31 October 2013

Global lightning strikes. And lodestones.


An interesting distribution, with some curiously sharp demarcations.

And this interesting tidbit, from the source Wikipedia page:
The intense currents of a lightning discharge create a fleeting but very strong magnetic field. Where the lightning current path passes through rock, soil, or metal these materials can become permanently magnetized. This effect is known as lightning-induced remanent magnetism, or LIRM. These currents follow the least resistive path, often horizontally near the surface but sometimes vertically, where faults, ore bodies, or ground water offers a less resistive path. One theory suggests that lodestones, natural magnets encountered in ancient times, were created in this manner.

Roy's bookshelf

"I do about two-thirds of my reading electronically or through using books on audio (nothing is better than going on a long bike ride while enjoying a good book). Over the last couple years, I have assimilated a rather odd collection of books. About half of these came from garage, library, or bookstore clearance sales.

 My favorite book on here is The Princess Bride. I loved the movie, but had no idea that the book existed at all. As in most cases, the book is far superior to the movie. It is both excellent to read to children, and delightful to read as an adult.

The far left shows my recent selection which I read to my two boys. I had to purchase new copies, as those that I devoured during my childhood were completely tattered. We're about halfway into the Fellowship of the Ring.

The far right shows my push to develop a little more self-sufficiency. We're in an area that I can do a bit of gardening, and we tend to lose power due to winter storms, wind damage, and tornadoes Much like myself, the book selection is a tad eclectic."
(Blogger's note: six more entries have been submitted since my recent reminder request, so I'm good for material for another month).

Capewood's bookcase

"I actually built this beast myself about 30 years ago to consolidate my books. Some of the dimensions were specifically for my Encyclopedia Britannica. Since then I've also added Encyclopedia Britannica year books, I have most of them back to my birth year in 1951.It now contains most of my hardback collection and odd-sized books. Lots of atlases, a shelf of religious books, my leather bound Lord of the Rings, and Science Fiction Book Club of the month selections from the late 1960s. Plus knick-knacks. This lot represents a bit less than half of the books I currently own."

CCC stonework at Riverside State Park [Washington]


Reader Lloyd Stanley recently visited Riverside State Park (northwest of Spokane) to photograph some of the CCC legacy there.
I was interested in comparing the CCC's work at Riverside State Park to those that you have featured in your blogs, so I made a recent visit to the park. This park is located about six miles west of Spokane, WA and borders the fast moving Spokane River. The river flows from Lake Coeur d' Alene in Coeur d' Alene, ID and empties into the Columbia River miles above Grand Coulee Dam.

Obvious from these photographs, there is a stark difference in the construction techniques used here as compared to those used at Gooseberry Falls and others that you have presented in the past. Also, a lack of grounds grooming at Riverside somewhat troubles me, perhaps management prefers the appearance of a natural environment however.
Lloyd's point about the variation in techniques is quite valid.  My understanding is that there was little in the way of central governance of the individual projects except perhaps for the standard residence buildings a the camps.  For the stonework I believe he CCC hired local stonemasons as supervisors/teachers, so likely the style differences reflect those regional (or personal) variations.

The wall at this building -


and in this picnic shelter -


- appear to be almost mortarless, but true mortarless construction requires consummate skill probably beyond that to be expected of the CCC enrollees, and I believe would not likely be used for load-bearing walls like the one above (typical mortarless walls would be simple property-boundary fences such as are seen throughout New England).

By contrast, the photo at right of the two-sided cookstove in the shelter shows mortar that has been slathered on with more enthusiasm than skill - almost certainly a modern repair of a deteriorating structure, applied with a desire for efficacy rather than aesthetics.

Finally, Lloyd's photo of the iconic pedestrian bridge at the state park serves as a reminder that Civilian Conservation Corps participants did much more than stonework, creating a wide variety of projects designed to improve the park experience for generations to come.


Thank you Mr. Stanley.  Next week Flask is going to give us a tour of the stonework at Robert H. Treman State Park in Ithaca.

Gorillas in the midst (of autumn leaves)

The physics of giant pumpkins

30 October 2013

Optical illusions in a Honda advertisement


Clever use of forced perspective, trompe-l'œil, and other devices in this advertisement apparently filmed in Lake Wobegon.

When Hollywood collaborated with the Nazis


You read the title correctly.  The reason for the logical disconnect is that the time period in question is the 1930s, before the war and the most overt atrocities, as explained in a Harvard Magazine review of a new book:
Based on nearly nine years of archival research in Germany and the United States, the book reveals a surprisingly cooperative relationship between studio executives and German officials throughout the 1930s... MGM head Louis B. Mayer made changes to films at the request of the German consul in Los Angeles in the 1930s...

In 1932, six months before Hitler came to power, Germany adopted a law stipulating that any film company caught making anti-German (or later, anti-Nazi) films would be prohibited from doing business in the country. For studio executives who feared losing access to German audiences, it was a powerful threat. Before World War I, Germany had been the second-largest market for U.S. films. By the 1930s, the studios were no longer making money there, but they hoped business would improve in time. Urwand says Hollywood executives also worried that if they left Germany and Hitler started a war, they would be expelled from any countries he invaded. So studio heads, many of whom were Jewish, collectively boycotted a proposed film, The Mad Dog of Europe, about the mistreatment of European Jews, and agreed to fire most of their Jewish salesmen in Germany...

Commentators have drawn parallels between the Nazi collaboration that Urwand describes and Hollywood’s current relationship with China, a burgeoning market for American films. Urwand stresses that “China isn’t Nazi Germany,” but he acknowledges some potential parallels. “Hollywood is not going to make a strongly anti-Chinese film at this point, just as it didn’t make anti-German films when it was trying to preserve its business with Germany.”
More at the link.

Photo: ©Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis Images

A programmable automaton from the 18th century



This interesting and less-than-five-minutes video is an excerpt from a full BBC documentary by Professor Simon Schaffer of Cambridge.  It features "The Writer," a cam-guided, programmable automaton by Pierre Jacquet-Droz:
The writer is the most complex of the three automata. Using a system similar to the one used for the draughtsman for each letter, he is able to write any custom text up to 40 letters long (the text is rarely changed; one of the latest instances was in honour of president François Mitterrand when he toured the city). The text is coded on a wheel where characters are selected one by one. He uses a goose feather to write, which he inks from time to time, including a shake of the wrist to prevent ink from spilling. His eyes follow the text being written, and the head moves when he takes some ink.
The full, hour-long documentary is here.  A tip of the blogging hat to reader Alex O. for bringing the link to my attention. 

29 October 2013

Eels inside the cardiac chambers of a shark


This image will be familiar to those of you who have encountered dog heartworm or other heartworms.  In this case it's the heart of a mako shark, and the "worm" is a type of eel:
These particular eels, called pugnose eels, Simenchelys parasitica, have been recorded before burrowing into the flesh of halibut and other large North Atlantic fishes (hence their species name), but never completely internal and certainly not in the lumen of the heart, so this was a truly remarkable find...

Their conclusion?  That this was a facultatively parasitic relationship.  In other words, the eels didn’t need to be living in the sharks heart (that would be obligate parasitism), rather they took advantage of an opportunity to get a meal.  They proposed that the eels probably attacked the shark after it had been hooked and was dangling, distressed, from the longline.  They had some evidence that the shark was probably resting on the bottom, which may have made it easier for the eels to find.  The pugnoses somehow gained entry (hypothesised to be through the gills) and made their way to the heart, where they dined on the beasts blood up until it died.  Maybe they would have burrowed out again after the animal expired, maybe they would have suffocated (remember – the eels had be swimming in and breathing the sharks blood once they were inside, how bizarre is that?).  We’ll never know because the carcass went in the fridge, which ended things for the eels, but also led to this amazing discovery.
Further details at Deep Sea News, via Neatorama.

Steve Miller's bookcases

"I build book cases, but I can't keep up with the books. This one in the kitchen holds the "more-frequently referred-to" cookbooks. There are five shelves' worth elsewhere. I started cooking (and collecting) seriously after designing several cookbooks. I didn't know then I'd start designing furniture. Yes, the legs do curve on both outer surfaces."
"Nope, not more cookbooks. Not too sure what's in the boxes... This case is based closely on a Stickley D-handle bookcase, so it holds woodworking books. Occasionally, it's unloaded and hauled out for demos, since I now teach woodworking."
Blogger's addendum:  I looked up Stickley + bookcases and found them being auctioned by Sotheby's !

On a sadder note, I have only two more readers' bookcases in the queue left to blog in the next week or so.  I'd welcome more submissions (and there are some readers here whose bookcases I would love to peek at).

But if this topic fades away, I guess I could always start one on readers' cats...

Introducing the KALQ keyboard

KALQ is optimized for rapid two thumb typing on touchscreen devices. It works on tablets as well as smartphones with a large display.

The design is based on work by researchers from Max Planck Institute of Informatics, Montana Tech and University of St.Andrews. The design considers multiple human factors affecting the movement of thumbs. A user study showed that users could speed up typing by more than 30% over their regular speed with a default Qwerty layout.
Additional discussion at The Atlantic.

The world's ten busiest air-travel routes in 2012

The data in chart form is at Amadeus:
Among other key findings, the study reveals that 22% of all global air travel is concentrated on just 300 origin and destination ‘super routes’, each of which carries over 1 million passengers annually. Furthermore, 69% of all global air travel is made on major routes with 100 thousand annual passengers...
So, where are those "super routes"?  VizualStatistix has plotted the top ten on a map, which I've placed below the fold to challenge you to name any one of those top ten routes before peeking (i.e. name the cities the planes fly between).

28 October 2013

Time-lapse views of the sky



These images come from the American landscape, but similar ones could be obtained at many places on earth where light pollution is minimal; for those interested a list of these locations is posted at the YouTube link and at Neatorama.

If you're going to watch, there's no reason not to click the Full Screen icon.  That's what it's for.

The rising cost of cancer drugs

"Cost of one month of treatment for an adult for each new cancer drug approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration, based on Medicare reimbursement rates and by year of drug approval."

Graph from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.   The following text is excerpted from an excellent article ("The Cost of Living") in New York magazine:
...the unspoken rule in American health care is that doctors should never consider the cost of a medicine that might be beneficial to patients. When the FDA approves a new cancer drug, it analyzes safety and effectiveness only. Medicare is obliged to reimburse payment for the drug, and private insurers in most states must cover the cost. Any doctor who considers cost—or the value of a costly drug—risks being accused of “rationing” health care...

What is sobering about this booming business is that, as a group of oncologists wrote earlier this year, “most anti-cancer drugs provide minor survival benefits, if at all.” They often (but not always) reduce the size of inoperable tumors, but they rarely eradicate the disease. For relatively uncommon malignancies like testicular cancer, some forms of leukemia, and lymphoma, drugs effectively cure the disease; for the common “solid tumor” cancers (lung, breast, colon, prostate, and so on), which account for the vast majority of annual cases, drugs buy some time—precious time, to be sure, but time usually measured in weeks and months rather than years...

...the average price of cancer drugs has gone “through the roof,” according to George W. Sledge Jr., former president of the American Society of Clinical Oncology. “What predicts the price of the next cancer drug is the price of the last cancer drug,” says Bach. “The only check on the system is corporate chutzpah.”..

A lot of what determines the price of cancer drugs can be attributed to the byzantine economics of health care: markets that don’t behave the way “real world” markets do; artificial price supports that are called something else; government regulations that remove any downward pressures on pricing; and, until Medicare reforms kicked in, in 2005, arcane reimbursement policies that actually rewarded oncologists who used higher-priced drugs, because it would increase the profit margins of their practices.

...the chart documents a recent sea change in pricing. It shows a very slight uptick in prices until the mid-­eighties, when the rise becomes more substantial, and then bends sharply upward around 2000. Beginning about twenty years ago, the graph also shows a series of dots way above the curve of average prices, indicating drugs that, in effect, have broken the sound barrier on price since the nineties.

“Then one day I looked at the whole landscape,” Bach recalled, “and thought, Huh, I now know why cancer-drug prices are so high. Because the entire regulatory environment is structured in a way where there are no downward pressures and there are no standards. Medicare—and most private insurers, who want to do business in most states—have to include every drug in coverage. And they have to pay the producer’s price. It’s kind of that simple.”..

“There is a number in people’s minds,” he says. “If you say to people, ‘I have a drug that extends life by one day at a billion dollars; shouldn’t we as a society pay for it?,’ I’m pretty confident most people would say no. If I say, ‘I have a drug that extends life by three years at a cost of $1.50,’ I’m pretty confident everybody would say, ‘Of course!’ Somewhere in there is a number, a tipping point, where we say, ‘No, we can’t.’ Right now, we’re unwilling as a society to explore where that point is. And I would argue that we have to. Wherever it may be, we have to find it.”  
This is why there will always have to be "death panels."

More at the link - well worth the read.  Via The Incidental Economist and The Dish.

This "tip" is a form of scam


Explained in a Reddit thread:
That is a common scam. I used to be a bartender, and every once in a while that would happen. The person just has to put something "impossible" on the bill, and Visa will not process it. Since the amount and the tip are hand-written, it means you had to enter it into the till with the tip amount AFTER the sisters had left. Visa would outright reject it then as almost no one has that much credit. Even if Visa accepted it, the customer would just call later and claim she had been scammed. Visa would annul the entire bill. The only thing you could have done is pointed out her error, which is why she "secretly" and repeatedly kept asking you not to talk to her sister about the tip. That and the fact that she added 200K to 111 dollars and came up with 211K.
More at the link.

Death by caffeinated candy


As reported in The Independent:
A man died from an enormous caffeine overdose after snacking on high-energy mints - each of which is as powerful as a can of Red Bull...

Mr Jackson was a heavy drinker and had cirrhosis of the liver which would have limited his liver’s ability to process toxins but it was the caffeine overdose that killed him, the pathologist said...

Birkenhead-based Hero Energy said that it highlighted the risk with prominent warnings on packaging and shelves. In a statement, directors Paul Hayes and Steve Hones said they “fully understand” the dangers and risks of caffeine and that the packs advise no more than five be consumed in 24 hours.

The inquest was not told how many Mr Jackson ate but the manufacturers said that he would have had to have eaten “over 300 of our mints, which is staggering” to have the levels of caffeine he had in his blood.
Presumably the estimation of 300-mint consumption was based on normal hepatic metabolism, which would not have been applicable in this case.


Photo via The Mail Online.

President Obama roundly castigated by a member of the Irish parliament


This occurred earlier this summer during the president's state visit to that country.  A hat tip to reader Peter for bringing it to my attention.

Texas judge gave instructions to prosecuting attorneys to help them convict defendants

As reported at Boing Boing:
Third generation Texas judge Elizabeth E. Coker has resigned just ahead of being investigated for misconduct; she admits that she texted instructions to prosecutors in order to help them convict the defendants whose cases she heard. She also is accused of other indiscretions, including meeting with jurors and attempting to influence them to convict defendants. The State Commission on Judicial Conduct suggests that she lied to them as well, perjuring herself. She's out of a job, but apparently will face no criminal or civil sanctions for her crimes; nor will the victims whose trials she perverted be freed. 
Also no mention of indictments or penalties for the prosecuting attorneys who received her texts and failed to report the activity.  Perhaps some reader here can clarify - is this not a criminal act?  Or just not a crime in Texas?  Is it merely a moral/ethical lapse appropriately treated by reprimand and job loss?

More details at the Boing Boing link and at the Montgomery County Police Reporter.

The mixed genetics of American bison


The video depicts an annual bison roundup at a state park in far southwestern Minnesota near the South Dakota border.  From it I learned that some of the bison who survived the great slaughter of the settlement era have DNA that is "contaminated" with ranch cattle DNA.  Some effort has been made to cull current stock to restore the genetic purity of the remaining animals. 
During the population bottleneck, after the great slaughter of American bison during the 1800s, the number of bison remaining alive in North America declined to as low as 541. During that period, a handful of ranchers gathered remnants of the existing herds to save the species from extinction. These ranchers bred some of the bison with cattle in an effort to produce "cattleo."  Accidental crossings were also known to occur. Generally, male domestic bulls were crossed with buffalo cows, producing offspring of which only the females were fertile. The crossbred animals did not demonstrate any form of hybrid vigor, so the practice was abandoned. The proportion of cattle DNA that has been measured in introgressed individuals and bison herds today is typically quite low, ranging from 0.56 to 1.8%.  In the United States, many ranchers are now utilizing DNA testing to cull the residual cattle genetics from their bison herds. The U.S. National Bison Association has adopted a code of ethics which prohibits its members from deliberately crossbreeding bison with any other species.
A hat tip to reader Lloyd Stanley for bringing the video to my attention.

25 October 2013

Several weeks' worth of links


These have accumulated since before the blogcation.  I have to get rid of them, or else they will multiply in their folders like coathangers in the closet.

In an emergency, cats can receive transfusions of dog blood.  "It may sound wacky, but it's science. Cats don't have antibodies that reject dogs' blood, so a transfusion may buy enough time for the cat to regenerate its own red blood cells. But only one transfusion can be done because a second dose of dog blood will be the death of the cat."

An upcoming book details how a call girl operation was instrumental in the Watergate investigation.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation publishes bicycle maps of Minnesota.

Those who are sick and tired of repeatedly being urged to "support the troops" will want to read this Salon op-ed piece.  Those who aren't, won't.  (After the piece was published, the author received death threats.)

How to get rid of drain flies.

The state of Texas plans to convert some roads from pavement to gravel.

Those who do not live with a cell phone constantly in our hands will appreciate the
viewpoint this woman has on her life.

A list of famous people who play Dungeons and Dragons (Stephen King, Matt Damon, Jon Stewart, Billy Crystal...).

Women are buying and selling positive pregnancy tests on Craigslist.  It doesn't take much imagination to guess how they are used.

The melting of the Norwegian glaciers continues to yield amazing artifacts, including an Iron Age pullover sweater.

A list of ten hidden treasures that haven't been found yet.  If you find one, you have to split it with me. (Although I suspect some have been found in the past, not reported publicly, and served to establish a family's fortune).

Side-by-side video comparison of the train ride from London to Brighton in 1913, 1983, and 2013.

A lengthy discussion of CrossFit training and its relationship to American militarism.

How debt collection has "morphed into a predatory system... for well-financed, out-of-town companies that turned $500 delinquencies into $5,000 debts — then foreclosed on homes when families couldn’t pay."  Here's the Reddit commentary thread.

Ulysses for Dummies boils the unreadable book down to a series of 18 cartoon panels - which are still uninteresting.

The etymology of the word aloof is complicated and interesting (for those interested in etymologies).

Five imgur images explain how to moonwalk.

Humorous airplane announcements by pilots and stewardesses.

A graphic of the world's oldest trees.

Photos depicting the dystopian legacy of 9/11.

Forbes reports that despite the financial crisis five years ago, the richest Americans are now richer than they ever were.

NASA is recruiting volunteers to study the effects of microgravity. "Successful candidates will stay in a tilted bed 24 hours a day as part of the 70-day project, where they can play computer games, surf the internet or watch TV."

So far, in 2013, more Americans have been killed by toddlers than by terrorists.  "In the first part of this year, 11 people were killed by children aged three to six years old — more than the four people killed at the Boston Marathon bombing."

Maryland has no natural lakes.  Virginia has only two.  (Minnesota has over 11,000 - but that's another story).

"Jerk cats love knocking sh*t over."

Photos of Gunther von Hagens' plastination models of human anatomy.  They seem even more dramatic than the original ones years ago.  Note: this link shows dissected human genitals.

Photos of a dog with severe gingival hyperplasia.  Note: many readers will find the images quite disturbing.

"A small-town Midwestern dealership in Pierce, Nebraska sold Chevrolets to local families and first-time buyers for 50 years until its husband and wife team finally closed their doors seventeen years ago. Since then, a staggering inventory of 500 surviving cars, new & used, have been stored away, undriven for decades."  A photoessay at the link shows the cars before they were auctioned to the public.

Mermithidae parasites of spiders are awesome.

Cashel Man is the world's oldest bog body.

A family raises a cute little baby bunny rabbit, then releases it to join its mommy. A neighborhood hawk has other ideas.

During their explorations for oil, Exxon used deepwater sonic mapping techniques in shallow water, killing a hundred whales.

Samuel Clemens' creation of the "Mark Twain" name was not a simple matter of overhearing riverboat captains.

A series of "vanishing area puzzles."


Photos from the UW Arboretum and the neighborhood this past week.

24 October 2013

630 yards. Par 3.


The "Extreme 19th" is a supplemental golf hole at the Legend Golf and Safari Resort in South Africa.  The tee - accessed by way of a helicopter ride - is at the top of a mountain, 430 meters above the green. 

Different sources cite a "time for the ball to land" between 20-30 seconds, which seems way excessive for a 430 meter fall, assuming 9.8 m/s/s applies in South Africa.  Top professionals have hang times of about 7 seconds on level ground, so this hole requires an additional 13-23 seconds.  Presumably terminal velocity and perhaps updraft air currents muddy the pure math.

The leaderboard for the hole currently shows 8 birdies and about 100 pars.

Via Neatorama.

"Who speaks for the human species?"


Carl Sagan lived and spoke in an era when nuclear war and nuclear winter were paramount concerns.  That risk has not gone away, but were Carl Sagan alive today, I suspect his attention would be focused on environmental degradation.

Via The Dish.

A newly discovered Leonardo da Vinci painting?


As reported in The Telegraph:
The painting, which depicts Isabella d’Este, a Renaissance noblewoman, was found in a private collection of 400 works kept in a Swiss bank by an Italian family who asked not to be identified. It appears to be a completed, painted version of a pencil sketch drawn by Leonardo da Vinci in Mantua in the Lombardy region of northern Italy in 1499. The sketch, the apparent inspiration for the newly found work, hangs in the Louvre Museum in Paris...
Scientific tests suggest that the oil portrait is indeed the work of da Vinci, according to Carlo Pedretti, a professor emeritus of art history and an expert in Leonardo studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. “There are no doubts that the portrait is the work of Leonardo,” Prof Pedretti, a recognised expert in authenticating disputed works by da Vinci, told Corriere della Sera newspaper.
Martin Kemp, professor emeritus of the history of art at Trinity College, Oxford, and one of the world’s foremost experts on da Vinci, said if the find was authenticated it would be worth “tens of millions of pounds” because there are only 15 to 20 genuine da Vinci works in the world. But he raised doubts about whether the painting was really the work of Leonardo. The portrait found in Switzerland is painted on canvas, whereas Leonardo favoured wooden boards...

There are further doubts – Leonardo gave away his original sketch to the marquesa, so he would not have been able to refer to it later in order to paint a full oil version. “You can’t rule out the possibility but it seems unlikely,” Prof Kemp said. It was more likely to have been produced by one of the many artists operating in northern Italy who copied Leonardo’s works. 
More details at the link.

What time is it?


Via Boing Boing.

Airplane seats are shrinking. Are you?


From a story in the Wall Street Journal:
Airlines' push to lure high-paying fliers with flatbed business seats and premium economy loungers is leaving economy-class passengers with less space. A push over the past decade by carriers to expand higher-fare sections has shrunk the area devoted to coach on many big jetliners. But airlines don't want to drop passengers. So first airlines slimmed seats to add more rows.

Now, big carriers... are cutting shoulder space by wedging an extra seat into each coach row. That shift is bringing the short-haul standard to long-haul flying. 

For almost 20 years, the standard setup in the back of a Boeing BA -0.48% 777 was nine seats per row. But last year, nearly 70% of its biggest version of the plane were delivered with 10-abreast seating, up from just 15% in 2010...

The new trend in economy seating reverses a half century of seat growth in economy class. Early jet planes like Boeing's 707 had 17-inch seats, a dimension based on the width of a U.S. Air Force pilot's hips...

The solution, said Mr. Clark at Emirates, is to offer distractions like big meals, frequent snacks and lots of electronic entertainment...

"With food and TV," said Mr. Clark at Emirates, "people are mesmerized."
"Panem et circenses" is what they used to call it.  (Many more details at the link).

The doorstop always wins


A compilation of puppies battling doorstops.  I also found it interesting that in two instances the doorstops were mounted on the doors rather than on the wall; I wonder if in some situations there is a practical or design advantage to that arrangement?

Via The Dish.

23 October 2013

Monarch butterflies in trouble


In recent months a variety of publications have highlighted observations made by people across the United States - that the population of Monarch butterflies seems to be in jeopardy.  First, from the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project:
Just what do the numbers show? While we wait until the end of the season when everyone has entered all of their data to do careful analyses, I pulled up the data from Minnesota, where 33 sites have been monitored this summer. The data from other northern states look pretty much the same.  These sites range from the Gunflint Trail way up in northeastern MN, where David MacLean has been monitoring a patch of swamp milkweed since 2010 (David saw no eggs or larvae at all in 2013), to New London-Spicer in west-central MN where Laura Molenaar and many students have been monitoring milkweed patches since 2004 (they saw a few monarchs this year), to many sites in the Minneapolis-St Paul metro area (my daughters and I have monitored our yard since 2002, and on my best day this year I found 20 eggs on about 135 plants). The graph below shows egg densities (as eggs per milkweed plant monitored, so a value of 0.20 means that there were 20 eggs on 100 plants, and value of 0.02 means there were 2 eggs on 100 plants).
The blue line represents a fairly typical year for Minnesota, with an early peak in May when the migrants arrive from the south, followed by a second one in July when the next generation is appearing.  Last years' (red line) was unusual because of record warmth in the early spring followed by a drought in late summer.  This year's data (green line) shows a dearth of Monarch eggs throughout the year.  Our family saw the same general pattern here in Wisconsin.  (More data and discussion from MIMP here).

The annual Madison (Wisconsin) Butterfly Count has data going back for over 20 years.  This year's result (only 2 Monarchs) is, by a wide margin, the fewest ever recorded.

The East Coast of the United States also saw a markedly reduced Monarch population, as reported in Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens:
Normally my wildlife gardens attract Monarchs in the spring... Normally, it is hard NOT to find Monarch eggs when peeking under milkweed leaves.  Normally, Monarchs continue to be seen in my garden into the fall when some days the garden glitters with dozens (if not many dozens) of Monarchs.

As always, the dinner table was set for Monarchs in my garden this year. Offerings included the magic combination of native nectar plants and stands of milkweed. But this year (between June and mid-September), I have seen a total of 11 Monarchs in my garden and found only 1 caterpillar.  In over 30 years of gardening for wildlife I have never seen so few Monarchs in my garden. Each day I check my milkweed stands for holes in leaves and each day I am disappointed to find all leaves intact and untouched. The absence of Monarchs unnerves and alarms me.  Something is very wrong.
Purely for dramatic effect, I've illustrated this post at the top with a pair of remarkable photographs taken by Dan Sonnenberg, who spotted this road warrior in central Wisconsin in mid-October, presumably trying to migrate south after a rocky summer.  He noted that "it still flies."  Now I'll emphasize that mechanical trauma from predation is not the cause of nationwide decline in the population; for that we have to look at habitat loss.

Habitat loss is discussed at Yale Environment 360.  Monarchs are evolutionarily adapted to feed only on milkweed, the population of which has markedly diminished after the introduction of Roundup-ready crops that grow in weed-free fields.  

Additionally, Monarchs from the Midwest overwinter in the mountains of Mexico, where the trees they assemble on have been harvested for wood.  A MonarchWatch survey this past spring showed a record low number of Monarchs in the Mexican mountains:
The percentage of forest occupied by monarch butterflies in Mexico, used as an indicator of the number of butterflies that arrive to that country each winter, reached its lowest level in two decades. According to a survey carried out during the 2012-2013 winter season... the nine hibernating colonies occupy a total area of 2.94 acres (1.19 ha) of forest – representing a 59% decrease from the 2011-2012 survey of 7.14 acres (2.89 ha).
I'll close with a photo of a magnificent, healthy Monarch I photographed in our garden during my blogcation -


-nectaring on New England aster, harvesting one of the few locally-available energy sources on his 1500-mile migration to Mexico.   It's so sad to see them disappearing.

Trinitite in "atomic ant sand"


As reported in Science News:
During his first visit to New Mexico’s Trinity Site, where the world’s first atomic bomb test occurred, polymer scientist Robb Hermes could feel the military police watching him. Or maybe it was just his nagging conscience. Milling around with other tourists, he had to fight the urge to bend down, pretend to tie his shoes and swipe a piece of Trinitite — a glassy, mildly radioactive substance created by the explosion 68 years ago.

Removing Trinitite from the site is a federal crime. But Hermes was fascinated by the strange material and wanted to figure out how the little bits formed in the heart of an atomic blast. So he hatched a scheme. He returned to his office at Los Alamos National Laboratory, called up officials at the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range (home to Trinity) and asked for a box of ant sand. Ants, he knew, build their mounds from mineral grains gathered up to 15 meters from their homes.

“I thought if I could get some ant sand, maybe I’d find at least a vial of little Trinitite pieces collected from around the site,” says Hermes.

When the sand arrived in the mail, Hermes and a geology club friend did indeed discover beads of Trinitite. The pieces were surprisingly spherical, which turned out to be the key to piecing together how the glass formed...

Hermes, now retired, supplies the ant sand to geologists who study meteorites. Microscopic spheres found at sites around the world resemble the Trinitite beads, evidence perhaps for a controversial theory that a meteor broke up in the atmosphere about 13,000 years ago and bombarded Earth with stones that burst in the air like miniature nuclear warheads.
Via The Agateer, newsletter of the Madison Gem and Mineral Club.

Small embed photo:Mary Caperton Morton/The Blonde Coyote.

An expert female manipulator


The comment thread at BoingBoing indicates that this may or may not be Suzy Wandas ("the lady with the fairy fingers"), who was "reputed to be one of the half-dozen best manipulators in the history of magic."

Why a "pap smear" can cost a thousand dollars

It may not be just a pap smear - it may be a bundled set of tests, as explained in an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine:
The first time a patient called me to say that she'd been billed more than $600 for her Pap smear, I was sure it was a mistake. The second time, I was less sure, and these days I am no longer surprised to find laboratory charges of $1,000 or more for a test that until recently cost only $20 or $30...

It turns out that the high-ticket screening tests contain multiple items: the Pap test itself, usually in the form of a new liquid-based test rather than the older (and cheaper) slide test; a human papillomavirus (HPV) test, which is recommended only for women 30 to 64 years of age and only once every 5 years; tests for sexually transmitted diseases (recommended routinely only for women 15 to 25 years of age and those with symptoms suggestive of an infection); and sophisticated laboratory tests for a variety of yeasts, the presence or absence of which was once assessed by the physician looking at a slide under a microscope. So how do all these tests come to be ordered for healthy women who come in only for an annual gynecology exam? The answer is that someone, whether the physician or nurse practitioner or the medical assistant processing the specimen, checked off all those boxes on the order form...

Laboratories have learned that one easy way to increase revenue is to make it easy for clinicians to order more tests. In the past year, I have been visited by multiple laboratory representatives touting “improved” tests, virtually all of which involve combination panels that can be easily ordered and that contain extensive lists of fairly esoteric tests. The single-vial women's health test is being heavily marketed by multiple laboratories. It includes not only the Pap and HPV tests but also tests for multiple infections — including some we would rarely have tested for in the past — for which we often have no evidence of benefit. Costly tests that once would have required physicians to submit multiple collection vials and specimens can now be ordered with the Pap smear simply by clicking a single box in the electronic medical record. Nothing at any point along the way alerts either the clinician or the patient to the high costs of these tests or to the fact that there is little medical evidence to suggest that they are useful for most patients. It seems harmless, even possibly beneficial, to run these additional tests, and for our staff, it eliminates the risk of missing a test the doctor might have wanted to have run. The risk it poses, though — the one I face when a patient calls about a crippling bill — is that more and more women may choose not to undergo screening, afraid of the financial consequences.
More at the link.  It's an important concept to understand.

22 October 2013

¿Bailamos? ("Shall we dance?")


I hope the English subtitles will turn on automatically (if not, use the "cc" button in the bottom menu bar).
The purpose of this video is to remind parents immersed in a cultural dynamic of work and consumption, that children are children, and they have to play and enjoy their childhood.

"Blade Runner" - a revised trailer


A re-imagined trailer for one of my favorite movies, crafted in a "film noir" style -
As many have pointed out, Blade Runner is already very "Noir." I just wanted to take those aspects of the film and accentuate them into something hopefully interesting. The piano song is "Memories of Green" off the soundtrack. All sounds and images in the trailer are from the film or soundtrack.
Via Neatorama.

See also: The "love theme" from "Blade Runner" (Vangelis)

and The "Tears in Rain" soliloquy.

How the world's oceans are being destroyed

Excerpts from an essay published in the Newcastle (NSW) Herald, by a man who recently sailed the western Pacific:
What was missing was the cries of the seabirds which, on all previous similar voyages, had surrounded the boat.  The birds were missing because the fish were missing...  No fish. No birds. Hardly a sign of life at all...

North of the equator, up above New Guinea, the ocean-racers saw a big fishing boat working a reef in the distance.

"All day it was there, trawling back and forth. It was a big ship, like a mother-ship," he said. And all night it worked too, under bright floodlights. And in the morning Macfadyen was awoken by his crewman calling out, urgently, that the ship had launched a speedboat.

"Obviously I was worried. We were unarmed and pirates are a real worry in those waters. I thought, if these guys had weapons then we were in deep trouble." But they weren't pirates, not in the conventional sense, at least. The speedboat came alongside and the Melanesian men aboard offered gifts of fruit and jars of jam and preserves.

"And they gave us five big sugar-bags full of fish," he said. "They were good, big fish, of all kinds. Some were fresh, but others had obviously been in the sun for a while.

"We told them there was no way we could possibly use all those fish. There were just two of us, with no real place to store or keep them. They just shrugged and told us to tip them overboard. That's what they would have done with them anyway, they said.

"They told us that his was just a small fraction of one day's by-catch. That they were only interested in tuna and to them, everything else was rubbish. It was all killed, all dumped. They just trawled that reef day and night and stripped it of every living thing."
The essay goes on to detail seeing evidence of the Japanese tsunami in mid-ocean -
Ivan's brother, Glenn, who boarded at Hawaii for the run into the United States, marvelled at the "thousands on thousands" of yellow plastic buoys. The huge tangles of synthetic rope, fishing lines and nets. Pieces of polystyrene foam by the million. And slicks of oil and petrol, everywhere.

Countless hundreds of wooden power poles are out there, snapped off by the killer wave and still trailing their wires in the middle of the sea...
All of this is anecdotal, of course, but still unbelieveably tragic.  The children of our generation will inherit a world with vastly depleted and damaged oceans, and those living far inland will not be unaffected.

21 October 2013

Congratulations Eau Claire North girls golf team

Kaitlyn Alvarez, Sarah Faanes, Alyssa Bee, Kacie James, Lauren Klauck, Hallie Hancock, coach Sam Erickson.

After winning the regular season title in the Big Rivers Conference, the Eau Claire North girls team entered postseason competition in early October at the New Richmond Regionals, beating the host team by four strokes.  The following week they traveled to La Crosse for the Sectionals, again taking first place, and thus qualifying the team for participation in the State championships.


State was held this year at the University of Wisconsin's awesome and imposing University Ridge golf course.  Cool autumn weather resulted in a frost delay the morning of the first round and a dense fog for much of the second round the next day.


After carding eight scores averaging in the 80s, the team wound up finishing 7th among the approximately 100 teams that had originally entered postseason play - the highest statewide rank achieved by the girls in the recent history of the school.


A tip of my hat to the best golfer in our family, Kaitlyn Alvarez, who carded her first eagle this summer,  played #1 for the team all season long, and on the final day of the State competition unleashed a 270-yard drive.  With the season now ended, she returns to the more mundane aspects of AP English, AP physics, and precalculus.  She'll head off to college next year to St. Catherine's University in Minnesota.

A tip of the hat as well to the Eau Claire North team's coach - Sam Erickson - who achieved the singular honor of taking both the boys' and the girls' teams to the State competition in the same academic year.

Sculpting with straw

It's fall in Japan. And like every fall, rice is harvested, leaving behind straw to be hung and dried. In some rural areas, though, the rice straw has a special use: Making giant beasts.

Kagawa Prefecture and Niigata Prefecture have the most famous "straw art festivals," which are large straw sculpture displays.

Traditionally, straw was used to thatch roofs. In much the same manner, these straw sculptures are thatched around wooden frames.
From Kotaka, which has many more examples assembled in a gallery, via Neatorama.

Global "worming"


I've blogged before about the dangers earthworms pose to forest ecosystems.  The topic was discussed this past week in a feature article ("Saving the Great North Woods") in the StarTribune.  Most of the article centered on the effects of a warming climate on the health and variety of trees in the forests (especially in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area - BWCA), but these comments are worthy of note:
These invasive creatures, spread mostly by anglers dumping their bait, have taken up residence in about half of the million-acre wilderness, by one estimate. And they are re-engineering the forest floor as they go.

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.

“It’s like a buffet line” for worms, said Chaffin, marveling at their ingenuity. But in the process, he added, they “are fundamentally changing the foundation of the forest.”
Photo by me years ago - I encountered this little fellow while digging in the sandy soil of northern Minnesota. He was unhappy about being exposed, and curled into this defensive - or threatening? - posture.


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