Pigeon Milk

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Part of a balanced breakfast™️

You might not want to call a yellowish substance with a cottage-cheese consistency “milk,” but pigeon milk is a thing.
Like normal mammalian milk, pigeon milk contains protein and fat to nurture their babies.  It’s more densely packed with nutrients than cow or human milk, and in a study, chicks fed with pigeon milk were ultimately 16% heavier than those who received the normal baby bird diet of regurgitated insects, worms, and other predictable bird foods.  Even more enticingly, they’re packed with antioxidants (any animal that lives its life in urban squalor probably needs an amazing immune system).
The milk is produced in a pigeon’s crop, which is a thin-walled storage sac that projects from the esophagus.  This is where pigeons usually gather food while eating quickly, saving it to digest once they’re well out of harm’s way.  When the pigeon is lactating, fluid filled cells from the inside of the crop are sloughed off and regurgitated into their babies’ mouths.  Pigeon lactation is controlled by prolactin, the same hormone that controls lactation in us.
Scientists who are sequencing the pigeon genome are trying to isolate the specific genes that cause lactation in birds, with the possible intent to introduce pigeon milk to the market.
Just thought you ought to know.
-Rachel Hsu

Black Friday



(We know this scene made you cry)

As soon as Thanksgiving ends, the feverish holiday season is upon us.  Black Friday is a holiday of shopping and sales, so that everyone can do their Christmas/Hanukkah/Festivus errands while they’re still off work.  With this rush of shopping comes a lot of chaos.

A common source of injury on Black Friday in the past decade has been mall stampedes.  When faced with 50% off toasters and BOGO free jeans, humans start to resemble that one scene in The Lion King.  18 people have been trampled and severely wounded. one Wal-Mart employee met his doom after being rushed by eager deal-hunters. 

41 people have been pepper sprayed for Black Friday-related reasons in recent history (one perpetrator, who sprayed 20 people, called it an act of “competitive shopping” that helped her snatch up xboxes, wii games, and bratz dolls).  Car crashes attributed to Black Friday post-shopping exhaustion caused 13 major injuries and cost 3 lives.  In the land of the free (and Columbine and Pulse and Vegas), of course 15 people have been shot over things as mundane as prime parking spots.  And the count rounds out with 5 stabbings for good measure.

Here are some headlines from Black Friday, 2017:

“Black Friday Missouri mall shooting leaves teen seriously injured”

“One male shot, one male stabbed at Willowbrook Mall on Black Friday”

“One shot outside Missouri mall, brawls close Alabama shopping center as Black Friday begins”

But I got this great maroon turtleneck and a cute skirt from Madewell, so I’m calling this Black Friday a success!

-Rachel Hsu

Manson Dies 11/19/17

America lost a swastika-adorned singer/songwriter this Sunday evening.  Charlie Manson, friend to the Beach Boys’ Dennis Wilson and devout lover of the Beatles’ jam Helter Skelter, passed away from natural causes due to complications related to gastrointestinal bleeding a week after his 83rd birthday.  His presence in the music world is undeniable.  
His life and times inspired the names of Marilyn Manson and Spahn Ranch, led to the creation of the opera The Manson Family, and Squeaky Fromme made it into Sondheim’s acclaimed musical The Assassins.  
Born “No Name Maddox,” Charles Manson was a true family man and will be remembered by America.  In his honor we’ve compiled a special playlist to remember this all-American singer/songwriter.

Science: Mirror Monsters

An old wives’ tale says that if a young unmarried woman carries a candle into a dark room and looks in the mirror on Halloween night, she’ll see the face of her future husband.  The Troxler  Effect tells us we can see something far worse.
In a 2010 experiment by Dr. Giovanni Caputo at the University of Urbino, 50 test subjects were told to watch their own reflections in low light for 10 minutes.  33 subjects reported seeing massive deformations of their own face.  People reported seeing their faces transform into one of their parents’, animal faces, or monsters after just ten minutes of observation.  These changes would last for seven seconds on average, and the deformations didn’t stay put in one place.  The longer their brains got accustomed to the same image, the more fictional information bled into their perception.  For most of the subjects, these effects began in about a minute.
It makes sense to filter out extraneous sensory perceptions; there’s no reason for your body to constantly be conscious of the contact lenses in your eyes, your clothes against your skin, or the way your tongue rests inside your mouth.  Our eyes constantly make micro-vibrations so that we don’t filter out visual information as easily as we can ignore a repetitive noise or pervasive smell.  But if you stare long enough, the Troxler Effect starts to take form. 
Dr. Caputo’s experiment is easy to replicate.  First, get comfy in front of a mirror.  Make sure you can see the details and fine lines of your face, but that the light is low enough that it’s hard to see color.  Make sure the light source is not visible in the mirror so that the only thing you’re focusing on is yourself.
Then just wait.

Primer: Samhain

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As Halloween draws near, let’s not forget the Reason for the Season.  
Samhain (SAH-win) is a Celtic festival that falls halfway between the fall equinox and winter solstice, marking the end of the harvest season.  In this liminal space, lines between this world and the next were blurred and spirits could pass through the veil.  Samhain was a holiday of food, alcohol, bonfires, contests… and slaughter.  Meat would keep in the chill of the winter and live animals were expensive to care for when the pastures were frozen over, so Samhain was the best time for mass butchering and freezing.  
Later in the day, bonfires were set to mimic the power of the sun.  Cow bones from the slaughter were thrown on the bonfire and the whole community would gather around, breathing in the cleansing smoke and jumping through the cinders.  Some people blackened their faces with ashes.  Each member of the community would light a torch from the communal fire and return home to light their hearths with it, making Samhain a festival of community and bonding.  
During Samhain, the spirits of the dead rose to commune with their families.  Extra tables settings were placed, and anything that looked like a spirit arriving at the door would be fed heartily like a member of the family.  The less well-off members of society crossdressed or wore strange masks and costumes (or just wore their soot-covered faces from the bonfire) and went door to door, impersonating good spirits and collecting dinners.  To ward off evil spirits, lanterns (hollowed-out turnips with carved faces) were set on windowsills.  One traditional costume is the Láir Bhán, where a man covers himself in a white sheet and parades around with a decorated horse skull — it seems like our modern Halloween ghost costume has lost the eccentric flair of the Celts.
In the last few hundred years, scandalized Christians and a diminishing number of pagans led to Samhain’s merger with the Christian holiday All Saint’s Day, resulting in the fairly secular orange-and-black excuse to get drunk we call Halloween.  While we have the costumes and the soliciting for snacks, I definitely propose that this year we try dancing around giant bonfires, begging for entire free dinners, and running around with horse heads.
-Rachel Hsu

Primer: Vampires

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In Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula, vampires are pale, fanged creatures who create no reflection and cast no shadow.  The count is immortal, with enhanced strength and senses, with the power to shape shift into a wolf, a bat, dust, and fog.  Decapitation, a stake to the heart, or fire can kill him, but not sunlight — in fact, he’s strengthened by the midday sun.  Surprised?
Vampires are classic monsters, easy halloween costumes, and pop culture sex icons.  Throughout their history in literature and folklore, there’s not much consistency as to what makes a vampire.  Their traits, rules, and powers often vary from story to story, even things as established as pale skin, pointy teeth, or drinking blood.
In traditional European folklore, vampires were splotchy, unattractively bloated, leaking blood and bodily fluids from the nose and mouth.  Their nails were overgrown and they were thought to attack by night so that in the day they could retreat to their coffins.  If these vampires sound a lot like decomposing corpses, it’s because they are: suspected vampires were exhumed and inspected, and since bodies were often buried as soon as possible, what we now know to be usual signs of decomposition were seen as supernatural events.  The buildup of gasses in the stomach looked like a bloated gut after a night of feasting.  The desiccation of skin made nails appear longer and claw-like.  Frightful peasants formed a narrative around these unsightly corpses and the notion of vampires were born.
The Count in Sesame Street is purple-skinned, enjoys sunlight, sleeps in a bed at night, and casts a shadow (though still has no reflection).  There’s no implication that he drinks human blood.  His entire character is based around a fairly obscure vampire trait of arithmomania, the compulsive need to count, which is found in the original folklore but not Stoker’s Dracula, Anne Rice, Buffy, D&D, or Twilight.
Stephenie Meyer’s approach to vampires in Twilight has been widely mocked.  They’re pale, but lack fangs.  The main characters of the series are “vegetarian vampires” and drink animal blood instead of human blood.  Sunlight doesn’t hurt them but does cause their skin to conspicuously sparkle.  But Stephenie Meyer does her research: most of her vampires are gifted and possess one special talent cribbed from other vampire mythoi.  The main couple both possess telepathic links, like Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  One has telekinesis, like Nosferatu and Anne Rice’s vampires.
To be a vampire, you don’t have to drink blood, have fangs, or be pale.  The only thing that’s clear about vampires is that they’re cryptids without necessary distinctive traits.  If you really love counting, who knows?  You might be one too.
-Rachel Hsu

Oddities: Hotel Cecil

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For 19 days, guests of LA’s Hotel Cecil showered in, brushed their teeth with, and drank corpse water.  Prompted by complaints of low pressure and weird-tasting water, maintenance man Santiago Lopez went to the Cecil’s rooftop through an employees-only alarmed door to inspect the water tank.  Its hatch was open.  Inside was the decomposing naked body of Elisa Lam.
Her death was ruled accidental.  There are only four ways to reach the roof of the hotel: three fire escapes and the one locked and alarmed rooftop door.  She then would have had to climb up a ladder alongside the water tank and open the 20lb hatch.  No clothes were found on the roof or in the tank, so sometime along this journey Elisa must have stripped before accidentally entering the water tank and drowning.
Elisa was a 21-year-old Chinese-Canadian tourist who had traveled alone from Vancouver to Los Angeles.  She was taking Lamictal and Seroquel to manage her bipolar disorder and had been described as a lively, friendly girl.  At the time, the seedy Hotel Cecil was trying to shake its century-long haunted reputation and was marketing itself as  a “boutique hostel,” perfect for young travelers like Elisa.  She had been bunking with strangers, but after three days of complaints from her roommates she was moved into a private room.
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Her toxicology report indicates that she was taking her meds as prescribed and had no alcohol or drugs in her system.  That report is hard to believe once you’ve seen the hotel’s elevator security footage of Elisa taken on the day of her disappearance.  In the four-minute video, Elisa enters the elevator and immediately presses every button.  She peeks into the hall and then hides herself in the far corner.  She waits for a bit, but the doors don’t close.  Then Elisa hops out of the elevator, does a box-step in the hallway, and carefully steps back in.  She presses all the buttons again.  After getting out a second time, she makes a series of gestures, stiffly extending her fingers and waving her arms around.  She walks away.  The doors close.  The video’s youtube comments are full of amateur detectives and theories of demons, ghosts, the fourth dimension, and bad acid.
The Cecil has had a colorful 100-year history.  Serial killers Richard Ramirez and Jack Unterweger both lived there.  Some say it’s the last place the Black Dahlia was seen alive.  At least nine people have committed suicide by jumping out onto Main Street below.  It’s also been the site of stranglings, rapes, suicides by overdose, and even the occasional infanticide.  When Elisa was still missing, one couple staying at Hotel Cecil reported the water from their sink coming out black and tasting bad, which they assumed was “normal for LA” (Angelino faucet water isn’t great, but not quiiiite corpse sludge).  Somewhere along the way, some wise soul suggested a total rebranding.
If you’re ever in LA, there’s this great hotel called Stay On Main.
-Rachel Hsu

Oddities: The Capuchin Crypt

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When in Rome, check out these bones.
On the swanky Via Veneto, hidden between classy hotels and overpriced restaurants, you can find the small church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini. Deep within the church there is an ossuary, five small rooms stuffed with 4,000 skeletons. The collection began in 1631, when the Capuchin order moved here from their old monastery and brought 300 cartloads of dead friars with them. Each room of the crypt is packed with Jerusalem soil and marked with crosses. The first cartloads of corpses spent a few decades decaying underground before the small crypt began overcrowding. In order to provide burial space for newly dead friars and local destitute Romans, the oldest remains were exhumed and their bones were displayed on the walls around each cramped burial plot. So the cycle began: as each friar died, the eldest skeleton was removed from the soil and found itself spread across five rooms, its skull stacked in a geometric pile, its fingers joining beautiful chandeliers, its femurs forming ghoulish furniture.
The Capuchin friars are an ascetic order that splintered off of Franciscan friars in 1520. Like many religious groups, they have a strong belief in a life after death. Their unorthodox approach to displaying skeletal remains is supposedly not intended to be morbid but rather a visually stunning memento mori, a reminder of the necessity of death in order to reach the afterlife.
The rooms are practically named: the Crypt of the Resurrection is the first, where the bones frame a tableau of Jesus resurrecting Lazarus. Stacked tailbones, pelvises, and skulls form two dense columns crowned with an arch of skulls. This arched shape is reflected in the side walls, where two niches cradle complete mummified remains clothed in their traditional brown robes (cappuccinos are named for this color!). The ceiling, also echoing this arched form, is covered in vertebrae that is bizarrely reminiscent of fancy crown molding.
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The Crypt of the Skulls features a tripartite arcade made of (you guessed it!) hundreds of skulls. This chamber features five desiccated corpses, again dressed and posed naturalistically. Unlike the last chamber, this crypt is filled wall to wall with bones and contains no paintings or other traditional art. The Crypt of the Pelvises is similarly arranged, but with pelvic bones stacked to the ceiling.
The Crypt of the Leg Bones and Thigh Bones is a celebration of the Capuchin order and the most luxuriously decorated chamber thus far. Corpses stand in six niches on the side walls to observe the central spectacle: crossed mummified arms with a shieldshaped frame made out of vertebrae. The symbol of a sleeved arm crossed with a bare arm, both hands bearing the stigmata of the crucifixion, is characteristic of the Franciscan and Capuchin orders, symbolizing willingness for sacrifice and dedication to the poor. The vertebrae look almost like a decorative string of pearls framing the motif. If you can tear your eyes away from those arms (congratulations), the rest of the room is staring at you. Neat rows of skulls form a pointed arch above the Capuchin “logo,” all facing outwards.
Finally, there’s the Crypt of the Three Skeletons. It contains the expected mummified and robed friars amidst thousands of bones, including three small children’s skeletons sitting on a bench of pelvises. Hanging from the ceiling is the angel of death, a complete skeleton holding a scythe in one hand and a scale in the other. On a plaque under the three children, there’s an inscription translated into five languages:
“What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be.”
-Rachel Hsu