Waiter, what’s this fly doing… ?

Once on a business trip from Boston to Stockholm, I had a brief morning layover in Amsterdam’s Schiphol International Airport after an all-night flight over the Atlantic. Bleary-eyed and sleep-greasy, I stepped into the men’s lounge to freshen up a bit and lounge. While I was in the process of lounging, I was surprised to see a fly in the urinal. Actually it was a picture of a fly in the bottom of each of the urinals. There was something oddly amusing about this. Why would they put a fly there? Of course, human nature being what it is (okay, man nature being what it is) I couldn’t stop myself from leaning in that direction. Hey, that fly was looking for trouble.

The Dutch are the most sensible, straightforward people in the world. There must be some reason for this display, and it must have to do with its magnetic attraction on nearby downpours. I thought about taking a picture of the urinal… but didn’t. And I have since regretted not taking that picture, because it’s a funny little story.

Still, if the 21st century has taught us anything so far, it’s that you can find anything on the web. So it is with the Fly UI. This link is to a weblog that looks at the urinal’s design from a user interface point of view, and includes the feedback of several honest-to-goodness Dutch industrial designers.

As long as we’re on this subject, I have to mention the mysterious pre-flushing Japanese urinals. Japan, like many other countries, has lots of infra-red triggered self-flushing urinals. No need to touch the hardware… do your business and walk away. But I noticed that many of these automatic urinals in Tokyo flushed briefly just as you stepped up and got comfortable. I couldn’t figure out why they’d waste the water until I realized it subtly encouraged the priming of the pump. The little splash and whoosh gets the ball rolling sooner (à la Pavlov), fights stage fright in a self-conscious country, and probably increases crowded bathroom throughput by 25%. That’s my theory, anyway. Anybody out there know better?

Acme products

If you had to catch a roadrunner somewhere in the Great American Southwest, where would you turn for quality roadrunner-catching equipment? Where else but the Original Illustrated Catalog Of Acme Products. Someone has spent a lot of time grabbing images off video to put together a catalog of every Acme product placement across many years of Warner Brothers’ cartoons. There are some pre-Roadrunner examples, but the obvious acme of Acme comes with Wile E. Coyote (super-genius). Scroll through the list… it’s long and comprehensive. I had no idea there were so many. Look for the Iron Birdseed and Giant Magnet combination, the Indestructo Steel Ball, the Dehydrated Boulders, and the Jet-Propelled Pogo Stick. They’re all there.

A few thoughts: First of all, I’m impressed that this plucky little Acme company negotiated such an lucrative product placement deal with Warner Brothers. Second, these guys should probably prune some of their slow-moving items (e.g. Do It Yourself Tornado Kits) and branch out into less esoteric products if they want to maintain solid growth. Finally, their e-commerce catalog site sucks. I tried to order some Rocket-Powered Roller Skates, and I couldn’t get anywhere. Bottom line: downgrade Acme Products (NYSE ticker ACME) to weak hold.

Live from Mesopotamia

The war correspondent for the Rambles weblog is good friend and Renaissance man Jay Czarnecki. Almost exactly a year ago he filed a report from the front lines of the Washington D.C. metropolitan area just as the snipers were being put behind bars. He’s back this week with a timely report on developments in Mesopotamia, also known as… well, I’ll let Jay take it from here. What was it George Santayana said about history? I forget.

I just finished working my way through “A Peace to End all Peace” written in 1989 by David Fromkin and subtitled “The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East.” I had wanted to understand the historical antecedents for the various stuggles occurring in the Middle East, especially Iraq. I really was surprised to see how directly connected today’s troubles are to the post-World War I arrangements imposed by the Great Powers.

I use the phrase “working my way through” because it was a bit of a chore for a layman like me – but worth it. Although the book emphasized British political and diplomatic activities, it’s analysis was very even-handed. I would recommend it for the determined reader who has a hankering for both the broad sweep of history – and how random events or individual decisions can change its direction. For example:

– The ultimately disastrous Allied attempt to take Constantinople in 1915 came within a few hundred yards of victory. The Ottoman army was practically out of ammunition as the Allied navy steamed up the straits of Dardanelles. Constantinople was being evacuated, the treasury’s gold bullion dispatched to safety, and gasoline was stockpiled to burn the city rather than surrender it intact. The British Navy’s minesweepers had cleared all the mines that lay across the narrows – except for a single line of mines running parallel to the shore. With uncanny accuracy, the attacking naval force hit them, however, and a number of ships were lost. They still could have continued the next day, but the British commander deferred, thinking the way was impassable. You can view the immediate tragic aftermath in the decent 1981 film about the ensuing land battle, “Gallipoli,” co-starring a young Mel Gibson.

– In 1920, at a delicate time in the maneuvering over the land of Asia Minor, the King of Greece was bitten by a monkey and died of the resultant infection. The next Greek government aggressively pursued a war against the Turkish remnant of the Ottoman Empire – with devastating results for both sides. “A quarter of a million people died of this monkey’s bite,” wrote the British Colonial Secretary at that time, Winston Churchill.

Here’s another gem:

“[They] either were not aware of, or had given no thought to, the population mix…The antipathy between the minority of Moslems who were Sunnis and the majority who were Shi’ites, the rivalries of the tribes and clans, the historic and geographic divisions of the provinces…made it difficult to achieve a single unified government that was at the same time representative, effective and widely supported.”

No, that’s not from the editorial page of yesterday’s New York Times criticizing the Bush Administration’s approach in post-war Iraq. It is describing the British Empire’s struggles there in 1917 (it was then called Mesopotamia – the name Iraq made it’s debut in a few years later). And by the way, the book’s title comes from a quote by an officer who said of the post-war Peace Conference in Paris: “After the ‘War to end all War,’ they seem to have been pretty successful in Paris at making a ‘Peace to end all Peace.’ ”

Why is Köln called Cologne?

Have you ever wondered how place names came to be so different, depending on the language? Paris is still Paris in French or English, although the Italians prefer to call it Parigi. We get the Italians back, though, by calling Firenze Florence. It doesn’t even sound the same! But it does offer a clue as to what’s going on. Firenze, formerly Fiorenza, comes from the same word, flower, as the name Florence.

But when it comes to alternate naming, Germany wins some kind of prize, I think. Even the name of the country is variously given as Allemagne, Deutschland, and Germany. In Estonian, Germany is Saksamaa, and in Hungary it goes by Németország, but if I start throwing around Hungarian we’ll be here all day. And how do I know, you may well ask, the Estonian and Hungarian words for Germany? Because I was lucky enough to come across a multilingual map of Europe and European exonyms. With it you can see what Europe looks like to a Hungarian, but perhaps most intriguing, you can make it so that each country displays its own preferred local name in the appropriate script. Of course even this doesn’t help the Swiss much, who still need all four labels Svizra, Schweiz, Svizzera, and Suisse. Sheesh. What would a similar map of India look like?

I learned about all this from a good post on Geoff Cohen’s Coherence Engine blog. Geoff took a stab at making his own Real Map of Europe before somebody pointed him to the much slicker site described above.

Finally, why is Köln commonly called Cologne outside of Germany? I once had an argument with a German person who blamed this sad fact on post-WWII American hegemony. She was unconvinced when I pointed out that Cologne is a French name that’s been around since before 1945. Still, I was curious. I found a dandy page from a genealogy site that explains it all. Like Firenze (and so much of Europe) both names spring from the same Latin root name, in this case Colonia Agrippina (named by Emperor Claudius in honor of his good-for-nothing wife). So the word colony is the source of the name. So there you go.