Thursday, September 28, 2006

Trains, flashlights and interior landscaping

What do plants, toy trains and flashlights have in common? Joshua L. Cowen, that's what.

Mr. Cowen was the original owner of the American Eveready Company, but his two passions were trains and inventing. One of his inventions was a method of decoratively lighting indoor plants. He used a metal tube, a light bulb and a dry cell battery that kept the light on for 30 days. Hmmm. Good idea.

But it never quite took off and he wanted to pursue other interests; so he gave the Eveready Company and the plant light idea to one of his salesmen, Conrad Hubert, who knew a bright idea when he saw one. With a little finessing, Hubert turned the lighted flowerpot into a flashlight (in 1898) and turned Eveready into a multi-million dollar success story.

This left Mr. Cowen time to invent the first toy train -- which was really not his intention at all -- and to recoup the millions he lost when he gave away his idea. What he meant to create was a little battery powered flatbed car to run along a track in a store window and display merchandise for sale. It seems that people wanted to buy the little car, not the merchandise, and a whole new industry (and hobby) was born.

Can you guess what the 'L' in Joshua L. Cowen's name stood for? Yup. Lionel.


Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The amazing human body

Consider this:

  • If you took your small intestine out, it would stretch approximately 20-22 feet.
  • You've got over 600 muscles.
  • You've got over 45 miles of nerves in your skin.
  • You've got over 60,000 miles of blood vessels (with every square inch of your skin containing about 20 blood vessels)
  • You're carrying around 300 bones if you're a baby; only 206 if you're grown.
  • An average human scalp contains around 100,000 hairs -- more if you're a blonde.
  • You've got about 32 million bacteria on each square inch of your skin.
  • You're losing approximately 600,000 particles of skin every hour -- that averages out to about 1.7 pounds per year, or 105 pounds by the time you're 70 years old. Fortunately, you grow an entire new set of skin cells about every 27 days, which means that you will have grown about 1,000 new skins during your lifetime, assuming you make it to 70ish.
  • You will produce around 25,000 quarts of spit during your lifetime -- enough to fill two swimming pools.
  • Every minute 300,000,000 of your cells die.
  • Your left lung is smaller than your right lung (to make room for your heart which will beat approximately 2.5 billion times if you make it to age 70).
  • Fortunately, you've got, on average, around 25 sq. feet of skin to hold all this stuff together. Otherwise, where would you put it all?

And here's something important you should know: it takes 43 muscles to frown, but it only takes 17 to smile.


Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Things you'd rather not know about cockroaches

With a body length of 6 inches and a wingspan of 12 inches, a variety of cockroach found in South America is the largest living today. These pesky insects have been around for over 300 million years; and with 5,000 species still thriving, they show no signs of extinction any time soon.

Here are some interesting facts about these creepy creatures:

  • Cockroaches can live for a week without their head. What kills them is their inability to drink water since they can live without food for a month.
  • Some varieties of female cockroach only need to mate once in order to continue reproduce for the rest of their lives (their life span being about a year).
  • Cockroaches can hold their breath for 40 minutes!
  • Roaches are even found in the arctic and antarctic. They survive the extreme cold by moving in with humans.

Reference: Yucky

Monday, September 25, 2006

How cats always land on their feet

Cats have an amazing ability to land on their feet when they fall. This ability is evident in kittens as young as three weeks old and appears to be fully developed by the time they're about seven weeks of age. So how do they do it?

Well, first of all -- just like gymnasts are trained to do -- a cat will look for the ground by turning its head. Then, also like a gymnast, it will pull in its limbs to facilitate rotation. It doesn't hurt that the cat also has a nice, flexible collarboneless spine that helps it twist around so that its feet are beneath it. Then -- and this is the coolest part -- once it has rotated, it arches its back and stretches its legs and tail to turn itself into sort of a cross between a flying squirrel and a parachute.

Now here's one of the most interesting things of all -- cats falling from higher distances tend to have fewer injuries than cats falling shorter distances. It is thought that a long distance fall gives the cat time to (are you ready for this?) relax.

References:; MSN

Friday, September 22, 2006

Laughter -- good for what ails you

It is said that 'laughter is the best medicine,' and scientific research confirms this. When we laugh, we reduce the levels of certain stress hormones which would normally suppress the immune system, raise blood pressure and increase the number of platelets in the blood (which can cause arterial obstructions). Besides lowering stress and its related side effects, laughter actually increases
  • the number cells that kill tumors and viruses
  • the disease fighting protein gamma-interferon
  • T-cells (a major player in our immune system)
  • B-cells (makers of disease destroying antibodies)
  • salivary immunoglobulin A (defends against infectious organisms)

But wait! There's more!

Laughter is a great workout as well. 100 laughs is the equivalent of 10 minutes on a rowing machine or 15 minutes on an exercise bike. It lowers your blood pressure, thereby increasing vascular blood flow and oxygenation of the blood. And it gives your diaphragm and back, leg, respiratory, and facial muscles a workout.

There are psychological benefits as well, since laughter is a safe way to release negative feelings, anger, sadness, fear and anxiety. So what are you waiting for? It's time to rent that funny movie you've been wanting to see.

Reference: How Stuff Works

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Saguaro -- the cactus that almost looks human

The saguaro is one of the most distinctive of all the catci, easily recognized the world over, yet its geographical range is limited to the Sonoran desert which runs from southern Arizona into Mexico.

This specie of cactus, Carnegiea gigantea, grows extremely slowly. It starts out as a single column and does not even produce flowers until it's about 35 years old. Then it's another 15-35 years before the characteristic arms begin to grow. The plant is not considered mature until it has lived about 125 years, and it can be expected to live another 25-50 years past that to the ripe old age of 150-175. Some plants have lived up to 200 years.

The saguaro has a radial root system which is extremely effective at taking up water during heavy rains, where it is stored in the body of the cactus. In fact, the majority of the plant is water. This means that an adult saguaro, measuring upwards to 50 feet in height, can weigh 6 tons or more!

The strange case of David Grundman (not an urban legend) proves that saguaros should be left alone. In 1982 Grundman and his roommate were out shooting saguaros in the Arizona desert. Grundman shot a small one and hit it enough times that it toppled over. He then turned his attention to a 100 year old specimen that stood a proud 26 feet tall. He severed one of the arms -- not even the entire cactus -- and the weight of the falling arm crushed him to death.

Left alone, the saguaro is a beneficial plant, providing housing for woodpeckers, owls, hawks and other birds; nectar for insects, birds and bats; and fruit for coyotes, birds and humans. Archeological evidence indicates that the ribs of the cactus were used to construct framework for the homes of ancient indigenous people.

The biggest theat to the saguaro is the loss of habitat due to human population growth. The introduction of non-native plants is a further threat, as the exotic plants require more water than their native counterparts and actually lead to an increase in wildfires.

Reference: National Park Service, Urban Legends Reference Pages

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Maggot (larva) therapy

For centuries, it has been known that wounded soldiers whose injuries had been infested with maggots often had a lower mortality rate and actually healed more quickly than similarly wounded individuals without maggots. While this may seem disgusting in the extreme, maggot therapy is still a viable treatment for some illnesses or injuries, the most common of which are gangrene, diabetic ulcers, bed sores and some post surgical wounds.

Maggots -- the larval stage of flies -- are helpful in three ways. First of all, they debride (clean) the wound by dissolving the necrotic (dead) tissue. In fact, they are often more effective at cleaning infected and/or gangrenous wounds than many commonly prescribed treatments. Secondly, they eat harmful bacteria, which serves to actually disinfect the wound. And third, they stimulate healing.

Needless to say, physicians use only disinfected medical grade maggots bred specifically for therapeutic applications. And research is currently underway to isolate and manufacture beneficial maggot-derived factors so that one day physicians can dispense with the actual maggots.

Reference: University of California at Irvine Health Sciences

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

World's Largest Bat Colony

With a population of around 20 million, Bracken Cave is home to the largest bat population in the world. For over 10,000 years, pregnant Mexican free-tailed bats (tadarida brasiliensis) have been migrating north to this cave just 20 miles from downtown San Antonio, Texas to use this spot as their hatchery.

In June the expectant mothers give birth to one pup, spend about an hour getting acquainted with their baby's smell and sound and then park it in the nursery where the pups hang in tight clusters of approximately 500 per square foot. Amazingly, the mothers and the babies recognize each other and get together at least twice a day for nursing.

In the evenings the moms leave the cave to go hunting for food, and when the pups are about 5 weeks old, they'll join the flight. There are so many of them that it literally takes hours for the cave to empty, and the flapping of their wings produces a sound like an overhead river. The cloud of bats is so dense that it shows up on weather and airport radar on a nightly basis. They fly and eat, fly and eat, all night long -- covering thousands of square miles and consuming up to 250 tons of insects per night.

Take just a second to think about this: how many insects does it take to make a pound? A lot. And how many pounds in a ton? 2000. Multiply that by 250 and that's 500,000 pounds of insects every single night for the duration of their stay -- which is usually about 6-7 months. That totals out to approximately 48,750 tons (97,500,000 pounds) of Texas insects annually devoured by this colony alone!

When the weather turns frosty, the moms and the weaned pups head back to Mexico where they spend the winter.

Bracken Cave is currently owned by Bat Conservation International.


Monday, September 18, 2006

Potatoes, Aymara Indians, and Conquistadors

Mmmmmm. Who doesn't love potatoes? Fried, baked, boiled, mashed...some folks even like them raw. And everybody knows that potatoes came from Ireland, right? WRONG!

Potatoes come to us from the Andean Mountains in South America and were a staple in the Incan diet. In fact, the Indians of the Andes developed over 200 varieties of potatoes long, long before anyone had ever thought of the words "genetic engineering." Not only that, these ancient people knew how to freeze dry these tasty tubors. To this day the Aymara Indians still do it the same way it's been done for hundreds of years:

On a frosty night, they spread the potatoes on the ground. They cover the potatoes with straw during the day to protect them from the sun and then remove the straw at night. This goes on until the potatoes are completely white.
Now here's where the fun part comes in. Once the potatoes are completely white, the women and children stomp them in order to remove all moisture and peel. Talk about mashed potatoes!

Then the spuds are placed in a running stream to wash away the bitter flavor. This is the time consuming part -- it takes weeks! Then, finally, they're taken out of the stream and dried, which takes about two more weeks. Once done, this "chuño" is stored and will keep for up to four years.

The Spanish Conquistadors discovered the potato when they arrived in the New World and took spuds home with them. Even though it was observed that sailors who ate potatoes did not get scurvy, Europeans were hesitant to cultivate them since they were identified as members of the poisonous nightshade family.

The Spaniards also brought yams to Europe. People assumed that they were potatoes as well (hence the name 'sweet potato,'), even though yams are actually a member of the morning glory family.

Reference: Potandon Produce

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Crocodile tears

When you hear it said that someone is shedding 'crocodile tears,' the meaning is that the tears are either insincere or are being used to garner sympathy. But where in the world did that expression come from? Do crocodiles weep?

To answer the second question first -- sort of. Crocodiles produce tears. OK, so it's not exactly
weeping in the sense that they're sad or remorseful about something. It's merely that, yes, they have tear ducts just like the rest of us. And when the croc has been out of the water for a while and its eyes are starting to dry out, tears do seep out of these ducts.

So where did the phrase "crocodile tears" come from? It's been around for a long, long time. The first recorded observation about crocodile tears occurs in 1225. Bartholomaeus Angelicus, a Franciscan monk, wrote an encyclopedia of natural sciences (though based on what he wrote one does have to wonder if he had ever actually seen a croc): "If the crocodile findeth a man by the brim of the water, or by the cliff, he slayeth him there if he may, and then weepeth upon him and swalloweth him at last."

Sir John Mandeville perpetuated this myth in his travel book The Voyage and Travail of Sir John Mandeville, published in the 1400s, writing: "In many places of Inde are many crocodiles -- that is, a manner of long serpent. These serpents slay men and they eat them weeping."

In 1565 slave trader Sir John Hawkins wrote: "In this river we saw many Corcodils...His nature is ever when he would have his prey, to cry and sobbe like a Christian body, to provoke them to come to him, and then he snatcheth at them." The implication is clearly that the crocodile lures his prey with false weeping.

With misinformation like that, is it any surprise that the term 'crocodile tears' still colors our language? Edmund Spenser referred to it in his Faerie Queen; and in Othello Shakespeare accused women of shedding crocodile tears to get their way. We still hear it used today in literature and even in news reports. The phrase lives on even though no one has ever documented a crocodile weeping
(or ever will).

References: Florida Museum of Natural History;

Saturday, September 16, 2006


What we know today as pinball had its humble beginnings in the 19th century as a game called bagatelle. You probably played with a bagatelle when you were a kid -- it's one of those little hand held games with a spring loaded plunger that challenges you to drop a marble into a hole or specified slot.

The early bagatelles had metal "pins" to deflect the marble and a miniature pool cue used to shoot the marble onto the playing board. In the early 1870s the pool cue was replaced by the spring loaded plunger. Bells were also added at this time, which made the game waaaaay more exciting (and annoying to those who were trying to do something else).

Coin mechanisms were introduced to the wormarket ld in 1889 and it wasn't long before it began to show up on the bagatelle. This effectively moved the game from the parlor into the saloons and pool halls, with the proprietor paying prizes for high scores.

It wasn't until the early 1930s that bagatelles grew legs, allowing the player to stand up to play. Three of the most significant changes came shortly after -- electricity, bumpers and flippers. The electricity allowed for all kinds of bells and whistles as well as a "totalizer" which kept score, not to mention a "tilt" device which disallowed too much nudging (i.e. cheating) by the player.

Pinball was considered a game of luck rather than a game of skill; and since there were cash prizes, it was frowned upon by the anti-gambling set. On January 21, 1942, pinball was banned in New York City. Mayor Fiorello Henry LaGuardia publicly smashed a number of machines before a supportive audience. The ban was finally lifted in 1976.

Pinball continues to evolve. Everything is ditigized now, of course, and there are numerous pinball simulation games available for the more sedentary player. Only one company manufactures traditional stand-alone pinball machines today, Stern Pinball.


Friday, September 15, 2006

Volcanoes and supervolcanoes


Out of sight, out of mind. That's mostly how I think of volcanoes, if I think of them at all. But after doing a little reading, maybe I need to be a little more respectful of these amazing phenomena.

The earth currently has roughly 2500 volcanoes, 1511 of which have erupted in the last 10,000 years.

The record holder for the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history goes to Tambora (in Indonesia). Folks could hear it 1775 km away in Benkoelan (on Sumatra).

Some volcanos have been active for hundreds or even thousands of years. Consider the following:

  • Kilauea in Hawaii has been erupting continuously since January 1983; 74 eruptions have been recorded from this volcano since 1790.
  • Mauna Loa, also in Hawaii, has had 40 eruptions since the mid-1700s.
  • Erta Ale in Ethiopia has been erupting for the past 30 years.
  • Japan's first recorded eruption of Sakura-jima was in 709 AD; it has currently been erupting since 1955.
  • Also in Japan, Aso has had 167 eruptions, many of them explosive, since 533 AD.
  • Colima, in Mexico, has had 52 eruptions since folks started writing it down in 1560.
  • Santa Maria in Guatamala has been erupting since 1922
  • Masaya in Nicaragua's first documented eruption was in 1524 and it's been erupting almost continuously since then. That's almost 500 years.
  • Nyiragongo in Zaire, created alava lake for 50 years which finally ended in 1977.
  • Piton de la Fournaise on Reunion Island has had 153 eruptions since 1640 when people began documenting them.
  • Marapi in Sumatra, Indonesia, has had 59 eruptions since 1770, with the current one beginning in 1987.
  • Cotopaxi in Ecuador, has had 59 eruptions since 1532 and has produced the most mudflows (27).
  • Villarrica in Chile has had 53 eruptions since 1558.
  • Erebus in Antarctica has been erupting since 1972.
  • But the granddaddy of them all, at least in terms of longevity, is Etna in Italy. Etna has been erupting for (are you ready for this?) over 3500 years!


There are about a dozen supervolcanoes waiting for an opportune moment to blow. Probably the most famous is the Yellowstone supervolcano which erupted around 630,000 years ago. That eruption is considered to be the largest and most cataclysmic in the geologic record.

Bad news: Yellowstone National Park sits on one of the most geologically active spots on the planet, and all indications are that another supervolcano is festering beneath its surface. If it blows, it will produce enough debris to cover the entire United States with a good 5 inches of lava, bring on an extended winter and probably even take mankind (and lots of his furry pals) to extinction.

Good news: Professional geologists who are studying it are not concerned that it's going to happen any time soon (geologically speaking). The last supervolcano erupted only 74,000 years ago and that is like yesterday in geologic time. We've probably got at least another half a million or so years before we need to panic.

Volcanoes: University of North Dakota
Supervolcanoes: ABC news

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Venereal Terms

When we talk about "venereal terms," we are not talking about sexually transmitted diseases. No, we are talking about those fabulously descriptive collective nouns that characterize groups of things. There are literally hundreds of these terms, many of them in use since the 15th century when they first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary. They were originally used by hunters to identify groups of animals, but over the centuries the list has grown to include groups of just about anything. We use them all the time: a flight of stairs; a herd of cattle; a bunch of grapes; a wad of bills; a deck of cards. Perhaps you've heard some of these more colorful ones: a gaggle of geese, a congress of baboons, a kettle of hawks.

The practice of creating collective nouns continues today with "The Venery Game" being quite popular amongst the word game set. The goal is to come up with new phrases that may (or may not) make their way into common usage. (A new one that recently caught my attention was "a vanity of blogs".)

What I'd like to give you today is a short list of my own personal favorites. Some you may have heard, others probably not. Enjoy.

  • A pace of asses
  • A cete of badgers
  • A poverty of pipers
  • A thought of barons
  • A singular of boars
  • A rascal of boys
  • A wake of buzzards
  • A clowder of cats
  • A murder of crows
  • A threatening of courtiers
  • A convocation of eagles
  • A gang of elk
  • A business of ferrets
  • A giggle of girls
  • A prickle of hedghogs
  • A siege of herons
  • A crash of hippopotami
  • A bask of crocodiles
  • A cowardice of curs
  • A charm of hummingbirds
  • A rout of knights
  • An exaltation of larks
  • A mischief of mice
  • A superfluity of nuns
  • A parliament of owls
  • An ostentation of peacocks
  • A gaze of raccoons
  • A conspiracy of ravens
  • A crash of rhinoceroses
  • A rout of snails
  • A murmuration of starlings
  • A hover of trout
  • An ugly of walruses

This short list represents only a handful of these clever collective nouns. You can find a far more exhaustive list in An Exaltation of Larks by James Lipton, a must-read for folks who want more.

Reference: Wikipedia: collective nouns

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The Eiffel Tower you won't see

Even public buildings have private lives which we rarely think about. After reading the following statistics, I'm sure you will agree that the private life -- even of a builidng -- is far more interesting than its public face. Here's a look at the Eiffel Tower's life from both sides.

The public life...

  • The tower is open 365 days a year and hosts six million visitors per year.
  • Each visitor buys a ticket, which adds up to two tons of paper per year in tickets alone.
  • These visitors probably don't count them, but they see 10,000 light bulbs representing over 100 different models.
  • There have been over two hundred million visitors since the Tower opened in 1889.

The private life...

  • The Tower weighs 10,000 tons, which, in building construction terms, is considered a light weight.
  • It sways 6-7 cm in a strong wind.
  • There are 530 smoke/fire detectors, 200 fire extinguishers and a sprinkler system.
  • It uses 65,000 sq. meters of drinking water annually.
  • There are 80 km of electrical cables.
  • The Tower uses 7.5 million kilowatt hours of electricity every year (580,000 of those kilowatt hours are for illumination and 750,000 for heating and cooling).
  • The six visitor elevators travel more than 103 km per year (equivalent to two and a half times around the world). There are two additional elevators: one for utility purposes and one luxury lift for people dining at the Jules Verne Restaurant.
  • The Tower is painted every 5 years, requiring 50 tons of paint.
  • Cleaning teams use 4 tons of paper or rag wipes, 10,000 doses of detergent, 400 liters of metal cleaner and 25,000 garbage bags per year.

Reference: The official site of the Eiffel Tower

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Love darts -- yes, they really exist!

Snails are, as everyone knows (or maybe everyone should know) hermaphrodites, meaning they are both sexes. This should make reproduction really fun; but unfortunately, for snails, it's not all that great.

If you're a snail and you're in the mood, then the first step, of course, is to find a snail you love and want to have your children. Then you shoot him/her with one of your love darts. Yup. This handy little device contains a wonderfully romantic mucous that allows your sperm to live longer and increases the chance that your partner will actually produce some offspring.

It's a risky business, though, and snail love is a "hit or miss" proposition. Snails are notoriously bad shooters and about a third of their darts either fail to penetrate or miss the target altogether. This is actually something of a relief for the recipient snail since apparently those love darts HURT! So while the shooter is aiming (badly), the target does the snail equivalent of running away, trying to dodge the penetration as best he/she can. If you ever see a pair of snails jostling around each other, it's probably because one of them's in love and the other one is not.

Reference: National Geographic

Monday, September 11, 2006

Toilet paper

Did you know that toilet paper has been around since AD 1391? But only for Chinese emperors (and, I expect, their families and pals) who purportedly used 720,000 sheets of this paper per year. And we're not talking about little 4 inch squares, here folks. Each sheet was 2 feet by 3 feet. That's a LOT of tp!

The first roll of toilet paper was manufactured by the good old Scott Paper Company in 1879.

Obviously the need for tp has been around a lot longer than the product. What did folks use before the mass production of Charmin?

Well, I'm not sure we know about the common masses, but the rich folks in ancient Rome used wool & rosewater and/or salt water soaked sponges-on-a-stick. And the rich folks in France used lace, wool and hemp (a use for hemp that contemporary hemp advocates may have overlooked?).

Other, more "common" implements of old include hayballs and a scraper stick (Middle Ages); and rags, corncobs, leaves, newspapers/magazines and mussel shells (???) for early Americans. Vikings, whom we tend to think of as barbarians, used lambs' wool, (so soft and full of lanolin). Snow and tundra moss for Eskimos (brrrrr! can you say freezer burn?) Coconut shells for Hawaiians (ow!). An old anchor line for sailors (argh). Water and the left hand in India.

Reference: Toilet Paper World

Friday, September 08, 2006

1937: Dallas Blondes go on strike

In 1937, there was a Pan-American Exposition in Dallas, Texas. Word got out that only brunette "latin american types" would be hired as "Texanitas" (hostesses), causing 16 year old Helen Ramsey to storm city hall with a handful of other blondes who claimed that blondes and redheads were being discriminated against.

They staged a sit-in at the Dallas mayor's office, which ended up lasting a little longer than anyone had planned since the Exposition Director was out of town and was not available to resolve the situation.

Theirs became a popular cause, with local hotel owners and restauranteurs bringing in bedding and food for the girls. A Dallas substitute teacher signed on as their chaperone.

Eventually the strike was settled when the young ladies were assured that blondes and redheads would have equal employment opportunities at the Exposition.

Reference: Dallas Historical Society