May 13, 2013 3:33 pm
Drop an S-bomb today in polite conversation, and heads will likely turn. But back in the ninth century, “shit” referred to excrement in a matter-of-fact, not a vulgar, way. In the new book Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, author Melissa Mohr explores how our opinion of this and other curse words have shifted over the years. In an interview with NPR, she delves into the history of “shit”:
It only really started to become obscene, I would say, during the Renaissance. … It basically involves increasing privacy. In the Middle Ages … when that word wasn’t obscene, people lived very differently. The way their houses were set up, there wasn’t space to perform a lot of bodily functions in private. So they would defecate in public, they had privies with many seats, and it was thought to be a social activity. That you would all get together on the privy and talk while you did this. … As the actual act became more taboo because you could do it in private now … the direct word became taboo.
The word itself likely arose from one or all of the Old English terms scite (dung), scitte (diarrhea) or scitan (to defecate). Middle English introduced schitte (excrement), schyt (diarrhea) and shiten (to defecate). Similar terms for the same thing eventually found their way into other languages as well, such as Sheisse (german), schijt (Dutch), skit (Swedish), skitur (Icelandic) and skitt (Norwgian).
As the Online Etymology Dictionary details, “shit” as a term related to excrement dates to at least the 1580s, though people had already adopted the term in reference for an “obnoxious person” by at least 1508.
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April 17, 2013 9:42 am
Amazon.com sells millions of books each year. In 2010, the company’s revenue broke 34 billion dollars. They’ve branched from selling books to selling everything from clothing to tires to dog toys to phones. But Amazon wasn’t always a multi-billion dollar company. Their first non-internal order came in 1995, and it was a science book.
Writing on Quora, Ian McAllister, an employee at Amazon, says, “The first product ever ordered by a customer on Amazon was Fluid Concepts And Creative Analogies: Computer Models Of The Fundamental Mechanisms Of Thought by Douglas Hofstadter.” On Quora, John Wainwright says he might have been that customer. He writes, “I think I’m the customer mentioned in the other answers, I did indeed buy Hofstadter’s Fluid Concepts on April 3rd, 1995 (it’s still in my order history listing!).” In fact, Wainwright still has the packing slip from Amazon, and the book.
While no one has entirely confirmed that Wainwright is the true customer, Kathy Lin, a product manager at Amazon, added to the Quora thread that a building on the Amazon campus is named after him.
If you’ve never heard of the book Fluid Concepts And Creative Analogies: Computer Models Of The Fundamental Mechanisms Of Thought it’s okay. It’s a relatively technical book by Douglas Hofstader, who is much more famous for another book – Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, affectionately nicknamed GEB by fans. Fluid Concepts is actually a collection of articles, each introduced by Hofstader and written by members of the Fluid Analogies Research Group (FARG). Their aim was to further the computer modeling of intelligence.
In the introduction, Hofstader writes this about FARG:
From its very outset, the intellectual goals and activities of FARG have been characterized by two quite distinct strands, one of them concerned with developing detailed computer models of concepts and analogical thinking in carefully-designed, highly-restricted micro domains, and the other concerned with observing, classifying, and speculating about mental processes in their full, unrestricted glory.
Fluid Concepts is still on sale today at Amazon, with the same cover that Wainwright bought. According to Novel Rank, the book currently holds sales position 182,171. You could buy your own copy, but you will never be the first.
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April 1, 2013 9:54 am
Modern humans are doing it all wrong—they eat wrong, they run wrong, they work wrong, they get married wrong. At least that’s the common line these days, as people push to return to our more “natural” state. The paleo-diet pushes us to eat foods our ancestors ate. Toe shoes try to make us run like them, too. Polygamy is the right way to have relationships, because that’s what pre-historic humans did. But is the life of cave people really what we should be striving for?
As evolutionary and genetic science show, humans, like all other living beings, have always been a work in progress and never completely in sync with the natural world. If we’re going to romanticize and emulate a particular point in our evolutionary history, why not go all the way back to when our ape ancestors spent their days swinging from tree to tree?
It is hard to argue that a simpler life with more exercise, fewer processed foods, and closer contact with our children may well be good for us, but rather than renouncing modern living for the sake of our Stone Age genes, we need to understand how evolution has—and hasn’t—suited us for the world we inhabit now.
She calls ideas for turning back time “paleofantasies.” But science doesn’t necessarily back up claims like “Our hunter-gatherer ancestors overwhelmingly consumed meat.” Nor does it prove that, even if our ancestors did live that way, we should strive for the same lifestyle.
Take the paleo-diet for example. First, our ancestors did not consume exclusively meat. They ate all sorts of grains and plants, as well. Second, simply because they ate a lot of meat doesn’t mean that our modern bodies and genes would do best with the same diet. We evolve along with our technology, and farming is certainly one of those technologies. Zuk puts it this way:
What we are able to eat and thrive upon depends on our 30 million years plus of history as primates, not a single arbitrarily more recent moment in time.
The pattern continues for workouts, for monogamy, for cancer and for parenting.
Yes, Zuk says, there are advantages to eating better, getting more exercise, and hanging out with your kids more. But that’s not the same thing as striving to return to cave days. The overall message: stop trying to live like a caveman.
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March 29, 2013 1:38 pm
The famous story of Cleopatra’s suicide gets points for drama and crowd appeal: Her lover, Mark Antony, had been defeated in battle by Octavian and, hearing that Cleopatra had been killed, had stabbed himself in the stomach. Very much alive, after witnessing his death, the beautiful last Pharaoh of Ancient Egypt pressed a deadly asp to her breast, taking her own life as well.
But what if Cleopatra didn’t commit suicide at all?
Pat Brown, author of the new book, The Murder of Cleopatra: History’s Greatest Cold Case, argues that the “Queen of Kings” did not take her own life. Rather, she was murdered, and her perpetrators managed to spin a story that has endured for more than 2,000 years.
Brown, writing for The Scientist, says she decided to treat Cleopatra’s story as any typical crime scene.
I was shocked at the number of red flags that popped up from the pages of the historical accounts of the Egyptian queen’s final day. How was it that Cleopatra managed to smuggle a cobra into the tomb in a basket of figs? Why would the guards allow this food in and why would they be so careless in examining them? Why would Octavian, supposedly so adamant about taking Cleopatra to Rome for his triumph, be so lax about her imprisonment? Why would Cleopatra think it easier to hide a writhing snake in a basket of figs rather than slip poison inside one of the many figs? How did all three women end up dead from the venom? Wasn’t it unlikely that the snake cooperated in striking all three, releasing sufficient venom to kill each of them? Why was the snake no longer present at the crime scene? Was a brand-new tomb so poorly built that holes remained in the walls of the building? Why did the guards not look for the snake once they thought it had killed the women? Why were the wounds from the fangs of the snake not obvious? Why did the women not exhibit the symptoms of death by snake venom or even by poison? Why did the guards not see any of the women convulsing, vomiting, or holding their abdomens in agony? Why didn’t they see any swelling or paralysis of face or limbs or any foaming at the mouth?
Brown began pursuing these answers through historical texts and more recent scholarly works. She spoke with Egyptologists, poison experts, archeologists and historians of the ancient world, slowly forming her own version of what really took place August 12, 30 BC.
With each step back in time from the end of Cleopatra’s life to the beginning, I discovered more and more evidence pointing to a radically different explanation of history than the ancients and Octavian wanted us to believe.
In this story, Cleopatra never loved Antony or Julius Caesar. Antony was murdered, and Cleopatra was tortured and strangled to death.
I believed Cleopatra may have been one of the most brilliant, cold-blooded, iron-willed rulers in history and the truth about what really happened was hidden behind a veil of propaganda and lies set in motion by her murderer, Octavian, and the agenda of the Roman Empire.
This book, Brown hopes, will set the record straight.
*This post has been updated.
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March 27, 2013 3:53 pm
There are a few things that are distinct to every person—her fingerprints, voice, particular way of walking, and, it turns out, the way she chews. Mary Roach’s new book, Gulp, takes readers on the same trip their food goes, and she writes that your way of chewing is unique to you:
The way you chew, for example, is as unique and consistent as the way you walk or fold your shirts. There are fast chewers and slow chewers, long chewers and short chewers, right-chewing people and left-chewing people. Some of us chew straight up and down, and others chew side-to-side, like cows. Your oral processing habits are a physiological fingerprint.
Of course, there are all sorts of people telling you how to chew. Some places say that the way you chew can help you diet better or be healthier. The best way to chew for weight loss is excessively, to burn calories. (Seriously, that is a tip.) Chewing for longer can also make you feel like you’ve eaten more food than you really have and can give your body time to process the “full” signals it’s sending you. This is why many diets suggest chewing gum to fool yourself into thinking you’re eating. (A new study, though, found that chewing minty gum can actually prompt people to eat sugary snacks and junk food instead of fruits and vegetables.)
Roach offers all sorts of other strange insights into our chewing prowess in the excerpt published in the New York Times. Like, for example, this gem about why food crunches:
For a food to make an audible noise when it breaks, there must be what’s called a brittle fracture: a sudden, high-speed crack. Dr. Van Vliet takes a puffed cassava chip from a bag and snaps it in two.
“To get this noise, you need crack speeds of 300 meters per second,” he said. The speed of sound. The crunch of a chip is a tiny sonic boom inside your mouth.
So the next time you sit down for lunch, take note of the tiny sonic booms in your mouth, the uniqueness of your munching and the strangeness of the human digestive tract.
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