24 April 2018

Eye (human)

Prominent crypts of Fuchs (the black is mascara). 

Via the Pics subreddit.

The Hinckley Firestorm of 1894

This is an impressive book.

In the 1800s, robber barons raped the United States of its virgin forests.  The process which started in the Northeast had spread to the Midwest by the 1870s.  Forests were not only clearcut, but after separating the trunks from the crown and branches, the timber crews left the "slash" behind in massive tangles of deadwood that stretched for hundreds of miles.

In 1871 drought and high temperatures had turned the harvested forests of northern Wisconsin into tinder, and a massive fire obliterated the town of Peshtigo, killing 1200 people - a tragedy mostly overlooked by news reporters and history, because the Great Chicago Fire happened on the same day.

By 1894 there had been zero improvement in stewardship of the land, and the harvesting of the forests had moved west to Minnesota.  This time the victims were in Hinckley and Sandstone, communities just south of Duluth.

This book provides a detailed account of the conflagration.  It begins with a couple chapters of backstory on the communities and citizens, the timber industry, and pioneer life in the northwoods.  What impressed me was the detail the author provides regarding hour-by-hour movements of the victims and their actual conversations, which he gleaned from extensive research into first-person accounts collected by news reporters and preserved in diaries and correspondence of the survivors.

This was not just a "forest fire" - it was a "firestorm," in which the massive heat (1600-2000 degrees Fahrenheit) creates its own weather, with fire tornadoes and hurricane-force winds.  I was particulary awed by the report of one man who took his family to seeming safety in a boat on a lake; the convective forces of the fire column pulled in surrounding air so fiercely that their boat was blown back to the flaming shore, where they perished.

The details are brutal: 
(after the fire) "First, they came across the half-burned trunk of Peter Englund lying in his front yard.  Then, when they approached Englund's well, they were met by an overwhelming stench.  Peering down into the well, they could make out the top layer of what would turn out to be a stack of eighteen bodies - Englund's wife and his seven children and nine other people, most of them neighborhood children..."
After the fire, trainloads of sightseers came to gawk at the devastation, including ghoulish opportunists who scavenged the wasteland for safes and cashboxes, stripping jewelry from the bloated corpses.

This is not a "pleasant" read, but the book is well-written and the accounts, while grim, do not seem exploitative or sensationalized.   I found a copy at our local library, planning to browse it, but wound up reading cover-to-cover in a couple evenings.  It is perhaps better reading for a beach vacation than at a cabin in the woods.

More reading on The Great Hinckley Fire, The Hinckley Fire Museum, and firestorms in general.

You notice the blue because of the black

In this segment from the BBC's Planet Earth series, David Attenborough describes the courtship ritual of the superb bird-of-paradise.

Not explained in the video is the science behind that extraordinary color.  For that, we need to turn to a new Nature Communications publication:
Here we show that feathers from five species of birds of paradise... structurally absorb incident light to produce extremely low-reflectance, super black plumages... SEM, nano-CT, and ray-tracing simulations show that super black feathers have titled arrays of highly modified barbules, which cause more multiple scattering, resulting in more structural absorption, than normal black feathers.

 [normal black feather on the left, "super-black" on the right; details at the link]

By increasing the number of times light scatters, structurally absorbing materials can increase total light absorption to produce a profoundly black appearance. For example, a shiny metal with a smooth surface that reflects 30–70% of visible light can be converted to a matte black material that reflects less than 5% of light by adding microstructural surface complexity that increases structural absorption. Natural examples of structural absorption have been described in the wing scales of butterflies...

Our findings demonstrate that super black bird of paradise feathers structurally absorbs up to 99.95% of directly incident light... Interestingly, in both butterflies and birds of paradise, super black patches are always adjacent to bright, highly saturated, and structural colors... We hypothesize that structurally absorbing super black patches evolve because they exaggerate the perceived brilliance of adjacent color patches through a sensory/cognitive bias inherent in the vertebrate mechanism of color correction.
More at the link.  Fascinating.  Via Wired.

Hotel-Restaurant Belvédère

Located "am Furkapass im Wallis, Schweiz auf 2'300 m.ü.M."   Visible in the background of the James Bond movie Goldfinger.
Truthfully, no one really knows for sure how and why it was built [in 1882]. What’s well established is that it was built right after the mountain pass was completed, probably as a lounge for people who wished to escape and enjoy the silence, or attend one of the many lavish parties held inside. So this might answer the question as to why it was built. Or maybe it was meant to be a resting place for the mountain workers, but, in no time, the charming location and what it offers in terms of isolation and excellence inspired the elite to climb the scenic road.

And then there is the Rhône glacier right next to it. Only 200 steps away, it offers a spectacular close-up view of an icy scenery like no other place on Earth. The Belvédère Hotel is raised on a rock, practically over the glacier, so the view is available right from the hotel’s balconies while guests are slurping their morning coffees. Not only that but from the 1890s onward, an ice chamber inside the glacier has been carved out, re-drilled and maintained as a walkable tunnel.   (much more info at the link)
Drone video here.

Webpage with some interesting photos (click the "Galleries" top photo on the right, then the arrows).  Satellite view and reverse view explain parking.

Global warming has caused the glacier to retreat, and a tunnel has bypassed this series of S-curves, so the hotel is closed until further notice.

A concise history of hookworm in the American south

For more than three centuries, a plague of unshakable lethargy blanketed the American South.

It began with “ground itch,” a prickly tingling in the tender webs between the toes, which was soon followed by a dry cough. Weeks later, victims succumbed to an insatiable exhaustion and an impenetrable haziness of the mind that some called stupidity. Adults neglected their fields and children grew pale and listless. Victims developed grossly distended bellies and “angel wings”—emaciated shoulder blades accentuated by hunching. All gazed out dully from sunken sockets with a telltale “fish-eye” stare.

The culprit behind “the germ of laziness,” as the South’s affliction was sometimes called, was Necator americanus—the American murderer. Better known today as the hookworm, millions of those bloodsucking parasites lived, fed, multiplied, and died within the guts of up to 40% of populations stretching from southeastern Texas to West Virginia. Hookworms stymied development throughout the region and bred stereotypes about lazy, moronic Southerners...

“You had an entire class of Southern society—including whites, blacks, and Native Americans—that was looked upon as shiftless, lazy good-for-nothings who can’t do a day’s work,” my mom explained to me. “Hookworms tainted the nation’s picture of what a Southerner looked and acted like.”
The rest of the story, with a video, is at PBS.

This week in the United States

 I'll defer any commentary and close them for this post.  You can read about the incident at TIME.

21 April 2018

Pyramus and Thisbe, and the wall between them

This couple was referenced recently in a book I was reading, and I realized I knew nothing about their story, so here it is:
In Ovid's Metamorphoses, Pyramus and Thisbe are two lovers in the city of Babylon who occupy connected houses/walls, forbidden by their parents to be wed, because of their parents' rivalry. Through a crack in one of the walls, they whisper their love for each other. They arrange to meet near Ninus' tomb under a mulberry tree and state their feelings for each other. Thisbe arrives first, but upon seeing a lioness with a mouth bloody from a recent kill, she flees, leaving behind her veil. When Pyramus arrives he is horrified at the sight of Thisbe's veil, assuming that a wild beast has killed her. Pyramus kills himself, falling on his sword in proper Babylonian fashion, and in turn splashing blood on the white mulberry leaves. Pyramus' blood stains the white mulberry fruits, turning them dark. Thisbe returns, eager to tell Pyramus what had happened to her, but she finds Pyramus' dead body under the shade of the mulberry tree. Thisbe, after a brief period of mourning, stabs herself with the same sword. In the end, the gods listen to Thisbe's lament, and forever change the colour of the mulberry fruits into the stained colour to honour the forbidden love.
There are older versions of the myth, noted at Wikipedia (whence the image by John William Waterhouse, 1909).  Romeo and Juliet is an obvious adaptation. 

Our mulberry fruits are purple rather than red, but perhaps it depends on whether the lovers spilled arterial or venous blood.

"Below Suspicion" and "Patrick Butler for the Defense"

I started my review of all of John Dickson Carr's detective novels with the classic "It Walks By Night," featuring detective Henri Bencolin, and then covered Bencolin's other four mysteries in two posts (here and here).  In December I reviewed detectives Rossiter and Gaunt in "Poison in Jest and The Bowstring Murders."

This post looks at the two detective novels featuring Patrick Butler.

Below Suspicion (1949)
John Dickson Carr introduces Patrick Butler, an arrogant and borderline unlikeable London attorney and self-styled sleuth, who in this novel is assisted by Gideon Fell.  Fell was well-known to the reading public by 1949, and well-known to the characters of this story ("you're the one - aren't you - who knows all about locked rooms"), but plays only a minor supporting role here.  The plot does involve serial poisonings in apparently-locked residences, but the elements of detection are diluted with quite a bit of derring-do and thriller aspects.  I rated the novel 2+ on my 1-4+ scale.  Herewith the interesting gleanings:
"In the room were a "plain deal table and two chairs."  The usage is not of "plain deal" but of a plain "deal table."  Deal = soft wood with implications of "cheap" or "humble."

"If it makes you feel better, my dear, I'll take my fee out of the next rich blacketeer who really is guilty."  The story is set in post-WWII London, so a "blacketeer" is a portmanteau word referring to a black-market racketeer.

"Mrs. Taylor was sitting up in bed, with her hand still on the bell-push.  It's the sort of bell-push they have in hospitals, with a long white cord fastened on the wall..."  Self-explanatory, but I've never heard the term before, despite spending 30+ years in hospitals.

"Acushla!" he chided her... I've already prepared your defense." Anglicization of the Irish word chuisle = "pulse" (of my heart).

"It was blowing a gale, but there was a dancy kind of moon."  I couldn't find this anywhere.

"Counsel for the defence, producing a key which he said belonged to the back door of his own house, demonstrated that it would fit the back door of "The Priory."  Calling witnesses, he showed that the lock was a "Grierson," which had been fitted to nine-tenths of the houses built in London during the 'fifties and 'sixties of the last century."  I was startled to discover that locks of older houses were not necessarily individually keyed in the post-WWII era.  Note also the use of the apostrophe on the dates to indicate the elided "eighteen," just as Carr uses 'phone on many occasions.

"By the Lord, I think you'd give anything on earth to see me come a cropper!"  A familiar phrase with obvious meaning, but I had to look up the derivation.  It obviously means to suffer a misfortune, but originally meant to take a bad fall off the back of a horse (crupper being the horse's hindquarters).  The Aussie equivalent is said to be "come a gutsa/gutser."

"He was a spiv and a drone and an eel and a butterfly!"  Wiktionary says flashy con artist, low common thief, slacker.  Some connotation of well-dressed, perhaps related to "spiffy?"

"Since it was past nine o'clock, all electric light and heat and gas had to be turned off..."  The novel is set in 1947.  Last year I did browse the book Austerity Britain, but had forgotten that utility shortages extended this long past the end of the war.

"A man was bashed about by two wide-boys in Renshaw's pay."  Thugs in context.  Definitions indicate a man who lives by his wits, wheeling and dealing, or a petty criminal.

"The moley was an extraordinary potato, its surface jagged with the edges of safety-razor blades.  They ground it into your face, twisted it, and--"  I couldn't find this.  ?prison slang

"The so-called club was hot and frowsty, not large and not much cleaner than the billiard-saloon below."  Musty, stuffy, stale, warm.  Variant of frowsy and maybe related to fusty (etymology: 14th c. from fust wine cask, from Old French: cask, tree trunk, from Latin fūstis cudgel, club.)

"Anybody got an electric torch?"  Flashlight, obviously.  Quaint.

"She swept up the knitting-bag and hared out."  Probably to run like a hare; I don't have time to look up everything.

"Modern secret societies, you know," Dr. Fell mused, "are mere tyros in their quickness to slash out and kill."  Beginner, novice, from Medieval Latin tyro, tīro (young soldier, recruit)

"We were skylarking, that's all.  No harm done."  Originally a nautical term "to jump about joyfully, frolic; to play around, play tricks."  ?presumably related to some behavior of the bird?

Patrick Butler for the Defense (1956)
Carr resurrected Patrick Butler seven years later for what in my estimation is a rather mediocre novel.  The "locked room" is weak, the protagonist unlikeable and the plot muddied with derring-do and comic overtones.  But I did find some interesting tidbits...
I mentioned in reviewing a previous book my surprise at seeing 'phone written with an apostrophe, and earlier in this post 'fifties and 'sixties.  In this story there is mention several times of the 'flu.

"His grey tie was pulled down skew-whiff from the hard collar..."  From askew (obviously) + weft to mean fabric out of alignment.  ?does this lead to "squiffy" meaning "drunk" ?

"The door was closed; or, as the barristers liked to say, sported."  Didn't find any help in the usual places.  Finally located this in the Bartleby definition of sport a door or oak: "To keep an outer door shut. In the Universities the College rooms have two doors, an outer and an inner one. The outer door is called the sporting door, and is opened with a key. When shut it is to give notice to visitors that the person who occupies the rooms is not at home, or is not to be disturbed. The word sport means to exhibit to the public, as, “to sport a new equipage,” “to sport a new tile [hat],” etc."

"Oh, bedad," he whispered..."  Irish "By God." (Patrick Butler is Irish).

"Can you think of a place more poetic to plot damnation to the spalpeens than in the sink of their own iniquity?"  More from the Irish: poor migratory farm worker, often viewed as a rascal or good-for-nothing.

"Will you kindly permit me to question my client, so that all of us may not land prematurely in chokey?"  British slang for prison, but why?

"Both of them were speaking ventriloquially, without moving their lips."  The meaning is obvious, but I have never seen the word used as an adverb!

 "It wouldn't have been so bad if they hadn't been so incarnadined polite." "Blood-red" by definition - presumably a play on the British use of "bloody."

"No noise!  Want the scotches on us?" The context indicates that it refers to the police.  Probably some British history related to this usage (?).

"They had thought Pam a beetle-wit, a dandelion-clock." Wiktionary: "The term is applied when the flower is used in a children's pastime by which the number of puffs needed to blow the filamentous achenes from a dandelion is supposed to tell the time."  Used here as a derogatory term for stupid or naive.

"Nobody knows.  I think I know.  But that's because more grasses come to me, with secret information..."  Slang term for police informer.

"Butler quietened Hugh as the call-boy, from mere force of habit, banged a fusillade of knocks on the dressing-room door."  A boy or man who summons actors when their presence is required for a performance.  I wonder if this is related to the "Call for Philip Morris" character in old cigarette ads?

"Before another day, I promise you, that damned old fraud will very much regret giving the cut-direct to his own nephew."  I found nothing on this.

"He was in a large and luxurious, if somewhat heavily and loweringly furnished, bedroom..."  With cloudiness or threatening gloom.  From ME louring.

 "Across the bedroom a door stood open to a sybaritic bathroom."  From Sybarita, an ancient Greek city in southeastern Italy noted for the luxurious, pleasure-seeking habits of many of its inhabitants.

"On the desk, at one side, lay a heavy stone paperweight.  This would do to smash the ring to flinders; to pound and crush its diamonds, if that were possible..."  Fragments, splinters, probably of Scandinavian origin: compare Norwegian flindra (splinter).

In Hugh's office, and between Butler and Lord Saxemund as might have been expected, there was progressing a truly memorable schemozzle."  A state of chaos and confusion, from Yiddish.

20 April 2018

If you were blind, you'd know why this doorknob is knurled

From the International Building Code:
26.11.4 Special hardware: Doors opening into hazardous areas shall have door-opening hardware which is knurled or has a roughened surface to give tactile warning to persons with visual impairments. Hazardous areas shall include but not be limited to loading platforms, boiler rooms, and electrical equipment rooms.

Of course then I had to look up "knurl" -
  1. A contorted knot in wood.
  2. A crossgrained protuberance; a nodule; a boss or projection.
  3. A lined or crossgrained pattern of ridges or indentations rolled or pressed into a part for grip.


knur +‎ -le (diminutive), from Middle English knar (knot in wood), earlier sense “a stone”, of Unknown origin.
gnarl is a later variant, from gnarled, via knurled.
Knurl related to "gnarly."  Cool.  You learn something every day.

Image cropped for size from the original at the Mildly Interesting subreddit.

"Industrial-scale" farming of cucumbers in central Wisconsin

100 years of polio in the U.S.

Quite a remarkable graph; the Salk vaccine was developed in 1952, tested in 1953-54, then used widely.

I was a "participant" in that epidemic of 1952.  My mother used to tell of me crying through one night with muscle cramps; I have no memory of that, but I do remember waking up the next morning, trying to stand by the bed, and falling to the floor because both legs were paralyzed.  After that followed a series of adventures in a Sister Kenny facility in Minneapolis and in later years the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, all of which undoubtedly molded me into the person I am today.

Graph from a superb webpage on polio statistics at Our World in Data - where you can find other pages on other health-related issues (smoking, suicide, cancer, HIV, malaria, etc).

Note - the embed is a screencap; the graph is interactive at the website.

Sheep farming in the hill country of New Zealand

I suppose some farmers have tried using drones not just for photography, but for the herding as well.  I hope drones never replace the dogs.

Vodka aisle in Polish supermarket

Via the Mildly Interesting subreddit.

This skull was extensively trepanned. For scruples. Updated.

Explained at io9:
Researchers at the University of Pisa, Italy, have solved a longstanding mystery around the honeycombed skull of one of the Italian martyrs beheaded by 15th century Ottoman Turk invaders when they refused to give up their Christian faith...

The skull was later drilled, most likely to obtain bone powder to treat diseases such as paralysis, stroke, and epilepsy, which were believed to arise from magical or demonic influences...

"The perfectly cupped shape of the incomplete perforations leads(us) to hypothesize the use of a particular type of trepan, with semi-lunar shaped blade or rounded bit; a tool of this type could not produce bone discs, but only bone powder," Fornaciari said...

This would make the Otranto skull a unique piece of evidence supporting historical accounts on the use of skull bone powder as an ingredient in pharmacological preparations...

Indeed, in his Pharmacopée universelle, a comprehensive work on pharmaceutical composition, French chemist Nicolas Lémery (1645 –1715) detailed how powdered human skull drunk in water was effective to treat "paralysis, stroke, epilepsy and other illness of the brain."

"The dose is from half scruple up to two scruples," Lémery wrote.

"The skull of a person who died of violent and sudden death is better than that of a man who died of a long illness or who had been taken from a cemetery: the former has held almost all of his spirits, which in the latter they have been consumed, either by illness or by the earth," he added.
Yes, I had to look it up too:
Scruple: a unit of apothecary weight, with symbol ℈. It is a twenty-fourth part of an ounce, or 20 grains, or approximately 1.3 grams. More generally, any small quantity might be called a scruple.  
Note this harvesting of bone powder with a trepan tool is a bit different from trepanning to treat disease in the patient on whom it is done.

Reposted from 2015 to add this photo of a trepanned cow skull:

Here's the abstract:
The earliest cranial surgery (trepanation) has been attested since the Mesolithic period. The meaning of such a practice remains elusive but it is evident that, even in prehistoric times, humans from this period and from the Neolithic period had already achieved a high degree of mastery of surgical techniques practiced on bones. How such mastery was acquired in prehistoric societies remains an open question. The analysis of an almost complete cow cranium found in the Neolithic site of Champ-Durand (France) (3400-3000 BC) presenting a hole in the right frontal bone reveals that this cranium underwent cranial surgery using the same techniques as those used on human crania. If bone surgery on the cow cranium was performed in order to save the animal, Champ-Durant would provide the earliest evidence of veterinary surgical practice. Alternatively, the evidence of surgery on this cranium can also suggest that Neolithic people practiced on domestic animals in order to perfect the technique before applying it to humans.
The full study is published in Nature (via Gizmodo).

I do wish that people would stop referring to trepanation as "brain surgery."  It is - as the Nature article authors state - "cranial surgery."


A woman sits on a tree trunk in the Hallerbos as bluebells bloom, in Halle, Belgium, on Thursday April 19, 2018. Bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) are particularly associated with ancient woodland where it may dominate the understorey to produce carpets of violet–blue flowers. The forest is a crowd favorite thanks to the beautiful purple flowers. (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert) (via)
4/20 has a different meaning for me than for many of my generation.  That is the approximate date on which the Blue-Eyed Marys (Collinsia verna) would be in peak bloom in the Raven Run nature sanctuary outside Lexington, Kentucky.  I have some memorable photos, but they are all on Kodachrome slides, and I need to find a way to digitize my old photo memories for the blog. [Iain, I haven't yet looked into the slide scanner you recommended]
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