The story behind the song #2: Strange Fruit

April 28, 2013

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,

Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze,

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.


Pastoral scene of the gallant South,

The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,

Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,

Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.


Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,

For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,

For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,

Here is a strange and bitter crop.

These 90 words are arguably the most chilling in any song ever recorded. Strange Fruit, a song about a lynching in 1930s America, reached a modest #16 on the U.S. Billboard Charts in 1939. At the time Roosevelt was in power and America was still in the throes of the Great Depression. This was the same year as Over the Rainbow, Moonlight Serenade and Begin the Beguine. Today I want to look at this incredible song and the fascinating story behind it. It wasn’t written for her and has been covered by artists as varied as Nina Simone, Sting, Robert Wyatt, UB40, Siouxsie and the Banshees and Tori Amos, but the song really belongs to one woman – Billie Holiday. As they say on The X Factor, she really owned that song.

This is such a graphic song, painting a picture of bucolic simplicity. This image, however, is shattered by the bulging eyes and twisted mouth. The tree, normally a symbol of life, here bears a terrible fruit. When she sang it you could see the black body hanging from the Southern tree, its blood feeding the roots. This is indeed a bitter crop. At one performance Holiday was asked what a pastoral scene was:

It means when the crackers are killing the niggers. It means when they take a little nigger like you and snatch off his nuts and shove them down his goddam throat. That’s what it means. That’s what they do. That’s a goddamn pastoral scene.”

One of the most surprising aspects of this song is that it was not written by an African-American, but by a white Jewish schoolteacher with communist leanings from New York, Abel Meeropol, who taught in the Bronx, wrote thousands of songs poems libretti, plays, scripts, but he will undoubtedly be remembered for this song. His pen name, Lewis Allan, was in memory of two stillborn sons.

In 1937 Meeropol saw this shocking photograph of a lynching in a magazine:


The photo, which was taken on August 7, 1930, captures the double lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana in 1930. Lynchings were meant to be a public spectacle. This was a brutal form of social control; the bodies would be left hanging as a warning to others. By the time of the Marion incident, lynching was less prevalent than it had been at the turn of the century. But there were still five or six a year, and they were still very present in black consciousness. Despite attempts to outlaw it, no legislation was ever passed – it was always filibustered away by southern congressman.

Shipp and Smith had been arrested the night before, and charged with robbing and murdering a white factory worker, Claude Deeter, and raping his white girlfriend, Mary Ball. A large crowd, armed with sledgehammers, broke into the jail, beat the two men and then hanged them. Police officers among the posse cooperated in the lynching. A third person, 16-year-old James Cameron was luckier, narrowly escaping Shipp and Smith’s fate thanks to an unidentified member of the mob who announced that he had nothing to do with the rape or murder. Cameron later stated in interviews that Shipp and Smith were, in fact, guilty of shooting and killing Deeter, but Mary Ball later testified that she had not been raped.

The photo had been taken by the photographer Lawrence Beitler. Meeropol said that it had haunted him for days. The revulsion it provoked led him to write the poem, which was published in 1937 in a union magazine, The New York Teacher. He later set the poem music and it became quite a popular protest song in the New York area.

We need to put Strange Fruit in its musical context. There was before the song, and indeed after it, a tradition of white audiences enjoying forms of black music that had been filtered to appeal more to mainstream tastes. Swing, the most popular musical genre of the 1930s had its origins in African-American jazz and composers like Irving Berlin and George Gershwin liked to incorporate elements of the “black sound” into their work. We can see this later on with The Stones, The Beatles and Eric Clapton who made artists like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf Chuck Berry and Screaming Jay Hawkins “safe” for white audiences.

But in Strange Fruit Meeropol chose to send an uncompromising message. This was a militant, angry song. There had been songs that had alluded to racism. The Gershwin musical Porgy and Bess, or the Fats Waller song Black and Blue come to mind. However, none were so in-your-face as Strange Fruit.

Billie Holiday was born Eleanora Fagan on April 7, 1915, in Baltimore, Maryland. Her father, Clarence Holiday never married her mother, Sadie Fagan, and he would eventually abandon the family altogether. Holiday grew up in grinding poverty. At the age of ten, she was raped by a neighbour, and ended up at The House of the Good Shepherd, a facility for wayward black girls.  She began working at the age of twelve, scrubbing the floors of a local brothel. It was here that she heard the music of Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith. At the age of 14 she was jailed for prostitution. Holiday vowed not to back to this way of life and sought work in local nightclubs as a dancer or a singer. She soon discovered that her melancholy singing style could bring customers to tears. Despite the power of her voice to move an audience Holiday’s chaotic lifestyle meant that she was unable to hold down a job and she moved from one nightclub to another. Holiday was no stranger to racism. She was singing with Artie Shaw’s band at the swanky Lincoln Hotel in New York. Given that the hotel was named after the president who emancipated the slaves, it is ironic that owner of the hotel objected to Billie sitting at the bar or mixing with customers, and demanded that a  she only use the tradesmen’s entrance and the freight elevator.

In 1939 Holiday left the group and began to perform regularly at Café Society, a haven for liberal intellectuals, college students, music aficionados, and the political left in general. The club, which was located in a basement in Greenwich Village, was owned by Barney Josephson and had been inaugurated in December 1938. The main room held about 220 people. Josephson wanted an American version of the political cabarets he had seen in Europe. Cafe Society was the first nightclub in a white neighbourhood to welcome customers of all races.  Even the legendary Cotton Club in Harlem, where Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Bessie Smith, Lena Horne and Cab Calloway all performed, was a segregated place. Occasionally a black celebrity would be admitted but even then they would generally be given the worst tables. Josephson, by contrast, had a clear vision:

“I wanted a club where blacks and whites worked together behind the footlights and sat together out front. There wasn’t, so far as I know, a place like it in New York or in the whole country.”

It was a transgressive place. Josephson wanted to showcase African American talent. But he also wanted to satirise café society; black customers were given the best seats, while the waiters greeted patrons while dressed in rags. Their advertising slogan was: “Café Society: the wrong place for Right people.”

Josephson heard the song and suggested that Holiday sing it. Given the nature of the lyrics Holiday was a bit reticent about performing it in public, but she finally agreed to do it. It was January 1939. It would be the song that she would close her set with. From the very first time that she sang it she established a ritual. As she prepared to sing the finale, service in the club stopped completely – the waiters stopped bringing drinks to the tables and the cash registers fell silent. The room went black except for a single spotlight trained on the singer. When she was done, Holiday would walk off the stage without giving an encore. How could you top that song? In Lady Sings the Blues, her autobiography, Holiday later recalled the audience’s stunned reaction the first time: “There wasn’t even a patter of applause when I finished. Then a lone person began clapping nervously. Then suddenly everyone was clapping.

Holiday’s record company, Columbia, refused to record the song, fearing a racist backlash. Eventually she managed to record it with Commodore and it became her biggest selling record. It got little exposure on the airwaves, so the #16 position is really an achievement. The song was denounced by Time Magazine as “a prime piece of musical propaganda” for the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP).

What about the two protagonists of our story? By the 1950s Holiday’s voice had deteriorated tremendously due to years of abuse and she continued even faster down her destructive path of drugs, abusive relationships, and alcohol. In 1959, Holiday collapsed and was hospitalized; while on her deathbed, she was arrested once again for possession of narcotics. She died on July 17, 1959, of cirrhosis of the liver at the age of 44. Meeropol left the teaching profession in 1945 and went to Hollywood his other claim to fame is the adoption of the orphaned children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the married couple of American communists executed after being found guilty of espionage against the United States in 1953.

The song now has iconic status. Holiday’s version was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1978. It was also included in the list of Songs of the Century, by the Recording Industry of America and the National Endowment for the Arts. Time magazine had a change of heart and named it the song of the century in 1999. It was, in the words of jazz writer Leonard Feather, “the first significant protest in words and music, the first unmuted cry against racism.” Less than two decades later America would be immersed in a civil rights war. Strange Fruit had been one of the opening salvoes. In October 1939, Samuel Grafton, writing in The New York Post described Strange Fruit thus: “If the anger of the exploited ever mounts high enough in the South, it now has its ‘Marseillaise’.” I don’t think Grafton was right; this was a political song but not a rousing hymn. Many protest songs are little more than propaganda, but “Strange Fruit” proved they could be art.

 I’ll finish with the impressions of the actress Billie Allen Henderson of a performance of the song at New York’s Birdland in 1952:

I was standing there with my date when she started singing this song. I was trying to be sophisticated and all of a sudden something stabs me in the solar plexus and I was gasping for air. It was so deeply felt. I understood it. I could smell the burning flesh; I felt it. She was . . . unrelenting is a good word for it. Some didn’t know how to react.     They weren’t quite sure. Nobody stirred. It was startling, and I’ll never forget it. I thought, ‘That’s what art can do.’”

The house I live in

April 28, 2013

The House I Live In was a ten-minute short film written by Albert Maltz, produced by Frank Ross and Mervyn LeRoy, and starring Frank Sinatra. Made to oppose anti-Semitism and racial prejudice at the end of World War II, it received an Honorary Academy Award and a special Golden Globe award in 1946.

Under his pen name, Lewis Allan, Abel Meeropol co-wrote, with Earl Robinson, the song  The House I Live In. Meeropol did not want to idealise America, but to show its potential. Unfortunately in the film short, the song was censored and the lyrics “The house I live in, my neighbors white and black…” were excised, enraging Meeropol.

Anything you Khan do: how a former hedge fund trader is trying to transform education

April 21, 2013

In 2004 Salman Khan, then a senior hedge fund analyst, began remotely tutoring his cousin Nadia in mathematics. Word got round and other relatives and friends sought his help too. Realizing that it would be more efficient to distribute the tutorials on YouTube, he created an account there in November 2006. The videos proved to be extremely popular and the organization was incorporated as a non-profit in 2008. A year later Khan quit the day job to focus exclusively on developing Khan Academy full-time. Its goal is to provide “a free world-class education for anyone anywhere.” Students can make use of their 4,000 video tutorials, as well as interactive challenges, and assessments.  It can be used by both individual students or in the classroom and the system provides you with personalized data about how you are doing and which areas you are struggling in.

Khan Academy is just one example of the educational resources available online. I have been interested in online learning for a number of years now. Here are a few examples of what you can find out there:

Open Yale This is one of my favourites. You have video, audio and even the mid-term and final exams. The lectures come with the transcript, No course credit, degree, or certificate is available, but it’s a great way to capture a bit of the flavour of this prestigious Ivy League institution. Here is a selection of some of the courses:


Financial Markets

Frontiers and Controversies in Astrophysics

Fundamentals of Physics

Game Theory

Introduction to Ancient Greek History

Introduction to Political Philosophy

Introduction to Psychology

Listening to Music

The American Novel Since 1945

The Great Courses This company was founded by Thomas M. Rollins, began life as The Teaching Company in 1990. Videos got Rollins, who graduated from Harvard Law School, out of a tight jam when he was a student. He had skipped a number of classes and was facing a difficult exam on the federal rules of evidence. In desperation he sat through ten hours of videotaped lectures by Professor Irving Younger. The lectures were, in his words, “outrageously insightful, funny, and thorough“. He describes it as one of his best experiences as a student. What’s more he got an A. He had initially intended to create a government program to produce tapes for the public, but was unable to do so because of legal restrictions. After leaving his job as Chief Counsel of the United States Senate Committee on Labour and Human Resources, he went looking for top professors to create courses for sale to the public. The Great Courses offers hundreds of courses in such areas as economics, literature, fine arts, music, history, philosophy, religion, mathematics and the social sciences. There are more than 500 available via CD, DVD and Internet download.

Their current top ten shows the enormous range of what they offer:

  1. The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World
  2. The Science of Natural Healing
  3. Physiology and Fitness
  4. Practicing Mindfulness: An Introduction to Meditation
  5. Trails of Evidence: How Forensic Science Works
  6. Mysteries of Modern Physics: Time
  7. Introduction to Nanotechnology: The New Science of Small
  8. Physics and Our Universe: How It All Works
  9. Great Tours: Greece and Turkey, from Athens to Istanbul
  10. Writing Creative Nonfiction

Coursera This educational technology company was founded by computer science professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller from Stanford University in October 2011. Coursera works with universities to make some of their courses available online, and offers courses in engineering, humanities, medicine, biology, social sciences, mathematics, business, computer science, and other areas. Each course includes short video lectures on different topics and assignments to be submitted, usually on a weekly basis. Coursera is able to cut costs by having students grade their peers’ homework and employing statistical methods to validate the assessment.

Coursera is following an approach popular among Silicon Valley start-ups – grow fast and worry about money later. Venture capitalists and even two universities have invested more than $22-million but even Coursera seems unsure how it will monetise its courses. Daphne Koller explained the rationale:

Our VC’s keep telling us that if you build a Web site that is changing the lives of millions of people, then the money will follow“. Possible solutions include:

  1. having companies sponsor courses
  2. offering certification
  3. the sale of information to potential employers


 These online courses offer the possibility for great teachers to leverage their talent. This is just like what happened to singers when new technologies meant that records could be sold or concerts broadcast. Lecturers who could only be seen by those actually in their class can now be enjoyed by people all over the world.

The great advantage is the flexibility; you are not bound by timetables or location. You can listen to a lecture on MP3 or watch it on a smartphone. This is perfect for me. I’m a bit of a commitment-phobe when it comes to online learning. I like to flit from one topic to another. I don’t really want to do an exam – for me it’s just a bit of fun. But there are other models. What Coursera offers is much more like a traditional college class. Students have to do around ten hours of study per week. They can watch the videos any time you want during the week, but they have to finish your assignments by the end of the week. The advantage of this is that everyone is working on the same thing at the same time; if they then want to go onto a discussion forum, they can get immediate help from one of your peers.

Many of the courses, such as Open Yale involve just a lecturer standing up in front of a group of people. That is what inspired Thomas Rollins. I love this format. Listening to an engaging professor talking about a subject that he is passionate about is a guilty pleasure for me. However, some people argue that this is a bad use of this medium. Salman Khan has been critical of the lecture format. He sees it as relic from the past. 200 years ago there was no alternative – but now we have so many technological possibilities. I can see what Khan is getting at. Filming someone teaching is not visually compelling. The great insight of what Khan does is that you listen to the voice, you don’t watch the professor. The material you see on the screen is what engages you visually, not the teacher’s face, mouth, gestures etc. Khan has another criticism of a lot of the material online. He thinks that people can pay attention for ten or twenty minutes. Then they start to zone out. That’s why they have micro lectures, which last less than 20 minutes

For us the availability of this material has meant that we haven’t had to pay for a private tutor for our son. How many tutors would be happy to go over the same point twenty times? That is the beauty of video – it enables you to go at your own pace, pausing whenever necessary and reviewing the material as many times as you want.

What about the classroom? Khan Academy materials can be used for class teaching. Flip teaching is one of the key concepts. This involves students watching the videos on their own, and then coming together to discuss them. A teacher can spend more time interacting with and tutoring students instead of lecturing. In the classroom pupils can then try to apply this knowledge by solving problems and doing project-based learning with lots of peer-to-peer learning.

I hope you find this as inspiring as I do. We are living in exciting times for education. I like the fact that there are different models. Let a thousand flowers bloom. I don’t believe that the traditional university will disappear anytime soon. Some of these ideas will prove to be dead ends. But others will help to transform the way we learn. We don’t really know what the best mix is. We are at a very early stage in the application of these technologies, and I can already see massive benefits.  So, I salute you Mr. Khan.

How we saw education of the future

April 21, 2013

I thought it would be a good idea to look at how the future of education was seen in the past. My starting had to be the Paleofuture blog, which features articles, photos  and videos from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries predicting how the world would be in the future. Here is what they said about classrooms and schools:

The Public School of Tomorrow (1912)

Our future transportation for the school of tomorrow will be the automobile, interurban railway, mono railway, gyroscope car, overhead cable car, pneumaticair pressure tubes, flying machines and other means of travel, which future geniuses may develop. Distance will be annihilated and many miles will be as one mile today. Population will be denser in our rural districts and there will be a family on every forty acres or less.

Movies Will Replace Textbooks (1922)

Schools have had a longstanding immunity against the introduction of new technologies. In 1922 Thomas Edison predicted that movies would replace textbooks. In 1945 one forecaster imagined radios as common as blackboards in classrooms. In the 1960s, B.F. Skinner predicted that teaching machines and programmed instruction would double the amount of information students could learn in a given time. Filmstrips and other audiovisual aids were fads thirty years ago, and the television, now seen as a supplier of brain candy, once had a sterling reputation as an education machine.

The Push-Button School of Tomorrow (1958)

Tomorrow’s schools will be more crowded; teachers will be correspondingly fewer. Plans for a push-button school have already been proposed by Dr. Simon Ramo, science faculty member at California Institute of Technology. Teaching would be by means of sound movies and mechanical tabulating machines. Pupils would record attendance and answer questions by pushing buttons. Special machines would be “geared” for each individual student so he could advance as rapidly as his abilities warranted. Progress records, also kept by machine, would be periodically reviewed by skilled teachers, and personal help would be available when necessary.

The student desk of the future includes a small camera, presumably so that the teacher being projected on a large screen in the front of the class can keep tabs on the little rascals. One thing that fascinates me about computer consoles of the retrofuture is that the QWERTY keyboard is not yet an assumed input device. Each computing device seems tailored to meet the needs of the intended user, as with this learning machine of the futuristic year 1999 and this auto-tutor from the 1964 New York World’s Fair.

1968′s Computerized School of the Future

Picture yourself in front of a television screen that has an electronic typewriter built in below it. You put on a set of headphones, and school begins.

“Good morning, John,” a voice says. “Today you’re going to study the verbs ‘sit’ and ‘set.’ Fill in the blank in each sentence with the proper word — ‘sit,’ sat’ or ‘set.’ Are you ready to go?”

 “YES,” you peck out on the typewriter, and class gets under way.

The machine clicks away in front of you. “WHO HAS ____ THE BABY IN THE MUD?” it writes.

You type “SAT.” The machine comes right back: “SET.” You know you’re wrong, and the score confirms it: “SCORE: 00.”

A generation or so from now a truly modern school will have a room, or maybe several rooms, filled with equipment of the type shown on the cover of this issue. Even kindergarten children may be able to work some of the machines—machines such as automatically loading film and slide projectors, stereo tape recorders and record players, and electric typewriters or TV devices tied into a computer.

Customizable instruction seems to be the largest benefit touted by the article when it comes to every child having their own computer terminal:

The major advantage of the computer is that it helps solve the teacher’s biggest problem—individual instruction for every student. In a large class the teacher has to aim at the average level of knowledge and skill, but a computer can work with each child on the concepts and problems with which he needs the most help. A teacher can do this, too, but she often lacks the time required.

Computers combined with other teaching aids will provide schools with new flexibility in teaching. Students will be able to work at their own speeds in several subjects over a period of time. A boy might work all day on a science project, for instance, and complete his unit in that subject before some other children in his class had even begun. But they would be working on other subjects at their own speeds.

Computers are expensive for teaching, and they will not become a major force in education for some time. But apparently they are here to stay. One educational publication predicted that “another generation may well bring many parents who cannot recall classwork without them.” And a computer specialist went even farther. He said, “… I predict that computers will soon play as significant and universal a role in schools as books do today.”

 CNN education in 2025

Looking through my own stuff I also found this piece from a CNN documentary from the year 2000. the piece featured predictions for 2025 from Howard Gardner, a professor at Harvard graduate school of education.

There are also no freshman, sophomore, junior or senior classes. Students advance to three levels of learning: not by taking tests or getting grades, but by completing projects.

They can work at their own pace. They can pursue their own interests. They can have contact with people who could be mentors. And I think equally important, they can give. They can help other people.

If we’re lucky is that some will go for 14 and some will go for 10, because you take your formal education as long as it takes to demonstrate that you have the intellectual power that the state, that your community, that your family expects.

People will be able to work more at their home will be able to have contact with other kids elsewhere who have the same kinds of talents and skills they do. They won’t be sort of stuck with the same 30 kids in a classroom for eight or 12 years.

Unless schools prepare us for an information-rich society, then our youngsters simply won’t be prepared for dealing with a world that’s here any day now.

 I thought I’d finish with a couple of contrasting videos:

The world is flatus

April 14, 2013

This Earle of Oxford, making of his low obeisance to Queen Elizabeth, happened to let a Fart, at which he was so abashed and ashamed, that he went to Travell 7 yeares. On his returne the Queen welcomed him home and sayd, ‘My Lord, I had forgott the Fart.  John Aubrey, Brief Lives.

… farts are a kind of language. They are inherently social in a way that defecation is not. They tend to take your companions by surprise. Furthermore, farts are an occasion for self-examination, for questioning the extent of our freedom and the nature of self-mastery. We can’t help farting; it is a question of need. So part of what the Middle Ages wrestled with when people were talking about farts was this constant reminder of the needs of the body. Farting carries this reminder that the body behaves on its own, and there is nothing you can do about it. It reminds us that our bodily freedom is limited.

Farts carry anxiety and humour and disgust. People see themselves in the reactions of others and are thus intensely aware of themselves in those moments when farts manifest themselves. When you smell somebody you are closer to them than when you are just looking at them, but you are farther away than when you are touching them. Farts can create these moments rich with insight. I think much of the humour of farting is located on this very ordinary, humble level. On Farting: Laughter and Language in the Middle Ages by Valerie Allen


Joseph Pujol was a singular character. When he was twelve he discovered that he had a unique talent. While swimming near Marseilles – he found that by contracting his abdomen muscles he could take water into his bowels and expel it in a powerful stream at will. He then stated practising with air instead of water and was able to make tenor, baritone, and bass fart sounds.

In 1892 Pujol began a stellar career at The Moulin Rouge in Paris with the stage name Le Petomane (The “Fartiste”). His show was pure spectacle. As well as thunder and cannons, he would imitate the farts of a little girl, a mother-in-law and a bride on her wedding night. He would then go backstage to put one end of a rubber tube into his anus. He returned to the stage and smoked a cigarette from this tube, which he used to play a couple of tunes on a flute. After removing the rubber tube, he would blow out some of the gas-jet footlights, before leading the audience in a rousing sing-along for the grand finale. The piece de resistance was his anal version of La Marseillaise, which would bring tears to the eyes of those watching. The Moulin Rouge is said to have hired nurses to deal with audience members who had laughing fits. His artistic talent has recently been commemorated in the musical “The Fartiste“, an Off-Broadway production.

Today I am going to be looking at farting. Flatulence, breaking wind, cutting the cheese, backdoor breeze, letting one rip and airbrushing your boxers – the act of expelling intestinal gases has been a rich source of language. The word “fart” is one of the oldest in English. Its immediate origins are in the Middle English word feortan, which itself is kin to the Old High German word ferzan.

The American comedian Sarah Silverman once commented that fart jokes are “the sign language of comedy.” In South Park they have been making them for nearly two decades. But Parker and Stone are in pretty exalted company. In The City of God Augustine mentions men who “have such command of their bowels, that they can break wind continuously at will, so as to produce the effect of singing“. Flatulent demons in the eighth ring of Hell make “trumpets of their asses” in Dante’s Divine Comedy. One of the most celebrated incidents of flatulence humour in early English literature is in The Miller’s Tale by Geoffrey Chaucer. The character Nicholas sticks his buttocks out of a window at night and humiliates his rival Absolom by farting in his face. Absolom gets his revenge by thrusting a red-hot blacksmith’s poker between Nicholas’s cheeks. In 1776 Benjamin Franklin found the time to publish a book of bawdy essays called Fart Proudly. The British explorer, and an outstanding linguist in his right, Sir Richard Burton wrote about a tribe of Arabian Bedouins who employed a subtle system of farts to transmit codes and warnings.

We like to think we are more sophisticated now. But we still find this kind of lavatorial humour funny. I Who can forget the scene from Blazing Saddles? The insult “I fart in your general direction” from Monty Python and the Holy Grail has become a classic n 2008, a farting application for the iPhone raked in nearly $10,000 in just one day. There are over 60 fart apps for the iPhone and iPod touch alone. Here are 31 of them:

The technical term for a fart is flatus. Farts contain variable amounts of nitrogen, hydrogen, carbon dioxide, methane, and oxygen in subtly distinct combinations and percentages, they blend to form the infinite olfactory variety of the human fart – in the words of Alan Kligerman a “gas smell is as characteristic of a person as a fingerprint.” Human flatus may contain hydrogen and/or methane, which are both flammable. If sufficient amounts of these gases are present, it’s possible to light the fart on fire. This is the stuff of YouTube videos and as far as I know there has not been any significant scientific research on the subject.

There are many possible reasons why some people fart more than others; two of the most important are swallowing air when you eat or eating a lot of carbohydrates. If the gas results from the former the chemical composition will approximate that of air. If the fart is produced by digestion or bacterial production, the chemistry will be more varied. Foods that contain a high amount of indigestible carbohydrates include many of the usual suspects:





brussels sprouts







Health conditions that can cause symptoms of flatulence include constipation, lactose intolerance, irritable bowel syndrome and coeliac disease. This last one is a common digestive condition which involves intolerance to a protein called gluten, which is found in wheat, rye and barley.

The gastrointestinal tract works like a factory production line breaking everything down so that it can enter the bloodstream. Once food reaches the stomach, all nutrients are broken down into smaller components, amino acids, fatty acids and glucose, which are absorbed in the small intestine. Flatulence occurs when a food does not completely break down in the stomach and intestine. This undigested food arrives at the large intestine. When the bacteria break this material down, they produce a variety of gases in a process analogous to when yeast produces carbon dioxide to leaven bread. The principal culprit of the odour we associate with flatulence is hydrogen sulphide. Anyway, these gases have to go somewhere. And that’s when the problems begin.

In January 2011, the Malawi Minister of Justice, George Chaponda, said that air fouling legislation would make public flatulence illegal in the southern African country. After being subjected to media ridicule the minister withdrew his proposal. Chaponda obviously went too far, but there is no doubt that flatulence is a constant source of embarrassment. Walking away is not a good solution the odour follows us, pulled along in the farter’s direction by air currents. Moreover, the smell gets caught in the clothing, and diffuses out slowly. You can always blame the dog. But that doesn’t cut the mustard. Surely in the 21st century there must be a solution.

This search for a cure has been joined by a number of unsung heroes. No article about farting is complete without a reference to Dr. Fart. Michael D. Levitt, of the VA Medical Center in Minneapolis, is the world’s leading authority on flatulence. He has produced 34 papers on flatus. He notes that if you have on average more than 22 separate flatulent occurrences a day. This contrasts with two male patients who farted more than 140 times a day. It turned out that they were both lactose-intolerant; once dairy products were cut out of their diets, they returned to the normal range.

Buck Weimer, a retired Colorado psychologist designed fart-proof underpants for his wife Arlene, who suffers from Crohn’s disease, which causes bad-smelling gas. “You’re lying in bed with your wife and suffering but you don’t want to divorce a lady for body gas – it doesn’t look good on your resume; – so you start looking for solutions,” said Weimer talking about what motivated him. After a number of failed prototypes, he would eventually perfect and patent a filtration system. And the rest is history. Arlene’s social life was transformed and everyone in her bowel disease support group was demanding a pair. The Weimers now sell their Under-ease anti-flatulence underwear online. The website proudly proclaims:

revolutionary patented underwear recommended by doctors for offensive gas“. Their strapline is “wear them for the ones you love.” This consideration will set you back some $30. They have been a success and they are now on their second generation.

You also have this alternative, Check out this infomercial for a blanket:

This is high-tech stuff. According to the manufacturer its layer of activated carbon fabric is the same technology used by the U.S. army to protect against chemical weapons.

There are, however others for whom the farts are not a problem. Just like everything else there are fetishists. The infatuation is called flatulophilia. Flatulophiles are usually male, and there is an important niche market for porn to cater for this group. I normally do extensive research preparing for my blog. I am fascinated by all manifestations of human behaviour. But fart porn is too much even for me.

Top 10 Worst Infomercials from the 2000s

April 14, 2013

While I was researching this week’s blog post I came across this video.:

Sheer American genius.

Five years in the Blogosphere

April 6, 2013

Yesterday I received this message from those nice chaps at WordPress:

Happy Anniversary!

You registered on 5 years ago!

Thanks for flying with us. Keep up the good blogging!

I never knew they cared!

Here is some Big Data of my own:

628      Posts


The most popular posts have been:

40 Oxbridge interview questions


Home page / Archives


A satellite view of the two Koreas


Five famous psychological experiments


Infamous tabloid headlines


Famous Political Gaffes and Blunders


Words made in Japan


Riding Pipeline: The Sarah Palin blue movie


Ancient Greek inventions and innovations


Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! How the Victorians gave us the vibrator


Shakespeare’s influence on the English language


Hollywood and Capitalism: The Gordon Gekko syndrome


Top 20 Logical Fallacies


Some quotes about language




Cost-benefit analysis and the value of a human life


I am exploring my sexuality; you are promiscuous; she is a slut; a guide to emotive conjugations


50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology


Thanks to all my loyal readers. Here’s to the next lustrum!

A small article about Big Data

April 6, 2013

The statistics about data boggle the mind. The world’s data is doubling every 1.2 years. 90% of it has been created in the last two years. In 2012 there were two trillion gigabytes; by 2020 it will be 35 trillion gigabytes. We are not just consumers of this stuff. We have become active data agents, who spew out over 2.5 quintillion bytes every day from consumer transactions, communication devices, online behaviour and streaming services. This is our digital footprint. Of the 7 billion people on our planet over five billion own a mobile phone. Every day we make five billion Google searches, watch 2.8 billion YouTube videos and send over 11 billion texts. To be honest, I think that the names -terabyte, petabyte, exabyte, zettabyte or yottabyte – are like a foreign language. I would also like to know who compiles all these factoids that abound in TED talks or YouTube videos. Be that as it may, there is no doubt that we do have access to ever-increasing amounts of data

Welcome to the world of Big Data, the next big thing in the world of tech. The term is said to have been coined by John Mashey, a computer scientist working for Silicon Graphics in the mid-1990s. We are not the only source of this deluge of information. Data is becoming more understandable to computers. We now have the capacity to analyse unstructured data – stuff like words, images videos and streams of sensor data – that were inaccessible for traditional databases. Here are some of the major sources:

Scientific research data At CERN alone they produce 40 TB every second.

Retailer databases As a result of e-commerce and loyalty card schemes, retailers have been able to build up vast databases of recorded customer activity.

Vision recognition As vision recognition improves, it is starting to become possible for computers to glean meaningful information and data relationships from photographs and videos.

Internet of things As more smart objects go online, Big Data is also being generated by an expanding Internet of Things. One example is the sensors used to gather climate information.

Big Data generates value from the storage and processing of humongous quantities of digital information. Rather than just to putting data into silos for data storage for relatively little return we will be able to analyse these enormous datasets. It’s a new kind of asset – like a vital new mineral. Big Data is best understood in terms of the three Vs: variety, velocity and volume, i.e. large quantities of data of all kinds generated in real time. Crunching big numbers can help us learn a lot about ourselves and our world; it is “humanity’s dashboard”. This data can’t be analyzed using traditional computing techniques. It requires new systems, software and computers. And then you have those incredible machine-learning algorithms – the more data, the more they learn.

Big Data has the potential to improve analytical insight. It really is an extraordinary time to be a researcher with so much internet data available. It is being mined in areas as diverse as astrophysics, biology, economics or linguistics.

Google, Amazon and Facebook have already shown how it is possible to deliver personalised search results, advertising, and product recommendations using the vast amounts of data they handle. One third of Amazon’s sales are said to come from its recommendation engine. In a previous post I talked about the company Epagogix, whose algorithm uses big data analysis to evaluate the potential profitability of movies and TV shows before they get made.  It is not just something that can be exploited by corporations. Big Data has the potential to be an intelligent tool that will enable us to:

Improve traffic management in cities, permitting the smarter operation of electricity generation infrastructures.

Help farmers to accurately forecast bad weather and crop failures.

Predict and plan for criminal activity or pandemics.

One exciting application is medicine. In the U.S. there is now an ambitious project to collect data on the care of hundreds of thousands of cancer patients and use it to help guide treatment of other patients across the health-care system. Cancer specialists would be able to consult the database, where they would be able to see how similar patients had fared on a particular regimen. The rationale is that information gleaned from huge clinical databases will give us a wealth of information about the benefits and harms of treatments. Ultimately it should lead to better quality healthcare and the development of new drugs.

Chris Anderson, an early fan of Big Data, foresees the end of theory and the demise of the expert:

There is now a better way. Petabytes allow us to say: “Correlation is enough.” We can stop looking for models. We can analyze the data without hypotheses about what it might show. We can throw the numbers into the biggest computing clusters the world has ever seen and let statistical algorithms find patterns where science cannot.

So are we about to enter a data utopia? I fear not.

There are important privacy issues, but those will have to wait for another post. I am going to concentrate on the methodological objections.  What is the value of having this amount of data? Nassim Taleb has branded it a nasty phenomenon, cherry picking on an industrial scale. It may mean more information, but it also means more false information. Trevor Hastie, a statistics professor at Stanford has warned about the danger of looking for a meaningful needle in massive haystacks of data; many bits of straw look like needles. We must be wary of lies, damned lies and Big Data. I am particularly nervous about its application in finance.

Nevertheless, I am a fan of Big Data. As an English teacher, I love the access to so much grammar and lexis in the wild. Of course we need to be aware of generating spurious correlations. However, we had spurious correlations before the invention of big data. The classic case of this comes from the late 1940s in the USA when it was thought that there was a relationship between polio and the consumption of ice cream and soft drinks. We always need to have a healthy dose of scepticism when it comes to statistics. But I feel that knowing more about the world is a good thing. In the past inventions like the microscope and the telescope opened our eyes to worlds we could never have imagined. Some people feel uneasy about human activity being quantified in this way. In his book about the calculation of risk, Against the Gods, Peter Bernstein talked about how the Catholic Church had been opposed to statistics because they believed they were incompatible with the notion of free will.

I don’t believe in panaceas, but I think that Big Data presents us with some important opportunities. Time, that incorruptible judge, will tell us how much was hype.


*In this article I have used data with a singular verb. Though strictly speaking it should take a plural verb, as far as I am concerned data wants to be singular. This is like agenda – no one ever uses agendum.