All posts by Travis Gerhardt

On April 12, 1961 Russia made history by sending Yuri Gagarin into space in Vostok 1, having him orbit the Earth once, and then successfully land back on Earth. At least that was the official story at the time. In reality, he parachuted from his capsule at a height of 7 km above the Earth, successfully landing ten minutes after the capsule automatically touched down. Since most skydiving happens in the 1-1.5 km range, this jump is noteworthy in itself. Yet while this is a remarkable feat of parachuting and deception (the truth about the flight was hidden for many years), the world record is more than 4 times higher and was set eight months earlier.

In the 1950s, the United States Air Force was developing more advanced jet engines and the beginnings of the Space Race were afoot. Not wanting to lose astronauts or test pilots due to malfunctions, they sought to find a safe way for them to escape and return to Earth. This lead to the creation of Project Excelsior in 1958, lead by Captain Joseph W. Kittinger Jr. as test director. Under this project, Mr. Francis Beaupre designed a parachuting system that would first stabilize descent and then slow it, all being automatically deployed at the appropriate heights. With a general lack of funding, the tests would take place out of a balloon gondola like the one pictured above, the words “This is the highest step in the world” written on the plaque.

On November 16, 1959 Captain Kittinger ascended to just over 22 km and got ready to jump. His seat contained water bottles encased in styrofoam as a cheap way to maintain his body temperature during the ascent, but they froze on the way up and expanded, holding his instrumentation kit to the seat. It took him eleven seconds to get up and during this time he accidentally triggered the timer for the stabilization chute, before he even left the gondola. When he began to descend it deployed after 2.5 seconds after he left instead of the intended 16, accidentally wrapping the main parachute around his neck in the process. He started to spin uncontrollably and eventually lost consciousness. Unable to do anything he plummeted toward Earth and at 1.8 km his reserve shoot successfully deployed, saving Kittinger’s life.

The second jump was less than a month later on December 11, 1959. The main purpose was to work out the kinks found in the first jump, such as repositioning the water bottles and adding in safeguards to prevent another accidental start of the timer. Captain Kittinger bailed from the gondola at just under 22 km and landed without incident twelve minutes and thirty-two seconds later. This data was used to set up a third jump from more than 30 km.

The third and final jump happened on August 16, 1960 from a height of 31.3 km. It took one hour and forty-three minutes for the ascent. Once he left the gondola, he quickly fell back to Earth (footage can be seen here, set to “Dayvan Cowboy” by Boards of Canada). It took only four minutes and thirty-six seconds to plummet 26 km with only his stabilization chute deployed; it would take another nine minutes and nine seconds before he travelled the last 5.3 km with his main parachute deployed. This remains the only human space jump from more than 30 km.

Today’s Tangent: Joseph Kittinger isn’t finished setting records though. In 2005, Red Bull created Red Bull Stratos, a project designed to break Kittinger’s record from 1960 by going to 36.5 km. It wasn’t until 2008 that Kittinger joined as an advisor, and since then the test pilot, Felix Baumgartner, has made several test runs up to 29.5 km. They’re scheduled to meet their goal in the first half of October 2012.

When it comes to survival of the fittest, humans have effectively stepped out of the food chain and have the technology to dine on anything. We’re able to take down any predator and have the science to combat almost any disease, making us effectively safe from any external threat. But when it comes to trying to keep our species alive, our biggest biological threat might not come from another species, but from a battle of the sexes. There’s some evidence that men might go extinct.

Gender in humans is based on our X and Y chromosomes; women have two X chromosomes while men have one X and one Y. This Y chromosome is critical in men because it controls all the male aspects required for reproduction: the development of testicles and sperm, and it can only be given by a father to his sons. Without the Y chromosome to carry this genetic information, our species would lose its male population, and with it the ability to reproduce. Unfortunately, some scientists think that could happen due to many causes, such as high mutation rate, inefficient selection, and genetic drift.

Going back about 300 million years, the X and Y chromosomes each had the same number of genes at 1438. Today the Y chromosome has only 45 (you can see their size difference in the picture above, courtesy of Exit Mundi). If we model this as two points on a line, the Y chromosome will lose its last gene in roughly 10 million years. It could even happen faster given that the Y chromosome doesn’t always select the best and “fittest” specimen to continue. In fact, roughly 1 in 2000 men will be rendered infertile by defects in the Y chromosome. Why is this troubling? The only way for a man to get their Y chromosome is from their father, meaning that all of those men with defective Y chromosomes didn’t inherit it – they became infertile during their lifetime.

Of course, it might not be as bad as once thought. By looking at the divergence of chimpanzees and humans which occurred roughly 6 million years ago, scientists have found that the Y chromosome lost none of its genes during that time, meaning that it must have lost them before and slowed its loss to a stand still by now. Going back further to when humans and chimpanzees diverged from rhesus macaque 25 millions years ago, we find that only one gene was lost over that time. While all this means it’s not a gradual decay, it still raises the question: what happened to Y in the first place, and can it happen again?

Today’s Tangent: When it comes to Adalia bipunctata, a.k.a. the two-spotted ladybug, some populations are heavily female dominated, outnumbering males 4:1. But it isn’t because of genetic mutations: here bacteria actually kill off males when they’re in eggs. Why? Since the bacteria can only exist in the female reproductive cells (it’s too big to live in the male’s sperm), it would die in a male without being passed onto the offspring. Instead, it kills the male eggs so that the females have more food, giving them a better chance of survival and thus allowing the bacteria to infect the next generation.


As it stands today, Canada only has 5 bills being issued: $5, $10, $20, $50, and $100. In the past though there were a lot more, not only because the $1 and $2 bills were replaced with coins. But to tell this story, we have to start before Canada was even a country, back at the War of 1812.

The first money printed in Canada that were denominated in dollars were Army Bills, made to help finance the war effort during the War of 1812. The public was distrustful of paper money at the time, but when the British Government redeemed the money at its face value, the public began to trust the currency and not just precious metals. This lead to more paper money being produced by banks throughout the 1821 to confederation in 1867. Due to each bank being able to produce money, a wide variety of bills were created including $1, $2, $3, $4, $5, $10, $20, $25, $40, $50, $100, $500, and $1000.

In 1867, confederation occurred and the Dominion of Canada was created, spurring the design for one currency across the nation. The Province of Canada was the most prolific issuer of paper money before confederation, so its currency became the national currency. In 1870, the first Dominion of Canada bills were issued in 25¢ (nicknamed the shinplaster and seen above), $1, $2, $500, and $1000 denominations, with $50 and $100 notes being added in 1872. With the bulk of the currency in $1 and $2 bills, a $4 denomination was added in 1882 followed by the $5 bill in 1912. The 25¢ bill was last issued in 1923.

During this time period, individual banks still issued their own currency. The Bank Act of 1871 prohibited the issuing of anything less than $4 from these banks and raised this to $5 in 1880. This left all the lower denominations to the Dominion of Canada to print, which is why there was such demand for their $1 and $2 bills. To not be completely removed from this market, other banks started printing unusual denominations such as the $6 and $7 bills from Molsons Bank in 1871. These bills, when combined with the $5 they were already printing, would allow people to pay $2 by giving $7 and receiving $5 change (and similarly $1 with the $6 bill).

In 1934, the Bank of Canada was founded and began issuing $1, $2, $5, $10, $20, $25, $50, $100, $500, and $1000 bills in 1935. After ten years, the Bank of Canada became the only bank that could issue money, which is unchanged to this day. Unique to this first run of bills was the purple $25 in honour of King George V’s Silver Jubilee and the $500 bill (only 46 of which are still unaccounted for). Unfortunately, all of these bank notes were printed separately in both English and French and changes in legislation in 1937 required that the bills be bilingual, prompting a new series of bank notes to be printed.

From 1938 to 1979 there were two more series of notes issued, one in 1954 and the other from 1969 to 1979. These bills had the same denominations as the 1937 series but the artwork changed and old bills were taken out of circulation as they started to wear out. It wasn’t until the Birds of Canada series was issued in 1986 that the $1 bill was not updated to the new look, followed by the $1 coin being minted on June 30, 1987 and then $1 bill being withdrawn from circulation exactly two years later.

In 1996, the $2 bill was removed from circulation and replaced with the toonie, a $2 coin. It wasn’t until 2000 that the $1000 bill was retired, mainly due its use in money laundering and organized crime. This meant that when the Canadian Journey series was issued from 2001-2006 it only contained five notes: $5, $10, $20, $50, and $100. As of 2011, the Frontier Series began being issued which involved Canada’s transition from paper bills to polymer. The series is planned to finish by the end of 2013.

Today’s Tangent: Think the largest denomination in Canada is only $1000? Think again. In 2007, the Canadian Mint issued a 100 kg gold coin with a face value of $1,000,000; the world’s first million dollar coin. At 99999 pure gold, it’s worth more than five million dollars and so far five investors have bought one.

I picked up The Stars, Like Dust by Isaac Asimov on a whim, as it was one of the few Asimov books the library had at the moment and I needed something to read. I didn’t realize it was an adventure/mystery set in space, nor that it was written as well as it was. The mystery had multiple layers (as all good tales must) and had a very intriguing plot along the way. It wasn’t until I researched the book afterwards that I realized it was the earliest book in the Galactic Empire trilogy and the second one written (which means I have two more books to read).

I’d recommend trying to solve the mystery as you’re reading because it doesn’t involve any complex science and it’s well thought out enough that it’s a worthy challenge. The characters all have different motives, there’s more than just one mystery at work, and it all comes together beautifully by the end. Overall, I’d give it a 9 out of 10, earning high marks in plot, characters, world building, and mystery but losing a little bit from how the characters interacted and a slightly off-beat end (I’ll cover more of that later). It left me wanting more, so I’m eagerly diving into the rest of the trilogy.

General Information:

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I loved how the first chapter was written, as it quickly grabbed my attention, gave me a small but deadly mystery, only to launch into a cosmic battle full of assassination and a plan to overthrow galactic rule. Biron is saved by Jonti, told of the imminent danger, and sent away for safety. Throughout all of this we get pieces of how there’s another layer to what’s going on, something about a way to escape the tyrannical rein of the (gasp) Tyranni, and that Jonti is planning something big though his motives are unclear. Further, we find out that a member of the Tyranni, Simok Aratap, is aware of most of what’s going on which adds an element of danger. Interestingly, Biron makes it through his trip unscathed and follows Jonti’s plan when he reaches Rhodia, where we quickly learn about the three main players on the planet and each of their plans.

These first 80 pages are all so tied up in different people, assassination attempts, multiple plans, and a huge conspiracy that I sympathized with Biron as I was tossed into the middle of it just like him. Despite this, he still has his wits about him and quickly sees why he was moved on the ship, and that there’s something important about his watch. We’re given a lot to hear and play with, all delivered at a quick pace and while there isn’t as much plot development as I’d like, we do get a sense of how controlled everything is (though by Jonti or Aratap we don’t know). Then on reaching Rhodia, three more people enter the fray, all with their own plans, thus complicating the whole endeavour. Who killed the Rancher of Widemos? Who is really controlling the situation? What was Biron looking for? And most of all, what’s the next move?

The entirety of this first third is well delivered, though I did feel a little overwhelmed at this point. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it, but I quickly lost sight of all the different things going on and how they fit together, mainly because I was so eager to read more. I’d highly suggest pausing for a moment and reflecting on everything you’ve discovered so far because this mystery can withstand scrutiny. Every time something seems a little off, there is a reason for it and it will be answered in this book, so take your time. We’re already a third done, and though we have yet to solve any of the mysteries, answers will start coming soon.

Midpoint Discussion:

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The titles of all of these chapters are beautifully tongue-in-cheek. Each time you think the story will go one way, the title says otherwise without giving too much away, and you’re left to enjoy how “An Overlord’s Trousers” are securely fastened. Then there’s the matter of how Gilbert has been listening in on the Tyranni, how Aratap seems to be in control, and how Jonti still sounds like he has most everything planned. Having the three groups working against each other, yet wondering if they are or not, is thrilling. Then we’re told of a resistance planet that no one knows about, and things get really crazy.

It’s at this point we hit the halfway mark of the book and it starts to fall back in on itself. We see how Biron’s father starts fits into the resistance, meet a powerful leader of a planet who turns out to be Jonti in disguise, and then hear about Rizzett who is the only named assistant to Jonti. And then it starts to unravel, as so much snaps apart and falls into place. It was only here after Biron’s revelation about Jonti that I really started to savour the story. The rebellion world was at hand and everyone should go so that the meeting would be a success. Finally, we get the murder of the Rancher of Widemos tossed at Artemisia’s feet and we’re left with a lot of drama and a new plot line to follow into the final third.

Final Thoughts:

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And what a conclusion it is! Not only are we given the answer to a mystery we didn’t know existed, but we learn just how much the Autarch had planned and that Biron had again outsmarted everyone else. At least for a time. Quickly they get surrounded on the planet and Aratap comes out victorious, revealing how Gilbert is really delusional for the most part and yet still knows about the rebellion world that no one has yet found. With one planet left, he even sabotages everything to protect the world, only to be stopped by Biron. It’s here again that you should pause and try to piece everything together before reading on, for there’s another brilliant reveal coming up.

With that mystery solved, we turn to the paper Biron was searching for, and here I will announce the final twist: it’s the US Constitution. In essence, the Tyranni can be overthrown by a properly organized democracy, and the US as envisioned by its founders is the perfect way to doing so. There’s some truth in that as the settlers escaped the rule of the monarchy, but the Constitution served as a way to unite the states after the war had been fought, not a call to arms to overthrow the empire that held them.

Despite my feelings about the ending, I’m still very excited about the next book in the series as I thoroughly enjoyed this one. Time to exit the nebula; onto the rebellion world!

In 1976, Harry McGurk and his research assistant John MacDonald were researching how infants perceive speech as they develop. Some of their experiments involved separating visual and auditory stimuli and seeing how the children learned, such as playing the video of a mother speaking in one area and having the audio play in another. In this same vein they took two phonemes, “ba” and “ga”, and then merged the audio of “ba” with the video of “ga”. And just like a mad science experiment gone wrong, they created a third sound: “da”.

At first McGurk and MacDonald thought there was some audio error at play or technical mixup, but further testing confirmed that they discovered something new. Listening to the audio alone lead the person to hear “ba”, but watching the video with the wrong audio made them hear “da”. This phenomenon is called the McGurk Effect and you can see and hear it in this BBC2 video, pictured above. To really appreciate the effect though, watch this video and then replay it with your eyes closed.

What’s going on? In order to perceive speech, our minds merge both auditory and visual information, overlaying them in an effort to decipher words. When “ba” and “ga” are merged we hear the middle sound of “da”, or as in the BBC2 video, “ba” and “va” become “fa”. Interestingly, people in Japan experience a weaker McGurk Effect than English speakers because the former don’t look at each other as often during conversation. Similarly, people who watch dubbed movies are less susceptible to the McGurk Effect because they’ve trained their brains to dissociate audio and video speech processing. This indicates that the effect is learned instead of something we’re born with.

Today’s Tangent: The McGurk Effect is something that can’t be easily overcome; even those who have researched it for years and understand how it works are still affected by it. In contrast, many optical illusions can be easily flipped between by knowing that there are two options, such as Ruben’s Vase (a vase with two faces surrounding it). More interesting is the Spinning Dancer as the silhouette is seen spinning clockwise twice as often as counter-clockwise, though the animation never changes. The reason? There’s a slight vertical angle and more people imagine looking down at the dancer instead of looking up. In fact, the original animation was taken at a slightly downward angle, making clockwise the true rotation.

Back in ’69, Neil Armstrong and the crew of Apollo 11 landed on the Moon to the applause of the world and the relief of NASA. The race to the Moon had lasted nearly a decade and was an non-violent outpouring for all the aggression and tension between the USA and the USSR. Many people lost their lives in accidents on both sides, and the total cost for the two nations was between 27 and 33 billion dollars (roughly 132 to 161 billion in 2012 dollars). Despite the race lasting as long as it did and the huge number of people involved, many people believe the entire spectacle was a hoax. While the Moon landing did happen, that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a conspiracy: it lasted less than a week and was perpetrated by the USSR.

First a little history: the year is 1961 and the USSR has successfully launched Sputnik in 1957 and launched Yuri Gagarin into space on April 12th of this year. The space race, insofar as it is a race to space, has been won and John F. Kennedy doesn’t want to admit defeat. Instead, he consults with NASA Administrator James Webb and other officials and learns that the US might be able to beat the USSR to the Moon, though it will take about a decade to do so. He announces this intention to Congress on May 25th of the same year, before telling the world that the USA chooses to go to the Moon in his famous speech more than a year later.

To make the Moon mission a reality, NASA reveals the Gemini program which would serve as an intermediary step before the Apollo missions. The USSR has ambitious plans to go to Mars by 1970, but their technology is behind their reach. With the Gemini announcement, they quickly turn to achieving as many firsts in space as they can while simultaneously trying to design a spacecraft that could go to the Moon, all with 20%-44% of NASA’s budget. As recounted on Wikipedia, they cut corners to reach goals such as the first multi-person spacecraft and shirt-sleeve flight, both of which were accomplished on the same flight by not giving the cosmonauts spacesuits and thus posing a significant risk to them if something went wrong. Their other tactic was achieving relatively easy goals like the first woman and civilian in space, a feat that was only done for the propaganda value.

Jumping ahead to 1968, the space race was tight with the USA slightly ahead. The USA was on track to land on the Moon before the decade was out while the USSR had a setback in its heavy lifting rocket, meaning that they could launch something into the Moon’s orbit, but nothing heavy enough to land on the Moon and take off again. Knowing that the US was planning on launching a manned mission to orbit the Moon in January 1969, and that they would only win the race if the USA faltered, the USSR came up with a plan.

On September 15, 1968, the USSR launched Zond 5 which took off, communicated back to the ground, traveled to the Moon over three days, orbited it on the 18th, and successfully splashed down on September 22nd with all inhabitants successfully recovered. This greatly panicked everyone at NASA because they weren’t ready for such a flight for at least three months, putting the USSR squarely in the lead in the space race. However, they slowly realized something was amiss when they noticed that transmissions between the spacecraft and the ground only happened on the way to the Moon and not on the return voyage. It turned out that the flight was automated and the primary creatures aboard the ship were two Russian tortoises pictured above.

In the end, the USSR was unable to get their rocket to work, Apollo 8 successfully orbited the Moon on December 24, 1968 with a crew of three, and the USA was the first nation to land on the Moon on July 20, 1969.

Today’s Tangent: What’s the difference between a turtle and a tortoise? They both have a similar evolutionary history, but tortoises live on the land and turtles live in the water. Turtles have webbed feet and long claws which they use for swimming and digging out holes to lay eggs, while tortoises have shorter and sturdier legs. The other main difference is their shells, with turtles have light-weight and flatter shells while tortoises have rounded and heavier shells, often with bumps on top.

Imagine this for a teaser for CSI: The camera opens on a lake with a single party boat on the warm, summer waters. The fifty people on board are having a good time, drinks are being poured, and then a fight breaks out. Everyone gathers around as two guys trade blows while a girl begs them to stop. Suddenly, both the guys start gasping for air, then everyone else starts feeling lightheaded. Before too long, all the party-goers have suffocated. Slowly, the camera zooms out to show how isolated the boat is, the only one on the lake, and then the theme song kicks in.

Think it’s just TV? Think again. On August 21, 1986, approximately 1700 people died in a similar manner.

Shown above via Wikipedia, Lake Nyos is a crater lake in Cameroon, Central Africa. It’s located on the flank of an inactive volcano and below it lies a pocket of magma. This magma continuously leaks carbon dioxide that then dissolves in the lake, creating carbonic acid. The lake serves as a reservoir for the carbon dioxide and also mediates the carbon dioxide’s release, letting it out in a fairly even stream. On that fateful night in 1986, probably because of a landslide, that stream became a torrent.

A CO2 bubble formed in the south of the lake, rising rapidly from the bottom to the top before being expelled at 100 km per hour. The ensuing turbulence around the burst would have destabilized the rest of the lake, thereby releasing most of the stored gas. This runaway reaction released around 1 cubic kilometre of carbon dioxide (1 trillion litres or four hundred thousand Olympic swimming pools), and as CO2 is heavier than air, it flowed across the land and settled in nearby valleys. Unfortunately, many of these valleys contained villages.

How did people react? The rapid escape of CO2 probably started around 9:30 at night, so most people were asleep at the time and died without trauma. For those that were awake, they would have heard something like thunder in the distance when the landslide occurred, and then very little else. Carbon dioxide is colourless and odourless, though other gases released by the magma, such as hydrogen sulfide (the smell of rotten eggs) are not. This means they probably smelt the hydrogen sulfide as their breathing became worse and they gasped for air. One survivor, Joseph Nkwain recounts his experience:

I could not speak. I became unconscious. I could not open my mouth because then I smelled something terrible . . . I heard my daughter snoring in a terrible way, very abnormal . . . When crossing to my daughter’s bed . . . I collapsed and fell. I was there till nine o’clock in the (Friday) morning . . . until a friend of mine came and knocked at my door . . . I was surprised to see that my trousers were red, had some stains like honey. I saw some . . . starchy mess on my body. My arms had some wounds . . . I didn’t really know how I got these wounds . . .I opened the door . . . I wanted to speak, my breath would not come out . . . My daughter was already dead . . . I went into my daughter’s bed, thinking that she was still sleeping. I slept till it was 4:30 p.m. in the afternoon . . . on Friday. (Then) I managed to go over to my neighbors’ houses. They were all dead . . . I decided to leave . . . . (because) most of my family was in Wum . . . I got my motorcycle . . . A friend whose father had died left with me (for) Wum . . . As I rode . . . through Nyos I didn’t see any sign of any living thing . . . (When I got to Wum), I was unable to walk, even to talk . . . my body was completely weak.

To stop anything like this from happening again, a floating platform has been placed in the lake with a pipe extending downwards. The platform then pumps the water from the bottom of the lake (which has more dissolved CO2) to the surface where it’s sprayed out and the gas is released. This continual degassing of the lake should prevent any further tragedies.

Today’s Tangent: It’s not just carbonated lakes that can kill you; at least eight people were killed by a flood of beer. On October 17, 1814, a huge vat ruptured at the Meux and Company Brewery in St. Giles, London, England. The wave of beer that was released ruptured more tanks until they were all broken, unleashing around 1.5 million litres of beer upon the town. Nearby basements quickly flooded and many people were shoved against walls or buried under debris, leading to at least eight deaths.

Most people, while hitting the snooze button for the third time, wonder why they only get nine minutes of shut-eye instead of ten. Or eleven. Or why we even need alarms in the first place when the afternoon is a perfectly good time for breakfast.

Alarm clocks have been around for millennia, since time keeping devices of various sorts have been around for that long. Want to turn a sundial into an alarm clock at noon? Cut a slit at noon and put another circle with a similar slit below it, thus ensuring that light only gets through close to noon, then put a lens below this slit and a string below that. When noon comes around, the string will burn and snap, allowing numerous noise making devices to work, such a mallet hitting a gong. (Note that while no known alarm clocks of this sort exist, sundials we used before 1000 BC and a rudimentary lens has been found from 750 BC.)

Despite the fanciful nature of my previous story, water clocks were used to make more useful alarm clocks (more useful because they could be started at any time, and hence set for any time with ease). Water clocks are not as old as sundials but date back to 1600 BC in some regions. As Wikipedia expounds, water clocks were used by Plato to signal the start of his classes back around 400 – 350 BC. But it’s not until 529 AD that we have historical mention of a mechanical clock with hourly alarms, thus starting us down the path to an answer.

Jumping much further ahead, we come to 1847 when French inventor Antoine Redier patented the first adjustable alarm clock. It didn’t have a snooze button, but it set the ground work for a future where mechanical alarm clocks had them, before the creation of the digital alarm clock. When the first “snoozable” mechanical alarm clocks were being created, the engineers decided that they wanted a snooze interval around ten minutes. However, they couldn’t get the gears to mesh if it was exactly ten minutes, so they had to choose between slightly under ten minutes or slightly over, and went with the first option. This gave those clocks a snooze time of nine minutes and change.

When clock makers went digital, they snooze feature did as well. General Instruments created a snooze chip (the MM5370) and set it with a time of nine minutes; this chip was then used and copied to other alarm clocks without modifying the nine minutes interval. Why nine minutes? It seems that in the transition from analog to digital, the clock makers just copied what their predecessors did and rounded down to nine minutes. And that’s the storied past of nine extra minutes of sleep.

Today’s Tangent: Why do we have 60 minutes and 60 seconds, but only 24 hours? This dates back to the Egyptians who counted in base 12, not our common base 10. They devised a time system involving 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of night, giving us the 24 hours we have today. As for minutes, most people simply divided the hour into halves, thirds, quarters, fifths, and even twelve sections. It wasn’t until mechanical clocks in the 16th century that minutes were commonly introduced, and they were 60 of them to fit with all the previous divisions. Since geography already had each line of latitude divided into 60 minutes, and each of those minutes divided into 60 seconds, it seemed logical to extend time in the same manner.

When an actor takes to the stage, you’re supposed to say “Break a leg!” It’s commonly held that this wish of bad luck is actually good luck, and that wishing someone well in the theatre is actually jinxing the event. While the performing arts are known for their superstitious nature, this may not be the whole truth. After all, it could be a linguistic misinterpretation, come from a different language, have to do with a one-legged actress, or even been a tribute to the memorable evening when President Lincoln was shot in a theatre.

One interpretation of the word break means “to deviate from a straight line”, which has a similar meaning to the word bend. In this way, “break a leg” could simply mean to bend your leg at the knee thereby breaking the straight line your leg was making. In essence, wishing this upon a performer was saying “I hope your performance is so great that you’ll have to bow at the end, thus bending your leg in acceptance of praise.”

Another theatre interpretation comes from the leg or wing curtains, those curtains off to the side when the main ones are drawn back. Coming from Vaudeville, an act wouldn’t make any money unless they made in on stage, hence breaking the audience’s line-of-sight with the leg curtain. A different interpretation involves understudies wishing ill on the main cast, such as breaking a leg, so they could get on stage and earn some money.

Of course the phrase might not be English to begin with. In Greece it was customary to stomp instead of applaud, so only the best performances would lead to someone breaking their leg in appreciation. In Elizabethan times, audience members were instead stomp their chairs and break those legs instead. In Ancient Rome, gladiators may have heard “break a leg” indicating that they shouldn’t kill their opponent but only maim them which was still a victory. Or the phrase could be of German origin, as fighter pilots in World War I were said to wish each other “Hals- und Beinbruch” or “neck and leg fractures” before each flight, perhaps in tune with “Any landing you can walk away from is a good landing.” Yet that might be complete hogwash as the German phrase sounds similar to the Yiddish “Hatsloche un Broche” meaning “success and blessing”, perhaps accounting for the strange association between physical injury and good luck.

Maybe the phrase has a real association with previous incidents. One story revolves around Sarah Bernhardt, a famous French actress who had her leg amputated in 1915. She continued performing afterwards, so this saying could be in memory of her. Or it could be in memory of David Richard Garrick who became famous during the 18th century for his performances of Shakespeare’s Richard III. On one such performance he supposedly suffered a fracture yet was so caught up in acting that he didn’t notice it until later.

Yet another story brings this phrase to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Apparently, when John Wilkes Booth shot the President, he then jumped onto the stage and broke his leg. This makes the phrase not one to incite killings, but wishing that the night be one worthy of remembrance.

All of these other stories smack of implausibility though. What do we know for certain? There is anecdotal evidence from memoirs and letters that the phrase was used in a theatre setting from as early as the 1920s, making the assassination story (occurring in  1865), gladiator tale, and Elizabethan origin all questionable. Tying it to theatre more directly doesn’t come until 1948 in The Theatre Handbook and Digest of Plays where author Bernard Sobel notes the phrase in its present day use. In 1921, an article on horse racing was published explaining that wishing someone luck was unlucky, so “You should say something insulting such as, ‘May you break your leg!'”

With all of these different theories we may never find the true origin. However, there is one final theory: the phrase means to put such energy into a performance that you might break your leg during it. So in honour of this, may you break your leg trying to find the origin of the phrase.

Today’s Tangent: Think “break a leg” is a little gruesome before going on stage? That’s nothing compared to professional dancers. They’ll often say “merde” (French for “shit”) before a performance, which has now lead to actors also shouting this before plays.

Glory Road is a fantasy novel written by science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein and stands as his only full foray into the genre. This novel was written around the same time as A Stranger in a Strange Land and there is quite a bit of overlap between them in terms of philosophical views. The novel itself is well done overall and I could easily tell that it was written by the science fiction pioneer, though it doesn’t feel as completed as some of his other work. The copy I had was just under 300 pages and I enjoyed the first two-thirds, as they balanced the lecturing, adventure, and wonderful writing that I’ve come to enjoy from his books. But new readers to Heinlein need to understand that many of his novels don’t involve protagonists and great battles, so if you’re looking for an epic quest this isn’t it. In fact, I would say that the last third of the book is lacklustre and becomes more lecture than anything else, and an uninteresting one at that. I give the novel a 5 out of 10, losing large points for an ending that lacked the climax and resolution I desired.

General Information:

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The first third of the novel is interesting and diverse. First we meet the main character and learn about his exploits in a war he isn’t enjoying. This quickly leads to him recounting being wounded in battle and leaving the war as a veteran, with a trip through Europe planned. He catches a flight to Signapore where we learn that he can sense direction with ease and that he’s won a lot of Irish Sweepstakes tickets. However, we also discover that even though he’s a war veteran he won’t get any benefits for his service, and that his winning ticket is actually a fake. His plan turns to just surviving in France for a while when he spots a beautiful woman, they chat for hours, and then she leaves without him getting her name. (Fellow readers of Heinlein will quickly spot the similarities between this woman and many others he’s described in other novels.)

What comes next is a jump to the fantastic as he gets multiple notices of an ad in a newspaper for a job that fits him near perfectly. He attends and quickly passes the test put before him, landing him in front of the lovely lady he meet before who turns out to know medicine and gives him a thorough examination. The pair then transit to another world with a third individual tagging along. It’s here that they all gain their names for the rest of the novel: Oscar the soldier, Star the mage and physician, and Rufo the groom. We also learn that Oscar’s sense of direction also works flawlessly when transported somewhere else and he is unconscious; this really sets the stage for his ability and pushes it into the realm of fantasy.

A few things happen here that are important in hindsight. First, Oscar can use a bow incredibly well even though he said he was lousy at archery. Second, the entire situation fits exactly with standard fantasy fare: a female mage, a male knight, and a bumbling sidekick make for a delightful romantic romp. Third, we learn that they must deal with someone named Igli, there’s an egg to retrieve, and Oscar is the chosen one. All of these things seem to fall too perfectly into place, and there’s a good reason for that. However, I didn’t like how quickly Igli was defeated, nor how. We had a very nice build up for his directional powers, but his ability to suddenly warp space, time, and matter came out of nowhere and seem contrived. Despite this, I took that it might just be a literary misstep and only the first in a series of events.

Midpoint Discussion:

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The middle part of the novel was my favourite section. Oscar started integrating himself into a new society, learnt a new language, stumbled a bit with social mores, Heinlien got to explain his views of sexuality (I always enjoy his lecturing style), and there were a lot of clever solutions to battles. Oscar marries Star after fighting internally, the stakes get raised, there’s something hidden between the trio, and we get ever closer to the egg. All of this was a lot of fun and didn’t drag too much, propelling us forward to the tower containing the egg. They get in after fighting dragons, Oscar solves the riddle of the paths, and we get a beautiful sword fight and battle of tactics. They get the egg and… I’ll leave the rest for the third spoiler.

At this point I really liked the logic of the story. Too often I find that fantasy novels don’t have enough explanation about the rules behind the magic, but there was a beautiful balance here. Heinlein made most of the magic scientific by saying it was highly advanced technology. I was a little confused about firearms not working in the first world, but I enjoyed the idea of a set time limit in the tower due to the conditions of the world (though they’re left unstated, I assumed that it was radiation of a sort). I enjoyed the way the wards were set up, how they worked, that they didn’t deflect fire (and perhaps a reason for that), and especially the biology behind fire-breathing dragons. The gravity shifts on the tower world were just icing on the sci-fi/fantasy cake.

One part that was missing was how the map was created. Did these sixty-three men have some sort of GPS on them? They lost their lives, so surely they didn’t exit and explain their movements, and they were able to report their true positions which was something that Star and Rufo were unable to do. Further, how did they know where the egg was if there was such a man/beast guarding it? I’d like answers to these questions, but they’re minor overall and the story is good enough here that I didn’t dwell on them.

Final Thoughts:

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Here’s a summary of the last third: Star is “in charge” of twenty universes, the egg contains the knowledge of all the previous rulers so that the current ruler can learn from their mistakes, Oscar gets multiple marriage proposals, he doesn’t enjoy sitting around in the castle all day doing nothing, and then he realizes that he can’t stay with Star as a “gigolo” so he roams around trying to find himself before realizing that he’s a warrior and should go on another quest. My issue is the whole story built to getting the egg, and then Star’s true identity just tacked on another 100 pages that brought the pace to a crawl. Yes, Oscar needed to learn who he was but he had partly done that on the quest to find the egg. So why is this part here?

One reason is learning about the egg and getting Heinlein’s view on politics, something which I enjoyed reading. Yet it also comes with a lecture on sexuality again, this time done in small parts multiple times, but covering much of what we already heard at Jocko’s home, now with an “I’m married” twist. We learn about alien cultures but this is brief and merely serves to emphasize Oscar’s position, one he’s uncomfortable with. Luckily, we also hear why the quest itself was so contrived and fit so well with what we expected: Star designed it that way. And perhaps she even helped Oscar at archery.

The reason I felt so let down by Star’s position was because there was no follow up on the quest. These people spent all this time and effort to take the egg, yet they were just defeated afterwards? I wanted the palace to be found in ruins and the egg be used to restore order, or there be some additional quest followup to resolve. Could it have been done better? Yes! Give me all that revelation on Oscar’s part with a bit more action. Let him use his crazy time, space, matter warping skills more than once in the story, make Star use her egg knowledge to solve a tricky problem, and let Rufo help both of them deal with their future. As it is, Star doesn’t change much besides going through mood swings, and Oscar just mopes.

It’s this final third of the book that brings down the score so much. It was about a 7 before here and went downhill from there. Would I read it again? For the first 200 pages, sure, but I don’t think I’d touch the last hundred. For now I’m heading back to sci-fi; take me home Star.