18 October 2018

René Descartes and the "Exploding Head Syndrome"

Excerpts from an article in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine:
René Descartes (1596–1650), “the Father of Modern Philosophy” and advocate of mind-body dualism, had three successive dreams on November 10, 1619 that changed the trajectory of his life and the trajectory of human thought... I propose that Descartes' second dream was not a dream at all; rather, it was an episode of exploding head syndrome; a benign and relatively common parasomnia.

Baillet recounts that Descartes laid awake for 2 hours pondering “the blessings and evils of this world” after his first dream on the night of November 10, 1619. Just as Descartes fell asleep again:

“…immediately he had a new dream in which he believed he heard a sharp and shattering noise, which he took for a clap of thunder. The fright it gave him woke him directly, and after opening his eyes he perceived many sparkling lights scattered about the room. The same thing had often happened to him at other times…”
Descartes' experience following his first dream meets the International Classification of Sleep Disorders, Third Edition (ICSD-3) diagnostic criteria for EHS: (1) a sudden loud noise in the head at the wake-sleep transition; (2) causing abrupt awakening and sense of fright; and (3) not associated with significant complaints of pain.

Recent case reports indicate that EHS is often concomitant with another sleep disorder, most notably sleep paralysis, and it may also be more common in undergraduate students... Because EHS is a benign and self-limiting condition, patient education and reassurance is usually all that is required...

The pathophysiology of EHS is unknown. One theory postulates that EHS is the result of a momentary disinhibition of the brainstem reticular formation, occurring during the transition from wakefulness to sleep. A resulting paroxysm of neuronal activity in auditory and visual regions would explain the sudden perception of a loud noise and flash of light. If so, EHS may represent a sensory variant of hypnic jerks.
Much more at the link.  You learn something every day.

Canadian grocery stores running out of Doritos



From the HumansBeingBros subreddit.

17 October 2018

Here's some food for thought

The Murchison meteorite is about five billion years old - older than the Earth

It contains amino acids.
The meteorite belongs to the CM group of carbonaceous chondrites. Like most CM chondrites, Murchison is petrologic type 2, which means that it experienced extensive alteration by water-rich fluids on its parent body before falling to Earth. CM chondrites, together with the CI group, are rich in carbon and are among the most chemically primitive meteorites...

Several lines of evidence indicate that the interior portions of well-preserved fragments from Murchison are pristine. A 2010 study using high resolution analytical tools including spectroscopy, identified 14,000 molecular compounds including 70 amino acids in a sample of the meteorite.
Photo via.

Word for the day: pants

Last night I was listening to an episode of the Great British Baking Show (excellent entertainment, BTW).  One of the contestants said that he had done well in the morning signature bake but had been "pants in the afternoon."  The meaning was evident, but I had to look up the background.

World Wide Words had the answer:
It has been an all-purpose term of disapproval among young people in the UK during the middle to late nineties. It first turned up in print in 1994, in pieces that indicate it was popularised by DJs on the BBC’s radio pop channel, Radio 1... But there’s evidence that the word in this sense is somewhat older, and that it comes from student slang.

Pants in British usage are not trousers, of course, but underpants, principally male. These intimate nether garments have long been a source of innocent merriment among pubescent youth, and this was just another example, in the tradition of the earlier exclamation knickers!, indicating contempt or exasperation. It appears in phrases like “it’s a pile of pants!” (Simon Mayo’s catchphrase) and “it’s pants!” or “it’s absolute pants”, meaning that it’s a total load of rubbish. Later, we began to hear it from older people as in “My tomato crop was pants last year”. In phrases like “say pants to ...” it’s an injunction to wave goodbye to something considered outmoded, unwanted or unnecessary.
You learn something every day.

"Blade Runner Suite"

Via Neatorama.

The Federal budget deficit continues to grow. No end in sight.

As reported by the Wall Street Journal two weeks ago:
Federal revenues were essentially flat in the budget year that just ended, despite stepped up economic growth, strong hiring and rising wages for workers, according to new estimates from the Congressional Budget Office that show the effects of last year’s tax law. Government spending rose 3% in fiscal year 2018, pushing the budget deficit to $782 billion, up from $666 billion the previous fiscal year, CBO estimated. As a share of gross domestic product, the deficit totaled 3.9% in fiscal 2018, which ended Sept. 30, the third consecutive increase. The deficit would have been even higher if not for shifts in the timing of certain payments...

On the spending side, federal outlays rose 3% in the fiscal year, due to rising costs for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, as well as higher interest payments on the public debt and higher military spending.
The WSJ article was based on the Congressional Budget Office's "snapshot" report.  This week the Treasury Department released the final fiscal-year report...
... showing that the deficit for FY 2018 increased to $779 billion, a $113 billion (or 17 percent) increase from FY 2017. The deficit is 3.9 percent of GDP, also up from 3.5 percent in 2017...

The $113 billion increase in the deficit comes from largely flat revenue coupled with increasing spending. Revenue was up only $14 billion, or 0.4 percent. This revenue growth rate is the eighth lowest in the past 50 years, and the seven lower years either coincided with a recession or tax cuts/expiring tax increases enacted shortly after a recession...

Outlays were up $127 billion over FY 2017. Interest was the fastest growing portion of the budget, increasing nearly 24 percent since last year. Other areas of spending growing significantly were Social Security (4.5 percent) and defense (5.6 percent). Defense spending grew by a more rapid rate than recent years due to this year's budget agreement that increased the defense spending cap substantially...

Recent legislation is responsible for the deficit increase. CBO estimated that the tax law would cost $164 billion in FY 2018, which would account for more than the entire deficit increase. The spending deal (the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018) was estimated to cost $68 billion, which would account for about 60 percent of the increase. Other deficit increasing legislation in FY 2018 added $32 billion to the 2018 deficit. These estimates suggest that if none of these laws were enacted, the deficit would have declined to about $515 billion this year. The tax bill and the spending deal are expected to cost more next fiscal year ($228 billion and $185 billion, respectively) as the deficit is expected to reach nearly $1 trillion.
For Fox ache - is there no adult anywhere in Washington who is willing to address this problem.  It seem to me these numbers have hardly been mentioned in the news, because everyone is so busy reporting on Kavanaugh hearings and hurricane damage and the Khashoggi murder and the midterm forecasts.  And the baseball playoffs.  And... squirrel !!!

Embedded image from the second link.

Leaf chromatography

Photographed at an exhibit at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum yesterday.  I need to learn about this, but haven't yet found a concise source (written for adults) to read and cite.   Suggestions?

Scientific American has detailed instructions for undertaking the procedure and interpreting the results:
What are the different bands of color on the test strips? These are the different pigments in the leaves. The ones you may see on your paper towel strips are: green chlorophylls, yellow xanthophylls, orange carotenoids and red anthocyanins. Pigments with larger molecules generally stay near the bottom of the strip, where the solution was first "painted" onto the pencil line, because it is harder for them to travel up through the paper towel's woven fiber. Smaller pigments can more easily traverse the paper towel and, consequently, they usually travel farther up the strip.

15 October 2018

Best vacation trip ever. Maybe the best one possible.

The brochure above arrived in my mail this week, because I've been a National Geographic subscriber.  This is what they are offering:

Magellan was the first to circumnavigate the world, and the process became available to the wealthy in the 19th century.  Nowadays such trips are routinely offered by travel agencies.

But this one is different.  Note the destinations:

This is not a trip to New York, Hong Kong, Paris, London etc for shopping.  For those reading this on a phone and unable to decipher the small fonts of the embeds, here are the destinations:
Machu Piccu
Easter Island
Samoa, Polynesia
The Great Barrier Reef for snorkeling
Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom
the Taj Mahal
the Serengeti Plain
Petra and Wadi Rum
Any ONE of those would for me be the trip of a lifetime.  In addition, you are accompanied on your trip by a National Geographic photographer and a marine biologist, art historian, or anthropologist and archaeologist etc, who will give in-flight lectures on relevant topics - when you are not eating a meal prepared by the expedition chef (using local dishes and served with fine wines):

Travel is in a small(ish) private jet.  Accommodations are in hand-picked small lodges, not big hotels, and entertainment (Rapa Nui dancers, Andean weavers, Bedouin dinners etc) is provided.  And there is an expedition physician traveling with the group.  Of course.

It does cost a lot -

- almost as much as having a medical procedure in an American hospital without insurance.

So it's out of my range by about two log powers, but it still fascinates me.  This is how the 1% live, expending this much for a three-week trip.  Or perhaps charging it to a corporate account to be blended in with other line items.

I guess what I'm jealous of most is the lack of hassles for these travelers.  I can certainly fly somewhere for a vacation, but on arrival I have to rent a car, drive myself through traffic, stay in a big hotel, find a place to eat and so on.  To be catered to like this is an entire different way of life.

But those destinations...

Piano arrangement of Bohemian Rhapsody

Via Neatorama.

Evangelical support for Donald Trump

For the past year I've been trying to sequester Donald Trump-related links to a q3monthly "Trump clump," but an article in The Atlantic is so well written that I believe it deserves standalone status.

The author is not your everyday political pundit or internet hack.  Michael Gerson was President George W. Bush's chief speechwriter and senior policy advisor (he wrote Bush's second inaugural address that "called for neo-conservative intervention and nation building around the world.")

Gerson is a neo-conservative and was raised in an Evangelical Christian family.  In this article he asks why Evangelical Christians continue to support a president whose "background and beliefs could hardly be more incompatible with traditional Christian models of life and leadership."
Trump supporters tend to dismiss moral scruples about his behavior as squeamishness over the president’s “style.” But the problem is the distinctly non-Christian substance of his values. Trump’s unapologetic materialism—his equation of financial and social success with human achievement and worth—is a negation of Christian teaching. His tribalism and hatred for “the other” stand in direct opposition to Jesus’s radical ethic of neighbor love. Trump’s strength-worship and contempt for “losers” smack more of Nietzsche than of Christ... According to Jerry Falwell Jr., evangelicals have “found their dream president,” which says something about the current quality of evangelical dreams...

So it is little wonder that last year the Princeton Evangelical Fellowship, an 87-year-old ministry, dropped the “E word” from its name, becoming the Princeton Christian Fellowship: Too many students had identified the term with conservative political ideology. Indeed, a number of serious evangelicals are distancing themselves from the word for similar reasons...

How did something so important and admirable become so disgraced? For many people, including myself, this question involves both intellectual analysis and personal angst. The answer extends back some 150 years, and involves cultural and political shifts that long pre-date Donald Trump. It is the story of how an influential and culturally confident religious movement became a marginalized and anxious minority seeking political protection under the wing of a man such as Trump, the least traditionally Christian figure—in temperament, behavior, and evident belief—to assume the presidency in living memory...

[concise history of evangelicalism from the Civil War to the present at the link]

As a result, the primary evangelical political narrative is adversarial, an angry tale about the aggression of evangelicalism’s cultural rivals. In a remarkably free country, many evangelicals view their rights as fragile, their institutions as threatened, and their dignity as assailed. The single largest religious demographic in the United States—representing about half the Republican political coalition—sees itself as a besieged and disrespected minority. In this way, evangelicals have become simultaneously more engaged and more alienated...

Evangelicals who were alienated by the pro-choice secularism of Democratic presidential nominees were effectively courted to join the Reagan coalition. “I know that you can’t endorse me,” Reagan told an evangelical conference in 1980, “but I only brought that up because I want you to know that I endorse you.” In contrast, during his presidential run four years later, Walter Mondale warned of “radical preachers,” and his running mate, Geraldine Ferraro, denounced the “extremists who control the Republican Party.” By attacking evangelicals, the Democratic Party left them with a relatively easy partisan choice...

The evangelical political agenda, moreover, has been narrowed by its supremely reactive nature. Rather than choosing their own agendas, evangelicals have been pulled into a series of social and political debates started by others. Why the asinine issue of spiritually barren prayer in public schools? Because of Justice Hugo Black’s 1962 opinion rendering it unconstitutional. Why such an effort-wasting emphasis on a constitutional amendment to end abortion, which will never pass? Because in 1973 Justice Harry Blackmun located the right to abortion in the constitutional penumbra. Why the current emphasis on religious liberty? Because the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision legalizing same-sex marriage has raised fears of coercion.

It is not that secularization, abortion, and religious liberty are trivial issues; they are extremely important. But the timing and emphasis of evangelical responses have contributed to a broad sense that evangelical political engagement is negative, censorious, and oppositional. This funneled focus has also created the damaging impression that Christians are obsessed with sex. Much of the secular public hears from Christians only on issues of sexuality—from contraceptive mandates to gay rights to transgender bathroom usage. And while religious people do believe that sexual ethics are important, the nature of contemporary religious engagement creates a misimpression about just how important they are relative to other crucial issues...

Part of the reason such matters are not higher on the evangelical agenda is surely the relative ethnic and racial insularity of many white evangelicals. Plenty of African Americans hold evangelical theological views, of course, along with a growing number of Latinos. Yet evangelical churches, like other churches and houses of worship, tend to be segregated on Sunday. Nearly all denominations with large numbers of evangelicals are less racially diverse than the country overall...

In fact, evangelicals would prove highly vulnerable to a message of resentful, declinist populism. Donald Trump could almost have been echoing the apocalyptic warnings of Metaxas and Graham when he declared, “Our country’s going to hell.” Or: “We haven’t seen anything like this, the carnage all over the world.” Given Trump’s general level of religious knowledge, he likely had no idea that he was adapting premillennialism to populism. But when the candidate talked of an America in decline and headed toward destruction, which could be returned to greatness only by recovering the certainties of the past, he was strumming resonant chords of evangelical conviction.

Trump consistently depicts evangelicals as they depict themselves: a mistreated minority, in need of a defender who plays by worldly rules. Christianity is “under siege,” Trump told a Liberty University audience. “Relish the opportunity to be an outsider,” he added at a later date: “Embrace the label.” Protecting Christianity, Trump essentially argues, is a job for a bully.

Here is the uncomfortable reality: I do not believe that most evangelicals are racist. But every strong Trump supporter has decided that racism is not a moral disqualification in the president of the United States. And that is something more than a political compromise. It is a revelation of moral priorities...

It is the strangest story: how so many evangelicals lost their interest in decency, and how a religious tradition called by grace became defined by resentment. This is bad for America, because religion, properly viewed and applied, is essential to the country’s public life. The old “one-bloodism” of Christian anthropology—the belief in the intrinsic and equal value of all human lives—has driven centuries of compassionate service and social reform. Religion can be the carrier of conscience. It can motivate sacrifice for the common good. It can reinforce the nobility of the political enterprise. It can combat dehumanization and elevate the goals and ideals of public life...

It is difficult to see something you so deeply value discredited so comprehensively. Evangelical faith has shaped my life, as it has the lives of millions. Evangelical history has provided me with models of conscience. Evangelical institutions have given me gifts of learning and purpose. Evangelical friends have shared my joys and sorrows. And now the very word is brought into needless disrepute.

This is the result when Christians become one interest group among many, scrambling for benefits at the expense of others rather than seeking the welfare of the whole. Christianity is love of neighbor, or it has lost its way. And this sets an urgent task for evangelicals: to rescue their faith from its worst leaders.
Apologies to the author for such extended excerpts, but there is way, way more at The Atlantic.  I encourage readers to read the original beginning to end.

When you feed on exploding seed pods...

Via BoingBoing.

Word for the day: Stook

A stook, also referred to as a shock or stack, is an arrangement of sheaves of cut grain-stalks placed so as to keep the grain-heads off the ground while still in the field and prior to collection for threshing. Stooked grain sheaves are typically wheat, barley and oats.

The purpose of a stook [or 'stooking'] is to dry the unthreshed grain while protecting it from vermin until it is brought into long-term storage. The unthreshed grain also cures while in a stook. In England, sheaves were commonly stacked in stooks of twelve and may therefor refer to twelve sheaves.

In North America, a stook may also refer to a field stack of six, ten or fifteen small (70–90 lb (30–40 kg)), rectangular bales of hay or straw. These bales may be stacked and deposited by a "stooking machine" or "stooker" that is dragged, sled-like, behind the baler.
The Oxford Dictionaries website lists the etymology as Middle English.  When I was growing up in Minnesota, we would refer to these as "shocks," reserving the word "stack" for the larger haystacks.

Related: Sculpting with straw and Making hay while the sun shines (video).

Credit for the photo of a field in Devon: Paul McLoughlin, via a gallery of landscape photos at The Guardian.

12 October 2018

Leaf shape as a marker of average annual temperature

Plants in temperate climates tend to have leaves with serrated margins, i.e. they have jagged edges; plants in warmer and more humid climates tend to have what are known in botanical jargon as entire margins, that is, smooth and unserrated. The difference is illustrated in the photographs.

Rather than there being a sharp cut-off between the temperate and tropical styles of leaves, there is a continuous relationship between the climate and the mix of leaf types found in it: that is, as the climate gets a little hotter and wetter, the proportion of entire margins increases a little. This means that looking at a single leaf doesn't tell us that we are looking at a temperate or tropical climate; but
looking at a whole lot of species will allow us to do something a whole lot better than simply dividing climates into tropical or temperate: we can actually estimate the average annual temperature.

We can establish by observation that the ratio of temperate to tropical leaf styles is a surprisingly good indicator of average annual temperature, as illustrated by the graph [right], showing the relationship between floras and temperature in the forests of East Asia.
More at the link (and source credit for the graph).  That article didn't address the question of "why."  I found some related discussion in a Smithsonian article about fossilized leaves:
Scientists are still trying to understand the exact basis for this relationship, but they think it’s because plants in colder climates need to get a jump-start on converting sunlight to energy (photosynthesis) in the spring. Having more teeth enables more water to move out of the leaves, increasing the flow of sap and ramping up photosynthesis. This is important if you need to start photosynthesizing lots of food quickly, say because you only have a brief growing season before the cold comes. If you’re in a warm climate though, jagged edges do more harm than good: losing water can be dangerous to the leaf and to the whole plant, especially when it’s hot. This set of tradeoffs makes one leaf shape more favorable (and thus more predominant) at certain temperatures.

Borderline behavior

Excerpts from an article in this month's Harper's:
Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a three-hour drive to reach home, in the mountains in New Mexico, and she hated driving in the dark.

Sandoval took her place in the long line of people waiting to have their passports checked by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP). When it was her turn, she handed her American passport to a customs officer and smiled amicably, waiting for him to wave her through. But the officer said she had been randomly selected for additional screening. Sandoval was led to a secondary inspection area nearby, where two more officers patted her down. Another walked toward her with a drug-sniffing dog, which grew agitated as it came closer, barking and then circling her legs. Because the dog had “alerted,” the officer said, Sandoval would now have to undergo another inspection.

She was taken to a fluorescent-lit, windowless room inside the port of entry office. Two female officers entered and announced that they were going to search her for drugs. They patted her down again, but found nothing. At that point, Sandoval assumed they would release her, but instead they told her they were going to conduct a strip search. The officers put on latex gloves, picked up flashlights, and asked Sandoval to remove her clothes and bend over so they could look for signs of drugs in her vagina and her rectum.

By the time they finished, Sandoval had been detained for more than two hours in the stifling room. Her passport and cell phone had been confiscated; her husband and children had no idea where she was. Sandoval begged to be released. “I was shaking and I was in tears,” she told me. Saying nothing, the officers put her in handcuffs and led her to a patrol car waiting outside. They left the international bridge and drove north into Texas. Frightened, Sandoval asked the officers if they had a warrant for her arrest. “We don’t need a warrant,” one of them replied...
Sandoval, whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, told me that after the officers forced her into the squad car, they drove her to University Medical Center, a public hospital in El Paso. The officers found an empty room and shackled her to the examination table. A nurse entered and asked her to swallow a laxative so they could observe her bowel movement. Then a group of doctors came in. Sandoval pleaded with them to let her go. “A nurse told me to calm down,” she said. “That this was something they did anytime Border Patrol brought people in.” One of the doctors conducted a vaginal and rectal search using a speculum and his hands. “The agents kept saying that they knew I had drugs,” Sandoval told me. Still not satisfied, the doctor ordered an X-ray and a full-body scan. Again they found nothing...

Sandoval tried to forget about what had happened to her. She figured it would be too costly to fight the government. But then the bills from the hospital started to arrive. For the cavity searches, the X-ray, and the CT scan, the hospital was charging her $5,488. [she had refused to sign a consent form]
The article continues at Harper's.   I'm going to close comments for this post.  Posted because some people don't realize what's going on in this country.  Just to emphasize - this lady is a legal American citizen.  The only "probable cause" was someone's interpretation of a dog's behavior.
And these CBP agents operate not just at the border itself, but for a hundred miles inside (see the map at top), where two-thirds of all Americans live.  Some "roving patrols" extend twice that far.
In 2008, Patrick Leahy, a senator from Vermont, was stopped at a temporary immigration checkpoint in New York—125 miles from the border. Agents ordered Leahy to get out of his car and asked him to prove that he was a US citizen. When Leahy asked under what authority the Border Patrol agent was acting, the agent pointed to his gun and said, reportedly, “That’s all the authority I need.”...

[Beto] O’Rourke’s opposition to CBP’s sweeping powers stems in part from his own encounter with border agents. In 2009, he and his two-year-old son were detained at a checkpoint more than seventy miles from the border while agents pulled his truck apart. “They don’t have to explain why they’re holding you,” he said, “and you’re not given the right to an attorney.” O’Rourke told me that he and his son were held in a cell for close to thirty minutes before they were allowed to leave. “It was a strange feeling to be held against my will and to have my car searched,” he said. “I hadn’t committed any crime. I hadn’t even crossed the border.”..

Sandoval said she was glad to hear that the hospital had changed its policy, but she still worried that CBP would subject others to similar treatment. She has not been back to Juárez. “It’s not because I’m afraid to go to Mexico,” she told me. “I’m afraid of coming back to my own country.”
There's more at the link.  Sad.
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