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Did William Henry Harrison Really Die of Pneumonia?

Whether you learned it in school, or through a jaunty musical number on The Simpsons, the sad tale of William Henry Harrison is one of the more unique in American history. Before being elected the ninth President of the United States in 1840, Harrison was known as a military hero who led his troops to victory against an attack from the Native American confederacy in 1811, later known as the Battle of Tippecanoe. His heroics extended into the War of 1812, when he recovered Detroit from the British and won the Battle of Thames.

Military notoriety has often given way to a road into politics, especially in the 19th century. Harrison was soon elected a senator for Ohio, and then eventually became president after beating incumbent president Martin van Buren in 1840. At 67 years old, Harrison took office as the oldest president to ever be elected—a record that would stand until Ronald Reagan's election in 1980 at 69 years old. Despite the cold, rainy weather in Washington D.C. on inauguration day, Harrison stood in front of the masses without his overcoat, hat, and gloves, and gave an 8445-word speech that would last almost two hours. Three weeks later, Harrison complained of fatigue and of a cold, which later turned into what doctors called pneumonia. On April 4, 1841—exactly one month after taking office—Harrison was dead.

The historical narrative virtually wrote itself: Harrison, after being improperly dressed for the weather, got pneumonia and would go down as a cautionary tale (or a punch line) and as having the shortest presidency on record. But was it really pneumonia that killed him? Harrison's own doctor, Thomas Miller, was skeptical. He wrote:

“The disease was not viewed as a case of pure pneumonia; but as this was the most palpable affection, the term pneumonia afforded a succinct and intelligible answer to the innumerable questions as to the nature of the attack.”

While revisiting the case a few years ago, writer Jane McHugh and Dr. Philip A. Mackowiak of the University of Maryland School of Medicine came up with a new diagnosis after looking at the evidence through the lens of modern medicine: enteric fever, also known as typhoid fever. They detailed their findings in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases [PDF] and for The New York Times.

Before 1850, Washington D.C.'s sewage was dumped in a marsh just seven blocks upstream from the executive mansion's water supply. McHugh and Mackowiak hypothesize that Harrison was exposed to bacteria—namely Salmonella typhi or S. paratyphi—which could cause enteric fever. Harrison also apparently had a history of severe indigestion, which could have made him more susceptible to such intestinal distress. While treating Harrison, Miller also administered opium and enemas, both of which would cause more harm than good to someone in Harrison's condition.

Harrison would not have been the only person to be afflicted with a gastrointestinal illness while occupying the presidency in this time period. Both James K. Polk and Zachary Taylor, according to McHugh and Mackowiak, suffered through severe gastroenteritis, and the duo theorizes it was the same enteric fever as Harrison's. Polk recovered, while Taylor died in office of his illness, less than 10 years after Harrison's death.

Though Harrison's insistence on soldiering through his lengthy, bitterly cold inauguration while dressed in his finest spring wear wasn't a high point in presidential common sense, there's plenty of scientific evidence to suggest that it didn't contribute to the shortest presidency in American history.

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Is There Really Such Thing As 'Muscle Memory'?
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Is there really such a thing as 'muscle memory'? For example, in the sense of your fingers remembering where the keys of the keyboard are?

C Stuart Hardwick:

Yes and no. There is no literal memory in the muscles, but the thing people call “muscle memory” exists, though the name is a misnomer.

A better name might be “subconscious memory,” as the information is stored in the brain, but is most readily accessible—or only accessible—by non-conscious means.

What “non-conscious” refers to here is the brain’s enormous capacity to train up what might almost be called “subroutines,” that exist outside our conscious experience. I like the term for this that at least one researcher in the field uses: “zombie agency.”

Zombie agents are non-conscious, or sub-conscious (in the literal, not the Freudian sense) that can do essentially everything you can do except make value judgments. So, for example, you don’t consciously know how to control your muscles in order to walk —in all likelihood, you wouldn’t know where to begin—but your zombie agents do, and they’ll take you wherever you want to go, dodging curbs and puppies, and “waking you” when appropriate to decide which babies to stop and kiss.

Zombie agents can be rather startling things. When you suddenly become aware that you’ve driven halfway across town in the direction of the office instead of going to the shoe store Saturday morning, you have zombie agents to thank. You “wake” as if from slumber, and with the frightening realization that you’ve been flying down the highway at prodigious speed while your mind was on other things. You feel as if you’ve been asleep, and in a way you have—but a very funny kind of sleep in which it is only the uppermost layer of abstract reason that is disassociated from the rest of conscious experience. Your zombie agents have been driving to work, responding to traffic, adjusting the radio, noting the check engine light, all the things you think of as “you, driving the car,” except the big one: deciding where to go. That part was on automatic pilot (which is another good way to think of this).

This is at the advanced end of the spectrum. Typing your friend’s phone number using “muscle memory” is at the other, but it’s the same phenomenon.

We didn’t evolve to remember phone numbers, so we aren’t very good at it. In fact, we are so bad at it, we invent all sorts of mnemonic devices (memory aids) to help us [in] relating numbers to words or spacial memory, either of which are closer to the hunting and gathering we are evolved for. The illusion of “muscle memory” arises because we are supremely well adapted to manual manipulation and tool-making. We don’t need to invent a memory aid to help us remember what we do with our hands, we only have to practice.

So the conscious mind says “dial Tabby’s number,” and our fingers—or more correctly, the zombie agent which learned that task—do it. Similarly, after sufficient training, we can do the same thing with tasks like “play a major fifth,” "drive to work,” or “pull an Airbus A380 up for a go-around.”

It feels like muscle memory because the conscious mind—the part you experience as being you—is acting like a coach driver, steering the efforts of a team of zombie agents, all harnesses to collective action. But it isn’t muscle memory, it's just memory—though it may be stored (or at least some of it) in the deeper, motor cortex parts of the brain.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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Why Do We Toss Beads During Mardi Gras?

Every year, over 1 million people descend on New Orleans for Mardi Gras, an organized parade of debauchery and alcohol-induced torpor that may be the closest thing modern civilization has to the excesses of ancient Rome. Saturating the scene on Bourbon Street are plastic beads, handed or tossed to partygoers as a kind of currency. Some bare their breasts or offer booze in exchange for the tokens; others catch them in the air and wear the layers around their necks. Roughly 25 million pounds of beads are in circulation annually, making them as much a part of the Fat Tuesday celebration as sugary cocktails and King Cake.

Traditions and rituals can be hard to pin down, but Mardi Gras historians believe the idea of distributing trinkets started in the 1870s or 1880s, several hundred years after French settlers introduced the celebration to Louisiana in the 1600s. Party organizers—known locally as "krewes"—handed out baubles and other shiny objects to revelers to help commemorate the occasion. Some of them threw chocolate-covered almonds. They were joined by more mischievous attendees, who threw dirt or flour on people in an effort to stir up a little bit of trouble.

Why beads? Tiny tokens that represent wealth, health, and other prosperity have been a part of human history for centuries. In Egypt, tokens were handed out in the hopes they would guarantee a happy afterlife; the abacus, or bead-based system of accounting, used trinkets to perform calculations; pagan pre-winter rituals had people throwing grains into fields hoping to appease gods that would nourish their crops.

Humans, argues archaeologist Laurie Wilkie, display "bead lust," or a penchant for shiny objects. It's one possible reason why Mardi Gras attracts so many people with their arms in the air, elated to receive a gift of cheap, sweatshop-made plastic.

Photo of a well-dressed bulldog celebrating Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
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The early beads were made of glass before more efficient production methods overseas led to an influx of plastic beads in the 1960s. Unlike some of the more organic predecessors, these beads have come under criticism for being a source of health problems and pollution. Made from petroleum, they often harbor lead that seeps into the soil and rubs off on hands. (One estimate puts the lead deposit after a Mardi Gras celebration at 4000 pounds.) In 2017, New Orleans paid $7 million in clean-up costs to remove discarded beads from drain basins. This year, they've installed gutter guards to prevent the necklaces from getting into the system in the first place.

Environmental hazards aside, the beads of Mardi Gras have become as much a holiday staple as seasonal stockings or Thanksgiving turkeys. But the passion and desperate need for them is only temporary; last year, 46 tons of the beads were left in the gutters and drains. And no bacchanal should leave that much bad juju behind.

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