24 January 2020

Can there be a "good" bibliocaust?

Every decries the burning of books - but what if the "good guys" are burning the "bad books"?  Herewith some excerpts from an article in Lapham's Quarterly:
The Allies signed Order No. 4, on the “Confiscation of Literature and Material of a Nazi and Militarist Nature” on May 13, 1946. It prohibited works that promoted Nazism, fascism, militarism, racism, völkisch ideas, antidemocratic views, and civil disorder. It required schools, universities, and public libraries, as well as booksellers and publishers, to remove these works from their shelves and deliver them to Allied authorities; they would then be “placed at the disposal of the Military Zone commanders for destruction.” American officials must have assumed that Order No. 4, as an extension of earlier policies, would attract little notice when they announced it in Berlin that day. Instead, reporters clamored for explanation and demanded a second briefing. In a hastily organized press conference that night, Vivian Cox, an ex-WAC and a low-level assistant in the Armed Forces Division, was called in to address the skeptical crowd. She told them that a single passage could condemn a book and “billions” of volumes might be seized. “Was the order different in principle from Nazi book burnings?” they asked. “No, not in Miss Cox’s opinion,” reported Time. This was a front-page story: Americans were burning books...

Public libraries and universities were initially seen in a different light. The Handbook for Military Government, issued in December 1944, had ruled that books in these libraries “not be removed, impounded, or destroyed.” Education and Religious Affairs in particular favored unrestricted access to any library material, drawing a distinction between adult reading and re­quired school textbooks. Through the spring, however, the policy hardened...

Removing Nazi literature from German homes proved to be a red line. Although a committee drafted a directive to this effect, it aroused strong opposition in the U.S. Control Council. To accomplish this goal, one general objected, they would need not only a vast index expurgatorius of “tens of thousands of titles” but also armies of inspectors to search every home and bookshelf.

A map of Mormonism

Via the MapPorn subreddit, where a reader comments that the map "displays what percentage of the total population are Mormons, not total number of Mormons per county. It also cuts off at 2%."

Boing Boing is celebrating their vicennium

Kudos to Boing Boing, which this week is celebrating 20 years on the internet.  I have been harvesting material from them for about 12 years; they offer a rich source of eclectic information, informed opinions, and incisive comments from their readers.  Two posts this week are of particular note:
Boing Boing is 20 (or33) years old today

Twenty years of blogging at Boing Boing
In the first one, Mark Frauenfelder presents the history of Boing Boing, and in the second Rob Beschizza offers links to a boatload of historic posts.

I had to look up the word for the title.  I was expecting to have to say "double-decennial", but it turns out there is a word for every twenty years: "vicennial" is from the Latin vicesimus+annus.   One could also use "vigintennial", but vice is nice.

Other anniversary terms.

You learn something every day.

There is a "Tywkiwdbi" in World of Warcraft

The acronym isn't copyrighted, and I'm not angry - just puzzled.  I presume it was a reader here who created the character - care to leave a comment on this post about the character?

"Crazy worms" severely damage forest ecosystems

I have previously posted about the damage that fisherman inflict on forests when they dump unused bait on the shore:
At dusk Chaffin provided a tour of a colony of night crawlers — the most damaging of the worms — residing beneath a massive basswood tree behind his campsite. Each year, the worms can eat a season’s worth of basswood leaves, depriving the forest floor of “duff,’’ the carpetlike layer of decaying matter that is a critical component of northern American forests.

In a healthy forest, the duff keeps tree roots cool, germinates tree seeds and mushrooms, and provides a home for ovenbirds, salamanders and other small creatures. But below this basswood the earth is bare, a circle of hard-packed dirt 30 feet in diameter. Trees that might fare better here as the climate warms — hardwoods such as red maple and basswood — can’t take root in the packed dirt. Instead, the worms create ideal conditions for invasives such as buckthorn and garlic mustard, plants that evolved with them in Europe.
Recently, a non-native earthworm was discovered at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum
The Amynthas agrestis, also called the Asian crazy worm, was discovered last fall in the Arboretum, and the species survived the harsh winter. Officials said it’s the first time the species has been seen in Wisconsin, although it’s been in the East and Southeast U.S. for 50 years, Herrick said.

The eight-inchers come with a ravenous appetite and an advanced ability to reproduce, reaching maturity in just two months and creating offspring without mating. When infestations happen, the worms devour nutrient-rich soil at the forest floor. Erosion sets in, making it harder for native plants to survive. In their place, pesky invasive plants can grow.
The worms are presumed to have arrived in nursery plants received from the east coast.

The best resource I know of online for earthworm-related problems is the Great Lakes Worm Watch, maintained by the University of Minnesota.

Reposted from 2014 to add some excerpts from a recent, detailed article in The Atlantic:
With the exception of a few native species that live in rotting logs and around wetlands, there are not supposed to be any earthworms east of the Great Plains and north of the Mason-Dixon Line...

Gardeners now rejoice to find earthworms in their soil, and you can purchase a 1,000-pack of “Nature’s Wonder Workers” on Amazon for $45. There’s even an entire canon of worm-centric children’s literature, including Wiggling Worms at Work and Richard Scarry’s Best Lowly Worm Book Ever!  But Peter Groffman, a soil ecologist at the City University of New York, says that while worms may do some good in your compost bin, they don’t deserve all the credit for your bumper crops and lush ornamentals. “The earthworms are in the soil because the soil is healthy,” he says. “They are not necessarily doing anything for it.”..

The discovery alarmed scientists. In the absence of worms, North American hardwood forests develop a thick blanket of duff—a mille-feuille of slowly decomposing leaves deposited over the course of years, if not decades. That layer creates a home for insects, amphibians, birds, and native flowers. But when worms show up, they devour the litter within the space of a few years. All the nutrients that have been stored up over time are released in one giant burst, too quickly for most plants to capture. And without cover, the invertebrate population in the soil collapses...

Plants like trillium, lady’s slipper, and Canada mayflower vanish, too. This may be because the worms disrupt the networks of symbiotic fungus that many native plants depend on, or because worms directly consume the plants’ seeds. Or that native species, accustomed to spongy duff, are ill-prepared to root into the hard soil left behind when the worms have finished eating. It could be all of the above...

Bernie Williams remembers when she discovered jumping worms in Wisconsin. October 3, 2013, was “the day that ruined many of our lives,” says Williams, a worm expert at the state Department of Natural Resources.

She was leading a group of researchers and managers on a tour of the University of Wisconsin arboretum. Scientists already knew European worms had taken up residence there, and Williams led the visitors to a heavily invaded spot. But as soon as she saw the soil, she knew something was wrong. “These worms were everywhere,” she says.

Over the next three years, the jumping worms stormed across 25 acres of forest in the arboretum, effectively eradicating their European rivals. They have now been reported in 52 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties, Williams tells me, disproving predictions that the harsh winters would keep them at bay...
Much more at The Atlantic.

"Wilderness solo" longread

"... I was always in the middle of some calculation or quantification with respect to time, and such thoughts were always predicated on an understanding of it as a precious and limited resource. What time was it right now? How much time was left for me to do the thing I was doing, and when would I have to stop doing it to do the next thing?..

I came to a clearing in a forest by a riverbank in Dartmoor national park, far enough from any trail that it seemed unlikely I would encounter anyone while I was there. I gathered some loose branches and stones and arranged them in a circle of about 10 metres in diameter, and then I walked into the circle and did not leave it until the same time the following day.

The short version of this story is that nothing happened in that time: that I did nothing and witnessed nothing, experienced only the passage of the hours and minutes, and the languid dynamics of my own boredom. The long version isn’t exactly The Iliad, either, but in that version something could be said to have happened. Because by the time I walked out of that circle the following afternoon, I’d had an entirely unexpected and intensely cathartic encounter with the passage of time, and with my own mortality.

This is a practice commonly referred to as a “wilderness solo”..."
The story continues at "Splendid isolation: how I stopped time by sitting in a forest for 24 hours"

23 January 2020

Scrapbook, part V


United States fertility rate at an all-time low

"During 1940–2018, the expected number of births a woman would have over her lifetime, the TFR, was highest for women during the post-World War II baby boom (births during 1946–1964). In 1957, the TFR reached a peak of 3.77 births per woman. The TFR generally declined for the birth cohort referred to as Generation X from 2.91 in 1965 to 1.84 in 1980. For the birth cohorts referred to as Millennials (Generation Y) and Generation Z, the TFR first increased to 2.08 in 1990 and then remained generally stable until it began to decline in 2007. By 2018, the expected number of births per women fell to 1.73, a record low for the nation. Except for 2006 and 2007, the TFR has been below the level needed for a generation to replace itself (2.10 births per woman) since 1971."
Graph and text from the CDC, via The Washington Post.

Words that exist only in the plural form

  • Names of devices: 
    • bellows, binoculars, forceps, gallows, glasses, pliers, scissors, shears, tongs.
  • Names of items of clothing: 
    • braces, briefs, jeans, knickers, pants, pyjamas, shorts, tights, trousers.
Discussion at Lexico.

21 January 2020

Divertimento #173

There seems to be water everywhere in space.  "New analysis of the meteorite, called Acfer 049, has revealed ice fossils trapped inside, making it the first direct evidence of frozen water as a building block of early asteroids. Given the meteorite's age, it also preserves material that created our solar system, providing a unique look at our corner of the universe and how it formed."

A gallery of photos of the world's largest walnut harvest (in Kyrgyzstan).

"Why is it so difficult to get a new pair of glasses or contacts in this country? It’s easier pretty much everywhere else... why does the United States require people who want to purchase something as simple as a curved piece of plastic to get a prescription, preceded by a costly medical exam?"

IMDb lists and ranks the 250 top-rated television shows (series).

"A lifelong swimmer leapt into deep water near his lakeside home, and was horrified to find himself completely unable to swim. Had his wife not rescued him, he might have drowned. He had recently received an electronic brain implant to control tremors and other symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, and somehow the signals from the device had knocked out his ability to coordinate his arms and legs for swimming. He was one of nine patients, all good swimmers despite having Parkinson’s, who had the same strange, dangerous side effect from deep brain stimulators."

"In the late 15th century, a mystery disease broke out in England. Thousands died and terror stalked the land. The disease, called the sweating disease, now is only a figment of history and literature.
It may have altered history by killing Prince Arthur, the heir to the throne whose death ushered in the tumultuous reign of Henry VIII.  The disease remains one of medicine’s great mysteries. It came in five waves, and haunted Tudor England for 70 years before disappearing."

The earliest evidence for modern humans in the New World is at Monte Verde in Chile.

"But there’s a good chance that you’re going to see a Ring video doorbell on sale—possibly bundled with an Amazon Echo—this Black Friday. Do not buy it. And definitely don’t buy one for somebody else... It’s under Congressional scrutiny for poor data security and problematic privacy practices. It’s been engaged in dubious secret partnerships with police departments who can gain access to private home security camera feeds."

"Buying new cars is like taking $40,000 and setting it on fire... the easiest way to save money, hands down, is to drive a piece-of-crap car."

"A massive trove of documents, data, and recorded phone calls showing how British company Formations House works to hide money for the superrich is being reported on by journalists all over the world... "Formations House was the perfect example of a 'one-stop shop' for creating legal entities that serve as fronts for fraudulent operations and money laundering," said Burkhart. "In only a matter of days, a client could purchase offshore companies bundled into packages touting minimal compliance requirements, tax-free operations, and anonymity for directors and shareholders." 

"Police officer accused of fondling corpse apparently didn't realize that turning off his body cam wouldn't stop it from recording him."

"Electronics can be hazardous when disposed of improperly, and the Basel Action Network, or BAN, investigates the underground world of the e-waste trade. The nonprofit group secretly embeds trackers in discarded devices, then hands them to recyclers to see where they end up, exposing bad practices in the process... "

Video clips of the shootout on the public highway.

"For decades Victoria Falls, where southern Africa’s Zambezi river cascades down 100 metres into a gash in the earth, have drawn millions of holidaymakers to Zimbabwe and Zambia for their stunning views.  But the worst drought in a century has slowed the waterfalls to a trickle, fuelling fears that climate change could kill one of the region’s biggest tourist attractions."

How to clean moldy shower caulk.

"I spent 10 years “teaching” at one of the most notorious cash-grab colleges in the country. There, I saw profoundly underprepared students racking up far more debt than their “traditional” peers – debt they would default on at more than twice the rate of those peers, landing the costs of these wayward scholars directly on the shoulders of taxpayers."

"We’d arrived at a “trespass grow,” one of hundreds in the state of California. If you bought weed on the black market recently, there’s a good chance it came from a grow like this one. There’s a good chance, then, that your joint was contributing to a spiraling environmental catastrophe."

A hot air balloon misadventure at a Vikings halftime show in 1969 carried a young boy far far away and into a river.

If you have applied for a copy of a birth certificate, your personal data may have been exposed to the public.  "An online company that allows users to obtain a copy of their birth and death certificates from U.S. state governments has exposed a massive cache of applications — including their personal information. More than 752,000 applications for copies of birth certificates were found on an Amazon Web Services (AWS) storage bucket."

The deepest river in the world is the Congo - so deep that fish displaced from the bottom to the surface die of the bends.

"How Pro Sports Became Part of the U.S. Military’s War Machine... A set of corporate-military partnerships or, if you prefer, some version of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s old military-industrial complex has enlisted sports to make militarism look good and normal and even cool. In other words, sports teams now have a powerful set of incentives to appear patriotic, which increasingly means slavishly pro-military."

Melatonin is the modern gin.  "Tens of thousands of children and young people in England are being given the hormone melatonin to help them sleep, prompting concern that the medicine is being handed out too readily with little evidence of its long-term effectiveness or safety."

Fox News (and CNN and MSNBC) are not "accredited news stations" (the term only applies to FCC-regulated over-the-air stations, not cable channels)

Americans are increasingly unable to do simple arithmetic.

Look what happens when you heat an old silver knife.  "Silver dinner knives are made with hollow handles because solid silver knives would be excessively heavy not to mention costly. Applying any type of heat to one of these dinner knives will result in the interior contents of the handle shifting/expanding/whatever. This is an extreme example, but it is not surprising. Related: Don't put your hollow handle sterling knives in the dishwasher."

"Haint blue" explained.

"A family bought a 20,000-square-foot Freemason temple in Indiana for $89,000, and they're now turning it into their home. Take a look inside."

How did humans boil water before they invented metal pottery?  Fire-cracked rock is only part of the answer...

"Adulting" summarized in a couple sentences.

"In the 18th century, two Scottish surgeons named John Aitken and James Jeffray devised a solution they could employ when faced with difficult childbirths. Rather than use a knife to widen the pelvic area by slicing through cartilage and bone to extricate a stuck baby, the two developed a chainsaw to make cutting easier." (photo at the link)

If you can't reliably tell the difference between the 1/2 cup and the 1/3 cup and the 1/4 cup measuring cups in your kitchen drawer, consider these.

California's giant sequoia trees are being killed by bark beetles.

The histology of dinosaur bones.  "Preserved soft tissue, down to the protein level, was inconceivable due to assumed decay over millions of years. Schweitzer’s samples are different in that they were so well preserved inside the bone that she could identify parts of proteins and different compounds.

Climate change denier gets murdered by words.

GIFs of the Newfoundland snowmageddon.

The normal value for human body temperature may be decreasing.

An awesome presentation of the ocean pools along the coast of Australia's New South Wales.

The embedded images are selections from the Wikipedia category of Scissors in Art (details at the link)

20 January 2020


The wildflowers in the book are arranged by both color and blooming date (within color classes), just as you’ll see in other field guides. However, in this guide, the flowers appear as they actually look when you see them from the road."
The book is available here in a PowerPoint presentation.   I particularly enjoyed the descriptive phrases such as "There are several closely-related fleabane species, though few people care which is which," and the "differential diagnosis," such as this for the stiff goldenrod:
Similar species:
Anything yellow.
Via Neatorama.

A stutterer reprimands a bully

As reported by The Guardian:
Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot who performed the “Miracle on the Hudson”, has told Donald Trump’s daughter-in-law Lara Trump to “grow up” and “show some decency”, after she mocked Joe Biden for stuttering.

Biden, a frontrunner for the Democratic nomination to face President Trump in November, has spoken openly about his lifelong experiences with a stutter.

Lara Trump, who is married to the president’s second son Eric, works for the Trump re-election campaign and spoke in that capacity at an event in Iowa on Friday, the day after the seventh Democratic debate.

“I feel kind of sad for Biden,” she said. “And you know that’s when it’s not going well for him, right, because I’m supposed to want him to fail at every turn. But every time he comes onstage or they turn to him, I’m like, ‘Joe, can you get it out? Let’s get the words out, Joe.’”..

Regardless of how you feel about Joe Biden,” he wrote, “or his chances of becoming the Democratic nominee for president; whether you are a Republican, a Democrat, or none of the above; whether you stuttered as a child or laughed at one who did; whether as a parent you try to protect your own stuttering child from taunts such as those made by the president’s daughter-in-law; these words come without hesitation: Stop. Grow up. Show some decency. People who can’t have no place in public life.”

Trump’s words, he said, were indicative of a “culture of cruelty” which “drives decent people from public service and … makes millions of Americans recoil from politics, and even from participating in our democracy”...

Sullenberger concluded by saying “a speech disorder is a lot easier to treat than a character defect” and telling any children reading to “ignore kids (and adults) who are mean, or don’t know what it feels like to stutter.


Pat Moon and his team travel the Kuskokwim River toward McGrath, Alaska, during the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.   
Picture: Anchorage Daily News, Marc Lester/AP, via The Telegraph.

An awesome image showing the immensity and solitude of Alaska.

While we're on the subject, I'll mention the book shown at right - Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod - which I read about fifteen years ago and thoroughly enjoyed. 

About the same time the book was published I was offered an opportunity by a friend to go winter camping by dogsled near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northern Minnesota.  It would have involved a couple days of preparation, then several days of dogsledding, sleeping in tents along the trail.  For reasons I can't remember now, I declined the offer.  I think of that missed chance at times like this week when reports of a "solar storm" sent me out into the midnight air for two nights, hoping to catch a glimpse of the northern lights (sadly, they weren't evident at our latitude).

Life is short, and there are always choices to be made.  I was once advised, and am more and more coming to agree, that as one gets older, the regrets one has are most often not about the things you have done, but about the things you didn't do.

Reposted from 2012 because I gave the book a final re-read this past week and once again thoroughly enjoyed it.  What I had remembered most from the first read was the often self-deprecating humor when the author describes his efforts to learn the art of dogsledding (including what his wife described as a "two-skunk night") and his comical start at Anchorage in his first race.

What I appreciated more on the second read were the aspects of the "quest," the bonding that occurs between the musher and his dogs, and the introspection that occurs when someone is virtually alone in the wilderness.

This is an easy read - a couple hours spread out over a couple evenings.

Catastrophism as an alternative to Darwinian evolution

This past week I did a final re-read of a book that impressed me back in the 1980s.  The Great Dying is a deep dive into the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction created by the Chicxulub asteroid impact that struck the Yucatan 66 million years ago.

Kenneth Hsu is a highly-qualified and award-winning geologist.  For the book's title he has borrowed a phrase now more commonly applied to the Permian-Triassic extinction, but his interest and his life's work centers on the end-Cretaceous one.  He uses the undeniable evidence of the event to argue that major shifts in evolution are often driven by catastrophic events rather than by the progressive accumulation of incremental advantageous traits. 

He's not the first to address this issue.  Catastrophism was offered as a theory as soon as paleontologists discovered evidence of extinctions, was viewed favorably by Biblical scholars, and was later dialed up to 11 by Velikovsky.  It is one of many alternatives to evolution by natural selection.

Massive extinctions are fascinating events to read about.  I've heard some recent podcasts about new findings related to the Chicxulub event that left traces of iridium around the world in a layer of sterile clay.  My understanding many years ago was that the Yucutan impact disrupted the world's climate by producing either global heating or global cooling from the massive ejection of dust and water vapor and carbon dixoide into the atmosphere, and that the dying would have resulted from starvation or heat or cold intolerance.  Recent evidence of tektites half a globe away suggest that the world may have been flash-heated to cooking-to-death-all-exposed-life levels.

In any case, the argument of Hsu and other catastrophists is that these events do not result in "survival of the fittest" but rather "survival of the lucky."  One can't really argue that dinosaurs were "unfit" - they had covered the habitable terrestrial and aqueous world, were carnivores, herbivores, piscivores, and all the other vores.  They flew, swam, plodded, and ran in every non-arctic environment.  And they had survived (and evolved) for 160 million years.  Apparently there was one dinosaur - Stenonychosaurus inequalis - "whose large braincase, stereovision, and opposable thumb hinted at the potential for becoming a race of intelligent beings."  Then they all died within a time frame too short to measure accurately with geological sediment layers.   About 75% of all existing species at the end of the Mesozoic never appeared again - and they have nothing in common as unfit traits except that they were obliterated.

If one wants to say that the surviving mammals or rotifers or water bears are the result of the best "fitness", then that argument reduces down to just saying is that fitness is defined by survival and that you can't predict which organisms are the fittest now because there's no way to know what catastrophe awaits in the future.  The ones who survive will proliferate, perhaps abundantly, and then begin their own gradual evolution and speciation, not because they are fittest, but because they are the first to enter a recently-emptied ecosystem.

Personally, I don't have any difficulty incorporating both catastrophism and Darwinian gradualism into my thinking.  Natural selection is obviously operative even on very short timescales when pollution changes moth populations from white to brown, and catastrophes from floods to fires radically change ecosystems, resulting in new adaptive changes.

One reason some people ardently embrace the primacy of the principle of Darwinian "survival of the fittest" is that they want to apply it to human endeavor, arguing that their race or their culture is the result of natural social selection and other races/peoples are inferior.  And while that stance may be polticially incorrect and seldom expressed quite that way openly, one hears the same argument applied out loud to the business world - that corporations that prosper do so because they are the fittest and they deserve their prominence because they are better than their competition.  Here is Hsu's closing summary:
"We have been competitive; we have exterminated others, both our own and other species, whom we perceive to be interior, or at least of no account; and we would like to feel justified in such endeavors.  But the history of life can provide a scientific basis neither for capitalism nor for socialism, neither for Marxism nor for racism nor for the Maoism of ceaseless revolution.  The opinion that "favored races" are preserved in a struggle for existence was a speculation that has become a dangerous ideology.  We should cease to lend it a cloak of scientific respectability...
I believe we must live without pretending to know who or what is fit and not fit.  Instead, we should embrace the diversity of forms and ways that nourish life itself.  Looking back over the several billion years of our evolution, that is the closest I can come to the Tao of our existence.

For a Westerner, perhaps the essence of my perception can best be expressed by a quote from the Bible:
"I returned and saw under the sun that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all. "
I've not added this to my "recommended books" category in the blog because it is a detailed longread probably better viewed as a textbook than as casual reading material.  And there likely have been some better books on the subject since this one was published; readers are invited to suggest others.
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