Lesson #342: The Speed of Earth

Usain Bolt, the fastest human on the planet, can run 23 miles per hour/38 kilometres per hour  (over some very short distances).*

The fastest a human has ever traveled without going into outer space is 2193 mph/3530 kph.

The fastest a human has ever traveled ever is 24,791 mph/39,897 kph.

The Earth is hurtling around the galaxy at 490,000 mph/788,579 kph

Tell me again how important you are?

*This is just basic algebra…if the world record is 9.58 seconds over 100m, that makes his run a 37.5782881 kph endeavour.

Lesson #307: Dueling is not, in fact, legal in Paraguay (in case you were worried about your upcoming trip)

Earlier today, I came across this. For those of you too lazy to be bothered, it’s a page from the Chicago Tribune with a line that reads: “In Paraguay, pistol dueling is legal as long as both parties are registered blood donors.”

Quoi?!?

My first thought was, ‘this has to be one of those bizarre old laws that’s still on the books.’ My second thought was, ‘what difference does their donor status make? No one gets blood from dead people!’

As I have no Paraguayan friends to whom I can pose this question, I went looking.

Now, I’m good at research; if it exists online, I can find it. It might take me a bit of time, but if it exists, I’ll eventually get there. I did find a source (dubious, naturally) that expounded that by law the duel must be registered with the authorities and medical staff must be present, but I couldn’t find any legitimate source to verify this.

Let it be known that I put more time into this than was reasonable for something I quickly figured out was not actually an old law still on the books. But I have a compulsive need for proper information, so once I’d abandoned the search for validity on the law as stated, I went looking for any sort of legal documentation to refute it. 

In the end, I finally came across this page. It seems the Mississippi Library Commission went ahead and called the Paraguayan Embassy to ask and were assured that there is no truth to this “fact”.

Lesson #285: The Interstate Straight Mile Myth

This was sort of prompted by a conversation I had with my best friend, who called me today to talk about the possibility of revolution in America. We don’t often share the same intellectual interests, so this caught me a bit off guard. But I’m not going to lie; it was kind of awesome. I don’t find so many opportunities these days to talk about my area of expertise, so when I can dive into revolutionary theory, (even if it’s not about NI,) I’m game. This later descended into a conversation about how if I ever move to Florida, I need to get a Vespa.*

You have almost certainly heard that one mile in ever four (or five, depending on the source) in the US Interstate System is legally required to be straight for the purpose of landing aircraft during an emergency. It’s one of those things that gets passed around in those “fun facts” emails.

And it’s a complete lie.

My mother has a habit of sending me emails like this that show up in her inbox because she knows how much I loathe poor research and that I’ll find out the truth for her. And I think she finds my rants about the idiocy of people who pass on such emails without bothering to fact check funny.**

The interstate myth is one I consistently read in emails, but have never bothered to confirm or refute, so when I came across this article written by a DOT historian, I was highly entertained. I feel this guy’s pain. As historians, we are working with a field about which the average person knows maybe 10% of what he thinks he does. The rest? He learned in an email full of “facts” some jackass made up.

According to the DOT, “airplanes occasionally land on Interstates when no alternative is available in an emergency, not because the Interstates are designed for that purpose.”

*Honestly, it’s best not to think too hard on the conversations we have. They’re informed by the shorthand of our long friendship.

**My habit of fact checking all blurbs like this is actually something that drives my friends a little nuts. They say my schooling has completely removed my ability to accept things at face value, and that’s sort of true, but if you’re telling me the etymology of the word posh is as an acronym meaning “Port Out, Starboard Home” in reference to wealthy English people making trips to and from India, it’s a sure bet I’m going to doubt it until my source is something better than “my friend sitting next to me at the bar,” well-read though he may be.

Happy 2011

I’ve not stopped learning things, but a new job that makes me want to turn off my brain when I get home and a dying computer are keeping me from posting. So I thought it might be time to shift gears for a little bit.

I used to read a lot more than I do now. I think that part of my decline in reading over the last 10 years has come as a direct result of how much I had to read for classes. Something I noticed when I was still living in Western Europe is that I was reading a lot less for fun than I had when I was living in Eastern Europe. Partly due to the fact that 10 hours of research reading a day didn’t leave me much desire to read anything once I was out of school mode and partly due to the fact that my commute was a 5 minute walk to my office, not a 45 minute each way commute on public transport. The irony of it was, I had access to so many more books in Western Europe than I did in Eastern Europe — no doubt in part because of the predominance of books in English in Western Europe. But even when I returned from my sojourn abroad, I wasn’t reading as much as I’d have liked. Mostly because I was lazy and DVDs of Buffy the Vampire Slayer were easier and besides that, hot boys on screen are more fun than imaginary boys, hot or otherwise.

So I set myself a moderate reading goal for 2011. I want to read 52 books this year. Well, technically speaking, I want to read 53 books this year because I want to finally make it through War and Peace, the first 300 pages of which I’ve read three times before, but never any further.* And that’s not a book you just read in a week. My friend in the Texas capital and I figured out today that if I read 30 pages a week for the rest of the year, I can do it. That’s totally manageable.

As a result of my new job being a complete fraud — in that I get paid to be there, but at the moment, I’m not actually doing much work…last week, I think I did a combined 2.5 hours of actual work — I’m making excellent progress on this goal. As of about noon today, I had finished four books. A somewhat odd assortment, really — Annie Erneaux’s ‘Simple Passion’, which in my opinion is just a poor man’s ‘The Lover’**, which is one of my favourite books of all time, Max Brooks’ ‘World War Z’, a novel about the governmental, military, societal and individual responses to a zombie apocalypse that my college roommate’s husband lent me at Thanksgiving, a book called ‘Wittgenstein’s Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers’, which is about a debate between Wittgenstein and Karl Popper that took place at Cambridge in 1946 in which the former may or may not have brandished a poker at the latter, and Ken Dryden’s ‘The Game’, which is, according to people who know these things, the best book ever written about hockey.

In addition to the four listed above, I’m currently working my way through Max Barry’s dystopian novel ‘Jennifer Government,’ which if things keep on as they have been, I should be finished around noon tomorrow because it’s a quick read and Salman Rushdie’s ‘Midnight’s Children,’ which is brilliant and engrossing, but for some reason a much slower read than one would expect. In four hours today (after I finished ‘The Game’), with a few distractions, I got through only 100 pages.

On the docket for the weeks to come — Tolkien’s ‘The Hobbit’, a pair of books about physics — one about astrophysics and one about theoretical physics, a book called ‘Piano: The Making of a Steinway Concert Grand’, an Icelandic Saga, a theological discussion about the changing nature of the accepted gospels over the course of early Christianity, a math novel called ‘Flatland’, some Fitzgerald, Heinlein, Vonnegut, Kerouac and Kundera, the Pulitzer Prize winning dispatches on the genocide in Bosnia, a book about the BBC’s Shipping Forecast, a book on the 1956 revolution in Hungary, some ancient Roman historical texts, social histories of both spices and reading, and Theroux’s epic travelogue ‘The Great Railway Bazaar’.

So yeah…it’ll be an interesting year in books. My library is a lot more fun when I actually get to make use of it.

*The thing about the Russian authors is that you have to read a whole normal book’s worth of material before anything picks up and that can get frustrating.

**Marguerite Duras

Lesson #145: Airport Security

The Israelis do not mess around with airport security.

Today, I learned that one (not me, but someone apparently) can make a bomb using a stick of deodorant, an apricot granola bar, salt and halva.

Carrying these things and a Jordanian stamp in one’s passport makes Israeli security uneasy. They will unpack your bags completely, swab everything down, run your shoes and bags through the x-ray three times and get very, very close with your breasts.

The first woman, who was just checking my passport asked me a gazillion questions about who I’d seen in Jordan and where I’d been and who I’d seen in Israel and where I’d been and asked who had packed my bag and if anyone had given me any gifts to take on the plane. I told her no one had and then she reiterated and said “I’m afraid that someone might have given you explosives.” My assurances that I’m just a girl visiting her college friends because she’s never been to the Middle East before were not enough.

Really, while it was a bit of a hassle, I’m happy to have them be thorough. Being dead isn’t on my list of things to do quite yet.

Lesson #126: Cassini

I wandered into the living room this evening to find Urban Planner Housemate and Club Manager Housemate watching a program about the history of maps. I love maps, so I decided to join them.* We learned a stupid number of things in the course of the first hour (there are two more to come). Like how France was the first country to measure distances between cities and that early maps of Britain are very accurate regarding inlets and bays and other places where raiding/attack ships could be landed, but cliffs and rocky areas were left pretty generic and the political ramifications of dividing up the land in the Middle East in the early 20th century (which was done mostly because the British imperialists were pretty big dicks, but that’s not news). But the thing I found most interesting is who Cassini was.

Up until about half nine this evening, Cassini was nothing but a spacecraft NASA and the ESA sent to study Saturn. And I’ve learned all sorts of fun things from the spacecraft including what space sounds like and that there’s water on one of Saturn’s moons and what a lightning storm looks and sounds like from space. I did not imagine that Cassini was an actual person.

It turns out that Giovanni Domenico Cassini (1625-1712) was an astronomical genius. He was responsible for being the first to accurately measure longitude using eclipses, figuring out that there’s a gap in Saturn’s rings (apparently called the Cassini Gap), co-discovering Jupiter’s big red spot and discovering four of Saturn’s moons, among other things.**

As an added bonus, the answer to Urban Planner Housemate’s question about at what point people stopped believing the earth was flat (my best guess was “sometime during the Renaissance because up until that, there wasn’t that much exploration being done”) is “no one ever believed the earth was flat. The ancient Greeks (specifically Eritosthenes) already had an idea of a spherical world and calculated the circumference of it. The Bible (specifically Isiah) also makes mention of a spherical world.”

*I live in a house full of geeks and I love it!

**More reading on Cassini the person here and here.

Lesson #98: Onward to Mars

I came across this article on the BBC today, which is about the coolest thing I’ve read all year. I don’t think I’d do well at this game. If it were an option for me to go into space in a Star Trek kind of capacity on a ship with a population the size of a small city and instant access to books and information and culture, I’d be first in line to sign up to work in my field in space. But this experiment to test the limits of human ability to physically and mentally withstand a trip to Mars, would probably drive me past the end of my sanity. But still, it’s really awesome!