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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.
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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.