Tuesday, May 31, 2016

I'd Let Him Play Through

In Florida, it's not uncommon to see alligators in settings that we ordinarily don't see them -- like out in the open instead of in an enclosure. Especially near bodies of water. Sometimes, Floridians seem almost blasé about the whole business, if they're far enough away from the toothy lizard, that is.

But every now and then even they get a little nervous when ol' Chomp shows up, as did the fellows in this video linked at Time. I suspect most of us would, as the gator in question is probably fifteen feet long. It was taking a stroll along the golf course, and a golf course employee says it's shown up there now and again and is almost like a mascot for some of the players and employees. They don't bother it, she says, and it doesn't bother them.

Well, I am certain I would have no problem keeping my end of that bargain, but betting on the other party keeping his part of that deal might cost you an arm and a leg.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Science Has the Coolest Words

This article at Quanta outlines how some pretty modest-scaled experiments might do just as much to help us understand the most exotic features of the universe as do those experiments conducted in gigantic facilities like the Large Hadron Collider. With the added benefit of having much less chance of creating a black hole that would destroy life as we know it.

The combination of our annual denominational meeting plus drugs from a recent medical adventure have left me a little tired, so rather than comment on the whole article I will just note the measurement used to gauge the force in one of the experiments. A "newton" is an amount of force; it's equivalent to the force used to depress a computer key. One of the experiments will measure fractions of that force in units called "zeptonewtons."

It's hard to call a day bad when you learn that there is in the world a real thing called a "zeptonewton."

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Those Wacky Neanderthals!

The last couple of decades have changed our picture of "Neanderthal Man," an evolutionary cousin of modern Homo sapiens who preceded us, lived alongside us for some time and then died out.

Facial reconstruction of Neanderthal skulls shows that the old beetle-browed caveman stereotype was exaggerated. A Neanderthal would have looked distinctly different than you or I, but if he was going to take part in a Geico commercial, he would have needed some makeup. Archaeological finds have suggested Neanderthals may have used tools as well-crafted as our own ancestors' were.

And now, buried in a cave so deep it had to be dynamited to be opened, scientists have found that Neathderthals actually built something. Two rings of broken stalagmites date back 176,000 years -- almost nine times as old as the oldest previously known human-built structures.

The stones seem to have been broken off and laid in rings that reached about two feet high. Fires may have been built in or near them but there's no indication of what they were used for. One ring is six feet in diameter and the other 22.

Since scientists don't know how the rings were used, I'm throwing in my idea: The cave was a daycare center and the rings were play pens. The six-footer was for infants and the 22-footer for toddlers. It may sound silly, but if someone finds a millennia-old bippy in one of them you'll need to remember you read it here first.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Rule 1: Don't Make Bambi Angry...

New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio has a problem in one of the boroughs of his great city.

We're accustomed to thinking of New York as one massive clump of buildings, but the borough of Staten Island does have some undeveloped areas. And in them live some deer. A whole lot of deer. Like more than 700 deer, who cause problems ranging from lawn nuisances to destroying cars that hit them (in fairness to the deer, they don't come off so great in those kinds of encounters either).

So City Hall called in some ecologists to try to develop a plan to control the deer population ("We got this." -- every redneck in the world). There were apparently several proposals. One idea that was not suggested was to try to trap and round up the male deer and give them all vasectomies ("He doesn't walk very good, does he?" -- Thumper). The reason it wasn't suggested, according to one of the ecologists the city consulted, is because it won't work. One of his colleagues doubts that more than 50 percent of the wild bucks could be captured and operated on, and that's before they learn to read.

A researcher at The Deer Laboratory at the University of Georgia -- because of course a university in the south is going to have at least one department connected to hunting -- suggests that even if the city were able to trap and vasectomize all of the Staten Island male deer, the females would simply go back into heat once they proved to be not pregnant. At which point some non-Staten Island bucks would stroll in and say, "Hello, ladies," cheap guitar music would begin playing and Staten Island bucks would all stand around and discuss how many painful deaths they could inflict on a certain group of veterinarians.

So naturally that's the plan Mayor DeBlasio picked.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Comic Bookin'

Over at the long-post blog, a long post on DC Comics' Kingdom Come miniseries by Mark Waid and Alex Ross, which premiered 20 years ago this month.

Thursday, May 26, 2016


A study shows that for the first time since the 1880's, more young adults in the U.S. live with their parents instead of a spouse or partner.

William Shatner was unavailable for comment.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

It's Alive! It's Alive! It's A...Oh. Never Mind.

Although determining what is and isn't alive can have a lot of gray areas, you'd ordinarily say that something which could move around, eat other somethings and leave behind the by-products of the meal would fill the bill.

Not so fast, say researchers at Japan's Doshisha University. Droplets of a common surfactant (a kind of chemical that reduces surface tension and makes it easier for stuck substances to separate -- like detergents) will scoot around after iodide ions and leave a chemical trail behind them. The surfactant is called didodecyldimethylammonium bromide, or DDAB.

Its small clumps or vescicles would usually break apart quickly, until researcher Akihisa Shioi and his team added a certain chemical to the mix, which the DDAB "feeds" on to maintain its life.

Other scientists who observe the phenomena point out that the DDAB acts like it's alive only under very specific conditions. Actual life, on the other hand, has proven to adapt to a wide range of conditions. So while DDAB will probably help scientists understand some dimensions of life at its most basic and irreducible levels, it's still just a chemical reaction pursuing its own path of consumption, blind movement in service to that consumption and excretion.

So it could help us understand both the Trump and Clinton campaigns, at least.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

We're Doomed

So it turns out that New York Times bestselling hack Dan Brown is writing an abridged version of his 2003 smash, The Da Vinci Code. The idea behind the new edition is supposed to be making it more manageable for the "young adult" reader market. That label's kind of a misnomer. An actual young adult is 18, but "young adult" books are generally marketed towards people in their early teens.

In any event, if I were one of those so targeted by this rewrite, I would be greatly insulted at the idea that the original Code was somehow beyond my capabilities as a reader.  The Da Vinci Code gives no evidence that a great literary mind was involved in its creation, therefore why should one be required in its consumption?

Article author Maddie Crum offers several reasons that Code would probably be a good YA read: "clean prose, break-neck scenes, witty dialogue and creative insights into historical events." This leads me to think that while both she and I bought the same dust jacket, we must have purchased quite different books. Brown's incomplete grasp of church history, inaccurate descriptions of buildings and scenes, info-dump lecture dialogues and clichéd characters make Code an absolute chore to get through.

And we all know what kids feel about chores.

(H/T Acculturated)

Monday, May 23, 2016

Workplace Environment

If your job involved detecting antineutrinos, then you would work in a place that might remind you of the scene where Indiana Jones runs through a tunnel, fleeing a large rolling rock, only reinterpreted as it might have been seen in Tron. Although your everyday view might not be exactly like this:

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Yer Out!

Sportswriter Joe Posnanski offers his opinion on a couple of proposed rule changes in major league baseball.

One is to raise the bottom of the strike zone a little to see if it will reduce the number of strikeouts. While pitchers and managers are big fans of strikeouts, hitters and paying customers are less so. Every fan likes a great pitcher's duel once in awhile, but a steady diet of whiffed dreams does not sit well with those who want to see the ball go places -- either over the fence, when their team is at bat, or into an outfielder's stretching arms, if the opponent is.

Posnanski says that this rule change might do what the competition committee hopes it will do. It might also lead to a string of walks -- which is just about as boring as a string of strikeouts -- or guys just above the Mendoza line blasting 60 homers a season. You never really know until you make the actual change, but fortunately with baseball, the change can be reversed pretty easily. Not so with other ham-handed moves that spawn chains of unforeseen consequences, such as enacted laws from a legislature.

But Posnanski says -- and I agree, which probably relieves a great deal of his stress -- that the other proposed rule is an exercise in weapons-grade numbskullery: The elimination of actually throwing four pitches in the case of an intentional walk.

Ordinarily, a pitcher's job is to keep runners off the bases. But every now and again there is a strategic reason to put one on. Perhaps it will make a double play easier and end the inning more quickly. Perhaps the current batter spent his last two at-bats sending baseballs into geosynchronous orbit but the next one can't hit the ground with his hat. There are other reasons, so the manager will tell the pitcher to throw four pitches outside of the strike zone. These are generally waaaaaay outside of the zone. The catcher will stand up and take two or three steps away from the plate to ensure even the wildest of lunges by the hitter won't connect.

So, someone on the competition committee suggested, maybe we should just let the pitcher indicate he intends to intentionally walk a batter and not throw the pitches. It might save time. Posnanski notes it will save about as much time as beginning that journey of a thousand miles with two steps instead of one. Plus, the central act of baseball is the pitch to the batter. Creating an "instant" intentional walk robs the hitting team of the possibility of a passed ball advancing the runners. Or of the chance to pull a rare steal on a pitchout. Or any number of the unpredictable things that can occur when one human throws something to another human sixty feet, six inches away.

One of baseball's greatest appeals is that once the ball leaves the pitcher's hand, anything can happen. Streamlining one infrequently-used play in the game in order to grab a minute or two against game length is not a good that is great enough to warrant the loss of unpredictability this change would bring. So, Mr. Commissioner, I -- along with every human being with a functioning cerebellum -- vote no.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Something Strange, and It Don't Look Good

Over at The Federalist, Liz Finnegan tries to parse some of the acrimony that seems to have been generated by the scheduled July release of Ghostbusters, a re-envisioning, reboot, restart or something of the 1984 smash of the same name.

A third Ghostbusters movie has been long desired. When Bill Murray showed up at the 2010 Spike TV Scream Awards in his Venkman jumpsuit and carrying a proton pack, pretty much the entire pop culture universe blew up. But Murray repeatedly declined a third movie, at one point being rumored to have actually shredded a script sent to him and returning it in that form to its writer. Harold Ramis' 2014 death would have seemed to have ended the chances for movie no. 3, since he was the writer responsible for making Dan Aykroyd's original script filmable as well as playing Egon Spengler. Iconic 80s movies given sequels with only portions of their original teams are not pretty: Witness Blues Brothers 2000. Or better yet, don't and take my word for it.

As Finnegan notes, Bridesmaids director Paul Feig announced that same year that he would be helming a Ghostbusters project and that it would star "hilarious women." The choice to make the spectre-smashing team all female generated significant interest and buzz, with groups automatically rejecting it or enthusiastically accepting it sight unseen for casting reasons alone. Two trailers for the movie have become the most down-voted movie trailers ever on YouTube ("Chin up, Paul. It gets better." -- Rebecca Black).

A number of the people who think that the idea of an all-female cast is important believe that the only fuel for this dislike is sexism and misogyny.  Finnegan suggests it has more to do with people finally losing patience with the media and entertainment industry's continuous mining of beloved classics to produce crappy echoes of said classics for no other reason than filthy lucre.

I've no doubt there's a sizable number of dudes who are ticked off that they're being given girl ghostbusters and who aren't mature enough to just keep quiet and skip the movie. And I think Finnegan's onto something as well. For every Battlestar Galactica success there seem to be a dozen Poltergeists. I think she seriously overestimates Ghostbusters as somehow "defining a generation," but it doesn't have to be on that level for people to want their experience of it unsullied by a gimmicky cash grab reboot.

There's no reason an all-female team couldn't be a great addition to the franchise, and no reason not to try something new if circumstances prevent actually bringing the band back together. But so far, the two trailers I've seen haven't delivered anything new or funny. The jokes are retreads or mild chuckles or both. I had to see the original movie twice to find out the lines immediately following the first appearance of Mr. Sta-Puft, because the packed house I saw the movie in laughed so loud you couldn't hear them.

Could there be such a moment lurking in this new Ghostbusters? Of course, although nothing on Feig's or co-writer Katie Dippold's résumés indicates it's likely, and that impression is backed up by the aforementioned trailers. So am I planning on seeing it in a theater? Probably not -- the accumulated weight of dull trailers, second-rate comic writers and the dud Ghostbusters 2 make me a lot like the people Finnegan describes. It sure smells like someone's trying to serve up leftovers as a five-star meal, and I've got nothing against leftovers -- but I'm not going out to eat them.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Hangin' Twelve!

Well, maybe -- if there were life forms on Mars in its ancient days that were capable of surfing, we have no way of knowing how many toes they would have to "hang" over the edge of the board.

But on a couple of occasions, there would have been some gnarly waves for them to catch, as two mega-tsunamis reshaped the coastline of an ancient Martian ocean, probably following meteorite impacts. Thermal image mapping of different areas of our neighboring planet found evidence of the huge waves happening about 3.4 billion years ago. By measuring the changed coastlines, backflow channels and other features often left by a tsunami or "tidal wave," scientists estimate the Martian mega-tsunamis (which would make a great name for a rock band or weird mixed drink) were almost 400 feet high and moved many miles inland.

No word on whether anyone was wearing huarache sandals, too.

Thursday, May 19, 2016


If you're going to sue someone for taking your name, you should probably be sure they actually took your name.

The Quaker Oats Company thought they'd found a business in California using the company's trademarked name as the name of their Christmas tree farm. So they did what big corporations always do when they find some tiny business using a name like theirs: Send a letter from a lawyer telling them to quit it.

The only problem, as the respondent points out, is that the company is named Quaker Oaks Christmas Tree Farm after a wooded area used by Quakers for their worship meetings. The business is owned by Quakers -- more formally known as members of the Society of Friends. No response has been received yet from the company, although the folks of the Quaker Oaks have invited the lawyer sending the letter to visit them at any time and see for herself.

(H/T Dustbury)

Wednesday, May 18, 2016


-- A science journalist gave a talk to an association of skeptics about why he was skeptical about skepticism. Steven Novella at the website Neurologica is skeptical about whether or not Horgan was really skeptical or just acting that way. I'm really not sure who I should disbelieve.

-- My recent medical adventure involved my arm. This item makes me almost wish it had been a little more serious.

-- CBS released a teaser for its upcoming Star Trek series. It prompts two thoughts: 1) That "New Crews, New Heroes, New Villains, New Worlds" tag will be worthless if none of those things appear in service to good stories. Laurence Olivier and Katherine Hepburn wouldn't have saved "Spock's Brain," and the coolest gizmodery in the galaxy won't save this show if it takes its cues from Star Trek Into Darkness, which had a few fine moments buried in a heap o' slop. And 2), that all of the gee-whiz graphics at the front end of the teaser don't hold half the excitement as those first four notes of Alexander Courage's theme music.

-- You know, if young people are going to read and pay attention to what Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling says, it's kind of a relief to know that every now and again she's going to say something smart like this. And for the record, Mr. Trump has my full support to go to England and be bigoted there. In fact, I suspect I am not alone in being an American who wishes he would do so.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

No Cure

When one is in the hospital to have antibiotics pushed for an infection, and one does not feel otherwise poorly, one realizes that there is pretty much nothing on the planet more boring.

Monday, May 16, 2016


Posting lightly for the next few due to an unexpected medical adventure.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Real Estate

Scientists analyzing data from the Kepler space telescope announced last week that they had confirmed almost 1,300 new planets orbiting different stars in our galaxy. That figure represents the ones they are 99+% certain are planets, with another 1,300 or so "more likely than not" to be planets.

Because of the vast distances and the high possibility of even small observing glitches affecting the outcome, the 99% threshold is the minimum bar a potential planet finding has to reach to be considered a planet. By that yardstick, I never took astronomy in college. Or most of my other classes either, come to think of it.

Although it seems commonplace to us today, the idea that other stars have planets was an open question not many years ago. And some theories of planetary formation over the past few centuries were oddball enough to suggest there might be very few planets outside of our own solar system. But the adoption of the nebular hypothesis as the most likely explanation for how stars and planets form, combined with Kepler's observations, mean that stars with planets may be more likely than stars without planets.

Now if I could only find a way to get to one of them before November 8.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Final Page

Lots of comic book artists can copy the style of some of the best work of the 1950s and 60s, making caricatures of the form reflecting the sometimes rushed, sometimes just not as talented aesthetic of those books. But the best of those artists, like Curt Swan, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, drew the way they did because it was their own particular style, and even if it wasn't photorealism they helped tell the story with what they drew.

Darwyn Cooke, who passed away today at 53, drew pages that resembled some of that classic blocky appearance, but he was no imitator. His style fit quite comfortably in that early 60s flair but did so with a foot firmly in the 21st century.

His two best-known works are probably The New Frontier, a prestige six-issue miniseries about super-heroes battling a deadly nonhuman life form, and his illustrations for four reissues of Donald "Richard Stark" Westlake's Parker crime novels. Cooke also wrote Frontier, coming up a little better than some other artists who don't do so well narrating their pictures.

In my imagination, Kirby is there at the Pearly Gates awaiting Cooke's arrival, and welcoming him in with a "Not bad, kid. Not bad at all."

Friday, May 13, 2016

Catch a Wave

But not with a surfboard, a camera.

Photographer Luke Shadbolt did, for some really cool images found here.  My fave below:

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Don't Ever Change

The International Olympic Committee has shown it doesn't care about what happens to the people in some of the dictatorships to which it awards the free PR blitz of the Olympic Games.

Last summer, the New York Times pointed out that the IOC doesn't care much that its 2016 venue for swimming and boating events is much more of a cesspool than a regular pool, and so it's kind of shruggy about whether or not its own athletes would have been better off if they'd trained with Andy Dufresne.

So now the IOC has been warned that the Zika virus epidemic in Rio hasn't been contained and that a fully reliable treatment hasn't been developed. So maybe it's not a good idea to send a half a million possible new disease vectors into a viral zone and the games should maybe be postponed or moved.

Nah, says the IOC. They'll continue to "closely monitor" the situation to make sure everything's OK. Which is probably true, if by "closely monitor" you mean "stay in a sealed room with canned air and bottled water from the United States."

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Heavens Squalled...

...and push come to shove.
There ain't no escapin'
the tornado of love...

The Rainmakers

Bob Walkenhorst was a man ahead of his time:

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Pair by Pair

In 1984, Whitley Strieber, best known as the horror novelist behind Wolfen and The Hunger, joined forces with his friend, historian James Kunetka, to produce near-future science fiction novels well-known and praised for their level of detail and world-building. Whether they intended more or not, the writing dimension of their relationship ended after two books, and Strieber subsequently started writing about his experiences with unknown beings, starting in Communion. Kunetka has since written several history books.
Strieber and Kunetka's first collaboration was the 1984 post-apocalyptic novel Warday. Set five years after a limited nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union, it describes conditions around the country via journal-like entries from the authors and interviews with people representing the changed features of the post-war society.

The "limited" nature of the exchange meant that only parts of the U.S. were destroyed by missiles -- but much of the rest of the country has been devastated by fallout and economic collapse. California and the southeastern states, largely untouched by bombs, have sealed their borders and prevented immigration from other parts of the country and the federal government is too weak to prevent these steps. Strieber and Kunetka decide to make themselves the journalists in the story, exploring what America is like five years after the conflict, called "Warday" because of its brief duration. Through their interviews with people they meet, they open up life in 1988 post-Warday America, including how people deal with its shattered economy, damaged national resources and the lingering effects of radiation poisoning and possible biological warfare.

Strieber and Kunetka's choice to make themselves the protagonists of their story strengthens its voice and gives Warday a "real-life" feel. They pay a lot of attention to details that help ground their vision of the hard living that would follow even a limited nuclear conflict -- one of the first postwar cars is not just a car but is described by make and model. Even the few bombs that were used created an electromagnetic pulse that fried most electronics, so folks find themselves turning to a lot of 1950s-era technology and earlier, with vintage autos and other equipment the only kinds of things that still work.

They reason out what kind of everyday life choices people might have to make in this kind of a world. For example, the government decides that people who received a "lifetime dose" of radiation on Warday are at such great risk to develop cancer or other conditions that limited medical resources would be wasted on them. They are "triaged," to use the novel's term, and it is illegal for them to be prescribed medication or receive regular medical treatment. Strieber and Kunetka think people in that situation might turn to alternative healing techniques like herbalists or pagan nature-worshippers for their health care, and that such moves would increase the profile and acceptance of these kinds of currently fringe practices.

Warday is not a thriller, and only an episode involving escape from a California prison bus has even the faintest shades of adventure. Its strength as a statement against the idea of nuclear war comes from its matter-of-fact tone, attention to detail and avoidance of Total Annihilation!!! scenarios. To create their world, Strieber and Kunetka relied on logical extrapolation from what people knew about nuclear explosions, radiation, fallout and other matters. You're right, they might be saying to their opponents. A limited nuclear war is possible; that kind of conflict doesn't have to destroy the world. Life would be possible after one. But it would be pretty hard, and are we sure that the country we'd become in the aftermath would be the country we're trying to defend?

That limited scope made Warday a much more effective sermon against nuclear war than overkill like its contemporary, the television movie The Day After. And Strieber and Kunetka's vivid travelogue style makes it the better novel today, long after the danger against which it warned has been bypassed by events.
Nature's End came out in 1986, and offers the story of a planet in the 2020s ready for ecological collapse. The stress of too many people, too few resources and too little care taken of the Earth's environmental infrastructure has brought humanity to the brink of disaster -- and encouraged a "counter-measure" movement that will probably send it over that brink to destruction. A crusading journalist and his investigative team to go work to expose the conspiracy, only to find that their enemy has allies throughout society and will be able to turn their own technological resources against them.

Strieber and Kunetka choose not to take the lead roles in End, creating as the central protagonist the journalist John Sinclair. Sinclair is one of the few people in the world licensed to create a special computer simulation called a "conviction," which will respond to questions and interact with people as though it were the actual person being shown -- except it will tell the truth. Sinclair's team has exposed hypocrisy and unsavory character flaws in politicians that brought down two administrations in different countries. Now they have to turn their skills against Gupta Singh, the charismatic leader of the worldwide Depopulationist movement. The movement promotes a coordinated mass suicide of a third of the human race in order to relieve environmental pressure and save humanity -- and in the November 2024 elections, an overwhelming "Depop" victory in U.S. elections means the movement could steamroll to approval worldwide. This even though scientists and computer simulations warn that the actual effect of the Depop plan will be a cascade of continued death and disease that will probably wipe out everyone else.

End lacks a lot of Warday's life and energy -- "John Sinclair" and the others on his team just aren't as fully drawn and realized as the authors' own personae in the earlier book. And whereas Warday felt convincingly reasoned out from the known world of the mid-80s as it was altered by a limited nuclear war, End relies a lot more on speculation than extrapolation and simply lacks the real-world feel Warday has. Even though Strieber and Kunetka show a future world with technology based on what existed during the time they were writing -- and they nail a significant chunk of the kind of technology in use today -- the story's resolution depends on some genetic and biological developments well outside what's possible now or likely to be any time soon.

As a cautionary tale regarding environmental damage being done to the Earth, Nature's End is a miss. But rereading it today shows significant satirical elements that might or might not have been a part of the authors' original intent. For one, the actual peril Nature's End shows is not environmental collapse as much as desperate and bad ideas to either halt or reverse the collapse. Although extensive research and computer models show that the Depopulationist strategy is much more likely to end human life on Earth than save it, the mass of people reject the more complex reality in favor of a fantasy they think sounds like a solution -- sort of like building a wall and making Mexico pay for it. The people who vote Depop don't get that Jonathon Swift's "modest proposal" mocked the idea that mass slaughter of human beings can solve human problems, and that a Holocaust-by-ballot is a Holocaust just as horrible.

Sinclair is a part of the youth-worshiping Baby Boom generation, and one of Singh's first blows against him is to remove him from the records of the company providing his artificial anti-aging treatments. The monstrous Depopulationist plan, which probably would have been attacked and defeated had it come from some first-world technocrat, gains strength and support when it's propounded by a calm and wise guru from the Far East. The real danger to the world in Nature's End isn't the looming ecological collapse, because there is some secret super-tech that might save the world. The real peril comes from the ham-handed knee-jerk idea to save the world through a mass suicide, brought about by people who have thought through none of its consequences.

Whether Strieber and Kunetka intended satire to fuel much of Nature's End, it seems to have turned out that way. And seen as a satire, the flatter characters and less energetic narrative still keep it from succeeding like Warday, even if might work a little better than as a plain warning against disaster.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Right of Way

The Audubon Society sponsors an annual photo contest of bird pictures, since birds are its primary focus after its namesake, John James Audubon.

Audubon created some amazing works of art using pencils and watercolor, but since he lived and worked in the 18th and 19th centuries, his technology was limited. He would very likely have been astounded by images such as the below, in which a bald eagle aims to steal the prey of a blue heron in front of him:

Although featured on no national seal, the herons are actually among the top predator birds in their biosphere and often tussle with the eagles, who prefer to steal prey as much as catch it.

This image is the grand prize winner; some more spectacular pics are available at the first link.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Tell Me More

When the Romans had someone who had acted in a way that brought discredit upon Rome -- almost always a senator or some other high official, since your everyday Josephus was unlikely to draw much attention -- they enacted a specific law or statute against that person to attempt to minimize their impact if not actually remove them from the knowledge of history. It was called damnatio memoriae, the condemnation of memory.

As the story at Today I Found Out notes, we have no way of knowing if it was ever actually successful, since if it was the person has been erased from history. But judging by what folks today sometimes call the "Streisand effect," damnatio memoriae was probably never completely successful. That term refers to an instance where singer Barbra Streisand tried to get something said about her erased and in so doing brought it more attention than it ever had to start with.

A number of folks at colleges recently have tried to revive the practice, insisting that statues, building names or monuments honoring people who had the audacity to not see things the way 21st century folks do should be removed or otherwise changed. In George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, the practice of damnatio memoriae was an important part of Winston Smith's job. The internet allows people to give it a good shot, but screen captures often defeat the attempt.

I have to say that given the results of the recent presidential campaigns, the idea has a certain appeal. I suspect that a significant number of us will approach 2020 wishing that the last four years could just disappear from memory.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Scheduled Conversation

Leah Libresco, writing at Five Thirty-Eight, checked out how oftem moms would like their kids to call, and how often kids think they should talk with Mom.

My average is once a week, but sometimes more if the occasion presents itself. Or she needs help with her computer -- although those conversations tends to be limited in scope: "No, you didn't break it when you dropped the mouse." My sister talks with her more often. Many weeks, although there might be only one phone conversation, there's a few e-mails. Some of which also involve helping with the computer. Or her iPad.

Whether you call her as often as she likes, as often as you like, or somewhere in between, you'd probably better remember to call her tomorrow. Greeting-card companies may have invented the holiday or they may not, but it's for real now and if she has to call you on Mother's Day..., well, in the words of Stanley Craver, "Bad things, man."

Friday, May 6, 2016


In a victory for the grown-ups, the National Enviromental Research Council in England has decided to name its new research vessel the R.S.S. David Attenborough. This is noteworthy because the NERC initially put the name up to an internet vote, inviting people to suggest and then support their favorite names.

Among the suggestions was "Boaty McBoatface," which in fact zipped to the top of the poll. Since the NERC had said even when starting the contest that they would select from among the suggested names rather than binding themselves to the top vote-getter, the chances of the ship's name actually being "Boaty McBoatface" were slim from the get-go.

There has been some hand-wringing and whining among the people who liked the idea of applying a silly name to a ship they would stop thinking about ten minutes after they voted and probably never remember again during their lives. Writing at Big Think, Laurie Vazquez suggested that the name choice was "a big problem," and that people who supported the silly name "have every right to be angry" that the NERC chose a serious name to honor an explorer instead of bowing to the almighty ADHD whim of the internet. Of course they don't. You might make a decent case that they're not out of line to be a little perturbed, but people actually angry about the choice are either angry at way too many things -- if something this minor ticks them off -- or way too few things -- if they consider this something that's worth anger.

I've got no problem with whimsical, and I think science folks who have some fun with their work are great. But "Boaty McBoatface" isn't whimsical or even clever. The person who suggested it apologized and said it was supposed to be a joke. It's just the application of a new here-today-gone-tomorrow phraseology onto something as an attempt to be ironic or hip. I am certain that "angry" people will get over their issue, the boat will be built and scientists will crew it, and not five percent of the people who voted for "Boaty McBoatface" will remember this matter when the ship launches in 2019.
Natural Environment Research Council
Natural Environment Research Council
Natural Environment Research Council
Natural Environment Research Council

Thursday, May 5, 2016


To: K.S., South Carolina
From: You Know Who
Re: Refusal of Tow Service Incident

Mr. S:

We have been notified that subsequent to your choice to refuse to tow a car which displayed a bumper sticker for one Bernard Sanders, supporting his candidacy for President of the United States, you referenced a message from our Client, purportedly delivered to you, which advised you to do the same.

We fully recognize your right to serve or refuse to serve persons according to such belief systems and convictions you may hold. We note that later statements by you offer claims that persons with similar political beliefs have been unreliable customers and it has been difficult to collect payment from them. Frankly, we don't believe a word of that and feel it is far more probable that you have become aware of how deeply you have stepped in it and how unlikely it is that you will be in business six months from now because of that. But it is a claim we do not oppose.

We do, however, request that you desist from claiming that a message from our Client was involved in your decision. We believe that if you consult our Policy Manual, section "Matthew," subsection 25, ¶ 45, you will find the following statement (precise wording may vary according to edition):
"Then he will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.'"
While there is no solid finding of fact that persons supporting Senator Sanders in his run are de jure "the least of these," we feel that viewing them as such, as you detail in your statments, renders them so de facto in relation to you and thus the obligation outlined in preceding paragraphs attaches, as it does to all of those who claim to follow the Policy Manual and its Author.

Should you wish to continue claiming our Client is the source of your decision we advise you to obtain representation in order to properly handle the action from said Client, which will be forthcoming. We will advise you beforehand, though, that persons in our particular field are very uncommon on this plane of existence and you may have a long search.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Or Else You'd Cry

-- Scientists studying laughter theorize that it developed as a way of testing and strengthening social bonds. I think it developed to help us survive the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election. It's a cinch that neither of the two likely nominees has anything else to offer in the role.

-- When I have finished mowing my lawn, and it's all even and green and stretches out to the end of the lot and I can squint and pretend I'm looking at an Augusta fairway...that's when I hate it the least. But I still hate it.

-- I think science popularizer Neil deGrasse Tyson is annoying, but not as annoying as the people who treat him like a delphic oracle of verifiable wisdom. This guy kind of disagrees; he just doesn't like Tyson.

-- A lot of people are bugged about the fact that actress Tilda Swinton was cast in Marvel's upcoming Dr. Strange movie as the good doctor's mystical teacher, the Ancient One. In the comic books, the Ancient One is clearly Asian, so the casting of a Caucasian performer in the role is something called "whitewashing." That refers to a movie or show casting someone who is not of a particular race in a role conceived as being of that race. Charlie Chan was never played by an Asian man, for example. I can see their point, but my main objection to casting Swinton is that I really dislike watching her onscreen.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

A Ballot Defaced

With the near certainty that November will present a pair of the least-worthy choices possible for the office of the presidency, I am now grateful that the Libertarian Party will be on the ballot here in Oklahoma, because it means I do not have to leave that spot blank. So I shall be voting for former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson but hoping Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton wins. Why this curious combination? My bullet points, Watson:

Why I will not be voting for Ms. Clinton: She has never presented the slightest evidence she can lead or run a government. She has presented ample evidence that she is interested in personal power and enrichment, and on the few issues where she has a defined position I disagree with her.

Why I will not be voting for Mr. Trump: Because no one has hit me in the head with a baseball bat. If I were to go to bed as Mr. Trump and wake up as a fecal coliform bacterium I would count myself the most blessed being that has ever lived or shall ever live.

Why I will be voting for Mr. Johnson: He literally personifies "none of the above," which in this case is the only choice a thinking conservative can make.

Why I will be hoping Ms. Clinton wins: Whether she or Mr. Trump wins will make almost no difference in the way government operates. Both will be awful, and they share more positions on issues than many folks seem to realize. Because they will be awful, the 2018 midterm elections -- which I will now label "Our National Emetic" -- will very probably be a massive ejection of whichever party occupies the White House.

The ability of the nation to recover from whichever candidate our Sophie's choice of an election leaves us will depend in large part on not adding any more Alan Graysons, Sheila Jackson-Lees or Hank Johnsons to the legislative branch. A President Clinton would guarantee a gridlock Congress and even if she should somehow win a second term she would lose much of her ability to damage things. When he looks at the way party members held their noses so tightly it restricted carotid flow and enabled them to vote for a hairpiece homunculus, I suspect GOP chair Reince Priebus wants to jump off a building. The only thing that stops him is the vision of the campaign commercials President Clinton will write for him whenever she speaks.

Of course, there is no guarantee that the very likely GOP sweep of congressional elections in 2018 won't have its own crop of idiots -- see this year's presumptive presidential nominee if you disbelieve me. But idiots opposing each other are to be preferred to idiots who agree, because the latter have a much greater chance of doing something.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Mind. Blown.

A photographer uses a light tube, creative photography and a model to produce images that look like flat-out magic. You could stare at these for awhile.

Here's a couple of the coolest:

The project page is here.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Packing My Bags

There is a point in the Pacific Ocean that is 1450 nautical miles from the nearest land. It's called the Oceanic Pole of Inacessibility -- a name you'd have though was tailor-made for William Goldman's The Princess Bride if he hadn't written it about 20 years before technology made pinpointing the location possible.

It's also called Point Nemo after Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea submarine captain, and it's as far away as you can get from any land on Earth and still be on the Earth. In an odd little coinky-dink, H.P. Lovecraft put the dread lost city of R'lyeh almost on top of Point Nemo, meaning we'll never know Cthulhu is coming until it's way too late.

In reality, though, it's just the middle of nowhere and not a place of any special eldritch shrieking madness significance. But being as it's a remote spot of the world, and given things on the world stage like the near-solid lock our next president will be awful and things on the local stage that may make you wonder why you bother with some parts of your job, it's a mighty attractive middle of nowhere.