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From The Economist: .

ON DARK evenings in late 1916, a frail 76-year-old man could often be seen shuffling furtively between The Dove, a pub in west London, and the green and gold turrets of Hammersmith Bridge. Passers-by paid no attention, for there was nothing about Thomas Cobden-Sanderson’s nightly walks to suggest that he was undertaking a peculiar and criminal act of destruction.

Between August 1916 and January 1917 Cobden-Sanderson, a printer and bookbinder, dropped more than a tonne of metal printing type from the west side of the bridge. He made around 170 trips in all from his bindery beside the pub, a distance of about half a mile, and always after dusk. At the start he hurled whole pages of type into the river; later he threw it like bird seed from his pockets. Then he found a small wooden box with a sliding lid, for which he made a handle out of tape—perfect for sprinkling the pieces into the water, and not too suspicious to bystanders.

Those tiny metal slugs belonged to a font of type used exclusively by the Doves Press, a printer of fine books that Cobden-Sanderson had co-founded 16 years earlier. The type was not his to destroy, so he concealed his trips from his friends and family and dropped his packages only when passing traffic would drown out the splash. There were slip-ups, all the same. One evening he nearly struck a boatman, whose vessel shot out unexpectedly from under the bridge. Another night he threw two cases of type short of the water. They landed on the pier below, out of reach but in plain sight. After sleepless nights he determined to retrieve them by boat, but they eventually washed away. After that he was more careful. [continue]

This blog post by Adam Curtis is a great read.

The recent revelations by the whistleblower Edward Snowden were fascinating. But they – and all the reactions to them – had one enormous assumption at their heart.

That the spies know what they are doing.

It is a belief that has been central to much of the journalism about spying and spies over the past fifty years. That the anonymous figures in the intelligence world have a dark omniscience. That they know what’s going on in ways that we don’t.

It doesn’t matter whether you hate the spies and believe they are corroding democracy, or if you think they are the noble guardians of the state. In both cases the assumption is that the secret agents know more than we do.

But the strange fact is that often when you look into the history of spies what you discover is something very different. [continue]

From discovery.com: Leonardo Da Vinci: Bag Designer.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519) was an artist, inventor, scientist, architect, engineer, writer and even a musician. Now we know that he was also a fashion designer.

After several months of meticulous research, scholars have reconstructed some fragmented drawings of a unique bag designed by the Renaissance genius around 1497. (…)

Overlooked for more than three decades, it has been reconstructed and reassembled by Agnese Sabato and Alessandro Vezzosi, director of the Museo Ideale in the Tuscan town of Vinci, where da Vinci was born in 1452. [continue]

From Wonders and Marvels: Ancient Puppy Chow: Dog Food in Classical Greece.

Chasing game (rabbits, deer, bear, boar) for food and sport was extremely popular in classical antiquity, and dog owners took good care of their hunting companions. Ancient hunting manuals by two Greek historians, Xenophon (b. 430 BC) and Arrian (AD 86) preserve lively practical advice on raising hounds.

So, if you lived in Athens at the time of Socrates and owned a Laconian hunting hound like those depicted on Greek vases, what would you feed them? Ordinary pups get barley bread softened with cow’s milk or whey. But more valuable puppies eat their bread soaked in sheep or goat milk. You might add a little blood from the animal you expect your puppy to hunt. At dinner with your family, you scoop soft chunks of bread from the center of a loaf to wipe grease from your fingers—and toss them to your dog, supplemented with bones and other table scraps, perhaps even a basin of meat broth. After a sacrifice or banquet, you make a special treat: a lump of ox liver dredged in barley meal and roasted in the coals. Naturally, as a matter of professional courtesy, you share any rabbits, stags, or boars with your faithful hunting partners. [continue]

They are not citizens of Russia, so toys cannot hold protests. Guardian article summary:

Siberian authorities ban protest by 100 Kinder Surprise toys, 100 Lego people, 20 model soldiers, 15 soft toys and 10 toy cars.

From the Atlantic: How Your Cat Is Making You Crazy.

Jaroslav Flegr is no kook. And yet, for years, he suspected his mind had been taken over by parasites that had invaded his brain. So the prolific biologist took his science-fiction hunch into the lab. What he’s now discovering will startle you. Could tiny organisms carried by house cats be creeping into our brains, causing everything from car wrecks to schizophrenia?


This Guardian article is touching, and well worth a read: An Occupy protester’s story: ‘an idea cannot be evicted’.

Ancient poop science

From io9.com: Ancient Poop Science: Inside the Archaeology of Paleofeces.

The invention of the toilet accomplished many good things, but it did rob us of the chance at immortality – through our poop. Ancient humans have revealed some of their greatest secrets through paleofeces, the study of the waste they left behind. [continue]

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From The Guardian: 1,000 years on, perils of fake Viking swords are revealed.

It must have been an appalling moment when a Viking realised he had paid two cows for a fake designer sword; a clash of blade on blade in battle would have led to his sword, still sharp enough to slice through bone, shattering like glass.

"You really didn’t want to have that happen," said Dr Alan Williams, an archaeometallurgist and consultant to the Wallace Collection, the London museum which has one of the best assemblies of ancient weapons in the world. He and Tony Fry, a senior researcher at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, south-west London, have solved a riddle that the Viking swordsmiths may have sensed but didn’t quite understand.[continue].

From the L.A. Times: When the woolly mammoth ran out, early man turned to roasted vegetables.

Long before early humans in North America grew corn and beans, they were harvesting and cooking the bulbs of lilies, wild onions and other plants, roasting them for days over hot rocks, according to a Texas archaeologist.

The evidence for this practice has long been known of in fire-cracked rock piles found throughout the continent, but archaeologists have tended to ignore it "because a new pyramid or a Clovis arrow point is much sexier," said archaeologist Alston V. Thoms of Texas A&M University. [continue].

This Babelstone post on Byrhtferth’s Ogham Enigma is fascinating, detailed, and includes great images.

It probably comes as a surprise to most people to find out that the earliest extant manuscript to include any text written in the Ogham script is an early 12th century English manuscript copy of a work by the late Anglo-Saxon monk Byrhtferth (Byrhtferð) rather than one of the more famous Irish manuscripts that include descriptions of the Ogham script, such as the Book of Ballymote or the Yellow Book of Lecan. But although the origin of Old Irish texts about Ogham such as Auraicept na n-Éces (“The Scholar’s Primer”) and In Lebor Ogaim (“The Book of Oghams”) undoubtedly predates Byrhtferth’s work, the only extant manuscript copies of these texts are later than the Byrhtferth manuscript. [continue]

Byrhtferth was a monk who worked at the Abbey of Ramsey in Huntingdonshire during the late 10th and early 11th centuries. He is mainly remembered for his Enchiridion or Handbōc (Ashmolean MS 328), a work on the arts of computus and numerology which exhibits an obsession with ordering the universe on a numerological basis. Various other texts derived from a now lost computistical miscellany by Byrhtferth are preserved in two other manuscripts: [continue]


From Science Daily: Honey Bees On Cocaine Dance More, Changing Ideas About The Insect Brain.

In a study that challenges current ideas about the insect brain, researchers have found that honey bees on cocaine tend to exaggerate.

Normally, foraging honey bees alert their comrades to potential food sources only when they’ve found high quality nectar or pollen, and only when the hive is in need. They do this by performing a dance, called a "round" or "waggle" dance, on a specialized "dance floor" in the hive. The dance gives specific instructions that help the other bees find the food.

Foraging honey bees on cocaine are more likely to dance, regardless of the quality of the food they’ve found or the status of the hive, the authors of the study report.

The findings, detailed this month in the Journal of Experimental Biology, shed new light on the famous honey bee dance language, said University of Illinois entomology and neuroscience professor Gene Robinson, who led the study. The research also supports the idea that in certain circumstances, honey bees, like humans, are motivated by feelings of reward. [continue].


From CNN: Satellites unearthing ancient Egyptian ruins.

Archaeologists believe they have unearthed only a small fraction of Egypt’s ancient ruins, but they’re making new discoveries with help from high-tech allies — satellites that peer into the past from the distance of space.

"Everyone’s becoming more aware of this technology and what it can do," said Sarah Parcak, an archaeologist who heads the Laboratory for Global Health at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. "There is so much to learn."

Images from space have been around for decades. Yet only in the past decade or so has the resolution of images from commercial satellites sharpened enough to be of much use to archaeologists. Today, scientists can use them to locate ruins — some no bigger than a small living room — in some of the most remote and forbidding places on the planet.[continue].

From discovery.com: Ancient ‘Treasure’ Found in Farmer’s Bookshelf.

Italian police have found the long-sought "treasure of Satricum" in a farmer’s bookshelf, they announced at a news conference in Rome this week.

Consisting of more than 500 delicate miniature pots crafted about 2,600 years ago, the “treasure” was discovered during a police investigation in the countryside near the village of Campoverde di Aprilia, some 25 miles south of Rome.

The archaeological squad of the Carabinieri police noticed suspicious mounds, which are typical of a dig, near a small lake known as "Laghetto del Monsignore".

After spotting fragments of pottery in the soil, the Carabinieri placed the farmer who was working that land under investigation.

"He told us that he had found just a few fragments. Given the fact that he had already violated the law by not reporting to authorities his finding, we did not believe him and searched his house. Indeed, we seized 500 well-preserved miniatures," the Carabinieri wrote in a report called "Operation: Satricum." [continue, see photo].

Thanks to Sarah for pointing out this story.


From Media-Newswire.com: Medieval music brought back to life.

Music from a medieval manuscript that has not been heard since the 15th century has been brought back to life, thanks to researchers at The University of Nottingham.

The project, involving collaboration with academics in Germany, has resulted in the production of a modern colour facsimile of one of the largest, oldest and most important collections of vocal music to survive from late-medieval Europe, as well as a CD recording of some of the music it contains. The St Emmeram Codex is a handwritten anthology of 255 compositions of mostly polyphonic music ( music for more than one voice ), both sacred and secular. The manuscript belonged to the Benedictine monastery of St Emmeram in Regensburg, Germany, but since the early 19th century has been kept under lock and key in the Bavarian State Library in Munich.

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From EurekAlert: Waste coffee grounds offer new source of biodiesel fuel.

Researchers in Nevada are reporting that waste coffee grounds can provide a cheap, abundant, and environmentally friendly source of biodiesel fuel for powering cars and trucks. [continue].

See? Espresso can power more than just my mouth.


From the Telegraph: Neanderthals could have died out because their bodies overheated.

Analysis of DNA obtained from Neanderthal remains has revealed key differences from modern humans that suggest their bodies produced excess heat.

While in the cold climate of an ice age this would have provided the species with an advantage, as the earth warmed they would have been less able to cope. Ultimately this would have caused their extinction around 24,000 years ago.

Scientists at Newcastle University have put forward the theory after examining a particular form of genetic material which was obtained from the fossilised bones of Neanderthals.

By comparing it with that found in modern humans, they discovered that [continue].


From World Wide Words: absquatulate.


To make off, decamp, or abscond.

The 1830s — a period of great vigour and expansiveness in the US — was also a decade of inventiveness in language, featuring a fashion for word play, obscure abbreviations, fanciful coinages, and puns. Only a few inventions of that period have survived to our times, such as sockdologer, skedaddle and hornswoggle. Among those that haven’t lasted the distance were blustrification (the action of celebrating boisterously), goshbustified (excessively pleased and gratified), and dumfungled (used up).

Absquatulate has had a good run and is still to be found in modern American dictionaries. It was common enough that it became one of the favourite bêtes noires of writers on style in the latter part of the century. One such was [continue].

From discovery.com: King Tut’s Father ID’d in Stone Inscription.

An inscribed limestone block might have solved one of history’s greatest mysteries — who fathered the boy pharaoh King Tut.

"We can now say that Tutankhamun was the child of Akhenaten," Zahi Hawass, chief of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, told Discovery News.

The finding offers evidence against another leading theory that King Tut was sired by the minor king Smenkhkare.

Hawass discovered the missing part of a broken limestone block a few months ago in a [continue].

From Discovery of Roman Battlefield Poses Historical Riddle.

Archaeologists in Germany say they have found an ancient battlefield strewn with Roman weapons. The find is significant because it indicates that Romans were fighting battles in north Germany at a far later stage than previously assumed.

The wilds of Germany may not have been off-limits to Roman legions, archaeologists announced on Monday. At a press conference in the woods near the town of Kalefeld, about 100 kilometers south of Hanover, researchers announced the discovery of a battlefield strewn with hundreds of Roman artifacts dating from the 3rd century A.D. [continue, see photos]

From Reuters: Sudan statue find gives clues to ancient language.

Archaeologists said on Tuesday they had discovered three ancient statues in Sudan with inscriptions that could bring them closer to deciphering one of Africa’s oldest languages.

The stone rams, representing the god Amun, were carved during the Meroe empire, a period of kingly rule that lasted from about 300 BC to AD 450 and left hundreds of remains along the River Nile north of Khartoum.

Vincent Rondot, director of the dig carried out by the French Section of Sudan’s Directorate of Antiquities, said each statue displayed an inscription written in Meroitic script, the oldest written language in sub-Saharan Africa. [continue]

What you don’t know about me is this:

At those times when Mirabilis.ca is quiet for a few days or a week, it may be that I have just become obsessed by some fascinating new topic, as I am wont to do. (LibraryThing, GPS, whatever.) I don’t just acquire new interests; I eat them up. The subject that has captured my attention this time is Gregorian chant. Not just listening to it, but sight-singing it. That’s my goal.

I live in the middle of nowhere, and the music at our little Catholic church here is often vile. In fact, I could record it and upload it as some sort of sick comedy file. Those 1970s schmaltz camp songs we sing make me want to vomit. I have fantasies about rosary beads that contain cyanide capsules, so if it gets really bad, or if we sing ‘Gifts of Finest Wheat’ one more time… well. It’s quite frustrating, that’s what. It’s the kind of music that makes one want to stick knitting needles up one’s nose, straight up to the brain. The thought is “stop this noise, PLEASE.” Or maybe “just shoot me now!”

It seems to me that Gregorian Chant is a perfect alternative to the icky music I hate. And so it is that I’ve immersed myself in the world of chant. We already have lots of chant CDs, but now we have tutorials and study guides as well. And soon we will have a schola, and it will not suck.

I’m learning terms like punctum, liquiescent clivis, and bistropha. I know why solfege is so important.

And guess who chants at Mass now, one song per week? We do. Ora pro nobis.

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From Science Daily: Predecessor of Cows, The Aurochs, Were Still Living In The Netherlands Around AD 600.

Archaeological researchers at the University of Groningen have discovered that the aurochs, the predecessor of our present-day cow, lived in the Netherlands for longer than originally assumed. Remains of bones recently retrieved from a horn core found in Holwerd (Friesland, Netherlands), show that the aurochs became extinct in around AD 600 and not in the fourth century. [continue].

From The Japan Times: Japan’s master of an ancient Muslim art.

For Kouichi Honda, writing a beautiful line is what life is about. Getting every detail right — the subtle curves, the varying thicknesses and the density of the ink — matters to him as much as life itself.

The 61-year-old professor of international relations at Daito Bunka University in Saitama Prefecture is Japan’s leading authority on Arabic calligraphy, a devotional art form that has evolved over the course of 1,400 years and has detailed rules determining every single facet of the practice, whether the script is executed on paper or vellum or is fired into the gorgeous ceramic tiling that can hardly fail to astonish any visitor to a mosque.

But Honda is not just a rare curio in Japan. He is known around the world as one of the best Arabic calligraphers alive today. Some of his works, including "The Face of God" — a series of Koranic scripts against blue, red and yellow pyramid-shaped backgrounds — were last year accorded the tremendous honor of being included in the permanent collection of the British Museum in London. [continue].

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From New Scientist: Decoding a 2000-year-old computer.

Marcellus and his men blockaded Syracuse, in Sicily, for two years. The Roman general expected to conquer the Greek city state easily, but the ingenious siege towers and catapults designed by Archimedes helped to keep his troops at bay.

Then, in 212 BC, the Syracusans neglected their defences during a festival to the goddess Artemis, and the Romans finally breached the city walls. Marcellus wanted Archimedes alive, but it wasn’t to be. According to ancient historians, Archimedes was killed in the chaos; by one account a soldier ran him through with a sword as he was in the middle of a mathematical proof.

One of Archimedes’s creations was saved, though. The general took back to Rome a mechanical bronze sphere that showed the motions of the sun, moon and planets as seen from Earth.[continue, see video of working replica].

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