30 April 2015

Time lapse video of Chile's Calbuco volcano

And lots of impressive images in a photo gallery at the Washington Post.

Close-up magic

David Blaine peforms in Harrison Ford's home.  The latter appears truly shaken, and I think is not in on the trick.  So how does Blaine do it?

Negative interest rates and currency wars - updated

The Swiss National Bank (SNB) shocked markets on Thursday by announcing that it would no longer hold the value of the Swiss franc down at 1.2 per euro, although it would lower interest rates from -0.25 to -0.75 percent. Mayhem ensued. The Swiss franc immediately shot up as much as 39 percent against the euro, before settling at "only" up 17 percent on the day. This is basically the biggest single-day move for a rich country's currency, as economist David Zervos points out, in the last 40 years. And it's sent Switzerland's stock market down 10 percent, as its suddenly more expensive currency will cripple its exporters by making their goods more expensive abroad...

Now let's back up a minute. Why was Switzerland pushing its currency down, and why has it stopped now? Well, in four words, it's the euro crisis. Back in 2011, you see, what looked like the imminent end of the euro made people want to move their money to the safety of Swiss banks...

Switzerland is still stuck in deflation, with prices falling 0.3 percent, and a stronger currency is only going to make that worse. Now, they tried to offset this by charging people even more to hold their money in Switzerland—aka negative interest rates—but that wasn't nearly enough to stop the Swiss franc from going vertical... 
More at the link and more at this Bloomberg Business Week article.  This is a big deal for those outside of Switzerland who purchase Swiss products and for those who have their mortgages demoninated in Swiss francs.

It's also the first time I remember encountering negative interest rates.  How does that work?  You deposit your money and they take a little away each week?

Addendum:   I posted the above in January of 2015.  This past week I saw an article in the telegraph entitled Sweden cuts rates below zero as global currency wars spread:
Sweden has cut interest rates below zero and launched quantitative easing to fight deflation, becoming the latest Scandinavian state to join Europe’s escalating currency wars...

The move comes as neighbouring Denmark takes ever more drastic steps to stop a flood of money overwhelming its exchange rate peg to the euro and tightening the deflationary noose. The Danes have cut rates four times to minus 0.75pc in a month to combat fall-out from the European Central Bank’s forthcoming QE...

Exchange rate mayhem in Europe is matched by a parallel saga in Asia, where Japan’s vast monetary stimulus and barely disguised efforts to drive down the yen are causing heartburn in China...

The Riksbank insists that the only motive is to stave off deflation but there are widespread suspicions that Sweden is in fact protecting its industrial and export base. It is no stranger to controversy. The oldest central bank in the world, it took radical action early in the 1930s to liberate Sweden from the constraints of the Gold Standard. Its prescience shielded the country from the worst of the Great Depression.

Stephen Lewis from Monument Securities says the emergency actions are getting out of hand: “The chief threat from a global currency war is that it will lead central banks to take up monetary stances so extreme that they damage the smooth functioning of financial markets. It is remarkable that they should be closing their minds to the possibility that they are undermining the basic motive to save and invest as they blindly wage their currency wars.”
This isn't front-page news in mass media.  One hopes it doesn't become such...

Please feel free to offer advice in the Comments as to what an ordinary person should do in such circumstances.

Addendum:  Reposted again from February to add some information from a Telegraph column which is thought-provoking (though I think not fear-mongering):
Here’s an astonishing statistic; more than 30pc of all government debt in the eurozone – around €2 trillion of securities in total – is trading on a negative interest rate.
With the advent of European Central Bank quantitative easing, what began four months ago when 10-year Swiss yields turned negative for the first time has snowballed into a veritable avalanche of negative rates across European government bond markets...

What makes today’s negative interest rate environment so worrying is this; to the extent that demand is growing at all in the world economy, it seems again to be almost entirely dependent on rising levels of debt. The financial crisis was meant to have exploded the credit bubble once and for all, but there's very little sign of it. Rising public indebtedness has taken over where households and companies left off...

One by one, all the major central banks have joined the money printing party. First it was the US Federal Reserve. Then came the Bank of England and later the Bank of Japan. Just lately, it’s the European Central Bank. Now even the People’s Bank of China is considering the “unconventional” monetary support of bond buying. Anything to keep the show on the road...

The flip side of the cheap money story is soaring asset prices. The bond market bubble is just the half of it; since most other assets are priced relative to bonds, just about everything else has been going up as well. Eventually, there will be a massive correction, in which creditors will suffer sickening losses.

Nobody can tell you when that moment will arrive. We live in an “extend and pretend” world in which economies pathetically fight between themselves for any scraps of demand.
Quite a bit more at the link.

Superfast quadcopter

Imagine a future in which these things are weaponized (see Reddit discussion).

An online "guide to Discworld"

"Terry Pratchett’s Discworld might look intimidating — there are 40 books, and they’re humorous fantasy, which seems like it could be an acquired taste. But everybody should read at least one Discworld book, because they’re wonderful, and there’s something for everyone. Here’s our complete guide to Pratchett’s masterwork."
There must certainly be an abundance of sites online that can serve as an introduction to the fictional world created by Terry Pratchett.  This one at io9 seems to be particularly well done (and designed more for the newbie than for the aficianado), though there are Pratchett enthusiasts among the readers here who can offer a better-informed opinion than I can. 

29 April 2015

Honest political ad

Prepping toddlers for a nursery interview

Yoyo Chan is preparing for an important interview that could help her succeed in life. She is one-and-a-half years old.

At two she will start nursery, but competition is fierce in Hong Kong, and some of the most prestigious nurseries are selective. Her parents want her to be well-prepared for her first big test in life.

The best nurseries and kindergartens are seen as a gateway into the best primary schools - which in turn, parents believe, pave the way to the best secondary schools and universities.

So the most renowned of them can receive more than 1,000 applications for just a few dozen places. As a result, enterprising tuition companies are now offering interview training for toddlers...

But this year nursery entrance will be particularly tough. More children than usual were born in 2012-2013 because it was the year of the dragon, which is considered to be auspicious. For Hong Kong's dragon children, this is their first big challenge.
More information at the BBC, via Neatorama.

Preikestolen - updated

Preikestolen or Prekestolen, also known by the English translations of Preacher's Pulpit or Pulpit Rock, is a famous tourist attraction in Forsand, Ryfylke, Norway. It consists of a steep cliff which rises 604 metres (1982 feet) above Lysefjorden, opposite the Kjerag plateau, with an almost flat top of approximately 25 by 25 metres (82 by 82 feet).

The authorities have opted not to install fencing or other safety devices as they felt it would detract from the natural beauty of the site and the fact that fatalities at the site are extremely rare, despite having approximately 200,000 visitors each year. Furthermore, there were concerns that fences or other devices might encourage dangerous behavior such as climbing onto the fences. It should also be noted that it is a policy from Norwegian authorities that "we cannot fence in all nature in this country", and this is supported by the Norwegian population who are generally more accustomed to "dangerous nature" of their country than foreign tourists.
Via Reddit.  See also this photo.

Addendum:  This video gives a general idea of the access.  More info here.

Addendum:  Reposted from 2014 because I just read in The Local ("Norway's news in English") that Google Maps has just added Preikestolen to Google Street View.

You will not enjoy watching this video of a competitive eater

Apparently the key to her success is that she doesn't chew.

She has previously consumed two 72-ounce steaks in 5 minutes.

28 April 2015

Citizens protecting Baltimore police

Credit to @VBagate; hat tip to reader Kniffler who found the source, which TinEye couldn't locate last night.

What an amazing contrast to the set of twelve photos (examples below) posted at imgur of looting inside a 7-Eleven store (which has garnered 2 million views and been discussed with 15,000 comments at Reddit).  I hope the above photo gets equal attention.

27 April 2015

The Baltimore Riot of 1812

"Lighthorse Harry" Lee, Revolutionary War hero
and father of Confederate General Robert E. Lee
“With no hope of flight, the trapped men were punched, kicked, and knifed in the flickering light of more candles brought in from the jailer’s room and passed overhead. Clubs swung and beat against heads, opening deep gashes and splashing blood over capes, coats, and hats… Most victims were dragged out and clubbed at the jail’s entrance by Mumma the butcher. Others were savaged by rogues waiting their turn in the street...

Hanson, Lee, Gen. James McCubbin Lingan, and half a dozen others were knocked down the prison steps and tortured as they lay in a heap of unconscious and semiconscious bodies. Their assailants used penknives to slash and poke at faces and hands. Hoodlums forced open the eyes of other victims to let burning candle-grease drip in
What's going on?  Is this a British attack on Americans?  Quite the contrary.  This account describes how pro-war Americans attacked anti-war Americans as the War of 1812 was beginning. 
In his death groans, the sixty-year-old Lingan cried out for mercy, pleading that he was old and weak. Pitifully, he reminded them how he had fought for their freedom during the Revolutionary war. His tormentors did not care at all. It made no difference that the aging general had survived a British prison-ship…

As Light-Horse Harry Lee lay battered upon the ground, someone tried to slice off his nose but succeeded only in bloodying his face. A knife aimed at Lee’s eye missed its mark and nicked open his cheek. His glorious past was of no consequence now. No one cared that Congress had turned to him to deliver the funeral oration for his friend, George Washington, whom Lee had eulogized as “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” Light-Horse Harry, father of Robert E. Lee, then five, was beaten into a limp and bloody casualty for the first time in his long life as a soldier, patriot, and elected public figure…

The war with Great Britain was only forty-one days old, and the bloodletting on the soil of the United States had just begun. But all the victims and every assassin and their accomplices were Americans.
These excerpts are from a very scholarly and comprehensive book entitled The Burning of Washington: The British Invasion of 1814, by Anthony S. Pitch (Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, 1998).  I'll have more to say about the book in later posts.  Those with an interest in the Baltimore Riots can read more at Commonplace, and can read contemporary accounts of the incidents at the University of Chicago website.

Photo of Lee found at The Whiskey Rebellion.

Introducing Upper Svaneti

"Horsemen in dreamlike landscapes, men leading a bull to the church gate, with burning candles on its horns, young girls singing ancient songs with inward-looking glance. And towers everywhere, rising in groups or alone, closed, dark towers. Aaron Huey has been coming back for sixteen years to Svaneti, for thirteen years he has been photographing this region...

Over the course of history many powerful empires – Arab, Mongol, Persian, Ottoman – sent armies rampaging through Georgia, the frontier between Europe and Asia... Svaneti’s isolation has shaped its identity – and its historical value. In times of danger, lowland Georgians sent icons, jewels, and manuscripts to the mountain churches and towers for safekeeping, turning Svaneti into a repository of early Georgian culture... "
By the first century B.C. the Svans, thought by some to be descendants of Sumerian slaves, had a reputation as fierce warriors, documented in the writings of the Greek geographer Strabo. By the time Christianity arrived, around the sixth century, Svan culture ran deep – with its own language, its own densely textured music, and complex codes of chivalry, revenge, and communal justice...

This is some of the world’s oldest polyphonic music, a complex form that features two or more simultaneous lines of melody. It predates the arrival of Christianity in Svaneti by centuries. Yet none of the musicians in the room this autumn afternoon is over 25. 
Lots more text and dozens of photos at Poemas del rio Wang, (where I consistently find fascinating material).  See also this intriguing video about the National Geographic photographer -

Humorous eggcorn

Via Nothing to do with Arbroath.  Eggcorn explained.

The race of food stamp recipients

According to 2013 data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the program, 40.2 percent of SNAP recipients are white, 25.7 percent are black, 10.3 percent are Hispanic, 2.1 percent are Asian and 1.2 percent are Native American.
More discussion and data here.

Princess Elizabeth (daughter of Charles I) had rickets

From an abstract published in Pediatrics in 1979:
In 1856 the coffin of Princess Elizabeth (1635-1650) was discovered during the demolition of old St. Thomas's Church at Newport, Isle of Wight, England. Mr. Ernest P. Wilkins, MRCS, examined the remains of the Princess and noted:
The bones of the upper arm were slightly curved outwards—more particularly the right humerous—while those of the forearm were somewhat twisted and considerably curved outwards. The spinal column, retaining the relative position of the vertebrae during life, presented an extremely curved condition constituting the double lateral or S curvature of pathologists, which must have caused considerable projection of the right shoulder-blade and its attendant deformity....

The bones of the skeleton indicate the great deformity which existed during life—there was evidently considerable "growing out" of the right shoulder-blade and corresponding flattening of the left side of the back. The lower extremities were contorted and of unequal length, the knees were what is termed "knocked"; below the knees the legs were bowed, the heels thrown outwards and the toes inverted.
I haven't purchased access to the fulltext, so I don't know the cause of the rickets - probably congenital to be that severe, unless she developed dietary deficiencies during her imprisonment (anyone know?).

This brief bio from Wikipedia:
Elizabeth Stuart (28 December 1635 – 8 September 1650) was the second daughter of King Charles I of England, Scotland and Ireland and his wife, Henrietta Maria of France. From the age of six until her early death at the age of fourteen she was a prisoner of Parliament during the English Civil War. Her emotional written account of her final meeting with her father on the eve of his execution and his final words to his children have been published in numerous histories about the war and King Charles I.

Image credit (Elizabeth on the left, holding her sister Anne)

More winnable "bar bets"

A couple of them are quite good.

Careful with that book - you might poke your eye out

CBC News relates this story about an authoritarian school bus driver:
An eight-year-old girl in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que. was told she's no longer allowed to read books on the school bus because it poses a risk to the safety of other students.

Sarah Auger loves reading and used to enjoy using her 20-minute ride to and from school to read for pleasure. But recently, her bus driver told her she had to stop.

She says she was told reading posed a risk to other students on the bus. He suggested they might stand up to see what she was reading, or she might poke herself in the eye with the corners of the book.
Discussed at Reddit ("Books are dangerous; if they ban guns, the criminals will just get books.")

The "mom jeans commercial" SNL skit

"Don't speak English? We'll give you disability benefits."

As reported in the Washington Post:
Hundreds of Puerto Rico’s residents qualified for federal disability benefits in recent years because they lacked fluency in English, according to government auditors.

The Social Security Administration’s inspector general questioned the policy this month in light of the fact that Spanish is the predominant language in the U.S. territory...

The inspector general noted that a nurse in Puerto Rico who speaks only Spanish could be considered “unskilled” under current Social Security standards...

Nonetheless, auditors identified 218 cases between 2011 and 2013 in which the the Social Security Administration granted disability status to Puerto Rico residents because of the existing guidelines...

The Social Security Administration agreed with the proposals and said it is making preparations for a potential rule change, including by gathering research and taking input from federal experts and the public.
What kind of research needs to be done?  Change the rule already.

How not to waste color ink when printing B&W

Printer ink is the perennial bane of computer users' existence.  The screencap above shows a common situation experienced by users like me who print almost exclusively black-and-white documents - the color ink level keeps declining.

I have been told that small amounts of color ink are dispersed during B&W printing in order to 1) improve the quality of the black color (?) and/or 2) to prevent the color inkjet nozzles from drying and clogging, and I have been told to "live with it."

This week while shopping for a new printer,  I found a workaround offered at Consumer Reports:
I had the very same problem - kept running out of color ink even though I had printed few or no color pages.  I asked the clerk at Office Depot and he told me to set the color to "grayscale".  But, i couldn't find where to do this for my HP Photosmart printer.  Every time I bought ink, I asked again, and looked again with no success, until a few months ago when i put some serious problem-solving time into finding how to do this.  Finally, I found it.  This is how to do it.  When the print screen comes up, select Paper Type/Quality" from the drop-down menu showing "Layout".  On that screen click the triangle by "Color Options".  From the new options that are displayed choose "Grayscale" from the "Color" menu, then select "Black Print Cartridge Only" from the "Grayscale Mode" menu.

It worked!  I haven't gotten a message since that I am low on any color ink.  The fact that one has to go through four menus and choices makes me think that they don't want us to find it or even know about it.  Good luck, hope you can find "Grayscale" on your print screen.
I'm going to give this a try, but still occasionally print the old way to prevent nozzle blockage.  I don't know whether this tip is applicable across printer platforms.  There will be readers here who know way more about this topic - please feel free to share your expertise in the Comments.

"Daddy, what's a funeral stripper?"

"Pictures of a funeral in the city of Handan in northern Hebei province last month showed a dancer removing her bra as assembled parents and children watched... The government has been trying to fight the country’s funereal stripper scourge for some time now...

The point of inviting strippers, some of whom performed with snakes, was to attract large crowds to the deceased’s funeral – seen as a harbinger of good fortune in the afterlife. “It’s to give them face,” one villager explained. “Otherwise no one would come.""
Via Nag on the Lake (writen in the most beautiful town in Canada).  Image cropped for size from original.

24 April 2015

Distribution of trees in the United States

Technically this shows "above-ground woody biomass," but in practical terms it is a map of tree density.
Over six years, researchers assembled the national forest map from space-based radar, satellite sensors, computer models, and a massive amount of ground-based data. It is possibly the highest resolution and most detailed view of forest structure and carbon storage ever assembled for any country.

Forests in the U.S. were mapped down to a scale of 30 meters, or roughly 10 computer display pixels for every hectare of land (4 pixels per acre). They divided the country into 66 mapping zones and ended up mapping 265 million segments of the American land surface...
Posted at Neatorama by Miss Cellania, who found it at NASA's Earth Observatory (their Image of the Day page is well worth a bookmark).

p.s. - The embedded image enlarges with a click, but for maximum detail enlarge x2 the original at the NASA link.

(Reposted from 2012 for Arbor Day 2015) 

The "crooked forest" of Gryfino (Poland) - updated

The link for the embedded photo was sent to me by Jennifer Fox, with a request for an explanation, since her web search had not proved satisfactory.

Several possibilities come to mind.  It's obvious that the trees were bent when very young, then recovered.  Those who live near large lakes with prominent ice heaves will have seen trees affected in this manner, and a similiar effect could occur after a blowdown by straightline winds.

I get the sense that this forest is a tree farm, because of the uniformity of age of the trees, and I suspect this is a man-made curvature, because of the similarity of all the trees involved.  If that's true, then my best explanation would be that these trees were trained as "compass timbers" for shipbuilding or as material for other woodworking.  See this post from last fall on that subject.

This blog gets about 500 visits a month from readers in Poland; perhaps someone can offer a definitive answer.

Photo credit: tapenade.

Addendum January 2012.  One of the curious aspects of blogging is that you never know which posts will be popular or produce sustained interest.  I posted the above about a year ago, and it has continued to accumulate hits (40,000 so far!) and comments, so I thought a repost with an update was warranted.

One of the early comments included a link to Discovery News, with a map showing the location of this forest:

The bent trees are in a small suburban area, surrounded by normal trees (evident in some of the photos in the gallery at this link).

Re the etiology, my original postulate was that they were bent by humans for shipbuilding timbers or other woodworking.  Others chimed in with suggestions of "gravity anomalies," crop circles, the Tunguska Event (!!), "evil," and tank maneuvers.

I favor the later suggestion that the trees were intended to be used for furniture making in the "German Jugendstil style (1900/30), which is noted for its numerous curvilinear features."  Another reader offered a link to this photo of a sledge with curved wooden runners:

This post, for reasons not entirely clear to me, has over the years been one of the most-viewed entries in TYWKIWDBI, with something over 100,000 views.

(Reposted from 2012 for Arbor Day 2015)

Joshua tree

“Nothing the desert produces expresses it better than the unhappy growth of the tree yuccas. Tormented, thin forests of it stalk drearily in the high mesas, particularly in that triangular slip that fans out eastward from the meeting of the Sierras and coastwise hills where the first swings across the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley. The yucca bristles with bayonet-pointed leavesdull green, growing shaggy with age, tipped with panicles of fetid, greenish bloom. After death, which is slow, the ghosty hollow network of its woody skeleton, with hardly power to rot makes the moonlight fearful...”
– Mary Austin on Joshua trees, from The Land of Little Rain, 1903. 
Found at Coyote Crossing, via Salmagundi and Uncertain Times

(Reposted from 2010 for Arbor Day 2015) 

The loneliest cycad ?

Excerpts from a story by Robert Krulwich at NPR:
One day in 1895, while walking through the Ngoya Forest in Zululand, southern Africa, a botanist with the oh so suitable name of John Medley Wood caught sight of a tree... Dr. Wood — who made his living collecting rare plants (he directed a botanical garden in Durban) had some of the stems pulled up, removed, and sent one of them to London...

The problem is, these trees cannot fertilize themselves. Some plants contain male and female parts on the same individual. Not E. woodii. It is, as the botanists say, dioecious. It needs a mate... But what if you can't find a mate? The tree in London (and its clones that are now growing in botanical gardens all over the world) is a male. It can make pollen. But it can't make the seeds. That requires a female.

Researchers have wandered the Ngoya forest and other woods of Africa, looking for an E. woodii that could pair with the one in London. They haven't found a single other specimen. They're still searching. ..

Hybrid cycads are sold at plant stores, but those plants aren't the real deal. The tree that sits in London can't produce a true offspring. It sits there, the last in its long line, waiting for a companion that may no longer exist.Unless a female exists somewhere, E. woodii will never mate with one of its own.
(Reposted from 2011 for Arbor Day 2015)


"Not only do we come in contact with it constantly in our daily lives, from cinnamon to cork to chewing gum to rubber, but it’s also a hauntingly beautiful, textured piece of living matter that looks like the skin of some magnificent mythical dragon. French photographer Cedric Pollet travels the world to capture this beauty and has documented it in his gorgeous new book, Bark: An Intimate Look at the World’s Trees.
This book is not in our library system; I'll bet it is well worth a read.  The embedded photos show the bark of the ocotillo tree, a Mindonoan gum, and a type of manzanita. My favorite bark is that of the river birch.

Text and photos from Brain Pickings, via Dark Roasted Blend.

(Reposted from 2011 for Arbor Day 2015) 

Boojum tree

This photograph by Eliot Porter, entitled Cirio Near Las Tres Virgenes Volcano, Baja California (1966) is from the archives of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I'm in a hurry today, so you'll have to read about the species on your own, at Wikipedia or The University of Arizona Arboretum.  (another pic here).

You can also go here, and find lots and lots of elsewheres to explore, some of which refer to these famous terminal verses from the eighth fit:
"It's a Snark!" was the sound that first came to their ears,
And seemed almost too good to be true.
Then followed a torrent of laughter and cheers:
Then the ominous words, "It's a Boo-"

Then, silence. Some fancied they heard in the air
A weary and wandering sigh
That sounded like "jum!" but the other declare
It was only a breeze that went by.

They hunted till darkness came on, but they found
Not a button, or feather, or mark,
By which they could tell that they stood on the ground
Where the Baker had met with the Snark.

In the midst of the word he was trying to say,
In the midst of this laughter and glee,
He had softly and suddenly vanished away-
For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.
And btw, despite the way it looks, the boojum in the photo is a tree - not a cactus.

Via A London Salmagundi.    (Reposted from 2012 for Arbor Day 2015) 

Camel thorn trees in Namibia

The above image (via BoingBoing), by Frans Lanting was published by National Geographic about five years ago, and ever since has been fooling viewers into thinking it's a painting, rather than a photograph.  The altered perspective of a telephoto lens positioning the trees against a sunset-illuminated giant sand dune is really quite  startling.  I had to search for a while to find a more prosaic view:

Credit Martin Heigan.  

Other images here and here.  The trees are sometimes described as being "petrified."  I doubt whether that's technically correct; they certainly are desiccated.

(Reposted from 2012 for Arbor Day 2015)  

This tree had to be killed in order to save it

Last week authorities in Japan cut down a pine tree at Rikuzentakata in a bid to preserve it. The tree had been part of a coastal forest, but was the only one left standing after last year's tsunami struck the country. It will be cut into sections, given anti-decay treatment, reassembled using a carbon spine, and replanted in the same spot. The whole process could take around six months.

When I read that description of this pine, I was reminded of the (in)famous quote from the Vietnam war.  I suppose I understand the logic behind the process - the tree is being preserved as a monument of an event rather than as a tribute to itself.  Still...

The photo, btw, comes from a stunning 16-photo gallery of the "world's most famous trees," among which I find the "Queen Elizabeth oak" quite striking (because of its shape rather than the legend):

Legend has it that the future Queen Elizabeth was sat under this tree, eating an apple, when she was told that her sister Mary had died, and she was the new monarch. The tree is found in the grounds of Hatfield House in Hertfordshire.

Photo credits surprisingly not specified at the Telegraph link.

(Reposted from 2012 for Arbor Day 2015)  

Black tupelo

Nyssa sylvatica is cultivated as an ornamental tree in parks and large gardens, where it is often used as a specimen or shade tree. The tree is best when grown in sheltered but not crowded positions, developing a pyramidal shape in youth, and spreading with age. The stem rises to the summit of the tree in one tapering unbroken shaft, the branches come out at right angles to the trunk and either extend horizontally or droop a little, making a long-narrow, cone-like head. The leaves are short-petioled and so have little individual motion, but the branches sway as a whole... Its often spectacular autumnal coloring, with intense reds to purples, is highly valued in landscape settings. It is the most fiery and brilliant of the 'brilliant group' that includes maple, dogwood, sassafras, and sweet gum, as well as various species of tupelo.
Photographed yesterday at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum.  I was late getting there this autumn and missed most of the great foliage, but this gum tree was still absolutely magnificent.

(Reposted from 2012 for Arbor Day 2015) 

Tropical trees

The skyscraping kapok’s yards-wide trunk, covered in wrinkled gray bark, rises and bends like a colossal elephant leg frozen midstep... Dutchman Dirk Groeneboer asks how old the kapok is. “We can’t determine the age,” says our guide, park ranger Hannah Madden... “There are no growth rings on tropical trees,” she adds, “because there are no seasons.”
I had never thought of that.  It would also affect the appearance of furniture, walls, artwork, and anything else made of such wood.

Addendum:  AM found a report published in Nature in 2006 indicating that xrays of tropical wood can reveal annular variations in calcium density that may be useful for estimating age of some types of wood.

(Reposted from 2013 for Arbor Day 2015) 

Puhala tree seed pod

Photo via Teachings of Reason and Radiolab, neither of which provide credit re the original photographer and source.  I think I tracked it to colleeninhawaii.

(Reposted from 2013 for Arbor Day 2015) 

The "urban forest" of Minneapolis

American Forests offers a list of "The Ten Best Cities for Urban Forests" in the United States.  Among them is my old stomping ground:
Minneapolis can now add the credential of having one of the top urban forests. The City of Lakes is home to an abundance of varied parkland — a park every six blocks — including those designed for off-road cycling and those for hiking, canoeing and swimming. Minneapolis’ tree canopy of 31 percent is only 6.5 percent shy of its potential canopy of 37.5 percent based on geographic information system (GIS) analysis and modeling. Minneapolis was actually one of the first cities to use the U.S. Forest Service’s iTree assessment tool to determine the benefits of its urban forest. Today, it’s estimated that the city’s urban forest has a structural value of $756 million and also reduces energy use by $216,000 per year.
The photo shows Minnehaha Creek above the falls, by zuluadams, via Stuff about Minneapolis.

(Reposted from 2013 for Arbor Day 2015) 

You can see why it's called a "bloodwood" tree

"The bloodwood tree (Pterocarpus angolensis) is a deciduous, spreading and slightly flat-crowned tree with a high canopy. It reaches about 15 metres in height and has dark bark. The bloodwood grows in warm areas in the northeast of Africa, extending into Zimbabwe, northern Botswana, Mozambique and Namibia. The red sap is used traditionally as a dye and in some areas mixed with animal fat to make a cosmetic for faces and bodies."
Source, via The Soul is Bone.

(Reposted from 2013 for Arbor Day 2015) 

"One could do worse than be a swinger of birches"

WHEN I see birches bend to left and right
Across the line of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy's been swinging them.
But swinging doesn't bend them down to stay.
Ice-storms do that. Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun's warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust—
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You'd think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun. 
But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
(Now am I free to be poetical?)
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows—
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.
One by one he subdued his father's trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches;
And so I dream of going back to be.
It's when I'm weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig's having lashed across it open.
I'd like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate wilfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth's the right place for love:
I don't know where it's likely to go better.
I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches."
Here's a photo for those not familar with the effects of ice storms on birch trees -

- and a video of young boys swinging from birches (effectively ends at 1:40):

Frost video via The Dish.  Boldface and spaces in text added for clarity and emphasis.

(Reposted from 2013 for Arbor Day 2015) 

The world's tallest palm trees

These are wax palms (palma de cera), photographed in Colombia's Cocora Valley by Alex Treadway for National Geographic.
Under ideal growing conditions the wax palm can grow to a height of 50 meters (160 ft)—or rarely, even as high as 60 meters (200 ft)—making it the tallest palm and by extension the tallest monocot in the world...

The palm is recognized as the national tree of Colombia, and since the implementation of Law 61 of 1985 it is legally a protected species in that country. Ceroxylon quindiuense has an extremely slow growth and can live up to one hundred years...
(Reposted from 2013 for Arbor Day 2015)

Pruned by the wind

A curiously-shaped tree in Denmark, photographed by Marianne Kjolner.  The correspondence to the shape of the adjacent house reflects the pruning effects of near-constant wind on the coast.

Via Nag on the Lake, where there is another photo of the tree fully leafed-out.

(Reposted from 2014 for Arbor Day 2015). 

The Rainbow Eucalyptus

This tree is also grown for ornamental purposes, due to the showy multi-coloured streaks that cover the trunk. Patches of outer bark are shed annually at different times, showing the bright-green inner bark. This then darkens and matures to give blue, purple, orange and then maroon tones.
Another half-dozen photos are assembled at Kuriositas.

(Reposted from 2011 for Arbor Day 2014). 

With malus for everyone

The apple and crabapple trees (malus sp.) were in full this past week at the university's arboretum, and in our front yard.  When the blossoms fall, I get a sense of how conquering emperors might have felt walking down a path strewn with flower petals.

(Reposted from 2011 for Arbor Day 2014).

Addendum 2016: 

Two more nice examples from the arboretum, and an accelerated blossom loss at home after prolonged rains this year:

One more addendum.  You've seen the beauty of the crabapple in the front garden.  Here's the downside:

This is a very "messy" tree.  Originally planted well away from the sidewalk, it has grown and spread its canopy significantly.  The crabapples fall in the autumn, and again in the spring when the new blossoms are starting to emerge, and they stain the concrete.

23 April 2015

Hatton Garden heist

When I read that the burglars at the Hatton Garden vault robbery had gone through a concrete wall, I imagined men with sledgehammers.  This photo of the crime scene is mind-boggling.  That's 20 inches of concrete.

More photos, and a schematic diagram of the caper, at The Telegraph.

Modern-day Russian roulette

22 April 2015

The prologue to Jurassic Park

Posted for Earth Day:
You think man can destroy the planet? What intoxicating vanity. Let me tell you about our planet. Earth is four-and-a-half-billion-years-old. There’s been life on it for nearly that long, 3.8 billion years. Bacteria first; later the first multicellular life, then the first complex creatures in the sea, on the land.

Then finally the great sweeping ages of animals, the amphibians, the dinosaurs, at last the mammals, each one enduring millions on millions of years, great dynasties of creatures rising, flourishing, dying away — all this against a background of continuous and violent upheaval. Mountain ranges thrust up, eroded away, cometary impacts, volcano eruptions, oceans rising and falling, whole continents moving, an endless, constant, violent change, colliding, buckling to make mountains over millions of years.

Earth has survived everything in its time. It will certainly survive us. If all the nuclear weapons in the world went off at once and all the plants, all the animals died and the earth was sizzling hot for a hundred thousand years, life would survive, somewhere: under the soil, frozen in Arctic ice. Sooner or later, when the planet was no longer inhospitable, life would spread again. The evolutionary process would begin again. It might take a few billion years for life to regain its present variety.

Of course, it would be very different from what it is now, but the earth would survive our folly, only we would not. If the ozone layer gets thinner, ultraviolet radiation sears the earth, so what? Ultraviolet radiation is good for life. It’s powerful energy. It promotes mutation, change. Many forms of life will thrive with more UV radiation. Many others will die out. Do you think this is the first time that’s happened? Think about oxygen. Necessary for life now, but oxygen is actually a metabolic poison, a corrosive gas, like fluorine.

When oxygen was first produced as a waste product by certain plant cells some three billion years ago, it created a crisis for all other life on earth. Those plants were polluting the environment, exhaling a lethal gas. Earth eventually had an atmosphere incompatible with life. Nevertheless, life on earth took care of itself. In the thinking of the human being a hundred years is a long time.

A hundred years ago we didn’t have cars, airplanes, computers or vaccines. It was a whole different world, but to the earth, a hundred years is nothing. A million years is nothing. This planet lives and breathes on a much vaster scale. We can’t imagine its slow and powerful rhythms, and we haven’t got the humility to try. We’ve been residents here for the blink of an eye. If we’re gone tomorrow, the earth will not miss us." 
Via Scribd, although I couldn't find the quote in the Google Books version of Jurassic Park.  It may have been written for the Jurassic Park/Congo compilation.

George Carlin expressed a similar sentiment more vehemently.

"Color Tiles" game - updated

Here's why I'm not blogging this morning.

The image above is a just a screencap of my best score.  The game is here.

Like all the great flash games found by Miss Cellania and posted at Neatorama, this one has a very simple interface, only one rule, and wastes an inordinate amount of one's time.

Please feel free to post your high scores in the Comments, and someone please let us know if there's a second level or if an improved version becomes available.

Addendum:  There is no second level.  A tip of the gaming hat to reader RolandT, who achieved the elusive "200" score:

You can read his strategy suggestions in the Comments.

21 April 2015


There is an "i" in the middle of the word "hurricane."

At the Oxford University Press blog, Phil Mackowiak reviews the evidence for the cause of Beethoven's deafness (and for his multiple other medical problems).

A man who loved his guns (a Colt target pistol, two skeet guns, and a pristine Smith & Wesson Police .38 Special) reports his experience selling them.

A brief video documents a farm cat who breast-fed a group of ducklings.

A BBC website allows you to search through 212,790 paintings

For those (few) people who have difficulty getting the shell off a hard-boiled egg, a video offers a handy trick.

Dangerous Minds offers a gallery of photos of Victorian women of color (example at right).

More than you ever needed to know about the growth of fingernails (and why they grow faster than toenails).

"Porn watchers everywhere are being tracked, and if software engineer Brett Thomas is right, it would be easy to out them, along with an extensive list of every clip they’ve viewed."

The Powers of Ten video is a classic from the 1960s.  "From a picnic blanket near [the lakefront in] Chicago out past the Virgo Cluster of Galaxies, every ten seconds the film zooms out to show a square a factor of ten times larger on each side. The video then reverses, zooming back in a factor of ten every two seconds and ends up inside a single proton."

Thomas Jefferson argued that because no generation has a right to bind subsequent generations, the Constitution should expire every 19 years.

Prior to his resurrection, Christ descended to the underworld -- a paradox most churches prefer not to confront.

A column at the Washington Post discusses gun deaths involving children.

The phrase "no, totally" means "yes." See also this discussion at Language Log.

Seven videos of dominoes falling.

A toilet plunger is different from a sink plunger (image at left).

Robert Reich offers the opinion that wealthy individuals and corporations who donate to universities, churches, and non-profit groups are "buying the silence" of those entities.  "It’s a matter of big money influencing what should and should not be investigated, revealed, and discussed – especially when it comes to the tightening nexus between concentrated wealth and political power, and how that power further enhances great wealth."

Regulation has reduced motor-vehicle-related deaths, while gun deaths have continued to increase.  The national numbers are about equal now, and in seventeen states, guns kill more people than cars do, even though 90% of people have cars, but only a third have guns.

Video of a spiral escalator.

The alley-oop basketball pass of the year (high-school, not pro).

How to debunk the 1%'s arguments about trickle-down economics, job creation, entrepreneurship, and the "deserving" of wealth.

A dead alkaline battery will bounce; a fully-charged one will not.

In 1856, an 18-year-old girl arrived at Fort Yuma, California. Her name was Olive Oatman, and after years of captivity with the Mojave, she was being traded to her brother for beads, blankets, and a white horse. The white crowd cheered as she reunited with her family. But Olive Oatman’s return was marked by suspicion and doubt, just as her face was marked with a distinctive blue Mojave tattoo... [image cropped for size]

Why I don't swim in the ocean.

Here's the logic puzzle about birthdays that recently went viral.  When you give up, here is the answer.

A man tattoos anesthetized pigs with images of Disney princesses, then kills them to sell their tattooed skins.  "The animals' skins were sold for up to £55,000 apiece, with one canvas featuring Disney characters sold to Chanel and made into two bags."

Two-minute video of a Canadian pulling off an "epic" curling kill shot in the tenth frame to give Newfounland a victory over Alberta.

Unanswered questions about the Oklahoma City bombing.  "Despite the government’s insistence that the case has been solved, we don’t know the exact origin of the plot or how many people carried it out... We don’t know how McVeigh and Nichols learned to build a fertiliser bomb of such size and power... We don’t know the identities of the other people seen with McVeigh on the morning of the bombing – only that more than 20 eyewitnesses were unanimous in telling the FBI he was not alone... There is no ready explanation for a different Ryder truck seen by witnesses at McVeigh’s motel..."

The "most demanding first birthday invitation ever."

Top image: Scheelite and Fluorite on Muscovite - Mt Xuebaoding, Pingwu Co., Mianyang Prefecture, Sichuan Province, China.  Via Minerals, Minerals, Minerals!
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