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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.
Mario Tama, Getty Images

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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Big Questions
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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What Song Is Played If an Independent Olympian Medals?
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Though Russia was banned from the 2018 Winter Olympics due to systematic, state-sponsored doping, you'll still find 169 Russians on the slopes and rinks at the PyeongChang Games. The International Olympic Committee allowed the athletes to participate after they successfully went through rigorous drug testing. But the Olympic Athletes from Russia (OAR for short) aren't just participating—they're medaling. As of February 13, OAR have earned a silver medal for team figure skating, as well as four bronze medals in short track speed skating, curling, and cross-country skiing.

The medal bounty represents a change from the results Independent Olympians have seen in the past. Historically, athletes not competing for specific countries haven’t done so well—but in 1992, their chances were better than usual due to sheer numbers. The number of Independent Olympians is usually 10 or fewer, but due to the separation of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, 58 competitors were considered “Independent” at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona. Three of them won medals in shooting—one silver and two bronze. (The 2012 delegation should have medaled just for their enthusiasm during the Parade of Nations.)

So what happens when you're a country-less athlete? Well, none of the medals won this year by OAR will count toward Russia's overall medal totals. And when they actually hit the podium, the athletes stand under the Olympic flag instead of a country flag. Similarly, the song that plays is the official Olympic Anthem, not their national anthem. And while other athletes don athleisure emblazoned with the colors and symbols of their countries, OAR has been relegated to wearing neutral clothing.

In past years, Olympic athletes who are unable to represent their countries due to international sanctions or political transition have competed as “Independent Olympians." But there are none listed on the official Olympics site for the PyeongChang Games. Also missing this year: the Refugee Olympic Team, which was founded last year for 10 refugee athletes originally from Syria, South Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Ethiopia. 

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