31 January 2012

Inhaled creosote as a medicine

This vintage advertisement is from 1898.  The schematic shows bronchiectasis in the base of both lungs.

Creosote, which we think of as something to soak railroad ties in, has a long history:
It is produced in some quantities from the burning of wood and coal in blast furnaces and fireplaces; commonly found inside chimney flues when the wood or coal burns incompletely, producing soot and tarry smoke, and is the compound responsible for the preservation and the flavor of meat in the process of smoking.

The name is derived from the Greek kréas (κρέας), meaning "flesh", and sōtēr (σωτήρ), meaning "preserver"... 
It starts off being used as a meat preservative:
Soon after it was discovered and recognized as the principle of meat smoking, wood-tar creosote became used as a replacement for the process. Several methods were used to apply the creosote. One was to dip the meat in pyroligneous acid or a water of diluted creosote... and within one hour the meat would have the same quality of that of traditionally smoked preparations... Another was to place the meat in a closed box, and place with it a few drops of creosote in a small bottle. Because of the volatility of the creosote, the atmosphere was filled with a vapor containing it, and it would cover the flesh...
Medical usage dates back to before the compound was isolated:
During antiquity, pitches and resins were used commonly as medicines. Pliny mentions a variety of tar-like substances being used as medicine... Given this history, and the anti-septic properties known to creosote, it became popular among physicians in the 19th century. A dilution of creosote in water was sold in pharmacies as Aqua creosoti... 
And re the lungs:
Creosote was suggested as a treatment for tuberculosis by Reichenbach as soon as 1833... Following that, that was a period of experimentation of different techniques and chemicals using creosote in tuberculosis, which lasted until about 1910, when radiation therapy looked to be a more promising treatment... Guaiacol, instead of a full creosote solution, was suggested by Hermann Sahli in 1887; he argued it had the active chemical of creosote and had the advantage of being of definite composition, and with less of a less unpleasant taste and odor...
Never heard of guaiacol?  A derivative product is advertised on television every day:
The guaifenesin... is still commonly used today as an expectorant, sold over the counter, and usually taken by mouth to assist the bringing up of phlegm from the airways in acute respiratory tract infections. Guaifenesin is a component of Mucinex, Robitussin DAC, Cheratussin DAC, Robitussin AC, Cheratussin AC, Benylin, DayQuil Mucous Control, Meltus, and Bidex 400.
As Paul Harvey once famously said:  "And now, you know the rest of the story."

Image from Paul. malon's Flickr photostream, via Adorevintage, and Fuck Yeah, Victorians!

$40,000/year for tuition. High school tuition.

From an article about private schools in the New York City area:
Over the past 10 years, the median price of first grade in the city has gone up by 48 percent, adjusted for inflation... Indeed, this year’s tuition at Columbia Grammar and Preparatory ($38,340 for 12th grade) and Horace Mann ($37,275 for the upper school) is higher than Harvard’s ($36,305)...

“Within one to two years, every independent school will cost more than $40,000,” said one board member at a top school... Parents are reluctant to complain, at least with their names attached, for fear of hurting students’ standing (or siblings’ admissions chances). But privately, many questioned paying more for the same... “People don’t want to put a price tag on their children’s future, so they are willing to pay more than many of them can afford.”

As at most companies, a majority of the costs — and the fastest-growing increases — come from salaries and benefits, especially as notoriously low-paying private schools try to compete with public school compensation.

“Some New York schools have had a 5, 10 or as high as 30 percent increase in the cost of their medical plans,” said Mark Lauria, the executive director of the New York State Association of Independent Schools.

And paying teachers is only a piece of the puzzle. Léman Manhattan Preparatory School has a gym whose floor is cleaned twice a day. The Trinity School has three theaters, six art studios, two tennis courts, a pool and a diving pool.
When I was in high school, I'll bet the gym floor was cleaned once a week before home games.  Maybe.  There's more at the New York Times, plus over 500 comments.

Baltic seafloor anomaly

Posted just for fun; this isn't a new discovery, but reports about it surface intermittently.  I would love for it to be a UFO, but have no belief that that's what it is.  But I do love oceans, and treasure stories, and anomalous discoveries.
The Baltic Sea is a literal treasure trove for salvage teams and a "shipwreck laboratory" for researchers. The sea's low salinity levels help preserve objects that sink to the bottom. "Right now, we know about 20,000 objects, mostly shipwrecks, in the Baltic Sea. But I think there may be more than 100,000," said sonar expert Ardreas Olsson.

"Circular breathing" vs. audible inhalations

From an article in the Wall Street Journal:
There’s a 1976 recording of James Galway playing Paganini’s “Moto Perpetuo” on his golden flute, in which you never once hear him draw breath. At the time, it was lauded as an almost superhuman feat; a virtuosic example of circular breathing, a technique that allows wind players to simultaneously inhale air through the nose while breathing it out through the mouth. (Galway later confessed the recording had been spliced together.) In 1997, saxophonist Kenny G used circular breathing to play a continuous, unbroken note for a total of 45 minutes and 47 seconds, earning him a mention in the Guinness Book of Records.
The article goes on to discuss how important the breath is to flute players, and how some contemporary flautists are choosing to leave the inhalation audible rather than trying to suppress the sound (video at the link).
Her inhalations, too, became part of the music. Contemporary composers like Fujikura, says Chase, “have started to think of breath as an ornament and as an expressive device in its own right, whether it’s a subtle, moody breath or the dramatic gesture of an inhalation. Some breaths are even notated in the music: it increases the drama.”
In the video, Kenny G demonstrates the technique of circular breathing.

Yales in Cambridge

"Yale" is not just a university or a brand of lock.
We are concerned here with mythical beasts... This one is classical Roman, having first been described by Pliny the Elder. He gave it the name of eale — we don’t know why: the word turns up nowhere else in classical literature — and included it as an animal of Ethiopia...

Following Pliny’s description, the yale is usually shown in illustrations as a mixture of bits of other animals, a chimera, with the snout of a wild boar, the body and head of an antelope, and a couple of long pointed horns of indeterminate origin. The beast turns up in English heraldry in late medieval times, with its form borrowed from Pliny...

The connection with Cambridge University comes via Margaret of Beaufort, the mother of King Henry VII and reputedly the richest woman in medieval England. She founded two of the colleges of the university — Christ’s and St John’s — at the beginning of the sixteenth century. Because of this, her arms, including yales, may still be seen over the gatehouses of the two colleges [above]...

Yale University has borrowed the heraldic beast as a play on its own name. Two in chains flank the portico of Davenport College, one is depicted on the official banner of the president of the university and the campus radio station uses a yale as a logo. The university was actually named in memory of Elihu Yale, a governor of the British East India Company. His name comes from Iâl, a place in north Wales, which in turn is from the Welsh word for a fertile or arable upland.
From World Wide Words, where you can always find something interesting.


A striking example, most likely the result of unilateral dilation for a retinal exam, rather than from disease or injury.  Photo credit to Kelsey Landsgaard, via Reddit.  (p.s. David Bowie here).

The ongoing rape of our oceans

Excerpts from a report at the Center for Public Integrity:
Jack mackerel, rich in oily protein, is manna to a hungry planet, a staple in Africa. Elsewhere, people eat it unaware; much of it is reduced to feed for aquaculture and pigs. It can take more than 5 kilos of jack mackerel to raise a kilo of farmed salmon. Yet stocks have dropped from an estimated 30 million metric tons to less than 3 million in two decades. The world’s largest trawlers, after depleting other oceans, now head south toward the edge of Antarctica to compete for what is left...

Meantime, industrial fleets bound only by voluntary restraints compete in what amounts to a free-for-all in no man’s water at the bottom of the world. From 2006 through 2011, scientists estimate, jack mackerel stocks declined by 63 percent...

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization says that global fishing fleets “are 2.5 times larger than needed.” That estimate was based on a 1998 report; since then, fleets have expanded...

Chile now has only sardines in relative abundance, he said. “We have no more jack mackerel or hake or anchoveta. Fisheries that produced a million or more tons a year have simply run out from overfishing by big companies.”..

Album says government support has created so much capacity that super trawlers must fish to their maximum for return on investment. “These vessels roam the oceans for any available fish, causing overfishing and unbearable pressure on governments trying to manage resources,” he said.
More at the link, which is the third installment in a series entitled "Looting the Seas."

30 January 2012


Thylacosmilus at first glance looks much like the famous Smilodon (sabertooth tiger)... This animal is very far removed from Smilodon, it is not even a placental mammal. It is a metatherian (marsupials are the living metatherians) more closely related to kangaroos, koalas, wombats, etc than to the saber-toothed tiger.

The similarity between Thylacosmilus and Smilodon is an excellent example of convergent evolution - two distantly relating forms converging upon a simular morphology and life habitat. There are an three other examples of mammals that have developed saber-teeth- in fact most of the last 65 million years had some large cat-like saber-toothed mammal present, the modern biota is the outlier.

Thylacosmilus went extinct roughly 3 million years ago, closely coinciding with the formation of the land bridge linking the Americas. Animals from North America emigrated south and those from South America journeyed north; this fauna exchange is referred to as the Great American Interchange. It is at this time we start to find Smilodon fossils in South America. It is thought that the arrival of this relatively larger predator (the largest Smilodon was twice the size of the largest Thylacosmilus) may have been what drove the only known marsupial saber-toothed form to extinction. 
What puzzled me was that prominent flange angling downward on the front of the mandible (apparently serving to "protect the large canines", presumably from lateral blows).  But I'm not sure with the flange there how the saber-canines can penetrate the victim's flesh (?).

From Your Daily Fossil, via Fauna and A London Salmagundi.

Addendum: re the discussion in the comments re the function and efficacy of these saber teeth, here's a 3D rendering of the critter from The Alchemy Works (with a hat tip to Lady Aritê gunê Akasa):

Is your webcam light glowing ?

Excerpts from an unsettling story at GQ:
Amy, a 20-year-old brunette at the University of California at Irvine, was on her laptop when she got an IM from a random guy nicknamed mistahxxxrightme, asking her for webcam sex. Out of the blue, like that. Amy told the guy off, but he IM'd again, saying he knew all about her, and to prove it he started describing her dorm room, the color of her walls, the pattern on her sheets, the pictures on her walls. "You have a pink vibrator," he said. It was like Amy'd slipped into a stalker movie. Then he sent her an image file. Amy watched in horror as the picture materialized on the screen: a shot of her in that very room, naked on the bed, having webcam sex with James...

Amy decided to call the cops herself. But the instant she phoned the dispatcher, a message chimed on her screen. It was from the hacker. "I know you just called the police," he wrote. She panicked. How could he possibly know?..

The campus police were in no position to handle a case like this. Whoever devised the malware—a sophisticated program capable of dodging antivirus software—clearly had a leg up on university cops. The task of hunting him down fell to agents Tanith Rogers and Jeff Kirkpatrick of the FBI's cyber program in Los Angeles...

Hackers had been accessing cameras here and there for a while. But Mijangos started thinking big: He decided to weaponize them on an unprecedented scale... As soon as she opened the file, Mijangos was in—he had access to her every file, every photo, and could even keep a log of every keystroke, which meant every password. But that wasn't all. Mijangos hit a few buttons, then watched in awe as his screen filled with an image taken by her webcam...

He says it didn't take long for word to get out that he was the go-to guy for anyone looking to spy on a girlfriend or wife. For $150, he'd infect the target's computer, then send his clients links so they could snoop themselves. Mijangos knew a few of his clients were "just perverts" spying on some unsuspecting stranger, but their money was just as good...
You can read the rest of the story at GQ.  BTW, your webcam light is off?  Good.  Now read this:
It's a good thing the FBI discovered the scam when they did, too. Mijangos told me that he'd figured out how to turn off a camera's LED, cloaking himself completely.
Consider covering the lens with a Post-It note...

29 January 2012

Hidden mother

Posted by Crafty Dogma at Flickr, via Historical Indulgences, which has another half-dozen examples of this old photographic technique.  See also here and here.


Surströmming... is a northern Swedish dish consisting of fermented Baltic herring. Surströmming is sold in cans, which often bulge during shipping and storage, due to the continued fermentation. When opened, the contents release a strong and sometimes overwhelming odor, which explains why the dish is often eaten outdoors...

[One] explanation of the origins of this method of preservation is that it began long ago, when brining food was quite expensive due to the cost of salt. When fermentation was used, just enough salt was required to keep the fish from rotting. The salt raises the osmotic pressure of the brine above the zone where bacteria responsible for rotting (decomposition of proteins) can prosper and prevents decomposition of fish proteins into oligopeptides and amino acids. Instead the osmotic conditions enable the Haloanaerobium bacteria to prosper and decompose the fish glycogen into organic acids, giving it the sour (acidic) properties...

Because surströmming today contains higher levels of dioxins and PCBs than the permitted levels for fish in the EU, Sweden has had exceptions to these rules. The exception was 2002 to 2011, but an application for renewal of the exemption has been raised to the EU...

In April 2006, several major airlines (such as Air France and British Airways) banned the fish citing that the pressurised cans of fish are potentially explosive. The sale of the fish was subsequently discontinued in Stockholm's international airport. Those who produce the fish have called the airlines' decision "culturally illiterate," claiming that it is a "myth that the tinned fish can explode.
 Text from Wikipedia.   Photo: Swedish "klämma" with surströmming, potatoes and red onion on a "tunnbröd" with butter besides a glass of milk.

"Alien brain hemorrhage" cocktail

To make an alien brain hemorrhage cocktail, fill a shot glass halfway with peach schnapps. Gently pour Bailey's Irish Cream on top. After the shot is almost full, carefully add a small amount of blue curacao. After it settles, add a few drops of grenadine syrup.
Photo and instructions from Latin Rapper, via Neatorama.  I presume you'd have to be already drunk to drink this.

Hemeroplanes - the "snake caterpillar"

This appears to be an intentional mimicry rather than a convergent coincidence, since the caterpillar also engages in some snake-like behavior when threatened.   Read about it at The Night Tour.

Composite photo via フリンジ削除.

Why do university faculty "lean to the left" ?

Excerpts from an op-ed piece in the StarTribune:
That faculties are liberal is beyond dispute. In a rigorous survey, University of British Columbia sociology Prof. Neil Gross concluded, "professors currently compose the most liberal major occupational group in American society."..

Gross and Solon Simmons of George Mason University surveyed more than 1,400 full-time professors at more than 900 American institutions. Only 19.7 percent of professors identified themselves as "any shade of conservative" (compared with 31.9 percent of the general population), while 62.2 percent identified themselves as some flavor of liberal (compared with 23.3 percent of Americans overall).

Gross found variation between disciplines. Social sciences and humanities contained the highest concentration of liberals. Conservatives were as numerous as liberals in business, health sciences, computer science and engineering.
Postulated reasons for these findings are discussed at the link.

The "I'll have what she's having" scene remixed


Meg Ryan looks younger every time I see this famous clip.   This version was remixed by Matthijs Vlot to include related sounds from other movies.

Do "outdoor dogs" tend to be "miserable?"

That's the claim made in a post at Vet Street:
What compels people to get a dog only to keep it isolated outside, away from the family?... They are animals born to be part of a social structure, a pack or a family, yet this is denied them. They spend their lives on the outside, looking in. The experts say many of these dogs will never really bond with owners who interact with them so little...

I have always had difficulty understanding why people want to keep dogs outside. If keeping a beautiful house and yard are of the utmost importance to you, then don't get a dog. If you know someone in your family can't abide a dog in the house, for whatever reason, then don't get a dog. If you can't let a dog be part of your family, then don't get a dog.

You don't get the benefits of companionship from a dog you see so little. You don't even get much in the way of protection from the pet who has no access to the house. And don't count on outdoor dogs as an early warning system. These animals often become such indiscriminate barkers that you couldn't tell from their sound whether the dogs are barking at a prowler or at a toddler riding a tricycle down the street. Besides, people who keep outdoor dogs seem to become quite good at ignoring the noise they make, as any angry neighbor can vouch.

Outdoor dogs often become a problem to their owners. Bored and lonely, these animals develop any number of bad habits. They dig craters in the yard. They bark endlessly day and night. They become chewers of outdoor furniture, sprinkler heads and siding. And sometimes, without the socialization all dogs need, they become aggressive, ready to bite anyone who comes into their territory.

If you're considering getting a puppy or dog with the intent of keeping him exclusively outside, please reconsider -- for the animal's sake as well as your own and your neighbors'. 
When I was growing up, a small family dog (springer spaniel) was allowed indoors, but our larger dogs (retrievers, labs) had a doghouse in the garage with access to the outdoors.  Nowadays I see large dogs routinely kept indoors by neighbors and relatives. 

Is it unkind to keep them outdoors?

An explanation for the mysterious blue spheres that fell from the sky in Dorset

The story was posted at the BBC yesterday -
Steve Hornsby from Bournemouth said the 3cm diameter balls came raining down late on Thursday afternoon during a hail storm. He found about a dozen of the balls in his garden. He said: "[They're] difficult to pick up, I had to get a spoon and flick them into a jam jar."

The Met Office said the jelly-like substance was "not meteorological".

Mr Hornsby said he was keeping the balls in his fridge while he tried to find out what they were.
Josie Pegg, an applied science research assistant at Bournemouth University, speculated that the apparently strange phenomena might be "marine invertebrate eggs".
I forwarded the link yesterday to friends who have a daughter studying marine biology in Florida.  Today I got an answer.  Look at the video and try to figure it out for yourself first.

St. Olaf choir

My family ties to St. Olaf College go back to its founding in 1874, so it was a distinct pleasure for me last night to have the opportunity to take my 93-year-old mother to hear the opening concert in this year's centennial tour by the St. Olaf Choir.  Mom remembers hearing them on campus in the 1930s, and watches every Christmas concert on PBS.

The choir's performance calendar takes them on to Indianapolis, Charleston, Charlotte, Raleigh, Newport News, Bethesda, Cleveland, Urbana, and Chicago in the next two weeks.  The concerts present a mix of ancient and modern music, both sacred and secular/folk.  If you like choral music, these are world-class quality performances.

28 January 2012


This beetle from Belize, unidentified at the source, has truly remarkable antennae (via Petslady and Neatorama).  I found another impressive one in Wikipedia:

I presume the structures serve the same purpose they do in butterflies and moths - to capture and sense pheromone molecules - but I don't know that for sure.  In any case, they're cool to look at.

p.s. - why is an overhanging, prominent brow (like a Neanderthal) called a "beetle brow?"   (I don't know)

The abbreviated school year

An interesting column in the StarTribune uses a series of calendars to depict the days available for teaching grade-school students.  Above is a calendar of the year (arranged Sept to August), with the summer break blacked out.

Here is the calendar after blacking out weekends and major holidays:

There are some additional calendars at the link, ending with this one, which also blacks out professional development days, conferences, common holidays, spring break, and days for state and standardized testing:

There are only 162 days that wind up not being blacked out.  Author Jeremy Olson asks, "What am I doing as a parent to supplement the apparently limited time in which my kids are at school to learn?" 

The calendars also provide fuel for the endless arguments over teacher salaries.

Andy Murray v. Michael Llorda

If this cartoon reflects your attitude toward a tennis match, take a look at these impressive volleys from the Australian Open.

"Magic mushrooms" may help treat depression

USA Today, citing several studies published in peer-reviewed journals, describes beneficial effects of psilocybin:

One study included 30 healthy people who had psilocybin inserted into their blood while magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners measured changes in their brain activity. The scans revealed that psilocybin caused decreased activity in what the researchers described as the brain's "hub" regions -- areas especially well-connected with other areas. That study was published in this week's issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The second study included 10 healthy volunteers and found that psilocybin boosted their recall of personal memories and their emotional well-being for up to two weeks. The researchers said this suggests that psilocybin might prove useful as an adjunct to psychotherapy. That study will be published online Thursday in the British Journal of Psychiatry.

A study published last year found that people with anxiety who received a single psilocybin treatment had lower depression scores six months later.
In the 1970s,  Psilocybe cubensis mushroom were readily available in rural areas around Dallas-Fort Worth.  The best places to search for them were cattle pastures, because the 'shrooms had an affinity for growing in or near "cowpies."  When you broke the stem, a slight bluish "bruise" was helpful in confirming the identity.  It produced a pleasant psychedelic effect, lasting for a couple hours, but was a bit hard to titrate since the potency of the mushrooms wasn't always predictable.

Or so I've been told.

Slip-on coasters for wine glasses

We have in a kitchen drawer somewhere a couple stretchable cloth "sleeves" that can be slipped over a cold can or glass in the summer to absorb the sweating and thus protect furniture; this is the first time I've seen the concept applied to wine glasses. 

These felt coasters come in different colors, which allows party guests to keep track of whose glass is whose.

Created by Dimmalimm, via if it's hip, it's here.

Re the proposed "cut" in military spending

A reminder from iWatch that the much-talked-about budgetary changes are actually smaller increases, not actual decreases.
Actually, describing it as a cut is a misnomer. The administration's ten-year plan actually calls for an increase in the national security budget over the next decade — but it would scale back the 18 percent boost previously set for that period...

Before Obama announced his plan, the Pentagon was counting on annual budget increases over the next 10 years -- totaling roughly $500 billion, according to Panetta. While the new plan calls for its spending to drop in 2013, the budget would then revert to growth, administration officials say. They have not said what the average annual increase would be from 2017 to 2021, but two senior administration officials who asked not to be named said the result after 10 years would still be a larger budget, even after inflation is taken into account.

That means Obama’s proposed changes will shift actual spending less than one percent annually. If approved, the change would be smaller than the genuine reductions that followed the Korean War (20 percent), the Vietnam War (30 percent) and the Cold War (30 percent)...

Obama said on January 5 that after his proposed changes, U.S. military spending will still be “larger than roughly the next 10 nations combined.” He did not list them, but those countries are, in rough order (according to data compiled by the International Institute of Strategic Studies and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute), China, Britain, France, Russia, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Germany, India, Italy, and Brazil. Experts have complained that Obama understated the American predominance, by not saying “the next 17 or 18 nations combined,” but China’s military budget is opaque, making this calculation imprecise...

But there is no dispute that the higher capabilities of modern weaponry make simple numerical comparisons inadequate. Panetta’s airplane tally, for example, only counted manned airplanes, while 41 percent of the service’s winged inventory now consists of unmanned drones...
More at the link.

Pokerwork and pyrography

One of my memorable possessions as a child in the 1950s was a "woodburning" toy similar to the one shown here (scroll down).  It was basically a soldering iron, packaged with some simple drawings on wood that you would trace over with the heated tip, creating your own work of art (accompanied by a very satisfying acrid smell).

The principle of pyrography ("writing with fire") is ancient:
The process has been practiced by a number of cultures including the Egyptians and some African tribes since the dawn of recorded time...  It was known in China from the time of the Han dynasty, where it was known as "Fire Needle Embroidery". During the Victorian era, the invention of pyrography machines sparked a widespread interest in the craft, and it was at this time that the term "pyrography" was coined (previously the name "pokerwork" had been most widely used)... Pyrography is a traditional folk art in many European countries, including Romania, Hungary, as well as countries such as Argentina in South America.
The two images embedded above come from the portfolio of modern-day pyrographic artist Julie Bender, via Dudecraft.

There's lots more to read re pyrography and pokerwork.  The most comprehensive source I've found this morning is at Antique Art in Pyrography, whence the following old engraving:

"Years and years ago, when art and conviviality went hand in hand in England, and when the tavern was a clubhouse, it was the custom of the artists to exercise their passing inspirations on the walls around them. A poker, heated red-hot in the fireplace, was their tool. With it they sketched faces and figures—a memory of a scene of nature—an idea for a new ornament—a cartoon of some public man." 
See also the Powerhouse Museum's description of Australian folk pokerwork (1930s wall plaque with bush landscape shown).

Guitar spin fail

27 January 2012

"Diner lingo"

Selections from an assemblage at Wikipedia:
Adam & Eve on a raft & wreck 'em: two scrambled eggs on toast

Baled hay: shredded wheat cereal

Cops & Robbers: Donuts and Coffee.

Customer will take a chance: hash

Don't cry over it: omit the onions

Drag it through Wisconsin: serve with cheese (e.g. a cheeseburger)

Drown the kids: boiled eggs

Fish eyes or Cat's eyes: tapioca pudding

Foreign entanglements: spaghetti

Hockey puck: a hamburger, well done

Mother and child reunion: chicken and egg sandwich

Noah's boy: a slice of ham (Ham was Noah's second son)

Put a hat on it: add ice cream

Shit on a shingle/S.O.S.: minced dried beef with gravy on toast

Two cows, make them cry: Two hamburgers with onions

Zeppelins in a fog: sausages and mashed potatoes 
 Many of these come from a column at Diner Talk.

Lobster tails for hospital patients

Health-care related posts seems to elicit the most vigorous and conflicting comments on this blog, so here's a little grist for the mill, from a column in the New York Times:
The bed linens were by Frette, Italian purveyors of high-thread-count sheets to popes and princes. The bathroom gleamed with polished marble. Huge windows displayed panoramic East River views. And in the hush of her $2,400 suite, a man in a black vest and tie proffered an elaborate menu and told her, “I’ll be your butler.” 

It was Greenberg 14 South, the elite wing on the new penthouse floor of NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell hospital. Pampering and décor to rival a grand hotel, if not a Downton Abbey, have long been the hallmark of such “amenities units,” often hidden behind closed doors at New York’s premier hospitals. But the phenomenon is escalating here and around the country, health care design specialists say, part of an international competition for wealthy patients willing to pay extra, even as the federal government cuts back hospital reimbursement in pursuit of a more universal and affordable American medical system..

A waterfall, a grand piano and the image of a giant orchid grace the soaring ninth floor atrium of McKeen, leading to refurbished rooms that, like those in the hospital’s East 68th Street penthouse, cost patients $1,000 to $1,500 a day, and can be combined. That fee is on top of whatever base rate insurance pays to the hospital, or the roughly $4,500 a day that foreigners are charged, according to the hospital’s international services department...

In Eleven West’s library on a recent Friday, Nancy Hemenway, a senior financial services executive, was reading the paper in a spa-style bathrobe. “I was supposed to be in Buenos Aires last week taking tango lessons, but unfortunately I hurt my back, so I’m here with my concierge,” she said. 

“I’m perfectly at home here — totally private, totally catered,” she added. “I have a primary-care physician who also acts as ringmaster for all my other doctors. And I see no people in training — only the best of the best.”
That last comment reminds me that some years ago a midwestern university hospital (which I will leave unnamed) had an upper floor reserved for wealthy patients, with posh accommodations, special food, and innumerable amenities.  When physicians were on morning rounds, the students and housestaff would stay behind while the attendings went to see their private patients.

However, at night if there was an emergency and the attending was in a distant suburb, the housestaff and fellows were called and had to correct problems with electrolyte imbalance, improve inappropriate ventilator settings, or detect missed diagnoses.  Many of the attending physicians were less procedurally competent (and frankly less practically knowledgeable) than the "physicians in training," who joked (among themselves) that the only good thing for the patients in the top floor suite was that the location was "close to a hospital."

One final salient comment from the Times story:
“These kinds of patients, they’re paying cash — they’re the best kind of patient to have,” she added. “Theoretically, it trickles down.” 
This is all very complicated, re the finances, re the medical implications, re the ethics etc.  I'll defer any additional commentary; there's much more in the Times and in a related story in Salon.

Photo: Marilynn K. Yee/The New York Times

A boy's plaid dress (1854)

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s 1851 purchase and subsequent renovation of Balmoral Castle in the Scottish Highlands caused a fad for plaid to sweep the fashion world. Fine tartans in wool and silk became the most desired fashion fabrics for all ages and styles of dress.
From Ye Olde Fashion.

Selections from the November "Harper's Index" #7

  • Amount employees of private-equity firm Bain Capital have donated to the campaign of its co-founder Mitt Romney: $69,500
  • To the Obama campaign: $119,900

  • Percentage of all Americans who consider themselves part of the top 1 percent of U.S. earners: 13
  • Miminum number of U.S. colleges that offer courses in unmanned-drone operation: 5
  • Portion of the Veterans Health Administration's budget devoted to veterans with mental-health or addiction problems: 1/3
  • Chance that a U.S. worker is of normal weight and without a chronic health problem: 1 in 7

  • Number of working-age people for every person  over sixty-five worldwide in 1950: 11.7
  • Number today: 8.6
  • Projected humber in 2050: 3.9

The President gets mail

A pair of items from this month's Harper's Index:
  • Number of letters from Americans President Barack Obama reads each evening: 10
  • Number of staffers in the Corespondence Office responsible for seelecting those letters from the 11,000 received each day: 7

There's a lot to ponder there.  First of all, it's not a Democrat/Republican thing - the same must have been happening since the office of the presidency was established.  But look how it must have ramped up - now 11 thousand letters every day.

And seven staff persons just to sort through that mail.  One knee-jerk reaction would be that this is an example of how government has become bloated.  But on the other hand many of these letters are from people with genuine concerns, and probably the staff forward items to relevant congressmen or government agencies.

Still - 11,000 letters every day.  And how many emails?  Interesting to think about.

Addendum:  A hat tip to Chuck for finding this relevant story at ABC News.

26 January 2012

New USDA plant hardiness zone map

I had heard that a revision was in the works, and it has been eagerly awaited by gardeners.
The 2012 USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map is the standard by which gardeners and growers can determine which plants are most likely to thrive at a location. The map is based on the average annual minimum winter temperature, divided into 10-degree F zones.
The embed above is a static image, but if you go to this USDA page, you can access an interactive map with detailed state maps.

Most locations in the US are now in warmer zones; we've gone from 4b to 5a in just the last ten years.

Buying/selling something on Craigslist ??

Why not meet your seller/buyer at the police station?  The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel explains:
After a recent rash of robberies involving people trying to sell items on the web site Craigslist, Milwaukee police on Monday encouraged people to conclude their transactions at perhaps one of the safest places in town - the local police station...

A 33-year-old man wanting to sell a cell phone met a suspect at the gas station. The suspect got into the victim's car and forced him drive to the back of the parking lot, where he threatened the victim with a small revolver. He went through the victim's pockets and took $40. After a fight, the robber and another suspect stole two cell phones from the victim. Other robberies of people wanting to sell iPads and vehicles happened Jan. 15 and 19...

"This is nothing new. It's happening all over the country," police officer Lisa Staffold said Monday. "The media has deemed it 'robbery by appointment' because you're posting ads, you're selling your iPhones, your iPads, your vehicles, and when you go to a meeting location, you're being robbed."

The crimes are done by either pretend-buyers who show up to rob the seller of the advertised item, or pretend-sellers, who want to steal money from the buyer.

Police hope to put a stop to the robberies by having sellers and buyers meet at a safe place. "If they don't want to meet you at a safe place, if they don't want to meet you at a police district, that should be a red flag, an indicator: Don't do business with that individual," Staffold said.
Very clever idea, found at The Consumerist.


Photographed in the Antarctic near Peterman Island by Kseniia Maiukova (Caters News), via The Telegraph.

A new life form discovered in Canada

The Burgess Shale continues to produce amazing fossils.  PhysOrg has a summary:
Officially named Siphusauctum gregarium, fossils reveal a tulip-shaped creature that is about the length of a dinner knife (approximately 20 centimetres or eight inches) and has a unique filter feeding system.

Siphusauctum has a long stem, with a calyx – a bulbous cup-like structure – near the top which encloses an unusual filter feeding system and a gut. The animal is thought to have fed by filtering particles from water actively pumped into its calyx through small holes... Most interesting is that this feeding system appears to be unique among animals.
And some additional details from EarthTimes:

Siphusauctum gregarium looked like a tulip, about 20cm (or 8ins) long, filter feeding from the floor of the sea. The body or "calyx" is enclosed by a sheath, with six small filtering holes and a terminal anus. It has a large stomach, followed by a conical gut and straight section of intestine. Six radially-symmetrical sections contain the filtering combs... Only the stomach, and anus of the digestive tract show any phylogenetic relationships, but exactly which relationship is up in the air. Hence the new family, new genus, new species, in fact, new everything.
TL;DR - it's like a tulip with an anus.  Next fossil, please.

Reconstruction image artwork: © Marianne Collins.

DeBeers settles a class-action lawsuit

DeBeers has announced a settlement of a class action lawsuit.  Here are the allegations:
The lawsuits claim that the largest suppliers of diamonds in the world—De Beers S.A. and its associated companies—violated antitrust, unfair competition, and consumer-protection laws by monopolizing diamond supplies, conspiring to fix, raise, and control diamond prices, and disseminating false and misleading advertising...
And the company will pay millions of dollars -
...the Settlement provides that the Defendants will pay a total of $295 million for the benefit of Class Members plus up to $7 million for the costs of providing notice of the Settlement terms to the Indirect Purchaser Class.. The Settlement provides that $22.5 million will be paid to Direct Purchaser Class Members who submit valid claims, and $272.5 million will be paid to Indirect Purchaser Class Members who submit valid claims.
The payments go to resellers and customers, the latter defined as -
All persons located in the United States who purchased any diamond or diamond jewelry or other products containing gem diamonds for personal use and not for resale between January 1, 1994 and March 31, 2006. For example, Consumers include people who purchased diamond jewelry to wear or to give as a gift
However, while the "sightholders" (companies reselling the diamonds) get an estimated US $173,000 each, consumers fare less well -
"...consumers are estimated to receive US $1.15 each... But here is the real insult:  The court agreed that any payout under $10.00 does not have to be paid..."
The funds designated for consumers ($135 million) but not paid out reverts to the general settlement fund, 25% of which goes to the lawyers in legal fees.

Class-action lawsuits really suck (unless you are an attorney).  I wasn't involved in this one, but I've been a "participant" in a couple during my life, and they are never worth the time and effort.

Via the newsletter of the Madison Gem and Mineral Club.

25 January 2012

Government limousine numbers soaring

The number of limousines owned by the federal government has risen by 73% during the first two years of the Obama administration, as reported at the Center for Public Integrity's IWatch website:
Most of the increase was recorded in Hillary Clinton’s State Department.

Obama administration officials said most of the increase reflects an enhanced effort to protect diplomats and other government officials in a dangerous world. But a watchdog group says the abundance of limos sends the wrong message in the midst of a budget crisis...

According to General Services Administration data, the number of limousines in the federal fleet increased from 238 in fiscal 2008, the last year of the George W. Bush administration, to 412 in 2010. Much of the 73 percent increase—111 of the 174 additional limos—took place in fiscal 2009, more than eight months of which corresponded with Obama’s first year in office. However, some of those purchases could reflect requests made by the Bush administration during an appropriations process that would have begun in the spring of 2008...

“The categories in the Fleet Report are overly broad, and the term 'limousine' is not defined,” adding that “vehicles represented as limousines can range from protective duty vehicles to sedans.”..

The department said it defines a limo as a vehicle that carries a VIP or “other protectee,” rather than by the type of car, but said most of its limos are Cadillac DTSs, which cost the taxpayer more than $60,000 for a 2011 base model...

If the data is [sic] correct, some federal employees who once rode in style now face more proletarian transportation options. The Department of Veterans Affairs, for example, ran a fleet of 21 limousines in 2008 under George W. Bush, according to the fleet report. It now makes do with only one.  The Government Printing Office also lost all of its six limos between 2009 and 2010. The VA and the Government Printing Office did not respond to calls for comment.
More at the link.  Photo credit AP.

This is a "shinplaster"

Found at the Hennepin County Library's tumblr, the above is -
- a type of emergency currency issued in the Northwest following the start of the Civil War. Issued at Minneapolis October 10th, 1862. Name of issuer is R.J.Mendenhall. Denomination is 5 cents.
Wikipedia has more on shinplasters, including a suggestion re the etymology - 
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the name comes from the quality of the paper, which was so cheap that with a bit of starch it could be used to make paper-mâché-like plasters to go under socks and warm shins.
- and a description of similar local currencies in Canada and Australia (where they were also called "calabashes)."
In some places they formed the core of a company shop economy (Truck system), circulating as private currencies. They were often of such low quality that they could not be hoarded, and shopkeepers off the property would not take them, as they would deteriorate into illegibility before they could be redeemed.

There are tales of unscrupulous shopkeepers and others baking or otherwise artificially aging their calabashes given as change to travelers so that they crumbled to uselessness before they could be redeemed.
"Truck system" - twice in one week.

Your blog may someday be your résumé

From a story in the Wall Street Journal:
Instead of asking for résumés, the New York venture-capital firm—which has invested in Twitter, Foursquare, Zynga and other technology companies—asked applicants to send links representing their "Web presence," such as a Twitter account or Tumblr blog...

Companies are increasingly relying on social networks such as LinkedIn, video profiles and online quizzes to gauge candidates' suitability for a job. While most still request a résumé as part of the application package, some are bypassing the staid requirement altogether...

The world's largest carved emerald

The emerald, discovered at Carnaiba, in the emerald-producing province of Bahia, Brazil, in August, 1974, made its way to Palo Alto via a local gem trader with whom we had worked and partnered for many years. He took it to Hong Kong for carving, where a team of four carvers was commissioned to sculpt the design of Tao Heaven...

The original weight of the emerald was 62 pounds, or over 140,000 carats. Its dimensions then were approximately 16 1/2" high, 14" wide, and 7" deep... the final weight after carving is 86,000 carats, or 38 pounds. The excess material ended up as dust on the studio floor...
From the owner's website, via the newsletter of the Madison Gem and Mineral Club.

The vegetation is changing in Siberia

As reported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration:
The pair of images above shows a site on the Siberian tundra near Russia’s Yenisey River in the summers of 1966 (top) and 2009 (lower). In the 43 years that passed between the first image and the second, shrubs colonized virtually all of the previously open tundra surrounding a cluster of lakes...

At the site Frost studies, the tundra is often patterned with bald spots—circles of bare ground where seasonal frost heave can uproot plant seedlings. These frost circles, sometimes called “frost boils,” give the tundra in the top center of the images its speckled look. The bare spots create an open canvas for shrubs to colonize, presuming they can withstand the seasonal frost heave. At this site, the colonizing shrubs are usually alders...
The conversion of tundra to dense, tall shrubland triggers a cascade of changes in how the ecosystem functions. Observations from Europe, Alaska, and Siberia in recent decades have shown plant communities became less diverse as mosses, lichens, and other shorter-growing plants disappeared under the shade created by shrubs. The loss of lichens, in particular, could pose a problem for caribou and reindeer, which forage on them extensively.

The change from tundra to shrubland can also affect the thawing of permafrost...
More at the link.  Via NASA's Earth Observatory.

The double tragedy of Sarah Burke

While training on that halfpipe slope, Canadian freestyle skier Sarah Burke suffered a torn vertebral artery in her neck that caused bleeding in her brain, an injury that she would die from...
That's the first tragedy.  The Center for Public Integrity explains the second:
...her family will be laying her to rest in her native Canada — and pleading for money to help cover the estimated $550,000 they owe for the medical care she received at University of Utah Hospital over nine days.

The irony is that had the accident occurred in Canada... her care would have been covered because, unlike the U.S., Canada has a system of universal coverage...

It is clear the family needs help. Not only are they grieving, they are facing financial ruin, simply because Sarah Burke’s accident was in the United States of America. 
And, in case you are wondering about who pays for Gabrielle Giffords' rehab, that is discussed at ScienceBlogs' Pump Handle public health blog -
"Congresswoman Giffords was injured while she was on the job and her rehabilitation is covered by workers' compensation under the Federal Employees' Compensation Act."...

The type of acute rehabilitation she receives - involving speech, occupational and physical rehab - costs about $8,000 a day, according to the Brain Injury Association of America. Post-acute rehabilitation can range in cost from $600 to $2,500 daily. The expenses leave the treatment options well out of reach for most patients whose insurers won't pay for the services. 
Photo: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images.

24 January 2012

World's largest opal matrix (55,000 carats)

"The opal is about 30 cms in length with a height of 15-20 cms and a 4 cm thickness. Its estimated value is at least 1 million dollars USD... Historically, the largest opal found so far was just 6,100 carats in size. The current one is nearly ten times that size."
Photo and text via JustLuxe.  I often see opals at rock and mineral shows, but have never owned one or understood their geology, so I had to look up the details -
Matrix opals are a type of boulder opal and are found as part of a host rock, called Boulder ironstone.  They contain opal randomly distributed through the rock. The boulder ironstone with the precious opal inclusions are cut as one piece, giving an appearance similar to what you see when you look at the night sky, except that the ‘stars’ in this case are flecks of glories opal color.

Different types of matrix opals come from a variety of fields.  Boulder matrix comes from the Queensland fields in the northern part of the opal regions in Australia. There is another form of matrix opal from Andamooka in South Australia which is treated to give it a darker background. The specimen is soaked in sugar solution and boiled in acid, which causes carbon to get deposited in the spaces in the rock, giving it a dark or black opal appearance.
From Opalmine, which has pix of examples for sale.  Rock and mineral collecting has changed a lot since I was a kid in the 50s; nowadays much of what is available for purchase has been altered chemically or with heat or with radiation.  But with worldwide transportation much improved, there are now some amazing finds and products available.

Via the newsletter of the Madison Gem and Mineral Club.

Marine accused in Haditha killings makes plea deal

From the Los Angeles Times:
Prosecutors and defense attorneys in the court-martial of Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, accused in the killing of 24 unarmed Iraqis in 2005, announced an agreement Monday to settle the case.  Wuterich will plead guilty to a single count of negligent dereliction of duty. Other charges were dropped. No announcement was made on what kind of discharge Wuterich would receive...

Wuterich, 31, was accused of manslaughter, assault and dereliction of duty for allegedly leading his squad on a bloody rampage on the morning of Nov. 19, 2005, after a roadside bomb killed one Marine and injured two in the Euphrates River town of Haditha.

When the smoke cleared, Wuterich's squad had killed 24 Iraqis, including three women and seven children, in a fruitless effort to find the gunmen that the Marines believed was firing on them from a house near the bomb blast.

Wuterich's case is the last to be settled among the eight Marines accused in the killings: four enlisted Marines accused of firing the fatal shots and four officers accused of not investigating thoroughly. Six cases were dropped, one officer was acquitted at court-martial...

The hearing officer at Wuterich's preliminary hearing in 2007 predicted the prosecution would fail because of inconsistent testimony from witnesses and poor forensics.
The maximum sentence is three months in the brig

More on the Haditha killings.  I'll withhold comment, but not block them for the post.

Make your own mineral water

Edible Geography notes that the ratios of the ingredients are prominently listed on each product "so that you can easily find the total dissolved solids in such premium sparkling waters as Perrier, Badoît, and Vichy."

So... you can make your own.
Lersch has created a mineral water calculator — a handy downloadable spreadsheet into which you simply enter your tap water composition (optional, but recommended for best results; your water company should provide this upon request) and select your preferred mineral water, in order to generate a printable ingredients list of minerals and salts.
Some ingredients ("food grade sodium bromide") are difficult to find, but then all you need to do is carbonate the mineral water (which affects the pH).  Details at the link.

When did the earth have two moons?

The last time was in the autumn of 2006.  But after orbiting the earth for less than a year, it departed.  Details via PhysOrg:
Temporary satellites are a result of the gravitational pull of Earth and the Moon. Both bodies pull on one another and also pull on anything else in nearby space. The most common objects that get pulled in by the Earth-Moon system’s gravity are near Earth objects (NEOs) — comets and asteroids are nudged by the outer planets and end up in orbits that bring them into Earth’s neighbourhood...

They found that the Earth-Moon system captures NEOs quite frequently. “At any given time, there should be at least one natural Earth satellite of 1-meter diameter orbiting the Earth,” the team said. These NEOs orbit the Earth for about ten months, enough time to make about three orbits, before leaving.
One implication is that the study of the cosmos can be facilitated by visiting/sampling these temporary moons rather than trying to access more distant bodies.

"Crab into kick" crosswind landing technique

The airplane approaches the runway at a "crabbed" angle, to offset the wind -- then at practically the last instant before touchdown the pilot uses the rudder to "kick" the plane into alignment with the runway, so when the wheels make contact they are pointed straight ahead.
Discussion and an additional video in James Fallows' Atlantic column.

"Have no truck with..." explained

According to World Wide Words:
For the genesis of the term we must go back to medieval England. Truck had been borrowed from Old French troquer, which meant to obtain goods by barter or to give in exchange. It still does in expressions such as truck farm for a market garden, because its produce was often bartered rather than sold. Truck here has nothing to do with vehicles; that sense comes from a different source, a Latin word meaning the sheaf of a pulley, later a small wooden wheel.

In order to barter you had to negotiate with the person you were dealing with and truck later extended to refer to dealing or trading in all sorts of commodities. By the seventeenth century it had broadened and weakened into the idea of communication in general or of being on familiar terms with another person.
I had always assumed the term "truck farm" referred to vehicles used to transport the produce.  You learn something every day.

Deleveraging debt

The graph above shows two decades of the trending of debt in ten countries.  Some will be surprised to note that the U.S. is not the top blue line - that's the United Kingdom !  And while the U.S. has started to "deleverage" since the 2008 crisis, for other countries the line is still rising.

Also of interest to me was this second graph, which breaks total national debt into its component parts.  In the U.S. since 2008, financial institutions have reduced their debt by 17%, household debt has fallen 11%, and corporate debt is down 7%.  Only government (presumably fed+state+local) debt has risen.  It may be that the latter has been necessary in order for the former three to be facilitated; I don't understand economics well enough to comment on that.  But I do think these two graphs are important.

Graphs from a report by the McKinsey Global Institute, via The Telegraph.  There are more graphs and discussion at both links.
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