Wednesday, January 5, 2011

My Endlessly Expanding Horizons

The QR thingee I talked about in my last entry may have been the most startling thing I learned about in recent weeks but it was by no means the only one.

Google's much ballyhooed Ngram webite certainly made a splash in my consciousness. As you probably already know, it's a searchable database containing 500 billion or so words that have appeared in some 5 million books published between 1500 and 2008. Thanks to Ngram, I now know that use of the phrase "by no means" has been on a more or less steady decline since 1800 while "much ballyhooed" originated in about 1930, had a brief burst of popularity in the 1940s, almost went extinct in the 1950s and 1960s, and then enjoyed a tremendous resurgence that continued at least until the year 2000. (Google refuses to tell me how popular it might or might not have become in the last ten years. It's just as well - some things are still best left to the imagination even though the phrase "best left to the imagination" itself seems to have peaked in the early 1920s.)

Fascinating, yes, but the final word on this subject must await another day - that day probably being sometime after Google adds to its database all the words in the 89% of published books that still exceed its digitalizing grasp. (Call me a hopeless romantic if you must, but I'm betting that the final word - when it finally comes - will be something more or less obscene.)

In the meantime, here are a few of the other things that I've recently learned that seem worthy of at least a brief mention:

----- According to Time magazine's Mark Halper, osmosis is the name given to that process in which a liquid passes from a region where it's highly concentrated through a semipermeable membrane to a region of lower concentration, raising the latter's volume. One notable by-product of that rising volume is energy. Wherever freshwater meets saltwater, osmosis can be harnessed to generate power (thanks to the fact that salt water has a lower concentration of water and attracts freshwater to it). According to Norway's state-owned power company, Statkraft, there's enough global osmotic potential to supply roughly half of Europe's power needs every year. Japan is already operating a prototype osmotic power plant. Canada's Hydro-Quebec has identified sites along the St. Lawrence estuary and elsewhere that have the potential to generate 12 gigawatts of power osmotically every year. Look for there to be at least 30 osmotic power plants by 2030. At this point, it's doubtful that any will be in the US. Our government is too broke to fund the necessary research.

----- Facebook's colors are blue and white because its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, is colorblind. Blue is one of the few colors he can see. (I personally can't see the point of Facebook. Does this mean I'm social network-blind or merely that I have better things to do with my eyes?)

----- Lions don't purr - but happy rabbits make a purring sound by grinding their teeth. (Elephants seem to purr, too, but at such low frequencies that we humans tend to miss it.)

----- Pigs are good swimmers. (And I bet they could be even better swimmers if they were willing to don high-tech swimsuits.)

----- Young women allegedly have fewer cell phone conversations with their fathers during their peak fertility times. This is believed to be a remnant of a behavior that evolved to avoid inbreeding. Female mammals in general seem to avoid close male relatives when they're most fertile. (If your Dad is complaining that he hasn't heard from you in awhile, you now have a new excuse to use on him. Be sure to let me know how that goes.)

----- NBA teams that touch each other frequently allegedly win more games than teams that touch less frequently. (But I doubt that this means that teams that touch *all* the time win the most games of all.)

----- There appears to be a strong correlation between daylight saving time and lower SAT scores. (For 100 bonus points, explain why this might be the case in 500 words or less using a #2 pencil.)

----- Self-control consumes glucose in the brain. People who have just had a glucose beverage behave less aggressively than those who drink something else. States with a high rate of diabetes also have high crime rates. Countries with a different condition that leads to low glucose levels have a higher murder rate. (So, would buying the world a Coke really be one of the best things we could do to promote world peace? Maybe we should take $7 billion or so from the Pentagon's budget and find out!)

----- Male chess players seem to pursue riskier strategies when playing attractive females. This does not improve their odds of winning. (But I bet it makes them look ever-so-cute during the instant replays.)

----- Information presented in hard-to-read fonts is better remembered than information in easy-to-read fonts.

(Those last six tidbits were gleaned from a single column by David Brooks that was reprinted in my local paper on Dec 8. Although I am not feeling very fertile at the moment and Brooks is almost certainly not my father, I have no desire to call him up and thank him. Am I being terribly ungrateful or am I merely afraid that he'll insist upon meeting me in person so he can hug me in a misguided attempt to improve my ability to play basketball?)

----- When George Washington was president, he lived in Philadelphia - not the yet-to-be completed Washington, DC. You probably know he had a wife then and that her name was Martha. But did you know he also had nine slaves living with him? Their names weren't Martha but Christopher Sheels, Oney Judge, Joe, Giles, Hercules, Paris, Moll, Austin, and Richmond. (Maybe this coming Presidents Day we'll finally see a few school posters or used car ads with their faces as well as George's and Abe's, eh?)

----- Oney Judge was actually Martha Washington's slave. Martha gave Oney to her granddaughter. As a wedding gift. Or at least Martha tried to. Oney ran away before the transfer could be completed. (Many thanks to everyone who did *not* try to give me a slave when I got married.)

----- Hercules was the Washingtons' family cook. He ended up running away, too. (I bet it was sheer hell trying to prepare food for a man with teeth as bad as George's in the days before the blender was invented.)

----- There are 10,000 new cases of cancer among American children every year. (Judging from Google's Ngram website, childhood cancer wasn't talked about much at all until the late 1950s. References to it soared in the 1970s and 1980s, then dropped in the 1990s. I don't know why. In fact, all I know for sure is that if I had a Facebook page, I would not list it as a friend.)

----- If you're in Ohio this time of year and you look up in the trees, chances are you'll see big clumps of leaves and sticks that look like they're some kind of giant hornet's nest. Turns out they *are* nests - but they're made by squirrels. If you want to impress your friends, call them by their technical name - drey - rather than nest. (If you don't have any friends, you might want to stop using words like drey.)

----- George C. Scott's middle name was Campbell. He served as a guard at Arlington National Cemetery when he was in the Marines. That guard duty allegedly inspired him to take up drinking. During the filming of Dr. Strangelove, he enjoyed playing chess with the crew. Director Stanley Kubrick was allegedly the only person who could regularly beat him. I don't know if Scott adopted a more aggressive playing strategy when his opponent was an attractive female, but I bet he did. I also don't know if being beaten at chess by an attractive female opponent as often as he was beaten by Kubrick would have driven him to drink even more than guard duty at Arlington, but I'm inclined to think that it wouldn't have caused him to drink less. There's a reason why Alcoholics Anonymous doesn't list "Go out there and get beaten at chess by a sexy babe!" in its famous 12-step program. But wouldn't life be much more interesting if AA did?


  1. Ooo, yummy factoids! Now I'm thinking that if self-control consumes glucose in the brain, isn't it odd how it comes to be that eating sugary candy (presumably full of glucose) so commonly goes to the waistline, instead of exerting brain control to stop overindulgence in it? (I feel like I just got out of a bio-maze.)

    I wonder why only 2 of Washington's slaves had last names?

    That's very interesting and promising about osmosis providing energy potential. All I know about it is that reverse osmosis membrane exchange provides clean water...

    And the Ngram is fascinating...! (Only, the name reminds me of the Enneagram personlity test.)

    Check. ;-)

  2. That basketball tidbit is fascinating. Is it only true for basketball players? I don't watch sports, but I feel like the times I have watched baseball I've noticed a lot of ass patting and manly touching going on.