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Week of August 22, 2021

City Folk

A few North American cities named after people:

Sunday

Seattle, Washington – named for Chief Seattle, Native American leader

Monday

Vancouver, British Columbia – named for Captain George Vancouver, British explorer

Tuesday

Juarez, Mexico – named for Mexican president Benito Juarez

Wednesday

Nashville, Tennessee – named for Francis Nash, hero of the American Revolutionary War

Thursday

Alberta, Canada – named for Princess Louise Caroline Alberta, daughter of Queen Victoria

Friday

Berkeley, California – named for philosopher George Berkeley

Saturday

Raleigh, North Carolina – named for explorer Sir Walter Raleigh

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Week of August 15, 2021

This Mortal Coil

Sunday

It was fitting that Dorothy lived in Kansas. With over 1,200 tornadoes annually, the US experiences about four times more twisters than all other nations combined, and the Great Plains states are America’s “Tornado Alley.” Two huge geographic features cause this: The Rocky Mountains and the Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf, Earth’s warmest water body at its latitude, supplies warm, moist air that flows north at low altitudes. When this meets cold, dry, high air blowing off the Rocky Mountains, the recipe is perfect for forming tornados.

Monday

“Death spiral” often refers to a causation loop which makes the situation continuously worse. For example, a small town loses population, so it receives less tax money to fund basic services, so it raises taxes to make up the loss, so more residents leave to avoid the higher taxes, etc. However, “death spiral” (AKA “graveyard spiral”) was originally an aviation term which began when early pilots experienced extreme sensory disorientation from flying through clouds, dense fog, or darkness with no view of the horizon for reference. Pilots often reacted to this with an instinctive slow turn, but disjointed visual and equilibrium cues led them to misjudge actual angle and elevation, causing pilots to bank further and descend more, initiating a “death spiral” which was often ended in a crash. On-board instruments were developed to give pilots a better sense of their true positions and orientation relative to the horizon when personal perceptions could not be relied on.

Tuesday


The often-raucous party game Twister began with a flash of inspiration from an ad executive hired to do something much different: create a promotional display for a shoe polish company (this same executive, Reyn Guyer, later invented the Nerf ball). He brought in some game developers, and after passing on the name “King’s Footsie,” and finding “Pretzel” unavailable, settled on “Twister” before selling Milton-Bradley the rights to it. Twister did not initially sell well, since company execs had reservations about the sexually suggestive nature of the game, and Sears refused to sell it in their catalog for the same reason. However, in May of 1966, Johnny Carson and the beautiful Eva Gabor played the game on The Tonight Show to great hilarity, and the game became an immediate success.

Wednesday

The invention of the screw thread goes back to about 4000 BC, but its use as a fastener came last. Early screw threads were used in food presses to produce oil and juice, particularly from olives and grapes. Later the water screw was employed as an efficient pre-motorized water removal device, and only in the late 1700s was a reliable screw-cutting lathe developed that let large-scale fastener screw manufacture possible.

Thursday

“The eye of the storm” in common language means to be in the center of a large, often public dispute. In terms of hurricanes, typhoons, and cyclones, however, the center, or “eye” is typically of a lower pressure and much more peaceful than the spiraling storm whose walls encircle it and spread out from there.

Friday

The Slinky was invented by accident when engineer Richard James, working on springs to steady sensitive Navy equipment at sea, knocked one off the shelf an observed its famous motion. He and his wife borrowed $500 to develop the toy, and by the end of the 20th Century, a quarter billion had been sold.

Saturday

A spiral is one of the three classifications of galaxy shape, along with elliptical and irregular. Our own galaxy, the Milky Way, is elliptical.

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Week of August 8, 2021

Digital Acronym Week #3

Sunday

CD-ROM = Compact Disc – Read Only Memory

Monday

HTTPS = Hypertext Transport Protocol Secure

Tuesday

ICANN = Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers

Wednesday

SIM Card = Subscriber Identity Module Card

Thursday

SQL = Structured Query Language

Friday

SaaS = Software as a Service

Saturday

MPEG = Moving Picture Experts Group

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Week of August 1, 2021

Carrying the Torch

Sunday

The modern Olympics began in 1896, but they were inspired by the originals which happened at least 3,000 years before. Those took place every four years near Greece’s Mount Olympus (hence the name), mythological home of the gods, in a 6-week festival to honor the god Zeus.

Monday

The Covid-19 pandemic postponed the 2020 Tokyo Olympics until 2021, but major world events cause earlier games to be cancelled altogether. There were no Olympics in 1916 due to World War I, and none in 1940 or 1944 because of World War II.

Tuesday

The five rings of the Olympic flag, when first created, represented the five continents of “America” (both North and South), Europe, Asia, Africa, and “Oceania” or Australia. Nowadays, we recognize North and South America as different continents and Antarctica as a continent as well, albeit one that still has never sent athletes to the Olympics.

Wednesday

The five colors of the rings in the Olympic flag, including the white background, included the colors of the flags of all the countries that were competing when the flag was first designed.

Thursday

The first 13 ancient Olympics had only one event. It was a foot race over a distance comparable to the modern 200-meter event. This 600-foot distance was called a “stade” or “stadion,” and is the origin of the modern word “stadium.”

Friday

The first dedicated Winter Olympics took place in 1924 in the French Alps.

Saturday

Dress and uniform issues at many ancient Olympics were a non-issue. Athletes (all men) often competed naked, barefoot, and rubbed with olive oil. Notably, the word “gymnasium” meant “school for naked exercise.”

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Week of July 25, 2021

Tough Towns, Tough People

Sunday

For centuries cities have had more and less affluent sections, but the growth of industry and railroads often made that dividing line clearer, giving birth to the idiom about “the wrong side of the tracks.” This phenomenon was put nicely by author Thorne Smith in 1929: “In most commuting towns…there are always two sides of which tracks serve as a demarcation. There is the right side and the wrong side. Translated into terms of modern American idealism, this means the rich side and the side that hopes to be rich.”

Monday

“Thug” is originally a Hindi word meaning a cheat or thief. Beginning in 14th-century India, Thugs were organized groups of highwaymen who robbed and killed travelers after first gaining their trust as fellow travelers.

Tuesday

During Seattle’s railroad construction boom of the mid-1800, logs were rolled to construction sites down roads made of logs, which helped keep them out of the plentiful local mud. These wooded roads were called “skid roads,” and the original skid road is Yesler Way in Seattle. However, since railroad work was seasonal and often done by transient workers, the neighborhoods around the “skid roads” were often impoverished and became known as “skid rows” and a line dividing wealthier and poorer neighborhoods.

Wednesday

“Hoodlum,” as a term for up-to-no-good criminal-minded men, first appeared in San Fransisco magazines from 1871 and spread quickly from there. Any relation to a particular language is disputed, although early “hoodlums” seemed inclined to terrorize recent Chinese immigrants.

Thursday

Modern troubled city neighborhoods are sometimes called “ghettos,” but this term first specifically described segregated Jewish sections. Centuries before WWII, many European cities placed their Jewish populations in particular neighborhoods and subjected them to restrictions not endured by other citizens. The first may have been in Venice in 1516, where Jews lived on a small island in a part of the city known locally as “New Ghetto.” This practice of forced Jewish segregation had largely ended by the late 1800’s, but was revived by the Nazis with ghastly results.

Friday

“Ruffian” means a violent brute or criminal, but the original Italian meaning was closer to that of a pimp or panderer. Similarly, “bully” began with a less violent – and even affectionate – connotation.

Saturday

The word “slum” as describing a poor urban area comes from 1820’s England, but has more than one plausible origin. Since industries were often built near waterways to take advantage of this pre-railroad transport route, the houses of the working poor which arose near the factories tended to be on swampy, poorly-drained land. “Slump” is a name for this marshy land, which was thought to turn to “slum.” Alternatively, the word “slum” also meant “room” in British slang but changed to mean “back room / alley,” especially full of poor people.

Hoskins, William George. 1977. The Making of the English Landscape. Repr. London: Hodder and Stoughton.