A blog about the arts, books, flora and fauna, vittles, and whatever comes to mind!

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Friday, October 29, 2010

The poem that takes 200,000,000 years to read...

Raymond Queneau’s poem Cent mille milliards de poemes (One hundred million million poems), written in 1961, would take 200,000,000 years to read, even if you read twenty-four hours a day.  A set of ten sonnets printed on a cut page with each line on a separate strip, any line of one sonnet can be combined with any line from the other nine sonnets, making possible 100,000,000,000,000 distinct poems.  The idea came from children’s books that are cut into strips so one can combine different heads with different bodies, etc.  The sonnets have the same rhyme scheme and the same rhyme sounds.  He was aided by mathematician Francois Le Lionnais, and together the two created interest in a new form of literature, and the seeds of Oulipo were planted.

Ouipo is the acronym for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, or “body of potential literature”  (known in the U.S. as “The Workshop of Potential Literature”).  It was founded in 1960 as a subcommittee of the Collège de ‘Pataphysique.  (“’Pataphysics” is a pseudophilosophy, a word coined by Alfred Jarry, a French writer.  It has been described as “resting on the truth of contradictions and exceptions” by Queneau, the study of what is beyond metaphysics.)  Although the group involved was active since their inception, it was with the publication of a collection of their pieces, La Littérature Potentielle, in 1973 that they gained international notice.  The work of this Paris-based writer’s group has become better known in the U.S. now that English translations are available.

The group was devoted to searching for new structures and patterns for literature and used constraints to inspire ideas.  Many of these techniques relied on mathematical problems, using the precision and structure of math.  The constraints used push writers to play with language and construct writing that is “outside the box”.  Some of the constraints are listed below.

S+7, also known as N+7:  Replace every noun in a work with the noun found seven entries after it in a dictionary.  Different dictionaries produce different results.  One can also use verbs or other parts of speech instead.  What a great way to encode messages if all parties use the same dictionary!

Palindromes:  The entire work is a palindrome.  (Palindromes don’t offer their authors fame – who can remember the authors of any of them, much less my favorite - “Satan, oscillate my metallic sonatas”?)

No Repeats:  Writing a piece that is as lengthy as possible without repeating any words.

Anagrams:  Each paragraph of a work is an anagram of an outside source.  Just to make things more interesting, try a triple anagram, where one rewrites a selected piece three ways – rearranging the sentences, then the words, and finally the letters.

Lipogram:  Omitting the use of one or more letters in a piece, the more the merrier, albeit harder.

Macao or Prisoner’s Restraint:  This is a type of lipogram where letters with ascenders and descenders (i.e., b, d, f, g, h, j, k, p, q, t, & y) are excluded.

Univocalism:  A poem that uses only one selected vowel.

The Knight’s Tour:  Ostensibly a mathematical problem involving a knight on a chessboard who, moving in accord with chess rules, must visit each square once.  Used as a literary constraint since the ninth century, and notably by Georges Perec.

One of the quirkiest works is Georges Perec's  La Vie mode d'emploi  (Life:  A User’s Manual).  This is a collection of interwoven stories based on a fictitious apartment block in Paris.  Using multiple writing constraints, each story adds a new layer of complexity.  Perec created a system which generates for each chapter a list of items, references, or objects that the chapter would contain.  There are forty-two lists of ten objects each, grouped in ten units of four.  The last two are lists of special couples (i.e. Tom and Jerry, Antony and Cleopatra, etc.)  These lists apply to each chapter in an array of a Graeco-Latin square.  There are many further complications and complexities to the book, which can be read from cover to cover or by chapters out of order.  Thus it utilizes the Knight’s Tour model.

Queaneau wrote another piece in the Oulipo repetoire in 1947 - 99 Ways to Tell a Story:  Exercises in Style.  It is the retelling of the same story 99 times, each by a different style.  The basic story is of someone who gets on a bus, witnesses an interaction between a zazou (sort of the French equivalent to a zoot suiter – they dressed in a particular fashion and were into bebop and swing jazz) and another person, then spots the same person two hours later getting fashion advice.  This was turned into a graphic novel by Matt Madden, which includes parodies of horror comics, comix, manga, and fantasy, and from unusual perspectives, including the refrigerator.

I can’t help thinking how much Charles Dodgson would have loved Oulipo.  As a master of puzzles and a mathematician, I think he would have been a major player.  If you are a logophile you may be interested in subscribing to this quarterly journal, Word Ways.

Want to entertain both your right and left brains simultaneously?  Try some Oulipo.  Make sure you are well-rested and/or stoned.  These writers are truly cerebral boinkfesters.


Thursday, October 28, 2010

The care and feeding of carnivores...

People say that plants are insensate, unintelligent things.  I beg to differ.  Sure, they can’t play chess or compose music, but neither can a lot of people I know.  Plants are very clever.  They can’t move, but they can adapt to their environments.  Survival is surely an intelligent skill.

I’m talking in particular about carnivorous plants.  Most people have heard of the Venus Flytrap, but that is only one of about 630 species.  Because they found themselves growing in environments that could not provide what they need to survive, they adapted instead of dying out.  These plants get most of their nutrients by trapping and consuming little living creatures, mostly insects and bugs.  They do this using five different kinds of trapping mechanisms:  pitfall traps; flypaper traps; snap traps; bladder traps, and lobster-pot traps.

Pitcher plants are one kind of plant that use pitfall traps, which involve a rolled leaf with sealed margins.  These leaves secrete bacteria or digestive enzymes which consume the creatures who investigate them.  One type of plant from this group – the genus Nepenthes – has a plant who can devour small mammals and reptiles.  The species sarracenia flava offers an enticing nectar that is laced with coniine, which is also found in hemlock, thus intoxicating its prey.  Another of the members of this group is a bromeliad, related to the pineapple.  Since it collects water in the “urns” formed by the leaves, it becomes a habitat for frogs and insects, as well as a breeding ground for bacteria.  How multi-faceted is that – habitat, breeding ground, and food collection site?

Flypaper traps have leaves with a sticky mucilage.  These leaves can trap small insects, such as gnats, but larger ones can usually get away.  Some of the plants in this group are capable of moving their leaves by a chemical process in reaction to prey.  Additionally, some of the plants in this group are only carnivorous while young, and it is thought that they need their prey specifically for flowering, and then they give up their evil ways.

Snap traps include the infamous Venus Flytrap.  This group of plants has trigger hairs which, when bent by the weight of prey activate a mechanism that allows the lobes of the plant to snap shut in less than a second.  So smart is this plant that it is able to identify true prey from a drop of water or dust.  It waits for something that triggers it twice, 0.5 to 30 seconds apart, before it closes its lobes.  As its prey struggles the lobes form a tight seal where digestion, a process that can take a week or two, takes place.  The lobes become ineffective after three or four times.

Some plants suck.  Literally.  Bladder traps have long trigger hairs that, when touched, create a vacuum that draws in its victim, aided by water.  Bladderworts have multiple bladders, and are often aquatic.  One type of aquatic bladderwort actually regulates how many bladders it needs for its particular habitat.  Intelligent and practical, to my mind.

A lobster-pot trap has inward-pointing bristles within its chambers that obstruct prey from exiting.  Prey is forced to move to an inward stomach where digestion occurs.  It devours aquatic protozoa.  Because it also uses water to aid in trapping its prey, it may be evolutionarily related to bladder traps and their vacuum/water mechanisms.

Carnivorous plants can be cultivated with care.  Because they developed in nutrient poor soils they are somewhat chalky, so common tap water can kill the plants from the build-up of minerals, in particular calcium.  Therefore they need rainwater, distilled water, or water deionised by reverse osmosis.  Because most of these plants come from bogs, giving them enough water is essential to their health and growth.

Carnivorous plants that are grown outdoors can usually feed themselves.  Insects can be fed by hand as a supplement.    If they catch no insects they will probably not die, but their growth will be stunted.  They will die, however, if fed non-insect bits, such as hamburger or cheese bits.  They are unable to digest these and the meat will rot, killing off the plant, or parts of it.  Playing with their trapping devices will eventually kill them, too, so resist triggering them no matter how fascinating they are.

Most of these plants require bright light in order to synthesize pigments.  Most also require high humidity, so place these plants on a saucer with pebbles and water.  Since carnivorous plants are found all over the world except Antartica, most of them can survive cold temperatures.  They require nutrient-poor soil, so a 3:1 mix of sphagnum peat (or coir) and horticultural sand is a good medium.

Oddly, carnivorous plants are susceptible to infestation from parasites like aphids or mealybugs, so these need to be cautiously removed, either by hand, alcohol or some other benign way.  Grey Mold, which thrives in warm and humid conditions, is the biggest killer of these plants, and can be a deadly problem during winter.  If the plants are kept cool and well-ventilated, and the leaves are dead-headed, this can be avoided.

A study from Tel Aviv University in 2009 states that secretions of the plants have compounds with anti-fungal properties which could lead to anti-fungal drugs for infections resistant to current ones.

Intelligence is open to interpretation according to your definition of it.  As I learn more about animals, and now plants, my definition is becoming more and more open.


Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Purrfect Health...

Five millennia or so ago, a goddess with the body of a woman and the head of a lion, called Mafdet, was worshipped in Egypt.  She was the goddess of both justice and execution, an interesting connection.  Her image evolved to the head of a house cat, and finally the entire image was a domestic shorthair cat.  Her worship was enthusiastic and extravagant, by all reports.  She was called Bast, or sometimes Bastet (Bubastis in Greek), and she had her own sacred city – Per-Bast - in the Nile Delta.  According to Herodotus, thousands attended her annual spring celebration there, and more wine was consumed during this festival than any other at the time – a sure sign of some serious partying, then as now.

In time she became more benign.  She was a protector, not only of Pharaoh, but also pregnant women, and represented fertility.  Like the housecat she was identified with, she took care of her charges with devotion and fierceness.  This loyalty was returned.  When a family’s cat died, they shaved their eyebrows and would take the cat to be mummified and buried.  Archaeologists have found a huge cat cemetery in the ruins of Per-Bast (now Tell-Basta), and other areas as well.  In fact, so many cats were mummified that nineteenth century ships departing Egypt used them as ballast.  Killing a cat, even accidentally, brought about the death penalty in ancient Egypt. 

Today, cats still enjoy a special place in the hearts and homes of many people.  What this perennial fascination with cat is about is anybody’s guess.  But one intriguing thing about them is that they purr. 

No one knows why they purr, and several theories exist.  With a frequency of somewhere between 75 and 150 hertz, a cat's purr seems to vacillate between the pharynx and diaphragm.  It continues while the cat breathes in and out.  We like to think the purr is about us, and our cats' pleasure at being with us, being stroked and paid attention to.  But cats purr at other times, such as when they are tending their kittens, when they are stressed (both physically and psychologically), and even when they are dying.

Some scientists suggest that the vibrations of purring are used to communicate and perhaps for self-healing.  It is thought that the vibrations can relieve pain, provide faster healing to injuries, and most importantly increase bone density.  One of the comparisons that scientists make is that dogs, their counterparts, are unable to heal as fast, and they suffer from more muscle and bone diseases than cats.  Vets and scientists have done studies on the "high-rise syndrome", using documented cases of cats falling from high-rise apartments.  Out of 132 cases of cats falling an average of 5.5 stories, 90% of these cats survived.  The record is surviving from a fall of 45 stories, but most cats who fall even 7 stories or more survive.  There is an old adage from veterinary schools:  "If you put a cat and a bunch of broken bones in the same room, the bones will heal."

This bone density issue causes much interest as it holds potential implications for humans and other species.  Women, who have more osteoporosis and bone density issues than men, are encouraged to walk and exercise to improve their bones.  Cats, who have great bone density, sleep more hours than they are awake, and exercise doesn’t seem to be on their agenda.

Working on the theory that purring takes the place of physical exercise, researchers have tried putting chickens on a vibrating plate twenty minutes a day at between 20-50 hertz, and the chickens’ bones were strengthened.  When rabbits were subjected to a similar experiment, they not only got stronger but their fractures healed faster.  Continuing studies show that mechanical vibration aids the healing of tendons and muscles as well as bringing pain relief.  It has been used in sports medicine, and some gyms use it to increase muscle mass.  People with COPD have been helped by this therapy as well.  Purring also seems to alleviate dyspnoea, or breathing difficulties, in cats and potentially in people.

Perhaps the ancient Egyptians were privy to this information, another one of their medical mysteries but this one unknown.  As someone who has been owned by many a cat, and gladly so, I can understand the  fascination with these creatures.  And a vibrating plate sounds so much better than a stair stepper.


Tuesday, October 26, 2010


Zombies.  The very word conjures up visions of mysterious drugged-up humanoids, stiffly moving with no facial expressions, nor are they able to speak.  Kids love them.  The movie industry loves them.  But where did they come from?

The popular culture connotation is a dangerous but lethargic once-human creature that bids the requests of a controlling (usually malevolent) figure.  Folklore suggests that a sorcerer can put a spell on a dead body and gain control of it.  Tales of zombies come primarily from Haiti and Africa, although they appear in other cultures as well.  The etymology of the word is questionable; it most likely came from West Africa, meaning either "fetish" or "god".  Originally it was the name of a snake god, but later came to mean a reanimated corpse in voodoo cult.

Haitian folklore contends that bokors, voodoo black magic priests, can resurrect the dead through the use of coup padre, a powder issued orally.  This powder is said to be derived from the fou-fou fish, a poisonous fish similar to the pufferfish that the Japanese call fugu.  Consumption of this powder would cause a shallowness in breathing and a drop in heart rate and body temperature.  These victims would be buried by their kin, but the bokor would exhume them, then erase their memories, thus turning them into mindless drones.  They remain under the bokor's power until the bokor dies.

Actually there are several drugs that could produce the appearance of a stupor and/or death.  One of them is certainly the poison of a pufferfish or blowfish.  There are also poisons from frogs that are deadly and could cause similar symptoms.  However, people who have consumed the poison of pufferfish and live eventually return to normal, not a zombie-like state. 

Datura, also known as jimson weed, is a genus of perennial plants that have been used as hallucinogens as well as a poison for centuries.  Unlike blowfish poison, this one has an antidote.  The symptoms of ingestion of this plant is a kind of delirium, and possibly amnesia, hyperthermia, or tachycardia.  Since it has hallucinogenic properties, the victim may think (s)he's been made a zombie, and that claim could keep the myth alive.

Other ingredients of "zombie powder" include, as well as the above, the usual parts of lizards, snakes, toads, human parts, etc., found in recipes for traditional "witches' brew".

However, since none of the poisons mentioned produce the trance or stiffened movement of the classic Zombie connotation, we can correctly assume the standard movie depiction has been exaggerated in detail to add to the fright factor.  Haiti, does however, have strong beliefs in zombies.  Papa Doc, the Haitian dictator who ruled from 1957-1971, claimed to have a private army, called tonton macoutes, that answered his beck and call.  He also claimed he would come back after his death to rule Haiti forever.  He still hasn't returned after dying of a heart attack, but even so a lock and chain was put on his tomb and a guard placed there just in case.  Padlocking tombs is a common practice in Haiti, where it is a crime to make a zombie:

Haitian Penal Code:

Article 246. It shall also be qualified as attempted murder the employment which may be made against any person of substances which, without causing actual death, produce a lethargic coma more or less prolonged. If, after the person had been buried, the act shall be considered murder no matter what result follows.

Anthropologist Wade Davis has written a couple of books on zombies - it was the focus of his graduate studies and PhD dissertation.  Although ethnologists and pharmacologists pooh-poohed his books, some scholars find parts of them intriguing.  

There IS a zombie you can believe in.  It is the name of a cocktail that is supposed to make you feel like one.  So this Halloween, you can get into the swing of things and consume a zombie or two:

1/2 oz 151-proof rum
1 oz pineapple juice
1 oz orange juice
1/2 oz apricot brandy
1 tsp sugar
2 oz light rum
1 oz dark rum
                                 1 oz lime juice

First, make sure you have a designated driver.  Blend all ingredients with ice except the 151-proof rum.  Pour into a tall glass and float the 151-proof rum on top.  Garnish with a fruit slice, sprig of mint, and a cherry.  (Makes one serving.)

Monday, October 25, 2010

Of all the fish in the sea...

There is a traditional saying in Japan: 

Those who eat fugu soup are stupid.
But those who don’t eat fugu soup are also stupid.

One of the most dangerous foods offered for gormandizing anywhere in the world is the Japanese dish, fugu - the meat of the poisonous pufferfish or blowfish.  It is also known in Japan as “teppo”, or gun, a testament to its potential for harm.   It has a long history of consumption in Japan, and mounds of pufferfish bones have been found dating back 2,300 years ago to the Jomon period.  Shimonoseki, a city in Yamaguchi Prefecture, Japan has the largest wholesale market for fugu.  It also holds a Fugu Festival each February.

Considered the most delicious of fishes, it is also the most feared, as improper preparation can result in death to the diner.  The identification of the poisonous parts, of which the liver and ovaries are but two, has greatly decreased the number of fatalities, but its consumption is still risky.  In 1975, a famous Kabuki actor died after eating some.

There are roughly 100 kinds of fugu in the world, of which 38 are found in Japan.  Fugu has been eaten in China for thousands of years.  Yet in all this time, no antidote has been found for the poison.  The estimated lethal dose for an adult – one to two milligrams – can be placed on a pinhead, and is 1,250 times deadlier than cyanide.  The toxin paralyzes muscles by blocking sodium channels in the nerve tissues, causing death by respiratory arrest.  It has begun to be used in modern neurological research, for in a diluted dose it can be a painkiller for those suffering from rheumatism, neuralgia, or arthritis.

A lot of fugu sold, however, is non-toxic, and many fish farmers are breeding the fish.  It is thought that in the wild, the poisonous fish eat other creatures that have the bacteria responsible for creating the poison.  Since pufferfish move very slowly, the production of poison may be a natural defense against predators.  Farm-grown fish are said to be non-toxic.  The tiger blowfish is the most poisonous of the species.  A pinch of the white powder processed from one adult tiger blowfish, can potentially kill 30 people.

Fugu commands a high price, as the chefs that are licensed to prepare and serve it must complete a two-three year apprenticeship, and then must pass a strict test.  Approximately 30% pass.  Some of these licensed chefs  actually include a tiny amount of the poison in their sashimi, producing a prickly and numbing sensation on the lips and tongue.  These dishes are often served in the shape of a chrysanthemum flower, which in Japanese culture signifies death.  Fugu chefs in the U.S. likewise undergo the same training as in Japan.  

The fugu served in the small number of restaurants that offer it comes from Japan, where it is usually shipped frozen.  Occasionally it is shipped fresh, with the mouths of the fish sewn shut as they have a habit of attacking each other when in close confinement.  Fresh fugu is very expensive. A single frozen  fish can cost from $50-$150, and cut up into serving portions it can bring in $200.  Milt, the roe of the pufferfish, is considered a highly prized delicacy. 

If you feel like playing Russian Roulette with your food, fugu is the way to go.  Plus you get lifetime bragging rights.