Tag Archives: history

Turn-of-phrase inflation.

The etymology of “the whole nine yards” is a total mystery. Anybody who tells you that they know its origin is either lying or unknowingly parroting an urban legend. The number of feet of fabric required to make a suit? Number of cubic yards of soil removed to dig a grave? Number of cubic yards of cement that fits in a mixer? The length of a WWII-era ammunition belt? Nope, none of those are it. The earliest known use of the phrase was in 1962, but now there’s been a trio of new discoveries from 1921 and 1912. Why weren’t they found before? Because the phrase was “the whole six yards.” The number was inflated over the years, much as “cloud seven” became “cloud eight” and is now “cloud nine.” The origin of the phrase is still unknown, but one potentially important clue is found in the pair of 1912 uses—both were in Kentucky. 

U.S. Route 58

At 508 miles, Route 58 is the longest numbered road in Virginia. It stretches from Cumberland Gap to Virginia Beach, passing through Martinsville, Danville, Emporia, and Franklin along the way. When living in the New River Valley, I looked at taking it as a shortcut to the Outer Banks. That would have been a very long drive, indeed—460 is the way to go. It was built in 1931, using much of the 1918 State Routes 12 and 10. 

A big clue has been found in the mystery of the Lost Colony.

You’ll remember the story of the Lost Colony—Sir Walter Raleigh’s settlement in the late 1500s that just disappeared, leaving only the word “Croatoan” carved into the fort’s wall. (They’d arranged the signal of a Maltese cross to be carved into a tree to mean they’d been forcibly removed, and no such carving was found.) But they were not found on Croatoan Island, and nobody knows what ever happened to those 118 people. It occurred to a UNC professor that the pair of small patches pasted over portions of a map of the North Carolina coast—produced by members of the expedition—might be concealing useful information. Lo and behold, one of them was atop a marker indicating a fort, in a spot that is now a golf course. Next up: archaeology. 

The trajectories of life-bearing meteorites from Earth.

Some Japanese researchers did the math on the fate of the billions of tons of rocks and water that were tossed into space when Earth was hit by an asteroid 65M years ago. It turns out that much of that material probably bore life, and it wound up not just on the Moon, but also on on Mars and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. Some of the ejecta (about 1,000 rocks) would have even wound up on an Earth-like planet orbiting a red dwarf star, located 20 light years away. This math tells us that life would only have needed to evolve at 25 sites throughout the Milky Way for these sorts of spores from those planets to have seeded the entire galaxy with life. 

An archive of reports issued to the General Assembly.

The state legislature routinely puts together commissions that conclude by issuing a report about its assigned topic. Dozens of reports have been published this year, on topics as varied as “Management of State-owned Bottomlands on the Seaside of the Eastern Shore” and “Misclassification of Employees as Independent Contractors in Virginia.” Although most of the older reports have only the title—not the report itself—some old ones and all of the recent ones can be read on the General Assembly’s website, clear back to 1897. 

Possible Neanderthal cave paintings have been discovered.

It’s been an open question whether one of the things separating Neanderthals from us is that we created art, and they did not. Now cave paintings have been found in Spain, and charcoal found by the paintings has been carbon dated to around 43,000 years ago. Neanderthals are thought to have been the sole humanoids occupying the Iberian peninsula until several thousand years later, so if the paintings date from that period, then they’d be evidence that cave paintings are not exclusive to us. What remains is the more difficult work of dating the pigments, which will be the final say in the age of the paintings, though that will take a couple of years. 

Links for November 23rd

  • New York Times: Who’s on the Line? Increasingly, Caller ID Is Duped
    Telemarketers are faking Caller ID information with apparent impunity, so that people believe that the IRS or the FBI is calling. (Just like spam!) The FTC has just filed their first complaint against a company for doing that. The FCC wouldn't comment as to what they're doing about it.
  • Wikipedia: List of nicknames of United States presidents
    John Tyler, Rutherford B. Hayes, Warren G. Harding, and Richard Nixon are the only former U.S. presidents who did not have a (non-derisory) nickname as president. ("Tricky Dick," for instance, doesn't make the cut.) President Obama does not yet have a nickname and, given how unusual his name is, I suspect he won't get one. The heyday of nicknames was the early 20th century, when a few popular given names reigned supreme—when three friends are all named "Michael," nicknaming is inevitable. The most popular names today are far less common than a century ago, making nicknames linguistically unnecessary.
  • The Atlantic: What If the Law Required Campaign Contributions to Be Kept Secret?
    If the process of collecting, tallying, and refunding campaign contributions was turned over to a blind trust, the effect on politics could be quite positive. Lawrence Lessig argues that it would become implausible to buy influence.

Links for October 24th

  • Big Think: What’s the Plural of Texas?
    When Texas joined the union, it was with the condition that they have the ability to form four additional states from their land, allowing a total of five Texases. That's a right that they've never given up, which has resulted in occasional movements in support of Texas divisionism.
  • Kevin Drum: Climate Skeptics Take Another Hit
    Physicist, climate change doubter, and climate skeptic poster child Richard Muller thinks Al Gore's exaggerating and doubts the accuracy the hockey stick graph. Funded by the Koch Foundation, Muller started the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) project to do his own climate research. BEST published its first paper this week and concluded that Earth is warming very rapidly, that historic temperature data reconstructions are accurate, that global temperature stations are highly reliable, and that the urban heat island effect is irrelevant. Said Muller: "Our biggest surprise was that the new results agreed so closely with the warming values published previously by other teams in the US and the UK." Well, that's awkward. This is how science works.
  • Reuters: More Americans believe world is warming
    A poll conducted by Reuters has found that 83% of Americans believe in global climate change, compared to 75% last year. That includes 72% of Republicans and 92% of Democrats. It's the #1 concern of 15% of people. 27% believe that humans have nothing to do with it, while 71% figure it's caused at least in part by us. That dwindling percentage of people who don't believe in climate change is more hardened in their position than ever, with 53% of them being certain that there's no such thing as climate change. Let's see how that works out for them.

Links for October 19th

  • Frontline: The U.S. Immigration Detention Boom
    This map of the growth of immigrant detention facilities is a great—and alarming—illustration of the rise of these ever-larger, often private facilities.
  • Wikipedia: Northwest Angle
    Insufficient understanding of North American geography in the late 1700s resulted in the Treaty of Paris accidentally assigning a notch of land in Canada to the United States. These 600 square miles comprise the "Northwest Angle" in Minnesota, the northernmost point in the continental U.S. To get there, one must fly, drive through Canada, or take a boat across the Lake of the Woods. 152 people live there.
  • Search State and Federal Campaign Contribution Data
    All of your bulk downloads for government data in one place, courtesy of the Sunlight Foundation. There's even a 2.2GB download of all state and federal campaign contributions (ever?).

Links for October 14th

  • Science News: Columbus Blamed For Little Ice Age
    Here's a fun theory of the origin of the Little Ice Age, lasting from around 1550–1850: that massive losses of New World population, as a result of disease spread by explorers, resulted in reforestation of huge swaths of the Americas, removing billions of tons of CO2 from the atmosphere, decreasing its capacity to hold heat. The theory itself isn't new—it was first proposed six years ago—but this new theory is based on a combination of evidence that CO2 levels dropped then and archeological evidence that charcoal accumulation plummeted during the period, evidence that the smaller populations weren't burning trees to clear land for crops. No doubt the link between exploration and climate would have struck people as impossible at the time. Kind of like how many Republicans will feel about it now.
  • LA Times: Dietary supplements linked to higher risk of death in older women
    A longitudinal study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine has found that women who take multivitamins regularly die younger than those who do not. Of all of the supplements studied (B6, folic acid, magnesium, zinc, copper, iron, and more), only calcium appeared to lower the risk of death. More and more data show that supplements simply aren't useful, save for to compensate for a shortage resulting from a health problem, and prescribed by a doctor.
  • AP: Nearly half of US households escape fed income tax
    Republicans are complaining about how 46% of Americans pay no income tax, despite that the fact that half of them make no payments because of income tax cuts that Republicans championed and, in many cases, enacted. (The other half have little to no income, which makes criticism of their lack of payments particularly heartless.) "I'm so angry that my agenda has been enacted!"