Benjamin Franklin says, in his Autobiography:
He then quotes M. Welfare as having given this reason:
Well, I had this all written and ready to go, but then I decided it
wasn't suitable for
But the Emacs cut buffer (called the “kill ring”) does not persist when you quit the editor, so the whole post is gone. Oooooops. I am struggling to maintain my peaceful aplomb.
Maybe I'll regain the energy to tell you about the lipograms tomorrow.
Q: How do phagocytes communicate with one another?
A: They use cell phones.
…from Math Stackexchange!
A user wrote (in part):
Wow, “fagocitating”! What's that? My first thought was that it was some sort of cellphone spelling mishap. But no, it's even English, and it perfectly captures the writer's meaning here.
The standard English spelling is phagocytating and it means to engulf and absorb, in the manner of a phagocyte. English also uses “phagocytosing” here, which I like less for some reason.
(The writer's variant spelling is apparently inspired by Portuguese, in which the word is spelled fagocitar. Is this word in more common use in Brazil than it is here?)
I hope to phagocytize this word into my own vocabulary, immediately and with peaceful aplomb.
The Shia LaBoeuf plagiarism scandal — No, not that one, the other one — No, not that one either, the Dan Clowes one — is old news (2013) but I had not heard about it before and it is really weird. I was going to write it up, but this MTV News article hits all the high points. Check it out.
This week I spilled a little coffee on my (employer-owned) laptop and now the cursor-up key doesn't work. The IT department told me to get it repaired locally, so I contacted a shop I've dealt with before and we had this exchange:
Them: If you send me your street address I can order a new keyboard for you under your warranty.
Me: Are you sure? This laptop is owned by my employer and they have already told me that the warranty doesn't cover liquid spills.
Them: If I had to send the old part back I wouldn’t be able to offer that to you but Lenovo doesn’t require the old keyboard to be returned.
Sir, I believe you just suggested that I commit fraud.
Annette Gordon-Reed on U.S. President Andrew Johnson around 1835, when he was in the Tennessee state legislature:
(Annette Gordon-Reed, Andrew Johnson. p.41)
Source: BBC News in Pictures: Visiting Mao's family home. (Around 2006.)
Different people have different chores they hate more or less than other people. For example, if someone in our house breaks a glass, my wife usually cleans it up, because it doesn't particularly bother her, but it makes me want to dig my heart out with a spoon. But when it comes time to clean old, moldy food out of the fridge, I try to do it, because she hates it, and for some reason stuff like that doesn't bother me as much as it bothers most people.
When there is a bug or a spider to be evicted, alive or dead, Lorrie usually asks me to do it. And sometimes my insensitive response, particularly in connection with spiders, has been “Why? It's not hurting anyone. Spiders hang around and eat yucky gross bugs.” But if you have the visceral reaction to spiders that some people do, spiders are yucky gross bugs and are unacceptable regardless of how abstractly beneficial they might be.
I really didn't get it, and I went through my life evicting various small roaches, spiders, larger roaches, totally harmless millipedes, book worms, medium-sized beetles that live under the stairs, mosquitoes, flour moths, house centipedes, and so forth, wondering why other people made such a big deal about bugs. And I'm sure I was smug and condescending about it.
Then one day I was called upon to dispose of a roach and when I arrived to do it, I saw it was a three-inch-long roach and I went bananas and turned into a quivering mess.
So it turns out that I do have that place in my hindbrain that makes people scream and run away from bugs, except my threshhold was set a tad higher some other people's. Five-centimeter roach, okay; seven centimeters, OMG RED ALERT.
Many years ago I read an account by someone who had been watching TV with his wife, maybe the David Letterman show, and they had some sort of animal on the show, whose trainer was feeding it mealworms. He reported that somehow he and his wife had had a conversation about how much they would have to be paid to eat a mealworm. The narrator was struck by the huge gulf between their respective willingness to eat mealworms.
He said something like this:
I personally am so far away from the wife's end of the scale that I have trouble believing that she wasn't exaggerating, and if she was really offered $50,000,000 to eat a mealworm, she would find a way to do it. But I'm not certain.
By the way:
Toward the beginning of The Shawshank Redemption, Andy finds a maggot in his prison food, and Brooks asks if he can have it. Andy is disturbed, but Brooks wants to feed it to his pet crow.
I read somewhere that the ASPCA had an agent on-set to make sure that the crow was being treated humanely, and this representative refused to let Darabont (the director )do the scene with a live insect. They had to dig through the bag of maggots (actually mealworms), which they had bought at a bait shop, until they found one that had died of natural causes.
Later there's a scene in which Red is walking across a field and thusands of grasshoppers are swarming around him. Darabont said that was unplanned, the grasshoppers just happened to be there and he loved the way it looked. Then he mused that it was a good thing that the ASPCA agent was no longer around by then, she might have had an apoplexy.
In my recent article about fly meal I left out one of the products sold by Haocheng Mealworms Inc.: Mealworm frass. If you didn't know what frass was, the product listing helpfully glosses it as “insect poop”. They do a good job of hyping it:
I find this quite persuasive. And the price is low, only US$350 per metric tonne, around 16¢ per pound; 21¢ if you include shipping and buy a 20-tonne lot.
Every once in a while something happens to remind me of the immense bigness of the world, and I feel sad to think of how much of it I will never get to see. Today it happened when I was looking up Xiangtan, a city in China of a couple million people, around the size of the city in which I live, that I had never even heard of before. And not only is this not the first time this has happened to me, it's not even the first city in China that it has happened to me with! Last time it was Jinan which has 6.8 million people. How is it possible to be this ignorant?
Will I ever get to see Jinan? Probably not, but maybe a little. But will I ever get to know it? Or to know even a small part of it, well enough to see how it has changed since twenty years ago? No, it's too late for that. And there are more than a hundred cities just in China with populations over a million, with hundreds of neighborhoods each, all changing, all the time. And then there are cities not in China. And places that are not even in cities at all. And I will completely miss almost all of it. It makes me want to cry.
Writing on this a few years ago, I said:
I should probably try to maintain a more positive focus. Sometimes I get lucky. I was fortunate enough to accidentally witness the first East Belfast Lantern Parade in 2003. That was pretty excellent.
Xiangtan, by the way, turns out to be only about 55 km from the town where Mao was born.
That there is a restaurant in Barcelona named My Fucking Restaurant.
The Yelp reviews are pretty solid.
I wish English had an easy way to distinguish between the following kinds of regret:
In type (1) you can comfort yourself by thinking that you are sadder but wiser and you can do better in the future. (“Fool me once, shame on you…”) In type (2) you just fucked up. (“… Fool me twice, shame on me.”)
Also I wish there were different words for when you are embarrassed for yourself than for when you were embarrassed on someone else's behalf.
That reminds me of the story about the guys who discovered that many gastric ulcers are (ultimately) caused not by stress, or by peppery food, or anything like that, but by a bacterium. They were working on some drug for treating ulcers and did a controlled study to see if it worked. The experimental group was given their experimental drug. The control group was given daily doses of Pepto-Bismol as a placebo.
The drug was a failure. People using it got better, but not at a higher rate than the people in the control group.
But wait. The subjects were getting better. The drug worked. It just didn't work better than daily doses of Pepto-Bismol.
Yup, it turns out that you can sometimes cure gastric ulcers by giving the patient daily doses of Pepto-Bismol for three weeks. It's an antibacterial agent.
I forget where I heard this story, but Wikipedia at least supports it, with citations. Minoxidil, which is commonly used to treat hair loss, was originally investigated as an anti-hypertension drug. The drug worked for treating hypertension, but it had an unfortunate side effect. Many of the test subjects grew hair in weird places, like out of the ends of their noses.
“Huh,” said the scientists. “That's no good. But maybe if we apply it topically?”
And that's where we got Rogaine.
A year or two ago I read an article that said that scientists at last had a theory about why humans, although mostly hairless, still have little hairs on their bodies. Why didn't our ancestors lose all their hair?
I had thought I knew the answer to this and that the answer was obvious. If you had asked me, I would have said: the little hairs are to make you more sensitive to insects. You have these sensors in your skin, which can detect mechanical pressure. How can we make them more sensitive? Attach a little lever to each one. Now if anything bumps the lever, the magnified force will be transmitted to the sensor.
So when I saw that there was an article about this, I expected it was going to say something like this: “Scientists formerly assumed that the evolutionary function of the hairs was to increase sensitivity of the mechanoreceptors in the skin. But actually, it turns out to be something else entirely…”
Nope, I read the article, and it was about these scientists earnestly explaining that the hairs function to increase sensitivity of the mechanoreceptors in the skin.
Maybe the person writing the article missed some important nuance, something like “yes, scientists have long supposed that the hairs were to increase sensitivity, but we now have the first real confirmation of that theory”. I don't know.
When I do Google search for “why do arms have little hairs” I get a lot of answers that claim it's to help keep us warm. Hahahaha. Bullshit.
(Why do we still have thick bushy hair on the tops of our heads? Dominus says: to prevent sunburn. I read something recently about why we have brow ridges and eyebrows; the claim was that it increases the expressiveness of facial communication. Maybe, but Dominus says: they are primarily to help prevent sweat from dripping into your eyes. Why do men go bald as they age, but only on their heads? Dominus says: I have no idea.)
Toph asked me a couple of days ago why we itch. For many years I have had a theory about this, which I'm not sure is correct but which seems pretty good.
The theory is that itching is your body warning you that there might be an insect on you. When you skin detects a particular kind of light stimulation, you perceive it as itching. And then your automatic, unconscious response, even when sleeping, is to immediately reach over and scratch, which is just the kind of motion that is likely to dislodge the insect.
If course, itching can be caused even when there is no insect, by all sorts of other skin irritations, or even by nothing at all. That's okay. Like all detection systems, the insect-detection system is never going to be perfect. There always is a tradeoff between false positives and false negatives. You can have a system with high sensitivity that detects most insects but also raises a lot of false alarms, or a system with lower sensitivity that raises fewer alarms but when it does you can be more confident that they are real. The best adjustment trades off the costs of false positives and false negatives.
Apparently the itching system is tuned very sensitively: it wants to detect as many insects as possible, at the cost of also raising a lot of false alarms. This is just what we would expect. The cost of scratching at a false alarm is pretty close to zero, especially compared with the cost of letting insects eat your skin, suck your blood, or lay their eggs in you, all of which which can be fatal. Insect bites killed at least half a million people last year. Some people die from itching, but nothing like that many.
So: why does my face itch when I don't shave? Because the little hairs have gotten long enough to stimulate the insect-detection system. Similarly: Why do I itch after a haircut? Why do I itch when I wear a wool sweater? Same thing. Why do I itch when I have a skin rash? Because the insect-detection system in my skin is out of order.
Even seeing a lot of insects makes some people feel itchy all over and want to scratch. This is part of the same insect-defense system. When their brain sees a lot of insects around, it temporarily turns the sensitivity of the itch system even higher than usual.
(Or maybe this is totally obvious and everyone but me already knows this?)
But when it wins, it wins by coming up with something perfect that I would never have thought of myself.
And this week my article about improving rubies by putting them in a
3300° oven was randomly placed into
I am a lifelong Dadaist. My family tells me that when I was very small my father could carry me around my grandparents' living room on his shoulders, and when we got to place where a Hans Arp collage was hanging, I would get excited, point, and exclaim “Arp! Arp!”.
(Unfortunately, no citation is given. But it seems to be recounted in Matthew Josephson, Life Among the Surrealists: A Memoir; Holt, Reinhart and Winston, 1962.)
I like this much better than the story about how Edgar Allan Poe got himself expelled from West Point.
Much less well-known than (but as legitimate as) the Ides of March, today are the Ides of April.
Did you know that Spain has territory in North Africa? Xavi's wife was from the city of Melilla, which I had not heard of before that visit. It is an enclave in Morocco that has been part of Spain since 1497 (although the Moroccans might take issue with that date), and about 75,000 people live there. Another Spanish city, Ceuta, is similarly situated.
A few years ago my daughter Katara asked a wrong question that presupposed that countries are subsets of continents. She was astounded when I brought up Melilla as a counterexample. But if Melilla is in Spain and Spain is in Europe, does that mean that Melilla is in Europe? Nope! Melilla is in Africa. Sorry, kid, almost everything is more complicated than you have been told.
Wandering around in Barcelona long ago, I was interested to encounter a street named after “11 de Setembre”, the 11th of September.
(I remember it being Rua de 11 de Setembre, but Google insists that it has never heard of such a street. Instead it wants to tell me about Rambla de 11 de Setembre, which seems to be quite far away from any part of Barcelona where I remember being. I don't know.)
That evening I asked my host, F.X. Noria, about it. (Thanks, Xavi! I had a great time!) He hastened to explain that it had nothing to do with the Sepember 11 attacks in the United States: September 11 had been the Catalonian national day since 1886.
I found the National Day of Catalonia (“Diada Nacional de Catalunya”) surprising. Many national days commemorate the gaining of national independence. For example, the U.S. national day commemorates the independence of the U.S. from the Kingdom of Great Britain. But Catalonia is not an independent country. Its national day commemorates the Siege of Barcelona in 1714, in which the last of Catalan independence was lost to the Spanish. Well, to the French guy who won the Spanish war of sucession. Catalonia had backed the other guy, who was Bohemian.
I like Diada Nacional de Catalunya because it gives me something better to observe on September 11.