30 January 2013


Perhaps second only to lighting, proper composition is essential to photography.  This is as nice an example as I've seen.

The image depicts a winter scene in Krakow.  The photographer is Marcin Ryczek.

Via Reddit.

Now you can launch your own drone !

Those of you interested in personal armaments will be delighted to know that it is now possible to buy attack drones from China.  Here are some of the specifications:
The SKY-02 small attack UAV uses a rear engine and wing integrated delta wing layout. The fuselage uses composite materials and the head is equipped with the image guided and payload. Once the ground finds and identifies the target, UAV immediately goes into the attack status: ball tripod head freely rotates to guide the UAV attacking targets. Engine uses mechanical and electronic three grades insurance with high security. The UAV is mainly used in the mountains, hills and complex terrain conditions; does effective short-range real-time attack to the fixed ground target or slowly move targets, such as artillery hole, command post, communication station, radar station, oil truck, oil depot and other small and temporary goals. Small attack UAV is characterized with small size, light weight, convenient carrying, rapid outfield expansion procedure, easy operation and maintenance; the system only needs 2-3 operators to operate, can be carried by surveillance personnel to complete the attack mission.
Via Boing Boing.  The quoted price is only $1,000-2,000, but it's not clear if that includes the ground-based guidance system.

These will be essential when our government tries to attack you to take away your freedoms, because our government has armored vehicles and RPGs, and you don't (probably...).  Get several of these now, before Obama tries to ban them.

Plumbing vents in houses explained

These vents through the roof are designed to prevent the S-trap under your sinks from being siphoned dry.
Plumbing vents prevent traps from being siphoned. They also prevent back-pressure on traps, but today the focus is on siphoning. You may have heard that plumbing fixtures will drain faster when they're vented properly, and I know I've said this myself, but it's not necessarily true. The common, improper analogy is to talk about dumping a soda bottle upside down. You watch the water glug out while air replaces it, and this makes it drain super slow. Once you put a hole in the other side, the water drains out very quickly. This analogy doesn't hold water because the top side of every plumbing fixture is wide open. The top of a toilet is open...

Every plumbing fixture has a trap, which prevents sewer gas from coming in to the home. When a lot of water drains through a plumbing fixture, it can be enough water to create a siphon effect, which has the potential to pull water right out of the plumbing trap...

When water is siphoned through the drain, the water in the trap gets siphoned. This can lead to sewer gas coming in to the home. In short, plumbing vents are there to help prevent sewer gas from coming in to the home.
Text and image from my favorite home-repair/DIY blog in the StarTribune, which also has two videos illustrating the physics of plumbing vents.  Only homeowners will find this of interest.

Jovian embroidery

Crafted by Pardalote "loosely based on a series of photos by NASA showing the Great Red Spot devouring nearby little spots :-) Chain stitch in cotton, silk and specialty threads."

Via Neatorama and Craft.

If your baby stinks...

... it's probably not for lack of perfume.  But you can now purchase expensive perfumes designed with your baby in mind:
...Dolce & Gabbana have decided to launch a unisex perfume for the newborn in your life.

Speaking about the company’s latest offering, which will go on sale later this year at the relatively modest sum of £28 for a 50ml bottle, the designer Stefano Gabbana said: “That familiar smell associated with babies will only be accentuated by this fragrance.” It will contain notes of citrus, melon and honey, all famously evocative of newborns, and will “pamper every little boy and girl”. The scent, which is alcohol-free, has been inspired by the “softness of baby skin” and the “freshness of baby breath”.
Worse still, Dolce & Gabbana is not the only fashion house to dabble in this particular brand of ridiculousness. Bulgari’s Petits et Mamans perfume features Sicilian orange, bergamot and Brazilian rosewood. Hmm, the sweet smell of infants! At £35, Burberry’s Baby Touch will cost you significantly more than your weekly child benefit (if you’re still entitled to it), but it does promise “warm floral notes of cyclamen, orange blossom, lily of the valley and jasmine”.

How bullfighting threatens condors

The Guardian explains:
Each year high up in the Peruvian Andes, people celebrate the sacred condor in dozens of celebrations known as Yawar fiestas. These festivals are also threatening the last few hundred condors left in Peru because the birds are incorporated into bull fights in a fusion of Incan culture and Spanish colonial influence.
Those who don't have 4:44 to spare to watch the video can skip to the 3:00 mark to see a condor tied on to the back of a bull.

Catching a monster wave in Portugal

The veteran surfer Garrett McNamara looks likely to have broken the world record for the highest wave ever ridden. He caught the wave off the coast of Nazaré in Portugal on Monday (January 28). It was reportedly 100ft high (30.48m), although that is subject to verification.  Picture: REUTERS
From a gallery of fifteen photos on the subject at The Telegraph, where it is noted that
"The area of Portuguese coast is known for the enormous swells, with underwater canyon running right up to the shoreline cliffs, amplifying the waves that are created. The swells along the Praia do Norte are now known as creating some of the biggest surf in the world."
Addendum:  And here's the video (hat tip to reader txticulos):

So... is it The Beatles, or the Beatles ?

Apparently that is a matter of some contention, as exemplified by the Wikipedia editors' discussion of the topic, some excerpts of which are below, via Harper's:
They were “The” Beatles not “Beatles,” like “The” Kinks. “The” Who, not the “Who.”

It is standard practice when determining usage to allow those whose logo it is to make such determinations. If The Beatles capitalize the “T,” then a capital T it is.

I have a MA in Modern English Language and am a former proofreader and copy editor and current music editor for Amazon.com. In my professional work we never capitalize the “the” in band names, never ever.

Never mind articles or websites. Just take a look at Ringo’s bass drum. At least HE knew what their name was!

From the band’s album covers, it’s not obvious that they considered the word “The” an essential part of their name. Note that the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band shows the band name as “BEATLES.”

This whole nonissue is a bunch of hairsplitting. While a few folks fastidiously change “the” to “The” when the word “Beatles” follows, REGARDLESS OF THE CONTEXT OR HOW MANY TIMES THE NAME HAS ALREADY BEEN MENTIONED AND/OR CAPITALIZED, this is not done with any other band. This is time- and space-wasting, not to mention a bit hypocritical.

Did someone ask for an expert in British English? I have had nineteen years in publishing and editing, and I have to agree with my American colleague above. And if the copy editors who worked on books are wrong, and if the Amazon.com editor is wrong, and if I am wrong, then why even seek the opinions of professionals here? Among professionals, it does appear the lowercase usage outnumbers the capitalized one; it is only among amateurs that the professional usage is slammed! So let the pros be wrong. In which case Ringo Starr’s site, which uses lowercase, must also be wrong. George doesn’t seem to mention it. John Lennon’s people must be wrong on their official site. Brian Epstein’s site is wrong. Only Paul McCartney capitalizes.
FWIW, Wikipedia does not capitalize "the."

29 January 2013

A 17th century game board

The image above shows top and bottom view of a magnificent game board from the 17th century, whose story is detailed at The History Blog:
Attributed to Georg Schreiber of Königsberg, Prussia, a 17th century master craftsman famed as the chess set maker to royalty, the game board is made of opaque white amber and translucent red amber on a wood chassis with an ebony superstructure, carved Roman-style portrait busts and chased silver accents. There’s a Nine Men’s Morris board on one side, a chess board on the other, and it opens up to reveal a diptych backgammon board. Inside it holds 14 game pieces of cream amber, with a white amber profile in the center overlaid with translucent red amber, and 14 pieces of translucent orange amber. The profiles are of all the kings of England from William the Conqueror to James I...

This particular game board with its exquisite craftsmanship and royal English theme may have first been owned by King James I, who ruled England at the time of the board’s creation and who is the last English king portrayed on the game pieces... we know that King Charles I was an avid chess player, not even interrupting his game when he was told that the Scots had changed sides and were supporting Parliament. According to the tradition that has accompanied the piece for centuries, King Charles I brought the game board to the scaffold on the day of his execution, January 30th, 1649...
Further details on the provenance of the board at the link.  Here's a view of the board opened for playing backgammon:

Bill Gates' crusade against polio

Later this month, Gates will deliver the BBC’s Dimbleby Lecture, taking as his theme the value of the young human being. Every child, he will say, has the right to a healthy and productive life, and he will explain how technology and innovation can help towards the attainment of that still-distant goal. Gates has put his money where his mouth is. He and his wife Melinda have so far given away $28 billion via their charitable foundation, more than $8  billion of it to improve global health...

“We’re focused on the help of the poorest in the world, which really drives you into vaccination. You can actually take a disease and get rid of it altogether, like we are doing with polio.”  This has been done only once before in humans, with the eradication of smallpox in the 1970s.  “Polio’s pretty special because once you get an eradication you no longer have to spend money on it; it’s just there as a gift for the rest of time.”..

For Gates, though, polio is a totem. The abolition of the disease will be a headline-grabber, spurring countries on to greater efforts. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will spend $1.8 billion in the next six years to accomplish that goal, almost a third of the global effort.

“All you need is over 90 per cent of children to have the vaccine drop three times and the disease stops spreading. The number of cases eventually goes to zero. When we started, we had over 400,000 children a year being paralysed and we are now down to under 1,000 cases a year. The great thing about finishing polio is that we’ll have resources to get going on malaria and measles.”

“It doesn’t relate to any particular religion; it’s about human dignity and equality,” he says. “The golden rule that all lives have equal value and we should treat people as we would like to be treated.”  
I'm a polio survivor, and I applaud his efforts.  Also, I discovered last week that one of my former students is a program director at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

What are the odds?

This was the deal for a game of Spider.  The game uses a double deck, so I think the chance of seeing 10 black cards on the layout is about 1/1650.

I waste too much time playing solitaire. 

1913 Liberty Nickel for sale

The Walton specimen is the most elusive of the five 1913 Liberty Head nickels; for over 40 years, its whereabouts were unknown and it was believed to have been lost. George O. Walton, for whom the specimen is named, purchased it from Newman and Johnson in 1945 for approximately US$3,750, equal to $48,410 today.  On March 9, 1962, Walton died in a car crash en route to a coin show. He had promised the show's promoters that he would exhibit the 1913 Liberty Head nickel there, so it was assumed to have been among the coins in his possession when he died. A quarter-million dollars worth of coins were recovered from the crash site, and among them was the 1913 Liberty nickel in a custom-made holder. However, when his heirs later submitted Walton's coins for a 1963 public auction, the nickel was returned because the auction house mistakenly thought it was not genuine. The coin remained in the possession of Walton's heirs, kept in a strongbox on the floor of a closet in his sister's home for over 40 years.
It's now up for sale at Heritage Auctions, expected to go for several million dollars.

The photo is of a different one of the five known to exist.

Human scum

As reported in The Guardian:
Islamist insurgents retreating from Timbuktu set fire to a library containing thousands of priceless historic manuscripts, according to the Saharan town's mayor, in an incident he described as a "devastating blow" to world heritage. Hallé Ousmani Cissé told the Guardian that al-Qaida-allied fighters on Saturday torched two buildings that held the manuscripts, some of which dated back to the 13th century...

The manuscripts were held in two separate locations: an ageing library and a new South African-funded research centre, the Ahmad Babu Institute, less than a mile away. Completed in 2009 and named after a 17th-century Timbuktu scholar, the centre used state-of-the-art techniques to study and conserve the crumbling scrolls...

The manuscripts had survived for centuries in Timbuktu, on the remote south-west fringe of the Sahara desert. They were hidden in wooden trunks, buried in boxes under the sand and in caves. When French colonial rule ended in 1960, Timbuktu residents held preserved manuscripts in 60-80 private libraries.

The vast majority of the texts were written in Arabic. A few were in African languages, such as Songhai, Tamashek and Bambara. There was even one in Hebrew. They covered a diverse range of topics including astronomy, poetry, music, medicine and women's rights. The oldest dated from 1204.

Seydou Traoré, who has worked at the Ahmed Baba Institute since 2003, and fled shortly before the rebels arrived, said only a fraction of the manuscripts had been digitised. "They cover geography, history and religion. We had one in Turkish. We don't know what it said."

He said the manuscripts were important because they exploded the myth that "black Africa" had only an oral history. "You just need to look at the manuscripts to realise how wrong this is."
The incident reminds me of how Spanish Catholic priests destroyed the illuminated codices of the Americas:
There were many such books in existence at the time of the Spanish conquest of Yucatán in the 16th century, but they were destroyed in bulk by the Conquistadors and priests soon after. In particular, all those in Yucatán were ordered destroyed by Bishop Diego de Landa in July of 1562. De Landa wrote: "We found a large number of books in these characters and, as they contained nothing in which were not to be seen as superstition and lies of the devil, we burned them all, which they (the Maya) regretted to an amazing degree, and which caused them much affliction." Such codices were primary written records of Maya civilization, together with the many inscriptions on stone monuments and stelae that survived. However, their range of subject matter in all likelihood embraced more topics than those recorded in stone and buildings, and was more like what is found on painted ceramics (the so-called 'ceramic codex'). Alonso de Zorita wrote that in 1540 he saw numerous such books in the Guatemalan highlands that “...recorded their history for more than eight hundred years back, and that were interpreted for me by very ancient Indians.” (Zorita 1963, 271-2). Fr. Bartolomé de las Casas lamented that when found, such books were destroyed: "These books were seen by our clergy, and even I saw part of those that were burned by the monks, apparently because they thought [they] might harm the Indians in matters concerning religion, since at that time they were at the beginning of their conversion." The last codices destroyed were those of Tayasal, Guatemala in 1697, the last city conquered in America. With their destruction, the opportunity for insight into some key areas of Maya life has been greatly diminished.
Addendum:  Here's more information from the report in the Los Angeles Times:
The library of the Ahmed Baba Institute held about 40,000 of the estimated 100,000 ancient manuscripts in Timbuktu...

“It’s the greatest loss of the written word in Africa since the destruction of the library of Alexandria,” Park said, referring to the great library of ancient Egypt. “It’s the destruction of information that was unknown and will now never be known.”..

Experts say the manuscripts included a wide array of court records and documents revealing international relations in the ancient world, giving them importance beyond Mali itself. The records may also have offered a window into the selling of slaves across the Sahara, shedding light on the roots of the trade. Many of them had not yet been read, Park said.
Second addendum:  Time offers the view that the destruction may have been minimized -
In interviews with TIME on Monday, preservationists said that in a large-scale rescue operation early last year, shortly before the militants seized control of Timbuktu, thousands of manuscripts were hauled out of the Ahmed Baba Institute to a safe house elsewhere. Realizing that the documents might be prime targets for pillaging or vindictive attacks from Islamic extremists, staff left behind just a small portion of them, perhaps out of haste, but also to conceal the fact that the center had been deliberately emptied. “The documents which had been there are safe, they were not burned,” said Mahmoud Zouber, Mali’s presidential aide on Islamic affairs, a title he retains despite the overthrow of the former President, his boss, in a military coup a year ago; preserving Timbuktu’s manuscripts was a key project of his office. By phone from Bamako on Monday night, Zouber told TIME, “They were put in a very safe place. I can guarantee you. The manuscripts are in total security.”

That was confirmed too by Shamil Jeppie, director of the Timbuktu Manuscripts Project at the University of Cape Town, who told TIME on Monday night that “there were a few items in the Ahmed Baba library, but the rest were kept away.” The center, financed by the South African government as a favored project by then President Thabo Mbeki, who championed reviving Africa’s historical culture, housed state-of-the-art equipment to preserve and photograph hundreds of thousands of pages, some of which had gold illumination, astrological charts and sophisticated mathematical formulas.
I hope this is true.

28 January 2013

Musing about American foreign policy

Extended excerpts from a thoughtful essay:
The debate about taxes is over, which is one of the few good things that can be said for it. The debate about spending, which has already proved narrow and grubby, is pending...

Around the world, “power projection” is, in fact, a central mission of American forces. Smith expressed alarm at the prospect of its diminishment. He asked a question, which was purely rhetorical: “What if, all of a sudden, we don’t have troops in Europe, we don’t have troops in Asia, we are just, frankly, like pretty much every other country in the world?”..

Early Americans considered a standing army—a permanent army kept even in times of peace—to be a form of tyranny. “What a deformed monster is a standing army in a free nation,” Josiah Quincy, of Boston, wrote in 1774. Instead, they favored militias...

Not until the Second World War did the United States establish what would become a standing army. And even that didn’t happen without dissent. In May of 1941, Robert Taft, a Republican senator from Ohio, warned that America’s entry into the Second World War would mean, ultimately, that the United States “will have to maintain a police force perpetually in Germany and throughout Europe."..

On September 8, 2011, when Buck McKeon convened the first of his House Armed Services Committee hearings on the future of the military, no one much disputed the idea that the manifest destiny of the United States is to patrol the world...

In the speech, Eisenhower reckoned the price of arms:
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. This is a world in arms. This world in arms is not spending money alone; it is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. . . . This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.
The United States, separated from much of the world by two oceans and bordered by allies, is, by dint of geography, among the best-protected countries on earth. Nevertheless, six decades after V-J Day nearly three hundred thousand American troops are stationed overseas, including fifty-five thousand in Germany, thirty-five thousand in Japan, and ten thousand in Italy. Much of the money that the federal government spends on “defense” involves neither securing the nation’s borders nor protecting its citizens. Instead, the U.S. military enforces American foreign policy...

Lately, Bacevich argues, Americans “have fallen prey to militarism, manifesting itself in a romanticized view of soldiers, a tendency to see military power as the truest measure of national greatness, and outsized expectations regarding the efficacy of force. To a degree without precedent in U.S. history, Americans have come to define the nation’s strength and well-being in terms of military preparedness, military action, and the fostering of (or nostalgia for) military ideals.”..

Only a tiny minority of members of Congress have known combat, or have family members who have. “God help this country when someone sits in this chair who doesn’t know the military as well as I do,” Eisenhower once said. From Reagan to Obama, but especially during the Administrations of the past three Presidents, none of whom ever saw active duty, civilian thinking about foreign policy has been subordinated to military thinking...

The decision at hand concerns limits, not some kind of national, existential apocalypse. Force requires bounds. Between militarism and pacifism lie diplomacy, accountability, and restraint. 
There's more in the five-page-long essay in The New Yorker.  Those who are regular readers of this blog have probably figured out that when I raise objections to war, it is typically not on a moral basis.  I have no ethical dilemna with the necessity of war, given appropriate provocation and necessity.  What I object to is the economics of war.  I don't believe that we can afford our current military posture.  I simply do not understand why we have 55,000 troops stationed in Germany. 

"...and here comes Alan..."

I'm normally reluctant to post "fail" videos, but I couldn't pass this one up.

Via Boing Boing.

A lucid and level-headed discussion of fracking

Excerpts from the best article I've read yet about fracking:
Supplies of natural gas now economically recoverable from shale in the United States could accommodate the country’s domestic demand for natural gas at current levels of consumption for more than a hundred years: an economic and strategic boon, and, at least in the near term, an important stepping-stone toward lower-carbon, greener energy.

Even at recent, somewhat higher prices, natural gas is now significantly cheaper than either diesel fuel or gasoline on an energy-equivalent basis: a little more than one-tenth the wholesale, spot prices of about $3 per gallon for those liquid fuels. Lower-priced natural gas has had important consequences for the U.S. economy...

Consumers have benefited directly from lower gas-utility bills, and industrial customers have benefited by switching fuels—as have chemical and other processors that use gas as a feedstock... The shift from coal to gas in the electricity sector has also yielded an environmental bonus—a significant reduction in emissions of CO2, because CO2 emissions per unit of electricity generated using coal are more than double those produced using gas...

The bulk of the natural gas produced from shale today is derived from wet sources: marketing of the liquid products (which command higher prices) justifies the investments. That means that the economic momentum of the shale-gas industry can be sustained for the long term only by decreasing production (ultimately causing prices to adjust—a process that may be under way as drilling diminishes at current prices) or by increasing sales of its product. Increased use of natural gas for transportation could provide an additional domestic market, taking advantage of the significant price disparity versus gasoline or diesel fuels (as noted above)...

To date, then, we can say conclusively that a shift to natural gas from coal has changed the U.S. energy system in ways that yield economic and environmental gains. But there are serious environmental challenges associated with freeing that gas from the shale and distributing it to consumers...

Drillers developing a well must take exceptional care to minimize contact between the wellbore and the surrounding aquifer—often the source of nearby residents’ fresh water. Serious problems have arisen in the past from failures to isolate the drilling liquids, including cases where well water used for drinking became so contaminated that human and animal health was threatened...

Care must be exercised to protect groundwater from spillage and to guard against potential leakage from the ponds. Moreover, the facilities to which the contaminated water is eventually transferred may be ill-prepared to deal with the challenges posed by its unusual chemical composition; for instance, conventional treatment facilities are not equipped to deal with radioactive materials—which under the circumstances could be transferred to the water bodies receiving the treated effluent.

Finally, careless drilling and production from fracked wells can result in fugitive emissions of methane from the shale below. Such inadvertent releases of methane could more than offset the advantages otherwise realized by reducing emissions of CO2 through substituting natural gas for other fuels.
There's much more at the Harvard Magazine link.  This article is refreshingly free of the polemic that typically characterizes discussion of this technology.

A brief history of high heels for men

Excerpts from a story at the BBC:
For generations they have signified femininity and glamour - but a pair of high heels was once an essential accessory for men... 

"The high heel was worn for centuries throughout the near east as a form of riding footwear," says Elizabeth Semmelhack of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto.  Good horsemanship was essential to the fighting styles of Persia - the historical name for modern-day Iran. "When the soldier stood up in his stirrups, the heel helped him to secure his stance so that he could shoot his bow and arrow more effectively," says Semmelhack...
A wave of interest in all things Persian passed through Western Europe. Persian style shoes were enthusiastically adopted by aristocrats... As the wearing of heels filtered into the lower ranks of society, the aristocracy responded by dramatically increasing the height of their shoes - and the high heel was born...

Although Europeans were first attracted to heels because the Persian connection gave them a macho air, a craze in women's fashion for adopting elements of men's dress meant their use soon spread to women and children.  "In the 1630s you had women cutting their hair, adding epaulettes to their outfits," says Semmelhack.  "They would smoke pipes, they would wear hats that were very masculine. And this is why women adopted the heel - it was in an effort to masculinise their outfits."..

Men's fashion shifted towards more practical clothing. In England, aristocrats began to wear simplified clothes that were linked to their work managing country estates. It was the beginning of what has been called the Great Male Renunciation, which would see men abandon the wearing of jewellery, bright colours and ostentatious fabrics in favour of a dark, more sober, and homogeneous look...

The 1960s saw a return of low heeled cowboy boots for men and some dandies strutted their stuff in platform shoes in the 1970s.
Photo from the archives of the Bata Shoe Museum.

25 January 2013

"Pond-effect" snow ?

Most people who live in cold climates are aware of the phenomenon of "lake effect snow."  Even so, it's sometimes startling to realize the  magnitude of the effect.  The image above, from Paul Douglas' On Weather blog, shows a recent dump of 32 inches of snow on Oswego, New York - in one day.

What I learned yesterday while reading up on this at Dr. Jeff Masters' Wunderblog, is that a long fetch over open water is not mandatory.  His photo illustrating the Oswego event -

- shows, in addition to the 32" snowfall at the far right, areas of enhanced snowfall downwind from power plant cooling ponds (lower left corner).
Note the thin streaks of snow to the southwest of Lake Michigan in north central Illinois. According the the National Weather Service in Chicago, these bands of snow were lake-effect induced, but not from Lake Michigan--the snow was due to cold air flowing over warm waters in power plant cooling ponds. Image credit: NASA.
And here's a close-up image from the Chicago NWS:

You learn something every day.

Obama as a "perpetual war" president

Four years into his presidency, Barack Obama’s political formula should be obvious. He gives fabulous speeches teeming with popular liberal ideas, often refuses to take the actions necessary to realize those ideas and then banks on most voters, activists, reporters and pundits never bothering to notice – or care about – his sleight of hand.

Whether railing on financial crime and then refusing to prosecute Wall Street executives or berating health insurance companies and then passing a health care bill bailing out those same companies, Obama embodies a cynical ploy – one that relies on a celebrity-entranced electorate focusing more on TV-packaged rhetoric than on legislative reality.

Never was this formula more apparent than when the president discussed military conflicts during his second inaugural address. Declaring that “a decade of war is now ending,” he insisted that he “still believe(s) that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.”

The lines generated uncritical applause, much of it from anti-war liberals who protested against the Bush administration. Living up to Obama’s calculation, few seemed to notice that the words came from the same president who is manufacturing a state of “perpetual war.”

Obama, let’s remember, is the president who escalated the Afghanistan War and whose spokesman recently reiterated that U.S. troops are not necessarily leaving that country anytime soon. He is the president who has initiated undeclared wars in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya. He is also the president who, according to data from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, has launched more than 20,000 air strikes — and those assaults show no sign of stopping...
Continued at David Sirota's essay in Salon.

Sad Abe, Happy Abe

This works - I tried it last night.

Via Humor Train and my old favorite Tacky Raccoons.

Turning the tables

In 19th century Africa, it was sometimes the natives who enslaved the whites:
In 1817, the American sea captain, James Riley, published *An Authentic Narrative of the Loss of the American Brig “Commerce,” Wrecked on the Western Coast of Africa , in the Month of August, 1815, with an Account of the Sufferings of the Surviving Officers and Crew, who were Enslaved by the Wandering Arabs of the Great African Desert or Zahahrah*. More recently, Captain Riley’s memoire has been reprinted, though with a title that better fits modern sensibilities: *Sufferings in Africa: the Incredible True Story of a Shipwreck, Enslavement, and Survival on the Sahara* (New York: Skyhorse, 2007). This edition, along with a fictionalized version by Dean King, called *Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival* (New York: Back Bay Books, 2005) enjoy respectable sales for reprints of a book nearly two centuries old.
Captain Riley’s story is pretty well summed up by the original title of his book. While sailing from Gibraltar to the Cape Verde Islands, Riley’s mid-sized merchant ship got lost in the fog and wrecked on the west Moroccan coast. Trapped on shore and having run out of both food and water, Riley and the surviving crew threw themselves on the mercy of some passing Berber tribesmen, who promptly enslaved and carried them off into the desert. Abused, underfed, and overworked, the captives were nearly dead when their masters sold them to an Arab trader, who bought the Americans on Riley’s promise of ransom if they returned to the coast. The rest of An Authentic Narrative recounts the survivors’ slightly less brutal journey over desert and mountains to the port city of Mogador (modern Essaouira) and their eventual freedom.
More details at The Public Domain Review, which has link to full-text versions of the books being discussed.

Young critics don't want unrealistic stories

Cynical-C Blog collects one-star reviews from Amazon and assembles them in a feature called "You Can't Please Everyone."  Herewith some one-star reviews of Animal Farm.
Of all the things I have ever read! What a terrible and unrealistic story. I mean, how can animals talk? I have a parrot that talks but not in complete sentences. And besides the pigs run the show in this and if it really happened the cats would run things because everyone knows that cats are born leaders. Anyway, I wouldn’t reccomend this book to my worst enemy. I read this book to my nephew, Simon and he started crying and now he is afraid of pigs and horses because he says that they will rise up and establish a totalitarianist state and will rule over us. Ughhhh! It gives me a head ache.

Perhaps the worst book I have ever layed eyes on. I can’t stand this kind of unrealistic plot, (whose ever heard of pigs giving lectures about politics). If I weren’t having to read this for English 10 I could be digging into a true classic and my holidays would be much more enjoyable.

Its is so annoying to see liberals writing books in politics, and i dont care who they attack- Liberals hate everybody else. Stupid guy had to express his feelings and whine about Russia. Okay Russia was bad, but this is just annoying. I didnt learn anything new, and even if i did i probably wouldnt care. A kid who reads this is going to be shocked at what he reads, no magic, just boring old crap.


            Queen Elizabeth was visiting sick children in a Scottish hospital, and after performing her planned duties, she wandered off to other parts of the hospital.  Walking into an unidentified ward, she went up to a patient in bed and asked him how he was doing.  He replied:

"O, my luve is like a red, red rose,
That's newly sprung in June.
O, my luve is like the melodie,
That's sweetly played in tune....."

Finding the response somewhat inappropriate she wished him good day and moved down the ward to a room where another man was sitting quietly.  In response to her inquiry, he began singing:

"Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to min' ?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And days o' lang syne ?"

            Somewhat baffled by this sequence of events she found a third room, where her greeting was met with:

"Wee, sleekit, cowrin', tim'rous beastie,
O, what a panic's in thy breastie ...."

            She gave up, and left the ward.  On her way out, she encountered the head nurse.  "Is this the psychiatric ward?" she asked.

            "No, your majesty," the nurse replied.  "It's......the Burns unit."

Today marks the 254th birthday of Robert Burns.

24 January 2013

"The Recluse of Herald Square"

Excerpts from a fascinating story in Smithsonian:
An officer at the Guaranty Trust Company remembered Ida coming to the bank in 1907, at the height of the financial panic, demanding the balance of her account in cash and stuffing all of it, nearly $1 million, into a netted bag. Declaring she was “tired of everything,” she checked into the Herald Square Hotel and disappeared, effectively removing herself from her own life...

With the help of two nurses, and in the presence of members of both factions of the Wood family, Ida was moved to a pair of rooms directly below the ones she had occupied for so many years. She wept as they escorted her downstairs. “Why?” she asked. “I can take care of myself.” Her old suite was searched and inside an old shoebox they found $247,200 in cash, mostly in $1,000 and $5,000 bills. They thought that was all of it until the following day, when a nurse tunneled a hand up Ida’s dress while she slept and retrieved an oilcloth pocket holding $500,000 in $10,000 bills. 

Next they examined Ida’s 54 trunks, some stored in the basement of the hotel, others in an uptown warehouse. Inside lay bolts of the finest lace from Ireland, Venice and Spain; armfuls of exquisite gowns, necklaces, watches, bracelets, tiaras and other gem-encrusted pieces; several $1,000, $5,000, and $10,000 gold certificates dating back to the 1860s; a gold-headed ebony stick (a Wood family heirloom that had been a gift from President James Monroe), and an 1867 letter from Charles Dickens to Benjamin Wood. Each trunk was taken to the Harriman National Bank, where the contents were placed in vaults. In an old box of stale crackers they discovered a diamond necklace worth $40,000
There's much more about this interesting lady at the Smithsonian source (where there's a citation to a book written about her.)

Via Neatorama.

Imagining a dystopian future

This was the cover of The New Yorker twenty years ago (September 1993).

Via Stuff Smart People Like.

Robert Louis Stevenson's baby book - online

A remarkable record of the first few years of author Robert Louis Stevenson’s life, as noted down by his mother in a “Baby Book”. The book featured above, published in 1922, consists of a facsimile of the original handwritten baby book followed by a transcription. Amid various baby-related milestones, such as first teeth, crawl, walk, etc., we hear reports of a young “Lou” (also called “Boulihasker, Smoutie, Baron Broadnose, Signor Sprucki,.. Maister Sprook”) first engaging with and questioning the world around him…
Screencap and text from The Public Domain Review.  Even if you're not interested in RLS's first words, there are lots of other very interesting books stored at that link.  Lots of material for bloggers.

Newspaper obituaries can be expensive

My parents passed in 2010, three months apart. My dad's obit was $1,100 and my mom's $900. And this was in a small coastal New England city of about 30K. We also placed the obits online. It was free and there was a comment option. You had the choice of keeping the comments up for free for 90 days, or longer for a price.
I actually didn't know they cost money; I didn't write one for my father's death and don't plan to do so for my mom's.  And when I die, I don't expect anything to be written in the local paper.  Maybe a final blog post, though...

23 January 2013

A depiction of world migration flows

A site called peoplemovin has a massive interactive graphic presenting data on migration into and out of countries around the world.  Click on your country's name in the left column, and the number and destination of emigrants is depicted.  Click on the right to access the immigration data.

What do you notice about these photos?

They were used in an advertising campaign.  Most people apparently notice the black spot of ?lettuce on the men's teeth, rather than the fact that the woman in the top photo has six fingers on her left hand, the second photo has an extra arm on the man's shoulder, and the man in the third photo is missing an ear. 

The photos were created by Colgate to promote their dental floss.

Images cropped from the original at imgur, via Reddit.

"Beaker vessels" for drinking holly extract

Coffee had not yet arrived in Europe from southern Arabia when Spanish explorers came to the southeastern United States and discovered that Native Americans were already drinking a highly caffeinated beverage. Called Black Drink, it was made from the toasted leaves of two species of llex (holly) and was used by many tribes as part of purification rituals that also included fasting and vomiting...

By analyzing residue left in the beaker vessels dating to as early as A.D. 1050 from which Black Drink was consumed, Crown’s team has shown that the local population of Cahokia, the largest pre-Columbian site north of Mexico, had in fact been imbibing the potent potable 500 years earlier than previously thought.
Photo credit: Linda Alexander and the Illinois State Archaeological Survey.

Auto insurance adjusted for driving habits

Since early December, State Farm Insurance has been offering Wisconsin residents the chance for deep discounts on their auto coverage, if they agree to let the company, in effect, ride shotgun.

State Farm says the program, dubbed Drive Safe and Save, allows for a more accurate calculation of risk, by way of a small device added to a vehicle’s diagnostic port that tracks real-time driver behavior. Factors such as speed, mileage, lane changes, location, time of day and braking urgency are measured.

Drivers who participate in the program get a 5 percent discount immediately, and then are eligible for further cuts of up to 50 percent after six months of monitoring, depending on what the record shows...

This is just a way for us to set better rates for customers who are good drivers,” said Missy Dundov, spokeswoman for the Bloomington, Ill.-based insurer. “This program is a chance to get discounts.”..

Other insurance companies, including Progressive and Allstate, offer similar versions of driver-monitoring programs in at least some states...

Erpenbach said he wasn’t surprised to see insurance companies trying to monitor people’s driving practices, but he questioned where it would all end.

“If I’m State Farm, sure, I want to know about any driving habit of my policyholders,” he said. “I would also love to know, if I’m State Farm, what everybody does in their houses (for home insurance purposes). And I’m sure health companies would love to see people’s grocery lists.”
I have heard concern expressed that if the insurance company has access to detailed information on your driving, they might deny a claim based on data they extract.

Camera in a remote-controlled model F16

Regarding the XL pipeline

An article in Salon describes a young man's attempt to travel the length of the pipeline.  Most of what I've read before focused on the risks to the Ogalalla aquifer, but while browsing his story, I learned a few other things, most importantly this:
TransCanada, the company that will build the pipeline, has falsely claimed that there will be upward of 20,000 jobs. An independent study, conducted by Cornell University, determined that the pipeline would create only 2,500 to 4,650 jobs, almost all of which will be temporary, and only between 10 to 15 percent of the jobs will be local, in-state hires.

As for the “we need oil” claims, few realize that much of the oil won’t be used in the United States. The oil will be pumped down to Port Arthur, Texas, where it will be refined and shipped off to foreign nations. Valero, one of these refining companies (which will get 20 percent of the Keystone XL oil), will not have to pay taxes on the exported oil since Port Arthur is in a Foreign Trade Zone.
So I looked up the reference for that last point:
The Port Arthur refinery operates as a Foreign Trade Zone (FTZ), which traditionally gives tax benefits to companies that use imported components to manufacture items within the United States. Usually refineries importing oil tax-free will still pay taxes when selling the refined products into the U.S. market. By both importing into and exporting from Port Arthur the company will avoid paying tax on the product sales.
A pretty sweet deal for Valero Energy Corporation (VLO).

A duel in gas balloons, 1808

On an otherwise ordinary day in May 1808, two men of rather obscure backgrounds took part in an event that went down in history as one of the more bizarre tales of jealousy ever recorded. The two Frenchmen, Monsieur de Grandpre and Monsieur de Pique, quarreled over one Mademoiselle Tirevit, a dancer at the Imperial Opera... One of the fellows decided he did not wish to share Mademoiselle Tirevit's affections with the other strange bedfellow and so he challenged his rival to a duel...

One of them came up came up with the (absolutely brilliant) idea of dueling in hot air [sic] balloons. And so on the morning of May 3, 1808, a crowd gathered near the Tuileries to watch Monsieur de Grandpre and Monsieur de Pique conduct the first ever aerial dogfight...

When they reached about 2,000 feet, Monsiuer de Pique fired his blunderbuss (a muzzle-loading firearm with a short barrel). Sadly, (at least for de Pique and his unfortunate second), de Pique missed. Monsiuer De Grandpre then took aim and fired. His bullet ripped through the fragile skin of de Pique's balloon, causing it to collapse. The basket tipped and de Pique and his second fell headfirst to their deaths.
Text from Titillating Tidbits About the Life and Times of Marie Antoinette.  The image, via Wikipedia, is unrelated to the duel, but is of a contemporaneous balloon.

A Reddit thread about this duel has many comments re the unfortunate situation of the seconds, who apparently had to ascend with the duellists, and one of whom died.  Reddit also has a link to The British Newspaper Archive, which has a photocopy of the original report in the Northampton Mercury in 1808, and this salient response in the comment thread:
This event almost certainly occurred in GAS balloons, not hot air. In the early 1800s nearly all sport balloons relied on hydrogen or some other gas to provide lift. Yes, the very earliest balloon flights were in hot air balloons but within months after those first flights gas supplanted hot air as a much more practical lighter than air lift source. Hot air did not come back into fashion until the 1950s and 60s when modern lightweight synthetic fabrics and propane heaters made our current hot air balloons possible.
I have frequently read reports of 19th century balloons described as "hot air," when "gas" would have been the correct term.

I also wonder whether the first duellist aimed at his opponent, while the second one aimed (?intentionally) at his opponent's balloon.

22 January 2013

"Bog army" found in Denmark

From a report at ScienceNordic:
Archaeologists have spent all summer excavating a small sample of what has turned out to be a mass grave containing skeletal remains from more than 1,000 warriors, who were killed in battle some 2,000 years ago... The site is located in the Alken Enge wetlands near Lake Mossø on the Jutland peninsula.

The area that has so far been excavated contained bone fragments from around 240 men aged between 13 and 45. The men’s bones are marked by melee weapons such as swords and axes...  The marks from the predators’ bite indicate that the dead warriors were left to die and rot on the battlefield, without anyone bothering to bury or even remove the bodies...

One of the greatest historians of the Roman Empire, Tacitus (56 AD – 120 AD) described the aftermath of the Roman’s famous defeat in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD.
“In the middle of the plain, bones lay either spread out or heaped, depending on whether they had fled or resisted. Next to the bones lay bits of spears and horse limbs, and there were also human heads nailed to trees. In the nearby groves were barbarian altars in which they had sacrificed tribunes and centurions of the first rank,” Tacitus wrote in his Annals...

“The bones are completely fresh,” he says. “Some DNA has been preserved, so we can get a good profile of what Iron Age man looked like. An anthropological analysis of the bones will provide us with a picture of their diet and their physical appearance.” ..

The project, titled ‘The army and post-war rituals in the Iron Age – warriors sacrificed in the bog at Alken Enge in Illerup Ådal’ is a collaboration between archaeologists and geologists at Skanderborg Museum, Moesgård Museum and Aarhus University.
Image cropped from the original in a gallery of 13 photographs at the source article.

"Egg-sprinkler" explained

"If you spin a hard-boiled egg in a pool of milk, the milk will wick up the sides of the egg and spray off at the egg's equator. Engineer Tadd Truscott, of Brigham Young University, along with Ken Langley and others, launched an investigation to figure out why this happens -- complete with a custom-built spinning apparatus, billiard balls and high speed video cameras."
An NPR SciFri video, via Oregon Expat.

Newel post

This one is real - not Photoshopped - as explained by the craftsman's son in a discussion thread at Reddit.   It was featured in a JLC magazine article in 2005; the post is hand-carved from mahogany and modeled after a tropical strangler fig tree.  Carving and installing the handrail required 800 man-hours.

A modern child

From the weekly collection at The New Yorker.

21 January 2013

Baby it's cold outside

An arctic cold front is moving through our area.  Temperatures are plunging, and the wind chill tonight is predicted to be -27 F (-33 C).  Here's what it feels like:

An ancient riverbed - on Mars

London, Jan 18: New astonishing pictures by the European Space Agency have revealed a 1500 km long and 7 kilometre wide river that once ran across Mars... The agency’s Mars Express imaged the striking upper part of the remnants of Reull Vallis river on Mars with its high-resolution stereo camera...

This sinuous structure, which stretches for almost 1500 km across the martian landscape, is flanked by numerous tributaries, one of which can be clearly seen cutting in to the main valley towards the upper (north) side.

The new Mars Express images show a region of Reull Vallis at a point where the channel is almost 7 km wide and 300 m deep. The sides of Reull Vallis are particularly sharp and steep, with parallel longitudinal features covering the floor of the channel itself.

These structures are believed to be caused by the passage of loose debris and ice during the “Amazonian” period – which continues to this day – due to glacial flow along the channel. The structures were formed long after it was originally carved by liquid water during the Hesperian period, which is believed to have ended between 3.5 billion and 1.8 billion years ago. 
Image and text via The Hindu Business Line.

Photo credit: European Space Agency

How to break your wrist - on purpose!

The web is a seemingly unending source of weirdness.  A thread at Reddit today [two years ago] links to a website called "BlurtIt" where ?teens exchange information and ideas.  Here's the top entry under "How To Break Your Wrist" -
Keep hitting it every night and then like do it for two nights and then wake up 1 morn then hit it xtra hard then hit it with a spoon or sumin then tell your mum that ur wrist reli hurts then ask if you can go to the doc he will give you a cast! If you have an x ray there will be sum fracture there! And if you dont get cast tell ur doc that is reli sencitif and that it hurts when you touch it THEN you will get a cast
im doing it right now and this is the second night now so tomoz im going to complain and get a cast YAY!!!

Oh and here are sum things u cud say
u fell and hurt it
u banged it on the table
u jamed it in da door
im using i fell and hurt it

im getting a cast!
I certainly don't understand; it doesn't appear to be a self-harm trend in the usual sense - more of an attention-getting device.  Among the more salient comments in the Reddit thread is this one: "Oh god. I'm never letting my kids ever meet any other kids."  There is also a site called "How To Break Your Bones!"

Addendum:  Reposted from 2010 because this post keeps getting comments, all of which seem to be from preteens or teenagers.   They are obviously not regular readers of the blog; they find the post because it shows up on the first page of a Google search for how to break your wrist.

What should I do about this?  I don't have children of this age and can't get myself into the mindset of a juvenile having problems in school and wanting to break his/her wrist.  I have deleted some comments that I thought were too "instructional" or supportive.

I'd appreciate some adult comments added to the thread, especially from anyone familiar with this phenomenon or knowledgeable re the psychology and sociology of these young people.

Reposted again to bring TYWKIWDBI readers up to date on some of the comments, including a rather sad one last night.  And btw, this post comes up on the front page of a Google search for "how to break your wrist," so keep in mind that any comment you offer may be read by untold numbers of young people.

"Spiked ammo" as a wartime "dirty trick"

Recently used in Syria, previously used by the British and Germans in WWII, and by the United States in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

The "Orion bullets'

An Astronomy Picture of the Day, from NASA, explained as follows:
Cosmic bullets pierce the outskirts of the Orion Nebula some 1500 light-years distant in this sharp infrared close-up. Blasted out by energetic massive star formation the bullets, relatively dense, hot gas clouds about ten times the size of Pluto's orbit, are blue in the false color image. Glowing with the light of ionized iron atoms they travel at speeds of hundreds of kilometers per second, their passage traced by yellowish trails of the nebula's shock-heated hydrogen gas. The cone-shaped wakes are up to a fifth of a light-year long
The human mind is just not configured to comprehend scales of magnitude like this.  At least not mine.

Necklaces made from human teeth

Three selections from a collection of 15 photos of necklaces made of teeth, assembled at Deformutilation

From top to bottom, necklaces from The National Museum (or Museum Gajah) in Jakarta, Indonesia, Bower’s Museum of Cultural Art in Santa Ana, California, and the Auckland Museum, New Zealand.

A crowning achievement

On a recent trip to the dentist, [Alecia] White discovered that little Savannah had four cavities. So, White allowed the dentist to fill them.

"They took her back and I was allowed to go back when they sedated her and after she was sedated, they had me go back out to the waiting room," White said.

White brought her groggy, little girl home when the procedure was done and let her take a nap. However, when Savannah woke up and White looked in her mouth, she saw that every single tooth, top and bottom, were [sic] capped with stainless-steel crowns...

White wanted to know if a mouth full of stainless-steel crowns is normal for a child. So, 3 On Your Side consulted Dr. Richard Chaet, who's been in dentistry for more than 30 years...

Chaet claimed that although it looks bizarre, all of those caps were necessary to fill Savannah's cavities and to save other teeth that were probably deteriorating.

"This is a child who is obviously very high risk for decay," Chaet said.

He went on to say that some dentists probably would have gone a step further by putting on white veneers to cover a lot of those silver caps even if the patient couldn't afford it. Chaet said a lot of dentists would have done it free of charge because children are sensitive about how they feel and look.

And that's exactly what happened to Savannah. Another dentist who actually saw Savannah's teeth offered to put on those veneers free of charge.
Text and image from AZFamily, where the comment thread is long (and vehement).

Transgender time-lapse

"... a transgender young woman documents her transition from male-to-female in 1,000 time-lapsed photos taken over a three-year period."
In the YouTube comments, the subject notes having had FFS (facial feminization surgery) during this time period.  I wish the position of the face relative to the camera (and the camera to the room) had been standardized during the process, but it's still fascinating.

Via This Week and Miss Cellania.

A "solar-powered" vertebrate

From a report at New Scientist:
No backboned animal has been found that can harness the sun – until now. It has long been suspected, and now there is hard evidence: the spotted salamander is solar-powered.

Plants make food using photosynthesis, absorbing light to power a chemical reaction that converts carbon dioxide and water into glucose and releases oxygen. Corals profit from this reaction by housing photosynthetic algae inside their shells...

Spotted salamanders, too, are in a long-term relationship with photosynthetic algae. In 1888, biologist Henry Orr reported that their eggs often contain single-celled green algae called Oophila amblystomatis. The salamanders lay the eggs in pools of water, and the algae colonise them within hours...

Then in 2011 the story gained an additional twist. A close examination of the eggs revealed that some of the algae were living within the embryos themselves, and in some cases were actually inside embryonic cells. That suggested the embryos weren't just taking oxygen from the algae: they might be taking glucose too. In other words, the algae were acting as internal power stations, generating fuel for the salamanders.

To find out if that was happening, Erin Graham of Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and colleagues incubated salamander eggs in water containing radioactive carbon-14. Algae take up the isotope in the form of carbon dioxide, producing radioactive glucose.

Graham found that the embryos became mildly radioactive – unless kept in the dark. That showed that the embryos could only take in the carbon-14 via photosynthesis in the algae.
More at the link, including a hypothesis that the same process may occur in other species.  This gives me a better appreciation for the little salamanders that used to fall down our window well and basement stairs when I was a kid.

Photo credit: Michael Redmer/Getty
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