Celebrating musical eccentricities on Uncommon Instrument Awareness Day

Today is the day to celebrate musical instruments (and sounds) that you don’t come across every day – it’s Uncommon Instrument Awareness Day.

As long as there has been music, there have been people not content with the range of instruments and sounds already available; people who felt the need to create something new and unique, and sometimes just plain odd.

And lo and behold, there are some seriously strange instruments out there!

I don’t have anything quite as odd as a gravikord, pikasso, or ringflute, but I was lucky enough, some time back, to discover a wonderfully eccentric and jovial-looking little string instrument in a local secondhand shop, and I’m now the proud owner of my own mandolin-banjo.

The mandolin-banjo – it may look like a toy, but it can kick up a serious racket!
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Looking like a mini banjo, yet stringed, tuned and played like a mandolin, with four sets of twin-strings, the mandolin-banjo (sometimes also known as a banjoline in France, or a manjo in Ireland) is not the same as the four-string banjolin (which is more of a mini-banjo).

The mandolin-banjo was originally developed by mandolin players who wanted a banjo-style sound without having to learn the fingerings of the banjo. Thanks to it’s banjo-like stretched skin head, it is a lot louder than a normal mandolin, which made it a popular choice for outdoor performances. It became popular in the early twentieth century, and despite its obvious Irish and American heritage, there is strong support for the fact that it was actually invented in Australia, by the Manj Corporation. How’s that for innovation from Down Under?

So that’s my contribution for the day – do you have any weird and wonderful musical instruments in your closet?

Celebrating Paperback Book Day – accessible, affordable magic

Today we celebrate one of my favourite things in the world – it’s Paperback Book Day.

I’m sure all readers of this blog will agree there’s something very special about opening and smelling a new paperback for the first time. At the same time, there’s real magic in finding a well-read, well-travelled paperback copy of a great book at a secondhand dealer – it’s nigh impossible not to buy it and take it home with you.

A stack of paperbacks to warm a chilly winter’s evening – pure bliss!
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On this day in 1935 the first Penguin paperback was published in Great Britain. Before Penguin paperbacks appeared, you essentially had only three reading options – expensive hardcover books, library books, or inferior quality (both in production and content) paperbacks.

Penquin paperbacks were the brainchild of Sir Allen Lane who, after visiting Agatha Christie, found himself at the train station facing a bookstall containing only magazines and low quality Victorian paperbacks. Deciding this was not acceptable, and that good, contemporary books should be more readily available and affordable, he started a new publishing company, which became Penguin books.

Early Penguin titles included works by Agatha Christie and Ernest Hemingway. The books were colour coded – orange for fiction, blue for biography and green for crime. They sold for the price of a pack of cigarettes (sixpence), and started a publishing revolution – a staggering 3 million paperbacks were sold in the first 12 months.

Despite the massive growth in digital publishing, e-books and e-readers, and a corresponding decline in hardcover sales, the paperback market still appears fairly healthy, with many active participating publishers, including Picador, Faber & Faber, Vintage, Dover, HarperCollins, and many more.  Only recently, EL James’ ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ broke all previous paperback sales records, amazingly passing the one million sales mark in only 11 weeks (the previous record, Dan Brown’s ‘Da Vinci Code’ took 35 weeks to reach the same sales).

Of course the appearance of quality paperbacks not only implied increased access to good fiction – academic titles also became more accessible, covering a wide range of fields from art to zoology, mathematics to medicine. The importance of paperback books in the worldwide distribution of knowledge and information can hardly be overstated.

Go on, grab a book and get lost in a world of imagination and knowledge – on paperback. As Bernard Shaw once said, ‘If a book is any good, the cheaper the better’.

Disposable products; iconic designs

It’s time to celebrate the disposable, to honor the expendable. On this day, 29 July 1914, Baron Marcel Bich was born – the man who built his business empire on his brilliantly designed and cleverly marketed throwaway Bic pens, lighters and razors.

Whether you’re absentmindedly doodling, or jotting down a shopping list, chances are there will be a Bic pen at hand.
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Bich, together with his friend Edouard Buffard, acquired an old factory where they proceeded to produce a low-cost, reliable ballpoint pen that took the world by storm. Bich based his design on a ballpoint pen manufactured in Argentina by László Bíró, but introduced many design innovations into his pen. His manufacturing innovations also allowed him keep the production costs of the pen down.

Bich invested heavily in advertising, and based on a recommendation from his advertising company, shortened the name of the pen to Bic. The Bic pen was an unprecedented success both in Europe and later in the USA and the rest of the world, and with its slogan of “Writes first time, every time”, it became the main driving force in changing the worldwide market from costly fountain pens to disposable ballpoints.

The industrial design excellence of the the Bic Cristal pen (with its transparent polystyrene barrel and classic pencil shape) has been acknowledged by the New York Museum of Modern Art, where it has been included in its permanent collection. Some of the innovative features of the design is its transparent barrel that shows the ink level of the pen, and a small hole in the barrel to ensure equal air pressure inside and outside the pen.

The Bic pen is said to be the world’s most efficient pen, able to write a line over 2km in length. After more than half a century, the Bic pen remains a top seller, with more than one hundred billion having been sold internationally.

Over time, Bich’s company, Société Bic, diversified its business to include the Bic lighter (1973), followed by the Bic shaver (1976). As in the case of the Bic pen, the Bic lighter has become an icon of modern industrial design, and has also been included in the New York Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection. The design of the lighter has remained virtually unchanged since its inception.

Getting back to the Bic pen, one of the most impressive artists I’ve come across lately is Juan Francisco Rosas, who creates huge, incredibly detailed, photo-realistic artworks using nothing but Bic pens – mindblowing, and further testament to the iconic, throwaway Bic pen.

Celebrating our fingerprints – hands off, criminals!

Today is a celebration only for those of us without criminal intentions – we commemorate the day in 1858 that fingerprints were used for the first time for identification purposes.

The little ridges on our skin that constitute our fingerprints. Not only are their patterns unique to each individual, but they also help with our sense of touch, and enable us to grip smooth and slippery surfaces.
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The story goes that Sir Wiliam James Herschel, British Chief Magistrate of the Hooghly district in Jungipoor, India, began using fingerprints in contracts with the native people. On this day in 1858 he decided, on a whim, to get a local business man to make a hand-print on a contract, to “frighten [him] out of all thought of repudiating his signature.” This made a big impression on the signee, and Herschel ended up using the hand-print technique on all his contracts. In later contracts he scaled down the process, taking only the prints of the index and middle fingers. People who had their hand-prints captured on contracts, believed that it somehow bound them tighter to the contract than simply placing their signatures on the paper. So, interestingly, the first use of fingerprints were motivated more by superstition than by science.

Since these early, superstitious beginnings, things have of course changed a lot, with fingerprint-recognition developing into a precise science, and with personal identification technologies becoming the stuff science fiction fantasies are made of, including DNA profiling, also known as genetic fingerprinting..

A fingerprint, in the most basic sense, is an impression left by the friction ridges (raised portions of the epidermis) on the finger. These ridges exist on the skin to assist in our sense of touch – they help, for example, to amplify the sensation of a finger brushing against some surface, transmitting the sensory signals to the nerves. The friction ridges also assist us in gripping smooth and slippery surfaces.

The discovery that the little patterns on our fingers are unique, and that the prints we leave at a scene can identify us after the fact, was not good news to criminals, who were suddenly faced with the extra hassle of wiping off weapons, wearing gloves and more, to avoid identification. I guess some career criminals would give anything to contract the medical condition known as adermatoglyphia. People suffering from this condition have completely smooth fingertips, palms, toes and soles, without suffering any other known problems. While this must be a terrible affliction if you want to go through certain legal procedures that require fingerprint identification, it does equip you well for a life of crime. I am sure that law enforcers the world over would be happy to know that only four families suffering from  this condition have so far been identified.

For the rest of us, I guess staying on the right side of the law remains the best option. And at least our fingerprints make us better equipped to pick up smooth, slippery objects like an ice cold beer!

Fifty Shades of Red

Do you know why your blood is red? It’s thanks to the red blood pigment, haemin, which is one of the components of haemoglobin.

And why do I know this? Well, because I’ve been reading up on Hans Fischer, the German biochemist who was born on this day in 1881, and who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1930, primarily for his work on the structure and synthesis of the blood pigment haemin. In 1929, Fischer succeeded in synthesising haemin, the deep red, oxygen-carrying, non-protein, ferrous component of haemoglobin, that gives blood its red colour.

It’s elementary, my dear Watson – this is definitely not alien blood.
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Oxygen-rich blood (such as arterial blood and capillary blood) is bright red, as the oxygen intensifies the colour in the haemin. When oxygen is extracted from the blood it turns a darker shade of red – this can be seen in the veins, and in the blood collected during blood donation. The colour of blood can also be an indicator for certain medical conditions. Both carbon monoxide poisoning and cyanide poisoning result in bright red blood, as it inhibits the body’s ability to extract and utilise the oxygen in the blood. On the other hand, severe deoxygenation (which can be caused by respiratory diseases, cardiac disorders, hypothermia, drug overdose or exposure to high altitude) results in a condition called cyanosis, where the blood darkens to such an extent that it gets an almost purple-blueish hue, resulting in the skin turning a blue colour.

While the blood of humans and all vertebrates is always a shade of red (containing haemin), it’s interesting to note that it is, in a strange way, surprisingly close to being green! In addition to his work on blood pigmentation, Thomas Fischer also studied the components of the pigments in leaves. He found that, like the haemin in blood, the chlorophyll in leaves is a porphyrin, and that haemin and chlorophyll share a very similar structure, with only subtle differences.

All of this talk of blood, and red and green pigmentation, conjure scenes of science fiction in my mind – if haemin (that makes blood red), is so similar to chlorophyll (that makes leaves green), perhaps the idea of green-blooded aliens is not such a stretch. It makes scientific sense, right?

Anyway, let me rather stop before I get too carried away. Enjoy the day, and keep an eye out for those little green men! 🙂

Celebrating robots and robotics – useful and seriously cool!

Today we celebrate the birthday of Joseph F. Engelberger (born in New York City, July 26, 1925), physicist, engineer and entrepreneur, and the man often called the “Father of Robotics”.

Engelberger, together with inventor George Devol, was responsible for the development of the first industrial robot in the US, in the late 1950’s. The robot, called the Unimate, worked on a General Motors assembly line at the Inland Fisher Guide Plant in New Jersey in 1961. It picked up die castings from an assembly line and welded these to the auto bodies – a potentially dangerous task for humans.

The Unimate was inducted into the Robot Hall of Fame in 2003.

Engelberger and Devol also started Unimation, the world’s first robot manufacturing company. Engelberger was a strong advocate for robotic technology beyond the manufacturing plant, and promoted the use of robotics in fields as diverse as health care and space exploration.

Robots – not only are they useful in fields as diverse as manufacturing, transport, space exploration and surgery, but they make seriously cool toys!
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The field of robotics deal with automated machines that can take the place of humans, performing various activities in potentially hazardous or tedious processes in fields ranging from manufacturing to research to exploration. While Engelberger was responsible for the first industrial robot, the robotics concept dates back much further, to the start of the 20th century. The word “robot” was first coined by the Czech writer Karel Čapek in 1920.  In 1942, science fiction writer Isaac Asimov published his “Three Laws of Robotics”, which constituted the first use of the term “robotics”.

A lot of effort and investment has gone into research and development in the field of human-machine interaction, covering areas such as voice synthesis, gesture recognition, and facial expressions.

I’m not sure if it’s thanks to the fact that robots are so popular in science fiction – often depicted as an intelligent, cunning and efficient super-race – but I find it difficult not to feel awed, and even a little threatened, when facing one of these amazing inventions.

Dōmo arigatō, Mr. Roboto!

Celebrating the birth of the first ‘test tube’ baby

Today we celebrate a special birthday – Louise Joy Brown, the world’s first ‘test tube’ baby, was born on this day back in 1978 in Oldham, England.

Louise was conceived in a petri dish (so technically she was a ‘petri dish baby’ rather than a ‘test tube baby’), via the process of in vitro fertilisation (IVF). Her parents, Lesley and John Brown, had been trying to conceive for nine years, but faced complications of blocked fallopian tubes.

The process was a great success, and amazingly, by the time Louise turned 21 in 1999, more than 300 000 babies had been born using similar IVF techniques.

Louise’s IVF was performed by Dr Robert Edwards of Cambridge, who had previously successfully performed similar procedures with animals. He was assisted by gynaecologist Patrick Steptoe, who was already the Browns’ doctor. Edwards was awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize in Medicine for his contributions in the field of reproductive medicine.

The Latin term ‘in vitro’ is used for any biological process that occurs outside the organism it would normally be occurring in.
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In vitro fertilisation is a procedure where an egg cell gets fertilised by sperm outside the body. After successful fertilisation, the fertilised egg (zygote) gets transferred to the patient’s uterus in order to continue developing like a normal pregnancy.

The term in vitro (Latin: ‘in glass’) came about to describe a procedure that specifically occurred in a glass container (such as a test tube or petri dish), but its use has been extended to refer to any biological procedure that occurs outside the organism it would normally be occurring in.

Louise Brown got married in 2004, and her own son, conceived naturally, was born in late 2006. Happy 34th birthday, Louise!

Have you heard the one about…?

Today is ‘Tell an Old Joke Day’.

It is also the day we commemorate the death of Sir James Chadwick (20 Oct 1891 – 24 Jul 1974), who was awarded the 1935 Nobel Prize for Physics for the discovery of the neutron.

So I guess my old joke for this special day kind of selects itself…

A neutron walks into a bar…
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A neutron walks into a bar and orders a whisky.
The bartender pours him a stiff one.
“How much do I owe you?”, the neutron asks.
“For you?” replies the bartender, “no charge!”

Pervasive or Invasive: the Birth of Ubiquitous Computing

Today we celebrate the birthday of Mark David Weiser (23 Jul 1952 – 27 Apr 1999), the visionary American computer scientist who first coined the term ‘Ubiquitous Computing’.

Weiser, who worked as Chief Technologist at XEROX PARC, came up with the term in 1988, describing a future scenario where personal computers will be largely replaced by a distributed network of interconnected “tiny computers” embedded in everyday items like toasters, fridges, photocopiers, phones, couches etc, turning these into “smart” objects. Sound familiar?

While Weiser’s scenario has not come to full fruition yet, things are definitely moving in that direction. Smart phones are already a common sight, smart TV’s are popping up all over the place, connectivity and interconnected devices is becoming the norm… It certainly no longer requires a stretch of the imagination to visualise a world of ubiquitous computing, or ‘pervasive computing’, ‘ambient intelligence’, or ‘everyware’, as the paradigm has also been described.

The common site of a shopping list stuck up on the fridge may soon be a thing of the past, with your future fridge likely to interact with the rest of the kitchen, checking your supplies and auto-ordering any depleted groceries.
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While the concept sounds daunting – computers everywhere, no getting away from it, etc – Weiser actually described it as the era of “calm technology”, where technology recedes into the background of our lives. He defined it as “machines that fit the human environment instead of forcing humans to enter theirs”. So the idea is that while you will continually engage with numerous computing devices, this will happen in a largely unobtrusive manner, allowing you to go on with your life. The fully connected environment also implies a greater degree of location independence, so you won’t necessarily be stuck at a desk behind a computer screen – this is already happening, with the shift from desktops to laptops to tablets and cloud computing.

Of course the idea of computers fitting in with, rather than changing, the human environment, is a bit of a false utopia. While smart phones definitely adapt more to the human environment than, say, a laptop computer, it does fundamentally chance the way humans act and operate – simply look at a group of school children with their smart phones, and compare that to the pre-mobile-phone scenario.

Like it or not, the pervasiveness of computers and computing devices are unlikely to disappear any time soon. The question is in which direction the pervasive-invasive balance will tip, and how things will progress along the man-serving-machine-serving-man continuum.

Where do you see us heading?

You can have your pi and eat it, on Pi Approximation Day (22/7)!

Today is 22/7. No prizes for guessing what that means – yes, its Pi Approximation Day! March 14th (3.14) is also celebrated as Pi Day, but I kind of prefer the 22/7 version.

Pi, that curious little number that seems to pop up every time we start going in circles. A number so important that it even got its own name – not many numbers can claim that distinction!

Instead of going in circles trying to figure out what to give the kids for lunch, take your cue from the date and bake them a pi!
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Pi, or π, is a mathematical constant that represents the ratio between a circle’s circumference and its diameter, or π = C/d. It is what’s known as an irrational number – a number that cannot be expressed as a ratio between two integers. Being irrational, it has an infinite number of digits in its decimal representation, and it does not end with a repeating sequence of digits. It is also a trancendental number – a number that cannot be expressed with a finite sequence of algebraic operations.

In addition to its application in geometry and trigonometry, the constant π is found in many formulae, in a variety of sciences, including physics, number theory, thermodynamics, statistics, electromagnetism and mechanics.

The value of π (to 5 decimal places) is 3.14159, which is also approximately the value of 22 divided by 7. Calculating the value of π to higher and higher degrees of accuracy have been a challenge to mathematicians and computer scientists through the ages. Utilising the latest computing technology, the digital representation of π has now been calculated to more than 10 trillion digits. Memorising π to a large number of digits (a practice called piphology) is another challenge taken up by many pi-fanatics, and the current record stands at an astounding 67 890 digits, recited in 2005 in China by Lu Chao over a period of more than 24 hours. (Wow, he probably doesn’t get out much!)

A nice trick to remember the first few digits of pi is to use a poem or sentence where the lengths of the words correspond to the digits in pi. A well-known example, courtesy of English scientist James Jeans, is “How I want a drink, alcoholic of course, after the heavy lectures involving quantum mechanics”, cleverly representing pi’s first 15 digits.

Such is the pervasiveness of the number π that it can even boast numerous appearances in modern popular culture, from TV series (Simpsons, Twin Peaks) to novels (Carl Sagan’s “Contact”) to pop music (Kate Bush’s “Pi“).