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Wednesday, November 3 – First canine astronaut (1957)

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  • Also on this day:
    • 1838: The largest-circulation English-language daily newspaper is founded. USA Today? No, though it’s #3. The Wall Street Journal? Nope, it’s #5. The New York Times? Ya gotta be kidding — it’s been bleeding circulation for more than a decade and close to being broke. It’s now down to #10 and falling, with circulation now below 1 million.  And it’s not one of the British papers, though The Sun is close at #2 and the Daily Mail comes in at #4.
      It’s the Times of India. With a circulation over 3 million and readership over 7 million, it’s the largest-selling and most widely read English-language newspaper in the world. Its web site is also the most-visited newspaper site in the world.
      The Times of India, however, is only the eighth most popular newspaper in the world. The top honor goes to the Yomiuri Shimbun of Japan with a circulation of over 14 million, almost five times that of the Times of India. In fact the Japanese are by far the top newspaper consumers in the world and the world’s top five newspapers in circulation are all Japanese. Rounding out the top 10 are the German Bild (#6), the Reference News of China (#7), the Times of India (#8), the U.K. Sun at #9, and the China People’s Daily at #10. On the world any-language list USA Today comes in at #13, the Wall Street Journal at #19, and the New York Times at #48. 

      Laika, the first living creature in orbit, wearing her flight harness. Laika paid a high price for being a pioneer.

    • 1957: Sputnik 2 was launched, carrying aboard the first living creature to go into orbit, an 11-lb stray female mutt named Laika, who had been found wandering the streets of Moscow. (The scientists involved deliberately chose Moscow strays because they figured they would already be accustomed to extreme cold and hunger. Seriously.) The Soviets had previously launched several dogs into up-and-back sub-orbital flights, but Laika was the first into orbit, an achievement hurriedly timed to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.
      Unfortunately for Laika, technology did not yet exist to recover an orbiting spacecraft, so Laika was never intended to survive the trip. Telemetry indicated that she was highly agitated during launch; it took three hours for her pulse to settle back to normal but she was later detected to be eating (a special gel she’d been trained to eat). The plan was to eventually euthanize her with a poisoned food serving, but she didn’t live that long. By her fourth orbit, somewhere around the sixth hour in space, not more life signs were detected.
      The Soviets originally stated she had been euthanized, but that was widely disbelieved and many concluded she probably died of lack of oxygen. In 2002 a Russian scientist revealed that she had probably died of overheating due to a spacecraft malfunction which allowed the temperature inside the capsule to rise over 104F (40C).
      In 1998 one of the scientists involved, Oleg Gazenko, expressed regret at Laika’s death, stating that “The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it. We shouldn’t have done it… We did not learn enough from this mission to justify the death of the dog.” At the time her death sparked outrage and protests by animal lovers, but of course none within the USSR, where no protests were allowed and nothing was mentioned of them.
  • Well, the U.S. mid-term elections are over, so across the land robotic calls have stopped jamming everyone’s phones and television stations are mourning the end of all that juicy ad revenue. A few interesting things happened:
    • There’s no gentle way to say this: Democrats got their butts kicked at the national, state, and local levels. It was massive and it wasn’t pretty.
      And, perhaps not coincidentally, President Obama is leaving the country tomorrow. To the regret of approximately half the country, he will be returning nine days later, having completed a tour of India, South Korea, Japan, and Indonesia. He is conspicuously skipping China despite the fact he is so loved there, as shown by this — a rare privilege indeed and something one just won’t see in the U.S.
      Despite some news reports, Obama’s travel and entourage will not cost $200 million a day, but he and his retinue will be renting the entire Taj Mahal hotel and part of another luxury hotel. It’s a tough job, but it does have its perks.
    • One of the Republican winners was Lt. Col. Allen West (U.S. Army, ret.), who won Florida’s 22nd Congressional district. Congressman-elect West has never before held office, but remember his name — he’s already being touted as one with rare star quality. See why.
    • With the Democrats having lost the House of Representatives, controversial House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will of course lose her job as Speaker. And in one of the coldest, cruelest tweets of the year, humorist Andy Levy tweeted this question.
    • Strategically timed to disappear in yesterday’s news cycle: ACORN has filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, apparently done in by being caught red-handed in sting videos which led to multiple investigations, being found guilty of voter registration fraud in several states, and finally a Congressional cut-off of Federal funds.
  • Liberal genetics? Why does one person turn out as a left-wing liberal while another, even a brother or sister brought up in the same home, turns out conservative? It’s been famously said that anyone who is not a liberal at 20 has no heart, but anyone who’s still a liberal at 40 has no brain, likewise that a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged, while a liberal is a conservative who’s been arrested. But maybe there’s a much simpler explanation: It’s genetic. A just-published study from Harvard and the University of California on 2000 American adults found a high correlation between the presence of a certain strain of the DRD4 gene and “an inherent bias against conservative thinking.”  This correlation of bias holds independent of education or upbringing. Perhaps those genetics explain the Kennedys?
  • In another study, this time in the U.K., analysis of data in the British Household Panel Survey revealed “evidence that daughters make people more Left-wing, while having sons, by contrast, makes them more Right-wing.” The effect is statistically significant but not huge: Of families with three sons and no daughters, 67 percent voted for Labour or Liberal Democrats, while for families with three daughters and no sons that rose to 77 percent. Not landslide material, then.

    Yes, this Lamborghini is very cool and does 200+ mph. But is it as cool as a Prius with the Plus Performance Package? (Click on the image for more on the awesome Lamborghini Diablo.)

  • For those of you who crave a Ferrari, Maserati, or Lamborghini, hold your checkbooks: Toyota is coming out with the Prius Plus Performance Package. Yessirree, for only a few grand spent at your Toyota dealer you can get a seven-piece kit of plastic body parts that make the stodgy Prius no faster (the engine and drive train remain unmodified) but does claim to improve aerodynamics and look racier. Part of the full performance package are new springs that lower the ride height, a rear anti-sway bar, and wider wheels and tires to make it stick a bit better in turns and under braking. The wider tires would seem to increase rolling resistance and therefore reduce gas mileage, but Toyota claims fuel economy is unaffected. It does look cool with the full kit. As cool as that gorgeous V-12, 200-mph Lamborghini? Well, you decide.

Friday, October 29 — Sir Walter Raleigh beheaded (1618); Black Tuesday, the great stock market crash (1929)

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  • October 29, an unlucky day: For some reason October 29 is the date for lots of bad things throughout history, not many good ones. Beyond Sir Walter’s beheading and the 1929 stock market crash, here are some more bad things that happened on this day:

    Hurricane Mitch, the second-deadliest Atlantic hurricane in history, made landfall on this day in 1998. At the time this photo was taken Mitch had sustained winds of 180 mph, gusts considerably higher. Click on the image for more info about Deadly Mitch.

    • 1268 AD: Conradin (sometimes known as Conrad V, as in “the fifth”), the last legitimate heir of the Hohenstaufen dynasty of German and Holy Roman kings, was executed by Charles I of Sicily. Due to his father’s untimely death, Conradin had ascended to the throne at the age of two, making him the ruler of the Duchy of Swabia as well as King of Germany, Jerusalem and Sicily (yes, really). Lots of complicated Medieval politics and rivalries ensued, ending with brave Conradin riding to the rescue of Italy from the usurper Charles I, leading an army that included Italians, Spaniards, Romans, Germans, and Arabs (probably the last time all those agreed on anything). Unfortunately when he encountered Charles I in battle in central Italy he made a few mistakes and ended up having to hole up in Rome, where the Pope despised all Hohenstaufens but he was otherwise welcomed. But when Conradin tried to sneak out of Rome he was captured and eventually beheaded at the ripe old age of 16. That meant Germany was completely out of eligible Hohenstaufens, and thus ended the dynasty, which is why you’ve probably never heard of the Hohenstaufens or the preceding Conrads. (Before Conrad V there had been versions I, II, III, and IV. Version IV was Conradin’s dad, who died of malaria.)
    • 1390: First trial for witchcraft held in Paris (not the first ever, but the first in Paris), three people executed. One of them, Jehanne de Brigue, had admitted to using sorcery to cure a very ill man, claiming to have made a wax figurine of the man and “curing” it with poison from her pet toad. (In hindsight, it would have been such a good idea to leave out the part about the toad.)
    • 1863: In the American Civil War, the Battle of Wauhatchie (in Tennessee), one of the few night battles in that war. 112 killed, 632 wounded, 84 missing in action. At one point in the battle the Confederate troops, listening in the dark, heard a cavalry charge coming toward them and they fled; turned out it was a pack of Union mules stampeding. Such is the fog of war. These days with modern night-vision gear the Rebs could have seen the mules coming and called in a cluster-bomb air strike.
    • 1901: Leon Czolgosz, assassin of President William McKinley, was executed. Czolgosz, an anarchist back when that wasn’t just a code-word for “violent leftist,” shot McKinley on September 6, two bullets in the abdomen with a .32-caliber revolver. McKinley died on September 14, Colgosz’s trial started on September 23, he was convicted September 24 (the jury deliberated one hour — Colgosz’s guilt was never in doubt, only his sanity), and he was fried on the chair on October 29 — they didn’t mess around with a lot of appeals in those days.
      McKinley, a Republican, was the last Civil War veteran to be elected President. In that sense he was similar to George H.W. Bush (Bush the elder), also a Republican, who was the last World War II veteran to be elected President.
    • 1980: Certifiable fruitcake Mark David Chapman leaves his home in Hawaii for New York, where he will assassinate John Lennon on December 8. (OK, that one’s kind of a stretch. Throw me a bone.)
    • 1994: New Mexico native Francisco Martin Duran fires 40 shots at the White House with a Chinese SKS rifle before he is subdued by three bystanders who got there quicker than the Secret Service. Duran claimed he was trying to save the world by destroying an alien “mist” tied by an umbilical cord to an alien in the Colorado mountains. (I did not make that up.) A lot of people concluded he was just making up stories to cop an insanity plea. He’s serving 40 years.
      Clinton was having a bad year. Six weeks earlier another nut, Frank Eugene Corder, had tried to crash a perfectly good stolen Cessna 150 into the White House, but missed and augered into the South Lawn instead. (Friends of Corder later said he bore no ill will toward Clinton, he probably did it just for the publicity, possibly driven by alcohol and depression, perhaps inspired by Matthias Rust‘s famous surprise landing of a Cessna 172 in Moscow’s Red Square in 1987. Rust was a bit nutty too, though apparently a better pilot. But let’s get back to Clinton’s Bad Year.) Just a few days after Duran’s futile target practice on the North Lawn Clinton’s Democrats suffered a landslide mid-term defeat in what became known as the Republican Revolution, with Republicans winning 54 seats in the House, taking over the House for the first time in 40 years. They also won control of the Senate, the majority of governorships, and for the first time in 50 years controlled a majority of state legislatures. The country was very unhappy with Slick Willie’s all-out attempt to force passage of what became known as “HillaryCare.” (Sound familiar?)
    • 1998: The second-deadliest Atlantic hurricane in history, Hurricane Mitch, makes landfall in Honduras, where it dropped over 36 inches of rain in one city, as much as 75 inches in the mountains. Mitch killed at least 6500 (thousands more were missing, many buried in mass graves and never accounted for), and wiped out three quarters of the country’s transportation infrastructure, including nearly all bridges and secondary roads, to the point that existing maps of Honduras were declared obsolete. Altogether Mitch killed more than 19 000 people across Honduras, Nicaragua, and the Caribbean and destroyed the homes of 2.7 million people. Off the coast of Honduras it sank the windjammer Fantome, killing all 31 of the crew, an event that became the basis for the best-seller The Ship and The Storm by Jim Carrier.
    • 2005: Three coordinated bombings in Delhi kill 60 and injure hundreds more. The first bomb was detonated in front of a medical shop, the second in a bus, the third in a crowded market near a gas cylinder, which also exploded and started multiple fires.  The Islamist Revolutionary Front claimed credit.
    • Like I said, October 29 is a bad day all around. You should definitely do your best to avoid it.

And those are just a few of the bad things that happened on this day. Now on to some happier stuff, mostly:

  • The 2010 baseball season — a very unusual year: This year’s baseball season has been very unusual in some unexpected ways. No-hit games average less than two per season; this year there have been five so far, including one in the play-offs, and there will be some stellar pitchers in the upcoming World Series. Perfect games — games that are not only no-hitters but where no one gets on base at all, meaning no walks, no hit batters, nothing — are even rarer, so rare that until this year there had only been 17 in the entire history of baseball, less than one every seven years. But this year there have already been two, and there would have been a third but for what was later shown to be an umpire’s mistake. Conversely, home runs are way down — more than 20 percent lower than 20 years ago.
    So what’s responsible for this unusual season, which bodes more of the same to come? Interestingly, the one person most responsible is George W. Bush. And it’s a good thing. Politics Daily executive editor Carl Cannon has an interesting analysis.
  • The Stig Farm and the Isle of Clarksons: For those of you who watch the BBC show Top Gear, be aware that next week’s episode will feature a visit to the secret Stig Farm to pick out their new Stig. Turns out Stigs come in many colors, including pink. What color will the next one be? See this Jalopnik article for details. At the end of the article be sure to watch the video about the Isle of Clarksons, a small island peopled by Jeremy Clarkson-like creatures of all shapes and sizes, but all of whom have moppy hair, wear ill-fitting jackets, and pause…..in the middle….of sentences.
    • For those who read the foregoing paragraph with a befuddled look, Top Gear is a wildly popular British TV show that is nominally about cars, but is really much more about satire, irreverence, and poking fun at political correctness. Beyond that it’s very difficult to describe, in the same way that the show Seinfeld was very difficult to describe — you really have to see it to understand. In the U.S. it’s on the BBC America channel; just look for “Top Gear” and set the DVR to record a few shows. I should note that being interested in cars has very little to do with enjoying the show, in fact some of the people I know who enjoy it most have no particular interest in cars at all. This is not “Motor Trend Weekly.”
  • Black Thursday, Black Friday, Black Monday, Black Tuesday: In reference to the Black Tuesday cited in the title of this post, there’s a lot of confusion about which “black day” it was that the stock market (specifically the NYSE) crashed in 1929. And the fact is it did not crash on just one day.
    The market had peaked at 381 on September 3, then went into an unstable decline that saw it lose 17 percent in the period up to October 24, a day which became known as Black Thursday. (Due to time differences, in Europe it was known as Black Friday.) On that day the market started dropping from the open and fell precipitously until 1 pm, when a group of leading bankers held an emergency meeting and decided to stop the slide by bidding up blue-chip stocks. That worked and it stopped the fall that day, but the market still closed with a major loss of 13 percent on very heavy volume.
    But the halt in the slide wouldn’t last. Stories about the huge loss and the fears around it made headlines over the weekend, and on Monday the 28th many investors just wanted out of the market. What ensued was what became known as Black Monday, another 13 percent loss on very heavy volume, closing at 261. The next day, Black Tuesday, was the worst yet, a loss of 12 percent, down to 230, on volume so heavy that it broke all existing records and in fact Black Tuesday’s record volume stood as the all-time record for the next 39 years, not topped until 1968. It was a mad stampede for the door; everybody wanted out.
    The market continued to drop until November 13, when it bottomed at 198.60. It then rallied slowly for a few months, reaching 294 on April 17, 1930. But then it started sliding again and this time there was no stopping it. It slid steadily for more than two years, finally bottoming out on July 8, 1932 at a stunningly low 41 (forty-one), a level so low no one believed it could ever fall that low, a heart-rending 89 percent fall from its peak. And it would not return to its pre-crash levels until November 1954, more than 25 years after the 1929 crash.

And on that cheerless note at the end of this post full of doom — have a nice weekend!

Thursday, October 28 — birthday of Tokugawa Yoshinobu (1837) and Jigoro Kano (1860)

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  • Tokugawa who? And Jigoro what? OK, for the one or two of you who are not deeply steeped in 19th-century Japanese history, Tokugawa Yoshinobu was Japan’s last shogun. And Jigoro Kano was the Japanese martial artist who invented Judo. Both were truly remarkable men with very interesting lives and many varied accomplishments, such as Yoshinobu for both his overhaul of the Japanese military and for his photography, and Kano who in addition to being one of Japan’s all-time great martial artists was Japan’s national director of primary education and the first Asian member of the International Olympic Committee. Well worth reading about both — see links above.
  • Afghan girl

    This photo of an Afghan girl is one of the most famous photographs in history, taken by Steve McCurry for National Geographic in 1985. In 2002 McCurry returned to Afghanistan and found her again. She had never seen the cover photo and had no idea that hers is one of the most famous faces on the planet. Click on the photo for her amazing story. Her name, by the way, is Sharbat Gula. Image copyright National Geographic Society.

  • Also born on this day: Gilbert Grosvenor (1875), founder of the National Geographic Society, by whose maps you can go look up where Japan is. Also Microsoft founder and multi-gazillionaire Bill Gates (1955), who helped create a generation of children, and now young adults, who no longer know how to use paper maps.
  • Taliban Tabasco? Forewarned, spice lovers: Carrying salt, pepper, or spices in your luggage can get you tagged as a potential terrorist. See this incident of well-known food writer whose Tabasco Spiced Salt got him flagged for special search. More examples in the comments.
  • Cable customers with attitude: Don’t you hate it when the cable company drops one of your favorite channels? It’s infuriating, but what can you do? The cable companies usually hold a local monopoly and therefore have all the power — or do they? In New York local provider Cablevision got into a dispute with News Corp. (owner of the Fox Network and Fox News) and decided just to drop Fox. Oops, not so fast: Customers are so angry at losing Fox that they’ve just hit Cablevision with a $450 million class-action suit, including a request for an injunction to force Cablevision to restore Fox immediately. ($450 million is about one month’s revenue for Cablevision. New Yorkers pay an average of $150/month for cable — yikes.)
    Some of the immediate anger is because blacking out Fox means blacking out the impending World Series. But another  stated cause in the lawsuit is that “The Fox Channels provide a distinctive point of view in the political speech arena, which Cablevision customers are being deprived of just days before a critical mid-term election in the United States.” That’s rather surprising coming from the very liberal New York City area, but perhaps it shouldn’t be: In the latest ratings (and for most of this decade) Fox News has out-pulled all the other cable news networks (CNN, HLN, MSNBC) combined, and by a large margin at that. And it’s not just conservatives — 61% of Fox News’ audience is moderates or liberals, meaning more liberals and moderates watch Fox News than any other news channel (!). In fact Fox News is now the second-highest-rated of all cable channels, which is simply amazing for a channel that does only news and politics. C’mon, all you news junkies, watch something else once in a while — the History Channel, Discovery, Nat Geo, the Cartoon Channel, something other than just news.
  • Squasher and squashee: Looking up the numbers on Fox News’ ratings dominance reminds me of what Ted Turner, at the time owner of then-dominant CNN, said about Fox News when it first went on the air in 1996: “We’ll squash them like a bug.” Flashback, 3000 years ago: Pride goeth before a fall, quoth the writer of Proverbs.
  • Dumber than insects: In computing news, it was announced today that the fastest supercomputer in the world is now… in China. But to put that in perspective, researchers at Queen Mary University of London have found that one of the hardest computing problems in the world — the so-called “traveling salesman” problem, which is how to determine the shortest path to reach multiple arbitrary locations visiting each one only once, a problem that can easily take a supercomputer days to solve for just a few dozen locations — can be solved in only a few minutes by… a bee. A plain ol’ buzz-around-flowers honeybee or bumblebee. And having solved the problem, the bee will then remember and re-use the route. That’s quite remarkable considering that a bee’s brain is about the size of the tip of a pencil — the pointy tip of a pencil. Based on current computing theory, one could make a pretty good case that a bee-sized brain simply cannot do that, just as aerodynamicists once stated that, based on their mechanics and aerodynamics, bees should not be able to fly — except they do.