I like learning odd things. Many of these posts are inspired by odd things that I learn, and felt I should share over the Internet. Which is why I was so excited to find out that there was NEWS about everyone’s favorite keyboard layout. As in new stuff. About a keyboard layout that is almost 250 years old. Very exciting. A little while ago, I wrote a post on how we all ended up with the QWERTY keyboard layout. It came from typewriters, and a man who made typewriters, Christopher Latham Sholes. The story goes that the typists of the days of typewriters became very good at typing. This caused typewriters to jam. So Mr. Sholes created an intentionally cumbersome layout to slow these typists down, and fix this problem. As it turns out, you see, the story, might just be a story after all.

A recent paper published by Koichi Yasuoka and Motoko Yasuoka from Japan details evidence of the QWERTY design that has nothing to do with slowing down the pace of typists. They posit that the layout actually stems from morse code and telegraphy. According to the article, the first keyboards that were used by Sholes’ company did resemble a piano. Where they were next developed from, however, begins to differ from the traditional story.

Typewriters and keyboards were used for transcribing morse code messages and telegraphs. This meant that the position of the keys had to be correlated with the morse code symbols. As explained in Smithsonian Magazine article, the paper from the Kyoto researchers suggests that the layout was developed over several years, with the help of telegraph operators. So that’s that. The story was picked up by a bunch of other news-ish type publications, such as The Atlantic and The Huffington Post. The thing is, they’re just going off of the Smithsonian piece, which is about two guys who wrote a paper.

Now, I used to like that the history of the QWERTY layout was simple, despite it’s design to slow me down. I am a decent typer, and so I don’t really hold it against Mr. Sholes. But I’m not going to jump on the bandwagon that is full of the Ysouka’s, and the people from Smithsonian Magazine, The Atlantic, and The Huffington Post. The reason is this: they are basing all of their arguments on the opinion of two guys.

There are a couple of points to make here, the first of which is there are likely elements of truth to every side of this keyboard layout scrum. The jamming problem is so widely referenced and so widely known, and it likely did exist. As a make of typewriters, Mr. Sholes would have been invested in making typewriters that didn’t jam, because then more people would buy his typewriters, and he would make more money. This paper by Stan Leibowitz and Stephen Margolis suggests that the rearranged keyboard layout was designed solely so that keys commonly hit in rapid succession would swing up to hit the page from opposite sides of the mechanism. This also makes for a method of typing which alternates hands a lot, which makes touch typing easier. Another point they make is that what we think of as “touch-typing” now, with computer keyboards, is different from “touch-typing” when typewriters were abundant.

This entire episode has actually lead me to dig up some more information on the Dvorak keyboard layout. It seems that according to an article originally published in 1996 in Reason Magazine, a study performed by the Navy in the 1940s to figure out which keyboard layout was superior, QWERTY or Dvorak, was riddled with threats to validity, meaning that the research is essentially meaningless. Other tests of typing speed have shown that the pace at which one can type is actually more dependent on one’s experience and practice typing in a particular keyboard than the keyboard itself.

For me, to try and type on a Dvorak keyboard would be initially much more difficult, because I don’t have to think about the QWERTY layout when I type. That said, if I put in the hours typing like I have with the QWERTY layout, then I would be able to type on a Dvorak keyboard just as easily. This makes the point that regardless of the efficiency or inefficiency of the QWERTY layout, since we all learned on it, and industry has accepted it as something of a standard, that it is. We’re all used to it, and relatively good at it. The people who type a lot anyways.

The moral of the story is this: The origin story of the QWERTY keyboard is probably not as simple as anyone is making it out to be. The researchers at Kyoto University have found some evidence that further add to the mystery. These keyboards were used for telegraph operators, but typewriters also would jam. So, if anyone reading this happens upon a smallish lamp with a genie inside of it, rub the lamp, and wish to speak to Mr. Christopher Latham Sholes so we can put this issue to rest, once and for all.

Music to my Ears

I was a band geek in high school. Let me rephrase that. I was in just about every musical group that I could be in in high school. I earned my high school diploma from Arlington High School in Lagrangeville, New York, and along the way I was a member of the marching band, the wind ensemble, multiple full orchestras, a brass quintet, a pit orchestra, the holiday brass choir, and the graduation band…you know…pomp and circumstance and whatnot. I was actually the drum major of the marching band my junior and senior year. The only part of high school music I was never really a part of was jazz, but that was only because I am a french horn player – that’s right, a horn player through and through, I didn’t start out on trumpet or anything – and french horn players can’t swing to save their lives. I wasn’t really a band geek though. I mean I practiced, but only as much as I had to. I’m more of a band geek now than I ever was in high school. I’ve learned about the physics of sound waves, and listen to various bits of instrumental music in my free time, and not just because of nostalgia.

If the pen is mightier than the sword, then how mighty is the baton? Or the horn? The piccolo, or the violin? Music invokes a visceral response from people. To spread an idea through words, people have to read the words. With the sword, blood must be shed, or it is simply a fancy prop. With music, the ideas permeate through the resistance that is given to words and swords. Music goes beyond language. Two people can listen to a song, and understand it, even if they can’t understand one another. There are musicians who I love listening to, can barely speak english, and yet they convey more emotion in their music than many people who use actual words. Not to downplay the significance and beauty of words. Certain phrases and passages written by those whom I deem to be great writers will make me melt like butter. Or, really, anything that melts, whenever the temperature or pressure are such that the thing will melt. I digress.

I saw something posted on Facebook a little while ago by the guy who was my high school marching band director. It was a quote about how you need to be selfless when performing, and how the accomplishments of the group are greater than the accomplishments of any one of the members, or something like that. It made me a little sad to see it, because it’s just crap. Yes, the accomplishments of the group belong to the group, but creating good music is more than just the group’s achievement. It’s one of the things I like so much about it. In order for the group to be good, there needs to be individual talent. Each member of the group must be able to stand alone, and be just as perfect then. It is easy to be a part of a large group, and to go unnoticed. Both the good, and the bad. The beauty of music isn’t simply in the power of a large ensemble, it is in the intricacy of a single performer. Each individual’s intonation, each individuals volume, and tone, that matters. One of the keys to a good ensemble is the talent of the individuals within.

The accomplishments of the individual go hand in hand with the accomplishments of the group. A very talented individual can be part of a terrible ensemble, and vice versa. The performance of the group does not take away from the performance of the individual. If a group performs well in spite of a poor performance from one individual, the individual still performed poorly. Every part of the ensemble matters, and the best ones have every detail squared away. Every individual does all that is required of them, no matter how minute the detail. The thing that is so awe inspiring about an immaculate performance from an ensemble is that simultaneous individual greatness. It is in this spirit of individual performance, where lies the reasoning behind my favorite instrument of all time.

My favorite instrument, out of all of them, is the piano. The french horn has it’s great moments, and, because I’m biased as fuck, I think it has WAY more great moments than all the other instruments. I get all quivery in the legs from a well placed oboe note every now and then, and the shrieky piccolo frills in Sousa marches are brilliant, but the horn just makes me melt. Despite all of that, the piano is my favorite. It is my favorite because all you need are fingers, and you have a little symphony. Polyphony. Chords. You have chords. Yeah yeah, you can do chords with a guitar, but a guitar is simply not as beautiful to me. Personal preference. It is what it is. You can take a piano, and play. Try out different notes, and see what happens. You don’t need an ensemble. Before computer programs let us write music that was all synthesized and shit, there were pianos. Some of my favorite music to listen to is just one guy hammering away on some keys. And Mannheim Steamroller. I love the shit out of Mannheim Steamroller.

Ultimately, music is so powerful because it can fill so many roles. It can bring people together, it can be humorous, it can diffuse great tension, right after creating it. It says so many things, without saying anything at all. It is the one thing that can place me right back in high school, reliving all the emotions and experiences I had back then.

I started on this tangent because I happened upon some youtube videos of drum corps performing, and it brought back all of the memories that I have that are associated with music. Playing music was a definitive part of my high school years…and middle school years…and elementary school years. More than that, now I can feel rhythms, and I can sing (not well, but I mean, I know what notes are, and attempt to hit them). Plus, I got that really groovy metaphor for all those group projects our professors and bosses have been assigning us. It has introduced me to people who have through the years meant a lot to me. Isn’t that really all we want, to mean something to people? The people whom I have met through music are some of the craziest, whackiest, insane, weird, and amazing people I’ve ever met. But that’s ok, because I am crazy too.

Word of the Year

There are many problems in the world today. Hunger. War. Terrorism. Disease. Racism. Sexism. Religious fanaticism. Here, on the soapbox that is my personal blog, I don’t shy away from the hard issues. Those problems that you look at, and think,’<Insert problem here>. Boy, I don’t know.’ The things that keep you up at night. The things that you read about all over the Internet, probably on blogs like this owned by people who just have an opinion and an high speed hookup, or maybe on credible news sites. That is why, here today, I am writing on this very serious issue. The Oxford Dictionaries 2015 Word of the Year, well, isn’t.

This year, the people who work at the Oxford University Press, responsible for the selection of the hitherto prestigious Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year, have selected the “Face with Tears of Joy” emoji. The first thing you will notice about the Oxford dictionaries word of the year, is, it is not a word. It’s a picture. Of a face. I first saw this in an article published by The Onion.Thinking it was a brilliant joke, I almost drove my car off the road when I later heard it on a BBC radio news broadcast. It turns out The Onion doesn’t make up the thing that Victoria Brenden, Glue Spreader, et al. are responding to, just the responses.

Back to the Not-Word of the Year. Actually, I heard Mona Lisa was in the running, but her eyes were creeping out the judges. It’s ironic, because her gaze is most reminiscent of the looks I have received after breaking the news of the Oxford UP’s utter abomination of the year to my friends and colleagues, most of whom communicate with actual words, and not face pictures. As is usually the case with things that I deem worthy of discussion on my blog, there is quite a bit more to the word of the year than you might think.

The Word of the Year is a spin off of Time Magazine’s Person of the Year. Interestingly, this prestigious honor was called “Man of the Year” until 1999, despite being awarded to a woman in 1936, 1937, 1952, to “American women” in 1975, and again to a woman in 1986. Because someone might care, while the general term was “Man of the Year”, the years in which women were selected had “Woman of the Year” printed on the cover. The first Man of the Year was Charles Lindberg, the year in which he flew solo across the Atlantic. The idea of the Person of the Year award is to name the person who was most influential during the past year. This can be influence for good or for evil, and in fact Adolf Hitler was Man of the Year in 1938, and Joseph Stalin was Man of the Year twice, once in 1939, and again in 1942.

The Word of the Year is not as old as the Person of the Year, although the institution that started it is. The first Word of the Year was chosen in 1990, by the American Dialect Society, which was founded in 1889. The 1990 Word of the Year was bushlips, which refers to insincere political rhetoric. Other categories for the Word of the Year — that’s right, the American Dialect Society has categories — include the following. Most Likely To Succeed: notebook PC and rightsizing (tie). Most Useful: technostupidity, and and potty parity (tie). Most Original: voice merging. Most adventurous: bungee jumping. Most Unnecessary: peace dividend. Finally, Most Outrageous: politically correct or PC. So not only did the American Dialect Society choose actual words, they chose ones that were appropriate, and even correctly placed political correctness in the outrageous category, a move which I would have applauded…had I…you know…had I been alive then.

The American Dialect Society had another apt Word of the Year winner for the year of my birth: Not! I don’t mean to negate my previous statement, I mean that was the 1992 Word of the Year. “Not!” That was it. The string of words that followed as words of the year in various categories throughout the years have been phenomenal, including 1993’s Most Unpronounceable Word of the Year, Jurassosauros nedegoapeferkimorum, 2004’s Most Outrageous Word of the Year, santorum, which was a play on the senator’s name, and 2013’s Most Unnecessary Word of the Year, sharknado. In 2014, the society selected #blacklivesmatter as the word of the year. They also introduced a new category that year, most notable hashtag. Now, I don’t like hashtags. I don’t really use them. I’ve tweeted six tweets in my life, all for a news writing class assignment junior year of college. Anyone who wants to know what my social media posts are about, as sporadic as they are, can just deduce it from the content of the post. That being said, I understand that languages evolve, and that a lot of people are using hashtags as a way to communicate. The addition of a new category to address this is something which I can’t really argue. Selecting a hashtag as the Word of the Year, well, that was stupid. Especially since there some pretty dramatic words that could have been selected instead. Like, say, racism. But that’s not really what the Word of the Year is for, and I’m not a member of the American Dialect Society.

The American Dialect Society actually outlines what a Word of the Year must be. It must be demonstrably new or newly popular in the year in question, widely and/or prominently used in the year in question, indicative or reflective of the popular discourse, and not a peeve or a complaint about the overuse or misuse. So I must admit that racism wouldn’t have been a good candidate for Word of the Year in 2014. It doesn’t fit the bill. It is a powerful word, and it accurately describes some attitudes that still exist in this country and around the world, but it wasn’t widely or prominently used, or newly popular. While the American Dialect Society did go a little off their rocker by choosing a hashtag as the Word of the Year, their other Words of the Year were actual words. (You can find them all here.)

So we come back to the original instigator of this post, the Face with Tears of Joy emoji. I think the best thing to do is to compare it to two winners of Time’s Man of the Year. The first, in 1982, was the computer. Obviously, not a man. The second, in 1988, was the Earth. Also, not a man. I’m still upset that the vulgar folks at the Oxford Dictionaries chose a pictograph as the 2015 word of the year. But I have hope. I have hope because the the 1982 man of the year was a machine, and the 1988 man of the year was a planet, and the 1983 and 1989 men of the year, were men. I have hope, because as it turns out, the Oxford Dictionaries people don’t even really matter anyways. They even explain to you on their website how they have partnered with a special emoji analytics software company to help select the word of the year. They just had this new piece of technology, and wanted to show it off. Of course the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year was an emoji, they were looking for it with a tool that only looked at emojis. If you take words seriously, the only words of the year that really matter are the ones chosen by the American Dialect Society. Their vote hasn’t taken place yet, so we’ll have to sit on the edge of our seats to see what they decide.

In the mean time, the Word of This Post is “year”, which is used 48 times (not including this paragraph, and accounts for %10 of the words on this page). The runner up, is “word”, used 26 times. “Man”, “society” and “American” all place in a tie below the top two, with a count of nine each. The Most Likely to Succeed Word of This Post is “American Dialect Society Word of the Year”, and the Least Likely to Succeed Word of This Post, is “Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year”. Finally, the Most Outrageous Word of This Post is “Face with Tears of Joy Emoji”.

Grape Juice

Thanks to the wonderful children’s author Laura Numeroff and illustrator Felicia Bond, we all know what happens when you give a mouse a cookie. We even know what happens when you give a pig a pancake, or if you give a moose a muffin. We’ve got those totally plausible every day scenarios down pat. But we know very little about when life gives someone a lemon. Ms. Numeroff and Ms. Bond have not graced society with a children’s book on the subject, although if they where to write a children’s book explaining what to do with lemons I’m sure we’d all have had…um…sweeter childhoods. The thing is there are several ways to deal with lemons, which is good, because life is littered of lots of lemons left lurking in low lonely lairs only to leap out literally when we least expect it. What do you do when life gives you lemons?

Now, there are several things to do with lemons. Make lemon chicken. Season some fish. Or, if you’re a traditionalist, you could make lemonade. This, though, is boring, so I’m not going to talk about it any more. The truth is, as it turns out, there are quite a few options after life hands you lemons.

Let’s start with lemon chicken. Wikipedia helpfully tells us that lemon chicken is the name of several dishes found in many cultures that include both chicken and lemons. From this, we can deduce that it is not only your culture that gets handed many lemons, but rather, many cultures. As an aside, if you find one day that life gives you oranges instead of lemons, you can make orange chicken and still have a tasty dinner. This recipe which is provided to us by Ina Garten (there is no possible way that can be what it says on her birth certificate, because parents who would name their child that should either not be allowed to have children, or are so awesome that they ascended into a higher life form made of pure energy) takes one hour to make, and serves four people. This is useful, because if you are handed some lemons and are with friends, then your friends can eat dinner too. It has 393 calories per serving and only 19 and a half grams of fat, so you can handle life’s lemons without worrying about your figure. It is also high in protein, so that’s good. Ms. Garten’s lemon chicken recipe is a great thing to do with life’s lemons. But what if you are a pescatarian?

Fear not, pescatarians. There is hope. For those of you wondering what a pescatarian is, it is not a religious sect, but rather someone who does not eat any meat except fish. Once again going to Wikipedia, a fairly comprehensive list of raw fish dishes reveals at least one ,from Tonga, that is made with lemon as a garnish. Several others use citrus, a category in which lemons fall. Incidentally, oranges also fall into this category, so if you are a pescatarian that has just received some oranges from life, you are in luck. This website of unquestionable character informs its readers that Aioli was a sauce originally intended to pair with Cod, a type of fish, and then mentions Provencal dishes, which could date back to the 12th – 14th centuries, which means people have been dealing with lemons for quite some time. Aioli does include a fair amount of lemon juice, so this is relevant. Another aside, that aforementioned food website contains the words, “Mustard was known to the ancients. Ketchup surfaces in the early 18th century.” So, some good stuff on that website. At least it’s not Vicodin crusted potatoes. Now back to the lemons.

Let’s say you’re not into fish. Or, you live in the middle of nowhere where all the fish has to come on trucks from the sea, and none of it is any good. Luckily, there are many more things that you can do with lemons. For instance, you can make lemon ice cream. That recipe makes enough ice cream for 12 sandwiches, which at first is confusing, until you realize they mean ice cream sandwiches. (Note: You should probably use cookies instead of bread for these sandwiches, but I’m not going to tell you how to live your life.)

What if you don’t want to eat your lemons? Good news! You don’t have to! You can use your lemon to play baseball with. (Incidentally, there is a thing called a lemon peel baseball, which is made out of leather and not lemons, but can be used to pelt runners as they try and make the base without the additional hassle of throwing the ball to the appropriate baseman.) WolframAlpha tells us all sorts of useful things about lemons, such as: they have about 6% of your daily value of copper (about 124 micrograms); they grow on shrubs and trees and are possibly naturally occurring in Florida; there are less than 5 people with the given name Lemon in the US, based on birth data from the year 2014. You can also use lemons for a number of other things, as preventdisease.com explains. You can keep cauliflower from turning brown, soften dry, scaly elbows, use it as a vaccine for Diphtheria instead of the actual vaccine for Diphtheria (don’t really do that), use it for vaginal hygiene, or just freshen your refrigerator.

You could always take the lemon and throw it back at life’s face. After some searching on the internet to find out what the terminal velocity of a lemon is, I only came close. This person claimed to be purchasing a lemon to find out what it’s terminal velocity is, and if they ever found out, I would love to know. I also found a Quara page where someone inquired about the speed a lemon would have to go before it would ignite into flames, which is about 16,500 m/s (about Mach 48), but that doesn’t really help me. This website compares lemons to hailstones, and gives an estimate for a lemon sized hailstone at about 200 kph, which is 55 m/s or 124 miles an hour. According to this Wikipedia article, and the blurb under a google search result for the Guinness book of records which subsequently would not open due to an unending string of redirects, Aroldis Chapman holds the MLB record for fastest pitch ever at 105.1 mph (169 kph, or 47 m/s). This means that he would be able to throw your lemon as fast as he could without bumping up against the aerodynamic limits of lemon flight in Earth’s atmosphere, and give life one hell of a black eye.

I originally started writing this post a little while ago, because I liked the saying, “When life gives you lemons, make grape juice, then sit back and watch the world wonder how you did it.” Now, though, I don’t really like that saying any more, for several reasons. Life doesn’t give you lemons. Bad things just happen. When they do, you can complain about it and muck about for a while, or you can get to work. I choose the complaining option quite often, and it gets me nowhere. Also, if so called life has given you lemons, and you make grape juice, there are many unanswered questions. Did life also give you grapes? Did you go find grapes, or grow them on vines? If you had the time and energy to go find your own grapes, why are you still caring about the lemons from earlier? My final gripe, as if all that stuff isn’t enough, is this: There are, as we’ve seen throughout this post, many useful things to do with lemons. So if you have some lemons, forget about grape juice and do one of those instead, because you can’t make grape juice with lemons. (Some grape juice actually does have citric acid in it, “for tartness”, but mostly, to make grape juice, you need grapes.) So now, you have what is sure to be the start of a comprehensive list of what to do with lemons, that you either find, possibly in Florida, or that you buy from the store or farmer’s market. If all else fails, take your lemons, go find Aroldis Chapman, make a video, and get probably at least 14 hits on YouTube.

Everything I wanted to know about earwax, but no more

Do you ever get those certain subjects that remain stuck in your brain for a time, and you just can’t help but wonder about them? Yeah, me too. One of them, that I’ve been meaning to research for some time now, is this: earwax. As it turns out, earwax is one of those weird, slightly gross things that everybody is actually at some level interested in, because we all have ears. Well, most of us have them.

In any event, earwax is a bit intriguing. The weirdness of it kind of gives it an allure. When you’re learning about it you get a sort of funny look on your face, a sort of disgusted grimace, and yet, you just can’t look away. (As an aside, I get this way when observing all sorts of weird things that I find around me during my daily goings on, such as young men wearing shorts and long socks, John Travolta’s face, and general mannerisms of youths involved with greek life on college campuses.) Another thing that makes it somewhat interesting is that it comes out of your ear. Ears are actually just weird in general when you consider them. They’re all scrunched up, and you use them to sense sound, which is cool…ears are sort of like human antennae to “see” things we can’t actually see. Ears may be weird, but earwax is weirder still.

So what is earwax? Well, it is a substance secreted from your body, so it’s wholly organic in nature. (Unless you regularly take pesticide baths…) A quick search on Wolframalpha will tell you that as a word, its use started around 1800, and went up dramatically halfway through the 20th century. Also, it has a scrabble score of 16. As the Earwax Wikipedia article explains, earwax is a yellowish waxy substance secreted in the ear canal of humans and other mammals. Which is great, but we already knew that. Or, at least, those of us who didn’t are off to buy some quetips now. It’s purpose is to provide protection against all sorts of stuff, like insects. It is also known in the scientific, medical, and uber-extreme nerd communities as cerumen, and comes in two main flavors, wet and dry.

This very interesting paper actually goes on about earwax in a way that is both commendable and slightly creepy, and tells the inquiring mind that earwax is made up of keratin(a lot of this), saturated and unsaturated long-chain fatty acids, alcohols(not a lot of those two), squalene(12%), and cholesterol(6% to 9%). So, like most organic things, a bunch of chemistry and biology words that you wish you’d paid attention to in high school.

The really cool bit of that paper, though, has to do with what your earwax says about you. (In the strictest sense, well, nothing, because it is earwax, and therefor cannot actually speak. But you can convey a great deal of information without actually speaking, so don’t relax just yet.) Based on the amount of certain chemicals that are found in your earwax, earwax experts (cerumenologists) can actually figure out where on the earth your ancestors came from. In this super cool Popular Science article the details of where your earwax says you are from are laid out in more or less layman’s terms. It also contains the bit of information that there is one single gene in the human genome that determines whether you have wet or dry earwax. Also, it turns out, if you have wet earwax, you are in general more smelly as a person. This paper (which, unfortunately you must pay to read in full) goes even further into earwax types, and correlates specific types of the earwax gene with locations on the Earth. It also has 39 authors, which is interesting, because I would not have guessed there were 39 people who cared enough about earwax enough to publish a paper about it. As it turns out, I would have guessed wrong.

As I scoured the Internet looking for earwaxy things, I came across a page on the Stack Exchange for Biology, which has hitherto evaded my knowledge of things that are on the Internet. Someone named “J underscore mie6” asked a question to the people who answer things on Biology Stack Exchange about the difference between earwax and mucus, since both perform a similar function: to protect places where stuff can enter the body. J underscore mie6 was slightly wrong in the original question, because technically the ears are not an entry point to your ooey gooey insides, because of the tympanic membrane. (Imagine a little man doing the intro to 2001: A Space Odyssey on your ear.) Also, earwax, for the record, is not mucus. Mucus is created by creatively named mucus glands, and earwax is produced by sweat and oil glands. This next bit is a thought that has the potential to fester, so consider this a warning before reading on. If our bodies used mucus to protect the ears, then we would be “constantly weeping mucus from our ears unless there were a drainage system into our sinus passageways [sic]”. So good thing we actually produce earwax in our ears, and not just the same old mucus that fills our noses.

Finally, before we go, here is an article about earwax from the ever insightful BBC. They have a decidedly British knack for covering science news (as well as American politics), and they do not disappoint with this bit of journalism. It includes the phrases, “jungle of hair”, “the most notable earwax scientific discovery”, and starts with the magnificent sentence, “Like other secretions, it is something that most of us deal with in private.” Which begs the question: Who are the people in the not most of us group? The article contains five bits about earwax that you probably did not know. Unless, that is, you got here by reading all the preceding text on this page.

The BBC article ends with thismajestic piece of earwax which was secreted by a blue whale. The sample is some 25cm (about 10 inches) long, and was produced over a period of 12 years. Also, yes, it is the aforementioned “most notable earwax scientific discovery”.

So there is really no point to this other than this: I wondered what earwax was, and looked it up, and thought it was interesting. Hopefully, you found it interesting as well. Oh yeah, and don’t click the whale earwax link if you’re reading this during lunch. Or really any of the links, because they’re all kinda gross. Thanks for reading!

Science Thursday: Thursday, August 20

Welcome to this weeks edition of Science Thursday. This is a special edition of Science Thursday, as it is the last that will be found here, on my personal blog. That’s right ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, Science Thursday is growing up, and getting it’s own website. Next week, tune in to sciencethursday.org and find the same old Science Thursday in a brand new place. This week we have some downright exhilarating news, starting, with our favorite comet lander and orbiter.

On August 13, Rosetta reached perihelion coming to within 186 million km of the Sun. For reference, this is about 1/5 the optical diameter of Betelgeuse. The linked article has some photos of what the comet looked like during the event. Evidently, it is spewing 300kg of water vapor out into space every second. This was an exciting day for the comet. As the saying goes, it’s all downhill from here.

In an article posted in CBC News, we find that there is an automated lawnmower with U.S. approval. this is good news to all those children out there who are forced to mow the lawn. One day, sooner now, you will be able to just set the robot lawn mower off, and go back to watching the shitty cartoons on tv or playing your gamebox or twitting on faceplace or whatever kids do nowadays instead of mow lawns. Incidentally, this is also good news to most parents, who just want their lawns mowed, but bad news to the parents who viewed lawn mowing as a rite of passage type of thing. Maybe the new rite of passage can be fixing robomower when it breaks? Time will tell.

Oh boy, do I have a whacky conspiracy for you. Evidently, Mars is going to be as big as the moon. Except for one small thing. No. Just, no. It’s not. No. It is that time of the year again, the time of the Mars hoax. Normally, I would have just discounted this as a bunch of whackadoos who we let onto the internet as the name would lead you to believe, but this hoax is a little different. For starters, it has it’s own, relatively credible Wikipedia page. Also, it has a mostly credible (so far)NASA webpage. Evidently, an email went around back in 2003 (yes kids, there WAS email in 2003) which stated that mars would be the same size as the moon when mars was viewed with 75 power magnification. The 75 magnification bit may or may not be true, depending on which website you read. What is definitely not true is Mars looking the same size as the Moon from Earth. To put a slight spin on this, a way Mars would actually look as big as the Moon does on Earth is if we actually send people there. On the way, for an instant, Mars will appear exactly as big as the Moon does from your back porch. So let’s step to it NASA, and make this myth come true. For a select few astronauts. Briefly.

Here is some news for octopus fans. The octopus genome has been mapped. Finally! There are many novel genes that scientists found in the octopus genome that are responsible for things like octopus’ ability to change color. Which, I think, is pretty cool.

That’s it for this week’s Science Thursday. See you next week on the new website, sciencethursday.org. Thanks for reading. Until next time.

Science Thursday: August 13, 2015

Welcome to this weeks edition of Science Thursday. I’ve sort of fallen into a routine of doing these every other week during the summer, due to a myriad of reasons such as me traveling and whatnot, so hopefully these will start becoming more regular again as the summer winds down. That, however, implies some sort of routine to my daily life, which at this moment, is about to become rather non-existent for a little while, so we’ll all get to see about it together. This two weeks, we have some exiting news about robots, Rosetta, and

So to start something from last week. There is a hitchhiking robot in America. Or, rather, there WAS a hitchhiking robot in America. The little robotic traveller started in Salem, Mass. and was vandalized in Philadelphia, after successfully making it’s way across the entirety of Canada, Germany, and the Netherlands. This was basically a giant fuck you to the robot community from America, and something that makes me a little sad to be an American. This guy traveled across three whole countries and couldn’t even last two weeks here, because of some stupid ignorant dumb-asses in Philadelphia. In other news: the Philadelphia police are still not entirely sure that the vandal wasn’t Donald Trump…

In an update to this story, a tech group from Philadelphia has offered to help repair hitchbot, in an effort to prove to the rest of the world that America is not all full of idiotic scumbags like the republican presidential candidates want you to believe.

Something else from last week that is of note, NASA is putting the wreckage of Challenger and Columbia on display to the public for the first time ever. Prior to this, the Challenger wreckage was buried in an abandoned missile silo on the grounds of the Canaveral Air Force Station, and the Columbia wreckage was kept in office space at the Kennedy Space Center according to NBC News.

Also from last week, this is the closest upset photo of a comet ever taken. It was taken from a range of 9 meters by the lander Philae as it made it’s descent.

So, there has been a spike in the number of authors of scientific papers recently. Why exactly this is, is unclear. But there are huge projects, such as the LHC at CERN, where there are many many many people who are working research that is published. The bigger issue, as reported in the article, is a physicist crediting his pet hamster as a co-author on a physics paper (H.A.M.S. ter Tisha…cute.)

There were several other relatively interesting things in the news this week, including this piece about astronauts eating vegetables grown in space, the Perseids meteor shower, which I believe you can still see some bits of.

Also this week, an interesting discussion of your privacy in main stream operating systems (namely Windows 10), this super kick-ass humanoid robot punching through a wall, and Lawrence Lessig announcing he is raising money to run for President of the United States, just so he can resign.

That’s all for the past two weeks, hopefully you have learned something from this week’s edition of Science Thursday. Thanks for reading, and see you next time.

The Thing About Sloths

I recently read The Salmon of Doubt, published posthumously from the hard drives of one Douglas Noel Adams. It is the last addition to the brilliant canon of a brilliant man. I for one did not truly realize the breadth of his intelligence until I read some of the more candid bits that are contained in this final volume. There is a quote buried somewhere in the book, amid an article regarding, among other things, palmtop computers, typewriter keyboards, and Branwell Brontë. The quote is:

“My favourite piece of information is that Branwell Brontë, brother of Emily and Charlotte, died standing up leaning against a mantle piece, in order to prove it could be done.

This is not quite true, in fact. My absolute favourite piece of information is the fact that young sloths are so inept that they frequently grab their own arms and legs instead of tree limbs, and fall out of trees.

However, this is not relevant to what is currently on my mind because it concerns sloths, whereas the Branwell Brontë piece of information concerns writers and feeling like death and doing things to prove they can be done, all of which are pertinent to my current situation to a degree that is, frankly, spooky.”

Now, you might read this and think to youself, ‘No way! How did I not know that bit about sloths!’, and then go on happily with your day. Or, like I did, you might think to youself, ‘No way! How did I not know that bit about sloths!’, and drive your little web browser over to Google or Yahoo! or some such search place (Just not Bing, for goodness’ sake not Bing), search the bit about sloths, and find that it’s totally bogus. There is no scientific evidence for it.

Of course, this piece of information made it onto the internet, and has been passed around and around by those who either a) believe it, or b) appreciate it. (Notice there is no c) believe it and appreciate it) Which brings up an interesting point, regarding bits of information. People around the internet seem to be all in a tizzy because little sloths don’t actually mistake their arms for trees. Which, I mean, even for a sloth, is daft. Arms and trees are rather different. One is furry and hurts when you pinch it, and the other doesn’t drop you 90 feet onto the ground when you grab at it. In hindsight, having believed this bit of information for a couple seconds, I feel a little silly. Of course baby sloths don’t actually do this. Sloths live in the trees. If they constantly grabbed their arms and fell out of them they wouldn’t have survived this long.

At this point, I was beginning to feel a bit sad. I mean how could Douglas Adams, the brilliant man that he was, have gotten this wrong? (The answer is actually quite simple, but we’ll get to that later.) Then I realized, that it didn’t actually matter. Read the quote again. (The whole thing, if you like, or if you are an efficient sort of person, just the middle part.) Never does Mr. Adams actaully assert that this is a fact. All he says is that it is his favorite piece of information. And here we get to an intersting point about information.

You see, to be information, there is no actual requirement that it be true. This is something that I think many people forget, which is interesting, because there is certainly more information available to us now than there has ever been. We live our lives in a constant state of information overload. It’s everywhere. Phones, emails, every where all over your laptop, on the television, on the radio. All that information about you on the internet that is false, is still information about you on the internet. With information being literally everywhere, it’s important to keep the possibility that the information is false in mind. Now, there are obviously places where it is assumed that information is true. When you’re reading BBC news bulletins. Or Aljezeera. Even NPR. The job of these organizations is to provide you with things that are factually true. When you’re reading other sites on the internet, such as Fox News, or an internet blog, a little more critical thinking is requried.

All of this being said, I do not know if Douglas Adams knew this information to be false when he wrote it. There are lots of pieces of information that are out there. For instance, Maine is the only state whose name is just one syllable. Pigs are the only other animal besides humans that can get sunburnt. It is illegal to hunt camels in the state of Arizona. The Bible is the most shoplifted book in the United States. Nutmeg is extremely poisonous if injected intravenously. If you spell out numbers, you have to get to one thousand (1000) before you use the letter ‘a’. (For more like this, you can visit this website, or use your favorite search engine to find random pieces of information.) Now, are all of those pieces of information true? I have no idea. (Except the letter ‘a’ one, I know that one is actaully true.) But they are, in fact, pieces of information. Some of them, like the camel hunting ban in Arizona, are on my top 20 list. Some of them, like the one about Canada accidentally putting an American flag over their parlament building on their two dollar bill, are false, yet I still like them. Others, like the one about Canada putting the American side of the Sault St. Marie locks on the four dollar bill in 1900 instead of the Canadian side, by accident, are true (google it, but google it wisely), and I like them anyway.

The thing about sloths is: regardless of the fact that the bit about sloths isn’t true, just try and get the image of a baby sloth mistakenly grabbing its own arm and falling out of a tree out of your head. You can’t do it. I’ve tried. It’s just hilarious. The little guy is just sitting there and then fwoomp! It’s brilliant. And you probably smiled thinking about it. Douglas Adams was a satirist, a script writer, a novelist, and brilliant by all accounts. This little bit about sloths is one of my favorite pieces of information as well. Because it is a great piece of information, and also, (this is the bit I said we’d get to later) it means that Douglas Adams wasn’t always right. Which, I think, is one of my favorite things about him.

Science Thursday: July 30th, 2015

And we’re back! After a week of frolicking around Oshkosh for EAA Airventure 2015, seeing Jim Lovell and company speak about Apollo 13, and falling in love with Long-EZs, I am back in the real world (which, I might add, is much less exciting then the make believe one full of airplanes and astronauts.) Being back in the real world, I can write more editions of Science Thursday! (Wohoo!)

This week, we start off with some news about the International Space Station. Russia has formally committed to remain a partner in station operations through 2024. This is big news after recent relations between Russia and the West have been seemingly unstable. The European and Japanese space agencies, the two other large players with their own research modules on the station, have not committed to an extended station life yet, but the ESA is expected to do so sometime next year.

The NTSB has released a report regarding the crash of Space Ship 2 last October. The report, which can be found here, blamed the accident on the designer of SS2, Scaled Composites, for not doing enough human factors work in their design. They created a vehicle where it was possible for one human error to lead to a catastrophic break up of the vehicle, which is what occurred last October. So, while the copilot did mistakenly unlock the feathering mechanism early, the report blamed the designers of the vehicle for not putting any safeguards in place. So, watch for human factors job openings at Scaled Composites in the near future.

A bit of sad news: there is one less Northern White Rhino today than there was Sunday. The 31-year-old female animal named Nabire died at the Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic on Monday. Her death leaves only four Northern White Rhinos in existence, three females and one male. It is possible that there could still be a new birth, but moving the four animals to Kenya in 2009 in hopes that their natural habitat would facilitate breading.

Scientists have discovered an aurora for the first time outside of our solar system. The aurora was discovered around a brown dwarf some 18 lightyears away. The brown dwarf, which is not quite a star, but much larger than a planet, has auroras, but scientists are puzzled as to what is actually causing the auroras.

Finally, The solar system has faces. Quite a few of them actually. Some of them are on Pluto, like Mikey Mouse, some of them are on Mars, like that one everyone thought the government was making up or hiding or something (conspiracy theories don’t rise very high on my radar), the man on the moon, all those sorts of things. Anyway, this article goes about describing some of these faces (but it does go a bit whacky at the end.) Still a little fun though.

That’s it for this weeks edition of Science Thursday. Thanks for reading, and remember, only 63 days until The Martian comes out! See you next time.

Science Thursday: July 16th, 2015

Welcome to this week’s edition of Science Thursday after a week off last week. There’s really only one thing that anyone has been talking about this week, and last week, and that is Pluto. So let’s start there.

The New Horizons spacecraft successfully flew by Pluto on Tuesday, without crashing into it. This subsequently lead to what is now my favorite photo of a scientist ever (look at the guy in the middle) as well as a bunch of new data about Pluto. Including this relatively high resolution photo of the has-been planet. (To all my fellow 90’s kids…get over it.) The probe also got some photos of Pluto’s moon Charon revealing some interesting features. It also lead to what will some day undoubtedly be well known ancient pop-culture references, including this xkcd what-if post, and this webcomic.

While everyone was busy looking at Pluto, the good ole’ folks down at the LHC discovered a new particle. The pentaquark, which was first theorized in the 1960s, like the Higgs boson, has been found. Which is good news for the world of theoretical things waiting to be discovered. I’ve just noticed that so far this week we have TWO things that involve pictures of scientists being happy about data. Which is really all scientists ever do. What this means exactly is still a little fuzzy for me, because I’m not a particle physicist, but it’s still really cool. If you would like to indulge yourself, here are the findings as published in the journal Physical Review Letters.

So the two weeks that science has been happening has also given us quite an emotional roller coaster regarding a miniature ice age. (Kind of like a real ice age, but for those little railroad towns that people with too much time on their hands make.) First, there was going to be a mini ice-age in the 2030s. Then, there wasn’t. Ok, so it was a little more just a bump in the road, but when you’re talking about ice ages in our lifetime, you should probably be sure. (Cough cough…talkin’ to you Valentina Zharkova…cough cough) Anyways. Professor Zharkova posited that two low points in the cycles of different layers of the sun would coincide in about 15 years, and the Earth would see temperatures that were last reached in the last mini ice-age during the mid 1600s. However, while the Sun does in fact have cycles, it turns out that the little mini ice-age of the 17th century, during the Mounder Minimum was in part caused by a bunch of volcanic eruptions among other things, and lasted much longer than the upcoming low point is predicted to last. So, no mini ice ages in the next 15 years.

In other news, NASA has named the astronauts who will be crewing the Boeing and SpaceX commercial crew launches. The fantastic four comprise of Robert Behnken, Eric Boe, Douglas Hurley, and Sunita Williams. The four will fly Boeing’s CST-100 capsule and SpaceX’s crewed Dragon. The commercial crew transportation program will allow the United States to be able to launch it’s own astronauts to the ISS without relying on the Russian space agency to do so. Crewed test flights could start as early as 2017.

Finally this week: worm sperm. Actually, worm sperm that’s 50 million years old. Scientists in Antarctica have discovered 50-million-year-old sperm cells, which are the oldest known sperm cells ever to be found. The cells were found in a fossilized sex cocoon made by the worms. It is believed this is how the cells survived, because little sperms are so fragile and die quickly. Last year, 17-million-year-old shrimp sperm cells were discovered in a cave in Queensland. Those 17-million-year-old cells had fossilized nuclei, which is also believed to be the case for the 50-million-year-old worm sperm.

That’s all for this weeks edition of Science Thursday. Thanks for reading, and good luck trying to get the phrase ‘worm sperm’ out of your head. It’s deceptively catchy…see you next time.