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Monday, September 25, 2017

Monday links

Composer Dimitri Shostakovich was born September 25, 1906: some quotes, history, and music.

Mind-Altering Cat Parasite Just Got Linked to a Whole Lot of Neurological Disorders.

How the Star Trek Punch Became the Worst Fight Move on TV.

The Long, Strange Journey of Buffalo Bill's Corpse.

ICYMI, Friday's links are here, and include the physics of wiffle ball, some equinox science for the first day of Fall, the use of the ducking stool on common scolds, and a kid showing his dad how to make Leonardo da Vinci’s self-supporting bridge.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Composer Dimitri Shostakovich was born September 25, 1906: some quotes, history, and music

I always try to make myself as widely understood as possible; and if I don't succeed, I consider it my own fault.

Dmitri Shostakovich (quoted in Machlis, Introduction to Contemporary Music)

The composer apparently does not set himself the task of listening to the desires and expectations of the Soviet public. He scrambles sounds to make them interesting to formalist elements who have lost all taste... The power of good music to affect the masses has been sacrificed to a petty-bourgeois, "formalist" attempt to create originality through cheap clowning. It is a game of clever ingenuity that may end very badly.*

~ Pravda (on the Shostakovich opera Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk, "Muddle Instead of Music," January 1936)

Still from a production of
 Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk
Shostakovich told me: "I finished the Fifth Symphony in the major and fortissimo... It would be interesting to know what would have been said if I finished it pianissimo and in the minor." Only later did I understand the full significance of these words, when I heard the Fourth Symphony, which does finish in the minor and pianissimo. But in 1937, nobody knew the Fourth Symphony.**

~ Boris Khaikin (1904-1978) (Discourses on Conducting)

There may be few notes, but there's lots of music.

~ Shostakovich (on his film music for King Lear; quoted in Wilson, Shostakovich, A Life Remembered)

Particularly during the Cold War, Shostakovich was anathema to many Western critics:

The Fifth Symphony of Shostakovich always has been singularly irritating to this chronicler... Whenever I hear one of his marches, my imagination fastens upon a picture of the parades in Red Square and the banners of Uncle Joe, and my irritation becomes powerful.

~ Cyrus Durgin (? - 1962) (Boston Globe, 25 October 1952)

To anyone who knew his music, a first encounter with Dmitri Shostakovich could not fail to be startling. In contrast to the elemental force, bombast, grandeur of his works, he was a chétif*** figure, the perennial student, unassertive and shy, who looked as though all the music could be wrung out of him in a couple of song cycles.

~ Yehudi Menuhin (1916-1999) (Unfinished Journey)

Today is the anniversary of the birth of the greatest of Soviet composers, Dmitri Shostakovich (wiki) (1906-1975), recognized by many as the greatest symphonist of the 20th century. Three decades after his death, his reputation only continues to grow. Born in St. Petersburg, Shostakovich was an early piano prodigy and studied composition at the St. Petersburg Conservatory during the early Soviet era.

At first recognized internationally as an exemplar of the best of Soviet musicianship, he ran afoul of the regime with his modernistic opera, Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk, which so outraged Stalin that he is said to have had a personal hand in writing the infamous Pravda editorial, "Muddle Instead of Music" that literally put the composer's life in jeopardy during the "Great Purge" of the late 1930s. 

Shostakovich somehow survived, even though he was recurrently criticized by the regime for his “modernist” tendencies. During his subsequent tumultuous career, he produced an enormous oeuvre: 15 symphonies, concertos, a great quantity of chamber music, song cycles, piano music, and several operas. Generally considered a serious - almost tragic - composer, Shostakovich nonetheless wrote a large amount of “light” music, including even a stage work – Moscow Cheryomushki (1959) – that might be described as a Russian musical comedy.

Harry Potter looks exactly like
 a young Shostakovich
For newcomers to the music of Shostakovich, I would recommend his 4th, 5th, and 10th symphonies, the two piano concertos, the "autobiographical" 8th strinq quartet, his several "jazz" and "ballet" suites compiled from light works of the 1930s, and his film score for The Gadfly, whose "Romance" was used to great effect as the principal theme of the TV series, "Riley, Ace of Spies."

During the last two decades, there has been a raging musicological debate about whether the music of Shostakovich reveals him as a loyal Soviet citizen or a closet dissident whose works portray a tormented man. No one really knows. He was clearly a quirky guy. In contradiction to the opening quotation above, he noted late in life,
"I've said what I said. Either you have it in you to understand, or if not, then it would be fruitless to try to explain anyway."
* N.B. In the first year of the Great Purge, this last sentence was a terrifying threat.

** After the uproar caused by Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk, Shostakovich "redeemed" himself with his Fifth Symphony (1937), designated "A Soviet Artist's Response to Just Criticism," still one of his most successful and popular works. However, his iconoclastic Fourth Symphony, which had been in rehearsal at the time of the debacle, was withdrawn and did not emerge again until 1961. It is now considered one of the master's most original works and a fascinating indicator of "the road not taken." By the way, Boris Khaikin was a Soviet-Jewish conductor.

*** Chétif - a French word meaning "puny."

Here is the romance from The Gadfly:

More typical of Shostakovich is the opening of his 4th symphony:

The text above is adapted from Ed's Quotation of the Day, only available via email - leave your email address in the comments if you'd like to be added to his list. Ed is the author of Hunters and Killers: Volume 1: Anti-Submarine Warfare from 1776 to 1943 and Hunters and Killers: Volume 2: Anti-Submarine Warfare from 1943.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Friday links

Watch this kid show his dad how to make Leonardo da Vinci’s self-supporting bridge.

How Nestlé Makes Billions Bottling Water It Pays Almost Nothing For.

It's the first day of Fall - autumnal equinox science, videos, poetry, music.

The book wheel: A rotating reading desk for 16th century, perfect for those "tormented by gout".

ICYMI, Wednesday's links are here, and include Alexander Graham Bell’s tetrahedral kites, the 1869 near-war between the United States and Britain, and Joshua Norton, Emperor of the United States.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Watch this kid show his dad how to make Leonardo da Vinci’s self-supporting bridge

Using a series of wooden poles and beams, this kid shows his dad how to build Leonardo da Vinci's (wiki) self-supporting arch bridge, also known as the emergency bridge, without nails, screws, rope, glues, notches, or any other fasteners.

They've made this with 5 sections, but you could make it with many more - each section increases the height as well as the length. I'm sure there's an upper limit to the number of sections that would work, but I don't know what it is.

Here's a set of instructions for a popsicle stick version: Da Vinci Popsicle Stick Bridge, and here's a wooden kit.

In 1482, before he was famous, Da Vinci (April 15, 1452 - May 2, 1519) was looking for work. He sent his resume to the Duke of Milan, listing several useful skills he could provide, including the bridge:
I have a sort of extremely light and strong bridges, adapted to be most easily carried, and with them you may pursue, and at any time flee from the enemy; and others, secure and indestructible by fire and battle, easy and convenient to lift and place. Also methods of burning and destroying those of the enemy.
Related posts/links:

NPR has translated Leonardo's To-Do List.

It's the first day of Fall - autumnal equinox science, videos, poetry, music

Here on the east coast, this year's autumnal equinox (wiki) occurs on September 22 at 4:02 pm EDT, according to the Old Farmer's Almanac. The equinox is the moment at which the sun appears to cross the celestial equator from north to south - or more simply, the first day of fall, with equal hours of light and darkness. In Latin, the word equinox is composed of two words meaning "equal" and "night."

I seem to remember that when I was a kid, the first day of each new season was always considered to be the 21st (of March for Spring, June for Summer, September for Autumn, and December for Winter). I guess it's more accurate now.

Mechanics of the equinox:

Science of the equinox. More here and here.

More science - why leaves turn different colors.

The 1869 version of Chambers' Book of Days has a post on the equinox (you may need to scroll down), including this interesting comment on the science of equinox-related weather:
As is well known, both the autumnal and vernal equinoxes are distinguished over the world by the storms which prevail at these seasons. The origin of such atmospheric commotions has never yet been very satisfactorily explained, but is sup-posed, as stated by Admiral Fitzroy, to arise from the united tidal action of the sun and moon upon the atmosphere; an action which at the time of the equinoxes is exerted with greater force than at any other period of the year.
Here's a 2 minute Nat Geo video:

No, you can't balance an egg on the equinox.

The falling leaves drift by the window
The autumn leaves of red and gold....
I see your lips, the summer kisses
The sunburned hands, I used to hold
Since you went away, the days grow long
And soon I'll hear ol' winter's song.
But I miss you most of all my darling,
When autumn leaves start to fall.

~Johnny Mercer, Autumn Leaves (see Nat King Cole singing this, below)

Mark Steyn has a long, comprehensive article on Autumn Leaves.

Nat King Cole singing it:

Youth is like spring, an over praised season more remarkable for biting winds than genial breezes. Autumn is the mellower season, and what we lose in flowers we more than gain in fruits.

~ Samuel Butler

Autumn wins you best by this, its mute
Appeal to sympathy for its decay.

~ Robert Browning

Autumn is a second spring where every leaf is a flower.

~ Albert Camus

You expected to be sad in the fall. Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees and their branches were bare against the wind and the cold, wintery light.

~ Hemingway (A Movable Feast)

To be interested in the changing seasons is a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring.

~ George Santayana

The teeming Autumn big with rich increase,
Bearing the wanton burden of the prime
Like widowed wombs after their lords' decease.

~ William Shakespeare

It's not generally appreciated that perhaps the best-known of all works of baroque music, Le Quattro Stagioni ("The Four Seasons") (wiki) by Venetian composer Antonio Vivaldi (ca. 1675-1741), was first published with four Italian poems - likely by Vivaldi himself - that describe the several scenarios represented in the music. 

Below is Vivaldi's poem Autumn, and here's a performance of the third movement of "Autumn" in Venice's foggy Piazza San Marco:


Celebra il Vilanel con balli e Canti
Del felice raccolto il bel piacere
E del liquor de Bacco accesi tanti
Finiscono col Sonno il lor godere

The peasant celebrates with song and dance,
The harvest safely gathered in.
The cup of Bacchus flows freely,
And many find their relief in deep slumber.

Adagio molto

Fà ch' ogn' uno tralasci e balli e canti
L' aria che temperata dà piacere,
E la Staggion ch' invita tanti e tanti
D' un dolcissimo Sonno al bel godere.

The singing and the dancing die away
As cooling breezes fan the pleasant air,
And the season invites each and all
To a sweet sleep, without a care.


I cacciator alla nov'alba à caccia
Con corni, Schioppi, e canni escono fuore
Fugge la belua, e Seguono la traccia;
Già Sbigottita, e lassa al gran rumore
De' Schioppi e canni, ferita minaccia
Languida di fuggir, mà oppressa muore.

The hunters emerge at dawn
With horns, shotguns, and dogs baying.
The quarry flees while they give chase.
Terrified by the dogs and wounded by the guns
The prey struggles on,
But harried, dies.

The two revolutions, I mean the annual revolutions of the declination and of the centre of the Earth, are not completely equal; that is the return of the declination to its original value is slightly ahead of the period of the centre. Hence it necessarily follows that the equinoxes and solstices seem to anticipate their timing, not because the sphere of the fixed stars moves to the east, but rather the equatorial circle moves to the west, being at an angle to the plane of the ecliptic in proportion to the declination of the axis of the terrestrial globe.

~Nicolaus Copernicus

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Wednesday links

Hey, Firefly fans - It's Unification Day

In 1859, the United States and Britain Almost Went to War Over a Pig.

Alexander Graham Bell’s Tetrahedral Kites (1903–9).

ICYMI, Tuesday's links are here, and include Talk Like a Pirate Day, the 1899 Johnstown flood that killed 2,000 people, and why blue is the world's favorite color.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Hey, Firefly fans - September 20 is Unification Day

Here's Wikipedia on Firefly's Unification Day:
Unification Day is a holiday celebrated in the fictional universe of the science-fiction television series Firefly. It marks the day in which the Alliance forces defeated the resistance ("Browncoats") in the Unification War.
"The Train Job", the second episode of the series (although Fox originally aired it before the pilot episode "Serenity"), opens with Mal, Zoe, and Jayne in a bar during a Unification Day celebration. Malcolm's brown coat and his disinterest in celebrating Unification Day lead to a brawl.

Unification Day is a holiday mentioned in the backstory of the television series Firefly. According to Nathan Fillion (Mal), the holiday is on September 20th.

Tuesday links

Happy Talk Like a Pirate Day, me hearties! Instructions, translators, and the Dave Barry column that started it.

Is there a single food that you can survive on forever?

Bacteria from elite athletes’ poop might boost sports performance.

ICYMI, Monday's links are here, and include the blue-skinned family, Dr. Samuel Johnson's birthday, the now-abandoned Russian town that was aiming nuclear missiles at America from just 125 miles away, and the Illinois Pre-Columbian settlement of Cahokia.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Happy Talk Like a Pirate Day, me hearties!

A Pirate’s Glossary of Terms – An extensive (and more historically accurate) listing of pirate terms and phrases,

Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue – Compiled in 1811 bu Captain Francis Grose, purports to define the language of cuthroats, cutpurses and others in the London underworld, but it makes a fine pirate reference book, too!

The Talk Like A Pirate Day Song.

A 12-step program for drawing a pirate.

"Cap'n Slappy" and "Ol' Chumbucket", the
founders of Talk Like a Pirate Day

17 Swashbuckling Facts About Talk Like A Pirate Day.

Wikipedia page.

Instructions: How to talk like a pirate.

Here's an English to Pirate translator, and a Pirate Quote Generator, for those occasions when just translating a word or two isn’t enough.

Dave Barry's Talk Like a Pirate column from 2010: Is that a yardarm in your doubloons, or are you just glad to see me?

Monday links

Dr. Samuel Johnson (wiki) was born on this date in 1709: here's a selection of his insults and Scotland-bashing comments.

The now-abandoned Russian town that was aiming nuclear missiles at America from just 125 miles away.

How to Get Breasts like Apples: Beauty Tips for the Early Modern Woman.

How the Frozen Lake Battle in Game of Thrones Was Filmed.

This Family Has Had Blue Skin For Centuries — Here’s Why.

The Mysterious Illinois Pre-Columbian Settlement of Cahokia.

ICYMI, Friday's links are here, and include 19th century money saving tips, IBM’s 1937 corporate songbook, the definitive sandwich family tree, and how honey is harvested.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

How the Frozen Lake Battle in 'Game of Thrones' Season 7, Episode 6 Was Filmed

From HBO, check out the rather extraordinary effort it took to put the frozen lake battle in Game of Thrones together:

Related posts and links (I haven't checked all of the old links - apologies if any have died):

Here's a compilation of all 150,966 deaths so far on Game of Thrones (NSFW - violence)

Very cool visual effects reel from season 5 of Game of Thrones: Mastering the Dragons

Game of Thrones season six: three latest leaks from on set (spoilers).

For $20K, Game of Thrones Author Will Write You Into Future Novel Then Kill You Off

Valyrian steel, length of the seasons, dragon biology: The Science of Game of Thrones, bonus geological map.

If Game Of Thrones Characters Were Drawn By Disney

Game of Thrones infographic chronology: 4 seasons of the 4 main families and the Night’s Watch.

Video: Hodor (Kristian Nairn) Describes His Awkward Game of Thrones Nude Scene.

Game of Thrones Wine Map: The Wines of Westeros.

Supercut of pithy quotes from Game of Thrones, Seasons 1-3.

Fallen behind on Game of Thrones, or want a refresher before Season 4? All 3 seasons recapped in 9 minutes.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Friday links

IBM’s 1937 corporate songbook is something of a hoot.

Some 19th century money saving tips.

Eyewitnesses to the Great Los Angeles Air Raid.

Sex And The Censors: America’s First Obscene Books Commission (1953 – 1973).

The Definitive Sandwich Family Tree.

ICYMI, Thursday's links are here, and include creepy Soviet-era playground sculptures,  the 1917 Halifax explosion, the Night of the Flaming Ballerinas, why there’s a West Virginia, and the anniversary of the 1812 battle of Baltimore.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

IBM’s 1937 corporate songbook is something of a hoot

A bit of IBM history: "For thirty-seven years," reads the opening passage in the book, "the gatherings and conventions of our IBM workers have expressed in happy songs the fine spirit of loyal cooperation and good fellowship which has promoted the signal success of our great IBM Corporation in its truly International Service for the betterment of business and benefit to mankind."


Tune: "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean" 

Thomas Watson, Sr.
Thomas Watson is our inspiration, 
Head and soul of our splendid IBM. 
We are pledged to him throughout all nations, 
He’s our President and most beloved man. 
His great wisdom has guided each division 
In such service to all humanity 
That we all unite to make this one decision, 
None can match him or our worldwide company. 


T. J. Watson, we all honor you, 
You’re so big and so square and so true, 
We will follow and serve with you forever, 
All the world shall know what I. B. M. can do.

Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company, the
 precursor to IBM, was founded on June 16, 1911
Tune: "Tipperary" 

We adore you, Otto Braitmayer 
Our great pioneer, 
You’re a wise and able leader. 
And you always are sincere. 
You’re our President’s right bower- 
Our Manufacturing Guiding Star,
I. B. M. will honor you forever 
Vice-President Braitmayer.

Tune: "Jingle Bells"

I. B. M., Happy men, smiling all the way. 
Oh what fun it is to sell our products night and day. 
I. B. M., Watson men, partners of T. J. 
In his service to mankind-that’s why we are so gay.

I've pasted a few pages below, but the full version of the 1937 songbook is available as a PDF here and a plain text version of the the 1935 songbook is here - I haven't compared them but assume that they're largely (if not entirely) identical. There's a .wav version of the official IBM theme song, Ever Onward, here and more music clips here.

As an aside, my mom worked as a secretary for Tom Watson Sr. at IBM during WWII while they were making munitions - once the war was over all of the women were fired to make jobs available for the returning "boys".

More at Ars Technica, Business Insider and the links above.

Thursday links

It's the anniversary of the battle of Baltimore, inspiration for the Star-Spangled Banner.

An eyewitness look at the 1917 Halifax Explosion.

September 14, 1861 was The Night of the Flaming Ballerinas.

Why There’s A West Virginia.

Getting to Know Whale Vaginas in 7 Steps.

ICYMI, Tuesday's links are here, and include H.L. Mencken's birthday, 1950 information tests to try on your children, jay-walking and the fight for the streets, and why elephant brains, which have three times as neurons as ours, don't perform better than ours.   

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Tuesday links

"Every election is a sort of advance auction sale of stolen goods." It's the birthday of H.L. Mencken, noted curmudgeon, satirist, and political and cultural critic.

"Jay Walking" and the Fight for the Streets.

The Paradox of the Elephant Brain - with three times as many neurons, why doesn’t the elephant brain outperform ours?

Having a beer might help get your creative juices flowing.

ICYMI, Thursday's links are here, and include drinking cold water and other 19th century causes of death, three simple rules for fire ants when building a tower, and the anniversary of the Battle of Borodino, on which War and Peace and the 1812 Overture are based.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

A lot of people are getting injured while shaving their pubic hair

A discussion of a really good reason to keep your razor sharp:

This is a beard, and is definitely not reminiscent of any other type of body hair
In a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association: Dermatology, public health researchers surveyed 7,570 Americans about their pubic hair habits. 

Overall, about a quarter of people who groom their pubic hair end up injuring themselves. Honestly, that's pretty impressive. Genitalia are not generally known for their smooth, flat surfaces. They’re more on the wrinkly, bumpy, squishy end of the spectrum. 

If you do end up with cuts—and let’s be honest, we pretty much all do—just make sure to treat them properly. Wash gently with soap and water (razors don't tend to be super clean), then put a little ointment on to soothe the sore. Try not to irritate it too much and you should be fine in a day or so. 

Read lots more about the study at Forbes and Popular Science, or see the whole thing here.

Excellent supercut of technology breaking down, then being beaten until it works again

Watch full screen!

Percussive Maintenance from Duncan Robson on Vimeo.

Thursday links

The Battle of Borodino, on which War and Peace and the 1812 Overture are based, took place on September 7, 1812.

Drinking cold water and other 19th century causes of death.

How dictionaries decide which words are obsolete.

Three simple rules for building a tower, if you are a fire ant.

ICYMI, Tuesday's links are here, and include photos from the world's largest annual tomato fight, what happened the day Van Gogh cut off his ear, tater tot history, Neanderthal glue, and the 1921 intelligence test that Edison gave to job seekers.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Tuesday links

It's the anniversary of the birth of Revolutionary War hero Marquis de Lafayette. Related: Adrienne de Noailles: Wife of Lafayette.

Images from La Tomatina, the world's largest annual tomato fight.

The Day Van Gogh Cut Off His Ear. Read Paul Gauguin's account of that night and the aftermath.

From 1921, here's the Intelligence Test That Thomas Edison Gave to Job Seekers.

A New Experiment Reveals the Secret Behind 200,000-Year-Old Neanderthal Glue.

ICYMI, Friday's links are here, and include V-J Day, cancer treatment in the 1800's, estimated insect deaths due to car windshield collisions, cooking with lava, and competitive rock paper scissors.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Friday links

Apocalypse update: Martha Stewart and Snoop Dogg recreate that sexy pottery-making scene from the movie Ghost.

Here's How To Actually Cook Food Over Lava.

ICYMI, Tuesday's links are here, and include Skynet self-awareness day, when margarine was contraband, everything you wanted to know about eyebrow interpretation from the 16th century, and how and when humans first discovered fire.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Apocalypse update: Martha Stewart and Snoop Dogg recreate that sexy ‘Ghost’ scene

Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies! Rivers and seas boiling!
Forty years of darkness! Earthquakes, volcanoes...
The dead rising from the grave!
Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together... mass hysteria!

So, apparently Martha Stewart and rapper Snoop Dogg co-host a food show. Who knew? To promote the show’s second season, they've recreated the sexy pottery-making scene from the film Ghost. Original scene below.

And here's the original:

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Tuesday links

August 29th, 2:14 AM: Skynet Becomes Self-aware.

When Margarine Was Contraband. Related: Operation Margarine: Tracing the wartime rise of ersatz butter.

How Depression-Era Women Made Dresses Out of Chicken Feed.

Physiognomy of eyebrows: everything you wanted to know about eyebrow interpretation from the 16th century.

How and when did humans first discover fire?

Accidental Discoveries that Revolutionized Medicine.

ICYMI, Friday's links are here, and include the invention of air conditioning, why fly eyes, honeycombs, and soap bubbles are hexagons, some extremely cool wind-propelled sculptures, and a set of creepy and beautiful Scooby Doo background paintings.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Friday links

Why Do We Sleep Under Blankets, Even on the Hottest Nights? Related - air conditioning: invention, historical reactions, the days before air-conditioning.

Now you can buy cough-drop flavored Kit Kats in Japan.

Why Nature Prefers Hexagons: the geometric rules behind fly eyes, honeycombs, and soap bubbles.

Extremely cool wind-propelled sculptures.

The Background Paintings of Scooby Doo Are Delightfully Creepy and Rather Beautiful.

ICYMI, Thursday's links are here, and include St. Bartholomew's Day, the sisters with 37 feet of hair, women's fashion in every year from 1784-1970, and the anniversary of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and destruction of Pompeii in A.D. 79.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Thursday links

It's St. Bartholomew's Day - some history (including the massacre), a brief documentary, and Monty Python.

Movie Roles That Were Only Ever Offered To One Actor.

The Stanford Professor Who Fought the Tax Lobby.

ICYMI. Wednesday's links are here, and include some of the dumbest inventions of the 20th Century, Gene Kelly's birthday, NASA's plan to save the earth from a supervolcano, and a 1957 film on how grocery stores work.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Extremely cool - wind-propelled sculptures

From Theo Jansen's Strandbeest Webshop, set to "Spartacus Ballet Suite No. 2: Adagio" by Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Yuri Temirkanov/John Fraser. Miniature Strandbeest kits are available on Amazon - see Mythbusters' Adam Savage putting one together below.

August 24: the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and destruction of Pompeii in A.D. 79

Plaster casts of people who died (buried by ashfall) in
Pompeii during the 79 AD eruption of Mount Vesuvius
He [Pliny the Elder] was at Misenum* in his capacity as commander of the fleet on the 24th of August, when between two or three in the afternoon my mother drew his attention to a cloud of unusual size and appearance. He had had a sunbath, then a cold bath, and was reclining after dinner with his books. He called for his shoes and climbed up to where he could get the best view of the phenomenon. The cloud was rising from a mountain - at such a distance we couldn't tell which - but afterwards learned that it was Vesuvius. I can best describe its shape by likening it to a pine tree. 

Vesuvius viewed from the ruins of Pompeii
It rose into the sky on a very long "trunk" from which spread some "branches." I imagine it had been raised by a sudden blast, which then weakened, leaving the cloud unsupported so that its own weight caused it to spread sideways. Some of the cloud was white, in other parts there were dark patches of dirt and ash. The sight of it made the scientist in my uncle determined to see it from closer at hand.

~ Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus (Pliny the Younger (wiki)) (letter to Tacitus, ca A.D. 95, describing the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the death of Pliny the Elder (wiki)) 

Natura vero nihil hominibus brevitate vitae preaestitit melius.

~ Gaius Plinius Secundus (Pliny the Elder) (Historia naturalis, VII, 50, 168)  

(Nature has granted man no better gift than the shortness of life.)

Today is the anniversary of the catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79 and the death of Pliny the Elder (born A.D. 23) in that event. The eruption, which followed several years of precursor ground movements, buried the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum and is thought to have killed as many as 15,000 people. 

A view of Naples at the height of the eruption of Mount 
Vesuvius in 1944. Photo by Melvin C. Shaffer
Subsequent major eruptions occurred in 1631, 1906, and 1944, the last just after the Allies had taken the city of Naples in World War II. Pliny the Elder is remembered primarily for his "Natural History," a comprehensive compendium of ancient knowledge of the natural world. His scientific curiosity led him to take ship across the Bay of Naples to see the Vesuvius eruption at close quarters, and he was killed there by ash and poisonous fumes from the volcano. The account of his nephew and adopted son, Pliny the Younger (A.D. 61-ca. 114), is the only eyewitness description we have of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, and it goes on to provide further detail about on-site conditions near the disaster and his own experiences farther afield. 

* N.B. Misenum (near modern-day Bacoli) was on the opposite shore of the Bay of Naples from Mount Vesuvius. During ancient times, it was Rome's principal naval base on the west coast of Italy. 

Here's a brief re-enactment:

If you have some time, this BBC documentary is worth it:

And a newsreel about the eruption in 1944:

Recommended reading:

I first read Pliny the Younger's account of  the eruption in the excellent Eyewitness to History, a book that I've also given to several kids and grandkids. 

The thoroughly engaging novel Pompeii by Robert Harris is the story of a Roman engineer trying to repair an aqueduct in the lead-up to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Full of interesting technical and historical detail.

Wednesday links

It's Gene Kelly's birthday: here the famous "Singin' In The Rain" dance.

NASA's ambitious plan to save Earth from a supervolcano.

ICYMI, Monday's links are here, and include a latitude/longitude digits explainer, ranking sci-fi spacesuits, a Navy SEAL explains what to do if you're attacked by a dog, and the weird journey of Dorothy Parker's ashes.

Monday, August 21, 2017

This 1957 film on how grocery stores work is a hoot

The joys of shopping at a new-fangled supermarket in 1957: If you’re a baby boomer who went grocery shopping with Mom back when you were a young whippersnapper, this will bring back memories. Watch all the way to the end to see how much an this mother paid for a shopping cart full of groceries in 1957 - the total is at 10:40 if you don't have the patience to sit through the whole shopping trip.

Monday links

Latitude/longitude digits explainer: The 5th decimal place is worth up to 1.1 meters: it distinguishes trees from each other.

It's Dorothy Parker's birthday: quotes, poems, a brief bio, and the weird journey of her ashes.

18 Science Fiction Spacesuits, Ranked. They may look cool, but how safe and usable would they be in real life?

ICYMI, Friday's links are here, and include hundred year old fruitcake, all about Genghis Khan, the invention of the Illuminati conspiracy, and gin infused with vintage Harley-Davidson parts.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Friday links

The Polish Doctors Who Used Science to Outwit the Nazis.

Today is the anniversary of the death of Genghis Khan: founder of the Mongolian Empire, prolific spreader of DNA, and climate change hero. Related: Why Genghis Khan’s tomb can’t be found.

ICYMI, Thursday's links are here, and include a still-updating set of solar eclipse links and resources, a brief history of mooning, Davy Crockett's birthday, and a bunch of recipe videos in the styles of famous directors.