Lesson #363: The French Navy’s Final Morse Message

I was reading xkcd’s post from Wednesday this morning, and it mentioned that when the French Navy stopped using Morse Code in 1997, its last message was, “Calling all. This is our last cry before our eternal silence.” Now, Randall Munroe, who draws xkcd (which is genius, by the way), is a very smart guy, but I was wary, probably for the first time ever reading one of his comics, that the information given was actually true. Because that seems rather existential for a Morse Code message. 

I needn’t have worried.

Turns out, it’s not fiction. Until 1999, when it was replaced with the Global Maritime Distress Safety System, Morse Code was the international standard for maritime distress. Knowing the changeover was coming, the world’s Navys started phasing out the use of Morse Code. And, sure enough, on 31 January, 1997, the French Navy’s last broadcast was what you read above.* The US Navy ended its use of Morse Code on 12 July, 1999 with the message, “What hath God wrought,” which is exactly what Samuel Morse’s first message was in 1844. The UK Navy ceased the use of Morse Code on New Year’s Eve 1997.

You can read more here and here.

*See page 10 of Mark Mason’s The Importance of Being Trivial: In Search of the Perfect Fact.” Technically speaking, it likely said, “Appelait tous. C’est notre dernier cri avant notre silence éternel”, but I can’t find any information to verify that except for a cached French Wiki page and a random YouTube video. The current French Wiki page on Morse Code makes no reference at all.


Lesson #332: The French and the Panama Canal

I was out at trivia with a bunch of friends tonight and, apart from killing the round on Canadian postal abbreviations (in fairness, I don’t think the guy running the game anticipated a ringer), my team came within a Prince album of winning the whole thing. None of us is a Prince fan, so…

Anyway, the thing about playing trivia is that a lot of right answers can be deduced if you don’t know the answer straight away, but have a good team. Our question was “from which country did the United States take over construction of the Panama Canal after an aborted effort between 1881-94?” We answered France correctly based on our knowledge of history and our deductive reasoning skills, but it turns out that while we guessed right, we didn’t guess right for the right reasons. We had figured that whichever country it was had to have been “in the empire business”, had to have had holdings in the Caribbean that it may have had to surrender, and had to have found itself in over its head financially. That gave us France.

What we didn’t know is that the reason France withdrew from the project is that they weren’t awesome engineers, and their people kept dying. The project was under the supervision of Ferdinand de Lesseps, who had overseen the construction of the Suez canal and, because no one bothered to do much research in the way of basic geography and/or geology, it was intended to have been a sea-level canal. In fact, de Lesseps had rejected an earlier route that had included a locks system. Turns out, the mountains were a bit of an unanticipated problem. Now, combine this “maybe we should have thought this through a little better” engineering problem with a malaria/yellow fever problem and a shoddy-safety-measures-during-construction-resulting-in-death problem and you wind up with a financial problem. Adding in a corruption problem in France, you’ve got a recipe for a multi-million dollar ($287,000,000 at the time) failure.

In fairness to the French, who were at least trying, by the time they abandoned construction, there were parts of the canal that were nearly completed.

Read more here, here, and here.

Lesson #286: Bright Blue Lobsters

If you don’t know the song ‘Lester the Lobster (From P.E.I.)‘, this is probably nowhere near as funny to you as it is to me.

Everyone* knows that lobsters are the same colour of red as PEI soil. Except when they’re not. There’s a genetic disorder that causes a rare few to be born bright blue. I’m talking the same flashy blue that people paint their cars.

The most recent ones caught (there seems to be a newspaper article about this every two years or so) were caught off the coasts of PEI in June and County Clare in August. The odds of catching one? One in four million. The most rare lobster is the albino. The odds of catching an albino is one in 100 million, though one was caught last year off Gloucester, Massachusetts.

*Okay, everyone who is familiar with Lester the Lobster

Lesson #281: The First Shipyard

Autobiographical note: I know more about shipbuilding than seems reasonable for a girl who gets horrible seasickness. I even have a framed photograph of a very well known gantry crane hanging on my wall.* But I really, really like boats/ships and I have no idea why. 

The first known shipyards were built in Lothal, India around 2400 BCE. The port was on the trade route between the Harappan cities in Sindh on the river Sabarmati and the peninsula of Saurashtra (when the Kutch desert was still part of the Arabian Sea). Oceanographers and archaeologists participating in the 1955-61 excavation of Lothal for the Archaelogical Survey of India noted that the Harappans must have had a superlative understanding of the Sabarmati and the tidal patterns of the because the shipyards, tidal docks made to berth and service ships, were built away from the main current in order to avoid the deposition of silt.

There is not a lot of good historical information on this. This article and the Wiki article are almost identical. Wiki does cite an archaeological survey on the excavation of Lothal quite heavily with page numbers and everything, so I’m inclined to believe that the research was done by the archeological/oceanographic team and then was lifted without citation for the former and with citation for the latter. There is also this article, which discusses Lothal briefly (and without citation).

*I’ll leave it to you to figure out which one and why.

Lesson #227: The Statue of Liberty as a Lighthouse

Technically speaking, the Statue of Liberty is a lighthouse and from its dedication in 1886 to 1901 when President Theodore Roosevelt transferred control to the War Department, it fell under the control of the United States Lighthouse Board.

When the Lighthouse Board took over, it intended to amplify the light emitted by Lady Liberty’s torch. Its engineers set up a steam plant on Bedloe’s Island to power 14 arc lamps, nine in the torch and five strategically placed below the torch,  but despite its best efforts, the amount of light produced never made the Statue of Liberty a viable working lighthouse.*

*More information here and here. For more on lighthouses in general, see here.

Lesson #216: Red on the Right

My best friend moved to the suburbs and bought a boat. He also got married, but that’s outside the point. I’m staying with him for a couple of days while I’m in town for the funeral and he was excited to take me out on the water. We’ve known each other a long time, so he knows I’ll embrace any opportunity to do anything involving large bodies of water. And of course, he’s proud of his having settled nicely into the upper middle class.* So after we got home from the funeral, we decided to grab a couple beers, brave the drizzle and head out in the boat.

He let me drive, which was almost as awesome as the time he let me drive his Porsche.**

I never had to learn the rights and lefts of the buoys on the Canadian lake where my family’s cottage was when I was a kid because I wasn’t old enough to drive the boat. Today I learned that the red buoys should always be on your right.

*He has the single coolest job of anyone I know. In fairness, he’s worked hard for it and he’s very good at what he does, so he deserves everything he’s got.

**Before he got sensible and bought a Dodge Durango.

My Parents on Yesterday’s Post

My parents are a non-drinker (mom) and a very moderate drinker (dad) so the fact that they both sent me emails this morning about yesterday’s post is kind of hilarious.

Dad’s take:  “Someone once, when I was at university tried to convince me that it was a reference to a laundry lady, drinking too much an while hanging clothes on a clothes line on a windy day, allowed 3 sheets loose in the wind, because of her drunkenness, and  that is where the explanation comes from. Of course if you did not know that the ropes on a sailboat are called sheets, it would be a reasonable explanation, albeit wrong.” Best. Misguided Explanation. Ever.

Mom’s take: “From the small boat perspective, loosening the sheets does, indeed, bring the boat to an even keel as you spill the wind from the sails. This is fine if you aren’t racing.” I had no idea my mother knew anything about sailboats.