31 January 2014

Pitcher plants glow under UV light to attract prey

It's long been known that carnivorous plants lure their insect prey in a range of ways: irresistible nectars, vivid colors and alluring scents that range from rose to rotten flesh. But recently, a group of scientists at the Jawaharlal Nehru Tropical Botanic Garden and Research Institute in India discovered a previously hidden means of beckoning among the most ruthless of greenery. Some carnivorous plants, they discovered, lure insects to their death with a fluorescent glow invisible to the human eye...

"To our great surprise, we found a blue ring on on the pitcher rim," Baby says. "Then, we looked at other Nepenthes species and the prey traps of other carnivorous plants, including the Venus flytrap, and we consistently found UV-induced blue emissions." These colors, found in a total of twenty carnivorous plant species and documented in a study published in Plant Biology, were the first time such distinct fluorescent emissions were ever detected in the plant kingdom...

An ant—which can't see red, but is extremely sensitive to blue and violet light—would see rings of blue florescence, the result of metabolic compounds in the plant that absorb UV radiation from the Sun and re-emit it as visible light...

...the plants might use their fluorescence for other purposes as well. Recent field studies in Borneo indicated that some species of pitchers may have a symbiotic relationship with small nocturnal mammals, such as rats, bats and tree shrews—these mammals come and drink nectar from the plants, and deposit nutritious feces nearby, which serve as a fertilizer.
More photos and explanation at Smithsonian.  You learn something every day.

A clever way to transport automobiles by rail

Known as Vert-A-Pac, the railcar was designed to maximize the amount of vehicles being transported, and GM made at least one vehicle that was specifically made for this kind of duty: the Chevy Vega.

In order to keep the price at a rock bottom level, these Chevys were designed to fit on railcars that could carry twice as many Vegas than usual, for a total of 30. In order to fit all 30 cars, each rail car had 30 doors, 15 on each side, that folded down so that a Vega could be secured inside in a vertical, nose-down fashion. Then a forklift would come along and lift the door (and car) into place.
Via the new shelton wet/dry.

I am so very very VERY tired of deleting spam comments


Every morning I wake up to be greeted by an emailbox showing new comments to TYWKIWDBI for me to review and weed.  And every morning I have to delete utter crap like the above, some of which has made its way through filters and has to be manually expunged.

I don't want to ban comments, which thanks to the readership here often contains more insights and information than the posts themselves, and I don't want to make the signup too onerous.  I have wondered if there is a mechanism to stop comments on posts older than XX days (?30, ?60 should allow access by all regular readers), but then some of the classic posts like Squirrel eating a bird or How to break your arm on purpose, which continue to garner relevant comments years after they were posted, would be inaccessible.  But that may be the tradeoff to make my mornings more pleasant.

Is there such a time-based filter available via Blogspot?  I can't seem to find one.  Any other suggestions would be appreciated.

Devastated by a rolling stone


The first time I watched this video of the aftermath of a rockfall in Italy, I was baffled by how the footage was obtained.  Apparently this was filmed by a drone (?quadcopter).

More details at The Independent, via Nothing to do with Arbroath.

Modern foraging for food


Foraging not in dumpsters, but rather in backyards, fields, and parks.

More information at Meadows and More.

Via The Dish.

What do these people have in common?

Ann-Margret
Ingrid Bergman
Werner von Braun
Greta Garbo
Werner Heisenberg
Hubert H. Humphrey
William Hurt
Johannes Kepler
Thomas Mann
Karl Marx
Edvard Munch
Jean-Paul Sartre
Jesse Ventura
Dr. Seuss
Jimmy Olsen (comics)
Bruce Willis
Steve Jobs
Gary Larson

Answer below the fold

1740 book on Stonehenge now online


In 1740, British vicar William Stukeley published Stonehenge, A Temple Restor’d to the British Druids.
In more than 30 illustrations, Stukeley’s book documents the way Stonehenge appeared when he visited it in the early 18th century. The historian was only the second scholarly investigator (after the 17th-century antiquarian John Aubrey) to take an interest in the site, and the first to publish a comprehensive account of what he found on his visits, including images of the way that the monument looked in context of the surrounding farmland.

In maps and vistas, Stukeley tried to capture the layout of the monument’s stones. Much of his sense of urgency in the task came from his belief that the stones’ arrangement needed preservation, as the monument was under constant threat of vandalism and interference. For example, Aubrey found and documented 20 stones in one area of the monument; a century later, Stukeley found only five remaining.
A digitized copy of the book has been posted online by Harvard's Widener Library.

Via Slate's Vault.

Dumping on the Great Barrier Reef

"Australia's Great Barrier Reef watchdog gave the green light on Friday for millions of cubic metres of dredged mud to be dumped near the fragile reef to create the world's biggest coal port and possibly unlock $28 billion in coal projects.

The dumping permit clears the way for a major expansion of the port of Abbot Point for two Indian firms and Australian billionaire miner Gina Rinehart, who together have $16 billion worth of coal projects in the untapped, inland Galilee Basin.

Environmentalists, scientists and tourist operators had fought the plan, which they fear will harm delicate corals and seagrasses and potentially double the ship traffic through the World Heritage marine park.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, an independent government agency charged with protecting the reef, acknowledged the concerns, but said expanding Abbot Point would require much less dredging than other port options.

"It's important to note the seafloor of the approved disposal area consists of sand, silt and clay and does not contain coral reefs or seagrass beds," the marine park authority's chairman, Russell Reichert, said in a statement..."
Fortunately, the dredged material will all stay in one place after it's dumped, and won't move around or anything like that, because there aren't any, you know, currents or waves or such.

Addendum August 2014:  A hat tip to reader expatQLD for sending in these followup details on the outcome of the proposal.
The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is likely to be spared from having 3 million cubic metres of dredge spoil dumped on it as part of the Abbot Point coal terminal expansion.

Dawson MP George Christensen confessed in an open letter to Whitsunday residents that “I got it wrong” and is in negotiations with North Queensland Bulk Ports (NQBP) to find a land-based dumping site for the spoil.
Details at the link.

"Look at that, you son of a bitch"


(Reposted from 2011 to accompany the Great Barrier Reef post above.)

30 January 2014

Trailer for "How To Die in Oregon"

Excerpts of Edward Snowden's interview with German media

"There was an article that came out in an online outlet called BuzzFeed where they interviewed officials from the Pentagon, from the National Security Agency and they gave them anonymity to be able to say what they want and what they told the reporter was that they wanted to murder me. These individuals - and these are acting government officials. They said they would be happy, they would love to put a bullet in my head, to poison me as I was returning from the grocery store and have me die in the shower...

The National Security agency operates under the President’s executive authority alone. He can end of modify or direct a change of their policies at any time...

When you are on the inside and you go into work everyday and you sit down at the desk and you realise the power you have  - you can wire tap the President of the United States, you can wire tap a Federal Judge and if you do it carefully no one will ever know because the only way the NSA discovers abuses are from self reporting...

The Five Eyes alliance is sort of an artifact of the post World War II era where the Anglophone countries are the major powers banded together to sort of co-operate and share the costs of intelligence gathering infrastructure.  So we have the UK’s GCHQ, we have the US NSA, we have Canada’s C-Sec, we have the Australian Signals Intelligence Directorate and we have New Zealand’s DSD...

You could read anyone’s email in the world. Anybody you’ve got email address for, any website you can watch traffic to and from it, any computer that an individual sits at you can watch it, any laptop that you’re tracking you can follow it as it moves from place to place throughout the world...

I don’t want to pre-empt the editorial decisions of journalists but what I will say is there’s no question that the US is engaged in economic spying.  If there’s information at Siemens that they think would be beneficial to the national interests, not the national security of the United States, they’ll go after that information and they’ll take it...

(re outsourcing work to private companies) The problem there is you end up in a situation where government policies are being influenced by private corporations who have interests that are completely divorced from the public good in mind. The result of that is what we saw at Booze Allen Hamilton where you have private individuals who have access to what the government alleges were millions and millions of records that they could walk out the door with at any time with no accountability, no oversight, no auditing, the government didn’t even know they were gone...
I worked alone. I didn’t need anybody’s help, I don’t have any ties to foreign governments, I’m not a spy for Russia or China or any other country for that matter. If I am a traitor who did I betray? I gave all of my information to the American public, to American journalists who are reporting on American issues. If they see that as treason I think people really need to consider who do they think they’re working for. The public is supposed to be their boss not their enemy... "
The fulltext (in English) is at the German website NDR.

This telephone is 1,200 years old


Not an electric telephone obviously, but a true "phone" designed to transmit sounds over distances, created in South America before the era of European contact.  Smithsonian has the story:
The marvel of acoustic engineering—cunningly constructed of two resin-coated gourd receivers, each three-and-one-half inches long; stretched-hide membranes stitched around the bases of the receivers; and cotton-twine cord extending 75 feet when pulled taut—arose out of the Chimu empire at its height. The dazzlingly innovative culture was centered in the Río Moche Valley in northern Peru, wedged between the Pacific Ocean and the western Andes. “The Chimu were a skillful, inventive people,” Matos tells me as we don sterile gloves and peer into the hollowed interiors of the gourds. The Chimu, Matos explains, were the first true engineering society in the New World, known as much for their artisanry and metalwork as for the hydraulic canal-irrigation system they introduced, transforming desert into agricultural lands...
More at the link.  I've been unable to locate a better photograph than the embed, but it's clear that this was the equivalent of a modern tin-can telephone.

29 January 2014

A "crèche" of Penguins (Karyn's bookcases)


A portion of the 2000-volume personal library of Karyn Reeves, who writes "A Penguin a Week."  She has an excellent blog; if you share her enthusiasm, there is a Penguin Collectors Society.

And I can't resist contrasting her bookshelves with this stack on a wall (original credit unknown) posted at Book Porn:


Addendum: My series of posts on "reader's bookcases," has now accumulated 40+ entries, but I need to move on to other things, so I'm going to call a temporary halt to what has been an interesting venture.

I can't end, however, without reposting (from two years ago) these two remarkable walls of books.

Alphonsine's bookcases

"I like books and I have always dreamt of having a library. My husband fixed ours up in an attic. Obviously, our books are arranged by topic : detective novels, novels, textbooks, children's books, DIY, etc..." 
Alphonsine blogs at Des noeuds dans mon fil.

Shane's bookcases


This photo shows three of the six book cases in my anti-library. The first is primarily fiction, the second primarily philosophy, and the last being business.

I spend between $200-700 a month on books and donate the ones I don't think I'll need anymore to the local elementary school.

The last book I bought was Why Societies Need Dissent
Shane blogs at Farnam Street.

"Six ways from Sunday" began as a description of strabismus

The big problem... is that the expression has appeared in many forms down the years, such as four different ways from Sunday, eight ways from Tuesday, forty ways till Sunday, and a thousand ways for Sunday.

The key to its origin lies in this early slang collection, which was pointed out to me by Douglas Wilson:
SQUINT-A-PIPES. A squinting man or woman; said to be born in the middle of the week, and looking both ways for Sunday; or born in a hackney coach, and looking out of both windows; fit for a cook, one eye in the pot, and the other up the chimney; looking nine ways at once.
----Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, by Captain Francis Grose, 1785.
This is an early American version:
The brow projected exuberantly, though not heavily, over a pair of rascally little cross-firing twinkling eyes, that, as the country people said, looked at least nine ways from Sunday.
----Cobus Yerks, a short story by James Kirke Paulding, in The Atlantic Souvenir for Christmas 1828.
It would seem that Paulding employed an amalgamation of the first and last of Grose’s expressions to describe what is properly called a strabismus, in which the eyes appear to be looking in different directions...

As well as the multitudinous versions, the sense has shifted yet again, to mean completely, thoroughly or by every imaginable method, as in this example from 1894: “if you want to collect any bills from them you will have to chase them seven ways from Sunday”. Another, from 2013, also has that sense: “They both insist that their staff are the best in the business, and have been checked five ways to Sunday before they get hired.”
More details at the always-interesting World Wide Words.

Pentagon to give away 13,000 armored vehicles

The Pentagon wants to give away 13,000 mine-resistant, ambush-protected trucks because they have outlived their original purpose.

Although the trucks' armored bodies are credited with protecting U.S. troops from roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan, military planners want more-versatile vehicles that can be deployed quickly as troop levels decrease. A full-size MRAP (pronounced EM-rap, of course) weighs about 40,000 pounds, stands 10 feet tall and costs the Pentagon about $500,000 new...

Interest from foreign militaries has been tepid. But they are a hit with stateside police agencies. Almost 200 trucks have been distributed to police departments since August and requests are pending for an additional 750 trucks. The vehicles, many of which feature machine-gun turrets, are off-limits to private citizens and businesses.

Lucky recipients run from the Ohio State University campus police force to Florence County, S.C., which replaced an armored vehicle from the 1970s that the sheriff department's SWAT team had used for about 15 years. A new armored truck would have cost at least $188,000...

"Nobody will want them," says Dean Lockwood, an analyst with Forecast International Inc. "The Afghan terrain is hell on vehicles. It's eating them alive."

For police, though, the bulky trucks project a show of force at hostage incidents, civil disturbances and other situations where SWAT officers with military-grade weapons, uniforms and helmets are deployed.
Thirteen thousand surplus vehicles that cost a half-million dollars each.
Going to American urban and campus police forces.
To be replaced by even more vehicles.

I'm going to defer commentary.

Say goodbye to the axolotl

The axolotl... also known as a Mexican salamander (Ambystoma mexicanum) or a Mexican walking fish, is a neotenic salamander, closely related to the tiger salamander. Although the axolotl is colloquially known as a "walking fish", it is not a fish, but an amphibian. The species originates from numerous lakes, such as Lake Xochimilco underlying Mexico City. Axolotls are unusual among amphibians in that they reach adulthood without undergoing metamorphosis. Instead of developing lungs and taking to land, the adults remain aquatic and gilled.
Sad news today, as reported by The Guardian:
Mexico's salamander-like axolotl may have disappeared from its only known natural habitat in Mexico City's few remaining lakes....

The axolotl is known as the "water monster" and the "Mexican walking fish." Its only natural habitat is the Xochimilco network of lakes and canals, which are suffering from pollution and urban sprawl. Biologist Armando Tovar Garza, of Mexico's National Autonomous University, described an attempt last year by researchers to try to net axolotls in the shallow, muddy waters of Xochimilco as "four months of sampling zero axolotls"...

The Mexican Academy of Sciences said a 1998 survey had found an average of 6,000 axolotls for each square km, a figure that dropped to 1,000 in a 2003 study, and 100 in a 2008 survey.
Our children's children will grow up in a vastly depleted and markedly less interesting world.  (Unless they are interested in cockroaches and jellyfish).

Update (March 2014): I should have used "au revoir" rather than "goodbye" in the title, because some survivors in the wild have been located -
"...biologist Armando Tovar Garza of Mexico's National Autonomous University said Friday that members of the team carrying out the search had seen two axolotls during the first three weeks of a second survey expected to conclude in April."

Movements of a fly on a window

 ("Movements of a fly on a window between 8 am and 7 pm one day in May, 1967”)

 From Atlas of Affinities, via Ego is a rat on the sinking ship of being.

"On the cover of Rolling Stone..."

"Wanna see my picture on the cover.
Wanna buy five copies for my mother.
Wanna see my smilin' face
On the cover of the Rollin' Stone..."
This week's cover of Rolling Stone features someone who would never have been imagined there by Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show in 1972.*

Excerpts from the long (and interesting) lead story about him:
By all accounts, the papal conclave that elevated Bergoglio assumed it was electing a fairly anodyne compromise candidate. Cardinals liked the idea of a pope from Latin America, one of the Church's leading growth markets. They also responded well to a stirring three-minute speech Bergoglio gave during the conclave, in which he said the Church, in order to survive, must stop "living within herself, of herself, for herself."
But he gave no other indication that he'd be any kind of change agent. In the days after his election, most newspapers described him as a safe, conservative choice...

The pope's tonal changes don't necessarily signal a wild swing from tradition. Francis has ruled out the ordination of women, for example, and he still considers abortion an evil. But those obsessed with contextualizing Francis would do well to take a look at the impromptu press conference he granted last summer to gathered Vaticanisti (members of the Vatican press corps) during the flight back from a trip to Rio. Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican press office, told me he'd expected the press conference would go about 20 minutes. It lasted for nearly 90, and ended up including the pope's famous "Who am I to judge?" response, which is normally the only part of the exchange that's quoted. But reading the full transcript or, better yet, watching longer excerpts on YouTube helps to convey the true context.

A reporter asks Francis, who is standing at the head of the aisle, about the existence of a "gay lobby" within the Vatican. Francis begins by making a joke, saying he hasn't yet run into anyone with a special gay identification card. But then his face becomes serious and, gesturing for emphasis, he says it's important to distinguish between lobbies, which are bad – "A lobby of the greedy, a lobby of politicians, a lobby of Masons, so many lobbies!" he says later in the press conference – and individual gay people who are well-intentioned and seeking God. It's while speaking to the latter point that he makes the "Who am I to judge?" remark, and this part of the video is really worth watching, because, aside from the entirely mind-blowing fact of a supposedly infallible pope asking this question at all, his answer is never really translated properly. What he actually says is, "Mah, who am I to judge?" In Italian, mah is an interjection with no exact English parallel, sort of the verbal equivalent of an emphatic shrug. My dad's use of mah most often precedes his resignedly pouring another splash of grappa into his coffee. The closest translation I can come up with is "Look, who the hell knows?" If you watch the video, Francis even pinches his fingers together for extra Italian emphasis. Then he flashes a knowing smirk...
Even simple gestures, like Francis' rejection of the papal palace, went beyond mere symbolism. "The main reason he didn't want to live there mostly had to do with autonomy," says a Vatican clergyman who has worked closely with multiple popes. "In the palace, they can control what gets to you."..
Much more at the link, which discusses not just this Pope but the status of modern Catholicism.  If you're going to waste time at work today on the internet, try this article rather than TYWKIWDBI entries on the movement of flies on windowpanes.

*There have been many other people featured on the cover who have not been rock musicians or entertainers (in the conventional sense): Jar-Jar Binks, George W. Bush, Princess Caroline of Monaco, E.T., Hubert Humphrey...

27 January 2014

"This dog just appeared out of nowhere..."

"This dog just appeared out of nowhere and followed us for an entire week during our trekking trip in the Himalayan outback . . . When I decided to get up at 4 a.m. to climb the next 5000 m peak for sunrise he accompanied me as well. On the top he was sitting for the entire 30 minutes on this place."
Posted at Reddit EarthPorn, where the interesting comment thread includes the following:
"Your spiritual journey of a lifetime. His average Tuesday."
"These people just appeared out of nowhere and followed me for an entire week."
"Maybe it wasnt a dog, but a spirit guide."
"We met the same dog trekking over the Korzok Range near Tso Moriri! The first night he slept under my tent's fly, then in my friend's vestibule. For a couple of days we didn't feed him, trying to encourage him to go 'home' - that was very hard because he was such a lovely dog. After we crossed a 5900+m pass we had no choice, and fed him well. He was a wonderful companion, but eventually abandoned us for a group of mountain bikers, who presumably had better food! I only have one picture of him, but it was taken at the top of a pass, the only time he was cold and sad."
p.s. - click the photo to embiggen to awesome wallpaper.

Photo credit: Sebastian Wahlhuetter Photography.

Meet Potoooooooo

Potoooooooo or Pot-8-Os (foaled in 1773) was a famous 18th-century Thoroughbred racehorse who defeated some of the greatest racehorses and later became an influential sire...

Pot-8-Os acquired the strange spelling of his nickname, Potatoes, when a stable lad was asked to write it on a feed bin. The lad's version, Potoooooooo, was said to amuse his lordship so he kept it, and it appears in the General Stud Book.
Via Ego is a rat on the sinking ship of being.

Ocular injury from an electrical burn


From a report in the New England Journal of Medicine:
A 42-year-old male electrician presented to the eye clinic with decreasing vision 4 weeks after an electrical burn of 14,000 V to the left shoulder. His vision in both eyes was limited to perception of hand motions...  Slit-lamp examination showed bilateral stellate anterior subcapsular opacities of the lens... Four months after the injury, the patient underwent cataract extraction and implantation of an intraocular lens, which was followed by improvement in visual acuity to 20/70 in the right eye and 20/400 in the left eye...
This is very interesting.  I wonder how an electrical injury to his shoulder translated into an ocular injury, and why the damage to the lens evolved into that pattern.

Photo credit: Bobby S. Korn, M.D., Ph.D., Don O. Kikkawa, M.D., University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, CA

You can now 3D-print your unborn fetus

"Your pregnancy with this child is a once in a lifetime experience. Recall those feelings with your own 3D Baby.

At 3D Babies, we create an adorable baby figurine resembling your baby's facial features and body position.  We use your 3D/4D ultrasound images or newborn baby pictures to create a unique artistic representation of your baby using the latest computer graphics and 3D printing technologyFor best results, you can schedule your 3D ultrasound during gestation weeks 24-32.  This is a great way to share the excitement of your new baby with family and friends.  Your 3D Baby will be a treasured family remembrance of your pregnancy and new baby."
I haven't decided whether this is a reality or just a concept, because the blog at the company's website discusses crowdfunding.  I'm not going to offer any commentary - res ipsa loquitur and all that.

Via FastCompany.

Rat-tossing at El Puig, Spain

The custom's origins are obscure, but revelers have been slinging dead rats at each other on San Pedro's day for about as long as anyone can remember...

El Puig is set in the heart of Valencian orange country, and many rats come from fields around town, said Julio Hurtado, a festival organizer. Some rat-chuckers go to the trouble of freezing rodents beforehand, so they won't get caught short on the great day, locals say...

Mr. Montesinos is critical of those who want to stop rat-tossing. "We can't lose the very thing that makes us unique," he said...

Nobody's sure what will happen this Sunday, but some animal-rights supporters have just about given up on changing El Puig. "The only reason anyone ever pays attention to El Puig is because of the rats," said Silvia Barquero, a leader of Spain's animal-rights party, Pacma. "Really, I think they're very proud of their rats."
More at the Wall Street Journal.

What is the distance between these poles?

Two poles stand vertically on level ground. One is 10 feet tall, the other 15 feet tall. If a line is drawn from the top of each pole to the bottom of the other, the two lines intersect at a point 6 feet above the ground. What’s the distance between the poles?
You can take a wild guess (and be correct), or view the answer at Futility Closet.

Addendum: If you're like me and need a bit of help in understanding the answer, see the comment by the fourth Anonymous (8:28 PM), which refers to this annotated version of the same diagram:

The conflict in Ukraine explained by a map

In other words, in the European-facing half of Ukraine, the orange half, the protests are even more widespread and severe than you might have gathered from watching the media coverage. But it's important to keep in mind that the other half of the country, the blue half, is much quieter.

You may be wondering, then, why there is such a consistent and deep divide between these two halves of Ukraine. Here's the really crucial thing to understand about Ukraine: A whole lot of the country speaks Russian, rather than Ukrainian. This map shows the country's linguistic divide, which you may notice lines up just about perfectly with its political divide.

Ukrainian is the majority and official language of Ukraine. But, as a legacy of of the country's subjugation by Russia, many Ukrainians speak Russian, which is the native language for about one-third of the population. The Russian speakers are clustered in the south and east. A significant chunk of them are ethnic Russian, as well. In some regions, more than three-quarters of the population speaks Russian as their primary language.

Heavily Russian-speaking regions can tend to be more sympathetic (or at least less hostile) to policies that bring their country closer to Russia, as Yanukovych has been doing. But the Ukrainian-speaking regions have historically sought a Ukrainian national identity that is less Russia-facing and more European. So this is about politics, yes, but it's also about identity, about the question of what it means to be Ukrainian.
More at The Washington Post (and there are some perceptive observations by readers in the Comments below).

Should bartenders be required to wear gloves?

As reported on NPR's The Salt:
The rule applies to bartenders, who are now supposed to wear gloves to put limes in the mojitos and cherries in the Manhattans — even to scoop ice into a glass...

California Assemblyman Richard Pan, a Democrat who heads the committee that introduced the glove rule, says the law is not that onerous.

For starters, Pan says the law was written after conversations between lawmakers, health officials and some of the establishments that would have to abide by the rule...

Pan says regulators are still figuring out how they'll enforce the law. For the first six months, no one will be punished for not wearing gloves. They'll just get warnings.
More at the link.  Not discussed there is that some studies have shown scooped ice can harbor fecal coliforms, as do lemons and limes.

24 January 2014

Lake Superior agate


I've hunted the North Shore and have seen lots of agates, most of which have a more muted red that tends more toward maroon, making me wonder whether this is aberrant or altered.  But it is an impressive photo, from Wikipedia.

Counterintuitive math ("the sum of all natural numbers is -1/12")

 

As an English major, it's hard for me to argue with two physicists from the University of Nottingham, but frankly I don't trust any proof that relies on the use of infinity.

A more detailed discussion with a more detailed proof is presented in this unlisted 20-minute video.

Arguments for improving relations with Iran


From Foreign Policy:
[I]f you’re not a fan of the clerical regime, you might want to consider killing it with kindness instead of bolstering it with belligerence. More than half of Iran’s population is under 35, and many are eager for better relations with the outside world (including the United States). Making it easier for Iranians to travel, get educated in the United States, and get exposed to the rest of the outside world will put those aging mullahs in a very awkward position. Have we learnt nothing from the failed Cuban embargo, which has helped keep the Castro Bros. in power for half a century? If we really believe in the transformative power of markets, Hollywood, hip-hop, the Internet, democracy, and free speech, let’s turn ‘em loose on Tehran. If your goal is a more moderate Iran, that approach is likely to work a lot better than ostracism, covert action, and repeated threats of military force, which merely galvanize Iranian nationalism and help justify continued repression by hardliners.
Via The Dish, whence the photo credit.

The hand span of professional quarterbacks


As reported in the Wall Street Journal:
Inside the game, it is understood that both starting quarterbacks [for the Superbowl] possess a trait that renders them all but weatherproof. The Seattle Seahawks' Russell Wilson and the Denver Broncos' Peyton Manning have huge hands...

But today's executives understand that height isn't the only or even the most important measure of a quarterback's size. Wilson stands only 5 feet 11. But from pinkie to thumb, his hands measure 10¼ inches...

In an informal poll of league executives this week, nearly all said the league was moving away from small-handed quarterbacks, in part because of the cold-weather advantage of large hands. Former NFL executive Gil Brandt said that throughout history, the list of small-handed NFL quarterback stars is short—and may consist only of Hall of Famer Norm Van Brocklin. "He had short little stubbs [sic] for fingers," said Brandt.

In a shocker, star Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson, once considered a top draft prospect, fell to the fourth round of last year's draft. The team that drafted him, the Oakland Raiders, released him before he ever played in a game — which seldom happens for a pick that high. Scouts have confirmed that his incredibly small hands, 8¾ inches, were a huge factor... 
My hand span is about 9 inches, which is one reason why, when I retired from academia, I decided to become a blogger rather than a professional quarterback.

Histogram from StatCrunch (data source not given and validity not assured).

Getting "knocked up" meant something different in Victorian England

A knocker-up (sometimes known as a knocker-upper) was a profession in England and Ireland that started during and lasted well into the Industrial Revolution and at least as late as the 1920s, before alarm clocks were affordable or reliable. A knocker-up's job was to rouse sleeping people so they could get to work on time.



The knocker-up used a truncheon or short, heavy stick to knock on the clients' doors or a long and light stick, often made of bamboo, to reach windows on higher floors. At least one of them used a pea-shooter. In return, the knocker-up would be paid a few pence a week. The knocker-up would not leave a client's window until they were sure that the client had been awoken.

A knocker upper would also use a 'snuffer outer' as a tool to rouse the sleeping. This implement was used to put out gas lamps which were lit at dusk and then needed to be extinguished at dawn.
Photo source unknown, via British Paintings.

Twin Olympic toilets

When BBC reporter Steve Rosenberg went to use the bathroom at the cross-country skiing and biathlon center for next month's Winter Olympics in Sochi, he found two toilets but only one stall...

Although toilets like that are not common in Russia, social media users posted photos of other side-by-side toilets, including ones in a courthouse and a cafe. The editor of the state R-Sport news agency said such communal toilets are standard at Russian soccer stadiums...

In a nod to the tight security measures imposed in Sochi for the Winter Olympics, another joke has it that the second toilet was for a Russian security officer.
Reported in the StarTribune.  Photo: Steve Rosenberg, Associated Press.

I have added a translator to TYWKIWDBI


I browse a variety of foreign blogs, and am always relieved to find a "translate" button or British flag to save me the need to copy and paste into Google translate.  This week I suddenly realized I didn't have one on this blog, even though I've had readers from 175 countries just in the last month.

So now there is one, in the right sidebar near the top.  The blog seems to load just a bit slower since I've added the widget; I hope this won't be a problem.  The pull-down menu leads to 80 languages.  I thought it was interesting to see how it looked in Finnish and Tamil and Urdu.

22 January 2014

How to mail letters and packages cheaply using discount postage


It's been 20 or 30 years since I've paid full price to mail a letter (or a package).  The current rate for a one-ounce first-class letter is $0.46, but I've been mailing mine for years for about $0.35.   The photo above shows the corner of a heavy manila envelope I mailed last week.  Affixed to it is $2.32 in stamps - which cost me about $1.75.  This post will explain how you can do the same.

I'm writing this now because on January 26, the postal rate for one-ounce letters in the U.S. will rise from 46c to 49c, and cyberspace seems to be full of friendly financial advice on why everyone should purchase "forever stamps" now to save 3c per letter.   Fiddle-faddle.  That's child's play, written by people who are unaware that postage stamps can be purchased at a substantial discount.

Before I get to "discount postage," we need to review two ways NOT to try to save money on postage, so that you don't end up in a Federal court or prison.

Intentionally short-paid postage is illegal.
In the first hundred years of the postal services, the appropriateness of postage applied to a letter or package was checked by a postal employee, either at a service desk, or in a sorting facility, or by a carrier.  This changed in the 1960s when technology was developed for applying to stamps a "tag" which automated equipment could read.  Those interested in the details can learn more about the process in a Linn's refresher course.

This was done to facilitate automated sorting of mail, but it also opened the door for a postal scam.  Early sorting equipment could not distinguish between a 6c stamp and a higher denomination stamp if both of them were tagged, so when postal rates rose, some unscrupulous people began sending out mass mailings franked with the 6c tagged stamps, advising recipients that they didn't have to pay 10c or 13c or whatever to mail a letter, and they could send $$ to find out the "secret."  As the U.S. Postal Inspection Service notes, this is a federal crime.

You should never intentionally underfrank a mailing.  Nobody will arrest you if you inadvertently use a 46c at the end of this January, but to do so on a consistent basis is a form of postal fraud.

Reusing previously-used stamps is illegal.
Ever since the first Penny Black stamp was issued in Great Britain, postal authorities have wrestled with the problem of how to prevent the public from reusing stamps.  The conventional approach has been to apply a cancellation, but sometimes the ink on a cancel can be removed from the stamp.

Large-scale scams involving reused stamps were developed some decades ago, reportedly by persons incarcerated in prisons.  They would advertise in newspapers and magazines asking the public to send them used postage stamps for their collections, then wash the cancels off the stamps, regum them, and resell them again.   An article at the Christian Science Monitor offers some background.
Certain types of stamps issued by the Postal Service can be washed clean of their cancellation marks with common chemical products. The stamps are then able to be reused.

``There have been entire business enterprises built around this [laundering] operation,'' says Joe Brockert, program manager for the stamps division of the USPS. ``In one prosecution, three tractor-trailer loads of stamped envelopes, yet to be chemically altered and stamps removed, were confiscated by postal inspectors.''
Most people would not consider soaking a stamp off a letter for reuse, but if that stamp is a $19.95 Grand Central Terminal stamp for use on Express Mail, the temptation becomes greater.  Let's be clear about this: removing a cancel from a stamp and reusing that stamp on another letter or package is a federal crime.

But - there are grey areas.  The first involves water-damaged stamps, typically those resulting from floods in urban areas.  In such circumstances entire sheets of stamps may become stuck together; they can be soaked apart, but then will have inadequate gum.  Since those stamps have never been used for postage, to my understanding it is permissible to reapply gum and use them.

Which brings us to "skips."  Everyone who receives mail knows that sometimes envelopes come through the postal service equipment uncancelled (or the cancel misses the stamp).  Many people harvest such "skips" by cutting the corner off the envelope, soaking the stamp free, and applying gum with a gum stick.  This is illegal - although frankly it is unlikely that one would be caught. You can even find such stamps offered in bulk lots on eBay as "no gum postage."  While it is possible that some "no gum" stamps being offered resulted from a broken water pipe in the seller's basement, I wouldn't count on it.  You shouldn't buy such material. 

Why discount postage exists
The compelling reason why you shouldn't soak stamps off for reuse or buy dodgy items from a shady person is that the alternative - discount postage - is readily available and relatively inexpensive.

Discount postage exists primarily because of stamp collectors.  When I was growing up in the 1960s, the popularity of the hobby was rising; advertisements for collectible stamps were in every issue of Boy's Life and in comic books.  Increased participation in the hobby generated drove prices higher, so many collectors began to put away sheets and blocks of mint stamps as "investments."

However, as the decades went by, the interests of young people shifted toward pastimes that required electrical outlets.  The demographic profile of the average collector got older, so that now many of the stamps saved as investments are coming back on to the market, and are for sale at prices below their "face" value.

There are other reasons for the availability of discount postage, such as scrap left over by current-day collectors of plate blocks and plate number coils, or mistakenly large purchases for business use (and see the addendum at the bottom of this post), but to make a long story short, postage stamps can easily be purchased today at discounted prices.  This is perfectly legal.   The stamps were originally purchased from the postal authorities as advanced payment for future service; a stamp issued in 1953 is just as valid for postage now as it was then.  (In some countries, out-of-date stamps have been "demonitized," and rendered worthless for postage; this has not happened in the U.S. except briefly during the Civil War.)

Where to purchase discount postage stamps
I'll offer three suggestions for sources of discount postage: members of local stamp clubs, eBay, and stamp stores/online retailers.

Local stamp clubs: Most medium- and large-sized cities in the U.S. have clubs of stamp collectors who have meetings where they buy/sell/trade material and hear lectures or presentations.  These meetings are open to the public (most would eagerly welcome visitors), and I would bet that every club has one or more members who are selling postage stamps at a discount.

To locate a stamp club in your area, you can check your local newspaper, inquire at city hall, or ask for help from a community reference librarian.  But the best way is to go to the relevant webpage of the American Philatelic Society and enter your location in the search field.  At this link you can also search for clubs of stamp collectors in countries other than the U.S.

eBay: You can use the general search function (use "face" or "discount" as a search term), or go directly to the category Stamps> United States> Postage, where most of it is listed.  Prices will vary according to the type of material.  Low-denomination stamps (3c, 5c etc) are ridiculously cheap, but it's hard to fit enough of them on envelopes, and they have to be combined with higher denomination stamps (8c or greater) so that a fluorescent "tag" will be recognized by sorting equipment.  As you get closer to the current first-class rate, the percentage of face will rise.  Larger purchases will mean lower % of face.

Here are some examples from the "sold" listings:

 $42 face for $29 + $2 ship = 74%. 

This one was offered at an opening bid of 65%, and sold at 69%; it's larger in size than the one above and has lower-denomination stamps.

Be careful when you encounter the term "unused," which may refer to the ungummed stamps I mentioned earlier (same re "uncancelled" stamps, or anything "on paper.")  I would not recommend you purchase material advertised as "no gum."

And if you don't relish the thought of licking 6 stamps on each envelope, consider purchasing already-stamped envelopes at a discount.  Many people don't realize that U.S. post offices sell stamped envelopes ("postal stationery") in different sizes, with and without windows.  At the post office they sell at face, but like stamps, old ones with out-of-date denominations can be purchsed at a discount.  These sold on eBay for 66% of face value -

- and these for only 60% -

- but note the second lot is much larger, and it includes a lot of "window" envelopes, which may not be easily used for noncommercial mailings.

I recently got some at about half of face value:


The addition of a 20c stamp (also acquired at a discount) rendered them ready to mail:


Merchants: The third option for purchasing discount postage, considered by many to be more reliable than eBay, is to deal with a merchant - a stamp dealer - either at a local store, or online.   As the hobby demographics have changed, the number of brick-and-mortar stamp stores have declined precipitously.  When I was growing up, stamp stores were in local neighborhoods, and department stores like Dayton's and Donaldson's had departments selling stamps; nowadays, even medium-sized cities may show no stamp stores in the Yellow Pages. 


Most successful stamp dealers have an online presence; a simple Google search for "discount postage" will offer a wealth of choices.  The screencap at right comes from such a vendor (but his minimum purchase is $1,000 of face value stamps, and thus a $800 - $880 purchase).

You can find better deals than that with a little searching, but you'll want to be sure to exercise the cautions I mentioned above - to avoid previously used stamps, stamps "on paper," "unused" stamps (skips), and regummed stamps.

I'll take the liberty of recommending one dealer.  Jay Smith and Associates is a specialist in Scandinavian stamps whom I have dealt with intermittently for perhaps ten years.  They recently began offering discount postage in prepackaged groupings:
Postage Rate Units are groupings of stamps needed to meet a particular postage rate (for example, starting 26 January 2014, the U.S. postage rate is 49 cents for the first ounce for a normal letter). A "postage rate unit" to meet the 49 cent amount will consist of up to (NOT more than) 3 stamps that total 49 cents: For example 25 + 20 + 4 = 49. Such units may be made up of various denominations, but will not require more than three stamps. The stamps will be neatly sorted and packaged (typically in groups of 25, usually mostly the same stamps) for easy use and will be clearly labeled so you know how they are intended to be combined and used.
The percentage of face (70-80%) will vary inversely with the size of your order.

Some final thoughts.
If you decide to use discount postage, be kind to your postman or postal clerk.  They don't enjoy adding up a half-dozen numbers to check postage.  As shown in the top photo for this post, I leave a notation next to the stamps of the total value (and in this case the weight). 

Be sure to use one or more stamps with a denomination of 8c or higher to trigger the automated equipment.  Finally, the non-denominated "temporary" stamps labeled "A," "B," etc, issued at the time of postal rate changes, are not to be used for foreign mailings because they are undenominated).

TLDR:
In the United States (and presumably in many other countries), mint postage stamps can be purchased at prices substantially below their "face" value and can save you about 25% of your mailing cost.

Addendum:  I've been reminded by a well-informed reader that there are a couple of additional factors that can come into play, especially when large quantities of recently-issued high-denomination stamps are involved:
There are a very limited number of reasons that such very recent stamps would be available in large quantities -- and for most of those reasons, you might not want to be involved:
  • 1) Stamps stolen from post offices. 
  • 2) Stamps stolen from companies, by employees from employers. 
  • 3) Stamps purchased properly from a post office, usually by the owner of a small company, using the company's funds and writing it off on income taxes as a "business expense" and then the owner (or employee) takes the stamps home and sells them privately -- this is either theft from a company and/or its stockholders and/or a theft from the IRS and the taxpaying public. 
So, if you see large quantities of very recent stamps being sold on a venue like eBay and/or if the seller is not a regular seller of other types of stamps for collectors, I would be very wary. Sure, you probably won't be "caught" if you buy stamps "taken from the back of a truck", but you could become part of something you don't want to be involved in.

Grace in Canada's bookcase

"Though more "assorted stacks" than organized library, the bookshelf closet in my childhood-bedroom-come-study came to mind. Predominately reference books and assorted curiosities it is but one of the many book nooks located around our house."
"Barely visible in the upper left is my favourite in the stash and the only on this shelf that are not reference. Three miniature books of prayer rest under a kitsch figurine of a monkey who sits thoughtfully on a ceramic book with DARWIN inscribed on the spine. The occupied japanese take on Affe mit Schadel by Hugo Rheinhold perhaps?" 
Grace's submission is the 39th entry in the reader's bookcases category of TYWKIWDBI - and the last, because the queue is now depleted.  I just want to remind everyone that someday you will die and your books and knickknacks will be dispersed to libraries and charities and relatives who didn't really know you very well, and all that information about how they were assembled will be lost in time, like tears in rain.

Kevin's bookcase


"I've got a nice comfy library with 7 built-in bookcases made of maple, a lot of art, and a secret door in a photo niche that leads into a theater. Most of the shelves have modern books. There's a science fiction section, medical/biology, text books, etc. The one above has a lot of 19th century science and engineering books. That's kind of my thing. Another case has other 19th century things like history and literature sets."

21 January 2014

Totally rethinking maple syrup


So you think you understand where maple syrup comes from in trees?  Think again...
In October 2013, Drs. Tim Perkins and Abby van Den Berg of the University of Vermont’s Proctor Maple Research Center, revealed the findings of a study at a maple syrup conference in New Brunswick, Canada that sent waves through the industry. In 2010, they were studying vacuum systems in sap collection operations. Based on the observation that one of the mature trees in the study that was missing most of its top was still yielding high volumes of sap, they hypothesized that the maples were possibly drawing moisture from the soil and not the crown. Previously, they had presumed that the sap dripping from tap holes was coming from the upper portion of the tree. But, if the tree was missing most of its crown then, they surmised, it must be drawing moisture from the roots.

In order not to destroy the mature maples in the research forest to test their theory, they went to the maple saplings planted near the lab which are often used to gather data. They lopped off the top of the small trees, put caps on them with a tube inserted, sealed the cap and put them under vacuum. The young trees produced impressive quantities of sap, even without the benefit of a crown...

They realized that their discovery meant sugarmakers could use saplings, densely planted in open fields, to harvest sap. In other words, it is possible that maple syrup could now be produced as a row crop like every other commercial crop in North America.

In a natural forest, which varies in maple density, an average 60 to 100 taps per acre will yield 40 to 50 gallons of syrup. According to the researchers’ calculations, an acre of what is now called “the plantation method” could sustain 5,800 saplings with taps yielding 400 gallons of syrup per acre. If the method is realized, producing maple syrup on a commercial scale may no longer be restricted to those with forest land; it could require just 50 acres of arable land instead of 500 acres of forest. Furthermore, any region with the right climate for growing maples would be able to start up maple “farms”. The natural forest would become redundant...

"Personally the thought of taking maple out of the forest and turning into another row crop saddens me. We have been in the maple business since 2009 and our sugarhouse has a reputation for utilizing the most modern technology available to maximize efficiency of production. Nevertheless, the news of the plantation system has been a lot to chew on since we learned of it. We are relatively new to the trade but have come to love it, one of the principal reasons being our interaction with the thousand acres of forest behind our home. Like Dave Folino, I fear that the industry will no longer be special to New England but will be usurped by entrepreneurs anywhere with the right climate. And on a more visceral level, I feel that maple syrup is and should remain a product of the wild. Aside from mushrooms and game meat, the woods of Vermont hardly yield anything edible. And yet, this exquisite sugar can be extracted from the trees while still leaving them healthy and the forest a home to everything from rare wildflowers to bob cats. For me, knowing its origins elicits an amount of pleasure equal to tasting its unique flavor when I drizzle it over morning pancakes. Finally, I ponder what will happen to the acres of working forests if landowners are no longer making an income from them through tapping the trees. It would be unrealistic to expect all of those landowners to choose conservation."
There's more information at the source article in Modern Farmer and in this article from the University of Vermont.

"Tesselated pavement" and the "Bimini Road"


A hat tip to John Farrier, who posted recently at Neatorama the above photos [credit top and lower] of "tesselated pavement" in Tasmania.
Occurring near sea coasts on flat rock which has broken into regular blocks, the effect is known as "tessellated pavement" for its resemblance to Roman mosaic floors (also called tessellated pavement). The pavement takes two forms. Depressions are known as pan formations, occurring when saltwater wears away the center portion of the stones into pools. The opposite effect is known as a loaf formation, when the edges of the stone are worn away leaving a rounded crown resembling rising bread.
Formations like these provide the natural geological explanation for debunking claims that the Bimini Road is manmade - an underwater residuum of ancient Atlantis.

Dihydrogen monoxide explained

From the Dihydrogen Monoxide FAQ:

What is Dihydrogen Monoxide?

Dihydrogen Monoxide (DHMO) is a colorless and odorless chemical compound, also referred to by some as Dihydrogen Oxide, Hydrogen Hydroxide, Hydronium Hydroxide, or simply Hydric acid. Its basis is the highly reactive hydroxyl radical, a species shown to mutate DNA, denature proteins, disrupt cell membranes, and chemically alter critical neurotransmitters. The atomic components of DHMO are found in a number of caustic, explosive and poisonous compounds such as Sulfuric Acid, Nitroglycerine and Ethyl Alcohol...

What are some of the dangers associated with DHMO?

Each year, Dihydrogen Monoxide is a known causative component in many thousands of deaths and is a major contributor to millions upon millions of dollars in damage to property and the environment. Some of the known perils of Dihydrogen Monoxide are:
  • Death due to accidental inhalation of DHMO, even in small quantities.
  • Prolonged exposure to solid DHMO causes severe tissue damage.
  • Excessive ingestion produces a number of unpleasant though not typically life-threatening side-effects.
  • DHMO is a major component of acid rain.
  • Gaseous DHMO can cause severe burns.
  • Contributes to soil erosion.
  • Leads to corrosion and oxidation of many metals.
More information at the link.

"Tire icicles"


Three examples (sources here, here, and here), from a gallery of thirteen assembled at Deformutilation.

Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here" - the backstory


I thoroughly enjoyed this hour-long rockumentary when I encountered it on television some years ago, and was glad to find it again for embedding in the blog.

20 January 2014

Sleep paralysis in the works of Edgar Allan Poe


The modern convention seems to be to celebrate Poe on his death day (October 7), but that seems to me to be unnecessarily morbid, so I'm going to use his 205th birthday for a special tribute here at TYWKIWDBI.

I was an English major in college, then moved on to a career in the biological sciences.  Those interests dovetailed for me in the 1980s when, as a faculty member at the University of Kentucky, I took an adult education course on Poe given by James Cagey at Lexington Community College.  The course material covered a variety of works I had not previously encountered, and I went on to read Poe's complete works.

As I did so, I encountered in Poe's writings an inordinate number of references consistent with the phenomenon of sleep paralysis, a disorder which I had personally experienced on a distressing number of occasions.  During the next decade I used my free time to do a lot of library research (but no bench research) on sleep paralysis.  Then in 1997 I crafted a manuscript about manifestations of sleep paralysis in Poe's writings, but for a variety of reasons (those in the academic world will understand that there is never enough time to pursue one's personal interests), I never submitted it for publication.

Here it is, in near-final-draft form.  There is one citation that needs to be filled in, and the source materials are not presented in sufficient detail for publication (but will be adequate for this cyberversion). 
 
******************************************************

Between Wakefulness and Sleep:
A study of sleep paralysis in the 
life and works of Edgar Allan Poe

 
Introduction
            Persons unfamiliar with the bulk of Edgar Allan Poe's writings tend to think of him only in association with his most famous tales of horror.  Behind those works lie poems, essays, literary criticism, and a single novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.  There is of course no single clearly-identifiable theme which runs through that mass of work, but readers with a medical background are apt to be especially aware of the inordinately frequent inclusion of descriptions of cataplexy.  Cataplexy, defined now as partial or complete loss of muscle tone during wakefulness, usually occurs in response to strong emotion, classically laughter or anger; this condition forms a prominent part of the most notable horror stories, including "The Fall of the House of Usher", "The Premature Burial", "The Oblong Box", and "Berenice".  Often associated with cataplexy, but frequently described independently, is the sensation of breathlessness of suffocation, most vividly portrayed during depictions of living inhumation.
            What is the source of this preoccupation with paralysis and suffocation?  Many commentators have noted that Poe's father and the three women he loved most - his mother Anna, his foster mother Mrs. Allan, and his wife  - each died of respiratory failure, accompanied by hemoptysis and likely representing the terminal stages of tuberculosis or bronchiectasis (Hoffman p 28).   Others have suggested that Poe's own notorious inability to handle liquor entered into his writings; Levin has stated that if DeQuincy's writing came from drugs, then Poe's came from the bottle. 
            It is also possible - and, medically speaking, more likely - that Poe was describing the entity now known as sleep paralysis, and that the paralysis and breathlessness that so fascinated him may reflect his personal experience with this disorder.
 
Sleep Disorders in Poe's Writings
            Throughout his life, Poe expressed a fascination with the borderline state which separates sleep from wakefulness and the one which separates death from life.  The protagonist in his "The Pit and the Pendulum" describes this state as follows:
"In the return to life from the swoon there are two stages; first, that of the sense of mental or spiritual; secondly that of the sense of physical, existence."
This character awakens supine in the blackness of a dungeon, to which he has been committed by the Inquisition.  His first sensations upon awakening are
" . . . the tumultuous motion of the heart...  Then the mere consciousness of existence, without thought...  then, very suddenly, thought, and shuddering terror...  Then a rushing revival of soul and a successful effort to move."
            A virtually complete description of the phenomenon of sleep paralysis occurs in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, in which the protagonist, awakening from sleep in the stifling darkness of a ship hold, imagines a creature is sitting on his chest:
"I fell, in spite of every exertion to the contrary, into a state of profound sleep, or rather stupor.  My dreams were of the most terrific description...  Among other miseries, I was smothered to death between huge pillows, by demons of the most ghastly and ferocious aspect.  Immense serpents held me in their embrace, and looked earnestly in my face with their fearfully shining eyes... [and upon awakening]...  The paws of some huge and real monster were pressing heavily upon my bosom - his hot breath was in my ear - and his white and ghastly fangs were gleaming upon me through the gloom.  Had a thousand lives hung upon the movement of a limb or the utterance of a syllable, I could neither have stirred nor spoken." (pp 65-66)
            Poe frequently likened the state of sleep to that of death, and conversely in his little-known tale, "The Colloquy of Monos and Una," he has a dead person liken his condition to that of sleep, including a description of the aforementioned sleep paralysis:
"There came upon me...  a breathless and motionless torpor; and this was termed death by those who stood around me...  My condition did not deprive me of sentience.  It appeared to me not greatly dissimilar to the extreme quiescence of him, who, having slumbered long and profoundly, lying motionless and fully prostrate in a midsummer noon, begins to steal slowly back into consciousness...  Volition had not departed, but was powerless."
            In Poe's time, cataplexy - defined as temporary paralysis while awake - was part of lay medical knowledge and was an affliction of several of Poe's most notable characters.  The central figure in "The Premature Burial" describes himself as cataplectic:
"My own case differed in no important particular from those mentioned in medical books.  Sometimes, without any apparent cause, I sank, little by little, into a condition of semi-syncope, or half swoon; and, in this condition, without pain, without ability to stir, or, strictly speaking, to think, but with a dull lethargic consciousness of life and of the presence of those who surrounded my bed, I remained, until the crisis of the disease restored me, suddenly, to perfect sensation... however, my general health appeared to be good... [except] awakening from slumber, I could never gain, at once, thorough possession of my senses, and always remained, for many minutes, in much bewilderment and perplexity... " (p. 150)
Classic cataplexy is inducible by laughter, as described by Poe in "The Oblong Box":
"He began a loud and boisterous laugh, which, to my astonishment, he kept up, with gradually increasing vigor, for ten minutes or more.  In conclusion, he fell flat and heavily upon the deck.  When I ran to uplift him, to all appearances he was dead."  (p. 294)
            Similarly the lady Madeline in "The Fall of the House of Usher" is said to suffer from a "partially cataleptical character" which leads to her inhumation while alive, as did the central figure of "Some Words with a Mummy," who was not only buried but embalmed as well while in a cataleptic state.

The Phenomenon of Sleep Paralysis
            Sleep paralysis as a defined entity did not enter the medical literature until a quarter century after Poe's death in 1849.  It can generally be defined as a state of consciousness experienced either while waking or falling asleep, characterized by the inability to move.  Most commonly it is recognized as part of the tetrad of narcolepsy: sleep attacks, cataplexy, sleep paralysis, and hypnagogic hallucinations.
            Sleep paralysis can occur as an isolated phenomenon (Schenck, JAMA), or coupled with hallucinations in individuals not subject to the sleep attacks of a true narcoleptic.  It appears likely that the disorder has a physiological basis; muscular hypotonicity is an integral part of normal sleep, perhaps teleologically representing a protective mechanism preventing the sleeper's body from reacting dynamically to the emotional content of dreams.  Sleep paralysis then may be viewed as a transitory dissociation in the integrated activity of the reticular activating system and the motor system, in which the subject falling asleep experiences motor paralysis prior to the onset of loss of consciousness.  The same phenomenon may occur upon awakening if the subject regains consciousness and awareness of surroundings before regaining the use of voluntary muscles (Broughton, Can Pscyh).
            It is common for the subject experiencing sleep paralysis to have an accompanying sense of anxiety or dread, often with a concomitant tachycardia.  The final component of the disorder is a sensation of difficulty in breathing, often described as suffocation and likened to the sensation of having a great weight placed upon the chest or stomach.  If hallucinations occur, the subject may visualize a person or creature sitting upon his chest.  The experience terminates immediately if the subject is touched, or may be terminated by the subject when motor function returns.  

Potential Sources for Poe's Descriptions
            Poe has thus incorporated into his work descriptions of the entities of cataplexy, sleep paralysis, and hypnagogic hallucinations.  The question naturally arises as to whether he is transcribing accounts of personal experience or making use of material previously published on the subject.  Certainly there is substantial evidence for the latter choice; even a cursory glance at an annotated collection of Poe's work reveals his heavy indebtedness to works both ancient and contemporary.  It is also true that Poe was much in tune with the popular interests and trends of the time, for understandable monetary reasons; if the public expressed interest in mesmerism or Egyptology, he provided tales on the subject.  Cataplexy was public knowledge and might well have figured in numerous tales because of its exotic popular appear. 
            The combination of sleep paralysis and hypnagogic hallucinations has been recognized in folklore by the term "nightmare."  The classic description was written in 1753:
"The Night-mare generally seizes people who sleep on their backs, and often begins with frightful dreams, which are soon succeeded by a difficult respiration, a violent oppression on the breast, and a total privation of voluntary motion.  In this agony they sigh, groan, utter indistinct sounds, and remain in the jaws of death, till, by the utmost efforts of nature, or some external assistance, they escape out of their dreadful torpid state." (Bond)
The author then postulates mechanisms which are strikingly similar to our current knowledge:
". . . power over the Voluntary Muscles is some way suspended...  the Mind generally ascribes the immobility of the Body to some great weight laid on the Breast; whereas the cause is really internal...  Besides, in heavy or profound sleep, the voluntary motions are generally stop'd.  Hence, when people awake suddenly, they are for some time Paralytic, before the Animal Spirits obey the commands of the Mind, and actuate the Muscles in the usual manner." (Bond)
            The distinguishing features of the classic nightmare include 1) the feeling of agonizing dread, 2) a sense of weight on the chest which seems to interfere with respiration, and 3) the feeling of helpless paralysis (Liddon, quoting Jones).  Writing in 1916 in "A Treatise on the Incubus or Nightmare," Waller described a victim who
"... makes violent efforts to move his limbs, especially his arms, as if throwing off incumbent weight, but they will not obey the impulse of the will; he groans aloud, if he has the strength to do so, while every effort he makes seems to exhaust his remaining vigor."
Liddon has pointed out that the nightmare and sleep paralysis correspond in all defining characteristics, with victims unable to move, subject to great anxiety, and aware of a feeling of suffocation attributed to a weight on the chest.
            A comprehensive discussion of the phenomenon of the nightmare appeared in the medical literature in the American Journal of Medical Science in 1834, when Poe was 25 years old, written by a physician describing his person experience with the entity:
"It makes its attack on the system in that stage of sleep when the voluntary power is suspended, and the imagination is free from those restraints imposed upon it in the state of wakefulness...  through all he feels spell-bound and unable to help or defend himself: he struggles with all his power to be released...  until at last...  a sudden bound frees him from his condition...  as the first shades of sleep again descend upon him, he very perceptibly feels the approach of the disease a second time...  From a lack of energy to change his position and shake off the predisposition now formed, he remains quiet, perfectly conscious of the advancing symptoms which are gradually stealing over him, until the power of voluntary motion is again suspended...  there is the sensation of a load upon the chest, and some fancy it a monster attempting to suffocate them.  In these attacks many faculties of the mind are active...  This is displayed in the exertion to move one part of the body and then another alternately, knowing if we succeed relief will be obtained.  A person...  can see whatever comes directly in front of him...  is conscious of conversation when it takes place in his presence; he has the sense of touch...  he knows that he breathes but with much difficulty; he has the power of natural voice, but not of speech, and volition is perfect, but her  organs are not obedient to her mandates."  (Fosgate)
            In 1852, also writing in the American Journal of Medical Science, Rauch said of a nightmare victim that
"He had no power to move or speak, and the only effort he could make to arouse himself was that of loud and heavy breathing, and the exertions he made to throw off the incubus increased it."
            In addition to these printed sources, it has been suggested (Mabbott in Mod Libr intro) that Poe may have had an indebtedness to stories told to him by sailors and Negroes.  In American Negro folklore there is cultural evidence of a high incidence of sleep paralysis, with references to the experience "the witch is riding you."  (Bell, JNMA).  Poe would have had access to this folklore, and in fact referred to his Negro friend, Armistead Gordon, as the most interesting man he had ever talked to.

Did Poe experience Sleep Paralysis?
            It is interesting to speculate on the possibility that Poe may have had first-hand knowledge of the phenomena he describes.  First of all, the entity of sleep paralysis is a common disorder.  It has been detected by questionnaire in 6-15% of medical students, usually without associated narcolepsy (Penn; Goode; Everett).  Several epidemiologic studies (Bell; Fukuda) have detected isolated sleep paralysis in 40% of normal subjects.
            Sleep paralysis is also a cross-cultural phenomenon, having been reported with similar frequency in American blacks (Bell) and Japanese college students (Fukuda).  In the most comprehensive cultural study of the condition, Ness in 1978 examined the "Old Hag" phenomenon among residents of a community if Newfoundland.  Among 69 adults interviewed, 43 acknowledged experience with the Old Hag, described as occurring shortly after falling asleep and associated with an inability to move or speak.  During this paralysis the subjects often felt as though a heavy weight were pressing on their chest, and occasionally reported seeing the figure of an animal or human astride their chest.  The episode could be terminated by someone simply bending the victim's toe or finger.  The subjects considered the phenomenon to be normal and unrelated to overall health except that it was occasionally precipitated by strenuous work.  Their explanation that it is caused by "stagnation of the blood" echoes the explanation offered by Bond in 1753.
            This recognition that hard work might predispose to occurrences of sleep paralysis has been reported by others, with the suggestion that both physical and psychologic stress might be implicated in the genesis of the disorder, presumably through an interruption of the normal sleep-wake cycle leading to discoordinated sleep.  It is clear that Poe's daily life was such that psychologic stress was more the norm than the exception.
            Alcohol is also well recognized as being  disruptive to normal sleep architecture, decreasing latency to sleep, but fragmenting sleep with frequent awakenings and REM sleep deprivation (Lester).  Poe shared with his sister an apparently familial susceptibility to the effects of alcohol (Weiss, Home Life).
            It is unfortunate that Poe never wrote of the content of his dreams or the nature of his sleep; the bulk of his known correspondence consists of wearily repetitive appeals for financial support from his minimally supportive father and his long-suffering literary friends.  It is known, however, that Poe once said that the most horrible thing he could imagine as a boy was to feel an ice-cold hand laid upon his face in a pitch-dark room when alone at night; or to awaken in semi-darkness and see an evil face gazing close into his own; and that these fancies had so haunted him that he would often keep his head under the bed-covering until nearly suffocated" (Weiss, Home Life)  (cf. Premature Burial: "Methought I was immersed in a cataleptic trance of more than usual duration and profundity.  Suddenly there came an icy hand upon my forehead . . . ") (p. 156).  This brief anecdote has been interpreted as reflecting a "fear of the dark" (Mabbott p. 953, Piethmann p. 149).  In light of our current knowledge, it might, however, more appropriately reflect a childhood experience with the nightmare phenomenon. 
            There has been considerable disagreement regarding whether Poe wrote from life or whether the poems and tales are simply cleverly crafted works designed to appeal to the public.  Of the craft there is much evidence, exemplified by a detailed account by Poe of the techniques he used for the structure and content of "The Raven."  While such an account seems to dispel the notion of the poetic muse inspiring the author to heights of artistic creativity, there are also statements in Poe's work suggesting the importance of writing from life.  The most elaborate is in "How to Write a Blackwoods Article," a parody of literary journals of the time, in which he states that "Nothing so well assists the fancy, as an experimental knowledge of the matter in hand."  Baudelaire, who idolized Poe, was convinced that Poe wrote from life.
            Finally there is an intriguing discussion by Poe in his "Marginalia" which describes a state between wakefulness and sleep.  The "Marginalia," though purported by Poe to represent a collection of his spontaneous marginal notes, was in fact a vehicle he used to publish an assortment of opinions, literary critique, theories, and prejudices which could not be published in other formats.  In Marginalia #5 (written March, 1846), Poe describes personal experiences which he labels "fancies" which arise "at those mere points of time where the confines of the waking world blend with those of the world of dreams."  He claimed to be able to control the condition, experiencing the fancies while preventing the progression to full sleep, and to be able to force himself into wakefulness, transferring the fancies to conscious memory.  Finally he postulates that these fancies in the moments between wakefulness and sleep may be common to all mankind, but never previously recorded:  "In a word - should I ever write a paper on this topic, the world will be compelled to acknowledge that, at last, I have done an original thing." 

Sleep Paralysis in other American Fiction
            Other descriptions of the phenomenon of sleep paralysis have been identified in American literature published since Poe's death.  The earliest, written by Thomas Hardy, appeared in his Wessex Tales in 1896:
            [need to find and fill in]

            In Hemingway's "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" the protagonist, facing his impending death, experiences sleep paralysis with visual and olfactory hallucination:
"Death had come and rested its head on the foot of the cot and he could smell its breath...  It moved up closer to him still and now he could not speak to it...  it moved in on him so its weight was all upon his chest, and while it crouched there...  he could not move, or speak... He could not speak to tell her to make it go away and it crouched now, heavier, so he could not breathe.  And then, while they lifted the cot, suddenly it was all right and the weight went from his chest."
            It is not known whether Hemingway experienced sleep paralysis.  Schneck has found evidence, however, that F. Scott Fitzgerald may have experienced the phenomenon shortly before his death when his physician reported that Fitzgerald "had imagined himself to be paralysed in his half-asleep state."  Earlier, Fitzgerald had incorporated a description of sleep paralysis in his novel The Beautiful and Damned:
"She was in a state half-way between sleeping and waking, with neither condition predominant... and she was harassed by a desire to rid herself of a weight pressing down upon her breast.  She felt that if she could cry the weight would be lifted..  And this weight was pressing on her, pressing on her...  Some one had come to the door...  an indescribable and subtly menacing terror...  Yet her tired heart, beating until it shook her breasts, made her sure that there was still life in her...  Blood rushed back into her limbs, blood and life together.  With a start of energy she sat upright... " (Schneck, NY State J Med).
It must be clearly stated that there is no firm evidence that Poe ever personally experienced sleep paralysis or hypnagogic hallucinations.  There are, however, in his works sufficient references to such conditions to indicate familiarity with the phenomenon.  He provides some of the earliest and most graphic portrayals of these states, well before they were adequately defined in the medial literature. 

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As I look at the manuscript now with older and wiser eyes, it's obvious that the final paragraph is a particularly weak ending, especially after straying away from Poe toward other authors.  I think I should have excised the references to Hardy, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald and used them for a separate manuscript rather than tossing them in here.

As I think back to that era, I remember that at this point I ventured into library research about sleep paralysis in ancient and modern folklore (from witchcraft to alien abductions), created a lecture that I took "on the road" to a variety of conferences and annual meetings, then never got back to the Poe paper.

I know a number of readers of this blog have experience as copyeditors and very likely as manuscript reviewers.  Please feel free to criticize freely in the Comments; perhaps with the resources of the internet at hand I can someday finish fleshing this out into a proper publication.

Image: A portrait of Edgar Allan Poe by Charles Hine (1855; oil on canvas, 16 3/4 x 14 1/2 inches, courtesy of the Cleveland Public Library), via The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore. Those wishing to learn more about Poe would be well served by starting their internet explorations at the society's home page.
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