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299910.  Fri Mar 21, 2008 1:12 pm Reply with quote

OK, I survived my visit to mother-in-law, although the man who thought it a good idea to go visit her today needs his head testing. Today is the first day of an extended weekend. Mother-in-law lives in Dover.

Now then, the word mother. It is indeed the case that many languages - and not just the European ones - have a word meaning "mother" with starts with the sound /m/, or has that sound as its first consonant. It is also the case that /ma/ is very often the first recognisable syllable which a baby makes - this indeed seems to be because it requires the mouth to do much the same things that it does in feeding from the breast.

One can trace the word back through linguistic history all the way to Proto Indo European *mater. While it's not possible to etymologize definitively so far back, received wisdom is that this word comprised two basic elements - ma (breast) and -ter (agent suffix). It can be little more than conjecture to speculate as to why ma came to mean "breast" in the first place, but the idea that it's onomatapoeic is attractive and commonly encountered.

So, as I alleged earlier, the answer to Flash's question is "yes". It's been written up all over the place; this from Bill Casselman (there are two prominent-ish Canadians of that name, one does words while the other is Professor of Math at my alma mater).

I can only find two major languages in which the word for "mother" doesn't have /m/ as its first consonant. The Japanese for mother is either 母, which is read "haha" or お母さん, which is read "okasaan". (As often in Japanese, one must use different words depending on context.) The Finnish is äiti, which is a rather odd borrowing from Gothic - although there's an older word emo, which does fit the rule, but is now only used of animals.

307360.  Mon Mar 31, 2008 9:21 am Reply with quote

Did we know that wheelbarrows were originally invented for purposes of warfare?

Chuko Liang (181-234) aka Zhuge Liang, prime minister of Shu Han, and a famous general and author on military strategy, invented the wheelbarrow (it is generally agreed) in 231 AD to allow him to supply his armies in hilly, muddy terrain, during a labour shortage.

He later improved his own original design, coming up with two new models: the Wooden Ox, which was pulled, and the Gliding Horse which was pushed.

The idea of a uni-wheeled cart spread to the Byzantine empire, where it was encountered by Crusaders who brought it to western Europe. The first known depiction of a wheelbarrow in the western world is in a stained glass window at Chartres Cathedral, dated 1220.

Nowadays, we use wheelbarrows only for short journeys - but when they were first introduced to the West, they were used for long distance travel, “such as moving goods across Alpine passes.”

The great thing about a wheelbarrow - in agriculture and industry, even more so than in war - is that it only takes one person to operate. So, although they were vastly more expensive than two-wheeled carts, they soon paid for themselves.

In 1794, a Dutch visitor to Shantung, in China, was astonished to discover sail-barrows - wheelbarrows which were rigged with junk sails for wind-assisted barrowing on land.

S: S: “Gardeners, gurus & grubs” by George Drower (Sutton Publishing, 2001)

Links: Finance (via wheelbarrows full of cash during the Weimar Republic).

309073.  Wed Apr 02, 2008 9:13 am Reply with quote

George Stephenson - of Stephenson’s rocket - was, throughout his life, an enthusiastic amateur of growing fruit and veg, and raising livestock. In the 1840s he owned a sort of experimental farm. Amongst his interests:

Redesigning cows; he thought that by breeding to obtain a more engineered shape, their “girders” (which most people call ribs) could be made to carry far more weight per animal.

Quick fattening of chickens: he fed them three times a day, and after each meal they were shut up in the dark for a nap. It worked. (So, did he invent battery chickens?)

The positioning of bee hives was very important, he said, because bees could move more pollen provided they didn't have to fly uphill.

He invented the idea of growing melons suspended in gauze baskets, thus relieving tension on the stalk; this he showed led to faster growth and ripening. He seems to have been a man in a hurry.

The project which most obsessed him was one the EU would have approved of: growing straight cucumbers. Why he wanted them straight, I'm not sure, but it was a desire he shared with many gentlemen gardeners of the time. He it was who finally cracked the problem: he had some glass cylinders made in his Newcastle engine factory, into which each cucumber was placed as it grew. Problem solved; world saved from bendy cuke horror. When the first straight cuke was ready for the table, he carried it into the house himself, to show it to a party of guests, with the words “I think I have bothered them noo!”

S: “Gardeners, gurus & grubs” by George Drower (Sutton Publishing, 2001)

309081.  Wed Apr 02, 2008 9:25 am Reply with quote

I like that very much, but can't presently think how to use it. My general motto is "never save anything up for the next series - use it now", but if push comes to shove this is G for Gardening.

309086.  Wed Apr 02, 2008 9:31 am Reply with quote

I have the vague idea at the back of what passes for my mind that great inventors - people who come up with things as important as Stephenson’s Rocket - are quite often equally obsessed with what the rest of the world considers trifles. I can’t think of another example off hand, but I’m sure someone can. I daresay it’s some aspect of the psychological or intellectual make-up of inventing geniuses that makes it hard, or perhaps counter-productive, for them to prioritise the way ordinary people do.

I just wonder if there’s something in that for a combo of Firsts and Follies?

Or, better yet, “I for Inventors”!

309659.  Thu Apr 03, 2008 5:30 am Reply with quote

Linking to Fred's question about the time travellers who will be along shortly due to experiments at CERN:

Les Horribles Cernettes were the first pop group to have their own website. They were formed at the same time, and in the office next door to the World Wide Web.

Indeed, according to CERN's Silvano de Gennaro theirs was the first picture ever to be clicked on in a web browser.

This is they:

309663.  Thu Apr 03, 2008 5:32 am Reply with quote

And they're back:

Les Horribles Cernettes are the one and only High Energy Rock Band. They sing about colliders, quarks, microwaves, antiprotons and Internet. They are known and loved by some 20000 High Energy Physicists worldwide.

309746.  Thu Apr 03, 2008 6:32 am Reply with quote

The use of sphagnum moss as a wound dressing wasn't invented in this country, despite what many people believe, but it was here at the beginning of the 20th century that it was first used systematically.

Charles Cathcart was a former Scottish rugby international who in 1878 became a resident surgeon at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. His first great success as an inventor was “The Surgical Handbook”, a handbook for surgeons, which he wrote, and which was published with specially rounded corners, so that house surgeons could easily slip it in and out of the pockets of their white coats. A great bestseller, it was reprinted 18 times.

In the 1890s he began experimenting with alternatives to cotton wool for swabs and bandages, including sponges, and pads made of pinewood sawdust. In 1900, he came across, by chance, a reference in a German academic paper to a case in 1882 of a woodman in a German forest who had cut himself badly with an axe, and would have died but for staunching the wound with sphagnum moss. It took the man ten days to reach hospital, and on his arrival his wound was found to be almost healed.

Cathcart set to experimenting with moss immediately. He quickly discovered, through microscopy, that its capillary tubes were what allowed it, when pressed and dried, to absorb nine times its own weight of liquid.

At the start of WW1, Cathcart was a senior military doctor. He wrote to various newspapers asking readers to collect moss and post it to him. (Sounds like Blue Peter and bottle tops, doesn't it?) Word spread, and before long vast amounts of moss were arriving by special delivery (I strongly suspect that someone must have used the words “inundated” and “literally flooding in” at this stage; they always do).

Women and children were especially keen on moss-gathering; it was something they could do for the war effort. Throughout the British Isles people were out every day moss-hunting, and sending it off to Edinburgh.

Cathcart organised a system for dealing with incoming moss. All over Edinburgh, in church halls and private homes, working parties set to picking over the moss to make sure it was nice and clean. From there it went to the Royal Infirmary where it was treated with a mercuric chloride solution - it couldn't be steam sterilised because that reduced its absorptive qualities. Next it went to a factory which had loaned Cathcart the use of its hydraulic press to have the moss squashed into 1 ft by 18” sheets, which were wrapped in muslin bags.

As a battlefield dressing, distributed to every theatre of the war, it was every bit as good as Cathcart had hoped. It was very light to carry, and very elastic so could be formed into whatever shape was needed. Cathcart set up the Sphagnum Moss Committee to raise funds using letters from battlefield surgeons singing the moss’s praises. It absolutely transformed military medicine, saving incalculable lives.

So, why don’t we still use it? Simply, cost. It was cheap enough to produce moss bandages during WW1, because most of the work was done by patriotic volunteers. When the labour had to be paid for, moss become uneconomical. It enjoyed a bit of a revival during WW2, but again fell out of use in peacetime.

While medics abandoned moss, gardeners became very keen on it - for use as a growing medium in the increasingly fashionable hanging baskets. Soon, the gardener’s own lawn, the traditional source of moss, was insufficient to meet demand, and people began buying the stuff in bags from garden centres, or collecting it from the wild. Because it had always been considered a nuisance on lawns, nobody thought to give it protected status, and today it is increasingly scarce in the wild.

Cathcart’s only son died of gunshot wounds in the war; after the war, Cathcart retreated from public life, and died a broken man in 1932.

S: “Gardeners, gurus & grubs” by George Drower (Sutton Publishing, 2001)

Links: Flora

311850.  Mon Apr 07, 2008 7:22 am Reply with quote

I can’t think where this might fit, if anywhere, but it’s such an odd fact I didn’t want to miss it ... in 1887 (or possibly 86), the Conservatives lost Lincolnshire County Council - the new majority party after the local elections was the Allotments Party, set up to pressurise Parliament into passing a long-delayed Allotments Act. It worked; the Lincolnshire landslide so terrified MPs that they passed the Act without further delay.

I can’t find any more about it, but this was arguably the first successful working-class political party.

S: ‘Gardeners, gurus & grubs’ by George Drower (Sutton, 2001)

314462.  Fri Apr 11, 2008 6:52 am Reply with quote

The first animal was the "comb jellyfish".

This is strange becasue it's a lot more complicated than, say, a sponge.

There could perhaps be some fun to be had with "WHat was the first animal"; but I fear the answer, in the below link, may be a bit dull and sciencey.

314469.  Fri Apr 11, 2008 7:01 am Reply with quote

I did comb jellies for series C - I don’t think we ever used it.



Meat-eating jellies which swarm our seas - why have we never been warned?

Gelatinous marine animals, 95% composed of water, most species of comb jelly are spherical or oval. They range in size from three millimetres to one metre. And they are lovely. While most are colourless (though not Venus’s Girdle, which is a delicate shade of violet), the majority are also bioluminescent, giving stunning nocturnal displays of flashing blue or green which for breathtaking beauty are said to rival anything else seen in the animal kingdom.

They own their own phylum, Ctenophora (pronounced 'tee-no-for-a'), which contains between 80 and 100 species (sources differ; this is still an under-studied phylum), amongst them the Sea Walnut, Cat’s Eyes, and the Sea Gooseberry.

There are a few creeping Ctenophores, and one parasitic species, but all the rest float freely, being rather weak swimmers, and are frequently swept into great, dramatic swarms, especially in bays and lagoons. They live in all seas, hot and cold. They’re not fussed.

They’re called “combs” because of their many thousands of remarkably large cilia, arranged in “comb rows,” which beat to a smooth rhythm, providing the jelly with its only means of propulsion. To humans, this is visible as a shimmering rainbow. Perhaps slightly less impressively, but no less startlingly, some species look _exactly_ like raspberry jellies, freshly turned out from your gran’s tin jelly mould.

Most comb jellies are hermaphrodites, capable of producing eggs and sperm at the same time (up from the gonads, out through the mouth) and - theoretically, at least - of fertilizing themselves. They generally use a process called random fertilization, in which thousands of eggs and sperm are released into the water. Young jellies can breed as soon as they hatch, at just 1 millimetre in length. (Insert Norfolk gag here.)

Apart from the one parasitic species, all comb jellies are strictly carnivorous, mostly of plankton, fish eggs and the like - though some can expand their stomach so as to swallow prey, such as fishes, nearly half their own size. Some eat other comb jellies by biting chunks off them with huge mouths full of special cilia. Very simple beings, with few specialised organs, nonetheless most jellies can locate their prey through chemical traces in the water, and many have a statocyst - a gravity-sensitive organ - which enables them to tell up from down.

One of the most obvious differences between combs and jellyfish is that combs don’t sting (and are thus harmless to humans). Even so, they’ll eat anything they can engulf. Some have long, retractable, sticky tentacles with which to grab their prey. Others achieve a similar effect using a combination of large, ribbon-like auricles - ears, basically - and mucus. (See? Truly beautiful.)

“There is probably no larger animal that is more numerous,” says Britannica of the comb jellies. When sea walnuts swarm, their bluish-white luminescence can colour the sea. Water currents and “zones of convergence” can concentrate comb jellies in massive aggregations. In such abundance, they can be a devastating pest to fishermen. In 2004, Iran proposed introducing a cannibalistic comb into the Caspian Sea, to control one of its relatives - Mnemiopsis, or "the Monster" as local fishermen prefer - which has severely depleted stocks of plankton; the plankton is eaten by the small, anchovy-like kilka, which in turn feeds Caspian sturgeon ... producer of most of the world’s caviar.

“The Monster” is two inches long. Mind you, it can produce 8,000 offspring a day. Besides which, it’s an economic migrant, having entered the Caspian without permission, clinging to ships’ hulls. “Beroe Ovata," the cannibal, comes from the Black Sea, and it’s not clear whether it can survive in the less salty waters of the Caspian.

Ctenophores have no true anus, and they keep their gonads in the lining of their digestive canals. Other than that, though, they are pure gorgeous.

Sources:;;;; Encyclopaedia Britannica 2003 Deluxe Edition;

317353.  Wed Apr 16, 2008 4:54 am Reply with quote

Britain’s first major road accident in the age of the motor vehicle took place on 12 July 1906, in Handcross, Kent. Souvenir postcards of the event - showing the smashed-up death-bus by the side of the road - were on sale within days.*

It was the Kent firemen’s annual outing. For the first time ever, they’d voted (by a majority of just one) to travel by motor coach instead of by train. They were in (or, in fact, mostly on) an open-topped double-decker bus. When its brakes failed, and it ran out of control, ten people were killed.

S: The Postcard Century by Tom Phillips (Thames & Hudson, 2000).

*(Well, people were rather more media-obsessed, callous, disrespectful and money-grabbing 100 years ago than they are today.)

318393.  Thu Apr 17, 2008 7:52 am Reply with quote

Can this possibly be true? Waller says that queuing was “invented” during WW2. She quotes from a contemporary women’s magazine article:

When Lola Duncan returned from Canada in the New Year of 1945 she was soon introduced to the British habit of queuing, a wartime invention: ‘The bus queue was another innovation. And I was nearly mobbed for fighting to get on first as of old. I tried to explain my ignorance. But it was no use. I crawled to the end of the line - a cheat and an outcast.

Later in 1945, there began a “queue revolt,” started by a vicar’s wife, Irene Lovelock, under the slogan “Why do we queue, anyway?”

Tired of standing in the fish queue and not getting anything, she drew a group of local women together to petition their MP about the invidiousness of queuing, demanding some more equitable way of distributing food that was not rationed but was in short supply.

The Ministry of Food was rather keen on queues, not least because it “had been in the habit of sending its staff to stand in queues and listen to the conversation of shoppers to obtain feedback.”

The “London queue revolt” apparently spread like wildfire, and became a national movement - though what form this took, Waller does not say.

S: ‘London 1945’ by Maureen Waller (John Murray, 2005).

Links: Food.

(Interesting, isn't it, how we’d see that these days; if someone was to make a TV documentary about it, they’d smirkingly refer to it as a “very British revolution,” and so on. But in fact, it really was part of a revolution, during one of the sharpest periods of class war ever seen in this country, and came about - for all its Ealing Comedy trappings - as a result of years of really pretty hideous suffering by women who just couldn't take it any more.)

318589.  Thu Apr 17, 2008 12:09 pm Reply with quote

Lots of sources here:, including some which predate the war.
Some of the other major pioneers in queueing theory and dates of their major works are Tore Olaus Engset (Norway, born 1865, died 1943)(first paper on queueing 1918), G.F. O'Dell (1920), Thornton Carl Fry (1928), Edward Charles Molina (1927), Felix Pollaczek (born 1892, died 1981)(first paper on queueing 1930), Conny Palm (Sweden, born 1907, died 1951)(first paper on queueing 1936). Further work was done by Andrey Kolmogorov (Russia, 1903-1987), (first paper on queueing 1931) Alexander Khinchin (Russia, 1894-1959), (first paper on queueing 1932), C.D. Crommelin (France)(first paper on queueing 1932).

It also refers to old pictures of animals queueing to get onto the Ark.

318614.  Thu Apr 17, 2008 12:45 pm Reply with quote

Flash wrote:
Lots of sources here:, including some which predate the war.

Flash, this is an article about Queueing Theory which is a part of a branch of mathematics called operations research (Not one I particularly fancied I must say). It tries to find 'models' (i.e. systems of equations) that describe real world situations like calls arriving at a call centre and cars joining a motorway. I always found it remarkably unsuccessful at dealing with anything remotely realistic and so gave it up as soon as I could. I don't think that because Queueing Theory existed it should be cited as existence of Queues in general.

I suppose one could say that they existed in theory though.


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