29 February 2012

Francesca da Rimini (1837)


From the collections of the National Galleries of Scotland, the above painting by William Dyce (1806-1864), with this explanation:
Dyce acknowledged this as one of the finest paintings he produced in Edinburgh. Its subject was inspired by the ill-fated lovers described by Dante in his epic poem 'The Inferno'. Francesca, married to an elderly and deformed husband Giancotto, read to his younger brother Paolo and they fell in love. Giancotto surprised the lovers and murdered them. He was originally included in Dyce's composition. A hint of the tragic outcome is still suggested dramatically by the presence of Giancotto's disembodied hand at the left, a fortuitous result of the canvas trimmed to remove damage in 1882
Personally, I like it with the disembodied hand barely entering the frame; it seems even more ominous this way.  I'm glad for the explanation, because otherwise I would never have known what's being portrayed.

I can't very well post a painting of Francesca da Rimini without also posting at least part of Tschaikovsky's symphonic fantasy of the same name.  Here's Part I of III -


- with a) the composer's program notes at the top in grey, b) insightful comments by the YouTube uploader in brown, and c) selected excerpts from the poem in dark brown at the bottom.  For me, the most musically memorable portion starts at about 5:20.

Part II is here.  I'm going to embed the third part -


- because I like the music where the storm  returns at 6:15.

Via Uncertain Times

A medieval crossbow used as a surgical instrument

The Elche episode shown in our illustration probably belongs to the definitive conquest of Murcia kingdom, tributary to Castile, by the combined forces of Kings James and Alfonso in 1266. The panels read like a comic strip, from left to right, down the page. The first picture shows a Muslim crossbowman hitting a citizen or possibly a commoner knight-any townsman who could maintain horse and equipment at his own expense. The bolt has taken him frontally in the neck, just below the right ear; short and heavy, it would have looked either triangular or square if seen in cross-section, with its tip an equilateral triangle when viewed from the side. Note the crossbow in the picture, the osmosis of military fashion in both armies, and the distinctive palms of Elche.

In the second panel a body of surgeons attends the gentleman in his affluent home surroundings. Apprehension marks his face, as the senior surgeon applies forceps to draw the bolt. Perhaps lodged in bone, the bolt resists all efforts, but bleeding results.

By panel three the medical men are resorting to a final expedient. The patient's head is bound, probably to staunch the bleeding; his disarrayed clothing suggests the ordeal he has been through; his countenance, swollen by now, betrays deep suffering; and he is clinging to a pillar of his house. A crossbow has been attached to another pillar, its cord connected with the bolt, seemingly by a forceps arrangement. Two physicians hold the patient's head in position, one supplying absorbent bandages under the wound. Obviously they plan to fire the embedded projectile in reverse, dislodging it by main force.

Panel four shows the poor fellow, now much the worse for wear but firmly attached to his bolt, his case abandoned as hopeless, making his doctors help him to a nearby Marian shrine. The final panels [not embedded] portray his prayerful confession and his cure, while asleep, at the hands of the Virgin and her two attendant angels. 
 Text and image from a 1972 article in the Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine, which has quite a bit more discussion re the use of the crossbow as a weapon and regarding the medieval attitude about embedded foreign bodies (whether to leave in place or extract).

Via Uncertain Times and Medievalists.net.

MRI stands for MAGNETIC resonance imaging


Prompted by a story at Nothing To Do With Arbroath, I did a quick search for MRI-related photos and stories.  The best collection of photos I found was at a story entitled "MRI Sucks" at the curiously-named Impacted Nurse website.

The most interesting text was in a New York Times story:
The police officer whose pistol flew out of his holster and shot a wall as it hit the magnet. The sprinkler repairman whose acetylene tank was yanked inside, breaking its valve and starting a fire that razed the building...

The magnets are never off, even at night, and cutting the electricity will not affect them. They draw most of their power from [contain] supercooled helium, which must be vented to shut down the magnet - a process that takes several minutes and has hazards of its own...

The roughly 10,000 scanners in the United States are found not just in hospitals, but in storefront clinics and even mounted on trucks, making rounds of small hospitals or parking at malls to do scans for a fee...

Most modern surgical staples, artificial joints, cardiac stents, pacemakers and such are made of titanium, stainless steel or other nonferromagnetic metals. But at least one patient died when a 15-year-old metal aneurysm clip on an artery in her brain was dislodged, and two adults with early-model pacemakers died during or shortly after scans...

Shrapnel and machine-shop debris can also cause problems. In the 1990's, one patient was blinded in an eye when a metal sliver in it from an earlier accident moved. Unexpected items, from foil-backed nicotine patches to tattoos with iron oxide ink, present risks.

Scanners can also pose a danger during emergencies. In Freiburg, Germany, a fireman fighting a blaze elsewhere in the hospital was sucked into the scanner's bore by his air tank. Folded in half, with his knees pressed into his chest, he nearly choked to death.
For emergencies, the scanners have so-called quench buttons that expel the liquid helium.... It erupts in a frigid blast, expanding 760 times, and can injure anyone near the vent.
More at the link, which was published in 2005, so may be partially out-of-date.

Crime and punishment


Found at Criminal Wisdom.

"Keep calm and carry on"

Nurses clearing debris from one of the wards in St. Peter's Hospital, Stepney, East London, on April 19, 1941. (AP Photo)

 From an Atlantic gallery of forty-five WWII photos of "women at war." (click for bigger)

28 February 2012

Shot towers. And a donkey.


After preparing the post below this one, I decided it would be useful to briefly review what a "shot tower" is.  As an example, we'll use the one shown above, at Tower Hill State Park in Wisconsin.  In the early years of settlement, ores containing lead were discovered in the southwestern part of the state.  Lead was a valuable commodity - especially in wartime - and mines proliferated (miners who lived underground were nicknamed "badgers" - a term which later was incorporated into the identity of the state).  Shipping heavy lead ore to distant locations for processing was difficult and expensive, so efforts were made to refine and process it locally.  The production of shot for weapons was achieved through the use of a shot tower.
Shot towers harness the effects of surface tension on liquids in free-fall, a technique developed in 1782. Molten lead can be poured through a strainer at the top of a tower or shaft. The droplets become spherical as they fall and cool in this shape during their descent. The pellets are caught in a water basin to break their fall and finish cooling.

In 1830 a businessman from Green Bay, Wisconsin named Daniel Whitney was traveling along the Wisconsin River and recognized a sharp bluff near the town of Helena as a promising location for a shot tower. Lead deposits had recently been discovered in several locations around Iowa County. From the top of the bluff there was a 60-foot (18 m) sheer drop, below which the sandstone cliff sloped down to the riverbank, 180 feet (55 m) below the clifftop.
The size of shot that can be produced depends on the height of the tower, since droplets forming larger shot need more time to cool and thus a greater distance to fall.  Cold air in the tower can be used to shorten the needed distance.  Shot towers began to become obsolete with the development of a newer method:
A more modern method, called the Bliemeister method, does away with the expensive-to-build shot tower. In this method, droplets of molten lead actually fall only about an inch into a tank of hot water, roll across an incline plane and then continue falling through hot water for another 3 feet or so. Water temperature is used to control the rate of cooling, and surface tension brings the lead droplets into a spherical form.
For those interested, the single best source I know of is this Popular Science article, posted at Google Books.  It is extensively illustrated with photographs and schematic diagrams.


Next, (and unrelated to shot towers), this photo -


- will illustrate (but not totally explain) the phrase "... a remote mountain landscape, where sometimes even the ass goes on a man’s back."

I've seen this photo many times over the years, but have never found an definitive identification of the location, or an explanation of why the soldier is carrying a donkey.  (Via whyismarko, where the photo was used in 2008 for a caption contest - with entertaining results).

And finally, "saffian" is a term for Morocco leather, made from goatskin, and traditionally dyed with sumac.

Now on to the story...

The story of a carved bullet

After I posted the image below earlier this week, it was presented in a European blog - Poemas del rio Wang - with a similar challenge to readers to guess the object's function.  These were some of the responses:

• A deadly message carved into a bullet for the enemy
• A modern art work printed into an angler’s lead weight
• Halloween tooth filling
• Stylishly decorated head of a coffin nail
• Seal ring
• Carved tip of a pencil
• Mummy

• Votive seal of “for better for worse”
• Seal of a medieval dentist or inquisitor
• Iron for branding pirates
• Perhaps there are/were four similar ones, with various (eventually more cheerful) motifs, that is, a set for the five stones game
• Mint stamp

Easily my favorite response was the one crafted by Komaváry, who offered this delightful story, translated here from the Hungarian by Studiolum, and reproduced with minimal editing on my part.  Enjoy.


Don’t believe that only urban gentlemen can have hobbies, or that only craftsmen are able to become master artists. Consider for example this prison captain...

The administration of a prison is an art itself, and the more so in such a remote mountain landscape, where sometimes even the ass goes on a man’s back. He did his job with honor, and who could blame him for having also built a tower of rubblestones and having its yard swept clean even in the heaviest snow-storms. No scurvy or any other kind of disease killed anybody here - only lead bullets.  The ones who were allotted this fate came from somewhere down in the cities of the plain. The only killers here were the lead bullets cast by the captain.

The captain cast his bullets himself, and this was the purpose of the tower. It was perhaps the mountain air glowing around the bubbling lead, perhaps the purity of the mountain water into which it dropped hissing, but every solidified drop fished out from the pool below the tower was just like a metallic silver pearl.

An urban gentleman or a craftsman would have sat back in satisfaction, but the captain’s art just started here. The prison worked well, and if someone looked carefully through the annals, perhaps they would have noticed that all too well, but the annals were the first to perish in the fire when the tower was broken by anti-tank grenades and its ruins covered the guard wing with flames.

And if anyone had any suspicion, the captain would have explained to him that the boundary is as thin here between a mountain shepherd and a bandit as the stripe of a lead drop falling in front of a cell’s window.

When the time neared for executions, each prisoner was given three lead bullets by the prison captain. A special tool, a bullet-carving knife, was also given to them for two long hours before sunset
every day. For two hours the prisoners would carve the bullets, and then, when the thin evening soup was distributed, the carving knives were collected.

The bullets, however, were left in the cell. When the sentences accumulated one could clearly hear how the bullets rub to each other while rolling about in the sweaty palms of the prisoners.

The bullets were there in the prisoners' palms upon awakening, during the morning walk, at the poor lunch, and even when breaking stones, tightened to the pickax’s handle. Every convict carried with him for a week his own death in his palm.

On the morning of an execution, the prisoners were taken to the loess wall of the back yard. As each passed before the three uniformed soldiers, he placed the bullets one by one into the white-gloved palms.

The balls were glittering: the sweat lent them a patina which could never have been created by any blacksmith’s expertise.

The three soldiers put the three bullets into three rifles. The man sentenced to death in his last seconds stared at three gun barrels.

However, in the decisive moment only two guns fired. As soon as the prison doctor confirmed the death, the captain walked to the third soldier - to the one who had received the mute rifle for his task. Sometimes it was the soldier to the right whose weapon clock clicked dully, sometimes the shot was missing from the left, sometimes the bullet remained in the barrel at the middle – the captain tried to mix the weapons as long as he himself did not know which of the three carvings would be spared.

Then in the afternoon he went up to his room, poured himself a finger of cognac, and then – just like an insect collector who discovers a new species on a meadow browsed through a thousand times – changed his white saffian gloves for a thin white tissue glove, and taking out of his pocket the harvest of the day, he carefully examined each bullet.

Then he rubbed the bullet with a cambric kerchief, and put it in the next empty place in the ten-by-ten-cell timber frame made for this purpose. We do not know how many frames were filled by carved bullets, as we do not know where the frames disappeared.

We only know that destiny suddenly changed, and the captain, in his buttonless, torn, bloody uniform stood there in front of his own loess wall. Not three, but thirteen weapons were directed to his breast, and their bullets were not dropped from towers, but produced by the tons in far-away city factories to sprinkle with holes a whole continent.

In the brief silence before the captain's death – because the world keeps silent a little bit before every death – the thirteen riflemen heard a strange, rubbing noise, as if the captain was grinding his teeth, although he was breathing with an open mouth and his eyes staring.

When the body was completely cool and when, despite the cold mountain air, the soldiers were warmed up by the captain’s cognac, one of the riflemen slipped to the corpse lying at the wall. A year earlier he had been an insignificant swineherd; now he was a partisan, though he himself could not decide whether it was his machine gun which brought him there or whether he was bringing the machine gun. He did not want anything of the captain – the others had carefully gone through the captain's pockets in the afternoon; he only wanted to close those wide open eyes, he just did not want to see that gaping mouth. In the darkness he accidentally hit the captain’s hand, and accidentally found the three bullets. He hoped that he had found something of value, but when the next day he looked at the carvings, he hoped something else: that perhaps these three talismans would take him home.

And finally indeed he was the only one to return home from the thirteen, only to leave again a few years later.  He had to go.  He was chased by a hunger, by the hunger which took off everything else, leaving only a tiny bundle and these three bullets. As a last hope, he offered one of the bullets to the captain of a ship – another captain who, he hoped, would take it for a pearl, for a rare treasure.

This captain was an experienced man who had sailed over the seven seas, so he exactly knew that it is not pearl that a man of his age appreciates. Nevertheless, as he was an experienced man, he took one of the bullets, turned it over in his hands, and shuddered. Power is in this, boy, he said, and let him on the ship. The boy did not feel the power, but it was this piece of lead, the dead man’s pearl, which took him to the New World.

The two remaining pearls were with him until he learned the language, until he left the room in the tenement building full of immigrants and cockroaches and rented his own apartment, until he found the partner of his life, and until they moved out to their own garden house. A son was born to them, whom the father tried to spare from everything he was separated by an ocean from.

The boy was not even eighteen when he also was brought away by a machine gun – or the machine gun by him? – over another ocean. His father could not do more than just provide him with one of the carved bullets for protection. Months went by without any news, and he found himself praying in an almost forgotten language to a God more bearded than the one here.

Neither the bullet, nor the son returned - only an empty coffin covered with a flag. Later he wanted to believe that the bullet helped anyway, that it brought to the son a quick death, not one from the diseases of the jungle or from a bamboo stake. While he was turning the last bullet in the hand, he stopped praying, and decided that he himself would raise his grandson, the last gift of his child, a grandson who was conceived the night before his son enlisted.

The grandson who had known no father was afraid. And because he was afraid, he drank, and in order not to be afraid when drunken, he occasionally squeezed the talisman received from his grandfather. He was drinking and squeezing it when they buried his grandfather.  The drink and the carved bullet were with him at his first kiss and at his wedding, too. And it was with him now, when as a man who had no father, he tried to be a father. He watched his daughter playing by pushing back and forth the ice cube he plucked from his drink for her. He poured himself another drink, then opened the little leather bag hanging around his neck, and rolled a bright, carved ball toward the child.  Perhaps she would prefer it to the ice.

When his wife arrived home, he was already sleeping in the armchair, so he did not see her becoming pale and taking the bullet out of the mouth of the giggling girl. She recognized the skull and was angry. She was angry at her sleeping husband, angry at the empty bottle, but most angry at the lead bullet, as she remembered that it carried death – a slow poison leaking into the body which makes one dull. Right before the birth of the child, she had insisted on changing all the pipes in the house her husband had inherited, and had the old paint scraped off by professionals and had the walls repained, and now this…

Three days later the shouting garbage collectors did not notice that in one of the bags, in the plastic box of a diet yogurt, between coffee grounds and egg shells, there was a lead bullet.  They did not notice that the bag was four grams heavier.

The sand dancer and the snowshoer


I posted the "Sand Dancer" video almost three years ago, and was reminded of it today when I saw a set of images, including this one -


- produced by Simon Beck, who produces the designs by stomping on snow while wearing snowshoes.  Other examples at Yahoo and at the artist's Facebook page.

Video originally via b3ta.

Best Foreign Language Film, 2012


Alyssa Rosenberg, at Think Progress, calls this acceptance speech "by far the classiest, most meaningful speech of the evening."
"At this time, many Iranian all over the world are watching us and I imagine them to be very happy. They are happy not just because of an important award or a film or filmmaker, but because at the time when talk of war, intimidation and aggression is exchanged between politicians, the name of their country Iran is spoken here through her glorious culture. A rich and ancient culture that has been hidden under the heavy dust of politics. I proudly offer this award to the people of my country. A people who respect all cultures and civilizations and despise hostility and resentment."
She notes that Farhadi's wearing of a necktie for the ceremony is a subtle rebuke of the Iranian regime, which views it as a "decadent Western accessory."

Via The Dish.

Military contributions to presidential candidates


Discussed at Mother Jones:
The lion's share of political contributions by servicemembers and defense industry workers is going to anti-war, "soft on Israel," also-ran candidate Ron Paul. In fact, the battle for their dollars isn't even close: Paul has raised at least $282,868 from individual active-duty servicemembers and Pentagon employees—more than four times what the other three Republican presidential candidates have raised, combined...

Soldiers tend to see Paul as understanding the pressures they face better than the other candidates because he's the only one in the group who served in uniform, as a flight surgeon in the Air Force and Air National Guard during the Vietnam era...


Meanwhile, Paul's support from defense contractor employees—who donated more than $177,000 to him in 2011—has outpaced that of his competitors... That may seem downright counterintuitive. 
There's further discussion at the link, where a second graph showing contribution per service sector has a visually inverted legend.

Facebook - "the massive online surveillance program run by the CIA"


This video is reportedly being spread on Facebook by people who do not understand where it comes from.

How Rick Santorum home-schooled his children

From Andrew O'Hehir's Home Schooling blog at Salon:
Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum is probably “the most prominent home-schooler in America.” Indeed, the fact that Santorum’s seven kids have largely been educated at home (two of them are now adults) is a key aspect of Santorum’s appeal to his right-wing base...

In a recent Ohio speech, for instance, Santorum described the predominant model of public education as an artifact of the Industrial Revolution that has become ill-suited to a post-industrial age: “People came off the farms where they did home-school or had a little neighborhood school, and into these big factories … called public schools.”..

As various media outlets from Mother Jones to the Washington Post have reminded us in recent weeks, Santorum’s record as a home-schooler is ambiguous at the very least, and arguably hypocritical. From 2001 through at least 2004, when Santorum was serving in the Senate and living full-time in Loudoun County, Va., five of his children were enrolled in an online charter school based in Pennsylvania — a public school, albeit an unusual one — with computers, curricula and other educational services provided at taxpayer expense. According to the Penn Hills Progress, a newspaper in Santorum’s suburban Pittsburgh hometown that broke the story at the time, the local school district had spent approximately $100,000 educating the senator’s so-called home-schooled children, although they lived neither in the district nor in the state...

Appearing to live in Pennsylvania was distinctly advantageous for the Santorums, because state law required school districts to pay 80 percent of the online charter-school tuition for local families who chose it... In other words, the Santorums presented themselves to the world as home-schoolers for at least three years, while Pennsylvania taxpayers picked up the bill for their kids’ education — and they actually lived in a different state. For a private citizen, this would have been an embarrassing ethical lapse, but somewhat short of criminal misconduct. For a politician whose reputation rests upon issues of character and integrity, it’s considerably more damning.
The rest of the story is in the Salon column (which, btw, contains numerous well-thought-out and well-expressed ideas about home-schooling).  I have to admit that even though I have extended family members who home-school, I never realized that public funds were available to help cover the cost of doing so.  You learn something every day.

27 February 2012

"Wicked Witch of the East" cupcake


Delightfully clever.  I was not able to navigate the baker's Sweet Rewards website to find out how to make the legs and feet; perhaps it's a proprietary secret.  Any suggestions from readers?

Via Neatorama.

"Adaptive" spontaneous abortions

Named after its discoverer, the "Bruce effect" is a phenomenon in which pregnant female geladas (relatives of baboons) abort their fetuses when a new male becomes dominant:
If a newcomer ousts the chief monkey, it’s bad news for the group’s females. A wave of death sweeps through the unit, as the new male kills all the youngsters whom his predecessor fathered... But that’s not all. Eila Roberts from the University of Michigan has found that the new male’s arrival triggers a wave of spontaneous abortions. Within weeks, the vast majority of the local females terminate their pregnancies. It’s the first time that this strategy has been observed in the wild...

It’s obvious why the incoming males kill any existing infants. Female geladas don’t become fertile until they stop raising their existing children. Assuming no abortions, they go for three years between pregnancies. That’s longer than the typical reign of a dominant male. So, a newcomer, having finally won the right to mate, has few opportunities to actually do so. To make things worse, his females are busy raising someone else’s children. His solution: kill the babies. The quicker he does this, the sooner the females become fertile again, and the sooner he can father his own children.

But why would a pregnant female abort her own foetus? Roberts thinks that it’s an adaptive tactic in the face of a new male’s murderous tendencies. Since the male would probably kill the newborn baby anyway, it’s less costly for the female to abort than to waste time and energy on bringing a doomed infant to term. Her future offspring, conceived more quickly and fathered by the incumbent king of the hill, will stand a better chance of survival.
Further details are published in the Science article, nicely summarized at Not Exactly Rocket Science.  The mechanism of the abortion is not readily apparent; one supposes that it occurs because of alterations in hormonal balances.

Trojan virus aimed at Apple Macintosh users


An FYI, via The Telegraph:
It tries to take covert control of Macs using three methods. Two exploit vulnerabilities in Java, a software language commonly used by websites to deliver interactive elements, and require no intervention from the user to succeed. 
If Java is not installed or all its security patches are up-to-date, however, the new variant, Flashback.G, attempts to trick users into installing it by presenting a fake security certificate that looks like it comes from Apple, according to Intego, a computer security firm...

Mac users running previous versions of OS X, such as Snow Leopard, are most at risk, because Java was included as part of the installation package... "It is therefore essential that anyone running OS X 10.6 update Java immediately," Intego said. Users running the latest version of OS X, Lion, may have installed Java themselves, however, and so should also ensure it fully updated.
How does one ensure that one has the latest update of Java? Is this update from Apple's support site sufficient? (It doesn't specify any modifications of Java.)

Scotland may vote on independence

From a story at the Washington Post:
Appealing to the force of tartan pride, the Scottish National Party won surprise control of the regional Parliament last year, which thrust the separatist fantasy of hearing “Scots Wha Hae” on the bagpipes as the national anthem into the realm of distinct possibility. The British government, boxed into a precarious corner, has opened formal negotiations with the Scots to set a date for an independence referendum...

Scotland’s independence crusade is emerging as the greatest threat to the cohesion of the United Kingdom since Ireland achieved independence — a ­three-decade process that culminated in 1949, when Ireland left the Commonwealth.

Scotland won the right to a “devolved” Parliament in the late 1990s and has sweeping powers over, for example, its judicial system and government spending. But full independence would give the SNP the authority to fulfill a wide array of pledges, including expelling the British nuclear fleet from Scottish waters, withdrawing from NATO and unwinding Scottish regiments from Britain’s military forces overseas...

The push here is being watched with nervous eyes across Europe, particularly in countries that have long struggled with powerful separatist movements, such as Spain and Belgium...

[The nationalists] argue that an independent Scotland would be the world’s sixth-richest nation as measured by income per person. With an economy larger than Denmark’s and a population of 5 million, they maintain, an independent Scotland would be a tartan utopia always able to afford the kinds of progressive perks already enjoyed by the Scots but not the English — including free university education, prescription drugs and home health care for the elderly.
I bet this will be the key to the decision-making:
That dream, however, is based on one big calculation: North Sea oil. Most agree that a majority of energy reserves in Scottish waters would need to be ceded by the British to make independence viable. But with analysts predicting the North Sea could be depleted by the 2030s, even a predominant share of that revenue might buy the Scots only a few decades to come up with an economically sustainable plan.
I would welcome commentary from readers across the pond.

When the big Ronald McDonald gets blown over...

 
... the result can be spooky, even if you don't have coulrophobia. 

Photo at imgur, via Reddit.

You should NEVER breathe pure helium

Never.  It is potentially lethal, as these teenagers found out:
After drinking on the drive, and downing more drinks in the condo, it came time for [14-year-old] Ashley to take her turn on a tank of helium that everyone else was inhaling to make their voices sound funny.

"That helium tank got going around... It got to my daughter. My daughter didn't want to do it. It was peer pressure. They put a mask up to her face. They said it would be OK. `It's not gonna hurt you. It'll just make you laugh and talk funny.'"

Instead, she passed out and later died at a hospital, the result of an obstruction in a blood vessel caused by inhaling helium from a pressurized tank... Dr. Mark Morocco, associate professor of emergency medicine at the Ronald Reagan Medical Center in Los Angeles, said what happens is similar to when a scuba diver surfaces too quickly. A gas bubble gets into the bloodstream, perhaps through some kind of tear in a blood vessel, and can block blood flow to the brain, causing a stroke.

The gas is also commonly seen in suicide kits — mail-order hoods sold out of Oregon and elsewhere that can be attached to a helium tank by people who want to kill themselves. In those cases, the helium crowds out the oxygen, asphyxiating a person. Death from inhaling helium is so rare that the American Association Poison Control Centers lumps it in with other gases, such as methane and propane. Only three deaths were recorded in 2010, said spokeswoman Loreeta Canton...

The family moved from Grants Pass, Ore., to Eagle Point about a year ago, and Ashley had just gotten over the difficulty of adjusting to eighth grade in a new school. Justin Earp said the kids had four wine coolers each in the car, and four mixed drinks at the condo, before they started passing around the helium. Police said it was an 8-gallon canister, the kind you can buy at many stores. The kids were taking hits directly from the tank.
The cause of death is described as a gas embolism, which could occur if the nipple from the cylinder was placed directly in the mouth and the flow was high.  The more common mode of death would be through anoxic asphyxia, in which the inhaled pure helium displaces oxygen in the lungs; that can occur even after inhaling low-pressure gas via a loose-fitting face mask.

Helium is, as noted, rare as a cause of death, and is less commonly recognized as a toxic gas because it is lighter than air and unlike carbon dioxide and methane, it doesn't tend to accumulate in spaces (except in rare industrial settings).

If someone wants to alter their voice to imitate "Donald Duck," the effect can be achieved by inhaling a helium-oxygen mixture ("Heliox"), which typically contains 20% oxygen, 80% helium - though other proportions are available for specialized medical uses.  Those canisters are more difficult to find (and I suspect considerably more expensive) than the helium cylinders used to inflate balloons.

If you're at a party, and a helium cylinder is present, with tubing coming off the regulator leading to a face mask, look at the label on the cylinder.  If it doesn't specify that it is a helium-oxygen mixture, give it a pass and warn everyone else.

25 February 2012

St. John and the poisoned chalice


A detail from a stained glass window in Bardney, depicting St John holding a chalice containing a dragon or salamander:
Saint John the Evangelist is depicted holding a chalice, an allusion to his being put to the test by the high priest of the Temple of Diana at Ephesus. The high priest said to him: "If you want me to believe in your god, I will give you some poison to drink and, if it does not harm you, it means that your god is the true God." Thus the picure shows Saint John making the gesture of blessing which was to neutralize the poison escaping from the chalice in the form of a small two-headed dragon. He was then able to drink the potion, according to the legend. The story was popularized through the Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine, but was inspired by the words of the Gospels. In St. Matthew, Jesus says to St. John and his brother: "You shall indeed share my cup." And in St. Mark's Gospel, the risen Christ sends his apostles out into the world promising them, among other things, protection against poison: "Faith will bring with it these miracles . . . if believers drink any deadly poison, they will come to no harm."
From the Flickr photostream of Tina Negus.

Precontact North America was extraordinary

A letter from a Dutch sailor, written in 1624:
"We were much gratified on arriving in this country. Here we found beautiful rivers, bubbling fountains flowing down into the valleys, basins of running waters in the flatlands, agreeable fruits in the woods such as strawberries, pigeon berries, walnuts, and also voor labrusten, or wild grapes. The woods abound with acorns for feeding hogs and with venison. There is considerable fish in the rivers, good tillage land; here is, especially, free coming and going, without fear of the naked natives of the country. Had we cows, hogs, and other cattle fit for food (which we daily expect in the first ships) we would not wish to return to Holland, for whatever we desire in the paradise of Holland is here to be found. If you will come hither with your family, you will not regret it."
I found that at the always-interesting Lapham's Quarterly.  The passage reminded me of a remarkable book I read several years ago. Paradise Found: Nature in America at the Time of Discovery (University of Chicago Press, 2009) was written by Steve Nicholls, an entomologist who has been director and writer of Emmy Award-winning wildlife documentaries for the Smithsonian Channel, Animal Planet, National Geographic, and PBS. The book is a compendium of observations re North America from the time of European "contact" through the expansion to the Pacific.  It is fascinating reading (though sometimes depressing when one considers what has changed).


Here are some of the notes I jotted down while reading the book, and a couple excerpts:

Atlantic seacoast:
When the Vikings arrived at the New World, Atlantic salmon weighed 25-50#, were 4-5 feet long, and swam in 3000 rivers.

The waters off Labrador and Newfoundland were called the “Sea of Whales” because they were so abundant. By the end of the seventeenth century, they had been slaughtered in such abundance that their bones were piled on the shorelines. “there must have been in our estimate the remains of more than two or three thousand whales. In one place we counted ninety skulls of prodigious size.”

Oysters in Chesapeake Bay were a foot in length. In the early 1600s the sturgeon were harvested: “in one day within the space of two miles only, some gentlemen in canoes caught above six hundred.” All the rivers of the east coast were thick with sturgeon – “in some rivers so numerous, that it is hazardous for canoes and the like small vessels to pass to and again…”

Eastern Forests:
 “Sycamores were often hollow, and large enough to shelter twenty or thirty men during a sudden storm.”
“There were spruce trees measuring twenty feet in circumference, while back in the Carolinas, explorers were frustrated in their attempts to shoot turkeys out of their roosts by the sheer size of the trees:
“We saw plenty of Turkies, but perch’d upon such lofty Oaks, that our Guns would not kill them, tho’ we shot very often, and our Guns wer very good.” 
 Magnificent chestnut oaks, which these turkeys had wisely chosen as a roost, often rose sixty feet before there were any branches. So, while it’s easy to be impressed by the great tracts of forest carpeting the ridges and valleys of the Appalachians today, we should remember that these forests are nothing like the precolonial forests. Those first explorers found themselves walking through a natural cathedral whose green roof arched fifty or more feet above their heads…”
Bison roamed in Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia, and Kentucky when settlers arrived.

“The other commodity of the forests frequently commented upon was the superabundance of nut-bearing trees: pecans, walnuts, oaks, and, most abundant of all, the American chestnut. In the fall, these forests rained nuts. There’s some evidence that Indians spared valuable nut and fruit trees when clearing fields, or even planted them.”

The eastern forests sheltered wolves, cougars, and an abundance of bears. At a Canadian island, “The Bears, who are the principal inhabitants of this island, are so numerous that in the space of six weeks we killed fifty three and might have destroyed twice that number had we saw fit.”

Up North:
“Between 1700 and 1720, an average of nineteen thousand beaver skins were brought into the trading post at Fort Albany each year… Lynx, too, were extremely abundant, to judge from records of skins shipped to Europe to keep the fashionable warm. Between 1853 and 1877, over half a million lynx skins were sold in London.”

Great Lakes salmon: “The superintendent of fisheries for Upper Canada witnessed some amazing spectacles: “I have seen them from 1812 to 1815, swarming the rivers so thickly, that they were thrown out with a shovel, and even with the hand.” At Wilmot’s Creek in Ontario, inhabitants “often hauled out a thousand salmon a night…”

Out West:
Los Angeles Harbor was filled with coastal gray whales. One captain described three large pods “each above five hundred whales” that followed his ship for an hour. “

Arctic foxes were incredibly numerous on Bering Island. On one single day, the crew killed sixty of them…“The foxes which now turned up among us in countless numbers, became accustomed to the sight of men and, contrary to habit and nature, ever tamer, more wicked, and so malicious that they dragged apart all the baggage, ate the leather sacks, scattered the provisions, stole and dragged away from one his boots, from another his socks and trousers, gloves, coats. “It also seemed that, the more we slew and the oftener we tortured them most cruelly before the eyes of the others, letting them run off half skinned, without eyes, without tails, and with feet half roasted, the more malicious the others became… At the same time, they made us laugh in our greatest misery by their crafty and comical monkey tricks.” (p. 322)

We won't even get into the bison herds here, or the billions upon billions of butterflies (sigh).  And there were of course an equal abundance of "pests" like locusts:
In June 1875 Albert Child saw a “cloud” of locusts approaching. He was a scientist, so used the telegraph to send messages up and down the line to determine the extent of the swarm. The front was 110 miles long and it took five full days to pass over him. 
I'll close with this magnificent quotation, also from Lapham's Quarterly, from The Great Gatsby (1925):
"... for a transitory enchanted moment, man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder."

Here's how to obtain a "manure advisory"

This is serious business around here.  As reported in the Wisconsin State Journal:
The National Weather Service plans to update its “manure advisory” forecasts three times a day at www.manureadvisorysystem.wi.gov. An online, color-coded map (no, they didn’t use the color brown) will alert Wisconsin farmers to conditions and days that are good or bad for spreading manure, so it doesn’t wash off fields into waterways.

The latest map Thursday showed most of the soil across Wisconsin is still frozen this winter. That limits the ability of any manure that’s spread to infiltrate the ground. The map also cautioned farmers across most of south-central Wisconsin and Dane County against spreading manure over the next 10 days, citing a high risk of melting snow.
Manure is a valuable commodity; a farmer doesn't wanted it washing off the fields.  Equally importantly, nobody wants it getting into the streams and lakes, where the huge organic content promotes algal blooms.  The link is for Wisconsin, but your state probably provides a similar service.

Our house is just a couple hundred yards from the nearest corn/soybean field.  My wife and I can always tell when the farmer is manuring the fields.  Frankly, it's not an unpleasant odor, but we both have farm backgrounds.

Photo credit: Steve Apps, Wisconsin State Journal.

How and why robots buy books

It's not just the stock and derivatives markets where robots do the buying and selling.  It also happens at Amazon, as explained by the business editor at GOOD:
Bueno set the price of the book at $14.95 and has sold about 1,000 copies. But in the last few weeks, Bueno has seen his book become the center of a strange phenomenon on Amazon: the bot market. A reseller... appeared, selling for $14.94—lower than the retail price. Another was for sale for $12.50. The only way these resellers could profit would be through excessive shipping and handling charges...

Amazon, he points out, is getting in on the bot action. In response to the apparently illogical prices offered by the robotic resellers, it cut prices, too, now selling the book for $10.76. That surprised Bueno, who thought he had set the final price, but Amazon’s price matching algorithm works automatically. Bueno was pleasantly surprised to find that the cut doesn’t come out of his royalties—Amazon is eating the cost of matching the prices of these fake-book purveying bots. Bueno estimates that Amazon is losing $4.19 of profit each time it sells the book at the discounted price.

Bueno and his friends have speculated that perhaps the point of these bots isn’t actually to game Amazon’s markets, but to use them for other purposes, perhaps laundering money from stolen credit cards by purchasing goods from fellow conspirators at inflated prices. Some of the resellers are based internationally; perhaps they are gaming exchange rates.
Additional details at GOOD Business.

"Foot juggling" (Selyna Bogino)


If you're perpetually in a hurry and want the equivalent of a visual TL;DR, you can skip to about the five minute mark for the most impressive part of her performance.

A lobster as big as a small child

It weighed 27 pounds.
The 40-inch male crustacean, about the size of a three-year-old child, was freed in the waters of the Atlantic Ocean, said Elaine Jones, education director for the state's Department of Marine Resources...

The lobster was caught near the seaside village of Cushing and brought to the Maine State Aquarium in West Boothbay. The state restricts fishermen from keeping lobsters that measure more than 5 inches from the eye to the start of the tail...

The marine lab has no record of a larger lobster being caught in the state, she said. The world's largest recorded lobster was a 44-pounder caught off Nova Scotia in 1977, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.
Via The Telegraph.  Photo credit: Rex Features.

"Writing encourages forgetfulness"

That's the clear implication of this passage about ancient Egypt, attributed to Socrates:
[Writing] will introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it: they will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing, which is external and depends on signs that belong to others, instead of trying to remember from the inside, completely on their own. You have not discovered a potion for remembering, but for reminding; you provide your students with the appearance of wisdom, not with its reality. Your invention will enable them to hear many things without being properly taught, and they will imagine that they have come to know much while for the most part they will know nothing. And they will be difficult to get along with, since they will merely appear to be wise instead of really being so.”
Via Lapham's Quarterly.

24 February 2012

An "ice cream cone" worm


It's a marine polychaete, just like these Christmas tree worms:


You can read about them on your own.  I need to go shovel snow...

Say "adieu" to the word "mademoiselle"

I noticed the story in the Guardian this week -
It was once the preferred form of address for the fashion designer Coco Chanel and a handful of Gallic screen stars. But, now considered an unnecessary and unjustified reference to women's marital status, the French government has decreed the honorific Mademoiselle should be phased out from official forms.

After a campaign by feminist groups, the French prime minister's office has issued a circular saying the Mademoiselle option should be removed from all administrative documents in the vast state bureaucracy...
 - but found a more detailed explanation in a prior report -
Here, referring to myself as madame immediately commands more respect, especially in my place of work and even more so when I introduce myself on the phone. People take me seriously, which isn't always the case when I use mademoiselle...

The honorific [mademoiselle], etymologically related to "damsel", certainly has a medieval ring to it. There is definitely something belittling about the term, as it originally implied the woman was a virgin and not yet the symbolic property of her husband, as madame implies...
- and also this -
During the pre-revolution ancien régime its use was clearly prescribed: a laywoman or commoner was always addressed as "mademoiselle" to denote her lowly status. Madame was reserved for women of high birth. Marriage had nothing to do with it. Today, "mademoiselle" is most commonly used to denote an unmarried woman who is young or young-looking. After a certain age, wed or not, you become madame. But what is that age? How youthful or fresh-faced do you have to be? Is the butcher who says "mademoiselle", to a woman who is neither, being flattering or facetious? And while frankly I don't care if Catherine Deneuve, 67, and Jeanne Moreau, 83, like to be called "mademoiselle", as is their quirky right as "actrices", it does seem ridiculous.
I don't have any personal comment to add; perhaps"mademoiselle titam" will offer one...

Surfing a tidal bore


Tidal bore photos and videos are not unusual, but the above image (taken in Alaska) from the Telegraph seemed particularly well composed, so I searched for a related video and found it at SUP magazine, via Stray Outdoors:



Image credit Scott Dickerson/ Barcroft USA.

Nobody saves a man drowning in a shallow pool

Firemen and police who left a man floating face down in a 3ft-deep lake because they were not trained to enter the water might have saved him had they acted sooner, an inquest heard. Simon Burgess, 41, drowned in a model boating lake after apparently suffering an epileptic seizure while feeding swans. A witness who dialled 999 described begging the first fireman on the scene to help Mr Burgess, but he refused because the water was above “ankle deep.” Instead, emergency crews waited for a specialist water rescue team to arrive, meaning that Mr Burgess was not taken out of the lake until 28 minutes after the alarm had been raised. He was declared dead in hospital...

She said she took off her boots to go in the water herself but her grandson was crying and she was unsure of the man’s state of mind, so she dialled 999. The firemen arrived with the police and I said, 'he’s only been there five or 10 minutes so if you hurry you might save him.’ He just said, 'we’re not allowed,’ and I said, 'but that’s your job.’

She added: “I believe one of the police went in to get him but was told he was not allowed. I said to one of the firemen, 'why don’t you go in?’ and he said they couldn’t if the water was higher than ankle deep. I said, 'you’re having a laugh.’ He said 'no, that’s health and safety.’..

There were no obvious signs of life so from that I made an assessment it was a body retrieval and not a rescue. The officers were trained to go into ankle deep water, which is level one, so we waited for level two officers, who can go into chest high. One of the police officers told me he would like to go in the water and I advised him in the strongest terms not to.” Mr Nicholls’s superior, Tim Spencer-Peet, said he had been happy with the watch manager’s decision-making. Coroner David Horsley recorded a verdict of accidental death.
From a story in the Telegraph.  I will defer any *#?*&! comments.

Chikilidae


Photos of a newly-discovered legless underground amphibian.
Since the age of dinosaurs the chikilidae has burrowed unbothered beneath the monsoon-soaked soils of remote northeast India, unknown to science and mistaken by many villagers as a deadly, miniature snake...
Further details in an AP report at the Huffington Post. That is so cool the way the egg is transparent and the entire vasculature is visible.

Recycling artificial human joints


From a report at the BBC:
In 1997, Gabriels and Verberne founded OrthoMetals. Fifteen years later the company recycles more than 250 tons of metal from cremations annually...

The company works by collecting the metal implants for nothing, sorting them and then selling them - taking care to see that they are melted down, rather than reused. After deducting costs, 70-75% of the proceeds are returned to the crematoria, for spending on charitable projects.

"In the UK for example," he says. "We ask for letters from charities that have received money from the organisation we work with in the UK and we see that the amount we transferred to them has been given to charity. This is a kind of controlling system that we have."..

In Verberne's native Holland, some 57% of all bodies are cremated. Britain is the biggest cremator in Europe with 73%. And since the Catholic church eased its opposition to cremation, the company has seen growth in places such as Italy and Spain. In all, it operates in 15 countries.
The article emphasizes that the hips are recycled as scrap metal, not reused as hip implants again, and I congratulate the Dutch company for their efforts to see that the proceeds go to charity.  But... the cynic in me wonders if with this kind of price discrepancy -
"The operation to provide a new hip may cost you around £5,000 ($8,000. 6,000 euros)," he explains. "But the return value as scrap is maybe, per kilo, around £10 ($16, 12 euros). And there are five hips per kilo!" 
- that there must be less ethical crematoria that harvest metal implants and sell them into the grey market for reimplantation, perhaps in third-world countries where new prosthetic joints would be prohibitively expensive.

The story also reminds me that when I arranged for my father's cremation twenty years ago, I was tempted to ask the crematory staff what would be done with my father's gold tooth fillings (he probably had several ounces).  In the end, I didn't inquire - but suppose those teeth were yanked before cremation and went into some staff member's pocket.

Via BoingBoing.

"The Pompeii of the Permian period"

American and Chinese scientists... are calling it the Pompeii of the Permian period because, like the ancient Roman city, it was covered and preserved by volcanic ash. Like Pompeii, this swamp forest is so perfectly maintained that scientists know where every plant originally was...

During the Permian, which extends from 299 to 251 million years ago, there weren't conifers or flowers. Plants reproduced like ferns, using spores, and the modern continents were still joined in a single mass of land called Pangaea. This geologic period happened at the end of the Paleozoic era, after the Carboniferous...
Text credit Gizmodo, which has a nice summary of the article.  You can read the original publication in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and view photos of specimens like the one below at this link.


"50% off" may not be a bargain

Stores sometimes mark prices up before marking them down for a sale.  Most savvy shoppers are aware of this, but a Sacramento news team documented the phenomenon:
Pattie Woody came home thinking she got 50 percent off a $209.99 sheet set from Kohl’s. But inside the packaging, she found another price tag — this one listed at $169.99 — $40 cheaper than the outside sticker.

“It really surprised me,” she said. She still believed she had gotten a good deal — but, peeling back three layers of price stickers — she found her sheet set had been marked up three times, she said...

One twin sheet set was listed at 50 percent off the original price of $89.99. But inside the plastic zipper, the earlier price tag shows $49.99, indicating the current sale is only $5 savings from the original tag.

A 10″ skillet was listed on sale for $34.99, with a regular price of $39.99, but underneath that sticker, the earlier price tag was marked $29.99 — meaning Kohl’s current price on sale is $5 more than the originally marked price...
Depending on when the price goes up and down, the practice may be legal or illegal according to state laws.  If you encounter the practice, try this:
A CBS13 producer wanted to see what would happen if customers challenge the price at the counter, with a sheet set marked 30 percent off the sticker price of $149.99 The sheets rang up $104.99, as displayed in store, but that sale price is $15 higher than the sticker inside the packaging showing these sheets were once marked $89.99.

“This thing actually says $89,” the producer said to the clerk. “Can I get 30% off that?” The clerk calls over a manager, who agrees to give the 30 percent discount off the $89.99 label.

22 February 2012

This post has been cancelled


So to speak.  I originally posted the image above as a contest to guess what it is:
It's certainly a representation of a skull.  For what purpose?  A functional item, or an objet d'art?  If it's art, of what era/style?  Jewelry - from when?  Toy/game - which one?  European, American, Asian, Incan?  Your grade will be based 1/3 on era (century), 1/3 on geography (continent) and 1/3 on use/purpose.

Answer tomorrow, with source credits.
But it turned out to be too easy.  Ponder the photo for a moment to see what you would have guessed, then look beneath the fold for the answer...

Walk into this man's home

I have this abiding conviction (unprovable, I know) that MOST of the people in this world are nice, kind, generous, compassionate, caring individuals.  In every country.  In every social class.  In every religion.  It's the outliers that screw things up for the rest of us.

And because news programming and cyberspace give undue emphasis to sensational problems and crises, those of us who wander the 'net for a couple hours every day tend to have our view of the world distorted by the acts of the criminals, polluters, fanatics, plutocrats, warmongers, and politicians.

It's important to take time to appreciate the rest of the people in the world.  That's what Mark does in this Vimeo offering entitled "This Is My Home."  The man lives in New York.  He's real.  And I think he's more typical than most people would realize.

Via Reddit.

Vulgar words of 1811

A "vulgar" word or phrase is not necessarily lewd or profane; the term also refers to the language of the common people, though with an implication of ignorance, coarseness, and lack of sophistication.  Two hundred years ago a Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue was published, and was found at Project Gutenberg by Jason Kottke.  Herewith some selections from the letter "M":
MALKIN, or MAULKIN. A general name for a cat; also a parcel of rags fastened to the end of a stick, to clean an oven; also a figure set up in a garden to scare the birds; likewise an awkward woman.

MARRIAGE MUSIC. The squalling and crying of children.

MERKIN. Counterfeit hair for women's privy parts.

MINOR CLERGY. Young chimney sweepers.

MOON RAKERS. Wiltshire men: because it is said that some men of that county, seeing the reflection of the moon in a pond, endeavoured to pull it out with a rake.

MUMBLE A SPARROW. A cruel sport practised at wakes and fairs, in the following manner: A cock sparrow whose wings are clipped, is put into the crown of a hat; a man having his arms tied behind him, attempts to bite off the sparrow's head, but is generally obliged to desist, by the many pecks and pinches he receives from the enraged bird. [!]
The source link may keep you busy all day.

A Pleistocene plant resurrected

Two researchers in the Russian Academy of Sciences have successfully grown and propagated a relative of the narrow-leaved campion from ancient tissue.  As reported in Not Exactly Rocket Science:
The plant owes its miraculous resurrection to a team of scientists led by David Gilichinsky, and an enterprising ground squirrel. Back in the Upper Pleistocene, the squirrel buried the plant’s fruit in the banks of the Kolyma River. They froze.

Over millennia, the squirrel’s burrow fossilised and was buried under increasing layers of ice. The plants within were kept at a nippy -7 degrees Celsius, surrounded by permanently frozen soil and the petrifying bones of mammoths and woolly rhinos. They never thawed. They weren’t disturbed. By the time they were found and defrosted by scientists, they had been buried to a depth of 38 metres, and frozen for around 31,800 years.
Modern counterparts of these plants exist, but Svetlana Yashina, who regenerated the plants, took careful steps to assure the antiquity of the tissue from which they were derived.

The data are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  Additional details are offered in a report in the New York Times:
Some of the storage chambers in the burrows contain more than 600,000 seeds and fruits...

The researchers suggest that special circumstances may have contributed to the remarkable longevity of the campion plant cells. Squirrels construct their larders next to permafrost to keep seeds cool during the arctic summers, so the fruits would have been chilled from the start. The fruit’s placenta contains high levels of sucrose and phenols, which are good antifreeze agents.

The Russians measured the ground radioactivity at the site, which can damage DNA, and say the amount of gamma radiation the campion fruit accumulated over 30,000 years is not much higher than that reported for a 1,300-year-old sacred lotus seed, from which a plant was successfully germinated.

Surgical scars are not marks of shame


The SCAR* Project uses the phrase "Breast Cancer Is Not A Pink Ribbon" to emphasize some practical human aspects of the disease.  One primary goal is fundraising for awareness and research, but another, exemplified by the photos, is I think equally cogent:
The SCAR Project is a series of large-scale portraits of young breast cancer survivors shot by fashion photographer David Jay. Primarily an awareness raising campaign, The SCAR Project puts a raw, unflinching face on early onset breast cancer while paying tribute to the courage and spirit of so many brave young women...

Although Jay began shooting The SCAR Project primarily as an awareness raising campaign, he was not prepared for something much more immediate . . . and beautiful: “For these young women, having their portrait taken seems to represent their personal victory over this terrifying disease. It helps them reclaim their femininity, their sexuality, identity and power after having been robbed of such an important part of it. Through these simple pictures, they seem to gain some acceptance of what has happened to them and the strength to move forward with pride."
Here are the links to the home page, the image gallery, and the book.  It shouldn't be necessary for me to advise readers that the images at the link depict mastectomy scars, nipple transplants, and surgical sequelae in a very frank manner.  It was hard for me to decide which image to embed here as an example; each of the women is beautiful in her own way.

As I was writing this, I was reminded of the "banjo goiter" man whose image has been repeatedly mocked on the web.  He is another shining example of a person not embarrassed by what the unthinking public consider to be a deformity.

*At the website, SCAR is always written in allcaps.  It may be an acronym, but I've been unable to ascertain the component words.  Alternatively it may be a style chosen for emphasis. 

Via BoingBoing.

If you received a check from the "National Cancer Research Center"...

... do some research before deciding how to proceed.

Our check (for $2.50) arrived yesterday inside a fundraising appeal, and I was immediately suspicious.  Unsolicited checks can be used as vehicles for scams in which your endorsement of the check commits you to obligations in the fine print.  That did not appear to be the case with this check.

The accompanying letter from Steven L. Blumenthal states -
"The $2.50 check is real.  You could put this letter aside, cassh the check, and forget all about our important laboratory research and national cancer education programs.  But what I really hope you will do is return the $2.50 check along with your own gift of $10.00 or more to help in our fight against cancer."
My wife immediately logged on to access the Charity Navigator website (I would encourage everyone to bookmark this worthwhile site for future reference).  The "National Cancer Research Institute" is, as indicated on their checks, a project of the Walker Cancer Research Institute, which is rated by Charity Navigator with one star (out of a possible four) for accountability and transparency, and 2/4 for finances.  They note that over 50% of the funds raised are used for additional fundraising.  So if you send them $10, about $5 of that will be used to send mailings to more people.

"Program expenses" receive 47% of the funds.  Regarding that "program," Wikipedia states:
The public education portion of the solicitation consists of an approximately 1/8 page list of "risk factors for breast cancer" on the back side of the solicitation. Overall, 52.11% + 43.14% (95.25%) of all donations go to either direct or indirect fundraising costs. The card states that 3.81% of funds go directly to research program services (38 cents out of a $10.00 donation). Thus, of the $12,568,927 raised by WCRI, $478,876.11 went directly to research. As a comparison, an NIH grant awarded to a single Investigator for a specific research study typically ranges from $25,000 to $250,000.
If you read the comments at Charity Navigator, you will see that some people say they cash the check and donate the money to "real" charities.  Or you can keep the money.  But note this - your name and address are on the check (with a scannable barcode), and...
Numerous complaints have been made by individuals who are receiving dozens of letters soliciting funds and are unable to persuade the charity to remove their names from the mailing list. The Center then sells those names to other charities, and people throughout the country have complained of being inundated by requests for money that they can not stop.
The choice is yours.  My check went into the shredder.

21 February 2012

Was there a "monster of Glamis?"


Excerpts from a story at the Smithsonian:
“If you could even guess the nature of this castle’s secret,” said Claude Bowes-Lyon, 13th Earl of Strathmore, “you would get down on your knees and thank God it was not yours.”..

The first reports of Glamis’ unknown prisoner appear to date to the 1840s. According to a correspondent to the journal Notes & Queries, writing in 1908,
The mystery was told to the present writer some 60 years ago, when he was a boy, and it made a great impression on him. The story was, and is, that in the Castle of Glamis is a secret chamber. In this chamber is confined a monster, who is the rightful heir to the title and property, but who is so unpresentable that it is necessary to keep him out of sight and out of possession.
This may sound like the plot of some Gothic novel, but believers in the theory point out that the family has dealt with some of its members in ways that outsiders might consider harsh. After the First World War, Katherine and Nerissa Bowes-Lyon, both cousins of the present queen, were born mentally disabled. Both spent their lives locked away in homes and hospitals, ignored by their family...

The only detailed description emerged early in the 1960s, when the writer James Wentworth-Day spent time at Glamis while writing a history of the Bowes-Lyon family. From the then-Earl and his relatives, Wentworth-Day heard the legend that “a monster was born into the family. He was the heir—a creature fearful to behold. It was impossible to allow this deformed caricature of humanity to be seen—even by their friends.… His chest [was] an enormous barrel, hairy as a doormat, his head ran straight into his shoulders and his arms and legs were toylike.” But “however warped and twisted his body, the child had to be reared to manhood,” kept safe and occasionally exercised. That job was given to the factor.
More at the Smithsonian link, and at the Charles Fort Institute blog:
The mystery that was spoken of in hushed terms during the nineteenth century was generally a different one, for though the existence of a hidden room with the castle walls was widely rumoured, even then, it was then believed to conceal not a living creature, but rather the grisly evidence of an ancient crime. According to this now mostly forgotten portion of the legend, a large party of Ogilvies, members of a rival clan, once sought sanctuary from their enemies at Glamis, only to be betrayed and murdered there. In this version of the castle’s story, the fugitive Ogilvies were shown into the hidden chamber, then barricaded in and left to starve. Their skeletons, still scattered on the floor, were the secret that the Lyons family was so anxious to conceal...
Image: Glamis Castle in Scotland from Morris's Country Seats (1880).

Uncovering the Sphinx


Several early photos of the Sphinx, the top one identified as follows: Henri Béchard (active 1870s & 80s);Le Sphinx Armachis, Caire’ (The Sphinx Armachis, Cairo), about 1880; Albumen print; 21 x 27cm. (National Media Museum).

Second photo, and third photo sources.

Related:  A painting of the back of the Sphinx' head in 1854.

Posted as a followup to speculation last month about what might be buried under sand dunes.
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