Friday, January 30, 2009

Royal Inbreeding in Ancient Egypt

Continuing our discussion of inbreeding from yesterday's post: human inbreeding doesn't always occur in the backwoods – sometimes it takes place in palaces. Let's try to find some examples of royal personages who suffered from inbreeding depression.

Egyptian Pharaohs

According to tradition, incestuous marriages between the pharaohs and their sisters were common. If this was the case, it could have been done to emulate the god Osiris and his sister/wife the goddess Isis and/or to keep the sacred bloodline pure. On the other hand, the historical record for a lot of Egyptian antiquity is spotty and open to interpretation; some would argue that this tradition is based on a modern misreading of inscriptions while others claim that brother-sister unions were usually symbolic and that other concubines were the mothers of the pharaohs' offspring. I carried out a superficial search online for examples of brother-sister marriages looking at two of the most famous dynasties of pre-Hellenistic Egypt and here's what I could find.

In the 4th dynasty (c. 2600-2450 BC ?), Khufu (aka "Cheops"), the pharaoh who most scholars believe built the Great Pyramid of Giza, had a wife named Meritites who was maybe his sister (or half-sister). Khufu's father Sneferu and his mother Hetepheres are also believed to have both been children of the pharaoh Huni. Khufu's son and successor Djedefre married his (probably half) sister Hetepheres who had previously been married to another brother or half-brother named Kawab with whom she produced a daughter, the future queen Meresankh.

Looking ahead to the 18th dynasty (c. 1550-1300 BC ?), Thutmosis II was married to his sister Hatshetsup with whom he had a daughter (his "son and heir" Thutmosis III was the child of a lesser wife or concubine). Thutmosis IV's second queen, Iaret, was probably his sister although again she was not the mother of his son and successor Amenhotep III. Finally, the famous King Tutankhamun's wife Ankhesenamen was probably either his half-sister or his niece. Also, DNA tests administered on the mummies of 18th-dynasty royals appear consistent with the genealogical accounts gleaned from inscriptions, including the marriages between close relatives.

As for birth defects among inbred pharaohs, not much evidence has reached us. Looking again at the 18th dynasty (where we found only three likely incestuous marriages), we see that overbites and elongated skulls (dolichocephalism) seemed to run in the Thutmosis family but these were not so pronounced as to be pathological. Scientists have also theorized that Tutankhamun may have had scoliosis or that his predecessor Akhenaten may have had any number of genetic disorders which would explain his bizarre depiction in artwork (we haven't uncovered his mummy so no one knows how accurate these depictions are), but anyway neither of these pharaohs were excessively inbred.

The Ptolemies

When Alexander the Great's general Ptolemy seized control of Egypt around 323 BC, his descendants would continue the local custom of pharaonic brother-sister marriages. This practice was unknown among Greeks and Macedonians (err, not to open up a can of worms there), and it earned Ptolemy II Philadelphos and his sister/wife Arsinoe the nickname "philadelphoi" (φιλάδελφοι) meaning "brother loving."

Here the record is much clearer, with Greek and Egyptian historians giving us accounts of marriages between brother and sister and between uncle and niece ("double niece", meaning the daughter of his brother AND his sister) which produced offspring. Have a look at the attempted reconstruction of the Ptolemy family tree below. It's open to some debate (check out this site for a more detailed genealogy and discussion), but it gives you some idea of how inbred they became.

But is there any evidence of inbreeding depression? Well... the Ptolemies seemed to have been a pretty ugly family: some of their nicknames make reference to the bearer's potbelly (physcon), puffy cheeks (auletes), and maybe to a mole like a pea (lathyros). Moreover, if the more naturalistic coins bearing the image of the famous Cleopatra are to be believed, she was no Elizabeth Taylor. Again, these physical deficiencies don't really seem pathological, and if obesity ran in the family it was probably due to the Ptolemies' decadent lifestyle.

Results: not much luck so far, let's continue the search for overly inbred individuals among the royal houses of Europe.

Image: photo of Great Pyramid by flckr user romsrini taken from and subject to Creative Common license; photo of coin of Ptolemy Philadelphos & Arsinoe taken by Matthias Kabel from Pergamommuseum in Berlin; Ptolemy genealogy by Muriel Gottrop is in the Wikipedia Commons.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Inbreeding Depression Got You Down?

When I was researching last month's post on naked mole-rats, I learned that their colonies are inbred: as the National Zoo's article puts it, "because only a few members of the colony produce all the young, and the queen typically mates with close relatives selected from within the colony, naked mole-rat colonies are highly inbred." This made me think about inbreeding depression, a subject which has intrigued me for awhile (you all know I think about some freaky shit). So why don't we explore inbreeding depression and its effect on animals a bit before we go off in search of examples of human beings messed up by inbreeding.

What is Inbreeding Depression?

Inbreeding depression refers to the decreased biological fitness of individuals and populations due to mating between related individuals.

First off, there are two evolutionary disadvantages to inbreeding:

(1) the more closely related two individuals are, the more likely it is that they are both carriers of the same recessive deleterious or lethal gene, which means that if they mate their offspring may be born with the undesirable genetic condition. All human have a number of these recessive genes which are either inherited from a parent or produced by mutation, but the occurrence of each of these variants in the global population is rare. Thus, the chances of non-related individuals both being carriers of the same "bad gene" are small, and since the trait is recessive you're OK as long as you have one good copy, but when related individuals mate the chances increase that they might both have bad copies of the same gene to pass on to their children.

(2) the smaller the gene pool in a given population, the less genetic variation and the more likely it is that the population could be wiped out by an epidemic. In other words, a disease might arrive which nobody is immune to and kill everybody off. This makes me think of the Black Death which wiped out a third the population of Europe in the 1300s.

In addition to these concerns, there are a number of vague symptoms which may manifest themselves in excessively inbred individuals. First, inherited physical characteristics may become exaggerated to the point of deformity. Individuals suffering from inbreeding depression may also be weak and sickly; this can mean having a substandard immune system and being susceptible to every "bug" that goes around. Inbred individuals may also reproduce less frequently: males may have reduced libido and low sperm count, and females might be less fertile and show diminished maternal instinct towards their young.

Inbred animals

Inbreeding can sometimes be the result of animal husbandry by humans. Lab mice, for example, are notoriously inbred brother to sister, and they have been shown to suffer from reduced fertility, life expectancy and vitality and weakened immune systems. It is theorized that a lot of these inbred mice are only biologically viable in laboratories where they are given ample food and sheltered from predators and that they would not be successful in the wild.

Inbreeding depression can also be a problem for purebred dogs and cats where, for example, physical traits which are prized as being characteristic of the breed can be exaggerated to the point of becoming deformities. An example of this is overly purebred Persian cats whose faces are so flat that they are prone to tear duct overflow, breathing and sinus problems. And as a result of inbred stock, purebred German shepherds often suffer from hip dysplasia which can cause arthritis and lameness.

In the wild, in addition to naked-mole rats, the population of some endangered species such as cheetahs are very inbred. Even when species like these seem perfectly vigorous with no signs of fertility problems or sickliness, there is still an increased risk of population extinction in the face of infectious disease because of a lack of variation in individuals' immunities.

Human inbreeding

In relation to genetic disorders, one should note that some specific birth defects are more common in certain relatively insular populations – for example, Tay-Sachs disease among Ashkenazi Jews and Usher Syndrome Type I among Louisianians of Acadian descent (cf. founder effect). These are both autosomal recessive traits meaning both parents must carry a bad copy of the gene in order for their child to be born with the birth defect.

A more dramatic example of a population with a small gene pool where a rare genetic disorder has grown widespread would be the Vadoma people of Western Zimbabwe. In this isolated tribe, one in four children is born with a birth defect called ectrodactyly (also known as "lobster claw syndrome"), and as a result they have only two large toes on each foot. This earned the Vadoma the nickname "Ostrich people." Ectrodactyly is actually an autosomal dominant disorder; it is thought to have developed among the Vadoma due to a mutation and to have become so prevalent because of inbreeding among members of the small tribe. One should also note that, while this condition is unusual, it is not very debilitating and the Vadoma actually claim it aids them in climbing trees.

NEXT TIME: Our search continues with Inbred Royals.

Images: Photo of white lab mice by flickr user Rick Eh? used under Creative Common non-commercial license; photo of Persian cat found on cat chitchat from Stockxpert

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Mr. Owl...

The January 2009 issue of Smithsonian Magazine has an interesting article about the spotted owl. Here's some information I picked up from the article and elsewhere on these owls, their connection to the conservation movement, and the new threat they're facing.

Spotted Owls

The spotted owl (strix occidentalis), is a member of the strix genus (sometimes referred to as "earless owls"), and as such it lacks the horn-like tufts of feathers that some other owls have near their ears. As the Latin name "occidentalis" suggests, this species is native to the American West, and as you may have gathered from its English name it has spotted plumage. Another distinguishing characteristic is that its eyes are all black.

There are three subspecies of spotted owl: the Mexican spotted owl (strix occidentalis lucida) whose feathers are the lightest brown, the California spotted owl (strix occidentalis occidentalis), and the northern spotted owl (strix occidentalis caurina) which is the darkest. The three subspecies have a lot in common: their habitat is made up of forested mountains and canyons (with old growth forests being particular important), their diet is comprised mainly of rodents, and they are all threatened by shrinking habitat due to logging and wildfires.

The Mexican spotted owl's range stretches from the Southern Rockies and Colorado Plateau of southern Utah/Colorado to the Sierra Madres of Mexico extending through Arizona, New Mexico and west Texas. It was declared an endangered species in 1993, and it is estimated that around 2,100 Mexican spotted owls currently live in the US.

The California spotted owl lives in the Sierra Nevadas and the mountains of southern California. Although it faces all the same challenges as other spotted owls, it is currently the only breed not protected under the Endangered Species Act.

The Northern Spotted Owl (the environmentalists' darling)

The bird at the center of the controversy in the 1990s was the northern spotted owl. It lives in the mountains along the Pacific coast from southern British Columbia to northern California. Its habitat is made up almost exclusively of old growth forest where it likes to nest in the hollows of old trees and in broken-limbed canopies and eat flying squirrels, red tree voles, wood rats and deer mice.

In 1990, the northern spotted owl was listed as an endangered species. After a series of conflicting regulations from different federal agencies, federal court cases brought by conservation groups (cf. Robertson v. Seattle Audubon Society), and Congressional legislation, it was decided that logging would be all but halted on federally-owned national forests in the Pacific Northwest in order to preserve the owl's habitat.

This reduced logging in the region by 80% and resulted in a loss of jobs and closure of mills, which in turn sparked a backlash from loggers and the logging industry. The forest service estimated that this move would cost up to 30,000 jobs, but subsequent studies have questioned how much the northern spotted owl conservation effort is really to blame for job losses citing the fact that the region's logging industry had been in steady decline since WWII.

Some opponents point to this big action taken to protect a few owls from extinction as environmentalism gone mad, but – on the other hand – many scientists would argue that the northern spotted owl acts as a "flagship species" and that it has indirectly helped preserve a whole ecosystem which is home to a great variety of flora and fauna (these are the temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest). In other words, its worthwhile conserving our nation's forests anyway, and the spotted owl was just a good excuse.

The Barred Owl (the invasive species)

In addition to the usual suspects of deforestation at the hands of man and wildfires, the northern (and, increasingly, the California) spotted owl are now facing a new threat represented by an invasive species of closely related birds. The Barred Owl (strix varia), which has streaks on its feathers instead of spots, is native to eastern North America but over the years it has expanded its range. Making its way westward across the forests of Canada, it is now creeping down the Pacific coast.

The barred owl is bigger and stronger than its western cousin and it is a bully, pushing spotted owls out of their nesting areas and into hiding and sometimes killing them in turf wars. It's also simply a fitter species in evolutionary terms: barred owls are less picky about where they nest (they've adapted to suburban areas and even city parks while spotted owls are confined to old growth forests) and what they eat. Barred owls also produce more offspring.

The Sparred Owl (the hybrid)

As an aside, it's interesting to note that there's been documented cases of interspecies mating between barred and spotted owls producing hybrid offspring who seem to be popularly called "sparred owls." This seems to happen when barred owls first enter an area populated by spotted owls and they cannot find a member of their own species to mate with. All the documented pairings have involved a male barred owl mating with a female spotted owl and thus I guess we should technically be calling them "botted owls" (I'm sure everyone remembers our post on hybrids).

The sparred owl's markings combine its father's streaks and its mother's spots. Moreover, at least some of these hybrids are fertile; they invariably end up mating with barred owls (regardless of sex) which results in the diminution of the spotted owl genes over generations.

Here's a video I found on YouTube of one sparred owl doing its thing.

The Future

Is there anything we can do to shelter spotted owls from competition by this invasive species? Some people have proposed hunting barred owls. But putting aside the ethical concerns this would raise (killing members of one species to save another, "playing God"...), Eric Forsman, the US Forest Service's expert on the northern spotted owl, says that "you could shoot barred owls until you're blue in the face, but unless you're willing to do it forever it's not going to work." On the other hand, some interested parties have proposed that the government lift its protection of the spotted owl's habitat given that its main threat now comes from the barred owl and not from logging. Obviously, this wouldn't be doing the owls any favors.

The problem is currently the most severe in the northern part of the spotted owl's range (they're thought to have all but vanished from British Columbia), but that will change as barred owls continue to fly southward. Forsman says that the most optimistic outlook for the species is that the area may eventually become dominated by barred owls but scattered pairings of spotted owls will remain.


In addition to the Smithsonian article there's an accompanying video and slideshow. Also, here's a short NPR piece from 2005.

Images: Photo of female spotted owl and 3-week-old spotted owl hatchlings by Gary Braasch from; photo of barred owl by Collin Tanner, and sparred owl by Janice Reid taken from

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Doing Kermit

We've all heard the stories (and watched the cartoons) about people licking psychotropic frogs/toads to get high. Here's the truth behind the myth...

Meet Bufo Alvarius

The animal at the center of these stories is most likely Bufo Alvarius, commonly called the Sonoran Desert Toad or the Colorado River Toad. These are big toads with adults varying from 4 to 7.5 inches in length, and they can be found in the southern half of Arizona as well as Imperial County, California; Hildalgo County, New Mexico; and parts of northwestern Mexico (Sonora and northern Sinaloa states). Bufo Alvarius is carnivorous (eating mostly insects and some smaller rodents and reptiles) and nocturnal. They are most commonly spotted after summer rains at night or in the early morning hours.

As a defense mechanism to protect itself from predators, this toad has glands which secrete a number of toxins including 5-MeO-DMT (a psychoactive chemical also found in a number of plants including the ayahausca vine) and bufotenin (which is similar to psilocin, a chemical present in psychoactive mushrooms, and DMT). On average, 5-MeO-DMT may represent around 15% of the venom's dry weight.

Why you shouldn't lick toads

There's two very good reasons why no one who knows what he is doing would lick these animals: (1) apparently you cannot experience the psychotropic effects of bufotenin by ingesting the substance, and – much more importantly – (2) ingesting all the toxins present in the toad's venom can make you very sick and might even be fatal.

This is a big problem for dog owners living in the Sonoran Desert Toad's natural range given that dogs have a habit of licking things and putting them in their mouth. Symptoms of toad poisoning include vomiting, numbing/paralysis, difficulty breathing and heart arrythmia, and it is possible for a single toad to produce enough poison to kill a large dog. Owners who see their dog playing around with one of these toads are advised to rinse out the dog's mouth with a hose and to contact a vet if they notice any symptoms of poisoning.

Myths about human toad licking probably arose from sensational media stories reporting on a false trend among hippies or drug users who were supposedly licking toads to get high in significant numbers. Like many a bad trend story, these were no doubt based on rumors, incomplete evidence, and isolated incidents.

Smoking toad venom

So people in the know don't really lick toads to get high, but people have tried milking Sonoran Desert Toads for their venom and smoking it. This apparently allows one to experience the full psychotropic power of the chemicals present in the toad's venom while avoiding the ill effects that results from ingesting it.

An infamous 1983 pamphlet explains the process in detail: basically, you pick up one of these toads in one hand and with the other squeeze the glands located behind its eyes and on its legs so the toxin squirts onto a plate of glass. Wait an hour and repeat the process. Then you allow the venom to dry, scrape it off the glass, chop it up into a powder, put it in your pipe and smoke it. Once a toad is fully drained of venom, it takes 4-6 weeks for it to replenish its stock.

According to the pamphlet, with the right dose a smoker will experience 2-3 minutes of intense psychodelic effects followed by another 12 minutes of LSD-like experiences. After that one might experience several hours of "afterglow" in which one experiences diminished psychodelic sensations. The pamphlet's author lists the short duration of the psychodelic experience and the absense of any type of hangover among the advantages to smoking dried toad venom.

The law and Bufo Alvarius

Bufotenin, one of the chemicals present in bufo alvarius' venom, is listed as a Schedule I controlled substance in the US (no accepted medical use, high potential for abuse), and thus possession is a federal offense.

Occasionally, people have been arrested for possessing a Sonoran Desert Toad with the intent of harvesting its venom for drug use, but it is apparently perfectly legal to keep bufo alvarius for innocent purposes (i.e. pet toad). They may even be available at some pet stores (which seems INSANE given their toxicity). At any rate, I'd think prosecuting owners of Sonoran Desert Toads would be anything but straightforward if prosecutors have to prove that they were specifically kept for drug purposes.

As for catching bufo alvarius, this species is listed as threatened in New Mexico and as a species of special concern (possibly extinct) in California so it is illegal to take them from the wild. In Arizona, where they are more plentiful, there are laws restricting the removal of any wildlife from the state.

Image: photo of bufo alvarius by California Academy of Sciences.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Gaudeamus Igitur

Gaudeamus Igitur = Therefore let us rejoice!

In honor of Barack Obama's inauguration today, I thought I'd share M.I.A.'s self-titled song (i.e. the hidden track on her first album, Arular) which features the line "Who the fuck's your president?" I thought it was appropriate.

Let's all wish the new administration luck. I can't wait to see Barack start to reverse all the worst policies of the Bush era!

Image of Barack Obama's swearing in taken from

Remembering Andrew Wyeth

In other art news, on Friday Andrew Wyeth, the American artist who painted Christina's World, died at the age of 91. I figured I'd write this post to share what I've read about the man and my impressions of his work.

The Man, the Artist

Andrew Wyeth came from an artistic family: his father, N. C. Wyeth, achieved notoriety as an illustrator of adventure stories such as Treasure Island. His childhood and his entire life would be spent divided between homes in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania (a rural community between Philadelphia and Wilmington, Delaware) and the coastal town of Cushing, Maine.

Wyeth's popularity and financial success began in 1937 when his first solo exhibition, comprised of watercolors of the Maine coast, sold out in a New York gallery. He was 20 years old. Throughout his career, Wyeth's work was much beloved by the American people: one art critic called him the "spiritual leader of middle America," and he was even billed as "America's artist" (which makes me think of how Kenner, LA is America's city). But, perhaps in part because of this popularity, Wyeth's reputation among the art establishment has always been ambivalent. Some art critics dismissed Wyeth as being extraneous to contemporary movements in American art (e.g. his work is largely representational when most painters were exploring the abstract); others saw him as a mere illustrator (like his father or Norman Rockwell), and one critic even said that when compared with the master draftsmen Wyeth couldn't draw.

But I think there's a lot going on below the surface in Wyeth's best works. He liked to paint with egg tempera because he thought it lent his work "a cocoonlike feeling of dry lostness – almost a lonely feeling." He also favored subdued colors (sometimes evoking sepia tones), and almost all his paintings are set in autumn and winter ("when," he said, "you feel the bone structure of the landscape"). Thus – far from being merely pretty or sentimental – most of his works are pervaded by a feeling of loss or of alienation (I think the comparison to Edward Hopper is an apt one), and his landscapes tend to be harsh and naturalistic. Some of his works like Trodden Weed or Heat Lightning even manage to evoke movement and sound.

Some Notable Works

In 1945, Andrew Wyeth's father died along with his (Andrew's) 4-year-old nephew when their car stalled on a railway crossing near the family's Chadds Ford home. Wyeth's painting, Winter, 1946, is of a young man running down the side of a hill right by where the accident occurred, and the artist said that for him the land embodied his late father. Wyeth also began painting his Chadds Ford neighbors, the Kuerners, who were German immigrants. Karl Kuerner, the subject of his 1948 work Karl, had been a machine gunner who had once mowed down American soldiers in WWI and he was a stand in for Wyeth's father.

In the '80s, Wyeth surprised the art world with an exhibition of paintings he had done over the course of ten years – all of the same subject, another German immigrant, named Helga. Interest in the collection was fueled in part by stories that the two had kept their meetings a secret to everyone and that their collaboration put a strain on Wyeth's marriage, but some people now believe this suggestion of impropriety was all a publicity stunt.

Christina's World

By far Wyeth's most famous painting, Christina's World shows us a young woman with her back turned to us looking up at a greying farmhouse on a hill. This painting exudes drama. The story behind it is that Wyeth was inspired by Christina Olson, a neighbor in Cushing, Maine, whose legs were crippled by polio in childhood. Thus the painting's "Christina" (the model was actually Wyeth's wife Betsy) is facing the daunting prospect of crawling back to her home magnifying the object's distance. But looking at Christina's World you could imagine other stories: what happened in that house? Did something violent happen to Christina? It could almost be the closing shot of a horror movie.

Where to see Wyeth's work

There are several works of Andrew Wyeth which you can see here in DC, in the National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Christina's World is on display in New York's Museum of Modern Art and Winter 1946 can be found at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh. Many more works of art by Andrew Wyeth and other members of the Wyeth family can be seen at Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, and in Cushing, Maine you can see the Olson House which is now a museum.

Images: Winter 1946, Helga and Christina's World paintings by Andrew Wyeth; photo of Olson House by flickr user Bob Travis used under Creative Commons license.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Awesome Art Rocks EU


Move over, Brooklyn Bridge waterfall dealie! Earlier today, 2009’s most awesome piece of original artwork so far was officially unveiled in the European Council building in Brussels. The Entropa art installation was commissioned by the Czech Republic to usher in its 6-month term as president of the EU. The original idea was for the project to be overseen by Czech artist David Černý with contributions from 27 artists representing each of the EU’s member states. In reality, however, Černý put the whole thing together himself with the help of a couple of his artist friends.

Entropa depicts the 27 EU States held together by a plastic frame like pieces in a model airplane kit. The installation cost EUR 375,000 to create and weighs 8 metric tons.

The controversy engendered by this work of art is twofold: first of all, Černý misled officials into believing Entropa was indeed created by 27 artists from the different European countries, even drawing up a pamphlet which is a brilliant piece of satire in and of itself (read it here). Secondly, some people objected to their countries’ depictions which were based on national stereotypes and which some deemed offensive or tasteless.

The artist himself described the piece as showing a Czech’s general associations for each of the European nations. Černý also stated that he knew from the start his hoax would be found out, but in the meantime he wanted to see if Europe could laugh at itself.

Here’s my summary of how each nation is depicted:

AUSTRIA is a green meadow with 4 nuclear cooling towers (which is ironic because it only has one nuclear plant which was never operational);

BELGIUM is a box of chocolates;

BULGARIA is covered with squat toilets;

CYPRUS is depicted with the Northern and Southern parts of the country split apart and joined by a hinge like an open door;

the CZECH REPUBLIC has an LED screen presenting a constant stream of “brilliant” quotes by President Václav Klaus (The pamphlet says about Klaus: “He’s not just a skier, he’s a great guy!");

DENMARK is constructed of Legos and resembles the satirical cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad;

ESTONIA features a power-tool hammer and sickle;

FINLAND has like a pink elephant and hippo along with a man lying prone with a rifle (I have no idea!);

FRANCE features an outline of the country draped with a banner which reads “GRÈVE!” (“On Strike!”);

GERMANY is covered by a congested autobahn system which looks suspiciously like a swastika;

the entirety of GREECE is on fire;

HUNGARY holds an Atomium composed of melons and spicy Csabai sausages;

IRELAND is a set of furry bagpipes;

ITALY is one big soccer field with goofy little soccer players;

LATVIA is covered with mountains. The illustration in the pamphlet, ostensibly drawn by the Latvian artist, is hilariously captioned “IF WE HAVE MOUNTAINS” (note that Latvia doesn’t have mountains);

LITHUANIA features soldiers pissing along the country's eastern border (shared with Russia). The pamphlet suggests it’s an homage to Belgium’s Mannekin Pis statue (OMG, you need to check out that website!) and that it was meant to be an alternative monument to Lithuanian independence;

LUXEMBOURG is a gold nugget with a FOR SALE sign;

MALTA contains a dwarf elephant;

the NETHERLANDS is completely flooded with only a few minarets visible above the waves;

POLAND supports a quartet of Catholic priests raising a rainbow flag;

PORTUGAL is a cutting board with pieces of meat in the shape of its former colonies;

ROMANIA is Dracula Land;

SLOVAKIA is covered in cloth and twine. Apparently, it’s supposed to look like a Hungarian sausage, thus highlighting Slovakia’s large Hungarian minority and its rocky diplomatic relations with its neighbor to the South;

SLOVENIA bears the inscription “First tourists came here in 1213” (a reference to a graffito found in the Postojna caves);

SPAIN is a concrete construction site with what looks like a bomb planted in the Basque region;

SWEDEN is still wrapped up in its IKEA box awaiting assembly;

and, finally, the euro-skeptic UNITED KINGDOM decided not to participate and is conspicuously absent from the installation.

Those who were not amused by Černý's prank included EU and Czech officials, as well as the government of Bulgaria which summoned the Czech ambassador in order to lodge a formal complain regarding its depiction. Other than that, most people seem to think that it is funny or they at least give it credit for getting people talking about the boring old EU. I think that Entropa's France, Sweden, UK and the Netherlands are especially brilliant.

Judge for yourself, here's a video which shows you the entire installation:

The BBC has a video interview with the artist and Der Spiegel has a slidehow with more photos of Entropa. Moreover, here's a link to the official statement by the Czech EU presidency and by the artist himself.

David Černý

The 41-year-old scupltor behind Entropa is no stranger to controversy. In 1991, he was briefly arrested after painting the Soviet tank which serves as Prague's WWII memorial pink. And, in 2005, he created a work called "Shark" which depicted former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein suspended in a formaldehyde tank (parodying this sculpture by Damien Hirst) and which would be banned by a town in Belgium and Poland. Here's a link to his website and to a series of photographs showing some of his works publically displayed around the city of Prague.

Images: Entropa and Shark by David

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

This Song is like that Song (Part II)

Moving right along here’s another pair of songs that share an odd connection…

Song #1: The Postal Service’s “Nothing Better”

The Postal Service is an electronic indie pop duo comprised of Ben Gibbard from Death Cab for Cutie and Jimmy Tamborello. Their name comes from the way the two collaborated on songs long distance, sending their work back and forth via the good ole US mail. Give Up, the Postal Service’s 2003 debut album, achieved a huge amount of success, but since then we’ve heard nothing from the duo.

In June 2007 there was news they were starting work on a second album, but since then Gibbard has said that the Postal Service is just a side project for the partners who have other priorities and that we shouldn’t hold our breath for another album this decade. In the meantime, Death Cab for Cutie has inarguably received a huge boost from the Postal Service’s mainstream popularity.

So pretty much every song off Give Up is great, but let’s focus now on “Nothing Better” which is a duet between Ben Gibbard and Jenny Lewis. The song starts out with a verse in which a guy is confronting his girlfriend who's leaving him: he "can't accept that it's over" and he offers to do whatever it takes to win her back. His pleas reach their (figurative) crescendo (because, let's face it, Gibbard really never changes the tone or volume of his voice in any song ever) in the chorus where he sings

Tell me, am I right to think that there could be nothing better
Than making you my bride and slowly growing old together?

Then the girl starts her verse

I feel I must interject here, you're getting carried away feeling sorry for yourself
With these revisions and gaps in history

She’s basically like “do I have to remind you why I’m leaving?” and she tells him he needs to let her go and move on. It’s difficult not too quote more of the lyrics because they’re so good; plus, this is the only song I can think of that works in the word “sutures.” The female part of the duet is my favorite, and it turns what would otherwise be a pretty maudlin break-up song into something much more interesting with its sarcasm and no-nonsense frankness.

There’s no video for this one but you can listen to the song infra.

Nothing Better (Album) - Postal Service

Song #2: The Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me”

I must give Nicole credit for pointing out the only other duet I known which features this sort of he-said-she-said relationship postmortem: the ‘80s hit “Don’t You Want Me” by the Human League. The Human League were an English synthpop group – I want to say they were New Wave, whatever that means, but maybe they were too commercial/pop for that label? Their frontman Phillip Oakley actually hated the final version of this song which had been remixed by Jo Callis at the request of their producer at Virgin Records: Oakley thought it was too poppy and by far the weakest track off their album Dare (1981). It’s ironic then that “Don’t You Want Me” went on to be by far their biggest international hit.

The song begins, again, with the guy telling us his side of the story: how his ex was – famously – “working as a waitress in a cocktail bar” when he met her. He turned her into a star, and now that she has fame and fortune she refuses to admit him when he comes by to see her. In his desperation, he hurls threats (“…it’s me who put you where you are now/ and I can put you back down too”) before settling on the chorus’ more plaintive “Don’t you want me, baby?”

The female part of the duet starts on the same “Ok, ok, wait a minute, I’ve let you say your piece, but I have to stop you right there…” note when Susanne Sulley sings

I was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar
That much is true
But even then I knew I’d find a much better place
Either with or without you
So, to break it down, she’s like “I’ll give you that I was working in a cocktail bar, but I knew I was going places even before I met your punk ass.” She goes on to say that she enjoyed there time together and that she even still loves him, but she figures its time she “lived her life on her own.” It’s not explicit, but I get the impression that the guy was a controlling, Professor Higgins kind of figure in her life, and now she needs to distance herself from that in order to regain her independence. Oakley said that he was originally inspired by the (oft remade) movie A Star is Born when he was writing the song and that it is about “sexual power politics.”

Here’s the classic video:


Let me know if you can think of any other duets like this.

Monday, January 12, 2009

This Song is like that Song (Part I)

Have you ever listened to a song on the radio for the umpteenth time when suddenly you realize how the song shares an obscure theme or structure with some other old song? Probably not, but this happens to me. Here’s an example of one such odd pairing of songs which, you wouldn’t think it, but actually have a lot in common:

Song #1: Heart’s All I Wanna Do Is Make Love to You

Bizarrely enough, this song has come up twice in the last year in conversations with different friends. If you are 30 or older, you have definitely heard this ballad although you may not have ever paid attention to the lyrics.

The narratress tells the story of how she was driving along in the rain one evening when she picked some random guy up off the side of the road. They end up driving to a motel and getting it on. When the guy wakes up the next morning, he’s surprised to find out she’s gone but she left a note which reads “I am the flower you are the seed / We walked in the garden; we planted a tree.” It also tells him not to try and find her.

If it wasn’t clear yet what was going on, in the last verse the two lovers stumble into each other on the street after an unspecified amount of time has passed and the guy is surprised “when he saw his own eyes.” She then tells him to

please understand
I’m in love with another man
And the one thing he couldn’t give me
Was the one little thing that you can.
So, to break it down, her man was “shooting blanks” so she slept with this random dudes in the hopes of getting pregnant. This kind of begs the question “how did she know she’d get pregnant?” Did she know she was ovulating? Did he look like a particularly virile specimen? Even so there’s no guarantee. But I guess the answer is that it was fate. Here’s the video…

Song #2: Ace of Base’s All That She Wants

Believe it or not there is another song from the ‘90s which deals with the pressing issue of women who have one night stands with random men for the sole purpose of getting knocked up, to wit, “All That She Wants” the first big hit by the Swedish band Ace of Base. All that the girl in the song wants is another baby, and Ace of Base warns guys to watch out for this maneater (“she’s a hunter you’re the fox”) who is just looking to chew them up and spit them out (“she’s gone tomorrow, boy.”)

I read that this song is about girls in Denmark who go out looking for a “stud bull” to knock them up, so that they can kick back and let the well-developed Scandinavian welfare state take care of them and their baby. I always suspected something like this since the song describes the girl as lazy, “catching tan” on the beach all day instead of working. So it’s definitely not as romantic as the story in “All I Wanna Do Is Make Love to You,” but you can still see the connection. Here’s the video…

To dwell on the topic of Ace of Base for a second longer, this Europop quartet from Sweden was totally looking to follow Swedish supergroup ABBA’s road to success and even copied the ABBA formula of 1 blonde girl + 1 brunette + 2 dudes = pop chart gold! I must also admit that the first CD I ever bought was indeed Ace of Base’s The Sign (which was called “Happy Nation” outside the US). I think this is really way more embarrassing than last week’s revelation that I read fantasy novels in Junior High.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Meeg at the Movies: Tears of Laughter

We discussed Dario Argento’s Three Mothers Trilogy a while back. Since then I’ve actually watched the third installment in the series: The Mother of Tears (aka The Third Mother/La terza madre), so I figured I should share my impressions. So what did I think? The short answer is “cheesy,” the longer answer is below. Be warned that my review contains some spoilers, but whatever you’ll see most of this stuff coming a mile away anyhow.


The movie starts with a team overseen by a priest digging up an old grave. Along with the coffin, they find a box covered with arcane writing. The priest believes the box is connected to witchcraft, and he sends it to an art historian for further analysis.

When the box arrives at the museum, the art historian isn’t there but his two assistants, one of whom (Asia Argento) is his lover, decide to open it up themselves. Inside they find, among other things, a trio of statues not wholly unlike the “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” monkeys and a magic sweater (OK, in the movie they call it a tunic). When Asia leaves the room for some reason, a band of shadowy robed figures appear out of nowhere and gruesomely kill the other girl. The shadowy robed figures make off with the box while Asia manages to evade them and their evil monkey (OH YES, there is an evil monkey!!). She escapes from the museum thanks to a little supernatural intervention.

Now strange things begin to happen on the streets of Rome: a wave of violent crime spreads everywhere, and witches from all over converge on the city. The Mother of Tears’ power is rising and she wants to bring about a new Fall of Rome (not so scary, really, unless you happen to live in Rome). Now we don’t really see these “witches” perform any magic so much as they seem to engage in general “bad girl” behavior, so why don’t we just call them bitches. Also, they all seem to be rocking the big ‘80s hair and makeup. The bitches can somehow sense that Asia is an enemy of the Mother of Tears and so they try to chase her down and kill her.

In order to get some answers as to what is going on, Asia tries to find the old priest, but he turns up dead along with her lover the art historian. But she does find this lesbian (Is it important to know she’s a lesbian? No. Do we get to see her in bed with her girlfriend? Yes.) who helps her contact her dead mother (played by Daria Nicolodi, Asia’s real life mother). Her mother was a good witch who fought against the Muthas, and she tells Asia that she has untapped talents and it’s up to her to stop the Mother of Tears.

On yet another visit to the home of someone else, Asia is given a book on the Three Mothers. As she reads, the dated, cheesy voice of the earnest narrator on the English language track has to be heard to be believed. Not only that, but in the scene with her mother’s ghost Asia actually has to deliver to line “Aah, Mommy!”

By now the movie has built up a whole mystique around the Mother of Tears – she’s responsible for making everyone go all violent and crazy, she’s going to make Rome fall – and so we’re bound to be let down when we finally see her onscreen. I can only describe her as a naked, big-tittied bimbo with a black veil over her head. No wonder she wants her magic sweater back so badly! We also see her lap up the tears of one of her victims, so I guess that explains how she got her name.

Asia eventually tracks Mater Lachrymarum down to some big scary villa which has a set of catacombs in its cellar. After a predictably anticlimactic showdown, Asia has to wade through a pool of putrid filth (it’s best to not even try and figure out what it’s supposed to be) which looks suspiciously like the pool of putrid filth at the end of Phenomena in order to escape from the Mother’s lair.

I feel a musical number coming on!


I read a few reviews online, and most critics agree that Mother of Tears is cheesy but also pretty entertaining. You have to give Dario Argento credit for making the kind of campy exploitation film that no one makes anymore and for not holding back. You also get the impression he’d be laughing right along with you at some of the more outrageous plot developments.

Despite all the silliness, one place where Mother of Tears definitely does not let us down is the murder sequences: they are definitely groan-inducingly gory. The most spectacular and memorable is definitely the helpful lesbian’s death scene. I won’t spoil it by telling you how she’s killed, but I will say that this is what horror movies are supposed to do: stick it to lesbians! No, I meant they take something you’ve always been afraid of in the back of your mind (like slicing your neck open on a sharp piece of broken glass) and show what would happen if it was taken to (and beyond) its logical conclusion.

My one big gripe is that Mother of Tears is sparse on the haunting visuals and subconscious/nightmare eeriness that characterized the other two movies in the trilogy. I thought that the scenes with the evil monkey that threatened to alert the Mother’s minions to our heroine’s whereabouts if he saw her – besides being awesome! – had a bit of that scary fairytale vibe to them. Likewise, the part where Asia and her new lesbian friends were summoning up ghosts touched on the magical feeling of children’s bedtime stories. But in general, I would say that Mother of Tears was big on gore and laughs but light on actual scares.

So was this a suitable conclusion to the Three Mothers trilogy? Let’s not forgot that the other two mothers proved to be pretty weak too when we finally saw them face to face. Mater Suspirorum was an old lady who snored and served as the headmistress of a witchy dance academy while Mater Tenebrarum’s evil menace didn’t seem to affect anyone outside of a three block radius. Mama Wawa did cause a lot more widespread mayhem so maybe we can forgive her for bouncing around naked with her fake breasts.

Images: Jun Ichikawa and Moran Atias in The Mother of Tears

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Anthropodermic Bibilopegy

When I was in Junior High, I was kind of obsessed with this series of books called Lone Wolf that were kind of like fantasy-rock Choose Your Adventures. Yes, I was a big dork and I am deserving of your ridicule. But anyway, I distinctly remember how the last book I read featured a library curated by evil monks or wizards or demons which boasted a collection of books bound in human flesh. In the story, the books radiated intense negative psychic energy, and I remember thinking that the idea of binding volumes in human leather was indeed pretty freaky and evil. This passage and the impression it made on my teenage self came back to mind when I discovered a little over a year ago that books like this actually exist.

Binding books in human skin

The practice of binding books in human skin is known as anthropodermic bibliopegy. Unsurprisingly, the tanning and binding process isn't all that different than the one employed using calf, goat or sheepskin, and it is made possible by the fact that in bookbinding only a thin veneer of leather is used over the stiff pasteboard backing. In an article about an edition of "the Dance of Death," bound in human skin in 1893 and currently housed in Brown University's John Hay Library, the front cover clothed in the outer layer of the epidermis is described as having "a slightly bumpy texture, like soft sandpaper" whereas the back cover bound in the inner layer of skin is soft and smooth like suede. One can sometimes make out the skin's pores, and some of these books display the former owner’s tattoos.


The creation of books and parchment from human skin may have originated in the Middle Ages when Europeans were known to preserve the body parts of saints and other notable persons as memorials: for example, the most revered holy relic in Siena’s Basilica di San Domenico is the head of St. Catherine (1347-1380), while in Florence’s Museum of the History of Science alongside Galileo’s (1564-1642) telescopes one of his fingers is on display.

Today, the oldest extant examples of anthropodermic bindings date back to the 1600s, but the practice became more common during the French Revolution (1789-1799) probably due to the abundance of corpses piling up. The dermis of victims of the terror was, somewhat ironically, used to bind copies of Enlightenment texts such as Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man and the French Constitution. In the 19th century, human leather bound books were objects of pride for wealthy collectors who might use the hide of executed criminals, dissected cadavers, and those who died in poor houses.

Present day examples

Today the number of surviving books bound in human flesh number somewhere in the hundreds. The most common examples are anatomy books clothed in the skin of dissected cadavers and memoirs which were posthumously bound in the author’s flesh in accordance with instructions found in his will. Sometimes, as occurred in the case of William Corder, the perpetrator of the famous Red Barn Murder, an executed criminal’s hide was used to bind the record of his trial.

Many of these artifacts can currently be found in prestigious libraries. Among the most interesting, Harvard University’s Langdell Law Library has a treatise on Spanish law (Practicarum quaestionum circa leges regias Hispaniae) in its rare books section bearing the inscription:

The bynding of this booke is all that remains of my deare friende Jonas Wright, who was flayed alive by the Wavuma on the Fourth Day of August, 1632. King btesa did give me the book, it being one of poore Jonas chiefe possessions, together with ample of his skin to bynd it. Requiescat in pace.

According to a book I found online published in 1897, the “Wavuma” were an African tribe who inhabited a chain of islands in Lake Victoria.

The Boston Athenaeum currently houses a book entitled “Narrative of the Life of James Allen alias Jonas Pierce, alias James H. York, alias Burley Grove, the Highwayman, Being His Death-Bed Confession to the Warden of the Massachusetts State Prison.” Before he was hanged, this early 19th-century American highwayman who was also known as George Walton instructed that the memoir should be bound in his own hide and delivered to John A Fenno, a man who had impressed the criminal with his bravery by resisting a robbery attempt and bearing a gunshot wound.

Finally, in the French town of Juvisy-sur-Orge, the library of Camille Flammarion’s (1842-1925) observatory contains a copy of the astronomer’s book Les terres du ciel voyage astronomique sur les autres mondes et descriptions des conditions actuelles de la vie sur les diverses planetes du systeme solaire (“The worlds of the heavens: astronomical voyage to other worlds and description of the current conditions of life on the various planets of the solar system”) bound in the flesh of a woman. According to legend, the donor was a countess who was enamored with Flammarion and who died of tuberculosis. For more information on anthropodermic bookbinding check out this excellent article published in the Harvard Law Record.

Nazi lampshades

On an even more morbid note, anthropodermic bibliopegy is related to the rumors that the Nazis made lampshades out of human skin. Most accounts of lampshades made from victims’ skin center on the Buchenwald concentration camp managed by Karl Otto Koch from 1937 to 1941 with his second wife Ilse Koch – whose sadism earned her the nickname “the Witch of Buchenwald” – by his side. Although Buchenwald was not an extermination camp, a great many prisoners were executed or killed in experiments using human subjects, while others died of hunger, exhaustion or diseases like typhoid due to unsanitary conditions.

During the holocaust, the Nazis were sometimes known to keep gruesome souvenirs from the people they butchered. Kenneth Kipperman, an expert on these artifacts, extensively researched the claims that lampshades were made out of victims’ skin. He discovered that Ilse Koch did indeed preserve patches of skin from prisoners bearing tattoos as keepsakes (and may have had some of them killed precisely for this purpose), but he found no hard evidence that they were ever used as lampshades. Thus the Straight Dope declares that the lampshades are likely a myth.

Image: Account of William Corder's trial bound in his own skin on display at Moyse's Hall museum in Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Pale Fire over Zembla

Back when I wrote my post on Nabokov's unfinished novel, The Original of Laura, I confessed that I never read his Pale Fire. Since then I've rectified this omission; and as the novel mentions a fictitious kingdom called Zembla, I was also inspired to do some research on its real life equivalent. So here's my take on Pale Fire as well as what I discovered about the real Zembla.

Nabokov's Pale Fire

Pale Fire (published in 1962, after Lolita and before Ada) presents itself as a 999-line poem written by the Frostian, American poet John Shade and edited after the poet's death, with an introduction and copious endnotes, by his friend, neighbor and colleague at Wordsmith College, Charles Kinbote. The poem – which takes its title from a line in Shakespeare's Timon of Athens ("The moon's an arrant thief/ And her pale fire she snatches from the sun") – is divided into four cantos which discuss Shade's life, particularly the death of his teenage daughter Hazel and his coming to terms with mortality. In his commentary, Kinbote doesn't so much explain the poem (and when he does his literary acumen is spotty) as he tells a story all his own. As one's reading progresses, the suspicion grows that Kinbote is a singularly unreliable narrator/editor – that he didn't know the late poet as well as he suggests, that he is not who he claims to be, and that he is perhaps delusional.

Part of what makes Pale Fire so much fun to read is that it presents the reader with a mystery: only by reading through Kinbote's comments with the critical, skeptical eye of a literary detective can one hope to unravel the "true story". One can't just passively read this book but rather one is asked to flip back and forth between the poem and the endnotes, which also include cross-references and an index. And for me, looking up unfamiliar words and allusions on the internet added yet another complementary layer of reference. Because of all this, Pale Fire is recognized as an example of metafiction as its story exists on several levels and it invites the reader to question reality versus fiction.

The Kingdom of Zembla

Much of the story Kinbote weaves in the comments concern the adventures of King Charles II "the Beloved" of Zembla. Kinbote's Zembla is "a distant northern land" which he paints as an idyllic, Ruritanian kingdom skirting the line of modernity. Here, King Charles lives a life of luxury and pederast perversion until his government is overthrown by a Communist revolution backed by the Russian Bolsheviks. The king is first placed under house arrest, but he manages to escape abroad through some feats of romantic derring-do. Then, when they learn of his flight, the Communists send an assassin named Gradus after the exiled king, and this, Kinbote tells us, is the man who (mistakenly) shot John Shade.

In Search of the Real Zembla

My current fasicnation with the frozen north inspired me to see what I could uncover about the real Zembla. Nabokov's true life inspiration could only be the archipelago of Novaya Zemlya (Новая Земля = "New Land" in Russian) which was formerly called "Nova Zembla" in English. Novaya Zemlya is a chain of two large islands and many smaller ones which extends into the Arctic ocean north of the Russian mainland, seperating the Barents Sea in the west from the Kara Sea in the east. The archipelago is largely mountainous because it is basically just a continuation of the Ural mountain range beyond the coastline. Of the two main islands, Severny (Остров Северний = Northern Island) supports many glaciers and Yuzhny (Остров Южний = Southern Island) has an environment characterized by tundra. The archipelago is also the home to a variety of arctic fauna including polar bears, walrus, and sea birds.

Far from the Kinbote's bucolic kingdom, the real Novaya Zemlya's big claim to fame is that it served as a nuclear testing site for the Soviet Union from 1955-1990 (this was the North Test Site, the Soviets also performed tests at the Semipalatinsk Test Site in present-day Kazakhstan). In addition to the detonation of scores of nuclear weapons, the area around Novaya Zemlya also became a dump for radioactive waste and a graveyard for nuclear arms, submarines and reactors which had fallen into disuse. In the past, Norway has voiced concerns over radioactive fallout and the other ecological ramifications resulting from this activity, given that its Finnmark county is only 900 km away and fishing in the Barents Sea is an important component of the Norwegian economy. A high incidence of premature deaths from cancer and of infants born underdeveloped (the latter as high as 95%!) has also been documented in Arkhangelsk Oblast, the Russian administrative division which includes Novaya Zemlya.

Almost all of the indigenous Nenets people (most of whose ancestors were originally settled in the archipelago in 1877) were forcibly removed to the mainland soon after nuclear testing began in the 1950s. Today, a little more than 2,500 civilians and military personnel live in Novaya Zemlya almost all of them located in the urban settlement of Belushya Guba and the neighboring Rogachevo airbase. For decades outsiders' access to the islands had been restricted, but today they have been reopened for scientific research.

Images: Sattelite photo of Novaya Zemlya taken by NASA; 1998 photo of Novaya Zemlya's Foreigner's Bay (c) 2001 David Lubinksi.