28 February 2014

A European Peacock butterfly flashes its eyespots

YouTube link

This is its defense mechanism to scare off potential predators.
The Peacock butterfly’s main anti-predator defense mechanism comes from the four large eyespots that it has on its wings. These eyespots are brilliantly colored concentric circles. Like many other butterflies that hibernate, the Peacock butterfly exhibits many lines of defense against would-be predators. Avian predators of the butterfly include blue tits, pied flycatchers and other small passerine birds. The first line of defense against these predators for many hibernating butterflies is crypsis, a process in which the butterflies blend into their environment by mimicking a leaf and staying immobile. Some hibernating butterflies such as the Peacock have a second line of defense: when attacked, they open their wings, expose their eyespots and perform an intimidating display of threat. The intimidating visual display shown by the Peacock butterfly gives it a much better chance at escaping predators than butterflies that rely solely on leaf mimicry. While the main targets of these anti-predation measures are small passerine birds, even larger birds such as chickens have been shown to react to the stimuli and avoid the butterfly when exposed to eyespots.
Via A London Salmagundi.

Life in a drop of pond water

Religious fundamentalism and "out-group hostility"

As reported in the Washington Post:
One narrative about Muslim immigrants in Europe is that only a relatively small proportion holds views that are sometimes labeled as “fundamentalist.” Ruud Koopmans from the Wissenschaftszentrum in Berlin argues that this perspective is incorrect. He conducted a telephone survey of 9,000 respondents in the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, France, Austria, and Sweden and interviewed both Turkish and Moroccan immigrants as well as a comparison group of Christians.

His first finding is that majorities of Muslim immigrants believe that there is only one interpretation of the Koran possible to which every Muslim should stick (75 percent), and that religious rules are more important than the laws of the country in which they live (65 percent). Moreover, these views are as widespread among younger Muslims as among older generations.

He then looks at hostility toward out-groups. Fifty-eight percent do not want homosexual friends, 45 percent think that Jews cannot be trusted, and 54 percent believe that the West is out to destroy Muslim culture. Among Christians, 23 percent believe that Muslims are out to destroy Western culture. Koopmans says these results hold when you control for the varying socio-economic characteristics of these groups (although the analyses are not presented).

Religious fundamentalism is the strongest correlate of out-group hostility both among Muslims and Christians. Fundamentalism here is taken to mean beliefs that believers should return to unchangeable rules from the past, that the Bible/Koran should be taken literally, and that religious rules are more important than secular laws. Although Muslims are more likely to be fundamentalist and hostile toward out-groups than Christians, there are many more Christians in these countries. So, the overall numbers of Christians who feel hostile toward Muslims still vastly outnumber the Muslims who believe the West is out to destroy Muslim culture.
More at the link, via The Dish, where these observations are added:
Just over 57 percent of the general American population believes that “right and wrong in U.S. law should be based on God’s laws,” compared to 49.3 percent of U.S.-born Muslims and 45.6 of foreign-born Muslims.  About a third of each group believes that society should not be the one to determine right and wrong in U.S. law.  Such numbers reveal that the general American population is more fundamentalist than the average European, and that Muslim Americans are less fundamentalist than European Muslims, according to the Koopmans study.

The bulk of Muslim immigrants in the U.S. today arrived during or after the 1990s, the large majority pursuing economic opportunities and advanced degrees. Muslim immigrants in the U.S. are thus just as wealthy as, and tend to be better educated than, the average American. This high-skilled migration flow to the U.S. stands in contrast to the low-skilled labor immigration that Western Europe attracted following World War II to help rebuilding efforts.


Rapeseed in bloom, Luoping, China.  Found at a Reddit discussion thread.  Dozens more photos at Amusing Planet, including this one -

- which comes from an extended set at Flickr.

Pedestrians vs. vehicles

A post earlier this week about "jaywalking" raised questions about the relative priority given by society to automobiles vs. pedestrians.  In that light these photos are interesting.  The top one, from a photoessay at the Telegraph entitled "How cars changed England," is captioned:
Kensal Green, 1921.  Not a single car to be seen. Streets such as this were built for the lower middle classes, and are now choked with parked cars.
There are a dozen more relevant images at the link.  The image below was in the Guardian a couple days ago -

- entitled "Manhattan, 1918":
Pedestrians, horse-drawn carriages, cars and open-top buses throng the intersection of 5th Avenue and 42nd Street in midtown Manhattan, New York City.
A lot of change in a time span of just one human life.  Food for thought.

Credit: Photograph: Kadel and Herbert/ National Geographic Society/Corbis [sepia removed]

More turmoil in the maple syrup industry

As reported in the Wall Street Journal:
As production of maple syrup soars, the industry's big trade group is pushing a dozen states and four Canadian provinces that make up the North American maple belt to adopt one uniform grading standard. The International Maple Syrup Institute thinks the booming commodity can be better marketed world-wide without confusing consumers. But while many maple-producers are eager to spread the idea, scores of others are waffling over going to one international standard, fearing a loss of their quirky, homespun image...

Sugarmakers, as industry professionals call themselves, fear that sharing label descriptions with New York, Maine, Quebec and elsewhere will dilute the cachet of Vermont-made syrup...

Vermont, which puts maple syrup on a pedestal along with cheese and covered bridges, has long had its own distinctive syrup-grading system: Grade A Fancy Light Amber, followed by Grade A Medium Amber, Grade A Dark Amber, and Grade B, so-called, locals say, not because it is lower in quality but for its more intense maple flavor, which appeals to many tourists. But after a series of community "maple meetings," the state adopted new standards. By next year, all retail syrup in Vermont will be labeled "Grade A" because the trade group believes that consumers assume anything lower on the alphabet is inferior...

Light-colored syrup, for instance, is called "Fancy Grade" in Vermont, "Light Amber" in New York, and "No. 1 Extra Light" in Canada—a pattern seen in multiple categories. Market research showed consumers felt flummoxed, he said. For instance, "people were confusing light with fat-free and no calories, and well, we know maple syrup has calories," he said...

In Wisconsin, where the grading proposal is under discussion, syrup-maker Katrina Becker of Stoney Acres Farm said some producers fear their industry could become Big Maple. One standard is the first step to price controls, more regulation and speculative maple-syrup trading, she predicted.

27 February 2014

Mickey masks

"There is something bold and daring about a Mickey Mouse mask. It hovers in that nether world, the narrow line between friendly and scary. Early Mickey masks were honest. They stated their case clearly, and never stooped to cutesy. The rubber face of Disneyland, on the other hand, is soaked in sugar candy, sweet, cloying, and unflinchingly upbeat. But in the early days, Mickey Mouse masks were simple statements that captured the essence of Mickey. The basic 1930s Mickey Halloween mask, made of gauze, was pure, powerful and iconic...

Brace yourself for a unique experience, a photograph that is truly Extraordinary! This is a meeting of the original Mickey Mouse Club that took place, as it did every Saturday, sometime, in the early 1930s. It is a surreal vision that you might see, either as a nightmare, or a pleasant dream, or, perhaps, somewhere, in between. My hope is that you are viewing it on a 24” screen."
From a truly remarkable web page displaying the Mel Birnkrant collection of Mickey masks.  The photo embedded above is worth viewing in landscape size.  At that link you can also read an explanation of these British Mickey gas masks:

Sculptures created out of building bricks

"North Carolina artist Brad Spencer creates extraordinary sculptures out of a most ordinary medium—bricks. His work ranges from free-standing sculptures to relief sculptures. Some of his most striking works feature figures that appear to be seamlessly part of brick walls."
From EDW Lynch's Laughing Squid, where there are additional photos of this artist's remarkable work.

Via Neatorama.

The archaeology of personal and feminine hygiene

From the Chrysalis Archaeology Blog:
Our excavations of City Hall Park have recently uncovered artifacts involving female hygiene, including implements used for sexual healthcare... Vaginal syringes, like those we found in our City Hall excavation, were used discreetly in order to maintain health, treat venereal disease and prevent pregnancy...

In 1935, a major advancement was made in toilet paper. By this time, the American population had already ditched corncobs, newspaper pages, leaves, and mussel shells for what we consider modern toilet paper. But it wasn’t until this year that Northern Tissue advertised the first “splinter-free” toilet paper.

26 February 2014

Ayn Rand on stamp collecting

From her essay "Why I Like Stamp Collecting" (Minkus Stamp Journal, 1971):
The pleasure lies in a certain special way of using one’s mind. Stamp collecting is a hobby for busy, purposeful, ambitious people – because, in patterns, it has the essential elements of a career, but transposed to a clearly delimited, intensely private world…. A career requires the ability to sustain a purpose over a long period of time, through many separate steps, choices, decisions, adding up to a steady progression to a goal…. Purposeful people cannot rest by doing nothing…. They seldom find pleasure in single occasions, such as a party or a show or even a vacation, a pleasure that ends right then and there, with no further consequences.

The minds of such people require continuity, integration, a sense of moving forward. They are accustomed to working long-range…. Yet they need relaxation and rest from their constant, single-tracked drive. What they need is another track, but for the same train – that is, a change of subject, but using part of the same method of mental functioning. Stamp collecting fulfills that need….

In stamp collecting, one experiences the rare pleasure of independent action without irrelevant burdens or impositions. Nobody can interfere with one's collection, nobody need to be considered or questioned or worried about. The choices, the work, the responsibility - and the enjoyment - are one's own. So is the great sense of freedom and privacy.

 People cannot interfere, but they can be very helpful and generous. There is a sense of "brotherhood" among stamp collectors, of a kind that is very unusual today: the brotherhood of holding the same values...

The pursuit of the unique, the unusual, the different, the rare is the motive power of stamp collecting. It endows the hobby with the suspense and excitement of a treasure hunt - even on the more modest level of collecting, where the treasure may be simply an unexpected gift from a friend, which fills the one blank spot, completing a set...

In all those years (when not active in stamp collecting) I had never found a remedy for mental fatigue. Now, if I feel tired after a whole day of writing, I spend an hour with my stamps albums and it makes me able to resume my writing for the rest of the evening. A stamp album is a miraculous brain-restorer.
From Trish Kaufmann's CSA Dealer.

Ridiculously short pit stop

You know it's going to be fast, of course, because it's a Ferrari at an event.  But the car comes to a stop at 0:35 and is moving again at 0:38.  The title of the video takes three times as long as the pit stop.

Wisconsin governor Scott Walker orders a doctor fired

From The Daily Page in Madison's Isthmus:
In an email dated April 5, 2010, chief of staff Thomas Nardelli wrote to Walker about the county's Behavioral Health Division:
Chianelli reports that an MD was hired during his absence from work. The Medical Director did follow all professional channels to determine credentials, but failed to Google or MySpace the individual. It was recently discovered that she has a checkered past and has done some modeling work. It isn't pornographic, but is quite suggestive (I'm told -- I don't know her name). [Sh]e apparently models thongs and wasn't forthright in sharing that with staff prior to her hire as an hourly paid MD at BHD. John is working with Mark Camelli on a way to release her without much fanfare. John's [sic] is more concerned about having her on staff and subsequently having her Googled by staff only to learn of her 'other life' outside of her medical work. Apparently she's competent, but even the Medical Director is dismayed that she has a varied life style outside of her medical profession.
Walker replied to Nardelli later that day:
Get rid of the MD asap.
The doctor's name is not revealed in the email, and a spokesperson for the Milwaukee County Behavioral Health Division was not able to provide it or to confirm if she was indeed fired. A spokesperson for Gov. Scott Walker did not respond to a request for comment...

The Wisconsin Women's Network issued an official statement in response to the exchange between Walker and Nardelli.
"If this doctor was indeed fired for her previous modeling experience, then the Wisconsin Women's Network is disappointed at this very blatant show of discriminatory conduct. We believe that hiring and termination practices should be fair and grounded in individuals' abilities to fulfill the duties of their position, free of discriminatory harassment."
Patrick Hickey of the Workers' Rights Center of Madison says that most employees in Wisconsin are considered "at will," which means an employer can fire them for no reason as long as it isn't discriminatory as defined by state law.
Governor Walker is considered a leading candidate for the next GOP presidential primaries.

Yet ANOTHER polar vortex

The temperature this morning was approaching the lowest EVER recorded for this date in the history of recordkeeping (since mid 19th century) for Madison, Wisconsin.

This too shall pass.  And we need to keep in mind that despite all the prior polar vortex appearances, this past January was the fourth-WARMEST one ever recorded.

From Salon:
Last month was the fourth-warmest January on record, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported Thursday, with temperatures 1.17 degrees warmer than the 20th century average. Since we started keeping track back in 1880, only 2002, 2003 and 2007 have had a warmer start to their year.
Top photo credit:  NASA

Here's your "feel good" story for the week

Door at Pura Lempuyang (Temple of 1000 Steps), Bali

My knee-jerk reaction on seeing this photo was that I was looking at a painting by Magritte. 

Image found at Reddit, where there are links to other views of the structure.  Original credit not given there, but I believe I've tracked it to Gophrette Power.

25 February 2014

Voynich manuscript news

About a month ago reader nolandda reported in a comment here that progress had been made in deciphering the famous Voynich manuscript.  This week a more detailed report was issued by the University of Bedfordshire:
An award-winning professor from the University has followed in the footsteps of Indiana Jones by cracking the code of a 600 year old manuscript, deemed as ‘the most mysterious’ document in the world. 
Stephen Bax, Professor of Applied Linguistics, has just become the first professional linguist to crack the code of the Voynich manuscript using an analytical approach. The world-renowned manuscript is full of illustrations of exotic plants, stars, and mysterious human figures, as well as many pages written in an unknown text...

Professor Bax however has begun to unlock the mystery meanings of the Voynich manuscript using his wide knowledge of mediaeval manuscripts and his familiarity with Semitic languages such as Arabic. Using careful linguistic analysis he is working on the script letter by letter.

“I hit on the idea of identifying proper names in the text, following historic approaches which successfully deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphs and other mystery scripts, and I then used those names to work out part of the script... already my research shows conclusively that the manuscript is not a hoax, as some have claimed, and is probably a treatise on nature, perhaps in a Near Eastern or Asian language.” 
Some published reports overstate the significance of the news by referring to this as a decipherment of the document.  It would be more accurate (and a bit more prosaic) to indicate (as Professor Bax does) that what has been proved is that the ms. is internally cohesive and consistent with a true language, and not simply a nonsensical folly or hoax.

Note:  You can view a complete digitized copy of the Voynich manuscript online at Yale's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Addendum:  Here's a dissenting opinion by someone who does not feel that the possibility of a hoax has been eliminated.

A brief history of "jaywalking"

From the BBC:
The idea of being fined for crossing the road at the wrong place can bemuse foreign visitors to the US, where the origins of so-called jaywalking lie in a propaganda campaign by the motor industry in the 1920s...

The first known reference to it dates to December 1913, says Peter Norton, a history professor at the University of Virginia and author of Fighting Traffic - The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City. That month a department store in Syracuse hired a Santa Claus who stood on the street with a megaphone, bellowing at people who didn't cross properly and calling them jaywalkers...

The word was first used to describe "someone from the countryside who goes to the city and is so dazzled by the lights and the show windows that they keep stopping and getting in the way of other pedestrians".

The use of jaywalking as a term of ridicule against pedestrians crossing roads took off in the 1920s.

A key moment, says Norton, was a petition signed by 42,000 people in Cincinnati in 1923 to limit the speed of cars mechanically to 25mph (40kph). Though the petition failed, an alarmed auto industry scrambled to shift the blame for pedestrian casualties from drivers to walkers...

"The newspaper coverage quite suddenly changes, so that in 1923 they're all blaming the drivers, and by late 1924 they're all blaming jaywalking," Norton says.  Soon, he adds, car lobby groups also started taking over school safety education, stressing that "streets are for cars and children need to stay out of them". Anti-jaywalking laws were adopted in many cities in the late 1920s, and became the norm by the 1930s...

The UK is among those countries where jaywalking is not an offence. But the rate of pedestrian deaths is half that of the US, at 0.736 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2011 compared to 1.422 per 100,000 in America...

"I love how I see people getting jaywalking tickets everyday at the corner of 5th and Broadway by our loft, and yet I can't walk to my car without getting offered… any variety of hardcore narcotics," wrote one woman in a message that ended "#priorities".
Advocates for walking say drivers are most often to blame for pedestrian deaths and injuries, and that there is no evidence to prove that anti-jaywalking campaigns are effective. 
Related:  A Boing Boing post documents (with embedded video) a jaywalking arrest in Austin, Texas -
Jonl sez, "Streets near the University of Texas at Austin today are safer, thanks to quick and effective action by the local police, who caught and arrested a jogger, observed wearing a pony tail, black shorts, and a headset in the area. She was apparently menacing traffic by crossing the street in a manner construed as 'jaywalking,' however her apparent arrest was due to her failure to provide identification: i.e., she was guilty not just of jaywalking, but of anonymous jaywalking." 
- which leads to a discussion in the comments about Americans not driving a car needing to show identity cards.

The impressive nest of a snowy owl

Birdwatchers in the Northeastern and Midwestern states have reported a huge increase in sightings of snowy owls:

What I found most interesting was the top photo of a snowy owl nest (credit J.F. Therrian).  In the center is a clutch of unhatched eggs, and surrounding them are dozens of dead lemmings

More details at Goldenrod Blog and the Washington Post.

24 February 2014

Blog threat level returns to normal

After a two-week mental health break of hobbies and home activities, I'm back at the blogging desk.  The polar vortex has returned, keeping me inside and the butterflies away, so I should be good to go for a couple more weeks.

You can make your own adaptation of the Homeland Security Advisory System at Personal Threat Level.  (via Boing Boing).

A mommy films her cute kids in the back seat...

... while driving.  The little girl's salient comment afterwards confirms that the kids weren't hurt, and suggests that this was a real-life event, not a PSA...

Debunking golf myths

From the Wall Street Journal, some results based on an analysis of "every shot by every player in most tournaments since 2003" plus 100,000 shots by amateurs:
The No. 1 shibboleth Broadie's research debunks is that putting is golf's most crucial skill. From 2004 to 2012, across all tournaments that ShotLink recorded, putting contributed only 15% to the scoring advantage that the top 40 Tour players had over the field. Shots from off the green contributed 85%. The ratio is similar in recreational golf. Why the widespread misperception? "One reason is that putts are the last shot on a hole, so they can seem the most critical even though you had to do a lot of things right to get to that point," Broadie said. "Another is the highlight reels that show pros making 20- and 30-foot putts." ...

So what does matter more than putting? Driving contributes 28% of top players' advantage, and the main factor there is raw distance, not accuracy....

The biggest factor in lower scores, however, is approach shot accuracy. It contributes 40% of the advantage that the Tour's top players enjoy over their peers, and that amateurs at every level (70 shooters, 80 shooters, etc.) enjoy over less talented amateurs. For Woods, by far the top strokes-gained player between 2004 and 2012, it was even more: 46%. "If you want to know Tiger's secret, it's how good he is between 150 yards and 200 yards," Broadie said. That statistical category is key because so many shots are hit from that range—an average of seven per round in pro events—and good outcomes can lead directly to birdies. One or two feet closer to the pin, hole after hole, is huge.

The "Highway to Hell" video

This vehicular accident in Russia apparently didn't kill anyone (the truck driver escapes), but it is clearly one of the most spectacular such videos on the 'net, not for the size of the explosions, but for the number of them (apparently propane gas cylinders or the equivalent).  It goes on and on and on....

BTW, I used to work with compressed gas cylinders.  All of the observers in this video are batshit crazy to remain this close to the accident.  A cylinder of compressed gas is the noncombat equivalent of a wartime torpedo; it can penetrate concrete walls if the neck is broken.  Run, don't walk, away from incidents like this.

DNA testing is not a simple matter

There are some instructive points in this cautionary story of human chimeras:
"...a Washington state woman found out that pregnancy was not enough to prove motherhood; DNA testing indicated that she was, in fact, not the mother of her own children – so who was? During the course of a desperate battle to retain custody of her three children, it was discovered that her twin was the real biological parent. The twist? She, 26-year-old Lydia Fairchild, was her own twin."...

In order to qualify for financial assistance in supporting her young family, Fairchild was required to undergo DNA testing to prove that she was the mother of children for whom she was claiming... To her horror, the young mother was informed that she would be the subject of an investigation into possible welfare fraud as the DNA tests had revealed no genetic link between her and the children she claimed were hers...

Derived from the name of a strange hybrid creature, the Chimera of Greek legend, this condition had been documented just 30 times throughout the world. Those rare individuals, dubbed “Chimeras”, had started out as twins; in the early stage of pregnancy, one of the twins had merged with – been absorbed by, one could almost say – the other twin.

The cells of the consumed twin, however, did not disappear and remained alive in one concentrated area of their sibling’s body. In essence, a human chimera is one person made up of two separate sets of genetic material; they are, in fact, their own twins...

Some sixteen months later, after enduring the harrowing prospect of even pregnancy being no proof of motherhood, Lydia Fairchild found the case against her dismissed. Her attorney, Alan Tindell, reflected on the dire consequences of oversight in the testing of DNA. “People go to death row because of DNA tests,” he said, “people are released from death row because of DNA tests.”
A hat tip to reader talcumX for bringing the article to my attention.

Butterfly insolation

From the Wikipedia entry on this strikingly-patterned Mesoamerican butterfly (Marpesia zerynthia):
During hot weather the butterflies flutter constantly and feed with wings erect or partially open. When the conditions are cooler they hold their wings completely outspread for insolation, making it possible to observe the dark brown coloration of the ventral surface of the wings.
I had a brief moment of befuddlement as I encountered the word (which quickly made sense when I focused on the "sol"), then decided to read more about the phenomenon.  For those who enjoy hard science, I would recommend Behavioral Thermoregulation by High Arctic Butterflies (pdf).  And for those of the TLDR persuasion there is a concise summary at Learn About Butterflies (scroll down).

All of us who chase butterflies know that they are exquisitely solar-powered creatures whose behavior is strongly influenced by sunlight.  It's a common experience to encounter butterflies "basking" with their wings spread out horizontally and aimed directly at the sun, as this early-spring, cool-morning flier (a Mourning Cloak, aka Camberwell Beauty) exhibited on a tomato stake in our garden:

Some butterflies have evolved elaborate mechanisms to enhance their ability to capture solar energy.  Green Birdwing butterflies have portions of their wings in "ultrablack" - a type of "structurally assisted blackness" in which the wing scales are honeycombed and grooved to minimize reflectance of light.

Most butterflies will, like the Mourning Cloak, exhibit dorsal basking, but others do so with the wings upright:
Some butterflies, such as Clouded Yellows, Graylings & Green Hairstreaks, always keep their wings closed when at rest, and adopt another technique known as lateral basking. In cool conditions they bask by tilting their wings over to one side, so as to present the maximum area of wing surface to the sun. Conversely, when they get too hot, they tilt in the opposite direction so that their wing surfaces are parallel to the sun's rays, and present the minimum surface area to the sun.

The Whites, Blues and Coppers have wing surfaces which reflect, rather than absorb solar energy. Consequently they bask with their wings half open, so that the heat produced by sunlight falling on the dark thorax is contained within the "cage" of the half-open wings, rather than being dispersed on the breeze. This behaviour is called reflectance basking [or "body basking"].
The fourth technique (discussed in the article on arctic butterflies) is to use ground contact, "restricted to species living in places where bare ground is part of the natural environment (e.g. arctic and alpine tundra), the butterflies appress themselves to the substrate and absorb conducted, convected, and radiated heat."

The hairiness of the butterfly's body helps retain heat by trapping air in a windy environment.  And a final note: "...on hot days they need to find ways of keeping cool. Forest-dwelling species simply hide beneath leaves, while species that inhabit open areas often fly into bushes to seek shade, or enter rabbit burrows."

You learn something every day.

"Give that man a Bell's"

You Tube link.

A Scotch whiskey advertisement that has received over a million YouTube views.  You'll see why.

A Manhattan Project medal

Individuals who worked with the Manhattan Engineer District for more than one year were awarded a silver medal. Those with less than one year's service received a bronze medal.  I could find no record of anyone receiving gold medals.

More information at Oak Ridge Associated Universities (whence the photo) and at the Atomic Heritage Foundation, which is "dedicated to the preservation and interpretation of the Manhattan Project and the Atomic Age and its legacy."

09 February 2014

07 February 2014

Pondering the proper use of XOXOXOXOXO

From an essay in The Atlantic:
The use of xo to denote hugs and kisses dates back to at least 1763, when The Oxford English Dictionary first defined X as "kiss," but e‑mail and social media have provided a newly fertile habitat...

At first, its virtual identity was clear: a pithy farewell, sweeter than See you later, less personal than Love. Men could xo their wives. Girlfriends could xo girlfriends. It was a digital kiss—meant, of course, for somebody you’d actually kiss. But soon enough, nonstop e‑mails and IMs and tweets began to dilute its intimacy factor. “You could compare [it] to how the epistolary greeting Dear changed over time, originally just for addressing loved ones but eventually becoming neutral,” says Ben Zimmer, a linguist and lexicologist...

This gender divide has spawned a new breed of etiquette dilemmas, especially in the workplace. Can xo-ing colleagues shore up office alliances, or does the practice cross a line? Does one run the risk of being labeled a bitch for refusing to reciprocate? And what happens if a woman accidentally xo’s her male boss?

He almost certainly wouldn’t xo back, for fear of coming off as unauthoritative, unprofessional, or just plain creepy. Zimmer says he would never dare xo anyone but his wife (though the female editor of his Boston Globe column xx’s him frequently). Most men say xo has become so feminized, they wouldn’t even consider using it. “I’ve never signed an e‑mail, letter, text, stone tablet, smoke signal, or any other form of communication with xo,” says Brett Webster, a television producer in L.A. “Rightfully or wrongfully so, I would assume a guy who includes xo in correspondence is gay. Or a football coach.”
And, as always, I leave more at the source link.

Embedded image from Hipish.

Your "right to vote" is not a simple matter

The individual citizen has no federal constitutional right to vote.
We're between elections now, so voting rights is on the back burner for news stories, but the ongoing efforts to require voter IDs and otherwise make voting requirements more rigorous will resurface in the near future.

With that in mind, I'm offering here some excerpts from a most interesting article in the October 2012 issue of Harper's Magazine:
From Electoral Dysfunction, released in September by the New Press, in conjunction with a PBS documentary of the same name.

In the twelve years since the 2000 presidential election, billions of dollars have been thrown at the mechanics of voting—the machines we use, the way we register—and there have been legislative initiatives in almost every state targeting voter-identification requirements as well as early- and absentee-voting rules. But one thing has not changed ... the Constitution still does not guarantee the right to vote. The word “vote” appears in the Constitution as originally drafted only in relation to how representatives, senators, and presidential electors perform their duties. Representatives vote. But the people’s vote is not mentioned...

Even in the Bill of Rights, which made a slew of individual rights explicit, the Constitution did not mention a right to vote. The right to assemble and to petition government was established. The right to trial by jury (in civil disputes where the value exceeds $20), to due process of law, to confront witnesses in criminal cases, to keep and bear arms? Yes. Voting rights? No...

After all, almost all elections were local. Only one of the newly created federal offices was originally subject to direct popular vote. Neither senators nor the president were elected by the general population. Only members of the House of Representatives stood before the people for election. Each state was required to have a republican form of government, but no more than that. The Constitution in effect integrated into the new federal system whatever the states said about the right to vote...

... on a national level, that right might best be understood in the negative. The Fourteenth, Fifteenth, Nineteenth, Twenty-fourth, and Twenty-sixth Amendments to the Constitution provide a measure of protection. The vote cannot be denied to a citizen on the basis of race, gender, age (once the voter is over eighteen), or the ability to pay a poll tax. Beyond that, whether and how one has a right to vote is largely a matter of state law.

If there was any doubt of that, the U.S. Supreme Court made it clear in December 2000, in relation to presidential elections in Bush v. Gore:
The individual citizen has no federal constitutional right to vote for electors for the President of the United States unless and until the state legislature chooses a statewide election as the means to implement its power to appoint members of the Electoral College.
For those interested in such matters, there's lots more at the Harper's article (behind a paywall for some) re the implications.  Or read the book (or borrow it from your library - it's in ours).

04 February 2014

Edward Lear as a serious artist - updated

Most people who recognize the name "Edward Lear" remember him as the author of "nonsense verse," which he illustrated with line drawings.  I remember this verse and illustration from my childhood:

Lear was, however, a skilled artist, as the parrot at the top demonstrates.
“Although he is best remembered today as a whimsical nonsense poet, adventurous traveler, and painter of luminous landscapes,” Peck writes, “Edward Lear is revered in scientific circles as one of the greatest natural history painters of all time. During his relatively brief immersion in the world of science, he created a spectacular monograph on parrots and a body of other work that continues to inform, delight, and astonish us with its remarkable blend of scientific rigor and artistic finesse.”
So I'll offer a choice.  Those who would like to revisit the nonsense works can access fulltext (and fully illustrated) versions at this Project Gutenberg link.  Or you can see more examples of his bird paintings at Harvard Magazine.

Addendum:  A hat tip to reader Steven, who points out that a full reproduction of Lear's "Illustrations of the family of Psittacidae, or parrots..." is available online courtesy of the University of Wisconsin Digital Collections. There are 42 brightly-colored lithographs there, such as this one of the Stanley parakeet:

 (image cropped from the original)

03 February 2014

Iron inclusions inside lead shot from the Mary Rose

The image above was published in Archaeology magazine last year.  It's a neutron-beam-generated image of a lead shot from the Mary Rose shipwreck, showing a fragment (?crystal) of iron inside the lead coating.  I found more details at The Telegraph:
Among the items most exciting archaeologists are cannonballs believed to be early examples of armour-piercing rounds. Such shells were thought to have been developed during the late 1800s, before the technology was refined during the world wars. But the new findings by experts working with the Mary Rose Trust, which has been preserving the ship, now suggest the technology was being used several centuries earlier — although it could also have been a money-saving strategy, using cheaper iron inside the lead balls.
Image credit: Bob Cywinski, University of Huddersfield.

How taxpayers support the National Football League

In the wake of all the Superbowl hoopla, it seems appropriate to offer some excerpts from a trenchant article in The Atlantic:
Last year was a busy one for public giveaways to the National Football League. In Virginia, Republican Governor Bob McDonnell, who styles himself as a budget-slashing conservative crusader, took $4 million from taxpayers’ pockets and handed the money to the Washington Redskins, for the team to upgrade a workout facility. Hoping to avoid scrutiny, McDonnell approved the gift while the state legislature was out of session. The Redskins’ owner, Dan Snyder, has a net worth estimated by Forbes at $1 billion. But even billionaires like to receive expensive gifts...

In Minnesota, the Vikings wanted a new stadium, and were vaguely threatening to decamp to another state if they didn’t get it. The Minnesota legislature, facing a $1.1 billion budget deficit, extracted $506 million from taxpayers as a gift to the team...

A year after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, the Saints resumed hosting NFL games: justifiably, a national feel-good story. The finances were another matter. Taxpayers have, in stages, provided about $1 billion to build and later renovate what is now known as the Mercedes-Benz Superdome... Taxpayers even footed the bill for the addition of leather stadium seats.. Though Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal claims to be an anti-spending conservative, each year the state of Louisiana forcibly extracts up to $6 million from its residents’ pockets and gives the cash to Benson as an “inducement payment”—the actual term used—to keep Benson from developing a wandering eye...

That’s right—extremely profitable and one of the most subsidized organizations in American history, the NFL also enjoys tax-exempt status. On paper, it is the Nonprofit Football League... The insertion of professional football leagues into the definition of not-for-profit organizations was a transparent sellout of public interest. This decision has saved the NFL uncounted millions in tax obligations..

Baseball, basketball, ice hockey, and other sports also benefit from this same process. But the fact that others take advantage of the public too is no justification.

Debunking the value of "creativity"

From an interesting essay by Thomas Frank in the June 2013 issue of Harper's:
What was really sick-making, though, was [the] easy assumption that creativity was a thing our society valued.  Our correspondent had been hearing this all his life, since his childhood in the creativity-worshipping 1970s. He had even believed it once, in the way other generations had believed in the beneficence of government or the blessings of Providence. And yet his creative friends, when considered as a group, were obviously on their way down, not up. The institutions that made their lives possible — chiefly newspapers, magazines, universities, and record labels — were then entering a period of disastrous decline. The creative world as he knew it was not flowering, but dying.

When he considered his creative friends as individuals, the literature of creativity began to seem even worse — more like a straight-up insult. Our writer-to-be was old enough to know that, for all its reverential talk about the rebel and the box breaker, society had no interest in new ideas at all unless they reinforced favorite theories or could be monetized in some obvious way. The method of every triumphant intellectual movement had been to quash dissent and cordon off truly inventive voices. This was simply how debate was conducted. Authors rejoiced at the discrediting of their rivals (as poor Jonah Lehrer would find in 2012). Academic professions excluded those who didn’t toe the party line. Leftist cliques excommunicated one another. Liberals ignored any suggestion that didn’t encourage or vindicate their move to the center. Conservatives seemed to be at war with the very idea of human intelligence. And business thinkers were the worst of all, with their perennial conviction that criticism of any kind would lead straight to slumps and stockmarket crashes...

And what was the true object of this superstitious stuff? A final clue came from Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention (1996), in which Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi acknowledges that, far from being an act of individual inspiration, what we call creativity is simply an expression of professional consensus. Using Vincent van Gogh as an example, the author declares that the artist’s “creativity came into being when a sufficient number of art experts felt that his paintings had something important to contribute to the domain of art.” Innovation, that is, exists only when the correctly credentialed hivemind agrees that it does. And “without such a response,” the author continues, “van Gogh would have remained what he was, a disturbed man who painted strange canvases.” What determines “creativity,” in other words, is the very faction it’s supposedly rebelling against: established expertise. 

Consider, then, the narrative daisy chain that makes up the literature of creativity. It is the story of brilliant people, often in the arts or humanities, who are studied by other brilliant people, often in the sciences, finance, or marketing. The readership is made up of us — members of the professional-managerial class — each of whom harbors a powerful suspicion that he or she is pretty brilliant as well. What your correspondent realized, relaxing there in his tub one day, was that the real subject of this literature was the professional-managerial audience itself, whose members hear clear, sweet reason when they listen to NPR and think they’re in the presence of something profound when they watch some billionaire give a TED talk. And what this complacent literature purrs into their ears is that creativity is their property, their competitive advantage, their class virtue. Creativity is what they bring to the national economic effort, these books reassure them — and it’s also the benevolent doctrine under which they rightly rule the world.

Translating "Casse-toi alors, pauvre con!"

From the January 2014 issue of Harper's:
In February 2008, Nicolas Sarkozy was working the crowd at an agricultural fair near the Porte de Versailles in Paris when someone refused to shake his hand. “Don’t touch me,” the still unidentified man said. “You disgust me.” To which Sarkozy replied, “Casse-toi alors, pauvre con! ” Within twenty-four hours, a video of the exchange posted online had more than 700,000 views. “In the mouth of a French president, the expression is vulgar and devalues the office,” Louis-Jean Calvet, professor emeritus in linguistics at Aix-Marseille University, told me. “It’s like Obama, taunted in the street, responding, ‘Fuck off.’” Is it? In Le Monde, the journalist Eric Azan gleefully catalogued the anglophone press’s struggles with translating Sarkozy’s français de la rue, from the BBC’s “Get lost then you bloody idiot, just get lost!” to an Americanized take by the International Herald Tribune, “Then get lost, you poor jerk!” “The variations are infinite,” Azan wrote.

 “The particular problem between French and English derives from the meager quantity of insults in French and the abundance of them in English,” said Adam Thorpe, a translator who published a new version of Zola’s Thérèse Raquin in November. Casse-toi, first recorded as a command in 1835, uses the reflexive form of the verb casser, “to break.” Con is trickier; it owes its origins to the Latin for “vulva,” cunnus, and was in common use in medieval French. “There is no doubt that the meaning of con has become trivialized and weakened over time,” Jean-Paul Colin, an editor of Larousse’s Dictionnaire de l’argot et du français populaire, told me. Now the word is mainly used to point out acts of stupidity—and is thus indispensable for anyone living in France. Richard Pevear, who translates works of Russian literature with his wife, Larissa Volokhonsky, called pauvre con “rather ordinary French slang.” “You have to find something with a similar rhetorical force, a similar spontaneity, a similar physiological sense,” he said. But to translate it literally as “poor cunt” doesn’t work for Americans, “because we don’t use the ‘c’ word that way,” as the British do. Pevear settled for “Get lost, asshole!” or “Fuck off, asshole!” Thorpe eventually went for “Get lost, you little git,” though he’d accept “asshole” for American readers. Many of the harsher translations came from critics of Sarkozy, such as Cécile Alduy, a professor of French at Stanford University, who translated the phrase as “Fuck off, dumbass” in an article for The Atlantic. When I asked Daniel Gunn, the director of the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris, for his version, he wrote back, “The short answer is I would NOT translate it into English, as I wouldn’t spend my time on anything said by or to Sarkozy.” 
There's more at Harper's including how the incident led to a change in a longstanding French law against insulting the president.

01 February 2014

A Superbowl-ful of links

Model-turned-weathergirl Doria Tillier surprises viewers by following through with her promise to present the weather report in the nude if France qualified for the World Cup (video at the link).

gif of puppy learning to play "catch."

Audio of the Boston Symphony's response to JFK's assassination:
Gasps and screams of shock can be heard after the statement of JFK’s death, and after the change of programme is announced there is a general panicked hubbub that takes its time to subside. Then, as the orchestra begins its funeral dirge more slowly than is usual, every note throbbing with pain, there is only a numbed quiet as the news, the awful reality, sinks in.
Russians use a clever human-powered winch to retrieve a Honda SUV that had gone through the ice on Lake Baikal.

A curious internet mystery:
Eriksson didn’t realise it then, but he was embarking on one of the internet’s most enduring puzzles; a scavenger hunt that has led thousands of competitors across the web, down telephone lines, out to several physical locations around the globe, and into unchartered areas of the "darknet”. So far, the hunt has required a knowledge of number theory, philosophy and classical music. An interest in both cyberpunk literature and the Victorian occult has also come in handy as has an understanding of Mayan numerology.
An artist has "made headlines by assembling picture frames made of human placentas. She does it by boiling a whole placenta, grinding it into pieces, mixing it with resin, then shaping the mixture into a frame. It’s a keepsake for new parents, like a baby’s first blanket."

gif of an exploding whale (on shore and dead, full of the gases of decomposition).  I also found this report of the event while trying to research the name of the tool used to cut the whale open (I remember it starts with FL---) [flensing knife - hat tip to reader Oreneta].

I've written I think several posts in the past about how classical artists such as Vermeer almost certainly used camera obscura to help compose their paintingsVanity Fair has a long, detailed, well-written article on this subject.

Aerial photography reveals that a British housing development from the 1950s is shaped like a set of male genitalia; residents wonder what the effect will be on their home prices.

An op-ed piece at The Telegraph argues that wind farm noise is not insignificant and that government officials are covering up the problem.

gif of a rider on a scooter crashing multiple times during one crossing of an intersection.  The fifth one is the best.

A study of the distribution of coprolites indicates that some dinosaurs used "communal latrines."  Apparently this is not unexpected: "Elephants, antelopes and horses are among modern animals who defecate in socially agreed hotspots - to mark territory and reduce the spread of parasites." You learn something every day.

Yet still another list of best movies.  In this one, critic Barry Norman lists (alphabetically) the best 49 British films.  Readers were invited to choose the 50th (they voted for Slumdog Millionaire).

The "world's most frustrating tongue twister" is claimed to be "pad kid poured curd pulled cold."  If anyone cares.

Frankly scary footage of how car thieves can use modern technology to pop open the locks of modern automobiles.

A Reddit column in which disabled persons are asked "what are some things that people do to try and help you but actually irritates the hell out of you?"  Some interesting replies.

Twenty-seven lifehacks involving food (some of them very clever).

Evidence of European contact with New Zealand [delivering food to the natives] before Captain Cook's arrival.

Most people don't realize that it is very, very difficult to castrate a hippopotamus: 
The testes are inside the body, instead of outside in a scrotum. (Other mammals in the internal-testes club, since you asked, include the armadillo, sloth, whale, and platypus.) This makes the hippo's testes totally invisible from the outside. Combined with a penis that the paper's authors describe as "discreet," it means it's hard to tell males from females at a distance. 
When should you use "utilize," or should you just utilize "use"? ("the real problem is the new twist in the rule's formulation -- the idea that if utilize means "repurpose" it can only mean that, and plain old use can never mean that...)

Now you can listen to "the sound that no turbine technologist ever wants to hear."

Logos marking the male and female bathrooms in a pizza place (the slice seems disproportionately large, but we'll let that go).

An interactive birdsong poster (click on the bird, hear the song) from the Minnesota DNR.

A report from the Pew Research Center on how Americans value libraries.

When it sheds its skin during molting, one Australian caterpillar attaches its old head capsules onto its head.

Classic internet games from the 1970s and 1980s are now available online via the Internet Archive.

Photo credits (winners from the Olympus Bioscapes competition):
Top: Mr. David Millard Austin, Texas - "Great purple hairstreak butterfly (Atlides halesus) body scales."

Bottom: Dr. Matthew S. Lehnert and Ms. Catherine P. Mulvane, Kent State University at Stark, North Canton, Ohio - "Tip of the proboscis of a Viceroy butterfly. The protruding structures are chemosensilla used for tasting sugary fluids."
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