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Four Bad Bladder Stories

PopCandy shared a link yesterday to Peerun.com, a site that hopes to solve one of life's biggest problems "“ finding a time to pee during movies. Now that peeing during movies isn't a problem anymore (if you can hold it to the recommended point), let's look at four times when a full bladder did present a problem.

The 1998 Golden Globes

The Golden Globes are known for their spontaneous and wild moments, often fueled by the ceremony's open bar. But perhaps the most memorable was in 1998, when Christine Lahti was announced as the winner for Best Actress in a Drama Series. Her name was called but"¦she didn't come up to the stage. After some creative vamping by the presenters and Robin Williams, Lahti finally rushed in and explained that she was in the bathroom. To her credit, Lahti never let the moment embarrass her "“ at the next year's ceremony, she walked on stage with a piece of toilet paper deliberately stuck to her shoe.

The Freedom 7 Launch

alan_shepard.jpgAs Al Shepard sat in the Freedom 7 capsule on May 5, 1961, waiting to become the first American in space, he famously said to himself "Don't f*** up." He didn't, but his bladder almost caused a disaster. Since the planned flight was only fifteen minutes, nobody had thought to give him a way to use the bathroom, which became an issue when a technical delay kept him on the ground for more than an hour. He ended up relieving himself in his suit (described in the most excruciatingly lyrical detail by Tom Wolfe in "The Right Stuff"), which set off a thermometer and knocked out the sensor recording his electrocardiogram. His angle in the capsule also meant that his urine ended up pooling at his back, where it stayed through the (eventually successful) flight.

This was hardly the last time NASA had urine issues, though. Early astronauts were outfitted with bags for defecation or special diapers. And this Wired article describes a 2005 project NASA explored to convert astronaut's urine into drinking water.

Tycho Brahe's deathbed

Legend has it that famed astronomer Tycho Brahe died after he refused to use the bathroom at a banquet and his bladder burst. While part of that story is correct, the real cause of his death is far more interesting. A 1991 forensics investigation into Brahe's death (a case 391 years old at that point) revealed high amounts of mercury and later tests showed that the mercury had been digested, suggesting Brahe was either poisoned or was munching on thermometers. Various accounts from the time of Brahe's death show that the astronomer did go to a banquet and did refuse to pee, but once he got home found that he was unable to urinate. He died days later after suffering from intense pain, fevers and the continued inability to urinate. The exhumations don't show his bladder troubles as the cause of his death, so the best theory now is that Brahe tried to fix his prostate problems with a self-concocted mercury medicine.

During Hugh Jackman's performance in Beauty and the Beast

jackman.jpgIn a 2008 interview with Playboy, Jackman reflected on a time when he guzzled water before going onstage to play Gaston in Beauty and the Beast. Inevitably, he found himself at the breaking point during a big song and dance number that ended on a high note. In the interview, Jackman recalls thinking, "The actor in me took over. I was singing, thinking, 'Wow, I'm peeing my pants.'" He even thought he had gotten away with it because his tights were waterproof, but as it turns out they weren't and the audience could tell. Luckily, he made it through this year's Oscar ceremony without any bladder issues.

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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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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