Friday, November 26, 2010

Six secrets

While driving home this evening, I was listening to the radio which was presenting a short review of the book 'Six Secrets of a Lasting Relationship'. Evidently feeling that the average listener would drive into a wall if there was any form of suspense, the host proceeded to reveal the 'six secrets' without preamble:

1. Talk TO your spouse, not AT them.

The way to tell this --for those unaware of the difference between a conversation and a monologue-- was revealed to be body language. If you are accidentally engaged in a single-sided diatribe, your spouse will be tense. On the other hand, if information is being exchanged by both parties, they will relax. 

Now arguably, your spouse is liable to have an emotion response range rather greater than the average poodle, so declaring when they will or will not feel relaxed seems rather arrogant. On the other hand, there's no denying that considering the other individual in any form at all can only be a positive step. I concluded that this book was starting at the basics and turned my attention to secret #2:

2. Don't assume you know what they are thinking before getting all the facts.

The example given was that you might think your spouse did not like visiting your parents because they LOATHED THEM BEYOND ANY OTHER CREATURE ON EARTH whereas in fact, they felt intimidated. The DJ went on to emphasise that there was a difference between these two states, although he made no intimation as to which one was preferable. I vaguely thought the first might be easier to deal with by way of being emotionally straight forward and relieving you of the embarrassment of endless reruns of baby photos. However....

... we had to talk to our partner and remember we're not an X-man with psychic powers. Got it. What's next?

3. Don't say things like 'you always listen to your mother's advice over mine'.

Here, we were told you are not only accusing your spouse of hurting your feelings but of doing it on purpose. Again, our helpful radio translator was there with the warning that this is WORSE than hurting someone accidentally. 

So no random accusations that make you sound like a pre-schooler. Next!

4. Don't be late.

Remember, your spouse's time is as valuable as yours.

Did I mention that this advice was presented entirely from the point of view of the man? I'm nicely generalising it here, but the radio presenter almost always used 'she' and 'her' when talking about the wronged spouse. While faintly amusing from my perspective, it left me wondering about the state of the (male) DJ's own personal life. This concern escalated several orders of magnitude for secret #5:

5. Don't bad mouth your spouse behind their back.... not even to your boyfriend or girlfriend.

.... does anyone else think that if you are talking to your BOYFRIEND or GIRLFRIEND, the exact contents of what you are saying is unlikely to impact your marriage significantly? I'm assuming this was a slip on the behalf of the DJ, since he made no suggestion that a useful tip to a successful relationship would be to NOT SEE ANYONE ELSE. He just ploughed right on with secret #6, which I've entirely forgotten since it seemed negligible after the revelations in point #5.

As I pulled into my driveway, I reviewed the secrets to long lasting happiness that I had learnt: talk to your partner, recall you're not omniscient, restrain from accusing them of intentionally trying to cause you irreparable emotional damage and don't describe them as a puke-ridden cockroach on facebook.

But having a spare girlfriend on the side is no big deal. So long as you're not late for dinner.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Can unicorns go extinct?

The answer is apparently 'yes'.

Before I became lost in a whale's stomach, I was exploring the second special exhibit at the Ontario Science Museum on mythical creatures. (Any objections to the location of such a display should have been made when I described the Harry Potter themed production at said same science-focussed location). The question raised --whether a creature that only existed in people's imaginations could die-- was answered with the example of the Nasca killer whale. Heard of it? Well no, that's pretty much the point. Once though, it appeared to have been a legendary monster.

The Nasca lived in south Peru from around 1 - 700 AD. Many archaeological finds from that period depict a killer whale holding a human head. All stories centred around such a beast, however, have been lost. Indeed, from what is known about the people from that time, it is not possible to even ascertain if the creature was good or evil. Personally, I would have thought that holding a severed head intimated one of those two options, but apparently head collecting was the thing to do at the time and he might just have been trying to fit in.

Not only can these creatures die, but they are also victims of evolution. Unicorns, for instance, used to have the body of a goat with a short coloured horn and griffins did not always have wings. Likewise, there is the Canadian Inuit legend of Sedna (a human, not a planetoid) which describes how a girl rather rashly decides to marry a bird, unsurprisingly regrets it, and is rescued by her father. In a feathered fury, the jilted bird conjures up a storm and the father decides to cut his losses and throw Sedna overboard. Unwilling to comply, Sedna clings to the boat, forcing her father to cut off first her fingers and then the knuckles. The first of these become the whales of the ocean and the second the seals. Continuing to demonstrate an unhealthy tenacity, Sedna survives to persuade a dog to chew off her father's hands and feet. He curses them all which causes the earth to open and swallow them both into the underworld. While originally all human, mermaid images introduced by merchants and slaves later became became associated with Sedna. Such travellers' tales explain why legends that originated thousands of miles apart often share common features. Mermaids, apparently, always have a penchant for combs and mirrors.

The original origin of each mythical creature could stem from different courses. Largely, it seemed that their creation was the product of four distinct situations:

The first of these was that of mistaken identity, especially of decaying remains. One such example was a sea monster that turned out to be the carcass of a 9m basking shark. Likewise, in 1855, the Danish Zoologist, Japetus Steenstrup, proposed that the fabled sea bishop observed in the 16th century was actually a large squid. Of course, since the Giant Squid can be up to 18m in size and there is an even larger Colossal Squid with eyes as large as a human head, the classification of 'monster' becomes a bit of a mute point. Amusingly, in 1300, Marco Polo described seeing unicorns that were probably Sumatran Rhinos. Suffice to say, he was unimpressed by their beauty. A giraffe was later mistaken for a unicorn when it was presented to the Chinese Emperor in 1414 by the explorer, Cheng Ho. Possibly due to accounts of this tale, the Japanese word for giraffe, Kirin (麒麟), also means unicorn.

The second origin was fear. The open ocean, with its seemingly infinite extent in all directions including down, can seem to hold any number of horrors. In such a place, the arched backs of jumping dolphins could easily appear to be the many tentacles of a kraken. Matters were perhaps not helped by Konrad Lykosthenes, who published an encyclopedia in 1557 detailing the monsters awaiting sailors. Similarly, Conrad Gesner's 1563 zoological work included a hippocampus; a sea creature with a horse's head, reinforcing the theory of the time that every animal found on land had a counterpart in the ocean.

Many mythical creatures were created to explain mysterious phenomenon. For example, Mexican farm animals were sometimes found dead with open gashes. Such events were blamed on 'Chupacabra'; small blood sucking creatures with glowing red eyes who kill like vampires of the non-sparkly ilk. Modern medicine has since revealed that gas in a carcass can cause it to expand and form splits of seemingly surgical precision. Giant bones from extinct creatures, such as those from dinosaurs and the huge ape gigantopithecus blacki, were also frequently thought to only be explainable by mythical beasts. Even elephant skulls, understood when alive, could resemble the remains of a Cyclops in death, with the opening in the skull for the trunk the space for its single eye. The fact these creatures are associated with forges, incidentally, came from the ancient Greek blacksmiths, who wore an eye patch to protect their sight from flying sparks. The Greek mythology, meanwhile, explained the natural disasters of earthquakes and volcanoes as originating from the torment of the giant children of the gods Uranus and Gaia, trapped by Zeus after the battle of Gigantomachy.

Finally, there were mythical creatures whose existence was through a story with a moral. One such creature is the goblin-like, Japanese tengu, who live in the forests to mock and punish prideful people. Their legend tells of a man walking through a forest and finding a tengu who agrees to teach him the magical art of ninjutsu. Rather than use his new skills for worthwhile causes, the man kills and steals from travellers. In one unfortunate evil act too many, he tries to kill a slow farmer who was in his way. Rather than slay the poor man, his sword breaks, revealing said farmer to be the tengu and himself unable to use his powers again. The Japanese saying "tengu ni neru" (he is turning into a tengu) is commonly used to recall this tale and warn people against arrogance. In 1860, the Japanese government posted official notices to tengu asking them to temporarily vacate a certain mountain during a schedule visit by the shogun. I cannot help but feel this revealed a particularly honest view of the characters of the country's commanders.

Sometimes the origin of a creature cannot be even guessed at due to the age of its legend. Griffin illustrations are found that date back to 3300 BC. The Greek myths are known to be at least 2,700 years old, but their material is borrowed from still more ancient tales.

A few modern mythical beasts are created through more mundane means. In 1842, the people of New York City were enthralled by the shrivelled corpse of the 'feejee mermaid' . The creature was shown by P. T. Barnum who acquired it from a colleague in Boston. In reality, the little body was made by fusing the torso of a monkey with the tail of a fish. Such fakes were made in the East Indies and sold to British and American sailors in, what one can only suppose, was an early tourist trade. Ideally, one would like to think we are now above such mockery, yet pictures on the internet of mermaids washed up on shore after a tsunami beg to differ.

For some, the creation of phoney creatures is not so much trickery as an art form. Bob Slaughter had a distinguished career in palaeontology before moving into the business of making attractive fake fossils of small winged humans and their friends. His book on this appears to have fooled at least one reviewer. There is also the Coney Island artist, Takeshi Yamada, who creates 'gaffs' including a taxidermied rabbit with a fish tail.

Aspects from mythical beasts have also wound their way into modern associations. The pokemon character 'aipom' resemble the ahuizotl; a monkey creature with an unfortunate pastime of pulling people underwater and drowning them. 500 years ago, the same creature was carved into the wall of an Aztec temple as pictographic symbol of the ambitious Aztec leader who took its name. A similar creation with a taste for drowning is the Japanese kappa. When it's not disguising itself as a child in preparation for watery demises, the kappa apparently likes cucumbers, resulting in the sushi cucumber roll to be known as 'kappamaki'. It is also the origin of the phrase 'even kappas can drown', referring to the fact that even experts can make mistakes, and 'just a kappa fart' which a cruder form of 'a much ado about nothing'. Amusingly, the kappa is very much the product of the culture it was born in. Their strength originates from water in the bowl shaped dent in their head. To defeat the creature, you bow to it, whereupon manners will force it to bow in return, spilling the water and causing it to flee back to the river or pond.

Not all questions about mythical creatures were answered by this exhibit. As I stood in front of a model of the flying horse, Pegasus, child of Greek god Poseidon and monster Medusa, a teenager beside me turned to her friend and demanded, "How can two gods make a horse?"

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Hockey at midnight

I shot down the ice. My blades cut into the smooth surface in steady strokes. Ahead of me, the small black disc slid towards the far end. The referee was probably going to blow his whistle, but that didn't mean the defence shouldn't give chase. It was like flying.

Either that, or the fact our game hadn't started until 11:30 pm was addling my brains.

In my league, there are three time slots for games on Saturday night: 9:15, 10:15 and 11:15 pm. A balance is attempted so that no one team gets landed with all the late games, but those slots that we do get are universally hated. This week was a 'make-up' game, due to us missing a match last month because of a tournament. It resulted in a bizarre ice time and, in a strange twist, playing the exact same team as we did the week before. To top it all, this rival team was the one I was on the previous season so I had only the haziest idea of who was friend or foe out there.

Plus, I was exhausted.

Coming off the ice, I decided that next shift I would simply take a nap in front of the goal and hope this was disconcerting enough to cause the other team's shots to all go wide. I was just falling into a light doze on the bench when someone smacked the puck so hard it shot over the barrier. It ricocheted off the wall behind me with a loud bang and flew over my helmet to land by my skate. I picked it up with narrowed eyes and threw it back onto the ice.

"Are you awake now?" asked my team-mate, grinning, as she exchanged places with me.

Oh yes, this had gone too far. I had been hauled out in the middle of the night to play a confusing game against my old team in a surreal parody of the week before. Then to top it all, someone tries to kill me with a puck. I was tired, shocked and suffering from deja vu in which I played on both sides of this match.


Of course, given the previously listed problems, it wasn't obvious who 'they' were going to be.

The puck shot towards the opposition's net and I hung back to mark their right wing player. He was hanging by the blue line, ready to take the puck back down the rink towards our goal. But I had his number, I was on him like a fly on jam --an appropriate analogy since he was wearing a red helmet-- slamming on that pressure that was bound to cause him to make a mistake. Assuming that was, he noticed: he was the size of a bear. I consoled myself with the fact he'd probably trip over me if he turned.

The puck shot out the other side of the zone and I moved for a more prominent position, skating rings around the pursuing player. Literally so, I should add. He looked unsteady on his feet and I thought it might unsettle him. I then played a few rounds of hockey tennis, bouncing the puck toward the opponent's goal as it came my way three times in a row. I think I wasn't the only person having deja vu.

Then we won.

By 'we' I think I mean my current team. Either way, I credit my own awesome defence for the victory... or attack, if it was the other team that came out on top. That'll learn them for waking me up.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Rock Band life

I was in the bar after hockey feeling that my life, frankly, rocked. With mingled horror and fascination, I was hearing of the troubles one of my team-mates was having with her soon-to-be-ex spouse. The situation was nasty: neither party was talking to the other and a judge had ruled a time-share on the kid .... and the house. The latter meant that for half the week, my friend wasn't allowed in her own home and had to couch surf around the town.

I was deeply sympathetic but could offer little apart from a potential surfing location if she ever started to seriously consider the ice rink as a bedroom. Despite us being almost the same age, I had neither kid, husband (past or present), mortgage or any form of asset that wasn't straight forwardly mine. It made my curses at indecipherable code errors seem like a picnic. The kind you have on a ridiculously sunny day where the provider of said packed lunch has remembered you don't like celery. 

In short, my life more than rocked. It was the equivalent to Rock Band 3, Lego edition, on the Playstation.

Fortunately, other members of our team had more practical advice. With bankers through to car salesmen in our ranks, we had most problems covered. They offered opinions on credit ratings while I sat there ready for anyone who had a problem with their star forming galactic clouds. (No one did, but someone is bound to next week. I mean, I can't go a day without running into these kind of issues). Somewhat alarmingly, there were also a number of people who had battled similar problems, including facing bankruptcy and custody wars.

My rocking life acquired a second keyboard.

One banker-turned-student offered his take on the situation. "You don't want to declare bankruptcy," he advised. "Or it'll be seven years before you can get a decent credit rating again. Then you'll end up like Elizabeth."


I accidentally swallowed an ice cube and spluttered while it painstakingly melted in my gullet.

"She's got no credit," my team-mate helpfully continued. "So she has to pay the bank to get a Visa. Plus, she moves so much that it appears as though she's defected on her rent almost every year."


... Well OK .... I did have to have a secured credit card because border control hates credit ratings crossing between countries even more than people. And yes, I had moved roughly every year since graduating in a crazy work-related globe trot but .... but .....

Fine. It was all true.

"I built up a solid credit rating in the US," I protested. "And I only move because of my job!"

"Did you explain that to the bank?"


"Did it make a difference?"

".... No."

My rock band life was reduced to a microphone with a faulty battery.

I was offered an extra slice of pizza. Clearly, it was felt that I might not see another meal until our next game. I took it. 7 years as a student leaves deeply ingrained habits regarding refusal of food.

"Cheer up!" I was slapped on the back. "At least you don't have to contend with dividing a household with an ex-husband or boyfriend!"

"If you do start sharing a house though," Another team-mate lifted a finger. "Charge them rent. That way, even if you break up after years together, you can declare them a tenant and not a common-law marriage partner!"

It is quite amazing what you learn. I sincerely hope that information will be utterly useless to me in the future.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Building dolphins

Yesterday, I built a dolphin. I made it as round as a ball but gave it a big tail for propulsion. It moved okay, but unfortunately couldn't turn fast enough to avoid hitting the underside of a propeller driven boat and exploding.

It was sad. Possibly, no one should employ me as a substitute god quite yet.

To console myself, I went to chill out in the heart of a blue whale. Weighing over 150 tons and measuring up to 39 m in length, the adult blue whale is the largest mammal that has ever lived. A 1:1 scale model of its heart is therefore a perfectly comfortable place to sit, at least once I had shoved the kids out through one of the valves.

I was at the Ontario Science Centre which had an exhibition running on whales. In pride of place (by necessity of its size) was the skeleton of a sperm whale whose 18m length stretched the length of the hall. It might fall short of its blue whale cousin, but the sperm whale is the largest toothed predator, even if it does use its teeth mainly for filtering and biting other males in fights. Blue whales have baleen plates that resemble giant brushes, rather than teeth, which filter huge quantities of water for krill; a technique known as 'lunge feeding'. Sperm whales and other toothed family members, such as dolphins, feed on individual prey such as giant squid. Because of this, the sperm whale also has the honour of having the largest nose that is actually a massive echolocation device which it uses to hunt squid down to depths of 2000m. By contrast, the human record for a dive is 82m. Rather than a tool for hunting, the noises made by baleen whales are used for communication, such as the humpbacked whales' song. Its low frequency allows the sound to cover huge distances so these solitary beasts can contact one another.

After I'd mentally redesigned a whale's insides into an entry for 'changing rooms', I started to wonder about how such a humongous mammal ended swimming. After all, one could hardly picture an elephant taking this as a personal challenge. I originally presumed that when mammals first left the ocean, a off-shoot stayed behind. These would then become whales, while the land-lovers developed two legs, shoved them under a computer desk and became graduate students wondering why they left the ocean and if it was too late to change their mind. In fact, it turned out I was wrong. The exhibition showed that whales developed from land animals who moved into the sea to take advantage of the food source there. Fossils exist of deeply confused creatures known as 'ambulocetus natans' (literally 'walking whale') that could both walk and swim. They appeared to hear sound through their lower jaw which was transmitted to the soft tissue leading to the ear in an early version of the echolocation mechanics of their descendants.

More soberly, another board discussed the problem of beached whales. In New Zealand, they have had to deal with a mass beaching of sperm whales whose huge bulk makes refloating almost impossible. Internal damage from the beaching is highly probable and the mammals rapidly overheat when stranded. When this happens, a fast, humane death is considered preferable and is carried out using a specialised device known as SWED: Sperm Whale Euthanasia Device. This is a single-shot anti-tank rifle, the kind of weapon usually designed to penetrate the armour of tanks. 

On a more cheerful note, New Zealand is also home to the smallest of the whale family, Hector's dolphin, whose length is just 1.5m. That's just over a 5th of the size of a newborn blue whale, which weights 3 tons at birth. I'm thinking not a crib from Ikea.

Friday, November 5, 2010

1984 and locally grown cucumbers

I have long believed I knew the source that would ultimately cause the downfall of human civilisation.

It was not, as seems to have been suspected by magazine headlines, that Brad Pitt's daughter enjoys dressing up as a boy. It was not even that googling 'Palin for President' produces serious hits (and one frankly awesome one). Nor was it that the Large Hadron Collider is planning to recreate a mini Big Bang or that there are people who will honestly freak out about this.


It was that the UK military satellite system is known as 'Skynet'.

However, I was wrong. This is merely a Hollywood decoy for the ultimate peril. The real threat comes from a far more covert operation; the UK's private health care sector. Unlike the headquarters for the Secret Intelligence Service which is pointed out on boat tours of the London Thames, few people suspect the UK even has private health insurance companies. This is what makes this idea brilliant.

And evil.

In truth, everyone in the UK is covered by the National Health Service and for emergencies, there is no competition. However, if you have a non-urgent complaint such as a nagging sports injury, you might find yourself on a waiting list just below the item 'improve the railway network'. For such times, some people (including my parents) invest in private health insurance.

While talking to my dad about his policy last weekend, I discovered that the cost of this added coverage changes depending on how much you exercise. On the surface, this seemed logical and harmless; fitter people are less likely to get sick and need to use private health facilities. It did nevertheless, raise one important question:

How do they know how much exercise you did?

The answer, unsurprisingly, was not the honesty of the client. I guess as a health service, their psychology was good enough to understand the limits of human self-interest. They turned out to have a variety of systems. The first was to offer you money off your gym membership. Once you applied for this, the gym would then record how often you went and pass this information on to the insurance company.

I chewed my lower lip. Having to 'check in' to the gym was a little bit like being back at school. I supposed with social networking sites now offering to list your location when you log in, many people did this optionally, but I still wasn't entirely sure I was comfortable with my free-time being recorded. There was also another problem:

"You don't use the gym," I pointed out to my dad. "You go out cycling. Does that not count?"

"Ah!" he replied enthusiastically. "They give you something for that!"

The 'something' turned out to be a heart monitor that you wore while you exercised and which then transmitted the data back to the insurance company. For a gadget geek like my dad, it was a good bit of fun .... of the ominously Orwellian kind. 

"It would get really worrying if an ambulance showed up at your door for a heart attack they could tell you were about to have in thirty minutes!" Dad suggested. ".... or maybe that would be reassuring. If it were a hearse that would be worse."

Yes, yes it would. I laughed. Then stopped and checked the street for stretched black cars.

And there was more. It was possible to link in your supermarket loyalty card and get an even larger discount based on the amount of fruit and vegetables you bought a week. I scratched my head, thinking this through.

"But you and Mum don't buy most of your veg from the supermarket," I said. "You get a vegetable box from the farmer's market."

"That's true," my dad pondered this. "Perhaps we could ask them to set up cameras in the house so they could see all the food we have coming in!"

My head hit the desk with a clonk. Move over Terminator, Big Brother is watching you. And it's all because the public demanded their vegetable boxes be registered.