30 January 2016

The library of John V of Portugal

I've been reading about eighteenth-century Portugal in This Gulf of Fire: The Destruction of Lisbon, or Apocalypse in the Age of Science and Reason, by Mark Molesky.  More about the book after the weekend, but I wanted to share this enticing description of the royal library:
During Joao V's reign, entire manuscript collections were purchased in France and England, and many works were sent by the authors themselves.  In addition to priceless documents pertaining to the history of Portugal and illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages (such as French King Francis I's Book of Hours and a history of the Jewish Wars by Flavius Josephus), there was an early Bible printed in Mainz in 1462, all 120 volumes of the Atlas Boendermaker, the first printed edition of Giovanni Balbi de Genoa's Catholicon (a Latin dictionary), in addition to etchings by Rembrandt and Rubens, and prints after Michelangelo, Titian, and Rafael.  One two-volume book contained 1,439 etchings by the fearless chronicler of the Thirty Years War, Jacques Callot.  In order to provide the king with a comprehensive overview of European art, prints and engravings were acquired by the thousands.  Bound in volumes of red morocco and stamped in gold with Dom Joao's coat of arms, the print collection became one of the central focuses of the library and was considered one of the foremost treasures of Europe.

Similar attention was given to decoration.  The walls were covered with oil paintings by Van Dyck, Rembrandt, Jan Breughel de Velours, Paul Bril, Rubens, Luca Giordano, Filippo Lauri, David Teniers the Elder, and Francesco Albani.  To provide illumination, gargantuan candelabras with yellow candles were statioined throughout.  There were giant terrestrial and celestial globes, rare clocks, an armillary sphere, pendulums to determine longitude, as well as an assortment of telescopes and other state-of-the-art astronomical and mathematical devices...
I'll blog more about the fate of the library later (though it can be inferred from the title of the book).

Image: "John V of Portugal Pompeo Batoni" Attributed to Pompeo Batoni - Own work, 2011-07-19. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

"Membership libraries" still exist

As explained at Quartz:
Public libraries are a relatively new phenomenon. Before the 1880s, when Andrew Carnegie started funding the more than 1,600 library buildings that bear his name, most libraries in America were subscription-based, with members funding and shaping the collections. As free public libraries sprouted up across the United States, membership libraries mostly died off, but 19 non-profit membership libraries still exist, and are reinventing themselves as cultural centers and the coolest coworking spaces you could dream of.

I’m an itinerant freelance writer and work most of the year in Cincinnati, where I discovered the Mercantile Library a few years ago, when it was hosting a small concert. The majestic space immediately appealed to my aesthetics, but I had no idea of its history. The Mercantile was founded in 1835 as a young merchants’ association library—the collection is generalist, though early on there was a ban on novels that has since been reversed. The original cast iron and walnut newspaper reading desks remain in the building that the association secured with a 10,000-year lease for $1 annually.
Membership in the Mercantile Library is $55/year.  Even with that incredible lease, there is no way that such dues can cover maintenance and staff expenses.  They must have an immense endowment. 

There is a list of other membership libraries at the link; check there to see if one is available near you.

28 January 2016

Bean weevils

Yesterday, my wife was in the process of preparing one of her multi-bean soups when she noticed some unusual material in a bag of South American red beans (above).  At first glance the debris looked very much like the frass that she and I are used to encountering with our caterpillars, but no larvae were present; the dark dots were the dead insects -

She got on the internet and immediately tracked down the culprit: bean weevils.  Then it was my turn to get out my Christmas present (a digital microscope), with which I got some nice photos of the malefactors:

The images show the beans with small and large holes.  I assumed the small holes were the sites of insertion of ovipositors, but no - these are the entrance sites of the first instar larvae.   Weevils lay their eggs on the outside of the beans; when the larvae hatch, they burrow into a nearby bean and consume it from the inside.

When they are mature, they eat their way out.  Or try to get out...

I found a nice report about them in a blog about Gardening in Mannheim, Germany, and a very thorough discussion of "pantry pests" at the extension service of the University of Minnesota.

And finally, this interesting observation:
A substantial amount of Third World hunger could be alleviated if farmers would shake their beans. Even carefully stored, they remain vulnerable to weevils. Weevil larvae bore through a bean's tough outer coat and feed inside the seeds; it takes a larva 24-48 hours of nearly continuous scraping to pierce the hull of the average bean. During that time, the insect braces itself against another bean or the side of the container for leverage. Michigan State grad student Martha Quentin tried jostling the beans; buckets or bags of beans shaken twice a day for two weeks had 97% fewer weevils. Larvae either starved or were crushed by the tumbling. The same procedure works on another less serious agricultural pest "thus helping also to control the lesser to two weevils." -- Washington Post, 9/19/91 
Interesting not just for the logic and simplicity of the solution, but for the remarkable location where I found this.   As we say, you learn something every day.  (and then you forget it...)

Some Chicago police officers sabotage their dashcams

Last month the CPD [Chicago Police Department] found that 80 percent of its 850 dash cams do not record audio, and 12 percent don’t record video either. The CPD has blamed the failures on "operator error or in some cases intentional destruction," and a close reading of that review by DNAinfo Chicago reveals the extent of the latter. Officers frequently tampered with dash cams, stashing microphones in their glove boxes or pulling out batteries. Some dash cams were found with their antennae deliberately destroyed, and others had had their microphones removed altogether.

DNAinfo also describes a months-long repair time for dash cams that experienced “intentional destruction.” For example: Jason Van Dyke, the officer who shot and killed McDonald and has been charged with first-degree murder, brought in his dash cam in early 2014 to have a wiring problem fixed, and got it back three months later, on June 17. The very next day, the dash cam was broken again. This time it took until October 8 to fix what appeared to be intentional damage. Less than two weeks later, his dash-cam footage of the McDonald shooting (which differs from the viral video we all saw) had no sound. Police records show that the microphones in his car had never been synced up to the camera. 
More information at NY Magazine, via the Reddit discussion thread.

Roman coins found in Somerset

Mark Copsey, 44, was levelling a recreation ground for a hockey pitch [in Somerset] when he spotted something in the soil.

He found a collection of 3,339 silver coins carrying depictions of an elephant and a hippopotamus buried around 270AD. Mr Copsey immediately scooped them up and put them in a plastic carrier bag - and an inquest has ruled he will now be entitled to a third of their value...

"When I'm driving it's a health and safety rule to look behind me as well, that's how I spotted them.  The 'dozer took the top off the pot before I knew it was there, I'm afraid it'll do that every time...

Experts say the coins were made during a time of inflation and their discovery triggered an archaeological investigation that revealed a small Roman settlement. Experts established that the coins were from the 2nd-3rd centuries AD, with 164 being dinarii, (ok) four brass sestertii, and the rest radiates. The museum's laboratory found that some coins had been stacked and carefully bound in textile, and string, some of which remained. Some of the coins carried the heads of empresses, and others emperors, including Philip I, born in Syria of a Syrian father, around 204AD...

The finder and landowner are entitled to an equal share of the market value.  
Further details at The Telegraph.  I'm impressed by the high relief on the coins, which look freshly minted.


He has also posted a video "How I got burned."

Image and text via imgur.

27 January 2016

White lion. And a giraffe.

When I saw this photo, I thought it was a picture of a toy. I don't have time to blog the details today; if you're interested, you can read about white lions at Wikipedia. A couple items to note:
  • Like the leucistic alligator I featured earlier this week, this is another white animal that is NOT an albino. The whiteness in lions is caused by a recessive gene for a color inhibitor.
  • They are not common in nature because the whiteness serves as a selective disadvantage during hunting.
  • They have been considered divine by local aboriginal populations.
Photo credit here, via.

Reposted from 2009 to add this photo of a leucistic giraffe:

“Omo is leucistic, meaning many of the skin cells are incapable of making a pigment. Some are, so she is pale but not pure white, with red or blue eyes, as a true albino would be,” he explained.
“Omo is the only pale giraffe we are currently aware of, but we have also observed leucistic waterbuck, Cape buffalo and ostrich in Tarangire
She will probably be killed by a hunter.

Photo credit: Derek Lee/Caters News.

An "intercourse resume"

I was reading in my recent issue of Harper's a review of a new book of the letters Vladimir Nabokov wrote to his wife over the course of a 50-year marriage.  I was startled by the following casual observation:
[The Nabokovs] were born in St. Petersburg — he in 1899, she in 1902 — and both were de-citizened by revolution in 1917. Before their marriage in 1925, Vladimir, following a tradition among Russian litterateurs, handed over an intercourse résumé. Here’s everybody. It contained twenty-eight names.
I had never heard of such a tradition.   Does it continue, or is there a modern counterpart? (Googling the two words leads one wildly astray...)


"If you think running a marathon is a feat in itself, imagine doing an ultra-marathon up a mountain. At "The Rut Mountain Race" in Big Sky, Montana, nearly 400 athletes from around the world gathered to compete across 31 miles. They cover more than 10,000 feet of elevation. The sport is known as skyrunning."
Posted for Skip, a friend up in northern Minnesota, who has competed in the Rut Mountain Race.  Awesome.

Using Panko to prepare walleye fishcakes

Walleye is of course best eaten as a fillet, but if you are preparing it as fishcakes, the following tip might be useful (recipe at the link):
In order to have the subtle, delicious flavors of walleye shine through in these cakes, I chose to use panko bread crumbs instead of regular or “Italian-style” bread crumbs, which potentially can alter the innate taste of some dishes.

Additionally, while panko bread crumbs don’t absorb liquids as readily as regular bread crumbs — which means more panko is required to bind mixtures — they also don’t absorb grease as easily and remain crispier longer.
Some background:
Panko is a variety of flaky bread crumb used in Japanese cuisine as a crunchy coating for fried foods, such as tonkatsu. Panko is made from bread baked by electrical current, which yields a bread without a crust, and then grinding the bread to create fine slivers of crumb. It has a crisper, airier texture than most types of breading found in Western cuisine and resists absorbing oil or grease when fried, resulting in a lighter coating. Outside Japan, its use is becoming more popular in both Asian and non-Asian dishes: It is often used on fish and seafood.

Winnie the Pooh's toothless skull to go on display

The skull of the bear that inspired AA Milne to write Winnie the Pooh has gone on public display for the first time.

The cuddly fictional bear was named after a Canadian black bear called Winnie that son Christopher Robin enjoyed visiting and feeding honey in London Zoo during the Twenties.

Winnie died in 1934 but her skull was preserved by the Royal College of Surgeons and is now being exhibited in its Hunterian Museum in London. So many children fed her sweet treats that she lost many teeth in old age.
Yes, I know it's not Winnie the Pooh's skull, but I prefer this title.  And Winnie the Pooh also ate lots of "hunny," so may also have become edentulous.

"The Idol" (North Yorkshire)

Brimham Rocks are balancing rock formations on Brimham Moor in North Yorkshire, England. The rocks stand at a height of nearly 30 metres in an area owned by the National Trust which is part of the Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Photo credit: Penny Mayes Photos with people for scale.

Another movie theater shooting

With a twist -
Police say the man suspected of accidentally shooting a stranger at a Renton movie theater told them he carried a firearm because he feared mass shootings.

Dane Gallion, 29, told officers he took the gun to Regal Cinemas 14 at the Landing on Thursday night because he was “concerned about recent mass shootings in public places,” according to a police account in a probable-cause statement released Saturday.

That same anxiety prompted him to keep the gun unholstered in his waistband, the statement says...

Police said Gallion told them he had taken medicine for anxiety in the morning and that he’d had a pizza and a 22-ounce beer before the movie.
I'm going to close comments for this post because I know what they will be. 

I'm waiting to see whether he and his family will pay for the medical expenses of the woman he shot and whether he will be punished with anything other than a severe reprimand and a requirement to attend gun-safety classes.

24 January 2016

This man found Atlantis. In Sweden.

This week I browsed through an interesting biography of Olof Rudbeck, a seventeenth-century physician in Sweden.  He was undoubtedly a brilliant man and one of the discoverers of the existence of the lymphatic system.  The book focuses on his forays into archaeology and ancient history.  He became convinced that the area of Old Uppsala was the location of the fabled Atlantis.
Between 1679 and 1702, Rudbeck dedicated himself to contributions in historical-linguistics patriotism, writing a 3,000-page treatise in four volumes called Atlantica (Atland eller Manheim in Swedish) where he purported to prove that Sweden was Atlantis, the cradle of civilization, and Swedish the original language of Adam from which Latin and Hebrew had evolved. His work was criticized by several Scandinavian authors, including the Danish professor Ludvig Holberg, and the Swedish author and physician Andreas Kempe, both of whom wrote satires based on Rudbeck's writings. His work was later used by Denis Diderot in the article "Etymologie" in Encyclopédie as a cautionary example of deceptive linking of etymology with mythical history.
It is an interesting book.  I have not flagged it for inclusion in TYWKIWDBI's subcategory of recommended books, but it would probably be an enjoyable read for those with a prior interest in archaeology, history, or Sweden.

Rudbeck has, however, left us one lasting legacy.  Linnaeus applied the name Rudbeckia to a genus of sunflowers, in honor of his botany teacher at Uppsala (Olof's son).  Here are some black-eyed Susans photographed during a butterfly hike last summer.

Planet X found

The term "Planet X" has a variety of meanings and uses.  After the discovery of Neptune, Percival Lowell "proposed the Planet X hypothesis to explain apparent discrepancies in the orbits of the giant planets, particularly Uranus and Neptune, speculating that the gravity of a large unseen ninth planet could have perturbed Uranus enough to account for the irregularities."
Today, the astronomical community widely agrees that Planet X, as originally envisioned, does not exist, but the concept of Planet X has been revived by a number of astronomers to explain other anomalies observed in the outer Solar System. In popular culture, and even among some astronomers, Planet X became a stand-in term for any undiscovered planet in the outer Solar System, regardless of its relationship to Lowell's hypothesis.  
This week, good evidence was reported for the existence of such a previously-undiscovered planet.  I've seen it referred to as Planet X or as Planet IX.

The embedded video gives a broad overview.  This article in Science provides more details.  Even more amazing than the existence of the planet is its extraordinary orbit:

In the schematic, the entire known solar system is represented by the small blue circle in the center (magnified in an offset in the upper part of the image).
The orbit of the inferred planet is similarly tilted, as well as stretched to distances that will explode previous conceptions of the solar system. Its closest approach to the sun is seven times farther than Neptune, or 200 astronomical units (AUs). (An AU is the distance between Earth and the sun, about 150 million kilometers.) And Planet X could roam as far as 600 to 1200 AU, well beyond the Kuiper belt, the region of small icy worlds that begins at Neptune’s edge about 30 AU.
Mind-boggingly awesome.


Several nights ago I was reading the February issue of Smithsonian magazine, and encountered an interesting article about Venus flytraps.  I was surprised to learn that the distribution of this plant is limited to a small area along the Atlantic coast of the Carolinas, and despite this it is so famous that most people are quite familiar with it:
Thomas Jefferson collected them (during his stay in Paris in 1786, he requested a shipment of the seeds of “the Sensitive Plant,” perhaps to wow Parisians). A few decades later, Napoleon Bonaparte’s wife, the green-thumbed Empress Josephine, grew flytraps in the gardens of the Château de Malmaison, her manor house.
The plant was also the model, more or less, for "Audrey Junior," the carnivorous star of Little Shop of Horrors.

Now, about that name.  Smithsonian gives part of the story -
Live plants were first exported to England in 1768, where people referred to them as “tipitiwitchets.” A British naturalist, John Ellis, gave the plant its scientific name: Dionaea is a reference to Dione, mother of love goddess Venus (some believe this was a bawdy anatomical pun about the plant’s half-closed leaves and red insides), and muscipula means “mousetrap.”
I tracked down the rest of the story at Tipitiwitchet Explained:
Naturalists have long puzzled over the name Tipitiwitchet, given by John Bartram...  'Tippet' is a fur collar, in ordinary English, and Marlowe's 'Hempen tippet', a hangman's rope, is a poetic embellishment... A 'Twitch' is a noose for recalcitrant horses. 'Twitchers' are either pincers or tight boots; and, of course, 'Twitchety' is nervous, fidgety, jerky...

All these terms... parallel the term 'Snatch-box' that Partridge records as used for vulva in popular parlance.... Further, more specifically American, although the technique must be more widespread, a 'Twitch‑up' is a trap for small animals especially rabbits, consisting of a noose attached to a bent stick or sapling that springs upward when tripped.

Finally, vestiges of Elizabethan (and later) English... are heard from senior citizens at a mid-coast Maine hamlet - far from Tipitiwitchet country. They speak of 'Twitchet Avenue', disregarding both its present sanitized label and its presumed current lack of saleable feminine attractions...
And a final confirmation re the etymology from the website of the International Carnivorous Plant Society:
For while you might expect a scientist to express wonder or astonishment upon seeing the plant, Bartram wrote to Collinson on 29 August 1762 that "my little tipitiwitchet sensitive stimulates laughter in all ye beholders".  Surely, surely this suggests that when Bartram would show off his plant, he did so in such a way to inspire laughter. This seems to indicate that he was showing off the plant with rude commentary!..

The truth was exposed by a reading of a letter Peter Collinson (in England) sent to Bartram... He still hoped to get seeds from Arthur Dobbs... [but] Dobbs (73 years old) was no longer quite so interested in things such as this plant--as remarkable as it was--because he had just gotten married to a very, very, very young [15-year-old] girl.
"It is now in vain to write to him for seeds or plants of Tipitiwitchet now He has gott one of his Own to play with..."
And perhaps by ?coincidence or through etymological innocence -
"Beatrix Potter did use a similar word - tippity-twitchet - to describe a little girl, “a funny specimen ... a pretty little imp of eight or nine with yellow curls, in the neatest of little blue and pink combination knickerbockers riding a bicycle. A very tippity-twitchet.”
You learn something every day.

Reposted from 2010 to add information from an article in The Atlantic:
The first impulse sets a secret timer, and what the fly does in the next 20 seconds will determine its fate. If it avoids the hairs, it will live. If it bumps a second one, it sets off another electrical impulse, which raises the trap’s calcium levels above a critical threshold. The plant responds by sending water into its leaves, which rapidly change shape from convex (bent outwards) to concave (bent inwards)...

The third impulse raises the trap’s calcium levels even further, prompting it to produce a hormone called jasmonate. In many plants, jasmonate is a touch hormone, which is released by wounds and injuries and coordinates programs of defense and repair. In the Venus fly trap, jasmonate doubles as a carnivory hormone. It primes the gland cells in the trap to start making digestive enzymes, which they finally do once they detect a fifth electrical impulse...

The fluid inside the trap becomes incredibly acidic, dropping to a pH of 2...

... the trap is also lined with chemical sensors. These can detect the chitin in the fly’s shell and the substances in its blood. So, as long as the plant can taste something to digest, it will keep digesting.
Addendum:  A tip of the blogging hat to an anonymous reader who sent along the link for a podcast at Criminal about the underground black market for Venus flytraps [warning: depressing]--
Every year for the past few years, tens of thousand of flytraps have gone missing – from the wild, from gardens, from nurseries. And, really, nobody knows where they go. What’s cropped up in rural North Carolina is essentially a Venus Flytrap crime ring — with lackies, middle men, and a mysterious end buyer who’s perpetuating the market.

Haka for a Maori wedding

This is what was missing from your wedding.

Addendum:  An interesting comment from the bride that is worth noting: "Ben is a Maori, he is probably more Maori than I am."  People are apparently misled in that regard by his fair skin and features.  I was.

Via Neatorama.

Are university degrees "becoming irrelevant" ?

Some companies apparently think so:
This week, international publishing house Penguin Random House decided to drop degrees as a requirement for job applicants, following in the footsteps of major consulting firms Ernst and Young and PricewaterhouseCoopers.

The move comes as smaller employers are shifting away from hiring graduates or university students, believing kids are coming out of university with “no real skills” or simply being taught the wrong things.

Penguin hasn’t been so harsh, saying the shift in requirements is simply a move “to make publishing far, far more inclusive than it has been to date”.

“While graduates remain welcome to apply for jobs, not having been through higher education will no longer preclude anyone from joining,” a statement from the publisher confirmed.

“Simply if you’re talented and you have potential, we want to hear from you.”

Retirement plan

23 January 2016

"Treewells" and "snow immersion suffocation"

The video above documents the rescue of a skier from a treewell.  The following points are worth noting:
Point of clarification - This is real world stuff, raw and flawed. Everyone in this video is a recreational skier, an amateur in back country rescue. Even with a successful outcome, this rescue has mistakes and is not a representation of proper technique. The intent of this video is to demonstrate and educate people on the dangers of tree wells. NOT a demonstration on HOW to rescue someone from a tree well...

With a 15-20 foot snow pack in winter, a lesser known but of equal or greater danger [compared to an avalanche] are "tree wells" - a quicksand like funnel that forms from the far edge of tree branches, tapering down to the base of the trunk. Because the snow around the edge easily collapses, often one falls in... upside down. Once in, all sound is absorbed by the soft snow, screaming for help is useless and any movement draws you deeper down. Also, you are nearly invisible from searchers on the surface - they can't see or hear you and need to rely on the transceivers to locate you - all taking precious time.
The website Deep Snow Safety has an extensive page on the natural history of treewells.
A tree well is a void or depression that forms around the base of a tree can and contain a mix of low hanging branches, loose snow and air.  Evergreen trees in particular (fir, hemlock, etc) can have large, deep tree wells that form when low hanging branches block snow from filling in and consolidating around the base of the tree.  These voids can be hidden from view by the tree’s low hanging branches.

There is no easy way to identify if a particular tree has a dangerous tree well by sight therefore, treat all tree wells as dangerous. 
If you are ever planning to ski deep snow off groomed trails, you should read this page.   Many photos and practical tips at the link.

Addendum:  Video of a father rescuing his son from a treewell.  The kid was luck he landed upright and able to reach up an arm for the father to grab.

"The sight never palled..."

A couple months ago I was reading P. D. James' Death of an Expert Witness, when I encountered the phrase "The sight never palled..."

When I read, I always use for a bookmark a strip of firm paper (cut from old Christmas cards) wide enough to write words and notes on.  I have finally gotten around to looking up the phrase, which I couldn't quite parse at the time.  Is it related to "pale?"  What is "to pall?"

A Google search turned up the phrase "the sight never palled" in just a few other works (one by Frederick Forsyth), so I turned to some online etymology and dictionary sources:

As a verb: "become tiresome," 1700, from Middle English pallen "to become faint, fail in strength" (late 14c.), shortened form of appallen "to dismay, fill with horror or disgust."

As a noun: Old English pæll "rich cloth or cloak, purple robe, altar cloth," from Latin pallium "cloak, coverlet, covering," in Tertullian, the garment worn by Christians instead of the Roman toga; related to pallo "robe, cloak," palla "long upper garment of Roman women," perhaps from the root of pellis "skin." Notion of "cloth spread over a coffin" (mid-15c.) led to figurative sense of "dark, gloomy mood" (1742).

Now it's becoming clearer - pallbearers.

The Online Free Dictionary goes into more detail.  In addition to "become tiresome" the word may indicate to "become distasteful or unpleasant" or "to satiate or cloy."

Now, on to the other words.  The novel started with a murder in a "clunch pit."  The image at the top of the post is of the wall of a chapel in Surrey with a checkerboard pattern of clunch and flint.
Clunch is a traditional building material of chalky limestone rock used mainly in eastern England and Normandy. Clunch distinguishes itself from archetypal forms of limestone by being softer in character when cut, such as resembling chalk in lower density, or with minor clay-like components. [although note:] The term has been sometimes used more generically, in other parts of England for any soft and aggregate-based vernacular building stone which has been used as a cheaper, inferior substitute for stronger stone.
One of the characters in the book was wearing a twinset - "a matching set of a cardigan and a (usually) short-sleeved jumper or pullover. The twinset first appeared in the 1940s and is now considered a classic wardrobe staple.
Twinsets have been associated most closely with women's work wardrobes during the 1950s and 1960s, particularly in secretarial work or teaching, but were occasionally viewed as too casual for more conservative workplaces where dress suits were preferred. However, their popularity was largely driven by Hollywood stars such as Grace Kelly, Marilyn Monroe, and Audrey Hepburn who were frequently seen wearing them on and off the set.
And finally, moquette.
Moquette, derived from the French word for carpet, is a type of woven pile fabric in which cut or uncut threads form a short dense cut or loop pile. As well as giving it a distinctive velvet like feel, the pile construction is particularly durable, and ideally suited to applications such as public transport... Moquette is famous for being used on London Transport's vehicles, particularly the seats of London Underground's Tube trains. During the decades of the many railway companies, there were some ten moquette manufacturers in the UK.
You learn something every day.

20 January 2016

Before there were plastic credit cards

"Charge plates, often called Charga-Plates, are the predecessors to credit cards. Used until the early '60s, charge plates are made of aluminum or white metal plates. They are about the size of a dog tag and are embossed with the customer's name and address. The back side has a paperboard insert with the issuer's name and the cardholder's signature. Charga-plates were issued mostly by department stores, but also by a few oil companies and store associations. They were sometimes kept in the stores and retrieved by the clerk when an authorized user made a purchase. A charge plate is more valuable with its case. Between 300 and 500 different ones are estimated to exist."
Text from the American Credit Card Collectors Society, via.  Image via imgur and Reddit.

I'm old enough to remember charga-plates, but not old enough to remember charge coins, first issued in 1865 (!!) and discussed here.
"The coins are the oldest, and there's also a group called celluloids. Celluloids and coins were around in the turn of the last century. I find the coins the most interesting: You have them from most of the major department stores from the last century up until around the 1950s... There are some credit coins worth hundreds of dollars now."..

Celebrity credit cards are also a hot item amongst collectors. In October 2005, Heritage Auctions acquired Henry Fonda's Texaco Credit Card from 1953 from his son, Peter Fonda. It was sold for only $95.60, most likely because it was unsigned. Auctioneers Butterfield & Butterfield sold Elvis Presley's American Express card from the early 1970s several years ago at a jaw-dropping $41,400.
You learn something every day.  I'll need to keep my eyes open the next time I visit our local auctioneer.

"Ants on a stick" math puzzle

Four red ants and two black ants are walking along the edge of a one metre stick. The four red ants, called Alf, Bert, Derek and Ethel, are all walking from left to right as we look at the diagram, and the two black ants, Charlie and Freda, are walking from right to left.

The ants always walk at exactly one centimetre per second. Whenever they bump into another ant, they immediately turn around and walk in the other direction. And whenever they get to the end of a stick, they fall off.

Alf starts at the left hand end of the stick, while Bert starts 20.2 cm from the left, Derek is at 38.7cm, Ethel is at 64.9cm and Freda is at 81.8cm.

Charlie’s position is not known - all we know is that he starts somewhere between Bert and Derek.
So here is the puzzle: Which ant is the last to fall off the stick? And how long will it be before he or she does fall off?
It's not actually that difficult.  You can solve it in your head if you start with the right conceptual framework (true of so many math puzzles).  For the purposes of the puzzle, the length of an ant is assumed to be zero.

The answer is at The Guardian.

"Charlie's dead"

You learn something every day. A BBC article about a new fashion trend of exposing underwear as outerwear included this tidbit:
When I was at school, the whispered warning "Charlie's dead" alerted a girl to the fact that her petticoat was showing...

There are various theories as to where that curious phrase came from. It seems to date from World War II, and my own favourite explanation is that in the 1940s, the window-blinds were lowered whenever there was a death in the house.

The dipping half-slip was like a lowered window-shade. More fanciful versions involving Bonny Prince Charlie or Charles II, are, I am afraid, historically implausible...
A Google search yields about 3000 hits for "Charlie's dead," including some referring to expired pet goldfish. These are the only relevant bits I could find ...

In my youth, we used to say "It's raining in Paris" in such circumstances. I have no idea why. The French said "Tu cherche une belle-mere" (you're looking for a mother-in-law) which makes much more sense.

"It's snowing down south" is listed in Eric Partridge's "Dictionary of Catch Phrases American and British." Partridge says it's Australian, current during the late 1940s and the 1950s "but rapidly less since then," and it may have reached Australia from the U.S. It was known in the U.S. as early as the 1930s, Partridge says.

found some other sayings: Mrs White is out of Jail, Saturdays longer than Sunday.

"Your cat's died!" was an expression said when I was a child to mean a girl/ladies petticoat was showing below their skirt/dress or it meant a boy/man's trousers were too short. [???]

And a restaurant on Petticoat Lane details the Prince Charlie/King Charles I/II theories.

Image credit here.

Addendum: I posted the above in 2008.  Now in 2016 I finally decided to see what the Dictionary of American Regional English has to offer on the subject.  In 1965-1970 they tallied about 800 responses to the question "What expressions are used around here to warn a woman slyly that her slip is showing?"  The most common responses were "You're slipping" or "Your slip is showing."  Of interest, I note "Got your P.H.D." (presumably "petticoat hanging down"), various references to "snow," to "Mrs. White," to "daddy/father/papa," and to "cotton."  There were only 5 citations to Charlie ("dead" or "showing"), which reinforces my own opinion that the phrase has a British rather than American etiology.

17 January 2016

Stars out of focus show their true colors

This photo posted by NASA at APOD reminds us that stars have colors.
Captured in June from the north rim of the Grand Canyon of planet Earth, the shallow, close focus image has rendered pine needles on the tree branch sharp, but blurred the distant stars, their light smeared into remarkably colorful disks. Of course, temperature determines the color of a star. Most of the out-of-focus bright stars of Scorpius show a predominately blue hue, their surface temperatures much hotter than the Sun's. Cooler and larger than the Sun, and noticably redder on the scene, is giant star Antares at the heart of the scorpion. In focused, telescopic views the whitish disk at the upper right would be immediately recognizable though, reflecting the Sun's light as ringed gas giant Saturn.

"Needs must when the devil drives"

I heard that phrase during the broadcast of the most recent "Sherlock" episode and had to look it up.  I found my answer at the always-intersting World Wide Words.
The expression does exist, and as it happens is one of the older proverbs in the language, somewhat predating the USA. Shakespeare uses it in All’s Well that Ends Well: “My poor body, madam, requires it: I am driven on by the flesh; and he must needs go that the devil drives”. However, it is actually older — the earliest I can find is in John Lydgate’s Assembly of Gods, written about 1420: “He must nedys go that the deuell dryves”.

The form you quote is the usual modern one, but it isn’t so easy to understand, as it is abbreviated and includes needs must, which is a semi-archaic fixed phrase — now effectively an idiom — meaning “necessity compels”. The Shakespearean wording makes the meaning clearer: if the devil drives you, you have no choice but to go, or in other words, sometimes events compel you to do something you would much rather not.

Here's what's inside a fire alarm

A toggle switch.

"World's smallest camera drone"

It does carry a 2GB memory card to record video, and is equipped with LED lights.  The flying range is not specified.

What I find most remarkable is that is offered for sale for $35.

Water ice confirmed on the surface of a comet

This apparently isn't unexpected, as this Reddit thread discusses.  But it still boggles my own mind, since I spent the first half-dozen decades of my life believing that water in any form would sublimate instantly and could therefore not exist in an object traveling through a vacuum.

And it is water ice, btw, not frozen methane of ammonia.

How to bet on a spinning penny

Bet on tails.  On a fresh, unworn, clean penny the odds may be 80:20 in your favor.  This doesn't apply to a coin flip, however.

An article at Smithsonian explains why.

14 January 2016

Wrestling class

In the sport of wrestling, "class" typically refers to a level of high-school competition or a weight category.  The Sioux City Journal documents another instance of "class" -
With the wrestling dual between Spencer and Estherville-Lincoln Central still in its early stages at Spencer Field House, Castro-Chavez stood behind Dan Hewitt, the Midgets' coach. The two of them suspected Spencer might not have a 220-pound wrestler for this match, as Roberts so solidly filled that spot in the lineup before his death on Dec. 19.
Roberts had won 14 matches to start his senior campaign, one that ended when he collapsed during the championship bout in the Spencer Tiger Invitational. He died a couple of hours later at Spencer Hospital.
Castro-Chavez was wrestling on the mat adjacent to Roberts' match that awful day. Castro-Chavez had lost to Roberts earlier in the season.
Still, he could have picked up a forfeit on Thursday, and put 6 points on the scoreboard for his team, which trailed Spencer, 22-3, at the time. Instead, he left his warm-ups on and his headgear tied to his waist. Rather than walk to the center of the mat to have his hand raised in victory by referee Bob Baxter, Castro-Chavez chose to [forfeit the match and] walk to the front row of the bleachers, where he hugged Austin Roberts' mother, Lori Roberts.
"I wanted to show Austin's family respect, because they are grieving," Castro-Chavez said. "I told Austin's mom that I wished I could wrestle Austin again, because he was such a good wrestler."
For those unfamiliar with the sport, this comment from the Reddit thread will help explain:
I think only people who wrestled in high school will understand the significance of this. For those that don't know, the rivalries in high school wrestling can be crazy intense. The good wrestlers are gonna be facing each other for 4 years at the sectional, regional, semi state, and state levels. I remember some of the best guys on the team going like 40-2 on the season and their only losses were to the same guys every single year. It says a lot about this kid to honor his rival like that.
Photo credit: Nate Shaughnessy.

British class system, 1937

"Toffs and Toughs is a 1937 photograph of five English boys: two dressed in the Harrow School uniform including waistcoat, top hat, boutonnière, and cane; and three nearby wearing the plain clothes of pre-war working class youths. The picture was taken by Jimmy Sime on 9 July 1937 outside the Grace Gates at Lord's Cricket Ground during the Eton v Harrow cricket match."

Using the periodic table to play "Battleship"

Karen Tripp modified the classic "Battleship" game for homeschooling purposes.
She created the game using four laminated copies of the Periodic Table which were labeled alphabetically by row and column, then inserted into two file folders [sheet protectors?] with jumbo paper clips.

“The kids can then mark where they want to place their ships by circling rows of 2, 3, 4, and 5 elements on the lower table.. They play by calling out coordinates. If they miss they put an X on the spot they chose on the upper table. If they get a hit, they circle it.”
Sadly, after coming up with this innovative idea, she then dumbed it down by labeling the rows A through H and the columns 1 through 18, so the children instead of calling out "phosphorus" or "cadmium" or "oxygen" just call out "D-11" or "F-4" or whatever.  An opportunity missed there, I think.

Blind librarians

"In my life I have received many unmerited honors, but there is one which has made me happier than all the others: the directorship of the [Argentinian] National Library...

I received the nomination at the end of 1955.  I was in charge of, I was told, a million books.  Later I found out it was nine hundred thousand - a number that's more than enough...

Little by little I came to realize the strange irony of events.  I had always imagined Paradise as a kind of library.  Others think of a garden or of a palace.  There I was, the center, in a way, of nine hundred thousand books in various languages, but I found I could barely make out the title pages and the spines...

(re Groussac, another blind library director)  But I knew that there had certainly been moments when our lives had coincided, since we both had become blind and we both loved books.  He honored literature with books far superior to mine.  But we were both men of letters, and we both passed through the library of forbidden books - one might say, for our darkened eyes, of blank books, books without letters.  I wrote of the irony of God...

At the time I did not know that there had been another director of the library who was blind, Jose Marmol.  Here appears the number three, which seals everything.  Two is a mere coincidence; three a confirmation.  A confirmation of a ternary order, a divine or theological confirmation...

---Jorge Luis Borges, in his essay "Blindness," in Seven Nights

When I read these comments I couldn't help but be reminded of the classic Twilight Zone episode "Time Enough At Last."

Photobombed by a horse

Image cropped for size from the original via Reddit, where the thread contains other examples.

"Christian atheism" explained

Excerpts from a religion page archived in 2006 by the BBC:

Essentials of non-realistic Christianity

  • Religion is about internal spiritual experiences, and that is all.
  • There is no world other than the material world around us.
  • There are no beings other than the living organisms on this planet or elsewhere in the universe.
  • There is no objective being or thing called God that exists separately from the person believing in him.
  • There is no 'ultimate reality' outside human minds either.
  • We give our own lives meaning and purpose; there is nothing outside us that does it for us.
  • God is a projection of the human mind.
  • "God" is the way human beings put 'spiritual' ideals into a poetic form that they are able to use and work with.
  • "God" is simply a word that stands for our highest ideals.


Worship and prayer

If there's no God out there, it might seem pointless to go to church, or to pray. Christian Atheists would disagree:

Worship is a beneficial activity. Worship in a group is good way for a community to:
  • communicate with each other
  • share ideals and ideas
  • explore the meaning and purpose of their individual lives, and the life of their community


Benefits of this form of belief

Those who who believe like this claim many advantages for it:
  • Humanity is forced to take responsibility for everything.
  • Human beings are seen as powerful and able to do things for themselves.
  • Religion no longer has to try to explain many difficult issues that go with believing in supernatural things.
  • Religion is no longer in opposition to scientific progress.

There are several more bullet points under these headings at the BBC.

Eight years

One forgets how very young he seemed at the start of his presidency.  One wonders what some of the current candidates might look like at the end of their term.

Before-and-after comparisons of ten other presidents here.

Photo via imgur.

11 January 2016

Don't bother harvesting your grandfather's gold fillings

About 25 years ago, when my father was dying of metastatic prostatic cancinoma, he told me bluntly to make sure to ask the mortician to extract his teeth so that I could have the gold fillings.  He had had a lot of reparative dental work done in the 1930s-40s and at about $400/oz didn't want to see the gold wasted.

When he did die, I was either too busy or too shy to bring the matter up to the mortician.  For the next several decades I wondered in the back of my mind whether some mortuary assistant with a pair of pliers had enriched himself at our expense.

This year my question was answered.  I had the opportunity to speak with a funeral director on an unrelated matter, and brought up the question that had been nagging at me for so long.  He laughed and noted that he was uniquely qualified to address the question, not because of his mortuary experience, but because his father was a dentist.

During his father's dental career, it was common practice to extract teeth, many of which had metal fillings, including gold.  Discarding the teeth into the environment was discouraged because of the heavy metals, so his father kept all the teeth he extracted in a large coffee can.  Then one day the office building burned down.  The family retrieved what they could from the office ruins, and in doing so found the coffee can with the organic material gone but the metal fillings fused into a solid mass.  They took the block to a metalworking company and were rewarded with the princely sum of ... three dollars.

His explanation was that gold itself is too soft to be used as a filling on a grinding surface.  "Gold" fillings are typically other amalgams colored with minuscule amounts of gold.  They are offered to the public as a cosmetic enhancement, not as a financial investment.

I'm not sure whether the same applies to often rather striking "gold teeth" one can see on a Google image search.

A related post from last year:  A concrete block filled with human teeth.

Photo credit:  Myteethnvd's Weblog.

Borges on blindness

"A writer, or any man, must believe that whatever happens to him is an instrument; everything has been given for an end. This is even stronger in the case of the artist. Everything that happens, including humiliations, embarrassments, misfortunes, all has been given like clay, like material for one's art. One must accept it. For this reason I speak in a poem of the ancient food of heroes: humiliation, unhappiness, discord. Those things are given to us to transform, so that we may make from the miserable circumstances of our lives things that are eternal, or aspire to be so.

If a blind man thinks this way, he is saved. Blindness is a gift. I have exhausted you with the gifts it has given me. It gave me Anglo-Saxon, it gave me some Scandinavian, it gave me a knowledge of a Medieval literature I had ignored, it gave me the writing of various books, good or bad, but which justified the moment in which they were written. Moreover, blindness has made me feel surrounded by the kindness of others. People always feel goodwill toward the blind.

I want to end with a line of Goethe: "alles Nahe werde fern," everything near becomes distant. Goethe was referring to the evening twilight. Everything near becomes distant. It is true. At nightfall, the things closest to us seem to move away from our eyes. So the visible world has moved away from my eyes, perhaps forever.

Goethe could be referring not only to twilight but to life. All things go off, leaving us. Old age is probably the supreme solitude—except that the supreme solitude is death. And “everything near becomes far” also refers to the slow process of blindness, of which I hoped to show, speaking tonight, that it is not a complete misfortune. It is one more instrument among the many—all of them so strange—that fate or chance provide.
--Jorge Luis Borges, in his essay "Blindness," in Seven Nights.

Class picture, 1970s

Source unspecified, via First Time User.

"Gandhi opposed the building of hospitals"

"Deussen - a disciple of Schopenhauer, who loved Buddhism so much - tells how in India he met a blind beggar and became friends with him.  The beggar told him: 'If I have been born blind, it is because of the sins committed in my previous life; it is just if I am blind.'  The people accept suffering.  Gandhi opposed the building of hospitals.  He said that hospitals and charitable works simply delay the paying of a debt.  One being cannot help another: if the others suffer, then they must suffer, to pay for a sin.  If I help them, then I am putting off their payment of this debt."
--Jorge Luis Borges, in his essay "Buddhism," in Seven Nights.

When I read this I was reminded of recent public controversy regarding the impending canonization of Mother Teresa.  In this Penn and Teller video, she is roundly criticized for her "cruelty," as she is in this Christopher Hitchens presentation.  Wikipedia devotes a page to these controversies.  The countervailing opinion is that criticism to Mother Teresa comes from opposition to her views opposing abortion, rather than to her insistence that the sick accept suffering.

So it's interesting to me to see Borges express a similar viewpoint re Mahatma Gandhi's approach to sickness and suffering.

Bohemian Rhapsody reinterpreted

The third "for me..." will really grab you.

Trinity Boy's Choir full performance is here.

The English National Ballet's full performance is here.

Royal Academy of Music String Quartet full performance is here.

08 January 2016


Run your mouse over the dots.  Keep going....

The Pissed Consumer website focuses on consumer complaints and reviews.  You can enter a complaint, or search a company to see what negative experiences others have had.

"Last week, however, saw the publication of Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America (Yale University Press), which reveals [Ernest Hemingway] was for a while on the KGB's list of its agents in America. Co-written by John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr and Alexander Vassiliev, the book is based on notes that Vassiliev, a former KGB officer, made when he was given access in the 90s to Stalin-era intelligence archives in Moscow."  More on Hemingway as a spy here.

This gif concisely depicts 'murica's values.

"Archaeologists claim to have proved that Julius Caesar set foot on what is now Dutch soil, destroying two Germanic tribes in a battle that left about 150,000 people dead.  The tribes were massacred in the fighting with the Roman general in 55BC, on a battle site now in Kessel, in the southern province of Brabant.  Skeletons, spearheads, swords and a helmet have been unearthed at the site over the past three decades. But now carbon dating as well as other historical and geochemical analysis have proved the items dated to the 1st century BC, the VU University in Amsterdam said."

A detailed, line-by-line explication of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.

A 40th-anniversary reinterpretation of Bohemian Rhapsody "performed by a duet from the English National Ballet, a string quartet from the Royal Academy of Music and Trinity Boys Choir, cut with archive footage of Queen’s performance on Christmas Eve in 1975."

"A Modesto pastor is recovering after being shot during a gun safety class, CBS Sacramento reports.
Tom Smith, a family pastor who also helps with church security, was shot by his own gun safety instructor... The shooting incident comes at a time when church members in California are training to carry concealed weapons in response to recent mass shootings..."

A gif of peanuts being harvested.

A website that lets you look up how liberal or conservative an American town is.

A man displays the world's longest fingernails.  He's been growing them for 60 years.  "I can’t move much, so every half an hour or so I wake up and move my hand to the other side of the bed,” he admitted."

"Former Oglala Sioux Tribe police officer Rebecca Sotherland was found not guilty of using unreasonable force by a federal jury last week. The indictment against her stemmed from an August 2014 incident where she used a Taser an estimated 28 times on an unresponsive man in Manderson, South Dakota."  Video at the link.

gif of crowd control at a Tokyo event.

"ProPublica has identified 35 instances since 2012 in which workers at nursing homes and assisted-living centers have surreptitiously shared photos or videos of residents, some of whom were partially or completely naked... Abusive treatment is not new at nursing homes. Workers have been accused of sexually assaulting residents, sedating them with antipsychotic drugs and failing to change urine-soaked bed sheets. But the posting of explicit photos is a new type of mistreatment."

Here's what happens when you put powdered sugar on a birthday cake and then blow out the candles.

D magazine (from Dallas) offers a comprehensive backstory behind the "affluenza" teen, his parents, and the events that unfolded.

"The location of the oldest established European multi-year settlement in the United States is indeed in the heart of Pensacola.  Discoveries by local historian Tom Garner in October and research afterward by University of West Florida archaeologists confirmed where Don Tristan de Luna established his Spanish colony in August 1559 – six years before the St. Augustine settlement and nearly 48 years before the English settled in Jamestown, Va."

The etymology of the word "biffy," referring to a toilet, is from "privy."  It seems to be an outdated term now - one that I heard primarily from older generation residents of Minnesota.  Not sure if it was commonly used elsewhere.

"One thing most people don't suspect is Rogue Access Points, for wifi you set up an access point using your own insecure protocols and you put it at a mall and call it "Free wifi" or "Starbucks" and people when connect you can steal session cookies, personal information etc.  Most people just connect to any wifi point with the strongest signal or unprotected."

BBC One will be presenting a new movie version of Agatha Christie's classic And Then There Were None.  Yay !!!

An informative discussion thread about the history of labor unions in the United States.

"An Arizona lawmaker who believes the Earth is 6,000 years old is the new chairwoman of the state Senate committee that oversees education-related legislation."  In the video at the link she says at a committee meeting that "the Earth has been here for 6,000 years - long before there were environmental regulations - and somehow it hasn't been done away with..."

An incredible volleyball save.

How people make millions of dollars by buying the rights to structured settlements from uneducated injured people.

Video of a giant squid.

"Although it’s been nearly 50 years since the first color broadcast, more than 9,000 Britons are still using black-and-white TVs for watching Television and only 550 sets are registered in Scotland."

A new essay by Bill Moyers about plutocrats.

"... merely shopping at a gardening store could make you the target of a criminal drug investigation." With a raid by a SWAT team. More at the Washington Post.

Headline of the day: Fight breaks out at Newark anti-violence rally.

The embedded images today come from the Cabin Porn tumblr.  Top to bottom:
1 - House in Hemsedal, Norway.  Contributed by Turid Lismoen.
2 - Cabin on Tara Mountain, Serbia. Contributed by Dragan Drobac.
3 - Stone cabin in the village of Savogno in Val Bregaglia, Italy. Contributed by Maria Piccinini.
4 - A-frame in LandmannalaugarIceland. Contributed by Gaspard Sommer.
5 - Subterranean cabin in Palenzuela, Spain. Contributed by Edu Lartzanguren.
6 - Stone huts in Geiranger, Norway. Contributed by Elwin Zuiderveld.
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