“Ecco il fico” — Barbarossa, the fig, the bite, the thumb, and the mule

March 26th, 2017

The phrase “Ecco il fico” has a particularly ripe meaning, writes Rob Chirico in the Strong Language blog:



The year was 1162 when he returned and easily subdued the revolt. According to the chronicler Giambattista Gelli, Frederick [Frederick the First, Holy Roman emperor, also known as “Barbarossa”] got them back for the mule debacle, and then some: “The Emperor, justly incensed, urged the besieged [citizens] to yield, which they at last did… he received them with mercy upon this condition: that every person who desired to live should, with their teeth, take a fig out of the genitals of a [she] mule.” That is to say, Barbarossa gave the ringleaders a choice of being hanged (or beheaded), or saving themselves by presenting a fig to the executioner as a token of ransom. The fly in the ointment, so to speak, was that the fig had been stuck in the ass of the Empress’s ass—er, mule. The prisoner had to extract it with his teeth. He would then bring it to the executioner saying, “Ecco il fico” (translated as “Here is the fig”—but you knew that). If that was not punishment enough, he then had to replace the fig in the mule’s fundament to be ready for extraction by the next miscreant.

Chirico explains this as background for understanding a particular hand gesture:

for decades the incident was used to humiliate and insult the Milanese. You’ve seen it. The precise form is to make a fist with your thumb thrust out between the index and middle fingers and bite the thumb. The exact name of the gesture is known as “making the fig.” It was already a widespread insult in Shakespeare’s time, as he used it in Act I, Scene I of Romeo and Juliet.

The thumb-biting hand gesture has variants, used in various parts of the world.

The Romeo and Juliet incident, which may or may not be quite as described here, is accompanied by this statement: “No, sir, I do not bite my thumb at you, sir, but I bite my thumb, sir.” It can play out in different ways, at the option of the director of the play. This video shows some of the ways:

How to cobble a cable in the jungle [historic video]

March 25th, 2017

How do you make an electrical cable when you’re way the hell away from anywhere and don’t have most of the standard equipment? Here’s one way, shown in an American video from World War 2, about cobbling a cable in the jungle, narrated by a narrator who has the voice and manner of a professionally official savvy regular guy:

Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Scientists™ reveals the identity of its 2017 Woman of the Year

March 24th, 2017

TODAY IN OSLO: In front of an audience at the University of Oslo (UiO), The Luxuriant Hair Club for Scientists (LFHCfS) proudly announced its 2017 Woman of The Year – Dr. Anneleen Kool.

Dr. Anneleen Kool; 2017 LFHCfS Woman of the Year

Dr. Anneleen Kool; LFHCfS Woman of the Year, 2017

Dr. Kool was in attendance to discuss her research on the botanical history of the Vikings and to display her luxuriant flowing hair to the audience. She also brought a few of her hair-notable colleagues up on stage and encouraged the audience to join the club, if they have the scientific and hair qualifications.

Dr. Kool studies the plants that Vikings used, how they used them, and how those plants moved through Viking territory. As the Curator of the Viking Botanical Garden in Oslo, Dr. Kool grows many of these plants and displays them for the public.

Her Woman of the Year page includes her original nomination photo (on a camel in Wadi Rum, Jordan), more information about her work, and several more photos of her hair. She has been a member of the club since 2012.

The 2017 Man of The Year – Experimental Physicist Prof. Corvin Covault – was announced in January in Boston, Massachusetts.

LFHCfS 2017 Woman and Man of the Year

A Rare Award
This is only the 5th time that the Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Scientists has chosen a Woman and Man of the Year.

Past and Future Members
The Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Scientists accepts membership nominations (including its sibling clubs, for scientists who formerly had luxuriant flowing hair, or who have luxuriant facial hair). The clubs currently have over 550 members around the world. New members are announced first in the Improbable Blog, and later collected into annual member galleries.

5 scientists noted for their hair

5 scientists noted for their hair, onstage in Oslo (Dr. Kool, far right)

Ear-orientation in humans – a review

March 23rd, 2017

Would you like to be able to move your ears at will? There’s a good chance you already can (using a 25 million-year-old neural circuit). Dr Samuel Alexander Kinnier Wilson [pictured] was the first to formally document the so-called oculoauricular phenomenon in his 1908 paper ‘A note on an associated movement of the eyes and ears in man’ (in Review of Neurology and Psychiatry, 6, 331–336.)

Wilson found that around 40% of experimental subjects were able to move the outer rim of their pinnae, 2-3 mm or so, by purposely shifting their eyes either extreme left or extreme right.*

A review of human pinna-orienting has recently been undertaken by Dr. Steven A Hackley of the Cognitive and Clinical Neuroscience Laboratory, Department of Psychological Sciences, University of Missouri, USA.

“Humans and apes do not move their ears to express emotion, they do not defensively retract them when startled, and they do not point them at novel, salient, or task-relevant stimuli. Nevertheless, it is the thesis of this review that neural circuits for pinna orienting have survived in a purely vestigial state for over 25 million years.”

He also points out that :

“Our ears cannot pivot toward a sound source because the extrinsic muscles are attached too near the base to achieve leverage, because the muscles for controlling pinna position, orientation, and curvature are innately small and weak, and because the ears themselves are rigid and bony. The neuromuscular system for orienting our ears during focused attention is quite useless, a fact that should give pause to those who advocate the teaching of creationism or intelligent design in public schools.”

see: ‘Evidence for a vestigial pinna-orienting system in humans’ in Psychophysiology, Volume 52, Issue 10.

*Why not try this at home?

It’s just an incidentaloma

March 21st, 2017

What’s an incidentaloma? “Incidentaloma” is a medical term. These two papers are among the many that try to explain:

Benign anatomical mistakes: Incidentaloma,”
Mirilas, Petros; Skandalakis, J E., The American Surgeon, 68.11 (Nov 2002): 1026-8.

Screening using whole-body magnetic resonance imaging scanning: who wants an incidentaloma?
Rustam Al-Shahi Salman,William N Whiteley, Charles Warlow, J Med Screen, 2007;14:2–4

(Thanks to Dany Adams for bringing the concept of incidentalomas to our attention.)