Wikipedia articles of interest

I read a lot of wikipedia stuff right now, so it’s natural for me to post some of it here as well. Anyway, in general I’ll post a post like this once I’ve found 4-5-6 at least ‘semi-link-worthy’ posts, regardless of timing. If there are too many articles in one post, you guys are generally unlikely to follow the links.

1. Mushroom poisoning.

“Mushroom poisoning, also known as mycetism, refers to harmful effects from ingestion of toxic substances present in a mushroom. These symptoms can vary from slight gastrointestinal discomfort to death. The toxins present are secondary metabolites produced in specific biochemical pathways in the fungal cells. Mushroom poisoning is usually the result of ingestion of wild mushrooms after misidentification of a toxic mushroom as an edible species. The most common reason for this misidentification is close resemblance in terms of colour and general morphology of the toxic mushrooms species with edible species. Even very experienced wild mushroom gatherers are upon rare occasion poisoned by eating toxic species, despite being well aware of the risks, through carelessness.”

All the ‘folk wisdom’ about which mushrooms you can ‘eat without problems’ that you’ve heard is probably wrong. Relying on those is particularly problematic once you start crossing borders, but I wouldn’t recommend doing it either way. The aptly named death cap (Amanita phalloides) is responsible for half of all deaths from mushroom poisoning worldwide, and appr. 95 percent of all fatalities related to mushroom poisoning are caused by mushrooms from the Amanita genus, of which it is a member. Poisonous mushrooms aren’t all brightly coloured, in fact ‘most poisonous species are brown or white’. Not all toxic species taste unpleasant; the death caps for instance ‘have been reported to taste pleasant’. The Jack o’Lantern ‘smells and looks very appealing, to the extent that there are reports of repeat poisonings [the species is poisonous, but not deadly] from individuals who were tempted to try them a second time.’

Here’s a picture of the edible species Chanterelle:

Here’s a picture of the poisonous species Jack o’Lantern (Omphalotus olearius):

This is what a death cap looks like:

Some of the toxins in mushrooms are really sneaky bastards: For instance, orellanine does not cause any symptoms for 3–20 days after ingestion, and the kidney failure it causes is ‘usually symptomatic by day 20’ – a person can go around for 2-3 weeks and think he’s healthy, until…

2. Charles-Valentin Alkan.

3. Iron.

A map from the article:

4. Tang Dynasty. A few quotes:

“Beginning in 785, the Chinese began to call regularly at Sufala on the East African coast in order to cut out Arab middlemen,[127] with various contemporary Chinese sources giving detailed descriptions of trade in Africa. The official and geographer Jia Dan (730-805) wrote of two common sea trade routes in his day: one from the coast of the Bohai Sea towards Korea and another from Guangzhou through Malacca towards the Nicobar Islands, Sri Lanka and India, the eastern and northern shores of the Arabian Sea to the Euphrates River.[128] In 863 the Chinese author Duan Chengshi (d. 863) provided a detailed description of the slave trade, ivory trade, and ambergris trade in a country called Bobali, which historians suggest was Berbera in Somalia.[129] In Fustat (old Cairo), Egypt, the fame of Chinese ceramics there led to an enormous demand for Chinese goods; hence Chinese often traveled there (this continued into later periods such as Fatimid Egypt).[130][131] From this time period, the Arab merchant Shulama once wrote of his admiration for Chinese seafaring junks, but noted that their draft was too deep for them to enter the Euphrates River, which forced them to ferry passengers and cargo in small boats.[132] Shulama also noted that Chinese ships were often very large, with capacities up to 600-700 passengers.[128][132]”


“Although weakened after the An Shi Rebellion, in 799 the Tang government’s salt monopoly accounted for over half of the government’s revenues, while the salt commission became one of the most powerful state agencies, run by capable ministers chosen as specialists in finance.”

5. Four color theorem.


October 20, 2010 - Posted by | Biology, History, Mathematics, Music, Wikipedia


  1. On mushroom poisoning: I am putting on my cynical hat, and boldly claiming that people who picks mushrooms, eats them, and gets poisoned, fully deserves it. As you know, I grew up in Southeastern Europe, where mushrooming is popular (as it is in the Scandinavian countries, if you trust Wikipedia). My grandfather used to take me and my cousins (aged between 8 and 13 in those years) mushrooming often – basically every time after a summer rain, and sometimes without it, depending on what we were after. In 4 years, nobody got poisoned. Why? Well, we’d follow a couple of simple rules that guarantee it does not happen. We only picked mushrooms we knew, and those were mushrooms that had no poisonous Doppelgänger. In our case, we only did Boletus edulis(Porcini), Macrolepiota procera(parasol mushroom), Suillus luteus (Slippery Jack or sticky bun), and Agaricus campestris (field mushroom or, in North America, meadow mushroom). Okay, the meadow mushroom does in theory have a poisonous (not deadly) lookalike, but it’s extremely easy to distinguish through a simple look under the cap. What we definitely did not do is take risks. For example, there were tons of Calvatia gigantea (the Giant puffball), but we ignored them – they do have dangerous lookalikes (you need to cut into the flesh to identify), they need to be young to be edible, and they are not all that tasty. They are just not worth the trouble. Furthermore, most mushrooms grow in particular places and at particular times: the meadow mushrooms are self-explanatory, the Slippery Jack is only found in coniferous forest after a rainfall, the parasol only in deciduous, etc. Thus, each trip focused only on one type, and got 95% of that one type.

    People who get poisoned must be the idiots who either go after mushrooms with dangerous lookalikes (caesar’s, straws, etc.), or who come across a ‘shroom they are not familiar with and decide to eat it anyway. Either way, the suffering is fully deserved – the gene pool needs some bleach. I mean, it’s not that hard to comprehend – 50% of death cases come from the damn death cap. For crying out loud, do not pick up anything that looks remotely like it. Those giant puffballs we skipped – well, a young puffball looks like a young death cap. It’s not that hard to tell them apart if you know what you are doing, but we would not touch them, just in case.

    As the saying goes, “common sense isn’t”. If a bunch of 8-9 year-olds can learn in 10 minutes how not to poison themselves with mushrooms, anyone can. Those who don’t – how did they survive electric outlets, traffic, and bottles of detergent long enough to die by mushroom poisoning?

    Comment by Plamus | October 22, 2010 | Reply

  2. Interesting, I’d never have guessed that I had a mushroom picker in my readership, the elaborate treatment of this subject was mostly ‘just in case’ and ‘for the googlers’. Maybe I should have known that if I had a mushroom picker in my readership, he’d (to judge from the names and aliases people supply, it’s always a he – besides from Ulla of course, hi Ulla!) know too damn much to be at risk.

    I’d never dare to pick mushrooms on my own, I’m far too risk-averse to ever be doing something like that.

    Those who don’t – how did they survive electric outlets, traffic, and bottles of detergent long enough to die by mushroom poisoning?

    Their parents told them about the other things, but they never thought about going out in a forest and pick mushrooms to eat? A lot of the things people know are potentially harmful they only know about because somebody else told them. If they’d tried all those things on their own, they wouldn’t be around anymore. If nobody told the child that some mushrooms are deadly, well…

    Often stupidity and a lack of knowledge overlap, but the two aren’t the same thing. There’s a great difference between a very smart 6-year old and a very stupid 6-year old, but neither of them know that eating mushrooms can be fatal unless they’ve been told. This is one of the reasons why I can sometimes see myself as a not-completely-horrible parent; I’m so risk averse that there’s no risk that I’ll forget to mention that some activity or another might be dangerous to my kid. Yeah, I know, I might get over-protective instead, especially if I pass on the diabetes, but that’s just the way it is.

    Comment by US | October 24, 2010 | Reply

  3. The distinction between stupidity and ignorance is important, I agree. Yet, I also think at some level the two overlap too much to make the distinction meaningful. I can see how “I was never told that eating a mushroom can kill me” is an appeal to appear uninformed, and not stupid. To me, this is the equivalent of “I put everything I was not told not to in my mouth and swallow it” – what babies do. You can claim you were never taught this, but that rings hollow to me. It’s too basic, and unless I see you trying to eat your iPhone (I am sure your mother never told you not to eat that), I don’t believe you.

    To recap, I think there is a level below which ignorance is functional stupidity – the inability to acquire and process information on one’s own. You may be uninformed about the death cap, but you are stupid if, because you are uninformed, you assume you are safe, and you fail to educate yourself, and even more stupid if you were aware of the risk, and ignored it – for example, hunting for edible death cap lookalikes.

    On the other hand, if I were a parent – I have no plans of being one, I expect I would be overly lax. I would probably tell my children a lot about what to beware, but would not stop them when they are about to burn themselves or get stung.

    Comment by Plamus | October 25, 2010 | Reply

  4. “I can see how “I was never told that eating a mushroom can kill me” is an appeal to appear uninformed, and not stupid. To me, this is the equivalent of “I put everything I was not told not to in my mouth and swallow it” – what babies do.”

    But some of the people who die from mushroom poisoning surely are very young humans who put them in their mouth to taste them, like they taste leaves and grass and dirt and whatever else very young humans spend time on learning to dislike, no? 3-year-olds are relevant, because they also die from mushroom poisoning. Mushrooms are much more dangerous to people that age than many other things because there’s no warning sign for the child to interpret – maybe it looks, smells and tastes just great.

    Anyway, disregarding small children I probably share your view to some degree that “there is a level below which ignorance is functional stupidity”. That there’s quite a bit of overlap between being (un)informed and (un)intelligent would also be difficult for me to disagree with, if not for other reasons then because most people who seem to know much more than me are also much smarter.

    Comment by US | October 26, 2010 | Reply

  5. Indeed, I’ll submit that a 3-year-old dying from mushroom poisoning is somewhat excusable – although, it’s probably also safe to argue that a 3-year-old is stupid. Their capacity to process information is not yet developed. They may make a genius adult one day; yet, at that point in time most clinically mentally retarded people are more adapted to life than they are. It seems to me that being smart includes the ability to inform oneself within a reasonable time frame – possibly without necessitating significant physiological augmentations to one’s thinking “hardware’, such as adolescence.

    This topic, and its implications, are very interesting. More precisely, I have been pondering on what being stupid and being smart means.

    Being stupid and uninformed is trivial, and we already covered this case.

    Smart and informed is similarly uninteresting, as it is a relatively common.

    Can you be stupid, but informed? It seems so – that would be the case, in our example, of those who are aware of a risk, but take it anyway. In fact, this is incomplete – not all informed risk-taking is stupid, of course, even if the outcome is bad. This is more of a personal choice, which should not be qualified as stupid or smart by people other than the risk-taker. Still, this scenario seems to happen a lot, for example, when emotions trump reason – for example, foreign aid to Africa in its present form clearly does not help, and helps prolong the rule of evil dictators, but keeps coming. I would guess that Bono and his ilk are informed; they are also stupid.

    Can you be smart, but willingly uninformed? I am not sure, but I tend to think no. If you are smart, you must know where to find information on a problem, and be able to process that information. There are certainly problems where informing yourself fully can be prohibitively costly. In such (and similar) cases, it seems to me there are still “smart” ways to address the problem. Risk-management under uncertainty seems to me to be an important component of being smart. Stupidity seems to be largely (I am probably missing some scenarios) about making unwarranted assumptions.

    Thus, I was probably incorrect (or imprecise – is this the same thing?) in calling those who know how dangerous death caps are, and picking their lookalikes anyway stupid. Reckless is a better term. They risk a lot for a small gain, but their risk-preference function is still consistent.

    All in all, it seems to me that stupidity is too vague a term, and I’ll refrain from using it carelessly. Can you think of a term for someone with low information-processing capacity? The obsolete psychological terms of idiot, imbecile, and moron just roll off the tongue, but are too loaded these days. Dumb? Obtuse?

    My original opinion, in compressed form, should probably read that people who die of mushroom poisoning are either reckless (deserve it!), dumb (still deserve it!), or more-or-less innocent accidents – 3-year-olds, those who were served mushrooms by people from the first two categories, etc. This becomes a fuzzy logic setup – I can commiserate with this last category, to various degrees; I suspect, however, that this category is not that big. My guess would be that most victims fall in the reckless or dumb categories.

    Comment by Plamus | October 27, 2010 | Reply

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