Leeches on a Plane, and in Other Sundry Places

June 14, 2019 § Leave a comment

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For most people, an uneventful international flight is a good international flight. That wasn’t the case for Ontario native Ippolit Bodounov when he traveled from Russia to Canada last October. His problems started when a Canada Border Services Agency beagle sniffed out a strange scent in his luggage. Actually, his problems started pre flight, when he decided to load a grocery bag with 4,788 wild leeches and put it in his carry on.

Bodounov’s story made the rounds last year when he was caught, and then again in May when he was fined C$15,000 for the illegal importation. Importing leeches, in and of itself, isn’t wrong—they’re often used for medicinal purposes (their saliva contains blood thinners, anti-clotting agents, blood-vessel dilators, and an anesthetic). But the species of leeches brought in by Bodounov are internationally regulated and he lacked the necessary permits. So remember that the next time you think about . . . nah, just forget it.

Hearing about leeches brought to my mind a passage in the book Exodus to a Hidden Valley, which tells the story of the Morse family, missionaries to the Lisu in Burma. They were ordered by the military government to leave the country by the end of December 1965, but rather than leave the Lisu behind, the Morses relocated to a remote area in Burma near the Indian border, away from government control. In describing their trek through the jungle, Eugene Morse writes,

There is no really effective weapon against the leech, Instead of keeping them away, bundling up often tends to hide leeches from your sight. During the rains we learned that even wearing shoes can be a hazard, because leeches hiding in a shoe can turn your foot into a bloody mess before you feel their bite. Leeches dread fire and ashes, and many American British soldiers virtually chain-smoked their way through the Burma campaign of World War II in an effort to keep them at bay. But we learned the Lisu technique of scraping them off with a sharp machete, a process that had to be repeated every few minutes to keep them from sucking blood. On one occasion my brother Robert helped his wife scrape 102 leeches off just one of her legs after she had been walking only five minutes. The mobility of these wormlike creatures is incredible. You can look at what seems to be a totally quiet area of jungle foliage, wave your hand, and suddenly find leeches crawling out from under every leaf, where they have been hiding from the rain. They almost seem to jump the last half inch or so to reach any available piece of warm flesh. If a man opens his fly to relieve himself along a jungle trail, later he will very likely find that at least two or three leeches have managed to make their way to his groin.

Once a leech has attached itself to you, it injects an anticoagulant into the surrounding area of flesh. It drinks until it swells up like a miniature sausage and then falls off. But because of the anticoagulant, you continue to bleed, and anybody who gets a number of leech bites is likely to suffer seriously from loss of blood. Nobody who has lived in the jungle during the rainy season underestimates the danger of leeches or ignores the importance of seeing to it that everything, from houses to latrines and other buildings, is made as leech proof as possible.

In the jungle opening one’s fly can be dangerous. Got it. But as it turns out, opening one’s mouth—or nose—can be risky, too. In 2017, a young Australian man claimed that while eating a pre-packaged salad from a Coles supermarket, a leech attached itself to his tongue. And he has video evidence. “I tried to get it off with a fork,” he tells The Daily Mail Australia, “and it just exploded in my mouth.”

Want more visuals? A report in the Turkish Archives of Ortohinolaryngology shows a leech on the base of a young lady’s tongue, the result of drinking unfiltered spring water. BBC published photos of a leech removed from the nose of a backpacker from Edinburgh, who came back from Southeast Asia with the unwelcome souvenir, which had grown to three inches long over a month before the traveller realized what was going on. And a YouTube video shows the extraction of a veeeery large leech from the nostril of a man from southern China. It had possibly latched on while the man was swimming in a river.

All this got me wondering if anyone makes a habit of putting leeches in their mouths on purpose, as in, for food. From what I’ve found, the answer is a definitive Maybe. In season four of Dirty Jobs, host Mike Rowe spends time with some some leech trappers in Minnesota. After they walk him through the collection and sorting process of the soon-to-be bait, Rowe asks them if there’s anything else he needs to know. “We occasionally eat ’em,” one answers.

Rowe later asks Jason, son of one of the leech wranglers, “Now look, man. Be honest with me. Leeches, are they served in fine restaurants up here in northern Minnesota, or anywhere for that matter?”

“Not too much in the United States just because of the whole food standards and everything,” Jason replies, “but over in Asia, it’s good to go.” He then proceeds to de-vein some leeches and deep fry them. Jason and the cameraman eat some raw, while Rowe waits until they’re cooked, claiming, “You know what? It’s pretty good.”

“But over in Asia, it’s good to go.” Really? Actually, I’m thinking probably not. Asians do eat a lot of things that aren’t normally on Western menus, but it’s a too easy go-to to claim that they eat anything and everything.

In truth, if you’re looking for a good leech recipe, look no farther than Europe. In one episode of Heston’s Feasts, British chef Heston Blumenthal hears from a Transylvanian historian on how to prepare “leeches swollen in goose blood.” Good may be stretching it a bit. After sampling the chewy result, Blumenthal declares, “That’s just congealed goose blood with a leech-membrane casing, and that to me, no matter how I try and wrap that up, it’s not appetizing.”

Dina Fine Maron, “Why Was This Man’s Luggage Stuffed with 5,000 Leeches?National Geographic, February 10, 2019; “Leech Smuggling: Canada Fines Man after 4,700 Carried on Plane,” BBC News, May 28, 2019; Eugene Morse, Exodus to a Hidden Valley,  Reader’s Digest Press, 1974; Nic White and Josh Hanrahan, “Man Says He Found a LEECH in a Coles Salad—and Only Noticed when the Creature Attached Itself to His Tongue,” Daily Mail, January 14, 2017)

[photo: “Bush leech,” by Doug Beckers, used under a Creative Commons license]

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Chairs, 2, 3, 4

April 17, 2019 § Leave a comment

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“Bauhaus Movement: Every Time You Sit Down, Thank the German Art School”

Every time you plop yourself down in a chair at work, rush to your favorite seat in class, or lounge at your desk at home, you can think the Bauhaus Movement. The Bauhaus was originally a German arts school started in 1919, whose teachings eventually developed into an art and thought movement that inspired a generation of artisans, architects, and designers around the world. [April 12] was the centennial celebration of Bauhaus, and Google marked the occasion with a front-page doodle.

Hungarian furniture designer Marcel Breuer was one of the first and youngest students at the Bauhaus. He was quickly recognized for his carpentry skills, and in short order became the head of the school’s carpentry shop. Eventually, Breuer designed two pieces of furniture that changed chair design forever: the Cesca Chair and the Wassily Chair.

The Cesca was the first chair made out of a combination of tubular steel and caned seating that was also mass-produced, and has since become a common chair in offices and homes. . . .

[The Cesca] eventually became the blueprint for countless chairs after it. Cara McCarty, the former associate curator at the department of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art considered it to be a pivotal invention in furniture design.

“It’s among the 10 most important chairs of the twentieth century,” she told The New York Times in 1991.

Danny Paez, Inverse, April 12, 2019

[photo: “|1|2|3|4|5|6|7|8|,” by Gerry Dincher, used under a Creative Commons license]

A Treatise about Frogs: On the Boiling, Swallowing, Eating, and Metaphorizing of Such

January 19, 2019 § 2 Comments

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A Frog in Every Pot

A frog likes water, but not hot water — Swahili proverb

You’ve heard it said that if you put a frog in boiling water, it will immediately jump out, but if you put it in cool water that you slowly bring to a boil, the frog won’t notice and will eventually die. It’s supposed to demonstrate how people often find themselves victims of tragic circumstances that are introduced incrementally—and they don’t realize it until it’s too late.

Whenever I hear this frog story, I think of two questions: 1) Is it true? and 2) Why in the world would you boil a live frog?

The answers should be simple, right? Well, think again.

German physiologist Friedrich Gotz comes close to answering both questions with experiments he conducted 150 years ago, publishing the results in 1869. According to the English philosopher, literary critic, and scientist George Henry Lewes, writing in Nature in 1873, Gotz was testing for the presence of a “spinal soul” in frogs. To that end, he placed a frog in water that was slowly heated. At 25º C (77º F), the frog “manifest[ed] uneasiness” and as the heat increased, “vainly struggl[ed] to get out.” This was in contrast to another frog, exposed to the same conditions, from which Gotz had previously removed its brain. As the water grew warmer, the brainless frog, while responding to other stimuli, “never once attempt[ed] to escape the impending death,” which came about at 56º C (132.8º F).

Put a tally down for “not true,” since the first frog would have gotten out if it had been allowed to, and the second one expired under less than normal circumstances.

In the years that followed, several scientists, in several countries, replicated Gotz’s experiments, with some verifying, and some contradicting his results. In his “On Variations of Reflex-Excitability in the Frog, Induced by Changes of Temperature,” MIT professor William Thomas Sedgwick gave a summary in 1888 of the research. He writes that J. Tarchanow (Russia, 1871) and M. Foster (England, 1873) show that normal frogs try to escape gradually heated water, while A. Heinzmann (Germany, 1872) and Carl Fratscher (Germany, 1875) show that a gradual increase in temperature results in the frogs’ death. Sedgwick concludes that the differences in results come down to the definition of “gradual.” While a gradual increase in the heat of the water may cause a frog to at least try to escape, a “sufficiently gradual” increase will not.

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In a more modern look at the situation, in 1995, Fast Company consulted George R. Zug, curator of reptiles and amphibians at the National Museum of Natural History, and Harvard University Biology Department’s Doug Melton. The two agree that the science behind the boiling-frog metaphor is complete bunkum (with Zug using more colorful language). First, they say, frogs put in boiling water will not jump out, they will simply die (I’ve ignored this half of the scenario until now). Second, a frog won’t sit still long enough to be boiled in slowly heated water.

Australian science broadcaster Karl Kruszelnicki jumped in in 2011 with his own rebuttal of the yay-sayers. Not only does he quote University of Oklahoma herpetologist Victor Hutchison, who declares, “The legend is entirely incorrect!” he also points to a book written by Yale’s Edward Wheeler Scripture in 1897, using it to refute one of the earlier experiments. In The New Psychology, Scripture writes about research (he lists Heinzmann, Fratscher, and Sedgwick as possible sources) in which the water containing the frog was heated at the rate of .002º C per second over 2 1/2 hours. Kruszelnicki does the math for this example and finds it impossible. But in the interesting and well-sourced post “The Boiling Frog Tale Is Not a Myth,” a self-described “second-generation Asian INTP male expatriate” disputes Kruszelnicki’s disputation. He writes that Scripture’s reference is to an experiment by Heinzmann, and a look at Heinzmann’s original text shows that Scripture got the facts wrong.

So here’s my conclusion. Will frogs jump out of boiling water? No. Will they die in water gradually heated to boiling? Um . . . maybe.

We’ll probably never have a definitive answer for the boiling-frog metaphor, as slowly boiling live frogs is frowned upon in today’s general community. It is interesting to note, that it was not so popular even back in the days of Gotz, et. al. The Report of the Royal Commission on the Practice of Subjecting Live Animals to Experiments for Scientific Purposes, published in 1876, records the response of the aforementioned Lewes, to the questions, “But would you give us an instance or two of the most distressing experiments that you have performed? Have you ever performed Goltz’s experiment of boiling a frog till it died?” Lewes answers, “No; but to disprove his conclusion, I dipped a frog [from which the brain had been removed] in boiling water.”

At the same proceedings, British physician Arthur de Noé Walker gives examples of what he considers inhumane experiments, “in the hope of convincing [the commission] how urgently legal interference is called for in order to check and control the practice of performing experiments on living animals.” One such experiment was performed by the French physiologist Claude Bernard, who created gastric fistulas in dogs and inserted live frogs into the openings to observe their responses to the gastric juices. Not only was this cruel, he explains, but it was also “against the order of nature.” “Dogs do not swallow live frogs,” he says, “and frogs do not jump down into the stomachs of dogs.”

This last one sounds like a horrible experiment, but it does serve as a nice segue into my next topic.

(The Prentice-Hall Encyclopedia of World Proverbs, Wolfgang Mieder, ed., MJF, 1986; George Henry Lewes, “Sensation in the Spinal Cord,” Nature: A Weekly Illustrated Journal of Science, vol. 9, December 4, 1873; William Thomas Sedgwick, “On Variations of Reflex-Excitability in the Frog, Induced by Changes of Temperature,” Studies from the Biological Laboratory of the Johns Hopkins University, vol. 2, Murray, 1888; “Next Time, What Say We Boil a Consultant?” Fast Company, November 31, 1995; Edward Scripture, The New Psychology, Scribner’s 1897; The Boiling Frog Tale Is Not a Myth,” INTP things, November 16, 2017; Report of the Royal Commission on the Practice of Subjecting Live Animals to Experiments for Scientific Purposes, George Edward Eyre and William Spottiswoode, eds., 1876)

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Got a Frog in Your Throat?

As odd as it may seem, some people like to swallow frogs—live and whole and with no boiling necessary. Take, for instance, Englander George Augustus Sala, who thought it not unnatural at all for frogs to hop into someone’s stomach. He wrote in 1863,

When you were a little boy at school, you probably ate a good many frogs. Our practice was, when we had caught them, to pinch our nostrils with the fingers of one hand, and holding the dapper little froggee lightly with the other, to allow him to jump down our throats. There was a tradition among us that to swallow live frogs (for the process could not be called eating) made a boy strong and valorous, and almost insentient to the cuts of the cane. As we advanced in years we took a distaste for frogs. We were patriots. We grew to hate frogs because we heard that the French liked them and that they formed a principal item in the diet of that vivacious and ingenious people.

But frog swallowing hasn’t been limited only to the young. The Hungarian-born illusionist and escape artist Harry Houdini writes about the “repulsive” frog swallowing performers of his day, finding only one, a Frenchman named Norton, “who presented his act in a dignified manner.” The two performed on the same program at the Circus Busch, Berlin, which gave Houdini a front-row seat. He recounts one instance where the act didn’t go quite as planned:

Norton could swallow a number of half-grown frogs and bring them up alive. I remember his anxiety on one occasion when returning to his dressing-room; it seems he had lost a frog—at least he could not account for the entire flock—and he looked very much scared, probably at the uncertainty as to whether or not he had to digest a live frog.

Modern-day American magician and escapologist David Blain does not share Houdini’s disgust. In fact, he’s devoted much effort into honing his frog gurgitation and regurgitation skills.

Mr. Sala, Mr. Blaine, and Norton’s practices aside, most people see only the negatives of frog swallowing. Take, for instance, the women of northeast Brazil. When they refer to the pain of holding in anger and resentment and quietly tolerating unfairness, they call it “swallowing frogs.”

And wasn’t it Mark Twain who said,“Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day”? Actually, no.

Though the saying is often attributed to the American author, Garson O’Toole, of the Quote Investigator, tells us that a similar phrase predates Twain by many years. It appeared in French in the 1790s, with the publication of writer Nicolas Chamfort’s Oeuvres de Chamfort (Works of Chamfort). In 1851, Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve published Causeries du Lundi (Monday Chats), which included the relevant passage by Chamfort, translated into English. In it, Chamfort refers to M. de Lassay, whom he uses as his “mouthpiece” in his writings:

Nature, in overwhelming us with misery and giving us an unconquerable attachment to life, seems to have behaved to man like an incendiary who sets fire to our house, after placing sentries at our doors. The danger must be very great to oblige us to leap out of a window.

M. de Lassay, a very indulgent man, but with a great knowledge of society, said that we should swallow a toad every morning, in order to fortify ourselves against the disgust of the rest of the day, when we have to spend it in society.

I’ve also seen no evidence that Mark Twain ever said, “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.”

(George Augustus Sala, Breakfast in Bed; or, Philosophy between the Sheets: A Series of Indigestible Discources, Bradburn, 1863; Harry Houdini, Miracle Mongers and Their Methods: A Complete Exposé of the Modus Operandi of Fire Eaters, Heat Resisters, Poison Eaters, Venomous Reptile Defiers, Sword Swallowers, Human Ostriches, Strong Men, Etc. Dutton, 1920; L. A. Rebhun, “Swallowing Frogs: Anger and Illness in Northeast Brazil,” Medical Anthropology Quarterly, 1994; Garson O’Toole, “Eat a Live Frog Every Morning, and Nothing Worse Will Happen to You the Rest of the Day,” Quote Investigator, April 3, 2013; Nicolas Chamfort, Oevres de Chamfort, tome 4, 1795; Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, Causeries du Lundi, vol. 7, E. J. Trechmann, trans., Routledge, 1851)

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Tastes like Chicken

It’s not that Twain was averse to eating frogs, per se. It’s just that they needed to be prepared the right way (and I assume he preferred only the hind legs.) In his account of his travels through Europe, A Tramp Abroad, Twain writes that during his trip he longs for the familiar food of the States:

It has now been many months, at the present writing, since I have had a nourishing meal, but I shall soon have one—a modest, private affair, all to myself. I have selected a few dishes, and made out a little bill of fare, which will go home in the steamer that precedes me, and be hot when I arrive—as follows. . . .

He then goes on to provide a lengthy menu of his favorite foods, beginning with “Radishes. Baked apples, with cream. Fried oysters; stewed oysters. Frogs. American coffee, with real cream. American butter,” and “Fried chicken, Southern Style. . . .”

Of course, the French like their frog legs, too. And while they do eat their share of cuisses de grenouille, they’re far from alone.

According to the global study “Canapés to Extinction,” the EU is the largest importer of frog legs, followed by the US, Canada, and Japan—though when only countries are ranked, the US comes out on top. In the EU, France isn’t even the leading nation. That distinction goes to Belgium, and by a wide margin.

And it’s not just the legs of frogs that find their way onto tables worldwide. Here’s a sampling: The “wildlife trade specialists” at TRAFFIC, report that frogs are “an important food source” in West Africa, where they’re dried or fried whole—with or without disemboweling—for consumption. A dish in Indonesia is pepes telur kodok, frog eggs cooked in banana leaves. And a search on the internet will garner videos of a Japanese woman eating “live” frog sashimi (sushi), a woman in China chewing frogs whole, and another woman in China spoon feeding her toddler tadpoles. Who needs a circus when you have YouTube.

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So where do all these frogs come from? Back to frog legs, the top exporters are Indonesia, China, Taiwan, and Vietnam, in that order. The world’s leading suppliers used to be India and Bangladesh, but over harvesting decimated their frog populations, leading the two countries to ban frog exports in the late 80s. It is feared, say the writers of “Canapés to Extinction,” that Indonesia may be headed to the same fate.

I would guess that if the residents of a country, such as Indonesia, were to wake up one day and all their frogs were gone, they would bemoan not only the loss of income, but also the absence of the frogs’ role in controlling mosquitos and agricultural pests. But as long as the decrease in the frog population is slow, it’s hard for them to recognize how bad things are getting—maybe even until there’s no turning back.

Hmmmm, that reminds me of a story.

(Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad, American, 1880; Sandra Altherr, Alejandra Goyenechea and D.J. Schubert, “Canapés to Extinction: The International Trade in Frogs’ Legs and Its Ecological Impact,” Pro Wildlife, 2016; M. Mohneke, et al., “Dried or Fried: Amphibians in Local and Regional Food Market in West Africa” TRAFFIC Bulletin, vol. 22, no. 3, 2010; 

[photos: “Big Red,” by Matt MacGillivray, used under a Creative Commons license; “Frog,” by Mike Maguire, used under a Creative Commons license; “Frog,” by Jon Wiley, used under a Creative Commons license; “kermit’s legs,” by Chewy Chua, used under a Creative Commons license; “Dried Frogs,” by Shawn Harquail, used under a Creative Commons license]

Phones Can Affect Our Brains . . . and Our Hot Pots, Too

December 13, 2018 § Leave a comment

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One of Sunday’s 60 Minutes segments was on the effects that continual screen time has on children’s brains. In particular, they looked at a study currently being conducted by the National Institutes of Health, a study looking at brain scans of 11,000 nine- and ten-year-olds over the course of a decade.

One of the experts interviewed on the show was Tristan Harris, a former Google product manager. His comments were actually made last year for another story on 60 Minutes titled “What Is ‘Brain Hacking’? Tech Insiders on Why You Should Care.” In the clip, Harris talks about the competition among developers to find ways to hook us on their apps. He calls it “a race to the bottom of the brain stem.”

(Here’s the entire segment from 2017. It’s well worth watching. But since it’s more than 13 minutes long, maybe you should keep reading and come back to it. I don’t want you to give up before you get to the second video below.)

So where do we find the off ramp from the highway to addiction? Gamification guru Gabe Zicherman tells the news show that we shouldn’t expect the creators of the technology to show us the way, as they’re not inherently inclined to make their products less habit forming. “Asking tech companies, asking content creators to be less good at what they do feels like a ridiculous ask,” he says. “It feels impossible. And also it feels anti-capitalistic. This isn’t the system we live in.”

Hmmm . . . maybe capitalism can produce solutions of its own. Take, for instance, this example of capitalism filtered through a Swedish furniture company in Taiwan. It uses technology to thwart technology. And it uses smartphones to get things cooking—literally. (Thanks for the link, Peter.)

[photo: “in the smartphone era,” by mho, used under a Creative Commons license]

Hackneys, Mews, and a Trap-Pumping Mouse (you’ll, uh, see what I mean)

October 18, 2018 § Leave a comment

Mews

So after a long hiatus, I went back to the Bellerby and Co. Globemakers’ website (I’ve written about them here and here), and I saw they’d posted a Great Big Story video that CNN had made about them. It’s a cool video, but what really caught my attention was Bellerby’s address posted on the outside of their studio. Yes, their address:

London Borough of Hackney, Bouverie Mews, N16

I like the sound of it. It sounds so . . . British. But beyond that, it’s provided me a learnable moment, with help from the Online Etymology Dictionary, one of my favorite sites.

First, there’s Borough of Hackney. Hackney originally meant “Haca’s Isle” or “Hook Island,” the name for a dry patch in the middle of a marsh within the current boundaries of London. In early medieval times, horses were kept there. These horses were hired out for regular things like riding and pulling, not for specialized purposes, and the horses themselves came to be called “hackneys.” That led to the shortened form hack, which is now used for someone, such as a writer or artist, who does dull or routine work for pay. In the past, hackney was also a verb, meaning “to use a horse for riding,” which gave us our current adjective hackneyed, for something that is overused or trite.

Then there’s Mews. Turns out that has nothing to do with cats but a lot to do with horses. Mew used to mean “cage,” and the king’s hawks were kept at the mews at London’s Charing Cross. The site later became the home for the royal horse stables, called the Royal Mews. By the early 1800s, mews meant “a street of stables converted into homes for people.”

Finally, a blog post by Bellerby and Co. tells us that their mews (street) is named after John Bouverie, a British antiquarian and art collector, who died in 1750.

Bellerby’s blog also points out another nearby occupant of Bouverie Mews: John Nolan Studio, where they make animatronics, such as those in the commercials below. In the first one, for McVities Digestive Cookies, it’s a little hard to tell what’s real and what’s fake. It’s a little easier to make that distinction in the advert (as the Brits say) for Nolan’s Cheddar. That’s not at all because the mouse doesn’t look lifelike.

You’ll see what I mean.

(“Balls on Bouverie: N16 History,” Globemakers, May 28, 2014)

Balls, 2, 3, 4

July 15, 2018 § Leave a comment

“South African-Lithuanian Stuffed Matzah Balls”

9. Divide the matzah meal mixture into 8-10 balls of equal size.
10. Flatten the balls, then and place 1 tsp of meat filling in the center of each. Enclose the filling, pinch the edges together and form into balls.
11. Place the matzah balls into the rapidly boiling salted water and simmer 20 minutes.
12. Preheat the oven to 400°F.
13. Drain the matzah balls and place in a pan greased with chicken fat; cover with remaining 4 tsp chicken fat and sprinkle with cinnamon.
14. Bake 15 to 20 minutes or until slightly browned.

Eileen Goltz, OU Kosher, from Joan Nathan’s Jewish Holiday Kitchen

The Airbag Bike Helmet: Now You Don’t See It, Now You Do (Except Not in the US)

May 27, 2018 § Leave a comment

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Nöden är uppfinningarnas moder.

That’s Swedish for “Necessity is the mother of invention” (unless I’m just completely mistaken).

For Anna Haupt and Terese Alstin, industrial design students at Sweden’s Lund University in 2005, the necessity was a new law that required children under the age of 15 to wear a helmet when riding a bicycle. They understood that many people, including kids, don’t like wearing traditional bike helmet’s, so they wanted to create something that people would enjoy wearing and that would still keep them safe. The result was a collar worn around the neck that uses an accelerometer to detect a crash and instantly inflates an airbag to surround the head when needed.

In 2011 the Hövding (or “Chieftain”) passed required safety testing in Europe, receiving CE certification, and is now sold in 17 European countries—as far east as Istanbul—and in Japan. So, to readers in the US, when will you see one on a street near you? Probably not soon.

At first I assumed that the major issue was that Americans just aren’t sold on the idea, so I was hoping for some brave early adopters here to get the ball rolling. (I have the same hope for the Ostrich Pillow, another headgear innovation that I’d like to be the second or third on my block to own.) Or maybe it’s the cost: about $350—and it has to be replaced after deploying. But no, that’s not what’s holding it back, at least not yet. Right now, it’s nearly impossible to get one here.

First of all, according to the company’s website, the Hövding hasn’t met American testing standards for bicycle helmets. Second, it can’t be mailed outside of Europe (Japan has them because the airbags are made there). And third—because I know you’re thinking you’ll take your next vacation to Sweden and bring one back with you—TSA won’t allow one on your flight because of its CO2 cartridge.

As for the safety-standards factor in the States, a 2016 Stanford study shows the product’s potential. Mehmet Kurt, part of the Stanford research team, states that “air bag helmets, with the right initial pressure, can reduce head accelerations five to six times compared to a traditional bicycle helmet.” But the kicker is that “right initial pressure.” If the airbag doesn’t inflate with the maximum amount of air, then a forceful impact could cause the helmet to “bottom out,” and the head would strike the ground (or other obstacle) through the cushioning.

But maybe someday . . . here. The Stanford group calls for a general updating of US helmet standards and testing, which, they say, “are very far behind.” And then they want a more in-depth look at several aspects of the Hövding: how it protects against rotational accelerations and forces, how it performs when dropped from greater heights, what can be done to eliminate bottoming-out issues, and how to make it “smarter.”

Here’s hoping all that can get worked out and the Hövding, or something like it, can make it to our shores. Not only would having “invisible helmets” in the US prevent injuries, but it would also increase my odds of getting to not see one firsthand.

(Taylor Kubota, “Stanford Researchers Show Air Bag Bike Helmets Have Promise,” Stanford News, October 3, 2016)

[photo: “Bike PDX,” by sama093, used under a Creative Commons license]

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