Travel safety: are swans dangerous?

Mr. Asbo is not a nice swan.

He’s attacked numerous boaters on the River Cam at Cambridge, England, hissing and pecking at anyone who comes close. Back in 2009, he even attacked the Cambridge Rowing Team during their historic May Bumps race. The race had to appoint a special marshal to keep an eye on the naughty bird.

Swans are very territorial, especially when they have a nest full of cygnets (babies). Mr. Asbo and his lady friend have several cygnets a year and their nest is right on the main boating area of the river. This has led to numerous confrontations where Mr. Asbo hisses, snaps at oars, and tries to bat people with his wings. It’s even reported that he’s strong enough to capsize small boats.

His name refers to the Anti-Social Behavior Order, a punishment usually meted out to lager-soaked louts to ban them from playing loud music, being drunk in public, aggressively panhandling, or even stealing eggs. Now local residents have had enough and there are plans to move Mr. Asbo and his family to a rural area 50 miles away, where hopefully he won’t bother anyone.

Swans are one of the many attractions of the English countryside, especially at the popular riverside destinations of Cambridge and Oxford. They are strong, fast, wild animals and should be treated with caution. The Swan Sanctuary says they’re generally not a danger, but their peck can be painful and they can even break your arm or leg if they hit you with their wing.

Attacks are rare, however. Swans only get aggressive if you get near their young, enter their territory, or deliberately antagonize them, like the idiot in this video. Don’t be the idiot in this video.

Human castles may make UNESCO World Heritage list

You gotta love Spain. Not only do they like having giant tomato fights and getting chased through the streets by bulls, but they build giant castles out of people.

That’s right. Not content with having some of the best castles in Europe, the Spaniards like constructing living towers up to ten people high. Called a castell, the tradition originated in the region of Catalonia in the 18th century.

A bunch of strong, big castellars make up the pinya (base) and support their teammates as they create level upon level with progressively fewer (and lighter) people. Once a level is complete, the people who make up the next one climb up the backs of the others and take their place. Then the top person, called an enxaneta (rider) climbs all the way to the very top and, supported by only two people, raises a hand with four fingers up to symbolize the Catalan flag. The enxaneta and the very top levels are often made up of children to lighten the load on the bottom levels. Then the castell disassembles itself from the top down by each level climbing back to the ground. Only when everyone is safely back on the ground is the castell considered a success.

It’s an unusual tradition and now the castellars are applying to get their art on UNESCO’s list of “intangible world heritage”. The list includes examples of rare cultural practices that are relatively unknown and unpracticed outside a certain region. Check out the website for more bizarre and amazing practices around the world.

Using slime mould to improve transportation

“What idiot designed this highway?”

I’ve asked myself this question on more than one road trip. Sometimes the most straightforward journey can be slowed down thanks to bad highway planning. Now it turns out that slime mould may be an efficient designer of transportation routes. Slime mould resembles a giant amoeba that sends out networks of tubes to grab food from distant locations. Scientists have long known that slime moulds always pick the best route, so they wondered if this fact could be applied to human transportation.

In a recent experiment, Andy Adamatsky of the University of the West of England put a map of Mexico in a Petrie dish. He put a bit of slime mould where Mexico City is, and marked out Mexico’s other cities with oat flakes, a tasty treat loved by slime moulds everywhere. In this amazing timelapse video you can see how the slime mould grows its tubes and basically recreates Mexico’s transport network. He’s also done this with England’s road network and a different team tried it out on Tokyo’s subway system. Adamatsky hopes that in the future, transportation officials will use slime mould to help them in their planning. Feel free to make jokes about politicians and slime mould in the comments section.

[Photo courtesy Dr. Jonatha Gott and the Center for RNA Molecular Biology, Case Western Reserve University]

The story that created a buzz in an ESL class

Most days when I walk into the semi-beginning adult ESL class I teach twice a week, the start of class conversations are the basic, “Hi, how are you? Great to see you.” There’s nothing too fancy. At this level, there’s not enough vocabulary to have many detailed conversations beyond day to day activities. Today, though, one of my students wanted to know which countries I’ve been too. When I rattled through the countries of Europe and hit on on Austria, his eyes widened and he sat forward.

“Did you hear about the man? basement? daughter? he wondered. He read about the story of the man who kept his daughter locked up in the basement for 21 years and had seven children with her. My student was aghast and felt like talking.

His reaction prompted a conversation with everyone–a mix of Somalis, three Mauritanians, someone from Poland and someone from China. Everyone’s reaction was the same. How in the world could such a thing happen, and how awful. A great command of English wasn’t necessary to talk about a universal no-no. In a class where many people don’t know much about popular American culture where our news swirls –Britney who? Brangelina who? — this particular world news story hit a nerve.

Weird became a vocabulary word of the day. Aberration would have been a bit complicated. In a world where, sometimes, it might be hard to find a common thread, there are some things everyone agrees on.