Paper Plates

November 29, 2011

Today I had to go to the DMV (or “the registry” as some people call it round these parts). I had renewed my registration a while back and never received it, so I’ve been driving around without a valid registration. I’ve been putting off going to the DMV to sort this out, because I figured it would be quite a hassle. I couldn’t have been more wrong! I drove down to the Cranston main branch this afternoon and upon entering the building the first thing I noticed was a small cafe on the left side and signs directing people to the correct stations. I went to the second floor and after a very short wait in a the “registration” line was direct upstairs to “research.” On the third floor there was no waiting at all. I showed the friendly woman behind the window my online renewal receipt and she went in the back and returned with my registration and plate stickers. Less than 10 minutes after I had entered the building I was walking out the door with a smile. Impressive!

And now some history… license plates have been around since 1893 when they were introduced in Paris (back to 19th century Paris again!). In the United States the first state to require plates was New York in 1901, though they didn’t actually issue them and the vehicle owner needed to make their own! Massachusetts and West Virginia were the first states to actually issue plates, in 1903. Plates came in all shapes, size and materials (from cardboard to copper). The Rhode Island plate shown above was issued in 1917 and is iron enameled with porcelain. In 1957 the size and shape of license plate was standardized via collaboration between the auto companies and the states. Personally, I prefer the European-style plates that are more compatible with current trends in automobile styling.

Polio Punts Politics

November 25, 2011

So on my way to celebrate Thanksgiving in Connecticut yesterday I listened to a few Stuff You Missed in History Class podcasts. The most interesting one was about polio (full name poliomyelitis). Most of us know the basics about polio… FDR had it, it paralyzed kids, Jonas Salk created a vaccine, now it’s gone. There’s more to it than that though, including a time when the Cold War got all warm and fuzzy.

Polio has been around for a very long time – there’s evidence of ancient Egyptians having it. But for some reason it wasn’t a huge problem until the end of the 19th century, when epidemics of the virus became a regular event (previously cases were sporadic). By the early 20th century there was a polio “season” in the summer when people were more likely to contract the disease (though only 1 in 10 people show any symptoms at all and less than 1 in 100 who contract it experience nervous system difficulty). By the middle of the century it had escalated to the point that in 1952 over 3,000 people died and over 20,000 experienced paralysis as a result of polio in the United States.

In 1955 Salk’s vaccine was announced and distributed, and was very successful in reducing the number of cases in the United States. His vaccine used an inactive (chemically killed) virus to produce antibodies and was very safe, but had to be administered by a shot. At the same time, Albert Sabin was perfecting an oral polio vaccine (OPV) that used a weakened form of the virus (instead of dead). Sabin’s vaccine had the advantages of being easier to administer, longer lasting, and able to prevent the host from passing on the virus. The problem for Sabin was that Salk’s vaccine had gained great publicity here in the U.S. so his was seen as superfluous.

Sabin’s found his large scale trials of OPV in the U.S.S.R. of all places. The vaccine was given to over 100 million people in the easter bloc from 1955 to 1960 and was proven to be highly effective. In 1960 a large scale vaccination was done in Cincinnati, which started the replacement of Salk’s injected vaccine with OPV in the United States. If you were born here before the year 2000 you received the OPV vaccination. After that, we switched back to the “dead” vaccine since there is a miniscule  chance of the weakened virus activating with OPV (which is now more likely than actually contracting polio here in the U.S.).

Today, polio lives in a just a few places in the world (southern Asia and Nigeria). Less than 1,000 cases a year are reported worldwide now. Efforts to completely eradicate polio are ongoing. Ironically, political propaganda is preventing this in Nigeria as some officials have claimed that the vaccine is part of an American plot to sterilize Muslim true believers.

Happy Bird-day!

November 24, 2011

This is a holiday I truly love, unlike the sprawling mess that is Christmas (the decorations are visible in stores before Halloween these days). I looked up the history of Thanksgiving for this post, and didn’t find much of interest. There are competing claims for the first Thanksgiving between Massachusetts and Virginia (yawn), and Canada celebrates their Thanksgiving on our Columbus Day, but not much else.

Thanksgiving started as a harvest festival, which must have been a big deal back then. These days most of us are far removed  from our agrarian roots, but I imagine that such celebrations would have been very meaningful at the time. Finishing the harvest meant completing the busiest work of the year (dawn til dusk every day) and a successful harvest meant that you’d actually have enough food to survive the winter! Now that’s something worth celebrating. For a harvest celebration the early Canadian date makes a lot of sense, since their growing season is shorter with an earlier onset of cold weather.

For me, Thanksgiving is a time of reflection. I am truly thankful for all the wonderful people in my life, whether I’ve known them since I was a small child or if they’ve just entered my world recently. I’m thankful for my successes and for surviving and growing from my failures. And I’m thankful for the food, shelter and security that is very easy to take for granted. We live in a wonderful time in history (despite our collective whining) where most of us live luxurious lives. Let’s hope it continues.

Woodchuck Whistling

November 20, 2011

Today I learned that woodchucks and groundhogs are the same animal. Even better, they are also called whistle-pigs! It is also thought that the name woodchuck came from the Narragansett Indian name for the animal, wuchak, and has nothing to do with wood or chucking. So now that winter is nearly here, I’m looking forward to Whistle-pig Day!

Fed up with federalism

November 17, 2011

This week I had the pleasure of being on of four judges for a high school debate in a Civics class at Blackstone that looks like a lot of fun to teach (I really would love to teach some form of social studies someday). The debate was between students assuming the roles of federalists and anti-federalists, with each side attempting to convince the other whether to ratify the Constitution or not. Although it was their first debate and therefore a bit rough around the edges, it was lively and entertaining. As I was taking notes and assigning scores to the speeches, questions and answers, I found myself wishing I had a more thorough knowledge of the topic when the students weren’t very clear on their points. So of course I did some reading on the topic later. In a nutshell, the federalists wanted a strong national government (relatively speaking – the government in place lacked the power to deal with the most basic issues like debt and defense). The anti-federalists favored states rights and were adamant that individual liberties be strongly protected, fearing a strong national government would become too similar to the monarchy from which they had just liberated themselves. In the end a compromise was reached (the Bill of Rights allayed the antis fears, and the remarkable George Washington prevented any slip into monarchy). Of the 13 original states, only Rhode Island did not send a delegate to the Constitutional Convention and was the last state to ratify it, nearly 2½ years after Delaware unanimously did so and almost a year after Washington was inaugurated as President. Even then it was by a tight 34-32 vote, which was only possible because a few anti-feds abstained from voting.


Better late than never…

November 14, 2011

The perfect Halloween post, just in time for Thanksgiving! On my way back from Connecticut yesterday I listened to my old friends Josh & Chuck of Stuff You Should Know fame talking about body farms. When I saw the title I thought it might have something to do with organ harvesting (and my theory that some very rich people have clones of themselves growing for this purpose somewhere), but it’s something entirely different. A body farm is actually just an area where donated bodies are spread about to decompose so that forensic scientists can gather data and improve techniques that can be used to help identify found bodies and determine the time of death as accurately as possible. One interesting but disturbing factoid presented in the podcast was about “de-gloving,” which is the point in decomposition when the skin on the hands separates from the forearm and falls off the bones of the hand. If the body is found at this point (and before animals take the skin “glove” for a snack) the forensic team member can insert a latex gloved hand into the skin and easily record the fingerprints. Then there are all the types of flies and how they can be used to determine time of death, but I won’t go into detail about such things there. There are only three operational body farms in the United States at present, all in the south.


November 11, 2011

I know it’s a bit silly, but for some reason I think the 11-11-11 date is very cool. I  don’t remember what I was doing on 10-10-10, but I do remember 9-9-99 (the day the Sega Dreamcast was released). I had hoped to do something memorable on this day, but so far it’s looking like a fairly ordinary day (though it is a holiday for me). So while I’m waiting for the excitement to begin, I decided to look up numerology. My advisory students at CFHS last year (the freshman girls) used to write their names and the names of some boy on the board and do some sort of “calculation” to see if they were a match (I think this is what e-Harmony does). If I had been paying attention I could try it, but sadly I wasn’t. I found a site where you can enter your name to find your number. Each letter is assigned a number and then they are added. That digits in that sum are then added to make a new number, and this repeats until you have a one-digit number. My number is 3, which produces the usual range of characteristics (think horoscope), some of which are correct and some are not (people tend to focus on the ones that fit). On another site I discovered that I’m romantically compatible with 6s and 9s, for whatever that’s worth.

Historically, numerology was present in most major civilizations around the world. This makes sense to me, since the amount of symmetry and order in math is remarkable. Viewing this as somehow divine isn’t a stretch at all, so finding meaning from our personal numbers is natural. As St. Augustine of Hippo wrote “Numbers are the Universal language offered by the deity to humans as confirmation of the truth.” Where it gets arbitrary  is choosing those personal numbers or assigning characteristics to certain numbers. There are many “systems” that vary because of this.

An imaginary disaster

November 9, 2011

I had a very strange dream last night. The focus of the dream was about an upcoming (in my dream, at least) blockbuster movie, Titanic 2. Very odd. How do you make a sequel to a semi-historical disaster movie? It wasn’t very clear, but I think I may have been working on this project in the dream, because I knew a lot about the film before it was to be released. For instance, the premise was that it would take place as the ship was sinking, and would focus on a bunch of characters and what they were doing during Jack & Rose’s adventure. Kind of like a “Love Actually” on a sinking ship. The viewer had to try to figure out which characters would survive and which ones would perish in the frigid water. The poster was a profile view of the ship sinking, with tiny  people around it, some floating in the water and some underneath. The tag line was “Who will survive?” or something ghastly like that. Kate & Leo obviously didn’t sign up for the sequel, so the idea was to intersperse footage of them from the first movie in the background whenever possible.


So what inspired such an awful idea? Well, a couple of weeks ago I remembered a bit by the late comedian Richard Jeni where he talks about the movie “Jaws 4: The Revenge” in detail. I found a clip of a version of the bit, but it’s not as good as later versions, so I’ve been watching this computerized rendering of the transcript of the act a lot. As bad as a Titanic sequel would be, it couldn’t possibly be as bad as this corruption of a fine film (the first “Jaws” is a classic – the rest get progressively worse).



November 3, 2011

I’m currently reading the Steve Jobs biography and of all the interesting tidbits about his early life, I found the fact that he grew up in an “Eichler” house to be particularly interesting. The description of the design, which is cleanly modern with features such as some glass walls, radiant heat concrete floors and exposed post & beam construction, suits my tastes nearly perfectly. Eichler Homes built around 11,000 of these types of homes in California between 1950 and 1974. The architect was Frank Lloyd Wright disciple Robert Anshen. The homes were affordable and desirable, and often part of planned communities with included parks and community centers. This reminds me a bit of my current residence in that there are common areas that create a sense of community that isn’t all that common here in New England (and I like the loft-style with high ceilings, exposed wood beams and columns and solid brick exterior wall). I know a lot of my neighbors quite well, making events like the recent Halloween Costume Party a breeze to organize.

Wright was also the inspiration for Howard Roark in “The Fountainhead,” my favorite Ayn Rand novel (edging out “Atlas Shrugged,” which I saw someone reading in a coffee shop the other day). This protaganist, like Jobs, was an uncompromising idealist. I wondered if Jobs ever read Rand, and found a quote from Steve Wozniak recalling his business partner mentioning “Atlas Shrugged” in the early years of their friendship. Apparently he also managed to see a screening of the movie of the same name that came out earlier this year.