08 June 2021

Blogcation


I'm going to leave cyberspace for at least a week - probably two - to see what's happening in real life.

Hair receiver, ratts, ratting, and Victorian hair art


I saw a group of these in a local auction and had to look up some information:
Although rare today, the hair receiver was a common fixture on the dressing tables of women from Victorian times to the early decades of the 20th century. Its purpose was to save hair culled from the hairbrush and comb, which were used vigorously on a daily basis. The hair could then be stuffed into pincushions or pillows. Since hair was not washed as often as it is today, oils were frequently used to add scent and shine to hair. The residual oil made the hair an ideal stuffing for pincushions because it lubricated the pins, making it easier for them to pierce material. Small pillows could be stuffed with hair, which was less prickly than pinfeathers.

But possibly most important, hair receivers made the creation of ratts possible. A ratt (sometimes spelled rat) is a small ball of hair that was inserted into a hairstyle to add volume and fullness. The ratt was made by stuffing a sheer hairnet until it was about the size of a potato and then sewing it shut.
The word "ratt" as a Victorian term for a hairdo enhancer is interesting because decades ago I remember girls "ratting" their hair with combs to give the hairdo greater size; IIRC it was a back-and-forth motion, but no hair extensions or padding was involved.  I presume the words are distantly related in terms of etymology.

Image credit.

Reposted from 2017 to add a link about Victorian hair art (three examples shown):



"Flesh rots to bone, taking our faces and figures with it. But clip a lock of hair, and it will keep its color for decades, even centuries. Thus, art crafted from hair—a 19th-century tradition in which tresses were braided into jewelry, looped to resemble flower petals, even ground up for use in pigments—remains frozen in time.

Hair art has its roots in the 17th and 18th century, when high infant mortality rates meant that “death was everywhere,” writes Karen Bachmann in an essay for the recent book Death: A Graveside Companion. “The keeping and saving of hair for future use in jewelry or other commemorative craft (such as wreaths) was common.” But it wasn’t until the Victorian era that “the ‘cult of the dead’ became almost a mania in Britain.”

Rarely does the name of the artist survive. It’s believed that most works of hair art were made by women; books on ladies’ “fancywork” provided instructions alongside other Victorian parlor crafts like needlework or wax flowers. One technique, known as palette work, required hair to be laid flat and woven into a pattern, then cut with stencils into shapes. Table work, on the other hand, called for hair to be plaited into jewelry or heirlooms. An 1867 edition of a hair art guide by Mark Campbell affirms: “Persons wishing to preserve and weave into lasting mementos, the hair of a deceased father, mother, sister, brother, or child, can also enjoy the inexpressible advantage and satisfaction of knowing that the material of their own handiwork is the actual hair of the ‘loved and gone.’”
More at the Artsy link, which is quite interesting.

A recent article in Vogue highlights the work of a modern hair artist.
"She arranges her hair one by one, gluing each strand onto delicate Japanese tissue paper before the compositions are framed in lockets or miniatures..."

Elephants working in a salt mine. By choice.

Kitum Cave is a non-solutional cave developed in pyroclastic (volcanic) rocks (not, as some have presumed, a lava tube). It extends about 200 metres (700 ft) into the side of Mount Elgon near the Kenyan border with Uganda. The walls are rich in salt, and animals such as elephants have gone deep into the cave for centuries in search of salt. The elephants use their tusks to break off pieces of the cave wall that they then chew and swallow, leaving the walls scratched and furrowed; their actions have likely enlarged the cave over time. Other animals including bushbuck, buffalo and hyenas come to Kitum Cave to consume salt left by the elephants. 
Via Futility ClosetReposted from 2020.

Two of my favorite things

 
1) watching a video that explains something I didn't know, and 
2) listening to people speaking Scottish English.

Re the latter, may I heartily recommend the movies of Kelly Macdonald (Trainspotting x2, No Country For Old Men, but especially Puzzle).

06 June 2021

Eric Clapton and Willie Nelson - "Nightlife"



I love duets. This one is by two undisputed legends. Performed in New York City, 2003 on the occasion of Willie Nelson's 70th birthday.  What a fantastic birthday party that must have been.

For Clapton performing "Layla" and the history of the song, see here.

Even better is the story behind "Tears in Heaven."

Reposted from 2009.  Shouldn't have waited so long.

04 June 2021

"Tornado Alley" moving east

"Meteorology professor Victor Gensini of Northern Illinois University and Harold Brooks of NOAA’s National Severe Storms Laboratory tracked the number of tornado reports from 1979 to 2017, while also investigating regional trends in the daily frequency of tornado-environment formation over the same time period, using an index known as the Significant Tornado Parameter (STP). Frequently used for predicting severe weather, the index captures the coexistence of atmospheric ingredients favorable for producing tornadoes. Both the number of actual tornado reports and the historical STP analysis showed the eastward uptick in tornado frequency."

03 June 2021

Snek


A Speckled Racer (Drymobius margaritiferus) in south Texas.  Beautiful.  Best comment at the via: "Non venomous but it sure looks dangerous. Judging by its striking color and pattern it's likely that it evolved to camouflage itself among piles of early 90's neckties."

Props to this man


Via the always-interesting Nag on the Lake.

Re poison ivy

"It can be a ground cover, or shrubby, or a woody vine (called a liana), achieving nearly treelike proportions. Its leaves can be shiny or matte (even in the same population), in various shades of green (or red-bronze, upon emergence), and they vary in size and shape, with margins from smooth to toothed or deeply lobed."
“In one area in Quebec,” Ms. Pell said, “it has straplike leaflets and looks like a fern. In the Southeast, I have seen leaflets as long and wide as my head, and elsewhere, often very close by, leaflets shorter than my thumb.”
"Remember that any tools you use and garments you wear will be tainted with urushiol, and unless they’re thoroughly cleaned they can transfer it to your skin. Carefully bag any debris for the trash, but don’t add it to a burn pile: Urushiol can be released in smoke and will damage lungs.

And don’t make the mistake of thinking that it will wear off over time.

“I have heard of rashes caused by contact with tools that hadn’t been used in two years, but still had resin on them,” Ms. Pell said. Researchers referring to old herbarium specimens in scientific collections have likewise had reactions to the dried, pressed plants."
More information re identification and management of poison ivy at the New York Times.

I know of one huge patch of poison ivy on a golf course in northern Minnesota.  Since I'm not sensitive to the oil, I have on occasion waded in to retrieve errant drives, once emerging with my ball and twelve others.

For those interested in North American prehistory


Obsidian flakes found at the bottom of Lake Huron at a location that apparently was a land bridge across the lake 9,000 years ago.  More about the topography of Lake Huron.

Interesting because this obsidian was obviously crafted by humans, and it was not locally sourced.  It would have come from the area that is now the state of Oregon.

This is such an American headline


Details and commentary at Boing Boing.

Reposted from 2020 to add this even more American headline:

Story at ABC News.

31 May 2021

These bridges allow horses towing boats to cross to other side of the canal


The one shown above crosses the Macclesfield Canal in east Cheshire.
A roving bridge, changeline bridge, turnover bridge, or snake bridge is a bridge over a canal constructed to allow a horse towing a boat to cross the canal when the towpath changes sides. This often involved unhitching the tow line, but on some canals they were constructed so that there was no need to do this by placing the two ramps on the same side of the bridge, which turned the horse through 360 degrees. On the Macclesfield Canal this was achieved by building spiral ramps and on the Stratford-upon-Avon Canal and others by constructing roving bridges of iron in two cantilevered halves, leaving a slot in the middle for the tow rope. This was also called a split bridge. For cost reasons many ordinary Stratford bridges were also built in this way as they had no towpath.

The ramps of the bridge are typically studded with alternating rows of protruding bricks to prevent the feet of the horse from sliding. The bridge may be constructed of cast iron (particularly in industrial areas) or of more conventional brick or stone.
Here's another one:


Addendum:  An enjoyable (and relevant) video found by reader Gelvan Tullibole 3rd:


What a pleasant way to spend a summer's day.

"Portals" appear in Poland and Lithuania


Residents in Lublin and Vilnius can see each other in real time.
The sci-fi-like portals were designed to connect and unify people in different parts of the world amid the months of isolation caused by the pandemic, and the increasing "social polarization" of recent times.

The devices look like circular doors into another world, as imagined in many fictional worlds of fantasy and sci-fi. In fact, the team behind the project said it chose the circle as it is a well-known sci-fi symbol for an interactive "bridge." The minimalist design with LED lighting, meanwhile, was chosen to portray the image of a future city.
Via Interesting Engineering, where there is a promotional video.  A longer report at Bored Panda indicates that other portals are being planned, including at Reykjavik and London.  I think a pair in Florida and Minnesota would help promote travel between the two, as residents take turns winter/summer wishing they were in the other state.

Newspaper article from 1963

Monarchs in the Oyamel fir forests of central Mexico - updated

 
It's always amazing to see the spectacular clusters of Monarchs at their overwintering grounds.  This page at Journey North has lots of related information.  But iNaturalist reports that the severe late-winter storm in Texas did wreak havoc on the first part of the northward migration path:
The 11-day cold spell (10-20 February) in Texas was a disaster. Freezing temperatures covered the state and extended well into Northern Mexico. While many of the immediate effects of the freeze are clear, season long and multiple year effects may linger. The damage to the flora was extraordinary, and it is likely that nearly all above ground insects died over a wide area. Plants already in flower may have been so damaged as to not flower this year. We are seeking help to record that damage and the recovery of plants that flower in March along with the appearance of milkweed shoots and buds. Both are resources used by monarchs returning from Mexico in mid-March. We also need help recording the number of returning monarchs. ALL monarch observations are of value. How well the monarch population will develop in 2021 will be determined by the March conditions in Texas.
The link provides information on how citizen scientists can contribute data.

This updating map shows where Monarchs have been sighted so far this year. 

Addendum:  Reposted from March of this year to add this discouraging news about the deterioration of one of the Mexican monarch reserve sites:
"... you and I will never again see La Lagunita as the Bruggers saw it. More consequentially, neither will the monarchs, because during these past 15 months of pandemic-induced deprivation and desperation, La Lagunita has been trashed. Last year, someone — likely impoverished young men from a nearby community — illegally cut down several dozen oyamel firs, hauling them away for lumber. In December, the arriving monarchs tried to form a colony at La Lagunita but failed, according to Ellen Sharp, who runs a monarch-centric hotel at the foot of the mountain.

A few weeks later, the monarchs gave up and abandoned La Lagunita altogether, shifting to a different location on the mountain. These migrants had become refugees.

Sharp and her husband, Joel Moreno Rojas, have gone to great lengths to try to protect Cerro Pelón from loggers, even forming a nonprofit organization that has hired local “forest guardians” to patrol the mountain and report what they see to the Mexican authorities. But their reports are usually ignored, Sharp says.

Last month, the guardians found another six trees felled at La Lagunita. Eight more were cut down a few days later. These latest wounds make it even less likely that La Lagunita will ever again successfully host roosting monarchs...

The motivation behind these destructive incursions is sadly obvious. The pandemic has had a devastating effect on the struggling, tourist-dependent communities bordering the 52-square-mile core zone of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, where logging is nominally banned but is now on the rise, reversing years of progress. Reserve officials recently acknowledged that 33 acres in the core zone had been illegally logged last year, up from just one acre the year before. The toll this year will surely be worse.

Violence is on the upswing, too, including the unsolved killings of two men who worked at the most heavily visited monarch colony, El Rosario. Now that the pandemic has driven away international tourists, gangs are filling the vacuum..."
More at the link, none of it encouraging.

Vehicular anti-theft device - updated


Reader Kolo Jezdec took note of the discord in the comment thread and has created this modified version of the meme:


And I've amended the title.  Everyone happy?

28 May 2021

Making Chinese rice paper using traditional methods

"Xuan paper or Shuen paper or rice paper, is a kind of paper originating in ancient China used for writing and painting. Xuan paper is renowned for being soft and fine textured, suitable for conveying the artistic expression of both Chinese calligraphy and painting. Xuan paper features great tensile strength, smooth surface, pure and clean texture and clean stroke, great resistance to crease, corrosion, moth and mold. The majority of ancient Chinese books and paintings by famous painters that survived until today are well preserved on Xuan paper. The way of make Xuan Paper are extremely complex and requires highly skilled a worker who able to doing this need practice for several years."

Climate change + pollution = "sea snot"

As the Guardian and numerous Turkish news outlets have reported, high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in the Sea of Marmara, situated between the Black and Aegean Seas, are leading to an explosion of the phytoplankton populations that discharge “sea snot.” Though the mucus itself is not necessarily harmful, it can become a host to toxic microorganisms and dangerous bacteria such as E. coli. And when it forms a layer that covers the water’s surface, it can set off a harmful chain of events, preventing fish from being able to breathe, causing mass die-offs, which in turn leads to plummeting oxygen levels that choke other forms of marine life...

Since phytoplankton thrive in warmer waters, scientists suspect that climate change may be a factor... Experts have also pointed out that untreated waste and agricultural runoff pour directly into the Sea of Marmara...

Ismet Cigit, a columnist for the newspaper Ses Kocaeli, lamented that humans had “betrayed this world’s most beautiful sea” by allowing chemical storage facilities, fuel tanks, factories and other industrial sites to be built along the coast.

In Izmit, workers have laboriously collected more than 110 tons of the mucus, which was sent to an incinerator for disposal.

“Clearly, there are no deterrent penalties for those who pollute the sea,” he wrote in Turkish, adding, “Marmara is dying.”

Fishing from a chair ladder

The lure of truly big trout — and the thrill of encountering a fish that was once thought to be extinct — had me and a friend strapping house ladders to our car roof for the 11-hour ride from Portland, Ore., to Pyramid Lake [Nevada] in early April.

Our ladders seemed pedestrian next to the local models — custom contraptions made by a Reno craftsman which included a platform and a padded seat.

“When people first started fishing the lake, they used milk crates,” recalled Joe Contaldi, principal guide with Pyramid Lake Anglers. “This helped them cast far enough to reach the drop-offs where the fish cruise looking for food. And it also helped them get above the cold water.” The crates gave way to conventional ladders and then to chair ladders.
The story continues at The New York Times.

Making ice in a red-hot crucible

This week I finished a final goodbye read of the collected tales of Edgar Allan Poe, and encountered this interesting passage:
Place a platina crucible over a spirit lamp, and keep it a red heat; pour in some sulphuric acid, which, though the most volatile of bodies at a common temperature, will be found to become completely fixed in a hot crucible, and not a drop evaporates- being surrounded by an atmosphere of its own, it does not, in fact, touch the sides. A few drops of water are now introduced, when the acid, immediately coming in contact with the heated sides of the crucible, flies off in sulphurous acid vapor, and so rapid is its progress, that the caloric of the water passes off with it, which falls a lump of ice to the bottom; by taking advantage of the moment before it is allowed to remelt, it may be turned out a lump of ice from a red-hot vessel.
I was going to ask readers here about the thermodynamics, but a quick search of the internet today led me to a page at Physics Stack Exchange that discussed this very same passage.  The site provices additional citations of similar experiments in the nineteenth century:
M. Boutigny, by means of sulphurous acid, first froze water in a red-hot crucible; and Mr. Faraday subsequently froze mercury, by means of solid carbonic acid...
A reader there provided some clarification re the reagents -
What they were calling "sulphurous acid" back then is not what we would call an acid today. It was anhydrous sulphur dioxide which has a boiling point of −10∘C.

When liquid sulphur dioxide was poured into the red-hot vessel, due to the Leidenfrost effect, it would form itself up into globules and float on a layer of its own vapour. In this state the temperature of the globules would be just below that of its boiling of −10∘C as it evaporates away at a now greatly reduced rate. Pouring in a small amount of water, which freezes at 0∘C, while the sulphur dioxide is in this state results in it freezing within a few seconds. Once all the sulphur dioxide has evaporated off, the ice will quickly melt again before being brought up to just below its boiling point of 100∘C as it assumes its spheroidal form due to the Leidenfrost effect. If one is quick, before all the liquid sulphur dioxide has disappeared one can throw out a small lump of ice from a red-hot crucible!
Sounds like a demonstration that would make an alchemist proud.

25 May 2021

"The End"

In 2020, the world stood still… in the movies too. “The End” is an experimental narrative short film, in black & white and color, made only with movie gifs with a perfect loop, more than 500. “The End” is also a tribute to the cinema, from silent films to now.

Via Laughing Squid.  I have not found a listing of the embedded movie sources. 

"Doctor, my eyes..."


"A Different Lens" is a short film presented at the Society of Camera Operator's Lifetime Achievement Awards on February 19th, 2012 to benefit the Vision Center at Children's Hospital Los Angeles. Edited by Bob Joyce.  Lots of familiar images, but I haven't located a compilation of the source films.

"Global cactus traffickers"


It seems that anything and everything that is rare and endangered on this planet becomes even more so as the result of human greed.
As with the market for tiger bones, ivory, pangolin scales and rhino horn, a flourishing illegal global trade exists for plants. “Just about every plant you can probably think of is trafficked in some way,” said Eric Jumper, a special agent with the Fish and Wildlife Service. Cactuses and other succulents are among the most sought after, along with orchids and, increasingly, carnivorous species.

Trafficking can take a serious toll. Over 30 percent of the world’s nearly 1,500 cactus species are threatened with extinction. Unscrupulous collection is the primary driver of that decline, affecting almost half of imperiled species. Yet this realm of illegal trade is typically overlooked, a prime example of “plant blindness,” or the human tendency to broadly ignore this important branch on the tree of life...


Many cactus species are highly localized, found, for example, only on certain steep limestone cliffs in Mexico, or a single sandy patch of less than one square mile on Peru’s coast. They also tend to be extremely slow-growing. Larger specimens, which are more highly sought after, can be decades or even hundreds of years old. These features make cactuses particularly sensitive to over-harvesting, but also particularly attractive to collectors interested in exclusivity...

Once cactuses are poached from the wild, illicit trade often happens in the open. High-end plant shops in Japan display protected, wild-harvested species, while sellers around the world advertise them on eBay, Instagram, Etsy and Facebook. Online ads are often accompanied by disclaimers that the cactuses do not come with necessary permits for legal trade, and poachers sometimes livestream videos from the field, asking customers which plants they want...

The computer used by the Inca

"The Incas used a computer.  We do not know how it worked or how the calculations were made, nor do we know what they were calculating.  The device was a box with twenty compartments placed in four rows of five.  Stones were placed in the various compartments, some black, some white.  A compartment was filled when five stones were in it.  Padre Jose de Acosta watched the Incas manipulate this abacuslike device and drew a sketch.  But that was back in 1590.  He was unable to follow the computing procedure.  None of these 20-core memory banks have been found by archaeologists.  Were they destroyed as worthless, pagan magic?"
Text and image from Beyond Stonehenge, by Gerald S. Hawkins (Dorset Press, 1973).  The other relevant item in the image is a quipu, explained here.

Two other things I learned from the book.  There is an Arctic Circle for the moon (equivalent to the solar Arctic Circle we are all familiar with).

Also: "Astronomers recognize A.D. 0 but historians do not.  They count B.C. 2, B.C. 1, A.D. 1..."

Thought for the day

"When you die, people cry and beg for you to come back.  But, when you do, there's all that running around and screaming..."
Wry humor, but it reminded me of one of the great short stories of all time.

Pyramids around the world

The Australian plague of mice

22 May 2021

"If a person reads TYWKIWDBI regularly, they will learn something"

Is there anything wrong with the title of this post (grammatically)?  My high school English teacher, Mr. Glenn, would have severely reprimanded me for using "they" as a singular pronoun.

That was then, this is now.  The singular "they" is here and increasingly popular.

The redoubtable Anne Fadiman, author of Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, has written an essay for Harper's entitled "All My Pronouns: How I learned to live with the singular they."  Herewith some salient excerpts.
When it comes to language, splitters are almost always prescriptivists, who favor rules and standards (this is how people should talk) rather than descriptivists, who favor popular usage (this is how people actually talk)... Prescriptivists have been called (usually by descriptivists, but sometimes, as a preemptive strike, by themselves) elitists, killjoys, curmudgeons, cops, cranks, peevers, fussbudgets, intransigents, old farts, linguistic nitpickers, usage nerds, compulsive pedants, logobullies, syntax snobs, and grammar fascists. Descriptivists have been called style smashers, corrupters, miscreants, barbarians, vulgarians, vandals, Neanderthals...

On the current prescriptivist/descriptivist battlefront, nothing has occasioned more bloodshed than the humble pronoun, in particular the singular they... in fact there are two usages, quite different from each other. The first is... an identifier for a person whose gender does not fall into the he/him or she/her binary... The second usage of they is as a generic pronoun for an individual whose gender isn’t specified or relevant, as in “Every reader of this essay undoubtedly thinks they are a grammar expert.”

The experience of being misgendered is not some newfangled ultra-thin-skinned, special-snowflake conceit; it’s painful. Students have told me that being called by the wrong pronoun inspires responses that can range from “niggling unease” to “discomfort” to “incredible wrongness” to “rage” to the sensation of being “split in two.” The infraction is usually but not always deemed less serious when it’s accidental...

As for the second kind of singular they—well, that’s a more difficult matter... there are twenty-one terms for gender-neutral pronouns, including “duo-personal,” “epicene,” “hermaphroditic,” and “masculor feminine.” He prefers “the missing word,” and concludes that in English, “It turns out that the missing word isn’t missing at all. It’s singular they.”

College students are bellwethers—or, if you’re a prescriptivist, canaries in the coal mine. Once a new usage becomes widespread on campus, in a few years it’s widespread everywhere. No new usage has been advancing with greater speed than the singular they. Ten years ago, I might have heard examples in the classroom but rarely in the statements of interest my department requires in applications for its creative-writing courses. These tend to be stiffly correct, because students don’t know whether the instructors are prescriptivists or descriptivists but fear the worst since, after all, we’re English teachers. Here are some sentences from the applications I received last fall:
If I’m asking a person to read something, it’s because I want to hear what they have to say.

It’s rare to get to ask an author questions about what they’ve written.

I don’t want to be that student who can’t stop talking about how their summer abroad changed them.

It’s an intimate experience to look someone in the eye and tell them how you’re struggling.
These applicants were neither more careless nor less deferential than their predecessors. They had undoubtedly proofread their applications with meticulous attention... The students’ sentences, of course, all contained the second kind of singular they, the all-purpose generic pronoun. And they all made me wince...

I said, “But you’ll never say ‘they is.’ You’ll always say ‘they are.’ So won’t ‘they’ always sound plural?”  And then two words floated into my mind: “You are.”

I’d spent my whole life saying “you are,” whether I was talking to one person or fifty. When I was talking to one person, the plural verb didn’t sound wrong. It just was.

Had you once been exclusively plural? And had it evolved to be singular as well, though retaining its original plural verb? Might you, in fact, be a lot like they?  The answers turned out to be yes, yes, and yes. [explained in detail - re the history of "thee"and "thou" and the Quakers - in the source article]...

 "You are” made me feel entirely different about the singular they as a generic gender-neutral pronoun. I could see that they was undergoing exactly the same evolution as you had, from exclusively plural to both singular and plural—an evolution that in both instances was driven by social change.

But I’ve been considerably swayed by the many reasonable arguments in favor of the singular they. Here are a few.
It’s been used by writers from Chaucer (“And whoso fyndeth hym out of swich blame, / They wol come up and offre in Goddes name”) to Shakespeare (“God send everyone their heart’s desire!”) to Fielding (“Every body fell a laughing, as how could they help it”) to Shaw (“It’s enough to drive anyone out of their senses”). A friend of mine mentioned that Jane Austen used it routinely. She did? She did. I found an Austen website that lists thirty-six instances in Mansfield Park alone.

It was used in the King James Bible (Philippians 2:3: “Let nothing bee done through strife, or vaine glory, but in lowlinesse of minde let each esteeme other better then themselues”).

Many languages—including Turkish, Finnish, Estonian, Hungarian, Basque, Armenian, Bengali, and Tagalog—have no gendered pronouns.
English needs a gender-neutral singular pronoun...

It’s generational. The young are more likely to use they than the old... It’s political, but in a good way. My students endorse the singular they not because they’re snowflakes but because they’re activists. The nonbinary they appeals to them because even if they’re not nonbinary themselves, they wish to support those who are...

I already say plenty of things that aren’t grammatical just because everybody does and I’m used to them. I wouldn’t say “I aren’t,” but I say “Aren’t I?” I wouldn’t say “Me is it,” but I say “It’s me” even though—as per Easy English Exercises, Lesson 60, “Case Forms of Pronouns”—“me” should be “I” because it’s a predicate nominative, not a direct object.

Sometimes they just sounds better. If, instead of “If you love someone, set them free,” Sting had sung, “If you love someone, set him or her free” or (following the suggestion in my grammar handout to make the whole sentence plural) “If you love people, set them free,” fans worldwide would have torn up their concert tickets...

The most powerful foes of the singular they aren’t prescriptive grammarians, who, like me, have a hard time with the generic gender-neutral pronoun, but leaders of the Christian right, who have a hard time with its use by nonbinary people because they believe that God made human beings either male or female. For them, it’s not a grammatical issue; it’s a religious issue...

So I’m in favor of changes that take gender off the table, or at least make it less central. I welcomed my university’s adoption of “first-year” instead of “freshman.” I used to think the point of the change was to make the term less male; I now think it’s to make it less anything. Similarly, I approve of “chair” instead of “chairman” (even the Fed made the switch last year), “ancestors” instead of “forefathers,” “workforce” instead of “manpower,” “actor” and “host” and “server” for everybody. I’m partway there with they.
Apologies to Harper's for the length of the borrowed material, but I think this is an important essay - and not just for English majors.

A tip of the blogging hat to reader Pearse O'Leary for providing the link for "A Brief History of singular 'they'" at the Oxford English Dictionary.
The Oxford English Dictionary traces singular they back to 1375, where it appears in the medieval romance William and the Werewolf. Except for the old-style language of that poem, its use of singular they to refer to an unnamed person seems very modern. Here’s the Middle English version: ‘Hastely hiȝed eche  . . . þei neyȝþed so neiȝh . . . þere william & his worþi lef were liand i-fere.’ In modern English, that’s: ‘Each man hurried . . . till they drew near . . . where William and his darling were lying together.’..

Singular you has become normal and unremarkable. Also unremarkable are the royal we and, in countries without a monarchy, the editorial we: first-person plurals used regularly as singulars and nobody calling anyone an idiot and a fool. And singular they is well on its way to being normal and unremarkable as well. Toward the end of the twentieth century, language authorities began to approve the form. The New Oxford Dictionary of English (1998) not only accepts singular they, they also use the form in their definitions. And the New Oxford American Dictionary (Third Edition, 2010), calls singular they ‘generally accepted’ with indefinites, and ‘now common but less widely accepted’ with definite nouns, especially in formal contexts...

Former Chief Editor of the OED Robert Burchfield, in The New Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1996), dismisses objections to singular they as unsupported by the historical record. Burchfield observes that the construction is ‘passing unnoticed’ by speakers of standard English as well as by copy editors, and he concludes that this trend is ‘irreversible’. People who want to be inclusive, or respectful of other people’s preferences, use singular they. And people who don’t want to be inclusive, or who don’t respect other people’s pronoun choices, use singular they as well. Even people who object to singular they as a grammatical error use it themselves when they’re not looking, a sure sign that anyone who objects to singular they is, if not a fool or an idiot, at least hopelessly out of date.
More at the link.

20 May 2021

Turtle and tortoise shells



A tip of the blogging hat to an anonymous reader who identified the species:
Top row: eastern box turtle, pancake tortoise and Bell’s hingeback tortoise. 
Middle row: radiated tortoise, Florida box turtle and Burmese star tortoise. 
Bottom row: spotted turtle, Bourret’s box turtle and European pond turtle.

A reminder that plastic is NOT recycled

 
Quite a striking final image.


Every day.

Remember that ransomware hack of the fuel pipeline last week?


I thought (and you probably thought) that the hack interfered with the pumps delivering fuel through the pipeline.

Nope.  Nope.  Nope.

The pipeline was fine.  The flow of gas was not impaired.  What was hacked was the company's billing system, as explained at Jalopnik:
The cyber attack that shutdown the Colonial pipeline causing a gas panic and stoking fears of gasoline shortages, didn’t actually shut down the pipeline. It impacted the billing system at the Colonial Pipeline Co., which shut it down because they were worried about how they’d collect payments.

Yes, the fuel-carrying pipeline was shut down last week in order to prevent a company that is entrusted with what should be a public utility from enduring an accounting headache...

The company halted operations because its billing system was compromised, three people briefed on the matter told CNN, and they were concerned they wouldn’t be able to figure out how much to bill customers for fuel they received.
More at the link.

Boat docks in California


It's a res ipsa loquitur image, but you can read more about the ongoing (and worsening) drought in the western states in the New York Times.
According to the United States Drought Monitor, 84 percent of the West is now in drought, with 47 percent rated as “severe” or “extreme.”

The situation in some states is particularly dire. In Utah, 90 percent of the state is in the two most severe categories; in Arizona, 87 percent; North Dakota, 85 percent; New Mexico, 80 percent; and California, 73 percent.

Experts do not see much prospect for improvement, as another hot and dry summer is forecast. Rather, they expect conditions to worsen.

My part of Wisconsin is experiencing a moderate drought:

"The coexistence of diversity and unity"


I have been advised by readers that I should not criticize or mock modern fashion because I don't understand what is going on.  I do try to understand, in this case visiting the website of LEJE, a Parisian fashion house, to read the "about":
"Straight-Curve, Oriental-Western, Decomposition-Conjunction, Masculine-Feminine, Subculture-Luxury, etc.  The brand demonstrates the charming “disparities” between these elements and the harmony hidden within the contrast.  The essential elements and sources of inspiration for LEJE are the coexistence of diversity and unity and the tension between irregularity and regularity, which are noticed in the unusual cuts, creative details, and sensual materials."
These jeans are available for USD $528.  My thanks to John Farrier at Neatorama for alerting me to this product.

19 May 2021

"Worst responders"

Full credit to Harper's Magazine (for text and title) for this item from their August 2020 issue:
From a 2017 complaint filed by David and Gretchen Jessen against Fresno County and the city of Clovis, California, for damages incurred during a police raid on their home. In June 2016, construction workers called the police after they witnessed a homeless man break into the Jessens’ house. The Jessens returned to find their home surrounded by law enforcement. The Jessens argue that damage to their home was “unreasonable and unjustified.” In April, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Fresno County and the city of Clovis.

The Clovis Police Department and the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office deployed the following:
Fifty-five vehicles
A K-9 unit
Two helicopters
Two ambulances
A fire truck
A crisis negotiation team in a motor home
A SWAT team
A backup SWAT team
A robot
Law enforcement officers did the following to the Jessens’ home:
Broke six windows
Ripped out the front door and an interior door
Pulled an office wall off the foundation
Used a flash bomb in the office
Ripped off the door to the laundry room
Used a flash bomb in the laundry room
Teargassed the laundry room
Teargassed the kitchen
Teargassed the master bathroom
Teargassed the guest bedroom
Teargassed the office bathroom
Teargassed the sewing room
Destroyed more than ninety feet of fencing with a SWAT vehicle
Shattered a sliding glass door for robot entry
The homeless man did the following:
Broke a window
Stole milk, an ice cream bar, and half a tomato

18 May 2021

Evidence of communism?


From the Twitter thread of an Arizona state senator

According to Arizona Central "The digital message in the photo was one of several ADOT has on rotation, Karamargin said, and it was taken out of rotation on Thursday afternoon — the same day as Townsend's tweet —  but not in response to any "specific" complaint, he said."

Texas wants to penalize owners of electric cars

Recently, Texas took a pretty harsh stance against owners of electric vehicles by proposing Senate Bill 1728, which would punish EV owners for simply owning an EV. That sounds cliche, but in essence, this is exactly what the bill is doing while being disguised as “fairness.” The claim was that EV owners need to pay their fair share and make up for fuel taxes that they don’t pay... The proposed fee was previously an additional $200 EV tax. That fee has now gone up... Added together, those numbers total $250 to $400+ in annual fees

Currently, EV owners in Texas are not allowed to take delivery of their vehicles from Tesla in the state — they have to either travel out of state or arrange a third party to ship their vehicles to them. For those who will be purchasing made-in-Texas Teslas, this also applies. Tesla will have to ship the made-in-Texas Teslas out of state, where either a third party will deliver to the customer at the customer’s expense or the customer has to travel to pick up their vehicle. Unfortunately, Texas isn’t the only state that is seemingly anti-EV. Many states have this problem.
More at CleanTechnica.

Pavement stone in ancient Pompeii

"It is guessed that the phallic symbols on the streets point towards the nearest brothel, to direct foreign sailors who may be heavily intoxicated and/or unable to speak the local language."  
Image via.

"Competitive pond fishing"


I couldn't find any information about this apparently popular sport, other than this image at The Guardian.

Aerial photo shows the China Sihong Hongze Lake International Dayuan Pond Fishing invitational tournament in Suqian, Jiangsu Province.  Photograph: ostfoto/Barcroft Media/Getty Images

Mommy, why is that mullet wearing a wedding ring?


Well, sweetheart, you can figure it out, or you can read the explanation at Neatorama,

The Åland Islands, Explained

15 May 2021

Flannery O'Connor's faith-based fiction


The title of Flannery O'Connor's 1960 novel comes from Matthew 11:12 "From the days of John the Baptist until now, the Kingdom of Heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away."  I don't understand the theology behind that sentence, but there is a lot of violence in this brief novel, including the attempted drowning of a Downs syndrome child by his father -
He had taken him out on his shoulders and when he was chest deep in the water, had lifted him off, swung the delighted child high in the air and then plunged him swiftly below the surface on his back and held him there, not looking down at what he was doing but up, at an imperturbable witnessing sky, not quite blue, not quite white.  
A fierce surging pressure had begun upward beneath his hands and grimly he had exerted more and more force downward.  In a second, he felt he was trying to hold a giant under.  Astonished, he let himself look.  The face under the water was wrathfully  contorted, twisted by some primeval rage to save itself.  Automatically he released his pressure.  Then when he realized what he had done, he pushed down again angrily with all his force until the struggle ceased under his hands... Then as he looked at it, he had a moment of complete terror in which he envisioned his life without the child.  He began to shout frantically.  He plowed his way out of the water with the limp body... The [next day's newspaper] caption said, OVERJOYED FATHER SEES SON REVIVED.
- and the shooting of a cousin, the successful drowning of that same child by a 14-year old boy, and the subsequent rape of that boy by a stranger.

The driving force of the novel is a religious fanatic who feels called to prophesy:
With no one to  hear but the boy, he would flail his arms and roar, "Ignore the Lord Jesus as long as you can!  Spit out the bread of life and sicken on honey.  Whom work beckons, to work!  Whom blood to blood!  Whom lust to lust!  Make haste, make haste.  Fly faster and faster.  Spin yourselves in a frenzy, the time is short!  The Lord is preparing a prophet.  The Lord is preparing a prophet with fire in his hand and eye and the prophet is moving toward the city with his warning.  The prophet is coming with the Lord's message.  'Go warn the children of God,' saith the Lord, 'of the terrible speed of justice.'  Who will be left?  Who will be left when the Lord's mercy strikes?"
An eleven or twelve-year old girl prophesizes at a public gathering:
"Listen you people," she said and flung her arms wide, "God told the world He was going to send it a king and the world waited.  The world thought, a golden fleece will do for His bed.  Silver and gold and peacock tails, a thousand suns in a peacock's tail will do for His sash.  His mother will ride on a four-horned white beast and use the sunset for a cape.  She'll trail it behind her over the ground and let the world pull it to pieces, a new one every evening." 
To Rayber she was like one of those birds blinded to make it sing more sweetly.  Her voice had the tone of a glass bell.  His pity encompassed all exploited children - himself when he was a child, Tarwater exploited by the old man, this child exploited by parents, Bishop exploited by the very fact he was alive.
This was not an easy book to read in terms of content, but Flannery O'Connor, like William Faulkner, has a wonderful ear for the language and speaking style of rural Southerners. 

Everything That Rises Must Converge (title from Teilhard de Chardin) is a collection of short stories, completed in 1954 and dedicated to the Fitzgerald family with whom she had lived ("Nine stories about original sin, with my compliments").   Her delineation of characters is compared to another Christian writer - T. S. Eliot - both of whom are able to reveal "the skull beneath the skin."

Looking at the skull beneath the skin, I found the characters in these nine stories to be almost uniformly disagreeable (bigoted, greedy, violent, abusive, or - like the "girl from Wellesley" - apparently psychotic).  For today's reader the most difficult aspect is the racist language.
"Sometimes at night when she couldn't go to sleep, Mrs. Turpin would occupy herself with the question of who she would have chosen to be if she couldn't have been herself.  If Jesus had said to her before he made her "There's only two places available for you.  You can either be a nigger or white-trash," what would she have said?... She would have wiggled and squirmed and begged and pleaded but it would have been no use and finally she would have said, "All right, make me a nigger then - but that don't mean a trashy one"  And he would have made her a neat clean respectable Negro woman, herself but black."...

"Sometimes Mrs. Turpin occupied herself at night naming the classes of people.  On the bottom of the heap were most colored people, not the kind she would have been if she had been one, but most of them; then next to them - not above, just away from - were the white-trash; then above them were the home-owners, and above them the home-and-land owners, to which she and Claud belonged.  Above she and Claud were people with a lot of money and much bigger houses and much more land. But here the complexity of it would begin to bear in on her, for some of the people with a lot of money were common and ought to be below she and Claud and some of the people who had good blood had lost their money and had to rent and then there were colored people who owned their homes and land as well. There was a colored dentist in town who had two red Lincolns and a swimming pool and a farm with registered white-face cattle on it. Usually by the time she had fallen asleep all the classes of people were moiling and roiling around in her head, and she would dream they were all crammed in together in a box car, being ridden off to be put in a gas oven."
Flannery O'Connor is frankly harsher in her treatment of "white trash," but the casual categorization of African-Americans as lazy, ignorant, and childishly naive is grating for the modern "woke" reader.  Certainly her language is consistent with (though perhaps not representative of) the culture of 1950s, southern America.  But whether the spiritual enlightenment to be gained from the reading is worth the voyage will depend on each reader.  

The best discussion I have read regarding O'Connor's depiction of violence, religiosity, and racist language is in the introductory essay of A Good Man Is Hard To Find, by Lauren Groff, from which I'll take the liberty of quoting at some length: 
A Good Man Is Hard to Find is the most American book I know. By this I mean that it speaks of the hypocrisies of the American soul in microcosm; it is an eruption of the particular half-buried traumas of the Jim Crow South as seen by a brave, blazingly angry, and mordantly funny observer...

Although O’Connor was herself a southerner, A Good Man Is Hard to Find could not be nearly as good as it is if the writer weren’t also an outsider, made all her life to stand in the chilly shadows because she was a highly educated (and highly critical) woman at a time when the gender roles of a soft and amiable southern femininity were rigidly enforced; and, more importantly, because of her devout Catholicism in the largely Fundamentalist Protestant South...

At the deepest, most molten core of all of O’Connor’s work is her Catholicism, or, as she says, "the stinking mad shadow of Jesus." Every story she wrote hinges upon her characters’ stain of original sin, and what grace they are sometimes allowed is hard won, fleeting, and almost always too late to make much of a difference in the end. Her violence, which is the most shocking and immediately apparent attribute of her work, is the violence of Catholicism, a religion in which in the central symbol—fondled on a rosary, hung over the bed, worn on a necklace at the throat—is a crucifix, an aestheticized rendering of the bloody, suffering, broken body of Jesus after he was nailed to a cross and left in the sun to die. She saw her Catholicism in harsh opposition to the wishy-washy moral relativism of the mostly agnostic or atheistic writers of her time...

If a book is to live for decades, as A Good Man Is Hard to Find has done, it must be flexible; it must bend and shift under the various pressures of the changing world, which the author at the time of writing couldn’t possibly foresee. Since the book was published, we in the culture at large have become aware of the tremendous violence that a single word can contain, and a modern audience has to address the fact that O’Connor frequently uses the N-word, one of the most hurtful and hideous epithets in the English language, meant to degrade and dehumanize black people. It’s worse to see that the writer uses it with seeming relish, even titling a story The Artificial Nigger. Some people may try to defend O’Connor by saying that the word didn’t fully hold the freight when she was alive as it holds now—that the word was commonly used in the South at the time and the use of it was in service of verisimilitude—but these are explanations that go only so far, because surely O’Connor, with her subtle understanding of cruelty and pain, knew how hideous the appellation was, how much violence it carries...

No one can decide on behalf of any individual reader whether O’Connor’s use of the word is justified or not, and whether it can be explained away by historical context; I’m personally on the fence, and the fence feels pretty wobbly. In the end, though, I do believe that it’s not all that useful to avoid reading an influential and important author because of her problematic writing, nor is it helpful to run away from a thorough and respectful discussion of racism, both structural and tacit, because of queasiness or guilt or a lack of tools to understand foundational racism and its reverberations.
After reading these three books, I found the racist language less difficult to deal with than the invariably unpleasant and frankly despicable main characters of the stories (as was the case, cited above, after my reading of Everything That Rises Must Converge).  The bad guys in the title story of A Good Man Is Hard to Find casually murders five people, including two children.  The delinquent Bevel "emptied a few of the ashtrays on the floor, rubbing the ashes carefully into the rug," before drowning himself.  A tramp takes a mentally retarded girl away from her caring mother for a car ride, then abandons her at a roadside diner far from home to fend for herself.  A gang of white trash delinquents deliberately start a forest fire during a drought.  And in my view the most despicable of them, an itinerant Bible salesman, seduces an inexperienced young woman away from her family to a remote rural barn, lures her up into the hayloft, takes some liquor and condoms out of a fake Bible in his briefcase, and then... [spoiler alert] takes off her wooden leg and runs away with it.   For fox ache.

I can't in good faith add this post to the hundred entries in the category of Recommended Books; I'll file it under Literature and under Sociology. 

See also: Who Was Flannery O'Connor and Why Is She Being Canceled, in The National Catholic Register or On Flannery O'Connor Chronic Illness... and Chronic Racism or The New Yorker's How Racist Was Flannery O'Connor?

Also relevant is the post I wrote about her ten years ago: A Memorable First Line, which has some useful references.

Perhaps best of all, watch the PBS American Masters biography of Flannery O'Connor.

Daybreak at "Austin's Swamp" (Longville, MN)


Just wanted to share this photo recently taken by my cousin up at the northern Minnesota traditional campground I featured in a post two summers ago.  Hoping to visit there again this year.

14 May 2021

Geography quiz


That group of islands in the center of the picture - Herm, Jethou, Brecqhou, Lihou,  et al - belong to what country?

A)  France
B)  The U.K.
C)  The European Union
D)  China
E)  They don't belong to any country

Answer in the Comments section.  Some of you will be surprised - as I was.

Reposted from 2010 to add the trailer for The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society:


I read and enjoyed the book back in 2010 (after writing the original post), but didn't see the movie until tonight, when I found it on Netflix.  It's an absolutely delightful romance, with top-notch performances by Lily James, Penelope Wilton, and others.

Three-banded armadillo in "safety mode"


The word means "little armoured one" in Spanish.  Image via.  Reposted from 2019.

Secretariat at the Belmont Stakes in 1973 - his "tremendous machine" performance


Everyone who watched the Belmont 40 years ago will never forget Secretariat's race that day.  He had already won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness; this was his bid for the Triple Crown, and he was so good that few owners wanted to enter their horses against him in the Belmont - that's why there were only four racing that day.   The track didn't even take "show" bets, and it's an interesting (?unique) anomaly that Secretariat was so favored by bettors that he would have paid more to show ($2.40) than he did to win ($2.20).  

Over 5,000 winning tickets were never redeemed because the holders valued them more as souvenirs than for their cash value.

And to this day his speed for 1.5 miles has never been equaled.  Even if you have no interest in thoroughbred racing per se, you owe it to yourself to watch this 3-minute clip to see one of the iconic moments in the history of sport.

Reposted from 2013.

Addendum:  A tip of the blogging hat to reader demenace07, who offered this link with more information about the economics of uncashed winning tickets for a more recent race:
Some enterprising horse bettors are selling their tickets on eBay, where such tickets are selling for $20 to $30. Other sellers bought up many of the cheapest Belmont Stakes gambling tickets. One seller is selling a lot of 500 such tickets. Another is selling 150 tickets in a lot.

Tickets for the Triple Crown wins of Secretariat (1973) and Seattle Slew (1977) sold for big money on the collectors market.

Rovell said that the tickets are simply worth more to collectors than the cash-in price. He said, “Whether you want to keep it for your memory or resell it, it’s worth ten times more than if you cash it in. So people are making good bets.”

New Jenga record


Over 1,500 blocks stacked on one, via.

The most recent Randy Rainbow offering

The hairdo looks odd, but it's because this is a parody of Judy Garland's original performance of the song.

09 May 2021

"Steve" is a new type of Northern Lights

You might wonder what Steve means. At first it didn't mean anything. It was just a name. Steve comes from the animated movie Over The Hedge. In the movie, the main characters were watching bushes rustle. Out came an animal that they didn't know. So they named it Steve.

That's how Steve, the new type of northern lights, got its name. Citizen scientists took a few photos of Steve and showed the photos to NASA scientists. NASA scientists initially couldn't explain the newly discovered aurora type, so they all decided on naming it Steve for now.
NASA scientists have now created a "backronym" - Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement.
NASA has set up a project called Aurorasaurus. At Aurorasaurus, you can see where the northern lights are predicted to be located in the near future, and actual reports of the northern lights from people around the world.
Reposted from 2017 to add this spectacular photo of a STEVE. 


Discussion and multiple relevant links at the APOD source.
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