07 June 2023

Two Milky Ways

The photo is an entry in the 2023 Milky Way Photographer of the Year competition.  Photographer Mihail Minkov explains:
I’ve always wondered what the night sky would look like if we could see the two Milky Way arches from the winter and summer side by side. This is practically impossible, since they are part of a whole and are visible at different times of the day.

However, this 360-degree time-blended panorama shows us what they would look like. The two arches of the Milky Way represent one object in the starry sky, with part of it visible in winter and part of it in summer. Therefore, they are called the winter and summer arches. The winter arch includes objects that we can observe from October to March, primarily associated with the constellation Orion.

On the other hand, the summer arch features the Milky Way core, visible from March to September, which is the most characteristic and luminous part of the night sky, representing the center of our galaxy.
Several other awesome images at the link, via Kottke.

I'm on vacation for the next week

Family activities, graduations and reunions take precedence every June, so after the final photo-at-the-top-of-the-page post, I'm going to stop for about a week.  

I'll use this opportunity to remind everyone that while I'm gone you can browse the archive of 18,348 old posts linked in the right sidebar, sorted by topic.  Or you can get a life, as I'm trying to do...

06 June 2023

Platform 9 3/4 optical illusion

Other examples of the Best Illusions of 2023 are embedded at Kottke, along with a link to all the competition winners. 

An absolutely amazing crossword construction

There are various ways in which crossword puzzles can be interesting - sometimes from the content, sometimes from the construction.  I remember one NYT crossword in which the constructor was able to incorporate the letter "Z" 40 times in the grid.  The most wickedly fiendish clue I've seen was "Line just before a comma" (7) [answer in the Comments].

The puzzle partially embedded above is from the New York Times on June 6, 2023.  The unique construction aspect will not be apparent from the blank grid, and was not evident to me after completing the puzzle - until I read the commentary at this link.  Awesome.  My cruciverbalist hat is off to Daniel Jaret, the constructor.

05 June 2023

A film made using artificial intelligence

A reedy voice-over—from an A.I.-generated vocal model, trained on Harry Dean Stanton’s monologue from the film “Paris, Texas”—reads a script written by Trillo, a voice mail on an answering machine, mourning the loss of possibilities and memories, perhaps of the ruins of a relationship...

To make the clips, Trillo first generated still images that suggested the scenes he had in mind using the A.I. tool Stable Diffusion... in seconds, it was possible to render, for example, a tracking shot of a woman crying alone in a softly lit restaurant. His prompt included a hash of S.E.O.-esque terms meant to goad the machine into creating a particularly cinematic aesthetic: “Moody lighting, iconic, visually stunning, immersive, impactful.” ..

It doesn’t matter that the scenes don’t look perfectly real; their oneiric [pertaining to dreams] quality makes them all the more haunting, doubling the plaintiveness of the voice-over. Photorealism wouldn’t match the material, though the film comes close enough to be briefly mistaken for real...

The phrase “A.I.-generated film” is something of a misnomer. In Trillo’s case, the director wrote a script, assembled a visual aesthetic, determined which scenes to create, selected from Runway’s results, and then edited the clips into a threaded, thematically coherent finished product. Generative tools supplied the media—voice, faces, scenery, and animation—but the human creative element is still present in every step of the process
Text from The New Yorker, via Kottke.

American life expectancy is falling

And not just because of the coronavirus:
Plotting life expectancy in the United States against that of other wealthy countries reveals three dark insights: Our life spans lag behind those of our peers; our life expectancy was already more or less flat, not growing; and most other countries bounced back from covid-19 in the second year of the pandemic, while we went into further decline...

Unless the country changes course, and soon, the structural conditions responsible for the shorter lives and poorer health of Americans will continue to claim lives and weaken the country. It is not just the old who pay the price. Young and middle-aged Americans are now more likely to die in the prime of their lives, devastating families and communities and taking a hard toll on our economic productivity. Even more disturbing, in a change never recorded in the past century, the probability that children and adolescents will live to age 20 is now decreasing.
The reasons for the decline are discussed at The Washington Post.

An interesting medical case

Excerpts from a longread at The Washington Post:
Before she became a patient, April had been an outgoing, straight-A student majoring in accounting at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. But after a traumatic event when she was 21, April suddenly developed psychosis and became lost in a constant state of visual and auditory hallucinations. The former high school valedictorian could no longer communicate, bathe or take care of herself...

Markx and his colleagues discovered that although April’s illness was clinically indistinguishable from schizophrenia, she also had lupus, an underlying and treatable autoimmune condition that was attacking her brain.  After months of targeted treatments — and more than two decades trapped in her mind — April woke up.

April had undergone many courses of treatment — antipsychotics, mood stabilizers and electroconvulsive therapy — all to no avail... Even though April had all the clinical signs of schizophrenia, the team believed that the underlying cause was lupus, a complex autoimmune disorder in which the immune system turns on its own body, producing many antibodies that attack the skin, joints, kidneys or other organs. But April’s symptoms weren’t typical, and there were no obvious external signs of the disease; the lupus appeared to be affecting only her brain...

As part of a standard cognitive test known as the Montreal Cognitive Assessment (MoCA), she was asked to draw a clock — a common way to assess cognitive impairment. Before the treatment, she tested at the level of a dementia patient, drawing indecipherable scribbles.  But within the first two rounds of treatment, she was able to draw half a clock — as if one half of her brain was coming back online, Markx said.  Following the third round of treatment a month later, the clock looked almost perfect...

While it is likely that only a subset of people diagnosed with schizophrenia and psychotic disorders have an underlying autoimmune condition, Markx and other doctors believe there are probably many more patients whose psychiatric conditions are caused or exacerbated by autoimmune issues.
I find this to be absolutely fascinating.  I also wonder how many other "schizophrenics" could be treated with immunosuppressive regimens.

Grape jelly can kill hummingbirds

As reported by the Raptor Education group, via Bring Me The News:
During the past few years providing grape jelly to orioles has become a popular alternative to the traditional orange slices/halves. Grape Jelly was a convenient energy food as it is a “semi solid” substance even in colder temperatures and easy to keep contained in a bowl. It provides a quick source of energy during migration. But then…for whatever reason, the use of jelly, the stuff we’ve always understood to be sticky, even as it covers the faces and clothing of our own children, bypassed logical use, and morphed into a multi-species, year-round jelly feeding frenzied fad. A problem in hot weather is jelly “melts i.e. liquifies” somewhat and therefore more available to adhere to the birds body, feet and feathers. Some people added water to the jelly and began serving it in larger bowls. This fad occurred even within the birding community. Businesses became involved, developing new types of jelly feeders and bird specific jelly.  A photo that became my own personal nightmare was on a birding site recently. It was of an adult Baltimore Oriole perched on “jelly feeders” and feeding the jelly to their own babies. That behavior is outside the natural history of this species and causes more questions about changes that may be happening due to a high sugar diet. Orange halves are a healthier and more safe way to provide a high energy food. 

02 June 2023

Math puzzle for you

A group of "space Marines" are returning from defending our planet against carnivorous alien invaders.  79 per cent of the Marines have lost an arm, 84 per cent have lost a leg, 76 per cent have lost an ear, and 71 per cent have lost an eye.  It clearly was one heck of a battle.

What percentage of these combatants, at the very least, must have lost all four body parts?

I have changed the circumstances and the numbers, because this math puzzle was first formulated in the 1800s by Carolus Lodovicus, a famous Oxfordian mathematician, and I didn't want you guys to Google the keywords.  If your answer is anything other than zero, you must explain why.  This is the final exam; the result counts for 100% of your grade for the semester.  Summer vacation begins tomorrow.

Credit for finding this goes to Anne Fadiman.

"King Philip, come out, for God's sake"

The title is a delightful mnemonic for remembering the order of "kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species."  I found it in Anne Fadiman's most recent book "At Large and At Small," which I am currently thoroughly enjoying.

Introducing "No Mow May" - and a year 2 update

The "No Mow May" movement began in the U.K. in 2019.  I first encountered the concept in a New York Times article last month, reporting on a No Mow May program in Appleton Wisconsin last spring.
Appleton, some 200 miles north of Chicago, is a small college city nestled on the shores of the meandering Fox River. Two assistant professors at a local liberal arts college, Dr. Israel Del Toro and Dr. Relena Ribbons of Lawrence University, knew that No Mow May was popular in Britain. They wondered if the initiative might take root here, too.

They began working with the Appleton Common Council, and, in 2020, Appleton became the first city in the United States to adopt No Mow May, with 435 homes registering to take part...

Dr. Del Toro and Dr. Ribbons studied the impacts of No Mow May on Appleton’s bees. They found that No Mow May lawns had five times the number of bees and three times the bee species than did mown parks. Armed with this information, they asked other communities to participate.

By 2021, a dozen communities across Wisconsin had adopted No Mow May. It also spread to communities in Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois and Montana.

I learned about No Mow May in the fall of 2020 when I was looking to make my own yard more friendly to bees. The following spring, I helped organize No Mow May in Shorewood Hills, Wis., where I live. When I realized how quickly the movement was spreading, I started photographing it across Wisconsin...

Not everyone appreciated the unmown lawns. Allison Roberts, a resident of Prairie du Chien, Wis., participated in No Mow May even though her city hadn’t adopted it. After a few weeks, she awoke from a nap to find police officers pounding on her door.

“Apparently, they were here to ensure I was not dead,” she said.

Nor were her neighbors happy with her shaggy lawn. One of them, unable to stand the sight of it, eventually mowed it without her permission.
The concept was embraced by the Madison suburb of Verona last year.
"Such rules don’t mandate that you let your weeds and grass go shaggy in May, but municipalities simply won’t punish residents who choose to let their lawns go. By June 1, enforcement of lawn length generally resumes, and residents will be required to keep those lawns nice and tidy once again."
In England, a variety of rare plants popped up in some residents' yards:
People who chose not to mow were rewarded with rare plants. More than 250 wild plant species were recorded by gardeners last year, including wild strawberry, wild garlic and very rare plants including adder’s-tongue fern, meadow saxifrage, snakeshead fritillary and eyebright. Many orchids were also seen, including the declining ​man orchid, green-winged orchid, southern and northern marsh orchid and bee orchid.
The StarTribune reports the concept is widespread in Minnesota:
In addition to Edina, Monticello, Vadnais Heights and New Brighton are among the Minnesota cities participating in No Mow May for the first time. Those municipalities will not enforce city codes that restrict lawns from exceeding a maximum turf length (10 inches in Edina and Vadnais Heights, 8 inches in Monticello and New Brighton) during the month of May... ""The best part about it is it doesn't cost anything to do it and it makes such a big difference."
The Arboretum here at the University of Wisconsin in Madison notes that dandelions play a beneficial role in the health of lawn turf:
Dandelion (Taxaracum officinale) is native to Eurasia and naturalized throughout most of North America. The flowers are visited by many pollinators and are an important nectar source early in the season when few other flowers are blooming. Their deep taproots help to loosen and aerate soil as well as pull nutrients like calcium from deep in the soil, which makes the nutrients available to other plants once dandelion leaves decompose. Several bird species also eat dandelion flowers, buds, and seeds.
I found the two embedded lawn sign images online, and since they don't appear to be copyrighted, I took the liberty of printing them out.  Tomorrow I'll attach them to a lawn sign in our front yard to let our neighbors know why the grass is getting long.  And I'll try to update this post from time to time to show what the lawn looks like and how the local bee population is doing.

Addendum May 17:
We are now halfway through the no-mow month, so I thought I'd append a few pix to show how things are going.  Our south-facing front yard has clearly grown past the normal mow height, but doesn't look particularly shabby -

The sign is out by the road to inform passers-by, but to the casual viewer, it looks like a lazy person's home.  There is one clump of post-blossom daffodil leaves (intentionally planted there years ago) and a smattering of dandelions, plus some smaller weeds that I'll inventory toward the end of the month.  One no-mow neighbor has a greater abundance of dandelions -

- and on another unmown lawn the dandelions are almost confluent:

One difference may be that in previous years I have routinely added a commercial "weed and feed" application once or twice a year to eliminate broad-leaf plants like creeping charlie.  The flora is a bit different in the north-facing semishaded back lawn, where violets are appearing -

- along with ajuga and creeping charlie.   More info in a week or two.

Addendum and closure:

More violets.  Wisconsin has fourteen species of native violets, and while they are certainly lovely and beneficial to pollinators, some varieties are extremely aggressive; we have to extirpate them from some flower beds, where they crowd out other plantings.

Milkweeds always have shown up in our lawn because we have them in the flower beds, and the rhizomes extend outward in every direction.  Normally these spikes succumb to mowing; this year they get a reprieve of a few weeks.

This is the front lawn on May 23, after three weeks of not being mowed.  Shaggy, but not overtly offensive to the more conventional neighbors.

In contrast, this lawn that I drove past elsewhere in town is dominated by dandelions going to seed.  We have dandelions too, but when the yellow blossoms close, we walk around and "deadhead" the plants, pulling off what would become the seedhead,  because our goal is to feed the pollinators, not the fructivores eating seeds.

So as May came to a close we had lots of the usual clover -

- plus a variety of smaller "weeds" whose names I haven't taken time to look up:

The "escaped" milkweeds have not been of benefit to pollinators because they blossom in late June.  But they have been there for the arriving Monarchs, so the day before the neighbor teen came over to mow, we harvested all these milkweed to look for Monarch eggs and early instars. 

One of our next-door neighbors also had opted to pursue a no-mow policy in May.
For those worried about how to mow grass that is over a foot tall, I'll point out that the blades of grass are still only maybe 3-5" tall.  What towers above them is the seedhead on a tall thin spike.  At this point the seeds were not mature enough to actually fall and overseed the lawn, and those seedheads are no impediment to a standard home power mower.

The main front yard.  I don't consider it unattractive, though it is obviously unconventional.  I enjoyed being outside working on a windy day and watching the "amber fields of grain" waving in the wind.  

After mowing, June 6.  Back to a standard suburban cookie-cutter boring monoculture of grass.  No worse for the experiment, and if anything the grass seems to me to be a bit more lush

We'll be doing this again next year.   I encourage others to do the same.

Update 2023
One significant change since last year is that our city has passed an ordinance encouraging the "No Mow May" concept.  Participants can obtain a yard sign -

- which explains to passers-by why the lawn looks unkempt, adding the option of "low-mow" (infrequent mowing) for those squeamish about the untidiness.

In deference to my own neighbors, I was vigorous this year in deadheading dandelions when the yellow blooms changed to white; that means a lot of stooping over while walking the yard, plucking those seedheads before they open, and putting them in a waste container -

- where they pop open wondering where the wind is.  The contrast between our lawn and the one next door is most evident in the height of the grass in the last week of May -

- but the important feature is the scattering of "weeds", which this year I decided to document.  

I'll take a moment here to offer the highest praise possible for a phone app called "Seek," from iNaturalist.  It is an absolutely superb image-recognition program that allows you to point your phone at plants, insects, mammals, fish, fungi, arachnids, birds etc etc and get an instant identification.  I needed it for all the little ground-hugging "weeds"  that I've never learned to properly identify.

This is the Ajuga reptans ("Carpet Bugle") that is "invading" our lawn:

We had it in a part of our garden and it moved out on its own and we love to see it spread.  For most of the year it is a low-lying ground cover with green/russet leaves, but in the spring it pops up this inflorescence that the bumblebees love.  We mow around it in the spring, then mow over it for the rest of the year.

I mentioned the White clover (Trifolium repens) last year:

What's not to like about clover in a lawn?  Most homeowners obliterate it with the application of broad-spectrum broad-leaf herbicides, but it requires less water (via a deep root system that helps aerate the lawn), needs no fertilizer, and as a legume it adds nitrogen to the soil.  I'm seriously considering seeding additional clover into some portions of our yard.  

I do understand that some homeowners hate Creeping Charlie (Glechoma hederacea):

In previous years I have poisoned it and pulled it by hand, but up close it's really an attractive little plant that thrives in the wet shady parts of the lawn that the grass doesn't like anyway.   Same withe the Mouse-ear chickweed (Cerastium fontanum) -

- and the Black Medick (Medicago lupulina) -

- which is a variety of clover.  AFAIK, it's main "offense" is that it isn't grass.

The other "weeds" I documented in the grassy part of the yard this year included Wormseed Wallflower, Lesser periwinkle, Corn speedwell, Bird's-foot Violet, and Bitter Wintercress.  

The lawn has now been mowed.  It looks a bit ragged, but will "normalize" to the view of passers-by as the summer proceeds.  

31 May 2023

Image cropped for size from the one at the nocontextpics subreddit.

Road trips in (average) 70-degree weather

I like the "interior route" because it heads north from Madison, Wisconsin through Minneapolis to Duluth and then right past Leech Lake in northern Minnesota in the first week of June.  Perfect.

Those who live at these latitudes know that not only is the weather perfect then, but the twilight extends to way late in the evening.  For Leech Lake at the summer solstice, "civil twilight" extends to 9:45 pm, "nautical twilight" until 10:30, and "astronomical twilight" until midnight !

An outlet that will never again be built into houses

Identification at the HomeMaintenance subreddit.

One way to improve a "Little Library"

Via Twitter.
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