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167298.  Wed Apr 18, 2007 9:01 am Reply with quote

Thanks for the reminder, Molly. I've sent him a note.

167310.  Wed Apr 18, 2007 9:27 am Reply with quote

And here's the skinny on why they dim the lights and raise the blinds when landing jetliners:

Take off and landing are the most dangerous stages of the flight. For this reason, special safety measures exist to deal with these periods.


If the aircraft takes off or lands during the hours of darkness, the lights will be dimmed in the cabin for a short period. You may have wondered why this is. The solution to the puzzle is the so-called light-dark adaptation of our eyes. You will have experienced this phenomenon many times in the past: when we enter a dark room, we can initially see almost nothing, until we gradually recognise the contours of objects and obstacles in front of us. The lights in the cabin are dimmed in order that, in an emergency situation, our eyes will be able to adjust to the darkness outside more quickly. It need not be completely dark to accomplish this; reading lamps are still permitted.

Another safety measure is designed to maintain an unobstructed view of the world outside the cabin: the blinds on the windows must remain open during takeoff and landing, whatever the time of day. This is not because we want to disrupt your comfortable sleep, but because it is easier for our eyes to recognise and judge possible dangers outside the aircraft in an emergency situation.

Austrian airlines:

167592.  Thu Apr 19, 2007 3:00 am Reply with quote

My correspondent replies:

You are quite correct that maintaining night vision is an issue in the RN but I am not convinced that adopting an eye patch - dashing as it would be - is the answer. Sartorially dull as we are, we have traditionally adopted the practice of using red lighting. Dim red lights do not adversely affect your night vision so on the Bridge of a warship or in the control room of a submarine (either on the surface or at periscope depth) a secondary lighting circuit, which entirely consists of very dim red lights, is used during the hours of darkness. That said, it is now considered that grey lighting is preferable and the most modern RN ships and submarines no longer resemble a brothel.

167625.  Thu Apr 19, 2007 5:02 am Reply with quote

eggshaped wrote:
I once read that in Roman times pirates actually did make their captors walk the plank.

Dunno if it's true. There's certainly no evidence of it happening in the 17th & 18th century.

I have some stuff on this, if anyone’s interested.

167639.  Thu Apr 19, 2007 5:29 am Reply with quote

I'd be interested on a personal note, if nothing else.

167720.  Thu Apr 19, 2007 6:51 am Reply with quote

Right, well ... I did a Mythcon for FT on walking the plank some time ago, thusly:

<<MYTHCONCEPTIONS: Walking the plank by Mat Coward

THE MYTH: Buccaneers, in the 16th-19th centuries, used to kill their enemies by making them “walk the plank.”

THE "TRUTH": If you’re a ruthless pirate and you want to get rid of someone, why not simply hurl them overboard? If you want to torture them, there must be better - that is, crueller - methods than a brief stroll along a length of wood, followed by a quick drowning. Just about every piece of pirate fiction of the last century and a half has included a walking-the-plank scene, yet there is no suggestion whatsoever in the historical record that it ever happened. All authorities seem agreed that the custom is a 19th century fiction, reinforced by Hollywood, but there is considerable debate about who actually invented it. It’s blamed variously on _Peter Pan_, _Treasure Island_, and an 1887 illustration by Howard Pyle in _Harper’s Monthly_.

SOURCES: _The Mirror_, 24 April 1998, based on the book _Life among the pirates_ by David Cordingly, former curator of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich;

DISCLAIMER: So if it never happened, where did such a strange idea come from, and why did it become so ubiquitous? If you have any suggestions as to the story’s origins, fictional or historical, please send them to FT’s letters page, damn yer eyes ye scurvy dogs. >>

And there were various replies:

A reader who’d researched the matter for a degree dissertation said that there is only one recorded instance of pirates using plank-walking as a punishment, and that occurred as late as 1829, a century after the “golden age” of Caribbean piracy (1715-26) - in other words, it could be life imitating art.

Another reader suggests that “walk the plank” was a naval variant of “walk the chalk” which was a test of sobriety. It could be difficult to chalk a line on a wet deck, so the line of a plank was used instead. He says this version of walking the plank was described in a popular 1829 novel by Captain William Nugent Glascock. He also says Brewer’s includes the punishment sense of walking the plank in its 1870 edition. He argues that “walking the plank” was probably real, but that “a well known naval colloquialism has been extracted from its original circumstance and grafted onto a piratical system of execution whose name - if it ever had one - has not come down to us.”

A correspondent from the Cornwall Record Office reports a 1737 drawing of a ship “which shows a figure walking the plank with another figure behind him who seems to be urging the first onwards with the aid of a dagger.” He acknowledges that this (very small) detail could be a later addition to the picture, but thinks it unlikely. He notes that this date pushes the custom well back “into the midst of the days of buccaneering,” and also - interestingly - that the ship appears to be a Royal Navy vessel, not a pirate ship.

However, a letter in the next issue of FT suggests that this picture doesn't show walking the plank - but “two crew members taking a log reading.”

As for the Romans - the only reference I’ve come across to this is as follows:

There is no evidence that pirates of the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th centuries used this method of punishment.
What romantic writers may have seized on is a practice called "Happy Despatch" that ancient pirates used when the Roman Empire was at its zenith. Given Rome's expansionist habits, she had many enemies -- and many of them were at sea plundering Roman vessels.
In his book "Under the Black Flag" (1925, Dial Press), Don Seitz writes: "To these gentlemen is due the distinction of inventing that chaste method called walking the plank, for it was their habit when taking a prisoner to ask him if he were Roman. Upon the victim's making a proud reply in the affirmative, they would bow low and tender their most humble services. Then, when the Roman was gulled into the belief that he had awed them to his own security, they would politely request him to mount upon the ship's ladder and step to liberty -- in the sea!"


170136.  Fri Apr 27, 2007 9:15 am Reply with quote

Flash, some time ago you posted a fact that pelicans make themselves blind from continual diving for food (the impact from the water was supposed to injure their eyes) however it's not sourced and the web seems pretty certain that it's a myth.

here and here for instance.

Do you have a good source for it? And if not, has anyone else ever heard this, and is it well known enough to be debunked?

170138.  Fri Apr 27, 2007 9:20 am Reply with quote

Actually, one of those sites says that pelicans don't carry fish in their bills - I'm not sure if I thought that or not, I think I might have done, but it might be a better way into pelican-GI.

They actually use the bill as a fishing net, so they can pick up huge swathes of water which may contain more fish.


170144.  Fri Apr 27, 2007 10:06 am Reply with quote

eggshaped wrote:
I'm not sure if I thought that or not, I think I might have done

We could have a new category: Vague Ignorance, for things you weren’t sure if you used to believe. Personally, the longer I do this kind of work the longer that list seems to grow ... !

170226.  Fri Apr 27, 2007 1:38 pm Reply with quote

They also catch flying fish.

170269.  Fri Apr 27, 2007 4:25 pm Reply with quote

There was a picture in one of the papers this week of a pelican in some zoo or other in the UK which has taken to eating pigeons, whole. The picture was taken over the pelican's shoulder and showed a justifiably alarmed pigeon sitting in the pelican's bill.

The thing about pelicans blinding themselves was told to me by Honduran people, who may be the most fearful myth-mongers for all I know. However, I can attest to the fact that pelicans do dive headlong and repeatedly into the water, from personal observation ('own research', as Vitali would say).

170280.  Fri Apr 27, 2007 6:50 pm Reply with quote

It seems a bit 'mythy' to me. I think evolution might have furnished them with more robust eyelids by now. Or else it's like elephants' teeth: they just get old and crappy...

Here's that picture:

Molly Cule
170823.  Mon Apr 30, 2007 7:00 am Reply with quote

The word ‘pupil’ is from the Latin pupillus/pupilla meaning a little child or doll– after the tiny reflection of yourself you see when you look into someone’s eye.

Molly Cule
170824.  Mon Apr 30, 2007 7:01 am Reply with quote

Pupils are all different shapes; common shapes are circular or slit-shaped, although more convoluted shapes can be found in aquatic species. The reasons for the variation in shapes are complex; the shape is closely related to the optical characteristics of the lens, the shape and sensitivity of the retina, and the visual requirements of the species.

Slit-shaped pupils are found in species which are active in a wide range of light levels. In strong light, the pupil constricts and is small, but still allows light to be cast over a large part of the retina.
Ground dwelling snakes, such as boas, pythons and vipers, have vertical slit-shaped pupils to help them hunt prey on the ground while tree snakes have circular pupils. Small cats and foxes also have slit shaped pupils while lions and wolves have round pupils even though they are in the same respective families. Some hypothesize that this is because slit pupils are more beneficial for animals that hunt small prey than large prey

170872.  Mon Apr 30, 2007 9:12 am Reply with quote

Video of pelican eating a pigeon here:


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