Saturday, May 16, 2009

Where does the word "fee" come from?

The word "fee", meaning a payment exchanged for something of value, originally comes from the old English word "feoh". It is related to the German word "Vieh", ultimately deriving from the Proto-Indo-European *peku.

This word literally means "(owned) cattle". In traditional societies, the amount of cattle a family owned was a measure of wealth, and eventually the meaning of the word changed to not only stand for livestock, but also for money and property.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Mongolian Ninja Miners

Ninja miners are an interesting phenomenon from Mongolia. They are called this way because the bowls they use (which are green) resemble the shells on the backs of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.


These "miners" dig small patches of land for gold. This trend started after harsh weather conditions made the traditional nomadic livestock-herding lifestyle less fruitful.


Sunday, April 19, 2009

Where does the word "draconian" come from?

You might already have heard the expression "draconian punishment". This usually refers to excessively harsh consequences for someone's actions. Often, the misdoing in question is relatively minor compared to the punishment applied for it.

The word "draconian" originally comes from the name of Draco, a lawgiver from Ancient Greece, who lived in the 7th century BC. He codified many of the laws which were only transmitted orally before his time.

However, it has since been argued that the association of his name with terrible penalties is somewhat unjust. Many of the laws were only written down, not made by him. Also, he is noted to have introduced the distinction between deliberate and accidental wrongdoing, such as between murder and involuntary homicide. He even abolished some bloodier punishments known from earlier times.


The Baader-Meinhof Effect

The Baader-Meinhof effect is a phenomenon in psychology. When a person learns about a particular topic, they often have the impression to hear more frequently about it afterwards.

The logo of the Baader-Meinhof group.

The term was coined by Terry Mullen in a letter to the newspaper St. Paul Pioneer Press. He described how, when he learned of the Baader-Meinhof gang, a German terrorist group, he shortly afterwards heard about it from a different source.

A scientific explanation for this phenomenon is the concept of the recency effect. The mind is biased towards things it has recently learned – if we learn something new, we are more likely to pay attention to it when we encounter it again shortly after learning.

A similar, related theory says that we are generally biased against information we do not know. After we have learned that piece of information, we more easily become aware of it when we see it.

Either way – it is not like the entire world starts to talk about something when we first learn about it. Rather, the impression arises because of mental bias.


Monday, April 13, 2009

What is the origin of the word “bankruptcy”?

Legally speaking, bankruptcy is the inability to pay one's creditors. At various periods in history, there were different ways of dealing with such situations.

The word “bankruptcy” derives from the Italian term “banca rotta”, meaning “broken table”. This comes from the custom of publicly breaking the table of a salesman when they could not pay back their debts. Since this frequently happened on busy days in busy places, the goods they had on sale were often distributed to bystanders. Then, in most cases, the shamed merchant had to leave the city.

Later in history, laws were passed which aimed to distribute fair shares of what was left of the debtor's assets to the creditors. This is called the insolvency process today.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Kaspar Hauser: The Mysterious Boy of Nuremberg

In May 1828, a boy of about 16 years was found walking on the streets of Nuremberg in Germany. He was looking for a high-ranking military official, Friedrich von Wessenig, who transferred him into police custody when the two eventually met. Attempts to establish the boy's origin proved unfruitful, since he had a very limited vocabulary. However, he showed knowledge of money, could write the name “Kaspar Hauser” and was able to say a few prayers. Additionally, he demonstrated some limited reading skills.

Portrait of Kaspar Hauser when he was first found.

An anonymous letter "from the border of Bavaria" carried by the boy stated that he wanted to “become a cavalryman, just like his father”. Another letter, allegedly written by his mother, gave his date of birth as April 30th, 1812.

He ended up living under the care of a prison guard, Andreas Hiltel. Little by little, Kaspar revealed a shocking story: prior to his release, he spent all his life in a dark cellar, where he only received water and bread to live.

Kaspar Hauser's real origin has never been determined conclusively. An attempt on his life happened on October 17th, 1829. Kaspar was found with a bleeding cut on his head. He survived and later said he had been attacked by a masked man.

An alleged second attempt occurred on December 14th, 1833. He reported that an unknown man gave him a bag and stabbed him in the chest. Kaspar Hauser died three days later. There are, however, doubts whether Kaspar Hauser really was attacked – it is believed the wound may have been self-inflicted.

A statue in Nuremberg.

Influenced by those events, theories and rumors about his real origin started. One theory posited that he was, in fact, the hereditary prince of Baden, who was born not long after Kaspar Hauser's stated birthday. Officially, the prince of Baden died a few days after his birth, but proponents of this theory claim that he was exchanged with a dying child and survived – as Kaspar Hauser. Then, as the theory goes, the physical attacks against him were attempts to cover up the real story. DNA studies carried out recently remained inconclusive.

On the other hand, there are opinions that Kaspar Hauser invented his story, even going as far as staging his abandonment on the streets of Nuremberg. Alternatively, some have suggested an exaggerated account was constructed by using leading questions.

Evidence cited for this version is that Kaspar's physical health was too good considering the circumstances described. However, it is still very likely he did not have much contact to other people and, as a result, developed a mental deficiency.


Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Mechanism of Antikythera: The World's First Computer?

In 1901, a group of divers discovered a ship wreck near the Greek island of Antikythera. Inside, they found some chunks of lime which apparently contained pieces of copper. Later, close examination by scientists revealed gears, scales, a crank handle and inscriptions.

The mechanism of Antikythera.

Today, the machine is assumed to have been one of the world's first analog computers. Dr. Derek J. de Solla Price examined the machine in 1959, and his conclusions were a sensation. The findings demonstrated that it has been used to calculate the time of sunrise, moon phases, the dates of equinoxes and solstices and even the movements of the five planets known to the Greeks at that time.

The time when the machine was manufactured was dated to be the first or second century BC. It was probably assembled on the Greek island of Rhodes, which was well-known in antiquity for its skilled engineers.

Derek J. de Solla Price with a replica of the machine.

Given the supported functionality and the era of manufacture, the device is relatively small. On some attached door plates, it contained at least 2000 Greek letters - presumably instructions on how to operate the machine. This suggests that it was made to be moved easily from one place to another.

A remarkable property of the mechanism is the clever way how it uses gears to perform mathematical operations. However, gears were known long before that – already Aristotle documented them in the fourth century BC.

Perhaps the most fascinating mechanical feature of the machine is that it seems to employ a differential. This device, which is today commonly used in automobiles, was likely not discovered again until the modern era, when Onésiphore Pecqueur patented it in 1827. Therefore, the real inventor probably was a craftsman from Rhodes.

A sketch of the mechanism.

The machine seems not to have been used to aid navigation – many of the functions are not needed for this purpose, and contact with water would have corroded the fine parts it was composed of. A much likelier theory is that it was used for astrology or determining the dates of religious festivals influenced by astronomy. It therefore simplified the otherwise tedious calculations carried out by hand.

The mechanism of Antikythera is historically significant. It demonstrates how scientifically advanced the world of antiquity really was, contrary to popular perception.