Chocolate – the food of the Gods


Chocolate comes from the cacao tree or, as it’s botanically known, Theobroma cacao. The word theobroma comes from Greek θεος (theos), “god,” + βρῶμα (broma), “food.” So chocolate is literally the food of the gods.

Theobroma cacao is native to the American tropical rain forest. It is a delicate tree that can survive only in a narrow band extending 20 degrees either side of the Equator.


Cacao trees are small and delicate, usually no more than 20-40 feet high. They need taller trees (such as hardwoods) to shelter them from the elements. Continue reading

The gall of it all

Hunkpapa warrior Chief Gall, c. 1880s

Hunkpapa warrior Chief Gall, c. 1880s

We often use the word “gall” in phrases such as “I can’t believe she has the gall to…” or “that really galls me.”  But what exactly does “gall” mean?

In its first sense, gall is a synonym for “bile.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, however, these days “gall” applies only to animals.  Either way, gall (or bile) is a bitter-tasting, yellowish substance that aids in the digestion of fat. Because of its taste, gall can also be used to refer to anything that is bitter or severe.

The word gall comes from Old English gealla (meaning bile), a cognate of Greek kholē.  It may also come from Old English geolo (yellow), a possible reference to bile’s color. The two roots may, in fact, be related.

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Death and destiny: the Moirai a/k/a the Fates


In Greek mythology, the Moirai – better known as the Fates – are the three goddesses who carry out a person’s destiny.  When someone is born, Clotho spins the thread of his or her life, while Lachesis measures the thread and Atropos it cuts with her shears when it is time for that person to die.

The Moirai acted more or less independently of the other Greek gods to ensure that everyone’s eternal fate proceeded without obstruction.  Even the gods had to submit to them — though some sources say that Zeus could interfere with someone’s fate when he really wanted to.

Ancient sources describe the Moirai as stern, old women who are ugly and, sometimes, lame, to boot.  Clotho is usually depicted with a spindle, while Lachesis holds a staff and Atropos a pair of shears. Continue reading

Ergot poisoning: the original Purple Haze

Detail of The Temptations of St. Anthony by Matthias Grünewald, c. 1512-15

Detail from The Temptations of St. Anthony by Matthias Grünewald, c. 1512-15

“[A] Great plague of swollen blisters consumed the people by a loathsome rot, so that their limbs were loosened and fell off before death.”  From the Annales Xantenses (857 AD).


It has been blamed for the Salem witch trials and the “Great Fear” of 1789,  which contributed to the French Revolution.  Its reemergence in the 20th century led to a treatment for migraine headaches and to the invention of LSD.

But in the Middle Ages, what we now call ergot poisoning, or ergotism, was a terrifying mystery known as “Holy Fire” (ignis sacer) because of the terrible burning pain it caused. Ergot — the common name for Claviceps purpurea – is a fungus that affects rye and other grains.  It contains ergotamine which, in moderate doses, causes the contraction of smooth muscle fibers, such as those in the small arteries.

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The delicious, nutritious dandelion is anything but a common weed


Many people think of the dandelion as little more than an alternative to a daisy for playing “he loves me, he loves me not.”  Indeed, it’s said that if you can blow all of a dandelion’s seeds off with one try, then you are passionately loved. If some seeds remain, your lover has reservations about your relationship.  And if a lot of seeds stay stuck to the globe, you are supposedly loved very little or not at all.

But taraxacum officinale, as dandelion is botanically known, is good for much more than mere child’s play.  Full of Vitamins A, B, C, D and K, as well as iron, potassium and zinc, young dandelion greens make a tasty and nutritious addition to any meal.  In many parts of the world, dandelion is also consumed as a medicine, though claims about it have not been clinically tested in humans.  It has been used for centuries, however, to treat dyspepsia (indigestion/upset stomach), dropsy and liver disorders, and as a mild laxative for chronic constipation.  It is also said to improve the appetite and promote digestion.

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A short history of condoms

condom testingCondom use dates back centuries, if not millennia.

The earliest undisputed evidence of condom use in Europe is from the 16th century.  In 1564, the Italian physician Gabriele Falloppio (for whom the Fallopian tubes are named), wrote a tract on the “French Disease” (syphilis).  He recommended that to avoid contracting the disease, men should use a small linen sheath on the glans (head) of the penis.  The cloth had to be sewn to fit the glans precisely so that it wouldn’t fall off.  A ribbon tied to the shaft of the penis also helped keep the cloth in place.  Falloppio suggested that it be pink, to please the ladies.  Before intercourse, the man was to moisten the sheath with a little saliva or lotion.

The oldest condoms ever excavated date from nearly a century later (approximately 1642).  They were found in a cesspit on the grounds of Dudley Castle and were made from animal membranes.

condom dudley

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What Exactly is a “Blue Moon”?


The phrase “blue moon” is used metaphorically to refer to a rare event, as in the expression “once in a blue moon.”  It has nothing to do with the actual color of the moon, although any moon can appear blue if the air is full of particles from volcanic eruptions or forest fires.

A “blue moon” is usually defined as the second full moon occurring during a calendar month. But until 1946, a “blue moon” was the third full moon in any season in which there were four full moons.  It was a sort of Leap Day for moons, necessitated by the fact that the average lunar cycle is 29.53 days, slightly shorter than an average month.

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The origins of alchemy and the search for the philosopher’s stone


Medieval alchemists were concerned with discovering the “philosopher’s stone,” a hypothetical substance they believed could convert base metals into gold.  Though usually held to be a solid, sources sometimes describe it as a liquid also capable of curing diseases and/or staving off death — hence its alternative name, the “elixir of life”.

The first known references to alchemy exist in myths and legends about ancient China.  Alchemy in the Western world seems to have originated in Egypt, though early records were destroyed around the year 300.  The Roman emperor Diocletian was concerned that alchemically obtained gold and silver could be used to fund a revolt.  So Diocletian issued a decree ordering the destruction of all books on the subject.

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The British Museum’s Secret Porn Stash

Fragment of "Modi" from the British Museum

“I know it when I see it.”  — U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, famously trying to define obscenity in Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964).

Governments have long struggled with identifying what material is so offensive to morals that publication and/or possession of it should be outlawed.  One of the earliest attempts in the English-speaking world dates back to 1787, when England’s King George III issued a Royal Proclamation “For the Encouragement of Piety and Virtue, and for Preventing and Punishing of Vice, Profaneness and Immorality.” 

The Proclamation proved ineffective, despite organizations such as the Society for the Suppression of Vice.  That organization was founded in 1802 to “check the spread of open vice and immorality, and… preserve the minds of the young from contamination…” 

It wasn’t until the Victorian era, however, that an increasingly prudish government really cracked down.  The Obscene Publications Act of 1857 sought to punish men such as William Dugdale.  Dugdale published guides such as Yokel’s Preceptor, which advertised gay cruising spots in the form of a warning to country folk about places they’d do best to avoid.

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You May Not Be a Cat, But You Can Still Cough Up a Hairball



Anyone who has ever had a cat is well-acquainted with hairballs.  But humans are susceptible to hairballs, too.

Technically, a hairball is a type of bezoar (pronounced BEE-zore), a mass of indigestible matter found in an animal’s stomach or intestines.   Ruminants (cud-chewing animals) — such as cows, oxen, sheep, goats, llamas, deer, and antelopes — are particularly susceptible to bezoars.

Human hairballs — known as “trichobezoars” – are rare in people with a normal digestive tract.  In adults, they usually occur in connection with a medical condition such as diabetes, cystic fibrosis, renal failure, or a gastric resection.  Very rarely, trichobezoars can extend into the small intestine or beyond — a condition known as Rapunzel Syndrome.

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