Another Delightfully Demented Gift: The Feejee Mermaid

swfeejee02rlk.jpgIn 1842, P. T. Barnum exhibited the infamous Feejee Mermaid at his museum in New York City. Newspapers were given a woodcut of lovely bare breasted female mermaids to publicize the attraction, but when the crowds arrived to see the mysterious creature, it turned out to be a gruesome taxidermy gaffe consisting of the top half of a small monkey and the bottom half of a large fish.

When I was about 12 years old, I viewed Barnum's very own Feejee Mermaid at the Ripley's Believe It Or Not Museum on Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco. It invaded my consciousness and my dreams and became an object of great importance to me. I developed a theory on entertainment from thinking about it... Never be afraid to promise more than you can deliver as long as you deliver something truly remarkable and surprising. I'm sure this is the credo that stage magicians and circuses used to operate on. But today we seem to have lost the capacity for imagination that's required for this sort of pitch to work. I hate the literalism of the modern world!

But anyway, I digress... The Feejee Mermaid became a strong object of desire for me. In my daydreams as a child, I would secretly scheme to break in and steal the mermaid from the Ripley Museum (with no intention of ever actually doing it.) I discovered that the Ripley's Museum in Hollywood had the one true Barnum Feejee Mermaid too... and it appears that every Ripley's Museum in the country has it. They were popping up everywhere, but I still had no way to get one of my own!

The internet however, has now made my dreams come true... In this fabulous 21st century, everyone can own one of these fabulous creatures, not just kings, potentates and rajahs! Thank heavens for eBay!


An artist by the name of Brian Davis is "capturing and preserving" these strange beasts and offering them for sale online. Each one of his mermaids is totally unique. They come in a variety of sizes, but they're all just as hideous as Barnum's specimen. But that's not all! Davis also traffics in elusive sasquatch fetuses, faeries, gargoyles, chupacabras, jersey devils and scorpion people. Joy!

Brian Davis's Fabulous Beastiary at eBay
(He also sometimes lists under this username too.)

Fun Experiment

Mind Hacks blog Googles the phrase "psychologist says", with headesky results. The problem: "Psychologist" doesn't always mean what you think it means. Some stories quoted from peer-reviewed research, others turned to therapists with little-to-no academic or research experience, and everything in between.

Happy Saganseve, Everybody

November 9 would have been Carl Sagan's 75th birthday. To celebrate the man, his work and the awesome wonderment of science, Broward College in Davie, Florida is hosting the first ever Carl Sagan Day tomorrow (Saturday the 7th). If you're in that area, they've got a whole day's worth of activities going on---from planetarium shows and stargazing, to a "Cosmos" marathon, to appearances by Bad Astronomy blogger Phil Plait and James "The Amazing" Randi (who was a personal friend of Sagan's).

The majority of us not conveniently located in southern Florida, however, will have to find other ways to celebrate. Perhaps you've already got a Beethoven's Birthday-style public march planned, but, if not, you can at least enjoy some fine video tributes. BoingBoing already linked to the soothing memorial techno remix of Sagan's "Cosmos" PBS show, so I'm going to go in a different direction and offer you one of his last interviews, from May of 1996, on Charlie Rose. Among other things, Sagan talks about his (then) new book (and one of my favorites), "The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark". Enjoy.

Thanks to the Bad Astronomy blog for the holiday tip-off!

How Safe is the HPV Vaccine?

I was about to say that I'm just one of those people who understands things more fully once I see them in visual form, but I think that, when it comes to statistics, "one of those people" really just means "most of us".

Case in point, this great visualization of the facts about HPV vaccine safety and cervical cancer risk put together by the Information is Beautiful blog. For me, this really bridged the gap between knowing the facts and intuitively understanding them. Follow the link to check it out.

What actual Mayans are saying about 2012

When your three-year checkbook calendar runs out, does that signal the end of the world? No? It's pretty much the same for the Mayan calendar and 2012.

In fact, the idea of a countdown to cataclysmic apocalypse is a Western, not Mayan idea, say some Mayans who are getting fed up with the hype. You can read more about their perspective in this AP article: "2012 Isn't the End of the World, Mayans Insist."

Another important thing to think about: The amount of money being raked in by woo-woo charlatans (and, now, big entertainment companies) who are all capitalizing off what amounts to willful misinterpretations of Mayan legends, traditions and science. My college anthropology professor (and expert in Central and South American archaeology) John Hoopes had some interesting thoughts on this...

I'd like to see more of the revenue from the hyping of 2012 mythology through books, movies, conferences, and websites go directly to the living descendants of the ancient Maya whose cultural heritage and intellectual property is being appropriated without their knowledge or consent for the financial benefit of non-Maya hucksters.

This raises a lot of questions about who owns traditional knowledge. I don't claim to have the answer, though. There are a lot of wrinkles and complications, including the good possibility that the living Maya probably have no legal standing when it comes to these issues. But I suspect it has much more to do with what's ethically responsible than with legal obligations.

I don't know that I know the best way to handle this, either. But, whether or not the living Maya should be paid for the use (or misuse) of their ancestors' ideas, I personally see a lot of racism at play in this story. Not the white hood sort of racism, sure. But I'm don't think I have a better word for what happens when the largely white and wealthy American New Age community co-opts and exoticises the traditions of a marginalized native people and then ignores those people when they say, "That's not what our traditions mean. Please stop misrepresenting us."

Thumbnail image courtesy Flickr user theilr, via CC

Watch What You Say About Welsh

It does have vowels, it's not the oldest language in Europe, and, yes, it does have words for modern technologies. Welsh, or Cymraeg as we probably ought to call it, is spoken by more than 580,000 people and was one of the 55 Earth languages chosen to represent our global culture on the Golden Record launched with the Voyager spacecraft in 1977.

But it's still very much a small language and, to English speakers, a weird-looking one, so it's no surprise that tall tales abound. Garic, an evolutionary linguist and Welshman, is out to change that. He's written a series of posts that debunks pop-culture's worst Welsh fallacies and, along the way, makes some interesting points about the way speakers of common languages view the rare and unique tongues of the world...

No words for modern things. Welsh, apparently, lacks words for things like computers and aeroplanes. This is a stupid comment for two reasons:

1. It doesn't;

2. The arguments for the claim are entirely incoherent.

First of all, the Welsh words for 'computer' and 'aeroplane' are cyfrifiadur and awyren. Some words for other modern inventions are, similarly, based on Celtic roots; others are borrowings, like radio, which means 'radio'.

Secondly, the claim seems to be based on some bizarre assumption that other languages, like English, did not have to invent or borrow words for new inventions. The implication is that our ancestors failed us somehow in not forseeing the invention of the radio. I've actually heard people say that because Welsh "hasn't got words for modern inventions, it has to borrow them or make them up." This is of course true, but the idea that this is not true of any language spoken on the planet is so obviously, staggeringly dense that explanations for why it's stupid are unnecessary.

Thumbnail image courtesy Flickr user Spixey, via CC

A Doctor's Advice On How To Read Health News (And Know Whether It's Full of Crap)

Building a bit off the "conflusion" (Bravo, btw, insert) post from yesterday, I'm going to launch right into something near and dear to my heart: The way biased and badly done health journalism can really mess up the people who read it.

Biased and badly done are two very different things. I don't have data on this, but I think it's fair to say that, when the main-stream media (which, BoingBoing aside, includes me) gets a health story wrong, it usually isn't trying to be intentionally wack. Trouble is, whatever the intent, it leaves you--the reader--in the same place. Conflused.

Luckily, there are people working to help you. Like, for instance, the good folks at Behind the Headlines, a project of the British National Health System that does Q&A, myth busting and in-depth explanations on the science behind top health news. I first found out about this from Ben Goldacre's Bad Science blog, which is, in itself, a great site everybody ought to be reading.

Dr. Alicia White, one of the aforementioned "folks" behind Behind the Headlines, has a wonderful primer on the questions you should be asking yourself every time you read health news. Until we police ourselves into doing a consistently better job, sorting the wheat from the chaff is (unfortunately) up to you. This will help. Plus, it's a fun read:

If you've just read a health-related headline that's caused you to spit out your morning coffee ("Coffee causes cancer" usually does the trick) it's always best to follow the Blitz slogan: "Keep Calm and Carry On". On reading further you'll often find the headline has left out something important, like "Injecting five rats with really highly concentrated coffee solution caused some changes in cells that might lead to tumours eventually. (Study funded by The Association of Tea Marketing)".

Evocative image courtesy Flickr user bdjsb7, under CC.