29 March 2013

National Geographic now has a tumblr


With photos like the one of the West Virginia coal miner above (1938), by Anthony Stewart.

The tumblr is here.

Digitizing the Vatican library

Et aujourd’hui, la Bibliothèque numérise, pour rendre ses collections encore plus accessibles. Un projet d’une ampleur considérable: 82.000 manuscrits, 500 pages en moyenne par manuscrit, 150Mb par page scannée… A la fin du projet, cela représentera 45 Pétabytes de données. Ça me donne le vertige.
 The video is in English.  Text from Curiosités de Titam.

Hoods for Holy Week

Penitents take part in the procession of "La Paz" (The Peace) brotherhood during Holy Week in the Andalusian capital of Seville, southern Spain, April 5, 2009. (REUTERS/Marcelo del Pozo)
A boy carried a cross and wore a hood as he prepared to take part in a procession at a school on the eve of Christianity's Holy Week in Seville, Spain, Friday.  Marcelo del Pozo/Reuters.  Source.
It's interesting to note the degree to which the symbolism of the hood has been co-opted for Americans by its historical misuse.  Every time I look at the top photo, the candle looks like a club.

More fun with a laser pointer


TL;DR - some birds will also chase laser light.

"In Voluptas Mors" by Philippe Halsman


Via hera11 and A London Salmagundi.

Addendum:  Hat tips to reader Artur for identifying the photographer, and to The Dour Salmon for noting that this tableau vivant "skull" was incorporated into publicity posters for The Silence of the Lambs:


Debunking the "blood eagle"

Over a period of several years I incorporated into some of my lectures a discussion of the "blood eagle" maneuver supposedly devised by the Vikings.  Now a Smithsonian article says that this (in)famous ritual is probably apocryphal:
One does not have to search too far in the secondary sources to uncover explicit descriptions of what execution by the blood eagle entailed. At its most elaborate... the ritual involved several distinct stages. First the intended victim would be restrained, face down; next, the shape of an eagle with outstretched wings would be cut into his back. After that...(continued below the fold)...

There are many kind of families...


Source unknown, via Ka-Ching!

Wryneck at slow shutter speed


Image from Super Punch, via A London Salmagundi ("it’s a wryneck, Jynx torquilla, a weird kind of woodpecker.")  Maybe instead of pecking, it drills into the wood.

Happy Easter


Perhaps she saw " Night of the Lepus."

Photo from tuscalooser, via Suddenly.

27 March 2013

Pontiac hood ornament

This is a close-up of the hood ornament of a 1952 Pontiac Chieftain automobile. This car was at the Gilmore Car Museum for a car show. I used my 70-300mm (2x crop factor) lens and a small aperture to make sure the background was blurred out. Processing was minimal, although I tried to bring out the head and downplay the color of the car itself.
From James Howe Photography, via Mark's Scrapbook of Oddities and Treasures.

Isolated for 40 years in the Taiga

The Lykovs lived in this hand-built log cabin, lit by a single window "the size of a backpack pocket" and warmed by a smoky wood-fired stove. 
Excerpts from a remarkable story at Smithsonian:
The sight that greeted the geologists as they entered the cabin was like something from the middle ages. Jerry-built from whatever materials came to hand, the dwelling was not much more than a burrow—"a low, soot-blackened log kennel that was as cold as a cellar," with a floor consisting of potato peel and pine-nut shells. Looking around in the dim light, the visitors saw that it consisted of a single room. It was cramped, musty and indescribably filthy, propped up by sagging joists—and, astonishingly, home to a family of five:
The silence was suddenly broken by sobs and lamentations. Only then did we see the silhouettes of two women. One was in hysterics, praying: 'This is for our sins, our sins.' The other, keeping behind a post... sank slowly to the floor. The light from the little window fell on her wide, terrified eyes, and we realized we had to get out of there as quickly as possible.
...The daughters spoke a language distorted by a lifetime of isolation. "When the sisters talked to each other, it sounded like a slow, blurred cooing."

Slowly, over several visits, the full story of the family emerged. The old man's name was Karp Lykov, and he was an Old Believer—a member of a fundamentalist Russian Orthodox sect, worshiping in a style unchanged since the 17th century...

Isolation made survival in the wilderness close to impossible. Dependent solely on their own resources, the Lykovs struggled to replace the few things they had brought into the taiga with them. They fashioned birch-bark galoshes in place of shoes. Clothes were patched and repatched until they fell apart, then replaced with hemp cloth grown from seed...

...they had no technology for replacing metal. A couple of kettles served them well for many years, but when rust finally overcame them, the only replacements they could fashion came from birch bark. Since these could not be placed in a fire, it became far harder to cook. By the time the Lykovs were discovered, their staple diet was potato patties mixed with ground rye and hemp seeds...

Lacking guns and even bows, they could hunt only by digging traps or pursuing prey across the mountains until the animals collapsed from exhaustion. Dmitry built up astonishing endurance, and could hunt barefoot in winter, sometimes returning to the hut after several days, having slept in the open in 40 degrees of frost, a young elk across his shoulders...

The rest of the family were saved by what they regarded as a miracle: a single grain of rye sprouted in their pea patch. The Lykovs put up a fence around the shoot and guarded it zealously night and day to keep off mice and squirrels. At harvest time, the solitary spike yielded 18 grains, and from this they painstakingly rebuilt their rye crop.
I'll stop here; it's not fair to excerpt more from the Smithsonian article.  Several comments.  First, it is possible for humans to run down wild animals, including antelope, because the muscles and cardiovascular systems of the latter are built for sprinting, but not for endurance.  Secondly, the way to boil water in the absence of metal is to heat rocks in a fire and then dump them into the water in a wooden vessel (fire-cracked rock is a familiar archaeological find at ancient campsites).

A video documentary about this remarkable family (in Russian, and unfortunately unembeddable) is at these links:  Part OnePart TwoPart Three.

Update March 2013:  This afternoon I received the following email from the staff at VICE:
VICE is releasing a beautiful new documentary called Agafia's Taiga Life that follows a family of Russian Old Believers who journeyed deep into Siberia's vast taiga to escape persecution and protect in 1963.

We are going to be holding a screening of the doc tomorrow, Thursday, March 28th at NYC's historic Explorers Club. Reception at 6pm | 7pm screening.
I understand that tickets are available through The Explorer's Club. Here's the trailer:

Pure joy


Five-year-old Pernille plays in a field with 14 German Shepherds from kennel Finika in Norway.  A mental health break from The Dish.

Chess is mandatory for students in Armenia

In Armenia, learning to play the grand game of strategy in school is mandatory for children - the only country in the world that makes chess compulsory - and the initiative has paid dividends. Armenia, a Caucasus country with a population of just three million, is a chess powerhouse...

In 2011, Armenia made chess compulsory for second, third and fourth-graders. That's why Susie and her classmates have two hours of chess every week in school...

"Chess is having a good influence on their performance in other subjects too. The kids are learning how to think, it's making them more confident," said teacher Rosanna Putanyan, watching her pupils play from the periphery...

"Chess develops various skills - leadership capacities, decision-making, strategic planning, logical thinking and responsibility," Ashotyan said. "We are building these traits in our youngsters. The future of the world depends on such creative leaders who have the capacity to make the right decisions, as well as the character to take responsibility for wrong decisions."

More than $3m has been spent on the project so far to supply chess equipment and learning aids in all Armenian schools, Ashotyan added. The majority of the budget was allocated to train chess players to become good teachers. In coming years, spending on chess is expected to rise, he said.
Kudos to Armenia.  Further details at Aljazeera.

Carmina Burana's "O Fortuna" modernized


Courtesy of the Sydney Symphony:
In the tradition of Carlton's Big Beer Ad, we invited our Facebook fans to change the lyrics of the iconic opening chorus of Carmina Burana to whatever they liked, and we would get the fabulous Sydney Philharmonia Choirs to sing the winning entry. We received a huge number of entries about a range of topics. Matthew Hodge's entry, an Ode to Sleep Deprived Parents and was declared the winner!
The lyrics are brilliant, but I wish the recording hadn't suppressed the driving music, which is such a dramatic force. For reference, here is the original:

Top video via Neatorama.

Don't buy premium golf clubs online

Advice from a Wall Street Journal article:
The counterfeiting of golf merchandise—clubs and balls, but also bags and apparel—is a whopping business. A working group established to fight counterfeiting nine years ago by the five biggest golf manufacturers estimates that fake golf gear approaches 10% of the legitimate market world-wide.

Big raids inside the U.S., like the one in South Carolina, are rare, however, because 95% of the U.S. counterfeit golf trade is online, with the products delivered directly to individual consumers, according to the group...

From the exterior, the best counterfeit golf clubs these days can be hard to differentiate from legitimate clubs. "These guys have become very good at what they're doing," said Kerry Kabase, vice president of purchasing for Edwin Watts Golf. The old telltale signs, such as irregular paint and misshapen hosels, with glue oozing out, are less common.

At a recent golf-industry show, however, the U.S. working group displayed examples of counterfeit clubheads sawed in half, and you can see the type of irregularities that impact performance: irregular interior walls, or supposedly hollow iron-head cavities that instead are solid steel. Performance is erratic. Some fake clubs may play decently well for high-handicappers, others less so. One common flaw is inconsistent performance among irons in a set.

There are virtually no counterfeit clubs or balls sold at authorized retail outlets in the U.S., the group says. If you're shopping online, however, beware any club set whose price seems too good to be true—especially if the order will be shipped from China.
I think my Christmas present from a local store (a TaylorMade Burner Superfast driver) should be o.k.  I'll find out as soon as this godforsaken snow melts...

The complex genetics of mimicry

A New York Times article describes how a Brazilian butterfly can manifest seven different wing patterns:
The gaudy brown Brazilian butterfly known as Heliconius numata has long puzzled geneticists. It has seven different wing patterns, each of which mimics that of a different local species of Melinaea, another group of butterflies...

To help perfect their imitation of the seven Melinaea models, the butterflies have
somehow locked what should be a continuous range of natural variation into seven specific patterns...

But how do the Heliconius butterflies pull off the trick of having seven different forms in a single interbreeding population? Each wing pattern is specified by many different genes, but since genes get shuffled in each generation, the different wing patterns should quickly merge together when parents with different wing patterns mate.

A team of French and British biologists, led by Mathieu Joron of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, has discovered the butterfly’s solution. It has locked together in a supergene a cluster of 18 genes involved in specifying the wing pattern. The supergene is inherited as a single unit, the biologists report in the current issue of Nature. 
Further details at the Nature and NYT links.  Via the February 2013 issue of Badger Butterflyer, the outstanding newsletter of the Southern Wisconsin Butterfly Association.

For the enthusiast, there is also an explanatory video.

Every picture tells a story


I'll let you ponder this one for a moment.  The original caption is below the fold...

"Remote administration tools" explained

The woman is visible from thousands of miles away on a hacker's computer. The hacker has infected her machine with a remote administration tool (RAT) that gives him access to the woman's screen, to her webcam, to her files, to her microphone. He watches her and the baby through a small control window open on his Windows PC, then he decides to have a little fun. He enters a series of shock and pornographic websites and watches them appear on the woman's computer.

The woman is startled. "Did it scare you?" she asks someone off camera. A young man steps into the webcam frame. "Yes," he says. Both stare at the computer in horrified fascination. A picture of old naked men appears in their Web browser, then vanishes as a McAfee security product blocks a "dangerous site."...

"Man I feel dirty looking at these pics," wrote one forum poster at Hack Forums, one of the top "aboveground" hacking discussion sites on the Internet (it now has more than 23 million total posts). The poster was referencing a 134+ page thread filled with the images of female "slaves" surreptitiously snapped by hackers using the women's own webcams. "Poor people think they are alone in their private homes, but have no idea they are the laughing stock on HackForums," he continued. "It would be funny if one of these slaves venture into learning how to hack and comes across this thread."

Whether this would in fact be "funny" is unlikely. RAT operators have nearly complete control over the computers they infect; they can (and do) browse people's private pictures in search of erotic images to share with each other online. They even have strategies for watching where women store the photos most likely to be compromising...

Welcome to the weird world of the ratters. They operate quite openly online, sharing the best techniques for picking up new female slaves (and avoiding that most unwanted of creatures, "old perverted men") in public forums. Even when their activities trip a victim's webcam light and the unsettled victim reaches forward to put a piece of tape over the webcam, the basic attitude is humorous—Ha! You got us! On to the next slave!..

Today, a cottage industry exists to build sophisticated RAT tools with names like DarkComet and BlackShades and to install and administer them on dozens or even hundreds of remote computers. When anti-malware vendors began to detect and clean these programs from infected computers, the RAT community built "crypters" to disguise the target code further. Today, serious ratters seek software that is currently "FUD"—fully undetectable...
Additional grim details are available at Ars Technica, via Get Cynical, which recently underwent a near-death experience, but is now alive and kicking again.

26 March 2013

Lake Baikal in winter


Via English Russia, which also offered this photo to illustrate the lack of snow removal in Kiev (March 24):

Last by 35 lengths...


Via Criggo.

Monarch butterflies missing in New Zealand

Posted at the Herald Sun on Feb 28:
Butterfly researchers are gathering in Auckland next month to figure out what has happened to the population of native butterflies usually seen en masse nationwide.

"We've heard from many monarch lovers in Canterbury and Otago that the monarchs haven't returned this summer - and it's something that's got us baffled," says Jacqui Knight, secretary of the Monarch Butterfly NZ Trust...

New Zealanders are concerned, she says, as they hold the notoriously social and graceful insect close to their hearts. "We love the monarch, and who wouldn't? It's a wonderful, beautiful insect and one we really need to look after."

While the population was likely to bounce back next year, experts say the anecdotal decline could be an indicator that times are tough for other insects in the food chain. "Monarchs are an indicator species, telling us a lot about how other insects are going, and this is something to watch closely as we need our insects."

Reluctant skydiver


Via English Russia.

Sequestration reaches NASA

NASA Internal Memo: Guidance for Education and Public Outreach Activities Under Sequestration 

Subject: Guidance for Education and Public Outreach Activities Under Sequestration

As you know, we have taken the first steps in addressing the mandatory spending cuts called for in the Budget Control Act of 2011. The law mandates a series of indiscriminate and significant across-the-board spending reductions totaling $1.2 trillion over 10 years.

As a result, we are forced to implement a number of new cost-saving measures, policies, and reviews in order to minimize impacts to the mission-critical activities of the Agency. We have already provided new guidance regarding conferences, travel, and training that reflect the new fiscal reality in which we find ourselves. Some have asked for more specific guidance at it relates to public outreach and engagement activities. That guidance is provided below.

Effective immediately, all education and public outreach activities should be suspended, pending further review. In terms of scope, this includes all public engagement and outreach events, programs, activities, and products developed and implemented by Headquarters, Mission Directorates, and Centers across the Agency, including all education and public outreach efforts conducted by programs and projects...
The rest of the text of the memorandum is at SpaceRef via Reddit.

It's worth noting here that the mandatory "across-the-board" spending cuts did not affect the salaries of Senators and Congressmen.

Wealthy Americans donate only 1.3% to charity

In 2011, the wealthiest Americans—those with earnings in the top 20 percent—contributed on average 1.3 percent of their income to charity. By comparison, Americans at the base of the income pyramid—those in the bottom 20 percent—donated 3.2 percent of their income. The relative generosity of lower-income Americans is accentuated by the fact that, unlike middle-class and wealthy donors, most of them cannot take advantage of the charitable tax deduction, because they do not itemize deductions on their income-tax returns...

But the researchers also found something else: differences in behavior among wealthy households, depending on the type of neighborhood they lived in. Wealthy people who lived in homogeneously affluent areas—areas where more than 40 percent of households earned at least $200,000 a year—were less generous than comparably wealthy people who lived in more socioeconomically diverse surroundings. It seems that insulation from people in need may dampen the charitable impulse.

Wealth affects not only how much money is given but to whom it is given. The poor tend to give to religious organizations and social-service charities, while the wealthy prefer to support colleges and universities, arts organizations, and museums. Of the 50 largest individual gifts to public charities in 2012, 34 went to educational institutions, the vast majority of them colleges and universities, like Harvard, Columbia, and Berkeley, that cater to the nation’s and the world’s elite. Museums and arts organizations such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art received nine of these major gifts, with the remaining donations spread among medical facilities and fashionable charities like the Central Park Conservancy. Not a single one of them went to a social-service organization or to a charity that principally serves the poor and the dispossessed. More gifts in this group went to elite prep schools... than to any of our nation’s largest social-service organizations, including United Way, the Salvation Army, and Feeding America (which got, among them, zero).
Via The Atlantic.  The author of this text has written a book on the subject.

The Panther Cave pictographs - enchanced 3D

Panther Cave is a rock shelter in Seminole Canyon State Park, Texas, named for a dramatic leaping cat that is the largest of its many pictographs. Copious overpainting indicates the site was used as a canvas by generations of rock painters. Cats, humans wearing headdresses, abstract figures from six inches to more than 10 feet high decorate the rock face. 

The images are predominantly in the Pecos River and Red Linear styles and date back about 4,000 years. Pecos River Style is the oldest, starting around 5000 years ago. Its iconography features monumental polychrome designs of zoomorphic figures and of anthropomorphic figures called shamans. Pecos River art is thought to have had ritual significance, perhaps having been painted for ceremonial religious purposes. Red Linear style is characterized by small red stick figures engaged in a variety of shared activities like hunting, fighting, sex and childbirth. Red Linear figures often incorporated the older large Pecos River animal figures in their scenes...

Acutely aware of the precarious situation Panther Cave and other rock art sites find themselves in, the SHUMLA Archeological Research and Education Center launched the Lower Pecos Rock Art Recording and Preservation Project in 2009... They used 3D modeling software to showcase the natural contours and shape of the cave, then used color enhancement to highlight the stunning complexity of figures that are not clear to the naked eye. The finished product is a riot of color, giving viewers whole new insight into the pictographs that layer the site.
Wow.

NIce teeth


This False Killer Whale reminds me of the one that fell from the sky in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Photo: Doug Perrine/HotSpot Media, via The Telegraph.

"Three-person embryos" are now possible

The [British]government is considering whether to propose legal changes that would allow radical new treatments for families at risk of incurable genetic diseases that involve the creation of so-called "three-person embryos".

A national consultation released on Wednesday by the UK's fertility watchdog found public support for techniques that involve introducing DNA from a third person to embryos which could prevent mothers from passing on devastating diseases, such as muscular dystrophy, to their children.

If ministers and MPs give the procedures the green light, Britain would become the first country to offer treatments that lead to children being born with DNA from three people: their parents and a woman donor. The amount of DNA from the donor is tiny compared with the parents...
Scientists have developed two techniques to prevent faulty mitochondria being passed on to children. Known as maternal spindle transfer and pronuclear transfer, they both involve transferring the genetic material from the parents into an egg donated by a healthy woman.
The treatment is controversial on several grounds, not least that the genetic modifications in the embryo pass down to all future generations. The techniques have never been tried in humans, but have worked in animal studies.
Further details at The Guardian.

25 March 2013

How the puffin holds all those little fish


I've seen the photos and wondered about it, and so have you.  He must have amazing diving and fishing skills, but how does he grab and hold the eleventh sand eel* without letting go of the first ten?

The discussion thread at Reddit eventually led me to this photo at Living Wilderness -


- and a note that "An Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica) shows off its tongue, which is specially adapted to allow it to carry many fish in its bill at one time. Atlantic puffins typically carry about 10 fish in their bills at one time, using their tongues to hold their catch against spines on their palate."

Also of interest is that the male puffin sheds that colorful outer layer of its beak after the courting season is over:

The sheath has separated from the bill. Light passing through the thin covering makes it look yellowish gray. The entire sheath has moved forward and downward, partly covering the nasal opening.
You learn something every day.

* a link for those who, like me, need to look up what a sand eel is.

Middle photo credit

A "dancing" remote-controlled airplane


 Some words of explanation re how it manages to stay aloft at such low speeds at Reddit.

Book (title) of the year

I posted the results of the Diagram Prize in 2008 and 2009, but had forgotten about it for several years.  Here are this year's results, courtesy of The Bookseller:
Goblinproofing One's Chicken Coop has been named as the winner of Diagram Prize for Oddest Book Title of the Year.

The title won 38% of the public vote, fighting off competition from fellow contenders How Tea Cosies Changed the World and God's Doodle: The Life and Times of the Penis.
Although the winner receives no prize attention, the nominator of the title, Deep Books' marketing manager Alan Ritchie, will receive a bottle of wine.

Previous winners of the title have included Greek Rural Postmen and Their Cancellation Numbers, Highlights in the History of Concrete, Bombproof Your Horse and Cooking with Poo.

Philip Stone, The Bookseller charts editor and Diagram Prize administrator, said: "People might think the Diagram Prize is just a bit of fun, but it spotlights an undervalued art that can make or break a work of literature. Books such as A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time all owe a sizeable part of their huge successes to their odd
monikers."

If you're known as a competent engineer...


More Dilberts.

Getting drunk after one drink

"It only takes one drink to get me drunk.  The trouble is, I can't remember if it's the thirteenth or the fourteenth."                 ---George Burns. 
Via Lapham's Quarterly, which has an assortment of other potent potable quotatations, including the famous Dorothy Parker rhyme.

Marijuana vending machines


They are real.
Dispense Labs plans to lease the machines to dispensaries so they can offer round-the-clock convenience to a customer base that's far more likely to do its pot shopping at night. The so-called Autospense will be placed behind a vending cage accessible — like the machines themselves — only with a valid registration card. Fingerprint authentication provides additional security, and closed-circuit cameras, locks, and strict record keeping are relied upon to prevent machine tampering.
Via Gawker.

A simple white pottery bowl

A simple white bowl bought at an American garage or "tag" sale for $3 has sold at a New York City auction for more than $2.22m after it was recognised as a rare Chinese relic.

The 1,000-year-old bowl was part of the opening session of Sotheby's fine Chinese ceramics and works of art auction on Tuesday. Sotheby's said it was sold to a London dealer for $2.225m, far above the pre-sale estimate of $200,000 to $300,000.

The person who put the bowl up for auction bought it at a US "tag sale" or garage sale in 2007 and had it displayed in the living room for several years before becoming curious about its origins and having it examined.
Inspired by this story, I'm going to attend an estate auction this weekend.  Seriously.  Look at all this stuff.

Photo credit AFP/Getty Images.

Dolley Madison on "American Experience"


I can't recommend this PBS series highly enough; every one of the programs I have watched have been outstanding.  Just watched this episode this past week, and learned a lot about this amazing lady.

The Popul Vuh creation myth


Popol Vuh "is a corpus of mytho-historical narratives of the Post Classic K'iche' kingdom in Guatemala's western highlands." Popol Vuh's prominent features are its creation myth, its diluvian suggestion, its epic tales..., and its genealogies."
Chapters 1-3 contain Popol Vuh's creation myth...
"This is the first account, the first narrative. There was neither man, nor animal, birds, fishes, crabs, trees, stones, caves, ravines, grasses, nor forests; there was only the sky. The surface of the earth had not appeared. There was only the calm sea and the great expanse of the sky. There was nothing brought together, nothing which could make a noise, nor anything which might move, or tremble, or could make noise in the sky. There was nothing standing; only the calm water, the placid sea, alone and tranquil. Nothing existed. There was only immobility and silence in the darkness, in the night. Only the creator, the Maker, Tepeu, Gucumatz, the Forefathers, were in the water surrounded with light. [...] Then Tepeu and Gucumatz came together; then they conferred about life and light, what they would do so that there would be light and dawn, who it would be who would provide food and sustenance. Thus let it be done! Let the emptiness be filled! Let the water recede and make a void, let the earth appear and become solid; let it be done. Thus they spoke. Let there be light, let there be dawn in the sky and on the earth! There shall be neither glory nor grandeur in our creation and formation until the human being is made, man is formed. [...] First the earth was formed, the mountains and the valleys; the currents of water were divided, the rivulets were running freely between the hills, and the water was separated when the high mountains appeared. Thus was the earth created, when it was formed by the Heart of Heaven, the Heart of Earth, as they are called who first made it fruitful, when the sky was in suspense, and the earth was submerged in the water."
Together, gods attempted to create living beings so that they may be praised and venerated by their creation. Their first attempts (animals, mud man, and wooden man) proved unsuccessful because they lacked speech, souls, and intellect.
"This the Forefathers did, Tepeu and Gucumatz, as they were called. After that they began to talk about the creation and the making of our first mother and father; of yellow corn and of white corn they made their flesh; of cornmeal dough they made the arms and the legs of man. Only dough of corn meal went into the flesh of our first fathers, the four men, who were created. [...] And as they had the appearance of men, they were men; they talked, conversed, saw and heard, walked, grasped things; they were good and handsome men, and their figure was the figure of a man."
Women were created later while the first four men slept.
More at Wikipedia.

Marlon Brando used cue cards


Two observations from the source Reddit thread:
Brando was notorius for never learning his lines for movies. Like in Superman, he read his lines off the babies diaper / costume because he refused to read the script before hand.

"During his long monologue over the body of his wife, for example, Brando's dramatic lifting of his eyes upward is not spontaneous dramatic acting but a search for his next cue."

Brando always claimed that he wanted to say scripted lines as if they were just occurring to him--eventually leading to him being fed lines over an earpiece in Don Juan DeMarco. At least that was his official reason. Maybe he just hated memorizing lines.
Somehow I always thought that professional actors had impressive memories that I would never be able to match.  Now I realize, I could have been an actor.  I coulda' been somebody...

I'm back

I did peek at the internet just briefly during this past week, and against my will my mouse saved 57 more "blogworthy" bookmarks.  Sigh. 

Oops.  That should be *sigh*.

I'm still time-limited until I get my taxes done, but will post a little each day just to clean up some of the backlog, because bookmarks seem to breed and multiply if you leave them in the folders too long.

22 March 2013

18 March 2013

Consider once again a "pale blue dot"


I need to stop blogging for about a week, and I want to leave this post on the top of the front page while I'm gone.

The Voyager spacecraft's "pale blue dot" image, and Carl Sagan's commentary upon it, have been the subject of many video tributes; the one embedded above is my favorite because of the juxtaposition of so many classic film clips accompanying the spoken text.

Voyager carries a golden "phonograph record" embedded with basic information about our solar system and human biology, which most people understand as an attempt to initiate contact with other, extraterrestrial, intelligent species.  It's really nothing of the sort, because it didn't even exit the solar system until 2012, and after another 40,000 years it will still be 1.6 light-years from the nearest other star.  So the artifacts on Voyager are best viewed as a time capsule of our current existence rather than a communication device.

Traversing cosmic distances requires faster speeds than can (currently) be achieved by physical objects.  Which leads us to a consideration of radio transmissions.  Here's the opening scene from the movie "Contact," which depicts radio signals from earth penetrating out into space:


The further out you go, of course, the older are the signals you/[or an alien] could potentially hear/detect.  The viewpoint pulls back beyond our solar system until it is even outside our galaxy.

I had always been impressed by that.  Until... several weeks ago I encountered this spectacular image at Cliff Pickover's Reality Carnival:


I had to compress the image to stay within the limits of my bloghost, so I don't know if the embed above will be clickable to supersize.  If not, you can view the original here in all its glory*.  At the right bottom is a box, enlarged from the right center of the image, showing another "pale blue dot."

But this time, that blue dot is not Earth, as it is in the Sagan/Voyager story, but rather a representation of a sphere of a diameter of 200 light-years.  That's the total distance that emissions from earth have traveled since our development of the technology.

I can't get this image out of my head.  That little dot is the maximal extent of human influence in our galaxy - and there are over a hundred billion such galaxies in the known universe. 

The human mind isn't capable of processing such realities.  At least mine isn't.

Now I'm off for a week or so.

p.s. - see also Stephen Hawking's thoughts on communication with alien intelligent life.

*the text at the bottom left reads "Thanks to Nick Risinger for the artist's conception of the Milky Way."  Image taken from here.

How Ixonia, Wisconsin got its name

It remained the town of Union for only five years and then was divided into two individual towns. Town 7 was called Concord without any disagreement, but a dispute resulted in the naming of town 8. To simplify matters it was agreed upon to put the letters of the alphabet on slips of paper and have young Mary Piper draw them until a name could be formed. As the result, "Ixonia" was the name given town 8 on January 21, 1846, and remains the only town bearing this name in the United States.

I'll bet they didn't sing "Heigh ho, heigh ho...


Belgian miners in an elevator, approximately 1900. 

Via VintagePhoto at LiveJournal and 22 Words.

Seeking advice re apple scab


Several years ago, in a post about the dangers of monoculture manifested as the "pistachio disaster," I offered this comment:
We and our neighbors became familiar with anthracnose when it spread through our subdivision several years ago in the form of "apple scab" on the beautiful (and popular) crabapple trees.  The leaves developed black lesions and fell early from the tree.  If any of you notice something similar with your apple/crabapple trees, be sure to call an arborist, because although the tree can tolerate partial defoliation, if it happens several years in a row, it can kill the tree.  
The crabapple is one of the focal points of our front garden in the spring, when the floral display bursts into flame and it becomes abuzz with pollinating insects, and once again weeks later when the petal drop...


... makes us feel like emperors treading a victory path.  

The "apple scab" seemed to end years ago after treatment of the tree and after we raked up and discarded all the infected fallen leaves.  But... the arborist has been returning annually to retreat the tree with a "spring foliar spray" at $120 per year, and this year I've decided to withhold treatment in order to redirect the funds to other purposes.  Any advice from those of you with experience in such matters?  Can we just wait and leave the tree untreated and monitor it for the return of the apple scab, or is it latent and ready to devastate the tree again?

Trailer for "The Intouchables"


Seems like a good movie - any comments? 

p.s. - I presume "intouchable" is untranslated French? but then why combine it with "the" rather than "le"?

16 March 2013

Reaction to the "Pop Tart gun" incident


In case you missed it, here is the "Pop Tart gun" incident, as described by the Washington Post:
A 7-year-old Anne Arundel County boy was suspended for two days for chewing a breakfast pastry into the shape of a gun and saying, “Bang, bang”— an offense the school described as a threat to other students, according to his family.

The pastry “gun” was a rectangular strawberry-filled bar, akin to a Pop-Tart, that the second-grader had tried to nibble into the shape of a mountain Friday morning, but then found it looked more like a gun, said his father, William “B.J.” Welch.

Welch said an assistant principal at Park Elementary School told him that his son pointed the pastry at a classmate — though the child maintains he pointed it at the ceiling...

Anne Arundel officials could not comment on the pastry incident because of confidentiality laws, schools spokesman Bob Mosier said. He did say, however, that a letter was sent home to families Friday and is posted on the school’s Web site.

In the letter, Myrna Phillips, assistant principal at the school, informed parents that a student “used food to make inappropriate gestures that disrupted the class” but said no “physical threats” were made and no one was harmed.

If children are troubled by the incident, Phillips wrote, parents should “help them share their feelings.” In addition, a counselor will be available to students, the letter said. “In general, please remind them of the importance of making good choices,” she wrote.
More at the link (Pop Tart photo via, child photo from ABC15.com).

I have expressed my own disdain for "zero tolerance" school policies on several occasions (here, here, here, or search the blog for "zero brains"), but an Illinois church (Grace-Gospel Fellowship church near Chicago) has taken it to the next level:
The story of the little boy suspended over his Pop Tart gun not only inspired legislation to stop such absurd school discipline, it inspired an Illinois church to celebrate “Second Amendment Sunday” with an “assault” Pop Tart gun-biting contest for Sunday school students...

Kirkwood told Doug Giles of Clash Daily that Christians must stop being apathetic and stand up and fight for our God-given rights...

Each child who wanted to participate chewed a pop-tart into the shape of a gun and the top four would win prizes; in this case a toy gun,” Kirkwood told Giles. Clash Daily reported the following on the awesome prizes:
“Second runner up received a double barrel shot-gun that we nicknamed ‘The Biden,’ and when we presented it we made sure to say what ‘not’ to do with it in a real situation. The prize for runner up was a Navy Seal sniper rifle that we named ‘The Chris Kyle’ in honor of the American Sniper. We felt that it was appropriate,” added Kirkwood, “given the insulting way that this administration ignored the death of this American hero, yet had the crust to send a delegation to the memorial service for Hugo Chavez.”

What was the top award? Kirkwood smiled and noted, “You know, I stood in the toy aisle for a good half an hour to choose just the right one and it turned out to be the biggest Nerf gun that I could find, and the kicker – the box was marked ‘semi-auto’ and ‘high capacity,’ so we named that one ‘the Feinstein.’”
And this from Clash Daily:
What was the general response to this rather unique worship service? “Well one couple did walk out, though I was told it was for another engagement, but overall the response was tremendous and we plan on doing it every year … and next year the prizes will be even better.  Our Bible Boot Camp class (High School age) will be challenged to come up with a 5 minute speech on the right to bear arms and the winner will walk away with a Ruger 10/22,” said Kirkwood, “who knows, maybe by then we’ll have sponsors.”

Last two photos via Clash Daily (where the comment thread is... interesting).

I'll defer any commentary.

A tribute to Spacebat

A bat that was clinging to space shuttle Discoverys external fuel tank during the countdown to launch the STS-119 mission remained with the spacecraft as it cleared the tower, analysts at NASAs Kennedy Space Center concluded.

Based on images and video, a wildlife expert who provides support to the center said the small creature was a free tail bat that likely had a broken left wing and some problem with its right shoulder or wrist. The animal likely perished quickly during Discoverys climb into orbit...

Launch controllers spotted the bat after it had clawed onto the foam of the external tank as Discovery stood at Launch Pad 39A. The temperature never dropped below 60 degrees at that part of the tank, and infrared cameras showed that the bat was 70 degrees through launch.

The final inspection team that surveys the outside of the shuttle and tank for signs of ice buildup observed the small bat, hoping it would wake up and fly away before the shuttle engines ignited...

Sources: Spacebat Facebook Group, Spacebat Memorial www.space-bat.com, Gizmodo.
Text from the "About" at the link.

Oh, those pesky foreigners...

Percentage of the U.S. population that is foreign-born: 13

Percentage that was foreign-born in 1913: 15

Data from the Pew Hispanic Center, via Harper's Index, February 2013.

15 March 2013

Constable staffs

This staff was purchased by Frederick Horniman at the end of the 19th century from another collector, J. Newton Moss. When they were first displayed, one of these staffs was believed to have been used during riots realting to Fenians or Chartists during the nineteenth century.

Constable staffs were used by a variety of police forces, including constables for large cities, parish communities, universities, railway police, prison guards, or dockyard companies. This staff (0.25) is from 1830-1837, and is decorated with the cipher 'WRIV', for William IV.

Staffs, or truncheons, were used by the police force for practical and ceremonial purposes. They were both a weapon and a badge of office. Constables did not begin wearing uniforms until 1829 or carrying warrant cards until the 1880s; before this time, the staff indicated the constable was acting under the authority of the crown by displaying the royal crown and cipher on the staff. The crown and cipher were standardised on constable staffs under William IV, but additional decoration could be added. Staffs might also have displayed the royal coat-of-arms, the coat-of-arms of the local town or village, and the owner’s initials. The main manufacturer of police staffs was Hiatt and Co. of Birmingham, but staffs were usually produced locally for small towns or parishes. Because the quantity of decoration was based on personal preference, constable staffs are often one-of-a-kind.
Image and text from the Horniman Museum, where there's lots of cool stuff.

Say goodbye to Google Reader

It will no longer be available.  This announcement from the Google Reader Blog:
We have just announced on the Official Google Blog that we will soon retire Google Reader (the actual date is July 1, 2013). 

We know Reader has a devoted following who will be very sad to see it go. We’re sad too. There are two simple reasons for this: usage of Google Reader has declined, and as a company we’re pouring all of our energy into fewer products. We think that kind of focus will make for a better user experience.

To ensure a smooth transition, we’re providing a three-month sunset period so you have sufficient time to find an alternative feed-reading solution. If you want to retain your Reader data, including subscriptions, you can do so through Google Takeout.
There's some discussion of alternatives at Reddit.  I think a lot of people access TYWKIWDBI via Google Reader; it will be interesting to see how the traffic changes over the next several months.

"Cactus buck" explained

The buck was so odd that Nickel thought the buck’s rack was wrapped up in twine or something else.

“I thought there was stuff wrapped up in his rack. I could see that he was fairly wide and had some mass, it just didn’t make sense. I almost didn’t shoot him as I’d never seen anything like this before. I couldn’t take it anymore and decided to shoot this thing,” reported Nickel...

A cactus buck is a deer that has... cryptorchidism, which results in velvet remaining on antlers and continuing to grow throughout the year. The condition generally occurs to bucks that have irregular testicles or have incurred testicular damage, which impacts testosterone levels. Testosterone regulates antler growth and development. 
Via North American Whitetail.  There's another example at The Local:
Animals with this condition are not expected to live for a long time. Once the antlers grow over his eyes, the animal will be unable to fend for itself.

How to improve American political debates

Let's adopt an old Persian custom, as described by Herodotus in 430 BCE:
It is also their general practice to deliberate upon affairs of weight when they are drunk; and then on the morrow, when they are sober, the decision to which they came the night before is put before them by the master of the house in which it was made; and if it is then approved of, they act on it; if not, they set it aside. Sometimes, however, they are sober at their first deliberation, but in this case they always reconsider the matter under the influence of wine.
I would have paid money to watch the Republican presidential candidates conduct their debates after each had downed a six-pack of beer or four shots of bourbon.  And I wish Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama had been required to smoke weed before stepping up to the podium.

A hat tip for the idea to a Reddit thread.

Chemicals - it's what's for dinner


Excerpts from the story in Vice:
Rob Rhinehart – a 24-year-old software engineer - ...found himself resenting the inordinate amount time it takes to fry an egg in the morning and decided something had to be done. Simplifying food... Rob has come up with an odourless, beige cocktail that he calls Soylent...

Soylent contains all of the nutritive components of a balanced diet, but with just a third of the calories and none of the toxins or cancer-causing stuff...
"Everything the body needs – that we know of, anyway – vitamins, minerals and macronutrients like essential amino acids, carbohydrates and fat. For the fat, I just use olive oil and add fish oil. The carbs are an oligosaccharide, which is like sugar, but the molecules are longer, meaning it takes longer to metabolise and gives you a steady flow of energy for a longer period of time, rather than a sugar rush from something like fructose or table sugar...

I think it's possible to use technology to make healthy food very cheap and easy, but we'll have to give up many traditional foodstuffs like fresh fruits and veggies, which are incompatible with food processing and scale.
I don't think we need fruits and veggies, though – we need vitamins and minerals. We need carbs, not bread. Amino acids, not milk. It's still fine to eat these whenever you want, but not everyone can afford them or has the desire to eat them. Food should be optimised and personalised. If Soylent was as cheap and easy to obtain as a cup of coffee, I think people would be much healthier and healthcare costs would be lower. And I think this is entirely possible."
With a hat tip to reader kline, who found the article.

Here's why American medical care is so expensive

A woman in Arizona was stung by a scorpion:
With the help of a friend, she called Poison Control and was advised to go to the nearest hospital that had scorpion antivenom, Chandler Regional Medical Center. At the hospital, an emergency room doctor told her about the antivenom, called Anascorp, that could quickly relieve her symptoms. Edmonds said the physician never talked with her about the cost of the drug or treatment alternatives.

Her symptoms subsided after she received two doses of the drug Anascorp through an IV, and she was discharged from the hospital in about three hours.

Weeks later, she received a bill for $83,046 from Chandler Regional Medical Center. The hospital, owned by Dignity Health, charged her $39,652 per dose of Anascorp.

The Arizona Republic reported last year about the pricey markup Arizona hospitals were charging for the antivenom made in Mexico. Pharmacies in Mexico charge about $100 per dose.

After the Food and Drug Administration approved the drug last year, Tennessee-based Rare Disease Therapeutics sold the drug to a distributor for $3,500 per dose. The distributor charged hospitals about $3,780 per dose.

The Republic polled several hospitals in November, finding that hospital charges for the serum ranged from $7,900 to $12,467 per vial. At the time, Chandler Regional declined to tell The Republic how much it charged for Anascorp.

Edmonds' insurer, Humana, has paid Chandler Regional $57,509 for the bill. The hospital has asked Edmonds for the balance of $25,537.
Costs are passed through the system, no questions asked.  It make you want to scream. God, I am so tired of reading stories like this.  Where is the adult supervision?

See also some of the comments in this Reddit thread:
I drove myself to the ER and spent 40 minutes sitting in an exam room. I spoke to a Physician's assistant who called an Orthopedist to see if there was anything they could do for me. No tests were done aside from the PA touching my leg for a minute or two. I was given crutches ($59) and a prescription for painkillers.

The bill I was sent was for $2800.

If you think there isn't something wrong then you're a fucking retard.

13 March 2013

Macrophotography of snowflakes


Russian photographer Andrew Osokin is a master of winter macro photography. His photo collection is chock full of gorgeous super-close-up photographs of insects, flowers, snow, and frost. Among his most impressive shots are photographs of individual snowflakes that have fallen upon the ground and are in the process of melting away. The shots are so detailed and so perfectly framed that you might suspect them of being computer-generated fabrications.
Text from PetaPixel. The photographer's galleries are here.

Snow fence in Terschelling, the Netherlands


Credit to by Greien218 at Reddit (brightness and contrast enhanced for clarity here).

Falling water distorted by sound waves


A hat tip to John Farrier at Neatorama for finding this remarkable video.

Possible support for panspermia

From MIT Technology Review:
On 29 December 2012, a fireball lit up the early evening skies over the Sri Lankan province of Polonnaruwa. Hot, sparkling fragments of the fireball rained down across the countryside... officials forwarded the samples to a team of astrobiologists at Cardiff University in the UK for further analysis.

The results of these tests, which the Cardiff team reveal today, are extraordinary.  They say the stones contain fossilised biological structures fused into the rock matrix and that their tests clearly rule out the possibility of terrestrial contamination...

The most startling claims, however, are based on electron microscope images of structures within the stones. Wallis and co. say that one image shows a complex, thick-walled, carbon-rich microfossil about 100 micrometres across that bares [sic] similarities with a group of largely extinct marine dinoflagellate algae.

They say another image shows well-preserved flagella that are 2 micrometres in diameter and 100 micrometres long. By terrestrial standards, that’s extremely long and thin, which Wallis and co. interpret as evidence of formation in a low-gravity, low-pressure environment.
Claims similar to this have been made before; it will be interesting to see how this one pans out.  Panspermia explained.

Source publication.

The sequester effect on military spending


Excerpts from a New York Times article:
WASHINGTON — At a time when $46 billion in mandatory budget cuts are causing anxiety at the Pentagon, administration officials see one potential benefit: there may be an opening to argue for deep reductions in programs long in President Obama’s sights, and long resisted by Congress.

On the list are not only base closings but also an additional reduction in deployed nuclear weapons and stockpiles and a restructuring of the military medical insurance program that costs more than America spends on all of its diplomacy and foreign aid around the world. Also being considered is yet another scaling back in next-generation warplanes, starting with the F-35, the most expensive weapons program in United States history

None of those programs would go away. But inside the Pentagon, even some senior officers are saying that the reductions, if done smartly, could easily exceed those mandated by sequestration, as the cuts are called, and leave room for the areas where the administration believes more money will be required. These include building drones, developing offensive and defensive cyberweapons and focusing on Special Operations forces...

But today, deficit hawks outnumber defense hawks on Capitol Hill, and the possibility of $100 billion or more in additional annual cuts does not seem outrageous — if only agreement were possible on which programs should shrink fastest. 

Last week, a group of five former deputy defense secretaries — essentially the Pentagon’s chief operating officers — called for a “bottom up” review that reassesses the need for each major program and weapons system, saying this was an opportunity to accomplish cuts that have long been delayed, after a decade in which the American national security budget has nearly doubled. 

In their more candid moments — almost always when speaking with a guarantee of anonymity — the Pentagon’s top civilian and military leaders acknowledge that the painful sequestration process may ultimately prove beneficial if it forces the Defense Department and Congress to reconsider the cost of cold-war-era systems that are still in inventory despite the many changes made to the military in the last 10 years.
Via The Dish (whence the embedded image).

The enduring value of paper in a paperless society


With a hat tip for finding this to high-school classmate Warren M., lurking somewhere in the shadows of the Sandia Mountains.

The wonders of makeup


Melissamakeupx ("Multiple award winning makeup artist to the stars") has posted an instagram gallery of hundreds of photos of movie stars (most of them reportedly in the porn industry), showing actors before and after makeup.  

Via Buzzfeed, which appended data on age and the number of titles the actress has performed in.  (Above: Ash Hollywood, age 23, 111 titles).

Cable news viewership

The audience for partisan news is not as big as you might think.

What percentage of Americans watches cable news for 10 minutes or more per day?  Only about 10-15%, if you simply add up the audiences for Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC

This is based on calculations by political scientist Markus Prior, drawing on detailed data about what people actually watch and not what they report in a survey.  Survey reports of news consumption are often highly inaccurate.  Consider this comparison of a 2008 Pew survey to data on viewership from the Nielsen Company [above].

In the survey, almost a third of Americans believe they watch one of the three cable networks “regularly.”  It’s not quite clear what “regularly” means, of course.  This is one of the problems of using survey questions to measure media exposure.  But if we assume that a regular viewer should watch at least an hour per week, then in reality only about 6-7% of Americas meet that description.
Hmmm.  Now please someone compare those data with the number who watch "The Daily Show" at least an hour per week.

Image and text from The Monkey Cage, via The Dish.

11 March 2013

World War II propaganda in Persia


The man sleeping on the couch has the face of Adolph Hitler (in the body and clothing of the evil ruler Zahhāk, from Ferdowsi’s Shahname, the Book of Kings, the Persian national epic).  The two snakes on his shoulders are Mussolini and Tojo. He is dreaming about three kings who are coming to kill him: Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt.

This miniature (part of a larger series) was created by a British graphic designer; he incorporated traditional Persian art, literature, and iconography in an effort to appeal to the people of Iran to support the "three kings" in their opposition to Germany.
The British and Soviet forces invaded Iran from the north and south between August 25 and September 8, 1941. The reason for the invasion was that after the German offensive against the Soviet Union in June, they felt threatened the Iranian petroleum resources in their management, and they also intended to transmit war material from the Persian Gulf via rail to the Soviet Union. Although Iran was neutral, the Shah had basically done the inter-war modernization of the country with German help, and he refused to expel the German advisors on British request. After the peace treaty the British deposed him and expelled him to Egypt, and raised on the throne his son Reza Pahlavi, who represented the Anglo-American policy, and declared war on Germany. Subsequently, in November 1943 opened the Tehran conference with the participation of the three above kings, with the aim of coordinating the common war efforts and to open the second, western front.

The easy defeat of the Persian army and the humiliation of the occupation hit very hard the country’s public opinion. This was acerbated by the fact that the massive British buying-up of food for the troops caused a severe famine in the occupied zone, and that, on the principle of “divide and conquer”, both occupying forces excited the ethnic minorities living under their power against the Persian rule. All this is described in detail in Simin Daneshvar’s Savushun (1969), the key novel of 20th-century Iran.

It is understandable therefore, that on the occasion of the Tehran conference the British saw it opportune to present the purpose of their arrival in an easily perceptible visual form to the Persian people...
I suspect few Americans are knowledgeable about this aspect of the second World War.  Additional historical context and the other images in the series, are presented at Poemas del rio Wang.

Explain this train's motion

 

This video was posted at New Scientist, which offers a prize to the first person who can correctly explain how the illusion is created.
Courtesy of neuroscientist Al Seckel, the video is free of editing effects or computer-generated imagery. "There is one train; it is as long as you see," he says. The illusion, presented in his newly published digital book that delves into the science of the world's best illusions, continues to fool Nobel laureates and other great minds when presented at conferences.
So far there are over 100 comments at the New Scientist post.
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