21 October 2014

This is NOT the skull of an extraterrestrial alien - updated

An archaeological discovery of 13 Conehead-shaped skulls in Mexico has people recalling the famed Saturday Night Live sketch. The bones, which are about 1,000 years old, dating back to 945 A.D. to 1308 A.D., were discovered accidentally during a dig for an irrigation system in the northwest state of Sonora in Mexico. While it’s not unheard of for archaeological sites to be unearthed during modern excavations, the misshapen skulls discovered on the site are fairly uncommon, especially as far north as Sonora. “This was a Hispanic cemetery with 25 skulls, and 13 of them have deformed heads,” Cristina Garcia Moreno, who worked on the project with Arizona State University, told ABC News. “We don’t know why this population specifically deformed their heads.”
Some news videos of the discovery have described the procedure of cranial deformation as a "rite of passage into adulthood," but clearly deformation to this degree has to be undertaken on a pliable skull of an infant.

There's more information at the Artificial Cranial Deformation page at Wikipedia, where I found the image at right ("Painting by Paul Kane, showing a Chinookan child in the process of having its head flattened, and an adult after the process") and these notes:
Early examples of intentional human cranial deformation predate written history and date back to 45,000 BC in Neanderthal skulls, and to the Proto-Neolithic Homo sapiens component (12th millennium BCE) from Shanidar Cave in Iraq.  It occurred among Neolithic peoples in SW Asia.  The earliest written record of cranial deformation dates to 400 BC in Hippocrates' description of the Macrocephali or Long-heads, who were named for their practice of cranial modification.
Reposted from 2012 to add information from a new BBC article about cranial modification in Australia:
...they owe their strange appearance not to the blind hand of evolution but to the guiding hand of humanity. Australia's ancient inhabitants were among the first in the world to deliberately transform the shape of their own skulls...


H. erectus had a wide skull and a small braincase, while the unusual Australian skulls are narrow and have large braincases, just like today’s humans do. This makes it highly unlikely that their flat foreheads were shaped by ancient H. erectus genes - and far more likely that they were actually sculpted by human hands...
The modern counterpart to this occurs when parents place babies on their backs to minimize the chances of SIDS:
Encouraging parents to routinely putting babies to sleep on their backs before their soft skulls harden led to a dramatic increase in cases of plagiocephaly, also known as flat head syndrome. A study published last year found almost half of a sample of 440 healthy young babies attending two clinics in Calgary, Canada, showed signs of it.
More at the links.

Comparing butter and margarine


Via Neatorama.

The history of Half-Price Books

I believe I visited the flagship Half-Price Books store when it opened in Dallas in the 1970s, and I still shop at the local one here in Madison.  An article at Fortune describes the remarkable rise of this classic bootstrap business, and why it continues to thrive.
[In 1972] They found a 2,000-square-foot location on Lovers Lane in Dallas. It was a ratty old laundromat. The monthly rent was $174. We cleaned it up, built our own shelves, and painted it. We’d load the trucks, unstop the toilet, everything...

There weren’t many bookstores at all back then. Ours was an original concept. Pat and Ken wanted to make sure there were affordable reading options for everyone in a comfortable, inviting place to shop. By buying all the items people brought in, they weren’t censoring anyone. We’d pay cash for anything printed or recorded except yesterday’s newspaper, which meant we had current offerings to sell. It was different from other used bookstores, where you traded for books, or high-end antiquarian stores, which intimidated people. We did so well, we opened our second location eight months later in a former meat-storage place... But we never were fancy people, so I don’t think we would have noticed any hardships. We ate ravioli out of a can and hamburger casseroles...

I became president and CEO. I was scared to death. It was 1995, and I was 37... In 1995 we had 55 stores, with $50 million in sales. I had had no formal education... We only did what we could afford to pay for, so we always operated on a cash basis... Because we are private and don’t have to answer to shareholders, we can expand at our own pace. Plus, our inventory is different than most traditional book retailers’ and is lower in cost, so that gives us a different customer base. We’re trying to be a bookstore, record store, antiquarian store, and comic-book store...

I could have been filthy rich many times over if I’d sold the company. But I didn’t because I would have left the people who did all the work to suffer.  
Kudos to this lady and her management team. More at the link.

Pocket globes

Sotheby's currently has auctions for several beautiful pocket globes from the 1790s and early 1800s. If you have a few grand lying around, one of these 2.5-inch to 3.5-inch beauties could be yours. Globemaking required the precise printing and placing of each gore, or strip of printed material shaped like the rind surface of a lemon wedge. In the miniature globe above, each gore represented thirty degrees of longitude and were hand-colored. The outer case was notched to hold a metal pin running through each pole for easier spinning.
Image and text from BoingBoing, where there is a link to the Sotheby's auction.

A new gallery for New Mexico photography

"In an effort to bring more diversity to the artistic offerings in Carrizozo, Warren and Joan Malkerson, along with David Mandel, the past curator of the Hubbard Museum and all of its photographic shows, will host an open house celebrating the grand opening of the Tularosa Basin Gallery of Photography Saturday, Oct. 25...
The gallery also will be the headquarters for the newly formed Tularosa Basin Photographic Society. The space boasts 7,500 square feet on the first floor.
"We have 14 photographers as members as of opening night," Malkerson said. "We hope to grow to more than 50 members and also then occupy the basement floor of that building as well, thereby having a total of nearly 15,000 square feet of showroom/sales floor space. This would make it the largest photography-only gallery in the entire state of New Mexico. The subject matter of all the photography will be New Mexico. All the shots have to be taken within the state aligning the gallery with the new big push by the tourism board of the state for New Mexico True. We will be the only photography gallery in the state to so dedicate itself."

Further details at Ruidoso News.

20 October 2014

Patronize your local arboretum


Those of you who live in climate zones with deciduous trees have the privilege of enjoying a spectacular show of color each autumn.  Last month I visited the University of Minnesota's Landscape Arboretum.  This past week I walked the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Arboretum, where I took these photos.

Why the Kansas City baseball team is the "Royals"

They are named after the American Royal, a livestock show.
A 1968 contest to name the city’s new baseball franchise attracted proposals such as “Mules” and “Cowpokes.” A now-deceased Kansas City engineer named Sanford Porte proposed “Royals,” in honor of what he called “Missouri’s billion-dollar livestock income, Kansas City’s position as the nation’s leading stocker and feeder market and the nationally known American Royal parade and pageant.” Mr. Porte’s entry prevailed...

Soon after the team’s 1969 debut, livestock references fell silent. This coincided with a civic effort in the 1970s to dissociate Kansas City from its stockyards, where 64,000 cattle a day once transformed into steaks and packaged meat...

Today, the baseball team’s connection to a livestock show is unknown even to team members... To some American Royal supporters, the team’s forgotten livestock link reflects persistent anti-cow sentiments... The American Royal is a nonprofit that raises money for agricultural-related scholarships, in part via champion-livestock auctions...

There are signs the baseball team is rediscovering its roots. In 2009, it opened a Royals Hall of Fame at Kauffman Stadium, including an exhibit detailing how the team got named. “I don’t think the livestock heritage bothers people much anymore,” says Curt Nelson, the hall of fame’s director. 

Astronaut uses candy corn in zero gravity to explain soap


Via Neatorama.

Large American cities ranked liberal to conservative


My current location, Madison, Wisconsin, at a population of 240,000 is not big enough to make this list (250K lower limit), but would presumably rank down there by Minneapolis and Seattle.

Data apparently based on city policies, not on population surveys, from this study, via BoingBoing.

"Two trillion rotations per second"

That's the speed of a molecular gyroscope.
Molecular gyroscopes are chemical compounds or supramolecular complexes containing a rotor that moves freely relative to a stator, and therefore act as gyroscopes. Though any single bond or triple bond permits a chemical group to freely rotate, the compounds described as gyroscopes may protect the rotor from interactions, such as in a crystal structure with low packing density or by physically surrounding the rotor avoiding steric contact... the rate for inertially rotating p-phenylene without barriers is estimated to be approximately 2.4 x 10^12 per second (2,400,000,000,000 RPS)...
The human mind (at least mine) is not capable of conceiving of such behavior.

"The Bricklayer's Lament"


The audio of "The Bricklayer's Lament," is from Gerard Hoffnung's 1958 speech to the Oxford Union.
The derivation of the story is confused, but it first arises in the 1930s. It was published in Reader's Digest in 1940 as a letter from a naval officer who had supposedly received it from an enlisted man explaining his late return from leave. Hoffnung first saw the story in The Manchester Guardian in 1957; the version printed there is identical with the text used by Hoffnung, except for the location, which he changed from Barbados to Golder's Green. Hoffnung used the piece to warm up the audience before each recording session of One Minute, Please. In these performances he perfected the timing before the Oxford Union speech. The story was part of his speech in a debate called Life Begins at 38 and was recorded by the BBC. The tale itself was not, Ingrams comments, especially funny, but "[Hoffnung's] manner and delivery reduced his audience to hysterics".
I don't remember how I, as a Minnesota teenager in the 1950s became a fan of Hoffnung, but I was a reader of Punch and a fan of British comedy (Flanders and Swann, St. Trinians, The Goon Show) at the time, and thus had his interplanetary music festival records, which is where I first heard this presentation.

Musing about the origin of WWI

From a "British History" column at the BBC:
lt was an act of regicide that catapulted Europe into war - an act that not unexpectedly took place in the Balkans. The region had been in a state of ferment for years, and the assassination of the heir to the Hapsburg Empire, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, by a Serbian nationalist, was the culmination of a train of events leading inexorably to war.

Yet at first the monarchs of Europe did not take the incident too seriously. lt was expected that the Hapsburg Emperor, Franz Josef of Austria-Hungary, would demand and be given an apology from Serbia. By now, however, Europe's leading nations were locked in alliances - there was Serbia with Russia, Russia with France, France with Great Britain, Great Britain with Belgium on the one side, and Germany and Austria-Hungary on the other. With Serbia's apology not proving abject enough, relations between Serbia and Austria-Hungary were broken off. This finally alerted Europe's family of kings to the danger that threatened them.

As the alliances clicked inexorably into place, a positive snowstorm of telegrams between the crowned heads tried to avert the inevitable. Kaiser Wilhelm II (Willie) was particularly assiduous in keeping touch with his cousins Georgie and Nicky. But by now there was nothing they could do. Their constitutional powers counted for almost as little as their cousinhood. Although, technically, Franz Joseph, Nicholas II and Wilhelm II could perhaps have curtailed the coming hostilities, they were at the mercy of more powerful forces: the generals, the politicians, the arms manufacturers, and the relentless timetables of mobilisation. Ultimatum followed ultimatum. In the face of national pride, imperial expansion and military glory, the protestations of the crowned heads were swept aside. On such giant waves, they could only bob about like so many corks.
Boldface and italics added.  Sound familiar?

16 October 2014

"All this happened, more or less."


"Cured salted pork crafted as a nasal tampon and packed within the nasal vaults successfully stopped nasal hemorrhage promptly, effectively, and without sequelae. In both applications, the patient had complete cessation of nasal bleeding within 24 hours, and was discharged within 72 hours after treatment."

Why universities like to hire adjunct professors ("“The most shocking thing is that many of us don’t even earn the federal minimum wage... Our students didn’t know that professors with PhDs aren’t even earning as much as an entry-level fast food worker.)

Brief video interviews with the drivers of London's iconic black cabs.

If you have a 1943 copper penny, it is probably worth thousands of dollars (if it's not a fake).

The backstory behind recent publicity about Olive Garden menus ("It really wants to steal Olive Garden’s real estate, and make a billion dollars in the process.")

"Residents of a Madrid village have changed their annual running of the bulls to a similar event with giant 125-kilo (275 pounds) polystyrene balls, a move animal rights groups are hoping will be copied in other parts of Spain." (video at the link)

Yet still another American medical care horror story ("He was blindsided, though, by a bill of about $117,000 from an “assistant surgeon,” a Queens-based neurosurgeon whom Mr. Drier did not recall meeting.")

Victorians crafted amazing microscopic art using diatoms.  Video at the link.

Why wind turbines kill bats by the hundreds of thousands.

A panoramic photo of the surface of Mars taken by the Rover (it's incredibly bleak).

Vinyl records are still popular; plants that press the records can't keep up with the demand: "Between 2007 and 2013, U.S. vinyl sales increased 517 percent to 6.1 million units, according to SoundScan, and that doesn’t include overseas demand or sales made directly from record-label websites."

The Telegraph's Travel column presents what it claims is "the world's hardest geography quiz."  I only got 40% correct.

"Just east of the Andes, central Colombia’s Caño Cristales is a river like no other. Reaching 100km long and sometimes called the “Liquid Rainbow”, Caño Cristales runs during certain months of the year with shades of red, blue, yellow, orange and green in a vibrant natural display that happens nowhere else on Earth."  Photos at the link.

A spider uses a dangling rock to anchor the free edge of its web.  The technique is explained by David Attenborough.

A metal coin placed on dry ice doesn't just melt the ice - it generates an odd display of motion and sound.

"Georgia police raided a retired Atlanta man's garden last Wednesday after a helicopter crew with the Governor's Task Force for Drug Suppression spotted suspicious-looking plants on the man's property. A heavily-armed K9 unit arrived and discovered that the plants were, in fact, okra bushes... And that's not to mention the issue of whether we want a society where heavily-armed cops can burst into your property, with no grounds for suspicion beyond what somebody thought he saw from several hundred yards up in a helicopter."

Stephen Hawking has a guest vocal on the new Pink Floyd album. (video at the link)

Scientists are continuing to explore the wreck that yielded the Antikythera mechanism.
“It was a floating museum, carrying works from various periods; one bronze statue dates from 340 B.C., another from 240 B.C., while the Antikythera Mechanism was made later. This was when the trade in works of art started... Researchers believe the vessel may have been carrying treasures from Roman-conquered Greece to Italy."  See also Return to Antikythera.
The title is the opening line from Kurt Vonnegut's 1969 novel, Slaughterhouse Five.  

Photo (King Vulture ) credit: Mark Ralston/AFP, via The Telegraph.

15 October 2014

The pure joy of "one last time"


"My grandma wanted to see the ocean one last time before checking into hospice.  Her face says it all."

Photo credit to ecost, who posted this at Reddit, where the discussion thread focuses on praising Hospice personnel (and I heartily agree).

It's hard to see in the embedded image (better in the original), but it looks like the wheelchair has large inflated wheels designed for beach transport.  I didn't know such modifications existed, but they certainly make sense for residents of coastal communities.

Addendum: a hat tip to reader OrcaSister for this link illustrating the beach wheelchair.

"Cross sea" and "cross swell" - updated re the Écluse à poissons

"In surface navigation, a cross sea is a sea state with two wave systems traveling at oblique angles. This may occur when water waves from one weather system continue despite a shift in wind. Waves generated by the new wind run at an angle to the old, creating a shifting, dangerous pattern. Until the older waves have dissipated, they create a sea hazard among the most perilous."
A cross swell is generated when the wave systems are longer period swell, rather than short period wind generated waves
Amazing.  I didn't even know this could happen.  You learn something every day.

Text and image from Wikipedia, via The Soul is Bone.

Addendum: Reposted from December 2013 to add this video sent in by reader Dominique:


The video provides a brief tour of Ile de Re, the tip of which is shown in the photo at the top. I tried to set up the video to start about midway, to focus on the enormous tidal fish trap constructed there but it didn't work, so you can skip to about the 3:45 mark to see the relevant portion.

I have seen other weirs and fish traps over the years, but never one as massive as this.  After watching the video I went to Google Maps and was pleased to see that the structure is visible in the satellite view:


It extends out from the lighthouse and the beach (light brown in the satellite image); the scale can be appreciated by comparing it with the buildings at the bottom.

There is more information hereAnd here.  Apparently the structure (or its earliest incarnation) dates to about the 14th century.  Amazing.
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