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Science: both creepy and wonderful

Y’all know I love a good murder. Well, here’s a weird one. Today in Winchester Crown Court, Italian Danilo Restivo was sentenced to never-ever getting out of prison, which is pretty unusual for here. Let’s see if I can’t unpack this and tell it right way around.

Danilo Restivo has a hair fetish. As a result of various Crime Watch type programs, 28 women in Italy and an unspecified number in England positively identified Restivo as the man who had come up behind them in a public place and hacked the bottom few inches of their hair off. Apparently without ever being nabbed for it.

In 2002, while Restivo was living in Bournemouth, he murdered his neighbor across the hall, 48 year old Heather Barnetts. He bludgeoned, stabbed and mutilated the hell out of her. In her right hand, he put a lock of somebody else’s hair. In her left hand, he put a lock of her own hair. When her children, 11 and 14, came home from school and found her body, he came across the hall to comfort them. Nice touch.

It took them eight years to accumulate enough evidence to arrest him. Shortly before he was charged, it occurred to Italian authorities that a friend of Restivo’s had disappeared seventeen years ago on the way to meet him at a church in Potenza.

Yep, sure enough, there was sixteen-year-old Elisa Claps’ mummified body in the loft of the church (that’s sixteen years alive, seventeen dessicating in the attic). Exactly like Barnett — bludgeoned and mutilated, pants at half mast, bra cut away, somebody else’s hair in her hand. He’s headed to Italy to stand trial for that one.

A strange enough murder case on its own, but here’s what made it post-worthy:

Five years after Ms Barnett’s death, in 2007, a scientific breakthrough gave the inquiry hope.

Dr Stuart Black, of the University of Reading, undertook chemical and isotope analysis of the hair strands, which represented nine months’ growth.

The results revealed the owner was a UK resident who had visited eastern Spain, between Valencia and Almeria, or the Marseille to Perpignan area of southern France, for up to six days, some 11 weeks before the hair was cut.

They then went to the urban area of Tampa, Florida, US, for eight days some two to two-and-a-half weeks before the hair was cut, and had changed their diet twice in the previous months.

Despite all that, they never identified the owner of the strand of hair in Ms Barnett’s right hand, but — holy shit, did you know they could get that level of detail from a strand of hair now? I know they’ve identified the country of origin from the bones in several stone age burials around here, also from isotopes, but jeeeeeezus that’s specific.

I’d love to know what isotopes are unique to urban Tampa, and how they get in your hair.

June 30, 2011 — 9:56 pm
Comments: 6

It is the East and Algore is the Sun

Oh, man — have you seen Walter Russell Mead’s recent devastating two-part takedown of Al Gore? I don’t know much about Mead, except that he’s a “respected internationalist” (whatever that is) and I’ve seen his byline in papers on both side of the philosophical divide.

He doesn’t appear to doubt the science. At least, he doesn’t go there at all. That’s partly what makes it devastating.

Part one is about the boneheaded bad optics of zooming around between your five mansions in private jets while scolding the peasants that they really must cut back on wicked indulgences like eating and being warm.

Part two is about the ham-handed idiocy of the proposed global cap-and-trade treaty. How in the Sam Hill are you going to measure the carbon output of, like, everybody and how are you going to punish nations that don’t play fair?

Mead teases a third article he calls “what Al Gore doesn’t understand about the development of American democracy.” How long he’s going to use poor Al as a punching bag is anyone’s guess. Loving it.

Thing is, though, what kicked him off was Al’s latest essay in Rolling Stone, of which Mead says, “few American politicians could write an essay this eloquent or this clear.”

Shit, really? We need new politicians. That thing was so dumb — at least the first page was. I quit after that; I was leaking IQ.

It starts with an extended comparison of the climate debate with a professional wrestling match.

In one corner of the ring are Science and Reason. In the other corner: Poisonous Polluters and Right-wing Ideologues.

He carries on capitalizing Science and Reason and Polluters and Ideologues. Oh, and the media is the referee who always seems to be looking the other way when the bad guys throw chairs. I guess that makes us the toothless hillbillies in the cheap seats.

This is eloquence, comparing your ideological battle to the biggest long-drawn low-rent money-spinning hoax since the invention of television? I’m not getting the smart here.

Oh, hey — y’all know what algor mortis is, don’t you? It’s one of the three basic signs a forensic pathologist uses to estimate the passage of time since death. Rigor mortis — the stiffness of death. Livor mortis — the discoloration of death. Algor mortis — the chill of death.


June 29, 2011 — 10:48 pm
Comments: 16

Not exactly Sing Along with Mitch

Holy geez — have you seen tab lately?

Tab. Tablature. Remember that? It’s musical notation for people too stupid to read musical notation. Stringed instruments, mostly — draw a line for each string and a circle where the fingers go and before you know it, you’re warbling out Joni Mitchell’s Song to a Seagull and hoping the high notes don’t kill the dog stone dead.

Confession? I’m actually too stupid to read tab, either. My eyes just glaze over. But there was a note or two I couldn’t work out on the Chicken Reel, so I figured I’d download the tab and find it.

Whoa! What a difference a computer makes! Digital tab files (see above) show the musical score, the tab, a keyboard version, the fingering and play the tune for you at any tempo in real time using MIDI. I can allllmost follow along.

Try this program if you’re interested. It makes a big deal out of being free, and then it turns out you have to pony up sixty bucks to get all the features, but it’ll give you a taste. Lots of free banjo and guitar tab out there (the digital version is a .tef file, if you’re Googling).

But be careful. There are few things in the world more neurotoxic than banjo music played by a computer.

Possibly only banjo music played by a banjo player.

June 28, 2011 — 9:38 pm
Comments: 11

Not our proudest hour



Sorry, folks — I got a bit jammed up tonight (hey, it’s garbage night, you know!). So I had a trawl through Auntie’s Giant Picture Archive and came up with this poor pachyderm.

Murderous Mary. She killed the local day laborer who was hired as a “trainer.” Stepped on his head and squashed it like a grape.

Locals demanded retribution, but it’s not easy to snuff an elephant. This is what they came up with. It took a couple of tries.

I was born in a little town not far away. I’d heard rumors of this, but never saw the picture until the internet. I think people feel pretty sheepish about the whole business now.

Sure, this is a downer. Would you really rather I’d drawn pictures of Carol Brady’s crabs?





June 27, 2011 — 10:52 pm
Comments: 25

Round 17: How about somebody I’ve heard of dying this time, m’kay?

Princess Bernie takes the dick with…oh, some geezer I never heard of (yeah, not a fan of the Boss, me). That makes her the third double-dick winner, after steve and tawny. Hey, Princess B — drop me a line, would you? I’ve gone all through my old email and I can’t find your address.

Ready? Here we go:

1. Pick a celebrity. Any celebrity — though I reserve the right to nix picks I never heard of.

2. We start from scratch every time. No matter who you had last time, or who you may have called between rounds, you have to turn up on this very thread and stake your claim.

3. Poaching and other dirty tricks positively encouraged.

4. Your first choice sticks. Don’t just blurt something out, m’kay?

5. It’s up to you to search the thread and make sure your choice is unique. I’m waayyyy too lazy. Popular picks go fast.

6. The pool stays open until somebody on the list dies. Feel free to jump in any time. Noobs, strangers, drive-bys and one-comment-wonders — all are welcome.

7. If you want your fabulous prize, you have to entrust me with a mailing address. If you don’t want the fabulous prize, you’re too smart to be a regular. It takes me forever to put them in the mail, packages go by slow boat, typically take minimum eight to ten weeks and lose the will to live along the way.

8. The new DeadPool will begin 6pm WBT (Weasel’s Blog Time) the Friday after the last round is concluded.

The fabulous prize? Sweasel dot com’s unofficial sponsor, Aunty’s Spotted Dick! Mmmmm…it’s dickalicious!

June 24, 2011 — 6:00 pm
Comments: 128

…as I was saying…

For some years, my dad made some extra scratch as an after-dinner speaker on the topic the History of the Banjo.

The way I remember it, he took banjo from Joel Sweeney — the first white man known to play banjo on-stage, circa 1830 — through the army camps of the Civil War and then right into the 20th Century and bluegrass.

I didn’t know until years later what a gigantic chunk of banjo history got left out (and I didn’t know until this month it extended to Britain). For almost a hundred years, banjos of various kinds were THE parlor instrument, a staple of vaudeville and the centerpiece of many bands, amateur and professional. Minstrel style, finger style, classical and tenor, four string, five string, six string, eight string. The banjo was HUGE.

Funny we don’t remember that today. Maybe because nearly all the styles of music played on the banjo fell out of favor, with the exception of bluegrass. Maybe because the banjo era ended just as recording was coming on the scene, so little of it is preserved. Maybe because banjo sounded crap in early recordings.

I’m guessing, though, it’s because the banjo is so tightly bound up with minstrelsy. Spend five minutes poking around Google for early banjo and you’ll be up to your knees in burnt cork and n-bombs. No, of course you can’t impose a 21st Century racial attitude on the 19th Century, but it’s awfully hard to look back at blackface performance without thinking, “sweet Jesus — WTF?”

New Dead Pool tomorrow, 6pm WBT. Be there, or be somewhere else!

June 23, 2011 — 10:30 pm
Comments: 23

One last time, with feeling

You’ll have to excuse me for tonight, folks. This fascinating pile of wombat shit is the makings of my third and final visa application, form SET(M). AKA the Indefinite Leave to Remain.

It wasn’t actually due for another couple of weeks, but the civil service has scheduled a strike for June 30, which includes the UK Border Agency. Judging by past strikes, the UKBA won’t cut me any slack if my visa runs out while they’re on strike. Because everyone knows there’s a strike and should plan around it. Also because fuck you, American Weasel.

Thing I do not want to be when I grow up: illegal alien.

So here I am filling out forms and writing a check for £972 (that’s $1,555.20 in people money). Actually, poor old Uncle B had to write the check as I can’t move that much moola that fast.

In theory — assuming I haven’t filled out something in blue ink instead of black — this is it for me. When this comes back, I’m done. Finito. Fully paid up.

But when I’m eligible for citizenship in November, I’m going to go for it. What the hell — my people are from just up the road, originally, until my umpty great grandfather got a hankering to trade in tobacco. Or became a Quaker. Or poached a deer. We’re unclear on the point.

And if I take the oath I can vote.

Also commit felonies and not get deported.

June 22, 2011 — 10:13 pm
Comments: 28

Oh, I say! Plinky plinky plink

So I mentioned a while back that I had seen something interesting in an auction house window. It was this, the weirdest damn banjo I’d ever seen. (Actually, it was a model like the one on the right, a Wilmshurst. The one above is a Cammeyer, photo gleefully nicked from Save The Banjos).

Google revealed unto me, this is a zither banjo, a uniquely British(!) instrument. The Brits went mad for banjo at the end of the 19th Century.

Huh. Who knew?

Characteristics of the zither banjo: smaller head which fits inside a solid back, strung with some or all gut (now nylon) strings. Open peg-head, like a classical guitar. In fact, it was played and sounds rather like a classical guitar.

BUT it’s a bog-standard 5-string tuning, including the fifth drone string, so if you feel like letting rip a little Foggy Mountain Breakdown or Cripple Creek, go right on ahead.

Makers didn’t like asymmetry, so they often have six tuning pegs for the five strings. To be honest, I suspect it was because they could get three-on-a-side guitar pegs for cheaper than customized pegs.

But here’s the coolest bit. A bluegrass banjo has a fifth string that starts at the fifth fret, with a peg stuck out the side, right? Well, a zither banjo has a fifth drone string at the fifth fret, too, but it’s attached up at the peghead, feeds into a little brass tube under the fret board and pops out — poink! — just before the fifth fret. No awkward friction peg to stub your thumb on.

Huh? Huh?

Eh, I guess you have to be a banjo player.

For reasons I do not understand, they are not well liked by many banjo players. Which is good, I guess, because you can get them on the cheap (though zither banjos were such a popular instrument that they churned out a lot of crap ones). But it’s sad, as the best are beautiful instruments. The most I’ve seen one go for is around $500 (you can pay thousands for a bluegrass banjo).

Anyhoo, go have a gander at this lovely instrument, and listen to Rob McKillop tear off a few classic banjo tunes from Alfred Cammeyer, the American dude who may or may not have invented the zither banjo.

June 21, 2011 — 10:45 pm
Comments: 24

Happy Solstice!

Okay, the Solstice is tomorrow, but I post late so you’d miss it. Ten o’clock here, and still light enough to walk around the garden.

Tomorrow is the only day of the year they close Stonehenge, so the silly hippies can dance around it and pretend they know what our ancestors did there. Which is more than usually silly because a) we have no idea what the Stonehenge people were up to and b) Stonehenge is fake.

Okay, maybe not fake fake, but it was significantly reassembled in our time. The circle saw reconstruction projects in 1901, 1919, 1920, 1958, 1959 and 1964, with stones being winched into place and set in cement. And if you can’t trust a site called www.ufos-aliens.co.uk (with ads for London hotels and an online casino embedded in the text), who can you trust?

Well, really. Constable painted the above in 1835, and massive umpty-ton stones don’t just right themselves, do they?

So, now that I think about it, it’s perfect: tomorrow, people will perform a ritual they hope is something like the original around a ring of stones archeologists hope is something like the original.

June 20, 2011 — 9:27 pm
Comments: 24

Another neat thing money can do

I forgot to tell you. We read in the paper the Red Arrows were going to put on a display over Rye last Saturday. Which is weird, since Rye is a little medieval hill town kind of in the middle of nowhere, but it’s one of our favorite places in all the land. So, had to go.

The Red Arrows are the Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team and they are AWE. SOME. I saw them at an air show in Rhode Island a few years ago and came away sockless.

Nine jets. Impressive. And they do things like put on a show for you with six or seven jets and while you’re gaping at that, the rest sneak around behind you and come screaming in right over your head.

Yeah. The sheep loved that.

Funny thing, though. Much of the land around Rye was reclaimed from the sea in Tudor times. It’s flat as a table. Perfect for an air show. But they kept flying formations up and around this one hill near the town, where half the spectators at any one time couldn’t see.

Turns out, some rich bugger up on Point Hill bought and paid for the display as an anniversary gift. At the very end, two jets turned on the red smoke and traced a big heart in the sky over his house. Rumor has it he paid £35,000 for it. Rumor, sadly, didn’t tell us who he was. (Not that we’d know him, but we’d kind of like to, if you know what I mean).

Love and money. What a splendid combination.

Good weekend, all!

June 17, 2011 — 9:52 pm
Comments: 25