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“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

“Food is our common ground, a universal experience”*…

 

William Henry Fox Talbot, “A Fruit Piece,” 1845

We have Instagram to thank (or, perhaps, blame) for the proliferation of avocado toast today. But it was another, much earlier development in food photography that introduced us to the avocado in the first place.

In the 1940s, brands like Crisco and Aunt Jemima began to produce “cookbooklets”—free, promotional pamphlets that contained recipes accompanied by vivid photographs touting their products. “In lots of ways, they changed the way, especially in America, that people ate,” explains Susan Bright, author of the recently published book Feast for the Eyes.“Things like avocados and orange juice really became household objects through these cookbooklets.”

Bright’s book, which explores the history of food in photography, reveals that the subjects have been intertwined for nearly two centuries—almost since the birth of photography itself. The medium was introduced to the general public in 1839 with the unveiling of the daguerrotype. Six years later, William Henry Fox Talbot took one of the first photographs with food as its primary subject: a still life containing baskets of peaches and a pineapple…

All of the appetizing story at: “Food Photography Didn’t Start on Instagram—Here’s Its 170-Year History.”

* James Beard

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As we suggest to the cheese that it name itself, we might send a basketful for birthday greetings to Clarence Saunders; he was born on this date in 1881.  A Memphis grocer, he developed the the modern retail sales model of self service– he received U.S. Patent #1,242,872 for a “Self Serving Store”– and thus had a massive influence on the development of the modern supermarket.  His Memphis store grew into the Piggly Wiggly chain, which is still in operation.

The first Piggly Wiggly store

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Clarence Saunders

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“Don’t believe anything you read on the net. Except this. Well, including this, I suppose.”*…

 

Just a month ago, it was revealed that Facebook has more than two billion active monthly users. That means that in any given month, more than 25% of Earth’s population logs in to their Facebook account at least once.

This kind of scale is almost impossible to grasp.

Here’s one attempt to put it in perspective: imagine Yankee Stadium’s seats packed with 50,000 people, and multiply this by a factor of 40,000. That’s about how many different people log into Facebook every month worldwide.

The Yankee Stadium analogy sort of helps, but it’s still very hard to picture. The scale of the internet is so great, that it doesn’t make sense to look at the information on a monthly basis, or even to use daily figures.

Instead, let’s drill down to just what happens in just one internet minute…

More at “What Happens in an Internet Minute in 2017?

And for a cogent consideration of what all this might mean, see “You Are the Product.”

* Douglas Adams

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As we retreat behind the firewall, we might recall that it was on this date in 1980 that The Project Chess team at IBM showed a prototype microcomputer to their corporate management. Management gave approval– and a one-year deadline– for the team to build an operational computer to compete in the rapidly emerging personal computer market. One year and 4 days later, the IBM PC was introduced to the world… and the rest is history.

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Written by LW

August 8, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Optimism is the madness of insisting that all is well when we are miserable”*…

 

By the end of last year, anyone who had been paying even passing attention to the news headlines was highly likely to conclude that everything was terrible, and that the only attitude that made sense was one of profound pessimism – tempered, perhaps, by cynical humour, on the principle that if the world is going to hell in a handbasket, one may as well try to enjoy the ride…  Yet one group of increasingly prominent commentators has seemed uniquely immune to the gloom…

The loose but growing collection of pundits, academics and thinktank operatives who endorse this stubbornly cheerful, handbasket-free account of our situation have occasionally been labelled “the New Optimists”, a name intended to evoke the rebellious scepticism of the New Atheists led by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris. And from their perspective, our prevailing mood of despair is irrational, and frankly a bit self-indulgent. They argue that it says more about us than it does about how things really are – illustrating a certain tendency toward collective self-flagellation, and an unwillingness to believe in the power of human ingenuity. And that it is best explained as the result of various psychological biases that served a purpose on the prehistoric savannah – but now, in a media-saturated era, constantly mislead us…

Don’t worry, be happy? “Is the world really better than ever?

* Voltaire

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As we cultivate our gardens, we might send well-watered birthday greeting to Monkombu Sambisivan Swaminathan; he was born on this date in 1925.  A geneticist and international administrator, he is known as the “Indian Father of Green Revolution” for his leadership and success in introducing and further developing high-yielding varieties of rice and wheat in India.  Swaminathan, based these days at he MS Swaminathan Research Foundation, is an advocate of moving India to sustainable development, especially using environmentally-sustainable agriculture, sustainable food security, and the preservation of biodiversity– which he calls an “evergreen revolution.”

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Written by LW

August 7, 2017 at 1:01 am

“It’s not a matter of ‘Did you break?’ It’s a matter of ‘How far can you make it before you break?'”*…

 

Day 1, 1:42 a.m.: Lazarus Lake, who designed the Barkley Marathons in 1986 (no one finished that year), lights a Camel, signaling the start of this year’s race.

Since 1986, the world’s top ultra-runners have fought to compete in the Barkley Marathon, 100 miles through hellish Appalachian Mountain terrain. So far, only 15 have completed it…

For most of us, the 26.2 miles of a marathon represent the epitome of athletic endurance. For others, there are the ultramarathons, races that stretch to fifty or one hundred miles or more through some of the world’s most inhospitable regions. The Badwater 135 winds through the middle of Death Valley in July. The Marathon des Sables is a six-day, 156-mile race across the Sahara Desert. The Hardrock 100 is a high-altitude hundred- miler amid lightning storms and avalanches.

And then there is the Barkley Marathons.

Officially, it consists of five loops through Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee, totaling one hundred miles, but most participants believe it to be closer to 130. Runners must ascend and descend about 120,000 feet of elevation—the equivalent of climbing up and down Mount Everest twice. And all this must be done in just sixty hours. As of race time this year, of the more than one thousand people who have run it, only fourteen have finished.

It costs only $1.60 to enter. An application must be sent to a closely guarded email address at precisely the right minute on precisely the right day. The email must include an essay titled “Why I Should Be Allowed to Run in the Barkley.”

You must then complete a written exam that asks, for instance, “Explain the excess positrons in the flux of cosmic rays” and “How much butter should you use to cook a pound of liver (with onions)?” New runners, known as “virgins,” must bring a license plate from their state or country. “Veterans”— returning runners who did not finish—must bring an item of clothing. One year it was a flannel shirt. Another year it was a white dress shirt. This year it’s a pack of white socks. The few who have finished the course and are crazy enough to return, known as “alumni,” need only bring a pack of Camel cigarettes…

“An ever-shifting race, designed by a madman,” the story of the Barkley: “The Masochist’s Marathon.”

* John Kelly, Barkley contestant

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As we hit the trail, we might recall that it was on this date in 1984 that Carl Lewis won the long jump at the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, the second of the four gold medals he won at those Games.

In a career that ran from 1979 to 1996, Lewis won nine Olympic gold medals, one Olympic silver medal, and 10 World Championships medals (eight of them, gold). He is one of only three Olympic athletes who won a gold medal in the same event in four consecutive Olympic Games.  he was voted “World Athlete of the Century” by the International Association of Athletics Federations and “Sportsman of the Century” by the International Olympic Committee, and “Olympian of the Century” by Sports Illustrated.

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Written by LW

August 6, 2017 at 1:01 am

“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places”*…

 

The visual system’s tendency to fill in the invisible parts of the objects we see before us can be exploited to create a wide range of compelling magical illusions: spoons bending, knives cutting through flesh, and solid rings magically linking and unlinking. The principle underlying all these tricks, as well as many others, is that the visual system convinces you that something is there, whereas in fact there is just a gap or a missing piece.

But our visual system doesn’t just fill in the gaps. It can also create a compelling impression that the space hidden behind an object in the foreground is empty. In most situations, this impression is correct, but in some cases, it is illusory and misleading. To magicians, this perceptually empty space is the perfect hiding place for the things they don’t want you to know about. It is a no-brainer that hiding things behind something else makes them invisible, but the illusion of perceptually empty space entails more than just invisibility: it makes you ‘see’ that that there’s nothing there, although there sometimes is – particularly when you are watching a magician at work.

The philosopher Jason Leddington at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania says the experience of magic results from a failure of imagination. Our failure to figure out what the magician does results from the fact that we are unable to imagine it. This view neatly captures the essence of the illusion of empty space: it makes it difficult for us to even imagine that there is anything hidden behind the object in the foreground – be it the magician’s thumb, hand or anything else…

What magic can teach us about what we do– and don’t– perceive: “Now you see it, now you…

* Roald Dahl

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As we confirm that there’s nothing up our sleeves, we might recall that it was this date in 1693 that is traditionally ascribed to Benedictine friar Dom Pérignon’s invention of Champagne.

In fact, the the good father didn’t actually invent sparkling wine:  The oldest recorded sparkling wine is Blanquette de Limoux, which was apparently invented by a different bunch of Benedictines in the Abbey of Saint Hilaire near Carcassonne in 1531.  Then, over a century later, the English scientist and physician Christopher Merret documented the addition of sugar to a finished wine to create a second fermentation– six years before Dom Perignon set foot in the Abbey of Hautvillers (where he did, in fact, make several improvements to the process of making bubbly) and almost 40 years before it was claimed that the famed Benedictine monk invented Champagne.  Merret presented the Royal Society with a paper in which he detailed what is now called “méthode champenoise” in 1662.

Still, today’s a good day to raise a glass in thanks.

Statue of Dom Pérignon at Moët et Chandon

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Written by LW

August 5, 2017 at 1:01 am

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