30 October 2014

Probably the oldest mask in the world

From the collections of the Musée "Bible et Terre Sainte" -
This stone mask from the pre-ceramic neolithic period dates to 7000 BCE and is probably the oldest mask in the world.
Happy Halloween to all.

Via Unexplained Spoopies.

Solar eclipse as seen from space

From NASA's series of APOD photos, this one taken from the Mir space station.
The shadow of the moon can be seen darkening part of Earth. This shadow moved across the Earth at nearly 2000 kilometers per hour...

The Yazidis

The plight of the Yazidis achieved international attention several months ago:
Fears are growing for the 300 Yazidi women reportedly kidnapped by Islamic State fighters last week amid claims they would be used to bear children to break up the ancient sect's bloodline. The minority group is originally Aryan and has retained a fairer complexion, blonde hair and blue eyes by only marrying within the community. But in a furious bid to convert all non-Muslims, ISIS jihadists have vowed to impregnate the hostages
This week The Dish notes that "the plight of the Yazidis still isn't over."
On Mount Sinjar there are two Yazidi militias resisting the IS push. They told Rudaw that they had not received supplies for weeks. There are also YPG, PKK, and peshmerga fighters in the area as well. IS has cut off the supply routes to the mountain and the Yazidi forces are desperate for weapons and ammunition.
I found out more about the Yazidis from Wikipedia:
The Yazidis are a Kurdish ethno-religious community whose syncretic but ancient religion Yazidism (a kind of Yazdânism) is linked to Zoroastrianism and ancient Mesopotamian religions...

The Yazidis are monotheists, believing in God as creator of the world, which he has placed under the care of seven "holy beings" or angels, the "chief" (archangel) of whom is Melek Taus, the "Peacock Angel."...some followers of other monotheistic religions of the region equate the Peacock Angel with their own unredeemed evil spirit Satan, which has
incited centuries of persecution of the Yazidis as "devil worshippers." Persecution of Yazidis has continued in their home communities within the borders of modern Iraq, under both Saddam Hussein and fundamentalist Sunni Muslim revolutionaries. In August 2014 the Yazidis were targeted by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in its campaign to "purify" Iraq and neighboring countries of non-Islamic influences...

Yazidism is not an offshoot of another religion, but shows influence from the many religions of the Middle East. Core Yazidi cosmology has a pre-Zoroastrian Iranian origin, but Yazidism also includes elements of ancient nature-worship, as well as influences from Christianity, Gnosticism, Zoroastrianism, Islam and Judaism....

Both images cropped to fit without removing watermarks.  Top image (a refugee, not a hostage) from The Daily Mail.  Thumbnail image credit Feriq Ferec/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images via The Dish.

The epitome of "cheerful"

I created a "cheerful" category for blog posts (now with 200+ entries) because some days after surfing the internet for news and stories, one needs some lighter fare.

Bryan College (a Tennessee Christian liberal arts college) apparently has a feature at its home basketball games where one student is given an opportunity to make four consecutive shots (a layup, a free throw, a 3-point shot, and a half-court shot).  

Making all four within a 30-second time period results in a $10,000 reduction in tuition.  Gustavo Angel Tamayo, a 23-year-old student, had never played basketball.

This fits nicely in the cheerful category.  I've watched it three times.

29 October 2014

The "Pillar portrait" of the Bronte sisters

"Anne is on the left with Emily in the centre and Charlotte on the right. Originally, their brother, Branwell, had begun painting himself in the picture but ultimately decided to paint himself out by replacing his image with a 'pillar'. This must have been done before the painting was completed as recent x-rays, which clearly show his image, indicate that it is incomplete. Badly mixed oil paints can have a tendency to become translucent with age, and as a result of Branwell's inexperience in this area, his own ghostly image can now be seen 'in the pillar'. 
The original is on display in the National Portrait Gallery, London

Dunes on a comet

Not something I would have expected to see.

Embedded image cropped from the original for emphasis of the dunes feature. These were photographed on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko by the Rosetta spacecraft.

More photos here.

Eagle-eye view

"A white-tailed eagle, extinct in France for over 50 years, soared from the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris and flew over the Seine with a Sony camera mounted on its back."
From a gallery at The Guardian.  Credit Sony/SWNS.com

King Tut's poor health

Dozens of websites have posted the results of Tutankhamun's virtual (CT-scan) autopsy.  The best (most concise, least sensational) I've found has been the report at National Geographic's Education Blog:
What have these CT scans revealed about King Tut’s life and death? Not much that wasn’t already known, actually...

King Tut was probably ill for most of his life. The autopsy reveals he probably had a clubfoot or Kohler disease, which prevented him from participating in vigorous activity (such as chariot-riding). He also suffered from genetic illnesses and malaria...

...they studied the 130 walking canes buried with the Boy King. Many archaeologists thought these canes were symbols of the pharaoh’s power, but the new “virtual autopsy” research indicates he actually needed them for walking.

Sunlight reflected onto a brick wall

Looks like chromosomes in metaphase. 

Found at Reddit.

The world asks the U.S. to end its embargo of Cuba

(Reuters) - The U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday voted overwhelmingly for the 23rd time to condemn the decades-long U.S. economic embargo against Cuba, with many nations praising the island state for its response in fighting the deadly Ebola virus that is ravaging West Africa. 
In the 193-nation assembly, 188 countries voted for the nonbinding resolution, titled "Necessity of Ending the Economic, Commercial and Financial Embargo imposed by the United States of America against Cuba."

As in previous years, the only countries that voted against the declaration were the United States and an ally, Israel...

While the General Assembly's vote is nonbinding and symbolic, it serves to highlight U.S. isolation regarding Havana. It is one of very few issues where all of Washington's Western allies part ways with the United States...

Washington broke diplomatic ties and imposed a comprehensive trade embargo on the Communist-run Caribbean island more than half a century ago during the Cold War. Its policy today appears to be influenced by domestic politics in Florida, where Cuban exiles have opposed any conciliation with former President Fidel Castro or current President Raul Castro, who took over for his brother in 2008. 

This ludicrous policy has been maintained now for about 50 years.  Presumably by now the Kennedy family has smoked all of the 1,200 Cuban cigars JFK imported right before he imposed the ban on commerce.

"Catcalling." What it's like being a girl in New York City

This young woman volunteered to walk around the streets of New York for ten hours, walking behind a companion who had a GoPro camera mounted on his backpack.  She is holding a microphone in both hands to record the comments directed at her during her walk, which have been clarified with captions in the 2-minute video.  The video is edited; she received about ten unsolicited comments per hour of walking.

Via Reddit, where the discussion thread focuses on the creepy guy who walks beside her for five minutes silently.

In an interesting test of the “boys will be boys” hypothesis, the New Zealand Herald decided to re-create the Hollaback video on the streets of Auckland, recruiting a model named Nicola Simpson to star. As in the New York video, Simpson walked around the city for 10 hours behind a hidden camera chronicling her trip. And guess what happened? She received zero catcalls. None. Not one.
Video at the link.

27 October 2014

Firefighters' rescue masks - updated

From France "between the mid-1800s and World War I."

I see adapters designed to fit onto some type of tubing, presumably leading either to fresh (?compressed) air since an oxygen source would have been exponentially risker to a firefighter.  

Via Not In The History Books

Addendum:  A tip of the blogging hat to reader Aleksejs, for sending me a link to the Firefighting Museum in Riga, Latvia and to this photo of a complete similar-type outfit from the same era:

This is an average American man

"Todd is the most typical of American men. His proportions are based on averages from CDC anthropometric data. As a U.S. male age 30 to 39, his body mass index (BMI) is 29; just one shy of the medical definition of obese. At five-feet-nine-inches tall, his waist is 39 inches."
From The Atlantic, where this body habitus is compared to those derived from databases in three other countries (Japan, France, and The Netherlands).   Here the average American is compared to the average man in the Netherlands:

"Americans are also losing ground in height. For most of two centuries, until 60 years ago, the U.S. population was the tallest in the world. Now the average American man is three inches shorter than the Dutch man, who averages six feet. Japanese averages are also gaining on Americans'. 
More information and images at The Atlantic.

A "hundred" used to mean 120

A reminder that the English language evolved at a time when the counting system involved a "long hundred" equal to 120.
The long hundred, a unit of count = 120, appears to have arisen out of an ancient Germanic way of counting, one which is echoed in modern English. The “teen” suffix, as in four-teen, six-teen, etc, is not applied to one plus ten or two plus ten (they aren't one-teen and two-teen). Eleven and twelve are treated the same way as the first ten numerals; the break is after twelve, not ten... Note that this is not a duodecimal numeric system.
The use of the word in this manner lingered for a long time in England:
This reckoning of one hundred as six score still holds good (or did to my knowledge ten years ago) in Leighton Buzzard, Beds. If one ordered there 100 plants, for example, one received, and also had to pay for, 120: a hundred being always reckoned as six twenties. If one required simply 100, it was necessary to order five score.
So also here in Cardigan and around, taking eggs, for example, the dealer picking up three eggs in each hand, reckons that twenty times this makes one hundred.
Emily M. Pritchard (writing on 21 July 1906).
Archaeologia Cambrensis. 6th series, vol. 6, page 352.
Learned from a recent podcast of No Such Thing As A Fish (thank you, elves).

Iraqi girls on their way to school

Credit: Ahmad Al-rubaye/AFP/Getty Images, via The Guardian.

Salamander traffic jam

Posted because this photo brings back pleasant memories of my childhood in Minnesota.  Every fall tiger salamanders by the dozens would accumulate at the base of our outside basement stairwell.  It was my not unpleasant chore as a youngster to corral them before they desiccated, and transfer them back to the nearby woods.

Photo of ringed salamanders from the Missouri Department of Conservation, via Nothing To Do With Arbroath.

23 October 2014

Some old books had feet

Erik Kwakkel explains:
When medieval binders knew that the object they were processing would be placed on a lectern, for example in a chained library, they often added tiny feet like the ones seen here. They made sure that the lower edge of the binding and the bottom part of the pages would not be damaged by the rough wood of the lectern - notice the shiny bottom of the feet.
More photos at the link, and more details here of a chained library

What was in Edgar Allan Poe's head?

Many years ago I spent a lot of time studying the life and works of Edgar Allan Poe (see this manuscript), but do not remember previously having read this account of his exhumation:
When Poe died, he was buried, rather unceremoniously, in an unmarked grave in a Baltimore graveyard. Twenty-six years later, a statue was erected, honoring Poe, near the graveyard’s entrance. Poe’s coffin was dug up, and his remains exhumed, in order to be moved to the new place of honor. But more than two decades of buried decay had not been kind to Poe’s coffin—or the corpse within it—and the apparatus fell apart as workers tried to move it from one part of the graveyard to another. Little remained of Poe’s body, but one worker did remark on a strange feature of Poe’s skull: a mass rolling around inside. Newspapers of the day claimed that the clump was Poe’s brain, shriveled yet intact after almost three decades in the ground.

We know, today, that the mass could not be Poe’s brain, which is one of the first parts of the body to rot after death. But Matthew Pearl, an American author who wrote a novel about Poe’s death, was nonetheless intrigued by this clump. He contacted a forensic pathologist, who told him that while the clump couldn’t be a brain, it could be a brain tumor, which can calcify after death into hard masses.
I don't believe a brain tumor or any other body tissue would calcify after death (unless there were some unusual mineralogical conditions in the soil), but some neoplasms such as meningiomas and various metastases do calcify during life.  Interesting.

Addendum 2021:  I just finished reading Hervey Allen's Israfel: The Life and times of Edgar Allan Poe - an immensely detailed biography of Poe.  Poe is often described in the terminology of the mid-nineteenth century as experiencing "brain fever,",which may be delirium associated with alcohol, but he is also noted by some observers to have some facial asymmetry.

"Fear not for the future..."

Via imgur.


As reported in The Huffington Post:
In Maine, an elementary school teacher was recently put on paid leave for up to three weeks after parents complained that the teacher had traveled to Dallas, where there have been a few Ebola cases. On Sunday, a similar precaution was taken at a high school in Phenix, Alabama, after an employee flew on the same plane as a person who contracted Ebola -- even though the employee flew a day later, long after the aircraft had been cleaned...

In Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, Ebola is killing business at a local Liberian
restaurant. "We have had customers coming in and actually standing in front of us at the counter saying, 'do you have Ebola?'"

On the upside, the business of protective gear is booming. David Scott, president of LifeSecure, told The Chicago Sun-Times that his business recently sold out of a kit that includes "disposable eyeshields, biohazard bags, protective masks, vinyl gloves and hand sanitizer."
What they should sell are the sunglasses described in Hitchhiker, which, at the first sign of danger... go totally black.

(Reuters) - U.S. stock futures tumbled while safe-haven assets such as the yen and U.S. bonds gained on Friday after media reported that a doctor who returned to New York City from West Africa has tested positive for Ebola.

Interesting demographics

Fewer babies born in Wisconsin.  For six years in a row.
Claire Smith, spokesperson from the Department of Health Services said the number of babies born in Wisconsin declined for the sixth year in a row last year.

The department recorded 66,566 live births to residents of Wisconsin in 2013, 633 fewer than the previous year. The teen birth rate also declined, with a crude rate of 19.7 births per 1,000 females aged 15 to 19, compared to 21.9 births in 2012.
Note that what is being reported is not a decline in population (because of people moving to Florida or baby boomers dying), but a decrease in new births.

Speculation at the link is that this reflects a response by residents to the economic slowdown, which started with the 2007-2008 recession.  And that this is not just a local phenomenon, but has been noted elsewhere in this country.

The University of North Carolina "student-athlete" academic scandal - updated

This week the U.S. is in the throes of its annual "March Madness" collegiate basketball mania, so it seems to be an appropriate time to provide some links about the recent scandal at the University of North Carolina.

Mary Willingham, a Learning Specialist teaching remedial skills at UNC's Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes, commented publicly on the abysmal educational skills of athletes enrolled at the school, most of whom had reading skills of grade-school children, some of them at a third-grade level and not having ever written a paragraph in their life.

The best video interview is this one from ESPN, for which I've been unable to find a embed code.  In it she reports her experience with literally illiterate college student-athletes who were unable to write.  They were enrolled in "paper classes" that didn't really exist (they just had to write a paper, not attend classes, and that help was given to them to write that paper).  The classes were typically in African-American Studies (AFAM).  She calls the situation a "scam," "a joke," that "everyone knew" and that the NCAA doesn't care about this.  The video is definitely worth a four-minute viewing.

Embedded at the top of this post is a screencap of a "final paper" she showed during the interview, one submitted by a student who received an A- for this work.

Here is a related video -

- which includes the essence but lacks the punch of the ESPN interview linked above.

For the past three years, Ms. Willingham has been anonymously providing information about this academic fraud to the News and Observer in Raleigh, resulting in articles like this.
Until August, the university had resisted going back further than 2007 to investigate other potential academic problems in the department, so it’s difficult to assess exactly what was happening before then.

Difficult, that is, except in the case of Julius Peppers, whose transcript sat unnoticed on UNC’s website until this summer. Peppers had D’s or F’s in 11 of 30 classes, the transcript showed, and was barely eligible for football and basketball only because of a string of better grades in courses he took in the AFAM Department.

Read more here: http://www.newsobserver.com/2012/09/30/2379206/unc-players-needed-academic-help.html#storylink=cpy
Bloomberg Businessweek has an extended discussion.

It's worth emphasizing that this criticism does not apply to all colleges and certainly not to all student athletes.  The problem arises because of the rise of big money in collegiate sports.

Addendum:  I posted the above in March of 2014.  Reposted to add this excerpt from an HBO Sports presentation...

 ... in which she notes that some football and basketball players at the University of North Carolina had SAT verbal scores of 280-300.

And this week the StarTribune carried an Associated Press report on the outcome of the university's investigation of the scandal, noting that the problem extended beyond the athletes to include regular students:
A scandal involving bogus classes and inflated grades at the University of North Carolina was bigger than previously reported, encompassing about 1,500 athletes who got easy A's and B's over a span of nearly two decades, according to an investigation released Wednesday...

Many at the university hoped Wainstein's eight-month investigation would bring some closure. Instead, it found more academic fraud than previous investigations by the NCAA and the school...

The focus was courses that required only a research paper that was often scanned quickly by a secretary, who gave out high grades regardless of the quality of work. The report also outlined how counselors for athletes steered struggling students to the classes, with two counselors even suggesting grades. Several knew the courses were easy and didn't have an instructor...
The NCAA is pondering what to do with this information.

Two more weeks of this...

The "caller ID" no longer works on my office phone, so yesterday when I answered it, I heard "Hi !! This is [politician].  I know everybody hates robocalls, but..." [click]

I have grown not to just despise the politicians, but to hate the process.

21 October 2014

Comparing butter and margarine

Via Neatorama.

The history of Half-Price Books

I believe I visited the flagship Half-Price Books store when it opened in Dallas in the 1970s, and I still shop at the local one here in Madison.  An article at Fortune describes the remarkable rise of this classic bootstrap business, and why it continues to thrive.
[In 1972] They found a 2,000-square-foot location on Lovers Lane in Dallas. It was a ratty old laundromat. The monthly rent was $174. We cleaned it up, built our own shelves, and painted it. We’d load the trucks, unstop the toilet, everything...

There weren’t many bookstores at all back then. Ours was an original concept. Pat and Ken wanted to make sure there were affordable reading options for everyone in a comfortable, inviting place to shop. By buying all the items people brought in, they weren’t censoring anyone. We’d pay cash for anything printed or recorded except yesterday’s newspaper, which meant we had current offerings to sell. It was different from other used bookstores, where you traded for books, or high-end antiquarian stores, which intimidated people. We did so well, we opened our second location eight months later in a former meat-storage place... But we never were fancy people, so I don’t think we would have noticed any hardships. We ate ravioli out of a can and hamburger casseroles...

I became president and CEO. I was scared to death. It was 1995, and I was 37... In 1995 we had 55 stores, with $50 million in sales. I had had no formal education... We only did what we could afford to pay for, so we always operated on a cash basis... Because we are private and don’t have to answer to shareholders, we can expand at our own pace. Plus, our inventory is different than most traditional book retailers’ and is lower in cost, so that gives us a different customer base. We’re trying to be a bookstore, record store, antiquarian store, and comic-book store...

I could have been filthy rich many times over if I’d sold the company. But I didn’t because I would have left the people who did all the work to suffer.  
Kudos to this lady and her management team. More at the link.

Pocket globes

Sotheby's currently has auctions for several beautiful pocket globes from the 1790s and early 1800s. If you have a few grand lying around, one of these 2.5-inch to 3.5-inch beauties could be yours. Globemaking required the precise printing and placing of each gore, or strip of printed material shaped like the rind surface of a lemon wedge. In the miniature globe above, each gore represented thirty degrees of longitude and were hand-colored. The outer case was notched to hold a metal pin running through each pole for easier spinning.
Image and text from BoingBoing, where there is a link to the Sotheby's auction.

A new gallery for New Mexico photography

"In an effort to bring more diversity to the artistic offerings in Carrizozo, Warren and Joan Malkerson, along with David Mandel, the past curator of the Hubbard Museum and all of its photographic shows, will host an open house celebrating the grand opening of the Tularosa Basin Gallery of Photography Saturday, Oct. 25 [2014]...
The gallery also will be the headquarters for the newly formed Tularosa Basin Photographic Society. The space boasts 7,500 square feet on the first floor.
"We have 14 photographers as members as of opening night," Malkerson said. "We hope to grow to more than 50 members and also then occupy the basement floor of that building as well, thereby having a total of nearly 15,000 square feet of showroom/sales floor space. This would make it the largest photography-only gallery in the entire state of New Mexico. The subject matter of all the photography will be New Mexico. All the shots have to be taken within the state aligning the gallery with the new big push by the tourism board of the state for New Mexico True. We will be the only photography gallery in the state to so dedicate itself."
Further details at Ruidoso News.

Update 2015:  This month's issue of New Mexico Magazine presents a profile of Carrizozo in its ongoing series of articles about small towns in New Mexico:
Something interesting is happening in Carrizozo, a rustic town of just under a thousand residents set at the intersection of US 54 and US 380, about 40 miles northwest of Ruidoso. It has to do with art, and exploration, and renewal in its many forms, and with the participatory spirit that can take hold when a community discovers its own potential. An effort is under way here to revitalize this town, bring in new ideas and new opportunities, grow the population to a self-sustaining level by appealing to potential residents like artists and retirees—and to do it all while preserving the town’s historic character. But more interesting still is what’s behind all this. Or, rather, who: in this case, a diverse set of talented people united by their love of place...

Lured by the collegiality here and by the opportunities that Carrizozo offers to both established and
emerging artists, like gallery shows and inexpensive studio space, a number of talented individuals are choosing to make this their home. In the past 10 years, some 20 artists have moved here, bringing talents ranging from painting to sculpting to illustration to movie-making. I decide my first day’s mission will be to explore the breadth of that range...
Further information at the link.

20 October 2014

Patronize your local arboretum

Those of you who live in climate zones with deciduous trees have the privilege of enjoying a spectacular show of color each autumn.  Last month I visited the University of Minnesota's Landscape Arboretum.  This past week I walked the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Arboretum, where I took these photos.

Why the Kansas City baseball team is the "Royals"

They are named after the American Royal, a livestock show.
A 1968 contest to name the city’s new baseball franchise attracted proposals such as “Mules” and “Cowpokes.” A now-deceased Kansas City engineer named Sanford Porte proposed “Royals,” in honor of what he called “Missouri’s billion-dollar livestock income, Kansas City’s position as the nation’s leading stocker and feeder market and the nationally known American Royal parade and pageant.” Mr. Porte’s entry prevailed...

Soon after the team’s 1969 debut, livestock references fell silent. This coincided with a civic effort in the 1970s to dissociate Kansas City from its stockyards, where 64,000 cattle a day once transformed into steaks and packaged meat...

Today, the baseball team’s connection to a livestock show is unknown even to team members... To some American Royal supporters, the team’s forgotten livestock link reflects persistent anti-cow sentiments... The American Royal is a nonprofit that raises money for agricultural-related scholarships, in part via champion-livestock auctions...

There are signs the baseball team is rediscovering its roots. In 2009, it opened a Royals Hall of Fame at Kauffman Stadium, including an exhibit detailing how the team got named. “I don’t think the livestock heritage bothers people much anymore,” says Curt Nelson, the hall of fame’s director. 

Astronaut uses candy corn in zero gravity to explain soap

Via Neatorama.

Large American cities ranked liberal to conservative

My current location, Madison, Wisconsin, at a population of 240,000 is not big enough to make this list (250K lower limit), but would presumably rank down there by Minneapolis and Seattle.

Data apparently based on city policies, not on population surveys, from this study, via BoingBoing.

"Two trillion rotations per second"

That's the speed of a molecular gyroscope.
Molecular gyroscopes are chemical compounds or supramolecular complexes containing a rotor that moves freely relative to a stator, and therefore act as gyroscopes. Though any single bond or triple bond permits a chemical group to freely rotate, the compounds described as gyroscopes may protect the rotor from interactions, such as in a crystal structure with low packing density or by physically surrounding the rotor avoiding steric contact... the rate for inertially rotating p-phenylene without barriers is estimated to be approximately 2.4 x 10^12 per second (2,400,000,000,000 RPS)...
The human mind (at least mine) is not capable of conceiving of such behavior.

"The Bricklayer's Lament"

The audio of "The Bricklayer's Lament," is from Gerard Hoffnung's 1958 speech to the Oxford Union.
The derivation of the story is confused, but it first arises in the 1930s. It was published in Reader's Digest in 1940 as a letter from a naval officer who had supposedly received it from an enlisted man explaining his late return from leave. Hoffnung first saw the story in The Manchester Guardian in 1957; the version printed there is identical with the text used by Hoffnung, except for the location, which he changed from Barbados to Golder's Green. Hoffnung used the piece to warm up the audience before each recording session of One Minute, Please. In these performances he perfected the timing before the Oxford Union speech. The story was part of his speech in a debate called Life Begins at 38 and was recorded by the BBC. The tale itself was not, Ingrams comments, especially funny, but "[Hoffnung's] manner and delivery reduced his audience to hysterics".
I don't remember how I, as a Minnesota teenager in the 1950s became a fan of Hoffnung, but I was a reader of Punch and a fan of British comedy (Flanders and Swann, St. Trinians, The Goon Show) at the time, and thus had his interplanetary music festival records, which is where I first heard this presentation.

Addendum:  A hat tip to reader Nolandda, who located this extensive history of the story at Snopes.

Musing about the origin of WWI

From a "British History" column at the BBC:
lt was an act of regicide that catapulted Europe into war - an act that not unexpectedly took place in the Balkans. The region had been in a state of ferment for years, and the assassination of the heir to the Hapsburg Empire, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, by a Serbian nationalist, was the culmination of a train of events leading inexorably to war.

Yet at first the monarchs of Europe did not take the incident too seriously. lt was expected that the Hapsburg Emperor, Franz Josef of Austria-Hungary, would demand and be given an apology from Serbia. By now, however, Europe's leading nations were locked in alliances - there was Serbia with Russia, Russia with France, France with Great Britain, Great Britain with Belgium on the one side, and Germany and Austria-Hungary on the other. With Serbia's apology not proving abject enough, relations between Serbia and Austria-Hungary were broken off. This finally alerted Europe's family of kings to the danger that threatened them.

As the alliances clicked inexorably into place, a positive snowstorm of telegrams between the crowned heads tried to avert the inevitable. Kaiser Wilhelm II (Willie) was particularly assiduous in keeping touch with his cousins Georgie and Nicky. But by now there was nothing they could do. Their constitutional powers counted for almost as little as their cousinhood. Although, technically, Franz Joseph, Nicholas II and Wilhelm II could perhaps have curtailed the coming hostilities, they were at the mercy of more powerful forces: the generals, the politicians, the arms manufacturers, and the relentless timetables of mobilisation. Ultimatum followed ultimatum. In the face of national pride, imperial expansion and military glory, the protestations of the crowned heads were swept aside. On such giant waves, they could only bob about like so many corks.
Boldface and italics added.  Sound familiar?

16 October 2014

"All this happened, more or less."

"Cured salted pork crafted as a nasal tampon and packed within the nasal vaults successfully stopped nasal hemorrhage promptly, effectively, and without sequelae. In both applications, the patient had complete cessation of nasal bleeding within 24 hours, and was discharged within 72 hours after treatment."

Why universities like to hire adjunct professors ("“The most shocking thing is that many of us don’t even earn the federal minimum wage... Our students didn’t know that professors with PhDs aren’t even earning as much as an entry-level fast food worker.)

Brief video interviews with the drivers of London's iconic black cabs.

If you have a 1943 copper penny, it is probably worth thousands of dollars (if it's not a fake).

The backstory behind recent publicity about Olive Garden menus ("It really wants to steal Olive Garden’s real estate, and make a billion dollars in the process.")

"Residents of a Madrid village have changed their annual running of the bulls to a similar event with giant 125-kilo (275 pounds) polystyrene balls, a move animal rights groups are hoping will be copied in other parts of Spain." (video at the link)

Yet still another American medical care horror story ("He was blindsided, though, by a bill of about $117,000 from an “assistant surgeon,” a Queens-based neurosurgeon whom Mr. Drier did not recall meeting.")

Victorians crafted amazing microscopic art using diatoms.  Video at the link.

Why wind turbines kill bats by the hundreds of thousands.

A panoramic photo of the surface of Mars taken by the Rover (it's incredibly bleak).

Vinyl records are still popular; plants that press the records can't keep up with the demand: "Between 2007 and 2013, U.S. vinyl sales increased 517 percent to 6.1 million units, according to SoundScan, and that doesn’t include overseas demand or sales made directly from record-label websites."

The Telegraph's Travel column presents what it claims is "the world's hardest geography quiz."  I only got 40% correct.

"Just east of the Andes, central Colombia’s Caño Cristales is a river like no other. Reaching 100km long and sometimes called the “Liquid Rainbow”, Caño Cristales runs during certain months of the year with shades of red, blue, yellow, orange and green in a vibrant natural display that happens nowhere else on Earth."  Photos at the link.

A spider uses a dangling rock to anchor the free edge of its web.  The technique is explained by David Attenborough.

A metal coin placed on dry ice doesn't just melt the ice - it generates an odd display of motion and sound.

"Georgia police raided a retired Atlanta man's garden last Wednesday after a helicopter crew with the Governor's Task Force for Drug Suppression spotted suspicious-looking plants on the man's property. A heavily-armed K9 unit arrived and discovered that the plants were, in fact, okra bushes... And that's not to mention the issue of whether we want a society where heavily-armed cops can burst into your property, with no grounds for suspicion beyond what somebody thought he saw from several hundred yards up in a helicopter."

Stephen Hawking has a guest vocal on the new Pink Floyd album. (video at the link)

Scientists are continuing to explore the wreck that yielded the Antikythera mechanism.
“It was a floating museum, carrying works from various periods; one bronze statue dates from 340 B.C., another from 240 B.C., while the Antikythera Mechanism was made later. This was when the trade in works of art started... Researchers believe the vessel may have been carrying treasures from Roman-conquered Greece to Italy."  See also Return to Antikythera.
The title is the opening line from Kurt Vonnegut's 1969 novel, Slaughterhouse Five.  

Photo (King Vulture ) credit: Mark Ralston/AFP, via The Telegraph.

15 October 2014

The pure joy of "one last time"

"My grandma wanted to see the ocean one last time before checking into hospice.  Her face says it all."

Photo credit to ecost, who posted this at Reddit, where the discussion thread focuses on praising Hospice personnel (and I heartily agree).

It's hard to see in the embedded image (better in the original), but it looks like the wheelchair has large inflated wheels designed for beach transport.  I didn't know such modifications existed, but they certainly make sense for residents of coastal communities.

Addendum: a hat tip to reader OrcaSister for this link illustrating the beach wheelchair.

uoıʇɐıɹɐʌ ןǝǝɥʍ ɹǝʇsɯɐɥ

The gif is here, from a Reddit thread with numerous hamster videos and gifs.

(Title via Flip Text)

Ebola costumes for Halloween?

An AP article anticipates the new popular costumes:
So what's the costume flap of the year? It might just be Ebola, as in Ebola zombies, bloody Ebola patients and faux protective gear.

Twitter and other social media were abuzz leading into the holiday with talk of hazmat suits and respirators. Too soon? How about just "no"...

If searches on Google are any indication, the Ebola crisis doesn't match the Top 10 popularity of Elsa from "Frozen," or even your basic Wonder Woman, among searches for DIY costumes.

Regardless, the costume site BrandsOnSale went there. It's selling an "Ebola Containment Suit Costume" for $79.99, complete with white suit emblazoned with "Ebola," face shield, breathing mask, safety goggles and blue latex gloves...

"We don't stray away from anything that's current or controversial or anything like that," Weeks said from his 127,000-square-foot warehouse in Banning, California. "If I told you we had a toddler ISIS costume in the works, your mouth would drop."

Does he?

"I will definitely let you know when that goes on sale," Weeks said. "I can tell you it will come complete with a fake machine gun."
Image credit: AP Photo/Brands On Sale, Inc.

14 October 2014

This auroral "corona" is an optical illusion

The aurora is real, but the illusion that the rays converge is an illusion, as demonstrated here.

Photo credit Harald Albrigtsen, via APOD.

Ten more "bets you will always win"

I plan to pull the "coin on the forehead" prank on a youngster at our next family reunion. 

Via Boing Boing.

"Mommy, what's an Icelandic incest-blocker?"

"Well, sweetheart, if you listened to QI podcast #25, you would know that there is an app that informs Icelanders how closely related they are to a new acquaintance.  Additional details are available at the Icelandic Grapevine."
...two random Icelanders have about as much in common as second cousins, once removed, according to Dr. Kári Stefansson, CEO and co-founder of deCODE Genetics...

In early 2013, deCODE Genetics and the University of Iceland’s School of Engineering and Natural Sciences challenged the nation’s university students to design a smart phone app for the online genealogical database Íslendingabók for its 10th anniversary.

The Íslendingabók website takes its name from the Book of Icelanders, a 12th century historical text which details the Icelandic settlement. Currently, the database contains 810,000 genealogical records of “the inhabitants of Iceland, dating more than 1,200 years back.”..

...one of the novelty features of the winning ÍslendingaApp: the Sifjaspellspillir or “Incest Spoiler” alarm which alerts a user if the person she plans on going home with is a near relation. Using the app’s “new bömp technology,” users can tap their phones together and see how closely they are related. If the alarm has been activated—it’s turned off in default settings—it will either erupt with a discouraging siren, or issue a gleeful “No relation: go for it!” message...

13 October 2014


I had never heard of this art form until I watched an enjoyable interview with this remarkable young artist at the Hong Kong Tatler:

Here's more information from Wikipedia:
Quilling or paper filigree is an art form that involves the use of strips of paper that are rolled, shaped, and glued together to create decorative designs. The paper is rolled, looped, curled, twisted and otherwise manipulated to create shapes which make up designs to decorate greetings cards, pictures, boxes, eggs, and to make models, jewellery, mobiles etc. 
During the Renaissance, French and Italian nuns and monks used quilling to decorate book covers and religious items. The paper most commonly used was strips of paper trimmed from the gilded edges of books. These gilded paper strips were then rolled to create the quilled shapes...  In the 18th century, quilling became popular in Europe where gentle ladies of quality ("ladies of leisure") practiced the art.
The word "quill" as an avian appendage dates back to Middle English.  Presumably early artists used to wrap their paper strips around quills.

The top image is an example of the artist's work from her website.

Via The Dish and Neatorama.

Autism as "a disorder of prediction"

From MIT News:
The researchers suggest that autism may be rooted in an impaired ability to predict events and other people’s actions. From the perspective of the autistic child, the world appears to be a “magical” rather than an orderly place, because events seem to occur randomly and unpredictably. In this view, autism symptoms such as repetitive behavior, and an insistence on a highly structured environment, are coping strategies to help deal with this unpredictable world...

“At the moment, the treatments that have been developed are driven by the end symptoms. We’re suggesting that the deeper problem is a predictive impairment problem, so we should directly address that ability,” says Pawan Sinha, an MIT professor of brain and cognitive sciences and the lead author of a paper describing the hypothesis in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week...

This hypothesized deficit could produce several of the most common autism symptoms. For example, repetitive behaviors and insistence on rigid structure have been shown to soothe anxiety produced by unpredictability, even in individuals without autism. “These may be proactive attempts on the part of the person to try to impose some structure on an environment that otherwise seems chaotic,” Sinha says.

Impaired prediction skills would also help to explain why autistic children are often hypersensitive to sensory stimuli...
More at the link.  I don't have the PNAS link, but it's a high-quality journal.

A song about Ebola from 1998

Obviously based on the old Kinks' song "Lola," with that famously ambiguous final verse:
Well, I'm not the world's most masculine man
But I know what I am and I'm glad I'm a man
And so is Lola, L-L-Lola, L-L-Lola
Lola, L-L-Lola, L-L-Lola
Video via Reddit.

"Sociolect" distinguished from "dialect"

From this month's Atlantic:
...sociolect: a language variety that’s spoken within a social group, like Valley Girl–influenced ValTalk or African American Vernacular English. (The word dialect, by contrast, commonly refers to a variety spoken by a geographic group—think Appalachian or Lumbee.) Over the past 20 years, online sociolects have been springing up around the world, from Jejenese in the Philippines to Ali G Language, a British lingo inspired by the Sacha Baron Cohen character.

Found at a yard sale ($2.00)

Not found by me, unfortunately (although this is one reason I like to browse auctions).  It's a nice copy even without that scribbling inside the cover.

Posted at Reddit.

11 October 2014

"Lordly indifference of Nature"

An excerpt from "The Golden Fly," a short story by Algernon Blackwood about a man with situational depression who finds solace in a natural setting:
He was a business man, honest, selfish, and ambitious; and the collapse of his worldly position was paramount to the collapse of the universe itself - his universe, at any rate. This "crumbling of the universe" was the thought he took out with him. He left the house by the path that led into solitude, and reached the heathery expanse that formed one of the breathing-places of the New Forest. There he flung himself down wearily in the shadow of a little pine-copse. And his crumbled universe lay down with him, for he could not escape it.

Taking the pistol from the hip-pocket where it hurt him, he lay upon his back and watched the clouds. Half stunned, half dazed, he stared into the sky. The perfumed wind played softly on his eyes; he smelt the heather- honey; golden flies hung motionless in the air, like coloured pins fastening the sunshine against the blue curtain of the summer, while dragon-flies, like darting shuttles, wove across its pattern their threads of gleaming bronze. He heard the petulant crying of the peewits, and watched their tumbling flight. Below him tinkled a rivulet, its brown water rippling between banks of peaty earth. Everywhere was singing, peace, and careless unconcern.

And this lordly indifference of Nature calmed and soothed him. Neither human pain nor the injustice of man could shift the key of the water, alter the peewits' cry a single tone, nor influence one fraction of an inch those cloudy frigates of vapour that sailed the sky. The earth bulged sunwards as she had bulged for centuries. The power of her steady gait, superbly calm, breathed everywhere with grandeur undismayed, unhasting, and supremely confident.... And, like the flash of those golden flies, there leaped suddenly upon him this vivid thought: that his world of agony lay neatly buttoned up within the tiny space of his own brain. Outside himself it had no existence at all.

10 October 2014

Not a hornet

The size and color pattern are hornet-like, but this Hornet Moth lacks the thread-like waist characteristic of true hornets.

Many more pix at Lepiforum.

How cherries are harvested. And walnuts.

Addendum: Here's a walnut harvest, with a hat tip to reader Wales Larrison:

Cable TV remote for an elderly parent with dementia

I have been recurrently frustrated by the inability of cable television and electronic device makers to offer a remote control suitable for use by people with impaired cognitive function.  My 95-year-old mother does not have a DVR, does not need a picture-in-picture function, and could never navigate through a scrolling channel-guide menu.  When I explained our situation to the staff at the local Charter office, what they offered me was a similar remote with bigger buttons ("for handicapped people.")

I finally had to modify the remote using duct tape.  It's not optimal, because some buttons get accidentally pressed through the tape, but it's way better than the original.

Addendum:   A tip of the blogging hat to the many readers who offered practical advice in the Comments section.  Also on further net searching I see a simiilar solution was devised by Marilyn at Nag on the Lake.

Addendum #2:  Reader Matthew notes that there is a commercial product on the market that effectively does what I was trying to achieve with tape:  Button Blocker.

What's another word for "drone" ?

The Wall Street Journal reports that some manufacturers of drones are uncomfortable using that word for marketing purposes and are seeking alternative terminology.
As the drone industry takes off, many people in it say it needs a different name. They say “drone” suggests the devices are dumb, it is technically inaccurate and now has a militaristic reputation. Unmanned-aircraft advocates scold reporters and even congressmen who use the term. But they have another problem: Few of them agree on what the devices should be called...

The alternatives are an alphabet soup. There is “UAV” (unmanned aerial vehicle), “RPA” (remotely piloted aircraft), and “UAS” (unmanned aircraft system). Some prefer the more digestible “unmanned aircraft,” or just “robot,” while European Union officials opt for the bulkier “RPAS,” or remotely piloted aircraft systems... the [FAA] and Congress have settled on a name: they use UAS in legislation and official documents...

But it isn’t hard to find advocates who drone on about why they don’t like the term UAS and its “unmanned” cousins. “I hate the word unmanned,” said Don Wirthlin, a drone-pilot instructor in Douglas, Ariz. “Last time I checked, I was a human flying a UAV.”...

Popular Science writer Kelsey Atherton, who writes weekly roundups of unmanned-aircraft news called “Keeping up with the droneses,” said opponents of the term should give up. “The battle is over and drone won,” he said.

President James Madison may have had epilepsy

I recently skimmed through Lynne Cheney's new biography of James Madison and was particularly interested in the evidence she presents of Madison's seizures, here summarized in her interview by the American Enterprise Institute:
He was not sickly, but he was sidelined from time to time. At the end of his presidency he drafted an autobiography explaining that he had a “constitutional liability to sudden attacks, somewhat resembling epilepsy, and suspending the intellectual functions.” Madison’s principal biographer deduced from this that he suffered “epileptoid hysteria,” but it is much more likely that he suffered what physicians today call complex partial seizures, in which those afflicted can hear, but not understand, speak but not make sense. The seizures can be disabling. Madison apparently experienced one while in militia training, and it kept him from serving in the Revolutionary War.
That last-mentioned episode has been judged by other biographers as being evidence that Madison's "bilious episodes" were psychogenic or a conversion disorder.  From the evidence Cheney cites at numerous places in her book, I'm convinced that he did have an organic seizure disorder.

"Rookie cookies" for marijuana tourists

From the AP, via a Colorado news station:
Recreational marijuana sellers are reaching out to novice cannabis users with a raft of edible products that impart a milder buzz and make it easy for inexperienced customers to find a dose they won't regret taking...

There's a new marijuana-infused soda that's 15 times weaker than the company's best-known soda. Also new at the pot shop is a light-dose "Rookie Cookie" for people who aren't used to eating medical-grade pot.
Also discussed in a Reddit thread.

08 October 2014

Codpieces and willy warmers

The Guardian has a collection of ten codpieces immortalized in fine art.

Additional details from Wikipedia:
A codpiece (from Middle English: cod, meaning "scrotum") is a covering flap or pouch that attaches to the front of the crotch of men's trousers and usually accentuates the genital area. It was held closed by string ties, buttons, or other methods. It was an important item of European clothing in the 15th and 16th centuries, and is still worn in the modern era in performance costumes for rock music and metal musicians and in the leather subculture while an Athletic cup protects in a similar fashion...

In the 14th century, men's hose were two separate legs worn over linen drawers, leaving a man's genitals covered only by a layer of linen. As the century wore on and men's hemlines rose, the hose became longer and joined at the centre back but remained open at the centre front. The shortening of the cote or doublet resulted in under-disguised genitals, so the codpiece began life as a triangular piece of fabric covering the gap.
Not to be confused with a willy warmer:
Such garments were also worn in Norway, where they were called forhyse, vænakot, or suspensorium. Several examples are preserved in the Norwegian Museum of Cultural History. Sometimes in Norway they would be made from squirrel fur with the fur side inside, to be worn under leather trousers in the winter. On the Faroe Islands such garments are called “kallvøttur” (man mitten) or “purrivøttur” (testicles mitten). There was a tradition in Norway and Denmark, particularly on the Faroe Islands, where a girl would present her boyfriend with a forhyse to see how seriously he took their relationship. If the gift was rejected, this was seen as evidence that he was not yet ready for marriage.

It is possible TYWKIWDBI has been nominated for a Nobel Prize

Earlier his week I was listening to a recent podcast of QI's No Such Thing as a Fish, and learned something about the Nobel nomination process.

For example, it is not possible to nominate a deceased person for a prize ("From 1974, the Statutes of the Nobel Foundation have stipulated that a Prize cannot be awarded posthumously, unless death has occurred after the announcement of the Nobel Prize.)  Thus, Mahatma Gandhi, who was never awarded a Peace Prize, cannot now be nominated.

Regarding the title of this post, there is never a public announcement of who has been nominated for any of the Nobel prizes.  And this silence is maintained after the awards ("Information about the nominations, investigations, and opinions concerning the award is kept secret for fifty years.")

Thus, you can tell your friends that you have been nominated for the Nobel Prize in (x), and nobody other than those on the committee can authoritatively contradict you, until 50 years from now.
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