Millenium Rock

February 25, 2013

gibraltarI’ve been on a fiction craze lately and have finished another series of books. I was totally captivated by the Millennium series (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the first and most famous of this trilogy). Apart from learning about Sweden (where they take place) and about the interesting story of the author (who died not long after submitting the completed trilogy to his publisher), there were other interesting tidbits I latched onto.

One of those is the territory of Gibraltar. It’s famous for its location (at the straight that connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea) and for eponymous rock mountain. The limestone rock is roughly 1,400 feet tall and dominates the landscape, as you can tell from this photo. While this photo is taken from Spain, Gibraltar itself is a British Overseas Territory and the 30,000 inhabitants squeezed onto 2.6 square miles are mostly British citizens. Naturally Spain isn’t too pleased with this arrangement, but they are being a bit hypocritical since they have a similar setup in Morocco on the other side of the straight, a mere 10 miles away.


One Man’s Oneirology

July 25, 2012

I woke up grumpy and sad today. I have no reason to feel that way, but I had an unpleasant dream which affected me even after I awoke. Even now I’m still struggling to shake off the negative feelings so I can enjoy my day. As part of that shaking off process, I did some dream research (oneirology).

I discovered that negative emotions are far more common in dreams than positive ones. Anxiety is #1, sadly. To make it worse, sexual content appears in less than 10% of dreams. The world would be a happier place if those were reversed. Oh, and juvenile dreams about driving a Kia Optima around a racetrack filled with bikini models are nonexistent. 95% of all dreams aren’t remembered, but if you wake in the middle of having one you are highly likely to remember it. Women are more likely than men to recall dreams, and apparently you can train yourself to remember your dreams more frequently.

Most of this information comes from human studies, but all mammals dream. Anyone who has watched their dog “running” while sleeping knows this to be true (I hope the negative feelings bias is human specific). Dolphins are minimal dreamers, humans are mid-pack, and possums are prolific dreamers (probably dreaming about being something other than a possum).

I don’t know if the possum can do it, but lucid dreaming is a real thing. If the dreamer is aware of the dream it qualifies as a lucid dream. In some cases the dreamer (the oneironaut) is able to exercise control over the dream. I once saw the movie Waking Life, which was clearly made by someone who was high (or dreaming). In the movie the dreamer knew it was a dream because the digital alarm clock couldn’t be read no matter how close it was.

Like that alarm clock, dreams are enigmatic. Despite being studied since the dawn of humankind, we still don’t know the purpose of dreams. There are many theories, of course. Freud theorized dream content was driven by wish fulfillment. Jung moved slightly away from that to say that dreams are messages to help resolve emotional issues. Perls argues that dreams represent an uprising of sorts from the parts of the self that have been ignored or suppressed. These last two could explain the prevalence of negative emotions in dreams. In any event, this exercise was therapeutic and now I’m off to have some fun.

Ignored Intelligence

July 1, 2012

I was looking up ocean currents online (a byproduct of reading Moby Dick – a great book but not a great novel) and one of history’s great minds made a surprise appearance. In 1768 Ben Franklin was deputy postmaster of the colonies and overheard a complaint from officials in England who wondered why it took British ships weeks longer to journey to New York than it took colonial merchant ships to travel to Newport. So he asked his cousin, who was a Nantucket whaling captain, and learned about the easterly current that the British ships sailed west against and the American ships avoided by sailing south first. He did more research and created a map of what he coined the Gulf Stream, a current that moves around 5 mph (quite significant when you consider sailing ships of the time averaged 15 mph). He send this map to England where it was published by the Secretary of the British Post Office, but it was largely ignored by ship captains. When they finally did heed the great man’s map they saved two weeks of sailing time.

The latest issue of Mental Floss had plenty of interesting little factoids. The two topics I found most interesting were bears (a long-time favorite) and flight attendants. Here goes…

• Bears don’t really crave honey – they’re really after the protein rich developing eggs and bees in the hive. The honey is a bonus.

• In the 1960s, Pan Am’s stewardesses had to be at least 5’2″, weigh less than 130 pounds, couldn’t be married or have children, and were forced to retire at 32!

• Polar bears are invisible to infrared cameras. The military was interesting in using bear coats as Harry Potter invisibility cloaks, but fortunately for the bears ultraviolet cameras see them easily.

• A lot of people want to be flight attendants. When Delta announced 1,000 opening in 2010 they received over 100,000 applicants, despite a starting salary of only $18,000 a year.

• The most amazing thing about black bear hibernation is that upon emerging the bear experiences no cramping or jelly legs, and can even run straight away. A human that spent months in such a state would wake up with useless limbs. And we don’t know how they do it.

• Flight attendants don’t like serving Diet Coke, because its persistent fizziness results in pour times three times longer than other beverages.

• Smokey the bear was created during World War 2 because forest fires were consuming valuable manpower and resources. A few years later forestry workers rescued a cub and he became the live mascot. He became so popular that he got his own zip code in 1964 to handle all the fan mail!

• Newbie female flight attendants must wear longer skirts until their probationary period (6 months) ends. Some pilots have been said to seek out the longer skirts.

South of Silicon

April 2, 2012

I’ve noticed a pull on me towards Paris for the last year or so, but lately I’ve also started being pulled west. I’ve never been to California and it’s vying to be my next destination. I have zero interest in Los Angeles so northern California would be my target. In the map to the left I’ve highlighted two prominent valleys in the area. In purple is Silicon Valley, and in Yellow is Salinas Valley of John Steinbeck fame. Salinas Valley has nearly ideal farming conditions for a number of crops including  lettuce, tomatoes, spinach, and broccoli, leading to the valley’s nickname “America’s Salad Bowl.” Floral crops and wine grapes also thrive in the 90 mile corridor, however.

Most of my travel inclinations are fueled by literature (though The Brothers Karamazov didn’t really give me the urge to travel to Russia – Dostoyevsky isn’t nearly as descriptive of places as Steinbeck) so the book I read after this one could help shape any future travel plans. I’m sticking with classics for a while, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (a book about the cathedral and not the bell ringer as the title implies) is on my Kindle and ready to go to nudge me back towards Europe. And a recent podcast about the Bronte sisters has put Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights in the queue as well. But I doubt that either of those will be influential sinceI have little inclination to go to England because of the weather.


January 18, 2012

Despite my best efforts, I’m sick. I was hoping not to miss any school days this year, but no such luck. I’ve fought off a couple of minor colds, but the flu seems to have found me. I didn’t get a flu shot this year, which is a bit silly considering I’m around sneezing students every day.

Still, the flu is not a big deal – it essentially hits a giant “pause” button on my life. I can’t do much since my brain doesn’t work quite right when I’m sick (and the cold meds aren’t exactly helpful here) so my ability to read/learn or get projects done is diminished. I basically drink ginger ale and watch television until I’m better. Boring, but hardly anything to get too upset over.

Nobody likes getting the flu, but we really must consider ourselves lucky that the current strains of flu virus aren’t too potent. The flu pandemic of 1918 (called the Spanish flu, though it actually appeared elsewhere first) killed between 20 and 50 million people. Most modern forms of influenza are descendants of this virus (influenza-A, also known as H1N1). The last pandemic was the H1N1 “swine flu” in 2009, which was a big deal in the media but did not cause a large number of deaths (though it should be remembered that the “regular” flu kills up to a half a million people each year worldwide, mostly those in relatively poor health).

Interestingly, the flu seems to be widespread throughout the United States at the moment, according to this CDC map. I would have expected warmer states to show less flu, since influenza tends to strike in the winter (both in the northern and southern hemisphere, which have winter at different times of year). The flu appears even in tropical places, though it’s less seasonal in balmy climes. It seems that scientists aren’t quite sure why the flu is worse in the winter, and predicting when the next deadly variation will arrive is mere guesswork.

Simply Solstice

December 21, 2011

It’s Winter Solstice Eve! Early tomorrow (12:30 a.m. to be precise) is that magical time where our lovely planet tilts the farthest away from the sun, leaving us with a very short day (9 hours, 8 minutes, and 8 seconds). To me it’s a day of celebration because it means that the days will start getting longer again, culminating in the Summer Solstice and a magically long 15 hours of daylight. We don’t really think about how much daylight varies here (though I wrote a post that covers it a while back).

I kind of wish we celebrated the solstice as a holiday rather than Christmas, which is a hodgepodge of early Roman celebrations (which were hijacked by Christians into Natalis Domini) combined with regional winter solstice holidays and a dash of celebrating the birth of Christ (which was moved from summer to winter – not sure how they pulled that off). It’s even more silly when you think about modern Christmas, with Santa Claus (derived from Saint Nicholas and celebrated by the Dutch on Dec. 5th but later merged with Christmas) and the myriad of secular stories and commercialism contrasting with a holy day. The simplicity of celebrating the shortest day with the hope of making through a long winter would do well in its stead.


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!


August 29, 2011

You ever wonder what that u-shaped pipe under your sink is for? Yeah, me neither. But while  researching how plumbing works (disappointing) I came across its purpose. The U “traps” water that acts as a seal to prevent sewer gas from moving into our bathrooms and kitchens. Without the trap out homes would be quite stinky. The U also has the side benefit of catching heavy objects (like rings) that fall in the drain so that they can be (relatively) easily retrieved. Unfortunately, this water trap is not a barrier to centipedes. In fact, it can be an attractive hang-out for them. So if you have any rarely used sinks (or if you have a drain in your basement floor) and you don’t like centipedes, you should pour a small amount of bleach into the drain to keep them away.

As I got up to let Jazzy out last night, I watched her tail as she realized what we were doing. After a quick stretch and shake her tail was wagging fast and wide and even did the “loop” thing that it does when she’s happily searching for a ball in the field. Apparently she was very happy to go outdoors at that moment. Most dog owners can read at least the basics of what different tail wags mean, but I looked it up anyway to get a bit more detail. A tail between the legs means fear or submission, and conversely a high tail usually means confidence and control. A slow or short tail wag usually means the dog is unsure or still trying to figure out what she’s supposed to do. And the one everyone should know is that a bristled, stiff tail held high and wagging fast is a dog that is agitated and possibly aggressive. Just because the tail is wagging doesn’t mean you’re safe – most dog bites occur when a dogs tail is wagging in this way.

In my research I also learned that the head of a dog is thermally isolated from its body to give it an advantage when hunting. This protects the brain from overheating while chasing prey in a hot environment – a dog chasing a rabbit in a desert probably won’t be able to catch it right away, but this heat protection will allow it to withstand the heat longer and catch the rabbit once it’s forced to slow down.