29 November 2023


Image from a Reddit post, where the discussion comments are trivial.  Here's more information from Wikipedia:
A demonym (/ˈdɛmənɪm/; from Ancient Greek δῆμος (dêmos) 'people, tribe', and ὄνυμα (ónuma) 'name') or gentilic (from Latin gentilis 'of a clan, or gens') is a word that identifies a group of people (inhabitants, residents, natives) in relation to a particular place. Demonyms are usually derived from the name of the place (hamlet, village, town, city, region, province, state, country, and continent). Demonyms are used to designate all people (the general population) of a particular place, regardless of ethnic, linguistic, religious or other cultural differences that may exist within the population of that place...

...demonyms are semantically different from ethnonyms (names of ethnic groups). In the English language, there are many polysemic words that have several meanings (including demonymic and ethnonymic uses), and therefore a particular use of any such word depends on the context. For example, the word Thai may be used as a demonym, designating any inhabitant of Thailand, while the same word may also be used as an ethnonym, designating members of the Thai people... 
Often, demonyms are the same as the adjectival form of the place, e.g. Egyptian, Japanese, or Greek. However, they are not necessarily the same, as exemplified by Spanish instead of Spaniard or British instead of Briton...

Several linguistic elements are used to create demonyms in the English language. The most common is to add a suffix to the end of the location name, slightly modified in some instances. These may resemble Late Latin, Semitic, Celtic, or Germanic suffixes, such as -(a)n, -ian, -anian, -nian, -in(e), -a(ñ/n)o/a, -e(ñ/n)o/a, -i(ñ/n)o/a, -ite, -(e)r, -(i)sh, -ene, -ensian, -ard, -ese, -nese, -lese, -i(e), -i(ya), -iot, -iote, -k, -asque, -(we)gian, -onian, -vian, -ois(e), or -ais(e).

Shakuntala Devi is a mathematics savant

This video mashup is quite old and of marginal quality, but it demonstrates her capabilities.  Wikipedia has some examples{
Examples of the problems presented to Devi included calculating the cube root of 61,629,875 and the seventh root of 170,859,375. Jensen reported that Devi provided the solution to the above-mentioned problems (395 and 15, respectively) before Jensen could copy them down in his notebook. Jensen published his findings in the academic journal Intelligence in 1990.

In 1977, at Southern Methodist University, she gave the 23rd root of a 201-digit number in 50 seconds. Her answer, which was 546,372,891, was confirmed by calculations done at the US Bureau of Standards by the UNIVAC 1101 computer, for which a special program had to be written to perform such a large calculation, which took a longer time than for her to do the same.

On 18 June 1980, she demonstrated the multiplication of two 13-digit numbers – 7,686,369,774,870 × 2,465,099,745,779. These numbers were picked at random by the Department of Computing at Imperial College London. She correctly answered 18,947,668,177,995,426,462,773,730 in 28 seconds. 
Apparently there is a movie about her life story.

LFBOTs (Luminous Fast Blue Optical Transients)

LFBOTs (Luminous Fast Blue Optical Transients)... erupt with blue light, radio, X-ray, and optical emissions, making them some of the brightest explosions ever seen in space, as luminous as supernovae. It is no exaggeration that they give off more energy than hundreds of billions of stars like our own. They also tend to live fast, blazing for only minutes before they burn themselves out and fade into darkness.

LFBOTs are quite rare, and in many cases their sources are unidentified. But we’ve never seen anything with the intensity of an LFBOT named AT2022tsd—aka the “Tasmanian Devil.” Its strange behavior was caught by 15 telescopes and observatories, including the W.M. Keck Observatory and NASA’s Chandra Space Telescope. Like other phenomena of its kind, it initially emitted incredible amounts of energy and then dimmed. Unlike any other LFBOT observed before, however, this one seemed to come back from the dead. It flared again—and again and again.

The most common extragalactic transient luminous events, meaning flashes of light that evolve and vanish rapidly, are supernovae. The lifespan of their initial explosion is typically mere weeks. The “Tasmanian Devil” not only evolved faster than a supernova, but 14 individual flares were observed, lighting up over a stretch of several months, or about a hundred days...
The analysis continues at Ars Technica.

Watching this makes me want to grow a pine tree

Mailmen told to give priority to Amazon packages

Amazon delivers to your door in urban areas, but in rural areas Amazon relies on the U.S. Postal Service for that "last mile" of delivery.  As reported by the StarTribune:
Since early November, Bemidji has been bombarded by a sudden onslaught of Amazon packages - and local postal workers say they have been ordered to deliver those packages first.

The result has been chaos at the Bemidji post office. Mail is getting backed up, sometimes for days, leaving local residents waiting for checks, credit card statements, health insurance documents and tax rebates. Routes meant to take eight or nine hours are stretching to 10 or 12. At least five carriers have quit, and the post office has banned scheduled sick days for the rest of the year, carriers say... Carriers and local officials say mail service has been disrupted in rural communities from Portland, Maine, to Washington state's San Juan Islands...

In Bemidji, postal workers said they had been told that Amazon was coming to town for years. It finally happened one morning in early November, when the post office was flooded with thousands of Amazon boxes and carriers said they were told they all had to be delivered by the end of the day.

Carriers who previously had delivered dozens of small parcels a day plus paper mail suddenly had to deliver between 300 and 500 boxes that they said had previously been handled by UPS...

For all the extra work, mail carriers weren't making much more money. Rural mail carriers are paid only for the amount of time the post office estimates it will take them to finish their jobs. And in Bemidji, the routes had been reevaluated in October, just before Amazon changed everything.
There are a lot of people in the business world who want the USPS to fail and have it restructured as a private business, because there is a lot of potential profit to be derived from it.

25 November 2023


Who gets offended by products such as these?  Or perhaps "who pretends to be offended in order to stoke controversy for their viewership base?"

New design for a coathanger

Kudos to this young woman for coming up with an interesting invention.  Her "Coat Hinger" is carefully designed to serve a niche market, and her presentation of the product is very professionally done.  Worth viewing, IMHO.  Details at her Kickstarter page.

Green "nightglow" in the skies of Mars caused by oxygen (!!)

The embedded image is of earth's nightglow, but the same process occurs on Mars, for rather unexpected reasons.
The international scientific team was intrigued by a previous discovery made using Mars Express, which observed the nightglow in infrared wavelengths a decade ago. The Trace Gas Orbiter followed up by detecting glowing green oxygen atoms high above the dayside of Mars in 2020 – the first time that this dayglow emission was seen around a planet other than Earth...

Under clear skies, the glow could be bright enough for humans to see by and for rovers to navigate in the dark nights. Nightglow is also observed on Earth. On Mars, it was something expected, yet never observed in visible light until now...

The atmospheric nightglow occurs when two oxygen atoms combine to form an oxygen molecule, about 50 km (~30 miles) above the planetary surface.

The oxygen atoms have been on a journey: they form on Mars’s dayside when sunlight gives energy to carbon dioxide molecules, making them split apart. When the oxygen atoms migrate to the night side and stop being excited by the Sun, they regroup and emit light at lower altitudes.

Oxygen on Mars.  You learn something every day.   

Stellar sea lion trapped by plastic debris

"The endangered mammal got tied up to the Nevelsk breakwater like a chained dog... To make the situation harder, there was a short cord tying the seal to the concrete slabs of the breakwater and leaving it no way to escape by itself..."
Some details about the complicated rescue at the always-interesting Siberian Times.

Upstairs neighbors

Man shoots and kills people to protest lax gun laws

"A man who killed five people and injured eight at a Louisville bank in April was motivated by outrage over gun laws he considered lax, and a hope that his rampage would highlight the ease with which he acquired an AR-15 and spur politicians into action on the issue, according to the shooter’s personal writings revealed in a police report Tuesday."
More information at the Washington Post.

21 November 2023

Swastikas on Canadian postage stamps

The symbol is used as an ornament in the corners of the Newfoundland stamp; on the two Air Post semi-officials (for use on private airlines), the symbol is part of the background color:

Derived from Sanskrit, the ancient and sacred language of Hindus in India, svastika means "conducive to well-being" and for thousands of years has been used as a good luck symbol in many cultures all over the world.  Many Indian nations in South, Central, and North America favoured this symbol, and several early 20th century companies featured it on their products. In Canada, some hockey teams, the symbol emblazoned on their jerseys, were called "The Swastikas." In northern Ontario, the residents of the small community of Swastika resisted pressure to change the name of their town during the Second World War, contrary to what took place in 1916 when the residents of Berlin, Ontario voted to change the name of their city to Kitchener.

It should not be surprising, therefore, that this symbol has appeared on a few Canadian postage stamps. The stamps in question are known as Air Post Semi-official issues. In the period 1924 - 1932 several private commercial airlines produced stamps to prepay the mail that they carried to areas that were inaccessible by other means. These companies operated under the strict regulations of the Post Office, and their stamps had to be affixed to the back of covers.
All of these stamps are relatively uncommon nowadays, cataloguing several hundred dollars each.

See also the adjacent post All swastikas are not created equal.

All swastikas are not created equal - updated

The image above ("Deep in prayer at the Chamundeshwari Temple, Mysore, India"), by
Steph Peatfield of Londo, is an entry in the Telegraph's Big Picture travel photography competition.  When I saw the photo, I was reminded of this photograph of actress Clara Bow -

- that I blogged three years ago (discussed here), and this one from 2010 of a folk quilt in a Colorado museum:

(read the details here), and finally this Halloween outfit from 1918:

The word swastika is derived from the Sanskrit word "svastika", meaning any lucky or auspicious object, and in particular a mark made on persons and things to denote good luck. It is composed of su- meaning "good, well" and asti "to be" svasti thus means "well-being." The suffix -ka either forms a diminutive or intensifies the verbal meaning, and svastika might thus be translated literally as "that which is associated with well-being," corresponding to "lucky charm" or "thing that is auspicious." The word in this sense is first used in the Harivamsa. As noted by Monier-Williams in his Sanskrit-English dictionary, according to Alexander Cunningham, its shape represents a monogram formed by interlacing of the letters of the auspicious words su-astí (svasti) written in Ashokan characters.
Lots more info at the Wikipedia entry linked above.

Addendum:  Reader adeus notes that the swastika is in current usage by some units of the Finnish Air Force:

Addendum #2:  Updated to add this photo of a Canadian women's hockey team.

The Fernie Swastikas were a women's hockey team that was formed in 1922 in Fernie, British Columbia. Their uniform used as a symbol the swastika, which before World War II was a common religious symbol, and especially a sun sign. In 1923, the Swastikas won the Alpine Cup at the Banff Winter Carnival women's ice hockey championship. There were two other teams called the Swastikas, one in Edmonton, Alberta, and another the Windsor Swastikas of Windsor, Nova Scotia.

And I've just discovered there is a detailed article on the Western use of the swastika in Wikipedia.  Those interested can find many more examples there, including this wedding dress from 1910:

Addendum #3:  Reposted from 2016 to add this photo of an ancient seal-

"Bar shaped seal showing a man standing in front of a tiger on one side and five swastika on another with pictograms on both sides, 3000 BCE, Terracotta, Harappa, Indus valley civilization. At National Museum, New Delhi, India."
Found at the delightful Artefact Porn subreddit.

Reposted from 2020 to accompany a new adjacent post.

A train trip across the United States - updated

This video is quite well done.  If you enjoy it, you might try a companion Vox piece about How RVs get their swoops.

Reposted from several months ago to add some counterpoint:
The fact is that there is no good way to travel in America. Driving is dangerous, renting a car is a nightmare, and I don’t need to tell you about airplanes. Amtrak isn’t ideal, but it’s nonideal in a unique way. The trains don’t go to enough places; they don’t go often enough; they take too long; they can be more expensive than the faster alternatives. And then sometimes there’s something on the tracks...

In 2019, during a snowstorm, an Amtrak train was stuck for some 36 hours in the mountains of Oregon because of a fallen tree. Earlier this year, on an Amtrak train from Northern Virginia to Sanford, Florida, passengers repeatedly called the police during the train’s 20-hour delay. “For those of you that are calling the police,” the conductor had to announce, “we are not holding you hostage.”

Amethyst - updated

Via.  I would appreciate any information about the provenance of this amazing image.

Reposted from 2017 to add this photo of another specimen (via):

Reposted from 2021 to insert this amazing video, sent to me by reader Lyle:

Aquamarine crystals, native silver wire, and amethyst stalactites

This is a lovely specimen, displaying vertical and horizontal Aquamarine crystals - both of which are gemmy blue and perfectly terminated. The top portion of the vertical Aqua is like clear blue glass it is so gemmy. Several smaller crystals are also present and all sit atop a matrix of Abite... From the Erongo Mountain, Erongo Region, Namibia.  3.2 cm by 7 cm by 3.3 cm. 
This is an amazing and quite thick wire of Native Silver curling atop white Quartz matrix. Silver Islet is a prized locale for collectors and one that is now under water and inaccessible. The mine itself was actually located on an islet in Lake Superior and as one would expect, eventually the water rose higher and flooded the shaft. Authetic Silvers from the Silver Islet Mine date back to as early as 1868 when ore was first discovered by Thomas MacFarlane to as late as 1884 when the mine was finally closed after yielding over $3 million in Silver. The above specimen displays a beautiful antique patina, which is indicative of its age, over strong luster. From the Silver Islet Mine, Silver Islet, Sibley Township, Thunder Bay District, Ontario, Canada.  4 cm by 3 cm by 2.5 cm.
This is definately not a common thing to fnd. I can't recall seeing another specimen that featured three stalactites of nearly the same size rising up from a single matrix. The middle Amethyst finger rises 7 cm and the others are close to the same. The surfaces of the specimen are very glassy and reflective with a great deal of light play and sparkle. There is no damage or contacts to speak of and the stalactites are all in excellent condition. Very well trimmed also. From the Santino Quarry, Artigas, Uruguay.  10.4 cm by 16.3 cm by 11.5 cm. 
Three more jaw-dropping specimens from The Tucson 2013 Showrooms.  Many more at the link.

Reposted from 2013 to accompany an adjacent new post.

Corn smut as a culinary delicacy

A traditional food for millennia, and reflexly despised by American farmers, the fungus is now marketed in restaurants as "Mexican truffles."  Details in the video.

"Fargo" (season 5)

The official trailer is embedded above, and here is an extended "preview" that might include some spoilers re plot development (trigger warning for graphic mayhem):

I thought Juno Temple was superb in the Ted Lasso series.  Interesting to see her cast as a housewife-turned-ninja-warrior.  

I expect to thoroughly enjoy this ten-part series.  The first two parts premier tonight on the FX channel, which is included in many cable packages, and Fargo streams on Hulu.  DVDs not in libraries yet.  

Addendum:  The downside of watching the current series on the FX channel is the superabundance of ads.   I tried to watch "live" on opening night, but after the first ten minutes of program, there was a series of ads... twelve in a row taking four minutes.  Then after 7.5 minutes of program, there was another 4 minutes of ads, and this sequence repeated until I finally gave up.  The DVR was recording, so I watched both opening episodes the following night, fast-forwarding through the commercial breaks.  Life is too short to spend time watching Flo sell Progressive life insurance.  

20 November 2023

"My mama slaps me harder than that"

Trailer for the television series "Gaslit," coming to Starz in April:
The series is about the Watergate scandal and focuses on several untold stories, including Richard Nixon's subordinates, deranged zealots, and the whistleblowers who would eventually bring the whole enterprise crashing down. The story will center on Martha Mitchell, a celebrity Arkansan socialite and wife to Nixon’s loyal Attorney General, John N. Mitchell. Despite her party affiliation, she is the first person to publicly sound the alarm on Nixon's involvement in Watergate, causing both the presidency and her personal life to unravel. As attorney general, Mitchell is forced to choose between Martha and the president.
Looks interesting.

Reposted after waiting eight months to get the boxed set of DVDs (eight episodes) from our library.  Totally worth the wait.  This was one of the four best movies I've watched all year.  Julia Roberts and Sean Penn are absolutely superb in their roles.  The script is concise to cover a huge range of material.  I learned lots of things I didn't appreciate when the Watergate events were unfolding.

15 November 2023

Not safe for work

Via Kottke.

Creeping theocracy

The second-in-line to the presidency informed Americans on Tuesday that their time-honored conception of one of the founding principles of the country was a “misunderstanding”. Speaking to CNBC’s Squawk Box, he tried to turn the conventional wisdom about the founders’ intentions on its head and claimed what they really wanted was to stop government interfering with religion, not the other way around.

“The separation of church and state is a misnomer,” the speaker said in an interview with the TV channel from the US Capitol. “People misunderstand it. Of course, it comes from a phrase that was in a letter that Jefferson wrote. It’s not in the constitution.”

Johnson was referring to Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists Association of Connecticut, written in 1802 when the third president was in the White House. It makes clear that the founding fathers subscribed to a powerful separation of church and state, which they enshrined in the establishment clause of the first amendment.
Thomas Jefferson was not a Christian; he was a "deist," believing in the existence of a God, but not in the divinity of Jesus Christ.  Jefferson created his own multilingual bible, editing out the miracles from the Gospels (available from your local library if you are curioius).  

Society without God

I don't remember where it was I ran across a review of this book (probably Harper's or The Atlantic), but it sounded interesting. Now that I've read it, I have to say that I was not at all disappointed; it is very thought-provoking and a worthwhile read.

The book is Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment, by Phil Zuckerman (New York University Press, New York and London, 2008.) The author lived in Scandinavia (mostly in Denmark) in 2005-2006 and while there conducted tape-recorded interviews with hundreds of people, asking them about their religious beliefs (or, more commonly, the absence of such).

Here's the premise of his book:
“First of all, I argue that society without God is not only possible, but can be quite civil and pleasant. This admittedly polemical aspect of my book is aimed primarily at countering the claims of certain outspoken, conservative Christians who regularly argue that a society without God would be hell on earth: rampant with immorality, full of evil, and teeming with depravity. Well, it isn’t. Denmark and Sweden are remarkably strong, safe, healthy, moral, and prosperous societies…”
He's careful not to extol the absence of religious belief as preferable for a society, while arguing strongly that when religious belief (or dogma) is absent, society can crank along just fine. Herewith some excerpts and some of my notes from the book -

p. 6 - “…their overall rates of violent crime – such as murder, aggravated assault, and rape – are among the lowest on earth. Yet the majority of Danes and Swedes do not believe that God is “up there,” keeping diligent tabs on their behavior… In fact, most Danes and Swedes don’t even believe in the very notion of “sin.” Almost nobody in Denmark and Sweden believes that the Bible is divine in origin. And the rate of weekly church attendance in these Nordic nations is the lowest on earth…”

p. 8 – religion hasn’t disappeared from Danish or Swedish culture altogether… the majority are still tax-paying members of their respective national churches, prefer to get married in church, and baptize their children. But overwhelmingly they participate in these Christian rituals out of a sense of cultural tradition. They pay about 1% of their annual income in taxes to support their national church because “that’s what one does.” One pastor asked couples he was marrying why they chose to get married in church. Out of 200, only 10 mentioned God – the rest said they were just following a tradition “with a white dress in this old church.”

p. 10 – Most Danes strongly believe in reason – 82% accept Darwin’s theory of human evolution (one of the highest proportions in the world).

p. 10 – "When they say they are “Christian” they are just referring to a cultural heritage and history. When asked what it means to be Christian, they said 'being kind to others, taking care of the poor and sick, and being a good and moral person.' They almost never mentioned God, Jesus, or the Bible in their explanation of Christian identity. When I specifically asked these Nordic Christians if they believed that Jesus was the Son of God or the Messiah, they nearly always said no – usually without hesitation. Did they believe that Jesus was born of a virgin or that he rose from the grave? Such queries were usually met with genuine laughter – as through the mere asking was rather silly.”

p. 104 – Most people express “benign indifference” to religion, think church buildings are nice, services at Christmas are lovely and pastors are decent and thoughtful men. Religion to them (Lutheranism) is harmless and innocuous and it helps some of their fellow men. And Jesus must have been a nice guy, and the Bible has good stories and admirable ethics. They are not anti-religion, as some outspoken atheists in the U.S. are.

p. 110 – Notes the decline of religion in many western countries. 100 years ago 100% of Dutch belonged to a church, now only 40%. France baptism rates have fallen from 91% to 51% 1958-1990. Several possible reasons why –
a) in some countries (Denmark), one church has monopoly, so no competition, no proselytizing, no effort to attract new members.
b) when people feel secure, they have less need for religion. Danes have food, jobs, housing. Poverty has been essentially eradicated, life expectancies are high, medical care excellent, crime limited.
c) working women have less time for religion
d) lack of need for cultural defense. During conflict people often rally around a church as around a flag (cf Irish Catholics and Protestants). Might change as Muslims immigrate.
e) education levels are typically high in countries where religion is less important. In the U.S. belief in resurrection of Jesus, Virgin Birth, existence of Hell correlates inversely with college education. Denmark and Sweden have 99% literacy rates for adults.

p. 160 – re baptism. “ “For most parents… the religious aspect is of minor importance, and the church ceremony is just part of the ritual. They use the christening ceremony as an excuse to have a party to introduce their baby to their relatives and friends.” The undeniable fact is, almost everyone who witnesses, enjoys, and engages in the baptizing of babies in Denmark and Sweden doesn’t actually believe in the literal existence of sin or the devil, the deliverance from death, or eternal salvation as promised by God. I doubt if even most Danish and Swedish pastors truly believe it.”

p. 170 – Compared to Denmark, the U.S. has much more immigration and more varied ethnic groups who take refuge in religion as a mark of their identity. Also the church is separated from the state (in Denmark and Sweden church is supported by state and by taxes). “Whether the framers of the Constitution intended it or not, the First Amendment has actually played a significant role in helping to keep religion alive and well in this country” (by preventing a monopoly). U.S. has religious pluralism to an extreme degree unlike anywhere else on the planet. Religion in U.S. aggressively marketed. Also Americans much less secure – has highest poverty rates of all developed democracies.

This was not a truly “scientific” study, and the number of interviews cannot guarantee that a true cross-section was interviewed, or that observer bias by the author didn’t influence the responses or the interpretation. But it’s not meant to be hard science. It’s an observational study, a compilation of anecdotal observations, by someone who has thought long and hard about the subject. I find his hypotheses and conclusions to be quite logical, but of course my own biases may be at work there. The book will not change the opinions of those who feel strongly that religion is important and crucial to a society, but it should at least provide some food for thought. It is well written and easy to read; if you're in a hurry, just skip the prolonged transcriptions of the interviews and jump to the conclusions of the chapters, and you should be able to finish it in an evening or two.

Reposted from way back in 2009 to accompany an adjacent post.

14 November 2023

The Milky Way over Monument Valley

A recent Astronomy Photo of the Day from NASA.  Click image to view in larger format.

Reposted from 2012 (!) to add this photo of the Andromeda galaxy above the Swiss Alps:

I realize now that the original title is a bit inaccurate, in that the Milky Way comprises way way more than just that luminous streak seen in the top photo (which is I think just the central disk(?) of the Milky Way galaxy.  In fact every single star we can see from earth with the human eye is part of the Milky Way.  And the Andromeda galaxy in the second photo is the only celestial object outside the Milky Way that we can see from earth.  The Hubble and JWST show how infinitely much more there is out there.

Family reunion, 1976

The families of six Finseth siblings who grew up on a Norwegian family farm in southern Minnesota in the 1920s gathered in Eau Claire, Wisconsin in 1976 for a memorable reunion.  Many thanks to cousin Karl, now in Barcelona, who found his father's 8mm home movie and this year managed to get the film transferred to a digital format, which he shared, and from which I made the screencaps above.  After the human pyramid collapsed, the older generation gathered for this group photo.

Posted for the participants in that backyard pyramid, who this Thanksgiving are now scattered from Oregon to Florida and from to Barcelona to Peru.

Browning butter

A suggestion for improving the mashed potatoes on Thanksgiving dinner:
"As butter heats in a saucepan, its water content begins to evaporate, resulting in a vigorous boil. After about five or so minutes of bubbling, a hush falls. The liquid becomes more viscous, and the bubbles turn to foam. The milk solids underneath start to caramelize and turn chestnut brown. Be mindful, for butter can go from brown to burned very quickly. As soon as brown flecks rise to the surface, remove it from the heat and stir well, taking care to scrape the “fond” — the bits stuck on the bottom of the pan."
Suggestion and image from The New York Times.

11 November 2023

A tribute (perhaps) - revised

At Camp Cody, New Mexico six hundred fifty soldiers stood in formation to honor the eight million horses who died in the First World War.  

The sentence above is the standard description of the photo, found in various places on the internet.  A tip of my blogging cap to reader Bicycle Rider, who tracked down the source material and the true story.
AFP Fact Check conducted a reverse image search for the photo, which brought up this blog post that identified the photographer as Almeron Newman. A search for his name led to the photo on the Library of Congress website, which says it was taken in 1919 in Deming, New Mexico.

The photo’s caption says: “650 officers and enlisted men of Auxiliary Remount Depot No. 326, Camp Cody, N.M., in a symbolic head pose of ‘The Devil’ saddle horse ridden by Maj. Frank G. Brewer, remount commander.”

It makes no mention of the photo being a tribute to horses killed during World War I, which ended in 1918. It is unclear if the officer or his horse served in the conflict.

“We know of no evidence of the formation being a tribute,” the Library of Congress told AFP via email.
But... it still could be a tribute to horses killed in the war.  Alternatively, 650 soldiers were coerced by their commanding officer to form the shape of the head of his horse.  Those men would be dead by now, but one of their children may know the motivation behind this rather interesting photo.

Image via Nag on the Lake.

10 November 2023

Trillium, elaiosomes, and myrmecochory

During my hikes in the North Woods a couple weeks ago, I wondered how trillium were pollinated, speculating that the role was probably filled by solitary bees rather than wind.  I've subsequently found this:
Trillium grandiflorum has been studied extensively by ecologists due to a number of unique features it possesses. It is a representative example of a plant whose seeds are spread through myrmecochory, or ant-mediated dispersal, which is effective in increasing the plant's ability to outcross, but ineffective in bringing the plant very far...
Fruits are released in the summer, containing about 16 seeds on average. These seeds are most typically dispersed by ants, which is called myrmecochory, but yellow jackets (Vespula vulgaris) and harvestmen (order Opiliones) have both been observed dispersing the seeds at lower frequencies. Insect dispersal is aided by the presence of a conspicuous elaiosome, an oil-rich body attached to the seed, which is high in both lipids and oleic acid. The oleic acid induces corpse-carrying behavior in ants, causing them to bring the seeds to their nesting sites as if they were food. As ants visit several colonies of the plant, they bring genetically variable seeds back to a single location, which after germination results in a new population with relatively high genetic diversity...

Although myrmecochory is by far the most common dispersal method, white-tailed deer have also been shown to disperse the seeds on rare occasions by ingestion and defecation. While ants only move seeds up to about 10 meters, deer have been observed to transport the seeds over 1 kilometer... Thus occasional long distance dispersal events, such as by deer, probably helped save this and other species with otherwise short distance dispersal ability from extinction during the glaciations of the ice ages.
That discussion relates more to seed dispersal than to pollination per se, but I thought it was interesting (and totally new to me).

Bent Trillium photographed by me at Honey Creek State Natural Area (Wisconsin), May 2008.

Reposted from way back in 2013 because this year I finally remembered to go out into our woods in the autumn and harvest some trillium seedpods before the critters got to them first.  I found a handful -

- and opened one of them up with a dissecting scissors.  Here's a closeup showing the elaiosomes surrounding the seeds:

It is impressively fleshy and surprisingly tasty-looking.  I'm going to try planting the seeds from the opened seedpod in a pot in the garage; I understand it takes years to achieve a decent-sized plant.  If I'm successful, I'll post followup photos in years to come.  The rest of the unopened seed pods I returned to the woods, dispersing them myself to various locations where I thought trilliums might thrive.


Living moss, not plastic.  Discussion thread offers insights into maintenance.

Science fiction neologisms

meat puppet: the human body; a physical human being, especially in contrast to virtual reality or artificial intelligence

overmind: a single, nonmaterial consciousness composed of the consciousnesses of a large number of beings

corpsicle: a cryogenically frozen person; someone in cold sleep; (occasionally) a frozen corpse

dirtsider: a person who lives on a planet (in contrast to a person who lives or frequently travels in space)

telempath: a person who has the psionic ability to sense others’ emotions

transhuman: a person who has gained abilities, through genetic engineering or cybernetic augmentation, sufficiently advanced that they are regarded as a different species

posthuman: a descendant of humans who is sufficiently different from present-day humans in form or capability to be regarded as a new species

unperson: a person who, usually for political reasons, is deemed not to have existed and whose name is removed from all public records; a person regarded as less than human
Excerpts from a list in the Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction, an online resource that began as a project of the Oxford English Dictionary, via Harper's.

Undiagnosed colorblindness in schoolchildren

One out of every 12 boys, or people assigned male at birth, are colorblind, and 1 in 200 people assigned female at birth have the condition, too.

Despite this prevalence, only 11 states test for colorblindness during elementary school fall vision screenings. Even ophthalmologists don’t routinely test for it. Including colorblindness screenings in those tests would be a simple move, and one that could make learning easier for thousands of American students.

In a class of 24 students, there is approximately one child who can’t see the pink marker the teacher uses on the whiteboard, who is unable to denote their team’s jerseys in gym, or who wonders why the rest of the science class is marveling over a chemical reaction that doesn’t look any different to him...

Using colors to denote specific information — such as a vivid pie chart, a color-coded map of the United States or a wrong answer marked in red — can cause colorblind students to misunderstand. Teachers and parents can support these pupils by making easy modifications. However, they need to know there’s a vision deficiency in the first place...

When schools in Roanoke County, Va., started colorblindness testing in 2018, they discovered that almost 3 percent of the student population was colorblind. And many children who needed special-education services were colorblind, too. The findings made officials wonder whether the students really needed those services or whether they just had a hard time learning because of their vision deficiency.
It's sad to realize that some of the children I went to school with may have had undiagnosed colorblindness, but were just considered "stupid" by their classmates.  If a child in your family is struggling in school, have them tested or test them yourself.

Parkinson's patient able to ambulate normally after spinal implant

"The first patient to receive a spinal implant to treat advanced Parkinson’s disease has described experiencing “a rebirth” after the treatment allowed him to walk again without falling over.

Marc, 63, from Bordeaux, France, was diagnosed with the degenerative disease more than 20 years ago and had developed severe mobility problems, including balance impairments and freezing of gait. After receiving the implant, which aims to restore normal signalling to the leg muscles from the spine, he has been able to walk more normally and regained his independence.

“I practically could not walk any more without falling frequently, several times a day. In some situations, such as entering a lift, I’d trample on the spot, as though I was frozen there, you might say,” he said. “Right now, I’m not even afraid of the stairs any more. Every Sunday I go to the lake, and I walk around 6 kilometres [3.7 miles]. It’s incredible.” "
Outstanding news reported in The Guardian.  I found this relevant report in Nature.


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

Reposted from 2021 to add this photo of a milk snake (Lampropeltis triangulum) -

- posted by Marcie O'Connor in the monthly journal of her incomparable Prairie Haven blog.  She reports that the snake exhibited constrictor behavior while looped on her fingers.

George Washington - arsonist?

George Washington sought permission from Congress to burn the city of New York.
But Congress refused, which Washington regarded as a grievous error. Happily, he noted, God or “some good honest Fellow” had torched the city anyway, spoiling the redcoats’ valuable war prize.

For more than 15 years, the historian Benjamin L. Carp of Brooklyn College has wondered who that “honest fellow” might have been. Now, in The Great New York Fire of 1776: A Lost Story of the American Revolution, he cogently lays out his findings. Revolutionaries almost certainly set New York aflame intentionally, Carp argues, and they quite possibly acted on instructions. Sifting through the evidence, he asks a disturbing question: Did George Washington order New York to be burned to the ground?..

Popular histories of the American Revolution treat the “glorious cause” as different from other revolutions. Whereas the French, Haitian, Russian, and Chinese revolutions involved mass violence against civilians, this one—the story goes—was fought with restraint and honor.

But a revolution is not a dinner party, as Mao Zedong observed. Alongside the parade-ground battles ran a “grim civil war,” the historian Alan Taylor writes, in which “a plundered farm was a more common experience than a glorious and victorious charge.”..

At the 1775 Battle of Bunker Hill, [the British] burned Charlestown, outside Boston, so thoroughly that “scarcely one stone remaineth upon another,” Abigail Adams wrote. The Royal Navy then set fire to more than 400 buildings in Portland, Maine (known then as Falmouth). On the first day of 1776, it set fires in Norfolk, Virginia; the city burned for three days and lost nearly 900 buildings...

A year later, the Virginia legislature commissioned an investigation, which found that “very few of the houses were destroyed by the enemy”—only 19 in the New Year’s Day fire—whereas the rebels, including Howe, had burned more than 1,000. That investigation’s report went unpublished for six decades, though, and even then, in 1836, it was tucked quietly into the appendix of a legislative journal. Historians didn’t understand who torched Norfolk until the 20th century.
The story, including the role of Indigenous peoples, continues at The Atlantic.

08 November 2023

"Shakespeare Was a Woman and Other Heresies"

Several years ago I offered a recommendation for the best book about the Shakespeare authorship controversy.  Elizabeth Winkler is not the first to suggest that perhaps Shakespeare was a woman or that there were multiple authors of "Shakespearean" works.  What she does do is offer very well-informed presentations of all the candidates, incorporating her own interviews with conventional Stratfordian and modern "heretic" advocates.

The chapters that I found most interesting were the ones presenting the case for Christopher Marlowe as the author of many of the plays.  He had all of the necessary intellectual, educational, and social attributes, and in addition was deeply involved in the administration of Queen Elizabeth's governance.  Many modern scholars believe Marlowe was a spy for her.  The Marlovian theory of Shakespeare authorship notes that his death came after a supposedly drunken brawl which involved two other persons now considered to have been spies for Elizabeth.  The supposedly fatal blow was from being stabbed in the eye by a knife - an injury that might have disguised the actual identity of the body, which was examined not by a public coroner, but by one of Elizabeth's appointees.  After this public "death" (and the pardon of the supposed murderers!), Marlowe is suspected to have then traveled anonymously to the continent, where he could continue his spying under an assumed identity.  Curiously, just 13 days after Marlowe's "death" the first works of "Shakespeare" began appearing.  See the links for more details regarding Marlowe as the author - a suggestion that is repellant to "Stratfordians" and unappealing to "Oxfordians," but which is interesting to ponder.


Honorificabilitudinitatibus is the ablative plural of the medieval Latin word honorificabilitudinitas, which can be translated as "the state of being able to achieve honours". It is mentioned by the character Costard in Act V, Scene I of William Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost.  As it appears only once in Shakespeare's works, it is a hapax legomenon in the Shakespeare canon. It is also the longest word in the English language featuring alternating consonants and vowels.

The earliest use listed in the Oxford English Dictionary is 1599, by Thomas Nashe: "Physitions deafen our eares with the Honorificabilitudinitatibus of their heauenly Panachaea, their soueraign Guiacum." 
Here is the Shakespeare [Oxford] quotation:
"O, they have lived long on the alms-basket of words.
I marvel thy master hath not eaten thee for a word;
for thou art not long by the head as
honorificabilitudinitatibus: thou art easier
swallowed than a flap-dragon."
- Costard, Love's Labour's Lost, Act V, Scene 1

Reposted from 2010.

04 November 2023

Dry fish pond

Quite a striking image.  One of the winning photographs in the 2023 Nature Conservancy Photo Contest, posted in The Atlantic.  Click to embiggen and ponder.

My new trousers were made from plastic bottles

It takes many years to wear out dress clothes enough to justify replacing them, and in that interval things change.  While ordering replacement slacks online, I carefully selected the manufacturer's name, the waist and inseam, the color, and the style - but never thought to check the fabric.  The slacks that arrived carried this tag.  

The material fulfills the definition of a "fabric" (it's woven) and a "cloth" (made of fibers), but the woven fibers are recycled plastic, and I assume pretty much equivalent to what we used to call "polyester."  The manufacturers report that they are recycling over 4,000 plastic bottles per minute.

I'm posting this not as virtue-signaling, but rather to seek advice from readers about the quality of fabrics like this.  It looks to be wrinkle-free and probably stain-resistant, and it's a bit clingy from static electricity and very lightweight.  I suspect if I try to research the subject the first page of hits will be puff pieces and promotional items.  So I would like readers to share with me (and other readers) their experiences wearing this new plastic fabric. 

Pondering a world without people

"If the choice that confronts us is between a world without nature and a world without humanity, today’s most radical anti-humanist thinkers don’t hesitate to choose the latter. In his 2006 book, Better Never to Have Been, the celebrated “antinatalist” philosopher David Benatar argues that the disappearance of humanity would not deprive the universe of anything unique or valuable: “The concern that humans will not exist at some future time is either a symptom of the human arrogance … or is some misplaced sentimentalism.”

Humanists, even secular ones, assume that only humans can create meaning and value in the universe. Without us, we tend to believe, all kinds of things might continue to happen on Earth, but they would be pointless—a show without an audience. For anti-humanists, however, this is just another example of the metaphysical egoism that leads us to overwhelm and destroy the planet. “What is so special about a world that contains moral agents and rational deliberators?” Benatar asks. “That humans value a world that contains beings such as themselves says more about their inappropriate sense of self-importance than it does about the world.” Rather, we should take comfort in the certainty that humans will eventually disappear: “Things will someday be the way they should be—there will be no people.”"
An interesting viewpoint, from The People Cheering for Humanity's End, found while doing research about the coming fall in the world's population (more on that later...)

02 November 2023


A very effective poster hanging from the ceiling at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum.  The photographic image shows grasses in a tallgrass prairie above and below ground - and the grasses are depicted life-size.  The banner is 14 feet long.

The poster was commissioned or created by the Tallgrass Prairie Center at the University of Northern Iowa.
We do a lot of talking about the benefits of prairie roots, but almost nothing we say makes as big an impact as this banner. The actual-size image of a Big Bluestem and Leadplant root system evokes awe whenever the banner is unfurled, reinforcing our message about the ecological services prairie roots provide.
It is available for purchase ($200) via the link; you can also purchase for educational purposes preserved root systems ($2,200).  What an amazing resource for presenting to students and the general public the importance of the undergound root systems of prairie plants.

01 November 2023

Bird's nest

A sad commentary on our current environment.  Photo credit Danni Thompson, via The Guardian.

A very enjoyable movie

BUT... if you trust me and agree with my previous movie reviews, I would recommend you do not watch the embedded trailer.

One problem with extended trailers like this one (two and a half minutes) is that they often give away the entire plot, rather than just offering a subject matter and a mood.  I found Jules in a list of library DVD new acquisitions, and reserved it based on the cast and a high Rotten Tomatoes score, but I had not seen this trailer.  So, when I watched the movie one evening this week, I was recurrently and pleasantly surprised by various developments that are unfortunately clearly revealed in the trailer.

This is a science-fiction/fantasy movie that requires a significant suspension of disbelief (undetected UFO crash in a backyard, and an alien sitting on your living room couch).  Once you accept those premises (perhaps reinforced by your favorite recreational beverage or substance), you can enjoy a delightful movie.  Ben Kingsley is absolutely superb in his portrayal of an elderly man who is worried about the possible development of senile dementia.  There are several laugh-out-loud scenes (especially his visit to a grocery store) that derive their humor from the absolutely deadpan presentation of a seemingly-impossible situation.

The movie is not currently streaming for free, but you should be able to borrow the DVD from your library (our library has about a hundred "holds" for 30 copies, so a wait of about three weeks).

The Great Plains is being invaded by trees

The "Great Plains" of the central United States is predominantly a grassland biome, but in relatively recent years, that biome is being encroached upon by woody plants, including trees.  

Trees are good? Right?  They soak up carbon to offset human-induced climate change.  So we should be happy about this change?  Not so fast.  There are deeper implications, including the underlying aquifer:

The standard explanation for the ongoing depletion of underground aquifers is that they are being drained dry by modern farming techniques and the drilling of wells for urban and industrial use.  But vegetation can contribute to this process by the transpiration of water from the soil to the air.  

This problem has been extensively studied, espeially by agricultural extension services at universities in the Great Plains.  Some of that information has been summarized by The Prairie Project and in this 88-page longread.  I encountered the concept in a shorter article by The Cornell Lab, which considers the effect of decreasing grasslands on the survival of various avian species.
The Sandhills occupy roughly 20,000 square miles in north-central Nebraska, a quarter of the state. Formed as shift­ing, growing dunes of wind-driven sand, the hills stabilized as recently as 1,000 years ago and today are capped by mixed-grass prairie. Known by locals and ecologists as “choppy sands,” the low but steep hills are prone to slumping areas called “catsteps” and wind-caused “blowouts” of exposed sand.

When European explorers first surveyed the land, hardly a tree could be found. “You could travel across the entire Sandhills without seeing a tree,” says Dillon Fogarty, researcher and program coordinator for working lands conservation at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. “They were tucked in on just a few stream banks.”

In those days, the force on the landscape keeping trees in check was fire—some set naturally by lightning, but most by busy humans with an eye toward game and land management. The earliest inhabitants of the Plains, says Fogarty, “actively shaped their environment to create an environment that they could thrive in... 

Settlers unwit­tingly aided the destruction of the prairie by planting more trees—even making an organized effort of it... And that means the trees are on the move. According to 2022 research pub­lished in the Journal of Applied Ecology, tree cover has increased 50% across the rangelands of the western U.S. in the last 30 years. The creeping woodlands threaten open prairie, prairie wildlife species, and the ranching industry. They also increase the chances of uncontrol­lable wildfire.
I would encourage anyone interested in the subject matter to read the links.  The best course for the future is neither simple nor obvious.
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