Tag Archives: technology

Big Ideas – Rocket Science

I hope you view my contributions to the Teen Blog as an invitation to challenge yourself, think hard, and learn new things. This entry marks the start of a new series on the teen blog, Big Ideas. So far, I’ve only introduced major themes and academic concepts obliquely, and as they happen to come up in the course of talking about something else in depth. In these Very Special Episodes, we’re going to tackle them head on, so you can prove to yourself that you can think Big Thoughts fearlessly. Very few things indeed are truly Too Hard or Too Complicated to comprehend the outline of. If you do, though, you’ll understand everything around you in a deeper way. Tragically, you won’t unlock most of these Big Ideas until sometime in college, maybe. I think this is deeply stupid and unfair, so that’s why I’m writing these, to introduce you to as many really Big Ideas as possible, in an approachable way.

To prove to you that you do have the ability to understand Big Ideas, let’s start with the most proverbially Big Idea of all.

This IS Rocket Science

Actually, it’s physics, mostly, and a little bit of chemistry.

Since I’m never one to do anything half-way, let’s make an example, where we can explore some of the math and concepts needed to put a living thing in orbit. That’s right: we’re going to model a solo orbital mission. For this, you’ll need Newton’s laws of motion. (Spoiler Alert: FOR NOW, you need Newton’s laws. I’m planning to cover special and general relativity later.) I’m going to write a summary in modern English, because here’s how Newton put it.

Yeah. So, basically everything academic that was published back then was in Latin, so everyone across Europe with a high level of education could read it. This is also the book in which Newton details calculus (Don’t forget about Liebniz too!), and also there’s universal gravitation in there, and also some extensions of Kepler’s laws… the Principia is kind of a big deal.

Are you ready? Here’s your cheat sheet!

newton's laws, the gravity equation, and the gravitational constant in a cheat sheet.

Tricky. How about we pick a model, where someone’s done something similar before?

Mercury-Atlas 8 summary, comparing the mass of the capsule to the launch vehicle.

Now, let’s chart a path to orbit by thinking through what we have to do to get something to orbit the Earth and come back. The objective is less to do the math than it is to get an intuitive idea of what the math means, and therefore a feel for the physics. It’s all about how much the mass of the rocket escalates as you add more mass it needs to carry.

why a Syrian Hamster is perfect for a space mission.
escalating rocket size.
escalating rockets 2
escalating rockets 3

P. S. A note on just how dang fast these rockets have to get the capsule to. Sigma 7’s orbital period was a little under 89 minutes. Imagine circling the entire Earth in just under an hour and a half. That’s how fast something has to go to stay in orbit. Given that F = ma, you don’t have to do the exact math to figure that even a tiny chunk of space junk slamming into a satellite or something at these velocities would be a Very Bad Thing, especially since this sort of collision would result in even more space junk orbiting at stupidly high speeds.

P. P. S. For a nice illustration of how the need to accelerate to a high enough speed fast enough impacts rocket design, compare the Atlas D series to the Saturn V rockets. “But Katherine,” I hear you whine, “what about the outer solar system probes, like New Horizons, or Voyager? Those rockets were way smaller.” Indeed. Probes can’t suffocate, die of thirst, or starve. Spacefaring humans definitely can. With a probe, you just need to get it out of Earth’s gravity well, and coast to a bigger planet or several to get a boost from their gravity wells to gain more speed. If it takes decades to do it, who cares, because it’s powered by Plutonium pellets. It’ll be fine, probably. With people, they need to breathe air, drink water, and eat. You gotta get ’em to the Moon and back, FAST. The Saturn V is a balancing act between how much fuel you need to accelerate to speeds that will save you on mass in terms of air, water, and food vs more fuel. It weighs 2,970,000 Kg. That’s a gobsmacking 5,940 Thoroughbred race horses. Glorious.

P. P. P. S. (Post-Post-Post Script) It should be self-evidently clear by now that Newton was right about that First Law. There’s precious little to exert a force to slow you down in space. The Earth doesn’t need rocket engines to keep going around the Sun. The Moon doesn’t need rocket engines to keep going around the Earth. I’m sorry if I just ruined several space odyssey movies for you. No stern chases in space. If your ship is already going faster than your pursuers’ top speed, you already got away, past tense. Just NO. Also, no sneaking up on things in space. Don’t even get me started on the consequences of relativistic speeds and Faster-Than-Light-Travel. We’ll get to ruining space movies in devastating detail later, when we do relativity, I’m sure.

Qing Dynasty Photography

I blundered into a bunch of old photographs of China by a Chinese photographer, and I’m geeking out over it so much I’ve just got to share my favorite images from the batch, and some observations about them. Inspect everything carefully and ask questions, and these photos have a lot to teach about history. If you want to play along, look for patterns, think as much about what you don’t see as what you do, and be ready to make inferences. Engage your brain. Everything’s more fun that way.


About the Artist

Lai Afong, a very sober and scholarly-looking photographer in a nice silk shirt.

The photographer himself, around 1870. Although it’s getting rickety after two Opium Wars, a civil war on the scale of WW I in terms of death toll, and a bunch of really unfair trade concessions, that’s still a solid 30 years or so before the Qing Dynasty finally collapses like a late-game Jenga tower.

This is the only photograph I know of of the photographer himself, known to us here and now as Lai Afong. Very very few Chinese family names have two syllables, and when you look at the card, the first character on the left is Fāng, which is his real surname. “Ah” in this case is a familiar-toned prefix. Here’s a biography from the History of the Three Kingdoms to show you how this works (scroll down and expand the first note if you don’t want to read the whole thing although you’ll be sorry you didn’t – history is awesome). I ♥ Lü Meng, and you should too. Back to the photography! In any case, Fāng was active from the 1860s through the 1880s, until his death in 1890. I like these images so much because most of the other photographs we have of China at this time are taken by people who aren’t Chinese, and this means that in their photos we see the Qing Dynasty through literally foreign eyes. Fāng, however, can show us much more than that, and his subjects seem a lot more at ease. He also gets photographs of people that foreign photographers can’t, and, as everybody twigs to what the new technology can do for them, and the portfolio develops around demand, there’s suddenly lots of insight to be had by historians about just how fast people will adopt new technology, how they want to be seen, and what Fāng’s marketing strategy was like for the successful studio.


Portraits and Landscapes


Beardy brit soldier and his wife, presumably, on an old card-style photograph.

Based on the photography tech, the man’s uniform and beard, and the woman’s updo and the profile of her dress, I’d guess this was made around 1867. Not quite a full-on 1870s bustle, yet, but we’ve passed the low bun hairdos of the first half of the 1860s.

This one’s a stand-in for all of the other visiting-card portraits and landscapes from the studio. There are lots of these, especially early on. Fāng seemed to market his skills toward the foreign market, and take portraits and landscapes that people might want to send home. Since a photography studio exists to create photos people want to buy, Fāng’s output always existed in tension between pandering to whatever foreigners wanted to see in China (literally and metaphorically), and what his rapidly expanding Chinese clientele wanted to see in themselves.


The Hairdresser

A barber (or photographer's assistant playing a barber) in the studio with props, shaving another man's head.

I picked the barber example for a reason. Pay attention: this is all going to be very, very, important.

Of the photos that seem to be aimed at foreigners, there’s ones like this, showing everyday events or occupations. In the context of a book written by outsiders looking in, who don’t know and don’t care what the haircut is about, the meaning might boil down to something like: Their hair is different. Look how different their hair is. (Different is bad and inferior.)

Let’s try to rectify that a little, and talk more about the context of the hair in a big-picture kind of way. I can’t know how much of this was wrapped up in this photograph, because I’m not Fāng, but I can give you a broad historical overview. Hairdos are about identity. This is true for the people who used the queue to caricature and segregate the Chinese outside of China, and hairdo-as-identity is certainly true inside China. Traditionally, Han Chinese culture looked on the human body as a gift from one’s parents. To harm any part of it was a violent act against the parent-child bond. Before the Qing Dynasty, cutting or shaving hair was simply not done. To have your hair cut was an assault on your ties to family and society. Similarly, tattoos or body modification were out. The Qing Dynasty was ruled by the Manchu, and when they conquered the Ming Dynasty, they imposed the queue haircut on the Han ethnic population, forcing the men to shave the front half of their head to the crown, and braid the rest as a test of loyalty. If you were a man, having a full head of hair was a flagrant statement of Ming loyalist intentions and therefore high treason and a capital offence.  So, hair-cutting during the Qing Dynasty carried a heavy cultural and historical burden.

….Aaaaand you just read this from a modern American who’s so white I’m having completely un-ironic and un-exotic bratwurst and noodles for dinner tonight (11/17/2018), although I do have a very solid college background in East Asian history. I hand-picked all these pictures, so they’ve been pre-filtered. BY ME. PRANK’D!! Everything has a source, everything is a source, and everything has a point of view. Your teachers do, your movies, video games, and books do, your parents do, bus drivers do, I do, you do, there’s no avoiding it, so be aware of it. Again: engage your brain.

The only Han Chinese people involved here are Fāng and his studio, and a large number of his clients. They decide how we look at what we’re looking at in any given photo, even if the subject matter was picked by someone else. Even if we can’t know everything about these photos completely, we can still see the world through his lens. Speaking of which…


A Street in Canton

A deep, narrow street lined with tall signs, and people walking in the road.

I love street scenes. Trying to get the film exposure times right for this picture must have been tricky.

You awake and alert yet? Good. We’re just warming up. The historian in me loves all these photos, but the artsy side loves this one the most. Composition, motion blur, light levels, all of it just comes together perfectly. Fāng had an incredible eye. Back to the history, though. Look carefully, and you’ll probably be most struck by what you don’t see. There are no women at all in this picture. Maybe they’re hiding, out of sight, or maybe they just wouldn’t be out on the street in the business district. Either way, we’ve learned something about this time and place and culture – public life is an all-male social universe. Protip: you might be drawing on your own cultural framework right now to try to interpret what this means, or even make some inferences about how the rest of Qing Dynasty society operates. Resist the temptation, and be patient. If you draw on your own experience while trying to understand a different place, time, and culture, you’re literally looking at the wrong evidence. Gather as much as you can of the history you’re actually trying to learn about, and do your best to meet it on its own terms.


Two Officials in Summer Uniform

Two gentlemen sit for a portrait.

A couple of officials, in summer uniform. Infuriatingly, I can’t quite make out what’s on the embroidered badge on the front of their robes. If I could, I’d know what rank they were. If it were in color, you’d be able to tell from the round ball on the hat. I’d guess they’re relatively high ranking, though, because of the peacock feather dangling from the hat bobble – those could only be worn as a decoration granted by the Emperor.

Pretty soon, people started to sit for portraits. Although there’s still plenty of pictures of Fāng’s studio having staged meals, pretending to gamble, or cosplaying accountants, the pace of portraiture of local people really picks up. This particular set – two chairs, and the stack of books on an end table – is particularly popular. You’ll see it later.

In the meantime, let’s talk briefly about what these gentlemen do for a living, and how they got there. In order to be an official, you had to pass a grueling entrance exam. Basically, they locked you in a guarded cubicle and expected you to produce an essay. Then the essays would be ranked, and the people who had written the best ones got slotted into openings in the bureaucracy. In order to get where they are, they had to pass this bonus-boss-level essay exam. Aside from the uniforms, though, the books, writing on the hand fan, and even the long fingernails (if you work a nice cushy desk job, you don’t wear down or break your nails), imply that these are gentlemen and scholars. It’s a studio photograph: everything in front of the camera was placed there by someone who wanted you to see it.



Six women sitting for a portrait. They're probably singing women.

Advertising FTW! Given her more matronly hairdo, I’d guess the woman seated on the right is in charge, and the group portrait is her idea. Also, note that they wear both pants and skirts, either/or, and sometimes at once.

The caption on Wikimedia commons says “courtesans,” but that’s not a very precise term, and, unfortunately, the English language – for abundant historical and cultural reasons – doesn’t have a lot of nuance in this particular area. Meanwhile, across East and Southeast Asia – for equally abundant historical and cultural reasons – there are a massive diversity of female (and frequently male, and also third-sex) entertaining jobs that English-speakers struggle to define. All of our words that even vaguely approach the idea seem to imply prostitute, on some kind of spectrum between least-fancy to most-fancy, when this isn’t really the same.

Clearly, just one word – courtesans – isn’t going to cut it. Given the caption, the haircuts, how nice their clothes and jewelry are, the very tiny bound feet of two of the women, and the savvy studio portrait, I’d guess that these are a troupe of high-class singing-women, and they planned to use the picture to advertise. Singing-women were entertainers, prized for their beauty, artistic accomplishments, and refinement. There might be sex-for-pay involved, there might not, depending on the class of singing-woman and her relationship with the client. Ideally, a singing-woman might be able to catch the long-term patronage of a wealthy man, and even enter his household as a concubine.

“Concubine.” Guess we’d better cover that, too. Okay. So. Marriages between men and women (note qualifier, *hint hint*) in China at this time were (at least potentially) polygynous. One man could marry several women, as long as he could afford to pay the bride price for them, and for their upkeep. There wasn’t the same idea of legitimate vs illegitimate birth as there was in Europe, because women were ranked by seniority in the household, and children inherited the relative status of their mothers in addition to their place by birth order. The highest-ranked son, usually the firstborn son and/or the firstborn son of the primary wife, succeeded to lead the family when his father died. (In the case that the firstborn son wasn’t the primary wife’s, she often adopted and raised him as her own.) Most men could only afford to marry one woman, though, and some men couldn’t afford to marry any women at all, usually those who were extra sons from poorer families. Men also generally married women later in life than women married men, providing a little demographic padding for the sex imbalance to sort itself out. Here’s an example of a couple of paragraphs from the Liji (The Book of Rites), in the book Nei Ze (the Pattern of the Family), that lays out the customary ages of marriage for men and women (paragraphs 80 and 82, respectively). The Chinese Text Project strikes again! Also, note that men are expected to marry at thirty, and women at twenty or twenty-three. The Liji is from the Warring States Period, contemporaneous with Ancient Greece (although it was still very much regarded as an important morality guide a couple of millennia later), and so don’t believe a word of that “people always married way young in the past” nonsense. Blanket statements Just Won’t Do.


Upper-Crust Ladies

Four women, one of them probably a maid or other attendant, sitting for a photo, all holding books.

Finally! I think I can make out cranes on the woman on the left’s robes’ embroidered border.

Given the embroidered clothes, brocade silk, and probably motifs that were restricted in use to the wives or daughters of officials, these are definitely ladies. Each of them has a book – they want you to know that they’re literate and literary, too. Given the bound feet, and the hairdos, they’re not Manchu, but probably Han. Again, everything in front of the camera was put there. You’ll also note that there are no men. All of the pictures show only men, or only women. It just wouldn’t be proper, otherwise. I don’t mean improper for the ladies only, either. It would be definitely weird for men to be seen in the company of women in public. My guess is that Fāng’s services were so valuable and in-demand in households like this that he was given special permission (with male family members no doubt present off-camera) to photograph the ladies, OR, maybe Fāng’s studio had female members – a wife or sister, perhaps – who could photograph women, since women could go where men could not. Maybe men and women saw each other in public social spheres more than these photos suggest – again, it’s what people are choosing to show us.


Two Women

Two ladies sit for a portrait. One of them has bound feet, and the other doesn't.

Another portrait of women. Note the same table with books on it as a prop. This is the same setup as the two officials, earlier.

These women seem to be roughly comparable in status, though. Nice silk clothes, pants, some jewelry. This is also taken in the studio, and it’s the exact same setup as with the officials, much earlier in this post. Note that the one on the left has bound feet, while the one on the right does not. Even at this point in time, the last decades of the Qing Dynasty, foot binding wasn’t universal. The Manchu never bound feet, and even among Han women, it wasn’t a given that every woman’s foot was bound. The extensive record of foot binding found in these photographs among high-status women might seem to contradict the earlier information that body modification was taboo. There’s a loophole, though: since your body came from your parents, it’s okay if your body is modified by your parents. Given how nice her clothes are, I’d love to know why the woman on the right has natural feet. Did she see an unexpected and meteoric rise in fortunes over her lifetime? If so, how? (Especially since foot binding was practiced in the first place as a means to aid daughters in marrying up.) Was she born into wealth, and her family just didn’t practice foot binding? There’s a story here, a very interesting one, that over-generalizations and stereotypes would erase completely.


It’s the Book Table Again

two more women sitting for a portrait at that book table. One of them is dressed as a man.

If men and women are never seen in public together, and taking a portrait together would be unheard of, who is that rather scholarly-looking gentleman?

I told you at the very beginning that this would be on the test. Men’s clothes and hat. Male posture with knees wide apart. Unbound feet. Look very closely at the hairdos, though, and you’ll find the first big clue. The person on the right has hair visible at the temple, forward of the ears. He is not biologically male. Given the feet, however, he was almost certainly raised to be male, though, from at least toddler-hood, since foot binding generally started very young, before the bones could completely calcify.

Theater actors, maybe? An example I know of from modern China is the opera actor Wang Peiyu, who specializes in wise old minister roles (laosheng roles). Here’s a nice interview, where you can see lots of examples of the roles and other biological women who have been male-role opera stars, and all the training behind Wang Peiyu’s current expertise. All 20 minutes or so are well worth it, even if you won’t understand a word. It’s also somewhat common for these actors to be male-gender off-stage too, like Wang Peiyu. Honorary men aren’t exactly unheard-of, in historical China.

In Qing Dynasty China, sex and gender aren’t invariably connected to someone’s physical attributes, but exist in interplay with social roles. Given foot binding and the existence of a rare but vitally important artificial third sex, eunuchs, the idea was to mold the body to fit the role, rather than the other way around. Virtually all of the rules we have in our culture for how sex and gender work, or even the definitions of the concepts themselves are different than what you see in historical sources. If you assume things work the same, across all places and times, you’ll be mislead.

History is fearsomely complicated and nuanced, and that’s how I like it. Don’t take my word for it, though, here’s the entire category on Wikimedia Commons, so you can look at all the pictures for yourself. There’s lots of cool stuff there that I didn’t have the time to get into.

Accountant cosplay! A wildly unenthusiastic Japanese picture bride (probably)! Blatantly inaccurate book captions! (“Each instrument has one string only,” my foot. You can clearly see at least two in the actual picture, let alone counting pegs. Yeesh, C. J. Cornish, get it together.) Go explore!

Minnie the Moocher

Have eight minutes? Watch Minnie the Moocher and learn a truckload of awesome stuff!

There’s so much going on with this film, I hardly know where to begin. So, let’s just start with the basics, and technical stuff, and go from there. First, this is a traditional hand-drawn animated film by Fleischer Studios, released in 1932. If you’ve ever made a sticky-pad flip book, you know how this works. In this case, though, the animation is done on “cells” or sheets of clear plastic, and photographed over painted backgrounds that show through, with each photograph exposing one frame of the film.

A neat thing to notice (and it’s easier if you re-watch it with the sound muted) is that the studio uses cycles of repeated cell sequences to make some parts cheaper to animate. Look for repeated motions in the animation – either the animation is reused outright, or short bits of repeated motions that can be traced are simply copied to new cells. Examples include Betty and Bimbo running out of town (in the case of just reusing the same sequence of cells), and the cork in the jar on the table hopping onto the table and back in the very beginning (for just a part of the animation being traced to new cells). Once you know that animation frequently does this, you’ll know what to look for, and you’ll be able to spot this technique in lots of other animated movies and series. Used with finesse, it adds a sense of rhythm and pacing.

Another cool animation technique on display is rotoscoping. You don’t have to re-use or trace other animation cells, you can actually trace live action footage, too. This is especially useful for capturing complex movements that maybe your artists don’t have a mental reference for already. The famous dancing walrus ghost (what, surprised? watch the film, seriously, it’s worth it) is actually traced over live-action footage of Cab Calloway dancing. So, not only did Cab Calloway provide the walrus ghost vocals, he’s also the reference for the walrus ghost’s slick dance moves. Kind of like modern motion capture, but without the aid of computers, and entirely by hand.

About that walrus ghost. Did I mention the style of the film? It’s seriously creepy and weird. Since everything in an animated film is drawn by hand, if you can draw it, you can animate it, limited only by your skill and your imagination. Scary, grim, and with a tacked-on last-minute wholesome ending, Minnie the Moocher was for general audiences, not just kids. The song’s about Minnie, who gets drawn into a life of poverty, crime, and drug use because she falls in love with an addict. Ghosts get electrocuted, and skeletons drink themselves to death. The implication, of course, is that this is where teen runaway Betty’s life is headed, if she doesn’t go back home to her first-gen immigrant parents who have a hard time relating to their Americanized daughter and insist she eat her hasenpfeffer.

Content-wise this short film doesn’t pull any punches, despite the superficially cartoony style. Even the idea that a cartoon would be kid stuff is very recent. There’s a huge difference between early Betty Boop – where she’s a rebellious teen flapper – and later Betty Boop – where she becomes a much more demure housewife type. The reason for this is the Hays Code. Movies didn’t have ratings for different audiences based on content. Instead, the Hays Code dictated what was allowed to be in Hollywood movies and what wasn’t. This kind of industry-run censorship is actually pretty common, historically. (Note that although the Hays Code came out in 1930, it wasn’t really enforced until later. So, Minnie the Moocher gleefully ignores the code, even though it was technically produced under it in 1932.) Compare the slightly-later Comics Code, for another example.

That’s a lot of technical, heavy, historical stuff for a film that’s less than ten minutes long, and we’ve barely scratched the surface, too.

Bicycle Built For Two

A tandem bicycle with a lady and a gent on it. Actual old photo.

Tandem bike, CA 1896

I frequently tell people that everything is interesting and cool, and only gets more awesome the closer you look. Here’s a relentlessly deep dive into a corny song that’s over 120 years old.

CAUTION: Daisy Bell (Bicycle Built for Two) is an earworm, and the insidious metaphorical kind, not the literal ones who are just trying to make a living that I like to cover on this blog. What’s that? You read the medical paper in that link and now your ears itch just thinking about it? Why watch horror movies at all when there’s all of nature’s untrammeled majesty just waiting to be discovered? Why, you’re welcome.

These are the lyrics for the version I know:


Daisy Bell

Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer true.

I’m half crazy all for the love of you.

It won’t be a stylish marriage;

I can’t afford a carriage.

But you’ll look sweet

Upon the seat

Of a bicycle built for two.


Henry, Henry, I’ll give you my answer true.

I’m not crazy all for the love of you.

There won’t be any marriage

If you can’t afford a carriage.

I won’t look sweet

Upon the seat

Of a bicycle built for two.


Heh. Read it really carefully. What’s this song about, and what’s going on? What happens in it? Don’t overthink it. I find, when teaching people to close read, they think there’s some kind of secret, super-hard trick answer to questions like this, when really, all I want is the obvious, basic stuff. Got an idea of what the song’s about? Click and drag over the following text for an overview, to check your answer: Henry proposes marriage to to Daisy, who rejects him. 

On the same page now, regarding the text? Good. Now, the interesting thing is, this isn’t the original version of the song at all. Turns out, the original version is this one, and it was written in 1892. Here’s a more listenable recording, from not much later. The complete soppiness of the original song drew parody second-verse replies almost instantly, and one of these became the version I know. I learned it from my mom, who learned it from her parents, who learned it from their parents, who learned it from their parents. Whoa. That brings us to official Interesting Point #1 – songs can be transmitted from generation to generation for over a century. It clearly mutated a bit along the way too. Fascinating.

So, bicycle built for two, huh? Bring on Interesting Point #2 – There was a full-on bicycle fad, at the end of the 19th Century. Daisy Bell was written to cash in on it while these newfangled velocipedes were all the rage. Tandem bicycles were also popular, with (according to pictures) lots of variants.

You’ve seen bicycles built for two, but how about three?

Old picture of three women on a bike in matching skirt uniforms. I guess this was a sport...

Three people on a bike.


Old timey picture of four gentleman athletes on a bicycle built for four.

Four on a bike. These seem to have come from the same album, so I’m guessing there were competitive sports for entire teams of people on tandem bicycles.

A legendary five-bike?

Five dapper gents on a five-bike.

My favorite thing about this picture is that enough time has passed that (in 2018) the haircuts are all back in fashion. Give these gents some skinny jeans and a plaid shirt and a smartphone, and you wouldn’t even look at them if you passed them on the street.

Anyway, bicycle craze over, the other Interesting Point about Daisy Bell is #3 this is the song that computers sing. If you know this song at all, it’s probably from 2001: A Space Odyssey and it was HAL 9000. Chances are really good that if you ask your voice activated digital assistant to sing their favorite song, they’ll sing this one. The reason is that the first speech synthesis program sang this as a demo on the IBM 704. Everything from the weather alert voice to Hatsune Miku and your digital assistant comes back to Daisy Bell.

That Actually Happened: Princess Ruth Ke’elikolani

What is a princess? You’re probably thinking something along the lines of this:

A pretty woman in a fancy gown lying to a frog about kissing him.

Anne Anderson’s illustration from The Frog Prince.

Fancy gowns and circlets notwithstanding, princesses usually get married off for political purposes to princes, and every major event in their lives is generally determined by other people’s decisions. Queens regnant – those who rule in their own right – are not what you’re thinking about, and not what people mean by princesses. That’s not how it generally works in Europe. We could go on yet another deep introspective pop cultural analysis of what it means that princesses are role models for young children, OR we could unpack that massive string of qualifiers I just dropped, and you probably didn’t notice, because we’re so used to thinking of European history as just plain history. Nevermind that one cannibalistic intrigue riot/coup that the Netherlands had that we already treated, or the fact that rage-throwing people out windows as a political statement was common enough in Prague (then Bohemia, now Czech Republic) that there’s a word for it: defenestration. Or the practice of castrating boys so their voices don’t change during puberty so they can sing soprano for the opera, or church choirs, or … I could go on forever about how weird European history is. No, really. I could. It does a disservice to the richness of history to just let your mind gloss over it like it’s normal. All history is weird and wonderful, and all you have to do is take a closer look. Everything deserves to be weird; everything deserves attention.

Princesses who actually do something: that’s not generally how it works in Europe.


Hawai‘i: Structure of Power

Let’s put the ‘ back in Hawai’i, first. What is a ‘ anyway? It’s a glottal stop. The little pause added to make space between d’s in “good dog” – “good’dog.” Watch this video, and listen to some Hawai’ian language, to get a feel for how it all goes together. Back with me? Good. We’re going to be using that glottal stop something fierce. The first time I use a term, it will be in bold, but I’m not going to put all non-English terms in italics, because this would be almost impossible to read.

Welcome to Hawai’i before the takeover by the United States. The Hawai’ian ruling class are the ali’i (not to be confused with the ‘a’ali’i which is a plant – that’s why spelling is important). This class derives its power from their ancestors, reaching back to the gods. High ali’i, or ali’i nui, ruled entire islands in the archipelago, and bestowed land use rights on ali’i below them, who in turn had the right to give land use rights to the people who would work the land. This authority and power ultimately passed on from the gods themselves is called mana. Depending on family ties, ritual correctness (observing kapu – ritual restrictions), political power, and social prestige, different people had more or less mana.

(I’m sure I’ve said it before, but I like history because it’s like looking under the hood of a car, and seeing how it works. Sure, it’s all functioning automobiles, but what’s going on inside could be wildly different. Some civilizations are like four-stroke engines, some the rotary engine, and some are like electric induction motors – common in household appliaces, but also in electric cars. Completely different mechanics might be happening, and that’s exciting and cool!)

Anyway, Princess Ruth Ke’elikolani lived in a time when the Kingdom of Hawai’i was in crisis. Just years from being overthrown by (mostly) fruit magnates and a pro-US navy cabal and handed over to the United States, the court and ruling Kamehameha family were under tremendous pressure to conform to European norms as to what a monarchy looked like, and how royals acted. The Hawai’ian royal house pursued a policy of assimilation – to try to win respect of the great world powers by looking and acting as much like European royalty as possible, in the hope that despite being not as strong militarily, they would still be respected as kings and queens that they were.

World History Spoiler Alert: ultimately, this effort was doomed because of racism, pineapples, and Pearl Harbor. Racism, pineapples, and Pearl Harbor are all connected, because of imperialism as an economic and social structure. What do the great powers want? Sw33t pineapple fr00t. How will they secure it? Navy depot at Pearl Harbor. Justification for overthrowing the Kingdom of Hawai’i to get it and cash in? Racism.

Pineapple field, with pineapples, in O'ahu.

By Nandaro [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Behold! Pineapple, toppler of nations. The Kingdom of Hawai’i wasn’t the first, or the last, government to be taken out on account of the fruit cartel lobby, and their insatiable bloodlust for sw33t l33t fr00t l00t. There’s a reason vicious dictatorships that have the window dressing of democracy with none of the actual government mechanics of it are known as repúblicas bananeras. Why, on this glorious blue Earth, there’s a clothing brand named after this phenomenon, I have no idea.

Anyway anyway, concerning political authority and mana, being a princess as an ali’i isn’t just a matter of being a daughter of a king or something. (Being a princess if you’re a member of European royalty generally is a matter of being a daughter of a king. Unless you’re legitimized or something later, which is another thing I want to treat on this blog, because it’s delightfully complicated. And, after all that, you won’t be a princess, technically. Looking at you, Marie Anne de Bourbon.) Princess Ruth Ke’elikolani’s mother was High Chieftess Keoua-wahine, and two other powerful ali’i claimed her as their daughter, which means that she had two well-connected fathers, as well. As such a po’olua ali’i, she was set up for a position of great status and power in the Kingdom. Then, as part of the Kamehameha family’s attempts to remake the government along a European model, the Constitution of 1840 effectively barred her path from the pinnacle of power by making her birth a liability rather than an asset. This in no way stopped her from being Governor of Hawai’i, though. While the rest of the royals tried their hardest to erase their culture and become as European as possible, Princess Ruth Ke’elikolai Wasn’t Having It. At All.

Princess Ke'elikolani Not Having It at a photography session.

Magnificently Not Having It. About role models: make having just 1/10th of this self-assurance and dignity a life goal. Of course, she comes by it naturally, but still.

She built several huge palaces on her lands (which were most of the Big Island, after all) in the latest architectural fashions. Check out her last, and fanciest palace, Keoua Hale, finished right before her death, in 1883.

An incredibly fancy, Late Victorian style tropical palace.

This palace is actually bigger than the official royal palace of the Kamehameha family, too… just sayin’.

BUT, she also had a traditional grass palace built, too, as a statement of her support and patronage of Hawai’ian culture.

A high-roofed grass house, with glazed windows.

The Palace of Not Having It. You can even see one of her other palaces, in the background.

She also supported traditional culture and arts, like the Hawai’ian language, poetry and verse, chanting, lei making, religion, and hula dancing. The art of hula – under pressure from missionaries and having lost wealthy noble patrons to their tactic of assimilation – nearly died out. Let me say that again: 150 years ago, the world almost lost hula dancing. Princess Ruth Ke’elikolani commissioned performances, and supported traditional dance, and effectively saved hula for a revival under King David Kalakaua. No Princess Ke’elikolani, ultimately no Merrie Monarch Festival.


Not Generally How it Works in Europe…

While the United States of America was coveting the heck out of Pearl Harbor, and fruit merchants were plotting to overthrow the Hawai’ian government, women (especially married ones) in the United States, and much of the European-derived cultures worldwide were under coverture. This legal status for women meant that they couldn’t bring suit, they couldn’t own property independently of a man, except in some very specific corner cases, and they didn’t even have rights to their own children. In short, women were not legal entities on their own at all, much less Governors of Hawai’i. Oh, and don’t dare think of just not marrying, because women couldn’t inherit property either, and were barred from most jobs – at least most jobs that made actual money. That’s why the stakes are so high for the Bennett girls in Pride and Prejudice – if they don’t marry, they lose everything.

One way to think of it is this: Princess Ruth Ke’elikolani was a (massive) property owner in her own right, and a political force to be reckoned with. She was also married. When did married women in Kentucky gain the right to own and control their property – you know, actually have property? Go on. Guess.






Yowch. No, really. Kentucky finally passed a Married Women’s Property Act in 1894. Eleven years after Princess Ruth Ke’elikolani – Governor of Hawai’i, wealthy landowner, patron of traditional culture – died. That’s just one way that this long, twisted tale of social power structures, greedy fr00t magnates, hula, and the power of force of personality casts its shadow on your life, right now. Everything is interesting, everything is connected.

Vocabulary Words

Why brush up on your vocabulary? Because it’s awesome, that’s why. As an exercise, you can also try to write a story using ALL of the vocab words, no matter how random.

Autogyro – An aircraft that gets its lift from autorotation (what happens when a helicopter loses power to the main rotor) of a large, unpowered rotor, rather than fixed wings. It gets thrust from a propeller in front (or behind). Hilarity ensues.

Blinkered – Blinkers are eyewear for horses that blocks the creature’s incredibly broad peripheral vision (horses can see almost 360 degrees around them, except directly behind their butt, and right in front of their face), making sure the horse can focus only on things in front of them. To be blinkered is to be blind to anything else but what you’re focused on, as if you were wearing metaphorical blinkers. The black cups behind the eye of this horse’s green hood are blinkers.

A horse wearing a green hood with black blinkers behind the eyes.

By nakashi from Chofu, Tokyo, JAPAN (P6053439) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Brazen – Incredibly bold. OR Literally made of brass. Whichever. The famous Benin Plaques (infamously looted from Benin) are made of cast brass. The palace roof beams were capped with these brazen relief panels.

Bunting – Another one with multiple meanings, none of which are remotely related! The act of hitting a bunt in baseball, where you intentionally hit the ball very short into the infield. OR Cloth streamer-like decorations for a parade or party. OR Certain species of small songbird. OR That “friendly headbutt” thing cats do.

Dewlap – Dangly skin under the neck. Anoles are lizards famous for their large dewlaps. This bull at a fair has a magnificent dewlap:

zebu bull at a mexican fair. With bouncy castle in the background. he's got a saddle on.

By A01333649 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Ire – rage, wrath. Very much angryness. Flip all the tables.

Orthodox – literally “correct practice” – the conventional, accepted way to do things.

Rancid – Fat that has gone bad from exposure to oxygen has gone rancid. Rancid bacon smells gross. Don’t cook with it.

Scurvy – A disease caused by a lack of Vitamin C in the diet. That’s why you eat your fruits and veggies! Especially common with sailors, before people figured this out completely, because they’d be away for months at a time, and fruit and veggies wouldn’t keep, but ship’s biscuits (hardtack) and salted meat would.

Serial – Something that occurs more than once on different occasions. The reason Charles Dickens’ books are so long is that they were published serially, in chapters.


Everything in a Sentence:

An orthodox investigation – focused on mechanical causes and pilot error – would never have turned up the real cause of fatalities after the autogyro crash in the remote Canadian wilderness. Blinkered as they were by a focus on more common causes, the team did not accept the brazen insistence of the medical examiner that, although they had survived the crash relatively unharmed, the crew had died of scurvy, after the emergency beacon had failed to activate and all they were left to eat was a tin of rancid cashews.

The head of the investigation team looked out on the forest once the site was accessible in the Spring. Buntings flitted in the splintered trees. His jowly dewlap shook with ire – how many of these serial tragedies must occur before the emergency beacons were improved to survive crash forces, or flight crews required to carry lemonade concentrate? The accident report would be scathing, and take the industry to task for their negligence of health and safety.

That Actually Happened – John Adams and Benjamin Franklin Slumber Party

It’s kind of adorable. (And a nice contrast to some of the grisly things that have been featured in this series so far.) The nutshell version is that one time, in the middle of a diplomatic mission to talk to Lord Howe during the Revolutionary War, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams ended up sharing a tiny bed in a tiny room in a tiny inn together, and argued about whether night air makes you sick. Of course this ends with a massive scientific lecture by Benjamin Franklin while John Adams falls asleep from sheer boredom. We know this actually happened, because John Adams kept a diary. Read the entry here. It’s an absolute treasure trove of historical details that might otherwise be skipped over. I bet you didn’t even know that there was this (failed, obviously) attempt to broker peace in the middle of the Revolution. I’ll go over some choice passages:

Monday September 9, 1776.
Resolved, that in all Continental Commissions, and other Instruments where heretofore the Words, “United Colonies,” have been used, the Stile be altered for the future to the United States.
Dang, guys, this is when they named the United States. It takes them a few months to get to it, actually, from the Declaration of Independence in July. There’s a definite sense that this new country and government thing is literally being made up as they go along.

On this day, Mr. Franklin, Mr. Edward Rutledge and Mr. John Adams proceeded on their Journey to Lord Howe on Staten Island, the two former in Chairs and the last on Horseback; the first night We lodged at an Inn, in New Brunswick.
By “Chairs” he means sedan chairs like this one:

Lady in a sedan chair, with two porters lifting the chair.

This is a much later sedan chair, and it’s from Turkey, but litters just like this one were very popular forms of transportation in the 1700s. When it’s set on the ground on its feet, the passenger gets in and out through the door in front. It was easier to get through narrow streets in an urban environment, and it was more comfortable if you didn’t want to be jostled around in a carriage, or didn’t feel well enough to ride a horse or walk.

Since John Adams is on a horse, and the other two are in sedan chairs, this gives us even more information. They’re traveling far enough that you would ride rather than walk, and obviously more than one day’s journey away, if they had to stay in an inn. John Adams is feeling fine, because he’s riding a horse. Maybe since they’re in sedan chairs, Benjamin Franklin and Edward Rutledge are both unwell, and indeed, Benjamin Franklin was known to have gout in addition to the fact that he was about seventy at the time. (Interesting aside about sedan chairs: although the sedan chair is almost extinct in the United States, this is not the case in other places, for example some versions of traditional Chinese weddings practically require one, leading to wedding sedan chair rental companies.) We can ALSO infer that there’s more than just these three people on this diplomatic mission, since somebody else has to carry the sedan chairs, at least.

On the Road and at all the public Houses, We saw such Numbers of Officers and Soldiers, straggling and loytering, as gave me at least, but a poor Opinion of the Discipline of our forces and excited as much indignation as anxiety.
So, the Continental Army is in horrible shape, in terms of actually staying an army. Yikes.

The Taverns were so full We could with difficulty obtain Entertainment. At Brunswick, but one bed could be procured for Dr. Franklin and me, in a Chamber little larger than the bed, without a Chimney and with only one small Window.
Not even a fireplace. I hope the bedcover was warm, at least.

Portrait of a frowzy looking John Adams.

John Adams. I wanted to go with lesser-known images for this one. You already know these people from the (idealized) portraits on the money.

The Window was open, and I, who was an invalid and afraid of the Air in the night blowing upon me, shut it close. Oh! says Franklin dont shut the Window. We shall be suffocated. I answered I was afraid of the Evening Air.
Huh. So, Adams isn’t feeling so good, either. This is one thing you learn when you get into history in depth: everybody was sick all the time, and health was an absolute obsession. This fear of the “Evening Air” is about the Miasma Theory of disease, which was a medical belief that sickness was caused by bad air, especially air at night. (We have a fossil of this in the name for the disease malaria – mal aire, bad air.) Note that neither Adams nor Franklin feel the need to explain any of this or point out that bad air makes you sick, and that the ensuing epic lecture is about what kind of bad air makes you sick, since everybody is certain that it’s true. Bacteria and viruses haven’t been discovered yet.

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin, in 1777.

Benjamin Franklin just one year after the events of the entry, in 1777.

Dr. Franklin replied, the Air within this Chamber will soon be, and indeed is now worse than that without Doors: come! open the Window and come to bed, and I will convince you: I believe you are not acquainted with my Theory of Colds. Opening the Window and leaping into Bed, I said I had read his Letters to Dr. Cooper in which he had advanced, that Nobody ever got cold by going into a cold Church, or any other cold Air: but the Theory was so little consistent with my experience, that I thought it a Paradox: However I had so much curiosity to hear his reasons, that I would run the risque of a cold. The Doctor then began an harrangue, upon Air and cold and Respiration and Perspiration, with which I was so much amused that I soon fell asleep, and left him and his Philosophy together: but I believe they were equally sound and insensible, within a few minutes after me, for the last Words I heard were pronounced as if he was more than half asleep….
Awwwwww. That’s downright adorable. As you can tell, two centuries ago in the just-barely-a-thing-that-day United States, snuggly sleeping arrangements between adults were commonplace, especially if you’re squished into a small room with one bed and a super-enthusiastic scientist. Franklin getting cranked up about Night Air is also a reminder that he was rockstar-famous before the revolution due to his experiments with electricity and involvement in the scientific community. Franklin also wrote an academic essay about farting.

Figures for the patent for the Franklin Stove.

“Bad Air” aside, you do have to know a thing or two about ventilation to improve the wood burning stove. Above: figures for the patent for the Franklin Stove.

It’s worth it to read the whole diary entry, which features more discussion of Evening Air and the common cold, as well as an incredibly polite hostage situation:
There were a few Circumstances which appear neither in the Journals of Congress nor in my Letters, which may be thought by some worth preserving. Lord How had sent over an Officer as an Hostage for our Security. I said to Dr. Franklin, it would be childish in Us to depend upon such a Pledge and insisted on taking him over with Us, and keeping our Surety on the same side of the Water with Us. My Colleagues exulted in the Proposition and agreed to it instantly. We told the Officer, if he held himself under our direction he must go back with Us. He bowed Assent, and We all embarked in his Lordships Barge. As We approached the Shore his Lordship, observing Us, came down to the Waters Edge to receive Us, and looking at the Officer, he said, Gentlemen, you make me a very high Compliment, and you may depend upon it, I will consider it as the most sacred of Things. 
This is what it looks like when all sides of a dispute completely agree on what the rules of conflict are (even a full-on war). No misunderstandings, no messy misinterpretations (NSA classic example linkage!). Adams, Franklin, and Rutledge didn’t bring the hostage along with them because they thought that they were safe, instead, they thought that Howe might be ruthless enough to not honor the agreement anyway (“it would be childish in Us to depend on such a Pledge”), and that they had a chance to make a very generous gesture of trusting Howe without actually placing trust in him by bringing the hostage back to him rather than leaving the hostage at camp. It was also really gutsy to go through with the meeting anyway. But, Howe saw that them bringing the hostage back was very generous decision, and decided to honor it by not arresting them after the conference failed. (“Gentlemen, you make me a very high Compliment, and you may depend upon it“)  It all looks very gracious on the surface, but by everyone making such a show of this graciousness and generosity and honor, it safeguards norms of behavior that make it possible to get business and diplomacy done.

That’s what etiquette does, actually. The purpose of etiquette is to give people a common framework around which to structure their interactions so that they can be sure that their own relationships and interests are protected, and they know exactly where they stand with each other.

Amazing Mules

Mules are pretty amazing. In this very special LFPL Teen Blog post, we’ll explore key points of history and biology – as well as thorny ethical issues – all at the same time through the lens of these famous hybrid equines. (Language warning? Or something. It’s all clean in context, but we do need to talk extensively about donkeys, especially jacks.)

The Definition of a Species

A species is all of the living things that can make babies together, whose babies can also make babies without any problems like diminished fertility. That’s it. Easy, actually. That’s why a gray wolf and a toy poodle are members of the same species, even though they look so different. Wolfdogs are a thing, and absolutely can go on to have lots of puppies. Like so:

wolfdog with puppies.

By Venpia (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Chinstrap Penguins (for example) and cabbages are not members of the same species, because they can’t make babies. That’s also why Chinstrap penguins are not the same species as Little Blue Penguins. Almost always, two species can’t interbreed at all, let alone produce living offspring. But sometimes, two species are close enough that they can produce healthy babies together, but those babies have trouble reproducing.

This brings us to equines (the horse family) and mules.


Introducing Mules

There are lots of equine hybrids, actually. You may have heard of mules, hinnies, and even zorses, but one of my favorite equine hybrids is the otherwise fairly rare and obscure zebroid stallion zebra X jenny donkey hybrid, called either a zedonk, a zebronky, a zonkey, or a zebrass.

a zebrass in tall grass. zebra-like leg stripes, upright mane, roundish ears, but a shaggy gray body coat.

By Whitney Carpenter. [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

Majestic! Stripes, upright mane, solid gray body coat, and all of the untamed aggression and cantankerousness of a zebra with a donkey’s thoughtful stubbornness, which is exactly why they’re fairly rare. There’s no demand for this animal, except as a curiosity. It certainly isn’t going to carry you or your luggage.

Mules, though, were wildly popular, and continue to be the most commonly bred equine hybrid. They’re reliable to breed, and generally have the best traits of both horses and donkeys. Horses are fast, but tend to panic. Donkeys are strong and sensible, but are usually smaller than horses. A mule (if you choose the parents wisely) can be in the size range of a horse, strong, fast, and sensible. A mule is the offspring of a male donkey, and a female horse. To make all this easier to understand without too much typing, here’s some basic terms!


Baby horse – foal

Immature female horse – filly

Immature male horse – colt

Mature female horse – mare

Castrated male horse – gelding

Mature male horse – stallion/horse (We call all horses horses, even though technically it’s just the stallions that are horse horses. Just like we call all cows cows, even though it refers to specifically female cows, which is kind of redundant. Similarly to dogs: only male dogs are dog dogs. I’ll probably do a whole post on the English language and all our weird animal terms. Also, different breeds take different amounts of time to grow up, so the exact years in which a horse is a filly vs a mare or colt vs stallion can change, depending on the breed. Just like humans take different amounts of time to hit puberty or something. Some breeds are just late bloomers, or early ones, depending.)


Donkeys / Asses:

Baby donkey – foal

Female donkey – jennet / jenny

Male donkey – jack

Castrated male donkey – john / gelding


To get a mule, breed a mare to a jack. That’s much easier to say.



Baby mule – foal

Female mule – molly

Intact male mule (super rare – why put up with behavior issues if they’re sterile anyway?) – horse mule

Castrated male mule – john mule


The trick with mules is that most jacks are tiny, since most donkeys are also tiny. This is about average size for a regular donkey:

A woman walking next to a donkey, which stands maybe chest high at the shoulder.

By Rod Waddington from Kergunyah, Australia (Oromo Woman, Ethiopia) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

What if you want a big strong mule? There are also breeds of donkey that exist just for making mules with specific traits, like size, such as American Mammoth Jackstock (and, in the case of the Poitou Mule, a specialized breed of horse, too.) This is where stuff gets WEIRD.


The Famous Poitou Mule

In France over the 18th and 19th Centuries, mules were so important to agriculture that an entire breed of horse AND an entire breed of donkey were developed purely so that farmers could get large, strong mules to pull their farm equipment.

This is a Poitou Horse, or a Poitevin Mulassier (Poitou Mule-maker):

A poitou horse stallion.

By Poitou (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

This one’s even a horse horse. A stallion. His literal only reason to exist is to look pretty at horse shows and produce mares who will produce mules. Historically, anything else a Poitou Horse could do (especially a horse horse), like pull carts or even provide meat, was just a nice bonus. This animal is effectively a living gene bank.

There’s also the Poitou Donkey, a giant-sized breed with a long shaggy coat. This is a jennet and her foal at a show:

A shaggy mother poitou donkey, and her baby in a parking lot at a show.

The foal is nearly as big as an adult regular-size donkey.

Again, since the jacks are the ones that people use to make mules, jennet Poitou donkeys are also living gene banks, like stallion Poitou horses.

So, that’s two breeds (each from a different species) of equine, each selected over time just for making mules. When you do breed a Poitou donkey jack to a Poitou horse mare, you get a gorgeous, versatile Poitou Mule:

a Poitou mule wearing a pack harness at a show.

By Eponimm (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

They’re beautiful, really. You can ride them:

A Poitou mule under saddle at a show.

By Eponimm (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

You can drive them:

A pair of Poitou mules pulling a cart.

By Eponimm (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

They’re very photogenic:

Closeup of the face of a Poitou Mule.

By Eponimm (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Tragically, though, farmers have moved on to tractors, rather than mules. Now, heavy breeds of horse and donkey are generally much less popular than they were in the past, and mules along with them. The Poitou mule exemplifies this trend: as breeders strive to redefine what their donkeys and horses can do, all three breeds – the Poitou Mule, the Poitou Donkey, and the Poitou Horse – are very rare. All that has to happen for mules to stop existing is for people to quit breeding them: their genetic bank exists not in the population of mules, since those don’t breed, but in the population of horse and donkeys. Since DNA degrades over time, the best way to keep genes available is to keep the population that carries them going. But, even if you could straight resurrect members of extinct species Jurassic Park -style, in the end, that just sets up another pile of problems, and maybe not the kind of ethical dilemmas you might anticipate…


The Ballad of Idaho Gem / Idaho Star / Utah Pioneer

The setup: cutting-edge science, a wealthy entrepreneur who will “spare no expense” in pursuit of his passion, and a potentially lucrative payoff. This story isn’t a novel or a movie about what could happen with cloning technology. It’s about what did happen, over a decade ago, with the first batch of cloned equines.

Don Jacklin, the President of the American Mule Racing Association, wanted a way to reproduce his best racing mule. Since mules are sterile, this meant enlisting the aid of a crack team of equine reproduction scientists and veterinarians, and cloning his champion mule. Idaho Gem, Idaho Star, and Utah Pioneer were the genetically identical results of this successful quest to clone the first equine. Technically, due to being born first, Idaho Gem was the official first equine clone.

So, as clones of a champion racing mule, did the three duplicates go on to dominate the sport? Interestingly, no. Idaho Star apparently never was that into running, Utah Pioneer remains an educational exhibit entertaining schoolkids, and Idaho Gem – although good at racing – didn’t live up to Jacklin’s expectations as a champion. He eventually retrained for gymkhana.

I guess it makes sense, really, that clones of the original aren’t like the original exactly. After all, the three cloned mules are effectively identical triplets of each other, and identical siblings can be very different from each other in all sorts of ways, including personality.

Genetics literally isn’t everything, and it certainly isn’t destiny.

Image Gallery

In my quest to provide you only the best of content, I frequently raid Wikimedia Commons – the free-use image archive from which Wikipedia gets its pictures – to complete my posts. When I need a picture of something crazy, like a Javan Chevrotain, or a fancy coconut chalice, that’s where I go. The point is, I look at a LOT of images, to pick the best ones. Sometimes, I stumble across images that are so amazingly great, that I can’t forget them, even if they can’t be used for the post I’m writing. It would be a shame to let them fade into obscurity, and I just have to share some of them with you. You’re welcome. (Since I’m finding crazy images all the time, this will probably become the first of a series, too!)


A Snuggle of Honduran White Bats

Four white tent bats snuggle up under a leaf.

By Leyo (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 ch (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5/ch/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

Ectophylla alba, the Honduran White Bat, or the Honduran Tent Bat, is a species of bat that roosts, not in caves or hollow trees, but underneath large leaves, like those of banana plants. They nibble through the ribs of the leaves, to cause them to droop over in a tent, sheltering the small colony of bats from the weather. Their stark white fur also acts as camouflage, as sunlight filtering through the leaves tints the bats a matching green. This picture shows a colony of four bats all snuggled up together to sleep under their leaf tent during the day. You can even see the bite marks along either side of the leaf spine. These bats are incredibly cute. “Snuggle” should obviously be the collective noun for a group of roosting bats.


The Monowheel Driver

Smug man in a hat on a monowheel, which is a motorcycle that has only one wheel, but instead of the engine and driver sitting over the wheel, they sit INSIDE a really large single wheel.

Look at that smug expression. I think I’d be that smug too, if I had a monowheel motorcycle.

I love everything about this picture. The boots, the hat, the diesel-punk aesthetic of the technology (except this actually happened in real life). The fact that it’s a monowheel. A monowheel is like a motorized unicycle, but instead of you sitting ON the engine and wheel, you sit on the engine, INSIDE the one giant wheel. The engine ratchets you around the rail inside the wheel, and your gravity keeps the whole machine moving forward. Don’t ask what happens if the wheel gets stuck in the mud or something. I love the nonplussed bystanders, just out of focus in the background. Most of all, though, I love the smugness on the driver’s face. The “you know you want this monowheel” look in the eyes.


Cry ‘Havoc’! and Let Slip the CATS OF WAR!!

It's a painted wall scroll. Of a samurai in black armor with kitty ears on the helmet, walking a cat - who also is wearing armor, on a leash.

I’m speechless.

What. What is even happening here. This is one of the most baffling things I’ve ever seen. It’s a painted scroll of a warrior, in armor, walking a cat on a leash. Yet, if you take the time to look at the details, it only gets weirder. The cat has its own tiny suit of brigandine armor. Cats are not known for their ability to either leash train or wear clothes. The warrior’s helmet has cat ears on it. I love the kind of put-out expression, and the dainty hold on the leash. Why isn’t he wearing shoes? Who is this? Is this some sort of edgy and topical sociopolitical commentary of the mid 1600s? Or… are we to believe that war cats were a thing in the Sengoku Era? Did some warrior of that time have a cat… theme… going on? If so, who? Did Japan’s fascination with cat people start way earlier than anime would have us believe??!? So many questions. Almost no answers.

Automation Meditations

So, I’m a dorkosaurus. Raaawwrrrrrr. An enormous shock, I’m sure. I’ve been bingewatching the series Edwardian Farm, which first ran on the BBC. Of course our library has it.

Picture of the cover of Edwardian Farm, the DVD.

The show you never knew you needed to watch. It’s fascinating, and sometimes gross.

It’s a reality-TV-ish series about making historians live on an Edwardian Era farm, as in, technology, food, clothes, and everything from the first years of the 20th Century. Yikes. One thing that I find really striking though is the way this show illustrates how the massive changes to the economy wrought by mechanization and automation started earlier than we usually think. (Or at least earlier than panicky articles about the coming Skynet-style Robot War due to cute self-driving cars would have you believe. But look at it! It’s just so roly-poly and cute! Who could hate that?*)

A 3/4 photograph of the google driverless car. Designed to be cute, actually, like a little face.

PANIC! IT’S COMING FOR YOUR JOB! IT MURDERS KANGAROOS! IT RUNS ON HUMAN BLOOD! SOON THEY WILL FARM US LIKE CATTLE! By Grendelkhan (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

But first: some definitions!

Mechanization – the process of adopting machines to do work.

Automation – machines operating without a human operator.

Our age has a lot of anxiety about machines taking over. We write entire movie series about the idea. It permeates our pop-culture consciousness. But, over 100 years ago, the process of mechanization was well underway, and even automation was on the horizon. Technological forces have always shaped our economy, from the dawn of recorded history, even.

Cover of the DVD of the movie Terminator, with robo-Schwarzenegger crouching in some fog.

A vital entry in the cultural canon of techno-anxiety.

Cover of The Matrix DVD.

Seriously, I had a whole coffee-rant one morning this September, about how science fiction doesn’t get enough credit for tackling massive intellectual issues like technology. I still think the rest of the Matrix Trilogy makes more sense if (spoilers spoil! Click and drag between brackets to reveal!) [you think of Zion and the resistance and everything as yet another illusion to bottle up the troublesome humans who think they made it out. That’s why the other machines were so helpful, and how Neo can still have superpowers on the “outside” – he never made it out. Nobody ever does. Of course, this way, it’s way, WAY, more depressing. Less plot holes, though…]


Anyway, let’s return from these horrifying futures to the past, and the ways in which machines were already dominating the economy a century ago. This is how you till a field, by hand. This is with a horse and a plough. By the early 20th Century, you could plow more than one furrow at once, with a riding plow, in the same amount of time. Watch these different models of ploughs. Less time to do the work of a farm means that less people have to be involved to cultivate even more food than ever before. (More horses, though, until the tractor. Today, as you can see, there’s as many people ploughing that huge field as was needed to deal with a just a single large hitch of horses, 100 years ago. The mechanization process was there all along, and reducing human labor all along, but it’s gotten so much further these days. This is a huge factor in why people moved to cities from the countryside. Shrinking employment pool for farmers, all along.)

Another great example is knitting machines. Today, textiles with a knit pattern are made on computerized automatic knitting machines. For an example, look at your t-shirt. But hand-cranked machines made knitting tricky socks much easier, starting in the late 19th Century. Time-saving devices like this made it possible to free up more time and effort for other things, and even earn extra money on the side.

As much as we read panicked articles about automation eating jobs, machines have been supplanting, supplementing, and creating jobs for generations, at least. There are no wind farms without wind turbine repair technicians. Entire jobs have opened up that did not exist before, if you get the training and the education to do them: wind turbine repair requires about a two year professional degree and a good head for heights. If you like rock climbing, this could be a good fit.

*But maybe, that’s what they want you to think: a lot of work goes into designing cars. The creators of the project knew how nervous a self-driving car could make people, and wanted to subconsciously ease anxiety by designing it to look cute. You can’t really help it, because cuteness DOES literally hack your brain’s love circuitry. Mammal parenting hormones at their best. Oxytocin is a heck of a drug. DUN DUN DUUUNNNNN!!