30 November 2011


The genus name Cypripedium is derived from the Greek words "Cypris," an early reference in Greek myth to Aphrodite, and “pedilon” for sandal. This is because the fused petals that form the orchid’s pouch or modified lip (labellum) resemble a slipper or shoe. The staminode (sterile stamen) is often showy and seems to welcome the insect into the pouch where it makes its way to a back-door exit and in so doing transfers pollen to the stigma.
The text comes from "Meet the Ladies" -  a page at the US Forest Service website devoted to the "slipper orchids."  We have three varieties in Minnesota.  At the top and below are examples of the Showy lady's slipper - the state flower for Minnesota.
I photographed these along the bogwalk at Lake Bemidji State Park.  I don't have any photos of the White lady's slipper, which is more of a prairie flower, but the Yellow lady's slipper is fairly common.
I found several clusters in the ditch next to a road in Walker, Minnesota.  They are beautiful plants with wonderfully intricate flowers.

Perhaps it depends on how you define "fraud" ??

From an article by Matt Taibbi at Rolling Stone:
Last week, a federal judge in Mississippi sentenced a mother of two named Anita McLemore to three years in federal prison for lying on a government application in order to obtain food stamps... The total "cost" of her fraud was $4,367.

She has paid the money back. But paying the money back was not enough for federal Judge Henry Wingate... He ultimately gave her three years, saying, "The defendant's criminal record is simply abominable …. She has been the beneficiary of government generosity in state court."

Compare this court decision to the fraud settlements on Wall Street. Like McLemore, fraud defendants like Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, and Deutsche Bank have "been the beneficiary of government generosity." Goldman got $12.9 billion just through the AIG bailout. Citigroup got $45 billion, plus hundreds of billions in government guarantees.

All of these companies have been repeatedly dragged into court for fraud, and not one individual defendant has ever been forced to give back anything like a significant portion of his ill-gotten gains. The closest we've come is in a fraud case involving Citi, in which a pair of executives, Gary Crittenden and Arthur Tildesley, were fined the token amounts of $100,000 and $80,000, respectively, for lying to shareholders about the extent of Citi’s debt. Neither man was forced to admit to intentional fraud. Both got to keep their jobs...

This is the reason why all of these settlements allowing banks to walk away without "admissions of wrongdoing" are particularly insidious. A normal person, once he gets a felony conviction, immediately begins to lose his rights as a citizen. But white-collar criminals of the type we’ve seen in recent years on Wall Street – both the individuals and the corporate "citizens" – do not suffer these ramifications. They commit crimes without real consequence, allowing them to retain access to the full smorgasbord of subsidies and financial welfare programs that, let’s face it, are the source of most of their profits... 
More at the link.

A proposed function for dinosaur osteoderm

I had never heard the term osteoderm until this morning. 
Osteoderms are bony deposits forming scales, plates or other structures in the dermal layers of the skin. Osteoderms are found in many groups of extant and extinct reptiles, including lizards, various groups of dinosaurs... 
The image above (credit Fritz Geller-Grimm), shows osteoderm on the skin of a Gila monster.  What interested me was a report in the StarTribune about dinosaur osteoderms:
At the site in Madagascar, which was once a river, she and her colleagues found lots of osteoderms... she found that the adult osteoderm was hollow, while those from the younger skeletons were not. 

She had her answer. The dinosaurs used them over their lifetimes in much the way camels use their humps -- for long-term storage of minerals, she said. During times of drought or starvation, the dinosaurs could not live if they had to drain minerals from their arm and leg bones, she said.

"They weighed tens of tons," she said. "No way could they pull minerals from their limbs and still be able to walk. They would fracture their bones."
An osteoderm would obviously provide a non-weight-bearing site for calcium storage, but it's not clear to me if calcium could be selectively mobilized from one site while sparing others.  But apparently crocodiles use their osteoderms for thermoregulation, so possibly dinosaurs could redirect blood flow to the osteoderms in times of mineral deficiency.  Interesting theory.

TaskRabbit and other microjob sites

As explained in a Wall Street Journal article, a variety of online sites now allow people needing chores done to connect with people willing to freelance on a (very)short-term basis:
Rachel Christenson posted a few weeks ago at online marketplace TaskRabbit Inc. Neither she nor her husband wanted the "gross" job of dealing with an overflowing compost bin, so she clicked her mouse in search of someone who would do her dirty work. After about 11 hours and a few crazy questions like, "Are your worms nice?" Ms. Christenson, 27 years old, found a taker. Douglas Ivey, a 45-year-old research scientist, drained the "worm juice" from the bin, put back the compost, mixed in newspaper and hosed it all down. The price? $31...

Thousands of unemployed or underemployed workers have parlayed one-off job requests into part- or full-time work. The gigs are especially popular with stay-at-home moms, retirees and students. Workers choose their jobs and negotiate their own rates...

After submitting an online application, completing a video interview and going through a Social Security number trace and a federal criminal background check, Ms. Greenham joined the San Francisco-based company's crew of about 2,000 "TaskRabbits." She does odd jobs via the service every day, aiming to clear at least $25 an hour. So far, she's completed about 250 jobs and has racked up around $1,500 a month... 

Amazon Mechanical Turk, a service of Amazon.com Inc., lets people work from home, like virtual temps. Companies such as Microsoft Corp. and LinkedIn Corp. place jobs on the service, often to help them manage or categorize content, says Sharon Chiarella, vice president of Amazon Mechanical Turk. About a year ago, Chris Berry, a special-education teacher in Granite Bay, Calif., began actively using the service, launched in 2005, in hopes of making extra money to support his wife and four children. Mr. Berry, 39, earned more than $10,000 from tasks that paid as little as 10 cents a pop. He says he sometimes completed more than 1,000 jobs a day, ranging from writing golfing tips to doling out parenting advice. 
More at the Wall Street JournalAmazon Mechanical Turk sounds interesting; anyone with experience re the site?

addendum:  I just checked the Amazon Mechanical Turk site for "writing" tasks from home and found this request:
Rewrite a given sentence so that it is similar in meaning to the original sentence, yet substantially differently worded. 
That's not proofreading; it sounds more like a request to help someone steal intellectual content, disguise plagiarism, duplicate term papers etc.  Lots of other dodgy requests on the list.  But from some of the comments received on this post, there apparently are plenty of other better options to choose from.

Addendum:  See the response by Lady Heather in the Comments below.  She read this post, signed up, and is now generating about $20/day by working at home.

U.S. Senate approves detention of Americans indefinitely without trial

The Senate voted Tuesday to keep a controversial provision to let the military detain terrorism suspects on U.S. soil and hold them indefinitely without trial -- prompting White House officials to reissue a veto threat.

The measure, part of the massive National Defense Authorization Act, was also opposed by civil libertarians on the left and right. But 16 Democrats and an independent joined with Republicans to defeat an amendment by Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) that would have killed the provision, voting it down with 61 against, and 37 for it.

“I’m very, very, concerned about having U.S. citizens sent to Guantanamo Bay for indefinite detention,” said Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), one of the Senate’s most conservative members. Rand’s top complaint is that a terrorism suspect would get just one hearing where the military could assert that the person is a suspected terrorist — and then they could be locked up for life, without ever formally being charged. The only safety valve is a waiver from the secretary of defense.

“It’s not enough just to be alleged to be a terrorist,” Paul said, echoing the views of the American Civil Liberties Union. “That’s part of what due process is — deciding, are you a terrorist? I think it’s important that we not allow U.S. citizens to be taken.” 
And this -
I doubt that the President will blow up the bill.  Too many liberal democrats, including Senate Arms Services Chair Carl Levin, support it, so the president cannot charge political extremism. 
Via The American Convervative.

The arrogance of one of the 1%

An encounter filmed during the Occupy LA events; the man viewing the proceedings expresses his doubt that "anyone great" ever came out of the 99 percent.

29 November 2011

"Standing on the shoulders of giants" - updated

The phrase is conventionally attributed to Sir Isaac Newton in a letter to Robert Hooke in 1676 -
"What Descartes did was a good step. You have added much several ways, and especially in taking the colours of thin plates into philosophical consideration. If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants."
-  but has been traced back to Bernard of Chartres; John of Salisbury wrote in the 12th century:
"Bernard of Chartres used to say that we are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more than they, and things at a greater distance, not by virtue of any sharpness of sight on our part, or any physical distinction, but because we are carried high and raised up by their giant size." 
Further details at Wikipedia.

Addendum:  Readers jk and Casey remembered additional information about Newton's classic line.  After some additional searching, I found at The Inverse Square Blog this suggestion that Newton may have been making fun of Robert Hooke as a "vertically impaired" person:
On March 3, 1703, a very short giant died, and a greater one of average height may well have laughed to hear the news.

Robert Hooke has had the historical misfortune to have produced an extraordinary career that has been obscured over time — and in his own day too — by the still greater accomplishment of Isaac Newton. He compounded that ill luck by being something of an ass. His fate was sealed, at least in the intellectual politics of late 17th century London, by having chosen perhaps the worst person possible to annoy. Newton took offense easily, and nurtured his grievances indefinitely....

In his last letter to Hooke on the various issues involved, written in February 1676, Newton grandly acknowledged that Hooke had “added much in several ways,” to the science of light. And as for himself, “If I have seen futher iti s by standing on ye shoulders of Giants.”

How sweet — but for that in that famously touchy age, the fact of Hooke’s modest height gave the conventional phrase a nasty edge both men could have recognized....
Details of the Hooke/Newton relationship at the Inverse Square blog link.  Hooke certainly had a remarkable scientific curriculum vitae  - see the list of his investigations at Wikipedia.

Assassins in the news

Many reports today discussing the determination by Norwegian authorities that mass killer Anders Behring Breivik was insane at the time of his crime, and instead of going to prison will be undergo psychiatric care.  I won't elaborate on this - you'll find plenty of discussion/analysis elsewhere.

Yesterday while driving I heard part of a discussion on NPR re John Hinckley, Jr., who in 1981 tried to assassinate president Ronald Reagan.  He has now been declared sane and not a danger to anyone.  At the time of his trial he was deemed by the jury to be "not guilty by reason of insanity," so if he is no longer insane, the rationale for detaining him becomes weaker.  And of note, his attempt on Reagan's life was never considered to be a political act; he delusionally wanted to impress actress Jodie Foster.

A report in the Christian Science Monitor discusses information being presented by lawyers for Sirhan Sirhan that suggests that he was a diversion for the real killer of Robert F. Kennedy.
The lawyers, William F. Pepper and Laurie Dusek, also said sophisticated audio tests recently conducted on recordings from the assassination night show 13 shots from multiple guns were fired — five more than Sirhancould have fired from his small pistol. Authorities have claimed eight bullets were fired, with three hitting Kennedy and the rest flying wildly around the kitchen and striking five other victims who survived.

Pepper and Dusek argue that before Sirhan's trial, someone switched a bullet before it was placed in evidence because the bullet taken from Kennedy's neck did not match Sirhan's gun. The lawyers suggest a second gun was involved in the assassination, but they do not know who fired it.
I might revisit this in the future, when I have more time, because in the years after the assassination there was a lot of conspiracy theory about the deed, in particular because Sirhan was photographed standing in front of RFK, but the fatal bullet entered his neck from behind.

Making the most of bad publicity

Not LOL - but chuckling quietly.  Source.  And context.

In praise of "cheap" wine

My favorite wine (a Wisconsin local) is available for under $8 a bottle, but according to an article in Slate, even that is ridiculously high by European standards.
Try this experiment: Walk into the nearest wine shop and ask for an “everyday wine” recommendation. Refuse to give a price range, and see what the merchant suggests. My guess is you’re out 15 bucks. Critics seem to be pushing this price point as an appropriate range for “everyday wine”...

In Europe, consumption is 3-to-6 times higher than in the United States. But only the most affluent would spend 11 euros to drink a bottle of wine at home on a Wednesday night. Europeans seem perfectly comfortable cracking open a 1-euro tetra-pak of wine for guests. Germans, for example, pay just $1.79 on average for a bottle of wine...

Ernest Gallo, who, along with his brother Julio, popularized wine among the American masses, understood the psychology of wine better than anyone. He used to pour two glasses of wine for potential buyers, telling them that one sold for 5 cents, and the other for 10. According to Gallo, his guinea pigs invariably chose the more expensive option. What they didn’t know was that the two wines were exactly the same. Researchers have recently reproduced Gallo’s results, proving that our appreciation of a wine depends on how much we think it costs. If you can break yourself of this psychological quirk—or have your spouse lie to you about the cost of your wine—you’ll save a small fortune....

You’re probably hoping for some recommendations. You don’t need them. Reviews and recommendations are great for cars or televisions or overpriced wines, because bad decisions are expensive. If you hate your cheap bottle of wine, just uncork another. 
I'll offer my recommendation - Prairie Fume, from the Wollersheim winery in Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin.  Feel free to add yours in the comments - I'd be interested to hear what they are.

And the Slate article is a bit Eurocentric in its focus; I wonder what the cost of everyday dinner wine is elsewhere in the world.

Flash mob dabke in the Beirut airport

At the Rafic Hariri International Airport, in March of this year.
A flash mob performed a mix of Dabke and hip-hop to entertain and delight passengers and airport staff alike. M&C Saatchi and Beirut Duty Free created this vibrant event as part of their "Take Back More." campaign. The aim was to literally create a wonderful memory of Lebanon that passengers could take with them on their journey.
I had to look up dabke-
Dabke is an Arab folk dance. It is popular in several Arab countries such as Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq. A line dance, it is widely performed at weddings and joyous occasions. The leader of the dabke heads the line, alternating between facing the audience and the other dancers. Dabke in Arabic is literally " stamping of the feet." The leader, called raas ("head") or lawweeh ("waver"), is allowed to improvise on the type of dabke. The leader twirls a handkerchief or string of beads known as a masbha (similar to a rosary), while the rest of the dancers keep the rhythm. The dancers also use vocalizations to show energy and keep up the beat. The dabke leader is supposed to be like a tree, with arms in the air, a proud and upright trunk, and feet that stomp the ground in rhythm. At weddings, the singer begins with a mawwal. The raas or lawweeh takes the lead. Everyone does a basic 1-2-3 step before the song kicks in. At weddings, the dance is sometimes performed by a professional troupe dressed in costume.
Interesting re the origin:
The "dabkeh" originated in the Levant where houses were built from stone with a roof made of wood, straw and dirt. The dirt roof had to be compacted which required stomping the dirt hard in a uniform way to compact it evenly. This event of cooperation is called ta'awon and from here comes the word awneh, meaning "help." This developed into the song Ala Dal Ouna (على دلعونا), or roughly translated "Let's go and help". The dabke and the rhythmic songs go together in an attempt to keep the work fun and useful.
More information at Wikipedia, including subtypes and musical instrumentation. 

Watched it twice - a cheerful way to start my blogging morning.

28 November 2011

Restoration of Notre Dame

A photo by Henri Roger-Viollet (1869-1946)
Born in a distinguished Paris family, he belonged together with his elder brother Ernest Roger among the age’s most prominent and prolific inventors... But photography was also among his many passions. Experimenting from the 1890s, he invented a number of procedures of trick photography, and until his death he tirelessly documented the life of Paris...
From a gallery of several dozen of his photos assembled at Poemas del rio Wang, from which I can't resist including this famous photo of a braking misadventure at Gare Montparnasse (1895):

Peter Sellers' Inspector Clouseau

I've seen all the movies and so thought this would be predictable and not all that amusing. But it's very hard not to laugh - at least once or twice...

Lawyer-stabbing defendant must represent himself

Lowering the Bar is a wonderful source for the preposterous and humorous happenings in the legal workplace.  Here's an extended excerpt from a post earlier this month:
As you may recall, accused killer and total dick Josh Monson managed to get himself a mistrial and a new defense lawyer back in May after he poked his first lawyer in the neck with a pencil. Actually, I think the mistrial came after he poked the new lawyer in the neck with a pencil three days later, but it's not clear. Anyway, he poked his third lawyer with a pen yesterday, leading the judge to rule that he has now bagged his limit and will have to represent himself.

Unsurprisingly, the judge had previously ruled that Monson would not be allowed to have any writing utensils for this go-round, and although I assume they told No. 3 about his client's penchant for neck-stabbing he still made the mistake of leaving a pen within arm's reach. According to witnesses, Monson appeared to be going for the neck again, but missed and only scratched the lawyer's temple. His aim may have been thrown off by the electric stun device he was wearing, which an officer triggered when he saw Monson lunge...
Judge David Kurtz ruled that Monson has now forfeited his right to be represented by counsel, and that he will also be strapped to a special chair for the rest of the trial. Monson promptly complained about this, of course, saying it might give jurors the wrong impression.
There's no more appropriate photo to embed than the one used at the source.

Flying with little children during the holidays ?

An article at the Wall Street Journal offers a variety of tips and advice:
Parents are complaining of airline seating policies that create "baby ghettos" in the back of planes. Even worse, families are increasingly split up, leaving small children in middle seats in the company of strangers unless passengers arrange seat swaps on board...

Several factors are at play. First, many seats on flights are reserved for elite-level frequent fliers or full-fare business travelers. Routinely full flights have less seat-assignment flexibility. Also, airlines are increasingly selling choice seat assignments for extra fees, an expensive option for families. And bulkhead rows at the front of coach cabins that used to be ideal for traveling with infants, offering more privacy for diaper changes and more space for restless toddlers, now have to be reserved for passengers with disabilities. As a result, families often end up separated or at the back of the plane...

The plane's configuration can also affect placement. On smaller regional jets, for example, some rows don't have an extra oxygen mask to be used on an infant traveling on an adult's lap. That means someone who reserved a seat and has a lap child must be relocated, splitting up a family... [it seems to me that any adult with common sense could "buddy-breathe" with a child in an emergency, but of course rules are rules]

Ms. Hoobing thinks the hardest part of travel with kids is boarding. Airlines typically no longer let families with small children board first on flights. Instead, they often come after first class and top-tier frequent fliers. Kids and parents—lugging car seats, diaper bags, videogames and toys—clog the aisles and delay general boarding. Though airlines provide leniency, such as exempting diaper bags for carry-on bag limits and waiving checked-baggage fees for car seats and strollers, they have tightened restrictions.

On June 1, for example, American stopped letting parents check jogging strollers, non-collapsible strollers or strollers heavier than 20 pounds at the gate. United already bans gate-checking strollers that don't collapse.
Over 400 comments at the link, many by experienced, savvy travelers.

Where do everyone's exports go ??

A column at The Economist notes that...
In theory, countries’ current-account balances should all sum to zero because one country’s export is another’s import. However, if you add up all countries’ reported current-account transactions... the world exported $331 billion more than it imported in 2010, according to the IMF’s World Economic Outlook. The fund forecasts that the global current-account surplus will rise to almost $700 billion by 2014...

What is going on? Past studies by the IMF concluded that the global deficit in the 1980s and 1990s was largely due to the underreporting of foreign-investment income by rich countries and the under-recording of freight receipts... Another possible explanation posits that the surge in the global discrepancy broadly coincides with both the explosion in vertically integrated businesses, where firms locate different stages of production in different countries... Transfer pricing used by multinationals to shift profits around the globe may distort trade figures...

The good news is that international concerns about global imbalances may be much less pressing than many think. The bad news is that conventional balance-of-payments measures are clearly less reliable in a world of rising intra-firm trade and complex supply chains. That matters because dodgy statistics lead to policy mistakes. Governments should clean the figures up.

World's longest fingernails

Photos of this 45-year-old Las Vegas grandmother appear not infrequently on the 'net.  I thought this image was particularly well composed.

One of the Pictures of the Day at The Telegraph.  Credit: Incredible Features / Barcroft Media.

Addendum:  thefrangipangi found at The Daily Mail a biography of this lady with an additional half-dozen photos.

Taking care of elderly parents

It's a reflection of current first-world demographics that quite a few essays are being written about the experiences of adults taking care of parents who are in declining physical or mental health.  Here are several excerpts from a column by Lillian Rubin in this week's Salon:
Listen in on a group of middle-aged children of the elderly, and you’ll hear that even the most casual mention of aging parents is likely to open up a Pandora’s box of anxieties. These are stories told with tears, with exasperation, and sometimes, when they can take a step back, with laughter. Not funny ha-ha mirth, but more like the hysterical laughter we all experience at those moments when we’re forced to come to grips with the absurdity of life and our own helplessness.

Even if their parents are still doing fine, middle-aged children need only look around at friends and neighbors to be reminded that these anxieties will become theirs one day... the demographic and cultural context in which this takes place is vastly different now than it was a century ago. Then, few women worked outside the home, so someone was available to care for an ailing parent. Today, a changed culture combined with economic need has put most women in the labor force alongside their men, which means that there’s no one at home to take care of Mom or Dad when they need it...

Those in their 60s and 70s, who looked forward to these years with their promise of freedom from the responsibilities that bound them before, are now asking: “When do I get to live my life for myself?” The younger ones, who at middle age are already stretched thin by their own financial problems — worried about how they’ll provide for their children’s education, whether they’ll ever have enough for their own retirement, how they’ll live the rest of their lives — are asking: “How can I do it all?”...

If there’s one word to describe the dominant feeling on both sides of the bridge that connects the generations at this stage of life, it’s “ambivalence.” “I love my parents, but…”  ...The parents’ stories are the mirror image of their children’s. “I love my children, I know they want to help, but…” The words say they appreciate their children’s concern while they feel it as an infringement on their autonomy...

“I feel like I’m being torn to pieces,” cries a 48-year-old woman as she struggles to balance her care and concern for her 70-something parents who need help and don’t have the financial resources to pay for it. Her parents’ response: “We just want her to stop nagging us and let us live our lives the way we want to.” I remind them that their daughter says they can’t afford to continue to live their lives as they have. “That’s our problem,” her mother replies, hotly. “We’ve managed until now. We’ll manage again.” It’s a no-win situation...

There is no right and wrong here, no black and white; there are only shades of gray in situations so murky that it’s nearly impossible for either parents or children to know just when it’s the right time to take a step, make a move...

“This was supposed to be my time,” says a 75-year-old retired widower whose 94-year-old mother has been living with him for 13 years. “It’s hard not to think, What about me? I’ve had some heart problems, and I think about that and know that, well, you know, I could die anytime and I’ll never have had the chance to live these years like I wanted to.”
The rest of the essay is at Salon.

Laurel and Hardy dance scene from Way Out West

This two-minute segment from one of their better movies is often cited as an iconic moment in the transition of the entertainment industry from vaudeville to cinema.  It's not really "funny," so much as, well... pleasant and enjoyable (for those in a hurry, the dancing begins at about 1:15).

What I hadn't realized before preparing this post was how many times this scene has been remixed with modern music, including Santana, the Rolling Stones, The Beatles, and many others.  I thought this version was particularly well done:

27 November 2011

Spider web stabilimenta

I first became aware of the stabilimenta in some spider webs when I lived in a house in a rural location in Kentucky and shared my couple acres with a number of Argiope spiders (Saint Andrews Cross spiders) who liked to weave their webs near my house where the lights presumably helped attract their prey at night.

Those particular spiders created a rather simple but still impressive vertical zig-zag line in the center of their webs.  From then until now my understanding was that the stabilimenta served to make the web visible to birds and other non-prey (and I was appreciative of their foresight when hiking along wooded trails).

But now I learn from the Wikipedia page that the stabilimenta may serve other purposes, including camouflage, or making the spider appear larger and more fearsome or more sexually attractive, or that it provides a thermoregulation function, or that the stabilimenta reflect ultraviolet light and thus attract insects.

I can't leave the topic without mentioning the most famous stabilimenta of all time:

In 1948 E.B. White wrote an essay for The Atlantic about the death of a favorite pig -
I spent several days and nights in mid-September with an ailing pig and I feel driven to account for this stretch of time, more particularly since the pig died at last, and I lived, and things might easily have gone the other way round and none left to do the accounting. Even now, so close to the event, I cannot recall the hours sharply and am not ready to say whether death came on the third night or the fourth night. This uncertainty afflicts me with a sense of personal deterioration; if I were in decent health I would know how many nights I had sat up with a pig...
Some of you will enjoy reading the full essay at the link.  

Charlotte's Web image and link to the essay via Ghost of the Talking Cricket.  Top photo credit: Muhammed Karim.

This is how the Curiosity Rover will land on Mars

An impressive animation from the JPL.  As a side note, it's a bit startling to note how "non-aerodynamic" the craft travelling to Mars is (a flattish disk moving face-first).  Of course, in the "emptiness" of space, there's no need for tapered noses and long cylindrical bodies.

Pandemic H5N1 influenza virus created

Excerpts from a report in Science:
ROTTERDAM, THE NETHERLANDS—Locked up in the bowels of the medical faculty building here and accessible to only a handful of scientists lies a man-made flu virus that could change world history if it were ever set free.

The virus is an H5N1 avian influenza strain that has been genetically altered and is now easily transmissible between ferrets, the animals that most closely mimic the human response to flu. Scientists believe it's likely that the pathogen, if it emerged in nature or were released, would trigger an influenza pandemic, quite possibly with many millions of deaths. 

In a 17th floor office in the same building, virologist Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Center calmly explains why his team created what he says is "probably one of the most dangerous viruses you can make"—and why he wants to publish a paper describing how they did it. Fouchier is also bracing for a media storm. After he talked to ScienceInsider yesterday, he had an appointment with an institutional press officer to chart a communication strategy.

Fouchier's paper is one of two studies that have triggered an intense debate about the limits of scientific freedom and that could portend changes in the way U.S. researchers handle so-called dual-use research: studies that have a potential public health benefit but could also be useful for nefarious purposes like biowarfare or bioterrorism....
More at the link, and some informed discussion in a Reddit thread.

Four "perfect hands"

From a story in The Sun, via Arbroath:
A group of whist players were each dealt a complete suit in an opening hand — beating odds of two thousand quadrillion to one. Wenda Douthwaite, 77, and her three friends were "gobsmacked" when they were dealt the hand during a game last week. Mathematician Dr Alexander Mijatovic, a probability expert at Warwick University, worked out the odds as being 2,235,197,406,895,366,368,301,559,999 to 1...

Everything was done as usual. The pack of cards was an old one. The cards were shuffled, cut and dealt as normal... "We play regularly and are always very careful to make sure the deck of cards is shuffled repeatedly.
I don't mean to sound churlish here, because they surely deserve their moment of fun and fame, but mathematically every other set of hands they were dealt that night would have had the same probability of occurring.  This arrangement of cards is visually striking, but not mathematically any less likely than any other specific distribution.

How to build a camp stove or fireplace

An email from a reader alerted me to the existence of a book entitled "Camp Stove and Fireplaces," by A.D. Taylor (1937), which my local library was able to obtain for me.  This publication by the Forest Service of the United States Department of Agriculture served as a reference manual for participants in the CCC undertaking stonework.

It's a surprisingly comprehensive and sensible instructional book, illustrated by clear line drawings such as those above.  It does not discuss stuctures such as buildings, bridges, and walls - just the fire-related structures along trails and at campsites.  In an era when huge numbers of Americans were for the first time beginning to discover and explore the national and state parks, the book was written with a goal of producing campfire sites that would minimize the risk of forest fires, while blending the design of the structures into the natural landscape as attractively as possible.

I didn't realize the CCC provided this degree of formal training; I thought most of the skilled work was simply guided by "local experienced men."  This book may help explain some of the uniformity of structures that can be seen in parks across the country.

Hallelujah !

I don't think it's disrespectful to chuckle at this misadventure.  And it's uncommon to find insightful comments on most YouTube videos, but I believe this one is correct:
However they have an even bigger problem - the Hallelujah chorus doesn't celebrate his ASCENSION into heaven, but his resurrection.
Via Nothing To Do With Arbroath.

Word for the day: "pleaching"

From an article in The Telegraph:
The use of pleached trees to establish the architecture of a garden is one of the defining aspects of 17th and 18th-century design, particularly in France and Italy. Traditionally used to demarcate grand allées or to enclose intimate spaces, pleached trees had, until recently, fallen out of widespread use....

Pleaching is a style of growing trees in a line, usually straight, with the branches of the tree tied together and clipped to form a flat plane above the bare trunk. The branches are tied onto canes or wire to make tiers, and are then regularly pruned to keep their shape....

Planting a pleached hedge has been made much easier in recent years by the availability of ready-pleached trees. Imported mainly from Italy, these are trees whose branches have already started to be trained and are tied to a bamboo frame.... An imposing row of neatly clipped trees looks beautiful, but demands work... a team of three expert gardeners will spend a whole week, twice a year, maintaining a run of 50 trees.

26 November 2011

Slime mold

This one is Stemonitis fusca.

With a hat tip to The Outer Hoard for the link to a NYT article on the evolution of slime molds.  (See also pix here, and this re their reputed "intelligence.")

Photo credit Nick Cantle, via Ursa Major and A London Salmagundi.

What are "city sevens" ?

I encountered this sentence last night while reading an otherwise unremarkable nineteenth-century science fiction story ("The Clock That Went Backwards," by Edward Page Mitchell, 1852-1927):
"Aunt Gertrude's will left me her bank and gas stocks, real estate, railroad bonds, and city sevens, and gave Harry the clock."
The term is a new one for me.  When I tried to look it up this morning, the search results were cluttered with rugby references, which would not be relevant to this story.  I'm hoping someone reading this blog will have better knowledge of Victorian terminology.

Addendum:  This is just classic - two answers within an hour of my post.  :.)

per snotty: bonds which pay 7% interest (link goes to an archived page of the NYT).

confirmed by Matt, who used a Google Books search to find links to Cincinnati (and other) city bonds.

Thank you, guys.

This boy "downloads music from his mind"

This "60 Minutes" segment (text here) aired several years ago; it features Jay "Bluejay" Greenberg, a musical prodigy who was 12 years old when the program was filmed (his current biography is here).
"We are talking about a prodigy of the level of the greatest prodigies in history when it comes to composition," says Sam Zyman, a composer. "I am talking about the likes of Mozart, and Mendelssohn, and Saint-Sans." Zyman teaches music theory to Jay at the Juilliard School in New York City, where he's been teaching for 18 years.

"This is an absolute fact. This is objective. This is not a subjective opinion," says Zyman. "Jay could be sitting here, and he could be composing right now. He could finish a piano sonata before our eyes in probably 25 minutes. And it would be a great piece."

How is it possible? Jay told Pelley he doesn't know where the music comes from, but it comes fully written -- playing like an orchestra in his head.
"It's as if the unconscious mind is giving orders at the speed of light," says Jay. "You know, I mean, so I just hear it as if it were a smooth performance of a work that is already written, when it isn't...
Jay writes things he can't even play, and he says he wants to perfect his piano playing, even though he doesn't need the piano, or any instrument, to compose... Talented composers might write five or six symphonies in a lifetime. But Jay has written five at the age of 12. 
There is a bit of "hype" in the presentation, both from the parents and from the producers, but there is no doubt that this young man is a true prodigy, and as the text suggests, as I watched the video I couldn't help thinking back to the movie "Amadeus."

The word isn't used in the video or webpages, but I presume Jay Greenberg has a form of autism, which means that his brain is just like yours and mine... except for a couple extra or aberrant connections that just happen to result in previously-unwritten symphonic music playing in his head.  It's a mind-boggling concept.  Clearly he has a family situation that predisposed him to this manifestation of his capabilities, but one wonders how many other children there are in the world who experience this and can't express it.

Via Reddit.

Patent models from the Smithsonian

From an article at Salon:
Visitors to the nation’s capital were once able to stroll through the halls of the Patent Office, oohing and aahing over the tiny models inventors were required to submit as part of their patent applications. While the vast majority of these models — which at one point numbered in the hundreds of thousands — have since been destroyed in fires or otherwise lost to history, a small portion remains. An even smaller selection (32 in all) will be on display in Washington through November 2013.
At the top is the model of what appears to be a humane live trap for mice.  And here is a surpringly (to me, at least) complex mechanism for manufacturing horse shoes (?):
Salon includes a gallery of 13 examples.

The covers of TIME magazine

At the TIME magazine website, you can simultaneously view the covers of the U.S. and three overseas editions of the magazine.  Shown above is the current issue.  If you keep clicking the "previous issue" button, you can find other examples of nonuniformity, some of them predictable, such as this one that did not feature Tintin:

Obviously, TIME alters its cover based on what the editors believe will be of interest to Americans.  Nothing improper about that per se, but it does say something about Americans.   For example:

Via Reddit, where interesting additional examples are noted here and here and here and here...

Joe Cocker - with misheard lyrics

I have few regrets in life (almost all of them for things I didn't do, rather than for things I did); I do wish that I had gone to Woodstock in 1969. If so, I would have heard this cover version of the Beatles' "With a Little Help From My Friends," which Joe Cocker performed in his inimitable style, with altered meter, different key, and different chords (and which was subsequently covered in turn by John Belushi on Saturday Night Live).

But back to the video embedded above. This one has subtitles - not, mind you, the real ones, but the ones that Joe Cocker sounds like he's saying. By the time it's over you may forget what the original lyrics were - if so, revisit the original Woodstock performance HERE.

Addendum: The YouTube video was pulled, but what appears to be the same one has been resurrected here

Reposted from 2008 (!) after I discovered the video has been resurrected (probably only temporarily).  Several other links have undergone linkrot in the interim, but on re-viewing, I discover that the video actually includes a brief image at 2:18 that fits in with a separate theme on this blog...


Jumping dogs

From the archives of British Pathe, a video of what was claimed to be the "world's greatest jumping dog" in 1930.  Via Nothing To Do With Arbroath.

My initial thought (after cringing while watching him clear that spiky gate-thing) on viewing the video was that he would have been a fantastic Frisbee dog...

(Highlight reel from the 2010 NW Regional Disc Dog Championships).

McRib - "no onions, no pickles"

Linked in a Reddit thread which includes discussion by people with experience in the fast food industry, including making Big Macs with no meat for vegetarians.

This doesn't look like anything I would want to buy (I would probably eat it, but not want to pay whatever these cost.)

"Give Peace a Chance" mashup

This was crafted in June of last year, but I just found it, at Georgina Alucina.  The sentiment, of course, is timeless.

24 November 2011

Celebrating 1,000 Google followers

I kept one eye on the icons in my right sidebar this past week, as the number of followers crept toward what could be considered a milestone of sorts.  I installed the Google widget back in 2009, and by that November about 200 readers had signed on.  The following November there were 500, and then last week the number reached 1,000.  (If it actually is 1,000.  I suspect that the system is sort of like a Hotel California - or a Roach Motel - where people sign in, but never sign out.)

I'm not sure exactly what significance to put on this.  I don't carry ads on the blog, so increasing the number of visits per day (currently 4-5,000) doesn't generate any revenue.  But the number of readers is important to the extent that many of you contribute to the blog through comments, corrections, and suggestions.  About six weeks ago, a longtime Aussie reader left this comment (boldface highlight mine):
This seems to me an appropriate post on which to ask a question which has always lurked in the back of my mind. Given that you have such a wide following, with so many readers, why are there so relatively few comments on each post? So many other blogs have endless comments that I couldn't be bothered to read them all, yet I have time to read your daily posts and all of the comments that follow (which adds to the discourse immensely). I don't get it, what am I missing?
What that reader said is quite true, in my view - there are relatively few comments written on TYWKIWDBI posts.   I've seen mommyblogs and heres-what-I-had-for-lunch blogs where the author will post a photo of a hairball their cat threw up and get a dozen comments.   This blog averages only two comments per post, and the quality is immeasurably better.  If there's a photo from the World's Ugliest Dog Contest, instead of the mindless comments like ROFLMAO and "that dog looks like my first wife," the comments here would be more in the line of "Oh, that's a Mongolian water spaniel; we had one years ago and it's excellent with kids," and the second comment would be "Yes, but with that short snout they have obstructive apneas..." and so on.

I get the sense that the readers of this blog have a wide range of interests (and often a really deep knowledge base), and they typically "lurk" - for months or years, until a post hits their area of expertise, and then they jump in with additional information.  I have no plans to make this a community blog or to take on guest authors, but it sometimes works out almost like that because with so few comments and such useful observations, I'm able to boost the relevant information "above the fold" to enhance the body of the post itself.  Readers notify me that "you called it a monkey, but it's an ape," or "you're confusing stratosphere with troposphere."  There are readers who will chime in only twice a year to clarify the intricacies of mathematics problems.  And there's a small cadre of retired copyeditors who take the time to clean up my grammatical misadventures.  By the time the posts get scanned by what amounts to a thousand proofreaders, most of the errors get cleaned out.  And for that I'm always grateful.

There's one other aspect of the wide readership here that can be useful - to me and to you.   If you look in the right sidebar, you can see the widget showing which readers access this blog via Google Friend Connect.  I've labeled the widgte "Like-minded people," and it looks like this:

If you click on the double red boxes in the UR corner, the widget expands; you can then scroll back as far as you want until you see someone interesting, then click on their avatar.  Under "Links" you can see what blogs they author, and under "Sites I've joined" you can see which other blogs they read.

I've been exploring this resource for years.  At first I tried to visit everyone's blog at least once; now that's become impractical, but it's still a fascinating source of interesting (and unusual) material.  I have harvested (and credited, of course) a whole bunch of odd items from readers' blogs, a few of which I now visit on a regular (1-2X/wk) basis.  I found a nice video tonight, which I'll post later this weekend.

One cautionary note:  if you reason that "I read TYWKIWDBI, they read TYWKIWBI, therefore they must be like me," then you're going to be in for a surprise.  Most of these people are not at all like you.  In fact, I don't think it's unfair to summarize my long-term exploration of my readers' websites by saying...

Some of you guys have VERY WEIRD blogs.

I'll leave it at that (and it's intended as a compliment).

I'm going to take the next couple days off for Thanksgiving activities, so I invite all TYWKIWDBI readers to explore one another's websites.  There are people there from faraway places, people with specialty blogs that are stunning, and of course some that are totally NSFW.  Lots of librarians (for whatever reason), and lots of family blogs.  Occasionally it feels like you're peeking into someone's living room window, but of course the blogs were offered to the public on purpose, so there's no impropriety involved.  And you might find some links to add to your regular web browsing schedule.  I have.

A graph of 10-year U.S. treasury rates

I chose this as a convenient reflection of U.S. interest rates in general.  I remember 1981; I had finished all my postgraduate studies and was working full time, had paid off my car and had a modest-rent apartment.  I had savings every month which could be easily invested in CDs yielding over 10%.

It's a different world now.  The recent economic turmoil has focused attention on unemployment and how that is affecting the young and middle-aged workforce.  But there is a large segment of older, retired people who are facing economic difficulties of a different kind.  When one hears of retirees living on "fixed incomes," that income may be an unchanging defined dollar amount from a pension, but more often the term refers to income from savings instruments such as bonds, CDs, annuties, and mutual funds.  Those rates are now at all-time lows, and as various items mature and need to be rolled over, the replacement instruments may have rates of 1% or lower.

If an elderly person planned his/her retirement years on the historically-reasonable basis of 4-5% yield on savings, and now faces a yield of 1-2%, that represents a 50-80% drop in income and a decision to change a lifestyle or to consume the savings.  There are a lot of people out there who are silently suffering.



When I think of how much drama this must have generated as it unfolded (note the straight present before the straight flush), it really makes me wonder whether the sequence was manipulated by the producers of the television show.


A graph of U.S. troops abroad

This is an interesting and, for me, somewhat eye-opening graph.  I was pleased to see that the forces deployed in Europe do in fact seem to be declining (albeit very slowly now), and was surprised that the total number in 2011 is actually lower than in the 1980s.

Those of you who did not live through (or at least remember) the late 1960s may get a sense from the spike in this graph of the reasons for such widespread angst among America's youth at the time - a time when the involuntary draft was in full force (the elimination of which was a brilliant maneuver by those wishing to decrease resistance to American militarism).

From The Economist, via The Dish.

Harry Potter vs. pepper-spraying cop

Source. (Click for fullscreen)

The origin of the word "g-string"

In a 1991 NYT column about a Supreme Court decision on free speech and striptease joints, William Safire discusssed the history of the words "pastie" and "g-string."
The origin is in the American frontier. The geestring was a loincloth, or the string or thong supporting a piece of cloth enclosing the genitals, worn by American Indians and some settlers unconcerned with conventions of dress. In "Western Wilds, and the Men Who Redeem Them," John H. Beadle wrote in 1877: "Around each boy's waist is the tight 'geestring,' from which a single strip of cloth runs between the limbs from front to back." Fourteen years later, Harper's Magazine may have confused the loincloth's name with the musical term: "Some of the boys wore only 'G-strings' (as, for some reason, the breech-clout is commonly called on the prairie)."
Image: George Catlin, Four Flathead Indians, 1855/1869, Paul Mellon Collection, 1965.16.150

23 November 2011

Ant repellant on spiderwebs

Ants cross a strand of spider silk without 2-pyrrolidinone (top), but avoid the strand with the repellent (bottom). 
Adapted from Figure 1 of Zhang et al 2011.

Web-weaving spiders want to attract and entrap insects, but ants can be formidable predators themselves, so some spiders have evolved a mechanism to prevent ants from traversing the strands of silk:
[Shichang] Zhang found that the [golden orb-web] spider coats its silk with a chemical called 2-pyrrolidinone. He took some of these threads and strung them across a box, turning them into bridges that ants would have to cross to reach some bait. If Zhang washed the 2-pyrrolidinone away, the ants would happily traverse the silk. If he left the chemical on, they rapidly retreated at the slightest touch...

The same chemical drove off three different species of ants, including the widespread pharaohs. It appears to be a natural part of the ants’ repertoire: some species use it as part of their alarm pheromones, while others have it in their poison glands. It’s probably used by other spiders too. 2-pyrrolidinone is made from another chemical called GABA, which is found on the webs of at least four other spiders. Perhaps these compounds are part of an ancient defence system that orb-weaving spiders use to secure their homes from intruders.
Further details at Not Exactly Rocket Science. Image adaptation credit Myrmecos.

Difficulty drinking water

Many websites this week have commented on (and usually decried) a recent EU ruling that producers of bottled water are forbidden to advertise their products with a health claim that drinking water may prevent dehydration.  Most of the discussions, including the one at the Guardian,  reveal some confusion on the part of the writers between the biologic conditions of dehydration (free water depletion) and volume depletion (isotonic salt and water depletion).

But that was too boring to blog, and mocking bureaucrats is too easy and repetitive.  Much more interesting was a series of seventeen photos depicting "women struggling to drink water," assembled at Hairpin.  The photos were extracted from stock images (similar to their previous post on Women Laughing Alone With Salad). The implied sexual imagery isn't very subtle. 

Via Sociological Images, where one commenter reminded everyone that there is a similar cinematic moment involving a man:
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