Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving Day is an uniquely American holiday, at least the one at the end of November. American families will gather for a big meal, traditionally of Turkey, as well as thankfulness and fellowship.

The holiday commemorates the first Thanksgiving, begun by the English settlers at Plymouth, Massachusetts, to show thanks for their survival of their first winter of 1620-1621, and their first successful harvest, made possible in large part by the Native Americans. The first Thanksgiving feast, attended by the Native Americans and the Pilgrims, lasted 3 days, history tells us.

The holiday was made official during the Civil War by a proclamation by President Lincoln. The holiday is meant to remind Americans of their many blessings and to remind them also of their obligations to the less fortunate. Many Americans will spend the holiday volunteering in soup kitchens, serving up donated turkey dinners. Many restaurants will open their doors to the poor and feed them without charge. Thanksgiving is a day when no one in America need go hungry, except by his own choice.

Each year, by tradition, a turkey is donated to the President of the United States, and his family. Until President Kennedy, they ate the turkeys. Kennedy let his go. Since President Bush the Elder, the turkeys have received an official presidential pardon, and allowed to live, unlike so many millions of their brethren.

I don't want to get in the habit of posting too many videos. The one below will be the last one for a while. It shows the pardoning ceremony yesterday of a turkey named Courage, by President Obama. I hope you will watch it.

I wish all my fellow Americans a happy Thanksgiving, and blessings to our esteemed non-American readers as well.

A special Happy Thanksgiving to the wonderful South African families who are today celebrating their second Thanksgiving because of my influence. You honor me and my country. God bless each of you. Ndiya kuthanda.

And to a very special friend who is traveling again as I write this - you know who you are - Godspeed, and I hope there is enough cake left to take a picture of for you. There probably won't be, since I have already started eating it.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Speaking of measurement scales: Radioactivity is measured in units called "curies"

Her likeness has appeared on a Polish banknote, a Soviet postage stamp, and on the last French 500-franc note (before conversion to the Euro.)

The element with the atomic number 96 is called "curium".

There are statues of her. Untold institutions all over the world are named after her.

Albert Einstein said she was probably the only person not corrupted by the fame she had won.

Madame Curie died in 1934. She coined the term "radioactive" and discovered two elements: palonium and radium. Her first name wasn't really Madame. Or Marie, either. Her name was really Marya Salomee Sklodowska. Actually (depending on your linguistic persuasion) Mary, Marie, Maria, and Marya are the same.

Madame Curie was the first woman buried in the Pantheon in Paris. Or her ashes, to be more precise. This is a great honor. I almost said "Parthenon" but that is in Centennial Park in Nashville. A copy of the Nashville one is also in Greece.

[Please watch this space for an upcoming post on the beautiful Pantheon of Paris.]

She named the element polanium after her native country, Polandium. She later became a French citizen. Alors.

Madame Curie earned two advanced degrees, one in physics and one in mathematics, from the Sorbonne. Sorbonne doesn't mean anything - it was just named after Robert de Sorbon. It is really many universities. Founded in, like, 1250 or thereabouts. Many of its grounds are exceedingly gorgeous, but will probably not achieve postdom from yours truly. But never say never, eh?

She (our Marya) was the first woman professor at the University of Paris. She was the first person to receive two Nobel Prizes (One for physics and later one for chemistry.) Her husband Pierre also won a Nobel Prize. So did her daughter. So did her son. (Not all at the same time.) That is also probably a first.

[Fun fact: Not all famous people are rich: The Curies reportedly used part of their Nobel Prize money to replace the wallpaper in their home, and to upgrade to modern indoor plumbing. Of course, they also gave some money to needy students as well.]

Pierre bore an uncanny resemblance to Vincent Van Gogh, except that he had two ears. If you are using this post as source material for a term paper on Pierre, perhaps you might want to omit that last part, as it is only undocumented personal opinion.

She conducted research into the treatment of Cancers with radioactive isotopes. ("She" again being Madame Curie. Sorry.)

In April, 1906, Pierre was killed in a street accident. Walking across the street in heavy rain, he was struck and run over by a horse-drawn carriage and his skull fractured. It has been speculated that he had been weakened by his long exposure to radioactivity, but this was never proven, so I won't even mention it here.

After her husband's death, the Sorbonne physics department entrusted his chair to Marie, and later she became a full professor there. She was the first woman professor at the Sorbonne. Even so, and despite her education and achievements, the French Academy of Sciences refused to admit her as a member, because she was a woman. Indeed, it would be a half-century later before a woman would be admitted (Marguerite Perey, in 1962.) Ironically, Perey had been a doctoral student under Madame Curie.

Marie and her husband Pierre discovered much about uranium and other elements and radioactive isotopes, and about their attributes and possible uses. But they were never aware of what radioactivity could do to the human body; they worked around and handled the substances for many years with no protection. She died on the Fourth of July, 1934, of aplastic anemia - almost certainly contracted from her long exposure to radiation.

Not knowing the effects of radiation, she carried test tubes of the radioactive isotopes around with her in her pockets, and kept them in her desk. It is said she remarked on the beauty of the blue-green light the material gave off in the dark. A remarkable lady.

Saturday, November 21, 2009


United Nations, Nato, European Union, NASA

Why do bagpipers always march when playing? To get away from the sound. Also, moving targets are harder to hit. What's the difference between a bagpipe and an onion? Nobody cries when you chop up a bagpipe. What's the difference between a lawnmower and a bagpipe? You can tune a lawnmower. What's a definition of a gentleman? Someone who knows how to play a bagpipe but doesn't. What's the difference between a dead snake on the road and a dead bagpiper on the road? Skid marks in front of the snake. How do you get two bagpipers to play in perfect unison? Shoot one of them.

Thanks to Descartes for the idea. And to a couple other websites for posting bagpipe jokes they stole from someone else.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Obama, Olympics, Marijuana, Search engines

Please forgive me. I have decided to start giving my posts more exciting titles.

Speaking of lych and lychgates.

I was re-reading a book I found when I was cleaning out my back room, about the American Civil War, Battle of Gettysburg. It was written by one of the caretakers of the battlefield, or park rangers or whatever you call them, and it is filled with facts and old pictures.

One of the pictures shows the entrance to the cemetery part of the battle ground - the old Gettysburg cemetery where much of the heavy fighting took place - called Cemetery Ridge, I think - and I note a large structure in the picture that was at the entrance to that town cemetery. The picture was taken after the battle, so the building is messed up. Remember, this was in the summer of 1863. Anyway, they refer to it as the "gatehouse" and the cemetery caretaker/sexton lived there with his family. Here is the picture (click to enlarge):Now, I can't imagine anyone using this entrance to prepare a corpse for burial, and the cemetery isn't a churchyard, but I think this might still qualify as a lychgate. My meaning is that some of these old traditions might have been carried on from England in this country too. Maybe. Although Gettysburg was "Pennsylvania Dutch" (Germans).

What do you think? A stretch?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Clarity: an attempt to return to the premise of this blog

With apologies to the Travelling Spouse for butting into her business, but because I know most of you have been wondering about the word "Lychgate"...

The picture at the top of this post is a lychgate. This particular one is in Wales. A lychgate (not Lynchgate - that's a whole 'nother post, I'll bet) is a covered gate which enters into a graveyard, specifically into a church graveyard. Literally, "corpse gate".

Since several of you have asked, the word "lych" is from the Old English (actually Saxon; several of our really good words have survived from the Saxon. Ahem) and means "corpse". It is meant to be an adjective/prefix for things having to do with a corpse. Our friend Wally Wikipedia gives such examples as lych bell (a hand-held bell rung in front of a corpse during a funeral procession); lych way (the path down which a corpse is carried to its resting place); and lych-'Donald's (a place where people eat dead meat.) Perhaps this last was not on Wikipedia. I forget.

I want to quickly explain that this word only refers to the entrance to a BRITISH churchyard. In the U.S., we refer to cemetery gates as "gates"; Paths as "paths"; and hamburger places as "junk food joints". But you knew that. To my knowledge, we don't ring bells in front of corpses, being considerably more civilized than your average barbarian Brit who does that and even worse...

I'll not burden you with the Welsh translation of the Saxon-cum-English word (since it sounds filthy) though I am tempted to honor Sage by trying to come up with the Cornish equivilent. It is probably on a sign somewhere in Cornwall already, though. In Irish (yes, I know this is not British) it is called marbhan geata. (Who knew there were so many languages in the UK? And I haven't scratched the surface. Nor will I try.)

Now, wasn't that more interesting than me being unmetricated?

Next: "Different to vs. different than." Holy Huckabee.
Photo of the day: Dean Vernon Wormer:

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Thatcher Dead

[Rewritten from various news services yesterday]

Canadian Transport Minister John Baird sent a message to phone buddies that read, "Thatcher dead." It was a reference to his 16-year-old tabby cat, named after his idol. But the message was misconstrued and Canadian Prime Minster Stephen Harper was soon told of the Iron Lady's death.

Calls were placed to 10 Downing Street and even Buckingham Palace, but neither knew what the Canadians were talking about. The BBC reported that the Canadian officials were even in the process of preparing an official statement until the British government set the record straight: The beloved Lady T. Lives on.

Horn of Plenty

The guy was popular and people still enjoy his music a lot. But I had no idea playing a trumpet could be this lucrative.

[The Los Angeles Times, April 9, 2008]
"Eight-time Grammy winner and Los Angeles native Herb Alpert, who in November [2007] pledged $30 million to UCLA to establish the cross-disciplinary UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, has now given $15 million to the School of Music at the California Institute of the Arts. In recognition of the gift... the school will be renamed the Herb Alpert School of Music."

Wow, Herb! You've rode that Lonely Bull a long ways. But it couldn't happen to a nicer guy.

Below: Herb and Lani Alpert

Friday, November 13, 2009

Metric tyranny: does a 10 cm. piece of toilet paper wipe your ass more precisely than a 4-inch square?

I believe the Metric System is extremely valuable and accurate. I believe its discovery and implementation has been an undeniable asset and invaluable utility to the medical and scientific communities - and many others. Who could argue with that? However, I also believe it is mistaken elitism to assign a greater value or importance to a particular system of measurements than to the people who may or may not choose to use that system, and a mistake to denigrate those who choose to measure things using differing systems - or to assume or infer that those people are somehow backward and unable to think properly.

This post is not an attack on the Metric System of measurements. It is not even an attempt to say that the Metric System doesn't have unique attributes which make it superior in many ways and in many instances. This post is an attack on smug, superior-than-thou attitudes of many who think their way of doing things, their way of thinking, their politics, their interpretation of the world - their system of measuring things - is so well thought out and finely honed that it should be obvious to any intelligent person that their way is the right way. Any other way is therefore stupid, illogical, ill-informed and used or adhered to only by droolers of lesser intellect and assorted cretins.

All hail to the god of uniformity. May we all someday be the recipient of the cookie cutter award. The USA rose to greatness as a country because its citizens refused to think outside the box or dared to be different. Marginalize those who ask questions. Ostracize those who march to that different drummer. Keep in line there! Did you not wear your uniform today? Sameness and acceptance of the status quo is the mother of invention.

The leaders in both Huxley's Brave New World and Orwell's Big Brother Society both used the Metric System. It was more precise and therefore more capable of controlling things, especially thought. But to demonize the Metric System is just as stupid a prospect as demonizing the other fellow's tools just because they have different markings on them, or demonizing a language just because you choose not to speak it. Uniformity in and of itself is not the cure-all end-all.

In researching this little post, I turned to Google as usual. My goal was to find out why the Metric System was superior to other systems of measurements. I wanted to find out what the great scholars have to say that would make me want to use it and forsake all others. You can do the same thing - Google away. If you do, you will find that the reasons for using the Metric system, according to all the experts on the web, at least, are only three in number:

1. Everybody else in the world uses it.
2. Scientists like it.
3. It is easier and more accurate.

And pretty much in that order. It was rare to find an article by a college professor or other expert that didn't start out with the words, "We are the only country in the world who doesn't use it. Except Liberia and Burma. Ha ha."

I ask you: are you really going to believe a dumbass who still thinks there is a country named Burma? And it would scare you to read how many of these superior folk think the U.S. is on the "Imperial System" of measurements. (The USA isn't on the Imperial System, and never has been.)

In case you missed it, I believe only number three, above, is the only valid reason to use the Metric System. Assuming it is true. Which it's not, in all cases.

Me? Well, I know the metric system well enough to express myself when I write for technical people, and I recognize its deserved place in our world today. But, since I am inherently one of those different drummer people, round-peg-square-hole people - and since I don't believe uniformity ever produced an original idea (or even a happy soldier - even soldiers sometimes were pink boxers under their uniforms), I'll just have to continue in my cretin ways.

Yep, as for me, I'll keep measuring my apple pies in slices, thank you very much, and the apples that go in them by the bushel. I will keep paying for those apples by the pound. Furthermore, I'll take my American football by the yard, my horse races by the furlong and my ale by the pint. And if I try to cook, you may be sure it will be with a cup and a tablespoon and not with a little scale. God bless.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Rot in hell, asshole

Only a few months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York and Virginia, a serial killer terrified the DC area by committing random sniper killings on his fellow Americans. Innocent people doing innocent things - at gas stations, shopping mall parking lots, outside restaurants and schools, even on a golf course - were gunned down by the sniper, 10 people in all and more suspected in other areas.

It was later discovered the culprit was one John Allen Muhammad and his teen-aged accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo.

A few hours ago, the Commonwealth of Virginia executed Muhammad. Good fucking riddance.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Scientific Method

The term "Scientific Method" refers to a specific procedure for acquiring knowledge. It has been around since the 17th century.

Scientific Method consists of systematic observation and measurement, and the formulation, testing and modification of hypotheses.

The above is from a dictionary. The following are my personal conclusions from the above definition.

1. There is only one reality: that which is true.

2. If we THINK something is true, but it is not REALLY true, our thinking it is true doesn't make it "our" reality; it is simply something that is untrue. Remember that it was once thought "obvious" that the sun moved around the earth each day.

3. A good scientist must not allow himself to be unduly influenced by outside opinions, even if those opinions come from well known and well-respected people; even from other scientists. A good scientist will accept as fact - as truth, as reality - only things which are provable by observation, testing, measurement or by producing an unassailable formula. Even then, a good scientist would want to continue to question his conclusions.

4. When gathering information, a good scientist will ALWAYS be skeptical of the source of the information. He will ask himself, "What is the background of the person or institution who is presenting this information? Are they scientifically neutral, or do they have a personal position to defend, or an agenda to promote? Do they have anything to gain by putting out false information?"

Here are some examples of invalid sources, in my opinion.

1. In the days of widespread cigarette smoking, the tobacco industries were presenting "arguments" that smoking wasn't harmful to a smoker's health. No good scientist who was investigating the effects on the human body from smoking cigarettes would (or never should have) EVER given much weight to statements made by these obviously biased institutions and individuals. The same holds true for individuals and institutions who would obviously benefit from the reverse being true, whatever it was. Neutrality is needed for the truth to emerge.

2. In these days, much is being said about "Global Warming" or "Climate Change". A good scientist would NEVER give huge weight to statements made by oil companies or people who stand to benefit by keeping the status quo. The reverse is also true in this case as well: people who stand to realize some sort of financial or other non-altruistic benefit from proving there IS global warming, need to be suspect until their information is proven.

More to follow. I stop for the sake of brevity. I am only laying foundations today.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Underground Railroad

This isn't a post about abolishionists helping runaway slaves find their way north.

This past Friday (Nov. 6) another underground railroad (and a marvel of engineering) celebrated 15 and a half years of moving people under the English Channel. Congratulations. Or happy 15 and a half birthday.

North Americans are fond of calling the Channel Tunnel the "Chunnel", although Europeans are not as keen on that nickname. The French call it Le tunnel sous la Manche, meaning... ummm... Don Quixote's Tunnel. I think.

The tunnel runs from Coquelles to Folkestone, which is very close to the narrowest point of the English Channel. Why not Calais to Dover? Who knows.

Those of us on this side of the pond mostly envision a big tunnel with two lanes of traffic to drive your car through, with a toll booth greeting you before you enter. "That'll be 30 pounds, please." Or 40 Euros. Or 12,000,000 Francs. Or whatever France is using for money now. Probably Euros. Oddly, the British still weigh their money in pounds rather than kilos. Fact. A sterling practice, that.

But the truth is, vehicles (and people and freight - and animals too, I suppose) are shuttled by trains through the tunnel. Most of you are waiting for more facts, so here you go:

(I stole these from a variety of websites, including one who billed his list "Amazing Chunnel Facts").

1. "The Chunnel is one of Europe's biggest infrastructure projects ever." [Well big effing DUH.]

2. "Consists of three interconnecting tubes; one train track each way and a small service tunnel." [The word "interconnecting" was not really needed, in my opinion.]

3. "Its length is 31.4 miles, of which 23 are underwater." [Shame that the channel is 51 miles wide at that point. Kidding. JaJaJa.]

4. "The tunnel goes as deep as 150 meters under the sea." (I'm guessing that is, like, 65 feet. Maybe more. Probably more.)

5. "It takes only about 20 minutes [bet it seems like a century] to cover the length of the tunnel under the sea." [Ok, we GET that it is under the sea. You can start leaving that part out.]

6. "There are a total of 95 miles of tunnels." [Why? I thought you said 31 miles! And it only takes 20 minutes? Lying sack. Oh, wait. I get it - 3 tunnels. Okay.]

7. "The tunnel was constructed by nearly 13,000 engineers and workers." [Are you saying engineers don't work? What was the ratio - 3 to 1, something like that? With that many engineers, no wonder you ended up with 95 miles of tunnel.]

8. "The volume of rubble removed from the tunnel is 3 times greater than the Chepos Pyramid in Egypt, and increased the size of Britain by 90 acres, which is the equivalent of 65 football fields [for those who prefer to measure their rubble in football fields rather than acres] and this area has been made into a park." [I'm guessing you meant to say "Cheops", but thank you for saying "Egypt" because I was thinking of southern Indiana until you said Egypt.]

9. "They called the park Coney Island." [I just made that up to keep you reading.]

10. Okay, I'm starting to doubt this guy. Going to Wikipedia now.

A. Wikipedia says at its deepest point it is 75 meters deep. [Discrepancy in depth probably due to the excess of engineers.]

B. Wikipedia: Construction started in 1988 and completed in 1994, amazingly only 80% over budget. [Considering the French only have a 3-day work week, I mean.]

C. Fires have disrupted operation of the tunnel.

D. Illegal immigrants and asylum-seekers heading to England have been a problem. [None headed to France it seems. Or no mention.]

E. The Chunnel consist of three tunnels: two 25-foot bores 98 feet apart (the railroad tunnels), and a 16-foot diameter service tunnel in between the railroad tunnels.

F. Cost was 4650 million pounds. 10 workers were killed.

G. With additions of track and stations since the tunnel opened, one can now ride the train from London to Paris.

H. On high-speed trains traveling up to 186 miles per hour (300 kph), the trip from London to Paris takes about 2 hours 15 minutes. You can go from London to Brussels in one hour 51 minutes.

I. Eurostar carried 9,113,371 passengers beneath the channel in 2008. (This is just passengers, not autos or freight.)

J. According to the Eurostar website, a one-way ticket is about US$147. Ouch. Airfare, London to Paris is $144 (according to Expedia) and that is round trip. I don't know. I guess if you have your car the tunnel is the way to go, but not otherwise. Unless I'm missing something.

Fun (though admittedly unrelated) fact about other underground railroads: You knew that John Brown was a wild-eyed abolitionist, but did you know that Wild Bill Hickok's father's farm in Indiana was a stop on the Underground Railroad? And that the young Wild learned to shoot well defending the farm/station from... ummm... who? That's a poser. Never mind.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

"Hug O' War"

"Blog Blast For Peace" was a couple days ago, and as usual I am a day late and a dollar short. I didn't have anything deep to say about world peace anyway. Not really. Many other bloggers said it better than I could have. Peace is something we all wish for, but it never seems to materialize. At least not for everyone all over the world all at once.

Here is a children's poem written (and illustrated) by the late Shel Silverstein. It pretty much sums it up for me.

"Hug O' War"

I will not play at tug o' war.
I'd rather play at hug o' war,
Where everyone hugs Instead of tugs,
Where everyone giggles
And rolls on the rug,
Where everyone kisses,
And everyone grins,
And everyone cuddles,
And everyone wins.


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