23 January 2021

Vineyards of the Canary Islands

Volcanic eruptions are terrible for vineyards, but only briefly. Once the lava cools, the volcanic soil left behind creates delicious wine that is lean, racy, and mineral: Santorini’s Assyrtiko, Nerello Mascalese from the slopes of Sicily’s Mount Etna, Northern Californian Cabernet Sauvignon. Vines planted by Spanish and Portuguese settlers made the Canaries famous: In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare’s Sir Toby Belch speaks of “a cup of canary.” Then their popularity waned, and for 200 years, the trade winds brought no trade.

“And a good thing, too,” says Jonatan García Lima of Suertes del Marqués on Tenerife, the Canaries’ largest island. No trade meant vines could grow and adapt in peace, and the result is a remarkable range of varieties that, if not precisely indigenous (Listán Blanco is also Palomino, the grape of sherry, while Listán Prieto is better known as Mission, the earliest European variety planted in the Americas), are so different from their other incarnations as to be almost unrecognizable.

Those vineyards are starkly beautiful but surpassingly strange: covered in black volcanic ash, each vine planted in an individual depression, shielded from that chill wind by its own semi-circular wall of ink-dark rock. Driving through La Geria, the island’s principal wine region, is like crossing a giant muffin tray with vines where the muffins should be. 
More info at Food & Wine.

Edit icon now missing from blogspot posts

It's always something.  Now something has happened at Google's Blogspot hosting service that has made the little icon for editing existing posts disappear.   There used to be something to click down in this corner that allowed the blogger to make updates, changes etc.  That disappeared several days ago.

I'm not the only one to notice this.  The problem is present while using either Chrome or Firefox.  There is one workaround that involves adding an extension to one's browser, but I'm reluctant to do this.  For the present I need to go to my dashboard of 17,000 posts, search for the one I want, and open the post there to edit.

Seeking comments and input from other bloggers.  Regular readers can ignore this.

Addendum: And this evening I find I can't delete comments from old posts, even via the dashboard. ???


The photos above were taken at the Gippsland Lakes (Victoria, Australia), where in 2007 fires and floods resulted in massive amounts of nitrogen being washed into the lakes, which resulted in an algal bloom...
But this was not the blue-green algae that had appeared in the lakes before. Early analysis identified the cause of the green tinge as an algal outbreak of Synechococcus... As summer took hold at the end of 2008, what happened surprised everyone – a new species called Noctiluca Scintillans began to prosper, by feeding on the Synechococcus.

In contrast to the widespread bright green of the Synechococcus, Noctiluca Scintillans was visible during the day as localised murky red patches, often building up on sections of shoreline facing the wind during the day. At night though, Noctiluca Scintillans produced a remarkable form of bioluminescence (popularly referred to as ‘phosphorescence’) – the water glowing brightly wherever there was movement – in the waves breaking on the shore, in ripples in the water and wherever people played in the water.
You can read the rest of the story at Phil Hart's webpage and see additional photos in his gallery (via Neatorama).

Massive blooms of bioluminescent organisms can produce "milky seas" that can be seen from satellites, as shown in this image from Chemical and Engineering News:

"Generated most likely by the bacterium Vibrio harveyi, this awesome display of flamboyant biological chemistry happened on a vast scale: The researchers estimate that it took a bloom of 40 billion trillion (4 X 1022) bioluminescent cells to generate the milky sea that the Lima had encountered."
Reposted from 2011 to add this video of bioluminescence in the Wadden Sea.

Wisconsin Republicans want to revoke the current mask mandate

"Republicans who control the Wisconsin Legislature will vote next week on a resolution that would end the statewide mask mandate designed to slow the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.  Twenty-seven Republican lawmakers signed on to the resolution introduced Thursday...

[Governor] Evers first issued a statewide mask requirement in July and has extended the order three times, most recently on Tuesday.

“From day one, I’ve been ready to repeal Governor Evers’ unconstitutional edicts,” Bradley, a freshman lawmaker, said in a statement. “The governor has grossly overstepped his authority. I am hopeful that the Senate will vote for this resolution on Tuesday, and I encourage Wisconsinites to reach out to their legislators to support this effort.”

Republicans control the Senate 20-12 and the Assembly 60-38."
5,600 deaths in the state thus far.

A lot of people feel this way

21 January 2021


Jargon* is the specialized terminology associated with a particular field or area of activity. Jargon is normally employed in a particular communicative context and may not be well understood outside that context. The context is usually a particular occupation (that is, a certain trade, profession, vernacular or academic field), but any ingroup can have jargon. The main trait that distinguishes jargon from the rest of a language is special vocabulary—including some words specific to it and often different senses or meanings of words, that outgroups would tend to take in another sense... 
The word "jargon" came to mind yesterday evening as I was finishing a final reread to the book illustrated above.  It's a mid-1990s textbook explaining geophysical processes to students of archaeology.  Way TMI for the general reader, but a delight for the armchair enthusiast - extensively illustrated and lucidly explained.  Here are some sample pages:

The page above explains that when you are dealing with erosional terraces, the older artifacts will be on the higher terraces - the reverse of the intuitive assumption that older items are deeper down.

In the evolution of a rockshelter, debris typically falls onto the scree on the slope, potentially burying important older material.

Above, a graph of world sea levels for the time period of North American occupation.  The low levels during glaciation allowed early man to traverse Beringia, and the subsequent rise will have put original shoreline occupation sites under many meters of seawater on the Pacific Coast.

And my favorite from this group.  A schematic explaining "cryoturbation" and why recurrent frosts heave objects from the ground to the surface.  My uncles used to walk the farm fields every spring to clear newly emergent rocks from the surface before it could be cultivated.

But back to the title of this post.  Every technical field has a "jargon" that simplifies and speeds communication.  Geoarchaeology uses a boatload of terms, most of which were new to me.  The book explained these in clear understandable terms...
Equant, prolate, imbrication, evaporite, tuff, sapropel, diastem, eolian, lacustrine, colluvial, facies, pedology, eluviation, illuviation, chroma, mollic, umbric, histic, plaggen, ochric, albic, argillic, spodic, cambic, duripan, fragipan, petrogypsic, haplargid, paleustol, calciorthid, gleyed, paoleosol, time transgressive, unconformable contacts, floralturbation, cryoturbation, crystalburbation, synchronic, bajada, barchan, ventifact, turbidites, colluvium, ablation till, eboulis, spelothem, breccia, talus cone, chenier, strandplain, prograding coastline, palimpsest sediment, frost pull, solifluction, gelifluction, tree-throw, kratovina, manuport
... and now that I've finished reading it, I'm already rapidly forgetting the definitions.  But they were interesting to read and learn.

If anyone is interested in my copy of this book, I have listed it on eBay.

* The French word is believed to have been derived from the Latin word gaggire, meaning "to chatter", which was used to describe speech that the listener did not understand. The word may also come from Old French jargon meaning "chatter of birds".  The first use of the word dates back to the usage of the word in The Canterbury Tales written by Geoffrey Chaucer between 1387 and 1400. Chaucer referred to jargon as the utterance of birds or sounds resembling birds.

20 January 2021

How butterflies survive the impact of raindrops

An interesting brief video.  Insect wings (and other natural objects such as bird feathers and plant leaves) are superhydrophobic.
In analyzing the film, they found that when a drop hits the surface, it ripples and spreads. A nanoscale wax layer repels the water, while larger microscale bumps on the surface creates holes in the spreading raindrop.

“Consider the micro-bumps as needles,” Jung said. If one dropped a balloon onto these needles, he said, “then this balloon would break into smaller pieces. So the same thing happens as the raindrop hits and spreads.”

This shattering action reduces the amount of time the drop is in contact with the surface, which limits momentum and lowers the impact force on a delicate wing or leaf. It also reduces heat transfer from a cold drop. This is important because the muscles of an insect wing, for example, need to be warm enough to fly.
Reference: “How a Raindrop Gets Shattered on Biological Surfaces” by Seungho Kim, Zixuan Wu, Ehsan Esmaili, Jason J. Dombroskie and Sunghwan Jung, 8 June 2020, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The high-speed film clip at the end of the video showing  the swallowtail launching is absolutely beautiful.  I'll just add that the butterfly depicted earlier in the video appears to be one of my all-time favorites - an Olympia Marble.  Here's one I was able to photograph back in 2014:


As reported by the BBC:
The rare condition likely afflicting the Sarker family is called adermatoglyphia. It first became widely known in 2007 when Peter Itin, a Swiss dermatologist, was contacted by a woman in the country in her late twenties who was having trouble entering the US. Her face matched the photograph on her passport, but customs officers were not able to record any fingerprints. Because she didn't have any.

Upon examination, Professor Itin found the woman and eight members of her family had the same strange condition - flat finger pads and a reduced number of sweat glands in the hands. Working with another dermatologist, Eli Sprecher, and graduate student Janna Nousbeck, Professor Itin looked at the DNA of 16 members of the family - seven with fingerprints and nine without.

"Isolated cases are very rare, and no more than a few families are documented," Prof Itin told the BBC... Prof Itin dubbed it "immigration delay disease", after his first patient's trouble getting into the US, and the name stuck...

Amal and Apu recently got a new kind of national ID card being issued by the Bangladeshi government, after presenting a medical certificate. The card uses other biometric data too - retina scan and facial recognition.

But they still can't buy a Sim card or obtain a driver's licence, and obtaining a passport is a long and drawn out process.
In discussions of this syndrome, comments are sometimes made that the afflicted family members would be excellent thieves.  But the counterpart of that is that they would be arrested on suspicion for every crime in which no fingerprints were found.

President Jimmy Carter

The 39th president of the United States lives modestly, a sharp contrast to his successors, who have left the White House to embrace power of another kind: wealth.  Even those who didn’t start out rich, including Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, have made tens of millions of dollars on the private-sector opportunities that flow so easily to ex-presidents...

The Democratic former president decided not to join corporate boards or give speeches for big money because, he says, he didn’t want to “capitalize financially on being in the White House.”

Presidential historian Michael Beschloss said that Gerald Ford, Carter’s predecessor and close friend, was the first to fully take advantage of those high-paid post-presidential opportunities, but that “Carter did the opposite.”

Since Ford, other former presidents, and sometimes their spouses, routinely earn hundreds of thousands of dollars per speech.

“I don’t see anything wrong with it; I don’t blame other people for doing it,” Carter says over dinner. “It just never had been my ambition to be rich.”..

Carter decided that his income would come from writing, and he has written 33 books, about his life and career, his faith, Middle East peace, women’s rights, aging, fishing, woodworking, even a children’s book written with his daughter, Amy Carter, called “The Little Baby Snoogle-Fleejer.”

With book income and the $210,700 annual pension all former presidents receive, the Carters live comfortably. But his books have never fetched the massive sums commanded by more recent presidents...

Ex-presidents often fly on private jets, sometimes lent by wealthy friends, but the Carters fly commercial. Stuckey says that on a recent flight from Atlanta to Los Angeles, Carter walked up and down the aisle greeting other passengers and taking selfies...

That no-frills sensibility, endearing since he left Washington, didn’t work as well in the White House. Many people thought Carter scrubbed some of the luster off the presidency by carrying his own suitcases onto Air Force One and refusing to have “Hail to the Chief” played...

When Carter looks back at his presidency, he says he is most proud of “keeping the peace and supporting human rights,” the Camp David accords that brokered peace between Israel and Egypt, and his work to normalize relations with China. In 2002, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.

“I always told the truth,” he says.

Carter has been notably quiet about President Trump. But on this night, two years into Trump’s term, he’s not holding back.

“I think he’s a disaster,” Carter says. “In human rights and taking care of people and treating people equal.”..

They watch Atlanta Braves games or “Law and Order.” Carter just finished reading “The Innovators” by Walter Isaacson. They have no chef and they cook for themselves, often together. They make their own yogurt.

On this summer morning, Rosalynn mixes pancake batter and sprinkles in blueberries grown on their land. Carter cooks them on the griddle.
Then he does the dishes.
I highly recommend reading the full story at the Washington Post.  His life and his personal principles offer such a stark contrast to current and recent presidents.  Here's one final excerpt about his home:
...a two-bedroom rancher assessed at $167,000, less than the value of the armored Secret Service vehicles parked outside.
Photo credit Library of Congress, via CNBC.

Reposted from 2018 to add this photo of Jimmy Carter at his 96th birthday party several months ago:

He was too frail to attend the inauguration today, but was fondly remembered by several commentators (and me).

Via the Pics subreddit, where there is an affectionate comment thread.

A record of Halley's Comet (164 BCE)

The Babylonians kept astronomical diaries from about the 7th century BCE onward.  This clay cuneiform tablet in the British Museum records the appearance and passing of the comet from 22-28 September, 164 BCE.  Via.

19 January 2021

Looking forward to the "internet of things" ??

"The Internet of things (IoT) describes the network of physical objects—“things”—that are embedded with sensors, software, and other technologies for the purpose of connecting and exchanging data with other devices and systems over the Internet."
Be careful what you wish for:
In October of last year, security researchers found that the manufacturer of an Internet of Things chastity cage*—a sex toy that users put around their penis to prevent erections that is used in the BDSM community and can be unlocked remotely—had left an API exposed, giving malicious hackers a chance to take control of the devices. That's exactly what happened, according to a security researcher who obtained screenshots of conversations between the hacker and several victims, and according to victims interviewed by Motherboard.   

A victim who asked to be identified only as Robert said that he received a message from a hacker demanding a payment of 0.02 Bitcoin (around $750 today) to unlock the device. He realized his cage was definitely "locked," and he "could not gain access to it." 
More details at Vice.  Image from Amazon.  NSFW images at the chastity cage link.

Just pretend it's ramen......

... but with more protein.
Yellow mealworm finger foods, smoothies, biscuits, pasta and burgers could soon be mass produced across Europe after the insect became the first to be found safe for human consumption by the EU food safety agency...

The insect’s main components are protein, fat and fibre, offering a potentially sustainable and low carbon-emission source of food for the future. When dried, the maggot-like insect is said to taste a lot like peanuts...

Dried yellow mealworms can be eaten as an aperitif and come in a range of flavours. Alternatively, the insect can be turned into a flour-type ingredient for a dessert.

Thanks to a recipe provided by Jiminis edible insect company, a yellow mealworm cupcake is easy to knock up with three tablespoons of cocoa, 60g of margarine, an egg, a tablespoon of low-fat yoghurt, 30g of flour and 25g of powdered mealworm – with some whole ones left for later.

Add a little water to the cocoa and mix that into the melted butter, egg, yoghurt and some baking powder. Add in some freshly crushed mealworms. Distribute the mix between moulds and cook for 20 minutes. Glaze the top of the freshly baked cupcakes with some icing sugar – and add the spare mealworms on top for decoration.
More at The Guardian.

18 January 2021

Three kidneys

Instead of the usual two kidneys seen in a typical person, the man had three: a normal-looking kidney on his left side and two fused kidneys located near the pelvis, the report said.

Usually, each kidney is connected to the bladder through a single duct called a ureter. In the man's case, one of the pelvis kidneys was directly connected to the bladder via a ureter. However, the ureter of the other pelvis kidney joined the ureter of the normal, left-side kidney before it entered the bladder.

Having three kidneys is rare, with fewer than 100 cases reported in the medical literature, according to a 2013 report of a similar case published in The Internet Journal of Radiology. The condition is thought to arise during embryonic development, when a structure that typically forms a single kidney splits in two.
The supernumerary kidney has a horseshoe component, described in detail here.

The National Debt

"Economists agree that we needed massive deficit spending during the COVID-19 crisis to ward off an economic cataclysm, but federal finances under Trump had become dire even before the pandemic. That happened even though the economy was booming and unemployment was at historically low levels. By the Trump administration’s own description, the pre-pandemic national debt level was already a “crisis” and a “grave threat.”

The combination of Trump’s 2017 tax cut and the lack of any serious spending restraint helped both the deficit and the debt soar. So when the once-in-a-lifetime viral disaster slammed our country and we threw more than $3 trillion into COVID-19-related stimulus, there was no longer any margin for error.

Our national debt has reached immense levels relative to our economy, nearly as high as it was at the end of World War II. But unlike 75 years ago, the massive financial overhang from Medicare and Social Security will make it dramatically more difficult to dig ourselves out of the debt ditch...

Falling deeper into the red is the opposite of what Trump, the self-styled “King of Debt,” said would happen if he became president. In a March 31, 2016, interview with Bob Woodward and Robert Costa of The Washington Post, Trump said he could pay down the national debt, then about $19 trillion, “over a period of eight years” by renegotiating trade deals and spurring economic growth.

After he took office, Trump predicted that economic growth created by the 2017 tax cut, combined with the proceeds from the tariffs he imposed on a wide range of goods from numerous countries, would help eliminate the budget deficit and let the U.S. begin to pay down its debt. On July 27, 2018, he told Sean Hannity of Fox News: “We have $21 trillion in debt. When this [the 2017 tax cut] really kicks in, we’ll start paying off that debt like it’s water.”..

The tariffs did bring in additional revenue. In fiscal 2019, they netted about $71 billion, up about $36 billion from President Barack Obama’s last year in office. But although $36 billion is a lot of money, it’s less than 1/750th of the national debt. That $36 billion could have covered a bit more than three weeks of interest on the national debt — that is, had Trump not unilaterally decided to send a chunk of the tariff revenue to farmers affected by his trade wars. Businesses that struggled as a result of the tariffs also paid fewer taxes, offsetting some of the increased tariff revenue.

Normally, this is where we’d give you Trump’s version of events. But we couldn’t get anyone to give us Trump’s side. Judd Deere, a White House spokesman, referred us to the Office of Management and Budget, which is a branch of the White House...

OMB didn’t respond to our requests."
More discussion at ProPublica.

Testing a football helmet in 1912

There was no damage.  To the building.  Via.

Nationwide decline in other respiratory pathogens

An interesting but predictable side effect of the coronavirus epidemic is a decline in the prevalence of other respiratory pathogens.
Veteran virus trackers say they are chronicling something never before seen — the suppression of virtually every common respiratory and gastrointestinal virus besides the novel coronavirus. They theorize that is largely due to global shutdowns, mask-wearing and a host of other health protocols aimed at stemming the spread of the coronavirus.

These other viruses — including influenza A, influenza B, parainfluenza, norovirus, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), human metapneumovirus — all appear to be circulating at or near levels lower than ever previously measured. The same is true for the respiratory bacteria that cause pertussis, better known as whooping cough, and pneumonia...

A year ago at this time, nearly 60 percent of samples taken from patients with flu-like symptoms came back positive for one of the pathogens. But beginning in March of this year, when the coronavirus prompted shutdowns and school closings, the percent of samples positive for any other pathogen took a Grand Canyon-worthy plunge, bottoming out in May at about 6 percent. Even now, at the time of year when respiratory infections typically begin to peak, just 18 percent of samples are positive for any respiratory virus or bacteria...
This decline in prevalence extends beyond the respiratory viruses to include intestinal enteroviruses that are preventable by handwashing.

But there is a downside:
As welcome as the absence of these other viruses is during a pandemic, epidemiologists say they see a potentially dangerous consequence after coronavirus cases eventually decline — a rebound that could be frightfully large given the relaxation of social distancing and lowered immunity to other pathogens.

“The best analogy is to a forest fire,” said Bryan Grenfell, an epidemiologist and population biologist at Princeton. “For the fire to spread, it needs to have unburned wood. For epidemics to spread, they require people who haven’t previously been infected. So if people don’t get infected this year by these viruses, they likely will at some point later on.”..

It’s a real possibility that we’re going to see increased outbreaks of the endemic infections,” said Ben Lopman, an epidemiologist in Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health. “If people haven’t gotten infected this year, because of actions taken to prevent covid-19, there’s a real risk of bigger outbreaks when we go back to normal.”

Besides larger-than-normal numbers of endemic infections, Lopman added, some of those infections could be more severe than normal, again because of waning immunity.
More at The Washington Post and chart from BioFire.  It's important not to oversimplify these matters; viral epidemiology is a complex science, and it's easy for people to come to erroneous decisions when they cherry-pick data to support prior assumptions.

When your lunch plans change from a PBJ to ham and cheese

I love the saltiness of sourdough bread, and I understand that it has become very popular during the covid quarantine.  Perhaps home-baking enthusiasts can prevent this, but store-bought loaves sometimes have gigantic air pockets.  I've tried weighing the loaves with my hands at the store, but the difference between aerated bread and pure air is too subtle for me to detect.

So today it was ham and cheese.  And even at that, it broke in half.

17 January 2021

No treats if you tell anyone...

Credit: Sarah Andersen's Instagram, via the Miss Cellania humor blog.  

Flight tracker?

Not really.  Answer below the fold:

A timeline for Midwestern Monarchs

This is not the season for butterflies here up north, but as J.M. Barrie said, "God gave us memory so that we might have roses in December."  So let's do this now.

The screencap comes from an online presentation this past year by Dr. Karen Oberhauser, director of the University of Wisconsin's arboretum.  The chart at the left shows cumulative data from a project done under the auspices of the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project.  Citizen scientists monitored a couple hundred milkweed plants at the arboretum, recording the presence of eggs, then larvae in their various stages, and finally the pupae (chrysalises).  

The results exactly mirror the experience we have seen in our suburban home (which also has a hundred+ milkweeds).  The Monarchs arrive from down south in May, at about the same time the milkweeds are emerging.  We find some eggs on our plants then, but the real burst occurs in July, when the adults from the first batch have mated and oviposited.  There is probably a third "peak" embedded within the decline of the second one, but the overall pattern is quite predictable.  There is more data that can be derived from this chart re mortality and predation, but the overall pattern is I think worth sharing.


This very official-looking document arrived in my mail several days ago.  I knew instinctively that it was not from Medicare, but I also know that it's going to fool a lot of elderly people.  It is almost certainly totally legal, but the disclaimer "This is an advertisement and a solicitation of insurance" is written in about a 6-point font.

I am not anti-business or opposed to clever selling techniques.  My father was a classic traveling salesman with a four-state route, visiting electric utilities to try to sell them transformers.  He was creative in his inducements and rewards to customers, but never to my knowledge deceptive.  I find this kind of crap abhorrent.

I'm jealous of this hair

Mostly I'm jealous of just having hair, but that coloring is awesome.  It looks like the "structural" color of beetle wings etc, but was apparently created with dyes.  Comments at Reddit take note of the practical problems associated with maintaining this artwork. 

Posted for a certain "foxy" lady, who now seems to be sporting some blue color. 

14 January 2021

Mouse problem will delay blogging

 I have unexpectedly begun experiencing recurrent problems with my iMac not able to "discover" my bluetooth Magic Mouse.   The bluetooth system works fine to communicate with the keyboard (and can see the TV in the next room), and I have tried turning the bluetooth system off and back on with no result.  When the bluetooth saw the mouse momentarily last night I was able to confirm that the mouse is 100% charged.   I have googled some recommendations to remove the Mac's bluetooth preference list (plist), but as an English major that would challenge my tech skills.  There is a second Mac in the room, but I don't believe there is any cross-talking or interference.

I've also been having problems reliably communicating with my new Canon printer, and had to resort to relying on the USB connector for that, but still having intermittent problems.  I have also tried swearing in progressively increasing terms of abuse at all the devices, with no response yet.

So for the present I've had to dig out an ancient USB mouse with a color scheme that looks like it came with my old Performa.  It works, but doesn't offer the right-click amenities and scrolling performance that I need to properly format blog posts.

So this is not another blogcation - but there will be a delay and decreased productivity.

Awesome origami

The 7" scorpion was created out of one uncut square of Korean hanji paper.
This is an example of "hex pleating," a design technique analogous to box pleating, but that uses hexagonal symmetry.
The 5" tree frog was folded from one uncut square of Origamido paper. Many more at the artist's website. (via k9pincushion)

Reposted from 2008 (!) to add this super-awesome recent example:

Via, where the artist notes "It took me 3 months to design and fold this origami samurai from a single square sheet of paper without any cutting."

12 January 2021

It's a planthopper nymph

Zip cuffs confirmed in the Capitol insurrection

Photo (cropped for size) from Snopes, which has additional photos of others carrying zip cuffs, plus a video of the Capitol police opening the doors to let the rioters in.

"Here's your refund. Don't return the item"

A somewhat counterintuitive corporate retail policy: 
Retailers have a new message for consumers looking to return an item: Keep it.

Amazon.com Inc., Walmart Inc. and other companies are using artificial intelligence to decide whether it makes economic sense to process a return. For inexpensive items or large ones that would incur hefty shipping fees, it is often cheaper to refund the purchase price and let customers keep the products.

The relatively new approach, popularized by Amazon and a few other chains, is being adopted more broadly during the Covid-19 pandemic, as a surge in online shopping forces companies to rethink how they handle returns. “We are getting so many inquiries about this that you will see it take off in coming months,” said Amit Sharma, chief executive of Narvar Inc., which processes returns for retailers.

Lorie Anderson of Vancouver, Wash., was pleasantly surprised when she tried to return online purchases of makeup at Target and batteries from Walmart. The chains issued her a refund but told her to keep the items.

“They were inexpensive, and it wouldn’t make much financial sense to return them by mail,” Ms. Anderson, 38 years old, said. “It’s a hassle to pack up the box and drop it at the post office or UPS . This was one less thing I had to worry about.”
Full story behind a paywall at The Wall Street Journal.

And, as an example of how walls don't keep determined people out, here is the content from behind the paywall, courtesy of an anonymous reader.

11 January 2021

29 holes in Mars

"We all know Mars as the Red Planet, we see that in the night sky. However, as our drill tailings gallery shows, once we drill just a small depth in to the interior, Mars can be very different. We have drilled successfully 29 times now and the sediments show a range of hues from ochre-red to blue-grey reflecting the minerals and fluids that passed through the ancient rocks. Drilling allows us to get through the topmost, oxidized surface that has been most exposed to cosmic radiation."

"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.

Reposted to add this awesome photo of a bioluminescent octopus:

"Stauroteuthis syrtensis, also known as the glowing sucker octopus or bioluminescent octopus, is a species of small pelagic octopus found at great depths in the north Atlantic Ocean...

Stauroteuthis is one of only two genera of octopuses to exhibit bioluminescence. S. syrtensis emits a blue-green light from about 40 modified suckers known as photophores situated in a single row between the pairs of cirri on the underside of each arm. The distance between these decreases towards the ends of the arms with the light becoming fainter. The animal does not emit light continuously, but can do so for a period of five minutes after suitable stimulation. Some of the photophores emit a continuous stream of faint light, while others are much brighter and switch on and off in a cyclical pattern, producing a twinkling effect. The function of the bioluminescence is believed to be for defence, being used by the animal to scare off predators, and also as a lure for the planktonic crustaceans that form its main diet. The light may also be used for sexual signaling, but this is considered to be an unlikely function, as the light is deployed by both sexes and by immature, as well as mature, individuals."

13th century numeral system

A single icon can represent any number up to 9999 (see bottom row).  It's not hard to decipher.  Break the icon into four quadrants, then read the bottom left, then bottom right, then top left, then top right.

I have no further information on the system, or its name.  The via at Reddit indicates that it was developed by Cistercian monks and was "used for years, divisions of texts, the numbering of notes and other lists, indexes and concordances, arguments in Easter tables, and even for musical notation."

This system is explained - somewhat slowly - in a Numberphile video (hat tip to reader Keith).

Walking with the insurrectionists

Excerpts from an essay in The Atlantic:
I told the woman in the cat costume that I would walk with her group. “Only if you take off your mask,” she said. The media is the only real virus, she explained, knowing that I was a part of the media. I told her I would keep my mask on. Trumpists had asked me periodically to remove it. Some were polite about it, a few others not. It seemed to me that only 5 percent or so of the thousands of people gathered for the insurrection wore masks. At one point, when I was caught in the thickest part of the crowd, near the Ellipse, a man told me, “Your glasses are fogging up.”

“Yep, masks,” I said.

“You don’t have to wear it. It’s not a mandate.”

“No, I do.”


“There’s a pandemic.”

“Yeah, right.”

We will find out shortly if today’s insurrection was also a super-spreader event. What I do know, after spending hours sponging up Trumpist paranoia, conspiracism, and cultishness, is that this gathering was not merely an attempted coup but also a mass-delusion event, not something that can be explained adequately through the prism of politics. Its chaos was rooted in psychological and theological phenomena, intensified by eschatological anxiety. One man I interviewed this morning, a resident of Texas who said his name was Don Johnson (I did not trust this to be his name), told me that the country was coming apart, and that this dissolution presaged the End Times. “It’s all in the Bible,” he said. “Everything is predicted. Donald Trump is in the Bible. Get yourself ready.”
More at the link (no paywall).

17 "priors"

"A 73-year-old Green Bay man has been charged with his 18th drunken driving offense, after a crash Friday that took out power lines and caused an outage.

Wallace Bowers had 17 prior operating while intoxicated convictions between 1988 and 2011, but he had a valid license at the time of Friday's crash.

WLUK-TV reported that Wisconsin law now requires driver’s licenses to be revoked after a 4th OWI conviction, if the most recent conviction was within 15 years. But Bowers' last conviction was in 2011, before the new law went into effect in 2018.

“I’ve been sober since the 2011 (incident), that last DWI, and I blame the medications I have to be on (they) can interfere with the few drinks I did have,” Bowers told Court Commissioner Cynthia Vopal during an initial court appearance."
I live in a state famous for its beer and its tolerance of alcohol abuse.  The Tavern League of Wisconsin is a major contributor to political candidates at all levels of government.

09 January 2021

Flowers and moths in Wisconsin in the winter

I don't hike the arboretum in winter, so the photos here are of our yard after the first heavy snowfall of the year.  But I do get newsletters from the arboretum on a regular basis, and the most recent one included some information that was new to me.
"It has long been believed that fallen pine needles acidify (reduce the pH of) the soil. This isn’t the case, however. While the fresh needles are acidic, the pH is neutralized during decomposition and they have no real effect on soil acidity. A recent study from the University of Wisconsin–River Falls looked at soil pH under older deciduous and coniferous trees, including four pine species, and found no relevant effect on soil pH caused by needle or leaf litter decomposition over time."
"Sporting fragrant, perfect flowers with four unique sulfur-yellow, strap-like petals, common witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), a Wisconsin native, still displayed a few flowers in December. The common name is thought to derive from the old English wych, meaning “to bend,” in reference to the plants flexible branches, and “hazel” comes from the resemblance of the leaves to those of hazels in the genus Corylus.

Witch-haze flowers are fragrant, bear nectar, and produce abundant sticky pollen. They are not able to self-pollinate however, which indicates that they are insect pollinated. Though witch-hazel reproduction is not fully understood, research indicates that flies and fungus gnats play a role in pollinating the flowers in the fall before freezing temperatures. For flowers present during winter, owlet moths in the family Noctuidae, referred to as shivering moths, appear to play a role. These moths overwinter as adults, living under leaf litter, and have the ability to raise the temperature around their flight muscles by as much as 50°F by shivering, so they can fly in search of food during winter months."

You learn something every day.

Amber bear amulet (Slupsk, Poland)

"The amber bear amulet was found in 1887 in a peat bog near Slupsk,Poland. When the figure was examined it turned out to be the amulet of a bear hunter, originating from the Neolithic period. It was dated at between 1700 B.C. and 650 B.C. "

Last lines of novels

But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can’t stand it. I been there before. –Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885)

He loved Big Brother. –George Orwell, 1984 (1949)

‘It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.’ –Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

Before reaching the final line, however, he had already understood that he would never leave that room, for it was foreseen that the city of mirrors (or mirages) would be wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men at the precise moment when Aureliano Babilonia would finish deciphering the parchments, and that everything written on them was unrepeatable since time immemorial and forever more, because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth. –Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967; trans. Gregory Rabassa)

It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan. –Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851)

He was soon borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance. –Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (1818)

He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city. –Albert Camus, The Plague (1947; trans. Stuart Gilbert)

“Good grief—It's Daddy!” –Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg, Candy (1958)

And so, as Tiny Tim observed, "God bless Us, Every One!" –Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (1843)

The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which. –George Orwell, Animal Farm (1945)

But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest, a little boy and his Bear will always be playing. –A. A. Milne, The House at Pooh Corner (1928)

The old man was dreaming about the lions. –Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea (1952)

“Tomorrow, I’ll think of some way to get him back. After all, tomorrow is another day.” –Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind (1936)

The coronavirus "lab leak" hypothesis

You've heard the rumors, the chit-chat, the idle speculation - that the current coronavirus pandemic is the result of a "leak" of a wild virus from a research lab in Wuhan, that it is an intentional form of biological warfare, that the virus was synthesized to be used as a weapon...

By a wide margin the best reporting I have so far encountered on this subject is a longread (very long read) at New York Magazine.  I'll break from my usual practice of excerpting the best bits to embed here, because snippets may confer wrong information.  The article does not provide a definitive answer to the question, but there is a lot of relevant information.

Related:  Yesterday I listened to a very interesting podcast of This American Life.  "The Other Extinguishers" is a 21-minute segment interviewing scientists who developed a key element in the Moderna vaccine years before COVID-19 emerged.  They were inducing cells to produce the "spikes" of the SARS-2 virus as an immunizing agent.  It's worth a listen, if only to realize that without this fortuitous happenstance, it might have been years before an effective vaccine to COVID-19 could have been produced.

Mommy, can we watch the TV show about the giant penis?

"John Dillermand has an extraordinary penis. So extraordinary, in fact, that it can perform rescue operations, etch murals, hoist a flag and even steal ice-cream from children.

The Danish equivalent of the BBC, DR, has a new animated series aimed at four- to eight-year-olds about John Dillermand, the man with the world’s longest penis who overcomes hardships and challenges with his record-breaking genitals."
The resulting controversy is discussed at The Guardian.

Music from the dorsalis pedis

Arguably the most interesting item I bookmarked during my blogcation, as reported by the New England Journal of Medicine -
A 65-year-old man who had previously undergone bilateral hip arthroplasty presented with a dislocated hip after a fall. When a handheld Doppler device used to assess the pulses in his feet was placed on the dorsalis pedis, it picked up music in addition to the pulse, as shown in a video.
The article at the link was outside the paywall initially; I don't know whether it will remain so.  In the audio at the gif, the music is clearly a broadcast by a radio station.  The staff at the hospital tried using other Dopplers, all of which gave the same result, so it was not a Doppler malfunction.  They then checked other patients' pulses, but heard no music, so the phenomenon appears to be somehow caused by this patient's prosthesis.  I like when they pan the camera to show him smiling about everything at the end.

Addendum:  The app Shazam identified the music in the gif as “Gracias Por Tu Amor” by Banda El Recodo De Cruz Lizárraga.

Skeletonizing a leaf

Sawfly larvae at work, via.

A parody of Fiddler on the Roof's "Tradition"

08 January 2021

Pleaching, plashing, and pruning - updated

Pleaching or plashing is a technique of interweaving living and dead branches through a hedge for stock control. Trees are planted in lines, the branches are woven together to strengthen and fill any weak spots until the hedge thickens. Branches in close contact may grow together, due to a natural phenomenon called inosculation, a natural graft. Pleach also means weaving of thin, whippy stems of trees to form a basketry effect.
The photo, via the WoahDude subreddit, was taken at the Schönbrunn Palace gardens.

For me the image immediately conjured up memories of the scene in The Third Man where Anna walks out of Holly's life, but that one was taken at a Viennese cemetery.

This photo, and the watermarked one here, show the equipment used at the palace to accomplish the effect:

Although the top photo was described in the discussion thread as an example of pleaching, a review of Google Images retrieved by keyword pleaching suggests that the process at the palace is just elaborate pruning, without the interweaving indicated by the term "pleaching."

Still an interesting effect, though.

Reposted from 2017 to add this photo of naturally-occuring inosculation:

Wordsmiths will recognize the term as being related to "kissing" -
From in- +‎ osculate, from Latin ōsculātus (kiss), from ōs + -culus (“little mouth”).  
More information:
Inosculation is a natural phenomenon in which trunks, branches or roots of two trees grow together. It is biologically similar to grafting and such trees are referred to in forestry as gemels, from the Latin word meaning "a pair".

It is most common for branches of two trees of the same species to grow together, though inosculation may be noted across related species. The branches first grow separately in proximity to each other until they touch. At this point, the bark on the touching surfaces is gradually abraded away as the trees move in the wind. Once the cambium of two trees touches, they sometimes self-graft and grow together as they expand in diameter. Inosculation customarily results when tree limbs are braided or pleached.

The term "inosculation" is also used in the context of plastic surgery, as one of the three mechanisms by which skin grafts take at the host site. Blood vessels from the recipient site are believed to connect with those of the graft in order to restore vascularity
You learn something every day.

Reposted from last year to add this remarkable photo:

The tree, located in Cedar Falls, Iowa was created by a local resident by grafting four saplings together in 1915.  It has subsequently been damaged by a storm, but the "legs" have been preserved.

For other examples of modern tree shaping, visit the website of Pooktre Tree Shapers.

One final thought: to help remember the term "pleach," its etymology derives ultimately from the Latin word plexus (“braided, plaited, woven; bent, twisted”).

Not every war hero carries a gun

Ahmed Ademović (1873–1965) was a Serbian trumpeter who received the Karađorđe's Star military decoration for his involvement at the Battle of Kumanovo of the First Balkan War in which Serbia fought against the Ottoman Empire. 

The battle started 50 km earlier than the Serbian troops expected as the better prepared Ottomans surprised them. Ademović got behind the Ottoman forces and sounded his trumpet for retreat. He then ran back to the Serbian troops and sounded for attack. Ahmed's cleverness made him one of the heroes of the battle won by the Serbians.

Anti-gluttony dining room door

"Measuring two meters high and just 32 centimeters wide, the door served a practical purpose for the monks, many of whom were reportedly on the heavy side. There’s even an inscription carved into the entrance to the refectory that translates to, “Consider that you eat the sins of the people.” 

The monks were required to pass through the door to get their own food from the kitchen and bring it to the refectory to eat. If you couldn’t fit, you weren’t allowed to eat, which meant you were forced to fast until you lost the weight."
Located in Alcobaça Monastery in Portugal.  Composite photo via.
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