Friday, 30 May 2008

WRONG: Veins are blue because of deoxygenated blood

An amazing number of people seem to believe that deoxygenated blood is blue. In a way, it makes sense – veins (in pale skin) look blue, after all, and we were all taught in school that veins carry blood back to the heart and lungs to be refreshed with oxygen. But ask yourself this: have you ever seen blue blood? Anywhere? (Other than in a mollusc or a horseshoe crab, smartarse.)

It’s true that deoxygenated blood – blood returning from the organs and extremities – is a darker shade than “fresh” blood. The stuff you see when you cut your finger or donate blood may appear a deep, burgundy-red, compared to the bright letterbox-red familiar to surgeons and axe-murderers. (Though this is largely down to light conditions, too.)

Blood vessels near the surface are slightly translucent, as is the skin. Light from outside penetrates the skin and is reflected back out, but shorter [EDIT:] longer wavelengths (ie colours from the red end of the spectrum) are more likely to be blocked by the skin on the journey out again. As a result, what you see appears bluer than it otherwise would.

Optical physicists determined that the blueness of a vein depends on the depth of the blood vessel, its width and the blood content in the tissue around it. Others have speculated that the blue effect is also the product of a contrast with yellowy-pink skin, an optical illusion called the retinex effect.

But even the Queen bleeds red. The expression “blue blooded” in the sense of aristocratic is a direct translation of the Spanish term sangre azul, which referred to the nobility’s descent from “pure” Northern European stock rather than from Moorish ancestors, like the proles. Pale-skinned Northerners simply had more visible blue veins.

Having said all that, not everyone’s blood is red. In 2007 a 42-year-old Canadian man underwent surgery for tissue damage to his legs and surprised the surgeons by bleeding green. The rare condition, called sulfhaemoglobinaemia, was caused by sulphur in his migraine medication binding with his blood cells.

Friday, 23 May 2008

WRONG: King Cnut tried to hold back the tide

First, don’t let anyone get away with calling him Canute – that’s just an affectation to make his name easier to pronounce (and less dangerous to misspell). Properly called Knut, he was son of the Danish invader Svein Forkbeard. He took control of Anglo-Saxon Britain in 1016, and was King not only of England but also Denmark and parts of Norway and Sweden.

The story of him trying to hold back the tide is frequently misreported, though as the first account of it was in the 1120s (Historia Anglorum, Henry Of Huntingdon), the entire event is open to question. Rather than try to order the sea back in order to prove his power, Knut, a Christian, wished to demonstrate that only God had true power, as evidenced by his own inability to turn the tide back.

(King Xerxes of Persia was less humble in his dealings with the sea in the 5th century BCE. According to Herodotus, after his bridge of boats across the Hellespont was destroyed in a storm, he ordered that the sea be given 300 lashes, fettered and branded with an iron.)

After his tidal display, Knut supposedly never wore his crown again, placing it instead on a crucifix, saying, “Let all the world know that the power of kings is empty and worthless, and there is no king worthy of the name save Him by whose will heaven, earth and sea obey eternal laws.”

The other notable event (or more likely, story) from Knut’s reign was Lady Godiva’s naked ride through Coventry to protest her husband Leofric’s taxes. According to legend – this part almost certainly is pure fiction – only one person dared watch, a tailor called Tom (the origin of Peeping Tom). He subsequently went blind, which doesn’t say much for Ms Godiva.

EDIT: Reader Ash suggests, "I would think it is quite complimentary to Ms Godiva, if you ask yourself why he went blind..."

Monday, 19 May 2008

WRONG: Cannibalism is illegal

In the spring of 1874, Alfred Packer, sometimes called Alferd, a small, bedraggled prospector with the moustache of a much bigger man, stumbled into the Los Pinos Indian Agency claiming to have survived four months in the mountains by eating rosebuds and pine sap. Strangely, he wasn’t hungry, and asked only for whiskey. (The thing about him having the moustache of a much larger man may have literally been true, given what followed.)

When an Indian scout founded mysterious strips of meat along his back trail, the truth soon emerged: his group of six would-be prospectors had turned on each other as they starved and eaten the corpses in desperation. At Packer’s trial it was claimed the judge shouted, “Stand up, ya man-eatin' sonofabitch and receive your sentence! There was seven Democrats in Hinsdale County, but you… ya ate five of them!” Tragically for all historians, this outburst was actually the invention of a local joker who witnessed the trial. Packer escaped from jail and lived on the run for nine years, but was eventually caught and sentenced to death. (The sentence was reversed by the Colorado Supreme Court and he was paroled in 1901. He died six years later). Students at the University of Colorado continue to commemorate their state’s most popular cannibal at the Alferd Packer Grill (their genuine slogan: “Have a friend for lunch!”).

Cannibalism has been practised in many cultures and nations over the centuries, including Britain. A human femur, split lengthways with the marrow scraped out, was discovered in a cache of bones in Gloucestershire by University of Bristol archeologists, who estimate it to date from the beginning of the Roman occupation. Maoris in New Zealand occasionally ate their enemies until the mid-19th century in an attempt to destroy their essence even beyond death, and as recently as the 1960s, the eating of one’s enemies was still commonly practised in New Guinea. Unofficially, it still is.

More recently still, several serial killers have claimed to have indulged (and when you’ve confessed to sexually-motivated murder, why would you lie about your diet?). Two of the strangest cases, though, highlighted the inadequacy of the law in regard to eating people. In 1981, Issei Sagawa, a short, apparently unappealing Japanese student of literature in Paris, shot and ate his classmate RenĂ©e Hartevelt, reputedly fulfilling a lifelong desire to eat a beautiful woman. The French judge considered him mentally incompetent to stand trial and deported him to Japan, but after 15 months in a Japanese institution, he was decreed sane, and therefore released without having been tried for murder. He lives in Japan, and is something of a celebrity.

The German computer technician Armin Meiwes became briefly famous in 2003 when he was convicted of manslaughter after eating the penis of Bernd Brandes, then stabbing him and freezing his remains for later meals. As Brandes, whom Meiwes solicited on the internet, was a willing participant in the first meal and the killing, the trial centred on the debate over whether, in German law, the death counted as murder or “killing on demand”, a legal definition designed to separate mercy killing from murder. The cannibalism itself was not at issue, because it was not illegal: the only charge prosecutors could bring regarding it was “disturbing the peace of the dead”. Meiwes was convicted of manslaughter, then retried and convicted of murder.

The law in Britain simply doesn’t extend to eating human flesh. Grievous bodily harm and murder are straightforward crimes that require no dietary sub-clauses, but what if the person being eaten makes the incision himself, consents to the eating and doesn’t die as a result of it? Crucially, no law will have been broken.

And what if the “meal” was dead already? This last point may sound frivolous and grotesque, but in Cambodia in 2002, two crematorium workers were released without charge despite eating parts of their “customers”. Technically they had committed no crime.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

WRONG: Splitting infinitives is bad

To begin with, a few definitions. If you know this bit, skip to paragraph six.

As English teachers like to say, verbs are “doing” words, and an infinitive is the form a “doing word” takes when it isn’t being done by anything in particular. It's the verb in its unused form.

In English infinitives begin with "to", eg to run, to explode, to burble. They are always, therefore, made up of two words, which makes them infinitive phrases, not infinitives. This is important, and we'll get to why in a sec.

An adverb, meanwhile, shades the meaning of a verb (eg, run quickly, explode messily, burble charmingly). They typically, but not always, end in -ly. (Often and never are a couple that don't.)

The problem arises when putting infinitive phrases and adverbs together. Splitting an infinitive means putting an adverb between to and run, explode, burble, etc. Captain Kirk’s to boldly go is the most famous example (in the galaxy). The sticklers demand either boldly to go or to go boldly.

But what’s wrong with splitting infinitives? Nothing. The sticklers are wrong. As long as the split infinitive makes your meaning clearer or your sentence read more easily, you are innocent of any grammatical crime. Writers of Middle English happily used to split their infinitives (or used to happily split them, I should say), but the practice fell out of favour during the Renaissance (though Shakespeare still felt justified in using one). In later years it may have been that some grammar scholars, who based their prescriptive rules on those of Latin, felt that if a Latin infinitive couldn’t be split, being only one word (such as esse - to be), then neither should an English one. But as we've already seen, English doesn't have infinitives - it has infinitive phrases. So there. You can't split an infinitive, but you can split an infinitive phrase.

It is certainly the Latin-loving spoilsports we have to thank for the much-repeated (and completely wrong) belief that you can’t end a sentence with a preposition (eg with, to, from, by, over). The Right Reverend Robert Lowth, writing in 1762, declared it “an idiom which our language is strongly inclined to… but the placing of the preposition before the relative is more graceful as well as more perspicuous and agrees much better with the solemn and elevated style.” Well la-di-da, your Right Reverendship. Kingsley Amis, on the other hand, reckoned, “it is natural and harmless in English to use a preposition to end a sentence with.”

In either case, there are no rules of grammar, only traditions. Languages evolve with use, and the rules evolve with them. And the sticklers know the orifice up which their rules they can shove.

Monday, 12 May 2008

WRONG: The British Empire ended in 1947

John Dee, alchemist and adviser to Queen Elizabeth I, first mooted the idea of a British Empire in 1577, undeterred by the fact that Britain didn’t exist as a single political entity, and wouldn’t till 1707. Over the next four centuries Britain’s dominions grew to cover an area so great that it was claimed “the sun never set” on it. (“Because god doesn’t trust the British in the dark,” according to one spectator.)

In actual fact, after a close analysis of historical maps (well, a bit of scribbling on the back of an envelope and a glance at a map), I estimate that at the Empire’s height in the 1920s, the sun set on it for at least one hour 26 minutes a day. Most of it across Greenland.

George VI may have relinquished the title of Emperor shortly after Pakistan and India became independent in August 1947, but not having an Emperor doesn’t mean not having an Empire. There are no established rules, after all, about what constitutes an Empire and what doesn’t.

Let’s begin with what definitely isn’t the British Empire. The Commonwealth Of Nations, an organisation that promotes “international understanding and world peace”, consists of 53 member nations (nearly a third of the world’s population), almost all of which were once British dominions, but which have since gained independence. No Empire there.

Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man are Crown Dependencies of the United Kingdom with a strong degree of independence [see WRONG: The British Isles have only one monarch], but they’re not the British Empire either.

There are also 14 non-independent British Overseas Territories subject to British sovereignty (not that that makes them an Empire):

• Anguilla.
• Bermuda, which isn’t one island but 138 of them.
• The British Antarctic Territory, a wedge of Antarctica agreed by treaty in 1961 to be used only for peaceful, scientific purposes. In 1978 Emilio Palma became the first person known to have been born there. It must be assumed the birth was both peaceful and scientific.
• The British Indian Ocean Territory, a series of islands that were the site of a disgraceful land grab when Britain illegally ousted the entire native population of the Chagos Archipelago in 1967 in order to lease the land to the US Navy in return for a subsidy on Polaris submarines. The Chagossians remain homeless despite a High Court decision that their eviction was illegal.
• The British Virgin Islands. Not named for any supposed chastity on the part of the inhabitants, or even after the “virgin” Queen Elizabeth I (source of “Virginia”), the islands were somewhat fancifully named Santa Ursula Y Las Once Mil Virgenes by Columbus after the myth of St Ursula and the 11,000 virgins who were supposedly martyred alongside her by the Huns.
• The Cayman Islands.
• The Falkland Islands.
• Gibraltar, ceded to the British in perpetuity under the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713.
• Montserrat, a volcanic island in the Caribbean.
• The Pitcairn Islands, four South Pacific outposts originally settled by the mutineers of HMS Bounty and their Tahitian companions. Pitcairn became famous again in 2004 when seven islanders went on trial for 96 charges of rape and the indecent assault of minors. Such was the mistrust of outsiders at the time, visiting Animal Park presenter Ben Fogle was denounced as a spy and deported.
• St Helena, which also includes the “nearby” islands of Ascension and Tristan da Cunha, is an Atlantic island some 2,000 miles from the nearest landmass. St Helena is famous for being the place of Napoleon’s final exile and death, but it was also home to 6,000 PoWs during the second Boer War. Tristan da Cunha, meanwhile, is officially the most remote inhabited island on Earth. It is 1750 miles from South Africa, 2088 miles from South America and even 1350 miles from St Helena. It is home to 269 citizens, who share only seven surnames and, it’s fair to assume, more than a few genes.
• South Georgia, a series of wildlife sanctuaries in the far south Atlantic staffed by scientists.
• The Sovereign Base Areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia, two garrisons on the island of Cyprus.
• The Turks and Caicos Islands in the Caribbean.

So is there an Empire? Possibly. The one exception to the decolonisation trend of the 20th century occurred in 1955, when the Royal Navy claimed the barren North Atlantic outcrop of Rockall in the name of the Queen, mainly to prevent the Soviets grabbing it first and spying on the UK’s naval missile-testing programme. You don’t get more imperial than planting a flag in the name of the Sovereign. That soggy lump of granite, part of the County of Inverness according to the 1972 Island Of Rockall Act, is pretty much the only bit of land that you could get away with calling the British Empire. Not really what John Dee had in mind, and, for the record, the sun most emphatically does set on it.

A point worth noting is that not all British land is British. Not only are embassies technically foreign soil, but other land can be voluntarily ceded by the State. During World War II, Winston Churchill temporarily designated a suite in Claridge’s Hotel as Yugoslav territory so that the queen in exile could give birth on home soil and thereby maintain her son’s claim to the throne. Among the other lands with overseas sovereignty are an acre of forest in Runnymede, Kent, which was donated to America as a memorial to John F Kennedy, and Victor Hugo’s house in Guernsey, which belongs to the City of Paris.

Thursday, 8 May 2008

WRONG: Van Gogh only sold one work

It’s an appealing myth: the starving, passionate artist rising above the market’s total lack of interest in his work. In Van Gogh’s case, the starving and passionate bits are true (“These four days I have lived mainly on 23 cups of coffee,” he wrote in 1888, which at least explains his prodigious output), yet one of the most commonly repeated “facts” about him – that he only ever sold one piece – is not. The Red Vineyard was the only painting we know that Vincent absolutely definitely sold (to fellow artist Anna Boch), but whether he sold any others depends on your definition of “sold”, not to mention your definition of “paintings”.

You can rest easy that it does not depend on your definition of “he”.

We’ll take “sold” first. Does trading or barter count as a sale? Should the buyer have to part specifically with cash for it to count? There is strong evidence that Vincent exchanged art for paint and canvas, for example, and apparently even paid his doctor on at least one occasion with a painting.

Then there’s “paintings”. What about drawings in ink, made with a brush? Or watercolours? We know that Vincent sold the following:

• Five maps of Palestine, sold to his father for ten francs each.
• One “small drawing” (probably a watercolour) sold to Hermanus Tersteeg, his former boss at art dealers Goupil & Co, for 12 guilders.
• 12 pen studies of The Hague, commissioned by his Uncle Cornelis at a price of 30 guilders all in.

And that’s not all. There are hints of other sales:

• A portrait of a friend of the art dealer Julien Tanguy, sold for 20 francs and referred to in a letter from Vincent to his brother Theo.
• Vincent’s friend Gauguin claimed in his memoirs that he witnessed Vincent sell “a little still life, some rose shrimps on a rose paper” (possibly Still Life with Mussels and Shrimps) to a canvas dealer in Paris for five francs. Gauguin isn’t the most reliable witness, but such a sale was very likely, whether or not it was the particular painting Gauguin claims he saw. Van Gogh was a prolific artist, and given his obscurity during his lifetime, many works probably fell through the cracks of history.
• Theo wrote to London art dealers Sully & Lori on 3 Oct 1888, referring to the earlier sale of a self-portrait by “V Van Gogh”.

While we’re on the subject of obscure Van Goghery, not many Brits are aware that Vincent lived for years in England. His first visit was in 1873, when he worked at an art dealership in London for a year, lodging at 87 Hackford Road, Vauxhall (the house is still there). Typically, he fell in love with the landlady’s daughter, and equally typically, it didn’t end well. After a spell in Paris, Van Gogh returned to England in 1876, this time working first as a French, German and Arithmetic teacher in Ramsgate, Kent, then in Isleworth, Middlesex as a preacher.

Sunday, 4 May 2008

WRONG: Television was invented by John Logie Baird

“In 1923 a Scotch inventor projected televised shadows on a screen…” So begins a typical guide to television from 1941. Despite what you may have heard, however, John Logie Baird didn’t invent the television. He’s certainly prominent among those who can take credit for innovations in the field – his electro-mechanical “televisor” device, which involved shining light through spinning discs, transmitted an image of a ventriloquist’s dummy called “Stooky Bill” before anyone else had any success. But this was not electronic television.

Baird was also a pioneer of colour television, but his other inventions, including pneumatic shoes and glass razorblades, failed to catch the public’s imagination.

While Vladimir Zworykin and Kalman Tihanyi also deserve credit, the most interesting of TV’s pioneers was Philo Farnsworth. He made his preliminary designs for electron tubes as a 14-year-old living on his parents’ farm in Idaho and by 1929 – at the age of 23 – he had almost single-handedly developed the first true electronic television system. He came to dislike the uses to which TV was put, but, according to his widow, watched the moon landing and declared, “This has made it all worthwhile". He died in 1971, so his thoughts on Hollyoaks will never be known.