24 January 2015

The complicated tail of Comet Lovejoy

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

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

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

Canine prosthetic legs

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

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

Can you weigh the air in a football? - updated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

American arrested for carrying Arabic "flash cards"

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

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

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

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

More details at the ACLU website, via BoingBoing.

How to play with supercooled water at home

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

"We built this" - redux

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

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

The "national costume" of Canada

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

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

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

23 January 2015

An ancient rebus involving a Jew's harp

Solving the rebus at the top of this illustration in a 17th-century book requires understanding the meaning of the key-like item after the word "dames."
It actually most closely resembles a jaw harp, a small instrument played with the mouth that produces a distinctive twanging sound. The possibility that this is the intended meaning of the symbol at first seems untenable, as it does not appear to fit the phrase in any logical way. Inserting the common French term for the instrument, guimbarde, gives us nothing, as does the German term maultrommel. However, discovering earlier French names for it, jeu-trompe and trompe de Béarn, suddenly supplies the image with a double entendre. If the word “trompe” is inserted in the phrase, an unexpectedly negative phrase emerges: “Le coeur de dames trompe le monde”, or “The hearts of women deceive the world”. There is little doubt that this is the correct interpretation, as it is a known proverb. The phrase in fact appeared on the Queen of Hearts in a playing card ca. 1500. Yet while this mystery is solved, the question of how it relates to, and informs the image above, is just as cryptic.
More information here:
The Jew's harp, also known as the jaw harp, mouth harp, Ozark harp, trump, or juice harp, is a lamellophone instrument, which is in the category of plucked idiophones: it consists of a flexible metal or bamboo tongue or reed attached to a frame. The tongue/reed is placed in the performer's mouth and plucked with the finger to produce a note. This instrument is considered to be one of the oldest musical instruments in the world; a musician apparently playing it can be seen in a Chinese drawing from the 4th century BC.

Despite its common English name, and the sometimes used Jew's trump, it has no particular connection with Jews or Judaism...

The instrument is known in many different cultures by many different names. The common English name "Jew's harp" is sometimes considered controversial or potentially misleading, and is thus avoided by a few speakers or manufacturers... Other speakers believe the avoidance of the term to be offensive and deliberately use the term so as not to cause offense. Another name used to identify the instrument, especially in scholarly literature, is the older English trump, while guimbarde, the French word for the instrument, can be found in unabridged dictionaries and is featured in recent revival efforts.

Computer Vision Syndrome

Explained at Vox:
A significant number of heavy computer users experience a range of symptoms that researchers group under the umbrella phrase "computer vision syndrome."...

Studies have shown that when people read from computer screens, their blink rate plummets — but this also happens when people read words from a printed page. In either case, when you blink less frequently, your eyes are much more likely to become dried out....

Eye strain is the second-most common complaint of computer vision syndrome, and can be accompanied by headaches and pain in or around the eyes... It may also lead to a related problem: difficulty focusing...

Observational studies have found that, in general, a person's level of education — and thus the amount of reading they've done over their lifetime — is positively correlated with their risk of myopia. But the direction of causation could go either way: they could have read more growing up, becoming both more educated and myopic, or for various reasons people prone to myopia could be more likely to read more...

Every twenty minutes, a person should look away from their desk for twenty seconds, and focus on something at least twenty feet away," he says. This prevents your eyes from focusing at near distances for extremely long durations, forcing them to alter their focal distance. It's also a good idea to consciously do some blinking at this sort of regular interval, in order to prevent excessive dryness. Your desk should also be set up in a way to minimize eye stress. It's recommended that your monitor be positioned 20 to 40 inches in front of your eyes, and the top of the monitor should line up with your eye level, so you're looking down about 15 degrees when you stare at the screen. 
More at the link.

Within my lifetime

North  Carolina, 1950.

Photo credit Elliott Erwitt / Magnum Photos / Agentur Focus, via Spiegel Online.

Monarch butterfly tourism locations

Smithsonian offers a list of seven locations in North America where Monarch butterflies can be seen in large numbers.

Point Pelee National Park, Ontario, Canada 
"Because the migration happens over such a considerable distance, butterflies look for shortcuts whenever they can, which is what makes Point Pelee such a desirable spot—located on a peninsula that juts into Lake Erie, the site gives thousands of monarchs a head-start on their southward journey. After following the shape of the peninsula, the butterflies will funnel to the tip of the point and wait for a breeze to help them begin their migration"

Monarch Butterfly Grove: Pismo Beach, California
"From mid-October through mid-February, thousands of monarchs congregate on the grove's trees, providing visitors with a spectacular sight. One of the largest in the nation, the grove at Pismo Beach regularly hosts around 25,000 butterflies each season."

Monarch Grove Sanctuary: Pacific Grove, California
"...monarchs arrive by the thousands to rest on the thick branches of eucalyptus trees. Located in a city park, the sanctuary is free and open to visitors from sunrise to sunset."

Goleta Monarch Butterfly Grove: Goleta, California
"...in 2011, the wintering population peaked at 47,510). The preserve is open sunrise to sunset, and admission is free. Docents are available to lead tours around midday on weekends."

Natural Bridges State Beach: Santa Cruz, California
"...at peak numbers, some 100,000 monarchs come to the area to enjoy the mild, oceanside climate and rest in the preserve's eucalyptus trees."

Monarch Biosphere Reserve: Michoacán, Mexico
"In 2008, the Monarch Biosphere Reserve was named a Unesco World Heritage Site for its critical role in supporting populations of the migrating butterflies. Monarchs come to the area by the millions—sometimes, by the billions—to escape the cold northern winters."

Piedra Herrada: Los Saucos, Mexico
"More remote than areas to the north, visitors usually take horses up the steep incline, then hike through thick vegetation to reach the butterflies."

You guys in southern California are so lucky.  If you are a reader of this blog and have never taken the time to visit one of the winter Monarch sanctuaries, I'm disappointed in you.

22 January 2015

Getting to the root of perennial grains

Ever since my childhood in the Upper Midwest, I've understood that one of the factors leading to the great "Dust Bowl" disaster of the 1930s was the destruction of the native grasslands by farmers.  But it takes an image to really drive it home - such as the one above comparing the root systems of a perennial wheatgrass with those of modern annual winter wheat.  A National Geographic article explains that humans have always favored annuals over perennials because the short lifespans promote selective breeding:
Humans made an unwitting but fateful choice 10,000 years ago as we started cultivating wild plants: We chose annuals. All the grains that feed billions of people today—wheat, rice, corn, and so on—come from annual plants, which sprout from seeds, produce new seeds, and die every year. "The whole world is mostly perennials," says USDA geneticist Edward Buckler, who studies corn at Cornell University. "So why did we domesticate annuals?" Not because annuals were better, he says, but because Neolithic farmers rapidly made them better—enlarging their seeds, for instance, by replanting the ones from thriving plants, year after year. Perennials didn't benefit from that kind of selective breeding, because they don't need to be replanted. Their natural advantage became a handicap. They became the road not taken.

We pay a steep price for our reliance on high yields and shallow roots, says soil scientist—and National Geographic emerging explorer—Jerry Glover of the Land Institute. Because annual root crops mostly tap into only the top foot or so of soil, that layer gets depleted, forcing farmers to rely on large amounts of fertilizers to maintain high yields. Often less than half the fertilizer in the Midwest gets taken up by crops; much of it washes into the Gulf of Mexico, where it fertilizes algae blooms that cause a vast dead zone around the mouth of the Mississippi. Annuals also promote heavy use of pesticides or tillage because they leave the ground bare much of the year. That allows weeds to invade.
The article goes on to explain that scientists are aggressively pursuing the concept of creating deep-rooted perennials that can serve as food plants.  This topic was considered in greater depth in Discover Magazine last spring:
Now we also have much better tools in plant breeding. We have much more powerful, faster computers that allow us to sift through the genetic material to determine which characteristics are going to be more productive...

I recommend focusing first on the perennial types of legumes, given the protein needs of many of the developing countries. The great benefit is that legumes contribute to cropping systems; they can help take nitrogen out of the atmosphere and make it available in the soil.

African soils were in general less fertile and less well-suited for agricultural production than American soils from the beginning. Farmers in Africa are often faced by the big challenge of working with inherently old, highly weathered soil...  I think ultimately they could be more productive than our annual grain crops because they are able to capture more sunlight, water and nutrients. But the urgency in developed countries isn’t there.

"Deep Time" and "Deep Space" - part I

Somewhere this past week (I've lost the link), I saw a comment by ?Bill Nye.  When asked why some people fail to believe in the concept of evolution, he said the fundamental thing they failed to grasp was the concept of "deep time" (geologic time scales).

Changes of adaptations that appear impossibly complicated (or illogically perfect) become understandable if/when one considers that the change has happened over the course of, say, 200 million years.

I encountered an example of the importance of "deep time" while reading an article in Smithsonian magazine yesterday:
The rock beneath me, which looks almost white in the glare of the sun, is full of fossils. Zillions of them. Back when these life-forms were alive—265 million years ago or so—the Guadalupe Mountains were underwater, part of a flourishing reef that once stretched about 400 miles around the edge of a long-vanished sea.

Reefs are a fascinating fusion of biology and geology. They are, after all, made of stone—but built by life. Moreover, although the individual life-forms involved are typically tiny, the results of their activities can be gigantic, resulting in a massive transformation of the landscape. As usual, Charles Darwin put it better than anyone. Writing about corals, he said: “We feel surprise when travellers tell us of the vast dimensions of the Pyramids and other great ruins, but how utterly insignificant are the greatest of these, when compared to these mountains of stone accumulated by the agency of various minute and tender animals!”
Mountains built by life. Literally. To give a couple of examples, the volume of coral built up on the Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands is around 250 cubic miles. This is equivalent to building the Great Pyramid of Giza more than 416,000 times. And that’s just one atoll: The Earth has scores. The Great Barrier Reef, which runs for more than 1,800 miles along the northeastern coast of Australia, comprises about 3,000 reefs and 900 islands. It is the largest structure built by living beings in the modern world.
Lots more at the link.

"Deep Time" and "Deep Space" - part II

If "deep time" challenges our comprehension of time, then "deep space" is its counterpart on a spatial scale.  I covered this topic briefly about five years ago by showing the Hubble Ultra-Deep Field photo.
This is called the Hubble Ultra Deep Field. Starting in late 2003, astronomers pointed Hubble at a tiny, relatively empty part of our sky (only a few stars from the Milky Way visible), and created an exposure nearly 12 days long over a four-month period. The result is this amazing image, looking back through time at thousands of galaxies that range from 1 to 13 billion light-years away from Earth. Some 10,000 galaxies were observed in this tiny patch of sky (a tenth the size of the full moon) - each galaxy a home to billions of stars
NASA has just released a newer image, though not of "deep space" per se.   It is a 1.5 billion pixel image of just a small portion of one galaxy.  I invite you to view the video at the top - at fullscreen settings - while contemplating that each one of those dots is a sun (or a collection of suns).   By the end of the panning in the video, one winds up at the galactic center where the number of suns are so great that the light is confluent.  Followed by the "gotcha" moment of the final pullback to show that you're not looking at the Milky Way - merely one component of it.

There is some discussion at SlashGear.

But reading about it is I think less important than just contemplating the image in the video and its implications.

VSED as an end-of-life strategy

Excerpts from Complexities of Choosing an End Game for Dementia:
Mr. Medalie’s directive also specifies something more unusual: If he develops Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia, he refuses “ordinary means of nutrition and hydration.” 

A retired lawyer with a proclivity for precision, he has listed 10 triggering conditions, including “I cannot recognize my loved ones” and “I cannot articulate coherent thoughts and sentences.”

If any three such disabilities persist for several weeks, he wants his health care proxy — his wife, Beth Lowd — to ensure that nobody tries to keep him alive by spoon-feeding or offering him liquids. VSED, short for “voluntarily stopping eating and drinking,” is not unheard-of as an end-of-life strategy, typically used by older adults who hope to hasten their decline from terminal conditions. But now ethicists, lawyers and older adults themselves have begun a quiet debate about whether people who develop dementia can use VSED to end their lives by including such instructions in an advance directive...

Even in the few states where physicians can legally prescribe lethal medication for the terminally ill, laws require that patients be mentally competent and able to ingest those drugs themselves. Mr. Medalie would prefer that option if he were to become demented, preferably with the barbiturates dissolved in “a little vodka.”

But demented patients don’t qualify for so-called death with dignity. VSED is a lawful way to hasten death for competent adults who find life with a progressive, irreversible disease unendurable...

“Neglecting basic human comfort care is a big source of elder abuse complaints and criminal prosecutions.” And if a patient demands that his basic care be withheld in the event of dementia? “Nobody from a legal perspective has really meaningfully grappled with that,” he said.

In several states, including New York, Wisconsin, Minnesota and New Hampshire, legislatures have banned the withdrawal of oral nutrition or hydration at all, no matter what a directive or a proxy says.
More at the link.  Worth a read for those dealing with a family member with dementia.
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