17 July 2019

Car driver has stroke. Arriving police taser him in the face and pepper-spray him.

"The Fredericksburg [Virginia] Police Department released this body camera video of Officer Shaun Jurgens. Jurgens used a stun gun and pepper sprayed a man who was having a medical emergency May 4. Some audio was redacted to protect personal information of the driver."
Here's the local newspaper's report of the settlement of the case:
Washington was unarmed, but police considered him a hit-and-run suspect after his car allegedly struck another vehicle and knocked down a road sign before coming to a stop at the intersection of Cowan Boulevard and Powhatan Street. ..
Washington’s lawsuit claimed he was in “obvious and critical need of emergency medical care” and never gave police a reason to believe he posed a threat. It lists the city, Jurgens, and Officers Matt Deschenes and Crystal Hill as defendants.

The suit claimed Deschenes and Hill held Washington at gunpoint for several minutes as he sat unresponsive in the driver’s seat of his stopped car. The officers asked him to show his hands and exit the car, but Washington could not do so because he had suffered from a stroke while driving.

According to the lawsuit, Jurgens arrived several minutes later and fired a Taser at Washington with no verbal warning, striking him in the face. Deschenes then holstered his firearm and opened the driver’s side door of Washington’s car, “further confirming” the suspect had no weapons. The suit said Jurgens sprayed a can of pepper spray into Washington’s face, drew his gun and shouted: “Get out the car or I’m going to [expletive] smoke you!”

The lawsuit says after Deschenes pulled Washington from the vehicle, the car rolled backward and a tire struck Washington in the foot as he lay handcuffed on the road. Hill then drove the vehicle off Washington’s foot, the suit said.
Discussion thread at the Bad Cop No Donut subreddit.  The YouTube discussion thread is even more critical.

U.S. government running out of money

Faster than expected.
(CNN)  Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Friday issued a warning Friday that the US government is at risk of running out of cash sooner than expected. 

In a letter to Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Mnuchin wrote that the US might default on its obligations as soon as early September, before Congress returns from its summer recess. 
"Based on updated projections, there is a scenario in which we run of out cash in early September, before Congress reconvenes," Mnuchin wrote in a letter.
The federal government has not been able to borrow money since March, when congressionally-mandated borrowing limits went back into force. The US Treasury, which is facing a growing deficit thanks in part to President Donald Trump's 2017 tax cuts, had said it had enough cash to last until the fall. 
The deficit widened to $747.1 billion, versus $607 billion last year, from October through June. Federal spending rose to $3.36 trillion in that period, while revenue increased to $2.61 trillion -- both records. 

Ahead of her time

Via the OldSchoolCool subreddit.

Urban Tree Alliance provides free trees

"Founded in 2011, the Urban Tree Alliance is a non-profit organization serving the greater Madison, WI area.  Our mission is to preserve and grow the urban forest canopy in a sustainable and innovative manner in partnership with the public.

Most trees are privately owned, but they provide deep and lasting benefits to the community as a whole.  Each time a homeowner cares for a tree, they give a gift to us all: shade on a hot summer day, improved air quality, food for wildlife, relief for our stress, an intimate connection with nature, and a myriad other benefits.

The Urban Tree Alliance is committed to providing Madison-area residents with the knowledge, skills and resources they need to grow and maintain a healthy, resilient urban forest.  We support homeowners in caring for trees on their property, and we empower groups to tackle community forestry projects.

We are currently offering one or two free trees to residents in eighteen Madison and Fitchburg neighborhoods (info at the link)."

A reminder that there is no "away"

15 July 2019

Using a neural net in everyday life

From xkcd.

Career advice

Discussed at the WhitePeopleTwitter subreddit.

About those fish in isolated lakes and ponds

Think of an isolated lake, located in the middle of proverbial Nowhere - doesn't matter exactly where.  Surrounded by miles of forest, taiga, prairie, desert, savannah - whatever.

No river leads into it, no river drains from it; there is no underground spring connected to a larger aquifer.  The water is replenished by rainfall and snowmelt.

And it has little fish in it.  How did they get there?  Naturalists and biologists have speculated about this for ages, but the Ecological Society of America has now published the first scientific proof of a plausible mechanism, as explained at Hakai magazine:
This idea that birds transport fish eggs became embedded in scientific knowledge. But as recently as 2018, whenever researchers searched the peer-reviewed literature for solid data supporting the hypothesis, they came up short. Except for a few anecdotal accounts, they could not find any evidence of birds carrying fish eggs.

But this long-lived hypothesis, so recently put to bed, has been given a second chance thanks to Giliandro G. Silva, a doctoral student at the University of the Sinos Valley in Brazil. In 2017, Silva inadvertently found a single killifish egg in the droppings of a wild coscoroba swan. “I was not looking for a fish egg. I was looking for other groups, like plants and invertebrates,” Silva says. That serendipitous discovery sparked a deeper investigation.

To definitively determine whether killifish eggs can survive digestion by birds, Silva and his colleagues fed eggs from two killifish species mixed in corn feed to captive-born coscoroba swans. Rummaging through the birds’ poop, they recovered five live killifish eggs. While four succumbed to fungal infections in the lab, one hatched into a tiny fish after 49 days. This egg had survived 30 hours inside a swan...

“If you just want a proof of concept, then one egg is enough,” says Benedikt Schmidt, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Zurich in Switzerland who was not involved in the study. Other life forms, including snails and aquatic leaf beetle eggs, are known to survive being eaten by waterfowl. Now, Schmidt says, we have evidence that a fish egg can do the same. 

$1 worth of Venezuelan bolivars


The Minnesota State Fair will NOT offer "doughnuts with syringes"

[from 2015]:

The Minnesota State Fair has announced its new foods for the 2015 season.  Personally, I would favor the Walleye Stuffed Mushrooms (above).
Jumbo mushroom caps stuffed with flavored cream cheese spread, walleye, three cheeses, red pepper, panko breadcrumbs and a special sauce.
I'd also be tempted by the Minnesota Wild Rice Benedict Muffin (right)
A wild rice English muffin cup with sliced ham and a soft-cooked egg, covered with hollandaise sauce.
Or perhaps the Breakfast Burger (below):
Seasoned sausage and hamburger on a corn-dusted bun with applewood-smoked bacon, caramelized onions, melted provolone cheese, fried egg and a tomato slice.

Reposted from 2015 to add news from 2019:

One of the new foods for 2019 has been drawing mounting controversy since it was announced last month, thanks to an unusual accessory to the dish. The Wingwalker Donut Flight of fill-your-own doughnut holes comes with three fillings: Bavarian cream, chocolate custard and Minnesota lingonberry jam. Each of the fillings was to be served in a plastic syringe.

“Incredibly wasteful,” “a gimmick,” and “gross” were some of the comments on the Minnesota State Fair’s Facebook page. Both the environmental impact of single-use plastics and the optics of drug paraphernalia littered on the ground at the fair drew complaints...

Today, the fair announced, the syringes are no more, and the doughnuts have been dropped from the Official New Food List (with a new replacement).

"We understand the impact food packaging has on the environment, and The Hangar, along with the fair, has decided that plastic syringes will not be used as part of the Wingwalker Donut Flight," the fair said in a statement.

Instead, the cake doughnut holes will be served in a compostable tray with three compartments holding the different fillings. Instead of filling the doughnuts, customers can now dunk them.

Additionally, the vendor is "changing all of their food service trays and boats to 'eco trays,' a post-consumer recycled paper product; utensils made from wood will be given to guests instead of plastic forks and knives; and they will continue to use eco-friendly napkins made from recycled paper products."

The "Gates of Heaven" don't look like this

Tourists visiting Bali have been "shocked" to discover that the reflecting pool effect is created at the site by the strategic placement of a mirror in front of the camera, and that one needs to wait in line for hours to use the mirror.  Details at the New York Post.

Captain Puerto Rico?


"Please be chicken" (was)

Via Reddit, where this comment explained the oddity: "I worked at Popeyes for 5 years. This looks like a promotion called rip'n chik'n. It's basically a chicken breast sliced up into 5 pieces, but not all the way down so its still connected. That way the customer can rip it into pieces. It mostly looked like hands, but sometimes the smaller ones would come out weird like that."

Fiendish cryptic puzzle

The latest offering from Harper's.  Took me way too long. 

Grass in bloom

It's easy to forget that grasses have flowers, because the blooms are so tiny.  I believe this is Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) but there are hundreds of grasses in Wisconsin, and I can't guarantee the identity.  It's an attractive plant and one component of the traditional tall-grass prairie.

Photographed by my wife a couple days ago during a hike on the grounds of the Holy Wisdom Monastery in Middleton, Wisconsin.

"Holy Wisdom Monastery is home to a diverse ecosystem spread across more than 130 acres of restored prairie, woodlands, wetlands, gardens, orchards and more. Nurturing partnerships with Dane County, Madison Community Foundation and others who value caring for the earth has always been important to us.

In September 2012, we acquired a 53-acre cornfield which we are committed to integrating and restoring to native prairie and oak savanna to help improve the water quality in Lake Mendota. In March 2015, we successfully met our goal of raising $1.9 million to cover the acquisition and initial management costs..."
Here's one more photo from that hike:  (Tiger Swallowtail on Bull Thistle)

Reposted from 2017 to add this photo demonstrating the root system of wild grasses:


12 July 2019

The truck is not completely invisible - updated

You can see the tire.  And the door handle.  Discussion thread.

Here's another one:


"...a situation dreaded by pet owners: dying alone and being eaten"

An article at National Geographic addresses the question "Would Your Dog Eat You if You Died?  Get the Facts."

The answer is yes.  And the dog (or cat) would probably start at your face, not with your belly as wild cats and dogs do.

I'll let you read this on your own.  Coincidentally I encountered a related article at the Washington Post the following day, about a man eaten by his own dogs.  They also ate his clothes ("authorities discovered dog feces with hair, more bone and fabric — remnants that matched the only outfit Mack was known to wear.")

Filed in the TYWKIWDBI category.

An albino painted wood turtle

Via Albino Turtles.

Thoughts about Iran - updated

Excerpts from an op-ed piece posted in Counterpunch:
Like everyone else who can say “Gulf of Tonkin,” “Remember the Maine,” and “Iraqi WMDs,” my instinctive reaction to the attacks on two tankers, a month after explosions hit four oil tankers in the UAE port of Fujairah, was: “Oh, come on now!” We know the United States, egged on by Israel and Saudi Arabia, has been itching to launch some kind of military attack on Iran, and we are positively jaded by the formula that’s always used to produce a justification for such aggression.

It seemed beyond credibility that Iran would attack a Japanese tanker, the Kokuka Courageous, at the moment the Prime Minister of Japan was sitting down with Ayatollah Khamenei in Tehran. After all, Iran is eager to keep its oil exports flowing, so it would hardly want to so flagrantly insult one of its top oil customers.

Nor did it seem to make sense that Iran would target a Norwegian vessel, Front Altair. That tanker is owned the shipping company, Frontline, which belongs to Norway’s richest man (before he moved to Cyprus), John Fredriksen. Fredriksen made his fortune moving Iranian oil during the Iran-Iraq war, where his tankers came under constant fire from Iraq, and were hit by missiles three times. He became known as “the Ayatollah’s lifeline.” Furthermore, as the Wall Street Journal reports, Fredriksen’s Frontline company has continued to help Iran move its oil in a way that evades sanctions. A friendlier resource Iran has not.  This is the guy Iran chose to target, in another gratuitous insult?..

Then Iran shot down an RQ-4A Global Hawk drone on June 20th. That’s a very valuable US military asset, one of the Navy’s four RQ-4A “massive surveillance” drones that cost $110-220 million apiece—more than an F-35, the country’s most advanced fighter jet.

That drone probably did violate Iranian airspace, as Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and MoA show (also here). In that narrow part of the Strait of Hormuz, it was virtually impossible not to. But the argument over that is clouded by how the drone’s 60,000-ft cruising altitude affected its angle from the Iranian shore...

Iran has made its position clear: “[I]f Iran can’t export oil through the Persian Gulf, no-one in the Middle East will be able do this…oil will stop being delivered to the world if Iran can’t export its two million barrels per day.”.. What matters is the final result; any blocking of the energy flow will lead the price of oil to reach $200 a barrel, $500 or even, according to some Goldman Sachs projections, $1,000.…This figure, times 100 million barrels of oil produced per day, leads us to 45% of the $80 trillion global GDP. It’s self-evident the world economy would collapse based on just that alone...

Though it’s news from Mars for most Americans, and I have not heard a single word about it in days of US media coverage about the innocent stricken drone, Iran does not forget that the US Navy once shot down an Iran Air civilian airliner in Iranian airspace, killing 290 people, including 66 children. This prompted the President of the United States at the time—the “thoughtful, restrained” George H. W. Bush, icon of “bipartisan respect and comity,” who “always found a way to set the bar higher”—to declare: “I will never apologize for the United States—I don’t care what the facts are.”  Iran will shoot down any threatening aircraft—and certainly any damn drone—it wants. Without apology...

To be clear: In my opinion, this is a non-passive, assertive posture that all anti-imperialists should support. The United States has no right to forcibly determine what Iran’s government is, what weapons it can have, who its allies are, or with whom it can trade. Iran has every right to fight back against any such aggression, and every anti-imperialist leftist should advocate its victory in any such fight...

They think the US will be able to do to Iran what it has done to Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria: impose catastrophic destruction at will, without suffering serious and deadly consequence in return.
It doesn’t seem to register on them that the US has achieved nothing its own citizens can embrace as “victory” in any of these deadly interventions. In Afghanistan, the US is hoping it can strike a deal with the Taliban it came to defeat sixteen years ago. It can throw missiles at Syria at will, but has not been able to overthrow the Syrian government it proclaimed “had to go” 7 years ago...

Iran is calling the US bluff on escalation dominance. It knows it can be hurt, but not defeated. It is a country of 83 million people, with 617,000 square miles of formidable, semi-mountainous territory—almost three times more populous and four times larger than Iraq. It’s a country that fought and won one of the deadliest wars in history, against an Iraqi invasion backed by the US and all its regional and international client states. It will not hesitate to defend itself furiously against any American attack...
Even…stick[ing] simply to airstrikes…would not be an antiseptic, push-button exercise … Iran could employ a combination of antiship cruise missiles, drones, submarines, small boats and mines to “swarm” U.S. naval ships in the confined waters of the Persian Gulf. It could target U.S. bases in the region with its arsenal of some 2,000 missiles. It could cripple U.S. computer networks with cyberattacks. It could employ Hezbollah and other groups to stage terrorist attacks abroad. It could send local militias armed with missiles and car bombs to attack the 19,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. It could tell the Houthis in Yemen to unleash a missile barrage against Saudi Arabia and it could order Hezbollah to fire 150,000 rockets and missiles at Israel.
In response, the United States would do . . . what?
... we’ll know when the US is about to attack Iran not when it sends its aircraft carriers to, but when it withdraws them from, the Gulf. Aircraft carriers are very effective platforms for force projection against countries that don’t have advanced anti-ship defense capabilities (Libya, Syria). But it’s an open secret that advanced anti-ship missiles (ASMs) of the type made by Russia and China—including ballistic, anti-radiation, submarine-launched, and super- or hypersonic—can quickly turn the aircraft carrier into a very big floating coffin. Unlike Libya or Syria, Iran has obtained or locally produced versions of all but fully hypersonic ASMs, and can launch them from the air, from mobile carriers, from submarines, and from a ring of concealed and hardened sites around the Persian Gulf and the narrow Strait of Hormuz—confined sea quarters where a Nimitz-class carrier is, indeed, a very big and close target...

And we haven’t even mentioned what happens if Iran or, as Boot evokes, its Hezbollah ally, rains missiles on Tel Aviv, causing serious damage and casualties. My bet on that hand is that Israel takes the opportunity it’s been looking for to nuke Tehran or Qom, establishing its ruthless and irreversible hyper-dominance of the region for once and for all...

What would help the most to deter the calamity is if more Americans understand, along with Iran (and Israel) what the object of the game really is, and make clear they don’t want to play it. That requires that enough Americans, among the populace and the decision makers—especially the military decision makers—drop the ideology of invincibility and exceptionalism, see and warn of the real dangers, and just say “No!”

That may be happening. This unprecedented episode where the President orders a military attack and then very publicly calls it off at the last minute may indicate that there’s some serious re-thinking going on. WaPo tells us that “The decision has divided his top advisers, with senior Pentagon officials opposing the decision to strike and national security adviser John Bolton strongly supporting it.”

Which is more plausible: That Trump was absolutely certain the U-S-of-A could “obliterate” Iran, and only called off the strike because he was repelled by the idea of killing 150 people? Or that someone among those foreign or domestic influencers who had actual, dispassionate knowledge of the forces arrayed, and who did care about watery graves and burning cities and oil fields, had the courage to say: “Do this, and we are fucked.”?
Apologies to the author for such a long excerpt.  There's more at Counterpunch.  And a tip of the hat to the reader who alerted me to this essay.

I'll close the comments because right now I wouldn't have time to curate them.

Reposted  from last month to add more information.  Vox has a longread about what a US-Iran war would look like.  Some excerpts:
The US military would bomb Iranian ships, parked warplanes, missile sites, nuclear facilities, and training grounds, as well as launch cyberattacks on much of the country’s military infrastructure. The goal would be to degrade Iran’s conventional forces within the first few days and weeks, making it even harder for Tehran to resist American strength.

That plan definitely makes sense as an opening salvo, experts say, but it will come nowhere close to winning the war...

There’s another risk: A 2002 war game showed that Iran could sink an American ship and kill US sailors, even though the US Navy is far more powerful. If the Islamic Republic’s forces succeeded in doing that, it could provide a searing image that could serve as a propaganda coup for the Iranians. Washington won’t garner the same amount of enthusiasm for destroying Iranian warships — that’s what’s supposed to happen...

The riskiest one — by far — would be to invade Iran. The logistics alone boggle the mind, and any attempt to try it would be seen from miles away. “There’s no surprise invasion of Iran..."

Iran has nearly three times the amount of people Iraq did in 2003, when the war began, and is about three and a half times as big. In fact, it’s the world’s 17th-largest country, with territory greater than France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, and Portugal combined. 

The geography is also treacherous. It has small mountain ranges along some of its borders. Entering from the Afghanistan side in the east would mean traversing two deserts. Trying to get in from the west could also prove difficult even with Turkey — a NATO ally — as a bordering nation. After all, Ankara wouldn’t let the US use Turkey to invade Iraq, and its relations with Washington have only soured since...

It’s for these reasons that the private intelligence firm Stratfor called Iran a “fortress” back in 2011. If Trump chose to launch an incursion, he’d likely need around 1.6 million troops to take control of the capital and country, a force so big it would overwhelm America’s ability to host them in regional bases. By contrast, America never had more than 180,000 service members in Iraq...

Tehran can’t match Washington’s firepower. But it can spread chaos in the Middle East and around the world, hoping that a war-weary US public, an intervention-skeptical president, and an angered international community cause America to stand down...

Iran’s vast network of proxies and elite units — like the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps — could be activated to kill American troops, diplomats, and citizens throughout the region. US troops in Syria are poorly defended and have little support, making them easy targets, experts say. America also has thousands of civilians, troops, and contractors in Iraq, many of whom work in areas near where Iranian militias operate within the country...

But that’s not all. Iran could encourage terrorist organizations or other proxies to strike inside Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other Gulf nations. Its support for Houthis rebels in Yemen would mostly certainly increase, offering them more weapons and funds to attack Saudi Arabia’s airports, military bases, and energy plants...

Experts note that the Islamic Republic surely has sleeper cells in Europe and Latin America, and they could resurface in dramatic and violent ways...

The chaos would also extend into the cyber realm. Iran is a major threat to the US in cyberspace. Starting in 2011, Iran attacked more than 40 American banks, including JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America. The attack made it so the banks had trouble serving its customers and customers had trouble using the bank’s services. 

In 2012, Iran released malware into the networks of Saudi Aramco, a major oil company, which erased documents, emails, and other files on around 75 percent of the company’s computers — replacing them with an image of a burning American flag...

...what comes after the war could be worse than the war itself. It should therefore not be lost on anyone: A US-Iran war would be a bloody hell during and after the fighting. It’s a good thing neither Trump nor Iran’s leadership currently wants a conflict. But if they change their minds, only carnage follows.
I leave the Comments section closed.

Ownership of voting machine makers claimed to be a "trade secret"

From techdirt:
Recently, the North Carolina State Board of Elections asked suppliers of electronic voting machines a simple question: who owns you?..

This seems like very basic information -- information the Board should know and should be able to pass on to the general public. After all, these are the makers of devices used by the public while electing their representatives. They should know who's running these companies and who their majority stakeholders are. If something goes wrong (and something always does), they should know who's ultimately responsible for the latest debacle.

It's not like the state was asking the manufacturers to cough up code and machine schematics. All it wanted to know is the people behind the company nameplates. But the responses the board received indicate voting system manufacturers believe releasing any info about their companies' compositions will somehow compromise their market advantage.
Hart InterCivic, a corporation that derives independent actual value from this information not being generally known or readily ascertainable and makes reasonable efforts to maintain the secrecy of this information, requests that it be designated as a trade secret pursuant to G.S. § 132-1.2(1)d. and G.S. § 66-152(3).
One of ES&S's subsidiaries (and there are at least 39 of those) -- Meritage Homes Corp. -- shuffled some securities ownership the same day the North Carolina election board asked it to provide information about the company's ownership. Maybe it's a coincidence. Or maybe ES&S was offloading a politically-inconvenient owner. Whatever the case is, it certainly doesn't look good. 
More at the link, via BoingBoing.  Informed discussion at the Technology subreddit.

Cartoon from XKCD.

"Where's the paper?"

When I went to my doctor's office yesterday for my annual checkup, I noticed a change in the decor.  And an explanatory sign on the wall.

What's wrong with people these days?

This isn't the ice-cream-licking.  This is licking a tongue depressor.

The girl is ten years old - not a toddler or infant.  When the mother posted the video online, she captioned it "Don't tell me how to run my life."  And in the interview she says "I really didn't think anything of it."

For fox ache.

" ...months-long back-to-school shopping season..."

I've seen that phrase several times this past week, but I can't wrap my mind around the concept of back-to-school shopping lasting for months.  When I was young, preparation for school consisted of one trip to Dayton's for clothes and one stop somewhere else for school supplies.  Over and done with.

I suppose the phrase exists because nationwide the shopping is spread over months, not that it lasts for months for each shopper, but I find vaguely annoying the duration and extent to which marketers relentlessly push their products. 

I'm becoming a grouchy old man.  Get off my lawn.

10 July 2019

Not an elephant

An overflowing cupcake - "both the blowout and the dark color on top can signal an oven that was too hot. Or maybe the cakes were too close to the top element? Too hot and the cake will form a crust too early in the bake, not allowing for an even rise. Instead the rising batter will find the path of least resistance and force itself the heck outta there."

Stromboli erupted last week

Tide pools at Juan de Fuca Provincial Park, Vancouver

I agree with the discussion at pics that these are probably "kettles", formed from wave action moving the entrapped rocks.

Photocredit @tomparkr, via.

Preserves, jam, butter, jelly

Via the MildlyInteresting subreddit.

Arguments in favor of "Panspermia"

Excerpts from a column at The New Yorker:
I spoke by phone with Gary Ruvkun, a molecular biologist and professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School. Ruvkun has what he admits are somewhat unusual opinions about life’s origins, and about the possibility of finding life elsewhere. In short, he questions the common assumption that our form of DNA-based life began on Earth...
Looking for methane is a good method to indirectly look for life. The problem is, there are chemical ways to make methane as well. It is not a perfect surrogate for life...  My favorite way to look for life is to go to a planet and look for DNA. And that assumes that life on another planet would be exactly like life here, which is not how most astrobiologists think about things...

I find the idea aesthetically appealing that life as we know it is universal across the Milky Way. It just seems like, once it evolves, it spreads... That life didn’t start here. It just landed here. That it came from somewhere else. And a lot of people complain about that. They say, “Well, then you’re just putting the problem of origin of life somewhere else.” Which is true...

See, the thing is, if you look in the fossil record, where’s the first evidence of life? Well, you can see evidence of bacterial life, things that look like bacteria, the things that are called stromatolites, which are a kind of blue-green algae bacteria that live in colonies. Those things form good fossils, and you can see those about three and a half billion years ago... They were super highly evolved, and I think they got here as soon as the Earth cooled, and they just started growing. And they’ve been spreading across the Milky Way and maybe the whole universe...
For background reading - the Wikipedia page on panspermia.

Posted last year: Panspermia and the Cambrian explosion.

And if you wonder about interplanetary transport... This rock found on the moon originated on earth.

Analyzing one scene from "Forrest Gump"

I enjoy finding movie DVDs with commentary tracks by directors and technical staff that explain how scenes were created.

Legal child labor in the United States

Excerpts from a longread at Pacific Standard:
"It's perfectly legal for children at the age of 12 to work unlimited hours on a farm of any size as long as they don't miss school and they have their parents' permission," says Margaret Wurth, senior researcher in the Children's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. The federal minimum age for work in most industries is 14; in agriculture, it's often 12. But in many cases, children of any age can work. "There's actually no minimum age for children to work on their own family's farm." This variance is allowable because agriculture is largely exempt from the U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act, which establishes national requirements for wages, overtime pay, and youth employment...

The U.S. is distinctive when it comes to child labor in agriculture. Wurth has done much of her research in Brazil, Indonesia, and Zimbabwe, and has found significant differences. "What distinguishes the U.S. from all of these countries is just how weak the law is," she says. "None of these other countries allow children legally at the age of 12 to work as hired workers on farms.... It's kind of unbelievable that, in 2019, that's the status of our child labor laws when it comes to farming."
I will just note in passing that to put this in context, in the 1920s my mother was a pre-teenager driving a pair of horses to cross-cultivate a cornfield when she was so small that "it looked like a big straw hat was sitting on the cultivator."  All of her brothers and sisters helped work the farm, and at  harvest time the local one-room schoolhouse was closed so that all the children could work.

A nice example of high-quality "deepfake" technology

Almost every reader here will be familiar with this scene from The Shining.  And with the face of Jim Carrey.  Deepfake technology replaces Jack Nicholson's face with that of Jim Carrey.

Expect to see lots of this during the upcoming election year.  And forever thereafter.

Via BoingBoing.

Putting the "fun" back in "funeral"

Excerpts from a lengthly report at The Awl:
The funeral industry is in the midst of a transition of titanic proportions. America is secularizing at a rapid pace, with almost 25% of the country describing itself as un-church. Americans, embracing a less religious view of the afterlife, are now asking for a "spiritual" funeral instead of a religious one. And cremation numbers are up. Way up... The rate of cremation has skyrocketed as Americans back away from the idea that Jesus will be resurrecting them straight from the grave... Reflecting this trend, this year's NFDA conference was, for the first time in its history, held jointly with the Cremation Association of North America (CANA)...

As one former funeral director said, “If the family wanted a cremation, we’d say ‘That’ll be $595,’ hand them the urn and show them the door. Not anymore though.” The industry is scrambling to find a way to add value-added cremation services to remain solvent...

The minister, God’s shepherd, was on hand to see the soul to heaven. But in a society that has grown suspicious and distant from religion, this no longer is sufficient. Now it's up to the funeral directors to provide that sense of authenticity, of closure, a way to deal with the impossibility of understanding death. The presenter continued with a slideshow of forward-looking funeral homes: huge windows with sunlight streaming in, glossy ceramic tables holding both the urn and catered health food—they looked not unlike high-end yoga studios...

To compensate for the relative cheapness of cremation, funeral directors have begun adding a series of value-added services, from a string orchestra, to webcasting for distant family and friends, to a remembrance “rose-petal” ceremony for young attendees...

Eventually, I reached the cosmetics section of the trade floor. Makeup, meant for corpses, was being applied by airbrush to a (still-living) elderly woman. She sat there on a stool, still and frail-seeming, eyes closed in the manner of anyone getting a makeover, as the presenter sprayed her with the makeup. No one seemed to consider this odd or in poor taste. Why would they?..

The coffins took up the next section of the floor... And of course there were the Major League Baseball caskets, so a Cubs fan can spend eternity celebrating that personal hell...

 Much more at The Awl.

Reposted from 2012 to add the photo at the top (I like his idea.  Too bad I don't plan to have a funeral)>

So, what's the deal with this clock?

At the Facepalm subreddit, the top comment was that the clock was upside down (followed by a long discussion of having a diapered toddler in an all-white room).

What bothered me was that if the clockface were rotated to place the XII at the top, all the Vs would be upside down.  Perhaps the artist had adopted a sundial face for a wall clock?  Strange.

Scrolling down, I found a comment that maybe the hour hand is fixed and the ring of numbers rotate.  I don't know.  Time to move on.  Perhaps one of you can figure this out.

Addendum:  My question answered in the Comment section.   Hat tip to reader smittypap.

06 July 2019

Divertimento #165

"They’re called nurdles, and they’re the preproduction building blocks for nearly all plastic goods, from soft-drink bottles to oil pipelines. But as essential as they are for consumer products, nurdles that become lost during transit or manufacturing are also an environmental hazard. In the ocean and along coastal waterways, they absorb toxic chemicals and are often mistaken for food by animals. They also wash up by the millions on beaches, leaving coastal communities to deal with the ramifications."

"...scientists analyzed DNA to prove the existence of what might be the most fantastic hybrid of them all. They call it a narluga — the mash-up offspring of a beluga whale and a narwhal, the “unicorn of the sea.”

"The blockage was eventually cleared, but not before it created what one affected resident described as a “tornado of poop” in her bathroom, after raw sewage exploded from her toilet and immediately rendered her home completely uninhabitable."

"Because we're not morons."  A bumper sticker for the upcoming election proclaims your preference for "The Democrat 2020."

Striking photo of the face of an Ethiopian boy with Waardenburg Syndrome.

Giant wedding cake created at a cost of $50.

"The iron in 16 Psyche [asteroid] alone is estimated to be worth $10,000 quadrillion, if humans were able to somehow extract it and bring it to Earth, which sounds great, until you realize that the entire global economy is only worth $78 trillion. Injecting that much worth into the world economy would crash it, in a totally different kind of asteroid impact than most people think about."  (That of course doesn't make sense in economic terms, but it's an interesting concept to play with.)

The transition from a cash to a digital economy is wreaking havoc with strippers and lap-dancers.

"Just a few weeks before I arrived, he entered Nastasen’s tomb for the first time, swimming through the first chamber, then a second, then into a third and final room, where, beneath several feet of water, he saw what looked like a royal sarcophagus. The stone coffin appeared to be unopened and undisturbed."  From an awesome photoessay at National Geographic about Nubian tombs.

There is only one current national flag in the world that does not feature any of the colours red, white, or blue.

"After 6-Year Battle, Florida Couple Wins The Right To Plant Veggies In Front Yard."

"David Gilmour [Pink Floyd] auctioned off his guitars, including the black Fender Stratocaster that helped create Dark Side of the Moon and Shine On You Crazy Diamond. He said goodbye to the 12-string Martin behind Wish You Were Here. In all, he raised $21.5 million—that’s right, $21.5 million. He gave the proceeds from the most valuable auction of musical instruments in history to a nonprofit that fights climate change.

"Twenty-one oat-based cereal and snack products popular with children contain traces of glyphosate, the active ingredient in the weed killer Roundup, according to tests from the Environmental Working Group. EWG said the tests found glyphosate levels above what it considers safe for children in all but four of the products."

A subreddit devoted to jarrariums (lots of interesting photos).

The Atlantic asks people "what lost treasure would you most like to find?"

"Several states have passed — and many others have considered — so-called “ag gag” laws, which criminalize the undercover investigations that reveal abuses on farms. Legislators have been forthright about their motives too. They’re worried that evidence of what goes on on these farms will outrage Americans — so they want to ban it."

"According to the Times, Wall Street donors opening their wallets for the 2020 race are attracted to Biden's "ideological moderation," Buttigieg's "charisma and intellect," and Harris's "potential as a possible primary victor even as she now trails in the polls."... "It can't be Warren and it can't be Sanders," the CEO of a big bank anonymously told Politico."

"The Reason Chicago is Called "The Windy City" Has Nothing to Do With Wind"

A child underwent intrauterine (fetoscopic) surgery to correct spina bifida before he was born.

The word "blog" was invented 20 years ago. (TYWKIWDBI was born 12 years ago)

"The cost of holding migrant children who have been separated from their parents in newly created "tent cities" is $775 per person per night, according to an official at the Department of Health and Human Services — far higher than the cost of keeping children with their parents in detention centers or holding them in more permanent buildings."

A detailed analysis of the Perpetual Diamond optical illusion, with truly awesome gifs.  Visit this link even if you normally don't like optical illusions.

Therapy dogs are becoming more common in funeral homes.

"This phenomenon is known as overtourism, and like breakfast margaritas on an all-inclusive cruise, it is suddenly everywhere. A confluence of macroeconomic factors and changing business trends have led more tourists crowding to popular destinations. That has led to environmental degradation, dangerous conditions, and the immiseration and pricing-out of locals in many places. And it has cities around the world asking one question: Is there anything to be done about being too popular?"

"Veronica Belmont, a product manager at Adobe Spark, was riding the train down to Silicon Valley, doing some work on her phone, when dozens of teenagers plopped down into the seats around her. Within moments, her phone began blowing up. She received an AirDrop request containing an image of several boys’ Bitmoji characters dressed in chicken suits. A group of them snickered as she opened it and looked around. Belmont was confused. “I was like, I don’t know what this means!” she told me.
Anyone who has accidentally left their AirDrop settings open around a group of teens is likely familiar with the deluge of memes, selfies, and notes that arrives so quickly it can often freeze your phone... AirDrop culture has gone mainstream—and more adults are getting caught in the crossfire."

India may be teetering on the brink of increased ethnic and religious turmoil.

"It's time to break that cycle by fixing the root cause: the misuse of Social Security numbers as proof of identity by financial institutions, insurance companies, landlords, health care providers and just about everyone else. Congress can cure this addiction with a drastic remedy: directing the Social Security Administration to publish all active Social Security numbers five years from today, rendering them useless as authenticators while providing time for the industry to implement a secure authentication alternative. Congress could also choose to adopt privacy regulations that either incentivize strong security practices or punish negligent behavior.  Social Security numbers were never intended to be kept secret.

Data from the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) indicates that more than 31,000 people were treated in hospitals for umbrella-related injuries between 2008 and 2017.

A graduation cake purchased at Walmart was made out of styrofoam.

"So, early and late in his career, Shakespeare worked with other playwrights. In the middle, other playwrights seem to have worked with him, or at least worked on his scripts. The playwright Thomas Middleton had a hand in Macbeth, probably in Timon of Athens, and likely in both Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well. No doubt there are other collaborations in the Shakespeare canon. That’s the way plays were composed."

"The severed head of the world’s first full-sized Pleistocene wolf was unearthed in the Abyisky district in the north of Yakutia. " (photo at the link)

"Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Louisiana State University confirmed Bradley’s worst fears in forecasts published Monday, predicting this spring’s record rainfall would produce one of the largest-ever “dead zones” in the Gulf of Mexico. An area the size of New Jersey could become almost entirely barren this summer, posing a threat to marine species — and the fishermen who depend on them."

"The unusual death of a woman’s dog in Virginia has sparked outcry and a debate over whether it is ok to kill a healthy pet and bury it with its owner according to their dying wish. Emma, a shih tzu mix, was euthanised and cremated in March as per its owner’s will. The dog was put down despite the efforts of animal shelter workers who spent two weeks trying to talk the executor of the woman’s estate out of the plan.

"Plans to redraw the [$20 bill], replacing the slaveholding president Andrew Jackson with the abolitionist leader, are being put off until at least 2026, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced Wednesday."

This video shows how artificial intelligence can animate heads and faces from still images.

"Baseball’s timeless appeal is predicated upon an equilibrium between pitching and hitting, and in the past, when that equilibrium has been thrown off, the game has always managed, either organically or through small tweaks, to return to an acceptable balance. But there is growing evidence that essential equilibrium has been distorted by the increasing number of pitchers able to throw the ball harder and faster. Rising pitch velocity has altered the sport, many believe, and not necessarily in a good way... The 2018 season was the first in history in which strikeouts outpaced hits, a trend that has accelerated so far in 2019. The ball is in play less than ever, with a record 35.4 percent of plate appearances in 2019 resulting in a strikeout, walk or home run."

A good BBC read about decluttering one's life.

"The results reveal these individuals were part of a previously unknown yet widespread group, dubbed the Ancient North Siberians by the team, who were genetically distinct from both Western Eurasians and East Asians... the population that became the ancestors of native North Americans was the result of liaisons about 20,000 years ago between East Asians, who travelled north, and a group distantly related to the Ancient Northern Siberians."

"The Attorney General who ordered Chelsea Manning back to prison for refusing to comply with a subpoena... is refusing to comply with a subpoena."

A zoomable map of the United States "where city names are replaced by their most Wikipedia’ed resident: people born in, lived in, or connected to a place."

"Old houses in Ireland often have horse skulls buried beneath the floors, but folklorists and archaeologists disagree on exactly why."

Putting the fun back in funerals.  "At my funeral take the bouquet off the casket and throw it into the crowd to see who next."

This week MAD magazine announced that it is ceasing publication after 67 years.  The embedded images are some of my favorite covers from my collection of 1960s-era issues, which I'm in the process of selling on eBay.

"Who cooks for YOU?"

Discussed at Human Parts.

05 July 2019

Thoughts upon rereading T. S. Eliot's "Four Quartets"

I recently found on my bookshelf a half-century-old copy of T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets.  I must have purchased it during or shortly after my years as a collegiate English major.  I had read it, deemed it a "keeper," placed it on a bookshelf, and then it had accompanied me through various moves to new cities and careers. 

As I looked at the cover, I realized there was only one passage that I could remember from the entire book:
"We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time."
                                 (Little Gidding)
I decided it was time to give the book a "goodbye read" and donate it to the library.  Almost immediately (at the start of Burnt Norton) I found another memorable passage:
"Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past,
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable."
But what did it mean?  It's lyrical and clever - but I can't grasp the concept.

I kept reading, finding some interesting turns of phrase in Burnt Norton -
"... human kind
Cannot bear very much reality." 
- and in East Coker:
"... There is, it seems to us,
At best, only a limited value
In the knowledge derived from experience.
The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies,
For the pattern is new in every moment..."
In this short work there was an abundance of unfamiliar and undoubtedly interesting words: suspire, behovely, sempiternal, chthonic, sortilege, scry, haruspicate, ineffable, appetency, tumid, periphrastic, hebetude, grimpen.  I'll need to look those up later (grimpen has an obvious connection to a certain Sherlockian mire).

By the time I finished the book, I realized Four Quartets is no longer "accessible" to me.  I can't consider myself successful to finish a book and wind up with just a handful of harvested quotes and interesting words if I don't also have a sense of what in the world I just finished reading.  This book took Eliot years to write and was meticulously crafted to encompass some of his deepest thoughts about religion and the "meaning of life."  But I can't for the life of me extract any of that for my own use.

It's not that I dislike T. S. Eliot.  I love Prufrock (see Spooning - and Prufrock - updated and Prufrock in cartoon format), and I fully intend to give The Waste Land (April is the cruellest month... Hurry up, please, its time...) a goodbye read.  But I expect it will be more of a dutiful read rather than an eager one.

And if T. S. Eliot is now beyond my ken, do I have the energy to read through The Canterbury Tales again?  Or Lord Byron's Don Juan, or Milton's Paradise Lost?  I consumed them eagerly as an undergraduate, secure in the knowledge that I was reading classic, perhaps immortal, literature and sharing an experience with dozens of generations of other readers worldwide.  If I had any hopes back then that I would be sitting with friends in my retirement to argue whether Byron's incestuous relationship with his half-sister Augusta Leigh influenced his writing of Don Juan, or to what extent Milton's blindness is reflected in his works, those hopes have long since faded.  Nowadays when I reach for something to read, my hand will bring down from the shelf something less challenging.

Image cropped for size from the original at Genius.

"The Reason Why" (Cecil Woodham-Smith, 1953)

Another book I saved from 15 years ago to reread "someday."  And well worth doing so, because it is a fascinating and well-written book.

"Some one had blunder'd   
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die: 
Into the valley of Death  
Rode the six hundred."   
                    --- Alfred, Lord Tennyson

The passage above is basically all that I knew about the Battle of Balaclava in the Crimean War.   This book filled in the missing details.

The opening chapters present a devastating takedown of British command and control at the time of the Crimean War, thoroughly castigating the commanding officers for their utter lack of judgement.  She provides a surprisingly lucid discussion of the longstanding but outdated logic behind allowing commanding officers to buy their positions rather than qualify for them (basically a British fear that a powerful military might subvert the government and it would be better to have "quality" officers with a stake in the future of the country).  It had been seventeen years since Lord Lucan, for example, had managed a regiment, even on a parade ground, and the verbal orders had changed; he didn't know the new ones and required his cavalry to relearn the old ones.

In addition to battlefield ineptitude, the aristocratic military leadership showed a abysmal lack of understanding of logistics.  The British fleet sailed into the Black Sea to a hotbed of cholera with no preparations for such.
"Men who died of cholera were flung into the sea with weights at their feet, but the weights were too light; as the bodies decomposed they rose to the surface, the weights kept them upright, and they floated head and shoulders out of the water, hideous in the sun."
Men were packed into transport ships way too small, with no sanitary facilities.  Four thousand baggage animals were left behind (and starved to death), so the men had to transport their own tents and supplies to the battlefields.  There had been no reconnaissance of the battle sites; command was attempted from hilltops that had a half-an-hour lag time for transmission of messages to the battlefield by aide-de-camps.

The actual "charge of the light brigade" is presented in a chapter or two near the end. The charge was made toward a battery of cannons, with additional cannon fire from both flanks, as Tennyson described:
Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley'd & thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot & shell,
Boldly they rode & well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.
And when they were forced to retreat...
Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them...
Bruce Catton said of this book "Here is battle writing as good as the best."

I'll close with one caveat: the book will be difficult reading for anyone with a proper respect for horses.  Transport from England to Crimea was on ships not suited for horses, with inadequate restraints and supports ("only head ropes") resulting in a grievous morbidity and mortality in high seas; 43 horses on one side of the ship's hold would be dashed against their mangers and against the 43 on the other side "and this occurred every five minutes during the night."  Upon arrival there was inadequate grain for feed in the Black Sea ports.  At the battlefield...
"On Saturday, November 11, the horses had one handful of barley each as their day's food and the same the next day.  They were standing knee-deep in mud, with the bitter Crimean wind cutting their emaciated bodies.  They ate their straps, saddle flaps, and blankets, and gnawed each other's tails to stumps.  An order  had been issued that no horse was to be destroyed except for a broken limb or glanders, and horses, dying of starvation, lay in the mud in their death agony for three days, while no one dared shoot them."
I'll stop now and move on to some interesting words:
"He was very handsome, so handsome that it was feared his good looks would turn him into a coxcomb, and very gay, "the gayest of gay gallants," a contemporary calls him."  Or "cocks-comb," derived from the name of a cap worn by licensed professional fools.

"Parliament has never sought to attract to the command of the army men dependent on their pay... it was laid down that "the pay of an officer is an honorarium, not a merces..."  Pay, wages, from merx (related to merchandise, and of course mercenary).

"Though the 15th was a notably efficient regiment, the new commanding officer viewed it with disgust.  He demanded more glitter, more dash, and he set to work to drill, polish, pipeclay, reprimand, and discipline the 15th to within an inch of their lives."  A fine white clay used to make pipes, but in this sense, used to whiten leather.

"... a young officer of the Hussars who joined his regiment with a stud of blood-horses, three grooms, and two carriages, one of which carried his plate and linen."  From Old English stod ("herd of horses"), also obviously applied to horses individually and to the breeding process.
This book is the result of monumental research on Cecil Woodham-Smith's part.  She delved not only into public records and Parliamentary documents, but also into the private correspondence of the officers involved and their families.  There is frankly TMI to try to consume this in detail, but it can be skimmed to select out the best parts.

After finishing this reread, I've marked the author's other books for future reading.  She wrote an award-winning biography of Florence Nightingale, a biography of the early life of Queen Victoria, and more notably The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-1849 about the "Celtic Holocaust" of the potato famine.

04 July 2019

Empowering amputees

The photo above (titled "Lost to cancer two years ago and still fighting multiple relapses. But very proud of how far I've come!") caused me to stop to ponder how different life is for modern amputees compared to just a generation or two ago.

The most famous advocate for leg amputees is Aimee Mullins, a double amputee since age one who went on to compete in NCAA division I track and field.   She presented this TED talk:

As she notes in the talk, she an wear a "blade" for athletics or choose from a variety of stylish or exotic legs, and adjust her height to whatever level she wants to be for the occasion.

Partition, 1947

The brief video above is one of several media presentations I've encountered in recent months discussing the 1947 partition of India (and creation of Pakistan and Bangladesh).  There was an excellent two-part podcast presented by the BBC in its series "The Documentary" (it might have been this one, but I can't access it right now).  Partition was also portrayed dramatically in the closing parts of the 1982 movie Gandhi.

This single event, responsible for so much social unrest in the subcontinent today, is I think not well covered in the American educational system.  I thought I had received a broad-based education, but I didn't know anything about the events of 1947 until I began working with colleagues and students from the subcontinent in the 1970s.  The video above is pretty good summary for TL;DR people.

This is a quintessentially American headline

Spotted in the Chicago Tribune

Pear trees as an invasive species

In the 1960s, America fell in love with a new tree: the Bradford pear. Cultivated from Asian stock by scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Bradford pears display clouds of pretty blossoms in the spring and garnet leaves in the fall, and are hardy enough to grow just about anywhere. Thinking they had found the perfect ornamental tree, homeowners and public-works departments planted Bradford pears up and down the nation’s streets for decades, especially in the East, South, and Midwest.

Then the relationship soured. Bradfords are apt to split and break during storms, and they have a short life span, only 15 or 20 years. Although they are technically sterile, the trees cross-pollinate with other cultivars of the Callery pear species (Pyrus calleryana), producing fruit that splats all over sidewalks. And despite their delicate appearance, the blossoms emit a foul odor that’s been compared to rotting fish (among other things).

Once admired for its hardiness, the Bradford pear is now considered an invasive species, which grows even in poor conditions, proliferates fast—thanks to birds that dine on its fruit and spread the seeds—and crowds out native species...

Last year, the state of Ohio banned the sale or distribution of Callery pears, effective in 2023. The Indiana Natural Resources Commission has suggested it will add Pyrus calleryana to its list of banned invasive species in the future. In South Carolina, state foresters are asking property owners to remove Bradford pears. “We are saying cut them down when possible,’’ a forestry commission spokesperson told The State in March. “It is just generally a nuisance tree.’’

But deep taproots make the trees hard to eradicate, and rising temperatures are only furthering their reach. Previously, the pears’ intolerance of cold stopped them from moving very far north in the United States. Now climate change is causing growing zones to shift.

“The Callery pear never used to be in Wisconsin. In recent years, we’ve seen it spreading within Madison,” Culley said. “It’s been having a little trouble getting outside of Madison—at least that’s what I’ve heard. But we’re expecting it will slowly start to spread out from there.”
You learn something every day.
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