Medical Mysteries

Saturday, April 18, 2009
What could cause eleven men to fall ill, their skin each colored blue? Or what would make an entire farm family to go blind shortly after dinner? Or how could an otherwise normal man turn bright orange?

Each of these medical mysteries, and dozens more, were reported by the legendary medical writer Berton Roueché, who in the 1940s and 1950s wrote the "Annals of Medicine" section of the New Yorker magazine. (The answers are: accidental ingestion of sodium nitrite; dinner cooked with tomatoes crossbred with jimson weed; and a massive daily ingestion of carrots and tomato juice).

Though many of his 20 or so books or now out of print, Roueché has enjoyed a resurgence of sorts: dozens of the medical mysteries first reported by him have been recycled by the writers of the Fox television show House, M.D.. Though Roueché's articles are exactly the sort of cat-and-mouse epidemiology that are the hallmark of House, it is amusing from time to time to see the 21st-Century doctors struggle to deal with easily-treatable diseases that were much less straightforward in the first half of the 20th century, like trichinosis or leprosy.

If the medical science behind House is of interest, skip the mass-market crap capitalizing on the show's popularity. Dig up a copy of one of Roueché's books, and see where the creators of House got all their ideas.

Pseudonym: If this sort of thing interests you, you might also look into the career of Paul Ekman, who as a microexpression expert is the inspiration for the House sequel, Lie to Me. Lie to Me is so far pretty good, about 8 episodes in, and is the only show I watch live. (So OF COURSE it's nearly always pre-empted by some stupid reality tv show about singing.)

If you're not keen on reading wikipedia (or our own ramblings), then why not listen to NPR's 3-part series on Ekman and lie detection via microexpressions?

It's pretty good. I wouldn't... lie to you... AAhahaha

Eldritch: Obligatory webcomic link to parody of Lie to Me.

Disclaimer: I haven't actually seen Lie to Me yet; I just thought the comic was funny. I did meet Tim Roth once, though. So I guess that makes me kind of an expert.

Pseudonym: Can I tell you how difficult it is to watch that show without expecting him to just suddenly pull a gun on people and start shouting? Cause it is.

But, as usual, parodies are funnier with a kernel of truth. Lie To Me has me laughing sometimes at how obvious the actors try to make the expressions that do them in. Like a facial tic becomes a full-blown epileptic fit. It's still a solid show as long as you're willing to accept the science for what it is, not what sells advertising.

When I was your age...

Friday, April 17, 2009
When I was a kid, we listened to albums on records. Vinyl records. Dirty, scratchy, skippy, hissy records. Is it just nostalgia that makes it seem to me that the music of that time was richer, and better-sounding (even if the content was somewhat childish)?


As audiophiles (and some regular philes) know, the sound from a vinyl record is analog, which means that each sound off the record is produced with a smooth frequency wave. The sound was transferred to the record directly: Sound goes into microphone, onto tape, mixed, and then etched into a record using the same frequency wave. Microphones are just speakers turned backwards, as you may know, with a vibrating membrane CAUSING electrical impulses to travel down wire, instead of the electrical impulses causing a membrane to vibrate, producing the sweet music of Artie Shaw.

Records are actually cut with V-shaped diamond chisels that travel through a spiralling groove cut in the record. Analog signals sent to a membrane that the chisel is attached to causes the chisel to cut deeper or less deep, depending on the amplitude, and swing side to side depending on the frequency and stereo position. As it swings side to side, the V-shaped chisel cuts each side of the groove in a different way as it rides up one side of the groove and down the other, resulting in a cut groove, that, when played back by another needle, can detect the changes in the grooves as it plays, sending that analog signal back to the amp and then through the speakers. Artie's sounds to the record to your ear.

So why do records sound so "crappy"? As an analog medium, they're subject to all sorts of interference, from dust particles in the grooves, to scratches across grooves, causing skips, to signal interference from electrical devices near the wires the sound is travelling through. So they snap, hiss, pop and skip.

On your record player. Record players used by audiophiles are very modern, with excellent signal sheilding, more sensitive electronics, and quality components. Also, audiophiles tend to keep their records in excellent shape, in the sleeves, vertically stored. If you ever get a chance to listen to a good record on a good system, I suggest you take it.

Cut to the early 80's. Records had been around for many decades, and despite being a quantum leap ahead of the wax cylinders they replaced (imagine a singer having to sing the song for each cylinder produced. You get a unique copy, they get tired.), other advances in the world of electronics prompted a new way of listening to music. The 8-track and audiocassette were ok; smaller, easier to store, easier to keep clean, but subject to their own problems. 8-Tracks had limited length, causing albums to be trimmed, Audiocassettes broke, warped, melted and stretched, and hissed badly enough that Dolby Noise Reduction (really just a single-band equilizer that cuts off the frequencies near where tape hiss occurs, often muddying the sound in higher ranges) became a standard feature on most tape decks.

Enter the Compact Disc. Smaller than a vinyl record, more durable than audiocassette, longer-playing than 8-track, and perhaps best of all for those of us with smudgy cheeto-stained fingers, didn't require turning over. An audiophile's dream come true. Because it's based on optical technology, with lazors rather than physical needles or tape heads, there was no "analog hiss". The laz0r itself removed the need to touch the surface of the CD, meaning that there was, if you were careful, (many of us were back then, mostly due to habits after owning records), your CDs could remain as pristine as they were when you bought them. If they ever DID get smudged, you could wipe 'em clean with a little water. If they ever got scratched, the CD player itself had built-in error correction.

All this was made possible by DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY.

More... Instead of the smooth curving sine wave of analog signal, that signal was emulated with numerical values. A song might be sampled 44 thousand times a second, and each sample would return a value of, say 1 to 256. Think of it more as a series of steps that approximates the original analog signal. This does have an effect on the overall output of a song, since sampling rates are limited, whereas an analog signal has all its peaks and valleys. The difference for most people is pretty minimal, and when factoring in the hassle of records and tapes, plus the total removal of skips, pops and especially hiss, CDs sounded GREAT. Clear and subtle, like the orchestra was in your room.

That was the mid-late 80s. CD "mastering" back then was a job of taking a master recording, plonking it down on CD and calling it good. After all, there were 50 years of back-recordings to get onto CD, and each recording couldn't be meticulously mastered specifically for CD. The backlog was necessary to cash in on the improved sound CDs provided, meaning that once again, we were buying our albums all over again. New music was released on CD, Tape and Vinyl, and often not on CD at all, due to adoption rates of the new technology, and the small amount of studios doing a huge amount of CD mastering work. When you got a CD, it was packaged with the album cover on the front, with a no-frills CD inside, listing the name of the album and the tracks, black on silver. Simple.

Over the years, as vinyl died off, CDs hit their stride, eventually becoming the ONLY medium most albums were released on. A few bands had/have limited runs of their album material on vinyl for real die-hard fans of record albums, but it's pretty rare, especially nowadays. Ask for the latest Shakira album on vinyl and see what kind of looks you get. CDs were starting to become more of a product rather than a medium through which the product would get delivered (think DVDs a decade later). Lush, glossy booklets accompanied the CD itself, with lyrics, interviews, photographs, and the CD was silkscreen printed to help make it stand out in your collection, and blend it together with the other packaged materials. Sometimes, the standard plastic jewel case was replaced by a different case altogether. (As a side note, while these looked cool, they were a bitch to store with the others. I'm looking at you, Reznor.) CDs had finally made the big time.

But wait a minute. It seemed to me that with CDs becoming commonplace, the discs themselves were actually getting thinner. They felt... cheaper and less sturdy. Well, ok, that's to be expected. It happens with all media - companies try to cut costs to offset the increased production values. The CDs themselves sounded the same, they worked the same, so no big deal.

That's not all that changed. As the music scene exploded with the communication and internet ages, there was much more fierce competition for who got played on radio and on tv. Record companies took advantage of an interesting aspect of the way human auditory systems work to start producing albums that sounded "better" to the average listener. Don't consider radio and TV for a second, those are analog signals, that are often somewhat degraded to fit within bandwidth and frequencies, and to comply with FCC guidelines concerning amplitude (loudness). The aspect being taken advantage of was this: all else being equal, people overwhelmingly prefer LOUDER music, feeling it's clearer and with a larger variance between loud and soft sounds (called "dynamic range").

So CDs got louder. And louder. And louder.

Even albums released by the same band, over time, would have louder music put on the CD. Don't believe me? Take a listen to your music collection, on CD, with headphones. Pop in the first CD a band released, and then the last. Don't touch the volume at all.

Well that's not so bad, right? If humans think louder is better, then higher amplitude is good! Heck, now we finally have a reason to buy the remastered versions of CDs that seem to come out every 5-10 years. Oh yeah. If you happen to have the same song on several CDs, listen to them back to back. The newer one will most likely be louder.

That's "Something" by the Beatles, from Abbey Road, from 4 different "remasters" of the CD.

Ok, fair enough. The Beatles always sound good. Let's look at another innovative British band Depeche Mode (Thanks to for the images):

That's "A Pain That I'm Used To" from Playing the Angel. Looks good.

Oops. Fortunately Depeche Mode is one of those bands that releases on Vinyl. Which is what you're looking at up there. HERE is the CD waveform:

See how the waveform goes off the top and bottom? That's called "clipping" and it occurs when the amplitude of a song gets louder than the medium can handle. In this case, every sample at which the amplitude is above 0 (amplitude starts at 0 and goes down, as the graphs show) becomes 0. This causes the dynamic range to shrink, the frequencies at those ranges to flatten out and distortion occurs, like what happens on an electric guitar when "overdrive" is turned on (though in that case it's on purpose).

The vinyl release of Playing the Angel sounds better. Depeche Mode themselves would likely tell you that they prefer the vinyl release too, but it's not their choice to make. Studio executives and A&R people force these masters to give them an edge over songs in the same genre, with the expectation that you'll buy the album that sounds better. That this is totally outdated thinking is a post for another day.

There's a movement going now to stop this process from happening. Naturally it's coming about 10 years too late, as the industry shifts away from CDs, but this sort of awful mastering can apply to digitally produced tracks too. For more information, check out "TurnMeUp", an organization dedicated to this cause, and to wikipedia, which as usual has a lot of good info, and some great links with examples (and which is comprehensive enough to make this post useless.) :)

Eldritch: The whole 'loudness war' thing is pretty insane, and I won't quibble with that. But let's be a bit careful when praising anyone calling themselves an 'audiophile.' These are the glassy-eyed zealots that pay hundreds (and thousands, and hundreds of thousands) of dollars for wooden stereo knobs, $13,000 power cords, and optical media demagnetizers. Audiophile should be a dirty word.

Pseudonym: Let's not confuse audiophile with moron, either.

I mean it in the traditional, real sense. The meaning you're thinking of has been adopted BY these idiots for themselves. Spending money on something proves you're more vested in it. But there are people who genuinely care a great deal about how their music sounds. Even after the post above, I do not consider myself one of these people, as I have an Apple "iPod" containing highly compressed audio played through tinny earbuds.

An ugly pile of words

I loved Mark Z. Danielewski's debut novel House of Leaves. It was a sprawling, complex, recklessly innovative novel. Reviewers quickly honed in on the unique typography, extensive footnoting and text that ran up, down and backwards through the book. But wrapped up in the unusual form was a great story. It was actually two stories, one told through footnotes to the other. But at its heart, House of Leaves was a really fantastic ghost story, an impeccably-plotted and mindbending gothic tale. I still rank it as one of my favorite novels of all time.

So it's not an understatment to say I was disappointed to find his second novel to be a righteously awful book; a total piece of shit.

Only Revolutions was Danielewski's sophomore effort, published six years after House of Leaves. Taking the experimental typography to an over-the-top level, Only Revolutions is actually two separate books, each one reading upside-down and backwards from the other, beginning from the front and back cover, and meeting in the middle.

This time, however, Danielewski has eschewed not just the external trappings of a traditional novel, but any attempt at intelligibility or comprehensibility. It is so much of a jumbled mass of rambling pseudo-poetry, it would be inaccurate to call Only Revolutions a novel at all. Lest you think I exaggerate the meaninglessness of the prose in this book, witness the first lines of one of the halves of the book:
Samsara! Samarra!
I can walk away
from anything.
Everone loves
the Dream but I kill it.
Atlas Mountain Cedars gush
over me: ---Up Boogaloo!
I leap free this spring.
On Fire. How my hair curls.
That's all. Big ruin all
around. With a wiggle.
with a waggle. A spin.

Every page is like this. You could pick any random page from this hideous abortion of a book and you would come across exactly the same amount of plot, character development, conflict or story. Oh, and just to kick the pretentiousness into high gear, Danielewski decided to color every instance of the letter 'O' either green or brown, on every page of the book.

The fatuous self-importance simply drips from the official Only Revolutions web site. One blogger took it upon himself to reproduce the color, layout and arrangement of one page's worth of text. The result would be funnier the book itself wasn't just as foolish, in appearance and content.

It would be quite one thing if Only Revolutions received the scorn and derision it deserved, but some reviewers, apparently having written their review before they received the book, praised it as a post-modern masterpiece. In the largest and most hilarious example of The Emperor's New Clothes effect, the book was even nominated for the National Book Award. I can only imagine the nominating committee meeting, each member terrified to admit that book didn't make any sense to them, and instead of saying so, meekly voting for it to continue to the shortlist.

House of Leaves was a witty, carefully constructed novel with a fantastic story. It also had its share of dry humor and carefully-hidden messages. I can only hope that Only Revolutions is a well-orchestrated prank on the literary establishment, a dead-tree troll on an unprecedented scale. Because the idea of someone actually writing this book in all seriousness is too depressing to contemplate.

Pseudonym: I keep meaning to read House of Leaves. Thanks for the heads-up on the 2nd.

I remember reading some tripe similar to the excerpt you posted in one of my freshman English classes. When the prof asked what we all thought about it, no one had anything to say, for fear of, what, insulting her? I did speak up to ask if there really was some meaning behind it or if the author was having a laugh at our expense. Her reply was "what do YOU think?" with a self-gratifying smirk.

I told her it was clearly the latter. Literature is about communication, communication of an idea, or a feeling or a sensation, not the senseless brain-drippings of completely random phrases mashed together like the result of a stenographer's fever dream.

Read our blog.

Kick it up a notch

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Here's a list of things you can say during dinner on the one night a month you cook dinner that will help make you a jerk, and some ways that you can give it that extra flair that make you a full-on jerkwad:

Original Jerk: "Wow, this turned out great!"
Jerkwad Bonus: Never having ever said it about any one else's dinner.
Double-Jerkwad Bonus: The above plus it not being very good at all.

Original Jerk: "Hey, did the dog poop yet today?"
Jerkwad Bonus: It's the first thing you say when someone is sitting down.
Double-Jerkwad Bonus: ... to your dinner of Egg Fu Yung. I'll have the tossed salad next time.

Original Jerk: "I'll let you clean up."
Jerkwad Bonus: You've never once cleaned up.
Double-Jerkwad Bonus: Say it while making a big deal about how tired cooking made you.

Eldritch: Ah, the majestic Jerkwad. Loping through the praries, belittling the denizens of the Wad peninsula. Before him tremble the huddled masses of Dorkwads, Dipwads, and Gaywads. Of course, the Dickwads could probably stand up the Jerkwad, but they're too busy being, well, dicks.

I'm reminded of the seminal work in scholarship on the Wad population, from the academic journal The Onion: Gaywads, Dorkwads Sign Historic Wad Accord:
...pan-wad unity is considered unlikely in the near future. Numerous wad factions, including the dickwad, dipwad, jerkwad and fuckwad groups, refused to participate in the wad accord.

Mayhem in McDonaldland!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Early McDonaldland was a freaky place. Originally a transparent rip-off of Sid and Marty Kroft's H.R. Pufnstuf program, the mythical McDonald's realm was filled with anthropomorphized fast food products, volcanoes spewing milkshakes, and a recurring cast of villains attempting to steal food products from Mayor McCheese and Ronald McDonald, including the legendary Hamburgler.

One of the more disturbing trends in early McDonaldland commercials was the prevalance of casual cannibalism. Mayor McCheese, himself a anthropomorphic hamburger, would occasionally indulge in a hamburger grown from the hamburger patch, each of which were themselves also anthropomorphized. The Gobblins, later renamed the fry guys, were brightly-colored bundles of McDonald's french frys, who roamed McDonaldland stealing and eating their smaller fry brethren.

But little can compare to the freakiness of the original incarnation of Grimace. Originally named "Evil Grimace," the giant purple monster had four arms, and stole milkshakes from the various denizens of McDonaldland.

As ever, the Onion parodies the absurdity of the whole situation perfectly with the article McDonald's Drops 'Hammurderer' Character From Advertising. From the Onion article:
Bowing to outcry from consumers and parents groups, the McDonald's Corporation announced Monday that it is discontinuing its new advertising mascot, "The Hammurderer," a mischievous, homicidal imp who kills McDonaldland characters and takes their sandwiches.

Pseudonym: As if anyone needed another reason to avoid McDonald's like the plague.... Like the plague...

Don't forget, there was an entire Burger King mythos too, since the name lent itself much more easily to such. I recall in particular Sir Shakes-A-Lot, as he featured prominently on a collectible glass drinking glass I had as a kid, obviously handed down from a time when they still had that mythos. He was introduced via the stanza:

My name is Sir Shakes-A-Lot.
I love a great shake.
Whenever I drink one,
I shiver and quake.

And he was drawn with little shake lines. I never felt any real affection for the character, mostly just a bit of pity that the palsy had gotten so bad, and if he wants to stop shaking he should stop drinking shakes. If only it were that easy.

Fun fact: Sir Shakes-A-Lot was played by Rush Limbaugh.

Maybe it's WHY they don't taste like apples?

Tuesday, April 14, 2009
Is it just me, or is there a signifiant trend towards Jacks in Apple Jacks? It seems to me like it used to be a bit more equitable, with the same percentage of Apples to Jacks. Recently, the distribution is totally skewed, though I can't imagine it costs and more or less to make "Artifical Apple Flavoring #4" than it does "Artificial whatever-the-hell-Jacks-are-supposed-to-taste-like #2". So what's the big idea?

Well, this may surprise some of our younger readers, but the green Apple pieces weren't introduced until 1993! Before that it was just straight-up Jacks. Evidently the new campaign makes what they're supposed to taste like clearer: Cinnamon. What they taste like is exactly what the Apple pieces taste like, artifical sweetener. (Possible product idea: Artificial Sweetener-Os. Tagline: "To hell with it, we're not even going to fake it any more." Americans would appreciate the honesty and buy in droves.)

Not that I have any vested interest in Apple Jacks, being that I just buy them when they're on sale, but couldn't they come up with a better line than "Apple Jacks. Apple or Cinnamon? Who will be the winna-mon?" It's like someone made a joke in the marketing department, and the VP in charge of advertising had sadly lost his sense of humor in a freak tapdancing accident.

Slow news day.

Eldritch: I'm reminded of the infamous Cadbury Creme Egg shrinkage scandal. Cadbury's official line was that the confections were exactly the same size as ever, but that you have grown larger, causing them to seem smaller. That's all well and good, until Office actor BJ Novak brought examples of the current and previous years' creme eggs onto Conan O'Brian, demonstrating incontrovertibly that the eggs were smaller this year.

What's really odd about this story is the fact that BJ Novak apparently warehouses a year's supply of Cadbury Creme Eggs every Easter.

The Mac SE/30: Adored by Spies and Psychopathic Geniuses Alike!

Monday, April 13, 2009
Ah, the venerable Macintosh SE/30. Wired recently declared it 'the best Mac ever.' With a 16 MHz 68030 processor, it was many times as fast and powerful as its similar cousin the Mac SE. Essentially, it was the internals of a Mac IIx poured into the diminutive case of a Mac SE, and at half the price. It quickly became a favorite of Mac fans everywhere.

Well, you know who else loved the SE/30? unspecified government intelligence agencies, that's who! The Tempest Mac Model CSI-1891T was a 'black Mac,' not because of its color, but because of its military-grade electromagnetic 'Tempest' shielding, which shielded the computer from passive observation due to electromagnetic signal leakage.

But it's not just spies that adored the SE/30: when the production designers for the film version of Alan Moore's Watchmen needed a computer for supergenius Adrian Veidt's desk, what did they choose? Why, the Tempest-shielded black Mac, of course. This time painted black to match its heritage.

Fun fact: in the old days of Macs, when the faster 68020 processor came on the market, it was put in the new Mac II. When the the 68030 processor was later introduced, Apple dictated that an "X" be added to the end of the model number. So the Mac II became the 68030 Mac IIx. Well, that naming scheme worked fine until Apple decided to upgrade the SE to a 68030. I guess Apple didn't want to try and explain the Macintosh SEx.

Pseudonym: If they wanted to avoid the Mac Sex, they shouldn't have released the 3rd-Generation iMac without some demureifying changes. Rawr.

As for Adrian Veidt, I hereby revoke his title of "smartest man in the world". His password was easily-guessable, subject to dictionary attacks and visible on the spine of a book on his desk (in the movie). Also, his vision is supposed to be excellent, and therefore using the high contrast (invert) mac desktop is in questionable taste at best.

However, I do love the idea of him typing up his grand-scale plans in MacWrite (Chicago font, obviously) and illustrating them carefully in MacDraw.

Eldritch: And the hits don't stop there! On NBC's goofy spy drama Chuck, the valhalla of all government computers, the Intersect, is apparently capped off with a Mac SE/30. Okay, it's not an SE/30. It's a Classic II. But it's almost the same thing. Stupid 16-bit data path.

Pseudonym: This is why vendor lock-in is bad. You start off just getting a PC for say, spreadsheet and financial reports software, and your business grows, and as it grows, you end up requiring backwards-compatibility with that original machine until you have a supercomputer that runs Mac OS 3 while Apple laughs all the way to their moneybin (aka Bank).