting for themselves. They showed up at court dressed as soldiers and did battle for the king. In each case, in fact, they became the kingdom’s best warriors. They were valiant, but also gentle and kind, and knew how to fold laundry. A rare combination, to be sure. And in the longest and most famous of these stories, by Marie Chatherine d’Aulnoy, the cross-dressed heroine has to fend off the queen’s advances with all her might.

Okay, the girl warrior and the queen never become lovers, but the love triangle among the queen (who loves the knight), the knight (who loves the king), and the king (who loves the knight but cannot figure out why) makes up the entire plot of the story. Historically, there had been woman warriors in France by the seventeenth century, but none of them had had quite this much fun at court. Read d’Aulnoy’s story, “Belle-Belle or the Chevalier Fortunate”, in Jack Zipes, Beauties, Beasts and Enchantments: Classic French Fairy Tales (New York: New American Library, 1989).

Christine A. Jones is co-editing a fairy tale anthology and writing a book on early porcelain experiments in France.  She is Associate Professor of French and Comparative Literary and Cultural Studies at the University of Utah.


This post first appeared at Wonders & Marvels on 12 December 2009.


21 Oct 00:00

For the love of bread

by Arnold Chao

Here on Flickr, we have a whole lot of foodies — heck, who doesn’t like food. We’d like to celebrate all the wonderful photos of what we all eat on our blog, starting with a little something inspired by Your First Loaf of Bread on Yahoo Food.

Enjoy this photo selection of delectable breads and the bakers that make them.

Crocodile bread!
beetroot bread

“This is my most favourite bread in the whole world. It’s beetroot bread, made by a local bakery school… It really does taste of beetroot, and it really is gorgeous. Add a bit of soup or cheese and you are in heaven…” – Caroline

Lavash Bread

“A traditional bread of Armenian origin.” – Dr. Harout Tanielian


Learn how to make challah bread on Yahoo Food.


“These men start very early to prepare flat bread for travellers on their two days’ bus journey from Shrinagar to Leh, high up in the Ladakh mountains [India].” – Rosmarie Wirz

njera texture

Injera, traditional Ethiopian bread.

Bread tradition

“240° C in a stone baker’s oven in the Villarceaux Castle in France.” – Pierre_F

Our Daily Bread

“Preparing to leave it for the first rise — before I set the dough down I like to hold it up and out from my heart like this…it feels like a way to offer gratitude as well as a way to receive a blessing on our food.” – Jillian

Home-made bread

Zaire, Angola.

See, and share, more photography in the Bread lovers gallery.

02 Oct 01:58

India’s new World Heritage Site

by Arnold Chao

At the end of June this year, 26 new inscriptions were added to the World Heritage Site List, UNESCO’s cultural collection of 1,007 properties. The Queen’s Stepwell (aka Rani-ki-Vav) at Patan, Gujarat, was one of them, stunning visitors with its astonishing structure of architectural and technological skill that India possessed over 800 years ago.

Rani Ki Vav well fisheye
DSM888Rani Ki Vav well fisheye
Rani Ki Vav wide
DSM888Rani Ki Vav wide

Rani-ki-Vav, on the banks of the Saraswati River, was initially built as a memorial to a king in the 11th century AD. Stepwells are a distinctive form of subterranean water resource and storage systems on the Indian subcontinent, and have been constructed since the 3rd millennium BC. They evolved over time from what was basically a pit in sandy soil towards elaborate multi-storey works of art and architecture. Rani-ki-Vav was built at the height of craftsmens’ ability in stepwell construction and the Maru-Gurjara architectural style, reflecting mastery of this complex technique and great beauty of detail and proportions. Designed as an inverted temple highlighting the sanctity of water, it is divided into seven levels of stairs with sculptural panels of high artistic quality; more than 500 principle sculptures and over a thousand minor ones combine religious, mythological and secular imagery, often referencing literary works. The fourth level is the deepest and leads into a rectangular tank 9.5 m by 9.4 m, at a depth of 23 m. The well is located at the westernmost end of the property and consists of a shaft 10 m in diameter and 30 m deep.” – UNESCO

Queen's Step Well_2
mehtasunilQueen's Step Well_2
Queen's Step Well_5
mehtasunilQueen's Step Well_5
Rani ki vav (Patan) detailed embellishments
durgeshnandiniRani ki vav (Patan) detailed embellishments
step symmetry
sunil_shanbagstep symmetry
Queen's Step Well (Rani ki Vav), Patan, Gujarat.
JN SinghQueen's Step Well (Rani ki Vav), Patan, Gujarat.
Voluptuous Apsaras and the male deity
JN SinghVoluptuous Apsaras and the male deity

“Most of the sculptures are in devotion to Vishnu, in the forms of Dus-Avatars Kalki, Rama, Mahisasurmardini, Narsinh, Vaman, Varahi and others representing their return to the world. Nagkanya, Yogini beautiful women – Apsara showcasing 16 different styles of make-up to look more attractive called Solah-shringar.” – Jagadip Singh

patan vav
sapanparikh18patan vav


07 Oct 11:44

Sex vs. God: How America Got Its Name

by April Stevens

Blanding MapBy Michael  Blanding (Guest Contributor)

Everyone knows that Columbus “discovered” the New World in the 15th century. So why is our continent named America instead of Columbia? It might have to do with a universal truth: sex sells better than God.

When Italian explorer Christopher Columbus first arrived in the Caribbean in 1492, he thought that he had landed on the Indie islands off the coast of Cathay, and it was only a matter of time before he’d find the gold mines and pleasure palaces of the Kublai Khan. As he island-hopped for the next few months, however, none of the native inhabitants of the island seemed to know what he was talking about. On subsequent voyages between 1493 and 1504, Columbus became more and more desperate, insisting not only that he had found Asia, but also more grandiosely claiming he’d discovered the mythical Garden of Eden. He even declared himself a harbinger of the Second Coming of Christ and the End of the World, circulating his ideas in a book called the Book of Prophecies.

Sex Sells: Vespucci’s Pamphlet on America

At the same time Columbus’ book was making the rounds of Europe, another very different pamphlet was also circulating. This one, written by Columbus’ fellow Italian Amerigo Vespucci also claimed to have discovered a passage to Asia during voyages between 1497 and 1504. However, it went further to describe new lands in the Southern Hemisphere that had never been described before. Vespucci was particularly explicit about the native inhabitants of these lands—especially the women, whom he said “go naked and are exceedingly lustful,” adding tantalizingly, “I have deemed it best (in the name of decency) to pass over in silence their many arts to gratify their insatiable lust.” Of course, that only led readers to speculate further, causing the pamphlet to be in hot demand across Europe (even though today scholars debate whether Vespucci ever even made the voyages he claimed). Columbus’ increasing delusions of grandeur, meanwhile, alienated him from his peers; he died obscure and impoverished in 1506.

Thus, it makes sense that when German mapmaker Martin Waldseemüller produced the first map to show a separate continent in the Western hemisphere in 1507, he chose to name it after the person given credit for discovering it, feminizing Vespucci’s first name to call it “America.” As more doubts began to emerge about Vespucci’s story, Waldseemüller apparently thought better of the decision, taking the name off later maps, but by then it was too late. The name was adopted by other mapmakers including Gerard Mercator, who popularized it in his new Atlas—and the name America was forever cemented in history. So important was Waldseemüller’s map that centuries later the only remaining copy would become the most expensive map ever sold, bought by the U.S. Government for $10 million in 2003. It is now on permanent display at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., as the “birth certificate of America.”

The Map Thief CoverMichael Blanding is the author of The Map Thief: The Gripping Story of an Esteemed Rare-Map Dealer Who Made Millions Stealing Priceless Maps (Gotham, 2014).

29 Sep 11:30

The Golden Spoon

by April Stevens

By Gastropod

Chances are, you’ve spent more time thinking about the specs on your smartphone than about the gadgets that you use to put food in your mouth.

But the shape and material properties of forks, spoons, and knives turn out to matter—a lot. Changes in the design of cutlery have not only affected how and what we eat, but also what our food tastes like. There’s even evidence that the adoption of the table knife transformed the shape of European faces.

To explore the hidden history and emerging science of cutlery for our brand new podcast, Gastropod spoke to Bee Wilson, food historian and author of Consider the Fork, and Zoe Laughlin, co-founder of the Institute of Making at University College London. Below are some of our favorite stories from those conversations.

Fork found at the Globe Theatre

One of the earliest forks in Britain (made between 1587 and 1606), found by archaeologists excavating the site of the Elizabethan-era Rose Theater. Called a sucket fork, it was used for eating sweetmeats, such as dried and candied fruits. Later versions had a spoon at the other end, like a proto-spork.

The Evolution of the Fork

First, some history. Consider the Fork is one of our favorite food books: in it, Bee Wilson takes readers on a fascinating journey through the evolution of kitchen technology and its impact on our lives. It’s packed with astonishing details that gave us a whole new appreciation for humble appliances such as the can opener and the kitchen timer. Wilson ranges across human history, from the sixteenth-century adoption of the enclosed oven (before then, chefs often worked naked or just in underpants, to avoid catching their clothes on the open flames) to the 1994 “invention” of the Microplane grater, which took place when Canadian housewife Lorraine Lee borrowed a carpentry rasp from her husband’s hardware store to zest orange for a cake.

But it was the chapter on cutlery that really caught our attention. Although it’s hard to imagine life without them now, forks are a relatively recent addition to the table—and they weren’t a big hit at first. In the sixteenth century, as aristocratic Italians began to replace their single-pronged ravioli spears with a multi-tined fork, the rest of Europe still saw the fork as “this bizarre, weird, slightly fetishistic device,” Wilson explained. “Why would you want to put metal prongs into your mouth along with the food? It just didn’t seem like a natural way to eat.” Indeed, when a Englishman, Thomas Coryate, adopted the fork habit after traveling to Italy at the start of the seventeenth century, his friends—including the playwright Ben Jonson and the poet John Donne—teasingly called him “furcifer,” which meant “fork-holder” but also “rascal.”

Pages from the 1910 Gorham Buttercup pattern silver catalog (left) and the 1898 Gorham Strasbourg pattern silver catalog (right), which together list more than 100 different items of cutlery, including the relish fork, asparagus fork, tomato serving fork, lemon fork, pickle fork, sardine fork, vegetable fork, and beef forks shown above. The full Buttercup pattern also included the infamous ice cream fork. Via Eden Sterling.

Pages from the 1910 Gorham Buttercup pattern silver catalog (left) and the 1898 Gorham Strasbourg pattern silver catalog (right), which together list more than 100 different items of cutlery, including the relish fork, asparagus fork, tomato serving fork, lemon fork, pickle fork, sardine fork, vegetable fork, and beef forks shown above. The full Buttercup pattern also included the infamous ice cream fork. Via Eden Sterling.

It wasn’t until a century later, in the early 1700s, that eating with a fork was accepted across Europe—in part, Wilson explains in the book, due to the transition from bowls and trenchers, whose curves were better suited to spoons, to flatter china plates. That was followed, another hundred years later, by an explosion in fork shapes and a corresponding wave of “fork anxiety.” As Wilson described it, the transition to serving meals in a succession of courses, each with a fresh set of cutlery, rather than just laying all the dishes on the table for diners to help themselves, led to the development of specialized “forks for olives, forks for ice-cream, forks for sardines, forks for terrapins, forks for salads”—even forks for soup, though that was rapidly condemned as “foolish,” and the soup spoon was restored.

The Search for the Golden Spoon

But, if forks have a complicated history, the future of spoons may well be golden. Literally. Zoe Laughlin, who confessed to being driven, in part, by a childhood obsession with finding the perfect spoon, has been conducting scientific research into the sensory properties of materials. Working out of the Institute of Making, a London-based cross-disciplinary research club, she started exploring the different tactile and aural sensations of metals. Next, she wondered how metals taste. Scientists had researched this question before, by having people swish metal salts around in their mouth. To Laughlin, that methodology made no sense. We put metal in our mouths every day, in the form of cutlery—why not just do a spoon taste test?

Before long, she had volunteers lining up to suck on a set of seven spoons that were identical in shape and size, but plated with different metals. Her results showed that different metals really do taste different—the atomic properties of each metal affects the way the spoon reacts with our saliva, and so, for instance, copper is more bitter than stainless steel.

From left to right: copper-, gold-, silver-, tin-, zinc-, chrome-, and stainless steel-plated spoons. Photograph by Zoe Laughlin.

From left to right: copper-, gold-, silver-, tin-, zinc-, chrome-, and stainless steel-plated spoons. Photograph by Zoe Laughlin.

Her next step was to figure out how the taste of different metals affects the flavor of food. Working with a top chef, she hosted a spoon-and-food pairing dinner party, in which food writers and scientists discovered the curious affinity of tin for lamb and pistachio. One spoon ruled them all, however: as Laughlin put it, “The gold spoon is just sort of divine. It tastes incredibly delicious and it makes everything you eat seem more delicious.” After tasting mango sorbet off a gold spoon, Laughlin told us, with a note of regret in her voice, “I thought, I can’t believe I’m ever going to eat off anything other than gold ever again. Sadly, of course, I do.”

Bee Wilson and Zoe Laughlin are guests on the first episode of Gastropod, the new podcast hosted by award-winning science journalist Cynthia Graber and Edible Geography author Nicola Twilley. Listen to the first episode, The Golden Spoon, for many more shocking cutlery revelations, and tune in every two weeks for a new