23 October 2014

Some old books had feet

Erik Kwakkel explains:
When medieval binders knew that the object they were processing would be placed on a lectern, for example in a chained library, they often added tiny feet like the ones seen here. They made sure that the lower edge of the binding and the bottom part of the pages would not be damaged by the rough wood of the lectern - notice the shiny bottom of the feet.
More photos at the link, and more details here of a chained library

What was in Edgar Allan Poe's head?

Many years ago I spent a lot of time studying the life and works of Edgar Allan Poe (see this manuscript), but do not remember previously having read this account of his exhumation:
When Poe died, he was buried, rather unceremoniously, in an unmarked grave in a Baltimore graveyard. Twenty-six years later, a statue was erected, honoring Poe, near the graveyard’s entrance. Poe’s coffin was dug up, and his remains exhumed, in order to be moved to the new place of honor. But more than two decades of buried decay had not been kind to Poe’s coffin—or the corpse within it—and the apparatus fell apart as workers tried to move it from one part of the graveyard to another. Little remained of Poe’s body, but one worker did remark on a strange feature of Poe’s skull: a mass rolling around inside. Newspapers of the day claimed that the clump was Poe’s brain, shriveled yet intact after almost three decades in the ground.

We know, today, that the mass could not be Poe’s brain, which is one of the first parts of the body to rot after death. But Matthew Pearl, an American author who wrote a novel about Poe’s death, was nonetheless intrigued by this clump. He contacted a forensic pathologist, who told him that while the clump couldn’t be a brain, it could be a brain tumor, which can calcify after death into hard masses.
I don't believe a brain tumor or any other body tissue would calcify after death (unless there were some unusual mineralogical conditions in the soil), but some neoplasms such as meningiomas and various metastases do calcify during life.  Interesting.

"Fear not for the future..."

Via imgur.


As reported in The Huffington Post:
In Maine, an elementary school teacher was recently put on paid leave for up to three weeks after parents complained that the teacher had traveled to Dallas, where there have been a few Ebola cases. On Sunday, a similar precaution was taken at a high school in Phenix, Alabama, after an employee flew on the same plane as a person who contracted Ebola -- even though the employee flew a day later, long after the aircraft had been cleaned...

In Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, Ebola is killing business at a local Liberian
restaurant. "We have had customers coming in and actually standing in front of us at the counter saying, 'do you have Ebola?'"

On the upside, the business of protective gear is booming. David Scott, president of LifeSecure, told The Chicago Sun-Times that his business recently sold out of a kit that includes "disposable eyeshields, biohazard bags, protective masks, vinyl gloves and hand sanitizer."
What they should sell are the sunglasses described in Hitchhiker, which, at the first sign of danger... go totally black.

Interesting demographics

Fewer babies born in Wisconsin.  For six years in a row.
Claire Smith, spokesperson from the Department of Health Services said the number of babies born in Wisconsin declined for the sixth year in a row last year.

The department recorded 66,566 live births to residents of Wisconsin in 2013, 633 fewer than the previous year. The teen birth rate also declined, with a crude rate of 19.7 births per 1,000 females aged 15 to 19, compared to 21.9 births in 2012.
Note that what is being reported is not a decline in population (because of people moving to Florida or baby boomers dying), but a decrease in new births.

Speculation at the link is that this reflects a response by residents to the economic slowdown, which started with the 2007-2008 recession.  And that this is not just a local phenomenon, but has been noted elsewhere in this country.

The University of North Carolina "student-athlete" academic scandal - updated

This week the U.S. is in the throes of its annual "March Madness" collegiate basketball mania, so it seems to be an appropriate time to provide some links about the recent scandal at the University of North Carolina.

Mary Willingham, a Learning Specialist teaching remedial skills at UNC's Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes, commented publicly on the abysmal educational skills of athletes enrolled at the school, most of whom had reading skills of grade-school children, some of them at a third-grade level and not having ever written a paragraph in their life.

The best video interview is this one from ESPN, for which I've been unable to find a embed code.  In it she reports her experience with literally illiterate college student-athletes who were unable to write.  They were enrolled in "paper classes" that didn't really exist (they just had to write a paper, not attend classes, and that help was given to them to write that paper).  The classes were typically in African-American Studies (AFAM).  She calls the situation a "scam," "a joke," that "everyone knew" and that the NCAA doesn't care about this.  The video is definitely worth a four-minute viewing.

Embedded at the top of this post is a screencap of a "final paper" she showed during the interview, one submitted by a student who received an A- for this work.

Here is a related video -

- which includes the essence but lacks the punch of the ESPN interview linked above.

For the past three years, Ms. Willingham has been anonymously providing information about this academic fraud to the News and Observer in Raleigh, resulting in articles like this.
Until August, the university had resisted going back further than 2007 to investigate other potential academic problems in the department, so it’s difficult to assess exactly what was happening before then.

Difficult, that is, except in the case of Julius Peppers, whose transcript sat unnoticed on UNC’s website until this summer. Peppers had D’s or F’s in 11 of 30 classes, the transcript showed, and was barely eligible for football and basketball only because of a string of better grades in courses he took in the AFAM Department.

Read more here: http://www.newsobserver.com/2012/09/30/2379206/unc-players-needed-academic-help.html#storylink=cpy
Bloomberg Businessweek has an extended discussion.

It's worth emphasizing that this criticism does not apply to all colleges and certainly not to all student athletes.  The problem arises because of the rise of big money in collegiate sports.

Addendum:  I posted the above in March of 2014.  Reposted to add this excerpt from an HBO Sports presentation...

 ... in which she notes that some football and basketball players at the University of North Carolina had SAT verbal scores of 280-300.

And this week the StarTribune carried an Associated Press report on the outcome of the university's investigation of the scandal, noting that the problem extended beyond the athletes to include regular students:
A scandal involving bogus classes and inflated grades at the University of North Carolina was bigger than previously reported, encompassing about 1,500 athletes who got easy A's and B's over a span of nearly two decades, according to an investigation released Wednesday...

Many at the university hoped Wainstein's eight-month investigation would bring some closure. Instead, it found more academic fraud than previous investigations by the NCAA and the school...

The focus was courses that required only a research paper that was often scanned quickly by a secretary, who gave out high grades regardless of the quality of work. The report also outlined how counselors for athletes steered struggling students to the classes, with two counselors even suggesting grades. Several knew the courses were easy and didn't have an instructor...
The NCAA is pondering what to do with this information.

Two more weeks of this...

The "caller ID" no longer works on my office phone, so yesterday when I answered it, I heard "Hi !! This is [politician].  I know everybody hates robocalls, but..." [click]

I have grown not to just despise the politicians, but to hate the process.

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.
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