27 February 2023

View from a hotel window

Photo emailed to me today by an old high-school classmate.  The hotel is the Explora Lodge in Patagonia National Park.  The view is from the window in their room.  Click image twice to embiggify.

Awesome ladyslippers

Paphiopedilum callosum, one of the lady's slipper orchids.  Some of my fond memories of summertime in northern Minnesota involve encounters with lady's slippers such as the pink-and-white state flower -

- or the more common yellow ones -

The image embedded at the top is from a Guardian article about the illegal trade and black market for orchids worldwide, many of them rescued and rehabbed by the New York Botanical Garden (featured in the article).

Amazing statistics about the Amazon river

"Vastly bigger than any river in Europe or Asia, the Amazon contains a fifth of the earth's above-ground fresh water.  It has islands the size of countries and masses of floating vegetation the size of islands.  Half a dozen of its tributaries would be world-famous rivers anywhere else.  A thousand miles up from the Atlantic, the river is still so broad that at high water the other side is only a faint dark line on the horizon.  Ferries take half an hour to make the crossing.  Seagoing vessels travel all the way up to Iquitos, Peru, 2,300 miles from the river's mouth, the furthest inland deep-ocean port in the world...

Like today's ecotourism brochures, the accounts of the great river basin in da Cunha's time celebrated its immensity but rarely dwelled on its extreme flatness - in the Amazon's first [last?] 2,900 miles the vertical drop is only 500 feet."
Citations from this book.


The mathematical expressions stenciled on the wall, when translated visually, yield an approxiation of the Circle-A symbol associated with anarchy:

Via Reddit, where there is some discussion of the math.

Not from a spittle bug

“Basically, it’s suds,” said Alison Pearce, deputy director for programs at Nature Forward, formerly the Audubon Naturalist Society in Chevy Chase, Md.

She explained that dust, pollutants and other particulates floating around in the air settle on a tree. The tree also exudes its own chemicals. When it rains, all that material is mixed together and flows down the tree, from the leaves, along the branches and down the trunk.

“It happens more often with trees that have deep channels in the bark,” Pearce said. These include oak, tulip poplar and hickory...

 It’s the result of what naturalists call stemflow mixing: the aerating rush of water down the tree.
Most "foam" I see in nature comes from spittle bugs, though I wouldn't expect to see them on a tree trunk.  This phenomenon was new to me.  You learn something every day.  

A Zoom chuckle

23 February 2023

The Wrinkled Peach mushroom

In nature, Rhodotus palmatus is sometimes seen "bleeding" a red- or orange-colored liquid. A similar phenomenon has also been observed when it is grown in laboratory culture on a petri dish: the orange-colored drops that appear on the mat formed by fungal mycelia precede the initial appearance of fruit bodies
Edibility is listed as "unknown," but of course any mushroom can be eaten at least once.  via

Amazing statistic regarding the solar system and Milky Way

"If you scaled the Solar System to the size of a 10p piece, the Milky Way would be roughly the size of the United States."
--- from the "qikipedia" at QI website, Feb 17, 2023.

Albino redwood trees

Albinism is rare in humans and animals, and it is rarer still in plants, where it manifests as the complete lack of chlorophyll. Because this green pigment is vital to the manufacture of food and thus the survival of plants, an albino plant typically die as seedlings.

There is an exception, however... several albino redwoods in California that have managed to survive till adulthood by latching on to the parent redwood and leaching off nutrients from the host tree...

New research have suggested that the albino redwood also helps the healthy redwood trees to survive by filtering out toxins from the soil. Albinos have defective stomata that causes them to lose more water through transpiration, forcing them to compensate by taking up more water through their roots. As a result they accumulate more metals in their bodies than normal trees do... The research led by Zane Moore, a doctoral student at the University of California Davis, found high levels of toxic heavy metals, including nickel, copper and cadmium. These heavy metals were at least twice as high in the albino redwoods compared to healthy redwood trees...

It is believed that there are about 400 albino redwoods across California’s wilderness. Their locations are not advertised in order to prevent people from seeking them out and collecting souvenirs that would be harmful for the plant.
More information and several cool photos at Amusing Planet.

22 February 2023

The mystery of the "cotton" in the window frame - updated x5

The arrival of September at our latitude marks the time when windows closed all summer can be opened to admit cool night air.  As I opened the window on our guest room, I was startled to see a wad of cotton-like material tumble from the upper window frame (above, placed on the concrete driveway for imaging).

My initial anxiety was that some sort of insulation was coming loose, but the original location of the material (photo below) ruled out that possibility.

My attention was now drawn to the contents of the mass, which to my initial dismay revealed an insect pupa and a number of living larvae:

After searching several combinations of key words in Google Images, I found one entry that matched my experience.  The brief explanation there was that the mass was the creation of a solitary bee.

Now I did feel bad, because my wife and I are great fans of solitary bees.  But armed with that clue, it didn't take long to track down the answer:
Anthidium manicatum, commonly called the European wool carder bee, is a species of bee in the family Megachilidae, the leaf-cutter bees or mason bees.

They get the name 'carder' from their behaviour of scraping hair from leaves such as lamb's ears (Stachys byzantina)... They scrape the hairs from the leaves and carry them back to their nests bundled beneath their bodies. There it is used as a lining for their nest cavities.  Females tend to build their nests at high locations.
I don't know whether the larvae in the photo are bee-related or parasites.

Reposted from 2016 because this week I was wandering through the "gardening" section of our local Target store and found this:

The shelf tag erroneously said "butterfly house."  The label on the product was slightly less inaccurate with "insect house."  It is in fact a structure designed for solitary bees.  There are online instructions for making these as a DIY project, but this one was nicely made and inexpensive.  I'll hang it from a shepherd's crook near ground level in our garden and hope to see some of the tubes getting filled as the summer progresses.

Here is a photo of an equivalent bee-condo viewed in cross-section:

This one was made by drilling holes in a wood block (presumably with a removable flap so the curious home scientist could inspect the process and the season progressed).

If I remember, I'll try to post followup photos in the summer and autumn.

Updated May 2018 to show the bee "condo" installed in our back garden -

Helpful hint:  A "shepherd's hook" (used for hanging flower baskets, bird feeders etc), when purchased from a home decor or gardening store can be somewhat pricey.  I went instead to our local farm supply store and picked up the "pigtail" post shown in the photo (used on farms for stringing electric fences around fields) for about $2.  An added advantage is the little S-shaped part at the bottom which grips the post for stepping it into the ground and digs into the ground to provide 2-point stability for the post.

Updated again:

Well, back to the drawing board.   After a week of drenching rains, the "bee condo" was in multiple pieces.  I don't think I can blame raccoons, because there was no honey or larvae in it yet.  Wind might have banged it around a bit, judging from the current position, but I rather suspect this was assembled using water-soluble glue.

It was cheap.  You  get what you pay for.

Fortunately I have several rolls of duct tape in the garage.

June 2019: Reposted for the fourth time to add new information.

I was able to duct tape that contraption back together and it has survived a year of biblical rains and 25-below-zero temps.  Not sure how much it's being utilized; I should do a survey of it later this summer.

But this week I saw a post at Neatorama with new information about backyard bee houses, citing a Gizmodo article entitled "Your Cheap-Ass Bee House is probably Killing the Bees" -
The most prevalent problem with bee houses is that when they’re not cared for properly, they can become breeding grounds for pests, mold, fungus, and disease...

Pollen mites are one of the biggest threats to the habitability of bee houses located in humid environments or built of materials like bamboo that don’t dry easily. “If there’s no way for moisture to dissipate from the nest then the mites take over,” Purrington said...

Packing a bunch of [normally solitary] species together into one box is not only ecologically weird, it can make them targets, Mader said. “The cheek-to-cheek occupancy of bee houses helps predators (woodpeckers for example), parasites (including wasps, mites, and others), and diseases find a dense host-bee population to exploit.”..

... it’s bad for bees when a house is tied loosely to a tree or a post with a string rather than tightly secured in place... “The bees can’t land if it’s flapping around in the wind,” he said of mason bees. “They’re terrible at landing.”

...it’s a good idea to cover the houses with metal netting to keep the birds out, as woodpeckers and bluejays find bee houses to be great restaurants.
You learn something every day.

Reposted from 2019 to add this:

Informed discussion at the MadeMeSmile subreddit indicates that innovations such as this may not be successful or optimal.

Examples of "caste discrimination" in the U.S.

On Tuesday, Seattle became the first US city to ban caste-based discrimination after a vote by the local council. Ahead of the vote, several South Asians stood in line for hours to share their stories with council members...

Academic Prem Pariyar was one of them. He says he fled to the US from Nepal in 2015 after his family was brutally attacked by a group of upper caste people for speaking up against atrocities.

But that didn't stop the discrimination he faced because of his caste. Once, he says, he was invited to lunch at a friend's house in the San Francisco Bay Area in California.

"I was hesitant [to go] as caste dictates where you sit and eat, but I thought it will be different here as people are educated, in a country where human rights are valued," Mr Pariyar says.

But just as he was about to serve food for himself, he was asked not to touch anything. Instead, someone else handed him a plate of food.

The caste system is one of the oldest forms of surviving social discrimination in South Asian countries, including India and Nepal. In India, Dalits (formerly untouchables) and other lower castes are seen as historically disadvantaged groups and offered constitutional protections in the form of quotas and anti-discriminatory laws...

Mr Pariyar says the incident at his friend's house reminded him of something from his childhood in Nepal: his teacher spat out the water he gave her after finding out he belonged to a lower caste...

San Francisco Bay Area resident Bhim Narayan Bishwakarma says his attempt to rent a room fell through after the South Asian owner heard his full name - surnames are often indicators of caste. "I could see in his eyes that he really felt uncomfortable," Mr Bishwakarma says.

After coming up with excuses to opt out of the deal, the landlord finally admitted that his other tenants had threatened to move out if a Dalit person was allowed to stay...

But not everyone supports the legislation. Several Indian-American groups had strongly opposed the ordinance before it became a law, arguing that it singled out Indian and South Asian communities for unique legal scrutiny... But she adds that the new law sent a message "that our community, which makes up less than 2% of the population, is so uniquely bigoted that we need a special category under the law to police us, reinforcing xenophobic stereotypes we had hoped the US had moved beyond".
Continued at the BBC.

Offered without comment

Lots of (predictable) comments at the MildlyInfuriating subreddit.

Modern American social intercourse

"He's at home" was the term for a Nantucket dildo - updated x2

A long and quite interesting article at Literary Hub traces one writer's journey to document the use of dildos by the wives of Nantucket whalers.
On Nantucket, 80-year-old Connie Congdon and I sat in her dim living room looking at the 120-year-old plaster dildo that a mason had found in her chimney...

In the box were the other antiques the mason had found with the dildo: six charred envelopes from the 1890s addressed to Captain James B. Coffin; letters from the same James B. Coffin to Grover Cleveland and Assistant Secretary of State Edwin Dehl; a dirty and frayed shirt collar; a pipe that still smelled of tobacco when I fit my nose in the bowl; and a green glass laudanum bottle. These items must have been hidden in the chimney by James’s wife,­ Martha “Mattie” Coffin, sometime between when the letters were dated and when she died in 1928. The fireplace was later sealed up, and a closet was built in front of it...

She unwrapped the stony phallus from its pink tissue paper and handed it to me. It was heavier than it looked. The head had been painted wild-berry red. The shaft was off-white and touched with light brown stains. Through the center was a hole no thicker than a straw, as if it had been skewered for drying. Saw marks streaked the cross section of the flat base, and it had been circumcised with whittling scrapes. “No mistaking what it is,” Connie said, as I turned it in my hand...

She bent at the waist, snapped on the flashlight, and peered up the chimney. “Up there,” she said, motioning me to kneel down beside her. “It was on the flue shelf.” I craned my neck. Her light swept over the chimney’s charred innards. The damper ledge where the dildo had been hidden was an arm’s length away...

Nantucket wives were dubbed “Cape Horn widows,” because their husbands might be gone for eight years. In Moby-Dick, Captain Ahab tells his first mate, Starbuck, that of the past forty years of “making war on the horrors of the deep” he’d only been ashore three, leaving only “one dent in [his] marriage pillow.” “[W]ife?” Ahab rages, “wife?—rather a widow with her husband alive!” The dildos, called “he’s-at-homes” in some books on the history of the Yankee whale fishery, were meant to be some insurance of fidelity for a husband who was rarely present.
Much more at Literary Hub.  Well worth the read for those interested in the subject matter.

I can't close without including a link to the famous poem(s) "There Once Was a Man From Nantucket."

Reposted from 2015 to add this report of a similar item being auctioned in Ireland:

Lot 475 is a Victorian-era sex toy – an uncannily lifelike-looking phallus, intricately carved from ivory. Sandwiched in the brochure between a pair of antique miniature portraits and a set of decanter labels, the item is described in the brochure as an “antique carved ivory ladies companion in scarlet lined leather upholstered carry box with inset bevelled glass panel”.

“It is a beautiful piece, which comes from one of the well-known Anglo-Irish families,” says auctioneer Damien Matthews...

“This was a very enlightened family, and this would have been a very loving gift from a husband to wife. You can see that because the level of detail is incredible, down to the folds of the skin. There’s a heart carved at the base of it, where her finger would have been, and a receptacle in which she could keep a lock of his hair.”...

The man did return, and the box was subsequently custom-made in Ireland. “The leather box is Irish. She would have got the box carved for it – there’s a stamp on the lock with the name of an Irish locksmith,” Matthews says...

Matthews says there has been considerable interest in the piece, and that it could go to a museum of erotica, to a collector of antique ivory or Victorian art. The guide price is set at €500-€800.
Further details at Irish Times, via The Guardian.

Addendum:  Found this report from 2005 in the BBC of an ancient phallic object that may have served as a sex toy:
A sculpted and polished phallus found in a German cave is among the earliest representations of male sexuality ever uncovered, researchers say.

The 20cm-long, 3cm-wide stone object, which is dated to be about 28,000 years old, was buried in the famous Hohle Fels Cave near Ulm in the Swabian Jura. The prehistoric "tool" was reassembled from 14 fragments of siltstone.

Its life size suggests it may well have been used as a sex aid by its Ice Age makers, scientists report.

"In addition to being a symbolic representation of male genitalia, it was also at times used for knapping flints.
Reposted from 2017 to add this discovery at Vindolanda:

Archaeologists believe they may have found the only known lifesize Roman dildo, discovered in a ditch in what were the farthest northern fringes of the empire.

If it was not used as a sexual implement then the 2,000-year-old object may have been an erect penis-shaped pestle, or it could have been a feature from a statue that people touched for good luck.

What it definitely is not is what it was catalogued as after its discovery at the Roman fort of Vindolanda in Northumberland in 1992: a darning tool...

The Vindolanda phallus is 16cm long but, researchers say, was probably larger because archaeological wood is prone to shrinkage and warping.
Informed discussion at The Guardian.

Addendum:  A later article at The Guardian suggests that this is not a dildo, but rather a "drop spindle" (especially since it was found amidst other crafting material).

19 February 2023

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

This book is full of interesting anecdotes and observations that would be separately bloggable, but I want to concentrate on the work as a whole, and why I've added it to my list of recommended books.

Despite the title, the book is not about a single year.  1491 is used as a cutting point for defining the "precontact" Americas (pre-Columbian/European contact).   Charles C. Mann is not an archaeologist; he is a science journalist who has previously written about medical science and physics.  Here he synthesizes known information about the prehistory of North and South America and the changes that ensued after Europeans arrived.

For a reasonable summary of the book, you can browse the article he wrote for The Atlantic Monthly on the same subject back in 2002.  I'm going to focus on Chapter 10, which effectively debunks the popular myth that North American in particular was a "pristine wilderness" when the Europeans arrived.

Two months ago I reviewed and excerpted Paradise Found: Nature in America at the Time of Discovery (University of Chicago Press, 2009), which detailed what Europeans found in North America:
"The woods abound with acorns for feeding hogs and with venison. There is considerable fish in the rivers, good tillage land; here is, especially, free coming and going, without fear of the naked natives of the country..."  Magnificent chestnut oaks, which these turkeys had wisely chosen as a roost, often rose sixty feet before there were any branches. So, while it’s easy to be impressed by the great tracts of forest carpeting the ridges and valleys of the Appalachians today, we should remember that these forests are nothing like the precolonial forests. Those first explorers found themselves walking through a natural cathedral whose green roof arched fifty or more feet above their heads…”
Mann's point in 1491 is that this was not even remotely a "pristine" environment unmodified by humans.  Instead, what the awe-struck Europeans found was a world that had been managed for millennia by Native Americas:
A principal tool was fire, used to keep down underbrush and create the open, grassy conditions favorable for game. Rather than domesticating animals for meat, Indians retooled whole ecosystems to grow bumper crops of elk, deer, and bison. The first white settlers in Ohio found forests as open as English parks—they could drive carriages through the woods. Along the Hudson River the annual fall burning lit up the banks for miles on end; so flashy was the show that the Dutch in New Amsterdam boated upriver to goggle at the blaze like children at fireworks. In North America, Indian torches had their biggest impact on the Midwestern prairie, much or most of which was created and maintained by fire. Millennia of exuberant burning shaped the plains into vast buffalo farms...
The role of Native Americans was unappreciated because their numbers had been decimated (literally) by epidemic diseases such as smallpox and typhus.

The tricky part of this explanation is not the facts per se, but the implications - especially re tropical rain forests.  Amazonia was similarly "managed" by natives to such an extent that at one time it was capable of supporting huge populations, farming manufactured soil.  If that argument is loosely applied, it can be used to support the claim that modern man can "improve" the jungles of the Amazonian region through the use of technology to make them more useful and productive.

I'll stop here.  Those who have read this book are encouraged to offer comments on this post.

Reposted from 2012 to add some more excerpts from the book.  I've just read the book for the third and final time, and before I give it to a friend I want to jot down some interesting notes:
"... fish fertilizer may not have been an age-old Indian custom, but a recent invention - if it was an Indian practice at all.  So little evidence has emerged of Indians fertilizing with fish that some archaeologists believe that Tisquantum actually picked up the idea from European farmers... In his travels, Tisquantum stayed in places where Europeans used fish as fertilizer, a practice on the Continent since medieval times.

"British fishing vessels may have reached Newfoundland as early as the 1480s and areas to the south soon after.  In 1501, just nine years after Columbus's first voyage, the Portuguese adventurer Gaspar Corte-Real abducted fifty-odd Indians from Maine.  Examining the captives, Corte-Real found to his astonishment that two were wearing items from Venice: a broken sword and two silver rings... [he] probably was able to kidnap such a large number of people only because the Indians were already so comfortable dealing with Europeans that big groups willingly came aboard his ship."

In 1491 the Inka ruled the greatest empire on earth. Bigger than Ming Dynasty China, bigger than Ivan the Great’s expanding Russia, bigger than Songhay in the Sahel or powerful Great Zimbabwe in the West Africa tablelands, bigger than the cresting Ottoman Empire, bigger than the Triple Alliance (as the Aztec empire is more precisely known), bigger by far than any European state, the Inka dominion extended over a staggering thirty-two degrees of latitude—as if a single power held sway from St. Petersburg to Cairo.  The empire encompassed every imaginable type of terrain, from the rainforest of upper Amazonia to the deserts of the Peruvian coast and the twenty thousand foot peaks of the Andes between. ‘If imperial potential is judged in terms of environmental adaptability,’ wrote the Oxford historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto, ‘the Inca were the most impressive empire builders of their day.’” 

"Ecologists postulate that the first large-scale human societies tended to arise where, as Jared Diamond of the University of California at Los Angeles put it, geography provided “a wide range of altitudes and topographies within a short distance.” One such place is the Fertile Crescent, where the mountains of western Iran and the Dead Sea, the lowest place on earth, bracket the Tigris and Euphrates river systems. Another is Peru. In the short traverse from mountain to ocean, travelers pass through twenty of the world’s thirty-four principal types of environment...  Combining the fruits of many ecosystems, Andean cultures both enjoyed a better life than they could have wrested from any single place and spread out the risk from the area’s frequent natural catastrophes. Murra invented a name for this mode of existence: “vertical archipelagoes.”

"The ground was too dirty to receive the Inka’s [ruler's] saliva so he always spat into the hand of a courtier. The courtier wiped the spittle with a special cloth and stored it for safekeeping. Once a year everything touched by the Inka—clothing, garbage, bedding, saliva—was ceremonially burned.... Wearing soft, loose clothing of vampire-bat wool, he swanned around his palaces with a bowl of palm wine..." [I read elsewhere that "hummingbird down" was also used for fine clothing]
I would never have guessed that the Inca had sea-going ships:
"Europeans first encountered Tawantinsuyu in the form of an Inka ship sailing near the equator, three hundred miles from its home port, under a load of fine cotton sails.  It had a crew of twenty and was easily the size of a Spanish caravelle."
One postulated reason for native susceptibility to new diseases was their relatively uniform genetics because of the small numbers of initial arrivals from Asia:
"Their gene pool was correspondingly restricted, which meant that Indian biochemistry was an is unusually homogeneous.  More than nine out of ten Native Americans - and almost all South American Indians - have type O blood, for example, whereas Europeans are more evenly split between types O and A... About one third of South American Indians... have identical or near-identical HLA profiles; for Africans the figure is one in two hundred."
A rebuttal re brutality marking Native Americans as "primitive":
"The second myth is that in its penchant for public slaughter the Triple Alliance was fundamentally different from Europe. Criminals beheaded in Palermo, heretics burned alive in Toledo, assassins drawn and quartered in Paris—Europeans flocked to every form of painful death imaginable, free entertainment that drew huge crowds. London, the historian Fernand Braudel tells us, held public executions eight times a year at Tyburn, just north of Hyde Park. (The diplomat Samuel Pepys paid a shilling for a good view of a Tyburn hanging in 1664; watching the victim beg for mercy, he wrote, was a crowd of “at least 12 or 14,000 people.”) In most if not all European nations, the bodies were impaled on city walls and strung along highways as warnings. “The corpses dangling from trees whose distant silhouettes stand out against the sky, in so many old paintings, are merely a realistic detail,” Braudel observed. “They were part of the landscape.” Between 1530 and 1630, according to Cambridge historian V. A. C. Gatrell, England executed seventy-five thousand people. At the time, its population was about three million, perhaps a tenth that of the Mexica empire. Arithmetic suggests that if England had been the size of the Triple Alliance, it would have executed, on average, about 7,500 people per year, roughly twice the number Cortés estimated for the empire. France and Spain were still more bloodthirsty than England, according to Braudel... In their penchant for ceremonial public slaughter, the Alliance and Europe were more alike than either side grasped."
Other miscellaneous observations:
“In what may have been the first large-scale compulsory education program in history, every male citizen of the Triple Alliance, no matter what his social class, had to attend one sort of school or another until the age of sixteen.”

"Tenochtitlan dazzled its invaders—it was bigger than Paris, Europe’s greatest metropolis. The Spaniards gawped like yokels at the wide streets, ornately carved buildings, and markets bright with goods from hundreds of miles away. Boats flitted like butterflies around the three grand causeways that linked Tenochtitlan to the mainland. Long aqueducts conveyed water from the distant mountains across the lake and into the city. Even more astounding than the great temples and immense banners and colorful promenades were the botanical gardens—none existed in Europe."

The poet-physician Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. regarded the Indian as but “a sketch in red crayon of a rudimental manhood.” To the “problem of his relation to the white race,” Holmes said, there was one solution: “extermination.” 

"If time travelers from today were to visit North America in the late Pleistocene, they would see in the forests and plains an impossible bestiary of lumbering mastodon, armored rhinos, great dire wolves, sabertooth cats, and ten-foot-long glyptodonts like enormous armadillos. Beavers the size of armchairs; turtles that weighed almost as much as cars; sloths able to reach tree branches twenty feet high; huge, flightless, predatory birds like rapacious ostriches—the tally of Pleistocene monsters is long and alluring.

At about the time of Clovis almost every one of these species vanished. So complete was the disaster that most of today’s big American mammals, such as caribou, moose, and brown bear, are immigrants from Asia. The die-off happened amazingly fast, much of it in the few centuries between 11,500 and 10,900 B.C. And when it was complete, naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace wrote, the Americas had become “a zoologically impoverished world, from which all of the hugest, and fiercest, and strangest forms [had] recently disappeared.”

The extinctions permanently changed American landscapes and American history. Before the Pleistocene, the Americas had three species of horse and at least two camels that might have been ridden; other mammals could have been domesticated for meat and milk. Had they survived, the consequences would have been huge. Not only would domesticated animals have changed Indian societies, they might have created new zoonotic diseases. Absent the extinctions, the encounter between Europe and the Americas might have been equally deadly for both sides—a world in which both hemispheres experienced catastrophic depopulation."

“Mesoamerica would deserve its place in the human pantheon if its inhabitants had only created maize, in terms of harvest weight the world’s most important crop. But the inhabitants of Mexico and northern Central America also developed tomatoes, now basic to Italian cuisine; peppers, essential to Thai and Indian food; all the world’s squashes (except for a few domesticated in the United States); and many of the beans on dinner plates around the world. One writer has estimated that Indians developed 3/5 of the crops now in cultivation, most of them in Mesoamerica."
As a native Minnesotan, I particularly appreciated this quotation re the ticks of Veracruz on the gulf side of Mexico:
Learning from local people that Tres Zapotes was only one of many mound sites in Veracruz, Stirling decided to return in 1940 to survey them all. The task was daunting even for a cigar-chomping, whisky-drinking, adventure addict like Stirling. Most of the mound centers were in the middle of trackless mangrove swamps or up narrow, unmapped rivers choked with water hyacinth. Ticks and mosquitoes were indefatigable and present in huge numbers; the ticks were worse than the mosquitoes, Stirling remarked, because they had to be dug out of the flesh with a knife. At one point Stirling and a colleague hitched a ride in a pepper truck to one of the smaller sites. After jolting down a road with deep ruts "designed to test the very souls of motorcars," the two men were let off in a nondescript meadow. Stirling went to talk with the driver.
"The ticks are not bad, are they?" I asked him hopefully, viewing the tall grass and underbrush between the road and the mounds. "No," said the driver, beaming. "When full, like grapes they fall off and no harm is done. There are millions of them here, however."
Fire as a landscaping tool:
Every fall, he remembered, the Haudenosaunee set fire to “the woods, plains, and meadows,” to “thin out and clear the woods of all dead substances and grass, which grow better the ensuing spring.” At first the wildfire had scared him, but over time van der Donck had come to relish the spectacle of the yearly burning. “Such a fire is a splendid sight when one sails on the [Hudson and Mohawk] rivers at night while the forest is ablaze on both banks,” he recalled. With the forest burning to the right and the left, the colonists’ boats passed through a channel of fire, their passengers as goggle-eyed at the blaze as children at a video arcade. “Fire and flames are seen everywhere and on all sides…a delightful scene to look on from afar.”

Fire is a dominating factor in many if not most terrestrial landscapes. It has two main sources: lightning and Homo sapiens. In North America, lightning fire is most common in the western mountains. Elsewhere, though, Indians controlled it—at least until contact, and in many places long after. In the Northeast, Indians always carried a deerskin pouch full of flints, Thomas Morton reported in 1637, which they used “to set fire of the country in all places where they come.” The flints ignited torches, which were as important to the hunt as bows and arrows. Deer in the Northeast; alligators in the Everglades; buffalo in the prairies; grasshoppers in the Great Basin; rabbits in California; moose in Alaska: all were pursued by fire. Native Americans made big rings of flame, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “by firing the leaves fallen on the ground, which, gradually forcing animals to the center, they there slaughter them with arrows, darts, and other missiles.” Not that Indians always used fire for strictly utilitarian purposes. At nightfall tribes in the Rocky Mountains entertained the explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark by applying torches to sap-dripping fir trees, which then exploded like Roman candles.

Rather than domesticate animals for meat, Indians retooled ecosystems to encourage elk, deer, and bear. Constant burning of undergrowth increased the numbers of herbivores, the predators that fed on them, and the people who ate them both. Rather than the thick, unbroken, monumental snarl of trees imagined by Thoreau, the great eastern forest was an ecological kaleidoscope of garden plots, blackberry rambles, pine barrens, and spacious groves of chestnut, hickory, and oak. The first white settlers in Ohio found woodlands that resembled English parks—they could drive carriages through the trees. Fifteen miles from shore in Rhode Island, Giovanni da Verrazzano found trees so widely spaced that the forest “could be penetrated even by a large army.” John Smith claimed to have ridden through the Virginia forest at a gallop.

18 February 2023

Hereditary geniospasm

Fascinating, and totally new to me.  The embed above is a copypasted screencap; at the New England Journal of Medicine the video (gif) is clickable (but may be behind a paywall).

Addendum:  An anonymous reader found this video of the disorder in an adult.

"Cheese and rice" is a "minced oath"

Yesterday evening I was watching "The Lost City," a movie in which Sandra Bullock is a sapiosexual author of bodice-rippers who has been kidnapped by a monomaniacal billionaire.  In the scene where she is crawling through a cave of stalagtites under an erupting volcano (!) wearing a sequined bodysuit,  she falls and exclaims "Cheese and rice."

That was her second use of the phrase in the movie, and in our house subtitles are always on, so there was no mistaking the wording.  I had to pull out my phone and look it up.  It is a euphemism or a "minced oath" for "Jesus Christ."

Euphemism [Greek "eu" = good + "pheme" = voice] I understood, but then I had to figure out why it would be a "minced" oath.  Minced [Middle English from Proto-Germanic minniz = "less"] means "finely chopped," with a corollary meaning of "weakened or extenuated." 

You learn something every day.

The movie, BTW, is thoroughly good fun if you don't take it too seriously.  And if you don't get upset seeing Brad Pitt getting his brains literally blown out by the evil minions of the wicked Daniel Radcliffe.  Perhaps best watched with some recreational beverage or cannabis gummies on board.

17 February 2023

Clever tee shirt

I have reason to believe I'll be receiving one of these for my upcoming 77th birthday.  Found in the Signals catalog distributed to PBS members. 

"Spiggoty" explained

 I encountered the word in Rex Stout's Fer-de-Lance (the first Nero Wolfe mystery):
"All I have to say is, he's a dirty spiggoty."
"No Archie.  Mr. Manuel Kimball is an Argentinian."
"Spiggoty to me.  I want a glass of milk.  Can I bring you some beer?"
I had no clue, perhaps because of my suburban Minnesota upbringing or becaise pf growing up a generation later than the popularity of the word.  I found the explanation at Wordorigins:
Spic is a derogatory and offensive name for a Latin American or Hispanic person. The term arose out of the US acquisition and occupation of Puerto Rico following the 1898 Spanish-American War. It is probably a clipping of an older, now largely obsolete term, spiggoty, which was applied to immigrants from Central and South America because they did not spikka da English. 

The form spiggoty and an explanation for the term’s origin appears in the New York Times of 20 May 1900:
The American designation of the native is Spiggoty, accented on the first syllable. Its origin is indefinite, but it may have come from the native ambition to speak English and to inform all comers of that desire. The native tongue, accustomed to soft letters, struggles hard with the k in “speak,” and makes it sound like g cut off short. English is Ingles. When “speak English” encounters a Porto Ricon, the result may be not unlike “spiggely,” which some Anglo-Saxon mind roughened into “spiggoty.” Whatever the origin, one hears everywhere of spiggoty people, spiggoty money, and all else spiggoty. Everybody uses the term, the natives having almost accepted it as a proper designation. If into some official document sent to Washington it should slip, the public may know that it has come to stay, and that a fresh coin has enriched the language.
Despite what the Times said, it’s hard to believe that Puerto Ricans accepted the term graciously. When you’re under military occupation, you pretend to like what the occupiers call you.
I had heard the term "spic" in books and movies, but never the original "spiggoty."  And it's interesting that Nero Wolfe/Rex Stout would not apply the term to an Argentinian, as Archie does. [regarding this, see also the comment by Snowshine and my reply about "spic" also being used to refer to Italians]

One other interesting tidbit from the book:
"I took my time at breakfast, and told Fritz to keep the bolt on while I was bgone, and then with a light raincoat and a rubber hat went whistling along on my way to the garage."
Maybe in the 1930s the dominant plastics were inflexible ones like bakelite.  Don't know.  Too busy to look this up.

Ten kilometer sled ride in Switzerland

Not for me at my age, thank you, because of the apparently small margin for error if an animal emerged from the woods or a tree branch fell.  It may also be speeded up slightly because 10km in 3+ minutes would be about 170 km/hr (106 mph).  But it looks like fun for adrenaline junkies with good health care coverage.

Common features of fascism

Excerpted from an article at Open Culture:
Can we use words like “fascism,” for example, with fidelity to the meaning of that word in world history? The term, after all, devolved decades after World War II into the trite expression fascist pig, writes Umberto Eco in his 1995 essay “Ur-Fascism,” “used by American radicals thirty years later to refer to a cop who did not approve of their smoking habits.” ...

"Contrary to common opinion, fascism in Italy had no special philosophy.” It did, however, have style, “a way of dressing—far more influential, with its black shirts, than Armani, Benetton, or Versace would ever be.” The dark humor of the comment indicates a critical consensus about fascism. As a form of extreme nationalism, it ultimately takes on the contours of whatever national culture produces it...

While Eco is firm in claiming “There was only one Nazism,” he says, “the fascist game can be played in many forms, and the name of the game does not change.” Eco reduces the qualities of what he calls “Ur-Fascism, or Eternal Fascism” down to 14 “typical” features. “These features,” writes the novelist and semiotician, “cannot be organized into a system; many of them contradict each other, and are also typical of other kinds of despotism or fanaticism. But it is enough that one of them be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it.”
1. The cult of tradition. “One has only to look at the syllabus of every fascist movement to find the major traditionalist thinkers. The Nazi gnosis was nourished by traditionalist, syncretistic, occult elements.”

2. The rejection of modernism. “The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, is seen as the beginning of modern depravity. In this sense Ur-Fascism can be defined as irrationalism.”

3. The cult of action for action’s sake. “Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection. Thinking is a form of emasculation.”

4. Disagreement is treason. “The critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernism. In modern culture the scientific community praises disagreement as a way to improve knowledge.”

5. Fear of difference. “The first appeal of a fascist or prematurely fascist movement is an appeal against the intruders. Thus Ur-Fascism is racist by definition.”

6. Appeal to social frustration. “One of the most typical features of the historical fascism was the appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups.”

7. The obsession with a plot. “The followers must feel besieged. The easiest way to solve the plot is the appeal to xenophobia.”

8. The humiliation by the wealth and force of their enemies. “By a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak.”

9. Pacifism is trafficking with the enemy. “For Ur-Fascism there is no struggle for life but, rather, life is lived for struggle.”

10. Contempt for the weak. “Elitism is a typical aspect of any reactionary ideology.”

11. Everybody is educated to become a hero. “In Ur-Fascist ideology, heroism is the norm. This cult of heroism is strictly linked with the cult of death.”

12. Machismo and weaponry. “Machismo implies both disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits, from chastity to homosexuality.”

13. Selective populism. “There is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People.”

14. Ur-Fascism speaks Newspeak. “All the Nazi or Fascist schoolbooks made use of an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning.”
More info at the links (as always).  Photo via.

"Dead ant, dead ant, dead ant, dead ant..."

Explanation and informed commentary at the Mildlyinteresting subreddit.

The title quote comes from the Pink Panther theme song (a very old joke).  I have waited since forever to use it.

"Life's tough all 'round" - updated

One Lehman executive in Rye Brook, fretting about paying off a Hamptons summer house and a ski chalet in Vermont, panicked on Monday morning and laid off her nanny, who had been with the Westchester family for nine years... "They’re cutting some of the children’s activities out, dance class, acting class. Are they going to have flowers delivered every day to their homes? I don’t think so!”
Reposted from 2008 (!) to add this recent info:
"The top 15 hedge fund managers made $13 billion last year, the lowest since 2019." 

The pollution cloud over Palestine, Ohio - updated

Photo taken by a passenger in a commercial airliner, posted at the Damnthatsinteresting subreddit.

Sadly, this event will probably be on the back pages or ignored completely by the next time Ohio residents go to the polls to decide whether to re-elect the same state officials.

Addendum:  I took note of the comment by a reader that the photo was unverified, so today I searched for others and found this one -

and this photo taken from a plane flying underneath the cloud cover -

Not "proof" of the first one's legitimacy technically, but good enough for me.  

And in response to the query "So is this a political issue?" my answer would be "absolutely" - this is what politics is about - choosing people to manage public affairs for us.  Please note I did not blame Republicans.  My wrath was directed against "state officials" (and local and federal I suppose) whose decisions allowed this to happen.  Anon's info in the comments suggests this is a bipartisan fuckup.

15 February 2023


An Astronomy Photo of the Day from 2016, explained as follows:
Why would the sky look like a giant fan? Airglow. The featured intermittent green glow appeared to rise from a lake through the arch of our Milky Way Galaxy, as captured last summer next to Bryce Canyon in Utah, USA. The unusual pattern was created by atmospheric gravity waves, ripples of alternating air pressure that can grow with height as the air thins, in this case about 90 kilometers up. Unlike auroras powered by collisions with energetic charged particles and seen at high latitudes, airglow is due to chemiluminescence, the production of light in a chemical reaction. More typically seen near the horizon, airglow keeps the night sky from ever being completely dark. 
Relevant sublinks at APOD.

Reposted from 2017 to add this image from 2022...

... and especially this one from today -

- which includes the Milky Way, Mars, the Orion nebula, the Andromeda galaxy, and a French chateau.  Details and a boatload of links at APOD.

I shouldn't need to remind you to click to supersize.

Babysitters now charge $20-25 per hour

Parents are struggling to find sitters amid a shortage of workers since the start of the pandemic, and those that are available have jacked up their prices. On child-care website UrbanSitter, the sitters are charging 11% more than in 2021, averaging $20.57 an hour for one child, and $23.25 for two children. The two-child hourly rate is more like $24 to $27 in New York and San Francisco, according to Chief Executive Officer Lynn Perkins. The worker shortage is particularly acute for part-time gigs, she said.

“There’s just no one available,”  Perkins said. “It’s crazy. We're talking about unprecedented numbers.” Perkins herself recently struggled to hire a $30-per-hour afternoon sitter for one child.  
More at a Bloomberg story about comedians choosing to babysit as a side gig.
To comedians, lucrative child-care gigs are more attractive than restaurant work, which can be an inflexible grind, and conveniently require no certification beyond child CPR and first aid training. And the hours fit nicely with their nocturnal regular jobs... Parents concur, thrilled to find educated, intelligent, personable caretakers interested in gig work.

 “Kids are inherently hilarious. They provide a different perspective, which is always good for comedic material.”..

The kids, for their part, have some skills that help the comedians, too. Mabson finds that her kid gigs often help her cope with the professional rejection inherent in stand up. “I’ll feel down after a crappy audition, and a cute little human is like, ‘You’re the BEST EVER!’ And I’m like, ‘Maybe I am great.’”

Drone footage of Iceland

"Locations include Fagradalsfjall volcano, Svinafellsjokull glacier, Hengifoss waterfall, Mulagljufur canyon, Vestmannaeyjar, Seydisfjordur,  Haifoss waterfall, Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon, Hvitserkur, Vik, Sólheimajökull glacier, and Selfoss waterfall."
This is another video that shows what the fullscreen icon in the corner is for.  Posted for distant relative Ben, and Brita and the children to bring back pleasant memories.  

How humans first populated Sahul

Between 75,000 and 50,000 years ago, humans began to make their way across the megacontinent of Sahul, a landmass that connected what is now Australia, Tasmania, New Guinea, and the Aru Islands.

New research reveals more about the routes used by these early humans and the length of time it took for them to fully explore the extremities of Sahul. It could have taken up to 10,000 years for the vast area to be completely covered by these intrepid humans, which is twice as long as previously thought.

To refine their estimates, researchers developed a new, more sophisticated model that factored in influences on travel, like the land's ability to provide food, water source distribution, and the landscape's topography.
More information at Science Alert.

An Australian award for STEM innovation

The image is several years old, but today was the first time I've encountered it.  The design was intended to portray two hands peeling away the layers of the Earth.

Image cropped for size from the original at The Poke, via a repost at the CrappyDesign subreddit.

A cytology Valentine's Day greeting

For all the cytotechs and cytologists out there...  From the Heart-Shaped Pathology Twitter thread.  Reposted for 2023.

13 February 2023

Every picture tells a story

The man was called Mesut Hançer and the hand he was holding was that of his 15-year-old daughter, Irmak, who had been killed in her bed when the quake brought the building down...

“‘Take a photo of my child,’ he called out. Then he let go of the hand he was holding and showed me his child. I saw a person’s head under the rubble. I asked his name. ‘Mesut Hançer,’ he said. Then I asked his child’s name. He was a little far away, and I had trouble understanding. He said his daughter’s name was Irmak.”
I hope the father's request that the photo be taken by a photojournalist is a reflection of the public's anger in Turkiye about the longstanding history of shoddy construction resulting from corruption of public officials.  I hope that anger goes above the corporate level to include higher levels of government.

Click to supersize the heart-wrenching image.

Addendum: Videos show Turkey's Erdogan boasted letting builders avoid earthquake costs.  Similar to the report that the train that spilled vinyl chloride in Ohio was classified as nonhazardous to save Norfolk Southern money and regulatory inconveniences.

Caption contest

A model on the catwalk duringa charity fashion show at St Andrews University.  Posted because of this quote:

Awkward product placement

Accidental, and it has been removed.  Brief story at Business Insider.

Vehicle touchscreens are getting bigger

Note that in the photo above, "The Hummer EV has a 13.4-inch display in the center of the cockpit and another 12.3-inch pane in front of the driver."
Fast forward a decade and touch screens are no longer a reluctant add-on or an innovative auto perk; they’re table stakes. Some 97% of new cars globally have at least one touch screen, and they are metastasizing quickly. Almost a quarter of US cars and trucks now have command displays spanning 11 inches or more, according to S&P Global Mobility; luxury brands are now normalizing a separate screen for passengers. And nowhere is this arms race more evident than in electric vehicles. As battery-powered motors commodify driving — giving sports car-level superpower to giant pickups and tiny hatchbacks alike — the center-stack display offers the biggest, brightest space to stand out. The only question is, at what cost?

S&P analyst Anna Buettner says the future of car cockpits is most evident in China, where Byton, a startup, has essentially built a 48-inch wide computer on top of the dashboard. “They have all kinds of stuff we’re not seeing here yet — rotatable screens, pillar-to-pillar screens across the whole car,” Buettner says. “All of that is definitely coming.”  The Han, an electric sedan made by Shenzhen-based BYD, even comes with a microphone for karaoke. Forget the destination; focus on the Journey. 

The costs/risks are discussed at length at Bloomberg.  If all drivers were as intelligent, skilled, courteous, and sensible as you and me, then there would be no problem.  But...

Literally nobody takes "literally" literally

I looked up this controversy in some online dictionaries, where the consensus was that "literally" is conventionally used as an intensifier.  The implication is that anyone who responds as rat does in the cartoon above is being churlish.

Just for fun, and to confirm that this is a modern deviation from the norm, I pulled my compact OED from the shelf and was surprised to find the following:
"Now often improperly used to indicate that some conventional or hyperbolical phrase is to be taken in the strongest admissible sense."
The OED cites a quote from 1863: "For the last four years... I literally coined money."

See also: Literally

Addendum:  Just found this quote from 1813 (older than the OED one):
"The air," Audubon wrote later, "was literally filled with Pigeons; the light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse."
He made that observation with regard to the now-legendary passenger pigeons.  "When he visited their roost, the dung lay almost two inches deep for miles."  (citations from this book)
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