31 March 2017

Leg transplant, 3rd century

"One of the most famous acts of the saints is an operation to replace the amputated ulcerous leg of one of the patients [with] the foot of a recently deceased Moor. This story was reflected in many works of art.

This episode is described in the text of an incunabula from the life of the saints, which appeared in Augsburg in 1489...

When the patient woke up, the pain did not happen. He got up and ordered his servants to bring candles. He always told me what had happened to him. People ran to the coffin of the Moor and saw a cut off leg. They rejoiced at the miracle that was accomplished and thanked God and the saints of Cosmas and Damian with fervor. " 
More on Saints Cosmas and Damian.

Top image: School of Castile and Leon, 'Saints Cosmas and Damian Healing a Christian with the Leg of a Dead Moor', 1460-1480.  Both images via Marinni's LiveJournal, where there are additional depictions of the legend.

"Everybody loves Bernie Sanders"

Except, of course, for the Democratic party officials who wanted HRC to be the candidate.
If you look at the numbers, Bernie Sanders is the most popular politician in America – and it’s not even close. Yet bizarrely, the Democratic party – out of power across the country and increasingly irrelevant – still refuses to embrace him and his message. It’s increasingly clear they do so at their own peril.

A new Fox News poll out this week shows Sanders has a +28 net favorability rating among the US population, dwarfing all other elected politicians on both ends of the political spectrum. And he’s even more popular among the vaunted “independents”, where he is at a mind boggling +41...

One would think with numbers like that, Democratic politicians would be falling all over themselves to be associated with Sanders, especially considering the party as a whole is more unpopular than the Republicans and even Donald Trump right now. Yet instead of embracing his message, the establishment wing of the party continues to resist him at almost every turn, and they seem insistent that they don’t have to change their ways to gain back the support of huge swaths of the country....

Democrats seem more than happy to put all the blame of the 2016 election on a combination of Russia and James Comey and have engaged in almost zero introspection on the root causes of the larger reality...

In other words, they’re doubling down on the exact same failing strategy that Clinton used in the final months of the campaign. Sanders himself put it this way in his usual blunt style in an interview with New York magazine this week – when asked about whether the Democrats can adapt to the political reality, he said: “There are some people in the Democratic Party who want to maintain the status quo. They would rather go down with the Titanic so long as they have first-class seats.”
He would have beaten Trump, IMHO.

Photo credit (cropped for size).

JFK assassination records to be released ?

Twenty-five years have passed since the 1992 mandate:
[F]ederal judge John Tunheim called for complete release of the government’s JFK files later this year.

“It’s time to release them all,” said Tunheim, the former chair of an independent panel that declassified thousands of JFK records in the 1990s.

The National Archives retains a trove of more than 3,500 JFK assassination records, obtained by Tunheim’s review board, that have never been seen by the public. The records are historically significant.

The unseen CIA files include 2,000 pages of transcripts of the CIA’s harsh interrogation of KGB defector Yuri Nosenko, who handled Lee Harvey Oswald’s file for Soviet intelligence service. They also include CIA files of senior undercover officers in 1963 such as Bill Harvey, David Phillips and Howard Hunt. All three believed Kennedy’s policies were dangerously weak, perhaps even treasonous. Harvey and Phillips are known to have mounted assassination operations.

The JFK Records Act of 1992 mandates the release of all of these records by October 26, 2017.

In his Press Club comments, Tunheim, the senior federal judge in Minnesota, noted that President Trump and White House General Counsel Donald McGahn face important decisions about these records. The leadership of the CIA, including Trump-appointed director Mike Pompeo, may prefer that some of this material remain secret.

Mark Twain's "writing hut"

At his most productive, Twain practically chain-smoked cigars, and his craving for a quick burn was conspicuous at 250-acre Quarry Farm, a nest of solitude away from the social hurly-burly of Hartford.
Mindful of her health, perhaps, sister-in-law Susan Crane had a windowed study built specially for Twain in 1874 not far from her Victorian farmhouse. Equipped with a writing table, wicker chair, cot, fireplace and cat door, it was designed to resemble the pilot house of a Mississippi steamboat.

After a steak breakfast, Twain would saunter 300 feet across a lawn flecked with buttercups and black-eyed susans and climb the stone steps to a promontory where the octagonal cabin was perched. Amid the chirp and crackle of nature, overlooking a panorama he called a "foretaste of heaven," Twain often churned out as many as 2,600 words a day...

To thwart vandals and accommodate tourists, the cabin was moved down to the Elmira College campus in 1952.  
The top photo shows the study at its current location on the campus.  The original location offered way more spectacular views.
“It is the loveliest study you ever saw…octagonal with a peaked roof, each face filled with a spacious window…perched in complete isolation on the top of an elevation that commands leagues of valley and city and retreating ranges of distant blue hills. It is a cozy nest and just room in it for a sofa, table, and three or four chairs, and when the storms sweep down the remote valley and the lightning flashes behind the hills beyond and the rain beats upon the roof over my head—imagine the luxury of it.”—Mark Twain, Letter to William Dean Howells, 1874
I would love to have a similiar tiny "hut" in the north woods of Minnesota to use as a retreat.

Top photo credit Alamy, via The Guardian.   Black-and-white photo via Twainquotes.

"We want all of you to come with."

Does the title seem ungrammatical to you?  If so, you're probably not from the Upper Midwest, where that terminal "with" is a common construction.  Last night I watched the movie "Fargo" and heard that sentence in the dialogue.

Historical immigration patterns are probably responsible:
In [North-Central American English], the preposition with is used without an object as an adverb in phrases like come with, as in Do you want to come with? for standard Do you want to come with me? or with us?. In standard English, other prepositions can be used as adverbs, like go down (down as adverb) for go down the stairs (down as preposition). With is not typically used in this way in standard English (particularly in British and its clone Irish English because of being distinguished as the original form of the English language), and this feature likely came from languages spoken by some immigrants, such as Scandinavian... German.. or Dutch... all of which have this construction, like Swedish kom med.

Sand sculpture by a puffer fish

While diving in the semi-tropical region of Amami Oshima, roughly 80 ft below sea level, Ookata spotted something he had never seen. And as it turned out, no one else had seen it before either...

On the seabed a geometric, circular structure measuring roughly 6.5 ft in diameter had been precisely carved from sand. It consisted of multiple ridges, symmetrically jutting out from the center, and appeared to be the work of an underwater artist, carefully working with tools...

Underwater cameras showed that the artist was a small puffer fish who, using only his flapping fin, tirelessly worked day and night to carve the circular ridges. The unlikely artist – best known in Japan as a delicacy, albeit a potentially poisonous one – even takes small shells, cracks them, and lines the inner grooves of his sculpture as if decorating his piece. Further observation revealed that this “mysterious circle” was not just there to make the ocean floor look pretty. Attracted by the grooves and ridges, female puffer fish would find their way along the dark seabed to the male puffer fish where they would mate and lay eggs in the center of the circle. In fact, the scientists observed that the more ridges the circle contained, the more likely it was that the female would mate with the male.
The lower embed shows how small the fish is in comparison to his artwork.  I've seen tiny little scooped-out nests in the sand made by freshwater fish, but never anything this elaborate.  It reminds me of the creations of bower birds.

Photos and text from Spoon and Tamago, via BoingBoing.

Reposted form 2012 to add this video of the puffer fish creating his artwork:


28 March 2017

Divertimento #124

For less than $20 you can buy a fiberoptic endoscope that attaches to your smart phone and potentially check yourself for polyps in the nose, larynx, and maybe elsewhere.

A review of 13 cases of ocular injury caused by bottle corks.  "Most of them are due to sparkling white wine served at room temperature."

"Recently, research has come out strongly in support of dietary fat and cholesterol as benign, rather than harmful, additions to person's diet. Saturated fat seems poised for a similar pardon."

An extended argument that using a bidet is more sanitary than using toilet paper.

Gut-wrenching photos of plastic pollution entering the ocean.  About 6000 tons per day from India alone.

Trump things:  He was not, as he has said, first in his class at Wharton; he wasn't even on the Dean's list.  A Tweet from 2013 oddly relevant to the recent health-care legislation fiasco.  A list of the companies to boycott if you're protesting the Trump presidency.  This truck driver really doesn't like Donald Trump.  Donald Trump's father was arrested after a Klan riot in 1927.   And lyrics from a Woody Guthrie song about "old man Trump."  Clever title of a picture of Merkel and Trump sitting for an awkward photo-op.  And an even better one.

Video of an eagle trained by the Dutch National Police taking down a drone.

"Climate of Concern, a 1991 educational film produced by Shell, warned that the company’s own product could lead to extreme weather, floods, famines, and climate refugees, and noted that the reality of climate change was "endorsed by a uniquely broad consensus of scientists."" (full-length video embedded at the link).

Fossil hominid skulls found in China have both human and Neanderthal characteristics.

During an 18-month period in 1969-70, 370 bombs were set off in New York City.

A longread about the invasion of the Great Lakes by zebra mussels.

"A teenager with sickle cell disease achieved complete remission after an experimental gene therapy at Necker Children’s Hospital in Paris."  That is fantastic news.

An interactive map of thermal hot springs in the United States.  An interesting distribution.

Showerthought:  Chocolate is a flavour of milk, and milk is a flavour of chocolate.

"I swear to God, the sight of people with deadly diseases crowdfunding their health care is the most dystopian thing about America right now."

Speculation that Jane Austen was poisoned by arsenic.

A petition to remove health-care subsidies for members of Congress and their families has now gathered over 800,000 votes.

A longread about the events that will follow the death of Queen Elizabeth.

TIL that shrimp can be raised on farms in landlocked states.

Attempts are underway to recover "billions of pounds worth of British gold hidden in the wrecks of merchant ships sunk during the First and Second World Wars."

Pinhole cameras are being embedded in streetside ATMs to steal financial information.

Today's blue mineral embeds are (top to bottom) aquamarine and albite, chrysocolla, fluorite, barite, and pentagonite.

26 March 2017

Light. Action. Camera.

"Shot this 3 second "selfie" tonight at Coronado Beach, CA. This is me swinging a string of glow sticks with burning steel wool at the end. Canon 5D SR, Canon 16-35mm @16mm. F2.8, ISO 800. 3 second exposure."
Credit Chris Matthew Brady.

(lame title.  I'm open to suggestions...)

Schwarzenegger shuts down a troll

Arnold Schwarzenegger posted a video congratulating the winners of the Special Olympics World Games. Some dickhead troll responded -
“The Special Olympics make no sense.  The Olympics are for the best athletes in the entire world to compete against each other to determine who is the best,” the individual wrote. “Having retards competing is doing the opposite!”
I've embedded his response above.

"... no one will ever remember you."  More Terminator than Kindergarten Cop.

Gaiman: "our future depends on libraries and reading"

Excerpts from a superb extended interview in The Guardian:
I’m going to tell you that libraries are important. I’m going to suggest that reading fiction, that reading for pleasure, is one of the most important things one can do. I’m going to make an impassioned plea for people to understand what libraries and librarians are, and to preserve both of these things...

Fiction has two uses. Firstly, it’s a gateway drug to reading... it forces you to learn new words, to think new thoughts, to keep going. To discover that reading per se is pleasurable. Once you learn that, you’re on the road to reading everything...

The simplest way to make sure that we raise literate children is to teach them to read, and to show them that reading is a pleasurable activity. And that means, at its simplest, finding books that they enjoy, giving them access to those books, and letting them read them.

I don’t think there is such a thing as a bad book for children. Every now and again it becomes fashionable among some adults to point at a subset of children’s books, a genre, perhaps, or an author, and to declare them bad books, books that children should be stopped from reading. I’ve seen it happen over and over; Enid Blyton was declared a bad author, so was RL Stine, so were dozens of others. Comics have been decried as fostering illiteracy.

It’s tosh. It’s snobbery and it’s foolishness. There are no bad authors for children, that children like and want to read and seek out, because every child is different...

And the second thing fiction does is to build empathy. When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people... You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed...

You’re also finding out something as you read vitally important for making your way in the world. And it’s this: The world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different...

...libraries are about freedom. Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication. They are about education (which is not a process that finishes the day we leave school or university), about entertainment, about making safe spaces, and about access to information.
I worry that here in the 21st century people misunderstand what libraries are and the purpose of them. If you perceive a library as a shelf of books, it may seem antiquated or outdated in a world in which most, but not all, books in print exist digitally. But that is to miss the point fundamentally.
I think it has to do with nature of information. Information has value, and the right information has enormous value...

I do not believe that all books will or should migrate onto screens: as Douglas Adams once pointed out to me, more than 20 years before the Kindle turned up, a physical book is like a shark. Sharks are old: there were sharks in the ocean before the dinosaurs. And the reason there are still sharks around is that sharks are better at being sharks than anything else is. Physical books are tough, hard to destroy, bath-resistant, solar-operated, feel good in your hand: they are good at being books, and there will always be a place for them...

We have an obligation to support libraries. To use libraries, to encourage others to use libraries, to protest the closure of libraries. If you do not value libraries then you do not value information or culture or wisdom. You are silencing the voices of the past and you are damaging the future.
I had to refrain from inserting even more text from this insightful commentary.  I encourage you to read (and share) the fulltext here.

Photo credit: Robin Mayes.

This is a greenhouse

Specifically it's a structural component of the Bombay Sapphire Distillery in the United Kingdom.
...they use the excess heat from inside the distillery to be able to create a greenhouse environment outside and allow the distillery to grow tropical and Mediterranean herbs and spices directly on site. Herbs and spices that are then used in their gin products.
There are actually two greenhouses:

One of the greenhouses has the environment and climate necessary to grow tropical plants and other one grows mediterranean plants, using a different climatic environment.

The gardens are taken care of by a team of botanical garden experts who oversee the growth of hundreds of plants as well as herbs and spices that grow alongside the original 10 used in their recipe.
Kudos to the designers and developers for recycling the energy and for making the project esthetically appealing.

A football game has only 11 minutes of action

From a 2010 article in the WSJ (the numbers might have changed a bit since then):
According to a Wall Street Journal study of four recent broadcasts, and similar estimates by researchers, the average amount of time the ball is in play on the field during an NFL game is about 11 minutes...

So what do the networks do with the other 174 minutes in a typical broadcast? Not surprisingly, commercials take up about an hour. As many as 75 minutes, or about 60% of the total air time, excluding commercials, is spent on shots of players huddling, standing at the line of scrimmage or just generally milling about between snaps. In the four broadcasts The Journal studied, injured players got six more seconds of camera time than celebrating players. While the network announcers showed up on screen for just 30 seconds, shots of the head coaches and referees took up about 7% of the average show...
This is why the only way I watch football nowadays is by using a DVR and speeding through the game (and past the commercials).

Reposted from 2012 to add news of developments in 2017:
"It has been an effort for a long period of time. We've talked about the length of the game," [NFL Commissioner] Goodell said. "This effort's not as focused on the length of the game. This is focused on what's happening outside the plays -- how fast we get the ball set, the number of breaks, the number of intrusions -- so that fans can focus on the action."

With all this talk about making the game faster for fans, what would Goodell consider the ideal length of a broadcast?
"We (were at) 3:07 and change (last season), down about a minute," Goodell said. "We think we could probably get pretty close to five minutes of downtime out of the game, so that would bring you somewhere in the 3:02 range. That would be very successful if we could get to that point. But, again, not just the length. We want to make sure we are taking the right things out of the game -- the things that are not compelling to our fans."
Clueless.  The idea that cutting 5 minutes out of a 3-hour broadcast will satisfy fans' frustrations shows that viewer interests don't even begin to compete with advertiser's interests.

Is it OK to put dog poop in a neighbor's garbage can?

There are some dilemmas of modern life that our grandparents could never have imagined.  In various locations around this country there is an ongoing public debate about the disposal of dog poop.  Everyone agrees that the dog's owner should pick it up - but there is disagreement about the proper disposal.

The dog's owner is out for a walk.  The dog poops four blocks from home.  The owner bags the poop.  It's garbage pick-up day and the containers are at curbside.  Does he/she place the bagged poop in a nearby container, or carry it all the way home?
According to Minneapolis ordinances, you can’t put “substances or materials of any kind” in a residential garbage can “when the substances or materials were generated at a location other than the residence.”

In St. Paul, ordinances say when a dog poops on someone else’s property, the dog owner has to remove the poop “to a proper receptacle located on property owned or possessed” by the dog owner.
Discussion and various proposed solutions (including stickers to put on garbage cans) at the StarTribune.

Prophetic words from Rod Serling

This Twilight Zone closing summary has been widely cited in recent months:
The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill, and suspicion can destroy, and a thoughtless frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own for the children, and the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is that these things cannot be confined to the Twilight Zone. 
Those were the final words from the broadcast of The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street (1960).

23 March 2017

Is there an error in this Constable painting?

The painting is "Wivenhoe Park" by John Constable, currently in the collections of the National Gallery of Art.

I first saw this painting about 30 years ago in a print that was on the wall of the office of a colleague of mine at the University of Kentucky.  After looking at the painting for a while, I initially concluded that the artist (world famous for his landscape portrayals) must have made an error in depicting the scene.  Nobody else seemed interested in the apparent anomaly, and I lost track of the painting (not knowing its title) until I encountered it again this past week.

I invite you to explore the image (it should enlarge to wallpaper size with a click) to see if you find anything that appears internally inconsistent in the content.

Wivenhoe Park is a real, not an imaginary, place - a country estate in Essex.  Two seemingly contradictory aspects of the painting have puzzled me.  Left center of the image there is a bridge spanning the watercourse:

The flow of the water is clearly from the left of the painting toward the right.  Now look downstream to where two fishermen are working their net:

This is presumably a gill net of some sort, spanning the watercourse from shore to shore, held up by cork floats.  They are presumably lifting it in segments to harvest any fish that have become entrapped.

But... the curvature of the net would be consistent with water flowing from the right of the picture toward the left, not left-to-right as the bridge at the left would indicate. 

It's a curious mistake for a landscape artist to make - especially an artist as skilled as Constable, and especially when drawing from life rather than from imagination.  I decided that for a painting as large and complex as this one, he must have made preparatory sketches and that his sketch of the fishermen must have been made from the opposite shore, then incorporated into the landscape "backwards."  I thought I found confirmation in this comment from an analysis at the V&A:
The artist rearranged the landscape to create a more harmonious image. For example, the lake and house would not have been visible in the same view in real life.
So perhaps a sort of "compositional error."  I considered other possibilities.  I found the location of Google Maps and zoomed in to confirm that the watercourse in the painting is remote from the sea, so the bowing of the fishing nets is not the result of tidal flow.

But now a different apparent anomaly bothered me.  The Google map confirmed that this isn't a rushing river.  It's not even a decent-sized creek.  In fact if you look at the pipe passing through the dam under the bridge, the flow is almost negligible.  So why is the net bowed?  It clearly goes from shore to shore, not in a huge circle.

The answer came when I tracked down one of Constable's sketches in the archives of the Victoria and Albert:

Now it's as clear as day.  The net is being dragged by 4-5 people on each shore (in retrospect they are visible on the far shore in the final painting).   I note also that the V&A entitles this sketch "Fishing with a net on the lake in Wivenhoe Park."  Not a river or stream - just a manmade lake (large pond, really) prettified by a wealthy landowner employing a landscape architect:
In order to evoke a sense of the picturesque the architect Woods introduced an arch and bridge specifically designed to look old...
End of story?  Sort of.  At least in terms of the faithfulness of the representation, Constable has been vindicated, and my original concerns are "much ado about nothing."

But now I'm interested in something else.  My (incorrect) impression from the painting was that it portrayed two fishermen as incidental elements in a landscape. Now the activity appears to be way more than a recreational pastime. This is a large crew - a dozen grown men dragging a lake for fish. On a private estate. These are hired hands - a crew assembled for this purpose.

This painting was commissioned by the Rebow family, so Constable incorporated aspects that would be important to the family - including their eleven-year-old daughter Mary driving a donkey cart on the hillside to the left (inset right).

The dragging of the lake must also be important, and I would therefore conclude that the harvest of the fish was significant (important enough to employ all the gardeners on the estate and maybe some hired hands as well.)

Which brings me to my final point (at last, and the reason for posting this long-winded entry in the first place) - aquaculture as a likely practice on English country estates.

After a lot of searching I found this book -

- not in my local library, but available fulltext online here.  Herewith some excerpts:
This book is being published in order to highlight a little-known aspect of animal husbandry in former times, namely the keeping, storing and cultivation of crucian carp (Carassius carassius ), carp (Cyprinus carpio), tench (Tinca tinca) and other cyprinids in man-made ponds... The construction of fishponds began across Europe, and increased rapidly during the twelfth and thirteenth century. At that time, fishponds were constructed on estates belonging to bishops, monasteries and royalty across England... The balance of evidence now indicates that fishponds were introduced into Britain after the Norman Conquest (1066) as a secular aristocratic initiative rather than a monastic innovation... The abundance of literary references to fishponds shows that their possession, along with mills, dovecotes and deer parks, was one of the privyleges of manorial landholders, a badge of rank as much as a practical utility... Many royal castles, palaces, manor-houses and hunting-lodges were equipped with fishponds... An account book for 1632–6 kept by the Duke of Suffolk’s estate steward records the cleaning-out of the Lulworth Castle fishponds at a cost of £9 4s 8d and the purchase of a ‘trammell nett’ (a long, narrow fishing-net held vertically in the water by floats and sinkers, consisting of two walls of large-meshed netting, between which a narrow-meshed net was loosely hung) for catching the fish... The fishing of Stonehead Lake in 1793 produced 2,000 carp ‘of large dimensions’, including one 8 kg specimen... By the 1740s the geometrically-shaped ponds associated with formal gardens were passing out of fashion. Some were abandoned, others altered, as revolutionary ideas of ‘landscape’ gardening encouraged the creation of larger lakes of more ‘natural’ appearance... Yet some advocates of agricultural improvement were still promoting fishponds as a contribution to the farming economy into the early nineteenth century... Frensham Great Pond was still emptied every five years for fishing-out as late as 1858...
Constable completed Wivenhoe Park in 1816, so apparently aquaculture was still a going concern at that estate.  I wonder if such efforts were revived during the relative scarcities of WWII.  I'd especially like to hear any input from British readers of this blog regarding this subject.

You learn something every day.

"Protruding iris collarette"

The iris collarette is a landmark that separates the central pupillary zone from the peripheral ciliary zone. It is typically flat but can be prominent, as seen in this patient. This finding is a normal variant. It is benign and asymptomatic and requires no treatment.
Via Neatorama.

"Climate security"

Memo to self: use the phrase "climate security" when discussing climate change with skeptics.
2016 saw a "dramatic" decline in the number of coal-fired power stations in pre-construction globally. The authors of a new study say there was a 48% fall in planned coal units, with a 62% drop in construction starts...

The main causes of the decline are the imposition of restrictive measures by China's central government - with the equivalent of 600 coal-fired units being put on hold until at least 2020... there have also been significant retirements of coal plants in Europe and the US over the past two years, with roughly 120 large units being taken out of commission.

"However abrupt, the shift from fossil fuels to clean sources in the power sector is a positive one for health, climate security, and jobs. And by all indications, the shift is unstoppable."
Maybe American politicians would respond more favorably to the concept of "climate security" than to "climate change."

Can't tolerate punches from cartoon kittens

A 17-year-old girl in California created a website "where users click on Donald Trump’s face to punch him with tiny kitten paws."
But what was meant as nothing more than a jokey website for coding practice has turned into a legal nightmare. Now Lucy is facing the wrath of the big man himself.

Three weeks after the site went live, Lucy was served a cease and desist letter from Trump’s general counsel stationed in Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue in NYC.

The letter, confirmed by the Observer, reads exactly as you’d expect a Trump C&D would. It begins touting him as a “well-known businessman” and television star and boasts, “As I’m sure you’re aware, the Trump name is internationally known and famous.”

Guided by a family lawyer, Lucy changed the name of the site to KittenFeed.com

When shall we meet?

From the archives of The New Yorker.

21 March 2017

Compare and contrast

For your essay today, class, you will compare and contrast two of the leaders of major countries in terms of their knowledge about nuclear energy and nuclear weapons.

Mr. Trump's comments (on the left) can be viewed in this video.  Fortunately, at the time he was not speaking to Angela Merkel, whose doctoral dissertation (on the right) translates as:
"Study of the mechanism of decomposition with single bond breaking and calculation of their rate constant on the basis of quantum mechanical and statistical methods." ("Dissertation to obtain the academic degree doctor in a branch of science - diploma physicist Angela Merkel...")

Not untrue

From the archives of The New Yorker.

The ancient Greeks had no word for "blue"

Homer’s descriptions of color in The Iliad and The Odyssey, taken literally, paint an almost psychedelic landscape: in addition to the sea, sheep were also the color of wine; honey was green, as were the fear-filled faces of men; and the sky is often described as bronze.

It gets stranger. Not only was Homer’s palette limited to only five colors (metallics, black, white, yellow-green, and red), but a prominent philosopher even centuries later, Empedocles, believed that all color was limited to four categories: white/light, dark/black, red, and yellow. Xenophanes, another philosopher, described the rainbow as having but three bands of color: porphyra (dark purple), khloros, and erythros (red).

The conspicuous absence of blue is not limited to the Greeks. The color “blue” appears not once in the New Testament, and its appearance in the Torah is questioned (there are two words argued to be types of blue, sappir and tekeleth, but the latter appears to be arguably purple, and neither color is used, for instance, to describe the sky).
Further discussion in an interesting column at the Clarkesworld sci-fi e-magazine.

With a tip of the blogging cap to the elves at No Such Thing as a Fish for mentioning this in a recent podcast.

19 March 2017

Re universal health care

Via Reddit.

Word for the day: "Rotting Room"

Before the bodies of Spanish royalty are consigned to their gilded crypts, they are first consigned to a special chamber to allow the flesh to decay.
Rotting Room is the unglamorous translation of “El Pudridero.” When Felipe II designed the gargantuan El Escorial royal complex in the 16th century northwest of Madrid, he practically made it a shrine of death... Located behind the Pantheon walls, accessible only to monks at the Escorial monastery, this is a secretive room accessed by a private passage... It’s here where for at least 20 years mortal kings — and queens who birthed kings — decompose beneath lime until they are completely bone.

Centuries later, the Rotting Room is still in use.

As reported by The Onion

For those unfamiliar with the publication:  "The Onion is an American digital media company and news satire organization... The Onion's articles cover current events, both real and fictional, satirizing the tone and format of traditional news organizations with stories, editorials, op-ed pieces, and man-in-the-street interviews using a traditional news website layout and an editorial voice modeled after that of the Associated Press. The publication's humor often depends on presenting mundane, everyday events as newsworthy, surreal or alarming.

And a backstory from Mother Jones.

Keeping foreigners out of the United States

As reported by Voice of America:
Each year, the University of Southern California brings delegations from Africa to meet with business leaders, government officials and others in the U.S. But this year, the African summit has no Africans. All were denied visas.

Visa issues are not uncommon for people traveling from African nations. During her prior three summits, Mary Flowers saw a high percentage of her attendees at the African Global Economic and Development Summit, unable to attain visas.

"Usually we get 40 percent that get rejected but the others come," said Flowers, chair of the African Global Economic and Development Summit. "This year it was 100 percent. Every delegation. And it was sad to see, because these people were so disheartened."

Flowers estimated that she lost about 100 attendees, including speakers and government officials. The countries affected included Sierra Leone, Guinea, Ghana, Nigeria, Ethiopia and South Africa.
More details at the link.


16 March 2017

Chess problem

From The Telegraph:
The puzzle above may seem hopeless for white, with just a King and four pawns remaining, but it is possible to draw and even win.

Scientists have constructed it in a way to confound a chess computer, which would normally consider that it is a win for black.  However an average chess-playing human should be able to see that a draw is possible.  A chess computer struggles because it looks like an impossible position, even though it is perfectly legal...

The first person who can demonstrate the solution legally will receive a bonus prize.

Both humans, computers and even quantum computers are invited to play the game and solutions should be emailed to puzzles@penroseinstitute.com.

Hospital waste

I can verify from personal experience that the following account is basically true:
This, however, isn’t a story of about the crippling price of medical supplies. This is about the high cost of medical supplies that hospitals throw away.

On a recent snowy day the warehouse’s 65-year-old proprietor, Elizabeth McLellan, gave an indignant accounting: She yanked a urinary catheter out of one bin. It’s unopened and has an expiration date of July 2018. “There’s no reason to get rid of this.” A box of 30 new feeding bags has an August 2019 expiration date. The same type sells on Amazon.com for $129.

That surgical stapler? It’s unopened. The same model sells online for $189. And McLellan simply shook her head over a set of a dozen long thin laparoscopic surgery instruments that some hospital discarded. Similar used tools can go for hundreds of dollars.

“There’s nothing wrong with these, nothing wrong with any of these,” she said.

Ten years ago, McLellan, a registered nurse, shocked to see what hospitals were tossing out, began asking them to give her their castoffs instead. In 2009 she launched Partners for World Health, a nonprofit that now has four warehouses throughout Maine. Today, she and hundreds of volunteers collect medical equipment and supplies from a network of hospitals and medical clinics, sort them and eventually ship containers full of them to countries like Greece, Syria and Uganda...

MedShare, a Georgia-based nonprofit more than 10 times the size of Partners, sent 156 containers of discarded medical supplies to developing countries last year, each one worth as much as $175,000...

McLellan started her nonprofit after watching patient rooms being cleaned out at Maine Medical Center, where she was a nurse administrator. When patients were discharged, hospital staff threw out everything, including unopened supplies. McLellan got permission from the hospital’s CEO to put out bins to save the discarded items.

A year and a half later, she’d gathered more than 11,000 pounds of supplies and equipment in her house. Today, Partners has three paid employees — McLellan is a volunteer — and an annual budget of $357,000, most of it from individual donations. Hundreds of volunteers pitch in. Similar nonprofits have sprung up around the country...

And those pallets of adult diapers stacked high on a shelf? He sells the same type at his pharmacy for $11.99 per package or more. Farren recalled one time they picked up about 100 unopened packages of diapers from the home of a patient who had died. “It was ridiculous,” he said.
Further details at Salon.

"Heelwork" demonstrated

I remember teaching our dogs to "heel."  But heelwork at Cruft's annual show is a whole world different.

Here's the 2015 winner.

Via Neatorama, where there is also a video of the flyball competition.

14 March 2017

Future presidential candidate ?

He says no.  But lots of people are discussing openly the possibility of the Democratic party nominating a non-politician for the office of President.

The underlying logic would be that the president needs to represent the people, but he/she doesn't need to be an expert on law, or war or economics or education.  The president has (or at least should have) a staff and aides to provide analysis and expert opinions.  The president meets with other foreign leaders with a major role in diplomacy, and needs to communicate effectively with Congress and the people.

Michael Moore was the first person I heard who advocated this change, speaking just a week after Donald Trump was elected:
Moore, speaking on CNN’s State of the Union show, said the leadership vacuum that will result from the departures of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama would best be filled by a well-liked celebrity.

Democrats would be better off if they ran Oprah [Winfrey] or Tom Hanks,” said Moore. “Why don’t we run beloved people? We have so many of them. The Republicans do this – they run [Ronald] Reagan and the Terminator [Arnold Schwarzenegger] and other people.”

Moore continued: “Why don’t we run somebody that the American people love and are really drawn to, and that are smart and have good politics and all that?” 
A CNN article discusses the possibility of Oprah Winfrey campaigning for the presidency.  There is also a relevant article in New Republic.

Other celebrities who might consider running for political office (not necessarily for the presidency) include Will Smith, Roseanne Barr, Angelina Jolie, Kanye West, and Mark Zuckerberg.

"Traditionalists" who cringe at the thought of celebrities invading politics might do well to remember that (IIRC) one of the concepts of the Founding Fathers was that state and national legislators should be ordinary people who could put aside their hammers and plowshares and travel to the capitol to manage the country, then return to their work (although they themselves were elite aristocrats).

Photo credit Charles Sykes/Invision/AP, via.

"Deconstructing" a house

It's not the same as "demolishing" the house:
Deconstruction... entails taking a house apart, piece by piece, down to the foundation. The majority of what is removed from a house via deconstruction can be recycled or reused. Everything removed from the house and donated to a qualified 501(c)3 charity can be claimed by the property owners on their taxes as a donation at fair market value...

The deconstruction appraiser determines what materials can be salvaged and estimates the value of the donations. As the process unfolds, the appraiser prepares a report that lists every component to be donated and its fair market value; completes IRS Form 8283 for the donor valuing the material (the nonprofit recipients complete the form, too); ensures that the donor has the required documentation to claim full benefits from the donation, and stands behind all this if the IRS has any questions about the donation. The deconstruction company dismantles the house, sorts the materials and transports them to centers for recycling or resale...

Deconstruction costs more than conventional demolition because the materials need to be carefully removed and preserved in usable condition. Stahl says demolition might cost $8,000 to $11,000 for a typical house and take up to a week to complete. Deconstructing the same house might cost as much as $24,000, she says, and take two weeks...

Generally speaking, Smith says, “85 to 90 percent of a house can be recycled or repurposed. About the only things that cannot yet be salvaged or repurposed are drywall, rotted materials and broken pieces of ceramic tile or marble.”

What typically can be salvaged? The list is long: hardwood flooring, carpeting, interior lumber, beams, cabinets, appliances, molding and trim, doors, switch plates, light fixtures, ceiling fans, mantels, bathroom vanities, toilets, mirrors, tubs, shower surrounds, granite and laminate countertops, sinks, windows, vent covers, shelving, insulation, heat pumps, hot-water heaters, air-conditioning units, washers and dryers, screens, siding, slate roofing and sub-roofing, flagstone, bricks and decking.
Kudos to people who do this rather than bulldoze the old house.  More information, and a gallery of photos, at the Washington Post. (embedded photo cropped for size).

Tick bites can cause meat allergy

Not a connection one would logically derive a priori:
People living in tick-endemic areas around the world are being warned of an increasingly prevalent, potentially life-threatening side effect to being bitten: developing a severe allergy to meat.

The link between tick bites and meat allergies was first described in 2007, and has since been confirmed around the world.

Sufferers of “tick-induced mammalian meat allergy” will experience a delayed reaction of between two and 10 hours after eating red meat. Almost invariably, they are found to have been bitten by a tick – sometimes as much as six months before.

Although most cases of tick bites of humans are uneventful, some immune systems are sensitive to proteins in the parasite’s saliva and become intolerant of red meat and, in some cases, derivatives such as dairy and gelatine. Poultry and seafood can be tolerated, but many sufferers choose to avoid meat entirely.

Cases of the emergent allergy have been reported in Europe, Asia, Central America and Africa, but it is most prevalent – and on the rise – in parts of Australia and the United States where ticks are endemic and host populations are booming.
Further details at The Guardian.

Health care reform

From the archives of The New Yorker.

11 March 2017

Morelia viridis (green tree python)

Photo credit: Riau Images/Barcroft Images, via The Guardian.

Ahmadinejad's advice to Trump

I have previously posted a number of articles about former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who I think is a more complex character than the monomaniacal ogre portrayed by some Western media. When I last heard of him, he was a university professor.  Now he has established a Twitter account, and a Guardian article suggests that "it’s only a matter of days before we see him mention @realDonaldTrump, potentially sparking a clash of two of the world’s most famous rabble rousers."

He has already written an open letter to Donald Trump.  Herewith some excerpts:
To: His Excellency, Mr. Donald John Trump

The president of the United States of America

Hello there.
Your Excellency has been elected, in the recent US election, as the president of the country. It can be inferred from the political and media atmosphere in the US that the result of the election has been despite the status quo, and beyond the will and prediction of the governing body and the main system behind the scene of the US political stage...
Welcoming this and hoping it will have an effect, I hereby share some points with you, whereas I’d tried in the past to convey some important matters to the two preceding presidents, via letters...
This letter is by no means political, in the common sense of the world; nonetheless, today it is from a human to another human. The letter is from a humane standpoint, rooted in interest toward and compassion for the American nation and other nations, and I expect your Excellency to read it from the same perspective, adopting a humane approach...
Your Excellency and I are, like other human beings, servants and creatures of The Only God, and have been created for an eternal life. God has not created us for enmity, hegemony and aggressiveness. People are all equal and in terms of possessing land, wealth, God-given opportunities and human rights, they’re alike. The true essence of human blossoms through monotheism, loving others and making endeavors toward the well-being and prosperity of others...
Having been elected the US president is a historic opportunity primarily for the elected person and secondly for the electorates and other nations. Although four years is a long period, but it ends quickly. The opportunity needs to be valued, and all its moments need to be used in the best way.

Those elected by nations and the rulers should never consider themselves being superior to people, or being their masters and dominant over people’s affairs. The rulers’ capacity is but to be humble toward the people, to serve them, and to follow up their demands...

What outcome has meddling in other’s affairs and military deployments to other regions and imposing thousands of US military, security and intelligence bases across the globe had, except for insecurity, war, division, killing and displacement of nations? Have the measures brought about anything beyond hatred and animosity toward US leaders, notoriety for the US people and imposition of military expenditures?

If all governments want to show behavior similar to the US administration, which visible horizon of peace and security will lie ahead of the human society? Isn’t it better to stop warmongering and not to interfere militarily in other regions of the world, in order to create an atmosphere of international understanding and to end the arms race, war and killing of people?...
If Your Excellency takes the initiative to remove the deadly arms race and stop the military presence and intervention in other regions, the annual killing and displacement of millions of human beings will be prevented. If so, hundreds of billions of dollars of global military and security costs will be reduced, to be spent in the health, education and welfare of nations, as well as in reducing the social gap and other problems, and to uproot insecurity.

Hasn’t the time come for all of us to believe that the human society needs human thought, justice and brotherhood more than arms and military power? Arrogance is a devilish deed and the root cause of all problems in the human society. Hasn’t the time come to change arms to pens, and to replace arrogance, discrimination and hatred with love, equality and brotherhood?..
Women depict God’s beauty and are God’s most beautiful and valuable gift. Respecting women and dignifying them, is a sign of magnanimity.

The great men of history have paid the highest level of respect to women and recognized their God-given capabilities. Women’s role in the life and perfection of human society is special and in the best and highest form. Women’s management in domains of science, society, culture, etc. has been among the most precise and excellent...
I pray to God The Merciful for all nations and also for the people of US glory, prosperity, peace, freedom, justice and welfare and for Your Excellency, success in performing the heavy duty of reforming the structure of the US system and in responding to people’s demand.

And peace on the righteous servants of God

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

In service of the Iranian nation

Fulltext (with English translation).  Photo credit Hamed Malekpour.

Related: Ahmadinejad's Christmas message.

"There IS graffiti on the wall" or "There ARE graffiti on the wall"

I encountered this sentence in a collegiate alumni magazine:
(1947) A Bulletin "agent" reports that graffiti have been scrawled on Claverly Hall: "Héloïse loves Abélard" on one corner, "Henry Tudor is insatiable" on another.
I know graffiti is a plural noun, but I use it as singular.  Am I in big trouble?  Apparently not...
In Italian the word graffiti is a plural noun and its singular form is graffito. Traditionally, the same distinction has been maintained in English, so that graffiti, being plural, would require a plural verb: the graffiti were all over the wall. By the same token, the singular would require a singular verb: there was a graffito on the wall. Today, these distinctions survive in some specialist fields such as archaeology but sound odd to most native speakers. The most common modern use is to treat graffiti as if it were a mass noun, similar to a word like writing, and not to use graffito at all. In this case, graffiti takes a singular verb, as in the graffiti was all over the wall. Such uses are now widely accepted as standard. A similar process is going on with other words such as agenda, data, and media.

The life of Apollonius

Apollonius of Tyana... was a Greek Neopythagorean philosopher from the town of Tyana in the Roman province of Cappadocia in Anatolia. He was an orator and philosopher around the time of Jesus, and was compared with Jesus of Nazareth by Christians in the 4th century and by other writers in modern times.
As summarized by Bart D. Ehrman:
Even before he was born, it was known that he would be someone special. A supernatural being informed his mother the child she was to conceive would not be a mere mortal but would be divine. He was born miraculously, and he became an unusually precocious young man. As an adult he left home and went on an itinerant preaching ministry, urging his listeners to live, not for the material things of this world, but for what is spiritual. He gathered a number of disciples around him, who became convinced that his teachings were divinely inspired, in no small part because he himself was divine. He proved it to them by doing many miracles, healing the sick, casting out demons, and raising the dead. But at the end of his life he roused opposition, and his enemies delivered him over to the Roman authorities for judgment. Still, after he left this world, he returned to meet his followers in order to convince them that he was not really dead but lived on in the heavenly realm. Later some of his followers wrote books about him.
More at Wikipedia.

Photo credit Christian Vandendorpe.


From the archives of The New Yorker.

07 March 2017

Divertimento #123

Video of a patient with severe Parkinson's Disease, before and after ingesting medical marijuana.  Impressive.

Fossilized trilobite eggs discovered.

"When [President] Roosevelt heard that a torpedo was zooming toward him, he asked to be moved with his wheelchair over to the railing so that he could see it. Fearing an assassination plot, the Iowa turned its guns toward the William D. Porter — however, the crisis ended when the torpedo finally detonated as it struck heavy waves created by the Iowa’s increased speed. Walter reportedly answered with a meek “We did it” when pressed. The entire crew was placed under arrest and sent to Bermuda to face trial — the first instance in U.S. Naval history that the entire crew of a ship had been arrested."

Intraoperative virtual reality may be useful in allowing lower doses of sedatives and hypnotics for surgery patients.

"Today saw the release of a new study from the Grantham Institute for Imperial College London and the Carbon Tracker Initiative. It argues that solar photovoltaics and [electric vehicles] together will kick fossil fuel’s ass, quickly. “Falling costs of electric vehicle and solar technology,” they conclude, “could halt growth in global demand for oil and coal from 2020.” That would be a pretty big deal."

Explanation of the floating dry-erase stick man.  Impress your friends.

"The 588th was the most highly decorated female unit in [the Soviet air force in WWII], flying 30,000 missions over the course of four years -- and dropping, in total, 23,000 tons of bombs on invading German armies. Its members, who ranged in age from 17 to 26, flew primarily at night, making do with planes that were -- per their plywood-and-canvas construction -- generally reserved for training and crop-dusting. They often operated in stealth mode, idling their engines as they neared their targets and then gliding their way to their bomb release points.

Myths about what does and doesn't constitute treason.

"På väg mot vaken såg vi älgen göra flera misslyckade försök att ta sig upp själv. Den klarade heller inte att knäcka isen och ta sig in till land på egen hand, så min sambo, Sigrid Sjösteen, började ivrigt hugga upp en ränna in till grundare vatten. Vi turades om att hugga i omkring 30 minuter innan älgen var i säkerhet på land." (saving a moose frozen in a lake)

About those little dots on your car windows.  "Most importantly, it acts to prevents ultraviolet sun rays from deteriorating the urethane sealant."  And "there’s another group of dots on the windshield right behind the rearview mirror. As shown in the clip below, these dots, called the “third visor frit,” are there to help block the sun as it beams in from between the two front sun-visors."

Collector's Weekly has an extensive article on the history of model railroading.

Everything you need to know (or not) about the baton or truncheon (also called a cosh, billystick, billy club, nightstick, sap, blackjack). "The one for daytime was called a day-stick and was 11 inches in length. Another baton, that was used at night, was 26 inches long and called a night-stick, which is the origin of the word "nightstick"."

Someone did a detailed analysis of the most recent Super Bowl (LI) and determined that the ball was in play for a total of 16 minutes and 4 seconds.  "There were 178 plays (including kickoffs, point-afters, spikes, etc) with the average play being only 5.47 seconds long."

Dragonfly wings kill bacteria.  "...the bacteria are essentially caught in one of those sinister traps of which movie villains are quite fond. If they don't move, the bacteria might survive. However, when they do move, shear forces pull on the EPSs, ripping the membrane apart. This results in a fatal leakage of cellular contents, which causes the cell to deflate like a balloon..."

How to make ice cream from snow.

Why British roads are called "metalled" when they have no metal.  "Gravel is known to have been used extensively in the construction of roads by soldiers of the Roman Empire, but a limestone-surfaced road, thought to date back to the Bronze Age, has been found in Britain. Applying gravel, or "metalling," has had two distinct usages in road surfacing. The term road metal refers to the broken stone or cinders used in the construction or repair of roads or railways, and is derived from the Latin metallum, which means both "mine" and "quarry". The term originally referred to the process of creating a gravel roadway.

Pie chart explains pyramids.

"The paternoster is kind of elevator that consist of a chain of open compartments that move up and down continuously through the vertical shaft of a building in a loop and without stopping. Passengers step into the moving compartments in the direction they wish to go and then hop off when the elevator reaches the desired floor. There is no stopping in between the floors, and passengers must remain alert and get their timing right or else get severed."

China is now the world's biggest producer of solar energy.

Read about Mohamed Bzeek, a foster father who takes in children with terminal illnesses.
"Now, Bzeek spends long days and sleepless nights caring for a bedridden 6-year-old foster girl with a rare brain defect. She’s blind and deaf. She has daily seizures. Her arms and legs are paralyzed. Bzeek, a quiet, devout Libyan-born Muslim who lives in Azusa, just wants her to know she’s not alone in this life. “I know she can’t hear, can’t see, but I always talk to her,” he said. “I’m always holding her, playing with her, touching her. … She has feelings. She has a soul. She’s a human being.”

Apeirophobia is fear of everlasting life.

UNIT 731 (2015) "A research unit of the Imperial Japanese Army during the second Sino-Japanese War and WW2, who conducted human experiments and committed horrible war crimes. After the war, the U.S. government assisted in a coverup of their activities in exchange for the medical data they acquired."

"A Utah mother has received immense amounts of praise on social media for dressing up as a man to take her son to a "dads and doughnuts" event at his school... Kittrell said she became a single parent three years ago, and eventually asked her son if he wanted to take his grandfather to the event.  Her son told her no and that he wanted to take her because she was his mother and father."

An argument that the phrase "Dark Ages" is inappropriate.  "Far from being a stagnant dark age, as the first half of the Medieval Period (500-1000 AD) certainly was, the period from 1000 to 1500 AD actually saw the most impressive flowering of scientific inquiry and discovery since the time of the ancient Greeks, far eclipsing the Roman and Hellenic Eras in every respect."

The CIA has a Flickr account with a webpage with many albums of declassified maps.

The Bay of Bengal is dying.  "Many once-abundant species have all but disappeared.... Fish stocks have been decimated by methods that include cyanide poisoning. The region was once famous for its coral reefs; these have been ravaged by dynamite-fishing and climate-change induced bleaching. Yet the exploitation of these waters continues without check."

"Queen Elizabeth had her own “Watchers,” a network of agents who intercepted letters, cracked codes, and captured possible dissenters to protect the crown in secret. The queen’s network of spies formed the original surveillance state in the U.K., and she started it for good reason... When spying abroad, Dee signed each private letter to Elizabeth with the insignia “007”—a moniker that was later borrowed by Ian Fleming, writer of James Bond."

A mother saved her baby from a house fire by strapping him into a car seat and then dropping him from the second-story window.

"Soul-crushing facts about income inequality."

Why you shouldn't play dodgeball with a softball player.

"Technology can also allow people to access cars long after they’ve sold them, which is enough to leave any buyer uncomfortable."

"Hungry hungry humans."  A discussion thread suggested this was either a corporate team-building exercise, or a Mormon youth-group activity.

This Finnish resort bills itself as "the world's most enchanting Arctic resort."  I believe it.  Look at the photos and the videos.

"There have been rumblings regarding some sort of nuclear incident—or possibly incidents—in the Arctic over the last month. Multiple reports, some of them from official monitoring organizations, have reported iodine 131—a radioactive isotope often associated with nuclear fission—has been detected via air sampling stations throughout the region."

A waitress physically drags an unwanted guest from a restaurant. (this)

How to use a can of tuna to cook a dinner (clever, but I asked a friend who does long-distance hikes; he said he'd rather consume the oil than burn it)

This week's gifs:

This week's embedded images are winners of this year's Wellcome Image Awards, via Digg.  Info re subject matter and photographer/artist at the link.
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