Should I Get a Flu Shot?


Over at reddit, a physician writing under the pseudonym of /u/crucifoxes (a throwaway account which will not be used again) provides a concise summary about the medical reality of flu shots. This is a crucial read for anyone who has questions, and – from where I sit – helps clear up a lot of the tinfoil-hat nonsense that swirls around vaccinations in general. It deserves to be shared; I have bowdlerized it only slightly, and any emphasis is mine. The answer arose to the following question in /r/Vancouver: “I have never gotten a flu shot before, this year I have the option of getting one for free but I’ve heard both negative and positive things about getting them. Do you get one? Why or why not?”


Physician here. If I were you, I’d jump at the chance for a free flu shot.

The reason there are so many misconceptions about the flu shot is largely due to the lay public’s understanding of Influenza.

We have taken to calling any stomach bug or upper respiratory infection “a flu.” Stomach flu. 24 hour flu. Et cetera. It’s all nonsense. There are hundreds of mild viruses that cause these symptoms, none of them are Influenza, and none of them are meant to be reduced by getting the flu shot. So when your aunt Kathy complains that her flu shot didn’t work because she threw up for two days in February, slap her gently across the face. That wasn’t flu, Kathy.

I’ve had Influenza A once in my life, and once was enough. Two weeks of headache, myalgia, nausea, vomiting. Every day it felt like I had just woke up after being hit by a bus. I will never, EVER call any cold-with-some-squirts a “flu” anymore.

Now. With that established, we still haven’t really figured out if you should get the shot or not.

Advantages: Lower chance of acquiring Flu, maybe a less severe course if you do contract the infection.

Disadvantages: sore deltoid for a day or two, maybe a mild cold-like illness for a few days.

That’s essentially it. There’s a lot of polemic out there around vaccines, but most of it is hogwash, and the rest is mostly outdated concerns about chemicals that aren’t used any more.

The flu vaccine contains no “live” virus whatsoever, nor does it contain any flu DNA. You cannot “get the flu” from a flu shot. What you can get is some side effects of your body mounting its immune response, hence the cold-like symptoms listed above.

The flu vaccine does not contain thimerosal[1] (exception – if you’re a senior citizen, they’ll still give you the thimerosal-containing vaccine. This is because you’re old, your immune system isn’t exactly top-notch anymore, and the addition of thimerosal helps potentiate the immune response. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, don’t worry about it. Don’t even Google it. There’s about as much evidence for vaccine levels of thimerosal being harmful, as there is evidence for wifi signals being used to control your mind.)

Some haters will also bring up rare, 1:1 million complications, like Guillain-Barre Syndrome. This condition is ultra rare, can occur with any viral illness or immune response, and is actually MORE likely if you get the flu than if you get the vaccine. The risk of dying if you catch flu is 1/10000. The risk of Guillain-Barre if you get the vaccine is 1/1,000,000. So you do the math.

That said, if you’re a young adult who is immunocompetent and is not pregnant, your chances of serious disability or death from influenza are pretty low. We encourage vaccination of medical staff NOT because we’re worried about the health of our workers. We vaccinate medical workers so that they are less likely to contract flu, and then kill off half a geriatric ward when they spread it.

I don’t know why you have access to a flu shot, but if it’s because of your own health issues or health-related employment, it’s a no-brainer. Get it. If you’re not in a risk group, or around risky individuals, it’s less clear what your choice should be.

That’s all I got. Keep in mind that while I’m a medical professional, allergy/immunology is not my area. Now go do some decent Googling and then decide for yourself!

EDIT: Forgot about Flumist, thanks for all the reminders. I’m OBGYN so I never use it, my comments are valid only for the non-Flumist, injectable, protein-capsid-whatever types.


At my previous job, I’d get a free flu shot every year, and never once had a negative reaction. I’ve only gotten one since I retired in 2006; I think my insurance covers one annually – I need to check. Now that I’m moving toward bona-fide “senior citizen” status, I think it behooves me to get back in the habit.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

[1] Thimerosal is a mercury-based preservative, and the biologically inactive form of mercury. It was added to vaccines to prevent the vaccine from spoiling, and to prevent cross-contamination. In the early days of vaccination the whole class was vaccinated from a single bottle with a single needle. Just a quick wipe with a cotton ball and some alcohol.
Thimerosal probably saved many, many lives.

A Love Letter to Canada Post


Not my job / Pas mon boulot

A couple of weeks ago I sent a package to a colleague in Québec. I addressed it exactly as he indicated I should; a couple of days ago it came back to me marked “Address Incomplete.”

Canada Post suggested a message to them at their Facebook page, so I obliged:

Since you asked for private messages about difficulties, I thought I’d share this here instead of pillorying you publicly. I’m sure folks are doing their best, but when I send a package from the USA to the address given me by my correspondent, to wit:

Jean X. Untel
11 rue Quelquepart
Montréal, QC H3J 2V9

and it comes back to me stamped “Incomplete Address,” I’m pretty frosted that I wasted the money on international postage – my friend’s comments are more indicative than my own would be – “Probably needed the apartment number, mais le christ de facteur pouvait bien compléter, hostie!”[1]

I agree – this is the pinnacle of “not my job” mentality. I just thought someone might be interested in this… at least, it is to be hoped. Thank you for listening.

Well, I gave them a chance, but unfortunately their answer (they get one point for taking the time to answer) was less than satisfactory:

Thanks for your message! If the recipient confirms that an apartment number was missing; that could be the reason why your package was returned to you. If there wasn’t any error with your address, please contact the USPS to open a claim. They’ll contact us to investigate.

Kind Regards,

Canada Post

Once upon a time, the attitude of businesses (the Post Office is one, regardless of which country you happen to live in) was “service above all.”

From the Scottish Daily Record & Sunday in 2002:

THE Royal Mail revealed yesterday Britain’s undeliverable post costs about pounds 10million a year. 
The National Return Letter Centre handled 72million “undeliverable” items of mail and the figure is on the increase with an 18 per cent annual rise. 
But, despite this, postmen and women still manage to deliver letters with the strangest addresses. 
Rothesay’s postal service had to deliver a letter with the address: “Moira, Recently holidayed in Russia, Get off ferry, Turn left for 2 miles, Isle of Bute, Scotland.” 
The local postie had been delivering mail to Moira for 15 years and had remembered her mentioning she was going to Russia on holiday. 
A postie in Inverness successfully delivered a letter addressed to: “Mr W MacKenzie, Over Pedestrian Crossing, Turn Left Up Mid Street, Tank in Garden, Before Fraser Street, Inverness.” 
Ray Kennedy, of the Belfast-based NRLC, said: “When customers say their letter is ‘lost in the post’ often what they don’t realise is it is actually ‘undeliverable’ because they got the address wrong or forgot to write one at all.”

Although some claim it’s an urban legend, the article in the December, 1952 Popular Science, “Riding America’s Biggest Mail Train” tells the story of a clerk on the Massachusetts car who handled the


letter, and successfully delivered it to “John Underwood, Andover, Massachussetts.” An earlier example was listed in the May-October, 1898, issue of “The Ludgate Illustrated Magazine” and claimed that a similar letter was delivered to John Underwood, Andover, Hampshire even though it was addressed to


as well as a letter that found its recepient at “The Old Oak Orchard, Tenbury” despite being addressed as

Too Dad Thomas
hat the old oke
10 Bary

It should be noted that such things might have been much more likely when the population of the country was substantially smaller. I don’t expect every postal worker to have every address of every recipient memorized, but it would have taken Monsieur le Facteur (ou bien Madame la Factrice) less than 30 seconds to look up my friend’s apartment number; you can’t tell me they don’t keep such lists. But it seems that for the individual involved, that was too much trouble.

There’s no question about it: this is one of those “first world problems.” As I indicated, I’m sure most of the people at the post office are doing their best – in fact, an interesting article over at Improbable Research indicates that things are not as dismal at the USPS as we like to gripe about, and I’m sure the same thing could be said of Canada Post. It’s just that this one bugged me as a particularly egregious example of “Not Always Working,” and the official response seemed to reflect the attitude that “we won’t go out of our way for anyone.”

Having vented a bit, I now feel better.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

[1] This is Québecois for “The damn postman could have completed it, for Hell’s sake,” or something similar. The French is considerably more blasphemous.

Political Speechmaking Done Right

… and wrong.

If you’re running for President, don’t plagiarize Wikipedia.

From Newser:

(NEWSER) – If you already thought it was weird that Rand Paul went on a rant about eugenics during a speech in Virginia yesterday, well, the story just got even weirder. Rachel Maddow pointed out last night that parts of the speech were lifted from Wikipedia, Mediaite reports. Specifically, the Wikipedia entry about 1997 sci-fi movieGattaca. Go ahead and compare:

  • Paul: “In the movie Gattaca, in the not-too-distant future, eugenics is common. And DNA plays the primary role in determining your social class. … Due to frequent screenings, Vincent faces genetic discrimination and prejudice. The only way to achieve his dream of being an astronaut is he has to become what’s called a ‘borrowed ladder.’ … He assumes the identity of a Jerome Morrow, a world-class swimming star with a genetic profile said to be secondary to none, but he’s been paralyzed in a car accident. … Jerome buys his identity, uses his DNA—his blood, his hair, his tissue, his urine—to pass the screenings.”
  • Wikipedia: “In the not-too-distant future, liberal eugenics is common and DNA plays the primary role in determining social class. … Due to frequent screening, Vincent faces genetic discrimination and prejudice. The only way he can achieve his dream of becoming an astronaut is to become a ‘borrowed ladder.’ … [Vincent] assumes the identity of Jerome Eugene Morrow, a former swimming star with a genetic profile ‘second to none,’ who had been injured in a car accident, leaving him paralyzed. … Vincent ‘buys’ Jerome’s identity and uses his ‘valid’ DNA in blood, hair, tissue, and urine samples to pass screening.”

“Gattaca was a weird topic for a speech in a governor’s race to begin with,” Maddow said, “but what’s weirder is trying to be a candidate for president, which Rand Paul is trying to do, and thinking that you’re going to get away with lifting your speeches from Wikipedia while you’re doing that.”

For Mr. Paul and all other future presidential candidates, I recommend the following speech, written by  Norton Mockridge, entitled “What’d He Say? What’d He Say?” It’s guaranteed to generate interminable applause, and send your listeners home wiping away tears of gratitude. They may even go out and buy a kitten.

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, my colleagues and comrades. It is indeed an honor and a rare privilege to address you on this memorable occasion. First, I would like to congratulate heartily each one of your assembled here on the attainment of the objectives for which you have worked so hard.

In this connection, I might add that a very strange thing happened to me on the way to this function, which reminds me at this point of a story. The disturbing feature of all this is, despite all the bitter lessons, we know better.

As that great statesman once said, I need hardly remind this audience without fear of successful contradiction that we hand down to posterity as a matter of policy a few words about your splendid hospitality and this great nation of ours. We view with alarm but under our present wise leadership, and, some may be surprised, for above and beyond we begin to see the sun breaking through. We are counting on your continued support because, as you so well know, money must be forthcoming to our way of life.

As we travel the long road ahead down to the grass roots of America, there are those extremists whose voices cry out in the night. In this worthy cause we must not forsake by rather, with wisdom, recall that there are those who say that tomorrow may be too late. Make no mistake—-in our overall approach no one will dispute this fact—-it is a sobering thought. It is perhaps more than coincidence, and honest demands, whether we desire it or not. that we face up to the issues.

This observation has led me to one conclusion. We demand adequate funds. The world looks to us for leadership and we point with pride in considering the credit side of the ledger.

Keeping always abreast of the times , the record shows that we are a young nation. It is gratifying to hear, like all good Americans and these are simple, hard facts. We have no illusions. This is no dream, but a challenge. History teaches us that the period of greatest crises lies before us, and especially disillusioning has been our experience in this worthy cause. Yet, we must not falter. Where then shall we turn? In our judgement we do not wish to confuse the issue. The primary ain has always been to understand the problems better. I do not pretend to know the answers There are unmistakable sign, I submit to you, and in such view we areperhaps more to be applauded than condemned, as the world may one day see.

Another and wiser man has said it far better, for therein lies the common denominator of a people who will never give up. We should then, pause and reflect. It was gratifying to hear in our over-all approach , and as a matter of fact it is this very spirit of unselshishness which is beyond peradventure of a doubt. Whoever would challenge this words of our founding fathers? I say to you, let’s look at th e record as set forth by them.


Of this we can be assured—as those who have gone before us—-and these splendid men and women in this room whose very presence tonight testifies. With heartfelt thanks, and with undying determination as in the immortal words first uttered by my illustrious colleagues, we hear the hallowed voices—–Blue and Grey—-who made it the great common hertigage of the melting pot, sealed with blood in the spirit of those dauntless pioneers, and in this tradition we must and we will —under God. It has been a distinct honor and privilege, and in conclusion let me reiterate once again what words cannot express.

On that note may I leave you with this parting thought which I know will be taken in the spirit in which it is offered for the die is cast before the bar of justice and world opinion.

The Old Wolf has spoken (but not as well as Norton Mockridge.)

The Ultimate Swiss Army Knife: 1880 version

I’ve always loved Swiss Army knives. I inherited two small ones from my father, and for the longest time carried a SwissCard in my wallet which contained a number of useful tools for a traveler, as well as a Swiss Champ on my belt (at least until 2001, when carrying anything of this nature became more of a hassle than anything else.)


Swiss Card


Swiss Champ

But 12 years before the official Swiss Army Knife was born, a cutler named J.S. Holler from Solingen, Germany, produced a monstrous 100-function knife as an advertisement for their services.


In ancient and medieval times, shop signs were developed when tradesmen devised recognizable icons to represent their trades when dealing with a largely illiterate public. This massive knife hung in the window of Holler’s store to advertise their craft in a powerfully visual way.


Closeup of one end, showing the .22 caliber five-shot pinfire revolver. This is a knife you could bring to a gunfight.

The knife is currently owned by the Smithsonian Institution – from their website,

This knife wasn’t really meant to be carried. Knives like this were made exclusively for exhibition to highlight the cutlers’ art. They were so difficult to make they were only attempted by the most notable firms with the most talented artisans. They could be seen at various fairs and industrial expositions during the nineteenth century. This particular knife was made in Solingen, Germany about 1880 for J. S. Holler & Co.’s cutlery store in New York City. It was used it to display the fine craftsmanship available to their customers. At the time, German cutlery firms were attempting to establish themselves in the American market, which was dominated by the firms of Sheffield, England. The workmanship and complexity of this knife make it one of the finest examples of the cutlers’ art in America.


Closeup of the center, showing the panels of one side open – each of four panels contained an assortment of mini-tools, including scissors and a straightedge razor. The knife itself was about 10″ long, the straightedge just over 1 inch when closed.

With over 100 functions, this knife includes (not counting the mini-tools) a serrated blade, dagger blades, shears, scissors, an auger, a corkscrew, saws, a lancet, button hook, cigar cutter, pens and pencils, mirror, a straight razor. a tuning fork, and a butter knife, among many others.

Not to be outdone, Wenger produced what is now called:

The Only Complete Swiss Army Knife.


As advertised by Hammacher Schlemmer, their price was $799.00 but is no longer available through their website. However, it is available through Amazon for a mere $1305.00

This is the largest Swiss Army knife in the world, holder of the Guinness World Record for “The Most Multifunctional Penknife,” with 87 precision-engineered tools (for the complete list of tools please see below) spanning 112 functions. Made by Wenger, crafters of genuine Swiss Army knives since 1893, it uses stainless steel for all parts and is hand-assembled by just two cutlery specialists in Delmont, Switzerland, ensuring that every knife meets exacting standards. It has seven blades, three types of pliers, three golf tools (club face cleaner, shoe spike wrench, and divot repair tool), 25 flat- and Phillips-head screwdrivers and bits, saws, wrenches, and more. It also has a bicycle chain rivet setter, signal whistle, 12/20-gauge shotgun choke tube tool, combination fish scaler, hook disgorger, and line guide tool, cigar-cutting scissors, laser pointer, tire-tread gauge, toothpick, tweezers, and key ring. 3 1/4″ L x 8 3/4″ W. (2 3/4 lbs.)

The knife contains:

  • 2.5-inch 60% serrated locking blade
  • Nail file
  • Nail cleaner
  • Corkscrew
  • Adjustable pliers with wire crimper and cutter
  • Removable screwdriver bit adapter
  • 2.5-inch blade for Official World Scout Knife
  • Spring-loaded, locking needle-nose pliers with wire cutter
  • Removable screwdiver bit holder
  • Phillips head screwdriver bit 0 Phillips head screwdriver bit 1
  • Phillips head screwdriver bit 2
  • Flat head screwdriver bit 0.5mm x 3.5mm
  • Flat head screwdriver bit 0.6mm x 4.0mm
  • Flat head screwdriver bit 1.0mm x 6.5mm
  • Magnetized recessed bit holder
  • Double-cut wood saw with ruler
  • Chain rivet setter
  • Removable 5mm
  • Allen wrench
  • Screwdriver for slotted and Phillips head screws
  • Removable tool for adjusting spokes
  • 10mm Hexagonal key for nuts
  • Removable 4mm curved allen wrench with Phillips head screwdriver
  • Patented locking screwdriver
  • Universal wrench
  • 2.4-inch springless scissors with serrated self-sharpening design
  • 1.65-inch clip point utility blade
  • Phillips head screwdriver
  • 2.5-inch clip-point blade
  • Club face cleaner
  • 2.4-inch round tip blade
  • Patented locking screwdriver
  • Cap lifter
  • Can opener
  • Shoe spike wrench
  • Divot repair tool
  • 4mm Allen wrench
  • 2.5-inch blade
  • Fine metal file with precision screwdriver
  • Double-cut wood saw with ruler
  • Cupped cigar cutter with double honed edges
  • 12/20-gauge choke tube tool
  • Watch case back opening tool
  • Snap shackle
  • Mineral crystal magnifier
  • Compass
  • Straight edge, ruler (in./cm)
  • Telescopic pointer
  • Fish scaler
  • Hook dis-gorger
  • Line guide
  • Shortix laboratory key
  • Micro tool holder
  • Micro tool adapter
  • Micro scraper, straight
  • Micro scraper,curved
  • Laser pointer with 300-foot range
  • Metal file
  • Metal saw
  • Flashlight
  • Micro tool holder
  • Phillips head screwdriver 1.5mm
  • Screwdriver 1.2mm
  • Screwdriver .8mm
  • Fine fork for watch spring bars
  • Reamer
  • Pin punch 1.2mm
  • Pin pinch .8mm
  • Round needle file
  • Removable tool holder with expandable receptacle
  • Removable tool holder
  • Special self-centering screwdriver for gunsights
  • Flat Phillips head screwdriver
  • Chisel-point reamer
  • Mineral crystal magnifier
  • Small ruler
  • Extension tool
  • Sping-loaded, locking flat nose needle-nose pliers
  • Removable screwdriver bit holder
  • Phillips head screwdriver bit 0
  • Phillips head screwdriver bit 1
  • Phillips head screwdriver bit 2
  • Flat head screwdriver bit 0.5mm x 3.5mm
  • Flat head screwdriver bit 0.6mm x 4.0mm
  • Flat head screwdriver bit 1.0mm x 6.5mm
  • Magnetized recessed bit holder
  • Tire tread gauge
  • Fiber optic tool holder
  • Can opener
  • Patented locking screwdriver
  • Cap lifter
  • Wire stripper
  • Reamer
  • Awl
  • Toothpick
  • Tweezers
  • Key ring

Even the above was most likely manufactured as an advertising device – I can’t imagine anyone actually trying to carry this thing around. But Victorinox and Wenger have made some very nice and useful tools over the years – before smartphones became popular with their GPS tracking devices, I used a Victorinox knife which contained an altimeter to track my hiking progress. The number of models that have been produced is beyond counting, but there are some versions that I’m still waiting for:


The Jedi Special


The Seuss Army Knife


An early prototype

And of course, the Get Smart knife, courtesy of Gizmodo (click through for all the exciting features!)


Of all the tools ever invented, the Swiss Army knife is probably one of the most-loved and most-used, but for sheer craftsmanship and ingenuity, the Holler specimen is probably the finest of its kind in the world.

Edit: A friend pointed out to me that a similarly complex knife had been manufactured in 1851, by the John Rogers firm of Sheffield, England.


It is called the Norfolk Knife, and is on display at the Cutler’s Hall in Sheffield.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

The Bunkers of Albania

I spent a good deal of time in Albania between 1993 and 2001, working on various translation projects. I posted about Albanian Currency before, but while musing on my travels there I remembered an interesting thing about that fascinating country – the bunkers.

Enver Hoxha was the iron-fisted despot of the country (official title: First Secretary of the Party of Labor), who started out allied with Russia, denounced them and allied himself with China, and then denounced them in turn to go it alone in a form of government characterized by his proclaimed firm adherence to anti-revisionist Marxism–Leninism. In addition to the suppression of all religion other than Albanian nationalism, “the 40-year period of Hoxha’s rule was politically characterized by the elimination of the opposition, prolific use of the death penalty or long prison “terms of his political opponents and evictions from homes where their families lived and their internment in remote villages that were strictly controlled by police and the secret police (Sigurimi).” (Wikipedia)

While Hoxha’s rule brought some industrialization and growth to a country that had been devastated by World War II, his own policies squandered the resources of the country, much of it in building 750,000 of these concrete abominations – the cost of which could have provided a paid-for apartment for an equal number of Albanian families.

Much as North Korea today, Hoxha (pronounced HO-ja) was terrified that the decadent west and the corrupt East would come pouring in to Albania to strip the country of its glory and riches, neither one of which it possessed in the slightest degree. Nobody gave a rat’s south-40 about Albania, and there was nothing there to take. But that didn’t stop the First Secretary from outfitting every border, municipality, city, village, and community with bunkers large and small to protect against what was publicized as a constant threat of imminent invasion.


Bunkers to protect the noble country from foreign invaders… which never came, or would have wanted to.

Now, Albania struggles still to come into the modern world. They’ve had their ups and downs – the fall of Communism opened the doors to the nation, and a people starved for contact with the outside world have had to deal with massive corruption both private and governmental, pyramid schemes that wiped out much of the nation’s savings, the rise of Islamism (the historical faith of Albania) and the echoes of decades of brutal oppression. Areas of the country remain untouchable by law and order, places where centuries of tradition and isolation have provided a more effective barrier to the encroachment of modernity far better than a concrete bunker would have done – but they are making progress, and as a nation they know the meaning of hard work. I love my Albanian friends and have hope for their country. Two outstanding articles in the National Geographic, “Albania Stands Alone” (October 1980) and “Albania Opens the Doors” (July 1992) give an intriguing historical glimpse of what the country was like during and after Hoxha’s rule. Despite setbacks, the country continues to work toward a democratic government based on the rule of law, and has become a member of NATO.


Some few bunkers have been repurposed as shops, barns, shelter for the desperate, or even hostels.


Small bunkers are still sold as souvenirs – here shown with a 1-Lek coin for scale.

As for the bunkers, destroying each one costs around €800, money that to many people would be better spent elsewhere, so the vast majority of them remain, and will probably be an ever-present reminder of the “bad old days” for generations to come.

You can read more about the bunkers at Slate and Atlas Obscura.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

Pollen: Good for more than hay fever



Just look at that stuff. Magnified 500 times (the image is colorized), it’s easy to see why some people’s noses and eyes respond unhappily to the invasion of this vegetative sperm. On the other hand, without it plants would reproduce and the world would be left dead and sterile.

It turns out pollen is great for science, as well. Pollen lasts for a long, long time – millions of years when fossilized.  A 3,200-year drought and cold wave destroyed a late Bronze Age thriving society near present-day Tel Aviv and far beyond, and until now scientists had no clue as to why – but pollen appears to have solved the mystery.

According to The Jewish Press,

A study of fossil pollen particles in sediments extracted from the bottom of the Sea of Galilee has revealed evidence of a climate crisis that traumatized the Near East from the middle of the 13th to the late 12th century BCE. The crisis brought about the collapse of the great empires of the Bronze Age.

Even older, analysis of pollen hundreds of millions of years old showed that flowers may have existed as early as the first dinosaurs, according to an article in LiveScience.

Newfound fossils hint that flowering plants arose 100 million years earlier than scientists previously thought, suggesting flowers may have existed when the first known dinosaurs roamed Earth.

Under high magnification, these little grains are beautiful, and it seems very useful to scientific research. But that is cold comfort to those who suffer from hay fever, a malady from which I have been blessedly exempt – but having watched my kids suffer, I have endless sympathy for those who do.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

Charles Ponzi – Boston, 1920


Charles Ponzi, after whom the infamous “Ponzi Scheme” was named, was about as unscrupulous a con-man as ever was born. The man must have come into the world with larceny in his heart, because he never gave up his ways or showed any sort of remorse for his chosen means of livelihood.

The lesson to be learned from studying Mr. Ponzi’s sorry history is that if a deal looks too good to be true, it most certainly is. Sadly, many people have not learned this lesson, and con-men and swindlers continue to operate both locally and across international borders (especially with the advent of the internet); P.T. Barnum’s assertion that “there’s a sucker born every minute” is all too true. The authorities do what they can, but especially in the case of international swindlers, such as advance-fee scammers from Nigeria and elsewhere, there is little that can be done.

If you haven’t been to the Sweepstakes Fraud Factsheet yet, you might just want to have a look. Protect your loved ones, especially the elderly and vulnerable.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

The Aleph and Tentacles, London, 1890



Elephant and Castle is a major road junction in Central London, England, in the London Borough of Southwark and the name of the surrounding area, largely superseding Newington. This photo of the eponymous pub was taken in 1890. The photo was used by artist John Sutton to produce a watercolor:

Elephant Sutton


The area has had a rather checkered history in terms of prosperity, and is currently the subject of a master-planned redevelopment budgeted at £1.5 billion.

As for the strange title of this post, feast your eyes on this brilliant map of the London underground, with every station turned into an anagram. I assume no responsibility for soiled screens or ruined keyboards; put down your Guinness before you have a look.


The Old Wolf has spoken.

The Jaquet-Droz Automata

I started in the world of data processing in 1969 when I took my first FORTRAN class at the University of Utah, and learned the basics of programming a Univac 1108. My very first run spit out “unresolvable error in source code”, which error our instructor told us we would probably never see.

That tidbit aside, one of the things we learned about the history of the computer was that the Jaquard loom, first demonstrated in 1801 and designed to weave cloth based on a chain of “punch cards” was one of the first forays into programmable machinery.

Jacquard Loom

Model of the Jaquard Loom built by students at the Northhampton Silk Project.

What we didn’t learn was that around 30 years earlier, the Jaquet-Droz family of Swiss watchmakers created some absolutely brilliant machinery with programmable capability – the Jaquet-Droz automata.


These three little homunculi, from left “the writer,” “the musician,” and “the draftsman,” are miracles of miniaturization and precision machining, worthy of the finest watchmaking tradition of Switzerland. The currently reside at the Museum of Art and History at Neuchâtel, and I often saw them advertised when I lived there in 1984, although I didn’t get to see them in person.

The descriptions below are from the Wikipedia article linked above:

The musician is a female organ player. The music is not faked, in the sense that it is not recorded or played by a musical box: the doll is actually playing a genuine (yet custom-built) instrument by pressing the keys with her fingers. She “breathes” (the movements of the chest can be seen), follows her fingers with her head and eyes, and also makes some of the movements that a real player would do—balancing the torso for instance.

The draftsman is a young child who can actually draw four different images: a portrait of Louis XV, a royal couple (believed to be Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI), a dog with “Mon toutou” (“my doggy”) written beside it, and a scene of Cupid driving a chariot pulled by a butterfly. The draftsman works by using a system of cams which code the movements of the hand in two dimensions, plus one to lift the pencil. The automaton also moves on his chair, and he periodically blows on the pencil to remove dust.

The writer is the most complex of the three automata. Using a system similar to the one used for the draftsman for each letter, he is able to write any custom text up to 40 letters long (the text is rarely changed; one of the latest instances was in honour of president François Mitterrand when he toured the city). The text is coded on a wheel where characters are selected one by one. He uses a goose feather to write, which he inks from time to time, including a shake of the wrist to prevent ink from spilling. His eyes follow the text being written, and the head moves when he takes some ink.

You can watch an informative and eye-popping video about “The Writer” at Chronday.

Jaquet_Droz_The Writer_2

Rear view of the writer, showing the programming wheel and the cam arrangement


Closeup of the camshaft


Closeup of the moveable letters which guide the writing.

The robot in the movie “Hugo” was inspired by the Jaquet-Droz automata. If you haven’t seen it, I would find a copy at Redbox or Netflix and have a look – I found it well done.


The Old Wolf has spoken.

The 3rd Avenue El, New York City, 1952

I’ve mentioned this before in this post, but here is a lovely shot of the elevated train that used to run up and down Third Avenue in New York City [Photo: Vivian Maier, hat tip commenter Ron for the attribution.] Its official name was the IRT Third Avenue Line.


An extract of the cartoon by Charles Addams is worth reposting here:

Sometimes, on nights like this I can still hear it rumble by.
The 3rd Avenue El

The caption read, “Sometimes, on nights like this I can still hear it rumble by.”

I was only four years old when service was discontinued and the Manhattan elevated trains faded into history, but I remember the “El” well. It was the last survivor, and was supposed to remain in service until the Second Avenue Subway was built (envisioned since 1929, and only now under construction; it’s history rivals the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona for “fits-and-starts” construction), but pressure from real estate investors caused its ultimate demise.

As a historical curiosity, notice those little fire pots on the road. Those were ubiquitous warnings found everywhere in the East where construction was going on – they were in use as late as 1965, if I recall correctly. They were the earlier version of these, which are now everywhere:


And the curious thing is that I can’t find a decent photo of one anywhere. But up close,they looked like this:


Just a smoky little black fire pot that burned kerosene.

Edit: Ha! Thanks to my friend John Lavezzi who reminded me that these things are called smudge pots.

Smudge Pot

Edit 2 (8-2-2021): Thanks to an interaction on Facebook, I learned today that these were actually called Toledo Torches:

And now you can buy them in modern form for your patio:


A random New York City memory, one among thousands.

The Old Wolf has spoken.