30 December 2019

Divertimento #171

Exhausted mother temporarily can't find her child
Man dodges death on an icy highway
Art installation at a mall
Non-Americans asked to guess cost of American health care
Interesting toy 
Faces created by artificial intelligence 
Astronauts asleep
Each ball is moving in a straight line
Various ways to tie shoelaces
Japanese omelette-rice dish

Nature and Science
Extracting crystals from a clay matrix (wow!)
Desert "resurrection plant"
Digital clock "refreshes" to prevent "cathode poisoning"
Demonstration that external angles add to 360 degrees
"Heart rot" in a tree
Chemical reaction ("elephant toothpaste" - annoying full video here)

Caracal jumps for a treat
Dog loves snow
Pony "zoomies" 
Dog in a chair (we won't say "sitting")
Puppy excited about his food
Dog on a carpet
  (I'll just stop here to note there is an entire subreddit called What'sWrongWithYourDog)
Golden Apple snail laying eggs
Cats reponding to a "cat face filter" on computer monitor 
Chinchillas take dust baths
Jumping spider
Crab swimming above the seafloor
Sable hides his giraffe toy
Two albino moose
Two-headed bearded dragon
Crab moves fast

Wait for it... wait for it...
Fire climbs a palm tree
School resource officer disciplines a student (warning: violence)
Truck becomes unbalanced during unloading
Gallery of dozens of "fail" gifs
Fireworks incorrectly used indoors at a school
Lady fills plastic bags with gasoline
"Trash the dress" video results in near-tragedy (one bride died this way in a river)

Impressive or Clever
Magic trick: where did she come from?
Art made with blue jeans
Shaving wood to a thickness of a few microns
Use a bridge to fill barrels without spilling chili pepper paste
Carving soap
Giftwrapping a box (doesn't always works, but sometimes does)
"Motor wheel" invention (1927)
Game of "Snake" completed

Sports and Athleticism
Dirt bike downhill run
A trick of perspective
Precision walking competition
Group jumprope

Humor or Cheerful
Children can get lost in a city
People hearing sounds for the first time
Man feeding baby birds
Man rescues turtle
Thoughtful Christmas present
Playing with a ball

Embedded images are from a gallery of photographs of Paris in the 1930s taken by Brassai (Gyula Halász, posted in Flashbak.  Brief text descriptions at the link.

Perhaps you'd like a wearable garden cloak watered with your own urine

"Aroussiak Gabrielian says she was inspired to create what is believed to be the world's first wearable farm after seeing what her body could provide for her newborn.

The project, Posthuman Habitats, is a vest or cloak that grows plants and crops using fertilizer from insects and human waste. The vests are currently on display in Beijing as part of an exhibition called Human (un)limited.
They are designed to provide sustenance for the wearer in a future world where climate change has degraded the soil and people are forced to flee floods and other climate impacts.

We're talking about herbs. We're talking about cabbage, radish, sorrel, lettuces. We've experimented with strawberries and even peanuts and mushrooms.  I think we grew about 22 different crops on each cloak...

But the idea is that if you were to wear these, and this was the way that you would grow your food, eventually maybe this would become a habitat for even bigger creatures ... especially the pollinators...
The idea is that your urine would be captured via catheter filtered through a process called forward osmosis — which is developed by NASA technology that currently exists that is used in space, and delivered to the crops as irrigation.

So this would be kind of …. an easy irrigation and water system to tap into."

More information at CBC Radio.  When asked "have you had people interested now in actually doing this?" her reply was "The work wasn't really produced to offer a solution."

Class-action lawsuits are a ripoff

Embedded above is my windfall from the settlement of the StarKist class-action suit.   It was supposed to be much higher:
"The settlement provides that StarKist will pay $8 million in cash and $4 million in vouchers redeemable for StarKist tuna products. You may submit a claim for either:
a) a cash payment of $25, or
b) $50 in product vouchers redeemable for StarKist tuna products."
But... "The significantly lower payout is due to the fact that more than 2.5 million people signed up for payment, which is 12 times more than Starkist anticipated."

The attorneys, however, did well, despite a 4% reduction in their fees:
Class counsel was awarded $3.6 million, but the amount was reduced by $154,987 to cover objectors’ counsel fees and costs.
This week I also noticed some numbers related to the Harvey Weinstein lawsuit:
Elizabeth Fegan, the lead attorney representing the women who are part of the original class action lawsuit and all future claimants who choose to join it, could receive up to 25% of the payout if the settlement goes ahead, legal observers said. They pointed out that sum could end up being 10 times or more the payment to individual victims, especially if more join the case and dilute the amount of the awards.
Perhaps some attorney reading this blog could come out in support of fairness (not the legality, which is presumed) of such litigation.

America's youngest mayor takes a bath

"Mayor Charlie McMillan, the youngest mayor in America, in the unincorporated Grimes County community of Whitehall, gets washed off in the sink after getting some of his breakfast on himself in Whitehall, Texas, on December 20, 2019. The honorary mayoral role was auctioned off to the highest bidder during the Whitehall Volunteer Fire Department's annual BBQ fundraiser. This year, 7-month-old Charlie McMillan was the highest bidder, thereby "electing" him the youngest mayor in America." 
Photo Mark Felix / AFP / Getty, via The Atlantic.

The downside of mandatory physical education in schools

26 December 2019

"The difference between moms and dads"

Via the funny subreddit.

The rise of "pink slime" journalism

The term apparently borrowed from the product sometimes sold in delis that looks like meat but is really a meat by-product.  So, this is about material that looks like journalism but really isn't -
... the creation of partisan outlets masquerading as local news organizations. An investigation by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School has discovered at least 450 websites in a network of local and business news organizations, each distributing thousands of algorithmically generated articles and a smaller number of reported stories. Of the 450 sites we discovered, at least 189 were set up as local news networks across ten states within the last twelve months by an organization called Metric Media.
Titles like the East Michigan News, Hickory Sun, and Grand Canyon Times have appeared on the web ahead of the 2020 election. These networks of sites can be used in a variety of ways: as ‘stage setting’ for events, focusing attention on issues such as voter fraud and energy pricing, providing the appearance of neutrality for partisan issues, or to gather data from users that can then be used for political targeting...

Over a two-week period starting November 26, we tapped into the RSS feeds of these 189 Metric Media sites, all of which were created this year, and found over fifteen thousand unique stories had been published (over fifty thousand when aggregated across the sites), but only about a hundred titles had the bylines of human reporters. The rest cited automated services or press releases. ..

Websites and networks can aid campaigns to manipulate public opinion by exploiting faith in local media. The demise of local journalism in many areas creates an information vacuum, and raises the chance of success for these influence campaigns. The strategy is further made possible by the low cost of automating news stories, repurposing press releases (including obituaries from funeral homes), and replicating design templates, as well as the relative ease with which political or single-issue campaigns can obscure their funding and provenance. ..  

Internet service interruption

London, 19 December, 2019.  Pic via the Catastrophic Failure subreddit.

New York City street view, 1908

I am always amazed at images like this - the absence of traffic, the wide sidewalks, the clean buildings, the absence of traffic, the absence of traffic...

And not that long ago (the year my father was born).

Via Shorpy, where the image can be enlarged much much bigger.

Addendum:  the same view in 2006 (which I desaturated to black and white for comparison):

A $28,000 bill for an outpatient clinic visit

How's this for a horror story about the American health care system?
Alexa Kasdan had a cold and a sore throat.

The 40-year-old public policy consultant from Brooklyn, N.Y., didn't want her upcoming vacation trip ruined by strep throat. So after it had lingered for more than a week, she decided to get it checked out. Kasdan visited her primary care physician, Roya Fathollahi, at Manhattan Specialty Care, just off Park Avenue South and not far from tony Gramercy Park. The visit was quick. Kasdan got her throat swabbed, gave a tube of blood and was sent out the door with a prescription for antibiotics.,,

When Kasdan got back from the overseas trip, she says there were "several messages on my phone, and I have an email from the billing department at Dr. Fathollahi's office."
The news was that her insurance company was mailing her family a check — for more than $25,000 — to cover some out-of-network lab tests. The actual bill was $28,395.50, but the doctor's office said it would waive her portion of the bill: $2,530.26...

How could a throat swab possibly cost that much? Let us count three reasons.

First, the doctor sent Kasdan's throat swab for a sophisticated smorgasbord of DNA tests looking for viruses and bacteria that might explain Kasdan's cold symptoms...

The second reason behind the high price is that the doctor sent the throat swab to an out-of-network lab for analysis. In-network labs settle on contract rates with insurers. But out-of-network labs can set their own prices for tests, and in this case the lab settled on list prices that are 20 times higher than average for other labs in the same ZIP code...

The third reason for the high bill may be the connection between the lab and Kasdan's doctor. Kasdan's bill shows that the lab service was provided by Manhattan Gastroenterology, which has the same phone number and locations as her doctor's office...

Even though Kasdan wasn't stuck with this bill, practices like this run up the cost of medical care. Insurance companies base premiums on their expenses, and the more those rise, the more participants have to pay... Marting says this is a common problem for insurance companies. Most claims processing is completely automated, she says. "There's never a human set of eyes that look at the bill and decide whether or not it gets paid."
More details at NPR.  The American health care system of financing is outdated and wide open to egregious abuse.  Radical changes need to be made.  Anyone who argues otherwise is being willfully blind to what's going on.

Seeking advice about forcing bulbs for winter color

I was Christmas shopping at a local garden store and found a bin of tulip bulbs marked down for sale, with instructions for "forcing" them for winter color.  Brought them home, and then read the instructions:
"Water well and place in a cool spot (35-50F) for 14-15 weeks.  Move to a cool, dark spot for 1 week and then bring into full sun for flowering."
I have enjoyed amaryllis and paperwhites in previous winters, but these instructions puzzle me.  I quite understand that bulbs accustomed to four-season temperate climates need to be "stratified" with a period of cold to "fool" them into thinking winter is over and it's ok to grow.

But 14-15 weeks??  Plus one more?  Four months from now will be the end of April, when I'll be out planting in the garden for real.  There is no winter bloom to enjoy in the interim.

And for that matter - as a general question about stratifying - how does a bulb "know" how long it has been chilled?  Is there some kind of molecular clock in the cells that has to spin at a lower rate for a longer time to trigger the cell division of spring?  If a bulb is totally dormant in my flower bed when outside temps are 20 below zero,  how could it ever know whether it was dormant for 3 months or for 3 days?  I know plants can be fooled out of dormancy by spring thaws, but why can't I just chill my tulip bulbs for 3 days and then warm them up?

Addendum:  A likely answer to my question, courtesy of reader Vireya:
It may be something like the chilling time for fruit trees, which produce a dormancy hormone that gradually breaks down while the temperature is between freezing and 7C (sorry WilliamRocket). When the hormone is completely broken down the buds can swell and burst. That takes different numbers of hundreds of hours for different varieties.

This journal article suggests that the tulip chilling requirement is also hormone related, although it says that "The mechanism of sensing the low temperature period is unknown". But it is 19 years old, so maybe there is more info out there somewhere now?

Lithium detector

We've all seen photos of trees with spectacular root systems, but this one had an interesting comment:
They have found lithium deposits by testing desert plants they know have deep root systems like this (phreatophytes). So if you are a aspiring exploration geologist it can pay to know which plants have the deep root systems and which don’t. If a plant tests high for lithium or other indicators they can better target their drilling program. Probably useful for finding other minerals too i.e. arsenic or gold etc but I’ve only heard of it being used for lithium.

23 December 2019

Rat kings, squirrel kings - and their relation to a Christmas tradition

"Rat kings are cryptozoological phenomena said to arise when a number of rats become intertwined at their tails, which become stuck together with blood, dirt, and excrement. The animals consequently grow together while joined at the tails, which are often broken. The phenomenon is particularly associated with Germany, where the majority of instances have been reported...

Most researchers presume the creatures are legendary and that all supposed physical evidence is hoaxed, such as mummified groups of dead rats with their tails tied together. Reports of living specimens remain unsubstantiated

Specimens of purported rat kings are kept in some museums. The museum Mauritianum in Altenburg (Thuringia) shows the largest well-known mummified "rat king", which was found in 1828 in a miller's fireplace at Buchheim [above]. It consists of 32 rats. Alcohol-preserved rat kings are shown in museums in Hamburg, Hamelin, Göttingen, and Stuttgart. A rat king found in 1930 in New Zealand, displayed in the Otago Museum in Dunedin, was composed of immature Rattus rattus whose tails were entangled by horse hair.

The term rat king has often led to the misconception of a king of rats... The Nutcracker, by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, adapts a tale by E. T. A. Hoffmann that features a seven-headed Mouse King as the villain..."
Image and text from Wikipedia. Credit to Neatorama.

Addendum #1:  Reposted to add this example of a "squirrel king" -
The Animal Clinic of Regina in Saskatchewan, Canada, got a surprise this week when a city worker brought in six squirrels fused together by their tails...

This particular group of six were nesting near a pine tree and sap fused their tails together. A city of Regina worker found the young squirrels and brought them to the clinic. The animals were sedated and the veterinarian team worked to untangle the mess of tails. Their tails were then shaved of the matted fur and they were given antibiotics to prevent infection.  (Via Nothing to do with Arbroath)

Addendum #2:  Reposted in order to add this related interesting phenomenon found by my wife at the Buck Manager website:

[T]hese three white-tailed bucks were found locked during the rut. The bucks were located on a ranch in east-central Texas and, from the information that I received, one of the bucks was still alive when the trio was found. Apparently, the antlers were cut from the dead deer and one very tired buck was lucky enough to run back off into the woods.
There are lots of comments at the site, some opining that the event was faked and arguing the method of death, and one who reported seeing a buck attack a pair that was already locked.   My wife found another example at the same website:

 "...there is nothing worse than finding a dead buck that you did not shoot, but how would you feel if you found not one, but three dead bucks on your property? Okay, it gets worse. What if those three bucks totaled 450 inches of antler? That is exactly what a hunter in the mid-West found on his Ohio farm..."
"They had the bank of this creek all tore up."
Addendum #3: And reader Lisa knew of a ancient example of the phenomenon involving Ice Age mammoths.

Addendum #4:  Reposted from 2013 to add this image found by an anonymous reader -

- of a squirrel king in Nebraska, with the victims, as in the example cited above, fused at their tails by pine tree sap.

Addendum #5:  Reposted yet again to add this "squirrel king" found locally here in central Wisconsin:

Their tails had become entwined with "long-stemmed grasses and strips of plastic their mother used as nest material," the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center wrote on Facebook... "It was impossible to tell whose tail was whose, and we were increasingly concerned because all of them had suffered from varying degrees of tissue damage to their tails caused by circulatory impairment," the post read.
See also: A squirrel king, which has this explanatory note -
In the wild, squirrels make their nests of dried leaves and branches...  A strange natural accident that sometimes occurs is sap from pine branches that the nest is constructed of can adhere to the squirrels' tails and ultimately to each other's tails. Squirrels normally have litters of 4 to 6 babies. As they are fed in the nest, they are quite "squirmy" and move around frequently. Once their tails become stuck together, movement is limited amongst them and they jump under and over each other trying to reposition themselves. In the process, they literally knot or braid themselves together. The squirrels pull in many directions, thereby worsening the situation. They can actually live quite a long time like this, as the mother continues to feed them.
Reposted yet again, to add some information from a Longread article "All Hail the Rat King" -
The Thuringian town of Altenburg houses perhaps the most spectacular exemplar. A mad bramble of no fewer than 32 rats sits mounted on a plexiglass pane in the entrance hall of the Mauritianum, the town’s small natural history museum. It was found in a village not too far away, in a warm space underneath a chimney...

The first visual representation of a rat king is in Johannes Sambucus’s Emblemata, from 1564, a collection of moral truths “wrapped up in certain figures.” Sambucus introduced the rat king as both natural phenomenon and symbol, and a sense that its sheer bizarreness has something to tell us has never gone away...

Some have considered the joke to be literal: as old as the discovery of rat kings is the suspicion that they cannot possibly be real. “We present it as a natural phenomenon,” says one of the curators in Strasbourg. “If someone made it a sport to tie rat tails together, it would be a major effort, unless you have steel mesh gloves.” The rat king is just as inexplicable when you think it’s a fake as it is when you assume it’s authentic...

One element that stays mysteriously stable across the centuries is rat kings’ geographic spread: the history of the rat king is uncannily, at times uncomfortably entwined with the history of Germany. Rattus rattus exists across the globe: it spread across Europe and North Africa with the Romans, then across the rest of the globe with European colonizers. And yet rat kings come from a curiously limited area. All but one of the specimens preserved today are from Western and Central Europe. Marten t’ Hart notes that “from 1564 to 1963, fifty-seven rat kings were discovered and described.” The vast majority of those discoveries took place in areas that make up present-day Germany.  This curious geographic concentration has led some researchers to suggest that rat kings are cultural, rather than natural phenomena. More bluntly put, they could be elaborate, centuries-old hoaxes...

In 1816, two years before Arndt published “Rat King Birlibi,” E.T.A. Hoffmann wrote Nutcracker and Mouseking, which inspired (via Alexandre Dumas père) Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s inescapable ballet.

If you watch The Nutcracker today, the mouse king has gone missing several times over. He has disappeared from the title, only shows up in one of the acts as the leader of an evil army of mice, and goes through a busy and less-than-iconic mass scene before exiting the stage as Masha explores the Land of Sweets with her nutcracker-cum-prince. But Hoffmann’s rendition not only lavishes a great deal of attention on the army of mice and their vicious battle with the nutcracker’s tin soldiers, but also makes it clear that the mouse king is a close relative of the rat king. This is how we first meet the monarch:
Seven mouse heads with seven shiny crowns rose, hissing and whistling dreadfully, rose out of the ground. Soon after the mouse body to which these seven heads were attached emerged fully, and three times the entire army squeaked in triumph at the great mouse garlanded with seven diadems…
So, just in time for Christmas - a new way to interpret the "Nutcracker." My next step was to search Google Images for Rat Kings in the Nutcracker.  Most of them are benign and cuddly.  At NPR I found Maurice Sendak's version -

- which has a certain menace to it, but this one at Deviant Art was the best:

Your choice how much of this to share with your impressionable children before taking the family to a Nutcracker performance at your local school or concert hall.

Merry Christmas to all !!

Having fun at work


And now we are twelve

Yesterday was the 12th "blogiversary" for TYWKIWDBI - an event that passed quietly (unnoticed, actually) here at TYWKIWDBI World Headquarters.

So today was the time for the annual check of the metrics (embedded above).   The 55,000 comments on the blog are a point of some satisfaction for me.  I'll repost what I wrote for my 5th blogiversary:
I still struggle with motivation to keep blogging because of the seemingly unending distractions of real life.  But I do get a great deal of satisfaction from the depth and breadth of knowledge, the sophistication, and the almost always unfailing courtesy of readers who comment on the posts.  I learn things, I teach things, and every now and then I get help with my car or my computer for free.  Such a deal.
I've mentioned before that I take particular satisfaction in emails I've received from some readers who indicate that this is one of the few blogs they read where they always read the comments.  Comments from informed readers enhance the posts, and I often wind up incorporating info from various comments into the main body of the post.

The traffic to TYWKIWDBI -

- has been stable for three years now.  At one time I thought the drop from the peak was a reflection of my declining productivity, but when I compare visits or pageviews to number of posts, the correlation is very weak.  I think much of the drop years ago was because of what Jason Kottke termed "the death of the blog" as a preferred platform (losing out to Tumbling, Tweeting, and pinning).  In any case, the traffic numbers are of no concern to me; I quite literally don't care if on a given day there are 50 viewers or 5000. 

I anticipate no significant changes in the blog in the near-term future.  I have bookmark folders bulging with material, so content is never a challenge.  Time is the always-crucial limiting factor.

Now, lets see if I can get rid of some bookmarked links before that Vikings/Packers game starts...

21 December 2019

Australia, of course

A tarantula hawk wasp carrying away a huntsman spider.  Via Reddit.

Video: man allows himself to be stung by a tarantula hawk wasp (skip to the 10-minute mark)

Addendum:  A tip of the blogging hat to Australian reader Jim, who attests from personal experience that this is not a tarantula hawk wasp, but rather Cryptocheilus bicolor (the orange spider wasp) -
This wasp is a predator of the huntsman spiders (family Sparassidae) and wolf spiders (Lycosidae). It paralyses the spider by stinging it in its underside. The prey is then dragged to a burrow, dug by the female using shovel-like hairs on its front legs.

Subversive art

For the Coca-Cola Project [Cildo] Meireles removed Coca-Cola bottles from normal circulation and modified them by adding critical political statements, or instructions for turning the bottle into a Molotov cocktail, before returning them to the circuit of exchange. On the bottles, such messages as ‘Yankees Go Home’ are followed by the work’s title and the artist’s statement of purpose: ‘To register informations and critical opinions on bottles and return them to circulation’. The Coca-Cola bottle is an everyday object of mass circulation; in 1970 in Brazil it was a symbol of US imperialism and it has become, globally, a symbol of capitalist consumerism. As the bottle progressively empties of dark brown liquid, the statement printed in white letters on a transparent label adhering to its side becomes increasingly invisible, only to reappear when the bottle is refilled for recirculation...

In 1970, when Meireles produced the Insertions into Ideological Circuits projects, Brazil was undergoing the most oppressive period of its twenty-one year government by military dictatorship. At the time, the Insertions constituted a form of guerrilla tactics of political resistance in order to elude the strict state censorship enforced by the regime.
From the collections of the Tate Museum.

Your car collects more data on you than you realize

Some revealing information from the Washington Post:
We’re at a turning point for driving surveillance: In the 2020 model year, most new cars sold in the United States will come with built-in Internet connections, including 100 percent of Fords, GMs and BMWs and all but one model Toyota and Volkswagen... Cars are becoming smartphones on wheels, sending and receiving data from apps, insurance firms and pretty much wherever their makers want...

There are no federal laws regulating what carmakers can collect or do with our driving data. And carmakers lag in taking steps to protect us and draw lines in the sand. Most hide what they’re collecting and sharing behind privacy policies written in the kind of language only a lawyer’s mother could love...

Modern vehicles don’t just have one computer. There are multiple, interconnected brains that can generate up to 25 gigabytes of data per hour from sensors all over the car...
The author and friend Doug extract his car's "infotainment" computer...
It was worth the trouble when Mason showed me my data. There on a map was the precise location where I’d driven to take apart the Chevy. There were my other destinations, like the hardware store I’d stopped at to buy some tape.

Among the trove of data points were unique identifiers for my and Doug’s phones, and a detailed log of phone calls from the previous week. There was a long list of contacts, right down to people’s address, emails and even photos.
For a broader view, Mason also extracted the data from a Chevrolet infotainment computer that I bought used on eBay for $375. It contained enough data to reconstruct the Upstate New York travels and relationships of a total stranger. We know he or she frequently called someone listed as “Sweetie,” whose photo we also have. We could see the exact Gulf station where they bought gas, the restaurant where they ate (called Taste China) and the unique identifiers for their Samsung Galaxy Note phones...

In our Chevy, we probably glimpsed just a fraction of what GM knows. We didn’t see what was uploaded to GM’s computers, because we couldn’t access the live OnStar cellular connection. (Researchers have done those kinds of hacks before to prove connected vehicles can be remotely controlled.)..

But there were clues to what more GM knows on its website and app. It offers a Smart Driver score — a measure of good driving — based on how hard you brake and turn and how often you drive late at night. They’ll share that with insurance companies, if you want...

There are more questions. GM’s privacy policy says it will comply with legal data demands. How often does it share our data with the government? GM doesn’t offer a transparency report like tech companies do...

And Mason’s hack brought home a scary reality: Simply plugging a smartphone into a car could put your data at risk. If you’re selling your car or returning a lease or rental, take the time to delete the data saved on its infotainment system. An app called Privacy4Cars offers model-by-model directions. Mason gives out gifts of car-lighter USB plugs, which let you charge a phone without connecting it to the car computer. (You can buy inexpensive ones online.)
More at the link.

Futuristic television set (1958)

"The Philco Predicta is a television made in several cabinet models in a 17” or 21” screen by the American company Philco from 1958-1960. The Predicta was marketed as the world's first swivel screen television. The picture tube was surrounded in Eastman plastics new product called “tenite” which protected the glass and gave it its greenish tint... Predicta television sets were constructed with a variety of cabinet configurations, some detachable, but all separate from the tube itself and connected by wires. Initially introduced in 1958 for the Holiday Inn hotel chain and rolled out for general consumers shortly thereafter, the Predicta was discontinued in the early 1960s."

You can't "control your own destiny"

"Controlling your own destiny" is a timeworn stock phrase used by sports commentators and pundits in reference to a team that will go to the playoffs if it wins its final games, regardless of how other teams do in other games.

The fallacy of the phrase was explained by UCLA football coach Chip Kelly, when asked whether he was aware that his team controlled their destiny: "No, to be honest with you. Grammatically, destiny is a predetermined set of events, and if it's a predetermined set of events, you can't control it. Think about that one."

Life lesson from a twisted tree

"The twisted tree lives its life, while the right tree ends up as planks."
"... paraphrased from the Book of Chuang Tzu, the second major text of Taoism. Taoism is a critique of the more mainstream ideals of Confucianism. In the original text the twisted tree story has less to do with “individualism” and more to do with Taoism’s rejection of duality. The twisted tree is so useless that it’s useful, because it’s the only tree left to offer shade after all the others are cut down. Ergo, the duality between useful and useless (and, by extension, all things) is an illusion. Many Taoist verses are thought experiments driving at this same conclusion."

Tolstoy's first name was...

He was christened "Lev" - the Russian word for "lion."

When his works were translated into French, they listed him as "Leon" - French for "lion."

And when the books reached England, his name morphed (I don't think we can say "anglicized") into "Leo" for "lion."

You learn something every day (with a tip of the hat to the elves at No Such Thing as a Fish).

Return of The Far Side

Now online with what appears to be old material, offered in small daily doses.

20 December 2019

Fiendishly difficult Christmas quiz

A sample question from the Royal Statistical Society's annual challenge.  Here are some samples from previous years:

Here's a good puzzle for you (2016)

For puzzle enthusiasts - updated with answers (2017)

Those should keep you busy while I go do some last-minute Christmas shopping this morning.  I'm going to defer tackling the RSS quiz this year (looks way too hard for me) and will instead await the release of the King William's College General Knowledge Paper this weekend (to be published in The Guardian).

18 December 2019

Inside the chimney

Removing the bricks reveals... 25 generations of birds' nests.

Nau, nausea, nautical

This week I've been playing Civilization V in the role of Maria of Aragon, Queen of Portugal (the game describes her as "struggling with illness" throughout her reign, but the Wikipedia entry notes that she was "almost continually pregnant," carrying ten children to term in 14 years).  In the course of the game I learned about the nau -

- which was totally new to me, even as a word.  But this same week I happened to listen to a podcast of No Such Thing as a Fish, where the discussion of seasickness included the comment that the word nausea was related to nautical.  So... to the dictionary.  Portuguese nau borrowed from Catalan nau, from Latin nāvis.  And nausea is a borrowing from the Latin nausea, from Ancient Greek ναυσία (nausía, sea-sickness), from ναῦς (naûs, ship).  You learn something every day.

"Disco clam" uses light as a defense mechanism


Staggering graph in a screencap from an Atlantic video about overtourism. 

And note the vertical scale is not truncated for emphasis (the x-axis is zeroed).  I'm old enough to remember the left side of this graph.  It was a different world.

Media coverage

From the mildly infuriating subreddit.

Confusing perspective

Explained at this post in the confusing perspective subreddit, where there are additional examples.

Privatizing public water resources in Australia (but not in Minnesota)

As reported by The Guardian:
The Tamborine Mountain state school has run out of water, even as water miners in the Gold Coast hinterland are sending millions of litres to commercial bottling operations.

Trucks sent by the Queensland government carrying emergency supplies to the school, including Mount Tamborine bottled water, have been passing trucks heading in the opposite direction taking local water to bottling plants for beverage giants such as Coca-Cola.

The school remains open but parents have been advised by teachers to consider keeping their children at home.

Water miners in the Mount Tamborine area supply roughly 130m litres of water each year to commercial bottling operations. Now the local bores are running dry.

Now the government is buying water back from Coca-Cola to bring here, which is where it came from in the first place.”
In reply the state's natural resources minister replied that...
“As I have previously said, groundwater is not regulated on Mount Tamborine and so my department does not have the power to limit take.  I do have the power to limit take in a declared water shortage – but that is everyone’s take, including local farmers, households, and businesses.

“QUT research says levels of groundwater extraction are equivalent to less than five per cent of average annual groundwater recharge.  Of that five per cent, farmers use almost 84 per cent of the extracted groundwater for horticulture, households almost 11 per cent, and bottled water operations, about five per cent.”
Obviously the recent heatwave and drought are exacerbating the situation.

Here's the situation in Minnesota, where there are proposals to ship the water to Arizona (!):
Empire Builder Investments, the real estate arm of Progressive Rail, sought approval in October from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to install two pumps on 6 acres in southern Dakota County. Under the scheme, the pumps would have tapped our deepest aquifer, extracted up to 500 million gallons of groundwater annually, and then shipped it by rail using Water Train, an Oregon-based company currently providing water to agencies in Colorado, Utah and Arizona.

This request to export groundwater is unprecedented in Minnesota history.

The Dakota County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to oppose this exportation of water for several reasons, not the least of which is that Dakota County may face water issues of our own over the next two decades.
Locals have offered to let Empire Builder Investments take the snow from their driveways.

Not, in my view, a "feel good story"

11 December 2019

Piebald fawn

Posted for the photo (via), but then I had to look up about piebaldness:
A piebald or pied animal is one that has a pattern of unpigmented spots (white) on a pigmented background of hair, feathers or scales. Thus a piebald black and white dog is a black dog with white spots. The animal's skin under the white background is not pigmented.

Location of the unpigmented spots is dependent on the migration of melanoblasts (primordial pigment cells) from the neural crest to paired bilateral locations in the skin of the early embryo.

Animals with this pattern may include birds, cats, cattle, dogs, foxes, horses, pigs, and snakes. Some animals also exhibit colouration of the irises of the eye that match the surrounding skin (blue eyes for pink skin, brown for dark). The underlying genetic cause is related to a condition known as leucism.

In medieval English "pied" indicated alternating contrasting colours making up the quarters of an item of costume or livery device in heraldry. Court jesters and minstrels are sometimes depicted in pied costume and this is the origin of the name of the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

The word "piebald" originates from a combination of "pie," from "magpie", and "bald", meaning "white patch" or spot. The reference is to the distinctive black-and-white plumage of the magpie.
And I sure didn't know this:
The bald eagle derives its name from the word "piebald" in reference to the contrast of its white head and tail with dark body.
See also: Piebald robin.

"Radically traditional" farming

This morning I found a very informative video at the BBC, about a Georgia farmer who manages his (extensive) farm in such a way that the cattle do not have an adverse carbon footprint.  His "regenerative farming" is a reversion to (and enhancement of) older practices radically different from modern "factory farming."

The video takes three minutes and is worth a watch.  Unfortunately I don't know how to embed it, but you can watch it at this BBC page. [addendum - here's a somewhat messy embed] -

As I searched for the YouTube version, I discovered that Will Harris' White Oak Pastures farm is well known and has been the subject of lots of videos.  I'm going to embed a seven-minute one entitled White Oak Pastures: Our Story -

I come from several generations of Norwegians and Norwegian-American farmers who raised milk cows, chickens, hogs, corn etc in the old "family farm" fashion, so this video spoke to me.  Mr. Harris has taken the process to the next level in terms of recycling farm "waste."  Very impressive.

Addendum:  For those who prefer reading to watching, here is a very good longread about Mr. Harris and his farm.

Some people use fake service dogs - updated again

As reported by the BBC:
California-based Canine Companions for Independence, a non-profit organisation that provides highly trained assistance dogs for people with disabilities, says "service dog fraud" is making it more and more difficult for genuine owners to be taken seriously...

It is easy to buy a service dog vest on the internet. Numerous websites offer products such as official harnesses and tags. In some cases they are sold with a note stating that it is the owner's responsibility to ensure their animal is properly trained, but there is no system of enforcement.

Erin, who preferred not to give her full name, lives with her boyfriend and their dog, Bo, in Los Angeles.

She went online to buy a service vest for her pooch, because she wanted to avoid the fees charged by airlines for non-service animals - in the region of $90-$150 (£60-£100) to fly, one-way. Unlike working animals, they must be restrained in a container for the entire flight.

Erin, who is not disabled, travels everywhere with Bo because she says she can not bear to leave him home alone....

Many travellers are accompanied by their pets because they have special permission, based on a doctors' letter and an official certificate. Unlike service dogs, emotional support animals (ESAs) are not required to have any formal training, but are allowed on board without an additional fee...

Still, she says, "I know more faux emotional support dogs than real ones."
Reposted from 2015 to add this new development:
After months of deliberation, the Department of Transportation has released formal guidance regarding animals on planes. The 28-page document released this month makes it clear that three types of service animals should be prioritized for travel: cats, dogs and miniature horses...

There are many reasons someone would fly with a miniature horse, disability experts say. Although a growing number of emotional support animals have emerged in recent years, in the case of miniature horses, their function as service animal is primarily physical... The animals are mild-mannered and fast learners, with nearly 360-degree vision. They may also offer balance support to individuals with physical disabilities...

True miniature horses, which are not to be confused with ponies, are less than 34 inches in height...

Before going to the gate, Ramouni will ask someone to lead them to the women’s restroom. “My horse has been trained to go potty in a plastic bag,” she said. “I would just give her the command to go potty, then I flush it down the toilet.”..

Airlines have typically put Ramouni and Cali in the bulkhead row, which has more legroom and no seats in front. Throughout the flight Cali stands at Ramouni’s feet.
Reposted once more to add this report of a man who registered a beehive as a service animal:
"I was thinking that it's just too easy to get these animals to be service animals," Keller said.
He went to a site called USAServiceDogRegistration.com, and successfully registered the picture of the beehive as a service animal. "[I wanted to] bring awareness to the issue that anyone could do this," Keller said...

A quick web search turns up many service animal registration sites. But Keller's stunt showed that some of them do very little to verify the animals they're registering. "They're very silly. They don't mean anything," said Jaymie Cardin, who trains service dogs at AZ Dog Sports in Scottsdale. "You can go pay for a registry on one of those web sites, and basically, you're just paying for a piece of paper and to put a name on a list."...

Plus, federal law says a service animal can only be a dog or miniature horse, so, no bees. "The law is pretty clear that a service animal is an animal that is trained to perform a specific task related to the disability," said Sey In, an attorney with the Arizona Center for Disability Law. A service animal doesn't need to be registered anywhere, let alone on a third party website.

Keller hopes all the buzz around his beehive stunt proves his point about these registration sites. "It's making people believe all animals are service animals when they're not," Keller said. "And there's a clear difference."
Via Neatorama.

The top "drunkest" cities in the United States

"To identify the U.S. cities with the highest and lowest excessive drinking rates, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the percentage of adults who report binge or heavy drinking across 381 metro areas. Metro level data were aggregated from county level data provided by County Health Rankings & Roadmaps, a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute joint program. All data are as of the most recent available year. Median household income and poverty data came from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. The number of bars per capita came from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Health outcomes, including the number of potential lives lost per 100,000 people due to premature death annually and the percentage of adults who report fair or poor health were also aggregated from county-level data obtained from County Health Rankings & Roadmaps."
The embedded image (via) shows the top ten.  Six of the next ten were also from Wisconsin.  You can also view the driest cities in the United States [think Utah], but the data are arranged in a clickbait fashion.

The leaders of Finland's five government parties

Res ipsa loquitur, but note their youth compared to elected American politicians (and let's skip the comments about "lack of diversity").

Composite image via, with more information at The Times and elsewhere with a quick Google.

10 December 2019

Can some reader figure this out??

Video posted at BoingBoing this morning.  No answer there (yet) as to why these interconnected circles were created in what appears to be tidal mud flats.  Are they weirs?  Evaporative catchments for mineral extraction?  What???

Location said to be near Isla Aguada (Campeche) in Mexico.  Note the immense extent of the structures.  The connecting "canals" appear to have been created or enhanced with large earth-moving equipment.  Some look fresh, and there are what looks like older ones that have silted in.

This blog has amazing readership.  I suspect someone will know or can research the answer.

Solved within three hours!  (answer in Rocky's comment)

Addendum:  Here's an interesting screencap I made from the map of the Democratic Republic of the Congo linked in jschmidt's comment:

Fascinating.  There must be more information somewhere...

Addendum:  Found some relevant information in a video about mangrove restoration in Thailand (relevant part at the 7:40-8:40 segment or so).  Apparently those drainage channels are dug by hand with shovels.

09 December 2019

Two mashups of the movies of 2019 - updated

Enjoyable even when you haven't seen the movies, which are listed (with time citations) here.  As always, I recommend clicking the fullscreen icon for best viewing.

Reposted from earlier this week to add an even better (IMHO) mashup:

I always recommend clicking the fullscreen icon in the LR corner for videos like these.

List of the movies used for the video clips and the voiceovers.  The operatic aria was familiar.  Most of the film clips were new to me, so I had to look them up; interesting how many come from movies that were panned or poorly received by the public.

Previously: A Sleepy Skunk mashup for the movies of 2017.  And for the movies of 2013.

When your semen carries another man's DNA

Excerpts from an absolutely fascinating report in the New York Times:
Three months after his bone marrow transplant, Chris Long of Reno, Nev., learned that the DNA in his blood had changed. It had all been replaced by the DNA of his donor, a German man he had exchanged just a handful of messages with...

But four years after his lifesaving procedure, it was not only Mr. Long’s blood that was affected. Swabs of his lips and cheeks contained his DNA — but also that of his donor. Even more surprising to Mr. Long and other colleagues at the crime lab, all of the DNA in his semen belonged to his donor. “I thought that it was pretty incredible that I can disappear and someone else can appear,” he said...

Mr. Long had become a chimera, the technical term for the rare person with two sets of DNA. The word takes its name from a fire-breathing creature in Greek mythology composed of lion, goat and serpent parts. Doctors and forensic scientists have long known that certain medical procedures turn people into chimeras, but where exactly a donor’s DNA shows up — beyond blood — has rarely been studied with criminal applications in mind...

He added that patients also sometimes ask him what it means for a man to have a woman’s chromosomes in their bloodstream or vice versa. “It doesn’t matter,” he said.

But for a forensic scientist, it’s a different story. The assumption among criminal investigators as they gather DNA evidence from a crime scene is that each victim and each perpetrator leaves behind a single identifying code — not two...

In 2004, investigators in Alaska uploaded a DNA profile extracted from semen to a criminal DNA database. It matched a potential suspect. But there was a problem: The man had been in prison at the time of the assault. It turned out that he had received a bone marrow transplant. The donor, his brother, was eventually convicted...

In 2008, he was trying to identify the victim of a traffic accident for the National Forensic Service in Seoul, South Korea. Blood showed that the individual was female. But the body appeared to be male, which was confirmed by DNA in a kidney, but not in the spleen or the lung, which contained male and female DNA. Eventually, he figured out that the victim had received a bone marrow transplant from his daughter.
More worth reading at the link.
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