31 July 2008

These are antimacassars

Antimacassars are protective coverings placed over the back of a chair or sofa. "The original antimacassars were made of stiff white crochet-work, but later soft, coloured materials, such as embroidered wools or silks, were used. In the 20th century the use of antimacassars largely died out." The ones in the illustration are from the Palmer House in Chicago in 1875 (which, parenthetically, is where American Airlines boarded their crews when my mom was a stewardess for them in the early 1940s).

As Britannica states, their use is now uncommon, but as Wiki notes and illustrates with the second image above, those napkin-like coverings over airline seats are also "antimacassars."

So, if those are ANTI-macassars, there must be a "macassar." There is. It's a bustling city of a million people on Sulawesi Island, Indonesia. In the Victorian and Edwardian periods of the 19th century, it was the source of "macassar oil," a concoction of coconut oil or palm oil with ylang-ylang oil, which was used as a hair oil with such frequency (and in such quantity) that householders had to resort to placing doilies over the backs of chairs to prevent them from becoming permanently stained with oil. These then came to be called "anti-macassars."

And now you know the REST of the story.

International Color (Photography) Awards

The selections above are from a collection assembled at the Widelec.org photoblog.

Blue whales - changing their tune?

"The song of the blue whale, one of the eeriest sounds in the ocean, has mysteriously grown deeper. The calls have been steadily dropping in frequency for seven populations of blue whales around the world over the past 40 years... the songs, which they believe are by males advertising for mates, had lowered by as much as 30 percent in certain populations...

...the drop might signal a rebound in the population of blue whales since commercial whaling bans began to take effect in the 1970s.... Female blue whales choose their mates based on size, a selection process that has fostered the species’ gargantuan proportions. And deeper might signal bigger. When populations were smaller, whales may have had to be louder to make their calls heard. Now, the males might be competing to make their calls deeper...

...there are up to 25,000 blue whales, compared with perhaps 300,000 before whaling. The number may have risen from a low of about 10,000 animals."

From the New York Times, which also has an audio comparison of previous and current songs. The implication that this change is a result of population growth is amazingly good news.

Your tax money at work

(image credit here)

The Agony of the Vegans

“There is no more contentious question in the world of veganism than the one posed by honey. A fierce doctrinal debate over its status has raged for decades… Does honey qualify as a forbidden animal product since it's made by bees?

The hard-liners argue that beekeeping, like dairy farming, is cruel and exploitative. The bees are forced to construct their honeycombs in racks of removable trays, according to a design that standardizes the size of each hexagonal chamber… Queens are imprisoned in certain parts of the hive, while colonies are split to increase production and sprinkled with prophylactic antibiotics. In the meantime, keepers control the animals by pumping their hives full of smoke, which masks the scent of their alarm pheromones and keeps them from defending their honey stores. And some say the bees aren't making the honey for us, so its removal from the hive could be construed as a form of theft…

From a practical perspective, all this back-and-forth doesn't help anyone (or any animal). You either eat honey or you don't; to debate the question in public only makes the vegan movement seem silly and dogmatic…”

(Text extracted from Slate article; image credit to Wiki commons)

The Duggars are now in second place

"A Romanian immigrant has given birth to her 18th child in British Columbia, making her the province's most prolific mother in 20 years."

The Duggars still have only 17, with the 18th not due until January of 2009. Looks like they'll have to settle for second place in the Clown Car competition. (clown car link NSFW)

30 July 2008

Do museums "dumb down" science for children?

The Franklin Institute is generally considered to be one of the premier science education centers in the United States. This week there was an interesting column in the Philadelphia Inquirer suggesting that the Franklin "dumbs down" its offerings to children.

The current featured exhibit is "Real Pirates" (for a $23 admission charge):
Come and explore the Whydah and her story. See treasure chests of coins and gold, cannons, pistols, and knives salvaged from the ocean floor and a full size replica of the stern of the actual ship.
It does sound a bit more like a theme park than a science museum, and the Franklin is also offering "pirate-themed parties." Coming next: The Chronicles of Narnia, in collaboration with Disney.

Narnia? In a science museum exhibit? (apparently it's used to teach "climate change-connecting the White Witch's world with the melting polar ice caps; the forest with the destruction of our natural resources.")

I suppose I'm being a bit of a curmudgeon criticizing an exhibit I haven't seen, but for the moment I'll have to agree with the columnist (and the majority of the comments appended to the column) that this does not portend a favorable trend in public science education.

A fantastic resource... if you like menus

... or culinary history or design history. The New York Public Library has done you a great favor; they have uploaded THOUSANDS of menus:
The menu collection originated through the energetic efforts of Miss Frank E. Buttolph (1850-1924), a somewhat mysterious and passionate figure, whose mission in life was to collect menus... Her principal method of acquisition was to write to every restaurant she could think of, soliciting menus. When letters failed, she often marched into a restaurant and pleaded her case in person. She also placed advertisements in trade publications like The Caterer and The Hotel Gazette, but just as often, published news of her collection prompted outright contributions of specimens from around the world. Three times between 1904 and 1909, The New York Times wrote about her and the collection, noting once that "she frankly avers that she does not care two pins for the food lists on her menus, but their historic interest means everything." Miss Buttolph added to the collection of more than 25,000 menus until her death in 1924. The collection has continued to grow through additional gifts of graphic, gastronomic, topical or sociological interest, especially but not exclusively New York-related.
As the embedded image above illustrates, the menus of the nineteenth century were colorful and interesting; most of them appear to have been menus for events, rather than for the general public, probably since "dining out" was still not much in vogue. (Found at Metafilter)

To access the menu database, click HERE.

Is the Lanterne Rouge an honor?

"Wim Vansevenant, a Belgian riding for Silence Lotto (ninth on the nine-man squad) is the favorite to win his third Lanterne Rouge, a feat that hasn't been accomplished since the first official race in 1903. The French phrase, which translates to "red lantern," is used to describe the racer who finishes dead last in the overall standings when the peloton reaches Paris. (The terminology is borrowed from railway jargon for the archaic practice of hanging a red light on the caboose of trains, which assured station operators that no cars had come uncoupled.)

The designation falls somewhere between insult and accolade. Mr. Vansevenant, who after Stage 18 sits in 150th place, some 3 hours and 45 minutes behind Mr. Sastre, is indeed the worst-placed rider in the Tour de France. But, in turn, he has outlasted those who abandoned the Tour through illness, injury or simple exhaustion; those who were eliminated for failing to finish within each day's time limit and are forced to withdraw; and those who were banned or withdrew for doping-related causes. From year to year, about 20% of the riders drop out. In other words, you can't simply coast to last place; you have to work for it.

The curious combination of a stubborn refusal to fail mixed with an inability to rise to victory traditionally transforms a Lanterne Rouge rider into a cult favorite, even though the accomplishment is neither recognized nor encouraged by Tour officials. The race organization, in fact, has at times had a contentious relationship with the Lanterne Rouge. In 1980, Austrian racer Gerhard Schoenbacher was on his way to a second consecutive last-place when, he says, race officials thought he was getting too much attention. "I got daily interviews," Mr. Schoenbacher told journalist Rupert Guinness in an interview that year. "I was very popular with the crowd and I continued to tell everyone that I liked being last. [The organizers] said I made a mockery of the Tour."

Mid-race, officials instituted a temporary rule: After each stage, the last-place racer would be eliminated. Mr. Schoenbacher defied the rule by finishing in second-to-last place until the final stage, when he plummeted down to collect his Lanterne Rouge..."

In winning three in a row, Mr. Vansevenant will not only set a record but also, within the decidedly ambiguous context of the Lanterne Rouge, assume the status of greatest last-place rider ever."

Congressmen are more extreme than the public

An interesting graph depicting the ideological position of members of the U.S. Congress (dashed lines) compared to the U.S. public in general (solid line).

House and Senate positions were estimated based on their voting patterns, and the public one from survey questionnaires. The overall pattern is that congressional representatives are more extreme than the public in general - both to the right and to the left. Further graphs at the link show that in "Republican states" the congressmen are to the right of their consituents, and in "Democratic states" they are to the left of the voters. It is postulated that this outcome ultimately derives from the winner-take-all nature of the election process.

While some may argue over the accuracy of the methodology, it seems to me that the pattern depicted is logical and provides at least a partial explanation of why Congress is frequently so ineffectual.

For visitors who are new to WYWKIWDBI, I have also appended below my own position on the political compass, so you'll know what biases to expect in this blog:

Don't read this blog entry

There's more than a grain of truth in those comments...

TYWKIWDBI will continue its policy of not posting celebrity news; but I'll post this now because it's part of a rant against celebrity news. Which, I guess, promotes the celebrity. Gosh, this is complicated...

(Credit to The New Shelton wet/dry)

Lots of police chase donut thief

TOLEDO — A stolen van loaded down with donuts may not be the best vehicle for eluding police.

Frank Alvarado, 46, of Moline, Ill., found that out the hard way Thursday morning after leading nine officers from four different agencies in a high-speed chase through Benton and Tama counties...

“What strikes me as a bit out of the ordinary in this case is the number of officers who were able to respond,” said Rich Vander Mey, assistant Tama County Attorney. “I don’t know whether the fact that the stolen vehicle contained donuts has anything to do with that.”

... The chase ended around 10:30 a.m. at the Hardee’s restaurant parking lot when Tama County Dep. Chad Hansen rammed the van’s driver side door. Alvarado was taken into custody without incident, the attorney’s office said.

Four additional officers from three other agencies showed up, one of which drove his personal vehicle, the attorney’s office said."

29 July 2008

VERY expensive jeans

"This old pair of LEVI'S were found in a mine in the Rand Mining District, on the Mojave Desert,. California. They are covered in candlewax from the candle's the miner was using to light the tunnel he was working in. They were found with and old paper bag with the name of a mercantile store which operated between 1895 and 1898 in the town or Randsburg. Their was also a gunny sack with the initials A.P.K. and Randsburg marked on it. A.P.K. is through to be Adam P. Kuffel who was a partner in the mercantile store.

These pants have the cloth label vice the leather label. The label (pictured) indicates that they are size W34 x L33, They are copper riveted with the rivets marked L.S. & Co. S.F. They are buckle back (pictured) with suspender buttons. Buttons are silver in color and are all marked LEVI STRAUSS & CO. S.F.CAL. Tthe pants were made with just one back pocket on the right hand side..."

From a current listing on eBay. The bid right now is at $17,600 with 14 hours to go...

Update July 31: The winning bid was $36,000. I should think that old miner would be greatly satisfied to know that his jeans sold for more that a pair of Queen Victoria's knickers - which today the BBC reports sold at auction for $9,000.

Christian the lion

“Christian was a lion purchased in 1969 by two Australians living in London… They had discovered him for sale in Harrods' exotic pets department and, concerned for his conditions and fate, decided to buy him."

The rest of the story re the return of the lion to the wilds of Kenya is told at the Wiki link and in the external links listed there. The video above shows the reunion in Africa of the lion and his old "mates."

(Thanks, Susan for finding and forwarding the link)

Row houses, Washington, D.C. - 1923

Another photo from one of today's featured photos at Shorpy. Of additional interest is that respondents at the original site have added current photos and links to satellite imagery, showing that this row of houses is still intact and lived in. The photo above enlarges nicely if you click on it.

Losing - and regaining - brain function

" Cheryl Schiltz feels like she is perpetually falling. And because she feels like she is falling, she falls. When she stands up without support, she looks as if she were on a precipice, about to plummet. First her head wobbles and tilts to one side and her arms reach out to try to stabilise her stance. Soon her whole body is moving chaotically back and forth, like a person walking a tightrope in that frantic see-saw moment before losing his balance - except that both her feet are firmly planted on the ground, wide apart. When she tries to walk she has to hold on to a wall, and still she staggers like a drunk...

Cheryl's problem is that her vestibular apparatus, the sensory organ for the balance system, does not work [damaged by gentamicin]. Soon after her problem began, she lost her job as an international sales representative and now lives on a disability allowance of $1,000 a month. She has a new-found fear of growing old...

By any conventional standard, Cheryl's case is hopeless. The conventional view sees the brain as made up of a group of specialised processing modules, genetically hard-wired to perform specific functions. Once one of them is this damaged, it cannot be replaced. Now that her vestibular system is affected, Cheryl has as much chance of regaining her balance as a person whose retina has been damaged has of seeing again.

But today all that is about to be challenged. She is wearing a construction hat with holes in the side and a device inside called an accelerometer. Cheryl licks a thin plastic strip with small electrodes on it, and places it on her tongue. The accelerometer and the tongue strip are connected to a computer. This machine... will replace Cheryl's vestibular apparatus by sending balance signals to her brain from her tongue...

The first time they tried the hat, Cheryl wore it for only a minute. They noticed that after she took it off, there was a 'residual effect' that lasted about 20 seconds, a third of the time she wore the device. Then Cheryl wore the hat for two minutes and the residual effect lasted about 40 seconds. Then they went up to about 20 minutes, expecting a residual effect of just under seven minutes. But instead it lasted triple the time, a full hour...

It did keep up. Over the next year Cheryl wore the device more frequently to get relief and build up her residual effect, which progressed to multiple hours, to days, and then to four months. Now she does not use the device at all and no longer considers herself a Wobbler..."

The above is an extended abstract from a fascinating article at the Telegraph (via The New Shelton wet/dry) describing new insights into the plasticity of the human brain, and how essential functions can be recovered despite permanent structural damage. Even more impressive than the regained vestibular function is the subsequent one about regaining intellectual and motor function after a massive brainstem stroke. The Telegraph article is in turn extracted from a book entitled 'The Brain That Changes Itself', by Norman Doidge (Penguin).

Jurassic amber soap

I just blogged about amber fishermen yesterday, and today I find a bar of glycerine soap with "cracks, bubbles, and inclusions like real amber. It also features a (fake, of course) insect trapped inside." (Credit HERE, via Uncertain Times.)

28 July 2008

Monarch chrysalis formation

The last time I featured the monarch caterpillars, they were forming "Js" on the top of their enclosures.

I was lucky this week to capture one of the Js in the process of splitting open to reveal the chrysalis inside (upper photo). The process of metamorphosis requires shedding of the antennae, legs, and head, along with the skin; all of that material is wriggled into a ball and accumulates at the top near the attachment to the roof (then it falls off). What is left behind is the chrysalis, inside which the butterfly will form.

In the upper photo of the splitting "J" I think you can discern in the background a second - earlier - chrysalis, under the surface of which the monarch wingpattern is already evident. The lower photo shows the undersurface of the lid of the enclosure, with the cohort of cats and chrysalids. Monarch butterflies should begin emerging about 10 days from now.

Jupiter's moon Europa

Click to enlarge (unfortunately not to wallpaper dimensions).

Greed masquerading as "anti-terror security"

NEW YORK, July 23 (UPI) -- Team officials admit rules were "too stringent" and are now allowing sunblock to be brought into New York's Yankee Stadium, The New York Post reported Wednesday

The change came after fans howled when they were forced to dump their sunscreen at the gate if it was in containers holding more than three ounces. The Yankees said the prohibition was necessary to prevent possible terrorists from concealing liquid explosives that could be brought into the stadium. "The Yankees' management will do whatever it takes to maximize profit under the guise of security," retired police officer Chester Hicks said to the newspaper.

Sunscreen inside the stadium sells at an inflated price of $5 an ounce.

Amber fishermen

"During prehistoric times, wind and waves coming ashore from the Baltic Sea formed what is known as the Curonian Spit on Poland and Lithuania's famous Amber Coast [map above]. Running southwest to northeast, the spit varies in width from 430 yards to 2 miles and is sixty miles long. Along this shore, banks of pine trees and sand dunes separate the Baltic from the Curonian Lagoon. For thousands of years, amber that has been pulled up from the ocean floor by strong tides and fierce storms has been deposited along this shorline.

In the marshy regions along this coast, where the tides were unpredictable, amber was collected on horseback by "amber riders" who used poles and nets called "amber-catchers." There were also "amber divers" who carried a wooden spade to loosen amber from the sea floor.

The earliest evidence of an amber workshop in Gdansk dates back to the 9th and 10th century AD. Local dukes held an exclusive right to "fish" and mine amber, and the amber fishermen had to obtain an amber-fishing license from the city government. The illustration [above top] showing an amber-fisher is from 'Succini prussici physica et civilis historia' in 1697."

(Credit for text and images HERE)

Followup on out-of-date auto tires

Two weeks ago I posted a blog entry about tire codes. Today I found an ABC News video on the subject, apparently just broadcast last week - it's well worth watching, but I can't embed it here.

The YouTube copy is less succinct and lower resolution video, but is embedded above as a second choice if the ABC link becomes inactive.

"Bedspring boys"

Boston, Massachusetts. January 25, 1917. "Boys linking bed-springs. 14 and 15 years old." Glass negative by Lewis Wickes Hine. (Credit to Shorpy) Click image to enlarge to full screen size.

Radio factory, 1925

Found at Shorpy, the photoblog specializing in old images. Anyone who enjoys history, photography, or just exploring would be well served to visit the site.

I won't use this image for any socio-political commentary, although it does provide an interesting American historical counterpoint to the recent images out of China showing enormous factories, and as a reminder that this country rose to power and prominence with a manufacturing economy, not a service economy.

Click to magnify the image to wallpaper size.

"Jake the Peg" performed by Rolf Harris

A "necktie party" for neckties?

As a pragmatist who prefers functionality over fashion and affectation, I for one will not bemoan the "death of the necktie," as implied by the impending dissolution of the trade association for that clothing item:
"Association members now number just 25, down from 120 during the 1980s power-tie era. U.S. tie companies have been consolidating...According to a recent Gallup Poll, the number of men who wore ties every day to work last year dropped to a record low of 6%, down from 10% in 2002...Although sales are expected to get a bump around Father's Day, June 15, the future of neckties is very much in doubt...
The Wiki review of the subject traces the history of the tie to about 1600, when changeable neckcloths were deemed more practical than changing an entire doublet that became soiled (presumably while dining). The modern equivalent is, of course, the "Dress for Dinner" napkin.

The neckcloth evolved into the cravat, a word derived from the French term "cravate" used for Croatian mercenaries ("Croat" in Croatian is "Hrvat").

Name that animal - round 11

In round 10, Mieke was correct that the creature in question was a Saki monkey. I had thought that the almost ursine face and the ET-like-fingers made for a somewhat improbable combination. I don't have any TYWKIWDBI-type facts to offer re the monkey itself, which appears to lead a rather conventional life.

And speaking of odd appearances, try this one. Is it real, or is it "Photoshopped?"

Winner gets a kiss.

The Pelican-eats-pigeon video

Described by the person who submitted this to YouTube as follows:

"this is the original footage. Filmed by myself in St. James Park, London Sunday 7th August 2005. I'd just finished film school and had hired a Z1 as a graduation present. Fifteen minutes after setting up, near Princess Diana's Memorial Walk, this happened. In front of me with the camera rolling!

Did Steve Fossett fake his death?

I detest "celebrity" news, but I love "conspiracy theory," so I'll let this fall into the latter category. The disappearance of adventurer Steve Fossett last year sparked a lot of media interest and some bewilderment, but at the time at least no controversy. Now questions are being raised - not surprisingly, by the insurance company.
However, Lieutenant Colonel Cynthia Ryan of the US Civil Air Patrol has said Fossett, whose body or plane was never found, could still be alive.
She said: "I've been doing this search and rescue for 14 years. Fossett should have been found.
"It's not like we didn't have our eyes open. We found six other planes while we were looking for him. We're pretty good at what we do."

The choice of plane was also a baffling one - a Bellanca Citabria Super Decathlon, which, according to risk assessor Robert Davis said was constructed from a steel and wood frame, but actually covered in fabric, making it easy to dismantle.
Stay tuned.

Update:  As Kevin points out in his comment, Fosset's body was later found.  I could delete the post, but I'll leave it up as an object lesson re conspiracy theory.

25 July 2008

Why does this clock show 4 as IIII instead of IV?

"One common suggestion is that around the circle the IIII balances the VIII which is in its mirror-symmetrical place – that is if a mirror was placed vertically between the XII and VI, the VIII and IIII would reflect on to each other...

Another plausible explanation might be that IV has three strokes and is more likely than IIII to be confused with the neighbouring III or it could be confused with the upside down VI...

I think the answer is rather different. Artefacts in Wells Cathedral in Somerset, England indicate that it is the question that may be based on a false assumption. Have the normal rules of writing Roman numerals been broken? Or does the dial of a clock simply use the normal rules which were used when the clock face was first drawn in the 14th century? It is worth remembering that when the idea of a mechanism rotating hands to indicate the passage of time was invented, the means by which the pointers showed the time had to be designed.

The oldest surviving clock-face in its original condition is on the clock inside Wells Cathedral in Somerset. It dates from before 1392 and the original mechanism – now in the Science Museum – has some claim to be the oldest surviving clock works in the world. The current mechanism that drives it is Victorian, but the face has not been changed for more than 600 years...

The answer I believe is found in manuscripts in the Wells Cathedral library. They show that the use of IIII – or more precisely iiii or iiij – for 4 was commonplace even though 9 was normally depicted by IX or ix. In other words, the subtractive principle was used for one but not the other...

...in the mid 1200s, a copy of the Liber Ethinmologiarum by St. Isidore of Seville (died 636) was written out... The verso of folio 36 lists 39 headings. It uses iiii exclusively for 4, but ix exclusively for 9...

So the clock-faces we see today could be the last surviving remnants of the style used by the mediaeval scribes when writing Roman numerals."

Full credit for text and image to Paul Lewis.

From Roman numerals we move logically to Romania...

Romanian oil production

Posted for the sole purpose of noting the interesting observation it was the country of Romania that had "the world's first commercial-scale oil production" in 1857. I wouldn't have guessed that if you had given me 300 guesses.

Credit to the Oil Drum, whence also the image. It is in my view the single best source for extended in-depth discussions of the petroleum industry, with a readership heavily weighted toward scientists and industry insiders. Rightly or wrongly there does seem to be a bias toward "peak oil" (as you might have guessed from the nature of the imbedded image).

And speaking of "Romania"...

Geography quiz #1

The area shaded in green in the map above is best referred to by which of the following names?

a) Lithuania
b) Indonesia
c) Romania
d) Tanzania
e) None of the above

The answer is NOT "e". See the comments section for answer and explanation

Fantasy Cartography - maps of fictional places

For those who like maps, or fiction, but preferably both - Fantasy Cartography is a website that compiles maps from works of fiction. From my quick review, it appears that most of the maps are from fantasy works, but there are also items from science fiction (Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea embedded above), and traditional fiction (Watership Down, Wizard of Oz, Arthur Conan Doyle, Harry Potter).

In my view, this is what the web is for - collecting things so you can look them up. You never know when you might need a map of Jurassic Park...

Atolls after nuclear blasts

Much of the public's fear of nuclear energy derives from books and movies depicting a post-apocalypic barren world. In point of fact, nature is more resilient that such simple models suggest.
"Three islands of Bikini Atoll were vapourised by the Bravo hydrogen bomb in 1954, which shook islands 200 kilometres away. Instead of finding a bare underwater moonscape, ecologists who have dived it have given the 2-kilometre-wide crater a clean bill of health...

Richards and colleagues report a thriving ecosystem of 183 species of coral, some of which were 8 metres high. They estimate that the diversity of species represents about 65% of what was present before the atomic tests...

The ecologists think the nearby Rongelap Atoll is seeding the Bikini Atoll, and the lack of human disturbance is helping its recovery. Although the ambient radiation is low, people have remained at bay..."
There's an obvious irony in the observation that in a relatively short time a coral reef can recover from nuclear bombs, but not from the presence of people...

The fungi of the Chernobyl reactor

There are a number of interesting links on the web about the current status of the Chernobyl plant and the nearby town of Pripyat. Today I ran across an interesting article about the biological developments occurring inside the reactor itself:
"The exclusion zone is teeming with wildlife of all shapes and sizes, flourishing unhindered by human interference and seemingly unfazed by the ever-present radiation. Most remarkable, however, is not the life buzzing around the site, but what's blooming inside the perilous depths of the reactor.

Sitting at the centre of the exclusion zone, the damaged reactor unit is encased in a steel and cement sarcophagus. It's a deathly tomb that plays host to about 200 tonnes of melted radioactive fuel, and is swarming with radioactive dust.

But it's also the abode of some very hardy fungi which researchers believe aren't just tolerating the severe radiation, but actually harnessing its energy to thrive...

In 1999, a robot sent to map the inside of the reactor returned with samples of a particularly black fungi, indicating an abundance of the biological pigment melanin, which also colours your skin... melanised fungi, happily congregating in the cooling pools of functional nuclear reactors, and by studies of dark, 'radiation-seeking' fungi, purposefully growing towards radioactive particles in soil, particularly around Chernobyl...

They also saw a change in the pigment's electronic structure. This, Dadachova says, is evidence "that melanin transformed part of the ionising radiation energy into the energy of electrons, which represents the 'chemical' form of energy [that] fungi could potentially use in their metabolism."

Taken together, the researchers think their results do indeed hint that fungi can live off ionising radiation, harnessing its energy through melanin to somehow generate a new form of biologically usable growing power...

Their melanin gene, she said, might eventually be popped into food crops and used to help growth in difficult regions. And astronauts on long spaceflights might one day find a useful, self-replenishing diet in black, melanin-rich fungi.

And because the fungi don't actually 'eat' radioactive material, but simply use the energy it radiates, Dadachova said, they're in no danger of becoming radioactive themselves.

(text and image from Cosmos magazine)

Opening lines from science fiction books

From the text and comments at this link. I'm not recommending the books (most of which I haven't read), but I always enjoy posts about "best first lines" "best closing lines" etc in literature. For brevity, just the first lines are here - sources at the link for those interested.

"Physicist Leonardo Vetra smelled burning flesh, and he knew it was his own."

"They set a slamhound on Turner's trail in New Delhi, slotted it to his pheromones and the color of his hair."

"The five small craft passed from shadow, emerging with the suddenness of coins thrown into sunlight."

"In the summer of his twelfth year — the summer the stars began to fall from the sky — the boy Isaac discovered that he could tell East from West with his eyes closed."

"Brother Francis Gerard of Utah might never have discovered the blessed documents, had it not been for the pilgrim with girded loins who appeared during that young novice's Lenten fast in the desert."

"No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water."

"Gully Foyle is my name
And Terra is my nation
Deep space is my dwelling place
And death's my destination."

"Once upon a time there was a Martian named Micheal Valentine Smith."

"In the week before their departure to Arrakis, when all the final scurrying about had reached a nearly unbearable frenzy, an old crone came to visit the mother of the boy, Paul."

"Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun."

Ask the people of Greenland about global warming

"I’d like to say that global warming was evident during my visit, but that is not really the case. Indeed, Salik tells me that he and most Greenlanders are pretty skeptical about it. The local fishing industry used to be based on arctic prawns, but the sea temperature has changed just enough that the prawns are much further north, so now they fish for cod.

But, as Salik points out, this cycle has happened several times in living memory. The same with the glaciers: yes they are retreating, but at least in his area, they have yet to reach the limits that the locals remember them. Objective measurements do show that climate change is happening. Nevertheless I was amused that the locals don’t seem to think it is such a big deal..."

(Text and image from Freakonomics)

Can watching television cause autism?

"Today, Cornell University researchers are reporting what appears to be a statistically significant relationship between autism rates and television watching by children under the age of 3. The researchers studied autism incidence in California, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Washington state. They found that as cable television became common in California and Pennsylvania beginning around 1980, childhood autism rose more in the counties that had cable than in the counties that did not. They further found that in all the Western states, the more time toddlers spent in front of the television, the more likely they were to exhibit symptoms of autism disorders...

So Waldman studied precipitation records for California, Oregon, and Washington state, which, because of climate and geography, experience big swings in precipitation levels both year-by-year and county-by-county. He found what appears to be a dramatic relationship between television viewing and autism onset. In counties or years when rain and snow were unusually high, and hence it is assumed children spent a lot of time watching television, autism rates shot up; in places or years of low precipitation, autism rates were low...

Research has shown that autistic children exhibit abnormal activity in the visual-processing areas of their brains, and these areas are actively developing in the first three years of life...

If television viewing by toddlers is a factor in autism, the parents of afflicted children should not reproach themselves, as there was no warning of this risk. Now there is: The American Academy of Pediatrics currently recommends against any TV for children under the age of 2. Waldman thinks that until more is known about what triggers autism, families with children under the age of 3 should get them away from the television and keep them away.

Researchers might also turn new attention to study of the Amish. Autism is rare in Amish society, and the standing assumption has been that this is because most Amish refuse to vaccinate children. The Amish also do not watch television."

[Note: correlation is not the same as causation; this is discussed at the Slate article from which the above text was excerpted. Even though I'm no fan of television, I'm not taking a position on any role it might have re autism - just offering this information as food for thought.]

Food taster ... of pet food!

"This is Simon Allison, the man who eats pet food for a living.

Chicken dinners, beef strips or campfire jerky bars - it is all the same to him: if it's a dog's dinner (or cat's breakfast), he eats it. What's more, he enjoys it.

Mr Allison is a senior food technologist for Marks & Spencer with special responsibility for pet food. This means no M&S product goes into the nation's pet bowls unless it has been tasted by him first...

"It's quite bland, really," he said. "Dogs enjoy all food universally, while cats can be very choosy about what they will eat. They respond more to aroma than seasoning flavours that you would recognise."

...The human tester does, however, draw the line at swallowing the stuff - "I would be quite a different shape" - and always has a glass of water on hand to wash his mouth out.

Afterwards, he chews gum to prevent "dog breath".

(Posted for Charles, a taster of (human) food, and for Jay, who in a recent comment suggested that cat food tastes bad...)

Jenga challenge

Posted for old friend Graham, who invented the game.

24 July 2008

Excellent botanical photos

Two examples from the Botanical Society of America website, where there is a collection of (as of today) 68 submissions for the 2008 student photography award. The images come from students around the world, and since the website belongs to a scientific society, each one is accompanied by detailed information and observations on the plant.

Many of these photos are truly superb - and to my delight they enlarge to wallpaper status (try clicking on the embedded images above!!). I highly recommend a visit to the link.

THEN - if you enjoyed that - just change the date in the url from 2008 to 2007 to see the material from the previous year and click HERE for the 2006 photos.

"Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii"

One of the most interesting websites I've run across is the "Name Voyager" at BabyNameWizard.com. It allows you to type in a name and see how the frequency of that name has changed over the years. You can read about it HERE and follow the link there to the primary site if you're interested.

It's understandable that parents want their child's name to have meaning, and perhaps some in this era want to have a name that will be unique in a Google search. But there are limits, as exemplified in the report below. (via Arbroath)
Some parents have been branded abusers because of the bizarre names of their children.

Family Court Judge Rob Murfitt stated his concerns in a written decision after a custody hearing in New Plymouth revealed a couple had named their child Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii.

He was so disturbed at the effect on the nine-year-old that he ordered her temporarily placed under court guardianship so a suitable name could be chosen.

"It makes a fool of the child and sets her up with a social disability and handicap," he said.

The girl, who had not had her birth officially registered in NZ, had not revealed her name to her friends.

The judge was stopped talking yesterday by Principal Family Court Judge Peter Boshier.

Meanwhile, Registrar General of Births, Deaths and Marriages Brian Clarke released a statement today which said a list of unusual names believed to be registered in New Zealand issued by Judge Boshier's office was incorrect.

"The names Fish and Chips, Masport, and Mower, Yeah Detroit, Stallion, Twisty Poi, Keenan Got Lucy and Sex Fruit have not been registered," Mr Clarke said.

Names on the list from Mr Boshier's office that were not corrected included: Spiral Cicada, Kaos, Hitler and Cinderella Beauty Blossom.

Click on the ball

The "balloon on a string" flash device has been around for years and has been emailed to everyone on the internet. Here's a new variation - the balloon is now a "ball," and when (if) you click on it, it changes color. It is frustratingly difficult, but I was able to change the color 3-4 times before realizing what an incredible waste of time it is -- which is why you should try it.

Click here to play with the ball.

Product placement sinks even lower

I may seem to have a schizophrenic approach toward advertising; sometimes I applaud the insightful or innovative approaches (see the "clever" column in the sidebar). More often I bemoan the plethora of ads that besmirch the landscape and intrude on daily living. On the left is an example of the latter.

The FOX television station in Las Vegas opted to use the product placement device that is so ubiquitous in movies. On the desk in front of the news anchors are what appear to be iced coffees from McDonalds. But they're not even real products, and the anchors don't drink from them; they're fake. The station claims that the presence of the products will not impair their ability to report truthfully if e.coli is found at McDonalds. And if you believe that... take a sip of the "coffee." (via J-Walk)

Bush surveys the widespread damage in America

With advance apologies to AV8r, Brother C, and other Bush supporters, here is a video in which President Bush seemingly offers apologies for the unnatural disaster caused by his presidency. Some may be offended; I thought it was funny. Created by the team at the Onion.

Was a special pizza created to honor Obama?

From the BBC today, at a link entitled "Palestinians pay culinary homage to visiting Senator 'O'" is this description -
"...no real visible signs of Obama-mania.

Apart from in the Zeit and Za'tar bakery in Ramallah.

There - next to its wood-fire oven - manager Nasser Abdulhadi told me about "the O", his culinary homage to the visiting presidential candidate.

He calls it a pastry, but the "O" is actually a sort of Palestinian pizza - a circular dough ball, stuffed with cheese, dotted with cherry tomatoes and black sesame seeds and topped with a garnish of basil and mint.

All of which, Mr Abdulhadi told me, reflected the American melting pot, symbolised by Senator "O" himself.

The white cheese represented white Americans, he explained, the red tomatoes the "Red Indians" - or native Americans - and the black seeds, what he called the "Afro-Americans".

The green? Mr Obama's environmental policies, apparently - slightly random, that bit..."

I hope I can be excused for just a bit of skepticism, but since red, white, black, and green are famously the colors of the Palestinian flag, I suspect the concoction "created" for Obama is a rebranding of an old staple by an enterprising baker.

23 July 2008

Monarch caterpillar forming a "J"

When monarch caterpillars reach full size, they become "restless" in their enclosure, wandering about and climbing the sides of the container or any structure inside. They are seeking a slanting or horizontal surface from which they can suspend themselves.

One a suitable location is identified, the caterpillar lays down a carpet of silk to assure a firm attachment and then hangs by his hind feet, with the head curling forward into a "J" configuration. Now begins the first step in the magic of metamorphosis. The caterpillar molts for the final time, shedding his skin (and his head capsule!). What emerges from under the skin is the beautiful jade-green chrysalis inside which the transformation to butterfly will occur.

We have several cats in J formation now. I'll post photos of a chrysalis in a day or two.

If you want to see a video of the process, there is a good one HERE that compresses the process to 40 seconds.

Why animals lick their wounds

"A report by scientists from The Netherlands published in The FASEB Journal identifies a compound in human saliva that greatly speeds wound healing. This research may offer hope to people suffering from chronic wounds related to diabetes and other disorders, as well as traumatic injuries and burns...

Specifically, scientists found that histatin, a small protein in saliva previously only believed to kill bacteria was responsible for the healing...

"This study not only answers the biological question of why animals lick their wounds," said Gerald Weissmann, MD, Editor-in-Chief of The FASEB Journal, "it also explains why wounds in the mouth, like those of a tooth extraction, heal much faster than comparable wounds of the skin and bone. It also directs us to begin looking at saliva as a source for new drugs."

Yesterday was "Pi Approximation Day"

The conventional "Pi Day" is March 14, often celebrated at 1:59 PM (3.14159).

Yesterday was 22/7 in the conventional day/month format, thus explaining its designation as Pi Approximation Day.

The image above is a Halloween photo, and is of course... pumpkin pi.

Getting rid of "witches knickers"

One of the first items in TYWKIWDBI was a rant about "witches knickers" (plastic shopping bags in trees), with a comment that our personal household is virtually plastic bag-free and an encouragement to others to do the same.

In February I noted the campaign in Ireland to get rid of plastic shopping bags, and in May a small European village banned the bags. Now it appears that California, which in 2006 prohibited municipalities from imposing fees on plastic bag use, may be moving the other way. San Francisco has banned plastic bags, and now the city of Los Angeles has announced that it will ban all plastic bags from all retail stores - although not until July of 2010.

The Aurora Australis

Time-lapse footage of the Southern Lights, photographed near McMurdo Station in Antarctica. The same video is available at higher resolution at THIS website.

Some concepts are hard to visualize...

"Pogo sticks were invented by the Russian military during World War II, as a means of escape from German Tanks during the siege of Berlin."

Possible origin of the "hobble skirt"

Hobble skirts and the similar "pencil skirts" of the 1940s (above) were reportedly first created by French designer Paul Poiret just after the turn of the century. Some suggest that he was inspired by photos of Mrs. Hart Berg who accompanied the Wright brothers during some of their early flights and tied a rope around her skirt below the knees to preserve her modesty (see the image embedded above). In mid-century the style achieved tremendous popularity, but in the modern pragmatic world, apart from some wedding and Goth dresses (a la Morticia in the Addams family), the style has been relegated primarily to the world of bondage fetishists.

If you like to eat lobster...

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health is reminding consumers not to eat lobster tomalley, the soft green substance found in the body cavity of lobsters, because this part of the lobster can build up high levels of toxins and other pollutants.In past years, DPH has warned consumers against eating lobster tomalley because it can accumulate high levels of toxins such as polychlorinated biphenyl compounds or PCBs.Recent reports from the Maine Department of Marine Resources also indicated the presence of high levels of paralytic shellfish poisoning toxin in some tomalley from lobsters in that state.

"Due to unforeseen circumstances..."

(Click to enlarge if necessary).

All the more ironic because this appears to be real - "An English-language magazine published monthly in India since 1895. It includes articles on Indian astrological theory and practice" - rather than an Onion story or photoshop prank.

History of Persia/Iran

There is an interesting article in the online National Geographic covering the history of Persia and modern Iran.

The image embedded above is of the tomb of Cyrus the Great at Pasargadae, with scaffolding reflecting preservation and restoration efforts. Cyrus formed Persia into perhaps the world's first "superpower," and established what many consider the "world's first religiously and culturally tolerant empire" comprised of 23 different peoples.

The article briefly reviews how because of Iran's strategic location, the great Achaemenid culture was eventually overrun by Mongols and Turks and Islamic Arabs, and how among many current Iranians there is a dislike of Arabs as a result of that history.

The modern conflict with the West can be traced back to 1953 when, in order to secure Iran's oil, Great Britain and the U.S. used the CIA to engineer a coup, overthrowing the democratically-elected Mohammad Mossadegh, and placing on the throne the notorious Shah of Iran backed by his SAVAK secret police. That of course eventually led to the counterrevolution by the mullahs and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. One cannot help but wonder how today's world would be different had the democracy of 1953 been allowed to persist.

A Roman "quiff"

Several days ago I blogged an Egyptian statuary head that strongly resembled Michael Jackson. This one (via Neatorama) is a dead ringer for another music celebrity.
"The Roman Elvis [2nd century AD] is in fact a genuine marble acroterion - a kind of architectural ornament often found for decoration on the corners of a sarcophagus, a stone tomb or burial chamber... It bears an uncanny likeness to Elvis Presley. It's the quiff that does it..."
A new word for me - quiff - per Random House "a girl or woman, esp. one of loose morals" or Brit. "a lock or curl of hair brought forward over the forehead," both with etymology unknown. (There's nothing in the OED).


Mating ritual of the jumping spider

Obviously filmed in a laboratory setting, apparently with a preserved specimen of a female (on a stick) to prompt the display. The sounds are the most interesting part of the routine; I don't know how a spider makes sounds - presumably snaps various body parts against one another (like a grasshopper) since there's no vocalization.

My suggestion: if there's someone in the room with you while you're logged on, play this video with the screen covered or dimmed to darkness and challenge them to identify the sound. It's unlikely they will even guess it's an animal - much less a ...spider!

"Ich bin ein Berliner" is NOT ungrammatical

With Obama at the Brandenburg gate, some attention will certainly be directed back to Kennedy's appearance, and his famous/infamous quotation, often referred to in the following manner:
Some of the world's best jelly doughnuts are made in Berlin and known as Berliner Pfannkuchen. In Kennedy's famous speech at the Berlin Wall he said "Ich bin ein Berliner," to declare his solidarity with the people of Berlin. He thought he was saying the equivalent in German of "I am a Berliner." But in idiomatic German that should have been, "Ich bin Berliner." By adding the indefinite article, ein, the president was saying "I am a jelly doughnut."
That apparently is an erroneous oversimplification; some years ago I found the following comments in an online thread (source lost), which per my German language background, sound accurate:
"As I learned from reading his speech, JFK was talking about freedom for all people and that Berlin should be a symbol of freedom. In this case he would be a person of Berlin. This is why he said: Ich bin ein Berliner. Had he said, ich bin Berliner, he would have meant that he is a citizen of Berlin, which he wasn't. Therefore I think he was right. And by the way... a Berliner is a doughnut, filled with jelly, but is only called this in some parts of Germany. In Berlin, everybody says Pfannkuchen. My grandparents, who were there, understood what he was trying to say, as did the rest of Berlin, I am sure."

"Kennedy DID make one small mistake, but it had nothing to do with a jelly donut! "Ich bin Berliner" takes on the literal meaning of the phrase "I am a citizen of Berlin." It would have been incorrect for Kennedy to say this when referring to himself since we all know he didn't reside in West Berlin. The addition of 'ein' into "Ich bin ein Berliner" gives the figurative meaning of the phrase. It's along the lines as saying "I am LIKE a citizen of Berlin" or "I am one with the citizens of Berlin." So what mistake did JFK make? Well, he used the phrase twice during his speech. Once in reference to the citizens of Berlin and once in reference to himself. He should not have used the figurative phrase both times. He should have said "Ich bin Berliner" the first time and "Ich bin ein Berliner" as he finished the speech."

Giant waterfalls on Mars??

"What created this great cliff on Mars? Did giant waterfalls once plummet through its grooves?

With a four-kilometer drop, this high cliff surrounding Echus Chasma, near an impressive impact crater, was carved by either water or lava.

A leading hypothesis is that Echus Chasma, at 100-kilometers long and 10-kilometers wide, was once one of the largest water sources on Mars. If true, water once held in Echus Chasma likely ran over the Martian surface to carve the impressive Kasei Valles, which extends over 3,000 kilometers to the north.

Even if initially carved by water, lava appears to have later flowed in the valley, leaving an extraordinarily smooth floor."

Credit for text and image (from the robotic Mars Express spacecraft currently orbiting Mars), to NASA's often-fascinating Astronomy Picture of the Day.)

Man with amelia swims triathlon

Amelia [a (without)+ melos (limb)] is a birth defect which at its most severe results in the absence of arms and legs, and which has resulted in a variety of human interest stories over the years that illustrate the capabilities of the human body and spirit, and which should be read or viewed by anyone feeling sorry for their own problems.

Craig Dietz has amelia, but has achieved a successful professional career and a full life, including a variety of sports activities. Last week he successfully completed the swimming leg of the Pittsburgh Triathlon.
In the end, he finished 275th out of 308 participants.

"To think that I was ahead of 35 people just blew my mind," said Dietz. "I would have been happy with 307th, beating one. Not being the last person out of the water would have been a good day for me."

Dietz also doesn't think of himself as an inspiration.

"I didn't do the race for that, my reason for the race were quite selfish -- to challenge myself," said Dietz. "I was there on Sunday for the same reason as all the other persons… to challenge myself and to prove something to my self. I never set out to prove anything to anybody else and I think people do what they have to do to survive in life. You overcome whatever you're faced with and that's all I think that I've done."
The story at the link includes a video which I can't embed here, but which is certainly worth viewing.
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