Shared posts

05 Mar 12:00

The Scientist Pope

by April Stevens

By Nancy Marie Brown (Guest Contributor)

The Scientist PopeSylvester II, pope from 999 to 1003, was a wizard. He had sold his soul to the devil.

So, at any rate, said the official Lives of the Popes written in the late 1200s by Martin the Pole, a Dominican friar, and referenced for hundreds of years.

Friar Martin wasn’t making this up. He had good sources.

Pope Sylvester was “the best necromancer in France, whom the demons of the air readily obeyed in all that he required of them by day and night,” wrote Michael the Scot earlier that century.

In the 1120s, William of Malmesbury claimed Pope Sylvester spent his time in Rome practicing “the black arts.” He owned a “forbidden” book stolen from a Saracen philosopher. After “close inspection of the heavenly bodies,” he made himself a talking statue that would answer any yes-or-no question.

Then in 1602, the papal librarian Cardinal Baronius came across a collection of Pope Sylvester’s letters and concluded he “was nothing but a learned man who was ahead of his time. Those who want to efface his name from the catalogue of popes are ignorant fools.”

What did the cardinal read in those letters? About Pope Sylvester II’s abacus, or counting board.

Pope Sylvester II was the first Christian known to teach math using the nine Arabic numerals and zero, as a 10th-century manuscript found in 2001 reveals. His abacus introduced the place-value system of arithmetic and mimics the algorithms we use today for adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing. It has been called the first counting device in Europe to function digitally – even the first computer. In a chronology of computer history, Gerbert’s abacus is one of only four innovations mentioned between 3000 B.C. and the invention of the slide rule in 1622.

Pope Sylvester II wasn’t a wizard. He was a geek.

The Abacus and the CrossNancy Marie Brown writes about science, history, and sagas. She is the author, most recently, of The Abacus and the Cross: The Story of the Pope Who Brought the Light of Science to the Dark Ages (2010). Her previous books include The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman and Mendel in the Kitchen: A Scientist Looks at Genetically Modified Food, which was named one of the Best Sci-Tech Books for General Readers for 2004 by Library Journal. 

 This post was originally featured on Wonders & Marvels in 2012.

01 Apr 10:00

Some More Parking

by Justin Boyd
Scott Akerman

I had to parallel park for lunch the other day and even with a spotter, a friend advising me in my car, and my tiny tiny car it still took me 5 minutes and a bunch of stress.

Some More Parking

Gotta get that spacing right when street parking.


I’m back from ECCC 2015 and questionably alive! I need so much rest but man, it was a blast. It was absolutely fantastic to say hi to everyone and even make some new pals!

bonus panel
08 Apr 06:52

How to Make a Bunny

How to Make a Bunny
16 Feb 08:01

Comic: Attempted Recidivism

by (Tycho)
New Comic: Attempted Recidivism
06 Feb 05:00

Quotative Like

God was like, "Let there be light," and there was light.
09 Feb 06:31

The Sixty-Forum Thousand Dollar Question

by Adam


04 Feb 05:42


02 Feb 14:00

Parrots with Shocking Vocabularies

by AdrienneMayor

by Adrienne Mayor (regular contributor)490186-swearing-parrot-ruffles-feathers

A great many exotic birds flocked to London in the seventeenth century, imported by the East India Company, retired sea captains, and sailors. The first mynah bird to reach England was a gift from the Company to the Duke of York in 1664. The Bengal mynah knew phrases in English and could neigh like a horse. Fashionable Londoners loved to stroll along Birdcage Walk in St James Park to admire the aviaries of hundreds of beautiful birds donated by the Company during the reign of Charles II.

Charles II, however, preferred to keep a tame British starling with an impressive vocabulary in his bedchamber. Samuel Pepys, the great diarist of the British aristocracy in the 1660s, later acquired the royal starling. Pepys exclaimed in his journal that “the king’s starling doth talk and whistle finely, which I am mighty proud of.”

Pepys also enjoyed his bevy of canaries, given to him by a sea captain, while his wife loved her garrulous parrot. “For talking and singing,” marveled Pepys, “I never heard the like!” Pepys was amazed when his neighbor’s parrot immediately recognized a new servant named Mingo, whom he’d known from a previous household. Pepys also described a bad-tempered parrot that almost pecked out the eye of a different friend.

Yet another parrot of Pepys’ acquaintance belonged to Lord Batten who “hath brought it from the sea.” Batten’s parrot often entertained guests at dinner parties. When Pepys visited the parrot was well behaved: “It speaks very well and cries Poll so pleasantly,” wrote Pepys. But Lady Batten and her mother detested Poll. It seems that Poll’s seafaring days had influenced its vocabulary in a vulgar manner–a typical problem with talking birds in general.

A similar case was described by Reverend Samuel Wesley of Epworth Rectory. This parrot lived in Billingsgate, the crowded, noisy street of fish markets frequented by sailors and fishermen notorious for their foul language. The parrot naturally developed a vast vocabulary of filthy phrases, cheerfully squawking out offensive insults and dirty slang to passersby. The owners, hoping to reform the bird, sent the him away to live in a genteel tea room across town. In less than a year the parrot’s bawdy expressions were replaced with inoffensive tea room chatter, along the lines of “What’s new?” and “Please bring another cup of coffee.”

Thus converted, the parrot was allowed to return home to Billingsgate. “But within a week,” the minister reported, “it had got all its wicked cursings and swearings down as pat as ever.”

Another cursing parrot appeared in a poem by George Crabbe (1809). In this tragic tale, a parrot lost his mistress’s favor and his life when he “was heard to speak / such frightful words as tinged his lady’s cheek.” The parrot, now stuffed, was replaced by a “clipped French puppy.”

At Andrew Jackson’s funeral in 1845, his pet parrot was hustled out for cussing. Then in New York City in 1938 a seafaring parrot named Popeye caused an uproar during a radio contest for talking birds. Some 1,200 contestants were judged on vocabulary, diction, and originality of expression. Entrants included an Italian fruit vendor’s African grey parrot who called out fruits in English; a 90-year-old Boston parrot who recited the Lord’s Prayer; and an Omaha parrot named Theodore Metcalf who barked, mewed, groaned, and gurgled. Popeye, who was sponsored by the NY Seaman’s Church Institute, was immediately disqualified for his salty vocabulary–despite his excellent diction and originality.

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).

28 Jan 12:51

Corgan Dictionary #1

Corgan Dictionary #1
20 Jan 22:02

Hark, A Vagrant: Tom Longboat

buy this print!

Tom Longboat, Onondaga champion and a cool guy, by all accounts. Here's a short read that will give you a sense of him. Here is a case for Tom Longboat Day in the Ontario Legislature. Since you find his name often put next to phrases like "deserves more recognition," Tom Longboat Day was officially passed for June 4th, mark your calendars.

Both links carry this story, which I also liked:

It's a story that was told somewhere in France during the Great War. A British general being led to the front by a dispatch runner grew irritated with the pace set by the man and ordered him to slow down. "For God's sake," he complained, "who do you think I am, Tom Longboat?" The dispatch runner, a tall man in his late twenties, slowed and answered, "No, sir; that's me."

That's like if someone told you "oh yeah I can give you directions, follow me" but it was Usain Bolt.

And here is an interesting looking book about the 1908 Olympics that is a world I don't know much about!

There is something so visually pleasing about sports uniforms and clothes and hair and all that in the early 1900s, don't you agree? Google image a name like Tom Longboat or rival Alfie Schrubb or look up "Olympic uniforms 1908," it's all gold stuff.
12 Jan 11:00

Agnodice: Down and Dirty?

by Helen King

By Helen King (Regular Contributor)

L0016719 Agnodice.

So there I was watching a superb drag burlesque act, The Down and Dirty Show, featuring The Gentleman King and Foxy Tann, the scheduled entertainment at the 2011 Berkshire Conference for Women Historians. And the sky opened. Sometimes moments of insight come when you least expect them.

How many times have you assumed that the person walking down the street in front of you was a man, and then when the person turned round you realized it was a woman? We read various cues, but then we have to change our minds. In this show, men became women who became men again in front of our eyes; which raised the question, were they men to begin with? Gender was most emphatically shown as something to be performed, meanings shifting with clothing and context, so that binaries dissolved and the world became a very different place.

And suddenly the imaginary ancient Greek midwife on whom I was writing a book, Agnodice, started to mean something very different. My main research question had never been the traditional one, namely ‘Was Agnodice a real person, a pioneering midwife who fought for the right of women to attend those giving birth?’ That question, the one asked by existing articles and books aimed at midwives, is I think a dead end. Of course this young girl, who is supposed to have disguised herself as a man to learn medicine and then practiced her profession until accused by jealous rivals, never existed. The story, culminating in her displaying her body to the court to prove she is really a woman and can’t have been seducing female patients, has many of the features of an ancient novel.

Having a ‘founding father’ for a profession is traditional, so claiming Agnodice as ‘first midwife’ just plays the same game as medicine and its specialisms: from Hippocrates as ‘father of medicine’ to Robert Koch as ‘father of microbiology’. Such games involve consolidating an identity for a newly emerging specialism, or making nationalist claims to precedence in a contested field. I was always more interested in how people over the last 500 years or so had refashioned Agnodice: was she, they wondered, a midwife or a female doctor? How that question has been answered can help us think today about debates over what midwifery is, how gender is relevant, and where the professional boundaries between midwives and doctors should be drawn.

One of the aspects of Agnodice in modern discourse that most fascinates me is her use in the name of the excellent Agnodice Foundation, a Swiss group working for the integration of those who are transsexual, intersex or transgender. I asked their founder, Dr Erika Volkmar, why Agnodice had been chosen. She was well aware that the story is a myth but replied that ‘We can assume that if Agnodice was successful in practicing OBG as a man, she must have been at least very androgyne and gender variant … Agnodice is perfect as she was both gender variant AND an outstanding professional. Equally, our foundation council is composed of a majority of great professionals with atypical gender identity. She is a model because as a gender variant person she obtained a major victory against the prejudice and sexism of our society, i.e. making medical studies accessible to women.’

The Agnodice Foundation is not the first to take Agnodice as gender variant. Here is James Sprague in 1912 imagining Agnodice speaking:

And so I reasoned, ’twas a blunder made, for which the gods were not responsible. Dame Nature ’twas who in erratic mood had linked a man’s mind to a woman’s form. And none suspected, none in all these years, the secret of my sex. Oh, strange indeed, the ways of gods are not like those of men — that by mere change of garb a woman is transformed into the semblance of a man, and that great inner difference concealed !

Her sex is female, in bodily terms, but here her mind is not. Would she have wanted to change her body to match her mind, had such an option been available to her? And it’s not just Agnodice’s mind that is male: for Sprague the court hears a voice whose full, rich, swelling tones were like unto an organ’s.

What The Down and Dirty Show showed me is that assuming that Agnodice was easily able to pass for a man because she was gender variant may make us miss an even larger point; namely, that gender is always potentially ambiguous. How do we read the signs? We assume we know who the boys are and who the girls are, but it only takes a change of dress or hairstyle or gesture and our carefully constructed binaries fall apart. Seeing Agnodice as gender variant glosses over the inadequacies of gender binaries, in history and today.


Sprague, James S., ‘Agnodice’, Dominion Monthly and Ontario Medical Journal, 38 (1912): 13–17.

08 Jan 11:33

No Year’s Resolutions

by Gregor


Hello and welcome to 2015 of Loading Artist!

30 Dec 12:32

Inventing the Scientist

by April Stevens

By Laura J. Snyder (Guest Contributor)

William Whewell

William Whewell

It was June 24, 1833, at the meeting of the recently-founded British Association for the Advancement of Science. William Whewell (pronounced “who-ell”), a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, and former professor of Mineralogy, had just finished a speech opening the conference. When the applause died down, the members were shocked to see a frail, grizzled man rise slowly to his feet. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the celebrated Romantic poet, had written a treatise on scientific method decades before. Coleridge had hardly left his home in Highgate for the past thirty years, yet he had felt obliged to make the journey to attend this meeting.

At that time, the practitioners of science were known primarily as “natural philosophers.” Coleridge remarked acidly that the members of the association should no longer refer to themselves this way. Men digging in fossil pits, or performing experiments with electrical apparatus, hardly fit the definition. They were not, he meant, “armchair philosophers,” pondering the mysteries of the universe, but practical men – with dirty hands, at that. As a “real metaphysician,” he forbade them the use of this honorific.

The hall erupted in a tumultuous din, as the assembled group took offense at the insult Coleridge clearly intended. Then Whewell rose again, quieting the crowd. He courteously agreed with the “distinguished gentleman” that a satisfactory term with which to describe the members of the association was wanting. If “philosophers” is taken to be “too wide and lofty a term,” then, Whewell suggested, “by analogy with artist, we may form scientist.”

It was fitting that the term was invented by Whewell who, along with three of his friends, transformed the natural philosopher into the modern scientist.

The Philosophical Breakfast Club: Four Remarkable Friends who Transformed Science and Changed the WorldLaura J. Snyder is associate professor of philosophy at St. John’s University, and the author of Reforming Philosophy: A Victorian Debate on Science and Society (University of Chicago, 2006) and The Philosophical Breakfast Club: Four Remarkable Friends who Transformed Science and Changed the World (Broadway, February 22, 2011). 


This post was first published on Wonders & Marvels in January 2011.

09 Jan 03:44

The Difference Between Waffles and Pancakes

by Mr. Brown

If there’s a big, fat lie in waffledom, it’s that good waffles can be made from pancake batter. Sure, pancakes and waffles both contain eggs, flour and leavening, and they’re both served for breakfast. But differences abound.

— Pancakes may be brown on the outside, but they’re floppy, soft and spongy, with an interior that looks a lot like cake.

— Waffles, on the other hand, are crisp on the outside and light on the inside, like beignets, funnel cakes, hush puppies or doughnuts. In short, waffles are fried, only instead of being immersed in hot oil, they are encased in hot-oil-covered metal.

A few points about waffle batter:

Waffle batter contains a higher percentage of sugar (for caramelization) than pancake.

Waffle batter includes a bit more fat (for a crisp exterior) than pancake.

Even with all of this knowledge concentrate, I don’t think one breakfast item is better than the other, so make both:

13 Jan 18:34

Camera ownership on Flickr: 2013-2014

by Bhautik Joshi
Scott Akerman

Poor Pentax :(

As has been widely reported over the past few days, we’ve released data for 2013-2014 showing camera ownership trends among Flickr members. With this blog post, we give you more detail about the data and let you parse the minutia.

This analysis goes from the period of January 2013 to mid-December 2014. We estimate camera ownership per-week by only counting a camera once per-account, per-week, to compensate for community members uploading different quantities of photos.

This analysis offers an estimate of camera ownership by brand and cameras all together, and then looks in detail at mobile cameras, mirrorless and DSLR cameras.


Camera brand ownership on Flickr 2013-2014
Top 5 brands on Flickr, 2013-14

Overall, Nikon and Canon steadily held on to their share of cameras on Flickr. What changed was that the big two smartphone camera manufacturers, Apple and Samsung, which moved up the chart.

Mid-2014 is where most of the significant changes happened. Kodak dropped from 1.5 percent to off the chart entirely, but the biggest change was in the cameras using the Android operating system. In the last 6 months of 2014, Samsung saw growth from 6 percent weekly use, to nearly 15 percent, and both LG and Motorola came on to the scene at nearly 2 percent each, close to their older peer, HTC, which held steady at around 2.5 percent.

Cameras Overall

Top cameras overall on Flickr, 2013-2014

When comparing all the cameras on Flickr, the iPhone 5S, 5, 4S and 4 have consistently been the most popular on Flickr over the past two years. While Nikon and Canon remain very popular, they offer a huge range of individual cameras and the overall popularity of individual models likely is lost in the diversity.

Outside of smartphones, the next most popular cameras are all classic DSLR’s. The full-frame Canon 5D MkII is the next most popular camera outside of smartphones in 2013, but took second place to the Canon 600D (T3i in some locales). Entry to mid-level DSLRS round out the rest of the top 10 (all APS-C) with the exception of the Canon 5D MkIII which makes an appearance at the bottom of the top 10 for 2014.

Mobile Cameras

Mobile camera ownership on Flickr 2013-2014
Top Mobile cameras on Flickr, 2013-2014

For all of 2013 and well into 2014, Apple made up 60% of the mobile cameras owned on Flickr, with, as mentioned earlier, the iPhone 5 taking the biggest share. However, mid-2014 saw a dramatic change, with Android camera phones gaining a 10-15% share of camera usage. Samsung in particular grew strongly, the Galaxy S3 and S4 contributing significantly to the brand’s popularity.

Nokia started out at 8% weekly of the cameraphone share but has been steadily declining, at a bit below 3% weekly at the end of 2014.

Mirrorless Cameras

Mirrorless camera ownership on Flickr 2013-2014
Top Mirrorless cameras on Flickr, 2013-2014

For both 2013 and 2014, the most popular mirrorless camera by far was the Micro 4/3 Olympus E-M5, and by 2014 it was one of two Micro 4/3 format mirrorless cameras in the top 10. The high-end, full-frame Sony A7 took the second spot, followed closely by APS-C contenders Sony NEX-6 and Fujifilm X-E1.

At the start of 2013, there were four big players contributing to mirrorless cameras on Flickr: Sony, at over 35 percent weekly of mirrorless cameras, Olympus at nearly 30 percent weekly, Panasonic at 25 percent weekly, and Fujifilm under 10 percent weekly. Both Panasonic and Olympus started out with a huge variety of cameras and ended 2014 with a smaller share (20 percent weekly for Panasonic and 25 percent weekly for Olympus) and a much smaller variety of cameras. Sony closed out 2014 with a much bigger variety of cameras and a 40 percent weekly share of mirrorless cameras used, while Fujifilm saw a similar growth with models and nearly a 20 percent weekly share of the cameras owned.


Top DSLRs on Flickr, 2013-2014

Within DSLR’s Canon, Nikon and Sony were the top 3 contenders, holding steady at 55% weekly, 40% weekly and a bit less than 5% weekly (respectively) of the DLSR cameras owned on Flickr. The Canon 7D topped was first in 2013 and bumped to second by the Canon 600D in 2014. In 2014 the Nikon D7000 and Canon 60D jockeyed for the next two spots, with the Canon 5D Mark III being the most popular full-frame camera. Not just for professionals, there is a healthy selection of entry-level DSLR’s in the top 10 for both years, Nikon being more popular in this category.


This article has been updated to correct an error where certain camera types were under-counted.

22 Dec 14:47

From Papyrus to Parchment

by PamelaToler

By Pamela Toler (Regular Contributor)


A letter written on papyrus from the 3rd century BCE

For hundreds of years papyrus was the principal material on which books (or at least hand-copied scrolls) were written. Since it could only be made from the pith of freshly harvested papyrus reeds, native to the Nile valley, ancient Egypt had a monopoly on the product–and a potential monopoly on the written word.

In the second century BCE, the kingdoms of Egypt and Pergamum* got into an academic arms race.

The library at Alexandria in Egypt had been an intellectual power house since it was founded by King Ptolemy I Soter in 295 BCE. Ptolemy set out to collect copies of all the books in the inhabited world. He sent agents to search for manuscripts in the great cities of the known world. Foreign ships that sailed into Alexandria were searched for scrolls, which were confiscated and copied. (According to Greek physician, philosopher and author Galen, the seized books were cataloged under a special heading:”books of the ships”.)

Thirty years later, King Eumenes of Pergamum founded a rival library in his capital. Both kingdoms were wealthy and the two libraries competed for sensational finds.

In 197 BCE, King Ptolemy V Epiphanies took the rivalry to a new level by putting an embargo on papyrus shipments to Pergamum. The idea was that without papyrus, scholars in Pergamum could not make scrolls and therefore could not copy manuscripts.

You can’t stop a librarian that easily. Pergamum turned to a more expensive, but more durable, material made from the skin of sheep and goats. We know it as parchment, from the medieval Latin phrase for “from Pergamum”.



* Not a small place, as you can see:


Pergamum at its greatest extent in 188 BCE

08 Dec 20:17

You won’t find the data in my pants

by vaughanbell

The journal contexts has an excellent article on the long history of exploring the sex lives of sex researchers as a veiled attempt to discredit their work.

…these stories suggest a troubling pattern: they tend to focus on researchers’ alleged sexual proclivities, spinning them as deviant motivations which compromise the research.

For example, James Miller’s biography of Michel Foucault links Foucault’s work to unconventional sexual activities like sadomasochism. Thomas Maier begins his biography with Virginia Johnson losing her virginity, portrays her as a sexually conniving secretary, and delights in exposing complicated aspects of the researchers’ sex life together. And historian James Jones depicts Kinsey as deeply twisted.

The problem is not simply that sexuality research remains stigmatized. It is that, in many circumstances, sex itself remains stubbornly discrediting. Sexuality’s cultural meanings are paradoxical—it is simultaneously repulsive and attractive, taboo yet vital to our happiness. It is difficult to write sexual stories without reproducing what Michael Warner calls “the ordinary power of sexual shame.” Moreover, stories that examine sex research through the prism of the researcher’s sex life rely on the simplistic notion that there is a specific connection between one’s sexual experiences and research.

A fascinating piece which covers the sort of leering interest sex research continually attracts despite it being one of the most important and under-investigated aspects of human health and behaviour.

Link to ‘The Sex Lives of Sex Researchers’ in contexts.

25 Dec 11:00


by Justin Boyd


I’ve gotten better at wrapping, but my skills will always be subpar. At least I get to practice at least once a year!

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, everyone!

18 Dec 12:00

12 Days: Christmas…A Roman Holiday

by April Stevens

By Caroline Lawrence (Wonders & Marvels contributor)

When I was researching my sixth Roman Mystery, set during the mid-winter festival called the Saturnalia, I was amazed by how many ancient Roman customs have survived, embedded in our Christmas celebrations. Here are twelve!

1. Five day vacation. In the first century AD the Romans set aside five days holiday to celebrate the festival of the Saturnalia, a mid-winter pagan festival to bring back the sun. We take approximately the same number of days off for Christmas.

2. December 25th. Romans sacrificed to Saturn but by the first century some were celebrating the birth of an eastern god of light on the 25th of December. No, not Jesus: Mithras! His rites and rituals shared many similarities with our Christian ceremonies. There was a baptism, a sacramental meal, an observance of Sunday, and the god himself was born on the 25th of December

3. Christmas tree, mistletoe, wreaths, etc. Romans decorated their houses with greenery. As Sheldon from Big Bang Theory says, “In the pre-Christian era, as the winter solstice approached and the plants died, pagans brought evergreen boughs into their homes as an act of sympathetic magic, intended to guard the life essences of the plants until spring. This custom was later appropriated by Northern Europeans and eventually became the so-called Christmas tree.”

4. Lights & candles. Romans also decorated their houses with extra lights at this darkest time of the year. Again, this was a pagan attempt to bring back the sun. Torches, tapers, candleabra and oil-lamps flickered throughout the houses of the rich. Because of this Rome was a particular fire hazard in the winter. One historian estimates that a hundred fires broke out daily in the Eternal City, which had its own entire corps of firemen, the vigiles.

5. Feasting! In mid-winter instinct tells us to build up a nice layer of fat, to feast in preparation for lean times ahead. A bit like a bear before hibernation. Yum. Carbohydrates are on the menu again.

6. Drinking. It has been medically proven that a small amount of wine added to water will kill off most known bacteria. For most of the year Romans drank diluted wine, but during the Saturnalia they often drank neat wine, heated and spiced. That’s my excuse for a glass of mulled wine: it’s hygienic.

7. Partying & Role Reversal. For the five days of the Saturnalia, slaves didn’t have to work. They could eat, drink and be merry. Some masters let their slave switch roles. Others, like Pliny the Younger, just left them alone to get on with it. Today, office employees find Christmas the time when they are tempted to take the most liberty. Be careful. Once the Saturnalia is over, you have to go back to being a slave… er, employee.

8. Board games and/or cards. In first century Rome, the only time gambling was legally permitted was during the Saturnalia. Even children and slaves could roll dice for nuts or money without fear of punishment. In the West, Christmas is the only time many families play board games or cards.

9. Party pieces. On the first night of the Saturnalia many households threw dice to determine who would be the King of the Saturnalia. The “King” could command people to do things like prepare a banquet, sing a song, or run an errand. Today we often perform party pieces at our Christmas parties, but Mom usually gets landed with preparing the banquet.

10. Santa hats. Many Roman citizens wore the hats traditionally given to slaves when they were set free. The pileus or pileum – both forms are attested – showed that freeborn Roman citizens were “extra free” from the usual restrictions and laws. These “freedom caps” were conical in shape and made of colourful felt, perhaps fur-trimmed in the winter. Hmmm. A red felt conical hat trimmed with white fur. Remind you of anything?

11. Presents! The Romans gave gifts on the Saturnalia, especially small clay or wooden figures – sigillum singular, sigilla plural – often with moveable joints. Action figures, LEGO and Barbies are our modern equivalent!

12. Gift tags. Finally, Romans often composed two-line epigrams to accompany their Saturnalia gift. So come on all you NaNoWriMo graduates and would-be writers: try composing your gift tags as a two line poem!

Caroline Lawrence has been writing detective stories about first century Rome and the Wild West for over a dozen years. Her passion for plotting combined with an obession with historical accuracy means her history-mystery stories are popular with children, parents and teachers. Here she is at a Christmas booksigning, wearing her pileum or freedom cap.

This post was first published on Wonders & Marvels in December 2012.

16 Dec 14:07

No Appetite for War

by Alexander Watson

By Alexander Watson (Guest Contributor)

“Every day now brings turnips, turnips and still more turnips.” The hunger felt across Central Europe during the First World War is barely remembered today, but for millions of German and Austro-Hungarian civilians, as for the Hamburg girl who wrote those words in January 1917, it was the conflict’s defining experience. A desperate search for food dominated wartime life. Malnutrition and, in some places, starvation had killed around a million people in Central and Eastern Europe by the end of 1918.

2. Queue at a Goulash Gun

People queue in front of a “goulash gun”. The deployment of these mobile field kitchens onto the streets of Germany was one method by which the government tried to rationalize the feeding of the population. Each contained around 1,400 portions of stew.

The food shortages were partly a consequence of mobilisation for “total war”. By 1915, the drafting of hundreds of thousands of farm workers and horses to the army, soil exhaustion and bureaucratic inefficiency had precipitated crises in production and distribution. Yet the shortages were also engineered deliberately by the ring of enemies surrounding Germany and Austria-Hungary. Britain used its naval supremacy and diplomatic clout ruthlessly to halt imports to Central Europe. The Royal Navy closed the entire North Sea to international trade. What could not be blocked was purchased: Norway’s herring catch, for example, was cornered by the British and then left to rot, solely to deny it to hungry Germans.

The Central Powers struggled to overcome dearth. Officials slowly tried to centralise food management and experimented with rationing and mass soup kitchens. More darkly, occupied territories’ food stocks were callously seized. Society mobilised to search for substitutes. At universities, historians scoured dusty manuscripts to discover what people had eaten in earlier famines. Chemists tried to extract oils from grape and poppy seeds. Private business also strove to fill gaps in the markets. In all, 11,000 so-called “Ersatz” (replacement) foods were produced. Most ranged from the unappealing, through disgusting to actually poisonous. For example, in the absence of flour, wartime sausages could legally be filled with 70 per cent water, becoming squidgy tubes of slime. Walnut shells, plum stones and even turnip heads went into wartime coffee, and dishonest traders mixed sawdust into bread and marketed ash as pepper substitute.

1. German Recipe Postcard 1917

“Citizens’ Cooking Recipe”. A satirical German postcard from 1917 explaining how to make a meal solely from ration coupons unredeemed because the food was unavailable: “Take the meat ration card, coat it in the egg ration card and fry nicely brown with the butter card …”

The unappetising and inadequate diet had disastrous consequences for Germany and Austria-Hungary. Hunger eroded popular support for the conflict. It also delegitimised governments incapable of feeding their peoples. In both states, malnourished citizens rose up at the war’s end in revolution. Worse, the obsession with food security provoked by the trauma would contribute to even greater horrors a quarter of a century later. The Nazis’ genocidal ambitions to annex agricultural “living space” in the east would be motivated not just by vicious racial ideology but also – with the memory of the First World War still strong – by determination to make Germany, as Hitler himself put it, “the most blockade-proof place in the world.”


Ring of SteelAlexander Watson is Lecturer in History at Goldsmiths, University of London. His new book, Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War I, has just been published by Basic Books. 

W&M is excited to have two (2) copies of Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War I for this month’s giveaway! Be sure to enter below by 11:00pm EST on December 31st to qualify (your entry includes a subscription to W&M Monthly).

Please note that, at this time, we can only ship within the US.

Monthly Book Giveaways

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December Book Giveaways
  • Paul Strohm, “Chaucer’s Tale:1386 and the Road to Canterbury”
  • Alexander Watson, “Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War I”

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

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, ___"

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