27 January 2015

A blizzard (of links) for you

"Molten gold was poured down his throat."  Modern forensic pathologists reproduce the death of a Spanish governor of colonial Ecuador in 1599.  They suggest that the reports of his bowels bursting may have been the result of steam generated by the procedure.

How to fold a shirt in two seconds.

Religious and ethnic affiliations of terrorists.  It's not as simple as some media outlets try to lead you to believe.

A lymphoproliferative (tumor-causing) virus is now widespread in wild turkeys.   It's not contagious to humans, but you shouldn't eat the birds.

Norwegian firefighters show you the wrong way to put out a car fire.   Do not aim a stream of high-pressure water at an angle that will push the car down a hill toward houses (video at the link).

A report in Discover suggests that female ejaculate squirted during orgasm is probably just urine.

"At least 42,000 gallons of oil has leaked into the Yellowstone River from a broken pipeline, leaving the Glendive city water supply smelling and tasting like petroleum."

A Florida police department was found to be using mug shot photographs of black men for target practice ("the technique is widely used and the pictures are vital for facial recognition drills.")

An interesting article in WaPo indicates that modern technology has the potential to render life-saving drugs cheaper by orders of magnitude through the creation of "biosimilar" drugs.  They do not report on the amount Big Pharma will spend to squash this.

Over a century ago someone left a .44-40 Winchester rifle leaning against a juniper tree in Nevada. It was just found, slightly the worse for exposure.  The photo at right shows why it was hard for the owner and subsequent passers-by to spot.

Rechargeable lithium batteries are dangerous as plane cargo because when packed in bulk they can ignite. "Shipments of rechargeable batteries on passenger planes are supposed to be limited to no more than a handful in one box... But a loophole lets shippers pack many small boxes in one shipment and get around the rules. Tens of thousands of the batteries may be packed into pallets or containers and loaded into the cargo holds of wide-body passenger planes.

Jamie Diamond, CEO of JPMorganChase, complains that the financial sector is facing crippling over-regulation. "In the old days," Dimon said, "you dealt with one regulator when you had an issue, maybe two. “Now it’s five or six. It makes it very difficult and very complicated. "You all should ask the question about how American that is. And how fair that is," he added. "And how complex that is for companies."  In other news, "JPMorgan Chase earned $4.9 billion in the fourth quarter of 2014, the company announced on Wednesday, down from a year ago, but capping what CEO Jamie Dimon called a record year for the biggest U.S. bank by assets."

The QI Elves report that a "typical breakfast" for George IV consisted of "2 pigeons; 3 steaks; 1 bottle wine; 1 glass champagne; 2 glasses port; 1 glass brandy; some laudanum."

The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven was recently pulled from bookstores after the author recanted his testimony and said “I did not die. I did not go to Heaven.”  I find it most interesting that the author's name is Malarkey.

There may be two planets the size of Earth "hiding" in our solar system.

By 2016 the richest 1% of people in the world will own more than the other 99% combined.  They have already seen their share of global wealth increase from 44 percent in 2009 to 48 percent in 2014.

If you are in your car in a traffic jam on an icy interstate highway, the last thing you want to see in your rear-view mirror is an 18-wheeler jackknifing behind you and sliding toward your car.  This is a terrifying video (safe for work etc); I'm impressed by the calmness of the driver photographing the incident.  His blinking emergency flashers add a surreal soundscape to the video.

Public Domain Review offers a well-written extensive article about Lord Byron (left, in Albanian dress), Polidori, and the birth of the modern vampire story.

An op-ed piece at Vice's Motherboard is entitled "The Most Anti-Science Congress in Recent History is Now in Session." "That explicit brand of denial is prominent in the party’s new Senate leadership. Many of the men—and they are all men—who are now stationed in the nation’s most influential science posts each exhibit views that can be considered science-illiterate at best, and at worst, outright hostile to modern scientific inquiry."

A man in Vermont has found his niche in life as an icicle farmer.

"Vajacial" is a portmanteau word meaning "facial for the vagina."  It involves "some steaming and applying some vitamins and egg white."

"A U.S. billionaire who made his fortune betting against sub-prime mortgage securities has told Americans to lower their expectations so they have 'less things' in life. Jeff Greene made his remarks after flying into Switzerland on a private jet with his 19-year younger wife, Mei Sze, children and two nannies."  Gag me with a spoon.

The Claas Xerion 3300 VC Octopus Ditch Bank Mower is an impressive machine for destroying butterfly habitat.

An article in the Telegraph explains that the "cowgirl" sexual position is the one most likely to result in a man breaking his penis.

"A New Jersey teacher said he was charged nearly $9,000 after he showed a cut middle finger to a hospital emergency room aide... $8,200 for the emergency room visit, $180 for the shot, $242 for the bandage and $8 for the ointment, plus hundreds of dollars for the nurse practitioner."

Video highlights of an NBA player scoring 37 points in one quarter of a basketball game.

If you don't like basketball, take at look at this remarkable hockey goal (performed at an exhibition).  I believe it's referred to as a "Michigan", named after this classic goal in 2007 and lots of young hockey players can do them.

Four bears in New Hampshire have died from an overdose of chocolate.   A hunter had put down 90 pounds of chocolate and doughnuts as bait.

U.S. chocolate manufacturer Hershey apparently has difficulty competing with the makers of Cadbury Creme Eggs, Maltesers, Kit Kats and Yorkie bars.  So Hershey is suing them.

A Reddit thread discusses Edward Snowden's claim that iPhones and other smart phones have spyware that allows the government to monitor the user.

The Koch brothers are budgeting almost $900,000,000 to influence upcoming U.S. elections.

Which day of the week is named in the most song titles? (hint: it's not Thursday).

Also at Public Domain review, a fulltext 1915 book of Russian fairytales (in English) (one illustration below).

About one link for every inch of snow falling on my old friends in the Boston area.  Stay safe, everyone.

Res ipsa loquitur

This river in Manila eventually leads to the ocean

Photo credit: Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images, via The Guardian.

26 January 2015

Butterflies can change their spots

Every aspect of a butterfly has been shaped by evolutionary processes over the millenia to render the butterfly as perfectly adapted as possible to its favored environment.  The shape of the wings, the wing pattern, the color of the eggs - all are the result of billions of tiny changes.

Some butterfly wing patterns incorporate "eyespots" such as those seen in my photo of an Eyed Brown above.  It has been well understood that one of the purposes these spots serve is to confuse a predator, as shown by the wings of this Common Buckeye I found with multiple beak-shaped defects in the area of the eyespots:

The process is demonstrated in this video by researchers at Oregon State University.  Mantids are shown attacking the head/thorax of butterflies without prominent eyespots, but the wing margins of those with eyespots:

What is most interesting is that the butterflies are the same genus and species, differing only in seasonal appearance.  (data and discussion published here).  The implications are explained at The Scientist:
Prudic and her collaborator found that the dramatic eyespots on the wings of Bicyclus anynana individuals in the wet season were more effective at fooling mantid insects, the butterflies’ main predators during rainy times, than the more diffuse wing spots of the dry season forms, which are preyed upon mostly by birds. The researchers even found that pasting wet-season spots onto dry-season butterflies had the same effect. Conversly, dry-season patterns [less-prominent eyespots] served to conceal the butterflies better from birds in its eastern African woodland habitats. “Having the right type of eyespot in the right season allowed the butterflies to live long enough to lay eggs and have more offspring in the next generation,” Prudic said. “With the wrong eyespot at the wrong time, they were quickly annihilated by the mantids.”

Somebody has to lose a coin flip...

But nobody loses more of them than the Minnesota Vikings:
"The Minnesota Vikings haven't exactly been lucky on coin tosses, either. Since 1999 (when Pro Football Reference started keeping track), the Vikings have won fewer coin tosses than any team in the National Football League, having done so just 111 times in those 16 seasons (256 total regular season games)... The table shows the win-loss records of teams in games where they win the coin toss."

Word for the day: virga

Our local weatherman used the term "virga" several evenings ago when he pointed out that snow seen on the radar was not reaching the ground:
In meteorology, virga is an observable streak or shaft of precipitation that falls from a cloud but evaporates or sublimes before reaching the ground. At high altitudes the precipitation falls mainly as ice crystals before melting and finally evaporating; this is often due to compressional heating, because the air pressure increases closer to the ground. It is very common in the desert and in temperate climates. In North America, it is commonly seen in the Western United States and the Canadian Prairies. It is also very common in the Middle East, Australia and North Africa.

The word virga is derived from Latin meaning "twig" or "branch".
I've seen this phenomenon all my life (especially when monitoring clouds while hiking or fishing) but didn't know the term.  And now I also realize that for decades I've been incorrectly using "sublimate" as a verb ("A lot of the snow sublimated this weekend") when I should have said "sublimed."  You learn something every day.  

Massive die-off of Pacific seabirds

From National Geographic:
Last year, beginning about Halloween, thousands of juvenile auklets started washing ashore dead from California's Farallon Islands to Haida Gwaii (also known as the Queen Charlotte Islands) off central British Columbia. Since then the deaths haven't stopped. Researchers are wondering if the die-off might spread to other birds or even fish.

"This is just massive, massive, unprecedented," said Julia Parrish, a University of Washington seabird ecologist who oversees the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST), a program that has tracked West Coast seabird deaths for almost 20 years. "We may be talking about 50,000 to 100,000 deaths. So far." 

By comparison, not one of the five largest U.S. bird mortality events tracked by USGS since 1980 is estimated to have topped 11,000 deaths. In Europe, according to the U.K.-based Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the worst die-off on record occurred in 1983, when 57,000 guillemots, razorbills, puffins, and other seabirds perished in the North Sea and washed up on the British coast.

"You get some of this with seabirds every year," said David Nuzum, with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. "You get so many juveniles out there, and they've got this steep learning curve for feeding after being separated from their parents, so you always get a die-off in winter. But I've never seen anything like this, ever, and I've been here since 1985."

"The Last Time I Saw Her" (Gordon Lightfoot)

But that was so long ago
That I can scarcely feel the way I felt before.
And if time could heal the wounds
I would tear the threads away
That I might bleed some more.

A classic and very evocative song, written by Gordon Lightfoot in 1971.  For inexplicable reasons, the creator of this video chose to illustrate a plaintive tune with a manic flurry of images.  But at least it's the original album track, not a cover.

Related:  The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

24 January 2015

The complicated tail of Comet Lovejoy

From APOD:
Comet C/2014 Q2 (Lovejoy), which is currently at naked-eye brightness and near its brightest, has been showing an exquisitely detailed ion tail. As the name implies, the ion tail is made of ionized gas -- gas energized by ultraviolet light from the Sun and pushed outward by the solar wind. The solar wind is quite structured and sculpted by the Sun's complex and ever changing magnetic field. The effect of the variable solar wind combined with different gas jets venting from the comet's nucleus accounts for the tail's complex structure...

The blue color of the ion tail is dominated by recombining carbon monoxide molecules, while the green color of the coma surrounding the head of the comet is created mostly by a slight amount of recombining diatomic carbon molecules...

Comet Lovejoy made its closest pass to the Earth two weeks ago and will be at its closest to the Sun in about ten days. After that, the comet will fade as it heads back into the outer Solar System, to return only in about 8,000 years.

Canine prosthetic legs

This is your feel-good video of the week, which I found at Oregon Expat.

Note from the OP: "Many of you have pointed out that Derby's prosthetics seem too low. We started this way to give him a chance to get used to his new legs. But with 3D printing it's easy to iterate design, so he is being fitted with progressively longer legs until he reaches his optimal height. Work is ongoing and we are about to 3D print the 4th version of his prosthetics."

Can you weigh the air in a football? - updated

Following the AFC championship game, there were allegations that some member of the New England Patriots staff may have provided their team with slightly underinflated footballs (which would be easier to grip in cold wet weather).
Newsday reported that Jackson then gave the ball to a member of the Colts' equipment staff, who noticed the ball seemed underinflated. At that point, coach Chuck Pagano and general manager Ryan Grigson were notified, and Grigson alerted NFL director of football operations Mike Kensil, according to the report...

On the first offensive play from scrimmage in the third quarter, following a kick return, referee Walt Anderson briefly stopped play to replace a football which could have been related to this issue.
I'm puzzled by the claim that the underinflation was investigated by weighing the ball:
The NFL source reportedly told Kravitz that "officials took a ball out of play at one point and weighed it." According to NBC Sports, "several" abnormal balls were allegedly removed from gameplay during the match-up.
The professional football is supposed to weigh between 14 and 15 ounces, inflated to between 12.5 and 13.5 pounds per square inch.  Can an inflation discrepancy be detected by weighing the ball?  Seems doubtful.

AddendumESPN is reporting that 11 game balls were underinflated.  The Washington Post provides the backstory on why the New England Patriots are a controversial team in this regard.

Addendum #2: This topic is going to be in the news for quite a while.  Today The Guardian describes how altering game footballs has been going on for a long time:
Retired quarterback Brad Johnson, who played for four teams over 17 NFL seasons, said he “paid some guys off to get the balls right” ahead of his lone Super Bowl appearance with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after the 2002 season. (His team’s 48-21 victory over the Oakland Raiders suggests it might have worked.)

Johnson’s opponent in that game, Rich Gannon, told CBS Sports: “Ask any quarterback, and this is a non-issue. Everybody does something to them. It’s like a pitcher, he wants the ball a certain way.” Former quarterback Boomer Esiason declared, “Everybody is doing the same thing.” 
For those who argue that the deflated balls were weather-related and affected both teams, it's important to note that each team plays with its own balls (the media are replete with double-entendre phrases like this - no need to repeat them in the comments here).  And the blame will not fall on the players or the coaches:
But the quarterback need not alter the ball himself or instruct that anyone do so; he only need over the course of 13 years make known to the Patriots how he likes his footballs. But if some member of the Patriots staff acted without Brady or coach Bill Belichick’s knowledge or permission — and if the NFL can never prove what happened — then both men can justifiably deny wrongdoing even if they somehow share the guilt. 
It's easy to predict that that is how this will all come down - with some minor lackey in the dungeons of the football stadium being castigated (and perhaps surreptitiously recompensed).

So that's the end of "Deflategate" in my view.  More interesting is this report from Sharp Football Analysis which notes that it is statistically unlikely that the New England Patriots achieved their "fewest fumbles" records just by skill -
I immediately noticed something that cannot be overlooked: the issue with ball security and fumbles. Then I remembered this remarkable fact: The 2014 Patriots were just the 3rd team in the last 25 years to never have lost a fumble at home! 

The biggest difference between the Patriots and the other 2 teams who did it was that New England ran between 150 and 200 MORE plays this year than those teams did in the years they had zero home fumbles, making the Patriots stand alone in this unique statistic...

I looked at the last 5 years of data (since 2010) and examined TOTAL FUMBLES in all games (as well as fumbles/game) but more importantly, TOTAL OFFENSIVE PLAYS RUN. Thus, we can to determine average PLAYS per FUMBLE, a much more valuable statistic. The results are displayed in the chart [which I've moved to the top of the post].

Keep in mind, this is for all games since 2010, regardless of indoors, outdoors, weather, site, etc. EVERYTHING. One can CLEARLY SEE the Patriots, visually, are off the chart. There is no other team even close to being near to their rate of 187 offensive plays (passes+rushes+sacks) per fumble. The league average is 105 plays/fumble. Most teams are within 21 plays of that number...

The Patriots are so “off the map” when it comes to either fumbles or only fumbles lost.  As mentioned earlier:  this is an extremely abnormal occurrence and is NOT simply random fluctuation.
More data and analysis at the link.

Addendum #2 (also from Sharp Football Analysis):
To really confirm something was dramatically different in New England, starting in 2007 thru present, I compared the 2000-06 time period (when Bill Belichick was their head coach and they won all of their Super Bowls) to the 2007-2014 time period.  The beauty of data is the results speak for themselves:

(Note the above chart of "fumble rates" expresses the data as "touches per fumble," so a higher number is a better performance).
In 2006, Tom Brady (and Peyton Manning) lobbied in favor of changing a NFL rule, and as a result, the NFL agreed to change policies. Brady wanted the NFL to let EVERY team provide its OWN footballs to use on offense, even when that team was playing on the road. Prior to that year, the HOME team provided ALL the footballs, meaning the home quarterback selected the footballs the ROAD quarterback would play with on offense...

The statistical “jump” the Patriots make in the 2006 offseason, from one fumble every 39 plays to one fumble every 76 plays is nothing short of remarkable.  Their trendline over this period is not even close to that of the rest of the NFL.
More crunching of the numbers at this link.

American arrested for carrying Arabic "flash cards"

Nick was heading off to start his senior year at Pomona College in California, back in August 2009, when cops detained, aggressively interrogated, handcuffed, and locked him in a jail cell for nearly five hours at the Philadelphia International Airport.

Why was he targeted? Because Nick, a dual major in physics and Middle Eastern studies, was carrying a set of English-Arabic flashcards in for his language class--and Rogue Nation, a book critical of U.S. foreign policy that was written by a former Reagan administration official.
She was in mid-sentence talking to me when a Philadelphia police officer appeared behind me and ordered me to put my hands behind my back. He cuffed my hands, grabbed my arms, and, in full view of the rest of the passengers, walked me through the entire Philadelphia airport and into the police substation.

No one informed me of my rights, and no one would tell me why I was being not just searched but arrested by police, when I was in violation of no law. I had never been arrested, and no one knew I was there.

The police officer left me in a cell at the police station for several more hours. He did not uncuff my hands from behind my back. He did not tell me what I was being held for. He did not tell me how long I would be there. After about two hours I asked to go to the bathroom, and on the way back I again asked why I was being held. He answered me with the same attitude the TSA agent had shown me: "I dunno, what'd you do?"
This is the American we have created for ourselves.  In the news now because he just received a settlement of his lawsuit. 

More details at the ACLU website, via BoingBoing.

How to play with supercooled water at home

This reminds me of how my mother's family used to make ice cream on the farm, with what presumably was a supercooled churn.

"We built this" - redux

During the last presidential campaign, a recurring theme was that of independence from government support, a claim made proudly to counteract Obama's perceived "socialist" tendencies. 

This past week, one of the rebuttals to Obama's State of the Union address was given by Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), who proudly described how she wore plastic bread bags over her shoes as a mark of her family's humble roots and ability to live within their means.  What she conveniently left out was her family's acceptance of federal farm subsidies:
The truth about her family’s farm roots and living within one’s means, however, is more complex. Relatives of Ernst (née: Culver), based in Red Oak, Iowa (population: 5,568) have received over $460,000 in farm subsidies between 1995 and 2009. Ernst’s father, Richard Culver, was given $14,705 in conservation payments and $23,690 in commodity subsidies by the federal government–with all but twelve dollars allocated for corn support. Richard’s brother, Dallas Culver, benefited from $367,141 in federal agricultural aid, with over $250,000 geared toward corn subsidies.

The "national costume" of Canada

I'll defer from commenting on the Miss Universe competition per se, but couldn't resist posting this photo of Miss Canada wearing her "national costume."

As a former manager of a collegiate hockey team, I was startled by the 20-14 "score" until I read that it is a representation of the year (the scoreboard is attached to her outfit, btw).

If you have nothing better to do, here is a full gallery of all the "national costumes."
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