30 December 2013

Help scientists figure out what this unknown object is - updated and solved

Something in the Peruvian Amazon is making weird, intricate structures that resemble white picket fences surrounding an Isengard-like spire.

No one has any idea who the mysterious craftsbug (fungus? spider?) is, or what the structure is even used for, excepting the fence part, which almost makes sense. Nobody, not even the scientists. We asked.

Troy Alexander, a graduate student at Georgia Tech, spotted the first of these structures on June 7. The little, seemingly woven fence was parked on the underside of a blue tarp near the Tambopata Research Center, in southeastern Peru. He later spotted three more of the bizarre enclosures on tree trunks in the jungle...

He described the fences as small – about 2 centimeters across...
“I have no idea what made it, or even what it is,” said William Eberhard, an entomologist with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

“I’ve seen the photo, but have no idea what animal might be responsible,” echoed Norm Platnick, curator emeritus of spiders at the American Museum of Natural History.

“I don’t know what it is,” said arachnologist Linda Rayor, of Cornell University. “My guess is something like a lacewing, but I don’t really know.”..
“I have no idea,” said Todd Gilligan of Colorado State University, and president of The Lepidopterists’ Society. “Some moths construct an ‘egg fence’ around eggs, using scales from the abdomen to protect the eggs,” he said. “So constructing fences around objects isn’t unheard of, but I haven’t seen anything like this before.”
TYWKIWDBI gets about a thousand visits a year from readers in Peru.  Perhaps one of you know what creature creates these.

Text and images via Wired Science.

Addendum:  A comment on another website pointed out the similarity to a "fence" made by Ribbed Cocoon-maker moths.  But in that case, what would be inside the "fence" would be a cocoon, not an egg case, because the adult moth (presumably) is not capable of spinning silk - that's the role of the larval caterpillar.

If constructions like these are being found on tarpaulins, then I don't think they represent the fruiting bodies of slime molds or fungi.  I'm betting on an arachnid.

Addendum #2:   The mystery has been solved.  The structure is indeed the work of a spider, species identity still to be determined, but at least for the present tentatively (and cleverly) dubbed the "silkhenge" spider.  Here is video by Jeff Cremer -

- and some explanatory text from Wired:
Late last week, we revealed that the elaborate, fenced-in spires spotted in the Peruvian Amazon are made by spiders. We were with a team of scientists on the ground in Peru, who watched as three spiderlings hatched from eggs concealed at the base of the towers...

So far, we’ve been able to confirm, using photos and descriptions, additional sightings in Ecuador and French Guiana... We’ve also gotten unconfirmed reports of sightings from Brazil, several places in the United States, and Belgium, and are awaiting photos from those locations...

For starters, based on the silk in the structures, it seems likely we’re looking at a spider in the superfamily Orbiculariae, says Leslie Brunetta, who’s studied the evolution of spider silk. This superfamily includes spiders that weave cribellate silk, which is fluffy and frizzy like the silk in the fences, as well as all the spiders that spin orb-shaped webs. Over time, some of these spiders’ descendants have modified their orb webs to the point that they no longer resemble the original orb shape. Brunetta suggests the corral could be one of these modified orbs, with sturdy fence posts connected by fluffy, cribellate silk...

One possibility is that it’s built simply to deter predators... But it’s also possible the fences are acting to trap food for the spiderlings, such as mites, which were seen crawling inside and stuck on many of the fences.
A grateful tip of my hat to an anonymous reader for alerting me to the recent discovery.

Miranda (Act 5, Scene 1) : "O, wonder!  How many goodly creatures are there here!"

The fluid dynamics of pitcher plant digestive liquids

"Carnivorous pitcher plants owe much of their efficacy to the viscoelasticity of their digestive fluid. A viscoelastic fluid’s resistance to deformation has two components: the usual viscous component that resists shearing and an elastic component, often derived from the presence of polymers, that resists stretching - kind of like a liquid rubber band. It’s the latter effect that’s important when it comes to the pitcher plant trapping insects. When a fly or ant falls into the liquid within the plant, it will flail and try to swim, thereby straining the fluid. In part (c) of the image above, you can see how long fluid filaments stretch as the fly moves; this is because the digestive fluid’s extensional viscosity, the elastic component, is 10,000 times larger than its shear viscosity, the usual viscous component, for motions like the fly’s. This viscoelastic fluid is so effective at trapping insects that, as seen in part (b) above, it has to be diluted by more than 95% before insects can escape it! "
The full research article is available at PLOS One.   Text and image via Fuck Yeah Fluid Dynamics.

World championship boogie-woogie dancing

Finals of the competition held in Fauske, Norway in 2012.  This is high-quality video that looks great on full-screen.
The origin of the term boogie-woogie is unknown, according to Webster's Third New International Dictionary. The Oxford English Dictionary states that the word is a reduplication of boogie, which was used for rent parties as early as 1913. However, Dr. John Tennison, a San Antonio psychiatrist, pianist, and musicologist has suggested some interesting linguistic precursors. Among them are four African terms, including the Hausa word "Boog" and the Mandingo word "Booga", both of which mean "to beat", as in beating a drum. There is also the West African word "Bogi", which means "to dance", and the Bantu term "Mbuki Mvuki", which means, "Mbuki—to take off in flight" and Mvuki—"to dance wildly, as if to shake off ones clothes". The meanings of all these words are consistent with the percussiveness, dancing, and uninhibited behaviors historically associated with boogie-woogie music. Their African origin is also consistent with the evidence that the music originated among newly emancipated African Americans.
Via Nag on the Lake.

28 December 2013

Scott Adams on the death of his father

From the November 23 entry at his blog at Dilbert.com:
I hope my father dies soon.

And while I'm at it, I might want you to die a painful death too.

I'm entirely serious on both counts.

My father, age 86, is on the final approach to the long dirt nap (to use his own phrase). His mind is 98% gone, and all he has left is hours or possibly months of hideous unpleasantness in a hospital bed. I'll spare you the details, but it's as close to a living Hell as you can get.

If my dad were a cat, we would have put him to sleep long ago. And not once would we have looked back and thought too soon.

Because it's not too soon. It's far too late. His smallish estate pays about $8,000 per month to keep him in this state of perpetual suffering. Rarely has money been so poorly spent.

I'd like to proactively end his suffering and let him go out with some dignity. But my government says I can't make that decision. Neither can his doctors. So, for all practical purposes, the government is torturing my father until he dies.

I'm a patriotic guy by nature. I love my country. But the government? Well, we just broke up.

And let me say this next part as clearly as I can.

If you're a politician who has ever voted against doctor-assisted suicide, or you would vote against it in the future, I hate your fucking guts and I would like you to die a long, horrible death. I would be happy to kill you personally and watch you bleed out. I won't do that, because I fear the consequences. But I'd enjoy it, because you motherfuckers are responsible for torturing my father. Now it's personal...

I might feel differently in a few years, but at the moment my emotions are a bit raw. If I could push a magic button and send every politician who opposes doctor-assisted suicide into a painful death spiral that lasts for months, I'd press it. And I wouldn't feel a bit of guilt because sometimes you have to get rid of the bad guys to make the world a better place. We do it in defensive wars and the police do it daily. This would be another one of those situations.

I don't want anyone to misconstrue this post as satire or exaggeration. So I'll reiterate. If you have acted, or plan to act, in a way that keeps doctor-assisted suicide illegal, I see you as an accomplice in torturing my father, and perhaps me as well someday. I want you to die a painful death, and soon. And I'd be happy to tell you the same thing to your face.

Note to my government: I'll keep paying my taxes and doing whatever I need to do to stay out of jail, but don't ask me for anything else. We're done now.

[Update: My father passed a few hours after I wrote this.]
There's more at the link.  This is not a joke.

Blogger's addendum:  During the last month of my father's life, I lived with him in a single-wide trailer on the Texas/Mexico border while he endured the agonies of prostate cancer metastatic to his bones.  Every day and night I listened to him moaning because of pain that was not controlled by morphine sufficient to lock up his bowels.  It was an unpleasant and undignified exit for a pleasant and dignified man. 

I now have a 95-year-old mother who has repeatedly told me that when her time comes, I should "put her down."  I hope that when that time arrives, some form of doctor-assisted suicide will be available in this country - but I doubt it.  And I will continue to share Scott Adams' anger.


Selections from the Honorable Mentions at the Olympus BioScapes International Digital Imaging Competition for 2013.

Top: "Rhizoplegma boreale, a radiolarian from the Antarctic... The star-shapped organism in the background is a silicoflagellate."  Credit:  Dr. John Dolan.

Bottom: "Tip of tooth of predatory marine snail Conus ermineus. Conus paralyzes its prey rapidly by injecting the tooth, containing a potent venom consisting of a mix of nerve toxins, into its prey, then swallows the prey whole."  Credit Dr. Alan Kohn and Dr. Joshua Kubo.

What would Shackleton have thought of this ?

"Parker Liautaud, a 19-year-old geology student, has become the youngest man to ski to the South Pole after completing the journey in 18 days. Along with his expedition partner Doug Stoup they set a new world record for the fastest journey from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole

The pair skied for 349 miles (561) from the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica on December 3 and arrived at 13.43 on Christmas Eve in 18 days, four hours and 43 minutes. During the journey they pulled sleds weighing in excess of 80kg across the Transantarctic mountain range in temperatures as low as minus 50 degrees Celsius. The duo travelled for up to 12 hours a day, averaging 17 miles (28km) per day.

They were followed behind by a vehicle which filmed the entire journey using long-distance cameras, but offered them no support other than radio contact."
Addendum: And this -
Right now three people are competing in a bike race from the edge of Antarctica to the South Pole. The winner will be the first person to bike there ever. And 35-year-old Maria Leijerstam is attempting to trike there on a really weird/badass-looking tricycle.  
Details at Gizmodo.

Cryoseism explained

"Around 11 p.m. Christmas Eve, people reported hearing a loud “boom” in Toronto, Newmarket, Aurora, Belleville, Richmond Hill, and Sutton. Not only was the boom heard, but it rattled houses, leaving many to believe that a tree had fallen on their rooftop...

The most likely explanation is that it was a cryoseism, also known as a frost quake.
Cyroseisms are rare, localized seismic events that occur when a sudden drop in temperature freezes the groundwater, which then expands and cracks the soil and rock. The crack will release a sudden burst of explosive energy, resulting in a loud noise and the shaking of the ground. They usually occur between midnight and dawn."
Addendum: recent occurrences here in Wisconsin:
The series of explosion-like sounds rattled residents from Waupun, Campbellsport and elsewhere Tuesday and sent Fond du Lac County sheriff's deputies out looking for a cause. Geologists say the booms were likely a phenomenon commonly known as an ice quake

Shouldn't that be more than 10% off ?

One of The Telegraph's Best of Sign Language 2013.

27 December 2013

A boy and his... hog

An image search led to the French National Library ("Tame animals of Mr Wingfield Ampthill child beside a saddled pig"), via Europeana.  There is a photo of the boy on the hog here.

But the location seems to be England, because there's a Pathe video of grown men riding llamas and ostriches (and this hog) at the Ampthill Zoo in the East Anglia Film Archive.

Hospice stays get longer, and corporate profits rise

From the Washington Post:
Hospice patients are expected to die: The treatment focuses on providing comfort to the terminally ill, not finding a cure. To enroll a patient, two doctors certify a life expectancy of six months or less.

But over the past decade, the number of “hospice survivors” in the United States has risen dramatically, in part because hospice companies earn more by recruiting patients who aren’t actually dying, a Washington Post investigation has found. Healthier patients are more profitable because they require fewer visits and stay enrolled longer.

The proportion of patients who were discharged alive from hospice care rose about 50 percent between 2002 and 2012, according to a Post analysis of more than 1 million hospice patients’ records over 11 years in California...

This vast growth took place as the hospice “movement,” once led by religious and community organizations, was evolving into a $17 billion industry dominated by for-profit companies...

Some of those patients simply outlived a legitimate prognosis of six months.
But much of the data suggests that the trend toward longer stays is a response to the financial incentive... multiple allegations have arisen from former hospice workers who say that the businesses took in people who weren’t in declining health.
Much more discussion of this complicated issue at the link.

That's not a Volkswagen Rabbit in this rally

Via Nothing to do with Arbroath.

"Cryptolocker ransomware" explained

As reported by the BBC:
A virulent form of ransomware has now infected about quarter of a million Windows computers, according to a report by security researchers. Cryptolocker scrambles users' data and then demands a fee to unencrypt it alongside a countdown clock...

Early examples were spread via spam emails that asked the user to click on a Zip-archived extension identified as being a customer complaint about the recipient's organisation. Later it was distributed via malware attached to emails claiming there had been a problem clearing a cheque. Clicking the associated link downloaded a Trojan horse called Gameover Zeus, which in turn installed Cryptolocker onto the victim's PC...

It said of those affected, "a minimum of 0.4%, and very likely many times that" had agreed to the ransom demand, which can currently only be paid in the virtual currencies Bitcoin and MoneyPak...

"Anecdotal reports from victims who elected to pay the ransom indicate that the Cryptolocker threat actors honour payments by instructing infected computers to decrypt files and uninstall the malware," added the security firm.
More at the link.

Is Facebook "dead" ?

An article in The Conversation offers that opinion:
This year marked the start of what looks likely to be a sustained decline of what had been the most pervasive of all social networking sites. Young people are turning away in their droves and adopting other social networks instead, while the worst people of all, their parents, continue to use the service.

As part of a European Union-funded study on social media, we are running nine simultaneous 15-month ethnographic studies in eight countries. What we’ve learned from working with 16-18 year olds in the UK is that Facebook is not just on the slide, it is basically dead and buried. Mostly they feel embarrassed even to be associated with it. Where once parents worried about their children joining Facebook, the children now say it is their family that insists they stay there to post about their lives. Parents have worked out how to use the site and see it as a way for the family to remain connected. In response, the young are moving on to cooler things.

Instead, four new contenders for the crown have emerged: Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and WhatsApp.
There's more at the link about the reasons this change may be occurring.  Of interest to me is that if Facebook is dying, that status has not yet been updated in the equity markets -

- because short-term out-of-the-money put options are very inexpensive.  I've just fired off an email to a social-media-savvy 17-year-old relative for advice, but would also appreciate input from (young) readers of this blog.

"Have an ice cream cone"


A Turkish vendor clearly enjoys his work.

26 December 2013

Post-Christmas link exchange

These are links that wouldn't fit under TYWKIWDBI's tree.  As always, take whatever interests you - and this time feel free to leave interesting links in the comments.

A new record has been set for the most Rubik's Cubes solved in 24 hours.   Eric Limeback solved 5,800 of them (an average of one every 15 seconds); he provides an AMA at the link (with links to videos).

The Most Ancient and Most Puissant Order of the Beggar's Benison and Merryland, Anstruther was a famous 18th-century British sex club.

An op-ed piece at Salon lambasts the NFL for their sale of pink items to support breast cancer awareness, in part because for every $100 of such merchandise sold, only $3.54 actually goes toward cancer research.

You probably didn't even know that there is a list of famous trees.

A man in Florida set himself on fire while setting up a cross-burning as a Halloween decoration.

A financial transaction tax "is simple, fair, widely supported by the public and long overdue."

A link only for those who do not like Republican politicians.

Car rental companies can charge you extra for their "loss of use" while they fix a dent.

More than you really need to know about fake movie blood.  "For the original Carrie, a combination of Karo syrup and food coloring looked great, but it was “sticky,” star Sissy Spacek later recalled: “When they lit the fires behind me to burn down the gym,” she said, “I started to feel like a candy apple.”

When dogs eat human excrement they find in parks, they can be poisoned by recreational drugs in the feces.

Advice regarding embarrassing tattoo mistakes (with a gallery of photos).

A Minnesota Vikings football fan vowed to let his beard grow "until the team wins a Super Bowl."  He died this fall, with the 38-year-old beard.

The American Council on Science and Health defends fracking, BPA, and pesticides.  They are funded by...(you can guess)...

A huge list of television tropes.

An interesting set of photos of a doctor's abandoned mansion in Germany.

An argument that the United States should have just two time zones.

Many "high security" doors sold for homes can be opened with common tools such as a can opener.

Impressive catch of a football (gif).

After a man didn't stop his car at a stop sign "Doctors prepared Eckert for surgery, sedated him, and then performed a colonoscopy where a scope with a camera was inserted into Eckert's anus, rectum, colon, and large intestines.  No narcotics were found."

Oklahome City had a record high temperature and a low temperature on the same day. And another city in Oklahoma experienced a temperature rise of 110 degrees in one week.

The UC Davis cop who pepper-sprayed protesters has been awarded $38,000 in workers' compensation for his suffering.

From an open letter: "Last week, word got out that your children had broken into a home in Stephentown, NY and threw a party. More than 300 of them partied and drunkenly smashed windows, urinated on the floors, stood on tables, punched holes in the ceiling and stole a statue that was part of a memorial for the owner's stillborn grandson. Oh, it gets better. Before, during and after the party, they tweeted about it and posted pictures of themselves engaged in this behavior."   The owner of the house asked the teens and their families to clean up and repair the house.  One kid showed up.  Then some parents threatened to sue the homeowner...

Thoughtful answers to the question "what is it like to see your spouse grow older?"

America's first known serial killers were the members of the Bender family.  "The family built a one-room house near the Osage Trail... Travelers on the trail were welcome to refresh themselves with a meal and resupply their wagons with liquor, tobacco, horse feed, black powder, and food from the Bender home. And they often spent the night...

Why do Americans refrigerate eggs? "But then, maybe the question should really be posed the other way around: Given the sanitary benefits of refrigeration, why don't other countries ship, package, and store their eggs at cold temperatures, like we do in the U.S.? Well, because, unlike America, they may not actually need to. Why? Because here in America, we wash our eggs – and while it may sound counterintuitive, the cleaning process may actually make eggs more susceptible to contamination."

Someone's list of the Top Ten Best Short Stories Ever.

Should you remove your shoes when you visit a friend's house?

If you DO remove your shoes, you may be at risk for getting a splinter in your foot.  But probably not as big as this splinter (warning - graphic image).  ["risk for" or "risk of"?]

Top image: head of a male Culex pipiens mosquito, by Dr. Gareth Paul Jones.
Second image: egg sac of a pirate spider, by Geir Drange.
Bottom image: pulmonary artery epithelial cells, by Dr. Heiti Paves.

24 December 2013

23 December 2013

"Falling Upwards"

Three years ago I reviewed and recommended Richard Holmes' The Age of Wonder, so I was pleased this year to encounter his new book.  Falling Upwards is a scholarly compendium of the history of hot air ballooning.

From one point of view, the book is clearly "TMI," because I was in no need of 400 pages of information on this topic, but with some judicious skimming I found the process enjoyable because, as in the other book, he incorporates a lot of interesting material.

I learned, for example, how the "trail rope" dangling from early hot air balloons served as a useful "feedback loop" for maintaining a constant low altitude:
"This was a simple, self-regulating ballast device, which allowed a gas balloon to adjust its own height when flying at altitudes below five hundred feet... Whenever the ballon dropped closer to the ground, more trail rope - and hence more ballast weight - was transferred from the balloon basket to the earth.  Thus lightened, the balloon would rise again to a new point of balance... So Green [in 1835] employed his trail rope with what now seems amazing insouciance across the whole countryside: dragging it crashing through lines of trees and hedgerows, hissing across fields of crops or cattle, and not infrequently lifting the odd tile or slab of stonework from church roofs or isolated barns... (p. 57)
Early attempts to reach maximum altitudes were fraught with the dangers of hypoxia for the participants -

- delineated by a dramatic account (p. 214) of near-death at the even-by-modern-standards-remarkable altitude of about over six miles, a record that would stand for over a century.  Note that that altitude is higher than Mount Everest.  Rapidly attained.  Without supplemental oxygen.

I was pleased to read references to butterflies at high altitude: "Butterflies hover round the car of the balloon.  Until today I imagined that those little things passed their short existence among the flowers of the fields, and that they never rose to any great height in the air.  But in fact they rise higher than any of the birds of our forests, and soar to many thousands of metres above the ground..." (237)

The account of the siege of Paris in 1870 (see the post below this one) will interest philatelists because of the advent of balloon mail (and the incorporation of microfilm as a method to expedite the process).  There is also extensive discussion of hot air balloons as monitoring devices during the U.S. Civil War.

I have mostly offered here a series of TYWK-type anecdotes; for more conventional reviews of the book, see The Spectator, The Guardian, or The New York Times.

Book cover image via Amazon; high-altitude hypoxia image via Neurology.

"I do not recommend English families to eat elephant as long as they can get beef or mutton."

Your Christmas dinner will undoubtedly be more nutritious, better tasting, and less exotic that that experienced by the French during the siege of Paris in 1870:
On 19 September 1870, Prussian forces encircled Paris... During the siege food became scarce and the populace were forced to turn to unusual sources for their meat...

Though there were large numbers of horses in Paris (estimates suggested between 65,000 and 70,000 were butchered and eaten during the siege) the supplies were ultimately limited. Champion racehorses were not spared (even two horses presented to Napoleon III by Alexander II of Russia were slaughtered) but the meat soon became scarce. Cats, dogs and rats were the next selection for the menu. There was no control over rationing until late in the siege, so while the poor struggled, the wealthy Parisians ate comparatively well; the Jockey Club offered a fine selection of gourmet dishes of the unusual meats including Salmis de rats à la Robert. There were considerably fewer cats and dogs in the city than there had been horses, and the unpalatable rats were difficult to prepare, so, by the end of 1870, the butchers turned their attentions to the animals of the zoos. The large herbivores, such as the antelope, camels, yaks and zebra were first to be killed. Some animals survived: the monkeys were thought to be too akin to humans to be killed, the lions and tigers were too dangerous, and the hippopotamus of the Jardin des Plantes also escaped because the price of 80,000 francs demanded for it was beyond the reach of any of the butchers. Menus began to offer exotic dishes such as Cuissot de Loup, Sauce Chevreuil (Haunch of Wolf with a Deer Sauce), Terrine d'Antilope aux truffes (Terrine of Antelope with truffles), Civet de Kangourou (Kangaroo Stew) and Chameau rôti à l'anglaise (Camel roasted à l'anglaise)...

By all accounts, elephant was not tasty. Thomas Gibson Bowles, who was in Paris during the siege, wrote that he had eaten camel, antelope, dog, donkey, mule and elephant and of those he liked elephant the least. Henry Labouchère recorded:
"Yesterday, I had a slice of Pollux for dinner. Pollux and his brother Castor are two elephants, which have been killed. It was tough, coarse, and oily, and I do not recommend English families to eat elephant as long as they can get beef or mutton."
More at Wikipedia.

Wagner's "Siegfried" as an expression of his migraine headaches

From the Christmas issue of the British Medical Journal:
[T]he condition that Wagner described as the “main plague of his life” was recurring headaches. The details presented in his writings and letters as well as the numerous diary records of his second wife, Cosima, confirm that Wagner had a severely disabling migraine disorder producing frequent migraine attacks, sometimes with aura...

The first scene of act 1 of the opera Siegfried provides an extraordinarily concise and strikingly vivid headache episode. The music begins with a pulsatile thumping, first in the background, then gradually becoming more intense. This rises to become a directly tangible almost painful pulsation. While the listener experiences this frightening headache sensation, Mime is seen pounding with his hammer, creating the acoustic trigger for the musically induced throbbing, painful perception. At the climax Mime cries out: “Compulsive plague! Pain without end!”...
This from a letter written by Wagner to Liszt:
My health, too, is once more so bad, that for ten days, after I had finished the sketch for the first act of Siegfried, I was literally not able to write a single bar without being driven away from my work by most tremulous headaches.
More at the link, including references to the scintillating auras in Wagner's music:
Mime, irritated, sings: “Loathsome light! Is the air aflame? What is it flaring and flashing, glittering and whirring, what is swirling and whirling there and flickering around? It glistens and gleams in the sunlight’s glow. What is it rustling and humming and blustering there?”
Very interesting.  You learn something every day.

Literary censorship at Guantanamo Bay

From a letter written by one of the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay:
I have been in Guantanamo Bay for almost 12 years now. I arrived on Valentine’s Day in 2002, the day my youngest son, Faris, was born. I have never seen him; nor have I seen my other three children or my wife, all of whom live in south London, in years. I have been cleared to leave here for over half of my time behind bars – first by the Bush administration in 2007 and then by the Obama government in 2009 – and yet I remain here.

My lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, comes to see me every three months or so. I ask him to bring me books. When I am allowed to read, for a short while it lifts the heavy gloom that hangs over me. Clive amuses himself (and me) by testing what the censors will let through. It is difficult to identify a consistent or logical basis for the censorship: in months gone by, I have been allowed to read Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell but Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago did not make it through.

On his most recent visit in October, Clive gave me a list of the titles he had dropped off for me, so I could let him know later which books had been banned by what I prefer to call the “Guantanamo Ministry of Information”. One was Booky Wook 2 by Russell Brand. I understand that Brand uses too many rude words. I suppose you have to be amused by that: the US military is solicitous of my sensitive nature and wants to protect me from swearing. These are the same people who say that all of us at Guantanamo are dedicated terrorists...

They censored Blasphemy: How the Religious Right Is Hijacking Our Declaration of Independence by Professor Alan Dershowitz of Harvard. I suppose that is understandable, as well. They portray me as some kind of religious nut, just because I am a person of faith. The God I believe in (Allah) seeks only justice. But the US military would not want me reading that some right-wing American people have interpreted their religion as mandating the elimination of universal rights.

Finally, they banned Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky, perhaps because the Russian author didn’t write No Crime but We’ll Still Have Some Punishment, which would have been better suited to Guantanamo. After all, I (like others) have had 4,360 days of punishment without ever being accused of any offence.
There's a bit more of the letter at the link (via Boing Boing).  I'm baffled by the existence of Guantanamo in general, but even beyond that, I cannot conceive of a reason to censor the reading material available to prisoners in the most secure prison in the world.  What do the authorities fear??

Is it better to be right, or to be happy?

The graph depicts the results of a pilot study comparing "being right" vs. "being happy," as reported in the Christmas issue of the British Medical Journal:
This might be the first study to systematically assess whether it is better to be right than happy; a Medline search in May 2013 found no similar articles. Our null hypothesis was that it is better to be right than happy.

To be eligible participants had to be part of a couple and willing to take part in the study... It was decided without consultation that the female participant would prefer to be right and the male, being somewhat passive, would prefer to be happy... The female participant was blind to the hypothesis being tested, other than being asked to record her quality of life.

The intervention was for the male to agree with his wife’s every opinion and request without complaint...

Two participants were eligible and both (100%) were randomised... The data safety monitoring committee stopped the study because of severe adverse outcomes after 12 days. By then the male participant found the female participant to be increasingly critical of everything he did. The situation had become intolerable by day 12...

The results of this trial show that the availability of unbridled power adversely affects the quality of life of those on the receiving end...

The study has some limitations. There was no trial registration, no ethics committee approval, no informed consent, no proper randomisation, no validated test instrument, and questionable statistical assessment. We used the eyeball technique for single patient trials which, as Sackett says, “more closely matches the way we think as clinicians.
More details of the methodology and discussion of the results at the source.  For those unfamiliar with the BMJ, it's worth pointing out that this venerable medical journal has a long tradition of publishing papers in the Christmas issue that are written somewhat che(tongue)ek.  See for example my 2010 posts on Mozart's 140 causes of death and Crocodile forceps? or alligator forceps?

Oh Tannenbaum !!

I laughed too, but had some sympathy for the man because several years ago my wife and I decided it would be traditional and thriftier to cut down our own Christmas tree, but the two saws we used at the tree farm had blades encrusted with resin, so the process became tedious, wet, cold, messy, and unpleasant.

22 December 2013

And now we are six

A. A. Milne used the title first, in 1927.  Now it's our turn, because today TYWKIWDBI celebrates its sixth birthday, so I will use this "blogiversary" to engage in a bit of omphaloskepsis.

My own personal sixth year was quite memorable - I was one of over 50,000 unwilling participants in the huge polio epidemic of 1952.  After prolonged instituionalization and rehabilitation at the Sister Kenny Institute in Minneapolis, I was discharged ambulatory on my "sticks" in time to see a classic satin-bedecked (and satin-bearded) Santa Claus.  I should think that in that December of 1952 the future must have looked bright and limitless (and endless).

Now it's my blog that's six years old, and the blogiversary provides a stimulus to muse about the future of this vehicle.  Jason Kottke, one of the doyens of blogging, has just done the same thing, in an op-ed piece for the Nieman Journalism Lab. In his view the blogosphere has changed and the traditional blog is on its way out:
Sometime in the past few years, the blog died. In 2014, people will finally notice. Sure, blogs still exist, many of them are excellent, and they will go on existing and being excellent for many years to come. But the function of the blog, the nebulous informational task we all agreed the blog was fulfilling for the past decade, is increasingly being handled by a growing number of disparate media forms that are blog-like but also decidedly not blogs.

Instead of blogging, people are posting to Tumblr, tweeting, pinning things to their board, posting to Reddit, Snapchatting, updating Facebook statuses, Instagramming, and publishing on Medium. In 1997, wired teens created online diaries, and in 2004 the blog was king. Today, teens are about as likely to start a blog (over Instagramming or Snapchatting) as they are to buy a music CD. Blogs are for 40-somethings with kids...

The primary mode for the distribution of links has moved from the loosely connected network of blogs to tightly integrated services like Facebook and Twitter. If you look at the incoming referers to a site like BuzzFeed, you’ll see tons of traffic from Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Stumbleupon, and Pinterest but not a whole lot from blogs, even in the aggregate...

Over the past 16 years, the blog format has evolved, had social grafted onto it, and mutated into Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest and those new species have now taken over. No biggie, that’s how technology and culture work.
More at the link, and at this followup companion piece, via BoingBoing.

TYWKIWDBI is also changing slowly.  By the end of the year, this blog will have accumulated about 14 million pageviews of about 12,000 posts, but as I look at the metrics, it's obvious that the traffic is decreasing -

- in part I believe because more viewers are accessing the material via RSS feeds, but also because my own productivity (in terms of number of posts) has decreased each year since the peak in 2009.   The numbers at the right come from the archive in the blog's sidebar; this year's posts will total fewer than half the number from five years ago.

The drop in traffic actually doesn't distress me, because I derive no income from the blog, so I reflexly (and repeatedly) dismiss offers to "trade traffic." Visitors and viewers are important and relevant to me only insofar as they contribute to the content of the blog, via informed comments and interesting personal observations, and I am recurrently amazed by the variety of expertise and insight that readers here bring to the table.  I'm always delighted when a previously silent "lurker" pops up to offer a piece of information or a viewpoint that had never occurred to me.  That feedback reinforces my motto that "you learn something every day."

For the near future, this particular blog will soldier on.  Subject material is not (and never has been) a problem - the links I have saved in my "for the blog" folders now total over a thousand - which is quite ridiculous, of course.  Time is the only limiting factor.  I enter 2014 in good health and spirits; family responsibilities, including an elderly demented parent will require some time commitment but will also keep me near home and the computer.  I may or may not incorporate some new themes after the "show us your bookcase" series fades out. 

Today I will celebrate the blogiversary by stepping out the door to be greeted by 6-8" of snow newly fallen overnight on top of the ice from yesterday's freezing rain, which I will dutifully clear from the driveway and sidewalk.  Those of you who reside in subtropical climes don't realize how much you've missed out on the character-building experiences of the sometimes-frozen North.

17 December 2013

Anthropodermic bibliopegy

This book was bound with human skin.
Human skin was removed from a corpse, tanned (or processed in another way) and then used to cover a book. Harvard’s Houghton Library has one from the 1880s (read more about it here), but the one in this image is much older. Dating from the early 17th century, this book seems to have been bound in the skin of the priest Father Henry Garnet, who was executed in 1606 for his role in the Gunpowder Plot - the attempt to ignite 36 barrels of gunpowder under the British Parliament.
From Erik Kwakkel, whose post also has links to other books bound with human skin.  See also my 2009 post on the subject - Human skin used for bookbinding - as well as the followup last year on shoes made from human skin.

Tall women

Eleanor Roosevelt was 6 ft. tall

From an essay in Esquire:
In one survey, about half of collegiate men required their date to be shorter, while a monstrous nine of every ten women said they would only date a taller man... Only four percent of heterosexual couples feature a shorter man...

Here’s how I figure it: If a man is comfortable with the fact that I’m taller, he’s also likely to be comfortable with the fact that I’m competitive and outgoing and career-oriented. As in: It means he’s a secure man.
Julia Child (6'2") said ""Being tall is an advantage, especially in business. People will always remember you."

Nationmaster has a list of hundreds of famous tall women (and see bottom of the page for links to lists of famous short women, tall men, and short men).

Photo credit to the FDR Library.

Drug-testing welfare recipients

Minnesota may spend more money performing the drug tests and implementing the program than it saves by denying benefits to drug users:
A new state law designed to prevent drug users from receiving welfare benefits could end up costing taxpayers far more than it saves, while inadvertently denying assistance to poor families simply because they are unable to comply with its complex paperwork.

Like a recent wave of drug-testing laws passed in other states, Minnesota’s legislation was touted as a way to encourage greater responsibility among welfare recipients while saving taxpayers money.

But many county officials and advocacy groups say the reality is quite different: The law contains a bevy of costly local mandates and complicated rules that apply to just a tiny fraction of the 167,000 Minnesotans receiving welfare and other cash benefits.

Critics also say the policy is based on the false perception that large numbers of welfare recipients are using illegal drugs. A new analysis by the state Department of Human Services (DHS) found that participants in Minnesota’s welfare program for low-income families are actually far less likely to have felony drug convictions than the adult population as a whole...

In 2013 alone, at least 30 states proposed bills related to drug screening and testing, with some even extending it to federal benefits such as unemployment insurance, according to the Center for Law and Social Policy in Washington, D.C...

Just 0.4 percent of participants in the Minnesota Family Investment Program, the state’s main cash welfare program, have felony drug convictions, DHS records show. That compares with 1.2 percent of the state’s adult population as a whole.
This may be the most salient comment:
“I don’t think anyone is under the illusion that this is about saving taxpayers money,” said Heidi Welsch, director of family support and assistance for Olmsted County. “This is punitive.”

Catalonian Christmas customs explained

Posted for my cousin Karl, who is teaching English and playing the saxophone somewhere in Barcelona.

How corporations avoid paying income taxes

As reported in The Register (UK):
Facebook has reportedly swerved a huge corporation tax bill by paying its Ireland-based parent company - Facebook Holdings Limited - €1.75bn in “admin costs” for its intellectual property.

According to the Financial Times (£), Facebook recently reported a pre-tax loss of €626,000 after it paid out those expenses.

In 2012, Facebook Ireland Ltd had 382 staff on its books in Dublin, and reported a gross profit of €1.75bn and sales of €1.79bn for the year...

The practice of avoiding tax in that way – known as Double Irish – is used by other internet giants such as Google, which shifts some of its money through a Bermuda shell company...

Facebook defended its actions by saying it "complies with all relevant corporate regulations including those related to filing company reports and taxation.
This would be a good time to quote U.S. president Rutherford B. Hayes on the matter:
The real difficulty is with the vast wealth and power in the hands of the few and the unscrupulous who represent or control capital. Hundreds of laws of Congress and the state legislatures are in the interest of these men and against the interests of workingmen. These need to be exposed and repealed. All laws on corporations, on taxation, on trusts, wills, descent, and the like, need examination and extensive change. This is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people no longer. It is a government of corporations, by corporations, and for corporations.
Diary (11 March 1888]). 
Of course we should also point out that the "presidential election of 1876 had been thoroughly corrupted by fraudulent vote counts in favor of each candidate (the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, the Democrat Samuel J. Tilden, both of them held captive by the banks)."

A superb image resource from the British Library

News from the British Library:
We have released over a million images onto Flickr Commons for anyone to use, remix and repurpose. These images were taken from the pages of 17th, 18th and 19th century books digitised by Microsoft who then generously gifted the scanned images to us, allowing us to release them back into the Public Domain. The images themselves cover a startling mix of subjects: There are maps, geological diagrams, beautiful illustrations, comical satire, illuminated and decorative letters, colourful illustrations, landscapes, wall-paintings and so much more that even we are not aware of.
Which brings me to the point of this release. We are looking for new, inventive ways to navigate, find and display these 'unseen illustrations'. The images were plucked from the pages as part of the 'Mechanical Curator', a creation of the British Library Labs project. Each image is individually addressible, online, and Flickr provies an API to access it and the image's associated description.
Their Flickr photostream is here.

16 December 2013

Artificial sweeteners in a large Canadian river system

From the study published in PLoS One:
Artificial sweeteners have been widely incorporated in human food products for aid in weight loss regimes, dental health protection and dietary control of diabetes. Some of these widely used compounds can pass non-degraded through wastewater treatment systems...

In order to determine the riverine concentrations of artificial sweeteners and their usefulness as a tracer of wastewater at the scale of an entire watershed, we analyzed samples from 23 sites along the entire length of the Grand River, a large river in Southern Ontario, Canada, that is impacted by agricultural activities and urban centres. Municipal water from household taps was also sampled from several cities within the Grand River Watershed. Cyclamate, saccharin, sucralose, and acesulfame were found in elevated concentrations despite high rates of biological activity, large daily cycles in dissolved oxygen and shallow river depth. The maximum concentrations that we measured for sucralose (21 µg/L), cyclamate (0.88 µg/L), and saccharin (7.2 µg/L) are the highest reported concentrations of these compounds in surface waters to date anywhere in the world....

The effects of artificial sweeteners on aquatic biota in rivers and in the downstream Great Lakes are largely unknown.
The top image shows the sampling sites.  The graph below demonstrates that the aquatic concentrations corrrelate with the size of the human population upstream from the sample sites:

More at the link.

There may not be a "Mozart effect"

According to an article in the Harvard Gazette, the idea that studying music improves intelligence is probably a myth:
Though it has been embraced by everyone from advocates for arts education to parents hoping to encourage their kids to stick with piano lessons, a pair of studies... found that music training had no effect on the cognitive abilities of young children. The studies are described in a Dec. 11 paper published in the open-access journal PLoS One.

More than 80 percent of American adults think that music improves children’s grades or intelligence,” Mehr said. “Even in the scientific community, there’s a general belief that music is important for these extrinsic reasons. But there is very little evidence supporting the idea that music classes enhance children’s cognitive development.”

The notion that music training can make someone smarter, Mehr said, can largely be traced to a single study published in Nature. In it, researchers identified what they called the “Mozart effect.” After listening to music, test subjects performed better on spatial tasks.

Though the study was later debunked, the notion that simply listening to music could make someone smarter became firmly embedded in the public imagination...
Details and discussion at the links.

13 December 2013

Fire agate

Photo by David Millard (10X magnification), from the Nikon Small World 2011 Photomicrography competition.

Baby, it's cold outside

The solid red line in the gif is the "freezing line" forecast for this coming weekend (data and graphic from NOAA and Ham Weather, via Paul Douglas' On Weather).  Here in Madison, Wisconsin the temperature hasn't been above freezing even once in December.

Today I discovered that Lady Gaga and Joseph Gordon-Levitt chose to reverse the traditional male-female stereotypes for this song when they performed it for a holiday special with the Muppets:

Compare the modern version with the original from the musical romantic comedy "Neptune's Daughter" from 1949, where the heavy-handed seduction of Esther Williams by Ricardo Montalban is almost painful to watch:

Could America elect an atheist president?

Attitudes are changing.  But very slowly.
For starters, consider that there is not a single self-described atheist in Congress today. Not one. It wasn’t until 2007 that Rep. Pete Stark, a Democrat from Northern California, became the first member of Congress and the highest-ranking public official ever to admit to being an atheist. (And even he framed it in terms of religious affiliation, calling himself “a Unitarian who does not believe in a supreme being.”) Stark was elected twice after this, but when the 20-term congressman lost his seat last year, it was to a 31-year-old primary challenger who attacked him as irreligious, citing, among other things, Stark’s vote against our national motto: “In God We Trust.”...
The Cold War changed all that. Atheism began to seem almost treasonous amid tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, because the Soviets were officially and emphatically against religion. Sen. Joseph McCarthy famously used the phrase “godless communists” to bash the political left and others he considered his enemies. In this context, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed laws in the mid-1950s inserting “God” into our Pledge of Allegiance and putting it on all our money. (It had been on most coins earlier, but Eisenhower made “In God We Trust” our national motto, henceforth to appear on all bills.)
More about the history of religion and American politics at Politico.

11 December 2013

Nationwide collegiate grade inflation

Our examination of nationwide trends indicates that grading practices were largely constant for decades, but grade distributions have undergone gradual yet very significant changes since the 1960s. For the schools in our database, the number of A’s awarded has increased to such a degree that A is now ordinary. On average, A is now by far the most common grade awarded on American four-year campuses. Substandard grades, D and F, typically are awarded less than 10% of the time even on campuses with students of modest academic caliber.

Our data (Figure 1) show that in 1960, as in the 1940s and 1950s, C was the most common grade nationwide; D’s and F’s accounted for more grades combined than did A’s. On average, instructors were assigning grades by using a slightly skewed normal distribution curve centered at about a C+. By 1965, however, B had supplanted C as the most common grade, and D’s and F’s were becoming increasingly less common. From the early 1960s to the mid-1970s, grades rose rapidly across the nation, and A became the second most common grade awarded...

The Vietnam era was followed by a decline in A’s that lasted for roughly a decade. Awarding of A’s began to rise again in the mid-1980s. From 1984 to the mid-2000s, the proportion of A’s increased by a fact or of 1.5. By 2008, A’s were nearly three times more common than they were in 1960.

Our data on historical grade distribution averages agree well with other studies that have compiled grade distributions and GPAs from university-based data (Edson, 1955; Juola, 1976, 1980; Perry,1943; Sus low, 1976). 
Source, via.

The universe as a hologram

There are lots of things I don't/can't/will never understand.  Quantum theory and string theory lead the pack...
In 1997, theoretical physicist Juan Maldacena proposed that an audacious model of the Universe in which gravity arises from infinitesimally thin, vibrating strings could be reinterpreted in terms of well-established physics. The mathematically intricate world of strings, which exist in nine dimensions of space plus one of time, would be merely a hologram: the real action would play out in a simpler, flatter cosmos where there is no gravity...

In two papers posted on the arXiv repository, Yoshifumi Hyakutake of Ibaraki University in Japan and his colleagues now provide, if not an actual proof, at least compelling evidence that Maldacena’s conjecture is true...

Neither of the model universes explored by the Japanese team resembles our own, Maldacena notes. The cosmos with a black hole has ten dimensions, with eight of them forming an eight-dimensional sphere. The lower-dimensional, gravity-free one has but a single dimension, and its menagerie of quantum particles resembles a group of idealized springs, or harmonic oscillators, attached to one another.
I'm not asking for an ELI5 explanation.  I'm content to remain ignorant.

10 December 2013

Artistic skill beyond what words can describe

Detail from The Rape of Prosperina [Persephone], a sculpture in marble by Gianlorenzo Bernini.

Photo by Bill Barnewall.

Pets as hospital visitors

A New York Times article discusses hospital policies regarding visitation by "best friends":
But a few medical institutions have taken a different approach and thrown open their doors to patients’ own dogs and cats, letting them visit along with spouses, children and friends. (Lots of hospitals have pet therapy programs using trained dogs, but that’s a different matter.)

The University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore lets family pets visit their owners, so long as certain requirements are met, as does the University of Iowa Hospital and Clinics in Iowa City; Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center in Richmond; Rush University Medical Center in Chicago; two hospitals associated with the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.; and more than a dozen other medical centers...

Policies vary at the institutions that allow visits by patients’ pets, but many share some of the same requirements. A doctor’s order allowing the family pet to visit is typically necessary, as is an attestation from a veterinarian that the animal is healthy and up to date on all its shots. Most institutions require that dogs — the most common visitors, by far — be groomed within a day or so of a visit and on a leash when they walk through hospital corridors. Cats must be taken in and out of the institution in a carrier.

If a dog or cat wants to get up on a patient’s bed, a covering is laid down first. If an animal seems agitated or distressed when it comes into the hospital, staff members who meet the family and escort them to the patient’s room have the right to turn it away. If the patient shares a room with someone, that person must agree before a pet may visit...

Although research has shown that hospital therapy dogs can pick up germs and potentially transmit bacteria that can cause dangerous infections, those animals typically wander from room to room, while people’s own pets are expected to stay with the patient they are visiting. If someone has an open wound or an active infection, a visit from a family pet is discouraged, according to most hospital policies...
Data and anecdotes at the link.  Photo credit to Redditor sarcasticflower, via Neatorama.

The Biblical "reem" was the origin of Christian unicorn mythology

"[T]here are a number of references to unicorns in the Bible – God's strength is compared to the strength of the unicorn, and there are a lot of references to the unicorns horn being a source of misery and release. The problem is, those references aren't actually to unicorns at all. The people who wrote the Bible were not thinking of that Indian animal the Greeks were on about. 

As Lavers explains, the original Hebrew text of the Old Testament mentions an animal called a "reem." When scholars tried to translate this word into Greek, they were flummoxed. They had no idea what this "reem" was. They knew it was big, and it had horns, and that it obviously wasn't a goat. (Goats are mentioned elsewhere in the Bible.) So they translated it as "monoceros," meaning "one-horn." Then, when the Greek Bible was translated into Latin, the word became "unicornus." And that word, translated into English, is unicorn. 

Early in the 20th century, when scholars cracked the code on ancient cuneiform script, they finally learned what that mysterious reem really was. In these ancient texts, written around the time when the Hebrew Bible was being penned, there are many references to an animal called a rimu. Like the biblical reem, the rimu was enormous, strong, and had horns. That animal was an ox. So all of those references to unicorns in the Bible? Those are actually to an ox. Which, if you read the actual sections of the Bible, makes a lot more sense. 

But for nearly 1500 years, Christians believed in the unicorn version of things. The unicorn came to symbolize Christ, its horn the cross, and its tribulations during the hunt were like Christ's tribulations on earth. Interestingly, the idea that unicorns were attracted to virgins comes from a pagan source. A Latin book called the Physiologus, probably written in the second century CE, mentions that a unicorn can only be caught when it lays its head down in a virgin's lap. Christian analysts seized on this idea, suggesting that this was symbolic of how Christ came into the world – with the help of a virgin."
More details (and unicorn images) at io9, via The Dish.
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