30 July 2014

Chinese physicians honor a dead patient

The only 11-year-old primary school student Liang Yaoyi from Shenzhen suffered from a brain tumour and shortly before his death, he decided to donate his kidneys and liver. On June 6th, his wish was fulfilled and within eight hours, the organs that he had donated were able to save several lives...

Regrettably, he would not be able to become a doctor, and thus he decided to donate his organs as well as his own body to a medical school, therefore fulfilling his dream of entering a medical university in this way. Photo is of after the operation was completed, when doctors pushed his body out of the operating room, and bowed to Yaoyi and his mother three times. At this moment, his mother covered her face, and cried bitterly.

The inside track is important in China

Sports officials in northeast China have claimed the gold medal for incompetence after authorising the construction of a running track with right-angled corners.

The track was completed recently as part of a major refurbishment of a 100,000 sq ft stadium in Heilongjiang province’s Tonghe County...

But the running track’s designers got their angles badly wrong – painting 90-degree corners onto the track rather than the usual curves...

When senior Communist Party leaders recently announced plans for a last-minute visit to the stadium, a quick makeover suddenly became necessary. Painting right angles was faster than painting curves, one official admitted.

“In order to get it ready for the leaders, we painted it like that,” he confessed. “We think it is ugly too but if the leaders don’t ask us to change it, what are we supposed to do?

Deaths in Gaza

15.47 Inna Lazareva has verified the video shown earlier of individuals celebrating the death of children. Here is an extract of her report.
"There is no school tomorrow; there are no children left in Gaza,” chanted the right-wing extremists gathered opposite Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square on Saturday night, waving Israeli flags and shaking their fingers in the air.

As the the cries of “I hate all the Arabs” and “Gaza is a cemetery” intensified, some of the protestors tried to accost the participants in one of the country’s biggest anti-war demonstrations this year.

“Go protest in Gaza!” they shouted at the thousands spread all over Tel Aviv’s main protest square, in a demonstration that dwarfed the extremists’ riot.
Infographic from the Washington Post.

How to do well on standardized school tests

An article at The Atlantic opines that knowledge per se is not the key factor:
This is a story about what happened when I tried to use big data to help repair my local public schools. I failed. And the reasons why I failed have everything to do with why the American system of standardized testing will never succeed. A few years ago, I started having trouble helping my son with his first-grade homework. I’m a data-journalism professor at Temple University, and when my son asked me for help on a worksheet one day, I ran into an epistemological dilemma. My own general knowledge (and the Internet) told me there were many possible “correct” answers. However, only one of these answers would get him full credit on the assignment...

In essence, I tried to game the third-grade Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA), the standardized test for my state. Along with a team of professional developers, I designed artificial-intelligence software to crunch the available data. I talked to teachers. I talked to students. I visited schools and sat through School Reform Commission meetings. After six months of this, I discovered that the test can be gamed. Not by using a beat-the-test strategy, but by a shockingly low-tech strategy: reading the textbook that contains the answers...

This is because standardized tests are not based on general knowledge. As I learned in the course of my investigation, they are based on specific knowledge contained in specific sets of books: the textbooks created by the test makers.
More at the link.

29 July 2014

Tahitian drumming

The drums musicians play have a hierarchy system. Drummers start on a large bass drum called tariparau (sometimes called pahu). This is the only drum that the very few female drummers in Tahiti play. It has two membranes traditionally made out of sharkskin and is struck with a single mallet making the timbre low but only slightly resonate. It provides the basic pulse for the rhythm. The second drum in the rank is the fa’atete drum. It is a single membrane which can be struck with hands or drum sticks. It is usually made out of coconut tree wood with sharkskin stretched across with intricate carving of flowers, sea turtles, leaves and designs on the bottom. It plays a slightly more complex texture than the tariparau. It has a high tom sound with less resonation. The last main drum is the most challenging to play. It is called the to’ere and is one of the main sounds associated with Tahiti. It’s a hollowed out log, usually from milo, kamani or kou wood (all trees native to Tahiti). The instrument is anywhere from two to six feet long (usually around three to four), with a slit down the side. It is played with a cone-shaped stick also made out of wood, and depending on where the instrument is struck, the sound will change. Like the tariparau, it also has carvings. The timbre is a hollow sound with higher pitches and moderate resonation.

The style of dance is widely known for the specific hip movements that later led to the hula dance in Hawai'i. They are abrupt hip movements that are enhanced by long grass skirts. The upper body remains more fluid and the head rarely moves.
More at Wikipedia.

Sects-related deaths

There is an old joke that goes like this...
I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump. I ran over and said: "Stop. Don't do it."

"Why shouldn't I?" he asked.

"Well, there's so much to live for!"

"Like what?"

"Are you religious?"

He said, "Yes."

I said, "Me too. Are you Christian or Buddhist?"


"Me too. Are you Catholic or Protestant?"


"Me too. Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?"


"Wow. Me too. Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?"

"Baptist Church of God."

"Me too. Are you original Baptist Church of God, or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?"

"Reformed Baptist Church of God."

"Me too. Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915?"

He said: "Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915."

I said: "Die, heretic scum," and pushed him off. 
It's not really a funny joke, but rather one created to emphasize the tragedy of intolerance not between religions, but between sects of the same religion.  And it happens in real life:
Taliban terrorists stopped a convoy of minibuses traveling through western Afghanistan, questioned the passengers, then pulled all the Shiites into the road and shot them dead...

The Islamic militants then demanded to know which riders were Shiite. Fourteen were identified — including three women. The terrorists then bound their hands and led them off the bus and down the road.

The 14 were shot and killed.

The other passengers were allowed to continue their journey.

The unusual etymology of Des Moines, Iowa

The literal translation may be "shit-faced," as explained in the Des Moines Register:
Michael McCafferty, a visiting lecturer at Indiana University who has spent decades researching Algonquian languages, agrees with the commonly held notion that the "Moines" in Des Moines is a French derivation of Moingoana, an Indian tribe that once lived along the banks of the Des Moines River.

But he insists that rather than denoting the tribe's true identity, the name was a ribald joke offered up to French explorers Marquette and Jolliet in 1673 as a bit of razzing between competing Indian communities...

McCafferty based his conclusion on the work of another linguist, David Costa, who wrote an article on the etymology of a number of Miami-Illinois tribal names, Moingoana among them. Moingoana, McCafferty cites Costa, originates from the word "mooyiinkweena" -which translates, politely, to "the excrement-faces."
I learned this from a recent podcast of No Such Thing as a Fish (whose website seems to have no such thing as a search box...)

Barbara Stanwyck

She was born Ruby Stevens on July 16, 1907, in Brooklyn, New York. She was the daughter of a bricklayer. When she was 4, Ruby's mother Catherine, pregnant with her sixth child, was pushed from a streetcar by a drunken passenger, which killed her almost immediately. A few months later her father Byron Stevens ran away to Panama digging the Canal, leaving her sister Mildred to support the children as a chorus girl. She took Ruby on the road, whetting her appetite to be a dancer. She went to work at the local telephone company for $14 a week, but she had the urge to somehow enter show business. When not working, she pounded the pavement in search of dancing jobs...
She went on to garner four Academy Award nominations for best actress in a leading role, won several Emmys and a Golden Globe, and had an immense filmography.

Image and text from Rob's Webstek.

22 July 2014

Milkweed in midsummer

The timing varies with latitude and microclimate, but in general, common milkweed reaches its floral maximum in midsummer.    It would be a bit of an exaggeration to call the plants "magnificent" or "stately," but they are certainly impressive, rising 4-5 feet high with a thick stem to help support a half-dozen blossoms as big as softballs.

Through the summer months those compound blossoms provide an abundance of nectar and pollen not just for the Monarchs, but for other butterflies and innumerable solitary bees and other insects. 

I posted earlier this summer about the complex morphology of the blossoms and how their strategy for pollination makes the blossom occasionally lethal to unwary small insects.  That is an uncommon occurrence, and for the most part when one wanders through a patch of mature milkweed, there is an abundance of small insects hovering nearby (and often a resident crab spider lurking in the flower). 

The fragrance is strong and reasonably pleasant, but not a prominent feature of the plant.  Midsummer will also find the plant hosting a variety of other insects - aphids tended by ants, milkweed beetles and milkweed bugs, lacewings and their eggs, and the milkweed tussock moth.  The ecology is complex and worthy of a separate post (next summer).

Next step:  the spectacle of seed production.

21 July 2014

The skin of some animals contains light-sensitive opsins

By far the most interesting item I've read this week is at Not Exactly Rocket Science:
When Domenico Fulgione placed Moorish geckos on dark surfaces, he saw what he had seen for years. These spiny, hand-sized lizards changed colour. Within an hour, their typical creamy white complexions transformed into blacker hues that better matched their environment.

And then Fulgione blindfolded the geckos.

They still changed colour. How does an animal adjust its colour to match its environment, when it can’t see that environment at all?...

These bizarre results started to make more sense when the team analysed the gecko’s skin. They found that the skin is rife with opsins—light-sensitive proteins that are the basis of animal vision. When light enters your eyes, opsins in your retinas respond by triggering chemical reactions that send signals to your brain. That’s how you see. The Moorish gecko has plenty of opsins in its eyes too, but the team also found these proteins all over the skin of its torso. It’s especially common in the lizard’s flanks, and in cells called melanophores that are filled with dark pigments.

The researchers think that the flank opsins can respond to surrounding light levels and automatically adjust the gecko’s colour. If they’re right, the lizard has a kind of distributed vision that is independent of its eyes, and perhaps its brain. In other words, it can “see” with its skin.
Fascinating.  More details at Not Exactly Rocket Science.

I found the video of an octopus several months ago at 22 Words.

"Daylighting" explained

Trout Brook long had been buried in a pipe by the railroads, which laid tracks atop the streambed to ensure a smooth descent into the downtown yards.

Now a new and winding streambed for the brook, which runs through a stormwater tunnel near Interstate 35, has been carved down the middle of the 42-acre Trout Brook Nature
Sanctuary and Regional Trail, which is slated for official opening next spring.

It’s called “daylighting,” the process of unearthing a stream typically filled in by urban development, and it’s an increasingly popular strategy to improve water quality and aid neighborhoods in need of natural amenities...

Daylighting streams is occurring across the country and overseas, in places such as Hutchinson, Kan.; Yonkers, N.Y.; and Seoul, South Korea. National Geographic reported last year that more than 70 percent of streams are paved over in some cities...
Further details at the StarTribune.  Photo credit Kevin Duchschere

Don't be embarrassed by a colostomy bag

Backstory and additional photos at Huffington Post, via Neatorama.

Addendum:  See also Swimming with my stoma bag and related gifs and stories at the BBC.

Tax cuts do not necessarily "pay for themselves"

The situation in Kansas is detailed at Vox:
In 2012, Kansas governor Sam Brownback signed a massive tax cut into law, arguing that it would boost the state's economy. Eventually, he hoped to eliminate individual income taxes entirely...

Yet though Brownback is running for reelection this fall in a deep red state, he's trailed his Democratic challenger in 3 of the 4 most recent polls — and his marquee tax cut appears to be the main reason. Kansas is now hundreds of millions of dollars short in revenue collection, its job growth has lagged the rest of the nation, and Moody's has cut the state's bond rating...

After the cuts became law, it was undisputed that Kansas's revenue collections would fall. But some supply-side analysts, like economist Arthur Laffer, argued that increased economic growth would deliver more revenue that would help cushion this impact. Yet it's now clear that the revenue shortfalls are much worse than expected. "State general fund revenue is down over $700 million from last year," Duane Goossen, a former state budget director, told me. "That's a bigger drop than the state had in the whole three years of the recession"...

The declining revenues have necessitated extensive cuts in state education funding, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Moody's cut of the state's bond rating this May was another embarrassment...

Brownback, like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, has blamed President Obama for his state's growing red ink. "This is an undeniable result of President Obama's failed economic policies of increasing taxes and overregulation," Brownback's revenue secretary Nick Jordan said.

Honeycomb as art

"Ren Ri creates sculptures using plastic, wooden dowelling and a swarm of bees…"

Via The QI Elves @qikipedia.

President George Washington was not "reanimated"

In the hours after his death, some of the people close to Washington discussed reanimating his corpse because they couldn’t stand burying “the indispensible man.” The person most passionate about this idea was William Thornton, a close friend of Washington, a physician trained in European medical schools, and an amateur architect who designed the United States Capitol.

Thornton arrived in Mt. Vernon the morning after Washington passed and suggested a unique (for lack of a better word) method of resuscitating Washington’s body. Twenty years after Washington’s death Thornton wrote:

I proposed to attempt his restoration, in the following manner.  First to thaw him in cold water, then to lay him in blankets, & by degrees & by friction to give him warmth, and to put into activity the minute blood vessels, at the same time to open a passage to the Lungs by the Trachaea, and to inflate them with air, to produce an artificial respiration, and to transfuse blood into him from a lamb. 

Though we don’t know if Martha Washington truly considered this a viable option, we do know it was never attempted.
Text and image from Strange Remains, where there are further details.

Confederate graveyard - in Wisconsin!

This past week I went for a walk at Forest Hill Cemetery in Madison, Wisconsin. The oldest graves date back to the 1850s-1860s, many of them resting places for native-born Irish, the first settlers in the area.

Most old cemeteries in the eastern half of the United States have sections devoted to casualties of the American Civil War (1861-1865). I was startled to discover this cemetery also has a separate graveyard for Confederate soldiers! They were members of the 1st Alabama Infantry Regiment.

This Confederate cemetery is apparently the northernmost one in the country. The reason for its existence in Wisconsin is explained on the bronze marker above, and at this link and this link.

Addendum:  Updated from 2009 to add this video of a local group ("The Whiskey Farm") singing a tribute to the Confederate soldiers (lyrics here.  Warning: audio autostarts).

17 July 2014

Bowling going down the gutter

An article at Bloomberg Business Week makes note of the downward trend in the popularity of bowling:
The U.S. had 4,061 bowling centers in 2012, down 25 percent from 1998, the earliest year for which the U.S. Census collected consistent data. But the decline of the bowling alley probably started a lot earlier. The U.S. added 2,000 bowling alleys between the end of World War II and 1958, when the American Society of Planning Officials reported that “the bowling alley is fast becoming one of the most important—if not the most important—local center of participant sport and recreation.”..

In those days, bowling was a social imperative for many Americans, says Marcel Fournier, who owned a string of bowling centers in western New York State starting in the 1960s. “The bowling alley was the blue-collar country club,” he says, and most of his business came from people competing in weekly leagues. As the workforce changed and access to other recreational activities expanded, interest in bowling leagues waned.
I've posted before about the similarly waning populatiry of golf.  And stamp collecting.   *Sigh*

Via The Presurfer.

Word for the day: sillage

Al Pacino doesn't use the word "sillage" when he comments about the flight attendant: "Well, she’s wearing Floris. That’s an English Cologne..."

I found the term explained in the "Perfume Notes" section of Bois de Jasmin:
Sillage (pronounced as see-yazh) is a term used to describe a scented trail left by the fragrance wearer. It comes from the French word for “wake,” as in the trail left in the sky by an airplane or on the water by a boat.  Sillage defines how fragrance diffuses around the wearer, and a strong sillage means that a fragrance projects well. Sillage has nothing to do with the richness of the composition, however, but rather with the diffusive nature of the materials that go into it. For instance, hedione, fresh floral notes and some types of musk are extremely diffusive and radiant, while retaining an airy, light character.

Fragrances with a strong sillage include such rich compositions like Guerlain L’Heure Bleue, Lancôme Trésor, and Christian Dior Poison as well as light, ethereal blends like Bulgari Eau Parfumée au Thé Vert and Christian Dior Eau Sauvage. Conversely, minimal sillage fragances are ones that stay close to the skin and create a more intimate scented aura.
A hat tip to reader Jeff Kozoris, who remembered encountering the term when I posted some quite interesting facts about language.

Quadrupedalism is NOT evidence of "reverse evolution"

As reported by the Washington Post:
The man is one of five children in a religious family bedeviled by an unusual condition that has flummoxed and fascinated scientists since the scientific community first discovered them in 2005. The parents were normal. but five of their progeny are quadrupedal. They walk appendages down, bottom in the air.

..a new study published Wednesday in PLOS One, further debunks the notion that the siblings represent reverse evolution. They do not, as Tan earlier surmised, walk like primates. Primates walk in a diagonal sequence, in which they put a hand on one side and a foot on the other, repeating this pattern as they progress forward. These humans, meanwhile, walk laterally – similar to other quadrupedals.

Now researchers say the siblings aren’t the product of reverse evolution. Rather, their walk is a bi-product of a hereditary condition called Cerebellar hypoplasia, which an MRI originally revealed. This condition complicates their sense of balance — and to adapt, they have developed quadrupedalism.
More at the links.   For additional information on cerebellar hypoplasia, see these three previous posts:

Video of a boy with cerebellar hypoplasia

Video (2008) of a cat with cerebellar hypoplasia, and another one from 2014.

13 July 2014

I'm not dead

I've been very busy with summer things, family activities, and hobbies.  Blogging will resume... whenever.

08 July 2014

Earth and Sky Photo Contest winners for 2013

According to the contest criteria the submitted images are taken since the beginning of 2012 and are all created in the "TWAN style"—showing both the Earth and the sky—by combining elements of the night sky set in the backdrop of the Earth horizon, often with a notable scenery or landmark.
Known as "landscape astrophotography" this is similar to general "Nightscape Photography" but with more attention to the sky, astronomical perspectives, and celestial phenomena. The contest special attention to preserving night sky as part of our natural heritage is to support global efforts in controlling light pollution (International Dark Sky Association).
A video of the 2014 winners is at The World At Night

Swallows have learned to open parking garage doors

"When the University of Victoria in Canada opened a new campus bike centre in the parkade located under the University Centre last November, motion-activated doors were installed to discourage swallows from nesting in the new facility. But when the swallows returned to their familiar nest sites a few weeks ago, they were undeterred by this peculiar impediment: they quickly learned how to open the doors by flying in front of the infrared motion detector, as you see in this video."
Further details at The Guardian.

There is a celestial map at Hoover Dam

From the Bureau of Reclamation's webpage on artwork at the dam:
Surrounding the base is a terrazzo floor, inlaid with a star chart, or celestial map. The chart preserves for future generations the date on which President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated Hoover Dam, September 30, 1935.

The apparent magnitudes of stars on the chart are shown as they would appear to the naked eye at a distance of about 190 trillion miles from earth. In reality, the distance to most of the stars is more than 950 trillion miles.

In this celestial map, the bodies of the solar system are placed so exactly that those versed in astronomy could calculate the precession (progressively earlier occurrence) of the Pole Star for approximately the next 14,000 years. Conversely, future generations could look upon this monument and determine, if no other means were available, the exact date on which Hoover Dam was dedicated.
Photo from a gallery of images

The Nimrud lens

The Nimrud lens or Layard lens is a 3000-year old piece of rock crystal, which was unearthed by Austen Henry Layard at the Assyrian palace of Nimrud, in modern-day Iraq. It may have been used as a magnifying glass, or as a burning-glass to start fires by concentrating sunlight, or it may have been a piece of decorative inlay. The lens is slightly oval, and was roughly ground, perhaps on a lapidary wheel. It has a focal point about 11 centimetres (4.5 in) from the flat side, and a focal length of about 12 cm. This would make it equivalent to a 3× magnifying glass...

The function of the lens is not clear, with some authors suggesting that it was used as an optical lens and others suggesting a decorative function. Assyrian craftsmen made intricate engravings, and could have used a magnifying lens in their work. The discoverer of the lens noted that he had found very small inscriptions on Assyrian artefacts which he suspected had been achieved with the aid of a lens. Italian scientist Giovanni Pettinato of the University of Rome has proposed that the lens was used by the ancient Assyrians as part of a telescope, and that this explains their knowledge of astronomy. Experts on Assyrian archaeology are unconvinced, doubting that the optical quality of the lens is sufficient to be of much use. 
More at Wikipedia.

07 July 2014

Psychedelic salt mine

Hundreds of feet below a Russian city is an abandoned salt mine which might as well be the inside of a rave. The walls are covered with psychedelic patterns, caused by the natural layers of mineral carnallite creating swirls throughout the coloured rock. Carnallite is used in the process of plant fertilisation, and is most often yellow to white or reddish, but can sometimes be blue or even completely colourless. 
From the Daily Mail, via Joanne Casey's I Have Seen The Whole Of the Internet.  More from Wikipedia:
Carnallite is an evaporite mineral, a hydrated potassium magnesium chloride with formula KMgCl3·6(H2O). It is variably colored yellow to white, reddish, and sometimes colorless or blue. It is usually massive to fibrous with rare pseudohexagonal orthorhombic crystals. The mineral is deliquescent (absorbs moisture from the surrounding air) and specimens must be stored in an airtight container... only forms under specific environmental conditions in an evaporating sea or sedimentary basin. It is mined for both potassium and magnesium...

"Lotus feet"

For centuries, millions of young women crushed their feet in a bid to marry well, until the Chinese government finally managed to wipe out the practice in the mid twentieth century. To attain the coveted “three-inch golden lotuses” one needed to start early. “Young bones are soft, and break more easily," a survivor of the practice told NPR in 2007. “Because I bound my own feet, I could manipulate them more gently until the bones were broken.”
Photographer Jo Farrell has been documenting the current lives of the last remaining survivors of that ancient practice.  She notes that there are modern parallels:
In every culture there are forms of body modification that adhere to that cultures’ perception of beauty. From Botox, FGM, breast augmentation, scarring and tattooing, to rib removals, toe tucks and labrets.”
Photo credit Jo Farrell.

"A building made of pure light"

Using beams of light as an architectural medium did not originate with the Tribute in Light at the site of the World Trade Center.  The concept was featured at the 1937 Paris World Exhibition:
The three light projections of the pavilion forming a Roman number III not only referred to the Third Reich, but gave shape for the first time to Speer’s idea of the “Lichtdom”, the building made of pure light, whose final, mature form will be realized by him for the Nuremberg Party Day in the following year [photo above]. The German pavilion of the world exposition dedicated to the light and progress rose up in the night, from dusk till dawn, as a disembodied building of light, outshining all the other lights of the ville des lumières, not only the Soviet pavilion, but the Eiffel Tower as well.

Can you identify these flags?

The image is of a poster for the 1937 Paris World Exhibition.  Recognize any of the flags?  (Answer below the fold).

"Best movie of all time" according to IMDb

An interesting Wall Street Journal article discusses "The Shawshank Residuals" -
"Shawshank" for years has been rated by users of imdb.com as the best movie of all time (the first two "Godfather" films are second and third)...

"Shawshank" was becoming that priceless entertainment property—a repeater. Viewers watched it again and again. Those who initially may have been turned off by the idea of a prison drama born out of a wrongful conviction were drawn in by likable characters who inhabit a world where the true horrors of prison are left largely to the imagination. The
movie's wholly satisfying conclusion—a universal fantasy—gives people hope...

In Mansfield in north-central Ohio, tourism officials five years ago established a tour to capitalize on what had become the area's biggest draw. The prison, courthouse and oak tree where Andy leaves money for Red are among 14 stops on the Shawshank Trail, which one weekend last summer drew about 6,000 people...

"Shawshank" has aired on 15 basic cable networks since 1997, including six in the most recent season, according to Warner Bros. Last year, it filled 151 hours of airtime on basic cable, tied with "Scarface" and behind only "Mrs. Doubtfire"...

Teen angst

Found in a Twitter feed.

Sleep paralysis in a science fiction story

"Gorged, yet strangely empty, Starfinder sinks into a fitful sleep.  During it, he dreams an atavistic dream that he has dreamed increasingly often of late.  In the dream he is a Cro-Magnon savage walking weaponless across a starlit plain.  Just ahead of him and to his right is a small shadow-filled copse... As he comes abreast of the copse a huge saber-toothed tiger leaps out of the shadows and bears him to the ground.  It crouches above him, its massive forelegs resting on his chest, shutting off his breath, its horrible tusked face grinning down into his own...

Starfinder knows that in a moment he will be dead, and yet he canot move.  This, far more than the tiger, constitutes the nightmarish quality of the dream.  This numbing paralysis that grips him, that makes it impossible for him even to try to save himself.  His arms lie like lead at his sides.  He cannot so much as lift a single finger.  All he can do is lie there helplessly and wait for those gaping jaws to complete their relentless journey, and close.

He wills his arms to rise; he wills his fingers to sink into the tiger's tawny throat.  But his arms do not stir; his fingers do not even tremble... He wakes sweating.
From Starscape with Frieze of Dreams, by Robert F. Young (published in Orbit 8, 1970).

A clinically accurate description, incorporating not only the paralysis, but also the dyspnea and the autonomic response.

05 July 2014

Unspoken love

I'm going to end my blogging day with this absolutely delightful advertisement for a Peruvian hardware store. The explanation for what is happening comes at the very end...

A hat tip to reader John Farrier, who posted this at Neatorama.

Of pollinia, pollinaria, and milkweed blossoms

Yesterday I was fortunate to observe a phenomenon that I have never witnessed before, though I had read about it years ago.

As I left the house on an errand, I saw a small butterfly frantically quivering its wings, but unable to escape from a milkweed blossom.  I've seen this before when butterflies have their legs entangled in spiderwebs; at a milkweed blossom it could also have encountered a lurking crab spider.

In this particular situation the debate as to whether to "let nature take its course" was irrelevant, and I paused only a few milliseconds before walking over to free the innocuous butterfly from the wicked spider.  Much to my surprise (and intellectual delight), I discovered that the butterfly was entrapped not by a spider or a web, but by the blossom itself..

Milkweed is not a carnivorous plant, but its pollination system can be lethal to small
insects.  Unlike most other flowering plants, milkweed pollen is not free as a powder, but is stored in rather large sacs.  The legs of visiting insects can become entrapped in the structure of these plants; when the insect leaves, it pulls away the entire sac, which then can be transported to the pistils of the next blossom.

An encounter with a pollinarium is not a problem for large insects like Monarch butterflies, bumblebees, or even robust solitary bees.  But the butterfly I saw was one of the small "hairstreaks" which are only the size of one's fingernail (see the embed at right of a different hairstreak).  It lacked the propulsive force necessary to pull the pollinarium away from the blossom, and would have perished there from exhaustion or fallen victim to a roving predator.

I removed from the large milkweed blossom the individual flower holding the hairstreak; it was still unable to escape until I grasped its wings with my other hand and pulled; it then flew away.

The video at the top has excellent visuals of this phenomenon.  A detailed text description with illustrative photos was posted at Eye On Nature in 2012.

Freshly released evidence regarding 9/11

As reported by the Miami Herald:
Freshly released but heavily censored FBI documents include tantalizing new information about events connected to the Sarasota Saudis who moved suddenly out of their home about two weeks before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, leaving behind clothing, jewelry and cars.

The documents were released to BrowardBulldog.org Monday amid ongoing Freedom of Information Act litigation...

Deputies were called after a man with a Tunisian passport was observed disposing of items in a dumpster behind a storage facility he had rented in Bradenton.

The man’s name is blanked out, but the report says authorities who searched the dumpster found “a self-printed manual on terrorism and Jihad, a map of the inside of an unnamed airport, a rudimentary last will and testament, a weight to fuel ratio calculation for a Cessna 172 aircraft, flight training information from the Flight Training Center in Venice [Fla.] and printed maps of Publix shopping centers in Tampa Bay.”

The Flight Training Center is where 9/11 hijack pilot Ziad Jarrah, who was at the controls of United Airlines Flight 93 when it crashed in Shanksville, Pa, took flying lessons.
The three paragraphs that follow are completely blanked out. The reasons cited include information “specifically authorized under criteria established by [presidential] executive order to be kept secret in the interest of national defense or foreign policy.”

In all, the FBI released 11 pages Monday. They contain statements reiterating that the al-Hijjis had departed the United States in haste shortly before 9/11 and that “further investigation” had “revealed many connections” between them and persons associated with “attacks on 9/11/2001.”

Those statements flatly contradict the FBI’s public statements that agents found no connection between the al-Hijjis and the 9/11 plot.

Yet they dovetail with the account of a counterintelligence source who has said investigators in 2001 found evidence — phone records and photographs of license plates snapped at the entrance to the al-Hijjis’ Sarasota-area neighborhood — that showed Mohamed Atta, other hijackers and former Broward resident and current al-Qaeda fugitive Adnan Shukrijumah had visited the al-Hijji home.

None of that information, or even the fact that an investigation in Sarasota took place, was disclosed by the FBI to Congress’ Joint Inquiry into the attacks or to the 9/11 Commission, according to former Florida U.S. Sen. Bob Graham. Graham co-chaired the joint inquiry...

Among other things, the government asserted that classification is necessary because the censored information pertains to foreign relations or foreign activities, including confidential sources.

This could be about information considered embarrassing to Saudi Arabia,” said Julin. Fifteen of the 19 suicide hijackers were Saudi nationals.
It's important to emphasize that this new evidence does not "prove" any conspiracy theory (MIHOP, LIHOP, or other).  It does confirm that there exists information not made public by previous investigations.  Via Reddit.

A supercut of actors looking at you

This is a tribute to the wink of complicity from the filmmakers to the audience when they make actors look straight into the camera. It is not a tribute to scenes where the fourth wall is broken (when a character addresses the audience directly), some clips in the video belong to that category but most of them don't cause it is not what we wanted to show.

There are 150 different clips (from 148 films) in this video, but at first we had selected more than 200 films. We left out dozens of scenes on purpose, cause we didn't want a 15 minutes montage. For example, we decided not to include the "found footage" genre, cause everyone looks at the camera in this type of movies (like "Cloverfield"). And also musical numbers, where it's very common that the actors look at the camera while singing.
A list of the films with time tags is at the YouTube "about", but it's easier to just click on the "cc" (closed caption) button to reveal them during the video.

The "safe spot" in Pac Man

All those quarters I wasted in Pac Man, never knowing that there is a square where you can "hide" from the ghosts:
The right side of the T-section beneath the ghost regenerator can be used as a safe spot where the ghosts are unable to find and catch Pac-Man. There are two conditions that must be met to make the safe spot work for Pac-Man. The first is that none of the ghosts must "see" Pac-Man enter the safe spot. If they do, they will follow him in there, and the said spot will not be safe. The other condition is that Pac-Man must be facing north. You don't necessarily need to approach the spot from the south (just to the right of where Pac-Man begins the round). You can enter from the east and quickly change orientation to point north. If you meet both conditions, you can leave Pac-Man in that location for as long as you like and move the joystick when you are ready to resume play. Marathon players of the game often use this trick if they need a break from the game.
Map via The Guardian.  There are many more tips at StrategyWiki.

"Somehow or other we all have relatives in Wisconsin"

A supercut of references to Wisconsin in the movies.  Posted for Wisconsin readers; for anyone else it will probably be repetitive and boring.

04 July 2014

We should be celebrating the 2nd of July

This Fourth of July, Americans will celebrate the adoption of the Declaration of Independence with picnics, parades and, of course, fireworks. It's a tradition that's been in place for more than 200 years — and for more than 200 years, it's been kind of wrong.

"It is the right day to celebrate the Declaration of Independence," author and historian Ray Raphael tells NPR's Guy Raz. "It is not the right day to celebrate the signing of the declaration or the right day to celebrate independence. The vote for independence was on July 2 — two days before — and the first signing of the declaration ... was not until August 2 — a month later."..

In his book Founding Myths: Stories That Hide Our Patriotic Past, Raphael explores the truth behind the stories of the making of our nation — like how America ended up lighting fireworks on the 4th and not the 2nd.

Raphael says that even the writers of the declaration expected July 2 to be the day that went down in history.

"Adams wrote a letter to his wife, Abigail, on the 3rd of July, the day after they voted for independence, saying the 2nd of July will always be remembered and will be celebrated with parades and illuminations and patriotic speeches," Raphael says. "He described the Fourth of July to the tee, but he called it the 2nd."

America ended up with the 4th because that's the day the Declaration of Independence was sent out to the states to be read. The document was dated July 4, so that's the day they celebrated.
Image from Old Hollywood.

03 July 2014

Portugal's amazing oceanic realm

Explained at Big Think's Strange Maps blog:
Most countries now accept the premise on which Portugal's territorial waters are also based:
A belt of coastal waters extending 12 nautical miles (22.2 km or 13.8 mi) from the low-water mark of the coast, unless it overlaps with another country's 12-mile zone, in which case the border between both territorial waters is the median line between both low-water marks (unless both countries agree otherwise). 
But this map doesn't care for mere territorial waters. As can be judged from the scale on right of the map (on the Moroccan mainland), the grey zones are too extended to be only 12 nautical miles. They constitute Portugal's Exclusive Economic Zone. For the 1982 Convention also specified that a country could claim an EEZ of 200 nautical miles (370.4 km or 230.2 mi) beyond its coastal baseline. An EEZ allows a country to claim exclusive rights, but fewer than in its territorial waters...

A few strategically placed islands can provide a gigantic (and potentially very lucrative) EEZ. Which partly explains why Argentina is so keen on Britain's Falkland Islands, or why China and Japan are arguing about a few otherwise insignificant rocks in the East China Sea.

Portugal's archipelagos provide it with three gigantic EEZs, almost contiguously stretching from 200 nautical miles west of Monchique Islet (the westernmost bit of Azorean dry land, geologically already on the North American Plate), all the way back to Lisbon. 
Portugal claims that their maritime territory is 40X their terrestrial one. 

Wallpaper-size map here.

Deforestation in Indonesia

Exact rates of Indonesian deforestation have varied with different figures quoted by researchers and government, but a new study, which claims to be the most comprehensive yet, suggests that nearly twice as much primary forest is being cut down as in Brazil, the historical global leader...

In 2012, she calculates, Indonesia lost 840,000 hectares of its primary forest, compared to 460,000 hectares in Brazil, despite its forest being roughly a quarter the size of the Amazon. This, says Margano, was the most lost by any country...

But the figures are potentially embarrassing because they suggest that a 2011 moratorium on granting new licenses for clearing or logging of primary forests and carbon-rich peatlands could have been a driver for deforestation.

Margono and co-author Matthew Hansen said the new data from remote sensing showed that the extra losses came largely from the felling of primary forest in wetlands and in government-protected areas.
More grim details at The Guardian.

Tree-hugger's nightmare

Heavy duty forestry mulchers can clear up to fifteen acres of vegetation a day depending on terrain, density, and type of material. Forestry mulchers are often used for land clearing, right-of-way, pipeline/power line, and wildfire prevention and management, vegetation management, invasive species control, and wildlife restoration...

Forestry mulchers and forestry mowers are often used for removing underbrush and invasive species, such as buckthorn and multiflora rose, in order to allow the rejuvenation of grasses and other food sources... Invasive insects such as pine beetles can also devastate forests, leaving behind rotting trees with diminishing timber value and that may become falling hazards if they lose their ability to stand up against wind...
More at the Wikipedia page.

Related: shredding a Volkswagen Beetle.

Via The Presurfer.

02 July 2014

College admission form, 1922

Via Reddit.

Rachel Lust demonstrates her hula hoop skills

Give her a minute to get into her groove.  Via Neatorama.

"Fecal transplants" explained

Most people by now have heard of fecal transplants, but a BBC article provides some additional detail:
A classic study of nine healthy British volunteers found that bacteria accounted for more than half of the mass of their faecal solids... Scientists have linked disruptions to this organ, a condition known as dysbiosis, to everything from inflammatory bowel disease and high blood pressure to diabetes and obesity.

Viewed in this light, a faecal microbiota transplant is nothing more than an attempt to reseed an intestinal tract, often after antibiotics have killed off the native flora that might have kept invasive species at bay. No other medical therapy can claim such a high cure rate for the infection widely known as C. diff...

After the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona, performed its first faecal microbiota transplant in 2011, a patient who had been bed-ridden for weeks left the hospital 24 hours later. And in 2013, researchers in the Netherlands halted a landmark C. diff. clinical trial early for ethical reasons when they saw that the overall cure rate of 94% with donor faeces had far outpaced the 31% cured with the antibiotic vancomycin. ..

The first known record of faecal transplants dates back to fourth-century China, when a doctor named Ge Hong included several mentions in his ambitious collection of therapeutic formulas called Handy Therapy for Emergencies. Ge dutifully described how to treat patients with food poisoning or severe diarrhoea by feeding them a faecal suspension bluntly named “solution of stool”...

Canadian veterinarian and epidemiologist David Waltner-Toews suggests in his own book, The Origin of Feces, that our response to poo may instead reflect a complicated and contradictory cultural history based more on geography. Whereas faeces was traditionally associated with fertiliser in rural agricultural areas, he says, it took on a more sinister role in urban centres as public health officials emphasised the very real danger of diarrhoeal diseases. ..

Scientists have already raised the idea that a rise in allergies and autoimmunity in industrialised nations may derive from a kind of collective defect of reduced microbial diversity.

We cannot find people who’ve never been on antibiotics,” Khoruts says of his donors. For complex autoimmune diseases such as ulcerative colitis, faecal transplants may offer only a partial solution. And with some data suggesting that susceptibility may be linked in part to past antibiotic exposure, perhaps no Western donor can provide the microbes needed to fully reseed the gut.
More at the link.


Found at Cool Hunting:
Currently on show at Domaine de Boisbuchet, in Charente, France, the historically significant exhibition centers on the scavenger-style patchwork technique known as Boro and features some 50 pieces of kimonos, futon covers, work garments and other textiles handmade between 1850 and 1950 by Japanese peasants...

It wasn't until well into the 20th century that cotton became widely available in most of Japan. And while availability grew, it remained too expensive for most poor rural workers, ultimately leading to the widespread use of patchwork manufacturing and the tradition of passing repeatedly mended garments down from generation to generation...

The principal of "wabi-sabi" can be seen in the perfection of imperfection, "shibui" in the textiles' humble nature and "mottainai" as a reflection of a societal effort to avoid waste.
Additional text and images at the link, with a hat tip to reader Brad, who noticed the conceptual and artistic similarity to the kintsugi that I blogged earlier.  

Why there is "no such thing as a fish"

I have been listening to podcasts of QI's "No Such Thing as a Fish," each of which is introduced with the statements "No, seriously.  It's in The Oxford Dictionary* of Underwater Life.  It says it right there in the first paragraph: there's no such thing as a fish."

I wondered about the logic of the statement, which maddeningly was never discussed in any of the podcasts I had heard.  Finally a web search led me to the QI episode above, during which Stephen Fry quotes the eminent Stephen Jay Gould's assertion that there is no such thing as a fish. (q.v. for explanation) (addendum: or read Sylvia's notes in the Comment section).

While I'm on the subject of podcasts, I can also recommend QI's series of "International Factballs" produced to coincide with the World Cup.  Lots of tidbits of "things you wouldn't know" in those broadcasts.

*There is actually no book with that title.  Oxford does, however, publish an encyclopedia of underwater life (see the comment thread below).

01 July 2014

Milkweed as a weed

For my second post in the series on milkweed, I'll address the perception of milkweed as a weed.  The photo above shows a mature patch of common milkweed at the edge of our front lawn next to the driveway; circled in the center of the lawn is a group of four plants that have "escaped" from their assigned seats.

When I helped staff our butterfly group's booth at Madison's Garden Expo this past spring, it was apparent that "wildflower gardeners" were receptive to our encouragement to plant milkweed, but that "perfectly-manicured-English-knot-garden" gardeners were appalled that we would encourage propagation of "weeds."

"Weed" is inherent in the plant's common name, and thus is an unavoidable influence on the plant's perception by the public.  Most gardeners accept the principle that a weed is a "plant out of place," but there are some for whom the weediness is a true problem - especially farmers: 
A common milkweed density of just over one shoot per square foot reduced wheat yields 47%. In soybean and corn, common milkweed is reported to reduce yields 19 and 10%, respectively. Cultivation can fragment and spread underground roots, which generally increases shoot numbers and population size.
Milkweed has evolved two techniques to propagate itself.  The best-known are the autumn seed pods which burst open to release "parachute-equipped" seeds for wide dispersal (more about that later this year).  But when milkweed finds a microenvironment with suitable sunlight and water, it will also propagate itself with underground lateral roots.

The four plants in the center of our yard are upgrowths from an underground root sent out from the larger patch; they are smaller because they have been mowed down each time the grass is mowed.  I've left them there because the fresh shoots have leaves that are way more tender than the more waxy leaves on the mature plants, and thus they provide good food for young caterpillars.

If you want to get rid of them for esthetic reasons, simply reach down, grasp the stem firmly, and pull:

The several inches of white stem represents the extension below ground to the horizontal feeder.  You can also use any common commercially-available broad-leaf herbicide, but we prefer not to employ such agents close to our flower and herb beds.

The non-uniform greenness of the lawn could reflect a misjudgment on my part of the "throw" of the fertilizer spreader, or it could be an artistic statement.  If a neighbor asks, I'll just say it's the new "thing" and that if their lawn isn't striped, they must be hopelessly retro.

"Don't give too much for the whistle"

Excerpts from a letter written by Benjamin Franklin in 1779:
When I was a child of seven years old, my friends, on a holiday, filled my pocket with coppers. I went directly to a shop where they sold toys for children; and being charmed with the sound of a whistle, that I met by the way in the hands of another boy, I voluntarily offered and gave all my money for one. I then came home, and went whistling all over the house, much pleased with my whistle, but disturbing all the family. My brothers, and sisters, and cousins, understanding the bargain I had made, told me I had given four times as much for it as it was worth; put me in mind what good things I might have bought with the rest of the money; and laughed at me so much for my folly, that I cried with vexation; and the reflection gave me more chagrin than the whistle gave me pleasure.

This, however, was afterwards of use to me, the impression continuing on my mind; so that often, when I was tempted to buy some unnecessary thing, I said to myself, Don’t give too much for the whistle; and I saved my money.

As I grew up, came into the world, and observed the actions of men, I thought I met with many, very many, who gave too much for the whistle...

When I saw another fond of popularity, constantly employing himself in political bustles, neglecting his own affairs, and ruining them by that neglect, He pays, indeed, said I, too much for his whistle.

If I knew a miser, who gave up every kind of comfortable living, all the pleasure of doing good to others, all the esteem of his fellow-citizens, and the joys of benevolent friendship, for the sake of accumulating wealth, Poor man, said I, you pay too much for your whistle...
Full text of the letter is at the Futility Closet's podcast show notes.

Could there be a "left-wing Tea Party" ?

[M]embers of what little there is of an American far left have long admired the Tea Party’s effectiveness, if not its goals...

Some pundits have argued that the rising popularity of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is proof that, even without a left-wing Tea Party, demographic changes are pushing the Democratic Party inexorably leftward. There’s no doubt at least a kernel of truth to this. But it’s important to keep in mind that there’s nothing new about unapologetically liberal politicians coming out of the Big Apple and the Bay State...  Above all else, focusing on high-profile pols misses what makes the Tea Party so powerful: its ability to rally American conservatism’s activist troops...

As Ned Resnikoff recently wrote in the Baffler, if there’s to be a true left-wing Tea Party, it’ll have to be a bottom-up affair, one that is driven as much or more by longtime activists, issue-advocacy groups, organized labor and disaffected youth. It will have to be a movement, not a P.R. campaign. And as is the case with the Tea Party, it’ll have to derive much of its power and influence from hard work on the state and local levels, saving the more glamorous — but often less fruitful — work on Congress and the White House for last. As is the case for the real Tea Party, there would no doubt be politicians who seek to align themselves with the movement; but its real power players (at least at first) will have names you’ve never previously heard.
More at the Salon link.

Photo: Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Bill de Blasio (Credit: AP/Susan Walsh/Reuters/Jonathan Ernst/AP/Jason DeCrow)

Upward lightning

Via Neatorama.

Europe's immigration problem

From The Guardian:
Like almost 60,000 others this year, Brahana decided to brave the Mediterranean sea in order to reach Italy, and therefore Europe. She paid people-smugglers $1,600 (£950), she says, to board a boat packed with more than 300 people. “It’s really hard with a small baby,” she says stoically of a journey that has proved deadly for thousands over the past 20 years. Her boat was intercepted by an Italian navy ship last week and all its passengers taken to safety. The question for them now is what comes next.
More depressing details at the link.

Photograph: Massimo Sestini/eyevine

The history of ornamental confectionery

These instructions on how "To make a Hedge Hog" are from 1817:
Take 1lb. Valentia almonds; blanch and beat them very fine, with a little rose water; mix in the yolks of six eggs; whisk up the whites of four eggs very stiff; mix all together, with half a pint of cream, and sweeten it with beat sugar to your taste; set the whole in a stew pan on a clear fire, and stir it till it is thick enough to model into the shape of a hedge hog; put a small currant for each eye, and stick it all over with cut almonds for the bristles of the hedge hog; then set it on a dish, and pour over it a rich custard.
They may have been reprinted from this 1747 source (hat tip to reader Sylvia).  The photo and recipe were included in an interesting article reviewing the history of ornamental confectionery.
This kind of novelty cake stretches back much further than I realised. I knew about the spectacular sugar sculptures and ices that would have featured in Grand Desserts, the final course of upper class formal dinners in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but when I started browsing through our holdings of confectionery manuals I wasn’t prepared for the quirkiness of some of the dishes, combining dazzlingly difficult techniques with witty concepts.

The earliest book on confectionery in our rare book collections is the first edition of Mrs Mary Eales’s Receipts, printed in 1718.
More at the link, which I found in a newly-discovered blog: Echoes from the Vault - " a blog from the Special Collections of the University of St Andrews."  There must be an abundance of fascinating material there.

A silent, zero-emissions electric airplane

The E-Fan, engineered by Airbus Group, is propelled by two 30-kilowatt electric motors, themselves powered by a series of lithium-ion batteries fitted into the plane’s wings (a 6 kW electric motor in the main wheel gives it some extra thrust on the ground).  ”It’s a very different way of flying,” said Jean Botti, chief technical and innovation officer at Airbus Group, told ClimateWire, “absolutely no noise, no emissions.”..

Right now, the E-Fan can only remain in the air for an hour, which means that range anxiety — which accompanies electric vehicles of all sorts — is bound to be a concern... To that effect, the E-Fan is equipped with a backup battery and a parachute.

Airbus Group’s ultimate goal is to make a 70- to 80-person hybrid-electric commuter jet with three hours of range in the 2050 time frame... These advances are steppingstones toward realizing Flight Path 2050, the European Union’s aggressive goal to reduce the aviation sector’s nitrous oxide emissions by 90 percent, noise pollution by 65 percent and carbon dioxide emissions by 75 percent by 2050.
More information at the link, where there is a video of the manufacturing and first flight of the aircraft.

Laboratory-grown vaginas

Four teenage girls have received vaginas grown from their own cells in a lab. And they work.

These girls were born with underdeveloped or missing vaginas because of a rare condition called Mayer-Rokitansky-Küster-Hauser Syndrome that affects about 1 in 5,000 women. While their labia looked like those of other girls, their vaginas, cervixes and wombs, which are necessary for menstruation and childbirth, never fully formed.

Medical researchers took a vaginal tissue sample from each patient, who were between 13 and 18 at the time, and used them to grow cells in the lab. After four weeks, the researchers had enough cells to layer them on to degradable scaffolding...

Six months later, the patients were able to menstruate and have sexual intercourse for the first time. “After the operation they were able to function normally,” Atala told reporters. “They had normal levels of desire, arousal, satisfaction and orgasm.” Some may also be able to have children.
Further details at the Washington Post.  Image from a video at the Wall Street Journal (safe for work, unless someone at work is offended by tissue culture).
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