21 February 2019

Albino alligator

This one lives at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.  Image cropped for size from the one at the via.

Nuclear technology transfer to Saudi Arabia ?

From a report two days ago:
Washington, D.C. (Feb. 19, 2019)—Today, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, the Chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Reform, issued an interim staff report after multiple whistleblowers came forward to warn about efforts inside the White House to rush the transfer of highly sensitive U.S. nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia in potential violation of the Atomic Energy Act and without review by Congress as required by law—efforts that may be ongoing to this day...

The report indicates that there is now serious, bipartisan concern with the Trump Administration’s efforts to transfer sensitive U.S. nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia.  For example, on October 31, 2018, Republican Senators Marco Rubio, Todd Young, Cory Gardner, Rand Paul, and Dean Heller sent a letter to President Trump urging him to “suspend talks related to a potential civil nuclear cooperation agreement between the United States and Saudi Arabia” due to “serious concerns about the transparency, accountability, and judgment of current decisionmakers in Saudi Arabia.”

Flying fish

Image via Reddit.  Video below narrated by Sir David Attenborough.

Child sacrifice in ancient Peru

Evidence for the largest single incident of mass child sacrifice in the Americas— and likely in world history—has been discovered on Peru's northern coast, archaeologists tell National Geographic. More than 140 children and 200 young llamas appear to have been ritually sacrificed in an event that took place some 550 years ago on a wind-swept bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, in the shadow of what was then the sprawling capital of the Chimú Empire...
While incidents of human sacrifice among the Aztec, Maya, and Inca have been recorded in colonial-era Spanish chronicles and documented in modern scientific excavations, the discovery of a large-scale child sacrifice event in the little-known pre-Columbian Chimú civilization is unprecedented in the Americas—if not in the entire world...

The skeletal remains of both children and animals show evidence of cuts to the sternum as well as rib dislocations, which suggest that the victims' chests were cut open and pulled apart, perhaps to facilitate the removal of the heart...

The layer of mud found during excavations may provide a clue, say the researchers, who suggest it was the result of severe rain and flooding on the generally arid coastline, and probably associated with a climate event related to El-Niño.
More information, and a slideshow, at National Geographic.

Recycling cut flowers

Two young women in the Twin Cities have started a nonprofit business delivering cut flowers to senior citizens.
The duo built a website Bluebirds and Blooms to organize volunteers, accept private donations and set up sources for the repurposed flowers, which come from weddings, corporate events, fundraisers and grocery stores such as Trader Joe’s and Fresh Thyme. A pool of more than 100 volunteers picks up flowers, designs the arrangements and delivers bedside bouquets twice a week to 25 suburban and Minneapolis senior memory and hospice care communities every month...

Last February, they partnered with the Edina Community Foundation to help manage the nonprofit. At that spring’s fundraiser, “we were bragging about delivering 200 bouquets,” said Hogan. “In the next few weeks, we’ll be at 5,000.”
More information at the StarTribune.

18 February 2019

We don't have DNA from all of our ancestors

This past week I've been reading a very interesting book - Who We Are And How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the Science of the Human Past, by David Reich.  It examines the history of the spread of mankind using information not from bone morphology or artifact similarities, but from the arguably more rigorous basis of DNA sequences.  Human migration is charted out of Africa (and back into it), up to Eurasia, and across to the Americas.  Correlations are drawn with languages and artifacts, but it's the DNA that overturns Clovis First and other older schema.  There is a lot of hard science, much of it way over my head, but it was clearly worth the browse, even just for the insight on Sally Hemings and the progeny of Genghis Khan.  The final chapters discuss the question of "what is race?" - a more complex question than most people realize.

The most interesting insight for me is reflected in the diagram embedded above (via), and this paragraph from the opening chapter:
’The Bible and the chronicles of royal families record who begat whom over dozens of generations. Yet even if the genealogies are accurate, Queen Elizabeth II of England almost certainly inherited no DNA from William of Normandy, who conquered England in 1066 and who is believed to be her ancestor twenty-four generations back in time. This does not mean that Queen Elizabeth II did not inherit DNA from ancestors that far back, just that it is expected that only about 1,751 of her 16,777,216 twenty-fourth-degree genealogical ancestors contributed DNA to her. This is such a small fraction that the only way William could plausibly be her genetic ancestor is if he was her genealogical ancestor in thousands of different lineage paths, which seems unlikely even considering the high level of inbreeding in the British Royal family.’
So, to oversimplify it for myself:   As you go back through the generations of your ancestry, the number of ancestors you have begins to increase exponentially.  For the first 6 generations back (to your great-great-great-great grandparents) there is "room" in your genome for some DNA from each of them.  But once you are back a dozen generations, with 4,096 ancestors (barring consaguinity), only a minority of them will have any sequences reflected in your genome.

Interesting stuff.  A hard read, but a good browse.  I think the book is available fulltext online here.

The continuing evolution of tuskless elephants

An example of natural selection at work:
Hunting gave elephants that didn’t grow tusks a biological advantage in Gorongosa. Recent figures suggest that about a third of younger females—the generation born after the war ended in 1992—never developed tusks. Normally, tusklessness would occur only in about 2 to 4 percent of female African elephants...

New, as yet unpublished, research she’s compiled indicates that of the 200 known adult females, 51 percent of those that survived the war—animals 25 years or older—are tuskless. And 32 percent of the female elephants born since the war are tuskless...

This tuskless trend isn’t limited to Mozambique, either. Other countries with a history of substantial ivory poaching also see similar shifts among female survivors and their daughters. In South Africa, the effect has been particularly extreme—fully 98 percent of the 174 females in Addo Elephant National Park were reportedly tuskless in the early 2000s...
There is a downside -

Tusks are essentially overgrown teeth. Yet they’re typically used for most tasks of daily living: digging for water or vital minerals in the ground, debarking trees to secure fibrous food, and helping males compete for females...

The work elephants do with their tusks is vital for other animals too. Elephants’ “role as a keystone species to topple trees and dig holes to access water is important for a variety of lower species that depend on them... If elephants are changing where they live, how quickly they move, or where they go, it could have larger implications for the ecosystems around them.

17 February 2019

Rocks on Lake Baikal

Via Reddit, whence also the link to this image:

Found discarded in a parking lot

"Experts recently found that it is likely to be a long-lost royal marriage bed dating to the 15th century.  In it, the nuptial frolics of King Henry VII and Elizabeth of York celebrated the end of the Wars of the Roses... and birthed England's famed Tudor dynasty.

The bed's former identity came to light after it was retired from the hotel and discarded in a parking lot. It was rescued by an antiques dealer who [incorrectly] listed it as "a profusely carved Victorian four poster bed with armorial shields..."

When Ian Coulson, a restorer and dealer of antique beds, purchased the bed online in 2010, he discovered that the wood was far older than the seller suspected... Meanwhile, emblems such as stars, shields, lions and roses carved into the bed frame were frequently associated with Tudor royalty; together, they matched the style of surviving Tudor beds from the 15th and 16th centuries.

The faces in the Adam and Eve headboard carving resemble early portraits of Henry VII and his queen; and the figures are surrounded by fertility symbols — acorns, grapes and strawberries...

DNA analysis of the wood confirmed that it was oak from central Europe of the genetic variety known as Haplotype-7, found from southern France through Belarus, and all of it came from the same tree, according to the online news outlet Hexham-Courant. Samples of paint under the headboard varnish revealed flecks of ultramarine; this vivid blue medieval pigment was more precious than gold and likely would have been used only to decorate beds belonging to royalty...
More at Live Science, via Neatorama.

"Trombone suicide"

I thought for sure I must have blogged one of these routines before, but apparently not.  This one via Neatorama.

"Her cups runneth over"

About two weeks into last month’s government shutdown, Dana Marlowe, a.k.a. “The Accidental Bra Fairy,” put out a Facebook post in which she offered to help female federal employees who had no money for bras or feminine hygiene products.

Within hours, nearly 100 messages poured in...

Marlowe was better equipped than most to offer her support: She has a basement filled with bras and sanitary products that she gives away free...  Since she began her I Support the Girls nonprofit in July 2015, the 42-year-old business executive and mother of two sons from Silver Spring, Md., said she has distributed more than 500,000 bras and 2.5 million personal hygiene products to women in need.

Underwire bras, push-up bras, sports bras, maternity bras and racerback bras arrive at her house by the boxload in every hue and pattern imaginable, including pastel pink and neon green and red polka dots, winged hearts and spotted leopard. Most of them are gently used.

What started as a local project to help give a few homeless women some intimate wear has turned into an organization with an army of volunteers collecting and distributing bras, tampons and pads in 50 U.S. cities and five other countries... 

[In 2015] she went to a Soma lingerie store near her home to buy several new bras. After the sales clerk rang up her purchases, Marlowe asked what she could do with 16 perfectly good bras that no longer fit.

“The clerk told me four simple words that completely changed my direction and my life,” Marlowe said. “She said, ‘Homeless women need bras.’ ”

It had never occurred to her.

Marlowe called a homeless shelter in Washington and was told that they would gladly accept all the clean, gently used bras she could find. “What else could you use?” Marlowe inquired. “Maxi pads and tampons,” the worker said. “Women here would really appreciate those.”..

In almost any situation, she said, a new bra can signify a fresh start.

“A bra is one of many small luxuries that most women take for granted,” Marlowe said, “and if you don’t have these things, you think about them all the time. To take away that worry for as many women as possible is what keeps me going. It makes all of the long hours and hard work worthwhile.”
Kudos to this lady.  More at The Washington Post.   Photo credit D. Lag. 

Homepage for I Support the Girls.

Rural America needs immigrants

As explained by the editor of the Storm Lake Times in northern Iowa:
Here in Storm Lake, Iowa, where the population is about 15,000 and unemployment is under 2 percent, Asians and Africans and Latinos are our lifeline. The only threat they pose to us is if they weren’t here...

One part of the rural condition in American today is that, after college, our young people go to Des Moines or some city beyond for a job in finance or engineering... As rural counties are drained of young people with higher educations, immigrants flow into the vacuum. The influx began 40 years ago and continues today...

So long as there is corn, there will be hogs and turkeys and eggs in Iowa. Somebody will have to do that work. Now, the Storm Lake Elementary School is 90 percent children of color, and about three-fourths of those are Hispanic — mainly from Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. We could employ 500 more workers easily if we could find, and find housing for, them...

The demand for meat cutters seems endless. Smaller towns run buses to Storm Lake to pick up immigrants for day work in those factories. They’ll pay you $18 an hour at Tyson to slice pork, plus a hefty signing bonus. The workforce is overwhelmingly immigrant, well over half Latino. Tyson insists they are all legal, yet we figure about a third of the immigrant community in general here might be without papers — who knows?..

In keenest demand here are health-care workers — orderlies, nursing assistants and cafeteria workers to toil for about $12 to $15 an hour in one of Iowa’s largest industries: nursing homes...

Storm Lake’s crime rate last year reached a 27-year low. It is more diverse than ever. Some 30 languages or dialects are spoken here. But the community knows it will wither up and blow away without its young people. Like it or not, legal or not, our young people are predominantly Latino. If there is to be a wall, there will have to be a door for immigrants to find their way here as the better-educated leave for the brighter lights and greener urban pastures.
More here.

15 February 2019

News from The Onion

The Onion

The final seven Henry Merrivale mysteries

In July of last year I covered the first four Henry Merrivale novels.  In November I tackled the next five, then six more in January.  Today we finish with the final seven, discussing the language only, with no plot-spoiling comments.

The Curse of the Bronze Lamp (1945)
No locked room.  Instead an introductory dedication to Ellery Queen with a "cryptic reference to Mr. James Phillimore and his umbrella."  Carr is obliquely referring to John Watson's line in Doyle's The Problem of Thor Bridge:
‘Among these unfinished tales is that of Mr James Phillimore, who, stepping back into his own house to get his umbrella, was never more seen in this world.’
I'll say no more (for those interested, there is a review here).  On to the language.
[A row involving H.M.] ".. is still mentioned with respect by Arab porters and hotel commissionaires, even in that city of memorable schlimozzels."  That's a word I first (and last) heard in the introductory song for Laverne and Shirley!  "Schlemazel, also schlimazel, "born loser," 1948, from Yiddish shlim mazel "rotten luck," from Middle High German slim "crooked" + Hebrew mazzal "luck." British slang shemozzle "an unhappy plight" (1889) is probably from the same source."

"The sunlight made a living entity of the picture carvings which fretted every inch of the bowl."  "To decorate or ornament, especially with an interlaced or interwoven pattern, or (architecture) with carving or relief (raised) work."

"She slipped out over the up-ended front seat, as trim and soignee as though the waterproof were a kind of cellophane wrapping."  Fashionable and elegant, borrowed from the French.

"... met an odd cove named Beaumont."  Informal British for "a fellow, a man."  Said to be from Romany (Gypsy) cova "a thing," covo "that man".

"By the six names of Satan, she was here! I heard her!"  One online reference says there are six names of Satan found in Scripture: Satan, Beelzebub, Devil, Lucifer, Dragon, Prince.

"But I was there.  So was a josser named Alim Bey."  Lots of meanings, depending on the context - a foolish man, a clergyman. an outsider working in a circus, a person of influence or importance.

"Kit would have recognized him by the red tarbush on his head."  A fez. (Arabic: tarboosh).

"... a kitchen maid or a tweeny."  Slang for "between-maid" - a sort of servant to the servants.

"She was gettin' scared.  She didn't dare keep the dibs any longer." In context, stolen merchandise, perhaps related to claiming "dibs" (ownership).

My Late Wives (1946)
Not a locked-room mystery; the puzzle to be solved is how a murderer can dispose of a dead body from a room under constant surveillance.  Not one of JDC's best.
"In the spring of 1933 he took her north, to a bosky cottage near Scarborough..."  Covered by trees or bushes; wooded.  (Late 16th century: from Middle English bosk, variant of bush.)

 "This is especially so in post-war London, where browned-off troops and equally browned-off civilians find their nerves scratched by so many small annoyances..."  Irritated or depressed, bored, fed up, disgusted.  "The slang phrase became popular in the Second World War.  The reference is probably to a dish that has been overcooked. See also cheesed off..."

 "You leave it to me, cock.  I'll see you don't get lagged." To transport as a punishment for crime (British archaic slang).

"Sir, do you think I'm off my chump?"  Insane, crazy. 

"Is that your Goddamned theatrical habit?"  Interesting to see it capitalized.

"Commander Renwick, obviously, was very pukka, very much the sort of person who does not let you forget that he has been an officer and a gentleman."  High quality, genuine, first class.  From the Hindi, Punjabi, and Urdu.

"By any sane computation, that ought to carry the perisher round and land him slap on the green..."  Annoying child or brat, used as a term of contempt (or pity).  "Perishing" can be used as an intensifier in British speech.

"Beyond it was a car, an S.S. Jaguar in whose big dickey, or rumble seat, you could easily hide a body."  The manufacturer's name 'SS Cars', used from 1934, maintained a link to the previous owner, Swallow Sidecar, founded in 1922 to build motorcycle sidecars. In March 1945 the S. S. Cars shareholders agreed to change the name to Jaguar Cars Limited.

"H.M. was at the wheel of the car, a big but very old relic with isinglass-windowed side-curtains..."  I've always equated isinglass with mica, but that wouldn't make sense in this context.  Turns out the word is also used for "a form of gelatine obtained from the air bladder of the sturgeon and certain other fish, used as an adhesive and as a clarifying agent for wine and beer.  And in fact the word itself is from the Dutch/German for "sturgeon-bladder."  “With isinglass curtains y’ can roll right down/In case there’s a change in the weather.”—“The Surrey With The Fringe On Top,” from Oklahoma!, 1943.  Photo of 1926 car with "large isinglass side curtains" (perhaps the term is used interchangeably with "celluloid."

"... along an open coast where rain-gusts flew at them with harpy violence..."  Commonly encountered as a noun; I don't recall seeing it used as an adjective.

"... and owing to a concatenation of circumstances..."  A series of links united, from the Latin catena = chain.

"That's when J.M. realized this blighter was up the pole, a lunatic with designs on Daphne..." "'Up the pole' is an odd phrase, or rather, it is an odd collection of phrases, in that it has numerous meanings..." In context, insanity, so perhaps thus: "In a classic example of folk etymology, 'up the pole' has been suggested to be named after De La Pole Psychiatric Hospital, Hull, UK."

Skeleton in the Clock (1948)
The plot involves locked rooms (execution chambers at an abandoned local prison), but the murders don't take place there.
"Who the devil are these two powerful jujus, grandmother and Aunt Cicely?"  Borrowed from the West African.

"Didn't you hear Beowulf's Mother yellin' for chuckers-out?"  "Ejection or dismissal, usually the sack. Late 19th century Austrlia/NZ. Also the end of drinking time in a public house, or place of entertainment, when customers are asked to drink up and leave."  The second definition makes more sense in context.

"... it made him jump to his feet, miry-eyed, and peer round..."  Related to a mire (swampy), but in context presumably meaning the eyelids stuck together from recent sleep.

"For some reason Martin's gorge rose sickeningly at the very thought of eating."  Throat, gullet, from the Latin.  If it rises, the implication is impending vomiting.

"You're not likely to forget the first h.e. bomb that fell close to you..."  Colloquial term for high-explosive bomb used by the Luftwaffe.

"Martin thought he could detect one brass band, a panotrope with a bad needle, and the steam organ of a merry-go-round." "A device for playing records, especially one that plays them loud enough for fairground or similar use." 

A Graveyard to Let (1949)
The setting is the equivalent of a locked room.   A wealthy man is visiting with six or seven guests at his swimming pool.  When police arrive he dives into the pool.   His hat floats to the surface, along with his sandals, but he disappears.  The water is murky, so while watching the pool, the police have it drained.  His body is not in there.  And there are no secret exits from the pool.

"The revolver was not a Colt .38 police positive, as Cy half expected."  "The Colt Police Positive was an improvement of Colt’s earlier “New Police” revolver, upgraded with an internal hammer block safety. Colt named this new security device the “Positive Lock”, and its nomenclature ended up being incorporated as a partial namesake for the new revolver

"Sir Henry, you have a popsy in New York."  (in context, a kept woman)

Night at the Mocking Widow (1950)
Probably the weakest JDC novel I've reviewed to date, because the solution relies more on psychology and motives rather than clues - more reminiscent of an Agatha Christie than a JDC (the crimes in this book are poison pen letters, not murders).
"Theo Bull swears 'e won't have no nance amateur three rounds [of boxing]. 'E wants a perfessional fifteen..." Short for "nancyboy" = homosexual or effeminate man.

"The woman seemed to sag, like a dim droopy witch, as she indicated a door on the left side."  I have no clue on this one, and don't know where to start.

"... so you see, my dolly, there's no call to be scared of that sausage-eatin' faker downstairs.  He's only wind and gold-rimmed gig lamps.  He sticks the gig lamps in your face and talks a lot of tommyrot." A lamp on the side of a gig (carriage, two-wheeled, horse-drawn).  The person referred to in the story was a psychiatrist.

Behind the Crimson Blind (1952)
Another weak  novel, written late in JDC's career, and during a time when his other detective, Gideon Fell, was getting the best plots.  Carr still has a way with words, vide this introduction of a principal character: "Though his best friend could not have called him handsome, his thin face showed traces of an intelligence and humour which were masked, as a result of his official duties, by a formal courtesy close to stateliness." As with The Mocking Widow (above), there is too little detecting and too much romance, comedic episodes, and derring-do; it's a "light read."

In his critical study of John Dickson Carr, S.T. Joshi notes a decline in the later Merrivale mysteries: "It is not very profitable to trace the course or history of the Merrivale novels: not one, I believe, is to be compared in scope or brilliance with the four or five best Fell novels, or even with the best of the Bencolin series, and in general there is simply a gradual decline in quality and readability."

Remarkably, in this novel H.M. even kills someone: "H.M.'s powerful left hand whacked down on Middle Europe's head, seizing and rolling a good handful of hair to hold  hard.  As he forced the man downwards, H.M.'s right hand drove the Riff knife through the side of white robe's throat, just behind the Adam's apple."  In the concluding chapter Merrivale says "Maybe I had to do something like that in Marseilles once; or two or three times at Port Said; or maybe in Occupied Germany..."
Riff knife was hard to find, in part because of dilution from references to a knife owned by a character named Riff in West Side Story.  Finally found a proper reference in Agatha Christie's Murder is Easy:" He had a knife in his hand--a long slender blade. "Perfect workmanship," he was saying. "One of my young men brought it back to me from Morocco, where he'd been special correspondent. It's Moorish, of course, a Riff knife."

 "I'm not asking for any Bertillon measurements..." [re someone's head]  "A system for identifying people by a physical description based upon anthropometric measurements, notes of markings, deformities, skin colour, impression of thumb lines, etc." Named for the French anthropologist (who also invented the mug shot).

"... young Arabs in modern clothes whose pinched-in waists and white ties made them resemble wide-boys from Soho."

"... breakfast of two hard-boiled eggs, huge slices of ham together with those red sausages... his collation was placed on the table piece by piece over a smooth linen cloth."  A collection or bringing-together.  Also a light meal taken by monks after a reading in a Benedictine monastery, perhaps used here jokingly."

 "... [redacted] had got to the point, that night, where he and Collier had got to part brass rags."

The Cavalier's Cup (1953)
Classic locked-room mystery, though the mystery is overwhelmed by lengthy and sometimes tedious side-stories of humor involving Signor Luigi Ravioli, a caricatured Italian.  ["Well! She isn't bad at all.  Except for one thing, she would meet with anyone's approval.  Though I hate to put it quite so crudely, Dad did seem to be getting to first base."  "First-a base?" exclaimed Signor Ravioli in horror.  "You want-a to insult-a your Pop?  He's-a tear around-a bases going straight-a for home plate!"  Virginia did not stop to correct this vulgarism..."]
"Just then they both heard horsemen in half-armour and buff-coats..."  "The European buff coat (the term deriving from the ox or buffalo hide from which it was commonly made and its yellowish colour) was an item of leather clothing worn by cavalry and officers during the 17th century, it also saw limited use by some infantry. It was often worn under armour. It was derived from the simple leather jerkins worn by huntsmen and soldiers during the Tudor period, these in turn deriving from the arming doublet worn under full plate armour."

"Rapidly, as though they were alone on some fond, isolated island, Virginia sketched out what she had been telling the others..."  An odd adjective to choose, perhaps meaning "foolish, silly."

"What's the idea of the tile?" yelled H.M.  "Lord love a duck, haven't you got any better manners than to stick on your hat in the house?"  Definitions of "tile" do include "a stiff hat."  In this case the hat was a top-hat and clearly not discoid or tile-shaped; perhaps the usage refers to the application of tiles to cover a roof.
Thus endeth my survey of language in twenty-two Sir Henry Merrivale novels (one week after H.M.'s 148th birthday).  I need a change and will switch my reading elsewhere.  When I return to John Dickson Carr, it will be to cover the historical mysteries.  I'm saving the final group (and the best of the lot) - the Gideon Fell novels - for last.

Canine agility champion

Filmed at the 2015 Westminster Kennel Club dog show.  Wikipedia has a wonderfully comprehensive article on dog agility competitions.
Dogs run off leash with no food or toys as incentives, and the handler can touch neither dog nor obstacles. Consequently the handler's controls are limited to voice, movement, and various body signals, requiring exceptional training of the animal and coordination of the handler....

Because each course is different, handlers are allowed a short walk-through before the competition starts. During this time, all handlers competing in a particular class can walk or run around the course without their dogs...

Each dog and handler team gets one opportunity together to attempt to complete the course successfully...

Dogs are measured in height at the peak of their withers (shoulders). They are then divided into height groups... Dogs are further divided into their experience levels...Dogs are not separated by breed in agility competitions... 
Lots more details re the individual obstacles and the training techniques.

Reposted from 2015 because I was inspired by watching video of the 2018 competition this week, and another video of an 8" Papillon winning this year.

Related: Once an agility canine, always an agility canine (paraplegic dog)
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