(Roughly) Daily

“The earth laughs in flowers”*…


The first flower?

With the incredible diversity of flowers that exist today—from pinprick-sized duckweed to the meters-high blooms of a corpse flower—it’s hard to imagine that they all descend from just a single species. Charles Darwin himself wrung his hands over how flowering plants exploded in diversity early in their evolution. Now, researchers have figured out what the ancestral flower might have looked like. The study may help them uncover how flowers took over the world.

Fossils are the surest way to learn about organisms that lived in the past, but these are hard to come by for early flowers: The earliest preserved blossoms date back some 130 million years—at least 10 million years after the time when researchers think the ancestor of all flowering plants was alive. But there is another way to learn about species that are long gone: by taking a careful look at the forms of their modern descendants, and tracing the history of those forms back to the trunk of their family tree.

To that end, dozens of researchers participating in the eFLOWER project amassed data from scientific papers to create the largest database of the structures of modern flowers, like their sexual organs and the layouts of their petals. The analysis included more than 13,000 data points spanning back to a 1783 description by famous evolutionary biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. Combining those data with a DNA-based family tree and information about fossils, the scientists tested millions of configurations of how flowers may have changed through time to determine the most likely structure and shape for the earliest flowers.

Though the team’s reconstructed ancestral flower [pictured above] doesn’t look radically different than many modern flowers, it does have a combination of traits not found today…

Pick (up) the tale in toto at: “The world’s first flower may have looked like this.”

* Ralph Waldo Emerson


As we cultivate our gardens, we might send fecund birthday greetings to Sidney Walter Fox; he was born on this date in 1912.  A biochemist interested in the biological origin of life, he studied the synthesis of amino acids from inorganic molecules.  He gave the name proteinoid to the protein-like polymer that results from a mixture of amino acids subjected to such considerable heating as would be present during the volcanic primordial earth (in the “primordial soup” as it’s colloquially known).  Fox observed that when proteinoids or “thermal proteins,” are placed in water, they self-organize into microspheres or protocells, possible precursors of the contemporary living cell.  Fox argued that RNA or DNA need not date back to the origin of life; and he showed that proteinoid “microspheres,” as he called them, exhibit growth, metabolism, reproduction (by budding), and responsiveness to stimuli – all properties of life – though without a genetic system.



Written by LW

March 24, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Create your own visual style… let it be unique for yourself and yet identifiable for others”*…


Before you see the latest animated feature from your barista’s favorite director, relive his meticulous works from the past that made you kind of happy, kind of sad, and kind of unsure – It’s Every Wes Anderson Movie!

* Orson Welles


As we celebrate symmetry, we might recall that it was on this date in 1839 the “OK” entered the English language when it was printed in The Boston Morning Post….

Meant as an abbreviation for “oll korrect,” a popular slang misspelling of “all correct” at the time, OK steadily made its way into the everyday speech of Americans.

During the late 1830s, it was a favorite practice among younger, educated circles to misspell words intentionally, then abbreviate them and use them as slang when talking to one another. Just as teenagers today have their own slang based on distortions of common words, such as “kewl” for “cool” or “DZ” for “these,” the “in crowd” of the 1830s had a whole host of slang terms they abbreviated. Popular abbreviations included “KY” for “No use” (“know yuse”), “KG” for “No go” (“Know go”), and “OW” for all right (“oll wright”). [Think LOLZ, OMG or NBD today…]

Of all the abbreviations used during that time, OK was propelled into the limelight when it was printed in the Boston Morning Post as part of a joke. Its popularity exploded when it was picked up by contemporary politicians. When the incumbent president Martin Van Buren was up for reelection, his Democratic supporters organized a band of thugs to influence voters. This group was formally called the “O.K. Club,” which referred both to Van Buren’s nickname “Old Kinderhook” (based on his hometown of Kinderhook, New York), and to the term recently made popular in the papers. At the same time, the opposing Whig Party made use of “OK” to denigrate Van Buren’s political mentor Andrew Jackson. According to the Whigs, Jackson invented the abbreviation “OK” to cover up his own misspelling of “all correct.”  [source]



Written by LW

March 23, 2018 at 1:01 am

“I took the one less traveled by”*…


An interactive map highlights the least traveled routes in the country—and some of the most scenic.  Using 2015 annual average traffic data from the Highway Performance Monitoring System Geotab identifies the least traveled roads in each state, and in all of America (replete with a virtual preview of each route via Google Street View).  Then it ranks the top 10 most scenic paths (starred on the map) from those listed, as selected by the conservationist and photographer James Q. Martin.

Explore it here.

* Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken”


As we seek solitude, we might recall that it was on this date in 1962 that the Strategic Highway Network (STRAHNET) affirmedto Regional Federal Highway Administrators the minimum clearance requirements for highways that are part of the STRAHNET system: a clear height of structures over the entire roadway width, including the useable width of shoulder, of 4.9 meters for the rural Interstate; in urban areas, the 4.9-meter clearance is applied to a single route, with other Interstate routings in the urban area having at least a 4.3-meter vertical clearance.

The STRAHNET is “a system of highways that provides defense access, continuity and emergency capabilities for movements of personnel and equipment in both peacetime and wartime. The STRAHNET was based on quantifiable DOD requirements, addressing their peacetime, wartime, strategic, and oversize/overweight highway demands. The network consists of approximately 96 000 kilometers of highway. The STRAHNET has been incorporated into the National Highway System (NHS). Almost 75 percent of the system in the continental United States (about 70 000 kilometers) consists of roadways on the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways.” [source]



“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language / And next year’s words await another voice”*…


A few of the words first used in the year of your correspondent’s birth…

Enter a year (in recorded history) and find the words first used then: Merriam-Webster’s Time Traveler.

* T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets


As we root around for roots, we might recall that it was on this date in 1961 that the Beatles played their first evening gig at the Cavern Club in Liverpool.  One month earlier, fresh back from Hamburg, they had played a lunchtime set; the club, which had focused until then on jazz, was experimenting with rock.  The test was a success, so the club’s owner, Ray McFall, declared Tuesday nights “Blue Jean Guest Night,” and kicked off with Dale Roberts & The Jay Walkers, The Remo Four, and the Beatles.  The band swiftly became a regular fixture at the Cavern, attracting a loyal audience to over 290 performances until their final appearance on August 3, 1963.  It was, of course, at the Cavern Club that Brian Epstein first saw the Beatles.

The Beatles (with Pete Best on drums) at the Cavern Club. Best was replaced by Ringo the following year.



Written by LW

March 21, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Never let your sense of morals get in the way of doing what’s right”*…


People disagree about morality. They disagree about what morality prohibits, permits and requires. And they disagree about why morality prohibits, permits and requires these things. Moreover, at least some of the disagreement on these matters is reasonable. It is not readily attributable to woolly thinking or ignorance or inattention to relevant considerations. Sensible and sincere people armed with similar life experiences and acquainted with roughly the same facts come to strikingly different conclusions about the content and justification of morality.

For examples of disagreement about content, think of the standards ‘vote in democratic elections’, ‘do not smack your children’, and ‘do not eat meat’. Some reasonable people recognise a moral duty to vote, or a moral prohibition on smacking or meat-eating; others do not. To see the depth of disagreement about justification, consider the variety of reasons advanced for the widely accepted moral standard ‘do not lie’. Should we refrain from lying because God commands it, because it promotes the greatest happiness of the greatest number, because in deceiving others we treat them as mere means to our ends, or because the virtue of honesty is a necessary condition of our own flourishing? Each of these reasons is persuasive to some and quite unpersuasive to others.

Reasonable disagreement about morality presents educators with a problem. It is hard to see how we can bring it about that children subscribe to moral standards, and believe them to be justified, except by giving them some form of moral education. But it is also hard to see how moral educators can legitimately cultivate these attitudes in the face of reasonable disagreement about the content and justification of morality. It looks as though any attempt to persuade children of the authority of a particular moral code will be tantamount to indoctrination…

Michael Hand asks– and suggests an answer to– a desperately-important question: “If we disagree about morality, how can we teach it?

* Isaac Asimov


As we struggle to teach our children well, we might send fabulous birthday greetings to Publius Ovidius Naso; he was born on this date in 43 BCE.  Known in the English-speaking world as Ovid, he was a Roman poet who lived during the reign of Augustus.  He was a contemporary of the older Virgil and Horace, with whom he is often ranked as one of the three canonical poets of Latin literature.  Ovid is today best known for the Metamorphoses, a 15-book continuous mythological narrative written in the meter of epic, and for works in elegiac couplets such as Ars Amatoria (“The Art of Love”) and Fasti.  His poetry was much imitated during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, and greatly influenced Western art and literature; he was, for instance a favorite– and favorite source– of Shakespeare.  And the Metamorphoses remains one of the most important sources of classical mythology.

Ovid enjoyed enormous popularity in his time; but, in one of the great mysteries of literary history, was sent by Augustus into exile in a remote province on the Black Sea, where he remained until his death.  Ovid himself attributes his exile to carmen et error, “a poem and a mistake”; but his discretion in discussing the causes has resulted in much speculation among scholars.



“The map is not the territory”*…


Much of the area around a Tanzanian safe house for girls threatened with genital mutilation isn’t recorded on Google Maps. By logging buildings and streets on OSM, volunteers can help outreach workers navigate. (OpenStreetMap)

“For most of human history, maps have been very exclusive,” said Marie Price, the first woman president of the American Geographical Society, appointed 165 years into its 167-year history. “Only a few people got to make maps, and they were carefully guarded, and they were not participatory.” That’s slowly changing, she said, thanks to democratizing projects like OpenStreetMap (OSM).

OSM is the self-proclaimed Wikipedia of maps: It’s a free and open-source sketch of the globe, created by a volunteer pool that essentially crowd-sources the map, tracing parts of the world that haven’t yet been logged. Armed with satellite images, GPS coordinates, local community insights and map “tasks,” volunteer cartographers identify roads, paths, and buildings in remote areas and their own backyards. Then, experienced editors verify each element. Chances are, you use an OSM-sourced map every day without realizing it: Foursquare, Craigslist, Pinterest, Etsy, and Uber all use it in their direction services.

When commercial companies like Google decide to map the not-yet-mapped, they use “The Starbucks Test,” as OSMers like to call it. If you’re within a certain radius of a chain coffee shop, Google will invest in maps to make it easy to find. Everywhere else, especially in the developing world, other virtual cartographers have to fill in the gaps…

Too often, men– and money– decide what will be mapped and why.  But a team of OpenStreetMap users is working to draw new cartographic lines, making maps that more accurately—and equitably—reflect our space: “Who Maps the World?

* Alfred Korzybski


As we find our way, we might send exploratory birthday greetings to Sir Richard Francis Burton; he was born on this date in 1821.  An explorer, geographer, translator, writer, soldier, orientalist, cartographer, ethnologist, spy, linguist, poet, fencer, and diplomat. He was famed for his travels and explorations in Asia, Africa and the Americas, as well as his extraordinary knowledge of languages and cultures (according to one count, he spoke 29 European, Asian and African languages).

An exception to the pervasive British ethnocentrism of his day, he relished personal contact with human cultures in all their variety.  His best-remembered achievements include: a well-documented journey to Mecca in disguise, at a time when Europeans were forbidden access on pain of death; an unexpurgated translation of One Thousand and One Nights (commonly called The Arabian Nights in English after early translations of Antoine Galland’s French version); the publication of the Kama Sutra in English; and a journey with John Hanning Speke as the first Europeans to visit the Great Lakes of Africa in search of the source of the Nile.



“These days, the bigger the company, the less you can figure out what it does”*…


Late 19th-century Americans loved railroads, which seemed to eradicate time and space, moving goods and people more cheaply and more conveniently than ever before. And they feared railroads because in most of the country it was impossible to do business without them.

Businesses, and the republic itself, seemed to be at the mercy of the monopoly power of railroad corporations. American farmers, businessmen and consumers thought of competition as a way to ensure fairness in the marketplace. But with no real competitors over many routes, railroads could charge different rates to different customers. This power to decide economic winners and losers threatened not only individual businesses but also the conditions that sustained the republic.

That may sound familiar. As a historian of that first Gilded Age, I see parallels between the power of the railroads and today’s internet giants like Verizon and Comcast. The current regulators – the Federal Communications Commission’s Republican majority – and many of its critics both embrace a solution that 19th-century Americans tried and dismissed: market competition…

The current controversy about the monopolistic power of internet service providers echoes those concerns from the first Gilded Age. As anti-monopolists did in the 19th century, advocates of an open internet argue that regulation will advance competition by creating a level playing field for all comers, big and small, resulting in more innovation and better products. (There was even a radical, if short-lived, proposal to nationalize high-speed wireless service.)

However, no proposed regulations for an open internet address the existing power of either the service providers or the “Big Five” internet giants: Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft. Like Standard Oil, they have the power to wring enormous advantages from the internet service providers, to the detriment of smaller competitors.

The most important element of the debate – both then and now – is not the particular regulations that are or are not enacted. What’s crucial is the wider concerns about the effects on society. The Gilded Age’s anti-monopolists had political and moral concerns, not economic ones. They believed, as many in the U.S. still do, that a democracy’s economy should be judged not only – nor even primarily – by its financial output. Rather, success is how well it sustains the ideals, values and engaged citizenship on which free societies depend.

When monopoly threatens something as fundamental as the free circulation of information and the equal access of citizens to technologies central to their daily life, the issues are no longer economic.

Stanford historian Richard White unpacks an important historical analogue; read it in full at “For tech giants, a cautionary tale from 19th century railroads on the limits of competition.”

[Image above: source]

* Michel Faber, The Book of Strange New Things


As we wonder if The Invisible Hand is giving us the finger, we might recall that it was on this date in 1852 that Henry Wells and William G. Fargo joined with several other investors to launch their eponymously-named cross-country freight business.  The California gold rush had created an explosive new need, which Wells, Fargo and other “pony express” and stage lines leapt to meet.  It was after the Civil War, in 1866, when Wells, Fargo acquired many of their competitors, that it became the dominant supplier.  (Ever flexible, they adapted again three years later, when the transcontinental railroad was finished.)

From it’s earliest days, it also functioned as a bank, factoring the shipments of gold that it carried.  Indeed, when Wells, Fargo exited the freight business as a result of government nationalization of freight during World War I, the bank (which merged with Nevada National in the first of a series of “transformative transactions”) continued to operate as “Wells, Fargo,” as indeed it does (albeit under unrecognizably evolved ownership) today.



Written by LW

March 18, 2018 at 1:01 am

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