30 January 2015

A 15th-century leather "spoon case"

From the collections of The British Museum.  Of European origin, perhaps Flemish.
...cups were provided by [the host], and were shared around the table during dining (although it was the guests’ responsibility to bring their own cutlery...

Movies are dominated by orange and blue

Several years ago as my wife and I were watching the early seasons of Mad Men, we noticed that the color scheme included a lot of orange (for furniture, walls and other decor).  This week I found an article in Priceonomics that discusses the dominance of orange and blue in movies.
Maybe you haven’t noticed, but in the past 20-or-so years there’s been a real catchy trend in major Hollywood movies to constrain the palette to orange and blue. The color scheme, also known as “orange and teal” or “amber and teal” is the scourge of film critics – one of whom calls this era of cinema a “dark age.”
Lots of photos and discussion at the link, but the TL;DR is expressed in this comment at Into The Abyss:
You see, flesh tones exist mostly in the orange range and when you look to the opposite end of the color wheel from that, where does one land? Why looky here, we have our old friend Mr. Teal. And anyone who has ever taken color theory 101 knows that if you take two complementary colors and put them next to each other, they will "pop", and sometimes even vibrate. So, since people (flesh-tones) exist in almost every frame of every movie ever made, what could be better than applying complementary color theory to make people seem to "pop" from the background.

Norwegian fjords invaded by "monster jellyfish"

As reported in The Local (Norwegian news in English):
The innermost arm of the Trondheimsfjord now holds an estimated 40,000 tonnes of the helmet jellyfish, only a few years after the fiery red peril first appeared in its waters.

"We took up 3.5 tons of monster jellyfish in under ten minutes," he said. "There was a tremendous amount more than we expected. The trawler winch was just about to give way."

Why you should "keep clear of the yellow line"

A PSA from the 1970s.

Via A London Salmagundi.

Lifehack for the winter blizzard season

Found at Meanwhile, in the Sticks.

Addendum:  Before trying this, view the link in the comments.

How the American public views science

As reported in the StarTribune:
The American public and U.S. scientists are light-years apart on science issues. And 98 percent of surveyed scientists say it's a problem that we don't know what they're talking about...

In eight of 13 science-oriented issues, there was a 20-percentage-point or higher gap separating the opinions of the public and members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, according to survey work by the Pew Research Center. The gaps didn't correlate to any liberal-conservative split; the scientists at times take more traditionally conservative views and at times more liberal.

"These are big and notable gaps," said Lee Rainie, director of Pew's internet, science and technology research. He said they are "pretty powerful indicators of the public and the scientific community seeing the world differently."

In the most dramatic split, 88 percent of the scientists surveyed said it is safe to eat genetically modified foods, while only 37 percent of the public say it is safe and 57 percent say it is unsafe. And 68 percent of scientists said it is safe to eat foods grown with pesticides, compared with only 28 percent of the general public.

Ninety-eight percent of scientists say humans evolved over time, compared with 65 percent of the public. The gap wasn't quite as large for vaccines, with 86 percent of the scientists favoring mandatory childhood shots while 68 percent of the public did.
More discussion at the link. 

For a detailed analysis (and lots of charts), go to the Pew Research Center.

"Escape games" in London

You and three of your friends get locked in a room and have one hour to figure out how to get out.

A new concept for me.  To an avid reader of John Dickson Carr mysteries, this sounds like fun.
This is HintHunt, an interactive locked room mystery game, hidden in plain sight just down the road from Euston Station...

Everyone seems a little wary, but confident, as the girl runs through the rules of the game, telling us that we will get hints from her whenever she thinks we need them (“No one has ever done it without hints, there is no shame in getting hints”), and that each key or code we find will only work on one door or safe. It all sounds rather straightforward and, dare I say, eminently doable – until she drops the bomb that only 50 per cent of people make it out in time.

The next hour passes in an incomprehensible blur of searching, re-searching, punching numbers into safes, punching other numbers into safes, locks, keys, map coordinates and, at one point, a UV torch... The hints that appear on the count-down screen started as a slow trickle, but by 50 minutes in are coming thick and fast.
Three other London-based "escape games" are listed at the link.

Addendum:  In March 2015 The Guardian posted a feature story on this topic.

Chrissie Hynde and The Pretenders, "Live in London"

A few nights ago I watched a rerun of the Pretender's "Live in London" performance in 2010.  These were my favorite two cuts from the show.

Chrissie Hynde reportedly was not intentionally trying to channel Alice Cooper - she's exhibiting "mascara malfunction."

Previously on TYWKIWDBI:  I Wish You Love - Chrissie Hynde and "Creep" covered by Chrissie Hynde/The Pretenders.

29 January 2015

Ötzi's tattoos

The existence of the tattoos on an ice age man is not particularly surprising, nor are they artistically interesting -

- but their distribution, as reported in an io9 article, is fascinating:
On account of the various locations of the tattoos, some researchers suspected that the marks were part of some therapeutic medical treatment, a kind of acupuncture to relieve pain in the joints.
The article notes that the tats were created not with a needle, but by making a laceration and then rubbing charcoal into it.

In 2011 I wrote a post entitled The Face of Ötzi the Iceman regarding a recently-completed forensic reconstruction.  At that time reader Judyofthewoods offered the opinion that these tattoos marked acupuncture or acupressure points.  She offered a link to a relevant article in Acupuncure Today:
Experts from three acupuncture societies then examined the locations of the tattoos. In their opinion, nine tattoos could be identified as being located directly on, or within six millimeters of, traditional acupuncture points. Two more were located on an acupuncture meridian. One tattoo was used as a local point. The remaining three tattoos were situated between 6-13mm from the closest acupuncture point.

The average American moves 11.4 times

The last time the Census Bureau calculated this was in 2007, when it found that a typical American will move 11.7 times in their lives. We redid the math using the most recent data (2013 for mobility and 2010 for population estimates) and reached a slightly lower number of 11.3 lifetime moves.
I have moved 11 times in my lifetime (8 cities in 8 states).  I thought that was unusual.  Not so.

A detailed analysis of NFL field-goal kicking

An article at FiveThirtyEight focuses on field-goal kicking accuracy rather than punting and kickoffs, with commentary on how improved FG kicking percentage is affecting fourth-down strategies.

28 January 2015

Defining a "manager"

This triptych was the inspiration for the iconic alien "chestburster"

The triptych is "Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion" by Francis Bacon.  (No, not that Francis Bacon).

I learned this and other interesting tidbits about the chestburster scene from this video -

(via Neatorama)

The Bluetooth logo is formed by Nordic runes

The logo combines "haglaz" (H) and "berkanan" (B), the initials of Harald "Bluetooth" Gormsson, King of Denmark and Norway.
Harald's nickname "Bluetooth" first documented appearance is in the Chronicon Roskildense from 1140.  The usual explanation is that Harald must have had a conspicuous bad tooth that has been "blue" (i.e. black, as "blue" meant dark).

Another explanation, is that he was called Thegn in England (corrupted to "tan" when the name came back into Old Norse) — in England, Thane meant chief. Since blue meant "dark", his nickname was really "dark chieftain".

A third theory, according to curator at the Royal Jelling Hans Ole Mathiesen, was that Harald went about clothed in blue. The blue color was in fact the most expensive, so by walking in blue Harald underlined his royal dignity.

Some "shower thoughts" about language

Anyone notice the irony behind "hyphenated" and "non-hyphenated"?

If a word describes itself, it is homological. If a word does not describe itself, it is heterological. So is heterological homological or heterological?

Hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia is the fear of long words.

Monosyllabic isn't.

One word in the English language is always spelled incorrectly.

Via the Shower Thoughts subreddit.

Every winter men give the finger to snowblowers

Since 2003, roughly 9,000 Americans have lost a finger (or two, or three) to a snowblower-related injury, according to estimates derived from Consumer Product Safety Commission data. Overall, about 15 percent of people who go to the E.R. as a result of a snowblower injury end up getting fingers amputated.
The year-to-year fluctuation in these numbers is probably related to the number of severe snow storms in the U.S.
Why are men losing their fingers? For the simple reason that they keep sticking their hands in snowblowers while they're still running.

Young blood reverses some age-related impairments

As reported in the prestigious Nature Medicine:
At the cognitive level, systemic administration of young blood plasma into aged mice improved age-related cognitive impairments in both contextual fear conditioning and spatial learning and memory... Our data indicate that exposure of aged mice to young blood late in life is capable of rejuvenating synaptic plasticity and improving cognitive function.
Discussed at a webpage of UC San Francisco:
Anatomically, it was clear that these mice formed more structural and functional connections between neurons, or nerve cells, while they also turned on more genes associated with the formation of new nerve connections.

Furthermore, the researchers found that a protein called Creb became more activated in the brain region known as the hippocampus, and that this increased activity was associated with the anatomical and cognitive improvements the team observed...

Identifying and getting rid of aging factors in old blood, or supplying youthful factors from young blood, might both be worthwhile strategies to combat aging...
There is an AMA with the lead author at the Reddit Journal of Science.

Trees dead for 500 years - but not decayed

“We were gathering samples of dead trees to reconstruct summer temperatures in western Norway, when our dendrochronological dating showed the wood to be much older than expected”, says Terje Thun, an associate professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s (NTNU) Museum of Natural History and Archaeology...

Thun says that when a pine tree dies, it secretes a great deal of resin, which deters the microorganisms needed for decomposition. “Nevertheless, preventing the natural breakdown of the wood for centuries is quite a feat”, he says...
Resin was one of the ingredients used in Ancient Egypt for mummification, so its conservation abilities have been known for millennia. However, that trees could “self-mummify” in such a humid climate for centuries was new to the NTNU scientists.
“Many of the trunks we dated turned out to have seeded in the early 1200s, and had lived for more than 100 years at the time of the Black Death around 1350”, Thun says. “That means that the dead wood has ‘survived’ in nature for more than 800 years without breaking down.”
More at the link. The tree in the photo grew began growing in 1334, and died in 1513!  
Reposted from 2009.  Photo credit: Terje Thun, NTNU.

27 January 2015

A blizzard (of links) for you

"Molten gold was poured down his throat."  Modern forensic pathologists reproduce the death of a Spanish governor of colonial Ecuador in 1599.  They suggest that the reports of his bowels bursting may have been the result of steam generated by the procedure.

How to fold a shirt in two seconds.

Religious and ethnic affiliations of terrorists.  It's not as simple as some media outlets try to lead you to believe.

A lymphoproliferative (tumor-causing) virus is now widespread in wild turkeys.   It's not contagious to humans, but you shouldn't eat the birds.

Norwegian firefighters show you the wrong way to put out a car fire.   Do not aim a stream of high-pressure water at an angle that will push the car down a hill toward houses (video at the link).

A report in Discover suggests that female ejaculate squirted during orgasm is probably just urine.

"At least 42,000 gallons of oil has leaked into the Yellowstone River from a broken pipeline, leaving the Glendive city water supply smelling and tasting like petroleum."

A Florida police department was found to be using mug shot photographs of black men for target practice ("the technique is widely used and the pictures are vital for facial recognition drills.")

An interesting article in WaPo indicates that modern technology has the potential to render life-saving drugs cheaper by orders of magnitude through the creation of "biosimilar" drugs.  They do not report on the amount Big Pharma will spend to squash this.

Over a century ago someone left a .44-40 Winchester rifle leaning against a juniper tree in Nevada. It was just found, slightly the worse for exposure.  The photo at right shows why it was hard for the owner and subsequent passers-by to spot.

Rechargeable lithium batteries are dangerous as plane cargo because when packed in bulk they can ignite. "Shipments of rechargeable batteries on passenger planes are supposed to be limited to no more than a handful in one box... But a loophole lets shippers pack many small boxes in one shipment and get around the rules. Tens of thousands of the batteries may be packed into pallets or containers and loaded into the cargo holds of wide-body passenger planes.

Jamie Diamond, CEO of JPMorganChase, complains that the financial sector is facing crippling over-regulation. "In the old days," Dimon said, "you dealt with one regulator when you had an issue, maybe two. “Now it’s five or six. It makes it very difficult and very complicated. "You all should ask the question about how American that is. And how fair that is," he added. "And how complex that is for companies."  In other news, "JPMorgan Chase earned $4.9 billion in the fourth quarter of 2014, the company announced on Wednesday, down from a year ago, but capping what CEO Jamie Dimon called a record year for the biggest U.S. bank by assets."

The QI Elves report that a "typical breakfast" for George IV consisted of "2 pigeons; 3 steaks; 1 bottle wine; 1 glass champagne; 2 glasses port; 1 glass brandy; some laudanum."

The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven was recently pulled from bookstores after the author recanted his testimony and said “I did not die. I did not go to Heaven.”  I find it most interesting that the author's name is Malarkey.

There may be two planets the size of Earth "hiding" in our solar system.

By 2016 the richest 1% of people in the world will own more than the other 99% combined.  They have already seen their share of global wealth increase from 44 percent in 2009 to 48 percent in 2014.

If you are in your car in a traffic jam on an icy interstate highway, the last thing you want to see in your rear-view mirror is an 18-wheeler jackknifing behind you and sliding toward your car.  This is a terrifying video (safe for work etc); I'm impressed by the calmness of the driver photographing the incident.  His blinking emergency flashers add a surreal soundscape to the video.

Public Domain Review offers a well-written extensive article about Lord Byron (left, in Albanian dress), Polidori, and the birth of the modern vampire story.

An op-ed piece at Vice's Motherboard is entitled "The Most Anti-Science Congress in Recent History is Now in Session." "That explicit brand of denial is prominent in the party’s new Senate leadership. Many of the men—and they are all men—who are now stationed in the nation’s most influential science posts each exhibit views that can be considered science-illiterate at best, and at worst, outright hostile to modern scientific inquiry."

A man in Vermont has found his niche in life as an icicle farmer.

"Vajacial" is a portmanteau word meaning "facial for the vagina."  It involves "some steaming and applying some vitamins and egg white."

"A U.S. billionaire who made his fortune betting against sub-prime mortgage securities has told Americans to lower their expectations so they have 'less things' in life. Jeff Greene made his remarks after flying into Switzerland on a private jet with his 19-year younger wife, Mei Sze, children and two nannies."  Gag me with a spoon.

The Claas Xerion 3300 VC Octopus Ditch Bank Mower is an impressive machine for destroying butterfly habitat.

An article in the Telegraph explains that the "cowgirl" sexual position is the one most likely to result in a man breaking his penis.

"A New Jersey teacher said he was charged nearly $9,000 after he showed a cut middle finger to a hospital emergency room aide... $8,200 for the emergency room visit, $180 for the shot, $242 for the bandage and $8 for the ointment, plus hundreds of dollars for the nurse practitioner."

Video highlights of an NBA player scoring 37 points in one quarter of a basketball game.

If you don't like basketball, take at look at this remarkable hockey goal (performed at an exhibition).  I believe it's referred to as a "Michigan", named after this classic goal in 2007 and lots of young hockey players can do them.

Four bears in New Hampshire have died from an overdose of chocolate.   A hunter had put down 90 pounds of chocolate and doughnuts as bait.

U.S. chocolate manufacturer Hershey apparently has difficulty competing with the makers of Cadbury Creme Eggs, Maltesers, Kit Kats and Yorkie bars.  So Hershey is suing the importers of those products.

A Reddit thread discusses Edward Snowden's claim that iPhones and other smart phones have spyware that allows the government to monitor the user.

The Koch brothers are budgeting almost $900,000,000 to influence upcoming U.S. elections.

Which day of the week is named in the most song titles? (hint: it's not Thursday).

Also at Public Domain review, a fulltext 1915 book of Russian fairytales (in English) (one illustration below).

About one link for every inch of snow falling on my old friends in the Boston area.  Stay safe, everyone.

Res ipsa loquitur

This river in Manila eventually leads to the ocean

Photo credit: Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images, via The Guardian.

26 January 2015

Somebody has to lose a coin flip...

But nobody loses more of them than the Minnesota Vikings:
"The Minnesota Vikings haven't exactly been lucky on coin tosses, either. Since 1999 (when Pro Football Reference started keeping track), the Vikings have won fewer coin tosses than any team in the National Football League, having done so just 111 times in those 16 seasons (256 total regular season games)... The table shows the win-loss records of teams in games where they win the coin toss."

Word for the day: virga

Our local weatherman used the term "virga" several evenings ago when he pointed out that snow seen on the radar was not reaching the ground:
In meteorology, virga is an observable streak or shaft of precipitation that falls from a cloud but evaporates or sublimes before reaching the ground. At high altitudes the precipitation falls mainly as ice crystals before melting and finally evaporating; this is often due to compressional heating, because the air pressure increases closer to the ground. It is very common in the desert and in temperate climates. In North America, it is commonly seen in the Western United States and the Canadian Prairies. It is also very common in the Middle East, Australia and North Africa.

The word virga is derived from Latin meaning "twig" or "branch".
I've seen this phenomenon all my life (especially when monitoring clouds while hiking or fishing) but didn't know the term.  And now I also realize that for decades I've been incorrectly using "sublimate" as a verb ("A lot of the snow sublimated this weekend") when I should have said "sublimed."  You learn something every day.  

Massive die-off of Pacific seabirds

From National Geographic:
Last year, beginning about Halloween, thousands of juvenile auklets started washing ashore dead from California's Farallon Islands to Haida Gwaii (also known as the Queen Charlotte Islands) off central British Columbia. Since then the deaths haven't stopped. Researchers are wondering if the die-off might spread to other birds or even fish.

"This is just massive, massive, unprecedented," said Julia Parrish, a University of Washington seabird ecologist who oversees the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST), a program that has tracked West Coast seabird deaths for almost 20 years. "We may be talking about 50,000 to 100,000 deaths. So far." 

By comparison, not one of the five largest U.S. bird mortality events tracked by USGS since 1980 is estimated to have topped 11,000 deaths. In Europe, according to the U.K.-based Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the worst die-off on record occurred in 1983, when 57,000 guillemots, razorbills, puffins, and other seabirds perished in the North Sea and washed up on the British coast.

"You get some of this with seabirds every year," said David Nuzum, with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. "You get so many juveniles out there, and they've got this steep learning curve for feeding after being separated from their parents, so you always get a die-off in winter. But I've never seen anything like this, ever, and I've been here since 1985."

24 January 2015

The complicated tail of Comet Lovejoy

From APOD:
Comet C/2014 Q2 (Lovejoy), which is currently at naked-eye brightness and near its brightest, has been showing an exquisitely detailed ion tail. As the name implies, the ion tail is made of ionized gas -- gas energized by ultraviolet light from the Sun and pushed outward by the solar wind. The solar wind is quite structured and sculpted by the Sun's complex and ever changing magnetic field. The effect of the variable solar wind combined with different gas jets venting from the comet's nucleus accounts for the tail's complex structure...

The blue color of the ion tail is dominated by recombining carbon monoxide molecules, while the green color of the coma surrounding the head of the comet is created mostly by a slight amount of recombining diatomic carbon molecules...

Comet Lovejoy made its closest pass to the Earth two weeks ago and will be at its closest to the Sun in about ten days. After that, the comet will fade as it heads back into the outer Solar System, to return only in about 8,000 years.

Canine prosthetic legs

This is your feel-good video of the week, which I found at Oregon Expat.

Note from the OP: "Many of you have pointed out that Derby's prosthetics seem too low. We started this way to give him a chance to get used to his new legs. But with 3D printing it's easy to iterate design, so he is being fitted with progressively longer legs until he reaches his optimal height. Work is ongoing and we are about to 3D print the 4th version of his prosthetics."

Can you weigh the air in a football? - updated

Following the AFC championship game, there were allegations that some member of the New England Patriots staff may have provided their team with slightly underinflated footballs (which would be easier to grip in cold wet weather).
Newsday reported that Jackson then gave the ball to a member of the Colts' equipment staff, who noticed the ball seemed underinflated. At that point, coach Chuck Pagano and general manager Ryan Grigson were notified, and Grigson alerted NFL director of football operations Mike Kensil, according to the report...

On the first offensive play from scrimmage in the third quarter, following a kick return, referee Walt Anderson briefly stopped play to replace a football which could have been related to this issue.
I'm puzzled by the claim that the underinflation was investigated by weighing the ball:
The NFL source reportedly told Kravitz that "officials took a ball out of play at one point and weighed it." According to NBC Sports, "several" abnormal balls were allegedly removed from gameplay during the match-up.
The professional football is supposed to weigh between 14 and 15 ounces, inflated to between 12.5 and 13.5 pounds per square inch.  Can an inflation discrepancy be detected by weighing the ball?  Seems doubtful.

AddendumESPN is reporting that 11 game balls were underinflated.  The Washington Post provides the backstory on why the New England Patriots are a controversial team in this regard.

Addendum #2: This topic is going to be in the news for quite a while.  Today The Guardian describes how altering game footballs has been going on for a long time:
Retired quarterback Brad Johnson, who played for four teams over 17 NFL seasons, said he “paid some guys off to get the balls right” ahead of his lone Super Bowl appearance with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after the 2002 season. (His team’s 48-21 victory over the Oakland Raiders suggests it might have worked.)

Johnson’s opponent in that game, Rich Gannon, told CBS Sports: “Ask any quarterback, and this is a non-issue. Everybody does something to them. It’s like a pitcher, he wants the ball a certain way.” Former quarterback Boomer Esiason declared, “Everybody is doing the same thing.” 
For those who argue that the deflated balls were weather-related and affected both teams, it's important to note that each team plays with its own balls (the media are replete with double-entendre phrases like this - no need to repeat them in the comments here).  And the blame will not fall on the players or the coaches:
But the quarterback need not alter the ball himself or instruct that anyone do so; he only need over the course of 13 years make known to the Patriots how he likes his footballs. But if some member of the Patriots staff acted without Brady or coach Bill Belichick’s knowledge or permission — and if the NFL can never prove what happened — then both men can justifiably deny wrongdoing even if they somehow share the guilt. 
It's easy to predict that that is how this will all come down - with some minor lackey in the dungeons of the football stadium being castigated (and perhaps surreptitiously recompensed).

So that's the end of "Deflategate" in my view.  More interesting is this report from Sharp Football Analysis which notes that it is statistically unlikely that the New England Patriots achieved their "fewest fumbles" records just by skill -
I immediately noticed something that cannot be overlooked: the issue with ball security and fumbles. Then I remembered this remarkable fact: The 2014 Patriots were just the 3rd team in the last 25 years to never have lost a fumble at home! 

The biggest difference between the Patriots and the other 2 teams who did it was that New England ran between 150 and 200 MORE plays this year than those teams did in the years they had zero home fumbles, making the Patriots stand alone in this unique statistic...

I looked at the last 5 years of data (since 2010) and examined TOTAL FUMBLES in all games (as well as fumbles/game) but more importantly, TOTAL OFFENSIVE PLAYS RUN. Thus, we can to determine average PLAYS per FUMBLE, a much more valuable statistic. The results are displayed in the chart [which I've moved to the top of the post].

Keep in mind, this is for all games since 2010, regardless of indoors, outdoors, weather, site, etc. EVERYTHING. One can CLEARLY SEE the Patriots, visually, are off the chart. There is no other team even close to being near to their rate of 187 offensive plays (passes+rushes+sacks) per fumble. The league average is 105 plays/fumble. Most teams are within 21 plays of that number...

The Patriots are so “off the map” when it comes to either fumbles or only fumbles lost.  As mentioned earlier:  this is an extremely abnormal occurrence and is NOT simply random fluctuation.
More data and analysis at the link.

Addendum #2 (also from Sharp Football Analysis):
To really confirm something was dramatically different in New England, starting in 2007 thru present, I compared the 2000-06 time period (when Bill Belichick was their head coach and they won all of their Super Bowls) to the 2007-2014 time period.  The beauty of data is the results speak for themselves:

(Note the above chart of "fumble rates" expresses the data as "touches per fumble," so a higher number is a better performance).
In 2006, Tom Brady (and Peyton Manning) lobbied in favor of changing a NFL rule, and as a result, the NFL agreed to change policies. Brady wanted the NFL to let EVERY team provide its OWN footballs to use on offense, even when that team was playing on the road. Prior to that year, the HOME team provided ALL the footballs, meaning the home quarterback selected the footballs the ROAD quarterback would play with on offense...

The statistical “jump” the Patriots make in the 2006 offseason, from one fumble every 39 plays to one fumble every 76 plays is nothing short of remarkable.  Their trendline over this period is not even close to that of the rest of the NFL.
More crunching of the numbers at this link.

American arrested for carrying Arabic "flash cards"

Nick was heading off to start his senior year at Pomona College in California, back in August 2009, when cops detained, aggressively interrogated, handcuffed, and locked him in a jail cell for nearly five hours at the Philadelphia International Airport.

Why was he targeted? Because Nick, a dual major in physics and Middle Eastern studies, was carrying a set of English-Arabic flashcards in for his language class--and Rogue Nation, a book critical of U.S. foreign policy that was written by a former Reagan administration official.
She was in mid-sentence talking to me when a Philadelphia police officer appeared behind me and ordered me to put my hands behind my back. He cuffed my hands, grabbed my arms, and, in full view of the rest of the passengers, walked me through the entire Philadelphia airport and into the police substation.

No one informed me of my rights, and no one would tell me why I was being not just searched but arrested by police, when I was in violation of no law. I had never been arrested, and no one knew I was there.

The police officer left me in a cell at the police station for several more hours. He did not uncuff my hands from behind my back. He did not tell me what I was being held for. He did not tell me how long I would be there. After about two hours I asked to go to the bathroom, and on the way back I again asked why I was being held. He answered me with the same attitude the TSA agent had shown me: "I dunno, what'd you do?"
This is the American we have created for ourselves.  In the news now because he just received a settlement of his lawsuit. 

More details at the ACLU website, via BoingBoing.

How to play with supercooled water at home

This reminds me of how my mother's family used to make ice cream on the farm, with what presumably was a supercooled churn.

"We built this" - redux

During the last presidential campaign, a recurring theme was that of independence from government support, a claim made proudly to counteract Obama's perceived "socialist" tendencies. 

This past week, one of the rebuttals to Obama's State of the Union address was given by Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), who proudly described how she wore plastic bread bags over her shoes as a mark of her family's humble roots and ability to live within their means.  What she conveniently left out was her family's acceptance of federal farm subsidies:
The truth about her family’s farm roots and living within one’s means, however, is more complex. Relatives of Ernst (née: Culver), based in Red Oak, Iowa (population: 5,568) have received over $460,000 in farm subsidies between 1995 and 2009. Ernst’s father, Richard Culver, was given $14,705 in conservation payments and $23,690 in commodity subsidies by the federal government–with all but twelve dollars allocated for corn support. Richard’s brother, Dallas Culver, benefited from $367,141 in federal agricultural aid, with over $250,000 geared toward corn subsidies.

The "national costume" of Canada

I'll defer from commenting on the Miss Universe competition per se, but couldn't resist posting this photo of Miss Canada wearing her "national costume."

As a former manager of a collegiate hockey team, I was startled by the 20-14 "score" until I read that it is a representation of the year (the scoreboard is attached to her outfit, btw).

If you have nothing better to do, here is a full gallery of all the "national costumes."

23 January 2015

An ancient rebus involving a Jew's harp

Solving the rebus at the top of this illustration in a 17th-century book requires understanding the meaning of the key-like item after the word "dames."
It actually most closely resembles a jaw harp, a small instrument played with the mouth that produces a distinctive twanging sound. The possibility that this is the intended meaning of the symbol at first seems untenable, as it does not appear to fit the phrase in any logical way. Inserting the common French term for the instrument, guimbarde, gives us nothing, as does the German term maultrommel. However, discovering earlier French names for it, jeu-trompe and trompe de Béarn, suddenly supplies the image with a double entendre. If the word “trompe” is inserted in the phrase, an unexpectedly negative phrase emerges: “Le coeur de dames trompe le monde”, or “The hearts of women deceive the world”. There is little doubt that this is the correct interpretation, as it is a known proverb. The phrase in fact appeared on the Queen of Hearts in a playing card ca. 1500. Yet while this mystery is solved, the question of how it relates to, and informs the image above, is just as cryptic.
More information here:
The Jew's harp, also known as the jaw harp, mouth harp, Ozark harp, trump, or juice harp, is a lamellophone instrument, which is in the category of plucked idiophones: it consists of a flexible metal or bamboo tongue or reed attached to a frame. The tongue/reed is placed in the performer's mouth and plucked with the finger to produce a note. This instrument is considered to be one of the oldest musical instruments in the world; a musician apparently playing it can be seen in a Chinese drawing from the 4th century BC.

Despite its common English name, and the sometimes used Jew's trump, it has no particular connection with Jews or Judaism...

The instrument is known in many different cultures by many different names. The common English name "Jew's harp" is sometimes considered controversial or potentially misleading, and is thus avoided by a few speakers or manufacturers... Other speakers believe the avoidance of the term to be offensive and deliberately use the term so as not to cause offense. Another name used to identify the instrument, especially in scholarly literature, is the older English trump, while guimbarde, the French word for the instrument, can be found in unabridged dictionaries and is featured in recent revival efforts.

Computer Vision Syndrome

Explained at Vox:
A significant number of heavy computer users experience a range of symptoms that researchers group under the umbrella phrase "computer vision syndrome."...

Studies have shown that when people read from computer screens, their blink rate plummets — but this also happens when people read words from a printed page. In either case, when you blink less frequently, your eyes are much more likely to become dried out....

Eye strain is the second-most common complaint of computer vision syndrome, and can be accompanied by headaches and pain in or around the eyes... It may also lead to a related problem: difficulty focusing...

Observational studies have found that, in general, a person's level of education — and thus the amount of reading they've done over their lifetime — is positively correlated with their risk of myopia. But the direction of causation could go either way: they could have read more growing up, becoming both more educated and myopic, or for various reasons people prone to myopia could be more likely to read more...

Every twenty minutes, a person should look away from their desk for twenty seconds, and focus on something at least twenty feet away," he says. This prevents your eyes from focusing at near distances for extremely long durations, forcing them to alter their focal distance. It's also a good idea to consciously do some blinking at this sort of regular interval, in order to prevent excessive dryness. Your desk should also be set up in a way to minimize eye stress. It's recommended that your monitor be positioned 20 to 40 inches in front of your eyes, and the top of the monitor should line up with your eye level, so you're looking down about 15 degrees when you stare at the screen. 
More at the link.

Within my lifetime

North  Carolina, 1950.

Photo credit Elliott Erwitt / Magnum Photos / Agentur Focus, via Spiegel Online.

Monarch butterfly tourism locations

Smithsonian offers a list of seven locations in North America where Monarch butterflies can be seen in large numbers.

Point Pelee National Park, Ontario, Canada 
"Because the migration happens over such a considerable distance, butterflies look for shortcuts whenever they can, which is what makes Point Pelee such a desirable spot—located on a peninsula that juts into Lake Erie, the site gives thousands of monarchs a head-start on their southward journey. After following the shape of the peninsula, the butterflies will funnel to the tip of the point and wait for a breeze to help them begin their migration"

Monarch Butterfly Grove: Pismo Beach, California
"From mid-October through mid-February, thousands of monarchs congregate on the grove's trees, providing visitors with a spectacular sight. One of the largest in the nation, the grove at Pismo Beach regularly hosts around 25,000 butterflies each season."

Monarch Grove Sanctuary: Pacific Grove, California
"...monarchs arrive by the thousands to rest on the thick branches of eucalyptus trees. Located in a city park, the sanctuary is free and open to visitors from sunrise to sunset."

Goleta Monarch Butterfly Grove: Goleta, California
"...in 2011, the wintering population peaked at 47,510). The preserve is open sunrise to sunset, and admission is free. Docents are available to lead tours around midday on weekends."

Natural Bridges State Beach: Santa Cruz, California
"...at peak numbers, some 100,000 monarchs come to the area to enjoy the mild, oceanside climate and rest in the preserve's eucalyptus trees."

Monarch Biosphere Reserve: Michoacán, Mexico
"In 2008, the Monarch Biosphere Reserve was named a Unesco World Heritage Site for its critical role in supporting populations of the migrating butterflies. Monarchs come to the area by the millions—sometimes, by the billions—to escape the cold northern winters."

Piedra Herrada: Los Saucos, Mexico
"More remote than areas to the north, visitors usually take horses up the steep incline, then hike through thick vegetation to reach the butterflies."

You guys in southern California are so lucky.  If you are a reader of this blog and have never taken the time to visit one of the winter Monarch sanctuaries, I'm disappointed in you.

22 January 2015

Getting to the root of perennial grains

Ever since my childhood in the Upper Midwest, I've understood that one of the factors leading to the great "Dust Bowl" disaster of the 1930s was the destruction of the native grasslands by farmers.  But it takes an image to really drive it home - such as the one above comparing the root systems of a perennial wheatgrass with those of modern annual winter wheat.  A National Geographic article explains that humans have always favored annuals over perennials because the short lifespans promote selective breeding:
Humans made an unwitting but fateful choice 10,000 years ago as we started cultivating wild plants: We chose annuals. All the grains that feed billions of people today—wheat, rice, corn, and so on—come from annual plants, which sprout from seeds, produce new seeds, and die every year. "The whole world is mostly perennials," says USDA geneticist Edward Buckler, who studies corn at Cornell University. "So why did we domesticate annuals?" Not because annuals were better, he says, but because Neolithic farmers rapidly made them better—enlarging their seeds, for instance, by replanting the ones from thriving plants, year after year. Perennials didn't benefit from that kind of selective breeding, because they don't need to be replanted. Their natural advantage became a handicap. They became the road not taken.

We pay a steep price for our reliance on high yields and shallow roots, says soil scientist—and National Geographic emerging explorer—Jerry Glover of the Land Institute. Because annual root crops mostly tap into only the top foot or so of soil, that layer gets depleted, forcing farmers to rely on large amounts of fertilizers to maintain high yields. Often less than half the fertilizer in the Midwest gets taken up by crops; much of it washes into the Gulf of Mexico, where it fertilizes algae blooms that cause a vast dead zone around the mouth of the Mississippi. Annuals also promote heavy use of pesticides or tillage because they leave the ground bare much of the year. That allows weeds to invade.
The article goes on to explain that scientists are aggressively pursuing the concept of creating deep-rooted perennials that can serve as food plants.  This topic was considered in greater depth in Discover Magazine last spring:
Now we also have much better tools in plant breeding. We have much more powerful, faster computers that allow us to sift through the genetic material to determine which characteristics are going to be more productive...

I recommend focusing first on the perennial types of legumes, given the protein needs of many of the developing countries. The great benefit is that legumes contribute to cropping systems; they can help take nitrogen out of the atmosphere and make it available in the soil.

African soils were in general less fertile and less well-suited for agricultural production than American soils from the beginning. Farmers in Africa are often faced by the big challenge of working with inherently old, highly weathered soil...  I think ultimately they could be more productive than our annual grain crops because they are able to capture more sunlight, water and nutrients. But the urgency in developed countries isn’t there.

"Deep Time" and "Deep Space" - part I

Somewhere this past week (I've lost the link), I saw a comment by ?Bill Nye.  When asked why some people fail to believe in the concept of evolution, he said the fundamental thing they failed to grasp was the concept of "deep time" (geologic time scales).

Changes of adaptations that appear impossibly complicated (or illogically perfect) become understandable if/when one considers that the change has happened over the course of, say, 200 million years.

I encountered an example of the importance of "deep time" while reading an article in Smithsonian magazine yesterday:
The rock beneath me, which looks almost white in the glare of the sun, is full of fossils. Zillions of them. Back when these life-forms were alive—265 million years ago or so—the Guadalupe Mountains were underwater, part of a flourishing reef that once stretched about 400 miles around the edge of a long-vanished sea.

Reefs are a fascinating fusion of biology and geology. They are, after all, made of stone—but built by life. Moreover, although the individual life-forms involved are typically tiny, the results of their activities can be gigantic, resulting in a massive transformation of the landscape. As usual, Charles Darwin put it better than anyone. Writing about corals, he said: “We feel surprise when travellers tell us of the vast dimensions of the Pyramids and other great ruins, but how utterly insignificant are the greatest of these, when compared to these mountains of stone accumulated by the agency of various minute and tender animals!”
Mountains built by life. Literally. To give a couple of examples, the volume of coral built up on the Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands is around 250 cubic miles. This is equivalent to building the Great Pyramid of Giza more than 416,000 times. And that’s just one atoll: The Earth has scores. The Great Barrier Reef, which runs for more than 1,800 miles along the northeastern coast of Australia, comprises about 3,000 reefs and 900 islands. It is the largest structure built by living beings in the modern world.
Lots more at the link.

"Deep Time" and "Deep Space" - part II

If "deep time" challenges our comprehension of time, then "deep space" is its counterpart on a spatial scale.  I covered this topic briefly about five years ago by showing the Hubble Ultra-Deep Field photo.
This is called the Hubble Ultra Deep Field. Starting in late 2003, astronomers pointed Hubble at a tiny, relatively empty part of our sky (only a few stars from the Milky Way visible), and created an exposure nearly 12 days long over a four-month period. The result is this amazing image, looking back through time at thousands of galaxies that range from 1 to 13 billion light-years away from Earth. Some 10,000 galaxies were observed in this tiny patch of sky (a tenth the size of the full moon) - each galaxy a home to billions of stars
NASA has just released a newer image, though not of "deep space" per se.   It is a 1.5 billion pixel image of just a small portion of one galaxy.  I invite you to view the video at the top - at fullscreen settings - while contemplating that each one of those dots is a sun (or a collection of suns).   By the end of the panning in the video, one winds up at the galactic center where the number of suns are so great that the light is confluent.  Followed by the "gotcha" moment of the final pullback to show that you're not looking at the Milky Way - merely one component of it.

There is some discussion at SlashGear.

But reading about it is I think less important than just contemplating the image in the video and its implications.

VSED as an end-of-life strategy

Excerpts from Complexities of Choosing an End Game for Dementia:
Mr. Medalie’s directive also specifies something more unusual: If he develops Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia, he refuses “ordinary means of nutrition and hydration.” 

A retired lawyer with a proclivity for precision, he has listed 10 triggering conditions, including “I cannot recognize my loved ones” and “I cannot articulate coherent thoughts and sentences.”

If any three such disabilities persist for several weeks, he wants his health care proxy — his wife, Beth Lowd — to ensure that nobody tries to keep him alive by spoon-feeding or offering him liquids. VSED, short for “voluntarily stopping eating and drinking,” is not unheard-of as an end-of-life strategy, typically used by older adults who hope to hasten their decline from terminal conditions. But now ethicists, lawyers and older adults themselves have begun a quiet debate about whether people who develop dementia can use VSED to end their lives by including such instructions in an advance directive...

Even in the few states where physicians can legally prescribe lethal medication for the terminally ill, laws require that patients be mentally competent and able to ingest those drugs themselves. Mr. Medalie would prefer that option if he were to become demented, preferably with the barbiturates dissolved in “a little vodka.”

But demented patients don’t qualify for so-called death with dignity. VSED is a lawful way to hasten death for competent adults who find life with a progressive, irreversible disease unendurable...

“Neglecting basic human comfort care is a big source of elder abuse complaints and criminal prosecutions.” And if a patient demands that his basic care be withheld in the event of dementia? “Nobody from a legal perspective has really meaningfully grappled with that,” he said.

In several states, including New York, Wisconsin, Minnesota and New Hampshire, legislatures have banned the withdrawal of oral nutrition or hydration at all, no matter what a directive or a proxy says.
More at the link.  Worth a read for those dealing with a family member with dementia.

21 January 2015

I am 3.2% Neanderthal

I decided to participate in National Geographic's Genographic Project, which uses "cutting-edge genetic and computational technologies to analyze historical patterns in DNA from participants around the world to better understand our human genetic roots."

I submitted a sample of my DNA.

The reported results are separated into your maternal and paternal lines.  This is my mother's branch:

After leaving Africa, this haplogroup headed north.  It was gratifying to see the heavy density of these haplogroup markers in Scandinavia, since my mother's ancestry is traceable back to the Fjaerland Fjord in central Norway.

As my father's genetic ancestry was being revealed, I had a moment to wonder whether there had been some indiscretion on my mother's part...

... so I was pleased (but not surprised) to find the next subset in my father's gene pool had opted out of the trip to Southeast Asia and headed back West toward Europe...

... where the hottest spot for the genetic marker is in central Europe, corresponding to my father's German heritage.

This was an expensive undertaking (kit purchase information here), but in my view fully worth the cost just to satisfy my curiosity and in a tiny way to contribute to the pool of information being assembled.

Addendum:  One reader has pointed out that "Women do not carry a Y chromosome, this test will not reveal direct paternal deep ancestry for female participants. Women will learn other information about their paternal side of the family, however. It still cost the same as for the men, however."

Trailer for "The Fog of War"

The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara is a 2003 American documentary film about the life and times of former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara illustrating his observations of the nature of modern warfare. The film was directed by Errol Morris and features an original score by Philip Glass.

The film won the 2003 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and Independent Spirit Award for Best Documentary Feature.

Reviews for the film were very positive. The film received an overall score of 98% on Rotten Tomatoes, thus obtaining a "Certified Fresh" rating.
Excellent movie.  Highly recommended.

Toothbrushes. Tooth worms. And George Washington's lonely tooth.

Toothbrushes at the National Museum of Dentistry include, from left to right: A miswak or chew stick, an early 20th century celluloid toothbrush by Taub, a rubber-tipped gum stimulator and toothbrush from pre-1945, a Strockway rotary toothbrush from the 1950s, a Dr. Mayland’s rubber toothbrush from the 1920s, a 1930s Rotor toothbrush, and another chew stick.
From an interesting article at Collector's Weekly.
Since at least 3000 B.C., people in the Mesopotamian region used the frayed ends of fibrous twigs or chew sticks, also known as miswak or siwak sticks, to clean their teeth. “Different cultures have used twigs from trees and shrubs with wood grain that is very intertwined,” says Scott Swank, a dentist, historian, and curator of the National Museum of Dentistry. “You peel the bark off and chew it to get the fibers to fray out, and then you use those frayed fibers to clean your teeth. They’re still used today in some parts of Africa and the Middle East.”
Much more at the link, including information on "toothworms":
“Many people in the past believed ‘tooth worms’ were the cause of tooth decay—tiny creatures that would bore holes in people’s teeth,” explains Fitzharris. Records indicate that the fear of tooth worms goes back at least to the time of the Sumerians, or around 5,000 years ago... “Often, practitioners would try to smoke the worm out by heating a mixture of beeswax and henbane seed on a piece of iron and directing the fumes into the cavity with a funnel,” Fitzharris says. “Afterwards, the hole was filled with powdered henbane seed and gum mastic, which may have provided temporary relief given the fact that henbane is a mild narcotic.
And this about George Washington's dentures:
By the time Washington was elected president at age 57, he only had one natural tooth remaining in his mouth. “During the presidency, he lost that one, too,” says Swank. [note the hole in his dentures, designed to accommodate that last tooth]

And finally:
By the mid-19th century, dentures were often referred to as “Waterloo Teeth,” after those surreptitiously ripped from the bodies of dead soldiers following the Battle of Waterloo in 1815... While publicly frowned upon, stealing teeth from dead soldiers continued throughout the Crimean War and the American Civil War
Much more at the link.  You learn something every day.

"Active shooter" school drill done without notification

Police officers in Florida surprised students, teachers and parents Thursday with an active shooter drill. And by “active shooter drill,” we mean that a Winter Haven middle school went into lockdown as two armed police officers burst into classrooms, guns drawn, leaving the unsuspecting children terrified — and their parents furious.

According to Fox affiliate WTVT, officials at Jewett Middle Academy e-mailed parents to inform them of the drill, after it took place. By that point, WTVT reports, cellphones were already filling up with texts from frightened students, who thought there was a real shooter in the school.

Winter Haven police told The Post that one of the officers had his duty firearm – a handgun – drawn. The gun was loaded, as required. The other officer was carrying an unloaded AR-15. According to Ray, one of her other children texted: “I thought he was going to shoot me.”

“We don’t want students to be scared, but we need them to be safe.”
That's one viewpoint.  Others would argue that a pre-announced drill would be educational; a surprise drill is designed to frighten and intimidate.
But not all active shooter drills are surprises: WTVT spoke to officials in two neighboring Florida counties, where police said that their officers conduct drills in empty schools, usually over a holiday break.
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