31 October 2022

I remember full-sized Snickers at Halloween

Reposted from 2016 because this is my favorite Halloween cartoon ever.

And reposted again to add this link re shrinkflation affecting Halloween treats.

Our house will once again be offering children a choice between a minibag of chips or a rather nice seashell.  In recent years the choices have been about equal between the two.

28 October 2022

"Eden in the East" - Southeast Asia as the epicenter of prehistory

I suppose everyone is startled when they first encounter these passges in the Epic of Gilgamesh:
"What I had loaded thereon, the whole harvest of life I caused to embark upon the vessel; all my family and all my relations, The beasts of the field, the cattle of the field, the craftsmen, I made them all embark.  I entered the vessel and closed the door...

For six days and nights Wind and flood marched on, the hurricane subdued the land.  When the seventh day dawned, the hurricane was abated, the flood which had waged war like an army; the sea was stilled, the ill wind was calmed, the flood ceased. I beheld the sea, its voice was silent, And all mankind was turned into mud! As high as the roofs reached the swamp;...

I beheld the world, the horizon of sea; Twelve measures away an island emerged; Unto Mount Nitsir came the vessel, Mount Nitsir held the vessel and let it not budge... When the seventh day came, I sent forth a dove...
These words [more at the link] were inscribed onto clay tables in Ninevah centuries before the Bible was assembled.

What I didn't realize until reading Eden in the East is that there are some 500 flood myths from around the world - not just from the Middle East, but also in northern Europe, North America, China and the far East.  This book undertakes the immense task of collating the flood myths in search of a unifying hypothesis.   

I'll offer just a bare-bones thumbnail sketch.  Everyone agrees that the world has experienced marked changes in sea level since the appearance of Homo Sapiens, the most dramatic of them occurring when changes in the global climate resulted in melting of the glaciers:

The time scale in Figure 1 above goes back to 18,000 years before the present - about the time that early humans were traversing Beringia (on land or via near-shore vessels) from Asia to the Americas.  Note that early in human prehistory (10-15,000 years ago), sea levels around the world were 50-100 meters lower than their present levels.

Figure 3 above "zooms in" on the third world-wide flood about 8,000 years ago, and shows geologic evidence of that rise in regions as far apart as the Arabian Gulf, the Caribbean, and Southeast Asia.

Those glacial melts flooded continental shelves around the world - as for example Doggerland:

That land between GB and Europe was above water and inhabited by modern humans, and if you dredge the bottom of the North Sea, you can haul up artifacts from that era.

I bookmarked Doggerland years ago as blogworthy material, but for now I'm going to shift back to Eden in the East.  Oppenheimer notes that there was an immense low-lying coastal landmass between what is now Thailand/Cambodia/Vietnam and what is now Borneo/Mayasia - the undersea area now referred to as "Sundaland."

Oppenheimer uses this area as the focus of his book, and postulates that cultural diffusion from this Sundaland may have spread to Austronesia, the Indian subcontinent, Mesopotamia, and then worldwide.

That's the big picture.  Here's a smattering of excerpted tidbits - starting with the science of the megafloods:
"Around 12,500 years ago, not long after the first flood, pottery appeared for the first time in southern Japan.  Some 1500 years later there is evidence of pots being made in China and Indo-China.  These examples of pottery making antedate any from Mesopotamia, India or the Mediterranean region by 2500-3500 years.  Stones for grinding wild cereal grains appeared in the Solomon Islands... as early as 26,000 years ago, whereas they were not apparently used in Upper Egypt and Nubia until about 14,000 years ago..." [p. 18-19]

"The third dry cold period was interrupted suddenly around 8000 years ago by an event which, although only discovered in the last decade, has been described as 'possibly the single largest flood of the [past two million years]'.  The melting Laurentide ice cap had dammed up vast volumes of fresh water in glacial lakes occupying a third of the land area of eastern Canada...  Geologists have calculated that the combined surface area of these glacial lakes... exceeded 700,000 square kilometres... Calculations of the total unfrozen water volume discharged instantly vary between 75,000 and 150,000 cubic kilometres - enough to raise the global sea-level by 20-40 centimetres instantaneously...  The centre of the ice cap that was also flushed out through the Hudson Strait, however, would have rapidly added another 5-10 metres to the sea-level..." [33-35]

"This last rapid rise in global sea-levels was presumably also responsible for breaching the Hellespont and flooding the partially desiccated Black Sea... Bill Ryan and Walt Pitman... who discovered this flood, suggest that this may  have given rise to the legend of Noah's flood.  This is possible for the Middle East, but it does not explain all the other 500 flood stories from around the rest of the world." [38]

"Southeast Asia has the highest concentration of flood myths in the world.  It is an area with few large river deltas and no recent reputation for flooding, but it lost more than 50 per cent of its landmass after the Ice Age." [62]

"... the strong likelihood of superwaves arising from the crustal strains when the Laurentide ice sheet of Canada collapsed and melted around 8000 years ago... The release of energy from the Earth's crust would have produced waves rolling across the Pacific and inundating all shores and flat hinterlands in direct line..." [107]
The excerpts above are from Part I of the book, which details the geologic events that would have produced widespread flooding. Part II shifts the focus to how the displacement of large coastal populations by the floods could have led to the diffusion of knowledge/customs/technologies from southeast Asia to other parts of the world, using new information from linguistics, anthropology, and genetics.
"I believe that Southeast Asia was the centre of innovations after the Ice Age and long-distance seeding of ideas from the region led to technological breakthroughs elsewhere.  The Austronesians may have contributed sailing technology, magic, religion, astronomy, hierarchy and concepts of kingship.  The Austro-Asiatic speaking people may have contributed the more down-to-earth skills of cereal farming, and even bronze.   A combination of all these traits was necessary for the first city-builders of Mesopotamia..." [221]

"If there were so many bad riverine floods in Mesopotamia, as the sedimentary record shows, one very bad one would not be remembered so long.  Instead the recurrent aspects would be recalled.  The myths from around the world do not usually refer to periodic river floods.  In any case most flood myths come from island Southeast Asia, which, unlike Mesopotamia, lost most of its alluvial flood-plains after the great melt when the Ice Age ended." [227]

"After 200 pages of concentrated flood myths he [Sir James Frazer] concluded that such ancient myths were widespread on every continent except Africa...  A large proportion of the Earth's surface was permanently lost to settlement and agriculture somewhere between 18,000 and 5000 years ago as a result of the sea-level rising...  Africa, with narrow continental shelves, would have been relatively spared... " [230-232]

"There is now general agreement that the stories of Noah's Flood and the floods of the Sumerians, Babylonians and Assyrians are related, although there is no agreement on the original source... There are now at least eleven related Ancient Near Eastern versions, including the two in Genesis and Berossus's account of Xisuthros.  The three Assyrian versions were committed to tablet in the seventh century BC.  This was perhaps a hundred years before the writing of the Priestly account in Genesis, but probably well after the Jehovistic account, for which a date is still under discussion.  The two surviving Babylonian accounts were written thousands of years earlier, somewhere between 1850 and 1500 BC..." [242-8]

"Frazer lists fifteen Greek flood stories in his Folklore in the Old Testament, twelve of which record a mountain landing." [258]

"A number of the Moon stories I have sketched contain the number seven.  I have suggested the lunar week as a possible origin for the use of this numeral... After one, two, and three, the number seven appears more frequently in Old World sacred texts than any other number.  This applies particularly for the Bible, the Koran, Babylonian texts and the Egyptian Book of the Dead...  Although five is a prime... the number of fingers on a hand and a half unit in the decimal system it is not more common in sacred texts than expected... [345-6]

"And did God first mould a model from blood and clay and blow into it to give it life?  Did he take the bone, Ivi, from man's side among the dark rainforest trees of Southeast Asia?.. Stories of the creation of humanity are universal.  They can be divided into two main varieties, people evolving from a totem, such as a tree or animal, and the creator fashioning man from clay.  These two archetypes have distinct distributions which overlap most dramatically in eastern Indonesia.  The merging of these two themes in that location eventually resulted in the beautiful and mysterious story of the Garden of Eden... In this chapter we trace the origin of the Genesis version of the clay-man myth from Southeast Asia... Polynesian informants insisted on the antiquity of stories stating that the first woman, who came from a bone in the man's side, was called Eevee/Ivi (the word for a bone in many eastern Polynesian languages).  Yet most of the Christian ethnographers assumed a missionary source for these stories rather than the disturbing possibility of a more ancient origin... It is likely that they were unaware of the widespread ancient distribution of the story elsewhere and thus could simply not believe their informants.  This selective bias is discussed at length by Sir James Frazer." [355-9]

"The Garden of Eden story holds a cherished place in Western literature... Yet the Genesis writers assembled this story less than three thousand years ago from a selection of fertility and immortality myths that were in common circulation at the time.  The separate elements of these myths are still to be found today in Southeast Asia and Melanesia."  [382]

"The tree of knowledge played centre stage throughout the snake's temptation of Eve.  The tree of life, however, remained in the wings unnoticed until it was nearly too late and Jehovah realised that Adam and Eve could eat from that too, and become immortal like Him.  He therefore shooed them out of the garden before they could gain immortality as well as knowledge... Frazer's view was that there were originally two trees, but that the tree of knowledge of good and evil had really been the tree of death contrasting with the tree of life.  This hypothesis may explain the verses:
'But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely  die.' (Genesis 2:16-17)
Clearly, humankind did not die on that day of the Fall, but instead became mortal." [384]

"In certain Aboriginal cultures, the Moon was regarded as a deity with the secret of immortality because it 'died' for three days every month, subsequently renewing itself during the first half of the next month." [386]

"The location of paradise has always worried Bible scholars, particularly since the lush forest description given in Genesis fits so poorly with anything we know about the environment of ancient Mesopotamia.  Rainfall may have been better 6000-7000 years ago, but nothing fits the picture of paradise as well as tropical jungles such as in Southeast Asia.  Both ancient Mesopotamians and Egyptians described their respective sites as far across the water towards the rising Sun, that is in the East." [405]
This is an impressive book, extensively annotated with relevant references from the literature.  I first encountered it shortly after its publication about 20 years ago, and after being duly impressed by the scholarly writing I set it aside for a re-read "sometime in the future" (that future having arrived this year).  I think it is sometimes erroneously grouped with the fantasy books about Atlantis or ancient aliens, but the existence of the "drowned continent" of Southeast Asia is factual, and the hypotheses presented here are eminently logical.

The book has probably "too much information" for the casual reader, so for the TL;DR crowd I can recommend the final ten-page "Epilogue" as a reasonably concise summary.  I've already created a mega-post here and I'm tired of typing, but I'll close by adding several excerpts from the Epilogue:
"In their partial rejection of diffusion as the reason for these links [between diverse cultures], folklorists of the twentieth century have had to propose the only two other possible causes of similarity: chance and the inner workings of the human mind.  While chance may operate for single obvious motifs, such as the worship of the Sun, I have shown that it is statistically extremely unlikely that complex story-types, sharing from three to ten distinct motifs, could have occurred more than once.  Yet this is what would have to happen for the distribution of myths in a diagonal band across Eurasia - with Polynesia at one end and Finland at the other - to have all occurred independently.  That these were the core myths that were preserved so carefully by the Mesopotamian, Middle Eastern and Egyptian civilisations can also be no coincidence.  All the main stories in the first ten chapters of Genesis are found in this cultural band and all occur in the Far East: the watery creation, the separation of skies and earth, the creation of man from red earth, and Eve from his side, the Fall, Cain and Abel, and, of course, the flood.  With the exception of the flood, the relative paucity of evidence for these complex story-types elsewhere in the Americas and Africa not only supports diffusion as a reason for the distribution, but also argues against both chance and the 'inner workings of man's brain' for their similarities."

"If we can accept the statistical evidence of trans-continental relationships in myths, then the dating of the first written versions of the Eurasian myths becomes crucial.  We are lucky here, since the Sumerians and Babylonians were so assiduous in recording the motifs on tablets and cylinder seals.  The date bracket that comes out of such an enquiry reveals that the myths, with their religious connotations, were among the first of all written records in the third millennium BC.  Since in the majority of cases the structure and content of the Mesopotamian myths show them to be derived from earlier Eastern versions, we may suppose that the direction of diffusion was East-to-West, and that the date of diffusion may be been earlier than the beginning of the third millennium.  This means that East-West cultural links may be older than 5000 years.  Such cultural links could only have occurred if there were people in Southeast Asia to hold the stories, and that they were capable of traveling to India and Mesopotamia to transmit them... The Sumerians and Egyptians themselves wrote about the skilled wise men from the East, a fact often dismissed as the embellishment of a fertile imagination."

Appropriate dresses for a high school dance ?

I think so, but apparently some people disagree.  Here are excerpts from the story at Scary Mommy:
It all started when [Matt] Austin posted a totally innocuous photo with his two daughters before their [high school homecoming] dance — they’re wearing pretty normal dresses and heels for this day and age, and their dad is beaming with pride. He captioned the photo, “My daughters look a little too good on homecoming night. Believe it or not, they’re even more beautiful on the inside.”

So sweet.

The response, though, was surprising, as dozens of comments rolled in from people who thought the girls looked inappropriate.

“Those outfits are not prom appropriate, those are what women wear to the club when they're looking for some action. ... So sad that parents send their young ladies out with everything showing,” wrote one.

“I don’t think I’d be dressed like that around my father,” another wrote. “Those girls are too young to be dressing provocatively they should have respect for themselves.”

Austin’s response came in hot, and he left no prisoners.

"One thing that has always pissed me off as a father of girls is when people say things like 'oh these girls need to dress so they don't distract the boys' or even worse 'they're dressing in a way in which they're asking for it’,” he begins.

“Let’s get something clear: It’s not my daughter’s job to make sure your son is focused in school. Also not her job to dress hideous enough to where your son doesn’t assault her. It’s your job to not raise a pervert with no self-control."

While his first emotion was definitely “anger,” he also kept his sense of humor about the whole thing.

“Let’s be clear — those are not the outfits that I’d choose for my daughters to leave the house. If it were up to me, it would be 24/7 Snuggies,” he joked.

“But if I start dictating what my daughters wear, it’s going to teach them three things,” he continued. “A: they’ll start to hate me for arbitrary rules, B, they’ll start to lie to me, or C, which is even worse: that it’s OK for a man to tell them what to wear because they look too good. And that ain't happening, Karen."
The story continues at the link, including the overwhelmingly positive public responses to his comments, and his TikTok followup video.  (Note: the embedded photo above has been cropped for size).

Ukrainian prom photos embedded at Divertimento #172
and one of my all-time favorite cartoons, reposted from 2017:

Dress code violation

Sent home from high school for violating the school's dress code.

Not because of the faded jeans.

Because her outfit doesn't completely cover her clavicle (collarbone).

This incident didn't happen in a church school - she attends Woodford County High School, a public school in Versailles, Kentucky, just a short distance from where I used to live.  The controversy regarding the dress code was recently reported by the Lexington Herald-Leader:
An online petition has begun seeking support to change Woodford County High School's 11-year-old dress code...

Wednesday was the first day of classes for students. One Facebook post said there was "a group of female students standing in the office" because they were not complying with the dress code.

Another post said, "This is ridiculous! Parents are being called away from important jobs and students are missing important class time because they are showing their collarbones!"...

Among the criteria in the Woodford County High dress code is that students must wear a rounded crewneck shirt or a button-down shirt that may have only the top button open. Shirts must not expose the collarbone. Shorts and skirts must be knee-length or longer.
Last year the students at the school created a 33-minute video about their grievances.

Reposted from 2015 to accompany an adjacent post.  

Read more here: http://www.kentucky.com/2015/08/14/3988907_woodford-county-high-schools-dress.html?rh=1#storylink=cpy

Read more here: http://www.kentucky.com/2015/08/14/3988907_woodford-county-high-schools-dress.html?rh=1#storylink=cpy

Read more here: http://www.kentucky.com/2015/08/14/3988907_woodford-county-high-schools-dress.html?rh=1#storylink=cpy

Not a dress code violation

Described as "Crazy Hair Day at school."


Reposted from 2015 to add this photo -

And this "mermaid braid" -

Reposted from 2019 to accompany an adjacent post.

I'm old enough to remember ironing

26 October 2022

Seeking advice on cleaning gravestones

This summer I went back to Minnesota to fulfill an old promise involving cremains, and while doing so, my cousins and I paid a visit to some very old ancestors.  The Finseths emigrated to the U.S. from Norway in the 1850s, residing briefly in Wisconsin, then moving on to Goodhue County in Minnesota, where they began farming.  The churchyard at Gol Lutheran Church (est. 1864) in Kenyon, Minnesota has the graves of these first settlers (the alphanumerics after the names are guides to locating the gravestones on a nearby map):

This week, as I finally got around to storing the photos in my memorabilia, I realized that the gravestone I photographed was one I had photographed back in 2009.  Knut K. Finseth (husband of Margit Olsdatter Finseth), was born in Norway in 1809.  The Faribault Republican newspaper note his passing in 1884:
K. K. Finseth died, of Kenyon, an old gentleman of 83 years, was badly injured on the 30th by getting his foot caught in the gearing of a threshing machine. He died from the effects on Thursday, Oct. 2, night last. He was the father of state senator A. K. Finseth.
That's the history (posted for family), but what caught my eye this week was that the side-by-side images (2009 and 2022) reveal progressive changes in the flora:

There is some difference in lighting and moisture etc, but clearly the lichen is spreading.  What to do about it?  Would removal be more damaging than letting it be?  A quick Google led me to a WikiHow entitled How to Clean a Gravestone: Gentle Ways to Remove Moss, Lichen, and More.  Lots of info there, including these excerpts:
Check the gravestone for cracking, flaking, or chipping before you begin cleaning. If the grave has any of these problems, it's not safe to clean.... Clean a gravestone if there's biological growth like algae, lichen, or fungi because these trap moisture and they're acidic, which can damage the stone... Pour water over the stone to soak it thoroughly... Scrape off lichen, moss, and fungi with a plastic scraper. Press the scraper onto the surface gravestone and gently scrape from the top to the bottom. You don't have to press very hard to get the biological growth to fall away. To get lichen or moss out from carved letters or images on the stone, take a wooden popsicle stick or a bamboo skewer and scrape the material out... gently scrub near the bottom of the gravestone to loosen the grime. If you're cleaning marble or limestone, use a sponge that's even gentler than a soft bristle brush... It might seem counterintuitive to clean from bottom to top, but working this way prevents limescale from forming... Apply a non-ionic cleanser like D/2 to remove tough stains... Clean a gravestone every 4 to 6 years to prevent excess wear...
If I can find the time/energy to approach this project, I think I would have to start at the pedestal base and test the cleaning procedure away from the more crucial engraved letters, numbers, and design.  

Now, as I often do, I'm going to turn to the readership of TYWKIWDBI for advice.  There must be readers out there who have encountered this type of situation and would be able to share advice, including what mistakes to avoid. 

Addenda:  I received excellent replies within an hour.  Here are two links offered by a reader, the first from the National Cemetery Administration of the U. S. Department of Veterans Affairs [my old employer!], and the second a set of Best Practices Recommendations from the National Park Service.

A tip of the blogging hat to an anonymous reader, who offered a link to this excellent video that incorporates the recommendations from the other links:

Counterfeit forever stamps are becoming abundant - updated

The embedded image is a scan of some of the 29c stamps I bought from a friend at our local stamp club this weekend.  I use a pair of the stamps (from the 1990s) to mail a standard first class letter.  I buy the stamps from my friend at 70% face, so basically I spend 40c to mail a letter.   I wrote about the mechanisms and economics of discount postage back in 2014.

Recently, as a result of advances in printing technology, the situation has taken a more sinister turn, with counterfeit forever stamps flooding the marketplace.  This image from Linn's Stamp News in the fall of 2021 shows a counterfeit forever stamp (on the left) next to a valid one:

The only difference visible to the human eye is a subtle difference in the sharpness of the printed letters.
In the past couple of decades, the most frequently encountered counterfeit stamp was the Flag stamp. Sellers, typically through online outlets, would sell bulk quantities of these stamps at a significant discount from face value... But in July [2021], the first counterfeit of a recent commemorative stamp surfaced. Some security features were even faked, but not the one item that triggers cancellation machines at processing centers... Based on inquiries I have received, the unsuspecting buyers are often offices looking for a deal on postage. Many counterfeit stamps I have found are on mail sent by coin dealers, many who use discount postage when sending their mail.
And another article, just this past month, notes that counterfeiters are now able to duplicate foil texture and other special features.
As of the publishing of this article, Linn’s has counted approximately 40 new counterfeit issues (180 stamp designs)... When compared to the authentic stamps, the counterfeits appear shinier. This is likely because of the lack of a taggant coating that sometimes mutes a stamp design...The other new twist is the use of a special glossy coating that provides texture to the counterfeit stamps. Examples of these have been reported for two issues: the eight 2017 Sports Balls forever stamps (Scott 5203-5210) and the 10 2021 Star Wars Droids forever stamps (5573-5582).  The gloss on both counterfeits seems thicker than that on the authentic stamps. Also, the offset printing of the counterfeits has a grainier appearance.

Most of these counterfeits are being offered in bulk sales to owners of small businesses, or involve high-denomination stamps.  Be wary of someone offering to sell recent stamps at significant discounts to the face value. 

Reposted from March 2022 to add two images.  The first shows examples of counterfeit Forever stamps alongside valid ones -

The image is a screencap from an hour-long American Philatelic Society video presentation on the ongoing epidemic of counterfeit stamps.  Please see the video for details about the detection of these items.

The second screencap is a take-home message advising Americans to beware of offers of deeply-discounted stamps on social media.  While it is unlikely that any naive person would be prosecuted for mail fraud after inadvertently using counterfeit stamps for personal mail, it is important to understand that the money used to purchase those counterfeits is going into the pockets of bad people in China and perhaps Russia. 

25 October 2022

"Daddy, why are there no green stars?"

"There are red stars, and orange ones, and yellow, and blue, and violet, and ultraviolet.  So it's ROY BIV, but there's no G.  Why is that?"

"Well son, the answer lies in this figure -

- but I don't understand it, so in this case I think you should read about it yourself at IFL Science, and that way you'll remember it better.  I'm going to go do some yard chores and when I get back you can ELI5 it to me."


"Researchers made the discovery when they used a powerful radio telescope facility — the Very Large Array in New Mexico – to check in on some two dozen black holes where stars had been shredded after coming too close to them. That is, the material in the star was pulled apart, or "spaghettified." Such happenings are called tidal disruption events, or TDEs...  the best estimate we have is about two years after the star got eaten by this black hole is when this outflow began — and that's really exciting. That's never been seen before... In other words, the star got close enough to the black hole to get shredded – but not to fall into that point of no return."

More information at NPR

A 5-year old boy plays Mozart

An awesome performance involving not only the dexterity but also the memorization.  TBH there is one notable difference in that Mozart was also writing his own music.  And the one reservation I have when watching performances like this (or athletic ones) is the question of how many other life experiences the child has given up in order to achieve this degree of mastery.  Still... awesome.

People hearing for the first time

(after receiving cochlear implants).  In these examples it seems the most overwhelming moments occur when they hear their own voices.

Here you go -

21 October 2022

The "Pillars of Creation" (Hubble and Webb)

I like to end my blogging day by leaving a nice photo at the top of the page.  Can't do much better than an updated view of this remarkable formation. 
Small red dots on the edges of the pillars are baby stars—only a few hundred thousand years old, according to the Webb team. The red, lava-like streaks in the clouds are ejections from stars being formed. These nascent gas balls send off jets of material that strike the gas in the pillars, causing energetic hydrogen molecules in the system to glow...

The pillars—brown and turbid in Hubble’s view—appear luminous and orange to Webb. The backdrop of gas and deep space turns from an opaque turquoise to a bedazzlement of stars, shining through a sea of lapis lazuli gas. That’s because Webb’s image highlights the hydrogen atoms in the gas, which shine in blue light. The Webb telescope’s infrared eye also penetrates through dense clouds of dust and gas, allowing it to see previously unknown regions of star formation.

More at Gizmodo

"The Battle of Algiers" (1966)

A movie from the 1960s detailing the French response to urban guerrilla warfare during the Algerian war for independence.  More at Wikipedia.

Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival, three Academy Award nominations, Rotten Tomatoes score of 100%, currently streaming on the Criterion Channel.  Full movie available on YouTube

Comparing alphabets

Even though this information will never be "useful" to me in any practical sense, I'm posting it because of the interesting method of display (a type of Venn diagram).  Here's another method:

A reminder to vote in your local elections

Even if your state is solidly "red" or "blue" your vote can be important in state and town elections.  Those puzzled by the "Jaws" reference should view this video:

More explanation of the Jaws meme at People.


Gardener Dan Bull works from a cherrypicker to trim a section of 14-metre-high yew hedge at the National Trust’s Powis Castle. The famous tumps are more than 300 years old and it takes one gardener 10 weeks each autumn to clip them
Photograph: Jacob King/PA, from a gallery at The Guardian.
I have some waist-high yew that need occasional pruning, so I find this photo absolutely awesome.  Also, the word "tump" was new to me ("Britain, rare.  A mound or hillock, probably from the Welsh twmp.")

Ladybugs (ladybird beetles)

Found at the Coolguides subreddit.

A tale of two decanters

One night at Balthazar, four Wall Street businessmen ordered the restaurant’s most expensive red wine: a $2,000 bottle of Château Mouton Rothschild. One of the two managers transferred the Bordeaux into a decanter at a waiter’s station. Simultaneously, a young couple ordered the restaurant’s cheapest red wine, an $18 pinot noir, which they wanted poured into a decanter. These two very different wines were now in identical decanters. Mistaking the $18 wine for the $2,000 Rothschild, the first manager poured the cheap wine for the businessmen. According to the manager, the businessman hosting the others considered himself a wine connoisseur, and showing off, tasted the cheap wine before bursting into raptures about its purity.

The young couple, who ordered the $18 pinot noir, were then inadvertently served the $2,000 Rothschild. On taking their first sips of what they believed was cheap wine, they jokingly pretended to be drinking an expensive wine and parodied all the mannerisms of a wine snob.

Five minutes later, the two managers discovered their error and, horrified, phoned me at home. I rushed to Balthazar. The businessmen’s celebratory mood was clearly enhanced by the wine they had mistakenly thought was the restaurant’s most expensive. This put me in a dilemma: whether to come clean and admit the manager’s mistake, or allow them to continue drinking the cheap wine in blissful ignorance. It was unthinkable at this point to pull the real Bordeaux from the young couple’s table. Besides, they were having too much fun pretending to be drinking a $2,000 bottle of wine. I decided to tell both parties the truth. The businessman responded by saying, “I thought that wasn’t a Mouton Rothschild!” The others at the table nodded their heads in servile agreement.
From an October 2020 Instagram post by the owner of Balthazar, a French brasserie in New York City, via Harper's.

Not Pegasus

"An Indian sarus crane drives an antelope away from its nest to protect its egg at the Keoladeo national park, India."  Credit Jagdeep Rajput, from a gallery of Comedy Wildlife Photo finalists, which also included this image -

"A duckling walks across a turtle-covered log at the Juanita wetlands, Washington, US."  Credit Ryan Sims.

"Trigger warnings" on Broadway

Not content with their spaces being safer, theaters increasingly seem to want to be “safe spaces.”

Take the audience advisory for the new Broadway revival of the musical “1776.” Highlighted in red on the production’s website, it warns that the show, about the political wrangling that led to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, “contains stylized representations of racialized violence” as well as “sexually suggestive themes, occasional strong language, haze, a brief strobe effect, a non-firing replica firearm, and a gunshot sound effect.”

The warning struck me as a little alarmist, especially after seeing the show. The “racialized violence” is a reference to the show’s somewhat overheated, but historically accurate, depiction of the debate over slavery. The only strong language I heard was an occasional “damn it, Franklin”; and the sexual material was so mildly suggestive as to be barely noticeable. As for the replica firearm — well, the country was at war, wasn’t it?

Just how much coddling do theatergoers need these days? An audience advisory for the touring production of the recent revisionist Broadway revival of “Oklahoma!” gives a jarringly literal spin to the term “trigger warning.” It alerts viewers to the exact number of guns that appear onstage and details the timing and plot circumstances of each of the four gunshots heard in the show. “The third shot is around 18 minutes into the second act … with a character surreptitiously picking up the gun, then firing it off in order to bring order to a chaotic scene on stage.”
Excerpted from an op-ed column at the Washington Post.

Asphalt roads can be recycled

The size of the Chicxulub asteroid

Manhattan for scale.  Longread at Wikipedia.

Ukraine before the current war with Russia

Probably very few of us paid much attention to Ukraine before the Russian onslaught affected gas prices, food prices, and revived fears of nuclear Armageddon.  So I found it interesting while reading back issues of Harper's Magazine to encounter a January 2021 article entitled The Armies of the Right: Inside Ukraine's extremist militias.  Herewith a few excerpts:
Ukraine is among the poorest countries in Europe and the closest thing the continent has to a failing state. It is mired in a smoldering conflict with Russian-backed separatists in its eastern provinces, and its state institutions have been almost entirely captured by competing oligarchs. Corruption pervades almost every level of government. Outside Kyiv’s metro stations, elderly women in head scarves and bedraggled war veterans beg for change, while nearby the streets are lined with luxury shops and petty gangsters run red lights in black SUVs without fear of rebuke. Millions have emigrated to Poland or Russia for work. The capital has the uncanny feel, at times, of a postmodern Weimar, where Instagram influencers brunch in cafés tricked out in the international hipster style opposite billboards adorned with the faces of Ukraine’s martyrs in the war against Russia.

But perhaps Ukraine’s clearest departure from the standard model of European liberalism is its proliferation of armed far-right factions, considered by analysts and ordinary Ukrainians alike to be the secretly funded private armies of the elite oligarch class. They fought in the trenches outside Donetsk and now patrol city streets, enforcing a particular vision of order with the blessing of overstretched and underfunded police departments. In some regions, they serve as official election monitors...

Ukraine’s complex ecosystem of far-right militias and activist groups is populated by many other organizations that, while less influential than Azov, still play a major role in public life. A variety of them—including Tradition and Order, Katechon, Freikorps, Sokil, and Karpatska Sich—appear at demonstrations with Azov, though their branding differs. Some are more overtly Christian in their imagery; some tend toward neo-paganism; others are more openly fascist. The groups promote one another’s posts on social media, especially on the Telegram channels used for organizing, indicating that some share members with Azov and thus may act as front organizations for deniable activity, according to Oksana Pokalchuk, the director of Amnesty International Ukraine. More often than not, however, the groups are committed rivals, competing for the largesse of the Ukrainian state and primacy in the country’s increasingly heated street politics...

Although Azov does not formally subscribe to National Socialism, members are known to tattoo themselves with Nazi imagery and fly the swastika flag over their fortifications in the east, in what is either a genuine display of ideological loyalty, an effort to troll their Russian enemies, or both. Ukraine’s bloody twentieth-century history creates a certain confusion, as so many symbols of Ukrainian nationalism and the struggle for independence against the Soviet Union are inextricably linked to those who collaborated with the invading Nazi forces against Stalin, a moral and political ambiguity that groups such as Azov exploit to the furthest possible limit. Azov’s official logo combines the Wolfsangel rune of the “Das Reich” division of the Waffen-SS with the Black Sun symbol, first employed by SS commander Heinrich Himmler at Wewelsburg Castle in Germany. The group’s slick propaganda videos feature young recruits with shaved heads and beards marching in torchlit neo-pagan ceremonies behind a Black Sun shield—imagery as inspiring to disaffected young Ukrainian men as it is discomfiting to the country’s Western backers.
Much more at the link, which will probably be behind a paywall for you - but the hard copy will almost certainly be available in your local library.

What a mess

For those wondering what's next, this explanation from John Authers:
Truss resigned, it appears, because she was told that she couldn’t go on. The loss of authority on show as Conservative MPs fought with each other in the division lobby on Wednesday night proved to be the final straw. She’s already out as party leader, but will continue in office until her successor is selected.

The rules for choosing that successor have been hastily revised to minimize the risk that the Conservatives make yet another embarrassing mistake. By Monday afternoon, anyone who wants to run will have to have amassed at least 100 nominations from MPs. There are some 357 Tory MPs, so no more than three candidates can get through this stage. MPs will then vote once to diminish the field to two, and then cast an indicative vote on the final two. Then it will be put to the Conservative membership in the country (of whom there are 172,000, who have paid dues of 25 pounds per year — with discounts for those under 26 or serving in the armed forces). The election of Truss over Rishi Sunak took place via postal ballot during six languid summer weeks; this one will be held online. 

If only one candidate gets 100 nominations, that person gets to be prime minister without putting the question to the membership. If two emerge, then members can still vote against the candidate who won the MPs’ vote.

This system forces a vintage long weekend of Westminster skulduggery. At present, former chancellor Sunak seems certain to win 100 nominations, while Penny Mordaunt, currently leader of the House of Commons, is also likely to do so. A number of possible “caretaker” candidates, such as the current chancellor Jeremy Hunt, have ruled themselves out, so two big questions remain. One is whether the cultural anti-immigration right can put together 100 nominations for a candidate (probably Suella Braverman, who resigned as home secretary this week). The other is whether Boris Johnson, deposed in disgrace earlier this year, can persuade enough MPs to help him get his old job back. Both seem unlikely, but either Johnson (who now has enthusiastic support from the most influential pro-Conservative newspapers) or Braverman might well be more popular among party members than Sunak. This will be a critical juncture.

17 October 2022

"The Dutch House"

The image above is a scan of the inside front cover of the January 2021 issue of Harper's Magazine.  I always read advertisements for books, but typically pass over them because there are so many of them, and life is short.  Then as I proceeded through the magazine, I read an extended essay by Ann Patchett entitled "These Precious Days: Tell me how the story ends."  It details her true-life encounter with Tom Hanks' assistant Sooki Raphael, who had pancreatic cancer.  

The essay was very interesting - and extremely well-written.  Part way through, Ann Patchell uses The Dutch House to explain the process by which she writes novels:
This is what it’s like to write a novel: I come up with a shred of an idea. It can be a character, a place, a moral quandary. In the case of The Dutch House, I’d started to think about a poor woman who suddenly became rich, and because she was unable to deal with the change in circumstances, she left her family and went to India to follow a guru.

Sister Nena shook her head. “Not a guru. She’s Catholic. She doesn’t have to go to India. She helps the poor like Dorothy Day.”

We were sitting at the bar at California Pizza Kitchen at four o’clock in the afternoon. It was our place, what Sister Nena called “vacation.” She ordered the house merlot and I had a seltzer with cranberry juice. She wanted to know about the book I was going to write next, the book I had just barely started thinking of.

“This woman goes to India,” I said.

“She could be a nun.” Sister Nena picked up a piece of bread and swiped it through the olive oil in the saucer between us.

I shook my head. “She’s married,” I said. “She has children. She has to have children.”

“It could happen. Plenty of nuns were married before.”

“They were widows, not divorced.”

“You never know.” Then she looked at me, her face suddenly brightened by a plot twist. “She could work for Mother Teresa. If she really wanted to go to India and she wanted to serve the poor, that’s what she would do.”

I wasn’t sure why I was negotiating my character’s future with my friend, but there I was, listening. Did my character want to be a nun?

When I’m putting together a novel, I leave all the doors and windows open so the characters can come in and just as easily leave. I don’t take notes. Once I start writing things down, I feel like I’m nailing the story in place. When I rely on my faulty memory, the pieces are free to move. The main character I was certain of starts to drift, and someone I’d barely noticed moves in to fill the space. The road forks and forks again. It becomes a path into the woods. It becomes the woods. I find a stream and follow it, the stream dries up, and I’m left to look for moss on the sides of trees. For a time, the mother in this novel went to India to work for Mother Teresa. I tried it but it didn’t work. What about the children who were left behind in that house she hated? What became of them? And what about the women who cleaned that house, who fixed those children their dinner? The ones who stayed turned out to be the ones I was interested in.

Putting together a novel is essentially putting together the lives of strangers I’m coming to know. In some ways it’s not unlike putting together my own life. I think I know what I’m doing when in truth I have no idea. I just keep moving forward. By the time the book is written, there is little evidence of the initial spark or a long-ago conversation in California Pizza Kitchen. Still, I’m able, for a while at least, to pick up the thread and walk it back. Everything looks so logical going backward—Yes, of course, that’s what we did—but going forward it’s something else entirely. Going forward, the lights may as well be off.
After reading that, I went back to the front cover and dog-eared the corner, marking it for further attention.

That was January of 2021.  Then... the tempus always fugits, and now it's October of 2022 and I finally request the book from the library.  I'm so glad I did.  It was a joy to read.

If you've read this book (or others by Ann Patchett), please feel free to offer your opinions in the Comments.

16 October 2022

No two of these circles are linked together

These are Borromean rings.
The name "Borromean rings" comes from the use of these rings, in the form of three linked circles, in the coat of arms of the aristocratic Borromeo family in Northern Italy. The link itself is much older and has appeared in the form of the valknut, three linked equilateral triangles with parallel sides, on Norse image stones dating back to the 7th century. The Ōmiwa Shrine in Japan is also decorated with a motif of the Borromean rings, in their conventional circular form. A stone pillar in the 6th-century Marundeeswarar Temple in India shows three equilateral triangles rotated from each other to form a regular enneagram...

The Borromean rings have been used in different contexts to indicate strength in unity. In particular, some have used the design to symbolize the Trinity. A 13th-century French manuscript depicting the Borromean rings labeled as unity in trinity was lost in a fire in the 1940s, but reproduced in an 1843 book by Adolphe Napoléon Didron. Didron and others have speculated that the description of the Trinity as three equal circles in canto 33 of Dante's Paradiso was inspired by similar images, although Dante does not detail the geometric arrangement of these circles. The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan found inspiration in the Borromean rings as a model for his topology of human subjectivity, with each ring representing a fundamental Lacanian component of reality (the "real", the "imaginary", and the "symbolic").

The rings were used as the logo of Ballantine beer, and are still used by the Ballantine brand beer, now distributed by the current brand owner, the Pabst Brewing Company. For this reason they have sometimes been called the "Ballantine rings"

p.s. - I know "linked together" is a tautology, but I'm going to let it stand because it sounds better that way.

"Braiding Sweetgrass"

"Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants is a 2013 nonfiction book by Potawatomi professor Robin Wall Kimmerer, about the role of Indigenous knowledge as an alternative or complementary approach to Western mainstream scientific methodologies... The book received largely positive reviews, appearing on several bestseller lists. Robin Wall Kimmerer is known for her scholarship on traditional ecological knowledge, ethnobotany, and moss ecology."
More about the book at the link.  For those in a hurry [and for me if/when I re-read], these are what I viewed as the best chapters:  "Witch Hazel" (re elderly women), "A Mother's Work" (restoring a pond), "Epiphany in Beans" (gardening), "Sitting in a Circle" (teaching students ethnobotany), "Collateral Damage" (re roadkill), and "Umbilicaria" (lichens).

The "three sisters" of Native American food are corn, beans and squash, which can be interplanted and grow together well, the beans using the corn for scaffolding. returning nitrogen to the soil, and providing protein.  Squash provide nutritional carotenes and cover/shade the ground to retain moisture.  And this re harvest:
"... the littlest kids peek under prickly leaves looking for squash blossoms.  We carefully spoon a batter of cheese and cornmeal into the orange throat of each flower, close it up, and fry it until it's crisp.  They disappear from the plate as fast as we can make them."
Re the "Honorable Harvest" -
"The guidelines for the Honorable Harvest are not written down, or even consistently spoken of as a whole - they are reinforced in small acts of daily life.  But if you were to list them, they might look something like this..."
Know the ways of the ones who take care of you, so that you may take care of them.
Introduce yourself.  Be accountable as the one who comes asking for life.
Ask permission before taking.  Abide by the answer.
Never take the first.  Never take the last.
Take only what you need.
Take only that which is given.
Never take more than half.  Leave some for others.
Harvest in a way that minimizes harm.
Use it respectfully.  Never waste what you have taken.
Give thanks for what you have been given.
Give a gift, in reciprocity for what you have taken.
Sustain the ones who sustain you and the earth will last forever.  
Discussing a conservation biologist who goes out to the road on some rainy nights to carry salamanders across to safety:  "Aldo Leopold had it right: naturalists live in a world of wounds that only they can see."

Re how we should approach our environmental problems:  
"I believe the answer is contained within our teachings of "One Bowl and One Spoon," which holds that the gifts of the earth are all in one bowl, all to be shared from a single spoon.  This is the vision of the economy of the commons, wherein resources fundamental to our well-being, like water and land and forests, are commonly held rather than commodified.  Properly managed, the commons approach maintains abundance, not scarcity.  These contemporary economic alternatives strongly echo the Indigenous worldview in which the earth exists not as private property, but as a commons, to be tended with respect and reciprocity for the benefit of all."
Reposted from March to note that the author has just been named a recipient of a MacArthur "genius grant."
A dozen years ago, Robin Wall Kimmerer submitted an unsolicited manuscript to Milkweed, a nonprofit independent press in Minneapolis. It was a brick of about 750 pages.

“I sent it out without any confidence that anyone would want to read such a thing,” says Kimmerer, 69. “I didn’t have an agent. I’m not a professional writer. I’m a botanist. But it was something that I felt I really wanted to say.

Kimmerer’s goal was to reach two specific audiences: science colleagues and students. She reached many, many more than that. The book is a word-of-mouth publishing wonder, with more than 1.4 million copies in print and audio, and it’s been translated into nearly 20 languages. On Wednesday, Kimmerer was named a MacArthur fellow, a recipient of the “genius grant,” which increased this year to $800,000 paid over five years.

In February 2020, more than six years after initial publication, for which the book had been whittled down to about 400 pages, the paperback edition of “Braiding Sweetgrass” reached the New York Times bestseller list. It’s resided there for 129 weeks.

Addendum:  2023 update about how this book rose from obscurity at a small publisher to national fame. 

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