28 March 2017

Divertimento #124


For less than $20 you can buy a fiberoptic endoscope that attaches to your smart phone and potentially check yourself for polyps in the nose, larynx, and maybe elsewhere.

A review of 13 cases of ocular injury caused by bottle corks.  "Most of them are due to sparkling white wine served at room temperature."

"Recently, research has come out strongly in support of dietary fat and cholesterol as benign, rather than harmful, additions to person's diet. Saturated fat seems poised for a similar pardon."

An extended argument that using a bidet is more sanitary than using toilet paper.

Gut-wrenching photos of plastic pollution entering the ocean.  About 6000 tons per day from India alone.


Trump things:  He was not, as he has said, first in his class at Wharton; he wasn't even on the Dean's list.  A Tweet from 2013 oddly relevant to the recent health-care legislation fiasco.  A list of the companies to boycott if you're protesting the Trump presidency.  This truck driver really doesn't like Donald Trump.  Donald Trump's father was arrested after a Klan riot in 1927.   And lyrics from a Woody Guthrie song about "old man Trump."  Clever title of a picture of Merkel and Trump sitting for an awkward photo-op.  And an even better one.

Video of an eagle trained by the Dutch National Police taking down a drone.

"Climate of Concern, a 1991 educational film produced by Shell, warned that the company’s own product could lead to extreme weather, floods, famines, and climate refugees, and noted that the reality of climate change was "endorsed by a uniquely broad consensus of scientists."" (full-length video embedded at the link).

Fossil hominid skulls found in China have both human and Neanderthal characteristics.

During an 18-month period in 1969-70, 370 bombs were set off in New York City.


A longread about the invasion of the Great Lakes by zebra mussels.

"A teenager with sickle cell disease achieved complete remission after an experimental gene therapy at Necker Children’s Hospital in Paris."  That is fantastic news.

An interactive map of thermal hot springs in the United States.  An interesting distribution.

Showerthought:  Chocolate is a flavour of milk, and milk is a flavour of chocolate.

"I swear to God, the sight of people with deadly diseases crowdfunding their health care is the most dystopian thing about America right now."


Speculation that Jane Austen was poisoned by arsenic.

A petition to remove health-care subsidies for members of Congress and their families has now gathered over 800,000 votes.

A longread about the events that will follow the death of Queen Elizabeth.

TIL that shrimp can be raised on farms in landlocked states.

Attempts are underway to recover "billions of pounds worth of British gold hidden in the wrecks of merchant ships sunk during the First and Second World Wars."

Pinhole cameras are being embedded in streetside ATMs to steal financial information.


Today's blue mineral embeds are (top to bottom) aquamarine and albite, chrysocolla, fluorite, barite, and pentagonite.

26 March 2017

Light. Action. Camera.

"Shot this 3 second "selfie" tonight at Coronado Beach, CA. This is me swinging a string of glow sticks with burning steel wool at the end. Canon 5D SR, Canon 16-35mm @16mm. F2.8, ISO 800. 3 second exposure."
Credit Chris Matthew Brady.

(lame title.  I'm open to suggestions...)

"Structural color" in butterfly wings


Scientists study the process in vitro in order to document the development of nanostructures that give the appearance of color without having pigment themselves.  Interesting.

Addendum:  A tip of the butterfly-chasing hat to reader Drabkikker, who offered a link to an article at Atmospheric Optics in his comment.  Everyone who enjoys the video should also read that link.

Schwarzenegger shuts down a troll


Arnold Schwarzenegger posted a video congratulating the winners of the Special Olympics World Games. Some dickhead troll responded -
“The Special Olympics make no sense.  The Olympics are for the best athletes in the entire world to compete against each other to determine who is the best,” the individual wrote. “Having retards competing is doing the opposite!”
I've embedded his response above.

"... no one will ever remember you."  More Terminator than Kindergarten Cop.

Gaiman: "our future depends on libraries and reading"

Excerpts from a superb extended interview in The Guardian:
I’m going to tell you that libraries are important. I’m going to suggest that reading fiction, that reading for pleasure, is one of the most important things one can do. I’m going to make an impassioned plea for people to understand what libraries and librarians are, and to preserve both of these things...

Fiction has two uses. Firstly, it’s a gateway drug to reading... it forces you to learn new words, to think new thoughts, to keep going. To discover that reading per se is pleasurable. Once you learn that, you’re on the road to reading everything...

The simplest way to make sure that we raise literate children is to teach them to read, and to show them that reading is a pleasurable activity. And that means, at its simplest, finding books that they enjoy, giving them access to those books, and letting them read them.

I don’t think there is such a thing as a bad book for children. Every now and again it becomes fashionable among some adults to point at a subset of children’s books, a genre, perhaps, or an author, and to declare them bad books, books that children should be stopped from reading. I’ve seen it happen over and over; Enid Blyton was declared a bad author, so was RL Stine, so were dozens of others. Comics have been decried as fostering illiteracy.

It’s tosh. It’s snobbery and it’s foolishness. There are no bad authors for children, that children like and want to read and seek out, because every child is different...

And the second thing fiction does is to build empathy. When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people... You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed...

You’re also finding out something as you read vitally important for making your way in the world. And it’s this: The world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different...

...libraries are about freedom. Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication. They are about education (which is not a process that finishes the day we leave school or university), about entertainment, about making safe spaces, and about access to information.
I worry that here in the 21st century people misunderstand what libraries are and the purpose of them. If you perceive a library as a shelf of books, it may seem antiquated or outdated in a world in which most, but not all, books in print exist digitally. But that is to miss the point fundamentally.
I think it has to do with nature of information. Information has value, and the right information has enormous value...

I do not believe that all books will or should migrate onto screens: as Douglas Adams once pointed out to me, more than 20 years before the Kindle turned up, a physical book is like a shark. Sharks are old: there were sharks in the ocean before the dinosaurs. And the reason there are still sharks around is that sharks are better at being sharks than anything else is. Physical books are tough, hard to destroy, bath-resistant, solar-operated, feel good in your hand: they are good at being books, and there will always be a place for them...

We have an obligation to support libraries. To use libraries, to encourage others to use libraries, to protest the closure of libraries. If you do not value libraries then you do not value information or culture or wisdom. You are silencing the voices of the past and you are damaging the future.
I had to refrain from inserting even more text from this insightful commentary.  I encourage you to read (and share) the fulltext here.

Photo credit: Robin Mayes.

This is a greenhouse


Specifically it's a structural component of the Bombay Sapphire Distillery in the United Kingdom.
...they use the excess heat from inside the distillery to be able to create a greenhouse environment outside and allow the distillery to grow tropical and Mediterranean herbs and spices directly on site. Herbs and spices that are then used in their gin products.
There are actually two greenhouses:

One of the greenhouses has the environment and climate necessary to grow tropical plants and other one grows mediterranean plants, using a different climatic environment.

The gardens are taken care of by a team of botanical garden experts who oversee the growth of hundreds of plants as well as herbs and spices that grow alongside the original 10 used in their recipe.
Kudos to the designers and developers for recycling the energy and for making the project esthetically appealing.

A football game has only 11 minutes of action

From a 2010 article in the WSJ (the numbers might have changed a bit since then):
According to a Wall Street Journal study of four recent broadcasts, and similar estimates by researchers, the average amount of time the ball is in play on the field during an NFL game is about 11 minutes...

So what do the networks do with the other 174 minutes in a typical broadcast? Not surprisingly, commercials take up about an hour. As many as 75 minutes, or about 60% of the total air time, excluding commercials, is spent on shots of players huddling, standing at the line of scrimmage or just generally milling about between snaps. In the four broadcasts The Journal studied, injured players got six more seconds of camera time than celebrating players. While the network announcers showed up on screen for just 30 seconds, shots of the head coaches and referees took up about 7% of the average show...
This is why the only way I watch football nowadays is by using a DVR and speeding through the game (and past the commercials).

Reposted from 2012 to add news of developments in 2017:
"It has been an effort for a long period of time. We've talked about the length of the game," [NFL Commissioner] Goodell said. "This effort's not as focused on the length of the game. This is focused on what's happening outside the plays -- how fast we get the ball set, the number of breaks, the number of intrusions -- so that fans can focus on the action."

With all this talk about making the game faster for fans, what would Goodell consider the ideal length of a broadcast?
"We (were at) 3:07 and change (last season), down about a minute," Goodell said. "We think we could probably get pretty close to five minutes of downtime out of the game, so that would bring you somewhere in the 3:02 range. That would be very successful if we could get to that point. But, again, not just the length. We want to make sure we are taking the right things out of the game -- the things that are not compelling to our fans."
Clueless.  The idea that cutting 5 minutes out of a 3-hour broadcast will satisfy fans' frustrations shows that viewer interests don't even begin to compete with advertiser's interests.

Is it OK to put dog poop in a neighbor's garbage can?

There are some dilemmas of modern life that our grandparents could never have imagined.  In various locations around this country there is an ongoing public debate about the disposal of dog poop.  Everyone agrees that the dog's owner should pick it up - but there is disagreement about the proper disposal.

The dog's owner is out for a walk.  The dog poops four blocks from home.  The owner bags the poop.  It's garbage pick-up day and the containers are at curbside.  Does he/she place the bagged poop in a nearby container, or carry it all the way home?
According to Minneapolis ordinances, you can’t put “substances or materials of any kind” in a residential garbage can “when the substances or materials were generated at a location other than the residence.”

In St. Paul, ordinances say when a dog poops on someone else’s property, the dog owner has to remove the poop “to a proper receptacle located on property owned or possessed” by the dog owner.
Discussion and various proposed solutions (including stickers to put on garbage cans) at the StarTribune.

Prophetic words from Rod Serling


This Twilight Zone closing summary has been widely cited in recent months:
The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill, and suspicion can destroy, and a thoughtless frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own for the children, and the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is that these things cannot be confined to the Twilight Zone. 
Those were the final words from the broadcast of The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street (1960).

23 March 2017

Is there an error in this Constable painting?


The painting is "Wivenhoe Park" by John Constable, currently in the collections of the National Gallery of Art.

I first saw this painting about 30 years ago in a print that was on the wall of the office of a colleague of mine at the University of Kentucky.  After looking at the painting for a while, I initially concluded that the artist (world famous for his landscape portrayals) must have made an error in depicting the scene.  Nobody else seemed interested in the apparent anomaly, and I lost track of the painting (not knowing its title) until I encountered it again this past week.

I invite you to explore the image (it should enlarge to wallpaper size with a click) to see if you find anything that appears internally inconsistent in the content.

Wivenhoe Park is a real, not an imaginary, place - a country estate in Essex.  Two seemingly contradictory aspects of the painting have puzzled me.  Left center of the image there is a bridge spanning the watercourse:


The flow of the water is clearly from the left of the painting toward the right.  Now look downstream to where two fishermen are working their net:


This is presumably a gill net of some sort, spanning the watercourse from shore to shore, held up by cork floats.  They are presumably lifting it in segments to harvest any fish that have become entrapped.

But... the curvature of the net would be consistent with water flowing from the right of the picture toward the left, not left-to-right as the bridge at the left would indicate. 

It's a curious mistake for a landscape artist to make - especially an artist as skilled as Constable, and especially when drawing from life rather than from imagination.  I decided that for a painting as large and complex as this one, he must have made preparatory sketches and that his sketch of the fishermen must have been made from the opposite shore, then incorporated into the landscape "backwards."  I thought I found confirmation in this comment from an analysis at the V&A:
The artist rearranged the landscape to create a more harmonious image. For example, the lake and house would not have been visible in the same view in real life.
So perhaps a sort of "compositional error."  I considered other possibilities.  I found the location of Google Maps and zoomed in to confirm that the watercourse in the painting is remote from the sea, so the bowing of the fishing nets is not the result of tidal flow.

But now a different apparent anomaly bothered me.  The Google map confirmed that this isn't a rushing river.  It's not even a decent-sized creek.  In fact if you look at the pipe passing through the dam under the bridge, the flow is almost negligible.  So why is the net bowed?  It clearly goes from shore to shore, not in a huge circle.

The answer came when I tracked down one of Constable's sketches in the archives of the Victoria and Albert:


Now it's as clear as day.  The net is being dragged by 4-5 people on each shore (in retrospect they are visible on the far shore in the final painting).   I note also that the V&A entitles this sketch "Fishing with a net on the lake in Wivenhoe Park."  Not a river or stream - just a manmade lake (large pond, really) prettified by a wealthy landowner employing a landscape architect:
In order to evoke a sense of the picturesque the architect Woods introduced an arch and bridge specifically designed to look old...
End of story?  Sort of.  At least in terms of the faithfulness of the representation, Constable has been vindicated, and my original concerns are "much ado about nothing."

But now I'm interested in something else.  My (incorrect) impression from the painting was that it portrayed two fishermen as incidental elements in a landscape. Now the activity appears to be way more than a recreational pastime. This is a large crew - a dozen grown men dragging a lake for fish. On a private estate. These are hired hands - a crew assembled for this purpose.

This painting was commissioned by the Rebow family, so Constable incorporated aspects that would be important to the family - including their eleven-year-old daughter Mary driving a donkey cart on the hillside to the left (inset right).

The dragging of the lake must also be important, and I would therefore conclude that the harvest of the fish was significant (important enough to employ all the gardeners on the estate and maybe some hired hands as well.)

Which brings me to my final point (at last, and the reason for posting this long-winded entry in the first place) - aquaculture as a likely practice on English country estates.

After a lot of searching I found this book -


- not in my local library, but available fulltext online here.  Herewith some excerpts:
This book is being published in order to highlight a little-known aspect of animal husbandry in former times, namely the keeping, storing and cultivation of crucian carp (Carassius carassius ), carp (Cyprinus carpio), tench (Tinca tinca) and other cyprinids in man-made ponds... The construction of fishponds began across Europe, and increased rapidly during the twelfth and thirteenth century. At that time, fishponds were constructed on estates belonging to bishops, monasteries and royalty across England... The balance of evidence now indicates that fishponds were introduced into Britain after the Norman Conquest (1066) as a secular aristocratic initiative rather than a monastic innovation... The abundance of literary references to fishponds shows that their possession, along with mills, dovecotes and deer parks, was one of the privyleges of manorial landholders, a badge of rank as much as a practical utility... Many royal castles, palaces, manor-houses and hunting-lodges were equipped with fishponds... An account book for 1632–6 kept by the Duke of Suffolk’s estate steward records the cleaning-out of the Lulworth Castle fishponds at a cost of £9 4s 8d and the purchase of a ‘trammell nett’ (a long, narrow fishing-net held vertically in the water by floats and sinkers, consisting of two walls of large-meshed netting, between which a narrow-meshed net was loosely hung) for catching the fish... The fishing of Stonehead Lake in 1793 produced 2,000 carp ‘of large dimensions’, including one 8 kg specimen... By the 1740s the geometrically-shaped ponds associated with formal gardens were passing out of fashion. Some were abandoned, others altered, as revolutionary ideas of ‘landscape’ gardening encouraged the creation of larger lakes of more ‘natural’ appearance... Yet some advocates of agricultural improvement were still promoting fishponds as a contribution to the farming economy into the early nineteenth century... Frensham Great Pond was still emptied every five years for fishing-out as late as 1858...
Constable completed Wivenhoe Park in 1816, so apparently aquaculture was still a going concern at that estate.  I wonder if such efforts were revived during the relative scarcities of WWII.  I'd especially like to hear any input from British readers of this blog regarding this subject.

You learn something every day.

"Protruding iris collarette"

The iris collarette is a landmark that separates the central pupillary zone from the peripheral ciliary zone. It is typically flat but can be prominent, as seen in this patient. This finding is a normal variant. It is benign and asymptomatic and requires no treatment.
Via Neatorama.

"Climate security"

Memo to self: use the phrase "climate security" when discussing climate change with skeptics.
2016 saw a "dramatic" decline in the number of coal-fired power stations in pre-construction globally. The authors of a new study say there was a 48% fall in planned coal units, with a 62% drop in construction starts...

The main causes of the decline are the imposition of restrictive measures by China's central government - with the equivalent of 600 coal-fired units being put on hold until at least 2020... there have also been significant retirements of coal plants in Europe and the US over the past two years, with roughly 120 large units being taken out of commission.

"However abrupt, the shift from fossil fuels to clean sources in the power sector is a positive one for health, climate security, and jobs. And by all indications, the shift is unstoppable."
Maybe American politicians would respond more favorably to the concept of "climate security" than to "climate change."

Can't tolerate punches from cartoon kittens

A 17-year-old girl in California created a website "where users click on Donald Trump’s face to punch him with tiny kitten paws."
But what was meant as nothing more than a jokey website for coding practice has turned into a legal nightmare. Now Lucy is facing the wrath of the big man himself.

Three weeks after the site went live, Lucy was served a cease and desist letter from Trump’s general counsel stationed in Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue in NYC.

The letter, confirmed by the Observer, reads exactly as you’d expect a Trump C&D would. It begins touting him as a “well-known businessman” and television star and boasts, “As I’m sure you’re aware, the Trump name is internationally known and famous.”

Guided by a family lawyer, Lucy changed the name of the site to KittenFeed.com

When shall we meet?


From the archives of The New Yorker.
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