Mount Tambora & Frankenstein

The eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815 led to the creation of Frankenstein.

Mount Tambora is a volcano on the island of Sumbawa, Indonesia and on April 5, 1815 it began a monumental multi-day eruption. The eruption is still the largest volcanic eruption in recorded human history, the estimated equivalent of a 14,000-megaton nuclear bomb. It was so powerful it removed the top 4,750 feet of the volcano, reducing it to 9,350 feet tall as it sent more than 38 cubic miles of debris into the sky. The explosion was so loud it was heard 1,600 miles away, the equivalent of an explosion in Philadelphia being heard in Denver.

The 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora, on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa, cause global devastation.

The eruption immediately killed over 10,000 people on the island. All of the island’s vegetation was destroyed and the water was poisoned which led to starvation and disease killing a further 37,825 Sumbawanese people. As the tsunami it generated, and the ash it expelled, spread to other islands, it killed off more vegetation and more people. Over 71,000 people are believed to have died in the immediate area of Indonesia from the eruption. However, with so much material being sent into the sky, the full impact of the eruption was only beginning.

Into the Stratosphere and Around the World

The long-term effects of the eruption were caused by the gases & ash sent into the stratosphere 141,000 feet into the sky. The sulfur dioxide (SO2) released caused a global greenhouse effect, blocking out sunlight and changing weather patterns. While the effects were spread around the world they were worse in the northern hemisphere. The cold weather and constant rain (such as the 8 weeks of “unceasing and extraordinary rain” in Ireland) killed crops around Europe causing food shortages in what became the worst famine in 19th century mainland Europe. Over 65,000 people died around the British Isles as a result of a typhus epidemic which was made worse by the volcanic induced weather. A new strain of cholera also developed in this weather, killing thousands more.

In North America a dry fog descended on the northeastern states which lasted for months. The extended cold was felt up & down the eastern seaboard. On the 4th of July the high in Savannah, Georgia was only 46° F. Rivers and lakes were still frozen in Pennsylvania in August. The extreme weather and bitter cold is believed to have been a catalyst for the westward expansion across America – people wanted to find a place that wasn’t awful. The eruption of Mount Tambora lowered global temperatures by 0.7 to 1.3 °F but its particularly brutal effects on the northern hemisphere is why 1816 came to be known as the “year without a summer.” The initial volcanic eruption, the extreme cold, the unusual weather patterns, as well as the spread of diseases resulted in a global death toll in the hundreds of thousands.

Silver Lining

Despite the adversity there were some positives. German inventor Karl Drais was motivated to find an alternate means of transportation to the horse (since horses require food which was in short supply at the time). He invented the first bicycle, the Laufmaschine, in 1817.

The eruption caused strange dark colors in the skies captured by a variety of painters of the day.

In the arts painters were inspired by the unusual hazy skies. Particulate matter from Mount Tambora hung in the stratosphere frequently blocking the shorter wavelength colors of blue light. A study of paintings from between 1500 to 1900 found that the paintings around 1816 got redder & darker than other time periods. The polluted skies might have made for more depressing daily life but they made for some great paintings.

But perhaps the greatest byproduct of the year without a summer was in literature. In the summer of 1816 a group of English friends traveled to Cologny near Lake Geneva in Switzerland. They hoped to escape the bad weather of England but ended up in even more rain. Sitting around with nothing to do Lord Byron proposed everyone write a ghost story. John William Polidori, Byron’s personal physician, took a story idea by Byron and eventually wrote 1819’s The Vampyre, the first modern vampire story.

The year without a summer generated two of the most influential stories in Gothic horror.

An 18 year old Mary Godwin had trouble coming up with a story until (literally) one dark & stormy night, sometime after midnight, she had a “waking dream” of a pale man kneeling beside the thing he had put together that showed signs of life. With the encouragement/help of her soon to be husband Percy Shelley, Mary (Godwin) Shelley had the beginnings of Frankenstein. In 1818 Mary Shelley published Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, considered the first science-fiction story.

From one miserable vacation, caused by a volcano thousands of miles away, two of the most defining works of the Gothic horror genre were born.

Why are barns red?

Barns are red because of an abundance of iron from exploding stars.

Barns get painted because it helps protect them from the elements where, if left untreated, they would rot. In the spirit of Louis Sullivan that “form follows function”, barns are painted for practical reasons more so than artistic ones. Red was originally chosen because it was the cheapest paint. It was the cheapest paint because of exploding stars.

Stardust

Iron is the most abundant element on Earth, making up 32.1% by mass. The iron on rocky planets such as Earth came from red giant stars which produced iron atoms towards the end of their lives. Once a star is producing iron it’s on a one-way ticking timeline towards going supernova. When the star finally explodes it sends elements across space, including iron.

Because of an abundance of iron in the soil, the easiest (and cheapest) paint to produce was red.

Fast-forward billions of years, in the mid 19th century American farmers began painting their barns with homemade paint. Farmers mixed skimmed milk, lime, linseed oil, and the readily available red iron oxide found in clay soil to create red paint. Red paint protected the wood from rot as well as from mold since iron oxide (rust essentially) kills mold. By the late 19th century when commercially produced paints were more widely available red paint was still cheaper than other colors and so farmers continued painting their barns red. Today barns are painted red largely out of tradition.

the Bystander Effect

In larger groups people become less likely to help. When people are waiting for someone to do something, maybe you’re the person who should do something.

The bystander effect is a psychological theory where, the more people who are present the less likely someone is to help a person in need. Alone you would probably help but in a crowd you just expect someone else to do something. We regularly hear stories in the news or have examples in our own lives of situations that could have been avoided if someone in the crowd had acted – people who knew someone was dangerous but never told the authorities, people who witness harassment at work but never speak up, the driver broken-down on the side of the highway that everyone drives past, etc.

Part of why this happens is a “diffusion of responsibility” where members of a crowd feel less responsible to take action. “There are so many people here I bet someone else has already called an ambulance” or “someone else is probably more qualified to help”. Of course, if everyone assumes someone else will take action then nobody does.

Another reason this happens is social influence. People look around and take their cues from how others are behaving. We’re social creatures and most of us don’t like to go against the crowd. We try and fit in by doing what other people are doing. If a crowd of people seem unconcerned by something, and they continue going about their day as usual, you are less likely to go against the crowd and take action.

Less Likely To Help (… Some Conditions Apply)

While it is true that the larger the crowd the less likely someone is to assist, there are some caveats. For example: while we take our cues from how others around us are behaving, and if nobody is helping we are less likely to help, the opposite is also true. If other people are lending a hand then we’re actually more likely to help.

People are also more likely to help when a situation is a clear emergency. Ambiguous situations that aren’t life-threatening aren’t as likely to get assistance as an obvious emergency. Also someone who is trained to assist in an emergency is more likely to intervene. For example a medical professional who regularly helps people is more likely to provide assistance even if the rest of the crowd won’t. We’re also more likely to lend assistance to people who we perceive as part of our in-group, our “uchi” (people wearing the jersey of a team we support, people with political bumper stickers we agree with, etc).

I Need Help

If you find yourself in an emergency and there is a crowd of people, there are things you can do to improve your chances of getting help. The first thing is to make it clear you need help. Remove any ambiguity by clearly stating you need help. Singling people out also improves your chances. Make eye contact with individuals, ask them for help, tell them what you need. Directly appealing to individuals improves your chances of receiving help.

As for being a bystander, remember that you are someone. Instead of waiting for someone else to take action maybe you’re the very someone who should take action. If you were the only person around how would you behave? If you begin to help you increase the chances that other people will join in and help too, canceling out the bystander effect.

Added info: while many examples of the bystander effect exist, the definitive example is the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese in New York City. Multiple people heard and even saw her being attacked but failed to take action until it was too late. There is a very good Stuff You Should Know episode about this case as well as a documentary.

Muffler Men

The roadside giants of the 1960s used to lure in customers.

Muffler men are the giant fiberglass statues found along American roadsides. For 10 years starting in 1962 the International Fiberglass company of California turned out hundreds of figures in a variety of styles. The first was a 20ft Paul Bunyan holding an axe for the Paul Bunyan Cafe on Route 66 in Flagstaff, Arizona but later figures included cowboys, Indians, astronauts, golfers, vikings, etc. While their heights ranged from 14-25ft tall they all tended to have a similar basic pose (because the tooling to create new poses was expensive). The basic pose was to have the arms extended to hold something (such as a car muffler, hence the nickname).

While these three muffler men are different in style the basic design is the same. The Paul Bunyan on the right most likely had an axe but now holds an American flag.

These roadside giants were sold as attention getters. Similar to Googie architecture, muffler men were built to catch the attention of drivers as they sped down the road. An American Oil gas station in Las Vegas installed a Paul Bunyan in the early 1960s and reported that their sales doubled after installing the giant. This was the beginning of an “invasion” of giants around America. The craze lasted for about a decade until the price of materials increased and the novelty wore off in the early 1970s. As for the price, a new character originally cost between $1,800 to $2,800 depending on the complexity, but today these giant pieces of Americana can fetch between $15,000 to $20,000 or more.

The ice cream man and the American Indian are basically the same design but with a few modifications. The Mortimer Snerd muffler man on the right is the same design but with a different head.

Added info: you can still find muffler men around America. This map from RoadsideAmerica shows you where to find them and what kinds of statues they are. You can also find more examples of these giants on Roadside Architecture as well as American Giants.

Auld Lang Syne

The nostalgic song toasting times gone by that has spread around the world.

Auld Lang Syne started as a traditional Scottish folk song. The lyrics were written down, added to, and made famous by 18th century Scottish national poet Robert Burns in 1788. In the late 18th century Burns was touring Scotland collecting folk songs & poetry when he recorded Auld Lang Syne and submitted it to The Scots Musical Museum.

Burns contributed hundreds of songs to the Museum whose intention was to preserve the fading Scots language & culture which was becoming increasingly influenced by English culture. As such Auld Lang Syne is written partially in English but also partially in Scots (which is a Germanic derived Scottish language, different than “Scottish” which is a Celtic Gaelic derived language). The lyrics were originally set to a few different melodies but in 1799 they were paired with the melody we know today.

Written down and added to by Robert Burns, Auld Lang Syne has become the unofficial theme song of New Year’s.

What is it and why New Year’s Eve?

Because the lyrics are partially in Scots most people don’t know exactly what the song means. The title “auld lang syne” in Scots translates to “old long since” or more loosely as “for the sake of the good old days gone by”. The song is a toast to friendship and to the fond memories of days gone by.

Given the song’s spirit of looking back while looking forward it became a standard sung every Hogmanay (the Scottish New Year’s Eve). Its association with New Year’s in North America was because of Guy Lombardo. On New Year’s Eve 1928 Guy Lombardo and The Royal Canadians big band hosted a concert at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City and at the stroke of midnight they played Auld Lang Syne. For the next 47 years they played NYE concerts and every midnight they played Auld Lang Syne, earning Lombardo the nickname of “Mr. New Year’s Eve”. When Dick Clark created Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve from Times Square in 1972 he too played Lombardo’s version of Auld Lang Syne at midnight. Since then the song has become synonymous with New Year’s.

Guy Lombardo’s classic 1947 rendition of Auld Lang Syne.

Around the World

While the song is internationally recognized as the unofficial theme song of New Year’s Eve the melody has been used in other ways. The Korean national anthem Aegukga originally used the melody of Auld Lang Syne until 1948 when it was replaced with an original melody. It was also the melody of the national anthem of the Maldives, Qaumii salaam, until 1972 when it too was replaced with an original melody.

The Dutch song Wij houden van Oranje (which translates to “We Love Orange”) is a national soccer chant set to the melody of Auld Lang Syne. Also in Japan the melody is used for for the graduation ceremony song Hotaru no Hikari, the melody is used to mark the end of the day in department stores, etc.

QI discusses the history of Auld Lang Syne

Toasting the Past, Looking Forward

Like the Roman god Janus, Auld Lang Syne is a seasonal reminder to look back at the days gone by but also look ahead to the future. It’s a nostalgic song that toasts the people with us today as well as the people with us in spirit.

Poinsettia

The Mexican plant that has become a standard part of Christmas (and isn’t poisonous).

The poinsettia comes from Mexico & Guatemala and, in its untamed form, grows to be fairly gangly and around 10ft tall. Over the centuries it’s been selectively bred to be about 2ft tall with very dense foliage. The most well-known characteristic of the poinsettia is of course the bright red leaves along the top of the plant. These red leaves are not flowers but are the bracts of the poinsettia – specialized leaves that are different than the rest of the plant (the actual flowers, aka. the cyathia, are the small buds at the center of the red bracts). These special leaves are green until late autumn when, in the cooler shorter days, they turn red.

Poinsett to Poinsettia

While the plant had already been known & used by the Aztecs for dyes and medicine, it came to the attention of the Western world through US Minister to Mexico (and amateur botanist) Joel Roberts Poinsett. While the plant had already been collected around 1803 by German scientific superstar Alexander von Humboldt, it was re-discovered by Poinsett who introduced the plant to the US.

In 1828 Poinsett sent plants & seeds to Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia (contrary to internet rumoring, there is no definitive proof that he sent poinsettia plants home to his native South Carolina). In 1835 Scottish horticulturalist and active member of the Philadelphia Horticultural Society, Robert Buist named the plant the Euphorbia Poinsettia in honor of Poinsett. Buist also helped introduce the poinsettia to Europe.

Named for US Minister to Mexico Joel Roberts Poinsett, the poinsettia has been a standard part of Christmas for over a century.

Paul Ecke Ranch

Over the next century the poinsettia was cultivated into different varieties – shorter, taller, different colors, different patterns. The Paul Ecke Ranch of California have cultivated and sold poinsettias since the early 20th century. Having successfully produced cultivars which were more beautiful, more compact, and sturdier than other varieties, the Ecke family began to create and then dominate the market.

For decades they would send free poinsettias from November through December to a variety of media outlets. Ecke Rach poinsettias appeared on the Tonight Show, Bob Hope Christmas specials, the Dinah Shore Show, in magazines such as Ladies Home Journal and Better Homes & Gardens – all of which furthered the popularity and demand for poinsettias at Christmas. Today the Ecke Ranch (who were sold to the Agribio Group in 2012) is the largest poinsettia producer in the world with about a 50% share of the global market and around 70% of the domestic US market.

That Plant is … Safe

Poinsettias are not poisonous. While you or your pets probably shouldn’t eat the leaves of a poinsettia, you wouldn’t be struck dead if you did. The myth that they are deadly most likely goes back to 1919 when a child in Hawaii died of poisoning which was wrongly attributed to the poinsettia leaf. Research has shown that you would have to eat hundreds of leaves to produce mild irritation or vomiting at most. Given that the leaves are unpalatable and very bitter it’s unlikely you would eat enough to suffer the consequences.

the Nirvana Fallacy

Sometimes an imperfect solution is better than waiting for a perfect one.

The nirvana fallacy (aka the “perfect solution fallacy”) is when you compare an imperfect option to an idealized perfect option. Basically it’s when you dislike/reject an option just because it isn’t perfect. Rather than weighing the merits of realistic (albeit flawed) options, you pit realistic options up against unrealistic perfect options.

Something is better than nothing

In the world of COVID we see this with wearing masks. When you board a plane or enter a restaurant you have to wear a mask, you can remove your mask to eat or drink, but then you have to put your mask back on. This leads some to think “Well why even bother wearing the mask if we’re just going to take it off?”, but this is fallacious. The perfect solution would be to stay at home or to wear your mask all the time, but this is unrealistic. Even though temporarily removing your mask is flawed, to wear your mask at all is still better than never wearing a mask. The imperfect solution is better than not even attempting a solution just because it isn’t perfect (which, spoiler, the perfect solution neither exists nor will it ever exist).

The nirvana fallacy frequently finds its way into public policy debates. When some policy doesn’t fully solve a problem its political opponents will attack it for its flaws. However, no realistic solution will ever go far enough to satisfy all critics. Good governance is choosing the best possible available solution knowing that all options will be flawed.

When weighing your options don’t reject an option just because it isn’t perfect — all options will be imperfect. By holding out for the perfect option you can do more harm than good. Doing something is frequently better than doing nothing at all.

“Perfect is the enemy of good.” – Voltaire

Christmas Ghost Stories

Stemming from ancient pagan traditions, it used to be customary to tell ghost stories at Christmas.

In the northern hemisphere, Christmas comes at the darkest time of the year. Knowing that Jesus was not born in December, the date of December 25th was chosen for multiple reasons but not least of which was to usurp various pagan winter solstice holidays. Before people gathered together for Christmas they would gather together around fires (such as the Yule log) for various pagan winter holidays on the longest nights of the year during which they would tell stories. Similar to Halloween it was thought that in these long nights the veil between this world and the next was thin allowing spirits to pass back and forth. As such many people told ghost stories of revenants back from the dead, spirits, and other supernatural creatures.

As people adopted Christianity, winter ghost stories went from being a pagan tradition to a Christmas tradition. By the 17th century the Lord and Protector of England Oliver Cromwell tried to eliminate Christmas ghost stories because of their pagan origins. Cromwell also outlawed a host of other Christmas traditions including caroling and feasts (and that’s not even the worst of Cromwell’s legacy). These traditions eventually came back post-Cromwell but by then some were seen as old-fashioned.

Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol became the most famous Christmas ghost story of all time.

A Christmas Carol

Christmas ghost stories achieved a new kind of popularity in the Victorian Era through the Industrial Revolution. As the oral tradition of Christmas ghost stories moved to print, old traditional stories as well as new Christmas stories saw a surge in popularity through magazines, novellas, and book collections. Charles Dickens’s 1843 A Christmas Carol took the tradition to a new level.

A Christmas Carol is a ghost story. It’s easier to see it as a ghost story if you remove the Christmas trappings by placing it in another time of year. Unlike the traditional Christmas ghost stories Dickens reinvented the genre by including moral lessons of forgiveness, good deeds, generosity, etc. His ghosts served as a catalyst towards redemption which was very different than the ghosts of other stories which were primarily used for a good scare. Soon the redemptive, somewhat saccharine, aspects of A Christmas Carol were adopted by other authors and the scary ghost portions of Christmas stories slowly fell by the wayside.

Today we rarely associate scary ghost stories with Christmas. Similar to how Santa Claus and Krampus are a seasonal version of good cop/bad cop, we’ve mostly relegated our scary stories to Halloween while telling our hopeful happy stories at Christmas. Still, if you were to put aside the modern concept of Christmas, this dark cold time of year is the perfect time to gather around the fire and tell scary stories in the darkness.

Added info: take a trip through time and read some collections of Victorian Christmas ghost stories.

The Caganer

The Catalonian tradition of including a man pooping in the Christmas nativity for good luck.

In the Catalonia region of Spain, in the northeast corner of the country, there is a Christmas tradition of including the statue of a man defecating in the nativity scene. The caganer (aka “the pooper”) is typically a man wearing the traditional Catalan clothes of a red cap, white shirt, and black trousers who is crouched down pooping.

While Jesus, Mary, & Joseph are at the center of the nativity scene the caganer is usually off to the side. He can also be moved around each day in a little game of hide and seek. The purpose of the caganer is that he brings good luck by fertilizing not just the land but also the future of the family who owns the nativity. It also shows that everyone is truly equal, that everyone poops. Caganer statues are available in shops around Barcelona and aren’t just limited to the traditional style. You can find caganers modeled after world leaders, celebrities, movie characters, the pope, Disney princesses, and more.

Today you can find a wide variety of caganers, from world leaders to comic book characters.

Learn more about the caganer tradition.
Caga Tió, the “poop log” is fed and later beaten to produce gifts for children.

Caga Tió

The caganer isn’t the only Catalonian Christmas pooping tradition. The Tió de Nadal (aka the “Caga Tió” aka the “poop log”) is a wooden log frequently with a smiling face painted on the one end and little legs to prop it up. The tradition is that children will leave little bits of food for the tió during Advent and on Christmas Eve or Day they beat the log with sticks while singing. This ceremony induces the log, which is partially covered by a blanket, to poop little gifts for children (which have been hidden under the blanket). Once it has served its purposes the log is burned in the fire or thrown out.

Added info: The Catalonians have several traditions associated with pooping. One expression sometimes said before eating is “Menja bé, caga fort!” or “Eat well, poop hard!”

Mistakes Happen (Sometimes Intentionally)

Nothing is perfect and we should embrace mistakes and imperfections.

Mistaken Mistakes

Persian carpets (aka Iranian carpets) come in a diversity of designs and sizes, but they frequently contain repeating symmetrical patterns. One alleged feature in handmade Persian carpets is a mistake in the design pattern (not in the construction) included intentionally. This “Persian flaw” serves as a reminder that only Allah is perfect. The flaw would be something small only noticed by the keenest of observers. It’s also been said that the Amish have a similar practice, that they include an intentional flaw (a “humility block”) in their quilts as a reminder that only God is perfect … but it isn’t true.

Lancaster curator Wendell Zercher has quoted Amish quilt makers as saying “… no one has to remind us that we’re not perfect.” As for Persian flaws, most accounts of this idea come from Western sources and is probably an example of orientalism. While both of these are nice stories that probably help to sell imperfect rugs & quilts, we have little to no evidence to support them. If anything, to intentionally make just one mistake out of humility would prove the opposite, bragging that you have the ability to make a perfect creation (but choose not to).

Actual “Mistakes”

There are however some cultures that really do include intentional imperfections in their work. Women in the Punjab region between India & Pakistan create Phulkari shawls of intricate designs. In these designs they sometimes include “mistakes” which are momentary changes in the overall design pattern. These changes are included to mark important events during the creation of the shawl (births, weddings, deaths, etc). Sometimes the symmetrical pattern is disrupted as spiritual protection from the evil eye.

On the left is a phulkari shawl with intentional changes to the pattern. To the right is a Navajo weaving featuring a “spirit line”.

Some Navajo also include imperfections in their weavings for spiritual reasons. The ch’ihónít’i (aka the “spirit line” or the “weaver’s path”) is a single line leading out of the middle of a design to the edge of the weaving. The spirit line is thought to give the weaver’s soul a way to exit the weaving so as to not get trapped in the design.

Embrace Imperfections

Of course if you accept that nothing is perfect then you have no need to add imperfections because everything is imperfect. The Japanese concept of wabi-sabi is the Zen view that everything is imperfect, impermanent, vulnerable. Unlike Western design ideas which frequently strive for idealized perfection, wabi-sabi celebrates the imperfections that make everything (and everyone) unique.

Kintsugi repaired ceramics, using gold & lacquer to feature (rather than hide) the imperfections.

Building off of wabi-sabi, kintsugi is the practice of repairing broken pottery with bits of valuable metals & lacquer that, rather than trying to seamlessly hide the repaired cracks, highlights them. Kintsugi honors the history of the object and celebrates its imperfections. Nothing lasts forever and we should recognize the beauty of imperfect vessels.

A crash course on the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi.

Ugly Fruits & Vegetables

In the West this embrace of the imperfect has recently manifested itself in ugly fruits & vegetables. Imperfect looking produce has traditionally gone unsold and makes up 40% of total food waste. Producers throw away food because they don’t think retailers will want it (it doesn’t meet “quality standards”) and then retail stores throw away the unsold odd looking food that customers won’t buy. This is all despite the fact that the taste and nutritional content of this “ugly” food may be identical to “normal” looking produce.

The European Union declared 2014 the European Year Against Food Waste. The French supermarket chain Intermarché began their “Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables” marketing campaign that celebrated ugly looking produce, gave them their own section in the store, and sold them at a discount. It proved so successful that other stores began their own campaigns as customers began to accept the wabi-wabi nature of produce.

The Intermarché marketing campaign to help reduce food waste was a huge success.