Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Amazingly stupid adverts or how creativity went too far...

gates-seinfeld.jpgMicrosoft announced it was moving away from its commercials featuring Bill Gates and Jerry Seinfeld just two weeks after unveiling the baffling teaser ads. Although the Seinfeld spots were so short-lived that they might be dubbed a failure—particularly since Seinfeld’s deal with Microsoft is rumored to be worth $10 million—Microsoft and ad agency Crispin Porter claimed that the teasers did what they set out to do.

The tale of Gates and Seinfeld traipsing around with the common man wasn’t the first ad campaign to struggle to find its audience. If Microsoft execs need a boost, they can console themselves that it could have been worse. They could have run one of these campaigns:

1. Virgin Blue Encourages Travelers to “Chuck a Sickie”

Earlier this year, budget Australian airline Virgin Blue ran a campaign telling potential passengers to “chuck a sickie” to take advantage of the carrier’s ultra-thrifty fares. If you’re unfamiliar with Australian slang like I was, you might think this campaign was some sort of horrifying effort to encourage the tossing of ill people. Instead, “chuck a sickie” is a more benign term for taking a sick day from work. Virgin Blue head Brett Godfrey didn’t see the campaign as harmless fun, though; he didn’t appreciate how they supported workplace absenteeism. Godfrey reportedly ordered the ads pulled just 29 minutes after seeing them for the first time.

2. Chevy Lets Users Generate Attack Ads

In 2006 Chevrolet ran a promotion tied to an episode of The Apprentice. The idea was that fans of the Chevy Tahoe could go on Chevy’s website and “build their own” Tahoe ads from stock footage of the SUV rumbling through the wilderness. Chevy’s website would host the ads, and the best ones would win concert and sporting event tickets for their directors.

However, the site drew more than a few directors seeking a soapbox from which to lambaste SUVs, often with hilarious results. The natural settings in the stock footage coupled with the directors’ own trenchant barbs about environmental degradation fostered some truly biting attack ads that ran on Chevrolet’s own servers. Here’s an example:

3. Benetton Goes to Death Row

deathrow.jpgItalian clothing maker Benetton has never backed down from a controversial ad campaign; at various points the company has run pictures of terminal AIDS patients and a priest kissing a nun. However, many critics thought the designer finally crossed the line in 2000 with the campaign “We, On Death Row,” which featured death-row inmates wearing their prison uniforms. The company’s catalog contained pictures of 25 death-row prisoners, and their faces also appeared in print ads and on billboards around the world.

The campaign’s creator, Benetton creative director Oliviero Toscani claimed that the images were simply used to draw attention to the brutality of the death penalty. Families of the prisoners’ victims and victims’-rights groups contended the photos and accompanying narrative glorified the convicts and portrayed the killers as the actual victims. (The ads didn’t mention the often-grisly crimes for which the subjects were imprisoned.) Public outrage grew so quickly that Sears terminated its contract to peddle Benetton’s clothes, and the campaign could still be considered to be one of advertising’s bigger blunders in poor taste.

4. Nike Dunks Its Sneaker Shots

Nike’s Hyperdunk basketball shoes got a huge shot in the arm earlier this year when the viral video of Kobe Bryant wearing the sneakers and jumping over an Aston Martin became a web sensation. The print ads Wieden + Kennedy designed to go along with the shoes didn’t fare quite so well. The ads presented large photographs of a basketball player being dunked on; the center of each shot was the hapless defender’s face, which was obscured by the flying dunker’s thighs and waist. Slogans like “That ain’t right” appeared on top of the image. To basketball players, it seems apparent that the “that” in question is being on the receiving end of a ferocious dunk. Others, though, thought that the key to the image was one man’s groin in another’s face, and “That ain’t right” was actually a homophobic slam. Following a heated debate on Wieden + Kennedy’s blog and a loud public outcry, Nike scrapped the ads.

5. Just For Feet Trips at the Super Bowl

The Super Bowl is the biggest stage for advertising, and as such, it can be the scene for some of the industry’s biggest failures. Few ads in history have failed quite so spectacularly as the one footwear chain Just for Feet ran during the 1999 Super Bowl. The spot portrayed a Humvee of white mercenaries chasing an African runner before giving him a cup of drugged water and then forcing a pair of Nikes on his feet while he’s passed out. The ad weathered criticism for being colonialist, racist, and pro-drugging; the whole thing was offensive enough that no one seemed to even notice it didn’t even really make sense.

Want more proof that the ad was transcendentally bad? Just For Feet sued its ad agency, Saatchi & Saatchi, for $10 million for convincing the company to run the ad despite its misgivings. Although Just for Feet eventually dropped the lawsuit, the company filed for bankruptcy protection later that year amid a serious accounting fraud.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Eater of Time...

It's gold, features six patented inventions … and has fangs.

The hour approaches. The beast's jaws gape, its tail quivers and then snap! Another minute has been devoured, and the hour strikes with the ominous clonk of a chain dropping into a coffin. The creature blinks twice in satisfaction.

"It is terrifying, it is meant to be," said John Taylor, the creator and funder of an extraordinary new clock to be unveiled tomorrow by Stephen Hawking at Corpus Christi College in Cambridge. "Basically I view time as not on your side. He'll eat up every minute of your life, and as soon as one has gone he's salivating for the next. It's not a bad thing to remind students of. I never felt like this until I woke up on my 70th birthday, and was stricken at the thought of how much I still wanted to do, and how little time remained."

Christopher de Hamel, an expert on medieval manuscripts and Fellow Librarian at Corpus Christi, described the clock as "hypnotically beautiful - and deeply disturbing".

Hawking, celebrated as the author of A Brief History of Time, is returning from the launch of the particle accelerator at Cern in Switzerland to unveil Taylor's sinister vision of his subject.

Taylor is an inventor whose thermostat switch is incorporated in 600m electric kettles all over the world. He first gave £2.5m for a new undergraduate library at his old college, and then offered to create and donate the £1m Corpus clock to the library. The work has involved 200 people, including engineers, sculptors, scientists, jewellers and calligraphers. Taylor regularly flew over in his own plane from his home on the Isle of Man to keep an eye as beady as his creature's on the work.

For all its apparent eccentricity, the clock is based on solidly traditional clockwork - unusual in these days of digital electronic clocks. It has taken seven years' research and construction, incorporates six patented inventions, and is predicted to run for at least 250 years assuming the world lasts that long.

Engineer Stewart Huxley refuses to reveal the secret of its tricks, which include the pendulum occasionally apparently catching and stopping for a heartbeat, and then swinging faster to catch up.

The rippling gold-plated dial was made by exploding a thin sheet of stainless steel onto a mould underwater: none of the team actually saw it happen because the only place in the world which could make it was a secret military research institute in Holland.

The monster momentarily stops the turning dial with its foot to mark the minutes, shown as blue LED lights shining through slots. It was originally conceived by Taylor as a literal interpretation of the grasshopper escapement invented by his hero, the Georgian clockmaker John Harrison whose fabulously accurate mechanisms solved the problem of establishing longitude at sea.

The creature, modelled by sculptor Matthew Sanderson, was inspired by medieval armour and gradually became more ominous: part-lizard, part-stag beetle, a Chronophage – time eater.

Although the entire mechanism can be swung inside the building for cleaning and maintenance, from next weekend it will be a public clock on a street corner in the old doorway of the former bank, a listed building which became the shell of the library. As the clock was installed over the last few weeks, any time the door in the hoarding was left open crowds gathered, transfixed by the sight of time passing.

The Corpus Clock and Chronophage has been officially unveiled by Stephen Hawking at Corpus Christi College.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Origins of finance giants

The Dow took a nosedive this week. Colbert called it “Watership Dow.” Drudge referred to it as a “Nightmare on Wall Street.” And while I’m not sure whether to smile or grimace at the headlines (I have to commit to one, so I don’t look A.D.D. about being bipolar), the news did give me reason to look up some corporate histories. Here’s some dirt I pulled straight from Wikipedia. And unless this jokester’s been messing with the entries, I’m guessing they’re accurate.

Merrill Lynch

Picture 7.pngThere’s no doubt that Charles Merrill was a genius. Not only did the Amherst and Michigan Law alum foresee the Great Depression (he divested many of his holdings before the crash), he also begged Calvin Coolidge- a fellow Amherst alum- to speak out against the stock market speculation. The Merrill Lynch group, which went through numerous name and line-up changes (Charles E. Merrill & Co., Merrill, Lynch & Co., Merrill Lynch, E. A. Pierce, and Cassatt, Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Beane) made some of their first big money by investing in what would become RKO Pictures (in 1921), and in purchasing a controlling share of Safeway grocery stores in 1926.

Goldman Sachs

Picture 8.pngA week ago, I would have thought Goldman Sachs was the gold standard in investment banking, but apparently, that hasn’t always been the case. In fact, they got into quite a bit of trouble in the late 1920’s. Founded in 1869 by Marcus Goldman, a Jewish immigrant from Germany, the company started off in the paper business. When Goldman’s son-in-law joined the company it added the Sachs to the banner, and the company made it’s first big money when it got into the Initial Public Offering game. They managed the Sears, Roebuck and Company IPO in 1906, the biggest to date. Apparently, things were humming for a while. They hired a ton of MBA’s (giving more credence to the degree). Unfortunately, they severely marred their reputation when they offered a “closed end fund” to investors. It ended up working much like a Ponzi scheme, and the whole thing came to a head in the big stock market crash of ‘29. According to Wikipedia, it took years to fix the damage to the brand. In fact, it wasn’t until 1956, when they managed the Ford Motor Company’s IPO that they earned their reputation back.


Picture 10.pngWho knew that AIG started out in Shanghai? The company was the brainchild of Cornelius Vander Starr, a clever American who became the first Westerner to offer insurance to the Chinese. Wikipedia lists him as the son of a Dutch railroad engineer who started an ice cream business at 19, moved to California and sold car insurance while studying for the bar the next year, then took a job as a clerk for the Pacific Mail Steamship company where he (maybe) sorted mail and (definitely) found himself in Japan. In any case, he started AIG in 1919, sold insurance to other foreign markets once he’d established himself in Asia, and moved the company to New York City after the Communist Party took over in 1949.

Lehman Brothers

Picture 9.pngPerhaps the strangest of the origins to me was that of Lehman Brothers. I’d always just assumed that the (formerly) prestigious firm was a New York institution, and had been started by Yankee elites in the last 60 or 70 years. Apparently, the story begins in Montgomery, Alabama! The 20-something Henry Lehman moved to southern state straight from Bavaria, and set up a dry-goods store. Slowly, Lehman’s two brothers moved to the states, and joined him, and together they started realizing the value of cotton. They even began to accept cotton as payment in their store. When Henry passed away from Yellow Fever in 1855, the remaining brothers Lehman moved their operations to New York, where they continued to capitalize on the cotton market, teamed up with Goldman on his Sears IPO deal, and underwrote hundreds of gigantic IPO’s- from Macy’s to Woolworth’s to Studebaker’s to B.F. Goodrich’s. Clearly, it’s been an institution for for quite a while. The company stopped being a family-only firm in 1924, and they survived the Great Depression by making smart venture capital investments.

Although i'm sure these firms achieved greatness because they were good, the question i put before you is were they good enough? and dosen't the U.S government's unprecedented stand of bailing out AIG by putting a bridge loan go against the principals of capitalism and remind one of soviet era state controlled financial institutions and the related problems that cropped up in that part of the world. whatever happened to survival of the fittest? And should the markets in India react so violently to this issue? I share this person's opinion and think these companies folded up due to incompetent mismanagement. I only hope and pray that we learn from these mistakes and recover soon.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Elephants on Acid and Other Bizarre Experiments...

I STARTED collecting examples of bizarre experiments years ago while in graduate school studying the history of science. I confess I had no profound intellectual motive; I simply found them fascinating. They filled me with disbelief, astonishment, disgust and - best of all - laughter.

With hindsight, perhaps there is a deeper message. These experiments are not the work of cranks. All were performed by honest, hard-working scientists who were not prepared to accept common-sense explanations of how the world works. Sometimes such single-mindedness leads to brilliant discoveries. At other times it can end up closer to madness. Unfortunately, there's no way of knowing in advance where the journey will lead.

Here are 10 of the bizarrest experiments of all time - which, it must be said, mostly fall closer to madness than to genius.

1 Elephants on acid

What happens if you give an elephant LSD? Researchers solved this mystery on Friday 3 August 1962, when Warren Thomas, director of Lincoln Park Zoo in Oklahoma City, fired a cartridge-syringe containing 297 milligrams of LSD into the rump of Tusko the elephant. With Thomas were two colleagues from the University of Oklahoma School of Medicine, Louis Jolyon West and Chester M. Pierce.

The dose was about 3000 times what a human would typically take. Thomas, West and Pierce figured that if they were going to give an elephant LSD they'd better not give it too little. They later explained that the experiment was designed to find out if LSD would induce musth in an elephant - musth being a kind of temporary madness male elephants sometimes experience during which they become highly aggressive and secrete a sticky fluid from their temporal glands. One may also suspect a small element of ghoulish curiosity was involved.

Whatever the reason for the experiment, it almost immediately went awry. Tusko reacted as if he had been shot by a gun. He trumpeted around his pen for a few minutes and then keeled over. Horrified, the researchers tried to revive him with a variety of antipsychotics, but about an hour later he was dead. In an article published four months after the event (Science, vol 138, p 1100), the three scientists sheepishly concluded: "It appears that the elephant is highly sensitive to the effects of LSD."

The experiment instantly made headlines. Faced with a public relations disaster, the scientists protested their innocence. They had not anticipated the elephant would die, they insisted. In their experience, LSD was a powerful hallucinogen but rarely fatal. West and Pierce helpfully noted that they themselves had previously taken the drug.

Thomas tried to find a silver lining. They had learned that LSD can be lethal to elephants. So perhaps, he mused, the drug could be used to destroy herds in countries where they are a problem. For some reason, his suggestion has never found any takers.

2 Terror in the skies

One day in the early 1960s, 10 soldiers boarded a plane at Fort Hunter Liggett military base in California on what they thought was a routine training mission. The plane climbed into the clear blue sky, levelled out at around 5000 feet and cruised for a few minutes before suddenly lurching to one side as a propeller failed.

The pilot struggled with the controls and yelled frantically into his headset. Finally, he made an announcement over the intercom: "We have an emergency. An engine has stalled and the landing gear is not functioning. I'm going to attempt to ditch in the ocean. Please prepare yourself."

In such a situation, it would have been natural for the soldiers to feel fear or even terror. But there was no need. Though they didn't know it, they were in no danger. They were unwitting subjects in a study designed by the United States Army Leadership Human Research Unit near Monterey, California. Its purpose was to examine behavioural degradation under psychological stress - specifically, the stress of imminent death.

Having created a fear-arousing situation, the researchers next introduced a task to measure the soldiers' performance under pressure. The task was something most people find difficult under normal circumstances: filling out insurance forms. A steward distributed the paperwork, explaining it as a bureaucratic necessity. If they were all going to die, the army wanted to make sure it was covered for the loss.

Obediently, the soldiers leaned forward in their seats, pencils in hand, and set to work. They found the forms unexpectedly difficult to decipher, and quite likely they attributed this to the distraction of approaching death. In fact, the forms had deliberately been written in a confusing manner. They were, as the researchers put it, "an example of deliberately bad human engineering".

Eventually the last soldier completed his form, and they all steeled themselves for the crash. At that point the pilot turned the plane around - "Just kidding about that emergency, folks!" - and landed safely at the airfield.

Not surprisingly, anticipating a crash landing did interfere with the ability to accurately complete an insurance form. The soldiers in the plane made a significantly larger number of mistakes than did a control group on the ground who filled out the same paperwork (Psychological Monographs: General and Applied, vol 76, p 1).

Quite what the soldiers thought about their ordeal we don't know, but one of them did find a way to get even. When the plane next took off carrying a new group of subjects to terrify, the researchers discovered their experiment had been ruined. One of the earlier group had blown their cover by writing a warning message on his airsick bag.

3 The masked tickler

In 1933 Clarence Leuba, a professor of psychology at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, made his home the setting for an ambitious experiment. He planned to find out whether laughter is a learned response to being tickled or an innate one.

To achieve this goal, he determined never to allow his newborn son to associate laughter with tickling. This meant that no one - in particular, his wife - was allowed to laugh in the presence of the child while tickling or being tickled. Leuba planned to observe whether his son eventually laughed when tickled, or grew up dismissing wiggling fingers in his armpits with a stony silence.

Somehow Leuba got his wife to promise to cooperate, and so the Leuba household became a tickle-free zone, except during experimental sessions in which Leuba subjected R. L. Male, as he referred to his son in his research notes, to laughter-free tickling.

During these sessions, Leuba followed a strict procedure. First he donned a 30-centimetre by 40-centimetre cardboard mask, while as a further precaution maintaining a "smileless, sober expression" behind it. Then he tickled his son in a predetermined pattern - first light, then vigorous - in order of armpits, ribs, chin, neck, knees, then feet.

Everything went well until 23 April 1933, when Leuba recorded that his wife had made a confession. On one occasion, after her son's bath, she had "jounced him up and down while laughing and saying, 'Bouncy, Bouncy'." It is not clear if this was enough to ruin the experiment. What is clear is that by month 7, R. L. Male was happily screaming with laughter when tickled.

Undeterred, Leuba repeated the experiment after his daughter, E. L. Female, was born in February 1936. He obtained the same result. By the age of 7 months, his daughter was laughing when tickled (Journal of Genetic Psychology, vol 58, p 201).

Leuba concluded that laughter must be an innate response to being tickled. However, one senses a hesitation in his conclusion, as if he felt that it all might have been different if only his wife had followed his rules more carefully.

Leuba's tickle study does at least offer an object lesson to other researchers. In any experiment it is all but impossible to control all the variables, especially when one of the variables is your spouse.

4 The look of eugh

Do emotions evoke characteristic facial expressions? Is there one expression everyone uses to convey shock, another for disgust, and so on? In 1924, Carney Landis, a graduate student in psychology at the University of Minnesota, designed an experiment to find out.

Landis brought subjects into his lab and drew lines on their faces with a burnt cork so that he could more easily see the movement of their muscles. He then exposed them to a variety of stimuli designed to provoke a strong emotional reaction. For instance, he made them smell ammonia, listen to jazz, look at pornographic pictures and put their hand into a bucket of frogs. As they reacted to each stimulus, he snapped pictures of their faces.

The climax of the experiment arrived when Landis carried in a live white rat on a tray and asked them to decapitate it. Most people initially resisted his request. They questioned whether he was serious. Landis assured them he was. The subjects would then hesitantly pick the knife up and put it back down. Many of the men swore. Some of the women started to cry. Nevertheless, Landis urged them on. In the pictures Landis took, we see them hovering over the rat with their painted faces, knife in hand. They look like members of some strange cult preparing to offer a sacrifice to the Great God of the Experiment.

Two-thirds of the subjects eventually did as they'd been told. Landis noted that most of them performed the task clumsily: "The effort and attempt to hurry usually resulted in a rather awkward and prolonged job of decapitation." Even when the subject refused, the rat did not get a reprieve. Landis simply picked up the knife and decapitated the rodent himself (Journal of Comparative Psychology, vol 4, p 447).

With hindsight, Landis's experiment presented a stunning display of the willingness of people to obey orders, no matter how unpalatable. It anticipated the results of Stanley Milgram's more famous obedience experiment at Yale University by almost 40 years (video at www.tinyurl.com/2hjyxq). Landis himself never realised that the compliance of his subjects was more interesting than their facial expressions. He remained single-mindedly focused on his research topic. And no, he was never able to find a single, characteristic facial expression that people adopt while decapitating a rat.

5 Reversing death

Robert E. Cornish, a researcher at the Berkeley campus of the University of California during the 1930s, believed he had found a way to restore life to the dead - at least in cases where major organ damage was not involved. His technique involved seesawing corpses up and down to circulate the blood while injecting a mixture of adrenalin and anticoagulants. He tested his method on a series of fox terriers, all of whom he named Lazarus after the biblical character brought back to life by Jesus.

First Cornish asphyxiated the dogs and let them be dead for 10 minutes. Then he attempted to revive them. His first two trials failed, but numbers 3 and 4 were a success. With a whine and a feeble bark, the dogs stirred back to life. Though blind and severely brain damaged, they lived on for months as pets in his home, reportedly inspiring terror in other dogs.

Cornish's research provoked such controversy that the University of California eventually ordered him off the campus. He continued his work in a tin shack attached to his house, despite complaints from neighbours that mystery fumes from his experiments were causing the paint on their homes to peel.

Many years later, in 1947, Cornish announced he was ready to experiment on a human being. He now had a new tool in his arsenal: a home-made heart-lung machine built out of a vacuum cleaner blower, radiator tubing, an iron wheel, rollers and 60,000 shoelace eyes. Thomas McMonigle, a prisoner awaiting execution on death row, volunteered to be his guinea pig, and Cornish asked the state of California for permission to proceed with his experiment. After some deliberation, the state turned him down. Apparently officials were worried that, should McMonigle come back to life, they might have to free him.

A prisoner on death row offered to be revived, but the state turned him down

Disheartened, Cornish retreated to his home, where he eked out a living selling a toothpaste of his own invention.

6 Slumber learning

In the summer of 1942, Lawrence LeShan of The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, stood in the darkness of a cabin in an upstate New York camp where a row of young boys lay sleeping. He intoned a single phrase, over and over: "My fingernails taste terribly bitter. My fingernails taste terribly bitter..." Anyone happening upon the scene might have thought LeShan had gone mad, but he had not. The professor was conducting a sleep-learning experiment.

All the boys had been diagnosed as chronic nail biters, and LeShan wanted to find out if nocturnal exposure to a negative suggestion could cure them. Initially he used a phonograph to faithfully repeat the phrase 300 times a night as the boys lay sleeping. One month into the experiment, a nurse discreetly checked their nails during a routine medical examination. One boy seemed to have kicked the habit. LeShan remarked that skin of a healthy texture had replaced the "coarse wrinkled skin of the habitual biter".

Then, five weeks into the investigation, disaster struck. The phonograph broke. Faced with having to abandon the experiment, LeShan began standing in the darkness and delivering the suggestion himself. Surprisingly, direct delivery had greater effect. Within two weeks, seven more boys had healthy nails. LeShan speculated that this was because his voice was clearer than the phonograph. Another possibility would be that his midnight confessions thoroughly spooked the children. "If I stop biting my nails," they probably thought, "the strange man will go away."

By the end of the summer, Leshan found that 40 per cent of the boys had kicked the habit, and concluded that the sleep-learning effect seemed to be real (Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, vol 37, p 406). Other researchers later disputed this. In a 1956 experiment at Santa Monica College in California, William Emmons and Charles Simon used an electroencephalograph to measure the brain activity of subjects, making sure they were fully asleep before playing a message. Under these conditions, the sleep-learning effect disappeared. (The American Journal of Psychology, vol 69, p 76).

7 Turkey turn-ons

While researching the sexual behaviour of turkeys, Martin Schein and Edgar Hale of Pennsylvania State University discovered that male members of that species truly are not fussy. When placed in a room with a lifelike model of a female turkey, the birds mated with it as eagerly as they would the real thing.

Intrigued by this observation, Schein and Hale embarked on a series of experiments to determine the minimum stimulus it takes to excite a male turkey. This involved removing parts from the turkey model one by one until the male bird eventually lost interest.

Tail, feet and wings - Schein and Hale removed them all, but still the clueless bird waddled up to the model, let out an amorous gobble, and tried to do his thing. Finally, only a head on a stick remained. The male turkey was still keen. In fact, it preferred a head on a stick to a headless body.

The researchers speculated that the males' head fixation stemmed from the mechanics of turkey mating. When a male turkey mounts a female, he is so much larger than her that he covers her completely, except for her head. Therefore, they suggested, it is her head that serves as his focus of erotic attention.

Schein and Hale then went on to investigate how minimal they could make the head before it failed to excite the turkey. They discovered that a freshly severed head on a stick worked best. Next in order of preference was a dried-out male head, followed by a two-year-old "discolored, withered, and hard" female head. Last place went to a plain balsa wood head, but even that elicited a sexual response. They published their results in 1965 in a book called Sex and Behavior.

Before we humans snicker at the sexual predelictions of turkeys, we should remember that our species stands at the summit of the bestial pyramid of the perverse. Humans will attempt to mate with almost anything. A case in point is Thomas Granger, the teenage boy who in 1642 became one of the first people to be executed in Puritan New England. His crime? He had sex with a turkey.

8 Two-headed dogs

In 1954 Soviet surgeon Vladimir Demikhov shocked the world by unveiling a surgically created monstrosity - a two-headed dog. He created the creature in a lab at the Moscow Institute of Surgery by grafting the head, shoulders and front legs of a puppy onto the neck of a mature German shepherd.

Demikhov invited reporters from around the world to witness his creation. Journalists gasped as the two heads simultaneously lapped at bowls of milk, and then cringed as the milk from the puppy's head dribbled out the disconnected stump of its oesophageal tube. Of course, the puppy did not need to eat or drink; it received all its nourishment from the circulatory system of the older dog. But it liked to drink because its mouth became dry. It also enjoyed licking candy.

Of particular interest was the extent to which the two heads shared a common set of sensory experiences. Reporters observed that when one head wanted to eat, so did the other. When it was hot, both panted. If one yawned, so did the other. Not all their emotions were identical, though. The older dog, annoyed at having the foreign head attached to his neck, occasionally tried to shake it off. This prompted the puppy to retaliate by biting his larger companion on the ear.

Demikhov's two-headed dog lived for only six days, but over the course of the next 15 years he constructed 19 more. None of these lived very long either - the record was a month - as they inevitably succumbed to tissue rejection. Demikhov seemed strangely naive about this, and frequently commented that the dogs died only because of imperfections in his surgical technique, which would soon be overcome. This attitude puzzled his western counterparts.

The Soviet Union proudly paraded the dogs as proof of the nation's medical pre-eminence, but most doctors in the west, while conceding Demikhov's skill as a surgeon, dismissed them as a publicity stunt. The western press eventually began referring to them as Russia's "surgical Sputnik". Demikhov justified his activities as part of a continuing series of experiments in surgical techniques, directed ultimately at learning how to perform a human heart transplant. Christiaan Barnard of the University of Cape Town in South Africa beat him to this goal in December 1967, but Demikhov is widely credited with paving the way.

9 The vomit drinking doctor

How far would you go to prove your point? Stubbins Ffirth, a doctor-in-training living in Philadelphia during the early 19th century, went further than most. Way further.

Having observed that yellow fever ran riot during the summer, but disappeared over the winter, Ffirth hypothesised it was not a contagious disease. He reckoned it was caused by an excess of stimulants such as heat, food and noise. To prove his hunch, Ffirth set out to demonstrate that no matter how much he exposed himself to yellow fever, he wouldn't catch it.

He started by making a small incision in his arm and pouring "fresh black vomit" obtained from a yellow-fever patient into the cut. He didn't get sick.

But he didn't stop there. His experiments grew progressively bolder. He made deeper incisions in his arms into which he poured black vomit. He dribbled the stuff in his eyes. He filled a room with heated "regurgitation vapours" - a vomit sauna - and remained there for 2 hours, breathing in the air. He experienced a "great pain in my head, some nausea, and perspired very freely", but was otherwise OK.

Next Ffirth began ingesting the vomit. He fashioned some of the black matter into pills and swallowed them down. He mixed half an ounce of fresh vomit with water and drank it. "The taste was very slightly acid," he wrote. "It is probable that if I had not, previous to the two last experiments, accustomed myself to tasting and smelling it, that emesis would have been the consequence." Finally, he gathered his courage and quaffed pure, undiluted black vomit fresh from a patient's mouth. Still he didn't get sick.

Ffirth rounded out his experiment by liberally smearing himself with other yellow-fever tainted fluids: blood, saliva, perspiration and urine. Healthy as ever, he declared his hypothesis proven in his 1804 thesis.

He was wrong. Yellow fever, as we now know, is very contagious, but it requires direct transmission into the bloodstream, usually by a mosquito, to cause infection.

Considering the strenuous efforts Ffirth took to infect himself, it must be considered something of a miracle he remained alive. The bright spot for him was that, after all he put himself through, the University of Pennsylvania did award him the degree of Doctor of Medicine. What his patients made of him unfortunately remains unrecorded.

10 Eyes wide open

Some people can sleep through anything. Earthquakes, gunshots, bright lights - nothing rouses them. But these are people who are already asleep. In 1960, Ian Oswald of the University of Edinburgh, UK, wondered how much stimulus someone could be exposed to while awake and still drop off. Would it even be possible to fall asleep with your eyes open?

Oswald first asked his volunteers to lie down on a couch. Then he taped their eyes open. Directly in front of them, about 50 centimetres away, he placed a bank of flashing lights. No matter how much they rolled their eyes, they could not avoid looking at the lights. Electrodes attached to their legs delivered a series of painful shocks. As a finishing touch, Oswald blasted "very loud" blues music into their ears.

First, he asked the men to lie down on a sofa. Then he taped their eyes open

Three young men volunteered to be Oswald's guinea pigs. In his write-up, Oswald praised them for their fortitude. One of the men was severely sleep-deprived but the other two were fully rested. Remarkably, it didn't make any difference. Despite the shocks, lights, music and open eyes, an EEG showed all three men to be asleep within 12 minutes (British Medical Journal, 14 May 1960, p 1450).

Oswald worded his findings cautiously: "There was a considerable fall of cerebral vigilance, and a large decline in the presumptive ascending facilitation from the brain-stem reticular formation to the cerebral cortex." The men themselves were more straightforward. They said it felt like they had dozed off.

Oswald speculated that the key lay in the monotonous nature of the stimuli. Faced with such monotony, he suggested, the brain goes into a kind of trance. That may explain why it's easy to doze off, even in the middle of the day, while you are driving along an empty road.

How much this will help when sleep eludes you while you're stuck on a red-eye flight is another question. Asking the baby in the row behind you to scream more rhythmically is unlikely to do the trick.

Alex Boese is a writer based in San Diego, California. His new book Elephants on Acid and Other Bizarre Experiments is published by Harcourt
From issue 2628 of New Scientist magazine, 03 November 2007, page 49-55

Saturday, November 17, 2007

A Close Shave...


Think your job is stressful? Just past midnight on September 26, 1983, a Soviet satellite reported five missiles launched from a Montana base towards the U.S.S.R. In a command post near Moscow, a red button labeled "Start" began flashing.

Amazingly, Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov , a former software engineer, managed to play it cool. Figuring that the United States wasn’t crazy enough to start a war with just five missiles fired from a single location, Petrov suspected computer error. And thank goodness he did. Still, Petrov went against his training when he refused to set the retaliatory strike in motion.

After the incident, Soviet investigators determined that the computer system had triggered the warnings simply based on sunlight reflection off of clouds. And while Armageddon was averted, Petrov wasn’t exactly hailed as a hero; instead he was reassigned to a less sensitive position and soon retired.

He did get some belated recognition in 2004, though, when he received a World Citizen Award plaque at a ceremony in Moscow. That honor was eclipsed in 2006, however, when he was given a World Citizen Award trophy and, presumably, a T-shirt reading, "I Saved the Earth from World War III and All I Got Was a Lousy Trophy."


When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, two docs hatched a secret plan to save a dozen villages near Rozwadów and Zbydniów. Doctors Eugene Lazowski and Stanislaw Matulewicz decided to create a fake typhus epidemic (a disease that, at the time, had no cure and was often fatal) by using harmless bacterium to trigger false-positives on typhus tests.

Knowing that Jews who tested positive for typhus would be summarily executed, the doctors only injected the non-Jewish population, hoping a widespread outbreak would cause Germans to abandon the area and thus spare local Jews in the process.

The ruse was nearly discovered when a Gestapo doctor arrived to confirm the tests, but clever Poles distracted the doctor with plenty of kielbasa and vodka, then sealed the deal by displaying several sickly townsfolk, claiming they were all consumed by typhus fever.

The "epidemic" was confirmed and grim signs were immediately posted throughout the region reading "Achtung, Fleckfieber!" (Warning, Typhus!), To contain the fake epidemic, the Gestapo quarantined the area throughout the World War II, and countless lives were saved. (Image of Dr. Eugene Lazowski: Holocaust Forgotten)


The jerry-rigged carbon dioxide scrubber unit in Apollo 13’s Lunar Module

Arguably NASA’s most famous close shave occurred during the Apollo 13 mission. After astronauts evacuated their damaged Command Module (CM) and crowded into the Lunar Module (LM), they noticed that carbon dioxide levels were dangerously high due to a failing air filter. Air filtration units in the LM had round openings, but the filter canisters salvaged from the CM were square.

Thankfully, Mission Control radioed a MacGyver solution: By rigging together plastic bags, cardboard, and duct tape, astronauts connected a square canister to the round hole, narrowly avoiding death by asphyxiation.

Duct tape, it seems, has played a pivotal role in several NASA missions. In 1972, Apollo 17 astronauts used it to repair a lunar rover bumper; in 2001 international Space Station astronauts and cosmonauts constructed a kitchen table using leftover aluminum pieces and duct tape; and in 2005, Space Shuttle Discovery astronaut Stephen Robinson crafted a hacksaw for a repair mission using a blade, plastic ties, Velcro, and—yup—the ol’ D.T.!!!!!

Monday, November 5, 2007

Last Man Standing...

On December 17, 1944, the Japanese army sent a twenty-three year old soldier named Hiroo Onoda to the Philippines to join the Sugi Brigade. He was stationed on the small island of Lubang (Philippines), and his orders were to lead the Lubang Garrison in guerrilla warfare. As Onoda was departing to begin his mission, his division commander told him, "You are absolutely forbidden to die by your own hand. It may take three years, it may take five, but whatever happens, we'll come back for you. Until then, so long as you have one soldier, you are to continue to lead him. You may have to live on coconuts. If that's the case, live on coconuts! Under no circumstances are you to give up your life voluntarily." It turns out that Onoda was exceptionally good at following orders, and it would be 29 years before he finally laid down his arms and surrendered.

In February 1945, towards the conclusion of World War II, he was still there when the Lubang Island was reclaimed by the Allies, but Onoda, and several other men, hid in the dense jungle. Onoda continued his campaign, initially living in the mountains with three fellow soldiers, Akatsu, Shimada, and Kozuka. One of his comrades, Akatsu, eventually surrendered to Filipino forces, and the other two were killed in gun battles with local forces—one in 1954, the other in 1972—leaving Onoda alone in the mountains. For 29 years, he refused to surrender, dismissing every attempt to convince him that the war was over as a ruse. In 1959, Onoda was declared legally dead in Japan.

Found by a Japanese student, Norio Suzuki, Onoda still refused to accept that the war was over unless he received orders to lay down his arms from his superior officer. Suzuki offered his help, and returned to Japan with photographs of himself and Onoda as proof of their encounter. In 1974 the Japanese government located Onoda's commanding officer, Major Taniguchi, who had since become a bookseller. He flew to Lubang and informed Onoda of the defeat of Japan in WWII and ordered him to lay down his arms. Lieutenant Onoda emerged from the jungle 29 years after the end of World War II, and accepted the commanding officer's order of surrender in his dress uniform and sword, with his Arisaka Type 99 rifle still in operating condition, 500 rounds of ammunition and several hand grenades. Though he had killed some thirty Philippine inhabitants of the island and engaged in several shootouts with the police, the circumstances of these events were taken into consideration, and Onoda received a pardon from President Ferdinand Marcos.

After his surrender, Onoda moved to Brazil, where he became a cattle farmer. He released an autobiography, No Surrender: My Thirty-Year War, shortly after his surrender, detailing his life as a guerrilla fighter in a war that was long over. He revisited Lubang Island in 1996, donating $10,000 for the local school on Lubang. He then married a Japanese woman and moved back to Japan where he established a nature camp for kids. At the camp Onoda shares what he learned about survival through resourcefulness and ingenuity. As of 2007, Onoda is still living in Japan.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

A Sale Of Two Titties - Is Wordplay The New Foreplay?

I hope you were not offended by the titular transaction of breasts.

A little blog humor goes a long way and wordplay has always been a shortcut to a humorous headline.

I borrowed "A Sale Of Two Titties" from a Monty Python skit which was a play on the title of the Charles Dicken's novel, "A Tale Of Two Cities". This switching of consonants in "Tale" and "City" is known as a spoonerism, which has been around since the 19th century, having been named after a Reverend William Spooner, who apparently had a penchant for transposing letters and syllables.

However, for this post, I would like to direct your attention to some more recent types of wordplay, as brought to my attention by the cunning linguists over at the delightful Language Log blog.MONDEGREENS AND SNOWCLONES AND EGGCORNS. OH MY!

1) Mondegreens

Mondegreens are mishearings of words, typically songs or popular phrases. Coined by writer Sylvia Wright in the 1950's when as a child she misheard the Scottish ballad 'The Bonny Earl of Murray':
Ye Highlands, and ye LawlandsOh where have you been?
They have slain the Earl of Murray,
And Lady Mondegreen.
(this line should read 'And they layd him on the green')

Popular examples of Mondegreens:
When Phoebe from Friends is asked what her favorite love song is,
she sings "Hold me closer, Tony Danza" instead of "Hold me closer, Tiny Dancer".

A Bob Dylan classic:
"The ants are my friends, they're blowin' in the wind
The ants are a-blowin' in the wind."

Where to go for mondegreen inspiration: The Archive Of Misheard Lyrics

2) Snowclones

Snowclones are a subset of cliches and are described by Erin O'Connor as "fill-in-the-blank headlines".
For example, '"In X no one can hear you Y' 'In space no one can hear you scream'

This was a terrific teaser for the first Alien movie but has since been turned into a snowclone of epic proportions.

Some other popular snowclones include:"To X, or not to X" (Shakespeare would be proud... or not)

"That ain't an X, this is an X" (Crocodile Dundee)"That ain't a mustache, this is a mustache"

"In Soviet Russia, X Ys you!"
Based on comedian Yakov Smirnoff's Russian Reversal jokes:
"In USA, you watch television, In Soviet Russia, television watches you!"

Another highly popular snowclone that can be found in episodes of Family Guy, King of the Hill, Simpsons, MST3K etc."What Would Jesus X"
What Would Jesus Link To?
Where to go for snowclone inspiration: The Snowclones Database

3) Eggcorns

Eggcorns are another linguistic figure coined by the Language Log guys. As Chris Waigl wrote:
"In September 2003, Mark Liberman reported an incorrect yet particularly suggestive creation: someone had written “egg corn” instead of “acorn”. It turned out that there was no established label for this type of non-standard reshaping. Erroneous as it may be, the substitution involved more than just ignorance: an acorn is more or less shaped like an egg; and it is a seed, just like grains of corn. So if you don’t know how acorn is spelled, egg corn actually makes sense."
This lead to the identification of many more eggcorns, including some that Oxfore University Press editor Ben Zimmer listed which could almost be considered a part of mainstream English.
Which one is the eggcorn and which is the original?
A) Free Rein or Free Reign?
B) Baited Breath or Bated Breath?
C) Just Deserts or Just Desserts?
D) A Shoo-In or A Shoe-In?
What did you choose? You'd be surprised at the answers!
Where to go for Eggcorn inspiration: The Eggcorn Database

Mondegreens, snowclones and eggcorns are a growing force in online writing. If you take a look at the structure of headlines at Digg or Reddit - you'll see some familiar wordplay on the front page. You'll find these linguistic occurrences are popular on satirical websites like Fark and SomethingAwful, in cartoons and TV comedies, on the radio and in movies. Custodians of grammar may frown at the decay of 'proper English' but the laziness of online writers is a boon for observing the hyper-evolution of our language. As journalist and LOLcats analyst David McRaney writes in his LOLcats expose:
"The great thing about all of this is how we can see new languages forming out of a new medium, and since the pace is abnormally fast, we can watch it evolve over weeks instead of decades."
Face it, if you're a blogger looking to appeal to the linkerati and the attention-deprived digg nation, what more could you ask for than appropriating a well known word, catchphrase or lyric and molding it into a witty headline that combines popularity, familiar recognition and humor?To end this wordplay "steam of consciousness", I'd love to share a story about my favorite eggcorn.Copywriter/editor Nancy Friedman found an error on one of mega-billionaire Warren Buffett's remarkable Berkshire Hathaway annual reports (seriously, read this PDF and tell me it's not the best annual report you've ever read). and pinged Mr Buffett, to which he promptly replied:

"Dear Nancy:
I enjoyed your letter. What we tell people is that we put one mistake in each annual report to encourage annual reading. But if you believe that ... Sincerely,
Warren E. Buffett"
The mistake?
"Vocal Chords" instead of "Vocal Cords".
Hey, I figure if Mr Buffett's turning eggcorns into jokes, we can too.
Do you have any favorite mondegreens, spoonerisms, snowclones or eggcorns?