LXVII: Mythbust Monday — The Columbus Special

If you’re from the delightful continent of North America like me, you probably grew up revering a fellow named Christopher Columbus, who has an entire holiday dedicated to him one week from today.  There’s even a little song that goes something like this, although most of us only know the chorus: “In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue”.

Unfortunately, most of what primary schools teach us about Christopher Columbus is utter rubbish; therefore, in celebration of the most undeserved holiday ever celebrated, I present to you, in no particular order, all the myths I was ever taught about Christopher Columbus.

1) His name was Christopher Columbus. In the language of the region of his birth, his name is Christoffa Corombo. It was italicized, spanishized, latinized, and anglicized into the name we recognize.

2) He was Spanish. Columbus was born in the Republic of Genoa, now part of Italy. Spain as we know it did not exist until 1492 when the Catholic Monarchs reconquered Granada. These same Spanish rulers funded Columbus’ expedition even though he was foreign, leading to confusion about what country Columbus was from.

3) He discovered the Americas. First of all, there were already about 90 million people living in the Americas by the time Columbus got there. And even then, the first Europeans to arrive in the Americas were the Vikings nearly 500 years earlier. Columbus simply began the European colonization of the Western Hemisphere.

4) Columbus was trying to prove that the world was round, or he was looking for an undiscovered continent. By the 15th century, it was common knowledge among the educated citizens of Europe that the Earth was round. The Greeks had proved it mathematically in the 4th century B.C. In fact, the circumference of the Earth had been calculated correctly in the 3rd century B.C. What Western Europeans didn’t know was that there was an entire continent on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. They thought it was just a massive expanse of water that eventually reached Asia. Columbus believed the “Ocean Sea” was about 7,000 miles narrower than it actually is, and literally every educated person in Europe new he was wrong and thought he was nuts. The Spanish royalty tossed a relatively small amount of money his way just for the heck of it to let him try to prove that it was easier to sail due west to China than to sail around Africa. The Americas just happened to get in his way.

5) Upon landing in the Bahamas, Columbus thought he was in India, hence the terms “Indies” and “Indians”. Columbus was not interested in India in the slightest. He was looking for an easier trade route to China, which he called Cathay. He was also hoping to find Japan (he called it Cipangu) which he believed was a very large, pear-shaped island located roughly where the Yucatan Peninsula actually lies. He initially believed he had reached some islands off the coast of Japan, but very quickly realized he was in a completely unknown land. “The Indies” was the European term used for the collection of hundreds of islands in Southeast Asia, so that name got attached to this newly discovered collection of islands as well, becoming the West Indies to distinguish from the East Indies.

6) His ships were called the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa María. It was traditional for Spanish ships of the day to bear the names of female saints and be given shorter nicknames. La Pinta was the nickname of one of Columbus’ ships, a caravel, probably because it was painted in a unique way (La Pinta means “The Painted One”), but its original name is unknown. He had a second caravel called Santa Clara but nicknamed La Niña after its owner, Juan Niño de Moguer. The third ship, a large carrack that functioned as the flagship, was called Gallega but was renamed La Santa María de la Inmaculada Concepción for Columbus’ expedition — Santa María for short. During the first voyage, the Santa María ran aground and had to be abandoned. Columbus used a variety of ships for his other expeditions, taking 17 ships for his second voyage, 6 for his third, and 4 for his fourth.

7) Columbus never set foot on the mainland. A lot of people like to bounce around the “fun fact” that Columbus never actually reached America. However, those people are assuming that the term “America” refers to the United States of America rather than the mainlands of North and South America. Columbus did in fact reach the mainland, exploring Venezuela during his third voyage and Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama for most of his fourth voyage before spending an entire year hopelessly lost in Jamaica.

8) Columbus was a hero back in Europe. Turns out most of Europe thought Columbus was a jerk. The people back home (or at least the king and queen of Spain) were enjoying all the gold and new converts to Christianity, but they soon found out that he was doing nasty and tyrannical things like cutting off people’s noses, feeding living and dead natives to dogs, turning 9- and 10-year-old native girls into sex slaves, forcing the natives to provide unattainable quantities of gold every three months on pain of having their hands up off and tied around their necks while they bled to death from their severed wrists, and decreasing the native population of Hispaniola from 3.1 million to only 60,000 in just 14 years. Needless to say, this didn’t go over too well, and Columbus had his governorship stripped and was dragged back to Spain in chains. Suffering from a variety of medical conditions as a result of his travels, he rotted in jail with his brothers for a few weeks before being allowed to beg forgiveness from King Ferdinand, who eventually pardoned him and, after much persuasion, agreed to finance one last voyage on the condition that Columbus would never hold any political power or receive any profits from the New World ever again.

So there you have it, the truth about everything you thought you knew about Christopher Columbus (or should I say Christoffa Colombo?). His record got pretty decently scrubbed after his death, partly by his son, the new governor of Hispaniola, and partly by the rulers of Spain, who did have to give credit to Columbus for helping them get crazy rich. Personally, I think the whole concept of Columbus Day is hogwash. He was kind of a nasty gent, and nasty gents just shouldn’t get holidays.

Advertisements

LXVI: The Pineapple Derby

It’s not exactly breaking news that fruit companies can have sordid passed, often with ties to colonialism or other dreadful nonsense like the Chiquita scandals in the 1990s. But the scurrilous history of of the founder of the Dole Food Company tends to come out of left field, especially since it has nothing to do with pineapples and everything to do with a rather disastrous airplane race.

James Dole was born in 1877 and earned the delightful nickname “The Pineapple King” for his career as America’s pineapple magnate, and there’s really nothing else I could tell you about him that could top that. But for context, I’ll tell you that he moved to Hawaii at the age of 22 with nothing but a dream and a bachelor degree in agriculture. He experimented with a variety of crops on his small Oahu farm before settling on pineapples, and as his farm and his worth continued to grow, he founded the Hawaiian Pineapple Company (HAPCO) in 1901. Inspired by Charles Lindbergh’s historic flight, Dole offered $25,000 for the first person to fly from California to Hawaii (a feat never before attempted) and so the Dole Air Derby was born.

The race was set to begin in Oakland, California, and pilots would be required to travel 2,400 miles over the Pacific to Honolulu, Hawaii. About a month after the reward was posted, the first transpacific flight took place. Actually the first two transpacific flights took place, the first by Army Air Corps pilots making a preplanned flight from Oakland Municipal Airport to Wheeler Army Airfield on Oahu after nearly 26 hours in the air and the second by two civilians who also departed from Oakland Municipal Airport but crash-landed in Molokai. Dole disqualified both flights for not landing in Honolulu. In August, two Navy pilots died in a plane en route to Oakland to begin the race and the next day, a stunt pilot making a test flight before starting his own journey to Hawaii also died in a crash, marking the start of a tragic series of attempted record-breaking flights.

The race officially began on August 16, 1927, with a lineup that had been diminished (by fatal and non-fatal crashes involving potential entrants) to eight planes: Livingston Gilson Irving’s Pabco Flyer, Arthur Goebel and William Davis Jr.’s Woolaroc, Bennett Griffin and Al Henley’s Oklahoma, Martin Jensen and Paul Schluter’s Aloha, Norman Goddard and Kenneth Hawkin’s El Encanto, Jack Frost and Gordon Scott’s Golden Eagle, Auddy Peglar and Vilas Knope’s Miss Doran (named for its passenger Mildred Doran), and William Portwood Erwin and Alvin Eichwaldt’s Dallas Spirit.

The Oklahoma was the first to depart, flying off into the fog and heavy rains at 11 am. The crew quickly abandoned the flight and landed safely when the engine overheated over San Francisco. The next to depart was El Encanto, which swerved off the runway and crashed without ever leaving the ground, thankfully with no casualties. Pabco Flyer made it barely a mile from the airport before it too crashed, also without casualties, and the pilot abandoned the race after crashing again on the second takeoff attempt. Miss Doran made it off the ground, but quickly circled back and landed ten minutes later. Its second attempt, as well as the first takeoff attempts by Golden Eagle, Aloha, and Woolaroc, were all successful. Dallas Flyer also made it off the ground, but promptly circled back to land with significant portions of the fabric covering its fuselage ripped off. At the end of the day, only half of the contests had actually managed to begin the race.

26 hours and 17 minutes later, the Woolaroc landed successfully in Hawaii, earning its pilot and navigator the $25,000 grand prize. Two hours later, the Aloha claimed the $10,000 second prize. The other two planes — Miss Doran and Golden Eagle — were never seen again. Three submarines aided in the unsuccessful search for the downed craft and their five total passengers, and the newly-repaired Golden Eagle and its two crew were also lost over the Pacific during the search efforts, bringing the race’s casualties to seven, not including the three people who perished in attempts to reach Oakland for the start of the race.

Despite the tragedies, the race did have one positive outcome — it paved the way for transpacific air shipping, which meant that business for the Hawaiian Pineapple Company got quite a boost. However, the resulting drop in the price of pineapples and the Great Depression forced Dole to sell majority shares of his company to Castle & Cook. He was forcibly removed from leadership of the company in 1932, and when he died in 1958, one year before Hawaii became a state, he was buried on a hill overlooking the vast expanses of land that had once been his pineapple plantation.

LXV: Why, Evolution, Why?

It’s that time of year again — school bells ringing, coffee steaming, and coeds questioning all their life choices. The start of the school year always leads to a lack of creativity for me, since I can’t get my mind off the ever-fascinating subject of economics. It is my major, so I should probably learn something about it.

As the first few days of class drag on, I realized I have never shared with the world one my absolute favorite conversation topics: animals who got screwed by evolution. My friends say I need better conversation topics.

So without further ado, I present my top 5 favorite critters who are completely out of evolutionary luck.

1. The Colossal Squid: So named because people accidentally named a smaller squid the “giant squid” and realized their mistake too late, the colossal squid is really quite doomed when it comes to overeating. For most animals, the goal is to eat as much as you can whenever you can, because you don’t know when your next meal will be. For colossal squid, this is not really a possibility. The colossal squid has a tiny donut-shaped brain that weighs roughly 22 grams, compared to its average 1250 kilogram total. That’s like a human having a brain the size of a dime. But it’s not just brain size — it’s brain shape. The donut-shaped brain wraps around the squid’s esophagus. Since the esophagus is used to move food to the stomach, anything the squid eats will essentially brush up against its brain. Eat something too big, and a colossal squid can get brain damage, or even die. They compensate by being passive hunters and tearing their food into small pieces using their sharp beaks, but all in all it’s something evolution should have sorted out a while ago.

2. The Kakapoo: This wacky bird is native to New Zealand, and weighing in at a whopping 8 pounds, you would think they could do some serious damage, especially considering that they sport massive claws and large, heavy beaks. Theoretically they could, if they had anything to do damage to. But the kakapoo has no natural predators because New Zealand is populated also entirely by goofy marsupials, so these jumbo-sized birds spend most (read: all) of their time mating wildly. Sounds like an evolutionary jackpot, right? Wrong. The kakapoo is oddly friendly and also entirely flightless, so when humans arrived with all sorts of predatory companion animals, the kakapoos were totally clueless. They waddled their fat flightless butts right up to their new-found predators and were promptly slaughtered into near extinction because even my 90-year-old arthritis-ridden grandma can move faster than they can.

3. The Kiwi: Get it together, New Zealand. Your birds are fat, green, and bad at birding. Like its pal the kakapoo, the kiwi is a chubby green fluff-ball that can’t fly to save its life, and if your mom has ever guilt-tripped you about how difficult your birth was, a kiwi will give her a run for her money. Kiwi birds lay eggs that weigh roughly 20% of their body weight. That’s like a human woman giving birth to a 3- or 4-year-old child. Prehistoric kiwis were the size of cassowaries, and although the adult bird gradually shrank, the egg didn’t. A kiwi egg is so massive relative to the mother’s body that the mother is totally unable to eat for several days before laying it. After giving birth, the kiwi mother just can’t even and walks out, leaving the incubation of her massive egg to the father while she attempts to recuperate. Probably not the best way to create a new generation.

4. The Honeybee: Most of us have been stung by a bee at some point in our lives. If you’re lucky, you’re not allergic and you get to keep on living, but the rest of the time, it’s the honeybee who gets the short end of the stick. Honeybees have a venomous sting, although it won’t do much to an animal the size of a human. When they deploy their stinger, it remains in the victim with the venom sac attached to allow it to continue pumping venom. The only problem is that the venom sac is attached to the rest of the honeybee’s organs. This means that when it stings,  the honeybee leaves behind its stinger and rips out the rest of its internal organs in the process, promptly dying in a blaze of kamikaze glory, never to pass on its genes.

5. The Mayfly: There’s no clever intro conceit for this one. A mayfly just doesn’t have a mouth, ok? It’s stupid. They have a mouth as larvae, and when they metamorphize into adults the mouth disappears and their digestive organs fill up with air. After that it’s just a race to mate as much as they can before they starve to death. Literally every mayfly that doesn’t get eaten by something else will starve to death quite soon. It’s so terrible; not that I like mayflies or want more of them, but it’s just so dumb. I seriously can’t believe evolution let that one slide. That is all.

LXIV: 300% Mortality

Surgeons are some of the most revered members of modern society. Respected for their high level of education and their lifesaving skills, they have a tendency to acquire nicknames, the best taking on pseudonyms like “the quickest knife in the West End” and the worst garnering the likes of “the surgeon with the 300% mortality rate”.

There was in fact one extraordinary man who bore both of those nicknames at once.

Robert Liston was born in West Lothian, Scotland, in 1794. “The Great Northern Anatomist”, as he was sometimes known, was educated at the University of Edinburgh and became a surgeon at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh at the tender age of 24.

Although surgery — and amputation in particular — had been a well-established medical practice for several thousand years, the concept of surgery as a survivable procedure was in relative infancy. Surgeries were quick, crude, dirty, and extremely painful. Nitrous oxide (laughing gas) and its anesthetic properties had been discovered in 1772 and the first operation with the patient under the influence of ether was performed in 1842, but no one gave either of these incredible advancements much note. As a result, anesthesia was not at all widely used during much of Liston’s career as a surgeon.

Without anesthesia, the key to surgery was speed. A patient who was fully conscious was not only suffering tremendous pain, but also had a tendency to move around and make noises, which made operating rather difficult. The go-to procedure of the day was the one-cut amputation, severing skin, muscle, and bone in one fell swoop, and Liston was its master.

Liston was known for his theatrics in the operating room. To the spectators he would cry out, “Time me, gentlemen, time me!” as he whirled about the patient, slashing wildly with his scalpel until he grabbed the bone saw, clenching the bloody scalpel in his teeth as he cut through the bone. “The fastest knife in the West End” could amputate a leg mid-femur in two and a half minutes or a smaller limb in only twenty-eight seconds. Liston recorded his most infamous cases — both bad and good — in his journal, quoted verbatim as follows:

Fourth most famous case

Removal in 4 minutes of a 45-pound scrotal tumour, whose owner had to carry it round in a wheelbarrow.

Third most famous case

Argument with the house-surgeon. Was the red, pulsating tumour in a small boy’s neck a straightforward abscess of the skin, or a dangerous aneurism of the carotid artery? ‘Pooh!’ Liston exclaimed impatiently. ‘Whoever heard of an aneurism in one so young?’ Flashing a knife from his waistcoat pocket, he lanced it. Houseman’s note — ‘Out leaped arterial blood, and the boy fell.’ The patient died but the artery lives, in the University College Hospital pathology museum, specimen No. 1256.

Second most famous case

Amputated the leg in 2½ minutes, but in his enthusiasm the patient’s testicles as well.

Apparently in his enthusiastic desire to the remove the leg as rapidly as possible, Liston was a bit reckless with his scalpel. In his most famous case, he was so reckless that his actually achieved a 300% mortality rate. Liston was hacking away as usual when a bystander got too close and had his coattails chopped off by the doctor’s whirling blade. Though unharmed, he was so frightened that he dropped dead of a heart attack on the spot. Moments later, a surgical assistant made the same mistake, but he lost more than his coattails. The hapless assistant had his fingers amputated along with the patient’s leg, and the wound later became gangrenous, leading to the assistant’s death. To complete the deathly triad, the patient himself acquired gangrene from the unsanitary amputation and died.

But the whole thing only took 2½ minutes.

LXIII: The Waterfront Goat Queen

Female pirates are a popular topic in folklore around the world. Some of the most famous were Irish pirates Grace O’Malley and Anne Bonny and Chinese pirate queen Ching Shih. They were cunning, ruthless, and illusive. But there was one who was absolutely bat-s**t crazy: Sadie the Goat.

Most of her young life is shrouded in mystery because she grew up on the streets of New York City. She was most likely a teen or preteen in the late 1860s when she began her reign of terror and nonsense. She became well-known as a particularly vicious street mugger in the “Bloody” Fourth Ward, a notoriously crime-ridden district of New York City. Born Sadie Farrell, she acquired the nickname “the Goat” because of her tactic of headbutting lone travelers so she could steal their money. She sometimes worked with a male accomplice who would hit the victim with a slingshot if Sadie’s headbutt failed to stun them enough.

Sadie had a running feud with a female bouncer named Gallus Mag. Six feet tall and charged with guarding the door of the Hole in the Wall Bar on Water Street, Gallus Mag once got into a barroom brawl with Sadie, which resulted in Sadie having her ear bitten off. Sadie, more disgraced by the fact that Mag would not return her ear than by the actual loss of the ear itself, slunk off to the waterfront district on Manhattan’s West Side. There she witnessed the Charlton Street Gang try and fail to commandeer a sloop anchored in the river. She offered her help to the hapless hijackers and became the gang’s leader. Under her direction, the Charlton Street Gang stole a much larger sloop, hoisted the Jolly Roger, and set sail.

For several months, Sadie the Goat and her pirate gang sailed up and down the Hudson River and East River raiding small villages and farms, attacking riverside mansions, and kidnapping townspeople for ransom. In keeping with her idea of what pirates do, the “Queen of the Waterfront” was known to force men to walk the plank. Blindfolded, bound, and occasionally weighted down, they died of hypothermia, drowning, or shark attack.

After a little while, the farmers along the rivers figured out shooting at the Queen of the Waterfront was a pretty good way to keep her off their land. With their success dwindling, Sadie the Goat and her gang returned to New York City. There, Sadie returned to the Hole in the Wall and made peace with Gallus Mag, who, as a gesture of friendship, removed Sadie’s ear from the pickling jar she’d been proudly displaying it in and returned it to its owner. Sadie wore her severed ear in a locket around her neck for the rest of her life.

After her meeting with Mags, Sadie the Goat faded back into obscurity. No one knows what she did with herself after her short-lived career as a river pirate or how long she lived, but we can be sure that whatever she was up to, it was outlandish, wild, and very illegal.

LXII: Let’s Talk About Sax

Many musical instruments in popular use today can trace their roots back hundreds, even thousands of years to their earliest known form. Drums, flutes, and trumpets, are some of the oldest in existence, while other popular instruments such as the piano are products of the Renaissance. One of the most well-known and widely used is also one of the newest: the saxophone.

The saxophone was invented in 1846 by Adolphe Sax. Born Antoine-Joseph Sax in Belgium in 1814, he was interested in music from a very young age. He was trained as a flautist and clarinetist and at the age of 15, he entered his modified designs for those two instruments into an instrument design contest. He took a lot of inspiration from his parents, who had had made some significant contributions to the French horn as we know it.

Sax’s first major undertaking in instrument design was his attempt at improving the bass clarinet. After patenting his new bass clarinet design in 1838, he moved to Paris and began work on a series of valved bugles. The valved bugle — a curved brass instrument with a conical bore whose pitch was controlled by three valves — was a new concept that would eventually reinvented the trumpet, and Sax’s valved bugles were so successful that a new family of instruments was named after him: the saxhorns. The seven saxhorns he invented were quite similar to existing cornets and tubas, but the flugelhorn would take a lot of inspiration from the saxhorn. To combat rampant lawsuits resulting from his claims to have invented the valved bugle, Sax created a new family of saxhorns in 1845 with much narrower bores and longer bells, calling these instruments the saxotrombas and defining them as “intermediate between the saxhorn and the cylinder trumpet.” Despite copyright claims, the saxhorns were wildly popular. The British were incredibly fond of them and developed bands formed entirely of saxhorns. Few (if any) changes have been made to the design of the saxhorn valve since its invention.

As the 1840s drew on, Sax returned to his early work on creating low-pitched clarinets. He invented the clarinette-bourdon, a very unsuccessful first draft of a contrabass clarinet, and while attempting to improve the tone of the bass clarinet by curving the bell into a “J” shape and molding it out of metal to bridge the gab between woodwind and brass, he created an entirely new instrument — the saxophone.

The saxophone is a single-reeded woodwind instrument pitched in B♭and E♭ which when overblown rises in pitch by an octave, unlike the clarinet which rises a twelfth. Sax designed a full range of seven saxophones, from sopranino to subcontrabass. When his patent expired in 1866, a number of other instrument makers made alterations to the saxophone. Thanks to these alterations to the saxophone by others without crediting Sax and Sax’s alterations to existing instruments without crediting the proper inventors, a number of lawsuits arose, and by 1856, Sax was bankrupt and suffering from mouth cancer.

In 1857, luck turned back on his side when he was offered a job teaching saxophone at the Paris Conservancy and his cancer was in remission. He suffered another bout of mouth cancer in 1858 and went bankrupt a second time in 1873, but raging popularity of the saxophone, despite being the most expensive woodwind instrument of its day, refused to die.

Sax, however, passed away in 1894 at the ripe old age of 79, and to this day, his name and the name he gave to his musical invention is famous worldwide.

LXI: The Night Presser

We’ve all got that one weird friend of a friend of a friend. You know, that one mystical person who sold coffee to a celebrity or got murdered by a vengeful spirit at a sleepover or got abducted by aliens. So when your oversharing coworkers says their cousin went to summer camp with a guy who’s uncle got abducted by aliens, you always wonder if alcohol was involved.

But what if the only thing involved in that alien abduction was sleep?

The normal process of falling asleep involves a few important components. The most obvious is a loss of consciousness, but after the sleeper becomes unconscious, the body paralyzes itself in order to keep from acting out its dreams. When someone regains recovers from their paralysis without regaining consciousness, they go sleepwalking. When the opposite happens, chaos ensues.

Waking up from sleep without recovering from the body’s natural state of paralysis is called “sleep paralysis”, which makes sense. But sleep paralysis is not nearly as innocuous as it sounds. Apparently the body’s natural reaction to waking up completely unable to move is to hallucinate wildly until your brain gets its stuff together.

One of the most common hallucinations, experienced by nearly everyone who has ever had sleep paralysis, is the sensation of a threatening presence in the room, known as “the intruder” or “the incubus”. Since eye movement is the only movement possible during sleep paralysis, sleepers often claim to watch the intruder enter the room or approach them. One of my roommates once hallucinated a friend of ours sitting in a chair in the corner of her room before standing up, turning into a demon, and attacking her. She unfortunately experiences recurrent isolated sleep paralysis (RISP), a rare condition that causes her to experience extended episodes of sleep paralysis chronically, even as often as twice in one night. Most people who experience sleep paralysis, however, are experiencing isolated sleep paralysis (ISP) and will likely only have an episode once in their life. I had an episode several years ago in which I hallucinating a man made of steam kneeling above my head and slowly attempting to suffocate me. After about thirty seconds (standard duration for a sleep paralysis episode) I was able to lift my arm to touch what I thought was the steam man’s face, only to wake up with my arm sticking straight up into empty air.

The exact cause of sleep paralysis and the reason for its hallucinatory effects are somewhat unclear. For people with ISP, it is more or less a quick glitch in the brain’s sleep pattern. But for people with RISP, the explanation is more complicated. It’s definitely a neurological cause, likely related to other sleep disorders such as narcolepsy and sleep apnea, as well as anxiety disorders, depression, and migraines. It’s believed the the hallucinations are the brain’s attempt to explain the paralysis, which in my opinion makes the brain sound like kind of an idiot. The brain, unable to recognize that it’s just done the waking-up process in the wrong order and nothing is actually horribly wrong, recognizes the vulnerable state of the paralyzed body and goes into high alert. Unable to recognize that the brain itself is the cause of this vulnerable and intensely anxious state, the brain tries to determine the threat by just creating one in the form of a non-exist demon. Essentially your brain gets confused, panics, and then gets real goofy about trying to resolve the issue.

Many people who believe to be possessed by demons, visited by ghosts, abducted by aliens, or to have had out-of-body experiences may just be experiencing sleep paralysis. These incredibly vivid hallucinations are extremely easy to mistake for reality, and they often involve strange-looking creatures entering the room uninvited and threatening harm to the vulnerable sleeper. I myself was nearly convinced I had been almost murdered by a ghost until I remembered that ghosts aren’t real and starting doing some research on my experience.

Sleep paralysis is a shockingly common subject of artwork and folklore, although many artists in earlier eras did not know that sleep paralysis was what they were depicting. The incubus and succubus, folkloric demons believed to force sexual encounters with incapacitated sleeping victims, exist in various forms in a wide variety of cultures and are believed to be an early interpretation of sleep paralysis hallucinations. Cousin to the incubus and succubus is the night hag (also known as an ifrit, mare, dab tsog, pisadeira, or phi am in various cultures), who sits on the chests of innocent sleepers just for kicks. Most believe indigestion or sleeping with a full stomach attracts the night hag, and the only way to get rid of it is to touch it, steal something from it, or fight its crushing weight enough to move one’s body. Henry Fuseli’s 1781 painting The Nightmare depicts a demon sitting on a woman’s chest as she sleeps, as does Eugène Thivier’s 1894 sculpture by the same name. Even Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol may be experiencing sleep paralysis when he is visited in his bed by the unwelcome ghost of his former business partner.

The best advice for avoiding sleep paralysis is to know it can’t really be avoided, although the Household Cyclopedia (1881) suggests you not study immediately after eating and that you avoid foods that give you gas, so that’s always an option.

LX: The White Lion

Sir Nicholas Winton was born Nicholas George Wertheim on May 19, 1909, to German-Jewish parents living in Britain. He left school early to work at a bank, and by 1931, he was working as a highly qualified banker in France before returning to London to work as a stockbroker. He was a strong anti-appeasement activist and joined a group of likeminded thinkers who were concerned about the dangers posed by the Nazi party from very early on.

In 1938, Winton postponed his skiing holiday to help out a friend in the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia. He was working for the welfare of Jewish refugees, and he singlehandedly set up an organization that provided aid to Jewish children from families under threat by the Nazis, working from his own hotel dining room. After Kristallnacht, the British House of Commons (along with the rest of the world) became fully aware of the very real danger posed by the Nazis, particularly to the Jewish community, and authorized the immigration of any Jewish refugee aged 17 or younger, as long as they had a place to stay and £50 savings to pay for their eventual return to their home country. For Winton, this was an opportunity.

Winton had visited Jewish refugee camps in Prague before Kristallnacht, and he was convinced (rightly so) that the Nazis would soon sweep across the continent, threatening many more Jewish communities. Britain had organized the Kindertransport, an effort to transport young Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria to Britain, but there was no major effort to get Jewish children out of Nazi-threatened Czechoslovakia. That’s where Winton came in. He reviewed applications from parents in his hotel in Prague, and eventually opened an office. As his organization grew, Winton returned to England to raise money for the transportation of the children and the mandatory £50 guarantee. He worked his regular job as a stockbroker by day, and in the evenings he tracked down donors an British families willing to foster the refugee children. The first plane full of refugee children left Czechoslovakia on March 14, 1939, exactly one day before the Nazis moved in to occupy the country. Winton would organize seven more transports by train until he was forced to stop in September of 1939 when Britain entered the war. A final transport was to leave Prague on September 3rd, but when it was announced that Britain had declared war on Germany that day, the train — and all 250 children on board — mysteriously disappeared, almost certainly taken by the Nazis. Winton always expressed extreme sadness at not being able to save those children.

No one knew what incredible feat Winton had accomplished for many years. He kept a scrapbook of the children he’d helped rescue — 664 of them. It was not until this scrapbook was found by his wife Grete in 1988 that the world came to know Nicholas Winton. He received numerous thank-yous from all over the world, including a personal letter from Ezer Weizman, former President of the State of Israel, and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for services to humanity in 2003 at the age of 96. As Winton stepped out into the public eye, more children who were not listed in his scrapbook were found. An additional 5 children transported to Britain by Winton were identified, bringing the known number of children he saved up to 669, though the actually number is suspected to be much higher.

Last year, at the age of 105, Winton was awarded honorary Czech citizenship, as well as the highest honor given by the Czech Republic — the Order of the Lion, Class I. Over the years he has been reunited with hundreds of the children he saved, most of whom are now in their eighties. His life has been the subject of three movies and a play, and last month he celebrated his 106th birthday, because if anyone deserves a very long and very happy life, it’s this incredible man.

LIX: The Birds

Australia has a lengthy and notable military history. Over the years, the island nation has gone to war with New Zealand, Sudan, South Africa, China, Somalia, East Timor, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and been involved in both World Wars, the Korean War, Vietnam War, Gulf War, Russian Civil War, and a variety of regional conflicts and peacekeeping missions, the majority of which ended positively on the Australian side. But in 1932, Australia found itself embroiled in a bitter internal conflict against a homegrown enemy who was intelligent, agile, aggressive, and entirely covered in feathers.

It was the emu.

In late 1932, the Campion district of Western Australia was amok with large, flightless birds. And if there’s one thing you should know about large flightless birds, it’s that they are exceptionally aggressive. Emus can reach up to six feet tall and have tridactyl toes fitted with long, sharp claws. Another set of claws can be found at the end of each vestigial wing, and these nasty critters can have a stride of up to nine feet and reach speeds upwards of 30 miles per hour, and they look absolutely demonic. So when these nasty little dinosaurs raged out of control, destroying farmlands in Western Australia, the ex-soldiers who owned those farms decided to take matters into their own hands. With machine guns.

At the behest of the besieged farmers, Australia’s Minister of Defense authorized the sending of several machine guns and soldiers trained in their use to Western Australia to combat the flightless frustrations. But they didn’t count on one thing — despite having incredibly tiny brains for their overall body size, emus are actually rather smart. Emus have no particular fear of humans, and have actually been known to come up and peck at humans for the sheer purpose of eliciting a reaction. Nevertheless, troops were deployed on November 2nd, hoping to return home shortly with brand new emu feathers in their caps.

It didn’t go so well. At first, the Royal Australian Artillery managed to kill a few birds a day, but the emus quickly learned how to avoid the machine guns. It didn’t take long for the emus to determine exactly what a machine gun’s range was and could often be seen happily feeding just out of firing range, as if mocking the artillery. Even mounting the machine guns on trucks was unsuccessful, since the emus easily outran the vehicle. The first week of the four-week conflict saw only a few hundred birds killed with 2,500 rounds fired — barely making a dent in the 20,000 birds known to the roaming the area. The emus seemed immune to gunfire, able to run away at full speed and recover even after having been struck with several bullets. Disappointed with these results, the Australia House of Representatives decided to withdraw the military personnel.

As the weather grew hotter, the emu problem grew worse. The Premier of Western Australia started his own military effort against the birds, and his brief success prompted the Minister of Defense to reissue troops and weapons to the region. Yet there was still little success. As ornithologist Dominic Serventy described it, “The Emu command had evidently ordered guerrilla tactics”. They spread out, making it difficult for the machine guns to target them. By early December, some reports had casualties at as many as 100 emus per week, but the amount of manpower and the number of rounds require to achieve those 100 emu deaths was extremely impractical; according to some reports, it required a minimum of ten bullets to bring down one emu. By December 10th, it was clear that the emus had won.

The farmers of Western Australia would request a rematch with the three-toed terrors again in 1934, 1943, and 1948, but the Great Emu War was the first and last time the Australian military would be involved.

It seems the emus failed to be flattered by their honorable place on the Australian Coat of Arms and insisted upon asserting their dominance as the avian emperors of the outback.

LVIII: The Amber Room

The Nazi are fairly infamous for a wide variety of atrocities in a wide variety of categories, and one of the most bizarre and well-known has to be large-scale art theft. Pieces by famous masters such as Matisse, Degas, Raphael, Renoir, and Picasso were among among the masterpieces looted from museums across Europe as the German army swept over them. They managed to seize and move pieces as large as the Ghent Altarpiece across the continent. But that pales in comparison with their most massive prize: an entire room.

It wasn’t just any room, and they didn’t just hack it out of a building and truck it back to the fatherland. It was the Amber Room, a series of carved amber panels adorned with mirrors and gold leaf designed to cover the walls of a room. Construction on this “Eighth Wonder of the World” began in 1701 in Prussia under the supervision of German and Dutch artists and craftsmen. In 1716, it was given as a gift from King Frederick William I of Prussia to his ally, Tsar Peter the Great of Russia. The Russians made a few modifications, bringing the total size of the Amber Room to 590 square feet and 13,000 pounds of amber.

Hitler and his Nazi regime had created a massive cult of personality, and part of that ideology included the concept of a proud Aryan ancestry that had little to no basis in factual history. Reclaiming this ancestral birthright would involve recovering anything that the Germans perceived was rightfully theirs and had been stolen by other nations, including artwork and land. This included the Amber Room, which had actually been given away as a gift.

Germany invaded Russia on June 22, 1941. Art curators in Leningrad were aware of the looting being carried out by the Kunstschutz (literally “art protection”) who swept across Europe behind the German army, “saving” valuable works of German art while simultaneously destroying Jewish art and collecting “degenerate” art such as Impressionist pieces to sell for cash. Some of the loot was destined for the Fuhrer Museum in Linz, but most of it was horded by high-ranking Nazis such as Hermann Goering. To save the exquisite Amber Room from this fate, the Leningrad curators tried to disassemble the Amber Room in order to hide it, but age had made the amber brittle, and it could not be moved without crumbling the amber. They tried to hide the precious art behind mundane wallpaper, but the Nazis knew what to look for, and the attempt to conceal the Amber Room quickly failed.

Germany’s Army Group North, accompanied by two art experts, disassembled the Amber Room in October of 1941 and shipped it to Königsberg in East Prussia where it was reassembled and proudly put on display in Königsberg Castle. Where the war began to draw to a close in 1945, with Germany clearly on the losing side, Hitler order the removal of all cultural treasures from Königsberg in order to save them from Allied troops. Albert Speer and his team began transporting various artworks, but before the Amber Room could be moved, Königsberg’s head of civil administration fled the city, stalling all efforts to hide the city’s treasures.

The Red Army moved in to occupy Königsberg on April 9, 1945, but the Amber Room was nowhere to be found. Soviet propaganda claimed the Germans had stolen the precious artwork which was rightfully theirs, haven been gifted to Russia over 200 years earlier. The Amber Room was never seen again after the war, and it was not until the end of the 20th century that clues about its disappearance emerged. Several witnesses claimed to have seen parts of the disassembled Amber Room being loaded onto the MV Wilhelm Gustloff on January 30, 1945. The ship, which was being used to help Germans living in Prussia flee  from the advancing Red Army, was torpedoed by a Soviet submarine and sank in what was the largest loss of life in any single maritime disaster in history. Now considered a war grave, diving is not permitted within 500 meters of the wreck, and it has never been explored.

Other evidence showed the Amber Room was not lying on the bottom of the Baltic Sea. One of four Italian stone mosaics that had once been part of the Amber Room was found in Germany in 1997 in the possession of a former soldier who claimed he had helped pack up the Amber Room in the last days before the Soviet occupation of Königsberg. A year later, a German team claimed they had found the Amber Room in a silver mine, while a Lithuanian team claimed to have located it at the bottom of a lagoon. Both leads proved to be false. A lengthy investigation by British journalists in 2004 produced more definitive, albeit tragic; they concluded that the Amber Room had been destroyed during the first three days of the Soviet occupation, when Königsberg Castle was heavily bombed and then set ablaze, essentially razing the structure to the ground. They proved that the Italian stone mosaics found in Germany had been taken from the burned rubble of the castle, only surviving due to their sturdy stone construction.

The Amber Room shared its tragic fate with a great number of valuable artworks looted by the Nazis. Much of the Nazi plunder was accidentally destroyed in the bombing of Germany at the end of the war, while some was hidden or secretly sold off. Some artworks even followed their Nazis owners across the globe as they fled the Allied advance. While a great many works of art were saved by the Allied Monuments Men and returned to the rightful homes, others became innocent victims of Hitler’s delusions.