31 May 2012

How Siegfried's dragon was operated

The image shows a schematic diagram of the dragon slain by Siegfried in Fritz Lang's classic movie.  Eight or nine men are inside or under the model, operating it.  I think it's an impressive achievement for its time (1924).  You can view the result in this video clip (coup de grâce at the 5:09 mark when he stabs it in the eye):

Via the Old Hollywood tumblr.

Only some ichthyosaurs got the bends

I didn't know you could detect "the bends" in fossils, but apparently evidence of such events is preserved as bony deformities (microinfarcts), as reported in The Economist:
That these Mesozoic marine reptiles, contemporaries of the dinosaurs, got the bends can be seen from their bones. What can also be seen is a curious evolutionary tale—for not all ichthyosaurs succumbed...
It's the latter sentence that leads to the interesting part:
To this end, [Bruce Rothschild of the University of Kansas] and his colleagues travelled the world’s natural-history museums, looking at a total of 116 ichthyosaurs from the Triassic period... and 190 from the later Jurassic and Cretaceous periods...

When he started, he assumed that signs of the bends would be rarer in younger fossils, reflecting their gradual evolution of measures to deal with decompression, such as the ability found in many whales to store lots of oxygen in their blood. Instead, he was astonished to discover the reverse. More than 15% of Jurassic and Cretaceous ichthyosaurs had suffered the bends before they died, but not a single Triassic specimen showed evidence of that sort of injury...

As he reports in Naturwissenschaften, he suspects it was evolution in other species that caused the change. Whales that suffer the bends often do so because they have surfaced to escape a predator such as a large shark. One of the features of Jurassic oceans was an abundance of large sharks, and also of huge marine crocodiles, both of which were partial to ichthyosaur lunches. Triassic oceans, by contrast, were (from the ichthyosaur’s point of view) mercifully shark- and crocodile-free. In the Triassic, then, ichthyosaurs were top of the food chain. In the Jurassic and Cretaceous, they were prey as well as predator—and often had to make a speedy exit as a result.


I had never given any thought to the design of weather vanes until encountering this passage while reading my June issue of Smithsonian magazine:
The rooster plays a small but crucial role in the Gospels in helping to fulfill the prophecy that Peter would deny Jesus “before the cock crows.” (In the ninth century, Pope Nicholas I decreed that a figure of a rooster should be placed atop every church as a reminder of the incident—which is why many churches still have cockerel-shaped weather vanes.)
From the Wikipedia entry I found that the word 'vane' comes from the Anglo-Saxon word 'fane' meaning 'flag', which fits in nicely with this observation from an article about the history of weather vanes:
In Britain, Germany, and Normandy lords and noblemen flew banners and flags from castle towers. These flags were not intended to predict the weather, but actually helped archers calculate the direction of the wind when defending the castle. Through the years, the cloth flags were replaced by metal structures. 
So that explains why images of castles often show the battlements festooned with flags; I always thought they were just decorative.  You learn something every day.

Here's a segment of the Bayeaux tapestry which depicts a man installing a weather vane (with a cock) on Westminster Abbey, as the corpse of the king is being carried in:

Now back to the Smithsonian article, which focuses on the history of the chicken rather than the history of weather vanes.  It's full of interesting information, including this thought-provoking observation:
Matthew 23:37 contains a passage in which Jesus likens his care for the people of Jerusalem to a hen caring for her brood. This image, had it caught on, could have completely changed the course of Christian iconography, which has been dominated instead by depictions of the Good Shepherd.
Here's the passage (King James Version):
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!
It makes me wonder how my old church - the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church - might otherwise have been named...

Photo ("on the tower of the protestant Church of St.Moritz") from an excellent collection of pix of weather vanes at Dyxum Photographs.

Trimming the bush

This art installation begins with an unruly vine sprawling over an urban wall.  Changing it into a work of art begins with the addition of five lines -

- followed by some judicious pruning:

Photos found at nuart ("an annual international art festival... focused exclusively on the Street and Urban art scene. The Festival is based in Stavanger"), but attributed to Banksy and posted at his site.

Using sewers to heat homes

All the water you flush from your toilet and all the greywater from your shower and sinks leaves your house warm, and it warms the sewer pipes as it travels to the processing facility.  Now the StarTribune reports that a suggestion has been made to recapture that heat:
"There's a significant amount of energy, literally enough to heat hundreds of homes within the streets of the city of Brainerd," Peter Nelson of Hidden Fuels told the Minnesota Public Radio News...

Hidden Fuels would rely on technology already in use. A heat pump will circulate water from which energy can be extracted to heat or cool buildings, similar to how geothermal heating and cooling systems work.

Officials in Canada used a similar system during the Vancouver winter Olympics. But it didn't have the challenges of using an existing sewer. What Nelson and others want to do in Brainerd is new because the water's full of waste...

Earl Wolleat, director of buildings and grounds for the school district, said he's confident Hidden Fuels can pull it off, but it will take years before it's cost effective.

This is Leuser

Leuser, a blind Sumatran orangutan has survived poachers, air rifles, and deforestation during his 13 years of life. Leuser has been saved twice by the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program (SOCP), but now resides in captivity at their quarantine centre in Medan, Sumatra, after being shot 62 times by villagers seeking entertainment.
These are his skull xrays:

And this is what is happening to his home:

More details and photos in a photoessay in The Guardian.

30 May 2012

An interesting ancient Egyptian jug

4th - 7th century, made in Kharga Oasis, Byzantine Egypt.  From the collections of the Metropolitcan Museum of Art.

Via Uncertain Times.

Addendum: A hat tip to Skipweasel for identifying this as probably a "bes jar, " described at The Scribe as follows:
One of the most common depictions of Bes were jars decorated with his face. If a child were ill, milk would be given to them in one of these Bes jars. It was believed that the milk would turn to medicine and protect the child. If the child didn’t get well though, of course a doctor would be called. It was then not uncommon for the physician to offer medicine out of a Bes jar. The final form of Bes jars came during the Roman period. Bes jars were no longer delegated to only children. Soldiers, believing that they were vulnerable, just like a child, often drank their beer rations out of Bes jars in hopes of protection from attacks.
With pix at the link and more with a Google Image search.

The Westermarck Effect minimizes the risk of incest

Some interesting observations and theory, summarized at Damn Interesting:
One of the most common taboos across human societies of the past and present has been incest. Virtually every known culture has considered it repulsive, especially when involving siblings or a parent and child. The leading behavioural theory that has been proposed to account for the ubiquity of this aversion is known as the Westermarck effect, after Finnish scholar Edvard Westermarck, who proposed it in his 1891 book The History of Human Marriage. The idea of the Westermarck effect is that young children will become sexually/romantically desensitised to anyone they live in close contact with over the course of the first few years of their lives...

Note that crucially, the connection does not have to be biological; according to the theory, it applies just as readily to children adopted at a young age as to those raised by their birth parents... However, when a child is separated from biological family at an early age, there is no chance for the Westermarck effect to take hold; reunions between biological relatives who were separated much earlier sometimes lead into unforeseen emotional territory. ...

The Westermarck effect is a hypothesis, but there is evidence to support it... A study by American cultural anthropologist Melford Spiro that examined 3,000 marriages within the kibbutz system found that only about 15 weddings involved pairs of people who were raised in the same group of children. Furthermore, none of these pairs had been raised with their partners before the age of six...

Another source of evidence for the Westermarck effect comes from what happens when it is noticeably absent. Genetically related individuals who are not raised together often fail to be sexually and romantically blind to each other....Genes ensure that the two have a lot in common, and the absence of the Westermarck effect sometimes makes them difficult for one another to resist. This is a converse theory known as genetic sexual attraction (GSA)....

Freud did not think much of Westermarck’s ideas, and he himself actively recalled having once had a fairly noticeable physical reaction to his naked mother getting dressed. But, says cognitive scientist Steven Pinker in his book How the Mind Works, it is Westermarck who may have the last word. Pinker speculates that the reason why Freud was able to have such a dramatic response to the sight of his own mother putting her clothes on was that as a baby, Sigmund had been cared for by a wet nurse. Perhaps it was this nurse, and not his mother, to whom Sigmund became desensitised; in other words, the Westermarck effect was not fully activated between the young Freud and his biological mother. “The Westermarck theory,” Pinker says in summary, “has out-Freuded Freud.”... 
More at the Damn Interesting, via Neatorama.

"Sex Madness" (1938)

Sex Madness (1938) is an exploitation film directed by Dwain Esper, along the lines of Reefer Madness, supposedly to warn teenagers and young adults of the dangers of venereal diseases, specifically syphilis. Wild parties, lesbianism, and premarital sex are some of the forms of 'madness' portrayed. The educational aspect of the film allowed it to portray a taboo subject which was otherwise forbidden by the Production Code of 1930, and its stricter version imposed by Hollywood studios in July 1934.
This was released two years after "Reefer Madness," and has the same producer and style.  Those interested can view the entire movie at this link [Warning: boring].

Via Sloth Unleashed.

Judge Quentin Corley

Quentin Durward Corley, Sr. (January 21, 1884 - April 22, 1980) was a Texas circuit judge. On September 18, 1905 in Utica, New York he was in a railroad accident and lost both hands and one arm and shoulder. Within two years he invented and patented an artificial limb.
Info from Wikipedia, via Vintage Photography.

Mecoptera ("scorpionflies")

A new group of insects for me.  And a very impressive-looking one - note the scorpion-like tail.  According to Myrmecos, "Mecoptera is an order of holometabolous insects containing a number of unusual taxa, including scorpionflies, hangingflies, and snow fleas."  And from Wikipedia this interesting, if obscure, bit of evolutionary trivia-
Mecoptera have special importance in evolution of Insecta. Two of the most important insect orders, Lepidoptera and Diptera, along with Trichoptera, probably evolved from ancestors belonging to, or strictly related to, the Mecoptera.
The Lepidoptera, of course, include the butterflies I like to blog.

Photo credit irenwulv, who saw the critter in Japan and posted it at Reddit.

Security breach in Swedish prison

I can't confirm the year (or even the veracity) of the incident; a Google image search took me to a Swedish blog, where I can't find it.  But I'd like to think it's true.

Addendum:  The tradition continues of readers quickly finding answers to puzzles I can't solve.  Within minutes of my posting it, Arenamontanus found the story in Aftonbladet, and MICHAEL found a report of the incident in 2002.  Thank you, guys.

29 May 2012

Red-spotted Purple

A beautiful butterfly saddled with the dreadful scientific name Limenitis arthemis astyana. It's reasonably common because it is able to utilize a wide variety of trees (cherry, willow, aspen, poplar, birch, juneberry, basswood, hawthorn, apple) as host plants for its caterpillars.  It looks a bit like a Black Swallowtail or Pipevine Swallowtail, but of course lacks the "tail" that defines the swallowtails.

The "red-spottedness" is barely visible on the wingtips from above, but is much more apparent on the undersurface of the wings, which I was not able to photograph.  This fellow (?lady) was basking on fresh oak leaves at the Gotham Jack Pine Barrens State Natural Area last weekend (hiking path plotted on Pedometer).

I've never been successful in locating any eggs or caterpillars.  I would love to raise some because I would like to see one emerge fresh from a chrysalis.  Those wings are truly iridescent and frankly awesome in real life.  The photo enlarges with a click (and I'm currently using it for my wallpaper).

"Stag farts" - a traditional sign of summer

In the United States, summer unofficially begins well before the solstice - typically after the Memorial Day holiday at the end of May (coinciding with the meteorological "summer"  months of June, July, and August).  That's a good-enough excuse to post about "Sumer Is Icumen In."  Wikipedia provides an extensive review of the piece, including the Middle English text -
Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude sing cuccu!
Groweþ sed and bloweþ med
And springþ þe wde nu,
Sing cuccu!
Awe bleteþ after lomb,
Lhouþ after calue cu.
Bulluc sterteþ, bucke uerteþ,
Murie sing cuccu!...
- and the Modern English equivalent -
Summer has arrived,
Loudly sing, Cuckoo!
The seed grows and the meadow blooms
And the wood springs anew,
Sing, Cuckoo!
The ewe bleats after the lamb
The cow lows after the calf.
The bullock stirs, the stag farts,
Merrily sing, Cuckoo...
- and this clarification:
The translation of "bucke uerteþ" is uncertain. Some translate as "the buck-goat turns", but the current critical consensus is that the line is "the stag farts", a gesture of virility indicating the stag's potential for creating new life, echoing the rebirth of Nature from the barren period of winter.
A hat tip to Adrian for finding an mp3 of the round that you can listen to.

Advice for budding photographers

‘Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.’ –Henri Cartier-Bresson 
Via The New Shelton 'wet/dry.

Eric Clapton - "Tears in Heaven"

This song is familiar to most people because it topped the charts for weeks in the early 90s.

What is not generally recognized is that the subject of the song is the death of Clapton's four-year old son, Conor, who accidentally fell from a 53rd-story window in New York.  That knowledge may allow you to listen to the piece with renewed appreciation...

Reposted from 2008 because I like the song.

Texas honor student jailed for truancy

Diane Tran, an honor student in Texas, was thrown in jail by a Judge Moriarty (!) after she missed too many classes at her high school.
Tran said she works both full-time and part-time jobs, in addition to taking advanced and college level courses. But the judge said Tran's case was bigger than the individual situation of one student. "If you let one run loose, what are you gonna' do with the rest of 'em?," said Judge Lanny Moriarty. "Let them go too? A little stay in the jail for one night is not a death sentence."

But Tran's classmates said she had a lot more to juggle than the average teen. "She goes from job to job from school. She stays up until 7 a.m. in the morning doing her homework," said Devin Hill, a classmate and co-worker.

On top of that, Tran said her parents spilt up and moved away, leaving her to support her younger sister. The judge admitted that he wanted to make an example of the teen. Tran had to spend 24 hours in jail and had to pay a $100 fine. 
Text from CBSAtlanta.com staff; photo via TNT Magazine, where it is noted that "under Texan law any student skipping classes for more than 10 days in a six month period faces jail time and a fine," but...
News of Diane’s plight has spread online, with a petition at change.org and a helpdianetran.com.

27 May 2012

Castellers build castells (human towers)

The tradition of building castells originated in Valls, near the city of Tarragona, in the southern part of Catalonia towards the end of the 18th century. Later it developed a following in other regions of Catalonia and, since 1981, when the first castell of 9 levels of the 20th century was built, it has become very popular in most of Catalonia.

A castell is considered a success when stages of its assembling and disassembling, can be done in complete succession. The assembly is complete once all castellers have climbed into their designated places, and the enxaneta climbs into place at the top and raises one hand with four fingers erect, in a gesture said to symbolize the stripes of the Catalan flag. The enxaneta then climbs down the other side of the castell, after which the remaining levels of castellers descend in highest-to-lowest order until all have reached safety.

The sash (faixa) is the most important part of their outfit, since it supports the lower back and is used by other castellers in the team as a foothold or handhold when climbing up the tower. This tasselled piece of cloth varies in length and width and depends on the casteller's position inside the tower and also on choice. The length of the sash ranges from 1.5 to 12 m, and usually is shorter for those higher up in the castell. Performing castellers usually go barefoot as to minimise injures upon each other as they climb to their position and also for sensitivity when balancing and to have better feel and hold each other.

The motto of Castellers is "Força, equilibri, valor i seny" (Strength, balance, courage and common sense).
Not a bad motto for life in general.  More info here.

26 May 2012

"Mortal coil" explained

I heard the phrase this past week, implicitly citing Hamlet's soliloquy -
To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether 'tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The heart-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks
That Flesh is heir to? 'Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to Dream; Ay, there's the rub,
For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause...
- but after having heard it a hundred times, I wondered about the origin.  Here's the summary from Wikipedia, citing the OED:
Derived from 16th Century English, "coil" refers to tumults or troubles. Used idiomatically, the phrase means "the bustle and turmoil of this mortal life." "Coil" has an unusual etymological history. It was coined repeatedly; at one time people used it as a verb to mean "to cull," "to thrash," "to lay in rings or spirals," "to turn," "to mound hay" and "to stir." As a noun it has meant "a selection," "a spiral," "the breech of a gun," "a mound of hay", "a pen for hens", and "noisy disturbance, fuss, ado." It is in this last sense, which became popular in the 16th century, that Shakespeare used the word.

"Pirate" door hook

Found at imgur; original artist credit unknown.

"All of us are multiracial"

That's the delightfully concise and true take-away message from a report about the results of the Melungeon DNA Project, as summarized by the Associated Press and the Shreveport Times:
For years, varied and sometimes wild claims have been made about the origins of a group of dark-skinned Appalachian residents once known derisively as the Melungeons. Some speculated they were descended from Portuguese explorers, or perhaps from Turkish slaves or Gypsies.

Now a new DNA study in the Journal of Genetic Genealogy attempts to separate truth from oral tradition and wishful thinking. The study found the truth to be somewhat less exotic: Genetic evidence shows that the families historically called Melungeons are the offspring of sub-Saharan African men and white women of northern or central European origin. And that report, which was published in April in the peer-reviewed journal, doesn't sit comfortably with some people who claim Melungeon ancestry.

Beginning in the early 1800s, or possibly before, the term Melungeon was applied as a slur to a group of about 40 families along the Tennessee-Virginia border. But it has since become a catch-all phrase for a number of groups of mysterious mixed-race ancestry.

G. Reginald Daniel, a sociologist at the University of California-Santa Barbara who has spent more than 30 years examining multiracial people in the U.S. and wasn't part of this research, said the study is more evidence that race-mixing in the U.S. isn't a new phenomenon. "All of us are multiracial," he said. "It is recapturing a more authentic U.S. history."

Estes and her fellow researchers theorize that the various Melungeon lines may have sprung from the unions of black and white indentured servants living in Virginia in the mid-1600s, before slavery. They conclude that as laws were put in place to penalize the mixing of races, the various family groups could only intermarry with each other, even migrating together from Virginia through the Carolinas before settling primarily in the mountains of East Tennessee...

Claims of Portuguese ancestry likely were a ruse they used in order to remain free and retain other privileges that came with being considered white, according to the study's authors...

Writing about his argument in a memoir published years later, Shepherd stated, "Our Southern high-bred people will never tolerate on equal terms any person who is even remotely tainted with negro blood, but they do not make the same objection to other brown or dark-skinned people, like the Spanish, the Cubans, the Italians, etc."...

In recent years, it has become a catchall term for people of mixed-race ancestry and has been applied to about 200 communities in the eastern U.S. — from New York to Louisiana. Among them were the Montauks, the Mantinecocks, Van Guilders, the Clappers, the Shinnecocks and others in New York. Pennsylvania had the Pools; North Carolina the Lumbees, Waccamaws and Haliwas and South Carolina the Redbones, Buckheads, Yellowhammers, Creels and others. In Louisiana, which somewhat resembled a Latin American nation with its racial mixing, there were Creoles of the Cane River region and the Redbones of western Louisiana, among others....

The study does not rule out the possibility of other races or ethnicities forming part of the Melungeon heritage, but none were detected among the 69 male lines and 8 female lines that were tested. Also, the study did not look for later racial mixing that might have occurred, for instance with Native Americans. 
More at the Shreveport Times.

Photo credit: AP

"A Love Letter to Plywood"

Become an expert on the subject in seven minutes.  Impress your colleagues at work and your friends at cocktail parties.  But it will not help you pick up women.

Brought to you by the creator of the equally prosaic "How To Sweep."

I'm not a home "handyman" and haven't used a table saw since fifth grade shop class, so I'm curious about the phrase in the video "The table saw is a witch.  A witch will take your finger."  Is that rather oddly-phrased advice derived from the Hansel and Gretel story?
   "Let me feel your finger!" said the witch to Hansel every day to check if 
he was getting any fatter. Now, Gretel had brought her brother a chicken bone,
and when the witch went to touch his finger, Hansel held out the bone.

"The Meeting on the Turret Stairs" (1864) updated

A very evocative painting, by Frederick William Burton.
‘The Meeting on the Turret Stairs’ is one of the better-known works of Frederic William Burton. The theme comes from a medieval Danish ballad which describes how Hellelil fell in love with Hildebrand, Prince of Engelland, one of her twelve personal guards. Her father orders his seven sons to kill him.
They stood at the door with spear and shield:
‘Up Lord Hildebrand! out and yield!’
He kissed me then mine eyes above:-
‘Say never my name, thou darling love’
Out of the door Lord Hildebrand sprang;
Around his head the sword he swang.
Hildebrand kills her father and six brothers before Hellelil intercedes to save the youngest. Hildebrand dies of his wounds and Hellelil herself dies shortly afterwards.
Burton did not choose a violent episode and instead freely interpreted the story, placing their farewell on the turret stairs and leaving the reason for it to the imagination. His invention of the kiss on the woman's outstretched arm and the lack of eye contact adds to the poignancy of the painting. 
Explanatory text from the National Gallery of Ireland, via the Clare County Library and the Art Blog.

(BTW - interesting use of "swang" for the past tense.)

Addendum:  A hat tip to "C," who notes that this painting has recently been voted "Ireland's Favorite Painting."
A public vote promoted by RTÉ’s competition to find the nation’s favourite painting over the past five weeks found that the Frederic William Burton piece, which hangs in the National Gallery of Ireland, polled most preferences. One in five of those who voted (22 per cent) went for the romantic 19th century depiction of a young soldier stealing an illicit kiss from his beloved as they pass on a turret stair. Burton was from Corofin, Co Clare.
The other paintings in the competition are posted here.

Addendum #2:  Lots of information about the painting in the Sept/Oct 2012 issue of History Ireland, e.g.:
All the preliminary studies show a medieval tower as the setting for the picture; the direction of the stairs is accurate in being clockwise, like an Irish tower-house, just as the view is correctly taken from a chamber doorway looking towards the stairs. The artist was vigilant about accuracy, incorporating a late medieval loop window made of a narrow vertical slit in the wall, splayed on the interior so that it could be used by archers... The figure of Hellelil draws especial attention, her elongated back view emphasising the costume, with only a glimpse of the face and outstretched arm. The particular shade of deep blue was also used in Burton’s The Child Miranda (1864). The gown appears made of fine wool, with long hanging sleeves fringed in fur, fitted with a tight bodice down to the hips, creating an elegant outline majestically folding into an extremely full skirt, both the sleeves and gown lined in white fur. The decorative girdle about her waist is of a generic late medieval type, its band interspersed with a sequence of bronze buckles, linked so that it could move with ease on the hips. Wound around her golden hair are mauve ribbons that end with the hair woven into a mauve toggle, tucked into the belt...

18 May 2012


The number 10,000 has a certain resonance for me, since I grew up in Minnesota, where the state slogan was "Land of 10,000 lakes."  Today it takes on a different significance, because this is the 10,000th post I've written for TYWKIWDBI.

This blog began a little over four years ago as an incidental activity; it has subsequently morphed into something more, but remains essentially one man's hobby (with the assistance of a websurfing spouse).  I fluctuate between enthusiasm and burnout, and especially in the summer months with the competing demands of outdoor activities the needle swings toward the latter.  I have the first out-of-town butterfly field trip coming up soon, plus logarithmically-increasing chores in the gardens and woods, and some other hobbies that need attention.  And family.

So, I'm going to take another "blog-cation."  Those who are desperate for TYWKIWDBI-type material should browse the "Archive" in the right sidebar by selecting a month before you first visited here, because the old posts are pretty much like the recent ones.  Or pick a "category" from that right sidebar, open it, and scroll back a few pages.  When I'm intoxicated, my favorites are the Video-music and Video-humor categories.

To celebrate this 10,000th post, I believe I'll take off for about... 10,000 minutes.

*Myriad (Ancient Greek: μύριος, μυριάδες (myrios, plural myriades), "numberless countless, infinite", is a classical Greek word for the number 10,000.

p.s. - I've closed the comments for this post.

Links for you to explore

Because I just don't have time to present them as individual posts.

A "former FBI Special Agent and head of the Los Angeles Joint Terrorism Task Force Al Qaeda squad" says the TSA is useless.  Not annoying - useless.  A summary at BoingBoing, with links to the source material.

An explanation of how restaurant menus are designed to incorporate a variety of marketing tricks.  "A box draws attention and, usually, orders..."  The $115 platter is there to make everything else look cheaper.

"A proposed new time-keeping system tied to the orbiting of a neutron around an atomic nucleus could have such unprecedented accuracy that it neither gains nor loses 1/20th of a second in 14 billion years."  "So we'll have a leap-neutron-second every 280 billion years? How am I supposed to write that into my software?"

A new LED light puts out more power than is put into it.  Literally.  It "produces 69 picowatts of light using 30 picowatts of power, giving it an efficiency of 230 percent."  The reason it isn't breaking the first law of thermodynamics is explained at Wired.  

Another e-voting system goes down in flames.  "Within 48 hours of the system going live, we had gained near complete control of the election server."

The best behind-the-back basketball pass I've seen all year.

Three hundred years ago, Sweden had a February 30th.  The reason is explained at Widow's Weeds.

A man in Milwaukee tried to rob a bank.  He was unsuccessful.  "Found in the suspect's possession: "How to Be A Successful Criminal."

Some women report reaching orgasm or achieving sexual pleasure while working out at the gym.  Details re the favorite type of equipment at Discover magazine.

A compilation of "All the nipples on view in the permanent collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art."  Safe for work, I guess.

An Easter egg hunt was cancelled because of "the behavior of aggressive parents who swarmed into the tiny park."

"The 56-year-old man held his left leg against an electric saw in his home workshop and severed his foot just above the ankle."  He also threw it in the oven so it couldn't be reattached.

A "bone luge" is a way to drink liquor out of a bone in a restaurant.   In case you need a new way to drink liquor.

Drivers were once taught to hold a car's steering wheel in way to maximize control of the vehicle.  Now the importance of where to place your hands is determined by the possibility that the airbag may inflate.  Among the injuries the NHTSA reports from improper placement of the hands when an airbag deploys are amputations of fingers or entire hands, traumatic fractures and a particularly stomach-churning injury called "degloving." Got your hands in the right spot?

Lewis Lapham has written an insightful appraisal of the American health-care system in the latest edition of his Lapham's Quarterly.  I can't do it justice with brief excerpts; those interested should read the five pages at the link.

Also at Lapham's Quarterly, a scary story about how force-feeding was used against suffragettes in 1910.

For every fan of American football.  Video of Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford during a game in which he was "miked up" for sound.  Cleveland takes a 24-3 lead.  Stafford gets crushed with an injury to his shoulder.  And then...

"A 93-year-old Florida grandmother has parked her car for good after driving 576,000 miles (927,000km) over 48 years at the wheel of one trusty vehicle."

A collection of photos of swallowtail butterflies of the world.   Beautiful creatures.

Snow globes on a windowsill set fire to a man's couch.

Fourteen photos of gynandromorphs, mostly butterflies, but also birds.  One half of the body is female, one half is male.

A video explains how to peel a head of garlic in ten seconds.

At the GOP convention in Florida, water guns will be banned.  But real guns will be permitted.

A 125-year-old sturgeon was caught in Wisconsin.  It was "bigger than a linebacker."  And it was released after being tagged.

If you want to look up famous people who share your birthday, you know you can do so on Wikipedia.  But for the birthdays of fictional characters there is an infographic at Flavorwire, via Neatorama.

According to Sentence First, the phrase "who to follow" is grammatically permissible.

Here is the archive of every Jeopardy question ever asked.  Over 222,000 entries.

Marilyn Monroe and Ella Fitzgerald helped one another's careers.  "Ella Fitzgerald was not allowed to play at Mocambo (a Hollywood nightclub) because of her race."  Marilyn made a call, and Ella said it changed her career.

Should obituaries of pets be in the newspaper? "Because they openly announce that a pet was part of a family, and bring legitimacy to mourning the pet as a family member, obituaries for animals push up against the definition of "family" in ways that may be quite upsetting for some people."

When the Pioneer spacecraft left the solar system, they began slowing down.  No one has ever been able to explain why - until now.

Surveillance Self-Defense is a website that specializes in explaining how you can prevent yourself from being subject to surveillance.

There are lots of fossilized dinosaur footprints in Maryland.  A man has made a hobby of collecting them.  20-pic photoessay at the link.

Retreaded tires can be dangerous.  If that's not inherently apparent, read the link.

A BBC video shows poisonous sea snakes (kraits) hunting in packs.  I would embed the impressive video if I could, but you can view it at the BBC, via Neatorama.

Bee colony collapse disorder linked to pesticides.

A cheerful story of a puppy rescued from a cholla cactus.  With video.

Chess enthusiasts may be interested in 17th-century examples of the knight's tour.

CARCA is the acronym for the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Cat Association. "Our goals are to train and maintain a network of highly efficient avalanche search and rescue cat teams across Canada."  My ailurophile wife suspects it's a spoof.

A story in Spiegel Online reports on new investigations about the art work and personal life of Albrecht Dürer.  "In 1517, he ventured a detailed depiction of a scrotum -- a pioneering act in the West. Some of Dürer's drawings are so suggestive that researchers kept them secret for years and locked them away in the closet. One example is the drawing "Youth with Executioner." It shows an executioner, armed with a sword, who is stroking a half-naked young man, who voluptuously acquiesces. Other sketches also show naked men's bodies."

The etymology and history of first names.

Cigarette cards were erotic photographs inserted in cigarette packs.  A gallery of them is posted at Marinni's Livejournal blog (in Russian).  Probably not safe for work, depending on where you work.  And for those of you who used to buy Playboy for the articles, here is the English translation of the site's content.

The Great Pyramid's secret doors are still being investigated.

Otters Who Look Like Benedict Cumberbatch.  Self-explanatory.

A Slate column details the history of buttermilk.  It's not the same product your grandparents enjoyed.

Canada has an alternate currency ("Canadian Tire money") that you should know about if you're planning to visit Canada, in case you encounter some.

A delightful story: "Gac Filipaj, an immigrant from the former Yugoslavia, completed his Classics degree with honors after balancing classes with a fulltime custodial job for the past 12 years."  He has now graduated from Columbia University while working there full time.

A man in Kentucky was arrested for leaving his son in the car while he went into a bar to drink.  His son is seventeen years old.

A woman's pants caught on fire after she picked up some rocks and put them in her pocket.  It sounds totally implausible until you read the explanation offered by "jl" in the comments.

Enough.  Got to get outside.

A VERY unusual ocean creature - updated again

This is a real creature.  At the Reddit thread, after some preliminary speculation that it was a plastic sheet or other debris, or perhaps the placenta of a whale, it was identified as a Deepstaria enigmatica.  It's a cnidarian.  You learn something every day.  I am repeatedly gobsmacked to discover the amazing creatures we share this planet with.

Addendum:  Here are two relevant comments from the thread at BoingBoing, one from Jonathan -
I didn’t initially think it was a jellyfish either, but around 4:46 in the video you get to see the mouth on its long, pendulous manubrium hanging from the center. From the base of the mouth, you can see the extensions of the gut radiating symmetrically outwards, where they meet the gonads (the white masses). This is a great diagnostic to identify it as a jellyfish, whatever the shape of the bell.
- and from Jellywatch:
Deepstaria is not that rare, but is large (more than a meter diameter), so rarely seen intact. In the video, the swirling from the sub makes the medusa appear to undulate and it even turns inside-out. Normally they just hang out like a balloon.
And finally, a hat tip to Robb for finding a report on this video at RT which includes screencaps of the creature (useful in case the video is taken down again).

Second addendum:  The video embedded at the top is interesting, in part because of its ambiguity.  But that ambiguity arises because the creature is being pummeled by outwash from the ROV engines, rather than behaving in a normal manner. In response to this video, Steve Haddock, a research scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, has posted a proper discussion of Deepstaria and its near relatives.  Beautifully filmed, and intelligently narrated --

With a hat tip to Mark Frauenfelder at BoingBoing for the via.

17 May 2012

Antheraea polyphemus

Last week I received an email from a good friend and fellow lepidoptera enthusiast, who asked if I would like to  have some cocoons of the Polyphemus moth.  I hesitated only a few milliseconds before replying in the affirmative, and several hours later was at her home, where she presented me with a grocery bag whose contents are depicted above, spread out on paper on our dining-area table.

Last summer my friend had raised Polyphemus caterpillars; in the autumn they had pupated by spinning cocoons amid the oak leaves they were feeding on.  The cocoons are well camouflaged and are not easy to see in the photo above, but here's a good example -

The caterpillars pull some oak leaves together, then spin the cocoon.  They overwintered during sub-zero days here in Wisconsin, and during this mid-spring day began their eclosion (emergence).  I didn't photograph the process, because unlike with butterflies I couldn't tell when it would happen. 

The cocoon is surprisingly firm, since the silk is glued together with a material that hardens; to get out, the adult moth secretes a digestive enzyme that melts a hole in the tip of the cocoon.  The moth emerges in a "compressed" form with the wings tiny.  He/she then seeks a surface from which to hang while the wings are inflated.  This one is somehow managing to climb a plastic sheet (!) and is shown from the back -

- and from the side.  From the lateral view you can see the distended abdomen which contains the body fluids that are pumped into the wings for inflation and which in the female contain the hundreds of eggs (already formed) which she will oviposit as soon as a male  fertilizes them.

I didn't want to disturb the moth at this point in the process.  The others I moved to a terrarium, where this one emerged and clung to an oak twig during this process.

The end  result is an absolutely gorgeous creature - and a huge one (for an insect).  I didn't think to take a photo with one on my hand, but if I had, the wingspan would have covered my palm.  The one pictured below is resting on the railing of our screen porch, which is where we kept them while they emerged. This one is a male, identifiable by the elaborate structure of the antennae, which he uses to detect pheromones released by the females.

This view is particularly interesting because it shows that the four "spots" on the wings are actually translucent membranes.  I'm not sure if that translucency offers any functional advantage, but the large spots on the hindwing are presumed by humans to serve as false "eyes" to startle or confuse potential predators.

Here's another freshly-emerged moth (I think a female with smaller antennae), resting on the carpet of the screen porch.  

The morning after the first ones emerged, I took one across the street to show to neighbor children, who were enthralled.  They took turns holding the giant silkmoth in their hands (it took two flattened child-size hands to hold one).  As we talked about the moths (and how they have no mouthparts and thus cannot feed and will die in a couple days), the sun warmed the moth they were holding, and after a few prelimary flaps on their hands it gradually lifted itself into the air, then circled us at a low altitude, then soared over a housetop seeking a resting place until it would be time for its nocturnal search for a mate.

The name Polyphemus was applied to these moths in reference to a character from Greek mythology.  The legendary Polyphemus was a giant, a son of Poseidon, who had one eye and was one of the Cyclopes.

For more on the legend of the Cyclops, scroll down to the next post, or click here.

And for a discussion of how to retrieve the silk from the moth cocoons, keep scrolling, or click here.

16 May 2012

Cyclops - did the legend originate with a fossil ?

In Greek mythology and later Roman mythology, a cyclops was a member of a primordial race of giants, each with a single eye in the middle of its forehead. The classical plural is cyclopes [you learn something every day...]. The name is widely thought to mean "circle-eyed".

Given their penchant for blacksmithing, many scholars believe the legend of the Cyclopes' single eye arose from an actual practice of blacksmiths wearing an eyepatch over one eye to prevent flying sparks from blinding them in both eyes...
There is another possible origin of the legend:

...prehistoric dwarf elephant skulls – about twice the size of a human skull – that may have been found by the Greeks on Crete and Sicily... the large, central nasal cavity (for the trunk) in the skull might have been interpreted as a large single eye-socket. Given the inexperience of the locals with living elephants, they were unlikely to recognize the skull for what it actually was...
Text from Wikipedia (skull photo color-adjusted). The image is "Marcel Marien, L'introuvable, 1937. Glass, acrylic glass, 11 x 27 x 18 cm. Coll. Sylvio Perlstein, Antwerp © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2010," posted at ArtDaily as an example of a surreal art object.  Via Uncertain Times.

Reposted from 2011 to accompany several new posts on Polyphemus.

How to make silk

Photos from an interesting article at Wormspit, delineating how to make silk from the cocoons of silkmoths (in this case, Polyphemus).  Above is a bowl of empty cocoons from which the moth has emerged.  They do so by dissolving a hole in the end (for commercial mass production the moths are - unfortunately - killed before they emerge, so that the resultant silk strands are unbroken and longer).

The photoessay at the link shows a number of stages for cleaning the cocoons of adherent leaves and debris.  The next step is the stovetop -

- where the cocoons are cooked to remove the "gum" the larva uses to make the silk strands stick together.  When this process is complete, one is left with a mass of tangled fibers, which can be untangled more easily after fabric softener is applied.

The "untangling" is probably the most difficult part.  As with many other fibers, the process involved is carding:

More intermediate steps at the link, then after the carding comes the spinning -

- described at the link as follows:
The short bits and noils are caught in the teeth of the carder. I card these together with the shorter fibers to make a very light rolag. This spins up into a much lumpier, but still usable, yarn... I made just a couple of quick samples with the silk. On the left is the fine yarn - about a 2/50's or so. The combed fibers are easy to use to spin a very fine, even shiny yarn. On the right is the noil yarn, made from the rolag.
Fascinating, and some new words for me to look up - but not today, because I'm in a hurry to get outdoors on a glorious spring day.

The remarkable Phantom Corsair (1938)

The Phantom Corsair is a prototype automobile built in 1938. It is a six-passenger coupé that was designed by Rust Heinz of the H. J. Heinz family...

The Phantom Corsair's steel-and-aluminum body measured just 57 in (140 cm) in height and incorporated fully skirted wheels and completely flush fenders while forgoing running boards. The car also lacked door handles, as the doors were instead opened electrically using push-buttons located on the exterior and the instrument panel...

The Lycoming 80º V8-powered Cord chassis also featured front-wheel drive and an electrically operated four-speed automatic gearbox, as well as fully independent suspension and adjustable shock absorbers...

The body measured an impressive 237 in (600 cm) long and 76.5 in (194 cm) wide, enough to accommodate four people in the front row, including one person to the left of the driver. The back seats could only hold two passengers, however, in large part because of space limitations posed by on-board beverage cabinets. Though weighing a hefty 4,600 lb (2,100 kg), the Phantom Corsair could achieve speeds of up to 115 mph (185 km/h) because of its modified, naturally aspirated 190 bhp Lycoming engine as well as its aerodynamic shape.

Rust Heinz planned to put the Phantom Corsair, which cost approximately $24,000 to produce in 1938 (equivalent to about $370,000 in 2010), into limited production at an estimated selling price of $12,500. However, Heinz's death in a car accident in July 1939 ended those plans, leaving the prototype Corsair as the only one ever built. The Phantom Corsair now resides in the National Automobile Museum (also known as The Harrah Collection) in Reno, Nevada.
Only two passengers in back because of the on-board beverage cabinets!!

Text from Wikipedia, via Reddit.  Photo via Conceptcarz, where there is a gallery of about 30 images.

Genetic risks from sperm bank sperm

A column at the New York Times relates the story of an infertile couple who used sperm from a sperm bank, and whose child turned out to have cystic fibrosis.  That unfortunate outcome happened by chance (she was an unknown carrier, as was the donor), but it highlights one aspect of sperm banks:
Sadly, the Kretchmars’ experience is not unique. In households across the country, children conceived with donated sperm are struggling with serious genetic conditions inherited from men they have never met. The illnesses include heart defects, spinal muscular atrophy and neurofibromatosis type 1, among many others...

Donated eggs pose a risk as well, but the threat of genetic harm from sperm donation is arguably much greater. Sperm donors are no more likely to carry genetic diseases than anybody else, but they can father a far greater number of children: 50, 100 or even 150, each a potential inheritor of flawed genes...

By some estimates, there are more than a million children in this country conceived with donated sperm or eggs. The Food and Drug Administration requires that sperm donors be tested for communicable diseases, but there is no federal requirement that sperm banks screen for genetic diseases. Some of the betters ones do anyway...

A lack of regulatory record-keeping also makes it difficult for sperm banks to warn related families, or even donors, when a genetic illness is discovered in one or more children. And donor families are not required to report births or illnesses to the sperm banks. Since the clinic has no way to know a donor’s sperm is flawed, it may continue to be sold long after problems have surfaced.

Pamela Callum, a genetic counselor at California Cryobank, the largest sperm bank in the country, recently discovered that a donor to the bank had passed on the gene for neurofibromatosis type 1, or NF1, to five children... a registry might help prevent the spread of genetic diseases among donor children by providing a way for parents to report children’s illnesses to their sperm banks, thus allowing banks to weed out donors who may be carriers.
More at the link.

"Cow shoes" and bicycle tracks

The shoes have been featured at Kottke, BoingBoing, Neatorama, and a dozen more places in recent days, most of which reprint text from a 1922 newspaper article describing a method used by moonshiners to avoid detection:
The cow shoe is a strip of metal to which is tacked a wooden block carved to resemble the hoof of a cow, which may be strapped to the human foot. A man shod with a pair of them would leave a trail resembling that of a cow.
The shoe found was picked up near Port Tampa where a still was located some time ago. It will be sent to the prohibition department at Washington. Officers believe the inventor got his idea from a Sherlock Holmes story in which the villain shod his horse with shoes the imprint of which resembled those of a cow's hoof. 
The Holmes story was "The Adventure of the Priory School."  I had to look up the context:
There is one other small point upon which I desire some light. This fellow Hayes had shod his horses with shoes which counterfeited the tracks of cows. Was it from Mr. Wilder that he learned so extraordinary a device?"

The Duke stood in thought for a moment, with a look of intense surprise on his face. Then he opened a door and showed us into a large room furnished as a museum. He led the way to a glass case in a corner, and pointed to the inscription.

"These shoes," it ran, "were dug up in the moat of Holdernesse Hall. They are for the use of horses, but they are shaped below with a cloven foot of iron, so as to throw pursuers off the track. They are supposed to have belonged to some of the marauding Barons of Holdernesse in the Middle Ages." 
But while searching that, I found an example of a Holmes deduction that was inaccurate.  This from The Urban Country Bicycle Blog:
The idea that the direction taken by a bicycle can be determined by observing the crossing of the tire tracks was first put forward by Conan Doyle in the Sherlock Holmes story "The Priory School."

The premise was challenged and disproved by his readers almost straight away. The back tire crosses the path of the front the same way no matter which way the bicycle is oriented. The only way to tell which way a bicycle was going by its tracks is to follow them to the bicycle.

Doyle admitted that the idea had come to him as an inspiration while writing the story, rather than by actual observation, and that he had made a rare silly error. It is easy to be fooled into thinking it true by other clues giving a reason to presume the direction, such as which side of the street the tracks are on, or by finding the bicycle.
Photo credit: Library of Congress.

No third party in the foreseeable future

From a column by Dana Milbank at the Washington Post:
The nascent third-party movement called Americans Elect assembled a dream team of prospective presidential nominees: Mike Bloomberg! Colin Powell! Chris Christie! Mitch Daniels! Condi Rice! Rick Santorum! Hillary Clinton!

There was only one problem: None of these candidates wanted the nomination. Neither did the other “draft” candidates who received support on the Americans Elect Web site, including Jon Huntsman, Ron Paul, Howard Dean, Donald Trump, Al Gore, Sarah Palin and David Petraeus.

Americans Elect had taken care of just about everything a third-party candidate would need. It spent about $35 million on marketing, technology and ballot access. As of Tuesday it had won a place on the November ballot in 28 states (and it still expects to be on the ballot in all 50 by Aug. 1). It had attracted 3.5 million people to its Web site. But what it couldn’t — or hasn’t yet been able to — do is persuade a plausible candidate to submit himself or herself to the ravages of a presidential run. 

“We’ve had hundreds of [candidate] briefings,” Kahlil Byrd, the group’s chief executive, told me on Tuesday. “We have met with current and former governors, current and former senators, university presidents, think tanks, mayors of large cities and people who have been running Fortune 300 companies.”

But the main objection Byrd heard from these would-be candidates: “Do I want to put myself and my family through what it takes?” Looking at the prospect of running, Byrd said, candidates saw only negative ads and attack politics. Among would-be candidates, there was fear and loathing of “the permanent and negative campaign.”..
Americans Elect says it will announce its next steps on Thursday. But, really, the group already delivered on what it set out to do. The lack of takers suggests the political system is farther gone than the reformers realized. 

15 May 2012

LiDAR imaging of prehistoric earthworks

LiDAR is the acronym for Light Detection and Ranging, a powerful technology that uses laser light for mapping and analysis.  At the top is a LiDAR aerial image of the Marching Bear Group of earthworks at Effigy Mounds National Monument in Iowa.  Below is a more conventional depiction of one of the bear effigy mounds, using standard photography and outlining the earthwork with limestone.

The National Park Service website has an article comparing "traditional mapping" (surveying and sketching) vs. aerial photography (embed right, which also shows an eagle mound and the tip of a linear mound at the edge of the bear mound group) vs. LiDAR.  I've also seen effective imaging produced by taking an extended-exposure photo at dusk, while having knowledgeable people walk around mounds with flashlights to "paint" the features with light.

For those with an interest in this LiDAR as an archaeological tool, the best article I've seen was posted by the Ohio Archaeological Council; it discusses the value of LiDAR in studying some of the Hopewell Mounds in Ohio.

A couple months ago an article at The Guardian explained how LiDAR could be used to map the Amazon forests in incredible detail.
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