31 March 2009


From a collection of about a hundred assembled at Widelec.

Historian calls BBC period drama "gratuitously awful"

Dr David Starkey, a British specialist in the Tudor period, described the BBC series "The Tudors" as being riddled with errors and inaccuracies.

Characters wear costumes from the Elizabethan era and travel in Victorian carriages, suggesting that the modes of transport in the series were bought "lock, stock and barrel" from a "Jane Austen leftover"...

"It is gratuitously awful," he told The Daily Telegraph. "There are errors in Shakespeare when he handles history but they are there for a purpose. The mistakes in The Tudors are completely gratuitous."

He said he was shocked that the programme makers twisted history to show Henry VIII's sister, Margaret, being sent away to marry the King of Portugal instead of the King of Scotland.

"There's only one reason for that: so that she can have a bonkorama in a supposed ship's cabin with the hunk who plays the Duke of Suffolk,"...

He added: "The series was made with the original intention of dumbing it down so that even an audience in Omaha [in Nebraska] could understand it.
The audience in Omaha will not be pleased...

??bonkorama?? (yes, I can guess what it means; it's just an interesting neologism)

The overlapping borders of religion and delusion

From WaPo this weekend, an unutterably sad story of the death of an infant as a result of misplaced religious zeal. Such events have happened throughout recorded history and for millennia before that, but it's always a shock to see them in a modern context.
Members of One Mind Ministries drew little notice in the working-class Baltimore neighborhood where they lived in a nondescript brick rowhouse.

But inside, prosecutors say, horrors were unfolding: Answering to a leader called Queen Antoinette, they denied a 16-month-old boy food and water because he did not say "Amen" at mealtimes. After he died, they prayed over his body for days, expecting a resurrection, then packed it into a suitcase with mothballs. They left it in a shed in Philadelphia, where it remained for a year before detectives found it last spring.
Tomorrow, five of the group's alleged members -- including the boy's mother, Ria Ramkissoon -- are scheduled to be tried in Baltimore on murder charges. Sources and Ramkissoon's mother said Ramkissoon, 22, has agreed to plead guilty to a lesser charge on one condition: The charges against her must be dropped if her son, Javon Thompson, is resurrected.
Psychiatrists who evaluated Ramkissoon at the request of a judge concluded that she was not criminally insane. Her attorney, Steven Silverman, said the doctors found that her beliefs were indistinguishable from religious beliefs, in part because they were shared by those around her...
According to charging documents, in December 2006, Javon stopped saying "Amen" at mealtimes. Queen Antoinette told members the boy had developed a demonic spirit and needed to be cleansed through fasting and by being denied water, law enforcement officials said...
Ramkissoon found it "unbearable" to watch but followed the instructions, the officials said. "In her mind, an apostle of God had ordered this," Silverman said.
The group came to believe there had been no resurrection because someone among them was not a true believer, according to an attorney for one of the other defendants, Marcus Cobbs. With that person no longer part of the group, they headed north out of Baltimore with the suitcase, believing Javon could be raised at a future date...

The Palestinian archipelago

Strange Maps is an excellent blog which will likely be the next addition to my tag of "highly recommended blogs." Today's offering is an unusual portrayal of the geography of the West Bank region of Palestine.

This map is considerably more interesting than previous maps of this fragmented area (see also the Wiki set of historic maps), in that it uses color-coding to convert the conventional geopolitical boundaries to the appearance of a chain of islands.
“Maybe posting the full map would help to take it for what it is, i.e. an illustration of the West Bank’s ongoing fragmentation based on the (originally temporary) A/B/C zoning which came out of the Oslo process, still valid until now. To make things clear, areas ‘under water’ strictly reflect C zones, plus the East Jerusalem area, i.e. areas that have officially remained under full Israeli control and occupation following the Agreements. These include all Israeli settlements and outposts as well as Palestinian populated areas.”

Those colours, incidentally, denote urban areas (orange), nature reserves (shaded), zones of partial autonomy (dark green) and of total autonomy (light green). Totally fanciful are of course the dotted lines symbolising shipping links, the palm trees signifying protected beachland, and the purple symbols representing various aspects of seaside pleasure. The blue icon, labelled Zone sous surveillance (‘Zone under surveillance’) has some bearing on reality, as the locations of the warships match those of permanent Israeli checkpoints.

Sales of Hummers continue to sink

Today's NYTimes has an article on how declining sales of Hummes is threatening to put dealers out of business. If General Motors doesn't find a buyer for the brand, it may discontinue the line. "The demise of Hummer would be cheered by environmentalists, who have relentlessly criticized its model lineup, which gets, on average, less than 10 miles a gallon. Other brands, such as Land Rover, have similar mileage ratings, but Hummer came to be viewed as the quintessential gas guzzler."

My own displeasure with Hummers relates not so much to their gas consumption, but to the tendency of such vehicles to contribute to "trail braiding" on rural unpaved roads (as suggested in the photo from the NYT above). The Mpls. Star Tribune had an excellent article last fall on the role played by ATVs; I'll probably blog the topic this summer when I get back out into the woods.

U.S. Banks have no virtually no "reserve" cash

Historically, banks have always kept a certain amount of cash on hand to meet the needs of their customers (for ATM withdrawals and check cashing). This has typically been about 4% of assets. Federal banking regulations have also mandated such reserves as a buffer in the event of crises or panics.

In the 1970s, the Fed began decreasing the mandated reserve levels of cash to be held by banks, to the point that now the only $$ banks have available is that which they expect to need for ATM and cash transactions.

The chart above, derived from Federal Reserve data, shows the federally-required reserves minus the actual cash in the vault, adjusted for inflation. For the past decade, that number has hovered around zero.

Is this reckless - or ominous? Not particularly. As long as things continue to go well, the absence of extra cash reserves shouldn't be a problem...

How anthropologists view "race"

The following are excerpts from a statement issued by the American Anthropological Association in 1998. "It does not reflect a consensus of all members of the AAA, as individuals vary in their approaches to the study of "race." We believe that it represents generally the contemporary thinking and scholarly positions of a majority of anthropologists."

In the United States both scholars and the general public have been conditioned to viewing human races as natural and separate divisions within the human species based on visible physical differences. With the vast expansion of scientific knowledge in this century, however, it has become clear that human populations are not unambiguous, clearly demarcated, biologically distinct groups. Evidence from the analysis of genetics (e.g., DNA) indicates that most physical variation, about 94%, lies within so-called racial groups. Conventional geographic "racial" groupings differ from one another only in about 6% of their genes. This means that there is greater variation within "racial" groups than between them. In neighboring populations there is much overlapping of genes and their phenotypic (physical) expressions. Throughout history whenever different groups have come into contact, they have interbred. The continued sharing of genetic materials has maintained all of humankind as a single species.

Physical variations in any given trait tend to occur gradually rather than abruptly over geographic areas. And because physical traits are inherited independently of one another, knowing the range of one trait does not predict the presence of others. For example, skin color varies largely from light in the temperate areas in the north to dark in the tropical areas in the south; its intensity is not related to nose shape or hair texture. Dark skin may be associated with frizzy or kinky hair or curly or wavy or straight hair, all of which are found among different indigenous peoples in tropical regions. These facts render any attempt to establish lines of division among biological populations both arbitrary and subjective...

At the end of the 20th century, we now understand that human cultural behavior is learned, conditioned into infants beginning at birth, and always subject to modification. No human is born with a built-in culture or language. Our temperaments, dispositions, and personalities, regardless of genetic propensities, are developed within sets of meanings and values that we call "culture." Studies of infant and early childhood learning and behavior attest to the reality of our cultures in forming who we are.

It is a basic tenet of anthropological knowledge that all normal human beings have the capacity to learn any cultural behavior. The American experience with immigrants from hundreds of different language and cultural backgrounds who have acquired some version of American culture traits and behavior is the clearest evidence of this fact. Moreover, people of all physical variations have learned different cultural behaviors and continue to do so as modern transportation moves millions of immigrants around the world.

The adventures of Maru the cat

I had promised myself (and readers) when I started this blog that I would not clog it up with funny cat pix and videos. The one above I ignored the first 7 or 8 times I encountered it on blogs this week, but I finally decided if it was going viral I needed to know the meme.

Maru is a cat in a Japanese family. He has been the subject of several videos, which are accessible on YouTube. In the segment above he sticks his head in a paper bag...

That's all. Just a cat with his head in a bag.

The girls of 1905

Washington, D.C., circa 1905. "Gunston Hall preparatory dept." Early approaches to prep-school bling. Harris & Ewing Collection glass negative.
Not your average schoolchild of the time; Gunston was an elite institution:

From "Handbook of the Best Private Schools of the United States and Canada" (1915):

Gunston Hall, 1906 Florida Ave., established in 1882, has steadily grown and now has an attendance of one hundred girls coming from prominent families in all parts of the United States. In 1905 the school was moved to its present site in a new building especially planned for its use. Gunston Hall is a boarding and day school and offers a great variety of courses from kindergarten to college preparation. Mrs. Beverly R. Mason, the principal, is assisted by a faculty of twenty-four, about one-half of whom have received college degrees.

This photo is from Shorpy; it enlarges to fullscreen so you can appreciate the blue eyes on miss top row second-from-left.

Rollling papers,1909

March 1909. "Widow & boy rolling papers for cigarettes in a dirty New York tenement." Photograph and caption by Lewis Wickes Hine.
With the economy is in the dumps and financial woes widespread, it may be useful to look back at how our ancestors coped. The photo above depicts a mother rolling cigarette papers (not cigarettes - just the tubes) in her tenement in 1909.

Her oldest child joins her in this endeavor, though his tubes appear less cylindrical than mom's. The photographer or editor captioned this as being a "dirty tenement," but I would note that mom is dressed in clean clothes, with a ?Gibson-girl hairdo and an earring in her pierced ear. The boy is also clean and nicely attired.

I'm also intrigued by the calendar, which has some days shaded. They are not "crossed-out" because the later days are darker. I presume this is a visual depiction of the phases of the moon, for a time period when outdoor lighting at night may have been minimal or absent. But why are Sundays blacked out altogether?

And what is the wood-and-rope domestic instrument hanging on the wall above her head?

The photo is from Shorpy; if it interests you, be sure to click it to fullscreen to explore.

30 March 2009

The vernal equinox celebrated

A woman crouches amongst the daffodils in London's St James' Park to take a photograph, as the capital enjoyed spring sunshine on March 20, 2009. (ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images)

People attend the spring equinox in front of the Kukulkan Pyramid (or "El Castillo") in Chichen Itza, Mexico, Saturday, March 21, 2009. This Mayan pyramid was built so that the shadows of a corner of the pyramid would fall on a stairway and create the image of an illuminated serpent (visible on the left side). (AP Photo/Israel Leal)

Iraqi Kurds carry torches up a rocky hill as they celebrate Nowruz in the Kurdish town of Akra, 500km north of Baghdad on March 20, 2009. Nowruz marks the first day of spring and the beginning of the year in Iranian calendar. It is celebrated on the day of the astronomical vernal equinox, which usually occurs on March 21. (SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)

An Afghan girl plays as others gather to celebrate the Afghan New Year in Kabul March 21, 2009. Afghanistan uses the Persian calendar which runs from the vernal equinox. The calendar takes as its start date the time when the Prophet Mohammad moved from Mecca to Medina in 621 AD. The current Persian year is 1388. (REUTERS/Omar Sobhani)

Strollers walk through a sea of crocusses in the park of the castle in Husum, northern Germany, as temperatures reached nine degrees Celsius (48.2 Fahrenheit) on Tuesday, March 17, 2009. According to a legend, monks in the 15th century planted the first crocusses here, and today some 4.5 million of them blossom here. (AP Photo/Heribert Proepper)
Several dozen more photographs at Boston.com's The Big Picture.

"Yan, tan, tether, mether, pip"

That's "One, two, three, four, five" in the vernacular of a Cumbrian sheep farmer.
Similarly, my partner, who comes from one of the rough parts of Cumbria (between Sellafield and Whitehaven) is forever counting things in the old north country sheep-farmer vernacular: instead of saying "one, two, three, four, five", she says "yan, tan, tether, mether, pip"...

In Lancashire, that counting system is even more delectably barmy... "Yan, tan, tethera, methera, pimp, teezar, leezar, cattera, horna, dik, yandik, tandik, tetherdik, bumpit, yan-a-bumpit, tan-a-bumpit, tethera-bumpit, methera-bumpit, jigot."
The above from a Guardian column on regional English dialects.

cobble = mucus in the corner of the eye in the morning (Gloucestershire)

fromward = away from (Oxfordshire) [related to "to-ward"??]

orrack = to break up cow dung with fork (Audlem, Cheshire)

peelie-wallie = pale; sickly (Scotland)

quaggle = to shake like a jelly (Berkshire, Hampshire, Somerset, Sussex): the same word means to strangle in Norfolk

slingers = bread soaked in tea (Dorset)

wally = pile of mown grass (Bretforton, Worcestershire)

Much more at the Guardian and at the Leeds Archive of Vernacular Culture.

Addendum April 3, thanx to comment by "Dirac", source:

"This is an old northern English (not Scots) dialect, used for counting sheep in Yorkshire and Cumbria. 'Yan, tan, tethera, methera, pip, sethera, lethera, hovera, dovera, dick.'

According to one correspondent, the folklorist A. L. Lloyd traced the words to a group of Romanian shepherds brought to England early in the 19th century to teach the locals something about increase in flocks. The words were thought very Occult and Mysterious, until it was explained that they were just counting."

Creeping theocracy

Congressman John Shimkus (R-IL) speaking at the March 25, 2009 hearing of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment.

The subcommittee is apparently holding hearings on matters involving climate change. Rep. Shimkus appears to hold the view that man's effects on the climate cannot be significant because "the infallible word of God (who says that "every inclination of man's heart is evil from childhood") states that such outcomes will not be permitted because "God's Word is infallible, unchanging, perfect."

"Nature, red in tooth and claw..."

Turtles may be cute, but they are also predators...

Geek + art = kinetic sculpture

I'm not using the word "geek" here in a perjorative sense. This artist knows his science and applies it to his art (his geekiness nicely demonstrated by his ability to draw perfect sine waves freehand).

I have mixed feelings about "art," so much of which (fashion in particular) seems to be created just for a "WTF" effect. The kinetic sculptures shown here are of course just decorative and nonutilitarian, but they have a scientific underpinning that gives them a certain appeal.

The artist's website is here.

Found at Neatorama's Upcoming Queue.

Time-lapse camera for the garden enthusiast

A simple, weatherproof camera designed for the garden or wildlife enthusiast. It can be programmed to take photos at variable intervals for the creation of time-lapse movie files.

It can focus as close as 20″ away to illustrate petal growth or, with its wide 54″ field of view, it can capture perennials as they grow to conceal your spent spring bulb foliage. The camera takes a picture at one of six pre-determined intervals (five seconds to 24 hours) and combines them into a single 1280 x 1024 resolution AVI movie file for easy playback on a computer. It has a light sensor that turns off the camera at dusk and back on at dawn, allowing for continued video capture each day. Movies are timestamped and stored on the camera’s removable 2GB USB flash drive, which can take up to 18,000 pictures.

Link - via gizmodo

Addendum: The link above goes to the retailer Hammacher Schlemmer. Here's a better link to the manufacturer - Brinno. Their link has extensive technical details and some sample videos.

Stem cells may be used for breast enhancement

Physicians in Britain are now offering stem cell therapy as a means of providing "natural" breast enhancement in women.

The stem cells are extracted from spare fat removed from the patient's thighs or stomach, then mixed with additional fat cells from the patient and injected into the breast.

It takes several months for the breast to achieve the desired size and shape... An increase of one cup size is likely, with the potential for larger gains as the technique improves.
Currently this procedure is being used for breast reconstruction and enhancement in women who have undergone lumpectomies as surgical therapy for breast cancer. Injections of fat cells alone had previously been tried, but it was difficult to maintain an adequate vascular supply to the injected cells. The addition of stem cells seems to overcome this deficiency.

A separate project may study this technique on healthy women seeking breast enlargement, but at present it is not routinely available to women as a purely cosmetic procedure.

Psychics surprised by government grant

Two self-described "clairvoyants" have been given £4,500 by a Department for Work and Pensions job creation scheme. They will use this money to train bereaved persons to contact their dead relatives.

Mr. Rees defended their acceptance of the funds: 'People who feel their tax money has been wasted should remember that if they'd lost a child they would go to a medium to get peace that their loved one has passed safely and is in a better place.
The couple, who have been working as mediums for five years, admitted they were surprised to get the Want2Work grant aimed at setting up new businesses.

World's largest egg

A man held up what is alleged to be the largest egg in the world for photographers in London Wednesday. The egg, priced at $7,340, will be sold at the Chelsea Antiques Fair. It was laid in the early 17th century by the now-extinct Great Elephant Bird of Madagascar. (Shaun Curry/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images) (via)

Advertisement for a dentist

Very reminiscent of the advertisement for ballet classes.

Via Titam.

29 March 2009

Sunday smörgåsbord

A parrot named Willie has been awarded an Animal Lifesaver Award by the Red Cross in Denver. It was in a room with a toddler who began to choke on food. Willie repeatedly yelled "Mama, baby" and flapped his wings, alerting an adult who saved the child with a Heimlich.

Time magazine online has a list of what they consider to be the "Best Blogs of 2009."

I didn't realize that the original ending of Little Shop of Horrors was one in which everyone was killed by the mutant plants. Video is available on YouTube. Here's part 1, where it eats Audrey; at the sidebar you can navigate to parts 2 and 3 to see the city destroyed.

A young couple in Beijing had an argument; she threatened to commit suicide by jumping out of the window. He was in the street below. She jumped. He tried to catch her. He was killed. She survived.

Eric Cantor (R-Va.) attended a pop concert featuring Britney Spears. She appeared on stage brandishing a leather whip. He's the Minority Whip.

The Comptroller of the State of New York audited the books of the state's Medicaid program and discovered that "1,483 dentists billed Medicaid $863,000 for cleanings, fillings, extractions and x-rays for 5,046 patients with full dentures.”

A scientist has been exposed to Ebola virus after an accidental needle stick. No cure is known, but research is underway, so researchers around the world are rallying to help this young woman.

Lots of fascinating stuff at Nothing to do with Arbroath this week. Just go there and read the whole blog. You will find a man whose hand was cut off who fought back with his stump, a compulsive hoarder whose body was found under piles of her junk after being missing for seven years, a police horse frightened by a 5-foot-long plastic penis, and a cow that gave birth to twins of two different breeds.

Maurice Ravel may have encoded a woman's name into one of his compositions. "...the notes, E, B, A in musical notation, or "Mi-Si-La" in the French doh-re-mi scale, refer to Misia Sert, a close friend of Ravel's."

Abu Dhabi postponed their World Water Day celebrations because of rain.

The Taliban reaffirm their medieval mindset by banning polio vaccinations.

Five of the last seven U.S. presidents have been left-handed.

Euthanasia kits are available in the U.K. for £35. They don't contain the necessary medications, but rather testing materials to make sure medications imported from questionable sources are pharmacologically active.

HuffPo has a brief report on the ABC News report on people who want to raise carnivorous pets (cats, dogs) as vegans. Long (and vehement) discussion thread.

Via J-Walk, a photoessay on what Cheetos are made of, and how to convert them to a tasty popcorn topping.

A dog in North Carolina ate $400 of a family's money. By a "process of elimination" they have been collecting "deposits" from the dog, washing them and retrieving bits of the bills, which they hope to exchange for new bills. Several pundits have noted that the family is getting a better return on their money than if they had invested in the stock market.

Photo credit to Bob Knisely.

Umbrellas as a "respite from social amiability"

"These umbrellas combine a symbol of gentlemanly refinement--the full-sized, black umbrella--with an element from more manly sword-bearing times. The umbrellas offer brief psychological respite from the dictates of social amiability."

Credit, via.

Rampant crime persists in Montana

It's been a month since I blogged about the situation in Montana. Things appear to be getting worse. Here are some recent entries from the Best of the Bozeman Chronicle Police Reports:

- Officers checking a vehicle that was pulling in and out of driveways around 11 p.m., on Boylan Road discovered the driver was a pizza delivery boy.

- Many items were missing from an unlocked residence on Cahill Street but it turned out that a neighbor took some clothes to wash them.

-A woman called about a stuffed Easter bunny in the middle of 19th Avenue. She was concerned someone would try to get the bunny and be hit by a car.

-A man was “acting weird and creeping out an employee” at a South 23rd Avenue store.

- A resident of South Third Avenue wanted to speak with an officer regarding a mouse she had found in her kitchen.

- A caller reported seeing a vehicle driving westbound on West Garfield Street with a hand sticking out of the trunk. A Montana Highway Patrol officer said he’d seen the same vehicle with a rubber arm hanging out of it last week.

- A caller wanted police to check to see if a friend of hers was drinking.

- The buyer of a used truck called the private seller and threatened him because he was upset after the seller took the license plates off the truck at the buyer’s business. The seller had forgotten to remove them before the sale was final.

- A dispatcher receiving a 911 call heard several people talking about eating ham. When the dispatcher called back, a person said there was no emergency.

- An officer stopped for a woman on South 13th Avenue who appeared to be flagging her down. The woman said she was just waving to say hello.


Found at Marcofolio.

Exercise by adults correlates with education

In 1997 and 2007, the percentage of adults aged >25 years who reported regular leisure-time physical activity increased with level of education. In 2007, persons with a college degree or more were nearly three times as likely to report regular leisure-time physical activity (43.4%) as those who did not complete high school (14.9%). However, regardless of education level, from 1997 to 2007 no progress was made toward meeting the Healthy People 2010 target of 50% of persons reporting regular leisure-time physical activity.

Explained using graphs

Found at Graphjam.

Times have changed...


The ungrateful public

28 March 2009

Faces on a family tree

A fascinating concept realized by an inventive photographer. These portraits are created by individually photographing two members of a family, adjusting the photos for size, and then manually tearing them down the middle and gluing disparate halves together. No Photoshop manipulation is involved.

More examples are available at this link. Via.

The view from a wheelchair...

I was waiting patiently in the airport, quietly watching people go by. My luggage was stacked up next to me and I felt that I looked like quite the world traveler. Suddenly this illusion was shattered when a security type guy came with a luggage cart and began loading my luggage. I sputtered a protest, 'Hey, that's my luggage.'

He looked at me, annoyed and said, "Luggage can't be left unattended."

"I AM attending it," I said incredulous.

"You don't understand, SOME BODY needs to be in possession of the luggage," he said and I didn't get his implication, not yet, I was still too startled.

"I am in possession of this luggage, it is MINE," my voice is rising.

He looks at me with exaggerated patience, "SOME BODY (long pause) needs to be attending the luggage."

I got it then, I wasn't SOME BODY, "Are you suggesting that I can't supervise my own luggage because I'm in a wheelchair?"

"You need to settle down, sir."

"What are you going to TAZER me? You are stealing my luggage," I'm almost screaming now.

"Sir, Sir, SIR, you don't understand, luggage can't be unattended," what world have I slipped in to?


At this point a pilot in uniform happens by...

The conclusion of the story is at THIS LINK.

The Cone Nebula

Enlarges to fullscreen with a click. Credit.

Unusual Puritan names

Found today at Futility Closet, this set of Puritan names from a Sussex jury roll of 1650:
  • Accepted Trevor, of Norsham
  • Redeemed Compton, of Battle
  • Kill-Sin Pimple, of Witham
  • Fly-Fornication Richardson, of Waldron
  • Search-The-Scriptures Moreton, of Salehurst
  • The-Peace-Of-God Knight, of Burwash
  • Stand-Fast-On-High Stringer, of Crowhurst
  • Fight-The-Good-Fight-Of-Faith White, of Ewhurst

And this observation:

In the late 17th century a member of the British parliament was named Praise-God Barebone, with brothers and sons named Fear-God Barebone, Jesus-Christ-Came-Into-The-World-To-Save Barebone, and If-Christ-Had-Not-Died-For-Thee-Thou-Hadst-Been-Damned Barebone.

The last changed his name to Nicholas.

More at the link. If you are intrigued by (or dismayed by) modern baby names, you should visit Baby's Named a Bad, Bad, Thing and the even more fascinating Baby Name Wizard.

Barcelona, 1908

Ride through the streets of Barcelona a century ago, sitting on the front of a trolley. See what urban life was like in the era before cars and trucks and vans and buses dominated the streets.

The behavior of the people is a little unusual because they can obviously see the movie cameras mounted on the front of the tram. Ignore those (cheerful) shenanigans and just enjoy the ride...

I'm not suggesting it was a "better" time. It was different. But it was better in some ways.

If your connection speed, monitor, and browser permit, I highly suggest clicking on the "fullscreen" icon at the lower right, sitting back, and enjoying these images.

Found at Dark Roasted Blend.

Cute girl offers a funeral oration for her dead goldfish

I wish the creators had edited about 2 minutes from the middle, but it's still charming. (via Arbroath)

The "Flyak" - a kayak that "flies" on hydrofoils

Hydrofoils are like underwater wings that can lift the hull of a boat above the water and thereby markedly reduce frictional resistance to forward motion. The still image above shows how they can be attached to a kayak; beneath that is a video showing the remarkable speed that can be achieved with such a setup.

This is not a diversion for the weekend enthusiast; it obviously requires not only great paddling skill but also superb cardiovascular fitness.

Thanks, Christophe, for the link to the video!

Rube Goldberg meets a Cadbury Creme Egg

The makers of Cadbury chocolates held a competition last year asking enthusiasts to submit videos of Cadbury Eggs being smashed. The video above shows a complex Rube Goldberg apparatus serving that purpose.

Last June I posted a 9-minute video depicting many of these same techniques for propelling a marble through a Rube Goldberg setup. This video seems a little more "home-made," but it's quite entertaining; the creators indicate that it took them 6 months to set up the apparatus.

Found at Neatorama.

27 March 2009

Oklahoma is poised to enter the Dark Ages

The Oklahoma House of Representatives Education Committee passed a bill, the intent of which was to "promote freedom of religion."
The bill requires public schools to guarantee students the right to express their religious viewpoints in a public forum, in class, in homework and in other ways without being penalized. If a student’s religious beliefs were in conflict with scientific theory, and the student chose to express those beliefs rather than explain the theory in response to an exam question, the student’s incorrect response would be deemed satisfactory, according to this bill.

The school would be required to reward the student with a good grade, or be considered in violation of the law. Even simple, factual information such as the age of the earth (4.65 billion years) would be subject to the student’s belief, and if the student answered 6,000 years based on his or her religious belief, the school would have to credit it as correct. Science education becomes absurd under such a situation.
The link article from the Edmond Sun newspaper is dated March 7. At the Oklahoma House of Representatives website I found an update from March 13 indicating that the bill had passed the full House by a vote of 71-25 and had been passed on to the state Senate.

This is insanity. One cannot declare (legislate) that religious belief is equivalent to truth. The obvious intent is to promote Christianist principles, but to implement that they would have to legislate that only Christian beliefs are accepted as truth. If not, any religion, including Islamic, Buddhist, Jainist, animist, Rastafarian, or even Pastafarian (depicted above) can decide what is "true" and schools would have to give credit for the answer being correct. Graduates of Oklahoma schools will be viewed with justifiable suspicion by graduate schools and employers in other states and around the world.

That way lies madness, and I don't care whom I offend by saying so. Hier stehe Ich - Ich kann nicht anders.

Addendum: As someone has pointed out in the Comments, the March referred to above was 2008. I haven't been able to ascertain whether it did or did not pass the Oklahoma Senate.

The rattleback (wobblestone) principle

A rattleback or wobblestone is an object with a smooth bottom that can be spun like a top. Unlike conventional tops, however, the rattleback has an asymmetry which gives it a preferred direction of spin. If spun in the opposite direction, it will begin to wobble, and then change the direction of its spin.

It would seem that if a spinning object changes the direction of its spin, it is defying the law of conservation of angular momentum, but apparently it is the rocking/wobbling motion that is converted into counter-rotational motion, not the initial rotation.

I've embedded two videos illustrating the phenomenon. The top one is in a language I don't understand, but the text is unnecessary. The "toy" appears to be hand-crafted and is cleverly made in that the turtle on the "log" can be turned to change a normal top into a rattleback.

In the bottom video the rattleback is more elegantly crafted, and the video performance is more professionally done. There are many more (and perhaps even better) videos at YouTube. These apparently are sold in toy stores.

According to Wiki, some ancient celts recovered by archaeologists from Celtic and Egyptian sites have exhibited this spin-reversal phenomenon.

Watercolors by a very famous artist

Famous not for his watercolors, but for the other career he took up after being rejected by the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts.
The paintings have been kept in storage since they were discovered in 1945. "The 13 paintings will be auctioned at Ludlow racecourse in Shropshire on April 23 and are expected to fetch tens of thousands of pounds."

'These are at best the standard of a reasonably competent amateur and some might consider them downright crude in execution."
The second watercolor above includes a self-portrait. After his second rejection by the Vienna Academy, the artist "resorted to copying scenes from postcards and selling them to tourists." After that, well, that's another story...

Sample questions from the GSCE science exam

The Guardian reports that the new GSCE science exam is "controversial" because of suspicion that the questions have been "dumbed down" with multiple-choice questions that are insufficiently challenging.

They offer a sample of eight questions that a reasonably educated person could answer correctly while half-asleep and thoroughly intoxicated. There is of course no way to know how representative the questions selected by the Guardian are.

Take the quiz and see what you think.

There is a much more entertaining quiz offered by one of the British universities for Christmas break. It's lost somewhere amongst my thousand bookmarks; I'll see if I can track it down for a future blogpost.

86,000 injuries per year caused by pets

In this week's MMWR, the CDC reports that there are approximately 86,000 fall-related injuries each year in which the fall was directly or indirectly caused by a cat or dog.
Nearly 7.5 times as many injuries involved dogs (76,223 [88.0%]) compared with cats (10,130 [11.7%]), and females were 2.1 times more likely to be injured than males. Injuries were most frequent among persons aged 0--14 years and 35--54 years. The most common injuries and the highest injury rates were for fractures and contusions/abrasions, and the highest fracture rates occurred among persons aged 75--84 years and >85 years...

Most falls involving cats occurred at home (85.7%). Approximately 11.7% of injuries occurred while persons were chasing cats. However, an activity was not specified in 62.1% of cases. The most frequent circumstances were falling or tripping over a cat (66.4%.); 29.2% involved other or unknown circumstances...
Note the numbers are considered to be underestimates because the data were derived from emergency room reports and don't include those treated by physicians in their offices or those that didn't receive medical attention.

And the data include only non-fatal injuries. One can only assume that the number of fatalities was so high that the CDC is suppressing the data to prevent public panic.

Image credit here, with other tips on how to recognize when your cat is planning to kill you.

Addendum: More on this story at CNN.

A flask that held hot milk may sell for £60,000

To understand why, you need to know the backstory:

The harrowing story of a father who shinned down a rope to deliver his wife and daughters a flask of hot milk in one of the Titanic’s lifeboats has emerged 97 years after his death.

Arthur West, who was emigrating to Florida with his wife, Ada, and young children, Constance and Barbara, left the flask and returned to the deck of the sinking ship...

Now the flask and an archive, including a first-hand account written by Mrs West, are expected to fetch up to £60,000 at auction. She described how, after her husband returned to meet his fate without a word of complaint, two foreign men leapt into the lifeboat and hid under the skirts of other women passengers before they could be ejected.

More details at the Times online.

Desert bloom

After posting the "drunken animals" clip (below), I looked for additional clips from the source film "Animals are Beautiful People," and found the one above. "Sivatagi" seems not to be a place; as best I can tell it's Hungarian for "desert." The movie was filmed in subtropical Africa, so the desert depicted is probably the Kalahari or the Namib, or a combination (not that it matters). What I found interesting was that the flowers depicted (presumably in the springtime or post-rains) included prominent displays of asters, which in our climate are fall-blooming perennials. Perhaps in other climes asters bloom in other seasons.

A pleasant video to watch as those of us in the Upper Midwest await the full bloom of spring.

"When animals get drunk"

When I saw the title, I thought this would be unutterably silly. It is - but it's also funny, especially the drunken elephants.
A small clip from Animals are beautiful people. Directed and written by Jamie Uys. He made this before The Gods Must be Crazy.

26 March 2009

New home sales did NOT improve last month!!

It was on all the news programs yesterday - new home sales up, perhaps signalling and end to the economic downturn. Dow Jones index and financial institution stocks up sharply. Analysts "cautiously optimistic."

Nouriel Roubini's website, the RGE Monitor, explains the truth about the data today. New home sales were NOT up. Here's the data from the Census Bureau:
Sales of new one-family houses in February 2009 were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 337,000, according to estimates released jointly today by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. This is 4.7 percent (±18.3%)* above the revised January rate of 322,000, but is 41.1 percent (±7.9%) below the February 2008 estimate of 572,000.
Note the +/- sign in the data. The numbers represent an ESTIMATE, and because the data has been experiencing wide fluctuations in recent reporting periods, the predictability of the number is less reliable. The sales are estimated at 4.7 percent plus or minus 18.3 percent different from January's numbers. So they could be about 13% lower - or 23% higher - or no change at all. The numbers are not actually "meaningless," but it is not possible to tell from the numbers whether they have changed at all from last month.

They HAVE, however, reliably changed from last YEAR. They are DOWN sharply. The standard deviation of 8% is much less than the estimated change of -40%, so it can be reliably said that sales are down about 30-50%.

I have a degree of trust in Nouriel Roubini, because it was hearing his dire predictions on Bloomberg on satellite radio that encouraged me to get virtually out of the equity markets two years ago. I cited his bearish viewpoint twice in this blog in January of 2008, when the Dow was near 13,000. In any case, the key point in this instance is not his opinion, but rather how to view the Census Bureau numbers. The mainstream media has MISinterpreted them, probably out of a desire to present some cheerful news to the public. Perhaps such maneuvers are necessary to prevent social unrest and/or panic, but in the long run they might be doing a disservice by misleading people in this fashion.

How to get back bank overdraft fees

There are two ways to view bank or credit card overdraft fees. The first is to hold the consumer strictly accountable using the principle "if you don't have the money, don't spend it."

The other viewpoint is to consider that credit card companies intentionally allow overdrafts in order to collect usurious amounts of fees. When a credit card is swiped by a teller, it would be simple for the computer to announce "insufficient funds" and refuse the transaction. Instead, the transaction is allowed to go through, and the credit card company "loans you the money" and charges an immense fee for a negligible loan for a brief period of time.

This video espouses the latter view and explains that if you protest the fees in small claims court, the credit card company may find it cheaper to cancel the fee (and pay your court cost) rather than to spend the time contesting the suit.

The latter maneuver could of course then be labelled "predatory litigation" by a corporation. It all depends on your point of view...

German crime wave solved!

Police in Germany had found the same DNA at 39 different crime scenes over a period of two years. Hundreds of detectives were searching for an elusive female criminal.
Her DNA was found over and over again: in bottles, tank lids, on bullets – and once even on a biscuit! Traces were found in southern Germany, Austria and France. Thousands of saliva tests were taken but there was still no answer... They eventually offered a 300,000 euro reward to find the killer.
Yesterday a spokesman for the public prosecutor's office announced that the investigations were being called off. They had determined that the source of the DNA on the specimens was a woman who made the cotton buds used to collect the samples.

Update: Furthe discussion available at Der Spiegel, under the clever title "Q-tip-off"

"Don't sweat the small stuff"

Via The Daily Dish.

Intertwined legs

Normal for a slender child, but an arresting image nevertheless.

Click to enlarge. Credit here, via.

(Is "intertwined" a redundant term? "twined" apparently means the same thing - but it sounds vaguely inadequate... And "inter"twined makes it sound like the legs of two different people; maybe I need an entirely different word...)

The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean

I discovered yesterday that the entire 13-episode series of Cosmos: A Personal Voyage is now available for viewing on Hulu - fullscreen, high-definition, and free.* Last night I watched the first episode - The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean - for the first time in almost 30 years.

It's hard to explain the immense impact that the Cosmos series had on a young(er) and still impressionable mind way back in 1980. The visual special effects were (for the time) awesome; not so much the "spaceship" of the voyage, but in the first episode the recreation of the Library of Alexandria in apparent 3-dimensional space which Carl Sagan then walks through as he speaks.

Then there was the music. The theme is Heaven and Hell, created by Vangelis and featured in the YouTube segment embedded at the top. This was synthesized music that some of us had previously heard on the Hearts of Space radio series, from a composer who would then go on to create the scores for Chariots of Fire and Blade Runner.

But the greatest impact was from the content. Cosmos is remembered (and parodied) for Sagan's use of "billions and billions" to describe the universe, but the numbers really are staggering - even today after decades of exposure to huge numbers during our space programs (and our budgetary problems). Some samples from this first episode:
our galaxy has about 400 billion suns.

in the Hercules Cluster, individual galaxies are 300,000 light-years apart.

some stars are 100 trillion times as dense as lead.

there are a hundred billion galaxies and a billion trillion stars.
It's almost impossible to wrap one's mind around such quantities, so I'm even more fascinated by some of the "terrestrial" revelations: In the screencap I took and embedded above, Sagan is explaining how, in about 200 B.C., Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the earth to within 1% of its actual value, by noting the difference of shadow lengths at the summer solstice.

Eratosthenes was the librarian at the Library of Alexandria, which housed the greatest accumulation of wisdom the world had ever assembled in one place. One of the books in the library was a 3-volume history of the world written by the Babylonian Berossus. Volume 1 covered the time period from the earliest known time until the Great Flood - a length of time he calculated as 432,000 years - 100X the length of time recorded by Biblical sources. Imagine what information that book would have included.

I plan to view several more of those Cosmos episodes to see if I can get back that sense of wonder that seems to be blunted by all the mundane developments and concerns of our day-to-day world.

*When I referenced Hulu as the resource for the Jon Stewart/CNBC confrontation, I received a polite but firm reprimand noting that Hulu does not stream outside the U.S.:
"I'm from Australia originally and I'm impressed with your general openness towards other countries - but sometimes (you are by no means the worst offender - many many many other blogs are far worse) you seem to ignore the fact that other countries exist. I really enjoy your blog, but please make sure that your content is accessible to everyone."
The reflex response would be that TYWKIWDBI is viewed by visitors from 180 countries and there's no way that I can know what is blocked where, and I would normally rely on the inventiveness of the audience to circumvent local problems (noting that this blog gets 150 hits/month from within the PRC, which has a national firewall to block access to blogspot blogs).

But frankly I hadn't realized that Hulu limited its streaming, and if it affects both Australia and Canada - two of the largest sources of my non-U.S. traffic - then I should in fact offer some accommodation. Here is Cosmos' official website. And here are the YouTube offerings of Cosmos episodes. In the future I'll try to remember to post YouTube alongside Hulu, but if (when) I forget, someone should feel free to post such info in the Comments section.

Pharmaceuticals in fish

Fish caught near wastewater treatment plants serving five major U.S. cities had residues of pharmaceuticals in them, including medicines used to treat high cholesterol, allergies, high blood pressure, bipolar disorder and depression...

A person would have to eat hundreds of thousands of fish dinners to get even a single therapeutic dose, Brooks said. But researchers including Brooks have found that even extremely diluted concentrations of pharmaceutical residues can harm fish, frogs and other aquatic species because of their constant exposure to contaminated water...
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