The Story Behind the Giant Inflatable Union Rat

© Bob Krist/CORBIS

??If you're from a town with a strong union presence, you know that if new commercial construction happens without union labor, protests often follow. Burly guys in work boots and union shirts will take to the streets to wave signs, pass out flyers, and draw attention to whatever business has offended them. Sometimes they'll bring a special guest—a giant inflatable rat with sharp, menacing buckteeth and claws, beady red eyes and a belly scattered with festering blemishes and swollen nipples.

This year, the rat—which the Labor Heritage Foundation calls an "effective piece of street theater"—is old enough to grab a beer with guys when they've had their fill of picketing. That's right, "Scabby the Rat" (as he was dubbed by his creators) has been uglying up the sidewalks in front of union-unfriendly businesses for 21 years.

The Rat Pack

Scabby was born in 1990, when the Chicago bricklayers union contacted Plainfield, Illinois-based Big Sky Balloons and Searchlights. The bricklayers were looking for something big and nasty to get their point across at a protest. When Big Sky owner Mike O'Connor showed them his sketch, their criticism was succinct: "It's not mean enough."

© Big Sky Balloons

O'Connor added bigger, pointier buckteeth and a pink belly bristling with gross-looking nipples. The bricklayers loved it. (Big Sky also makes Greedy Pig and Fat Cat protest balloons.)

Scabby quickly caught on with other unions. The rat business began booming and Big Sky was taking orders from all over the country. Most of the rats went to the East Coast, and most of those went to New York City, with the local chapter of the masons' union getting their hands on the first one. Soon, there were at least 30 Scabbys in the five boroughs; 13 of them once reunited for a rally in Union Square.

Today, Big Sky continues to sell 100-200 rats a year, from the compact 6-foot model ($2,000) to the enormous 25-footer (about $8,000). The most popular size is the 12-foot model, which conveniently fits standing in the back of a pickup and gets attention without breaking New York and other cities' ordinances dictating the height of inflatable displays.

So far, Scabby has had a heck of a 21st. Federal regulators ruled that union activists have the legal right to display the rats outside companies during labor disputes. And the New Jersey state Supreme Court similarly ruled that the use of the rats in labor protests is protected speech under the First Amendment, overturning a township ordinance that banned any inflatable signs not being used for a store's grand opening.

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Oli Scarff, Getty Images
How a Particle Accelerator Is Helping to Unearth Long-Lost Pieces of Art
Oli Scarff, Getty Images
Oli Scarff, Getty Images

A particle accelerator is revealing the people in 150-year-old photographs whose features had been lost to time, Science News reports.

For the first time, Madalena Kozachuk, a Ph.D. candidate at Canada’s Western University, and a team of scientists used an accelerator called a synchrotron to scan daguerreotypes, an ancestor of modern photography.

before and after image of a damaged dagguereotype
Kozachuk et al. in Scientific Reports, 2018

Invented by French painter and physicist Louis Daguerre, daguerreotypes were popular from around the 1840s to the 1860s. They were created by exposing an iodized silver-coated copper plate to a camera (the iodine helped make the plate's surface light-sensitive). Subjects had to sit in front of the camera for 20 to 30 minutes to set the portrait, down from the eight hours it took before Daguerre perfected his method. Photographers could then develop and fix the image with a combination of mercury and table salt.

Because they’re made of metal, though, daguerreotypes are prone to tarnish. Scientists can sometimes recover historical daguerreotypes by analyzing samples taken from their surface, but such attempts are often both destructive and futile, Kozachuk wrote in a study published in Scientific Reports.

Kozachuk found that using a particle accelerator is a less invasive and more accurate method. While some scientists have used X-ray imaging machines to digitally scan other historical objects, such instruments are too large to scan daguerreotypes. Reading the subtle variations on a daguerreotype surface requires a micron-level beam that only a particle accelerator can currently produce. By tracing the pattern of mercury deposits in the tarnished plate, the researchers were able to reveal the obscured image and create a digital photo of what the daguerrotype looked like when it was first made.

before and after image of a recovered dagguereotype
Kozachuk et al. in Scientific Reports, 2018

“When the image became apparent, it was jaw-dropping,” Kozachuk told Science News. “I squealed when the first face popped up.”

Scanning one square centimeter of each 8-by-7 centimeter plate took about eight hours. The technique, though time-intensive, may allow museums and collectors to restore old daguerreotypes with minimal damage.

“The ability to recover lost images will enable museums to expand their understanding of daguerreotype collections, as severely degraded plates would not otherwise have been able to be studied or viewed by interested scholars,” Kozachuk wrote.

[h/t Science News]

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Courtesy of October Films
This Scientist's Idea of the 'Perfect' Human Body Is Kind of Terrifying
Courtesy of October Films
Courtesy of October Films

The perfect human body has the legs of an ostrich, the heart of a dog, and the eyes of an octopus, according to anatomist Alice Roberts. And it’s utterly terrifying.

With the help of anatomical artist Scott Eaton and special effects designer Sangeet Prabhaker, Roberts created a life-size replica of herself that fixes many design flaws inherent to the human body, Motherboard reports. Roberts unveiled the sculpture on April 23 at the Science Museum in London. On June 13, the BBC released a documentary about the project.

Among the flaws Roberts’s sculpture corrects are humans’ inferior ears, spine, and lungs. Roberts borrowed anatomy from reptiles, birds, and other mammals to create a Frankenstein-esque creature straight from the island of Dr. Moreau.

The sculpture of Alice 2.0, left, with Alice Roberts, right
Courtesy of October Films

The sculpture has legs like an ostrich because, as Roberts says on her website, the human knee is complex and prone to failure. Like humans, ostriches are bipedal, but they are far better runners. Bird-like lungs that keep air flowing in one direction, not two, make running and other aerobic activities easier for the perfect human to manage. And a chimpanzee’s sturdier spine and a dog’s heart (which has more connected arteries, leading to lower heart attack risk) make Roberts’s alternate self more resistant to injury and disease.

Roberts’s ideal human body also has skin like a frog that can change shades based on the environment, and large, bat-like ears that amplify sound. Roberts also fixed humans’ backwards retina, which produces a natural blind spot, by borrowing from octopus eye anatomy.

Perhaps most disturbing of all is the baby head poking out of the sculpture’s marsupial pouch. Roberts says marsupial pregnancy would be far easier on the human body and more convenient for parents on the go.

“This could be a human fit for the future,” Roberts says at the end of a trailer for her BBC documentary.

[h/t Motherboard]

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