Melancholy Madness Monday

October 31, 2011

Happy Halloween! In honor of my favorite holiday, today’s post is about the “real” Dr. Frankenstein, courtesy of the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast. Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” (the full original title was “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus”) was published in 1818, and while certainly a work of fiction, it was surely inspired by advances in science taking place at the time (kind of like Michael Crichton did).

The scientist most likely to be the inspiration was Giovanni Aldini, a professor at the university of Bologna who specialized in galvanism, which is the contraction of muscle that is stimulated by electricity. Aldini held very public demonstrations of this effect, first on animals such as dogs and later on the bodies of just executed criminals (not uncommon in those days). These “shows” were gruesome by our standards but were almost certainly spectacular. Watching a convicted murderer open an eye as other facial muscles contorted and arms and legs flailed must have been shocking to watch, even in 1802.

Aldini also pioneered electro-shock therapy, treating a man who suffered from “melancholy madness” (clinical depression) and supposedly curing him within weeks.

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I was recently thinking about where I would like to go the next chance I get to travel, and I think I’ve decided on Paris. After reading The Greater Journey I was sky high on France but I didn’t know if my fascination would last. Paris is really a no-brainer as far as travel destinations go; there is so much history and architecture and great food and wine. It has all the appeal of Rome when it comes to such things. Yet before this year I’ve never really thought about going there (technically I’ve been there , the airport at least, on the way to Athens). I think it all stems from my dislike of French class when I was in 7th-9th grades. I suppose I just didn’t like my teachers or was just into other things at the time (Dungeons & Dragons, basketball and computer programming) and French wasn’t useful in any of those. In hindsight, I wish I would have learned to speak it since it would be helpful in learning Spanish and Italian as well.

As for the photo, the Notre Dame de Paris (translates to Our Lady of Paris) is a beautiful gothic cathedral that was completed in 1345 (it was started nearly 200 years earlier). It features those dramatic flying buttresses, some of which were not in the original design but were added because the relatively thin walls were showing signs of structural stress (sometimes mistakes yield wonderful things). When I was reading about all the events that happened at the cathedral over the years, one stood out to me. In 1450 the Wolves of Paris were killed outside the cathedral. At first I thought this must have been the name of some rebellious group, but it turns out that it was an actual pack of wolves that found a way through the wall of the city in the winter and killed 40 people! What a different world it must have been back then.

Godfatherly

October 21, 2011

Today I did a google search for “godfather” – truth be told I didn’t know much about the role since I grew up in a nonreligious family. I discovered that the term dates back to the 2nd century, though at that point the godparent’s were almost always the biological parents (not sure what the point was). By the 5h century parents were replaced in this role by friends or relatives who “sponsored” the child’s baptism. Godparents have traditionally been responsible for the child’s religious education, and made sure the child would not be orphaned in the event of the parents’ demise. Today the role varies by denomination and individual preference, but in general a godfather takes a special interest in the child’s life, sort of like a super-uncle or something.

On a side note, I’ve never seen or read The Godfather… I’m watching it now as I write this.

I love architecture, and have my favorite building from different eras, but until today I’ve never really thought about which building was the first skyscraper. As I looked it up, I couldn’t help but wonder what the criteria would be for a building to qualify as a skyscraper. I figured height would be the determining factor, but it’s not. The consensus is that a building must use a steel frame to qualify. So by this definition the first skyscraper was the Home Insurance Building in Chicago. It was built in 1884 (I seem to be stuck in this era, learning wise) and designed by William Le Baron Jenney. City officials were so concerned by the exotic structure that they halted construction at one point to determine if it was safe. The building, which was only 138 feet tall, was never even close to being the tallest building in the world (European cathedrals were close to 500 feet at this time) but it did usher in the age of the very tall skyscrapers. They key was just how light a steel structure can make a building; the Home Insurance Building weighed only a third of what a masonry structure of the same size would have. The building was destroyed in 1931 to make way for a larger skyscraper, the 535 foot Field Building.

CU vs. Banks… Fight!

October 6, 2011

What is the difference between a credit union and a bank? When it comes to what they do for a customer, not much. They both supply checking and savings accounts, make loans, and offer various other financial services. How well they do it is another matter.

When you join a credit union, you have instantly become an owner of that CU. By definition, they are owned by their members, in contrast to being owned by shareholders. This allows them to function as non-profit entities. Credit unions often make a profit, but this profit is then used to reduce fees or negotiate better rates for its members, rather than distributed to shareholders. Every member has one vote, and any member can run for the board of directors of the credit union.

It sounds good, doesn’t it? So what’s the downside? Well, credit unions restrict their membership so it’s not always possible to join one. They’re also much smaller than the monolithic banks that are the product of big banks being bought by even bigger banks (I once used Fleet Bank, which doesn’t exist anymore – is it Bank of America?).

For my part, I’m a credit union guy. Even local smaller banks have disappointed me lately. I recently went to close out an account at my old bank that I hadn’t used in a while. Not only had the couple of hundred dollars I had left in that account been gobbled up by service charges, but they tried to convince me to pay them another $35 in fees that had been charged before the account was closed. This is not likely to occur at a credit union.