Would you ever pick up a mouse? You would if it were a Douglas Engelbart mouse.
Engelbart grew up in a small town in Oregon as the son of a radio-shop owner. In World War II he joined the Navy and became a radar technician. While sitting in a hut on stilts in the Philippines in 1945 taking a break, he read an article in the Atlantic Monthly magazine that changed his life and led to an entirely new type of rodent. The article, "As We May Think," was written by Vannevar Bush, a scientist who had helped oversee the development of the atomic bomb and soon would be one of the advisors urging Harry Truman to drop it on Japan to shorten the war.
Ironically, Bush was concerned that science was increasingly being used for destructive purposes and that important knowledge wasn't being disseminated. He envisioned a collective-memory machine that would use microfilm reels to make the world's collected information more accessible to people. He in effect anticipated personal computers and the Internet.
Engelbart became fascinated by the idea of collective intelligence and globally shared knowledge. He became involved in the development of computers and turned out to be a visionary in that field. He invented hypertext, the links you click on to jump to a different page on the Internet. He also got a patent in 1970 for what he called "an X-Y position indicator for a display system." That is, the computer mouse.
It was made of wood, with metal wheels. Engelbart, who turned 86 yesterday, has said that the device became known as a mouse "because the tail came out the end." He never made much money from it; not realizing its value, his research group at Stanford licensed it to Apple for a pittance.
Interesting Mouse Notes:
Mouse comes from a Sanskrit word that means thief. A male mouse is called a buck, a female is a doe and a baby is a pinky (or a kitten). Unlike humans, mice can produce their own vitamin C, and thus came to North America on ships without developing scurvy, as many of the C-deprived sailors did. And if you're trying to find where mice have been, try a black light bulb; mouse urine is fluorescent; if will glow in black light.
How to Read the Moon Like a Book (Even in Arabic)
Pause to look at the southeastern horizon before sunrise tomorrow. You'll see Venus, currently 100 times brighter than any other object in the pre-dawn sky (other than the moon). Our neighboring planet is now higher in the sky than it has been at any point in the last three years.
This morning Venus was above and to the right of a crescent moon that looked like a C tilted slightly to the left. Here's a photo.
When many of us see this star-and-crescent configuration, we can't help but think of the Moslem world. Because the astronomical image was used on the flag of the Ottoman Empire, it became an unofficial symbol of Islam. Some variation of it appears on a dozen national flags, including those of Tunisia, Turkey, Pakistan and Algeria. When Tunisian Islamist leader Rached Ghannouchi returned to his government-toppling country yesterday after a 20-year exile, he posed at the airport with the star-and-crescent flag.
But I'll bet that—like most non-astronomers—Ghannouchi doesn't know whether the moon is coming or going. That is, whether it is waxing (getting bigger each night) or waning (getting smaller). A trick for figuring it out comes from Central Park in the Dark,, one of several terrific books by the superb naturalist writer Marie Winn (http://mariewinnnaturenews.blogspot.com/). She recalls her father telling her to focus on whether the moon's curve looks like a C or like the curved side of a D. If it looks like a C (as it does in the star and crescent above), then the moon is getting smaller. If it looks like the curve on a D (as it does in the Dreamworks animation logo of a boy fishing while sitting on the moon), then the moon is getting bigger.
Marie's erudite dad threw in some Latin words to help her remember the C from the D, but I'm really simplifying for the Latin-impaired.
Here's another way to think about it. Start with a totally dark moon. Watching night after night, you will see that light creeps across the moon's face from right to left. The first sliver that appears is the Dreamworks logo—on the right, shaped like the curve on a D, as in Dreamworks, the Steven Spielberg company that always gets bigger, just as the moon is getting bigger when it's shaped like this. When the moon is down to its final, shrinking sliver, it's on the left side and is shaped like a C—hey, moon, C ya! You'll be invisible tomorrow!
For what it's worth, right to left is the same direction a person reads Arabic, the language of Tunisia and many other countries with the star and crescent on their flags.
The Quiz Answer
(from last post) What do you call those gatherings of animals? A herd of elephants A mob of kangaroos A squabble of seagulls A convocation of eagles A school (or pod) of whales
What is the only fruit with its seeds on the outside? (Answer in the next blog post.)
Dinosaur Joke Contributed by a Naturalist's Notebook Correspondent: Q: Why can't you hear a pterodactyl going to the bathroom? A: Because the P is silent.
James Watt, the famously anti-environmental Secretary of the Interior during the early years of the Reagan administration, turns 73 years old today. Watt, a political appointee with no scientific background, believed that the government shouldn't stop private companies from developing public lands. He set a record for the fewest endangered species protected and summed up his environmental approach thusly: "We will mine more, drill more, cut more timber." Constantly embroiled in controversy (he even tried to ban Independence Day rock concerts on the mall in Washington, D.C., because he felt that groups such as the Beach Boys and the Grass Roots promoted drug use, alcoholism and crime), he became a lobbyist after leaving office and was eventually indicted on federal charges of perjury and obstruction of justice in an influence-peddling scandal. (He took a plea deal of a fine, five years' probation and public service.) As recently as 1991 he told a cattleman's group in his native Wyoming, "If the troubles from environmentalists cannot be solved in the jury box or at the ballot box, perhaps the cartridge box should be used."
Twelve days ago we missed the 275th birthday ofa more accomplished James Watt, the Scottish inventor and engineer for whom the unit of power called the watt is named. This Watt vastly improved the steam engine, turning it into the force that powered the Industrial Revolution. He also came up with the concept of horsepower, which compared the output of a steam engine with the might of draft horses. As you'll recall from a blog post of about 10 days ago, Andre-Marie Ampere, for whom the measure of electrical current called the amp is named, was also born in January, 39 years after Watt. To calculate watts, you multiply amps by volts, which are named after Italian physicist Alessandro Volta, a contemporary of Watt's and Ampere's who invented the first chemical battery.