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Archive for May, 2008

Origin of the Species

Saturday, May 31st, 2008

The first paragraph of Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species:

WHEN on board H.M.S. Beagle, as naturalist, I was much struck with certain facts in the distribution of the inhabitants of South America, and in the geological relations of the present to the past inhabitants of that continent. These facts seemed to me to throw some light on the origin of species?–that mystery of mysteries, as it has been called by one of our greatest philosophers. On my return home, it occurred to me, in 1837, that something might perhaps be made out on this question by patiently accumulating and reflecting on all sorts of facts which could possibly have any bearing on it. After five years’ work I allowed myself to speculate on the subject, and drew up some short notes; these I enlarged in 1844 into a sketch of the conclusions, which then seemed to me probable: from that period to the present day I have steadily pursued the same object. I hope that I may be excused for entering on these personal details, as I give them to show that I have not been
hasty in coming to a decision.

I’ve never read Origin, having thought of it as mainly of historical interest and not relevant today. But it does have a wealth of examples and descriptions of animals and their niches that now seems interesting to me so I’m having a go it. The Voyage of the Beagle should have even more of this sort of thing, but I figure it makes sense to read Origin first.

It’s funny that Darwin starts his book protesting that he is not hasty. He is the least hasty scientist of which I’ve ever read.

Let me raise the finger to PBS

Tuesday, May 20th, 2008

Just saw a PBS Frontline special on an Arab family that was the victim of a hate crime. For some reason, the father, who spoke English as well as most people where I live, was given subtitles. He was perfectly understandable. The Frontline producers are jerks for making the Arab guy look more *foreign* than he was.

“There’s a sucker born every minute.”

Sunday, May 18th, 2008

I learned something new today. I had thought “There’s a sucker born every minute.” was said by P. T. Barnum, but it turns out it was said by David Hannum, his competitor in the Cardiff Giant craze.


The Cardiff Giant was the most talked about exhibit in the nation. Barnum wanted the giant to display himself while the attraction was still a hot topic of the day. Rather than upping his offer, Barnum hired a crew of workers to carve a giant of his own. Within a short time, Barnum unveiled HIS giant and proclaimed that Hannum had sold Barnum the original giant and that Hannum was now displaying a fake! Thousands of people flocked to see Barnum’s giant. Many newspapers carried the version that Barnum had given them; that is, Hannum’s giant was a fake and Barnum’s was authentic. It is at this point that Hannum — NOT BARNUM — was quoted as saying “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Hannum, still under the impression that HIS giant was authentic, was referring to the thousands of “fools” that paid money to see Barnum’s fake and not his authentic one.

Hannum brought a lawsuit against Barnum for calling his giant a fake. When it came to trial, Hull stepped forward and confessed that the Cardiff Giant was a hoax and the entire story. The judge ruled that Barnum could not be sued for calling Hannum’s giant a fake since it was a fake after all. Thereafter, Hannum’s name was lost to history while Barnum was left with the misplaced stigma of being the one to say “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

It’s also worth noting that the American people were gullible fools back in 1868 that ate up the improbable Cardiff Giant hoax. And also, the press was both soft-headed in credulously reporting on the Giant and also willing to stir up controversy and hype up a story. Quite similar to today’s press.

A variation on windmill design

Thursday, May 15th, 2008

Neat idea for ocean multi-stage windmills, a design by Selsam called SuperTurbines.

They think the design has advantages over single static windmills:

Like a flock of geese, each rotor favorably affects the next in line. Like a set of louvres, the tilted rotors pull in fresh wind from above, deflecting their wakes downward to insure fresh wind for succeeding rotors and, like a stack of kites, to add overall lift which helps support the driveshaft against gravity and downwind thrust forces. The rotors act as gyroscopes or spinning tops, stabilizing the driveshaft where they are attached.

Selsam ocean superturbine

No prototypes made so far.

Things Younger Than John McCain

Wednesday, May 14th, 2008

Funniest political blog,

Things younger than John McCain include the chocolate chip cookie, the shopping cart, nylons, velcro, Cheerios, the Cobb salad (whatever that is), Spam, Kodachrome, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Slinky.


Before the Slinky, kids played in the mud. And before that, John McCain was born.

The future of Harvard’s endowment

Tuesday, May 13th, 2008

Over the period 1976-2006, Harvard’s endowment had a real growth rate of 6.7%, while US GDP growth in real dollars was half as large, 3.5%. Having some fun plotting exponential growth, in 2056 Harvard’s endowment is projected to be $747 billion (2006 dollars), and exceed 1% of US GDP.
Projected Harvard endowment 1981-2056

In 2155, Harvard’s endowment is projected to be 20% of US GDP and in 2208, Harvard’s endowment is projected to pass total US GDP. Add in other universities with large endowments, and in time they are projected to dominate world investment dollars. This begins to look silly, so at what point are these large investment funds likely to stall out?

These endowments are professional managed for growth and spending less than they earn, and this is expected to continue indefinitely. They are diversified and large enough that their investments don’t depend on any one company, industry, or class of financial investment.

Projected Harvard endowment 1981-2155

The Late Discovery of the Gorilla

Friday, May 9th, 2008

I read today that gorillas weren’t known to people in the West until 1847 when Thomas Staughton Savage described the gorilla from skeletons he obtained. And it wasn’t until later, in 1861 that Paul du Chaillu sent back specimens to England, and the general public became aware of them.

I hadn’t realized that gorillas were discovered in the West so recently. So many fundamental, basic things about the world were first understood in the 1800s. Scientifically it was a time of much greater change than any time before or since.

Chimpanzees and orangutans were sent to Europe in the 17th century. It sounds crazy, but the relationship of humans/chimps/gorillas (human-chimp closest, gorillas more distantly related) wasn’t definitively established until molecular biology techniques were applied in the 1970s! I wonder what Africans thought about chimps and gorillas, and their relationship? I think their ranges overlap in West Africa.