21 May 2015

People may sniff their hands for "chemosignals"

Why do people shake hands? A new Weizmann Institute study suggests one of the reasons for this ancient custom may be to check out each other’s odors. Even if we are not consciously aware of this, handshaking may provide people with a socially acceptable way of communicating via the sense of smell.

Not only do people often sniff their own hands, but they do so for a much longer time after shaking someone else’s hand, the study has found. As reported today in the journal eLife, the number of seconds the subjects spent sniffing their own right hand more than doubled after an  experimenter greeted them with a handshake...
Next, to explore the potential role of handshakes in communicating odors, the scientists used covert cameras to film some 280 volunteers before and after they were greeted by an experimenter, who either shook their hand or didn’t. The researchers found that after shaking hands with an experimenter of the same gender, subjects more than doubled the time they later spent sniffing their own right hand (the shaking one). In contrast, after shaking hands with an experimenter of the opposite gender, subjects increased the sniffing of their own left hand (the non-shaking one). “The sense of smell plays a particularly important role in interactions within gender, not only across gender as commonly assumed,” Frumin says.
At least we're more subtle than dogs.  More information here

"In the long run..."

Site-spoofing online reservation systems

As reported in the Washington Post:
The hotel industry... recently asked the Department of Justice to investigate travel sites that are “trying to pass themselves off as the actual hotel.”..

At best, these reservations are simply made on behalf of a third party instead of by the hotel and may have additional restrictions or booking fees. But at worst, they may be completely bogus bookings that won’t be recognized by a property.

Pinpointing the problem is easy, but a solution isn’t. It turns out the fake sites operate outside the country and can be difficult to identify as fraudulent.  Who are these companies? There are thousands of them, according to AH&LA, and they go by names like Reservationcounter.com, Reservationdesk.com and Hotelsone.com...

One of the most enduring “wrong site” examples is the National Park Reservations site, which is sometimes confused with the National Park Service site by consumers. It isn’t affiliated with the national parks, a fact that it now clearly discloses on its front page, and it charges a fee for reservations made through the site. It’s the first result on Google for a “national park reservation” search, but the site most people actually want is NPS.gov (go to “Find a Park”), which doesn’t have the fees.
More at the link.

The shortest scientific paper ever published


In keeping with the subject matter, I'll add no comments.

Via Real Clear Science and the New Shelton 'wet/dry.

Argentinian public service announcement

20 May 2015

Claims for "the face of Shakespeare" in the frontispiece of a botany book


Excerpts from an interesting report in The Guardian:
The botanist and historian Mark Griffiths on Tuesday claimed that he had discovered what he firmly believes is the only demonstrably authentic portrait of Shakespeare made in his lifetime.

He argues that an engraving on the title page of a 400-year-old book about plants contains four identifiable figures - one of whom is the Bard aged 33 looking very different from the round-faced bald man we know from the First Folio of his collected works...

The work by William Rogers, England’s first great exponent of copperplate engraving, is on the title page of a groundbreaking 1598 book, The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes, by the horticulturist John Gerard.

It is full of elaborate decorative devices, flowers and symbols which surround four male figures, who had generally been assumed to be allegorical.

Griffiths, in the course of writing a book about Gerard, decided to discover who the men might be. He had to crack an elaborate Tudor code of rebuses, ciphers, heraldic motifs and symbolic flowers, which were all clues pointing to the men’s identities.

The relatively easy ones were Gerard himself, the renowned Flemish botanist Rembert Dodoens and Queen Elizabeth’s chief minister and closest adviser Lord Burghley, who was Gerard’s patron. That left the tricky fourth man, bottom right...
This claim has been disputed and childishly mocked ("So apparently Shakespeare went around in fancy dress holding a fritillary in one hand and a cob of corn in the other.") by various Shakespeare scholars.

What fascinates me is the juxtaposition of the images of Shakespeare and Lord Burghley:
Griffiths believes Shakespeare was given his literary start by Burghley, the most powerful man in the country and that he became almost a political propagandist for him.

If you accept that theory, then Shakespeare would have moved in the same circles as Gerard, as both men had Burghley to thank for their careers.

Griffiths said his theory was that Shakespeare helped Gerard with Greek and Latin translations in the book and acted as a kind of script doctor. So the four men are the writer himself, his patron, his inspiration (Dodoens) and his literary adviser.
"...the identification of Gerard, Burghley and Dodoens was straightforward because they look like existing portraits."
Lord Burghley was William Cecil, the chief advisor and spymaster for Queen Elizabeth, inarguably one of the most prominent, educated, and influential men of his time.  He was known as a book-lover, and his home contained one of the premier private libraries of Elizabethan England.  In 1562 John de Vere, the 16th Earl of Oxford died; his son became a royal ward of the Queen and was placed in the household of William Cecil.  That 12-year-old boy was Edward de Vere, who would have been in his 30s when this herbal was published.

Annoying magazine subscription renewal reminders

Although your subscription doesnt expire for another six months there are several benefits to renewing early:
You wont receive another annoying renewal notice again this year. You can avoid subscription price increases for up to two years. You will have the peace of mind of knowing that you won’t miss one single issue.
And now renewing is even easier, all you have to do is click on the link below, choose your renewal option, and youre done. It couldn’t get any easier.
Copied verbatim from the email I received from Harper's magazine.  I love the magazine for its varied content and the monthly cryptic puzzle, but I am recurrently annoyed when I am asked to renew six months before the subscription expires.

Maybe they could use my funds to hire a copyeditor to insert apostrophes* and remove comma splices...

*looking at their text as HTML, it appears that apostrophes were in the original, but didn't display at my end.

Hog droving

Before motorized trucks became common, nearly all livestock went to market on foot: cattle, horses, mules, sheep, goats, turkeys, ducks, and geese... Hogs, though, ruled the road. Americans raised more pigs than any other type of animal, so naturally swine crowded out other beasts on the turnpikes. The best estimates suggest that in the antebellum South, five times as many hogs were driven as all other animals combined...

A few farmers from the Bluegrass region of Kentucky—pig country before the horses took over—walked their hogs through the Cumberland Gap and all the way to Charleston, South Carolina, a distance of more than five hundred miles...

The start of the journey was especially difficult, for during that stage loud noises could send pigs stampeding back toward their home farms. One solution was to sew up their eyelids: temporarily blinded, the pigs clumped together and kept to the road by feel. At their destination, the stitch was clipped and their vision restored. (The young Abraham Lincoln, charged with driving a recalcitrant drove of hogs aboard a riverboat, pulled out a needle and thread and started sewing.)...

Because pigs could walk about ten miles a day, inns—often known as wagon stands—sprang up at ten-mile intervals along the roads, offering drovers and their pigs food and a place to sleep...

The largest cattle drives, from Texas to Kansas, involved as many as 600,000 cattle a year, but they lasted just fifteen years or so. Hog droving, by comparison, involved hundreds of thousands of animals during peak years and on some routes lasted nearly a century.
Excerpts from Lesser Beasts, via Atlas Obscura.

How to make morphine at home

Scientists have figured out how to brew morphine using the same kit used to make beer at home. They have genetically modified yeast to perform the complicated chemistry needed to convert sugar to morphine.

The findings, published in Nature Chemical Biology, raise promise for medicine but also concerns about "home-brewed" illegal drugs...

Brewed morphine could, eventually, be easier to produce. It could also allow scientists to tweak each of the steps to develop new types of painkiller...

"In principle, anyone with access to the yeast strain and basic skills in fermentation would be able to grow morphine producing yeast using a a home-brew kit for beer-making," reads a comment piece in Nature journal.

It calls for tight controls on such genetically modified yeasts.
More information at the BBC.

"Master of the Universe" trailer


Not to be confused with the "Masters of the Universe" fantasy, this is a documentary about the perilous state of interconnected global financial systems that rely on complex derivative instruments, from the viewpoint of a retired German securities trader.  Very sobering, though not fearmongering.  I don't know if the full-length (88 minute) version is accessible online; I found the movie in our local library in a version with audio auf Deutsch with English subtitles.  Released in 2013 and based on an earlier interview, but the subject matter is not out of date.

18 May 2015

The complex physics of flipping a phone

NFL teams were paid to "salute our troops"

It's a familiar scene to most Americans. The poignant moment when a soldier is honored for his or her service before a cheering crowd during halftime of an NFL game.  It turns out, however, that at least some of these patriotic displays are not what they seem.

A New Jersey-based website, NJ.com, has a detailed report that reveals the Department of Defense is paying millions of dollars to many NFL teams in what are essentially paid promotions to honor America's heroes...

This does not mean, of course, that all halftime events featuring troops or veterans are paid promotions. However, the fact that many are could undermine such efforts and "leaves a bad taste in your mouth" one lawmaker said.

"Those of us go to sporting events and see them honoring the heroes," said Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake in an interview with NJ.com. "You get a good feeling in your heart. Then to find out they're doing it because they're compensated for it, it leaves you underwhelmed. It seems a little unseemly."

It's hardly a secret that the NFL is one of the leading recruitment vehicles for the U.S. military. The problem, Flake implies, is that these events are portrayed as genuine moments of gratitude expressed to America's servicemen, not advertisements.
More at Scout and NJ.com, with a discussion at Reddit.

Data on National Football League players


More data and charts, including on race and salary (average over $2,000,000 per player per year) at BestTickets.

The bow for the octobass needs "lots of horsehair"


More on the instrument here.

"Atswhatimtalknbout"

Slate has an article about the increasing length of the names of racehorses:
I collected the names of every horse to ever compete in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, or Belmont Stakes between each race's inception and 2014. Going back all the way to 1867, when the first Belmont was won by Ruthless, there have been more than 3,200 horses to race in a Triple Crown event...

Then, starting in the 1960s, the names started to grow to their current lengths—just under 11 letters on average. It may not sound like a huge change, but it's an objective measure of the growing eccentricity of names...

Names can be rejected by the Jockey Club, which as a current rule sets the limit at 18 characters. Since this rule was created, four horses have reached that limit without the help of spaces or punctuation marks: Lookinforthebigone, Atswhatimtalknbout, Imawildandcrazyguy, and Sweetnorthernsaint.
The Slate article has a list of the 111 longest names, the shortest ones, and some grammatically troublesome ones.
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