30 June 2009

Awesome safety saw

A table saw is reconfigured to sense electrical conductivity; when it does so, it goes from 5000 RPM to zero in milliseconds, destroying the blade but preserving the finger.

The demonstration is a little misleading in that it appears the finger needs to be on the table (?) so the electrical conductivity can be sensed, and when the inventor used his own finger he touched the teeth almost tangentially; had he moved the finger into the blade quickly there might have been an injury.

Still, it's a remarkable invention.

Thanks, Skip, for forwarding this.

This is not a monarch butterfly

For many (?most) people, the sight of a large orange butterfly prompts an automatic identification as a "Monarch," and depending on where you live that will probably be the most likely answer. But there are several other possibilities, including queens and fritillaries. The one above (photographed at Cherokee Marsh State Natural Area) is the Viceroy, and it has an interesting story of its own.

The caterpillars of Monarch buterflies feed on milkweed plants; in doing so they incorporate into their bodies the toxins present in the plant. Both the caterpillar and the adult Monarch are unpalatable to predators; when a young bird is presented with a Monarch, it will eat it and then violently regurgiate it. If it is then offered another Monarch, it will studiously avoid it.

Monarchs flaunt their toxicity. They display bright coloration, and when they fly it is with a powerful, but leisurely, soaring flight. This aposemitism is the opposite of the "crypsis" that most creatures use to hide from detection.

Generations of young naturalists have been taught that the Viceroy exhibits classical "batesian" mimicry: sometime in prehistory the edible ancestors of modern Viceroys that looked most like Monarchs were spared from predation, thus favoring the evolution of coloration and wing patterns like the Monarchs.

It is now known that Viceroys are also unpalatable. The caterpillars feed primarily on willow plants, which are sources of salicylic acid (aspirin), which they sequester in their bodies and retain as they become butterflies. The physical resemblance of the two butterflies is an example of Mullerian co-mimicry, in which each benefits from the toxicity of the other as well as their own.

Viceroys are widespread (map here) and relatively common if you know what to look for. You can identify them on the wing because their flight is more jerky and less majestic than the monarchs, but the most definitive distinction is the wing pattern. Note in the top photo that the hindwings are crossed by a black line; it looks like a "smiley face" (I think of it as the letter "V" for "Viceroy").

The monarch (photo below) has no such line. The monarch below also exhibits the two small black "balls" or dots on the hindwing that mark him as a male. These are the androconial patches that release pheromones to attract females. I think it must be a bit unusual in the animal/insect kingdoms for the males to release the sexual pheromones; it seems it is usually the female of the species that does that.

Monarch butterflies "in copulo"

Photographed at the Black Earth Rettemund Prairie last week. My wife said I was behaving like a "paparazzo" for photographing them, but this is an event that is uncommonly seen and less often photographed. Shortly after this photo was taken they flew off across the prairie - or, to be more precise, he flew off, still locked to her and carrying her as he flew.

"Tonic immobility" demonstrated in a shark

This documentary was produced by a pro-shark group, presumably to counteract the senseless murder of sharks for the dorsal fins. The idea is to show that sharks can be gentle, nonaggressive creatures, but what interests me is the process by which the diver induces a state of tonic immobility in the shark by stroking its head.
Sharks may not always respond to tonic immobility by physical inversion of the animal, as has been done with lemon and reef sharks. With tiger sharks 10 to 15 feet in length, tonic immobility may be achieved by placing hands lightly on the sides of the animal's snout approximate to the general area surrounding its eyes. Great White sharks have been shown to be not as responsive as other species whenever tonic immobility has been attempted. Scientists believe that tonic, displayed by sharks, may be linked with defence, because female sharks seem more responsive than others. During tonic immobility, the dorsal fin(s) straighten, and both breathing and muscle contractions become more steady and relaxed.
It's reminiscent of the process of "hypnotizing" a chicken. The video is not really proof that sharks are gentle, but the content is interesting nevertheless. Via Presurfer.

"The Road" - trailer

The novel by Cormac McCarthy was very well written - bleak and somber and depressing, but well written (a Pulitzer prize winner). It will be interesting to see how it translates to the big screen and whether it distinguishes itself from the multitude of other movies with post-apocalyptic settings.

The face of St. Paul - revealed by a laser

While restoring the Roman catacomb of St. Thekla, archaeologists discovered a fresco dating to the 4th century. Using a laser to remove centuries of grime, they discovered the recognizable face of St. Paul.

St Thekla was a follower of St Paul who lived in Rome and who was put to death under the Emperor Diocletian at the beginning of the 4th Century and who was subsequently made a saint but little else is known of her.

...the pictures are all covered with limestone which was covering up much of the artwork and so to remove it and clean it up we had to use fine lasers.

The traditionally-accepted story of St. Paul is that he converted from Judaism to Christianity because while travelling on the road to Damascus a brilliant light shone in his face and temporarily blinded him.

"On that journey as I drew near to Damascus, about noon a great light from the sky suddenly shone around me... Since I could see nothing because of the brightness of that light, I was led by hand by my companions and entered Damascus..."
The current event and the historic one form an interesting juxtaposition...

This old advertisement is politically incorrect...

...but notable for its content. When someone trashed my Mustang back in the early 1970s (by pouring sugar into the gas tank), I had to sell it for scrap and buy a replacement quickly. With a salary of $100/wk. my choices were limited. Volkswagens of that era were well-crafted, sensible vehicles, with parts interchangeable between model years, lowering the cost of maintenance and repair. As the ad above indicates, the cost of replacing the fender was $25 + labor. I enjoyed having a yellow Beetle for about 8 years, then sold it to my mom, who used it for another 10 years or so.


Photo taken at the Rock of Ages granite quarry in Graniteville, Vermont. 600 feet deep, in operation for over a century, and with enough granite remaining to supply market needs for the next 4,500 years.

You'll need to click/enlarge the photo, or better yet, view it at the original source.

Dogs can locate bedbugs by smell. Also lobsters.

An article in this month's issue of The Atlantic reports that trained dogs are being used to search for bedbugs in homes, apartments, and hotel rooms.
A controlled experiment by entomologists at the University of Florida found that dogs were 98 percent accurate in locating live bedbugs in hotel rooms. In a hotel or apartment building, dogs can determine which rooms require attention, avoiding the telltale stench of mass fumigation and saving thousands of dollars by treating only the affected rooms. (Not that the dogs are cheap: they typically cost about $325 an hour.)
The author's definition of "cheap" differs from mine, but what really startled me was that these dogs learn to distinguish live bedbugs from dead ones, bedbug skins, and bedbug fecal matter.

In a separate, but related (I think lobsters are sometimes referred to as "bugs"), story - Canadian dogs have been trained to detect lobster eggs.
It's illegal for fishermen to keep egg-bearing lobster, but catching them is difficult because the crustaceans carry their eggs under their bellies.

So until now, fisheries officers had to turn every lobster over by hand to check them.

"It speeds up the time. The dog can do probably 20 crates of lobsters in five minutes where it would take us probably five hours..."

Via Arbroath, where there is a video. More later on dogs that detect seizures, and maybe I'll do melanoma dogs eventually. Amazing creatures.

28 June 2009

Bachelor's button (cornflower)

This pink/white bicolor from our garden is a nice contrast to the usual blue color. The latter has a lot of historic and symbolic importance:
The blue cornflower has been the national flower of Estonia since 1968 and symbolizes daily bread to Estonians. It is also the symbol of the Estonian political party, People's Union, the Finnish political party, National Coalition Party, and the Swedish political party, Liberal People's Party...

The blue cornflower is also one of the national flowers of Germany. This is partly due to the story that when Queen Louise of Prussia was fleeing Berlin and pursued by Napoleon's forces, she hid her children in a field of cornflowers and kept them quiet by weaving wreaths for them from the flowers. The flower thus became identified with Prussia, not least because it was the same color as the Prussian military uniform. After the unification of Germany in 1875, it went on to became a symbol of the country as a whole. For this reason, in Austria the blue cornflower is a political symbol for pan-German and rightist ideas...

In France it is the symbol of the 11th November 1918 armistice and, as such, a common symbol for veterans... similar to the poppies worn in the United Kingdom and in Canada.

The cornflower is also the symbol for Motor Neurone Disease and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis.
The photo enlarges to wallpaper size with a click.

Summer solstice at Stonehenge

When I visited Stonehenge many years ago, visitors were not allowed near the trilithons - you had to walk along a perimeter pathway outside a fence. This year 36,500 members of the great unwashed public were allowed in to celebrate the solstice and have a massive drinking party. They responded by leaving plastic rubbish all over the place...

Photo credit. Via J-Walk.

Richard III (1995 version)

Last night I watched the 1995 film adaptation of Richard III. As I blogged last week while discussing The Daughter of Time, I think the Shakespearean treatment of Richard is biased, in part because the author of the play (Edward deVere) is a descendant of John deVere ("Oxford"), who led the Tudor forces against Richard at the Battle of Bosworth Field.

That disclaimer aside, I thought this was an excellent movie. Traditionalists may be distressed to see the play set in an alternate England of the 1930s, with Richard and his compatriots as pseudo-Nazis. But Ian McKellen is superb in this role, and well deserved his BAFTA award as Best Actor.

If you want a sample, here is the trailer:

Seagulls attacking whales

Whales off the coast of Argentina, apparently including the endangered southern right whale and whale calves, are being attacked by seagulls when they swim at the ocean surface. The seagulls feed on the flesh of the whale, pecking through the skin into the blubber. More pix at the BBC.

A paradox that many of us would embrace...

Credit to Ashleigh Brilliant.

Eggs on Queen Anne's Lace

While I was out enjoying my walk this morning, my wife was slaving away in our garden. She weeded out some Queen Anne's lace, a plant of the carrot family which has an attractive umbel of blossoms, but which is weedy and invasive in gardens. Knowing that it is a host plant (food plant) for black swallowtails, she checked the underside of the leaves, and sure enough, there was a cluster of eggs. I've been growing bronze fennel for the sole purpose of attracting BSTs, but they seem not to have found the fennel yet.

The bottom photo shows a magnified view of the cluster of eggs; they have a shape kind of like the old-fashioned candy root beer barrels. We now have them safely stored in the house where predators won't bother them, and we'll be glad to feed the caterpillars all the Queen Anne's lace they can eat. Last year I blogged the life cycle of black swallowtails, but I'll probably do so again this year, since they are such magnificent creatures.

Addendum:  These turned out NOT to be Black Swallowtail eggs.  For the answer, see this post.

Tiger swallowtail on Shiraz lily

After I returned from my hike this morning, I was standing in the front garden when a huge swallowtail swooped down to nectar on one of our Shiraz lilies. I was only able to fire off one quick photo before he sailed away; it's a bit out of focus because a strong wind was whipping the tall lilies and the autofocus of the camera seemed to prefer the lily petals to the swallowtail wings.

Tigers tend to lay their eggs on treetops and other inaccessible places, so I've never been fortunate enough to find some eggs to raise.

(Technical note: The pale band at the trailing edge of the forewing is almost continuous. A continuous band is indicative of a Canadian Tiger Swallowtail; the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail has a band interrupted by black. We live on the margin where the territories of these two butterflies overlap, so I wonder if the one above could be a hybrid.)

Dogbert finds a tax loophole

Prehistoric wheeled transportation

Some of the world's first farmers may have sped around in two-wheeled carts pulled by camels and bulls, suggests a new analysis on tiny models of these carts that date to 6,000-5,000 years ago.

The cart models, which may have been ritual objects or children's toys, were found at Altyndepe, a Chalcolithic and Bronze Age settlement in Western Central Asia near Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. Together with other finds, the cart models provide a history of how wheeled transportation first emerged in the area and later developed.

Tidal channels

Tidal channels near Iran's Qeshm Island. Google Maps.

27 June 2009

Ragweed leaf beetle (Zygogramma suturalis) larvae

I was hiking this morning at the Cherokee Marsh conservation park with members of the Southern Wisconsin Butterfly Association. On the leaves of what I believe were Canada Goldenrod we encountered an abundance of critters that none of us recognized. Some were clustered in groups (top photo) on the underside of leaves; others were wandering solo. The second photo shows one with a large "club" at the end of its tail. When I put him on my hand, the "club" fell off, and I felt momentarily bad... until I got home and discovered what it was...

These are obviously not caterpillars; the most familiar creature they resemble are the larvae of ladybugs. After further searching I decided these are the larvae of the "ragweed leaf beetle" (Zygogramma suturalis). The adult is a handsome, colorful beetle. But these youngsters are even more interesting. Those "clubs" on the ends of their tails are collections of feces which they wave about to discourage predators.

After I brought one home I was able to get more detailed pictures. At first I thought I was having difficulty focusing the lens, but the fourth photo above shows that the body is covered by a layer of slime, which presumably has some toxicity to insectivores, or at least must taste dreadful. Protruding through the slime are a series of lateral spikes.

Look at the defense mechanisms this little fellow has - a hard carapace, probably the ability to roll into a ball like a pillbug (I didn't challenge him), with a slimy covering penetrated by spikes (reminiscent of the testudo (turtle) formation used by the Roman legions). Top that all off with a ball of feces waved in the air, and you can't help but marvel at what millions of years of evolution can achieve.

It looks to me like the stegasaurus didn't disappear - it just shrank in size.

All the pix enlarge nicely with a click.

26 June 2009

Moonwalking bird - the Red-capped Manakin

Hummingbirds and rattlesnakes move parts of their bodies at amazing speeds. But male club-winged manakins -- colorful, sparrow-sized South American birds -- have them both beat, vibrating their wings at more than 100 cycles per second, twice the speed of hummingbirds. The bird uses this unprecedented feat not for fight or flight, but to impress females with its violinlike hum...

Manakins are lek-breeding birds, meaning that the males compete to mate, while the females raise the young. Since the males do not couple to raise young, a single male could inseminate all the local females. Therefore, competition for females among lek-breeding birds creates strong pressures for sexual selection.

While other birds make wing sounds -- including other types of manakins, grouse, pheasants, hummingbirds and birds of paradise -- and many of the 40 kinds of manakins have developed wing buzzes, snaps and hums, none of these sexually selected adaptations are as extreme as the club-winged manakin, Bostwick said.

The video documents the amazing wingspeed, but the impressive part is the moonwalking. Skip to the 2:30 mark if you're in a hurry, but it's better to encounter it after the more prosaic prologue. The moonwalk is laugh-out-loud quality humor when you encounter it in the midst of this academic presentation.

Found at Anything and Everything.

Reblogged June 26 in light of Michael Jackson's death. Moonwalking has been all over the mainstream television news and the blogosphere today. Let me repeat my previous suggestion: "Skip to the 2:30 mark if you're in a hurry, but it's better to encounter it after the more prosaic prologue. The moonwalk is laugh-out-loud quality humor when you encounter it in the midst of this academic presentation."

Enjoy. And Michael Jackson, we will miss you.

Michael Jackson performs "Billie Jean"

Everyone and his brother will be blogging tributes to Michael Jackson today. It clearly doesn't fit in as "something you wouldn't know," but I want to store this material for future re-viewing.

The topmost video is the music video that aired on MTV in 1982. (embedding for other copies of this has been disabled, so this one may not last long either). Many people believe that it was this video that helped bring MTV from relative cable obscurity into the awareness of the general public.

The second video is a stage performance at Pasadena in 1983 for Motown's 25th anniversary. Michael looks young, but the performance has already acquired impressive polish, and I believe it was during this performance that he first showed the world the "moonwalk."

The third version is also undated, but to me he appears older and the performance is about eight minutes in length (one can't fault him for lip-synching these songs when so much dancing is involved).

When I first encountered "Billie Jean" (on MTV), I didn't understand the lyrics...
Billie Jean is not my lover
She's just a girl who claims that I am the one
But the kid is not my son...
...and I never tried to figure it out, because Michael Jackson music videos tend to be as much a visual experience as an auditory one. It wasn't until I began researching this blog post that I encountered the backstory. Reportedly, the lyrics were inspired by a real-life experience in which a young woman wrote a series of letters to Michael Jackson, insisting that he was the father of ONE of her TWINS (??). Finally she sent him a gun, asking him to kill himself and indicating that she would kill herself after she killed their baby.

If all you want to see is the moonwalk, here's a shorter excerpt from a different performance, isolating that famous component:

I heard on the radio today that after viewing the MTV 25th anniversary show, Fred Astaire remarked that Michael Jackson was the first dancer he had ever seen who made him jealous!

Aphrodite Kallipygos demonstrating "anasyrma"

Copy of a Hellenistic Aphrodite Kallipygos at The Hermitage in St. Petersburg.

Here's your word for the day: Anásyrma - the gesture of lifting up the skirt or kilt.
Anasyrma differs from flashing, a physically similar gesture as an act of exhibitionism, in that an exhibitionist has an implied purpose of his/her own sexual arousal, while anasyrma is only done for the effect on the onlookers.

Anasyrma may be a deliberately provocative self-exposing of one's naked genitals and/or buttocks. The famous example of the latter case is Aphrodite Kallipygos ("Aphrodite of the beautiful buttocks"). In many traditions this gesture also has an apotropaic character, as a mockery towards a supernatural enemy analogous to mooning.
Photo credit Yair Haklai.

Where can you find hotel rooms for $20/night?

Perhaps in Zimbabwe - I don't know - but also in... Las Vegas. An article at the Guardian today describes the city's extreme bad fortune in building a new multi-billion dollar CityCenter complex just as the national economy is collapsing.

After a quarter of a century of phenomenal growth, Las Vegas has come to a shuddering halt. The seemingly endless supply of gamblers has dried up. So has the conference trade, hardly helped by a warning from President Barack Obama that bailed-out Wall Street banks should avoid "taking junkets to Las Vegas" on the taxpayers' dime.

Always good value, Vegas hotels have had to slash their room rates by 30% to fill beds. Downtown casinos are offering rates of barely $20 a night, while the four-star Las Vegas Hilton, where Barry Manilow is a resident performer, is offering rooms for as little as $39.

At those rates, you could win enough each day at the video poker machines to live in Las Vegas for free...

The "Oh, No!" gesture

I'm not sure what it's called, or even if it does have a name, but it is familiar to everyone - both hands clasped to the top of the head - seen most often at sporting events (as shown above). I wonder where the gesture came from; it now seems to be broadly cross-cultural, if not universal. Do aboriginal people, or others without access to television broadcasting express frustration/disappointment in a similar fashion?

I thought maybe it could have arisen at sporting venues because there the gesture for victory or success or a goal is often both hands raised skyward - whence the collapse onto the head for a failure might be a logical extension.

I'm not expecting an answer, but any speculation or relevant observations would be welcome.

While (fruitlessly) researching this, I discovered that Wikipedia has a list of gestures. Single-hand gestures, two-handed ones, gestures made with other body parts. Browsing the list I found the eminently bloggable "anasyrma," but there appears to be much more to explore there.

This spiral does NOT have blue and green arms

The "blue" and the "green" are actually the SAME COLOR. The RGB numbers are 0, 255, 150, which for convenience we will call bluish-green (see small inset, left, which contains a sample from the greenish arm and one from the bluish arm).

The reason the spiral arms appear different colors is that when the bluish-green is embedded in purple in looks blue, and when embedded in orange it looks green - as shown in the bottom magnified view.

There is more explanation of this fascinating optical illusion at the Discover Magazine link, and some discussion at Neatorama. Via J-Walk.

25 June 2009

Helen Thomas deserves more flowers

The oldest of old-timers here at TYWKIWDBI may remember my post from April of last year - "Flowers for Helen Thomas." If you're not familiar with this remarkable journalist, please read my previous post. I wrote that to support a Reddit solicitatiion for donations for flowers for her when she was the only member of the White House press corps to challenge President Bush on a controversial topic.

Yesterday, President Obama addressed the hot topic of Neda, the young Iranian woman who was shot and killed during the protests in Teheran. Glenn Greenwald describes what happened next:
As Obama was answering -- attesting to how "heartbreaking" he found the video; how "anybody who sees it knows that there's something fundamentally unjust" about the violence; and paying homage to "certain international norms of freedom of speech, freedom of expression" -- Helen Thomas, who hadn't been called on, interrupted to ask Obama to reconcile those statements about the Iranian images with his efforts at home to suppress America's own torture photos ("Then why won't you allow the photos --").

The President quickly cut her off with these remarks:

THE PRESIDENT: Hold on a second, Helen. That's a different question. (Laughter.)

The White House Press corps loves to laugh condescendingly at Helen Thomas because, tenaciously insisting that our sermons to others be applied to our own Government, she acts like a real reporter...
Exactly right (boldface added by me). People do laugh at Helen Thomas because she is almost 90 years old and dares to speak truth to power. She did not bow down before the regal aspects of the Bush presidency, and she does not fawn before Obama.

There's more discussion at the Greenwald column, and a less focused discussion thread at Reddit.

She probably does deserve more flowers. At this point it's not clear whether anyone at Reddit will step forward to implement the idea as someone did last time; if they do (or if a major blog like the Daily Dish takes up the cause), I'll post the relevant info at TYWKIWDBI.

Photo credit here.

The world's oldest handmade musical instrument

The qualifying phrase "handmade" is necessary because there is speculation that early man might have created musical notes by striking stalactites or "singing stones." The instrument above is quite obviously a flute, and it is about 35,000 years old; previous claims of flute discoveries have been dismissed as being bones punctured by carnivore canine teeth. This one appears valid.

The data were reported online yesterday at Nature. A longer description is posted at MSNBC's Cosmiclog:
In all, researchers report finding the fragments of four flutes at two excavations in an area of southwestern Germany known as Swabia. Three of the sets of fragments were carved from mammoth ivory, but the real prize is a nearly complete flute hollowed out from the bone of a griffon vulture. That specimen was found in the Hohle Fels cave, just 28 inches (70 centimeters) away from the spot where the prehistoric Venus... was found.

The figurine's discovery was announced in May, but both finds were actually made last September. "First came the Venus, and a couple of weeks later came the flutes," Conard said.

When assembled, the vulture-bone flute is about eight and a half inches long (21.8 centimeters long) and boasts five finger holes. There are fine lines cut into the bone around the holes, suggesting that the flute's maker was calibrating the holes' placement to produce the nicest tones. One end of the flute is cut into a V shape, and the musician probably blew into that side of the flute. The researchers assume that an inch or two of the flute's far end is missing.

You can listen to an MP3 of a replica flute being played.

Via Designs in Space. Photo credit: Danier Maurer/AP

Is the Republican party dying?

The graph above displays the favorable/unfavorable views of the Republican party, sorted by race. The data come from a telephone survey of 2400 adults conducted by Daily Kos, where the primary data are displayed. The tabular data were transformed into the above graph by Yglesias.

It's important to note that an unfavorable view of the Republican party did not a priori equate to a favorable view of the Democratic party. Among whites, 64% viewed the Republican party unfavorably, but 54% viewed the Democratic party unfavorably - and 62% viewed Nancy Pelosi unfavorably.

Having said that, these are still dreadful metrics for the Republicans. I certainly don't want our country to be dominated by one party, because absolute power corrupts absolutely. Perhaps we can hope that the intelligent, sensible Democrats will split from the stupid, irrational Democrats.

Monarch, backlit by the sunrise

This young lady eclosed (emerged from her chrysalis) before 0630 this morning. Her chrysalis had turned black last night, so I knew she would emerge today, but last year most of our monarchs eclosed at mid-morning. This young lady grew from the first egg we found this year, so perhaps her early appearance this morning reflects her eagerness to see the world.

I believe at our latitude in the upper Midwest the monarchs are double-brooded. This one will mate, lay eggs, and after a brief life die. Her children will emerge in late summer and head to northern Mexico to spend the winter.

When I found her this morning, she was hanging from her empty chrysalis and in the process of inflating her wings. I transferred her to the screen porch screen to complete the process, and when I returned a few hours later, the morning sun had risen above the trees, backlighting her dramatically.

The forewing slightly overlaps the backwing, creating the orange area in the center on each side. The backlighting somewhat distorts her true color, making her appear almost yellow, but it does nicely define the venation of the wings.

And a note to Philip - this one is definitely a she, not a he. There seems to be some sexual dimorphism, with females smaller, but the more definitive clue is the absence of the "little black balls" (androconial patches) that the males exhibit - shown in the fourth photo in this post.

Click photo to enlarge to wallpaper size.

24 June 2009

An ant on a spinning record label

This is actually interesting when you think about the physics involved. I suppose the ant is orienting by solar angles, because the rotational effects of the record don't seem to interfere with his directional skills.

There's no need to watch beyond the first 20-30 seconds; nothing new happens.

Found at Nothing to do with Arbroath.

Correction -As Philip Graham points out, the ant in the photo is statistically and morphologically a she, not a he. You can also tell because she didn't have to ask for directions...

Bing search engine

Bing is apparently a reincarnation/reworking of Windows Live Search and MSN Search, which I never used, so I can't offer a comparison. Wikipedia has a description of the search engine capabilities and features. It has received some perhaps unwanted publicity recently because of this aspect -
Bing's video search tool has a preview mode that could potentially be used to preview pornographic videos.By simply turning off safe search, users can search for and view pornographic videos by hovering the cursor over a thumbnail, since the videos and audio in some cases is cached on Microsoft's Server.
I have found it to be useful for image searches; the number retrieved don't seem to match Google Image Search, but the relevance seems to be excellent and the formatting of presentation is attractive.

Spinning wheel

Photochrom print of an elderly Irish woman at a spinning wheel, ca 1890-1900.
Very similar to one we use as decoration in our living room, although I suppose most spinning wheels are basically identical in design.

Found at Sharp as Teeth and Stars.

Update: Different types of spinning wheels are depicted at The Woolery. A tip of the hat to kateohkatie.

When a malicious (but innovative) prankster meets a gullible hotel clerk...

Someone phoned an Arkansas Holiday Inn at 6:00 in the morning, identified himself as an employee of the fire sprinkler company, and told the clerk to reset the firm alarm by pulling it. That of course set off the alarm. He then told her that in order to stop the alarm, she had to break the hotel windows. Then break off the sprinkler heads at the pipe. Then shut off the entire electrical system. Then... call the hotel manager.

Full story and pictures at The Smoking Gun.

Poor dog...

I suppose it's lovingly cared for, but I have to think it must be embarrassed to be seen in public by other dogs...

The reason Obama had to nationalize General Motors

Because G.W. Bush didn't want to do so.

This admission comes from former V.P. Dick Cheney, who said in a Fox News interview that the Bush-Cheney administration knew of G.M.'s problems and knew the company should file for bankruptcy, but that President Bush didn't want to be the one to "pull the plug."
“I thought that, eventually, the right outcome was going to be bankruptcy,” Cheney said, referring to GM. “It had to go through such a dramatic restructuring to have any chance of survival that they had to be able to renegotiate labor contracts and so forth, and the president decided that he did not want to be the one who pulled the plug just before he left office.”

Cheney said that rather than acting on GM, the Bush administration “put together a package that tided GM over until the new administration had a chance to look at it.”

16-year-old girl weighs 16 pounds

Dubbed "The Girl Who Doesn't Age," Brooke Greenberg has a previously-undescribed condition which in many aspects seems to show an absence of aging of the body. She is infantile in size (on the left, photo above, at age 16, held by her 13-year-old sister), but she does not have ordinary dwarfism. She still has her baby teeth. Her cognition is that of a child. Her bone age is only that of a 10-year old.

She is fortunate to have a loving family and expert medical care. Her physicians are hopeful that sorting out the mechanism for her persistent youthful characteristics might lead to more insights on the normal process of aging.

Full story and more photos at ABC News. Video of the ABC report.

"Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" - reviews

If you are thinking of seeing this movie, you probably should first read the comments of the inimitable Roger Ebert:
"Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" is a horrible experience of unbearable length, briefly punctuated by three or four amusing moments. One of these involves a dog-like robot humping the leg of the heroine. Such are the meager joys…

The plot is incomprehensible. The dialog of the Autobots, Deceptibots and Otherbots is meaningless word flap… They share the film with human characters who are much more interesting, and that is very faint praise indeed...

Now [Michael Bay] has made "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen." Faust made a better deal. This isn't a film so much as a toy tie-in

The human actors… make speeches like this one by John Turturro: "Oh, no! The machine is buried in the pyramid! If they turn it on, it will destroy the sun! Not on my watch!" There are many great-looking babes in the film, who are made up to a flawless perfection and look just like real women, if you are a junior fanboy whose experience of the gender is limited to lad magazines…
More at the link. British reviewers are equally uncharitable:
"Like watching paint dry while getting hit over the head with a frying pan!" (Bradshaw, Guardian); "Sums up everything that is most tedious, crass and despicable about modern Hollywood!" (Tookey, Daily Mail); "A giant, lumbering idiot of a movie!" (Edwards, Daily Mirror).

23 June 2009

"The Last Ace"

The March issue of The Atlantic had a piece by Mark Bowden detailing American military air superiority and the complexities of maintaining this advantage. The key factor is to have skilled pilots.

Balance, coordination, reaction time, a feel for the airplane, gunnery, the ability to calmly perform complex aerobatic maneuvers while under fire, a talent for thinking and acting quickly even while upside down or tumbling or out of control—these were all vitally important. But the paramount skill, [Japan WWII ace Saburo] Sakai recalled, was something the recruits had at the start: exceptional vision.

All of the young pilots had been selected for their perfect eyesight, but even more important was how broadly they could see, how wide a horizon they commanded, and how quickly they could focus in on the faintest off-center visual cue. They competed to locate stars in daylight. Sakai wrote:

"Gradually, and with much more practice, we became quite adept at our star-hunting. Then we went further. When we had sighted and fixed the position of a particular star, we jerked our eyes away ninety degrees, and snapped back again to see if we could locate the star immediately. Of such things are fighter pilots made."
Then, you need to place the pilots inside top-notch jet fighters:
The F‑15, the backbone of America’s air power for more than a quarter century, may just be the most successful weapon in history. It is certainly the most successful fighter jet. In combat, its kill ratio over more than 30 years is 107 to zero. Zero. In three decades of flying, no F‑15 has ever been shot down by an enemy pane—and that includes F‑15s flown by air forces other than America’s.
The practical effect of this air superiority is stunning:
The Air Force fears that the dominance of U.S. airpower has been so complete for so long that it is taken for granted. The ability of the United States to own the skies over any battlefield has transformed the way we fight. The last American soldier killed on the ground by an enemy air attack died in Korea, on April 15, 1953.
But the somewhat ironic corollary is that since no enemy forces have been able to challenge American air power, the actual combat experience of pilots is modest compared with those of previous eras:
When Rodriguez retired two years ago from the Air Force as a colonel, his three air-to-air kills (two over Iraq in 1991 and one over Kosovo) were the most of any American fighter pilot on active duty. That number may seem paltry alongside the 26 enemy planes downed by Eddie Rickenbacker in World War I, or the 40 notched by Richard Bong in World War II, or the 34 by Francis Gabreski across World War II and Korea. Rodriguez’s total was two shy of the threshold number for the honorific ace, yet his three made him the closest thing to an ace in the modern U.S. Air Force.
Much more at the link re the computerized electronic complexity of the F-15, the rising capabilities of competitive air forces, and the immense cost of the F-15s putative replacement, the F-22. Lots of "shock and awe" information in this piece.

F-15 photo credit.


The pattern above is a "trace fossil" - a fossil of an activity, rather than of an organism. Footprints and tail-drags preserved in mud are trace fossils. Examples such as the ones above are referred to as "paleodictyon" (I'm not sure re the dictyon part of the etymology*), but no one has figured out what creature gave rise to the fossil

The pattern is a remarkably regular repetition of clustered hexagons in a honeycomb pattern. The hexagons are of different sizes (several millimeters), but always the same size in a given trace. In addition to the creature being unknown, no one knows what the creature is doing. Is this a series of foraging burrows? Is it a trap for food? Is it a clonal colony of many organisms, or the creation of just one?

The SEPM Society for Sedimentary Geology has an excellent abstract on the formation and preservation of examples found in Triassic and Jurassic rock in Iran. They postulate that the recovery of these from deep-water sites reflects a preservational selection, because they would only be saved where erosion is minimal, sedimentation prominent, and bioturbation negligible.

The best account of an attempt to discover the causative organism is in an article at Natural History Magazine. During exploration of the black smokers of the Mid-Atlantic ridge, patterns were seen on the sea floor virtually identical to paleodictyon, but obviously of recent creation. Interesting details at the link.

* the -dictyon suffix is from the Greek for "net" or "network" (thanx, pom)

Photo credit top two, photo credit bottom.

The "Muskie fever" of 1955

For Minnesotans of a certain age who live or vacation "up north," this event was legendary. The Minneapolis newspaper reposts this account:

The little town of Federal Dam, Minn., where Leech Lake river empties into [sic - exits from] Leech lake, is wild with excitement.

Since Saturday, huge muskies from 15 to 43 pounds have been on a rampage. No one can explain why – not even state fisheries bureau biologists.

The action started, quite by accident, Friday afternoon. From then until noon Tuesday a total of 83 big muskies have been landed.

They were hitting anything and everything...

The fantastic story goes back to last Friday afternoon when Mr. and Mrs. Al Storer went out fishing walleyes on nearby Boy river. Mrs. Storer had a minnow and spinner walleye hookup. But a muskie estimated at 25 pounds took it. She lost the fish when it got near the boat.

That evening they drove over to Merle Wescott’s landing below Federal Dam on Leech Lake. They were fishing for walleyes again. But they got two muskies instead.

Next day, Saturday, there were back on Leech with Morris Cohen and Art Green, both of Chicago. The four of them got nine more muskies. Westcott, his son, father and a cousin also were out. They got five.

That started the muskie rush. The word passed like a prairie fire out of control.

“It was like a dream,” Mrs. Storer said today. “You could see those big muskies lying right on top of the water.

“There were boats everywhere and in every one somebody was landing a big muskie or playing one at the end of his line. They were leaping all over the place.”

In the summer of '55 our family had a cabin on Leech Lake; I don't believe we participated in the "fever," but the fish were displayed in windows on ice downtown. For those unfamiliar with this particular fish, a muskellunge is a type of pike better known as a sport fish than as an "eatin' fish." My mom once landed a 30-pounder and now about 50 years later is still thrilled by memories of the event.

"...and such a tongue/ That I am glad I have not..."

"... though not to have it/ Hath lost me in your liking."

(King Lear, Act I, scene 1 - Cordelia to Lear, speaking metaphorically)

You've probably seen photos of "Starface" already...

... now here's one of the tattoo artist.

Details at the Daily Mail.

Update June 23: She has confessed that she was awake the entire time, lied about it and started to sue the tattoo artist because her father was angry with her. Details in the Telegraph this morning:

Mr Toumaniantz... had consistently denied he had made a mistake and always insisted Vlaminck wanted all 56 stars. "I maintain that she absolutely agreed that I tattoo those 56 stars on the left side of her face."

But despite insisting she had asked for 56 stars, he still initially agreed to pay for half of the treatment to remove the tattoos.

He said: "Kimberley is unhappy and it is not my wish to have an unsatisfied client."

"I don't regret it. To tell you the truth, this has given me some publicity." Mr Toumanaintz is now said to have withdrawn his cash offer and said from now on he will get written consent from clients before he begins tattooing.

He sounds like a classy guy.

A clever name for an ice-cream store

Visited by a certain First Family today. Frankly, even though I have been a supporter, I'm a little tired of encountering 15-photo spreads every time someone in that family sneezes.

But I do think the proprietors came up with a clever name for their establishment.

Photo credit to the International Sign Association's Flickr photostream.

22 June 2009

Why some menus don't have currency symbols

Some restaurants - especially upscale (or pretentious) ones - leave currency symbols off the menu, listing the price of a steak as "32" rather than $32.00. In some cases it may be just an artistic/stylistic decision, but there may also be ulterior motives...
Contrary to expectations, guests given the numeral-only menu spent significantly more than those who received a menu with prices showing a dollar sign or those whose menus had prices written out in words. Psychological theory, by contrast, predicted that the scripted format would draw higher sales. Although these findings may apply only to lunch at this particular restaurant, they indicate that menu-price formats do influence customers’ spending, both in terms of total check and spending per cover.
The abstract of the research is posted at Cornell University's Center for Hospitality Research. Via Consumerist, from whom also the photo.

Operating a cell phone with one's teeth is o.k.

I am recurrently amazed by the logical contortions that are used by people who explain to other people exactly what it is that God thinks and what God wants you to do. A case in point:
JERUSALEM, June 10 (UPI) -- A religious ruling permits ultra-orthodox Jews to operate their mobile phones on the Sabbath and religious holidays with their teeth...

Many of the ultra orthodox volunteers... work on the Sabbath and were confronted with the dilemma of how to activate their mobile phones without violating religious rules...

Rabbi Levy Yitzhak Halperin issued a new set of rules involving the use of a specially designed case that prevents phones from being shut down accidentally. To confirm response to dispatch, workers are permitted to hold a small metal pin between their teeth and press the necessary buttons on the phones...

When nature imitates art...

Fishermen rowed a boat in the algae-filled Chaohu Lake in Hefei, Anhui Province, China, Friday. The country has invested $7.4 billion toward the construction of 2,712 projects for the treatment of eight rivers and lakes. (Jianan Yu/Reuters)
I found this photo without context, and could not locate a site for it with a TinEye reverse image search. I think I found it at Izismile, and they typically post recent photos, so perhaps somewhere there's a current story to explain the situation.

The two ?southeast Asians? are in an oval wooden vessel (?coracle), oaring their way through what appears to be a sea of paint. Algae can certainly clog bodies of water, but this stuff appears to be almost cracked in the foreground. It's certainly not Homer's "wine-dark sea."

It would actually be an attractive color composition if it didn't have what is almost certainly a tragic explanation. If anyone has seen this elsewhere and knows the source/explanation, please let me/us know.

Update: It IS algae! Incredible. Jacob found the original posted at the Wall Street Journal's photoblog. Caption added. Thanx, Jacob.

Do you suffer from "behavioral hyperopia" ?

The ophthalmology terms "myopia" (near-sightedness) and "hyperopia" (far-sightedness) are often applied by behavioral psychologists to describe patterns of self-control. Virginia Postrel discusses the latter in The Atlantic:
Behavioral economists, whose work combines the techniques and ideas of economics and psychology, have long focused on what Thomas Schelling, the 2005 Nobel laureate, called the “intimate contest for self-command”—the all-too-familiar inner conflict between the would-be disciplined self who wants to get up early, exercise, and lose weight and the pleasure-seeking self who prefers to sleep in, watch TV, and eat chocolate...

The intimate contest for self-command can apply to pleasures as well, and for similar reasons. In the here and now, we want to behave one way in the future, only to change our minds as that future nears and the immediate costs of our plans become more real. Yet, looking back from the still-farther future, we wish we’d indulged—just as, looking back on our lazy morning in bed, we wish we’d gotten up and worked...

Myopia includes shortsighted behaviors like overeating or failing to save for retirement; hyperopia entails, as Kivetz put it in the Journal of Consumer Research, “excessive far­sightedness and future-biased preferences, consistently delaying pleasure and overweighing necessity and virtue in local decisions.” Hyperopic people weight imagined future benefits so heavily that they don’t enjoy themselves today and later regret hoarding their time or money.
More at the link, including insights into how it applies to the current economic downturn. Personally, I think every regret I have about my life involves things I didn't do, rather than things I did...

Truck sign fail

I had thought this photo was an elaborate Photoshop joke, but Googling the relevant words I found a business by this name in NSW, Australia. I suppose there's then the question as to whether they designed the logo as an attention-getter. Perhaps someone Down Under will know...
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