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This is the blog of Jeff Barson. I'm currently running HireVue Labs, former Director at Sendside, founder of Surface Medical, Nimble, Medspa MD, Freelance MD, Frontdesk, Uncommon, and Wild Blue... angel investor and startup advisor. Oh, and I'm a artist. More >>


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    Who is Beowulf & why is Grendel dead?

    41EKR6G1DXL._AA240_.jpgThe eighth-century story Beowulf, whose author remains in hiding since this became mandatory reading in many high school English classes, is the great heroic epic of Old English and reflects the mix of pagan traditions and Christianity that characterized northern Europe during the Middle Ages. It also boasts lots of sexually repressed and aggressive blonds.

    The saga opens in the mead hall of the Danish king Hrothgar who has been hiding under his bed as the monster Grendel breaks into his castle every night and chews the heads off of all of Hrothgar’s best mead-drinkers. (This may have been caused by a vitamin deficiency due to Grendel’s previous diet that consisted exclusively of his own toe-jam.)

    So everyone in Hrothgar’s kingdom is pleased as punch when Beowulf and his jolly band of leather wearing lackeys show up fresh off the boat from Geatland (a region in southern Sweden where all the Geats used to be.)

    You can see that troubles brewing and Grendel hasn’t a chance. Beowulf’s soon wearing poor Grendel’s guts for garters and starts parading around like he thinks he’s the Head Geat. (At one point he supposedly point his thumb at his chest and spouts, ‘Here’s the beef’.)

    Now this doesn’t make Grendels Mother to happy to have her little head-munching boy ‘off-ed’ by a band of sword-wielding blonds from a Nordic boy band. Grendels Mom proves to be just as nasty as Grendel and Beowulf has to track her down to her lair (a cozy lair with a really nice view) and pokes her with sharp objects until she stops moving.

    This makes everyone happy and Beowulf rules for another fifty years until a dragon makes dental floss out of him.

    Though Beowulf’s influence on the development of English literature is often overstated (The poem was largely forgotten until the 1800’s) it gained renewed prominence in he twentieth century by inspiring the works of J.R.R. Tolkien.


    Why do we have baby teeth?

    Image from iStock Photo

    “Baby teeth (also known as deciduous or milk teeth or nipple nashers) are widely found in the animal kingdom.

    While fish and reptiles continuously renew their teeth and go through many generations of them in a lifetime, mammals have followed an evolutionary trend toward suppression of tooth replacement since we love our teeth more than fish love theirs.

    The reason is not known, but because the cusp pattern on mammalian teeth leads to complex patterns of occlusion (that is, the way the upper and lower teeth fit together = biting), it’s likely that subtle differences in tooth shape that might occur with frequent tooth replacement could lead to malocclusion, a dangerous situation where food couldn’t be chewed properly and you talk funny which would make mammals look more ridiculous than we already are. It could increase cavities as well so it may be that mammals will do just about anything to avoid going to the dentist.

    In humans and other mammals, development has been restricted to just two sets of teeth. Young mammals’ skulls are small, and it’s impossible for them to accommodate a full array of adult choppers so juveniles have cute little temporary teeth to fit in their immature, backtalking jaws. Once the bones of the cranium have developed to adult size the Tooth Fairy starts wiggling them at night and they fall out to the great satisfaction of parents and money hungry kids alike.

    The process for initiating the formation of permanent teeth in humans is not completely understood. Normally, permanent teeth come in at about age six in humans and this appears to be part of a genetic development program whose temporal trigger is not yet known but may be the teeth jumping ship after being made to chew all sorts of stuff off the floor for the last five years.

    There may be a few other factors as well, particularly expression of a protein called Pax-9, which is part of the paired box family of transcription factors. (Pax-9 should not be confused with K-Pax, that movie where Kevin Spacy thinks he’s an alien.)

    (Transcription factors are proteins that bind to DNA and activate gene expression. The paired box family is a special class of transcription factors that govern pattern formation during organogenesis. These transcription factors were first discovered in fruit flies (love fruit, not gay). However, paired box genes are strongly conserved throughout evolution. In vertebrates they are implicated in the development of several tissues and organs, including the brain, limb muscles, kidney, eye, nose, and ear.)

    Loss of Pax-9 function in humans is an extremely rare genetic disorder—known in just one family in the United States—but it results in the failure to produce adult molars and in the increased incidence of loss of the second premolars. This genetic link tells us that the switch for making adult teeth must involve inducing cells to make Pax-9.

    A second genetic cascade, which occurs after Pax-9 expression, leads to the loss of milk teeth. The baby teeth start to get ‘wiggly’ because bone-remodeling cells dissolve the bony root and periodontal ligament by secreting digestive enzymes. It’s not know if these cells need this as food, or just like the taste.

    As the enzymes break down the tooth root and surrounding connective tissue, the tooth loosens until it’s time for the old ‘dad and a string ploy’ to provide space for the adult tooth.

    You'll need to take care of your teeth whitening on your on.


    The Black Plague

    515J6TR281L._AA240_.jpgOriginating in Asia long before bird flu, the Plague, or Black Death, killed one-third of Europe’s population between 1347 and 1350. In the squalid cities of medieval Europe, victims typically lived only a few days after the symptoms - vomiting, diarrhea, and black boils on the skin - first appeared.

    The song ‘Ring Around the Rosie’ refers to the plague with the Rosie being a victim.

    In many cities the Black Death not only killed huge numbers but totally destroyed law and order, pushing an entire civilization to the brink of collapse.

    The consequences of the plague in European society were profound. Enraged Christians blamed Jews for the disease and the pogroms that followed the Black Death were among the worst anti-Semitic purges in history.

    The plague cause many European Christians to question the Catholic Church and the existing political order. How could God permit such a cruel disease? Some disillusioned Europeans turned to fringe sects like the flagellants, named for the practice of whipping themselves. Respect for church authority declined and according to historians, the plague destroyed the feudal order of the Middle Ages and cleared the way for the Renaissance.

    • Scientists continue to debate the cause of the Black Death. The leading candidate, the bubonic plague, still exists but can be treated easily with antibiotics.
    • Although almost everyone who was exposed to the plague in the Middle Ages died, about 5 percent of the victims survived and some avoided contracting it entirely. Modern scientists believe the were protected by a rare genetic combination that gave them greater resistance to the germ.
    • After the Black Death, it took 4 centuries for Europe’s population to rebound to its pre-1347 levels. 

    The Canterbury Tales

    51JDNVB5X9L._AA240_.jpgThe Canterbury Tales, written in the 1390, may have played in establishing English as a literary language to the standard French and Latin and upended the notion that English was inherently inferior to the classical languages, but man, they’re really hard to read. I mean, look a this.

    In th’olde dayes of the king Arthour,
    Of which that Britons speken greet honour,
    Al was this land fulfild of fayerye.

    Well, I guess if you go slow you can get the gist.

    Anyway, The Canterbury Tales is a set of twenty four stories told by various pilgrims who are traveling in a group from the London area to Canterbury to visit the shrine of St. Thomas Becket. (The prologue suggests that Chaucer originally intended to include 120 tales but after 24 he stopped. Probably because he couldn’t take it anymore either.)

    The pilgrims of Chaucers story are a hodgepodge; the Knights, the Miller, the Pardoner’s, the Prioress, the Wife of Bath, etc. and the stories range wildly from love to hypocrisy to humor.

    Chaucer also wrote this stuff in iambic pentameter, the same form that Shakespeare would later use for his plays but which is not intended for common speech so don’t use it as it just makes you look stupid.

    Since the Canterbury Tales are the foundation of all English literature and since they cover such a wide variety of topics, you can always use them to impress people since no one you will ever meet has actually read and understood them. Now you can say, ‘That reminds me of the Canterbury Tales’, and everyone will be really impressed and perhaps nod, especially on a college campus.

    • Chaucer was able to obtain his education after his family inherited a fortune from all the extended family members who were killed by The Black Death.

    Why do we have wisdom teeth?

    wisdomtooth.jpgTucked away at the back of your mouth are the the heavy mashers of the enamel world.

    Anthropologists believe that your third set of molars (wisdom teeth), are the evolutionary answer to your ancestor’s early diet of coarse, rough food – like leaves, roots, and the occasional wiry squirrel – which required some major chewing power and resulted those little front teeth being worn down to useless nubbins in no time.

    Your current diet with its softer foods and yogurt products (something your distant ancestors would have loved), along with marvels of modern technologies such as forks, knives, and Tom LeLanes new super-quite Juicer have relegated wisdom teeth to the status of just another lowly dental scare tactic. As a result, evolutionary biologists now classify wisdom teeth as vestigial organs, or body parts that have become functionless due to evolution. You know, like your coccyx.

    From baby teeth to permanent teeth, tooth development lasts years. While your first molar erupts around the age of six and the second molar pokes it’s head above gum at around the age of 12, wisdom teeth, which begin forming around your tenth birthday usually don’t erupt until you are between the ages of 17 and 25. Because this is the age that you stop putting your body parts inside pencil sharpeners and pulling the ear hair out of feral dogs, the set of third molars has been nicknamed “wisdom teeth.”

    Some people never get wisdom teeth, leading to the term ‘non-wisdom teeth people’, but for those who do, they may sprout anywhere from one to four – and, on very rare occasions, more than four. If you’re one of the unfortunates who get these extraneous, or supernumerary, teeth, it can lead to all sorts of problems.

    Since human jaws are smaller than they used to be (possibly due to fashion), when wisdom teeth form they often become impacted, or suppressed, by the other teeth around them. (Evidently teeth are imperialist capitalists whose only wish is to subjugate their immediate neighbors.) If the tooth only partially erupts, food gets trapped in the gum tissue surrounding it which creates a perfect little home for bacteria leading to the potential for a serious infection and really bad breath. (Some people have bad breath without this.)

    American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons estimates that about 85 percent of wisdom teeth will eventually need to be removed. This dovetails nicely with the fact that Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons are the ones who remove them.

    The association recommends that patients remove wisdom teeth around 15 to 18 in order to “prevent future problems and to ensure optimal healing” and because no one cares if teenagers can’t talk for a week.

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