31 May 2008

Ice may have been found on Mars

I'm not going to turn TYWKIWDBI into a space blog, but this report tonight may be very significant -

May 31, 2008 -- TUCSON, Ariz.-- A view of the ground underneath NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander adds to evidence that descent thrusters dispersed overlying soil and exposed a harder substrate that may be ice.

The image received Friday night from the spacecraft's Robotic Arm Camera shows patches of smooth and level surfaces beneath the thrusters.

"This suggests we have an ice table under a thin layer of loose soil," said the lead scientist for the Robotic Arm Camera, Horst Uwe Keller of Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Katlenburg-Lindau, Germany.

"We were expecting to find ice within two to six inches of the surface," said Peter Smith of the University of Arizona, Tucson, principal investigator for Phoenix. "The thrusters have excavated two to six inches and, sure enough, we see something that looks like ice. It's not impossible that it's something else, but our leading interpretation is ice."

For those who wish to follow up on this, here is the link for the Phoenix Mars Mission.

In a related item, the Phoenix Mars Lander can move its robotic arm now - so it probably just slept on it wrong.

New Mars photo

Nothing unexpected (it must be a universal response to hope the photo will show tracks or prints...) And not exciting in terms of "scenic" value. But for some people, viewing this image and imagining being there is fascinating; if you really want to "explore," go to this website, where the picture can be supersized and panned: NASA.

For others, this is too prosaic. The next item down in the blog will be more enticing...

Strange creature found in Russia

It looks like an alien creature - a "face-sucker" that might grab onto the camera lens. In more prosaic terms, it seems to resemble a horseshoe crab or a trilobite - but not quite.

From the discussions I've read, it's most likely a notostraca.

Student denied valedictorian status

Grapevine High School senior Anjali Datta holds the highest grade-point average of the 471 students graduating from Grapevine High School this year. In fact... her GPA of 5.898 may be the highest in the high school's history.

It's still not enough to make her the valedictorian, which brings a one-year college scholarship from the state. Her closest competitor's GPA is 5.64. No one disputes that she's the top student in her class numerically. The problem rests with another number entirely.

Anjali rocketed through high school in only three years.

But a school district policy states: "The valedictorian shall be the eligible student with the highest weighted grade-point average for four years of high school."

(credit to J-Walk)

Disasters around the world

No Fulbright scholarships for Gaza students

"I regret to inform you that the Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs of the US Department of State will not be able to finalise your Fulbright Student Scholarship for 2008."

With those words, in a brief letter from the United States Consulate in Jerusalem, the dreams of seven talented and ambitious young people from Gaza were dashed...

Nonetheless, because of the Israeli blockade of Gaza, not even students sponsored by the US government can leave to further their studies overseas...

“This could be interpreted as collective punishment,” complained Rabbi Michael Melchior, chairman of the Parliament’s education committee, during the hearing. “This policy is not in keeping with international standards or with the moral standards of Jews, who have been subjected to the deprivation of higher education in the past. Even in war, there are rules.” Rabbi Melchior is from the Meimad Party, allied with Labor.

The committee asked the government and military to reconsider the policy and get back to it within two weeks. But even if the policy is changed, the seven Fulbright grantees in Gaza are out of luck for this year. Their letters urged them to reapply next year..."

Further details at the BBC and the New York Times. I will defer adding any editorial commentary. Res ipsa loquitur.

update June 1 from the Jerusalem Post: "Officials in the Prime Minister's Office Saturday night expressed "surprise" at State Department criticism of Israel for reportedly not letting seven Gazan students leave the Gaza Strip on Fulbright scholarships, saying that the State Department did not directly contact the PMO about the issue... Israeli officials said the students would be allowed to leave for their studies."

30 May 2008

It's even worse than I thought...

"Going out to Dusseldorf for work. Flying British Airways, leaving from terminal 5.

Go through security, get pulled to the side. I'm wearing a French Connection Transformers t-shirt. Bloke starts joking with me is that Megatron. Then he explains that since Megatron is holding a gun, I'm not allowed to fly. WTF? It's a 40 foot tall cartoon robot with a gun as an arm. There is no way this shirt is offensive in any way, and what I'm going to use the shirt to pretend I have a gun?"

29 May 2008

Has everyone gone completely crazy???

"On Monday, Marnina Norys, a Toronto resident... was put through the bureaucratic and culture-of-fear rigmarole while trying to board a place in Kelowna - all because she wore a necklace with a pendant in the shape of a gun (the classic Colt45, and the actual pendant depicted in the above photo)...

First she was told by an agent at security that she couldn't wear it, and that the "replica" would have to go in her carry-on bag. But a second agent who was tasked with searching her carry-on bag found the gun pendant and told her that although harmless (and against all common sense) her gun would have to go in her checked baggage...

"How do you know it wasn't a real gun?" asked Guy, a security agent with the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority, who also declined to provide his last name.

"Who knows if there is a gun that small that can shoot bullets? You don't know that. They followed the rules."

This silliness serves as just one more reminder - we've lost our ability to embrace logic, and the terrorists have won."

The "uncanny valley" explained

"The uncanny valley is a hypothesis that when robots and other facsimiles of humans look and act almost, but not entirely, like actual humans, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers. The "valley" in question is a dip in a proposed graph of the positivity of human reaction as a function of a robot's lifelikeness…

Mori's hypothesis states that as a robot is made more humanlike in its appearance and motion, the emotional response from a human being to the robot will become increasingly positive and empathic, until a point is reached beyond which the response quickly becomes that of strong repulsion. However, as the appearance and motion continue to become less distinguishable from a human being, the emotional response becomes positive once more and approaches human-to-human empathy levels…

…the idea of the uncanny valley is "really pseudoscientific, but people treat it like it is science." Sara Kiesler, a human-robot interaction researcher at Carnegie Mellon University, questioned uncanny valley's scientific status, stating, "We have evidence that it's true, and evidence that it's not." Roboticist Dario Floreano stated that uncanny valley is not based on scientific evidence, but is taken seriously by the film industry due to negative audience reactions to the animated baby in Pixar's 1988 short film Tin Toy.”

(Click to enlarge image. Text and graph from – where else – Wikipedia)

Artistic rice fields

"...artwork created by planting different varieties of rice, including the purple and yellow-leafed Kodaimai rice and the green-leafed tsugaru-roman variety." Apparently a tradition in the town of Inakadate, dating back to 1993.

Medieval chastity belts = urban legends

"As plausible as it might sound, the chastity belt is not however a medieval invention... There are, in fact, no genuine chastity belts dating from medieval times: all known 'medieval' chastity belts have been produced in the first half of the 19th Century. These fake-medieval chastity belts are too heavy and the workmanship is too crude, even for medieval standards. The oldest design for a chastity belt that can be taken seriously dates from the 16th Century - but it's just a design, with no real working models believed to have ever been constructed. The concept of a chastity belt itself is a lot older, but it was usually used in poems in a metaphorical sense..."

(Image from Wikipedia via Scribal Terror. Text from the BBC.)


A man who had been pulled over and ticketed by police ran backward up and onto a Buffalo Grove squad car

The officer wrote the ticket and returned to the car, and Raskin got ready to drive away. Except he went flying backward.

"(He) apparently was going to pull away at a high rate of speed, but the only problem was that he was in reverse," Kristiansen said.

He said Raskin was not happy about getting a ticket. He said police are reviewing the squad car videotape to see what Raskin might also be charged with.

update - more pictures now posted HERE - along with the usual inane internet comments.

Why do we accept fax signatures?

Food for thought from Wired.com. (more discussion at the link)
"Aren't fax signatures the weirdest thing? It's trivial to cut and paste -- with real scissors and glue -- anyone's signature onto a document so that it'll look real when faxed. There is so little security in fax signatures that it's mind-boggling that anyone accepts them.

Yet people do, all the time. I've signed book contracts, credit card authorizations, nondisclosure agreements and all sorts of financial documents -- all by fax. I even have a scanned file of my signature on my computer, so I can virtually cut and paste it into documents and fax them directly from my computer without ever having to print them out. What in the world is going on here?

...Tristian Wilson was released from a Memphis jail on the authority of a forged fax message. It wasn't even a particularly good forgery. It wasn't on the standard letterhead of the West Memphis Police Department. The name of the policeman who signed the fax was misspelled. And the time stamp on the top of the fax clearly showed that it was sent from a local McDonald's...

Wilson's story is remarkable mostly because it's so exceptional. And even he was rearrested at his home less than a week later. Fax signatures may be new, but fake signatures have always been a possibility. Our legal and business systems need to deal with the underlying problem -- false authentication -- rather than focus on the technology of the moment. Systems need to defend themselves against the possibility of fake signatures, regardless of how they arrive."

World's oldest recorded live birth...

...documented in this fossil from Australia. In case it's not obvious from the image, the fossil is that of a 380 million-year-old female placoderm fish with an embryo still attached to the mother by an umbilical cord.

"This is not only the first time ever that a fossil embryo has been found with an umbilical cord, but it is also the oldest known example of any creature giving birth to live young... Placoderms represent the most primitive group of jawed vertebrates, so this work shows that the capacity for internal fertilisation and giving birth to live young evolved very early during vertebrate history."

Text and image from this BBC website, which also contains an incredibly useless video.

This advertisement offended people

Offended them to the extent that Dunkin' Donuts pulled the ad from the internet.

They weren't offended by Rachael Ray supporting Dunkin' Donuts, which has been likened to "endorsing crack for kids." They were offended by her clothing.

I don't know which angers me more - that people take offense so easily, or that the company caves in so easily to pressure.

27 May 2008

Mysterious forest rings of northern Ontario

"It is a strange phenomenon: thousands of large, perfectly round "forest rings" dot the boreal landscape of northern Ontario.

From the air, these mysterious light-coloured rings of stunted tree growth are clearly visible, but on the ground, you could walk right through them without noticing them. They range in diameter from 30 metres to 2 kilometres, with the average ring measuring about 91 metres across. Over 2,000 of these forest rings have been documented, but scientists estimate the actual number is more than 8,000.

What causes these near-perfect circles in the forest? Since they were discovered on aerial photos about 50 years ago, the rings have baffled biologists, geologists and foresters. Some explanations put a UFO or extraterrestrial spin on the phenomenon. Astronomers suggest the rings might be the result of meteor strikes. Prospectors wonder whether the formations signal diamond-bearing kimberlites, a type of igneous rock...

Although northern Ontario has the highest concentration of forest rings, you can also find them in the Yukon, Quebec, Russia and Australia..."

This CBC article discusses the currently-postulated most likely explanation for the rings.

World's largest horns

Lurch, a Watusi bull, lives at the Rocky Ridge Refuge in the Ozark mountains. The horns measure 7 feet 6 inches tip-to-tip and weigh an estimated 100 pounds each, a record reportedly confirmed by the people at Guiness. More photos at THIS LINK.

Hybrid Car Song

Sung to the tune of "Surrey with the Fringe on Top."
Credit to the National Federation of the Blind.

"Kids and dogs won't know when to scurry.
Silent death arrives in a hurry.
All who walk have reason to worry
'Bout the hybrid car.

We all want to stop the polluting,
Save a lot of gas while commuting.
If they made sound there'd be no disputing
With the hybrid car.

Saving the planet we all hold dear,
Nobody wants to destroy it.
Please make cars pedestrians can hear
'Cause we want to be 'round to enjoy it.

We don't need a noisy vrum-vrumming,
Just a simple audible humming,
So that we can know when you're coming
In a hybrid car.

Then we all can walk with safety on the street
Without fear that we will accident'lly meet
A hybrid car."

Was the Gospel of Judas mistranslated?

"Does the Gospel of Judas portray the archetypal villain as the one disciple who "got the message" and turned Jesus over to the authorities because that's the way He wanted it -- or does it say that He was betrayed by His false friend as a sacrifice to "a demon god named Saklas"?

…That's when she came across what she considered a major, almost unbelievable error. It had to do with the translation of the word "daimon," which Jesus uses to address Judas. The National Geographic team translates this as "spirit," an unusual choice and inconsistent with translations of other early Christian texts, where it is usually rendered as "demon." In this passage, however, Jesus' calling Judas a demon would completely alter the meaning. "O 13th spirit, why do you try so hard?" becomes "O 13th demon, why do you try so hard?" A gentle inquiry turns into a vicious rebuke.

Then there's the number 13. The Gospel of Judas is thought to have been written by a sect of Gnostics known as Sethians, for whom the number 13 would indicate a realm ruled by the demon Ialdabaoth…"
Text above from Scribal Terror. Those unfamiliar with the subject matter should start with this Wikipedia entry on the Gospel of Judas.

A camera that looks like a gun

What could possibly go wrong? There are another hundred photos of historically important and unusual cameras at THIS LINK.

Trivia about Charles Dickens

Dickens was preoccupied with looking in the mirror and combing his hair - he did it hundreds of times a day. He rearranged furniture in his home - if it wasn't in the exact "correct" position, he couldn't concentrate. Obsessed with magnetic fields, Dickens made sure that every bed he slept in was aligned north-south. He had to touch certain objects three times for luck. He was obsessed with the need for tidiness, often cleaning other homes as well as his own.

Dickens suffered from epilepsy and made some of his characters - like Oliver Twist's brother - epileptics. Modern doctors are amazed at the medical accuracy of his descriptions of this malady.

Hans Christian Andersen was Dicken's close friend and mutual influence. Andersen even dedicated his book Poet's Day Dream to Dickens in 1853. But this didn't stop Dickens from letting Andersen know when he'd overstayed his welcome at Dickens's home. He printed a sign and left it on Andersen's mirror in the guest room. It read: "Hans Andersen slept in this room for five weeks, which seemed to the family like AGES."

(the above from Uncle John's Fast-Acting Long Lasting Bathroom Reader, cited in Neatorama)

26 May 2008

3-year-old girl solves Rubik's Cube

In less than 2 minutes. I don't know the backstory, but the video is convincing. It's not a trick, like a scrambling of a cube filmed backwards, and the little girl is clearly being analytical and problem-solving. Very impressive.

I'll never get to Mars...

...but such is the state of technology now that a spacecraft can land there yesterday, and tonight I can sit at the desk in my basement and watch a movie of what the view is from the spacecraft.

HERE is the movie.

To be brutally honest about it, it's not all that exciting. The "movie" is more precisely a slow pan across a still image from proximal to the lander to the distant horizon. The colors are approximate, based on color filters, and muted to extreme blandness. And the view is...well... prosaic. The NASA website describes it thusly: "The flat landscape is strewn with tiny pebbles and shows polygonal cracking, a pattern seen widely in Martian high latitudes and also observed in permafrost terrains on Earth. The polygonal cracking is believed to have resulted from seasonal freezing and thawing of surface ice."

But still, to sit in my own room and look at near-live pictures from Mars is something I would have dreamed about when reading Ray Bradbury stories as a child...

Do population bombs beat conventional bombs?

Here's an interesting (and probably controversial) article on AlterNet: "How Birthrate Is Turning Modern Conventional Warfare on Its Head."

The basic thesis appears to be that variations in fecundity (fertility rates) can be more powerful than weaponry and warfare in determining the direction of a nation. Herewith some excerpts:
All through the nineteenth century, the European powers, led by the British and French, took the land they wanted on the grounds that they had better military technology, transport and organization. Locals who disputed that notion tended to disappear as casualties of inevitable progress…

Now, even though the balance in conventional warfare is if anything tilting further toward the first world, the technologically advanced and organized countries are in retreat, and the former victims are pushing back, not just claiming their old territories but infiltrating the former colonizers’ countries…

So there’s a shocking lesson that military buffs have been slow to face: military superiority doesn’t matter nearly as much right now as birthrate and sheer ruthless will…

In some places, it’s open policy. For example, in Palestine there’s an all-out birthrate war going on between the Palestinians and the Israelis… The Gaza Strip, for instance, has one of the highest fertility rates in the world outside Africa, at 5.6 kids per woman… But the most amazing rates anywhere, even higher than for the Gaza Palestinians, are in the most extreme Zionist groups, the Haredi “ultra-orthodox” Jews. Until recently they averaged eight or nine children per woman. That’s actually higher than the rate for Mali (7.38 per woman), which has the highest birthrate in the world…

If you want an example closer to home, just go to Northern Ireland where the Protestant majority the border was designed to maintain has been getting smaller and smaller, thanks to the higher birthrate among Catholics. As of 2001, the Catholics were about 46% of the population, up from 35% in 1961.

But as the dreaded “Catholic Majority” date approaches, a funny thing is happening up in Ulster: the Catholic birth rate is slowing down even faster than the Protestant rate. This always happens when a tribe breaks out of its slums into the middle class. This illustrates one of the real brain-twisters of contemporary demographic struggle: if you really hate the enemy tribe, the best thing you could do would be to make them rich. Rich people don’t have nearly as many kids...
The author then goes on to discuss the obvious example of the Latinos in the southwestern United States and finally the question as to whether it matters or not - whether the immigrants get absorbed into the culture so the culture doesn't change significantly. I won't append any editorial comments here - just offering the link for those who are interested in such matters. The discussion at Reddit hits the important talking points, biases, and controversies raised by the article.

And this serves as a good introduction to the blog entry below this one, on worldwide population trends.

Fertility and longevity correlate with income

There is a tendency on TYWKIWDBI (and most other blogs) to lean toward "lightweight" topics - funny pictures, brief stories, and other interesting ephemera that can be enjoyed and then forgotten. One reason is that such items require little work on the part of the blogger - just copying and pasting for the most part. They also require little "work" on the part of the visitor.

There is a lot of material that requires more work for both of us. War, economics, ethics, history, hard science, and many other subjects are best served with thoughtful entries that consider multiple viewpoints, and are best appreciated by visitors with time to devote to the subject and an open, informed mind.

The graphs above are in this category. Each of them shows average personal income (on the hnorizontal axis) versus another variable (children per women in the top graph, life expectancy in the bottom graph). The images shown would be predictable by many or most of the more widely-read and well-educated readers of TYWKIWDBI.

But there's more than that. Those graphs come from a website called Gapminder. They were created by Hans Rosling, a Swede who used publicly available statistics, and then "crunched" the data using a computer algorithm called "Trendalyzer" (since acquired by Google).

The images above are static screencaps, but the original data MOVES. Each colored dot represents a different country (color corresponds to continents as per map at right), and the size of the dot reflects the number of people in the country. You can hover your mouse over a dot to see which country it is, or find your country from the list at right. The complete database includes all the data from 1950 to 2005. I took a screencap of the image from 2005, but at the Gapminder website you can take the slider at the bottom of the screen, move it to the left to 1950, and then start it moving. The countries move on the graph - the dots get bigger as the population grows, and the dots move up and down, right and left as birth rates and longevity and personal income change. There's a MASSIVE amount of data compressed here into an incredibly viewer-friendly format.

Try it. Go to THIS LINK for the fertility vs. income graph, move the slider left, click PLAY, and see what has happened in the world in the last 50 years.

HERE is the graph for longevity vs. income.

If you find this at all interesting, go to THIS LINK for a "TED talk" (more on TED talks later) by Hans Rosling. I spent my professional career in education and have heard probably thousands of lectures in 40 years. This is one of the best talks I have seen, partly for the topic and partly for the Trendalyzer method of presenting data. Just try 5 minutes (trust me); once he starts the data "moving" you'll probably continue watching to the end.

Slippery Bob and Witchetty Grubs

“An exhibition of historic Australian cookbooks has revealed the tastes of the country's pioneers, including recipes for bandicoot, kangaroo brains and black swans… A recipe in Australia's first known cookbook, dating from 1864, [is] for a dish called "slippery bob", consisting of kangaroo brains mixed with flour and water then fried in emu fat. The book's author Edward Abbott described the delicacy as bush fare, admitting it required "a good appetite and excellent digestion" to stomach.

"…extolling the virtues of "bush tucker" eaten by Aborigines, an area that modern Australian chefs have only recently begun to explore. "I am beholden to the blacks for nearly all my knowledge of the edible ground game," she writes, going on to praise the taste of witchetty grubs -- "there is nothing nasty or disgusting in these soft white morsels, any more so than an oyster."

For those not deterred by the prion-related concerns of eating concentrated neural tissue, I offer the image above (from another, unknown, source) showing the cholesterol content of mammalian brain tissue.

Do you remember this advertisement?

Persons old enough to remember the 1950s will probably recognize the ad for a child's playhouse, which ran for years in a variety of comic books. Cracked.com has a report on 12 such "ads that taught us to be cynical," explaining what one really got if one ordered the product. In the case of the playhouse, the product was (not surprisingly) made of cardboard.

It's interesting to note the price of $1.00 (80c when purchased in bulk). This was of course in the days when the U.S. dollar had some value, and the shipping cost of 25c was actually substantial at a time when first-class rates were 3c. The report also discusses "hypno-coins," 7-foot-long nuclear subs (also made of cardboard), monkeys-in-a-teacup (those were - unfortunately - real), and, of course, the unforgettable "x-ray specs."

24 May 2008

The Pentagon can't account for some money...

...15 BILLION dollars.
"The inspector general for the Defense Department said yesterday that the Pentagon cannot account for almost $15 billion worth of goods and services ranging from trucks, bottled water and mattresses to rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns that were bought from contractors in the Iraq reconstruction effort.

The Pentagon did not have the proper documentation, including receipts, vouchers, signatures, invoices or other paperwork, for $7.8 billion that American and Iraqi contractors were paid for phones, folders, paint, blankets, Nissan trucks, laundry services and other items, according to a 69-page audit released to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform…

The Army disagreed with some of the auditors' findings, saying that it is difficult to maintain an adequate paper trail in a war zone and that it has improved its record-keeping and accountability efforts…

Waxman said the poorly documented expenditures of seized Iraqi assets included a $320 million cash payment for employing 1,000 people that was handed over to the Iraqi Finance Ministry with "little more than a signature in exchange."

"Investigators looked at 53 payment vouchers and couldn't find even one that adequately explained where the money went," Waxman said.

Some of this certainly is "poor bookkeeping" or the "fog of war." But one would be naive not to believe that there is an element of diversion going on... for what purpose?? More details of the testimony at the Washington Post. Discussion re the conspiracy theory aspect will not be found in the mainstream media, but is ongoing at various fringe sites on the web...

Another Mars lander...

...scheduled to touch down tomorrow. "The Phoenix Mars Lander, bristling with scientific instruments to poke, probe, look at and analyze Martian soil, ice and atmosphere, has almost reached its destination after a nearly 10-month journey. The Lander will complete its 422 million-mile trek at 4:38 p.m. Sunday... The Lander will, during its scheduled three months of surface operations, seek evidence of water and the elements of life on Mars by analyzing soil and ice samples scooped from the planet's northern arctic region."

Good luck to the University of Arizona team and to the small craft. Too bad its visit has to be so short.

Death caused by jet lag??

"One day in 1971, a woman called Sarah Krasnoff made off with her 14-year-old grandson, who was caught up in an unseemly custody dispute, and took him into the sky. In a plane, she knew, they were subject to no laws, and if they never stopped moving, the law could never catch up with them. They flew from New York to Amsterdam. When they arrived, they turned around and flew from Amsterdam to New York. Then they flew from New York to Amsterdam again, and from Amsterdam to New York, again and again and again, month after month.

They took about 160 flights in all, one after the other, according to the stage piece "Jet Lag." They saw 22 movies an average of seven times each. They ate lunch again and again and turned their watches six hours forward, then six hours back. The whole fugitive enterprise ended when Krasnoff, 74, finally collapsed and died, the victim, doctors could only suppose, of terminal jet lag."

Found at Kottke. Text from the New York Times. It still sounded apocryphal to me, until I found a link at Vanderbilt's Television News Archive re the original airing of the story on the CBS Evening News. The attribution of death to "terminal jet lag" is of course tongue-in-cheek. One very real possibility is massive pulmonary embolus, to which air travel passengers are prone because of immobility and an element of volume depletion.

More about trepanation

In followup to my previous post about Inca trepanation, here is a link to "An Illustrated History of Trepanation" with more information. More, in fact, than you would probably ever need (or want) to know. It's interesting (though perhaps not surprising) that a prominent name in the history is Ephraim George Squier, who wrote one of the landmark books on the mound builders of North America.

Also interesting is the information about the construction of the Inca tumi blade used in the performance of trepanation: "The patient's head was held tightly between the surgeon's knees, and the tumi blade, which consisted of a sharp piece of flint or copper, was then rubbed back and forth along the surface of the skull. In this way, four incisions arranged in a criss cross pattern, were made in the skull (these are clearly visible in Ephraim's drawing at the top). The tumi blade increased in thickness close to the sharp edge, thus it was prevented from suddenly penetrating the skull to far." Clever and insightful.

The instrument pictured above is a 16th-century three-legged trioploides used to raise depressed skull fractures. The mechanism seems to be not unlike modern wine corkscrews. The article then moves on to modern conventional trepanation and self-trepanation by psychotics: "I could hear gurgling, and I could feel the shifting of volume in the brain water. There was a warm feeling as my metabolism cranked up a bit."

Cat turns into woman, mob attacks her

"What could be described as a fairy tale turned real on Wednesday in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, as a cat allegedly turned into a middle-aged woman after being hit by a commercial motorcycle (Okada)... Nigerian Tribune learnt that three cats were crossing the busy road when the okada ran over one of them which immediately turned into a woman. This strange occurrence quickly attracted people around who descended on the animals...

“I have never seen anything like this in my life. I saw a woman lying on the road instead of a cat"... When the Nigerian Tribune got to the scene of the incident near Garrison Junction, the cat-woman was seen sitting on the ground with blood all over her body. The right side of her face had a deep cut from what was gathered to be from a cutlass... It took the intervention of policemen to prevent the mob from killing her."

Combination toothpick and earwax scoop

“In this photo released by the Florida Keys News Bureau, a tiny solid gold combination toothpick and earwax scoop is displayed inside a clam shell... A Blue Water Ventures salvage diver recovered the artifact... during a search for remains of the Spanish galleon Santa Margarita that shipwrecked in a 1622 hurricane. According to archaeologists, the 3-inch-long grooming tool is more than 385 years old and was probably worn on a gold chain. Estimated value could exceed $100,000.” (AP Photo/Florida Keys News Bureau, Bob Care)

I love stories about treasure - buried treasure, sunken treasure, lost treasure. But in all my daydreams, never did I imagine finding a "combination toothpick and earwax scoop!" And not only that - it "was probably worn on a gold chain!!"

"Hola! Hernando. You're looking good today - on your way to church? And... WOW... is that ever a nice earwax scoop you're wearing!"

"You're a lucky little boy"

"In order that all good little boys may know how much more lucky it is for them to be little boys now, than it was in the ancient times, be informed of the cruel manner in which even good little boys were liable to be treated by the law of the Ripuarians. When a sale of land took place, it was required that there should be twelve witnesses, and with these as many boys, in whose presence the price of the land should be paid, and its formal surrender take place; and then the boys were beaten, and their ears pulled, so that the pain thus inflicted upon them should make an impression upon their memory, and that they might, if necessary, be afterwards witnesses as to the sale and delivery of the land." – Robert Conger Pell, Milledulcia, 1857

Found at Futility Closet, where I also found this:

"In June 1980, Maureen Wilcox found that she held the winning numbers in both the Massachusetts and the Rhode Island lotteries.

She won nothing, though: Her Massachusetts numbers won the Rhode Island lottery and vice versa."

Telectroscope unites London and New York

"More than a century ago, British inventor Alexander Stanhope St George supposedly devised plans for the an apparatus that would allow visual communication across the Atlantic via a series of subterranean tunnels. Sadly, St George’s device, the Telectroscope, never moved beyond the planning stages and his maps and drawings languished in the family archives for generations—or so the tale goes. Five years ago, St George’s great-grandson Paul discovered the blueprints and decided to bring the Telectroscope to life... the younger St George [has unveiled] his steampunk contraption at both Fulton Ferry Landing in Brooklyn and London’s South Bank. (Residents from the two cities will be able to mug at each other at all hours through giant monitors.)"

"So, you actually dug a tunnel from London to New York?"
"I didn’t build it—I connected existing tunnels. I was able to access lines in the middle of the Atlantic left over from when people laid the first telegraph cables—the “Victorian Internet.” I used mirrors to enlarge the images and bring them up from underground, like a periscope."

Those interested in exploring this story further can read about the original "telectroscope" in this Wikipedia entry, and the modern one in this BBC article (with video) and this TimeOut New York article (the latter contained the quotations above). Found at Nothing to Do With Arbroath (to whom credit for the lower two pictures).

Fake television

"FakeTV accurately simulates the light output of a real television. The effect of scene changes, fades, swells, flicks, on-screen motion, and color changes look just they came from a real TV. From outside the house, it looks just like someone is watching a real television. The potential burglar thinks the home must be occupied, so he moves on to an easier target..."

"Just like a real TV, FakeTV fills a room with color changes, both subtle and dramatic, in thousands of possible shades. Like real television programming, FakeTV is constantly shifting among more and less dynamic periods, more vivid and more monochromatic, and brighter and darker scenes. FakeTV is completely unpredictable, and it never repeats..."

(Image credit to Presurfer)

A Hokey-Pokey gone awry??

Those who visited TYWKIWDBI back in February may remember the story about the propensity for right feet to float ashore near Vancouver. More info from the New York Times in a March article.

Well, it has happened again. A fourth foot. A right foot. Human. Wearing a sneaker.

Curiously, while the first three right feet were found washed up on gulf islands, this one was found on an island in the Fraser River.

More details available at this CBC news article. Stay tuned...

If this keeps up, I'll have to remove the "ephemera" tag from these blog entries... Image credit to the Telegraph (U.K.)

An unnamed methane sea

"Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, was discovered in 1655 by Christiaan Huygens… It is the only moon in our solar system to have a dense atmosphere – so dense that, in combination with its limited gravity, humans on Titan could fly by just flapping their arms...

Not until the flyby, in 2004, of the Cassini-Huygens mission could scientists confirm… that Titan is the only heavenly body (save Earth) to contain large liquid surfaces – or seas, as non-astronomers would call them…

[Peter] Minton used the data at the JPL to create this map of Titan’s Unnamed Methane Sea… The many rivulets and islets make it look like a nice lake to vacation at, until you remember that there’s something unpleasant in the air there… A shame: how nice it must be to flap your arms and fly over the Superior-sized lake. But then again, the sunlight hardly penetrates Titan’s cloud cover, so you wouldn’t see much. And the average temperature is -180°C (-290°F). Can we go home now?"

(text and image from the interesting Strange Maps website)

23 May 2008

More "Car Talk" staff

Continuing the list from yesterday. Full credit to the Car Talk website.

Dental Hygienist
Ginger Vitis

Dermatologist for Teenagers
Don Pickett

Director of Allergy Research
Theresa Pollinating

Director of Alpine Choir
O. Leo Lahey

Director of Cold Weather Starting
Martina Neverturnover

Director of Country Music
Stan Beyerman

Director of Delicate Electronics Repair
Anita Hammer

Director of Firestone Tire Recalls
Ivana Michelin

Director of Luxury Car Horns
Toney Blare

Director of Long-Range Strategic Planning
Kay Sera

Director of Pavlovian Research
Isabelle Ringing

Director of Pedestrian Operations
Carless Castenada

Director of Pollution Control
Maury Missions

Director of Purchasing
Lois Bidder

Director of Speed Bumps
Slow-Me-Down Milosevic

Director of Top Secret Strategy
Donatello Nobatti

Divorce Attorney
Carmine Nottyors

Drug Trials Specialist
Placebo Domingo

East Asian Used Car Expert
Alexander Soldyernissan

Ebay Specialist
Selma Junkoff

Electronics Technician
Sammy Conductor

Elvis Impersonator
Amal Shookup

Emergency Preparedness Director
Ron Lykell

Emissions Tester
Justin Hale

Employee Orientation Specialist
Trudy Gauntlet

Fact Checker
Ella Fynoe

Fashion Consultant
Natalie Attired

French Child Care Coordinator
Gerard Diaperdoo

French Vacation Specialist
April Lynn Parris

Remembering Carl Sagan

"At the very moment that humans discovered the scale of the universe and found that their most unconstrained fancies were in fact dwarfed by the true dimensions of even the Milky Way Galaxy, they took steps that ensured that their descendants would be unable to see the stars at all. For a million years humans had grown up with a personal daily knowledge of the vault of heaven. In the last few thousand years they began building and emigrating to the cities. In the last few decades, a major fraction of the human population had abandoned a rustic way of life. As technology developed and the cities were polluted, the nights became starless. New generations grew to maturity wholly ignorant of the sky that had transfixed their ancestors and had stimulated the modern age of science and technology. Without even noticing, just as astronomy entered a golden age most people cut themselves off from the sky, a cosmic isolationism that only ended with the dawn of space exploration."

From his 1985 book Contact; text found at Kottke, where there is also a link to an excellent article on light pollution; I'm saving that for a separate future blog entry. The image is of the Milky Way as seen from an elevation of 5000 meters in the Chilean Andes, away from light pollution. Photo source is the outstanding site Astronomy Picture of the Day, which has an archive and index well worth exploring (and the image above is worth clicking to full-screen magnificence).

Good news from the ocean

A title that unfortunately is seldom written...

The Discovery Channel reports today that humpback whales have made a substantial recovery: "The study released Thursday by SPLASH, an international organization of more than 400 whale watchers, estimates there were between 18,000 and 20,000 of the majestic mammals in the North Pacific in 2004-2006.

Their population had dwindled to less than 1,500 before hunting of humpbacks was banned worldwide in 1966..."

The first color photographs of England

Anyone who has watched "Masterpiece Theater" or BBC programming has "seen" Edwardian and Victorian (and for that matter, Celtic) England in color/colour. But the Daily Mail has assembled a selection from the famous Alfred Kahn collection that is worth peeking at. The colors are somewhat muted by today's standards, probably reflecting the intrinsic properties of the autochrome process rather than any blandness of England per se.

What always amazes me about early photographs - not just of England, but of the U.S. and Germany and elsewhere - is the emptiness of streets. Granting that some photos are taken on Sunday mornings to intentionally avoid traffic, it's still striking to see the Autobahn, or American highways, or the streets of London virtually vacant. It's a reminder of the startling degree to which vehicles have taken center stage in our lives.

The Diagram Prize

“… a humorous literary award given each year to the book with the oddest title. Nominees are selected from submissions sent in by librarians, publishers, and booksellers, and the final winner is voted for by the public. The prize is a magnum of champagne and increased publicity for both the book and its author…”

Note the award doesn't imply humorous or meaningless content - just that the title, standing alone, is "odd." Herewith, some examples...

The Joy of Chickens

Last Chance at Love - Terminal Romances

The Theory of Lengthwise Rolling

The Book of Marmalade: Its Antecedents, Its History, and Its Role in the World Today

Versailles: The View From Sweden

How to Shit in the Woods: An Environmentally Sound Approach to a Lost Art

How to Avoid Huge Ships

Reusing Old Graves: A Report on Popular British Attitudes

Butterworths Corporate Manslaughter Service

People Who Don't Know They're Dead: How They Attach Themselves to Unsuspecting Bystanders and What to Do About It

The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification

Full list at Wikipedia; credit to Neatorama for alerting me to this (and where you can read about the Aussie "Ernie Awards," the British "Foot in Mouth Awards," and others...)

Hazards of anabolic steroids

The morphologic changes that accompany anabolic steroid (ab)use are so dramatic that there must be deep psychologic/psychiatric conditions that precede the phenomenon, not to mention the ones that occur during training and afterwards. This article details some of the side effects. The fellow pictured above appears to be checking for one of them...

Sting pain index

"The Schmidt Sting Pain Index is a pain scale rating the relative pain caused by different Hymenopteran stings. It is mainly the work of Justin O. Schmidt, an entomologist at the Carl Hayden Bee Research Center. Schmidt has published a number of papers on the subject and claims to have been stung by the majority of stinging Hymenoptera..."

*1.0 Sweat bee: Light, ephemeral, almost fruity. A tiny spark has singed a single hair on your arm.
* 1.2 Fire ant: Sharp, sudden, mildly alarming. Like walking across a shag carpet & reaching for the light switch.
* 1.8 Bullhorn acacia ant: A rare, piercing, elevated sort of pain. Someone has fired a staple into your cheek.
* 2.0 Bald-faced hornet: Rich, hearty, slightly crunchy. Similar to getting your hand mashed in a revolving door.
* 2.0 Yellowjacket: Hot and smoky, almost irreverent. Imagine W. C. Fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue.
* 2.x Honey bee and European hornet: Like a matchhead that flips off and burns on your skin.
* 3.0 Red harvester ant: Bold and unrelenting. Somebody is using a drill to excavate your ingrown toenail.
* 3.0 Paper wasp: Caustic & burning. Distinctly bitter aftertaste. Like spilling a beaker of hydrochloric acid on a paper cut.
* 4.0 Tarantula hawk: Blinding, fierce, shockingly electric. A running hair drier has been dropped into your bubble bath.
* 4.0+ Bullet ant: Pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail in your heel.

Several years ago I stepped in a yellowjacket (2.0) nest while clearing brush. They swarmed me and chased me the quarter-mile back to my car. I have no desire to encounter a creature capable of a 4.0 sting.

It's Friday!

Time to join friends after work and tip back a cool one...

22 May 2008

Antitheft sticker

Zipper pond

A creation of Taiwanese sculptor/artist Ju Ming. This lotus pond is located at the Juming Museum, just north of Taipei City.

Hillhillhill hill

One thing leads to another. The post on a congregation of cownose rays led to an exploration of venereal words. That prompted Tess to compile a list, which made MW wonder about the etymology of "Watership Down." So... this morning I look up Watership Down, and am reminded of Fiver and Hazel and Bigwig, and (forcing myself back to the quest) find that a downland is an area of open chalk hills.

The word "down" itself comes from an Old Germanic or Norse word "dun," meaning "hill." Which naturally brought to mind the famous Torpenhow Hill. It's in Cumbria and is famous because of the tautology of its name - derived from the Saxon "tor," (meaning "hill"), Celtic "pen," (meaning "hill"), Scandinavian "how," (take a guess...), and Middle English "hill."

Which reminds me of the Aruwimi River in the Belgian Congo, named by David Livingstone. He inquired of a native, “What is the name of this river?” The answer was “Aruwimi,” meaning “What is this fellow saying?”

And the search eventually leads on to - where else? - Wikipedia, which has a jaw-dropping list of tautological place names. At the end of which one is lured into "pleonasm".

But I have to get on to my morning surfing....

21 May 2008

re "intelligent design"

Harry Potter Star Wars

World population 1950 - 2050

Offered without comment - but there's a lot of food for thought in these data...

Venereal words

My blog entry showing a huge group of cownose rays prompted the question of the proper term for such a gathering. Most people are at least tangentially familiar with James Lipton's book "An Exaltation of Larks," which lists the appropriate collective terms for groups of animals and birds. As I searched the web regarding the rays, I couldn't find a consistent term for that species.

Then, to my consternation, the Random House Dictionary didn't even offer a definition of the word "venereal" to refer to a collective term for groups of creatures. So I went to what I consider the "gold standard" - the OED - and to my amazement, "venereal" is defined only in sexual terms or in relation to the planet Venus. "Venery" is there as a word related to the hunt or chase (which is where the collective terms first developed), but "venereal is curiously absent.

But back to the rays. There are a variety of links on the web listing venereal terms for different groups. THIS ONE covers some mammals, birds, reptiles, and fish. THIS list extends to people and things. This Wordinfo site is excellent, though their list seems to terminate at the letter "F." This list includes humorous contrivances, and this one has accumulated 765 entries.

The modern offerings are more fun than the traditional ones. Consider...
a column of accountants
a hive of allergists
a slew of assassins
a "heard" of audiologists
a rash of dermatologists

But nary an offering on any of those sites for a large group of cownose (or other) rays.

Snake with two legs

A 92 million-year-old Cretaceous snake preserved in Lebanese limestone has been found to have two legs. One leg was visible on the surface of the slab; confirmation of the opposite leg required xray imaging. Only a few bipedal snakes have been found. Further study of this one may help answer the question of whether snakes evolved from marine reptiles, or from terrestrial lizards which began burrowing in the earth and lost forearms first (like this snake), and hind legs later.

"Some of the more primitive modern snakes, such as boas and pythons [show] evidence of their legged ancestry - tiny "spurs" sited near their ends, which today are used as grippers during sex."

Airline charge for FIRST checked bag

Not for extra bags, mind you. Not for overweight bags. $15 for the FIRST piece of luggage you want to take with you on your trip. Yet still another way to raise prices without "raising fares."

Anyone who has doubts about the seriousness of the economic trends in this country must have their head in the sand. Inflation is real - and really serious. If it's not showing up in the official consumer price index statistics, it's because those statistics are unreliable/bogus/manipulated.

Video of a "sand geyser"

An interesting clip that has been posted numerous times around the web. Similar phenomena have been documented adjacent to pile drivers releasing subterranean steam, in association with earthquakes, and offered as explanations for geologic features on Mars. Those interested in pursuing the topic should Google the more common term "sand blow."

The one in this video is particularly dramatic. The sightseers clustered nearby are a bit foolhardy, as a variety of toxic oilfield gases might be emerging with the sand.

Go ahead. I dare you...

Have the "Cow Something."

Edward Gorey's "The Gashlycrumb Tinies"

"A is for Amy, who fell down the stairs"
"B is for Basil, assaulted by bears"
"C is for Clara, who wasted away"
"D is for Desmond, thrown out of a sleigh"
"E is for Ernest, who choked on a peach"
"F is for Fanny, sucked dry by a leech..."

And on through "Zillah, who drank too much gin." Marvellous - the complete pictures and the text by Edward Gorey (probably without copyright permission, but who knows. Better enjoy it now before it's deleted).

Until I read more about this, I didn't realize that Gorey wasn't British.
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