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Odd Lots

  • Freedom matters, and in honor of Independence Day here’s an eye-opening report on the “state of freedom” in the fifty American states. I knew a lot of this from my research nine years ago, when Carol and I decided to leave Arizona, but it’s nice to see it all in one free (in the other sense) document.
  • From the Words I Didn’t Know Until Yesterday Department: draisine, a human-powered device for moving over railroad rails. This is evidently a European term; over here these are called handcars or inspection speeders or rail cycles or a number of other things. Definitely note the hot-pink draisine-built-for-two on the Wikipedia page. (Thanks to Aki Peltonen for dropping the word to me.)
  • Although I’m sure that everyone in the civilized galaxy has seen the cartoon, I wasn’t aware that “thagomizer” is now paleobiological jargon. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
  • Here’s a list of somebody’s picks as the ten best hard SF books of all time. I agree with about 50% of the picks, though Robinson’s Mars trilogy was so slow and padded-out that I could barely finish it. (I have not yet read the Egan book cited.) I sense as well that Somebody Doesn’t Like Heinlein’s Politics. (Thanks to Frank Glover for the link.)
  • Despite a 500-fold increase in cell phone use in the last 20 years, malignant brain tumor diagnosis is down in that timeframe. This interests me, as three people I knew died of brain tumors (the largest cancer cluster in my circle of acquaintance) and it makes me wonder. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
  • I had just a couple of comic books back in the early Sixties, and one of the most intriguing was an extra-long number from DC called Secret Origins that had the backstory for five or six of the most famous DC superheroes. Oddly, what I remember most clearly was the backstory for Green Lantern, especially the little blue guys on the Planet Without Consonants and (most intriguing of all) a power ring with a flaw that prevented it from working against anything yellow. Trouble is, if you remove the flaw, the ring loses its power completely. Now that’s cool–alas, in what may be the canonical Green Lantern for Dummies page, the yellow gotcha isn’t stated clearly and I wonder if it was just abandoned back in the 1960s.
  • Forgot to aggregate this back in January: One of the most bizarre articles I’ve ever read on any major site in recent years. This totally, completely, utterly certain guy is angry at other guys for being totally, completely, and utterly certain–and that about something totally, completely, and utterly trivial. My take: We “know” nothing at all with certainty, and the more certain you are that you’re right, the more certain the rest of us should be that you’re wrong. Nyah-nyah!
  • And another Odd Lot that has lain around for some time: Polish troops trained a young bear to carry ammo during the Battle of Monte Cassino. My father was at that battle, working a radio station on the back of a truck, but he never mentioned seeing the bear. The bear is said to never have dropped any munitions, which I’m sure was a good thing for the bear, and possibly my father as well.
  • Here’s a bogglingly weird Dickensian artifact that I’d never heard of before: A key gun. It’s a gun built into the key to a (large) prison cell lock. I’m sure if it had worked better I would have seen it before now.


  1. Aki says:

    A key gun? So there’s been technological convergence before smartphones.

  2. Jim Strickland says:

    Heh. File this under “no firearm too strange for Turner Kirkland/Dixie Gunworks to make a kit of:

    Key matchlock. 🙂

    I remembered seeing it in their catalog when my father was getting it in the late 1970s to early 1980s.


  3. Jim Tubman says:

    The freedom list is interesting. This Canuck has been to 22 states, and in 12 of them has spent at least a few days each visiting. The differences are quite noticeable.

    It is sometimes hard to believe that South Dakota and Massachusetts are in the same country. Pretty clear which one was founded by cowboys and which one was founded by Puritans. (Hmm, “Cowboys & Puritans” — sounds like an idea for a movie!)

  4. The “yellow impurity” in Green Lantern was alive and well until the late ’90s or early 2000s. It’s now been removed, as has the 24-hour time limit on the ring’s charge — it now works more like a gas tank, with an audible notification when the level drops. Quite frankly, I hate it when they change story elements like that!

  5. Carrington Dixon says:

    Retroactive continuity change has a long and distinguished(?) history. Remember that originally Superman could not fly. He could just jump long distances.

  6. Roy Harvey says:

    Haven’t you ever noticed that there can be a positive correlation between triviality and passionate response? Everyone has a few pet peeves. (One of mine is pronouncing cavalry as calvary, but I don’t blog.)

    Personally, I’m a two-spaces guy. Most of that is decades of ingrained reflex. Some if it is actually believing it is easier to compose at the keyboard when there is a clearer demarcation between sentences.

    And now part of me will be hoping that guy comes across something I typed and it freaks him out. 😎

  7. Rich Rostrom says:

    The “Battle of Cassino” lasted four months, and included several separate major attacks by the Allies.

    In the initial attack, U.S. troops with Free French on their right flank attacked Monte Cassino from the east, and were repulsed.

    In the second attack, British, Indian, and New Zealand troops renewed the attack from the east.

    In the third attack, British and New Zealand troops attacked from the southeast.

    In the final attack, American and French troops attacked to the west of Monte Cassino (but not toward it – the French were on the west side of the Liri valley, and the Americans were on the coast). Meanwhile British, Indian, and Canadian troops attacked from the southeast and Poles attacked from the east.

    So it’s highly unlikely your father would have been in the same area as the Poles at the same time. There were no Poles in the area during the first assault; during the last assault, the Poles were east of Cassino, while the Americans were 30 km to the SSE.

    (The fourth attack succeeded; French mountain troops pushed along the Aurunci mountains, breaking the German right flank and forcing a withdrawal from Cassino, which the Poles were first to reach.)

  8. Rich Rostrom says:

    Also, the U.S. troops in the first attack were the 34th and 36th Divisions; the fourth attack included the U.S. 85th and 88th Divisions.

    The 36th Division took severe casualties attempting to cross the open flats of the Rapido river under fire. It was largely drawn from the Texas National Guard, and I’ve heard that Gen. Mark Clark, who ordered that attack, has been cursed in Texas ever since.

  9. ebenezer says:

    So if we know nothing with certainty, and we come across someone who is certain, how can we certainly know that we can be certain that he’s wrong for his certainty? It does help to *know* some things, is all.

    1. Aki says:

      “there are known “knowns.” There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we do not know we don’t know. ”

      — Donald Rumsfeld

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