Things I learned this week #10

  • This Tiny City: St. David’s is a city with a population of about 1,000 people. In 1886 it was stripped of its status as a city, being described as “lonely, and the neighbouring district wild and unimproved”. In 1994 Queen Elizabeth II requested it be restored as a city, and now it is. (source)
  • This Terrible Surgeon: In the 1800s Robert Liston, a London-based surgeon, was famous for performing amputations quickly. This wasn’t just a neat party trick, at a time when surgical complications would kill a lot of people, being quick often meant less pain for the patient and less chance for something to go wrong. Liston once conducted a leg amputation in 28 seconds, during which he accidentally took off the thumb of his assistant and frightened a spectator to death (I’m not joking, he accidentally hit their coat with his knife as he was waiving it about, and the spectator literally died). The patient as his assistant later both died from infections to their wounds. Liston’s surgery clocked up a 300% mortality rate.
  • This Monastic Meal Plan: St. Benedict remains an influential figure in modern Christianity. He wrote a book (a really big book) on how to be a monk and how to run a monastery (which were, at the time, full of monks). St. Benedict thought that monks should have two meals a day, but sometimes one, eaten in complete silence except for one monk reading aloud from the bible. He had a surprisingly well-balanced nutritional plan: fresh fruit and vegetables, two separate dishes, about pound of bread, half a pint of wine (a hemina to be precise), and a except for the sick or very weak, “let all abstain entirely from eating the flesh of four-footed animals”. (source)
  • This Play Houdini Was In: Houdini’s business model was pretty weird when you think about it: do things that sound and look impossible, like escape from a sealed container of water in handcuffs, and make sure nobody figures out how you do it. Make it so cool and outrageous and impossible that people pay to see it. A very Victorian sensibility. In 1911, Houdini performed his famous Chinese water torture cell trick - in which he escaped from a sealed container of water (chained down, of course). He wanted to patent it, so that others couldn’t copy it, but by filing a traditional patent he’d have to reveal how the trick was done as part of the documentation. So instead, he performed the trick once, as a one-act play, to an audience of one. This allowed him to patent the trick as a performance, not as a device, and so did not need to provide any details about how it was done. Incidentally, no one figured out how he did this trick during his lifetime.
  • This Reasonless Nudity: No one knows why ancient Greek athletes used to perform naked. It was so inherent to the culture that the Greek adjective gymnos (on which ‘gymnasium’ is based) means ‘Lightly clothed or naked’ - yet there wasn’t a clear reason for doing it. They started doing it about 50 years after the first Olympics and just… liked it, I guess? One story goes that a runner tripped over his loincloth and died, another story is that one sprinter (called Osippus) won a race nude, because he realised it would help him run faster.

What I’ve had on Rotation

  • Something New: The Quiet City by David Wenngren & Library Tapes (Contemporary Instrumental). This is such a beautifully atmospheric album, it’s perfect to put on as the evenings get colder and the rain starts coming in. The entire album flows into itself beautifully, and the orchestration is superb. (links)
  • Something Old: The Come Up by J Cole (Hip Hop). I really love some classic J Cole, this album has such a classic boom bap production sound and style, and the raw energy of an early J Cole. His new stuff is great, he’s got a lot to say, but his old stuff is great to remember too. (links)

Cool Articles

  • How Duolingo designed the new character for its project world by Kim Lyons for The Verge. If you’ve used duolingo, even if just for a bit, over the years you’ll know Duo, the green owl mascot. Recently, Duo’sgrown quite the little friendship circle. This article covers how the company behind the owl developed his new friends. There’s a nice mix of psychology, education, and design in this article. It’s a good read.