Ut does not scan

It never occurred to me to ask why the notes in a Western scale are called do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do. The idea of which, by the way, is called Solfège. Then yesterday I learned that the sounds are the opening syllables of the words to the Latin hymn honoring St John the Baptist, Ut Queant Laxis, written in the 8th century. Seriously.

Ut queant laxīs    resonāre fībrīs
ra gestōrum    famulī tuōrum,
Solve pollūtī    labiī reātum,
Sancte Iōhannēs.

In English, that goes, So that your servants may, with loosened voices, resound the wonders of your deeds, clean the guilt from our stained lips, O Saint John.

The original scale was ut-re-mi-fa-so-la-si-ut. In the 16th century Giovanni Battista Doni renamed Ut (a closed sound) to Do (an open sound). Just as well, because Ut does not scan well. We’d have to sing, “Ut, a bastard, an utter bastard; re, a drop of golden sun… .”

And in the 19th century Sarah Glover – who clearly would have made a good code monkey – renamed Si to Ti so that each syllable started with a different letter, and also wrote a book that popularized the whole word/tone thing as a way of training your everyday Christian congregation to not sound so goddamn terrible.

Interestingly , it has been proposed that the concept of the system was one of the many Islamic contributions to Medieval Europe, through the Durar Mufaṣṣalāt scale of  dāl, rā’, mīm, fā’, ṣād, lām, tā’, which is known as the ‘Separated Pearls’. Isn’t that lovely?

And maybe now you too know something you didn’t know yesterday.

Nuke-able journal

Pilot FriXion pens use ink that turns clear when heated to 60C (140F), so you can use any soft plastic or rubber as an eraser, by raising the temperature with friction.  I use a Frixion pen as my everyday workhorse, so I’m always careful to never leave my planner in a hot car.

However the Law of Attraction planner turns that drawback into a feature (skip to 1:27).

I have mixed feelings about this. I’m not one to go back and read old planners, but erasing the past seems kind of . . . blasphemous? I know you can save it in the cloud first, but dude, you’re nuking your planner i.e. the actions of a human about to kill their spouse and grab a flight to Belize with a Samsonite suitcase full of non-sequential cash.

Also, better not live in Alaska. Or Maine on a bad day. At -10C (14F) all the ink comes back.

“Sir” is a problem.

There’s a few words missing from our language.

In New Zealand, if you’re a waiter or a bartender at a middle-class establishment, ‘Sir’ is the only term you’ve got available to use to get the attention of the XY-chromosome-carrying member of the dining/drinking party so you can take their order when they’re busy talking i.e. “And what can I get for you, Sir?”

And then 85% of the time you get the smartass baby boomer who says, “No need to ‘Sir’ me, darling, I haven’t been knighted yet.” (These are the same men who say “I’ll have a wee dram” and mean they’d like a Drambuie, but if you ask for clarification, they’ll tell you you have to figure it out. Guys, you’re jerks. Cut it out).

bar david j flickr.jpg
Seriously, don’t make me guess. ‘The Bar’ by David J on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons Licence

‘Sir’ also works for everyday interactions, like “Excuse me, Sir, is this your wallet on the ground,” or “Sorry Sir, your mobility scooter is parked on my foot.”

“Ma’am” isn’t any better, unless you’re addressing royalty, in which case, booyah. (Entirely uninteresting fact: I once scrubbed down a BBQ grill so the Duke of Edinborough could cook on it during the 1990 royal tour of New Zealand.) Who the hell wants to be called Ma’am, but what’s the alternative?

We need a non-gender-specific term to mean Fellow Human Whom I Am Addressing. For years I’ve wanted to bring in ‘Comrade,’ but that went down worse than ‘Fetch.’

The other word that doesn’t work is ‘boyfriend.’ At least, it’s totally fine and dandy for sixteen-year-olds. And twenty-six-year-olds. Or maybe thirty-six-year-olds. But yesterday I met a woman who is 72 (she told me repeatedly she was 72) and who went to her “boyfriend’s” family for Christmas dinner, and cognitive dissonance set in. I’m not sure where the appropriateness cut off is for ‘boyfriend,’ but I feel it’s under 72 for heterosexual women. Curiously, I can see ‘boyfriend’ working if you’re a 72 year old guy. But I can’t think of anything better.

A quick poll at the dinner table suggests baby boomers dislike the term “partner.” A few said it suggested a power imbalance, or was impersonal. I found partner the most useful when LGBTQ humans couldn’t marry. It seemed elitist to use the terms ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ when that was denied to a big chunk of the population. But now, I guess – in many countries, but not all, sadly – the need has gone.

Does partner work for a short-term or new relationship, though? It suggests something fairly solid and lasting, involving wills, although not necessarily joint mortgages. A partner is the person who takes you to chemo. A boyfriend is the guy you hooked up with last month and have been sexting with ever since, and more power to my new 72 year old friend if that’s the case.

‘Man friend’ doesn’t work for me. It makes my teeth clench. Perhaps it’s because it has an air of cruise ship dance host about it. ‘Girlfriend’ is confusing, when a woman can go out to the movies with ‘girlfriends’ and doesn’t mean she’s in a polyamorous lesbian relationship. ‘Woman friend’ is only marginally better than ‘lady friend,’ which makes me nauseated.

Most of all I really, really want something gender neutral, that means “Another human with whom I have formed a relationship involving emotional closeness.”

These are all keystone terms for any culture. We need better words. I’m open to suggestions.

Morgellons: My favorite non-delusional ‘delusional’ disease

This week’s Radiolab podcast – Alpha-Gal – is one of the best ever. You can get the gist (although without the divine storytelling of meat-worshipper Amy Pearl) from this New Yorker article by Peter Andrey Smith.

So it turns out that over the last couple of decades more and more people have been going to their doctor saying, “Hey, you know what’s weird? I’ve suddenly become allergic to red meat. I break out in hives.” To which doctors say, “What a load of bullshit. A) there’s no such thing as an allergy to red meat. And B) even if there was, humans don’t just suddenly develop an allergy after eating something for years. This is psychosomatic. It’s all in your head.”

perfectly cooked steak, by Prayitno on flickr cc.jpg
Perfectly cooked steak, by Prayitno on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons Licence

Which for people like Amy Pearl, who had eaten and loved red meat for years before it ended up putting her in the emergency room in anaphylactic shock, was contrary to all empirical evidence.

Then in 2004 a new cancer drug, cetuximab, was released for use. While it fought the growth of colorectal cancer cells, in some patients cetuximab also caused allergic reactions: itching, swelling, a rash, and a dangerous drop in blood pressure. Just like the reactions of people who were finding they suddenly couldn’t eat red meat. And it turns out  these cancer patients had pre-existing antibodies for an enzyme called alpha-galatosidase – otherwise known as alpha-gal. Alpha-gal is found in the tissues of non-primate mammals. Cetuximab had been developed using genetically altered mice. Cetuximab contained alpha-gal.

So, question: why did some people have antibodies for alpha-gal? Answer: probably because they were bitten by a tick.

Lone-Star Tick. Photo by Benjamin Smith, used under a Creative COmmons Licence.

There’s no indisputable proof for this – yet – but the distribution of alpha-gal antibodies aligns neatly with the distribution of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever: a virus carried by ticks, which, until the late 1940s, killed up 30% of victims.

And what do you know, 80% of people reporting red meat allergies also reported being bitten by a tick. In 2011, tick bites were linked with “a twenty-fold increase in alpha-gal antibodies, giving rise to their theory that the saliva of lone-star ticks sensitizes humans’ immune systems to alpha-gal, triggering the release of histamines when red meat is ingested.”

The New Yorker reports that disease ecologist Richard Ostfield says, “Given the diverse pharmacopeia found in tick saliva . . . it [is] not surprising that one compound might mimic the blood sugar found in its warm-blooded hosts—non-primates like deer, mice, and rabbits, which have alpha-gal in their blood. When tick saliva perforates human skin, some people’s immune systems treat the sugar as a foreign antigen, producing an extraordinary reaction to red meat.”

Right: so far, so good. Although there is no definitive proof, it’s looking likely that something in a tick bite primes humans to reject alpha-gal, which is bad news for both your cancer medication and your spare ribs with bourbon glaze. Although, you know, if those were human spare ribs, they’d be able to eat them no problem. Just sayin’.

Definitely not delicious human ribs. Photo by Kurman Communications on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons Licence.


While this is awful for people like me who find animals delicious, what had me really jumping up and down is the potential ramifications for investigations into Morgellons disease.

As the Wikipedia entry states, Morgellons is widely believed to be “a form of delusional parasitosis.” Believed by the medical establishment, that is. But not by the people who go to the doctor with “crawling sensations on and under the skin . . . itchy rashes, stinging sores, fiber-like filaments emerging from the sores, severe fatigue, concentrating difficulty, and memory loss.

Many of these people turn up at their doctor’s surgery with a tiny collection of fibres they have pulled from their skin – fibres that are growing out of their skin. Too bad these people didn’t know about the “match box sign.” They didn’t know during medical training young doctors are specifically warned that one day people who imagine they are infected with bugs will turn up at their surgery carrying matchboxes full of “bugs” they have picked off their skin.

The match box sign is a clear signal the patient has a psychiatric illness, not a physical one. “Oh, I know this one,” thinks the doctor. And then tells their patient it’s self-induced. It’s psychosomatic. It’s all in their head. And can therefore be treated with antipsychotic medications. Oh, by the way, statistically, as a Morgellons sufferer, you’re a middle-aged white woman, and that will mean you’re totally taken seriously by doctors at the best of times, right?

morgellons fibres.gif
Morgellons rash and fibres. Photo from the 2015 BMC Dermatology paper by Middleveen, Bandoski, Burke, Sapi, Filush, Wang, Franco, Mayne and Stricker linked to elsewhere in this post.


Nurse and Morgellons sufferer Cindy Casey Holman is kind of the spokesperson for Morgellons awareness. She points out although it was first described over 300 years ago, has taken decades for people presenting with Morgellons symptoms to be listened to. It took her nine years to find a dermatologist who didn’t immediately want to put her on antipsychotics.

The thing is, when medical practitioners do take people’s symptoms seriously, there’s something there. Morgellons sufferers test positive for Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacteria that causes Lyme disease. As you may know, Lyme disease really fucking sucks. Borrelia burgdorferi is introduced into the human system by . . . you know it: a tick bite.

And those fibres? When people actually tested them instead of whispering, “match box sign” under their breath and throwing a prescription for SSRIs at patients, they turn out  to be “composed of keratin and collagen, and . . .result from proliferation of keratinocytes and fibroblasts in epithelial tissue.” And these fibres can be found “underneath unbroken skin.” They’re not transfer from bedlinens, carpets, or clothing. They’re growing inside you.

Which makes it frustrating when these guys boldly state they treated four people for delusional parasitosis:

“We are presenting four new cases of delusions of parasitosis, two of which also had features of Morgellons disease. This illustrates the difficulties in therapy of these patients having almost universal refusal to accept the psychiatric component. Two of the patients responded to treatment while two did not . . . The recommended treatments of pimozide, lexapro, and risperdone are examined.”

Imagine you have one of the multitude of tick-bourne illnesses. You go to the doctor. They  give you an antipsychotic, an antidepressant, and medication used to treat schizophrenia. Utterly surprising no-one except the doctor, your condition fails to respond to this. And the doctor calls you delusional. Just like those people who developed an impossible, non-existent allergy to red meat.

You know, there’s already a freaky new disease being seriously targeted by professionals because it causes weird-ass skin growths: Bovine Digital Dermatitis. This causes “keratin filament formation in skin above the hooves in affected animals.” It is also mysterious. “The multifactorial etiology of digital dermatitis is not well understood, but spirochetes and other coinfecting microorganisms have been implicated in the pathogenesis of this veterinary illness.”

Cows, dude. We take this seriously in cows because BDD causes decreased milk production and weight loss in livestock.

bovine digital dermatitis.png
BDD in a cow’s foot.

We don’t know enough about Morgellons. And part of that is because when women go to the doctor they are frequently not taken seriously. Yes, some people do present to their doctor with delusions of parasites crawling under their skin. This is a thing that happens. But Jesus fucking Christ, you cannot do a case study of one patient – repeat, ONE – and write an article declaring you have “prove[n] the self-introduction under the epidermis of environmental filaments [and] scientifically demonstrated the self-induced nature of Morgellons disease, thereby wiping out fanciful theories about its etiopathogenesis.

So you should go listen to Alpha-Gal because Radiolab is one of the best podcasts around and this is one of their best episodes. And you should also be tick-aware as hell. Or, alternatively, become an exclusively indoor person. I vote for that last one.