15 November 2018


An heirloom variety called the Turkish Black (via).

More info at the World Carrot Museum.

How your gut bacteria may affect your weight and health

Two articles in recent weeks detailed some new and significant findings about the human gut microbiome.  First from NPR:
Moving to the U.S. can seriously mess with immigrants' microbiomes, according to a new study that tracked the digestive health of refugees coming to Minnesota from Southeast Asia. "We found that when people come to the U.S.A., they almost immediately begin losing some of their native microbes," says Dan Knights, a quantitative biologist at the University of Minnesota and the study's senior author. Some of the strains they lose are ones that help them break down and glean nutrients from fibers found in Southeast Asian staples like wild greens, coconut and tamarind...

Among that group of 19 refugees, researchers noticed that a Western bacteria strain called Bacteroides began to displace the non-Western strain Prevotella within their first six to nine months in the U.S. But they lost more microbes than they gained — "so the diversity in their microbial communities decreased," Knights says. "And some of the Prevotella bacteria they lost were the ones that helped them digest fiber from plants and greens."

Some of the bacteria in our guts feed, and survive, on particular fibers found in grains and greens — and die off when they don't get enough. But changes in diet didn't explain all — or even most — of the change in immigrants' microbiomes. "It could be that other factors, like exposure to different medications, especially antibiotics or changes in the quality of water they're drinking, are also affecting their microbiomes...

"In speaking with community members, we also realized that for them, the biggest concern was obesity," says Vangay. "Because they had observed in themselves and their relatives and friends that when they moved to the U.S., they gained a lot of weight. And in some cases, they hadn't really changed too much about their diet."
Fascinating.  Now this from Harvard Magazine:
A. Sloan Devlin, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, and her team have discovered that altering a single gene in a single type of bacteria can even change the metabolism of the host organism...

During the 32-day study, the mice that could not process bile, for instance, had more fat in the liver and gained weight much more slowly than the other group. They also used proportionately less fat and more carbohydrate for energy...

“It’s a bacterium,” she points out, “and a single enzyme in a bacterium, that’s causing a change in whether the host is using fats versus carbohydrates.”
Control of body weight used to be conceptually so simple: calories in minus calories expended.  Now it appears to be much more complex than that.

Related: Fecal transplant to treat C. difficile colitis.

Introducing the pyrosome

I've never heard of such a creature before.  This one filmed off the coast of New Zealand.  Via.
Pyrosomes, genus Pyrosoma, are free-floating colonial tunicates that live usually in the upper layers of the open ocean in warm seas, although some may be found at greater depths. Pyrosomes are cylindrical or cone-shaped colonies made up of hundreds to thousands of individuals, known as zooids. Colonies range in size from less than one centimeter to several metres in length. They are commonly called "sea pickles."

Pyrosomes are brightly bioluminescent, flashing a pale blue-green light that can be seen for many tens of metres. The name Pyrosoma comes from the Greek (pyro = "fire", soma = "body"). Pyrosomes are closely related to salps, and are sometimes called "fire salps". Sailors on the ocean occasionally observe calm seas containing many pyrosomes, all luminescing on a dark night.
You learn something every day.

14 November 2018

"They Shall Not Grow Old"

I generally do not enjoy war movies, but this one looks awesome.
They Shall Not Grow Old is a 2018 British documentary film directed and co-produced by Peter Jackson. The film was created using original footage of World War I from the Imperial War Museums' archives, most of it previously unseen, alongside audio from BBC and IWM interviews of British servicemen who fought in the conflict. Most of the footage has been colourised and transformed with modern production techniques, with the addition of sound effects and voice acting to be more evocative and feel closer to the soldiers' actual experiences.
And here's a "making of" interview with Peter Jackson:

Blue dot in a red state

Here's the county-by-county voting pattern in the Minnesota governor's race last week.  You wouldn't know from this image that the candidate who won was a Democrat (blue).  The explanation lies in the closeup of the Twin Cities area:

It's the same here in Wisconsin.  I live in Madison, which is one of several "blue dots" in a state whose counties are almost all "red."  You can find many other examples if you search Google Images for "blue dot" "red state."

This degree of polarity is not healthy.  It was discussed at length in an Atlantic article in 2012:
The new political divide is a stark division between cities and what remains of the countryside. Not just some cities and some rural areas, either -- virtually every major city (100,000-plus population) in the United States of America has a different outlook from the less populous areas that are closest to it...

The voting data suggest that people don't make cities liberal -- cities make people liberal...The gap is so stark that some of America's bluest cities are located in its reddest states. Every one of Texas' major cities -- Austin, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio -- voted Democratic in 2012...

In due course, these populous bastions of urban liberalism have helped spur state legislation and court rulings to create new laws, such as those permitting same sex marriage, that are often in direct conflict with federal laws and with the majority of fellow state counties...

These state laws are the foundation for potential future federal laws, but the sudden, radical divergence between laws from state to state is leading to a dizzying decentralization...

A mass murderer speaks through Instagram

"... the gunman who killed 12 people at a country music bar, posted on social media during the deadly rampage, according to law enforcement officials.

The first call to law enforcement came in at 11:19 p.m. Wednesday, officials said. The authorities arrived at the Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks, California, three minutes later. They entered the building at 11:25 p.m.

[redacted], 28, first posted on Instagram at 11:24 p.m: "It's too bad I won't get to see all the illogical and pathetic reasons people will put in my mouth as to why I did it," the military veteran said in the post. 

"Fact is I had no reason to do it, and I just thought.... life is boring so why not?" [redacted] posted, according to ABC News and Buzzfeed.

Three minutes later [he] posted, "I hope people call me insane (two smiley face emojiis) would that just be a big ball of irony? Yeah... I'm insane, but the only thing you people do after these shootings is 'hopes and prayers'...or 'keep you in my thoughts'."

He added, "Every time...and wonder why these keep happening... --(two smiley face emojis)."

"I'm alone. I'm scared."

There are countless tragedies arising from the California wildfires.  As I get older I have increasing empathy for senior citizens who not only lose all their possessions in floods and fires, but who also have no close family or established support group to fall back on.
Marilyn Pelletier got a knock on her door in Paradise as the Camp Fire raged and was told she had five minutes to leave. She grabbed her medicine bag and her small dog, and when she left "the whole sky was pink."

"You could see the fire coming," she said. "It was devastating. It's horrible. The worst thing I've ever experienced in my life. I was just — I'm grateful I got out with my life."

Pelletier moved to Paradise two years ago after her husband passed away, and bought a house in the town which was destroyed in the fire, she said.

"It’s a beautiful home — it was. It was real pretty,” Pelletier said. "I'm devastated. I'm heartbroken, I'm alone, I’m scared."
The screencap and quote come at the end of a two-minute video on this page.

12 November 2018

This is an interesting book

Jonathan Rauch is a highly-respected journalist (New York Times, Washington Post) and contributing editor of The Atlantic.  After enduring and overcoming a mid-life stressful period, he extensively researched the psychosocial and behavioral science literature on happiness, and summarized it in this book.  I had seen several favorable reviews, but wasn't expecting much new insight into an admittedly nebulous concept of happiness/unhappiness.  I was wrong; this was a good read.

The book begins with several introductory chapters exploring the definition of happiness and unhappiness, discussing the measurement tools and the strengths and weaknesses of survey data, and examining the effect of various life experiences.
"All the evidence says that on average people are no happier today than people were fifty years ago... Yet at the same time average incomes have more than doubled... how you feel about your life does not necessarily reflect how one might suppose you should feel, at least by the materialistic standards of homo economicus... People who are in very fast-growing economies are less happy than people in slower growing economies... Rapid change makes people very unhappy... the paradox of frustrated achievers and happy peasants."
The U-shaped curve featured on the book cover has been recognized for decades and reproduced in a multitude of studies.  The reason for that shape is less clear, and is the focus of Rauch's book.  If you are in a hurry with little time to read, I recommend skipping to chapter 6 - "The Paradox of Aging: Why getting old makes you happier."
"Stress declines after about age fifty... trying to explain what caused stress to decline so sharply, they adjusted for about twenty variables... The pattern didn't change.  In fact, it grew stronger, as if age itself were reducing stress... Emotional regulation improves... part of the reason emotional weather tends to settle down with age may be the accumulation of life experience... "I don't let that stuff bother me anymore"... Older people feel less regret... healthy aging helps people accept what they can't control..."
There's way more to discover in the book, which can be read in a couple evenings, but I think it is deserving of a more leisurely perusal, leaving oneself time for self-reflection.  If nothing else, just the knowledge that the axioms "this too shall pass" and "things will get better" have some statistical validity is rather reassuring.

Lest we forget


Riding full circle on a paternoster

"A paternoster or paternoster lift is a passenger elevator which consists of a chain of open compartments (each usually designed for two persons) that move slowly in a loop up and down inside a building without stopping. Passengers can step on or off at any floor they like. The much smaller belt manlift which consists of an endless belt with steps and rungs but no compartments is also sometimes called a paternoster.

The name paternoster ("Our Father", the first two words of the Lord's Prayer in Latin), was originally applied to the device because the elevator is in the form of a loop and is thus similar to rosary beads used as an aid in reciting prayers.

The construction of new paternosters was stopped in the mid-1970s due to safety concerns, but public sentiment has kept many of the remaining examples open. By far most remaining paternosters are in Europe, with 230 examples in Germany, and 68 in the Czech Republic. Only three have been identified outside Europe: one in Malaysia, one in CEB Sri Lanka and another in Peru."

10 November 2018

Performing a fecal transplant at home

Excerpts from an interesting case report:
I’d had intestinal distress before, but never like this. I was excreting not just waste, but blood and bits of my colon’s lining — up to 30 times per day. My abdominal pain hit deeper and felt less productive than the pain of giving birth, epidural-free, to my second child. Even shingles, which stung like a dental drill against my face, paled in comparison. Such was the agony of Clostridium difficile...

Things started innocently enough. In early 2013, my doctor diagnosed me with a bacterial infection and prescribed an antibiotic. I had lived antibiotic-free for nearly four decades — a streak I was not inclined to break. But my doctor insisted on antibiotics, and I reluctantly complied.

Soon after, my stomach turned against me. I went to an emergency room and was sent home with a prescription for vancomycin, an antibiotic reserved for serious bacterial infections. But the drug proved little match for the microbes that had bum-rushed my colon. My weight and fluid loss accelerated. My colon risked perforation.

Because C. diff. spores can live for months on bedrails, doorknobs, and linens and easily shrug off common detergents and sanitizers, my master bathroom became my biohazard containment unit. There, I alternated between sitting on the toilet and lying on the floor. My husband, Esteban, brought me supplies and emotional support...

So, when I called around about the possibility of treating my C. diff. with a fecal microbial transplant, a sensible doctor might have offered to refer me to one of those approved practitioners. Instead, everyone I talked to refused to even entertain the idea, seemingly out of disgust.

“Yuck, you don’t want that. Just stay on the vancomycin,” my first doctor told me. A second, a gastroenterologist, simply substituted “gross” for “yuck.” A third, more tactful, expressed relief that FDA policy absolved him from having to offer the procedure...

And so it happened that when my C. diff. roared back, worse than before, after the end of my 10-day vancomycin course, my doctor’s response was to simply prescribe more vancomycin. With each subsequent treatment, however, my likelihood of recovery dropped dramatically. I started the ordeal with an approximately 70 percent chance of recovery. After months of failed antibiotic treatments, my chances had sunk below 10 percent.

My last trip to the emergency room was a grim formality. The C. diff. battle now raged beyond my colon. “You may want to tell loved ones about your dire circumstances,” my gastroenterologist said. It dawned on me that my doctor would sooner let me die than discuss a fecal transplant. That’s when I decided to do the transplant myself...

A New England Journal of Medicine article offered some procedural clues. For instance, my ideal donor would have a microbiome that was untainted by antibiotics. That ruled out Esteban, who had recently been administered antibiotics during an eye surgery. Ultimately, I turned to my 11-year-old daughter.

She responded openly and inquisitively, asking more questions than any of my doctors had. “Is this like in Clash of Clans when you have no troops left in your clan castle and you need someone else to donate some?” she said, referring to a popular multi-player video game.

Yes, it’s exactly like that.

She agreed to do it, and at around 10 pm on a Tuesday, Esteban collected the sample. He dropped it into a blender, added saline, blended it, strained it, and poured the concoction into an enema bottle, as I lay depleted on the floor. My gut drank up the infusion as if it were dying of thirst. My colon, after five months of near-constant spasms, recovered in one transformative instant. Overnight, I went from having 30 bowel movements a day to having one. For breakfast the next morning, I ate a quesadilla loaded with black beans, cheese, salsa, lettuce, and guacamole. I’ve had no recurrence of C. diff. since. 
There's more at the link.

Watch Mr. Wizard

This is a half-hour television episode from 1954. You'd have to be 60 years old or more to have seen this segment live, but younger visitors may remember later episodes or the Canadian revival in the 70s, or the updated Mr. Wizard's World of the 1980s.

For many baby boomers, this was our introduction to "hard science" and the concept that science could be interesting (and comprehensible). I suppose it would be different now; the teacher probably wouldn't be allowed to place a hand on Johnny's shoulder, and they probably couldn't make something explode on live camera by aerosolizing lighter fluid and igniting it.

Reposted from 2008, because Mental Floss has just posted an excellent history of the program:
Watch Mr. Wizard, which aired on NBC from 1951 to 1965, featured host Don Herbert performing a series of science experiments using everyday objects—glass bottles, cans, aquariums, matches—to illustrate the amazing world of physics. Eggs were sucked into bottles; water was boiled using an ice cube. They were pseudo-magic tricks, but instead of obscuring his method, Herbert satisfied the audience’s curiosity by explaining how science made them all possible...

Don Herbert Kemske was born July 10, 1917 in Waconia, Minnesota. He developed an interest in science while in the Boy Scouts and later obtained a degree in English and general science from the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse (then known as La Crosse State Teachers College) in 1940. But Herbert didn’t pursue a teaching career. Instead, he followed his interest in drama and theater to New York City, where he worked as a pageboy for NBC, acted opposite future First Lady Nancy Reagan, and was cast in a Broadway show...

Like a lot of television of the era, it was live, not taped. The pace was leisurely, with Herbert walking through general principles over the course of a half-hour. Crucially, he refused to wear a lab coat or conduct his experiments in a laboratory setting. Instead, he wore short-sleeved shirts and used common household items while broadcasting from a garage or kitchen...

Within a few years, Watch Mr. Wizard was being carried in more than 100 markets and was reaching between 1 and 3 million weekly viewers... After viewing a pilot, Nickelodeon agreed to fund 26 half-hour episodes of Mr. Wizard’s World for a 1983 premiere.

Following Herbert's death at age 89 in 2007, a National Science Foundation official claimed that, more than anyone, Herbert may have been the person most responsible for getting people interested in science. In the 1960s and 1970s, applicants to The Rockefeller University—a science research center based in New York City—were asked what inspired them to get into science. In the space allotted for an answer, half of them wrote: "Mr. Wizard."
What I didn't know in the 1950s was that Don Herbert was related to one of my high-school classmates.  Posted for Steve, currently enjoying retirement in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Train rides in Norway

With a tip of the blogging hat to reader Drabkikker.

Driving in California yesterday

World Championship magic performance

Via Neatorama. (best viewed fullscreen)

09 November 2018

The eyes of Chris Christie

Excerpts from what is undoubtedly the funniest political commentary I have encountered during this election cycle.
Chris Christie spent the entire speech screaming wordlessly. I have never seen someone scream so loudly without using his mouth before. It would have been remarkable if it had not been so terrifying.

Sometimes, at night, do you still hear them, Clarice? The screaming of the Christies?

His were the eyes of a man who has gazed into the abyss, and the abyss gazed back, and then he endorsed the abyss...

He looked as if he had seen a ghost and the ghost had made him watch Mufasa die again.

He had the eyes of a man who has looked into the heart of light, the silence. A man who had seen the moment of his greatness flicker, and seen the eternal footman hold his coat, and snicker.

And, in short, he looked afraid.

He had the face of a man who has used his third wish and realized too late that “may my family never starve” could be twisted to mean that the genie should murder his entire family...

“When are they coming to airlift me out?” Chris Christie’s eyes are pleading. “Please tell me that they are coming and that it is soon.” But then his expression hardens. Chris Christie knows that they are not coming back for him...

Soon he must return to the small cupboard under the stairs where he is kept and occasionally thrown small slivers of metaphorical raw meat...

Chris Christie has seen things. Things you wouldn’t believe. Things that would make your hair fall out and turn grey all at once. But he cannot speak of them. He can only stand there...

Chris Christie has the glazed and terrified look of someone who has traded his inheritance for no pottage at all, who has watched his credibility dry up and is about to be led back to his basement cage, having lost Winterfell for good...

Chris Christie has no mouth, but he must scream.
More at Alexandra Petri's Washington Post article.   Photo via Matt Viser.

Reposted from March 2016 (has it been that long??) because recent buzz suggests Trump may be considering Christie to be the next Attorney General.

I'll close the comment thread.  Posted for humor, not for political commentary.

07 November 2018

Ostrich leather

Ostrich leather is distinct in its appearance and is characterized by raised points that are localized to the center of the hide. The portion with these bumps is called the "crown". It's actually the back of the ostrich where the animal's neck meets its body. The bumps are quill follicles where a feather used to reside. On the left and right side of the diamond shaped crown the skin is quite smooth. In fact, only about 1/3 of the whole skin has quill bumps. Since the crown is the most sought after portion and since it constitutes such a small area of the skin, "full quill" ostrich products are considerably dearer when compared to bovine leather. This, along with the fact that it is one of the strongest commercial leathers, leads ostrich leather to be seen as a luxury item.

Most designer brands have at least one purse made with ostrich leather. Footwear is another way in which designers showcase the material. But, by far the most widely used application is for ostrich leather boots. Just about every bootmaker uses ostrich and the demand for ostrich boots is higher than any other ostrich leather product... Car seats, dashboards, motorcycle seats, and door panels can all be covered or accented with ostrich leather.
New to me.  You learn something every day.

Daisy chain ?

The Christmas catalogue for the Metropolitan Museum of Art arrived in the mail this week. 

Ride a streetcar through Leipzig in 1931

If you're going to watch, I recommend clicking the "fullscreen" icon for best effect.  Some will find this boring and give up after a minute or two.  I watched the full 30 minutes, with the video at fullscreen and my face close to the monitor, and felt like I was in a different world.  I imagined what it would have been like to be one of these people on the street, and how radically their lives would be transformed in the following twelve years.

Addendum:  The original embed is down - not sure if that is permanent.  In the meantime you can use this link to access the same video (in I think a lower resolution), but it autostarts beyond the midpoint, so you would need to click the timeline to backtrack.

Mephisto spiral illusion

It looks like 2 interlocking wire spirals. In your hands, the two spirals seem to wind together or wind apart, completely effortlessly. However when you hand the Mephisto Spiral over to someone else, they find that they cannot replicate the action – the two wire spirals are completely rigid.
Alternatively, by simply moving your hands in one direction, you can make the two spirals appear to unwind, yet however many times you repeat the action, the two spirals never come apart.
From another discussion:
For those who still don't get it: the guy is only moving his hands along the rod. He's also rotating the rod at the same time so that the part of the rod that's "coming out" of his hand is also at the same angle, to create the illusion that he's firmly holding the "rods" with his fingers.

Ronald Reagan reacts to a popped balloon two months after having been shot

05 November 2018

Divertimento #156

Yet another gif-fest (plus some short videos that seem better linked here rather than in separate posts)

Lollipop holder (an example of things you didn't realize you need)

North Carolina road after the hurricane.

Powerwashing a tile roof

Powerwashing a wooden deck chair (instructive comments in the thread)

Powerwashing is so satisfying to watch (and do, speaking personally)

Keeping snails away from your tomato plants.

Kinetic bistable optical illusion.

Another optical illusion.  The dots do not change color.

This is called a "donut roller cutter."

Magnetic putty eats a metal ball.

Man who saves homeless cows.

"So, a horse walks into a bar..."

Not sure how to describe this.  It may be preparation for a traditional dance.

15,000 dominos fall.

Yin-yang soup.

Two men steal a French Mastiff puppy from someone's yard.  The puppy was returned

Augmented reality mask for firefighters.

Home-made pole-climbing shoes.

The proper way to put out a kitchen fire.

A 50+ year graph of world GDP growth.


Two pythons fighting in a home in Australia.  This video has intelligent commentary.

When a cat hiccups, its pupils dilate, reflecting parasympathetic activity.

Video filmed by camera on the back of a soaring raptor.

Rhinoceros with an awesome horn.

Baby sloth.

Squid changing color.

How a cheetah uses its massive tail for balance during a chase.

Why they are sometimes referred to as "trash pandas."

Twenty oysters filter water in a tank in a 5-hour timelapse.


Awesome throw in Ultimate Frisbee.

Excitement at a high-school football game.

Nike honors an unconventional athlete.

Cross-country runners descend a muddy hill.


Firenado pulls a firehose

Vintage razor blade sharpener.  I didn't even know such things existed.

Professional hedge trimmer at work

Try to guess what's chasing this boat before it surfaces.

Police dog at fullspeed.

Man jumps over eight chairs.

Industrial-scale frog farm.

Avalanche coming.

Soil liquefaction during the Indonesian earthquake.  Also here.

SpaceX launch.  I think that's the equivalent of noctilucent clouds.

Use a glove to put primer on a fence.

New LED bulbs resemble flames.

Removing moss from a sidewalk.


A man pushes his stalled car.

How not to slice a watermelon.


Lady in restaurant gets a surprise birthday cake

Girl throws a ball for her cow.

Be careful as you go through the door.

Man finds his dog that has been lost for three years.

Dog gets new wheels.


If your friends say you HAVE to sing in a karoke bar, you could always choose this song.

An accurate portrayal of life as a parent of small children.

The Loyal Order of Water Buffaloes go for a drive.

Embedded photos are selections from a gallery of 30 images in The Atlantic's A Photo Trip to Croatia.  Identifying information and photo credits at the link.

04 November 2018

Hnefatafl - "Viking chess"

"In central and eastern Sweden from 550 to 793 CE, just before the Viking Age, members of the Vendel culture were known for their fondness for boat burials, their wars, and their deep abiding love of hnefatafl.

Also known as Viking chess, hnefatafl is a board game in which a centrally located king is attacked from all sides. The game wasn’t exclusive to the Vendels—people across northern Europe faced off over the gridded board from at least 400 BCE until the 18th century. But during the Vendel period, love for the game was so great that some people literally took it to their graves. Now, a new analysis of some hnefatafl game pieces unearthed in Vendel burial sites offers unexpected insight into the possible emergence of industrial whaling in northern Europe.

For most of the game’s history, its small, pebble-like pieces were made of stone, antler, or bone from animals such as reindeer. But later, starting in the sixth century CE, Vendels across Sweden and the Åland Islands were buried with game pieces made of whale bone [image below, cropped for size].
The rest of the story is at Hakai magazine.

Addendum:  A tip of the blogging hat to a reader who has posted a link where you can play this game online.

I like the "Lieutenant Dan" outfit

Jenny and Forrest are good too   Context, for the culturally deprived.

Ahmed explains how random selection works


"Developmental Topographical Disorientation" (DTD)

I had never heard of this before.  You learn something every day.   It makes you wonder how many other people are similarly afflicted and just labeled as "stupid."

Via The Atlantic, where there is a TLDR.

01 November 2018

Five more Sir Henry Merrivale mysteries

This is the eighth in a very long and just-begun series of posts about the mystery novels of John Dickson Carr (aka Carter Dickson).  In July I covered the first four Henry Merrivale novels; continuing in chronological order, today I tackle the next five (focusing as always on the language, not the plot):

The Punch and Judy Murders (1935)
Although the two deaths occur in locked rooms, the method of death is not complicated (both victims have taken poison and locked themselves in the rooms).  The fiendish part is trying to figure out the perpetrator before the last chapter.  There are only about a dozen characters in the story, and if I had listed them in order of my suspicions, the true killer would have been very near the bottom.
"Now of course, H.M.'s conduct at its mildest can seldom be described as homely or commonplace..."  Interesting use of homely in its strictest sense of being ordinary.  Carr uses the word elsewhere to describe a person's visage as being unremarkable.  Modern usage of course implies that a "homely" person is unattractive or ugly.

"Outside [Torquay railway station] I was looking for a station-wagon for the Imperial Hotel..."  This term originated as a designation for vehicles used to transport people and supplies from a train station, long before it was applied to extended-length automobiles.

"This is a telescopic jemmy; finest thing made; a yard long extended, and its got a powerful leverage."  An alternative spelling of "jimmy" (crowbar).  Not sure how the word came to be used for that tool. 
"From the outer room I could hear the sergeant still droning on the telephone; and through the open window to the rear yard, somebody was commenting on the lascivious habits of carburetors."  
Clever and humorous bowdlerization.  And again later:
"Why don't you look where you're going," I snarled.  "Laundry!" I added, and thrust the bundle at him.  This was too much.  "I don't want the sanguinary copulating laundry," howled Dennis, who had been under a great strain that night."  
We know those are not the words Dennis used...

"I glanced down, and found myself looking into the frosty gaze of a genuine Anglican clergyman.  He did not seem to be the dominie for your money."  Alternate spelling of domine (clergyman or schoolmaster).

"And apparently it's a big ugly turnip-ghost; nothin' else."  Halloween jack-o-lanterns were once crafted out of turnips.  I presume this usage is related.

"Now that the little digression's over," he pursued almost cheerfully, "we can go back to horses and beans again."  Idiom, presumably.  Anyone ever heard it before?

"He got a whole coruscating whirl of nasty shocks."  Sparkling, from the Latin for "flash."

"Yet the car sped us out again, and down into an effulgent Whitehall."  Shining, radiant (from the Latin).

The Peacock Feather Murders (1936)
A concise summary (without spoilers) is at the Wikipedia  page.   Also of interest is a brief explanation by the author (via Henry Merrivale) of the reasons why a murderer would create a locked-room scenario.  In addition to the expected ones (to fake a suicide, because of a series of accidents), he adds here "a fourth motive, the neatest and most intelligent of all... if he can really create an impossible situation, he can never be convicted for murder no matter if all the other evidence is strong enough to hang a bench of bishops.  He is not tryin' to evade the detecting power of the law so much as to evade the punishing power."
"Why in the afternoon, anyway?  There's somethin' fishy about the sound of it.  I don't mean it's a hoax or a have; only that there's a queer and fishy element about it."  I don't know this phrase, and don't know how to look it up.  Is it familiar to any reader?

"He had been in such a fettle of triumph after winning this argument..."  Condition; unusual to see it used without "fine."

"She had, like that which has been vulgarly attributed to a certain danseuse, a glance that could open an oyster at sixty paces."   Not sure what female dancer he's referencing, but the phrase is directly borrowed from P. G. Wodehouse's description of Roderick Spode.

"Gor," he said.  "Burn me, son, I always regarded you as rather a tough walnut to crack."  An oath, more often seen as "gor blimey or cor blimey" (corruption of God blind me!)

"She is the last woman in the world who would throw her bonnet over the windmill; of that I can assure you."  To act in a deranged, reckless, or unconventional manner (refers to Don Quixote, who tossed his hat over a windmill as a challenge).  In context here, noting that the woman is virtuous.

"You will have observed," said Derwent, smiling gravely, "that no moths have settled on me.  Good night, gentlemen."  (there were some moths at the scene, but I don't know the implication of the phrase - maybe it means "I've been active and moving.")

"He strode out after her.  This passage-at-arms had been so brief and unexpected that nobody knew what to say..."  In this context a brief conversation involving an exchange of terse comments.  Classically apparently refers to a chivalric battle.

"But how are we to explain the fact that, whoever took [the teacups] there, we find no mark on them at all?  Somebody must have touched them, if only to range them on the table."  For "arrange".  Also used to mean to place in a row, rank, or classify.

"My father - made mistakes.  That I admit.  There were times when we were in very low water." Financial insecurity implied; interesting that both being in deep water and in very low water are bad situations (the low water probably implies the person is in a boat).

"That was also why he scattered so many clews - scattered 'em lavishly - scattered 'em like a paperchase."  A cross-country race ("Hare and Hounds") in which a trail of torn-up paper marks the trail.

"I had reason to think that somebody was deliberately maneuvering me into a snare which should end with a well-soaped rope and a ten-foot drop."  I used to lecture about death by asphyxiation, including the physiology of hanging, but don't recall any mention of the nooses being lubricated.  I'm guessing that doing so would facilitate the noose tightening on the neck rather than getting stuck on its own internal friction.  Interesting.

"Which is just as good as an alibi.  But on one point their apparent good sense seemed to go skew-wiff."  Out of alignment - obviously related to "askew."   I finally found skew-whiff: "The expression 'skew weft' dates at least from the 18th century as a term used by handloom weavers, typically in northern England. It was used originally to describe fabric which was out of alignment... The modern spelling comes from a corruption of 'skew-wift' whose sound developed colloquially in spoken English from the original. Bow weft also exists."

[why didn't they coordinate their alibis]... It would have been aes triplex, which no amount of batterin' would be able to break in court."  Literally "triple brass" = indestructible.

The Judas Window (1938)
The deceased is found in a study that has bolted steel shutters on the windows and a heavy door locked from the inside with a large sliding bolt.  In the same room a man lies unconscious; his fingerprints are on the murder weapon.  The best locked-room mystery so far.  Interestingly the action takes place in a courtroom only, with H.M. as the attorney for the defense of the man falsely accused.  Three parts to the book: "What Might Have Happened (first chapter)," "What Seemed to Happen (18 chapters)," and "What Really Happened (last chapter)."  Totally the last person I would have suspected as the murderer; I defy anyone to solve it before the name is revealed in the last two words of the penultimate chapter.  This PocketBook edition offers a schematic floorplan at the beginning.

In a poll of 17 mystery writers and reviewers, this novel was voted as the fifth best locked room mystery of all time. The Hollow Man, also by John Dickson Carr, was voted the best.
"Those arrows are trophies of the grand target, or annual wardmote, of the Woodmen of Kent."  A meeting of the inhabitants of a ward.

"He took silk before the war, but Lollypop told me herself he hasn't accepted a brief in fifteen years."  The award of Queen's Counsel is known informally as "taking silk."

"He was a member of the Royal Toxophilite Society and of the Woodmen of Kent."  From Toxophilus, the title of a 1545 book by Roger Ascham intended to mean ‘lover of the [archery] bow’, from Ancient Greek.

"With an effect like a Maskylene illusion, a little man thrust himself out of the crowd..."  John Nevil Maskelyne was an English stage magician (and the inventor of the pay toilet)

"There is insanity in the family, you know... Nothing much, of course.  Only like a touch of the tarbrush a few generations back."  A derogatory term implying real or suspected African or Asian distant ancestry in a person of predominantly Caucasian ancestry.

"Y'see, I'm the only feller who'd believe him.  I got a fancy for lame dogs," he added apologetically."  Helping a lame dog over a stile is an idiom for assisting a helpless or needy person.

"You remember the way the lines swing in John Peel?  'From a point to a check: from a check to a view: from a view to a kill in the morning.'"
The original title "From A View to a Kill" was taken from a version of the words to a traditional hunting song "D'ye ken John Peel?": "From a find to a check, from a check to a view,/From a view to a kill in the morning".
[Foxhunting glossary:
A Find: Discovering the fox's trail;
A Check: Losing the trail again (when the hounds lose the scent);
A View: Visually spotting the fox;
A Kill: Self-explanatory.]
So the truncated title basically means having the prey in your sights before killing it.
"... and then she mentioned that the one thing in prison Jim Answell hated most was the Judas window.  And that tore it, you see."  I think I'll not explain what a Judas window is, because it might give away an essential clue to solving the mystery.

"Her method of putting her hands on the edge of the box was to grasp it with both arms extended, as though she were on an aqua-plane."  Surfboard or bodyboard towed behind a motorboat.

"I thought you'd probably run straight to your friend Tregannon, and gone to earth among the bedclothes and the ice-caps in his nursin'-home."  An icepack worn on the head, according to Wiktionary.  Hypothermia cap used for chemo wouldn't have been relevant in the 1930s.

"He got out his watch, a large cheap one of the turnip variety, and put it on the table."  Slang for a timepiece that's big and awkward.  Apparently Winston Churchill's watch was referred to in these terms.

"I had to put that whole crowd under oath: I had to have a fair field and swords on the green: I had to have, in short, justice."  I'll need help with this idiom.

"So [redacted] was laid by the heels," I said, "all by perverting the pure rules of justice..."  Shackled or imprisoned.

Death in Five Boxes (1938)
Not really a locked-room mystery, but a clever murder mechanism perpetrated by the absolutely last name you would choose from a list of the principal characters.  I'll say no more.
"... and if the man who killed him isn't hanged higher than Haman, it won't be for lack of help I can give you."  From the book of Esther: "A gallows 50 feet high stands by Haman's house. He had it made for Mordecai, who spoke up to help the king."  The king said, "Hang him on it!"  So they hanged Haman on the gallows he had prepared for Mordecai.

"For pure perverted cleverness, their ways of wriggling out of things with explanations are as good as anything I ever heard.  Oh, they're mustard, all right!"  One British slang dictionary says the word can be used to mean "excellent."  Also carries the connotation of "hot stuff." "People and things weren't just like mustard, they were mustard."

... and just how in lum's name he figures in this case anyway..."  I couldn't find this one.

"I'm afraid you'll have to give me a lift home in your Black Maria or police car or whatever you call it."  Slang for a police wagon, but the origin of the phrase is uncertain.

"... oranges, apples, lemons, Brazil nuts, greengages, and bananas."  A type of plum.  However, not all gages are green, and some horticulturists make a distinction between the two words, with greengages as a variety of the gages...  Apparently Gage was the name of an English botanist.

"As soon as we get to the nearest A. A. box, I'll see that the damage is attended to."  Automobile Association boxes.

"Especially a re-fained long-legged prude like Bonita Sinclair?"  I have no idea, unless a mocking term for "refined."

"He could not in honesty deny that Marcia was very good-looking, but he suspected her of certain pawky humors, moods, and artistic tempers."  Shrewd, sly (Scottish).

"... he produced a half-flagon bottle of Ewkeshaw's Pale Ale."  A flagon is about a liter.  Etymology related to "flask" and to the practice of wrapping bottles in a straw casing.

"Hand the lady a cokernut," said H.M.  "That's idyllic, that is.  Do you honestly believe all that?"  Archaic form of coconut.

"What in the flamin' acres of Tophet do you expect to prove by it?"  Tophet was a location in Jerusalem in the Gehinnom where worshipers influenced by the ancient Canaanite religion engaged in the human sacrifice of children to the gods Moloch and Baal by burning them alive. Tophet became a theological or poetic synonym for Hell within Christendom.  So H.M. is asking "what in hell do you mean?"

"I can't be mixed up in any cloth-headed monkey-business like that."  Stupid (?), like soft-headed?

"He had devoted himself to his studies with the earnestness of one swotting for an examination..."  To study, from the Old English word for sweat.

"Heavy shutters were on the windows, backed with thick rep curtains to exclude every chink of light."  A silk, wool, rayon, or cotton fabric with a transversely corded surface.  Couldn't find the etymology.

"It's the draw of the town, like the Blackpool illuminations."  An annual lights festival.

"Mrs. Bartlemy, Sanders's landlady, was in the offing.  They heard her puff along the passage outside, and knock at the door like a steam hammer."  Foreseeable future, on the horizon.  A nautical term referring to distant sea but visible from shore.

"All that's worrying you is a social convention. 'They eat and drink and scheme and plod, And go to church on Sunday.  And many are afraid of God, But more of Mrs Grundy.'"  The poem from which this is taken is here, and the interesting history behind it is at Word Histories.

"Mrs. [redacted] and Mr. [redacted] were pull-baker, pull-devil every second of the time."  Anyone know this idiom??

"If a solemn lie is used to cheat an honest man, or sell some useless claptrap... then, say I, blow it higher than Boney's kite."  I found an old print mocking Napoleon flying a kite.  There must be a story (or an allegory) behind it.  I leave that up to my curious readers.

"Most of us, a' course, grow out of that.  Things get adjusted, and we come to accept necessary humbug lento risu."  In a Google book on the odes of Horace, the phrase was translated to mean "with a quiet smile."

"His worst moment was when [redacted] suddenly appeared in the bedroom, and began takin' an energetic dekko through the door to the living-room."  A look or glance. From the Hindustani, dekho. [1890s].

The Reader is Warned (1939)
Apart from the detectives there are only six characters in the book, and two of those are killed, but it's still not clear who the murderer is until the denouement.  S.T. Joshi considers this to be the best of the Merrivale novels, not for plot, but for character delineation.
"Sanders judged her to be very fashionably dressed, though her hat was put on anyhow."  The meaning is obvious, but the usage is odd.

"Colonel Willow, I believe, kept a straight bat and a stiff upper lip..."  Obviously a cricket reference.  Apparently used to refer to honest, honorable behavior.  Not sure what it means on the pitch.

"What I mean is that he's maybe got a new, simon-pure, fool-proof way of polishing people off..."  Absolutely pure.  From the phrase "the real Simon Pure", from the character Simon Pure (who is impersonated by another, and obliged to prove his identity) in Susanna Centlivre's 1717 play A Bold Stroke for a Wife.

"... he began to lumber back and forth with his thumbs hooked in his waistcoat pockets and his corporation, ornamented with a large gold watch-chain, preceding him in splendor like the figure-head of a man-'o-war."  John Dickson Carr uses this term frequently to refer to a protuberant abdomen. 

"I was just thinkin' -- where do you get the material for all these reelin' mysterious deaths?"  Not sure - maybe in the sense of shocking (send someone reeling)?

"As for your challenges... make 'em or not, but it's waste effort."  Modern usage would be "wasted."

"They waited in the dining-room, under huge dropsical pictures..."  Dropsy, from Latin hydrops, is dependent edema or anasarca.  Odd to apply it to paintings hung on a wall.  In one of the mysteries I reviewed earlier, he referred to walls as being "dropsical."

"They saw him get out of his car and waddle in through the rain, in a large transparent oilskin with a hood..."  Oilskins were waterproof raincoats.  Didn't know they could be transparent (would look like a condom).

"But people are believing it!"  "Oh, yes.  Pennik's mustard." [later] "Sort of astral projection.  I told you he was mustard." (see one possible explanation in Death in Five Boxes above)

"... it was the dozenth time he had told it, but he omitted nothing."  Apparently a perfectly good word, but the first time I have ever seen it used.

"I hope you noticed that? But oh, no. Down went the gage of battle on the floor, and I hope you're feelin' proud of yourself."  The giving of gage, or pledge, for trying a cause by single combat, formerly allowed in military, criminal, and civil causes, and finally abolished in 1819. In writs of right, where the trial was by champions, the tenant produced his champion, who, by throwing down his glove as a gage, thus "waged", or stipulated, battle with the champion of the demandant, who, by taking up the glove, accepted the challenge.  (Gage is from Old French)

"Put it down on the table and let's have a dekko at it."  (see above)

"Steady on!" advised Dr Sanders, in genuine concern.  "You'll have him chewing the carpet in a minute."  "Chew, or chewing, the carpet is not in the OED but it is in Jonathon Green's Dictionary of Slang. Green describes it as being US slang from the 1950s and defines it as 'to lose emotional control, to have a temper tantrum'."  [obviously the usage dates back well before the 1950s since this book was written in 1939].

"Is there a kind of judge, or court of appeal, or something like that, that an take back our verdict and say it's n.b.g.?"  Maybe "no bloody good"?

"... helping tend the lares and penates of an admirable house."  Guardian deities of the home.

"Darling, what on earth is the matter?  I never saw such an absolute juggins!  Is anything wrong?"  Someone very credulous or easily fooled.

Whew.  Lots of colloquial terms.  I'm exhausted.  But before i go, here is a useful link for those interested in mysteries:  99 novels for a locked room library.

Today I listed all five of these books on eBay, as a single lot.

31 October 2018

Our Halloween decoration this year

Minimalistic, but totally effective.  As soon as the trick-or-treat official hours began at 4:30, a bunch of kids began to gather around the balloon.  They were waving to friends and parents to "look at this," and they certainly didn't need the explanatory note on the grate, which says "WE ALL FLOAT DOWN HERE, GEORGIE."  (cultural reference)

I watched from a window in the house as neighbors went by, taking photos of the balloon, taking videos of the balloon, and getting down on all fours to peer into the grate.

Next year I'd like to print a big photo of Pennywise to put at the bottom of the stormwater chamber.  Ideally, I'd like to put a speaker down there to talk to people from the house and ask for Help! and "please reach down through the grating..."  Not sure how to do that.

29 October 2018

The joy of the bronze medalist

It has been known for years that athletes who win bronze medals are happier than those who win silver.  When I encountered the photo above, I decided to look up the source.  Found this in Scientific American:
To scientifically investigate this question, the researchers took video footage of the 1992 summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. Specifically, they recorded the medal ceremonies and showed them to undergraduate students, as well as footage from the athletic competitions immediately following announcements of the winners. They asked them to rate the happiness displayed by each of the medalists on a 10-point scale, with 1 being “agony” and 10 being “ecstasy.”

On average, the silver medalists scored a 4.8, and the bronze medalists scored a 7.1 immediately following the announcement. Later in the day, at the medal ceremony, the silver medalists scored a 4.3 on the happiness scale, while the bronze medalists scored 5.7. Statistical analyses proved that both immediately after winning, as well as later at the medal ceremony, bronze medalists were visibly happier than the silver medalists...

Altogether, they found that thirteen of the fourteen gold medal winners smiled immediately after they completed their winning match, while eighteen of the twenty-six bronze medalists smiled. However, none of the silver medalists smiled immediately after their match ended. More interestingly, the facial expression that were recorded among silver medal winners ranged from sadness (43%) to contempt (14%) to nothing (29%). This means that it wasn't just that the silver medal winners were less happy than gold medalists; instead, as Matsumoto and Willingham write, "those who displayed something displayed discrete, negative emotions."
Photo via.

"Angel shots" explained

I didn't know about these because I don't go into women's restrooms in nightclubs.
Bars lately are coming up with secret codes to help customers signal, privately, when they need help if they're getting harassed or feeling unsafe on a bad date.

At one Tampa restaurant, that code was the Angel shot. Depending on how the shot was ordered (neat, on the rocks, with lime), the bartender would know the person needs a ride home, a walk to their car, or a secret call to the police. Women receive the intel about the secret-code drink order via a discreet sign in the restroom.
You learn something every day.  More information at the link.

Reconsidering the cerebellum

It used to be so simple.  The cerebral cortex handled cognition, while the cerebelllum coordinated motor skills.  Recent work indicates that simplistic view presents a false dichotomy.
An ancient part of the brain long ignored by the scientific world appears to play a critical role in everything from language and emotions to daily planning...

Schmahmann, who wasn't involved in the new study, has been arguing for decades that the cerebellum plays a key role in many aspects of human behavior, as well as mental disorders such as schizophrenia...

And what they found was that just 20 percent of the cerebellum was dedicated to areas involved in physical motion, while 80 percent was dedicated to areas involved in functions such as abstract thinking, planning, emotion, memory and language...

The cerebellum doesn't directly carry out tasks like thinking, just as it doesn't directly control movement, Marek says. Instead, he says, it appears to monitor the brain areas that are doing the work and make them perform better.

In essence, this structure appears to act as a kind of editor, constantly reviewing and improving a person's thoughts and decisions, Dosenbach says. If that's true, he says, it's no surprise that alcohol affects more than our physical movements.
This is fascinating.   Read more at NPR, where there is a link to the source article.


English language time machine

Merriam-Webster has reconfigured their database so that you can now look up all the words that were invented (or recorded) in any given year.  I found the following words were invented the year I was born:
anabolic steroid
Caesar salad
cafe au lait spot
cardiac catheterization
clinical trial
crawl space
crown molding
decubitus ulcer
dental technician
digital computer
expiration date...
- and on an on for several hundred entries.  Try their Time Traveler.  The database sorts the words year-by-year back through the 1500s, and by centuries for entries with origins older than that.

25 October 2018

Light pillars in Finland and over Whitefish Bay

An Astronomy Picture of the Day, explained at the link and in my previous post on the subject.

Reposted from 2013 to add this awesome Astronomy Picture of the Day taken over Whitefish Bay:

"...vertical lines of light over a ground source that reflect from falling ice crystals. As the ground temperature was above freezing, the flat crystals likely melted as they approached the ground, creating a lower end to the vertical light pillars."

Earliest I've ever voted

I'm guessing I saved myself 1-2 hours compared to going to City Hall on November 6.

The "financial toxicity" of a cancer diagnosis

Excerpts from an article published in this month's edition of the American Journal of Medicine:
Approximately 15.5 million Americans have a history of cancer, with an estimated 1,688,780 new cases and 609,640 deaths annually. With 87% of diagnoses occurring in persons ≥50 years of age, cancer remains the second leading cause of death in the United States. Cancer's financial burden is often substantial during treatment phases and often worsens with improving prognoses.

With 6.5% of direct costs among nonelderly persons alone involving out-of-pocket payments, over half of all persons with cancer experienced house repossession, bankruptcy, loss of independence, and relationship breakdowns. Additionally, 40%-85% of cancer patients stop working during initial treatment, with absences ranging up to 6 months. Deductibles and copayments for treatment, supportive care, and nonmedical or indirect costs (eg, travel, caregiver time, and lost productivity) may be financially devastating even with healthcare coverage.

At year+2, 42.4% depleted their entire life's assets, with higher adjusted odds associated with worsening cancer, requirement of continued treatment, demographic and socioeconomic factors (ie, female, Medicaid, uninsured, retired, increasing age, income, and household size), and clinical characteristics (ie, current smoker, worse self-reported health, hypertension, diabetes, lung disease) (P<.05); average losses were $92,098. At year+4, financial insolvency extended to 38.2%, with several consistent socioeconomic, cancer-related, and clinical characteristics remaining significant predictors of complete asset depletion.
The American Journal of Medicine is peer-reviewed and is one of the most highly respected medical publications in the United States.  

The distribution of West Nile virus in the United States

Looks like it should be called West of the Mississippi virus.  The distribution varies from year to year; the map shown is for the most recent dataset (2016).  More info and other maps here.
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