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Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Tuesday links

Spring is here - The vernal equinox is on March 20th at 12:15 PM EDT. Here's Vivaldi, science, myths, "spring spheres" and more.

100 years later, the question remains: What happened to the USS Cyclops?

A TED video classic from 2005: How To Tie Your Shoes.

"Since sixt week j learn the Englich and j do not any progress": While imprisoned on St Helena, Napoleon started learning English.

These Cows Wrote a Message That Could Be Seen From Space.

ICYMI, Friday's links are here, and include Saint Patrick’s Day, some guys changing tires while driving, the linguistic evolution of "dagnabbit", and the difficulties inherent in coastline measurement.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Spring is here! Here's Vivaldi, science, myths, "spring spheres" and more

Spring is here! Some miscellaneous stuff:

Science of the equinox. More here and here (this one is from 2013, so the time is wrong).

This video on the mechanism of the seasons is kinda grade-school level, but for that reason it's simple and complete:

Informative 2 minute NatGeo video:

The Four Seasons - "Spring" - Concerto # 1 in E major, Op. 8, RV 269, played by Itzhak Perlman:

        Giunt' è la Primavera e festosetti                    Here comes the Spring, and festively
        La Salutan gl' Augei con lieto canto,               The birds salute her with a merry song
        E i fonti allo Spirar de' Zeffiretti                      And fountains, to the whispering Zephyrs,
        Con dolce mormorio Scorrono intanto:            With sweet murmurings flow all the while.
        Vengon' coprendo l' aer di nero amanto           Advancing o'er the heavens is a black canopy
        E Lampi, e tuoni ad annuntiarla eletti              With lightning and thunder to announce her.
        Indi tacendo questi, gl' Augelletti;                   Then, when they go silent, the little birds
       Tornan' di nuovo al lor canoro incanto.             Return anew to their cheerful song.
       E quindi sul fiorito ameno prato                       And later in the lovely flowering fields
       Al caro mormorio di fronde e piante                 To murmurings of fronds and leaves
       Dorme 'l Caprar col fido can' à lato."                The goatherd sleeps, his faithful dog beside.
       Di pastoral Zampogna al suon festante            To the rustic bagpipe's festive sound
       Danzan Ninfe e Pastor nel tetto amato             Nymphs and shepherds dance
       Di primavera all' apparir brillante.                     'Neath heaven's canopy,
                                                                                 And Spring appears so brilliantly.
                                         - Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)
                                           (Le quattro stagioni, "Primavera")* 

Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influences of each. Let them be your only diet, drink, and botanical medicines. 

~ Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) (Journals, entry for 23 August 1853)
Today is the vernal equinox, heralding the coming of spring in the Northern Hemisphere. At the vernal equinox, the sun appears to cross the celestial equator from south to north, and for a brief period shines directly on the equator, yielding equal length for day and night in virtually all parts of the world. Although most people my age grew up thinking that spring always began on 21 March, none of the vernal equinoxes for the rest of this century will occur in the Americas after the 20th of the month. American humorist Ogden Nash (wiki) noted in "Like a Rat In a Trap,"

After various guesses at last I've guessed
Why in spring, I feel depressed.
When the robins begin to play
Summer is just a step away.

Then hardly the summer has commenced
When autumn is what you're up against,
And once that autumn has muscled in on you
Winter is waiting to begin on you.

So spring isn't spring, but otherwise,
Just a prelude to winter, which I despise.

The two revolutions, I mean the annual revolutions of the declination and of the centre of the Earth, are not completely equal; that is the return of the declination to its original value is slightly ahead of the period of the centre. Hence it necessarily follows that the equinoxes and solstices seem to anticipate their timing, not because the sphere of the fixed stars moves to the east, but rather the equatorial circle moves to the west, being at an angle to the plane of the ecliptic in proportion to the declination of the axis of the terrestrial globe.

My personal favorite "spring" story:
Seattle school renames Easter eggs 'Spring Spheres': This is actually from a couple of years ago, but it's still great. On top of all the additional ways in which this is ridiculous, eggs are, of course, not spherical.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

A TED video classic from 2005: How To Tie Your Shoes

Terry Moore* found out he'd been tying his shoes the wrong way his whole life. In the spirit of TED, he takes the stage to share a better way - an example of extraordinary results from small changes.

(Historical note: This was the very first 3-minute audience talk given from the TED stage, in 2005.)

*Terry Moore is the director of the Radius Foundation, a forum for exploring and gaining insight from different worldviews

From the TED summary
At 50 yrs old, Terry discovered he (and most people) have learned to tie their shoes wrong. If you pull on the laces at the base of the knot, the incorrect common knot will turn vertically along the shoe. This is a weaker form of the bow.
The key is when turning around the loop, go the opposite way to normal. This will yield a stronger knot, and will make it align across the shoe.
As Terry concludes, sometimes a small advantage sometime in life will yield extraordinary results.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Friday links

March 17 is Saint Patrick’s Day: origin, history, videos, and how to make your own green beer. Related: From Slave to Saint, The Story of Patrick and why are four-leaf clovers lucky?

The first American woman to command a ship was a pregnant 19 year old. She did it while fighting off a mutiny, nursing an incapacitated husband, and braving gale-force winds.

The United States v. Paramount and How Movie Theater Concessions Got So Expensive.

This is nuts - watch these guys changing tires while driving.

ICYMI, Thursday's links are here, and include the Ides of March, a history of hair transplants, what antibiotics are made of, shoe rationing in the U.S. during WWII, and, since Stephen Hawking died on Einstein's birthday, the Hawking vs Einstein rap battle.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

This is nuts - changing tires while driving

Watching this, one would assume that alcohol was involved, but these gentlemen appear to be in Saudi Arabia so perhaps their only inebriant is the "clear ether of youth itself"*:

*My favorite opening paragraph ever, from The Atlantic in an article entitled The Dark Power of FraternitiesI haven't read the whole article, but this is a world class opening paragraph: 
One warm spring night in 2011, a young man named Travis Hughes stood on the back deck of the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity house at Marshall University, in West Virginia, and was struck by what seemed to him—under the influence of powerful inebriants, not least among them the clear ether of youth itself—to be an excellent idea: he would shove a bottle rocket up his ass and blast it into the sweet night air. And perhaps it was an excellent idea. What was not an excellent idea, however, was to misjudge the relative tightness of a 20-year-old sphincter and the propulsive reliability of a 20-cent bottle rocket. What followed ignition was not the bright report of a successful blastoff, but the muffled thud of fire in the hole.

Saint Patrick’s Day: origin, history, quotes, a short bio, and how to make your own green beer

For the great Gaels of Ireland
Are the men that God made mad,
For all their wars are merry
And all their songs are sad.

G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) (Ballad of the White Horse(wiki))

Sir... the Irish are not in a conspiracy to cheat the world by false representations of the merits of their countrymen. No, Sir, the Irish are a FAIR PEOPLE; - they never speak well of one another. 

Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) (Boswell's Life of Johnson, 1775)

St. Patrick with a shamrock - more on the shamrock connection here.
The 17th of March is St. Patrick's Day (wiki), commemorating the patron saint of Ireland, Padraig mac Caiprainn (ca. 390-461?). Much of Patrick's life is shrouded in legend, but he is said to have been born in Roman Britain and was captured and enslaved by Irish raiders until he managed to escape to Gaul. There, he entered the priesthood but returned to Ireland as a missionary and made many converts, reportedly by using the leaves of the shamrock to explain the three-in-one mystery of the Trinity. 

In 445, with the approval of Pope Leo the Great (reigned 440-461), he established his arch-episcopal see at Armagh, and by the time of his death, Ireland was largely Christianized. Our principal source about St. Patrick's life is his own Confessions, written in his last years.

My personal favorite Irish joke:
"An Irishman walked out of a bar... " (that's all of it).
The story of St. Patrick:

Around 1.6 million gallons of Guinness is consumed on St. Patrick’s Day. This is a bit over double the amount on any other given day of the year. Guinness trained a sheepdog to round up Irishmen and herd them to a bar:

Some of the stories and traditions associated with Saint Patrick (wiki) are actually probably from another man that preceded Patrick by a 1-3 decades (exactly how much isn’t known), Palladius. It has also been argued by some scholars that the blending of these two’s accomplishments was done purposefully to bolster the prestige of Saint Patrick. Palladius was one of the earliest missionaries to Ireland, ordained by Pope Celestine the first as the “First Bishop to the Irish believing in Christ”. However, accounts seem to indicate the Palladius and his companions’ mission was fairly unsuccessful and Palladius himself was eventually banished by the King of Leinster, at which point he went to Northern Britain to preach to the Scots. Nevertheless, much of what Palladius did accomplish while in Ireland has long since been credited to Saint Patrick instead and it’s difficult to tell in most cases exactly which of them accomplished what.

King George III in 1783 created a “Most Illustrious Order of Saint Patrick”, which is an order of knights of Saint Patrick given to certain people associated with Ireland who the monarchy wishes to honor. It’s been decades since the last person was inducted into this order and the last person in the order died in 1974, Prince Henry the Duke of Gloucester. Nevertheless, the order still technically exists with the Queen functioning as the Sovereign.

Based in part on a post at the excellent Today I Found Out (their Wise Book of Whys has gone to several family members as presents). 

The epic poem Ballad Of The White Horse (link is to a free Kindle version) tells the fascinating story of Alfred the Great's stand against the Danes in 878 - or read about the subject at Wikipedia. Per Amazon:
More than a thousand years ago, the ruler of a beleaguered kingdom saw a vision of the Virgin Mary that moved him to rally his chiefs and make a last stand. Alfred the Great freed his realm from Danish invaders in the year 878 with an against-all-odds triumph at the Battle of Ethandune. In this ballad, G. K. Chesterton equates Alfred's struggles with Christianity's fight against nihilism and heathenism—a battle that continues to this day. 
One of the last great epic poems, this tale unfolds in the Vale of the White Horse, where Alfred fought the Danes in a valley beneath an ancient equine figure etched upon the Berkshire hills. Chesterton employs the mysterious image as a symbol of the traditions that preserve humanity. His allegory of the power of faith in the face of an invasive foe was much quoted in the dark days of 1940, when Britain was under attack by Nazis.

"Nub City" - the Florida town where people cut off their appendages for insurance money

In the late 1950s and early 60s, the Florida Panhandle was responsible for two-thirds of all loss-of-limb accident claims in the United States due largely to one town: Vernon, Florida.

This was because Vernon was the site of a widespread insurance scam where residents would dismember themselves for a payout. The problem was so extensive, the town became known as, “Nub City” for this very reason, was in dire economic straits.

Now I Know: Quite literally, people in Vernon were shooting themselves, blowing off a limb, and collecting on the insurance. How the trend started, no one knows — perhaps it was an accident at a sawmill or with a plow, or perhaps it was a calculated effort to scam an insurance company out of tens of thousands of dollars (or more). Truly, it doesn’t matter. For when word got out that so-and-so just received a check for untold riches — and all it cost him was a hand or foot, perhaps even to the elbow or knee — well, the idea spread. By the time the early 1960s rolled around, according to the Tampa Bay Times, Vernon, Florida was responsible for roughly two-thirds of all loss-of-limb-related insurance claims in the United States.

Some of the claims were looked into by insurance investigator Joe Healy:
One of the clues to a phony injury, Healy notes, is that people “usually take off the thing they need least, like their left hand rather than the right one. If they have a sitdown job, they'll take off a leg or foot, not an arm.” More often than not, too, maiming oneself for insurance money is a white collar practice, Healy says, remarking that a few years back he found an owner of a car dealership who put out his eye for $400,000 to buy a ranch.
“Blue‐collar workers generally need their limbs and eyes to do their work,” he explains. Self ‐injury, in fact, is a fairly common insurance‐fraud act. There are even informal “rings” of people, usually limited to one locale or a closeknit family or ethnic group, who inflict self‐injuries. “Another clue to a phony claim,” says Healy, “is when several ‘accidental’ injuries occur in the same place in a short period of time.” Usually everincreasing amounts of insurance are involved. “One guy gets away with it and he collects,” Healy says. “Then he tells a friend about it and he goes and does the same thing, but takes out a bigger policy, and on.”
Over the time period in question, a total of fifty people (give or take) lost a limb of some sorts, many if not all filing insurance claims thereafter. While the insurers attempted to bring lawsuits actions against some of these people, not one was convicted of insurance fraud. One alleged transgressor was particularly egregious, but, as the Times notes, he avoided conviction and walked away a one-footed millionaire:
“There was another man who took out insurance with 28 or 38 companies,” said Murray Armstrong, an insurance official for Liberty National. “He was a farmer and ordinarily drove around the farm in his stick shift pickup. This day – the day of the accident – he drove his wife’s automatic transmission car and he lost his left foot. If he’d been driving his pickup, he’d have had to use that foot for the clutch. He also had a tourniquet in his pocket. We asked why he had it and he said, ‘Snakes. In case of snake bite.’ He’d taken out so much insurance he was paying premiums that cost more than his income. He wasn’t poor, either. Middle class. He collected more than $1 million from all the companies. It was hard to make a jury believe a man would shoot off his foot.”
Also per the Tampa Bay Times:

L.W. Burdeshaw, an insurance agent in Chipley, told the St. Petersburg Times in 1982 that his list of policyholders included the following: a man who sawed off his left hand at work, a man who shot off his foot while protecting chickens, a man who lost his hand while trying to shoot a hawk, a man who somehow lost two limbs in an accident involving a rifle and a tractor, and a man who bought a policy and then, less than 12 hours later, shot off his foot while aiming at a squirrel. 
A few years later, a film maker named Errol Morris came to Vernon, hoping to make a movie (tentatively titled “Nub City”) about the purported scam. But faced with death threats and the like, he instead produced a much less controversial film of the town and named it, cautiously, “Vernon, Florida.” The well-regarded documentary focuses on the town more broadly, bringing to film many eccentricities about the community — but does not focus on the decision of many to dismember themselves.

More at the Tampa Bay Times and Now I Know

RIP Stephen Hawking: a brief bio and the Hawking vs Einstein rap battle

Stephen Hawking (wiki) died yesterday, which was also Einstein's birthday:

We are just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star. But we can understand the Universe. That makes us very special. 

~ Stephen Hawking (quoted in Der Spiegel, 1989) 

In effect, we have redefined the task of science to be the discovery of laws that will enable us to predict events up to the limits set by the uncertainty principle. 

~ Hawking (A Brief History of Time, Ch. 11) 

I think it's important for scientists to explain their work, particularly in cosmology. This now answers many questions once asked of religion. 

~ Hawking (interview in The Guardian, 27 September 2005) 

It's a waste of time to be angry about my disability. One has to get on with life, and I haven't done badly. People won't have time for you if you are always angry and complaining. 

~ Ibid. 

On the whole, the public shows good taste in its choice of idols. Einstein and Hawking earned their status as superstars, not only by their scientific discoveries but by their outstanding human qualities. Both of them fit easily into the role of icon, responding to public adoration with modesty and good humor and with provocative statements calculated to command attention. Both of them devoted their lives to an compromising struggle to penetrate the deepest mysteries of nature, and both still had time left over to care about the practical worries of ordinary people. The public rightly judged them to be genuine heroes, friends of humanity as well as scientific wizards. 

~ Freeman Dyson (b. 1923) ( "The 'Dramatic Picture' of Richard Feynman," The New York Review of Books, 14 July 2011)

British theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen William Hawking, was born  on January 8, 1942 in Oxford, where his mother had moved from London to escape the Blitz. Educated at Oxford and Cambridge, Hawking became the Lucasian professor of mathematics at the latter institution in 1979, following pioneering work in the quantum and relativistic mechanics that underlie the "big bang" theory of the origin of the universe and the creation of "black holes" in space. 

Since 1962, he suffered from amytrophic lateral sclerosis ("ALS" (wiki), also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease) which had confined him to a wheel-chair and left him physically unable to speak clearly or to write. Nonetheless, his popular exposition of cosmography, A Brief History of Time (1988), become a best-seller, and he remained one of the world's best known scientists. 

Further reading on the disease: How did Stephen Hawking live so long with ALS?

Here's a brief biography:

And here's the Einstein vs Stephen Hawking Epic Rap Battle of History:

Thursday links

Beware - It's the Ides of March. Related: when Julius Caesar was kidnapped by pirates, he insisted on a higher ransom.

A brief history of hair transplants.

The Hidden History of Bathing in Soup Broth.

RIP Stephen Hawking: a brief bio and the Hawking vs Einstein rap battle.

What Are Antibiotics Made Of?

These Photos Captured What Happened When the United States Started to Ration Shoes During WWII.

ICYMI, Wednesday's links are here, and include the woman who thought she was married to Napoleon, finding a universal translator for old computer files, and, for Albert Einstein's birthday, the story of the strange post-mortem travels of his brain.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Wednesday links

Albert Einstein was born on March 14, 1879: here's a short bio, video, an explanation of gravitational waves, and the strange post-mortem travels of his brain. Related: Einstein's forgotten inventions.

Why did ancient people drill holes in their heads?

The woman who thought she was married to Napoleon.

Death-Defying 40-ft Vertical Plunges: The High-Diving Horsewomen of Atlantic City.

ICYMI, Friday's links are here, and include solving crimes with knot analysis, Daylight Saving Time history (including Ben Franklin's proposal), a street-legal jet-powered Volkswagen Beetle, and, for Chuck Norris' 78th birthday, his 5 most badass movies, supercut of Norris's best kicks and a bunch of Norris "facts".