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Be Amazing: Change Your Name

Whether you're looking to start your own religion, swallow a sword, quit smoking, find Atlantis, buy the Moon, sink a battleship, perform your own surgeries, or become a ninja, our new book Be Amazing covers all the essential life skills! This week, we'll be excerpting a few lessons from the book.

So you've finally decided that you no longer want to go through life burdened by the horrible name your parents gave you. Great! But you're still going to have to explain that decision to dear old Mom and Dad. And, unless you really like awkward family holidays, it's best you have an excuse other than, "You guys suck!" In the interest of your continued familial bliss, we provide the following controversy-free reasons for your moniker switch:

BECAUSE THE GOVERNMENT'S MAKING YOU

Naming your baby Brooklynn, America, or Lindsee might be acceptable (if mockable) in the good ol' U.S. of A., but don't try a stunt like that in Denmark. Of all the European laws regulating baby names, Denmark's are the strictest. Danish parents must choose from a state-approved list of 7,000 names, which seems like a lot, until you fall in love with a name that isn't on there. And bucking the system means months of slogging through a bureaucratic process to get your chosen moniker individually approved by the Names Investigation Department and the Ministry of Ecclesiastical Affairs. Each year, the organizations reject 15 to 20 percent of the names they review—all in the, well, "name" of protecting the baby's dignity.

BECAUSE YOU AREN'T AS RELIGIOUS AS YOUR PARENTS

Forget the hippies, the award for #1 crazy-baby-name subculture absolutely has to go to the Puritans. Well known for burning eccentric neighbors, forcing adulterers to wear colorful letterman jackets, and condemning the concept of "fun" in general, Puritan culture was basically a big ball of repressed wackiness looking for an outlet. Thus, did little Silence, Humiliation, and Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin (i.e. the writing on the wall from the Book of Daniel) pay the price for their parents' self-flagellation. Some, however, later rebelled. Sometime before 1660, a preacher's son-turned-doctor changed his name from Hath Christ Not Died For Thee Thou Wouldst Be Damned Barebone to the more sensible Nicholas Barbon.

FOR THE SAKE OF A LITTLE PUBLICITY

Between 1965 and 1979, San Francisco painting contractor Bill Holland changed his name no fewer than three times. But Holland's odyssey wasn't part of some New Age attempt to find himself. Rather, according to the brief write-up Holland warranted inTimemagazine, his capricious name-hopping was a purely Capitalist scheme. In order to become easily identifiable as the "last name in the phone book" Holland took on the professional pseudonym of Zachary Zzzra. Over the next 15 years, he had to periodically add some "z's" as first a "Zelda Zzzwramp" and then a "Vladimir Zzzzzzabokov" moved to town. By 1979, Holland's painting contract business could be found under the unwieldy moniker of Zachary Zzzzzzzzzra.

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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