Exciting Tedium

What’s in a Name

Dull & Boring?

Oh, Calm Down

There’s a town named Boring, Oregon. Though it’s not an especially exciting place, it's not really that boring either. By most accounts, Boring is a lovely little town of 7,000 people built on an extinct lava field. Things maybe got pretty exciting when the nearby and majestic volcano Mount Hood last erupted, about 200 years ago (but that only caused some mudflows and lava domes and wasn’t a major eruption and was, therefore, probably not very exciting).

I like that they didn’t name the place Less Exciting. “Go there! Take advantage of myriad hiking trails and other outdoor activities. Have a not boring time!”

There’s another place named Dull, Scotland. This is a tiny village of less than a hundred people—a pretty little hamlet, with but a single street. Oh, and this breaking news item: it has old grave stones dating back as far as the 7th century.

There's a farming community named Bland, Australia. With a population of some 6,000 residents, it covers a much larger area than the other two. Bland used to be a gold mining region, though these days it's largely a farming community. Tony Lord is the mayor of Bland.

A few years ago, a Scottish cyclist from Dull—on vacation in the States—passed through Boring. She had a fairly terrific eureka moment, and in 2012 the two towns became sister cities.

Not to miss out on all the excitement, the following year Bland joined the sister cityhood as well. Together, they’re known—self-mockingly and otherwise—as the Trinity of Tedium.

Rules and regulations dictate that the trio are not officially sister cities, due to the size differences between the three, but they definitely live up to the spirit of the Sister City.

Sister Cities: dreamed up after the Second World War, they were intended to help repair the international bonds of friendship torn by the war. The notion quickly spread in popularity, and sister cities (also called Twin Towns) are linked around the world. Residents exchange gifts, organize joint celebrations, and foster exchange students with one another.

Not on the register of Sister Cities: Inacessible Island. A dormant volcano with an area of 5.4 miles, it sits in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean. Oh, and its human population is pretty much zero. Because, you know, it’s hard to reach.

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Quotable

So, Yard Ramp GuyHere you go:

“Habit is the cement of society, the comfort of life, and, alas! The root of error.”

— Fulke Geville

Nursery Rhymes Revisited

It’s Never Too Late to Have a Scary Childhood

Have a Great Fall!

Most people don't think about the origins of our nursery rhymes, but it turns out that a lot of them have pretty interesting—or even gruesome—histories.

Mary had a Little Lamb” was based on a true story: In 1816, Mary Sawyer of Sterling, Massachusetts, had her pet lamb follow her to school. Mary had raised the lamb from infancy, when its mother rejected it. It followed her all over and would come when called. Her brother suggested they bring it to school, and so they did. When the teacher caught them, Mary didn't get in trouble. The teacher just laughed and had them take it home at lunch. A poet witnessed the event and, well, the rest is history.

We commonly think that “Ring around the Rosie” is about the Black Death. “Ashes, ashes, we all fall down” suddenly seems a lot darker in that light. Most scholars, however, disagree, though the Black Death explanation is unlikely to vanish any time soon, given how well it captures the imagination.

Jack and Jill” is thought to come from King Charles I of England's attempt to reform a tax on liquid goods. Parliament rejected the measure, leading King Charles to lower the volume of a pint, leading to smaller half- and quarter-pints, known respectively as “jacks” and “gills.”

London Bridge is Falling Down” could refer to a Viking attack in 1014 AD that destroyed the bridge, a child sacrifice (probably not, though it's certainly sensational), or just that bridge’s continual state of poor repair through most of history.

There are claims scrambled about that “Humpty Dumpty” refers to a cannon that fell off a city wall, but it's probably just an invented riddle.

We tend to think that “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary” refers either to Mary, Queen of Scots or to Queen Mary I of England. Mary I is the more gruesome version. She’s also known as Bloody Mary for her execution of hundreds of Protestants, and the metaphors that we can read into it are pretty grim.

Pop! Goes the Weasel” is probably just nonsense, though not for the weasel.

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Quotable

Yard Ramp Guy, sir—Impressive stuff here:

“I almost had a psychic girlfriend but she left me before we met.”

— Stephen Wright

Engineering Feats (on a Finger)

A Ring Ritual

Quebec Bridge Collapse, 1907

Engineers in Canada wear an iron ring on the little finger of their working hand.

It's usually stainless steel these days, though a few are still made of wrought iron. When they get one, it's still sharp-edged and drags on everything, then smooths out over the years.

The legend is that the ring is meant to memorialize a bridge that collapsed twice, both times due to faulty calculations regarding the strength of iron.

More elaborate versions of the legend claim that the rings are all made of the steel of the bridge, and that the bridge had a gold bolt installed after the second collapse.

Specifically, this supposedly was the Quebec Bridge collapse in 1907, which killed 75 of the 86 workers working on the bridge at the time.

McCoy Fields, phoning it in

The Ritual of the Calling of My Accountant

In reality, the ritual was the brainchild of a group of Canadian engineers in 1922. They wrote to Rudyard Kipling—yes, the Rudyard Kipling who wrote The Jungle Book—for help in creating a suitably dignified ceremony for new engineers. Kipling loved the idea and created a ceremony called “The Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer.”

The whole thing is meant to bind members of the profession together and remind them of the responsibilities of their work. The ritual is administered by seven Wardens, who are chosen from prominent Canadian engineers. There are seven Wardens because that was the size of the group that came up with the idea and administered it in the first place.

Every group has its rituals. So: what makes this one special?

Well, we commonly worry about the responsibilities of soldiers and doctors and people in other professions…and their potential to do harm by negligence. Engineers also frequently bear that kind of responsibility, but society doesn't seem to remind them quite so frequently of that fact.

Society wouldn't function without our engineers. That little reminder is important. And Canada has a ring reminder.

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Quotable

Oh, Yard Ramp Guythis quote-off is kinda like a ritual, yes?

“When you're writing, you're conjuring. It’s a ritual, and you need to be brave and respectful and sometimes get out of the way of whatever it is that you're inviting into the room.”

— Tom Waits

Playing with Pareidolia

Or: Why Is That Cloud Eating Grass?

Everyone plays the game as kids—the one where you look for objects in clouds, right? Even the least-imaginative kids could at least see sheep. Well, it turns out there's a name for it, and it's actually pretty important.

McCoy Fields Pareidolia

It's called pareidolia. Broadly speaking, this is the brain's ability to perceive a familiar pattern in a stimulus where none actually exists. Other examples: mountainsides that resemble faces and trees that look like people.

People aren't the only entities that experience pareidolia. Computers do it, too. Google has a program called DeepDream that specifically sets out to exploit this, and it produces some really, really weird results. (DeepDream especially sees a lot of dogs.)

Pareidolia is fairly important in science, and it causes a lot of problems in archeology and paleontology. Amateurs are constantly picking up rocks they mistakenly think are arrowheads, dinosaur eggs, or bones. This happens so much that there's a specific name for rocks like this: mimetoliths. This also includes larger rocks, like the mountainsides that look like faces.

Yeah, well.

Yeah, well.

The most famous applied use of pareidolia is the Rorschach inkblot test, which is supposed to give insight into a person's mental state. A fairly successful tool, we’ve used the Rorschach continually since the early 20th century—fairly astonishing, since psychology has thrown away so much from that time period.

If you're familiar with the tabloid-fodder “Jesus appears on toast” articles, you've stumbled on another example of pareidolia.

It also sees extensive use in art, which is unsurprising. Many optical illusions (like the famous one that could either be a lamp or two faces) are good examples. Leonardo da Vinci wrote about pareidolia as a tool in art. Pareidolia is one of the main reasons cartoons work so well, making it easy for us to assign complex emotions to simple line drawings of people.

Pareidolia isn't good or bad—just reflects an aspect of how our brains interpret the world—but can also lead you astray. This phenomenon is also probably one of the coolest oddities involved in discovering how our brains work.

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Quotable

Oh, Yard Ramp Guy: are we seeing the same things differently?

“There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception.

— Aldoux Huxley

A New Old-School Castle

Or: Undraining the Moat

gueldonThere's a castle under construction in France. Not a Disney-style castle at a theme park. An actual castle using medieval designs, materials, and construction methods.

Guédelon Castle started construction in 1997 and won't be completed until sometime in the 2020s. The designers aim to create an authentic 13th century-style medieval castle.

Oh, and when they say authentic, they mean authentic:

  • They only use local materials.
  • The site for the castle was chosen very carefully, located near an old stone quarry, a pond, and right in the middle of a forest.
  • All of the materials are gathered and hauled to the site using only medieval methods, including horse drawn carts.
  • The construction workers all wear period-appropriate garb, use period-appropriate tools, and use period-appropriate construction methods.
  • They have on-site blacksmiths, stone masons, carpenters, etc.
  • No modern tools are used anywhere. Not even ramps; sorry, Yard Ramp Guy.

The project has created 55 jobs and attracted more than 200 volunteers. On-site professional training is provided to disadvantaged youth, some of whom have earned stone-masonry and other certifications. More than 300,000 tourists a year visit the project, and it is open to schools for educational purposes. The construction has definitely proven itself worthwhile in those regards, but none of those were the original intention.

This is all part of experimental archaeology, which reconstructs and uses ancient tools, structures, and artifacts and allows archaeologists to actually study which methods work best and produce results most like the actual artifacts.

One way they do that is by looking for construction quirks (not the actual scientific term they use). Anyone who uses a lot of tools knows that you'll end up with certain quirks in your project, depending on which tools you use. For example: the same cut will be slightly different with different saws. When you're using tools that aren't mass-produced like ours, those little quirks get magnified even more.

During experimental archaeology, you can look to see if the methods you are using produce quirks like the historical ones.

Experimental archaeologists have produced Iron Age farmsteads and Greek triremes, hauled Stonehenge sized stones, sailed from Peru to Polynesia on a raft (Kon-Tiki), and, of course, built Guédelon Castle. (For a longer list, check out THIS. It's an incredibly productive line of research. And a heck of a lot of fun.

Guédelon Castle is proving to be one of the most productive of these lines of research. We've learned tremendously about castle construction from it. There was actually a companion castle being built in America: the Ozark Medieval Fortress. It ran out of funding and is currently on hiatus. We still need that European vacation to see a castle under construction. With any luck, though, that will change.

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Photo By Ronny Siegel (Château Guedelon) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons