Monthly Archives: May 2011

The Greatest Spectacle In Racing

Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame

Archaeologists believe that the first wheeled vehicle was invented about 5,500 years ago.  It was about an hour later that racing was invented. 

Well, that’s just a guess on my part, but there’s no denying that “let’s see how fast this thing will go” is a human passion that has been around a long time.

The ancient Romans had a track called Circus Maximus where chariot races took place; it could be argued that its modern-day equivalent is in Indianapolis, Indiana.  The title of this post is the slogan of the Indianapolis 500 auto race, and it is not an idle boast.  Over 300,000 people pack the Indianapolis Motor Speedway every year on Memorial Day weekend to watch very loud cars go very fast on a very large oval.  This year is the 100th anniversary of the Indy 500.

The track is colloquially known as “The Brickyard”, because the racing surface was originally composed of over 3 million paving bricks.  (Actually, it was originally composed of gravel and sand and tar, but that was almost immediately regretted and remedied — hence the bricks.)

The inaugural 500-mile race was won by Ray Harroun, who drove a car known as the Marmon Wasp (see photo).  Harroun’s average speed was 74.602 miles per hour, considerably slower than that guy in the pickup truck who forced you off the road yesterday.  We look back at 74 mph and think, “that’s cute” — but when you put it in historical context, it’s scary fast.

Think about it:  in 1911, there were still Americans who had never even seen an automobile, much less driven one.  The Ford Motor Company had been producing Model Ts for 3 years.  That car had a top speed of 40-45 mph, and certainly wasn’t capable of sustaining that pace for 500 miles.

Still, the contrast between that first Indy 500 and more recent ones is “wow”-inspiring.  The fastest average speed for the entire race was 185.981 mph, a mark set in 1990 by Arie Luyendyk.  He is also tied with Emerson Fittipaldi for the fastest single-lap speed ever.  In that same 1990 race, they both burned a lap at 222.574 mph.  To help you comprehend how fast that is, typical takeoff speed for jet airliners is in the range of 150-180 miles per hour.

Officials have changed the specifications for the cars in the last couple of decades, which has resulted in relatively slower (and safer) speeds.  In 2010, Dario Franchitti won the Indy 500 with an average speed of “only” 161.623 mph.  Franchitti collected winnings of $2,752,055 that day; back in 1911, Ray Harroun’s purse was $14,250.

Although the 2½ mile oval at Indianapolis has been covered with asphalt for many years and subsequently smoothed with modern-day materials, there is still a yard of bricks at the Brickyard:  a 3-foot strip of bricks has been retained at the start/finish line.  In honor of this year’s centennial, a gold brick has been placed in that strip.

If you have any thoughts of running out on the track and trying to pry that gold brick loose, forget it — there will be a lot of cars headed your way, and they will be going ridiculously fast.

Travelin’ Man

How could Marco Polo miss this!?

In spite of what some children might think, Marco Polo did not invent the swimming pool version of hide-and-seek.  He also did not bring noodles from China to Italy, thereby inventing spaghetti.  (In fact, the Italians had been making pasta for centuries before Marco was born.)

What did Marco Polo do?  Basically, he went on an epic journey that made Europeans aware of Asia.  Prior to him, the two civilizations had, as Encyclopædia Britannica puts it, “flourished for centuries in reciprocal ignorance of each other’s existence.”

The specific details of Marco’s life and travels have bedeviled historians for reasons we’ll get to presently.  In general, though, here’s what is known…

He was born into a family of Venetian merchants; his father Niccolò and his uncle Maffeo had traded extensively in the Near East, but at some point seem to have figured out that they could increase their profits by heading on past Constantinople.

In 1271, when Marco Polo was a teenager, the three of them began a trip that ultimately lasted 24 years and covered 25,000 miles.  On an earlier trip, Marco’s dad had gotten acquainted with Kublai Khan, grandson of the notorious Genghis Khan and ruler of the Mongol Empire.

At the time, it was the largest empire in the world, extending from what we now know as Bulgaria and Poland, all the way to Korea.  Over the years, the Polos covered a great deal of this territory, stopping from time to time for bouts of malaria and other inconveniences of travel.

The older Polos seem to have served as advisors to Kublai Khan, while Marco was sent on fact-finding missions all over the empire.  The three Polos were employed at court for 17 years.  They became so indispensable that it was awkward for them to say, “Well, Kublai, it’s been great, but we really have to be going.”

Eventually they did manage to get an assignment that took them west again, but by a very circuitous route.  They sailed as far south as Sumatra, where Marco noticed that the North Star looked like it dipped below the horizon.  That made quite an impression on him — and on Christopher Columbus, when he read of Marco’s observation almost 200 years later.

The Polos finally returned to Venice in 1295.  A few years later, Marco got caught up in a turf war between Venice and Genoa.  He got thrown into prison, and in a stroke of luck, his cellmate happened to be a writer of romances named Rustichello.  During their incarceration together, Marco Polo dictated stories of his travels; Rustichello wrote them down, and in all likelihood, embellished them with flourishes that weren’t strictly factual.

The resulting book, which Marco called Description of the World, became the medieval version of a best-seller.  It should be noted that Marco was not the first European to visit Asia, but he had a better publicist than those who preceded him.

Unfortunately, no authoritative copy of the book still exists.  There are something like 140 surviving manuscripts of the text, which include a lot of “improvements” by later hands.  That’s one of the difficulties, mentioned earlier, in knowing what Marco actually did (and when).  Another reason that some scholars are skeptical about specifics is what is not in the book.  There’s no mention of the Great Wall of China, for instance — or tea!

It can be said with certainty, however, that Marco did not invent the game played with mallets and ponies.  Or polo shirts, for that matter.

Ages of Rock

Wow, Bryce, you're looking positively Cenozoic! (photo by Sally Reeder)

The other day I pulled an old college geology textbook off my bookshelf and made a surprising discovery:  nothing in it seemed the least bit familiar to me.  It was as if I had retained nothing from an entire semester!  Then the realization hit me that I had not taken any geology classes when I was in college.  This was my wife’s college textbook which had somehow found its way onto my shelf.

While I was browsing through her book I made another surprising discovery:  a note in Sally’s handwriting, addressed to someone named Dave, that said “we’re through.”  Interesting as that was, it didn’t deter me from my quest, which was to find out when the Jurassic Period of earth’s history was.

As you may know, geologic time is divided into eons, eras, periods and epochs.  Scientists believe that our planet is 4.5 billion years old, give or take a few million (factoring in leap years).  The oldest era was the Precambrian; then you have your Paleozoic, your Mesozoic and your Cenozoic, where we currently reside.

It turns out that the Jurassic Period, when there were dinosaurs and flying reptiles, was roughly from 199 million years ago to, oh, 145 million years ago.  That was just a portion of the Mesozoic Era, which went from 251 million years ago to late August of 65,000,000 B.C.

These dates are determined primarily by a) studying sedimentary strata, including fossil remains; and b) chemical analyses of radioactive minerals.  The latter are known as “radiometric dating techniques”.  It may have been Dave’s radiometric dating techniques that repelled Sally, who knows?

Anyway, by analyzing how much of the material has decayed — its so-called “half-life” — scientists determine the age of, say, a shrimp fossil and the rock in which it is embedded.  For example, the half-life of Carbon 14 is 5,730 years, according to one of my sources who asked to remain anonymous.

There is general agreement among scientists on the half-life of Carbon 14, but they have other issues.  In fact, relations between some factions within the geologic community have become downright… well, rocky.

You and I and some scientists have been blithely referring to the segment of time after the Cretaceous Period as the Tertiary Period.  We reminisce fondly about its Miocene Epoch, with its grasslands and grazing mammals — and how about the appearance of whales, huh?  How could you not get nostalgic about the Tertiary Period? 

That’s what I thought, but that term is so twentieth-century, apparently — it is no longer used by the International Commission on Stratigraphy.  They sneer at Tertiary (and Quaternary, too), preferring to think of the period from 65 – 1.8 million years ago as two distinct periods, which they call the Paleogene and the Neogene.

Maybe it’s just as well that I’ve forgotten this stuff I never really knew in the first place, since I guess I was wrong.  But why these academicians think that particular change in terminology is worth fighting over remains shrouded in mystery.  So, by the way, does the true identity of a long-ago geology student named Dave.

What to Name the Baby

For some reason, Brooklyn is a popular name for little girls.

It used to be fairly simple to select a proper noun for an infant.  One approach was to name it for a member of the family, such as its father or a rich aunt.  The other was to call it John or Mary.

According to the U.S. Social Security Administration website, the name Mary was either 1st or 2nd in popularity for girl babies from 1880 to 1965.  John was in the top 5 for boys every year through 1972.  It should be noted that these are names as they appeared on Social Security card applications, so someone whose name is spelled Jon is not included with the Johns.

Those old standbys have lost some of their luster — Mary was 109th in 2010, for instance — but Biblical names in general remain popular.  David was 18th back in 1880 and 15th in 2010.  Adam and Jesus have been in the top hundred for several decades.  Judas, however, has never cracked the top 1,000.

Why some names suddenly become popular can be a mystery.  The girl’s name Brooklyn made its first appearance on the list in 1990, at 912th.  Why?  Last year it was all the way up to 34th, but none of the other boroughs of New York City have been widely used by new parents thus far.  Could 2011 be the year when hospital nurseries are full of infants named The Bronx?

The female name Jennifer was #1 every year from 1970 – 1984, which may have partly been due to a character by that name in a bestselling book and hit movie called Love Story.  Popular culture now seems to have a lot of influence in the selection of a name for the baby.  I submit these items into evidence:

     •  The first year the name Dustin appeared in the top 1,000 was 1968 (#368).  The film The Graduate, starring newcomer Dustin Hoffman, was released in 1967.

     •  Hardly anyone was naming their child for Japanese beef until Kobe Bryant came along.  His rookie season in the National Basketball Association was 1996-97; in 1997 the name Kobe had gone from nowhere to #553.  It has been on the list ever since.

     •  Several decades ago a baby girl would only occasionally get named Mariah; it first appeared in the top 1,000 list in 1973 at #914.  Mariah suddenly vaulted to 69th in 1991.  Some of us suspect that the release of Mariah Carey’s first album in 1990 may have been the reason.

As alluded to earlier, the most popular female name over the past 131 years is Mary, but it finished 12 spots behind Mariah in 2010.  The most popular male name since 1880 is Michael, which has the virtue of being a Biblical name (the archangel) and a basketball superstar (Michael Jordan).

Of course, there are many charming names that aren’t necessarily among the most popular.  My advice to prospective parents is to be a little careful with those “creative” names, though.  I once knew a woman whose mom and dad had unwittingly given her a name that sounded OK in English, but was a notorious slang term in Spanish.  Let’s face it — no one wants their daughter to be know as “streetwalker” in any language.

Goodbye, Mother

Elizabeth Reeder and her son Tommy, 1948

In one respect, it was not a difficult decision, because it had already been made for me.  My mother’s body had decided it could no longer live, even with artificial means of support.  Still, it was not easy to give my consent to remove all those tubes and machines.

She had a long history of health problems, but it was a massive heart attack that had brought Elizabeth Reeder to the end of her journey in September, 1998.  After a nurse disconnected the equipment, Sally and I went into Mother’s room in the  hospital’s Cardiac Care Unit.  She was in a coma; I have no way of knowing if she could hear me when I leaned in close and told her, “I love you.”

If this had been a movie, I suppose this is when it would have shown me having flashbacks.  I’d see myself playing on a Little League field with my mother in the stands, keeping score the way she always did.  Then the movie version might dissolve to her presenting me with a birthday cake, or taking pride in some youthful accomplishment of mine.

It wasn’t like that, though.  In the final minutes of her life, I wasn’t remembering the long-ago; I was in the present with her, and with my wife who stood on the other side of the bed.  Each of us held one of Mother’s hands, and we began to  sing softly to her.  My mother had been a devout Christian, so we sang her into heaven with some of the hymns she had loved.

Sally and I glanced at the monitoring equipment occasionally and saw the numbers getting smaller, the signs of life more faint.  Within a few minutes they stopped altogether.  The heart monitor showed eerie activity, but that was due to the pacemaker that had been implanted years before, not an actual heartbeat.  Mother had very peacefully slipped into eternity.

The medical staff gave us a couple of minutes alone with her, and then the emotion was abruptly displaced with business.  Documents had to be signed, the mortuary had to be contacted, arrangements needed to be made for the disposition of Mother’s remains.  In the midst of that, a nurse remembered to take the wedding rings off of my mother’s finger and give them to Sally.

At the mortuary there was more business to conduct:  pick a casket, choose flower arrangements, select a time for the service.  Did we want them to provide an officiant, or did we have one?  Would we be paying for all this with check or credit card?  And so on, for what seemed like hours.

Sally and I were emotionally spent when we finally completed the arrangements, but then humor came to our rescue.  As we were leaving the mortuary, an employee gave us a jaunty grin and said, “Have a nice day.”

The absurdity of his remark struck us both as hilarious:  Have a nice day!?  Too late for that, pal — you are aware that this is a mortuary and we’re not here for a picnic, right!?  It was all Sally and I could do to suppress our laughter until we were out of his earshot.

Once we exited the building, though, we let go — we were doubled over and gasping for air, we were laughing so hard.  Our shoulders shook; we practically had to hold each other up; tears were streaming down our faces.

Eventually the laughter subsided, but the tears — real tears — lasted a while longer.