Arr, you Vitamin-C-deficient scallywag!

grogGrowing up, my mother always exhorted us to eat our fruits and vegetables, or else we’d get Scurvy. Being an elementary-schooler, I didn’t know that Scurvy was, in fact, a dietary deficiency in Vitamin C. Actually, the sum total of my understanding of the word was as part of the timeless (cartoon) pirate lingo: “You scurvy scallywag!” I think at one point I was convinced that not eating your vegetables would result in me becoming a pirate.

The disease was, apparently, quite common among sailors and pirates in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, but the symptoms are quite a bit less pleasant than a charming West Country accent: spotted skin, spongy, bleeding gums, eventually leading to wholesale tooth loss, open pus-filled sores, immobility and death. Being a simple dietary deficiency, the disease could be cured by daily consumption of fruits or vegetables, especially citrus fruits (which were unfortunately, unavailable on long sea voyages).

One of the most common solutions to shipboard scurvy came as part of the solution to another unpleasant facet of life on board a ship: filthy, stagnant drinking water. As seawater was undrinkable, sailors and pirates needed to haul all of their fresh water with them, in wooden casks. Unfortunately, this stagnant water quickly grew algae and became filthy and unpalatable. Grog, a mixture of the stagnant water and rum, made the water more palatable (and avoided the predictable consequences of handing out straight rum to bored sailors and pirates). Eventually, the British Navy also added citrus juice (usually lime) to the mix, and unexpectedly, the problems with scurvy almost disappeared. This also led to the infamous derogatory epithet aimed at British sailors: “limey!”

Vitamin C deficiency is almost unknown in the animal kingdom: virtually all mammals can synthesize Vitamin C, and don’t need to find it in the environment. Along with other primates, guinea pigs are virtually the only other mammal that does not synthesize their own L-ascorbic acid. Well, fruit bats, too. But I don’t consider bats to be mammals. Instead I tend to think of them as horrible unearthly hellspawn that have no business existing at all. (So not an exact taxonomy as such.)

Serious cases of scurvy are all but unknown in the modern world, but apparently, a peculiar diet can lead to inadvertent self-imposed scurvy. So eat your fruits and vegetables. Yarr!

This blog post is a reprint from a long time ago.

Posted in Old Posts, Strange History

Mayhem in McDonaldland!

evil_grimaceEarly 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.

This blog post is a reprint from a long time ago.

Posted in Old Posts, Strange History | Leave a comment

2112, Rush’s Prog-Rock Sci-Fi Opera

2112When I was a high schooler, I took a summer class from a wild-eyed, and equally wild-haired guy on the topic of dystopian literature in science fiction. (Nerd. Guilty as charged.) The class was great, and introduced me to tons of interesting authors and ideas, but in retrospect, I think the whole thing was a big excuse for the teacher to spend a class session listening to and discussing Rush’s rock opera 2112.

Now, pop music is no stranger to sci-fi tinged rock productions. From Styx’s legendary Mr. Roboto to David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, there’s often been a rock and roll nod towards sci-fi sensibilities. But 2112 is an entirely different beast. Clocking in at just over twenty minutes long, 2112 can barely be described as a song. 2112 begins with a lengthy instrumental overture, segues into a fast-paced hard-rock anthem in the Priests section, and continues through seven distinct sections, telling a story of subjugation and persecution in a far-future dystopia.

Written by Rush drummer and lyricist Neal Peart, 2112 is an extended riff on Ayn Rand’s Anthem (the liner notes include a questionable tribute to “the genius of Ayn Rand“), telling the story of a idealistic dreamer who tries to bring music to a harsh, authoritarian world, only to be persecuted for his discovery.

Quite apart from the Rand-esque philosophy (ugh), the experience of sitting in class with a bunch of like-minded teens, listening to 2112 and discussing its significance has always stuck with me as a turning point. High school can be a tough slog, particularly for those socially underdeveloped or counterculture folks for whom the high-school years aren’t the high-water mark of their lives. (In Rush’s charming but slightly pretentious lyricmaking, “nowhere is the dreamer or the misfit so alone.”) Experiences like this helped remind me what was on the other side of the horizon.

If you got a spare twenty minutes, listen to 2112. It’s worth a listen, even if you aren’t trying to survive high-school as a sci-fi enthusiast.

This blog post is a reprint from long ago.

Posted in Old Posts, Strange History | Leave a comment

Medical mysteries

medicaldetectivesWhat 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 books capitalizing on the show’s popularity, and dig up a copy of one of Roueché’s books, and see where the creators of House got all their ideas.

This blog post is a reprint from long ago.

Posted in Oddball Science, Old Posts