30 March 2024

Trailers for Ex Machina and Her

These two movies pair quite nicely.  The 2014 Ex Machina addresses the question of whether a human  (Domhall Gleeson) and a humanoid robot with artificial intelligence (Alicia Vikander) can form a relationship based on mutual love.  Her (2013) takes the question one step further by removing the physical robot to see if the human (Joaquin Phoenix) can have a satisfactory relationship with just an operating system like Siri/Alexa (in the movie the voice of Scarlett Johansson).

All love affairs are complicated, and these are no exceptions, each with a somewhat unexpected ending.  Both are worth watching, IMHO (and have Rotten Tomatoes scores of 92% and 95%).

29 March 2024

Selections from "The Aztec Treasure House"

I've just finished re-reading The Aztec Treasure House, one of the most interesting books I've encountered in a long time, replete with an abundance of "things you wouldn't know."

The author is Evan S. Connell, who in 2009 was nominated for a Man Booker International prize for lifetime achievement.  This book is a collection of 20 essays on an enormous variety of topics from history and science - Antarctica, El Dorado, Atlantis, the Northwest Passage, the Children's Crusade, Prester John, the Olmec, and many more.

Herewith some excerpts:
There are several Etruscan words that have survived in modern English: tavern, cistern, letter, person, ceremony, lantern ("but except for these, only about 100 Etruscan words have been deciphered")

New word: "Chests found by archaeologists at Herjolfsnes are made of pine, deal, and larch." According to Wiktionary, deal is "wood that is easy to saw (from conifers such as pine or fir.)"

Sir Douglas Mawson's solitary ordeal in Antarctica: "He had not taken off his socks for quite some time... The thickened skin of the soles had become entirely detached, forming a separate layer... He smeared his raw feet with lanolin, tied the soles in place with bandages, put on six pairs of thick wool socks, fur boots, and finally his crampon overshoes... He walked for a while on the outside of his feet, then on the inside, and when he could not endure the pain either way he went down on all fours and crawled - towing his sledge... Presently he got caught in a blizzard... The next special disappointment occurred the following day when he slipped into a crevasse..." (p. 104-8)

"Harappa and Mohenjo [archaeology sites in Pakistan] are twins, so much alike that archaeologists believed they could have been built by the same ruler... they were planned as deliberately as Brasilia or Salt Lake City and are just as predictable.  Everything was arranged.  The mechanical, conservative, windowless, unchanging architecture - block after block after block - implies a totalitarian attitude... 2,500 years before Christ... came these unimaginative, dark, flat-nosed builders who knew exactly what a city should look like.  And they lived in their geometrical barracks for ten centuries without changing a thing.  The style of building never changed.  The language did not change.  The first carved amulets are the same as the last."  (p. 144)

Giordano Bruno, at the beginning of the 17th century: "We know that he did speak his mind.  He spoke defiantly, imaginatively: "In space there are countless constellations, suns, and planets.  We see only the suns because they give light; the planets remain invisible, for they are small and dark.  There are also numberless earths circling around their suns, no worse and no less inhabited than this globe of ours..."" (p. 172)
Some early astronomers recorded their discoveries as anagrams:
"And in December of that year, 1610, Galileo perceived that Venus underwent phases - from sickle to full disc - which was proof that it revolved around the sun.  He made no public announcement of this; instead he contrived a baffling anagram:
"Haec immatura a me iam frustra leguntur o.y."
His purpose was to establish himself as the discoverer, but at the same time conceal what he had learned so that nobody else might profit by it.  He filed this anagram with Giuliano de Medici, whom he trusted and who would be a powerful witness on his behalf. Properly arranged the letters read:
"Cynthiae figuras aemulatur Mater Amorum."
Cynthis being the moon - a generally understood poetic metaphor - whose figures or shapes were emulated by Venus, Mother of Love.

This kind of business was not uncommon.  The Dutch astronomer Huygens, for instance, protected an important discovery by writing in his book Systema Saturnium: "aaaaaaa ccccc d eeeee g h iiiiiii llll mm nnnnnnnnn oooo pp q rr s ttttt uuuuu."

A cryptographer might deduce that the letters should be organized as follows: "Annulo cingitur, renui plano, nusquam cohaerente, ad eclipticam inclinato."  In other words, obviously, Saturn is encircled by a flat ring inclined to the ecliptic and nowhere touching the planet." (p. 191-2)
Albert Einstein was once asked what governed his taste in clothes.  He replied "Indifference."

"Neutrinos dance through lead walls the way mosquitoes dance through a chicken wire fence... the yellow star Arcturus is about forty light-years away... Now listen. A lead wall forty light years thick would almost stop a neutrino.  Not quite, but almost."  (p. 212)

"The core of these [pulsars] is magically small.  Some are thought to be no more than a mile in diameter... As for weight, a chunk the size of a matchbox, if you put it down gently, would break through he crust of the earth and keep right on falling toward the center... Expressed another way, a rock the size of a sugar cube would weigh more than a fleet of battleships." (p. 213)

"Astrophysicists seem perplexed by the information they have been gathering from quasars because some of these objects emit 100 times more energy than the largest galaxies in the universe.  In other words, to generate that amount of energy a quasar must annihilate a mass equivalent to one billion suns every second." (p. 216)

"Animals birds, and butterflies are said to have joined the French crusade.  Butterflies, bearers of the soul, were especially significant.  Much later Jeanne d'Arc would be asked during her examination: "Is it true that you and your banner go into battle among a cloud of butterflies?" (p. 273)

"He had watched the Tartars building and coloring their gigantic tents, which were transported on carts, twenty-two oxen drawing each cart.  The oxen were yoked in two ranks, eleven abreast.  And the shaft of the vehicle, he said, was as long as the mast of a ship." (p. 285)
Slavery viewed as a Christian virtue:
"One of [Prince Henry the Navigator]'s retainers, who called himself Lancarote - Lancelot - was awarded the first slave-hunting licence.  His caravels anchored at an island off the Guinea coast and raided a village: "And at last our Lord God, who rewards every noble act, willed that for the toil they had undergone in His service... they took captive of these Moors, what with men, women and children, 165, besides those that perished or were killed."...

Henry, as sponsor, was entitled to a royal fifth, but he gave his share of the slaves to friends and courtiers.  The successful voyage pleased him more than any profit, we are told, and he reflected "with great pleasure" upon the salvation of those souls which before were lost.

How remote it sounds, this medieval morality in which lives and bodies lay at the disposition of Christians.  Azurara observes that the lot of Moorish slaves "was now quite the contrary of what it had been, since before they had lived in perdition of soul and body... And now consider what a reward should be that of the Infante at the hands of the Lord God, for having thus given the the chance of salvation..." (p. 297)
And a few more:
"It's odd that [in the fifteenth century] nobody knew the shape of Africa.  Egypto-Phoenician explorers during the reign of Necho II, about 600 B.C., had sailed completely around the continent: they went down the Red Sea, doubled the Cape of Good Hope, and entered the Mediterranean at Gibraltar." (p. 300)

"A few years ago I was talking to a dealer in pre-Columbian artifacts who mentioned that Venetian glass beads sometimes are found in Sinu [people of Colombia] tombs.  He said he had seen lots of them in Colombia, but he did not buy any because they had no market value.  I asked how he could be sure it was Venetian glass, and he replied that he knew those beds when he saw them because he used to live in Venice.  Besides, Sinu Indians never made glass beads.  All of which means very little, unless you know that Sinu tombs date from about the twelfth century." (p. 315)

A test for a unicorn: "On this West shore we found a dead fish floating, which had in his nose a horne streight and torquet... being broken in the top, where we might perceive it hollow, into the which some of our sailors putting spiders they presently died.  I saw not the triall hereof, but it was reported unto me of a trueth: by the vertue whereof we supposed it to be the sea Unicorne." (p. 326)

New word: "I was shot in with a bullet at the battery alongst the huckle bone..."  (??? I've seen it defined as a hip bone and as a small ankle bone like the talus/astragalus).

Inca treasure:  "Replicas of Indian corn, each gold ear sheathed in silver, with tassels of silver thread.  Innumerable gold goblets.  Sculpted gold spiders, gold beetles, gold lobsters, gold lizards.  A gold fountain that emitted a sparkling jet of gold while gold animals and gold birds played around it.  Twelve splendid representations of women, all in fine gold... The list goes on and on, as Durer said, until one can hardly relate all of what was there.  Nevertheless, after the death of Atahualpa, some Inca nobles Poured a bucket of corn in front of the Spaniards, and one of them picked up a grain and said, "this is the gold he gave you."  And then, pointing to the heap on the ground: "This much he has kept." (p. 399)

"On Saint John's Day, June 24, 1527, Paracelsus surpassed himself.  Into the traditional campus bonfire went the accumulated rubbish of a year, whatever the students did not need or like.  And into the fire this year - at his command - went a gigantic book, the greatest of all medieval medical books, the Canon of Avicenna.  It was too big to be carried; it had to be dragged to the ceremonial fire. "There is more wisdom in my shoelaces," said Paracelsus, "than in such books."
The book is available on Amazon for about $14.  My gently-used copy is currently listed on eBay with a starting bid of $1.00.

Reposted from 2017.

27 March 2024


I like to end my blogging day with a nice photo at the top of the page.  This one (© Robert J. Ross / World Nature Photography Awards, via The Atlantic) reminds me of being Up North.

Good for her

I have pleasant memories of doing this once, decades ago, somewhere in the Boston area.  So glad to see this young woman keeping the sport alive; it's the feel-good story of the day.

With a tip of the blogging cap to John Farrier, for finding this gem and posting it at Neatorama.  

Word for the day: dredging

I was reading today about how to make walleye pike almondine, and the recipe called for "dredging" the filet.
In cooking, the word dredge means to coat an item of food in flour or breadcrumbs before cooking it.  Dredging in flour requires the item to have some moisture about it, which is the case with most food items. It's a good idea to shake off any excess flour so that the coating doesn't turn pasty or gummy.  The standard breading technique involves first dredging the item with flour, dipping it in egg wash, and then finally coating it with breadcrumbs. This works because the flour sticks to the food, the egg sticks to the flour, and the breadcrumbs [or almond] stick to the egg
I was curious about the etymology, wondering if "dredging" the filet related to "dragging" it through the coating.  Apparently the relationship is only tangential at best.  Dredging items off the floor of the ocean is "From Scots dreg-boat, dreg-bot (from Old English *dreċġ); or alternatively from Middle Dutch dregghe (“drag-net”), probably ultimately from the same root as drag."

But there's a second etymology for the cooking term that is more related to spices than to dragging: "From Middle English dragge, from Old French dragee, dragie, from Latin tragēmata, from Ancient Greek τραγήματα (tragḗmata, “spices”), plural of τράγημα (trágēma, “dried fruit”)."

You learn something every day.

Optical illusions for those in a hurry

Forty of them in eight minutes (many of which I've previously covered in TYWKIWDBI in the optical illusions subcategory).  Via Neatorama.

22 March 2024

Queen Anne style Victorian architecture

The Carson Mansion in Eureka, California
The house is a mix of every major style of Victorian architecture, including but not limited to: Eastlake, Italianate, Queen Anne (primary), and Stick.

More information at the mansion's website

Metallic mercury emboli in the lungs

The result of an attempted suicide by injecting elemental mercury intravenously.  Image via The New England Journal of Medicine, via Reddit, where the salient top comment notes that this is similar to pouring molten aluminum into an anthill.

This example is a bit more dramatic than my 2022 post on mercury embolization - a case where a young man injected himself with mercury to treat jock itch.

Metal umlauts

I've seen them for years but never thought to read about them until the term appeared in a recent NYT crossword puzzle.  Here's a summary from Wikipedia:
A metal umlaut (also known as röck döts) is a diacritic that is sometimes used gratuitously or decoratively over letters in the names of mainly hard rock or heavy metal bands—for example, those of Blue Öyster Cult, Queensrÿche, Motörhead, the Accüsed, Mötley Crüe and the parody bands Spın̈al Tap and Green Jellÿ...

Among English speakers, the use of umlaut marks and other diacritics with a blackletter typeface is a form of foreign branding, which has been attributed to a desire for a "gothic horror" feel. The metal umlaut is not generally intended to affect the pronunciation of the band's name.
As Vince Neil recounts: "I can remember it like it was yesterday. We were drinking Löwenbräu, and when we decided to call ourselves Mötley Crüe, we put some umlauts in there because we thought it made us look European. We had no idea that it was a pronunciation thing. When we finally went to Germany, the crowds were chanting, 'Mutley Cruh! Mutley Cruh!' We couldn’t figure out why the fuck they were doing that."

19 March 2024

Reconsidering Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

I have not previously blogged the 2004 movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but decided to do so today after I encountered lengthly reviews of it at both The Guardian and The New York Times.

For the past 18 years I've been keeping a log of movies seen with my personal ratings of them.  In 2007 I rated Eternal Sunshine 2+, indicating a general dissatisfaction.  In retrospect I suppose I was confused at that time as to whether this was perhaps a time-travel alternate reality story, and I found the humor surrounding the lab technicians distracting.  But in 2021 on a rewatch after some reading about it, I rated it 4+ (top rating, equivalent to "worth a rewatch"), understanding that this was all "real time" and that the subplots with the techs was relevant to the storyline.

So this year I did the rewatch, and it's still a 4+ movie for me.  Here are some blurbs from today's reviews:
The screenwriter Charlie Kaufman — who was fresh off the critical double-hitters “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation” — wrote Clementine and Joel’s love affair as a claustrophobic, unspooling maze that earned the movie an Oscar for best screenplay. Kirsten Dunst and Mark Ruffalo were knocking on stardom’s door when they gave delightful supporting performances as haphazard assistants of the memory-erasing company Lacuna Inc.

Along the way, Joel realizes he’d rather have all of Clementine, heartbreak included, than none of her. He desperately tries to salvage the memories as they’re deleted, trapping himself in a maze of his own psyche. The film spins out of control, traversing realities and timelines, until we are left with a teary-eyed Clementine and Joel, who acknowledge the futility of their relationship. “I’ll get bored with you and feel trapped because that’s what happens with me,” asserts Clementine. “OK,” Joel says with a smirk and then agrees to try again, despite knowing the inevitable disaster of their attraction.

“I can’t see anything that I don’t like about you,” Joel says pleadingly to Clementine to get her to stay. “But you will,” she roars knowingly.

One of the reasons why Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, now 20 years old, ranks among the best love stories of the 21st century is that it makes the unique argument that failure is an essential, precious part of romantic experience. It’s only human to want that pain to go away, but the film suggests that literally making it so would be a wish on a monkey’s paw, offering some short-term relief, perhaps, but with unanticipated long-term consequences.

Eternal Sunshine begins at the end, creating a structural loop that Kaufman pointedly opts not to close completely. On his way to work on a cold February morning, Joel Barish, played by dramatically toned down Jim Carrey, impulsively decides to take a commuter train to Montauk and winds up hitting it off with a vivacious stranger, Clementine (Kate Winslet), he meets on the platform. What neither of them realize is that not only have they met before, but they had a long-term relationship that ended in a painful breakup. They just don’t remember anything about it, at least nothing beyond a few tremors of deja vu.

"I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti."

The title is Hannibal Lecter's famous line from Silence of the Lambs.  I learned at the movies subreddit that there is a subtle implication:
Lecter could be treated with drugs called monoamine oxidase inhibitors - MAOIs. As a psychiatrist, Lecter knows this.

The three things you can't eat with MAOIs? Liver, beans, wine.

Lecter is a) cracking a joke for his own amusement, and b) saying he's not taking his meds.

Reposted from 2015 because I ran across this post while browsing the back entries in the movies subcategory of the blog. 

Another type of chess "problem"

Broadcast media (movies, television) have persistent difficulties incorporating chess into their storylines without introducing errors:
There are a ton of chess mistakes in TV and in film,” says Mike Klein, a writer and videographer for Chess.com. While different experts cite different error ratios, from “20 percent” to “much more often than not,” all agree: Hollywood is terrible at chess, even though they really don’t have to be. “There are so many [errors], it’s hard to keep track,” says Grandmaster Ilja Zaragatski, of chess24. “And there are constantly [new ones] coming out.”

Chess errors come in a few different flavors, these experts say. The most common is what we’ll call the Bad Setup. When you set up a chessboard, you’re supposed to orient it so that the square nearest to each player’s right side is light-colored. (There’s even a mnemonic for this—“right is light.”) Next, when you array the pieces, the white queen goes on white, and the black queen goes on black. “When I teach six-year-old girls, I say ‘the queen’s shoes have to match her dress!’” says Klein.

Six-year-olds may get this, but filmmakers often do not. Along with The Seventh Seal, movies that suffer from Bad Setups include Blade Runner, Austin Powers, From Russia with Love, The Shawshank Redemption, and Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls. Shaft and What’s New Pussycat may not have much in common, but they do both feature backwards chessboards.
Further discussion (re dramatic checkmates and tipped-over kings) at Atlas Obscura via Neatorama.

Reposted from 2017 because I ran across it while browsing the back entries in the movies subcategory of the blog.

18 March 2024


The (unquestioned) beauty is deceptive.  Multiple comments at the Pics subreddit post attest to the destructive capabilities of Wisteria vines.

Reposted from 2018 to add this:

Image cropped for size/emphasis from the original in a gallery of homes with gardens at The Guardian.

A blueberry the size of a golf ball

Developed by a fruit and vegetable vendor in New South Wales:
It’s dark blue, about the diameter of a golf ball and it weighs 10 times as much as your average blueberry.  Picked on 13 November, the piece of fruit was this week officially recognised by the Guinness World Records as the world’s heaviest blueberry...

Hocking said while typically a sacrifice in quality is expected with larger fruit, blueberries of the Eterna variety were “firm with a really good shelf life”.

Hocking said the fruit wasn’t an abnormality within the Eterna variety: there were about 20 blueberries of a similar size present when the berry was picked.

He said there was a growing demand for bigger fruit, which he attributed to a shift from using fruit in baking and on breakfast cereal to snacking.

CAPTCHAs - updated re "I'm Not a Robot" clicks

Embedded image 😀 via Interesting Engineering.  Today I learned that CAPTCHA is an acronym.

Reposted from last year to add some interesting information.
Some people have always presumed the 'I'm not a robot button' functions in a way to catch out artificial intelligence pretending to be human by seeing whether or not a robot is actually capable of identifying the traffic lights or marking the box with a tick...

As BBC's QI revealed in 2020, ticking the little box is actually letting the site check things like your internet browsing history to determine whether you're a real person or not.

"Ticking the box is not the point. It's how you behaved before you ticked the box that is analysed," writer, comedian and broadcaster Sandi Toksvig explained to the panel...

"Essentially, when you are clicking ‘I am not a robot’ box, you are instructing the site to have a look at your data and decide for itself.

"If the machine is not sure, that’s when it directs you to click on lightroom pictures of fire hydrants that aren’t there."

World Down Syndrome Day is March 21

The 21st day of the 3rd month was chosen for World Down Syndrome Day because the syndrome is caused by trisomy of the 21st chromosome.  This video was created to encourage "normies" to reexamine their presumptions about the syndrome.

One way to support change is to wear colorful or mismatching socks (because socks are shaped somewhat like chromosomes), and the oddness may generate useful commentary and discussion)


Such a tragically sad photo, taken in Batsen Province, Indonesia (credit Willy Kurniawan/Reuters) via The Guardian.

To get something positive out of this I decided to look up the etymologies of flotsam and jetsam.  Not too complicated - the former related to "float" (Anglo-Norman via French and German), and the title word related to "jettison," (same sources) referring to material intentionally thrown overboard to lighten a ship in distress.  I had always thought that flotsam was still in the water while jetsam was on shore, but apparently that distinction is not implicit in the terms.

For a curiously odd photo, go to this gallery and scroll down to the one that seems to depict an extra-small jockey riding on the back half of a six-legged horse...

14 March 2024

Runway model at Paris Fashion Week

I have in the past been chastised by readers for using the fashion subsection of TYWKIWDBI to make fun of modern trends in designer clothing, revealing my apparently unimaginative "retro" frame of mind.  To keep myself and readers here up-to-date on style, I will continue to post selected images, but rather than offer any personal commentary, I'll just let the ipsa loquitur for the resVia.

But I can't help pointing out that none of the viewers along the catwalk are smiling at this design.  They are taking it all quite seriously.  Perhaps the model has just arrived after attending a hockey game.

A pie-cutting template from West Point

"More recently, though, pie at West Point lost its innocence. For cadets who passed through the Academy in the later decades of the 20th century, a favorite form of hazing centered on pie. At dinner in the mess hall, plebes were made to cut the dessert into a mathematically impossible number of exactly equal slices: seven, nine, or 11. Upperclassmen looked on, taunting. The Zip-Locks under plebes’ hats? They held pie-cutting templates—literal pie charts—that helped plebes cut perfect slices and, most importantly, avoid their elders’ wrath."

Posted for Pi day 2024. 

13 March 2024

An invasive wood decay fungus

"You learn something every day" is the motto of this blog.  A couple weeks ago I had no idea that there was such a thing as an invasive wood decay fungus.  Then I attended the Annual Research Symposium at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum, where I saw the poster embedded above - one of numerous interesting presentations by doctoral candidates.  

I discussed the poster's findings with the lead author, then went online to seek more information.  There is of course a Wikipedia page for Pleurotus citrinopileatus, but the best discussion I found is at Forager Chef, whence these pix and text:

Golden oyster mushrooms are native to the hardwood forests of eastern Russia and northern China, as well as Japan. They're a popular edible mushroom over there and take well to cultivation, so it's no surprise that mushroom cultivation companies started selling them to grocery stores, as well as in grow kits for people at home where their spores can fly with the wind and spread...

The term "invasive" can be used in a number of ways. While some disagree, and they haven't been legally recognized as invasive (as if it would do anything to stop them) I consider them invasive and describe them to others as such for a couple reasons.

First, the mushrooms aren't native, and they're consuming resources that other native mushrooms (pheasant backs, mica caps, and wild enoki) could use...
Secondly, and what I don't see discussed much, is their fruiting pattern. Like their cousins, golden oysters are decomposers... As someone who hunts a lot of morels with elms, the preference of golden oysters for dead elm trees, which the mushrooms seem to consume whole, worries me. As these mushrooms spread throughout the Midwest, what will happen to the morels? I have a theory...
Informed discussion continues at the link, including information on identification, harvesting, and cooking ("a great mushroom meat substitute").

A boy and his... capybara

This interesting photo (credit: Sergio Attanasio) was the winning entry in the "Lifestyle" category of the 2024 Sony World Photography Awards.  Via a gallery of winners at The Atlantic.

12 March 2024

Remembering my cousin Bruce (1945-2024)

The lead photo is from his college years at Carleton (1965); the others are sequential from a childhood in North Dakota to a youth in Florida to an adult in New Mexico.

Gone but never forgotten.

Addendum:  some excerpts from his obituary in the Cibola Citizen:
Bruce was born on October 4, 1945, in Rochester, Minnesota to parents Bruce and Sylvia Boynton. After attending Carlton College in Northfield, Minnesota, Bruce went on to earn his Juris Doctorate at Vanderbilt University.

After earning his law degree Bruce headed to the Southwest and began his career working for Pueblo Legal Services in Zuni, New Mexico. He eventually went on to open a private practice in Milan, New Mexico where he also served as City Attorney as well as Attorney for the Grants Public Schools and Cibola General Hospital. Bruce was a member of the Ramah Rodeo and a long-time active member of the Rotary Club. In 2020 Bruce celebrated 50 years of law practice and continued helping countless citizens of Cibola County until very recently. His kind heart and wise advice will be greatly missed.

As many of his friends know, Bruce was an avid bird watcher and traveled to Central and South America on birder excursions. Among his many passions, Bruce loved fly fishing, cultivating orchids and had a particular love of Latin music, Flamenco, and Latino literature as well. One of Bruce’s favorite quotes (and word of advice) was “Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story.” He will always be remembered for his quick and dry wit.

In lieu of flowers, a donation may be made in Bruce’s memory to the following: Grants Cibola County Schools, P.O. Box 8, Grants NM 87020. Memo on check: Rotary Club School Backpack Program.

08 March 2024

The "Four Yorkshiremen" sketch

John Cleese and Graham Chapman (before their Monty Python fame), with Tim Brooke-Taylor and Marty Feldman, lampooning the stereotypical "rich people claiming they were happier when they were poor."

One of my favorite comedy bits of all time - and one that is especially relevant in times of economic uncertainty.   I had posted this a long time ago, but the video was pulled from YouTube - so watch it now, because it may not stay up long.

Reposted from 2010 because that old video was in fact taken down a second time, but a Britbox version is now available on YouTube, so this may stay up for a while.

Reposted for 2024 because we need laughs now more than ever.

07 March 2024

A new word puzzle at The New York Times

"Strands, the new word-search game still in beta, seems to fuse some of the best features of Wordle, Connections, and the crosswords... Connections may torment its players with little room for error, but Strands rewards wrong guesses, in a way, by filling in a progress bar that gets you to a hint. The game displays its daily theme front and center, crossword-style, which helps you with the first, and toughest, word to find. From there, each further discovery shrinks the board and makes the next one that much easier, delivering a pleasant sense of acceleration toward victory."
The embedded graphic shows my attempts in order (used a hint, found four theme words, then the unifying "spangram" phrase, then the last three theme words).  As discussed at the link, Strands is essentially an advanced form of word search, which for me is a rather unsatisfying time-wasting game.  I will probably try it a few more times and then drop it, as I did with Wordle and Connections.  If you want to give it a try, the game is currently available online here.

06 March 2024

Distinguishing Sundial lupine and Western lupine

We have had lupine in our gardens for 10-15 years - in part because it's a showy, attractive plant, but also because it is the host plant for the caterpillars of the endangered Karner Blue butterfly.  But I didn't know until recently that there are two types of lupine.  Lupinus perennis ("Sundial lupine") is native to the eastern and midwestern U.S., while Lupinus polyphyllus ("Western lupine") is native in the western states.  The video embedded above explains the morphological differences between the two lupines [TLDR: the Western lupine has 11-17 leaflets on the palmate leaf, while the Sundial has 5-11].

The distinction is important because only Lupinus perennis ("Sundial lupine") will support the Karner Blues.  If Karner Blues lay their eggs on Western lupines, the cats will die.  See this excellent page from the recent Prairie Moon Nursery catalogue:

Western lupine has been introduced in the east because it is somewhat more showy, but it should not be encouraged, for the sake of the Karner Blues.

A shout-out to Prairie Moon Nursery

There has been a significant increase in recent years of nurseries offering and emphasizing native plants for gardens.  One of the best of these is Prairie Moon Nursery, based in Winona, Minnesota.  We have purchased seed packets from them for several years, and when their catalogue arrived yesterday [as archetypal springtime garden porn] I was delighted to see that they now incorporate into the catalogue the names and photos of the lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) that use these plants as host plants (i.e. as depositories for eggs and thus food for the caterpillars - as opposed to nectar plants supporting adult pollinators).  Here is a sample page:

Some of this information is also codified in a massive table to big to embed -

- but easy to access via the Prairie Moon Nursery website.

Iditarod mushing is way different from other sports

As reported by The Athletic newsletter: 
Dallas Seavey, a record-tying five-time Iditarod winner, told officials with the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race early Monday morning that he was forced to shoot the moose with a handgun out of self-defense, “after the moose became entangled with the dogs and the musher,” a statement from the race said.

Seavey told an Iditarod Insider television crew he then “gutted it the best I could, but it was ugly.”

According to Iditarod Rule 34, if an edible big game animal — like a moose, caribou or buffalo — is killed in defense of life or property, the musher is required to gut the animal and report it to race officials at the next checkpoint. Mushers who follow must help gut the animal when possible and no teams may pass until the animal is gutted and the musher gutting the animal has proceeded. Any other animal killed in defense of life or property must be reported to a race official but is not required to be gutted. 

Race Marshal Warren Palfrey said officials “are making sure that every attempt is made to utilize and salvage the moose meat,” according to the statement.

Seavey encountered the moose 14 miles outside of the Skwentna checkpoint, roughly 80 miles from the starting point in the 975-mile race. When he reached the next checkpoint at Finger Lake, Seavey dropped off his injured dog who was immediately flown to Anchorage and, as of Monday, was being evaluated by veterinarians there.

On Tuesday, Seavey’s X, formerly known as Twitter, account posted an update saying that the injured dog, Faloo, had surgery and is in critical condition. [other news sources say Faloo is recovering]

Word of the day - "monger"

A dealer or trader in a commodity. The Random House Dictionary states the ultimate origin is from the Latin "mango", meaning .... salesman! ["Death of a mango?"]

"Monger" was once used as a verb, but it now is typically only employed as the second element of compound words. My OED says examples of such formations are "unlimited", with examples beginning in the 13th century: hay-mongers, holy-water mongers, insect-mongers (?) etc. The most familiar would likely be cheesemonger, costermonger (fruit/veggies), fishmonger, ironmonger, and whoremonger.

As the last-named example suggests, the OED notes that from the 16th century onward, the term nearly always carries the implication of a petty, disreputable, or comtemptible trade in the material - as in the modern "rumor-monger" "gossip-monger" and "scandal-monger."

Here is a costermonger:

...and there is a fearmonger at the end of this brief [2008] video:

Reposted to add yet another example:

Cartoon by Rob Rogers in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, via the political cartoon-laden Jobsanger.

Reposted from the last election cycle to add some examples of current fearmongering:

The Democratic party went through a heart-wrenching primary process, during which the voters ultimately rejected the radical left in favor of a moderate Joe Biden.  But the Wisconsin Republican Party combined Biden with images of their standard behemoths of radicalism to claim that they control him.

And Trump is using this same tactic:
“People that you’ve never heard of” are controlling Mr. Biden, he told the Fox News host Laura Ingraham. “People that are in the dark shadows.”

“What does that mean?” Ms. Ingraham asked. “That sounds like conspiracy theory.”

“No,” Mr. Trump answered. “People that you haven’t heard of. They’re people that are on the streets. They’re people that are controlling the streets. We had somebody get on a plane from a certain city this weekend, and in the plane, it was almost completely loaded with thugs wearing these dark uniforms, black uniforms with gear and this and that. They’re on a plane.”
This is not conventional confrontational politics.  These are the ramblings of a deranged mind.

Reposted from 2020, because Donald Trump is at it again.  But this time his fearmongering tactic isn't directed towards Biden but towards.... LANGUAGES???
We have languages coming into our country. We don’t have one instructor in our entire nation that can speak that language,” Trump said before a crowd of thousands of supporters at the Conservative Political Action Conference outside Washington, D.C., last month.

“These are languages — it’s the craziest thing — they have languages that nobody in this country has ever heard of. It’s a very horrible thing,” he added.

Trump repeated the comment the following week during an appearance at the southern border alongside Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, saying that migrants are entering the country speaking “truly foreign languages.”

“Nobody speaks them,” he said after a tour of the border in Eagle Pass.
It is certainly true that uncommon languages are coming into our country.  Some of you will have seen John Farrier's recent post at Neatorama: "Of the 700 Speakers of Seke, a Nepalese Language, 150 Live in Two Apartment Buildings in Brooklyn."

In 2013 I posted this map of counties in the U.S. in which at least 10% of households English was spoken as a second language:

We all know what's going on here.  He's not referring to some exotic Czechoslovakian or Slovenian dialect.  His reference is to languages spoken by brown-skinned or African residents.  This speech was a dog whistle to the racist and xenophobic elements in his base.

I know there are sensible and well-spoken Trump supporters who have been faithful readers of this blog.  I invite you to offer any explanation I've overlooked as to why migrants speaking "truly foreign languages" is a "very horrible thing."

02 March 2024


I'm sure I've posted other nighttime photos of fireflies in the past, but this must be the most remarkable one I've ever encountered.  Considering the extremely long exposure time needed, I'm sure the photographer must have had to mask out the relatively-brighter distant skyline or perhaps stacked multiple images.

From the Natural History Museum's Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition.  Image credit Sriram Murali (and many more excellent photos at the link).

Sweden is "hopelessly unprepared for war"

Excerpts from an opinion piece at The Guardian:
The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 came as a rude awakening for Sweden. Across the country people suddenly realised that national security vulnerabilities were everywhere. The entire public transit rail network in Stockholm, for example, is operated by MTR, a Hong Kong-based company with ties to the Chinese Communist party.

In the event of Stockholm being attacked by foreign forces, most of the detail about critical infrastructure and tunnels running under the city centre – home to the Swedish parliament, the prime minister’s residence, the state department, the royal castle – could be shared with enemies...

The problem isn’t necessarily the privatisations per se, but the reckless way in which they were executed, often without due diligence or background checks. Officials often just chose to do deals with the private contractors that submitted the cheapest bids. The globalisation optimism of the 1990s, when Russia and China were expected gradually to open up and eventually ally with western liberal democracies, paving the way for peace ever after, was so firmly rooted in Swedish politics that local officials until very recently were offering deals on critical infrastructure to investors with ties to adversarial governments...

There’s a Swedish expression for this attitude: fredsskadad, “peace damaged” – the idea that Sweden’s two centuries of peace have left its citizenry ill-prepared for a crueller reality. Swedes have long taken their safety for granted, while government officials recklessly sold off public assets and critical infrastructure to foreign powers...

The government has also cut funding for the free press, for civil society organisations and independent research institutes, which might further undermine citizens’ ability to educate themselves about potential threats. It is little comfort to think that, as bad as things are, many Swedes will have nothing to fear – because they will be unaware that they should be worried.

Egret on the shoreline

It takes a while to mentally process this image and realize that it is not manipulated in any way - the image was captured by careful placement and timing of the photographer.  Nicely done.  Found at the nocontextpictures subreddit in case you need an explanation.

Tongue lesions of Mpox

From a case report in the New England Journal of Medicine:
Testing of a tongue lesion with a polymerase-chain-reaction assay for the virus that causes mpox (formerly known as monkeypox) was positive. A diagnosis of mpox was made. During the eruptive phase of mpox, a rash is very common, but isolated oral mucosal lesions may be the only mucocutaneous manifestation — as occurred in this case. 

"What do you mean by 'we,' kemosabe?"

I'll hijack the punchline of a joke from the 1950s as a title for this excerpt from a New York Times article about language:
In the Kwaio language of the Solomon Islands, the word for “we” differs, depending on whether you mean yourself and the person you’re talking to or yourself and someone else. There are also different words for “we” if you are talking about yourself and three people including whom you are talking to or three people not including whom you are talking to or more than three people. Kwaio can leave an English speaker with we-ness envy.
Reminds me of my introduction to "y'all" during my ten years in Texas, and the sometimes use of "all-y'all" instead.

Sound visualized

Also works nicely in the optical illusions category of the blog, since none of the dots actually move continuously (they just wiggle back and forth).

Harvesting the blood of horseshoe crabs

One may wonder why the horseshoe crab is sensitive to endotoxin and, furthermore, how does the crab benefit from this phenomenon? As we know, seawater is a virtual "bacterial soup". Typical near-shore areas that form the prime habitat of the horseshoe crab can easily contain over one billion Gram-negative bacteria per milliliter of seawater. Thus, the horseshoe crab is constantly threatened with infection. Unlike mammals, including humans, the horseshoe crab lacks an immune system; it cannot develop antibodies to fight infection. However, the horseshoe crab does contain a number of compounds that will bind to and inactivate bacteria, fungi, and viruses. The components of LAL are part of this primitive "immune" system. The components in LAL, for example, not only bind and inactivate bacterial endotoxin, but the clot formed as a result of activation by endotoxin provides wound control by preventing bleeding and forming a physical barrier against additional bacterial entry and infection. It is one of the marvels of evolution that the horseshoe crab uses endotoxin as a signal for wound occurrence and as an extremely effective defense against infection.
Photo via Fresh Photons, but to read about this, I recommend the Horseshoecrab.org website.

Addendum:  A related story in the Washington Post in May 2012 reports at least an apparent temporary recovery in crab numbers.

Reposted from 2011 to add this update:
Conservationists fear that horseshoe crabs, a 450-million-year-old living fossil, will be pushed to the brink of extinction because of the value of their blood to the pharmaceutical industry. Horseshoe crab blood provides a natural source of limulus amebocyte lysate (LAL) which is used to test vaccines, drugs, and medical devices to ensure that they aren’t contaminated with dangerous bacterial toxins called endotoxins. With hundreds of thousands of horseshoe crabs captured and bled of their milky-blue blood each year, conservation groups are now stepping up their advocacy efforts and taking legal action to help save horseshoe crabs and the other species that rely on them.

Fortunately, there’s already an alternative to horseshoe crab blood: in the late 1990s, biologists at the University of Singapore created a synthetic version of the LAL called recombinant Factor C (rFC). Multiple studies show that rFC is just as effective as horseshoe crab-derived LAL, and it is currently commercially available...

In the Delaware Bay, home to the largest population in the US, horseshoe crab numbers have declined from 1.24 million in 1990 to less than 334,000 in 2002. Although the population appears to have stabilized, conservationists worry that increased demand for American horseshoe crab blood by the pharmaceutical industry could force it to go the way of the Asian horseshoe crab, Tachypleus tridentatus, which is rapidly disappearing in China and which the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists as endangered. Currently, the American horseshoe crab is listed as a vulnerable species.

The debate is particularly critical today; the COVID-19 pandemic has fueled a huge surge of research into vaccines and potential COVID-19 treatments which rely on the use of LAL to ensure product safety. As demand for vaccines and other medical products increases, conservationists worry that without a rapid switch to rFC, strain on the American horseshoe crab and the other creatures that rely on them will only get worse.
And I'll close with a repost of this killer Halloween costume:

Addendum 2024: A report in The Guardian about declining populations of horseshoe crabs, the spillover effect on migratory birds, and the availability of alternatives to horseshoe crab blood.
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