04 December 2020

Skeleton of a puffer fish

 There are no useful comments at the via.

An "honest trailer" for "A Christmas Story"


About a minute too long, but still enjoyable.

Meriwether Lewis carried an air rifle to the Pacific

In 2010 reader Mikeb302000 sent me a link to the very interesting video above.  The presentation comes from the National Firearms Museum, and provides details about the Girandoni air rifle, manufactured in the 1790s by Austrians and used in European wars.  A rifle similar to the one depicted was carried on the Voyage of Discovery by Lewis and Clark across the Louisiana Purchase to the mouth of the Columbia River.

I found more information at Guns.com:
The Livrustkammarne Museum in Stockholm is home to the earliest example of a mechanical air gun dating back to 1580... The Girandoni was the first pneumatic rifle and first repeating rifle ever used in warfare and it was special issue for the Austrian Army from 1780 to 1825...

And believe it or not it was a stone cold killer at up to 100 yards, able to punch a hole in a 1 inch pine board for the first 30 shots on a single air reservoir. The power dissipated and required a ‘pump up’ after that but the gun was miles ahead of anything seen thus far...

My initial scepticism of these weapons was fuelled by the misconception that they were similar to a Daisy BB gun. When I realized that the Girandoni propelled a .46 calibre ball through a rifled barrel at a muzzle velocity of 900 fps, I realized how wrong I had been. Providing a high rate of fire, there was no smoke from propellants nor muzzle flash to reveal ambush positions nor concern for inclement battle conditions as you needn’t worry about keeping powder dry.
This has permanently changed my concept of "air rifles."  I never owned an air rifle; my first weapon was a .22 caliber conventional rifle, and like most Americans, I conflated an "air rifle" with a BB gun, a mental image formed by repeated viewing of A Christmas Story -
The Red Ryder BB gun was prominently featured in A Christmas Story, in which Ralphie Parker requests one for Christmas, but is repeatedly rebuffed with the warning "You'll shoot your eye out". The movie's fictional BB gun, described as the "Red Ryder carbine-action, two hundred shot Range Model air rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time", does not correspond to any model in existence nor even a prototype; the Red Ryder featured in the movie was specially made to match author Jean Shepherd's story (which may be artistic license, but was the configuration Shepherd claimed to remember). However, the "Buck Jones" Daisy air rifle, immediately above the Red Ryder in the Daisy line, did have a compass and sundial in the stock, but no other features of the "Red Ryder" model. The guns and a stand-up advertisement featuring the Red Ryder character appeared in a Higbee's store window in the film, along with dolls, a train, and Radio Flyer wagons.
The Girandoni air rifle was most impressive firearm for its era.  Fully recharging the pressure chamber required up to 1500 strokes, but European armies carried spare pressure chambers.  The next step for me was to read a book about the Lewis and Clark expedition.  I chose the classic Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jeffeerson, and the opening of the American West, by Stephen E. Ambrose, (excerpts here).

Reposted from 2012 because I found this while searching for info on A Christmas Story.

Word for the day: lithornithids

An abstract from the Proc. Roy. Soc. B:
Some probe-foraging birds locate their buried prey by detecting mechanical vibrations in the substrate using a specialized tactile bill-tip organ comprising mechanoreceptors embedded in densely clustered pits in the bone at the tip of their beak. This remarkable sensory modality is known as ‘remote touch’, and the associated bill-tip organ is found in probe-foraging taxa belonging to both the palaeognathous (in kiwi) and neognathous (in ibises and shorebirds) clades of modern birds. Intriguingly, a structurally similar bill-tip organ is also present in the beaks of extant, non-probing palaeognathous birds (e.g. emu and ostriches) that do not use remote touch. By comparison with our comprehensive sample representing all orders of extant modern birds (Neornithes), we provide evidence that the lithornithids (the most basal known palaeognathous birds which evolved in the Cretaceous period) had the ability to use remote touch. This finding suggests that the occurrence of the vestigial bony bill-tip organ in all modern non-probing palaeognathous birds represents a plesiomorphic condition. Furthermore, our results show that remote-touch probe foraging evolved very early among the Neornithes and it may even have predated the palaeognathous–neognathous divergence. We postulate that the tactile bony bill-tip organ in Neornithes may have originated from other snout tactile specializations of their non-avian theropod ancestors.
Photo via The New York Times, where the findings are discussed.  See also Wikipedia re lithornithids.

"My Octopus Teacher"


Available on Netflix, and should be of interest to anyone who loves the natural world.  This gif of a man interacting with a wolf spider is conceptually related.

"Cytokine storm" explained

This year marks 10 years since the first description of a cytokine storm that developed after chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy and 27 years since the term was first used in the literature to describe the engraftment syndrome of acute graft-versus-host disease after allogeneic hematopoietic stem-cell transplantation. The term “cytokine release syndrome” was coined to describe a similar syndrome after infusion of muromonab-CD3 (OKT3). Cytokine storm and cytokine release syndrome are life-threatening systemic inflammatory syndromes involving elevated levels of circulating cytokines and immune-cell hyperactivation that can be triggered by various therapies, pathogens, cancers, autoimmune conditions, and monogenic disorders... 

In this review, we propose a unifying definition of cytokine storm; discuss the pathophysiological features, clinical presentation, and management of the syndrome; and provide an overview of iatrogenic, pathogen-induced, neoplasia-induced, and monogenic causes. Our goal is to provide physicians with a conceptual framework, a unifying definition, and essential staging, assessment, and therapeutic tools to manage cytokine storm.
For those who, like me, have fallen behind in reading, this New England Journal of Medicine review article is comprehensive (I believe all the coronavirus-related articles are available outside the firewall).

01 December 2020

The changing location of sunrise/sunset

As an adult I'm surprised how many people are unaware of this phenomenon, but TBH when I was a teenage driver I remember my disappointment that the Minnesota highway department had positioned a road so that I had to drive directly into the sunset on my way home from work...

The phenomenon is discussed briefly at APOD and at EarthSky.  Image via.

Seeking advice on salt licks and Flowbees

Every now and then I use this blog to get advice from readers about subjects that are a bit hard to find information about online.   My first queries are about salt licks.

We live on the outer fringe of Madison, Wisconsin and have a small woods behind the house.  Over the years we have been visited by a variety of mammals; in addition to the typical suburban chipmunks and raccoons and bats and moles and mice, we have seen deer, fox, coyote, woodchuck, and the occasional opossum - although fewer in recent years as new subdivisions have been replacing farm fields and pastures nearby.

I've been thinking of putting out a salt lick for the critters.  We have a Farm and Fleet store nearby that has product, so my questions are about any potential downside.  Does the leaching of salt from the block result in any problem for nearby plants?  This wouldn't be in a garden setting, but we do have spring ephemeral wildflowers in the woods, and I even wonder about the tolerance of trees.  Conventionally these blocks are out in a pasture far from trees.  I have been told that cattle not only lick the block away, but also nibble down into the soil underneath, carving out a pit to harvest all the available salt.  Similarly if the block is placed on a stump, the stump itself will eventually be eaten away by the animals.  Are the trace mineral supplements important?  How long they last will obviously depend on usage, but I'm wondering if I need to stock up in anticipation of rain and snow melting the block.  Will the bats make use of the salt lick??

The next question is about managing "covid hair."  I've patronized the same barbershop for the past 15 years.  I'm willing to listen to the constant FOX News programs because of the low ($16) price for a haircut.   I'm sure he is wearing a mask this year, but his shop is not much bigger than a modern walk-in closet, and his clientele may not be rigorous in mask use.  When I called this summer to inquire if he was by any chance offering outdoor haircuts he was incredulous.  So I have "covid hair" (which I suppose can be viewed as a political statement).

Because I almost never watch network television, I have been blissfully unaware of decades of infomercials about the "Flowbee" vacuum-assisted haircutting system.  While researching self-haircuts I came across an interview with George Clooney in which he reports cutting his own hair for the past 25 years using the Flowbee system (his comments start at the 2:15 mark of this video).  Apparently that's why he's wealthy; I always thought it was because of movies and celebrity fees, but it's also from the savings of doing one's own haircuts.  Readers - any experience or informed opinions on this?? (Amazon is sold out of the product, so the pandemic seems to have been good for the company).

Addendum:  I decided to get a salt+trace minerals brick, and have placed it at the junction of two walking paths, within binoculars view of our house.  I don't expect to see much activity because most visitors would likely be crepuscular, but the pattern of tracks in the winter snow might be interesting.

"Crip Camp"

I thoroughly enjoyed watching this on Netflix last night.  The first part of the film presents archival footage of Camp Jened, a summer camp for young people with disabilities which was in operation from the 1950s to the 1970s.  The second part of the film follows some of these campers as they become leaders in the disability rights struggles of the 1970s.

I watched this as an "alumnus" of the polio epidemic of 1952, but the film will be of interest to a broad range of viewers - especially those who have family or friends with physical impairments.

The film is reviewed at The New York Times, and the Wikipedia entry is excellent.

26 November 2020

Reindeer eyes change color in the winter

I found this explanation at Smithsonian:
National Geographic‘s Ed Yong reports on the finding:
The bit that actually changes colour is the tapetum lucidum or “cat’s eye”—a mirrored layer that sits behind the retina. It helps animals to see in dim conditions by reflecting any light that passes through the retina back onto it, allowing its light-detecting cells a second chance to intercept the stray photons. The tapetum is the reason why mammal eyes often glow yellow if you photograph them at night—you’re seeing the camera’s flash reflecting back at you.
Reindeer eyes, by default, are gold. But during the long winter, their pupils dilate for months on end, Yong explains. All of this effort takes a toll on the reindeers’ eyes, which begin to swell and in turn exert pressure on tapetum.
This layer is mostly made up a collagen, a protein whose long fibres are arranged in orderly rows. As the pressure inside the eye builds up, the fluid between the collagen fibres gets squeezed out, and they become more tightly packed. The spacing of these fibres affects the type of light they reflect. With the usual gaps between them, they reflect yellow wavelengths. When squeezed together, they reflect… blue wavelengths.
The wintery blue, Yong writes, is about 1,000 times more sensitive to light than the summery gold. The latter color, on the other hand, helps in the summer by bouncing the majority of light off of the animals’ eyes, effectively acting like a pair of natural sunglasses.

You learn something every day. 

Frost formation triggered by a leaf on a car's roof

Not a black hole...

... but it does absorb almost all visible light.  This is dark molecular cloud Barnard 18.   Info at the APOD link.  You learn something every day.

Ad for Amazon Echo Silver


c/o Saturday Night Live.

Lincoln Memorial, 1916

I find this photo particularly fascinating because of the absence of the reflecting pool (completed in 1923).  This image better reflects the fetid, malaria-infested swamp that Washington D.C. was in its early history*.  This is how it looked when my parents were born, so this is not ancient history.

I was born in Washington D.C., and some of my earliest memories were of visits to the reflecting pool and especially to the cherry blossoms around the Tidal Basin.  Here I am at the reflecting pool in 1949 -

- I think facing toward the Lincoln Memorial, with the Washington Monument faintly visible in the distant haze.  Dad was in the Navy, stationed in D.C., so we lived across the river in Arlington.  An interesting place to begin life.

*Addendum: Reader Lones Smith found an article debunking the myth that Washington was originally swampy land.  I will gracefully defer to The Smithsonian.  But there was malaria and yellow fever in the region (and there still are 50-100 cases reported per year).

Core biopsy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway surface

25 November 2020

Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1927-2014)

[from 2014] I just heard that Gabriel Garcia Marquez died today.  In his memory I would like to cite (part of) the most remarkable sentence I've ever read.   It was 25 years ago that I first read Love in the Time of Cholera, and a year or two later One Hundred Years of Solitude and The Autumn of the Patriarch.  The first two are in my view the better books, but Autumn of the Patriarch [fulltext at the link] has one truly awesome sentence.  It begins like this, at the start of the final chapter of the book...
THERE he was, then, as if it had been he even though it might not be, lying on the banquet table in the ballroom with the feminine splendor of a dead pope amidst the flowers in which he would not have recognized himself in the display ceremony of his first death, more fearsome dead than alive, the velvet glove stuffed with cotton on a chest armored with false medals of imaginary victories in chocolate wars invented by his persistent adulators, the thunderous full-dress uniform and the patent leather boots and the single gold spur that we found in the building and the ten sad pips of general of the universe to which he was promoted at the final moment to give him a rank higher than that of death, so immediate and visible in his new posthumous identity that for the first time it was possible to believe in his real existence without any doubt whatsoever, although in reality no one looked less like him, no one was so much the opposite of him as that showcase corpse which was still cooking in the middle of the night on the slow fire of the tiny space of the little room where he was laid out with candles while in the cabinet room next door we were discussing the final bulletin with the news that no one dared believe word by word when we were awakened by the noise of the trucks loaded with troops in battle gear whose stealthy patrols had been occupying public buildings since before dawn, they took up prone positions under the arcades of the main commercial street, they hid in doorways, I saw them setting up tripod machine guns on the roofs of the viceregal district when I opened the balcony of my house at dawn looking for a place to put the bouquet of wet carnations I had just cut in the courtyard, beneath the balcony I saw a patrol of soldiers under the command of a lieutenant going from door to door ordering people to close the doors of the few shops that were beginning to open on the commercial street, today is a national holiday they shouted, orders from higher up, I threw them a carnation from the balcony and I asked what was going on with so many soldiers and so much noise of weapons everywhere and the officer caught the carnation in midair and replied to me just imagine girl we don't know ourselves either, the dead man must have come back to life, he said, dying with laughter, because nobody dared think such an earthshaking event could have happened, rather, on the contrary, we thought that after so many years of negligence he had picked up the reins of his authority again and was more alive than ever, once more dragging his great feet of an illusory monarch through the house of power where the globes of light had gone on again...  [and ends thus]... he had arrived without surprise at the ignominious fiction of commanding without power, of being exalted without glory and of being obeyed without authority when he became convinced in the trail of yellow leaves of his autumn that he had never been master of all his power, that he was condemned not to know life except in reverse, condemned to decipher the seams and straighten the threads of the woof and the warp of the tapestry of illusions of reality without suspecting even too late that the only livable life was one of show, the one we saw from this side which wasn't his general sir, this poor people's side with the trail of yellow leaves of our uncountable years of misfortune and our ungraspable instants of happiness, where love was contaminated by the seeds of death but was all love general sir, where you yourself were only an uncertain vision of pitiful eyes through the dusty peepholes of the window of a train, only the tremor of some taciturn lips, the fugitive wave of a velvet glove on the no man's hand of an old man with no destiny with our never knowing who he was, or what he was like, or even if he was only a figment of the imagination, a comic tyrant who never knew where the reverse side was and where the right of this life which we loved with an insatiable passion that you never dared even to imagine out of the fear of knowing what we knew only too well that it was arduous and ephemeral but there wasn't any other, general, because we knew who we were while he was left never knowing it forever with the soft whistle of his rupture of a dead old man cut off at the roots by the slash of death, flying through the dark sound of the last frozen leaves of his autumn toward the homeland of shadows of the truth of oblivion, clinging to his fear of the rotting cloth of death's hooded cassock and alien to the clamor of the frantic crowds who took to the streets singing hymns of joy at the jubilant news of his death and alien forevermore to the music of liberation and the rockets of jubilation and the bells of glory that announced to the world the good news that the uncountable time of eternity had come to an end.
What is remarkable is not the content per se, but the fact that I used the ellilpsis in the center of the citation to pass over 53 pages of text - all of it one single sentence.  I once estimated that the sentence comprises about 17,500 words.  One might consider this creation to be a whimsy or a conceit by someone just playing with words, but in my view it is a sort of prose poem by a superbly skilled writer who loves the craft of language.  If you'd like to give it a try, go to this link.

Addendum (2020):

It would be presumptuous of me to offer a review/critique of a novel that is a modern classic, written by a Nobel Laureate in literature, but after giving it a final good-bye reread, I wanted to jot down some notes about it.

Although I'm filing this post in my recommended books category, I have to admit that this is not a book that everyone will enjoy.   To be honest, not much happens in the novel.  A young man falls in love with a young woman who tentatively agrees to marry him ("Very well, I will marry you if you promise not to make me eat eggplant"), but they are separated by circumstances including her marriage, and he waits for her ("... convinced in the solitude of his soul that he had loved in silence for a much longer time than anyone else in this world ever had...") until her husband's death.  "Florentino Ariza never had another opportunity to see or talk to Fermina Daza alone in the many chance encounters of their very long lives until fifty-one years and nine months and four days later, when he repeated his vow of eternal fidelity and everlasting love on her first night as a widow." In the devotion of her mourning she rejects him, so he continues to wait, as their lives go from the late nineteenth century to the first decades of the twentieth.

As he follows the two protagonists separately, Marquez uses their lives as a platform for discussing the passage of time ("... contemplating with regret the banana plants in the mire of the patio, the stripped mango, the flying ants that came after the rain, the ephemeral splendor of another afternoon that would never return") and the process of aging:
    "... only then did he realize that his life was passing.  He was shaken by a visceral shudder that left his mind blank, and he had to drop the garden tools and lean against the cemetery wall so that the first blow of old age would not knock him down." 
    "She had barely turned the corner into maturity, free at last of illusions, when she began to detect the disillusionment of never having been what she had dreamed of being when she was young..." 
    "... they marked the passage of his life, for he experienced the cruelty of time not so much in his own flesh as in the imperceptible changes he discerned in Fermina Daza each time he saw her."
And finally a reunion:
"By the time she had emptied the teapot and he the coffeepot, they had both attempted and then broken off several topics of conversation, not so much because they were really interested in them but in order to avoid others that neither dared to broach."

"It was the first time in half a century that they had been so close and had enough time to look at each other with some serenity, and they had seen each other for what they were: two old people, ambushed by death, who had nothing in common except the memory of an ephemeral past that was no longer theirs but belonged to two young people who had vanished and who could have been their grandchildren."

"Then he reached out with two icy fingers in the darkness, felt for the other hand in the darkness, and found it waiting for him.  Both were lucid enough to realize, at the same fleeting instant, that the hands made of old bones were not the hands they had imagined before touching.  In the next moment, however, they were."
Herewith various excerpts, curiosities, and interesting words:

"On Friday, June 8, 1708, at four o'clock in the afternoon, the galleon San Jose set sail for Cadiz with a cargo of precious stones and metals valued at five hundred billion pesos in the currency of the day; it was sunk by an English squadron at the entrance to the port, and two long centuries later it had not yet been salvaged."  I love treasure stories, and the wealth carried by the Spanish galleons was fabulous; I was in awe watching reports of the recoveries from the Atocha.  Apparently the San Jose was located by staff from Woods Hole in 2015, and recovery and conservation efforts are currently underway.

"He was a fine parrot, lighter than he seemed, with a yellow head and a black tongue, the only way to distinguish him from mangrove parrots who did not learn to speak even with turpentine suppositories."  ???

"They brought in live chickens from Cienaga de Oro, famous all along the coast not only for their size and flavor but because in colonial times they had scratched for food in alluvial deposits and little nuggets of pure gold were found in their gizzards."  ??true - or an old wives' tale?

The death of Dr. Urbino: "But he released [the parrot] immediately because the ladder slipped from under his feet and for an instant he was suspended in air and then he realized that he had died without Communion, without time to repent of anything or to say goodbye to anyone, at seven minutes after four on Pentecost Sunday."

"The use of the mullein plant to put the fish to sleep had been prohibited by law since colonial times, but it continued to be a common practice among the fishermen of the Caribbean until it was replaced by dynamite."  No time to look this up - anybody know?

"... the black doll that was sent to her without any letter... it had been bought in Martinique, according to the original tag, and it was dressed in an exquisite gown... it seemed so charming to Fermina Daza that she overcame her scruples and laid it on her pillow during the day and grew accustomed to sleeping with it at night.  After a time, however, she discovered when she awoke from an exhausting dream that the doll was growing: the original exquisite dress she had arrived in was up above her thighs, and her shoes had burst from the pressure of her feet.  Fermina Daza had heard of African spells, but none as frightening as this.."  ??? constructed with dehydrated material that swells with time/humidity, or ?? new larger dolls being surreptitiously switched in place??

"She learned to smoke backward, with the lit end in her mouth, the way men smoked at night during the wars so that the glow of their cigarettes would not betray them."  I've heard of this before, during wartime.  I wonder if this technique also enhances nicotine absorption by preventing external loss.

"... he allowed himself to be swayed by his conviction that human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but that life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves."

"She had written versions of the deportment and civics texts in hendecasyllabic couplets, like those used for spelling..."  From the Latin, having eleven syllables.

"... the sibylline fragrance of gardenias on hot nights..."  Literally 'having the characteristics of an oracle' but perhaps metaphorically 'mysterious.'

"... Florentino Ariza learned what he had already experienced many times without realizing it: that one can be in love with several people at the same time, feel the same sorrow with each, and not betray any of them."

Re her husband's death: "Once he had told her something that she could not imagine: that amputees suffer pains, cramps, itches, in the leg that is no longer there.  That is how she felt without him, feeling his presence where he no longer was."

"... at last he put on his chamois mustache cover and lay down without removing his trousers and shirt..."  ??why useful?

Next year perhaps I can add some notes about One Hundred Years of Solitude.

24 November 2020

You may have heard of the "Diet of Worms"

This isn't the one from 1495. This is chả rươi, a popular street food in Vietnam - discussed/disgust with a video at Neatorama.

Biden's descriptions of his first appointees

Many readers will have already seen the names and perhaps some biographical information at various internet sites, but I think it's interesting and refreshing to see Biden's own assessment of his appointees:

Begin forwarded message:

From: Joe Biden <info@joebiden.com>
Subject: My first Cabinet nominations
Date: November 23, 2020 at 14:27:33 EST


It’s been a couple of weeks since I last reached out. In the time since, we have been hard at work, building a government that reflects the values we campaigned on: healing our nation’s great divides at home and restoring our leadership role abroad. You were an integral part of our team, so I wanted to share some exciting news: I’ve selected my first Cabinet nominees.

The men and women I am announcing today will be core members of my national security, foreign policy, and law enforcement team. They are experienced and crisis-tested. They will keep us safe and secure. And, they are leaders who look like America and reflect my core belief that America is back and that we lead not just by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.

I’m honored to introduce these six extraordinary individuals:

Tony Blinken as Secretary of State
Tony is one of my most trusted advisors, and no one is better prepared for the job. He served as my staff director on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when I was a Senator. He went on to serve as my National Security Advisor when I was Vice President and as Deputy Secretary of State under President Obama, continuing a life-long dedication to public service. Tony is universally respected by those who know him, and with good reason. He’s a principled, compassionate leader, and as America’s top diplomat, he’ll help strengthen our State Department and represent how America is strongest when we lead with our values.

Alejandro Mayorkas as Secretary of Homeland Security
The son of refugees, Ali will be the first Latino and immigrant to lead the Department of Homeland Security. As Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security under President Obama, he led the implementation of DACA, enhanced our cybersecurity, and responded to natural disasters and public health threats like Ebola and Zika. He will play a critical role in fixing our broken immigration system and understands that living up to our values and protecting our nation’s security aren’t mutually exclusive—and under his leadership, they’ll go hand-in-hand.

Avril Haines as Director of National Intelligence
A consummate national security professional, Avril was the first female Deputy Director of the CIA, and now, she will be the first woman to hold the office of Director of National Intelligence. I’ve worked with her for over a decade. She’s brilliant and humble and will always tell it straight while engaging in this work in a way that reflects our shared values. Under her leadership, our intelligence community will be supported, trusted, and empowered to protect our national security, without being undermined or politicized. We will be safer because of her.

Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations
As a 35-year veteran of the U.S. Foreign Service, Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield is a distinguished, respected diplomat who has served on four continents. Raised in segregated Louisiana, she follows in a tradition of barrier-breaking African-American diplomats who have dedicated their lives to public service, and brings critical perspective to a role that is more important—and more necessary—than ever before. As UN Ambassador, Linda will renew our relationships with our friends and allies, help revitalize our diplomatic corps and restore America’s reputation on the world stage.

Jake Sullivan as National Security Advisor
Jake was my National Security Advisor during my Vice Presidency, and a top advisor on domestic and foreign policy throughout my campaign, including on our strategy for controlling the pandemic. No one has a deeper understanding of the overlapping challenges we face, and how to protect our national security and advance a foreign policy that delivers for the middle class. He will be one of the youngest National Security Advisors in history, and his once-in-a-generation intellect and poise under pressure makes him the ideal choice for one of the toughest jobs in the world.

Secretary John Kerry as Special Presidential Envoy for Climate
Secretary Kerry needs no introduction. From signing the Paris Agreement on behalf of the United States as Secretary of State, to forming a bipartisan climate action coalition alongside the next generation of climate activists, his efforts to rally the world to combat climate change have been expansive and relentless. Now, I’ve asked him to return to government to get America back on track to address one of the most urgent national security threats we face—the climate crisis. This role is the first of its kind: the first cabinet-level climate position, and the first time climate change has had a seat at the table on the National Security Council. There could be no one better suited to meet this moment.

This team will be ready to take on our nation’s greatest challenges on day one, which is important because there is no time to waste when it comes to our national security. In adding these great Americans to my team, I hope my message is loud and clear: America is back. And America is ready to lead.

Thanks for all you do,

Joe Biden

22 November 2020

Lotus silk explained

I didn't even know there was such a thing as "lotus silk."  You learn something every day.  Via Neatorama.

"Wherefore" means WHY

"From Middle English wherfor, wherfore, hwarfore, equivalent to where- (“=what”) +‎ for. Compare Dutch waarvoor (“what for, wherefore”), German wofür (“for what, what for, why”), Danish and Norwegian hvorfor (“wherefore, why”), Swedish varför (“wherefore, why”)."
Juliet is not asking the moon where Romeo is - she's bemoaning the fact that he is a Montague and she is a Capulet:  Why did you have to be a Montague?

It drives me crazy every time I hear a performance (typically high school or amateur productions) in which Juliet asks "wherefore ART thou Romeo?" instead of the proper "wherefore art thou ROMEO?"

*sigh* The tribulations of an old English major...

It's called a Pigg-O-Stat

A pediatric immobilizer for radiologic and perhaps radiotherapy procedures.  The name is not a slang term - it's the official product name.  "Stat" of course means "stationary," and I'm guessing the "pigg" comes from a development period in veterinary medicine.  Perhaps some radiology-minded reader will know more of the backstory.

Addendum:  Hat tip to "Unknown" reader for finding the answer to the above question at The Radiologic Technologist.

Please forgive me if my mind keeps seeing this as a blender...

A loaf of bread costs $100,000,000,000

Today [Nov 11, 2008] BBC radio reported on rampant hyperinflation in Zimbabwe. One man said his daily expenses were about 600 BILLION dollars, including 100 billion for a loaf of bread. The official inflation rate is 2 million percent per year, but most observers feel that is an underestimate. 

This is reminiscent of the hyperinflation that hit Hungary in 1945-46.  Here's a chart of the number of pengos per one gold franc - 

 7/9/46 100,000,000 
 7/10/46 300,000,000 
 7/11/46 2,000,000,000 
 7/12/46 10,000,000,000 
 7/13/46 30,000,000,000 
 7/15/46 120,000,000,000 
 7/16/46 500,000,000,000 
 7/17/46 2,500,000,000,000 
 7/18/46 6,000,000,000,000 
 7/19/46 60,000,000,000,000 

That's for just a ten-day period

Yugoslavia experienced hyperinflation in 1993; from October 1993 to January 1995 prices increased 5 QUADRILLION percent (5,000,000,000,000,000%). 

Wiki has a compilation of these episodes. 

Update 01/16/09: Zimbabwe has introduced a Z$100 trillion note.

Reposted from 2008 to add this photo of a 5-pound chicken that today (2020) costs 14,600,000 Venezuelan bolivars:

Jump rope and the meaning of life

I saw this story on the evening news and thought it was worth reposting in the blog.  There are seemingly endless numbers of jump rope videos on YouTube, including some fairly spectacular performances (try searching "double dutch"). 

The video features a group called The Firecrackers.  I initially posted one of their performances back in 2010 (it's a low-rez amateur video but still shows the moves).

This new video is better because it incorporates the backstory (which begins at 1:30).  This coach is a remarkable woman.

Reposted from 2015 to add this video of competitive Double Dutch:

19 November 2020

It's a film canister..... oh, never mind

I recently went into an actual physical store, and decided to pay for my purchase with exact change.  When I took the above item out of my pocket, the clerk asked me what it was.  I said it was a "repurposed film canister," which elicited only a blank stare.  I instantly realized that this young teen had absolutely no idea what a film canister (or film) is, so I explained that it was a little "doodad" that keeps change from rattling in my pocket.  She smiled and said "That's cool."

I have a bunch of them around the house, storing spare buttons in the clothes closet and screws etc on the workbench and seeds in the garage.  They will outlast me; I need to decide which of my young relatives will be lucky enough to inherit them.

Addendum:  scroll down through the comments to find a link about how to build a film canister rocket.  And this link offers a comprehensive look at film cannons (hat tip to reader chemsolver).

A history of the phone booth in cinema

An impressive and enjoyable compilation.  I wonder how long it will be before we have a generation of moviegoers who don't know what a phone booth is (probably the children of those who don't recognize a film canister).  Via Neatorama.

Evidence that lockdowns work

Mask-wearing makes a big difference. So does limiting indoor gatherings. In particular, closing indoor restaurants, bars and gyms has reduced the virus’s spread in many places.

Arizona is an excellent example. Its governor, Doug Ducey, a Republican, resisted taking aggressive action for weeks. But in late June, he closed bars, movie theaters and gyms and banned gatherings of 50 people or more. The rules began to lift in August.

Since Gov. Ron DeSantis reopened Florida in late September, the number of reported Covid-19 cases per week in the state has tripled.

On September 25, DeSantis signed an executive order reopening the state, freeing restaurants and bars to operate at 100% capacity. In the week leading up to the order, Florida reported more than 17,000 new cases.

In the past 7 days, the state has reported more than 53,000 -- meaning three times more Floridians have tested positive in the past week than in the week before the reopening.

17 November 2020

Peter Wonson's "Swan Song"

The CD arrived earlier this month.  I knew of course that a "swan song" refers to an artist's final performance, but I wondered where the term arose.  Or - to paraphrase Chico Marx - why a swan?

First the basics:
The swan song (ancient Greek: κύκνειον ᾆσμα; Latin: carmen cygni) is a metaphorical phrase for a final gesture, effort, or performance given just before death or retirement. The phrase refers to an ancient belief that swans sing a beautiful song just before their death, having been silent (or alternatively, not so musical) during most of their lifetime. This belief, whose basis in actuality is long-debated, had become proverbial in ancient Greece by the 5th to the 3rd century BC and was reiterated many times in later Western poetry and art.  [details at the link]

Peterson et al. [of the field guide] note that Cygnus olor is "not mute but lacks bugling call, merely honking, grunting, and hissing on occasion." However, the whooper swan (Cygnus cygnus), a winter visitor to parts of the eastern Mediterranean, does possess a 'bugling' call, and has been noted for issuing a drawn-out series of notes as its lungs collapse upon expiry, both being a consequence of an additional tracheal loop within its sternum. This was proposed by naturalist Peter Pallas as the basis for the legend... The whooper swan's nearest relatives, the trumpeter and tundra swans, share its musical tracheal loop
Wait... what???  Loops of the trachea?  Never heard of such a thing, despite 30+ years of academic research on (human) lungs.  So - time to dive into some research publications.
This research examines the evolution and phylogenetic distribution of a peculiar and often overlooked character seen in birds, herein called tracheal and esophageal displacement. Tracheal and esophageal displacement refers to an asymmetrically situated trachea and/or esophagus along the length of the neck. This contrasts with what would be perceived as the “normal” (midsagittal) placement of these organs, wherein the two organs are situated along the ventral midline of the neck with no deviation... essentially all birds have a laterally displaced trachea and/or esophagus

It is hypothesized here that lateral displacement of the cervical viscera evolved in birds to function as an ever increasingly efficient bypass system to allow the trachea to remain a short, straight, and patent tube able to keep up with the demands of a more mobile and flexible neck. A more loosely attached trachea and esophagus would be beneficial for those birds with highly dynamic neck movements.

The great blue heron (Ardea herodias) has a trachea and esophagus that travels 12 cm along the ventral midline of the neck until the fifth cervical vertebra where they pass right laterally across it to become situated well dorsal to the vertebral column (Fig 8). By the twelfth cervical vertebra they cut back across the cervical column to become positioned at the ventral midline once more to enter the thorax. As the trachea passes across the fifth cervical it also rotates onto its side.

Dorsolateral placement of the organs is, essentially, nothing more than the result of the organs cutting past a highly S-shaped neck. In particular, it is because the organs cut across the “caudal loop” ... of the S of the cervical column.
At this point I was relieved to note that "loops" is a term used to describe sinuosity.  

But then I found in an article on avian paleontology that Panraogallus (extinct birds) had tracheas that actually did loop:

The trachea of Panraogallus appears to have coiled twice outside its chest, and may have coiled back towards the chest, before going up to the chest cavity again where it attached to the lungs... The coiled trachea of Panraogallus was possibly longer than its body, and it probably produced sounds with a lower frequency and with reduced harmonics, compared to pheasants of a similar size.
And note in the illustration that the line drawing "c" at upper right shows the course of the trachea in a Helmeted curassow - a currently-living bird.

You learn something every day, even at the end of a career of learning.  But this has become TMI, so I'll drop the topic and get back to the CD, starting with this review:
In 1968, the Night Watchmen (originally called The Embryos) combined with the Dartmouth band Ham Sandwich. After Logan and Calvert left the group, Pinkston and Wilkes recruited Peter Wonson (class of'68) and Ned Berndt ('72), along with Hanover residents Ken Aldrich and Skip Truman. They formed Tracks, which went on to record original material and become a "super popular" headliner in the New England music scene, says Logan.Review (of 1991 CD compilation): 

Not to be confused with Bowie guitarist Earl Slick's 1972 group on Capitol Records or a late-'70s Boston punk band fronted by Lori Doll, this Tracks reigned between 1969 and 1974 and had the distinction of being produced by Wayne Wadhams, lead singer of the Fifth Estate (which hit with "Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead" in 1967). Along with a unique version of Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower," this ensemble comes up with a real sleeper in the tune "Pawnbroker" -- a strong, methodical ballad featuring great vocals and interplay from the guitar and keyboard that put it in a league with the legendary Modern Lovers...

Russell Pinkston: "In the spring of 1969, my junior year at Dartmouth College, I dropped out of school to play full time with a rock band called “Tracks.” For the next five years, through various incarnations of the group, Tracks played all over New England in night clubs, fraternities, high school proms, and the occasional “big time” rock concert. We opened for acts such as the James Gang, Canned Heat, The Chambers Brothers, and Tom Rush, and by the time we broke up in 1974, we had recorded three full albums of original music. Although we had a couple of offers from producers, we never got signed by a record label, so soon after we called it quits, we made a triple album of our demo tapes as a “going away present” for our fans.
More about the history of Tracks and the New England rock scene of the 1960s is available in "Old Times, Good Times: A Rock and Roll Story," at Stowe Today, and in The Caledonian Record.

"All Along the Watchtower" recording from The Very Best of Tracks.

The ceremonial axe of Ahmose I

"It is admired for the gilded cedar wood handle and its copper blade. One of the sides of the blade is adorned with some scenes for Heh, Nekhbet, and other deities who are supposed to protect the pharaoh. The other side of the blade depicts the pharaoh tormenting one of his enemies as a symbol for sovereign power, topped with some cartouches with the names and titles of Ahmes."

Coronavirus deaths in Texas jails

"A harrowing new report from the UT Austin has examined the impact of COVID-19 on prisons and jails. Texas correctional facilities lead the country in COVID infections, with more than 23,000 cases and at least 230 deaths, including 27 staff members, 14 people held in jails, and 190 held in prisons.

Of the 190 incarcerated people who died, 21 of them had served 90% of their sentences. 110 of them were eligible for parole. And 9 of them were approved for parole, but had not yet been released. Of the 14 people held in jails, 11 of them were still awaiting trial, and had not yet been convicted of any crimes."
Via BoingBoing, where there is lots of information about coronavirus in other states' penal facilities.

The role of capitalism and profits in the American Civil War

"Williams also told Waddell he thought the Confederacy had erred in not sending a cruiser to the Arctic earlier in the war, “for the destruction of that northern whaling fleet, from which New England gathered her wealth, would have more seriously affected the Northern mind than a dozen battles in Virginia.”

Williams’ comment, said Waddell, indicated a just idea of the Yankee character and its policy in the war; they made money by it, and for this reason they waged it.  Politicians fed on fat contracts and immense government expenditures, enriching the agents through whose hands the money passed.  A high tariff taxed the people without their seeing it, while the manufacturers realized fortunes.  The newspapers of the large cities, filled with the details of battles, greatly increased their circulation, and their proprietors grew correspondingly wealthy.  The government simulated business by issuing paper and creating a debt that it intended the South is eventually to pay.  It is thus that the war is waged and continued, and it is only to be stopped on the mercenary principle of showing that it would no longer pay to keep it up!”
-- from The Last Shot: The incredible story of the CSS Shenandoah and the true conclusion of the American Civil War, by Lynn Schooler (Harper Collins, 2005), p. 209 (Ch. 14).

Baffle balls

Inserted inside tanks of liquid being transported to damp down motion of the liquid.  You learn something every day.  No useful discussion at the via.

More aphorisms and witticisms

Collected from everywhere, stored forever, source attributions lost:

One tequila, two tequila, three tequila, floor.

Atheism is a non-prophet organization. 

I went to a bookstore and asked the saleswoman, "Where's the self-help section?" She said if she told me, it would defeat the purpose. 

If a mute swears, does his mother wash his hands with soap? 

If a man is standing in the middle of the forest speaking and there is no woman around to hear him...is he still wrong? 

Is there another word for synonym? 

Isn't it a bit unnerving that doctors call what they do "practice?" 

Where do forest rangers go to "get away from it all?" 

If the police arrest a mime, do they tell him he has the right to remain silent? 
How do they get the deer to cross at that yellow road sign? 

What was the best thing before sliced bread?  

Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach him how to fish, and he will sit in a boat and drink beer all day. 

If all the world is a stage, where is the audience sitting? 

If you ate pasta and antipasta, would you still be hungry? 

If you try to fail, and succeed, which have you done? 

Politicians are like diapers: they need to be changed frequently.  And for the same reason.

"When you sit with a nice girl for two hours, it seems like two minutes. When you sit on a hot stove for two minutes, it seems like two hours.  That's relativity." -- Albert Einstein

It is a waste of energy to be angry with a man who behaves badly, just as it is to be angry with a car that won't go.

The time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.

We can evade reality, but we cannot evade the consequences of evading reality.

Price is what you pay. Value is what you get.

God gives every bird its food, but he does not throw it into the nest.

Wine cellars in Hungary

The Custer Wolf

Some notes I jotted down years ago while reading Paradise Found: Nature in America at the Time of Discovery (Steve Nicholls, University of Chicago Press, 2009).  A marvelous book, BTW - read my previous excerpts.

During the settlement of the American west, wolves were systematically eradicated.  One of the last survivors was dubbed the Custer Wolf.  He was reputedly responsible for killing five hundred horses, cows, and calves worth $25,000 and seemed unstoppable.  A $500 bounty on his head drew many eager hunters, including professional hunter Harry Percival Williams.
“Williams went to enormous lengths to fool the Custer Wolf.  He boiled his traps for half a day then buried them in cow manure for several days to mask any human scent.  Once prepared they were stored in cowhide bags, and when he was setting them he was careful to first throw down a cowhide before dismounting, so he didn’t leave any scent on the round.  He also sprinkled the area with female wolf scent.

The Custer Wolf ignored all these traps… Nothing Williams tried seemed to work, though he often caught glimpses of the wolf trailing him along a parallel ridge, stopping when he stopped.  If Williams reached for his tobacco pouch, the wolf watched with interest, but if he reached for his rifle, the Custer Wolf simply vanished.  

The wolf was sometimes warned of Williams’s presence by a pair of coyotes, so to even up the sides a little, Williams shot the coyotes.  Since he didn’t want to let old Custer know that his early warning system was no longer operating, he tossed the bodies of the coyotes into a deep ravine, only to return the next day to find their bodies dragged back to the top and left in plain view for Williams to find.”

Later, Williams found the Custer Wolf feeding at a carcass so he set his elaborately prepared traps around it.  But more often than not, the wolf just pulled the carcass across the traps to spring them.”  
I'll defer adding the end of the story, which isn't pleasant for the wolf.  You can read the outcome at Wikipedia.

15 November 2020

Mandarin duck

Because we like to end the blogging day with an interesting photo.  Via.
Photo credit to Kjetil Salomonsen, a birder from Bergen (Norway).

This little Mandarin duck was the attraction of the month here in Bergen, mostly because he is a juvenile that was spotted alone in a small pond with still his immature plumage on. Between early October and last weekend, people have gone there often and were able to see the progression of his colors from immature to a vibrant grown male.

For reference, here is the same individual that I captured about 10 days prior, look at the difference in colors not even two weeks can make!

How many holes does a straw have?

After you ponder that one, decide whether a coffee cup has a hole.  If you think not, is a coffee-cup-shaped depression in the earth a hole?  For answers (and more questions), start at Neatorama.

The distribution of humans on Earth

 Each colored band represents 10% of the world population.  Source, with citations.


"In 1990, a panel of the windscreen on British Airways Flight 5390 fell out at 17k feet, causing the cockpit to decompress & its captain to be sucked halfway out of the aircraft. The crew held onto him for more than 20 minutes as the copilot made an emergency landing. The pilot made a full recovery."

"If I remember correctly, the accident happened because someone eyeballed the screws when they replaced the window, and they were like a millimeter off."

Pretty close. The screws used to secure the windshield were different lengths for different areas. Instead of using a template to know where each screw came out of or referring to the IPC (illustrated parts catalog) they just put the screws in a pile and slammed them back in without ever knowing if the screws were actually grabbing enough threads on the nutplates."
Comments from the discussion thread at the nevertellmetheodds subreddit.  I don't have a link to a primary source.

The embedded photos are not from the incident, but rather from a National Geographic reconstruction of the incident.  Hat tip to reader Charlie for doing the detective work.

Watch this if you like raccoons

Protestor sneezes at the MAGA march

Captured by photojournalist Caroline Brehman.


A prosthetic cornea, via (no useful info there).

Dolly Parton with REALLY big hair

The incomparable Dolly Parton, pictured above with massively "big hair" and looking so young, presumably from the 1960s.

I've embedded here the track of her #1 record "Jolene." (click to listen). [seeqpod has vanished]

For an even better experience, go HERE and watch her perform "I Will Always Love You." (image credit here).

Reposted from 2008 to add this photo of Dolly with her husband Carl Thomas Dean, to whom she has now been married for over 50 years -

- and this comment from the discussion thread at the OldSchoolCool subreddit source:
“The only bipartisan thing people in Tennessee agree on is that you don’t talk shit about Dolly.”
Related: 100,000,000 books donated

Reposted once more (TYWKIWDBI doesn't like to cover celebrities, but we make an exception for Dolly Parton).  In this video she answers the question "How long does it take you to do your hair?"

Addendum:  Dolly contributed $1 million toward the development of Moderna's covid vaccine.

12 November 2020

Sperm whales have no upper teeth

You learn something every day.  Lifelike sculpture by Dirk Claesen, via.

Iconic image from the the Blitz (London, 1940)

"A woman sips a cup of tea after her street is struck by a German bombing raid, 1940"

And with some relevance to the current world situation.  Found at The Paris Review.

Meanwhile, here in Wisconsin...

Wisconsin:  The state that has unraveled the fastest.

The pandemic has worsened across the country over the last two months, but perhaps nowhere as quickly as in Wisconsin.

At the beginning of September, Wisconsin was averaging about 700 cases a day. By this week, it was averaging more than 6,000. Hospitals are packed and more than 300 deaths were reported in the state over the last week, a record. Last week, Wisconsin’s chief health officer quit, noting the enormous pressure on public health officials during the pandemic.

“It took us seven and a half months to get to 100,000 cases,” Gov. Tony Evers said at a news conference on Tuesday evening, after issuing an executive order advising residents to stay home. “But it only took 36 days to add another 100,000. The way things are going, it will take us only 20 days to reach another 100,000.”

Testing centers are overwhelmed, raising the risk of further spread as people who might otherwise learn they are infected delay isolating themselves.

“They told us, ‘Yeah, you should get tested, but we’re out of tests,’” said Tim Cigelske, 39, of Whitefish Bay, of a local testing site he called when his family grew sick. It required multiple phone calls, virtual doctor visits and four trips to testing sites over three days to get himself, his wife and their two children tested, Mr. Cigelske said.

All were positive for the virus. 
It's frankly getting a little scary here.  The situation now is that when you see two people walking down the street, the odds are that one of them is coronavirus positive.  Even something as inoffensive and unobtrusive as the governor's mask mandate has been vigorously opposed by the ignorant self-serving Republican state legislators.  At least here in the blue dot city of Madison, most people are aware of the problem; when I walked at the arboretum this week, every time I saw other walkers coming toward me on a trail, they stopped to put on masks, and so did I.  And I suppose we both held our breaths for a while after passing one another...

The other "worst places in the U.S." are discussed in the New York Times source article.

Addendum: here's the map from the site linked by Pearse O'Leary in his comment:

"So many counties are so far past the Dept. of Health Services' highest classification for case activity, that it needed to create a brand new category...
To be considered for the previous top category, “Very High,” a region’s case rate would have to surpass 350 cases per 100,000 residents over the previous two weeks. Every single one of Wisconsin’s 72 counties has at least doubled that number, with Washburn Co. reporting the lowest rate in the state at 769.6 cases per 100,000 people.

The new “Critically High” level sets the bar at 1,000 cases per 100,000 residents. [only seven counties are below that].

The roots of social violence

The problem, he says, is that there are too many people like me. “You are ruling class,” he said, with no more rancor than if he had informed me that I had brown hair, or a slightly newer iPhone than his. Of the three factors driving social violence, Turchin stresses most heavily “elite overproduction”—­the tendency of a society’s ruling classes to grow faster than the number of positions for their members to fill. One way for a ruling class to grow is biologically—think of Saudi Arabia, where princes and princesses are born faster than royal roles can be created for them. In the United States, elites over­produce themselves through economic and educational upward mobility: More and more people get rich, and more and more get educated. Neither of these sounds bad on its own. Don’t we want everyone to be rich and educated? The problems begin when money and Harvard degrees become like royal titles in Saudi Arabia. If lots of people have them, but only some have real power, the ones who don’t have power eventually turn on the ones who do.

In the United States, Turchin told me, you can see more and more aspirants fighting for a single job... Elite jobs do not multiply as fast as elites do. There are still only 100 Senate seats, but more people than ever have enough money or degrees to think they should be running the country. “You have a situation now where there are many more elites fighting for the same position, and some portion of them will convert to counter-elites,” Turchin said.

Donald Trump, for example, may appear elite (rich father, Wharton degree, gilded commodes), but Trumpism is a counter-elite movement. His government is packed with credentialed nobodies who were shut out of previous administrations, sometimes for good reasons and sometimes because the Groton-­Yale establishment simply didn’t have any vacancies. Trump’s former adviser and chief strategist Steve Bannon, Turchin said, is a “paradigmatic example” of a counter-elite. He grew up working-class, went to Harvard Business School, and got rich as an investment banker and by owning a small stake in the syndication rights to Seinfeld. None of that translated to political power until he allied himself with the common people. “He was a counter-elite who used Trump to break through, to put the white working males back in charge,” Turchin said.

Elite overproduction creates counter-elites, and counter-elites look for allies among the commoners. If commoners’ living standards slip—not relative to the elites, but relative to what they had before—they accept the overtures of the counter-elites and start oiling the axles of their tumbrels. Commoners’ lives grow worse, and the few who try to pull themselves onto the elite lifeboat are pushed back into the water by those already aboard. The final trigger of impending collapse, Turchin says, tends to be state insolvency. At some point rising in­security becomes expensive. The elites have to pacify unhappy citizens with handouts and freebies—and when these run out, they have to police dissent and oppress people. Eventually the state exhausts all short-term solutions, and what was heretofore a coherent civilization disintegrates.
Excerpts from an article in this month's The Atlantic.  I have no idea whether these speculations are valid, but they are thought-provoking.
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