17 April 2014

Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1927-2014)

I just heard that Gabriel Garcia Marquez died today.  In his memory I would like to cite (part of) the most remarkable sentence I've ever read.   It was 25 years ago that I first read Love in the Time of Cholera, and a year or two later One Hundred Years of Solitude and The Autumn of the Patriarch.  The first two are in my view the better books, but Autumn of the Patriarch [fulltext at the link] has one truly awesome sentence.  It begins like this, at the start of the final chapter of the book...
THERE he was, then, as if it had been he even though it might not be, lying on the banquet table in the ballroom with the feminine splendor of a dead pope amidst the flowers in which he would not have recognized himself in the display ceremony of his first death, more fearsome dead than alive, the velvet glove stuffed with cotton on a chest armored with false medals of imaginary victories in chocolate wars invented by his persistent adulators, the thunderous full-dress uniform and the patent leather boots and the single gold spur that we found in the building and the ten sad pips of general of the universe to which he was promoted at the final moment to give him a rank higher than that of death, so immediate and visible in his new posthumous identity that for the first time it was possible to believe in his real existence without any doubt whatsoever, although in reality no one looked less like him, no one was so much the opposite of him as that showcase corpse which was still cooking in the middle of the night on the slow fire of the tiny space of the little room where he was laid out with candles while in the cabinet room next door we were discussing the final bulletin with the news that no one dared believe word by word when we were awakened by the noise of the trucks loaded with troops in battle gear whose stealthy patrols had been occupying public buildings since before dawn, they took up prone positions under the arcades of the main commercial street, they hid in doorways, I saw them setting up tripod machine guns on the roofs of the viceregal district when I opened the balcony of my house at dawn looking for a place to put the bouquet of wet carnations I had just cut in the courtyard, beneath the balcony I saw a patrol of soldiers under the command of a lieutenant going from door to door ordering people to close the doors of the few shops that were beginning to open on the commercial street, today is a national holiday they shouted, orders from higher up, I threw them a carnation from the balcony and I asked what was going on with so many soldiers and so much noise of weapons everywhere and the officer caught the carnation in midair and replied to me just imagine girl we don't know ourselves either, the dead man must have come back to life, he said, dying with laughter, because nobody dared think such an earthshaking event could have happened, rather, on the contrary, we thought that after so many years of negligence he had picked up the reins of his authority again and was more alive than ever, once more dragging his great feet of an illusory monarch through the house of power where the globes of light had gone on again...  [and ends thus]... he had arrived without surprise at the ignominious fiction of commanding without power, of being exalted without glory and of being obeyed without authority when he became convinced in the trail of yellow leaves of his autumn that he had never been master of all his power, that he was condemned not to know life except in reverse, condemned to decipher the seams and straighten the threads of the woof and the warp of the tapestry of illusions of reality without suspecting even too late that the only livable life was one of show, the one we saw from this side which wasn't his general sir, this poor people's side with the trail of yellow leaves of our uncountable years of misfortune and our ungraspable instants of happiness, where love was contaminated by the seeds of death but was all love general sir, where you yourself were only an uncertain vision of pitiful eyes through the dusty peepholes of the window of a train, only the tremor of some taciturn lips, the fugitive wave of a velvet glove on the no man's hand of an old man with no destiny with our never knowing who he was, or what he was like, or even if he was only a figment of the imagination, a comic tyrant who never knew where the reverse side was and where the right of this life which we loved with an insatiable passion that you never dared even to imagine out of the fear of knowing what we knew only too well that it was arduous and ephemeral but there wasn't any other, general, because we knew who we were while he was left never knowing it forever with the soft whistle of his rupture of a dead old man cut off at the roots by the slash of death, flying through the dark sound of the last frozen leaves of his autumn toward the homeland of shadows of the truth of oblivion, clinging to his fear of the rotting cloth of death's hooded cassock and alien to the clamor of the frantic crowds who took to the streets singing hymns of joy at the jubilant news of his death and alien forevermore to the music of liberation and the rockets of jubilation and the bells of glory that announced to the world the good news that the uncountable time of eternity had come to an end.
What is remarkable is not the content per se, but the fact that I used the ellilpsis in the center of the citation to pass over 53 pages of text - all of it one single sentence.  I once estimated that the sentence comprises about 17,500 words.  One might consider this creation to be a whimsy or a conceit by someone just playing with words, but in my view it is a sort of prose poem by a superbly skilled writer who loves the craft of language.  If you'd like to give it a try, go to this link.

See also: One Hundred Years of Solitude with Lolita.

16 April 2014

"Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice."

Embryonic sharks cannibalize their littermates in the womb. "While 12 littermates may start out the journey, all but one is devoured by the biggest in the pack. That strategy allows sand tiger sharks to have much larger babies at birth..."

An op-ed piece at Salon comments on the "curse of beauty" and the unnecessary risks of plastic surgery.

Clothing that incorporates carbon fibers can make the wearer "taser-proof."  Even if a taser needle penetrates as far as your skin, the electrical current will pass through the carbon fibers, not through you.

"Unpaired words" are ones for which the opposite is nonexistent or rarely used.

The Teleporter will take you to a random place on earth.  Then switch to "map" mode and zoom out to see where you are.

An optical illusion demonstrates color reversal in retinal after-images.

"Harvesting winter" is an interesting article at Edible Geography that documents the age-old practice of saving winter ice for year-round food storage at "the only commercial ice house on the National Register of Historic Places to have stored naturally frozen ice harvested in the traditional way from a nearby pond."

The average man's sperm count is falling.  A Telegraph article discusses possible explanations, with a focus on exogenous estrogens in the enviroment.

A video at Laughing Squid explains why automobile key fobs work from a greater distance when they are applied to your head.

The Trampe is a "ski-lift for bicycle riders," assisting them in ascending hills.

"Twenty is Plenty" is a cleverly-titled campaign in urban New York and the U.K. seeking to lower speed limits on roads to 20 mph.

Parts of an 800-year-old monk have been found.  The embedded image shows his femurs protruding from an eroding cliff in South Wales.  (Photo: Wales News Service)

If you are adorned with a tattoo, or are interested in such, The Appendix has a long article on the history of tattoo removal.  In ancient times soldiers were tattooed to prevent desertions and slaves were tattooed for ownership, so removal was of critical rather than cosmetic importance.

This gif shows how to use ice-cream sandwiches to make a cake.

Paul Ryan (R-Wis) played fast-and-loose with the truth when he cited a story about a child who wanted a lunch in a brown paper bag.

A recommendation FOR keeping PIN numbers in your wallet (but not the correct ones).

A video that will be of interest only to those who lived in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area in the 1950s - 1980s.

A rare blue diamond has been discovered in South Africa.

In a masterful Rolling Stone article, Matt Taibbi explains how the rigging of Libor rates was the biggest price-fixing scandal of all time.
You may have heard of the Libor scandal, in which at least three – and perhaps as many as 16 – of the name-brand too-big-to-fail banks have been manipulating global interest rates, in the process messing around with the prices of upward of $500 trillion (that's trillion, with a "t") worth of financial instruments. When that sprawling con burst into public view last year, it was easily the biggest financial scandal in history – MIT professor Andrew Lo even said it "dwarfs by orders of magnitude any financial scam in the history of markets."
Photos of what are said to be the most beautiful libraries in the world.

The Vatican Library is online and is aggressively digitizing their material.  You can access some incunabula here.

This test will tell you if you're "tone deaf." (it's ridiculously easy if you're not).

How do ants walk?  Think about it...  If I told you that first they move three legs, then they move three other legs, would that sound nonsensical?  But it's true, and the linked gif shows why it is totally logical and practical.  They are basically using moving tripods.  You learn something every day.

The photo is our first butterfly of the year.  Mourning Cloaks (Camberwell Beauties) (Nymphalis antiopa) are typically the first because they are able to overwinter through the sub-zero temperatures.  They come out with ragged wing edges (from last autumn's adventures) and hungry.   Since no nectar sources are available in Wisconsin in April, they seek tree sap (or overripe fruit at the homes of butterfly enthusiasts).

(The title is the opening line to one of my favorite novels)

15 April 2014

Modifying The Masters

A clever video created by taking classic television footage from The Masters golf tournaments and then digitally adding devices normally seen on putt-putt golf venues.

It's been a long time since I played miniature golf; I didn't know that Whack-A-Mole cup obstructions were now standard.

Via 22 Words and Neatorama.

How dry I am

This is likely to have some effect on food prices in the United States.
Nearly the entire Golden State – 99.81 percent to be exact — is in the grip of drought, according to the latest update from the U.S. Drought Monitor. Nearly 70 percent of the state is suffering from an “extreme” or “exceptional” drought, the two highest categories on the Monitor’s rating scale. The snowpack across the entire state is at a measly 35 percent of its normal level...

At this point last year, only a quarter of the state was in drought conditions; now, that much of the state is in exceptional drought alone — marking the first time the Monitor has used that rating in California since its inception in 1999...
I believe much of southern California was traditionally desert, before it was artificially watered by river diversion projects.  Those rivers and reservoirs are severely diminished.  Look for a variety of regional water wars to erupt.

I suspect a variety of already-stressed butterfly populations will also be threatened. 

"Cherry tree from space" behavior unexplained

Cherry trees grown from seeds that had been sent into orbit are exhibiting unusual behavior and blossoms:
The four-year-old sapling -- grown from a cherry stone that spent time aboard the International Space Station (ISS) -- burst into blossom on April 1, possibly a full six years ahead of Mother Nature's normal schedule.

Its early blooming baffled Buddhist brothers at the ancient temple in central Japan where the tree is growing...  "A stone from the original tree had never sprouted before. We are very happy because it will succeed the old tree, which is said to be 1,250 years old."..

By April this year, the "space cherry tree" had grown to around four metres (13 feet) tall, and suddenly produced nine flowers -- each with just five petals, compared with about 30 on flowers of the parent tree.

It normally takes about 10 years for a cherry tree of the similar variety to bear its first buds.

The Ganjoji temple sapling is not the only early-flowering space cherry tree.
Of the 14 locations in which the pits were replanted, blossoms have been spotted at four places.

"Sebelius resigns to spend more time with heERROR 404 PAGE NOT FOUND"

The title is a tweet by Brian Beutler regarding the resignation of Kathleen Sebelius, who had overseen the Obamacare website.  Snarky, but funny.

Via The Dish.


Gaggle is a term of venery for geese not in flight.  The term is also used to refer to the White House Press Corps:
"Gaggles" historically refer to informal briefings the press secretary conducts with the press pool rather than the entire press corps....they were more or less off the record, and their purpose was mostly to exchange information... The nickname could stem from the idea that these more freewheeling press sessions, where the talk is much more rapid and free-form, are like a "gaggle of geese" honking.
The etymology is apparently onomatopoeic.

Video via Neatorama.

14 April 2014

Back soon

Those who have already finished their paperwork can read about why the process is unnecessarily complicated.
Imagine filing your income taxes in five minutes — and for free. You'd open up a pre-filled return, see what the government thinks you owe, make any needed changes and be done. The miserable annual IRS shuffle, gone.

It's already a reality in Denmark, Sweden and Spain. The government-prepared return would estimate your taxes using information your employer and bank already send it. Advocates say tens of millions of taxpayers could use such a system each year, saving them a collective $2 billion and 225 million hours in prep costs and time, according to one estimate...

Well, for one thing, it doesn't help that it's been opposed for years by the company behind the most popular consumer tax software — Intuit, maker of TurboTax. Conservative tax activist Grover Norquist and an influential computer industry group also have fought return-free filing.
More details at Pro Publica.

Image from The Economist.

10 April 2014

What the well-dressed woman wore 200 years ago

A Dutch chintz jacket from 1810-1820.  
For those who, like me, are unclear about what chintz is, this from the Wikipedia entry:
Chintz (from the plural of chint) was originally glazed calico textiles, initially specifically those imported from India, printed with designs featuring flowers and other patterns in different colours, typically on a light plain background. Since the 19th century the term has also been used for the style of floral decoration developed in those calico textiles, but then used more widely, for example on pottery and wallpaper. Chintz designs are mostly European patterns loosely derived from the style of Indian designs themselves reflecting, via Mughal art, decorative traditions in Islamic art such as the arabesque...

These early fabrics were extremely expensive and rare. By 1680 more than a million pieces of chintz were being imported into England per year, and a similar quantity was going to France and the Dutch Republic....

In contemporary language the word "chintz" and "chintzy" can be used to refer to clothing or furnishings which are vulgar or florid in appearance....
From the Rijksmuseum, via A London Salmagundi.

("chint" apparently is a Hindi word for the original product)

Where is Ukraine?

It's truly embarassing how abysmal the average American's knowledge of geography is.  The map above accompanied an article in the Washington Post:
On March 28-31, 2014, we asked a national sample of 2,066 Americans (fielded via Survey Sampling International Inc. (SSI)), what action they wanted the U.S. to take in Ukraine, but with a twist: In addition to measuring standard demographic characteristics and general foreign policy attitudes, we also asked our survey respondents to locate Ukraine on a map as part of a larger, ongoing project to study foreign policy knowledge. We wanted to see where Americans think Ukraine is and to learn if this knowledge (or lack thereof) is related to their foreign policy views. We found that only one out of six Americans can find Ukraine on a map, and that this lack of knowledge is related to preferences: The farther their guesses were from Ukraine’s actual location, the more they wanted the U.S.  to intervene with military force.
More at the link.  I'll grant that some of the respondents may have been trolling the interviewers by pointing to Kansas or Canada, but I'm not surprised by the general pattern. I believe it was George Carlin who asked us to think of how stupid the average American is and then to remember that half of them are more stupid than that.

"Autonomous sensory meridian response" (ASMR)

I first learned about ASMR yesterday while driving my car listening to a segment of This American Life.  It's fascinating. 
Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) is a neologism for a perceptual phenomenon characterized as a distinct, pleasurable tingling sensation in the head, scalp, back, or peripheral regions of the body in response to visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, and/or cognitive stimuli. The nature and classification of the ASMR phenomenon is controversial.
For those who want to explore the subject, Act Two of the TAL podcast is mesmerizing (just click the little forward arrow below "A Tribe Called Rest."  The entire segment lasts about 15 minutes, but try it for just 3-4 minutes...).

The "most dangerous chemical"

Three chemists suggest cyclopentyldienyl nickel nitrosyl, tert-Butyllithium, and sulfur trioxide, and explain why in this video.

Problems at Experian

The credit-monitoring service was criticized several months ago at Krebs on Security:
An identity theft service that sold Social Security and drivers license numbers — as well as bank account and credit card data on millions of Americans — purchased much of its data from Experian, one of the three major credit bureaus, according to a lengthy investigation by KrebsOnSecurity...

These services specialized in selling “fullz” or “fulls,” a slang term that cybercrooks use to describe a package of personally identifiable information that typically includes the following information: an individual’s name, address, Social Security number, date of birth, place of work, duration of work, state driver’s license number, mother’s maiden name, bank account number(s), bank routing number(s), email account(s) and other account passwords. Fulls are most commonly used to take over the identity of a person in order to engage in other fraud, such as taking out loans in the victim’s name or filing fraudulent tax refund requests with the IRS...
Experian rebutted the allegations, and Krebs has recently replied to their rebuttal.
In summary, Experian wants you to remember that the consumer data sold to Ngo’s identity theft service didn’t come directly from its database, but merely from the database of a company it owns. But happily, there is no proof that any of Ngo’s customers — who collectively paid Experian $1.9 million to access the data — actually harmed any consumers.

Readers who find all of this a bit hard to swallow can be forgiven: After all, this version of the facts comes from a company that has been granted a legal right to sell your personal data without your consent (opting out generally requires you to cut through a bunch of red tape and to pay them a fee on top of it). This from a company that is quibbling over which of its business units profited from the sale of consumer records to an identity theft service.

09 April 2014

"The Landlord's Game"

This game from the 1920s is a precursor and a direct inspiration for the famous game of Monopoly.
Magie designed the game to be a "practical demonstration of the present system of land grabbing with all its usual outcomes and consequences". She based the game on the economic principles of Georgism, a system proposed by Henry George, with the object of demonstrating how rents enrich property owners and impoverish tenants. She knew that some people could find it hard to understand why this happened and what might be done about it, and she thought that if Georgist ideas were put into the concrete form of a game, they might be easier to demonstrate. Magie also hoped that when played by children the game would provoke their natural suspicion of unfairness, and that they might carry this awareness into adulthood.
More at Wikipedia and the links there.

A tip of the hat to reader mikemonaco for alerting me to this link.

200 classic movies

Posted (thankfully on a single page) at Buzzfeed.  I've seen 135 of them.  Some of you will have seen even more.  Who will wind up with bragging rights?
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