Sunday, July 24, 2011

Apple #538: Thunder

We had a pretty hefty thunderstorm here today. I was listening to the thunder for quite a while before the storm actually arrived. I like the sound of faraway thunder. It reminds me of stomach grumbling sounds. I find it almost soothing.

The more I listened, though, the more it occurred to me how mysterious a phenomenon it is. So I thought, time to remind myself how thunder works.

When you type the word "thunder" into a Google image search, you get all kinds of pictures like this, of lightning. That's because thunder is the sound that lightning makes, and it's really hard to take a picture of sound.
(Wallpaper photo from

  • Very simply, thunder is the sound that lightning makes.
  • There is no thunder without lightning, and no lightning without thunder.
  • Lightning gets really hot, many times hotter than the surface of the sun. The air around the lightning strike gets heated up and compressed by that flash of electricity. Very quickly the compressed air explodes outward in waves, and that's what we hear as thunder.
  • Now I'll slow it down and explain the process in more detail.

How Thunder Happens
  • When thunderclouds or cumulonimbus clouds form, they take that shape because the hot air in the cloud is rising away from the cooler air at the bottom of the cloud.
  • Positively-charged electrons cluster in the hot air at the top, and negatively-charged electrons gather in the cooler air at the bottom.

Distribution of charged particles in a thundercloud. Negatively charged particles are at the bottom of the cloud.
(Diagram from Museum of Science)

  • Eventually the division between the two types of electrons becomes so great that the electrons simply must meet up with each other. Sometimes the electrons find each other from one cloud to another. Sometimes the negatively charged electrons at the base of the cloud link up with the positively charged electrons on the ground.

Negatively charged particles at the bottom of the thundercloud are seeking the positively charged particles on the ground. This is the first part of a lightning strike, a cloud-to-ground flash.
(Diagram from Museum of Science)

The second part of a lightning strike is the ground-to-cloud flash.
(Diagram from Museum of Science)

  • In either scenario, intra-cloud or cloud-to-ground, a huge charge of millions of volts of electricity is created. We see that exchange of electrons, that huge burst of electricity, as a flash of lightning.
  • When the lightning flashes, the air gets heated to incredibly hot temperatures that can be anywhere from 18,000 degrees F to 60,000 degrees F. That's up to 6 times hotter than the surface of the sun.
  • Normally, when things get hot, they expand. Spread out. But when the lightning flashes that hot and that fast, the air doesn't have enough time to expand.
  • So all that super-hot air is bunched up together, or compressed. The pressure is so great that, blammo, the hot air explodes outward. That explosion of hot, compressed air is thunder.
  • When you blow air into a bag and smack your hand against the bag to make the bag burst, you hear a loud POP. The air breaking the bag and escaping out through the hole in a rush is what makes that sound. That's pretty much what happens when you hear thunder.

Why Thunder Sounds the Way it Does

This is one reason why thunder rumbles. Lightning bolts strike in jagged lines. Each bend in the bolt sends out waves in a different direction. So the sound waves start out traveling in ripples in all sorts of directions.
(Image from the Weather Doctor)

  • We hear the thunder as a rumbling sound essentially because that explosion of air travels in waves.
  • When you hear far-off thunder, a lot of things have happened to the sound waves before they've reached you. The waves will have bounced off other clouds, buildings, the surface of the earth, all kinds of things first. So the sound waves are actually arriving in bits and pieces.
  • Also, some of the sound waves also will not have managed to travel the entire distance to you. So it won't be as loud and distinct, but will sound long, drawn-out, and soft.
  • The higher frequency sound waves don't travel as far as the lower frequencies. By the time far-off thunder reaches you, only the lower frequencies will have made it that far. Think of how, as a car approaches playing music, you can hear the thump of the bass long before you hear any of the melody.
  • All of these things taken together plus the effects of wind and variations in air temperature are why, when a thunderstorm is still far away, the thunder sounds like long, low, soft rumblings.

Boy, that's a really beautiful picture of lightning at sunset. isn't it? But look for a moment at all the branches of lightning, and notice all clouds that are nearby. You can almost imagine how the thunder will start shooting off in all directions, and how it will bounce off those clouds and maybe those hills and the trees before it gets to you.
(Photo from crystalinks)

  • As lightning gets closer, the sound of its thunder changes. It sounds less like rumbling and becomes quicker, sharper, until it's so close it sounds like a single, loud CLAP. When the lightning is that close, the sound waves haven't bounced off anywhere near as many things before getting to you, you're hearing the higher frequencies as well as the lower frequencies, and you're hearing a lot more of the sound waves.

Thunder Without Lightning, or Lightning Without Thunder?
  • Q: Everybody always says light travels faster than sound, and this is why, when a storm is close, we see the flash of lightning before we hear the sound of thunder. But as a storm approaches, we usually hear the thunder long before we see lightning. Shouldn't it be the other way around? Shouldn't we see lightning long before we hear thunder?
  • A: We hear the thunder as a storm approaches because those lightning flashes are happening several miles away. In between that lightning flash and us are all sorts of clouds and rain. The lightning is actually getting obscured by the storm itself, but we can still hear the thunder because those big, low frequencies slowly bounce their way to us in spite of -- or maybe even courtesy of -- the rain and the clouds.
  • Also, 85% of lightning happens from one cloud to another, never touches the ground. So we may be hearing thunder from lightning that's happened inside clouds, where we can't see it.

On a dark, rainy day like this, it might be too cloudy to see lightning.
(Free photo from Google Chrome web store)

  • Q: You say there's no lightning without thunder, but how come I sometimes see heat lightning flashing in the sky like mad, and I never hear any thunder?
  • Heat lightning is essentially the opposite of what I've just described. In this case, the thunderstorm is so far away, the lightning reaches us but the sound of the thunder does not. In this situation, the sky around us is clear enough that clouds don't obscure the sight of the lightning that's happening many miles away.
  • We call it heat lightning because it usually happens to be hot and hazy where we are when we can see the far-away storm, and people assume that it's the heat that's creating the lightning. But in fact the heat where we are has nothing to do with the lightning that's happening in the storm a great distance away.

You might think this is heat lightning. But really it's lightning that is happening very far away, and it happens to be hot where you're standing when you see it.
(Photo from Wikipedia)

  • When conditions are right, you can hear thunder as far as 12 or 15 miles away. By contrast, if there aren't clouds in the way, you can see lightning happening as far as 100 miles off.
  • If you hear thunder, somewhere there was lightning. If you see lightning, somewhere there was thunder.

What's that thing about counting the seconds between lightning and thunder again?
  • When you can both see lightning and hear thunder, count the seconds that pass between the lightning flash and the thunder.
  • Each second represents about 350 meters, or about 4 football fields.
  • That gives you a rough idea of how far away the lightning is.

Related entries: Lighting, Lightning Striking Airplanes, Thunderstorms

Science Made Simple, What Is Thunder?
Library of Congress, Everyday Mysteries, What causes the sound of thunder?
Weather Wiz Kids, Experiments, Make thunder, Lightning
Weather Imagery, Facts About Thunder
Amber Wozniak, Northern Michigan University, When Does Lightning Occur and Why?
Meteorologist Jeff Haby,, What is Heat Lightning?
Howstuffworks, Can you calculate how far away lightning struck by how long it takes for the thunder to arrive?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Apple #537: Heat Exhaustion vs. Heat Stroke

I have a weather band radio in my car, and because of the high temperatures the past few days, it's been warning me about heat exhaustion and heat stroke. The way the automated voice says it, it's more like "heet stROKe and heet egsAUSStion."

Temperature and humidity can work together to make conditions more likely for heat-related illnesses. This chart shows the likelihood of developing heat exhaustion, heat cramps, and heat stroke (a.k.a. sun stroke) as the temperature and humidity levels rise.
(Chart from NOAA's National Weather Service)

The weather warnings have been telling me I should know the warning signs of heat exhaustion and heat stroke, but they don't say what those warning signs are. So I thought I'd find out. And what's the difference between the two, anyway?

  • Heat stroke is much more severe than heat exhaustion.
  • On the less severe end of the spectrum, judging by the description of heat exhaustion, it's pretty easy to get yourself there.
  • I'm pretty sure I've had heat exhaustion several times. Though it's happened to me quite a few times, I remember each one of those episodes. They weren't exactly big fun.
  • I'll start with the least severe of the heat illnesses and work my way up to most severe.

This is a very basic diagram of how sweating works. Your body heats up, either through exercise or through ambient temperature, your hypothalamus tells the sweat glands to start making sweat, and the evaporation of the sweat cools the body. Heat exhaustion and all the heat-related illnesses that follow it are what happens when this process doesn't work right.
(Diagram from by Ka Botzis at picture book)

  • Heat exhaustion -- or any heat-related illness -- happens when your body heats up faster than sweating can cool it down.
  • If you're exercising or working in the hot sun, or even if you're in a very hot environment like a hot car or a stuffy, closed-in apartment, your body temperature might rise faster than it can cool itself off.
  • Your body also attempts to cool itself by sending more blood toward the skin, where it's more likely to lose heat. This means less blood is going to your muscles and to your brain, which is why you'll feel weak and dizzy or disoriented if you get too hot.
  • The whole thing gets worse if you don't drink enough water. Your body loses a lot of moisture through sweating, and if you don't have enough water coming in to replace that lost water, you'll get dehydrated. Once dehydrated, your body has less fluid available to produce more sweat, your body will get hotter still, and the whole thing escalates.

These guys are a little bit of a special case, but they're still good examples of heat exhaustion. They're all wet because they're cosmonauts whose spacecraft landed in the Black Sea, where they bobbed around for a couple of hours before getting picked up. They've now got heat exhaustion, as evidenced by their red faces, their inability to hold up their heads, their tendency to keep their eyes closed.
(Photo from First African in Space)

  • The CDC says that heat exhaustion can develop over several days, but other sites suggest that the time-period in which you can get heat exhaustion may be much shorter.
  • Heat exhaustion is the first heat-related illness that you'll encounter.
  • You might experience:
      • dizziness or lightheadedness
      • weakness
      • headache
      • nausea
  • Your skin may feel cool and moist to the touch, but your pulse will be fast and shallow, and your breathing will be shallow too.
    • If this is happening, the best thing to do is
        • Get out of the hot sun
        • Get into a shady or better yet, cool environment
        • Drink cool water or a sports drink like Gatorade
        • Do NOT drink alcohol or caffeine
        • Rest

    On hot, humid days like the ones we've been having lately, a glass of cool water may be your best friend.
    (Photo from Teplok)

    • If you don't take a break when you hit heat exhaustion, your body will continue to heat up and dehydrate, and it will progress to the next stage of heat-related illnesses.

    • Some people classify heat cramps as a symptom of heat exhaustion. Some people say it's its own category.
    • Heat cramps are pretty intense or painful muscle spasms.
    • They happen when muscles are overexerted and depleted of water and essential nutrients.
    • They can occur anywhere on the body, but most commonly they happen in the abdomen, legs, or arms.

    Athletes are susceptible to heat cramps. Andre Agassi, in his autobiography Open, said he'd rather deal with his spondylolisthesis, a degenerative disc disorder in his back which caused shooting pains up and down his spine, than get heat cramps.
    (Photo from National First Aid Training Institute)

    • If you start cramping, stop what you're doing and rest.
    • Drink a cool beverage that has more nutrients than plain water. Light fruit juices or sports drinks are best.
    • Gently stretch or massage the cramping areas, but do so slowly and carefully.

    Shade and rest are your friends, too, when you've got heat exhaustion and heat cramps.
    (Photo from Fooyoh)

    • If the cramps don't subside after an hour, go to the doctor.
    • Even after the cramps have subsided, don't do anything strenuous for the next several hours. Your muscles will need time to rejuvenate, and if you pressure them too soon, they'll go back to cramping again, or you could progress to the next level of heat illness.


    • This one is bad news, sister. You do not want heat stroke.

    Quick & dirty pictogram of heat stroke. The super-red danger-red may be the best indicator of what heat stroke is.
    (Image from wellness of health)

    • At this point, your body is completely unable to regulate its own temperature. All the body's cooling mechanisms have failed, and the heat simply takes over.
    • Once this happens, your body temperature can rise to danger level extremely fast, within about 10 or 15 minutes.
    • Danger level -- and the main sign of heat stroke -- is a body temperature above 103°F.
    • Some sites say that the danger line is a core/rectal temperature of 105°F. But if I'm feeling this lousy, no way am I putting a thermometer in my rectum to find out just how bad it is.
    • Here's what else may be happening, in addition to the high temperature:
        • Throbbing headache
        • Skin is hot and dry, no perspiration
        • Skin rash (possibly)
        • Rapid, strong pulse
    • From here, if the heat stroke continues, your body may progress along the badness that is heat stroke through the following:
        • Dizziness
        • Nausea
        • Difficulty breathing
        • Confusion or disorientation
        • Hallucinations
        • Seizure
        • Fainting / Unconsciousness
        • Coma
    • If heat stroke isn't treated immediately and as an emergency, it is often fatal.
    • If someone is experiencing heat stroke, call 911.
    • Until the ambulance gets there, do the following:
        • Move the person to a cool, shady area
        • Put them in front of a fan or fan them yourself
        • Loosen or remove clothing
        • Apply cool water to the skin, either with damp sheets or a wet sponge or a spray
        • If they're conscious and can drink liquids, give them cool water
        • Place ice packs under the armpits or at the groin

    This looks like a silly cartoon at first, but it's really the best depiction of how to treat a heat stroke victim. She's put him in the shade, taken off his shirt, she's dousing him with water, and she's fanning him with a little hand-held fan. The only thing that's missing is giving him water to drink. Presumably, she's already called 911.
    (Drawing by Kathryn Born, from the American Academy of Family Physicians)

    • Even when heat stroke is treated successfully, people can still suffer damaging effects from it for several months afterward.
    • Most people who have had heat stroke later experience some form of neurological or mental impairment. Some people experience problems with their kidneys or blood clots. Some experience lung malfunctioning.
    • About 25% of the people who survived heat stroke died within the year.
    • Again, you do not want to get heat stroke.
    • Those who are most at risk for heat stroke are
        • infants
        • elderly
        • obese
        • alcoholics
        • people who abuse prescription drugs
        • people with cardiovascular disease
        • people who have difficulty sweating under normal conditions
    • But anyone can get heat stroke if they don't take care of themselves when the first warning signs of heat illness appear.
    • So the moral is, when it's hot, drink lots of water, don't push yourself too hard, give your body chances to rest and cool off.
    • If you feel that tight hot throbbing in your face, stop what you're doing and help your body cool off.
    • You're not a wimp for resting. You're taking care of your body so it can continue to function at its best.

    See? This is a tough guy. But he's taking a break to stay hydrated. He's also wearing a loose-fitting white cotton shirt, a hat, and sunglasses, all of which will help him stay cool and protected from the heat. Tough guys take care of themselves!
    (Photo from Safety Rocks)

    Related entry: It's the Humidity

    CDC, Frequently Asked Questions About Extreme Heat, Heat Exhaustion, Heat Stroke Treatment
    WebMD, Understanding Heat-Related Illnesses -- the Basics, Heat Exhaustion and Heat Stroke Treatment
    Mayo Clinic, Heat Cramps: First Aid, Heatstroke: First Aid, Heat Stroke Long Term Effects, July 7, 2011

    Monday, July 18, 2011

    Apple #536: Tragus

    Oops, almost forgot the Daily Apple for today. So I'm going to pose what I think will be a relatively easy question to answer.

    (Every time I think that, though, I wind up getting curious about the topic at hand and get all into it, and three hours later, I'm searching for just the right image to demonstrate a particular nuance. We'll see how this one turns out.)

    My question for today: what's that funny bump at the outer opening of your ear called? And what's it for?

    • The funny bump is called the tragus.

    All the various hollows and curves of the ear have names, as it turns out. But the particular place I'm interested in is the tragus, the pointy bump over the ear canal.
    (Diagram posted by boogieman4215 at

    • In general, all those curves and hollows and whorls are about collecting and channeling sound effectively and safely into the ear canal. The tragus is one part of that noise-channeling system.
    • Specifically, the tragus aids in hearing sounds that are coming from behind you. Every other part of the ear is facing forward, collecting sound waves that come at you from the front. The tragus, however, is backward facing. Small though it is, it does manage to collect some of the sound waves coming from behind and bounces them into the ear canal.
    • In addition, some of the sounds getting funneled into the ear canal from other parts of the external ear bounce off the tragus before going into the canal.
    • The tragus and its counterpart, the antitragus, together help to keep water out of the ear, although that function has been observed more extensively in animals other than humans.
    • The tragus has other functions in other animals. In cats, the tragus includes muscles that help cats move their ears to catch sounds.
    • In bats, the tragus is believed to aid in echo-location, that is, helping bats use sound to orient themselves relative to the horizon.

    Ear shapes of lots of different species of bats. The diagrams on the right show close-ups of ears, and the long pointy thing in the middle of each one is the tragus. You can see how the traguses are shaped differently in various species. I think people have differently shaped traguses, too, though maybe not with this degree of variety. And obviously bats' traguses are far larger than humans'.
    (Diagram from Malaysian Bat Education Adventure)

    • I can wriggle my ears, and it feels like there might be muscles in or near the tragus that are involved in that. So maybe those of us who are ear-wrigglers are not that far removed from cats.
    • And here's an even bigger maybe: maybe, if I worked at it, maybe I could use my tragus for echo-location the way bats can. Though, since my tragus is much smaller than a bat's, I doubt it.
    • OK, back to reality, and human beings. The tragus is useful in other ways besides just aiding in hearing.
    • To find out if you've got an ear infection, pressing the tragus will tell you pretty quickly. If it feels inflamed, if it hurts, or if goo emerges, you've got an infection in there somewhere.

    The tragus press: a quick way to evaluate the ear for infection.
    (Photo from Operational Medicine 2001)

    • If you have an ear infection and you need to use ear drops, some doctors suggest massaging the tragus to help ear medicine travel more deeply into the ear canal.
    • Ear buds -- those tiny little headphones -- are held in place courtesy of the tragus.
    • Finally, some people like to pierce their tragus. It's mostly cartilage and doesn't have many nerve endings, so most people who've had this piercing say it doesn't hurt much at all.

    Tragus pierced with a hoop
    (Image from tattooculture)

    • However, some people say that it hurt when they had it done. It can also hurt or be very sensitive after it's pierced, for a few days or as long as a few weeks.
    • Because of this initial sensitivity, you'll want to avoid using any earphones for a while. Sleeping on that side will be painful, and pulling shirts or clothing down over the ear could catch on the earring and that will also be painful. In general, you'll want to avoid bumping your ear against much of anything at all.
    • This particular spot is also prone to infection, so it's important that you keep the piercing clean, especially during the first 8 weeks after piercing. Some people say theirs took as long as a year to heal.
    • Clean the area, front and back, with saline solution three times a day to keep infections at bay.
    • Hydrogen peroxide and alcohol are both specifically not recommended. Salt water is gentler and will in the end help the piercing heal faster.
    • Be careful not to handle the tragus too much with your bare fingers because that can lead to infection.
    • The first few days after piercing, the tragus might be swollen, but that should die down.

    Tragus pierced with a barbell, and swollen.
    (Photo posted by White Lies at

    • If swelling appears later on, or if it never goes away, if it feels hot to the touch, or if there's pus or other fluid coming out of it, you may have an infection.
    • Most of the body piercing sites say not to panic and not to remove the piercing. Taking out the piercing only exposes the unhealed tissue to more bacteria, which could make the infection worse. They recommend continuing to clean the area with warm salt water but otherwise leaving it alone to heal.
    • They also recommend going to a doctor, if the swelling persists. If it were me, I wouldn't wait to see a doctor. I'd get it checked out right away.
    • The upshot: if you do get your tragus pierced, take care of it. That little bump really does serve a purpose!

    WiseGeek, What Is the Tragus?
    Nathan E. Nachlas, "Otoplasty," Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, p 423
    Just Answer, Cat Veterinary, The small cat's ear
    Chen Chiu and Cynthia F. Moss, The Role of the External Ear Tragus in Obstacle Avoidance by Echolocation in the FM-Bat, February 2005
    Tribalectic, Experiences of Tragus Piercings on Women
    Joan White, Hub Pages, Tragus Piercing
    Piercing Guides, Tragus and Anti-Tragus Piercings

    Monday, July 11, 2011

    Apple #535: Thugs

    The Anonymous Californian asked me to do an entry about thugs. Does the word have something to do with the goddess Kali, he wanted to know.

    Idol depicting the Hindu goddess Kali
    (Photo from Hindu Goddess)

    I thought that sounded too weird. What could thugs and Kali possibly have to do with each other? I guessed that it's an onomatopoeic word that describes the sound of getting hit on the head with a blunt instrument before getting robbed.

    Turns out I was way wrong, and the Anonymous Californian was right.

    It also turns out that the historiography about thugs has changed a lot over the past decade or so. I'll tell you how the story has gone for a long time, then how it's recently been changed. Then I'll tell you about the current pop culture usage of the word.

    The Original Story
    • The story goes that there was a band of robbers who lived in India. By religious persuasion, they were Hindi. In particular, they were fans of Kali, who is known mainly as the dark goddess, or the goddess of destruction.
    • The Hindi word for their group is thag (the t has a dot under it), which in English got turned into thug. The people who were members of the group were called Thugs, and the group as a whole was called Thuggee.
    • The word thag means "cheat, swindler, deceiver."
    • Most dictionaries say that the more accurate word for this band of bad guys is Phansigar, which means "strangler." This is because, the stories have it, the Thugs would loop a cloth or they'd drop a metal ring concealed within a cloth around the necks of their victims and strangle them.
    • Some stories say that the Thugs would tighten the loop, then release it to allow their victims to breathe for a bit, then tighten it again, thus drawing out the death. They didn't mean to inflict torture; they thought of death as a rite of passage, both for the victim and for the murderer.

    Ceramic figurine depicting Thugs at work
    (Photo from anomalies-unlimited)

    • They perpetrated such murders in honor of Kali, to show their allegiance to her and to their cult. Honoring her meant killing in a way that was similar to how she had done it in the stories, which is to say by strangling and by leaving no mark or blemish on the victim.
    • Most of the time, the Thugs were placid, law-abiding people. But, so the stories went, three times a year, these people would commit these terrible crimes. In this apparently dual existence, they demonstrated their deception and thus deserved the name thug, "deceiver."
    • The Thugs had a whole list of people they would not target -- women, beggars, the physically disabled, and those who practiced certain crafts. Nearly exclusively, they targeted travelers.
    • The Thugs would disguise themselves as a group of travelers, sometimes as many as 60 of them at once, and thus lure unsuspecting real travelers to join their group, thinking they had found safety in numbers. Once the Thugs had their unsuspecting victims well away from any help, they would attack the real travelers, robbing them, killing them, and burying them in graves of very specific proportions.

    Thugs and poisoners, c. 1857. The guy in the white mustache holding what looks like a looped string in his right hand and the guy crouching to his left are Thugs.
    (The New World Encyclopedia has labeled this image "Thugs and Prisoners." But somebody misread the original caption)

    • All sorts of estimates have been made of the number of victims killed by the Thugs. Some say one million, some say two million. The high-estimators say these numbers are borne out by the fact that Thuggee was in existence for several centuries. Others say no, Thuggee wasn't really around for that long and there weren't that many murders, the Thugs mainly committed robbery, so the number of people killed was more like 50,000.
    • In the 1830s when the British shifted from trading with India to trying to control it, the British military set about suppressing Thuggee. The British told people about the traveling disguise ruse which made travelers less likely to fall for the trick, they passed a bunch of laws outlawing piracy and allowing for severe punishments of such pirates, and they hunted down all sorts of suspected Thugs, even those who had fled to neighboring countries.
    • Hundreds of suspected Thugs were captured, they confessed to thousands of murders, and they were hanged or exiled or sent to prison camps. Eventually, Thuggee was stamped out.

    William Henry Sleeman, British civil servant who was put in charge of the "Thuggee Department" in India, which was responsible for the capture and execution of hundreds of suspected Thugs.
    (Photo from Wikipedia)

    The Revised Story
    • In the past ten years or so, a few historians have revisited the stories about Thuggee. Hey, they noticed, most of the stories we've heard about Thugs were told by the British.
    • The British had that whole racist thing going on, where they thought that since they were white people they were a whole lot better morally than any dark-skinned people, and it was their job to bring civilization and order to a country full of wild, ignorant, unruly dark people.
    • So, naturally, the historians said, the stories the British would tell about a group like this would be wildly exaggerated. They'd be like stories about the boogeymen. The stories kept the white women afraid and therefore dependent on their men to save them, gave the British license to use whatever means necessary to subjugate this "other" group, and in general fueled their whole white power agenda.
    • The historians took another look at some of the evidence and said, yup, exaggerations all over the place. Those confessions that the soldiers got out of suspected Thugs surely were coerced, those confessions can't be trusted, they'd likely have been as wildly exaggerated as the British imagination.
    • Yes, these recent historians said, there was a group who worshiped Kali, but every Hindi worships Kali to some degree or another. Yes, there was a band of robbers, and yes they did target travelers who were mainly white, but that's because it was easier to steal from them.
    • There might have been a few murders that happened in the course of those robberies, but the numbers of people killed weren't anywhere near what those myths say. The reality is far less dramatic and lurid than the stories say.

    Revising the Revised Story
    • Well, sure enough, there was a backlash among other historians against this new theory.
    • Wait a minute, they said. You're saying Thuggee wasn't really around for that long? We beg to differ. Remember that one British guy who pretty much hunted Thugs? Remember how those Thug informants showed him all those graves? What about that?

    A Thug from the early 1800s named Behram. He's generally considered to have killed more people than anyone else in history. Accounts vary, however, as to how many people he personally killed, and since he informed on fellow Thugs, he was never tried.
    (Photo from, which no longer works)

    • All, right, this second batch of historians said, we'll grant you that the truth maybe wasn't as gothic as it's been told in the past. They might not have killed 2 million people, but they did kill quite a few people.
    • We think, they went on, the motivation for the robberies wasn't all that religious stuff. They were really doing it because they were poor and they needed the money. People thought they were weirdly religious, but they were just superstitious.

    My Take on This
    • That's where the historiography of Thugs stands today. Because of all these different versions of the story about Thugs, I'm not sure which one is accurate. I have no way to know, so I gave you all of them.
    • I do find it interesting that a story about "deceivers" is so mixed-up and told in so many different ways, it's pretty much impossible to know what the truth is.
    • I also find it interesting that this story is associated with Kali. She isn't just the goddess of darkness, she's the goddess of all kinds of things. Literally.

    A fairly typical depiction of Kali, with her necklace of heads, her multiple arms, her tongue out, and standing on Shiva.
    (Image from Carrie & Danielle)

    • Kali is beyond the masks of the worldly. Under her influence, the illusions of this world are sloughed off and the truth emerges. She wears a necklace of fifty heads, each one marked with a letter of the Sanskrit alphabet, thus symbolizing infinite knowledge. That's knowledge of all things, dark and light. The heads are symbolic of the ego, the body. She is the liberator of the ego, allowing us to move into a formless place of all knowledge. Her name literally means "time." She rules the past, present, and future. Without her, the cycle of death and rebirth could not happen.
    • So while she may be known as the goddess of destruction, what she's destroying are earthly things that keep us chained. She's scary-powerful, but she's not "bad" in the same way that life is not "bad."
    • Just as Kali is far more complicated and complete than the epithet "goddess of destruction" would suggest, so the story about Thugs is far more complicated and many-headed than a one-line dictionary definition might suggest.
    • But wait, there's more.

    • In 1992, rapper Tupac (or should I write 2Pac? I'm not sure) Shakur got two infamously rival gangs, the Bloods and the Crips to agree to what he called the Code of Thug Life.
    • The Code lists 26 rules for things you should and should not do.
    • Membership in the gangs means, first and foremost, that while you will get rich, you will also go to jail, and you will die.
    • More specifically, membership means there will be crime, of course (mainly drug dealing), but violence is not to be committed in places where innocent people could get hurt.
    • Several groups of people are not to be harmed: pregnant women, children, old people, and "civilians," meaning people not in gangs or the police. Shooting at parties and schools is strictly forbidden.
    • [Edit: I since learned that this rule may come from Tupac's personal experience. At a party in Marin City in the summer of 1992, during a fight between Tupac and some of his long-time enemies, a six year-old girl was shot and killed. I'm not sure if he devised his Code before or after that incident.]
    • Following this code will help you succeed financially, will protect you and your brothers as much as possible, and will help you stay righteous.

    Drawing of a famous photo of 2Pac's Thug Life tattoo.
    (Image from Nigelicious at Kaneva)

    • I don't know if 2Pac knew about the original Thugs or not. Maybe he did. He read a lot. But there sure are a lot of similarities with those Thugs in India.
    • The inevitability of death is taken as a given, to be accepted up front.
    • Thievery is acceptable. Murder against certain people in certain circumstances is acceptable.
    • But said crime is acceptable only in certain locations, or against certain people.
    • In fact, certain types of people are explicitly not to be harmed.
    • There isn't a religion involved, but there is a code of behavior that's meant to keep people connected.
    • What's more, the idea of 2Pac's Thug Life morphed over time, just as the stories about the Thugs have.
    • After 2Pac released his enormously popular album called Thug Life, which he made with a group of his friends that he called Thug Life, the sense of being a Thug changed. It expanded from being someone who was a member of either one of those gangs to include anyone who had a rough start in life.
    • "Thug" now more or less means that you started from nothing, you lived and worked through having nothing, and you rose above it but without forgetting where you came from.
    • Outside the realm of rap culture, the word thug means "ruffian, hoodlum." No stories of goddesses or British soldiers or murdered rap stars, just your basic criminal.

    So, is a thug a robber and a murderer? Or just a robber? Is "thug" an epithet people fling out of fear, or is it an epithet to be adopted with pride? Is a thug a run-of-the-mill criminal, or someone crafty and clever, taking care of people to the benefit of some and the detriment of others? Does the answer depend on who's asking? Is a thug, like Kali, something more complicated than "all-bad?"

    The Oxford English Dictionary, Thug, Thuggee
    Online Etymology Dictionary, thug
    The Free Dictionary, thug
    Sue Mahan, Pamala L. Griset, Terrorism in Perspective, 2002. Thugs, pp 49-52.
    Anomalies-Unlimited, Charming Art from India
    John Walsh, Kali's Killers: The Truth about the Thugs, SE Asian History, December 20, 2007
    Subhamoy Das,, Kali: The Dark Mother
    Devi Press, Kali Goddess
    BBC History, The British Presence in India in the 18th Century
    ThugLifeArmy, Code of THUG LIFE
    Urban Dictionary, Thug Life, Thug

    Saturday, July 2, 2011

    Brief Respite

    I'm heading up to the Land of No Internet for the July 4th weekend, so I won't be able to post an entry this Sunday. You'll have to muddle along without me.

    To get you through, here's a photo I took of the fireworks display our city put on this year. It was really spectacular, though my photo doesn't do it justice:

    (Photo by the Apple Lady)

    To see more of my photos and to learn about how fireworks work, check out my entry on fireworks.

    See you in a few days!