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Music History #12: "Vagabond Ways"

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“Vagabond Ways”
Written by Marianne Faithfull and David Courts (1999)
Performed by Marianne Faithfull

The Music

Wikimedia Commons

Marianne Faithfull has had many lives—60s-era folk singer, Swinging London swinger, girlfriend of Mick Jagger, and sadly, in the 1970s, drug addict and street person. But in the 80s, she made a comeback, reinventing herself as a jazzy cabaret singer. On the title track of her 1999 album Vagabond Ways, Faithfull was inspired by a news article about the enforced sterilization of undesirables in Sweden. The song was never a chart hit, but it remains a powerful part of Faithfull’s live set.

The History

Between 1935 and 1975, over 60,000 people living in Sweden were sterilized against their will. That may come as a shock, especially since Sweden has long been known as a bastion of liberal idealism and sexual freedom.

But in the early part of the 20th century, Sweden fell under the spell of “eugenics,” a scientific idea concerned with improving human population by controlled breeding. Or to give it a more chilling phrase: racial hygiene.

The word eugenics was coined by English anthropologist Francis Galton. A cousin of Charles Darwin, Galton had taken a cue from a chapter on variation in breeding in Darwin’s Origin of Species. He then devoted his professional life to studying genetics and their effect on behavior and abilities. He believed that breeding within one race between healthy individuals created stronger, more eminent offspring.

In Sweden, two laws were signed regarding eugenics. The first, in 1934, allowed sterilization of the mentally ill and mentally retarded without any legal procedure. In 1941, a second law was enacted, setting forth grounds for sterilization for eugenic, social, or medical reasons. While in theory these laws were meant to prevent the transmission of mental illness, they soon became perverted into a different idea—to prevent the propagation of racially mixed people.

By the early 1940s, that meant that gypsies, vagabonds, deviants and anyone who didn’t fit into the Swedish mainstream. Even single mothers were soon obligated to sacrifice their reproductive freedom if they wanted to remain in Sweden. The pressure was severe. It was a case of “Sign this or you’ll get no social benefits, no vacation, no apartment. Sign this or we’ll take your kids away.” Basically, legalized blackmail.

Sweden was not alone in this. Norway, Denmark, and even the United States had their own sterilization programs. And of course, in the twisted hands of Germany’s Nazi Party, the eugenics idea was carried to massively tragic ends.

The issue resurfaced in the news in early 2012, when Sweden was criticized for refusing to update a 1972 law that requires all “transgender people to become sterilized before their gender reassignment will be formally recognized by the state.” Activist groups are currently fighting to have it overturned.

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Growing Up With Headphones May Not Damage Kids’ Hearing
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A study published in the American Medical Association's JAMA Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery finds no increase in child and adolescent hearing loss despite a rise in headphone and earbud use.

"Hearing impairment in children is a major public health burden given its impact on early speech and language development, and subsequently on academic and workforce performance later in life," the authors write. "Even mild levels of hearing loss have been found to negatively affect educational outcomes and social functioning."

As portable music players continue to grow in popularity, parents, doctors, and researchers have begun to worry that all the music pouring directly into kids' ears could be damaging their health. It seems a reasonable enough concern, and some studies on American kids' hearing have identified more hearing loss.

To take a closer look, researchers at the University of California-San Francisco analyzed data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), collected from 1988 to 2010. They reviewed records from 7036 kids and teens between the ages of 12 and 19, checking each participant's hearing tests against their exposure to noise.

As expected, the authors write, they did find a gradual increase in headphone use and other "recreational noise exposure." And they did see an uptick in hearing loss from 1988 to 2008 from 17 percent to 22.5 percent. But after that, the trend seemed to reverse, sinking all the way down to 15.2 percent—lower than 1988 levels. They also found no significant relationship between noise exposure and hearing loss.

The results were not uniform; some groups of kids were worse off than others. Participants who identified as nonwhite, and those of lower socioeconomic status, were more likely to have hearing problems, but the researchers can't say for sure why that is. "Ongoing monitoring of hearing loss in this population is necessary," they write, "to elucidate long-term trends and identify targets for intervention."

Before you go wild blasting music, we should mention that this study has some major limitations. Hearing loss and other data points were not measured the same way through the entire data collection period. Participants had to self-report things like hearing loss and health care use—elements that are routinely under-reported in surveys. As with just about any health research, more studies are still needed to confirm these findings.

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Weather Watch
NASA Figures Out Why When It Rains, It (Sometimes) Drizzles
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What’s the difference between drizzle and rain? It has to do with updrafts, according to new research by NASA scientists into the previously unexplained phenomenon of why drizzle occurs where it does.

The answer, published in the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society, could help improve how weather and climate models treat rainfall, making predictions more accurate.

Previously, climate researchers thought that drizzle could be explained by the presence of aerosols in the atmosphere. The microscopic particles are present in greater quantities over land than over the ocean, and by that logic, there should be more drizzle over land than over the ocean. But that's not the case, as Hanii Takahashi and her colleagues at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory found. Instead, whether or not rain becomes full droplets or stays as a fine drizzle depends on updrafts—a warm current of air that rises from the ground.

Stronger updrafts keep drizzle droplets (which are four times smaller than a raindrop) floating inside a cloud longer, allowing them to grow into full-sized rain drops that fall to the ground in the splatters we all know and love. In weaker updrafts, though, the precipitation falls before the drops form, as that light drizzle. That explains why it drizzles more over the ocean than over land—because updrafts are weaker over the ocean. A low-lying cloud over the ocean is more likely to produce drizzle than a low-lying cloud over land, which will probably produce rain.

This could have an impact on climate modeling as well as short-term weather forecasts. Current models make it difficult to model future surface temperatures of the Earth while still maintaining accurate projections about the amount of precipitation. Right now, most models that project realistic surface temperatures predict an unrealistic amount of drizzle in the future, according to a NASA statement. This finding could bring those predictions back down to a more realistic level.


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