2011-05-27

Simply a marvelous picture...

(A Great Blue Heron caught a small Common Snapping Turtle. Photo by jayhawk6 on Flickr.com, via Wikimedia Commons)

Almost a real-life illustration for The Fight Between the Snipe and the Clam.

2011-05-24

Edward Kajdański's take on the sumxu

Binturong, a.k.a. the Asian Bearcat - one of SE Asia's civet-like animals. (Photo by Tassilo Rau)

I wrote a while back about the sumxu, a strange creatures described by the 17th-century Polish Jesuit Michael Boym in his Flora Sinensis (1656). Sumxu is Boym's transcription of the Chinese 松鼠 (songshu, in the modern Pinyin transcription), which means "squirrel" (literally, "pine rat"), and Boym's picture is so labeled in both Chinese characters and in transcription, and the creature depicted certainly looks squirrel-like. However, Boym's text says that people kept those sumxu as expensive pets, valued for their ability to hunt mice - which, of course, is a rather strange thing for a real squirrel to do. The sumxu became popularized in the European imagination by Athanasius Kircher, who in China illustrata (1667) compared it to a cat... and the story lived in European books for the next 200 years. A number of people tried to solve the riddle of the sumxu; in particular, it has been suggested by some that due to some confusion on Boym's or his informants' part, the sumxu (松鼠, "squirrel") label got attached to a different animal, from the mustelid family, such as the yellow-throated marten. Here's the promised update on the work of one researcher who spent a fair amount of effort tackling the sumxu mystery. Polish diplomat and writer Edward Kajdański published three books (and a number of articles) on Michael Boym. The last of them, Michał Boym – Ambasador Państwa Środka ("Michael Boym, an Ambassador of the Middle Kingdom"; 1999; also available in a Chinese translation by Zhang Zhenhui (张振辉) "中国的使臣卜弥格", 2001) has a chapter on Flora Sinensis, with a few pages on the mysterious green winged turtle and the mice-hunting sumxu. For some reason, Kajdański keeps referring to the creature as the "sumxu cat" ("kot sumxu"), although Boym himself did not mention cats at all, and Kircher merely compared the sumxu to a cat. Kajdański has a number of interesting ideas about the sumxu, but, to be honest, I can't quite make sense of how he puts them together. Kajdański somehow links the origin of Boym's famous sumxu-and-turtle picture with the Polish Jesuit's "fascination" with the travels of Marco Polo. Marco Polo in his Travels talks about the musk deer, the mysterious (for Europeans) source of the precious musk - and says somewhere (in some editions of his Travels, at any rate) that the creature was cat-sized. Somehow, through a logical connection that I don't quite understand, the Polish researcher then infers that what Boym really had in mind when drawing the sumxu was, too, a musk-producing creature, namely, something from the civet family. Kajdański even says that he saw a matching creature - looking sort of in between the Siberian weasel and the small Indian civet - in the Natural History Museum of Kunming, but, alas, was not able to find out its Latin name. The next thing Kajdański does (and I can't quite figure the connection to it either), is to suggest that sumxu/松鼠 (Pinyin: songshu; meaning "squuirrel", or, literally "pine mouse/rat") with the "snake-eating mouse", 食蛇鼠 (Pinying: shi-she shu; likely Boym-era transcription, xixexu, though Kajdański suggests shuxexu) - a creature mentioned in the famous Chinese compendium of materia medica, Ben Cao Gang Mu. Boym indeed must have been well familiar with Ben Cao, as he wrote extensively on Chinese medicine; and such a "snake-eating mouse" (or "rat", if you wish) is indeed mentioned in that work. However, I think it rather unlikely that Boym would choose that creature for including into his fairly small work - really, a selection of the most interesting and important plants and creatures of East Asia for the erudite European audience. After all, Ben Cao only has a couple lines on the "snake-eating mouse". It says that, according to the Book of Tang, such a "snake-eating mouse", with a pointed mouth and a red tail, was sent as tribute by the country of Jibinguo (罽賓國/罽宾国; Kapisa (?) in Northern India), but noone has heard of such a thing lately (i.e., in the 16th century, when Ben Cao was compiled). (I suppose what the Indians actually sent to the Tang Emperor was a mongoose of some kind). Kajdański says that according to the old pharmaceutical works (presumably, the same BCGM), the creature Boym had in mind (not entirely clear to me whether he refers to the same shi-she shu or the civet-like creature that he saw in the museum... I guess he identifies the two) was indeed valued in old China, and could be kept (on a leash, presumably) with a silver collar. However, he says that what the creature was valued for was not its mice-hunting prowess, but it's anti-snake powers. First, the creature was said to be able to locate venomous snake by their scent; second, the creatures own musky smell would repel such venomous snakes from the place where it was kept; third (which Ben Cao indeed mentions), if the creature's owner still had a misfortune of being bitten by a snake, he only had to have his shi-she shu urinate on the bite wound, and it would save him from the venom! This all sounds like a fascinating legend indeed (certainly goes way beyond Kipling's Rikki-Tikki-Tavi!) - just the stuff Kircher would love. If Boym really had such a thing in mind - how come he did not pass the story to Kircher, instead of just telling him about a comparatively boring mouse-hunter?

2011-05-16

Bus to Sydney, anyone?

The photo, taken last January, shows the interior of a two-level bus in Wuhan. The sign says, "武汉公交欢迎您" ("Wuhan Public Transportation welcomes you"), and - as I have just noticed - displays a likeness of a building remarkable similar to Sydney Opera House. Does Wuhan bus system plan to run a route all the way to Sydney? Or is the city preparing a replica of the theater, on a suitably shaped peninsula somewhere in the East Lake? (Incidentally, this is probably bus no. 536, the one that takes quite a bit over an hour to cross the city from the Hankou Station to the eastern edge of Wuchang).

2011-05-13

Protecting Mr. Bezos

Looking through Amazon.com's Year 2011 Proxy Statement (page 19), I found the "2010 Summary Compensation Table":
Name And Principal Position Year Salary Stock Awards(1)All Other Compensation Total
Jeffrey P. Bezos, Chief Executive Officer 2010 $ 81,840 $ — $1,600,000(2) $1,681,840
2009 81,840 1,700,000 1,781,840
2008 81,840 1,200,000 1,281,840
Thomas J. Szkutak, SVP and Chief Financial Officer 2010 160,000 6,465,300 3,200(3) 6,628,500
2009 160,000 3,200 163,200
2008 157,500 7,491,000 3,150 7,651,650
... etc... (similar numbers for three more SVPs) ... etc ...
Nothing much unusual about these data. Publicly traded companies are required to publish this information. The executives' salary does not need to be high (in fact, Mr. Bezos' is actually lower than many rank-and-file engineers in the company!), as they get compensated by sizable stock awards instead. And Mr. Bezos personally does not even need the stock grants, as he owns almost 20% of the company anyway. What attracted my attention was note (3) in the "All Other Compensation" column:
(3) Represents the approximate aggregate incremental cost to Amazon.com of security arrangements for Mr. Bezos in addition to security arrangements provided at business facilities and for business travel. We believe that all company-incurred security costs are reasonable and necessary and for the company’s benefit.
This, per se, is probably nothing that unusual either: major companies lead by celebrity billionaire CEOs such as Mr. Bezos or Mr. Gates have probably always spent a hefty chunk on "extra security", just in case. It is interesting, however, that now (since when? I never knew!) they have to report these costs, even if approximate, as part of the top executive's "compensation" on the company's proxy statement. I suppose this is just a SEC requirement, and not an implication that IRS wants to consider the cost of extra security as part of the CEO's taxable income! Anyway, now that we're given the number - USD 1.2 to 1.7 million - it can just as well enter the public record. This probably compares to the budget of a small-town police department (well, in a really small town, that is...), with some left for car payments on a nice armored car, I guess. Of course, this is probably nothing compared to what the Secret Service protection for the government leaders costs.