Jan 30 2009

Sniffed, not snorted!

As a child, I was obsessed with 19th century novels. This provided me with no end of wonderful reading, maddeningly combined with some seriously confusing mysteries. One of which was snuff. What was it? What did it look like? Where did it go after it was inhaled?

The whole enterprise remained a bit vague and I never got around to looking it up; but for whatever reason, the last question has really been preying on my mind lately. Sadly, bereft of a local library, I tottered off to the internet.

Who would have thought investigating snuff-taking could be so entertaining!

My favorite impassioned snuff-taker’s site was authored by a delightfully opinionated and dry-humoured Professor Phillips Griffith. Here are a couple quotations for you:

“Of medicated snuffs the most popular is menthol. I do not know if they have any medical value… I regard such adulteration as a breach of of the seventh commandment and an abomination in the face of the Lord, but à chacun son gout.”

On choosing the right-sized snuffbox :

“…Nor too small: nothing could be more frustrating than to find yourself running out of snuff in the middle of your planned one-hour speech in the House of Lords. “

And don’t miss the section on snuff and your health. I never dreamed a cancer warning could make me laugh!

I also found a very entertaining page listing everything you need to know about snuff etiquette: to sneeze or not to sneeze? which snuffbox for which occasion? and the eternal when sharing with the surrounding company, does the snuffbox travel clockwise or counter-clockwise?

One rule includes a bit of alarming trivia:

…in 1820 the double barrelled snuff pistol was invented; it was capable of packing a day’s worth of snuff into the nose using an explosive charge. This kind of behaviour would be considered vulgar by anyone’s standards.

Finally to answer the original question: “Where does it go?” The idea is not to suck the fine (or sometimes slightly coarser powdered tobacco) all the way back into the cranial cavity, but to give a short, sharp sniff with each nostril: “…snuff should only be SNIFFED into the nose, not snorted. The snuff needs to remain in front of your nose, it is not intended to go into your sinuses or throat.”

This, of course, leads inevitably to the yet another question: “Uh, then what?” Well, the rather unpleasant answer is: “It comes back out again.”

In the form of a brown mucus.

The authorities recommend using multi-coloured silk handkerchiefs — as opposed to white ones — to disguise this horrifying side effect, but somehow that just seems to make the whole thing worse.

Just in case you still think this sounds like a viable option for your next new addiction, be aware that snuff-sniffing has been associated with tongue, nasal and breast cancers.

Still, you’ve got to admit snuff was a wonderful excuse to carry around (and show off) some rather snazzy little boxes. Here’s just one of the multitude owned by Frederick The Great (see below).

Too bad about the brown mucus.

Tags: , , ,

Jan 10 2009

H.M. revealed

People who don’t travel but enjoy reading about it are called armchair travellers, so I guess that makes me an armchair neurologist. (!!!) Anything brain-related and I’m there. So I was amazed to read this in the New York Times recently. It’s the obituary of a man written about extensively in the literature of neuroscience, but always, for confidentiality of course, know as H.M. Somehow, it’s just really odd to see a photo of him and know his name: Henry Gustav Molaison.

…He developed a syndrome neurologists call profound amnesia. He had lost the ability to form new memories.

For the next 55 years, each time he met a friend, each time he ate a meal, each time he walked in the woods, it was as if for the first time.

And for those five decades, he was recognized as the most important patient in the history of brain science.

(Don’t miss Oliver Sacks’s website, it’s full of interesting things and book recommendations!)

Tags: , , ,

Jan 4 2009

Getting the Twitter thing…

All new ways of communicating change… well, the way we communicate. They change society. They change human interactions and behavior.

The media is full of Twitter commentary these days, but here’s one of the more interesting articles I’ve seen:

Social scientists have a name for this sort of incessant online contact. They call it “ambient awareness.”

But as the days went by, something changed. Haley discovered that he was beginning to sense the rhythms of his friends’ lives in a way he never had before. When one friend got sick with a virulent fever, he could tell by her Twitter updates when she was getting worse and the instant she finally turned the corner. He could see when friends were heading into hellish days at work or when they’d scored a big success. Even the daily catalog of sandwiches became oddly mesmerizing, a sort of metronomic click that he grew accustomed to seeing pop up in the middle of each day.

This is the paradox of ambient awareness. Each little update — each individual bit of social information — is insignificant on its own, even supremely mundane. But taken together, over time, the little snippets coalesce into a surprisingly sophisticated portrait of your friends’ and family members’ lives, like thousands of dots making a pointillist painting. This was never before possible, because in the real world, no friend would bother to call you up and detail the sandwiches she was eating.

I’m sure people scoffed at the telephone when that particular wacky device entered the market. Did you know that before radios, people could get subscriptions to listen to theater and concert performances by telephone? Here’s a good reference.

Tags: , , ,