04 December 2020

Skeleton of a puffer fish

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An "honest trailer" for "A Christmas Story"


About a minute too long, but still enjoyable.

Meriwether Lewis carried an air rifle to the Pacific

In 2010 reader Mikeb302000 sent me a link to the very interesting video above.  The presentation comes from the National Firearms Museum, and provides details about the Girandoni air rifle, manufactured in the 1790s by Austrians and used in European wars.  A rifle similar to the one depicted was carried on the Voyage of Discovery by Lewis and Clark across the Louisiana Purchase to the mouth of the Columbia River.

I found more information at Guns.com:
The Livrustkammarne Museum in Stockholm is home to the earliest example of a mechanical air gun dating back to 1580... The Girandoni was the first pneumatic rifle and first repeating rifle ever used in warfare and it was special issue for the Austrian Army from 1780 to 1825...

And believe it or not it was a stone cold killer at up to 100 yards, able to punch a hole in a 1 inch pine board for the first 30 shots on a single air reservoir. The power dissipated and required a ‘pump up’ after that but the gun was miles ahead of anything seen thus far...

My initial scepticism of these weapons was fuelled by the misconception that they were similar to a Daisy BB gun. When I realized that the Girandoni propelled a .46 calibre ball through a rifled barrel at a muzzle velocity of 900 fps, I realized how wrong I had been. Providing a high rate of fire, there was no smoke from propellants nor muzzle flash to reveal ambush positions nor concern for inclement battle conditions as you needn’t worry about keeping powder dry.
This has permanently changed my concept of "air rifles."  I never owned an air rifle; my first weapon was a .22 caliber conventional rifle, and like most Americans, I conflated an "air rifle" with a BB gun, a mental image formed by repeated viewing of A Christmas Story -
The Red Ryder BB gun was prominently featured in A Christmas Story, in which Ralphie Parker requests one for Christmas, but is repeatedly rebuffed with the warning "You'll shoot your eye out". The movie's fictional BB gun, described as the "Red Ryder carbine-action, two hundred shot Range Model air rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time", does not correspond to any model in existence nor even a prototype; the Red Ryder featured in the movie was specially made to match author Jean Shepherd's story (which may be artistic license, but was the configuration Shepherd claimed to remember). However, the "Buck Jones" Daisy air rifle, immediately above the Red Ryder in the Daisy line, did have a compass and sundial in the stock, but no other features of the "Red Ryder" model. The guns and a stand-up advertisement featuring the Red Ryder character appeared in a Higbee's store window in the film, along with dolls, a train, and Radio Flyer wagons.
The Girandoni air rifle was most impressive firearm for its era.  Fully recharging the pressure chamber required up to 1500 strokes, but European armies carried spare pressure chambers.  The next step for me was to read a book about the Lewis and Clark expedition.  I chose the classic Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jeffeerson, and the opening of the American West, by Stephen E. Ambrose, (excerpts here).

Reposted from 2012 because I found this while searching for info on A Christmas Story.

Word for the day: lithornithids

An abstract from the Proc. Roy. Soc. B:
Some probe-foraging birds locate their buried prey by detecting mechanical vibrations in the substrate using a specialized tactile bill-tip organ comprising mechanoreceptors embedded in densely clustered pits in the bone at the tip of their beak. This remarkable sensory modality is known as ‘remote touch’, and the associated bill-tip organ is found in probe-foraging taxa belonging to both the palaeognathous (in kiwi) and neognathous (in ibises and shorebirds) clades of modern birds. Intriguingly, a structurally similar bill-tip organ is also present in the beaks of extant, non-probing palaeognathous birds (e.g. emu and ostriches) that do not use remote touch. By comparison with our comprehensive sample representing all orders of extant modern birds (Neornithes), we provide evidence that the lithornithids (the most basal known palaeognathous birds which evolved in the Cretaceous period) had the ability to use remote touch. This finding suggests that the occurrence of the vestigial bony bill-tip organ in all modern non-probing palaeognathous birds represents a plesiomorphic condition. Furthermore, our results show that remote-touch probe foraging evolved very early among the Neornithes and it may even have predated the palaeognathous–neognathous divergence. We postulate that the tactile bony bill-tip organ in Neornithes may have originated from other snout tactile specializations of their non-avian theropod ancestors.
Photo via The New York Times, where the findings are discussed.  See also Wikipedia re lithornithids.

"My Octopus Teacher"


Available on Netflix, and should be of interest to anyone who loves the natural world.  This gif of a man interacting with a wolf spider is conceptually related.

"Cytokine storm" explained

This year marks 10 years since the first description of a cytokine storm that developed after chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy and 27 years since the term was first used in the literature to describe the engraftment syndrome of acute graft-versus-host disease after allogeneic hematopoietic stem-cell transplantation. The term “cytokine release syndrome” was coined to describe a similar syndrome after infusion of muromonab-CD3 (OKT3). Cytokine storm and cytokine release syndrome are life-threatening systemic inflammatory syndromes involving elevated levels of circulating cytokines and immune-cell hyperactivation that can be triggered by various therapies, pathogens, cancers, autoimmune conditions, and monogenic disorders... 

In this review, we propose a unifying definition of cytokine storm; discuss the pathophysiological features, clinical presentation, and management of the syndrome; and provide an overview of iatrogenic, pathogen-induced, neoplasia-induced, and monogenic causes. Our goal is to provide physicians with a conceptual framework, a unifying definition, and essential staging, assessment, and therapeutic tools to manage cytokine storm.
For those who, like me, have fallen behind in reading, this New England Journal of Medicine review article is comprehensive (I believe all the coronavirus-related articles are available outside the firewall).

01 December 2020

The changing location of sunrise/sunset

As an adult I'm surprised how many people are unaware of this phenomenon, but TBH when I was a teenage driver I remember my disappointment that the Minnesota highway department had positioned a road so that I had to drive directly into the sunset on my way home from work...

The phenomenon is discussed briefly at APOD and at EarthSky.  Image via.

Seeking advice on salt licks and Flowbees

Every now and then I use this blog to get advice from readers about subjects that are a bit hard to find information about online.   My first queries are about salt licks.

We live on the outer fringe of Madison, Wisconsin and have a small woods behind the house.  Over the years we have been visited by a variety of mammals; in addition to the typical suburban chipmunks and raccoons and bats and moles and mice, we have seen deer, fox, coyote, woodchuck, and the occasional opossum - although fewer in recent years as new subdivisions have been replacing farm fields and pastures nearby.

I've been thinking of putting out a salt lick for the critters.  We have a Farm and Fleet store nearby that has product, so my questions are about any potential downside.  Does the leaching of salt from the block result in any problem for nearby plants?  This wouldn't be in a garden setting, but we do have spring ephemeral wildflowers in the woods, and I even wonder about the tolerance of trees.  Conventionally these blocks are out in a pasture far from trees.  I have been told that cattle not only lick the block away, but also nibble down into the soil underneath, carving out a pit to harvest all the available salt.  Similarly if the block is placed on a stump, the stump itself will eventually be eaten away by the animals.  Are the trace mineral supplements important?  How long they last will obviously depend on usage, but I'm wondering if I need to stock up in anticipation of rain and snow melting the block.  Will the bats make use of the salt lick??

The next question is about managing "covid hair."  I've patronized the same barbershop for the past 15 years.  I'm willing to listen to the constant FOX News programs because of the low ($16) price for a haircut.   I'm sure he is wearing a mask this year, but his shop is not much bigger than a modern walk-in closet, and his clientele may not be rigorous in mask use.  When I called this summer to inquire if he was by any chance offering outdoor haircuts he was incredulous.  So I have "covid hair" (which I suppose can be viewed as a political statement).

Because I almost never watch network television, I have been blissfully unaware of decades of infomercials about the "Flowbee" vacuum-assisted haircutting system.  While researching self-haircuts I came across an interview with George Clooney in which he reports cutting his own hair for the past 25 years using the Flowbee system (his comments start at the 2:15 mark of this video).  Apparently that's why he's wealthy; I always thought it was because of movies and celebrity fees, but it's also from the savings of doing one's own haircuts.  Readers - any experience or informed opinions on this?? (Amazon is sold out of the product, so the pandemic seems to have been good for the company).

Addendum:  I decided to get a salt+trace minerals brick, and have placed it at the junction of two walking paths, within binoculars view of our house.  I don't expect to see much activity because most visitors would likely be crepuscular, but the pattern of tracks in the winter snow might be interesting.

"Crip Camp"

I thoroughly enjoyed watching this on Netflix last night.  The first part of the film presents archival footage of Camp Jened, a summer camp for young people with disabilities which was in operation from the 1950s to the 1970s.  The second part of the film follows some of these campers as they become leaders in the disability rights struggles of the 1970s.

I watched this as an "alumnus" of the polio epidemic of 1952, but the film will be of interest to a broad range of viewers - especially those who have family or friends with physical impairments.

The film is reviewed at The New York Times, and the Wikipedia entry is excellent.

26 November 2020

Reindeer eyes change color in the winter

I found this explanation at Smithsonian:
National Geographic‘s Ed Yong reports on the finding:
The bit that actually changes colour is the tapetum lucidum or “cat’s eye”—a mirrored layer that sits behind the retina. It helps animals to see in dim conditions by reflecting any light that passes through the retina back onto it, allowing its light-detecting cells a second chance to intercept the stray photons. The tapetum is the reason why mammal eyes often glow yellow if you photograph them at night—you’re seeing the camera’s flash reflecting back at you.
Reindeer eyes, by default, are gold. But during the long winter, their pupils dilate for months on end, Yong explains. All of this effort takes a toll on the reindeers’ eyes, which begin to swell and in turn exert pressure on tapetum.
This layer is mostly made up a collagen, a protein whose long fibres are arranged in orderly rows. As the pressure inside the eye builds up, the fluid between the collagen fibres gets squeezed out, and they become more tightly packed. The spacing of these fibres affects the type of light they reflect. With the usual gaps between them, they reflect yellow wavelengths. When squeezed together, they reflect… blue wavelengths.
The wintery blue, Yong writes, is about 1,000 times more sensitive to light than the summery gold. The latter color, on the other hand, helps in the summer by bouncing the majority of light off of the animals’ eyes, effectively acting like a pair of natural sunglasses.

You learn something every day. 

Frost formation triggered by a leaf on a car's roof

Not a black hole...

... but it does absorb almost all visible light.  This is dark molecular cloud Barnard 18.   Info at the APOD link.  You learn something every day.

Ad for Amazon Echo Silver


c/o Saturday Night Live.

Lincoln Memorial, 1916

I find this photo particularly fascinating because of the absence of the reflecting pool (completed in 1923).  This image better reflects the fetid, malaria-infested swamp that Washington D.C. was in its early history*.  This is how it looked when my parents were born, so this is not ancient history.

I was born in Washington D.C., and some of my earliest memories were of visits to the reflecting pool and especially to the cherry blossoms around the Tidal Basin.  Here I am at the reflecting pool in 1949 -

- I think facing toward the Lincoln Memorial, with the Washington Monument faintly visible in the distant haze.  Dad was in the Navy, stationed in D.C., so we lived across the river in Arlington.  An interesting place to begin life.

*Addendum: Reader Lones Smith found an article debunking the myth that Washington was originally swampy land.  I will gracefully defer to The Smithsonian.  But there was malaria and yellow fever in the region (and there still are 50-100 cases reported per year).

Core biopsy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway surface

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