30 September 2021

Shakespeare in Italy

This is a fascinating book, which will be appreciated by any serious reader of the plays, but will be of extra interest to those familiar with the Shakespeare authorship question.  The author of this book does not express an opinion on the authorship question, but what he does do is to delve in intricate detail into Shakespeare's knowledge of Italian geography, history, and social relations - all of which are relevant to the authorship puzzle.  He did this by traveling around Italy to see in person the locations described in the plays.

Casual readers of Shakespeare may not realize to what extent Shakespeare focused on Italy.  It really is quite remarkable, and I didn't appreciate it myself until I encountered this table in the book:

Note that of all the plays that are not historical, only one is set in England (Merry Wives) and only one most other places - but ten are set in Italy.

Some are obvious from the titles (Verona, Venice), some from the text (Romeo, Othello) and two by implication (The Tempest set on an island that matches Vulcano next to Sicily, and the "Duke's Oak" referenced in the A Midsummer Night's Dream is not a tree, but rather a passageway well-known in the sixteenth century in the Porta della Vittoria in Sabbioneta.)

So, how extensive was Shakespeare's knowledge about Italy?

Consider Romeo and JulietThe plot is not original to Shakespeare.  It was already an old tale back in the 1530s before Shakespeare was born; it was published in 1535, then rewritten by other Italian authors.  In the first act of the first scene of the version in the First Folio, Romeo's mother asks where her son is, and the reply is "... underneath the grove of sycamore/ That westward rooteth from the city's [Verona's] side..."  This detail is unique to the First Folio text ("there and nowhere else, not in any other Italian or French or English version - has it been set down that at Verona, just outside its western walls, was a grove of sycamore trees.")  And it is true.  To this day there are still sycamores in that exact location.  And Shakespeare knew that.

Also to be found in Shakespeare's version of Romeo and Juliet (and not in any previous versions) is reference to St. Peter's church in Verona - which does exist and is located in the same neighborhood described in the play.  

The Two Gentlemen of Verona "is the play with the most, and most highly varied, descriptions of and allusions to things Italian in the entire Shakespeare canon.  Indeed, if critics were to choose one single Italian Play to criticize, this is that play.  Critics say it has an absurd Italy, with seacoasts and harbors that never existed, and historical events that never happened...."  Chapter 2 of this book documents in detail that everything described by Shakespeare about Verona and about Italy is in fact correct (or was in fact correct in the 16th century).  
"The Riverside Shakespeare is not alone when it footnotes "road" as meaning a "seaport," which any mariner would know is exactly what a road is not... Along rivers the world over, there are wide places for ships to anchor called "roads."
Ports are on seacoasts, and are not synonymous with roads (or roadsteads), "and nowhere in The Two Gentlemen of Verona did Shakespeare write that there was a port of seaport at Verona, nor at Milan either." (as is often claimed).

Shakespeare has been lambasted by modern critics for placing a "sail-maker" in the city of Bergamo (Taming of the Shrew) because Bergamo is in the Alps, not on the coast, which is "claimed as proof of the author's ignorance of Italy's geography."  What these critics blithely ignore (or didn't know) is that "Bergamo is a city, from medieval times until now, devoted to the manufacture of textiles, which... has included velvet, silk, woolk, broadcloth... and always sailcloth, that ever-needed fabric made from hemp... The playwright knew that Bergamo was the principal source of sails for the Mediterranean world, and knew that Tranio's father could, indeed, have been a sailmaker there."  Sails were made close to the source of the textile; one didn't ship raw materials to a seaport to make the sails there.

In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare exhibits extensive knowledge about the Jewish community in Venice and about Jewish customs, kosher food, and clothing ("hardly everyday knowledge for an Englishman who'd never been beyond his native shores, or met a known Jew.") (Jews had been banned from England by the Edict of Expulsion in the 13th century and not allowed formal return until 1655).

Also interesting:  Of the 36 plays in the First Folio, 35 have men with swords.  "Only one Shakespeare play has no sword whatsoever: The Merchant of Venice."  When Portia dresses as a man, she wears a dagger instead.  Why?  Because "A sword was considered a weapon of aggression: while a dagger was ore often thoguht of as defensive.  Carrying a sword in the City of Venice was strictly against the law."  Shakespeare knew this.  Few people in sword-happy England would have.

And finally consider Othello.  
"For the plot of Othello the playwright drew upon one of a collection of stories by the Italian scholar and writer, Giovanni Battista Geraldi, called "Cinthio" (1504-1573)... published in Venice in 1565...  No English translation of Cinthio's work appeared before 1753, resulting in speculation over the years about how the playwright got hold of Cinthio's story.  Here, with my emphases added, is an extract from Appendix 3 of the Arden Shakespeare Third Edition of Othello:
A French translation by G. Chappuys appeared in 1583, and the first extant English translation not until 1753.  Chappuys kept close to the Italian version except for a few details, and Shakespeare could have read one or the other, or perhaps a lost English translation... Yet a lost English version, one that perhaps made use of both the Italian and the French texts, cannot be ruled out."
"This "lost English translation" proposition pervades nearly all analyses of the Italian Plays when the analyst cannot find an English version of the Italian, or Latin, source materials... the Arden continues:
"... whether we consider Cinthio or Chappuys or a lost English version as Shakespeare's original, a surprising number of verbal parallels found their way into the play from Cinthio, with or without intermediaries..."
The Riverside Shakespeare in its commentary says:
"Such verbal evidence as can be found tends to show that he looked at Cinthio's Italian.""
If one applies Occam's Razor, the most logical explanation of all this is that Shakespeare not only traveled to Italy, but also could read Italian.  

29 September 2021

The feet of a ??dragon ??dinosaur

A distant cousin of the dinosaurs.  These are the feet of a cormorant.  via.

"Midnight Mass" trailer

Much of the publicity and hype about the new Netflix miniseries Midnight Mass focuses on the production as a horror movie, but in my view there is much more to it than that.  In fact one criticism I have heard repeatedly is that there are "too many long monologues."  Some of those long monologues are worth paying attention to in detail.  I particularly appreciated character Erin Greene's channeling of Carl Sagan in the final episode when she offers her view of what happens when we die.

Superb acting by all the cast, and a production in my view well worth the viewing time.

Remembering the Dust Bowl

Excerpts from an article in Harper's:
By the 1930s, five sixths of the original indigenous animal population that existed in the United States when the Europeans arrived had been wiped out. Seven eighths of the original woodlands had been cleared. One sixth of the topsoil in the United States would shortly blow away in the ecological disaster of the Dust Bowl.

The dust storms were very much a man-made disaster, the result of the heedless booms and busts that had succeeded one another for decades on the High Plains...

Unlike the dirt-poor farmers of the Tennessee Valley, the plowmen of the High Plains were able to obtain the latest motorized combines and tractors, thanks mostly to cheap bank loans, and during the wheat booms of the 1920s they used their machines to tear apart the fragile ecosystem of the land around them. As prices kept declining due to the glut of crops they kept producing, they ripped into even more marginal lands, still funded by the local, undercapitalized banks that forked over loans with low interest rates on almost no collateral...

“The tractors had done what no hailstorm, no blizzard, no tornado, no drought, no epic siege of frost, no prairie fire, nothing in the natural history of the southern plains had ever done,” Egan noted.
They had removed the native prairie grass, a web of perennial species evolved over twenty thousand years or more, so completely that by the end of 1931 it was a different land—thirty-three million acres stripped bare on the southern plains.
Before long, the dust began to blow. There were 14 dust storms in 1932, another 38 the next year, a record 134 in 1937...

A fresh storm blew up on May 9, 1934, this one out of the freshly turned earth of Montana and Wyoming, an estimated 350 million tons of dirt suddenly airborne. It dropped more than 12 million tons of grit on Chicago, then covered the East Coast from Boston to Savannah. In New York City, it cut the sunlight of a lovely spring day in half for five hours. Nor did it stop there, since there was nothing to stop it. The duster did not dissipate until it had blown over three hundred miles out over the Atlantic Ocean, startling sailors when it rained dirt on the decks of their ships...

When birds and snakes all but disappeared from the Dust Bowl, they were replaced by a biblical plague of locusts, unseen in the West for decades, with as many as 14 million of the ravenous grasshoppers to a mile. At least one state government responded by sending out the National Guard to coat the land with up to 175 tons of insecticide per acre, thereby finishing off any life the drifting dirt or the grasshoppers might have left behind...

Along with the men from the Agriculture and Interior departments, the federal government sent out boys from the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC)—a huge new program created to absorb the thousands of destitute, homeless young men who had previously been riding the rails, living in hobo camps, and idling in cities, with nowhere else to go.

Many criticized this and other New Deal programs as socialist or fascist, but the CCC paid the three million young men it employed over the years thirty dollars a month (twenty-five of which they were required to send home to their families) and provided them with decent meals, a good place to sleep, education, exercise, and some training in woodcraft. In return, they planted thousands of acres of new buffalo grass and other, experimental drought-resistant grasses garnered from around the world. Before the program ended with World War II, they had also constructed more than eight hundred state parks and planted nearly three billion trees, many of them in the shelterbelts FDR had insisted upon, to tie down the soil. Together with Bennett’s experiments they had restored more than half of the damaged land by the time the war began.
Much more at the link.  And I highly recommend the series of programs presented on American Experience regarding the Dust Bowl, and Ken Burns' documentary on the subject.

"Normal colonoscopy - except for that ladybug"

"Bug ingestions are rarely reported but can occur even during sleep. The patient's colonoscopy preparation was 1 gallon of polyethylene glycol the evening before colonoscopy, and the colonoscopy examination was otherwise normal. His colonoscopy preparation may have helped the bug escape from digestive enzymes in the stomach and upper small intestine."
Apparently cockroaches are seen in the colon much more often than ladybugs.

There should be more butterflies (updated)

At our latitude, when nature offers you blue skies, light breezes, and temperatures in the 70s, you take advantage of this blessing by heading outdoors.  Yesterday I hiked at Goose Lake, near Verona, Wisconsin.

TBH, the park exists not so much because of urban planning and civic-mindedness, but because in modern suburbia there needs to be somewhere for stormwater to collect.  This park is at a low elevation and is downslope from a variety of subdivisions and business centers, so not even aggressive developers wanted to build here, and it remains public land.

One feature of stormwater-collecting areas is shown above and below.  When the water level remains high, it smothers trees that are not adapted to having their feet wet for prolonged periods of time.  Thus the clusters of standing deadwood at the margins of the lake.

Standing deadwood is good habitat for beetles and woodpeckers, but I was here for butterflies, so I headed toward the open fields.  My walk took me from the viewpoint below to the edge of the pond in the far upper right corner of the photo.

I stood watching this patch of flowering vegetation for a good 5 minutes, seeing no lepidoptera.  Nada.  There should have been Cabbage Whites at least, Sulphurs, Checkerspots, and some Monarchs or Swallowtails cruising past.

Right next to this patch of flowers was one of the stormwater ponds.  If you enlarge the picture, you may be able to see the general pattern of vegetation - close to me on the higher elevation a mix of forbs and grasses and at the water's edge some riparian reeds.  In between is a wide swath of tall grass.

That tall grass became more evident as I walked from that nearby pond to the one at the other end of the park.  Along a path kept clear by city or county mowers the grass stood shoulder-high.  Some clover in the path itself, attracting skippers and a few other butterflies, but off to the sides just grass.

This is reed canary grass, an aggressive, invasive species.  In the past it has been used for erosion control, reclamation of deforested land, and as a reliable forage crop for cattle.  But those qualities also allow it to overcompete and dominate.

This was the end-point of my walk, at the most distant stormwater pond.  When I stood here about 10 years ago, the vegetation in front of me started near my feet as a prairie/field wildflower mix, then morphed toward the pond to water-tolerant plants, then to the usual reeds etc at the waterline.  Now it's a boring monoculture of reed canary grass.

As I walked back to my car I continued monitoring the butterflies.  Total count for the day: two Monarchs, five Least Skippers, two Silver-spotted Skippers, and one Checkerspot.

There should have been more on a perfect day on the cusp of summer.  There were more when I was young.  I'm not misremembering when I report that in the 1950s when you filled your car with gas, the attendant scrubbed your windshield to remove insect debris (the "windscreen phenomenon").   In that era people didn't stop what they were doing in order to point and say "Look, look, a butterfly!"  I'm a firm believer in the worldwide "insect apocalypse" (and here).  Coming generations are going to inherit a natural landscape that will be quite a bit less diverse and less interesting that those that came before.

Addendum 2021:  Updating with a photo from a walk at the same location one year later.  I paused at this patch of goldenrod -

- and waited several minutes to count the visitors - just a very, very few solitary bees.  This on a late summer (August) afternoon with bright sunshine and temps in the 80s.  This goldenrod should have been swarming with bees.   The goldenrod next to my driveway at home IS swarming with bees (and small beetles) - too numerous to count the same afternoon.  

I didn't take a photo looking the other direction, but behind me at the time was a farmer's cornfield.  I think the relative absence of insects here is not a coincidence.

Reposted from last year to add this image:

Photo taken late at night on the screen porch of a home in the suburbs of Madison, Wisconsin.  Not visible in the darkness is a woods behind the home.  This was a late-summer/early-fall evening with temperatures in the mid-70s after a warm sunny day.

That screen should be full of "bugs" (not butterflies at night, of course, but there should be dozens of moths).  I sat there reading for a couple hours after dark, with several ceiling lights on (illumination as per the image), waiting to see what moths might appear.  Zip.  On some of the other screens there were a few beetles.

When I was young and used to read at night by a window, first the moths would come and then the tree frogs would come up the window with their sticky feet, to harvest the moths.  

I fully understand that data based on a trial of n=1 can be only anecdotal, but I still firmly believe that an insect apocalypse is underway.

26 September 2021

"Wherefore" means WHY - and Juliet wasn't on a balcony

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

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

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

Reposted from 2020 to add this interesting bit from The Shakespeare Guide to Italy:
There is no "balcony" in Romeo and Juliet None whatsoever.  Not only is the word absent from the play, it isn't a word to be found in any other play, Italian or not, by the same playwright.  For that matter, the word "balcony" is not found in any of the poetry ascribed to the playwright either.  

The playwright's descriptions in Romeo and Juliet are clear: Juliet appears in every case, by the author's own words, at her "window."
More about this took later. 

Addendum:  A tip of the blogging cap to reader Kolo Jezdec, who offers this article from The Atlantic: Romeo and Juliet Has No Balcony.

I'll file this under "politics" instead of "humor"

A heat map of superyachts

Cleverly positioned where peasants with pitchforks cannot reach them.  The Bloomberg source article provides additional information.
The 440 exhibitors at this year’s show, down from 580 in 2019, are likely wondering where the market will head in 2022. Organizers cited a 28% annual increase in yacht sales in the first quarter of 2021 after a challenging 2020. Sustainability is one of the hot topics as the industry looks to guide propulsion into a lower carbon future.
Lower carbon profile superyachts to fight climate change.  I'm trying to wrap my head around that one.

Battling the drought in Senegal


Via The Kid Should See This, where there is additional discussion of the process.

Posted for a member of my extended family who is currently living and working in Senegal.

Famous prosthetic scar

The "Glasgow smile" is impressive even before the face paint is applied.  Via.

Attempts at a coup

I've tried, with some success, to avoid any mention of the previous president in posts for this blog (nothing in that category for the past 6 months), but just ignoring something doesn't make it go away.  So as a nod to the elephant in the room, here are some brief excerpts from a detailed article in The Atlantic:
Now, more than 10 months after the election, the country knows of at least five ways in which Trump attempted to retain power despite his defeat.
1. Trump tried to pressure secretaries of state to not certify.
... the Trump campaign attempted to pressure secretaries of state to either not certify the results or “find” fraudulent ballots. In some states, spurred by the president’s fictions, pro-Trump mobs showed up at vote-counting sites and attempted to disrupt the proceedings.

2. Trump tried to pressure state legislatures to overturn the results.
...In Pennsylvania, Michigan, Arizona, and Georgia, Trump publicly urged Republican-controlled statehouses to “intervene to declare him the winner” ... the Trump campaign discussed “contingency plans to bypass election results and appoint loyal electors in battleground states where Republicans hold the legislative majority.”

3. Trump tried to get the courts to overturn the results.
...Trump attempted to coerce the Justice Department into providing him with a pretext to overturn the results, but his attorney general, Bill Barr, refused to do so. Had DOJ leadership acquiesced, it would have lent credibility to Trump’s other corrupt schemes to reverse his loss. In a meeting with the acting attorney general, Jeffrey Rosen, according to contemporaneous notes taken by Rosen’s deputy, Trump said, “Just say that the election was corrupt [and] leave the rest to me.”

4. Trump tried to pressure Mike Pence to overturn the results.
It is hard to pick the most ridiculous means of executing a coup, but insisting that the vice president has the power to unilaterally decide who won an election is up there. Trump publicly hounded Pence to reject the results prior to the traditionally ceremonial electoral-vote count in Congress, and Pence reportedly took that demand seriously enough to seek advice from Dan Quayle on the matter...

5. When all else failed, Trump tried to get a mob to overturn the results.
At the rally prior to the vote count in Congress, Trump urged the crowd to act, saying, “If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” The explicit goal of the rally and subsequent riot was to pressure Congress, and Pence in particular, into overturning the election results. Trump told his followers, “If Mike Pence does the right thing, we win the election.”

This scheme didn’t work on its own, but it certainly could have helped one of the others: Imagine if Pence had gone along with Eastman’s absurd plan, and a mob had been present at the Capitol to help enforce the decision and menace lawmakers who tried to oppose it—then what? As it stands, the mob ransacked the Capitol and forced lawmakers to flee. Had the mob succeeded at reaching any actual legislators, the consequences could have been catastrophic.

Eggs came before chickens

End of argument.  Via.

22 September 2021

"Otherworld journeys"

This interesting book by Carol Zaleski, professor of world religions at Smith College, examines modern reports of "near-death experiences" experienced in hospitalized patients, trauma victims, suicide survivors etc, and compares them to historical accounts of traveling outside the body (ecstatic states, travel to the underworld or heaven), as portrayed in religious epics, dramas, and myths.

This is a scholarly work with many hundreds of citations.   I'll excerpt just a brief sample:
"[In medieval times] bridges had a supernatural import.  G. A. Frank Knight attributes the mystique of bridges to a widespread primitive belief that bridge-building encroaches on the domain of the river spirit who, deprived of drowning victims, must be appeased through sacrifice.  There is evidence that ancient Roman bridge-builders placated the divinity of the Tiber by casting humans or effigies into the river.  In European folklore, as Knight points out, the tutelary river deities are Christianized into demons, every bit as hungry for human victims as were their pagan counterparts.  Hints of bridge-sacrifice are preserved in popular folktales in which the devil claims the fist soul to cross a new bridge, and also in the children's game called "London Bridge."

In Christian Europe as in ancient Rome, bridge-building was seen as a sacred as well as dangerous undertaking, and the upkeep of bridges was entrusted to clergy.  Symbolically, the supreme clerical bridge builder of Western Christendom was the pope, who became "Pontifex Maximus" in place of the Roman and Christian emperors who had inherited this title from the official charged with conserving the Pons Sublicius...

The literary history of Western eschatological bridge symbolism takes us back again to ancient Persia, to the pre-Zoroastrian tradition that souls must cross a perilous bridge in the other world..."
I had to look up the reference to the pope and bridges, which was new to me.  I studied Latin, but not being Catholic didn't appreciate the etymology of "pontiff."  Pontifex is a doublet of pontiff ("high priest") -
Often interpreted as a compound originally meaning “bridge-maker”, from Proto-Italic *pontifaks, equivalent to pōns (“bridge”) +‎ -fex (“suffix representing a maker or producer”), either metaphorically “one who negotiates between gods and men” or literally if at some point the social class which supplied the priests was more or less identical with engineers that were responsible for building bridges.
You learn something every day.

Classic Far Side

21 September 2021

Appalachian Trail thru-hike

The world probably already has enough hiking videos, but I thought this one was nicely done in that it doesn't overlay unnecessary commentary, and even better it is formatted as a series of vignettes rather than a compressed timelapse.

Frog launched during spacecraft takeoff

Lava vs. swimming pool. Lava wins.

Even more striking is the encounter between the lava and some type of water reservoir a bit later in the film.  

19 September 2021

Vintage bridal jewelry

Via Reddit (I couldn't find a primary source).

Breast implants and firearm injuries

"This ballistics study examines whether saline breast implants can decrease tissue penetration in firearm injuries. We hypothesize that the fluid column within a saline breast implant can alter bullet velocity and/or bullet pattern of mushrooming. The two experimental groups included saline implants with 7.4 cm projection and a no implant group. The experimental design allowed the bullet to pass-through an implant and into ballistics gel (n = 10) or into ballistics gel without passage through an implant (n = 11). Shots that passed through an implant had 20.6% decreased penetration distance when compared to shots that did not pass-through an implant; this difference was statistically significant (31.9 cm vs. 40.2 cm, p < 0.001). Implant group bullets mushroomed prior to gel entry, but the no implant group mushroomed within the gel. Bullet passage through a saline breast implant results in direct bullet velocity reduction and earlier bullet mushrooming; this causes significantly decreased ballistics gel penetration."
Abstract from an article in the Journal of Forensic Sciences.

"Waiter, I'd like some octopus-shaped pasta"

"Every year, Barilla, the world’s biggest pasta company, hosts a competition to create innovative new pastas for their 3D pasta printer. This year they received 1,300 design proposals, and are still in the midst of testing them out. But consider this past winner, Lune, a hollow moon-like sphere with crater-shaped holes for sauce to peek through...

Here’s how it works: First you download your 3D model into the printer (it’s the size of a small fridge), then load printer cartridges with semolina dough. And then you press print. The printer builds the pasta layer by layer, with a nozzle that moves along the X, Y and Z axes, spitting out the dough in a steady stream. It takes two to three minutes for the printer to make nine pieces of pasta...

Pasta is just one application for 3D printers and food. The first 3D restaurant in the world, Food Ink, is serving printed fine dining dishes like lobster-shaped pastries filled with lobster."

Have consideration for the crematorium staff

"A coconut that was placed inside a coffin "sent fear" through staff at a crematorium when it exploded.  Bolton Council has urged mourners to abide by crematorium rules and not "slip" items into coffins.  Donna Ball, Assistant Director of Community Services, said a "hell of an explosion can sometimes occur".

Other items of concern include mobile phones, TV remotes, e-cigarettes and bottles of alcohol... electrical items with batteries also push crematorium emissions up to "unacceptable levels".

The funeral director said on one occasion she was even asked if an extra set of underwear could be placed with the deceased.

Ms Walch-Grognet said it was her procedure to "look under the lining of the coffin" after the service due to mourners trying to sneak items in."

"Bamboo wife" explained

A bamboo wife is a long, hollow and handwoven bolster that is often comparable to the human body in size. True to its name, it’s almost always made out of thinly cut bamboo strands. If not, it’s usually another material that’s easy to weave, like rattan.

There are several bamboo wife variants, ranging in length and circumference. Why? Sleepers come in all sizes! It is supposed to be roughly the same size as the person using it, so children and adults will have different needs...

Typically it is embraced in a side sleeping position. The open wooden structure helps regulate body temperature and eases usual aches and pains from side sleeping without a bolster.

Because bedrooms are now cooler due to modern technology, it follows that modern alternatives to the bamboo wife would be more popular. Body pillows in particular accomplish the same goal.
More information at Good Night's Rest.

17 September 2021

The definitive rules regarding airplane armrests

"The reasons are not arbitrary, but rather based on sound, unyielding logic and every human’s own innate sense of basic decency."  Explained at Jalopnik.

Cheese 101

An excellent video in terms on content and presentation.  Via Kottke, who cites this passage from a French marketing consultant:
"For example, if I know that in America the cheese is dead, which means is pasteurized, which means legally dead and scientifically dead, and we don’t want any cheese that is alive, then I have to put that up front. I have to say this cheese is safe, is pasteurized, is wrapped up in plastic. I know that plastic is a body bag. You can put it in the fridge. I know the fridge is the morgue; that’s where you put the dead bodies. And so once you know that, this is the way you market cheese in America."

16 September 2021

Divertimento #189

"The Antikythera Mechanism was a computational instrument for mathematical astronomy, incorporating cycles from Babylonian astronomy and the Greek flair for geometry. It calculated the ecliptic longitudes of the Moon, Sun and planets; the phase of the Moon; the Age of the Moon; the synodic phases of the planets; the excluded days of the Metonic Calendar; eclipses—possibilities, times, characteristics, years and seasons; the heliacal risings and settings of prominent stars and constellations; and the Olympiad cycle—an ancient Greek astronomical compendium of staggering ambition."  A high-quality longread, extensively illustrated.

"Will Shortz, who recently passed the milestone of having edited more than 10,000 Times crosswords, says he has no intention of retiring – ever..."  A separate article at The Atlantic explains "How Will Shortz Edits a New York Times Crossword Puzzle."

"We’ve spent more than 150 hours researching and testing surge protectors..."

"Tina Dupuy was a teenage alcoholic. She joined Alcoholics Anonymous at the age of 12, got sober by 13. And she learned to tell the hell out of her story at speaking events. She even became "AA Famous." But at the age of 33, she had a sudden realization that made her question the very story she was famous for."  A very interesting podcast from This American Life.

"When Francisco Javier de Balmis set off from Spain in 1803 to vaccinate the people in Spain’s colonies against smallpox he had no means of keeping the vaccine fresh, so he used children as his “refrigerators."  

"Sri Lankan authorities say the world's largest star sapphire cluster has been found in a backyard - by accident.  A gem trader said the stone was found by workmen digging a well in his home in the gem-rich Ratnapura area.  Experts say the stone, which is pale blue in colour, has an estimated value of up to $100 million in the international market.  The cluster weighs around 510 kilograms or 2.5 million carats and has been named the "Serendipity Sapphire"."

"A woman was handcuffed on the ground when a police sergeant kicked her in the head: ‘Nothing justifies that’"

"Michigan Catholic school argues in lawsuit mask mandates violate religious liberty by hiding 'God's image'"

"Minneapolis' Wedge neighborhood hosts the world's only window cat tour... in 2019, more than 300 cat tourists viewed 50-some felines."

The beer "Surrender Dorothy" was forced to change its name.  "“Basically, Turner owns the rights to ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ ... and they didn’t want any confusion with their branding.”

"Villagers in north-east Croatia feared their homes might be swallowed when almost 100 enormous sinkholes appeared in a month. Now scientists are trying to understand if the land that is left is safe."

"Children are always going to find cunning ways to bunk off school, and the latest trick is to fake a positive Covid-19 lateral flow test (LFT) using soft drinks. [Videos of the trick have been circulating on TikTok since December and a school in Liverpool, UK, recently wrote to parents to warn them about it.] So how are fruit juices, cola and devious kids fooling the tests, and is there a way to tell a fake positive result from a real one? I’ve tried to find out."

"Italian farmers have grown the world’s largest cherry, shattering the record with a mammoth 33g fruit."

"The cast of Friends each made $1M per episode in the final two seasons and now make $20M per year per cast member for reruns."

Every year New York City recycling facilities receive 1,200 bowling balls.

"An 11-year-old boy nicknamed “Little Einstein” has become the youngest graduate in quantum physics.  Laurent Simons, who is half-Belgian and half-Dutch, obtained a bachelor’s degree with distinction from the University of Antwerp in just 18 months."

Pundits and politicians have created their own definition for critical race theory, and then set about attacking it.

"Tree poaching is a growing issue in the Pacific Northwest. Thieves have consistently targeted public lands and national forests in Washington, California and Oregon... In a first for a federal criminal trial, prosecutors used tree DNA to prove the remains matched that of the timber the men sold to local mills."

There are several temperatures that the Apple Weather app cannot show.  People have snickered about 69, but the phone also cannot show 67, 65, 62, 60, 68, 56, 53...

Some parents time their pregnancies in order to favor a "good" zodiac sign for the newborn.  Not discussed in the article is the perhaps more practical goal of birthing a child who will be the oldest is his/her class rather than the youngest.

"Newly published satellite imagery shows the ground temperature in at least one location in Siberia topped 118 degrees Fahrenheit (48 degrees Celsius)."

BugsofJapan is a tumblr to which people submit photos for identification.  Some interesting items.

Why baseball players wear stirrups as part of their uniforms.

"The theft of catalytic converters from cars has jumped more than 100% in the UK in the last two years and is supported by international networks of criminals... Security videos posted online, show thieves using electric saws to cut off a catalyser and get away in 60 seconds."

"Among the most commonly encountered Janus words are cleave, hew, and sanction... to scan, meaning either to look carefully... or to glance quickly at... ; to peruse, with similar senses, meaning both to read or examine carefully and to look at or read casually without much attention to detail; inflammable, ... and to trip, to catch one’s foot and stumble or, conversely, to step along nimbly....  For connoisseurs of language, an especially delicious J-word is the use of oversight ...".  I've always called them contranyms.  Futility Closet has two lists of them, here and here.

"Empty when full" makes sense in this setting.

A comprehensive comparison of handheld vacuums.

Stick insects may benefit by being eaten by birds, which then serve as carriers to disperse the insects' eggs miles away.  "One thing that makes stick insect eggs different from most other insects is that they resemble seeds — same shape, size, color and texture. And they’re coated in a chemical layer of calcium oxalate, [which] doesn’t dissolve easily. 

"The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is warning doctors about a strange cluster of illness in three states caused by a rarely seen bacteria in the U.S., one that’s killed at least one person and hospitalized two others so far. The illness, called melioidosis, can be highly fatal but isn’t normally considered contagious between people. Officials don’t know how these victims contracted the bacteria, though the cases do seem to be connected.... the bacteria has never been found in the natural environments of North America... none of the patients’ families had reported any travel out of the country or far from their homes... all three were infected with genetically similar strains of the bacteria.  Testing suggests a common source of infection, but that source has not yet been identified..."

"Māori may have been the first to discover Antarctica, with connections to the icy continent and its surrounding oceans stretching back to the seventh century."

"Massive spider-webs stretching across trees and paddocks have formed near towns in Australia."  Impressive pix.

"Florida GOP candidate William Braddock, running for a primary Tampa Bay-area congressional seat, threatened to send assassins to make one of his opponents, Anna Paulina Luna, "disappear," in a secret recording obtained by Politico.  "I really don't want to have to end anybody's life for the good of the people of the United States of America," he told conservative activist Erin Olszewski over the phone. "That will break my heart. But if it needs to be done, it needs to be done. Luna is a fucking speed bump in the road. She's a dead squirrel you run over every day when you leave the neighborhood."  "I have access to a hit squad, too, Ukrainians and Russians … don't get caught out in public supporting Luna … Luna's gonna go down and I hope it's by herself," Braddock said in the recording, referring to Luna at one point as a "stupid cunt.""

"[Bats] are simply looking for a safe place to roost, but they also become furry philistines that erase ancient paintings and other cave wall markings within a few decades because of the corrosive property of their feces, or guano... large quantities of bat guano and urine can ferment and saturate the air with aerosolized particles of phosphoric acid. This potent combination eats away at the limestone walls and ceiling, a process called biocorrosion..."

"In the letter, [Senator Tom] Cotton (R-AR) warns Biden that Beijing plans on using the 2022 Winter Olympics as a giant funnel for precious American DNA, harvesting the nation’s fittest and finest for their genomic information as part of a plan to achieve military dominance.

"You used to know where you were with zombies. Normally it was 10ft ahead of them, watching them lurch pathetically towards you. This afforded plenty of time to find a baseball bat, something sharp, maybe even a chainsaw... Then zombies started to run, and everything got much more complicated.  The debate over whether they should sprint or lurch has raged ever since. "

The embedded images are selections from a larger gallery at Bored Panda.  (with a tip of the blogging cap to Kolo Jezdec)

15 September 2021

"Veteranization" of trees explained

Ancient trees provide different microenvironments from young or typical mature trees.
Oak polypore fungi and stag beetle larvae feast on the dead heartwood, adult stag beetles sup the sugary liquid from the "sap runs", the living layers of wood which transport water and minerals throughout the tree. Hover flies lay eggs in water-filled rot holes, rat-tailed maggots devour leaf litter and violet click beetles eat up wood mould that is rich with faeces and other remains, accumulating over a century. Knothole moss and pox lichen cling to the bark in rainwater channels. Barbastelle bats hibernate in crevices and under loose bark. Woodpeckers and nuthatch enlarge holes for nesting, while owls, kestrels, marsh tit and tree-creeper move in to ready-made cavities...

The ancients of our forests provide essential food and shelter for more than 2,000 of the UK's invertebrates species. In Savernake Forest alone, these trees are home to nearly 120 species of lichen, more than 500 species of fungi, and other important wildlife such as the elusive white-letter hairstreak butterflies.

We face losing these micro-worlds as, one by one, the ancient trees of today are dying and there are not enough ready to replace them.
It takes many human lifetimes to "replace" an ancient tree, but it may be possible to replicate the microenvironments artificially.
It can take up to 300 years before heart-rot, the decay at the centre of an ageing tree, is established enough that insects can start moving in and laying their larvae, says Rutter. "It becomes a complex ecosystem. The ancient trees that we have today, ones that are 300-900 years old – perhaps older – support an incredibly wide range of species."..

Veteranisation is the practice of damaging younger trees in order to initiate decay sooner than it would occur naturally. The hope is that habitats usually seen in older trees will begin to develop much earlier. Veteranisation is not new, explains Rutter, but it is not well documented. Only recently has research been initiated to monitor the success of veteranisation techniques.

An international trial, started in 2012 and set over 20 sites in Sweden, England and Norway, is in the process of evaluating the veteranisation of almost 1,000 oak trees. The methods applied include creating woodpecker-like holes, breaking or ringbarking lower branches or the trunk to mimic damage from animals such as deer or horses, and creating nest boxes for birds and bats. The project is planned to take 25 years, until 2037, so the results have yet to be fully analysed...

"Heart-rot species are key," says Rutter. "These fungi are able to break down the lignin, the very hard part of the wood which is normally incredibly indigestible. Many heart-rot fungi happily eat the central dead wood without harming the living tissue on the outside – and can co-exist with a tree for 600 or 700 years. We want a tree to live a long time so the habitats can continue for as long as possible."

To try and mimic this process in younger trees, Ancients of the Future is growing heart-rot fungi on blocks of wood in the lab, inserting the blocks into holes cut in young trees and recovering them with bark. They are left that way for a few years, then the blocks are removed to see if the fungi have taken hold inside the tree...

She explains that the hollowing of ancient trees by fungal decay, previously seen as detrimental, is a natural part of the ageing process and can even prolong the lives of trees, feeding them nutrients from the inside...

"We need to think beyond our own lifetimes and look after the trees we’ve got now, to give them a chance to grow into ancients," says Rutter. "Trees are fragile, complex chemical factories and major hubs for biodiversity. Without them, many species won’t survive."
Fascinating.  More details at the BBC source article.  You learn something every day.

14 September 2021

Divertimento #188

Editorial note:  For the past year and a half, the last dozen of my linkfests have been populated only with gifs, because they are so easy to do.  Meanwhile the links for a proper compilation of "meatier" articles has continued to accumulate; I now have over 2000 links that have interesting (to me) material, many of which are now undergoing linkrot because they are getting old.  So this is the first in a series of linkfests that will feature material that I don't have time/energy to work into a proper longform post, but that I want to share or store for future reference.

How to choose, store and serve blue cheese. "...if you think all blue cheese smells bad, you haven’t given it a fair shake. “People tend to think of blue cheese as something that exists unilaterally, when it has many expressions...”

The odor of ladybugs may be an effective aphid repellant.

In Lincolnshire, a crew doing work on a golf course pond retrieved a "log coffin, which measures about 3 metres long by 1 metre, thought to be 4,000 years old. Inside are the remains of a man, who was buried with an axe."

"This study is the first report revealing... the bacterial composition of wasted chewing gum... The relative stability of the oral microbiome in a sun-irradiated outdoor space even after several weeks of outdoor and solar exposition raises concerns on the possible role of wasted chewing gums as long-term carriers of pathogenic microorganisms.

"...ran a Twitter poll asking how LATINX is pronounced, and it turns out that I was among the 6 percent who believed the correct pronunciation was “Lah-TINKS.” The vast majority of people answered either “Latin-x” or “La-TEEN-x.”

A two-year-old girl with autism drowned in a neighborhood retention pond.  "Authorities said she was drawn to water, which can often lead to elopement — a term used to describe autistic children and youth wandering or running away."

When you travel by air, you should never touch the flush button with your bare hands.

"... a new, nationwide study of [Covid] hospitalization records, released as a preprint today (and not yet formally peer reviewed), suggests that the meaning of this gauge can easily be misinterpreted—and that it has been shifting over time."

"Back in October 2020, [Dolly Parton] pledged to pose for Playboy again when she turned 75. And now that she’s met the milestone, the magazine no longer has a print edition. So she improvised."

Taco Bell is "rolling out a nationwide pilot program for customers to send used sauce packets back through the mail."  Sounds like virtue-signalling with eco-theater.

"Federal safety regulators are investigating at least 11 accidents involving Tesla cars using Autopilot or other self-driving features that crashed into emergency vehicles when coming upon the scene of an earlier crash."

Drought is devastating farmers in North Dakota.  "North Dakotans can’t grow enough feed for their cattle, so they’re selling off the animals before they starve."

"According to the most recent data from the AARP, an estimated 41.8 million people, or 16.8 percent of the population, currently provides care for an adult over 50... A lot of these caregivers are really, really struggling. What’s required of them is more complex and time-consuming than just 10 years ago, as caregivers deal with overlapping diagnoses related to physical health, mental health, and memory loss as the elderly live longer. The work is much more than just clearing out the guest room or setting another place at the dinner table. Depending on the health of the care recipient, it’s monitoring medication, preparing special meals, changing diapers, and bathing, plus figuring out finances, providing transportation to and from medical appointments, and more."

"If you’re using iOS 11 or later, you may have noticed that photos taken with your iPhone camera are saved as HEIC files instead of the previous format, JPG. This new file format was introduced to offer better compression while still preserving image quality. The problem with HEIC is that it’s not widely compatible with other apps or devices, and you may not be able to open a HEIC photo after moving it to your computer. This article will explain how you can convert an HEIC to a JPG or even how to stop taking pictures in HEIC format altogether."

"Previously a niche, expensive product, period knickers are now readily available on the UK high street. Women explain why they are turning their backs on single-use pads and tampons."

"Here’s the story of a cybercrime group that compromises up to 100,000 email inboxes per day, and apparently does little else with this access except siphon gift card and customer loyalty program data that can be resold online."

"Underboob" swimwear explained (and extensively illustrated).

The anatomy of a horse's hoof: "This horse is dead, and extremely likely purposefully dissected as an anatomy specimen. What you're seeing (the red hairbrush like stuff) is called the sensitive lamellae, and it's packed with blood vessels and innervation. It is connected to the first bone of the foot (the first phalanx, P1 aka coffin bone). What's missing here is the hoof wall. The hoof wall has little interdigitating structures like this called the insensitive lamellae that fit into these ones, and hold the hoof wall to the rest of the foot. The hoof wall is homologous (evolutionarily the same as) to our fingernail..."

"This is ambergris, one of the world’s unlikeliest commodities. The waxy substance formed in the gut of around one in 100 sperm whales is frequently described as vomit, but is almost certainly expelled from the other end of the animal. Fresh ambergris has a strong fecal odor and is much less valuable than aged specimens. Despite its origins, ambergris, with its unique scent, fixative properties, and perceived ability to elevate other olfactory notes, has been prized by the perfume industry for hundreds of years. It has also been consumed as a delicacy and administered as medicine. At times, it has fetched prices more than twice that of gold. Today, it still changes hands for up to US $25 per gram, a price approaching that of platinum and many times that of silver and can mean a payday of thousands of dollars for a tennis ball–sized chunk."

"A mom and her eight-year-old son came into the restaurant I waited tables at for lunch. The mom asked her son what he wanted to eat, and he replied 'ranch.' I politely asked if he meant a salad with ranch? Or French fries with a side of ranch? The woman looked at me and clarified he wanted a soup bowl full of ranch dressing.  I walked into the kitchen and discussed with my manager because I had no idea how to charge them for a bowl of ranch dressing. We came to the conclusion that we should charge them for an entire bottle of ranch, so she paid $10.99 for a soup bowl full of ranch dressing. Yuck."

"Rather than a centuries-long building project inspiring the transition to farming, Clare and others now think Gobekli Tepe was an attempt by hunter-gatherers clinging to their vanishing lifestyle as the world changed around them."

"A “memory palace” sounds as enticing as it does intimidating, but building your own is easier than you might think. Also known as the Method of Loci, this memorization technique taps into your brain’s ability to store lots of location-based information and applies it to new data you hope to file away for later."

"I Love Throwing My Kids’ Artwork in the Garbage While They’re Sleeping.  Like a particularly aggressive strain of kudzu, your children's artistic output will invade every room of your home if you don’t battle it back."

"But there's a cost to dieting while training for a sport. Nutritionist Christel Dunshea-Mooij became concerned about New Zealand women's rowing team after the 2016 Olympics. They were in danger of RED-S, or Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport... RED-S can cause issues with bone density, fertility, immunity, and metabolic and cardiovascular function. (Most of the rowers had "excellent bone density", also measured by the DEXA scan.)... As a lightweight athlete, the change in fuelling was a big shift, she says. “It used to be you ate less to stay a lightweight. But to be able to see I could eat a lot more and then train harder - and stay at the same weight - was eye-opening. It made a huge difference to the way I trained, because I could work harder.”"

"The most poignant sign of the failure of the cannabis business, however, might be sitting in warehouses across [Canada]. At its peak, last October, following the 2020 growing season, there was about 1.1 billion grams of harvested or processed cannabis held in storage: 95 percent of inventory has not been purchased by retailers or wholesalers, and much of it is “assumed to be largely unsaleable,” writes MJBizDaily’s Matt Lamers, whether because of degradation or excess supply. We have more pot in this country than we can possibly sell. Producers today are sitting on a massive, and predictable, oversupply that is slowly becoming worthless—and that’s going to cost a lot of companies a lot of money."

Slavery is still legal in the United States.  Until this phrase is amended in the Constitution: "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction."

"While radon is commonly known as a hazardous gas removed from basements, people in pain travel to Montana and pay to breathe, drink and bathe in its radio­active particles. The travelers view the radon exposure as low-dose radiation therapy for a long list of health problems."

"Two men were mourning the loss of their brother, who had been struck by a light-rail train, when they were also struck and killed by a train in North Carolina."

"In warning that Iran could turn the Middle East nuclear, American politicians imply that the region is nuclear-free now. But it’s not. Israel already has nuclear weapons. You’d just never know it from America’s leaders, who have spent the last half-century feigning ignorance. This deceit undercuts America’s supposed commitment to nuclear nonproliferation, and it distorts the American debate over Iran. It’s time for the Biden administration to tell the truth."

A buyer's guide to metal detectors.

"There is an Easter egg in Christopher Nolan's "Memento" that gives away the entire plot twist way before the actual plot twist occurs. However, it is to brief for most people to notice it."

"The 9.9 percent [the top 10%, less the 0.1% billionaires] is the new American aristocracy...  I belonged to a new generation that believed in getting ahead through merit, and we defined merit in a straightforward way: test scores, grades, competitive résumé-stuffing, supremacy in board games and pickup basketball, and, of course, working for our keep. For me that meant taking on chores for the neighbors, punching the clock at a local fast-food restaurant, and collecting scholarships to get through college and graduate school. I came into many advantages by birth, but money was not among them.  I’ve joined a new aristocracy now, even if we still call ourselves meritocratic winners... The meritocratic class has mastered the old trick of consolidating wealth and passing privilege along at the expense of other people’s children. We are not innocent bystanders to the growing concentration of wealth in our time. We are the principal accomplices in a process that is slowly strangling the economy, destabilizing American politics, and eroding democracy..."

The embedded photos come from a gallery posted in The Guardian. "For his photo series The Hidden Beauty of Seeds and Fruits, Biss immersed himself in the collections housed at Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden , sifting through its 3,500 historical specimens. “I was stunned by the variety of designs that exist to disperse seeds."
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