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“Babies are such a nice way to start people”*…

 

What do most newborn’s have in common?  Their swaddling…

You’ve seen the [blanket], whether you’ve had a baby or not: it is mostly white, with thick blue and thinner pink stripes at the edges. If you’re on Facebook or Instagram, you’ve seen it tens, maybe hundreds of times.

The blanket is part of the Kuddle-Up line made by a Mundelein, Illinois-based healthcare supply company called Medline. The company was started in 1910 by A.L. Mills, an Arkansan who moved to Illinois and made his living creating butcher aprons for Chicago’s meat-packing industry. Eventually that led to work making surgical gowns—he was the first to shift them from light-reflecting white to the now ubiquitous light-absorbing jade green style. He did the same for hospital gowns: made them patterned instead of solid drab shades and switched the tie from the back to the side, for what Jim Abrams, Medline’s chief operating officer, called “a little more modesty.”

In the early 1950s, receiving blankets were usually made from dull beige cloth. Mills, ever the innovator, wanted to do for blankets what he had done for scrubs. “He asked the women in the office what they would do differently to spice it up a little bit,” says Abrams. They went through a number of iterations and finally settled on the blue- and pink-striped version because, as you might have suspected, it’s good for both girls and boys. The pattern is strangely appealing—before I knew that 99% of newborns are wrapped in identical blankets, I thought it was handsome. It never appears dated or cutesy or Disney. It is truly a classic.

Clearly, many people agree. Sixty years later, Medline sells 1.5 million Kuddle-Up blankets in Candy Stripe every year (the other patterns, with elephants or ducks, are less pervasive)…

Why every newborn you see on Facebook is wrapped in the same baby blanket.”

* Don Herold

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As we reach for the rattle, we might send carefully-conceived birthday greetings to Kingsley Davis; he was born on this date in 1908.  A renowned sociologist and demographer, Davis was an expert on population trends; he coined the terms “population explosion” and “zero population growth,” and promoted methods of encouraging the latter.

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Written by LW

August 20, 2016 at 1:01 am

“You can lead a horse to water, but a pencil must be lead”*…

 

The oldest known pencil in the world, from the early 17th century, on display at the Faber-Castell castle near Nuremberg, Germany

The pencil’s journey into your hand has been a 500-year process of discovery and invention. It began in the countryside of northern England, but a one-eyed balloonist from Napoleon Bonaparte’s army, one of America’s most famous philosophers, and some of the world’s most successful scientists and industrialists all have had a hand in the creation and refinement of this humble writing implement…

The story of everyone’s go-to writing implement:  “The Write Stuff- How the Humble Pencil Conquered the World.”

* Stan Laurel

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As we keep our erasers handy, we might spare a memorial thought for Hugo Gernsback, a Luxemborgian-American inventor, broadcast pioneer, writer, and publisher; he died on this date in 1967 at the age of 83.

Gernsback held 80 patents at the time of his death; he founded radio station WRNY, was involved in the first television broadcasts and is considered a pioneer in amateur radio.  But it was a writer and publisher that he probably left his most lasting mark:  In 1926, as owner/publisher of the magazine Modern Electrics, he filled a blank spot in his publication by dashing off the first chapter of a series called “Ralph 124C 41+.” The twelve installments of “Ralph” were filled with inventions unknown in 1926, including “television” (Gernsback is credited with introducing the word), fluorescent lighting, juke boxes, solar energy, television, microfilm, vending machines, and the device we now call radar.

The “Ralph” series was an astounding success with readers; and later that year Gernsback founded the first magazine devoted to science fiction, Amazing Stories.  Believing that the perfect sci-fi story is “75 percent literature interwoven with 25 percent science,” he coined the term “science fiction.”

Gernsback was a “careful” businessman, who was tight with the fees that he paid his writers– so tight that H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith referred to him as “Hugo the Rat.”

Still, his contributions to the genre as publisher were so significant that, along with H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, he is sometimes called “The Father of Science Fiction”; in his honor, the annual Science Fiction Achievement awards are called the “Hugos.”

(Coincidentally, today is also the birthday– in 1906– of Philo T. Farnsworth, the man who actually did invent television… and was thus the inspiration for the brand name “Philco.”)

Gernsback, wearing his invention, TV Glasses

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Written by LW

August 19, 2016 at 1:01 am

“The endless repetition of an ordinary miracle”*…

 

Snowflakes under a microscope

In 1611 Johannes Kepler wrote a scientific essay entitled De Nive Sexangula; commonly translated as “On the Six-Cornered Snowflake.” It was the first investigation into the nature of snowflakes and what we’d now call crystallography. Since he was a gentleman and a scholar back when you could be such a thing without being ironic or a hipster, Kepler gave the essay as a New Year’s gift. As Kepler wrote on the title page:

To the honorable Counselor at the Court of his Imperial Majesty, Lord Matthaus Wacker von Wackenfels, a Decorated Knight and Patron of Writers and Philosophers, my Lord and Benefactor.

As the title suggests, Kepler’s main concern was the question of why snowflakes are almost always six-pointed…

Follow the train of thought from the stacking of spheres to the intricacies of tiling at “Snowflakes and Cannonball Stacks.”

* Orhan Pamuk, Snow

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As we pause to ponder patterns, we might recall that it was on this date in 1891, about 20 miles outside of Midland, Texas, that the first rainmaking experiment in the U.S. was conducted. Robert St. George Dyrenforth, a Washington patent attorney and retired Army officer, led a team that used “mortars, casks, barometers, electrical conductors, seven tons of cast-iron borings, six kegs of blasting powder, eight tons of sulfuric acid, one ton of potash, 500 pounds of manganese oxide, an apparatus for making oxygen and another for hydrogen, 10- and 20-foot-tall muslin balloons and supplies for building enormous kites” to create enormous explosions meant to help clouds form.  Their efforts– which were based more on Dyrenforth’s instinct than on anything resembling scientific evidence– were entirely unsuccessful.  Still, at a time of extreme drought, it’s likely that almost anything seemed worth trying.  (The full– and very entertaining– story, here.)

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Written by LW

August 18, 2016 at 1:01 am

“Being virtually killed by a virtual laser in a virtual space is just as effective as the real thing, because you are as dead as you think you are.”*…

 

Long before Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, the paper peep show—a small, layered diorama that expands like an accordion to create the illusion of depth—was a way for audiences in the 19th century to peer into times and places beyond their own experience. A popular souvenir in their day, peep shows brought to life scenes of the completion of the Thames Tunnel and the Great Exhibition of 1851 to masquerade balls and theatrical stage sets. Now, they’re delightful pieces of ephemera from another time that suggest that desire for immersion in other worlds stretches back centuries…

Peep shows, also known as tunnel books, are widely considered to be the ancestors of animation and film. Peering through a peep show in the 21st century might as well be an analog version of virtual reality—one that transports you to a different time altogether…

Take a peek at “Paper Peep Shows Were The Virtual Reality Of The 19th Century.”

* Douglas Adams

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As we don the goggles, we might recall that it was on this date in 1908 that Émile Cohl‘s Fantasmagorie was released.  Considered by film scholars to be the first animated cartoon, it had tremendous influence not only on the future of animation, but also on early nature films.

 

 

Written by LW

August 17, 2016 at 1:01 am

“We expect more from technology and less from each other”*…

 

Replace these “wireless telegraphs” with smartphones, update the dress a little, and this vision from a 1906 issue of Punch magazine could easily be for 110 years in the future. Part of a series of “forecasts” for the year to come, the caption reads: “These two figures are not communicating with one another. The lady receives an amatory message, and the gentleman some racing results.” It’s a reminder that the idea of technology leading to a breakdown in “authentic” human interaction is a worry not solely limited to our age.

Punch seemed to have a knack for uncanny predictions of distant technologies to come. See for example this vision of the Skype-like “Telephonoscope” from 1879…

A Vision of Isolating Technology from 1906,” from Public Domain Review.  (The original is housed at the Internet Archive, from the University of Toronto Libraries.)

* Sherry Turkle, Alone Together

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As we pull on the thread, we might recall that it was on this date in 1858 that Queen Victoria sent the first official telegraph message across the Atlantic Ocean from London to the U.S. (Test messages had been exchanged for the prior 10 days).  Her message to President Buchanan, in Washington D.C., began transmission at 10:50am and was completed at 4:30am the next day, taking nearly 18-hrs to reach Newfoundland. With 99 words, consisting of 509 letters, it averaged about 2-min per letter.  The message was forwarded across Newfoundland by an overhead wire supported on poles; across Cabot Strait by submarine cable to Aspy Bay (Dingwall), Cape Breton; then by an overhead wire across eastern Canada and Maine, via Boston to New York.

This earliest Transatlantic Cable went dead within a month.

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Written by LW

August 16, 2016 at 1:01 am

“The metabolic rate of geology is too slow for us to perceive it”*…

 

email readers click here for video

Researchers modeled continental drift, going back 240 million years ago, on the scale of millimeters per year. It starts really slow and as if the supports give way to the separating pressure, there’s a relative burst of movement.

The full paper is in Nature, and the interactive version, which is a bit rough around the edges, can be found here. Select the time, rotate the planet around, and press play to watch the continents break apart.

From Flowing Data: “Continental drift, from 240 million years ago to present.”

(While the changes are slow, they are in fact detectable in the course of a human life; c.f., “Australia’s Entire GPS Navigation is Off By 5 Feet.”)

* Russell Banks, Continental Drift

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As we slip and slide, we might spare a thought for William Buckland; he died on this date in 1856.  A English theologian who became Dean of Westminster, he was also a paleontologist (who wrote the first full account of a fossil dinosaur, which he named Megalosaurus) and a geologist (who was known for his effort to reconcile geological discoveries with the Bible and anti-evolutionary theories).  A gentleman of some eccentricity, Buckland undertook his field work wearing an academic gown.

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Written by LW

August 15, 2016 at 1:01 am

“There is no perfection. All maps lie. All maps distort.”*…

 

Your correspondent is off for his annual sojourn in the land of dunes and deep fried food; regular service should resume on or around August 16.  Meantime, in the hope of inspiring readers to serendipitous travels of their own…

The notion that maps provide an objective or scientific depiction of the world is a common myth. The graphic nature of maps simplifies reality, giving makers and users a sense of power without social and ecological responsibilities. Details like the coloring of areas or the different sizes in typography can have great political consequences. For example, when names of towns are omitted from a map, it can imply that the area is not of interest, while adding names, details, and other information suggests it is an area of importance.

Mapmaking is a very old trade, but modern cartography originated in the age of European colonialism. Maps were indispensable for ships to navigate the oceans, and they legitimized the conquest of territories. Sometimes just mapping a newly found territory was enough to conquer it, without having to step ashore or have any knowledge of the indigenous population and history.

Even the fact that we put north on the top of the map is a result of the economic dominance of Western Europe after 1500. A map does not have a privileged direction in space. After all, the Earth has no up or down, and no geographical center…

Ruben Pater analyzes four prominent maps, including the one Google, Apple, and Bing use—but shouldn’t: “All World Maps Lie. So Which One Should We Use?

Paula Scher

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As we struggle to find our bearings, we might spare a topographical thought for Peter Hodgson; he died on this date in 1976.  An advertising and marketing consultant, Hodgson introduced Silly Putty to the world.  As The New York Times recounted in his obituary,

The stuff had been developed by General Electric scientists in the company’s New Haven laboratories several years earlier in a search for a viable synthetic rubber. It was obviously not satisfactory, and it found its way instead onto the local cocktail party circuit.

That’s where Mr. Hodgson, who was at the time writing a catalogue of toys for a local store, saw it, and an idea was born.

“Everybody kept saying there was no earthly use for the stuff” he later recalled. “But I watched them as they fooled with it. I couldn’t help noticing how people with busy schedules wasted as much as 15 minutes at a shot just fondling and stretching it”.

“I decided to take a chance and sell some. We put an ad in the catalogue on the adult page, along with such goodies as a spaghetti-making machine. We packaged the goop in a clear compact case and tagged it at $1.00”.

Having borrowed $147 for the venture, Mr. Hodgson ordered a batch from General Electric, hired a Yale student to separate the gob into one ounce dabs and began filling orders. At the same time he hurried to get some trademarks.

Silly Putty was an instant success, and Mr. Hodgson quickly geared up to take advantage of it…

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Written by LW

August 6, 2016 at 1:01 am

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