24 February 2017


I'm tired of blogging, and I'm scheduled to give a lecture next weekend, so I'll plan to use much of this coming week to get materials ready for that.  You guys are on your own for a while.

From the archives of The New Yorker

Nazi-grave robbers are not Nazi grave-robbers

The distinction is explained at Bloomberg Business Week:
In Latvia, it is normal for you to have dead soldiers on your yard,” Esmits said. “When people came back to their homes after the war, they saw there was a dead soldier here and a dead soldier there, and they just buried them.”..

During the final months of World War II, Latvia was the site of especially bloody battles between German and Soviet forces. Approximately 350,000 Nazis were cut off here from the rest of the German line in the autumn of 1944, in what became known as the Courland Pocket. In the months that followed, about 100,000 of them were killed...

... in recent years, the often illicit market in Nazi memorabilia has intensified, creating a new class of diggers across eastern Europe that is at odds with Esmits’s work. Of particular interest are relics... Some $50 million in military memorabilia is sold each year, according to an estimate by the Guardian, and Nazi items fetch a premium...

For the Volksbund, grave robbing remains a persistent problem, especially in Russia and Ukraine. “Grave robbers blight our work,” Kirchmeier says. Many illegal diggers dutifully give over information to officials if they come across a dead body, he says, but others “open graves and then take out anything they can sell—steel helmets, pieces of equipment, medals, belt buckles, personal mementos belonging to the dead, sometimes even the skull, leaving the rest of the bones on the forest floor.”

Yngve Sjodin, a Norway-based militaria seller who sometimes digs with Legenda, says he was confronted with a “black digger” during one of his first digs for soldiers in Latvia, in 2014. “He screamed at us that it was his forest,” he says, “and started attacking the guy next to me.” He adds, “The driving force for the black diggers is money, which they need to survive, or party, or whatever.”
Much more at the source.

Photo: German rifle grenades, a boot, drinking cup, mess kit lid, and gas mask recovered from a trench.  Credit: Reinis Hofmanis for Bloomberg Businessweek

Metabolic markers for chronic fatigue syndrome. Fascinating.

Excerpt from an abstract at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science:
We targeted 612 metabolites in plasma from 63 biochemical pathways by hydrophilic interaction liquid chromatography, electrospray ionization, and tandem mass spectrometry in a single-injection method. Patients with CFS showed abnormalities in 20 metabolic pathways. Eighty percent of the diagnostic metabolites were decreased, consistent with a hypometabolic syndrome...

Our data show that despite the heterogeneity of factors leading to CFS, the cellular metabolic response in patients was homogeneous, statistically robust, and chemically similar to the evolutionarily conserved persistence response to environmental stress known as dauer.
More on dauer, which resembles hibernation, but is not the same thing:
Many of the pathways and metabolites that were abnormal in CFS are also known to be features of dauer, a well-studied, long-lived survival and persistence state triggered by environmental stress...

The developmental stage of dauer is a hypometabolic state capable of living efficiently by altering a number of basic mitochondrial functions, fuel preferences, behavior, and physical features. Dauer is comprised of an evolutionarily conserved and synergistic suite of metabolic and structural changes that are triggered by exposure to adverse environmental conditions. Entry into dauer confers a survival advantage in harsh conditions. When the dauer response is blocked by certain mutations (dauer defectives), animals are short-lived when exposed to environmental stress. These mutations show that the latent ability to enter into a hypometabolic state during times of environmental threat is adaptive, even though it comes at the cost of decreasing the optimal functional capacity..
This is really quite interesting, since most people probably have a bias toward assuming that "chronic fatigue" is a psychological or emotional disorder.  The idea that it is a mitochondrial disorder is thought-provoking.

"Dauer," btw, is the German word for "duration."

Bees are endangered. Or not.

First, from USA Today:
A bumblebee is now on the endangered species list for the first time in a "race against extinction," the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Tuesday.

The agency placed the rusty patched bumblebee on the list because of a dramatic population decline over the past 20 years. Since the late 1990s, the population of the species has plummeted 87%.

Named because of the rust-colored marks on its back, the bee was once common and abundant across 28 states from Connecticut to South Dakota. Today, the bee is only found in small, scattered populations in 13 states...

It's not just the rusty patched bumblebee that is struggling in the U.S. Other species have experienced dramatic declines in recent decades. The reduction is believed to be caused by a combination of habitat loss, disease, pesticide use, climate change and an extremely small population size...

This is the first bee of any type in the continental U.S. to be placed on the list. In September, the Obama administration designated seven species of bees in Hawaii as endangered.
Counterpoint from the Washington Post:
You've probably heard the bad news by now that bees were recently added to the endangered species list for the first time. But if you're part of the 60 percent of people who share stories without actually reading them, you might have missed an important detail: namely, that the newly endangered bees are a handful of relatively obscure species who live only in Hawaii.

The bees you're more familiar with — the ones that buzz around your yard dipping into flowers, making honey, pollinating crops and generally keeping the world's food supply from collapsing? Those bees are doing just fine, according to data released by the USDA this year...

The number of commercial bee colonies is still significantly higher than it was in 2006, when colony collapse disorder — the mass die-offs that began afflicting U.S. honeybee colonies — was first documented...

“Honey bees are not about to go extinct,” Kim Kaplan, a researcher with the USDA, said in an email. “It is the beekeepers who are in danger, facing unsustainable economic losses."

"Flash in the pan" explained

The flash pan or priming pan is a small receptacle for priming powder, found next to the touch hole on muzzleloading guns.  A small amount of finely ground gunpowder is placed in the flash pan and ignited. The flash of flame travels through the touch hole igniting the main charge of propellant inside the barrel,,,

The ignition of the main charge from the flash pan was not a guaranteed operation, however, and sometimes it failed. In those cases the spark would flash in the pan, but the gun would fail to fire. This led by the end of the 17th century to the expression “flash in the pan” to mean a failure after a brief and showy start, or momentary sensation of no real importance.  
Photo credit.

The power to arrest peaceful demonstrators

Claiming people are being paid to riot, [Arizona] Republican state senators voted Wednesday to give police new power to arrest anyone who is involved in a peaceful demonstration that may turn bad — even before anything actually happened...

But the real heart of the legislation is what Democrats say is the guilt by association — and giving the government the right to criminally prosecute and seize the assets of everyone who planned a protest and everyone who participated. And what’s worse, said Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, is that the person who may have broken a window, triggering the claim there was a riot, might actually not be a member of the group but someone from the other side...

But Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, said that chilling effect is aimed at a very specific group of protesters.

“You now have a situation where you have full-time, almost professional agent-provocateurs that attempt to create public disorder,’’ he said.

“A lot of them are ideologues, some of them are anarchists,’’ Kavanagh continued. “But this stuff is all planned.’’

There’s something else: By including rioting in racketeering laws, it actually permits police to arrest those who are planning events. And Kavanagh, a former police officer, said if there are organized groups, “I should certainly hope that our law enforcement people have some undercover people there.’’
Classic black ops.  You plant your people in a peaceful group, have your guy perform an illegal violent act, then arrest all the others. 

More details at the Arizona Capitol Times.

Addendum:  A hat tip to reader Elaine M, who found a followup report that this legislation is now dead.
"As he listened to the callers, Mesnard realized their belief that the legislation was intended to curb free-speech rights outweighed any merits its supporters might put forward."

Note: found this via a new subreddit: r/esist.
"r/esist is a sub dedicated to compiling resources and fostering discussion to help resist the damage the Trump administration is doing to our country and the world."

Golf: 25 hours. Foreign relations: 21 hours

Donald Trump regularly assailed President Barack Obama for playing golf, then spent the first weekends of his own presidency doing just that. He attacked Obama for using Air Force One to campaign, and did it over the weekend just a month into the job. He mocked Obama for heading out of Washington at taxpayer expense, but appears to have no qualms about doing so himself...
"Donald Trump has zero worry about contradicting himself, because he does it all day long," said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian who has met with Trump. "He figures he can get away with it because he does it all the time. There is no worry about it. He says one thing and then does another, and his supporters don't hold it against him.
"Trump said last August that if he became president, he wouldn’t have time for golf. "I'm going to be working for you, I'm not going to have time to go play golf," he said at an event in Virginia.
Text from Politico.  Infographic via Elle.

22 February 2017

Goodbye to "Arbroath"

I started TYWKIWDBI in 2007, and within a couple months I had found my way to Nothing To Do With Arbroath, one of the best-known and best-loved blogs on the internet.  Kevin Norman Gray harvested the news sites of the world to collect oddities and ephemera.  In the last ten years I've used Kevin's blog as a "via" for over 200 posts, because his material was very much "things you wouldn't know."

Readers of "Arbroath" were startled this past November to see a personal post from a blogger who was always very private; he reported having an illness which would hamper his blogging.  Sadly, he wrote a final post in January detailing a terminal illness, and shortly thereafter a blog reader found and posted a link to a death notice, which was later confirmed by the family.

Bloggers and blog-readers everywhere will miss Kevin's eclectic approach.  Nothing To Do With Arbroath is still up, and since the blogspot host is free, it will probably remain available for the near future; I invite you to visit and browse.  I note that I still have a couple dozen of his posts in my bookmarks folders, so I may do a compilation post in the future.

Rest in peace, Kevin.

Locate structurally deficient bridges near you

The Washington Post offers an interactive map which lets you click on your county and then zoom in to identify bridges that have been deemed structurally deficient (and others that are "functionally obsolete.")

"Megachiropteran cinematographer"

Wordsmiths interested in anagrams will find an interesting study at the Universe of Discourse.  Examples of some of the more interesting long ones include -
7 admirer married
7 admires sidearm
8 negativism timesaving
8 peripatetic precipitate
8 scepters respects
8 shortened threnodes
8 soapstone teaspoons
9 earringed grenadier
9 excitation intoxicate
9 integrals triangles
9 ivoriness revisions
9 masculine calumnies
10 coprophagist topographics
10 chuprassie haruspices
10 citronella interlocal
11 clitoridean directional
11 dispensable piebaldness
11 endometritria intermediator
That source also provices a link to an apparently comprehensive list of 38,333 anagrams.

Related, and well known to cryptic puzzle enthusiasts, is this anagram maker.

There are lots of multi-word interesting anagrams, such as

INCONSISTENT is an anagram of N IS, N IS NOT, ETC.

These are clever:
Dormitory = Dirty room
Evangelist = Evil's agent
Desperation = A rope ends it
The Morse Code = Here come dots
Mother-in-law = Woman Hitler
Snooze alarms = Alas! No more Z's.
Eleven plus two = Twelve plus one
Clint Eastwood = Old West action
Slot machines = Cash lost in 'em
Conversation = Voices rant on
Norwegians = Swen or Inga?
The piano bench = Beneath Chopin
Southern California = Hot sun or life in a car

And this one is arguably the most impressive because of its logical consistency:
Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott
      is an anagram of
A novel by a Scottish writer
And finally there is a chemical anagram, in which 30 chemicals anagram to 30 other ones the sum of whose atomic numbers is the same.

"Biotwang" emanating from the Mariana Trench

YouTube link

After months of speculation, scientists have finally identified the most likely source of a creepy audio recording from the deepest part of the ocean... [it] features five different sounds ranging from metallic to biological, and has been nicknamed the Western Pacific Biotwang...

While these sounds are entirely unique in the scientific record, the best clue Nieukirk's team had for identifying them was an equally bizarre recoding from 2001, made in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef... Known as the minke whale 'Star Wars' call, it sounds just as alien as this more recent recording, and the researchers say that based on similarities of frequency and structure, the Western Pacific Biotwang likely comes from the same type of animal.
It's easy to understand how ancient mariners would get creeped out by sounds echoing through the wooden hulls of their vessels in mid-ocean at night.

Credit only where credit is due

In his chapter on word choice, Harold Evans rightly takes issue with the misuse of the term “credit” in news media. In 2014, Boko Haram was “credited” with the kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls in Chibok, Nigeria. A year later, on the night of the terror attacks in Paris, a TV commentator reported that no one had yet “claimed credit.” This is to ventriloquize the terrorists: to claim credit for an act is to imply its righteousness. Evans proposes a clearer-sighted alternative: “Nobody has yet admitted . . . responsibility.”
From an essay about the proper use of the English language in this month's Harper's.  I quite agree with the sentiment expressed.

19 February 2017


Snopes confirms that Mencken did make such a pronouncement in 1920 (using the term "downright moron").
In this case the attribution to Henry Louis Mencken, a prominent newspaperman and political commentator during the first half of the 20th century, is accurate. Writing for the Baltimore Evening Sun on 26 July 1920, in an article entitled “Bayard vs. Lionheart” (and reprinted in the book On Politics: A Carnival of Buncombe), Mencken cynically opined on the difficulties of good men reaching national office when the scale of their campaigns precluded them from directly reaching out to large segments of the voting public:
The larger the mob, the harder the test. In small areas, before small electorates, a first-rate man occasionally fights his way through, carrying even the mob with him by force of his personality. But when the field is nationwide, and the fight must be waged chiefly at second and third hand, and the force of personality cannot so readily make itself felt, then all the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre — the man who can most easily adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum.

The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.
Mencken biography.

"Swanga" illustrated

Many more pix here.  This is part of SLAB culture in Houston:
Like most automotive hobbies, the Houston SLAB scene starts with the belief that the factory’s work needs improvement... Depreciated American luxury cars are the norm: Cadillacs, Buicks and certain Oldsmobiles are preferred.  Lincolns/Panthers and Chryslers are cool too, even Jaguars and Quattroportes pull it off vis-à-vis distinctly luxurious proportions.  But don’t break your budget on the ride, GM’s W-body is one of the most common platforms for good reason, as costly modifications are necessary to pay homage to the Pimp Riders while advancing the game...
  • Massive stereos....
  • Kitted out power popping trunks, slathered in custom vinyl and personalized phrases in neon/mirrors.
  • Wire wheels much like the Cragar units supplied as OEM for Cadillac in 1983 and 1984, except replacing the fragile tin content with 100% steel. Texan Wire Wheels sells them as “83s” and “84s”, seemingly cornering this niche market...
Discussion at the WTF subreddit, including whether such hubcaps are "street-legal."

Image via.

Save the frogs !

Amphibian survival can be a natural biomarker for subtle environmental changes.  A poster promoting a frog exhibit at the Vancouver Aquarium reminds everyone why frogs are important.

Early humans didn't just "walk across Beringia"

Most well-informed people understand that the Americas were populated by early humans who crossed from Asia via the glacial-age land-bridge at Beringia.  But too many people have the misconception that once the land bridge formed (when sea levels dropped because oceanic water was tied up in glaciers), humans just marched across to the new world.  The process of crossing probably extended over thousands of years - and a new paper reports that this may have been long enough for the human genome to have evolved during the process.
In fact, the word ‘bridge’ definitely conjures up the wrong image. It was a geographic region, often called Beringia, and people lived there for so long that it probably would have been ludicrous to them that we could think of their home as transient. Current estimates suggest that people lived there for between 5,000 and 8,000 years, starting about 23,000 years ago.

That is a long enough time for natural selection to have had an effect on the genome of people who lived there, according to a paper in PNAS this week. The Beringians would have faced distinct diseases, food constraints, and climate conditions, and natural selection would have helped those with the right genetic adaptations to thrive in that environment. According to the new paper, we can see evidence of that natural selection in modern Native American populations...

Specifically, there’s evidence to suggest that three genes involved in metabolizing fatty acids (called the fatty acid desaturases, or FADS, genes) show changes that might be the result of adaptation to a diet high in protein and fats. That sort of diet tends to be one of the side-effects of living in the Arctic.
I don't mean to oversimplify the process.  The crossing may also have involved watercraft, and some subpopulations may have traversed the region more quickly.  And the Beringia crossing may have been supplemented by trans-Pacific voyages and/or by trans-Atlantic migrants from Solutrean regions.  But the PNAS paper does suggest that the time spent in the subarctic crossing may have influenced the Native American genome.

Every picture tells a story...

Image cropped slightly for size from the original at the WTF subreddit, where the location is reported to be Renaissance Festival near Charlotte, North Carolina.  (although I prefer the comment "Which Walmart is this?")

What the melting snow reveals

A backyard that was covered with snow during the winter appeared frozen and lifeless on the surface.  Underneath that snowpack, protected from frigid airtemps, local rodents were busy scavenging.  An early mid-February warm spell has revealed their foraging paths, from the woods and the neighbor's yard to the area under the birdfeeder on our deck, and out toward occasional tossed bread crusts.  Raptors and foxes are able to ambush these rodents.

Related old post: A fox dives into DEEP snow - update #2.  Worth revisiting, if only for the second video showing a domestic dog pouncing a baby's shadow.

15 February 2017

Evidence of agroforestry in the ancient Amazon

Football field sized patterns of deep ditches dot the landscape of northwestern Brazil. The discovery of these huge earthworks, which date back almost 2,000 years, has triggered intense debate regarding their origins among archaeologists and ecologists...

It wasn't until the late 1970's that deforestation first revealed the geoglyphs hiding under upland rainforest. Covering more than 5,000 sq. miles in the Brazilian state of Acre, more than 450 large-scale earthworks...

A relatively heavy charcoal layer suggests that the new residents cleared the bamboo forest with fire, letting the fast-growing palm trees spring up to fill the space left behind. Over the long term, one would expect the palms to be overtaken by slower-growing plants, but that’s not what the team found.

Instead palms flourished for three thousand years, likely encouraged by the human newcomers, who could use them for food and building material. Dr. Watling suspects they engaged in practices including planting seeds, transplanting saplings, and weeding out undesirable plant species, as well as light burning and farming. She calls these techniques agroforestry: “[maintaining] the forest but [changing] its species composition to make it a more livable place.”
Much more discussion at the Christian Science Monitor.   See also the Wikipedia page on terra preta and my 2012 post 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus.

Photo credit: Jenny Watling/Caption.

Offered without comment

Res ipsa loquitur.  Via.

Impact of Western culture on the arctic

"Hudson Bay Company store covered with furs, Churchill, Manitoba, c.1906-09."
Image cropped for emphasis from the original posted at a gallery in The Guardian.   Photo credit Geraldine Moodie.

Worse than ISIS?

A real company that is probably getting a lot of grief about its name nowadays.  Via.

13 February 2017

Airplane oxygen masks explained

Excerpts from an article in the Travel section of The Telegraph:
“Up front, the pilots will don their own masks and commence a rapid descent to an altitude no higher than 10,000 feet,” he continues. “If the emergency descent feels perilously fast, this isn’t because the plane is crashing: it’s because the crew is doing what’s it’s supposed to do.”..

According to Airbus, if a plane loses pressure at 40,000 feet, those on board have as little as 18 seconds of “useful consciousness” without supplemental oxygen...

...what you’re supplied isn’t exactly oxygen – nor is it not compressed air in the scuba diving sense. Oxygen tanks are heavy and bulky so aircraft use a more complicated system. The panel above each seat actually contains a cocktail of chemicals that, when burned, release oxygen. They might include barium peroxide, a fine white powder used in fireworks, sodium chlorate, more commonly used as a weedkiller, and potassium chlorate, a staple of school science lab experiments (it reacts violently with sugar).

Tug the mask, like you’re told in the demonstration, and the chemical process starts. Once it starts, it cannot be stopped until everything’s burned up (around 12-15 minutes...).
This is important:
Do not expect the bag to inflate. Passengers have reportedly suffered hypoxia after believing their mask was broken because the bag wasn’t inflating, prompting them to remove it. Hence the warning given during every safety briefing.

“Oxygen is supplied in a constant flow,” explained a BA spokesman. “The bag does not inflate like a respirator bag used in a medical theatre. How full it gets depends on an individual's rate of breathing. If the rate of breathing is very quick, air is inhaled at a faster rate and so the bag will inflate less. If all the air isn't inhaled, some will remain in the bag, partially inflating it.”

The oxygen generator can also get extremely hot – so don’t touch it – and passengers may even notice a burning smell (so don’t be alarmed).
I don't know if the standard passenger mask is a "partial rebreather," capturing exhaled air, which even if "once-used" still has usable oxygen available, or a "non-rebreather."

More information at the FAA.

The CIA has a Flickr account

You can explore their photos, including a large number of recently-declassified maps (such as the one above showing world traffic in ivory) at their Flickr page.

12 February 2017

Jurassic lacewing vs. modern butterfly

"A study out today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society: B that features IU paleobotanist David Dilcher as a co-author identifies a Jurassic-age insect whose behavior and appearance closely mimic a butterfly — but whose emergence on Earth predates the butterfly by about 40 million years.

Dilcher — who made international headlines last year for his role in discovering the mythical “first flower” — said these proverbial “first butterflies” survived in a similar manner as their modern sister insects by visiting plants with “flower-like” reproductive organs producing nectar and pollen."
"The butterfly-like insects, which went on to evolve into a different form of insect from the modern butterfly, is an extinct “lacewing” of the genus kalligrammatid called Oregramma illecebrosa. Another genus of this insect — of the order Neuroptera — survives into our modern era, and are commonly known as fishflies, owlflies or snakeflies...

... another evolutionary innovation found in the ancient lacewing fossils’ wings remained remarkably unchanged over the course of millennia: so-called “eye spots.”

This unique pattern on the wings, arising over 200 million years ago, is nearly identical to markings on the modern owl butterfly. To this day, owl butterflies use these circular marks as a defense mechanism against predators, which mistake the spots as the eyes of a larger, more threatening animal."
Text and images from Indiana University, via Vice's Motherboard.

Reposted from 2016 in recognition of Darwin Day.

Butterflies can change their spots

Every aspect of a butterfly has been shaped by evolutionary processes over the millenia to render the butterfly as perfectly adapted as possible to its favored environment.  The shape of the wings, the wing pattern, the color of the eggs - all are the result of billions of tiny changes.

Some butterfly wing patterns incorporate "eyespots" such as those seen in my photo of an Eyed Brown above.  It has been well understood that one of the purposes these spots serve is to confuse a predator, as shown by the wings of this Common Buckeye I found with multiple beak-shaped defects in the area of the eyespots:

The process is demonstrated in this video by researchers at Oregon State University.  Mantids are shown attacking the head/thorax of butterflies without prominent eyespots, but the wing margins of those with eyespots:

What is most interesting is that the butterflies are the same genus and species, differing only in seasonal appearance.  (data and discussion published here).  The implications are explained at The Scientist:
Prudic and her collaborator found that the dramatic eyespots on the wings of Bicyclus anynana individuals in the wet season were more effective at fooling mantid insects, the butterflies’ main predators during rainy times, than the more diffuse wing spots of the dry season forms, which are preyed upon mostly by birds. The researchers even found that pasting wet-season spots onto dry-season butterflies had the same effect. Conversly, dry-season patterns [less-prominent eyespots] served to conceal the butterflies better from birds in its eastern African woodland habitats. “Having the right type of eyespot in the right season allowed the butterflies to live long enough to lay eggs and have more offspring in the next generation,” Prudic said. “With the wrong eyespot at the wrong time, they were quickly annihilated by the mantids.”

Reposted from 2015 in recognition of Darwin Day.

My "elfin ear" is actually a "Darwin's point"

Darwin’s point is found in the majority of mammals, and humans are no exception. It is most likely used to help focus sounds in animals, but it no longer has a function in humans. Only 10.4% of the human population still has this visible left-over mark of our past, but it is possible that a much larger number of people carry the gene that produces it as it does not always cause the ear tubercle to appear. The point is a small thick nodule at the junction of the upper and middle sections of the ear.
Since the "plica semilunaris" is vestigial structure and therefore a sign of evolution, I'm delighted to display it. Darwin described it as a "surviving symbol of the stirring times and dangerous days of man's animal youth."

As a child I wasn't aware that I had it until I first went to school and some children began to tease me about my pointy ear. My mom advised me to tell them it was my "extra brain power" (which I'm sure failed to impress first-graders). For children nowadays such a rationale would not be necessary; indeed an "elfin ear" would be a mark of prestige - one which some body-modifying teens (?Goths) try to attain by plastic surgery.

Link found at The Presurfer; thanks Gerard.

Reposted from 2009 to add this rather impressive example of a vestigial structure:
A teenager with a 20cm "tail" growing at the bottom of his spine has undergone surgery to have it removed. It started to appear on the 18-year-old's back just after his 14th birthday...

"It was cosmetically and psychologically disturbing for him." Although surgically removing a tail isn't a very complicated procedure, it must be carried out by a neurosurgeon as the growth of tail involves a part of the spinal cord. 
Via Nothing to do with Arbroath.

Reposted from 2016 in recognition of Darwin Day.

On the Origin of Fantasies

"The Battle of the Fruit and Vegetable Soldiers," shown above, is a little-known illustration on one of the 28 surviving pages of the original manuscript of Darwin's On the Origin of Species.
...remember that Darwin and his wife Emma... had a huge family of ten children. Scholars believe that a young Francis Darwin, the naturalist's third oldest son, drew this on the back of Darwin's manuscript for On the Origin of Species.
Personally, I prefer this one, with its fanciful butterfly:

Additional examples, including the scrawling of a toddler, are shown at the article at The Appendix.  A big tip of the hat to reader Andrew for alerting me to the existence of this "quarterly journal of experimental and narrative history."

Image: Cambridge University Library

Reposted from 2014 in recognition of Darwin Day.

Vatican: Evolution is acceptable, doesn't disprove God

On the 150th anniversary of the publication of the Origin of Species, the Vatican is sponsoring a conference of scientists and theologians to discuss the interface of religion and science.
Cardinal William Levada, head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said the Catholic Church doesn't stand in the way of scientific realities like evolution, saying there was a "wide spectrum of room" for belief in both the scientific basis for evolution and faith in God the creator.

"We believe that however creation has come about and evolved, ultimately God is the creator of all things..."

"The false contraposition between Darwinism and the Church," is how the Vatican's newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, headlined its story on the conference...

Pope John Paul II articulated the church's position most clearly in a 1996 address to the Pontifical Academy for Sciences, in which he said the theory of evolution was "more than a hypothesis."
But the Vatican's position became somewhat confused in recent years, in part because of a 2005 New York Times op-ed piece signed by a close Benedict collaborator, Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn [who] seemed to reject traditional church teaching and backed instead intelligent design...
Vatican officials later made clear they did not believe intelligent design was science and that teaching it alongside evolutionary theory in school science classes only created confusion.
Francisco Ayala, a former priest and professor of biological sciences and philosophy at the University of California, Irvine, called intelligent design and creationism "blasphemous" not only to science but to the Christian faith.
Reposted from 2009 in recognition of Darwin Day.

The remarkable "Rainbow Finch"

An endangered bird, of which only about 2,000 are known to exist in the wild (in Australia).
It was discovered by the Ornithologist John Gould who named the finch after his wife rather than himself. First called the Lady Gouldian Finch, the lady part of the name has been largely dropped, possibly because it was something of a mouthful, but most likely because Mrs Gould was no Lady (this is a reflection on her lack of title rather than her personal behavior).
Gould himself is largely forgotten outside of ornithology circles and Australia, where he discovered the Finch in 1840. This is a shame as without him we would not have had the concept of ‘Darwin’s Finches’ from the Galapagos. Darwin himself thought that the specimens he collected were variants of other species (albeit including the finch). It was Gould who classified the twelve distinct new species that formed a new finch group.

Reposted from 2009 in recognition of Darwin Day.

The inheritance of acquired characteristics

Everyone who is well educated in science understands that adults don't pass on acquired characteristics to their children - a child can't have a scar that resembles daddy's war wound (at least not on a genetic basis).

It turns out that that's not exactly true. Organisms can inherit an acquired trait because not all inheritance is dependent upon DNA. Welcome to "epigenetics:"
A certain laboratory strain of the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster has white eyes. If the surrounding temperature of the embryos, which are normally nurtured at 25 degrees Celsius, is briefly raised to 37 degrees Celsius, the flies later hatch with red eyes. If these flies are again crossed, the following generations are partly red-eyed – without further temperature treatment – even though only white-eyed flies are expected according to the rules of genetics...
Environmental factors, which change the characteristics of an individual and are then passed on to its offspring, do not really fit into Darwin’s theory of evolution. According to his theory, evolution is the result of the population and not the single individual. “Passing on the gained characteristics fits more to Lamarck’s theory of evolution”, says Paro.
However, he still does not believe Darwin’s theory of evolution is put into question by the evidence of epigenetics research. “Darwin was 100 percent right”, Paro emphasises. For him, epigenetics complement Darwin’s theory. In his view, new characteristics are generated and passed on via epigenetics, subject to the same mechanisms of evolution as those with a purely genetic origin.
Reposted from 2009 in recognition of Darwin Day.

Islamic views of evolution

Selected passages from the Wikipedia entry on the subject.
Islamic views on evolution are diverse, ranging from theistic evolution to creationism. Muslims believe in a God as the Creator, as explained in the Qur'an. Throughout history some Muslim thinkers have proposed and accepted elements of the theory of evolution, while believing in the supremacy of God in the process. In modern times, some Muslims have rejected evolution, and teaching it is banned in some countries. The main schism between Islam and evolution is in the Adamic descent of human beings, a concept which modern biological anthropology rejects as mythology...

The Qur'an does not contain a complete chronology of creation. It declares variously that it took "six ayums" to create the "seven heavens [or firmaments] and earth" An 'ayum' is defined as a stage, or a relative quantity of time rather than a 24 hour period...

Certain verses in the Qur'an are claimed by Muslims to be compatible with the expansion of the universe, Big Bang and Big Crunch theories...

The Mu'tazili scientist and philosopher al-Jahiz (c. 776-869) was the first of the Muslim biologists and philosophers to develop an early theory of evolution. He speculated on the influence of the environment on animals, considered the effects of the environment on the likelihood of an animal to survive, and first described the struggle for existence, a precursor to natural selection. Al-Jahiz's ideas on the struggle for existence in the Book of Animals have been summarized as follows:
"Animals engage in a struggle for existence; for resources, to avoid being eaten and to breed. Environmental factors influence organisms to develop new characteristics to ensure survival, thus transforming into new species. Animals that survive to breed can pass on their successful characteristics to offspring."... 
In the 13th century, Nasir al-Din al-Tusi explains how the elements evolved into minerals, then plants, then animals, and then humans. Tusi then goes on to explain how hereditary variability was an important factor for biological evolution of living things:
"The organisms that can gain the new features faster are more variable. As a result, they gain advantages over other creatures. [...] The bodies are changing as a result of the internal and external interactions." ... 
Evolutionary biology is included in the high-school curricula of most Muslim countries. Science foundations of 14 Muslim countries, including Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Indonesia, and Egypt, recently signed a statement by the Interacademy Panel (IAP, a global network of science academies), in support of the teaching of evolution, including human evolution. Little is known about general societal views of evolution in Muslim countries.

A 2007 study of religious patterns found that only 8% of Egyptians, 11% of Malaysians, 14% of Pakistanis, 16% of Indonesians, and 22% of Turks agree that Darwin's theory is probably or most certainly true, and a 2006 survey reported that about 25% of Turkish adults agreed that human beings evolved from earlier animal species. In contrast, the 2007 study found that only 28% of Kazakhs thought that evolution is false. According to Salman Hameed, writing in the journal Science, there exists a contradictory attitude towards evolution in the Muslim world. While Muslims accept science as fully compatible with Islam, and most accept microevolution, very few Muslims accept the macroevolution as held by scientists, especially human evolution.
I find it interesting to see "Darwinian" theories expressed a millennium before Darwin. This post is of necessity a rather perfunctory summary of a complex subject, so feel free to add comments.  And see also "The Qur’an & Space Science" at The Turbid Blog.

Here's a relevant prior post.

Reposted from 2009 in recognition of Darwin Day.

"God has given you one face and you make yourselves another"

Mug shot via the Washington Post.

Title quote from Hamlet, Act III, Scene I.

Recently-discovered photo of a younger Harriet Tubman

"In the photo, Harriet Tubman is still relatively young, perhaps in her early or mid-forties. She would live into her 90s, and many of the photos of her show her as an older woman."
More at Atlas Obscura, via Neatorama.  Photo: Swann Auction Galleries.

Indoor skydiving

"The 2017 WindGames were held in Spain last weekend for competition in indoor skydiving. The winner of the freestyle category was 14-year-old Kyra Poh of Singapore, who was competing against adults for the first time."
Via Neatorama.

Overwintering Monarch population down

The number of monarch butterflies wintering in Mexico dropped by 27% this year, reversing last year’s recovery from historically low numbers...

The experts say the decline could be due to late winter storms last year that blew down more than 100 acres (40 hectares) of forests where migrating monarch butterflies spend the winter in central Mexico...

Last week, authorities detained a man trying to truck about a dozen huge tree trunks out of the butterfly reserve, using false papers asserting the trees were diseased and were being removed to reduce risk. In fact, investigators found the trees had been healthy...

The loss of forests in Mexico and milkweed north of the border has proved devastating. This year the butterflies covered only 7.19 acres (2.91 hectares). Last year, the butterflies covered 10 acres (about 4 hectares), compared with 2.8 acres (1.13 hectares) in 2014 and a record low of 1.66 acres (0.67 hectares) in 2013. That is still well below the 44 acres (18 hectares) they covered 20 years ago.
More at The Guardian.

Diagonal drawer

Not an error.  It has a logical explanation (clues in the photo).

In praise of walking

Three excerpts from Robert Macfarlane's The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot:
"...once you begin to notice them, you see that the landscape is still webbed with paths and footways... pilgrim paths, green roads, drove roads, corpse roads, trods, leys, dykes, drongs, sarns, snickets - say the names of the paths out loud and at speed and they become a poem or rite - holloways, bostles, shutes, driftways, lichways, ridings, halterpaths, cartways, carneys, causeways, herepaths."

"Americans have long envied the British system of footpaths and the freedoms it offers, as I in turn envy the Scandinavian customary right of Allemansratten ('Everyman's right').  This convention - born of a region that did not pass through centuries of feudalism, and therefore has no inherited deference to a landowning class - allows a citizen to walk anywhere on uncultivated land provided that he or she cause no harm; to light fires; to sleep anywhere beyond the curtilage of a dwellilng; to gather flowers, nuts and berries; and to swim in any watercourse..."

"Soren Kirkegaard speculated that the mind might function optimally at the pedestrian pace of three miles per hour, and in a journal entry describes going out for a wander and finding himself 'so overwhelmed with ideas' that he 'could scarcely walk'.  Christopher Morley wrote of Wordsworth as 'employ[ing] his legs as an instrument of philosophy'... Nietzsche was typically absolute on the subject - 'Only those thoughts which come from walking have any value' - and Wallace Stevens typically tentative: 'Perhaps/The truth depends on a walk around a lake.''  In all of these accounts, walking is not the action by which one arrives at knowledge; it is itself the means of knowing." 
I can't rate the entire book because I only had time to browse a couple chapters, but I do enjoy a book that challenges me with new words.
drove road/droveway - road or track along which livestock are (or historically were) regularly driven

corpse road

sarn - (Welsh) a causeway

snicket - A narrow passage or alley (Northern England).  Synonyms: ginnel, twitchel.

lichway - path by which the dead are carried to the grave


08 February 2017

Prom night

Every time I see this cartoon I am reminded of the classic one-liner "Other than THAT, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?"

Relevant link for those unfamiliar with the backstory.

Holloways explained

Several days ago I started reading The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, in which the author "sets off from his Cambridge home to follow the ancient tracks, holloways, drove roads and sea paths that form part of a vast network of routes that crisscross the British landscape..."

I added "holloway" to my list of words to look up.  Then by coincidence I encountered a recent post by Miss Cellania on The Sunken Lanes of Europe, citing Amusing Planet, which has a gallery of photos (whence the embed).

Details at Wikipedia:
A sunken lane (also hollow way or holloway) is a road or track that is significantly lower than the land on either side, not formed by the (recent) engineering of a road cutting but possibly of much greater age.

Various mechanisms have been proposed for how holloways may have been formed, including erosion by water or traffic; the digging of embankments to assist with the herding of livestock; and the digging of double banks to mark the boundaries of estates. These mechanisms are all possible and could apply in different cases.
Fascinating, both visually and conceptually.

Sweden mocks Trump's minions

As reported by The Guardian:
Sweden’s deputy prime minister, Isabella Lövin, has published a photograph of herself signing a climate bill surrounded by her closest female colleagues, apparently mocking a photo of US president Donald Trump.

Lövin, who also serves as environment and development aid minister, is seated in the photo at a desk as she signs the bill under the watchful eye of seven female colleagues, including one who is visibly pregnant.
More at the link.

Related:  ‘What happens to us?’ Why Sweden is so worried about the Trump administration.

Medieval funeral poetry on an ostrich eggshell - updated

Archaeologists have uncovered a 500-year-old ostrich egg covered in Arabic poetry. The verses mourn the death of a loved one.

The egg was found in the Red Sea port of Quseir, Egypt. In the fifteenth century, Quseir was a hub for trade between the Middle East and India, and a stop on the pilgrim route between North Africa and Mecca...

The shell is covered with quotations from the Koran and poetry: "It describes the soul's journey from death to life," says historian Dionisius Agius, of the University of Leeds, who is analysing the text.

Eggs bearing Arabic writing are rare, although another was found in Quseir 20 years ago. The ancient Egyptians used ostrich eggs for perfume containers and drinking cups, and the country's Coptic Christians hung them as lanterns in their churches.
Photo and text from Nature, via Erik Kwakkel.

Addendum:  Reposted from 2010 to note that ostrich eggs were also used as a form to create some of the world's first globes, as reported at National Geographic:
A recently discovered globe from the early 1500s, carved onto ostrich eggs, may be the oldest globe of the New World ever identified...

Throughout history mapmakers have turned to creative materials: There have been maps made of sticks or drawn on sealskin, vellum (calfskin parchment), or blocks of wood... But globes created from ostrich eggshells are not common, and for this reason—regardless of its age—the artifact is rare.
I learned about this from the podcast of No Such Thing as a Fish.

Neil Gorsuch's yearbook quote

In the 1988 Columbia University yearbook, the quote accompanying Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch's photo comes from Henry Kissinger -
"The illegal we do immediately. The unconstitutional takes a little longer."
However, Snopes notes that "determining Gorsuch's intention in offering this quote back then is a matter of speculation. It should be noted that Gorsuch founded a school newspaper called The Fed at Columbia University, which frequently published satirical content." 

Rolling shutter effect revealed by a blink

Discussed in this Pics subreddit thread (image cropped for emphasis from the original).

See also this 2010 post: How the rolling shutter effect is generated.

06 February 2017

Interesting fact about cacti

There are 1750 species of cacti.  1749/1750 are native only to the Americas.
The natural distribution of cactus species occurs exclusively in the New World with a single exception. This range includes North and South America, Central America, and the adjacent Islands such as the Caribbean and Galapagos islands. Rhipsalis baccifera, an epiphytic species, is the sole exception that can be found in Madagascar, tropical Africa, the Seychelles, Mauritius, Reunion, and Sri Lanka as well as tropical America.
Think of all the great deserts of the world that don't have cacti:  the Gobi, Sahara, Australia's Victoria.  But it's worth adding this point from the Reddit discussion:
While there are not cacti in those deserts it should be noted there are cactus-like plants. Cactus belong to the family Cactaceae. These are "New World" plants that are only (except 1) endemic to the Americas. Meanwhile the Eastern continents got "Old World" plants to fill those ecological niches, many of which belong to the family Euphorbiaceae. This is not a cactus. This is also not a cactus. And another "not" cactus (image below)

The difference between cacti and cactiform succulents is explained here.  You learn something every day.

Top photo credit, via the TIL subreddit.

Vestigial body structures

The palmaris longus tendon info was new to me.

Good talking points for discussions with children, or with doubters of evolution (though unlikely to be effective with the latter).

"Gott mitt uns"

Military leaders have always told their cannonfodder that God is on their side.
Gott mit uns ("God with us") is a phrase commonly used in heraldry in Prussia (from 1701) and later by the German military from the period spanning the German Empire (1871 to 1918) to the end of the Third Reich in 1945.

The Imperial Russian motto, "Съ нами Богъ!" ("S nami Bog!"), also translates the same.

Nobiscum Deus in Latin, Μεθ ημων ο Θεος (Meth imon o Theos) in Greek, С Hами Бог (S Nami Bog) in Church Slavonic, or God with us in English, was a battle cry of the late Roman Empire and of the Eastern Roman Empire. It is also a popular hymn of the Eastern Orthodox Church, sung during the service of Great Compline (Μεγα Αποδειπνον).

It was used for the first time in German by the Teutonic Order. In the 17th century, the phrase Gott mit uns was used as a 'field word', a means of recognition akin to a password, by the army of Gustavus Adolphus... In 1701, Frederick I of Prussia changed his coat of arms as Prince-Elector of Brandenburg. The electoral scepter had its own shield under the electoral cap. Below, the motto Gott mit uns appeared on the pedestal.
Blogged in order to mention a lighter aspect I heard on a podcast of No Such Thing As A Fish.  During the Christmas Truce of WWI, German soldiers erected a sign displaying the motto.  Their English counterparts put up another, which said "We've got mittens too."

This $10 bill looks funny.

It's taped on a wall, presumably for the education of some employees.  Do you know why it looks funny?  Answer below the fold.

Controversial "A2 milk" discussed

From The Atlantic:
Cow’s milk gets a bad rap. Over the past few decades, it’s been maligned for everything from fat and sugar levels to synthetic-hormone and antibiotic content. It has faced fierce competition from alternatives like almond milk and soy milk. But what if the most dangerous thing in a glass of milk all this time has been something much more elemental?

This was the question puzzling the New Zealand scientists Bob Elliott and Corran McLachlan in 1993, when their studies of Type 1 diabetes and heart disease pointed to milk as an unlikely culprit—specifically, a variety of milk known to scientists as A1, the ubiquitous variety stocked in most of the world’s grocery stores. A1, the research suggested, produces inflammatory compounds in the human digestive system that can cause mild symptoms like stomach pain, or much worse.

The research also showed, however, that a second type of milk—a variation known as A2—did not have these effects. McLachlan posited that A2 could be better for overall health, and maybe even digestible by those who consider themselves lactose intolerant...

Now, A2 milk stands poised to take these niche markets by storm—but first American consumers will have to be convinced that it’s actually good for them...

American dairy lobbies remain skeptical, though. Both the Dairy Farmers of America and the National Milk Producers Federation are aware of the trend—and dismissive of it...

Since A2 milk hit shelves in California in 2015, worries within the American dairy industry have mirrored those of commodity farmers Down Under, where A2 has already outstripped organic milk sales. Mainstream American dairies have expressed concern about how the introduction of these products will affect their existing product sales...

For now, this mixed attitude toward A2 genetics prevails in the U.S. A2MC could be on its way to changing the world, or cresting toward a quiet end. With the company shooting for a full presence in the U.S. market by next year, consumers have reason to hope that more research will be conducted before the onus is on them to make the call.
Much more at the link.
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