31 March 2011

"Ladies from Livonia"

Albrecht Dürer : Three Mighty Ladies from Livonia (1521)

Livonia was the area on the eastern shores of the Baltic Sea.  Found at Uncertain Times.  I wish I had time to look up some information about this curious fashion, but garden chores await...

p.s. - for some reason the triangular top on the lady on the far left reminds me of a flatworm...

Update:  A reader from Latvia comments that these costumes are not traditional eastern Baltic outfits, but are rather dresses of the German aristocracy of the time.

A tale of corporate taxes - and not paying taxes

Last week, the New York Times reported that General Electric
  • a) had worldwide profits of $14,200,000,000, and
  • b) paid NO corporate income tax in the United States.
  • c) "In fact, G.E. claimed a tax benefit of $3.2 billion." 
Excerpts from the article:
Its extraordinary success is based on an aggressive strategy that mixes fierce lobbying for tax breaks and innovative accounting that enables it to concentrate its profits offshore...

G.E. reported that its tax burden was 7.4 percent of its American profits, about a third of the average reported by other American multinationals. Even those figures are overstated, because they include taxes that will be paid only if the company brings its overseas profits back to the United States. With those profits still offshore, G.E. is effectively getting money back.

Such strategies, as well as changes in tax laws that encouraged some businesses and professionals to file as individuals, have pushed down the corporate share of the nation’s tax receipts — from 30 percent of all federal revenue in the mid-1950s to 6.6 percent in 2009.

Yet many companies say the current level is so high it hobbles them in competing with foreign rivals. Even as the government faces a mounting budget deficit, the talk in Washington is about lower rates...

The assortment of tax breaks G.E. has won in Washington has provided a significant short-term gain for the company’s executives and shareholders. While the financial crisis led G.E. to post a loss in the United States in 2009, regulatory filings show that in the last five years, G.E. has accumulated $26 billion in American profits, and received a net tax benefit from the I.R.S. of $4.1 billion.

But critics say the use of so many shelters amounts to corporate welfare, allowing G.E. not just to avoid taxes on profitable overseas lending but also to amass tax credits and write-offs that can be used to reduce taxes on billions of dollars of profit from domestic manufacturing. They say that the assertive tax avoidance of multinationals like G.E. not only shortchanges the Treasury, but also harms the economy by discouraging investment and hiring in the United States.
There's a lot more in the long NYT article; this is a complicated topic that can't be summarized in a brief blog post.

You have already heard this story if you watch Jon Stewart's Daily Show - or Rachel Maddow's program.  It was also carried by ABC News and Fox News, but NBC Evening News gave the story a pass - General Electric is their "parent."  They say it was an "editorial" decision based on many factors, but...
The satirical “Daily Show” on Monday noted that “Nightly News” had time on Friday to squeeze in a story about the Oxford English Dictionary adding such terms as “OMG” and “muffin top,” but didn’t bother with the GE story...

What’s more, Hart notes, NBC News has covered corporate tax-avoidance stories before — that is, when they didn’t involve GE. All three networks’ news divisions, according to Hart, have become reliable sources of publicity for their parents’ other corporate interests, doing news stories about upcoming sporting events or new TV shows carried on their own networks.

Addendum: Convoluted partial rebuttal here.

The genesis of Everglades "tree islands"

As reported by the Vancouver Sun:

Canadian researchers have solved a long-standing mystery about the existence of "tree islands" in the Florida Everglades — rare heights of dry, semi-forested land that serve as nesting sites for alligators, refuges for endangered panthers and crucial hubs of biodiversity in the world-famous swamp. A McGill University-led study of the islands reached an unexpected conclusion: these life-sustaining sources of nutrients for one of America's iconic ecosystems originated thousands of years ago as the trash heaps of prehistoric people who lived around present-day Miami...

Chmura, a McGill geography professor and director of Quebec's six-university Global Environmental and Climate Change Centre, told Postmedia News that the islands appear to have begun as aboriginal middens — dumping grounds for bones, shells, charcoal, food waste and other discarded material that gradually built up over generations into permanent mounds of earth...

Scientists had previously theorized that the islands were formed on top of "perched" layers of a naturally occurring mineral called carbonate that underlies the Everglades. But excavations by the McGill researchers and others showed the prehistoric garbage dumps appeared to kick-start the process of carbonate accumulation that was deepened and hardened as tree roots repeatedly drew up groundwater and dissolved minerals.

47 inches of rain. In one week.

Data from NASA's Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission or TRMM satellite was used to create a rainfall map of the severe rains that fell in Thailand recently. More than 20 people have been killed in southern Thailand over the past week due to flooding and mudslides caused by extremely heavy rainfall...

The analysis showed that rainfall for the past week over the Malay Peninsula was particularly extreme with totals of almost 1200 mm (~47 inches). TRMM satellite data revealed that rainfall in that area was frequently falling at a rate of over 50 mm/hr (~2 inches).
Further details at NASA.

Trends of citations in scientific literature

As reported by the BBC:
China is on course to overtake the US in scientific output possibly as soon as 2013 - far earlier than expected. That is the conclusion of a major new study by the Royal Society, the UK's national science academy...

The figures are based on the papers published in recognised international journals listed by the Scopus service of the publishers Elsevier...

Professor Sir Chris Llewellyn Smith, chair of the report, said he was "not surprised" by this increase because of China's massive boost to investment in R&D. Chinese spending has grown by 20% per year since 1999, now reaching over $100bn, and as many as 1.5 million science and engineering students graduated from Chinese universities in 2006.

According to the report, "The scientific league tables are not just about prestige - they are a barometer of a country's ability to compete on the world stage"...

However the report points out that a growing volume of research publications does not necessarily mean in increase in quality. One key indicator of the value of any research is the number of times it is quoted by other scientists in their work. Although China has risen in the "citation" rankings, its performance on this measure lags behind its investment and publication rate.

Drugs smuggled via a "child's drawing for Daddy"

Two inmates at the correctional center, a state prison inmate and two others were charged with distribution of a controlled substance after they allegedly turned Suboxone, a prescription drug designed to treat opioid addiction, into a paste. The paste was then painted onto children’s pictures and sent through inmate mail...
Clever.  More details at the PressofAtlanticCity, via Nothing To Do With Arbroath.

How a differential works in a car's transmission


Photo of a Madagascar specimen, taken by Bernard Gagnon.  See also here.

Graduation rates of "March Madness" basketball players

From a StarTribune column by Rachel Blount:
[Athletic programs] that graduate half of their players -- or fewer -- are routinely ushered behind the velvet ropes of March Madness and given their fat envelopes of cash. The academic progress rate (APR) doesn't factor into the selection process. Ten teams with an APR below 925, which translates to a graduation rate of about 50 percent, made the NCAA field this year. According to the Knight Commission, from 2006 through 2010, teams falling below that lenient standard earned $178.8 million in NCAA tournament revenues...

Of the teams playing in Saturday's Final Four, the thinking person's favorite is Butler, which has a perfect APR of 1000. Virginia Commonwealth is at 975, Kentucky at 954 and Connecticut at 930, close to the edge of that 50 percent standard...

 Last year, 19 schools in the NCAA tournament had APRs of 925 or below. The 10 who made this year's field while failing to meet that mark include Syracuse (912), Purdue (919), San Diego State (921) and Morehead State (906).

Turning the tables

This photo in the Telegraph by Tom Whetten (Caters News), shows a zebra/lion encounter in the Ngorongoro Conservation area of Tanzania. I'm posting it because it reminds me of a segment in an old nature documentary that is indelibly etched in my memory. Perhaps 20-30 years ago someone documenting lions in ?the Serengeti filmed a chase scene during which some kind of gracile, cervine prey (perhaps a gazelle, I don't remember) lashed out with its rear hooves during a chase, catching the lioness squarely in the jaw. In a subsequent scene she was shown back in her lair with her cubs, but with her fractured jaw hanging askew from her face, and the narrator noted that over the course of the next few weeks she visibly starved and died because she was unable to chew.

MIT chemists develop a practical "artificial leaf"

Here's an excerpt from the announcement, from InventorSpot:
The discovery, formally presented by its leader, MIT chemist Daniel Nocera, at the National Meeting of the American Chemical Society, doesn't look like a leaf, but rather like a very thin credit card. But placed in a gallon of water, the biomimicked leaf can produce enough electricity for a day in a house in a developing country...

There have been other successful attempts at creating electricity from water, but they were too expensive to produce on a large scale. The MIT leaf is made of inexpensive materials that are readily available - silicone, electronics, and special catalysts... It was Nocera's recent discovery of several catalysts made from nickel and cobalt, that created his breakthrough. These catalysts are what split the water into hydrogen and oxygen under very simple conditions - even dirty water can be used. His artificial leaf is now 10 times more powerful than a natural leaf at photosynthesis...
And here is some background from 2008 in MIT News:
The key component in Nocera and Kanan's new process is a new catalyst that produces oxygen gas from water; another catalyst produces valuable hydrogen gas. The new catalyst consists of cobalt metal, phosphate and an electrode, placed in water. When electricity — whether from a photovoltaic cell, a wind turbine or any other source — runs through the electrode, the cobalt and phosphate form a thin film on the electrode, and oxygen gas is produced.

Combined with another catalyst, such as platinum, that can produce hydrogen gas from water, the system can duplicate the water splitting reaction that occurs during photosynthesis.
The hydrogen and oxygen are then used in a fuel cell. A brief video at the second link explains.

Via Neatorama.

War is Hell

Via The Frustrated Teacher.

Little-known facts about bottled water

A non-sponsored infographic - for obvious reasons.

Image source.

29 March 2011

Using technology to explore the acquisition of language

First, if you haven't seen my "Talking Babies" post at Neatorama, you might want to pop over and look at it - twin baby boys carry on an animated conversation using seemingly nonsensical sounds.

Then consider this TED talk featuring Deb Roy, a researcher at MIT who wired his new home with cameras and microphones in every relevant room so that every word and action could be viewed, saved, and analyzed.  90,000 hours of video, 140,000 of audio, capturing the life of his young son and the three caregivers (parents, nanny) to examine the influence of the social environment on language acquisition.

As a sample of what  immense computing power can do, he shows how the child's word for "water" morphs from "gaga" to "water."  And there is a "map" of every word (503) that the child learned by age 2.  For me, the "holy shit" moment begins at 8:00 when the 2D view is transformed to a 3D one, and the cameras allow a virtual walkthrough of the house.  I was also startled by the "wordscape" at 10:30.

The resolution of the video isn't great for fullscreen viewing, but the content, as is typical for TED talks, is awesome.  I think what's important is not how Dr. Roy's son learned to say "water," but rather how technology can be used to study the world.

And I suspect this also gives a hint of how the NSA analyzes every phone call and email sent in this country...

The most segregated large cities in America

Salon has an article with a slide show of quite interesting maps of the ten most segregated large (>500K) cities in America.  Counting up from #10:  Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, New York, and (perhaps surprisingly) Milwaukee.
The rankings are based on a dissimilarity index, a measure used by social scientists to gauge residential segregation. It reflects the number of people from one race -- in this case black or white -- who would have to move for races to be evenly distributed across a certain area. A score of 1 indicates perfect integration while 100 signals complete segregation. The rankings were compiled by John Paul DeWitt of CensusScope.org and the University of Michigan's Social Science Data Analysis Network.
Each city is discussed separately; here is some of the discussion re Milwaukee:
"Most of our history is very similar to Chicago, Cleveland or even Baltimore," says Marc Levine, professor of history and economic development at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. "Every place has had the zoning ordinances, then restrictive covenants, the practices of realtors. The standard history. What makes Milwaukee a little bit different than these other places... We have the lowest rate of African-American suburbanization of any of these larger cities."..

Milwaukee is extreme: 90 percent of the metro area's black population lives in the city. Making matters worse, suburban whites are notably hostile to building any form of public transit to connect city people to suburban jobs, further exacerbating segregation's ill effects.

If you're wondering if this can somehow, some way, be blamed on union-busting Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, the answer is yes. Walker took the lead in a campaign against public transit to connect the suburbs to the city during his time as county executive. He thought the funds would be better spent on highways.

"There is virulent opposition in these exurban counties to any kind of regional transit system, particularly a regional rail system. There have been proposals over the years, but they're always DOA," says Levine. "Governor Walker's big issue as state representative and county executive was 'Over my dead body light rail,' and he fought with Milwaukee's mayor over funds for regional rail. He very much represents that suburban and exurban base."
I haven't read the discussions of the other cities; I expect there is much to learn from the maps and analysis.  And I wish a similar set of maps would be generated for the ten most-integrated large cities in America; I wonder which ones they would be.

Re Obama administration and the dead dolphins in the Gulf

Excerpts from an article at Digital Journal:
The Obama administration has issued a gag order on data over the recent spike of dead dolphins, including many stillborn infants, washing up on Mississippi and Alabama shorelines, and scientists say the restriction undermines the scientific process...

The dolphin die-off, labeled an “unusual mortality event (UME),” resulted in wildlife biologists being contracted by the National Marine Fisheries Service to record the recent spike in dolphin deaths by collecting tissue samples and specimens for the agency, but late last month were privately ordered to keep their results under wraps. Reuters has obtained a copy of the agency letter that states, in part: “Because of the seriousness of the legal case, no data or findings may be released, presented or discussed outside the UME investigative team without prior approval.”

Some scientists said they have received a personal rebuke from government officials about “speaking out of turn” to the media over attempts at determining the dolphins’ deaths. Additionally, these scientists say the collected specimens and samples are being turned over to the government for evaluation under a deal that omits independent scientists from the final results of lab tests.

Almost 200 dead bottlenose dolphin bodies have been found since mid-January through this week along shorelines of Gulf coast states, including Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, Reuters notes. About half of the carcasses are newborns or stillborn infants. That number is around 14 times the average numbers recorded during the same time frame between 2002 and 2007 and has coincidentally occurred during the first calving season since the BP Deepwater Horizon debacle last year in the Gulf...

Officials with the NOAA state the confidentiality measures are an integral part of the current investigation over the BP oil spill. “We are treating the evidence, which are the dolphin samples, like a murder case,” said Dr. Erin Fougeres, a Fisheries Service marine biologist, Reuters notes. “The chain of custody is being closely watched. Every dolphin sample is considered evidence in the BP case now,” she added.
I'll add this top-rated comment from the Reddit thread:
By labelling this data as evidence in criminal proceeding, the data is subject to chain of custody considerations and will remain in evidence as long as the criminal proceedings are ongoing and thereafter as long as the appeals process goes forward. This will be years and maybe even a decade or more. This would almost be tolerable if independent review by an independent team of scientists were allowed simultaneous access to the data but the government is not allowing this. Dual samples could have been selected or existing samples split for independent teams, in order to maintain the chain of custody and authenticity of samples for the criminal case. The way the government is handling this, and NOAAs past attempts to obfuscate and limit scientific research draw this whole effort into discredit. These are the kinds of issues where, if you are a liberal who voted for Obama, and I am, you watch the administration closely because this is where they will show how aligned they are with big business versus the public and the environment. I am not hopeful.

Über-cute slow loris video masks a grimmer reality

From an article at The Independent:
A video of [a slow loris] being tickled has gained more than six million views. A new clip, posted this month, in which a loris clutches a cocktail umbrella, has been viewed two million times...

Poachers steal infant lorises from their parents in the wild to sell at open-air markets in Indonesia, where they are traded for as little as £10. The export market is most lucrative in Japan, where lorises stolen to order sell for £3,500. The trade is now expanding into the US and Europe...

But many do not survive the journey. "The only reason the loris isn't biting the person holding it in the video is because it has had its teeth ripped out with pliers," said Chris Shepherd of Traffic Southeast Asia, which campaigns against the trade in primates.

The teeth are removed because the loris, listed as vulnerable to extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, can deliver a toxic bite. Mr Shepherd said: "The creature is then effectively doomed because of infection. Most don't last very long after that."..

The loris is a nocturnal animal and is effectively being blinded by the daylight in the videos. Disoriented, it grasps at the umbrella believing it is the bamboo of its natural terrain.
A hat tip to Cory Doctorow for the BoingBoing via.

The dangers of surface tension

This photograph was one of the "Pictures of the Day" at the Telegraph:
Trapped in a tiny perfect sphere of water, this unlucky ant is unable to escape. A sudden downpour gave it no time to take cover, and photographer Adam Gormley was there to snap the image. Adam, from Noosaville, Queensland, Australia, had been photographing spiders in his neighbour's garden when the rain came down. He had no idea there was an ant in one of the three-millimetre droplets until he viewed the images later...
The image immediately reminded me of the story Surface Tension, which I read in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One, 1929-1964 over forty years ago.  I remember the compilation as an excellent one, much better than the typical sci-fi collection of stories.

How long can a Belgian waffle?

Belgium tied the world record with Iraq for time without a government on Tuesday, but months of political waffling that was once a joke is quickly wearing thin.  Tuesday marks the 289th day the country’s bickering Dutch-speaking and Francophone politicians have failed to form a government after a June 13 election — and there’s no agreement on the horizon. Early irritation turned into almost giddy celebration as the country broke the European record in January. Then parties were thrown last month as Belgium matched the time it took for an initial agreement to form an Iraqi government two years ago. Iraq then took another month to actually present its government.

After decades of increasingly difficult compromises, running the country has become increasingly complicated. And richer Flanders has increasingly demanded more autonomy from Wallonia. Walloon politicians, though, want to hang on to as many national institutions as possible for their financial survival. Reconciling those views has proven impossible so far.
Text and title pun from the Washington Post.   After locating the photo at Wikipedia and reading the entry there, I think waffles would be a good subject for a separate post.  I'll put it in the pending file...

Tracking the migration of the common loon

December 2010:  The U.S. Geological Survey hosts a website where you can track the migration of common loons (Gavia immer)from the Upper Midwest and Northeast to the Gulf and Southeast U.S.  Individual birds are tracked using satellite telemetry.

If you want to explore the website, it's at this link.

I was reminded of this site today after talking to a friend who lives on Leech Lake (Walker/Cass County, MN).  When I asked if the lake had frozen over yet, she said that there were still patches of open water, and that an uncommonly large number of loons had gathered in those locations, presumably as a rest stop on their migration south from Canada.  Yesterday in the Walker Bay area, where the lake is I think 200 feet deep, they saw an estimated 500-1,000 loons in the water.  That mass of birds had drawn the attention of local bald eagles, about a half-dozen of which were perched on trees along the shore and were swooping down on the loons.  It must have been quite a sight.

Update :  I am impressed by the length of the migratory legs of some of these birds, such as this one by 55490:
That's longer than I can drive my car in a day; they must be able to sense upper-level wind directions.  Now, as April arrives, the migration is reversing - trackable at the same link.

Students performing "similar or worse" than...

I suppose I'm nitpicking this morning, but the following sentence in the Wisconsin State Journal grated on my English-major nerves:
As Republican lawmakers push for expansion of Milwaukee's 20-year-old voucher program, state test results for the first time show voucher students performing "similar or worse" than other poor Milwaukee students, according to the Department of Public Instruction.
The phrase was used without corrrection by USA Today, but the actual press release (cited here) by the Department of Public Instruction has it a little better; "our statewide assessment data shows, with very few exceptions, that the choice program provides similar or worse academic results than MPS."

I would have liked the author or copyeditor to have written "students performing similar to or worse than other...."  The word "to" could perhaps have been left implied ("students performing similar or worse than other poor...") - but not when "similar or worse" is enclosed in quotation marks (for inexplicable reasons).

Sigh.  English majors are never happy on the 'net.  Now on to more interesting things...

28 March 2011

Meet a self-styled "modern day slave"

That's Adrian Peterson, premier running back for the hapless Minnesota Vikings.  Asked to comment on the ongoing dispute between the owners of professional football teams and the players, he opined:
"It's modern-day slavery, you know?" Peterson said... All some people see is, 'Oh, we're not going to be around football.' But how the players look at it ... the players are getting robbed. They are. The owners are making so much money off of us to begin with.
Adrian Peterson's base salary for this coming year is over $10,000,000.  He would get more from incentive bonuses, playoff games, All-Star elections, sales of jerseys, football cards, interviews, book deals, television commercials etc.

A Washington Post article discusses how the players have to cover their own health-care costs during their lockout, but note that the average salary for NFL players is $2,000,000 - with a minimum of $320,000 per year.  Plus extras.

Peterson's agent has scrambled to cover his ass by saying the comments were "taken out of context," but of course there is no other context to put them into.  These are millionaires who drape themselves in diamond bling, complaining that billionaires are richer than they are.  I'm sick and tired of it.

From the stomach of a sea turtle

Pictured above are the stomach contents of a juvenile sea turtle accidentally captured off the coast of Argentina...

One anecdote in the article, written by biologists Wallace Nichols of the California Academy of Science and the University of British Columbia’s Colette Wabnitz, stands out. “Relief of gastrointestinal obstruction of a green turtle off Melbourne beach, Florida, resulted in the animal defecating 74 foreign objects over a period of a month, including four types of latex balloons, different types of hard plastic, a piece of carpet-like material, and two 2- to 4-mm tar balls, they wrote.
From Wired, via Neatorama.  See also my post on "Death by Plastic" re albatrosses on Midway Island, and this disgusting video of a Romanian river.

Grand Prismatic Spring, Wyoming

Grand Prismatic Spring and Midway Geyser Basin, Yellowstone Park, Wyoming: photo by Mila Zinkova, 2008

I hope to visit this location someday.

Image via Tom Clark.

The tsunami at Kesennuma

Video of the sequence of events at Kesennuma changed my entire conception of how a tsunami works.  The link discussed at this Reddit thread is now dead, but I think the one I have embedded above is a duplicate; please view today, since I'm not sure whether it will be pulled.

My views of tsunamis had been most strongly influenced by the one in the Indian Ocean in 2004.  A memorable video of that event is backed by haunting Breton music by Denez Prigent and Lisa Gerrard.  In the Indian Ocean tsunami, the images were of the sea pulling back from the coastline, a giant wave crashing ashore, and then the water retreating and sucking debris and people out to sea.

The Japanese tsunami is different.  It's not a giant wave so much as it is the entire ocean moving ashore.  In the video above, the water hits - but then it keeps coming and keeps coming and keeps coming.  The relentless nature of the onrushing water is jaw-dropping.  It seems to me that when the fault line shifted, the seabed offshore from this region must have lifted up (not just shifted horizontally, which might cause a single concussive wave as in the Indian Ocean), and after the seabed rose, the several ?hundred square miles of ocean above the plate must have spilled off to the side and headed outwards, including towards shore.

Dealing with a family death

Family members and relatives transfer the bones of Masaichi Oyama, who was killed by the tsunami, by chopsticks into an urn the during a cremation ceremony March 24, 2011 in Kurihara , Japan. The family lost three family members from the earthquake and tsunami. Under Japanese Buddhist practice, a cremation is the expected traditional way of dealing with the dead, but now with the death toll so high, crematoriums are overwhelmed and there is a shortage of fuel to burn them. Local municipalities are forced to dig mass graves as a temporary solution. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)
Lots of evocative photos continue to come out of Japan in the wake of their triple tragedy.  This image comes from a set of 40+ photos at the Atlantic's In Focus photoblog.

The surprising economics of dogwalking

Probably not "typical" or "average," but these numbers from a Telegraph story are startling:
"I started by having business cards printed up and then I approached people with dogs on the local commons. Then after talking to them about my dog walking service, I was introduced to other dog owners and it just grew from there...

It is important to be professional – I have had a Criminal Records Bureau check as I have people's house keys, and have also done dog first aid training and have specialist pet walking insurance. If someone's dog runs into a road and causes an accident, you need to be covered.

I usually walk six dogs in the morning and six in the afternoon and also offer all day care. I charge £15 per dog per hour and work seven days a week – so as you can see, it's a good earner...
You do the math. An enterprising young man, he also set up a website called "The Dogfather."

Oxbow lake pending

For reasons I don't understand, I'm fascinated by oxbow lakes.  The image above nicely shows the process; the river (presumably glacial meltwater, judging by the color) enters at lower right, curls off the frame at the top, and exits lower left.  The transported solids carve away at the outer walls of the curves (and get deposited on the insides of the curves).  In another few decades, that narrow isthmus will be breached, the water will flow directly across, and the curve at the top will transform from river segment to lake, and later eventually to marsh and then bog and then field and finally woods.

For an impressive depiction of the complexity of oxbows in a floodplain, see Radical Cartography.

Photo credit Cameron Davidson.

Health care finance is a worldwide problem

A Wall Street Journal article discusses the problems in Europe:
Reformers want to reduce the state's role in health-care delivery and introduce a competitive element. Those against change are adamant that a health-care system without state involvement is health care without a heart. Good for the rich, calamitous for the poor. It is an issue heavily clouded by emotion. But many feel that without innovation, crumbling state-backed systems will collapse as they struggle to cope with aging populations, soaring overheads and, more recently, mounting budget deficits.

The statistics paint a bleak picture. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the European Union will see an increase in health expenditure of 350% by 2050, whereas at the same time the economy is only set to expand by 180%...

...in Germany alone between 2020 and 2030 there will be a huge spike in the number of elderly people alongside an enormous drop in young and working-age people. "This will mean a dramatic increase in individuals' payroll tax contribution rates to health care to 20.7% in 2030 and over 23% in 2040," he says. This compares to just 11.4% in 1980...

Britain is not the only European country having to make tough choices to tackle soaring deficits. Other countries in Europe, including France and Spain, are also dealing with huge deficits...

"In 1995 the cost of a hip replacement was the equivalent of buying a flat-screen TV in Germany," he says. "In 2008 you could get 10 flat-screen TVs for the amount of money you paid for a hip replacement."

27 March 2011

"If I told you, I'd have to kill you"

The thread at YouTube says "Maverick started it." TV series? I don't know.

" It's Showtime! "

Via Panjiba, where you can view a list of the movies in the mashup.  Does anyone know where the phrase was first used in movies or in literature?  Which of these movies is the oldest? I would guess maybe Blazing Saddles?

The double-edged sword of salting roads in winter

The problem of road salt working its way into local waters is nicely explained in a StarTribune article:
This winter, the Pollution Control Agency (PCA) started a four-year project to figure out which Twin Cities' lakes hold too much chloride, a primary ingredient in salt, and what it will take to keep urban waters healthy...

Shingle Creek, which flows under highways and behind shopping malls in the western suburbs, is a case in point. It's in one of the few watersheds where the salt load has been calculated. In theory, to get it back to healthy levels, the nine communities along its banks would have to cut salt use by a whopping 71 percent... "When your tradeoff is public safety, it's very difficult."

Road salt use has been rising steadily for more than 20 years. Now, in an average winter, some 350,000 tons of salt are dropped on roads, sidewalks and parking lots in the Twin Cities metropolitan area... Eric Novotny, one of the researchers on the university chloride study, found that 78 percent of the salt applied to roads stays in the water. Unlike some other pollutants, it does not flow to the Mississippi and down to the Gulf of Mexico. Instead, the denser, salty water sinks to the bottom of lakes and into groundwater, accumulating year after year...

Brownie Lake, a small, deep lake in Minneapolis near Cedar Lake Parkway and Interstate 394, contains so much chloride that its top and bottom layers no longer mix, which is vital to a healthy lake. In part, it doesn't turn over because the lake is so deep relative to its surface area, and pollutants of all kinds flow down its steep banks. But salt has been collecting in its depths for years. Two meters below the surface, the water in Brownie contains virtually no oxygen, said Rachael Crabb, a water quality expert for the Minneapolis Parks Department, indicating there's not much life at the bottom. "Whatever chloride has come into Brownie from 394 is still there, and it's going to say there," she said...

In recent years, the city bought new, high-tech salt trucks, and began making its own brine to apply to roads before a snowstorm. It also uses GPS units to precisely regulate exactly how much salt the trucks put down in any location. Since 2007, the amount of salt used per mile per snowstorm has been cut in half, Albrecht said. It took awhile to educate Prior Lake citizens about the project, and to convince them that roads were still safe, even if they were not cleared down to bare pavement...
More at the link. The layering of lake waters, with brine in the depths, is reminiscent of the situation in the Black Sea, where there is a pycnocline.

Addendum:  New word for the day:  A lake whose layers do not mix is called a meromictic lake, in contrast to a normal holomictic lake.

Image source (showing thermal layering, but the principles are also applicable re salinity)

Rotary locomotion by a tiger beetle larva

The coastal tiger beetle (Cicindela dorsalis media) lives on the beaches of Cumberland Island off the coast of Georgia.
Tiger beetles are among the fastest of insect runners, but their larvae are slow and worm-like. If they’re exposed and threatened, running isn’t an option. Instead, they turn themselves into living wheels. They leap into the air, coil their bodies into a loop, and hit the ground spinning. The wind carries them to safety...

If you touch it on its bottom half, it arches its body backwards head-to-tail, forming a loop. It then violently uncoils, launching itself off the sand and coiling in the other direction. When it hits the again, its momentum carries it forward... They move at around one mile per hour, spinning at 20 to 30 revs per second, and travelling for up to 25 metres.
More details, a diagram of the motion, and and several additional videos at Not Exactly Rocket Science, including this one -

- of salamanders and caterpillars capable of rotary movement. There is also a spider video, but old-timers at this blog will remember a better one two years ago showcasing the Saharan rolling spider.

"The penal vault"

Georges-Antoine Rochegrosse, from Cent dessins : extraits des oeuvres de Victor Hugo 
(One hundred drawings from the works of Victor Hugo), Paris, not dated (circa 1900?).

I wasn't familiar with this Victor Hugo story, but found it in The Laughing Man, Volume III at Google Books.
"He who refuses to answer the magistrate," said the Sheriff, "is suspected of all vices.  He is considered capable of all evil..."

"All vices," said the Sheriff, "presuppose all crime. Who admits nothing, confesses everything. He who is silent before the judge's questions, is by his act a liar..."
The text goes on to explain the "lump" on the man's chest in the drawing.  He is undergoing the torture called la peine forte et dure, in which a board is placed on the chest, and stones or other weights are placed on the board.

Image via OBI [Old Book Illustrations] Scrapbook Blog.

Rago National Park, Norway

Via Reddit, where the thread includes links to other photos and maps.

An unfortunately ambiguous headline

This sentence appeared on the front page of the Telegraph today.  The story itself used the phrase "sexual abuse victims," eliminating the ambiguity as to whether the "abuse" in the headline was a verb or an adjective.

25 March 2011

Rescue from quicksand near Mont St. Michel

From notes re the Bayeux tapestry:
"Harold accompanies William and the Norman soldiers as they set off to fight Duke Conan of Brittany. They pass Mont St. Michel, which is on the border between Normandy and Brittany. To get into Brittany they have to cross the river. They hold their shields above their heads to keep them out of the water. Some soldiers sink into quicksand and Harold rescues them - two at a time!"
On a more prosaic note, does anyone know whether there are roads on the island itself, beyond the causeway.  It looks too crowded with structures to accommodate roads, so I'm wondering how a resident would have large items delivered...

Photo credit.

Hitchcock's "Notorious"

Notes from the Wikipedia entry:
The film is known for two scenes in particular. In one of his most famous shots, Hitchcock starts wide and high, on a second floor balcony overlooking the great hall of a grand mansion; slowly he tracks down and in on Ingrid Bergman, finally ending with a tight close-up of a key tucked in her hand. So arresting is the shot that an outline of the key became a graphic element in the film's promotional material.

Hitchcock also devised "a celebrated scene" that circumvented the Production Code's ban on kisses longer than three seconds—by having his actors disengage every three seconds, murmur and nuzzle each other, then start right back up again. The two-and-a-half minute osculation is "perhaps his most intimate and erotic kiss."..

Claude Rains.. stood three or four inches shorter than Ingrid Bergman... For the scenes where Rains and Bergman were to walk hand-in-hand, Hitchcock devised a system of ramps that boosted Rains's height yet were unseen by the camera. He also suggested Rains try elevator shoes: "Walk in them, sleep in them, be comfortable in them." Rains did, and used them thereafter.


The Russian-born painter Romain de Tirtoff, who called himself Erté after the French pronunciation of his initials, was one of the foremost fashion and stage designers of the early twentieth century. From the sensational silver lamé costume, complete with pearl wings and ebony-plumed cap, that he wore to a ball in 1914, to his magical and elegant designs for the Broadway musical Stardust in 1988, Erté pursued his chosen career with unflagging zest and creativity for almost 80 years...

He soon gained a contract with the journal Harper's Bazaar, to which he continued to contribute fashion drawings for 22 years. Erté is perhaps best remembered for the gloriously extravagant costumes and stage sets that he designed for the Folies-Bergère in Paris and George White's Scandals in New York, which exploit to the full his taste for the exotic and romantic...
Additional biographical information at Erte.com.  Image via Large Size Paintingts and Illustrations.

Ivy lives here

The photo shows a three-bedroom house in Essex, engulfed in ivy:
The 1920s house, which is on Lynmouth Avenue, is thought to have been gradually enveloped by the vigorous ivy for more than 20 years... 'I've never seen anything like it. There were no carpets on the floor, there were papers everywhere, the lights didn't work and it was dark inside because you couldn't see out of the windows. The water didn't work and there was no kitchen. The trees from outside have started growing into the house..."
From the Mail Online, via Nothing to do with Arbroath.

Harvesting sharks in American Gulf waters

Excerpts from an article in the Washington Post:
Just off the coast of south Texas, that border is wide open, unmarked and largely unpatrolled. The men who cross it at night sometimes carry drugs and immigrants. But overwhelmingly, they’re looking for new bounty in American waters: sharks whose fins are bound mostly for China. The global trade in shark fins is worth more than a billion dollars, experts say.

Biologists estimate that Mexican fishermen annually catch more than 50,000 sharks illegally in the United States because the best shark fishing is north of the border...

“It’s the same game every day. They chase us, sometimes seizing our boats. And the next day we do it again,” said Eric Carillo, whose family runs a small shark fishing business just south of the border in Playa Bagdad, bringing in $5,000 to $10,000 a month. Most of their profits come from fins, but fishermen also sell shark meat to Mexico City markets.

Each year, the Coast Guard apprehends dozens, seizing thousands of dollars in gear. But the fishermen spend less than 24 hours in U.S. custody, and then they are sent back across the border... because the laws are tailored to drug traffickers and human smugglers, shark fishermen are able to operate with near impunity. Some scientists worry that years of unregulated fishing could soon take a toll on the gulf, potentially disrupting an entire ecosystem...

“When we fish here, we catch next to nothing. Little fish. And barely any of them,” said Carlos Guerra, a Mexican citizen, who started working on the beach in December, days after being deported from Chicago. “When we cross the border, we catch so much. We make a lot of money.” His reasoning, shared by other fishermen, is that American regulations have left its shark population mostly intact while the lack of Mexican enforcement has caused years of overfishing...

Some toss hundreds of longlines and hooks in the water at a time. Others use miles of gill nets, which hold dozens of sharks: mostly juvenile black tips, but also sand bar sharks, hammerheads and other species. The fins — which eventually head to Asia, where they’re used in shark fin soup — are worth $35 per pound in Playa Bagdad...

The fishermen show no sign of relenting. In the past two months, officers have seen another uptick in apprehensions. The objects of those pursuits were almost all familiar faces — they had been apprehended several times before. “I’ve lost more than 13 boats to the patrol in the last 10 years. We’ve lost thousands of dollars in equipment,” Carillo said. “But we’ve made four times more money fishing across the border than we would have made otherwise. It’s worth the risk.”
Additonal details and more photos at the Washington Post.

It takes all kinds...

Offered without comment.  Via Reddit.  Click for bigger to read about the "boose parties."

Irish horses being slaughtered

A downturn in the economy is necessitating widespread slaughter of thoroughbreds and other horses.  The BBC explains -
To keep up with this new demand, thoroughbreds - a breed of horse used specifically for racing - were being produced at an unprecedented rate: between 2000 and 2007, the number of registered foals increased from 8,793 to 12,633.

But these horses are expensive, costing approximately 17,000 euros (£15,000) a year to keep. And when Ireland plunged into one of the deepest recessions to hit the eurozone, they became a luxury very few could afford.

Mr Hogan, who is based in Nenagh, County Tipperary, explains: "Quite a lot of those horses would have been owned by syndicates - basically blocklayers, carpenters, electricians - people involved in the big property boom. And they just disappeared overnight."..

And abattoirs, where horses are slaughtered for their meat for human consumption, have become a growth industry. In 2008, there was just one in the Republic of Ireland, but today there are five. Last year, 9,790 horses were killed in them. Of these, the BBC has learnt that 4,618 were thoroughbreds.

But this is not the whole picture. Figures are not available for the number of horses that have ended up in Ireland's 40 registered knacker's yards...

But racehorses are the tip of a much larger equine welfare problem in Ireland. At the ISPCA's animal rescue centre in Keenagh, County Longford, they are struggling to cope with the numbers of horses they have had to take in. "We're seeing every shape and size, from little ponies right up to cobs and draught horses," says Conor Dowling, the ISPCA's chief inspector. "So far this year, our inspectors have taken in nearly as many equines as we did in the entire year of 2010." 
Photo credit.

"And abattoirs, where horses are slaughtered for their meat for human consumption..." I presume this means the horse meat is shipped to other countries where it is consumed by humans.  I think this may be a topic for a separate post in the future.

Nepal's unusual time zone

[Unable to embed video]

It is five hours and 45 minutes ahead of Greenwich Mean Time. This 3-minute BBC video explains why. And notes that the year there is 2067...

Addendum: The source code at the BBC is incorrect. I've sent them an email, but until they fix it, those wondering why Nepal's official time zone is 15 minutes off the hour will need to navigate to the relevant video at this link (rotate the globe).

Second addendum: The video embed is still incorrect and they haven't responded to my email.  For the TL;DR crowd who don't have time to access the link, Nepal's time zone was set according to the longitude of a mountain in the center of the country, so it is actually 15 minutes off that of adjacent India.

Americans do not trust Al Jazeera English

From Big Think:
To start, the authors asked people whether they watched AJE or its primary U.S. competitor, CNN International. Not surprisingly most people watched neither channel, as both have limited distribution in the U.S.

Respondents were assigned to one of three groups: AJE, CNNI or a control group. The AJE and CNNI groups were shown a video report that originally appeared on AJE about the Taliban and the Afghan government. The report did not mention the U.S. in any way. For the CNNI respondents, the AJE logo was replaced with the CNNI logo, though the report remained exactly the same in all other respects. The control group was not shown any video.

What did they find? Respondents that saw the clip with the AJE logo were far more likely to believe the clip and network were biased than those that saw the clip with the CNNI logo. "The findings that show differential bias ratings between AJE and CNNI based on the same exact news clip suggest Americans are, on average, still unable to fairly evaluate the station," the authors write. "Ninety-eight percent of participants had little or no exposure to the news channel, yet generally find it untrustworthy and are uninterested in watching, even after exposure to a clip that is credible enough to boost CNNI evaluations when ascribed to that network. This does not bode well for the prospects of AJE gaining a audience in the United States, while CNNI's better evaluations likely resulted from the goodwill of CNNI's brand.
The full study is posted at Arab Media & Society.

24 March 2011

Contraceptive sponge. May be useful for treating athlete's foot...

From the collections of the Science Museum, London.
Sponges were widely used as contraceptives in the 1800s and 1900s. They were used in conjunction with liquids thought to have spermicidal properties... These included quinine and olive oil. This marine sponge was held in cotton netting to aid its extraction. During the 1950s and 1960s, sponges were often advertised under ‘feminine hygiene’ rather than contraception as for some parts of society contraception was a taboo. Many spermicidals were of little contraceptive value. Some even doubled as household cleaners. One was advertised as a dual treatment for ‘successful womanhood’ (contraception) and athlete’s foot.
And a hat tip to Kingdom Studies for finding this relevant advertisement.

LIFE magazine cover 1996

Celebrating the magazine's 60th anniversary.  I'm presuming the photomosaic face created by Robert Silvers is supposed to be that of Marilyn Monroe (?).  Via First Time User.

Big demographic changes in the latest census data

Excerpts from an article in the StarTribune:
The Census Bureau on Thursday released its first set of national-level findings from the 2010 count on race and migration... "These are big demographic changes," said Mark Mather, an associate vice president at the nonprofit Population Reference Bureau. "There is going to be some culture shock, especially in communities that haven't had high numbers of immigrants or minorities in the past."..

African-Americans in search of wider spaces increasingly left big cities such as Detroit, Chicago and New York for the suburbs, typically in the South. Both Michigan and Illinois had their first declines in the black population since statehood as many of their residents opted for warmer climes in the suburbs of places such as Atlanta, Dallas and Houston...

Multiracial Americans now make up 2.9 percent of the U.S. population, a steadily growing group... In all, racial and ethnic minorities made up about 90 percent of the total U.S. growth since 2000, part of a historic trend in which minorities are expected to become the majority by midcentury.

In about 10 states, the share of children who are minorities has already passed 50 percent, up from five states in 2000. They include Mississippi, Georgia, Maryland, Florida, Arizona, Nevada, Texas, California, New Mexico and Hawaii.

Asians grew by 43 percent over the last decade. They were tied with Hispanics as the fastest growing demographic group. For the first time Asians also had a larger numeric gain than African-Americans, who remained the second largest minority group at 37.7 million...

Many of the states in the South and West that are picking up House seats are Republican leaning, such as Texas and Florida. But most of their growth is now being driven largely by Hispanics, who tend to vote Democratic, which could put those regions in play...

In large metropolitan regions, U.S. suburbs are becoming more politically competitive because of their fast growth and changing demographics, said Robert Lang, a demographer at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. He noted that minorities are increasingly moving from cities to nearby suburbs, while more conservative whites living in far-flung suburbs known as exurbs were moving closer to cities due to a spike in gas prices and the housing bust.

Elizabeth I gave this citole to Robert Dudley

The British Museum's citole* is discussed in their Technical Research Bulletin:
The British Museum’s citole (1963,1002.1) is one of Britain’s earliest extant stringed instruments. Dating from around 1300–1330, its survival can be attributed to three factors: the quality of craftsmanship with its richly carved decorative elements, its association with Elizabeth I of England (1558–1603) and her favourite Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and its modification to keep pace with changing musical fashion...

A virtuoso example of the Medieval woodcarver’s craft, it is one of perhaps only four stringed instruments of comparable quality to have survived from the Medieval period. It is, however, a confusing hybrid. Part citole, part violin, it was described as a gittern by Francis Galpin in 1910...

The British Museum citole dates from the period around 1300–1330 and is the earliest of the four survivals. Abundant representations of citoles in the visual arts show that the instrument was in use from the late twelfth century in Spain and Italy and from the thirteenth century in northern Europe. The gradual movement of the instrument from south to north may well reflect the influence of Islamic musical instruments on the development of the citole...

By the time that Eleanor of Castille married Edward I in 1254, the citole was probably well established in England...

It was designed to be plucked with a plectrum and most of the depictions show it being played in this way, although other illustrations show it being strummed without a plectrum. Undoubtedly capable of carrying a tune, as modern replicas of the British Museum citole have demonstrated, citoles may have performed a limited repertoire and were probably used mainly to keep time by playing the same few notes repeatedly. This understanding is supported by representations of musicians playing citoles, the majority of which show the player’s hand coming up from under the centre of the instrument. This approach would allow adequate movement only to play the drone chords satisfactorily. It is not surprising, therefore, that the citole is usually depicted with other instruments, principally fiddles.

The gifting of the citole between Elizabeth and Dudley and its conversion to a violin demonstrate how the instrument was held in high regard some 250 years after it was made. The value placed on it was not inspired by the expense of the raw material nor by its virtue as a musical instrument (the citole was distinctly out of date by about 1400) but by the extraordinary richness and quality of the carving that covers its neck and sides.
Much more information at the link and at this British Museum webpage.  And a hat tip to the via post at Uncertain Times.

*"probably a French diminutive form of cithara, and not from Latin cista, a box."

Rampant looting of Latin American archaeology

Crime like this has been going on for generations - perhaps even for millennia.  But with modern technology/tools the problem is getting worse.  A Guardian story focuses on Latin America,but the same thing occurs worldwide.
For archaeologists, the horror here is not in Moche iconography, which you see in pottery and mural fragments, but in the hundreds of thousands of trenches scarring the landscape: a warren of man-made pillage. Gangs of looters, known as huaqueros, are ransacking Peru's heritage to illegally sell artefacts to collectors and tourists...

Mirador, the cradle of Mayan civilisation in Guatemala, was being devastated, it said. "The entire Peten region has been sacked in the past 20 years and every year hundreds of archaeological sites are being destroyed by organised looting crews seeking Maya antiquities for sale on the international market."

Northern Peru, home to the Moche civilisation which flourished from AD100-800, had been reduced to a "lunar landscape" by looter trenches across hundreds of miles. "An estimated 100,000 tombs – over half the country's known sites – have been looted," the report said...

Most huaqueros are farmers supplementing meagre incomes. Montes de Oca, one of three police officers tasked with environmental protection in a region of a million people, said he was overwhelmed. "I've been doing this for 28 years. There are three of us and one truck. It's insufficient but we do everything possible."
This point is probably valid:
"One of the biggest problems is the disconnect between local communities and management of the sites. We think locals should get at least 30% of revenues [from tourists]." Only then, said Morgan, would cultural treasures fom the Moche and other civilisations be saved.

Moth wing scales

Scanning electron micrograph of the scales on the wing of a Madagascan moon moth, (Argema mittrei). This endangered moth... is also known as the Comet moth, because of its characteristic long tail. The tail span is 15 cm and wing span 20 cm, making it one of the world’s largest silk moths. Creator Kevin MacKenzie has coloured the scales in this micrograph light green to reflect the natural colour of the moth.  (Credit, via)
I had to look up this moth; here's what it looks like (credit) -
Rather similar to the more familiar Luna moths, like the one we raised last year:

And, BTW, if you would like to take your own scanning EMs and don't have access to a scanning electron microscope, you can build one in your basement.  This guy did - and it works (video at the link).

Addendum:  A different "moon moth"- Graellsia isabellae (the Spanish Moon Moth), photographed in Switzerland by TPittaway:

Americans becoming too heavy for current buses

From USA Today:
It's official: The federal government says more overweight Americans are squeezing onto buses, and it may have to rewrite bus safety rules because of it. The Federal Transit Authority (FTA) proposes raising the assumed average weight per bus passenger from 150 pounds to 175 pounds, which could mean that across the country, fewer people will be allowed on a city transit bus...

Current federal guidelines on average passenger weight are based on surveys in 1960-62 of what Americans weighed then. Today, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says, the average weight is 194.7 pounds for men 20 and older and 164.7 pounds for women that age range... The Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees airline travel, gauges average passenger weight at 190 pounds in the summer and 195 pounds in the winter. The Coast Guard's assumed average weight is 185 pounds for boats and ferries.

Memento mori

This eighteenth- or nineteenth-century silver skeleton in a gold coffin was designed to be worn as a pendant. 

For an equally dramatic example of a memento mori, see this prior post.

From the Science Museum, London.
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