What’s In Your Wallet?

Never can be too careful.

Never can be too careful.

That question is asked in commercials for a credit card company, which probably does not expect you to reply, “Bacteria.”  The truth is, though, that it’s in there.  Lots of it.

You may have heard urban legends that there are traces of illegal drugs on dollar bills, but scientific research over the past year or so isn’t finding nearly as much cocaine on our cash as microbes — most commonly the ones that cause acne.  Others are linked to pneumonia, food poisoning, staph infections, flu and… well, you name it.

A study called The Dirty Money Project, being conducted by scientists at New York University, has found 1.2 billion  DNA segments on a relative handful of dollar bills collected in that city.  Jane Carlton, director of genome sequencing for the study, told the Wall Street Journal, “It was quite amazing to us.  We actually found that microbes grow on money.”

What amazed me is that only about half of that DNA was human, presumably from people licking their fingers while counting cash.  In addition to bacteria, there were viruses and fungi — OK, maybe you expect that.  But DNA from horses and dogs?  And don’t tell me it doesn’t surprise you that on dollar bills in New York City, they found small amounts of white rhino DNA.

There are fewer than 20,000 white rhinos on our planet and as far as I know, only two of them live in New York, up at the Bronx Zoo.  All right, so maybe a zookeeper petted one of the rhinos and didn’t wash his hands afterward.  Then he bought a beer, tipped the bartender, who put the rhino’s DNA in his pocket at the end of his shift, and so on.

The point is, money gets around, and since the cotton-linen blend on which U.S. currency is printed is somewhat absorbent, the germs go along for the ride.  So far, the Dirty Money Project and similar studies elsewhere have only established that nasty stuff is definitely on money; scientists don’t yet know to what extent cash transactions cause outbreaks of disease, but it certainly seems plausible that there’s a connection, wouldn’t you think?

So what can be done to avoid a dose of illness from handling dirty money?  We could take a vow of poverty, I suppose, but there are other health risks associated with that approach.

If microwaving kitchen sponges kills the bacteria they have absorbed, maybe it would work for cash, too.  But until microwaves get so portable you can take them on the subway with you, that doesn’t seem very practical, either.

Some countries — Canada and Australia among them — are now printing their currency on polymer film.  But scientific studies have come up with conflicting results.  One group of scientists found less bacteria on the plastic sheets; another study reported that microbes actually survive longer on them.

In the meantime, the best approach is soap and water, administered frequently.  When that’s not available, like after you’ve made a show of putting a dollar bill in the offering plate at church,  a drop or two of hand sanitizer just might keep you from being the cause of an anthrax outbreak.

Well, enough of that — anybody hungry?  (Let’s put it on a credit card.)




Picture Perfect

Las Meninas, by Diego Velazquez (1656) -- Museo del Prado, Madrid

Las Meninas, by Diego Velazquez (1656) — Museo del Prado, Madrid

There is a lot of suffering in the Prado, and I’m not referring to how your feet feel after walking for hours through Madrid’s world-class art museum.  The collection includes Goya’s famous Third of May 1808, which depicts Napoleon’s soldiers firing point-blank into a group of captured rebels.  The Triumph of Death, by Pieter Bruegel, isn’t exactly warm and fuzzy.  The Prado has many images of the crucified Christ, too — a popular theme for artists during the Counter-Reformation.

But pain and suffering are by no means all that the Prado has to offer; there are also portraits and landscapes and genre scenes that are likely to evoke appreciative smiles.  Foremost among these is a towering artistic achievement located in room 12 of the Museo Nacional del Prado:  Las Meninas, by Diego Velázquez.

The late Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, included it on his short list of the greatest works of Western Civilization.  Australian art historian Lisa Beaven wrote, “This painting has been described as the most over-interpreted painting in the history of art.”  It is certainly among the most widely admired by art experts.  (Las Meninas is reproduced above; click on it to look more closely, then hit the “back” button to return to the text.)

So what’s the big deal about it?  At first glance, you see an elaborately dressed little girl who appears to be about five years old.  She’s being fussed over by a couple of ladies-in-waiting, or “meninas”.  But why is the painting named for them?  They don’t seem to be the subject matter; in fact they’re almost the only people in the painting who aren’t looking straight at… whoa.

Most of the people, and maybe even the dog, are looking straight at the viewer of the painting.  You.

It’s as if you just stepped into this room in the royal palace, interrupting whatever it was they were doing.  There’s a painter on the left — it’s Diego Velázquez himself, who probably didn’t look this young when he painted Las Meninas in 1656; he was in his late 50s by then.

Anyway, Velázquez has an enormous canvas he’s working on, but he can’t be painting the Infanta Margarita (that’s the little girl’s name) or her entourage, because they would be facing him, not us.

As you study the painting for clues, you notice a couple reflected in the mirror on the back wall.  They are the king, Philip IV, and Queen Mariana.  OK, so is that a reflection of the canvas — a portrait of the royal couple that Velázquez has basically finished?  Or… are the king and queen currently posing for him, in effect standing in the space we occupy?  If that’s the case, that suggests that we are seeing the room through the eyes of the monarch.

That might also explain all the activity around the Infanta Margarita.  As art historian Lois Fichner-Rathus speculates, “Is the princess being given a few finishing touches before joining her parents in a family portrait?”  In other words, is she about to be placed in the space we occupy?

That’s what is so fascinating about Las Meninas:  in a sense, the viewer completes the picture.  Not to brag, but one day in the Prado, I was the star of that painting just by standing in front of it.  Then I reluctantly stepped out of the way and let a German tourist have his moment of glory in one of history’s greatest paintings.

When the Group Gets Together

This is known as a mustering of storks.

This is known as a mustering of storks.

The first time I saw lions in the wild, there’s a good chance I did not say, “Oh, look — a pride of lions.”  It’s more likely that I said something like, “Holy *&%!”

As we know, though, the correct term for a bunch of lions is a pride, just as a group of witches is a coven.  A gathering of cattle is a herd, several servants comprise a staff, and, as you can’t possibly have known before now, a group of hippos is called a bloat.  Seriously.

These names for particular groups are called collective nouns, or sometimes “nouns of assemblage”.  Some are so common we don’t have to stop to think about the correct term.  For instance, what’s a group of birds?  Of course — a flock.  But it starts to get trickier when designating a specific type of bird.

Let’s see… multiple geese are a gaggle when they’re on land, but a skein when in flight.  The collective noun for parrots is a company, and for pheasants it’s a bouquet.  I like the term “a parliament of owls”, and “an exaltation of larks” has a nice ring to it.  On the other hand, a group of crows is ominously called a murder.

Many of these nouns of assemblage are so fanciful that they seem to have been made up one evening by a group of comedy writers, who should perhaps be collectively referred to as a liquor.  It turns out, however, that these collective nouns have been in use since the Middle Ages.  That is particularly true of the words — called terms of venery — applied to groups of animals.

The tradition seems to have begun as a sort of hunters’ jargon among English gentlemen.  Perhaps to impress their fellow aristocrats with their specialized knowledge, the hunter/linguists kept adding more of these collective nouns.  By 1486, the Book of St. Albans, which focused on hunting and heraldry, included 165 such terms.

They have been analyzed and catalogued down through the centuries; I got the ones that follow from respectable sources like the San Diego Zoo and the U.S. Geological Survey’s Wildlife Research Center.  Here are a few of my favorites:

A Group of…                                          Is Known as

alligators                                                 a congregation

cats                                                           a pounce

cockroaches                                            an intrusion

cormorants                                             a gulp

eagles                                                       a convocation

gnats                                                        a cloud

hyenas                                                     a cackle

monkeys                                                  a barrel

squirrels                                                  a scurry

woodpeckers                                          a descent

As I was busy compiling this list of collective nouns, this thought leaped to mind:  “What is the collective noun for collective nouns?”  Then it hit me:  “Oh, right — a list.”

Hot Enough For You?

Some living things in Death Valley

Some living things in Death Valley

The other day, the thermometer at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center in Death Valley reached 125° F (51.67 C).

That’s not unheard of this time of year; the average high temperature for July in Death Valley is 116° F.  In the summer of 2001, there were 154 consecutive days in which the temperature exceeded 100 degrees.  About a century ago, it got up to 134° F (56.7 C) on July 10, 1913, setting the mark for highest temperature ever recorded on the planet.

Bear in mind that those numbers are air temperature.  The highest ground temperature recorded at Death Valley was on July 15, 1972 — it was 201° Fahrenheit.  In those conditions, wearing shoes is recommended.

So, you might reasonably ask, why go to Death Valley?  Well, for one thing, since it is located along the California/Nevada border, tour buses stop there on the way between Las Vegas and San Francisco.  But a better reason to visit is that Death Valley is starkly beautiful.

In addition to being the hottest place in North America (which, I’ll admit, had no appeal for me) it is also the driest — only a couple of inches of rain per year — and the lowest.  These attributes, if you can call them that, have combined to create sights you’re unlikely to see anywhere else.

There’s a spot called Badwater Basin, named for a small, spring-fed pool of brine and the vast salt flats that surround it.  As you get out of your car at Badwater Basin, take a look up the mountains across from the parking lot.  Wayyyy up there is a sign that indicates sea level — it’s 282 feet above where you are standing.

A few miles from Badwater is a spot called Artists Palette — slopes of pigmented earth and oxidized minerals in colors one wouldn’t normally expect to find on hillsides.  Especially in late afternoon, there are vivid blotches of blue, green, yellow, orange and even purple.

The eroded hills at Zabriskie Point are a deep yellow; in fact, when we photographed them at sunset they were almost gold.  At sunrise, the mountains in the distance reflect the light in shades of pink and blue.  We were there in March, by the way, when we actually needed jackets in the early morning hours.

My favorite area in Death Valley National Park is Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes.  The dunes cast deep shadows at sunset (see photo).  Signs of life were evident here, including shrubs and the tracks of small rodents and sidewinder rattlesnakes.

A man-made attraction in Death Valley is Scotty’s Castle, a mansion built in the 1920s.  Scotty was a con man who claimed to have found gold in the area and persuaded investors to part with their actual money for a chance at speculative riches.  A wealthy man named Johnson owned the castle, but for some reason, Scotty’s name got attached to it, and he is buried on a hill overlooking the castle.

Scotty’s passing had nothing to do with how Death Valley got its name.  That is associated with a group of “49ers”, prospectors who hoped to strike it rich during the California Gold Rush.  They took what they thought would be a shortcut and wound up getting lost in this bleak region. Many months passed before they found their way out.  It’s remarkable that only one man died during that time, but the name Death Valley stuck.

What caused his demise is uncertain, although I wouldn’t be surprised if his traveling companions bludgeoned him to death because he wouldn’t stop saying, “but it’s a dry heat.”

Love Locks

There were hundreds (perhaps thousands) more locked to the Brooklyn Bridge on this particular day.

There were hundreds (perhaps thousands) more locked to the Brooklyn Bridge on this particular day.

It’s either a symbol of romantic commitment, or it’s an act of vandalism.  Those are  basically the two opinions about “love locks”, which can be seen in profusion at many tourist destinations around the world.

They are padlocks, like you might have on a tool shed or gym locker, that have been embellished with the names or initials of couples in love.  This can be done with nail polish or paint or a Sharpie.  In some cases, the names and sentiment — “Cynthia and Mike Forever”, let’s say — are etched by laser.

The next step is for the couple to attach this chunk of sentimental hardware to a public fence or building or especially, a bridge.  After looking meaningfully into each others’ eyes, they then fling the key into the river, signifying that their love is bonded together forever.

Love padlocks, as they are also known, seem to date back a hundred years or so, to a Serbian couple.  He was a soldier about to be sent off to war; she was a young schoolteacher.  OK, this isn’t going where you think it is — he fell in love with a Greek woman and never saw the schoolteacher again.  The legend is that young Serbian girls put love padlocks on a particular bridge in hopes of avoiding a similar fate.

The practice wasn’t widespread in the 20th century, but got a huge boost in 2006 from a best-selling Italian novel called Ho Voglia Di Te (I Want You).  In the book and subsequent movie, the main characters put a padlock on Ponte Milvio, a bridge over the Tiber in Rome.

Love locks became a craze in Italy:  The Rialto Bridge in Venice sprouted them, and in Verona there are locks all over the house where Juliet supposedly lived when she was falling for Romeo.  On the Ponte Milvio, a lamppost buckled under the weight of love locks.

Tourists spread the newly established tradition around the world, everywhere from Brisbane, Australia to Seoul, South Korea they are affixed to public property, mostly by visitors.  Many locals take the dim view of love locks as being clutter, or worse — dangerous.

The Pont des Arts in Paris started to sag and has had grill work collapse regularly from 93 metric tons (over 205,000 pounds) of love locks.  That bridge seems to be a favored spot for lovers, but throughout the city, bridges over the Seine have an estimated 700,000 padlocks attached.  That’s the sort of thing that generates the conflict between keeping love alive and keeping infrastructure intact.

On New York’s Brooklyn Bridge, a key tossed by lovers might be just as likely to hit a car passing below as it would to reach the river (see photo), and locks add significant weight to the bridge’s cables.  Workers from the city’s Department of Transportation periodically remove the locks with bolt cutters and recycle them.  That approach has been taken in most other cities as well.

That means the symbolism of love locks has become nuanced:  Clamping one on a bridge is now a way to say “I’ll love you till the end of time.  Or until a city employee snips this with bolt cutters and throws it away.  Whichever comes first.”

One Year of Fame

Vaughn Meader at the height of his fame

Vaughn Meader at the height of his fame

How much longer will there be a demand for Elvis impersonators?  It was 1977 when the original Elvis Presley died (or disappeared, as conspiracy theorists assert), but almost 40 years later, he’s still the subject of these “tributes”.  There are people who weren’t even alive in 1977 who go to Las Vegas and have their marriage solemnized by a guy with a greasy pompadour and a sneer.

Elvis is probably the most impersonated celebrity, but the most successful impersonator in recent history didn’t “do” Elvis.  Even if you were listening to comedy several decades ago, you probably remember this entertainer only dimly.  Does the name Vaughn Meader ring any bells?

Meader was a piano player who became a standup comic.  He worked into his act some bits as the newly elected president John F. Kennedy.  A native of Maine, Meader’s natural accent only had to be tweaked slightly to become an excellent simulation of JFK’s speech patterns.

In 1962, He and several other performers recorded an album called “The First Family”.  Meader did Jack Kennedy, and an actress named Naomi Brossart voiced Jackie Kennedy; if you listen to the album now, you’ll be struck by how relatively tame the humor was.

The theme was basically that the family in the White House was pretty much like every family, so there were jokes about the children’s bath toys and relatives dropping in and why the President wasn’t eating his salad.

“Well, let me say this about that,” Meader, as Kennedy, intones. “Now, number one, in my opinion the fault does not lie as much in the salad as it does with the, uh, dressing being used on the salad.  Now let me say that I have nothing against the dairy industry…”  And so on.

For some reason, Americans could not get enough of “The First Family”.  The album was released in November, 1962; in the first two weeks, it sold — get this — a reported 1.2 million copies.  In two weeks!  The album ultimately sold over 7 million, and went on to win the Grammy for Album of the Year.  (For historical context:  Song of the Year was “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”.)

The album’s phenomenal success swept Vaughn Meader to stardom; he was booked on the Ed Sullivan Show and other variety shows and became a headliner in Las Vegas, raking in over $20 grand a week, back when that was serious money.  Another album, “The First Family Volume Two”, was released in the spring of 1963.  Vaughn Meader was in his mid-twenties and had reached the pinnacle of show-business success.

Then, on November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

The “First Family” albums were pulled from store shelves.  Gigs that had been booked were canceled — suddenly, no one wanted Vaughn Meader.  Apparently in the collective consciousness, he was a reminder of the tragedy.

Meader released a couple of more albums that did not have any Kennedy-related material, but they didn’t sell.  Within a few years, he was grinding out a living playing piano in small venues — taverns and such.  His fame had lasted almost exactly one year, and then Vaughn Meader plummeted into obscurity.

He died in 2004, but the New York Times obituary noted, “Mr. Meader often referred to November 22, 1963, as ‘the day I died’.”

What Was Ponzi’s Scheme?

Charles Ponzi, who let about 40,000 people in on a rare investment opportunity.

Charles Ponzi, who let about 40,000 people in on a rare investment opportunity.

Get-rich-quick schemes are a dime a dozen.  Well, the initial investment is usually more than a dime, but the prospect of making a fortune by risking only a modest sum has been touted by shady characters for centuries.

One of the most notorious methods of defrauding investors is the Ponzi Scheme.  It’s named for a guy named Charles (Carlo) Ponzi, who came to the United States, along with millions of other immigrants, at the beginning of the 20th century.  He had several occupations, most notably “prisoner”.

After spending three years in a Montreal penitentiary and two years in Atlanta Prison, Ponzi went to Boston and worked in an actual job.  That’s where he accidentally found out about something called an International Reply Coupon.

The coupons were a way of obtaining international postage; the IRCs could be exchanged for postage stamps to send and receive parcels and correspondence.  The fact that many people who had recently arrived in North America still had friends and relatives abroad meant that a fair amount of mail went in both directions.

Since World War I had just concluded, the European currencies were still depressed relative to the U.S. dollar.  Ponzi figured out that it would be possible to buy the postal reply coupons in Italy for the equivalent of $1 (U.S.), and then sell them in America for three or four times that much.

So that’s what Ponzi did.  At least, that’s what he did at first.  In 1919, he borrowed some money, sent it to relatives in Italy, had them buy IRCs with the money and send the coupons back to him.  This proved to be a bit of a hassle, so it occurred to Ponzi that it would be a lot easier to eliminate the step of actually buying the coupons.

He talked friends into investing wih him, supposedly to purchase IRCs; he promised them a whopping 50% return in 90 days.  Sounds good, right?  As word got around, more eager investors wanted in, so Ponzi was able to pay the initial clients with cash he collected from newer clients.  Within months, millions of dollars were rolling in.

Because the rate of return was high, a lot of clients chose not to immediately take their profits; they reinvested, which helped Ponzi stay afloat a while longer.  The obvious flaw in a Ponzi scheme is that to keep paying high returns, an ever-increasing supply of fresh money is necessary.  Apparently, Charles Ponzi naively believed that the money would keep flowing in forever.

The scheme started to fall apart when a reporter thought to ask the Post Office’s coupon redemption department how they were handling the huge increase in demand.  The response was basically, “What demand?”

According to author Bill Bryson, “It turned out that Ponzi had cashed in only $30 worth of postal coupons.  All the rest was money taken from one lot of investors and given to another.”

Ponzi spent three and a half years in federal prison for his eponymous scheme, and then moved to Florida where he attempted to sell swampland to suckers.  Following that he did a stint in a Massachusetts prison, got deported to Italy, and eventually relocated to Brazil.

Charles Ponzi died broke in a charity hospital in Rio de Janeiro.  Investors in his notorious scheme lost an estimated $20 million, which was once considered a lot of money.