21 May 2018


The (unquestioned) beauty is deceptive.  Multiple comments at the Pics subreddit post attest to the destructive capabilities of Wisteria vines.

Panspermia and the Cambrian Explosion

"Panspermia" ("seeds everywhere") is the term used for the concept that life in various forms is widespread throughout the cosmos, and that extremophiles can survive transit through space to colonize new worlds.

The "Cambrian Explosion" occurred about 500 million years ago, when multicellular life skyrocketed on earth.  Prior to that time, life on this planet consisted almost entirely of single-celled or colonial organisms.  During this 20-million year period most of the lines of animals appeared, with major diversifications and accelerated complexity.

Those two concepts are discussed in the most interesting scientific review article I've read all month.  Herewith some excerpts from the longread:
"... we discuss the recent phylogenetic data which date the emergence of the complex retroviruses of vertebrate lines at or just before the Cambrian Explosion of ∼500 Ma (the widely agreed epochal event in the evolutionary history of multicellular life on Earth). These types of reverse transcribing and genome integrating viruses are speculated to be plausibly associated with major evolutionary genomic processes. We believe this coincidence with the Cambrian Explosion may not be fortuitous...

... life was seeded here on Earth by life-bearing comets as soon as conditions on Earth allowed it to flourish (at or just before 4.1 Billion years ago); and living organisms such as space-resistant and space-hardy bacteria, viruses, more complex eukaryotic cells and organisms (e.g. Tardigrades), perhaps even fertilised ova and plant seeds, may have been continuously delivered ever since to Earth helping to drive further the progress of terrestrial biological evolution...

Even if we concede that the dominant neo-Darwinian paradigm of natural selection can explain aspects of the evolutionary history of life once life gets started, independent abiogenesis on the cosmologically diminutive scale of oceans, lakes or hydrothermal vents remains a hypothesis with no empirical support and is moreover unnecessary and redundant...

... direct evidence of liquid water in comets as well as other icy solar system bodies came to be firmly established through space exploration. The Jovian moon Europa, the Saturnian moon Enceladus and the dwarf planet Ceres all have evidence of liquid water, maintained either through tidal energy dissipation or radioactive heating. ..

It is now becoming amply clear that Earth-like planets and other life-friendly planetary bodies exist in their hundreds of billions...

Since 1980 the existence in interstellar clouds of complex organic molecules such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, is beyond dispute...

Data from cometary studies continue to be backed up by recoveries of microbial material in the stratosphere (under conditions where upwelling terrestrial contamination can be plausibly ruled out)...

We should then plausibly view viruses as among the most information-rich natural systems in the known Universe. Their size dictates they are very small targets minimizing the probability of destruction by flash heating or ionizing radiation... Their nanometer dimensions plausibly allow easy transport and dispersal by micrometer sized dust grains and other protective physical matrices of similar size. They are then nanoparticle-sized genetic vectors which contain all the essential information to take over and drive the physiology of any given target cell within which they mesh. Their replicative growth means they are produced, and exist, in huge numbers on cosmic scales; so that they (and to a lesser quantitative extent their cellular reservoirs) can suffer huge losses by inactivation while still leaving a residue of millions of surviving particles potentially still infective. A virus then is a type of compressed module in touch with the whole of the cell's very ability to grow and divide to produce progeny cells and thus to evolve...

Evidence of the role of extraterrestrial viruses in affecting terrestrial evolution has recently been plausibly implied in the gene and transcriptome sequencing of Cephalopods. The genome of the Octopus shows a staggering level of complexity with 33,000 protein-coding genes more than is present in Homo sapiens ...

Thus the possibility that cryopreserved Squid and/or Octopus eggs, arrived in icy bolides several hundred million years ago should not be discounted (below) as that would be a parsimonious cosmic explanation for the Octopus' sudden emergence on Earth ca. 270 million years ago. Indeed this principle applies to the sudden appearance in the fossil record of pretty well all major life forms, covered in the prescient concept of “punctuated equilibrium”...

This now leads us to the crux and an important take home lesson of this review. While all viruses, when looked at closely, are exceedingly clever, the Retroviruses (family Retroviridiae) are up there with the most sophisticated and compact of all known viruses. These viruses and their elements (reverse transcriptase enzymes, associated with induced mobile retro-elements) now appear to be important viral-drivers of major evolutionary genetic change on Earth over the past few hundred million years ...

It is well known that a mass extinction event, or events, occurred at the end of the Ediacaran period about 542 million years ago. This was the immediate forerunner of the Cambrian explosion and the mass extinction scale suggests the passage of our Solar System through a Giant Molecular Cloud dislodging multiple long period Oort Cloud comets into the inner Solar System setting up impacts with the Earth... It takes little imagination to consider that the pre-Cambrian mass extinction event(s) was correlated with the impact of a giant life-bearing comet (or comets), and the subsequent seeding of Earth with new cosmic-derived cellular organisms and viral genes...

It goes without saying that Tardigrades, micro-segmented tiny eukaryotic animals, which emerged in the Cambrian period pose a serious challenge to traditional neo-Darwinian thinking...
Note: Appendix A to the paper discusses the theory of panspermia as it relates to the existence of a deity as ultimate progenitor for the creation of life.

Top image via The Carbon Pilgrim.   Bottom image via Yale Scientific.

You're right! He does look like Sir Patrick Stewart.

Found at the Pareidolia subreddit.

Baby's hand mummified by copper coin

The remains are currently on display at Hungary’s Móra Ferenc Museum.

From inspecting the tiny skeleton, Dr. Balázs determined the deceased was either a stillbirth or premature baby that died shortly after birth. The researchers concluded the child was 11 to 13 inches and weighed only one or two pounds...

The team concluded that before the child was placed in the pot and buried, someone put the copper coin into its hand. Many cultures in antiquity have buried their dead with coins as a way to pay a mythical ferryman to take their souls into the afterlife.

In this case, the copper’s antimicrobial properties protected the child’s hand from decay. Along with the conditions inside the vessel, it helped mummify the baby’s grasp. The team thinks this child’s burial may be one of the first reported cases in the scientific literature of copper-driven mummification. 
The rest of the story is at The New York Times.

Suburban lawns as ecological wastelands

Excerpts from a rant at Earther:
Americans devote 70 hours, annually, to pushing petrol-powered spinning death blades over aggressively pointless green carpets to meet an embarrassingly destructive beauty standard based on specious homogeneity. We marvel at how verdant we manage to make our overwatered, chemical-soaked, ecologically-sterile backyards...

“Continual amputation is a critical part of lawn care. Cutting grass regularly—preventing it from reaching up and flowering — forces it to sprout still more blades, more rhizomes, more roots, to become an ever more impenetrable mat until it is what its owner has worked so hard or paid so much to have: the perfect lawn, the perfect sealant through which nothing else can grow—and the perfect antithesis of an ecological system.”..

Up until the 1940s, we at least left odd flowers like clovers—which actually add nitrogen back to soil—alone. Then we figured out how to turn petrochemicals into fertilizer, Windhager said. “The new goal became to have a full monoculture.”..

According to the EPA, we use 580 million gallons of gas each year, in lawnmowers that emit as much pollution in one hour as 40 automobiles driving— accounting for roughly 10 to 18 percent of non-road gasoline emissions...

All America’s farmland consumes 88.5 million acre feet of water a year. Lawns, with a fraction of the land, drink an estimated two-thirds as much. Most municipalities use 30-60 percent of drinkable water on lawns.
Suggestions at the link regarding how to cope with neighborhood associations.

Clever analogy

19 May 2018

(no headline)

Polyurea flooring

If any readers have resurfaced a garage or interior floor with polyurea, I'd appreciate your thoughts (positive/negative) in the Comments.  Thanks in advance.

The surprising etymology of "miniature"

I was listening to a segment of the PBS series "Civilizations" and was startled to hear an art historian mention in passing that the word "miniature" is used by professionals to refer to the colors used in a work of art rather than to its size.

An Oxford University Press webpage explains:
It only makes sense that this word miniature would derive from the Latin word minimum, meaning “the smallest.”  It only makes sense, but it’s wrong.

Miniature is one of those strange words that has an etymology that defies logic. The actual truth is that before things that were tiny were called miniature, a certain kind of small portrait was called a miniature.

Before that, the art of illuminating those beautiful letters and figures in hand reproduced .
ancient books was called miniaire in Italian.

This miniaire art was in turn named for the red color that was especially popular for use in producing this art.

The red color was usually produced by use of a red kind of lead and it was the Latin name of this red lead that gave the color its name because the lead was called minium.

Thus etymologically, miniature and minimum actually don’t even have a small relationship with each other.
Lots more at Wikipedia.
The word miniature, derived from the Latin minium, red lead, is a small illustration used to decorate an ancient or medieval illuminated manuscript; the simple illustrations of the early codices having been miniated or delineated with that pigment. The generally small scale of the medieval pictures has led secondly to an etymological confusion of the term with minuteness...

Sierra Leone is the roundest country

Sierra Leone maps.  Via the Map Porn subreddit.

This modern world

Via BoingBoing.

The role of baby-boomers in America's decline

Excerpts from a longread:
Lately, most Americans, regardless of their political leanings, have been asking themselves some version of the same question: How did we get here? How did the world’s greatest democracy and economy become a land of crumbling roads, galloping income inequality, bitter polarization and dysfunctional government?

.. the celebrated American economic-mobility engine is sputtering. For adults in their 30s, the chance of earning more than their parents dropped to 50% from 90% just two generations earlier. The American middle class, once an aspirational model for the world, is no longer the world’s richest... too few basic services seem to work as they should. America’s airports are an embarrassment, and a modern air-traffic control system is more than 25 years behind its original schedule. The power grid, roads and rails are crumbling, pushing the U.S. far down international rankings for infrastructure quality. Despite spending more on health care and K-12 education per capita than most other developed countries, health care outcomes and student achievement also rank in the middle or worse globally. Among the 35 OECD countries, American children rank 30th in math proficiency and 19th in science...

...many of the most talented, driven Americans used what makes America great–the First Amendment, due process, financial and legal ingenuity, free markets and free trade, meritocracy, even democracy itself–to chase the American Dream. And they won it, for themselves. Then, in a way unprecedented in history, they were able to consolidate their winnings, outsmart and co-opt the forces that might have reined them in, and pull up the ladder so more could not share in their success or challenge their primacy...

The result is a new, divided America. On one side are the protected few – the winners – who don’t need government for much and even have a stake in sabotaging the government’s responsibility to all of its citizens. For them, the new, broken America works fine, at least in the short term. An understaffed IRS is a plus for people most likely to be the target of audits. Underfunded customer service at the Social Security Administration is irrelevant to those not living week to week, waiting for their checks... On the other side are the unprotected many. They may be independent and hardworking, but they look to their government to preserve their way of life and maybe even improve it. The unprotected need the government to provide good public schools so that their children have a chance to advance. They need a level competitive playing field for their small businesses, a fair shake in consumer disputes and a realistic shot at justice in the courts...

The protected need few of these common goods. They don’t have to worry about underperforming public schools, dilapidated mass-transit systems or jammed Social Security hotlines. They have accountants and lawyers who can negotiate their employment contracts or deal with consumer disputes, assuming they want to bother. They see labor or consumer-protection laws, and fair tax codes, as threats to their winnings–which they have spent the last 50 years consolidating by eroding these common goods and the government that would provide them.

That, rather than a split between Democrats and Republicans, is the real polarization that has broken America since the 1960s. It’s the protected vs. the unprotected, the common good vs. maximizing and protecting the elite winners’ winnings...

 “American meritocracy has thus become precisely what it was invented to combat,” Markovits concluded, “a mechanism for the dynastic transmission of wealth and privilege across generations. Meritocracy now constitutes a modern-day aristocracy.” 
Much more at the Time magazine source.


This was a signature moment in public health awareness, when in 1987 Princess Diana was photographed shaking hands with an AIDS patient while not wearing gloves. 
In April 1987, Princess Diana opened the UK's first purpose built HIV/Aids unit that exclusively cared for patients infected with the virus, at London Middlesex Hospital.
In front of the world's media, Princess Diana shook the hand of a man suffering with the illness.
She did so without gloves, publicly challenging the notion that HIV/Aids was passed from person to person by touch
More at the BBC.  Photo via.

17 May 2018

A "rat king", two "squirrel kings" -- and three bucks

"Rat kings are cryptozoological phenomena said to arise when a number of rats become intertwined at their tails, which become stuck together with blood, dirt, and excrement. The animals consequently grow together while joined at the tails, which are often broken. The phenomenon is particularly associated with Germany, where the majority of instances have been reported...

Most researchers presume the creatures are legendary and that all supposed physical evidence is hoaxed, such as mummified groups of dead rats with their tails tied together. Reports of living specimens remain unsubstantiated

Specimens of purported rat kings are kept in some museums. The museum Mauritianum in Altenburg (Thuringia) shows the largest well-known mummified "rat king", which was found in 1828 in a miller's fireplace at Buchheim [above]. It consists of 32 rats. Alcohol-preserved rat kings are shown in museums in Hamburg, Hamelin, Göttingen, and Stuttgart. A rat king found in 1930 in New Zealand, displayed in the Otago Museum in Dunedin, was composed of immature Rattus rattus whose tails were entangled by horse hair.

The term rat king has often led to the misconception of a king of rats... The Nutcracker, by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, adapts a tale by E. T. A. Hoffmann that features a seven-headed Mouse King as the villain..."
Image and text from Wikipedia. Credit to Neatorama.

Addendum #1:  Reposted to add this example of a "squirrel king" -
The Animal Clinic of Regina in Saskatchewan, Canada, got a surprise this week when a city worker brought in six squirrels fused together by their tails...

This particular group of six were nesting near a pine tree and sap fused their tails together. A city of Regina worker found the young squirrels and brought them to the clinic. The animals were sedated and the veterinarian team worked to untangle the mess of tails. Their tails were then shaved of the matted fur and they were given antibiotics to prevent infection.  (Via Nothing to do with Arbroath)

Addendum #2:  Reposted in order to add this related interesting phenomenon found by my wife at the Buck Manager website:

[T]hese three white-tailed bucks were found locked during the rut. The bucks were located on a ranch in east-central Texas and, from the information that I received, one of the bucks was still alive when the trio was found. Apparently, the antlers were cut from the dead deer and one very tired buck was lucky enough to run back off into the woods.
There are lots of comments at the site, some opining that the event was faked and arguing the method of death, and one who reported seeing a buck attack a pair that was already locked.   My wife found another example at the same website:

 "...there is nothing worse than finding a dead buck that you did not shoot, but how would you feel if you found not one, but three dead bucks on your property? Okay, it gets worse. What if those three bucks totaled 450 inches of antler? That is exactly what a hunter in the mid-West found on his Ohio farm..."
"They had the bank of this creek all tore up."
Addendum #3: And reader Lisa knew of a ancient example of the phenomenon involving Ice Age mammoths.

Addendum #4:  Reposted from 2013 to add this image found by an anonymous reader -

- of a squirrel king in Nebraska, with the victims, as in the example cited above, fused at their tails by pine tree sap.

The first-ever performance of "Purple Rain" - 35 years ago

Feel old yet?  Filmed at the First Avenue club in Minneapolis in 1983

Would you push the handle on the right?

Another morsel from the Crappy Design subreddit.  Ladies Room door on the left, fire exit on the right (the Mens Room is around the corner and down a hall).

Pushing that handle in the theater would set off the fire alarm.

Campaign bus for a Georgia politician

This man is running for Governor, as a candidate of presumably the Xenophobic Party.

400 months in a row

It doesn't matter whether one considers it "normal planetary fluctuation" or "human-induced," the trend can't be denied:
Last month marked the planet's 400th consecutive month with above-average temperatures, federal scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced Thursday...

NOAA's analysis found last month was the 3rd-warmest April on record globally. The unusual heat was most noteworthy in Europe, which had its warmest April on record, and Australia, which had its second-warmest...

Another milestone was reached in April, also related to the number "400": Carbon dioxide — the gas scientists say is most responsible for global warming — reached its highest level in recorded history at 410 parts per million.

This amount is highest in at least the past 800,000 years, according to the Scripps Institute of Oceanography.
The NOAA report.

"That which doesn't kill you"

In a thoughtful Vanity Fair essay, Christopher Hitchens, who has terminal esophageal carcinoma, debunks an old maxim.
[O]ne thing that grave illness does is to make you examine familiar principles and seemingly reliable sayings. And there’s one that I find I am not saying with quite the same conviction as I once used to: In particular, I have slightly stopped issuing the announcement that “Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.”..

In fact, I now sometimes wonder why I ever thought it profound. It is usually attributed to Friedrich Nietzsche: Was mich nicht umbringt macht mich stärker. In German it reads and sounds more like poetry, which is why it seems probable to me that Nietzsche borrowed it from Goethe, who was writing a century earlier...

In the remainder of his life, however, Nietzsche seems to have caught an early dose of syphilis, very probably during his first-ever sexual encounter, which gave him crushing migraine headaches and attacks of blindness and metastasized into dementia and paralysis. This, while it did not kill him right away, certainly contributed to his death and cannot possibly, in the meanwhile, be said to have made him stronger...

[re radiation therapy]: To say that the rash hurt would be pointless. The struggle is to convey the way that it hurt on the inside. I lay for days on end, trying in vain to postpone the moment when I would have to swallow. Every time I did swallow, a hellish tide of pain would flow up my throat, culminating in what felt like a mule kick in the small of my back. I wondered if things looked as red and inflamed within as they did without. And then I had an unprompted rogue thought: If I had been told about all this in advance, would I have opted for the treatment? There were several moments as I bucked and writhed and gasped and cursed when I seriously doubted it...

I have come to know that feeling all right: the sensation and conviction that the pain will never go away and that the wait for the next fix is unjustly long. Then a sudden fit of breathlessness, followed by some pointless coughing and then—if it’s a lousy day—by more expectoration than I can handle...

So far, I have decided to take whatever my disease can throw at me, and to stay combative even while taking the measure of my inevitable decline. I repeat, this is no more than what a healthy person has to do in slower motion. It is our common fate. In either case, though, one can dispense with facile maxims that don’t live up to their apparent billing.
Addendum: Hitchens died on the day this post was published.  A brief memorial biography is available in this BBC column, or a more comprehensive bio at Wikipedia.

Reposted from 2011 in response to receiving a school alumni bulletin in which an interview offered the old maxim as a guideline for life:
Q: If you had a theme song what would it be?
A: "What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Stronger" by Kelly Clarkson. Sums up my life in a nutshell.
Like Hitchens, I'm at an age where I can do quite well without "things that don't kill me."

What ever happened to usury laws ?

A recent mailing from Paypal made me wonder what the status is of state regulations on exorbitant interest rates.  In an era of almost zero inflation, the numbers cited in the enclosure above seem to be over-the-top.  Do usury laws still exist?  Are certain types of lenders exempt?

I could look this up, but I bet some readers will already know the answer.  I certainly don't plan to borrow from Paypal, but I'm curious.  Thanks in advance.

Quantifying what golfers already know

The USGA is conducting a major study involving pros and amateurs regarding the effect of increasing distance on the nature of the game.
Increases in distance can contribute to demands for longer, tougher and more resource - intensive golf courses at all levels of the game. These trends can impact the costs to operate golf courses and put additional pressures on golf courses in their local environmental landscape . The effect of increasing distance on the balance between skill and technology is also a key consideration. Maintaining this balance is paramount to preserving the integrity of golf...
Longread with more graphs.

15 May 2018

Jungle lavafall

Something you don't see every day.  Credit embedded as a watermark, via.

How to use "invisible thread" in magic tricks

I looked this up after seeing this impressive street magic gif.

"Can I offer you another slice of... um... aquarium?"

With a big glop of mayo on top.  Because everyone knows how tasty aquarium water is.

Other examples in a gallery entitled "Aspic, the Devil's Foodstuff."  Via.

What the Russian army does with soldiers' cellphones

They are properly viewed as security risks in sensitive areas.  From a gallery at English Russia.

It resembles a leaf, and it can photosynthesize

But it's a sea slug (Elysia chlorotica).  I wonder if the "vein" pattern is functional, or for camouflage.

The history of the universe expressed as a domino run

An attempt to offer the human mind some idea of the concept of "deep time."  The details are not important; as always the impact comes from the relative length of the existence of human life.

13 May 2018

Divertimento #152

Everybody loves a gif-fest, so here are about fifty of them.  Have a go...

Induction heating demonstrated: "By placing a conductive material into a strong alternating magnetic field, electric current is made to flow in the material, thereby causing Joule heating.

Hand-processing cashew nuts.

This can be done with any paper currency featuring a human face.

Why railroad train wheels are shaped the way they are.

A man at the park with his best friend.

How a bank teller can steal money from a sealed bundle.

Ice sliding down a light post.

Girl makes the most of her prosthetic eye (with a nerf missile).

Share this gif with any amputees you know.

MRI shows the complexity of human speech.

Getting out of a Lamborghini.

Older man dances with two little girls.

Scotsman harvesting peat.

Prom surprise (cheerful)

Using gasoline to start a fire.

Truck vs. bridge 

Alcohol was involved.

Fan at concert shows his support for the band.

Fan tries to invade the soccer field.

South African criminals choose wrong person to try to rob.

"Fresh squeezed lemonade" isn't.

Gas station misadventure

Sisyphus at the skate park.

Ice hockey player scores a shorthanded, unassisted, behind-the-legs goal to clinch the division on the last home game of the year against the only team that could catch them.

Basketball player passes to self, then alley-oops to self for dunk.

Bodyboarder meets wave.

Ballerina stretches during her warmup.

"Soccer in a nutshell"

Dog at a highway crosswalk.

Encounter with an urban fox.

Stick insects can fly.

Doorbell cam documents a snake on the door (click fullscreen icon).

An albino rhombic egg-eater eats an egg. (I had to look it up; that's what it's called)

Baby elephant is very friendly.

Cows are happy.

This is a trilobite beetle (unrelated except in shape).

Seal demonstrates extraordinary fishing skill.

Dog loves to play Frisbee.

“All animals except man know that the principal business of life is to enjoy it.” (Samuel Butler)

Otters in Singapore.

Aquarium fish can be trained.

Awesome crocodile leap.

Scorpion sheds its exoskeleton.

Kennedy Space Center has an emergency fire extinguisher acoustic energy absorber (I think "dampener" would be the operative word here...

This is a Japanese "sunrise" dovetail joint.

Rolled up tatami mats are used to approximate the resistance provided by a human body.

Rather large swimming pool (China)

Boston Dynamics' new "running robot"

Maybe my cell phone will work as a neuralyzerNope.

Old Benny Hill skit

Baby likes balloons

"The difference between girls and boys"

Embedded photos from a gallery of animal camouflage at National Geographic; captions and credits at the link.

10 May 2018

Diapers for your chickens

These are real, offered by My Pet Chicken in a variety of styles for your indoor chickens, which according to the elves at No Such Thing as a Fish, are very hip household pets in Silicon Valley. 


I have blogged in the past my dissatisfaction with the pomp and majesty of an increasingly "imperial" presidency.  This PBS video goes one step further to suggest rethinking the very existence of the office.

"Fatal Descent," "The Emperor's Snuff Box," and "The Nine Wrong Answers"

Today we finish the "non-series" works of detection.

Fatal Descent (1939) (aka Drop to his Death)
This novel fits the "locked room" genre.  A man enters his private elevator on the fourth floor of his office building.  When the elevator door is opened in the lobby, he is found shot dead.  There is nobody else in the elevator (and no gun).

Written in collaboration with John Rhode (pen name for Cecil Street, a novelist and mystery writer), perhaps to take advantage of the latter's well-known penchant for incorporating science into puzzles of detection.  None of the principal characters are employed in Carr's other novels, but the language and style seem to be that of Carr.  The text presents four or five possible solutions to the impossible crime, before debunking all of them and revealing the true answer.  Herewith some of the non-plot items that I found interesting:
Carr's sense of humor is more evident in the Gideon Fell series, but crops up in this exchange between the chief inspector and the police surgeon:
(discussing another case) "I knew the butler was guilty all along.  So did everybody else.  But would you have that?  Oh, no! You showed, with your fishing line and your putty, that the Countess of Daimler was really guilty; and the things you said about that lady's past--"

Glass was annoyed.  "I said nothing about her past.  I merely pointed out that the influences of her childhood showed a tendency toward nymphomania--"

"That's fine," said Hornbeam bitterly.  "And what do you think the Count thought about that?  You didn't even tell me what the blasted word meant.  I thought it was some kind of stealing, and I told her husband it might be dangerous to turn her loose in a large department store."
"The murderer fastens a revolver to the concrete roof of the shaft--"  "How?" asked Hornbeam practically.  "Don't be so blasted footling," said Glass.  "I'm an artist; not an artisan.  I leave you to work out the vulgar details." Footling = "foolish, trivial, irritating" rel to footy = poor, worthless.

[a suspect had hidden a whiskey bottle]  "Haviland, in fact, kept the City of Refuge behind a picture hooked against the wall."  Possibly a brand?? (capitalized

"It wasn't bad, was it?  As a flight of imagination, I am proud of it; and I accept the meed of applause that my genius deserves."  Meed = payment for services rendered (directly from the Middle English).

"I will not descant on the tragic irony of the matter." Descant = lengthy discourse (or
counterpoint melody), via French and Latin.  Emphasis on the first syllable, btw.

"I don't see anything bourgeois about it.  What's got into you?  There was a time when nothing in skirts was safe from you.  Why this anchorite attitude all of a sudden?"  Anchorite = one who lives in isolation (from Greek, via Latin).

"Anybody who is triple-dyed ass enough to conduct practical experiments with Dave Hornbeam can think himself lucky if he gets off with a couple broken legs and irreparable damage to the coccyx."  I found other uses of this term, including "Triple-dyed and quadruple-dyed idiot, to have allowed yourself to be caught..." "Do you, O triple-dyed scoundrel, dare to speak disrespectfully to me?" but haven't found how it applies to an insult.  My best guess is that it means "total," as a fabric gets stronger color when it is double-dyed or triple-dyed etc.  Anyone know?

"The first person he saw, urbanely talking to Sergeant Biggs..." "From the city", obviously, apparently with connotations of courteous and polite.

"You're now in control.  The whole show is yours, with the power and the fullness thereof.  You can do as you like here..."  Repurposing a Biblical phrase.

"Let's cut the cackle and get down to horses." I found this I think definitive explanation in a 1929 issue of The Spectator:
I think I can enlighten your correspondent " H. M. W.," who asks for the origin of the slogan, " Cut the cackle and get to the 'osses." The words were originally "Cut the dialect and come to the 'oases," and were a favourite saying of Andrew Ducrow, one of the most famous circus-riders of the early nineteenth century.
"He thought he was safe as houses."  World Wide Words has a post about this phrase.

The Emperor's Snuff Box (1942)
Begins with an uncharacteristic bit of melodrama.  It has been suggested that this was done to counter the criticism that his other novels are pure logic puzzles.  The amateur detective is Dr. Dermot Kinross.  Not a locked-room mystery and not an "impossible crime."  Instead, the victim has his head  bashed in with a fireplace poker in his unlocked study (while examining a snuff box said to have belonged to the emperor Napoleon).   The murderer was - and this is the maddening and endearing aspect of JDC's novels - totally unexpected.  As always, I defer discussing the plot to avoid spoilers and focus instead on language curiosities and things-you-wouldn't-know:
"Taking cigarettes and a lighter from his pocket, he lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply. The flame of the lighter wabbled in his hand before he snapped it out."  Not a typo - just a less-common spelling of "wobble."

"For one horrible second she thought he was going to laugh in her face.  But even Ned Atwood was not ironist enough for this."  If a person using satire is a satirist, then a person using irony is logically an ironist - but I have to say I've never seen this word before.

"But, by the Lord Harry! - for a gal of your age and presumed experience, you've got more dewy-eyed illusions about the sweet simplicity of the world than anybody I ever did see!"  "Old Harry" has been euphemism for the Devil since the 18th century.  "the phrase was popular with 19th century writers, Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Fenimore Cooper, Stevenson, etc."  Wikisource has an extensive review of English expletives.

"Janice at twenty-three was small and round, trim and trig, bouncing and assertive..."  The phrase refers to something "neat and tidy, in good order, immaculate."  Convoluted origins dating back prior to 1600, explained at the World Wide Words link.

"Fifteen years on the island: that is most probable.  Ten years perhaps, or even five, if she has a clever lawyer... Of course, you understand, even five years on the island is not a bag of shells."  In context the "on the island" refers to someone being in prison; this novel is set in France, so Alcatraz not the reference - perhaps Elba or Devil's island being referenced figuratively.  "Bag of shells" I presume is a humorous corruption of "bagatelle."

"The prefect of police wore a bowler hat which accentuated his bulbousness, and carried a malacca stick."  A walking stick made of rattan palms.

"Dear doctor, I am not a detective.  No, no, no!  But as for zizipompom, that is different.  Any form of zizipompom I can detect at a distance of three kilometres and in the dark."  I wasn't able to track down any precise definition, though I did find the word used in a book about French people.

"And how, in the name of a small green cabbage, should I know?"  Carr has a propensity to pepper his narratives with idioms and local phrases.  The intent here is clear; not sure if the phrase has a backstory.

"Then why, in the name of a name, doesn't she speak out?"  Another euphemism, apparently the equivalent of "wtf."

"Some of the exhibits stood in lonely splendor, others were ticketed with neat cards in the same tiny copperplate writing."  A style of calligraphy (illustrated at the link).

"That damned maid of yours is behind all this, or I'm a Dutchman."  I found this: "The phrase '...or I'm a Dutchman' (meaning x is true, and if it is not true then I am something I am not), comes from a George Elliot novel, 'The Mill on the Floss'... This phrase was in fairly common use, and then was partly replaced by '.... or I'm a Chinaman'.

"The effect of his swinging the carriage round was like one of those  newsreel effects by which the film is speeded up, and a whole street suddenly becomes galvanized."  In this instance I think the author is using the term to mean "covered with zinc, as a protection against rust."  It can also mean to startle or to stimulate, as a muscle of a dead frog with electricity.

"What would you do, if you'd been handed the mitten in that suave and gracious way?  I was properly jilted, wasn't I?"  A curious phrase which essentially means "given marching orders." Discussed at considerable length at World Wide Words.  Used frequently by P.G. Wodehouse.  "probable that it derives from a French tradition by which a young lady who wished to decline a marriage proposal sent her suitor a pair of mittens."  This novel is set in France, so this fits in well.

"The person who planned it deserves no mercy, and is going to get none.  I shall see you tonight.  And then, heaven willing, we are going to settle somebody's hash."  The dictionary definition is "to get rid of; to subdue." Origin of the phrase is discussed here.

"As to what she may have told you, that's another pair of sleeves.  I can't say."  Obviously equivalent to "a different kettle of fish," but the origin is interesting: "... a colorful expression that we use in Italian to describe something that is about a completely different thing with no connection to a previous one. The expression comes from the Medieval and Renaissance use of interchangeable sleeves in men's and women's dress in particular."  Very interesting.  I'll blog that separately.  You learn something every day.

"These last couple of days," she continued, "everything hasn't been exactly gas and gaiters."  Wiktionary defines it simply as "a pleasant situation," quoting Charles Dickens (Nicholas Nickleby): "'Aha!' cried the old gentleman, folding his hands, and squeezing them with great force against each other. 'I see her now; I see her now! My love, my life, my bride, my peerless beauty. She is come at last--at last--and all is gas and gaiters!'  But why this pairing??

The Nine Wrong Answers (1952)
Carr described this work as a novel of "character" and "fast action" without "police investigation."  There is no detective; the protagonist has to solve the problem of why an old man is trying to murder him.  I was so pleased with myself for having deduced the plot twist near the beginning of the story - only to find myself (as usual) totally wrong. 
"Bill snatched up the brief case."  Not a typo - the item is described in this way on multiple occasions.

"Cheero," Bill said without enthusiasm."  I always thought the word was "Cheerio," but that's probably a bastardization from movies and TV.  The Oxford dictionaries indicate that it can also be spelled cheeroh and cheer ho.

"Many streets away he found a dog-wagon.  Ordering bacon and eggs, pie, and coffee, he held the brief case on his knees..."  I found the term used to refer to a short-order or fast-food restaurant.  Not sure why.

"Satan's teeth!"  I found nothing relevant.

"Everything was flung in, including Larry's shaving tackle..."  Obvious in context; apparently from Middle English takel (gear, apparatus).

"Damn this arm rest between us!  It's like the wall between Pyramus and Thisbe."  Ill-fated lovers in Ovid's Metamorphoses.  Details at Wikipedia.  My education fell short on this one, so I'll write it up for a blog post.

Several references to Heath Row airport - always written as two words.  The airport was built at the site of the hamlet sometimes spelled as two words; I don't see any other reference to the airport thus written.

RAF written as Raf.  Suspect this must be a typesetter's error.

"His doctors' and nurses' fees, the estimated correctly at about a hundred quid." (for a week in hospital.  How times change.)

"He might greet you with the cry of the old clo'man, or Sir Laurence Olivier playing Richard the Third."  I found nothing - anywhere - until this YouTube video, where the word is written the same way, with an apostrophe.  In the video it may refer to a banjo player.  ???  And a Google-listed book has this sentence: "Othello became a Christy Minstrel, Shylock an old clo'man from Hounsditch..."  I'm guessing (and it's only that) that the apostrophe shortens "clothing man," maybe referring to a rag-and-bone man.  Maybe the nature of Hounsditch offers a clue.  Some reader may know...

"Tonight, [I] dropped into a newsreel theater for a time..."  I'm old enough to remember newsreels preceding movies.  Not old enough to remember theaters devoted entirely to newsreels and other short features.
This was my second or third - and at my age final - read of these books, so I've combined them with the other four non-series detective novels (The Bowstring Murders, Below Suspicion, Patrick Butler for the Defense, and Poison in Jest) and have listed all seven on eBay (as a lot of three and a lot of four books), starting at nominal opening bids.  Domestic shipping only at Media Mail rate.

Next I'll move on to the Henry Merrivale and Gideon Fell mysteries.

They could be called "oxterpeckers"

As reported by National Geographic:
Scientists have long known that yellow-billed oxpeckers hang out on massive African mammals like giraffe, water buffalo, and eland during the day—an often beneficial relationship that provides hosts with cleaner, healthier skin. These small brown birds can often be seen perched on top or hanging off the animals, picking through their hair in search of tasty parasites like ticks.

But a series of rare photos from a large multi-year camera trap study in Tanzania's Serengeti National Park have revealed that the birds actually roost on some of their hosts overnight...

"You look at them on the giraffe and they're just right up in there," says Meredith Palmer, a Ph.D. candidate in behavioral ecology at the University of Minnesota. "It's a very safe, comfortable place for the birds."..

Yellow-billed oxpeckers nest in trees or other vegetation when it's time to lay their eggs. But the rest of the time they're perfectly happy dangling from a giraffe—sometimes, seven birds are seen clustered in a single armpit
Re my tongue-in-cheek title for the post:
Definition of "oxter" - chiefly Scotland and Ireland : armpit. (etymology: Middle English (Scots), alteration of Old English ōxta; akin to Old English eax axis, axle).

Photo credit Meredith Palmer. 

Take that, Governor Walker!

On the left (literally and figuratively), Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton.  In the opposite corner (politically), Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.  They each took office in 2010 in demographically-similar states; their performance since that time has been analyzed in detail by David Cooper (Georgetown University) and published by the Economic Policy Institute.  Herewith a summary -
Since the 2010 election of Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin and Governor Mark Dayton in Minnesota, lawmakers in these two neighboring states have enacted vastly different policy agendas. Governor Walker and the Wisconsin state legislature have pursued a highly conservative agenda centered on cutting taxes, shrinking government, and weakening unions. In contrast, Minnesota under Governor Dayton has enacted a slate of progressive priorities: raising the minimum wage, strengthening safety net programs and labor standards, and boosting public investments in infrastructure and education, financed through higher taxes (largely on the wealthy).

Because of the proximity and many similarities of these two states, comparing economic performance in the Badger State (WI) versus the Gopher State (MN) provides a compelling case study for assessing which agenda leads to better outcomes for working people and their families. Now, seven years removed from when each governor took office, there is ample data to assess which state’s economy—and by extension, which set of policies—delivered more for the welfare of its residents. The results could not be more clear: by virtually every available measure, Minnesota’s recovery has outperformed Wisconsin’s...

Key findings include:
  • Job growth since December 2010 has been markedly stronger in Minnesota than Wisconsin, with Minnesota experiencing 11.0 percent growth in total nonfarm employment, compared with only 7.9 percent growth in Wisconsin. Minnesota’s job growth was better than Wisconsin’s in the overall private sector (12.5 percent vs. 9.7 percent) and in higher-wage industries, such as construction (38.6 percent vs. 26.0 percent) and education and health care (17.3 percent vs. 11.0 percent).
  • From 2010 to 2017, wages grew faster in Minnesota than in Wisconsin at every decile in the wage distribution. Low-wage workers experienced much stronger growth in Minnesota than Wisconsin, with inflation-adjusted wages at the 10th and 20th percentile rising by 8.6 percent and 9.7 percent, respectively, in Minnesota vs. 6.3 percent and 6.4 percent in Wisconsin.
  • Gender wage gaps also shrank more in Minnesota than in Wisconsin. From 2010 to 2017, women’s median wage as a share of men’s median wage rose by 3.0 percentage points in Minnesota, and by 1.5 percentage points in Wisconsin.
  • Median household income in Minnesota grew by 7.2 percent from 2010 to 2016. In Wisconsin, it grew by 5.1 percent over the same period. Median family income exhibited a similar pattern, growing 8.5 percent in Minnesota compared with 6.4 percent in Wisconsin.
  • Minnesota made greater progress than Wisconsin in reducing overall poverty, child poverty, and poverty as measured under the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure. As of 2016, the overall poverty rate in Wisconsin as measured in the American Community Survey (11.8 percent) was still roughly as high as the poverty rate in Minnesota at its peak in the wake of the Great Recession (11.9 percent, in 2011).
  • Minnesota residents were more likely to have health insurance than their counterparts in Wisconsin, with stronger insurance take-up of both public and private health insurance since 2010.
  • From 2010 to 2017, Minnesota has had stronger overall economic growth (12.8 percent vs. 10.1 percent), stronger growth per worker (3.4 percent vs. 2.7 percent), and stronger population growth (5.1 percent vs. 1.9 percent) than Wisconsin. In fact, over the whole period—as well as in the most recent year—more people have been moving out of Wisconsin to other states than have been moving in from elsewhere in the U.S. The same is not true of Minnesota.
Way more information, with charts, in this longread.  Kudos to my old friend and schoolmate, Mark Dayton.

Photo via Urban Milwaukee.

"Nature's first green is gold"

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
         ---- Robert Frost, "Nothing Gold Can Stay"
The photo is of an oak tree in my back yard. In a few weeks the golden catkins will fall, leaving light green leaves, which will darken over the summer and turn russet in the autumn

08 May 2018


Click the photo to enlarge and appreciate.  Credit uncertain - probably Alastair Heseltine (or someone who copied him).  Via.

The first use of "O.M.G." was in 1917

Credit to Anorak at Flashbak for finding a letter from Lord Fisher to Winston Churchill, written in 1917.

Via Smithsonian.  Image cropped for size and contrast-enhanced from the original.

Reconsidering grape scissors

I was unaware of the existence of grape scissors/shears until I heard them mentioned in passing on a podcast of No Such Thing As A Fish.  Found the image and the text below at AC Silver in the UK:
Grape shears and grape scissors are an instrument specifically designed for cutting grape stalks, and are smaller and designed especially for the purpose. Grape shears were invented in the 19th century, and the earliest examples were from the Regency period, although very few have survived and these early examples are extraordinarily rare now.

These shears or scissors are about 6 to 7 inches (15 to 18 cm) long. The handles are much longer than the blades, so that you can insert the blades deeply into a cluster of grapes. Most of the scissor ends have blunt tips, so that they won’t puncture the fruit.

The grape shears would sometimes be found as part of a set with a grapestand, and the earlier grape shears from the late Georgian period were more like scissors, with equally long blades and handles. These were often gold-gilt, demonstrating the high value that the grape shears had been imbued with as an item of cutlery, and as part of a dinner service. Later though, grape shears were usually made of sterling silver, as with most high quality dinnerware, so as to avoid tarnishing and to stand the test of time.

After the 1850s, most of the shears produced included a flange which had been added to one of the blades, so that once the grapes had been cut, they could then be elegantly placed on to the diner’s plate while still holding the shears...
More at the link (along with other interesting silver info).  My knee-jerk reaction was to mock the scissors (especially with silver plate and the velvet-lined custom container), but as I think about serving grapes, it is difficult to separate a cluster from a large bunch without placing the other hand on the bunch, so if grapes are shared with a larger group, the last person gets some much-handled fruit.  At a picnic or with family, such considerations are insignificant, but I'm wondering if I were to serve grapes at a party whether passing around a pair of ordinary kitchen scissors would be appropriate, or would that be considered posh?


Minnesota Public Radio provided the story:
[In 2015] Asma Jama sat chatting with her family in a booth at the Coon Rapids  [Minnesota] Applebee's, a glass of cranberry juice just set before her. A few minutes later, she was in an ambulance and bleeding, her lower lip split in two... As Jama waited for her pasta alfredo, a woman at a nearby booth smashed a beer mug in her face.

The reason? Jama had been speaking Swahili with her family.

Jodie Burchard-Risch, 43, and her husband had been sitting in the booth next to Jama, who was with her cousins and nieces. The couple became upset when they heard Jama and her family conversing in a foreign language, according to a criminal complaint.

Jama said the couple told them to "go home." They said that "when you're in America you should speak English."

Jama, an ethnic Somali, came to Minnesota in 2000 from Kenya. She speaks three languages: English, Swahili and Somali.

"I'm home," she told Burchard-Risch at the Applebee's. "I can speak English, but we choose to speak whatever language we want."

Authorities say that's when Burchard-Risch hit Jama in the face with the glass mug. 
A reader at BoingBoing provides a Biblical counterpart:
Judges 12:5-6 King James Version (KJV)
5 And the Gileadites took the passages of Jordan before the Ephraimites: and it was so, that when those Ephraimites which were escaped said, Let me go over; that the men of Gilead said unto him, Art thou an Ephraimite? If he said, Nay;
6 Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand.

07 May 2018

This wasn't intended to be a Venn diagram

Via the Crappy Design subreddit.

This is called the "Toenail Hoard"

The story dates back to 2015, but I just heard about it in a podcast of No Such Thing As A Fish, and thought it worth posting.
Hundreds of 16th Century coin clippings have been discovered in a Gloucestershire field. The 500 silver clippings, dubbed the Toenail Hoard, were unearthed by Gavin Warren using a metal detector in the Forest of Dean. Shaved from the edges of coins dating back to 1560, the precious metal would have been melted down and sold... Mr Adams, from the Portable Antiquities Scheme, said the hoard, currently being catalogued at the British Museum, was not only "one of the biggest" but a "fantastic bit of social history"... The earliest clippings date from the reign of Elizabeth I, so 1560s to 1570s, and the latest from 1645," he said.
This is of course why coins made of precious metal are milled on the edges. (These appear to have embossed edges, which apparently didn't deter a determined thief).

"Microblading" for cosmetic eyebrow enhancement

In microblading, a practitioner uses tiny needles to make shallow cuts in and around the eyebrow, which are filled in with ink. It's similar to a tattoo, but it's only semi-permanent. That means it will fade over time, sometimes lasting up to three years, although the results can vary.

The dye placement is meant to mimic individual hairs, so it can make overplucked eyebrows look full and defined. It only takes a quick Google search to find a salon or spa offering the service. But microblading is largely unregulated and carries risks, as Jennifer found out.
The rest of the story is here.

04 May 2018

Skiers? Or musical notes?

Cross-country skiers (image cropped for size from the original).  But here they are "transcribed" as musical notes...

And you can listen to the score HERE (credit to Redditor K8hoxie).

"That's another pair of sleeves" explained

I encountered the phrase in a John Dickson Carr mystery, and decided the explanation was worthy of a separate post.  Herewith an excerpt from Friends of Cama's Blog.
"That's another pair of sleeves" is a colorful expression that we use in Italian to describe something that is about a completely different thing with no connection to a previous one
The expression comes from the Medieval and Renaissance use of interchangeable sleeves in men's and women's dress...

The interchangeable sleeve tradition in the Renaissance was also part of the lover's cup tradition of giving an engagement token of love to one's beloved for their wedding. Interchangeable sleeves could be so valuable that they were kept in safes.
So the next time I'm tempted to say "another ballgame" or "another kettle of fish" I'll substitute this phrase.

This sign at the party for Jana...

Via the Funny subreddit.

The red line is a straight line

And not just any straight line.  It is the longest straight line on the surface of the earth that traverses water without touching land (approximately 20,000 miles).

Here's a video demonstration:

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