29 April 2014

A pocket of chalcedony on chrysocolla stalactites

From the Inspiration Mine in Arizona:
It was collected, he recalls, in the early 1960s. It is a classic example of the quartz-covered chrysocolla stalactites, but unusual in that it was preserved as a whole pocket...
Photo (click to supersize) from The Arkenstone, via Twisted Sifter - with a hat tip to reader Erik.

Everyone loves to burn weeds

Ah, springtime - when the minds of public works administrators turn to... fire.

Controlled fires ("prescribed burns") are commonly used to remove dead grass and plants.  In the urban setting the fires tidy up "waste areas" where weeds have grown the previous year.  The fires remove dead and unattractive vegetation, clearing the way for new growth.

The process opens up views and avoids the application of herbicides.  In the setting of an arboretum, the process is typically accompanied by explanations that the controlled burns will promote the restoration of native plants.

The burns are intended to mimic the prairie wildfires that intermittently swept through the paleoenvironment of the Midwestern plains.  There is no doubt that certain ecosystems are in fact dependent on the existence of wildfires:
The most important management tool in oak savanna restoration is the controlled burn. Savanna burns kill invading brush, small trees, and brambles, keeping the woods open and encouraging the growth of grasses and forbs. These are low-intensity burns that have no effect on the oaks themselves. 
For an extensive discussion of the rationale for, and the methodology of prescribed burning, see the website for the Savannah Oak Foundation.

There are casualties during prescribed burns.  Unless knowledgeable volunteers scavenge the prairie or grassland first, one unfortunate and unavoidable loss will be the egg cases of praying mantises, which are not at all fire resistant.  Also lost in the process will be the chrysalis of any overwintering butterfly (and some giant silkmoths), some butterfly eggs that overwinter, and a few adults.

There is one way to balance the conflicting interests of prairie and butterfly enthusiasts.  When natural fires swept the paleoenvironment, they were large - but not comprehensive.  Hundreds (or thousands) of acres might be burned, but this occurred in the setting of a prairie or woodland of tens of thousands of acres.  After the burn, when the grasses and forbs regrew, the new prairie was then repopulated by insects (mantids, butterflies, moths) that migrated in from the adjacent unburned areas.

Modern burns are often conducted in the setting of an isolated environment - a 40-acre grassy area surrounded by cornfields for example.  If such an area is burned in toto in one session, it may not be possible for aboriginal insects to repopulate it.  Large butterflies (monarchs etc) travel great distances, but smaller ones like grass skippers can repopulate only contiguous areas.  The same may be true for certain plants that need to reestablish themselves after a fire.

Thus, if you plan to burn a 40-acre lot to counteract woody growth, consider burning just 10-15 acres one year, waiting several years, then burning another section of the lot.  This allows native insects and plants to reestablish themselves and maintain their populations.

A British iron age coin die

As reported by the British Museum:
One of the most recent acquisitions made by the Department of Coins and Medals is a highly unusual object – an ancient punch or ‘die’ used to manufacture coins in the second century BC. The die was found in Bredgar, Kent by a metal detector user in 2013 and is being used to shed new light on when the first coins were made in Britain...

Close examination of the coin die revealed that it was used in the production of the early Gallo-Belgic A coins. What this means is that, although it is the third Iron Age coin die to be found in the UK (the others are also in the British Museum), it is almost certainly the earliest. The most significant aspect of this discovery is the fact that it is a British find. This raises the intriguing possibility that the earliest known coins from Britain were actually made here and not just imports from the Continent.
More at the link, including comments re the stylized horse on the die and the chalk one at Uffington.

The path lightning takes through a cow - updated

Not proven to have been caused by lightning, but a reasonable assumption; the effects are a bit more dramatic (and less beautiful) than Lichtenberg figures (cow photo credit Cairns Post)

I did some more searching and found this (link now dead) -
When lightning hits the ground, current flows through the earth in a wide area around the point of impact. This is how a lightning strike can kill a field full of cows - the long wheelbase of the average cow means that a nearby strike induces a significant potential difference across the ground spanned by the cow's front and back legs; current flows through cow, cow dies.
There is extensive discussion of mammal deaths by lightning at Tetrapod Zoology, including photos of large groups or entire herds of animals being killed at one time; in such cases ground conduction, not direct strikes, has to be responsible.

That's why it's recommended that humans caught in the open should not only crouch low, but keep their feet close together - if you're not struck directly, you don't want your feet far enough apart to create a potential difference for voltage moving through the ground.

Addendum:  via Laughing Squid, this infographic illustrating the points above.

(Reposted from 2009)

Percentage of Americans with bachelor's degrees

Found at the Washington Post, created by @MetricMaps.

28 April 2014

"Silent Storms" (Northern lights compilation)

If you're going to watch, the fullscreen icon is worth clicking.

Is turpentine an intoxicant ?

I raise the question because of a passage I encountered this week in chapter two of Gabriel Garcia Marquez' Of Love and Other Demons (translated from Spanish by Edith Grossman):
She was already addicted to fermented honey, which she had consumed with her school friends before she was married, and still consumed, not only by mouth but through all five senses in the sultry air of the sugar plantation. With Judas she learned to chew tobacco and coca leaves mixed with ashes of the yarumo tree, like the Indians in the Sierra Nevada. In the taverns she experimented with cannabis from India, turpentine from Cyprus, peyote from Real de Catorce, and at least once, opium from the Nao of China brought by Filipino traffickers. But she did not turn a deaf ear to Judas's proclamation in favor of cacao. After trying all the rest, she recognized its virtues and preferred it to everything else. Judas became a thief, a pimp, an occasional sodomite, all out of sheer depravity because he lacked for nothing. One ill-fated night, in front of Bernarda, with only his bare hands, he fought three galley slaves in a dispute over cards and was beaten to death with a chair…

He pushed her door open without knocking and tried to see Bernarda in the darkened room, but she was not in the bed. He called her by name, and she did not answer. Then he opened the window, and the metallic light of four o'clock revealed her, naked and sprawled in a cross on the floor, enveloped in the glow of her lethal gases. Her skin had the pale gray color of full-blown dyspepsia. She raised her head, blinded by the sudden brilliance streaming in the open window, and could not recognize the doctor with the light behind him. One glance was all he needed to know her destiny.

"The piper is demanding to be paid, my dear," he said.

He explained that there was still time to save her, but only if she submitted to an emergency treatment to purify her blood. Then Bernarda recognized him, struggled into a sitting position, and let loose a string of obscenities. An impassive Abrenuncio endured them as he closed the window again. He left the room, stopped beside the Marquis's hammock, and made a more specific prognosis:

"The Señora Marquise will die on the fifteenth of September at the latest, if she does not hang herself from the rafters first."

Unmoved, the Marquis said: "The only problem is that the fifteenth of September is so far away." 
The fermented honey would be the mead of classic antiquity.   Tobacco, coca, cannabis, peyote, opium are self-evident.  But turpentine?  I found little on a quick search, but didn't have time to be exhaustive.  One supposes that as a complex hydrocarbon, it might be inhaled to produce euphoria, somewhat after the fashion of glue-sniffing (note the later reference to "lethal gases"), but that is just speculation on my part.    There also could be subtleties lost in the translation - any clues in the Spanish, Paulo?

A cloud of midges and a bucket on the head

The fecundity of the natural world can be awesome, as shown in this video.

Back in 2012 I posted a video (now dead) of a "bugnado" - a swarm of midges filmed in Iowa.  The only comment it elicited from a reader was from Alecia:
We experienced this quite a bit at Lake Myvatn in Iceland. During the summer, the swarms of midges are so thick that it looks as if the lake is on fire, with smoke rising out of the water.

Although beautiful, my husband still refers to it as "hell on Earth." Though the midges don't bite, they will swarm humans, getting in your mouth, eyes, ears. 
This weekend I found the video above, which was taken on the aforementioned Lake Myvatn.   Imagine being in that boat and needing to cross the lake.  And in case you are wondering about the name of the lake:
The name of the lake (Icelandic ("midge") and vatn ("lake"); the lake of midges) comes from the huge numbers of midges to be found there in the summer.
The biology of the creatures is most interesting:
Diamesa mendotae, a cold-hardy but delicate insect also known as a midge, [have an] unusual ability to thrive in the winter, when they serve as trout food. When most other insects are idling, with eggs and larvae hidden away from the cold, midges, armed with a sort of internal antifreeze, produce several generations of offspring. Stream anglers, skiers and others who might poke into the deeper recesses of southeastern Minnesota during winter see them flying in clouds above the water or speckling the streamside snow...

[They] can remain active down to about 6 degrees below zero... The midges are also high in calories and nutrients -- "like pecan pie" for trout, Ferrington said. But their cold-hardiness is balanced by an intolerance for warmth. An increase of as little as 1.8 degrees in the average water temperature in a stream could wipe out an entire winter reproductive cycle for them.
How does one cope with the mass emergences?  Basically one has to follow the advice Lyndon Johnson offered about coping with the downsides of the presidency: 
"Sometimes it's like being a jackass in a hailstorm. You just have to hunker down and take it."
The lady in the boat quite sensibly copes by placing a bucket over her head: 

That gesture pretty well exemplifies how I feel on some days as I read about environmental degradation, the economy, world geopolitics, American healthcare, and American politics.  You want to fight, or at least to protest, but... (reaches for bucket)...

Via Nothing to do with Arbroath.

Abraham Lincoln didn't have a beard

He had whiskers - a distinction that has previously been lost on me - as explained at The Appendix.
Lincoln didn’t have a beard. He had whiskers—an enormously important distinction in mid-nineteenth century America. And second, Lincoln’s whiskers didn’t signify maturity, statesmanship, or gravitas, but rather urbanity: civilized, metropolitan grace...

What Lincoln’s facial hair was meant to convey becomes clearer when we consider the language that the president-elect and his contemporaries used to describe it. While we moderns presume to call Lincoln’s facial hair a beard—“the most famous beard in the history of the world,” according to The New York Times’ Adam Goodheart—Civil War-era Americans would have recognized the president-elect’s facial hair for what it was: a fine set of whiskers. In fact, a thorough search of a leading digital newspaper database reveals that between November 1860 and March 1861, only two of dozens of commentators used the word ‘beard’ to describe Lincoln’s appearance.
This was not coincidental. The words ‘beard’ and ‘whiskers’ connoted distinctive styles in mid-nineteenth century America—and contemporaries used the words differently than we do. The word ‘whiskers’ typically referred not only to bushy cheek growths—to massive sideburns and muttonchops, as it does in the present—but to what we would call a ‘wreath beard’ as well: to facial hair configurations that met beneath the jaw. Edgar Allan Poe, for example, described one fellow writer as having “[t]hick whiskers meeting under the chin,” and another whose “hair and whiskers are dark, the latter meeting voluminously beneath the chin.” One might even use the word whisker to refer to what we would call a moustache. Writer Edward L. Carey, for instance, referred to a character with a “whisker on [his] upper lip” in a story entitled “The Young Artist.”

‘Beards,’ on the other hand, were more unruly affairs. In an article in the American Phrenological Journal entitled “Wearing the Beard,” for instance, the anonymous F.W.E. instructed beard-wearers that, contrary to the practice of bewhiskered men, “Thou shalt not cut it off at all, but let it grow. Let it grow, all of it, as long as it will.” What often distinguished beards from whiskers, then, was neither facial real-estate nor the length of one’s hair—one might wear a short, untamed beard-in-the-making or a long, carefully-sculpted set of whiskers—but rather one’s relationship to the work of men’s grooming. Hairy men who continued to visit the barber, trim their mustaches, or wax their locks wore whiskers; men who let their facial hair grow unrestrained sported beards.
Much more, with illustrations, at The Appendix.

"Card control" demonstrated by Ricky Jay

Incredible skills.  The Reddit discussion thread led me to a tedious but revelatory video on how to perform false shuffles.

"The cheese stands alone"

That's the goal of some Wisconsin state Republicans, who are hoping to pass legislation that would allow Wisconsin to secede from the United States:
Earlier this month, the [Republican] party’s Resolutions Committee voted in favor of a proposal that says the state party “supports legislation that upholds Wisconsin’s right, under extreme circumstances, to secede.”

A version of the so-called “state sovereignty” resolution was first OK’d last
month by one of the state GOP’s eight regional caucuses as an assertion of the state’s 10th Amendment rights. The measure also calls for ending all mandates that go “beyond the scope of the constitutionally delegated powers of the federal government.”

Top Republican officials hoped to kill the fringe proposal during a meeting of the resolutions panel at the Hyatt Hotel in Milwaukee on April 5. Instead, the committee made a few edits to the resolution and adopted it on a split vote.

Now, the matter will go for final approval to the delegates attending the state Republican Party’s convention in Milwaukee on May 2-4.
I'll defer commentary.  The post title, btw, comes from a traditional children's nursery rhyme "The Farmer in the Dell."
The rhyme is first recorded in Germany in 1826, as "Es fuhr ein Bau'r ins Holz," and was more clearly a courtship game with a farmer choosing a wife, then in turn the selecting of a child, maid, and serving man, who leaves the maid after kissing. This was probably taken to North America by German immigrants, where it next surfaced in New York in 1883 much in its modern form and using a melody similar to "A Hunting We Will Go."
Embedded image via Mr. Verb (where you can read about the history of the word "cheesehead.")

24 April 2014

Jeffrey Dahmer's home will not become a vegan restaurant

After discovering last week that the childhood home of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer was back on the Akron, Ohio, housing market, the folks over at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals floated the idea of converting it into a trendy eatery...

Newkirk described how Dahmer would drug, bind, and slaughter his victims, refrigerating them to eat later, and noted that the horrifying violence he practiced did not end with his death (he was brutally murdered in prison) — billions of animals, she said, are similarly slaughtered for human consumption each year in the US.

“We are always looking for ways to draw attention to the violence inherent in the production of meat, eggs, and milk — which involve processes that would shock all but the most hard-hearted person,” the letter read. “Dahmer's old house gives us a way to evoke sympathy for these victims and to suggest that a life-affirming diet can change everything.”
There's more information at Vice.  Background on Jeffrey Dahmer here.

Photo credit Richard Lubinski.

"The United States is an oligarchy"

That's the conclusion of a recent study:
The US government does not represent the interests of the majority of the country's citizens, but is instead ruled by those of the rich and powerful, a new study from Princeton and Northwestern Universities has concluded.
The report, entitled Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens, used extensive policy data collected from between the years of 1981 and 2002 to empirically determine the state of the US political system. 
After sifting through nearly 1,800 US policies enacted in that period and comparing them to the expressed preferences of average Americans (50th percentile of income), affluent Americans (90th percentile) and large special interests groups, researchers concluded that the United States is dominated by its economic elite.

The peer-reviewed study, which will be taught at these universities in September, says:
"The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organised groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence."
Researchers concluded that US government policies rarely align with the the preferences of the majority of Americans, but do favour special interests and lobbying organisations:
"When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organised interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the US political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favour policy change, they generally do not get it." 
There's more at The Telegraph.  And see my previous post on this subject

For an extensive analysis, see the book "Pants on Fire: Cutting through the Biggest Lies of Twenty-first-Century American Plutocracy," by Paul Christopherson (one of my high school classmates) -
Pants on Fire explores the lies that govern America—why people go along with them and what it costs to do so. It reveals the plutocracy that benefits and examines what needs to be done to bring back a true democracy.
It's no secret: The wealthy demand—and get—what they want from the system at the expense of everyone else... These claims are driving the biggest economic crisis in modern history, and producing a society ready to explode with anger. Provocative and sometimes funny, Pants on Fire looks past the individual problems to the eventual, necessary solution.

"A good pool player is a sign of a misspent youth"

My father used to quote that phrase when we played 8-ball.

I don't know the origin of the aphorism (?Twain, ?W.C. Fields), but I did find this while searching:

"I spent half my money on booze, women, and gambling. The other half i wasted." 
--W C Fields

23 April 2014

"Big-hole golf" explained

The embedded image isn't an optical illusion.  That's Sergio Garcia retrieving his ball from a 15-inch-diameter cup on the putting green.
Mention 15-inch cups to a self-proclaimed golf purist, and their upper lip will quiver as their knickers bunch. “My forebears aimed at four-and-a-quarter-inch holes,” they’ll harrumph. “So it was, and so it shall ever be!”

Which, of course, is pretty much King’s point. With all due respect to golf’s timeworn traditions, the game remains so wedded to its established views that its guardians are blinded to the need for change. As a consequence, golf has become like the prostates of many of those who play it: it has a growing problem.

Participation is dwindling, down nearly 20 percent in this country over the last 10 years alone. While others have noted this troubling trend, King has taken outsize steps to reverse it...

...the enlarged hole isn’t meant for elite players. It’s aimed at juniors, newbies and assorted would-be golfers, those untold legions who steer clear of the game because they think that it’s too stuffy, too difficult, too boring, and the many more who have given up playing out of sheer frustration. Advocates of the 15-inch cup say that because it speeds up play and lowers scores (test-runs show that it shaves 10 strokes from the average golfer’s tally) it also has a place at easy-going tournaments and company outings. Behold the jumbo hole: a cure for the three-putt, an antidote to the five-hour round. 
There is big money behind this trend.  The "King" referred to above is Mark King, CEO of TaylorMade, a premium equipment manufacturer.

There is an explanatory video interview with King at Golf.com and more information at the Wall Street Journal and at Hack Golf.  The industry is suffering - there are fewer players, and golf courses around the country are being repurposed.  Changes are imminent and this appears to be one of the more interesting ones.  I'll report later on kickball golf and on the new "party hearty" driving ranges.

World's largest gold crystal

"The lump of gold, which weighs 217.78 grams (about 7.7 ounces), was brought to Los Alamos to confirm whether it was a single crystal of gold, or a more common multiple-crystal structure....

To determine the nugget's internal structure, Rakovan and his colleagues used two sophisticated machines: a neutron single-crystal diffraction (SCD) instrument, which determines the atomic arrangement of single crystals; and a high-pressure/preferred orientation (or HIPPO) instrument, which measures the crystal structure and the orientation of crystals in a polycrystalline material. These noninvasive techniques determined that the gold piece was, indeed, a very large and very rare single crystal of gold."

Refraction dramatically illustrated

The effect would also be dependent on the round shape of the glass. I don't believe the reversal would be seen if a rectangular aquarium were passed in front of the arrows.

Via Gerard Vlemmings' The Presurfer.

Cautionary notes re edible marijuana

From an AP article in the StarTribune:
Twenty-six people have reported poisonings from marijuana edibles this year, when the center started tracking such exposures. Six were children who swallowed innocent-looking edibles, most of which were in plain sight...

An autopsy report listed marijuana intoxication as a significant contributing factor in the death of 19-year-old Levy Thamba Pongi. Authorities said Pongi, who traveled from Wyoming to Denver with friends to try marijuana, ate six times more than the amount recommended by a seller... Toxicologists later found that the cookie Pongi ate contained as much THC — marijuana's intoxicating chemical — as six high-quality joints...

For now, the industry is trying to educate consumers about the strength of pot-infused foods and warning them to wait up to an hour to feel any effects before eating more. Still, complaints from visitors and first-time users have been rampant.

"One of the problems is people become very impatient," Bronstein said. "They eat a brownie or a chocolate chip cookie and they get no effect, so then they stack the doses, and all the sudden, they get an extreme effect that they weren't expecting."
More at the link.

Factory roof vegetable garden

"Ailuo garment factory planted more than 40 varieties of vegetables on its 4,800 sqm workshop roofs. The harvest is enough to produce meals for all 200 workers in the factory canteen."
Text and image from Wired, via The Soul is Bone.

Photo credit Rex Features.

Methoprene vs. Aedes excrucians and Aedes vexans

Minnesota's mosquito season starts when the lakes are still covered with ice, because the mosquito larva can develop in snowmelt.  They have evolved adaptations that allow them to thrive up in the Canadian tundra, and thus are quite at home in Minnesota's climate.
The helicopters dropped pellets of methoprene, which prevents mosquito larvae from becoming flying, biting, breeding adults while leaving them available as a food source to other aquatic creatures, McLean said.

The targeted species — which carry the incriminating names Aedes excrucians, Aedes abserratus and Aedes stimulans — can grow into large, aggressive adults that can live one long generation, into late June or early July, McLean said. That’s when they’re usually succeeded by the daintier but more numerous and annoying Aedes vexans, a warmer-season floodwater-breeder.

MMCD workers actually attack mosquitoes through the winter, placing anti-mosquito materials by hand on top of ice in cattail areas. That stymies a species that lays its eggs on the water and develops while attached to the roots of cattails through the winter.
And, if that's not enough, "McLean said deer ticks, which carry Lyme disease, are already out and “on the move” in thick underbrush and wooded areas."

22 April 2014

Bird prints on windows are caused by "powder down"

In the middle of April we experienced several days of truly bizarre behavior by a local robin.  Perched on the railing of the porch, or in the branches of a nearby juniper, he would launch himself against one of the windows.  Repeatedly.

These strikes were totally different from the rare high-speed bird strike that happens when the creature fails to detect the presence of window glass and breaks a neck.  These assaults were "belly up" flailing at the window, at low speed, and with true deliberation, repeated in series of dozens.

Had this occurred in midsummer, I would have surmised that the bird was chasing insects drawn to the window, but this was daylight with no house lights to draw insects (and essentially none present at this time of year).

Several windows of the house were "painted" with overlapping "bird prints" similar to the one shown above (via The Soul is Bone).
The imprints are caused by the bird’s powder down, a special type of down which helps feathers to grow. In some species, the tips of the barbules on powder down feathers disintegrate, forming fine particles of keratin, which appear as a powder, or ‘feather dust’. When a bird strikes a glass pane, the power is shaken lose and adheres to the glass.
We wondered whether the bird was mentally deranged, but finally found the answer after a brief internet search... (explanation below the fold to allow you to ponder the problem)

Reconsidering high school English classes

From an op-ed piece at Salon:
I’ve begun to wonder if this typical high school English class, dividing its curriculum between standardized test preparation and the reading of canonical texts, might occupy a central place in the creation of a generation of college students who, simply put, cannot write...

For years now, teaching composition at state universities and liberal arts colleges and community colleges as well, I’ve puzzled over these high-school graduates and their shocking deficits. I’ve sat at my desk, a stack of their two-to-three-page papers before me, and felt overwhelmed to the point of physical paralysis by all the things they don’t know how to do when it comes to written communication in the English language...

And so recently, I’ve started asking them: “What exactly did you do in high-school English class?” And whether I ask them as a group or individually, whether I ask my best students or my worst, the answers I get are less than reassuring...

Those who didn’t make it onto the honors or A.P. track hardly mention writing or reading at all. They talk about giving oral presentations and keeping reading journals evaluated with a big, meaningless check. They reveal putting on skits, reenacting some scene in a novel or play whose title they can’t recall. One student recounts a month of junior English class in which she and her classmates produced digital short film adaptations of the trial in “The Scarlet Letter.”

“Sounds fun,” I say to this student, a girl who would not know how to summarize a source or correct a sentence fragment if her life depended on it.
More at the link.

Some elevator doors have a "blue asterisk"

The Rod of Asclepius in the six-pointed star carries certain implications:
The symbol indicates that the elevator is big enough to hold a stretcher...
The blue symbol itself is modestly known as the Star of Life. Originally designed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and trademarked in 1977, it’s since become the general symbol for emergency medical services...When it appears on an elevator, it typically means that that elevator is large enough to accommodate a 24” by 84” stretcher.
More information at Slate.  If such elevators are not available, the patient may need to be transported downstairs on a stair chair (basically a fancy furniture dolly.  See image embedded at right).

"Flower food" explained

What is cut flower food?

Q: What is actually in those packets of cut flower “food”? Is it just a preservative to make them last longer in the water? Is it possible to make it oneself?
--- Mrs Jeni Butler, via email

A: The contents of those little sachets is a mixture of sucrose (sugar), acidifier and something that inhibits the growth of bacteria.

Sucrose serves as a source of energy to make up for the loss of the functioning leaves and ensures continued development and longevity of the flower. Most water supplies are alkaline and can reduce the life of cut flowers, so the acidifier makes the pH of the water closer to the more acid pH of the plant’s sap. It also acts to stabilise the pigment and the colour of the flowers.

A microorganism growth inhibitor is perhaps the most important part of the “food”. Bacteria quickly starts to proliferate in the vase water (especially if damaged leaves are left clinging to flower stems prior to dunking).

Many gardeners/florists swear by various ways to keep flowers fresher for longer. But aspirin, wine or copper coins added to the water are apparently ineffective. Home-made concoctions are not as good as the packet stuff, either (according to the people who are in the business of selling flower food, anyway).

However, variations of the following recipe seem to be favoured by many. To make one litre of the solution...
Directions for DIY at the Telegraph source column.   I hope the "growth inhibitor" is a natural and not a pharmaceutical antibiotic.

Meskel Square (Ethiopia)

There are plenty of roundabouts elsewhere in Addis Ababa.  One wonders why not here.

Via Nothing to do with Arbroath.

21 April 2014

Zentai practitioners

It’s called “zentai.” And in Japan, it can mean a lot of things. To 20-year-old Hokkyoku Nigo, it means liberation from the judgment and opinions of others. To a 22-year-old named Hanaka, it represents her lifelong fascination with superheroes. To a 36-year-old teacher named Nezumiko, it elicits something sexual. “I like to touch and stroke others and to be touched and stroked like this,” she told the AFP’s Harumi Ozawa. But to most outsiders, zentai means exactly what it looks like: spandex body suits.
More at the Washington Post.

Photo: Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images

Image of an Accu-Vein machine at work

Infrared sensing then projected back onto the extremity.  Brief video at the company's website.

"Made from the long bones of an enemy king"

It's a kāhili- the Hawaiian royal standard.  The long bone is decorated with feathers from birds of prey.  The one in the painting (and the ones in this photograph) appear to be too gracile to be an entire femur or humerus; perhaps they are carved to their final form.

Quick - name some bipedal mammals

There are the great apes and other primates, kangaroos and other macropods, and... and... and... (see above).

Why you might put a frog in a bucket of milk

As reported by the American Chemical Society:
Following up on an ancient Russian way of keeping milk from going sour — by putting a frog in the bucket of milk — scientists have identified a wealth of new antibiotic substances in the skin of the Russian Brown frog. The study appears in ACS’ Journal of Proteome Research.
A. T. Lebedev and colleagues explain that amphibians secrete antimicrobial substances called peptides through their skin...

“These peptides could be potentially useful for the prevention of both pathogenic and antibiotic resistant bacterial strains while their action may also explain the traditional experience of rural populations,” the scientists concluded.
Discussed at Reddit.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement has modern consequences

At the end of WWI, western powers subdivided the Middle East as per the Sykes-Picot Agreement (map above), leading to a century of conflicts (map via Rob's Webstek).

If the borders had been drawn (or could be redrawn) as follows -

- giving consideration to ethnic distributions, some of those conflicts might have been eased.  More at the New York Times, via Rob's (five-year-old) Webstek.

For something different, try a poetry quiz

The Oxford Dictionaries site asks you to match ten opening lines with the titles of the poems.  The first 6-7 should be easy; then it will probably get more difficult.

Afterwards, perhaps you can help them locate the source of a 17th-century quotation about sundial makes.

16 April 2014

"Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice."

Embryonic sharks cannibalize their littermates in the womb. "While 12 littermates may start out the journey, all but one is devoured by the biggest in the pack. That strategy allows sand tiger sharks to have much larger babies at birth..."

An op-ed piece at Salon comments on the "curse of beauty" and the unnecessary risks of plastic surgery.

Clothing that incorporates carbon fibers can make the wearer "taser-proof."  Even if a taser needle penetrates as far as your skin, the electrical current will pass through the carbon fibers, not through you.

"Unpaired words" are ones for which the opposite is nonexistent or rarely used.

The Teleporter will take you to a random place on earth.  Then switch to "map" mode and zoom out to see where you are.

An optical illusion demonstrates color reversal in retinal after-images.

"Harvesting winter" is an interesting article at Edible Geography that documents the age-old practice of saving winter ice for year-round food storage at "the only commercial ice house on the National Register of Historic Places to have stored naturally frozen ice harvested in the traditional way from a nearby pond."

The average man's sperm count is falling.  A Telegraph article discusses possible explanations, with a focus on exogenous estrogens in the enviroment.

A video at Laughing Squid explains why automobile key fobs work from a greater distance when they are applied to your head.

The Trampe is a "ski-lift for bicycle riders," assisting them in ascending hills.

"Twenty is Plenty" is a cleverly-titled campaign in urban New York and the U.K. seeking to lower speed limits on roads to 20 mph.

Parts of an 800-year-old monk have been found.  The embedded image shows his femurs protruding from an eroding cliff in South Wales.  (Photo: Wales News Service)

If you are adorned with a tattoo, or are interested in such, The Appendix has a long article on the history of tattoo removal.  In ancient times soldiers were tattooed to prevent desertions and slaves were tattooed for ownership, so removal was of critical rather than cosmetic importance.

This gif shows how to use ice-cream sandwiches to make a cake.

Paul Ryan (R-Wis) played fast-and-loose with the truth when he cited a story about a child who wanted a lunch in a brown paper bag.

A recommendation FOR keeping PIN numbers in your wallet (but not the correct ones).

A video that will be of interest only to those who lived in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area in the 1950s - 1980s.

A rare blue diamond has been discovered in South Africa.

In a masterful Rolling Stone article, Matt Taibbi explains how the rigging of Libor rates was the biggest price-fixing scandal of all time.
You may have heard of the Libor scandal, in which at least three – and perhaps as many as 16 – of the name-brand too-big-to-fail banks have been manipulating global interest rates, in the process messing around with the prices of upward of $500 trillion (that's trillion, with a "t") worth of financial instruments. When that sprawling con burst into public view last year, it was easily the biggest financial scandal in history – MIT professor Andrew Lo even said it "dwarfs by orders of magnitude any financial scam in the history of markets."
Photos of what are said to be the most beautiful libraries in the world.

The Vatican Library is online and is aggressively digitizing their material.  You can access some incunabula here.

This test will tell you if you're "tone deaf." (it's ridiculously easy if you're not).

How do ants walk?  Think about it...  If I told you that first they move three legs, then they move three other legs, would that sound nonsensical?  But it's true, and the linked gif shows why it is totally logical and practical.  They are basically using moving tripods.  You learn something every day.

The photo is our first butterfly of the year.  Mourning Cloaks (Camberwell Beauties) (Nymphalis antiopa) are typically the first because they are able to overwinter through the sub-zero temperatures.  They come out with ragged wing edges (from last autumn's adventures) and hungry.   Since no nectar sources are available in Wisconsin in April, they seek tree sap (or overripe fruit at the homes of butterfly enthusiasts).

(The title is the opening line to one of my favorite novels)

15 April 2014

Modifying The Masters

A clever video created by taking classic television footage from The Masters golf tournaments and then digitally adding devices normally seen on putt-putt golf venues.

It's been a long time since I played miniature golf; I didn't know that Whack-A-Mole cup obstructions were now standard.

Via 22 Words and Neatorama.

"Cherry tree from space" behavior unexplained

Cherry trees grown from seeds that had been sent into orbit are exhibiting unusual behavior and blossoms:
The four-year-old sapling -- grown from a cherry stone that spent time aboard the International Space Station (ISS) -- burst into blossom on April 1, possibly a full six years ahead of Mother Nature's normal schedule.

Its early blooming baffled Buddhist brothers at the ancient temple in central Japan where the tree is growing...  "A stone from the original tree had never sprouted before. We are very happy because it will succeed the old tree, which is said to be 1,250 years old."..

By April this year, the "space cherry tree" had grown to around four metres (13 feet) tall, and suddenly produced nine flowers -- each with just five petals, compared with about 30 on flowers of the parent tree.

It normally takes about 10 years for a cherry tree of the similar variety to bear its first buds.

The Ganjoji temple sapling is not the only early-flowering space cherry tree.
Of the 14 locations in which the pits were replanted, blossoms have been spotted at four places.

"Sebelius resigns to spend more time with heERROR 404 PAGE NOT FOUND"

The title is a tweet by Brian Beutler regarding the resignation of Kathleen Sebelius, who had overseen the Obamacare website.  Snarky, but funny.

Via The Dish.


Gaggle is a term of venery for geese not in flight.  The term is also used to refer to the White House Press Corps:
"Gaggles" historically refer to informal briefings the press secretary conducts with the press pool rather than the entire press corps....they were more or less off the record, and their purpose was mostly to exchange information... The nickname could stem from the idea that these more freewheeling press sessions, where the talk is much more rapid and free-form, are like a "gaggle of geese" honking.
The etymology is apparently onomatopoeic.

Video via Neatorama.

14 April 2014

Back soon

Those who have already finished their paperwork can read about why the process is unnecessarily complicated.
Imagine filing your income taxes in five minutes — and for free. You'd open up a pre-filled return, see what the government thinks you owe, make any needed changes and be done. The miserable annual IRS shuffle, gone.

It's already a reality in Denmark, Sweden and Spain. The government-prepared return would estimate your taxes using information your employer and bank already send it. Advocates say tens of millions of taxpayers could use such a system each year, saving them a collective $2 billion and 225 million hours in prep costs and time, according to one estimate...

Well, for one thing, it doesn't help that it's been opposed for years by the company behind the most popular consumer tax software — Intuit, maker of TurboTax. Conservative tax activist Grover Norquist and an influential computer industry group also have fought return-free filing.
More details at Pro Publica.

Image from The Economist.

10 April 2014

What the well-dressed woman wore 200 years ago

A Dutch chintz jacket from 1810-1820.  
For those who, like me, are unclear about what chintz is, this from the Wikipedia entry:
Chintz (from the plural of chint) was originally glazed calico textiles, initially specifically those imported from India, printed with designs featuring flowers and other patterns in different colours, typically on a light plain background. Since the 19th century the term has also been used for the style of floral decoration developed in those calico textiles, but then used more widely, for example on pottery and wallpaper. Chintz designs are mostly European patterns loosely derived from the style of Indian designs themselves reflecting, via Mughal art, decorative traditions in Islamic art such as the arabesque...

These early fabrics were extremely expensive and rare. By 1680 more than a million pieces of chintz were being imported into England per year, and a similar quantity was going to France and the Dutch Republic....

In contemporary language the word "chintz" and "chintzy" can be used to refer to clothing or furnishings which are vulgar or florid in appearance....
From the Rijksmuseum, via A London Salmagundi.

("chint" apparently is a Hindi word for the original product)

Where is Ukraine?

It's truly embarassing how abysmal the average American's knowledge of geography is.  The map above accompanied an article in the Washington Post:
On March 28-31, 2014, we asked a national sample of 2,066 Americans (fielded via Survey Sampling International Inc. (SSI)), what action they wanted the U.S. to take in Ukraine, but with a twist: In addition to measuring standard demographic characteristics and general foreign policy attitudes, we also asked our survey respondents to locate Ukraine on a map as part of a larger, ongoing project to study foreign policy knowledge. We wanted to see where Americans think Ukraine is and to learn if this knowledge (or lack thereof) is related to their foreign policy views. We found that only one out of six Americans can find Ukraine on a map, and that this lack of knowledge is related to preferences: The farther their guesses were from Ukraine’s actual location, the more they wanted the U.S.  to intervene with military force.
More at the link.  I'll grant that some of the respondents may have been trolling the interviewers by pointing to Kansas or Canada, but I'm not surprised by the general pattern. I believe it was George Carlin who asked us to think of how stupid the average American is and then to remember that half of them are more stupid than that.

The "most dangerous chemical"

Three chemists suggest cyclopentyldienyl nickel nitrosyl, tert-Butyllithium, and sulfur trioxide, and explain why in this video.

Problems at Experian

The credit-monitoring service was criticized several months ago at Krebs on Security:
An identity theft service that sold Social Security and drivers license numbers — as well as bank account and credit card data on millions of Americans — purchased much of its data from Experian, one of the three major credit bureaus, according to a lengthy investigation by KrebsOnSecurity...

These services specialized in selling “fullz” or “fulls,” a slang term that cybercrooks use to describe a package of personally identifiable information that typically includes the following information: an individual’s name, address, Social Security number, date of birth, place of work, duration of work, state driver’s license number, mother’s maiden name, bank account number(s), bank routing number(s), email account(s) and other account passwords. Fulls are most commonly used to take over the identity of a person in order to engage in other fraud, such as taking out loans in the victim’s name or filing fraudulent tax refund requests with the IRS...
Experian rebutted the allegations, and Krebs has recently replied to their rebuttal.
In summary, Experian wants you to remember that the consumer data sold to Ngo’s identity theft service didn’t come directly from its database, but merely from the database of a company it owns. But happily, there is no proof that any of Ngo’s customers — who collectively paid Experian $1.9 million to access the data — actually harmed any consumers.

Readers who find all of this a bit hard to swallow can be forgiven: After all, this version of the facts comes from a company that has been granted a legal right to sell your personal data without your consent (opting out generally requires you to cut through a bunch of red tape and to pay them a fee on top of it). This from a company that is quibbling over which of its business units profited from the sale of consumer records to an identity theft service.

09 April 2014

"The Landlord's Game"

This game from the 1920s is a precursor and a direct inspiration for the famous game of Monopoly.
Magie designed the game to be a "practical demonstration of the present system of land grabbing with all its usual outcomes and consequences". She based the game on the economic principles of Georgism, a system proposed by Henry George, with the object of demonstrating how rents enrich property owners and impoverish tenants. She knew that some people could find it hard to understand why this happened and what might be done about it, and she thought that if Georgist ideas were put into the concrete form of a game, they might be easier to demonstrate. Magie also hoped that when played by children the game would provoke their natural suspicion of unfairness, and that they might carry this awareness into adulthood.
More at Wikipedia and the links there.

A tip of the hat to reader mikemonaco for alerting me to this link.

200 classic movies

Posted (thankfully on a single page) at Buzzfeed.  I've seen 135 of them.  Some of you will have seen even more.  Who will wind up with bragging rights?

Keep on the lookout for a Chinese chicken cup

Next time you're at an auction or estate sale, or in a thrift shop, pay attention to the porcelain offerings.
A rare wine cup fired in the imperial kilns of China's Ming dynasty more than 500 years ago has been sold in Hong Kong for HK$281.2m (£21.7m), making it one of the most expensive Chinese cultural relics ever auctioned.

The tiny porcelain cup from the Chenghua period, dating from 1465 to 1487, is painted with cocks, hens and chicks, and is known simply as a "chicken cup". It is considered one of the most sought-after items in Chinese art, held in a reverence equivalent to that of the jewelled Fabergé eggs of tsarist Russia.
More details at The Guardian.

Power hitters master the masters

Once again (for the 40th year in a row), my invitation to participate in the Masters golf tournament must have been lost in the mail.   So I'll just blog this table from a Wall Street Journal article.

In 2002, after long-driving players like Tiger Woods began carding record-low scores, officials at Augusta National decided to lengthen the course in an effort to make it more difficult.  What has happened, however, is that the added length seems to have given a comparative advantage to the long drivers.

The table at right shows Masters' winners for about 20 years (excluding Tiger), and how they ranked among all pros in terms of putting efficienncy and driving distance.

Before 2002, short game skills were paramount, but in recent years winners have shown higher ranks in driving than in putting.

This is a complex issue involving not just course design but equipment design.  There are studies I don't think I have blogged that indicate that a longer drive - even when it winds up in the first or second cut of the rough - results in better scores than shorter drives that remain in the fairway.

HTTPS websites have not been/may not be secure

Troubling news from an AP article posted today in the StarTribune:
An alarming lapse in Internet security has exposed millions of passwords, credit card numbers and other sensitive bits of information to potential theft by computer hackers who may have been secretly exploiting the problem before its discovery.

The breakdown revealed this week affects the encryption technology that is supposed to protect online accounts for emails, instant messaging and a wide range of electronic commerce.

Security researchers who uncovered the threat, known as "Heartbleed," are particularly worried about the breach because it went undetected for more than two years...

"This still means that the little lock icon (HTTPS) we all trusted to keep our passwords, personal emails, and credit cards safe, was actually making all that private information accessible to anyone who knew about the exploit," Tumblr said. "This might be a good day to call in sick and take some time to change your passwords everywhere — especially your high-security services like email, file storage, and banking, which may have been compromised by this bug."
More at the link and undoubtedly at many other sites on the web today.  Knowledgeable readers are encouraged to offer comments (or other relevant links).

Addendum:  A hat tip to reader Mel V. for providing a link to a CNET article entitled "How to Protect Yourself from the 'Heartbleed' Bug."

07 April 2014


Specimen from Heritage Auctions.
Its name comes from the Arabic rahj al-ġār (رهج الغار, "powder of the mine"), via Catalan and Medieval Latin, and its earliest record in English is in the 1390s...

Realgar, orpiment, and arsenopyrite provide nearly all the world's supply of arsenic as a byproduct of smelting concentrates derived from these ores...

Realgar is poisonous. The ancient Greeks, who called it "sandaracha", knew that it was poisonous. It was used to poison rats in medieval Spain and in 16th century England.
Another specimen here.

There's another meaning for "muggles"

"Muggles" is the title of a recording by Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra, recorded in Chicago on December 7, 1928.

The title refers to the use of the word "muggles" as a slang term for marijuana amongst jazz musicians of the 1920s and 1930s. Armstrong was an enthusiastic user of marijuana, which was legal in most American states at the time.
J. K. Rowling has indicated that she was unaware of this prior use of the term:
I was looking for a word that suggested both foolishness and loveability. The word 'mug' came to mind, for somebody gullible, and then I softened it. I think 'muggle' sounds quite cuddly. I didn't know that the word 'muggle' had been used as drug slang at that point... ah well.

New rules for Monopoly

From an AP article in the StarTribune:
No rent collection while in jail, double the dough for landing on Go and clean out Free Parking if your luck takes you there are among five made-up Monopoly rules Facebook fans voted in for future editions of the board game.

Several thousand people weighed in on "house rules" over 10 days of recent debate and a year after Hasbro Inc. added a cat token and retired the iron in a similar online stunt aimed at keeping the 79-year-old game fresh...

The winning house rule for landing on Go means players get 400 Monopoly dollars instead of the official 200. As for Free Parking, official rules call for absolutely nothing to happen when a player lands there. Under the house rule, any taxes and fees collected are thrown into the middle for a lucky someone who lands on that corner square.

Rounding out the five winners are players must travel around the board one full time before they can begin buying properties, and collecting 500 bucks for rolling double ones.
Photo credit Steven Senne, Associated Press.

Remarkable, award-winning animation

"A Girl Named Elastika" is stop-motion animation that has won a variety of prizes:
Jury, grand prize/ Very Short Int'l Film Fest. 2013, Paris
Audience award/ Prix de Court Pathé 2013, Lausanne
Best film for Children/ Animateka Fest.2013, Slovenia
Audience favorite animation short/ Palm Springs Int'l Shortfest
Special mention, Spirafilm Prize, Off-Courts Trouville 2013
Honor. mention/ BeFilm Festival 2013, New York
You'll see why.

The U.S. continues to f*** with Cuba

As reported by The Guardian:
In July 2010, Joe McSpedon, a US government official, flew to Barcelona to put the final touches on a secret plan to build a social media project aimed at undermining Cuba's communist government.

McSpedon and his team of high-tech contractors had come in from Costa Rica and Nicaragua, Washington and Denver. Their mission: to launch a messaging network that could reach hundreds of thousands of Cubans. To hide the network from the Cuban government, they would set up a byzantine system of front companies using a Cayman Islands bank account, and recruit unsuspecting executives who would not be told of the company's ties to the US government.

McSpedon didn't work for the CIA. This was a program paid for and run by the US Agency for International Development, best known for overseeing billions of dollars in US humanitarian aid...

Documents show the US government planned to build a subscriber base through "non-controversial content": news messages on soccer, music, and hurricane updates. Later when the network reached a critical mass of subscribers, perhaps hundreds of thousands, operators would introduce political content aimed at inspiring Cubans to organize "smart mobs" — mass gatherings called at a moment's notice that might trigger a Cuban spring, or, as one USAid document put it, "renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society."..

The program's legality is unclear: US law requires that any covert action by a federal agency must have a presidential authorization. Officials at USAid would not say who had approved the program or whether the White House was aware of it. McSpedon, the most senior official named in the documents obtained by the AP, is a mid-level manager who declined to comment.

USAid spokesman Matt Herrick said the agency is proud of its Cuba programs and noted that congressional investigators reviewed them last year and found them to be consistent with US law.
There's more at the link, and undoubtedly some other viewpoints elsewhere on the 'net this week.  Can some reader here offer a morally-defensible justification for this activity based on strategic necessities?  Personally, I'm so very, very, very tired of the U.S.' endless attempts to subvert the Cuban government.  These shenanigans go back for probably 50 years - and for what reason?  Is it just because Cuba has continued to maintain a form of governance of which we don't approve?  Do they provide any smidgen of a threat to the U.S. in any real way?  Or is this just an example of the U.S. f***ing with any country it wants to because it can?  I get so mad when I blog about stuff like this that I have to walk away from the computer to the back yard for a few minutes to calm down so I don't use language I shouldn't.

Now, somebody... please offer some explanation or justification.

Addendum:  There is commentary at The Dish on how ventures like this undermine the broader humanitarian goals of USAid (if such broader goals actually exist).

Also - a hat tip to reader misterjeff for a link to an incisive comment at Techdirt and for another related story at The//Intercept.

Still waiting for a comment or link to a contrary viewpoint supporting the activity...

Skydiver captures remarkable video of a meteorite

This 8-minute video posted at Norway's NRK is quite a bit more detailed than the one-minute version being shown on most news channels. (audio in Norwegian, with subtitles)
Although Helstrup is still not completely convinced that it was indeed a meteorite that flew past him, the experts are in no doubt.

“It can’t be anything else. The shape is typical of meteorites – a fresh fracture surface on one side, while the other side is rounded,” said geologist Hans Amundsen.  He explained that the meteorite had been part of a larger stone that had exploded perhaps 20 kilometres above Helstrup.

Amundsen thinks he can make out coloured patches in the stone, and believes that in that case it may be a breccia – a common type of meteorite rock.
Addendum:  A tip of the hat to reader Adrian Morgan for finding extended commentary on the incident at Bad Astronomy.
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