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“The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss”*…

 

The oldest gliding mammals ever discovered are strengthening the case for taking to the skies.

Well, they couldn’t exactly soar like the eagles, but the two new species, discovered in China, at least sampled the aerial life. Both date to around 160 million years ago during the Jurassic Period, when mammals as a lineage were first getting off the ground — both metaphorically and literally. They’re not directly related to the gliders of today, however. Gliding instead seems to be advantageous enough that it has appeared several times throughout our evolutionary history…

Both fossils belong to a group of ancestral mammals that have long been extinct. As such, there is no line connecting them to gliding mammals today, indicating that mammalian aerial skills disappeared and re-emerged at least once throughout history. Using birds as an obvious example, flight is a powerful advantage to have. Even as a (temporarily) airborne creature you expend less energy, move faster and evade potential predators — all benefits that make the evolutionary trade-offs worthwhile. It’s not just mammals either, many frog species and even some fish have gained the ability to glide, with evidence that the trait has appeared more than once in those species as well…

The full story at: “Oldest Gliding Mammals Shed Light on the History of Flight.”

* Douglas Adams on flying, in Life, the Universe and Everything

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As we take to the air, we might recall that it was on this date in 1829 that Chang and Eng Bunker, arrived in Boston aboard the ship Sachem to be exhibited to the Western world.  The original “Siamese Twins,” they were  joined at the waist by a band of cartilage, about 8 in. circumference and 4 in. long.  In 1828 British merchant Robert Hunter “discovered” them and paid their family to let them be exhibited as a curiosity during a world tour; at the end of that engagement, the brothers went into business for themselves.  In 1839, they visited Wilkesboro, N.C. with P. T. Barnum; they found the town appealing, settled there, took the surname “Bunker,” became United States citizens, and in 1843 married two sisters with whom they raised 10 children. Only after their death was it discovered that the cartilage that connected them could have been easily and safely removed.

Click here for Mark Twain’s short story, “The Siamese Twins,” based on Chang and Eng.

Chang and Eng Bunker

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Written by LW

August 16, 2017 at 1:01 am

“He was a bold man that first ate an oyster”*…

 

“Speaking to the oysters”: a scene from “The Walrus and the Carpenter”, by Lewis Carroll, drawn by Sir John Tenniel in 1871.

In a change from chocolates and fizzy drinks, the French are starting to offer fresh oysters from vending machines in the hope of selling more of the delicacy outside business hours.

One pioneer is Tony Berthelot, an oyster farmer whose automatic dispenser of live oysters on the Ile de Re island off France’s western coast offers a range of quantities, types and sizes 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

French oyster farmers are following in the footsteps of other producers of fresh food who once manned stalls along roadsides for long hours but now use machines…

Oysters on demand at “French oysters go on sale in vending machines.”

* Jonathan Swift

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As we dispose of the shells, we might recall that it was on this date in 1943 that Sgt. Edward Dzuba received the Legion of Merit award in recognition of his talent for “using food scraps in unusual and appetizing recipes.”

Sgt. Dzuba encouraging one of his patrons

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Written by LW

August 15, 2017 at 1:01 am

“The Agee woman told us for three quarters of an hour how she came to write her beastly book, when a simple apology was all that was required”*…

 

Since 1982, the English Department at San Jose State University has sponsored the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, a whimsical literary competition that challenges entrants to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels…

The winner of the thirty-fifth Lyttoniad is Kat Russo from picturesque Loveland, Colorado. Kat describes herself as having twenty-six years of experience in covering social awkwardness with humor and stories about her cats. She spends her time working in outdoor retail and at a wildlife rehabilitation center while trying to figure out how to use her art degree.

Conceived to honor the memory of Victorian novelist Edward George Earl Bulwer-Lytton and to encourage unpublished authors who do not have the time to actually write entire books, the contest challenges entrants to compose bad opening sentences to imaginary novels. Bulwer was selected as patron of the competition because he opened his novel “Paul Clifford” (1830) with the immortal words, “It was a dark and stormy night.” Lytton’s sentence actually parodied the line and went on to make a real sentence of it, but he did originate the line “The pen is mightier than the sword,” and the expressions “the almighty dollar” and “the great unwashed.” His best known work, one on the book shelves of many of our great-grandparents, is “The Last Days of Pompeii” (1834), an historical novel that has been adapted for film multiple times.

As has happened every year since the contest went public in 1983, thousands of entries poured in not just from the United States and Canada but from such far-flung locales as England, Wales, Ireland, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, China, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Botswana…

All of the 2017 category winners and runners-up– all of which are eminently worthy– at “The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest.”

* P.G. Wodehouse, The Girl in Blue

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As we read ’em and weep, we might send amusing birthday greetings to Ernest Lawrence Thayer; he was born on this date in 1863.  A Harvard classmate (and Hasty Pudding and Lampoon colleague) of William Randolph Hearst, Thayer was recruited by his friend to the humor columnist for The San Francisco Examiner, 1886–88.  Thayer’s last piece, dated June 3, 1888, and published under his pen name “Phin,” was a ballad entitled “Casey” (“Casey at the Bat”) which made him “a prize specimen of the one-poem poet” according to American Heritage.

The first public performance of the poem was by actor De Wolf Hopper on this date in 1888, Thayer’s 25th birthday. Thayer’s recitation of the poem at a Harvard class reunion in 1895 finally settled the question of its authorship.

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“Libertarians sometimes prove that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, and that there is a difference between logic and wisdom”*…

 

Art Martinez de Vara, the architect of Von Ormy’s incorporation as a liberty city

For the last few years, Von Ormy has been in near-constant turmoil over basic issues of governance: what form of municipal government to adopt, whether to tax its residents, and how to pay for services such as sewer, police, firefighters and animal control. Along the way, three City Council members were arrested for allegedly violating the Open Meetings Act, and the volunteer fire department collapsed for lack of funds. Nearly everyone in town has an opinion on who’s to blame. But it’s probably safe to say that the vision of the city’s founder, a libertarian lawyer whose family traces its roots in Von Ormy back six generations, has curdled into something that is part comedy, part tragedy.

In 2006, fearing annexation by rapidly encroaching San Antonio, some in Von Ormy proposed incorporating as a town. But in government-averse rural Texas, incorporation can be a hard sell. Unincorporated areas are governed mainly by counties, which have few rules about what you can do on private property and tend to only lightly tax. There’s no going back from what municipal government brings: taxes, ordinances, elections and tedious city council meetings. Still, the fear of being absorbed by San Antonio — with its big-city taxes and regulations — was too much for most Von Ormians.

Enter Art Martinez de Vara. At the time, Martinez de Vara was an ambitious third-year law student at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, a local boy with a penchant for Texas history and right-wing politics.

Martinez de Vara suggested a compromise of sorts. Von Ormy could become a “liberty city” — a stripped-down, low-tax, low-government version of municipal government that’s currently en vogue among the tea party in Texas.

Initially, the city would impose property and sales taxes, but the property tax would ratchet down to zero over time. The business-friendly environment would draw new economic activity to Von Ormy, and eventually the town would cruise along on sales taxes alone…

* Molly Ivins, Fort Worth Star-Telegram (7 September 1996)

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As we seek the middle way, we might recall that this is International Left-Handers Day.  Celebrated since 1976, it promotes awareness of the inconveniences faced by left-handers– 7 to 10% of the world’s population– and celebrates their uniqueness and differences in a predominantly right-handed world.

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Written by LW

August 13, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Propaganda does not deceive people; it merely helps them to deceive themselves”*…

 

Produced at the height of the Cold War [1956], and made at the behest of the American Petroleum Institute (still the biggest lobby for the U.S. oil and gas industry), this great little promotional film from John Sutherland Studios [producer of other such gems as “Rhapsody of Steel,” “A is for Atom,” and “Wise Use of Credit’; c.f. here] champions not only the wonders of oil as might be expected, but also free-market capitalism. The surprisingly humorous cartoon tells the story of how the suspiciously Stalin-like leader of Mars, named Ogg, sends a rather calamity-prone citizen to Earth to find a better power source for his poorly-running “state limousine”. The exploring Martian, of course, lands in the United States and soon discovers the many and myriad delights of petroleum, and that, in contrast to his home planet, competition between companies is rife. His take-home lesson (and one drilled into the viewer on numerous occasions) is that “competing for the customer’s dollar” is key to the success of the oil industry and, of course, the thriving country as a whole. Delivering the news to Ogg back on Mars, the leader replies defiantly that “competition is downright un-Martian”, but the ordinary Martians are not to be deterred and soon rise up to overthrow Ogg and set up a thriving oil industry (and capitalist culture) of their own — the short ending with the slogan “destination unlimited” writ proudly across the screen…

Via Public Domain Review, and the Internet Archive.

* Eric Hoffer

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As we fill ‘er up, we might recall that it was on this date in 1888 that Bertha Benz, wife of inventor Karl Benz made the first motor tour. Without her husband’s knowledge, she borrowed one of his cars and with their teenage sons travelled 180 km to visit relatives for 5 days. She drove her sons, Richard and Eugen, 14 and 15 years old, in Benz’s newly-constructed “Patent Motorwagen” automobile, from Mannheim to Pforzheim– a distance of more than 106 km (66 miles).  She thus became the first person to drive an automobile over more than just a very short distance… and in so doing, brought her husband’s handiwork worldwide attention, securing his company’s first sales.

The Benz Patent-Motorwagen Number 3 of 1886, used by Bertha Benz for the highly publicized first long distance road trip

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Written by LW

August 12, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Everything has a time of being – a birth, a life span, and a death”*…

 

In 2014, the United States ranked 41st in the world in life expectancy, with an average American expected to live to age 78. But, like most averages, that doesn’t paint the whole picture. Life expectancy is more like Norway’s in some parts of the country and more like Kazakhstan’s in others.

That’s why it’s more useful to look at it county by county…

An interactive map that allows one to do exactly that: “How life expectancy in U.S. counties compares to other countries.”

*Dixie Lee Ray

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As we take our vitamins, we might send carefully-conserved birthday greetings to Gifford Pinchot; he was born on this date in 1865.  An American forester, he became the first chief of the Forest Service in 1905.  By 1910, with President Theodore Roosevelt’s backing, he built 60 forest reserves covering 56 million acres into 150 national forests covering 172 million acres.  Roosevelt’s successor, President Taft– no environmentalist– fired Pinchot.  Still Pinchot’s efforts earned him the honorific, “the father of conservation.”

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Written by LW

August 11, 2017 at 1:01 am

“All of today’s DNA, strung through all the cells of the earth, is simply an extension and elaboration of [the] first molecule”*…

 

The first biological teleporter sits in a lab on the lower level of the San Diego building that houses Synthetic Genomics Inc. (SGI), looking something like a super-sized equipment cart.

The device is actually conglomeration of small machines and lab robots, linked to each other to form one big machine. But this one can do something unprecedented: it can use transmitted digital code to print viruses.

In a series of experiments culminating last year, SGI scientists used genetic instructions sent to the device from elsewhere in the building to automatically manufacture the DNA of the common flu virus. They also produced a functional bacteriophage, a virus that infects bacterial cells.

Although that wasn’t the first time anyone had made a virus from DNA parts, it was the first time it was done automatically, without human hands.

The device, called a “digital-to-biological converter” was unveiled in May. Though still a prototype, instruments like it could one day broadcast biological information from sites of a disease outbreak to vaccine manufacturers, or print out on-demand personalized medicines at patients’ bedsides…

… or project life-as-we-know it into outer space. More at “Biological Teleporter Could Seed Life Through Galaxy.”

* Lewis Thomas, The Medusa and the Snail

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As we beam up, we might spare a thought for Sidney Walter Fox; he died on this date in 1998.  A biochemist, he was responsible for a series of discoveries about the origin of life.  Fox believed in the process of abiogenesis, by which life spontaneously organized itself from the colloquially known “primordial soup,” poolings of various simple organic molecules that existed during the time before life on Earth.  In his experiments (which possessed, he believed, conditions like those of primordial Earth), he demonstrated that it is possible to create protein-like structures from inorganic molecules and thermal energy.  Dr. Fox went on to create microspheres that he said closely resembled bacterial cells and concluded that they could be similar to the earliest forms of life or protocells.

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Written by LW

August 10, 2017 at 1:01 am

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