31 July 2012

Midsummer break

A variety of family and hobby things are demanding my attention.  Blogging will resume after the weekend.  Probably.

The making of "Fargo"

I wouldn't be a true Minnesotan if I didn't repost this documentary about the making of this movie.  You betcha.
The film earned seven Academy Award nominations, winning two for Best Original Screenplay for the Coens and Best Actress in a Leading Role for McDormand. It also won the BAFTA Award and the Award for Best Director for Joel Coen at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival.

In 2006 it was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" and inducted into the United States National Film Registry. It is currently the most recently made feature length film in the Registry."
Via Neatorama.

A lamp full of memories

Here's the owner's story, posted at Reddit:
The lamp is a glass jar full of all the things that my mom found in my pockets when doing my laundry as a child. I was born in 1986, and you can tell from a lot of the items in it.

It started off with mostly sticks, rocks, and marbles. But over time it ended up having all sorts of items ranging from Pogs, a Gameboy game (Super Mario Land), a Magic School Bus McDonald's toy, yo-yos, and Laser Quest scorecards. There are also plenty of sticks, springs, rubber-bands, and twist-ties because I went through a phase where I remember telling my parents I was going to build a robot with just those items.

I will admit that there are a few items in there from my early 20s too, as like any lazy college student, I let my mom wash my clothes while staying at home from college between semesters. And clearly, my mom was still collecting my things.

Growing up, whenever I left something in my pockets and put them in the dirty laundry, before she would wash things, she checked my pockets, and if she found anything, she put it in a glass jar on the top shelf in the laundry room. I remember as a kid, wishing soooo hard that I could get some of the items back, but it was forbidden to even go near the jar.

By the time I was old enough to be sneaky about it and get into it, I had just learned to accept that that was how it worked and I wouldn't get those things back.

Years went by and I had completely forgotten about it, until this last May. I got married, and at our rehearsal dinner, when my mom and dad stood up to give their thank you speech, my mom pulled a large gift bag out from under the table. She started by giving a short speech explaining that over the years she had collected stuff from my pockets, and it was in that moment that I thought, "I'm gonna get the jar!" I started tearing up before she had finished talking. When she did, I opened the bag and found that not only was I getting the jar, I was getting it back in the form of a lamp (and yes, she has sealed the top of the lamp to it so that I still CANNOT open it).

This has definitely been the best gift I've ever received.
What a wonderful and thoughtful personalized gift.  Closeup photos here.

30 July 2012

A mashup of The Lion King and The Dark Knight Rises

Visuals from The Lion King, audio from the trailer for The Dark Knight Rises.  Very well done.

In part, this may be an illustration of the concept of "the basic plots of literature."   See also this interesting exploration of the concordances between The Lion King to Kimba The White Lion.

The colors of the Olympic rings

Is there a hidden significance?  Officially, the answer is no...
The following is quoted directly from the IOC: "The five rings represent the five continents. They are interlaced to show the universality of Olympism and the meeting of the athletes of the whole world during the Olympic Games. On the Olympic flag, the rings appear on a white background. This flag translates the idea of the universality of the Olympic Movement. At least one of the colors of the rings, including the white background, can be found on the flag of every nation in the world."... Baron Pierre de Coubertin conceived both the symbol and the flag. Not coincidentally, Coubertin was the founder of the modern Olympic Movement. 
But... note this in the Wikipedia entry:
Prior to 1951, the official handbook stated that each colour corresponded to a particular continent: blue for Europe, yellow for Asia, black for Africa, green for Australia and Oceania and red for America (North and South considered as a single continent); this was removed because there was no evidence that Coubertin had intended it...
Here's the cited 1951 reference*:
We probably will never know for certain whether Coubertin's committee intentionally chose "yellow for Asia, black for Africa" (and red for the Americas) and that position was later "walked back" when such stereotyping became less popular, or whether the attributions of ring color to regions were just a creation of some enterprising writer or reporter.

*"Decision adopted by the Executive Committee". Bulletin du Comité International Olympique ( Olympic Review ) (Lausanne: IOC) (25): poo. January 1951.

28 July 2012

Our unseen world

Rotifer Floscularia ringens feeding.  Photo by Mr. Charles Krebs.

Stink bug eggs.  Photo by Mr. Haris Antonopoulos.

Both images from the Olympus BioScapes International Digital Imaging Competition, 2011.

"Suicide bombers" of the termite world

From a report in Science:
When trekking through a forest in French Guiana to study termites, a group of biologists noticed unique spots of blue on the backs of the insects in one nest [see lower termite in the embedded photo]. Curious, one scientist reached down to pick up one of these termites with a pair of forceps. It exploded. The blue spots, the team discovered, contain explosive crystals, and they're found only on the backs of the oldest termites in the colony. The aged termites carry out suicide missions on behalf of their nest mates...

Back in their labs, scientists led by biochemist Robert Hanus of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic in Prague went on to show that the blue termites always had shorter, worn-down mandibles than others from the same species, indicating that they were older. Then, the researchers removed the contents of the blue pouches and analyzed them. They contained a novel protein that is unusually rich with copper, suggesting that it's an oxygen binding-protein. Rather than being toxic itself, it likely is an enzyme that converts a nontoxic protein into something toxic.

"What happens is when the termites explode, the contents of the back pouch actually interact with secretions from the salivary gland and the mixture is what is toxic," explains Hanus. It's the first time two interacting chemicals have been shown responsible for a defense mechanism in termites..."
From the context of the article, my interpretation is that the "exploding" referred to is not an expansive force, but rather a "rupturing" of the termite.

Embedded photo cropped from an image by R. Hanus.  Via Neatorama.

Addendum: Danack found a video of the rupturing termite.  Warning:  not very exciting.

Huge treasure hoard found in Jersey

Thirty years ago, a farmer found a few Iron Age silver coins while working on his land in the island of Jersey, off the coast of Normandy. Now, after combing the soil with metal detectors for three decades, two treasure hunters have found a hoard of silver and gold coins, the biggest of its kind, valued at $15 million.

The treasure was inside a large block of clay. It contains 30,000 to 50,000 silver and gold Celtic coins dating from the 1st Century BC. The coins—which could have been buried to prevent Roman troops from getting them during Julius Caesar's invasion of the British Islands—come from Armorica. They have been buried for more than 2,000 years. According to numismatic experts, each coin is worth 100 to 200 British Pounds ($156 to $311).
Text from Gizmodo; see also Yahoo.  Photo credit SWNS.

Re Armorica.

Addendum: More information from The History Blog:
Most of the hoards found in Jersey have been coins from the Coriosolite tribe, a Celtic tribe from what is now Brittany on the northwestern coast of France. First century B.C. hoards are the most common because the populations were under pressure from Julius Caesar’s legions. Caesar describes his encounters with the coastal tribes of the area he called Armorica in The Gallic Wars...

...the Veneti, the most prominent of the Armorican tribes, along with their Armorican neighbors captured some of Caesar’s officers to exchange them for hostages the Romans had taken... When they fled to the sea, Caesar had his troops build ships, but they couldn’t compete with the locals’ heavy navy and sailing expertise in the treacherous waters of the Channel and Atlantic.

He did it in the end, though. He destroyed the Veneti fleet using giant billhooks to sever the lines used to hoist the mainsails. With the sails on the deck, the Celtic ships were entirely out of commission. They couldn’t even row because the huge sails cloaked the deck. Caesar then went from coastal town to coastal town and killed everyone...

Walking on the moon - 1972

From NASA's Astronomy Photo of the Day website:
In December of 1972, Apollo 17 astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt spent about 75 hours on the Moon in the Taurus-Littrow valley, while colleague Ronald Evans orbited overhead...

Now forty years later, Cernan and Schmitt are still the last to walk on the Moon.

"Fear of everything" driving financial markets

When large institutional investors are fearful, they move money into U.S. Treasuries, driving down the yield on those instruments.  This past week, the yield on the 10-year treasuries reached an all-time low:
Investors afraid the European Union might unravel, after Spanish bond yields spiked and talk of a Greek exit returned to the table, fled for the apparent safety of U.S. government debt... Valeri also acknowledged the weakening of the U.S. economy.  In what has been a mixed earnings season, several U.S. companies have indicated they are suffering from the global economic slowdown.
The international business editor at The Telegraph echoes these sentiments:
Europe is “sleepwalking towards disaster”, according to the 17 experts, who warned that over the past few weeks “the situation in the debtor countries has deteriorated dramatically... This dramatic situation is the result of a eurozone system which, as currently constructed, is thoroughly broken. The cause is a systemic failure."

In a veiled rebuke to hard-line politicians in Germany, the economists said the root cause of the crisis has been the boom-bust effect of rampant capital flows over the past decade – not delinquent behaviour by feckless nations... they said the current course had become hopeless. Deepening recession is “tearing at the social fabric of the deficit states”. The lack of any light at the end of the tunnel is leading to a populist backlash in both the debtor and creditor states.
And earlier this month, Nouriel Roubini spoke of a "perfect storm" coming in 2013:
Mr Roubini, the New York University professor dubbed "Dr Doom", said a number of unpleasant factors would combine to derail the global economy in 2013, including an escalation of the eurozone crisis.
Other factors included further tax increases and spending cuts in the US that may drive the world's largest economy into recession; a hard landing for China's economy; a further slowdown in emerging markets; and war with Iran
"Next year is the time when the can becomes too big to kick it down [the road]...then we have a global perfect storm," he told Reuters. 
Economic and market predictions are a dime a dozen, but I do credit Roubini's comments for getting me out of the equity markets before the crash of 2007, so I am paying some heed to his words.

Warren Buffett famously has said that he became rich by being fearful when others were greedy and greedy when others are fearful.  That sounds logical, but it's a challenging philosophy for the average person to follow in real life.

27 July 2012

Amazing facts about the Carboniferous


Yesterday, this headline at Reddit caught my eye:
TIL, upon the advent of wood [400mya], it took fungi 50mil yrs to evolve a way to decompose it. Until then, wood just piled up, never to decay. It is this single fact that led to the Carboniferous period [BBC doc.]
That was the first time I had ever heard of this, so I browsed through the BBC video above (it's good, with excellent production values).  The Carboniferous is discussed briefly at about the 28 minute mark, but not in detail.

I found those sentences to be absolutely stunning, and couldn't get out of my mind the image of a never-decaying forest.  I should mention here that one of my "hobbies" for years has been clearing underbrush in woodland in northern Minnesota.   I can't conceive of the tangled mess that would accumulate if no fallen wood decayed for even a thousand years.  Then extend that to millions of years...

And think of the fire hazard.  Nobody in Colorado or California needs to be reminded of the risk of accumulated deadwood.  Plus, the atmosphere in the Carboniferous had high levels of oxygen (in part because that wood was not decaying).

Today, a geology student added to the Reddit thread some confirming and explanatory notes:
1) This period of elevated oxygen levels (30-35%, versus the 21% of today) lasted from the Carboniferous through the end of the Cretaceous, 65M years ago. It is extremely likely that the large-type dinosaurs simply cannot exist in our current atmosphere. They probably needed these increased oxygen levels to reach the energy production density that these massive creatures are estimated to require.

2) It is because of A) These elevated oxygen levels, and B) the lack of a fungi capable of breaking down lignin, the structural molecule of plant material, that forest growth back in the day was completely rampant. A very large amount of the solid biomass preserved in the entire fossil record came from this one 65-ish million year timespan.

3) Nearly all of the coal beds we exploit today came from the Carboniferous and the other periods with elevated oxygen levels. Guess what? Most of the coal has been judged to have been originally deposited as charcoal. Here's the kicker. Most of the solid biomass from the time period is believed to have lived in wet marshes/semi-permanently raining rainforests. Coal beds from the same (originally rainforest) bed formations have been found on continents separated by entire oceans. Some of these beds have been hundreds of meters thick. These factors imply that global-scale firestorms were a very common occurrence during the Carboniferous, and that these fires occurred in very wet conditions that would be simply impossible during the modern day. This and the lack of a fungal decay mechanism (also, charcoal basically cannot be broken down by fungi even today) is why so very much coal comes from the Carboniferous.

4) This here is the cool piece of information. The Cretaceous ends, geologically, at something called the K-T boundary, which is the few-millimeter thick layer of space dust that marks the Yucatan Peninsula impact. As most of you know, a rare platinum group element, iridium, is found in this thin layer (Iridium is only found in decent amounts in asteroids...). But, recently, investigators have found that a very large amount of soot is also in this layer, to the tune of several weight %. One investigator did some simple projections and calculated that the deposition of this amount of soot worldwide would imply that 25% of the entire biomass of the planet Earth burned after the meteor strike. The asteroid has been found to have caused a global firestorm, a holocaust in the truest sense of the world - one that would not have been possible were it not for the elevated oxygen levels
There's more at the link.

In this blog I do try to be tolerant of different viewpoints, especially religion-based ones.  I will sometimes express incredulity or speak out against intolerance, but I do try not to mock - except for "young-earthers."  And when I post something like this, I actually have to kind of feel sorry for them - that their worldview cuts them off from some of the most magnificient and spectacular concepts that the mind can encompass.  I'm going to be thinking about the Carboniferous and Cretaceous forests and firestorms for a long time.

It's a log

A 13-meter (40-foot) log was dug up in Cambodia.  Thousands of people have flocked to see it.  And...
"They believe the log has magical powers," he said, adding that visitors were coming loaded with offerings such as pig heads and boiled whole chickens after some locals who touched the wood won money in the lottery.
"At least one hundred people a day visit the log to ask for lottery numbers and to cure their illnesses," he said. "They believe in superstition."..

Hun Nov said some believers rubbed talcum powder onto the wood, hoping to see lucky lottery numbers, and others drank water from the pond and smeared nearby mud onto their bodies in a bid to cure their ailments

26 July 2012

If you have a clothes washing machine, read this

How old are the hoses that connect your clothes washing machine to hot and cold water?  It is a question I had not thought about until reading a column in my favorite home-improvement blog:
Burst washing machine hoses have to be one of the most common causes of catastrophic water damage in homes. When I find rubber hoses used to connect the washing machine, I often mention to my clients that it's a good idea to replace them...

Every time a washing machine shuts off the water, a shockwave is sent through the water pipes... As rubber ages, it loses its flexibility. After being subjected to water hammer over and over for many years, the rubber washing machine hose is eventually going to fail, and it's going to be one heck of a mess...

I've heard that a good rule of thumb is to replace rubber washing machine hoses every five years. That sounds good, but how do you remember? Another tip I've heard is to replace your washing machine hoses every leap year. Not a bad idea.
After reading that, I realized that the hoses to our washer are twelve years old.  I shuddered to realize what would have happened had a hose burst when we were out of the house.  It would be the equivalent of taking a garden hose and leaving it on in the house.

There is an emergency toggle switch (back right in my photo above) that can be used in an emergency - if you're at home.  It's not a bad idea to shut this off when you go away on a trip.  As the link indicates, the washing machine manuals say to shut off the water supply whenever you're not using the washer.  Nobody ever does that.

At the link are other recommendations re automatic-sensing shutoff kits and using stainless-steel flexible hoses.
If you can connect a garden hose to a faucet, you can replace your washing machine hoses.  Just use a wrench to loosen the old hoses, and give the new hoses an extra 1/4 turn with a wrench after you have them hand-tightened.
I'm replacing ours this week.

"Parts is parts"

Excerpts from articles about the harvesting of human body parts for reuse, from a four-part series by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.
In the US alone, the biggest market and the biggest supplier, an estimated two million products derived from human tissue are sold each year, a figure that has doubled over the past decade.

It is an industry that promotes treatments and products that literally allow the blind to see (through cornea transplants) and the lame to walk (by recycling tendons and ligaments for use in knee repairs). It's also an industry fuelled by powerful appetites for bottom-line profits and fresh human bodies...

In contrast to tightly monitored systems for tracking intact organs such as hearts and lungs, authorities in the US and many other countries have no way to accurately trace where recycled skin and other tissues come from and where they go...

The Slovaks export cadaver parts to the Germans; the Germans export finished products to South Korea and the US; the South Koreans to Mexico; the US to more than 30 countries. Distributors of manufactured products can be found in the European Union, China, Canada, Thailand, India, South Africa, Brazil, Australia and New Zealand. Some are subsidiaries of multinational medical corporations.

The international nature of the industry, critics claim, makes it easy to move products from place to place without much scrutiny.

If I buy something from Rwanda, then put a Belgian label on it, I can import it into the US. When you enter into the official system, everyone is so trusting,” said Dr Martin Zizi, professor of neurophysiology at the Free University of Brussels.  Once a product is in the European Union, it can be shipped to the US with few questions asked.

“They assume you've done the quality check," Zizi said. "We are more careful with fruit and vegetables than with body parts.”..

Because of the ban on selling the tissue itself, the US companies that first commercialised the trade adopted the same methods as the blood collection business.

The for-profit companies set up non-profit offshoots to collect the tissue — in much the same way the Red Cross collects blood that is later turned into products by commercial entities.

Nobody charges for the tissue itself, which under normal circumstances is freely donated by the dead (via donor registries) or by their families.

Rather, tissue banks and other organisations involved in the process receive ill-defined “reasonable payments” to compensate them for obtaining and handling the tissue.
That's one reason some people argue that you shouldn't sign your organ donor card; your body parts are sufficiently valuable that if you die in a hospital, representatives may negotiate with your loved ones to reduce or eliminate your hospital bill in exchange for harvesting your tissue; if your consent is pre-signed, they may not make such offers.  I don't know whether such arguments are valid; it may be country-dependent.

Other articles (here, here) in the series detail the morbid and often unethical methodology used in tissue procurement:
“On the way to the cemetery, when we were in the hearse, one of his feet — we noticed that one of the shoes slipped off his foot, which seemed to be hanging loose,” his mother, Lubov Frolova, told ICIJ.

“When my daughter-in-law touched it, she said that his foot was empty.”

Later, the police showed her a list of what had been taken from her son’s body.

“Two ribs, two Achilles heels, two elbows, two eardrums, two teeth, and so on. I couldn’t read it till the end, as I felt sick. I couldn’t read it,” she said...“  I was in shock,” Rahulina said. She never signed the papers, she said, and it was clear to her that someone had forged her approval.

Why do some people want to squish turtles ?

The data in this video may be soft, but there certainly is evidence that some drivers purposely swerve out of their lane in order to kill animals.

When I lived in Texas and drove to Oklahoma for rockhounding trips, I remember swerving on rural roads to avoid tarantulas.   I guess I can understand locals wanting to eliminate them.  But turtles???  Can someone explain?

Addendum:  Larry has reminded me about post turtles.  Question for readers in Texas - are they real, or apocryphal?

Some Brits dread the Olympics

Image by Smuzz, via Charlie's Diary and BoingBoing.

A Norwegian prison island

If you're unfamiliar with Norwegian prisons, you might want to start with some background reading.  Here are two old posts -
Norwegian prisons (2008)
Norwegian prisons vs. American prisons (2010)
- before tackling today's subject matter, which is Bastoy Prison Island, as described by Der Spiegel:
No bars. No walls. No armed guards. The prison island of Bastøy in Norway is filled with some of the country's most hardened criminals. Yet it emphasizes self-control instead of the strictly regulated regimens common in most prisons...

The inmates on Bastøy have been convicted of crimes such as murder, robbery, drug dealing, fraud, violent crime and petty theft. "We don't pick out the mild cases," says Nilsen. Some inmates serve their entire sentences on the island. Murderers can only apply to be transferred to the island once they have served two-thirds of their sentences elsewhere. Some 115 prisoners live on Bastøy, and those who wish to stay are required to work and integrate into the community. Anyone caught drinking alcohol or fighting is thrown out...

During the group meal, which is served once day, the inmates in the room include a man with an iPod, who stole two paintings by Edvard Munch from a museum, "The Scream" and "Madonna." There is also the boy with dreadlocks, who raped two women...

This paradise has been around for 20 years -- and has a warden who loves statistics. The numbers, after all, prove him right. Only 16 percent of the prisoners in this island jail become repeat offenders in the first two years after leaving Bastøy as compared with 20 percent for Norway as a whole. In Germany, where recidivism is measured after three years, the rate is 50 percent.

The warden also feels vindicated because there has never been a murder or a suicide on the island -- and because no one left Bastøy last winter even though the sea ice was frozen solid...

His neat room is furnished with a desk and a bed covered with flowered sheets, and there are colorful curtains in front of the window, like in all the rooms. But there are no family photos on Hanssen's walls, and there are no men's magazines on the nightstand, just books. Hanssen is studying history and philosophy at the University of Oslo. He takes his exams on the Internet.

Hanssen is permitted to pursue a degree while on Bastøy, but he also has to contribute to the community. Every day, he sweeps and mops the floors of the group house and dusts the shelves. Then he returns to his room...
Locking people up doesn't do any good, he is convinced, because you can't lock people up forever in a liberal democracy. Reintegration is the important part, not punishment, he believes.
Via Neatorama.

25 July 2012

The miniature coffins of Arthur's Seat

Arthur's Seat is a peak in Edinburgh, Scotland, on whose summit is an ancient hill fort. In 1836, five boys hunting rabbits found seventeen miniature coffins, described as follows by a report in the London Times:
That, early in July, 1836, some boys were searching for rabbits’ burrows in the rocky formation, near Edinburgh, known as Arthur’s Seat. In the side of a cliff, they came upon some thin sheets of slate, which they pulled out.

Little cave. Seventeen tiny coffins. Three or four inches long.

In the coffins were miniature wooden figures. They were dressed differently in both style and material. There were two tiers of eight coffins each, and a third one begun, with one coffin.

The extraordinary datum, which has especially made mystery here:
That the coffins had been deposited singly, in the little cave, and at intervals of many years. In the first tier, the coffins were quite decayed, and the wrappings had moldered away. In the second tier,  the effects of age had not advanced to far. And the top coffin was quite recent looking.

Here is some additional information, from A Fortean in the Archives:
Fewer than half of them survived; the Scotsman, in the first known published account (16 July 1836), explained that “a number were destroyed by the boys pelting them at each other as unmeaning and contemptible trifles.”..

Several potential explanations were advanced – the most popular were that the burials were part of some spellwork, and the work of witches, or that they represented mimic burials, perhaps for sailors lost at sea...

It is certainly credible that the decayed coffins were actually those that occupied the lower tier in the burial nook, and so were most exposed to water damage. If that’s the case, there is no need to assume that the burials stretched over many years. This matters, because the only comprehensive study yet made of the “fairy coffins” strongly indicates that all postdate 1800 and that the odds favour a deposit or deposits made after about 1830 – within about five years, in other words, of the discovery of the cache...

As to who precisely did the carving, Simpson and  Menefee point out that “the most striking visual feature of the coffins is the use of applied pieces of tinned iron as decoration.” Analysis of this metal suggests that it is very similar to the sort of tin used in contemporary shoe buckles, and this in turn opens the possibility that the coffins were the work of shoemakers or leatherworkers, who would have had the manual skills to make the coffins, but would have lacked the specialist carpentry tools needed to make a neater job of it.
Much more information and speculation at the link.

Photo of coffins from the National Museums Scotland.

Double tragedy for Aurora shooting victim

Caleb Medley was shot in the face during the Aurora tragedy.  He is currently in an induced coma in an intensive care, having lost his right eye and suffered brain damage. His wife has just given birth to their first child one floor away.
Like a number of people injured in the Aurora shooting, he is uninsured. His family has been told that the cost of his medical treatment may exceed $2 million. 
More information at ABC News, via BoingBoing.

Prolonged drought threatens our electricity !

Not a relationship that is a priori obvious, but here are excerpts from a New York Times article:
We're now in the midst of the nation’s most widespread drought in 60 years, stretching across 29 states and threatening farmers, their crops and livestock. But there is another risk as water becomes more scarce. Power plants may be forced to shut down, and oil and gas production may be threatened

Our energy system depends on water. About half of the nation’s water withdrawals every day are just for cooling power plants. In addition, the oil and gas industries use tens of millions of gallons a day, injecting water into aging oil fields to improve production, and to free natural gas in shale formations through hydraulic fracturing. Those numbers are not large from a national perspective, but they can be significant locally. 

All told, we withdraw more water for the energy sector than for agriculture. Unfortunately, this relationship means that water problems become energy problems that are serious enough to warrant high-level attention.  
The map comes from The Drought Monitor;  I've embedded a static image, but the one at the source is interactive and allows you to zoom to regional, state, and local conditions.

DNA studies confirm validity of a shrunken head

Not all of them are fakes:
The study, published in the latest issue of Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences, marks the first successful effort to unveil the genetic make-up of a shrunken head...

For the study, she and her colleagues used DNA testing and other techniques to examine the authenticity and possible cultural provenance of a shrunken head displayed at the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv. The head remains in an incredible state of preservation, with the deceased man's hair, facial features and other physical characteristics intact.

Many shrunken heads are forgeries, with some 80 percent suspected to be fakes. The late 19th through the 20th centuries saw a rise in manufacture of such fakes for profit...

"The shrunken head we studied was made from a real human skin," Kahila Bar-Gal said. "The people who made it knew exactly how to peel the skin from the skull, including the hair," she added, mentioning that it was also salted and boiled. 

The researchers determined that the skin belonged to a man who lived and died in South America "probably in the Afro-Ecuadorian population." The genes reveal the victim's ancestors were from West Africa, but his DNA profile matches that of modern populations from Ecuador with African admixture.
More details at Discovery News.

"Obamacare" will reduce the federal deficit

That's the conclusion of the Congressional Budget Office:
President Barack Obama's health care overhaul will shrink rather than increase the nation's huge federal deficits over the next decade, Congress' nonpartisan budget scorekeepers said Tuesday, supporting Obama's contention in a major election-year dispute with Republicans.

About 3 million fewer uninsured people will gain health coverage because of last month's Supreme Court ruling granting states more leeway, and that will cut the federal costs by $84 billion, the Congressional Budget Office said in the biggest changes from earlier estimates.

Republicans have insisted that "Obamacare" will actually raise deficits — by "trillions," according to presidential candidate Mitt Romney. But that's not so, the budget office said...

At the time it was approved in 2010, CBO estimated the law would reduce the deficit by $143 billion from 2010 to 2019. And CBO estimated that last year's Republican repeal legislation would increase deficits by $210 billion from 2010 to 2021. 

That may sound like a lot of money, but it's actually a hair-thin margin at a time when federal deficits are expected to average around $1 trillion a year for the foreseeable future. 
More details at the New York Times.

24 July 2012


"A visitor looked at a display at the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show..."

Credit: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Image, via the Wall Street Journal.


The Sushruta Samhita recommends pouring clarified butter into the infected wound and then drinking it; Pliny the Elder suggests a linen tourniquet soaked with the menstrual fluid of a dog.
From a review of Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus, by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy.
Wasik is an editor at Wired and Murphy, his wife, a veterinarian. Together they have coauthored a sprawling chronicle of rabies ... It’s a rare pleasure to read a nonfiction book by authors who research like academics but write like journalists. They have mined centuries’ worth of primary sources and come bearing only the gems.
I've requested the book from the library (3 copies, 25 waiting - so it will be a while...)

A Lichtenberg figure

The result of a lightning strike.  I've blogged this topic before -

Lichtenberg figures,
The path lightning takes through a cow, and
Lightning coming,

- but the subject matter continues to fascinate me.

Water in space

When I was growing up, the conventional wisdom was that life might be unique on earth because there was probably no water in "outer space."  That paradigm sure has changed, as explained at Fast Company:
Researchers found [an amount] of water so large that it could provide each person on Earth an entire planet’s worth of water--20,000 times over...

The water is in a cloud around a huge black hole... and the waves of energy the black hole releases make water by literally knocking hydrogen and oxygen atoms together.

That one cloud of newly discovered space water vapor could supply 140 trillion planets that are just as wet as Earth is... The new cloud of water is enough to supply 28 galaxies with water...

...a distance of 12 billion light years. That means they were also looking back in time 12 billion years*, to when the universe itself was just 1.6 billion years old. They were watching water being formed at the very start of the known universe, which is to say, water was one of the first substances formed, created in galactic volumes from the earliest time.
*not quite correct. See embeetee's comment.

Illustrated philatelic envelopes

Created by Edward Burne-Jones, and now in the collections of the British Museum

Via A London Salmagundi.

What do firefighters do all day?

One has to tread carefully when presenting information that can be interpreted as critical of "civil servants," be they policemen, public school teachers, or, as in this case, firemen.  With that in mind, I'll note at the start that the embedded graph is deceptive, because the vertical scale has been truncated.  The trend certainly is valid, but the implied amplitude has been exaggerated.  Now, on to the text, excerpted from Marginal Revolution, via The Dish:
Taxpayers are unlikely to support budget increases for fire departments if they see firemen lolling about the firehouse. So cities have created new, highly visible jobs for their firemen. The Wall Street Journal reported recently, “In Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami, for example, 90% of the emergency calls to firehouses are to accompany ambulances to the scene of auto accidents and other medical emergencies. Elsewhere, to keep their employees busy, fire departments have expanded into neighborhood beautification, gang intervention, substitute-teaching and other downtime pursuits.” In the Illinois township where I live, the fire department drives its trucks to accompany all medical emergency vehicles, then directs traffic around the ambulance—a task which, however valuable, seemingly does not require a hook-and-ladder.

Moreover, most of the time the call is not for a fire but for a minor medical problem. In many cities, both fire trucks and ambulances respond to the same calls. The paramedics do a great job but it is hard to believe that this is an efficient way to deliver medical care and transportation.
I can vouch for the type of incident described, because at the senior living complex where my mother previously resided, both an ambulance and a fire truck responded to all non-fire emergencies.  I never understood the justification for this duplication.

See this link for a more detailed discussion.

Treasure: 48 TONS of silver

Deep-sea explorers have pulled up 48 tons of silver treasure from three miles below the surface of the North Atlantic in what may be the deepest, largest precious metal recovery in history.

The haul was retrieved from the S.S. Gairsoppa, a 412-foot steel-hulled British cargo ship that sank in February 1941.

The expedition, by Odyssey Marine Exploration, a company specializing in shipwreck exploration, recovered 1,203 bars of silver, totaling 1.4 million ounces...

The marine exploration company is also in the process of exploring another British sunken ship, the S.S. Mantola, which is believed to hold an estimated 600,000 ounces of additional U.K.-insured silver.
More details at Discovery News.

"Fun facts"

The sentence "I never said she stole my money" can mean seven different things depending on where the emphasis is placed when the sentence is spoken aloud:
I never said she stole my money.
I never said she stole my money.
I never said she stole my money.
I never said she stole my money.
I never said she stole my money.
I never said she stole my money.
I never said she stole my money.
(There are actually way more than seven possibilities if emphasis is placed on more than one word).  

Here are other items from the Reddit thread:

The triceratops and man lived closer chronologically than a triceratops and stegosaurus.

Cleopatra lived closer chronologically to the moon landing than to the building of the pyramids.

"John, where James had had "had", had had "had had"; "Had had" had had a better effect on the teacher."

What is commonly called "seaweed" is technically not a plant. They are all forms of algae. This includes larger, more complicated forms like kelp, which actually has vascular tissue like most terrestrial plants. To make things more confusing, moss has no vascular tissue, but it is a plant.

The black stripes of a zebra's coat absorb more sunlight and get warmer than their white counterparts. This causes the heat to rise off the black stripes and cold air falls on the white stripes, causing circulation over the zebra, allowing it to stay cool in the direct sunlight.

Wombat scat is cubic in shape [blogworthy after I find a photo].

23 July 2012

Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" a capella

It's not really an a capella performance, of course.  These are the vocal tracks isolated from the instrumentals.  Depending on your enthusiasm for the piece, your brain may be able to fill in the silences with the appropriate music.

But the quality of the vocals by themselves is really rather impressive.

Via Reddit, where there are some relevant links.

Tiger beetle larva

I didn't understand the photo above, posted at the butterfly forum where Wisconsin enthusiasts report their observations.  It was labeled as "tiger beetle larva" - an incidental finding during a North American Butterfly Association field trip.  The photo obviously has some motion artifact - but what is it?

A keyword search yielded this image -

- at Beetles In The Bush ("A Prairie Tiger Beetle larva peers up from its burrow in rocky soil of a dolomite glade in the White River Hills of southwestern Missouri. The head of this 3rd-instar larvae is about the size of a pencil eraser.")  The larva uses its blunt head to block its burrow and then waits for prey like an antlion at the bottom of a sand cone.  The very interesting link also offered a more comprehensible side view -

- along with instructions on how to extract the larva from its burrow (not an easy task, because those little hooks on its lower dorsum hold it firmly in the burrow, and it can retreat a substantial distance (inches/feet) when threatened or annoyed.)

You learn something every day.

"You restrict our freedom"

"Does something that would limit magazines that could carry 100 rounds, would that infringe on the constitutional right?" host Chris Wallace asked [Senator Ron] Johnson [R-Wisc] on "Fox News Sunday."

"I believe so," Johnson replied. "People will talk about unusually lethal weapons, that could be potentially a discussion you could have. But the fact of the matter is there are 30-round magazines that are just common all over the place. You simply can't keep these weapons out of the hands of sick, demented individuals who want to do harm. And when you try and do it, you restrict our freedom."
I come from a family that has used guns for hunting (pheasants and deer), so I'm not anti-gun per se.  But I frankly do not understand the mindset expressed here.  Perhaps some clear-headed, well-reasoning reader of this blog can offer an explanation.


It was early October 2011, and I was on the treadmill checking email from my phone when I noticed several hundred new messages had arrived since I last looked at my Gmail inbox just 20 minutes earlier. I didn’t know it at the time, but my account was being used to beta test a private service now offered openly in the criminal underground that can be hired to create highly disruptive floods of junk email, text messages and phone calls.

Many businesses request some kind of confirmation from their bank whenever high-dollar transfers are initiated. These confirmations may be sent via text message or email, or the business may ask their bank to call them to verify requested transfers. The attack that hit my inbox was part of an offering that crooks can hire to flood each medium of communication, thereby preventing a targeted business from ever receiving or finding alerts from their bank...

If you run a small business and one day find yourself on the receiving end of one of these email, SMS and/or phone floods, I’d advise you to find a mobile phone that isn’t being blocked and alert your financial institution to be especially vigilant for suspicious transactions.
Further details of this process, which can send 100,000 emails to your mailbox, at KrebsOnSecurity, via BoingBoing.

22 July 2012

Fifteenth century bra... and panties

This brassiere has been featured on many websites this week, but it wasn't until I got to Spiegel Online that I found the associated* panties:

"Up to now, there was nothing to indicate the existence of bras with clearly visible cups before the 19th century," writes Beatrix Nutz, a university archaeologist. But now the university is proudly displaying four bras with "distinctly cut cups" dating back to the 15th century.

The bras come from a trove of 2,700 individual textile fragments found during archaeological investigations of Lengberg Castle, in the country's East Tyrol region, as part of an extensive reconstruction that began on the building in 2008. Although the garments were first found that year, the discovery was only announced this month.

The bras themselves were reportedly found in a "vault filled with waste" that was perhaps put there when a documented 15th-century addition was made to the castle. Two of them, which are highly fragmented, are described as "a combination of a bra and a shirt," with no sleeves but with lace stitches below to provide extra support. The third, which is elaborately decorated, "looks a lot more like modern bras" given that it has shoulder straps and indications of a back strap. The fourth "resembles a modern bra the most," with its cups "made from two pieces of linen sewn together vertically."

Other finds in the same vault included linen shirts with pleated collars, a pair of completely preserved linen underpants, and a codpiece for a pair of trousers.
*Addendum: "associated" by location but not by wearer.  See the link provided by Stella in the Comments which indicates that the lower garment was for a male.

The 0.001%

From an article in The Guardian, not really "news" per se, but some startling numbers:
A global super-rich elite has exploited gaps in cross-border tax rules to hide an extraordinary £13 trillion ($21tn) of wealth offshore... for many developing countries the cumulative value of the capital that has flowed out of their economies since the 1970s would be more than enough to pay off their debts to the rest of the world...

...almost £500bn has left Russia since the early 1990s when its economy was opened up. Saudi Arabia has seen £197bn flood out since the mid-1970s, and Nigeria £196bn...

The sheer size of the cash pile sitting out of reach of tax authorities is so great that it suggests standard measures of inequality radically underestimate the true gap between rich and poor. According to Henry's calculations, £6.3tn of assets is owned by only 92,000 people, or 0.001% of the world's population...

"These estimates reveal a staggering failure: inequality is much, much worse than official statistics show, but politicians are still relying on trickle-down to transfer wealth to poorer people...."

21 July 2012

An illegal front-yard kitchen garden

Illegal because of the town code of Drummondville, Quebec.   Found at Rogerdoiron, via BoingBoing.

The White House kitchen garden

Res ipsa loquitur (click to biggify).  Via Roger Doiron.

A Venzone mummy

For hundreds of years, a mystery surrounded the cathedral of Venzone, a small city in the province of Udine, Italy. Instead of decomposing normally, bodies buried in the tombs beneath the cathedral were perfectly preserved and still recognizable decades later, a fact which led the townspeople to periodically retrieve and commune with their dead loved ones. In modern times, scientists finally traced the source of this wonder to Hypha tombicina, a microscopic, parasitic fungus that rapidly dehydrates the bodies before decomposition can even begin. 
That's the explanation at Wondercabinet, repeated at several other sites in my brief search.  Personally I find it hard to understand how a fungus can dehydrate a corpse; I prefer this explanation at Virtual Tourist:
They were already found in 1647 during works in the cathedral.  Venzone lies atop limestone bedrock. Groundwater in such regions is usually alkaline, an environment hostile to putrefaction. During floods, alkaline waters likely seeped through dirt floors in tombs 1 to 10, preserving the cadavers. Vaults 11 to 17 had sealed stone floors. Moreover, floodwaters in tombs 1 to 10 drained quickly through the porous limestone. Coffin wood from those vaults possessed just 7 percent water. In such aridity, water-soaked humans would have dried rapidly into mummies.
Venzone is not at high altitude, but desiccation as a preservative would accord nicely with the cloud mummies of the Andes and some that I seem to remember from Artic locales.

What's most intersting to me is not the mummification per se, but the respect accorded to the mummies by local villagers.   Some of the photos seem to be from a museum, so part of this may be tourist-income-related, but the respect predates that.

Incidentally, for those interested, Virtual Tourist got its information from a web page entitled "The Mystery of Holy Incorruption" which offers modern interpretations of the "mysterious preservation of saints' bodies."  That looks blogworthy on its own - bookmarked for the future (sigh...).

More photos at Pas Un Autre.

From the obituary of Tom Davis

In his own words:
As an old-school Malthusian liberal, I’ve always believed that the source of all mankind’s problems is overpopulation. I’m finally going to do something about it.
He was a schoolmate of mine, though enough years younger that I didn't know him personally.

An "a-salt" weapon

It's real. Here's the Indiegogo link.  Via Reddit.

"Highly transparent" solar cells

UCLA researchers have developed a new transparent solar cell that is an advance toward giving windows in homes and other buildings the ability to generate electricity while still allowing people to see outside. Their study appears in the journal ACS Nano.
The UCLA team describes a new kind of polymer solar cell (PSC) that produces energy by absorbing mainly infrared light, not visible light, making the cells nearly 70% transparent to the human eye. They made the device from a photoactive plastic that converts infrared light into an electrical current.
"These results open the potential for visibly transparent polymer solar cells as add-on components of portable electronics, smart windows and building-integrated photovoltaics and in other applications..."
Very cool.  It's developments like this - not more drilling - that can most effectively and permanently decrease dependence on foreign oil.

More at the UCLA Newsroom and the Reddit discussion.


From the weekly collection at The New Yorker.

20 July 2012

I seem to be losing my memory

For the past few weeks my blogging has slowed down because my computer has slowed down.  It's gotten to the point now where it's frankly unpleasant to surf the 'net looking for material.  I will probably have to take some time off to get this figured out.

I search for blogworthy material using tabbed browsing on Firefox (14.0.1) on an iMac (2 GHz processor, 1 GB memory, running OSX 10.6.8).  When I turned it on this morning, I looked at the Activity Monitor utility and found the numbers embedded at top.  I don't know if there's anything ominous there, but I do know that as soon as I turn on Firefox and open just one tab, the free System Memory drops from 300+ MB to about 100MB:

And after checking my mail I then open my first set of 12 tabs to check the news of the day, and...

... the memory plunges to 10-20 MB.  I've noticed some sites that seem to slow things down more than most (Salon being the biggest offender for me), but by the time I'm able to get through about eight of the tabs, Firefox is using about 750 MB of memory and is "not responding."   If I go to breakfast and let the iMac sleep, the situation improves...

... but that's only temporary, and pretty soon I'm once again waiting for pages to load or scroll.

I suppose I could have acquired malware somenhow, because I do wander the fringes of the 'net looking for material, but my basic antivirus program hasn't detected anything.  I never used to have problems (visiting the same sites 12 at a time), and I think this has developed after upgrading to Firefox 13 and then 14.  It seems to not "let go" of RAM after I close tabs.  Or perhaps there are some caches somewhere that are full that I don't know about?

It may be that I need to get some new apps to clean up my rather old iMac.  Perhaps I should download OnyX or something equivalent.  I'm dreading digging through my system files, but I'll need to do something to get back on track.  Fortunately I do have some time this weekend, as my invitation to play in The (British) Open seems to have been lost in the mail.  And perhaps I'll use this downtime to do some selling on eBay.

If I don't get this solved this weekend, what I'll probably do is go full "retro" and start posting some of the thousands of bookmarks I've saved over the years but never used, or transcribe some material from magazines like Smithsonian, Harper's, and The Atlantic.

I'm open to suggestions, but wanted to post this for now to let people know the reason for my current absence from the blogosphere.

19 July 2012

Nietzsche's views on race

I've just finished reading Forgotten Fatherland, and was surprised to encounter the following passage about Friedrich Nietzsche's views on racial (im)purity:
There is no racial type in Paraguay, no 'pure' races except a few thousand Indians in the remote north and west, quickly being wiped out and their forest felled.  With at least twenty Indian women apiece, gifts usually from the local Indian caciques, the conquistadors had mixed their Spanish blood so fast that Paraguay was not a hundred years old before a mestizo race was a fact.  One enlightened governor even encouraged the races to mix, but it wasn't really necessary.  Like ink in a bucket, the Spanish blood rippled outwards from the capital, sometimes through marriage to noble Indian women, but more often through rape and concubinage.  Other immigrants added their genes to the cocktail - European adventurers, negroes and the mamelucos, fierce Portuguese-speaking land-pirates from Sao Paulo, part-Indian, part-negro, who descended on the Jesuit missions and carried off the Indian neophytes as slaves.

Nietzsche had applauded mixed races, using the Greeks as his example; he thought they produced the hardiest, most productive artists and minds.  The racial distinctions in Europe he wanted to subsume into the model of the 'good European'; though he spoke of a master race, he did not have a specific race in mind and certainly not the German.  He envisaged a group of individuals displaying masterful qualities, not a race as we would recognise it, for it is clear that his ideal men can arise in any race at any time: no one race is supreme.  For all his championing of the 'prowling blond beast', the creature of conquest, he would have found in the hardy mestizo culture something admirable and enduring.
My limited knowledge of Nietzsche (from collegiate reading lists decades ago) would not have predicted that paragraph; I guess I've been misled by popular culture linking him with the National Socialists in later years. 

And I certainly would never have predicted him using Greece as an example of mixed race culture.  I know that all nations and cultures are ultimately melting-pots, but Greece would not have popped to mind as the prototype of such.  Is it? Or was it in his day, moreso than other European nations?

18 July 2012

The medieval stained glass of Coventry Cathedral

The West Midlands city of Coventry was a prosperous town during the Middle Ages, a major center of the textile trade, and by the 14th century the fourth largest city in England. It had two churches, the 12th century cathedral in St. Mary’s Priory, which was destroyed in Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in 1539, and St. Michael’s, a 14th century Gothic church that was the largest parish church in the country. The guilds saw to it that St. Michael’s was packed with top quality stained glass...

In 1939, with World War II looming on the horizon, the stained glass panels were removed from the cathedral windows as a precaution to prevent their destruction in any German bombing raids. Coventry was replete with industrial targets both civil and military, so there was little doubt that it would see action. The glass was packed into 30 crates and stored in the cellar of the rectory in the small village of Hampton Lucy...

Coventry Cathedral suffered multiple direct hits. Firefighters were able to put out the first fire of the evening, but as the bombing progressed that night, the fires became impossible to contain. By the time the all-clear sirens rang the next morning, there was nothing left of Coventry Cathedral but smoldering ruins. A few walls and the tall spire were all that remained. Those ruins are still on the spot. A new cathedral was built in Modernist style right next to it, with the ruins as a consecrated garden space dedicated to peace and reflection...

Thanks to a joint fundraising project by World Monuments Fund Britain and Coventry Cathedral that raised £250,000 ($388,000), conservators will begin work on the medieval stained glass of Coventry Cathedral this summer... 
Digital imaging software will be required to reconstruct window images, because the panes were removed and stored without annotations of their original placement.  More details at The History Blog.

I found the image at a fantastic site for those of you interested in art or in the medieval era - Vidimus "the only on-line magazine devoted to medieval stained glass."  Their extensive discussion of the Coventry stained glass restoration is in Issue 33.

For other interesting material, just click on their "back issues" and then "feature."  Enjoy.

CEO is paid $44,000,000 for one day's work

That's not quite accurate - he actually was CEO of the merged companies for only 20 minutes:
Pressure is building on Duke Energy Corp.to explain the abrupt departure of Bill Johnson as chief executive this week, as former Progress Energy board members break their silence and express outrage at what they term a calculated deception.

At the same time, the North Carolina Utilities Commission, which last week approved the merger between Charlotte, N.C.-based Duke and Raleigh, N.C., Progress with the understanding that Johnson would be Duke's CEO, is deliberating whether to investigate Duke officials over possible false statements about their intentions.

For less than a day's work, Johnson is entitled to a hefty exit package that could amount to about $44 million, according to a securities filing...

Details emerged Thursday revealing that Johnson was asked to resign Monday afternoon, shortly after the merger closed that day at 4:02 p.m., suggesting to some that his ouster was choreographed in advance. The merger had received final approval from South Carolina regulators earlier Monday. Johnson signed his employment contract with Duke on June 27, days before the merger closed.

He was CEO of the combined company for about 20 minutes, Mullin said. After the merger closed, Duke's board went into executive session and voted to request Johnson's resignation, Mullin wrote.
Additional details in the Los Angeles Times.

Squid chromatophores

Squid rapidly change colour when the muscles surrounding a chromatophore-filled sac contracts and expands -- when it contracts, the pigment appears denser, when it expands the colour becomes muted and disappears. The squid changes its colour according to exterior factors -- such as a threat or the presence of a potential mate - because each chromatophore is linked to a nerve ending.
Via Wired and Neatorama.  The background version of Pachelbel seems rather plodding, but the visual images are interesting.
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