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Archive for the ‘Edutainment’ Category

More “Useless Facts for Inquiring Minds.”

In 1909, a portion of Woodward Avenue in Detroit became the first road in the United States to be paved. Woodward Avenue was built in 1805, following the route of an Indian trail between Detroit and Pontiac.

The Tower of London, built in 1066, was used as a prison from 1100 until 1952. Its first prisoner was a financial minister to King Rufus, Ranulf Flambard, who became a scapegoat for the financial crimes of his bosses.

The last prisoners were London mobsters Ronnie and Reggie Kray who, in 1952, refused to report for service in the Royal Fusiliers. They were held in the Tower until they were court-martialed. They were given dishonorable discharges, which probably hurt their feelings real bad.

Virginia was founded in 1607, when Jamestown became the first permanent English settlement. Over the next 200 years, the Commonwealth lost substantial territory as new states were created. Areas that once were part of Virginia now belong to Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania.

The novel This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald used the words “T-shirt” and “daiquiri” in print for the first time. It also included the first known use of the word “wicked” to mean cool or excellent.

This Side

Delaware Bay, the outlet of the Delaware River between New Jersey and Delaware, is the country’s second-busiest waterway (after the Mississippi River). Its wetlands make it an important breeding site for many aquatic species.

The bay is prime oystering ground and home of the world’s largest concentration of horseshoe crabs. Each spring, thousands of horseshoe crabs come ashore to lay their eggs, which provide food for bird migrations.

Elvis Presley had naturally blond hair that turned sandy brown by the time he was a teenager. When he started singing professionally, he dyed his hair black because he thought it made him look edgy and cool.

The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World were the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, the Lighthouse of Alexandria, the statue of Zeus at Olympia, and the Colossus of Rhodes, also a statue.

In 2007, 100 million people voted and declared the New Seven Wonders of the World to be the Great Wall of China, the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Brazil, the ruins of the Incan city of Machu Picchu in Peru, the ruins of the Mayan city of Chichen Itza in Mexico, the ruins of the Arab city of Petra in Jordan, the Roman Colosseum, and the Taj Mahal.

Flamingos are born with gray feathers, but the feathers gradually turn pink because of beta carotene, a natural dye occurring in their diet of brine shrimp, algae, and larvae.

Flamingos

Spain got its name from the Roman word Hispania, which is the Roman name for the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal). The origin and meaning of the word Hispania is unclear.

Some experts think the Romans borrowed the word from an earlier language, and we may never know. Others believe it means “Land where metals are forged,” “Land of the setting sun,” and “Land of rabbits.”

A 150th anniversary is called a sesquicentennial because the Latin prefix sesqui- means “one and a half times.” Likewise, a person given to using long words (by implication, in a pretentious manner) is called a sesquipedalian.

The Roman poet Horace once cautioned young writers to avoid “sesquipedalia verba” — which literally means words a foot and a half long.

A tetrachromat is an organism with four color receptors in the eyes instead of the usual three (trichromat). Four receptors allows more vision on the color spectrum. This abnormality, or superpower, occurs in some fish, birds, insects, and mammals, including humans.

Women are more likely to be tetrachromatic than men. One study found that 50 percent of women and eight percent of men are tetrachromatic to some degree.

A nut is a type of fruit consisting of an edible seed inside an inedible shell. Almonds, pecans, walnuts, etc. all qualify. Peanuts, however, are not nuts. They are legumes, related to beans and peas. Rule to remember: nuts grow on trees, legumes grow underground or on bushes.

Peanuts

 

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The Bad Old Days

The 1800s has been called the “patent medicine” era, a golden age of quack medications that claimed to relieve a wide range of ailments. They were noted for being sold with sensational claims, but scant evidence that they worked.

Syrup-1

Back then, no laws regulated the sale of medicines or narcotics. The manufacturers weren’t even required to disclose what their products contained. Because government oversight did not yet exist, miracle cures and snake oil remedies flourished.

Sometimes, the patent medicines did no harm. For example, when 7-Up first came on the market, it contained a trace of lithium, a substance known for its mood-stabilizing properties. At the time, 7-Up was sold as a hangover cure, not as a soft drink.

But the amount of lithium in a bottle of 7-Up was teeny-tiny, essentially useless and harmless. (Lithium continued to be added to the product until 1948.)

A similar example: Buffalo Lithium Water was sold as a treatment for “fevers and nervous disorders.” Later, it was found to contain so little lithium that a useful dose would require drinking 150,000 gallons a day.

To be fair, patent medicines occasionally worked, even if accidentally. Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People was touted as a cure for paralysis, heart palpitations, sallow complexions, general weakness, and more. The main ingredient was iron, and the pills were an effective treatment for iron deficiency anemia, a common condition in that era.

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Nevertheless, many potions and nostrums of the time were dangerous and often deadly.

A.B.C. Liniment, which promised to relieve pain from sciatica, rheumatism, and lower back pain, was named for its primary ingredients aconite (a plant toxin), belladonna (another toxin, AKA deadly nightshade), and chloroform (a sedative and carcinogen).

Users of the product were regularly poisoned, but likely had no idea what sickened them.

A product called Chlorodyne was invented in the 1840s by a British doctor as a pain-reliever. Decades later, it was marketed as a treatment for diarrhea, insomnia, and migraine headaches.

Chlorodyne was a mixture of tincture of opium, tincture of cannabis, and chloroform. The product relieved pain like a boss, but its use led to countless overdoses and cases of addiction. And again, people often didn’t realize Chlorodyne was the cause.

Sozodont Tooth Powder claimed to “harden and invigorate the gums, purify and perfume the breath and beautify and preserve the teeth from youth to old age.” Not really. Sozodont contained acids, astringents, and abrasives that eroded tooth enamel.

In some cases, the public knew full well what they were getting. Medications were an under-the-table way for proper ladies and gentlemen to get high or tipsy.

Most tragic of all, some mothers of teething babies or infants with colic, often tired and desperate, turned to an especially nasty category of patent medicines: sedatives to stop babies from crying.

Dalby’s Carminative and Godfrey’s Cordial were sold precisely for that purpose. Both products contained opium and led to unknown numbers of poisonings and deaths over the years.

Among the most infamous of the calmatives was Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, a product that did, indeed, stop babies from crying, pretty much instantly, with a combination of morphine and alcohol.

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Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup was created in the 1840s by Charlotte Winslow, a pediatric nurse in Bangor, Maine. She used the syrup to treat her own children as well as those in her care.

In 1849, her son-in-law, Jeremiah Curtis, formed a company to market the product. The syrup became popular throughout North America and Britain. By 1868, Curtis reported annual sales of 1.5 million bottles.

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But the syrup easily could be lethal. One fluid ounce contained 65mg of morphine. As little as 5mg of morphine can be fatal to a newborn.

The directions recommended six to 10 drops for newborns, half a teaspoon for a six-month-old, and a full teaspoon for older children — in all cases, three or four times a day. At that dosage, a toddler could get 260mg of morphine in 24 hours.

In other words, a teaspoonful of Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup could kill, depending on the age and health of the child. And, indeed, many children took the syrup and never woke up.

Syrup-5

In truth, science was just beginning to understand the effects of morphine, opium, and other narcotics. Most parents thought of the syrup as a useful, modern remedy, not a dangerous drug.

But deaths occurred regularly, and by the 1880s, many physicians began raising the alarm, calling the syrup and products like it “baby killers.”

Finally, in 1906, the Pure Food and Drug Act became law. It required ingredients to be listed, and it enforced purity standards.

In 1911, Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup was denounced by the American Medical Association for its lethal history. Soon after, the manufacturer was forced to remove morphine from the product and to remove “soothing” from the name.

The syrup continued to be sold until the 1930s.

It’s impossible to know how many infants and children died from morphine overdoses or the complications of addiction and withdrawal. Most likely, many thousands.

Charlotte Winslow died in 1851, probably unaware of the toll her product was taking.

Her son-in-law, however, lived long enough to be aware of the stories documenting the product’s lethal history. Jeremiah Curtis died a millionaire in 1883.

Many patent medicines from the Bad Old Days were reformulated and are still on the market today.

Originally, Coca-Cola contained a small amount of cocaine and was sold as a cure for impotence and morphine addiction. Later, when the dangers of cocaine were better understood, the drug was quietly dropped from the ingredients.

Although they contained no cringeworthy ingredients, Pepsi, Dr. Pepper, and Hire’s Root Beer all made medicinal claims back in the day. Ads for Dr. Pepper said it “aids digestion and restores vim, vigor, and vitality.” Hires claimed it could “purify the blood and make rosy cheeks.”

Carter’s Little Liver Pills began as a cure for “headache, constipation, dyspepsia, and biliousness,” but today is sold simply as a laxative.

Consider this eye-opening statistic: in 1800, 43 percent of children worldwide died before age five. By 1900, the rate was 36 percent. Better, but still appalling.

Today, the rate is four percent, thanks to scientific advancements and government oversight.

Government regulations are a wonderful thing. They protect your vulnerable, unsuspecting self from the consequences of quackery, fakery, deception, cheating, and ignorance. Which is a fine thing for government to be doing.

Corruption in high places no doubt is inevitable. But it’s wrong to vilify government so completely, as the conservative herd is wont to do.

What government needs is sensible guidance — support, protection, and encouragement to be fair and do the right thing for the benefit of us all.

But I digress.

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Useless Facts

More “Useless Facts for Inquiring Minds.”

Virginia is the birthplace of eight U.S. presidents, the most among the states. Seven presidents were born in Ohio, five in New York, four in Massachusetts, and the remaining presidents were from 17 other states. Six states have produced none.

During the Apollo 14 moon mission in 1971, astronaut Alan Shepard brought out a folding 6-iron and drove two golf balls into the lunar distance. He shanked the first drive, but the second traveled about 200 yards. Shepard got the okay of his NASA bosses in advance.

Eleanor Roosevelt was First Lady of the United States from 1933 until 1945. In 1935, she began writing “My Day,” a syndicated newspaper column about issues of the time. The popular column was published six days a week until 1961, when the schedule was changed to every other day due to her failing health. Her last column appeared in 1962, two months before her death.

In days of yore, humans measured time with the clepsydra or water clock. Clepsydra is Greek for water thief. The device measures the flow of water through an opening, and marking on the container show the passage of time.

Two versions existed: one measured outflow, and one measured inflow. Their accuracy was… fair to okay. The pendulum clocks that replaced them in the 1600s were much more accurate.

Clepsydra

The real name of lead singer Bono of the rock band U2 is Paul David Hewson. “Bono,” he says, is derived from the Latin word “bonavox,” which means good voice.

La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles is a seep of natural asphalt. Because the tar preserves the bones of the unlucky animals who died there, La Brea has been a fossil excavation site and a popular tourist attraction since the early 1900s.

“La Brea” is Spanish for “the tar,” so technically, “The La Brea Tar Pits” means “The the tar tar pits.”

When the first president of Israel died in 1952, the Israeli prime minister asked Albert Einstein to become president. Einstein would have to relocate to Israel, but would be free to continue his scientific work. Einstein said he was “deeply moved,” but declined on grounds that he lacked “the natural aptitude and the experience” for the position.

The “Temple of a Million Bottles” in Thailand is a complex of buildings constructed by Buddhist monks to keep beer bottles out of landfills. The original temple was completed in 1986. Today, the site consists of 20 buildings and some 1.5 million bottles. The monks use green and brown bottles for the construction, and they use bottle caps to create mosaics.

Temple

Commercial coffee growers raise two varieties of beans: Robusta and Arabica. Robusta accounts for 30 percent of world production. It is hardier, easier to grow, harsher in taste, and higher in caffeine. The other 70 percent of plants are Arabica, which require more attention, but produce a higher-quality brew.

Robusta is used to make instant coffee, and cheaper brands mix it, to varying degrees, with Arabica. Lesson: check the label and go with Arabica.

When the singer Pink (technically, P!nk) was a young teenager, her friends teased her by saying she looked like Mr. Pink, the character played by Steve Buscemi in Reservoir Dogs. She reacted by embracing the name and later used it professionally. Her real name is Alecia Beth Moore.

In 1960, while performing Verde’s La Forza Del Destino (The Force of Destiny) at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, baritone Leonard Warren suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and dropped dead on the stage.

His last words were the opening lines of an aria that begins “Morir, tremenda cosa,” which means “To die, a momentous thing.”

“The world’s narrowest house” is the Keret House in Warsaw, Poland, built in the four-foot space between two adjacent building. It consists of three levels containing a bedroom, a bathroom, and a kitchen. The structure is considered an art project because it doesn’t fully meet building codes.

Keret House

 

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Magic Mud

In 1920, in a baseball game with the New York Yankees, Cleveland Indians batter Ray Chapman was hit in the head by a pitched ball. Witnesses said Chapman apparently lost sight of the ball, because he made no attempt to move or duck.

Hours later, he died. Chapman is the only major league player ever killed in this manner.

The condition of the ball was considered a factor in Chapman’s death. In those days, pitchers were expected to “break in” new baseballs, which are glossy and slick and hard to grip. Pitchers rubbed the baseballs with anything handy — dirt, mud, spit, tobacco juice, shoe polish. They nicked the leather with blades and roughed it up with sandpaper.

As a result, game balls varied widely in condition. They could be damp. They could wobble in flight. Worse, they tended to be dark and mottled in color, making them harder to see.

After the Chapman incident, Major League Baseball was motivated anew to find a way to season new baseballs without the negative side effects. Nothing surfaced.

Finally, in the late 1930s, a third-base coach for the Philadelphia Athletics, Lena Blackburne, found a solution that wasn’t quite magic, but came close. His method is still used today by every MLB team and most minor league and college teams.

Blackburne grew up in Palmyra, New Jersey, a small town on the Delaware River just north of Philadelphia. He knew from his childhood that the river mud near Palmyra is unique. It has an unusually smooth, creamy, clay-like consistency and holds minimal moisture. He decided to try the mud on a baseball.

Blackburne found that a tiny amount of the river mud — one finger dipped in the stuff — was enough to spread over a baseball and work the magic. The mud seasoned the leather, eliminated the gloss, and slightly roughened the surface, all without discoloring the ball. Baseballs looked the same before and after treatment.

Blackburne’s rubbing mud was an instant hit with the Athletics. Word soon spread around the league, and other teams began asking Blackburne for a supply of the river mud.

At that point, Blackburne officially went into the business of selling Lena Blackburne’s Baseball Rubbing Mud — Baseball’s Magic Mud.

Experts say the mud gets its characteristics from the type and amount of clay in the soil and the chemistry of the river. The Delaware is a “blackwater” river, rich in iron oxide, and it flows through highly acidic soil.

It’s also a fact that mud from anywhere along the river won’t do. Blackburne found that only along about a one-mile stretch of the river do ideal conditions for the rubbing mud exist.

Blackburne kept the location secret. He confided only in his friend John Haas, who became his partner in the business.

The process Blackburne and Haas developed was to collect the mud in buckets, run it through a strainer to remove leaves and other debris, add water, and let it sit in large cans.

Periodically over about six weeks, excess water was drained, and the mud was strained several more times. When no water remained and the mud was perfectly smooth — reduced to the consistency of cold cream or pudding — it was ready to be packaged.

Blackburne and Haas prepared the mud over the fall and winter and were ready to supply the teams the following spring. By the 1950s, every team in baseball was rubbing the magic mud on every baseball.

The mud was a big deal for baseball, but certainly not a money-maker for Blackburne. The market is limited, and a couple of containers will last a team all season. Blackburne’s enterprise was a service to the game and a labor of love.

(Each team needs about two one-pint containers of the mud per year. In 1981, a container sold for $20. The price today is $100. The mud business currently nets about $15,000 to $20,000 per year.)

Blackburne died in 1968 and left the company to Haas. Haas continued the business, still keeping the location secret. When he retired, his son-in-law, Burns Bintliff, took over.

Like Blackburne and Haas, Bintliff ran the mud business in his spare time, holding a job elsewhere to pay the bills. Eventually, he passed the business along to his son Jim, who runs the company today.

Jim Bintliff and his wife Joanne both worked for a small printing company and ran the mud business on the side. Joanne said they were married five years and had two children before Jim finally revealed to her the secret location where the mud is collected.

Eventually, their youngest daughter Rachel is expected to take over the business — if demand for the mud continues.

In 2016, MLB asked the equipment manufacturer Rawlings to develop a ball that didn’t need rubbing mud — a ball that is broken-in and ready to use upon delivery. The rubbing mud, they said, is a hassle for equipment managers, and Mother Nature could decide to stop making it available.

Rawlings continues trying to create a pre-seasoned baseball, but so far has struck out. Pitchers are accustomed to the feel of Lena Blackburne‘s Magic Mud, and the chemists and engineers at Rawlings haven’t been able to replicate that feel to the players’ satisfaction.

Mud is mud,” said Mike Thompson, Chief Marketing Officer at Rawlings. “But, obviously, mud isn’t mud.”

Meanwhile, Jim Bintliff has been working on another angle for the business. The mud, it seems, works just as well on a football. Many NFL teams now place regular orders.

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Jim Bintliff at work.

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Useless Facts

Imagine that you bored a large hole from the surface of the earth, through the center, and out the other side. According to a physicist, if you jumped into the hole, it would take you about 38 minutes to “fall” to the other side.

During the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge in 1936 and 1937, 11 workers died in falls, and 19 were saved by safety nets. The survivors dubbed themselves the Halfway to Hell Club.

Lemons float in water, but limes sink. The reason: lemons are slightly less dense than water, and limes are slightly more dense.

The practice of carving jack-o’-lanterns originated in Ireland. The Irish began carving them several centuries ago out of turnips and potatoes. Irish immigrants to America applied the technique to pumpkins.

Turnip

The Norse explorer Leif Erikson is the first known European to set foot on continental North America. He landed somewhere on the coast of Newfoundland or Labrador in the year 1000. Erikson made the voyage because an Icelandic merchant told him he had sighted land west of Greenland in 986, but didn’t make landfall.

But there is evidence that Erikson wasn’t the first. When he reached the coast, he rescued two shipwrecked men whom the historic record does not name, but implies were European.

When the Star Trek TV series was in development in the early 1960s, the idea was for the Spock character to be from Mars and to have red skin. By the time filming began, Spock’s heritage was “human-Vulcan,” and his skin was yellow-tinged. The idea of red was dropped because it looked black on a black-and-white TV.

Sean Connery played Agent 007 in the first five James Bond movies, and he wore a toupee in all five. Connery began going bald as a teenager.

The narwhal is a medium-sized, Arctic-dwelling whale notable for (1) its long, unicorn-like tusk and (2) the absence of a dorsal fin. Adult narwhals are 13-18 feet long, not counting the tusk. The tusk is an elongated tooth like those of elephants, walruses, and pigs.

Narwhal

Capoeira is a form of martial art developed in the 1700s by escaped African slaves hiding in the jungles of Brazil. It incorporates a variety of fast, complex kicks and spins similar to acrobatics and dance moves. Capoeira was a highly effective fighting technique, and in the past, the government made its practice a crime. Today. It is Brazil’s official national sport, although soccer is more popular.

The Biltmore House in Asheville, North Carolina, which has 255 rooms and occupies an estate of 125,000 acres, is the largest residence ever built for a private citizen. It was completed in 1895 as the home of George Washington Vanderbilt II, who needed a way to spend some of his money. It was opened to the public in 1930.

An agelast (adge-uh-lest) is a person who never laughs and seems to have no sense of humor.

Armadillos (from the Spanish for “little armored one”) are small, timid mammals related to anteaters and sloths. They have sharp claws used to dig for insects and to make dens.

The nine-banded armadillo usually seen in the U.S. is about the size of a housecat. The largest species, the giant armadillo, is the size of a small pig. The smallest species, the pink fairy armadillo of central Argentina, is about four inches long and weighs only a few ounces.

Pink fairy armadillo

 

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C. Hart Merriam

I’m always impressed by, and more than a little envious of, people who make genuine contributions to society. Most people, including me, and maybe you, are just taking up space. No offense intended; that’s just the way it is.

One such person who left his mark is the naturalist and zoologist C. Hart Merriam (1855-1942). Merriam was born wealthy and well-connected, and he could have settled back and lived a life of indolence and privilege. Instead, he built upon his status, applied himself, and made a difference.

Clinton Hart Merriam was born in New York City, the son of Clinton Levi Merriam, a member of Congress, and Carolyn Hart Merriam, the daughter of a judge. The younger Merriam chose to go by “C. Hart” because his father already had a claim on the name Clinton.

The Merriam family wintered in New York City, but otherwise lived at Locust Grove, an estate in rural Lewis County in upstate New York. Growing up there, young Merriam developed an interest in the natural world.

By the time he was 15, he had learned the basics of taxidermy and amassed a sizable collection of animal specimens. To encourage the boy, his father introduced him to Spencer Baird, a naturalist at the Smithsonian Institution. Impressed by young Merriam’s collection, Baird arranged for him to take professional lessons in taxidermy.

In 1871, when Merriam was 16, Baird appointed him to accompany the Hayden Geological Survey to Wyoming as a naturalist. The Hayden expedition explored the territory that later became Yellowstone National Park.

Merriam returned with hundreds of bird and nest specimens. His report on the trip was his first contribution to scientific literature.

In 1874, at Baird’s urging, Merriam enrolled at Yale University, where he studied anatomy and natural history. While at Yale, he published several scientific papers, including “A Review of the Birds of Connecticut” and, following a trip to Florida with his father, “Ornithological Notes From the South.”

Merriam’s interest in anatomy soon led him to leave Yale and enter medical school at Columbia University. He earned his M.D. degree in 1879 and returned to Locust Grove and Lewis County, where he established a successful medical practice.

Merriam stayed in touch with his naturalist friends and continued to add specimens to his collection. He also began studying mammals as well as birds.

Another interest that surfaced was the question of species distribution — understanding the factors that determine where living things make their homes. Preparing for future study, Merriam hired a clerk to research weather statistics and to document monthly temperatures at different locations and altitudes.

In 1883, a group of scientists created the American Ornithologists’ Union, patterned after a similar British organization. Merriam was elected secretary and treasurer as well as chairman of the committees on Bird Migration and Geographic Distribution.

Merriam’s grand plans for his committees far exceeded the organization’s resources. But Merriam had resources of his own: a father serving in the U.S. House of Representatives and friendships with John Muir, John Wesley Powell, and Theodore Roosevelt.

The elder Merriam arranged the creation of an ornithology section within the Department of Agriculture, plus $10,000 annually for a chief ornithologist. In 1886, the younger Merriam was chosen for the job. Through the magic of political connections, he thus transitioned from medical doctor to scientist.

In time, the ornithology section became the Bureau of Biological Survey, which Merriam headed for 25 years. In 1940, it evolved into the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In 1886, Merriam married his secretary, Virginia Gosnell. In 1888, he was among the 33 notable Americans who founded the National Geographic Society.

Then, in July 1889, he set forth on a scientific expedition in Northern Arizona that led to the insight for which he is best remembered.

Bankrolled by a $600 grant from his department, Merriam and a small team conducted a survey of plants and animals in the Flagstaff area. The survey extended from the San Francisco Peaks to the Painted Desert to the floor of Grand Canyon.

For several months, they worked from a series of remote base camps in the region. One, located about 20 miles north of Flagstaff, is today a National Historic Landmark.

Merriam-1

Merriam (center), his wife Virginia, and staff members at the base camp near Flagstaff.

The team’s findings led Merriam to conclude that the changes occurring in flora and fauna as you gain altitude are the same as changes occurring as you travel north. Most naturalists at the time thought of “zones” in terms of eastern, central, and western.

Going further, Merriam identified seven “life zones” that support specific types of plant and animal life.

The zones, from highest to lowest in altitude:

1 – Alpine (arctic)
2 – Sub-Alpine (tundra)
3 – Hudsonian (spruce, fir)
4 – Canadian (mixed conifer)
5 – Transition (ponderosa pine)
6 – Upper Sonoran (grasslands)
7 – Lower Sonoran (desert)

Merriam said the zones are based on differences in temperature and humidity and are applicable everywhere.

In truth, it isn’t that simple. Other factors besides temperature and humidity affect the distribution of plants and animals. The direction in which a slope faces, for example, and the type of soil.

But Merriam’s general concept was quickly recognized as significant. Over time, a few tweaks were necessary, but his zone system remains in use today.

His work also tied in nicely with other thinking about species distribution that led to the new science of ecology.

During his research trips over the years, Merriam found that “the locals,” aka Native Americans, were valuable sources of information about the plants and animals he was studying. Eventually, he became interested in the tribes themselves, particularly those in California. He even picked up enough of several native languages to communicate with his contacts.

As the 20th Century arrived, the native populations were decreasing rapidly. Concerned that their knowledge, languages, and traditions were being lost, Merriam resolved to collect as much information as possible about the tribes before it was too late.

From about 1910 to 1939, leaving his previous scientific life behind, Merriam began collecting information about the tribes. Taking advantage of his notoriety, he also advocated for and assisted them.

Merriam collected vast amounts of data on 157 tribes and published much of it. Today, his field notes are housed in the Anthropology Museum at the University of California Berkeley.

He died in Berkeley in 1942, age 86.

Merriam was a dynamic, driven guy. He was, it seems, a bit flighty and erratic, but his curiosity always seemed to lead him down worthwhile paths.

He was a medical doctor, naturalist, zoologist, ornithologist, mammalogist, ethnographer, anthropologist, and more, always fully committed to the project of the moment.

A full and eclectic life that made a difference.

Impressive, indeed.

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Useless Facts

More “Useless Facts for Inquiring Minds.”

In 1778, two American sailors were arrested because they accused the Navy’s commander of torturing British prisoners. The Continental Congress stepped in and passed the first law protecting whistle-blowers. The commander was fired.

The maximum number of clubs a golfer can carry, according to the rules of the U.S. Golf Association, is 14. The accepted standard is 12.

President William Jefferson Clinton was born William Jefferson Blythe III. His father, Blythe Jr., died in a car accident three months before Blythe III was born. Widow Blythe later married Roger Clinton, Sr.

At age 15, the future president began using the last name Clinton, but he later wrote that his stepfather was a gambler, an alcoholic, and a wife-beater.

Two of the 12 countries in South America are landlocked. One is Bolivia, which stretches from the Andes Mountains to the Atacama Desert to the Amazon rain forest. The other is Paraguay, which is mostly swampy lowlands, but does have a route to the sea via the Paraguay River.

South America

The force of gravity varies with mass, so different planets have different gravitational forces. A person weighing 200 pounds on Earth would weigh 76 pounds on Mars and 12 pounds on Pluto.

Hedgehogs are small, nocturnal mammals distantly related to shrews. The word hedgehog, which dates back to the 1400s, probably arose because the animals frequent hedgerows and have a pig-like snout. Prior to that, they were called urchins.

Bonus fact: sea urchins (related to starfish, sand dollars, and sea cucumbers) are so named because their appearance is similar to the animals formerly known as urchins.

The Polish-born French scientist Marie Curie (1867-1934), was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the only woman to win two Nobels, and the only person to win a Nobel in two different fields.

Curie received a Nobel in Physics in 1903 for the discovery of radioactivity. She won a Nobel in Chemistry in 1911 for discovering the elements radium and polonium. She died of aplastic anemia caused by exposure to radiation.

The first person to make a high-altitude parachute jump was André-Jacques Garnerin (1769-1823), a French balloonist. He made the descent in 1797, riding in a basket suspended from a silk parachute.

In 1798, his wife Jeanne Labrosse Garnerin (1775-1847) became the first woman to ascend solo in a hot-air balloon. In 1799, she became the first woman to descend in a parachute.

Balloonists

Author Edith Wharton, the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize (for The Age of Innocence, 1920), was a dog lover. She owned dozens of dogs during her lifetime, and her Massachusetts estate featured a dog cemetery within view of her bedroom window.

She and her husband were founding members of the SPCA, and they campaigned to place water bowls for dogs on the streets of New York City. Wharton once published a short poem that read, “My little old dog: A heart-beat At my feet.”

The 180 species of woodpeckers around the world peck trees mostly in search of insects for food. They can peck up to 20 pecks per second and, on average, 8,000 to 12,000 pecks per day.

The first serious, large-scale electronic computer in the U.S. was ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer). It was completed in 1945 at the University of Pennsylvania and initially was used to calculate artillery ballistics for the Army.

ENIAC could calculate the trajectory of an artillery shell in 30 seconds, a task that took a human 20 hours. In 1947, ENIAC was moved to Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, where it ran in continuous operation until 1955.

In April 2002, the Muppet character Elmo appeared before a House subcommittee to ask for increased funding for music education. His appearance stands as the only testimony before Congress by a non-human.

Elmo

 

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Useless Facts

More “Useless Facts for Inquiring Minds.”

The sea otter has the densest fur of any mammal, with up to a million hairs per square inch of skin. They have an undercoat of dense fur and an outer layer of longer “guard hairs.” Air trapped between the layers keeps the skin dry.

The world’s largest lake is the Caspian Sea, located between Iran and Russia. The Caspian is landlocked, but once was connected to the open ocean. Tectonic uplifting closed it off a few million years ago.

The Caspian is neither a sea nor a freshwater lake. The water is fresh at the north end, thanks to inflow from the Volga River, but the south end is brackish.

The first daytime radio soap opera in the U.S. was Painted Dreams, which ran on WGN in Chicago from 1930 until 1943. It was created by radio actress Irna Phillips, who went on to write The Guiding Light and As the World Turns. Her first TV soap was These Are My Children in 1949.

Phillips, the “Queen of the Soaps,” came up with the concepts of a musical transition between scenes (the “organ bridge”) and ending episodes with a cliffhanger.

Vincent van Gogh painted The Starry Night, a work almost as famous as the artist, while he was a patient at an asylum, being treated for paranoia, hallucinations, depression, and epileptic fits.

Van Gogh created the painting during a relapse of depression. It uses darker colors than his previous work and represents a break from his usual realism. Further, it was done entirely from memory; no such view exists near the asylum.

Starry Night

Elizabeth Barrett Browning the famous British poet of the Elizabethan era (“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”) was plagued by dog-nappers. Her cocker spaniel Flush was stolen four times. Each time, Ms. Browning offered a reward of 10 pounds for the dog’s safe return, which probably explains why Flush kept disappearing.

The narrow strips of wood, metal, or plastic that separate the glass panes of a window are called “muntins” or “muntin bars.” The name comes from the French word monter (to mount).

Ebbets Field was the home of the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1913 until 1957, when the Dodgers stiffed Brooklyn and moved to Los Angeles. The stadium was promptly torn down and replaced by an apartment complex.

Undoubtedly, the hardiest, most resilient creature on earth is the tardigrade (aka water bear), a microscopic animal that lives in a wide range of wet environments — oceans, mountains, rain forests, the Arctic, and everywhere in between.

Tardigrades can survive temperatures as high as 300°F and as low as –458°F. They can withstand the vacuum of space; more than 1,200 times atmospheric pressure; and 1,000 times more radiation than any other animal. When subjected to dry conditions, they can hibernate for years and revive when moisture is restored.

Tardigrade

In many Hollywood movies of the 1930s and 40s, including The Wizard of Oz and Holiday Inn, a soft, fluffy substance called chrysolite was used to simulate snow. Chrysolite (aka white asbestos) later was discovered to be a major carcinogen, and it was banned.

Over the years, Hollywood has made snow out of salt, flour, and potato flakes. In the late 1940s, it was done by mixing the chemical foamite (used in fire extinguishers) with sugar and soap flakes. Today, most snow is simulated by a substance called SnowCell, which is made from recycled paper.

The word scuba (as in scuba diving) is an acronym for self-contained underwater breathing apparatus.

When the original Disneyland opened in 1955 in Anaheim, California, it consisted of five “lands” — Main Street USA, Adventureland, Frontierland, Fantasyland, and Tomorrowland.

At the time, Tomorrowland was set in the far-distant future: 1986. When the park was updated in the late 1960s, the 1986 thing was quietly dropped.

In pre-Columbian South America, the Incas built an extensive network of rope suspension bridges to cross canyons and rivers. They were made by weaving grass into lengths of rope, then weaving the rope into cables. Local peasants were tasked with annual repair and maintenance.

Eventually, the bridges were replaced by Spanish masonry bridges, and the Incas are long gone, but one famous rope bridge remains: the Keshwa Chaca bridge in Peru. Local villagers rebuild it every year using traditional Incan techniques.

Keshwa Chaca

 

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Queen of the Dolls

When my boys were growing up, they owned the usual succession of popular guy toys. Naturally, they had no experience with dolls and other girly stuff.

(G.I. Joe action figures don’t count as dolls, do they? Certainly not. Perish the thought.)

On the other hand, thanks to TV commercials, friends, neighbors, etc., we were plenty familiar with the girl toys on the market. We never had an actual Barbie around, but we knew all about the perennial queen of the dolls.

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Fashion Model Barbie, 1977.

All these years later, Barbie remains a genuine cultural phenomenon and a sales and marketing juggernaut. I’m uncomfortable with how advertisers manipulate kids, but still, you have to be impressed by the masterful job they did with Barbie.

I did some research to fill in the details, and the story is fascinating.

———

It’s another tale of a business started in a garage.

In 1945, two Southern California product designers formed a company called Mattel Creations. The designers were Harold “Matt” Matson and Elliot Handler. Mattel was a combination of their names.

Working out of Handler’s garage, the men built picture frames using shop equipment purchased from Sears on the installment plan. In addition, Elliot began using the wood scraps to make doll furniture.

Elliot and his equally enterprising wife Ruth had a host of potentially marketable ideas. Among them were a child-size ukulele and a jack-in-the-box.

Mattel was not the Handlers’ first business venture. In the late 1930s, newly married, they formed Elzac (named for Elliot and his then-partner Zachary Zemby), which made and sold costume jewelry and brooches. Most were inexpensive and often whimsical.

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An Elzac brooch from the 1940s.

Elzac was a successful venture, but the Handlers, having greater ambitions, put their hopes in Mattel.

And Mattel was profitable from year one. The ukulele (the Uke-A-Doodle) was a popular seller. In 1947, the Handlers bought out Matson, and Ruth and Elliot became co-CEOs of Mattel.

By the early 1950s, Mattel was focused exclusively on toys, and business boomed. In 1955, it surged exponentially when Mattel began advertising on TV.

When the Mickey Mouse Club was set to debut on television, Disney and ABC approached Mattel about sponsoring a 15-minute segment of the program. The deal required a commitment for the full 52-week season, at the sobering cost of $500,000.

At the time, that was almost Mattel’s entire net worth. But the Handlers understood the potential and took the deal.

The television exposure was transformative. Within a few years, Mattel’s annual sales topped $1 million, then $5 million, then $14 million.

For several years, Ruth had been musing about an idea she got when her daughter Barbara was a pre-teen. Barbara often played with paper dolls, making paper clothes for them and acting out fanciful stories and adventures.

Ruth also observed that Barbara had outgrown her doll babies and always treated the paper dolls as adults.

Ruth wanted to give girls like Barbara a replacement for both traditional dolls and paper dolls: an adult female doll with a wardrobe of clothing made of fabric, not paper.

But Ruth couldn’t convince Elliot or the Mattel staff. They insisted parents wouldn’t buy their daughters a doll with the figure of a grown-up. Ruth had to bide her time.

In 1956, the Handlers took their then-teenaged children Barbara and Kenneth to Europe on vacation. During the trip, Ruth discovered a new German sensation, “Bild Lilli.”

Bild Lilli was a comic strip character in the tabloid Bild. Lilli was a gold-digger — single, seductive, and always scantily dressed. Men regularly pursued her, and Lilli deflected them with witty comments.

The comic strip became so popular that a doll in Lilli’s likeness was made. It was sold in gift shops as a novelty for men, not as a doll for children.

But Lilli was almost precisely what Ruth had in mind.

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A Bild Lilli doll.

After the trip, Ruth created a prototype doll based on Bild Lilli, but slightly modified. She named her creation Barbie after their daughter. Elliot and the staff quickly were on board.

Mattel’s new Barbie doll debuted at the New York Toy Fair in 1959, enjoying modest success. But soon, following a barrage of TV commercials — which advertised the doll directly to little girls, not their parents — Barbie, Mattel, and the Handlers were rocketed to toy business stardom.

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The first Barbie doll.

In 1959, 300,000 Barbie dolls were sold for $3.00 each. Clothing sets cost from $1.00 to $5.00.

By Barbie’s 50th birthday in 2009, over one billion Barbie dolls had been sold.

FYI, the last Lilli cartoon appeared in Bild in 1961. In 1964, Mattel bought all patents and copyrights to the Bild Lilli doll, and production in Europe ended.

Ruth and Elliot Handler guided Mattel for the next 30 years. They introduced a wide range of Barbie-related dolls and merchandise, as well as the Chatty Cathy doll and the Hot Wheels line of toy cars.

In 1972, somewhat unexpectedly, Mattel reported a substantial loss. The government investigated, and in 1974, Mattel was charged with filing false reports to the Securities and Exchange Commission. The Handlers chose to plead no contest and agreed to resign from Mattel management.

After the departure of the Handlers. Mattel rebounded and continued to grow. Over the years, the company acquired Western Publishing (Little Golden Books), Fisher-Price, Tyco Toys (Matchbox cars), Pleasant Company (American Girl), and the Learning Company (educational software).

At various times, Mattel also made licensee deals to manufacture Disney Princess dolls as well as toys for franchises such as Harry Potter, Superman, Batman, Justice League, Loonie Tunes, and others.

Ruth and Elliot Handler were inducted into the Toy Industry Hall of Fame in 1989. Barbie was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 1998.

In 2002, Ruth died from complications of surgery for colon cancer. She was 85. Elliot died in 2011 at age 94.

———

To round out the story, here is some Barbie trivia…

— Barbie had seven sibling dolls over the years, plus an English cousin, Francie Fairchild.

— Christie, the first African American doll, was introduced in 1968.

— Mattel always uses the color Barbie Pink (PMS 219) in its logos and merchandise.

— In 1971, Barbie’s eyes were changed from looking coyly sideways to looking directly forward. In 1977, Barbie’s mouth was modified to reveal her teeth and form a smile.

— In 2016, Mattel began offering dolls with seven skin tone options and three body types: “tall,” “curvy,” and “petite.”

— In 2015, Barbie was given adjustable ankles so she could wear flat shoes.

— In 2003, Mattel released a pregnant version of Barbie’s friend Midge Hadley. The doll featured a removable baby that was held in place by a magnet. Pregnant Midge received mixed reviews.

Barbie-5

— In the 1960s, an elaborate backstory was created for Barbie in a series of books.

— Occasionally, celebrity dolls are sold in Barbie world, among them Elizabeth Taylor, Twiggy, Cher, Elvis and Priscilla Presley, and Nicki Minaj.

— Barbie and her boyfriend Ken (named for the Handlers’ son Kenneth) broke up in 2004, but got back together on Valentine’s Day 2011.

— Barbie has held over 150 careers.

— Mattel has released a “Barbie for President” doll every election year since 1992.

For 2019, Mattel debuted a doll with a prosthetic leg as well as a doll in a wheelchair.

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— Today, a Barbie doll is sold somewhere in the world every three seconds. Barbie-related merchandise generates annual sales of about $2 billion.

— A live-action Barbie movie starring Margot Robbie is in the works. For real.

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Kenneth, Ruth, Barbara, and Elliot Handler.

 

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Useless Facts

More “Useless Facts for Inquiring Minds.”

In 1457, King James II of Scotland banned golf and football (soccer), which he said were interfering with the military preparation of the populous for Scotland’s ongoing war with England. The ban was lifted after England and Scotland signed a peace treaty in 1502.

The first Academy Awards were presented in 1929. The award for Best Picture, then called Outstanding Picture, went to the war film “Wings.” At the time, only silent films were considered. The first talkie to win an award was “The Broadway Melody” in 1931.

Hawaiian is a Polynesian language related to Samoan, Tahitian, and Tongan. It was an oral-only language until the 1820s, when New England missionaries worked out a modified English alphabet that allowed Hawaiian to be written for the first time.

The Hawaiian alphabet consists of five vowels (A, E, I, O, and U, each having both a long and a short pronunciation), seven consonants (H, K, L, M, N, P, and W) and assorted combinations thereof. For example, AU = the OU sound in OUT.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, published in 1900, was only the beginning for author L. Frank Baum. He wrote 14 full-length novels about Oz, the last published in 1920 after his death.

Since then, Baum’s publisher has released 26 more Oz books by a series of writers. The most recent books based on the world of Oz are a trilogy published in 2005, 2006, and 2014.

Oz books

In 1972, electrical engineer Nolan Bushnell founded the popular video game Atari. In 1977, he opened the Chuck E. Cheese restaurant chain, which he envisioned as a place where kids could eat pizza and play video games.

Bushnell’s Law on the subject of video game design states “All the best games are easy to learn and difficult to master. They should reward the first quarter and the hundredth.”

The idiom hands down can describe winning with ease (“He won the competition, hands down.”), or can mean without a doubt (“Hands down, Mom is the best cook in town.”).

The expression originated in horse racing. When a jockey was certain of victory at the end of a race, he could lower his hands, relax his hold on the reins, and stop urging the horse on.

In 1912, when the London Symphony Orchestra was invited to perform in the U.S. for the first time, the group booked passage on the RMS Titanic. However, the maiden voyage of the Titanic was delayed, and the orchestra switched to the SS Baltic to stay on schedule.

Modern dentures are made of acrylic resins and plastic over a metal base, but in olden times, other materials had to be employed. The Romans made partial dentures out of human and animal teeth. In the 1500s, the Japanese invented wooden dentures. In Europe in the 1700s, dentures often were carved from ivory and animal horn.

But by the 1800s, the most popular source was human teeth, which were not only denture-ready, but widely available from medical schools, graveyards, and battlefields. After the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, scavengers closed in to collect teeth from the thousands of casualties.

Dentures

Adolphe Monet, the father of French painter Claude Monet, was a prosperous retailer of groceries and ship’s supplies. He was greatly displeased when Claude became an artist instead of taking over the family business.

When young Claude was conscripted into military service, Adolphe declined to purchase his son’s exemption, which was the usual practice among the wealthy at the time. Take that, you ingrate.

The average elevation above sea level in the Kingdom of Bhutan, located in the Himalayas between India and China, is 8,000 feet, which is the highest average in the world.

Bhutan is a constitutional monarchy founded in 1616. All government policy is guided by the concept of Gross National Happiness, an index of the collective contentment and well-being of the populace. Let that sink in.

Atoms are composed of a nucleus (consisting of protons and neutrons) and one or more electrons. The electron was discovered in 1897 by English physicist J. J. Thomson. The proton was discovered in 1917 by New Zealand physicist Ernest Rutherford, who was a student of Thompson. The neutron was discovered in 1932 by British physicist James Chadwick, who was a student of Rutherford.

The world’s largest functioning guitar is 43.5 feet long, 16 feet wide, and weighs 2,255 pounds. It is a replica of a 1967 Gibson Flying V, with strings made of aircraft cable. The guitar was built in 2001 by the Academy of Science & Technology in Houston to demonstrate principles of acoustics. The big fella is on display at the National Guitar Museum in Orlando.

Guitar

 

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