Archive for category history



For two or three years around the turn of the 21st century, there was a show on the Kids’ WB called Histeria. Something about the wacky humor, somewhat bizarre cultural references (including to Pee Wee’s Playhouse, Justice League, Monty Python, and others) mixed with a genuine approach to teaching history to kids stuck watching TV got me hooked on it.

Some of my favorite bits that I can remember off of the top of my head include:

  • Episode 24: Pee Wee Herman-like character as General Sherman — complete with full intro song “Sherman’s Campsite” set to the tune of “Pee Wee’s Playhouse.”
  • Episode 2: An entire song-and-dance number about Philo Farnsworth, the under appreciated inventor of television.
  • Episode 41: The Yalta conference represented as Stalin, Churchill, and FDR fighting over a bunch of food.

The good news is that, even though the show has been off the air for several years now, we can still enjoy it through the magic of the internet. AOL Time Warner put Histeria, as well as several other shows up on the AOL Video website. Check it out at




Some things that I’m currently stoked about/for:

  • 27 June 07 – Live Free or Die HardHere’s a trailer for the next (last?) sequel in the most awesomely awesome action movie franchise evarrrr.
  • 11 July 07 – San Francisco – I just heard the news today that I’ll most likely be taking a trip to SF for a “visit” at this time. I remain cautiously optimistic.
  • 23 Sep 07 – The War – Ken Burns’ epic 14-hour-long documentary on World War II has apparently been 6+ years in the making. There’s a trailer/teaser up on the website.
  • 16 Oct 07 – GTA IV – Check out the first trailer on their website. Awesomeness. I’m such a GTA junkie that this will also be when I buy a next-gen console (although I haven’t 100% decided which one). This game is so anticipated, that they’ve pre-announced that the next trailer will be available on the site on 6/28.


Unintended Consequences

Today, let’s examine the strange case of a Mr. Thomas Midgley. I was doing one of my regular wanderings through the Wikipedia the other day, and somehow ended up reading all about CFCs and the depletion of the ozone layer, and all of that good stuff. I remembered that as entering freshmen at MIT way back in 1996, we were treated to a brief lecture on the topic by Professor Molina, who had just won a share of the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for explaining the link between CFCs and ozone layer depletion. But, I digress.

Back to Midgley now, he was working for a subsidiary of GM back in 1930 when he began work on developing a safe refrigerant for use in household appliances. You see, back then people used nasty things like ammonia or sulfur dioxide in their refrigerators, and people were dying and getting poisoned left and right from leaks.

What he came up with was a little compound known as Dichlorodiflouromethane, and an entire family of these chloroflourocarbons (CFC) with unique boiling points that can be used safely in any number of applications as propellants (e.g. aerosal cans), as well as refrigerants and cleaning solvents. At the time, understandably, he was hailed as a hero. Apparently, in a demonstration of the compound’s safety, he inhaled a breath of the stuff and then used it to blow out a candle. Of course we all know the rest of the story, how in the ’80s and ’90s scientists like Molina discovered a mechanism by which the CFCs, once inevitably released into the air, would destroy the earth’s protective ozone layer. You see, that’s a good example of unintended consequences. Here’s a genius engineer who comes out with an amazing invention, wins all sorts of awards, etc. and still ends up having to take at least part of the blame for the CFC/ozone debacle that we’re still dealing with to this very day.

Alas, that is not where the story ends with Mr. Midgley, however. Earlier in his career with GM, back in the roaring ’20s, he came up with another gem. Midgley discovered that adding a small amount of a chemical known as “tetra-ethyl lead” (TEL) to gasoline, thus making “leaded gasoline,” he could raise the effective octane level of the fuel and prevent engines from knocking. As with his CFC discovery, of course he won all sorts of awards and accolades. However, unlike the CFC issue, issues with leaded gasoline, pollution and lead toxicity arose early on, and indications are that Midgley actually was aware of problems. Dozens of workers in the factories that made TEL ended up falling ill, and in many cases dying. Midgley himself apparently suffered from a bout of lead poisoning. From tailpipe emissions contaminating soil and groundwater (especially in urban and highway-proximate areas), it’s estimated that about 68 million children had toxic exposures to lead from gasoline between 1927 and 1987. As many as 5000 americans died annually from lead-related heart disease prior to the phaseout of leaded gasoline. Since leaded gasoline is no longer in use, the mean blood-lead level of the American population has declined more than 75 percent. (citation)

Hero, or Villian? Midgley “had more impact on the atmosphere than any single organism in earth history.” He ended up contracting polio in 1940, and being the engineer that he was, he constructed an elaborate system of cables, rope and pulleys to get him in and out of bed. Ironically, that system was the cause of his death as he got caught up in it and was strangled at age 55. Unintended consequences, indeed!

Thomas Midgley
Paper on the discovery of Tetra-Ethyl Lead and Midgley’s lead poisoning
Another article about leaded gasoline. What did the makers know, and when did they know it?




Twenty years ago this week, a yellow family from Springfield, USA, first careened onto TV screens—lampooning American culture with pitch-perfect satire and touching off a new era in television comedy.
On April 19, 1987, The Tracey Ullman Show aired a two-minute animated short by Matt Groening that introduced the world to the Simpsons: Homer, Marge and their spiky-haired children, Bart, Lisa and Maggie.

Happy 20th birthday to The Simpsons!


Balls to the Wall

And now for a brief piece of trivia that some/most of you may already be aware of, considering one of my favorite colorful phrases in the english language, “balls to the wall.” My apologies in advance to those readers who are already aware of the etymology.

I told the staff … that I expected them to cut every piece of red tape, do everything they could, that it was balls to the wall” -Michael Brown, former director of FEMA, in testimony to U.S. Senate 2/10/06 [emphasis mine]

Contrary to common belief and misconception, the phrase has nothing whatsoever to do with potentially uncomfortable proximity of genitalia and walls. It’s origins apparently date back to use in the US Air Force during the Vietnam War, and possibly as far back as the Korean War or earlier. You see, “balls” refers to the balls on top of the throttle control and flight control of an airplane, and the “wall” is the cockpit firewall. Thus, “balls to the wall” would indicate the state where the plane is either pushed into a nose dive and summoned to 100% throttle, for example in a situation where extreme evasive maneuvers are required.

Similar to “pedal to the metal,” “balls to the wall” indicates a condition of maximum effort and intensity. But, of course the connotations and nuances of the term are so much more than that. Like all phrases of this kind, it really isn’t possible to succinctly and effectively rephrase it in other language — that’s the reason it exists and is in use in the first place.


The Ides of March

It seems that I’m out of interesting things to write about for now, so let’s all stop and take a moment to remember 2000; specifically March 10th 2000. You see, that’s the date that is numerically recognized as the burst of the Dot Com bubble. Seven years ago this past weekend, the Nasdaq peaked at 5,132.52. Yahoo closed at 89 points. Akamai closed at 296. Even Sun Microsystems got in on the action, and closed at 47 points. Less than a month later, the news was as such on April 4th at 1:42pm eastern time on CNN:

PATRICIA SABGA, CNN ANCHOR: Our market coverage continues on CNNfn. We would also like to welcome our CNN viewers. Right now, the Nasdaq composite is off 332 at 3890. That is, however, well off the lows of the session. The Nasdaq composite had lost as much as 13 percent so far today.

BILL TUCKER, CNN ANCHOR: In fact, it is now well into bear territory, completely more than 20 percent off its highs, those highs just hit back in early March, on March 10th at 5048. The Dow also selling off very strongly today, had been down over 500 point, we have seen a big comeback in the Dow 30 stocks.

It’s actually kind of entertaining to read this old transcript. The market correspondent then comes on and says stuff like: “…However, the bottom, he sees it, as in sight. Now the level he had picked as a bottom for this market was around 3500; 3590 would represent a 62 percent retracement of the market’s movement upward since early October….” Of course, a year later, in April of 2001, the market was closing at 1638. How’s that for a “retracement?”

So yes, there it was. 7 years ago: the Nasdaq peaked at 5,132.52. Yahoo closed at 89 points. Akamai closed at 296. Even Sun Microsystems got in on the action, and closed at 47 points. Today, the Nasdaq is at 2378, Yahoo is struggling to maintain 30, Akamai’s hanging out respectably in the low 50s, and beleaguered Sun Microsystems is at 6.22.



Into The Weeds Circa 2002

Abandon hope all netids beginning with m,u,v,x and y

Recent troubles concerning a mail server at MIT reminded me that I should get around to documenting one of my favorite tales of woe. It happened back in February 2002 while I was working at what was then CCSO, in what was then PSG. I had only been working at UIUC for 6 months or so at that point, and had only been administering the campus student/staff cluster “dataservers” for less than that.

I must warn. This is a long entry, and is probably uninteresting to most out there. However, I put it here for my own documentation (this is the story I tell at job interviews when asked about an arduous “troubleshooting experience”) and for the possible enjoyment of a small population of my peers.

Read the rest of this entry »

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100 Wonders of the World

Apparently, I’ve only seen five (12,25,84, 88 and 99). Although it’s possible if the planned vacation next year pans out I’ll be adding at least another three. Looks like there’s a lot more traveling to do for anyone who wants to catch all 100.

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Happy Thanksgiving

But first, a word or two from Abe Lincoln proclaiming the national thanksgiving day in 1863. It was later, of course, moved back a week to the 3rd Thursday in November by FDR in an attempt to lengthen the holiday shopping season and improve fortunes for businesses during the depression:

“The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle, or the ship; the axe had enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years, with large increase of freedom.

No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand, and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the city of Washington, this third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the independence of the United States the eighty-eighth.”

Proclamation of President Abraham Lincoln, 3 October 1863.

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Some of my favorite “footnotes to history.” Sorry, but I just had to come up with something to blog before people get on my case about not posting often enough. You probably know all of these and can come up with better additions to the list as well:

  • Gavrilo Princep
  • Roger Boisjoly
  • Capt. Joseph Hazelton
  • Presper Eckert (and John Mauchly)
  • Crispus Attucks
  • Capt. Edward Smith
  • Caesar Rodney
  • Philo Farnsworth
  • Edwin Drake
  • John Bardeen
  • Franz Ferdinand
  • Reginald Denny
  • Harry Frazee


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