Archive for 'News about research'

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

Sunday, 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:

Ear-orientation in humans – a review

Thursday, 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?

Whatever happened to the punctus? [punctuation studies]

Monday, March 20th, 2017

Why is there such a paucity of academic literature on medieval punctuation? Is it (as Reimer, 1998, suggested)

[…] partly because there is so much evidence which needs to be studied, and partly because editors of texts have considered the effort needed to be a waste of time”?

For a discussion of the subject, turn to the work of Dr Nadia Obegi Gallardo, a research fellow of the Department of English Philology at the University of Málaga, Spain, who has analysed a hand written text (on vellum) which is archived at Cambridge University Library – MS Ll. 4. 14. (n. 3).

The analyses showed that the most common punctuation marks were:

The punctus (or upper stop)  ·  followed by the double punctus (or colon)  the paragraph mark  ¶  and the virgula suspensiva  /

See: Punctuation in a fifteenth-century Scientific Treatise (MS Cambridge L1. 4.14) in Linguistica e Filologia, 22, (2006)

Bonus [optional]: Has the time come to revive the use of the punctus? If so, we provide some, like this one · below. Any or all of which can freely be cut-and-pasted into modern-day texts of your choice.

·     ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·

Coffee and Cancer: A Bad News Burp for Modern Science Journalism

Saturday, March 18th, 2017

A newly published study is bad news for news organizations — it’s a burp in the stream of guaranteed-attention-getting medical reports that suggest coffee-drinking might cause cancer. The study is:

Coffee and Cancer Risk: A Summary Overview,” Gianfranco Alicandro [pictured here], Alessandra Tavani, and Carlo La Vecchia, European Journal of Cancer Prevention, epub March 2017. The authors, at the University of Milan, report:

“We reviewed available evidence on coffee drinking and the risk of all cancers and selected cancers updated to May 2016. Coffee consumption is not associated with overall cancer risk.”

Towards an automatic branded-handbag recognition system

Thursday, March 16th, 2017

“Manufacturing branded handbags is a big business in the fashion world. Shoppers’ feedback showing photos of their purchased handbags in social networks or blogs is important for branding purposes. In this paper, we deal with handbag recognition.”

So explain researchers Yan Wang, Sheng Li and Alex C. Kot of the Rapid-Rich Object Search (ROSE) Laboratory, at the School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. The team used Convolutional Neural Networks (and other algorithms) on (what is believed to be) the first handbag datasets constructed for branded handbag recognition.

“The experimental results show that our method performs very well on recognizing handbags. In our future work, more elaborate patch partition methods are needed to deal with the nonrigid deformation of handbags.”

See: On Branded Handbag Recognition in IEEE Transactions on Multimedia (Volume: 18, Issue: 9, Sept. 2016)

Also see: Horse recognition and Cow recognition.