Saturday Nov. 18, 2017

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I Was Reading a Scientific Article

They have photographed the brain
and here is the picture, it is full of
branches as I always suspected,

each time you arrive the electricity
of seeing you is a huge
tree lumbering through my skull, the roots waving.

It is an earth, its fibres wrap
things buried, your forgotten words
are graved in my head, an intricate

red blue and pink prehensile chemistry
veined like a leaf
network, or is it a seascape
with corals and shining tentacles.

I touch you, I am created in you
somewhere as a complex
filament of light

You rest on me and my shoulder holds

your heavy unbelievable
skull, crowded with radiant
suns, a new planet, the people
submerged in you, a lost civilization
I can never excavate:

my hands trace the contours of a total
universe, its different
colours, flowers, its undiscovered
animals, violent or serene

its other air
its claws

its paradise rivers

“I Was Reading a Scientific Article” by Margaret Atwood from Selected Poems. © Houghton Mifflin, 1987. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

On this date in 1883, standard time zones were established in the United States and Canada. Standardized time was first introduced in Britain since 1840, and it was largely because of the need for trains to have consistent departure and arrival times. Even though mechanical clocks had been in use since the Middle Ages, people still set them based on the location of the sun at noon. Since that was an inexact measurement, towns could differ from each other by several minutes.

An amateur astronomer named William Lambert was the first person to call for standardized time in the United States, and he first raised the issue in 1809. He presented a recommendation to Congress, but it didn’t get anywhere. In the next few decades, several more people took up the cause. Charles Dowd’s 1872 proposal was the one that was eventually adopted.

As in Britain, it was the railways that were the driving force behind the establishment of consistent time zones in North America. They called it Standard Railway Time (SRT). But the sheer size of the North American continent, complicated by the fact that all towns set their own time, meant that it was impossible for east- and west-bound railway lines to publish and maintain a consistent schedule. The SRT established four continental time zones; boundaries were based on geography, economics, the location of major cities, and the habits of the local populations. The zones progressed in one-hour increments, and the times were determined relative to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England.

Not everyone adopted the new standardized time, however. The city of Detroit held out until 1900, and even then, half the citizens refused to set their clocks back 28 minutes to align with Central Time. So Detroit went back to “sun time” for five more years, and finally adopted standardized time by a city vote in 1905.

Today is the birthday of Canadian poet and novelist Margaret Atwood (1939) (books by this author), best known for her searing explorations of feminism, sexuality, and politics in books like The Handmaid’s Tale (1986), a dystopian novel that takes place in a United States, which has become a fundamentalist theocracy where women are forced to have children. She started writing the book on a battered, rented typewriter while on a fellowship in West Berlin. The book became an international best-seller. Atwood’s daughter was nine when it was published; by the time she was in high school, The Handmaid’s Tale was required reading. Atwood once said, “Men often ask me, ‘Why are your female characters so paranoid?’ It’s not paranoia. It’s recognition of their situation.”

Atwood was born in Ottawa, Ontario. Her father was an entomologist and the family lived for a long time in insect-research stations in the wilderness. She was 11 before she attended a full year of school. About growing up in near isolation, Atwood said: “There were no films or theatres in the North, and the radio didn’t work very well. But there were always books. I learned to read early, was an avid reader and read everything I could get my hands on — no one ever told me I couldn’t read a book. My mother liked quietness in children, and a child who is reading is very quiet.”

One day she was walking across a football field on her way home and began writing a poem in her head and decided to write it down. She says: “After that, writing was the only thing I wanted to do. I didn’t know that this poem of mine wasn’t at all good, and if I had known, I probably wouldn’t have cared.”

Her first novel was The Edible Woman (1969), about a woman who cannot eat and feels that she is being eaten. Atwood likes to write in longhand, preferably with a Rollerball pen, and is even the co-inventor of the LongPen, a remote signing device that allows a person to write in ink anywhere in the world using a tablet and the internet. Her books include Alias Grace (1996), Oryx and Crake (2003), and The Heart Goes Last (2015).

About the writing life, Margaret Atwood says: “You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but ­essentially you’re on your own. ­Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.”

It’s the birthday of the American botanist Asa Gray (books by this author), born in Oneida County, New York (1810). He wrote many books on the subject of botany, aimed at audiences of different educational backgrounds, but his great work was a comprehensive flora, the Manual of the Botany of the Northern United States, first published in 1848, and subsequently in many editions. He was a close colleague and avid supporter of Charles Darwin and his defense of the theory of natural selection, coming, as it did, from a devout Christian, undermined the popular notion of his day that to be an evolutionist was to be an atheist. His essays on Darwin’s theories were collected together in a volume called Darwiniana (1876).

It was on this day in 1928 that Mickey Mouse was born when the first sound-synchronized cartoon to attract widespread public notice, Walt Disney's "Steamboat Willie," premiered in New York at the Colony Theater. The black and white cartoon featured Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, and Pegleg Pete and lasted seven minutes. With Walt Disney as the voice of Mickey, the cartoon met with great success.

In 1998, "Steamboat Willie" was one of 25 films added by the Library of Congress' National Film Preservation Board to the National Film Registry.

As Walt Disney recalled of the cartoon's first showing, "The effect on our little audience was nothing less than electric. They responded almost instinctively to this union of sound and motion. I thought they were kidding me. So they put me in the audience and ran the action again. It was terrible, but it was wonderful! And it was something new!"

It's the birthday of American statistician George Gallup (1901), born in Jefferson, Iowa. He was a pioneer in scientific polling techniques, and his name became a household word synonymous with the opinion poll.

Gallup enrolled in the University of Iowa in 1918, played football and became the editor of the Daily Iowan. While editor in the early 1920s, he conducted what is widely considered the first poll in human history. He took a survey to find the prettiest girl on the campus. The winner was Ophelia Smith, whom Gallup later married.

From 1929 to 1931, he headed the Drake University School of Journalism, left to teach at Northwestern University and conduct newspaper research in the Chicago area, and in 1935 set up the American Institute of Public Opinion at Princeton University. While teaching and doing research, Gallup found that small samples of the populace could predict general attitudes. He gained recognition for accurately predicting Franklin Roosevelt's victory over Alf Landon in 1936.

Gallup's biggest blunder, the prediction that Thomas Dewey would defeat Harry Truman in 1948, was a minor stumbling block. At one time, nearly 200 newspapers published his reports. At the height of his career, Gallup spoke out against the practice of exit polling in elections and advocated election reforms still being discussed today. Gallup died of a heart attack in 1984 at his summer home in Switzerland.

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