30 November 2012

Warning to pharaohs: Frogs come next

While the red algae, known as Noctiluca scintillans or sea sparkle, has no toxic effects, people are still advised to avoid swimming in areas with discolored water because the algae, which can be high in ammonia, can cause skin irritation.
This photo from a recent outbreak at beaches near Sydney.  "Sea sparkle" is such a great name I had to look it up.  Apparently some populations of this organism are bioluminescent (note the name nocti-luca):
The bioluminescent characteristic of N. scintillans is produced by a luciferin-luciferase system located in thousands of spherically shaped organelles, or “microsources”, located throughout the cytoplasm of this single-celled protist.
And, as it turns out, I blogged some great photos of that phenomenon, also occurring in Australia (Victoria).

Photo credit William West / AFP - Getty Images, via NBC News and The Soul is Bone.

"Cats with thumbs"

This graph does NOT mean Iran is working on a bomb

It's part of a hoax that has been disseminated by the Associated Press
VIENNA (AP) — Iranian scientists have run computer simulations for a nuclear weapon that would produce more than triple the explosive force of the World War II bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, according to a diagram obtained by The Associated Press.

The diagram was leaked by officials from a country critical of Iran's atomic program to bolster their arguments that Iran's nuclear program must be halted before it produces a weapon. The officials provided the diagram only on condition that they and their country not be named.
A Guardian article began exposing the hoax yesterday.
...this graph - which is only slightly less hilariously primitive than the one Benjamin Netanyahu infamously touted with a straight face at the UN - has Farsi written under it to imbue it with that menacing Iranian-ish feel, but also helpfully uses English to ensure that US audiences can easily drink up its scariness. As The Atlantic's Robert Wright noted: "How considerate of the Iranians to label their secret nefarious nuke graph in English!".

...even if one assumes that this graph is something other than a fraud, the very idea that computer simulations constitute "evidence" that Iran is working toward a nuclear weapon is self-evidently inane...
And the debunking continues in a followup article today:
At the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (BAS), Yousaf Butt and Ferenc Dalnoki-Veress on Wednesday night wrote: "Graphs such as the one published by the Associated Press can be found in nuclear science textbooks and on the Internet.".. So what AP presented to the world as some sort of highly complex, specialized document was, in fact, nothing more than a completely common graph easily found in all sorts of public venues...

Even worse, the calculations reflected on this graph are patently ridiculous... That's because, they explain, "the diagram features quite a massive error, which is unlikely to have been made by research scientists working at a national level"; namely:
"The image released to the Associated Press shows two curves: one that plots the energy versus time, and another that plots the power output versus time, presumably from a fission device. But these two curves do not correspond: If the energy curve is correct, then the peak power should be much lower - around 300 million ( 3x108) kt per second, instead of the currently stated 17 trillion (1.7 x1013) kt per second. As is, the diagram features a nearly million-fold error."
There are people who desperately want to trigger a war with Iran. 

"Stairway to Heaven"

The Haiku Stairs, or the Stairway to Heaven, is a semi-secret forbidden hike on the island of Oahu, Hawaii. The stairs were originally built in 1943 to install antenna cables as part of a larger military radio communication system to communicate with US Navy submarines as far away as Tokyo Bay. The original wooden steps were replaced by metal, cable-supported stairs in the early 1950s when the US Coast Guard took over the installation. 
According to Friends of Haiku Stairs, there are 3,922 steps.
The men who made the first ascent up Keahiakahoe in 1942 required 21 days to pioneer the route up the south wall of Haiku Valley. They considered it a "sissy's climb" when the way was made easier by laying wooden ladders along the trail, held in place by four-foot metal posts pounded into the lava cliffs. The ladders were later replaced by a wooden stairway. When the wooden stairs were done, the trip to the summit could be made in 3 1/2 hours. Ten years later, the wooden stairs were replaced by the galvanized steel stairway that was used until its closure in 1987. In spite of corrosion, shifting, and missing sections, a fit climber can now reach the top in two hours or less, passing remnants of the original wooden stairway cast off to the side.

The Haiku Stairs, however, are more than an artifact of World War II history. Climbers can experience a variety of micro-climates and ecological communities on the way up. Progressing from a disturbed area of mostly alien plants at the base, the Stairs ascend into a relatively undisturbed plant community, where more than 50 native plant species can be observed. On a clear day, the panorama of Windward Oahu opens to view, with glimpses to leeward through the mountain gaps. On a typical trade wind day, a full range of weather can set clouds swirling in motion, bringing sunshine and pouring rain, sometimes both at once. 
Much more information in sublinks at the organization's website.

Photo credit, via The Soul is Bone.

29 November 2012

"Media vita in morte sumus"

"In the midst of life we are in death." This antiphon is attributed to the Benedictine monk Notker I of Saint Gall, who died in 912. Legend has it that the musician and poet wrote it when he saw construction workers building a bridge hover over an abyss. Most likely, however, the hymn is much older and originated in France around 750.
Probably everyone can tell one or more stories entitled "How I Almost Died."  Here is my latest one.

We were in the process of transferring an immense pile of mulch from the driveway to some trails in the woods.  My wife had pitchforked about 3 tons of it over an embankment to a lower level where I was moving it to tarps to drag to the woods.

I've walked those woods hundreds of times, for chores and for contemplation.  On a sloping hill towards the back I've passed this set of old cut logs -

- which have been there for years without rotting, so are certainly hardwood and probably oak.  On this almost-fateful day I had dragged the tarp of mulch to this trail segment and was turning around to rake it level when I started to fall.

When I was a little kid I contracted polio, which left me with one weakened leg, so over the years I've become quite experienced at falling down.  As a person walks or turns there are different muscles and different fascicles of each muscle that have to activate in turn to generate motion or provide stability; when the sequence doesn't activate smoothly, down you go.  I've become quite adept at falling - not quite "balletic" in gracefulness, but certainly able to catch myself and suffer no consequences except torn knees of trousers.  But this time I fell backwards...

When you fall backwards, it's very hard to modify the fall.  On this occasion I could do nothing, and factoring in the slope of the hill my head experienced a free-fall of about six feet before encountering the log.  It was basically equivalent to getting slammed in the head with a baseball bat.

Going down backward, I had no idea what I had hit.  It was a powerful blow, and since we have quite a few large boulders embedded in the ground, I assumed that was what my head had hit.   I remember the pain and the flashes of light, and my first response was to reach my hand back there to palpate the site, expecting to find a depressed skull fracture.  There was none (and not even any blood).

I did follow Dylan Thomas' famous advice not to go quietly into that good night.  I let out a series of screams - which no one heard.  My wife was in the house and no neighbors within earshot.  I got to my feet and with some dizziness, falling once more, managed to get myself back to the house.  Over the ensuing hours, wondering if I had a subdural hemorrhage, I waited to see what neurologic defects might develop, checking my pupils and cerebellar function.  Nothing happened, and I seem to be o.k.

When I went back to the woods later, it struck me how incredibly lucky I had been.  My  head had hit a smoothly-sawed-off stub, probably squarely in the center; had it struck to the side, the cut edges would have lacerated the scalp and perhaps fractured the cranium.

And the point of impact on the skull was almost exactly on the point of the occiput, which is a relatively robust, dense bony area of the cranium.

The xray at right shows a lateral view of the neck.  I've added a yellow oval at the region of the occiput.  Just an inch or two lower is the cervical spine (red oval).  I have no doubt that if that log had impacted my c-spine with the same force that the skull sustained, that I would have incurred a spinal fracture.  The results would have depended on the location of the break.

If the spine had been transected low, I could have been rendered paraplegic, with loss of function of the legs.  A little higher might have made me quadriplegic, with all four limbs paralyzed.  And at the top, damage to the phrenic nerve would have paralyzed the diaphragm, making it almost impossible to breath (especially in the supine position).  I would have been unable to call for help, and before anyone would have found me, I would have been dead.

But I'm still here, and with a week having passed, apparently healthy without any complications.  It's little "memento mori" like these that remind us how precious - and how tenuous - our lives are.

Death bed regrets

For many years I worked in palliative care. My patients were those who had gone home to die. Some incredibly special times were shared. I was with them for the last three to twelve weeks of their lives... 

When questioned about any regrets they had or anything they would do differently, common themes surfaced again and again. Here are the most common five:

1. I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
This was the most common regret of all. When people realise that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled...

2. I wish I didn't work so hard.
This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children's youth and their partner's companionship. Women also spoke of this regret...

3. I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings.
Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming...

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
Often they would not truly realise the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down...

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realise until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called 'comfort' of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives.
Further discussion of each at Inspiration and ChaiThe author has published a book on this subject.  

The Hindenburg Disaster (Pathe News footage)

Kabul bank was a big Ponzi scheme

KABUL, Afghanistan — Kabul Bank became Afghanistan’s largest financial institution by offering the promise of modern banking to people who had never had a saving or checking account. What it really dealt in was modern theft: “From its very beginning,” according to a confidential forensic audit of Kabul Bank, “the bank was a well-concealed Ponzi scheme.” 

Afghan and American officials had for years promoted Kabul Bank as a prime example of how Western-style banking was transforming a war-ravaged economy. But the audit, prepared this year for Afghanistan’s central bank by the Kroll investigative firm, gives new details of how the bank instead was institutionalizing fraud that reached into the hundreds of millions of dollars and obliterated Afghans’ trust after regulators finally seized the bank in August 2010 and the theft was revealed.

Going further than previous reports, the audit asserts that Kabul Bank had little reason to exist other than to allow a narrow clique tied to President Hamid Karzai’s government to siphon riches from depositors, who were the bank’s only substantial source of revenue...

What Kroll’s audit found is that on Aug. 31, 2010, the day the Bank of Afghanistan seized Kabul Bank, more than 92 percent of the lender’s loan portfolio — $861 million, or roughly 5 percent of Afghanistan’s annual economic output at the time — had gone to 19 related people and companies, according to the audit. 

Among the largest beneficiaries were a brother of Mr. Karzai and a brother of First Vice President Muhammad Qasim Fahim...
Further details at the New York Times. Someone remind me please why we're still pursuing nation-building in this country.

Fertility and national politics

Almost invisibly over the past decade, family size in America has emerged as our deepest political dividing line.  Stunningly, the postponement of marriage and parenting — the factors that shrink the birth rate — is the very best predictor of a person’s politics in the United States, over even income and education levels, a Belgian demographer named Ron Lesthaeghe has discovered. Larger family size in America correlates to early marriage and childbirth, lower women’s employment, and opposition to gay rights — all social factors that lead voters to see red...

Yet, for all those social measures on the 2012 ballot, our near-continental divide of politics and fertility was even more distinct during the Bush era... Celinda Lake, one of the Democratic party’s leading pollsters and strategists, who predicted the single ladies swing well before the exit polls, told me our future partisan fertility map is being redrawn. She says that as birth rates rise amongst women of color who vote consistently Democrat, the states working blue may make a radical turn to become our most fertile ones. “We’re on the verge of a dramatic shift. It will be a different conversation ten years from now,” Lake told me, estimating that the predictive power of fertility will last until 2020, but not much longer.
The map does not show data for all the states.  What it demonstrates is that the states with fertility rates 70 and above tended to be "red" states (Hawaii the exception), while those with rates below 60 were all "blue" states in this most recent election.

Text from NYMag, via The Dish.   Fertility data: CDC, "Births: Preliminary Data for 2011."

Blankets woven with dog hair

The oral history of the Coast Salish people—a collection of tribes that have inhabited the Pacific Northwest and the west coast of Canada for more than 10,000 years—includes mentions of a Pomeranian- like dog that was bred specifically so its woolly hair could be used in textiles. Analysis of protein fragments from blankets more than 85 years old, one of which was obtained in 1803 by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, seems to support the stories.

Of nine Coast Salish blankets examined, scientists found that dog hair was used in five. Goat hair, on the other hand, was in all of them. "In a situation when the goat hair supply was limited, the yarn was made to the right thickness by adding dog hair, allowing a larger supply of yarn," explains Susan Heald, coauthor of a study published in Antiquity and a senior textile conservator at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, which supplied three of the samples.

The dog hair seems to have been incorporated into common nonceremonial blankets and disappears from them not long after contact with European explorers, who arrived in the late-eighteenth century with cheaper textiles.
Text and image from Archaeology.

"Cream witch" explained

From a Slate article about butter churns:
Before the mid-1800s or so, most people did not quite understand that the efficiency of churning depended on the temperature of the cream you were using; if the cream was too cold, butter wouldn’t form. The fact that you could sometimes churn and churn forever and still not see any butter sparked a great deal of superstition around butter-making.
In the early to mid 1800's there was a lot of superstition about churning. Many times the cream would not form butter no matter how long one churned it. Many people felt that this was because the cream was haunted by a witch. Many people that churned butter believed in the "cream witch" and many churn advertisements referred to it. A couple of the remedies for a cream witch was to put a red hot horse shoe or a red hot poker into the cream. The cream would boil as the hot metal was put in the churn and people said this was the noise of the witch thrashing about as she was killed. In actuality the temperature of the cream was increased and often this was enough for the butter to start to form.
More information at both links.  Photo (of a butter churn in 1936) cropped from the original at Shorpy.

Relevant:  How to make butter.

27 November 2012

Death by immersion

The sheep had drowned while trying to cross a small canal in the meadow-swamp 'Tøndermasken' in southern Jylland in Denmark. Birds had eaten every part above the surface and everything under was left totally untouched.
Photo credit Johannes Bojesen, from the National Geographic Photo Contest 2012.

Testing the "Castle Doctrine"

A brief summary of the case from the StarTribune:
A Little Falls-area man has been arrested in connection with the Thanksgiving Day killings of two teenagers after their bodies were discovered in his basement, the Morrison County Sheriff's Office said...

Neighbor John Lange said that Smith's home had been burglarized at least twice before by area teens and that he might have "snapped" this time when he heard intruders enter a bedroom window. The shootings occurred in Smith's basement, Lange said.

Lange said Smith had worked in security and lived with his aging mother until she recently died. Smith volunteered as a Scout leader, paid area teens to work around his house, and allowed Lange's son to practice with his band in his garage, Lange added. "He's a really decent guy. I think he just snapped."
The embedded video, from the AP via the Los Angeles Times, presents the case as viewed by local law enforcement officials.  Wikipedia has a page on the "Castle Doctrine" -
A Castle Doctrine (also known as a Castle Law or a Defense of Habitation Law) is an American legal doctrine that designates a person's abode... as a place in which the person has certain protections and immunities and may in certain circumstances use force, up to and including deadly force, to defend against an intruder without becoming liable to prosecution. Typically deadly force is considered justified, and a defense of justifiable homicide applicable, in cases "when the actor reasonably fears imminent peril of death or serious bodily harm to himself or another"...

The term derives from the historic English common law dictum that "an Englishman's home is his castle". This concept was established as English law by 17th century jurist Sir Edward Coke, in his The Institutes of the Laws of England, 1628. The dictum was carried by colonists to the New World, who later removed "English" from the phrase, making it "a man's home is his castle", which thereby became simply the Castle Doctrine...

The utility of wormholes in woodblock prints

The relevant biology of wood-boring beetles is schematized at the left, and the resultant effect on woodblock prints is depicted on the right.  Now a biologist reports that analysis of the holes can provide useful infomation about the dating and origin of prints:
“Because most prints, including those in books, have publication dates, we know that the wormholes in question were made very close to that date,” Hedges said. “It’s an almost perfect biological timestamp. And in most cases, we also know where the book was printed. So wormholes can tell us when and where a species existed with fairly good accuracy, more than 500 years ago, and that is amazing.”..

Hedges studied 3,263 wormholes visible in 473 different prints made between 1462 and 1899. He found that there were two distinct sizes of holes: some were 2.3 millimeters across and others were closer to 1.4 millimeters wide. And there was a distinct pattern of these hole sizes across the European continent; all of the smaller holes were found on prints made in the northeast, and the larger holes came from the southwest...

The wormhole technique might also help solve some questions in art history as well. “There are some situations in which a book or print’s origin is unknown,” Hedges said. “Now that we know that different species of beetles existed in different locations in Europe, art historians can determine whether a book was from northern or southern Europe simply by measuring the wormholes.”
Research published in Biology Letters, via Huffington Post.

Petroglyph vandalism by human scum

From a report in the Los Angeles Times:
BISHOP, Calif. — Ancient hunters and gatherers etched vivid petroglyphs on cliffs in the Eastern Sierra that withstood winds, flash floods and earthquakes for more than 3,500 years. Thieves needed only a few hours to cut them down and haul them away.

Federal authorities say at least four petroglyphs have been taken from the site. A fifth was defaced with deep saw cuts on three sides. A sixth had been removed and broken during the theft, then propped against a boulder near a visitor parking lot.  Dozens of other petroglyphs were scarred by hammer strikes and saw cuts.
"The individuals who did this were not surgeons, they were smashing and grabbing," U.S. Bureau of Land Management archaeologist Greg Haverstock said last week as he examined the damage. "This was the worst act of vandalism ever seen" on the 750,000 acres of public land managed by the BLM field office in Bishop.

The theft required extraordinary effort: Ladders, electric generators and power saws had to be driven into the remote and arid high desert site near Bishop. Thieves gouged holes in the rock and sheared off slabs that were up to 15 feet above ground and 2 feet high and wide...

For generations, Paiute-Shoshone tribal members and whites have lived side by side but not together in Bishop. But desecration of the site, which Native Americans still use in spiritual ceremonies, has forced reservation officials and U.S. authorities to come together and ask a tough question: Can further vandalism be prevented?

The easy answer is to police the site and others listed under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act. But that's not possible given the condition of cash-strapped federal lands agencies, authorities said.
Embedded photo credit AFP/Getty Images, via The Telegraph.

Ken Burns' "The Dust Bowl"

Watch The Dust Bowl Preview on PBS. See more from The Dust Bowl.
“We ate so poorly,” says Dust Bowl survivor Clarence Beck, “that the hobos wouldn’t come to our house.” 
This reminds me that my grandparents' farm in southern Minnesota was beyond the northern fringe of the drought.  When hobos came to the door, my grandmother would give them a chore to do, then one good meal and sleep in the barn, and then send them on their way.
More than anything else, The Dust Bowl is about a certain self-destructive strain in the American character that prizes individual will over collective responsibility, stigmatizes real or perceived failure, and stubbornly refuses to learn from mistakes for fear of being thought weak...

There are appalling accounts of farmers continuing to use equipment that pulverized topsoil rather than return to more difficult but responsible methods — even after repeated expert warnings that they were destroying the land — because doing so would have been less “efficient,” and because they didn’t like academic pointy-heads telling them their business. “We always had hope that next year was gonna be better,” says survivor Wayne Lewis. “We learned slowly, and what didn’t work, you tried it harder the next time. You didn’t try something different. You just tried harder, the same thing that didn’t work.”
This is a superb documentary.  I highly recommend it.  (I can't seem to correct the distortion of the embed, but it resolves after you click the fullscreen option).

Panhandlers' income

MADISON, Wis. - Panhandling in Madison can be more lucrative than the jobs of many people who donate, a WISC-TV investigation revealed...

WISC-TV went undercover for two and a half hours Nov. 9, first on the corner of Gammon and Watts roads and later at Gammon and Odana roads on the city's far west side. An employee posed as a panhandler, and donations received during that time included $80 in cash and change, a box of granola bars, a banana, pizza and a soda. In total, the money and food obtained equaled $36 an hour, or more than $70,000 a year without paying taxes.

The money, plus a matching donation from WISC-TV, will go to the Salvation Army of Dane County to help with the agency's family shelter program...

McCaw broke panhandlers into two categories: those who are actually homeless and need the money, and people who sometimes have houses and jobs and prey on generous members of the public for spending money...

Police and the leaders of charitable organizations urged Madison residents to give to charities that provide meals and shelter to the homeless. 
Further details at Channel3000.com

26 November 2012

Leftovers from Thanksgiving

My initial intent was to mock the silly ritual in which the President of the United States "pardons" a turkey.  A column at Washingtonian describes the process:
Presidents have pardoned turkeys from Thanksgiving slaughter each year since George H.W. Bush officially freed one in 1989... The modern-day incarnation is overseen by the National Turkey Federation and the White House...

National Turkey Federation chairman Steve Willardsen chose a farm he owns in Rockingham County, Virginia, as the birthplace. Forty eggs were selected and incubated together... Handlers familiarized the turkeys with human contact and played music around the clock so the turkeys got used to loud noises and human voices... This year, children in the Shenandoah Valley will submit potential names for the birds, and the White House will choose two and announce them at the ceremony...

On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, the turkeys will be driven three hours to the W Hotel in downtown DC. They’ll stay in a suite with sawdust and wood chips on the floor and will snack on corn and cranberries from a special avian “munchie box.”.. The day before Thanksgiving, Willardsen will take the turkeys across the street to the White House for a small gathering with the Obama family. The ceremony usually lasts half an hour.

The turkeys will be driven to George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, where Colonial reenactors will transport them in a horse-drawn carriage to a stage for another ceremony. The turkeys will be on display through January 6 and then will retire in their own little house on the estate.
I suppose I'm a humorless curmudgeon, but in my view this entire process is nothing but a publicity campaign for the National Turkey Federation (which can't possibly need much publicity at Thanksgiving) and a pointless waste of time for POTUS (and some taxpayer money).

And what's the point of "pardoning" one turkey while countless millions others are slaughtered?  An article at the Washington Post agrees with me that this ritual has gone past its sell-by date, but the commenters call the author pretentious, "full of hate," "too big for his britches," and a "fun sucker" who "takes the joy out of everything."

So, rather than rant about the pointless of the spectacle, I'll focus instead on what I think is the more interesting question - why is the turkey's face blue?  I found an answer at Wisconsin Hunter:
Males appear darker than females because their body feathers are black tipped, while the body feathers on the hens are white or buff tipped. Hens and gobblers also differ in the number and size of head adornments. On the male, a fleshy growth, called the "wattles", hangs from underneath the chin, and growths called "caruncles" are located on the side and back of the neck. The "snood" or "dew bill" is a fleshy projection growing above and resting on the nose. Basically bare, the male turkey's head may be colored red, white or blue depending on pigments and circulating blood. During the mating season, while the gobbler is strutting, its head turns bright red, and if he's frightened the head turns pale blue. In hens, the head is usually a pale blue and has more feathers. The most talked about difference between male and female turkeys is the presence of the beard – a bristly mass of modified feathers found on the breast of the mature male. Immature males (jakes) do not normally have an obvious beard until around 2 years of age. Beards are sometimes found on females, however, and multiple beards are occasionally found on both sexes.
I see turkeys frequently during walks at the University of Wisconsin arboretum, and had one almost frightening confrontation with an angry male on a narrow trail during mating season.  They are formidable birds.

Photo credit: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images, via The Dish.

"Circle the cat" game

Click the circles to make them dark, and try to entrap the cat.  Simple to understand, but somewhat difficult to execute.  It took me quite a while before I could win 4 in a row.

The game does not seem to escalate to more difficult levels with each victory.  In its concept it reminds me of the old 3M boxed game "Twixt."

The image above is a screencap.  The game is here, via Neatorama.

"Free soloing"

Free solo climbing, also known as free soloing, is a form of free climbing where the climber (the free soloist) forgoes ropes, harnesses and other protective gear while ascending and relies only on his or her physical strength, climbing ability, and psychological fortitude to avoid a fatal fall. Free solo climbing should not be confused with general free climbing, in which gear is typically used for safety in case of a fall, but not to assist the climb.

21 November 2012

Exciting news about Mars pending...

As NPR reports, NASA has "exciting" news that it is withholding pending confirmation:
They have some exciting new results from one of the rover's instruments. On the one hand, they'd like to tell everybody what they found, but on the other, they have to wait because they want to make sure their results are not just some fluke or error in their instrument...

SAM is a kind of miniature chemistry lab. Put a sample of Martian soil or rock or even air inside SAM, and it will tell you what the sample is made of.

Grotzinger says they recently put a soil sample in SAM, and the analysis shows something earthshaking...

Grotzinger says it will take several weeks before he and his team are ready to talk about their latest finding.
Personally, I'm hoping they will announce they've discovered who is drawing the happy faces on Mars.
This picture of a crater resembling a "happy face" was acquired by the Context Camera (CTX) on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on January 28, 2008. The unnamed crater is about 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) across. It is located among the Nereidum Montes, north of the Argyre basin, near 45.1°S, 55.0°W. North is toward the right and sunlight illuminates the scene from the upper right.
Another happy face was observed on Mars as early as 1976.

Image (credit NASA/JPL/MSSS) cropped slightly from the original at The Planetary Society.

And with that happy face, my holiday blogcation starts.  Happy Thanksgiving to all.

A message to the male readers of TYWKIWDBI

Get your  prostate checked.  Today I'm celebrating the 10th anniversary of undergoing a radical prostatectomy for prostatic carcinoma.  I was aware of prostate ca because two family members died from it, and I had spent several months living with my father in a trailer in the Rio Grande Valley while he died from the the consequences of bony metastases.  So I began monitoring my PSA when I was in my 50s, and when it suddenly bumped up, I went under the knife.  The path specimen showed local invasion through the capsule of the gland and extension into some perineural sheaths, so if I had delayed years or perhaps just months more, I would have had to palliate unresectable disease.

If you are a male reading this, especially if you have early male pattern balding like the dude at the right, or a positive family history, don't neglect the simple tests that are available.  They are not that onerous.

I am oversimplifying the recommendation because of my personal experience, but iin point of fact both the biology and the clinical course of prostate carcinoma are complex.  There are valid arguments both for and against screening for prostate cancer, so read about it and talk with your physician.  But don't ignore the possibility.

Get it done.

Reposted with modification and additions from 2010.  The top photo is DaVinci's St. John the Baptist.  Photo of the Duke of Cambridge by REX, via The Telegraph.  Bottom photo source credit lost.

20 November 2012

By (model) train across Canada

Jeff Friesen's photography project entitled 'The Canadian: Ghost Train Crossing Canada' appears to show a train crossing Canada - but, in fact, the train is just two inches tall. His work captures the travels of a scale model vintage 1955 streamliner passenger train against picturesque landscapes.
Two of seventeen photos in a gallery at The Telegraph.  The scaling, of course, becomes nonsensical, so the images are surreal rather than realistic.  Posted for Fred, the modeler in our family.

Catalans will vote on secession

For the past several weeks, residents in several U.S. states have threatened secession, a prospect that is totally unlikely, but in Spain there is real concern about the possibility of Catalonia breaking away from the rest of Spain.  These excerpts from The Guardian:
The Catalan separatist campaign will come to a head this weekend in an election that will in effect serve as a plebiscite on the region's future in Spain.

It is a long-running affair, borne of historical and cultural factors that have persisted for centuries. But you do not have to scratch too hard before you get to the principal bone of contention in crisis-ridden Spain: money.

Spain is suffering its most agonising economic decline in decades. Catalonia has not been spared. But it still claims it subsidises the rest of Spain to the tune of €16bn a year. This money, equivalent to 8% of regional GDP, would dig Catalonia out of a debt and deficit hole and provide greater investment and a better welfare state, many believe...

Millions of Spaniards view the increasingly strident calls for self-determination in Catalonia with alarm. This is a country with form. When the region last declared its own state in 1934, Madrid answered by declaring a state of war. Separation would provide an ominous precedent in a nation where the increasingly weak centre has spent decades handing new powers to its headstrong regions...

The problem is not just Catalonia. Elections were held in October in the northern Basque country, where the blood spilt by Eta over four decades kept separatism in the headlines but stopped many peaceful Basques supporting it. The vote produced a landslide victory for nationalist and separatist parties, who jointly took two-thirds of the seats...
"The problem for Spain, which is what limits the ability of the prime minister to be flexible, is the dynamics of the breakdown. Once Catalonia is out, the burden on the other rich regions increases, and they will want out," says Luis Garicano of the London School of Economics. "So for Spain the prospect, without Catalonia, is complete disintegration of the country."
More at the link.  Posted because a close family member has become a de facto Catalan.

Image credit.

Goodbye to the Footheads and the Pauncefoots

A column at The Telegraph reviews The Surnames Handbook, a new book which details the extinction of many traditional British surnames.
Names such as Mackmain, Bythewood, Foothead and Pauncefoot are among those thought to have died out in Britain, and researchers believe thousands more have vanished...

...has put the number of names now in use in Britain and Ireland at up to half a million, half of which have been introduced in the past century as a result of immigration.

...considered endangered are some names taken from months: February, April, September, October, November and December.

Pauncefoot – a name which appears in the Domesday Book of 1086, as Pauncevolt – was probably a nickname for a person with a fat belly, from the Old French word “pance” or “panch”, meaning “stomach”, and “volt”, meaning “vaulted” or “arched”. The surname is preserved in the name of the village of Compton Pauncefoot, in Somerset.

Four ways surnames were chosen:
Place-names or landscape features, such as Hill, Wood, Bridges, Rivers, Green, and names ending in -brook, -ford, -land, -well, or -dun/-don (hill) 
Father’s given name, such as Roberts, Rogers or Johnson. More rarely, from the female line, such as Emmett (from Emma) and Magson (from Margaret). Sometimes from shortened forms, such as Rix or Dixon, which derive from the name Richard. 
Occupational names describing trades, such as Smith, Taylor, Wright, Walker, Turner, Cooper, Ward, Parker, and Carter. Other names are derived from status or office: Abbot, Burgess, Chamberlain, Freeman, Reeve and Squire.  
Nicknames, which may describe characteristics such as Long or Little; qualities, such as Faithful or Smart; or family relationships, such as Brothers, or Bastard.
So today I learn that "Dixon" was originally Dick's-son, much in the way Scandinavian names such as Paulson and Larson arose.  Cool.

"Parties always end up in the kitchen"

Every neighborhood party that I've been to (and every one that we've hosted) has wound up with guests congregating in the kitchen area.  Some may view this as a response to childhood memories of the pleasures to be found in a kitchen, or even as an aboriginal tendency wired in our genes.  A Wall Street Journal article understandably focuses on the truly immense size of some modern home kitchens -
At the highest end, some are over 3,000 square feet, outfitted with walk-in refrigeration rooms, multiple seating areas, wet bars and fireplaces, with fixtures and décor intentionally designed to look like hip living rooms. In some cases, much of the actual cooking is being relegated to a second, smaller kitchen space, so that the main kitchen can be used for entertaining—minus the unsavory dirty dishes or cooking smells. 
- but they note that even in conventional homes, the kitchen is becoming more important -
According to the National Association of Home Builders, the average floor area of the kitchen has increased by about 50% from 1973 to 2007, when the average kitchen size topped out at 303 square feet, or about 12% of a home's overall space.
- and more integrated into the adjacent living spaces.
...builders and architects say space they once allotted to formal living rooms and dining rooms is now reserved for the kitchen-centric great room. Jeffrey Collé, a Hamptons-based designer/builder, says his latest custom homes include "country kitchens," open spaces that include large casual living rooms... Mass builders are now offering new model homes with their largest, most open kitchens ever. Steve Ruffner, the president of KB Homes' Southern California division, says the company introduced a kitchen/great room model about five years ago, replacing the formal dining room in many homes.
I've noticed that at parties there's even a tendency for guests to "pitch in" with the cleanup, rinsing dishes and putting away garbage.  Whether that winds up as a net positive for the host probably depends on the degree of intoxication of the guests. 

How (not) to mash potatoes

Inside each of the potatoes’ cells are hundreds of granules... Inside those granules is a clear, thick paste of starch that the plant manufactured during its photosynthesis days as nourishment for its future generations.

Break open too many of those granules, letting too much of the starch paste leak out, and you’ll end up with pasty mashed potatoes. So unless you want to use the result for affixing wallpaper, don’t use a food processor or a blender. Their high-powered blades can reduce the potatoes to a puree, which is great for juicy, non-starchy fruits and vegetables. But by the time a potato is squished to that degree, most of its starch granules have been torn open, spilling their gluey contents.

Mixers can do both mixing and beating/aerating. However, beating potatoes in a mixer in an attempt to make them fluffy is almost as bad as using a blender. It’s okay to use a mixer on very low speed to distribute additives such as butter and milk. But beating them too vigorously will break down their starch granules into glue just as a blender does.
Additional details (and four additional "food flubs" re frozen turkey, turkey skin, gravy, and cranberry sauce) at the Washington Post.

btw, TYWKIWDBI will be in diapause for several days while I take an extended Thanksgiving break.

Pizzly bears, grolar bears, nanulak, and aknuk

Hybrid bears are described in Wikipedia:
A grizzly–polar bear hybrid (also pizzly bear, prizzly bear, or grolar bear) is a rare ursid hybrid that has occurred both in captivity and in the wild

On 8 April 2010, David Kuptana, an Inuvialuit hunter from the nearby community of Ulukhaktok on Victoria Island shot what he thought was a polar bear. After inspecting the bear and having its DNA tested, it was discovered that the bear's mother was a grizzly-polar hybrid and the father was a grizzly bear. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources for the NWT said that it "...may be the first recorded second-generation polar-grizzly bear hybrid found in the wild". The bear possesses physical characteristics intermediate between grizzlies and polar bears, such as brown fur on its paws, long claws and a grizzly-like head...

Since the 2006 discovery placed the hybrid into the spotlight, the media have referred to this animal with several portmanteau names, such as pizzly, grolar bear, and polizzly, but there is no consensus on the use of any one of these terms. Canadian wildlife officials have suggested calling the hybrid "nanulak", taken from the Inuit names for polar bear (nanuk) and grizzly bear (aklak). By one convention, the name of the sire comes first in such combinations: the offspring of a male polar bear and a female grizzly would be the suggested nanulak or a "pizzly bear", while the offspring of a male grizzly and a female polar bear would be a "grolar bear" or possibly an aknuk.
You learn something every day.

19 November 2012

"Strong clothing"

Strong clothing was a rather euphemistic term used to describe certain forms of restraint used in late 19th century asylums. While chains, strait-jackets (known as strait-waistcoats) and similar garments were outlawed during the ‘non-restraint’ movement of the 1840s and ’50s, other methods of ‘mechanical restraint’ were permitted by the Commissioners in Lunacy (the government body who inspected and licensed asylums for much of the 19th century). The intention of strong clothing (including strong dresses and padded gloves) was to protect patients, both preventing self-inflicted injury and the destruction of their clothing.

 “Strong dresses,” as described by Bethlem Superintendent George Savage in 1888, were “made of stout linen or woollen material, and lined throughout with flannel. The limbs are all free to move, but the hands are enclosed in the extremities of the dress, which are padded. …There are no strait-waistcoats, handcuffs, or what may be called true instruments of restraint in Bethlem”. Savage claimed that, by avoiding recourse to the use of sedatives or padded cells for violent or destructive patients, many “were thus really granted liberty by means of the slight restraint put upon them”. 
The embedded photo is by Jane Fradgley, who photographed a collection of strong clothing housed at the Bethlem Royal Hospital Archive & Museum, Beckenham, Kent.  Her photos are currently on display at Guy's Hospital.  Details at Morbid Anatomy.

When will terrorists get drones?

Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert cartoons, raises this thought-provoking question.
In my book The Religion War, written ten years ago, I predicted a future in which terrorists could destroy anything above ground whenever they wanted. They simply used inexpensive drones with electronics no more sophisticated than an Android app...

So what happens when the drone attacks start happening in volume? Let's game this out. My assumption is that the coming inevitable wave of hobby-sized suicide drones will be unstoppable because they will fly low to their target and be so numerous that no defense will be effective. I predict it will be too dangerous to live above ground in Israel within ten years unless the trend is reversed. But what could stop the trend?
His question focuses on Israel, but of course it could be applied to any other place in the world. 

Via The Dish.

"Camper cabins"

For those who want to camp out, but don't want to sleep in a tent, some of Minnesota's state parks offer an enticing compromise, as explained at the StarTribune:
Filling a niche between tents and RVs, the camper cabins typically have bunks, heat and light but not water or a bathroom.

They appeal to people who don't want to pitch a tent and prefer to have a roof over their heads. But because they have neither kitchens nor bathrooms, the camping challenges of building fires, cooking outside and walking outside to a restroom remain part of the experience.

There are now 84 cabins in state parks -- 74 with heat and electricity, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. This year the rental rate was for $45 for the nonelectric cabins and $50 for those with heat and lights...

Some are people who have had their fill of sleeping on the ground. Another group is people new to camping who want to give the cabins a try to see if they like the experience before they buy a lot of gear. "It's a low-risk way to dip your toe into the overnight activities in the state park."
I have read about these for years, but have never had a chance to try one.  The problem is they are so popular that you have to reserve them way ahead of time, which means planning a trip months in advance.  But the price is certainly right.  And the other nice thing is that because they are small and don't have plumbing, they can be built in choice spots in less-frequented parts of parks.

Family photograph

Credit to Martin Bennett of Swindon, Wiltshire, England, via Neatorama.

Brazil ascendant

Excerpts from an eye-opening article in the Washington Post:
Brazil is expected next year to dethrone the United States as the world’s largest producer of soybeans. With so much land available for cultivation, that status will probably become permanent...

As the result of a 2009 WTO ruling, Brazil now receives about $17 million in monthly payments from U.S. taxpayers — money being used to advance the Brazilian cotton industry with research on best practices, pest management and other issues...

State-backed research since the 1970s has turned the Cerrado — once considered unproductive scrubland — into a vast farm belt. Still mostly unplanted, and comfortably distant from Brazil’s environmentally sensitive Amazon region, the Cerrado has become a new frontier in the green revolution that made U.S. farmers the most productive in the world. Just as the vast plains of the American Midwest helped keep down world food prices for the last half of the 20th century, the Cerrado may do the same in the 21st... 

Of seven new factories that John Deere said it plans to build worldwide, two are in Brazil — with three in China and one each in India and Russia. “It is a tricky issue,” said a U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly. “U.S. companies are doing all this investment in an agriculture superpower that is a huge competitor...

Farmers here say the major constraint — a notoriously slow and expensive transportation network — can be fixed over time. Compared with this country’s unlocked potential... “the U.S. is at its limits.”  

A supercut of "right behind me" scenes

I generally enjoy supercuts of movie scenes, but I clicked off this one midway through.  There's nothing wrong with the compliation per se, but it started to remind me of how derivative Hollywood movies can be.

Somewhat better (because of the variety of behavior) is this supercut of temper tantrums.

Here's how much we spend at gas stations

13 cents of every dollar expended on retail sales is spent at gasoline stations.  Certainly not all of it pays for gas, since junk food etc may be included, but the figure is still amazing.

The article at the Wall Street Journal notes that this proportion has leveled off in recent years, and notes that the rise of e-commerce may be one of the reasons.
In the third quarter, e-commerce sales continued to surge, according to the Commerce Department. More than five cents of every dollar spent at retailers in the July-to-September period was spent online. That share has basically quintupled in the past decade, and while growth slowed slightly during the recession, it has continued to steadily march upward. The more goods people can get online, the less time they need to spend in the car traveling to brick-and-mortar retailers.

Show of power

I have previously expressed my reservations about the use of elaborate motorcades as a show of pomp during presidential travel.  Now it appears the "imperial presidency" accoutrements have been extended to generals as well:
Then-defense secretary Robert M. Gates stopped bagging his leaves when he moved into a small Washington military enclave in 2007. His next-door neighbor was Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time, who had a chef, a personal valet and — not lost on Gates — troops to tend his property...

Of the many facts that have come to light in the scandal involving former CIA director David H. Petraeus, among the most curious was that during his days as a four-star general, he was once escorted by 28 police motorcycles as he traveled from his Central Command headquarters in Tampa to socialite Jill Kelley’s mansion...

The commanders who lead the nation’s military services and those who oversee troops around the world enjoy an array of perquisites befitting a billionaire, including executive jets, palatial homes, drivers, security guards and aides to carry their bags, press their uniforms and track their schedules in 10-minute increments. Their food is prepared by gourmet chefs. If they want music with their dinner parties, their staff can summon a string quartet or a choir...

When he was at the Pentagon, Gates wanted to trim some of the perks but ran into resistance. It was, he said, the “third rail” of the Defense Department. “You don’t need a cadre of people at your beck and call in an age of austerity, unless you are a field commander in Iraq or Afghanistan,” a former top aide to Gates said on the condition of anonymity.
Further information at the Washington Post.

Jamie Sadlowski can drive a golf ball 288 yards. With a putter.

As noted in the video, he has recorded a long drive of 455 yards, so in theory at least, he would be capable of achieving a triple eagle.

It is an impressive video.  I have never seen anyone take a driver so far past horizontal on the backswing.

16 November 2012

Images from an Australian rainforest

Four photos from Rainforest Country by Kaisa and Stanley Breeden, depicting the colorful flora and fauna of a northern Queensland rainforest, via Australia Geographic, which has another dozen images.

Top to bottom:  A Boyd's rainforest dragon (Hypsilurus boydii), an adult, male Cairns birdwing (Ornithoptera euphorion), colourful stones where the rainforest meets the beach, and a rainforest dwelling pygmy possum.  The image that impresses me the most is the one of the beach gravel; it's hard to believe that those have not been enhanced in some artificial way.

Goodbye to Congressman Ron Paul

This week Ron Paul gave his final speech on the floor of the House of Representatives (he retires at year's end after a 23-year career.)  A video of his speech is posted at The Atlantic

I admired the man when he spoke out on budgetary and geopolitical matters that others were too timid or too ill-informed at address, but ultimately he encompassed too many fringe positions for me to be happy with the total package.  Recognizing that you can't create a politician by ordering from a menu with some items from column A and some from column B, I will nevertheless list below a selection of questions he raised in his final speech:
  • Why are sick people who use medical marijuana put in prison?
  • Why can't Americans decide which type of light bulbs they can buy?
  • Why is the TSA permitted to abuse the rights of any American traveling by air?
  • Why should there be mandatory sentences--even up to life for crimes without victims--as our drug laws require?
  • Why have we allowed the federal government to regulate commodes in our homes?
  • Why is it political suicide for anyone to criticize AIPAC ?
  • Why haven't we given up on the drug war since it's an obvious failure and violates the people's rights? Has nobody noticed that the authorities can't even keep drugs out of the prisons?
  • Why does changing the party in power never change policy? Could it be that the views of both parties are essentially the same?
  • Why did the big banks, the large corporations, and foreign banks and foreign central banks get bailed out in 2008 and the middle class lost their jobs and their homes?
  • Why do so many in the government and the federal officials believe that creating money out of thin air creates wealth?
  • Why can't people understand that war always destroys wealth and liberty?
  • Why is there so little concern for the Executive Order that gives the President authority to establish a "kill list," including American citizens, of those targeted for assassination?
  • Why should anyone be surprised that Congress has no credibility, since there's such a disconnect between what politicians say and what they do?

And here are some additional quotes from a column at Salon:

Everyone claims support for freedom.  But too often it’s for one’s own freedom and not for others.  Too many believe that there must be limits on freedom. They argue that freedom must be directed and managed to achieve fairness and equality thus making it acceptable to curtail, through force, certain liberties."

Humanitarian arguments are always used to justify government mandates related to the economy, monetary policy, foreign policy, and personal liberty.  This is on purpose to make it more difficult to challenge.  But, initiating violence for humanitarian reasons is still violence. "

“The immoral use of force is the source of man’s political problems.  Sadly, many religious groups, secular organizations, and psychopathic authoritarians endorse government initiated force to change the world.  Even when the desired goals are well-intentioned—or especially when well-intentioned—the results are dismal.  The good results sought never materialize.  The new problems created require even more government force as a solution.  The net result is institutionalizing government initiated violence and morally justifying it on humanitarian grounds.”

"Piano juggler" - updated

Interesting skills (once you get beyond that mask he wears as a hat).

Addendum:  Note there is also an element of fakery, in that the"keyboard" doesn't really have any keys, as explained in a New York Times article in 2007 :
All he’s doing is triggering a pre-programmed MIDI sequence. If you look closely, you’ll see that the keyboard doesn’t even have individual keys—only lines painted on a broad touch panel.

In other words, it doesn’t make any difference what keys his balls hit; each ball strike triggers the next note in the pre-written MIDI file. All the juggler has to do is worry about the rhythm; the rest is automated.
Double hat tip to reader Mark for noticing the deception and finding the NYT link.

"Dumb Ways to Die"

A clever Australian public service announcement re train safety.  The individual segments are available as gifs.


Bicycle Taxidermy will take your old handlebars and mount them for you on a plaque with an engraved epitaph. 

Via Inhabitat and Neatorama.

Antarctic sea ice in 2012 has reached record levels. Record HIGH levels.

The information and the image come from NASA's Earth Observatory, which also offers this scatter plot depicts the relevant data from the past 30 years:

It's likely that this information will be used, rightly and wrongly, in the debate about climate change.  Here's an excerpt of the discussion at the NASA link:
Two weeks after a new record was set in the Arctic Ocean for the least amount of sea ice coverage in the satellite record, the ice surrounding Antarctica reached its annual winter maximum—and set a record for a new high... The yellow outline shows the median sea ice extent in September from 1979 to 2000. Sea ice extent is defined as the total area in which the ice concentration is at least 15 percent.

The graph of NSIDC data shows the maximum extent for each September since 1979 in millions of square kilometers. There is a lot of variability from year to year, though the overall trend shows growth of about 0.9 percent per decade...

“The year 2012 continues a long-term contrast between the two hemispheres, with decreasing sea ice coverage in the Arctic and increasing sea ice coverage in the Antarctic,” Parkinson added. “Both hemispheres have considerable inter-annual variability, so that in either hemisphere, next year could have either more or less sea ice than this year. Still, the long-term trends are clear, but not equal: the magnitude of the ice losses in the Arctic considerably exceed the magnitude of the ice gains in the Antarctic.”
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